Artifice Obscura: The Camera of Youth

blue lady

Youth it captures. Youth it preserves.

After three years, India’s career had taken off in ways she could not have imagined. Her confidence was off the charts, and people couldn’t stop commenting on how radiant she looked. The crazy thing is that it would take years for her to notice if the camera had actually preserved her beauty. If she had been scammed, the scammer would be long gone before she was even aware of it.

She thought about dropping in on the old man to thank him but wasn’t inclined to revisit that part of town. She had tried calling him, but the number was out of service. The transaction was supposed to be anonymous, so he never mentioned his name. He did happen to mention that she may not be able to return to his shop ever again. A warning? A threat? Perhaps she would surprise him one day. But today was not the day. It was her day, her thirty-fifth birthday.

That morning she happened to notice a few strands of gray in her head. Maybe the camera didn’t do for hair what it did for skin. Hair is dead, and the camera was supposed to only affect the living. At least there was no shortage of dyes in this town.

She and her friends had a party at her favorite restaurant. They bought out the whole place. She requested that people get her gifts that they made or old items they already owned. She had always hated when her rich friends purchased overly expensive gifts alongside the more practical ones from her working-class friends. Like clockwork, there was always that asshole producer who would buy something like a car, as if she needed any more of those.

Another clockwork prediction was the absence of her twin sister Sierra. No one expected her to be present. She loved India more than any other human being on earth but despised her wealthy associates. For a select few, it rose to the level of hate. Sierra stopped coming to the group parties about ten years ago.

After the group thing had ended, the sisters would always get together to celebrate privately with their friend Kate. The trio grew up together, so Kate was practically their other sister. India had received a call from her about a family emergency she was still dealing with. She wouldn’t be able to make the private birthday this year. The twins dined together in Sierra’s cozy apartment.

“Something’s wrong,” Sierra said with her head cocked to one side. “What is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” There was very little India could hide from her sister.

Sierra hit her with the side-eye. “Please don’t forget who you’re talking to. Are you pregnant?”

“No.” India thought for a moment about everything associated with the nine-month ordeal. “NO! Eew. Just no.”

“You know if you don’t tell me, I’m gonna snoop around till I figure it out.”

India sighed. “I really don’t know. For the last few days, I’ve been feeling depressed. I mean like drink myself into a stupor depressed, and I don’t know why.” She abruptly shifted her tone. “And before you say anything, it’s not because I’m another year older.”

“I wasn’t. As a matter of fact, you look like you’ve been aging in reverse lately.”

India failed to suppress her smile. “Really? You think so?”

“Nah. I just figured that line would lift your spirits.”

India laughed for a brief moment before immediately returning to her saddened state.

Sierra reached for her hand. “Mini, talk to me.” That’s a name Sierra had been calling her for as long as she could remember. India was a few ounces smaller than Sierra at birth. The weight difference was even more profound throughout their childhood. People could usually tell them apart when they were together. As adults, they transformed into the very definition of identical twins. Sierra hated being repeatedly stopped by people asking for selfies and autographs. Occasionally, she got India in trouble by screaming at fans. It didn’t matter that she always wore her hair in a different style and color. The latest iteration was a blonde butch style with a fade that India wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.

“I’d tell you what’s up if I knew. You know I would.”

Sierra relented. “Well, if it’s a baby, you already know I’m raising her.”

“Or him.”

“It’ll be a ‘her,’“ Sierra responded with confidence. “Oooo! What if you have twins!”

“I’m not pregnant or having kids any time soon. And if I wanted one, Brad would not be the person I would have… her with.”

“Ah, something we agree on.” Sierra clapped lightly. “Promise me you won’t wait till things are at their worse before you tell me what’s really going on.”

“I promise.”

“Now you’ve got to have some of this cherry pie I made. And don’t give me none of that shit about watching your figure for your next role.”

They hung out and talked well into the AM hours. India spent the night but barely slept the entire time. She knew she would need to book an appointment with her therapist as soon as possible. Even at her worst, she had never felt this bad before. The dreaded ‘S’ word popped into her head a few times. She left before dawn while Sierra was still asleep.

Later that morning, Kate stopped by to deliver a gift. The housekeeper let her in, and India came downstairs to hug and kiss her.

“I feel so bad,” Kate said while still embracing her.

India exaggerated her bewilderment. “Why? Your uncle was very sick in the hospital. You needed to be there, not here.”

“Yeah, but he and I were never that close, and I wanted to be here on yall’s birthday.”

“Puleez. You already know we’re not big on celebrating getting older. You didn’t miss a thing at the big gathering. Just a bunch of folks who wanted an excuse to get drunk and high, as if they needed one. I’m not gonna lie, though. Sierra and I really missed you at our dinner.”

“Awww.” Kate beamed. “I can tell you’re still sad that I wasn’t there. Wait’ll you see this. It’ll cheer you up.” Kate picked up a large rectangular package wrapped in brown paper.

India tore it open to find a beautiful collage of photos on top of an impressionist painting of a park they played in as children. There were various pictures, spanning many years, of the twins and their friend. India hugged her again. “I like it. No, I loveit.”

“I had to put in some extra time on it because some of the pictures I wanted to add didn’t come out.”

“Oh? What pictures were those?”

“Remember a while back when Sierra told us she had misplaced an old camera with a bunch of childhood photos on it? Well, last week, Marta found a camera in your closet when she was cleaning. I figured it had to be the one Sierra was talking about. She probably had no idea it was a one-of-a-kind antique. Anyway, it still had a roll of undeveloped film inside…”

India’s face turned ashen. Whatever else Kate said sounded like it was being spoken through the opening of a drain pipe far, far away. Kate’s face and the room looked like somebody had turned the contrast down too low.  Snapping back to reality, India bolted upstairs while Kate still rambled on.

“Wait!” Kate yelled. “What’s wrong?”

Running full speed across her bedroom, India nearly fell face-first into one of the mirrors on her closet doors. She paused for a moment to stare at her reflection. Her labored breathing was matched by the sheer panic on her face. After entering the walk-in closet, she opened the cubby in the back wall. She pulled out her camera case, which was unsnapped. Examining the camera revealed that the film compartment was unlatched. She told herself the film was still inside and didn’t want to chance opening it.

By the time India shambled out of the massive closet, Kate was already standing in her bedroom. India carried the camera in her hands like it was a wounded animal.

“Oh, my god,” Kate said, out of breath. “The look on your face. I messed up, didn’t I?”

Dazed, India spoke in a flat monotone. “Did you take any pictures with this?”

“Well, yes.  I noticed there was still space on the film, so I advanced it a couple frames and took a  picture of Doogie. Then I took a few selfies. I must say, I felt almost giddy snapping every–”

India whipped her glare toward Kate. “You took a picture of your fucking cat?”

Kate paused, looking like she had a bad taste in her mouth. “Why’d you say it like that?”

“Is the film still in here?” India could practically see the words dancing in the air in front of her: ‘Never ever develop this film.’

“Of course not. I had to take it out to get it developed.”

India felt like somebody had pierced her, and the air was rapidly escaping her body. She would be a sloppy heap on the floor in a matter of seconds. She opened the camera to see the dark shutter staring back at her. Her numbness gradually turned to fury.

“That wasn’t Sierra’s camera, was it?” Kate appeared to be probing to find out the actual issue.

“Why the fuck would I keep Sierra’s camera at my house? And if I did, what made you think it was okay to develop the film without asking her?”

“It was for a birthday gift. I wanted to surprise you both. Why would I ask?”

“There were nude pictures of ME on that film! Some pimply teen at whatever random photo place is probably posting them online as we speak. What the hell were you thinking?” India only pretended to be upset about the nudes. Breaking the camera rules far outweighed potential embarrassment.

“Would you at least give me some damn credit? How long have I been your personal assistant? Scratch that. How long have I been your best friend?” Kate appeared more furious than India felt. “I took the pictures to a private photographer who also happens to be a trusted friend. And if it makes you feel better, he’s not into you or any other women.” She paused to catch her breath. “There was something wrong with the camera or film anyway. The photos came out all dark and splotchy.”

India jumped up from the bed and stormed into the closet. She came back with the case in hand. “You still remember how to read, right?”

Kate gave her the finger.

India put the case so close to Kate’s face that she had to lean back, nearly losing her balance. The note written by the old man stuck out of the rear pocket with the bold words ‘NEVER EVER DEVELOP THIS FILM‘ clearly visible.

Kate softened her hostile expression. “I didn’t read that. I thought it might be some private note of Sierra’s or something. I’m sorry. Is that what you want to hear? I’m really and truly sorry that I tried to do something nice for you.”

“Private note? There’s nothing private between the three of us. This is the one time you chose to be mindful of privacy?” From here, everything went downhill. India went on a rant calling Kate every foul name imaginable. Kate didn’t say a word the entire time. When she was finished, she was positive Kate would really let her have it.

In a physical fight, India could easily drag the smaller Kate up and down the block by her thick red hair. But that fiery color matched her personality. Kate was the person who dealt with some of the meanest assholes and bullies in the film industry on India’s behalf. When it came to verbal confrontations, she could take it as well as dish it out. Something was different this time. India couldn’t be sure what struck a nerve, but it was written all over Kate’s face.

Visibly shaking with watery eyes, Kate gulped loudly before speaking slowly and deliberately. “It’s good to know you feel that way.” Her voice deepened. “Just remember, it wasn’t your talent alone that got you where you are today. If Sierra and I hadn’t been there, you would’ve gotten raped and tossed behind a goddamn dumpster somewhere.”

India didn’t like her tone, but there was some truth to that statement. Her film career began when she was just fourteen. She had been placed in compromising positions on several occasions. Her best friend and sister protected her more than her parents, who were mostly interested in spending her paychecks.

India chose her words carefully as she spoke more calmly. “There’s no way for you to understand how serious this is. But if you still consider yourself my friend, you would go to your friend’s house, get all of the negatives from this camera, and bring them to me as soon as possible.”

“Consider myse… What the… I won’t be running any more errands for you. I’ll text you his contact information later so you can get them yourself. If you’re lucky, they might not be on their way to the landfill. I already told you the film was ruined.”

“I need you to give me his info right now then.” India struggled to remain calm.

“You know what?” A single tear rolled from Kate’s eye. She wiped it away with a shaky finger before it could continue its journey. “Fuck you. Okay? Fuck you, India. Consider that my verbal resignation. I still don’t quite understand what the hell happened here, but…” She quickly spun around to rush out of the room. Hasty footsteps echoed from the stairs and the foyer before the front door slammed loudly.

After staring at the empty compartment, India closed it and carefully placed the camera back in the case. She became reacquainted with her surroundings as if waking out of a dream. Her hand instinctively touched her right cheek. She jumped up and ran to the bathroom. Switching on the vanity light, she examined her face in the magnifying mirror. She noticed fine lines on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes. She was certain her laugh lines were just a tiny bit deeper.

India returned to her bed and took the note out of the case. She carefully reread each line as if doing so would reveal some hidden message coded into the text. It said nothing about the consequence of photographing others or removing the film. It just told her not to do it…ever. One instruction she remembered without rereading. If she removed the film, she needed to burn it.

India thought about the vulnerable state of mind that brought her to the old man’s shop. Desperation. Insecurity. She removed her clothes because she wanted that to be his request. She had been accustomed to people giving her free stuff because of her fame. That always seemed so backwards to her. People were willing to give things to famous people who needed them the least. Maybe the star would promote their business. Maybe the star would allow them into her inner circle. Celebrity was its own currency, and she was well aware of it.

With a single subtle act, the little old man had exposed her own fraud. Something in the back of her mind told her that the lonely old man would gladly photograph a beautiful movie star. Nudity would sweeten the experience, and he’d kindly wave off the hundred thousand. Nope. He responded with such grace and appeared more cognizant of her embarrassment than she was. Without him saying a word, she knew she had disrespected him. Now she desperately needed to return to his shop, whether she wanted to or not.

First, she needed to find that film. That was the top priority. Kate was one of the most stubborn people on earth, especially when upset. She would only send that information when she was good and ready. It felt like torture, but India would have to just wait.

It was almost lunchtime when Sierra called. She usually phoned when she had something important to talk about. Otherwise, it would have been a short text. India had anticipated this particular call.

“What the hell did you do to Kate?” Sierra asked right away.

“Nothing,” India said. “We just had an argument, and things got a little heated.”

“A little heated? The girl called me screaming like a maniac. I couldn’t make sense of it, but she’s hella pissed at you. She kept going on and on about some camera and you not appreciating a gift she worked so hard on.”

India hadn’t even thought about the gift once the camera issue arose. She must have come across worse than some of the prima donnas she worked with. “Oh, jeez. I owe her an apology.” There’s no way Kate could have known about the cursed camera. India kept that information away from the two main people she should have told.

“Are you two gonna be able to work this out? I’d rather stay out of the middle of it.”

“Yes, I think we can work it out.”

“That doesn’t sound convincing.”

“I’m sure we can work it out.”


“There’s something I need to talk to you about in person.” Just then, India received a text.

“Uh-oh. You gonna go off on me too?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Okay, just let me know when.”

“I will. Kate just texted me. We’ll talk later.”

Kate had sent her friend Raul’s contact information. The second part of her message was a bit confusing.

Kate: Doogie is missing. U wouldnt know anything about that would U?

India was offended by the low-key accusation but didn’t want to start another argument.

India: Thank you for info

Sorry, I haven’t seen Doogie. I’ve been here all day.

She called Raul immediately and let him know that she was coming over. He told her it wasn’t a good time, but she was insistent about the urgency of the matter.

It took an hour to get to Raul’s house. It’s already hell trying to drive across town, but it’s even worse this time of day. When she arrived, a couple of police officers were talking to Raul in his yard. India hadn’t recognized his name, but after seeing him, recalled Kate bringing him by the house a couple months prior. Slick dark hair. Rugged look. Solid but not too muscular. Kate’s type to the letter. He would have made the perfect boy toy for her if he wasn’t gay.

India didn’t want to be connected to whatever Raul had going on with the police. She parked on the other side of the road a half-block away. The cops talked for another twenty minutes before leaving.

India pulled up to his house, and Raul let her in. He was anxious to know whether or not she remembered him. She was sure he’d be asking for a professional reference or something later.

“Sorry about the mess,” Raul said. “Somebody broke into my house while I was out this morning. The police just left before you pulled up.”

“Sorry to hear that. Did they take anything?” India tried to sound concerned, but all she cared about was her film.

“Nothing that I noticed so far. It’s almost like they wanted to come in and just trash the place. My security cameras weren’t on at the time. The neighbors said they saw some homeless woman nearby.”

“Do you still happen to have the film Kate dropped off for you to develop?”

“Wait, that was yours?” He sounded almost fascinated.

India felt embarrassment coming on. She pressed her lips firmly together.

“Come on back here.  I need to show you something.”

Famous words courtesy of the casting couch. India followed him to his darkroom. “Look, whatever you saw in those photos–”

“Oh, Kate already told me they were private and to handle with care. But they were severely exposed before I got them. What I need to show you has more to do with the film itself.” Raul pulled the keys out of his pocket and bent over to unlock a large drawer. “Shit!” The lock rattled loosely in the socket. He pulled it open. “Shit! Now I know what they took.”

“Don’t tell me somebody broke in and stole my film.”

Raul nodded.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding!”

“Not kidding.” The darkroom was one of the few rooms that hadn’t been tossed. Raul didn’t bother checking because it didn’t look like anybody had been in there. It was as if the person trashed the rest of the house to make it appear that something was stolen from the other rooms.

“So, what were you gonna show me?” India’s spirits were tanking.

“After another failed attempt, I was trying a special technique to see if I could tease a faint image out of the frames. When I cut it, the film resealed itself.”


“I’d never seen anything like it. Even when I cut it into pieces on the table, they all came back together as one. You probably think I’m on something, but I’m clean. I did it repeatedly and was gonna show Kate, but she had something important to do this morning.”

“You didn’t think to make a video of something that amazing?” India tried to sound skeptical, but an indestructible film was every bit as plausible as a camera of youth.

“I had to rush out to see a client at the gym, so I locked it in the drawer to play with it later. Now it’s gone.”

Kate left Raul’s place disappointed about the film. She was even more concerned about the identity of the strange woman who took it. Maybe the old man had sent someone on a recovery mission. It had been three years, though. How would he know the moment the film was extracted? India called Marta to tell her and the other staff to keep an eye out for anyone hanging around the property. If they stole the film, they’re probably coming for the camera next.

It was evening by the time she made it to the Wok Bak Cafe. The traffic had been a nightmare. When she got out of the car, she forgot about sunglasses and a hat. A few people recognized her but didn’t approach. She was on a mission, practically running. She didn’t see the wooden door close to where she remembered, but it’s been a while. Maybe they bricked it over.

Down the alley, she walked, further and further. She had already reached the end of the building but continued beyond an intersecting alleyway to the next building. Now she saw doors, but none even remotely resembled the one with the wood carvings she saw that night.

By the time she headed back, four or five people were walking toward her. She halted for a moment, realizing she didn’t have time to deal with fans. She broke into a full-speed run up the other alley. This would make the tabloids, but, for once, India could care less. She slowed down as she made it to the sidewalk. Sweat was beading up on her forehead. She felt the stares.

“Hey, are you India?” a guy’s voice called out.

“No, but I get that a lot,” she replied out of breath.

“Yeah, guys, she sounds just like her. It’s her. Hey, turn around. I just wanna get a quick picture.”

A female voice responded. “That’s not her, you doofus! She has a twin sister. Can’t you see she’s trying to get the hell away from your ass?” Several people nearby laughed.

India smiled as she slowed her pace a bit. She had a power that few other celebrities had. Sierra gave her full permission to use it to get out of situations. She used it sparingly over the years.

When she reached the restaurant, she went in. A couple of people paused on the sidewalk with that ‘did I just see?’ look on their faces. There was a line at the counter for the buffet, so she found one of the waiters cleaning a table.

“Would you be kind enough to get your manager?” she asked the young man.

He fixated on her with widened eyes without responding.

“No, nobody did anything wrong. I need to speak to him about a business matter.”

The man exhaled a breath he was holding before rushing off to the back. He returned with the manager, a middle-aged white guy, not an older Asian man she had envisioned. “May I help you?”

“Yes, how long have you been working at this location?”

“Nine? No. Ten years.”

“What happened to the business on the side of your building?”

“You mean the jewelry store next door?”

India realized she needed to clarify. “Not the one next door. I’m talking about the one with the entrance on the side of this building, near the rear.”

The manager’s look of bewilderment spoke volumes. “I’m sorry, but there’s never been an entrance to anything on the side of this building. At least not that I recall.”

India couldn’t hide her confusion. She got the feeling this man knew something he wouldn’t be willing to discuss in front of patrons.

“Hey,” the manager said. “Are you that actress? You look just like her.”

“Which one?”

“She’s named after a country or something. Asia is it? No, India. My daughter is crazy about her. You think I could get a picture? You know, for my kid.”

“Sorry, that’s not my name.” India wasn’t lying. Her real name was Leone, one of many bad decisions her parents made. It probably was cute for a few months to tell people about their two little diamonds named Sierra and Leone.

“Oh, you must be her sister.” He looked slightly disappointed.

Just then, she got an idea. “Tell you what. I’ll still let you take a picture, even though I’m not her, but you can’t post it on that wall or run around telling people it’s India.”

The man pulled out his phone.

India immediately placed her hand over his. “NoOo, not out here. You snap just one, and the people over there are gonna call a whole mob in here. Take me to the back, and then you can snap a few.”

“You need to put on a hairnet if we… Screw it. Just don’t get close to any food.” The hefty man moved nimbly through the preparation area and opened the kitchen door for her. India noticed that his chest stuck out as he yelled instructions to his workers. She went with him to the hallway near his office. He handed a young girl his phone. “You mind me being in the photo?” the manager asked. “She’ll love it even more.”

India doubted he had a daughter. “No, I don’t mind.”

The girl snapped a few photos then slunk away. India felt guilty, so she told the manager to call the kitchen staff over. He informed them that she was India’s sister, but she was okay with posing for a pic or two. She smiled and posed for selfies until everyone was ordered back to work.

“May I exit through the back door?” India asked politely.

“You’re really her, aren’t you?” He postured like he was her knight in shining armor. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”

India didn’t reply.

When he led her through the storage area, it became clear that the old man’s shop couldn’t exist where it did. There’d be no storage room, and most of the kitchen would be gone.

“I just remembered something. One of the girls up front spoke to a woman who came in asking about a side business. It didn’t occur to me until now that she was probably asking the same question you were asking. My counter girl didn’t understand what she was talking about, so the lady got kind of aggressive. I had to force her to leave the restaurant.”

India felt a chill. “Do you remember how she looked?”

“I didn’t get a good look at her. She had on mixed-up clothes like she’d been living on the streets. She was pale with long red hair and one of those wide hats old black women wear in church. Oh, and some huge sunglasses. She might have been one of those actresses who didn’t make it. It’s sad to see people go through that, but they gotta realize there are other jobs out there.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Can’t be a coincidence that two people came here asking about the same thing. Do you know her?”

“No, not at all. I think I might have gotten this spot mixed up with another one. Sorry.”

Walking back up the alleyway, India carefully scanned the brick wall for evidence that something was there. It looked no different than the one beside it, decorated with light graffiti.

Troubled would be an understatement in describing India’s mental state. She sent Sierra and Kate a vague text, letting them know she urgently needed to talk.

It was getting dark by the time she made it home. Thankfully, her staff hadn’t seen anyone suspicious around the house. She asked her cook and her gardener if they could stay overnight. Since it was payday, she paid them a little extra. She didn’t mind taking on some of the menial tasks that Kate mostly handled. Sierra had always encouraged her to be as competent as possible, so she wouldn’t end up like some celebrities who barely knew how to buy groceries on their own.

India was awakened by her phone vibrating and flashing. She had fallen asleep watching movies with Marta and the others in her home theater.  It appeared that everyone had gone to bed and left her alone. There were several missed calls from Sierra, a couple of friends, and an unknown number. Sierra’s text message said to call her as soon as she got it. India called.

“Hi, Mini.” It sounded like her sister was crying. “Why didn’t you answer your phone? Never mind. Did anyone call you about Kate?”

“No. Well, I missed several calls.”

There was a long pause. India could hear sniffling and voices in the background. “Sierra, you still there?”

“Kate is dead.”

Copyright 2021 Darrell Winfrey

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