Title: The Photo Album
Author: Jacqui, wily_one24.
Prompt: #005: Hot
Word Count: 3,661.
Spoilers: Everything screened in the US.
THE PHOTO ALBUM
Elle was taken from her house, her mother, everything she knew when she was four years old. She never got to go back home.
But she did visit.
When she was six. She had a special dress that daddy had given her to wear. She'd worn it exactly twice before. Both times inside the special room, sitting on the special chair with a great big special smile while he took her photo and then told her to go and change back into her everyday clothes. She didn't quite like her everyday clothes as much, they were dull and looked like everyone else.
Her special dress, at least, was pink. And it had a big sash that went all the way around her waist and tied in a floppy bow at her hip. She liked to twirl in it. It made the skirt blow up as she spun.
But on that day he didn't take her photo with his camera, he held her hand and took her outside. Even past the fence. All the way to his car. Elle could barely keep still as he buckled her in, leg jiggling and mouth split wide open in a grin. He frowned and told her to behave, to be a good girl, and she knew she would just about burst trying to keep it all inside.
She liked the feel of the wheels and engine purring underneath her bare knees, the sun warm through the window, the music on the radio. She took deep breaths, trying to bring all of the outside world inside her so that she could keep it.
As he drove, Daddy explained to her the rules. Always the rules. He told her not to get excited, not to spark up, not to act out or cry or be naughty. They were only visiting because she kept asking. Why couldn't she go home? Why couldn't she see her Mommy? Why? Why? Why? But the word that caught in Elle's ear, that stuck there and dug right in like a worm, was 'Mommy'.
She knew she had a Mommy, it came to her sometimes in dreams where she woke up crying, or in smells, even the shape of the word was familiar, but Elle never saw her Mommy. Daddy had just told her she was gone. Elle never knew where. Butterflies fluttered in her belly, flapping, a slight tickle of excitement that tasted like salt and that morning's peanut butter toast.
The more warnings her Daddy gave her, what she could and could not do, the more the butterflies grew, fluttering and beating their wings, flap flap flapping until she had to swallow very hard to keep the sizzles from turning into sparks.
She watched in wide eyed fascination when they stopped, squinting up at the house, trying to remember it. It didn't come to her like she wanted, but she bit her lip and tried, tried very hard, until Daddy explained that it was her grandmother's house, neutral ground he called it. He didn't think bringing up old memories would help.
Elle dragged the tips of her new patent leather shoes on the path on the way to the door, suddenly unsure.
But she didn't have time, because the door opened and suddenly people were there. Big people, loud people, lots of them, and they seemed to run towards her, surging like a wave. One woman, with blue eyes and blonde hair cried and lunged at Elle with her arms out wide.
Elle whimpered and jumped back behind her Daddy's legs, one hand twisting into the material of his pants, just around his knee.
"Daddy!" She whispered it, loudly, never taking her eyes off the woman who had stopped still. "No touching!"
"But Elle!" The woman's voice shook, went up and down as her eyes went wide and an ugly twist of her features came over her. "I'm your Mommy! I'm Mommy. Don't you remember?"
Her head shook slowly on her neck, side to side. She could feel it. She'd already done something bad, something naughty, Daddy would pack her up and take her right back, just like he'd warned. Her fingers twisted in her Daddy's pants and she pulled on them, a light tug, wanted to know what to do.
"Just let her be." She heard her Daddy's voice. "Give her time, she'll come around."
Everyone looked down at her, big faces and wide owl eyes, Daddy and Mommy and other grown ups and kids and she wanted to cry. But her Daddy put his hand on her back, a light touch between her shoulders, and pushed her forward a little. Elle swallowed and blinked and pulled up all the courage she knew how.
She didn't want to leave her Daddy, followed him footstep for footstep through the house until they stopped in a large room with a fireplace and a piano and a television. There was a big sofa with bright cushions that looked like it would swallow you in its soft material if you sunk down on it.
Elle sat on the ground next to her father's legs, watching everyone watch her.
Their eyes were greedy and she bit her lip, tried not to feel them taking in her hair and face and the way she sat with her legs curled up under her dress. She wanted to hide. The thought came to her that there were no fences and if she was able to get outside, she could just walk and walk and walk and never stop. The idea scared and intrigued her in similar measures.
A loud crash startled her and she shoved her hand deep into the carpet to smother any sparks before turning. She had four cousins, one of which was too young to do anything but sleep in its mother's arms while Elle stared at its downy little head and chubby legs hanging at an awkward looking angle. Three of her cousins were clutching pot lids and wooden spoons, marching through the room with complete abandon.
They were alien to her, she did not know them or understand them. They were loud and seemed to never obey anything the grown ups said. They spoke as if they didn't care if they lost control, fast and jerky and excited. Elle shrank back into a tinier ball, spine curved against the sofa, hating the boisterous trio and the hot fluid feeling of jealousy that gushed inside.
They ate lunch at a big table and nobody ever stopped talking.
It was very loud. All the strange people that kept introducing themselves over and over again, Aunties and Uncles and the endless chain of cousins, the plump, round woman with gray hair who said to call her Nanna, and the woman called Mommy who kept her face very, very still even though Elle had seen her wipe away tears, and kept trying to touch her hair. Elle sat next to Daddy and kept her arms in tight to her sides.
They reached over the food, arms everywhere, and grabbed at everything. They shouted from one end of the table to the other. The children teased each other, poking and yelling and whining and laughing.
"Elle?" Mommy had produced a big plate of chicken, crisp and crumbed and smelling yummy. "This used to be your favorite. Would you like some? I... I made it for..."
But Elle had already turned to her Daddy and waited for his nod before she reached out and carefully took a very small piece.
The look in Mommy's eyes told her she'd done something wrong again and she felt her tummy squirm.
"Bob." The woman hissed. "What have you done to her?"
"Now, now." Nanny clapped loudly. "We're having a nice meal."
But the loudness had stopped and Elle tried to shrink into the back of the seat. She could feel all the other children staring at her. Eventually the food was passed around again and talking started and became louder and people ate and Elle sat still, still as she could. She took whatever food her Daddy told her she could and nothing else, little hand reaching out and accepting his offer carefully, trying her best to ignore the way it made everything go quiet again.
She'd learned early on that everything was a lot better if she followed Daddy's rules and did everything he said.
Even if it meant upsetting everyone else.
When lunch was finished, Nanny clapped again and told the children to go play outside. She said it deeply, which meant that the children who had so far done nothing that their parents had told them to do as far as Elle could see suddenly went quiet and obeyed. This order, she was soon to learn, also included her.
She sat on the concrete steps outside the door listening to the yelling inside as her alien cousins ran around each other, hitting balls and sometimes each other with bats, kicking the balls, shouting. They were so loud and fast, running around like it wasn't dangerous, like it wouldn't matter if they got so excited they screamed and fell down dizzy. In fact, it looked exactly as if that was their ultimate game.
"We know about you." Cherie, a girl with narrow eyes and lips pinched in tight came up to her. Her hair was brown and pulled into a pony tail. "You're Elle. You left."
"Yeah." Said the other girl, Jenny, a bit younger than the first, but still older than Elle, an accusing finger pointed straight at her. "You left."
Elle nodded. It was true. She bit her lip and looked up at the sky. The clouds were fluffy and they made shapes against the blue.
"They talk about you a lot." Said the boy, Stephen, he looked even older. Maybe even nine. He had freckles on his nose. "But I don't see anything special about you."
"Yeah." Agreed Cherie. "You're boring."
"Boring." Nodded Jenny. "Come play."
Elle looked out into the yard and for a second imagined running like they had been, legs pumping and face flushed, arms thrown wide, and the thought pulled at something deep inside, she wanted it, wanted it desperately. She wanted to be breathless. But rules were rules.
"I can't." She said. "I'm not allowed."
"Not allowed?" Challenged Stephen. "You can't not be allowed to play! You're wrong."
Cherie poked Elle in the chest with a hard, bony finger.
"Everybody's allowed to play."
All of them nodded as if this was fact.
"Not me." She tried to tell them. "I'm not allowed to do a lot of things everyone can."
"Really?" Stephen drawled, chest puffing out at the new game he'd begun to lead. "Like what?"
Elle felt the squirming feeling turn sour in her stomach. She knew he wasn't interested, not really, something in the tone of his voice and the greedy, expectant look on all their faces made her suck her cheeks in to her teeth. They were being mean and she didn't know how, couldn't see the trap she felt was coming.
He'd asked her a question and she knew if she answered it would be the wrong thing to do, she hadn't been able to do anything right all day, but she couldn't not answer. That was rude. Daddy hated rudeness.
"Lots of things." She wanted to tell them what she could do, knew instantly that they would stop teasing if they knew, but that was Daddy's number one rule. "I can't touch people. Or run. Or get excited or upset. I can't have baths. I can't..."
"You can't have baths?" Cherie interrupted, voice gleeful. "How do you get clean?"
The other two laughed.
Elle shriveled. She wanted to tell them about the careful sponging and that sometimes if she was calm enough she could have a shower with a lady watching with big fire blankets, she wanted to explain what she'd meant, but they'd lost their interest and had begun running again. Running in little laps in front of her.
"Stinky Elle! Stinky Elle!"
They continued to chant as they circled and Elle bit her lip even harder, bunching her hands into fists, she could feel it sizzling inside and wanted to make them stop. Stop yelling, stop running, just stop. That was definitely against the rules and she stood up, instead, turned the door handle and slipped inside, escaped from the strange alien children.
She walked slowly, timidly, shy in a strange house through the empty kitchen with its scritch scratched benches and lino tiles lifting up at the corners and stained white fridge covered in colorful mismatched magnets, through the hallway with frame after frame of stiffly smiling people. Past the closed door where all the yelling was coming from, lots of shouting, her father's name, her own name, something about a robot, she stopped listening.
The front room was quiet, where they had started, where she had sat at her father's feet. She wanted to crawl in under the sofa cushions and disappear when she closed her eyes. But she didn't. Instead, she walked over to the piano and pulled out the stool, a little wooden bench that she managed with great difficulty to bring in close to the wall.
Facing the wall was a trick they'd taught her. It was easier to calm down. She sat with her fists clenched in her lap, breathing deep breaths and thinking that maybe all the good things she'd breathed in from the car were being slowly leaked out.
"Elle?" A soft voice behind her, slow and hesitant and not loud. The plump gray haired Nanna that made her shiver a little. "Can I sit with you? It's too loud out there for me."
She turned her head a little, watched the woman out of the corner of her eye, but the woman didn't look greedy or angry or upset. She looked quiet. And Elle's skin pinched in tight. She nodded. When Nanna sat down, Elle felt warmth pass between the space. They weren't touching, but if she closed her eyes a little, she could almost imagine that they were. It didn't upset her anywhere near as much as it usually did.
"Here." A soft sound made Elle open her eyes and she saw a book laid down on the bench between them. "I thought you might like to see that."
She didn't. She didn't want to see anything. She wanted to push the book to the floor and stomp her foot. She didn't want a book and she didn't want loud alien cousins who teased her or plates and plates of food she was too nervous to eat, or grown ups with eyes that looked like they would cry if she didn't perform her very very bestest when she didn't know what that was. She didn't want any of it, she didn't want it.
But she didn't know how to say that.
Her fingers traced the soft puffy cover lightly. She didn't want it, but she could feel how special it was to the woman, knew this was one of those things she had to do to be a good girl. The book was weighted, not heavy but solid in her hands as she lifted it up onto her lap, careful and gentle.
"I wanted them to like me." She said down to the book, soft and timid and a little bit tight in her throat. "But now they're angry."
"Oh, Elle." Nanna signed down at her, deep and heavy, and this time Elle didn't feel as if everything was her fault. "They do like you."
She closed her eyes, squeezed them tight against the burning there. He hadn't said, but she was fairly sure crying was against Daddy's rules, too. A large, weathered, warm hand landed softly against her shoulder and she flinched, drew her body back and almost immediately regretted it, missed the feel.
"It's okay." Nanny whispered. "It's allowed here. I know, Elle. I know. You used to stay here all the time. You loved hugs."
Breath choked up in her throat and she shut her eyes harder, shoulders bent, body doubled over the book. She tried, tried so hard to remember, the house, the woman, the voice, it ached deep inside her chest and she strained harder, trying to find it. And there, far back, she found a smell, cookies and baking and musk, the same smell now drifting over to her from the woman on the bench next to her.
The hand returned and Elle didn't flinch.
And there were no sparks.
She gurgled then, a silly sound of bubbling and crying and laughter rolled into one and she wanted to lean into the woman, wanted her arms around her suddenly, but didn't know how to ask. It was against the rule. She flipped open the cover of the book instead, hoping Nanna would keep her hand there.
The photo was odd, strange, and it took a moment for Elle to recognize the woman sitting there, blonde hair and blue eyes and a large, radiant smile on her face as she looked down to the tiny bundle in her hands. A soft, fuzzy face, a tiny fist pushing out of a blanket wrapped around her. It took Elle moments to match the happy face to that of the woman yelling at her daddy.
A moment or two after that to understand who the baby was.
She didn't want to turn the page, but she couldn't stop it. Page after page, photo after photo, a chubby cheeked blonde baby drooling at the camera, fist clutched into the hair of its mother, hands wrapped carelessly around an arm. Elle's mouth ran dry as she looked at the photo baby grow, watched it sit and stand and eat, spaghetti sauce painted thick on its face, a mother and grandparents and a horde of aunts and uncles nearby.
And in all the photos, baby Elle being hugged and cuddled and kissed and loved.
The album ended with two plain, simple photos. Elle, in her stiff pink dress, sitting tall and still on the special chair in the special room, eyes dull and smile unconvincing compared to the ones that came before it.
Elle's fingers clutched at the book, her teeth ground together and she couldn't even cry. A wordless sound keened out of her throat as she rocked and she didn't know it, didn't understand it, couldn't have remembered it if asked later. To her surprise, it was joined and matched with a soft hum, a deep rumble of sound coming from the woman, her Nanna, a lullaby.
"I used to sing it to you." Nanna said softly. "To get you to sleep."
Elle swallowed thickly.
"I don't want to go back."
And it hurt, it burned, and she knew her daddy would hear her and be angry and she couldn't help it. It came out of her without her permission and once she said it, she couldn't stop, fingers clutching the album and eyes seeing nothing but gray walls and silver machine with wires.
"Please don't make me."
She rocked again, and again, and again. She couldn't stop, a frantic beat in her heart and an ache that went deeper than she wanted.
"Elle, baby." And the hand on her shoulder swept over her back, circles comforting against her spine. "No one is going to make you..."
But she knew, Elle knew, deep inside. She wanted her stupid alien cousins and too loud uncles and too much food and the sweet smell of her nanna. She wanted them, so she would never get them. A hot liquid splashed on the tops of her legs and she gasped, cried out and looked down.
Blue sparked between her hands, completely engulfing the album and melting the little plastic photo pages. She saw the edges of each little square begin to brown and crumple and she tried to let go, but her muscles cramped and clenched and her arms began to light up and she felt herself lose control.
"Elle." Her nanna's voice was solid and calm, as if she'd seen this before, but Elle could hear the underlying fear. "Calm down. You need to calm down."
"I don't want to go back!"
She sparked hotter and harder and it jolted from her arms up her neck and she dropped the ruined album, fell back and waited for the slam against the floor, instead she felt herself caught. A sharp cry sounded in her ears, Nanna in pain, and she jerked again.
"Please." She cried. "Please let me stay."
"Shhh, baby." Gritted words, through gritted teeth, the tight clasping painful grasp of someone hurting.
"Simone!" Her daddy's voice somewhere far away. "Get out now!"
"I'm not leaving her!"
Elle felt the heat spread up and down, jolting, making her jump, sparking and zapping and overloading and she did the only thing she could, she threw her arms around the body holding her and held even tighter. The electricity flowed, zinging and zapping and Elle shook, shook until the strong grasp on her let go and was still.
A single prick, clean and cool, spiked in her neck and Elle felt herself go thick and sleepy. She let go and felt her Nanna slump away.
She woke up strapped to a table, cold and silver, inside a glass room empty of anything except herself and the machine strapped to her with wires and IV tubes. A space man waited in the corner, watched her coldly and patiently.
Elle flexed her reddened, raw fingers and blinked her smoke scorched eyes.
The space man came closer and it was really her daddy in a space man's suit.
"Did I hurt her?" She coughed, her throat sore and dry and hot. "Did I hurt my nanna too much?"
Her daddy shook his head sadly.
"Do you see, Elle? Do you understand now?" He said. "That's why."