The 2.5 inch x 3.5 inch frame I brought home from CVS came with a sample photo on a flimsy piece of paper, a family of four—white, blonde, blue-eyed, all looking directly at the camera, their smiles fixed. There was fresh-mown grass behind them, green trees with late afternoon sun peeking through the leaves. Maybe their back yard, or a park, a family picnic in the park. The dad, clean-shaven, his hair cut short, was wearing khaki shorts and a white-and-red-checked shirt with a button-down collar. The mom looked bouncy and athletic, friendly. She was wearing a blue denim skirt and a pastel blue shirt with capped sleeves. She was shorter than him, and his arm was draped over her shoulders. There wasn’t a wrinkle or spot or grass stain on the kids’ clothes—jeans and t-shirts—hers pink and his white with navy blue stripes.

I don’t know how it happened. As I started to slide the photo out onto the kitchen counter, ready to insert my son’s latest school picture, the carefree family changed before my eyes. Their smiles became grimaces, the expressions in their eyes, particularly the little boy’s, borderline demonic.

Suddenly their ghastly intimacy made them a real family, not unrelated models who’d been paid to pose like one. Maybe some random family from the photo lab at CVS. Pictures never picked up. Or doubles of pictures CVS kept in their generic happy American family file to use for ads. The longer I looked at them, the more I was sure they must be dead. All of them together, in a horrific car accident, or a plane crash, a train wreck, a sensational murder-suicide. Or as good as dead, torn apart by a nasty divorce, or when the dad killed someone, or the son landed in juvie. No one left to object to using their photo to advertise the cheap frames at CVS.

I don’t have any family pictures from when I was little. My mom said the albums were lost. Could be your dad took them, she said, but I doubt it. I was in fourth grade and my brother was in sixth when Dad left Mom for a woman in his office who wore blue eye shadow and high heels. Mom went to court to fight Dad’s request for partial custody, saying she didn’t want her kids around that whore, and he brought in witnesses saying Mom was a drunk, which she sort of was, a functional one, and my brother and I made secret plans to run away but they didn’t come to anything.

We moved from our three-bedroom house to an apartment building that looked like a motel. It had a name, Sunset, written in slanting italics on the wall that faced the street, a balcony walkway with a wobbly metal railing on the second floor, an aqua pool with flaking paint, dried up because the manager said insurance cost too much. Don’t know what kind of child support Dad was paying, but Mom was always complaining about it. We just about never saw him. After a while, he moved away, had two kids with his new wife. A family we didn’t know moved into our old house. Later we moved into a better apartment, and then into a rental house. Mom always said Dad was a monster and that we didn’t know the half of it. I’m not in touch with her any more, or my brother or my dad.

It’s just my nine-year-old son and me, no handsome, clean-shaven father with a fat wallet, no cute little girl with pigtails and a pink t-shirt. My son’s dad, we’re better off without him. I had to wonder what was behind the guy’s complacent smirk in the picture. Did he have a mistress on the side? Was his wife hiding bruises, a cracked rib? Was the creepy boy torturing cats? Did the little girl cry at night because her father was gone?

The four of them stared out of the gold frame like they were trying to tell me something: a happy family, smiling, smiling, doom written on their faces. I was finding it hard to breathe, remembering all this stuff I’d never told my son about. I wasn’t going to insert his fourth-grade picture into that frame. It was getting dark outside. The wind was blowing and I could hear leaves skittering across the sidewalk, the occasional car passing by. He’d be home from soccer practice soon, wanting his dinner. I put his picture on the refrigerator with a magnet and threw the frame away, pushing it down toward the bottom of the garbage pail under the sink, pawing through coffee grounds and slimy egg shells and banana peels until it was out of sight.  

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