Short Story: The Negatives

camera-filmIt was a modest camera shop, the kind that framed photos of the family dog with delicacy and matting precision. Enthusiasts sought out Desmond Ruth Camera for items like vintage equipment and traditional black & white film. Dighton Center had an old, historic feel, though the Brigham’s Ice Cream Shop and the Fine Arts Theatre were long gone. Barton Bryce had lived in Dighton for as long as he could remember. His parents managed the hardware store until its doors closed when he was twelve; it boarded up due to rising rent in what could only be described as a boomtown. New money sprinkled the downtown until only a handful of nostalgic haunts remained.

Barton never left his hometown. A cruel entrance into adulthood saw a young, high school graduate that couldn’t afford college lose his parents just two weeks after receiving his diploma. It was awful. The train returning from the city went off track and flipped two railcars, killing dozens. Two of those victims were Desmond and Ruth Bryce. Barton’s parents had traveled into the city that day to purchase a graduation present for him: an original Nikon F professional SLR camera. Barton raced to the scene of the crash and snapped pictures for hours until the police finally recognized him as the Bryce boy.

Barton was left with a small inheritance and used the money he received for a down payment on a commercial lease. He scooped up one of the last spaces in Dighton Center and transferred it into a camera shop in honor of his parents. The first additions to the store were the Nikon he never received and a model train that would run along the crease in the ceiling. At first, locals stared uncomfortably at the moving train, but they eventually warmed up to it. By the time Barton was 28, he was a successful Dighton proprietor celebrating ten years of local business. He was a quiet, humble young man way beyond his years. Everyone found him familiar, likeable, and dependable. He and the store represented a world stopped in time as the outside moved dizzily on. 

Ashley Anby was a 35-year old woman who had moved to town with her then husband and stayed there after the divorce. She made a nice little home for herself and her toy fox terrier, Lute. She became a regular in Barton’s shop, lingering and asking questions with laughs, touches, and hair flips. Barton always kept it professional, but he did think of her in that way. She smiled with her eyes; he liked that.

After weeks went by without Barton asking her out, Ashley decided to up her game. She utilized the one-hour photo service, her advances found discreetly in the film he handled for her. It started tame, but soon escalated to lingerie and breast shots. When she picked up the photos, she would open the envelope, remove the negatives, and hand them to Barton.

“I don’t need these,” Ashley said each time. “I’ll just throw them away anyway.”

Barton would keep the negatives in his pocket all day and then toss them in the outgoing trash. It took weeks for him to take one home. He was 28, after all, and did not have a girlfriend. He had needs. In the dark of his childhood home was the only time he had enough confidence to seduce Ashley, albeit in a film strip. But the reality was that he was still a scared, young boy with a crush. It wasn’t long before she grew tired of waiting and stopped coming around.

Despite Ashley’s lack of business, Barton’s shop was never busier. The holiday season was approaching, so he hired a local boy part-time. Seth was 19, his mother had died from cancer, and his father couldn’t afford to send him to college. He was an amateur photographer, quiet and subdued but friendly enough to work the front of the store. They bonded immediately.

Barton invested in a dumpster because he kept finding his metal trash bins overturned and rummaged through. The dumpster set him back a pretty penny, and his lease payment was due. Seth was looking for a place to live, so they both came up with the idea to transform the backroom into a small living space for him. The rent Seth provided eased Barton’s monetary woes, and he was greatly appreciative of his new tenant.   

It didn’t take long for Ashley to reappear. She started walking her dog past the store early in the morning before he opened. He asked her for coffee, trying to make up for his past cowardice. Soon the coffee dates became a regular thing. Barton grew to trust Seth rather quickly, allowing him to open the shop twice a week so he could walk Ashley home. She invited him in, he accepted, and they made love. He took Lute out before he ran back to the store, so as not to leave after sex like he figured most men did. Ashley thought it was sweet.

     They spent the holidays together, two lonely souls awkward in their navigation of a new relationship. But it felt right. They held hands downtown, they exchanged house keys, they woke up next to each other. All worries vanished into a euphoric swirl of infatuation.

     By February, the two were inseparable. Barton woke up early on Valentine’s Day and made her breakfast, complete with a red rose in a slim vase placed next to her eggs. He decorated the store with paper hearts. She skipped about town looking for the perfect card.

Seth ran into Ashley and Lute on the sidewalk in front of the store. Barton watched from inside as Seth petted Lute, then came out to join them.

“Honey, you never told me that Seth is such a dog whisperer,” Ashley joked, “I thought he barked at everyone except you!”

“Seth is full of hidden talents. Have you seen his photography?”

“Thanks, man. Yeah, I used to walk the neighbor dogs as a kid,” Seth said. “I guess I have a way with them. Well, I better get back in there. It was nice to see you, Ashley. And Happy Valentine’s Day to you two.”

Barton kissed Ashley goodbye. They planned to meet later at her house to cook dinner together. If he beat her home, she said, just use his key to get in.

Not an hour later, Ashley stormed into the camera store.

“You asshole!” she yelled.

Customers moved away from the situation to a safe, gossipy distance.

“Ashley, what? What did I do?” he asked.

“You know what you did. I trusted you with those pictures! How dare you betray my trust like that? How dare you violate me?! What gives you the right?”

Ashley crumbled. She put her hands on the counter and wept. He reached out to console her.

“Keep your hands off me, you creep!” she yelled, and slapped him firmly across the face. “And give me my key back!”

Barton, stunned, retreated to the photo printer and leaned heavily against it, catching his breath.

“The key, Barton!”

He reached into his pocket and fumbled around on his keychain. The key wasn’t there.

“You know what? Forget it. I’m changing the locks.” Ashley marched out of the store, pushing her way through the onlookers.

By morning, Ashley was dead. Strangled with the dog leash. The dog was untouched. Lute hovered close to her body which lay diagonally across the living room rug. There was no blood, save for the red that pooled in her glassy, dead eyes. In her postmortem fury, she looked unsettled. Not peaceful, but not horrified, either. More like bitter disappointment. Ashley was dead, and she did not approve of it.

The town already knew Barton was guilty. He had a key to her house, and there was no sign of a break in. He was the only person Lute did not bark at, and no one heard the dog. Any affection toward Barton turned cold overnight. Enough people had witnessed the argument at the shop, and word had spread. Some had even seen the leaked photos. Only a vengeful, heartless pervert would do such a thing to a vulnerable, trusting woman. 

When the police ransacked Desmond Ruth Camera, they discovered a shrine of Ashley’s naked negatives in the backroom. No more pity for the boy who lost his parents in the unforgettable train crash. Now it explained why Barton was driven to rage.

Everyone knew what the outcome would be, even Barton. The town had deliberated in whispers and his fate was sealed. The trial would be a formality. He stopped fighting his innocence, disappearing into a desolate head silence.

Seth hit the road without looking over his shoulder. He crossed over the town line, windows down and camera on the passenger seat. A negative strip poked out of the sun visor, one he had processed from his own camera. It was all there, in black and white.   

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