A camera seems to take ominous pictures of the future.
Patrick Maguire was, like all of us, a person of habits though he had more than most. He would rush out of the house at ten minutes past eight, dash to the bus stop to catch the 8:15 bus to the station, and there, take the stairs up two at a time to catch the train to work. He was usually the last person to sit down at the desk appointed to each of the employees.
At lunchtime, he would invariably go alone to the mall, buy lunch from one of the fast food joints at the food court, sit at a corner table, and munch away. After the last slurp of cola had washed down the last morsel, he would rise from the table to stroll among the shops, never buying anything, before going back to his office. Until, one day, he didn’t go back. In fact, he seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
At a doctor’s office.
“You are John Adams. When you hear the bell ring, you will begin to do as I have told you. I will start the countdown. When I get to one, you will wake and feel refreshed and relaxed. Five, four, three, two, one.”
A brass bell jingled. As his patient rose from the couch, Dr. Wong extended his hand. “Have a nice vacation, John. I’m sure it will do you a world of good. I’ll see you again the first Wednesday after you come back, same time as usual.”
His patient grasped the offered hand. “Yes, Dr. Wong. Thank you for everything you’ve done so far. I feel a lot better.”
Dr. Wong smiled and tightened his grip, “Bon voyage, Mr. Adams.”
The next day at two in the afternoon Dr. Wong answered his cell phone, spoke a few words, and thumbed off. He then told his secretary to cancel all his appointments and to take the rest of the week off. He noticed her eyes widening in pleasure when he assured her she would be paid her full salary.
John Adams felt he knew where he was, that this snaky alley filled with tiny lookalike shops was familiar; he must have seen something similar in a Hitchcock movie. Strolling along the curvy path, he occasionally stopped, for each shop had a large window display filled with an eye catching arrangement of wares. His steps slowed. Up ahead a strange sight to his Western eyes approached. An ancient man riding a gray bicycle with two monkeys perched on the handlebars pedaled with a serene smile in his eyes. He had the peculiar feeling that he knew that face in a younger time. The man passed and rang his warning bell. John stopped in his tracks, and swiveled left as if he were following an order in a military parade.
He was facing a gap between two shops just wide enough to squeeze through. Amazingly, there was a tiny shop ahead with a soft green light just visible through its large display window. Moving crablike, he managed to reach the shop, peered into its window, and was intrigued by the realistic glass insects crawling over laughing papier-mâché masks. He wondered how the fake cobwebs hanging from the corners had been created. It was then that he noticed, under a cobweb, an old camera with stainless steel peeking through the matte black body.
He was a collector of antique cameras, having over two dozen of them in his home. He didn’t recognize the one he was staring at. Odd, he thought he knew all the ones that had ever been made before the advent of those boring cameras with silicon chips that anyone could take a perfect picture with.
Turning the doorknob, he pushed opened the door. A brass bell rang its welcome. A drowsy fog wafted into his mind. Disoriented, he stood just inside the entrance. A black curtain covering an interior doorway swished open as a thin old woman wearing a faded green kimono glided through.
She bowed from the waist. “Welcome to my humble shop.”
Blinking away whatever had been fogging his mind, he pointed to the front window. “May I see the camera in the corner?”
She answered in a surprisingly youthful voice, “Certainly.” She took out a key from a drawer, slid open the window, and laid the camera gently on the counter. “Please, look. But surely, be careful not to touch shutter, honorable guest.”
With care, he lifted the camera and held it at arms length while twisting it around. He noticed three small indented wheels with tiny windows next to them. Looking closer, he saw numbers within them. He asked, “What are these numbers for?”
She cocked her head and clasped her wrinkled hands. “Those dates. For take pictures.”
He nodded his head. “I see, the date will remain in the photo.”
“No, honorable guest know very well camera, but they are for take pictures that date.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow you.”
She sighed. “Man told me it take pictures in future. The top one for year, the middle for month, the bottom for day.”
There was an awkward silence. He didn’t know what to say and struggled to hide a frown. Going back to inspecting the camera, he saw the number 6 under a round red tinted glass. He turned it around to show the old woman. “Does this mean there are six frames inside?”
John Adams didn’t believe in the supernatural, but he had to admit the old woman’s story added charm to the camera. He would enjoy telling his friends about this little adventure. “How much do you want for it?”
“Seven hundred dollars. U.S.”
“I’ll pay a hundred.”
Fifteen minutes later, and two hundred fifty dollars poorer, he stepped out of the shop. Grinning, he put his prize into his bag.
Back home on the East Coast.
He had returned from his trip to the Orient, taken out his camera, polished it, and admired the simple design. A sturdy box with a long leather strap to carry round his neck with a large 45 mm lens, an unusual size. At the bottom was a slit formed by two thin rubber strips. He guessed that was where the picture would come out. He wondered about the film. Probably ruined from age, but he’d like to see if it still worked. Tired from the long trip, he fell asleep in the armchair.
Next morning was a beautiful August Saturday. Deciding to enjoy it at the city park, he packed a lunch and two cameras, one of them the one from the curio shop.
Arriving at the park, he went to his favorite place, the playground. He loved taking pictures of the kids flying on the swings, hanging from the bars, and climbing the jungle gym. He pulled out his Leica, aimed it at the girl on the swing, and waited till she was at the peak, her long thin legs straight out, her face showing joy from a simple thrill, and took the shot. He took several more before he thought of the other camera. He wondered again about the film. Guessing it was black and white, he looked for a scene of light and dark, of interesting shapes, and a child.
He soon found one; it was a place for parking bikes with a single large tree providing shade and some kids playing marbles. Placing the camera to his eye he pressed; the click of the shutter and the whirl of gears were a delight to his ears as the print emerged at a snail’s pace. Holding the print in his palm, so as not to smudge it, he watched as the picture developed.
It didn’t seem right. At first, he thought it was just the result of film ruined from age, but it was too clear and sharp to blame the film. He looked carefully at the black and white scene. In the foreground was what looked like a pile of junk, then he recognized pieces of bicycles fused together, their metal in tortured curves as if forged by an artist emulating Picasso. His eyes widened in shock. Rubble in heaps of concrete filled the background, their twisted steel beams like crosses marking a grave.
John Adams sat frozen for a long moment, oblivious to the breeze cooling his body as it dried his cold sweat, till he felt the touch of a warm hand and the voice of a child. “Hey, Mister. Here’s your camera. You dropped it.”
Mumbling his thanks, he took the camera from the small hands. He stared at it for a moment, then quickly turned it around and read the numbers: 50, 06, 25. His mind went back to the curio shop. He remembered the old woman saying the top was for the year, the middle for the month, and the bottom for the day. He turned the dials till they read today’s date: 20, 08, 26.
He lifted the camera to take the same picture, but his hands were shaking. He called out to the boy, “Hey, kid. Could you come here and take a picture?”
“What kind of picture?”
John pointed. “Just those bikes over there.”
“Sure.” Taking the camera, he said, “Boy, this is some old camera. How do I use it?”
“Push the button on top.”
“It won’t go down”, said the boy, as he returned the camera and went back to his game.
Thinking he’d broken the camera when he dropped it, he swore under his breath. It didn’t look damaged so he raised the camera and pushed the button. He heard the shutter click. Odd, why couldn’t the boy take the picture? He saw him pushing down hard on the shutter so did it mean the camera wasn’t letting anyone else use it? He looked at the picture; it was what a normal camera would have taken. What about that first picture? Had it taken a picture of this place as it would look thirty years in the future? He needed to think, to go somewhere without distractions. Getting into his car, he drove for the small park at the top of the hill overlooking the city.
Half an hour later, he arrived at the hilltop park. He got out of the car and walked among the trees to the edge of the park. For him, this was the most beautiful place in the city; here, he could see the whole city spread out with the ocean and sky stretching on forever. He sat down on a bench and realized the skycrapers were the tallest trees in a forest filled with life. Two of the tallest trees in another forest had been felled. Was it going to happen again on a much larger scale?
Taking out the camera, he held it in his lap and stared at the numbers behind the tiny circles of glass. He contemplated how his odd camera was changing his conception of reality. Was the future really preordained? He resisted that thought. Deciding to test the camera again, he adjusted the year to 40 and, getting as much of the city as he was able, took a shot. This time, as the print came out, the whirl of gears seemed as ominous as an approaching tank. The picture formed: complete destruction, desolate rubble, and empty sea and sky.
Three frames left. He needed to talk to someone. Someone who might know what to do. He remembered there was a reporter who did articles on the supernatural, he could be the starting point.
At a newspaper office.
Isaac Muller looked at the three photos on his desk again. “So, let me get this straight. You took these photos in this city with that camera you bought in a curio shop?”
John nodded, “Yes.”
“And the date on this first one was June twenty-fifth, twenty-fifty. The second, last week the twenty-sixth of August, and the third the same date in the year 40?”
John sighed. “Yes, how many times are we going to go through this?”
Isaac Muller shrugged. “If I’m going to write the story I need to be correct in every detail. Okay, let me try to take a picture. If your story is true, I won’t be able to.”
“Right, go ahead. Take a picture out the window.”
Isaac went to the window, opened the blinds, and pushed the shutter. Nothing happened, he tried again, nothing. He held out the camera. “Alright, Mr. Adams. You do it.”
John took the camera. “What about the date?”
“Set it to today.”
John thumbed the date, aimed and clicked. The print whirled out. Isaac watched doubtfully as the picture of the building across the street formed. “So far, so good. Set the year to 40.”
John shook his head. “No, I already took a picture of that year. Let me try 30.”
Isaac watched in fascination as the next print developed into a scene of stark and utter devastation. “I never thought I’d believe your story. I do, now.”
“Thanks, Mr. Muller. I’m glad I’m not seeing things. I had doubts about my sanity.”
Isaac rubbed his chin. “I don’t know what to make of this, but I know a Colonel at the Pentagon in charge of investigating things like this. Would you like me to give him a call?”
John answered immediately, “Sure. Why not?”
Isaac dug his phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, scrolled for the number, and called. He got a recorded message. He pushed a number and hung up. “The Colonel can’t take any calls now, but I left a message to call me back.”
The men went to the parking lot. “I’ll call you as soon as I get things set up. Relax, Mr. Adams, I’ll be with you all the way.”
“Thanks again, Mr Muller.”
Monday morning, September 11, 2020, at the Pentagon.
Colonel David Gorman looked down at the photos and picked up the camera. “An interesting story, Mr. Adams. Unfortunately, for you, we did a background check. You’re not who you claim you are, Mr. Maguire. Where did you pick up the fake passport?”
John’s jaw dropped open. He was stunned and unable to respond.
“I asked you a question. Answer me!”
“But, but, I am John Adams and my story is true!”
Colonel Gorman pushed a button under his desk. The door opened and two burly Marines in crisp uniforms entered. “Men, please escort this man to room C 305.”
John rose. “Wait! Mr. Muller do something.”
Before he could protest, Colonel Gorman addressed the reporter, “I will explain everything we have learned about this impostor. If you still wish to speak to him after that, it can be arranged.”
Isaac turned to John with a frown. “I think you should go with them for now, John.”
His shoulders bowed in defeat, John left the room flanked by the Marines.
Isaac Muller turned in his chair to face the Colonel. “So, sir, how did he do it?”
“We don’t know, yet. I’m sure we’ll have the answer when our boys inspect the camera. We know he used a fake passport to go to Shanghai. One other fact I can give you is he’s been on the missing persons list for a month. Hopefully, he’ll tell us everything now.”
“Wow! This puts a different kind of sinister spin on the whole story.” Isaac pondered the mystery for a moment. “I’d like to know how he tricked me with the camera.”
“I promise to let you know if I’m allowed to, Mr. Muller.” Colonel Gorman picked up the camera from the desk, and looked at the number for the year, 30. “You said only he could activate the camera?”
“Yes, sir. I tried but couldn’t.”
Colonel Gorman pointed the camera out the window, paused, then pressed the shutter button. An image of his fingerprint was instantly compared to the two in the camera. It matched one, thus releasing the small core of antimatter inside. The shock waves of the cataclysmic explosion were felt for hundreds of miles.