Jay was a film student in Los Angeles, but to call him a student—to call Jay an actual, committed learner of anything—would be an overstatement. In fact, he had done so little work over the past two semesters that it had come to an ultimatum. His advisor, April Burke, former producer of a niche journalism show that aired briefly online, broke the news: Jay would not graduate unless he stepped up, unless he completed a significant project, and unless he did so now.
If Jay directed a summer thesis film—well, April said, graduation might be back on the table. But this was it, she emphasized; Jay needed to prove he deserved a spot in film school.
So, she asked, what do you think?
You got any ideas?
+ + +
The Oregon forest was flashing by on either side. The landscape here was secretive, shrouded, as if unwilling to be seen, and, though they were gaining in elevation, it felt like a descent. Somewhere in the tree-choked gorge to their left, a river flowed. With the windows down, you could hear it. Their windows were up.
“A short movie,” Jay continued. “Like, a thesis project.”
A full minute passed before Jay’s mom, Laura, responded. “About my sisters?” The drive from the airport only took half an hour, but, in an instant, seemed much longer.
“It’s for a summer class. A documentary.”
Laura looked in her rearview mirror and flipped the turn signal on. She drove like that, in silence, for thirty seconds without changing lanes. There was no one else on the road.
“What kind of documentary?”
“A short one,” he repeated. “About the disappearance and… about Aunt Carol and Aunt Diane and everything.” Jay couldn’t bring himself to say the word murder. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “I should have asked. I just thought it’d make a cool documentary.”
Cool. Jay wanted to kick himself. Your sisters were murdered and I think it would make a cool documentary.
“It’s for summer credit,” he added, as if that would help.
Laura drifted across the road, straddling lanes. She opened her window a crack, breathing. A quiet rush of wind and river sounds filled the car. She didn’t say another word until they got home.
+ + +
Dinner that night was spaghetti, nothing special, a category of experience his mom’s life no longer had room for. She opened herself a bottle of wine and didn’t object when Jay, still three months shy of legal, poured himself a glass.
They ate together with the TV on in the background, all Oregon weather and local news. House fires. Election protests. Seattle sports scores and celebrity deaths. The May skies were humid with a coming thunderstorm and the interior of their home had grown overcast.
It was Laura who spoke first. “Why do you have to take summer school, J.J.? I thought your grades were okay.” She called him J.J., but it stood for nothing. His name was Jacob Andrew. Jay was already a nickname.
His eyes flashed, embarrassed. “It’s not summer school. It’s a summer class. A summer thesis thing. I’m just trying to get ahead for next year,” he said, which was technically true. He wasn’t lying. She just didn’t need to know the full context, that he wouldn’t even graduate if he didn’t get his act together. The documentary was vital, and, though Jay didn’t want to admit it, a film about his mom’s sisters‚ his dead aunts, was his only idea.
“Why does your thesis,” Laura said, emphasizing the word as if she was speaking a foreign language, “have to be about your aunts?” She put her fork down as she said it, signaling the real question had arrived. “Why Diane and Carol?”
Jay hadn’t thought of a good response. He hadn’t thought of much, to be honest. To buy himself a minute or two, he sipped his wine.
“It doesn’t have to be about them,” he said. “It’s just…”
Jay felt idiotic for not anticipating how difficult this would be, that he had flown all the way home for the summer, with a camera rented from film school, without even running the basic premise past his mom.
“I just think it would make a cool—” Cool. That word again. He looked down at his plate, avoiding her eyes. “—a good movie. A short one.” Jay would only be home for a month, he knew, so he had to get things done fast, but he said short as if a brief run-time was deliberate, a thoughtful way to limit his mother’s exposure to the past. Just a quick jab. An inoculation.
Laura exhaled, a long whistle of breath. “Did your teacher put you up to this?”
“No, mom, it’s…” Jay went quiet, knowing the truth of his situation at school, his lack of motivation, would be worse for her to hear. “It was my idea. I—I should have asked.”
“Honey, it’s okay. But—J.J., what would your film even say?”
+ + +
Thirty-five years earlier, Laura’s oldest sister, Diane, was murdered. She was eighteen at the time and had graduated from high school just days before. Her friends out with her that night at the town’s quarry—a popular swimming hole for kids—said she had gone up around the edge of the quarry to pee; others thought she had simply gone home. But, an hour later, Diane’s body, drowned, with unmistakable signs of violence, floated into view, her pale skin illuminated by the party’s campfire.
Jay’s mom was thirteen when it happened. The crime was never solved.
No link between the cases was ever established. Laura’s dad—Jay’s grandfather—was rumored to be a suspect at one point in Diane’s murder. Carol’s boyfriend was questioned in her disappearance; in an illustration of how small their rural Oregon world really was, he was now the town’s mayor. The high school gym teacher was brought in, questioned, and quickly released. Soon, there were no active suspects at all.
+ + +
Laura had already put their wineglasses in the dishwasher. When Jay brought up her sisters, she went over to the cabinet, opened another bottle of red, and poured herself a fresh glass. As she walked back to the table, she looked unsteady on her feet.
“I try not to think about it,” she said. “To be honest.” She straightened in her chair. The movement was drunken, like a dancer underwater. “Do you—do you need to film this, J.J.? Should we record this for your movie?” Laura brushed an imaginary hair out of her face, as if prepping for the camera.
Jay hesitated. His mom’s speech was half-slurred, her eyelids heavy. He looked at her skin, her arms, the grey roots of her hair, and, for the first real time, saw age. She seemed tired. Underfed. Her pasta, now cold, was untouched.
“No,” Jay said. “I mean, I can’t film anything in this light.” It was a convenient excuse. “Let’s do it tomorrow. Or next week. I’ll get the movie outlined, sketch some scenes…” He had never made a documentary before and had no idea what he was talking about. “I can give you questions in advance…” He shrugged.
Relieved to hear it would not be recorded, Laura slipped into confessional mode.
“Your grandparents never got over it,” she said. “I think it killed them. I really do. The stress, the worry. It wasn’t easy. It’s still not easy.” Laura looked at Jay with the tenderness she always displayed, the heartbreaking smile of a woman whose life was not the one she had hoped to be leading.
“You didn’t want to get out of here?” Jay asked. “Get away? You could have moved to Portland.”
Laura knew she was the last person on Earth who would ever move to Portland. “No, J.J., of course I didn’t move. I can’t—I have to stay. You know that. What if Carol tries to come home?” Tries. “What if Carol comes back and I’ve left? I’ve abandoned her?”
Carol isn’t coming back, he wanted to say.
“But weren’t you ever, like…”
“Weren’t you ever scared you’d be next?”
“Jacob Andrew! That’s a terrible question. Of course, I was scared. I didn’t go out a lot because of it. I lost a lot of friends. They understood the fear at first, why I wouldn’t go to the quarry, why I wasn’t dating, but then a whole year went by, then another, and they thought I should just get over it. It was very lonely. It was only when I turned seventeen, then eighteen, that I really accepted whatever happened to my sisters wouldn’t happen to me.”
About a decade after Carol disappeared, she said, the FBI returned. Laura had skipped college to stay in town and be near her parents. She was twenty-four. “I remember it was two female agents—like they deliberately sent women. They had all these new questions for us. Out-of-state visitors. Strange men. They wanted to pin it on a guy they had over in Idaho. He confessed to a bunch of rapes and…” She went quiet. “…and abductions all over the Pacific Northwest and even up in Canada. They thought he did it—one of the victims he described sounded exactly like Carol.”
“Language, J.J. But it wasn’t him. It turned out the dates were all wrong—he abducted someone in Northern California that same week—and they had no evidence, anyway. It was such a waste. Getting our hopes up for no reason. They didn’t even explain that to us. The FBI. We had to dig around, read articles.” In the silence that followed, the rain finally hit, a light patter on the roof that grew into a downpour. “There are people who swing through your life when something bad happens,” his mom said, “looking under rocks, poking open wounds, doing whatever they like. Then they leave you to clean up the wreckage.”
Jay might have heard a note of caution about his own project; instead, he was kicking himself for not recording this. All he could see was the photogenic drama of the scene. His mother’s tired eyes. The emotional toll. Her resilience.
“Your grandparents died a year later, back to back. Boom, boom. I was twenty-five. And there were still no leads, not in Diane’s case or in Carol’s abduction. In Carol’s disappearance, excuse me.” Laura said it mockingly, this neutral word that just meant someone had gotten away with it. “But who are we kidding? She didn’t disappear. Carol would never run away and she wasn’t… she wasn’t a thrill-seeker. She didn’t just walk off into the woods someday.”
The two of them sat for a moment. Ice cubes clunked inside the freezer.
One day, Laura said, she was out putting up flyers in a town nearly two hours north, practically in Washington, when it started to rain. She was alone. She hadn’t eaten since the night before. The flyer she’d taped up was already soaked and began to rip, the black and white photocopied picture of her sister tearing in two down the middle. Standing on the side of the road, blocks away from her car, Laura had started to cry.
His mom’s eyes were tearing up even as she said it. “That’s the question you have to face. When do you stop looking for someone who’s missing? For someone who’s disappeared? When do you stop believing they’ll come back? Well, that was the day I stopped looking. That was the day—” She went silent. Tears flooded her eyes. “I’m not out there looking,” she said, “but I haven’t lost hope.”
Jay knew he should comfort her but had no idea what to say.
“J.J.,” his mom said. “Baby, it’s worse to give up hope than to believe something impossible might come true. Remember that.”
+ + +
The camera gave Jay much-needed arm’s length between himself and the people in town, the landscape he had known so well as a child. The world at a safe remove. He shot footage at the cemetery, the quarry, the abandoned industrial buildings where kids still hung out, the high school, local trails leading into the woods, and as close to the log pond as he could get without falling in. He was going for maximum atmosphere, a creeping dread, imitating cheap tricks he’d seen in horror movies, his camera low to the ground or peering around corners to give the feeling someone was watching.
Jay cut the footage together and, a few nights later, played it for his mom. The idea was that he’d show her what he’d done so far, then they could jump straight into a formal, on-camera interview. But as Laura watched the footage, her son’s camera slowly circling the quarry, drifting down claustrophobic forest trails, she got quieter, refilling her wine glass so frequently, Jay lost track. It occurred to him she might be doing this on purpose, getting so drunk he’d have to postpone the interview or cancel it altogether.
“J.J.,” she said. The clip had ended and she was looking at her son’s reflection in the black mirror of his laptop screen. “You want this—” She stopped herself. “This is a documentary. This is your family. Your aunts. It’s not an action movie.”
“Or, like, a horror movie.”
“Horror?” Laura had been picturing a short film about her sisters’ lives, about what this had done to their family. Something nostalgic, a story of healing, of coming to terms with the past. J.J., though, saw it as some kind of thriller.
Jay was tempted to remind her that he was the one in film school, not her. Instead, he mumbled something about being at an early stage of the process, that he needed to think about tone, structure, and this other thing he had learned about in film theory class but couldn’t remember the word for. Flustered, he dropped the topic entirely.
Laura used the lull to duck into the kitchen; she came back sipping from a very full glass of red wine. Fortified, she set it down and blinked her eyes a few times, trying to focus.
“Mom?” Jay said, setting up his film equipment. “Can you push your glass out of the way? It’s in the frame.”
She snuck another sip and moved the glass. Jay walked over and repositioned it out of view.
+ + +
The interview did not go well. Laura forgot details, asked Jay to repeat his questions, and began stories that went nowhere. The two of them lasted no more than twenty minutes like that before Jay suggested they take a break.
When he returned from the bathroom, his mom had refilled her glass again and was flipping through a magazine. Jay’s camera stood there, looming in the center of the room like a threat, and she appeared to be doing everything she could to avoid looking at it.
Jay weighed whether to restart the interview, hovering over a side table covered in knick-knacks near the couch. On it were a dozen framed photographs. He picked one up. It was a shot of the town park. An open lawn with no people, an early-evening streetlight shining through trees in the distance. It was well-composed.
“Isn’t this one of Aunt Carol’s photos?”
He turned the frame for her to see.
“Your aunt was very clever. She could find something to photograph anywhere.”
Jay looked around the room. Photos by his aunt hung framed on every wall. He had never asked about them. Truth be told, he had never paid much attention to his mom’s things. He now walked, picture to picture. They were shot around town—a car parked on a side street, her sister’s headstone, a wall of trees near the high school football field, their shadows hatched across the ground in front of her.
He recognized the location. Those were the woods where a path led down to the quarry—the same quarry where her sister’s body had been found.
“Hey,” he said, “did Carol take more pictures like this?”
+ + +
His mom pulled a string and the overhead light clicked on. There, stacked in the cellar, were boxes, dozens of them, a great wall of cardboard and shadow.
Jay froze. “Wait—shit.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Let me get my camera.”
+ + +
His mom pulled a string and the overhead light clicked on—but, this time, Jay was ready.
He zoomed in on the scene, panning box to box. He caught light reflecting off packing tape. Dust motes floating in the incandescent glow of basement air. He couldn’t believe how good it all looked. He tilted the camera and focused on his mom’s hands as she went through boxes, lingering on family souvenirs. Jay himself entered the shot to help move things aside, pulling cardboard lids open and peering into the depths of his mother’s memories, until, finally—
“There,” Laura said. “I had no idea it would take this long.”
It was as if they’d been deliberately hidden, Jay thought. A box inside a box, and within that box, files; inside those files, envelopes; within those envelopes, photographs.
As soon his mom saw them, she started crying.
+ + +
He and his mom had spent hours in the cellar, Laura often lost in tears, her missing sister’s images in her hands. Jay had hugged her on the cold concrete as memories of loss and helplessness flooded over her. His mom, abandoned by the world, without family, before she’d even turned twenty-six.
As Laura explained to Jay, Carol began using their dad’s camera around the time she turned fifteen. “Actually, it was right before that. I remember, she got this big box of film for her fifteenth birthday. My parents really encouraged her. Diane’s death—” Laura stopped speaking for a few seconds. “My sisters were close. Talking every night. Diane’s death really affected her.”
Carol spent her free time, all the way up to her disappearance, documenting the town in its heyday. Jay looked at the images, the big hair and cheesy muscle cars, the polo shirts and bleached jeans, even photos of Laura, who looked so young and healthy. It was a version of town—a version of his mother—Jay had never known firsthand.
Amidst all the clutter, though, had been a jewelry box. Jay had opened it, expecting nothing more than earrings, but, sitting inside, encased in a shell of glue, were six undeveloped rolls of exposed film. Studying them at the kitchen table that morning, Jay was rapt.
“Sorry about all the emotions last night,” Laura said. She stroked Jay’s upper back with one hand. “It’s just… you know, memories.”
Jay barely heard her. “It’s okay,” he mumbled. “I can probably still use the footage.”
He might have noticed an expression of shock pass across his mother’s face, but Jay had never been good at spotting that sort of thing; in any case, he was too fixated on the film to see. The prospect of unprinted pictures taken by his missing aunt was an undeniable thrill; for Jay, these were not emotionally fraught pieces of family tragedy but exclusive material he could reveal for the first time in his documentary debut.
“I’m going to get these printed,” Jay said. Laura noticed he wasn’t asking for permission.
+ + +
Jay brought the film to a chain pharmacy near the interstate, thinking he’d walk out ten minutes later with several envelopes of photographs. Instead, the girl behind the counter recoiled. In Jay’s hand were misshapen lumps bearing no resemblance to film, like something he’d found in the garbage.
“Uh, we don’t do that here,” she said. “Don’t you got those photos on your phone? Email them.”
Jay’s next stop should have been his first: an internet search. It took longer than he wanted but he found a family portraitist, with his own darkroom, one town away.
+ + +
Jay walked into the portrait studio expecting a modern photo lab, complete with newfangled printing equipment, but it was nothing like that. The studio was underlit and Victorian, with a vintage couch on one wall, a huge roll of colored screens looming over it, and at least fifteen chairs, in various styles. He knocked directly into one, nearly tipping it over.
Jay hadn’t seen him sitting there. “Hey, I’m the guy who just called,” he said.
“Of course. We don’t get a lot of walk-ins.” The man stood up from a cluttered desk where he’d been doing paperwork. “I’m Dean.” He was in his late seventies, a man whose retirement hobby was identical to his life’s career.
Jay showed him the rolls of film.
Dean looked at them, surprised. From what he could see of the labels, they were easily thirty years old. He took the three rolls that had been glued together in a lump and ran his fingers along the seams. Anyone else would have thrown these away.
“Now, this,” he said, “is a challenge.”
+ + +
They agreed that Dean would try to open one up and develop it; if there were any images, he’d print them. If the images were interesting, he’d develop the rest. He would call whenever the first batch was ready.
While Jay was waiting, he set up a card table in his mom’s living room. This would be his filming station, a place to re-shoot his aunt’s old photos.
Jay now had a plan, an outline for his documentary. He would tell the general story of Aunt Diane’s murder with a voiceover, showing footage of town. He’d find old maps and zoom in on them: his family’s house, the high school, the police station. Then the crime scene, the flooded quarry in the woods. Only after his imaginary audience had been pulled in would he reveal Aunt Carol’s disappearance. It would be a one-two punch. Blow them away with the sheer density of events that had befallen his family. The cascade of tragedies that had shaped his mom.
Jay saw it as a montage. He would edit his aunt’s photos together with cuts and fades, borrowing a technique he had seen in other documentaries, sometimes zooming in until the whole screen was filled with grain. He would reveal the story and the town through Carol’s eyes. What she saw from her point of view. It was sentimental, he knew, but he could feel it; the documentary was becoming real.
+ + +
He was at the breakfast table a week later when Dean called.
Because of the glue, Dean said, he had to pry open all three rolls at the same time—and, at first, things didn’t look too good. Two of them were ruined by glue and couldn’t be processed without ripping apart. Whatever was on those, Dean said, was gone.
But the third roll—well, that one he’d been able to print.
+ + +
“It looks like dirt,” Jay said. Mud, leaves, gravel. He and his mom had spread the photos out across the card table. His camera stood beside them both, but it was off; to Jay, there was nothing here worth filming.
“Well, she saw something in it, what can I say? I told you, Carol could find something to photograph anywhere. How much did you pay for these?”
“The guy didn’t charge. He said he enjoyed it. The challenge.”
“This old guy.”
“This old photographer. He does family portraits and stuff.” Jay slid one image out away from the rest, barely listening to her. “Do you recognize this?” he asked. “Is it your backyard? Grandma’s garden?”
“I don’t know,” Laura answered. She reached forward and rotated the photo ninety degrees. “Maybe it’s…”
“I don’t know,” she said again. “But your aunt was very creative. Maybe she was taking pictures of footprints.”
+ + +
Jay disappeared into his bedroom early that night but stayed up watching the montage he’d shot of his Aunt Carol’s photos. He replayed it so many times he began to memorize details, noticing repetitions in the images, scenes his aunt had photographed more than once, as if she’d been struggling to get the composition right.
The same path leading down to the quarry. The same parked car.
That car’s license plate.
+ + +
Jay peered out into the hall. His mom’s bedroom door was closed, the sound of a show playing on her tablet murmuring quietly from the other side. He snuck downstairs to his table and clicked the light on. He wanted to check something.
There—the same car. He set the picture aside. Then another. And another. Whenever Jay saw the car, he wrote down what part of town it was in. Jay hadn’t lived there in years, but he knew these photos weren’t taken around the corner from each other. They were easily fifteen minutes apart—by car. Thirty by bike.
In one photo, the car was parked up by the side of the road, surrounded by forest. In the background was the railroad bridge where another trail connected down to the quarry.
+ + +
Jay called Dean the next day to confirm he wanted the rest of the rolls developed, but that he wanted to drive back over and see it in person. First, he had a meeting with the mayor.
Mayor Tom Heaton was at the beginning of his second term and was as popular as the day he was elected. Although he had been dating Carol when she disappeared, any potential involvement in the case was quickly dismissed by both police and the FBI. Today, he and Jay’s mom remained on a first-name basis.
Jay had spent two weeks trying to set up a meeting, leaving voicemails with the mayor’s assistant. He pictured it as a dramatic set piece, perhaps a chance to hear exclusive details, even a few secrets, from behind the scenes of both cases.
Instead, Mayor Heaton stalled. “It’s great to see you, Jacob. But, listen, this is not an official interview. It’s off the record.”
Jay glanced down at his camera, as if the fact of it being in the room with him would be enough to sway the conversation. He had waited weeks for this.
“I need you to say it,” the mayor insisted. “It’s—”
What was the point, if this couldn’t appear in his documentary?
“It’s off the record,” Jay finally said.
“Thank you. As you know, I’m here to help. And, please, call me Tom.”
In the hope the mayor would relent and let him record the conversation, Jay caught him up on the documentary, Tom nodding with what seemed like genuine interest. Carol had been his first serious girlfriend and he had clearly not forgotten her.
“I don’t know if you can imagine how shocking it was for a town like this,” the mayor replied. “Two girls—sisters—gone in six months. Your Aunt Diane was older than me. I remember thinking, if this could happen to someone older, it could happen to me. Who could possibly protect me? That shaped a lot of who I am now.” The mayor seemed surprised at this rare moment of introspection. He savored it. “Since then, I protect myself. I get it done if it needs to be done. That’s my politics.”
Jay didn’t want to discuss the mayor’s politics. “I was curious about the police files.”
“I want to include the police reports in my documentary.”
“Whoa, Jacob. Slow down a second. Those cases are unsolved. Remember that. The police can’t release any files. That’s for the good of the investigation.”
“There’s still an investigation?”
“The cases are open.”
Jay wasn’t sure he understood the difference, but he wanted to bring this back to Carol; she was his way in. He mentioned the undeveloped film he had found in the basement and the thrill of what the photos might show. His documentary, Jay said, would be the first place to feature them. “You know, I could even submit this to film festivals.”
“Film festivals,” the mayor repeated. He didn’t share Jay’s enthusiasm; in fact, he distrusted it. In his eyes, this was a documentary about a family tragedy—a town tragedy. Those girls were Jacob’s aunts. But this kid looked excited.
Tom tilted his head backa few seconds, thinking. Everything about Jay’s project felt wrong, but he couldn’t quite figure out why.
“Listen, Jacob—I’m thrilled you’re in town making a documentary about your mom. That’s great. Stay motivated. But, as I said, these crimes are unsolved. Do you understand what I’m saying? Diane’s murder, Carol’s disappearance. Those photos—for all you know, they’re evidence.”
“Are you worried you’re in them? You were dating Carol.”
“For Pete’s sake,” Tom said. “I’m just reminding you, this is an open case. You don’t want to contaminate it. You’re going through your aunt’s things, opening boxes. And, listen, be careful with this around your mother. Reliving this—it was horrible. It’s not going to be easy for her.” The mayor could see the thought had not yet occurred to Jay. “Listen, make your movie—but don’t drag other people back through all this. Please.”
+ + +
Camera in hand, Jay followed Dean through a maze of prop furniture used for staging family portraits. Jay had insisted on filming the development process. He pictured black and white images slowly appearing inside chemical baths. Blood-red light. Dean’s darkroom could be the centerpiece of his whole documentary: the very space, the very moment, his aunt’s lost photos reappeared.
“I get requests all the time,” Dean said. They took a staircase down to the basement darkroom. “Christmas calendars, birthday cards, Wild West shots. It’s mostly just enlarging people’s baby pics. But these rolls of film—what’s your interest?”
“I keep forgetting to mention,” Jay said at the bottom of the stairs. “These are my aunt’s. You might remember the case—she disappeared. Carol Nelson.”
Dean disappeared through a revolving, lightproof door into his darkroom. Jay waited a few seconds, then spun the door back and walked in. He was greeted by the sour smell of photographic chemicals and a red light burning overhead. He heard a faucet dripping in one corner, saw photos hanging on drying lines. Movement in the room’s darkest corner startled him.
“Carol Nelson,” Dean said, his outline becoming more defined in the darkness. “God, I remember her. I remember your mother. Unimaginable. You say these are Carol’s photos?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m making a documentary about, like, everything that happened back then. I’ve talked to the mayor. I’m trying to get the police reports.”
Dean watched Jay mount his camera on its tripod. “Seems like a long time ago to be making a documentary about it. Who’s the audience?”
Jay missed the dig and didn’t hear the question, too focused on his gear. He wanted to be rolling, capturing every detail.
“What exactly are you trying to do?” Dean asked.
Jay secured his final tripod leg and straightened.
“I’m trying to—I’d love to capture the development process. The chemicals, the steps. And I want to get the exact moment the images appear.”
Dean turned his back and began arranging his own equipment. “Got it. We’ll see what’s in these and, I guess, just go from there.”
+ + +
The new photos were instantly recognizable as his aunt’s. The ruins of a campfire in the woods. A thicket of trees near the rim of the quarry. The front of the town’s police department, long before its renovation.
And, then, there it was: the car again, much closer, a braver shot, showing the back of the driver’s head. Though Carol had been mere feet away, the picture was blurry, the man unidentifiable, as if she had snapped it at waist-height while walking by.
+ + +
It took Jay a full day and two glasses of wine at dinner before he was comfortable enough to ask. Was it possible, he said to his mom, Aunt Carol had been following someone?
“Why on earth would she be following someone?”
Again, the present tense.
“Her photos—I’m not sure they were an art project. I—” Jay stopped talking and looked at her, his mom’s eyes unblinking in the kitchen light. Something the mayor said popped back into his head, that this documentary would not be easy for her. He dismissed it.
“Say it, J.J. You can say anything with me.”
At the furthest edge of her voice, Jay thought he heard hope. Did she somehow imagine he would solve the disappearance, unveil Carol at the end, reunite two long-split sisters?
His mom actually laughed. “An investigation?”
“She was photographing the same car all over town.”
“It’s a small town.”
“It’s not that small. The locations are too far apart.”
“It was probably Tom’s. They were dating.”
“Tom’s car is in other photos. It isn’t his. And it keeps going back to the quarry. What if it was someone involved in the murder?”
“Jesus, honey.” Laura was looking down at the table as she said it, her hand moving toward her wineglass.
Jay had been catching up on coverage of his aunts’ cases in the town library. Built in the 1970s, it was both uninspiring and popular with architects. Sitting with his jacket still on amidst walls of cold cinderblock, Jay had gone back through newspapers published decades earlier.
On the kitchen table beside him were photocopies of the most useful articles. “They say some evidence was burned out near the big rock—the boulder.” Jay pulled out one of the photos. “Aunt Carol took a picture of the boulder—” He took out another photo. “—and a picture of burned ground. I think these are the remains of the fire. Then,” he said, “Aunt Diane was pushed off the edge of the quarry.” He pulled out a picture of the quarry edge.
Laura flinched at the sight.
“They’re just pictures related to Diane’s murder,” she said, after a few seconds regaining her composure. “It’s a memorial.”
“That’s what I thought, too. But some of the pictures—it’s like she was trying not to be seen. They’re at weird angles or all blurry, like she was hiding behind a tree. If it was a memorial, why be secretive about it? And why this car—why all the tire tracks?”
Jay put six photos next to each other on the table. “You said these could be footprints, but I don’t think so. I think they’re tires.” The photos were a sequence, shot one after the other. “I think she’s hiding in the trees here to take a picture of the car up by the side of the road. Then she’s closer, like she’s trying to get a better view. Then what I think happens is, the car pulls away, which is why these next pics—” Jay shuffled them around. “—are trying to capture tire tracks. I mean, it makes sense, right?”
Laura went silent for a minute as they both stared at the barest hint of tracks left in the dirt and mud. Then she straightened, didn’t say a word, walked over to the wall, and took down one of Carol’s photos. She set it down with the others.
“It’s the same car,” she said. She sounded devastated by this, as if she’d just realized a potential clue in the murder and abduction of her sisters had been hiding in plain sight the entire time and she had never spotted it.
+ + +
Jay was up again that night going through the footage he’d shot in Dean’s darkroom. It looked incredible. The red light; the calming sounds of chemicals in trays; Dean’s shuffling feet; and, of course, the eerie moment when Aunt Carol’s photos began to appear, emerging like ghosts underwater.
What caught Jay’s attention was Dean. As the image came into focus, Dean’s expression changed, his face darkening. He even glanced over with a grimace Jay couldn’t quite read, as if hoping Jay hadn’t seen the photo.
+ + +
Mayor Heaton called the house Tuesday morning. He said he was curious if Jay could come by the office again—soon. “How about now? Coffee’s on me.”
Jay walked into the mayor’s office holding his camera, determined to record this, to include the scene in his documentary, but he had barely reached his chair before the mayor spoke.
“Your mother called.”
Jay sat down, forgetting the camera, unused, on the floor.
“She said something about a car. An investigation. She mentioned footprints.”
“That was her theory.”
“I take it you have a better one?”
“They’re tire tracks.”
The mayor nodded. He put his left hand, palm-down, on top of his desk as if restraining it, and sat there for several seconds. “Your mother tells me Carol knew who killed Diane. That this same person then kidnapped Carol. She even gave me a license plate number.” He held up a notepad. “Are you sure you want to do this to her?” Tom stopped speaking, hoping Jay would respond; he didn’t. “As I told you, those photos might be evidence. I don’t know—I haven’t seen them. But your mother’s now convinced. Do you know what it means to tamper with evidence?”
“Oh, come on. We’re printing them professionally.”
“That’s the other thing I need to talk to you about. The person your mom described sounds a lot like Dean Corrigan.”
“He’s helping me.”
Again, the mayor went silent. “Jacob, I asked you here because I care about your family. I care about your mother. And I want you to listen to me. There was someone else the police liked for Diane’s murder. Another suspect. He fit everything. Every detail. But they couldn’t prove it. Carol even suspected this guy—she told me. Besides, he had an alibi. It was a flimsy, stupid alibi, but it was an alibi. That man still lives nearby. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Jay was struggling to put two and two together. “Maybe.”
“Maybe.” The mayor couldn’t get over this kid. “I’ll put it this way. Maybe Dean Corrigan shouldn’t see those photos—any of them. Do you understand?”
Jay felt a prickling sensation he couldn’t place.
“Jacob, I want you to give Carol’s photos—I want you to give all of her film—to the police. I’m asking you.”
In Jay’s pocket, his phone began vibrating.
“Do it for the sake of your family. Do it for your mother, so she can get some resolution out of this.”
Jay pulled out his phone. It was Dean. He sent it to voicemail.
“I’m not joking around,” the mayor said. “You don’t want to do it, I’ll recommend they come by your house with a search warrant. Is that what you want?”
“What about my documentary?”
“Your documentary?” Tom was stunned. “Listen, I thought I was going to marry your aunt. I think about her disappearance all the time. I think about it still. If there’s a way to bring this to a close after nearly forty goddamn years—excuse me—and your documentary screws it up...”
Jay’s phone vibrated again, a single buzz. Voicemail.
Jay knew his best hope for graduating, the one project he’d ever cared about in film school, was in danger of being taken away, and by someone who had no business telling him what he could or could not do with his family’s history.
“Aunt Carol took those photos before I was born,” Jay said. “They were in our house the entire time, man. You guys should have found them. No one would even know they existed if it wasn’t for my documentary.”
The mayor shook his head. “Worry about your movie all you want, but this is bigger than some school project. It’s a homicide investigation. And, speaking frankly, it’s probably two. Bring in the photos.”
+ + +
Jay stepped outside into a midday fog that had settled across town, blurring every building. The temperature had plummeted. He pushed one hand deeper in his pocket; with the other, he checked his voicemail.
It took hours, Dean said in his message, but he finally managed to get those other two rolls of film unspooled, the ones he’d thought were ruined. “I have to admit, I really want to see what’s on them now. You made me curious.” Dean said he would get them printed right away and call back when it was done.
Fuck, Jay thought. After all that, it wasn’t even up to him. He and Dean would develop one last roll together, regardless of the mayor’s warnings.
+ + +
“Working from home today,” he said. “I own both buildings. Come on in.”
Conflicting echoes from what the mayor had said rose into a buzz, canceling each other out. Without thinking—not letting himself—Jay stepped inside.
+ + +
Dean apologized for the darkness—the bulb at the top of the stairs had gone out—as he led Jay up a floor, then down a long hall and into a kitchen. They stopped at a metal fire-door.
He pulled open the door and flipped a switch. Beyond was a room full of Victorian-era dresses, cowboy shirts, sports jerseys, even a Santa Claus suit. He and Dean stepped through, past racks of costumes, to a waiting room of sorts where four standing mirrors gave families a chance to make last-minute adjustments before heading downstairs to be photographed.
In the middle of the room was a table; on the table were portfolio-style folders.
“Take a seat,” Dean said. “You want some water?” He left the room before Jay could reply.
Jay sat down, his back to the wall. He didn’t know why, but his stomach was in knots. After a few seconds, he took out his phone. I’m at Dean’s, he texted his mom. Home soon.
Then he reached forward, opened the first portfolio, and saw a photo Carol had taken thirty-five years ago of Dean’s front door, a Halloween ghost hanging on it, the very door Jay had walked through moments ago.
+ + +
“I’m 77 years old,” Dean’s voice boomed as he walked back in. “It takes me a while to get around the house these days.” In his hands were two glasses of water.
Jay closed the portfolio, pretending he hadn’t seen Carol’s photograph. But Dean had printed all of these, he knew; Dean had already seen every image in the set. Jay felt his nerves flaring, as if he had walked into something too big to see.
“There’s no need to hide those,” Dean said. “Go ahead. I already know what they show. They show me.”
+ + +
Jay opened the portfolio to its second picture. It was a much younger Dean Corrigan standing next to his car—the same white car from Carol’s other photographs, including one framed for decades in his mom’s living room. In the photo, Dean’s eyes are on the camera lens. His expression is not fearful or shocked, but resigned, as if aware of what’s now inevitable.
“You knew Carol was taking pictures of you?” Jay asked, his voice quiet.
“Of course,” Dean answered. “Fifteen-year-olds generally aren’t great private eyes. Look,” he said, “please. You can look at the photos.”
Jay continued, unsure why Dean wanted him to see any of this.
“You know who murdered Aunt Diane,” Jay said.
Dean’s head sank, exhausted.
+ + +
“Diane,” Dean said, “wasn’t murdered. I was there. I saw it. Your aunt fell—”
But Jay had read the articles. “She had bruises. A black eye. Someone attacked her.”
Dean paused, as if unsure whether to disagree. “She had gone up to the rim of the quarry to—to do whatever she needed to do in the bushes. I was there. I had my binoculars and a camera. The view over the quarry at night is phenomenal. Open forest. Owls and stars. I was taking pictures—using a tripod—but Diane was right in front of me. I hadn’t seen her. She came out of the darkness in her bathing suit, and she recognized me—I had taken everyone’s pictures for the yearbook a few weeks before. She must have thought I was... I was some kind of pervert. Taking pictures of girls. Underage girls. We both panicked. She tried to sprint past me, I thought to warn the others—I thought she’d tell everyone the school photographer was up there spying on them in the dark. But I just wanted to say, hey, look, no, I’m taking pictures of the moon… But I grabbed her and we got tangled up. I fell right on top of her. She tried to scream, so I put my hand over her mouth. It was awful. Everything I did made it worse.”
Diane fought back, Dean said, so he defended himself. But the reality of what he’d done was instantly, starkly clear. He had assaulted a teenage girl. He let go.
“She was trying to breathe. I’d knocked the wind out of her. She was just staring at me, pushing herself away with her feet and hands, and I knew I had fucked up—I had fucked up so badly. I knew I should just face the consequences, whatever they were. But, when she stood up to run, she lost her footing. She fell off the edge of the quarry. It wasn’t a long drop, maybe eight feet, but she hit her head on the edge and landed in the water. I was standing right there and didn’t hear the splash. That meant no one did. I did the dumbest thing I could have done—I did nothing. I didn’t help her. No one found her body for more than an hour. She probably wouldn’t have drowned if I had said something. In almost every way, I was to blame.”
Almost. It was like Dean wanted to admit something he knew he should deny—or vice versa, Jay thought.
“I scrambled to get my things and leave, but saw she had left a tote bag there, with this fleece jacket inside. Again, I panicked. I thought there could be no trace of her. Nothing. So I took it. Can you imagine? I now had Diane’s things. I didn’t kill anyone that night,” Dean said, “and your aunt wasn’t murdered. But I took her bag and I left.”
+ + +
He needed to get rid of it, this stubborn evidence, as fast as possible, but, as he hurried away from his car, Dean froze. Carol was there. She and a friend had come out to hike, to talk, to help her through this incomprehensible loss, but here was Dean Corrigan, the high school photographer, holding a fleece that looked exactly like her sister’s, heading into the woods with a panicked look in his eyes.
Dean just walked on, he said, as if there was nothing to explain, and went a totally different direction in the woods. After confirming he was alone, he burned the fleece near the boulder, a huge ice-age rock that had probably been used as a hearth for thousands of years. The tote bag was found by a hiker later that evening.
“Some police stopped by my house that week. Carol must have told someone, or her friend told someone. But I had an alibi—my mom was sick and I was taking care of her, and she had no recollection of me leaving that night to take photos. There was no reason to think I had done anything nefarious. But then, a few days later, Carol started following me.”
+ + +
By October of that year, Dean said, he was worried. “I wasn’t a murderer—I was a fool. An idiot. But I hadn’t killed anyone.”
“You let my aunt drown, man—what are you talking about? That’s murder.”
Dean looked away. “Carol was absolutely convinced I’d done it—but that didn’t mean I was guilty. We finally bumped into each other a few days before Halloween; the photos from that are right in front of you.”
Carol had confronted Dean on the sidewalk. Jay could hardly imagine the bravery. The anger. The absolute conviction that she would learn what happened to her sister. Reveal what Dean had done.
In the pictures, Dean is clearly recognizable, standing in front of his own building—this very building—his face contorted by anger. The look of a man who’s trapped.
“I knew she would do whatever it took to prove it was me, but I was being framed.”
Jay felt no sympathy.
“I knew what had happened,” Dean continued. “I wasn’t guilty. Carol wanted to punish me, no matter what, and take away any chance I had to defend myself.”
Dean deliberately went back into the woods one day. He was carrying a bag, acting suspicious, like he was up to something. Carol must have thought it was finally time, her opportunity to prove Dean’s guilt. She followed him. But it was a trap.
“She had her camera with her. When I opened it later, after… after what I did, it had a brand new roll of film inside. I always wondered what happened to those other pictures. After everything—weeks, months, years—the photos never showed up. Nothing was mailed to me anonymously or sent to the newspaper or to the police. Nearly forty years of waiting, next thing you know, I’m developing the pictures myself. In my own darkroom, bringing the past back.”
Jay was staring down at a photo of Dean’s face taken decades ago, his eyes black with purpose, like coal.
“Your Aunt Carol died because she wanted to know what happened to her sister, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. I thought I could make the whole thing go away. I went from the stupidest thing I’d ever done to the worst—the worst, most evil thing. It’s the reason I never left town. I thought they’d find me—someone would find me—any day. So I stayed.”
Jay pictured the bleak horror of it: Dean and his mom, stuck in different towns, their lives frozen. Both of them alone. In purgatory. He thought of his aunts. His own grandparents. His own life, transferring high schools to escape potential danger. At the center of it all was Dean.
As if reading his mind, Dean mentioned Laura. “Every year, I would see Laura for her yearbook photo—every year. I actually apologized once. I said how bad I felt for her, how difficult it must have been. The loss. But she was young and didn’t understand. She had no idea what I had done.”
Jay thought of the friends he’d lost by leaving town, the life his mom had given up simply by protecting herself.
“People know I’m here,” Jay said. “My mom’s car is outside. My cellphone is here.”
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I was thinking why I shouldn’t hurt you. People know I’m here.”
“Jacob.” Dean pulled a hammer out from beneath the table and set it down. “I initially had a very different idea for how this might go. I’m glad we didn’t go that route.”
Jay looked at the hammer. Dean’s fingers were still on the handle.
“I turn 78 next month,” Dean said. “I’m not healthy. I haven’t been for a year. I’ve been waiting thirty-five years to see what Carol was really up to, what she saw me doing. What she knew or didn’t know. What I killed her for. I knew those pictures would come back.” Dean pointed at the table. “That envelope at the bottom has all your negatives—the whole project. They’re yours. They prove nothing, but now you know. Tell whoever you want. I’m not going anywhere.”
+ + +
Jay checked his rearview mirror continuously as he drove away, his aunt’s photos on the passenger seat beside him. What had just happened? What had he done?
Jay took out his phone. He called his mom and told her he’d be home in twenty minutes, that he loved her and wanted to talk. Then he called the mayor and said he had to update him on some things.