If the woman with the camera had arrived five minutes earlier, Alex Quinn might have had a witness to what she did. On the other hand, it may be that she wouldn’t have done it if someone else had been watching; there is no way to know.
It was nine o’clock at night on a Wednesday, and Alex was working out at Marshall’s 24 Hour Fitness Center. Weekday nights were usually quiet, and tonight was quieter than most, probably because it was the day before Thanksgiving and people were occupied with food preparation, guests, and travel. The day after Thanksgiving, of course, the gym would probably be so packed there wouldn’t be an open machine.
The only other person in the gym at nine o’clock that night was a young woman in Lycra shorts and a form-fitting top that left no curve unaccented, but she had finished her workout. As Alex watched, she packed up her sports bag and left, leaving Alex by himself in an empty gym with twenty minutes’ worth of lifting still left to do. He was sitting on the bench press machine, hands loosely gripping the handles, as the glass-fronted door closed behind the Lycra shorts woman. A moment later, headlights glared momentarily through the windows as she backed out of her parking space and then drove off into the night.
Alex looked around him. TV screens set on Fox News, the History Channel, Syfy, and HBO flickered their silent images into the room. After a moment’s quiet, the Stone Temple Pilots’ slamming guitar riffs blared from Alex’s iPod, and he started his third set of bench presses.
He was on his sixth press when a pair of headlights swung toward the front windows, their beams momentarily blinding even in the brightly-lit gym interior. The lights switched off, and a moment later, the car door opened.
Another sucker trying to gain some traction before losing it all by eating too much turkey with mashed potatoes tomorrow, he thought with a grin, and wondered if it was anyone he knew. He didn’t mind working out alone, but a friend certainly made the time pass faster.
But no, it wasn’t a friend; in fact, no one he’d ever seen. It was a middle-aged woman, with graying curly hair and glasses, and a round, unremarkable face. She was the sort of person you could pass a hundred times in the grocery store and still not remember, a person whose only outstanding characteristic was an amazing averageness. She wasn’t dressed to exercise – she was wearing a light-colored dress and blouse, and had a patterned scarf around her neck.
She looked into the gym for a moment, shading her eyes with her hand.
Looking for someone, Alex thought. It’s against gym rules to let anyone in, though; if she doesn’t have her own card key, she’s out of luck.
And then the woman noticed him. Their eyes met for a moment. Then she fumbled in her purse, and brought out a camera, aimed it through the window, and took Alex’s picture.
The flash was sudden and unexpected, and almost physically painful. Alex gave a little yelp, and was standing up before he realized what had happened. The woman gave him an odd, pitying look, and turned and walked back toward her car.
“What the fuck?” Alex said, and walked toward the door; but he realized that his card key was in his jeans pocket in the men’s locker room, and if he went outside to confront the woman, he’d be locked out, without even his car keys and wallet. And now the woman was turning her headlights back on, putting the car in reverse, and pulling out of the parking lot.
It’s a blue Honda, with California plates. License plate number TF… shit! The car quickly moved away, and the reflected glare from the inside of the window prevented him from getting the whole number. What he’d have been able to do with it in any case, he didn’t know.
Alex stared, watching her tail lights diminish as she drove off down the street.
Okay, that was seriously creepy, he thought.
Why would some strange woman take his photograph? He was an average guy, not bad looking but certainly not the type who would ever get asked to model shirtless for Abercrombie & Fitch. Was the woman just taking a photograph of the gym? Maybe someone who had just moved (from California, he thought, The plates were California) and was going to go home and tell her husband, “Look, honey, there’s this nice little fitness center on Terrell Street, maybe we should join?” And then she’d show him the photograph she’d taken, and he’d say, “It looks like a nice place, let’s join it!”
Alex swallowed. No way. She wasn’t taking a photograph of the gym, she was taking a photograph of me. He remembered the intent, focused look in her eyes – sizing him up – then the sharp explosion of the flash, and the sad little glance afterwards. No, she’d taken his photograph, not the gym’s. However bizarre it seemed, there was no doubt. The gym was incidental.
Alex finished his workout, showered, and changed into his regular clothes, trying to think about ordinary things – the drive to Rochester tomorrow to stay with his parents for the holiday, a date with his new girlfriend this weekend – but his mind kept wandering back to the woman with the camera. He half expected to see her waiting for him in the parking lot when he left – but the lot was empty, the streetlights casting their bleak yellow light over the rectangle of asphalt. He drove back to his apartment, picturing her going back home, printing out his photograph, and adding it to an album with hundreds of other images of people. Taken without their permission, many perhaps taken without their knowledge. In his mind, the woman flipped the pages, the traces of an evil smile on her lips…
“Stop it,” he said, as he pulled into the parking lot of his apartment building. “She was just a nut. Forget about it.”
And he probably would have, had he not seen her the following week, taking someone else’s photograph.
It was one of those strange coincidences that the spiritually-minded like to believe Means Something. In a town the size of Colville, the chances of running into the same person by chance twice in a span of five days was vanishingly small, but when Alex saw her the Monday after Thanksgiving, he recognized her immediately despite her ordinariness. She was sitting on a bench in front of Home Brew Coffee Shop, where Alex had stopped for a cappuccino and a cinnamon roll on his way to work. In the daylight she looked younger, her hair darker, glossier, her skin pinker than it had appeared in the fluorescent glare of the gym lights. But he would have known who it was even had she not reached in her purse, pulled out a little black camera, and snapped a picture of a teenage girl who was walking on the opposite side of the road.
The girl jerked a little, and looked around; she sensed something, but wasn’t able to figure out what it was, because the woman had already put her camera back in her purse. She couldn’t have heard the camera shutter from that far away, and even if the flash had tripped in the bright morning sunshine, it wouldn’t have been noticeable. The girl brushed her hair back with one hand, and kept walking. The woman stood up, picked up her purse, straightened her blouse, and began to walk away.
Alex shouted, “Hey! Wait!” and ran toward the woman. She gave a half turn, and sped up, but didn’t break into a run, simply looked around nervously.
“Hey! You!” Alex shouted, and within a moment had caught up to her. Several people had turned to look at them, faces frowning, wondering whether they were about to witness an assault.
The woman seemed to realize that she couldn’t outrun Alex, and stopped, her eyes flickering nervously up the street as if trying to determine if there was some way she could get away from him. But he was in front of her, blocking her way, and she gave a feeble little smile.
“You,” Alex said, breathlessly. “You’re the one who took my picture. At the gym, on Terrell Street. Last week.”
“I… I don’t think…” the woman said. “I think you must be mistaken.”
“I’m not mistaken,” Alex said. “I just saw you do it again. You took a picture of that girl…” He looked away, up the street, but the teenage girl was gone now, and when he turned back to the woman, she smiled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. She reached into her purse, and pulled out a cellphone. “I was just checking my text messages. I wasn’t taking pictures.”
“You’re lying,” Alex said.
The woman’s smile faltered a little. “I don’t need to argue with you about this,” she said.
“Yes, yes you do!” Alex shouted. “Why did you take my picture? Don’t lie to me. I know it was you. And you weren’t checking your texts, you took that girl’s picture, too.” He modulated his voice with an effort, and said, “Look. All I want to know is why. I’m not going to get mad, or make a scene, or anything.” He looked around, saw the faces of people still staring at them, uncertain as to whether or not to intervene. “At least no more of a scene than I’ve already made. Just tell me why. That’s all I’m asking. I have a right to know.”
She didn’t answer for a moment, and then seemed to come to some sort of a decision. “I guess you’re right,” she said. “If you want to know, come with me.”
“To my motel room. I’m staying at the Super 8.”
“How long will this take?” Alex looked at his watch.
She turned, and gave him a quizzical smile. “As long as you want it to. You’re the one who wanted an answer.”
“Okay. I’ll just have to be late for work.” He walked off after her, and saw ahead of them, parked along the road, the blue Honda with California plates he’d seen the previous week at the gym. She gestured to it, and he got in, only then thinking, What if she’s some kind of nut? Maybe she has a gun, and she’s going to take me out into the middle of nowhere and kill me. Maybe I’ll never be seen again.
But the woman showed no sign of incipient violent psychosis, and simply drove off toward the south end of Colville, where the Super 8 Motel sat among a maze of grocery stores, auto dealerships, and fast food joints. After driving for five minutes, she said, “How did you find me?”
“Entirely by accident.”
She smiled. “I guess it was bound to happen, sooner or later. I got careless.”
“Taking your picture in the gym, while you were facing the window. I used to be more careful – never take a photograph when the person is watching, or when someone else is there and paying attention.”
“Why?” Alex said.
She pulled her car into the motel parking lot, and got out, and Alex followed her through the lobby, and up the stairs to the second floor. She got out a card key and let herself into room 213, and Alex entered to find the usual look of an occupied room – an open suitcase containing clothes in various states of neatness, a novel with a bookmark on the dresser, an open box of granola bars on the little round table near the window.
Sitting on the bed was a blue binder, so full that it didn’t close completely. She picked it up, and went to sit down at the table, and said, “Come look.”
He sat down, and she set the binder on the table and opened it to a random spot. It was a page, in a clear protective sleeve, a print of a black-and-white photograph of a woman of perhaps thirty, getting on a city bus. There was nothing special about the photograph. It was neither interesting nor composed well. In fact, it seemed entirely ordinary. A hand-printed note on the bottom said, “06/28/97.”
She flipped the page. The next one was a boy of about seven, swinging on a swingset in a playground. Then a shirtless male jogger. Then a woman sleeping on a beach towel at the ocean. Page after page, hundreds of them, all ordinary people doing ordinary things – just as he’d pictured on the way home from the gym.
“Why?” Alex said.
The woman looked up at him, an apologetic smile on her face. “My camera,” she said. “It isn’t… ordinary.”
“It takes time.”
“To develop, you mean? It’s not digital?”
“No. Not like that. I mean it takes time. Steals it.”
“How can you steal time?”
She shrugged. “It just does. I don’t know how. I got it when I was traveling – I bought it from a woman in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She said she had used it enough, didn’t need it any more.”
Alex tried to stop a rising sense of horror. “Used it for what?”
Her shy smile widened. “To take photographs of people. To take a year of their life, of course.”
“What?” Alex said, in a strangled voice.
“Each time I take a person’s picture with the camera, it takes a year from their life span, and adds it to mine. The woman in New Mexico never printed out the photographs. I don’t think she wanted to remember the people she took from. I thought it was the least I could do. It makes what they gave me more real, more personal.” She rifled through the pages.
“How long have you been doing this?” Alex asked, keeping his voice modulated with an effort.
She gave him a rather appraising look, and turned back to the first page of the album. Alex stared, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.
The photograph showed a smartly-dressed young woman learning against the bumper of a car. She seemed lost in thought, staring off to the left, frowning a little as if trying to remember something she’d forgotten. From her style of dress, and the look of the car, the photograph appeared to have been taken some time in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
“I’m a lot older than I look.” The woman smiled.
Alex goggled at her. “You’ve been doing this for sixty years?”
“Closer to seventy.”
“How… how could that be?”
“I told you. I don’t know how. All I know is that when I take a photograph, I get younger. I can feel it.”
“But that’s…” He swallowed. “That’s horrible.”
“You’re the first person who’s ever caught me, you know. I never should have taken your photograph, when you were facing the window. Like I said, I got careless. And the others… well, if they never know, what harm done? An eight-year old boy who would have lived to 83 will now die at age 82. To his family and friends, he will just have died of old age, heart attack, stroke, whatever – lived to a ripe old age. The woman who would have died tragically of cancer at 45 will now die at 44. It will still be heartbreaking. No real change.”
“How can you call taking a year from their lives no real change?”
“Because they never know. They never know what they lost. They never know what I took from them. How can it really be stealing if no one ever knows?” Her smile faded a little. “No one but you, of course.”
“You… you took a year from my life.” His stomach was churning; he felt like he was going to be sick. “When will I die?”
The woman laughed. “I have no idea. As far as I know, you could live to 110.”
“109, now,” Alex said.
“I suppose,” the woman said. “Or you could die tomorrow. I don’t know when anyone is going to die. Only that it will be a year before they would have.”
“You need to give it back.”
“Let me take your picture. You need to give me my year back.”
“No,” she said. “I can’t let you touch my camera.”
Alex stood up suddenly. “I’ll get it back one way or the other.”
The woman smiled beneficently up at him. “Will you? I left my purse in my car, and locked the car behind me, when we came up here. If you go back down and try to take the camera, or my purse, by force, I will call the police on my cellphone, and you’ll be arrested for robbery. I think you can see that any assault you have planned here, in my room, will only land you in jail, and will not, in the end, get for you what you want.” She shrugged. “I encourage you to try, though, if it would make you happy. I won’t fight back. And you can’t kill me; I still have hundreds of years of life left.”
Alex looked at her face, her plain, implacable, ageless face, and thought briefly, I’ve never struck anyone in anger. I could hit her, maybe knock her out; take her car keys, get the camera.
And then what? Then be tempted to do the same thing, to go and find other people to steal time from? To extend life simply because quantity was the most important thing?
They stared at each other for nearly a minute – Alex’s face twisted with anger and impotent rage, and the woman’s face bland and unassailable – and finally Alex said, “You win.”
She looked surprised. “I didn’t expect you to give up so easily.”
“What can I do? It’s done.”
The woman relaxed. “Exactly.”
“I don’t expect you’ll be giving me a ride back.”
She turned her hands palm upward. “Under the circumstances… Could I really trust you not to try to take the camera while I’m driving?”
Alex smiled. “Probably not.” He walked to the door. “I guess I’m on my own for getting back to work?”
“Sorry. And I think I’ll at least walk you down, see you off… you know, just to make sure you don’t try to get into my car.”
“You’ve got the key.”
“Yes,” she said. “I do.”
They walked together without speaking, down the stairs, across the lobby, and out into the brightly-lit parking lot, underneath a sun that Alex would enjoy for one fewer years than he should have, and she would be, what? Effectively immortal? Picking up a year here, a year there, from unsuspecting people who never knew what they lost, never got to experience twelve extra months of the companionship of friends, the devotion of children and grandchildren, the embrace of a lover?
The woman paused by her car, watched Alex walk further on along the sidewalk toward Day Street and the three-mile walk to work. And she had taken the key out of her pocket, to retrieve her purse and camera, when Alex leaned over, grabbed one of the large decorative stones from the curbside garden, and hurled it at the car, thinking, Jesus, these things weigh more than I realized! Thank god I’ve been lifting weights…
The car rocked on its suspension as the front passenger side window shattered, and Alex dove through the hole, feeling his shirt catch and tear on the shards of glass, not caring as they cut gouges in the skin on his belly. The woman shrieked and tried to ram her key home into the lock on the driver’s side, but Alex was quicker, and had her purse – and the camera – in his hand before she could get the door unlocked.
“No!” the woman shrieked. “Don’t take it! Please!”
“Why not?” Alex asked, holding the camera aloft and circling the car as she tried to follow him around, tried desperately to get closer. “Give it back to you so you can continue to steal people’s lives?”
“You don’t know how to use it,” she snarled.
“I don’t want to use it,” Alex said. “I’m not afraid to die.”
“You don’t understand!” she said, through furious, clenched teeth. “I saw my father die. I will not go through that. Not if I can stop it.”
“You can’t stop it,” Alex said. “You can put it off. But not stop it. And no more. Not while you live like a parasite, sucking the life blood of total strangers.” And he drew his arm back, and with all his might, he hurled the camera against the pavement.
There was the sound of shattering glass, and the glossy black eye of the lens broke right down the middle, the worn housing cracking into shards. Alex smelled sulfur – just for a moment, and then it was gone. The woman ran to the camera, fell to her knees, picking up the pieces, and holding them up toward him in hands bleeding from where the raw edges of the plastic, glass, and metal had cut her.
“You won’t get your year back from doing this,” she hissed.
“I don’t want the fucking year,” Alex said, panting. “I’m happy with what I have.”
He turned to walk away, and as he got to the corner, he heard the sirens. Someone had called the police. They tore past him as he walked down the sidewalk, away from the woman and the wreckage she had made, and he thought, I will not run. Maybe she’s right, and maybe she’s wrong; maybe when the camera broke, it erased all of those stolen years. But whether it did or not, I will not run.
Whatever happens, let it happen in its own time.