Charville is a ghost town. Large, dust-covered “for sale” sighs line the empty streets. All the young people have moved away, to the big city, looking for better jobs and a better future. All the old people are either dead or dying.
If you keep walking beyond the edge of the town, you’ll see a tall, overgrown hedge on the right side of the road. It’s the only fence Grandpa ever agreed to. Further on, the road turns to the right. Grandpa’s house is waiting for you there, beyond the bend in the road, ready to pop up in front of you with its broken shutters and ghostly curtains to give you a scare. It’s a squat with a low roof covering the ground floor. Inside, the wooden floor squeaks and creeks under your feet like a living thing. If you stand still, the silence is maddening.
I thought clearing out Grandpa’s house would only take a few days. There was the funeral, a small ceremony attended by the few neighbors he had left, then a day set aside for grieving and then we started sorting out things and packing them, the ones we’d take with us, the one’s we’d sell and the ones we’d throw away. We figured out one day for each room should do. But then we got swamped by memories. Every little object brought back a flood of flashbacks, of little tender moments from my childhood, of the warm smell of the fluffy shortcakes Grandma used to bake and the sunlight streaming through the branches of the apple trees in the garden as Grandpa carried me on his shoulders, back when I was 3 or 4 years old. We were drowning in them, my mother and I, drowning in these ghosts of the old life the house had sen. By the time we got to the photo albums, neither of us could bare to look at them.
“We’ll take them all anyway,” Mother decreed, pushing down the cover of the fist album, as if she were afraid it would open up all by itself and plunge her into a flood of tears with its old memories.
There was a whole treasure trove of them, a large wooden chest filled to the brim with albums of photos, old and new. Grandpa had been quite fond of taking pictures. A true photographer at heart, he’d bought his first camera back in 1934. For most of his life, he’d made a living as a photographer, working for the local newspaper and making a little money on the side at weddings and graduations. He’d passed the bug to me and I went home with a suitcase full of carefully packed lenses and his latest camera, swearing to make the most of them in his memory.
It took me a few months before I got enough courage to look through the old photographs. I kept the chest in my room, the treasure-chest, as I called it, and every night it beckoned to me to open it and go through the pages of the old photo albums, and every night I was afraid of the tears that would come streaming down my face at the memories of those old happy days that would never return. Eventually, one rainy October afternoon, I sat down with a dust rag and went through the chest, taking out each album, dusting it and going through the pages. My life passed before my eyes backwards, from the pictures at Grandpa’s last birthday to the very first picture of me from when I was only a few days old. Then, going deeper into the chest, I saw my mother’s life, her wedding, her college graduation, each and every birthday, each and every Easter and Christmas and summer vacation. I went through the years with her, watching her grow smaller and smaller, until she wasn’t there anymore and I was left with my grandparent’s wedding photos. But it didn’t end here. Deeper still were albums of photos Grandpa had taken for the newspaper, pushed down, even the more recent ones, as the family albums had been taken out and perused. I pictured Grandpa, all alone in his last years, going through our pictures to fill the emptiness of the screeching old house, trying to bring us closer and to bring Grandma back through these old memories, and I felt guilty for all the times I didn’t visit him.
The photos he’d taken for work, though neglected at the bottom of the chest, were a treasure of their own. The ones that had made it into the paper had newspaper cutouts pasted next to them. The others were dated and ha short descriptions written on the back in Grandpa’s handwriting. The ghosts of a whole town lived and breathed through them, buildings that had been torn down, people who had died or moved away, a vibrant, bustling life filling the streets that I’d always known as empty and forgotten.
Deeper still, there were albums of war photos, taken during the Vietnam war, and under them an album of photos from Wold War II. And at the very bottom of the chest, hidden under all these, there was an old camera.
This was odd. Grandpa never kept his old cameras. Always tight on cash, he sold each old camera so he could buy the next one. He only kept the lenses, if he could reuse them, but even his collection of old lenses got sold when he bought his first digital SLR camera, to make money for a new collection of digital lenses. Yet here was an old model, with a roll of film still inside and no lens to be found. I looked at it puzzled for a few minutes, turning it on all sides, trying to figure out why he’d kept it. I rolled the film so any pictures on it wouldn’t get ruined by the light and I opened the camera to look inside. It looked perfectly functional, In perfect working order, and perfectly old, what Grandpa would have called outdated. There was no clue, however, as to why he’d kept it. I put the roll of film into the bottom drawer of my desk for safekeeping, and I set the camera on a shelf, next to my digital SLR and Grandpa’s collection of lenses, and I told myself I’d buy a lens and a roll of film and try it out, to see just what was so special about it.
I got the film and the lens just in time for Halloween and I had a blast taking pictures of trick-or-treaters and artistic still-lifes of glowing pumpkins and bowls filled with candy. I dressed up as a war photographer from World War II, complete with vintage uniform and a trickle of fake blood running down my forehead, and I pretended the camera was just an accessory as I walked the streets taking snapshot of unsuspecting ghouls and wraiths. I came back with a full roll of film ready to be developed and a full bag of sweets ready to be devoured. In the interest of making the healthier choice, I decided to start with the film.
Long ago, Grandpa had taught me how to develop my own films and I knew that once I’d take the photos I wouldn’t be able to wait to have them developed elsewhere, so I’d bought everything I needed to make the photos myself. It wasn’t even midnight yet, so I locked myself in the bathroom, to keep anyone from opening the door and letting in some light at the wrong time, and I improvised a photo-processing studio right there. I watched eagerly as the first contours appeared on the photographic paper. The image of the pumpkin display surfaced in uncanny shades of gray, a ghostly display that was well worth the investment Id made in black-and-white film. I set the photo aside and passed on to the next one. I remembered it well. The second picture I’d taken was of the neighbor’s black cat, Miss Paws, sitting atop a large pumpkin on their front lawn. I’d thought it a perfect picture for Halloween, so I’d photographed her through our kitchen window, before setting off for the night. I watched the black cat appear on the paper, the same beautiful Miss Paws, lying down as if she were asleep, but the pumpkin didn’t come out. I stared at the photo in disbelief. Miss paws was lying on the ground, partly hidden by tall grass, and there was no pumpkin in sight.
For a moment, I thought someone had played a prank on me. Someone must have switched my film when I wasn’t looking. But when? I’d never let the camera out of my hand until I took the film out to develop it. And I hadn’t let the film out of my hand until it was developed, in here, in the bathroom, with the door locked on the inside. I turned quickly to look over my shoulder. I was alone. I checked in every corner of the room, as if a minuscule film-swapping creature might have been hiding in there. The bathroom was empty. I was alone.
I returned to my photos. The third one was of a zombie cheerleader. I remembered her smiling broadly when I was taking the picture, shaking her pompoms and striking a cute pose. The photograph showed her with makeup running down her face and eyes bulging, and two hands clasped around her neck, strangling her from behind. It was a picture fit for Halloween, but I was certain she’d been alone when I
took her picture. I looked at the other photos on the film, trying to make sense of the tiny negative images. They were all wrong. They were all photos worthy of a Halloween reel, all of them enacting some death scene, the milder ones of old people on hospital beds, the more gruesome ones of terrifying accidents. No one was in costume. I couldn’t recognize the people in the photos. Some of them looked like they could have been older relatives of the neighbors, but though the faces were vaguely familiar, I was sure I hadn’t seen them before. These were not the photos I’d taken. They couldn’t have been. And yet every still life, every display of carved pumpkins and hallowhead scarecrows I’d photographed was there, just as I remembered it, just where
I remembered it to be on my film.
I couldn’t sleep all night. I tried. I got into bed and pulled the covers over my head and tried to will those gruesome images out of my head, but I couldn’t. At five in the morning I was making coffee, resigned to the impossibility of getting some rest. I made breakfast for the whole family, trying to keep myself busy, keep my thoughts away from that sick joke, for I still thought the whole thing was just a prank. And then I watched the news and I saw her, the undead cheerleader, found dead that very morning, strangled. Nobody knew what had happened. She’d been to a party, and she’d left after midnight, after I’d locked myself up in the bathroom with that roll of gruesome film. She’d been found early in the morning, by a bunch of people returning from another party, found dead, strangled, lying on the pavement, in plain sight. The people living in the area had heard screaming, they said, but they’d assumed it was “young people pretending to be zombies and such”. Which is technically just what they did hear: a young woman pretending to be a zombie, screaming for her life, screaming for real. I stared blankly at the images on the screen, the distraught parents, the dismayed neighbors, the yellow strips of police tape, the chalk drawing on the sidewalk, and then something clicked. I ran to my room and brought back the photo and held it up against the TV. It was the same place. The photo had been taken at the exact same place where she died.
I took the photo to the police. I didn’t know what to tell them, how to explain the film switched in a locked room, so I lied and told them I’d found the picture lying about on the street the next morning. You could barely see the aggressor’s face in it, and I was sure the man in the picture was the wrong guy, because the picture had been taken before she’d left the party, but it was the same girl, the same costume, the same place, the same decorations on the street, I thought he might have known something. The neighbors confirmed they’d seen a man dressed like that walking about. And, against my wildest hopes, the police did find him. When they showed him the picture, he confessed to killing her. He confessed to having killed her at around half past four in the morning. He said he was certain, had
been certain, that there was no one on the street at the time, no one who could have taken that picture.
The police tried to find out where the picture had come from, but they couldn’t find anything. In the end, they gave up. They had a confession, so they had little use for witnesses now. I, on the other hand, needed to find out how that picture had been taken. So I looked in my own way, though the idea seemed crazy at the time. I went back to the oldest album in the chest, the one from World War II. There was something about it that reminded me of my creepy roll of film. The first photos were of young soldiers smiling for the camera, some of them blowing kisses to a girl back home, others goofing around. Then there were photos of the action, bullets pelting the ground, soldiers taking aim and firing their rifles. Then there was one big explosion, earth and debris flying up in the air. After that, all the pictures were of deaths, of soldiers getting killed. Every single one of them.
I developed the roll of film that had been inside the camera. There were only a few photos in it, all of them of people dying. They seemed recent by the look of the hospital equipment in them. The last but one was of Grandpa lying on the floor of his living room, where they’d found him. The very last one was of Grandma, on the hospital bed where she’d died seven years earlier.
I’ve tested the camera since then. It works fine on still-lifes on things that are already dead or inanimate, but when it comes to the living, it’s as if the camera were possessed. All the pictures it takes show the moment of someone’s death, the way it’s going to be. You can take a million photos, play around with the camera angles, it will still show the same thing. The camera angle does change, the distance changes, the brightness of the photo changes, any change you make when you take the photo translates into the photo that comes out, but the moment you are photographing is always the same moment, at some indefinite time in the future, the death of the person being photographed.
I’ve tried to warn people, but they never listen, and you can’t really warn them all that well when you don’t know when it’s going to happen. I’ve given up on trying to tell people about the camera. Sometimes, on Halloween, we take it out to make spooky photos, for the amusement of party guests. Everyone thinks it’s a trick., everyone thinks we’ve hired older lookalikes and staged the whole thing. Everyone loves it, loves how creepy it all is, how perfect for Halloween. Every now and then we get a glimpse of future technology and then even I think the whole thing is kind of cool. But I take the photos for a reason. After each party, I watch my guests closely. I can’t keep them from cars, but I can sabotage their vacation plans, make them miss their flight, or I can nag them into getting a health check-up. I can’t get them to believe, but I can do everything that can be done to keep them safe. Every Halloween I take their picture to check. No matter what I do, the pictures stay the same, the moment stays the same. But I check anyway. And every year, when the grass grows tall in the neighbors’ garden, I watch Miss Paws warm herself up in the sun, and my heart aches.