Sometimes being captured is a good thing.
Written for the February 2010 photo prompt of the "Short Shots: Official WDC Contest"
"Take my picture, Daddy," Chelsea screamed as only a vibrant, energetic nine-year-old could.
I aimed my camera at her as she slid down the big slide waving at me and landing on her butt in the soft sand at the bottom. Shouting with glee, she rose and brushed herself off. I peered through the viewfinder as it followed her around to the steps to climb back up.
Only she never appeared at the top. I began screaming.
I woke up drenched in sweat, my throat raw. The room was dark and silent as a tomb, no trace of the screams that had once again awoken me remained. But this time was different somehow. A thought knocked at the edge of my sleep-deprived consciousness, but I was too disoriented, too groggy to capture it ... it floated away leaving me shaking.
Chelsea's words had taunted me every waking hour for the past three weeks; now they mocked me in the few moments of fitful sleep I managed. Since her disappearance, I've had precious little rest. My initial shock had given way to numbness. I existed ... and nothing more.
The FBI agent assigned to Chelsea's case walked me through the investigation to date. My Chelsea was believed to have been taken by an unknown subject, or unsub, that the Bureau had been tracking for almost six months.
The statistics weren't good--five little girls had been abducted and found four weeks later, dead, a fact I focused on to my embarrassment. I couldn't get past the idea that after six months and five dead girls, the FBI was no closer to catching this monster. I couldn't offer any useful information; I hadn't even been with her when she disappeared.
I hadn't.... I got no further with that thought.
I got up, stumbling in the dark to the bathroom. I left the light off preferring to remain hidden, shrouded in my despair. A small ray from a streetlight found its way past the closed curtain partially illuminating a shadowy figure in the mirror as I passed by. I didn't recognize him.
Who was this? Certainly no one capable of protecting his family. First his wife ... now his daughter.
I stopped and stared at the sallow face with lifeless sockets as Chelsea's final words came flooding back to me.
"Daddy, did you capture me?"
I had once told her my job with the TV station was to capture life on film for all the world to see. Anything on film could be kept with us always. From then on, Chelsea never missed an opportunity to pose for me.
The thought returned, nudging me harder. Still, I couldn't quite grasp it. I snorted. Hell, I can capture anything on film, I thought, ironically. But I can't even capture a simple thought.
The mask in the mirror continued to stare at me.
Suddenly it began laughing. Not a joyous, light chuckle, but a maniacal cackle. It laughed at me, punctuating my hopelessness. The fear gripped me again as if an almighty fist tightened around my pounding heart and squeezed until I felt like I would pass out. The blood rushing in my head was deafening as the sound mingled with the hysterical laughter coming from the mirror.
In a rage, I put my fist through the face, sending shards of glass everywhere.
It was funny--the first sensation I'd felt in a long time was something warm running down my leg. In my fear, I had pissed myself. The urine ran through my toes and pooled at my feet jolting me to my senses. An intense pain shot up my arm completing my ride back to reality.
"That was a real dumb thing to do, Drew," I said, the sound of my voice serving to calm my churning emotions.
I flipped on the light and was shocked at the fractured image in the broken mirror still hanging on the wall. Like some schizophrenic picture, I realized that over the past three weeks, I had given up on my daughter, my family, and my life. Only fragments of the man called Drew McCann remained. The blood dripped off my fingers, its deep color a stark contrast to the white porcelain sink.
Chelsea was all that was left of my once perfect life. First, Christa was killed last year by a drunk driver. Now Chelsea was taken from me. Cruel circumstances had beaten me down.
Taken! I thought. But not dead. Her body had not yet been found. What did that agent tell me?
"Until we find a body, we assume Chelsea is alive," Special Agent Jennifer Coates had said. "We'll pursue every lead diligently, Mr. McCann."
Every lead.... I sat down, hunched over with my elbows on my knees and my head between my hands. Closing my eyes, I tried to replay those last moments at the playground in my mind.
It was Saturday, sunny, but still cool in the morning air. Chelsea had her light red jacket on--I remembered thinking how well the shade complemented her red hair. Not many people were out yet ... mostly joggers and a few folks out for a morning walk. I had chosen this time specifically for the longer shadows created by the rising sun.
Between trying to catch the footage I needed for the station and and the constant "Capture me, Daddy," I was fast running out of time. The shadows were disappearing. I was in a hurry as I positioned my tripod for my final shot, and I knocked over my coffee. As I watched it soak into the ground, I realized I had to use the restroom. "I'll only be a moment, honey."....
The thought came bounding back. This time I plucked it from my tortured mind, and nurtured it until it opened like a flower.
I washed my hand, quickly picking out small pieces of glass; I'd probably need a few stitches, but they could wait. Rubbing some ointment on the wound, I wrapped my hand, and headed for the phone. Ignoring the clock that patiently announced it was 4:33 a.m., I dialed Agent Coates' private number.
"Yes?" a voice still half asleep answered. In my mind I could see her fall back on her pillow, eyes closed, phone held loosely to her ear.
"Agent Coates ... Jennifer ... the camera," I babbled, too excited to be coherent.
"Mr. McCann? Slow d---,"
"Please listen," I said, interrupting, forcing myself to speak slower. "The day Chelsea was taken, we were at the park for another reason. I was filming some B roll--footage for the station's files. Just routine stuff we store for future shows.
"I set my camera on the tripod and just let it roll while I went to the bathroom. I figured I'd only be gone a couple minutes."
"And...." Agent Coates prompted.
"Don't you see?" I almost yelled. "It was pointed at Chelsea."
Several seconds passed while my words registered. "Where is that film now?" she asked.
"Here. I haven't been to work since Chelsea went ... missing." My voice cracked and I started sobbing, something I hadn't allowed myself to do in those three weeks.
From a distance, I heard Agent Coates say, "Mr. McCann, stay put! I'm on my way."
I dropped the phone as tears poured down my face. Despair overwhelmed me when I realized the means to find my missing daughter might have been here all the time. How stupid could one man be? So much time wasted because I lost it; I needed to pull myself together for Chelsea's sake.
I was just splashing water on my face when Agent Coates arrived twenty minutes later. I grabbed the camera and my coat, and yanked open the door before the chimes died away.
"C'mon," I said, rushing past her. "We have to get to the station to develop the film."
Agent Coates grabbed my arm and jerked me back.
"Stop, Mr. McCann," the agent said. "We'll get it developed at our lab. We can't take the chance that the film will get damaged in your ... uh, haste. Our technicians are very experienced in this area. Please, trust us to do our jobs."
"But ... I didn't even remember this until now. What if it's too late?"
Special Agent Jennifer Coates must have realized the pain I was feeling and smiled at me. In a soft voice she said, "We believe your daughter is still alive. This unsub holds his victims for at least four weeks before he seeks another," the implication left unspoken. She gestured toward the camera. "This ... this gives us the best chance at finding your daughter alive."
Looking past her, I saw a man in a suit approach. Following my gaze, she turned. "Agent Jacobs will stay with you. If you think of anything else, tell him immediately." Coates squeezed my good hand, her eyes noting the blood seeping though the bandage. "We'll find her." Then she nodded at Jacobs. "See about getting him some medical attention."
The doctor called by Jacobs had just left after treating me as best he could at my apartment. I'd refused to leave fearing I would miss a call about Chelsea. It was irrational; I knew Jacobs would let me know the moment Coates called. But I needed to be some place familiar, some place with Chelsea's presence.
The wait was excruciating. For weeks I had been numb. Now the slightest glimmer of hope created a rush of emotions in me that threatened to tear me apart. A wave of nausea hit me, sending me to the bathroom. Huddled over the commode, I had too much time to think about what I hadn't done. I tried to reason that the film must be important, that the camera would be her salvation.
I pulled myself together and joined Jacobs in the living room. He turned the television on, perhaps to try to lighten my mood, or maybe to divert his attention from his reason for being there. It was obvious that Jacobs wasn't a man given to babysitting people.
As the day wore on, my depression worsened. Not hearing anything from Coates weighed heavily on us both. We spent most of the afternoon trying to steer clear of each other--I'd pace and he'd watch TV. Then we'd switch. Sometime toward evening, the TV became a liability, and Jacobs turned it off. He called someone to arrange for dinner.
Exhausted by the stress and with no desire to eat, I stared out the window at the lights coming on across the city. It was almost fifteen hours since Agent Coates left with my camera. Was the film no good? Or, did the film offer no clues to Chelsea's disappearance? Oh, God, I couldn't be wrong. It was my job to protect her.
The telephone shattered the silence.
The past year has been torture, the endless trips to the psychiatrist trying to overcome the trauma of that ... incident. An incident--that's what he calls it. Now I sit in the doctor's waiting room, wringing my hands in my lap. I just don't know anymore.
I want my old life back. I want our old life back.
"Mr. McCann?" The doctor's voice pulls me back. I look up.
He smiles. "I believe the worst is over. I'm cautiously optimistic about the prognosis."
"Cautiously optimistic? What the hell does that mean?" I've listened to psychiatric double-speak for the past year unable to see or feel any improvement. I'm almost as helpless and frustrated as that day when I turned my camera over to the FBI. Would these feelings ever pass?
The doctor turned and motioned to his office door. It opened.
I watched Chelsea walk into the waiting room. She was smiling. For the first time since she was taken, she was smiling.
"Daddy, let's go capture me."
Word count: 1968