Aphelion Issue 252, Volume 24
July 2020
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by Jessie Atkin

It all starts with Casey Ridley America's almost sweetheart. We'd all guessed it could happen, but we hadn't screwed anything up before Casey. Maybe things weren't as vulnerable as all the sci-fi tales had always told us they were. It was just the job. Get in, get the photo, and get out. But it was also people's lives, other people's lives. Not just our own.

My own life is what's got me worried at the moment. What happens when someone finds out? What happens when someone realizes we screwed up? What happens when Casey, or Casey's mom, asks questions of us? Of the Internet? Of the world? Me, and Steve, and Pete, and all the other guys may be the only ones who remember that their used to be two timelines, but hey, I know Casey remembers us all snapping her photo.

We got popular when all those mothers got involved. Everybody wanted a photo bug to show up and catch a picture of their tiny cherub on the toilet before disappearing right before their eyes. We meant something more than a headline. We were a lifeline. Something special was in store if we were interested. I'm not saying it wasn't weird, dropping into a teenage girl's bedroom before she was quite ready for prom, snapping one, and clearing out. The really strange part was that we created a whole generation of kids who didn't care.

I can't imagine wanting a semi-nude scene of myself during adolescents plastered across papers and websites around the globe, but I guess there's a reason I'm the guy taking the pictures and not the guy in them.

The first thing that really happened was Oliver Sandy. He was the first one who got people worried. We jumped back to get pictures of that kid at every age. There were photos of him stomping ants, singing in the shower, and my own shot of his painting on lipstick before a middle school play. His mom was thrilled the future had taken such an interest. That was until he shot up a shopping mall, just like we'd all known he would.

Sometimes you'd sneak in and a pretty girl would beg to know what was in store, but it was against the rules to say anything. It was against the rules to take the pictures but, like I said, just taking the pictures hadn't done any damage then, people were just worried they might. Step on a butterfly, right? So our presence didn't matter, but our information definitely could. It was good money, and who wanted to be the one to screw that up?

Marco sat us down. It couldn't be Toby. Toby might have been the big boss, but he didn't make the jumps. He didn't travel for the pictures. So Toby had no idea we'd changed a life, lives, and the whole space-time continuum just about. Only jumpers remember dual timelines. It's a lot of power. Power I know we shouldn't have.

"Casey," Marco says.

There's some laughter, but I can feel my intestines tying themselves into complex boy-scout knots in my abdomen.

"She's not famous anymore," Marco continues.

"Not really famous," Stan snickers.

"Internet famous," someone corrects.

It's true. The only thing Google turns up about Casey now are crazy ranting videos about how Temparazzi have been harassing her for years, and where's her payout? And she's not wrong. We have been jumping in and out of her life story for years, but her payout was supposed to be a light speed rise to superstardom by way of the most popular television program of the decade and a movie career that would put her on top celebrity hot lists for a lifetime.

"So what did you assholes do?"

I blink up at Marco from my perch atop the corner desk.

"Who says you didn't screw it up, Marco?" Pete asks.

"Screwed the pooch," Stan laughs.

"I know," Marco growls. "Now what the hell did you assholes do you weren't supposed to? Finally try to feel her up, Stan?"

Stan laughs again, but you can see his shoulders stiffen as he crosses his arms. "I got good taste, but I'm not a moron."

"She'd have mentioned it," I say too quickly. I don't even like Stan. They all turn to look at me. "In one of her videos, she'd have mentioned the … the harassment, if it happened."

"See?" Stan says.

Marco shakes his head. "That's not the point. Something got fucked and we need to know what it was. Toby is gonna see those videos, and he's gonna know. He's gonna know we did something wrong even if he's not on the line where he can remember exactly what it was we ruined. We've got an image."

The room laughs again.

"I didn't say it was a good image, I just said we had one. And we can't afford for that image to become any worse than it already is."

"We'll lose the stage moms," someone calls.

We all sober up just a bit. The stage moms are really all we have. Sure, everyone in the universe downloads our pics with their HD magazines and digital newspaper articles, but very few people respect how we obtain those images. Only the stage moms, and the depressive teenage girls look forward to the day we come barreling into their lives unannounced, bulbs flashing. But to normal citizens we are intrusive, invasive, vermin, cretins, the scum of humanity. I think some of them are just jealous we don't take an interest in them.

So, it 's very likely the public at large is going to latch onto Casey Ridley's story in a very different way than we have ever considered. Odds are she is going to be infamous rather than famous, but she is gonna get some attention, and so are we. We have to get our story straight, and that's what Marco is getting at.

But when you take covert pictures for a living, when you use time jumps to get those pictures, illegal unscheduled time jumps, you're not exactly trained in openness and honesty. Even amongst your peers. Especially amongst your peers.

We sit in silence, contemplating the lost love of the millions of pushy, overweight, child torturers who keep our industry alive. But no one comes clean. No one claims they said so much as "hello" to Casey on their last visit. Why would they? None of us will ever know unless Casey says something, and she doesn't really know who we are. She probably barely knows what we look like. You don't have to have a particularly complex skill set to do what we do, but you do have to be fast.

There's a knock on the pit door and Toby walks in.

"Morning boys."

"Morning boss," we chorus.

I swing my legs nervously from my seat. Stan puts his own legs up on the chair in front of him. We all try to look relaxed.

"I've got seven jumps for today on schedule, and Steve, Pete, Marco, Phil, Drew, Diego, and Jin are up. Any complaints?"

No one complains. And that is strange. There's a pause and Stan seems to realize not complaining will be way more suspicious than complaining.

"Come on Big Toby," he says. "I got a great idea for a jump to Ashton Fodie's first car crash, I don't even think he was driving. It was the girl."

"It'll save," Toby says.

No one has obsessed over Fodie's bad boy backstory in a month or so. I had a Casey story planned. I wanted to catch her when she saw her first live theater. She talked about it in an interview two weeks ago, an interview that no longer happened. She was nine. She went with her elementary school in Florida to see a Rep theatre production of My Fair Lady. A poor girl becomes a beautiful butterfly. A metaphor for her life. The hopes and dreams of so many little girls set off fireworks in baby Casey's mind. And she became the one in a million that life didn't let down. It was life changing she said then. But her life didn't change now.

I have nothing to say. Toby surveys us, and I know he doesn't like the silence. "Right," he says. "Seven with me," he calls. "The rest of you are on the streets of today. Chase some cars catch some dogs. Do your damn jobs." Marco, and Pete, and the rest trail after Toby, camera's strapped to their wrists, ready to jump back to someone else's childhood rather than suffer through their own again.

Stan stands and stretches. "Off to the races," he laughs.

I stand and trudge to the door. I don't know how I feel about chasing pop stars today. At least I can't ruin a life today, not in the same way yesterday's stunts did. It was a full Ridley run yesterday. It was a full set yesterday, we all got jumps, which means Toby will be short for a little while. We were all set to catch a bunch of key milestones in the life of Ms. Casey. I went and got a shot of her first place win in a freshman talent show. A worthless photo I'm sure is still in my queue.

I don't know whom I want to harass today. The late greats or the fresh faces? But I follow the rest out the back door to the steaming LA parking lot behind our sorry excuse for an office building. For some of the most coveted photos in the streams this year, and even more coveted payouts, you'd think we'd have better digs. But it's still LA. Shit's still expensive. And Toby knows better than to draw attention to us. Stan's already sliding into his two seat Audi while I drag my feet toward my broken down midsize Chevy and let the heat from the pavement make my skin cry in the beating sun. Stan's up and hovering and out of site into the clogged California sky before I unlock my door.

I don't know why Casey bothers me so much. After all, she doesn't know the difference. She can't remember that she's missed something. Though, obviously, her hysterical videos certainly imply she's upset anyway. She was still my biggest story and I don't know how to adjust to going after someone else. What was the new big story? Brad Barnes and the rebirth of boy bands? Harry and Hillary's breakup? Nothing felt as big as what we'd all finally done. And that's why I stepped on the gas, rose into the air, and gunned it out toward the east. That's where Casey got stuck, in her same hometown, after we ruined her chance at a trip to Hollywood.

It doesn't take me more than an hour before I land on Casey's front lawn. It's not a particularly big lawn, especially for Florida. I'm pretty sure I've scraped paint off my right fender and coated the chain link fence with the pieces. I raise my door and step out onto the concrete blocks that are dressed up as a front walkway.

The house is the same single story ranch I've visited in the past, but I've never had to park before. I've never taken a good look at the outside before. I've never had a chance to cool my heels and look at anything before. Not the rotten color of the orange siding, or the dry grass between the cement stones. I'd never noticed the chain link fence, much less the rust around its edges. It was the place fairy tales begin, but nowhere anyone wants them to end.

I begin my slow hollow stomached march to the front door. But before I make it up the door swings out to meet me.

"No. No. No photographs, no more. You stop torturing my poor girl. You just leave us alone."

Mrs. Ridley, the single mother of a shattered superstar, waves a fist at my nose. Her hair is wispy and dry. It sticks out beneath the great strip of a cotton stretch headband. There re slight sweat stains on the front.

"Off my property! It's the law," she shouts.

Didn't she know we were above law? Didn't she know we were beyond it? She'd never yelled about authorities or torture when we'd stopped by to take a picture of her toddler's first steps, or snap a family Christmas portrait. But now that her troubled daughter is a thirty-year-old stay at home Internet laughing stock she is taking her position as mother seriously.

"Mrs. Ridley," I say soothingly.

"Don't you Mrs. Ridley me. I know who you are. I know what you're here for. I won't allow it. Not anymore. No pictures."

"Ma'am, we photographers don't usually come to the front door."

That gets her. If I'd wanted a photo I'd have jumped straight to her living room and disappeared without a trace. And she knows it.

"Well this ain't a zoo, so stop gawking and get yourself off my front lawn."

"Mrs. Ridley," I try again. I'm not used to talking. It’s not part of my job description. Talking is actually against my job description. But I know what a smile can get out of a subject, so I plaster one across my face just for good measure. "I'm actually here to talk to Casey, not to photograph her."

No one ever jumped back for interviews. It was too dangerous even for us. But apparently everything was dangerous. Casey proved that. So it was time to do at least some talking.

Mrs. Ridley looks startled. Apparently talking wasn't usually part of her job description either. Apparently agents, and managers, and studio executives organized the talking part, and Casey wasn't ever going to have any of those now.

"What about?"

I know the Mrs. Ridley of old, one of the big "Mothers for the Temparazzi" fan club, is in there somewhere. She's intrigued. I do know a little something about the subjects I tail.

"I've seen some of her work. The videos," I clarify. "The accusations, they're very …" Intriguing? Crazy? Unique? "Brave" I say.

"She's an honest girl," Mrs. Ridley says. She reaches for her fly away hair self-consciously.

"Yes," I say, raising my palms as if in surrender. "And I'm sure she has a lot more to say about it."

"She's not crazy."

"Of course not," I say. And for an instance I am being completely and utterly honest. "I don't think she is. And I don't think other people should think so either."

Mrs. Ridley is nodding at me. I don't know if she knows it, but she is. She is agreeing with me. Or perhaps she is agreeing with herself, making it okay, squaring things so she can allow me inside.

I follow her up the steps into the house's main lounge. A familiar shag carpet and dilapidated sofa greet me. Though there are no fake flowers scattered about, no professional shopping mall shots set out in cheep plastic frames. Mrs. Ridley is not decorating for visitors anymore.

"Make yourself comfortable."

I sit on a hard backed chair. I tripped over it on my second jump to visit Casey. No one ever did get a shot of her losing her first tooth.

That's the thing about jumping, it gets into your head. It's so normal, you see things, you've seen things, and you're going to see things. But if you get outside of it for a second, if you really think about it, it's not normal. It's strange. It's crazy to have access to someone's entire life. It's crazy that I get to edit what story that life tells. Well, Toby or me anyway. Everything's out there, but in clips and pieces. How can anyone really put it together into anything meaningful?

Casey is not put together. Her mother leads her out from the dark corridor to the bedrooms. She also wears a cotton headband. Her hair is longer than I remember. It's not straightened. She looks like her mother this way. She has her hands wrapped around her shoulders. She's eyeing me. Up and down. Her glassy eyes move. Up and down.

"The man wants to talk to you," Mrs. Ridley is saying. "To tell your story, Casey. He's from the papers."

Casey pulls her head up, her shoulders back. It's as if she's remembering her future. She's supposed to have poise. It makes me sad.

I stand to greet her, put out my hand and say how pleased I am to see her.

She takes my hand in hers. She looks at her mother, asking silently. Casey's unsure whether to smile at me, as she used to as a kid, as a teen. Or perhaps she is supposed to scream at me, threaten me as she does in her streams on the Internet. I am one of the life ruiners and I'm afraid she might remember. But Mrs. Ridley only nods encouragingly, this is her chance too after all, and Casey turns to return my smile. It twitches at the corners and her eyes can't quite meet mine.

"Let me get you some water." Mrs. Ridley motions Casey to the couch. I return to my chair.

Casey rests her elbows on her knees. She stares at the floor. She moves her hands to her lap. She looks up. She remembers I'm there, and some instinct from the childhood that my colleagues and I have burdened her with comes back. She sits up straighter. She pushes her hair behind her ears. She turns her head slightly to the right, the profile she always liked.

I work with my reporter's wrist and flip to record, hanging my arm lazily over my own knee as I lean forward, looking interested.

"I've seen your videos," I say.

"Oh," her eyes are unfocused. "I'm not lying," she says quickly. Her voice is sharper, angrier than it used to be. I don't blame her.

"I know," I say. "That's why I'm here. I want you to tell me what you remember from growing up. How many times the photographers visited you? Why you're so upset now? Perhaps it isn't your time yet."

"Twelve years," she says quickly.

"Twelve years?" I ask.

Mrs. Ridley returns with the water, placing two plastic flower painted glasses between us. She moves to hover in the corner near the breakfast nook. It's as if her daughter is eleven again, and she has to make sure I am not there to hurt Casey, at least not physically.

"Twelve years since they stopped jumping. The last man I ever caught was at my high school graduation."

I think back to the photos I took of her dating Carlito Sanderson out in West Hollywood. Of the night I preempted Oscar coverage with a photo of her satin dress twenty-four hours before the telecast. But these things haven't happened yet. I try to think about what we'd ever had in the stream of a nineteen-year-old Casey, but I can't conjure any specifics. The Casey Ridley of the Silver Screen never went to college. She went right for California.

"The man at your graduation," I say. "Did he speak to you?"

"He waved," Casey says.

But that's nothing. We wave, we smile, we have to, especially when the marks are tiny tots and in diapers. You need a reaction. How could a wave have ruined the time line? This is important. This last instance has to be important. If I can go back to the office, check the stream and the credits, see which asshole it was at her graduation. Maybe it was Stan. This is why I'm here, to solve the mystery. To make sure this never happens again. To make sure that no other genetically well-endowed teenagers ever have to implode this way.

"And you blame the photographers?"

"Who else?"

Maybe we are getting somewhere.

"Why?" I ask.

"If they'd kept coming," she says. "If they'd have kept coming something would have happened."

And I realize she doesn't know anything. She doesn't know that something did happen. That two things happened. Two very big things. But that only one story, the story of a superstar, was a story Marco wanted to tell. That the story I am hearing is not supposed to get out. But there isn't a story to get out. Marco doesn't have to be worried. She doesn't know that we ruined her life by showing up; she thinks we ruined it when we stopped. But if we'd stopped before, if we'd never come at all, perhaps she would have been fine. She would have been better.

"And you miss the attention?" I ask.

I can see it's the wrong question. Casey's eyes have been strange, but I can see her browse knit together now, her lips curl downward.

"They promised," she says to her knees. "They promised." She says it again and looks up at me. "The attention. The photographs. They were a promise. They were a promise that something would happen. Nothing's happened. Nothing's going to happen. It was taunting. It was bullying, that trick. The lying."

I'm staring at a girl, a girl who was going to be beautiful and successful. I am staring at a thirty-year-old who is already certain her life is over. The world promised praise and interest and then promptly moved on. The world and me.

I watch her carefully and raise the camera still strapped to my wrist, behind the recorder. "Casey? May I take your picture?"

Her lashes flutter. I can't tell if she is excited or afraid. But I can see the movie star within. I see where they'd have drawn the mascara, where they'd have photoshopped the dimple on her mouth. It is all there behind the twitch in her glazed eyes.

"Alright," she stammers.

And maybe it's not the mystery that matters to me, maybe it's what I already know and understand that matters. Maybe Casey Ridley is important because no one ever came to my house. Maybe I care because in this story, I do play a part. Even if I'm the villain at least, in this story, I matter.


2019 Jessie Atkin

Bio: Jessie Atkin writes fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. She has previously won the A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition, and been featured in Geva Theatre’s Regional Writers Showcase. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA Review Network, Writers Resist, Cloudbank, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University, and B.A. in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.

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