I’ll be publishing a few weird tales here. They were mostly written in the 80’s, so they may be showing their age. The only editing I’ll be doing is really egregious mistakes or typo’s in the old, typewritten text. I want this to be a history of my writing and don’t want to do a lot of “cleaning up”.
I know these little stories aren’t making Stephen King shake in his boots, but I hope you enjoy them anyway!
The Sixth Alley
Clearly, I was heavily influenced by Stephen King back in the 80’s. I know The Husband and I were playing a lot of skeeball back then but I don’t remember where exactly. It’s been interesting to retype these since I haven’t read them in a very long time and, with this one in particular, I didn’t remember much of it at all. I have to wonder if King creeps himself out with his own stories!
Even though I said I wouldn’t be doing much editing on these, I did do a little bit of tweaking with this one. Mostly, it was paragraphing for more impact toward the end and, in one case, I’d completely missed a fact about a bicycle, so I added a line for continuity. And there is one line-I don’t have any idea where it came from or why I thought it made a good analogy (or really any sense at all)-but I kept it in just because it made me laugh!
If I ever decide to publish these, serious editing will be done! But for now, enjoy!
Mark Dalton picked me up in his father’s Chrysler with the leather bucket seats and the power everything. He drove with his left arm propped on the doorframe, making turns with his right index finger. We went to a high-class burger place for dinner, then to an 8:05 showing of War Games.
Then we went to Video Dreams.
Saturday night at Video Dreams—a hermit’s nightmare. Noise and bodies and noise and dark light. Frustration, victory and sweat. I held onto Mark’s hand as we snaked through the crowds. I didn’t want to lose him. My parents would have a fit if they had to come pick me up.
I headed for Moonchase. Mark played a game of Rollie Riley on a machine next to mine. After his game ended, he stood at my right shoulder, watching me play, my bangs plastered to my forehead. I’d gotten to the Ninth Dimension before getting immunized by Dr. Morte.
“Jeez. I’m really impressed, Sally. I never knew you were a Moonchase Master,” Mark said, nodding his head in approval. “Let me buy you a drink. Coke or Dr. Pepper?”
“Sprite,” I said.
The sweat on my back dried coldly as we waited for our drinks. There wasn’t any place to sit, so we wandered outside and watched the families playing miniature golf. A mist hung over the parents’ heads, making halos around the street lamps.
We went back in by the side entrance, where hard rolling and soft thudding caught my attention. Did those sounds bring back memories. During the fifth and sixth grade, my family had lived in a beach town in Maine. My friends and I couldn’t wait for the tourist season to be over. During the summer, the crowds were too stifling to bother with the York Arcade, but during the off-months, that place belonged to us.
And we especially loved the skeeball.
“I hate skeeball,” said Mark.
I dragged him along with me, much to his muttering disgust. If only he’d been firmer in his unwillingness to play… If I’d just been a little (a lot) more sensitive to his feelings… So much for 20/20 hindsight.
We stopped in front of two alleys. I put in my quarter and threw the first ball. It hit the rubber marked 40 and fell into the hole. The next hit 40 again.
The fifth ball brought the total to 180. Lights flashed above the green LCD score panel and bells rang. The word “Winner” pulsed methodically above the score. The whirling orange light flashed. A green ticket spewed out of the narrow dispenser on the left.
I took little notice of the electronic mayhem. My hand grasped the ball, my arm cocked and pistoned, my hand released the ball. I was in my own little world.
“You make it look so easy,” Mark said admiringly, bending to count the tickets I’d accumulated with one quarter. “My hand develops an aversion to straight lines when I try to throw.”
“It’s not that hard,” I said. “Here, let me show you.”
I stood behind him and held the back of his hand to my palm. I could feel the tension in his shoulders and smelled musky aftershave on his collar. It took him four quarters to get the five tickets I’d gotten in one, but he was improving.
“See, you’re doing okay,” I said, anxious to get back to my own alley.
“Yeah, I guess,” he said, feeding another quarter to alley six. “Thanks for the help.”
We played companionable for the next 15 minutes. I felt Mark standing at my left elbow.
“You know, Sal, this isn’t such a bad game,” he said, smiling down at me. I smiled back.
“Let’s go see what they’ve got for prizes,” I said, taking his hand. I wasn’t afraid of losing him now, since the crowd had thinned out, but I held his hand anyway. He was beginning to like skeeball and in the more illogical part of my mind, that gave him points.
The prize counter was the only area of the arcade directly lit. They had little kid prizes for two or three tickets – wax lips, artificial claws, bubble gum and candy. Then there were the cheap stuffed animals for two or three hundred tickets-sad, under-stuffed bunnies and dogs with dropping ears.
But suspended above us was the Grand Daddy of all stuffed bears. It was at least four feet high. It’s white fur nearly sparkled in the garish light. It had green glass eyes and a leather snout. The orange sign pinned to a paw read “2000 tickets”. I stared up at that stupid bear.
Mark followed my gaze. He seemed to be looking into its eyes, silently communicating.
“How long do you think it would take us to get two thousand tickets?” he asked, squeezing my hand.
“By the time we get one thousand, we’ll be too old and weak to throw the balls. And too broke,” I said. “C’mon, let’s get some Tootsie Rolls.”
“Nah, you get a Tootsie Roll,” Mark said, stuffing his tickets into his back pocket. “I’m keeping mine. I’m going to save them up and get you that bear.”
And so, he decided that we would go for the bear.
The next day, I was oiling the chain on my bike, when my mother yelled from the house that I had a phone call. I hobbled in on creaky knees, wiping WD40 on my jeans.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, Sal.” It was Mark. “Want to go to Video Dreams later? We’ve got to start collecting those tickets.”
I told him sure and we made arrangements to meet there in an hour. It would be a good workout for my bike, which I’d just finished reconditioning.
Mark was sitting in his mother’s station wagon when I glided into the parking lot. By the time I’d finished locking my bike, he was walking toward me.
“I didn’t know whether you’d want to come or not.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” I replied. I suppose another type of girl would have batted her three-inch eyelashes. I just grinned at him under my bangs and lead the way into the arcade.
It was crowded for a Sunday afternoon. We zigzagged around the video games and photo booths. The sounds of conflict and laughter came from every direction. At the Snak Shak, a pizza was starting to burn. The quality of light was better than the night before but still dim and a little hazy.
The only alleys available were three and six. The parents of a four-year old were allowing their precious tyke to throw (I use the word loosely) the balls up alley seven. The little girl was tossing the balls overhand, making stomach-wrenching cracking sounds on the wood. I headed for alley three, my selfishness winning out again.
After three or four games, I looked down the line of people to my right to see how Mark was doing. He had at least twenty tickets trailing out of his dispenser, like the tail of a snake. Our eyes met as he was feeding the thing another quarter and we smiled. He threw his first ball and the scoreboard read 50. Then something strange happened.
The letters HEL appeared for several seconds in the bold green of the scoreboard. I felt my brow wrinkle and saw Mark’s left eyebrow arch, like Mr. Spock’s. When we looked back, the board read 50 again. Mark threw another ball and got another forty points. The board read 90.
Mark shrugged and said, “As long as it racks up points and gives me my tickets, I guess it’s okay.”
I nodded and kept playing. Every fourth or fifth ball would bring the HEL, like an electric green intruder, onto the scoreboard. Mark and I didn’t think anything of it because it didn’t interfere with the game. I suppose fate was in motion before that Sunday afternoon, even before Saturday night, but I can’t help thinking that if we’d left, if we’d grabbed each other’s hands and run out of there, we would have been okay.
The next day at school, Mark asked me to go to Video Dreams again that night. I didn’t want to tell him that I was getting bored with video games every night, but fortunately, I had another truth to fill in with for that evening. My brother Billy’s jazz band was playing at a lounge where the owner knew me and I could sneak in.
“What about the bear?” Mark said.
“I don’t get to see Billy play too often. I’m sorry, Mark,” I said.
Things started happening faster after that.
Tuesday morning, I was taking books out of my locker. I heard my name and turned. Mark and our friend, Griffin, were hurrying toward me. Mark had a Bozo lunch bag in his hand.
“Hey, baby, look what I’ve got,” said Mark. He put his free hand on my shoulder and kissed me, pressing me against a locker. It was over before I could move. “This is just from last night,” he said, holding the lunch bag open so I could look in.
“Whoa,” I said, my eyes widening. “That’s just from last night?”
The bag was filled with at least three hundred tickets.
“You should have seen him,” said Griffin, throwing back his head to clear a strand of dark, wavy hair from his eyes. “Man, he was unbelievable. He never threw lower than forty. God, it was something.”
“Yup, I was hot last night,” said Mark, putting his arm around me. “You should have been there. Good ole Alley Six didn’t let me down.”
The bell rang for first period. Mark kissed me lightly and headed down the corridor. Griffin and I had Science class on the next floor. Walking up the stairs, Griff regaled me with stories of Mark’s Skeeball triumphs.
“And even though the help sign kept flashing a lot, he kept getting tickets,” said Griffin.
“What help sign?” I asked.
“Every three or four balls, H E L would flash on the scoreboard,” Griffin said. “That usually means the alley needs repair or something might be stuck somewhere. But then the score would come back up and everything was fine.”
I don’t remember a specific thought as we walked into the Science lab, only an uncomfortable feeling.
That night, we were at Video Dreams again. Mark had gone armed with two rolls of quarters. I felt swept up in an energy flow I couldn’t control, so I didn’t say anything. I let him do what he wanted. Which was play Skeeball on the sixth alley until sweat thickened his shirt and his arms began to shake. And even then, I had to nearly threaten him to get him to take me home. I had a 10:00pm curfew and it was 9:45 by the time he turned resentfully away.
Mark was quiet most of the way home. He looked exhausted. But he had enough energy to put his tongue in my mouth when he kissed me. I didn’t find it appropriate but I will admit I didn’t exactly fight my way out of the car. I was the one who broke it off, though, and went inside to bed.
That was the night I had the first dream. It was simple and seemed logical enough, under the circumstances. I was looking down on the interior of Video Dreams. It was dark and shadowy, except for the white bear, suspended from the ceiling, bathed in a pool of white light.
On the far side of the room stood Mark, throwing balls up the sixth alley, the only light pulsing from the scoreboard. There was a sound like static on a radio at 4AM. Tickets were growing like vines around Mark’s feet. That was all. It seemed as if I watched him bowl all night.
After school on Wednesday, I walked home with Mark. His dad was out of town on a business trip.
“When my dad’s away, we eat cold. Sandwiches, salads and stuff,” said Mark. “I figure if I bring you over, I might get a hot meal.”
“Gee, thanks for the heartfelt invitation,” I said.
He hugged me and said, “It’s also a good excuse for more time with you.”
After a dinner of pork chops and macaroni and cheese, Mark helped his mother clear the table. Mrs. Dalton thanked me for my offer to help but told me to relax. I enjoyed watching Mark do the work, so I did as I was told.
The Dalton’s had a swinging door between their kitchen and dining room that didn’t swing too well. It stayed open about two inches. I could hear Mrs. Dalton talking to Mark.
“I was doing a wash today, Mark,” she said, “and I took your bank book out of your pants pocket.”
“Mark, honey, why are you making so many withdrawals?”
Mark said quietly, “I’m not buying drugs or anything. Sally and I are trying to win a big stuffed bear playing Skeeball.”
“Oh, Mark, you know that money is supposed to be going toward school.”
“Mom, that’s my money. I’m earning it and I don’t think I should have to answer to you. If I want to spend it, I’ll spend it.”
Just then, Mark came out of the kitchen, his face red and angry. “C’mon,” he said, grabbing his dad’s car keys from the sideboard.
On the move, I looked back to see Mrs. Dalton enter the dining room, wiping her hands on a striped towel.
“I didn’t know he was doing that,” I said.
The few lines around her mouth and eyes were very pronounced. She tried to smile, then waved at me to go on out.
The ride to Video Dreams was fast. Small pebbles winged off the hubcaps. Trees made strange shadows on the road ahead of us.
Mark strode through the arcade, like a horse with blinders. He headed in a straight line toward alley six, never taking his eyes from it. But he didn’t play long.
“Well, goddammit, I left most of my money at home,” he said. “Shit.” He snapped off his few tickets from the dispenser and stomped away. I followed him at a jog, leaving three of my balls unused.
By the time we got to my house, he had calmed down. He stopped the big Chrysler in front of the house next door to ours and turned off the engine. He leaned his head against the back of the seat and the rest of his body went limp. A light breeze ruffled his hair. A streetlight cast a cold amber glow.
“Sally,” Mark said, in a voice that belonged to a tired old man, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m doing things I’ve never done before. Things I don’t like.”
I moved closer to him on the seat and took his hand.
“You know, I’ve never been good at anything before,” Mark said. “When all those people were watching me Monday night, I loved it. I heard people saying how amazing I was. Me. Amazing.”
“It is amazing, how quickly you improved,” I said. “But Mark, you can’t let it go to your head. It’s not worth it.”
He looked down at me and said, “But it’s so important to me to get you that bear.”
I said “God, Mark, the bear is not important. You’re important. With or without getting that damn bear.”
We held each other awkwardly, contorting our bodies to avoid the steering wheel. Mark held me hard and buried his face in my neck. I felt like a life preserver. I can picture the words HMS TITANIC on my forehead.
After a while, I kissed his cheek and said, “Why don’t you take me to a movie tomorrow night.”
Mark managed a tired smile. “Okay,” he said.
“I think we’d better stay away from Video Dreams for a while,” I said, stroking his hand.
We kissed and after promising to meet for lunch the next day, I went into my house and watched him drive away.
I had another dream that night. I was looking down at the scene again but I was closer. The bear was dark. The static was hissing.
Mark had his back to me, throwing the balls. I could see trickles of sweat on his neck and his hair hung in wet, thick strands. After a few seconds, he turned and his eyes were grotesque, red jewels, shining fire. His mouth moved like a ventriloquists dummy and the voice was metallic, bouncing off the walls.
“You don’t think the bear is important, huh?” The red eyes burned.
“The poor, stupid bear,” Mark of the dream said. He was juggling skeeballs, weaving patterns in the dull red glow. Savagely, he caught them all up and threw them in quick succession, flowed by soft thuds outside the dream frame.
The scene shifted again, to the bear hanging from the ceiling. This time, it was lit an ugly crimson. It had been the target of the balls. Everywhere a ball had hit, stuffing oozed, tinged blood pink by the horrible light. The bear was frowning.
The next night, we went to see a revival of “Invasion from Mars”. We were buying Milk Duds at the snack counter, when Lily and Jack, friends from school, told us about the bear.
“Did you guys hear?” gushed Lily, the Rona Barrett of the senior class. “Your bear at Video Dreams was slashed last night.”
My jaw locked and I began to breath consciously, keeping the rhythm as natural as I could. My heart was beating in my ears.
Mark took my arm. “What did they put in its’ place?” he asked.
“Oh, another bear,” said Lily. “It’s up already.”
“The old bear is in the trash,” said Jack. “All cut up. Stuffing everywhere.”
They moved off into the theatre. I didn’t tell Mark my dream.
Halfway through the movie, Mark got up and went into the lobby. I followed him a minute later and saw him coming out of the men’s room. He was pale and shaky and he’d obviously been sick.
“I’m sorry, Sal,” Mark said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “Do you mind if I take you home now?”
When he dropped me at my house, he promised he’d go right home to bed.
I stayed up for a while and read. Then I watched a Saturday Night Live rerun. Then I tried to read some more. I fell asleep in an overstuffed chair in the living room.
The dream that night was short. The perfect new bear hung in white light, an angelic smile beneath the leather snout. Mark was at the sixth alley, inserting his last quarter. The balls rolled soundlessly. The only noise was a lower pitched static than the other dreams.
Mark threw the last ball. He watched the scoreboard for a minute, then bent to rip his tickets. He sat on the edge of the alley and fed the line of tickets through his fingers, counting silently. Then he looked up and his eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot.
He said, “I lied, you bitch. I broke my promise and came here anyway. See.” He held up the tickets in a twisted batch. “Seventy-eight tickets. Seventy-eight tickets toward your blessed bear.”
He laughed a humorless laugh and pointed toward the bear, swinging on its strings, bobbing heavily. Claws poked out of the paws and sharp yellow teeth snapped. The static was louder.
I woke up, pounding my hands on the arms of the chair. I washed my face and came back to the sofa in the living room, where I slept fitfully the rest of the night.
I saw Mark at his locker the next morning.
“Did you go right home to bed last night?” I asked, walking up beside him.
When he turned, I saw the skin around his eyes was dark and the rest of his skin was pale. He reminded me of a mummy.
He looked into my eyes for a second, then turned back to his locker. “Yeah, I went home to bed.”
“You didn’t go to Video Dreams, then?” I said, not really knowing what I wanted him to answer.
“Yeah,” he said, whirling around. “Yeah, I went. I had to. You know?” His eyes had grown dark with some kind of rage. He banged his locker shut and started to walk away.
I leaned against the wall and called after him, “How many tickets did you get?”
Do I need to tell you the number he spat back at me?
I tried to call him that night but his mother said he’d come home, gotten in his dad’s car and left. I rode my bike over to Griffin’s house. Griffin comes from a big family. Finding privacy at his house is like trying to find my grandfather at a Twisted Sister concert. We went out and stood talking near Griffin’s blue ’69 Camaro.
I told him the whole story, the dreams, everything. Griffin is an off-the-wall kind of guy. Once, he grossed out Mrs. Ryan, our English teacher, by sitting in class with candy corn dangling from his nose. But I knew he was also someone I could count on.
“Let’s go check out Video Dreams and see if he’s there,” said Griffin. “We can drop your bike at your house on the way.”
We saw the Dalton’s Chrysler as we were pulling into the lot. Griffin and I walked into the Friday night crowd, trying to see Mark in the shuffling crush of people. Naturally, he was playing at alley six. I asked Griffin to give us a few minutes alone. He walked off toward the Snak Shak.
I stood beside Mark for a few minutes before he realized I was there.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I wanted to see if you were okay,” I said.
“Just couldn’t stay away from me, huh?” he said with a hard grin. “Couldn’t stay away from your bear?”
Involuntarily, I glanced over at the bear, suspended above the prize counter. It didn’t look predatory.
Mark grabbed my elbow. “C’mon,” he said, propelling me through the crowd. “Let’s go outside.”
Mark led us around the side of the building, where there was a small, barely lit alcove. He pushed me in ahead of him.
“So, what do you think?” he asked, standing in front of me. I felt like a fly on a spider’s web. “Am I ok?”
He smelled sweaty and his eyes glinted darkly. He leaned in toward me, onions on his breath, and began kissing my throat. I tried to pull away, but one strong hand held my shoulder. His other hand was inching its way up from my waist. I was trying to be polite and not give in to panic because I knew it wasn’t him doing those things.
I struggled quietly, but when his hand squeezed my breast, I yelled, “Don’t.”
I heard footsteps and the pressure of Mark’s body was gone. It was such a sudden release, I almost fell. When I’d regained my balance, I saw that Griffin had him by the shirtfront, shaking him.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, man?” Griffin asked fiercely. “She came here to see if you were alright, not to get mauled, you asshole.”
Griffin gave him a tremendous shove. Mark landed on his back.
“I don’t need her worrying about me,” Mark said, looking up at us. “I’m okay. I don’t need anybody.”
“Well, man, I’ll tell you,” said Griffin, putting his arm around my shoulders. “Without Sally and I, you haven’t got anybody. So, I hope you’re happy.”
Our footsteps echoed on the wooden planks. I looked back to see Mark getting up, brushing off his pants with savage swipes. He was muttering.
I’m not a crier but I do shiver when I’m upset. I shivered all the way home.
“If it wasn’t for your dreams,” Griffin told me, “I’d say he was just full of himself. I don’t know what to think. Especially after seeing him tonight.”
“It’s not him, Griff,” I said. “There’s something happening to him.”
He pulled into the curb at my house and let the engine idle.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do tonight,” he said. He gave me a gentle hug. “Get a good nights’ sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”
I looked at him, my fingers on the door handle. “I’m afraid to go to sleep.”
“I don’t blame you but try anyway. You really look like you need some rest,” Griffin said, patting my hair.
The last dream started easily. Mark was at the sixth alley. The only other light was on the bear, bright as a flame. The static was low and constant. Mark was throwing a continuous stream of silent balls.
Suddenly, bells started ringing and the lights pulsed brighter and faster. HELL flashed on the scoreboard.
The static slowly clarified. The confused quality disappeared. Strange, merciless laughter filled the air. The sound a mouse would hear if a cat could laugh.
Balls started to fly from the chute, rolling like pinballs on the floor. Tickets started pouring from the machine, forming a mountainous pile.
Mark started to back away. He was watching the floor, trying not to trip on the balls rolling all around him.
At first, he didn’t notice the bears, moving in, gliding on their haunches.
Making a semi-circle.
Herding him back toward the sixth alley.
He tried to break the line, like a desperate game of Red Rover, but the nearest bears sprouted claws and bared their yellow teeth, snarling.
The laughter rumbled through the building, obliterating the bells.
The bears moved closer.
Mark edged back. His feet tangled in tickets and sent balls skidding. His calves hit the alley and his arms pinwheeled for balance.
The last ball flew from the chute.
All sound ceased, except for Mark’s harsh breathing.
All lights dimmed, except for the scoreboard, where HELL was frozen in stark green letters.
Then the laughter started again, quietly.
Mark moved as if in spasm, turning to look at the chute. Some kind of vapor was moving at the mouth of the opening, dancing, pulsing with the laughter. It played for a while near the edge, constantly changing. Mark watched it, fascinated and repelled.
Slowly, the vapor took shape. The laughter grew as the white, translucent smoke curled and swirled, forming itself into a hand, then a talon, then a claw, sharp and vicious. It whipped out of the opening, leaving a vaporous trail.
The claw clamped around Mark’s left wrist, pulling him closer to the alley. Mark struggled, tripping on balls and tearing tickets. He used his free right hand to beat and scratch at the claw but it only sliced through the vapor. The grip of the claw seemed to grow tighter.
Mark was being pulled toward the chute. I watched him struggle and moan. The closer he got to the chute, the more hysterical his maneuverings got. After several minutes, his knees buckled and he fell.
He looked back. I had the feeling he was looking straight into my eyes. He whispered, “Sally, I tried.”
Then suddenly, his body was a pillar of white vapor. His clothes fell in a heap and his vapor mingled with the claw.
The claw lingered, dissolved. Became, for the briefest second, not really forming completely, a heart. That shape dissolved again and the amorphous vapor disappeared with a woosh down the chute.
The laughter stopped.
All the bears were gone, except for one.
It jumped onto the sixth alley and settled itself on the edge, its green eyes sparking. It wore a huge, red bow around its neck.
I woke up, crying and gagging at 2:30. I ran to the bathroom and was sick in the sink. I rinsed my mouth and my face, dressed and quietly left the house. I got my bike and drove to Griffin’s house. I felt stupid throwing pebbles at his window and prayed I hadn’t confused his room with his parents in my panic. Finally, I heard the window slide up.
“Sally, it’s five minutes to three in the morning,” whispered Griffin. “What’s the matter?”
When he saw that I was crying, he came right down.
He drove us to Video Dreams. The poor guy must have thought I’d lost my mind. My hair was snarled and windblown, tears ran down my cheeks and I kept repeating, “I had a dream. I had a dream.”
When we got there, we parked and sat in silence. Our breathing filled the night.
“I know he’s in there,” I said hoarsely. “I don’t want to go in.”
Griffin held me. He made me tell him the dream.
“Jesus,” was all he could say. His hands were cold.
After a while, he got out of the car. He told me to stay and lock the doors.
For years, I’d seen TV heroines follow the heroes anyway. And I always thought the heroines were so stupid.
I locked the doors.
And followed Griffin.
He tried the front doors. They were secure. But we could see a square of faint green light, over to the right. The source was beyond our vision. We circled the building and found a side door open a crack.
I looked up at Griffin. He looked down at me. We couldn’t hear anything. I shivered in the night air.
Griffin took a breath and opened the door quietly. We both went in. It seemed like our footsteps must be as loud as canon fire. We weaved around the video games.
Griffin was leading, so he came into the empty space in front of the skeeball alleys just before I did.
And saw before I did.
And had bent over and vomited before I’d even seen clearly.
A huge white bear was sitting on the edge of the sixth alley. It had a big red bow around its neck.
Its body was slumped and its dead green eyes stared down at the pile of clothing crumpled on the floor.
The arm of a shirt extended across the boards, as if in supplication.
Photo by Darrin Moore on Unsplash
Another oldie but goodie from the 80’s. Do other people commemorate their 30th birthdays with sweetly sad horror stories??
Want to see a great imitation of the Sahara?
That’s how Meri Reed imagined her body greeting her on the morning of her 30th birthday.
Meri eased herself awake, a luxurious treat in the middle of the week, thanks to a personal holiday from work. She padded into the bathroom, feeling silly for wanting to avoid the mirror. But she made herself look. Then she made herself look closer.
Meri turned her head a notch and inspected the skin around her hazel eyes. She had to squint to make out the beginnings of twin lines, delicately etched from the outer corners of her upper lids. She opened her eyes wide in an effort to make the creases disappear, but they just shifted a little.
Oh, well. I wouldn’t say the Sahara yet. Maybe Palm Springs.
Meri dressed and began the rituals of another birthday spent alone.
Her first stop was a donut shop that specialized in cream filled, powdered sugar wonders that she allowed herself only on special occasions.
Her next stop was an arcade in the local mall. Being a Wednesday morning in late April, the area was fairly deserted. Mechanical pings and silly, high-pitched music filled the stale air. She walked to the back of the room and stepped into a two-dollar photo booth.
I remember when it was a quarter, thought Meri. I guess that dates me.
She adjusted the seat, patted her hair and slid two crisp dollar bills into the slot. She fixed what she thought was a believable, relaxed smile onto her face and waited a ridiculous amount of time for the flash. Then she waited outside the booth, leaning against it and checking her watch every fifteen seconds just for something to do.
After five minutes, the picture dropped into a little holding tray and a heater dried it. When the device stopped hissing, Meri took the picture and held it gingerly along the edges. She looked closely for the little creases beside her eyes, but in the end blessed the harsh flash for washing the lines away.
She tucked the photo into her purse and left.
Her next stop was Sullivan Boulevard, known as Antiquarian Heaven in the guidebooks. Meri had been collecting antique furniture since high school. She loved being surrounded by fine old pieces, especially when they were freshly polished, shining and smelling like the turn of the century.
She parked her little Mazda in a municipal lot and wandered around the shops. Experienced in separating the junk from the treasure, she was considering a beautifully detailed armoire for her living room.
While poking through the last small, cluttered shop, a display of jars on a counter caught her attention. They were fat pots of frosted cut glass with pale pink labels. Meri moved closer and picked up one. Vanity, the label read. The Ultimate Moisturizer, it proclaimed.
“That stuff works better than Oil of Olay,” a melodious male voice informed her.
She turned to see a young man with curly, chestnut colored hair smiling at her from his stool behind the sales counter.
“You’re never too young to start taking care of your skin.”
“Well, I’m older than I was yesterday. I’ll have to think about this.” She put the bottle back gently on the table. “How much is it?”
“Five bucks a jar. Cheaper than O of O, too.” His eyes sparkled.
Meri smiled. “Thanks.”
She continued around the store, stopping here and there to admire a pretty ring or examine a piece of crockery. She pulled out the picture taken that morning and looked at her eyes again.
Returning to a shop down the boulevard to make arrangements to have the armoire delivered on Saturday, the jar of Vanity nestled in its tissue-filled bag beside the photo in her purse.
“You’re looking lovely today,” commented Jim Brent as he passed her desk the following week. He stopped and took a closer look at her. “You’re absolutely radiant. Are you in love?”
Meri smiled but could feel the skin between her eyes pucker in puzzlement. “No, I’m not in love, you silly.”
People had been commenting on her glowing complexion all week. Some even called her beautiful.
Esmerelda June Reed, she of the bespectacled, stringy haired, chubby cheeked yearbook picture, beautiful? Hardly.
In love? She only wished
That night, at home, she fetched her birthday book and flipped to the last occupied page. Past the pictures of birthdays past – the pigtails and Peter Pan collars, the curls and eyeliner. She removed the 30th photo and took it into the bathroom, where she held it beside her face in the mirror.
No flash here. But no wrinkles either. How can that be?
She squinted and widened her eyes. She even looked out of the corners of her eyes, but still could see no lines, however faint.
In fact, her skin had a glow, even in the harsh light of the bathroom fixture.
I’ve had the cream on all day and still my skin looks, well, radiant, she thought. Vanity is amazing.
Meri hadn’t felt so good about herself in a long time. She added pastel pieces to her wardrobe and went out with women from the office at lunch. On the weekends, she ambled down the quiet beach and at night, rented funny movies about strong women. And men began asking her for dates. And to her amazement, boring little Esmerelda sat in the leather booths of restaurants and chatted like a talk show host.
One day, Meri realized she was digging pretty deep into that jar of Vanity. Time to take a drive to Sullivan Boulevard.
She went to the shop on Saturday morning. The young, curly haired man watched her as her eyes quickly scanned the room.
“Are you out of Vanity?”
“Nope, got some right here.”
They both smiled.
“Beauty ain’t cheap.”
Meri slammed the door firmly and with much satisfaction as she left.
Sunday morning, she used the last scrapings of the Vanity.
Tuesday morning, she noticed her skin was dull and just sort of lay there on her bones.
Wednesday morning, her mirror revealed the beginnings of faint lines at the corners of her eyes. Instead of going out to lunch that day with friends, she went to the mall and bought the most expensive moisturizer she could find.
Thursday morning, the moisturizer made her skin shiny. She stared into the mirror for a long time, remembering mornings as a teenager, putting in hours of effort to take the oily shine off her skin.
On Friday, the lines had not only not gone away, they seemed to have deepened. At work, Jim Brent asked why she looked so down.
“Maybe I’m catching a summer cold.”
“Today, just for you, a bargain. Fourteen dollars.”
Meri’s eyes widened. “Fourteen? Last week it was twelve.”
The young man twinkled at her.
Standing in the hot room, Meri felt a tear drop of sweat trickle down her back. This man was abominable, but she was really quite trapped. The evening before, she had retrieved the bottle of Vanity from her rubbish basket to search for a company name, but could find none. She tried to research it at the library that morning, but she and the librarian could find nothing about it anywhere. He was her only source of the cream on which she found herself dependent.
She jerked her wallet from her purse, counted out the money, not bothering to unfold the corners of the bills like she usually did, and threw them in an untidy pile onto the counter. The young man unhurriedly shook out a small bag, lined it with tissue paper and carefully placed the jar inside.
With a crooked grin, he finally placed the bag on the counter and pushed it, at a snail’s pace, along the polished wood. Meri snatched it halfway across and stalked out of the little shop, into the sweet air of the street.
Meri would soon come to believe, however, that the moisturizer was worth every cent and more. The great dividend she received from Vanity came in the form of a dark-haired, blue-eyed Xerox repairman named Gillespie Jones.
Gill appeared at her desk one morning, completely lost within the maze of offices on her floor. Amused confusion lit his face with childlike warmth and by the time she’d guided him to the copier, both rapidly beating hearts were lost to a force more powerful than any wrinkle cream.
After an evening of tender lovemaking, Meri and Gill lay tangled comfortably in each other’s arms.
“Will you still love me when I’m 64?” Gill kissed her temple.
“74. And 84, too.”
A moment passed.
“Will you love me when I’m 64?” Meri smoothed the matted hair on his chest.
“I’ll love you when you’ve shrunken three inches, your knees creak and your face looks like a roadmap.”
Life for Meri became a warm, soft place. She traveled in an invisible cocoon of quiet pleasure and riotous satisfaction. The world had become a colorful garden of joy because Gillespie Jones cherished her. Throughout the day, she felt his gentle touch on the skin of her imagination. For the first time ever, she felt complete.
Three months of bliss later, Meri was again scraping the bottom of the Vanity jar. After several days of interior monologue that was mostly a bolstering of courage, she set off for Sullivan Boulevard.
The municipal lot was at the far end of the block of buildings. When Meri walked onto the street after parking the Mazda, she knew something was strange about the view, yet couldn’t quite put her finger on it. But as she continued down toward the shop, the pit of her stomach froze with the realization that the low skyline of the street was not the same as before. Meri’s eyes knew why but her mind refused to believe.
Quickening her pace, Meri confirmed her fear. The little shop was no longer a part of the skyline because it was now merely a pile of blackened beams and ashes.
Meri stood with her mouth slightly open, staring at the rubble. Her arms hung loose at her sides. She was so absorbed that she didn’t notice the man step up beside her.
“This must have been a pretty popular place. Women have been coming here all week, doing the same as you. Standing there, staring.”
Meri looked up into the face of the man from whom she’d bought the armoire.
“The man who ran the place…”
“Yup, that’s the first question they ask. Hate to tell you, but he went with the fire.”
Somehow, Meri continued to breath and found her way back to the car. She sat, her right hand clamped around the steering wheel so hard, the skin over her knuckles was nearly translucent.
“I’ll love you when you face looks like a roadmap.”
Meri believed him when he had said it. She believed him still. She had absolutely no doubt that dear Gillespie would love her even if she were reincarnated as Chaney’s Hunchback.
Craning her neck, she looked in the rearview mirror. The flawless skin of her face glowed back at her.
The man in the black suit gazed upon his craftsmanship. He took pride in his work always, but this day he was filled with quiet amazement. Across the room, the woman’s face glowed but without the usual waxy sheen, creating an aura of great tranquility.
She was a most beautiful corpse.
Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
A Picture’s Worth
One of my first actual, finished stories, you’ll see how long ago it was written – real film, no cell phones, no social media!
When Sasha Monroe was a little girl, she fed Frito’s to the seagulls who flew beside her father’s boat. The bullet shaped bodies of the birds were leveled out beside her by huge, fragile wings. Orange beaks would grab the treat from her fingers.
That memory always came back to her when she was testing new equipment at the beach. On that Thursday morning in May, Sasha was on the shore in Santa Monica, experimenting with a new autowind. She’d just finished a roll of film. 36 fresh exposures were waiting for release when she brought the viewfinder to her eye. She’d also added a 100mm lens, hoping to catch high flying birds with the hazy cobalt sky as background.
Moving her head in tandem with the camera, Sasha caught the glint of a small plane in the lower left of the frame. She liked the striping design on the body, so she moved along with it to her right, snapping off two shots. Because of the lack of depth, she wasn’t bothered when the airliner came into view from the right. Her only concern was color and light within the frame. She was concentrating so intently that she didn’t even jump when the planes collided. As the pieces began to rain from the sky, her horror became a separate entity, closed away from her, and her head fell with the flaming wreckage, following its course down to the sea.
As the surface of the ocean calmed, accepting the fiery carnage, Sasha lowered her camera and a rush of feelings engulfed her. The camera began to quake in her trembling hands and tears were streaking her cheeks. Feeling her knees buckling, she lowered herself unceremoniously to the warm sand.
Sasha pulled her eight-year-old Citation into a miraculously open space in front of her small studio in Westwood. During the quick walk into the building, she cradled the camera like a Faberge egg. Once inside, she took the film out of the camera but her hands were shaking so badly again, she didn’t trust herself to develop it just yet.
She put the tube of exposed film on a counter and got a Tab from the cube refrigerator. Then she paced the length of the darkroom, thinking about what Pat would say when he saw these pictures. The Litany of Bad Thoughts reeled within her mind, as it did at the end of every event she’d ever photographed—Did she leave the lens cap on? Did she read the light meters incorrectly? Did she do something exceptionally stupid to ruin these once-in-a-lifetime photographs?
Two hours later, Sasha arrived at Pat’s office at KABC, the LA affiliate, with two thick envelopes marked Monroe Photography. Pat Michaelson, ex-photographer, afternoon news producer and Sasha’s year long boyfriend-in-residence, was in his usual manic rush to get the 12 o’clock news readable.
“You know I love to see you, hon,” said Pat, striding up the hallway toward her, “but it’s 11:30. What’s so important?”
Sasha held out the envelopes. Pat, his mind on the air crash over the Pacific earlier in the morning, couldn’t understand the flush on Sasha’s cheeks. And her eyes were so wide. Why the hell was she handing him a bunch of wedding pictures?
An unnatural stillness came over Pat as the first photo registered. His eyes met Sasha’s.
“My God, Tink, why didn’t you call me?”
She shrugged. “You know me. I couldn’t tell anybody till I actually knew they were okay. Then, when I saw them,” Sasha looked up at Pat, grinning, “I just had to see your face.”
Sasha’s pictures led the news that noon on Pat’s station. And an hour after they went out on the AP wires, the answering machine at Monroe Photography ran out of tape. Everybody wanted her—from LA This Morning to The Tonight Show. She spent the afternoon taping interviews for all the major local news shows and several of the national news programs.
Sitting in Pat’s cluttered office, drinking soda, Sasha said, “It’s only been a few hours and I feel boring already.”
“That’s because they’re asking you the same boring questions,” said Pat around a butter rum Life Saver.
“Think Johnny Carson will be any better,” asked Sasha, grimacing. “I don’t know why I said yes to The Tonight Show. Is it too late to cancel?”
“Tink, this is the fifteen minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised you,” said Pat. “If you don’t grab every second if it, I guarantee you’ll regret it later.”
Sasha’s lips compressed skeptically. “This is turning out to be a long fifteen minutes.”
The next morning, Sasha found a sticky note on the mirror in the bathroom. On it was written a large number with a dollar sign in front of it and a note that said, This is how much those pictures are worth. Meet you at Henderson’s Imports at 2:00. Love, P.
At 1:35, she climbed into the Citation, surveying the threadbare back of the passenger seat, the flannel-like material drooping from the ceiling, the speedometer stuck at zero.
Pat was waiting in front of the dealership when Sasha got there.
“Why am I doing this?” asked Sasha from behind the wheel.
Pat leaned against the door and kissed her temple. “Because this old wreck breaks down frequently, you’ve always wanted an MG and now, you can finally afford one. Three excellent reasons, my dear,” he said, opening the door.
She got out slowly and leaned against the back door, staring at the ground, her arms folded across her midriff.
Pat looked down at her. “It’s not desertion, you know.”
Sasha’s head snapped up. “How did you know I was thinking that?”
“That’s how you felt when I bought you those new Nikes,” said Pat. “I thought we’d have to hold a memorial service for the old pair.”
Sasha grinned sadly. “I can’t help it.”
“You like your Nikes?” asked Pat.
“Then you’re gonna love your TC.”
“Maybe,” Sasha said.
When she showed no signs of moving, Pat came to stand in front of her and took both her hands in his. “What else?” he asked.
He could see she was biting the inside of her lip with her eyeteeth. She looked up at him, her brow creased.
“I feel guilty, making all this money from all those people dying,” she said quietly.
“Oh, now,” said Pat, “you didn’t have anything to do with those people dying. Were you flying those planes? Huh?”
Sasha shook her head mutely.
“Did you pray they’d collide so you could garner all this notoriety?”
“No,” she said. “Stop asking stupid questions.”
“They’re not stupid questions,” said Pat. “You were in the right place at the right time. You kept your head, you acted like the professional you are. You captured a horrible event, before, during and after. And it may help the aviation authorities. Did you ever think of that?”
“Do you think so?” asked Sasha, curiosity and hope blending in her eyes.
“The FAA called the office this morning and asked for a complete set of prints,” said Pat.
“Really?” said Sasha. “You really think there’s a higher purpose to them than the satisfaction of people’s morbid curiosity?”
“Yes, I do,” said Pat gently.
Sasha watched a nearby traffic light go through its cycle, green to amber to red. Them she looked up at Pat.
“Let’s go buy a TC.”
Sasha arrived at the bride’s house the next afternoon in a flowered dress and a green MG. The father of the bride met her at the curb.
“You’re not going to charge me more, now that you’re a celebrity, are you?” he asked, running his finger along the inside of his tux shirt collar. He winked at her with a mixture of good humor and anxiety.
“No, Mr. Findley,” said Sasha. “But I do expect a double helping of wedding cake.” She hoped the smile she returned didn’t look as awkward as his.
The photographic day progressed as usual, with the preparation of the bride at home, the groom at the church and all the assorted ceremony shots. Sasha posed and reposed the various group pictures, trying to please everyone and still get harmonious results.
The reception was held at a small but posh hall in a local hotel. It, too, progressed uneventfully, until it came time to cut the cake.
Sasha gave instructions and stepped behind the camera on its tripod to record the groom feeding the bride. Then she walked back to the cake table to reposition the couple.
She stepped behind the camera again. As she closed her left eye, she caught a whiff of something burning. Slightly sweet but charring. She looked through the viewfinder and jerked her had back and up, to check the scene with her naked eye. Reflexively, she shot the movement of the couple with a hand-held shutter release.
The piece of white wedding cake, with pink ribbon icing and silver candy spheres, was held in a black, charred hand, skeletal in its form and movement. The brides’ dress and hair, radiant a moment earlier, were crinkled and smoking. The dress stuck in places to oozing flesh. Her face was like a chimney sweeps’ nightmare, ashes falling on the lace bodice. The groom was in much the same condition. When he opened his mouth to receive the cake, his charred chin dropped and, with an audible snap, the jawbone unhinged, leaving his mouth gaping. The bride lifted a black claw to touch the hanging bone.
Sasha lowered her head to the viewfinder once more, vaguely aware of a wave of laughter around her. Through the camera, she saw the bride, glowing and pink cheeked, wiping white frosting from her grinning groom’s chin.
Entering the apartment after midnight, Sasha found Pat asleep on the couch. Ives was serenely curled on Pats’ stomach, riding the motion created by the mans even breathing. Sasha knelt beside the sofa, stroking the cat’s cheeks. Pat grunted.
“Hey, Sleepy. Snow White’s home.”
Ives got up and stretched each back leg luxuriously, then jumped off and headed for the kitchen. Sasha folded her arms across Pats chest and laid her head on her hands.
Pat blinked and scratched his red heard. “S’matter?” he asked.
“You won’t believe what happened when they cut the cake.”
Sasha told him what she’d seen.
Pat pulled himself up, to rest his back against the arm of the sofa. He wasn’t quite awake. Sasha sat beside the couch, her legs stretched out before her, the light material of her dress floating around her knees.
“C’mon, Tink,” he said, patting the hand she rested on his thigh. “You’re just tired and stressed out. It’s been a long three days.”
“Is that how you explain this?” asked Sasha. “Tension related hallucinations? I smelled it.”
“You probably smelled something burning in the kitchen. You said you smelled it before you saw anything. Power of suggestion. See?” said Pat, rubbing his eyes again. “Let’s go to bed.”
Sasha was still on the floor, long after the sounds of Pat’s movement had subsided.
The next morning, Sasha arrived at Wyoming Park to photograph a family reunion. She was dressed in khaki shorts and a long-sleeved white blouse with the cuffs rolled to her elbows. Pat had French braided her blonde hair. She looked a sophisticated 19, not her actual 25.
She snapped candid shots for the first two hours. As much as wedding assignments appealed to her romantic side, reunions and parties gave her vicarious fun. Other photographers she knew said it made them feel like outsiders, looking through their lens into a three-ring circus they didn’t have tickets to.
When the initial two hours were over, Sasha enlisted the aid of Mrs. Ryan, the oldest daughter at the gathering. First, they arranged a group shot of everyone around an enormous redwood jungle gym. Kids and their parents sat, stood and hung on the huge apparatus. Then they took individual families, selecting different locations for each.
Sasha was looking forward to going home as the last family positioned themselves in the shade of an oak tree. Mrs. Ryan stood beside her, eating a hot dog, as she framed the shot.
“I’m so glad we decided to go with a professional photographer,” said Mrs. Ryan. “My husband, Al, wanted to do it but I him he’d miss out on all the fun.”
Sasha smiled and started to reply, when she smelled something burning. Hamburgers, please let it be hamburgers, she thought, as she turned toward the group beneath the tree.
The two older children, standing in front of the adults, were oozing yellow pus and their clothes clung to them. Behind them, the woman was holding a baby and the husband had his arm around her shoulders. All three had fused together, black and smoking. Even the grass around them was shriveled and the area was hazy with heat.
Sasha took a step back and bumped into Mrs. Ryan, whose hair was shrinking and curling into fine ringlets. Her skin was red, her arms and neck beginning to bubble and burst with little pops. She looked down at Mrs. Ryan’s hand, clamped on her arm, trying to hold her steady. Sasha’s light tan contrasted sharply with the cracking, secreting claw. Pulling away, she looked in horror at a glob of pus on her forearm.
“Oh, gee,” she heard Mrs. Ryan saying. “I’m sorry.”
Sasha couldn’t take her eyes off the spot until a pink, dishwater-wrinkled hand wiped away the bright yellow spot. She looked up into the concerned, blushing face of Mrs. Ryan.
“I’m really sorry, dear,” the woman said. “It’s just a little mustard.”
When Sasha got home that afternoon, she laid her camera bag gently by the door, nuzzled Ives and got a wine cooler from the refrigerator. Pat came in as she twisted off the cap and watched as she tilted the bottle up and drained a third of the peachy liquid.
“Thirsty?” he asked.
“I had another of your so-called stress induced hallucinations,” she said, setting the bottle on the counter. “A baby and its parents were all burned together, in a big black lump, you couldn’t tell one from the other and a woman dripped mustard on my arm.”
The dam burst then. Pat held her as she cried, the tension and horror of the past few days cascading down her cheeks and catching her breath in her throat.
The next morning, Sasha sat in a pink bathrobe at the kitchen table, jotting notes. Pat poured a cup of coffee, his tie hanging in twin tails, his collar open.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay while I’m gone Thursday night? I can beg off if you want me to.”
“I’m a big girl. I’ll be fine.” Sasha looked up from her notes, grinning wanly. “Carla’s going to come in to make albums and invoice for me, so I’m just going to take some slides today and kick back for the rest of the week.”
Pat wasn’t convinced but let it go.
Diversify, is what Sasha’s father used to tell her. Yeah, yeah, people will always get married but will you like taking their pictures doing it forever?
Although she hadn’t tired of weddings yet, she considered her father’s advice sound. For the last year, she’d been building a collection of stock slides to sell to magazines and ad agencies. She had boxes of slides with titles like gardens, vistas, ocean. That day, she was adding to the box marked animals.
She parked the MG near the entrance to the LA Zoo. There were only a few cars and a half dozen school buses. The sun was bright but a cool breeze negated the heat. Sasha slung her bag and camera over her shoulder and steeled herself to ignore all the people lining the entrance walk, asking for donations.
Once inside, it wasn’t hard to find solitary areas, where she could shoot in relative peace. The animals fascinated her and she took her time, enjoying their serenity.
Sometime after noon, she found herself at the fringe of the zoo, where the plants grew wilder and a chain link fence stood silent sentinel. It was a dead end, nothing but rocky slope beyond the fence. It felt a little eerie to Sasha, no sound but the whirr of small insects.
When she turned to go back, she caught a whiff of sickening sweet smoke. Sweat sprang out on her forehead and under her arms. She wanted to bolt but tried to stay calm. No one seemed to be nearby, so she told herself someone must be having a barbeque. Didn’t they have barbeque pits somewhere here? Oh, but they must be near the entrance. Oh, God.
Sasha turned so quickly, the camera bag fell off her shoulder, yanked her arm painfully and landed with a thud on the asphalt. Hysterically, she thanked her lucky stars that she’d kept the lens pocket zipped so that only tubes of film were scattering over the walkway.
A blackened, stiff hand picked up two containers that had rolled near his smoldering boots. Then the hand deposited them in the pocket that Sasha, with trembling fingers, was stuffing with a half dozen other canisters.
In her panic to get up, she overbalanced but caught herself on the fence. The gaze that met her saucer-like eyes was ageless and weary. It was a man in a dark green uniform that was torn in places and scorched in others. His hair was falling from his head in the gentle breeze, clumps of sooty, kinky strands that broke up silently and scatter at his feet. Black lids blinked over gray eyes and ashes fell from his cheeks.
“You should have saved your talent for the Earthbound.” His voice was tired but the timbre was strong and low. “You’ve used our pain. Destroy the pictures.”
He bent down slowly and reached so near to Sasha that she pressed against the fence, feeling its pattern hard against her back.
The man bobbed back up, another tube of film in his outstretched, tan hand. Sasha took it from him mechanically.
“Hope it doesn’t destroy the pictures. Those canisters are pretty heavy duty.” He smiled, his ruddy cheeks dimpling. “They should be okay.”
“Yes, thanks,” Sasha stammered, stumbling past the young man in the zoo uniform.
She walked the length of the zoo so rapidly, she was panting and soaked through by the time she reached the car. She threw her gear on the passenger seat and flicked the air conditioning to high. Laying her arms across the steering wheel, she rested her head on her forearms. She was trembling and thinking of what he’d said.
There were so many copies of the pictures in circulation by then, it was no use trying to destroy them all. But there was something she hoped would please these smoldering apparitions. Her heartbeat slowed little by little and her hands grew still. She turned down the air and fastened her seat belt.
Sasha pulled into a parking space near the studio just as Carla was leaving. She waited until Carla had walked around the corner of the block, then got out and locked the car.
Once inside, Sasha went directly to a small fireproof safe and opened the combination lock. She took out a white envelope marked “Crash negs” and took them over to the desk. She emptied a metal trash basket, candy wrappers and wadded typing paper skittering over the linoleum floor. She found a matchbook in the desk drawer.
Taking out the first long negative strip, she held it by a corner. Then she ripped a match from the book and lit it. She held the negative over the trash can and applied the flame to the lower edge. The negative began to ripple and melt, crackling a little as an orange flame erupted. Then it curled and turned black. After a few minutes, there were 6 small black, crusty lumps in the bottom of the can.
“You burned the negatives?” said Pat. He stood silently, looking out the living room window.
“I had to,” said Sasha. “It was the only way to make them stop. Don’t you understand?” Her voice was so childlike that Pat, struggling with demons of his own, went to her and held her.
That Thursday night, while Pat was away, Sasha was sitting on her balcony reading with Ives curled in her lap. Suddenly, she smelled burning meat and heard sizzling. She jumped up, sending the cat hissing to his feet. Looking to her left, she saw Mrs. Delaney, her next-door neighbor, come running out onto her balcony. She bent low into a cloud of smoke and came back up with a singed steak on a platter. She smiled sheepishly and called to Sasha, “I like my steaks well done, but this is ridiculous!”
Sasha laughed and went inside to give the inconvenienced Ives a dish of milk.
Pat was glad to get home the following night. He’d gotten back to the station in time that morning to supervise the last minute details for the noon show, then finished some paperwork and random chores. Coming home to Sasha was the best antidote to grown up life he could think of.
Sasha was glad to see him, too. She told him about the burning steak incident with a carefree laugh that put Pat’s mind at ease.
“Sounds like you’ve finally shaken this thing.”
“Yeah. I think burning the negatives satisfied that little gremlin that was mangling my psyche.”
“Of course, you know somebody could make negatives from a print.”
“Of course, I do,” said Sasha. “I’m a photographer, you geek. I know how these things work. But if somebody wants to do that, let ‘em. They’re more than welcome to deal with that misery.”
She cocked her eyebrows and announced she was hungry. “And it’s your night to cook, Mr. Patrick,” she said as she walked out of the room.
Pat quickly changed into jeans and a Shadowfax sweatshirt and strode into the kitchen. Sasha was reading at the table while he assembled a counter full of vegetables to prepare for dinner. The sounds of children playing in the alley below their window mingled with the scraping of the vegetable peeler.
Sasha looked up from her book. “Did I lend you my new copy of Photographic News?”
“Yeah, I took it to read on the plane. It’s in my briefcase.”
As she headed for the bedroom, she said, “You know, I’ve been thinking. Maybe I’ll trade the TC in for a Toyota.”
Pat stopped slicing and called, “Why?”
“Oh,” said Sasha, rummaging through Pat’s brown leather case, “I feel funny. I can’t be comfortable buying my dream car with this money.”
Pat shook his head silently.
Sasha found the magazine. When she took it out of the case, a white legal sized envelope fell on the floor, spilling its contents. She held the contents up to the light coming in through the bedroom window.
“Tink, I think you’re getting a little weird about this,” said Pat, as he wiped his hands on a striped dish towel.
He walked down the hallway to the bathroom and shut the door as he turned on the light. The light switch also controlled a very noisy fan in the ceiling. Two paces into the room, he heard Sasha’s scratch at the door. He turned back and shut off the light so he could hear.
“Did you make negatives from my pictures?”
The windowless room was swathed in shadow. The only light was a narrow strip beneath the door, broken by the outline of Sasha’s feet. Pat stared at the little crescents her sneakers made and said, “Yes.” The word echoed from the gray tinged tiles.
“Oh,” said Sasha, in a carefully casual tone.
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
This wasn’t the way he’d expected her to find out. Seeing her so relaxed again, he’d intended to tell her after dinner. But finding them tucked in his briefcase like that… Damn.
He turned the light back on and started across the floor. As the fan clattered to life, it pulled in the aroma of Mrs. Delaney’s barbeque.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the sink and jerked his head around to dispel what he’d thought to be a distorted image. Grasping the cool tiles at the edge of the sink, he drew himself closer to the mirror. He inhaled raggedly and released the breath in a strangling moan.
Red rimmed eyes beheld his mirror mate. His beard was curling and smoking, as was his hair. His cheeks and forehead were red and erupting. Look away, he thought. It’s been a rough week for you, too.
He turned from the mirror too quickly and caught himself on a towel bar. The hands that clung to the smooth blonde wood were black. Chunks of charred flesh from his fingers were falling silently to the linoleum.
Pat held his hands out in front of himself, unbelieving, not wanting to acknowledge the cuffs of his shirt, smoldering and ragged. He turned to the mirror again, where calm blue eyes gazed back at him.
He saw the cracked, swollen lips of the image begin to move, yet he knew his own mouth was still.
“She photographed in innocence,” said the image, in a voice low and quiet. “You’ve recreated the pictures to feed your ego and your greed. We hope this satisfies you, Earthbound.”
Pat could see the lips of the image continue to move in writhing, miserable motion. Realizing the image was truly himself again, growing dry and black and sooty, he slipped down to the floor and leaned against the cabinet.
Sasha came back to the bathroom door and listened. She thought she could hear sounds under the noise of the fan. She knocked but when Pat didn’t answer, she opened the door.
Pat was still leaning against the sink cabinet, pale and muttering and holding his hands out in front of himself. She knelt beside him and a shiver ran through her when his ramblings became coherent.
“My hands are falling to pieces. Black pieces all over the floor.”
Sasha sprang up and bolted from the room. Seconds later she came back with the white envelope and a box of matches. Not bothering to remove the negatives, she lit the end of the envelope and threw it in the sink.
“See. It’ll be okay in a minute.” She waited as the flame devoured the paper and the negative, crackling and sputtering, until there was nothing but a mass of sticky lumps and ashes.
She knelt beside Pat, who was slack and silent.
“It’s okay now, hon. They’re gone.”
She stroked his pale, sweat beaded forehead but snatched her hand back at the feel of it. When she looked down at her fingers, they were covered with ash.
Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash