It’s been a year. A year since the photos changed. A year since they’ve started selling like never before. A year of going mad.
It all started with a junkie.
You were shooting the burnt out Alliance Steel mill on Zug Island on the riverfront in the spring, the second part of what was supposed to be a four-part series. You were just getting started when she stumbled around the corner, a strung-out human train-wreck in a beaten-up motorcycle jacket. She ambled into your frame in a gust of weed smoke and whiskey with just a whiff of something you couldn’t recognize.
“Take a picture of me, picture man,” she slurred. This chick is tripping balls. Wannabe models weren’t entirely uncommon, so you took a few shots and lowered the camera in the hopes she’d get the hint and move on. Before you could react, she half-strode-half-fell towards you, grabbed your head, and planted an insane, wet kiss on you. Your mind saw it coming and shuddered in anticipation of stale cigarette smoke and rotted teeth, but in that moment your senses were filled with the taste of mint, the loamy scent of a forest in autumn, and the sound of cicadas. You felt the universe tilt on its axis just a teensey tiny bit, and it rocked you to your core.
You stood there stunned and she stumbled backwards, winked, chuckled almost derisively, and staggered away. You didn’t even bother chasing her when you realized she’d lifted a wad of twenties and a train pass from your pocket.
After a few minutes, you tried to shake off the experience and get a few photos of the old foundry. It was dark and you were distracted, and no matter what you did, it didn’t seem like you were getting the color right, at least not according to the tiny screen on the camera. When you got to the little hipster coffee shop and sat down with your MacBook and a doppio, you realized it wasn’t the camera.
All of the photos you took after The Kiss were…different. It was like it was overcast, the light of the sun diffused through gray clouds, even though the skies were a clear blue. Everything in the photos looked just a little more worn than they really looked. A little more pale. Like they were a little older, suffered from just a little more entropy. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you’d run them all through a “Depressing Gray Emo” SnapChat filter. They were beautiful. They very specific beauty that you’d strived for your entire career. But they weren’t what was really there. No amount of lighting would turn one into the other.
And there were no people. No animals. You’d specifically snapped a picture of a kiln with a pigeon perched on the crane, but the bird wasn’t in the photo. The footpath that was in the background of the rusted-out chain link fence was devoid of the couple and their baby carriage that you knew were there when you took the shot.
You sat in the coffee shop, and with a sense of dread you turned the camera on yourself and clicked the shutter. There, on the tiny screen, was the coffee shop. It wasn’t open and bristling with life. It was empty. Gray. No light except that dim twilight that filtered through the front windows. And most certainly no Jamie Norwood. You turned the camera to the pastry display around which huddled a gaggle of teen girls inquiring of the put-upon barista whether the lemon scones contained gluten. You clicked the shutter.
The strangled “oh holy shit” must’ve been audible, because the people at the table nearest you turned to look. You sat with the camera in your lap, cold and shaking, until they turned back to their drinks. You fumbled with the MacBook and pulled the last few images off the camera over the wireless. You took a deep breath. You opened the file.
The gaggle of girls were gone, as was the exasperated barista. In their place was a man. He was young, maybe early thirties. He looked clean, but disheveled like someone who’d been camping, like he’d had a stream to dip in to wash up, but couldn’t remember his last hot shower. He was wearing high-end outdoors gear that was so new it still had the creases in it (you’d later zoom in and see an REI tag still dangling off his cargo pants). He had one arm in the pastry case and was sweeping the scones into a satchel. Next to him sat a large sledgehammer, the head on the floor and handle resting against the case.
And he was looking right at you. You’d surprised him. The look on his face was a mix of shock and a sort of primal terror. The moment you snapped that photo, this man truly feared for his life.
You quickly snapped another photo of the pastry case, but the man was gone. Along with the scones and the sledgehammer.
The photo sold for twenty grand.
You can no longer take photos of the real world. It doesn’t matter if you use your DSLR, your phone, or even old film from a disposable camera developed by hand in your closet. Every photo is of this other world. This dimmer, slightly more aged world.
There are never animals, but you’ve found people. They’re all different sorts, but nearly all have the same tired, disheveled, and often scared look of the man from the coffee shop. You’ve concluded that they can at least see and hear something if they’re close enough when you take the shot. You have a lot of photos of startled people.
About six months ago, you discovered a small colony of people living in the Grand Hotel on the waterfront. You’d guess about a hundred people live there, and they’ve changed the environment in their world more than anywhere else you’ve seen. They’ve fashioned a sort of protective barrier of small cars, tires, and other debris that creates a small walled area in front of the hotel – where you’ve often caught children playing. There are always people on the roof with bows or crossbows, and people with blades and clubs on the barrier, watching the road. You don’t know what they’re defending from, but they’re pretty serious about it.
You did an entire photo series at The Grand over several months, but when you started getting close, the residents obviously started becoming very agitated. You felt like a ghost, haunting the halls of this strange other world.
The photos continued to sell well, and you returned to The Grand a week ago to see if you could capture a new series. When you snapped your first photo from the end of the block, you knew something was wrong. No one was on the roof, no one was on the wall. As you approached, trying not to get run over by cars or bump into people in the real world, you caught the first shot of the bodies.
They were everywhere, dozens and dozens of them, these familiar faces that you’d known for months. They’d been killed by someone with a blade. Limbs were missing. Huge gashes with spilled entrails. Blood everywhere.
You moved through the hotel as best you could without the staff calling the cops. You found the bodies of the children with a small number of adult defenders back near the freezers in the kitchen. You must have looked as disturbed as you felt, because the hotel staff finally got tired of tolerating you and had you escorted out to the street.
Shaking, you took a shot straight from the front door looking up the street. There was a man in the photo that was different than all the others you’d caught. He had the same unkempt look as the rest, but he was more…real. His colors were brighter, he was sharper somehow, like the rest of the world was slightly out of focus. He carried a Japanese-style sword. He was covered in blood.
In the first shot, his back was to you. In the second, he was looking right at you, a wild smile on his face. In the shot after that, he was walking towards you. You dropped the camera to hang on its lanyard as you backed unconsciously to the wall of the hotel.
And then you heard him. His voice was high-pitched, and it sounded like it was echoing across a huge cavern, but you felt an invisible breath against your ear.
“I seeeeeeee youuuuuuu….”
You waited, breathing heavy, shaking for what seemed like an eternity, but it must’ve only been a few seconds, before your terror got the best of you and you ran.
That was a week ago, and you’ve been drunk at home ever since. You’ve been snapping shots of your apartment on a frequent basis to make sure you’re really alone, and placing a lot of GrubHub orders.
It was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday when there was a knock on your door that wasn’t associated with a delivery. Through the peep-hole you saw a man in slacks and a polo shirt. Sunglasses. Short hair. “Mr. Norwood?” He said from the other side of the door. “Mr. Norwood, I’d like to talk about some of your hotel photos.”
Your curiosity got the better of you. You opened the door. You’re not sure what he was holding. It wasn’t a gun. But it made a bright red flash and everything went black.