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Image by Di_An_h
When a seat coughs up a picture
A chair brought in from a 'Buy Nothing' group yields a secret.

"Jacie! Stop bouncing on that chair!"


Exasperated, Mei Lin shooed her youngest daughter off the second-hand green armchair she had picked up from her local Buy Nothing group a few months ago. After brushing off the graham cracker crumbs, she discovered a stale Cheeto in the crack between the cushion and the armrest. And some Legos and that missing Barbie doll sandal her daughter had been crying about for days. She tossed the toy parts into the plastic bin (also from Buy Nothing) that she used as a catch-all toy box and lugged the heavy-duty vacuum out of the closet since she fully expected to find desiccated penne pasta and maybe even some sunflower seeds underneath the cushion.


But when she pulled up the seat cushion, not only did she find sunflower seeds but also several M&Ms and...“what in the heck is that?” A black and white picture. But it wasn't anyone Mei recognized. Mei was of Chinese ancestry, and her husband was Hmong. So who was this white woman in the picture?


“I know I vacuumed this chair as soon as I got it, and I didn't see anything under the cushions except lint and a couple of safety pins,” Mei mused to herself.


Mei concluded the picture could have been stirred up from the cushions when her daughter jumped up and down on it. So, at the risk of getting stabbed by another hidden safety pin, Mei fished deep into the cracks between the cushions to see if there were any more pictures, but nope. Just this one. A picture of a woman in a rowboat. She was wearing a prim and neat dress shirt with a mid-calf business skirt. Her curly hair was shoulder-length and trimmed in a 60s-style bob. Although Mei found no inscription on the back about who it was or when it was taken, she guessed it was a well-cared-for photo of a family member. Surely it would be missed.


The previous owner would want it back. “What was her name?” Mei Lin scrolled through her Facebook messages to find out. “Oh yes! It was Brenda.”


"Can't you wait until I'm out of the shower? I've got shampoo in my hair," Brenda yelled at her husband. Then she fumbled blindly for the faucet handle before rinsing her eyes of the new shampoo she had picked up from the Buy Nothing group. It smelled like aftershave -- a nice clean scent -- but it wasn't what she expected when the poster listed ‘amber’ as one of the fragrance notes.


She toweled off and then slipped into a red satin house robe, which she also picked up from Buy Nothing, and shuffled into the kitchen to see what her husband was yelling about. She found him in the kitchen staring at something.


"Okay, now what is it you wanted me to look at?" Now that she was retired from her job as a University of Washington anthropology professor, Brenda found being alone with her husband full-time was driving her bananas. It was almost enough to make her miss having kids around the house to distract her.

Her husband handed her a steaming cup of coffee. "You remember the chair that you gave away on that Buy Nothing group that you're a part of?"


"Which chair are you talking about? We've given away a ton of your dad's stuff, you know." Brenda sipped the fragrant brew. It was good.

"The green one. It was my dad's favorite chair."

"Yeah? What about it?"

"Well, the woman who picked that up came by while you were in the shower, and she dropped off this photo." Kevin pointed to the kitchen counter where there lay a sepia-toned photo of a woman.

"She found it in the chair?"

"Underneath the cushion. But you know what the problem is?"

"What's the problem?"

"I have no idea who this woman is!"

"Maybe you can ask your dad who she…" Brenda stopped short. "I'm sorry, honey. I keep forgetting. Sometimes it doesn't feel like he's gone." Brenda hugged her husband.

"My dad and I weren't that close, Brenda. So, it doesn't feel all that different to me either. What do you think?"

"About your dad?" Brenda asked.

"Not my dad." Kevin snorted. "The coffee? Do you like it?"

"It's not Bustelo, is it?"

"I roasted it myself several weeks ago. See?" Brenda's husband showed off the new contraption on the kitchen countertop. "So you don't like it?" He pouted.

"I do! But where'd you get that roaster?"

Her husband laughed. "You're not the only one who picks up free stuff from Buy Nothing."

Brenda took another sip of the dark elixir. What a score! All because she introduced Kevin to the Buy Nothing group. "Maybe you can ask your mom if she knows who that person is."

"I doubt she'll remember. She barely remembers me anymore whenever I visit."

"Couldn't hurt to ask, right?"

"Let me think about it. But first, I'm going to pick up something else I saw on Buy Nothing." Kevin showed Brenda a picture on his phone.

She rolled her eyes at him. "What in the world are you going to do with a toy train set, Kevin?"



"No, Mom. It’s Kevin. Remember me?"

His mother stared at him blankly. "You here to take me for a walk?"

"Well, yes, I can take you for a walk, but I'm not your nurse." Kevin sighed and felt that same frustration that he always felt these days whenever he visited her. He took the brakes off his mother's wheelchair and then proceeded to wheel her out of the day lounge. "Where do you want to go?"

When no answer was forthcoming, Kevin answered for her.

"Let's go get some coffee, okay? I have something I want to show you."

The bistro wasn't far from the day lounge. It was just next door to the main building where his mother stayed. It looked like a regular cafe, but the residents used ‘credits’ to ‘buy’ food there. He used his mom's ‘credit card’ which hung around her neck on a lanyard and bought them both a small coffee. Then he wheeled her to a handicapped accessible table.


"Where are we?" his mother asked.

"It's the bistro, Mom. You can get food here. Remember? Did you decide what you want?" Kevin had shown his mother the menu, but she had stared at it uncomprehending, and so he hadn't ordered food.

"No, I don't want to eat. Where's your father? I'll eat when he gets here."

Kevin took a deep breath and decided he'd just play along with her. It was always easier to do that. "He'll come by in a while. Can I show you something, Mom?"

"What is it?"


Kevin pulled the picture out of his wallet and handed it to his mother. He watched as she took it with her trembling fingers. She stared at it for a while, and then her hand started to shake. At first, he thought it was her Alzheimer's, but then…the shaking got worse and worse. “Mom? What’s happening?” Kevin asked. “I thought your seizures were under control.”


Just as Kevin was about to look for help, his mother ripped up the picture with both hands and flung it across the table!

"Damn that woman! I threw away all her pictures! Where did you find that?" His mother broke down sobbing, her hands covering her face.

Kevin shot up from his chair and ran to his mother's side. "Mom?"


His mother looked up at him with such a sorrowful expression that Kevin was taken aback by her lucidity. She seemed even more stricken than the one time she seemed to comprehend that her husband had passed away. "Where is he? Is he with her?"

"Who? Mom? What are you talking about?"

"That witch! Mabel! Mabel Greeling!" Then his mother renewed her wailing. "I thought he was done with her."


Kevin did his best to ignore the curious stares and whispers of the other cafe patrons around them and consoled his mother the best he could, and to his surprise, she seemed to completely forget about the whole incident not more than ten minutes later. In fact, she said she wanted a croissant. So, he told her he'd get her one.

On his way to the counter with her card, he bent down to pick up the two halves of Mabel Greeling’s picture, and put them back into his wallet.


Kelly Greeling brushed the wispy curls away from her son's face. "If you don't go to sleep, Santa can't visit, you know."

"But I'm so excited, Momma. What if he doesn't come 'cause I can't fall asleep?"

"You can and you will. What if I make you some hot chocolate?"

"You bought some this morning?"

"That's right!"

The seven-year-old nodded vigorously! "Do you need help?"

"No, you stay here. I'll be right back."


Kelly went out to the kitchen and made sure to close the bedroom door behind her. She unwrapped the tin of hot cocoa she'd picked up from the Buy Nothing group that morning and was about to spoon some into a clean mug when the stinging tears that threatened to reveal themselves to her child finally broke free. She bent over the countertop and let them fall, but when she heard the small splats, she put the cover back on the tin. “Not into the cocoa powder, please!” she thought. Then she gave herself a moment for the tears to stop so she could resume making the hot chocolate drink.


If Russell fell asleep soon, then she could wrap the one present she'd been able to afford this year. How had it come to this? She felt like she was just re-living her mother's life all over again. She didn't want her baby boy to go through what she went through, but her mother had been right when she told Kelly: Sometimes life just doesn't work out the way one plans.

Kelly had spent the past year training to be court transcriptionist, only for her training to be cut short because of the pandemic lockdown. Then, after the schools in town changed to strictly homeschool-only, she was forced to homeschool Russell for part of kindergarten and all of his first grade.


Any companies hiring were only looking for part-time workers, and the pay was not enough to hire a babysitter to watch Russell at night. Finally, the elementary school re-opened this year, which allowed Kelly to find some part-time transcription work during the daytime when Russ was in school. So at least she was able to get the Bachman train that Russ had been asking for. She even got some wrapping paper, just enough to wrap it, from Buy Nothing too, when she'd picked up the tin of hot cocoa this morning. But she still couldn't find a full-time job, because there was no one to pick Russ up from school in the afternoons.

"Everything's going to be alright," she murmured to herself.

She brought the warm mug back to their only bedroom and discovered that her son had indeed fallen asleep.


"Russell?" she whispered. But he didn't stir. She watched his shoulders rise and fall in peaceful slumber and was happy that at least her son had no worries. She'd made sure that he was always well-fed and happy. He was even doing really well in second grade according to all of his teachers.

“Well, I guess I better drink it myself, or it'll get cold,” she reasoned.

She was just about to take a sip, when she heard her phone notifications go off.

She glanced at the screen and saw it was a message. Could Russell's father actually be messaging to tell his son Merry Christmas?

But no, it was someone she didn't recognize. Curious, she opened the message.


Hi, you don't know me, and I don't know you, but…

"Oh great. Another spam bot," Kelly hissed under her breath. She was about to hit "Delete" over the new message, but accidentally scrolled downwards instead. The lengthy message rolled past, and she spied a black and white picture of…



It was a picture she didn't ever remember seeing before. Her mother was sitting in a rowboat. And she was smiling. Kelly never remembered her mother smiling in any pictures. She always looked sad. But the woman in the picture was definitely her mother. She could tell, because the woman had the same curly hair as Russell.



Mei Lin dragged the trash bag full of wrapping paper to the alley and put it beside the trash bin. It had snowed heavily the week after Christmas, and so the city didn't send its trash trucks out. They'd sent notifications out that folks could leave their extra trash in a bag by their regular dumpster, and the trucks would pick it all up on their next trash day.


She saw her neighbors were all doing the same. As she trudged back to the porch through the melting slush, she spied a bag on her porch bench! The Roomba(TM)! Brenda had posted it last night, and Mei had not hesitated to respond that she was "Interested!" Her poor vacuum had breathed its last when Mei had tried to vacuum up a wet hairball, but instead ended up gumming it up somehow. Attached to the box containing the Roomba(TM) was a brightly colored envelope, and inside was a notecard that read:


Hi, Mei Lin,

Thank you so much for finding that picture and returning it to my husband. Because of that picture, he was able to track down and find his younger half-sister. Because we're retired, we've been able to babysit our nephew during the daytime. Enjoy the Roomba!

Hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Brenda and Kevin

Image by Christin Hume

Aiona Byuwek has lived all over the country from the backwoods of West Virginia, to the snake-filled Mississippi bayou. She now lives and sails where the Skagit and Swinomish tribes are settled.

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