Plainville was a quaint picturesque town. Northern California's version of Andy Griffith's Mayberry. Bucolic enough to provide cinematic contrast for any low-budget stalk-and-slash film. Juxtaposition played just as important a role in still photography as it did in cinematography. Maybe that's why Natalie Jones had picked Plainville for her final descent into darkness.
The climactic scene in a comedic tragedy. Cast of one. Audience of one.
For now, however, she enjoyed one last intermission.
She could pretend she'd never heard the words retinal degeneration. Pretend the darkness wasn't coming for her. Pretend she was just a normal woman whiling away a morning at the local farmers' market, perusing the organic fruit and vegetables and enjoying a sense of community.
When she spotted one of the horse cops that occasionally circled the market, she resolutely lifted her camera and snapped its picture. Doing so, however, made pretending impossible.
She wasn't normal. In truth, she never had been.
She could appreciate the imposing size of the animal, see its general shape and movements, knew it was a typical chestnut brown. But even with a super-magnified lens, she couldn't see the bunching muscles moving underneath the horse's skin, distinguish the leather saddle that had been placed on its back from the blanket that was likely underneath it, or say with certainty that its rider was a man as opposed to a large woman.
Pressing her lips together, she lowered the camera and blinked back the threat of tears.
The saying's true, she thought. Bigger wasn't always betternot if she couldn't see the details on a twelve-hundred pound equine. Still, it was better than nothing.
With a snort of disgust, she started walking again, making sure to keep her head up and her strides slow. But not too slow.
She passed a grove of redwood trees to her right, then paused again when the bright rays of the sun unexpectedly shone through them, momentarily blinding her. Her mouth curled with irony just before she closed her eyes and lifted her face toward the sky, relishing the subtle warmth that spread across her skin. She'd have to recall this moment in darker times. Store it along with her memories of other places that had brought her peace.
The Seine in France.
The winding mountain trails in Switzerland. The dirt roads in Malaysia that were bordered on either side by the lush green of the tropical jungle. The memories would help hide her grief.
It was a term she'd become quite familiar with. A skill she'd honed to near perfection.
She'd spent so many years dreading what might be coming that, no matter how much fear and panic she felt inside, her outward appearance rarely reflected it. Now that the disease was no longer possibility but reality, her ability to hide her feelings would give her something precious. Control, yes, but even more important than thatdignity. Unlike her mother, she'd face her fate with grace and wouldn't allow her situation to defeat or destroy her. And it wouldn't matter that she faced her future alone, either. Alone was better, even if she'd forgotten that for a while.
Her thoughts automatically turned to Duncan Oliver. Despite the rays of light still shining on her face, she shivered and pulled her sweater closer to her body.
Why, in addition to everything else, did she have to feel so cold all the time?
Nothingnot coffee, not the warmth of a fire, not even an electric blanketcould quite cut through the chill that had settled inside her ever since Duncan had come to her two weeks ago, his expression tense yet resolute, saying they needed to talk.
"I'm sorry, Natalie. I love you, butbut I can't handle this. I can't bear to see you go through this," he'd said.
At the time, Natalie had barely stopped herself from crying. "But you can bear for me to go through it alone? When going through it alone will make it a hundred times worse?" Forget a hundred. Try a thousand. A hundred thousand. But of course she hadn't said the words out loud. Instead, she'd moved on. And that's exactly what she'd keep doing.
With a sigh, she opened her eyes, blinked until her vision went from fuzzy to less fuzzy, then started walking again. In the background, she could hear Pete, a local who'd served in several wars, only to return home and lose his wife to cancer, calling out his doomsday predictions and political rhetoric. The cops would tolerate it only until it got more crowded, then they'd start to gently nudge him along.
She moved toward him with deliberation, taking care to avoid stepping in anyone's path. The market had just opened, so there weren't the throngs of people that would descend upon the park in a little more than two hours. By then, she'd be long gone, editing her photos on her computer with the help of a magnified screen, trying not to judge them too harshly or dwell on the fact they were going to be some of the last she ever took.
She stumbled when something brushed against her lower legs, and she automatically reached down, her hands sinking in a soft thatch of fur. She laughed, the husky sound surprising her. "Hey there, sweetie," she crooned and patted the dog until its owner whistled and it loped away.
Her smile didn't fade for several minutes, and she savored the unexpected feeling of contentment. When she reached Pete, he stopped addressing the crowd to greet her. "Hello, pretty Natalie."
She smiled again at the familiar greeting. Pete was unfailingly polite to her whenever they met. He always recognized her, and it amazed her how his mind could flip from delusional to rational in the blink of an eye. "Hi, Pete. How are you feeling today?"
"Right as rain. Don't be afraid. Things are going to work out just fine."
"Thanks, Pete. I appreciate that." She dropped a five-dollar bill into his basket and kept moving, oddly moved by his words of good tiding. They were the same he always said to her, easily dismissed most of the time. But today, she clung to them.
Despite the progression of the disease, she could still see. Still work. Perhaps Pete was right and things really would work out fine.
She'd already provided Plainville magazine hundreds of photos for its feature on the renovation of its downtown district. The unusually sunny day, however, would make the farmers' market shots a nice touch. Although far from crowded, there were still several people wandering about. Some of them moved so quickly that their bodies were a kaleidoscope of blurred colors. When they slowed down and she got close enough, however, she could classify thembusinesspeople, couples, families.
She circled the park several times, framing shots and repeating them until she got them just right. Several times, when objects or individuals gave her a particular feeling, heightened by setting or, where she could see it, facial expression, she mentally gave the shots a title to go along with the image. It was a habit she'd adopted in Dubai, and it had stuck ever since.
The shot of the petite dark-haired woman tilting her head as she laughed with the silver-haired man beside her, her hand on his arm, was "Joy."
The one of the three women walking together, two of them huddled closer than the third, who walked with her arms crossed, was "left Out."
And the one of a man leaning against a tree, his head turned toward a nearby playground, something that looked like a video camera in his hand, she dubbed
An older woman walked by, her expression solemn, but she immediately smiled when the baby in her arms blew raspberries on her neck. The distinctive scents of baby shampoo and formula were a faint tickle on the breeze as they passed. Unable to resist, Natalie turned to keep the baby in her vision, hazy as it was, for as long as possible. It wasn't very long.
In the bustle of the now-growing crowd, Pete's chatter drifted toward her again. "Not what you think
he's blinded you
Frowning, she turned her head, then gasped when she ran into something hard.
Strong fingers grasped her arms to steady her. "Whoa there, little lady. You should watch where you're going."
Natalie's brows shot up in automatic annoyance. Little lady? He'd sounded sincere if a little distracted. Tilting her head up, she squinted her eyes, but because he was backlit by the sun, she saw even less of him than she normally would. He was tall and smelled of tobacco, but there was another scent competing with it, as if he'd doused himself with cologne in an attempt to hide his vice. He was wearing some kind of hat. Given his words and the faintest hint of a Texan accent, she'd guess a cowboy hat, but there was some kind of colorful design on it, a blur of gold that looked like a diamond.
Forcing her mingled embarrassment and annoyance down, she said, "I apologize," and walked around him. Pete was shouting now, and she winced when he accused someone of being a hypocrite. A charlatan. It was when Pete started addressing individuals that the police finally cracked down on him. This time she stopped before turning. Pete was pointing at a couple, and several people had stopped to watch.
"Don't give him what he wants," Pete shrieked. "Go home! Go home. Go"
A figure approached him. "All right, Pete. That's enough. Come along now." The voice was kind but also held the ring of authority. Definitely a cop. Sure enough, Pete's voice quieted, then disappeared altogether as the cop led him away. The crowd dispersed.
She wondered whether the cop would simply escort Pete to the edge of the park or drop him off at his mobile home several blocks away. She'd been there once, to offer her help. She knew the cops had offered their help, as well. Pete graciously shunned all such attempts.
She started walking again, but Pete and his accusations played through her mind. When she heard children laughing and the sound of water, she shook off her distraction. She was approaching the park fountain. Since it would make a nice final shot, she quickened her pace.
With no warning, she felt pain explode behind her eyes. She saw an intense flash of light before her remaining vision tunneled.
Her hands, which had been lightly gripping her camera, jerked violently, snapping the strap around her neck. Vaguely, she heard the camera hit the ground in front of her. Then her other senses seemed to go haywire. Her hearing faded. Her fingers went numb. Her already cool skin seemed to ice over with realization. But there was none of the detachment she'd hoped for. None of the calm acceptance she'd been slowly hoarding for almost twenty years.
Nowhere to hide.
"No," she whispered. "Not now. Please, not now." Just like that, Natalie's world had gone completely dark.