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Page 31

I continued to the second closet, which was almost empty. The only things inside were a shoebox on the top shelf and, next to it, almost a dozen green-and-white packages of Polaroid film. The shoebox was blue with a telltale Nike swoosh across its sides. Inside was the reason for all that film—a Polaroid camera and a stack of snapshots.

First, I examined the camera, boxy and heavy. Pressing a button on the side raised the camera’s lens and flash. A button on the top clicked the shutter. On the back was a counter telling me there was still enough film inside for two more pictures.

Just like with the record player, I decided to test the camera. I went to the back window, seeing that Maggie and Jess were still outside, heading toward the woods. Maggie was running. Jess trailed after her, calling for her to slow down.

I clicked the shutter as both entered the forest. A second later, amid much whirring, a square photograph slowly emerged from a slot in the camera’s front. The image itself had just started to form. Hazy shapes emerging from milky whiteness. I set the picture aside to develop and returned to the snapshots stored in the shoebox.

Picking up the top one, I saw it was a picture of Curtis Carver. He stared straight at the camera with a blank look on his face, the light from the flash turning his skin a sickly white. Judging from the stretch of his arms at the bottom of the image, he had taken the picture himself. But the framing was off, capturing only two-thirds of his face and the entirety of his left shoulder. Behind him was the study, looking much the way it did now. Empty. Dim. Shadows gathered in the corner of the vaulted ceiling.

A date had been written in marker across the inch-high strip of white that ran across the bottom of the photo.

July 2.

I reached back into the box and grabbed another picture. The subject was the same—an off-center self-portrait of Curtis Carver taken in the study—but the details were different. A red T-shirt instead of the white one he wore in the previous photo. His hair was unkempt, and stubble darkened his cheeks.

The date scrawled under the picture read July 3.

I snatched three more pictures, bearing the dates July 5, July 6, and July 7.

They were just like the others. As were four more that lay beneath them, dated July 8, July 9, July 10, and July 11.

Flipping through them felt like watching a time-lapse video. The kind they showed us in grade school of flowers blooming and leaves unfurling. Only this was a chronicle of Curtis Carver, and instead of growing, he seemed to be receding. With each picture, his face got thinner, his beard grew longer, his expression more haggard.

The only constant was his eyes.

Staring into them, I saw nothing. No emotion. No humanity. In every photograph, the eyes of Curtis Carver were dark blanks that revealed nothing.

A saying I’d heard long ago came to mind: When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you.

I dropped the photos back into the box. Although there were more inside, I didn’t have the stomach to look at them. I’d done enough staring into the abyss for one morning.

Instead, I grabbed the photo I’d taken, which was now fully developed. I liked what I saw. I’d managed to capture Maggie and Jess on the verge of vanishing into the woods.

Maggie was barely visible—just a brown-haired blur in the background, the flashing white sole of a sneaker indicating that she was running. Jess was clearer. Back turned toward the camera, head tilted, right arm outstretched as she pushed a low-hanging branch out of her way.

I was so focused on the two of them that it took me a moment to notice something else in the photo. When I did see it, my whole body jerked in surprise. My elbow knocked into the record player, ending the song that had been playing—“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”—with an album-scratching screech.

I ignored it and continued to stare at the photo.

There, standing just on the edge of the frame, was a figure cloaked in shadow.

I thought it was a man, although I couldn’t be sure. Details were sparse. All I could make out was a distinctly human shape standing in the forest a few feet from the tree line.

Who—or what—it was, I had no idea. All I knew was that seeing it sent a cold rush of fear coursing through my veins.

I was still staring at the figure in the picture when a scream tore through the woods, so loud that it echoed off the back of the house.

High-pitched and terrified, I knew at once it belonged to Jess.

In an instant, I was out of the study and hurtling myself down two sets of stairs to the first floor. Outside, I veered around the house and sprinted into the backyard, where more screaming could be heard.

Maggie this time. Letting out a loud, continuous wail of pain.

I picked up my pace as I entered the woods, bounding through the underbrush and dodging trees to where Jess and Maggie were located. Both were on the ground—Jess on her knees and Maggie lying facedown beside her, still screaming like a siren.

“What happened?” I called as I ran toward them.

“She fell,” Jess said, trying to sound calm but failing miserably. Her words came out in a frantic tumble. “She was running, and then she tripped and fell and hit a rock or something. Oh, God, Ewan, it looks bad.”

Reaching them, I saw a small pool of blood on the ground next to Maggie’s head. The sight of it—bright red against the mossy green of the forest floor—sent me into a panic. Gasping for breath, I gently rolled Maggie over. She had a hand pressed against her left cheek, blood oozing from between her fingers.

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