Cursing under my breath as a thorn ripped a gash in my shin, I ventured through an abandoned lot across from the target’s house. Shorts and flip flops proved to be a terrible choice of attire, and I should’ve known better. These high-paying, incognito gigs always entailed off-road explorations of some sort, and this was no exception. After sneezing and swatting gnats, I hid behind a tree stump amid various brambles and weeds. Hoping I wasn’t inadvertently standing on a rattlesnake, I prepared my camera and telephoto lens.
Something prickly tickled the back of my knee, but I refused to budge. It only took one photo to do my thing—if this guy would cooperate by showing himself at all. In all honesty, there is really only one thing you can depend on to get people to open their doors: pizza. Luckily, I’d arrived at my itchy, uncomfortable post right at dinner time. It wasn’t long before I heard bass thumping and tires screeching as a pizza delivery truck pulled into the target’s driveway. Unluckily, that’s when I realized I was standing in an ant bed. I couldn’t risk missing the shot, so I stood there and let the little buggers crawl all the way up to my crotch.
The allegedly agoraphobic target who had not been seen for months, opened his door long enough to accept the pizza; so I took my shot. My eyes watered as hundreds of ants dined on my tender flesh, but my rapid-fire camera got plenty of images in the seconds he was at his door. After he closed himself back inside the house, I stifled my screams of pain and danced that popular dance called, “get these ants off me”, while flip-flopping my way back to my car. Gave myself a quick Epipen injection, cranked up the air in my car and headed home—where the real work began.
My phone pinged with a text as soon as I pulled in my driveway.
Charlie: Did you get the shots?
Me: Of course
Charlie: Did you get any secrets?
Me: You know the answer to that. I won’t know till I get in the dark.
Charlie: These people want answers, Kid.
Me: Yes, and I need their money to pay my mortgage, so leave me alone and let me work, will ya?
The smell of rank kitty litter and decaying trash made my nostrils burn when I entered my front door. My cat, Dreyfus, remained unconscious, stretched out on his back in the golden rectangle of sun that streamed through the curtain. Maneuvering around the unpacked boxes I used as furniture, I headed to the kitchen to throw some groceries down my neck. That is, if I could find something that wasn’t too long past the expiration date. After inhaling a stale PB&J and funneling a soda, I left behind a mess of crumbs and headed to the top of stairs.
Pausing before my descent, I enjoyed the faint chemical aroma wafting up the short staircase that led to my basement. The tingle of transformation tickled my squishy places as I counted each stair and opened the door to my true self.
I undressed in the decontamination area and donned full-body protection gear before entering my pristine sanctuary. Pungent, aromatic bliss blasted my senses as I opened the door to the sterile habitat of my darkroom.
“Ahh…my happy place—where I embrace my dark side,” I said to the room.
Pulling down my night-vision goggles, my brain shifted to automatic pilot and a trance-like state intercepted my whole being. My consciousness floated above, watching my body develop the pictures—and that’s when I realized I was not alone.
He lurked in the shadow, the darkest dark of the darkroom; silently awaiting the manifestation of the secrets. (Feeding. Growing.) He wasn’t human and I don’t know how he got there. Somehow, though, I knew he’d always been there. He resembled a wiggling pile of black scribbles; harmless and barely noticeable against the dark of the darkroom.
Small at first, without power; but steadily, he grew in size as well as threat. I can’t explain it, but I felt him deep inside my soul and I knew what he was: a monster. My monster. He knew what I was, too. Even worse, he knew what I did in the darkroom and he fed off of my talents like a succubus.
“Seeeecrettttts! Give me SECRETS!” He growled at me, demanding his way like a spoiled child. I ignored him. The process took time, so he’d have to be patient.
I was not scared of the monster. Although he manifested in the darkroom, he originated from the core of my soul. The monster part of me—the darkness I kept hidden.
I was convinced he was the source of my supernatural ability to see secrets in photos I developed. My livelihood depended on my ability, because I sold the secrets I uncovered to the highest bidder. Of course, Charlie found the clients and negotiated contracts for me, but the whole shebang hinged on what I saw in the darkroom.
I floated above and watched myself closely as I dunked the print into the wash; for that is where I saw the secrets develop. Slowly, the image appeared —the one only me and my monster could see. I saw the target in the photo and I knew the truth. Suddenly, my consciousness slammed back into my body; signaling the end of the process and the acquisition of a brutal secret. I tossed the photo to my monster and he swallowed the image; satisfying his hunger for the time being.
I took off my gloves and called Charlie to inform him of what I saw with my special ability.
“He’s not agoraphobic, Charlie. It’s a scam. He’s committing insurance fraud and conning his way out of child support. The man is loaded and perfectly healthy. He’s not mentally unstable; he’s just a bastard. He is using a secret passageway to get out of his house. I’ll tell you how to bust him after you deposit my cut.” I swiped over to my bank account and watched the total in my savings increase by ten grand. Satisfied with a day’s work, I called Charlie back with the location of the sleaze bag’s escape route and cleaned up my playroom aka dark room.
Charlie called me the next day before the sun was up, but it was fine with me since I never slept much. Me and Dreyfus usually lounged in bed till afternoon, but we were both awake and hungry that morning.
Good thing the day’s assignment took me past a McD’s. I got brain freeze from the frozen coffee and buttered my biscuit while rereading Charlie’s instructions.
Charlie: This is a big one, Kid. You’ll get half a mil if you can pull it off.
Me: Have I ever let you down before?
Charlie: No, but it’s complicated. We need irrefutable proof, and that’s hard to do in a celebrity case with so much publicity and hearsay involved.
Me: Are we taking sides in this?
Charlie: As usual, we side with the evidence, Kid.
Honestly, my initial sympathies were with the woman, Amy, who claimed she was abused by the man, Jay. But, I needed shots of both of them if I wanted to get paid. I posed as paparazzi outside their respective homes and got the shots easily enough. Then, I headed to the darkroom where I followed my creative process.
The monster in the darkroom percolated with hungry anticipation as I hovered above myself; conducting the final step in developing the man’s photo. A tiny blip of disappointment popped in my belly as my superpowers revealed only benign information. The monster recoiled and shrank; left neglected and starving from this well-known actor’s lack of secrets.
It happened before, so I wasn’t all that surprised. When people grew up in the limelight like the man, Jay, the tabloids and scandal hounds usually sucked them dry by the time I took their picture. There were, simply, no secrets left in this guy to expose. Besides, the worst thing I ever heard about him was that he brought his dogs onto a set because he didn’t want to leave them alone.
So, the picture before me revealed similar, non-scandalous secrets like picking his nose, watching reality TV, and eating non-organic produce. The deep sadness and trauma he experienced from the debacle with his ex-wife was also evident from my process, but it wasn’t the concrete evidence Charlie requested. I put his photo aside and focused on the ex-wife, Amy.
I dunked her photo in the bath, and a hot chill engulfed me. Freezing sweat trickled down my back. I had never experienced such powerful deceit before. I lost my breath as the ceiling sucked my consciousness back out of my body with a violence that left me spinning above myself. At the same time, my monster quadrupled in size. The room bulged with his massive presence, pinning my body against the table and disrupting the development process. The behemoth breathed his putrid, hot breath on my neck, causing my spirit to crash back into my physical being. Luckily, I saw the woman’s secrets before the monster ruined my process.
I begged the monster to retract and release me. He’d suddenly acquired such mass that there was hardly room in there for both of us.
“I hunger for secrets.” Acidic saliva dripped from his maw, burning a hole through my protective suit.
“Please. I need room to work. I can’t feed you if you don’t let me work.”
“I desire YOUR secrets.” The horrific stench of monster flatulence choked me.
“Okay, but you know…my secret is a doozy! I don’t know if you can handle it.” My diaphragm was so kinked against the table I could hardly breathe.
“FEED ME YOUR SECRETS!” The bellowing behemoth bulged again and almost cut me in half with the table jammed in my gut.
“If you want my secrets, you have to let me go take a selfie.” I groaned, expecting the worst. However, that must have been what he wanted to hear because he retracted just slightly. Feeling nauseated and lightheaded from my monster’s gaseous fumes, I wiggled my way to the decontamination room.
After vomiting up what was left of my McGriddle, I changed out of the acid-torn suit and into a fresh one. Then, I texted Charlie in regards to my assignment.
Me: it’s a big one, Charlie.
Charlie: I know that. What did you get?
Me: It’s gonna cost more this time.
Me: I want all of your commission on this one. Five million, or no deal.
Charlie: But, I was gonna buy another yacht.
Me: Come on, Charlie. I’m barely squeaking by and how many yachts do you need, anyway.
Charlie: I guess since you are my only child, I can pay you what you deserve this time.
Me: I’ll call you as soon as the money hits my account, Charlie…Dad.
I watched my savings account grow to an amount that would sustain me for a while; seeing as how I was about to earn myself an early retirement from the secrets business.
As my monster roared impatiently from the other room and slammed against the door, I called Charlie.
“What is that I hear in the background? Are you okay?” Although never really the concerned father, something had Charlie worried about me. Maybe he sensed what what about to happen. Perhaps he heard the insatiable beast in my darkroom causing a ruckus.
“I’m fine. That’s just my darkroom monster.”
“Um. Your what?”
“Charlie, I’m fine. Here’s how you nail that lying hag, Amy. In the photo, I saw other people she abused. A few of them didn’t survive. Also, look at hidden camera footage from the Rockabilly Night Club—she had more than one affair. There’s a lot more. I’ll email you the rest with a map. You’ll need a crew to start digging for bodies.”
“Wow. Thanks, Kid. That’s more than you’ve ever gotten from anyone before.”
“Yeah, that chic’s good at hiding her indiscretions. But, the thing about secrets is, they grow and take on a life of their own. They trick you into thinking you can handle more until you forget what the truth really is…and you hurt the wrong person. That’s when you have two choices: either reveal the secrets or let them consume you. And this chic got eaten a long time ago. Go get her, Dad.”
Charlie said something before he hung up, but the monster was so loud, I couldn’t hear. As promised, I jotted down everything in a last email to Charlie and took a deep breath.
Was I ready for this? I’d never put myself in their shoes…the secret keepers.
“Cheese!” I clicked a selfie with my camera and opened the door to the darkroom.
“Pipe down, you big bully!” I yelled. The monster bulged and pulsated, covering my workspace with its repulsive, tar-like mass. “How am I supposed to work with you taking up all the space?”
“I want your secrets!” The monster flexed and burst the door off the hinges, flopping itself like The Blob into the decontamination room. Another wall buckled and the monster rolled up the staircase. I heard Dreyfus yowl and escape out the cat door just in time to avoid the growing black torrent of secrets spreading through my house.
Knowing I had to act fast before the monster ripped off the ceiling and overexposed my film, I donned the night vision goggles and got to work. I was too stressed for an out-of-body experience this time as I dunked my selfie in the wash.
“YOUR SECRETS!!! I must consume your secrets!”
“Well, as it turns out, my hungry and over-zealous vomitous mass, my secret….is YOU.” I turned the completed photo around for the monster to see.
“NOOOOO!” It screamed and imploded; sucking itself inside-out until it disappeared.
(A month later)
“This is the life, isn’t it, Dreyfus.” I sipped a Daiquiri and perused an article about a well-known actor’s triumph over his abusive spouse. My cat lounged on a beach towel under an umbrella next to me. Retirement suited us. We lived happily ever after on the beaches of Bermuda—and there was never a single secret between me and Dreyfus.