A Few Old Horror Stories

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!

Vanity

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.

            The Sahara.

            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.

            Lucky flash.

            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.

           “Twelve dollars.”

           “What?”

           “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.”

           “Really?”

           “Really.”

           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.

           Sahara.

           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.

           Sasha nodded.

           “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.

            “Miss?”

            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