Working a mass-disappearance case is always unsettling. Far too often, we arrive at the location to find a ghost town that's populated with a few gibbering stragglers and an occasional abandoned child. Sometimes we're lucky, and we find some poor, traumatized hold-out who has just barely managed not to get killed, abducted, or otherwise rendered unable to give a coherent statement. Since these people are able to give us at least some clue as to what's going on, these events tend to be the ones with better outcomes.
When we arrived in Asheville, NC, we were surprised to find numerous cogent witnesses. Most were visibly depressed, and reported that their missing loved ones had told them in no uncertain terms that they wouldn't be coming back.
This excerpt from an interview with Mr. Phillip Locke of Asheville, NC is typical:
Agent Fletcher: So when did Mrs. Locke start behaving strangely?
Mr. Locke: Yesterday. We went to see the new exhibit at the Blue Iris. It happened very suddenly… She just stopped in her tracks and glazed over. I was afraid she was going to pass out, so I reached out to steady her. That was when she came to and slapped me.
Agent Fletcher: I see. So she actually became violent?
Mr. Locke: Yeah… Then she started shouting at me to get the hell away from her.
Agent Fletcher: She has never done anything like that before?
Mr. Locke: No, never. I was totally blindsided. All of a sudden, it was like she hated my guts.
Agent Fletcher: How long did this go on?
Mr. Locke: Just a few minutes. After reading me my pedigree, she ran out of the building. When I caught up to her in the parking lot, she actually punched me!
Agent Fletcher: I was going to ask about the black eye… Did she say anything after that?
Mr. Locke: She told me to stop holding her back. She said she just wanted to be happy, and she was leaving. We were done. Then she just got into our car and drove away.
Shortly after this, as we were making a discreet initial sweep through the gallery, we came upon several oddly euphoric couples, all seated in front of the photo Home Again, and engaged in various public displays of affection. They informed us that they had seen several people come in and look at the photo fixedly for a few minutes before running out of the building. They all claimed to be completely perplexed by this, stating that the photo was "beautiful" and "so expressive". As Mrs. Jean Reynolds of Fletcher, NC put it, "It's a wonderful image that shows a beautiful subject… How could anyone find it so upsetting?"
How indeed? It was odd that a cognitohazard should affect people in such disparate ways. It would be some time before I would entirely understand the nature of the Foundation's newest acquisition, as we still had to finish going through containment procedures.
Naturally, we took the hazardous image from the gallery and searched the photographer's house. When we didn't find printed copies, we packed out anything that could have contained digital photographic files. Those would later come up empty except for a single file encoding the hazardous photo. We took readings around the house looking for anomalous radiation and other unusual energy signatures. Not a whit. No evil, ancient artifacts, arcane tomes or cursed cameras were to be found in Mrs. Sara Parrish's home.
As we were able to catch them, those who had fled the area were detained and attempts were made to interview them. In each case, there was someone the affected individual had to find, and they were determined to find that person NOW. Comments like "I've wasted so much time." and "I can't believe I settled." were common, as were attempts to overpower the interviewers, and a necessity for strong sedatives. In the end, some 135 affected individuals were returned safely home to unemployment and in some cases, absent spouses.
Of course, Mrs. Parrish herself had to be reckoned with; The Foundation wanted to understand the method of Home Again's creation. As soon as the researchers determined that Mrs. Parrish was not anomalous, I was called in to interview her.
I found Mrs. Parrish to be in low spirits, but willing to discuss her photography. I asked a few innocuous questions, then commented on Home Again, calling attention to its "remarkable composition". I was certain that I was dealing with one hell of a sociopathic manipulator. Surely her ego would rise to a bit of flattering bait…
To this, Mrs. Parrish replied, “Oh yes, Home Again… I love that picture, but it came about by sheer luck. I was out with my camera during a trip up north, and I just happened to see this soldier walking up to one of those old Brownstone buildings they've got up there. He had a bunch of daisies in his hand. It immediately hit me that this would make a great photo, so I asked the soldier if I could take his picture. He said yes, and then I asked him to pose like he was knocking on the door…"
"As I looked through the lens, the light…the flowers…the soldier returning to his lover after a deployment in hell…all of it suddenly felt perfect. You see, my husband had died just six months before that. So, as all the elements of that shot came together, I felt like they and I were in sympathy with each other. I would have given anything in that moment to come home to my James… Looking back, I don't think I've ever seen another photo that expressed such a feeling of longing."
There was a brief pause, before she smiled and continued.
"God, it always sounds so pretentious and vain when I say that out loud. It's all true, but I'll understand if you think I'm silly."
I was tongue tied for a moment before giving the only response my position allowed.
“No ma’am. That doesn't sound silly at all.”