Flash Fiction Challenge: Oh, We’re Gonna Use These Photos All Right

Posted: November 21, 2014 in Fiction, Flash Fiction Challenge
Tags: , , ,

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So…yeah. This week’s challenge over at terribleminds was to randomly pick one of twenty awkward stock photos from a BuzzFeed “listicle” (which, by the way, definitely sounds like something a urologist would find during a check-up). Anyway, I rolled the above photo and found it to be kind of disturbing, to say the least, and inspired the following story, “In The Background”.

Daniel sighed and continued to scroll through the photos. Line after line after line of them, stock photos all of them, depicting various social gatherings. And Daniel had to find the perfect few for his boss’ marketing campaign. Here was a frat party, a child’s birthday party, a wedding, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum. His eyes were beginning to get bleary and had a hard time focusing, and considering he’d been at this for a good six hours now but only had one or two that he felt that Richard, his boss, would like, he knew that he was nowhere near finished.

He paused on an odd one: a trio of people at a table in a restaurant, paper napkins completely unfolded and covering their faces. Daniel blinked several times and looked away, rubbing at his face.

“God, I could use a beer right now,” he muttered softly to himself, stretching his neck and back and shoulders some, to work to the tiredness and ache from his muscles. He glanced at the clock: it was already well past nine. Sighing he turned his gaze back to the computer screen and blinked. There was something different about the restaurant picture, something that tickled at and wormed around in his brain for a few minutes until he puzzled out what it was.

There was a shadow in the background.

Blinking, Daniel leaned in a little closer, squinting to make it out better. Part of him swore he hadn’t seen any kind of shadow in the picture when he’d first looked at it, but then again, he was really tired so who knows how eagle-eyed he’d been? It was an odd shadow – like a person’s silhouette but seemed…shifting somehow. He rubbed at his eyes again and moved his mouse to continue scrolling, but paused.

Daniel blinked, looking at the trio of people again. Something about them reminded him of old pictures he seen of Ku Klux Klan members. He shook his head slightly. It had to be the way the napkins obscured their faces. On impulse, he saved the picture and continued on scrolling through the endless list of stock photographs.

He finally left the office some time after eleven o’clock, grunting a friendly goodbye to the guard at the security desk before stepping out on the sidewalk and making his way to the subway. He got off at the De Kalb Avenue station and walked back to his apartment in Fort Greene, a red-haired man sitting in a parked car sipping at coffee catching Daniel’s eye for brief moment before he looked away.

Sleep came quickly, which wouldn’t have been much a surprise to Daniel if he’d been conscious enough to appreciate the fact. He drifted through brief, random dreams of school, old relationships, and a strange one involving talking food. Lucidity of a kind returned to him as he found himself waiting in the foyer of a restaurant, ostensibly waiting for his girlfriend, Noreen. He glanced at his phone a couple of times, looking at the time and not even noticing the illegible gibberish that actually marked the face of the device. Sighing, he stared off into the main room of the restaurant in boredom, seeing a trio of people turn to look at him, their faces covered with napkins. Something moved behind him and Daniel felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and his heart speed up in his chest. Nervously, he began to look over his shoulder–

A car horn in the street outside blared loud and long, startling Daniel from his slumber. He lay in bed for a few minutes, letting his eyes adjust to the light and his heart-beat slow as he fought the adrenaline-fueled urge to dart his gaze, panicked, around the room. Finally, he slipped out of bed, casting a baleful gaze at his alarm clock that displayed the time being just past one in the morning in hellish-red numerals. Daniel padded down the short hall to the bathroom and relieved his bladder, afterward fumbling in the dark for his cup and drink of water. As he set the cup down in the sink, he glanced into the medicine cabinet’s mirror and saw a silhouette in the hall behind him, a inky-black shape only vaguely separated from the pervasive darkness of the apartment. His heart kicked up into overdrive and Daniel spun around, his eyes searching the hallway but finding nothing out of the ordinary. He flicked on the bathroom light and blinked away the brightness for a moment or two, before seeing the light confirm it: there was nothing there. A paranoid part of him didn’t accept that, though, and Daniel spent five minutes going from room to room, flicking on lights and making sure that he was the only one in the apartment.

“Fucking stupid dreams,” he grumbled, shaking his head and rubbing at his tense neck as he stumbled back to his bedroom in the darkness.

As he drifted back down into sleep, memory of the photo and the dream merged in his ebbing consciousness with associated knowledge of the Klan, of Spanish Penitents, of dark things and terrible things. In the morning he woke feeling like he’d barely slept at all, and struggled through getting ready for work and running out to make the train.

“What the hell is this?” Richard’s voice was like a shotgun blast in Daniel’s fuzzy mind, shocking him back into focus as he looked up from his computer screen.

“Um…I…I’m sorry, what?” Daniel stuttered, looking at the print-out that Richard held out to him.

This,” Richard said, a scowl on his face. “This is the only picture on the shared drive for the Atkinson Restaurants campaign. Care to explain it?”

Daniel reached out and took the paper, seeing the printed image of three people sitting at a table with napkins covering the faces. “What?” he said with a furrowed brow. “No…I-I saved, like, a dozen photos…”

“Well, if you did” – Richard’s voice dripped with heavily implied skepticism – “they weren’t saved in the right folder. So: fix this. Besides – that’s a pretty fucking sick joke if you ask me. You do something like this again, Dan, you’ll be packing up your stuff.”

Daniel looked up from the paper to Richard. “What do you mean?”

Richard jabbed a square fingertip at the background of the picture. “There. The shadow of someone being hanged. I don’t know where you found this, but I don’t want to see this kind of shit associated with any of our offical projects again. Unless we somehow do a campaign for a horror movie or something. But, even then…” He shook his head and turned away from Daniel. “Just fucking fix this,” Richard said over his shoulder as he left the room.

Daniel looked back at the photo, pushing away the feeling of the eyes of everyone else in the room on him. Sure enough, Richard had been right. There was the distinct shadow of someone being hanged on the wall behind the seated trio. He shook his head and crumpled up the picture, tossing the paper-ball into his trashcan. He didn’t understand how it had happened, but that didn’t matter, he needed to fix things, so he dove back into the firm’s shared drive and the online catalogs of stock photography that they used and began his hunt from the previous night all over again.

He didn’t leave the office until ten that night, but felt like he was going to fall asleep on his feet. Daniel was able to keep his eyes open long enough to get on his train back to Brooklyn, but the rocking of the car lulled him into a doze as he leaned back in his seat, resting his tired head against the wall. The sound of the subway train – it’s clacking wheels, the air outside it rushing by, the few people in the car with him chatting softly with each other or on their phones – melded and warped as he slipped into the shallow end of dreaming. The sound of the door at one of the car shuddering open caught his attention and Daniel turned to look, seeing three people robes and peaked hoods enter.

He jolted awake, screaming out in terror and surprise, the sound drawing the attention of the other passengers. The others cast looks of concern, disgust, and disdain at him as Daniel shook his head and turned his face toward the dark window, trying to keep himself awake as much as he could.

Later, as he walked down De Kalb Avenue, both hands gripping the strap of the briefcase slung across his chest, Daniel tried to ignore the feeling of eyes upon him. He looked over his shoulder several times as he made his way home, never seeing anything out of the ordinary, but still feeling like prey caught in the hungry gaze of a predator. He tried sleeping but he couldn’t relax enough despite the tiredness he felt, every time he opened his eyes, Daniel felt his gaze drawn to one corner of his bedroom. Finally, some time around four in the morning, he grabbed his pillow and comforter and went to his small living room. Sleep eluded him there, as well, and Daniel found himself numbly flipping channels until he heard his alarm go off in his bedroom, signalling his need to get ready for work.

“Stantz.”

The mention of his last name drew Daniel’s attention as he poured coffee into his mug. Richard was standing in the doorway of the break room, arms crossed over his chest. “Uh, yes, sir?” Daniel said, grabbing a paper towel and wiping up the small bit of coffee that he spilled on the counter. It was his fourth cup of the morning and so far the previous three had done little to help wake him up.

“I want to apologize for how I reacted yesterday. This Atkinson job is getting to me, too, and I shouldn’t have let…well, the shit roll down hill like it did. It was a small mistake and didn’t merit the way I acted. Sorry.”

Daniel blinked at him several times before he nodded his head. “Uh, yeah. No, it’s okay.”

Richard gave him a thin smile, barely more then a firm pressing together of the man’s lips, and nodded. “Alright, well, let’s get this thing finished up so we can all relax, eh?” He paused, a look of concern slipping on its his features. “Are you sleeping okay, Dan? You look horrible.”

Daniel rubbed at the back of his neck. “Just…been pulling some long days trying to get this Atkinson job done,” he replied with a shrug.

Richard nodded. “Understood. Well, I appreciate the effort. Don’t think it’s going unnoticed.”

With that, his boss disappeared from the doorway, leaving Daniel alone in the breakroom to finish preparing his coffee. As he sat down at his desk, Daniel’s foot hit something light and crinkly, knocking the object back toward the wall. Curious, he set his coffee down and leaned his head under the desk. It was a balled-up piece of paper. Reaching under the desk, he snagged it with his fingertips after two tries and unfolded it as he sat back up.

It was the print-out from the day before.

Daniel blinked his eyes. He knew he had thrown it away, had seen it go into the trashcan. He shook his head slightly, confused. As he gazed down at it, it almost looked like the people with the faces covered were smiling, as if the paper of the napkins were pressed against their lips and slightly deformed by the captured movement. The realization disturbed Daniel on a level that he couldn’t explain.

His gaze flicked to the shadow of the hanged person on the wall behind them and he shuddered, folding the paper up and ripping it to shreds before tossing the resulting pieces into the trash can.

He was able to get out of the office before seven that day, calling Noreen as he walked to the subway station and seeing if she just wanted to spend the night in, considering how tired he was. Thankfully – and not surprisingly – she understood and promised to bring over food. He was able to keep his eyes open on the train this time, though he was still haunted by the paranoid feeling of being watched.

He fell asleep several times as Noreen and he sat on the couch, watching some movie she liked on-demand. But, given how stressed he’d been, Noreen said nothing and simply draped a blanket on him, letting Daniel rest until she got too tired and wanted to retire to bed. Groggily, he followed her into the bedroom and collapsed back into sleep on the bed as she got ready for bed.

Daniel found himself on a subway platform, waiting for his train to arrive. He’d been waiting a while, somehow knowing that there was something going on with the MTA that was delaying the trains, and felt annoyance. He felt the hairs on the back of neck rise as a shiver made its way quickly down his spine and looked over his shoulders.

There was something in the shadows at the back of the platform, watching him, skulking about. Waiting for its opportunity. Daniel suddenly felt his mouth go very dry and his heart begin to race, he back away from the shadows, feeling himself get closer and closer to the edge of the platform.

“Daniel…” The voice was soft and slithery, slipping out of the shadows like an asp.

He felt his blood go cold and swallowed, suddenly aware that his heel was teetering on the edge of the platform and that there was a soft rumble under his feet.

“Daniel…” There was a vaguely discernible figure in the shadows now and Daniel had to fight the feeling of panic that was threatening to overwhelm him. The figure began to become more substantial at the edge of the shadows and as it stepped forth, Daniel screamed and turned, slipping and falling down onto the tracks.

The rumbling grew painfully loud and there was a light rushing toward him at one end of the subway tunnel. “Daniel…” came the voice once more as the voice of his screams struggled with the sound of the subway train to see which would be louder.

“DANIEL!”

Noreen was standing before him, holding his upper arms and Daniel became aware that he was screaming. “Daniel, wake up!” she yelled, the distant sound of a neighbor banging on the wall and hurling obscenities.

Daniel shook his head and began to realize that he was standing in the kitchen, the window open and letting in warm air behind him. “Daniel, please, baby…” Noreen begged, concern etched deeply on her face. “Please, baby, wake up.”

Daniel rubbed at his face and looked at her. “I’m…I’m awake, Nor,” he said. “What–what happened? Why am I in here?”

Noreen hugged herself to him for a moment and kissed his jaw. “Baby, you were sleepwalking. I woke up and you weren’t in bed, but something felt off. I came out here and you started screaming.” She hugged him again. “What were you dreaming about?”

“I…I don’t know,” Daniel replied, shaking away memories of the subway platform.

Noreen looked up at him for a long moment, her face half-eclipsed in the shadows, before she kissed him softly. “Come back to bed…”

He looked down at her and shook his head. “Nah, you go,” he said. “I…I think I’m going to go for a walk. I’m a little too wound up.”

Concern came back into her face at that, but she didn’t fight. “Okay. But take your cellphone. Just in case.”

Daniel nodded and threw on some socks and shoes, grabbed his cellphone, before locking the door as he left the apartment. He descended to the street, which was mostly empty aside from a few cars and one or two pedestrians. He wandered aimlessly for a little bit but found himself entering Fort Greene Park before long. Though it was dark and mostly deserted, Daniel felt like he walking through Downtown Manhattan during rush hour, finding himself digging his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders almost up to his ears as he meandered along the paths.

He was lost in thought when the snapping of twig not far behind him brought Daniel’s attention back to the present. He stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder, feeling his blood turn to ice as he saw a shadow among the trees, feet softly swinging back and forth about five feet above the ground underneath the stout branch of a tall oak tree. Daniel watched the shadow for a split second before he bolted.

“Daniel.”

“Daniel.”

Daniel!

Daniel! Daniel! Daniel!

The voices whispered and softly shouted from the trees and the shadows as Daniel ran through the park. He swore he heard the shaking of leaves and movement in the shadows of the underbrush, but he didn’t stop to look, all he could feel was the adrenaline-laced panic of prey seeking to escape from whatever it was that wanted to rip its throat out. He came upon the towering column of the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial, the Doric column rising one hundred feet into the empty sky, its solar-powered “eternal flame” glowing bright in the darkness at the top. He stopped at the foot of the column, bent double to catch his breath, but was quickly up again, his head snapping back and forth, listening to the burbling cacophony of voices calling his name from the trees. He backed up against the column, slowly making a circuit as his gaze darted around.

“Who are you?!” Daniel screamed at the trees. “What do you want from me?!”

The only response he received was the continued calling of his own name. Daniel could hear his heart thudding loudly in his chest, sweat collecting along his forehead, as his eyes rolled wildly, his fingers gripping the ridge of the column as he moved. His right hand touched metal and the bronze door of the Memorial rand dully as Daniel experimentally smacked the palm of his hand against it.

DanielCome to us…” One voice among the legion garnered his attention and he saw a form lurking in the trees. He screamed in panic and slammed his shoulder against the door, unthinkingly trying to flee or at least get something between himself and whatever it was in the trees. The door rang and rang and rang with each blow of his shoulder against it. Even with the pain that it inflicted, Daniel gave no mind toward stopping, he simply wanted to be safe and free. Finally, with a creak and a wrench, the door jerked open.

He stumbled forward, falling and catching himself on the stairs that spiralled upward within the column. Desperately, he rose and slammed the door closed behind him before scrambling as fast as he could up the stairs. Even with his legs and lungs burning, Daniel pushed himself on until he reached the top of the Memorial, emerging out onto the platform with his chest heaving. He stumbled toward the fence that ran around the edge of the platform, his fingers gripping the metal bars as he gazed down into the darkness of the park below him.

Daniel…”

His muscles clenched up as he heard the voice slither out from within the staircase behind him. It took Daniel a moment to look over his shoulder and see the silhouette in the doorway.

Join us, Daniel…”

“No! No! Noooooooo!” Daniel screamed in terror, clawing at the fence as he tried to get away. He pulled himself up, desperately scrabbling up the bars until he was able to heave his shoulders and chest over.

Come to us…”

Daniel’s terrified scream echoed back at the voice as he tipped and fell, plummeting through the darkness toward the ground. As the ground rushed up to meet him, he heard a voice a whisper silky-smooth into his ear from only inches away.

Yes.”

And then the darkness took him.

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