By Walt Socha
Yes, it worked. Through the dim red light, Alice could see the print taking shape in the developer. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. The timer chattered and she moved the paper to the stop bath then, after a count of ten, to the fixer.
Once the developed image was in the rinse, she cleaned up the spills and covered the trays. Finally, she turned on the regular lights and hung the print on a makeshift drying rack.
She felt her face spread in a grin as she inspected her photographic print. Nice crisp lines, all in focus and the three subjects centered in front of the town’s memorial. Maybe the school’s Archaic Photography club would let her become a member. A pang of loneliness shot through her gut, but she shunted it away with practiced ease.
Then Alice frowned. There were too many people in the photo. Cripes, the first picture with her brand new second-hand camera was double exposed.
She glanced at the old camera as if it could offer an explanation. It was a large format antique with its single sheet film holder. Even the man at the camera store wasn’t sure where or when it was made. He said it looked like a very old Linhof. But he did have the 4 by 5 inch sheets of film used by the ancient camera.
She re-examined the photo, a nice sharp image of the memorial in the city square. Even the townscape behind it was clearly defined. Although there were six figures shown in the photo print, she was certain there were only three when she tripped the shutter.
Standing in front of the monument as was grumpy old Mrs. Ziegler, the town librarian, standing with the mayor. Next to the two adults was Alice’s goofy cousin Daniel, holding his library-reading award.
Maybe it wasn’t double exposed. The extra three figures seemed to be small kids standing at the side of the memorial. Alice peered closer. The three had large eyes and pointed ears. Was someone playing a joke on her?
“Look through camera.” A voice echoed in her ears. Alice looked around the small darkroom.
“Look through camera.” It wasn’t so much a voice as an echo.
Alice’s hand trembled a bit as she picked up the camera. When she looked through the viewfinder, the room retreated into a distant image, then sped past as she turned.
Alice gasped when she panned past a two wide eyes. She lowered the camera and looked around. She was alone in the room.
“Yes, I am here.” Again the voice seemed to echo in her ears.
Alice lifted the camera back to her eye. She turned slightly and found the eyes looking back at her.
“Ah, hello.” Alice felt silly. But what else could she say? “My name’s Alice. What’s yours?”
“I am called Kaya. You please must release my friends.”
Alice sat the camera down. Voices she could handle. Little people you could see and not see, was another matter. “Who are you?”
“We are shadows in your world. Call us ‘Sprites’ if you need word. But please, camera has captured my three friends on flat surfaces. Please destroy all flat images.”
Alice stared with unfocused eyes as thoughts swirled through her head. None made sense. Was someone playing tricks? Was she going mad? The photo definitely had extra people, or creatures, in it. And the plight of someone small, needing help felt all too familiar to her. Her barely five foot height brought her no end of bullying at school.
She took a deep breath. “How do I release your friends?”
“Fire,” said the voice.
Alice shuddered at the ethereal voice. Then, flipping the camera strap over her head, she removed the negative from the enlarger and grabbed the photo. After a quick look around the apparently empty darkroom, she left.
“How’d your first print go, dear?” Alice heard her mother call as she walked past the kitchen.
“I’ve got more work to do.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie. “I’m sure the next photo will be perfect.”
She detoured past the fireplace for matches and walked outside.
Over an empty flowerpot by the side of the house, Alice touched a lit match to the negative. It curled then burned with a smoky plume. The photo burned cleaner. When both were fully consumed, Alice heard several sighs echo in her head.
Alice stirred the ashes, dusted off her hand and lifted the camera to her eye. Four figures looked back at her. One she recognized as Kaya.
“Thank you for releasing my three friends.” Kaya’s voice now seemed to be more in Alice’s ear.
Alice looked up from the camera. Luckily, there were no neighbors around to wonder why she was talking to herself. She looked back in the viewfinder. “What happened?”
“We were hiding among you humans from evil. Being captured by camera was shock. We not know old enchanted machines still existed.”
“Evil what?” A magic camera was one thing. But what could scare an invisible creature?
“It is creature from beyond both your world and our shadow one. In your language, it might be called Demon. It hunts us, but when it is stronger, it will be able to also hunt humans.”
Alice lowered the camera. If she walked back into the house, maybe these creatures and their problem would go away. “But why does it hunt you?”
Alice thought she could now see four shimmering images. And Kaya’s voice was now definitely less in her head than in her ear. “Can’t you do anything about it?”
Thoughts about school flashed through Alice’s mind. The larger and more popular kids frequently picked on her. But that was nothing compared to being used as food. She shuddered again. Then she looked down at her camera.
“Ah…this Demon. Can it be captured?” Alice held out the camera for emphasis.
Four voices started talking, faster than Alice could understand. The ghostly figures were wildly gesturing to each other.
Then they stopped. Kaya turned to Alice. “It is possible.” Kaya’s eyes seemed to solidify as the little Sprite gazed at Alice.
Alice looked away from the small creature to her house. From this place of safety came the sound of the radio in the kitchen. Her mother was still preparing dinner.
She looked back to the four figures. She did have more film.
“How can I help?” Her stomach felt heavy. She could feel her heartbeat in her ears.
Again the Sprites chattered among themselves. Diminutive hands fluttered in the air. Then they quieted and looked at Alice.
“We sense that Demon is nearby. In place of trees on edge of your dwellings. That way.” Kaya pointed south.
Alice’s eyes followed the outstretched arm. Kaya was pointing in the direction of the City Park which was about a quarter mile away.
“We follow you to that place. And draw its attention. You must be ready.”
Kaya was interrupted by one of her friends. There was more rapid talk and hand gestures.
“Demon may be strong enough to attack you.” Kaya’s face seemed to add a question.
“I’ll be right back.” Alice hurried back to the darkroom. If she thought too much, she’d be too scared to go through with this crazy plan. She laid out her two film holders and box of film. Then, turning off the light, she used only touch to load each with an unexposed sheet of film and slide the protective cover over the film. Once the film holder was attached to the back of the camera, the cover would need to be withdrawn before clicking the shutter. Then she turned the lights back on and inserted one holder into the back of the camera and the other into an accessory bag.
Once back outside, with the camera around her neck and the bag over her shoulder, she joined Kaya and the other Sprites. “Let’s go.”
She started running, holding on to the camera and bag to prevent them from bouncing. She remembered how she had thought it was so cool, although old fashioned, that each piece of film was handled separately. But it was not something to be done in a hurry.
“How fast is this Demon?” she asked Kaya who was running besides her.
Kaya didn’t answer at first. Finally she said, “I think Demon is fast. No one survived who has seen it.”
When they got to the park, Kaya led Alice to a table in the center of the open picnic area. “What now?” Alice asked Kaya.
Kaya looked around. “You stand on the table. We position ourselves around you and call to you if we see it.” She was visibly nervous. “It is nearby. I sense it.”
She waited until Alice stood on the table. “You will have only one chance. If you must capture one of use do so.” Then she ran out about a hundred feet. The others also took up similar positions, surrounding Alice on four sides.
They waited. Alice’s dread increasing as time pasted. It would be dark soon. The park was deserted. Alice’s mother would be wondering where she was. And there would be no way to explain what she was doing.
Then Alice felt something that turned her stomach to ice. “It comes,” she heard one of the sprites exclaim.
Alice started to open the negative cover on the camera film holder. It jammed. She felt the panic spark through her body. She pulled harder and the cover’s handle fell off.
This can’t be happening. She felt herself hyperventilating. She pulled out the broken film holder out and let it drop.
A scream rent the air. “Alice,” a voice called. “Help.”
Alice pulled out her spare film holder and slid it into the back of the camera. Pulled out the negative cover. This time it came freely. The film could now be exposed.
The scream choked into a whimper. Alice put the camera to her eye and pointed it toward the sound. Something came into view. Not daring to take time to make adjustments, Alice clicked the shutter.
Through the viewfinder, Alice saw the dim landscape of the City Park. The scene flew past as she turned in a circle, looking for Kaya. Each of the other three Sprites came into view and disappeared as she completed a full turn. She did not see Kaya or the Demon.
Alice lowered the camera and looked in the direction where she had heard Kaya’s scream. She could just make the shadowy images of three Sprites gathering.
One looked up at Alice. “Demon is gone.” Then they moved away into the far trees and disappeared from sight.
* * *
Alice removed the photo from the rinse and hung it to dry. Other than focusing the negative, she had avoided actually looking at the image.
She turned away and switched on the room’s lights. Then, with a deep breath, she turned back to look at the photo.
It was in focus. The creature’s cavernous mouth with stalactite and stalagmite teeth was clearly defined. Alice shivered. She could have disappeared into that mouth in one bite.
One of the Demon’s arms was braced on the ground, as if it was preparing to leap. The other held Kaya. The Sprite’s eyes were closed and her body lay limp in the grasp of the huge clawed hand.
But she could see no blood on Kaya.
Alice frowned. Kaya’s body was being held off to the side of the Demon. Maybe Kaya was not lost.
Alice dug around in the darkroom drawers and found scissors and a magnifying glass. With shaking hands, she cut out that part of the print with Kaya’s body. Then she removed the negative from the enlarger and, with even more care, she snipped Kaya from it also.
Now back outside, with only the moon for light, Alice burned Kaya’s images over the old pot. As the last of the smoke curled into the air, she heard a sigh.
Barely visible in the dim light from the moon and streetlamp, an ethereal figure lay on the ground next to Alice’s feet. Kaya stirred and tried to get to her feet.
“Are you ok?” Alice reached out to help the struggling Sprite. Her arm felt firm as Alice, with a grunt of effort, pulled Kaya to her feet.
Kaya stood and looked down at the ground. Alice followed her gaze to the remains of a grotesque arm, severed above the elbow. It started to steam and smoke. Within minutes, only 4 claws remained.
“Thank you again.” Kaya’s voice seemed weary as she looked into Alice’s eyes.
She looked back down at the claws. “I think that if you cut image of Demon into small pieces and use fire to release one piece, then another, you will destroy Demon forever.”
Then Kaya looked up at Alice. “Just as you will have me as friend forever.”
Walt Socha is a recent retiree from the high tech industry. He’s been preparing for a second career by taking writing classes at the local community college and online classes with the Long Ridge Writers Group. He has short stories published in Spaceports & Spidersilk, Beyond Centauri and Aoife’s Kiss. He continues to write short stories while working on an alternative history novel set in 1000AD North America.
Walt lives in Portland, Oregon with his artist wife Gretha and two cats named Schiz and Zoid. When not writing, he plays jazz piano, pretends to fly fish and cleans litter boxes.