General Fiction posted September 19, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
A man finds a photo of his mum with a man he's never seen

In the attic

by oliver818

Last Words Contest Winner 

The light bulb swayed a little as the smoke-tinted, autumn air flowed in through the open window, and the burning in my eyes subsided. Mum had said that with allergies like mine I shouldn't come in here, but I can be stubborn.

Long, thin dents in the dust marked the top of the boxes where my fingers landed, trying to find the pen-scribbled names mum had written over the years. I hadn't been up there for an eternity, having just returned home after years in Europe and Asia.

Dust rose from the box marked "Photos". My head banged hard onto my knees when I doubled over, my body shaking to the rhythm of five giant sneezes.

""Are you alright up there, Tommy?" Mum called from below.

"Yeah, Mum, I think I've found the right box." My nose was tender to the touch of the ball of sodden tissues.

Old plastic creaked as the first photo album opened and childish grins flashed up at me. Faded photos curled inwards, pushing up the thin, transparent plastic of the small white folders.

"Why don't you come down here and do that?" Mum said, the stairs creaking under her weight.

"Mum, who's this strange guy hugging you in this photo? I've never seen him before." I tugged at it, trying to get it out to see more clearly.

"Which strange guy, dear?" Mum's smiling face popped around the edge of the door.

The plastic folder split, and the photo leapt out, landing less than a metre from Mum. Her fingers reached the edge of the photo, and her eyes widened.

"Oh, my goodness." The photo dropped from her fingers and she ran out of the room.

"Mum? What is it?" The stairs creaked as she fled down them.

"Mum, come back. I'm sorry." I followed her down, the crumpled photo in my hand.


"I'm in the kitchen." Crimson wine tinkled into the two glasses on the bench.

"I'm sorry I got upset, Tommy. I thought I'd thrown that photo out." Mum reached for a glass, and took a large gulp.

"It's okay, Mum. We all have our histories. Can I ask who he was?" The red wine was deep like a childhood memory.

"He was my piano teacher, Pierce Hogan. That photo was taken at my eighteenth birthday party."

"What? But you told me you never played any instruments as a child."

"I lied. That's all I did as a child. Night after night, year after year, I practiced, hoping to become a concert pianist. When I was seventeen, my mother managed to sign me up as one of Pierce Hogan's students. He taught me how to live and breath music, to suck in the tiny, black symbols off the pages and spin then back out as clouds of fragrant notes."

"Mum, that's amazing. But why would that upset you so much?" Her wrinkled hand was soft and warm under mine.

"He kicked me out. I told everyone that he simply decided I wasn't good enough to be his student, but actually, he rejected me for a very different reason. He was so handsome, and I was a teenager. He was leaning over me to write something on the score and he came so close I could smell him. I don't remember whether I started it or he did, but somehow our lips met. He threw me out at once. And I never played the piano again."

My cheek itched where mum's hair tickled it, but I resisted the urge to scratch it. After a while, her body stopped trembling, and her head rested on my shoulder.

"Tomorrow we'll go and buy you a piano, Mum," I said, listening to the window frames creaking in the evening breeze.

Writing Prompt
You're cleaning out your attic and stumble across an old photo of someone you don't recognize, hugging your mom. When you ask her about it she becomes very upset and runs out of the room.

Last Words
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Artwork by cleo85 at

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