This started on Thursday, when the weather was warm but melancholy. My visiting aunt and I walked our habitual path, underneath the familiar ice plant and cliffs, dodging the waves that ran in. The tide was high and rising. We sat in our cluster of flat rocks and unhurriedly caught up on how the weather and the movies had been. The afternoon sun pooled on the ocean and the boulders kneeling in it, and we faced the horizon at an angle A tiny deviation caught my eyes.
“It looks like a man out there,” I said.
“Look, there’s a man standing out there.”
She squinted. “Where?”
I pointed. “See? Over there. That kind of dark rectangle, if you follow the beach all the way around to the left…”
The sliding foam almost caught our feet, and she said, “Um. I think it’s time to go back.”
We slid into our shoes and walked back to the parking lot, stepping around seaweed. I paused to look before ducking under the car door, but the sun was in my eyes and I couldn’t tell.
“I mean, you saw something, right?”
“There was something out there, right?”
She was untying the laces of her left shoe, placed in the lip of the car door. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t get a good look.”
“God damn it,” she stubbed her toe against the car’s doorframe. I didn’t want to irritate her so we were quiet for the rest of the drive.
In the dining room that night I circled the table to figure out how the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit together. The lamps played on 1,000 pieces of coral and shipwreck and the dark lines of the wood between them. The puzzle was at my favorite point right now, a galaxy of colors bracketed by two spreading corners. My mom insisted on a more difficult puzzle every month. When she picked this one up in the store and flipped it around to look at every face of the box, I knew she was imagining putting the last piece in, taking a picture, sliding it back into the box, and placing it atop the nine other vanquished boxes. She went for things with that kind of determination. My aunt and I usually did the border over the weekends when she was here, then I left my mom to obsessively march toward victory over the next week.
“How has your photography been?” asked my aunt, pinching a puzzle piece onto the left side of the table, then the right.
“Um.” I hesitated. I’d taken some pictures while walking down to the beach that day, but otherwise forgot, and of course now I didn’t have the light to meet my daily quota of twenty-five, and that meant that I was off for the week and-
It’s been okay,” I said, pushing the tension in my chest downward with a swallow.
“Did you have a favorite from today?”
“I haven’t looked back at them yet.” Which was true.
“You know,” said my aunt, “I was the president of my high school’s photography club.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Could I see what equipment you’re working with?”
“Sure,” I said, “I’ll show you how the game has changed.” I grinned but she didn’t laugh.
The camera lay sideways on its strap on my bed. I walked out with it in my hand but didn’t see the dirt caked around the sides of the screen until I placed it in my aunt’s hand. I almost took it back to clean it but just hoped that she wouldn’t notice. She fiddled with every dial and feature on it, turned it upside down, inspected the corners of the screen.
“This is a nice lens,” she offered. I wanted to scream.
She handed back the camera and my mom chirped in to say I took a number of pictures every day to practice: “What is it, honey? Twenty?”
“Twenty-five,” I said.
“What dedication,” my aunt breathed.
“Just keep working towards those long-term goals, right, hun?” my mom smiled at me. I tried to smile back and let the moment pass.
“I don’t mean to intrude on the artistic process,” my aunt said, dropping her tone to a delicacy that made me sick with apology, “but would you show me your work from today? Or maybe send me the photos? It was, um, such a beautiful day…”
“Sure,” I mumbled, trying to push away the heat in my ears by focusing on the puzzle.
“That reminds me, honey,” my mom came in, “Chris and Ann, you know, our new neighbors? They said that they’re having a party on Saturday and are looking for a photographer. Would you like me to talk to them?”
“I’ll talk to them myself, thanks.” I tried to keep the edge from coming into my voice. We silently went back to the puzzle for a few minutes and then I excused myself and rolled a joint in my room, smoked out the window, and went to bed.
I woke up the next morning flailing from a bad dream. On my nightstand there was a thin glass horse figurine that my mom had bought and given to me when I’d moved back in. She steered clear of my room in the mornings and hadn’t seen the sun shine through it and make a bright shadow-thing with double the legs on the wall. Anyway, my fingers caught it by the head and sent it to the floor. Its leg cracked off.
I hoped my aunt didn’t hear it. I’d been trying to leave my room and eat at nine in the morning but I kept thinking about her asking me about the sound, and I started getting a little queasy, so I just brought my computer onto the bed and sorted pictures for a couple of hours. I sent a couple of emails and organized my reading list, and then I felt like I had made a good foundation for the day, so I took a little break. Then my mom called me and said my aunt was leaving, so I went out and said goodbye to her, though I held my breath thinking she’d bring up the sound or the fact that we didn’t have breakfast together. She didn’t.
Right as the door closed, my mom asked, “Hey, can we talk goals and plans?”
It’s this thing we do every couple of weeks. Maybe if I’d acted more bummed she wouldn’t have brought it up, but she’s not actually that good at reading my moods.
“Well,” I said, “I have that thing with James today, so can we talk about it tomorrow?” I just wanted to be out of there. My mom nodded slowly and seemed like she was about to say something, but I walked out before she could. Back in my room, I thought about how I could be out of the house the next day.
A few minutes later I heard James’ car pull up in front of the house.
“Hey, it’s been a while!” He clapped me on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” I laughed, “I’ve just been doing my thing.”
“Well, want to go to the beach?”
There were a few clouds coming in but not enough to make an excuse to not go out there. I pretended to think, tilting my head side to side, and said, “I’ve been out a lot,” a lie, but he there was no way he could tell. “Could we chill at your place for a bit?”
He drove us there good-naturedly while I felt my chest constrict. Right after we walked through the front door he started the ritual. He showed me a glass jar larger than my face filled with purple-tinged weed, and we took turns smelling it and holding it up to the window to look through it.
“So what’s been up, man?” He asked as he pinched a few clumps and dropped them carefully in his grinder.
“Nothing much,” I said. I tried to give him something to work with. “I’ve just been doing some photography, you know…”
“Right on! How’s it going?”
“It’s… alright. It’s pretty difficult, to be honest.” That was about all I could say about it. Thankfully started talking about the work he’d found in interior design, and I tried to feel happy for him and say encouraging things but my eyes kept getting caught on his hands turning around the silver grinder.
“I actually got this job through Sebastian,” he said.
I searched for a second, then, “Oh! The guy who made out with Sierra on top of the school in 8th grade?”
“Yeah, that guy,” he laughed. “You haven’t stayed in contact with him? He became a firefighter a few years ago and really cleaned up. And he’s huge,” James cupped his biceps to demonstrate, “and I was looking through yearbook photos the other day and ran across all these, like, little-boy faces, you know? And I’m using to seeing them at the gym with tattoos and stuff. It’s crazy how time flies.”
I acted like I thought it was as funny as he did, but I really wanted to be talking about something else. My knee tapped up and down.
He opened the grinder delicately and squinted at its contents, then closed it and started turning it again. I tried to give him a different direction.
“I didn’t know you were into interior design,” I fished.
“Well,” he smiled at me, “I’ve really been thinking about what I want to do, and I love architecture and, well… I guess interior design isn’t where I want to end up but it’s a step closer, you know?”
I concentrated on making eye contact and nodding politely. He lifted up a white paper and poured some powder from the grinder into it. I kept thinking about the camera in my backpack and how I could be taking pictures from the back porch while he did this. I just wanted to smoke so that voice would stop. There were a dozen pictures on the wall behind him, reaching all the way from the far corner of the living room behind him to the wall right beside me. The closest one was of some kind of geodesic dome, but I first saw how nicely the colors were composed, blues and oranges cutting into each other and drawing the eye toward the hollow center of the structure.
“You like that one? Take a look over here.” I walked over to the picture he indicated. “My brother made this soapbox car one year entirely out of matches and matchboxes, big enough to sit in, lit it up and pushed it down a hill on his property – he loves fire, you know?” He laughed. With my face right up against the glass I could see that the stippling on the front wheel was, indeed, matches.
“Wow,” I said. “You weren’t kidding.” The picture of the car was clearly and evenly blocked into three parts, with a fascinating energy residing in the highlights and shadows. I’m not sure how long I looked at it, but when I came back to myself and glanced at James, he was smiling broadly.
“He loves taking pictures of his work. He goes kind of manic on a project – like in high school he’d invite me and some friends over to watch him work on his ‘reason for being,’ and we’d drink PBR while he banged the car or some other thing into shape.”
I gave him a small smile and moved down the line of pictures. The next one showed a group of wooden cows sitting for a tea party.
“We’d just get trashed, like we’d go through a whole thirty-pack of PBR among four people, but he’d stay totally sober the whole time and work work work. Then once he was done he’d stage the thing for pictures for a whole day, and just keep and frame his one favorite picture of the thing, and then get drunk and burn it. You should see all the ashy craters on his property, man.”
I moved to the next, a set of living room furniture made of papier-mâché.
He laughed at some memory, then said, “He actually won some national award recently – I couldn’t tell you what it’s called, which he’d slap me for – but you know that’s what happens when you work on something for like twelve years.”
My breath caught in my throat, but I tried to smile and move to the last picture. It was of the Burning Man, flames in the torso and leaping out like the aura around a solar eclipse.
“Yeah,” James said, “everyone has a picture of that.” I dimly heard him say, “Would you want to do some photography with him?”
“With your brother?” I asked, blinking to bring my vision back.
“Yeah, I think he’d be down today, even.”
“I, um, just need to smoke and chill today.”
“Okay,” he said, looking away. I exhaled when he didn’t press me.
The rest of the ritual proceeded with the sluggishness of familiarity – we sat on the back porch and he struck a match, cupped the joint to it, puffed, and passed it. He stared out at the grass neon with early summer while I focused on putting and keeping as much smoke in my lungs as possible. When the joint ate itself down to a hot nub, the rush came in. The knot in my stomach finally started untwisting itself. I wasn’t sure how long it had been there. But as I was watching my body ease, he leaned his face dreadedly forward and chattered.
“Want to go to the graveyard?” He pointed a long arm and the knot grew. The tombstones were right across the street. “The lighting is great right now, the sweet peas and morning glories are out, there’s actually this cherry tree in the back corner-”
My mind raced for ways to get out of this while he rattled off the evidence. The lighting was great. It was a nice day.
Suddenly I grasped an out – “I didn’t bring my camera today,” I lied. The weed knocked the rest of the conversation out of my memory but I guess he bought it because next I was sitting on the couch, trying to tune out his good-natured explanations of some historical trend in architecture while the smoke curled warmly through my skin.
Then he held a small wood-framed picture up to me, tapped it with a fingernail, and said, “He built this entirely out of driftwood, even the nails, though he wouldn’t tell me how. He took it somewhere secret and acted like he burned it but I think he couldn’t follow through with this one.”
It was a man, dark with the setting sun shining through his mottled skeleton. It was on the crest of a hill.
“How tall is it?”
“Maybe twenty feet,” he said, then winked at me. I don’t know how long I looked at it before I noticed that I was seeing through a straw. James was saying something but I got up and went to the bathroom – I think I was cool about it. After I’d splashed cold water on my face and brought my panting down through deep breathing, I put on a smile and walked out, and told him it was about time I should be getting home.
That night I was too bothered to settle into bed. I sorted through the Ansel Adams photos on my computer, labeling them by date and title and placing them in their proper folders. Then I did my psychedelic rock posters, then my porn. Then I masturbated, and then watched some youtube videos about different brands of lenses, but that slipped into more porn and then a lot of searching through reddit for iconic photos. My catalog of iconic photos of the 70’s seemed to be nearly complete, but I started to get tired, and then I saw that the sky was turning that pre-dawn light blue. I’d meant to sort through those pictures I took at the beach but I just couldn’t do it with everything that had been happening lately. I turned off the light when I heard the light patter of my mom’s feet in the kitchen, and the buzz of the coffee-grinder to start her day gave me cover to slide quietly out of the window. I’m pretty good at that now.
I walked around the block and while rubbing my sore butt almost ran into the new neighbors, Chris and Ann, in their driveway. They’re good at holding long conversations and giving lots of hugs. I slipped behind some bushes away and got away, back to my room, but the little thrill went away when I thought of how I was going to get it all in order. It didn’t feel like there wasn’t anything to do but go to bed, so I did.
I woke up in the late afternoon to a text from my mom, asking if I could please go get some chips. She also invited me, as always, to join the movie-watching group, which I declined. Like, if you know about the event so far ahead of time, get your own chips, you know? But mostly it ticked me that she thought I didn’t have anything better to do on a Saturday night.
Okay, so, I walked out as the sun was setting and bought the chips and walked home, and it was around dusk when I got back. It was a little misty and the orange lights in the street played off it, and the hanging lights that Chris and Ann had strung up around their house were casting long shadows from the cars in front. I heard some foosball and some guitar and I walked in a wide circle around the house because they might’ve invited me in if they caught me.
I’m trying to say that I had to really look at things to make out what they were because of the lights, and then I was walking from the far side of the street over to mine, and I was crossing through the little iron-frame gate that the hedges grow over when I looked back and saw it for just a moment before I was through the bushes. I was about twenty feet from the telephone pole that’s on the corner of the yard, between my room and Chris and Ann’s house. If I try to explain it one way – well, the shadow of the pole kind of pooled in a weird way, and I saw it out of the corner of my eye for just a moment before I was on the other side of the hedge. That’s all I got. If I try to explain it the other way, see – it’s not just that I saw it, I kind of felt it, the same feeling as when you make eye contact with someone from across the room and look away. Exactly like that. It was a man.
I scrambled through the front door and locked it and tried to breathe. I got on the couch and I think I was there for five minutes, waking up with the crinkling sound of the bag of chips, when my mom came in. I don’t remember what she said or what I did. She was worried and I tried to tell her I was okay but she didn’t believe me. I excused myself and went to the bathroom and realized I’d stupidly taken the bag with me, came back, and saw that she’d left a large bowl. I did a check to make myself a little more normal and went to her room with the chips and bowl.
The usual gang was there – Becky, Samatha, and Lynn. “Hey,” Lynn said. Her eyes were crinkled, her face hugely open. She made some space on the floor. I found my cheek muscles and pulled them into a smile.
“What are you guys watching?” My autopilot had me say this through my shrinking sternum and fuzzy vision. I woke up a little and started breathing four-count in, four-count out. It was hard to be around this many people.
“That documentary on SeaWorld,” came Becky’s growl. She didn’t look up. Orca whales flipped and somersaulted out of the water. I realized that I’d already told my mom I wouldn’t be joining this get-together, and she already told me that this would be the movie. It was a Saturday night and I didn’t have anything better to do. I glanced at them from the corners of my eyes. Everyone was silent and I felt foreign in the middle of them, abrasive.
Becky, without looking away: “Tanks are too small.”
Samantha: “They can dive hundreds of feet but the tanks are only, like thirty feet deep? They can’t reach top speed, they can’t…”
One whale glided through the pool toward the camera. Its dorsal fin flopped over on its side, curlicue-shaped, and I wanted to ask what that was about, but a deeply-tanned man appeared on the screen and Becky turned the volume up –
“-grabbed her by the ponytail and pulled her into the water.
Another man: “-would tell you herself that it wasn’t safe to have a ponytail.”
“Focusing on the wrong damn things,” Becky said, but the TV had already moved on. “You could hear her scream out,” it said. “She knew she was going to die.”
It started talking about the bruises and lacerations on the body of the woman, and how she was a very strong swimmer. How long did it take for her to drown? The whale must’ve held her down. She could probably hold her breath for two minutes. But the brain becomes damaged without oxygen after four minutes, right? Her arm was cut off at the shoulder, her spine was severed, her scalp was torn from her head. Two minutes or four? Which was worse? How many years had she worked there? How big was the whale?
Her scalp was removed and there was no blood, the TV said. There was no blood left.
I was close to falling over. I couldn’t see. I stood up and tried to do it smoothly, tried not to gasp, and walked out to the kitchen. I clutched at my stomach and tried not to think of the whale, holding her down.
I turned at the sound of the door behind me. My mom asked wide-eyed, “Are you okay?”
I forced out: “I’m fine.”
She looked at me.
“I’m just tired,” I said, “I’ll go to bed and see you tomorrow.”
She nodded. “You’re not going to be the party photographer for Chris and Ann?”
I jumped with surprise. My face was hot and I couldn’t meet her eyes. “No, I told them no.” I turned away. I stumbled into my room and leaned against the wall and panted. Blue-white light passed dimly through the curtained windows. It flicked off and I heard music and laughter, and then it flicked back on. Chris and Ann must’ve installed something motion-sensitive on their porch. I got into bed.
And then, on far wall, I saw a bloated floor-to-ceiling shadow cut out of the light. It was so big. It paralleled the door. It was the pole.
I went under the covers and bit my lip to keep from screaming. No, no, no. You can have it. Take it. Just please leave me alone. You can have it.