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It was a beautiful photograph, except for the figure.
Elisa took it on the beach in Maine as the sun set, facing away from the water and towards the row of pine trees that obscured the beach houses behind them and that made the area look clean, pure, and untouched by man except for the line of her own footprints stretching to the side and eventually off the camera frame.
A seagull flew in front of the frame, and Elisa thought, perfect. She snapped the picture.
Elisa was not able to look at it until three days later, when she was back at her apartment in Manhattan and her thousands-of-dollars camera was safe from water, sand, and salty air. She plugged it into her giant Mac and pulled up the results of her Maine photo shoot, which was done independently but which she hoped to sell to a nature magazine or even publish in National Geographic.
Perfect, she thought again as she found the one shot of the seagull flying in front of her camera. She had managed to capture the bird in all its detail, and a great deal of detail of the trees in the background. The gull had a sort of hungry look on its face, intensifying the picture's action and improving the overall quality of the photograph tremendously. A definite publisher, she thought. Nat Geo, here I come.
It was then that she noticed the figure.
It was the faint silhouette of a human, so faint that only Elisa with her photographer's eye for detail would notice. It stood (floated?) on a large boulder in front of one of the pine trees. It was so faint that it looked like haze, and that was what Elisa thought it was. Haze that looked like a human, she thought. How creepy.
She shuddered, and then used Photoshop to lessen its already-minimal impact.
She sent it to a couple of newspapers and a couple of magazines, but only a small local Maine nature magazine published it, and only then as a package of gull pictures. By then Elisa had long since realized that there was really nothing unique about the picture, and that she had better start observing better things in order to get published. Her rent money was running out, after all, and the pittance she made as a waitress at a comedy club did little to replenish it.
So she traveled a little bit. She went to Massachusettes, Connecticut, even Pennsylvania one weekend when the club was fumigating. She photographed local birds at their nests, deer at their neverending race away from overeager hunters, the nectar she managed to capture as it was right between the bee and the flower. Nothing made waves, and Elisa knew why. She had an eye for detail, but not for the unbelievable, the fantastic, the wonderful, the unfathomable. She could capture the hungry look of a seagull on the hunt, but not the surprised, gape-mouthed expression of the fish as the gull scopped it out of the water.
So she photographed some weddings, and that paid for most of the rent.
After a few months, Elisa found that she had enough spare change to trek back up to the beach in Maine. She had an idea. She had recently acquired a very long-range lens, enabling her to capture the entire section of beach. She wanted to photograph the entire pine grove, because on either edge the sides of houses jutted out, ruining the mood of the untouched coastline. An illustration of the sharp difference between mankind and serenity, she thought as she staked out a spot on the empty beach.
She took some pictures, and, when she was satisfied, she fooled around with the camera for a bit. Elisa took a picture of the water, and managed to capture the slight curl of a small wave just as it reached its peak and started to fall, but before it broke entirely. She lay down and tried to photograph individual grains of sand, though she knew she would need a better lens to do so.
Then she saw a couple of small birds in the pines, going about their business, not realizing that their light brown color neatly and vividly contrasted with the pines' dark green shades. Without even thinking about setting up the shot, Elisa zoomed in and photographed the birds. She looked at hte picture and liked it. There was really no need to take another identical shot. So she zoomed out, took another shot, and looked at it.
Not very good, she knew right away, before she even reviewed the picture. Not even she could tell that the specks of color against the green were birds. She moved her finger to delete the picture.
Then she saw the hazy human silhouette again.
It was not on the rock this time, but a couple feet in front of it, darker and more noticable. With a chuckle, Elisa realized that if she showed this picture to people, they would add it to the already-considerable files of "ghosts" being photographed. There must be some sort of vent around that spot, she thought. Some sort of heat or cold or place where the sun met the trees that caused it to haze up in photographs.
At home again, Elisa transferred the odd picture to Photoshop and started playing with the shadows and contrast. Yes, the haze was definitely there and definitely human-shaped. When she tried to get rid of it, she ended up with a smudgy mess. It was definitely a part of the picture, and not likely some problem with her technique or her lenses.
Weird, she thought. She deleted the picture.
The next time she went to the beach, it was raining. It had been nearly a year since she had last been, and now she had come with a specific purpose and assignment. The beach was one of the few on Maine's coast that, despite the heavy human presence in the area, was largely unused. There was no good explanation for this; residents cited cold, rain, polluted water, unagreeable animals in the water, and loneliness for steering clear of the beach.
Elisa's job was for a local Maine newspaper a couple dozen miles from this beach. She had moved to that town a few months ago, having spent her year traveling around the state and finding herself loving it and hating her stuffy Manhattan apartment and her job at a crappy comedy club. Besides, Maine was cheaper.
So she had a steady job at the local paper, and now she was photographing the beach to which she had been twice before. Elisa sighted some ugly-looking rocks a couple hundred feet from shore and focused on them, snapping hundreds of pictures. She and the editors would go through them later and pick the best.
After awhile, without picking a dominant element, Elisa just turned slowly in a circle, taking pictures as she went. As her camera swung by the row of pines she vaguely remembered the hazy figure, but she thought little about it. It didn't matter.
"You went a bit overboard," the photo editor at the paper told her a couple of hours later as they sorted through her new collection. "You didn't have to take that many pictures." He was clicking through them so fast that they looked like a stop-motion animation.
Elisa simply shrugged. "Better too many than too few," she replied.
The editor grunted and then chuckled. "Well, most of these are pretty good - you got a nice wide shot of some ominous-looking storm clouds, which will illutrate our point nicely, and - what the hell is that?"
He had pulled up the first real picture of the row of pines. Elisa leaned beside him to see what he was talking about. A chill ran down her back when she saw what was there.
"I thought I told you not to take any pictures of people, Elisa," the editor said.
"I didn't," Elisa replied. "That guy wasn't there when I took the picture."
The hazy figure had taken a much more definite form, and was ten feet in front of the boulder, about forty feet from Elisa. It was clearly identifiable as a bearded male, who was clenching his fists. An angry expression was just possible to make out. The figure was still hazy and blurry, but it was definitely a person.
"I don't know how that happened," Elisa repeated, feelling thoroughly creeped out.
The editor frowned. "Well, obviously someone must have stepped into the picture, because people don't appear in pictures out of nowhere. What do you think it is, a ghost?" He chuckled again.
"I don't know," Elisa replied. "Go through the others."
Every other picture of the pines was the same. The man stood there, fists clenched, angry-looking, staring at the camera from forty feet away. Elisa found her hands shaking. She wasn't afraid, but it was creepy. Definitely creepy.
"Good prank, Elisa," the editor said, applauding sarcastically. "Delete all the ghost pictures. They wouldn't have been good anyway."
Elisa sighed and obliged.
A couple of weeks later, she returned to the site, this time specifically to try to take a picture of the pines and the boulder. She had been thinking about it almost nonstop for the past couple of weeks, and she knew she was building up the incident in her mind to the point where it scared her out of her wits. She had even done an extensive Google search on the area, looking up hauntings and deaths, both accidental and natural. There was nothing, just the newspaper article to which she had contributed and the picture of the creepy rocks. She had even gone to the local library, languishing in the wake of the Internet, but that had yielded nothing but the name of the man who had first owned the beach, who had passed away naturally a century ago.
So she had returned to this spot to reassure herself that there was no ghost or that she was not going crazy. Finding the boulder, she lifted the camera to eye level, focused on the trees and the boulder, and took the picture.
A second later, it popped up on the camera's screen.
The man was thirty feet away, and looking positively furious.
Elisa screamed, and then immediately looked around to make sure no one had heard. She then looked directly at the spot where the man had been. Nothing. She looked at the picture. Still there, the wrinkles on his face and the torn baseball cap in terrifying detail. She looked again at the spot.
Shaking, she turned off her camera, stored it in its case, and sprinted off the beach towards her car. Never will I come here again, she thought. That is definitely a ghost or something, and it is creeping me out too much.
But she did come back again, but not directly to the beach. An elderly gentleman who lived in one of the beach houses had called the paper one day a few weeks later to ask for a correction on one of his quotes. Elisa's editor and the editor-in-chief happily obliged, and Elisa was asked to drive over to the man's house with a paper to prove to him that they had done so, as he was not a subscriber (someone else had done the same thing for the original article).
Elisa did her job and then she and the old man struck up a conversation which turned into a three-hour talk by the old man's warm fireplace. Elisa regaled him with tales of life as a struggling photographer in Manhattan, working for a comedy club, and the old man kept her riveted with stories about life in Las Vegas, where he had lived before retiring to Maine.
They became friends after that, and Elisa revisted the area frequently to bring him papers and to keep him company. They never talked about the beach until one day, when Elisa's curiosity overcame her.
"Why don't you like to go to the beach?" she asked.
The old man pierced her with a heavy gaze. "Like I told your paper, it's never warm enough," he replied.
"Is that true," she asked, "or is there another reason?"
The old man's expression flickered, like he was conflicted between annoyance, fear, and laughter. "I just don't like it, for some reason," he said finally. "I don't really know what it is."
"I think I might," said Elisa. And she told him about the pictures she had taken of the hazy man who moved closer with each photograph.
At that the old man laughed wheezily. "Ghosts don't happen," he said, slapping his knee. "You're just scaring yourself. Good one, though."
Elisa, who didn't like being dismissed, frowned. "Well, then, let me show you," she said angrily.
And they went out to the beach.
"It was here," Elisa said, finding the boulder and standing fifty feet from it. The old man stood a ways from her, arms folded, still chortling. "I'd take a picture -" she snapped a picture - "and there it would b -"
When she looked at the picture, the words died in her throat.
The man was twenty feet away now, looking absolutely murderous. Now, in one of his clenched fists, she could make out a knife.
". . . be," she finished softly, showing the old man.
His laughter stopped as suddenly as his rant. When he saw the picture he promptly dropped the camera, and, ignoring Elisa's cry of rage, walked right to where the man was supposed to be and waved in the air.
"Now that," he said as he walked back, where Elisa was helplessly brushing sand off her camera, "is the creepiest darned thing I've ever seen in my life."
Returning the camera to the strap around her neck, Elisa replied, "I told you! And if I take another picture, he'll be a little closer. He's closing in." She raised the camera to take another picture, but the old man held it down.
"No," he said quickly. "Just . . . no. Don't. That's an incredibly stupid thing to do and I mean it. I'm going home, and I'm never setting foot on this beach again. You should do the same."
"You know what?" Elisa responded, on sudden inspiration, "I think I'm going to keep taking pictures until he's all the way to me, just so I can get this over with."
"No!" the old man shouted. "Did you hear anything I just said? Come with me!"
"Well, let's just see what happens!" she pleaded. And before the old man could say anything else, she took another picture.
The man was fifteen feet away, and appeared to be walking swiftly.
She could hear the man's footsteps as he high-tailed it back to his house, but she ignored him. She was going to take another picture, and she did.
The man was twelve feet away, and running.
I should stop, Elisa thought. But she took another picture.
Ten feet away. The knife gleaming.
I have to stop, she thought. But she couldn't. She took another picture, her insatiable curiosity overriding her parilyzing fear.
Five feet away.
Three feet away.
Two and a half feet away.
Elisa was crying now, but she couldn't stop.
Two feet away. He was raising the knife.
Elisa staggered a step backwards, staring wildly into the nothing before the trees, and took another picture.
One foot away. The knife was raised.
Releasing her breath in short bursts, Elisa lifted the shutter to her eye. What comes, comes, she thought. She found the button, the button that took the picture, the button her hand had trained itself to look for on any device, camera or not, because she loved photography just that much. With a little cry of fear, her finger pressed the button down.
But before she could look at the photograph, a hand pushed the camera away from her face. For a split second she thought it was the old man, back to stop her from looking at the last picture, but she knew it wasn't.