September 7, 2017
It was delivered to Todd Beaumont’s dormitory packaged in a black paperboard box labelled with a red warning sticker. Upon closer examination, the warning read:
RADIATION EMITTED FROM THIS APERTURE
AVOID EXPOSURE TO DIRECT OR SCATTERED RADIATION
CLASS 6 DEVICE
Followed by an acronym in some very, very fine print:
He vaguely recalled that stood for ‘Container Shipping Information Service’. But he didn’t care much about that. He was more interested in why there should be a radiation warning. And he had no idea what ‘Class 6’ meant. He began to wonder if they sent him the wrong model.
But he’d ordered it and paid for it and now it was here. So he simply tore open the top flaps, and then pulled out a thick layer of foam padding. He peered inside the box.
It gleamed faintly from within the dim enclosure. Like an open eye, its optical lens stared back at him.
“What’s that,” said Alexa, momentarily taking her eyes of her cell phone. They’d been dating for six years.
In response Todd only reached his hands in slowly, carefully, as if about to touch a hot surface. The honest truth was that he wasn’t entirely sure now. There was a crazy moment where he thought that Amazon had royally fucked the order up, that there was something dangerous in there — a bomb. Who knew, nowadays? But when his fingertips finally touched it, caressed it, held it, it was not a foreign shape but a familiar one. And when he lifted out of the box and held it up in a beam of September sunlight coming in from the dorm window, he became relieved ... and then confused.
“I ordered a Fujifilm,” he said. “But this isn’t — this looks like a Canon.” The warning label about radiation clicked now, though. He’d seen similar warnings many times before; it was referring to the potential eye damage from the light the flash emits.
“I don’t know what those are,” Alexa said flatly. She looked back to her phone and resumed finger-swiping the screen. Her manicured nails ticked the surface each time. For a moment Todd wondered if she was on Tinder again, realized he didn’t really care, then turned his attention back to the thing in his hands.
Todd turned it from side to side, examining in closer detail. It sure did look a hell of a lot like a Rebel. Similar curvatures of the shape. Deep shade of black. The lens even had that blue-tinted sheen that you see in the T-Model ads. But ... it couldn’t be a Rebel. There were no logos on it whatsoever, no engravings, no symbols. And everyone knew the blue tint was only an after-effect used in ads; the real cameras didn’t actually have such a deep, blue colour. Come to think of it, he was not aware of any camera that had such a lens.
Habitually, he placed one finger over its power switch.
Cheap knockoff shit? he wondered. Then he worried that by opening the box he had voided a refund policy. But then another thing hit him, just then: this thing hadn’t come in an actual package — it had just been resting there in-between foam pads.
Well, then there couldn’t be a warranty to void. He was screwed, alright. Sent the wrong camera from goddam China without a receipt or a serial number or a contact.
Fuck it, he thought, might as well play around with it a bit, see if it’s any good.
He flipped the power on. Its LCD lit up and was immediately followed by a high-frequency sound with an ascending pitch that gradually faded away.
“Well, it turns on,” he said. “But it’s not definitely not the camera I paid for.”
“You probably ordered wrong,” said Alexa. Then she muttered something, almost too low to catch. “Idiot …”
Todd pointed the camera at her and looked through the viewfinder. He knew she hated it. “Smile!”
She flinched as if a wasp had just bolted for her head. Then she glared at him with her thin eyebrows scrunched together to form a V. “Don’t, Todd,” she cried. She put her hands over her face and her voice rose to a near-hysterical shout. “I said don’t! I look terrible!”
She really didn’t, as far as Todd though. But that was Lex, for you. She, like many people he photographed, had this irrational phobia of having her pictures taken. Todd didn’t really get it. It was they don’t like the idea of having a version of themselves locked inside of a frame forever. A version they never wanted to see. A permanent ghost.
But you had to respect it, either way.
“Fine, fine,” he said, grinning over his little victory. He looked around the room, searching for something else to photograph. Just to try the camera out. “Let’s see ...”
A spinous little dot on the windowsill caught his attention.
“How ’bout that spider on the window?” he asked.
“Ew,” said Lexy. “Hey, why don’t you just get rid of it instead of taking a picture. Seriously. Do you need to photograph everything?”
“Everything is art.” Todd said. Then he approached the window.
There, resting on the bottom sill, was a skull spider — the longbody kind that you can probably find in pretty much any of your closets or storage rooms ... if you look hard enough — simply resting in the afternoon sun. He looked at it through the viewfinder and it became a beige blur.
“I’m hungry,” whined Lexy, but Todd wasn’t quite listening now. She lazily scooched off the bed sheets — probably for the first time that day. “I’m going to Campus Café.”
“You need money,” Todd asked automatically, gently depressing the shutter button to trigger the camera’s auto-focus. The camera’s internal mechanism whirred softly and the blurry beige spider melted into a clear image.
“Uh, yeah,” she said. “Obviously.”
“Wallet’s in my coat,” he said.
“There’s five bucks,” said Lexy. “Todd?”
Now he turned and looked at her. She was standing there with her signature, smileless, catty-eyed glare, holding the bill out towards him by her fingertips as if it were a sopping wet rag. He couldn’t have hid the look of disapproval in his eyes if he tried. She never, ever smiled anymore. “So take it,” he said.
She shrugged and headed for the door. “When are you going to start making actual money.”
Todd grinned. “That is actual money. Not counterfeit.”
“No, idiot … like, when are you going to have more money? You know who has actual money? Josh has actual money.”
He almost fumbled the camera as he looked back through the viewfinder. He could ignore the name-calling but that quip about Josh got him pissed. “Josh is an asshole,” he said. Joshua Schnarr was the tall, well-built varsity quarterback who’d just signed a deal to play for the province next year. A rising star. He was the talk around the school because, well, he was just oh-so-very handsome — oh, and talented of course.
They called this guy talented. He’s got talent. What a talent. Born with talent. But fuck if Todd knew what the hell that meant, throwing a football around a field.
Hey, bucko, he thought, why don’t you try being talented at an art form. Oh, I’m serious. I just dare you, buddy. How bout you spend years and years just trying to capture one lucky moment of life, while you make zip for income, no one supports you, and people won’t even buy you a coffee — never mind a fucking scholarship. I just dare you, pal. See how big tough-guy all-star does.
Josh also had a very annoying habit of going dorm-to-dorm and asking people (mostly the women) to come out to his games. Naturally Lexy knew who he was, and she always brought him up when she wanted to make a point, and she knew Todd hated it too. To Todd, Josh was sort of this mocking representation of everything he despised.
“You’ve got that weird look on you again. Like you’re not listening and thinking about bloody red murder or some crazy shit.”
“Oh, whatever, Lex. Look, I was hired to do some photos for a local couple. Tomorrow. Okay? You know the Leeds? I should get a hundred bucks for it.”
She huffed and threw open the door. As she walked out, he heard her grumble: “... whole hundred bucks … idiot ...” Then the heavy steel door slammed shut.
This time he couldn’t ignore it. Sure, Lexy, he thought, I sure MUST be an idiot. I, an aspiring U of W photographer, MUST be an idiot to keep dating an emotional vacuum with no job and no drive, like you. I work my ass off on a CRAFT. Do you get that!? I market myself, I publish myself, I have to do everything myself — I never have help — and yet somehow my reward is mediocre grades, no money, and a self-centred girlfriend. I should have just been Josh Schnarr. I should have been anyone else but Todd Beaumont. I guess that MUST make me an idiot.
He could feel his face getting warm, and he took a long deep sigh. Lexy had told him once that he had an inferiority complex. He thought she might be right, but she was so goddammed touchy herself. Honestly, he’d entertained the idea of a breakup many times. But she’d really come to rely on him. She was practically living in the dorm. And, maybe above that, she was unstable; anxiety attacks and everything. The kind of person that, if he broke up with her, she’d be left without a clue of just how to carry on. Maybe it was how long they’d been together, maybe it was just his nature, but either way Todd felt responsible. And that made him feel trapped. Just another cage. Stuck in one instance of a life. Perhaps like the permanent ghost-people in the picture frames.
Everyone’s got their issues.
The spider was in perfect focus now. Todd mashed down the shutter button. There was quick snap! and a brief flash of white.
He looked down at the LCD. To his disappointment, it was a fairly pixelated capture of the spider. He had no idea how many megapixels this thing was capable of, but it sure as hell didn’t look like the best. Not like what he ordered. Not like what he should have got. He also noticed that the display indicated that the flash was off — yet he saw the burst of white light when he pressed the shutter button.
There was also the smell.
An acrid odour came off the thing. Faint, but markedly apparent. It smelled like the essence of electricity, if that was any way to describe it. Hot tungsten, maybe. Burning battery.
Todd turned the camera around and stared into its blue eye. It certainly looked sleek. Sort of panther-like.
But for all intents and purposes, this was entry-level. The screen looked decidedly low-res, about the same basic quality you get on a cheap phone. And judging by the smell, it was possibly on the verge of breaking.
Just another day in the comedy of Todd’s life.
He sighed. It would have to do, anyways. He’d promised the Leeds he’d take their photos and there was no way to get another camera in twenty-four hours, never mind that he was broke. He’d have to give them a discount.
Todd dragged his eyes over to the windowsill once more, expecting to see the spider.
It was gone.
“You two ready?” Todd asked the Leeds. They were at the New Hamburg Arboretum.
Todd occasionally had jobs like this; taking photos for couples and printing them copies. But unlike the other students in his program, his offers were few and far between.
Lexy did not, of course, approve of this career-choice. But she couldn’t stop it. It was one of the few things Todd had that he really owned, something he could do to have his own time and just shut out the world — and Lexy’s chastising. When they had started dating six year before, he convinced her he would make artistic, lucrative photos, and that both him and Lexy would soon be driving around in Mustang. But the first batch of professional photos he took had not been lucrative, and his schoolteachers had been quick to point out that they weren’t very artistic, either. He supposed Lexy saw things that way too, because that had been about when they started growing apart.
And maybe that was about the time that Todd started believing he was a failure.
Mister and Missus Leeds were standing in front of a great oak. Mister Leeds was in a grey pullover and tan khakis. His wife was wearing a black felt coat and a beautiful grey scarf. They smiled at each other and put their arms around each other, kissed, then they turned their beaming faces to Todd.
“We’re ready,” said Mister Leeds. “Go ahead. Oh, and before I forget, Todd — thanks for the deal. I mean, I know you’re a student, right, and you’ve got loans and books and God knows what else nowadays, but this was really nice of you.”
“You should tell that to my girlfriend. She’s constantly complaining that it’s stupid and pointless.”
“She says that?” He sounded half-joking. “Well, how’d such a nice guy end up with a mean girl like that?”
Todd forced a chuckle.
He raised the camera up. “Alright, let’s do it.”
The Leeds squeezed each other close and posed.
After a moment, Todd looked from the camera to the unoccupied oak — then repeated this about three times over. He was utterly baffled.
They were gone.
He spent an hour there, looking around all the trees and shrubbery, wondering how and why. He called their names to no answer. He went to the parking lot, saw their minivan there with no one inside.
They were gone.
Eventually, he gave up and got into his car. Todd didn’t know what the hell kind of prank was going on. And as he sat there with his hands clenched white-knuckle tight on the steering wheel, he didn’t really care. He was a little bit too infuriated to care, right then.
All Todd was certain of was that the Leeds had vanished, along with his money.
They were sitting in Todd’s dorm, later that day, both of them feeling dejected after Todd told her what happened. Alexa was sitting at the edge of the bed wearing a red sun dress that stopped at the knees. She wasn’t wearing socks and for some reason her neon green nail-polish bothered Todd. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“Idiot,” she said, scolding him like a child, “you probably lost them.”
“Lexy, I didn’t lose them. I told you. They were literally there one second and then gone after I took the photo. I looked for them. For like an hour. They weren’t anywhere —”
“Well, people don’t just disappear into thin air. Like, that’s basic science. Are you dumb, or something?”
Todd held his breath and turned his head away, a feeling vitriol boiling inside. She continued talking, but he didn’t hear her; when he had turned his head he’d caught sight of the camera which he’d placed on the night table earlier. He just stared intently at its shimmering lens. Its eye.
That’s when a terribly funny, grim thought occurred to him: What if people DID just disappear, Lexy?
“... Like, you’re so useless sometimes. I can’t believe you just lose track of two people somehow …”
And what you’d just disappear, too? No traces. No consequences. Just — poof. Vanished. Gone. See you, Lexy. Don’t have to deal with your crap anymore.
Todd got up and grabbed the camera.
Of course it couldn’t happen. Of course it wouldn’t. He’d just take a picture. Just to get back at her. She hated it.
She was still going: “... You don’t have an actual job, you don’t have any actual money, you don’t have a real apartment — like, how am I supposed to manage …”
He turned the camera on. That high-frequency tone came and faded.
She stood up. “... My mom always did wonder about you … maybe it’s time we, I don’t know take a break —”
Todd raised the camera. Framed her from the knees up. “Smile, Lexy!”
“Todd, I don’t like having my picture —”
There she was; her image on the LCD.
Todd lowered the camera.
There she wasn’t.
A horrible feeling rose in him like a spreading shadow. His bones became ice.
It seemed ridiculous but …
Todd looked hard at the empty bed and ruffled sheets.
… he supposed he had.
Alexa was gone.
Todd could smell that electric odour again, richer this time. And there was something else — a soft frying sound, like eggs in a hot pan of butter. His eyes were soon drawn downwards by something in front of him, the source of the sound, near the foot of the bed: two fleshy stumps, pointing upwards. The green nail polish on the toes was an instant tell.
They were still upright, somehow, singed at the cut-off points which were just below the knees. Exactly where he’d cut her off in the shot. The tops of the shins — two charred, flat circles — were sizzling. Blood steadily oozed out of cracks in the cauterized flesh and thin rivulets crawled down the skin. Ribbons of smoke rose out from the seared edges.
Then one tipped over and flopped onto the floor, knocking the other one down on its way.
The smell and sight of burned flesh made Todd gag. Almost instinctively, he raised the camera again. Centred the viewfinder on the stumps. Mashed down the shutter button, and snap!
Now they, too, disappeared in an instant. No more feet. Just a small stain of blood on the floor where they’d lain.
Todd’s legs grew weak, hollow, and he slowly lowered to the floor. He rested back on his elbows.
He felt dread, fear, and revulsion. Dread for what might happen if anyone found out. Fear of the terrible power in his hands. Revulsion at what he’d just seen.
And yet — hadn’t there been something else? A fleeting moment of relief that had come and gone almost before he’d been aware of it?
There was a knocking at the door.
Almost instantly adrenaline sent feeling back into his legs again and he got a quick ‘hide-the-body’ impulse. But there was no body. There wasn’t anything. Just that little splotch of blood. He got right up and hurriedly pulled the bedsheets overtop of it. And then came confidence. Confidence like he never, ever knew.
“Yeah?” Todd called.
“S’me,” came the voice from the other side of the door, “Josh-oh-wah.”
Todd swiftly opened the door. There he was: tall, symmetrical, varnished-looking Joshua Schnarr.
“Hey, buddy. You and Lexy coming out to the game this weekend?” He slapped Todd’s shoulder and Todd wanted to knock him one in the nose. “Last one of the season!”
Todd scratched his head. “Yeah, I dunno, maybe —”
“Where’s Lexy?” He wasn’t paying any attention to Todd. He was just scanning the inside of the dorm.
Todd shifted to better obscure Josh’s view, praying to God Almighty he wouldn’t catch the small puddle of blood. “She, uh, well — we broke up.”
“Aw no, man.” His eyes went back on Todd.
“Yeah. She went to her mom’s.”
He stared blankly at Todd for a moment. Then he shrugged and slapped his shoulder again, and again Todd wanted to plant his fist into his stupid shiny face. “Well, hope to see you at the game, buddy! And by the way, you look pale as fuck. You seen a ghost, Toddy-boy?” He laughed to himself and then he just walked off, on to some other student’s dorm to tell them all about his big important game.
Todd let the door close.
Then he went to his bed, and he thought.
He thought about how much better the world would be without guys like Josh around. He thought about this for a very long time.
He looked over to the camera.
It was a sunny Saturday at the university track, and Josh’s big game had started.
For the first time in his life, Todd attended. He brought an unassuming little black camera, too.
Pictures for the school paper.
Todd coolly took a spot in front of the bleachers, next to two other photographers, facing just the playing field and the bleachers next to it. No one thought anything of him, of course. Just one more arts student shooting the game.
The game started with the whistle and the kickoff and Todd watched for a bit as all the tough boys in tight spandex started handling each other’s bodies all around the field. He had to wait. He had to wait for Josh. To get in a perfect position. Close.
About half an hour later, Josh ended up deep in the opponent’s end zone, waving his hands, gesturing for a pass. Alone.
And close to Todd.
Todd raised the camera and peeked at him through the viewfinder. He was very careful to not get anyone else in the shot. Lined the crosshair up. He whispered to himself: “Smile. Smile, you sonofa —”
Suddenly, unexpectedly, Josh burst into movement, bounding forwards to catch a pass. Todd jerked the camera right, trying to keep all of him inside the the viewfinder, but then Josh stopped and jumped in the other direction and he’d gone too far. Todd panicked and just jammed his finger down on the shutter button, hoping to get some of Josh before anyone else might come into the shot.
The football thumped off Josh’s helmet and then simply dropped to the grass.
Then Josh started screaming.
Todd tilted his head back and looked at the LCD. Turned out it turned out better than what he’d planned for.
He’d caught Josh’s hands in the frame. Just his hands. Josh had reached out for an incoming pass and then … snap!
During the moment that Josh first screamed, the other players just stood there like a game of statues instead of football. Then, on his second scream, he began to writhe. It wasn’t until the blood started really gushing out — his third scream — that the players and coaches and onlookers swarmed to him. He shrieked like mad as he held his bloody, singed, handless wrists in front of him. He must’ve been in a lot of pain, from the looks of it, but it may very well have been more from shock.
Todd stared. A grin crept onto his face. Let’s see you play for the province now, jackass. Let’s see you knock on folks doors now.
Others were clamouring and stumbling off the bleachers, trying to get a better glimpse of what was going on. When they saw Josh, they gasped with their hands to their mouths and prayed through their fingers to God.
And nobody even looked Todd’s way.
Not even once.
Todd lay on his bed, feeling pleased with himself. He could see the sky outside was clear, from through his window, and life seemed to be that much clearer too. He had the power to make problem-people go away. He started to realize exactly why mafias performed hits, why people get assassinated. It was just problem-people. That’s all.
He’d just spent a bit of time on Lexy’s phone, posting bogus status updates on Facebook and Tumblr. He wanted to give himself as much preparation time as possible before people started looking for her. He had also thoroughly cleaned up the little mess of blood with bleach. They’d of course detect it with blacklight, if they wanted to, but really — what could they prove without a body? Without signs of struggle? Without a weapon?
No, officer, that’s just a little camera. Oh, the blood? She just cut her foot, stubbing it on the steel frame of the bed there. See? That’s all.
Todd thought about the future. There was a professor in Photo Essentials who consistently graded him low. One time he scrawled the word AMATEUR in capitals across one of his photos, and said the material was uninspired and forgettable.
The word tattooed itself into his mind. He hated that word. He hated that professor. And if that professor never came back to class? He’d bet that no would would care. They’d forget him.
He didn’t know good art, Todd decided. He didn’t know, and the gatekeepers didn’t know. He was just a gatekeeper. Too old and too quick to judge.
Yes. Better if he disappeared.
There was also a guy in the class who constantly got the top marks and all the attention from the other students. So Todd figured that if he got rid of him, it would be that much better for —
A knock at the door.
Todd hopped out of bed and walked to the door. He knew the police would come. He just hadn’t figured it’d be this quick ...
Just remember, he thought, you don’t know ANYTHING. You really don’t. There’s no way to explain how it happened, and they’ll never find anything. She just … never came back from the food court, one day. That’s right. And remember, you don’t know ANYTHING else. Not about Josh. Not about ANYTHING.
Todd nodded to himself, adjusted the hem of his shirt, opened the door.
He was met by a man with sharp blue eyes, wearing a homburg and a brown trench coat. Behind him was a man in a black suit and sunglasses with his hands folded behind his back.
The man in the coat spoke: “Mister Beaumont?”
“Yes,” Todd said. “Hi.”
“Hi. Jack Walters, reporter for The Record. And this is my photographer, Brian Burnham.”
The man in the black suit nodded.
“Uh, hi. What can I do for you?”
He smiled. “Well, we’d like to do a story for the arts section of the paper, and we’re interested in covering your photography. An interview and a photo of you. Would you be interested in that?”
Todd couldn’t contain a quick little gasp of relief and joy before replying. “My ... photography? Are you serious?”
“Well, sure. We noticed your website. Saw your work. It’s great.”
Todd blinked a few times in astonishment, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to say no. He held the door open wider. “Yeah, yeah, come on in. You just want to do an interview here?”
“Good a place as any.”
They both stepped inside and halted just past the doorway after the door closed behind them.
Todd noticed Jack eyeing the camera on the nightstand.
“Your camera?” Jack pointed at it.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah.”
“Mind if I take a look at it?” He started towards it without waiting for a response.
Something loosened in Todd’s guts. “Well, I don’t think so, it’s sort of fragile, and I’d really appreciate it if …”
Now Todd noticed that this ‘Jack’ fellow wasn’t listening to a thing coming out of his mouth. And that’s when it suddenly hit Todd like a lead weight to the head. His heart stopped dead, then picked up to a thundering gallop. He recalled the fine print he’d read on the box the camera had come in:
And he thought of something he hadn’t thought of before. All his recent activities jogged that information in his brain. He couldn’t ignore it now; CSIS stood for something else, too — ‘Canadian Security Intelligence Service’.
But ... that camera ... that would just be insane.
Jack picked the camera up and briefly looked it over. Then a reminiscing grin appeared on him and he shook his head a little. “You know, this camera — reminds me of a news story I covered not too long ago. They say they found some kind of blue crystal in a crater out overseas. Somewhere in Russia. You know, a meteor. From outer space. You hear about that?”
Todd shook his head.
Jack walked back over to Brian, holding the camera in both hands. “Government found a way to weaponize that crystal. ‘Tibium Garnet’, they called it. You send a big enough electrical charge through it and it emits a laser unlike anything out there. Instantly vaporizes the first thing it touches. Indistinguishable from a camera flash.” He flashed a look at Todd. “Logical next step was to use a simple camera to disguise it. Six were produced. These cameras had some kinda computer in ’em, could supposedly auto-target a subject, or subjects, and hone the laser to terminate only the target ...” Suddenly he chuckled. “Aw, but you know what happened? Those ham-fists in Ottawa. You know they bought a Canon factory? To produce the camera-shaped chassis and assemble it? Then they go and lose a shipment. About as organized as their policy-making, eh?”
Todd’s mouth felt too numb to respond. Throat too dry to swallow.
“Imagine,” Jack said distantly, “being able to just — erase any person you wanted to. Without a gun. Without a trace. So they’d never see it coming. Just a using a plain old camera.” He shrugged. “Well, I never got to publish the story. Not enough sources and all that. You’d be surprised — the technology out there that people don’t know about. The lengths people go to get rid of things. Information. People.” His face grew sombre and he gave a nod to Brian.
His colleague took his arms out from behind him. He was holding something. A small black box, at first glance, with a wide tube sticking out of one side.
Then he raised it to his face and pointed its aperture at Todd. It was a camera. It looked just like a Canon Rebel.
It was Todd’s turn to flinch now.
Whether it was a feature of the camera itself, or the reflection of the deep autumn sky through the window — he swore it had a blue lens.
“Smile for the camera, Mister Beaumont.”
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