The Sun Dog
September 15th was Kevin’s birthday, and he got exactly what he wanted: a Sun.
The Kevin in question was Kevin Delevan, the birthday was his fifteenth, and the Sun was a Sun 660, a Polaroid camera which does everything for the novice photographer except make bologna sandwiches.
There were other gifts, of course; his sister, Meg, gave him a pair of mittens she had knitted herself, there was ten dollars from his grandmother in Des Moines, and his Aunt Hilda sent—as she always did—a string tie with a horrible clasp. She had sent the first of these when Kevin was three, which meant he already had twelve unused string ties with horrible clasps in a drawer of his bureau, to which this would be added—lucky thirteen. He had never worn any of them but was not allowed to throw them away. Aunt Hilda lived in Portland. She had never come to one of Kevin’s or Meg’s birthday parties, but she might decide to do just that one of these years. God knew she could; Portland was only fifty miles south of Castle Rock. And suppose she did come . . . and asked to see Kevin in one of his other ties (or Meg in one of her other scarves, for that matter)? With some relatives, an excuse might do. Aunt Hilda, however, was different. Aunt Hilda presented a certain golden possibility at a point where two essential facts about her crossed: she was Rich, and she was Old.
Someday, Kevin’s Mom was convinced, she might DO SOMETHING for Kevin and Meg. It was understood that the SOMETHING would probably come after Aunt Hilda finally kicked it, in the form of a clause in her will. In the meantime, it was
thought wise to keep the horrible string ties and the equally horrible scarves. So this thirteenth string tie (on the clasp of which was a bird Kevin thought was a woodpecker) would join the others, and Kevin would write Aunt Hilda a thank-you note, not because his mother would insist on it and not because he thought or even cared that Aunt Hilda might DO SOMETHING for him and his kid sister someday, but because he was a generally thoughtful boy with good habits and no real vices.
He thanked his family for all his gifts (his mother and father had, of course, supplied a number of lesser ones, although the Polaroid was clearly the centerpiece, and they were delighted with his delight), not forgetting to give Meg a kiss (she giggled and pretended to rub it off but her own delight was equally clear) and to tell her he was sure the mittens would come in handy on the ski team this winter—but most of his attention was reserved for the Polaroid box, and the extra film packs which had come with it.
He was a good sport about the birthday cake and the ice cream, although it was clear he was itching to get at the camera and try it out. And as soon as he decently could, he did.
That was when the trouble started.
He read the instruction booklet as thoroughly as his eagerness to begin would allow, then loaded the camera while the family watched with anticipation and unacknowledged dread (for some reason, the gifts which seem the most wanted are the ones which so often don’t work). There was a little collective sigh—more puff than gust—when the camera obediently spat out the cardboard square on top of the film packet, just as the instruction booklet had promised it would.
There were two small dots, one red and one green, separated by a zig-zag lightning-bolt on the housing of the camera. When Kevin loaded the camera, the red light came on. It stayed on for a couple of seconds. The family watched in silent fascination as the Sun 660 sniffed for light. Then the red light went out and the green light began to blink rapidly.
“It’s ready,” Kevin said, in the same straining-to-be-off-hand-but-not-quite-making-it tone with which Neil Armstrong had reported his first step upon the surface of Luna. “Why don’t all you guys stand together?”
“I hate having my picture taken!” Meg cried, covering her face with the theatrical anxiety and pleasure which only sub-teenage girls and really bad actresses can manage.
“Come on, Meg,” Mr. Delevan said.
“Don’t be a goose, Meg,” Mrs. Delevan said.
Meg dropped her hands (and her objections), and the three of them stood at the end of the table with the diminished birthday cake in the foreground.
Kevin looked through the viewfinder. “Squeeze a little closer to Meg, Mom,” he said, motioning with his left hand. “You too, Dad.” This time he motioned with his right.
“You’re squishing me!” Meg said to her parents.
Kevin put his finger on the button which would fire the camera, then remembered a briefly glimpsed note in the instructions about how easy it was to cut off your subjects’ heads in a photograph. Off with their heads, he thought, and it should have been funny, but for some reason he felt a little tingle at the base of his spine, gone and forgotten almost before it was noticed. He raised the camera a little. There. They were all in the frame. Good.
“Okay!” he sang. “Smile and say Intercourse!”
“Kevin!” his mother cried out.
His father burst out laughing, and Meg screeched the sort of mad laughter not even bad actresses often essay; girls between the ages of ten and twelve own sole title to that particular laugh.
Kevin pushed the button.
The flashbulb, powered by the battery in the film pack, washed the room in a moment of righteous white light.
It’s mine, Kevin thought, and it should have been the surpassing moment of his fifteenth birthday. Instead, the thought
brought back that odd little tingle. It was more noticeable this time.
The camera made a noise, something between a squeal and a whirr, a sound just a little beyond description but familiar enough to most people, just the same: the sound of a Polaroid camera squirting out what may not be art but what is often serviceable and almost always provides instant gratification.
“Lemme see it!” Meg cried.
“Hold your horses, muffin,” Mr. Delevan said. “They take a little time to develop.”
Meg was staring at the stiff gray surface of what was not yet a photograph with the rapt attention of a woman gazing into a crystal ball.
The rest of the family gathered around, and there was that same feeling of anxiety which had attended the ceremony of Loading the Camera: still life of the American Family waiting to let out its breath.
Kevin felt a terrible tenseness stealing into his muscles, and this time there was no question of ignoring it. He could not explain it . . . but it was there. He could not seem to take his eyes from that solid gray square within the white frame which would form the borders of the photograph.
“I think I see me!” Meg cried brightly. Then, a moment later: “No. I guess I don’t. I think I see—”
They watched in utter silence as the gray cleared, as the mists are reputed to do in a seer’s crystal when the vibrations or feelings or whatever they are are right, and the picture became visible to them.
Mr. Delevan was the first to break the silence.
“What is this?” he asked no one in particular. “Some kind of joke?”
Kevin had absently put the camera down rather too close to the edge of the table in order to watch the picture develop. Meg saw what the picture was and took a single step away. The expression on her face was neither fright nor awe but just
ordinary surprise. One of her hands came up as she turned toward her father. The rising hand struck the camera and knocked it off the table and onto the floor. Mrs. Delevan had been looking at the emerging picture in a kind of trance, the expression on her face either that of a woman who is deeply puzzled or who is feeling the onset of a migraine headache. The sound of the camera hitting the floor startled her. She uttered a little scream and recoiled. In doing this, she tripped over Meg’s foot and lost her balance. Mr. Delevan reached for her, propelling Meg, who was still between them, forward again, quite forcefully. Mr. Delevan not only caught his wife, but did so with some grace; for a moment they would have made a pretty picture indeed: Mom and Dad, showing they still know how to Cut A Rug, caught at the end of a spirited tango, she with one hand thrown up and her back deeply bowed, he bent over her in that ambiguous male posture which may be seen, when divorced from circumstance, as either solicitude or lust.
Meg was eleven, and less graceful. She went flying back toward the table and smacked into it with her stomach. The hit was hard enough to have injured her, but for the last year and a half she had been taking ballet lessons at the YWCA three afternoons a week. She did not dance with much grace, but she enjoyed ballet, and the dancing had fortunately toughened the muscles of her stomach enough for them to absorb the blow as efficiently as good shock absorbers absorb the pounding a road full of potholes can administer to a car. Still, there was a band of black and blue just above her hips the next day. These bruises took almost two weeks to first purple, then yellow, then fade . . . like a Polaroid picture in reverse.
At the moment this Rube Goldberg accident happened, she didn’t even feel it; she simply banged into the table and cried out. The table tipped. The birthday cake, which should have been in the foreground of Kevin’s first picture with his new camera, slid off the table. Mrs. Delevan didn’t even have time to start her Meg, are you all right? before the remaining half of
the cake fell on top of the Sun 660 with a juicy splat! that sent frosting all over their shoes and the baseboard of the wall.
The viewfinder, heavily smeared with Dutch chocolate, peered out like a periscope. That was all.
Happy birthday, Kevin.
• • •
Kevin and Mr. Delevan were sitting on the couch in the living room that evening when Mrs. Delevan came in, waving two dog-eared sheets of paper which had been stapled together. Kevin and Mr. Delevan both had open books in their laps (The Best and the Brightest for the father; Shoot-Out at Laredo for the son), but what they were mostly doing was staring at the Sun camera, which sat in disgrace on the coffee table amid a litter of Polaroid pictures. All the pictures appeared to show exactly the same thing.
Meg was sitting on the floor in front of them, using the VCR to watch a rented movie. Kevin wasn’t sure which one it was, but there were a lot of people running around and screaming, so he guessed it was a horror picture. Megan had a passion for them. Both parents considered this a low taste (Mr. Delevan in particular was often outraged by what he called “that useless junk”), but tonight neither of them had said a word. Kevin guessed they were just grateful she had quit complaining about her bruised stomach and wondering aloud what the exact symptoms of a ruptured spleen might be.
“Here they are,” Mrs. Delevan said. “I found them at the bottom of my purse the second time through.” She handed the papers—a sales slip from J. C. Penney’s and a MasterCard receipt—to her husband. “I can never find anything like this the first time. I don’t think anyone can. It’s like a law of nature.”
She surveyed her husband and son, hands on her hips.
“You two look like someone just killed the family cat.”
“We don’t have a cat,” Kevin said.
“Well, you know what I mean. It’s a shame, of course, but
we’ll get it sorted out in no time. Penney’s will be happy to exchange it—”
“I’m not so sure of that,” John Delevan said. He picked up the camera, looked at it with distaste (almost sneered at it, in fact), and then set it down again. “It got chipped when it hit the floor. See?”
Mrs. Delevan took only a cursory glance. “Well, if Penney’s won’t, I’m positive that the Polaroid company will. I mean, the fall obviously didn’t cause whatever is wrong with it. The first picture looked just like all these, and Kevin took that one before Meg knocked it off the table.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Meg said without turning around. On the screen, a pint-sized figure—a malevolent doll named Chucky, if Kevin had it right—was chasing a small boy. Chucky was dressed in blue overalls and waving a knife.
“I know, dear. How’s your stomach?”
“Hurts,” Meg said. “A little ice cream might help. Is there any left over?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Meg gifted her mother with her most winning smile. “Would you get some for me?”
“Not at all,” Mrs. Delevan said pleasantly. “Get it yourself. And what’s that horrible thing you’re watching?”
“Child’s Play,” Megan said. “There’s this doll named Chucky that comes to life. It’s neat.”
Mrs. Delevan wrinkled her nose.
“Dolls don’t come to life, Meg,” her father said. He spoke heavily, as if knowing this was a lost cause.
“Chucky did,” Meg said. “In movies, anything can happen.” She used the remote control to freeze the movie and went to get her ice cream.
“Why does she want to watch that crap?” Mr. Delevan asked his wife, almost plaintively.
“I don’t know, dear.”
Kevin had picked up the camera in one hand and several of
the exposed Polaroids in the other—they had taken almost a dozen in all. “I’m not so sure I want a refund,” he said.
His father stared at him. “What? Jesus wept!”
“Well,” Kevin said, a little defensively, “I’m just saying that maybe we ought to think about it. I mean, it’s not exactly an ordinary defect, is it? I mean, if the pictures came out overexposed . . . or underexposed . . . or just plain blank . . . that would be one thing. But how do you get a thing like this? The same picture, over and over? I mean, look! And they’re outdoors, even though we took every one of these pictures inside!”
“It’s a practical joke,” his father said. “It must be. The thing to do is just exchange the damned thing and forget about it.”
“I don’t think it’s a practical joke,” Kevin said. “First, it’s too complicated to be a practical joke. How do you rig a camera to take the same picture over and over? Plus, the psychology is all wrong.”
“Psychology, yet,” Mr. Delevan said, rolling his eyes at his wife.
“Yes, psychology!” Kevin replied firmly. “When a guy loads your cigarette or hands you a stick of pepper gum, he hangs around to watch the fun, doesn’t he? But unless you or Mom have been pulling my leg—”
“Your father isn’t much of a leg-puller, dear,” Mrs. Delevan said, stating the obvious gently.
Mr. Delevan was looking at Kevin with his lips pressed together. It was the look he always got when he perceived his son drifting toward that area of the ballpark where Kevin seemed most at home: left field. Far left field. There was a hunchy, intuitive streak in Kevin that had always puzzled and confounded him. He didn’t know where it had come from, but he was sure it hadn’t been his side of the family.
He sighed and looked at the camera again. A piece of black plastic had been chipped from the left side of the housing, and there was a crack, surely no thicker than a human hair, down
the center of the viewfinder lens. The crack was so thin it disappeared completely when you raised the camera to your eye to set the shot you would not get—what you would get was on the coffee table, and there were nearly a dozen other examples in the dining room.
What you got was something that looked like a refugee from the local animal shelter.
“All right, what in the devil are you going to do with it?” he asked. “I mean, let’s think this over reasonably, Kevin. What practical good is a camera that takes the same picture over and over?”
But it was not practical good Kevin was thinking about. In fact, he was not thinking at all. He was feeling . . . and remembering. In the instant when he had pushed the shutter release, one clear idea
had filled his mind as completely as the momentary white flash had filled his eyes. That idea, complete yet somehow inexplicable, had been accompanied by a powerful mixture of emotions which he could still not identify completely . . . but he thought fear and excitement had predominated.
And besides—his father always wanted to look at things reasonably. He would never be able to understand Kevin’s intuitions or Meg’s interest in killer dolls named Chucky.
Meg came back in with a huge dish of ice cream and started the movie again. Someone was now attempting to toast Chucky with a blowtorch, but he went right on waving his knife. “Are you two still arguing?”
“We’re having a discussion,” Mr. Delevan said. His lips were pressed more tightly together than ever.
“Yeah, right,” Meg said, sitting down on the floor again and crossing her legs. “You always say that.”
“Meg?” Kevin said kindly.
“If you dump that much ice cream on top of a ruptured
spleen, you’ll die horribly in the night. Of course, your spleen might not actually be ruptured, but—”
Meg stuck her tongue out at him and turned back to the movie.
Mr. Delevan was looking at his son with an expression of mingled affection and exasperation. “Look, Kev—it’s your camera. No argument about that. You can do whatever you want with it. But—”
“Dad, aren’t you even the least bit interested in why it’s doing what it’s doing?”
“Nope,” John Delevan said.
It was Kevin’s turn to roll his eyes. Meanwhile, Mrs. Delevan was looking from one to the other like someone who is enjoying a pretty good tennis match. Nor was this far from the truth. She had spent years watching her son and her husband sharpen themselves on each other, and she was not bored with it yet. She sometimes wondered if they would ever discover how much alike they really were.
“Well, I want to think it over.”
“Fine. I just want you to know that I can swing by Penney’s tomorrow and exchange the thing—if you want me to and they agree to swap a piece of chipped merchandise, that is. If you want to keep it, that’s fine, too. I wash my hands of it.” He dusted his palms briskly together to illustrate.
“I suppose you don’t want my opinion,” Meg said.
“Right,” Kevin said.
“Of course we do, Meg,” Mrs. Delevan said.
“I think it’s a supernatural camera,” Meg said. She licked ice cream from her spoon. “I think it’s a Manifestation.”
“That’s utterly ridiculous,” Mr. Delevan said at once.
“No, it’s not,” Meg said. “It happens to be the only explanation that fits. You just don’t think so because you don’t believe in stuff like that. If a ghost ever floated up to you, Dad, you wouldn’t even see it. What do you think, Kev?”
For a moment Kevin didn’t—couldn’t—answer. He felt
as if another flashbulb had gone off, this one behind his eyes instead of in front of them.
“Kev? Earth to Kevin!”
“I think you might just have something there, squirt,” he said slowly.
“Oh my dear God,” John Delevan said, getting up. “It’s the revenge of Freddy and Jason—my kid thinks his birthday camera’s haunted. I’m going to bed, but before I do, I want to say just one more thing. A camera that takes photographs of the same thing over and over again—especially something as ordinary as what’s in these pictures—is a boring manifestation of the supernatural.”
“Still . . .” Kevin said. He held up the photos like a dubious poker hand.
“I think it’s time we all went to bed,” Mrs. Delevan said briskly. “Meg, if you absolutely need to finish that cinematic masterpiece, you can do it in the morning.”
“But it’s almost over!” Meg cried.
“I’ll come up with her, Mom,” Kevin said, and, fifteen minutes later, with the malevolent Chucky disposed of (at least until the sequel), he did. But sleep did not come easily for Kevin that night. He lay long awake in his bedroom, listening to a strong late-summer wind rustle the leaves outside into whispery conversation, thinking about what might make a camera take the same picture over and over and over again, and what such a thing might mean. He only began to slip toward sleep when he realized his decision had been made: he would keep the Polaroid Sun at least a little while longer.
It’s mine, he thought again. He rolled over on his side, closed his eyes, and was sleeping deeply forty seconds later.