Lost Souls


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by Anthony Ferguson

A snapshot is a frozen slice cut out of the lifetime of its subjects.  They are caught for eternity in the moment of the shutter click.  Trapped within the edges of its frame.  Some primitive cultures believe that a photograph captures the soul of its subject.  For these people, images of the dead are taboo.

I first met her at the laundry in the basement of our building.  She was sitting in a solitary chair, smoking a cigarette.  Watching the machine do its thing. She had the sort of pouting sadness that had always appealed to me, the kind that only gets worse with age.  Her face was pale and sallow.  Had the body a woman gets when she's just becoming a little over-ripe and starting to rot from within, and doesn't have the spirit to do a damn thing about it but help it along a little quicker.  Had to admit I was curious.  Turned out she lived on our floor, just a few doors down the hall.

I think I knew from the start she was bad, but sometimes the things that are wrong are the ones we crave the worst.  I didn't know that much about her, except that she lived alone.  Maybe that was enough.  I heard a rumour she was alone, that someone did her wrong a long time ago.  We never talked that much. Probably better that way.  I never asked so she never told.  Not at first anyway.

I tried hard to fight it, the urge.  God knows I tried.  But soon pretty much every night I'd make my way from my marriage bed, down that hallway to her door. The heart knew better but the body wouldn't be denied, and I was caught in some kind of netherworld trance, jerking spasmodically down the worn carpet on that well trod path. Limbs dragging me onward, unwittingly, like some sort of marionette.  Yet all along I guess I knew who was pulling the strings.

I discerned she wasn't on the straight and narrow too.  One night I noticed the big ceramic bowl scattered with crumpled notes on the sideboard by the door. When I asked her about it, she confessed that sometimes men gave her a little something, just to help her get by.  "It didn't happen intentionally", she said. "I kind of fell into it."

"Should I give you a little help too?"

"Only if you want to."  The conversation was rudimentary.  She gave a coquettish sneer, and with a bestial grunt I hooked my arms between her thighs and dragged her forcibly toward me over the sheets.  That was always the way with me though.

That's how it came about, that I'd drop in twenty or a fifty here and there. Whatever I could spare.

Then one night sometime later I just blurted it out, let her share my secret, the one that made my world unique.  She lay with her back to me, but I knew she was awake.  It wasn't planned, I think I just needed to purge myself of guilt, and who better to tell than my conspirator in this sordid little charade.

"Been doing it ever since I was a kid."  I began.  "I can freeze time."  She turned over and I told her all of it.  How I discovered in my youth that I could make the world stop by concentrating my will with a certain intensity, then snapping my eyelids shut just once, really hard, like a camera shutter when you take a picture.  How when I opened my eyes again, everything in the world was frozen in time, stopped dead in its tracks until I thawed it again.

Except not everything stops, I added.  The things I want to utilize in this dead time are unaffected.

"The things like me, you mean?"  She snorted derisively.

"Yes, like you."

"So all this time you spend in my bed, she's back there in your apartment, frozen solid?"

I nodded in acquiescence.  I could never bring myself to mention her name in the presence of a mistress.  I knew it was hypocritical, but I rationalised that my infidelity didn't count, because it didn't happen in real time.  It took place in my world, not in external reality.

I looked across at the digital clock on her dresser.  It said 12.30am.  It was always 12.30am at her place.  The thing never clicked over.

I often thought back on the first time it occurred.  I was a sensitive kid in a dysfunctional household.  One night they were all squabbling in front of the television, the folks and my siblings, when I began to focus on a family portrait hanging on the wall and imagine how serene their silence would be.  It happened just like that.

I was shocked to begin with.  Thought they were playing a trick on me.  Then I saw that even the TV screen was paralyzed.  So I set out to explore my world. Soon enough I found I could use this new skill to manipulate things to my advantage.  You can't imagine how powerful it feels to have control over time itself.  It can evoke a feeling of Godlike intensity.  Obviously I quickly learned to exploit it for nefarious purposes as well, pilfering and other voyeuristic pursuits.  When I wanted to look up the skirts of society, so to speak.

Sometimes I would approach a woman in my frozen world and touch her, leave my scent upon her.  Often that was enough.  Other times, a body in stasis still responds, still yields.  Like a mannequin encased with living flesh.  Trouble is it's a lonely world when you're the only one in it.  But that problem was alleviated a little when I discovered how to unfreeze certain things or even people, at my will.  Which is where she came in.

Anyway, I told her everything, and she didn't freak out.  Just took it in calmly.

One day soon after I passed a woman in the street with the most horrible scarring.  It ran from one side of her throat to the other, disappearing into the hairline.  For all I knew it went all the way around.  I told her about it the same night.

"What kind of man does that to a woman?"

She got up and crossed to the dresser, took a cigarette from the pack and lit it.

"The possessive type."  She said, not looking at me.  Drew deeply, tossed her head back and exhaled.  Wrapped her arms about her torso defensively.

"What happened to you?"

She just shook her head slowly, exhaled again and ran fingers through lank, greasy hair.

I walked over to the mantelpiece.  Something there had caught my eye, but I'd never examined it closely before.  A photograph of her, only much younger.  In it she held a small child to her bosom.  It reminded me how little I really knew about her.

She stubbed the cigarette out and started brushing her hair in the mirror in long, firm strokes.

"Aren't you afraid that one day I might hurt you too?"

She paused for a moment, then let out a dry, throaty laugh.  "You couldn't. Even if you tried."

There was something cruel in her manner.  Something to do with all that bitterness and regret.  Then again, it was the very thing that drew me to her, so I let it slide.

Her compliance was enough for me.  I don't think I needed her to empathize, only to accept.  Which is why, when it happened, it was her door I hurried to and hammered on.

The door opened a crack and I caught a familiar scent through the fissure, a combination of cheap perfume, tobacco and salt.  I could barely make out the red glow of the clock over her shoulder.  It read 12.30am.

"I need to see you."  I said urgently.

She hesitated, glanced furtively behind herself across the room.  It made me think there was someone else there.  I felt a twinge of anger, mingled with desire, but quickly suppressed it.

"Well alright.  Can you give me a minute?"  She finally answered.

I nodded and listened impatiently at the closed door.  At last I heard the latch click and she admitted me.

I was barely over the threshold when I blurted it out.  "I think I killed her."

Her gaze flitted around the room as she calculated the implication of my words. Then she responded all rational and emotionally flat.  "Are you sure?"

"I think so.  She's dead, or at least she will be when I unfreeze her."

She poured herself a shot of gin from a decanter on the sideboard.  Swallowed it down in one hit.

"I can't even remember what we were fighting over.  But I hit her and then I couldn't stop.  I paused everything when I realized, but, I think I was too late."

She took this all in calmly.  "You mean to tell me, if I went down there now, I'd find her lying there, petrified, beaten to a pulp?"

I nodded slowly.  "What have I done?"  I scanned the room desperately searching, for what I didn't know.  An escape route maybe.  I turned sharply toward her. "Help me.  Come and see for yourself."

She wrapped her arms around herself and turned away toward the mirror on the wall.  Her reflection looked me right in the eye.

I was fishing under the bed for a suitcase.  "Get your stuff together.  We're getting out of here."  I started pulling her dresser drawers open.  They were all empty.

"What's your hurry, honey?  Its not like the rest of the world is going anywhere fast."

"Where are your fucking clothes?"  I said, ignoring her.  Yanking out drawers and throwing them across the room.  "We've got to get away."

The eyes in the mirror bore into mine.  "I don't think that would be very practical now hon, do you?"

I froze.  "What do you mean?"

The reflection smiled back at me, coldly.  "Kind of convenient, don't you think, all this."  She waved a hand around the room.  "Having your own personal whore, living right down the hall from you."

I didn't speak.  Just stared into the mirror.

"No I won't be going anywhere with you.  I don't think I want to be part of your world."

I sat on the bed, looked down at my hands, and saw that the blood had vanished. When I looked up again, she had gone too.  The only sign of life was the clock, flashing 12:30am.

I rose slowly and walked toward the door, pausing to retrieve the photograph from the mantelpiece.  I took it out of the frame.  It curled neatly into my hand.  The woman in the picture wasn't her.  But I knew that already.

I kept walking, straight down the hall, into the lift, out through the lobby onto the street.  Several doors were opening and people looked out as I passed. I wasn't supposed to hear what they said, but I think I heard it anyway.

"That's him."

"Did it with his own hands they say."

"Completely off his rocker."

I looked at the snapshot again.  It reminded me of something I read somewhere about the origin of the word.  A hunting term, meaning to shoot from the hip without careful aim.

I walked down the street and turned the corner, dropping the screwed up photograph into the gutter.  Swept up in a pool of dirty water from last night's downpour, it ebbed away on the tide with all the other detritus and poured into the closest sewer.

Didn't matter.  I wouldn't need it where I was going.

Copyright Anthony Ferguson 2006

Anthony Ferguson is a public servant whose work has previously appeared in Suspect Thoughts, Camp Horror, and Lost Souls.  He holds a BA and a Masters degree in Literature and Australian History.

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