Camera Head by Katie Nickas

It’s noon, and Amelia and Herb are standing outside their favorite coffee shop on Cherry Street. A few months ago, they would have been inside, peering with excitement across a cloisonné tablecloth through a clear, glass vase at the refracted other—two more urban youth taking a quick break from achieving their wild, hybrid goals. Amelia would return to the office to find her co-worker, Tiffany, standing next to her desk chewing ice from a large tumbler and admiring her motivational posters.

But things have changed.

It won’t be the same when they return. Not with their lives atomized to a fine, disinfectant mist, their air rationed, and bites of food taken among a ghostly parade of masks.

Sheer panic, in other words.

Herb remains motionless, Adonis hair locked in place, black, light bulb eyes watching her intently.

Their plan is a trip to the Hays Bridge. He’ll take his camera. She’ll bring her steps—the moves she’s practiced in her apartment that doubles as a studio, where ample, buttery light filters in through the windows each morning, casting her tilted silhouette across the floorboards.

Magic might unfold. He’s a good photographer. Trained at Francis Parker, he now spends his time capturing anything that catches his eye. She remembers the footage of her pink scarf fluttering in the wind on that slate-gray day last December as he waited at the crosswalk. How he stood shimmering like a man-sized Pegasus, singular with promise.

He was different. Driven. Perched on the edge and in tune with something momentous. He missed nothing. All had to be filmed.

“Will you do it?” he asks for maybe the hundredth time. Though she has already agreed without knowing if it’s the right thing, or whether she’s that girl.

She smells the stale odor of fried fish emanating from the kitchen and notices the greasy fingertips on the frosted booth dividers. Remembering the innocent-faced bouquets of flowers, Amelia wonders if they were carnations, wishing she knew the names of things.

The flash in the pan, the plumes of steam…

Atomization would be the end of them. She knew it—not a quick, fiery end, but a molasses-like glide, like the wilt of petals.

She imagines the conversations that took place among the troughs of coffee, the steaming platters of food, a woman chiding her date for not being his cup of tea.

“You’re kind of…”

“What?” he asked. “Finish your sentence, won’t you?”

“Nothing. You’re just not my type. I like my men like my coffee—hot, dark…”

Jangly music once strained the air, mixing with the laughter that filled the walls. Cups clattered on pinewood tables, but they never finished more than their first cup. They had somewhere else to be—outside walking through parks, pretending to find each other among the couples pushing strollers, the children carrying balloons and drawing chalk on sidewalks.

How many iterations of this couple would there be?

How many would call each other at midnight to offer hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and essentials?

For so long, they relied on the material world to tell them the truth—this laughter, this diner. For so long, they thought they’d have each other, that there’d always be more of them to go around.

That is no longer cutting it.

 “Don’t you think life only exists in the here and the now?” Herb asks.

Amelia nods. “Time grows short.”

Time is what they have.

His sidelong glances and swaying gait lead them east to the rail yard, where the tracks run north to south—two people from the opposite sides now walking along them, tripping on gravel between the rails and sleepers, bounding between puffs of steam and grinning machinery, suddenly aware of this underworld that pulses beneath their personal and professional lives. Graffiti pops up on the parked boxcars and steel walls rising along the ballasts, pretty colors imploring messages of redemption and fixing the nation and finding something greater. Sentences with no objects somehow grow stronger, pulsing with hidden meaning.

Looking up the sides of the buildings to the sparse trees where birds fly from the blackened tips like embers, she knows this is it. All they have is their bodies working against the steel and stone.

She turns to him to fulfill what they’ve come here to do, except he’s already in position, standing beside the tracks, knee-high in a florescence of weeds and dandelions, holding the camera to his eye. She scurries up the ramp to the bridge, running past the concrete barricade that was added to allow only foot traffic after the railcars were replaced by wagons and cars and onto the wooden slats. All two hundred-thirty feet of trusses extend out from both sides.

Amelia cranes her head over, her red jacket popping against the black skeleton frame. A bicycle cuts past her in a straight line headed east, the camera down at ground level making a visible quiver in his hand even from that distance, not due to lack of skill but out of nervousness. He doesn’t want to miss a second of the beautiful scene that’s unfolding on the expanse of iron and steel.

Her body glides through the movements, his coruscating gaze peering from behind the convex lens. He watches its graceful flow, the gentle arcs of her arms and legs giving the dance an ethereal quality that transcends the red smoke and stars flying out from beneath the wheels on the track. She imagines what he sees, if a shifting kaleidoscope of Ansel Adams, Vivian Maier, and Dorothy Bohm flashes before him.

She hears the soundtrack play in her head—the thrum of heavy eighties bass—the music of their childhood and also of today.

“Que bella, mon ami,” he exclaims in a voice at once powerful and remote. “You are a rare bird that defies every category.”

Her favorite cafés are no longer open to serve beignets and Danishes, but there is still language and romance—the passionate speech exchanged between them.

It’s happened. She is that girl. Not watching as a passive bystander, but a participant. It feels so real. Hyper-real.

When her head turns, Amelia hears the click of a button, or maybe it’s her neck pivoting like its own camera, taking in a full panorama, approbation of joints reminding her of her artistic duty.

Then, she remembers this is not a new feeling. There’s never been a time when her life wasn’t a movie being filmed.

Her eyes close, her mind retreating to an earlier montage. Shadows genuflect along the bottom of the screen. Her image appears at around age five, playing in the backyard with her sister. Her mom pushes a mower across the emerald-green grass, her skin tanned from summer. She looks at the camera and there’s an unspoken exchange of words that it somehow detects: a secret message imparting that something more than meets the eye is afoot. Yes, they’re a happy family and yes, they’re going to have a delicious spaghetti dinner, but that’s not all. There’s so much more to it than just yard work and kids and sunshine. So much goes into proving these things are more than polished surfaces.

Her dad films everything—their two rescue kittens, the house’s ancient brick mantle, the rust-eaten blue ’67 Chevy being swallowed by the backyard. Wind buffets the microphone, warning of tomorrow’s thunderstorms. When he returns to the backyard, she and her sister are doing cartwheels.

Like the first sight of him, the scene on the bridge is also singular. It’s almost enough to smooth over the frayed edges of an otherwise seamless narrative: the truth that emerges when Herb pulls the camera away from his face, revealing the blue cheeks and ashen residue that remains. The look will evoke something in her like the feeling of the sun slipping behind a cloud. Up above, she sees clouds fluffed into the faces of loved ones—smooth and wind-blown, like the earth’s earliest features, the umbrage of time not yet written into their skin. How much time has passed? It feels like centuries, millennia, as if she is a polychron traveling across expanses of it, both forward and backward.

Even after Herb goes back to his own home studio not far from there and masters the segment, Amelia knows she’ll one day return to the place where this day only exists on a poster tacked to her file cabinet. Where Tiffany stops by and sips gelid water, letting the ice clink back into the glass as she marvels at the woman on the front, as if seeing her for the first time.

Amelia has to wonder if, when this happens, it will be different and people will notice what’s really behind it.

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Katie Nickas

Katie Nickas writes flash and short fiction exploring conflicting identity. She is drawn to strong, unapologetic characters placed in difficult situations. Her work is published or forthcoming in magazines including Asymmetry, Dear Damsels, Five on the Fifth, formercactus, Sidereal Magazine, and STORGY.

Twitter: @katienickas

Facebook: katienickas