Guilt

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A photojournalist brings back more than he bargained for from his last assignment.

 


Shawn Master’s was tired. Too, damn tired. He thought miserably, his hands pouring more Cognac into his glass. His fifth one that night. He hoped it would help him sleep or at least take the edge off. He’d only been home for less than a week now and already he was stressed out. Maybe, even more so than when he had been on assignment.

His cell phone began to vibrate. Loudly buzzing all over his coffee table. Draining his glass he let it go to voicemail. There were only a couple people who would call him this late at night and he didn’t want to hear from any of them. Sleep was what he needed. With a tired sigh, he clicked his phone on. Curiosity overcoming him. Might as well see what they want.

“Shawn.Hey, buddy, I haven’t heard much from you since you’ve been back. But, look call me we should celebrate. They want to put your picture right on the front page. This is looking big Shawn. Real big. Call me back in the morning.” The voice clicked off. Glenn’s voice. Shawn would know it from anywhere they had been friends since college. With the voice of a salesman, he had never understood what had compelled Glenn to become a journalist. Some mysteries will have to wait.

He got up and went to bed. It was awhile before sleep finally took him. And when it did it was anything but peaceful. Shawn was dreaming he knew that, but it didn’t stop it from feeling real. In the dream, he was back on his last assignment. The air was stifling and humid outside the tiny village. The people were happy.
It had been a good harvest for them or so they had told the Shawn’s group of international journalists and guides. They danced and sang for them. He swore he must have taken a hundred pictures those first few nights. Too bad none of them were the ones Glenn wanted. Happiness doesn’t sell. So it never makes the front page. He wished they had stayed there. At the first village. Everything would have been better. In the dream, it began to rain. And thunder split the air. The rain on the roofs sounded like gunfire.

Shawn woke with a start covered in sweat. He showered, ate, and drank coffee. Trying to do anything that would take his mind off the last few days. And off his dreams. His phone was still on the coffee table. It had several missed calls and texts from Glenn wanting to meet for lunch. I can’t ignore them forever. He thought his hands clenching and unclenching.

He quickly changed clothes and left his apartment. Deciding to walk the few blocks from there to the diner that Glenn had chosen for lunch. He had already eaten but it had been light. And miserable or not the food there was really good. There was a panhandler in his path. The sight brought back uncomfortable memories.

Shawn watched as people passed him. Trying their damnedest to avoid making eye contact. Like if they treat him with decency they’ll catch his poverty. The thought brought a new rush of anger. Shawn dug in his pockets. For the first time wishing, he carried more cash. All he had was a twenty. He hoped it was enough for the man to get a decent meal somewhere.

As he put it in the man's hand. His other hand grabbed Shawn’s wrist. But, when he looked at it, he didn’t see the hand of the old beggar. This hand was young and emaciated. Sores and welts covered its bare arm.Shawn knew what he would see if he followed that hand to its shoulder. He almost screamed.

“I said thank you kindly mister.” The old beggar repeated snapping Shawn back to reality. He did his best not to show how shaken he was. “Your welcome. Go somewhere and get out of this weather and grab a hot meal. Have a good day.” He stammered not wanting the man to think it was his fault that Shawn felt sick.

You're just seeing things. He told himself. The thought didn’t make him feel any better. The last thing he needed right now was to start losing his mind.

Glenn was all smiles as Shawn entered the diner. And why shouldn’t he be? Shawn thought. After all, it wasn’t him that went there and witnessed those. Those things. No, not Glenn. Glenn, worked behind a desk that's what he loved to do. And in his own way, he was good at it. Shawn realized that of course, this all would be exciting to Glenn.

He slid into the plastic booth. More tired than ever. The waitress came. He could only bring himself to order a coffee, he had left his appetite somewhere out on the street. Glenn, went on and on about office politics. About this hot new intern and wait until Shawn saw her. Man oh man. It struck him funny how so much could change and at the same time stay the same.

He widely stirred his coffee, propping his head up with a hand. “Shawn, did you hear me?” Glenn asked looking worried.

“No, sorry I was somewhere else what did you say?” He replied.
Glenn snorted. “I said tomorrow your picture is gracing the front page and I hear they are nominating it for an award.” An award how comical.

Glenn went on about that for awhile. How, lucky he had been to get such a great shot. How, his whole career was really going to take off now. Think of all the options Shawn. Glenn kept saying. Shawn just nodded letting him go on and on.

A movement a couple booths away caught Shawn’s eye. There was a child sitting there alone in the booth. He looked for

He looked for its parents but no-one came over to the booth. Even the waitress stayed away. What the hell? Shawn thought until he noticed that the child was looking right at him. He began to sweat and felt his mouth go dry. He recognized those eyes. He’d never forget them. A sound like the buzzing of flies filled his ears.

He felt sick. “ Glenn, I have to go.” He mumbled.

“Are you feeling okay buddy?” Glenn asked getting to his feet as they walked over to the cash register. The whole time Shawn's eyes were glued to the now empty booth. The child was gone. He felt chills shiver up his back as Glenn left a tip on the table. They said goodbye and walked their separate ways.

“Keep your phone on buddy, big things are happening,” Glenn told him as they parted ways. You have now idea. Shawn thought as he hurried back to the safety of his apartment.

When he opened the door the first thing he noticed was the smell. Like rotten meat. It wasn’t hot out and he swore he closed the fridge. Checking it he had, but the smell was still there. It seemed to follow him into every room. Assaulting his senses from all sides. He tore open closets and cupboards but couldn’t find the source of the foul odor. What in the world is going on?

Finally giving up he called the super for his building and plopped down on the couch. Exhausted. He considered turning on the television but decided against it the last thing he wanted was to see the news right now. There was no way seeing more horror in the world would pull him out of this. Whatever this was.

I must have dozed off. He thought blinking the crust out of his eyes. The smell was still there even more putrid than before. Nothing, he could do about it now anyway. I must have been asleep for awhile. He realized noticing the complete darkness of the apartment. Only, broken in some areas by the street lights reflecting off the windows. His apartment seemed sinister, Shawn couldn’t shake the feeling that something was waiting for him. Stop scaring yourself. He thought shaking his head.

His feet trudged slowly across the cold floor. When did it get so cold in here? He wondered noticing how visible his breath was even in the dark. The closer he came to his bedroom the door. The more he began to notice the buzzing sound. A sound that made him think of bees. Or a lot of flies. He felt like he was going to be sick. Ever since he got back he couldn’t stand the sight of flies.

With a trembling hand, he turned the knob of his bedroom door. The buzzing reached a fever pitch, but as the door swung open came to a sudden stop. Revealing only an empty room. He sank heavily into his bed. Not even stopping to undress. I’m going insane. Was his last thought as sleep took him.

This time, he was on a dusty street. Concrete and sand block buildings on either side. The sun glared down angrily on any who walked out of cover. Shawn was covered in sweat and worried about his camera in such harsh heat. He snapped pictures of the bullet ridden buildings. Homes now deserted. He took them of the dead dogs in the street. A symbol of the families destroyed by the conflict. Yet, the whole time he thought only of how much he would get for them. How many would end up as part of stories, and columns and editorials? And wondered if any would make the front page.

Then he saw the boy. No! He yelled at his dream self. Walk away, or run! Anything but this. He pleaded with his own memories but it was useless. Even in a dream, he couldn’t change the past. The boy was just ahead of him now. He could see him more clearly. The image that would soon be all over the news. His picture the one he had hunted for. And the person he exploited for it.

The boy was dying. Perhaps, he had been for awhile He was emaciated starved, his body was covered in welts and sores. Through heavily lidded eyes and parched, cracked lips he reached out a trembling hand. Asking for help. Bot flies circled him some already burrowing into his arms and legs. The boy with his bony hand outreached asking for mercy, for compassion and instead Shawn had simply taken his picture.
He had been told not to intervene in the situation here.That he was just supposed to take pictures, to witness, after all, that was his job. He had consoled himself by saying that there was nothing he could have done anyhow. After all, he wasn’t a doctor and neither was anyone with them.

He woke up with the sound of buzzing in his ears and the boys eyes clear in his mind. Dammit, there was nothing I could have done anyhow. He thought stomping his feet on the ground as he got out of bed. And then laughing at all his foolishness. He rubbed his arms stretching and yawning. That's when he felt it a large bump on his left bicep. He rubbed it finding into be hard like a boil. Maybe from stress? He thought not remembering if that was possible or just something that happened with acne.

His phone was still in the living room. It had dozens of messages and voicemails. He checked the ones from Glenn apparently, he was big news. The picture of the boy was all over the media. Apparently, it was even blowing up the internet. Guilt. That's what he felt, guilty. Glenn was right he had made his career, but with what? A dead kid. There was a sudden pain in his leg.

Shawn grabbed it finding another bump. This one bright red and swollen. What the hell?! He thought in utter shock as he found another one and then another. They were everywhere on his legs, arms, and abdomen. He started to panic what if he had caught some disease while he was overseas. He decided to drain one that way he could figure out what he was dealing with.

Grabbing a kitchen knife and going into the bathroom, Shawn sat on the edge of the bathtub. His hands shaking as he placed the tip over one of the bumps. Shit, now or never. He steeled himself and drove the sharp point down. He pierced his skin and drew blood, but to his surprise and disgust, the bump moved. He could feel it crawl inside his arm.

Shawn screamed. This time, he slashed the bump open then grabbed it to force out whatever was inside. Blood and puss, and something black. The buzzing sound again filled the air as the bot fly flew out of his arm. That's not possible. He thought feeling like he was about to go in shock. But, the thought of those things inside him drove him into a frenzy. He held them cutting them out and stabbing them. Doing his best to ignore the pain as the bathroom floor became slick with own blood.

He killed as many as he could the small room filled with the sound of buzzing wings. And the sudden click and flash of a camera. As his vision became blurry he saw the boy standing in the corner of the bathroom over by the sink. Shawn’s camera was in his hands. He realized that he was loosing to much blood. In his fervor, he must have nicked an artery. “Please?” He asked the boy. His hands stretched towards him weak from blood loss.

The boy did not move. Still, as a statue, he took Shawn’s picture. That was the last thing Shawn saw as his eyes forever closed.

The superintendent found him days later after other tenants started complaining about the smell. For a day the headlines all read. “Award Winning Photojournalist Commits Suicide.” They put the pictures they found in the bathroom all over the front page.

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