Camera: A Short Story

This is a story about having a super power, in this case, the ability to see 5 minutes into the future.

Brandon Sanderson says that super powers aren’t really that interesting. It’s the consequences and vulnerabilities of the powers that really engage us. In my little retelling of the classic Twilight Zone’s “A Most Unusual Camera,” I think the most interesting part isn’t having the super power, but how difficult it is to hold on to it.

Camera_Wallpaper_by_fllint

 

Camera

A short story

 

Wednesday, January 27th. Present day.

 

In a mad dash, Diane and David Chang stumble into their motel room out of breath and elated. Rushing through the door, they collapse into each others’ arms and onto the sofa. It creaks and gives as the two of them sink into its worn and dingy cushions. Laughing, they kiss and nuzzle into each other in-between exploding fist-bumps and excited congratulations.

“Goddamn! Did you see the size of that dog?!”

“I haven’t ran like that since cross country!”

“Seriously, Davey,” she says, “You’re my hero, man.”

“Naw, baby, you’re my hero.”

His face grows serious as he looks into the eyes of his bride, greyish-brown or brownish-grey. He’s color-blind anyway. But her soul in there, or something that he understands as her soul, beckons him to do great things. She is, as he vowed in front of 220 irrelevant spectators, the one that makes anything possible.

“You make me feel like there is room for me in this world,” he said. “That I am good, that we’re good, and so is the world. And that we can and will do great things.”

Thinking about that day, just five days ago, and those words, he smiles squishing his eyes and drawing out youthful wrinkles across his face.

He’s still basking in his heroism while she empties out their backpack.

“The loot,” she says in a hissing whisper.

She hands him his newly-recovered wallet, which thankfully still has his identification. But the cash is long gone. Her wallet is in the same condition, personal affects intact, all forms of currency absconded. And, of course, what they really went back for is there as well, the watch that Davey’s Uncle Bruce had passed on to him and the ring that Diane’s mom had passed on to her.

There are also a few additional items in the bag.

“Hmm,” she says, “Check it out, man.”

Diane pulls out a long string of pearls. They dangle and glow in the light.

“No way,” he says, “Those totally look real.”

Diane smiles again before breaking into a fit of giggles and wild hand clapping. Their success at the heist has debilitated her usual southern restraint.

She lays out their bounty on the coffee table, taking inventory: some old coins, two pocket knives, a box of .38 caliber bullets, a small candelabra. And an unusually clunky and futuristic digital camera.

*

Sunday, January 24th. Three days earlier.

 

The young newlyweds from Virginia are enjoying a night out in the beautifully parochial neighborhood of Old Pasadena. [1] They both comment repeatedly at how similar the atsmosphere here is to their hometown of Newport News. Walking down the main streets, they find countless churches, many of which look as old or older even than the 18th century sanctuaries of the east coast. One building in particular catches their attention, an old gothic styled Methodist chapel. Although they don’t know much of anything about Methodism or architecture, they find themselves walking through the courtyards and checking the doors, gently seeking admission into this grand temple of Christendom.

It is late. The doors are all locked.

At the side door, an older man stops them. He speaks clearly and pointedly, as if his patience is already exhausted. The young couple reply that they are merely curious to see the inside of the church because it is so beautiful from the outside. He admonishes them for their careless disrespect and informs them to return during regular hours to acquire appropriate permission.

Davey, put off by the older man’s attitude, confronts him on his lack of Christian charity.

The old man, having no inclination to debate the issue, simply tells Davey that what he and his wife are doing is against the law.

Diane rests her hand on her husband’s neck.

“Honey,” she says, “Let’s go back to the motel. It’s cool. They don’t owe us anything.”

“I still think you are a poor representative of the Christian faith, sir!” he says. “What if we needed to get in there? For some dire spiritual needs or something?”

But the old man has no interest in Davey’s hypothetical situations. He simply states that he will be expecting them to be off the church campus immediately and not to return.

They leave, without any more fanfare or argument. The old man watches as the couple disappears down the dark street. Picking at his teeth, he observes a person lurking in the shadows behind the couple. Even though he can’t make out any details in the dark, he can see the shape of the man, his gait, his size. The old man recognizes him immediately as a local craftsman, someone who once had a decent life in this town but recently fell upon hard times. The old man has been watching this fellow for sometime. His name is on a short list of person’s of interest for whom the old man keeps tabs on, people who have drawn the attention of  the old man employer.

Diane is wrapped around Davey’s right arm. And Davey has his collar pulled up and his hands stuffed into his jacket pockets. Even in Southern California, it’s cold at 2:00am in January.

As they proceed east, away from the commercialized neighborhood and towards their motel, Diane notices someone following them. She mentions this to Davey, who loudly exclaims, “What are you talking about!?” as he turns around to point at the man behind them, “That guy?!”

That guy is a large and menacing figure in the dark. He walks quickly up to the couple and punches Davey in the nose, knocking him backwards and onto the ground. He then rips Diane’s purse out of her grip, while kicking Davey in the side. As Davey struggles to gather himself, the robber reaches into Davey’s jacket pocket and removes his wallet. Combined they have over $2,000 in cash and travellers checks.

Almost as an after thought, he takes Davey’s watch and Diane’s wedding ring. Davey reaches for the robber’s ankle, and receives another kick, this one in the teeth. Diane falls to her knees, holding Davey’s face, crying.

*

Wednesday, January 27th. Present Day.

 

Back in the hotel room, holding the unusually clunky futuristic digital camera in her hands, Diane wonders out loud, “Is this like a movie prop or something?”

“Here, let me see,” says Davey, reaching over for the device.

Diane pulls it away.

“Hold on,” she says.

She turns it over in her hands. It is small, no more than the size of a standard bar of soap. And it is mostly smooth, except for a button on the top, a tiny aperture in the front and a modest viewscreen on the back. Diane taps on the casing. Nothing much happens. No lights come on. No sounds come out. The screen remains blank. She looks at the viewscreen and aims the camera at Davey.

“Smile, dude!” she says as she presses the shutter button.

A dainty snap echoes into the room followed by a gentle whirling sound. Then nothing.

“Hm,” says Diane, “Well, maybe it’s not working?”

She places the camera on the coffee table and sits back down at the couch.

“Well, who cares, right? We got a camera already.”

She leans in and begins kissing her husband. Soon they are carefully and intentionally undressing each other. Taking their time to cherish each moment, as if they both know that something special and rare is happening. And about to happen.

As they make love, the camera begins humming and whirling again, making R2-D2-like sounds. The view screen pops on, lighting up with a generic loading icon. Then a picture emerges. It is Davey. He is seated on the couch, just as he was when the photo was taken, but instead of wearing his usual outfit of a light flannel shirt and a pink muffler, he sits grinning while immersed in an opulent mink coat.

Post-coital, Diane sits up and admires her handiwork while Davey excuses himself for the restroom. As he fixes himself up, Diane picks up the camera again and notices that the screen is now working. Selecting its most recent image, she sees a curious image of her husband dressed only in a mink coat. She has never seen him wear a mink coat, nor has he ever expressed any interest in acquiring such a garment. But yet there he is, dressed in this most iconic representative of bourgeois culture.

As she contemplates this strange image, the restroom door is flung open. Davey is standing behind it, arms flung out to the sides, a mink coat draped over his otherwise naked body.

“Check it out, baby!”

*

The large and deliberate man walks back to his home. The way back is long and laborious, uphill and through winding alleys. It stinks of urine and decomposing animals. A broken wheelbarrow rests against a brick wall. The man brings his foot down on it, breaking it into even more pieces. Breathing heavily, he wonders how he could have let this happen. These ridiculous tourists tracked him down, robbed him and got away with it.

“No honor among thieves, I guess,” he mutters, laughing.

As he gets close to his basement domicile, a young labordoodle puppy, no more than 5 or 6 months old, runs out to greet him. Jumping up and down his leg, the puppy is dragged gently along. The man pats her on the head, asking her about her day.

Inside their home, a folded receipt rests on the kitchen table. It’s from the Madera Motel. The registrant’s information reads: David Chang, Newport News, VA. Picking up his dog, the man carries her under his arm while picking up the slip with his free hand. He looks over this helpful document, nodding appreciatively.

“Baby Girl,” he says, “Looks like daddy just got a lucky break.”

*

Back at the Madera, Diane and Davey buy a lottery ticket. They are keenly aware that this is the most important purchase either of them has ever made. Though they are not yet in possession of their new wealth, they are now almost officially two of the wealthiest human beings in the United States. Already they cannot contain their imaginations.

“Baby,” says Davey, “The first thing I’m getting is a brand new Dodge Challenger. Or no, not brand new, an old one, just like the General Lee. Except without the Confederate Flag, of course.”

“I’m thinking we need to get in touch with my brother Jim,” says Diane. “I mean, we’re gonna need someone that knows how to manage that much money. I think, if we make him an amazing offer, he can come and work for us.”

“What?” says Davey. “No, I think we better just manage this on our own.”

“Mmph,” she snorts, tilting her head to the side and rolling her eyes to the sky, “Okay.”

Their one ticket is very specifically a ticket with the numbers: 7, 9, 22, 30, 44 + 18. These are the numbers that they saw on their most unusual camera when they snapped a picture of their motel room television five minutes before the Lotto drawing.

As Davey continues to spin his elaborate plans while Diane listens, cheering him on and chiming in with small details to fill in the gaps of their wonderful new life together.

Just as Davey is describing their new wine cellar, a loud crash startles the couple, and the large and deliberate man stands in the doorway. As if his sheer physicality wasn’t enough, he points a small .38 caliber revolver at the couple. They immediately raise their hands, instinctively, the most appropriate response to being held up. Except one small detail, Davey is still holding the lottery ticket in his hand. Again, a very rational and appropriate human response: to hold on tight to the thing that you find dear.

The large man motions to him.

“Hey,” he says, “What have you got there?”

Davey quickly tries to evade the question. Shaking the ticket in the air, he stammers, “Oh, what, this? It’s nothing, dude. Just a lottery ticket. We lost.”

“Really?” say the man. “Hand it over.”

Davey gives the ticket to the man, who looks over the numbers. He folds it in half and stuffs it into his pocket.

“I’m taking this. And I want all the stuff you stole from my house. That includes all your shit too.”

Diane looks at Davey, shaking her head.

“Yeah right man,” says Davey. “Hey it’s cool. But come on, let me show you something.”

He picks up the camera and presents it to the man.

“You see this? This is a very special piece of equipment, dude. It takes pictures of the future.”

Davey points the camera at the man and snaps a shot.

The camera whirls and hums, beginning its remarkable process of soothseeing.

“What?” says the man. “Shut up already. Just give me the stuff.”

As he reasserts his demands, Diane begins to gather the stolen items. Davey briefly imagines that his plan has worked, that the man will take their possessions, but that he has no interest in the camera.

Diane hands the man the bag with everything of value, except for the camera. But the man is not finished.

“You better put that in there too.”

Feeling a surge of panic, Davey crouches slightly while reaching for the candelabra, readying himself to attack. As the man bends down to pick up the camera, Davey jumps onto his back, repeatedly bringing the brass piece down onto the back of his skull. Disoriented, the man staggers backwards, throwing Davey off of him and firing his pistol indiscriminately.

The first shot goes through Davey’s heart, the second into Diane’s leg, the third through the window, the fourth into Diane’s head, right through the eye.

The man falls onto his knees, grasping the back of his head, slowly passing out. He’s bleeding profusely, bracing himself against the arm of the sofa.

On the table, the camera still rests. The image appears on its view screen. It is of three dead bodies on the ground.

As the large man labors through his last breaths, a small wrinkled hand reaches down to pick the camera up off the coffee table.

It is the old groundkeeper, collecting the device, gently patting it as if it were a delicate feline pet.

“There, there, my dear,” he says to the camera. “You are a most special item in the lexicon of time manipulating curiosities, one of particular economic potential.”

The old man opens a metal case. He carefully deposits the camera in it.

“You are not really something that can be used to predict anything of large societal value,” he continues.

“After all, how many places can someone arrive knowing that they’ll find some useful bit of information there is approximately five minutes? It’s too bad that the human mind so easily imagines betting scenarios, but seldom humanitarian ones.”

He then slips out of the motel and back out onto the streets and about his business.

 

—————————
NOTES

[1] Pasadena, CA, of course. And not Pasadena, TX. Not that there’s anything wrong with Pasadena, TX. As part of their honeymoon plans, David actually bought two tickets to see the 90’s band They Might Be Giants in Pasadena, TX, quite by accident. Diane is too young to remember TMBG as a rock and roll outfit, but knows them for the theme song of her favorite childhood show, Malcolm in the Middle. On the night of the show, the young lovers asked their hotel concierge how to get to Gilly’s Club. In response, the friendly middle-aged woman at the desk asked them if they were planning to fly to take the Amtrak. It was more disappointing for David than for Diane. But she managed to cheer him up by coining the phrase, “They Might Be In Texas.”

[0] Based on the Twilight Zone episode “A Most Unusual Camera” (1960).

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7 comments

  1. hsushine · June 9, 2014

    A good, interesting story…fully intrigued throughout it. Well-written characters. I was rooting for the newlyweds. Thanks for the good read!!!

    • Juan Zung · June 10, 2014

      Glad you liked it Thanks for reading!

  2. 10eveningflowers · June 9, 2014

    Amazing!! Loved your story 🙂

  3. Heather M. · June 10, 2014

    You had me up until the lottery part. Lol Mainly because they cut off sales for the lottery a few hours before the drawing. But other than that I enjoyed the story. I was really hoping for a good ending for the couple though. 😦 With that said, I’m kind of glad you didn’t go with a traditional happy ending.

    • Juan Zung · June 10, 2014

      Good catch, Heather! The original Twilight Zone episode has them betting on horse races.

      • Heather M. · June 10, 2014

        I have seen a good many Twilight Zone episodes, but not this one. I now want to watch it. I love Twilight Zone. Lol Your story definitely had the Twilight Zone feel.

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