The Illuminator of Souls

It was a surprisingly cool afternoon in the school forest. The sunlight played among the branches, creating glowing spots on the grass, or glimmering veils of dust that flowed through the gaps in the leaves. A breeze crept, cooling the people who walked the paved paths among the trees, the students who sat on the stone benches with their books and coffee, even the cats that lounged on the ground, bellies to the sky.

In the shade of a nearby building were four boys. One sat on a plastic chair, tuning his cello while reading an accounting textbook in between tasks. A second sat on the edge of a stone stool, his violin lying in its open case, as he typed on his laptop while speaking the lines of a poem aloud. Another boy played on a viola, stopped, memorized Latin names for different animal species, gave a quick, “Woohoo!” when he successfully did so, and went back to playing again. The last boy alternated between practicing scales on his violin and making notes on what looked like a newspaper page in dire need of his layout expertise.

And, before them, writing in her notebook while browsing through photos on her camera, was Syl. She sat in a faint circle of sunlight, which cast a glow on her bronze skin, and played on the dark curls of her hair.

“Ready?” The boy with the cello asked her.

“Not yet,” Syl wrote a few more notes, “Are you?”

The boy grinned, “Not really,” he closed his accounting book, “Almost done tuning. It’s just that – well, why do we need to play?”

Syl looked at him sideways without lifting her head from the camera, “Because I want to take a photo of you actually playing your music,” and, with a flourish of notes in her notebook, “Your album cover can’t look like a bunch of stills.”

“Not with the title ‘Play with Passion’,” the boy with the violin and newspaper page added, adjusting his glasses, “I’m ready though. Speed up the tuning, Bam.”

Bam, the cellist, went back to work, but not without making a face at the violinist.

“Well, at least the V-boys are ready,” the viola player sat down on the edge of a stone table, “Oy, Carlito, enough with the paper already.”

The other violinist gave a faint “Hm” as he kept typing.

“Oy, Carlito!” The violinist with glasses reached over and tapped the other on the head with his bow, “The paper can wait!”

Syl’s hands were fast. She grabbed her camera just as the bow bounced off Carlito’s head, and as the boy stuck his tongue out at his attacker.

“I have ten other papers, Salvo,” Carlito picked up his own bow, “Hit me again and you’ll write them all for me.”

The boys pretended to fight with their bows. They hardly stopped or even looked at Syl, who snapped photo after photo, laughing quietly, cheeks pink with a light blush.

“Wait ’til the violins come out,” the viola player told her.

“No worries. Lots of storage space,” Syl replied, “You can make this a three-way bow fight if you like, Don.”

“Or,” Don stepped closer to her side and said in a whisper, “We can make this a photo shoot of the photographer and violinist. Salvo and Syl. SalvoSyl.”

Syl made space for him in the bench, but edged away before he could nudge her, “It sounds like an antacid,” she snapped one more photo as the boys stopped their bow fight, “Ready, Bam?”

“Totally evading the issue,” Don sang softly, then laughed as Syl pushed him away and off the seat.

“Ready!” Bam called out, raising his bow and poking Salvo in the arm with it.

The single word seemed to herd the boys into place. Don nudged Carlito, told the boy to get his violin, and took his place at the edge of the stone table. Carlito put away his work, clambered onto the table, and stood up. Bam pulled a wooden stool to within Syl’s shooting range, watching her constantly as she looked into her camera and coached him into place. Salvo stood in the middle, tapping his feet to the beat of an imaginary song.

“So you guys have your choice of song,” Syl announced, eyes on Bam, who was still adjusting his cello, and then on Don, who was making faces at her, “Pick which one really represents you.”

The boys discussed pieces, voices darting back and forth, bars playing through the afternoon breeze. Syl kept shooting photographs, of Don raising his eyebrows at her every time someone said the word “love”, of Bam glaring at his cello when someone suggested a song, of Carlito sneaking in quick Eastern European songs and their staccato notes, and of Salvo listening to everyone with his head cocked to one side.

She even took photos of students who stopped to watch the string quartet. There was the gaggle of freshmen who giggled, stealing looks at the boys as they played a few bars. There was the too-cool senior, who pretended not to be paying attention, but who was visibly nodding his head to the beat created by Carlito’s violin. There was even Tai, who stopped to listen to Don’s question about selling tickets to their concert. Tai was working on their group’s finances, and was quite involved in performances, until lately. She had been distant, even now, as though the rest of her life warranted attention, while the string quartet was but a fly in her soup, a distraction, even a disturbance.

Tai had simply listened to the question. Then, she ran away.

“Uh huh,” Salvo and Bam chorused, shaking their heads as Tai kept running.

Syl had been taking the girl’s photos on impulse, feeling as though she could see the real Tai, the leader and org officer. She took more photos as Tai hurried off along the paved path, away from the boys. She snapped more even as the boys had already opened their books and began to play.

They decided on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and Syl had to ask them to play it again from the beginning, as she had missed the first few bars of it.

“It’s our album, not Tai’s,” Don said, half joking, half rueful, “All right, kids! Ready now! Five, six, seven, eight.”

The song played again, streaming from the quartet, flowing from the boys. Anyone who passed by would listen for a while, smile, and reluctantly walk away. They would hear the music as it urged them closer, and feel it cradle them as they walked away.

To Syl, however, the music looked like a river born of sunlight. She saw it break down into words, like a poem, in Carlito’s violin. She glimpsed sparkles of it glittering around Don, as though he were surrounded by mischief and giggles. She watched as it formed a cloak around Bam, whose dark head was still bowed to the cello, and whose eyes sometimes focused on a point beyond Syl, beyond the forest, beyond space. She fought not to stare as she saw the music envelope Salvo, as it wrapped around his violin, as he breathed it in, as it flowed out of his fingers or bounced against his glasses or shone in his eyes as he looked directly into her camera.

And every single time she saw the music, every single time a whisper in her head told her, every single time her heart beat her into action, she took a shot. She caught the boys smiling at each other as they worked in harmony, or laughing as one of them made the tiniest mistake in timing. She caught them in sunlight, in shadow, in a breeze, in the midst of the noise of faraway traffic.

And as the last note played, she took a final shot, then motioned for them to bow, as though it were truly a performance.

“Very good!” She smiled and took her own bow, “I’ll send you the photos as soon as we edit them.”

“Ouch,” Salvo joked, “I’m ugly. I know.”

Don made a face at Syl, which she could only glare at.

“I want lightsabers for bows,” Carlito put in.

“That’s been done by like, everyone,” Bam retorted.

“Swords for bows?”

“Do you still want to have a violin when you’re done?”

“Wands. Harry Potter wands.”

“Dude, really?”

“Let’s leave it up to Syl,” Salvo finally spoke, prompting Don to grin his wickedest at the girl, and for Syl’s throat to go completely dry, “She’s the expert, so I’m sure she’ll come up with something nice – even if she has to erase my face.”

Syl could only come up with a combination of a nervous laugh, a shake of her head, and a string of words that might have sounded like, “No, of course not!” had she said it clearly.

“Yes, let’s leave it to our expert,” Don said pointedly, “Thank you, Syl!”

The rest of the boys followed the words with their own chorus, followed by a mad scramble for their things. Everyone except Don was hurrying off to a class, or a meeting, and the air around Syl filled itself with the sounds of boxes sealing, laptops shutting, and bags getting packed.

“You could have said something more,” Don spoke, when everyone else had gone, “Aw Salvo, I’d put your face on everyone else’s body if I could. Ow. Or: damn, Salvo, you’re hot, don’t worry. Ow. Or: I’d shoot you Salvo, even if it were just the two of – God, for a skinny kid, you hit hard!”

Syl had indeed been punching Don on the arm in between suggestions, and he finally pulled her ponytail when he could not even finish his last sentence.

“You don’t get how awkward I am,” Syl finally backed away, storing her notebook in her bag as she did so.

“You’re not awkward,” Don replied, “You just don’t know how to put words together when he’s around.”

“I think that’s the definition of awkward.”

“No – that’s the definition of scared, or nervous. You’ll be fine, Syl.”

She took his picture just then.

“What was that for?” Don gasped.

“Documenting you in a position of comforting friendship,” she answered, finally storing her camera in its case.

Don held a hand to his heart, “I’ve just been friendzoned!” He walked backward, from the grass and onto the paved path, “Are you sure you really want me on the album cover, or are you just using my body so you can put Salvo’s face on it?”

“You’re late for class!” Syl laughed, waving goodbye to him.

Syl carried all her bags as soon as Don was out of sight. She laughed to herself, acknowledging her awkwardness – or nervousness – in front of Salvo, whom she really, truly liked. Don was the only one on earth who knew about it. He had stumbled on photos she had taken of him, and had seen angles of Salvo that, Don said, “No friend would see unless she really liked Salvo and wanted to marry him.”

Syl didn’t think that far ahead, but she knew that Don was right on one account. She knew how to take photos. It was something she had done well ever since childhood, with her father’s old digital camera. Her eyes knew when the horizon was perfect for a shot. Her head knew when a building was in the right shadow for a picture. Her heart knew when she was looking at someone and seeing their soul.

Her camera, whatever it was she was holding, also seemed to see beyond the human eye. She never told anyone, but she sometimes had the urge to just photograph people – only to find that they were surrounded by gauzy, sparkling white light. The lights would show up on her digital camera’s tiny display, where they were too faint, too small, to be noticed. Syl therefore made it a habit to turn off her display, and save her white light image viewing for later, when she was alone and moving photos to her computer. She read somewhere that these lights could be orbs, which represented supernatural energy or ghosts or angels. Syl never had time to find out. The lights disappeared from her photos seconds after she would see them, and no screenshot could capture them, no amount of saving or copying could duplicate them.

This had gone on for years, and Syl never told anyone. She simply produced photos, shot school bands and groups, and documented school activities. And she could sense when a photo had to be taken.

As in, that very moment, as she walked back to her apartment from the school, and made for a treeless path. To Syl alone, it seemed as though the campus had gotten darker despite the sunlight. She raised her camera to the sky, took a shot, and returned the camera to her bag.

She had no classes for the rest of the day, and Syl decided to go home and stay home earlier. She exited the campus, went straight to her building, took the elevator to her floor, opened her apartment door, and laid her things down as gently as she could. She had walked home with patience, with the air of nonchalance and routine of a professional; but in private, Syl could be extremely, almost irrationally excited, especially where her photos were concerned.

She started up her laptop, connected her camera, and allowed her photos to load.

This was something that took a while, so she ate a late lunch, running all around her apartment as she heated things, unpacked her bag, ate from her dish as she took it straight out of the microwave, drank water almost carelessly so that she nearly spilled it all over the floor, and crashed herself into the chair as her computer beeped out that it had finished transferring files. Syl nearly fell off her seat in excitement.

She disconnected the camera and laid it back in its case, hands slow and movements measured. As soon as she zipped the bag closed, she opened the folders on her computer, taking nearly twice the time to do everything as her fingers slipped on the track pad.

She was drawn immediately to the thumbnails that showed the photos of the string quartet playing. Salvo’s face in the thumbnails had prompted her to quickly copy the latter-most set of photos and paste them into a separate folder.

That was when she noticed her very last photo, which she had mistakenly included as part of the group.

She expected to see a clear sky, with the merest hint of clouds. But the thumbnail was entirely black.

Syl opened the file. She saw the blackness move, like a giant mass of tar rolling back to reveal the sky once more.

She had never seen shadows. There had always been light, and orbs, and tiny stars. But dark masses – never.

Syl’s fingers froze over the track pad. She felt her breath scrape in her throat, and the blood in her nape turn to ice.

She checked the boys’ photos, suddenly losing the urge to linger on Salvo’s face. At least once in every formal photoshoot, she would see white smoke and orbs. This time, all the photos were normal; beautiful, she admitted, but spotless, bright, lovely, normal.

On impulse, she returned to the downloads folder to look at the rest of the shots. There was Salvo, adjusting his glasses. There was Carlito, getting hit on the head with Salvo’s bow. There was Bam, head bowed to his cello. There was Don, ever mischievous, with a grin on his face as bright as the afternoon.

And then there was Tai.

Tai had always been so self-assured, so strong. But in photo after photo, she seemed afraid of something, running from something, hiding from something, ready to weep at the slightest jest. In photo after photo, her eyes seemed to speak of fear, of of dread, of almost soul-breaking despair.

And in photo after photo, there was that near-silhouette of an old woman, with wild hair and gnarled fingers, who stood behind Tai and waited. She sometimes stared at the back of Tai’s head, or made to touch the girl’s shoulder. At one point, she looked directly into the camera, baring a thousand narrow, pointed teeth in a leering, seething grin.

And then she would disappear, and there would be Tai, alone and afraid.

Syl had no strength to scream. Her brain had the ability to erase all images in the same way that the orbs and lights disappeared from her photos. But at that moment, all she could see in her head was the old woman, eyes empty, mouth open, fangs sharp. She heard her heart pounding in her ears. She felt tears streaming down her cheeks.

Syl jumped as her phone beeped.

She reached for it, and found a text message from her university.

“Main campus is on emergency lockdown. All students and professors in classes should stay in their classrooms. All dormitory residents are not allowed to leave their building. All personnel should not leave their offices. All other persons should leave the campus. No one will be allowed to enter.”

Syl suddenly found her legs. She stood up, walked to her window, and looked out at the campus. She found a sea of students racing out of the gates, a river of cars winding out into the traffic of the main avenue, and emergency responders on motorcycles weaving through narrow paths out of the way of students.

On impulse, she dialed Tai’s number. The phone kept on ringing, and Syl kept on redialing, but Tai did not pick up.

Then, another text message came, this time from Don.

“Where are you?”

Syl wiped away her tears, then typed as fast as her shaking fingers would allow. “At home. Where are you? Saw text about lockdown. What happened?”

She shook as she sent the text message. She jumped yet again as the response came back, even as she somewhat expected it.

“Tai tried to kill herself. Saw her at top of your building. Rumor is that she was screaming in another language. At McDonald’s. Want to meet up?”

“Sorry,” she responded, fingers hitting the wrong keys, “Busy.”

“Friendzoned again!” Was the swift reply.

Syl had no strength to joke. She sank to the floor, trembled with the weight of her secret, and wept.