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