By Raymond Cara
Although Kevin’s intensity alienated him from some casual friends, potential clients and dates, and even family, it was probably the thing Sean liked the most about his best friend of nearly fifteen years. People of true passion were hard to come by these days, but by god Kevin was chalked full of it.
Kevin had acquired a Graflex Super D a few years back and started experimenting with a 19th century style wet plate portrait method of light capture called tintype. The sessions with each subject would often take hours, and would yield only one single photo. Something about his uncompromising purist style and ‘end of the world’ approach to photography had gained him a reputation amongst arty types in the city. He had refused to advertise or post his work online, and often encouraged his clients to abstain from the latter as well, although they made their way onto various websites and blogs all the same.
Kevin often bragged to Sean that people who showed up to be photographed were impressed by his collection of old film cameras, and the makeshift darkroom attached to the living space of his basement apartment in the north end. It had been years since Sean was there, but he remembered that when photos were being developed in the small bachelor, it made the entire musty room take on a hue of fleshy blood red.
A Nikon F100 that Sean received for Christmas back in high school was a prize shared between the two boys at the time, and they cherished it like it was a great work of art. The craftsmanship of the chassis. The lens itself, an all-seeing eye of opportunity. For two years, urban photography became their favorite pastime. They catalogued the forgotten, the decaying, and the beautiful. They created a spectacle out of what had once been, and captured tangible memories. It was poetry burned onto film. When it came time to develop, the process was done ritualistically, and in silence. This tradition Kevin would carry into his professional career, although he hated calling it that.
These days, the work was more arcane. The clientele were downtown hipsters who had heard about Kevin through a friend of a friend. In his small apartment, shelves of various kinds of developers and fixers, usually in some kind of unorganized mess, sit dangerously close to the only eating space. The humble abode on any given day was subject to the neglect of domestic chores, and it had no TV or computer.
And yet still, people came. And they paid. Sean was never quite sure what kind of money Kevin made from his works, and was uncomfortable asking even after all the years of friendship.
He knew that it was enough to eke out a low key lifestyle committed to creation alone, though. If and when you did get into a session he was, apparently, able to engage the sitter in a uniquely intimate way. Although few words were spoken during his sessions, they were personal and engaging. The experience was known to be spiritual, or erotic. Although, Sean had trouble believing it.
A self-elevated reputation built over the years cultivated a certain shade of pretentiousness in Kevin that irritated Sean, but despite that they maintained a degree of closeness that began when they were awkward teens at Dennis O’Connor High, bonding over a love of obscure music. After a film class with Mr. Gagnon, a plump little French man who usually conducted his classes sitting down, they both became entranced with composition and development.
Despite having fundamentally different tastes there had always been much overlap in their interests. It was, in a sense, the passion towards art itself that was shared rather than the specific genres or bands, or even the medium of expression. They could talk for hours about their most recent discoveries. Some 7-inch gem from an obscure punk group like Teenage Exorcists, or an old funk 45 from Motown found in a bin at Kops Records.
They even had totally different tastes in girls, though neither of them met any in those days who were both intellectually and physically appealing.. And that they agreed was important. A structure of opposites seemed to represent the friendship as a whole. Kevin was known to be hot headed and impulsive while Sean was more relaxed and methodical. They noticed this sort of Yang and Yin dynamic between one another and it usually acted as a source of mild amusement.
Being in high school with no income of their own, both of them asked for cameras that Christmas. Sean was an only child in a household of love and stability – and, more importantly, an upper middle class income – he had his wish granted. Kevin was not, and so was instead given a tired, half-hearted apology. With two older siblings and the lack of funds of a single-parent household, it rendered big purchases for any of them nearly impossible.
The two boys were inseparable during high school, and they talked about most things together. Kevin usually would avoid the topic of family, but after that Christmas, Sean learnt the realities of Kevin’s home life. Kevin was smart enough to understand that his mother was doing her best, but she had her own demons. Unlike his older brother and sister, Kevin never met their father who had left town before he was born. Though Kevin would pretend this never bothered him, Sean knew it did.
In the early years of their friendship, Sean sensed Kevin’s resentment when he hung out with other friends. Besides Sean, Kevin never had any close friends of his own, and so he often seemed to hold a deep attachment to Sean, more than what most boys their age did. Despite the closeness, though, Kevin could never seem to get on with Sean’s crowd, and his socially awkward, introverted personality, which would eventually develop into a mild form of agoraphobia, usually resulted in people thinking he was uninterested or rude.
As they often do, the common road they walked through their years of friendship met a fork, and opposite paths were taken. Sean gave up photography, feeling as though he had now grown out of it. He moved away to start college, and the Nikon camera, once a token of the boys’ bond, was given to Kevin as a sort of parting gift. He would make more use of it after all.
Over the years since Sean left the city for school, he and Kevin had been in touch by way of an occasional hours-long phone call. Kevin would poke at the white picket existence that Sean was cultivating, while Sean would rib Kevin for living like a bum. Despite their differences, they could still go on as they always had.
During his time away, Sean met the woman he would eventually marry. She was a tall, beautiful blonde named Alison Fleming, and Sean considered her the smartest woman he’d ever met. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten so lucky, but they were in love. They moved back to the city together where Alison would eventually get a job as a high end chef, and Sean got accepted to work for a big media agency as a digital planner.
Kevin had taken on odd jobs where possible, “eating shit”, so he’d tell Sean, while trying to develop some way of earning a living with his art. Eventually, between a series of concert photography gigs and some general labor, he was finally able to rent a basement apartment studio in the north end of the city.
He had no real friends besides Sean, and few lovers. The odd date with women or men resulted mostly in mutual physical arrangements. Kevin was interesting enough to win a date into someone’s bed, but most experiences were void of any real satiation based on how uninterested he seemed whilst recalling the affairs.
To Kevin, the only thing that satisfied him was getting a perfect shot. One that utterly embodied the lived-in experiences and feelings of that single moment. He once told Sean that most people are so over-saturated with images they couldn’t understand it anyway, and it didn’t always happen; the perfect shot. Kevin knew it was a harsh, self-imposed standard, but like so many great artists, he could barely function if he could not meet it. He even found himself unable to perform sexually if he hadn’t recently captured what he aspired to. He struggled to maintain mental clarity. No matter what he did to distract himself, he found it impossible to perform in any area of his life if he could not find his perfect capture. Sleep even became erratic. Over time, though, he developed his technique, and he was finally able to function, if imperfectly. Years of experimentation in different styles lead to the perfection of the tintype portraits he became known for.
‘The metal you walked away with at the end of the night was just as much a part of the fee as the experience of sitting itself. His no-frills, humourless approach brought out a certain tension in his basement studio that was usually saved for high end studios. Knowing you only get one shot, literally, created a drama that was palpable in the expressions of patrons. His works were truly one of a kind.’
That was the line that Sean had read, relating to his old friend, in a highly circulated culture magazine. It was both a bewildering and proud moment. Alison had sent him a link with a critic’s list of the top 5 photographers in town, complete with interviews, and Kevin was amongst the list. It was noted, however, that he had declined to interview.
“Isn’t this the Kevin you told me about?” Alison had asked him. “Your friend you’ve never introduced me to?”
For reasons he couldn’t pinpoint, in the eight years they’d been together, Sean had never been able to bring himself to introduce the two. He couldn’t think of a scenario where it wouldn’t be awkward and forced, so he’d put it off. He’d figured the two would finally meet at the wedding, which would happen later in the year.
They were about 30 years old at this point and things had been going on as they had for what seemed like a lifetime. It had been, really. Sean told himself that he’d been preoccupied with his demanding job, and now the upcoming wedding preparations and plans for property ownership. Sometimes, though, when he was honest with himself, Sean worried his old friend would judge his fiancée for her affluent upbringing, or some other quality he hadn’t recognized. When he was really honest with himself, he wondered if he hadn’t put off the meeting because he worried Alison wouldn’t understand his old friend. Kevin could make people uncomfortable if you didn’t know him well. He wasn’t sure what he would do if the two most important people in his life couldn’t get along.
It was during one of these honest moments of contemplation that an odd phone call found him. It was a Wednesday night around 11pm as he and Alison were settling down. Alison was already in bed, playing on her phone and watching TV. She looked at him with annoyance.
“You really need to tell your boss that he can’t be calling you this late anymore. This is ridiculous –“
“It isn’t Porter. It’s Kevin.”
Sean was surprised to see Kevin’s number appear on the screen. His friend had called the evening before around 9:30pm while Sean was trying to meet a looming deadline, so he had let the call pass, telling himself he would return it when he had the time. In the back of his mind, though, he suspected Kevin was calling with an excuse as to why he couldn’t attend the wedding. Today had been equally laborious, and returning the call had completely slipped his mind.
“He called yesterday, but I forgot to call him back. He would never phone twice in a row like this unless something was wrong.”
Sean crawled out of bed and stepped out into the hallway as he answered the call, leaving Alison in the bedroom. He noticed, as he pulled the door slightly ajar, that his fiancée had muted the TV and was only half paying attention to her phone.
The call took all of ten minutes, and when he returned, Alison raised an eyebrow in his direction. Sean shrugged as he got back into bed. “He’s too much. We’ve barely talked for over a year, and he calls me at nearly midnight on a Wednesday wanting me to come over right now.” Sean looked over at Alison as he got settled, and noticed her expression of curiosity. He continued, “He sounded excited; nervous almost. Maybe drunk? He was on about this new –well, old, I guess old – piece of gear he found last week, something called a Camera Obscura? Probably one of those old cameras the size of a microwave.” Sean laughed to himself, ”He’s always loved that kind of antique stuff.” Looking back at Alison, he realized her eyebrow had climbed up her forehead in expectation of a point. “Anyways, he insisted that I come check the thing out, but I told him I’d come by Friday after work and have a couple drinks. I want to make sure he’s coming to the wedding, too.” He kissed her on the forehead, and added, “I want you guys to meet,” though as the words passed his lips he wasn’t sure they were true. He looked up towards the ceiling in a daze, lost in the past. Alison put her hand on his stomach, and he snapped back into present reality. He looked at her, smiled, and kissed her again. They cuddled close to each other on the new Queen sized bed in the same arrangement that they long ago had established as their bedtime routine. Within minutes they were both asleep.
Thursday and Friday passed in a flurry of work and deadlines, but as the time for him to clock out for the weekend approached, Sean found himself feeling excited. Although part of his excitement was interest in Kevin’s latest artistic endeavor, he was mostly just excited to see his old friend again. On the way to the subway, he grabbed a 6 pack of local craft beers and 3 pre-rolled joints from the dispensary. Kevin’s place was on the end of the King North subway line, only thirty minutes from Sean and Alison’s apartment on the South side of the city. As he rode the train North, he felt his eyes shift erratically as he gazed out the subway window at the blurs of light. He realized as he allowed his brain to wander that although they lived so close, it had been over two years since he last saw Kevin.
Sean was excited to talk to the only friend that truly got him. Most of his friends these days were from work, and the conversations never ran very far below the surface. The others were friends he had met through Alison. Although he considered some of these people good friends, such as Alison’s chef school friend Thompson, it had been hard to become truly close. Especially while everybody was so entangled with personal affairs and the stresses of everyday life.
Although he loved Alison dearly, Sean knew there were certain things she would never quite understand. Even by the standards of Sean’s suburban upbringing, Alison had grown up rich. She always carried a certain sense of entitlement that had caused arguments in the past. He knew she would draw conclusions about Kevin as much by the look of his apartment as what he said. She would see it is an extension of who he was, period. He could have been the nicest guy in the world, but he knew she wouldn’t accept him once she realized how he lived.
Lost in daydreams and memories, Sean nearly missed his stop at Museum station. When he arrived at Kevin’s after a ten minute walk North, his knocks were unanswered. No sounds could be heard coming from inside the apartment. He walked around back to the basement window and found it blocked out with pillows from inside, and a dim light shone around the edges. He returned back to the door and tried the handle. It was unlocked, and he stepped inside. He could see Kevin sitting on his mattress on the floor in the upper lefthand corner of the room underneath the window. There was no response to Seans entry, and there was no warm welcome.
He knew Kevin was never one for being particularly tidy, but even by those standards the place was a sty. Sean had visited Kevin’s apartment before, and this time it felt different. Cold. It was the middle of summer and it had been roasting outside all day. Although it was a basement apartment, prone to drafts, the air felt stifled, like a cellar that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. He wondered idly if the owners had installed an air conditioner, but it seemed as though it had become harder to breathe as soon as he passed through the door.
He took in the stacks of old take-out food containers spread across the small faux-granite kitchen counter. The table was also littered with garbage, and among it Sean could see drawings Kevin had made of cartoonish characters, abstract patterns, as well as some black and white photographs.
The characters in the drawings appeared alien yet super sexualized with large breasts in sets of threes, or long penises with mouths that made them look like serpents. Though he’d never known Kevin to draw, it wasn’t much of a surprise.
The photos, however, made him pause. A few of them were from some sort of bondage series. Different women could be seen restrained, wearing gags and blindfolds. The shots were immaculately lit, and artfully staged. The word – staged – rang in his head, and he found himself drawn to the images, strangely comforted by their elegance.
He entered the kitchenette on the immediate right hand side that was separated by a divider wall from the rest of the room. He looked over at Kevin on the way, still no response. Sean was getting creeped out by his deadpan expression.
He dropped the beer he’d brought inside the fridge. As he did. he realized it contained only two tall cans of imported ale, some kind of meat at the end of its shelf life by the smell of it, and a few condiments. Sean wasn’t expecting much else, but it was still a little bit sad.
“Oh, it’s alright don’t get up all at once or anything,” Sean called out, attempting to sound jovial despite feeling genuinely disappointed by this reception. “Do you want a beer?”
No reply. Sean pulled out his keys and cracked two bottles with the opener Alison had got him last year. Kevin was sitting motionless on the corner of his mattress. The camera, what Sean assumed was the Camera Obscura, rested on old wooden legs, and resembled a projector from the 1990’s. It was rectangular in shape, with two parallel sides about 4.5 feet long and 2.5 feet wide. The front side had a small lens fixed into the middle, currently covered by its wooden cap, and a hatch on the top with a black marble handle. A small pile of women’s clothing on the ground beside the stool caught Sean’s attention until he noticed that Kevin, like his tools, was fixated on the empty stool, back hunched and eyes seldom blinking. Sean guessed Kevin was coming down from something he had taken earlier. As Sean walked out of the kitchenette and around the camera that was placed in the middle of the room, he passed by the focal point of the lens and disrupted the light coming from the subject lamp. Only then did Kevin finally notice that he had a visitor.
Sean saw Kevin pull his gaze away from the stool as if his eyes were velcroed to it. He squinted up at Sean, and it seemed to take him a few moments to adjust his gaze. He had a look of dreaming in his eyes, as if Sean were little more than a blurry memory.
“Hey asshole! How are you, man?” Sean called out again, hoping to wake Kevin up a little bit. “Been a while. You look like you were asleep with open eyes over here. I’ll have to learn that one for work.” Kevin continued to stare at him, and Sean found himself smiling awkwardly at his own joke. “You thirsty?” He was now standing directly over Kevin, and as he looked down at him, his concern grew. Kevin, who had usually kept his hair short and mostly clean shaven, now sported a mop of messy, knotted hair and a large unkempt beard. He looked skinny, unhealthily so, and he found himself adding, “Or maybe hungry?”
Sean could see a look of recognition wash over Kevin’s face, though his friend still squinted up at him. “Sean?” he asked, his tone strangely monotone. “What are you doing here?”
Sean sat down slowly in the portrait seat, put one of the beers on the ground, and took a swig of the other. “Jesus. I knew you were probably drinking the other night when you called but you really don’t remember our conversation?” Kevin looked up at him as if trying but genuinely couldn’t. Sean continued, “You invited me over but we planned for this evening instead. Friday night. You wanted to show me your new toy? I assume this?” He gestured at the camera in the middle of the room. He paused for a response, and then added more somberly, “I’m sorry it’s been so long, man. It feels like it’s been a lifetime since we’ve gotten together.”
Kevin nodded without saying anything.
“Well,” Sean started, but paused, uneasy. He thought of the photos on the table but thought better of mentioning them. He tried again. “Where did you find it?” Looking towards the contraption now, Sean noticed the lens cap had a geometric insignia he could not place on the outer face chiseled into the wood with astonishing detail. Although the lens was covered by the cap, it seemed to gaze back at him, sizing him up. It felt almost judgmental. Suddenly he remembered the light shining down on him, and all at once he began to feel a sweat coming on in the cold room. He had almost forgotten why he was sitting there when he was startled by a response.
“I got it from Sal at Space Age Lenses,” Kevin declared softly, and Sean wondered how long they’d been sitting in silence.
Finally, something he recognized. Sal was an old Sicilian gentleman who had run Space Age Lenses probably since before they were born. It was a beloved place in the West End that dealt with the repair and sale of obscure vintage gear, including, of course, cameras and lenses. Sal was an all-around likeable man who did things with integrity. It was no doubt what kept his business alive for more than four decades without the use of advertising . That, and the blue and green neon sign out front that held the name of the shop inside the rings of Saturn.
“He had just gotten it in the day before I stopped by last week,” Kevin continued. “I try to stop in there once a month just to see what’s been coming through.” He stood up, and the nervous enthusiasm from Wednesday’s phone call returned. “Sal told me straight. The thing was literally dropped off at the back door in the night. No papers or anything. Very strange, but he said it’s happened before a couple times. He got it for free and told me he would sell it to me for the price of the glass alone when he saw me looking at it. The amber shellac finish on the wood and the shape and type of the lens inside of it puts its inception somewhere in the first half of the 19th century according to Sal. Beyond that it’s hard to say.”
Though he did not ask, Sean received a full rundown on how the camera worked. Kevin described each intricacy without ever touching it. He pointed out where the top hatch lifted open to reveal a slanted surface with an edge at the bottom so you could position the paper inside. He described the process of setting up the composition, lighting, and positioning the sheet inside the camera without exposing the paper, a delicate process in itself. He explained to Sean how you would set up the shot with the camera empty first, lens open, and position the frame and focus, and then you would darken the room and load the camera, lens closed, and seal the hatch. He became more impassioned as he described how you would relight the subject and expose the paper by lifting the cap for barely a second.
As his old friend described the process, Sean couldn’t help but feel the whole thing felt primitive, though in its day it likely would have seemed less cumbersome. Despite his feelings, however, he couldn’t help but take notice of the impeccable craftsmanship. It really was a thing of beauty, novelty or not. He wanted to look inside but was hesitant to touch the thing. Although he doubted it could be as old as Sal had said, he had learned a long time ago that the man didn’t say anything unless he’s sure of it.
Sean zoned back into Kevin’s explanation as the latter closed his lecture with, “As pure an image as you’re going to get, I’d say.”
Sean’s shortness of breath returned again, and he realized abruptly he was still sitting under the hot lamp. He started to move towards the kitchen to grab a fresh beer when he realized his bottle was empty, though he couldn’t remember taking a single drink of it, but Kevin blocked him.
“Please! Sit. I’ll grab a couple more beers” Kevin shouted, suddenly full of energy.
Sean sat back down. “I’m starting to roast under these–“
Before Sean could finish his protest, Kevin was back with two fresh bottles. He handed one over, and asked, “Speaking of which, you’ve never sat for me before, have you? Not since I started doing portraits.”
Sean couldn’t think of a good answer in adequate time, and Kevin moved his rhetoric forward, ignoring Sean’s discomfort.
“The principles this represents,” he said, gesturing to the box again, “hold links to the conception of ‘A Moment’. Reproduction thereof. Right? True recreation was an important stepping stone in disassembling the gods. Ah! Not the savage bestial act of procreation, but recreation. Recreation of the self only better. More… perfect. You see?”
Sean looked at his old friend with unease. Kevin seemed to be developing some form of apophenia. Now, under the bright light, Sean began to truly take notice of how skinny Kevin had become. His faded black t-shirt was almost hanging off the shoulders, the bags under his eyes and the patchy beard made him almost unrecognizable.
“Hey man, I was thinking we could go out somewhere and I’ll buy us a couple rounds?” Sean began to stand again, thankful his path was unobstructed, and began to move towards the light switch near the kitchenette. Kevin was distracted again, his focus on the box, his soliloquy unending.
“Reality’ is more mystical than ever before, no? We… desire a return to realism. Only then can it offer anything. Again, purity. True spirit. Something about the refraction taking place through this glass.” He began to laugh, and Sean could hear the excitement in his voice rise. He was leaning over looking into the lens from the outside. “You can be sure ol’ Sal wouldn’t have been selling this to anybody had he known what he actually had.”
“But didn’t someone give it to Sal? For free? And who is ‘we’?” Sean felt himself getting irritated, and had to fight to keep the sarcasm out his tone.
“It is priceless,” Kevin insisted, missing the point. “Some things are ineffable, I’ve realized. I had to be shown and you will, too.” At this, Kevin’s expression shifted to dry and serious.
Sean tried the light switch. Three attempts, up and down. It was dead.
“If you aren’t going to sit yourself, then at least let me give you a demonstration. Within an hour I could probably have somebody here.”
From what Sean could tell of his old friend’s business, Kevin had a waiting list of potential clients and a sporadic-at-best schedule. When the mood struck to make something happen, it was usually a phone call or two away. He was already fumbling around on the mattress for his phone.
“What the fuck is with the big mystery? I don’t want to see somebody I’ve never met right now, to be honest.” Sean barked. His thoughts trailed back to the photos on the table again, and he added, “This whole thing is making me a little bit uncomfortable. I came here to see you. I wanted to catch up and talk to you –”
“Catch up.” Kevin sneered, “To say what exactly? Of all people, I thought you could understand the significance in this. Apparently not.” The enthusiasm had left his voice and he seemed genuinely disappointed.
Sean could feel his cheeks turning red with shame. He was suddenly embarrassed by his newly acquired anxiety in the face of the unknown. He felt his embarrassment quickly turn to resentment, like a shield. He began to focus on the accumulating slights he’d felt since he arrived: Kevin, forgetting about their plans; Kevin, and his belligerent attitude and lack of interest in any affairs but his own. Kevin, unable to explain what the fuck he was going on about, and why it mattered.
By the time Sean managed to cool down, he was only a few stops away from home. He realized in the monotonous clack-clack of the Toronto subway that he was struggling trying to remember what exactly was said, and in what order. It was already hazy. He remembered refusing to take part in whatever presentation he was being asked to watch, which had caused Kevin to erupt into another tirade, his temper as high as ever. It had occurred to him, however, that Kevin’s temper had never been directed at him before. It felt personal, and it stung. It made Sean feel as though he had betrayed his friend, somehow. They had never had a fight before, and this felt like a conclusive episode to a long friendship.
Through the incomprehensible station announcements, Sean recalled vaguely that things had gotten particularly uncomfortable when Kevin alluded to contacting something within the old box. It had quickly become clear that he meant this literally, and it wasn’t some philosophical, artistic allegory. He had been annoyingly vague, and insisted such beauty could only be shown. It had been done before, he’d said, and he was confident it could be done again with specific, but conveniently inexplicable, circumstances.
As he replayed the evening in his mind, it all came to a head in the moment, but now Sean began to regret his short sighted, selfish behavior, and anger quickly melted away into concern. All the signs were there. His friend was clearly going through some sort of mental health crisis, perhaps even coupled with a drug addiction. The sporadic behavior, the weight loss. He didn’t seem to have much of a social life outside of his photography. His mother had died five years earlier, and he had no relationship with either of his siblings as far as Sean knew. What Kevin needed was a friend, and yet he couldn’t even find it within himself to humor him and show an interest in whatever new technique he was on about?
He looked down at his phone: no service, of course, but he was shocked that it was already nearing midnight. He couldn’t wait to crawl in and embrace Alison in their warm bed. He wished he could tell her the entire story. Surely she could make sense of it. He loved her ability to handle stressful situations in logical ways. Smart and beautiful. He heard his stop announced through the broken speaker, and it seemed about right that these big city subways, all sparkling and new, would sound like the drive-thru window at a burger joint in the sticks…
By the time he arrived home, Alison was asleep. Relieved, he decided the time wasn’t right to tell her the whole truth. As he got ready for bed, he invented a lukewarm tale about the evening involving beers, vinyl records, and playful chirping. He’d never been good at lying, but it was believable enough.
The next morning, he rattled off his story. He could tell Alison knew he was lying, but she didn’t press him. She trusted him, after all. She did ask if Sean had confirmed Kevin’s attendance to their wedding, and at the moment could only think to nod his head.
That afternoon, Sean attempted to phone Kevin, but it went straight to voicemail. He received the same response on Sunday. The work week began with anxious overtones, but he told himself he would make his way over there within the next couple days if no response came.
Wednesday morning, Sean left for work in a haze. The sky was grey and heavy, the wind telling of an oncoming storm. At about 1pm, in the middle of a remote meeting with a client, Sean’s phone began to buzz. He quickly excused himself and muted the call.
“Kevin! Good to hear from you. I’ve been trying to get in touch.” There was a strange static-like hum coming through the phone. No response. He raised his voice slightly to be heard over the fuzz. “Listen, I’m sorry about the other night, eh?” The sound cleared up, and he heard Kevin’s voice, though he sounded quiet and far away.
“Sean.” Kevin had almost never addressed him by his first name like that. It sounded rigid and business-like. Too formal. It caught Sean off guard. Kevin continued, his voice monotone. “I really need something from you, and I know I can trust you to handle it.”
“I’m happy to help, man. What do you need?”
The static returned. As Kevin began to respond, Sean had to raise the volume to max while still straining to make out the words.
“Will you come over tonight at midnight?”
“For sure, I can come over.”
“I want you to come just before midnight, though. Do you understand?”
He didn’t, but that didn’t matter. “Um, yeah I can do that. No problem.” He would take a sick day tomorrow at work. Kevin was reaching out for help, and he would be a good friend and do whatever was needed right now. “So, did you want me to bring anything or –”
“No, only yourself. Just before midnight though, okay?” His voice was coming through clearly now, and Sean had to move the phone away from his ear.
“Sure, okay, man. I’ll see you in a bit–“ The call disconnected before he could finish his sentence.
It was an oddly specific request, but it didn’t matter much at this point. He attempted, with not much success, to get caught up enough that missing an entire day in the middle of this giant campaign would go unnoticed, and arrangements were made to be unreachable the following day due to family emergency, which he thought wasn’t too far from the truth.
When he got back home, Alison had nearly finished making dinner with Daria, one of her closest friends and colleagues. As soon as he walked in the door the rich smell of garlic and onion made his stomach rumble.
While the three of them sat down to eat, Sean mentioned casually that he would be going back over to Kevin’s that evening. He knew she could read every nuance on his face and that she would know something was off, so he crafted his story accordingly. He explained that Kevin had been having an issue with a former client and partner of his, and needed somebody to talk things through with. He suspected she hadn’t believed him but again his explanation seemed to be sufficient.
As they finished their meal, Sean offered to clean the kitchen and pack away the left-overs while the women got into a bottle of red wine and began to assemble wedding table center-pieces. Once he was done in the kitchen, he slunk into the bedroom to collect his thoughts away from their enthusiastic chatter. Almost 15 years he and Kevin had been friends, and now he was trying to put together the pieces of where it had all gone awry.
He felt in that moment that he probably could’ve been a better friend in recent years, and that brought feelings of regret. Feeling restless, he decided to take an umbrella and head out early after saying his goodbyes for the evening.
He opted for walking to kill some time and get some air, wandering about in a general North facing direction and taking detours along the way. It was raining, just enough to make it wet and chilly without the energy of a true thunderstorm. It was just after 9pm and it seemed every asshole in the city was driving with their high beams on that night, the lights blinding and intrusive. The city seemed quieter than usual, and he found himself lost in thought as he wandered. He could swear he heard a chorus of discordant birdsong that seemed to be following him, the winged beasts playing a cruel joke of their own at his expense. The rain started to come down harder, and it took almost a minute of getting drenched for him to realize it before opening his umbrella.
An autopilot function seemed to take him to the appointed place at the appointed time. His watch told him it was 11:48 when he realized he was just down the street from Kevin’s place on Rouge Hill Drive. He approached the house and felt a cold sweat despite the chill in the air, and reasoned that he caught something walking around in the rain. He made his way to the side entrance of the house that led down to the basement and saw the door was open a crack. A faint stream of light was slicing its way through the moonless darkness, welcoming his arrival.
Sean wasn’t entirely sure what to expect based on the request, but what he saw when he walked into the basement created a pit in his stomach, as if his body understood what was happening before his mind had caught up. His knees felt weak at the sight. As before, the apartment was illuminated by only the light above the old camera box, facing the portrait seat. Its subject – Kevin – sat waiting on the stool, stripped entirely naked.
“Kevin, what the fuck is this, man? What are you –”
“I knew you’d come through on this. I appreciate it, really.” Despite the earnest words, Kevin’s voice sounded flat, like he had on the phone earlier. Monotone.
Dumbfounded, Sean recognized immediately that he had underestimated the depth of Kevin’s issues, and that he would need to get him professional help. He began scanning the room for a towel or some clothes so he could at least start by helping him get dressed and down off whatever drugs he was on, but he could not take his eyes off his friend. He looked terrible, exposed under the light like this. His rib cage was hugged by flesh that looked pallid and dry. The place smelt even worse than before, a stale mixture of old food, sweat, and something else – something toxic. Glancing around, he noticed open bottles of chemicals on the counter.
Kevin interrupted him, his voice suddenly full of certainty. “I’m on my way out and you need to photograph it. Right now.”
Sean froze up. He and Kevin had shared many a joke and sarcastic remark over the years, but every facet of the bizarre scene in front of him told him this was nothing of that sort. Suddenly verging on panic, Sean pulled himself into the present and tried to focus on Kevin’s outlandish demand. It felt like an emotional bootcamp, crawling up the ropes, jumping over fire, leading to an inevitable ending. In order to do what he had been asked, so much would have to be pushed aside: his instincts towards protecting Kevin, his conditioning of the abhorrence of death. There was so much he wanted to say in the moment but beneath all of the panic and desire to flee from this terrible scene, something in him understood the mad request. On a level he couldn’t describe, could barely even sense, he understood it. It all made perfect sense, and it had to happen. To resist now was like resisting the very laws of gravity.
The series of events that followed took place in a haze of instinct and motor function. There was no time to second guess anything. Kevin gave Sean his intended last rites, and the artist’s swan song was left in Sean’s hands to complete. Even as he complied, Sean wanted to rage condemnations for enlisting him in this morbid task.
Though he did not specify how he knew, Kevin seemed sure he had only a minute or two left. The composition was already arranged such that all that needed to be done was to lift the lens cap for one second to expose the paper inside the box.
“Then, you just need to develop the photo,” Kevin had dictated, as if it were as natural as breathing.
Sean protested, doubting his own ability to remember the process. It was a lot of pressure, and he felt himself growing nauseous. The protests were ignored as Kevin slipped from lethargy into a brief state of manic joy. He didn’t move from his spot, arms hugging his torso and legs straddling the antique stool. Naked as the day he was born and illuminated under the bright uncompromising light, his eyes were opened up wide staring into the lens, and the pleasing light of sanity seemed to have departed from them. He starting breathing heavily and the edges of his mouth were softly twitching into a demented smile.
“I can’t do this. I won’t take part in this,” Sean pleaded, begging his old friend to somehow reverse this, although he knew it to be futile. He was afraid; terrified. He felt his eyes tearing up but he labored to stay composed.
As Kevin’s crescendo of breathing reached its climax, he looked up above the camera and into the light. His face was beaming, and two single teardrops of deep red blood raced slowly down his checks. It was a horrendous sight, but Sean knew this was the moment.
Here and now astride the physical and astral plane was the dreaming moment between memory and prophecy that Kevin had ranted about. The vagabond fool at the side of the cliff walking toward the brink of an unknown precipice.
Duty overcame emotion as Sean stepped forward and did the deed. The wooden lens cap was lifted and promptly shut again.
He quickly turned away from the scene and made his way towards the toilet.
There was an unforgettable smack and crack as the last shred of life left Kevin’s body and gravity sent it to the ground, and out of the corner of his eye, Sean saw the stool had broken clean in half beneath his friend’s emaciated body. The sound pushed the dormant nausea over the edge and Sean threw up until all he could bring up was air. It was dead silent save for the sound of his heaving as the wretched smack and crack replayed in his mind. Again and again, the image of Kevin’s naked body crashing into the floor, contorted and inhuman, with its legs tangled up in the seat flashed across his eyelids.
Though he hadn’t seen it, and hadn’t had the guts to turn back around, he thought to himself, “The fucker is probably still smiling too.” He laughed at the absurd thought, and for a second felt half mad. A splash of water on the face and a few deep breaths brought a calmness that could at least allow rational thought. He sat on the closed toilet rubbing his temples, and wondered how to proceed.
“You just enabled a suicide,” said the voice in his head. “You could have stopped him”. Checking his watch, he saw it was now 12:09am. There began a whirlwind of emotions with the most immediate being anger. The voice in his head returned. “What the fuck are you supposed to do about the body?” he asked himself. “And the photograph? How do you explain that one? Call the police? Call Alison? Leave now pretend none of this happened?”
His mind was made up. He would get Kevin off the floor and lay him on the mattress, destroy the photograph and call the police. It was the logical thing to do and, as far as he was concerned, he had nothing to hide – though he could not dispel an overwhelming sense of guilt.
Upon reentering the living room, much to his dismay, there was no body. The door was still locked from the inside as he had left it. There was only one window, still covered up with pillows. It didn’t make sense, and he began to feel sick all over again. The old stool was still knocked over, and one of the legs had a small piece at the bottom broken off.
It was totally silent, and all at once he felt a shiver. He was alone with the damned box. It seemed huge in the small space now, and it felt like it was taking up more and more real estate in the seemingly shrinking basement. He felt an urge to kick it over and smash it into bits, but remembered Kevin’s request.
There was a part of him that expected to open the box and find nothing, or better yet, to wake up. Yet without further thought he began assembling the chemicals necessary for the developing station. It all came back to him as if he’d never stopped, and a familiar comfort returned to him when the bright white lamp was exchanged for the deep amber shades of Kevin’s safelight.
When everything was prepared, Sean took one last breath, knowing everything was set up. He hoped that, if any, now was the moment to arise from this terrible slumber. Despite his hopes, the marble handle on the upper hatch was warm to the touch. He could hear Kevin’s last words playing through his memory in a cascade of whispers. “I’m on my way out and you need to photograph it. Right now.” It sounded for a moment as though his voice was coming from inside the box itself, but the notion was quickly written off. Maybe he would never stop hearing those words again.
There was a refreshed sense of anxiety before dropping the paper into the developer fluid. He half expected it to wind up completely black and overexposed. Or perhaps a photo of nothing but an empty stool. He wasn’t sure which would be worse. With his heart beating at about 180 beats per minute, he dropped the paper into the tray. He counted it out, the familiar smells engrossing him for a fleeting moment until there it was, in all of its hideous, profound, terrible glory. He ran it quickly through the stop bath and then the fixer, and then hung the photo up to take a look in the full light.
It was if anything, he thought, a touch underexposed. A gently faded image, as if the flesh was already slipping away. Despite its transparency, the photo was perfect. It really did belong in a gallery somewhere. Kevin leered above the horizon with a frenzied yet strangely controlled excitement in his eyes, the sides of his lips curled in an ugly smile. The photo was done in black and white, and the drops on his cheeks that were almost certainly blood were mistakable for heavy tears.
Pulling him out of his reverie, Sean noticed at last the collection of photos that hung at the developing station where he’d clipped the photo of Kevin. These hadn’t been there last time he visited. It was a set of three equally disturbing captures, all portraying the same kind of ritual that he had just been part of. They were all naked, eyes directed to the same upper left point of the frame, looking past the confines of the studio and into some other place. There were two women and a dark skinned man, all with varying expressions, but they all shared the same deep blood-like tears rolling down the insides of the cheeks.
The man looked almost emotionless with his mouth opened in an O shape, eyes wide and dumb stricken. One of the women had an expression resembling Kevin’s. The look on the last shot slapped him over the face with the cold hand of reality. It was a look of holy terror and dread that forced an entirely different perspective over the entire thing.
“Was this murder,” he wondered, “and if so, where are the bodies?” At the thought, it occurred to him that of course these bodies had disappeared too, and he found himself laughing, though at what he could not have said.
Was this really a grand artistic design? He wondered if the subjects had any idea what they had signed up for, or if they’d just shown up at the esteemed lensman’s place as he had. As he looked upon the images, he remembered he’d arrived last week and found Kevin staring at an empty, illuminated stool with a pile of woman’s clothes beside it, and it made him wonder what had happened just before he’d entered. Kevin had mentioned trying to reach something inside the camera obscura, and maybe there was weight to his rambling after all.
His thoughts spiraled, imagining a malevolent spirit trapped within the box, reaching out to a world of life and vitality that it once knew, one that it craved to inhabit again. This thing had fed off of Kevin’s soul, he was sure, blinding his reason and praying on his vulnerability.
It must have tempted him with the promise of a great ascendency or reward. Or perhaps, he mused as his thoughts went farther into conjecture, the box was cursed by some old voyeur who used it to assemble a snuff photo collection that would put Jeffery Dahmer’s to shame. Or some occultist had been hired to curse the blasted thing, a vendetta against its former owner, now loose on an unsuspecting world. Sal had placed the thing in the early 1800’s, he thought, but maybe the glass itself is much older.
Though a small part of him recognized the insanity of it all, the wild fantasy was easier to digest than the harsh reality that his best friend’s mental health and substance abuse issues had finally bested him. That Kevin had simply committed suicide, and possibly murder. But, he allowed himself, there was still the disappearing body.
It was all too much to think about, and he was beginning to lose sense of what was real and what wasn’t. His head was pounding. Though the thought of being confined with the box made him uneasy, he suddenly felt exhausted.
Pulling out his phone, he texted Alison, “I won’t be coming home tonight, up late. See you after work tomorrow xo. I love you.”
Hoping she was already asleep, he took a large gulp of whiskey out of a nearby bottle, and passed out.
He slept like the dead through until morning, although the night featured fragments of disparate imagery. As he shook the sleep from his mind, there were echoes of a scene depicting himself, viewed as a fly on the wall, staging an elaborate bondage scene featuring an assortment of chains and ropes and gags. His subjects, he recalled clearly, were either unresponsive or already dead.
All things considered, he woke up feeling rested. Right away, he went to the only window and pulled out the pillows, allowing both sun and air to penetrate the room. He was at least able to think clearly now, despite the persistent feelings of uncertainty. The morning light exposed motes of dust floating around in the air, and made clear the extent of the state of the apartment. In the light, too, the camera didn’t feel as unassailable and domineering as it did in the darkness of the night before. With this moment of clarity his plan was formulated.
Cash was withdrawn from a graffitied ATM down the road, and within two hours Sean had rented a small pick-up for a single day run. Kevin didn’t own much, but what he did own was loaded into the back of the truck before noon. A few shirts, a sweater, two pairs of pants were thrown haphazardly into an old grocery bag. Five cameras of varying types were packed into boxes, and he was touched to find the Nikon F100 they’d shared so long ago tucked in a small box under the table. Shoeboxes full of photographs were stacked and sorted, and though Sean had neither time nor heart to start digging through old photos, a few still managed to catch his eye. The collection of gagged and blindfolded men and women caught his attention as he sifted through the piles of garbage on the table, as did the trio he had already in his mind dubbed the ‘Way Out’ series as he pulled them off the line.
Everything but old or broken furniture left at the curb fit without issue into the back of the cab until only the camera obscura and the photo he’d taken of Kevin remained. The latter was put into his pocket, and the former was placed into the last remaining space of the cab, its legs pointing up towards the sunny sky. It was heavier than he anticipated, almost impossibly heavy for some wood and glass and a tiny bit of marble, but he managed to load it in with some struggle. He was glad whoever occupied the rest of the house seemed not to be home. It wasn’t a conversation he felt like having. As he closed the cab and set out to leave, he thought it odd that he could find no key, but given Kevin’s state, it wasn’t worth dwelling on. The place was left unlocked.
It was a hot, late summer day, still humid from raining the night before. He stopped for a quick bite to eat, some firewood, a can of gasoline, a small white shovel, and a bottle of whiskey, and he could already feel himself sweating under the late summer sun. Despite his discomfort, he would take no chances that his task would be unsuccessful.
It was just after noon now according to the truck’s onboard radio – his phone had died sometime in the night – and he was on his way to Greenwood, a public park near the edge of one of the lakefront suburban towns where Sean had spent his early childhood years. He remembered wistfully during the 40-minute drive how he and Kevin had taken the train out this way in high school to have bonfires on the lake there, and it occurred to him his plan had perhaps been more appropriate than he’d first thought. The closer he got, though, he realized the region had grown hugely in population since he’d been gone, and the place now looked more like a public resort than a nature park where you could disappear. It used to be that if you were quiet there, nobody ever seemed to bother you, and fires were typically permitted. He hoped, being a Thursday afternoon, that he could find a spot somewhere isolated to do just that.
By the time he made the drive out, dark clouds had begun to roll in. He saw a mass exodus of people fearing a storm, but lucky for him it never came. The threat of rain kept the beach empty, and he had no problem finding an unoccupied fire pit. The shore line seemed to go on endlessly on both sides, occasionally curving up further and further into the lake, and then back down again. On the west side in the far distance he could see the outlines of city skyscrapers. He was reminded of the early days of his and Alison’s relationship, when they would drive down to the beach and make love on a blanket, under the stars.
Sean backed his rental as close as he could towards the pit and climbed out. He assembled firewood and kindling as he had a dozen on this beach, with gasoline thrown on top for good measure, and tossed in a match. No chances. It lit up in a blaze, as expected, and then quickly calmed to a steady roar.
He started with the photos, tossing them in with the loose drawings and papers and magazines, then he added more logs. Then more gasoline. He opened the whiskey and took a deep, healthy drink to soothe his nerves, and as the fire was raging, he dropped in the first camera. Within minutes it was turning into a black pile of molten plastic. The smell was awful, but it had to be done. He could have taken a lot of this hardware to Sal, or even sold it online for good money, but he didn’t need money, he needed catharsis.
One after another they were thrown in until sufficiently destroyed, with the occasional squirt of gasoline or a new log as the fire threatened to fade. The last box held their once-shared Nikon camera. After a deep breath it was thrown into the blaze, too, and it soon melted away like a robotic popsicle left outside on a hot summer afternoon. There was concern as to whether the lenses would melt but they seemed to be making their way to the bottom of the pit in dripping misshapen chunks. Finally, it was time for the main attraction, and the part he had been looking forward to.
He would swear if anyone could ever have known to ask that the son of a bitch contraption had become heavier and more challenging to move since he’d loaded it on the truck mere hours ago. Despite the truck’s proximity to the pit, it still took more time and effort than he’d expected to dump it into the flames. The amber wood quickly caught, and the cracking sounds that followed were soothing to the ear, chasing out the noises that had echoed so persistently before. He hoped it was in pain.
Within minutes, what was once the old camera was hardly distinguishable from the logs beneath it. He sat in the back of the truck watching the fire blaze for almost two hours until it finally started to die down. He shed a tear for his old friend, and realized he’d held off throwing in the photo he’d taken the night before. After a moment’s thought, he decided that he would keep it.
It was an epitaph more powerful than any mere words, and it deserved to be maintained. A brush with a moment truly divine, for better or worse. He wanted to believe Kevin had moved into some higher realm, that a door was opened and he was permitted access because of his commitment to high art and truth and purity.
It seemed laughable when he said it out loud, and if he thought about it too much, it felt like Kevin had been stolen away before his very eyes. As the sun waned, everything had burned down to a pile of ash. He began whisking his way through what was left with the shovel, just in case, when he came across the lens. There, underneath remaining chunks of burning wood and plastic and embers, it sat, almost as if it were hiding. It winked up at him looking as new as the day whatever god-forsaken cretin created it. There was no mistaking that this was the same glass fixed into the now destroyed camera obscura, and he was not surprised to see it had survived.
Dusk was now underway and he was nearly finished digging a plot. It was tiresome work with the small shovel but he had it finished in less than two hours. The pit was about two foot square and five feet deep. Perhaps superfluous for such a small thing, but it still didn’t feel like enough. He was tired and he couldn’t think of anything better to do with it, and so it was dropped into its grave and promptly sealed in with dirt. He had found a spot off the beaten path away from the waterfront, beside a giant willow tree that was dancing in the wind overhead. After throwing a few large rocks on top, all was declared finished, and he started the drive back towards the city just as the rain started to come down.
The truck was returned, and he made his way back home. His clothes were filthy, and he hadn’t called home all day, so he knew the story would need to be good. The idea of telling Alison the truth briefly crossed his mind, but was eventually written off in favor of extending the earlier fable he had told at the dinner table the night before. He delivered a convincing story and accompanying performance about Kevin’s soul searching journey that would take him out of the country forever. They had had one last night together before parting ways, he told her, and he described how they’d gone to Greenwood Park and had a fire like old times, and gazed at the stars.
Enough parts of the story were intact to cover up for his dirty clothes and the look in his eye that spoke of part of himself that had been lost. The truth of his story was technically undoubtable. As he told it to his soon to be bride, he felt like the snake whose body grows but the skin does not, shedding the impossible truth for something more comfortable.
For the sake of his own sanity, he shelved the reality of what had transpired and, after about a week of a detached, personal grieving, he had compartmentalized everything. It was time to move on.
Three weeks after his impromptu trip to Greenwood Park, Sean Lockhart was happily married and Alison became Mrs. Lockhart. Within six months they had bought a small house just outside of the city due east, and after another six months Alison was pregnant. After particularly stressful days he dreamt about a small white shovel that would allow him to unearth his old friend from the dirt at Greenwood Park beneath a great waving willow tree. Other nights, he would wake up under the dirt himself having been buried alive. Occasionally, those dreams would cause him to jerk awake with a scream in the night, much to his new wife’s distress.
Besides that, life was picturesque.
Their first daughter first was born in the summer of the following year, and then another followed. Time went on, as it tends to do. The photograph he had taken that night was stored away inside a memento box, that was inside another box of old clothing, buried deep in the basement. He wasn’t hiding it per say, but he didn’t want anybody to see it either.
Sometimes when nobody was home, he would dig out the picture and look at it to reassure himself the entire thing wasn’t made up. Over time, the subject seemed to fade away, but still it was safe. Safe, and encapsulated in deathlessness. Recorded as the last possible chance ever to do so. The end of the world. Or, a world, perhaps, while all the others continued on. He never did show the photo to Alison, who had never quite believed his fiction of the night he’d captured Kevin so impossibly. Nobody but him had ever seen the photo, and nobody ever would.
His lie, that night, and that photo, had been a true recreation of the self, as Kevin would say.
His creation had been perfect.