“Visible Image” by Joseph Devon

 

TWA 58 JOE-01

Henry stepped back as the acetylene torch cut through the last of the steel door. It dropped with a loud thump to the ground, and then slowly fell forward and landed with a clang and rattle that shook dust off the walls. Henry stepped forward and stood on top of the door and looked into the newly opened room.

He had drilled through the door first and used an optic lens to look inside, so he knew what to expect, but it still was baffling. A steel room with walls two inches thick, the entire thing lined with lead, and inside of it were a few scattered household items. Why such an enormous room had been built to house next to nothing, he couldn’t figure out. It didn’t’ make much sense, but then as a salvager he didn’t need it to make sense. He just needed it to be valuable. Let people lock up their valuables in whatever strange-ass way they wanted. Mrs….he stopped mid-thought, realizing that he couldn’t remember the name of the woman who had lived here.

She had gone missing, though, and her husband had passed soon after and Henry had dealt only with their lawyers. The whole thing was suspicious, there was a bad vibe about the house in the neighborhood, but that just made it a better deal for Henry. The husband could be Hitler and the woman could have decided to lock her valuables in an underwater cave for all he cared.

He stepped inside and squinted at the walls. The afternoon had worn on and the basement windows weren’t letting in as much light anymore. He went into his toolbox and pulled out a flashlight, then turned back to the room. “Don’t touch,” was painted sloppily on every wall. A paint can and brush were sitting on the floor, the paint long since hardened down to almost nothing in the can.

“What the fuck,” Henry said. He looked at every wall in turn again, each one reading, “Don’t touch,” at least once.

“Fucking people,” he muttered. What was so valuable that was in here? There was the paint can, and on the floor were a slew of Polaroid pictures. He shined the flashlight into the corner and saw a camera, most likely the one that had taken the ten or twenty pictures that were on the floor.

He stood, calmly, and spun in a slow circle, looking at every inch of the wall up and down, then the ceiling, then the floor. There was nothing else. It was a massive steel secure room that had been built to hold three pieces of garbage.

“God dammit,” he swore, angry at having spent the afternoon down here. He could have gotten more value out of the marble fireplace for the afternoon. He glanced around at the crap on the ground once more, then sighed and went outside to get a cardboard box. Returning to the room he nudged the paint can with his toe, shook his head, then picked up the pictures and camera, threw them in the box, and walked outside.

He walked back to his car and tossed the cardboard box onto the passenger seat and then sat down behind the wheel. It was late, his crew wasn’t arriving until tomorrow. He was deflated from the let-down of the empty room and he wasn’t going to get much work done for the rest of the day. He stretched his neck up and glanced at the cardboard box next to him, then decided to head back to the motel where there was at least decent light and take a better look at what he had found.

—–

Entering his motel room, Henry looked around for a place to put the cardboard box with the camera and photos as he juggled the room key. He kicked the door shut behind him and dropped the box on a small table with peeling plastic lining. There was a pop and a burst of light and a whir and Henry looked down at the box of junk as if it was mocking him.

“The god damn thing still works?” he asked no one. Then suddenly the stress of getting enough equipment together and into the house so he could open the secrured room before any of his crew learned about it got to him and he just wanted a hot shower. He stripped down and wandered into the bathroom and as the hot water ran over him he wondered if there was still any film in the camera. Then he wondered if there was any film for that camera anywhere in the world. He leaned against the shower wall and closed his eyes and let the water wash the day away. Then he collected his thoughts and stepped back into the room.

He sat down on the edge of the bed in his towel and looked at the cardboard box with chagrin. Reaching an arm out he snagged the edge of the box with his fingers and pulled it towards him. He reached the other hand inside and gathered the pictures scattered along the bottom. On top of the stack was one of Mrs. Holliday, the wife who had gone missing. He recognized her face from newspaper stories he had read while researching this purchase. She had disappeared and then her husband had died and then he had arrived to pick over their house.

The picture on top of the stack was taken through a doorway. Mrs. Holliday sat at a kitchen table. The light source was a lamp above her head and the doorway was the only thing illuminated leaving two dark bars on either side of the photo. She appeared to be talking to someone to her left.

Henry flipped to the next picture. He winced immediately. It was a shot lit up with an ugly flash showing white sheets on the Holliday’s bed. Mrs. Holliday’s elderly ass was showing, the sheets rumpled around her as she slept, the flash of light leaving an empty dark circle on the perimeter of the photo.

Henry flipped photos again. He shook his head and stared at the next one. This one had been taken through a window. The outside wall made a perfect frame of the bright lights inside. She was sitting in a living room. Henry recognized the fixtures from their house. This room was just off of the kitchen from the earlier photo, though the darkness at the edges hid all of that. Mrs. Holliday was sitting with her feet under her, glasses on, reading a book on their dusty old claw-footed couch. The fabric looked uncomfortable and her glasses made her look even older, but there was something homey about the room and Henry shivered imagining himself outside looking in.

He flipped to the next picture and paused, confused about what he was seeing. Then he glared at the picture like it had insulted him and shook his head. It was a photo of the motel room he was sitting in. Apparently the camera still had film in it and it had taken a picture when it went off earlier. Henry tossed the pictures back into the box, suddenly annoyed at himself for bothering with all of this. He had a house to gut, and an early start on his actual job tomorrow seemed like a better idea than chasing the weird hobbies of some woman he never knew.

He lay back in bed, watched some TV, then turned everything off and drifted into a light sleep.

There was a lightning storm and confusing as he lay there, his dreams interrupted by odd noises and once or twice he woke up, thinking it was daylight, only to find the room was pitch black.

When he did finally get out of bed, he was grumpy, felt unrested, and wanted someone to yell at. He grabbed the cardboard box off of the table on the way out the door and threw it into his car, then stomped on the gas pedal and drove to the Holliday’s house, hoping to find his crew waiting for him. He took a turn fast, the cardboard box sliding across the cheap vinyl seats of the rental car to land, with a thump, against the far door. There was a flash and a whir and he swore for no good reason as the broken camera took another picture

There was no one waiting at the Holliday’s house. Henry parked out front and looked up at the walkway that rose through a row of hedges to their front porch.

He looked up and down the street, but didn’t see any sign of his crew. Instead there was a looming black cloud-front coming in. He idly glanced over at the box in the passenger seat, then reached inside and pulled out a stack of photos.

He looked at the first one on the stack and swore, annoyed. It was the picture that had been taken last night in his motel room. Not exactly the distraction to his day he was looking for. He looked at the photo again, and his head tilted, his face confused as he struggled to find the familiar shapes he had seen last night.

It wasn’t the same picture, but it was of the motel room. Instead of a skewed picture of the motel room with all the lights on, the picture was taken in the dark with the camera flash struggling to illuminate things. And instead of being angled towards the bathroom door, the photo was focused on the bed, the sheets rumpled over his sleeping form.

The camera had gone off last night, it’s stupid broken mechanisms triggering and shooting flashbulbs off in the dark. No wonder he felt like he had had crazy dreams.

He slumped into the seat of his car and stared out the windshield, trying to get his brain back on track and into the real estate game. He startled where he sat when the camera popped and whirred and the flash illuminated the dashboard in front of him.

He looked down as the camera developed this last photo. He hadn’t even realized he was wearing the stupid thing by its strap around his neck. The picture came out, rolling through the slot, and he picked it up and stared at it as it came into focus. He strained his eyes, trying to pick out the dashboard or the steering wheel or the windshield as the shapes formed on the dark background.

His brain stayed puzzled as the image that came to light was that of a neighborhood, like it had been taken from a few stories up from the center of the street. Ancient trees shaded the cracked and wobbly sidewalk and old homes sat back in their lawns.

Henry spotted the Holliday’s house a few doors down from where the picture was taken. He scrunched his eyes tight, then held the picture up in better light and examined it again. That was the Hollidays’ house that was certain. But the camera would have had to be floating a hundred yards behind him to take that picture.

He turned in his seat, slowly, and looked out the rear window at an empty sky framed by branches of trees.

Then he hopped out of the car and ran up the path, taking the steps a few at a time, and stopped on the Holliday’s porch. He looked down the street from this elevated point and struggled to see something, anything, against the black clouds rolling in.

Henry turned his wrist and stared down at the picture again. He walked across the porch and looked down into the street at his rented car. Then he looked at the picture again.

It looked like his car was parked in front of the house in the picture.

He shook his head and cleared it. That was impossible. The camera was spitting out old pictures that it still had stuck inside of it. I mean, sure, they were similar cars. But it’s not like he was driving a bright purple double-decker bus that was shooting off fireworks. There were probably a dozen cars that looked just like the model he was driving. It was most likely that—

The camera around his neck went off, the flash popping and the motor whirring and Henry screamed out loud. The camera spat out the new photo and Henry ripped it from the rollers and shook it like crazy, checking every few seconds to see if it was developed enough. He squinted at the picture until he recognized the walkway leading through the overgrown hedge up to the Holliday’s house. As the picture cleared, he saw himself standing on the front porch, his side to the camera, as he strained to look down the street.

His head snapped up and he stared at the path. It was empty. His car was still sitting there by the curb at the end of it. There was some neighborhood noise, cars driving, a dog barking somewhere houses away, but right in front of him there was nothing.

He stepped off the porch and walked down the path. When he got to where he was standing between the overgrown hedges he panicked and ran the rest of the way to the car. He threw the camera into the passenger seat and revved the engine to life and drove off.

He stopped as he pulled into his motel parking lot. The camera had taken pictures of his room, he remembered with an unsettled feeling in his stomach. He gripped the steering wheel hard in his hands and forced himself to calm down.

He wasn’t going to be chased around by a fucking camera. He needed to regroup here and take the thing into a shop and have it dismantled and examined and figure out what was going on. He would head into his room, gather his stuff, check out, cancel the house job, and call some friends in electronics.

His hand was on the door handle when the camera, dangling from his neck, popped and whirred. He froze where he was, his shaking hand falling away from the door. Slowly he reached up and took the camera strap off of his neck. He set the camera down in the passenger seat, deliberately, with calm and clear motions, stating to the world that the camera was now over there. Then he looked at the new picture as it developed.

There were the dingy-white curtains of his motel room window. The picture was framed by them, dusty and sagging, looking out the window at the parking lot, asphalt slicked black in the light rain. His car was parked, askew across two spots, down below. He looked closer at the picture and saw himself, grainy and small, sitting in the driver’s seat.

He turned the keys in the ignition and the car barked at him as the engine was already running. He was rattled, gears grinding inside his brain, and he backed out of the parking lot without looking behind him. He threw the car into drive and randomly started taking turns and roads, the rain on the windshield gathering heavier and heavier. He didn’t bother with the windshield wipers, liking how the road and the world outside blurred into nothingness.

He saw a streak of blinking neon in the rain spattered windshield and he slowed and turned into a bar and restaurant that seemed proud of its chicken. The parking lot was gravel, with no real definition, and he stopped the car in some arbitrary spot before stepping out into the rain. It was raining harder than he realized and his shirt was soggy against his body as he started to run towards the door of the restaurant. It was a brown wooden building with a long porch along the front and a neon chicken in a chef’s hat blinking in the storm. He stepped onto the porch and everything lit up in a flash. Henry winced, and then a thunderclap roared behind him and he laughed. He took a deep breath, now out of the rain, and stepped towards the door. There was another flash, but no thunderbolt this time, and faintly over the sound of rain pounding down he heard the camera around his neck whirring.

He stood still, the picture hanging like a dead tongue from the front of the camera. His eyes remained locked where they were, unsure of what he would or wouldn’t’ see if he began to look around. After a long stretch of nothing happening, he finally reached down and plucked out the new picture.

He didn’t recognize what he was seeing, it was a dim room full of tables, but then he saw a chicken in a chef’s hat hanging on the wall and realized the picture was taken from inside the restaurant, and it was centered on the front door.

He ripped the camera from his neck and threw it onto the porch and turned towards his car. But as he looked at his car his brain kept showing him the picture form his motel room, the car sitting askew in the parking lot, and he really wanted to just go somewhere and think where that stupid fucking camera hadn’t taken a picture of already.

He turned and ran around the brown building and into the forest behind it. His loud footsteps snapped branches and crashed through the fallen leaves as he bullied his way through a bush or two, the rain cascading down through the branches overhead.

He was soaked and chilled but he kept going, somehow feeling safer and safer the deeper he got into the woods. The rhythmic noises of his footfalls lulled him into a sense of peace, and for the first time since he had woken up he forgot what he was worried about when the camera around his neck popped and whirred and the forest floor lit up in a bright flash.

He didn’t even hesitate as he ripped the camera off of his neck and threw it to the ground. He looked around and grabbed a rock and raised it over his head, his feet lifting up off the ground with the momentum before he threw it down and smashed the camera. He stood there, breathing heavy, looking at the broken camera and the new picture laying in the leaves nearby.

He reached down and plucked it up and looked at a photo of the forest he was in, trees blocking sight here and there, but in the center of the camera was his back as he had been walking along moments ago.

He spun around, staring into the woods, slowly pivoting on his heel, eyes tracing out every outline trying to see something, anything. But no matter how much he turned he couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever it was, it was directly behind him, and he took off running, branches whipping his face and body as he dashed through the trees. He came onto a stream and he ran alongside it until he came to an ancient concrete bunker of some sort, a culvert lead out of it and there was long-ago rusted piping inside. He stepped inside and creaked the ancient door shut behind him and stood with his back against it in the darkness as the faraway sound of rain pattered against the concrete.

The room lit up in a flash and the camera around his neck whirred and popped and his head sagged and he began to mutter to himself, a plaintive whimper, as he took the new picture from the roller. He crumpled it up in a ball without looking at it, then dropped the camera on the ground. He stepped away from the door and through some pipes and over an empty shell of a motor and into the far corner of the room. He sank down to the ground and circled himself up into a ball, rearranging the camera around his neck to get his legs pressed tight against him and he stared at the door and shook and tried to stay quiet.

The room lit up in a flash and Henry screamed out, tossing the camera against the far wall. Again the camera lit up the room, then again, then again, and Henry squeezed himself into as small a ball as he could and screamed out, crying, begging to be let alone as the flash went off again and again until eventually there was only the sound of the storm.

 

 

 

 


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IMG_4358Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph Devon is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

Arena Record:

  • Lifetime 6 – 7
  • 2015 Season 3 – 3
  • 2014 Season 3 – 4

 

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5 Comments

  1. I want to make a short film out of this. I can’t remember a story from Joseph so far that’s felt so much like a horror movie. There’s a part of me that would have like a bit more backstory on what was going on with the camera, but the tension that was built, and the surreal creepiness from beginning to end really knocked my socks off. This was a simple idea brilliantly and confidently executed.

  2. For someone who hates horror you do a damn fine job of writing it, Joseph.

    The pacing on this is incredible. It’s hard to do a decent into madness type story over the course of a book and you did it in a few thousand words. I love this story.

    It’s so simple and focused. One character if you don’t count the camera, and vicious opposition. It was so smooth and fast. I could definitely see this being the opening of a movie or book.

    Woo!

  3. I had the advantage of reading Joseph’s comments on my story before I read his story, and I agree that there are a lot of interesting parallels between his story and mine. The use of the individual photographs to suggest a larger story than the words on the screen. The ambiguity as to what’s going on leading to the increased paranoia and horror. The fact that the reader constructs a lot of the horror of the story herself.

    I like the way that circumstances conspire (or is it the camera at work?) to isolate Henry more and more. I almost wonder if that tension could have been heightened by not naming the original owner of the house.

    I think what I love the most about this story is the whole “Curse of the Pharaoh’s Tomb” vibe that I get off it. We have a modern-day treasure hunter breaking into a vault and finding a cursed object. The cursed object isolates him more and more from any source of aid while drawing him more and more into its reality. We see events from Henry’s point of view, and to him they are very real, but the possibility exists that it may all be in his head. Does the camera take Henry’s soul flash by flash? His lifeforce? Or is it eating away at his sanity picture by picture?

    There is horror in the ambiguity. A very good story.

  4. It took me a day or two to process what I thought about this story, but I could have told you what I felt right away.

    I love this story. One of my favourite things authors do is when they leave things to the imagination. What Joseph presents here is the hidden antagonist in a really pure form. Is the camera just a tool of the antagonist or is it the antagonist itself? I’ve no idea and the concept just gets creepier as time goes on.

    Al’s right, this also has a cinematic quality. Joe does an excellent job of creating places and scenes, they’re easy to visualise and that helps ground the events – the uncanny in the mundane, which is also something I really enjoy.

    It’s an excellent piece of work.

  5. For such a short story, this one goes a lot of places, and by that I mean the way the settings mirror the pacing as Henry’s sense of confusion and desperation become increasingly frantic.

    A few commenters noted a cinematic feel to this story, and that is exactly spot on. It feels like an almost Hitchcockian approach to a Twilight Zone episode. And while there is evidently a backstory to this narrative that invites far more questions than it answers, it feels exactly right in the way it is presented here. Like Henry, we discover that we are becoming increasingly off-kilter as his circumstances become more and more confused and desperate. Is the camera cursed? Is there an insidious supernatural entity that uses the camera to terrorize its victims? It doesn’t matter. The victim never knows, and neither do we.

    I loved the brief scene at the chicken restaurant. Henry never goes inside, and so neither do we, but the camera shot from inside the restaurant, while being so simple and non-threatening suddenly amplifies that creepiness of the story, and you can practically hear the pin slowly being pulled from the grenade of Henry’s sanity.

    I also really liked the way the camera always hanging around Henry’s neck was used to increase the sense of dread – despite how often he had cast it off. It made something that really shouldn’t have been very terrifying feel increasingly more disquieting and borderline terrifying each time it was found hanging there.

    Nicely done. This was a fun read, and now I’d love to see it in film form. Maybe even in black and white. Hitchcock and Serling would be proud.

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