HEY APPEARED ALMOST instantly, cascading across the screen, downloaded through infrared lenses glowing like tiny devil's eyes, everything from eye-catching architecture to mundane crowd-shots. Pedestrians and traffic; buildings and horizons; water and sky -- Ben shot without bias. Some days, when the weather cooperated, he snapped over five hundred photographs. According to the counter on the camera, today's total came to four hundred ten. Not bad, considering he'd gotten off to a late start.
Out of all those pictures he'd taken that day, he only needed to find one, a single image capturing the perfect combination of light and shadow. Magazines paid good money for freelance work. In the last week alone, he had sold three photographs to a local tourism rag called I on the City for two hundred each. A modest level of success, he realized, but one that allowed him to live in satisfied comfort. Expenses were low, his equipment paid for, and he truly enjoyed his job.
He browsed through the day's montage, contentedly sipping cocoa. Whenever he came across an image with potential, he dragged it off to the side. One in particular caught his eye, a marvelous shot of the Carlson Street Bridge. He enlarged it and took a closer look. The scene was almost perfect; boats on the river, just the right amount of cloud. The only thing that spoiled the balance was a figure standing in the foreground. He zoomed in tighter, thinking he could edit it right out of the picture if necessary.
The person turned out to be a girl, and he knew he had seen her before.
She was young, twelve or so, a plain thing dressed in a beige chambray shirt, faded blue jeans, and chunky black shoes. Her straight chestnut hair fell past her shoulders. She stared directly at the camera -- directly at him -- as if she knew who he was but couldn't quite remember his name. Her eyes were dark and so intense they seemed to impale him.
He felt vaguely unsettled -- she looked familiar in a disturbing kind of way. Disconcerted, he moved the image over by itself and continued sorting.
A few sips of cocoa later, he came across a shot of the city library. Someone stood on the cement walkway leading to the front doors. He stopped cold, the cup halfway to his lips. No need to magnify the picture this time, he could see who it was. An eerie chill crawled like spiders on his skin.
She wore the same beige shirt, the same jeans, and the same chunky shoes. Her brown hair hung flat, and her piercing black eyes shone like the eyes of a hawk. I know you, her expression said. Again, ironically, it would have made a decent photo, one he probably could have sold. Blue sky framed the background, and a flag flew in one corner, frozen in mid-flap. But the girl ruined the shot, almost as if on purpose.
Trying to remain calm, he shuffled back to pictures taken earlier in the day.
She was everywhere.
He realized why he recognized her; he had seen her dozens of times already. That fact hadn't registered simply because he hadn't been looking for her. Now that he was, he saw her in photo after photo after photo, always standing, always facing the camera. He'd been all over the city that day, and it seemed impossible that she could have been in all those places. Still, the pictures told a different story. He moved the ones with her in them over to a blank section of screen and started counting. She showed up in eighty-seven of the four hundred ten photos, far too many to be a coincidence.
"No, that's crazy," he whispered. His panic mounted -- hell, his panic got on Secretariat and ran the Kentucky Derby.
The first instance, a midmorning shot of a construction site -- 9:37, the tiny LED numbers in the bottom corner of the image read, along with the date. Ben recalled the group of passers-by in the picture, watching the work through gaps in the fence. He couldn't remember seeing her, standing near the fence by herself, eyes locked on the camera.
She made erratic appearances in a series of shots he'd taken near a park, showing up beside vendor stands, along paths, and partially hidden behind trees. Once she stood in the center of a large flowerbed right next to a family picnicking, but they were oblivious to her.
Next, he spotted her in an art museum, staring out the front window at him. In another picture, a lineup of people waited to board a whale-watching cruise. She was at the end of the line, her back to the others, facing the camera. More images flitted past. She stood at an intersection, on the steps of the local YMCA, and in the middle of a residential street. He saw her in doorways, in windows, even on rooftops.
One of the last photos, less than an hour old, was of a Chinese take-out place only three blocks away. Several people walked along the sidewalk in the picture, and damned if she wasn't there again, standing alone near the curb. Had she really been there? He didn't think so, but he wasn't sure. He wasn't sure of anything.
Something seemed odd, even beyond her unlikely appearances. It felt like the answer was right in front of him but he couldn't quite put a finger on it. A moment later he knew, and knowing sent more gooseflesh creeping up his neck. He went back to the shot of the library.
That day had been a windy one, enough to whip litter around in the gutters and make people hold onto their hats. The flag behind her was fully open, yet her hair and clothing were still, as if the place where she existed knew no such thing as wind.
A horrible thought crossed his mind, one that made his stomach twist.
Where is she now?
With shaking hands he set the camera on "auto-shutter" at half-second intervals and nervously panned it around the small room. The flash went off like a strobe light. When it stopped, he imported the new photos. His palms were slick with sweat and the mouse squirmed under his fingers.
The pictures appeared.
Everything looked normal in the first three shots. In the fourth one, she stood outside the doorway as if she'd been waiting there forever. She appeared again in shot number seven, closer now, halfway across the carpeted floor. The final picture opened. It showed her standing right behind where he sat, barely a foot away.
Ben spun in his chair but the room was empty.
This is not happening, he thought.
Bennnnn... A tinny, faraway sound, drawn-out like a dying breath. He couldn't tell where it originated, but it was somewhere close. He heard it again and leaned forward.
The voice came from the little speakers attached to his computer.
But that was impossible -- she wasn't really here!
Bennnnn...please don't hurt me."
Those words. That voice! Not the voice of a young girl, but that of a woman. A voice he knew. Hearing it brought back an old memory, a very bad one. The past surged like a menacing tide, washing all the guilt and paranoia he'd spent a decade trying to forget around him.
"This is not happening," he said. He didn't feel very certain though. In fact, he couldn't remember a time when he'd felt less certain about something. Reality unraveled. The word breakdown surfaced in his mind like a day-glo COMING SOON sign.
Bennnnn... why are you hurting me?
Enough was enough. Ben grabbed his keys off the desk and headed for the door. He didn't have a destination in mind, just anywhere away from those pictures and that voice. With his heart pounding, he took the steps three at a time. Once downstairs, he ran outside, jumped into his car, and sped off.
Fifteen minutes passed. He concentrated on his driving and began to calm down a little. It was dark out by that time and rain had begun to fall. Harsh neon lights cast watery strips of color across the slick asphalt. He began to wonder if any of it had really happened. Before long he'd almost convinced himself it had all been his imagination, a by-product of stress. Starting to feel halfway normal, he reached out and flipped on the radio.
Her voice drifted from the speakers in stereo, filling the car. Startled, he stabbed at the preset tuner buttons with his index finger but found nothing but static. All the stations were gone, simultaneously off the air. With a frustrated curse, he punched the dash.
From out of nowhere, a delivery truck pulled in front of him. He jerked the wheel reflexively, veering over the yellow line. A figure suddenly stepped out from behind a parked car. He saw a flash of beige and a blur of chestnut before standing hard on the brakes. The person turned just before the unavoidable collision. Their eyes met.
It was the girl in the pictures. He was not all that surprised.
A thump; a crash; then everything went black.
The sound of voices pulled him back to consciousness. He lay in a hospital bed, one arm handcuffed to the side rail. His left leg was elevated and encased in a white cast. Bandages on his head partially obscured the vision in one eye.
Through the open door he could just barely see a bulky policeman sitting on a chair in the hallway reading a newspaper. Two orderlies were in the room with him, one making the empty bed next to his, the other cleaning the bathroom. Neither had noticed him come around. He felt too groggy to do anything but listen to them.
"Ran her right over?" one said yanking a sheet over the bed
"Yep," replied the other, leaning against a cabinet.. "I guess the girl's mother was standing right there and saw the whole thing."
"God, how awful."
"It gets weirder," he pused away from the cabinet to use his hands to tell the story. "When they were putting him into the ambulance, the mother notices that he's the same guy who raped her over ten years ago."
"No way!" The first orderly put a pillow under his chin and started pulling a case over it.
"Yep. The girl was his daughter by her. She'd got pregnant after the rape, but decided to keep the baby and raise her anyhow. Cops never did catch him. Not until now, that is.
The other shook his head as he laid the pillow on the straightened bed.
"They found a bunch of pictures of the girl on a computer in his apartment. I think they'd figure he was stalking her, or maybe planning to kidnap her. But now he goes and runs over his own daughter!"
"That makes it premeditated. He'll get hard time for that, don't you think? Maybe even the death sentence."
© 2001 K. L. McPherson, all rights reserved
Imbolc 2002 Issue, Updated February 11, 2002
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.