As I lay cuddled beside her in the nest of blankets, my mind whirled. Gina breathed softly next to me in a pattern that reminded me faintly of waves crashing onto the beach. In the semi-darkness of the moon-soaked tent she looked at peace for the first time since the camera incident. The image still lingered in my brain, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on edge. There was a disturbing beauty to the image she crafted, an unfathomable perfectness that made it so easy to imagine, but so terrible to view.
By the time the moon began to wane in the sky, the wind howled wildly around the tent. In a bizarre way it felt as though the stars and moon had been turned on a little brighter and they pulsated dimly in the sky. I sat up on edge, as I saw a glow of red in the blackness, and quickly scrambled outside the tent. As I stood in the almost empty campsite in the all-but-empty-except-for-us campground, there was nothing. No firelight. Clouds covered the sky and there wasn’t a hint of a moon or stars through that thick blanket.
Confused, and decidedly nervous, I slithered back into the tent and underneath the blankets. As I lay there, I could have sworn I heard a moaning coming from somewhere in the distance. I told myself it was a wolf or a coyote that absentmindedly stepped foot into a trap, but it was far too human sounding. I shuddered as I pictured him tromping through the wilderness back towards us, but quickly tried to shake the idea out of my head. But as hard as I tried, it refused to leave. So I resolved to shut my eyes as tight as I could and refuse to open them until I heard Gina beginning to stir in the morning light.
Morning came with sunlight streaming through the tent flap on my half-asleep body and an empty void where Gina should have been. Immediately I sprang into panic mode, jumping half naked out of the tent, ready to pounce at anything that took her. But she hadn’t moved far. She stood with her back to me, standing like a mannequin, staring intently at the picnic table. Slowly, I crept up beside her and saw with a look of horror what she had been looking at. One of our topographical maps of the area had been taken out of the backpack, completely unfurled and written on. Her camera sat near the center, bracing down map in the early morning breeze, but the real horror was stamped directly in the center. Five tiny little words, written with a sharpie on the area where the lakefront was:
Can you really see me?
I held the map down while she took a photo of it. As she pulled the camera away from her eyes, I could see tears beginning to form. I folded her into my arms and let her cry into my shoulder. We stood there in the morning light for what felt like an eternity, with the image on the map burning deeper into my eyes every minute. The letters were jagged and wobbly, as if an unsteady hand wrote them. The cap of a sharpie lay feet away, on top of a tiny pyramid of pine needles, but the marker was nowhere to be found.
Gina cried that she wanted to leave, but I convinced her to stay another day. We left the camera on the table, and went swimming. As we frolicked in the water, a smile finally came back to her face. After the shenanigans, she went to lay down for a bit, and I decided to sneak off with the camera. Attempting to recreate what she had seen, I brought it down to the edge of the water, held it up to my eye, and scanned.
There was nothing abnormal, just the water slowly rocking in to the shore. I scanned from left to right, waiting for anything abnormal to pop out at me. But there was nothing. Finally I gave up, and let the camera hang once again from my neck. In an odd way, it was the first time that I realized I didn’t have to believe Gina. She could just be fucking with me in some elaborate fashion. I knew she was capable of that kind of deviousness, even though she didn’t seem the type.
This idea nestled itself in my head as I began to walk back. At the top of the hill, I turned back around and faced the lake. Once again, I raised the viewfinder up to my eye and peered out. No sooner had my eye opened that I heard a branch snap to my right. Quickly I spun over to see Gina walking towards me, looking intrigued at me using her camera. But that wasn’t the only thing I saw.
He stood on the picnic table. Soulless dark eyes staring directly at me. His mouth a gaping pit where his tongue hung loosely out as a dormant snake waiting to bite. Tributaries of blood meandered from that pit and dripped down the covers of his collared shirt and over jacket, which was ripped and dirtied beyond belief. He was barefoot, standing over the map, with a knife blade protruding from his right foot. It glistened in the sunlight.
It was as though I saw him in slow motion. Only a fraction of a second, but an eternity where I could scrutinize every detail; it wasn’t long enough to remember everything, but long enough to never forget anything. My heart raced inside my chest, and my mouth instantly went dry. So dry that when I made the effort to scream for Gina to look behind her, there was nothing. I didn’t have the instinct to take the shot, only to let it fall and see it with my own eyes.
The camera fell safely against my chest with the cord tethered around my neck, however in the use of my eyes, there was nothing. I stopped, dead cold. My finger pointed out into the empty space, where she spun her head and looked concerned back at me. Within seconds, that extended finger began to shake uncontrollably and tears welled up in my eyes. My cheeks ran hot and puffy and she dashed over and wrapped her arms around me. I didn’t hug her back. My thoughts moved a million miles an hour, but one stood stronger than the others. We were getting the fuck out of there.
Every day for the last two years, I thought about it. Often times, when I’m sitting in work on a slow afternoon, or waiting up for Gina to get home safely, the thought wafted back into my brain. The image of him, just a little boy disfigured into a monster, jars me out of the doldrums of normalcy and makes my hairs stand on end. After a long enough time I figured I would become immune to the thoughts, desensitized to the fear that washed over me in that second, but it’s still yet to happen.
Some nights I wake up in cold sweats, gasping for breathe, after imagining the boy take the knife out of his foot and charge at me with it. Or after imagining him stab it into Gina’s head and lap at her blood with that disgusting tongue. Most times, Gina is right there when I wake up, hugging me and holding me tightly, until I go back to sleep. The same thing happens to her as well.
We try not to talk about it if we can help it. She has a strong policy of benign neglect, as if it will go away if it’s ignored. I disagree, but I do so quietly. I can’t speak for her, but I have a lot of trouble getting it out of my head. I need answers. She seems fine without them. So I started doing research without her.
After going through old National Parks records and missing persons cases for the state of New York, I found absolutely nothing. None of the missing little boys resembled the monstrosity that I had seen, and none of them seemed close enough to Cranberry Lake to be definitive. I felt like the Internet was only leading me into a dead end. So I scrambled around the apartment for a little, while Gina was at work, and found the camera hiding in a shoebox in the annals of the closet.
It was still loaded with film, after not being touched since the day we left the campsite. I slung it around my neck and walked out onto our balcony. The midday sun streamed over the city street below, which seemed dulled from the typical chaos of a Tuesday afternoon. I raised the viewfinder to my eye, and focused down on the ethnic market below. Right before I hit the shutter and the camera flashed, I swore I saw him. Just for a second. Standing right by a fruit stand, staring directly up at me.
I pulled the camera away and glanced down, knowing with a sinking feeling that he wasn’t there. I checked the photo absentmindedly before tossing it over the side and into the street below. I raised the camera back up and slowly surveyed everything below. Now there was nothing. He felt imprinted on the camera. As if no matter where I went, he would always be there. Silently begging to be seen. I thought about the ghost hunting shows on TV, where the ghosts seemed so eager to manifest themselves. They threw things or moved items around, desperate to make their presence known. This felt so different. It was like they were screaming, and he was only whispering.
One last time I raised the camera up and took a photo, this time of the building in the distance, backed by the blue sky. I focused on getting the shade right as the sun shined against it, making it only appear to be a black rectangle falling out of the daylight. I snapped the photo, and once again thought I saw him for a second. But it was nowhere near as vivid as before. After the photo had come out, I kept staring through the viewfinder, daring him to appear. To make me believe he was real and I hadn’t gone crazy.
The door opened silently behind me, as Gina came back from work. When I turned around, she stood with her hands on her hips, a look of anger and fear swirling on her face that looked ready to spit tears like sprinklers. She opened her mouth to reprimand me, but nothing came out. I could tell there was an anger there that she was scared to have. One that pushing down had made worse.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I explained. “I refuse to live in fear of it. It’s a camera. And he’s just a kid.” She turned away and headed towards our bedroom. I chased after her, but she was behind the locked door already. I knocked but nothing happened. “Gina,” I called softly at her, “I don’t want to go back looking for this, but we have to. Or at least I do. I can’t go on not knowing.”
There was a long silence where she refused to open the door, and finally I went to lay on the couch. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she came back into the room, wrapped up in a blanket with her mascara smeared down her face. She came and sat quietly beside me, slowly sliding down against my shoulder. As she snuggled into my arm, she quietly said, “I know we have to figure it out. I’m just scared. I don’t want anything to happen to us.” I leaned over and kissed her softly; the kind of kiss that tries to say that everything will be okay, but only leaves more questions than answers.
That weekend we drove back down that desolate road into the wilderness. When we approached the house, we found only the skeleton of the house remaining. The lawn was disturbingly overgrown, the paint peeled off the walls like skin of bones, and several of the windows smashed open. A light rain began to fall as we walked up the cracked flagstone drive and to the front door. Upon knocking, it creaked open and cracked off one of the hinges. I looked over at Gina blankly for a second, to which she smiled nervously and finished pushing the door open.
Inside, the house looked like it had been totally abandoned. Paintings and family photos still clung to the walls, although their frame were often askew or broken. Furniture sat in piles of dust and lamps lay smashed on the center of the floor. In the kitchen lay the decomposing body of a bird that had smashed through the sliding glass door. There was a mouse’s nest a short distance away. Large spider webs clung to the corners of the rooms, and in them sat, large angry looking spiders.
In the kitchen we both grew fascinated by the presence of a large family photo, hanging over the dinner table. It showed the three of them, the wife looking much younger and healthier, a stern looking father who appeared not to have brought his smile on vacation, and their small son beaming up at the camera. In the background of the photo was a pristine lakefront that felt oddly familiar.
While Gina was left to inspect, I began to wander around the downstairs of the house, looking for any kind of clue that could help me. After coming around and finding nothing, something struck me as a little odd. On the bottom of one of the door frames, there were a whole bunch of scratch marks. They were no larger than an inch high, but it looked like fingers had poked through from the other side and tried to hold on. Without hesitating, I tried the handle and found that the door was locked.
I rammed my shoulder against it a few times, but it still refused to budge. Then I gave it a hard kick, right under the lock, and the wood began to splinter. I did this three more times until it broke away from the lock, and it swung open freely. Gina came over to silently inspect the damage, and followed me carefully as we walked downstairs into the basement.
I reached up for the pull cord light switch, but the bulbs had already burst long ago. So both of us lit the flashlights on our phones and began our descent into the darkness. Now at the bottom of the stairs there were minimal amounts of light flooding in from basement windows, which gave everything that eerily bluish quality of ominous twilight. I could feel Gina’s hand wrap itself around mine, and constrict tighter and tighter with every step across the concrete floor.
Our tiny flashlights scraped along the floor, cutting across layers of dust and discolored stains. A terrible smell surrounded us as we walked along, assaulting our noses and mouths. It made me feel sick; it was too overwhelming. Then we began to notice it. A deep angry brown stain that started in droplets; like tiny little acid raindrops falling onto the floor. They occurred in an asymmetrical pattern, as if they were splatter paint.
The further our lights moved, the more the droplets occurred until they were more than the froth of a wave. Then the stain became an amorphous blob that ran against the wall. Right up into an empty space, where the stain seemed to have pooled. On the ground besides it there was an old wrench, the head of which was covered in the same brown stain. But on this item in particular, the stain appeared to be much more reddish in color.
“Blood,” she whispered quietly, reaching her hands deeply into her bag and pulling the camera. Without thinking she focused the viewfinder on the area, and began to shake. All of her muscles tensed, and I could sense that she saw something. Still she clicked the camera, and backed away.
In the darkness, she waved the photo in between her fingers waiting for it to develop. “He’s here,” she said quietly. Her eyes began to spin around the basement waiting for someone to appear. There was nothing, just the empty silence of the house. We began to walk around, inspecting random things in silence, at an odd feeling of peace.
Then the door at the top of the stairs slammed shut. The lights began to flicker overhead, as if they had magically not been burned out. In the flickering lights we could see him. A tiny boy with his hands folded over his face. He materialized from the wall, right where his bloody stain was, as if sitting up from the spot he was murdered in. He sat up with no bending of his body, as if invisible strings pulled his body up into standing position. Slowly, he pulled his hands away and his soulless swollen eyes glared at us. And then as he noticed the camera in Gina’s hands it turned to a leer.
With superhuman speed we flew at her, and dissipated as his hands touched the camera. In that moment Gina fell back, out of fear or out of the strength of the moment, and collapsed on the concrete floor. She began to convulse, and I rushed over to her. Her arms flailed and reached for me as I fumbled with my phone, attempting to call 911. I had no idea what was happening. I was terrified. I could feel hot tears beginning to rush down my cheeks, as she shook. Then I remembered something.
The way that she didn’t move until I touched her skin at the beach. Quickly I snatched her hands out of the air and held them, but it did nothing. Then working purely on instinct I realized I should pull the camera strap away from her neck. As I reached for it, her convulsing stopped and both of her hands grabbed at the camera. We rolled around on the floor, her with disturbing strength and vigor, as a new force filled her body with fight. She kicked and clawed at me, like there was no love to lose between us. It took what felt like an eternity to pry her fingers away from the tiny plastic frame, and by the time I had it swung over her head, I could hear a siren off in the distance.
When the officers came into the house, they found us in the basement, me looking at the camera with a mixture of disgust and mystification, and her throwing up in the corner. She could only speak in hushed words that seemed to make no sense. She repeated something under her breath as the paramedic helped her up, but no one could understand it. Her eyes were glossed over and inhuman, as if the life that used to lie there had disappeared. Covered and dirt, and scraped up from fighting, we were surely a sight for sore eyes. There was no way that we could explain the situation, so they booked us for breaking into the old house, and wanted to get me on assault. As we sat in the back of the car, I tried to explain the camera, and the little boy, and the house, but they said nothing. So eventually, I just gave up and looked out the window, silently hoping that Gina was okay.