“It watches me through my camera,” said Lilian.
I glanced up, eyes narrowed, awaiting a punchline. Lil’s sense of humour was often abrupt and quirky, a trait she’d inherited from her late father. Dear old Don’s infamous one liners could silence a dinner table faster than a family feud, a trait amongst many of his that I didn’t miss.
A few beats of silence passed before I said, “You’re serious.”
Lilian put the camera on the kitchen counter with a weighty clunk. It was a battered old 90s Fuji, the kind you fill up with film and AA batteries, light years away from the digital magic of today.
“You’re trying to say it’s alive, or haunted or something?” I said, unable to quell the incredulous note in my voice. “Jesus, Lil, it might be a relic but haunted plastic? Don’t let James Wan in on your ideas; you might wanna copyright that one.”
I saw Lil reach up to scrub a tear from her eye and felt ashamed of being so flippant with her. It was only natural for her to be seeing things; I’d read about grief hallucinations in a pamphlet the family therapist had given us only the day before.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m a little worn out. It’s been a long day. You wanna tell me what you think is going on?”
“I don’t know,” said Lil, shaking her head. “But every time I’ve picked that thing up to take photos of the kids or the back yard I… I don’t see them. I see… an eye.”
Shuddering Lil nodded, and pushed the camera towards me across the counter.
“Here. You try it. If you don’t see anything, well… I guess it’s all in my head. But I’m telling you, Alex, I could feel it staring into me. At me. Like it knew who I was.”
Seeing no harm in humouring her I put the viewfinder to my eye and squinted through it. I was met with darkness, and figuring I must have left the lens cap on I reached around and touched the front of the camera. My fingers smudged exposed glass; there was no reason for it not to be working.
Frowning, I began to pull away from the camera when the blackness moved and opened out- blinking, I realised, over the iris of a still, blue eye.
Yelping, I almost let go of the camera, the strap around my neck halting its fall. The eye continued to stare, empty, unreadable, and I gazed helplessly back, not knowing what to say or do.
“That’s… not possible. It’s not right.”
“You see it too.”
I ripped the camera off my face and dropped it back on the countertop, pushing it away in disgust.
“We have to get rid of it,” I said. “I don’t care what the heck is in that damned device; I don’t like it. It’s not right.”
“I can’t,” said Lil, miserably. “Dad gave it to me, before he…”
She mouthed the following words like curses, crude, unmentionable.
“…Killed himself. I remember the hundreds of little photoshoots we used to do in my bedroom, pretending I was famous. He loved that thing. It wouldn’t feel right, tossing it away.”
“Well, we can’t sell it,” I said, aghast. “We don’t know what that is, if it’s dangerous, nothing. But I’m sure as Hell not keeping it lying around before getting to the bottom of this.”
“Then what?” asked Lil, gnawing her lower lip.
I stared at the camera in silence, wishing we’d left it in a dusty attic crate like Don’s other useless possessions.
“We’d better figure out what it was used for,” I said. “If that is a… ghost we saw then there’s a reason for it being there. If it’s something else, well… we’ll get to that later, I guess.”
“A bunch of Dad’s old photography stuff is still in his study,” said Lil. “But he never liked anybody messing with it.”
She reached over and lifted the camera strap by finger and thumb. The lens, swinging before her, was itself like a dark, empty eye, glaring at nothing.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get this done.”
For an hour or so we thumbed through old photo albums and assorted charging cables, undeveloped film with tiny versions of the images upon it visible if you peered close enough. There was nothing of interest until Lil went back to the first album and ran a fingernail across the thick laminated pages, prising two of them apart.
“There are more photos in here,” she said. “A whole bunch of them. I-“
She tossed the album to the floor, her hands seizing into tight, clenched balls. Her face, astonishingly still, looked almost blue from its lack of pallour.
I picked up the album for myself and felt my grip on it tighten in a painful squeeze.
“Are these… are these all of you?” I asked.
Lil nodded, her pulse jumping in her temple.
“You never said anything about it. I never would have let him step foot in our house if I’d known.”
“I… I didn’t remember it.”
She spoke in a high, wretched scream, tearing her hands through her hair in restless tugs.
“I don’t… I don’t remember him doing it. Taking those. I never… it was just the pictures. That’s all it was. Nothing worse. He could have… but he didn’t. loved him, Alex. I loved my Dad.”
She was pleading with me, asking me to forgive, but I couldn’t. The eyes in the photographs were Lilian’s, unmistakably so. The rest of the face was unrecognisable, young enough to be anyone’s, but I knew that sadness, had seen it every day for a long time, even before Don passed away.
It was a good thing that he was dead; if he hadn’t been I would have put the rope around his neck myself and kicked a bucket from under him for good measure.
“Give me that,” I said, taking the camera from where it still rested on the floor beside Lilian. “And these fucking things, too. I’m getting rid of them. I’ll buy you a new camera, one that isn’t a piece of shit.”
I kissed the top of Lilian’s head and left the room, heading out to the back yard. The kids were outside playing with a jump rope; I called them in and started up a fire on the barbeque pit. I didn’t want them watching what I was about to do, even if they didn’t understand it.
One by one I dropped the photographs into the pit, trying not to look too closely at their contents. The dark jokes I’d often heard from Lilian’s mouth seemed even less funny now, and Don’s almost diabolically humourless in comparison.
I dangled the camera over the smouldering pit then paused, holding it to my face for one last time. Again the flat, blue eye watched me, tired, desolate. I whimpered, closing my own lid against it, ashamed, angered, but mostly mourning.
“I’m sorry, Lil,” I said, gently.
When I looked again the eye was gone, but still I lowered the camera down onto the fire.
PROMPT BY MOLLY SMITH