He Was There
A short story written by Siobahn Harris 7/26/2017
It started as a smudge. Just this thing that was always there. In every picture. I thought it was my camera. Like a scratch on the lens or something, but then it became more and more clear. It was a man. Dressed in a long brown coat, wearing a dark hat, watching me.
Flipping through my pictures on Facebook, I could see him everywhere. At first, he was so far away. The picture of me at my niece’s birthday at the park, he’s just a smudge in the tree line behind me. The picture of me on vacation to Florida, he was a smudge on the beach. He was always there. Even in the selfies I took at home, he would be somewhere in the distance outside my window. It was the pictures I took of myself where he would get closer. I couldn’t do it anymore after I took a picture at the coffee house.
Miranda and I enjoy going to the coffee house and hanging out for hours. Sometimes we will talk about random shit but most of the time we just use their internet. It was a Monday, we met up around 4pm, laptop cases in tow, and sat down at the bar seats. The shop was pretty busy, lots of screaming kids hyped up on too much sugar and so many people in need of caffeine just to make it through the rest of the day. It was a small coffee house, looked a little like a wide hallway fitted with seats. Even though the workers would call out the drinks, people would pile around the counter waiting like they were embarrassed about what they got. Not us. We would order our drinks and quickly sit down to ensure we would have a place to call home for the next few hours. Once we got our drinks, we made our way back to our seats and Miranda made the suggestion that changed everything.
“Sam, let’s take a selfie with our drinks for Facebook.”
My stomach turned at the thought. I knew if I took the picture, not only would he be there but he would be close.
“Why don’t you take the shot. Or, we could just take a picture of the drinks. Look how pretty they are!”
Miranda grabbed my chin and shook it a little. “Look how pretty we are! Come on, I got all dolled up today, let’s show it off.”
Pulling my face away from her hand, I said, “I’ve got it, why don’t I take a picture of you and your drink.”
Miranda’s head dropped to the side and her shoulders fell. She just stared at me with those huge beautiful brown eyes. Damn her.
“Fine. But just one and that’s it.”
“Yes! Okay, just one!” Miranda bounced in her seat like a little girl about to get a birthday present.
I couldn’t breathe. I only want to take one shot but if this one isn’t perfect I know she will want to take another. What does he want?
Miranda began tussling her shiny black curls and putting on some lip gloss. My eyes darted around the shop frantically. All of these faces, all of these people, they made it so hard to relax.
“You ready?” Miranda held up her mocha like a movie prop.
I wonder what that’s like, to be excited for a selfie. I’ve forgotten, now. I wish I could be like her, no worries. She flashed me a big smile, her eyes locked onto me eagerly waiting for a simple picture. It’s just one shot.
“Yeah, sweetie. Let’s do this.” My head sunk as I grabbed my phone.
“I don’t understand why you hate pictures. You always look so beautiful.”
“Thanks, but it’s not that. Don’t worry about it, okay?”
We turned in our seats so that the large windows we sat in front of was to our left. This made the soft afternoon sun shine down on us and our drinks perfectly. She was right, we were beautiful. My hand was shaking as I held my phone up, framing the shot to get everything. I plastered on a big fake smile and snapped the shot.
I quickly locked my phone and said, “Got it! I’ll post that later. So, tell me about this trip you’re planning to Thailand!”
Miranda’s face twisted into a frown as she grabbed for my camera. “No! Let me see it before you put your phone away.”
I pulled my phone away and extended my arm behind me. “Hey, no. You said one shot!”
“Yeah, but what if it’s bad?”
“Now, come on, Miranda. I’m sure you look great!”
Her long arm grabbed my phone and she could unlock it without a problem, she knew my passcode. “Sam, we can’t post this.”
My stomach dropped and tightened into a ball as my eyes scanned the picture. Our faces were blurry as my focus narrowed in on him. He was there but he was no longer a smudge on the picture. Now his coat was clear, his hat was clear, but his face was not. Just a man, standing across the street, looking at the camera.
Miranda’s elbow poked my side. “Sam! Please, take another.”
In a trance, I could hear myself still trying to get out of another picture. “We look great. I’ll post this later.”
She held the phone closer to my face and spoke into my ear, “Hello? My eyes are closed! One more please?”
I let out a sigh and slowly grabbed the phone from Miranda. One more shot. I can’t. I don’t know how to get out of this. One more shot.
“Okay, but not with the windows. Just us, the drinks, and the coffee house.”
Miranda looked confused. “But the sunlight looks-”
“No! One more shot. No windows. There will still be sunlight. Don’t worry.”
Her eyes perked up. “Okay, one more shot! Let’s do it.”
My hands were now shaking like crazy. I had to use two hands to take this picture. Miranda asked about it but I just told her I was hungry. It took everything I had to push that button. I flashed my fake smile and then, click.
I closed my eyes after taking the picture and Miranda grabbed my phone. “There we go! That looks great. You can delete the first one and post the second. Thanks, Sam! Okay, so Thailand. I was thinking…”
Her voice became white noise as I looked down at the picture. He was there. No windows in the shot but he was still there. Sitting in the coffee house now. He had a cup of coffee in his hand and he was a few seats away. The brown coat, the dark hat, and still no face. I felt like I wanted to vomit. The room began to spin and I looked up at Miranda. Her happy face steadied me but I still couldn’t hear her. She was still going on about her trip but my ears were ringing so loud that her voice just blended into the tone. I had to look at the table he was sitting in. I didn’t want to but I had to know if he was sitting in here, that close to me. I gazed over Miranda’s shoulder and I could see a man sitting there but it wasn’t him. This guy wasn’t wearing a coat or a hat and I could see his face. He looked up at me and then back at his phone. I must have looked crazy staring at him like that.
My words slurred together as I started gathering my things. “Sweetie, I love you and I want to hear more, but I need to leave. Can we do this later?”
“Um. Yeah, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Am I okay? Uh. Sure. I’m fine. I just feel a little sick.”
“Well, you look a little pale. Text me when you get home. We can do this next week, okay?” Miranda stood up and held her arms up for a hug.
“Yeah, next week. Sounds great.” With all my things bundled in my arms, I leaned in and just let her hug me. I stumbled out the door and drove home.
That was the last time I snapped a picture of myself, three weeks ago. I haven’t seen him since that day but I still feel nauseous when I see a camera.
Things were different tonight.
I sat in front of my laptop scanning through videos online. While I was watching something, I noticed this little light on my computer was on. I’ve never seen that light before. I poked at it to see if it was a button or something, but no. It was right next to my camera. It was then my email chimed. Checking my email, it just said it was from “X” and the subject was “X”. How did my spam not catch this? Curious, I opened it and it was blank with three attachments. They were pictures. Something didn’t feel right. I clicked on the first picture. My mouth dropped open when I saw, it was me. I was looking down at my screen but it was me in front of my laptop, just a few minutes ago. I pressed the right arrow to scan to the next photo and again, it was me. This time I was looking directly at the camera. This must be when I noticed the light. The last photo was me, but this time with my finger near the camera. I was so confused about how this happened that I didn’t even think to check the pictures for…him. I looked at the return email again to see if I missed something but no, it was just “X”. How is that possible?
I finally gathered the nerve up to check the photos again. My heart began to race as I moved my mouse to the first picture. My chest grew tight. I couldn’t breathe. Clicking on the picture, my eyes fixated onto myself as I was still so confused how this happened. I then began to scan the dark room around me. There he was. He was standing next to my closet door. The light from my laptop washed over the room and he was somehow still in the darkness. I quickly scanned to the next photo and there he was again. Not closer, just standing in the same spot. Same thing with the last photo.
As I stood I began to shake and my legs felt as if I was walking through sand. I wanted to move but it was so difficult to pull myself forward. I needed to find out more but my heart was pounding so hard I could hear it. I turned on the camera on my phone and I walked out to my living room. The large room always seemed smaller with my stuff thrown about. The sofa had a laundry basket filled with clean clothes that I just haven’t folded yet. The arm chair was forever a home to my jacket. The coffee table still had my plate from dinner and a bunch of old magazines. I stood next to my sofa and slowly held my phone up for a picture. I closed my eyes and pressed the button. The sound of the shutter filled the silent room and stabbed at my ears like a needle. Taking a deep breath, I looked down at the phone and when I saw the picture it felt like someone punched me in the stomach. It was me, the messy room, and standing closer than ever, was the man.
I started to cry as I held the camera up again. Sweat filled my palm as I snapped another picture and I dropped the phone. I slowly picked the phone up and reluctantly looked down at the picture. He was standing right at my shoulder now. His face was a twisted mess of flesh but I could still tell he was looking at the camera. I could smell him. The smell of rot. Like old chicken left in a disgusting trash can for days. I could feel his breath on my ear. He was so close. I slowly turned my head to check the room. A fleeting feeling of relief washed over me. Alone. Still alone. But somehow, he was here. The tears felt hot as the poured down my cold face. My hands trembled uncontrollably as I held my phone up one last time. This time I turned the camera to face me, so that I could see what I was taking a picture of. My eyes pinched closed as I held the phone up to my face. Slowly opening my eyes, I sucked in air as if it were in short supply. He was there. This time, his head facing me and not the camera. My thumb hovered over the shutter button. Before I could click it, his head snapped to face the phone. My eyes grew wide. I couldn’t breathe. I watched as his boney fingers as they crept over my mouth. His stench grew stronger. His fingers dug into my cheeks and I tried to let out a scream but nothing. The skin on my face began to rip open as he dug his fingers in deeper. Faster than I could blink, he grabbed onto my head and twisted it around. I could hear the bones in my neck and back cracking. Blood. All I could taste was blood. My body crumbled to the ground and I could feel him standing over me. The room began to fill with the flash of a bright light and the shutter sound. Over and over again. The blood poured out of my mouth and onto the wooden floor underneath me as the darkness took over.