Ten last photos and the distance.
He wore frayed khakis and a knit tie, the least formality for his work which he was sure he remembered. He must have had a coat but he found himself in inappropriate sandals, or worse, barefoot. He could only recognize himself from recollection, or maybe in the reflection of the sun as he stood in the middle of dripping puddles. They didn’t belong there. He didn’t belong there. But he was new.
He cradled a camera, the hard grips were hard plastic. He cupped its worn corners; this was his, but it hadn’t been before. His had been a newer model. It could hold 1,000 photos and tether to many more. Here he had only ten recollections, then maybe nowhere.
The place was new, and he knew this place. It wasn’t anywhere, but it was before. He knew these last ten photos would be the last memories recorded. It scared him like grey death. He had pockets.
The breath warmed him; he and the wind paused to review their settings together. He thought, he was free from all past reflections at once, or would be. They were fossilized futures, aging in dry air. Now all that mattered was, he had ten moments more, the last anyone would have, to trap time in four crisp angles. There were colors, so many colors—he couldn’t see them from his practices, custom, and what they would expect…a landscape? He looked up and around and paused. Here he was on a cliff that traded in moss and tan stone. He took steps and found an angle.
There it was, the distance. He could see, somewhere dancing. Static grunted and waved. You may be welcome here, we are warm and empty.
He remembered wedding dresses, bowties and sunsets, school gatherings, athletic pauses and poses. Here was his camera; he looked down, frayed. This was the camera he wrestled; his had done all the work before while he clumsily thumbed the button, until it was on time. Habit and practice and similar angles formed his working and motion memories, as he slowly forgot those of play. He coasted in automatic, yawning of boredom. He had decided he wasn’t this tired. So the panic of scarcity gave value to the lens and time, and now he recognized he could not recognize what he was holding. While its capacities were far more limited, it was real. There was no automation of speed or focus. He was unfamiliar with the basics of his instrument. It threatened him. It taunted him. You know nothing, you’re the last.
He breathed in the yellow thick sky drenched in shadows. The distance was purple and brooding, but it did not advance. You may come here. The sandal tethers bound his arches. The grass was green, the grass was so green, and soft. The mist had been earlier, before he found himself here. His feet wrinkled, and he rolled up his jeans. The worn cuffs rubbed under his knees. A rusted fern yawned and shimmied at its feet.
He thought the camera was his, now it was, but the film was not…he was not sure who the film belonged to, or who would get the photos. He would leave them in the pocket of his coat and bury them somewhere with his shoes. He felt he would not need either. The air was white and indifferent but he could breathe. He wiped the sweat from his face with the wrist cuff of his sleeve. He would get to work. He must get to work. He chose to sneeze while his palms moistened.
He sought his memories of skills he had known were his. His instrument he recognized in function, but a stream is not a river. He paused to capture an easy moment—a still landscape of short mountains under the large sky. There was the photo. Recognizable in shape and ugly if not uninspiring. This was the reference photo. He would learn and take another. He compressed the button and paused to reveal two near-identical negatives. Here he realized…I’m not a photographer. He had taken 2 or 3 good photos in his life, none he considered his work, and only one great photo. Only one great photo. He was not a fraud. He was something else. What was he? He turned the camera on himself. Washed cheeks, a wrinkled stare…the curiosity of a child. Oh, this is what he looked like. He was scared by the absence of fear in his eyebrows and crease in his forehead. Maybe he was an embryo digested by false atoms. He didn’t hate the photo, but it didn’t need him. He turned to the puddles surrounding his soggy toes. His face rippled and it wouldn’t last. You could drown in the water, but it wouldn’t trap your form as long as it could be stored or carried. The blades were sunken, synchronized cilia in shallow, swirling, snarled murmur and gurgle. They could gasp, they could not escape, and they would do it together.
He turned to the purple distance. The group was still indifferent, but not unaware and blank to his person. They danced like an abstinent pause in a brothel, a low flame and tall grey teeth biting sky from under dense nod. Maybe he could capture them. The lens was removed. He glanced at the daylight, shuttered, and there they were. The picture was empty, but they looked. His intentions to trap them were not unsuccessful, in that the photo was not good—silhouettes and shadows, but had had mildly recorded their notice. Each was aware of the other. I must practice, he thought…I will only have 7 photos of memory left.
He had brittle straw hair that may have been dirty or curled. I don’t have to tell you everything. He was frail at first, but he was sinewy.
The seventh photo felt lucky and he prayed in possession of haphazard confidence. His prayer unanswered, the seventh was worse than the ninth. He could not take a photo and laughed; the river gurgled or the lakes babbled. Whichever mocked him, but he did not mind entirely. Calf-deep in the water, he laughed again. He cackled. The water cackled in return. They were in agreement. Six would be his favorite joke. He intended to tell it with the pines and the ages, but all failed and the laughter was empty and nothing. He began to sweat from the hair wisps on the tops of his forearms. The tendons in his shoulders pulled back tight. Five could matter. He was terror and panic and excitement and joy. Where was the distance? He sought the earth, the flesh, the stone, the patches of green stubble. Maybe there was a song. Now he wondered as he squeezed his camera. He could feel it slipping. The webs between his knuckles shuddered and pulsed. One finger was weak. He would blink five more times and then be free to die as he chose. Five was in the distance, washed white and blank with intentions. He wasn’t fearful or worried. He would take the last picture. Maybe the camera was his obstacle. He wore a white undershirt, crisp and smeared with clean sweat. He laid down at the sky; the dew on his back matched the sweat of the grass and he melted for a moment. The trees tried to pray overhead just as much and he smiled or winked at them. They could tell this story better than any rectangle. He cried as if cold had no temperature and the water was. He rolled onto his side and held his large ear to the deep bass undertones. A drum was drumming, in agreement. The camera could view but not capture—the distance was soft, bare footsteps. His toes had hair, and they cupped the side of the earth as he leaned. He could run, but he might slip, so he hesitated. Five was accidental and finished.
Four was forwards. It shook the sky and felt heavy. There were cracks. In the rocks or the sky or the past and the distance—the peopled swayed and wavered. There they were. The bass was footsteps, like his. Maybe they were friends? His eyes smiled and salivated. He was too excited. He put the 7 he had taken in his coat pocket and lay it down. The eighth, he thought, would go in his shoebox. He could show this moment of fellowship to the new people. This is you he would say, I am you. A gift. He was right. Three was right. They would know, and welcome him. No, they would not. He fell and ripped the photo. There was no lightning. He sat. He would not be perfect. He could not capture the distance in a stare. He could…only hope they were like him, or would like him. They were dense red clay mud and thick oil paint…the drum was theirs, they kicked and screamed at the stone. He also wished to kick the stone teeth, the ones that chewed the crust of the earth up. He was two, or was the photos he had left. He was sick.
His stale mouth had licked the glue of an envelope. His stomach was bile. This was preparation, the nerves in preparation before a beginning. The long fingers gripped his camera as a sling or lance. His teeth closed and his mouth stuck. He squinted. There was a point he would take there, where he would see a whir. He was most resolute for this most difficult touch. It was hardly special. He gripped his tie and huddled in the forest.
He would take the last photo and it was his single decision. But who would they be for? Number three, he realized, which was right to him, may have been unrecognizable to the unknown they. His shame was relief. Maybe they would have hated his best effort because it was magic. The unfamiliar preferred plain to novelty at first acquaintance.
He wondered if she would be there. He imagined her silhouette filling in, posed before the slope of the valley. Her pose was the last he grasped.
He was one. He spun and scrolled the distance, the near. There was mist in all directions but forward. The clouds suggested by purple then yellow, as healing from a blow, and there had been a fire left to smolder and fizzle. There were no windows and the canvas of his pants had worn the knobs of his knees. He would have to walk and put the camera to the ground.
Kevin is a graduate student at the University of Florida studying collaboration. He can write with either or both hands in any direction, and drinks black coffee at room temperature. ‘Ten last photos and the distance.‘ is his first published short story. He lives in Central Florida with his wife, Cierra.