“Photographs open doors into the past, but they also allow a look into the future.” —Sally Mann.
“Everybody squeeze in close. On the count of three, say, cheese.” I peered through my camera, and with a raised hand, I counted, “One,… Two,…”
“CHEEEESE!!” The five college buddies sang out.
I snapped the photo. It wouldn’t be long before I knew if any of these poor sons of guns would be goners, and for a pretty penny, they would soon know too.
How much would you pay to know your death day, well, more precisely, your death week? I was eight years old and at the tail end of second grade when I first accurately predicted the demise of someone I knew. Shortly after receiving our class photo, I tactfully warned the dutiful Mrs. Scott that she should get her affairs in order. Maybe tactfully is a bit overstated. It was more in the way of, “Nah Nah Ne Nah Nah You’re gonna die.” To be fair, I was only eight, and Mrs. Scott wasn’t the nice teacher she often liked to portray. She had once told me the wheezing from my chronic asthma was my lungs just being lazy. Nice, Mrs. Scott, real nice. Shake, Shake, Puff, “Ah!” Cough! I still have to use an inhaler. The rest of that school year was challenging; I was bullied, labeled a freak, and branded Graham the Grim.
Fast forward thirty years, I am one of the most sought-after private photographers in all of New York City, and I am nearing the milestone of fifty-thousand forecasted souls dispatched to the afterlife. People now just call me Grim, a name I don’t rather hate.
It wouldn’t surprise me if more than one of this group went this week. Two of the five were already drunk, and the other three quickly had their buzz in full effect. Over ten thousand people die a year from drunk driving in the United States alone. It’s not hard to recognize the party-hard fraternity type with their matching greek letters stitched across their shirts, each still carrying their matching red solo cup; maybe they will have matching burial suits. I am sure they have a designated driver. They probably found their way here on a dare or a hazing scenario. None of these guys expect bad news, but that’s life in the fast and reckless lane.
Buzz! Buzz! I always left my phone on vibrate during a session with clients to make them feel more important. Customer service it’s essential. Damn social media! Buzz! Buzz! What the hell? I will call you back! I thumbed around in my pocket until it was silenced.
“Give me two hours, fellas,” I said as I waved. If they make it back. The group stumbled out, laughing.
Now, what was so damn important.
I stared at the little red number over the text bubble on my phone. Customers always called, hoping to talk; they never left messages. I assumed they were too embarrassed to have a written or voice account regarding these sensitive matters. Excuse me! Am I going to die? Besides, not everyone was a believer. Mrs. Scott, for example, spent most of her last week taunting me while I served out my punishment, pounding erasers during recess when she should have been somewhere exotic, living it up.
One message. I don’t even have friends unless you count Margie at the corner diner; she sometimes smiles. Friends are difficult to keep, especially after informing a few of them they will not see next week. Family is even more complicated. Think of all the family gatherings and photo opts. Awk-wward. Thus, I’m a loner and plan to stay that way. Who would text me? Shake, Shake, Puff, “Ah.” Cough, cough.
-Hey Graham, this is Piper from Roosevelt. Long time. I am in the city and would like to meet up.
Piper was the pretty girl, also the smart girl, who turned out to be, most importantly, at least for me, the nice girl and my one and only crush. But sadly, without any notice, she one day moved far away; to Florida, I think. Thus, my freshman year at Roosevelt High sucked. I took a chance and texted back. Play it cool, Romeo.
-Wow! A blast from the way past sounds good. Pick a time and a place. I’d be happy to accommodate.
I combed over the photo of the Frat Pack; it looks like this bunch will live at least till next week. Good for them, I thought, for now.
“So, how does this thing work anyway?” Mrs. Rodriguez asked. Her translucent hands clutched the sterling cross that hung from her neck. Her voice was soft, “You take our photo, and then you tell me, um…,” her voice lowered to a whisper, “when we will die?”
I filled three glasses from the jug of tepid water that rested on a carrying tray at the center of my consultation table. I once read ice water could possibly cause cardiac arrest. I handed one to Mrs. Rodriguez, and she accepted with an unsteady hand. I slid another to her niece. Then I took a sip from the third. Explaining my ability was never easy, but it was especially tough to do so for two types: the older generation and doubters. Why did she want to know anyway? The grooves that spanned Mrs. Rodriquez’s face were as deep as most buried caskets. She’s one foot in the grave. Must be her niece.
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Rodriguez. One hand still grasped silver Jesus.
I nodded your welcome, and in my most professional tone, I attempted my best to make Mrs. Rodriguez and her niece understand.
“Not exactly. You’re right as far as, I take your photo, but I don’t know when everyone or if anyone in the photo will die. The single caveat, and the whole reason you are here, is I know with absolute certainty if someone is about to die, explicitly within a week from dying, no matter the cause of death, and only if I view a picture of them during, let’s just call it, their death week. If someone falls within those parameters, I will know how many days they have left.” I glanced at the niece; she rolled her eyes. I sensed she didn’t like me. “Understand?” I asked. Mrs. Rodriguez’s eyes were glazed. Shake, Shake, Puff, “Ah!” I paused. Cough, cough. “Sorry! To be clear, if it is a week and a day, I will not see anything.”
“Um, I am not sure if, um, I understand entirely.” Mrs. Rodriguez exchanged a glance with her niece. “How does the photo let you know, and will any photo work? Your website says you charge the same even if you don’t see anything. Could that be true? What about travel? We have family in Jersey.”
Before I could answer, the niece’s tone was a bit more firm than I was used to.
“I looked you up on google.…” The niece’s arms were crossed, “and it wasn’t all flattering.” She reminded me of Mrs. Scott. “Why is it the same price if you see nothing, as we wouldn’t be getting what we paid for?” She huffed.
I pushed my frames in place with a finger. I never wore contacts, too many possibilities of infection. Smile and make them feel comfortable. Sell it! I looked directly at her niece, What’s Her Face, and gave her my best heartfelt smile. People hate when you kill them with kindness. I focused on Mrs. Rodriquez, the person undoubtedly paying for this little undertaking.
“It’s in the eyes,” I said. “I’m sure you have seen photos where people have the red-eye effect. It’s like that, but only I can see it. Any photo should do. However, I always have a better connection with the most recent photo. The price is per examination. Like doctors, they still get paid even if you have a clean bill of health.” And I need to pay rent. Are you kidding me right now? “Unfortunately, I don’t travel.” It’s dangerous out there. Road rage and plane crashes, no thank you.
“Let’s say the photo has the death effect. How do you know how many days they have left?” Asked the niece.
The death effect, I like it! Nicely done, niece. Maybe I misjudged you.
“The eyes look different each day, and over the years, I have learned which look corresponds to which day.”
The two ladies huddled for a bit. Whispered words mumbled back and forth, and finally, a Yes emerged. And with that, I took their photo. Two hours later, I told the niece, whose name I discovered was Lucille, that she had only four days left. I felt— indifferent.
After a few more text exchanges with Piper, we decided on the corner diner. The food is okay. To be honest, you are lucky if your meal comes out warm, although to be fair, the pastries are above level. Most Importantly, the diner didn’t require me to cross the street. Almost seven thousand pedestrian deaths a year! The corner diner is excellent! One can say I am a bit cautious, definitely an understatement, but when you have seen as much death as I have, you look for any tactical edge to avoid being one of the departed. Shake, Shake, Puff, “Ah!” Cough.
Plans were set for Wednesday.
Today was slow in terms of my death effect count, only three. An old man who seemed quite content with the news. A middle-aged woman who couldn’t stop chain-smoking. Cancer sticks, hello! And an old terminal woman who just wanted a nice photo.
I stared outside my studio window, watching the afternoon horde move up and down the street. People to see and place to go. For, maybe the first time, I would soon be one of the many who had somewhere to go and a person to see. My cheeks were hurting from smiling. Nighttime was risky, but the girl I once knew was worth it.
I sat at a corner booth, positioned to see the front entrance. Sweat seemed to flow from every possible port. Be cool! Shake, Shake, Puff, “Ah!” Cough, cough. The diner door swung open, and the prettiest woman stood searching. I climbed to my feet and raised a finger.
She waved and headed my way. A floral pattern dress made her stand out from everyone else, like a single flower amongst the weeds. She was stunning, and I wondered how many hearts drowned in the deep of her blue eyes. My heart almost broke free from my chest. Calm down! Shake, Shake, Puff, “Ah!” Cough.
“Hello, Graham, or is it Grim now? I see you haven’t changed much.” She eyed the inhaler as she scooched in on the opposite side of the booth.
“Grim?” My voice rose an octave. “You know about that, huh? It might be nice to be called by my given name.” I smiled and meant it.
“Well, Graham it is.” She smiled, and I think she meant it too.
“You still look as pretty as you did in high school.” I can’t believe I said that! Just breathe. “What brings you back home?”
“My Aunt died.” Her face grimaced.
“I’m sorry. Do you need anything?”
“No, and it’s okay.” She forced a smile. “It helped put things in perspective and why I reached out.”
I gave her a perplexed look.
“Remember in high school when I moved?” She bit her lip. Her hands fidgeted.
“It was because….” She paused. “My grandmother had passed, and I had seen many deaths since then. It’s been as if the sun had set and decided to never rise again.” She let out a heavy sigh. “That was depressing. I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t be. You’re fine. I know what you mean and I’m glad you told me.” I instinctively reached out and held her hand.
“You know, as kids, I had a crush on you.” She giggled.
My eyes lit up. “Me too!” I said. We both laughed.
Zero client death effects. Breakfast with Piper was pleasant.
The entrance bell tinged as Tom pushed open my studio door. He was holding a basket with a kitten. Tom was fifteen, living on the streets, and for some reason or another, he seemed to think my gift worked on animals too. This isn’t the first stray of his I met.
“Grim, do you think you can see if Peanut will die soon? He’s the runt, and I think he’s sick.” With one hand, Tom raised the basket and, with his other, peeled back a tattered swaddle.
“You should try the vet, Tom. Some vets take strays, and my gift doesn’t work on animals. Remember?”
With a grimy hand, Tom wiped his face. His scent and filth made my eyes sting. He smells like death.
“Oh, I’m sorry Grim. How about just a photo so I can remember Peanut.” Tom held out a dirty five-dollar bill.
“Keep your money, Tom. I will take your photo, but take Peanut to the vet.”
“I will, Grim. Thank you.”
Tom posed with Peanut, and I snapped the picture. I told Tom to be back in an hour. That hour came and passed. I stared at the photo, hoping this time, I was wrong. I’m never wrong. Tom never returned.
Ten death effects today. I never felt bad before, but now I know what people lose when they or someone they love die. I finally have something worth losing. I can’t wait to spend more time with Piper. The last few days have been amazing. She needed the day to take care of things. I think she is planning something special.
Today was my scheduled day off, and I needed it, but for the first time, I wanted it. This day would be memorable. I planned on meeting Piper for a walk at the park, maybe afterward, a matinee movie. Discount! Who said romance was dead. I smiled. Tonight, Italian cuisine at a restaurant she’s been dying to check out. I smiled again. Everything seemed to make me smile. Piper had this effect on me. I felt like a new man, and with her, I felt like I could take on the world, or at least the city.
Piper grinned as I approached. We hugged and shared a kiss, and I felt the tingles engulf my whole being. For the first time, I knew love. We moseyed toward the park. It was a lovely morning; the birds still chirped as if the sun had just risen. There was a breeze that seemed to make us float rather than stroll. The honking and screeching sounds of the city all but faded away. I was afraid she could hear my heartbeat, although the song that thumped was hers. We stopped by a cluster of oaks, and I took her hand and a knee.
“I love you,” I said. Piper pulled away and covered her mouth when she saw the ring. I peered into her eyes. “I don’t want to waste a day without you. Will you marry me?”
“I hoped. I wasn’t sure you would.” Her body shook. “Yes,” she screamed. “Yes, yes, yes!” She jumped into my arms.
We were married two hours later.
Piper reached into her bag and pulled out an envelope on the way to dinner.
“This is for you, but for later, tonight when I’m asleep.”
“A wedding gift?” I joked.
“Later! Promise me.” Her tone was serious.
I raised one hand, and the other laid across my heart. “I promise,” I said. Piper held my hand all the way to the Italian Restaurant.
“Have you ever wondered if there were more like you, I mean with your ability?”
“I used to. In truth, I had hoped there was; maybe then I’d have friends. But now I know it could be a bit of a curse, and I wouldn’t want that on anyone.”
Later that night-
Piper slept soundly in bed. I fiddled with the envelope, turning it over several times; on the outside were the words, Thank You. I opened it and dumped its content onto my table. It was a framed picture. I took in the sight of a young woman holding a camera. I knew this woman and knew this picture. The photo was folded, and only half of the image was visible. The other half was buried behind itself. It was taken while at Roosevelt High’s photography class. Piper’s eyes stared into mine as if the photo was a living thing; I knew immediately the next day would be her last. My legs faltered. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye; my heart was broken. I popped open the frame and unfolded the picture. My own eyes stared back, the same look as Piper. We have the same death day! That’s why she’s back, for me. This means,.... Do we have the same ability? Surprisingly, I was okay; it was indeed the best week of my life.
I hope you find this entry. As you may have already deduced, this wasn’t a matter of foul play or anything malicious. This was, in fact, liberating and, in many ways, poetic. I’ve lived most of my life alone, and the word lived isn’t exactly fitting; perhaps survived is better. This week, I've never been more alive. I married my Juliet. Who would have thought that we both suffered from the same affliction in silence all those years ago? But now, that curse has become our shared blessing. Piper was emboldened because of it and found me, her Romeo. I do apologize for the mess. Piper thought it was more romantic if we shared the same bullet. It really is till death do us part. One final thought before I go, ha, I’m already gone.
LIFE IS MEANT TO BE LIVED!