Chapter 2: The chapter in which Hero lives her utterly normal life, discovers some photographic anomalies and learns the sad fate of her aunt.
Sunday morning, or at least early afternoon, proved to one of the few gloomy days in California. The sky was overcast, and the temperature had dropped. I climbed out of bed, cringing as my feet hit the cold floor. I shuffled to the bathroom and turned on the shower. By the time I started the coffee, I should have hot water.
Fortified by the scent of the brewing coffee, I headed back to the bathroom. A quick glance in the mirror told me that skipping a shower might have been a bad idea. My makeup was smeared, leaving me with mascara-raccoon eyed, and my hair hadn’t slept well. Instead of the soft waves, I’d come home with, I had frizz and patches of flattened hair. I shook my head at the mirror and got into the shower.
After showering and dressing in my favorite worn blue jeans and a faded Cal State Fullerton university sweatshirt, I had my first cup of coffee. Normally on a Sunday, I’d take my coffee out to my small “balcony” – and by a balcony, I mean the two feet of space that jutted out from my apartment. It wasn’t quite big enough for a chair, but I usually opened the French doors and set the chair partially on the balcony and partially inside. Today with the bad weather, I left the doors closed.
Feeling motivated, I folded up my bed for the first time in weeks. I ended up stuffing the sheets and blankets under the cushions because I wasn’t that motivated. I grabbed my coffee and sat on the couch with my legs curled under me. I held my mug savoring the scent of coffee. The one thing I loved about Sundays was that people rarely got married.
Other than my dinner with Dee, Sundays were usually my day to do nothing. Of course, I knew I should try to work on the pictures from last night. The progress I’d made last night would only go so far, and I really wanted the L’Ete job, sooner rather than later.
And all I really had to do today was get dressed for dinner at some point. Dee didn’t insist on something formal, but with a glance, she could make me feel like a louse for showing up to dinner in ratty old jeans. She never criticized any of my worst fashion choices, ever. But she did believe that Sunday dinner was “an occasion” and that meant putting thought and consideration into my sartorial choices. Worn jeans and college sweatshirts didn’t indicate any level of thoughtfulness. If such a small thing made her happy, I could manage that. After all, other than Jenny, she was my only family.
I shook off my growing lethargy, and I forced myself to muster up some remnant of motivation and work on the photos. I refilled my coffee mug and went back to my computer.
I returned to the pictures from the wedding last night. I started scanning the thumbnails, looking for weird lighting or poor posing. I selected the ones that I thought were worth keeping. It wasn’t until I got to the final photos that I found any real problems. Most of the last shots were throw-aways anyway. By the end of any wedding, everyone looked worse for the wear and was often less than attractively drunk. Sometimes I could get some great candid shots of sleepy kids or the “happy couple” looking snuggly. I checked the time stamp and found that after 10:15 pm all sorts of weird things had started happening with my pictures.
Frowning, I randomly selected a thumbnail and pulled up the photo. I stared at a picture with some sort of strange flare of light. It wasn’t the flash or something in the background either. It almost looked like an orb of violet light. “Why are you floating in my photo?” I asked the screen, not really expecting an answer. I zoomed in until all I had were pixels. I couldn’t figure out what had caused the glowing orb. I started looking through the others and found the same issue. Starting at roughly 10:15, the orbs were in the corners of the shots. The lights crept farther in as the night progressed. Some of the last photos had multiple flares, all of them vaguely circular and definitely violet. “Damn it.” I cursed at the pictures suddenly worried I had a damaged lens or worse a damaged camera. The cost of replacing any of my equipment was more than I wanted to think about. Forget rent, forget food, it would cost more than both for two months to replace my camera.
I pulled out my camera, praying it wasn’t broken. I clicked off a few test shots of my messy apartment and checked them on the camera display. Nothing. They came out clean. I scanned the rest of the pictures and found the light problem stopped somewhere after 11:30. I thought back, wondering if something had changed about the lighting in the ballroom. Sometimes towards the end of an event, the managers started turning the lights up, kind of like when a bar is trying to close. But nothing in the pictures indicated that had been the case.
I scowled at the pictures, annoyed at how many would have to be trashed. I could probably crop the photos with the flares on the edges, but the others were not salvageable. It wasn’t the loss of the pictures that bothered me; it was that I didn’t know what happened to cause the flares. My camera seemed fine, and I hadn’t changed the lens after 10. I scanned the earlier photos, and they all seemed okay. They had the normal lighting issues, but nothing like the weird violet orbs. On a whim, I tried running the photos through different editing filters. After a few filters to sharpen the images and adjust the contrast, the orbs became more defined. I zoomed in on the section with the orb.
I was certain it was only an optical illusion, something like that face on Mars, but the orbs became more defined and almost appeared to be faces. Instead of blotches of color, they began to have the vague lines of eyes and mouths. And my skin prickled.
I stopped filtering the images when the blotches started to grow indistinct again. I went back a few steps and printed a couple of the images, cropping the photos down so that most of the image was the light flare. I figured I could show them to Jenny and Dee at dinner, as a novelty. But when I looked at the printed copies, the idea that the flares were faces seemed more realistic. I suddenly felt cold.
I laid the printed photos facedown and closed the files on my computer. I tried to laugh at myself for feeling uneasy about the photos. I wasn’t superstitious, I wasn’t even religious. I didn’t believe in ghosts or UFOs or auras or any of that stuff that often comes up with photography. I knew all about Kirlian photography and yeah messing with electricity and photographs could be fun and some really cool pictures can come out of it, but it’s not an aura, it’s just electricity. But the orb images were eerie, in an explicable way. I tried to shake off the disquieting feeling that had crept over me. I finally turned off the computer and pulled the flash drive out, as if just removing the source of the photos would take away the feelings. I glanced at the clock and realized that it was getting later. I decided that going to Dee’s house early would shake off the haunted feeling the pictures had given me. I told myself that it was just the gloomy day and being alone that made it seem so spooky.
I shoved the printed pictures in my purse and went to change clothes. I hunted through my closet, taking my time and trying to distract myself by focusing on my clothes. I finally settled on some black jeans. I tried a black turtleneck. Maybe it was the weather, but black made me look beyond pale and sickly. I pulled off the shirt and grabbed a long-sleeved green shirt. I wasn’t sure where it had come from. Even on the best of days, I am far from a fashonista. Most of my clothes were black, and it wasn’t some statement or fashion choice, it just meant I didn’t have to worry about what matched. The green shirt was probably a gift from Jenny since it actually looked good on me. I decided to go all out and actually made an effort to put on some makeup and play with my hair.
With a last glance in the mirror, I grabbed my bag and headed to Dee’s house. Her house was less than a mile away, and while in Southern California most people eschewed walking, I’d made a habit of forgoing the car on Sundays. If it got late, Jenny could always give me a ride home.
As I walked through my neighborhood, lined with vintage apartment buildings and towering jacaranda trees, I wished I’d brought my camera with me. The jacarandas had started to bloom, and the boughs were full of lavender flowers and their cloying scent filled the neighborhood. Taking nature photos wasn’t really my thing, but I had a fondness for jacarandas. A few kids playing on the shared green space of my apartment building laughed and ran past me. I mentally framed the kids in various photos, and again regretted not bringing my camera. I decided that I really would try and get last night’s photos done so that I could try for a space in the gallery.
And I was beginning to feel silly about the orbs in the pictures. After all, plenty of weird things can happen with photography. Maybe I had picked up some of the flower girl’s glitter on the lens, or it could have been soap from the bubbles blown at the departing couple. I tried to quiet the small voice in the back of my head that said if either explanation was true, then the same effect should have occurred when I tested the camera at home since I hadn’t cleaned the lens before taking the test shots. I almost turned back home to double-check that it was dirt on the lens, and not a chip or crack in the glass.
I forced myself to stop thinking about the weird photos. I waited for traffic to clear on the one major street between my apartment and the housing tracks and hurried across the four lanes. I started the trek through the narrow residential streets that wound through the hills. The streets were narrow enough that when cars parked on both sides, the street was effectively one lane. Dee’s neighborhood was always pretty quiet. Most of the homeowners were like Dee, older with children who’d grown up and moved out. Other than the click of a rotating sprinkler and a very cheerful mockingbird, her street was quiet as always. As I got closer to the end of Dee’s street, I saw a couple of police cars parked across from her small Craftsman house.
I walked up, checking the surrounding houses, wondering what happened to get the cops out. I noticed the front door of Dee’s house was open. She never left her door open, but maybe she had come out to get the story from the neighborhood gossip, Mrs. Finch. I glanced over at Mrs. Finch’s house. I expected to see Aunt Dee and the blue-haired Mrs. Finch standing on the lawn exchanging theories about the crime. Instead, I saw Mrs. Finch standing on her porch in tears.
I started to walk over to make sure she was ok when she saw me and her tears turned into real sobs, and she hurried down her steps. I realized she was still wearing her dressing gown. It was after two in the afternoon, and I couldn’t remember ever seeing Mrs. Finch less than impeccably dressed. We met in the middle of her walkway and she locked me into a tight hug.
“Oh honey, honey I am so sorry.” She gripped me tighter, “I told them to call you. Did they call?”
I tried to disentangle myself from her, but she had a surprisingly strong grip for seventy-year-old. “Mrs. Finch,” I managed to get her to loosen her hold on me, “What happened?”
“Honey, you’d better sit down,” She started to lead me to her porch. I felt my stomach drop. Something bad, really bad must have happened. She hadn’t been this nice to me since I was eight and my cat died. And I suspected she was only that nice because she had accidentally run it over.
“What happened?” I heard my voice quaver, and I looked over at Aunt Dee’s house. I caught sight of a uniformed cop walking out of Dee’s front door.
“Hero, I didn’t want to be the one to tell you, but maybe it’s better coming from me.” She glared over at the cops. “It’s your Aunt. Honey, I’m so sorry, but she passed sometime last night.
I felt my knees grow weak. I should have taken her offer and sat down, I thought but realized I was sitting. I couldn’t feel anything, I couldn’t think. I was just sitting, not hearing anything else Mrs. Finch said. I closed my eyes and struggled to breathe.
Aunt Dee couldn’t be gone. It wasn’t possible. Sure she was old enough to be my grandmother, but she was always healthy, always active. I found myself sitting on the cold concrete walkway shaking my head. Mrs. Finch was bending down to pat my shoulder.
“It’s a mistake.” I managed to mumble, feeling my eyes burning with tears. “You’re wrong.”
Mrs. Finch continued to pat my shoulder and call me honey. My chest was tight and no matter what I did, I just could seem to get any air in my lungs. Maybe Dee had fallen and broken a bone or something, and an ambulance would be arriving any minute, and Dee would scold me for sitting on the sidewalk. I glanced at the street, and that small voice in my head said that the ambulance should have already arrived.
A shadow fell over me. I heard Mrs. Finch talking to someone, but I didn’t understand any of the words. It was a mistake. Mrs. Finch was wrong or I’d misunderstood her. She couldn’t mean dead. Dee couldn’t be dead, she couldn’t be gone.
I heard a male voice.
“Ms. Adams?” I heard him pause, “I’m Detective Smyth, and I see you’ve already gotten the news. We were about to call you.” He laid his hand on my shoulder, “Ma’am, let’s get you sitting somewhere else.” His voice was soft.
I let him lead me to Mrs. Finch’s porch. I felt numb and I still couldn’t breathe. I heard him talking to Mrs. Finch again, and heard the creak and slam of her screen.
“Ma’am, I’m terribly sorry.” His hand was still on my arm, and his touch was cool, almost calming.
I felt the tightness in my chest easing. I gulped for air. “It’s a mistake,” I whispered.
He squeezed my arm, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but it’s not a mistake. Your aunt passed away last night. The medical examiner has already taken her away.”
I finally looked up at him. All I saw were green eyes. “What happened to her?” I was trying to look away from him, from his too green eyes, but I couldn’t. I decided that his eyes weren’t just green, at least not the mossy green I expected in an eye color. His were a vibrant, beryl green.
“We don’t know yet. Did she have any health problems, her heart or anything?”
I shook my head, trying to escape from his gaze as much as to clear my head. I was numb, but I was starting to be able to think again, at least about the practical things. “No, no health problems.” I finally managed to look at all of him. Even lost in grief and confusion, I couldn’t help but notice he was an attractive man. Chiseled features and tousled chestnut hair that seemed far more likely to belong to an actor playing a cop, than an actual cop. And then I noticed that he wasn’t wearing a uniform. His blue button-down shirt pulled just a little at his broad shoulders and was carefully tucked into well-tailored slacks. “Are you a cop?” I heard the words and felt dumb for asking, what else could he be, well other than a model or an actor? It seemed like a stupid question, but once the words were out, I couldn’t take them back.
He smiled, “A detective ma’am.” He offered his hand, “Detective Kyle Smyth.”
I shook his hand, “Hero Adams, not ma’am, just Hero.”
He offered a shy smile, and I felt better. I couldn’t explain it, but his smile left me calmer, more in control. I mentally chastised myself for acting like some romance novel heroine. The handsome detective is here to save the day. I took my hand back and chagrined at my girly response to him, I had to admit I felt better.
“Um, is this a detective matter?” I asked.
He shook his head, “Not according to the medical examiner, but when the call came in, I was nearby. It’s standard, for a police presence,” he paused, “But this isn’t a criminal issue.”
I nodded as if I had any idea what would be a detective matter or not. “What happened?”
Mrs. Finch returned, with the same creak and slam of the screen. She pressed a coffee mug in my hand. I took a small sip and choked on the amount of whiskey she’d put in the coffee. I managed to cough out a thank you to her. She sat beside me on the small bench, urging me to drink my coffee.
Detective Smyth smiled at her. “Well, ma’am,” he paused at my look, “Sorry, Hero, Mrs. Finch called us.” He said looking at her, almost expecting her to pick up the story.
Mrs. Finch broke into tears again, so he began again. “It seems Mrs. Finch and your aunt regularly had afternoon tea together. When Ms. Adams didn’t show up this afternoon, Mrs. Finch checked the house. She saw…” he broke off, “She saw your Aunt in her sunroom, not moving or responding to her knocking. So she called the police.”
Dee’s sunroom. It wasn’t a sunroom, it was her office. Her sanctuary. It was the only place in the small house that we had shared for so many years that I knew I wasn’t supposed to go. Even as a child, she hadn’t forbidden it or anything, but somehow I knew that was her space. And I knew that she needed that space, and not only for her work. As I’d gotten older, I realized that Dee wasn’t the type of woman who would have had children. She was great to me and all, but she hadn’t wanted to be a mother. As an adult, I recognized the sacrifice she’d made for me and for my mother. My grandmother must have been incredibly important to her.
I realized that I’d been sitting lost in my thoughts and memories when the detective’s fingers brushed my hand as he steadied my coffee mug. I glanced at Detective Smyth, “So, you found her?”
He nodded tightly. “She seemed peaceful.” He said quietly.
I appreciated the effort he made. I wondered how many times he had done this, had to tell someone a loved one died. At least with me, it wasn’t some horrible, violent death to explain. I started to thank him when I heard another car park.
We both glanced over at the street and saw Jenny. She glanced at Dee’s and her eyes found me. She raced over, her strappy black heels clattering over the sidewalk.
“She’s a friend of the family,” I said to Detective Smyth but found his eyes already locked on Jenny. She often had that effect on men, maybe it was the blond hair or maybe it was the boobs.
Jenny reached the porch, panting.
“Jenny, it’s Dee.” My voice broke and I was sobbing again. I just couldn’t say it out loud. If I did, I knew it would be real. I sobbed in her arms. All of the calm I’d found was gone.
I felt her shift and look at Detective Smyth, and she stiffened. “What happened?” she bit out the words at him.
“Ms. Adams passed away,” his voice was suddenly professional and almost cold.
Jenny didn’t say anything in response. She hugged me tighter, but I could still tell something was wrong. I finally stopped crying and looked at her. Her blue eyes were trained on Detective Smyth shooting daggers. She managed to place herself between me and him, and he had stood up moving off of the porch. I frowned, feeling the tension between them. It was almost like watching two cats fighting over territory. I half expected them to glare and growl and start circling each other. Maybe they’d both start hissing at each other. Then the tension was gone.
I looked down at my coffee mug and blamed all of the weirdness on the whiskey. I hadn’t eaten anything today. Both Jenny and the detective were looking at me with sympathy. “So, what am I supposed to do?” I wasn’t sure who I was directing the question at, or what I was really asking.
Jenny kept her arm around me, “Right now, I think I should take you home. We can figure out what to do tomorrow.”
The detective nodded. “You’ll need to sign some papers to claim the bo… to have your aunt sent to a funeral home. I can bring them to you tomorrow if you want.”
I started to nod, but Jenny cut in. “We can come to the station, or where ever. You don’t need to put yourself out.” Her voice was still tight.
I suddenly wondered if she’d slept with him. Jenny went through boyfriends and girlfriends at an alarming rate. Maybe he was one more conquest gone bad. I felt a slight twinge that he’d been involved with her.
“Of course that’d be fine.” His voice was equally tight. “Ms. Adams, if you need anything, you can call me.” He set his card on the porch rail.
I nodded, “Thanks. You’ve been really nice.” I reached out and grabbed the card, but I didn’t miss Jenny’s glare at him.
Mrs. Finch thanked him as he walked back to his car. Before she could start with her tears or call me honey again, I told Jenny I wanted to go home. I managed to thank Mrs. Finch before Jenny led me to her car.
I watched Mrs. Finch standing alone on her porch and felt a prickle of guilt. Dee had meant a lot to her too, and I was leaving the poor, old woman all alone.
Jenny followed my eyes, “I feel bad for her too, but you can’t take care of her right now.” Her voice was quiet. “Right now, you’ve got to take care of you.”
I felt numb, and I turned my eyes away from the old woman, “Take me home, Jenny.”