Elizabeth Vogt

That morning, I could smell my mother before I could see her. I would have recognized her perfume anywhere, the heady scent of jasmine and coriander. She hadn’t been a particularly polished woman, but she’d never gone anywhere, not even the gas station, without several spritzes of the stuff. The little black bottle must have crossed over with her to the other side. 

For the past month, she’d been appearing at my bedside in the early morning, between three and four o’clock. She never justified her timing to me, and I never complained. I didn’t sleep much anyway, so when she arrived I was usually half-awake, lying in my bed with my eyes closed, only playing the part of slumber. I could see her, but even when I faced her directly, her figure flicked in and out of view, as though she were in a blind spot. 

“Owen,” she said that morning, as I turned to face her. “Get up, sweetheart.” I looked at her petite figure in the doorway. She was smiling. Her image wavered but her raspy voice was resonant. Her words came at me from the walls, the ceiling, the floor.

I picked up my t-shirt from the floor and pulled it over my head, then reached for my glasses beside the blinking digital clock on the nightstand. There was the stemless glass with the dried memory of red wine at the bottom from earlier that night. Norah didn’t approve of my new ritual—bringing a glass of wine to bed with me while I scrolled through Twitter. “That feels like a gateway to other things,” she’d said. I’d asked her what “other things” she meant, but by then she was already reading, which meant she was done talking to me. These days, she was into those pocket thriller novels they sell at airport newsstands, tearing through one or two a week. 

When I followed my mother out of the room I didn’t have to worry about waking Norah. She slept deeply and in total silence, as if she were dead. In our two years sharing a bed, amid all my tossing and turning and, now, the commotion of my mothers’ visits, Norah had remained completely undisturbed.

I felt that my mother shouldn’t have visited me so soon after her death. But she was eager to talk, in the same way she’d been eager to call me at the sleepaway camp I attended every summer as a kid, even though it was against the rules for parents to call before the two-week mark. Don’t disturb the acclimation period, the camp director had told her. Let them become comfortable with the distance before you try to bridge it. She called anyway.

I followed my mother down the narrow hallway of the apartment. She moved slowly and mumbled to herself under her breath. By now I knew not to ask about her plans. She was only there to help me. I’d successfully hidden my professional floundering from her while she was alive, even though she was the one person who could have helped me the most, having been a photographer herself. Now she knew everything—how I’d gotten laid off from the magazine staff position, how I was barely getting by with the freelance work I cobbled together. I was begging for work from my measly network, thrilled by the prospect of shooting a wedding, the kind of gig I once thought myself too good for. Now I saw glistening cash behind every shot of a gauzy bridal veil, a cake, a first dance. A wedding was fast food, and I was starving. 

When we got downstairs, my mother led me outside to my car. I opened the passenger door and she slipped inside. I got behind the wheel and started the car, then tuned the radio to the local classical station—the only one she approved of. I looked over at her. As a ghost she always wore the same outfit—an oversized denim button-down, khaki pants, black oxfords. She smiled, flickered out, then back in, and said:

“Let’s go home.”

The water shimmered beside us, all the way down Lakeshore Drive. My mother released her stream of advice and I let it wash over me. She knew that Norah and I were having problems. She told me stories about all the fights she’d had with my father at the beginning of their relationship, how none of that mattered in the end. It was hard for me to believe they’d gone through a phase like this. All of my memories of the two of them together were completely bereft of tension. As different as the two of them were from one another, they were more in love than any couple I’d ever seen. It embarrassed me as a kid, how much they kissed in front of people, my mother’s shrieking laugh, my father’s quiet little pranks. Now, I prayed that this capacity to love was a passed-down trait, that maybe I’d even gotten a double dose of it, and the gene just hadn’t expressed itself yet. But I also knew there had been something, not in my mother or father separately, but in the space between them, that was the thing Norah and I lacked.

Half an hour later, we arrived at my childhood home. It was light gray, almost white, with black shutters and a red tile roof that was unusual for the neighborhood. The front yard was small but my father kept it immaculate. The bushes were always trimmed. Two small flower beds flanked the front stairs. They were full of white daffodils that shone in the moonlight.

We walked around the back of the house and I unlocked the door that led to the unfinished basement—my mother’s secret world. It was where she’d kept all of her photography equipment. No one had bothered to clear it all out since her death. It now occurred to me that I probably should have been the one to do it, even though my father still lived there. I was the only one who cared about this stuff. The room had amazed me as a kid, with all of its magical devices—long telephoto lenses and filters and flash bulbs. They had tempted me into the creative trap. Now I understood that there was no magic to any of it. It was all just an impossible game of triangulating talent, timing, and luck. It was a game my mother had played very well.

She’d bought me my first film camera when I was ten. Every Saturday, we’d wake up early to go out and shoot. We drove into Chicago in her station wagon, looking for sun-lit steam pouring out of manholes or broken cars. My mother had taken photos of famous people for a living, which were printed in huge, glossy magazines that rich people liked to stack up on their coffee tables. But I knew she’d always been more drawn to busted, rusting things and old architecture. When I was younger, I had this dream of picking up where she left off, of making this my area of expertise. 

I looked around the basement. The teal Frigidaire in the corner was coated in dust. A candy-colored nest of wires sagged from a hole in the ceiling. Out of the tiny window I could see darkness beginning to lift. I checked my watch. It was almost five. 

“I’ve gotta get back soon,” I said. “I have to prepare for something at nine.”

“Oh, you do not,” she said. “Go open that freezer door, will you, darling?”

We walked over to the corner and I pulled the silver handle. Inside were several ice trays and bottles of vodka. Behind these were two long, flat boxes, stacked on top of each other. I pulled one out and brushed away the layer of ice crystals, then removed the lid.

Rolls of film. It was a tip she’d told me about on one of our many photography excursions—that if you stored film in the freezer it would last longer, decay slower.

“You know I don’t shoot film anymore, Mom,” I said. “And those look ancient. They’ve got to be, like, three decades old, at least.”

“Oh, they’re much older than that. These were your grandfather’s. He offered them to me, for professional emergencies. But I never had the need, you know.”

“What is it, really high-end stuff?”

“Well, your grandfather swore by this film. They stopped making it when everything went digital. Any time I was in a photo shop, I’d ask if they still carried it. If they did, I’d buy every roll in stock, just in case I ever needed it. I found a good amount on Ebay, too. But like I said, I never used it. I was happy with how my stuff was turning out.”

I picked up one of the frozen rolls. The label was pale blue with black, bold lettering: EIGA LAB 400. I had never heard of the brand. My mother reached out and took the roll from my palm. I was surprised that she was able to hold it. She gazed at the cold cylinder in wonder, as if it were some magnificent animal.

“All I can tell you is that one day he was an amateur photographer, about to give up, and the next his photos were popping up in The Tribune, National Geographic. If you go back and look at his early stuff—I mean, he really had no talent whatsoever. And then suddenly he was everywhere. No one had ever seen such incredible photos. I’d like you to give it a try, okay?”

“Alright. I think it’s time for us to go home.” I took the other box out of the freezer and quickly shut the door.

“You don’t believe me.”

“I do, Mom. I’ll try it, okay?”

“Honey, this is the last thing I have for you,” she said. “Once I fully grasped your situation, I knew it was time to pass these on. You use these, or you give up on all of it.” She laughed, as she always did right before she was about to leave. Then she was gone, her scent still hanging in the air.

If she were alive, the conversation would have concerned me. I would have wondered whether dementia was setting in, or some other neurological condition. The suggestion that my grandfather’s fame could be attributed to the brand of film he used was absurd. He’d been a visionary, one of the most talented artists of his generation. When I reminded myself that my mother was already dead, I felt relieved.

 I set the boxes down on the table. I looked at the rolls of film, cold and peaceful and orderly. I couldn’t deny that there was something comforting about them. Film was expensive, time-consuming, and unreliable compared to digital. But maybe it would be good for me to shoot a roll, just for myself. I could even take some photos of Norah, if she let me. I took one of my mother’s old canvas bags from a corner, a navy one with cream-colored straps, and placed the boxes inside. When I got to the basement door, I heard a voice from upstairs.


I went to the base of the staircase. The door at the top opened and light poured down the steps. It was my father.

“Hey, son. What are you doing here so early?”

“Oh, hi. Just grabbing some of Mom’s stuff.”

“Come up a second, why don’t you?” He left the doorway and I obliged, climbing the unfinished wood stairs.

When I got to the kitchen, my father was sitting at the kitchen table, spotlit under the light fixture, sipping on a steaming mug of tea. He was fully dressed for the day, in dark jeans and a pale blue button down that accentuated his narrow figure. He had been bald for most of his adult life, and it suited him.

“I figure she wouldn’t want all that stuff sitting there unused, you know,” I said.

“Right you are.”

“I’ll come back and organize it all at some point. It’s a mess down there.”

“Sure. Don’t sweat it. You can tell me when you’re coming, you know. I mean, I’m up early anyway, if you prefer to come at these hours. You don’t need to sneak in.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t sneaking in. I just didn’t want to disturb you. I’ll come up next time.”


The next week, Norah and I went to a party at Darryl’s place, where I shot a roll of film. Afterwards we went back to my apartment. We’d only had a glass of wine each. We didn’t get drunk together when we were out, not anymore. There was always something in the morning, somewhere more important to be, at least for Norah.

I followed her into the bedroom. She went to the chest of drawers and crouched down to open the bottom one. It was where she kept one of her college t-shirts, some boxer shorts, and several bras and pairs of underwear, none of which could be classified as lingerie. Sometimes, when I was home alone, I opened the bottom drawer and sifted through the cotton and rayon with my hands, feeling for something new, the surprising sensation of silk or linen, but I never found anything. My wardrobe was even plainer than hers—the same t-shirts, button downs, and pants in a handful of neutral colors. We’d been together for over two years, and though we sometimes discussed the possibility of moving in together, Norah said she couldn’t imagine giving up her place.

While Norah got undressed, I pulled off my t-shirt and jeans and tossed them into the open closet. I went back into the hall in my boxers and took my camera out of its bag. The party portraits had filled an entire roll, 36 shots. Everyone had wanted their picture taken, as people always did at that kind of party. The lighting had been dim, so many of the shots on the roll would likely turn out blurry.

“Think you got some good ones?” said Norah. She was dressed now, in her underwear and oversized t-shirt. She sat down next to me on the end of the bed and folded her legs under herself while she tapped an oily serum onto her cheeks with her fingertips. Her silver-dyed hair was twisted into a knot on the top of her head. I started to wind the film with the door of the camera still closed, noticing the tension, picturing each mediocre portrait in my mind—click, click, click—as the film strip snaked back into the roll.

“Well, that’s the thing with this,” I said. “I have no idea. I can’t look at them yet.”

“I know, but you must have a sense of whether they’re good or not, from when you took them.” 

“Yeah. We’ll see.”

Once the tension released I knew that all the film had made it back inside, and I stopped turning the lever. I popped the door of the camera open and put the roll in one of the plastic canisters I’d taken from the basement. On the lid, I wrote Darryl Party, 4/27, B&W, and tossed it in the front pocket of the canvas tote. In the morning, I would go to get them developed.


The next week, things got worse. Norah had stormed out, after a debate about whether the chicken was cooked through had morphed into a vicious fight about money and, inevitably, my financial situation. She wanted me to do something more serious. She’d been into photography too, once, back when we first met in college. On one of our first dates we’d looked at some of her photos. I could still remember the shots she’d shown me. They were very good, and I was jealous of them, which had increased my attraction to her exponentially. But after graduation, Norah had swiftly translated her visual skills into the world of marketing and communications. Now she worked at a PR firm. To my knowledge, Norah hadn’t taken a photo on a real camera in ages, only snapshots of food and skylines on her phone. 

Once the fever of our fight broke, I watched her from behind as she gathered her keys and wallet from the entryway tray and pulled her beanie over her head. I couldn’t find anything to say as I watched her leave. Everything around me was breaking. She slammed the door, so hard that a shard of paint below the doorknob fell softly to the floor. 

On Saturday morning, I woke up alone to a cloudy view out the window. While I made my coffee, I got a call from the film store—my contact sheets were ready. I got dressed, threw on a jacket and headed out, grateful for something to take my mind off of things.

When I got to the store there was a small woman at the counter, in place of the man who I’d left the roll with. She handed me a large envelope with the contact sheet inside, along with a small envelope of negatives. 

“That’ll be twenty-one, seventy-five,” she said. She gestured to a poster on the wall behind her that listed the prices, which surely had been there when I’d come in the week before. The film had already been processed, so I had no choice but to pull out my wallet and hand the woman my credit card. Soon, I would know whether I had spent twenty-two dollars on a sea of black rectangles, if the camera or the film turned out to be defunct after all these years.

 I took a seat at the small desk in the corner, which had a light box and a square magnifying glass for examining thumbnails and negatives. I removed the glossy sheet from the envelope and placed it on the glowing surface. 

The shots had turned out, and they didn’t look too bad at first glance. I slid the magnifying lens slowly across the row of thumbnails. There was Jim, Adanya and Grace, Mason with the cat. The black and white made everyone look cooler, more cohesive. But none seemed good enough to print. 

Until the last frame, number 36: It was a woman with a mass of curly, bright blonde hair piled on top of her head, gazing at me. Her complexion was a light source of its own, beaming from within, igniting the tiny pearl that hung on a chain at her throat. Everything behind her folded gently into dark shadow so that it was just her, a single voice calling out in a silent room. 

I tried to remember everyone I’d spoken to at Darryl’s, but this face was nowhere in my memory of the evening. In fact, I felt certain that I’d never seen this woman in my entire life. I looked down at the photo again, noticing even more details than the first time—the points of light in her pupils, the way her fingertips rested elegantly on her shoulder. Someone else must have picked up my camera. Probably Norah. Maybe she still had the touch, even after all these years.

When I got home, I took a picture of the thumbnail with my phone and texted it to Norah.

Did you take this? I wrote. No, she fired back, almost immediately. Is that Marisa?

I called Norah. The first two times I got her answering machine, which only had an automated message, but by the third time, she picked up.

“Norah. Did you use my camera at the party? This picture—I didn’t take it. I don’t think I met that woman. It’s a great shot.” I said.

“No, I didn’t. You had the camera around your neck the entire time. You probably just don’t remember.”

I took a deep breath. I didn’t want the conversation to escalate into a fight. “So, who is she?” I said.

“Oh, Marisa? That’s Darryl’s ex. I didn’t talk to her, but she must have come by at some point. Maybe they’re rekindling things.”

“How could both of us have missed her? It was a really small party.”

“Owen, come on. Let it go. You took a great picture! Be happy.”

Norah came back to my apartment that night with Thai takeout. I showed her the contact sheet. She held her phone camera up to it and zoomed in on the frame to make it bigger. 

“Wow,” she said. “I guess the breakup did her some good. She looks fucking radiant.” Norah clicked the white circle at the bottom of her screen to take a picture. The phone made its loud, imitation shutter sound. Then she turned around and kissed me. “Looks like you found your new medium,” she said.


The next morning, I woke up to the smell of bacon. Music played from Norah’s portable speaker in the kitchen. I rolled over and grabbed my phone from the nightstand. There was a text from an unknown number:

Owen!! it’s Marisa, Norah gave me your number. Can’t believe that photo, you are talented! I’d love to use it for the jacket of a book I have coming out soon.

I got up and went to the kitchen. Norah was bouncing to the music, spatula in hand.

“Marisa texted me,” I said. Norah turned around and grinned.

“I may have sent her a picture of the photo…I just knew she’d want to see it. Did she love it?”

“Yeah. She wants to use it for her book.”

“That’s great!” Norah turned back to the bacon and nudged the strips through the bath of bubbling fat with the spatula. “Text her back and come eat.”

I was sure someone else had taken the shot. It was the only thing that made sense, unless my memory was going downhill already. I went back into the bedroom and typed out a message to Marisa:

Hey! So glad you like the photo. It’s from that little party at Darryl’s last week. Weird Q but—did we meet?

I sent the message and watched the three typing dots from her end. They appeared, then disappeared, then appeared again. Then, a message.

Nope, definitely wasn’t from that, I wasn’t there. Darryl’s my ex, I haven’t seen him in months. It must be from another night. I’m forwarding your info to my agent so she can arrange the photo rights!! Xx

I dropped my phone on the bed. I had only shot one roll. I had shot it from start to finish, at that party. I thought of my mother, then my grandfather. I couldn’t summon her, but I hoped she would come to my bedside again soon. I needed to understand. 


My mother wasn’t helpful when she came back that night. I took her into the kitchen to see the contact sheet. She gasped when she saw the last frame.

“Now that’s a portrait. Don’t let Norah see—no woman ever wants to see a photo like that of another woman, taken by her guy.”

“I already showed it to her,” I said. “I had to ask her whether she knew this person, whether she took the photo. I swear I’ve never met her. And the woman says she wasn’t even at that party.”

My mother smiled and smoothed out my hair with her palm. “Well, I don’t know, sweetheart. But look—the film’s working great, you’re getting fantastic stuff. Just keep going.”

Soon after she left, I drove to my parent’s house and went through the basement entrance. I went to the corner and opened the freezer. At first, I didn’t see anything, but when I rolled the vodka bottles aside, I found two more flat boxes. I pulled them out and set them on the table, then took off the lids. Both were packed with the Eiga Lab film. I peered in the freezer again to see if there were any more boxes I had missed, but there were none. At least now I had enough film to experiment with for a while. I pushed the frosty bottles back into place but one began to roll. Before I could stop it with my hand, it fell to the floor. It was a thick bottle, and the shatter was loud.

“Shit,” I said, pushing the shards of glass into a pile with the toe of my boot. A minute later, I heard footsteps on the stairs. I winced. I’d wanted to be in and out, but now it was too late. I turned around. My father was inching slowly down the stairs with a baseball bat at his side. When our eyes met, his shoulders relaxed.

“Oh, Jesus. I thought it might be you again, but when I heard the glass break—” he looked down at the remnants of the bottle on the floor, then up at me. “What are you doing?”

“Hey, sorry. I was coming to grab some more of Mom’s film.”

“Right,” said my father, walking towards me. “Now, why would you need to go into the freezer for that?”

“She liked to store her film in there. It preserves it for longer.”

He nodded. We looked at each other for a moment. Then he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. “You doing okay, Owen?”

“I’m fine, Dad. I’m going to clean this up now, okay?”

“Alright. Why don’t you come up when you’re done.” He turned and went back upstairs.

I found a rag and a broom by the door and sopped up as much vodka as I could. Then I swept up the shards onto a piece of cardboard and dumped them in the trash. I wanted to leave, but now that I’d caused a scene I had to go up. I put the film in my bag.

When I got to the kitchen, my father gestured for me to sit down at the table beside him. 

“Son, I know you’re struggling. If you need help, money, please—”

I stood up almost as soon as I sat down. It was like him to assume the worst of me, to jump to conclusions based on what he decided were clues. 

“Look, I’ve gotta be somewhere. I appreciate that, but I promise, everything’s fine. Have a good day, Dad.”

“Okay. Alright.”

I went through the front hall and slammed the door. 


On Sunday, I made a plan to go to a climate march downtown with Jack and Al. We met up at an old coffee shop near where the protest would start and sat outside on the sidewalk. Things had finally thawed out after one of the harshest Chicago winters I’d ever seen. There had been five-foot icicles on all the buildings and frostbite advisories. Roofs and gutters buckled under the weight of the snow. Now the timid April warmth gave everyone a giddiness that could only be understood in the wake of grimness. It was the perfect energy for a protest. I had loaded my camera with another roll of the film. It hung heavy around my neck. I sipped on my iced coffee as Al showed us the march route on his phone. 

Once we were in the thick of the crowd on Michigan Avenue, I began to look for scenes to capture. People held cardboard signs above their heads. There were families, kids, couples, groups of teenagers. With my digital camera, I would have taken hundreds of pictures at this kind of event. Instead, I only had 36 chances. I looked at the white buildings through my viewfinder. They burned bright in the sun. The rich blue of the sky was reflected in the river, which had been dyed green just a month earlier for St. Patrick’s Day. When we reached DuSable Bridge, I began to settle on compositions I liked. I balanced out the dense crowd by including a generous amount of sky above. The flags on either side of the bridge waved in the wind and the voices grew louder and echoed across the water. As we walked, I turned around periodically to capture the faces, at the moment of a shout or a sidelong glance. I continued for the rest of the protest, until the lever on my camera would no longer advance. 

Over the next week I shot two more rolls. On Friday, my mother arrived again. We left my apartment and walked the dark streets of Lincoln Park. It was warm enough now to be outside with only a light jacket, even in the earliest hours. We passed a convenience store that was just turning its lights on, a row of dark boutiques, a French restaurant with chairs inverted on the outdoor tables. The train rumbled overhead. She asked me how many rolls I’d shot so far. When I told her, she said, “What’s the hold up?”

“I just wish it didn’t cost an arm and a leg…”

“Ah, I see. Even after I’m dead, you’re still trying to ask me for money!” She threw her head back and laughed. I shook my head and smiled. I wanted to bottle her laugh and keep it on a shelf somewhere, forever. It diffused out into the street, bounced off the buildings before everything settled back into silence. 

I got my contact sheets from the shop a few days later. I’d shot one roll at a party I’d gone to with Jack and Al, one of Norah in an antique warehouse in Edgewater, and the one at the march downtown. As soon as the woman handed me the envelopes I began ripping them open. I went to the corner to spread them out on the table. 

The set from the party with Jack and Al had a 90’s feel. I’d attached a flash to the camera, which had blown some people’s faces out. Everyone had drinks in their hands. In the last row, there was a picture of Jack and Al, one of Jack’s boyfriend and his sister, and one of two guys holding beer steins. Something was strange. I squinted, not believing who I thought I saw. The guys looked just like Zain and Chris, two of our other friends from college. I held my breath. We’d been talking about them at the party that night. Both of them lived in L.A. None of us had seen them in years. 

My hands trembled as I pulled out the next sheet, the roll from the antique store. They were mostly of Norah, sitting in funky, mid-century furniture. She’d said it reminded her of her grandmother’s house in Cleveland. We’d had fun that day, playing house in the odd living room setups, thumbing through ancient records in milk crates for almost an hour. Things were starting to get better between us. We hadn’t encountered anyone else in the place except for the employees at the register. But sure enough, in the middle of the grid of photos, there was Norah with an old woman, who had her same high cheekbones and dimpled chin. They both looked perfectly amused, as if they knew they shouldn’t be in the same place at the same time. Suddenly, I felt deeply unsettled. I couldn’t show Norah the photograph. It wouldn’t bring her joy in the way it should, only bewilderment. Because it didn’t make sense.

The protest photos were magnificent. In black and white, the historic buildings looked timeless. The river was black and sparkling. One of the last shots was of a woman standing on a block on the side of the bridge. One hand gripped a megaphone while the other was raised in a fist. Her cropped, dark hair shone in the sunlight and her eyes were wide and full of ferocious hope. It was Rep. Jenny Marco, from Chicago’s 4th district. I was sure of it. Of all the political figures, she was one of the most photographed. As a young, progressive newcomer in Congress, she had a devoted following, especially among climate activists. If she had been at the protest, people would have swarmed her. Everyone there would have recognized her. I did a quick internet search to try and determine her whereabouts on the day of the march. Sure enough, I found a video of her speaking at a congressional hearing in D.C. on the same afternoon. Nothing could explain this. But the photo really was fantastic.

When I got home, I went to Rep. Marco’s website. She was up for re-election this year. I found a press email on the site. The image would be an ideal for campaign materials—the low angle, the expanse of bright sky, her shining, hopeful eyes. It was an iconic shot. I wondered how much a team like hers would pay me for an image like this, whether anyone would think twice about whether she had actually been at the protest. I hovered my cursor over the send button for a minute before clicking it.

Within hours, I received a response. They wanted to forward the photo to the campaign’s design team, with my permission, at which point they could discuss compensation. First Marisa’s book jacket photo, and now, this. I was overwhelmed by how all the hope I’d squirreled away for decades was so quickly transforming into reality. So many questions lingered in my mind, but I reminded myself that this was the moment to say yes to everything, to open the floodgates. I collected some of my best recent shots and attached them in an email to my former boss at the magazine with the subject “What I’ve Been Up To.” Feeling the photos spoke for themselves, I didn’t write a note. 

The next day, I’d been both re-hired and promoted to a better position that would give me the freedom to shoot a wider range of stories and have a hand in the magazine’s editorial process. To jump this many rungs of the ladder should have taken me years.

When my mother arrived that night, I was still elated. I told her everything. The photos were saving my career. They were saving my life.

I wanted more film. I was going to blow through the rolls in a matter of weeks. My mother had mentioned that she had collected lots of it over the years, so I knew there had to be more in the house. I asked her whether we could go back that night so she could lead me to the rest of her stash.

“You can go on your own, sweetie,” she said.

“Okay. Where is it, though?”

“Oh, here and there. It’s sort of spread out all over the place. You know me and my chaos. I left your father a list of locations. Why don’t you spend some time together, and you can talk about it.”

She was smiling. I was quiet. I waited for her to say something else. 

“Honey, his beautiful wife is dead. I mean, can you imagine? He needs you around. I know he might not always tell you that, but it’s true.”

“He’s fine, Mom.”

“And you need him, too, by the way.”

“It’s hard, without you around. We don’t make sense. He assumes the worst of me. It’s hard to talk things through.”

“Well, you sure as hell better try.”


The next time I went over to the house, my father cooked eggs for us while I made coffee with my mother’s french press, which he’d shoved away in a cupboard. We sat at the table and read while we ate, which lifted away the pressure of conversation. He pulled a piece of the paper out and gave it to me. Afterwards, he went off somewhere in the house and came back with a box of film for me. 

“You been talking to her, too?” he said, after he handed me the box.

“Yeah. She can’t seem to leave us alone.”

“I’ll say.”


On one of the hottest days in July, Norah finally moved into my apartment for good. We carried her boxes of clothes and IKEA furniture up the stairs of my building, our hairlines dripping with sweat. Her skin had turned a deeper color after weeks in the sun, and she’d given up on the silver dye. Now her dark roots were starting to come back in. Things had never felt more right between us. My apartment didn’t have air conditioning and we continued to sweat all night. But I slept better than I had in months. 

My father and I started having breakfast together every Saturday morning. Conversations began to flow naturally between us, especially when we talked about my mother. There weren’t many photos of her, because she was always the one on the other side of the camera. But we found a handful around the house, and I pinned them on the kitchen bulletin board so my father could look at them. I brought Norah over for dinner and my father loved her. We cooked my mother’s shakshuka recipe and polished off a couple bottles of wine. After dinner, Norah and I fell asleep in my old bedroom.

As the weeks passed, I found that the questions I had about the film bothered me less. I embraced its unique physics, releasing myself from the need to understand. After all, it always brought me exactly what I needed. My mother visited less and less frequently, until I sensed that she would soon fade away for good. 

Her last visit was on a cool September morning, just before sunrise. She had to push a book off the table to startle me awake. 

“This is it,” she said.


“Anything else you want to say to me? Keep it nice.”

“Why can’t you keep coming back?” I said. “You’ve done it for this long.” 

“Oh, sweetie, I would if I could. You’ll understand when you’re dead.”

I didn’t want to cry in front of my mother now, didn’t want that to be the last image she had of me. She drifted closer to me, her visage steady and clear. I wanted to keep her in my memory, just like this.

“Let me shoot a roll of you, okay?” I said. “Let me try.”

“Alright, sweetheart.”

I grabbed my camera from the corner and took out the existing roll, then loaded a new one with shaking fingers. She stood in the doorway, peaceful and brilliant. The creases at the outer corners of her eyes, her glimmering hair, it was all so beautiful to me. I shot all thirty-six exposures, certain that in one of them, my mother would appear.

Elizabeth Vogt is a senior from Washington, D.C. studying creative writing and history. She does her best singing in the car and her best thinking right as she’s about to fall asleep.