Camera Obscura

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Chapter One

The ribbon of highway stretched in front of Lawrence Weaver, sometimes like a meandering river of quicksilver, at other times a straight and narrow band, but always shining. On his left the Pacific Ocean lay placid, seemingly asleep except for the gentle lapping at the shore. At times, the mountains to the right marched up to tower over the highway and then retreated to the distance as the miles slipped inexorably away. An occasional gull broke the monotony of the cloudless blue sky. Boats of all sizes and shapes dotted the horizon, along with the occasional hazy island.

As the car nosed north on Pacific Coast Highway, only the slipstream of wind and the throb of the engine broke the silence that Larry rode in, but he wasn’t listening to either, only to the noise in his head. Thoughts, as delicate as soap bubbles that burst upon contact, lightly touched the surface of his mind and, just as quickly, were gone--random memories of the day before when he had awakened with a dull headache and drenched with sweat. Questions rose and fell like the gentle waves that he swept by unnoticed, but the questions didn’t bother him as they had a few weeks ago. The memory of the empty liquor bottle and the nightmare from which he had awakened were softened by the soft music in his head, the music that played over and over and over until it muted everything else in his awareness.

He remembered very little except, of course, for what they had told him, his name, what he did for a living, a few things like that. At times he had flashes of memory, like lightning that comes out of the sky unexpectedly and is instantly gone before you can see what it illuminated. That had bothered him for a while, but not anymore. Amnesia was nothing if not his friend. At least that was what he had been told. “Remembering isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” someone had said, but he couldn’t quite recall who, a doctor, a friend, a bartender. It didn’t matter anyway. He couldn’t remember, and with the music playing in his head, he didn’t really care.

The day became warm and then hot as the sun climbed higher over the central California coast. Larry put the top down in Cambria. He liked the feel of the sun beating down and the breeze that cooled his sun-warmed skin. He sat loosely at the wheel, one elbow resting lightly on the window frame, relaxed, thinking of almost nothing, just listening to the music in his head.

When he saw the sign for San Simeon, he thought about taking some time to visit the Hurst Castle, but the idea quickly died and the music took over again.

The cliffs of the Big Sur broke through the music for a while. Their awesome beauty touched something in his mind, made him pull to the side of the road. As he looked ahead at the road hugging the cliffs, he suddenly wished he had a camera to capture this memory before he forgot it. He reached into the back seat to grab…what? A muscle memory that he couldn’t place.

“What’s up with that?” he wondered, aloud. Nothing was back there. His gear was in the trunk. Oh well. Not to worry, the music said, and he pulled back onto the road, noticing that there was a car behind him. There obviously had been others, as he had made his way up the coast through the many small towns along the way, but for some reason, this was the first one that registered in his awareness. His subconscious had taken care of the others, avoiding, slowing, passing.

He consciously slowed and waved for the other car to pass. It suddenly felt good to be aware, to make a conscious decision, and as the car sped by, he waved at the two girls who waved back with big smiles and great enthusiasm.

Larry sighed in appreciation, for they were very young and very pretty. He suddenly realized that he did feel good; he had a feeling of wellbeing, of contentment, but for some indefinable reason he felt that he shouldn’t. For an instant, the sunny day clouded and everything seemed a little off. Then the music started again. He shrugged after a disconcerting moment, and continued on the winding road.

Lulled by the heat from the sun and the car’s vibration, Larry almost nodded off. Suddenly aware that the car was drifting off the road, he wrenched the steering wheel to the left to bring the car back into the middle of his lane.

“Wake up, jerk off,” he scolded himself aloud. He straightened in the seat and turned on the car’s radio. The stream of Spanish, followed by a burst of mariachi music, shook Larry out of his lethargy. He pushed a button to seek the next station, which happened to be an oldies station. After listening for a moment he realized this wasn’t his kind of music, but it was certain to help him stay awake until he reached Carmel by the Sea and a hot cup of coffee.

It was late afternoon when he reached San Francisco. He wasn’t sure why this was his destination, but it was as good as any. The City by the Bay, one of his favorite places. He would visit his college roommate. Roommate? Now, where did that come from? Unaccountably, he realized he remembered Mike Casey. A good friend and one who could help fill in the blanks in his memory.

The music in his head had diminished in the last few hours due to some old time radio shows, featuring the legendary Bob Hope and Red Skelton, not to mention the more recent comedy of Tim Allen, who really cracked him up. But the music was still there, cushioning his thoughts.

He made an effort to push it further into the depths of his mind by focusing on the city around him, a woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store, a couple of young toughs loitering at the opening to an alley, a cable car as it clanged its way down the center of the street. He was surprised at the detail he was becoming aware of. It seemed strange to him that trees had tiny green things on their limbs instead of a green halo surrounding the trunk.

He realized that he thought an old Chinese woman who crossed the street in front of him was beautiful despite the mass of wrinkles that was her face. There was a sense of calm about her as she struggled to pull a cart full of grocery sacks up onto the curb.

For some reason encouraged, Larry followed signs toward the Golden Gate Bridge, thinking that he would continue up the coast. He had decided not to pursue the idea of visiting his roommate; too many questions, too much stress. He would leave it for another day when he felt more up to it. But when the bridge was in sight, he unexpectedly turned to the left, meandered through the Presidio and finally found himself back on the coast, heading south toward Cliff House.

He pulled into the parking lot just to the north of the famous restaurant and parked, not sure why he was here. In the distance, a fog bank hung like a dark curtain, but around Cliff House, the atmosphere was clear and cool, and in spite of that feeling of being lost in a personal fog, Larry decided to get out and walk. Maybe the cool air of the approaching evening would sweep the mists from his mind.

He walked to the main building where the restaurant was located. Down rocky stair at the side of the building, he found a gift shop loaded with tshatchka aimed at the tourist with too much money or no will power, or both. He wandered through the store, picking up things, inspecting and then replacing them. There was nothing that tempted him, but it was relaxing to look and not worry about anything.

Outside the gift shop was a large terrace where a few people still mingled, looking at the ocean, at Seal Rock, at the seals that rested on it. Larry sat on one of the small benches and watched the people, not really conscious of individuals, only aware of the ebb and flow around him. He sat unmoving until two young boys who were playing with a rubber ball accidentally bounced it into his lap. He started, shaken from his lethargy. He looked at the boys, who watched him uneasily. Would he be mad at their intrusion? With a tired smile he lobbed the ball back to them.

“What do you say?” asked an older woman, perhaps their grandmother, who was sitting on another small bench nearby. The older of the two boys dipped his head toward Larry, but the younger boy, who vaguely reminded him of another little boy, smiled a huge smile and called out, “Thanks, mister” and scampered away.

He watched the boys with more interest than he had shown in any of the other people around. Finally, the woman called to them and after a heated discussion, the boys continued playing. He rose and started ambling around the terrace. He approached a small building on the edge of the terrace. Over the door was the sign “Camera Obscura.” He had no idea what it was, but curious, he paid the admission and went inside.

The almost total absence of light surprised him and it took a minute or two for his eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. When he was finally able to look around, he saw a small room with what appeared to be a horizontal screen in the middle, surrounded by a railing where people were gazing down at the image.

“It’s a picture of what is really happening outside,” he heard a young woman say. “See. There’s Seal Rock.”

Larry edged into an open space at the rail and looked at the picture on the screen. At first, he had a hard time recognizing anything because the image was upside down, but slowly the picture rotated until he was able to make out what he was seeing. He smiled when he recognized the “grandmother” as she motioned to someone and in a moment the two boys were at her side. As the picture rotated slowly away, the three walked to the stairs and climbed out of Larry’s sight.

The inner door to the dark room opened and a man entered, taking his place at the screen beside Larry, peering at him for a long moment before looking away.

“Look!” the young man at the girl’s side almost shouted, pointing at the screen, “There’s Brian and Doug. I thought it might just be a picture, but it’s really them!”

“How do they do that, honey?” the girl asked.

Larry wondered that as well.

“I don’t know. Probably mirrors or something.”

One by one the people in the room walked around the railing following the image as the screen turned, searching for friends, or something recognizable, and then slowly, in twos and threes, they exited the building. Larry felt, rather than saw, the man beside him step away and leave with a couple. As their image appeared on the screen, he saw the man look back at the Camera Obscura, take out a cell phone, and make a call. Larry was left alone with the revolving picture of the now almost deserted terrace.

He was just about ready to leave himself, when he noticed a woman in a business suit leave the restaurant at the top of the stairs. She walked confidently along the sidewalk by the cliff, when a car pulled beside her. A tall man got out of the car and stood in her way. The light had faded considerably, but they were clearly visible. She tried to go around him, but he took her arm and started pulling her toward the car.

“Hey!” Larry shouted at the men, as if they could hear him, “What the hell are you doing?”

As if in answer, the man looked directly at the Camera Obscura, and though the image was small, Larry felt an electric shock of recognition. In a split second it was gone, but the evil in that face was immediately burned into Larry’s mind.

The woman struggled with the tall man, obviously shouting, trying to hit him with a large bag. He grabbed it from her hand, tossed it over the side of the cliff, and slapped her viciously. Apparently stunned by the blow, she didn’t resist when another hand reached out of the car and pulled her inside. After another long look at the Camera Obscura, the tall man got in and the car sped off.

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