a story by Dot

On Heather’s first shoot, Henry had taken one look at her freckled face and the dark roots peeking out from beneath her platinum blond pixie cut and wondered if he should cross-check her identification. But he pushed his concerns aside—she had, after all, been the one to approach him about nude body shots—and led her into his studio. Her utter lack of self-consciousness, even refusing the customary glass of champagne, raised the specter of doubt again, and time and again he found himself wanting to break his usual professional distance and ask about her personal life. In the end, though, he had remained on the other side of his old-fashioned camera, saying nothing except for a few suggestions on pose and expression, snapping away the entire roll of film. She returned the next day for the developed prints, paying him half his rate and promising him that she would be able to make up the difference the next time she came in.

They didn’t have any set schedule; she would just call him on his cellphone or sometimes show up at his door. One time she got bored waiting, found his spare key, and let herself in. He came home to her rifling through his outdoor shots from back in the day when he was still a wide-eyed college student with delusions being a photojournalist and he would spend hours documenting the last few rural towns that dotted the length of the nearby highway.

“You’ve got great technique,” she murmured, closing the album and rising to her feet when she heard him approach.

“I’m not all that good,” he equivocated, “some places just have this personality. Like they’re alive or something.”

“Or something,” she agreed.

It took her guardian Douglas all of two weeks after this previous session to clue into where she was getting the extra income, and another ten days to find Henry’s apartment and introduce Henry to his fist. If Heather hadn’t also suspected that Douglas would pull something like this and followed, interven before Henry ended up with something much worse than a black eye. Heather and Douglas stood in Henry’s doorway arguing for a good fifteen minutes while Henry nursed his injury with an icepack. Then she barged into his studio, showed Douglas Henry’s pictures of Toluca Lake, and that had put an end to the fight.

But before Henry had a chance to set up another meeting with Heather, the entire complex burned to the ground when a neighbor’s unsafe kitchen practices sparked a conflagration that all too soon found the flammable materials Henry kept in his dark room. Henry left a message to Heather explaining the situation and recommending the services of an acquaintance.

He had thought himself lucky to have found South Ashfield Heights just when a room had become available. The rent was reasonable for a one bed/one bath furnished, the landlord seemed nice enough, and it was within walking distance of a convenience store, a subway station, and a handful of fast food restaurants. By the end of the week he had moved into Room 302 and started the arduous and labyrinthine process of filing a claim with his insurance company. It was some time before he could afford even halfway decent equipment again, but Heather’s phone number was out of service and he figured that she had gone to better pastures.

Three days after the nightmare that he thought would never end, Henry woke to Heather sitting next to his bed, the light giving her hair an ethereal glow. He blinked at the sudden doubling in his vision, clenched his eyes shut in agony as a splinter of knowledge stabbed through his conscious thoughts and the Name spilled from his mouth before he could stop: “Alessa.”

“Cheryl,” was her instantaneous response, mournful with a touch of indignation. And then, a moment later in more resigned tones: “I’m sorry. I should have realized that he had already picked you out ages ago.”

He. Walter Sullivan. Henry fought the familiar wave of terror. Walter was dead, twice over now. “He was in all of my classes,” he whispered, foggy memories made sharp with new knowledge. “He watched from his window whenever my mother came by to pick up or drop off laundry.” He groaned, draping an arm over his eyes. “Oh, God, I’ll bet he even bribed my neighbors to listen through the walls when I’d bring my girlfriend over.”

Her hand rested on his elbow, her touch feather light. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I wanted to be help for you, but Douglas wouldn’t allow it. Having those assholes show up near where we were staying didn’t help, either.”

It took him forever to work up the courage to ask the question that had been weighing on his mind ever since he came to. “Eileen—is she—is she all right?”

Heather’s silence spoke volumes.

The sound that bubbled from Henry’s throat sounded more like a strangled laugh than a sob. “I guess I’ll have to find a new apartment now, don’t I?”

“You can crash with us for a while; we’ve holed up in an RV not too far from here. And don’t worry about Douglas. He’ll grump, but he’s a nice guy at heart.”

Sharing the creaky pull-out sofa bed with Douglas proved to be less awkward than Henry thought: both men preferred to keep to themselves and Douglas in particular slept like a rock, oblivious to the countless times Henry would wake in a cold sweat and half-expect to see multiple chains sealing the door again. Heather did most of the cooking, whereas Henry busied himself with the rest of the housework except the handful of times Douglas deemed his superior photography skills necessary for whichever cheating spouse he had been hired to follow this time.

On his birthday, Heather surprised Henry with a 35mm Nikon F6 along with an assortment of top-of-the-line lenses and in a sly voice suggested that they pick up where they had last left off; when Henry found himself stammering and blushing that Douglas would kill him, she’d giggled and claimed that she was just kidding. Still, with Douglas’ income as erratic as his customers, it was just a matter of time before Heather talked Henry into taking more nude pictures of her while Douglas was out. Douglas couldn’t have not realized that Heather was supplementing their income again, but this time he turned a blind eye.

When they saved enough money, they followed the highway west, the three of them taking turns driving until the suburban landscapes of the east coast disappeared far into the rear-view mirror and rolling hills and farmlands took their place. Sometimes, if the weather was cooperative enough, they’d sleep under the stars, Heather nestling Henry in a warm embrace and soothing him back to sleep whenever the nightmares got too bad.

“I’m useless, aren’t I?” Henry muttered one of those times as Heather drew slow circles over his temples (Douglas had given up on trying to keep watch since the last rest stop and was snoring away in his sleeping bag).

“I don’t mind. It’s nice to be the one taking care of someone else for a change.” She moved his head into her lap and kissed his eyelids, smiling when he pinked and averted his gaze. “Besides, you’re adorable like this.”

Unnecessarily Long and Tiresome Authoress’ Notes:
The actual SH-verse probably doesn’t fit together this nicely, but this is fanfic-land anyway so I ran with the idea.