Shutterbug by Robert Pope

 

Waking in the middle of the night became my curse. I would lay beside my sleeping wife in a state of alert wakefulness, waiting for something or someone. Before this, I always slept through the night like a child, deep in my dreams. Now I lay unmoving or switched pillows around or propped myself up. Nothing made any difference, so I started coming into the living room to sit in the reclining chair. I didn’t turn on lights because I hoped to find a way back to sleep, either creeping back to bed once a semi-somnambulist state had been achieved or passing out in the recliner. I needed sleep because I had to put in a few solid hours of work the next day, work that required concentration I could not give if I did not sleep.

The recliner sits in a corner of the living room, from where, with light, I could look across the expanse of the living room into the kitchen. I can reach out and touch the cool wall beside me, and frequently do so, for balance. At the end of this wall, to the right of the kitchen entrance, a doorway opens on the hall. In the dark, I can see neither into kitchen or hallway. The openings only appear darker than the rest of the dark room. I would make my way to the recliner by feel or memory, settle into the cool leather, and set a throw pillow behind me for support. Eventually, I drifted into a sleep state in which I made my way back down the hall to bed or sank deeper in the chair and woke there in the morning.

One night as I drifted into this state, I became aware someone came through the doorway from the hall, moved toward the kitchen, and disappeared inside. I woke a bit from half-sleep to focus in the silence on the darkness of the kitchen entrance. I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but the dark had a way of swarming on me, as if the particles of darkness become motile. When no further movement occurred, I closed my eyes and fell into a deeper sleep than normal. In the morning, unusually rested, I did not recall the experience in the dark of early morning.

The very next night, however, when I had the same sensation of movement, I did remember and became preternaturally alert and somewhat alarmed. The shape or shade had once more moved from the hall to the kitchen and disappeared inside. The creature was my size or larger, exact dimensions obscured by the swarming dark. You might well imagine my mind buzzed and skin crawled, yet I sat quiet in the dark hoping not to draw notice. When nothing transpired, I began to relax, thinking this had been nothing more than a recurring dream. I fell into the same deep sleep from which I woke less refreshed than I might have hoped, for the reason that I did remember what I had experienced and it made me damned uneasy.

Next night I had all but forgotten my dream or apparition when I startled awake and saw the fuzzy shape of a man or something larger than a man moving from hallway to kitchen. My God! How long had this Thing been living in our house unbeknownst to my wife and me? So far it had not noticed me. It too must have moved in only a semi-alert condition. My daylight hours grew more ragged, work suffered. I drank too much coffee to maintain concentration, as a result becoming increasingly nervous.

I said nothing to my wife, though she noticed my condition, inquiring about my sleep problems. I assured her I would drink a glass of warm milk when I woke or take a sleeping aid, but of course I did not. I suppose that might have been a solution of sorts. But once alerted to this presence in our house, I found that I woke and went right to the living room just before three in the morning with the express purpose of waiting for the creature. He wouldn’t come and wouldn’t come but as I drifted in sleep I would become aware of this presence, shuffling or loping from hall to kitchen.

I am something of a shutterbug, as it was once called, taking and developing my own photographs long before everything became digital. I once set up a makeshift studio and darkroom in my study to photograph friends and their children either on request or from a whim of my own. I frankly enjoyed my wife’s form—this when we were somewhat younger—and have a goodly number of fetching portraits of her stashed away where she won’t find them. I once let her destroy selected photos and their negatives, allowing her to presume that was the end of it. Now, I had a feverish awareness of these photos that became fused in my mind with the presence of this creature in our house.

I won’t go on here about the fantastic suppositions that went through my mind during these sleepless nights. I knew I needed to share knowledge of this secret visitor with my wife or a third party, my friend Robert, our minister, I knew not whom, but I needed evidence so she or he or they would not think I had been hallucinating. To this end, once my wife had fallen asleep, I set up cameras and studio lights, connecting them to a switch I would hold in my hand while I hid in the recliner, terrified and determined.

That very night, when this shape or shade moved from the hallway I waited for a count of three, and, just as it reached the kitchen, I pressed the switch. My archaic light burst into the room, but I was prepared with sunglasses so I would not be blinded. Three cameras snapped as the creature swung about, raising an arm over its face and emitting a bellow I shall never forget as long as I live. In an instant he charged the lights and had them swinging, crashing about, cameras as well, until the room plunged once more into darkness.

When the cacophony ended I sat on the floor, leaning back on my hands, sucking air into my horrified lungs, my scalp prickling and shrinking. I felt certain I would be the next victim, but not so. As I gathered my wits, the overhead light came on. My wife stood in the hall doorway staring in at me, frightened now herself and somewhat startled, if not stupefied, to find me sprawled on the floor amid broken lights and fallen cameras, with all the bright photos of my beautiful young wife about me—with which I had hoped to bait the beast. It was these on which she focused, horrified that they existed.

When her curiosity had been somewhat sated, she studied me with a combination of horror and wonder on her face. “What on earth have you been doing?” she asked me. Not knowing how to respond, with every last nerve shattered by sleeplessness and terror and loss, I burst into tears, sobbing, my ridiculous eyes and nose running as she looked down with amazement and wonder.

As tenderness entered her face, she sat beside me on the floor, one or two of my favorites in one hand, pushing hair back from my face. At last, she dropped the photos beside me and went into the kitchen, snapping on the lights. She came back with a box of tissues. I snorted and wiped until I imagined myself somewhat presentable, and then my dear wife kissed me and went back down the hallway to our bedroom.

I sat amid wreckage a while before I cleaned it up and took what equipment and photographs remained back to my study. Finally, I stepped behind the black curtain of the darkroom, setting up pans of chemicals and water required for the process. Perhaps an hour or two after the crisis, I watched as the image emerged on my old photographic paper. So distorted was it, I could not tell the difference between my own gaping face, caught in that moment before all hell broke loose, and the face of some vaguely aquatic creature who stumbled into my house each night, perhaps in his sleep, to ogle photos of my naked wife before leaving by the back door.


Robert Pope published a novel, Jack’s Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts with Another Chicago Press. He has published stories and personal essays in many journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Two Thirds North.