Story by Shawn Cunningham
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
I got a CyberShot for Christmas from my aging Aunt Margery because she thought it sounded professional, but it’s anything but. In fact, it’s a wonderfully bad camera that it’s kind of funny how terrible the photographs are. Which is great for parties. A “Look at this crap!” type of thing. Good for a laugh, good as a paperweight, but horrific for a professional. And for an up and coming professional like me, it’s a death sentence. Yes, I could get a better camera, but I need rent money, food money, cab money, subway money, and, above all, camera money. So that’s why I’m here, driving this lunatic around for some extra cash.
The engine squeals like a butchered hog when I accelerate, whines like a two-year-old when I gently tap the break, and the radio gives me static whatever station it’s on. That last part is easy to deal with, just turn off the radio. Ignoring the rustic engine pumping away like an iron lung is also pretty easy, considering my ears are filled with tornado wind shooting out of the air vents. The air isn’t even soothing; it’s either blistering cold air or Satan’s hot breath. And trust me, I tried turning the air off, but this car heats up like an oven on overdrive.
So, I’m stuck with blistering cold air going off like a blizzard in my ears, which wouldn’t be so bad if my ears weren’t also ringing with that crazy dude’s laughter.
He said was an only 30, eight years older than me, but he already had a Budweiser gut and a face full of wrinkles and scars. Guess he lost the genetic lottery. When I got this job, he looked me dead in the eye. His eyes were rosy red, completely bloodshot, and staring me down he told me in this husky smoker’s voice how, “It’s easy money, kid, just go where he says and try to obey the traffic laws.”
Oh, I went off like a rocket. “Okay, two questions: One, if it’s so easy why don’t you do it? And two: what do you mean when you say ‘try’ to obey traffic laws?”
“Slow down,” he told me, sucking on his cigar long enough to make me realize that for somehow, he had drawn a blue vein on the side of it, so it looked like there was a dick in his mouth. “Both those questions have the same answer,” he said, blowing smoke out his nostrils that covered the top half of his face like a Phantom of the Opera mask.
“Which is?” I said slowly, tilting my head like there was a weight strung through my earlobe.
He gave a big toothy grin. His teeth were piss-yellow and his skunk breath rolled out his mouth and came crashing down my way. “He’s blind and basically deaf,” he answered just as slowly.
I raised my eyebrows. “Basically deaf?”
“Basically,” he laughed, thin and wispy, wisps of smoke puffing out his mouth, and that laughter stayed with me.
It’s still ringing in my ears as I drive Mr. Rockwell around and, yes, the man is completely blind and basically deaf. When I met him he just took my license, held it in a tight veiny grip, and said, “You got the job,” and then I showed up at his apartment where he was already waiting outside with a potato sack thrown over his shoulder and car keys in his hands. How he has a car, I don’t know and honestly, don’t care.
“It’s easy money, kid.”
Mr. Gordon Rockwell is a strange man. He’s got to be pushing seventy, but I’m not completely sure, I didn’t ask. With a small body and a large head with a pointed nose, Mr. Rockwell is more like a hummingbird than a man. His sweater is baby blue, like a sweet summer sky, but it’s ruffled, and the strings are tearing from the steams, popped like broken guitar strings and as loose as wispy hair.
Speaking of hair, Mr. Rockwell has none to speak of. He’s got a beach ball head which is half deflated. With no chin to speak of, his sullen mouth has sunken down into a perpetual frown. His eyes, on the other hand, are wide and watchful. That part of the ball still has air, which is a sad fact indeed. A man of contradictions, those dinner plate eyes of his are utterly useless, glazed over gray and colorless. His nose, crooked as though glued on the wrong way, is a hound’s snout with giant nostrils that flare open and spout hot air like geysers.
Right now, Mr. Rockwell is sitting in the back of the car, shivering with the engine as his frail shivering hands hold onto his knees. The seatbelt seems stronger than him. His knees nearly touch his shoulders. Earlier, I had seen early how his jeans are cut just above the ankles, which are swelling with gout. It’s one of the reasons I feel sorry for the old guy. The other reason is whenever he speaks, he doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
“Faster! Faster! Turn left! Hey, can you go on the sidewalk and do a loop de loop and crash into that guy and get back on track? Yes? Okay! Now take that right. Faster! Faster! Turn into that parking lot.”
“That’s not a parking lot, Mr. Rockwell, that’s a building. And I didn’t hit anyone.”
“I could have sworn the parking lot was here.”
“It’s up the street.”
“Screw that. Turn around and park on the side street. What are you doing?”
“Heavens forbid. Wait, why?”
“The spots are full back there.”
“Oh, jolly good job, son. Wonderful. We’ll walk to our destination. Jogging never killed a man.”
“Where are we going?”
“No idea. But, as they say, wind in the ears keeps the mind sharp.”
He has a sharp tongue and a way with words, but a connection or two must be rusted away. God, I don’t want to grow old. I know not everyone who grows old will end up with Alzheimer’s or dementia where your brain starts rotting away, crumbling like an apple left too long on the counter, but the possibility of that scares me more than lung cancer or even falling off the earth and into the cosmos. Hell, falling off into the cosmos would be a dream. Even if you don’t see the stars and swirling galaxies around you, at least you know you’ll eventually hit the bottom, dead in an instant, or the wind with rip you to shreds or you’ll freeze and your brain will continuing flickering until you’re snuffed out like a candle. All of that is better than not knowing when you’ll die and as you slowly lose yourself, time eating you away as you turn into living dust. Granted, and I can’t say this enough, fuck dying.
Now I feel like shit.
Just keep your eyes open and listen to him. Okay, he’s scrambling, hands searching for that potato sack like a fish floundering for air.
“It’s a little to your left, Mr. Rockwell.”
“Shhh,” he goes, and it takes him another ten seconds to grab ahold of that sack. God, he must be screwing with me. Okay, he’s got it. What’s in there? It seems mostly empty. He’s digging inside, he’s got something, and… Oh my God.
In his frail hands he’s clutching a 5D Mark 4, the best DSLR out there. He’s must not have completely lost his mind. Maybe he’s just eccentric, one of those aging artists whose early cocaine days hasn’t caught up to them yet.
I stare at the DRLS as he strings it around his neck.
“Let’s go,” he says, his voice thin and raspy, and he steps backward before turning around and speeding off like a bullet. For someone with ancient bones, he’s got the grace of a ballet dancer.
“Wait up!” I say, dashing after him.
I’m out of breath as I stumble up to him. “What’re we doing?”
Mr. Rockwell isn’t looking at me. Hands on his hips, he’s staring down at the silver streets.
“Sir?” I ask, but Mr. Rockwell picks his head up and he’s off again, zipping down the street with feet going so fast they look like a blur.
I’m rushing after him, but I’m lagging. Cars speed by. All around me is beeps and booms as I take leaps and bounds after him until, suddenly, Mr. Rockwell stops in front of an alley. He doesn’t even slow down, one second he’s running and the next he’s still as a tree. The bottoms of my feet are as sore as my wrists after I met that girl last night.
Mr. Rockwell grabs the DSLR and holds it up. My eyes follow the lens to the ground. A click, no flash, but he’s off again in a flash. What did he even take a picture of?
No time to think of that. Mr. Rockwell’s a human motorcycle speeding down that alley as fast as any car. My heart is racing and I’m struggling to keep up.
“Sir?” I ask, finally catching up to my breath when he stops in front of a trashcan, but my throat closes and I feel my lunch shoot up my throat, burning the back of my mouth.
Heaving, my lunch keeps rises again like a tidal wave. I hold my nose and have to keep swallowing, watching as Mr. Rockwell’s eyes go wide and he snaps a picture of that overfilled trashcan.
My eyebrows rise. Mr. Rockwell turns and shuffles out of the alley. For as fast as he was going before, now he’s going just as slow.
Out of the alley, my head is spinning. “Why did you run to take a picture of that?”
“Look,” he says, shoving the DSLR over in my direction. It’s still strung around his neck.
“I’m, can you take it off?”
“Just look at it, kid.”
“It would be easier-”
“Stop wasting time, kid, I’m old.”
I glance over, my head inches from his sweater, and see the picture. Unremarkable. It’s too dark and the trashcan is barely in the frame. Hell, I can make out the dozen fat flies buzzing better than the trashcan.
“It’s great,” I mutter.
He’s unconvinced, but at least he’s taking the DSLR off his neck. He shoves it right in front of him, away from me, and when I go in at an angle to grab it, he jumps.
“Whoa. I’m right here.”
“Stand with your back in front of me.”
“Okay?” I say, turning so he’s directly in behind me. My eyes go wide as he slaps his hands on my temples, his wet palms on my ears, his frigid fingers snaking to my forehead.
He mutters something.
He lifts his palms and there’s a wet pop in my ears. “Close your eyes and look down,” he says.
“Mr. Rockwell, this isn’t-”
“Close your eyes. Look down.”
Skin crawling, I do as he says. The light hits my eyelids and there are white splotches near the center, hovering around the line like a heavenly sunset.
Lifting his palms from my ears, he asks, “Did you see?”
Opening my eyes, I can see now that the picture is much worse than I originally thought. “My eyes were closed,” I say.
He takes his hands off my head and grabs the DSLR right out of my hands. “Let’s go,” he says, stringing it around his neck again as he marches forth, eyes narrowed.
I have to jog to stay beside him.
“So, you sell these photos?” I ask, trying to be friendly.
Mr. Rockwell keeps his head down, pointed towards his shoes. “Why would I do that?” he grumbles.
“To make money,” I mutter. What does he do with the photos? Glancing down, I realize he’s wearing slippers. Do they help with his gout infected ankles?
“I have money.”
“From where?” I ask, hitting straight into a pole. My eyes flutter, the veins pulse against the thin skin of my forehead, and I stumble backward
“Cans,” he says, picking up speed.
Jesus, he must have heard me hit the thing or at least stumble back. He’s nearing the end of the street. “You make cans?” I loudly ask so he can hear me.
“No,” he doesn’t even bother looking back at me. “I set them out.”
Running up beside him, head throbbing, I wonder what he’s talking about. He makes money through cans he sets out beside the road. Like a homeless person? “Is that a joke?” I wonder, rubbing my forehead.
He halts. “My money comes from films I’ve worked on. They’re called residuals,” he rushes out.
I skid to a stop and end up a few paces in front of him. “What type of films?” I ask.
He runs up so he’s a little ahead of me. “TV movies,” he grunts.
“Really? You know I’m working to be a cinematographer.”
“I don’t care,” he says and starts back up again.
Jogging up beside him, I spit out the side of my mouth, “So what type of movies you work on? Anything I’d recognize?”
“I worked on more than one film. Stop and watch,” he stops and picks up the DSLR from his neck. As sunlight sprinkles above, I can get a good look at the camera around his neck. The string is tar-black, but the camera is silver and glitters like it. Oh, how does someone like him get his sweaty palms on that?
That’s a selfish thought, but just look at what he’s doing with it. As soon as a car speeds by, tires whizzing, he brings the camera up to his face and snaps a picture of the empty road. On second thought, that could be a great picture.
“Symbolic,” escapes my lips.
“No, it’s real,” he says, turning to face me.
Under the sun, the wrinkles and creases in his face shine. He’s pale as a ghost and he shines in the same way the camera does.
“Post-modern,” I explain.
He shakes his head. “I’m not sexually active.”
“What?” Briefly, I wonder how someone could think post-modern is something sexual, but my brain arrives at an answer that twists my stomach. “No,” I say, “it’s real. A snippet of reality.”
His gray glazed over eyes stare me directly in the face, and for a moment I swear he can see into me. “You’re a smart boy,” and gently he smiles.
It’s a kind smile, a friendly one. He might be a tad eccentric for my liking, but he’s got a few things I like. A good smile, friendly eyes, and a no-nonsense who-cares-if-I-don’t-personality. Plus, he has a pretty great camera.
Maybe he’ll let me snap a picture. Don’t ask straight out. Learn about him. No, that hasn’t been working. Talk about yourself. Get personal. “Thank you,” I say, “It’s why I take photos.”
“You’re a driver,” he says, oblivious to the fact I told him I worked as a cinematographer.
Don’t get your ego involved. “Yes,” I reply, “but I’m trying to get my own camera. I want to show people what I see.”
He tilts his head. “What do you see?”
I shrug. “The same thing they see, but through my eyes. It’s all about perspective. It’s all about what’s around us, but we all see it differently.”
“A world in your eyes,” he says, nodding.
I smile. “Yes. So, um, how long have you been doing this?” I ask, pointing to his camera.
He doesn’t say anything. Jesus, you’re an idiot. He’s blind, he doesn’t know-
“Long time,” he finally says, “Since my wife died.”
His words are cold, and monotone like he’s reading from a phonebook. That lack of emotion, that’s what kills me.
“I’m so sorry.”
“She gave me the camera.”
“Oh.” My face falls. Jesus, what have I been doing? Trying to get a camera from a blind man? “I’m sorry,” I say because I don’t want to say how fucked up I am.
“You already said that,” he observes.
His gray eyes flicker across my face, like fireworks rising upwards, like a wave rising before it consumes me. “I don’t know what to say.”
“My wife wanted me to take pictures so I could create a world,” he says.
I nod. “A world in the eyes of the camera,” I mutter. What was I saying before? Oh, God, how I’ve hurt this man.
“Yes,” he says, and his voice quivers.
He reaches around his neck and takes off the strap. Just throw it away. I don’t want to see that camera anymore.
“Try them,” he shoves the DSLR in front of me, “Try my eyes.”
“Your eyes?” I ask, looking from the DSLR to his quivering face.
“Take the camera,” he tells me.
He’s reaching out, trying to hand me something his wife gave him before her passing.
I don’t want to take it, but do I have a choice? Sure, I do, but why would I spit in this man’s face?
You wanted it, Clayton, so take it.
“Thank you,” I say, taking it from his hands. “Really, I’ve always wanted one,” I say, holding it close, holding it like it’s this man’s own heart.
“It’s one of a kind, she told me.”
I don’t bother correcting him. I just put the strap around my neck and take a breath.
“Let’s go,” he says, just like before, but now it feels different.
Down the street and into the park we go. Mr. Rockwell stays beside me, shuffling along, and I take slow deliberate steps down the sparkling pathway. A lake is beside us, the water rushing, great ripples spreading outwards, running towards us but never leaving the stream.
As we walk along the cobblestone path beside the lake, I turn from side to side and get two quick snapshots.
A shot of bright blue stars blooming and festive pink azaleas blossoming to our right, their flowers gazing at us as bees buzz about, their tiny wings fluttering quickly.
A shot of pale purple giant hyssops standing in a group on our left, crowding against the pathway as they point towards the glowing sun and bathed in its light.
Before I can take a snapshot of the lake, Mr. Rockwell stops and stands right in front of me. “Let me see,” he coos.
With the DSLR in my hands like a newborn child, its long black around hugging the back of my neck, I carefully lift it above my neck before Mr. Rockwell rips the DSLR away from my grasp, the strap nearly taking my neck with it.
He clicks through the photos, his gray eyes fluttering around like the bees beside us. “It’s not real,” he says solemnly.
His words shrink me to the size of a worm, and then I feel ridiculous, a clown in makeup who showed up to a toga party. A blind man doesn’t like my photos, and I’m taking his criticism seriously.
“Try again,” he says, jutting the DSLR into my stomach.
Reaching down, I take the DSLR and put the strap back around my neck. My neck is sore, but my ego is bruised. He might just be a blind old man, but I’ve grown fond of him. What the hell? His photos aren’t anything to boast over. And look at these.
Clicking through the photos, I see blue stars blooming and azaleas blossoming, hyssops clustered under the sun right beside, right beside…
Quickly, I glance over to the side. Mr. Rockwell has walked a little bit ahead, shuffling. Was he just…hovering beside me?
I look back down, but still, I feel it. Looking at that photo, and only when I look at that photo, it feels as though someone is standing beside me, their hot breath against the side of my neck. My brain is sounding off like a fire alarm and, out of breath, my jaw drops but a shocked, “Whoa,” comes out.
Mr. Rockwell turns around and marches right up in front of me, his gray eyes focusing directly on my face as all the color drains. “You see my wife?” he asks.
“I think,” I stammer, but then it just rolls out, “I thought I saw a woman with black hair.”
Wait, did he just ask if I saw his wife? Why would I-?
His wife gave him this camera.
My eyes narrow. “Why would I see your wife?” I ask.
Mr. Rockwell shrugs. “She died crossing the street. The doctor had to pry that camera from her cold dead hands,” he says blankly, quickly.
It takes a moment before I process the whole thing.
It’s enough time for him to add, “The last photo she took was of herself.”
“What?” I snap. My skin shivers like maggots are covering me. “You want the camera?” I ask, shoving it towards him.
Stepping back, Mr. Rockwell points to the lake beside us. “Step onto the grass and take a picture of that water,” he says.
“Uhh, uhh, you can do it,” I say, “I didn’t-”
“The water,” he snaps, “Now.”
Shaking, the DSLR in my hands, I swallow and step onto the soft grass.
“And make sure you see,” he whispers, and the wind carries that whisper down the length of my spine.
Rapidly, frantically, I hold the camera up against my chest, not even bothering checking to see if it’s in focus and snap a shot of the water blue.
Spinning around, I go right up to Mr. Rockwell and push the camera against his chest.
I might as well have tried to hand it to a tree. For a frail old man in a red sweater, he’s surprisingly sturdy and hard.
“You see?” he asks.
Taking a breath, I glance down. I can barely look at the picture through. I clench up and shut my eyes as the camera snaps a photo.
When I open my eyes, Mr. Rockwell isn’t there. Instead, there’s something unmistakable.
It’s the night’s shadowed cloak, jet black and thick as fog. It rests upon my face, crawling to the back my neck and racing up and down my spine as it wraps me up in a cold blanket. The only reason I know my eyes are still there is that I can feel myself blink.
Like my eyes, my ears are muted. I only know they are still there because I can grab them and feel them beneath my fingers. God, my fingers are so cold. My heart pounds like a drummer on speed.
Sharp pointed fangs, wet drooling mouths, knife-like claws primed and ready to tear me in half, it could be any of those things and so much more and they could be miles away from me or slowly approaching, coming to rest right in front of my face. Or they could be right next to me, hiding in the darkness.
My mouth is dry. I swallow and it feels like rocks are sliding down my throat, tearing at the soft wet insides. Grabbing at my chest, as though I could reach inside and hold my heart still, I start breathing quicker and quicker, trying to get a breath in, trying to tell myself that it’s okay, it’s okay, you’re gonna be alright.
Guess this is what it feels like to be a rabbit in a snare.
I should run.
Silence deafens my thoughts.
My head is heavy, my mind numb.
I close my eyes, and the darkness comes close and kisses my skin.
A wafting cool chill, like an icecap, rises my arms. My eyes come open as goosebumps shoot towards the vacant starless sky.
In front of me is darkness. Reaching out, I go to touch it, to show myself that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Below the elbow, my arm disappears.
Pulling back, I jump back. Turning my head to the side, there is the same darkness resting against my face. Did I really turn to the side, or am I going crazy? My head falls, and I see grass below me.
I am standing on grass, soft and luscious green. Spinning around, I look and see life-size pictures in the darkness.
Darkness is in the distance, darkness is above, darkness is below, but off to the side are two flowerbeds. On the right are blooming bright blue stars and blossoming festive pink azaleas fluttering in the darkness, touched by a wind that doesn’t and never reaches me. There are bees, silent as smoke, lofting above their heads.
To the left, pale purple giant hyssops stand in a grouping, clustered amongst each other, painted with a sparkling light that comes from nowhere.
The flowerbeds, they are life-size. They are the images, the exact images I took just a few minutes before, but everything else, the pathway, the sky, everything before and everything between is simple darkness.
Where is the lake?
Slowly, I turn around, and my eyes fill with its ocean sparkle. Across the shimmering water, faceless figures in the distance rustle amongst themselves. Above, there is no darkness but a sparkling sapphire sky.
Across the water, ripples reach towards me. Bubbles from the deep rise to the top and, with them, a woman rises too. She has black hair strung over her shoulders and a small curved smile. I reach a flat hand out, and her hand presses against mine.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“Yes, it is,” she says, stepping onto the grass beside me. She looks to the sky and smiles towards the sun.
I too look towards the sun. There is no glare and my eyes fill with its yellow light.
“You should be proud of your picture,” she says.
It’s not that I haven’t figured it out yet; it’s that I just have to say it to make sure. “You’re Mrs. Rockwell,” I say.
“Yes,” she answers. Her eyes, blue as the lake, staring straight through me. “I do wish you took more pictures,” she says.
“Is that what Mr. Rockwell’s been doing?”
“He’s been building a world, but he’s blind and gets lost easily. He’s trapped in his own darkness while he brings light to mine.”
I nod. “I could help you,” I say, “If I could get out of here.”
She laughs and brushes past me. “Those flowers are pretty,” she says, “But I wish you took a picture of something more practical. The path, for instance, or a trashcan.”
“Your husband did, but it was further down the street.”
“Ah, slowly but surely,” she coos, “But we’ll get used to it.”
My eyes narrow. “Huh?”
“Don’t you get it? We’re stuck here. Forever.”
“What the hell is up with that camera?” I sputter out.
“I find your questions pointless,” she says, and she brushes past me again and sits on the lakeside.
“How do we get out?”
She hugs her knees and hums a tune.
“Please, help me get out of here.”
“Once the camera takes a photo of you, you’re stuck here,” she says, and she starts whistling.
“No,” I say, defiantly. Across from me, there’s people, but they’re out of focus like a bad camera shot. If this was real life, this must be real life, but if this was real life, I could make them out better.
We’re in the camera.
I turn around, and darkness faces me.
There has to be a way out.
I am cold.
I reach out, and my arm freezes.
Has she ever jumped?
In front of me: Darkness.
It’s a void.
You must be crazy to jump.
I jump and become a stardust atom lofting in the void.
The color drains from a face. Eyes look at the camera and they see a picture of a face that looks like their own, but it’s only a version of myself.
“What do you see?” Mr. Rockwell says.
The eyes look at Mr. Rockwell. A voice says, “I see a world in the camera,” and then that version starts taking pictures of everything in sight.
— ♦♦♦ —
Read the exciting conclusion of the 3 part fantasy mystery. The Card Ace and Detective Thompson finally uncover the truth, but is the price too high?