Chapter One: In which our protagonist Hero has a run in with a very disquieting howl.
“’Night Jenny,” I called as I left L’Ete, Fullerton’s favorite banquet hall for weddings. I heard her call back from the kitchen, “’Night Hero, don’t forget about editing the photos.”
The wedding reception had dragged on at least an hour over what the couple had contracted for, but Jenny had insisted we both stay. Since Jenny was my boss and my best friend, I stayed. I knew she insisted because this was the poshest wedding she’d ever planned and because she’d applied for the wedding planner position L’Ete was offering. Of course, that meant she’d also applied for me to be their photographer.
I still had photos from our last wedding to finish, as well as a photobook for a first-anniversary gift to finish. With the application waiting on my work, I could forget about both of those jobs. I’d lose all of this week working on the photos for the application. It also meant that once again, I wasn’t going to have anything to submit the art fair.
On my way out, I detoured around to the side of the hall to check out the new garden section. I peeked through the fence, but the garden was a jumble of shadows. I could make out the masses of roses getting ready to bloom, and the jasmine vines that had already started racing up the fence and trellis. The garden backed up to the parking lot, which wasn’t an ideal placement, but it allowed the garden to be huge. Besides, it filled the night air with the mingled scents of flowers. Somewhere, back in the gloom, I knew there was a gazebo for wedding ceremonies. In another month, people would be clamoring to have their wedding and reception there. I wondered what kind of lighting the owners had decided on; they were considering ground lighting and some faux old-fashioned light posts, or fairy lights and candles. I really hoped that they vetoed the fairy lights and candles idea. With that little light, every picture would be a struggle. People always think the twinkling lights and flickering candles are nice until they realize no one can see their overpriced dinner and their pictures would be a nightmare.
I was so busy contemplating the difficulties of shooting if they had gone with the ridiculous fairy lights idea that I jumped at a dog’s howl. Ok, it wasn’t exactly a howl; it was more like that eerie half-whine half-howl sound dogs make when a siren goes off. I froze and then turned away from the fence to scan the parking lot, but only saw shadows and streetlights. I clutched my bag a little tighter, telling myself it was probably a dog in someone’s yard. Fullerton was a city, but we have enough wild areas that it wasn’t unusual to find a stray coyote or three roaming the streets this late. But the howl hadn’t had the particular yip and whine of a coyote. “Probably just a dog,” I whispered to myself.
L’Ete was only about a block from the residential areas of Fullerton, close enough that local guests could even walk to a wedding. But even with the houses nearby, something about how close the howl sounded made my hair stand on end. The howl slowly faded away, and the streets were silent again.
I walked a little faster toward my car. My reliable old hatchback was parked under the only light in the parking lot that had burnt out. Great, I’d parked in the darkest corner of an empty parking lot filled with rabid dogs. I tried to shake off the feeling, and I continued to scan the shadows for a stray dog. I couldn’t see anything out of place, just pools of shadows between the lights. Then, I heard another howl, the haunting yowl echoed through the parking lot a second time.
I gave in to my fear, and I broke into a run, clearing the last of the parking lot with my camera bag banging against my hip, praying I wouldn’t twist my ankle in my heels. I fumbled with my keys and managed to calm myself enough to lay my camera bag into the trunk. I couldn’t afford to damage any of my equipment. I was shutting the trunk when I heard the howl again. This time, I knew it was closer. I knew it wasn’t a dog in someone’s backyard. It had to be somewhere in the parking lot. I hurried into the car, and once locked safely inside, I realized I was shaking.
I laid my head on the steering wheel and felt my heart thudding. I forced myself to look up and saw only an empty parking lot. I laughed then. What did I think I was, some Victorian heroine caught up in some Baskerville hounds nonsense? Even if the dog was in the parking lot, it was just a dog that escaped its yard, not some slavering monster.
I started the car and turned on the lights. For a second, I saw eyes, at least the gleam of animal eyes reflecting in my headlights, and I would swear the reflected gleam was violet.
Being a photographer, I know about eye-shine. Eye-shine is the thing that makes people’s eyes red in photos. With photos, it has to do with the flash and the way light reflects off of the tapetum lucidum in the backs of our eyes. The color of the reflection varies between animals and people. People are usually red, and animals are almost always a bright yellow-white, sometimes greenish, but not purple. Most people have seen the creepy glowing eyes of cats at night when headlights or streetlights catch the animal at the right angle.
But in that second when I looked up, I saw three pairs of eyes, and all of them were purple. I blinked and the eyes were gone. If it was a pack of dogs, they moved fast. In front of my car were a few more rows of an empty parking lot, nowhere for an animal to hide, much less multiple dogs. I craned my neck, to look over my shoulder at the parking lot, but saw no signs of movement and no dogs at all.
I shook my head, telling myself I couldn’t have seen anything. I must just be tired, and the weird howling set me on edge. I’d been watching too many horror movies or something. I glanced behind my car again and backed out. I kept looking for the dog I’d heard; after all, I didn’t want to run over someone’s pet, even if it was a creepy, purple-eyed howler.
I made it out of the parking lot and on to the road without seeing or hearing the dog or dogs, again. The drive back home was short enough. I drove slowly through downtown, dodging the last of the drunken 20somethings that stumbled out of the myriad of bars. Downtown had been full of boutiques and small, family-owned restaurants, but when city council instituted plans to “redefine” downtown, most of those businesses closed and were replaced with more profitable “drinking establishments.” All of them served food, but for the most part, were filled with university students and drinking. Maybe I was just getting old, but I missed the old, quieter downtown.
By the time I got home, I’d convinced myself the dog howling and eye-shine weirdness was only my overactive imagination and exhaustion. I hadn’t actually seen a dog, and it probably was a dog in someone’s yard, and the howl was some weird echo. Maybe it was the weather. If it was hot enough, I could hear the train from miles away. Maybe if it was cold enough a dog bark could echo from its backyard to the parking lot?
I pulled into my parking spot and lugged my camera bag up the stairs to my apartment. At the end of my workday, I was always convinced that the bag had gotten heavier. My heels clicked on the tile steps, and I was reminded yet again of how tired I was. My day had started hours before the actual wedding because every bride wants pictures of her and her bridesmaids getting dressed. I mentally tallied up the hours I’d been on my feet. Somewhere around ten, I stopped counting and unlocked my door.
Inside, I kicked off my shoes, missing the shoe rack entirely. I sighed, savoring the feel of the cool tile under my abused feet. My apartment was classic California rancho, with stucco walls and adobe tiled floors throughout. It would be perfect if throughout, didn’t mean studio apartment where showering and using the stove at the same time was spatially possible. I’d moved into the tiny apartment when I started college. Back when I was nineteen, the studio had seemed so urban and full of old-timey charm. And it was affordable, and I’d wanted to prove that I could be on my own.
Now it was cramped and a little embarrassing when I considered having grown-ups over, but it was still cheap, and while wedding photography paid well, I didn’t always have steady work. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a wedding photographer. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
My couch, cum fold-out bed, was exactly as I left it, still unfolded and unmade. Aside from the bathroom, the apartment was really just one large room, and I use large loosely. I left my camera bag on the scarred wooden kitchen table/desk. I managed to knock the bag into a pile of junk mail that threatened to avalanche to the floor. I carelessly grabbed the stack and tossed it towards the overflowing “mail basket” at the center of the round table. I switched on my laptop and headed to the kitchen for a much needed drink.
I tossed a frozen dinner in the microwave and grabbed a beer. While my dinner was heating up, I started downloading the current photos. I sighed, thinking about the amount of work I currently had. I never should have promised Jenny that I’d work on the Stewart pictures tonight. All I really wanted to do was curl up with my soon to be unfrozen lasagna and maybe watch some TV. Instead, I was going to stare at more wedding pictures.
I sat down at the table with my dinner and started downloading the current photos from one of the memory sticks. I was happy to note that I had managed to get the bride’s parents looking happy in one shot. That’s at least one important photo out of the way. I took a forkful of lasagna and grimaced to find it was still cold in the middle. With a sigh, I got back up and threw it into the microwave again. Then I set to work on the photos, recolor, retouch, re-crop, and repeat.
When I looked up again, I realized it was after 2 am. I’d made great progress on the pictures and was happy to find that I’d be able to send the application photos in a couple of days earlier than I’d promised. It was a small victory, and it meant I might be able to work on my art photography this week.
I closed my computer and gathered the remains of my dinner. I tossed the remains of the lasagna and the beer bottles. I briefly considered hopping in the shower before bed. Hot water would work out the kink in my back from working at the computer and might alleviate the soreness in my legs. But considering how long it would take the ancient plumbing to supply me with any hot water, I opted for bed instead.
Curled up in pajamas, I switched off the lights. Every time I closed my eyes though, I heard the memory of the dog’s howl. Eventually, I fell asleep, but I could still hear the howl.