The Exultation of Eidolochrome

Don't be fooled by the breezy, chatty tone of this deeply creepy tale of internet romance and obsession.

I found the Polaroid on the road, but I knew it came from the Uber. 

I’d gone out for drinks with coworkers, and rather than take the train home, I figured I’d treat myself to a quick Uber and then blissfully pass out on the couch to the babble of TV. The night was pretty average: We went to the wine bar, finished a couple bottles, and then departed with promises to do the same thing again in a couple weeks. 

The driver, Paul, had just moved to town and was driving to learn the city. We chatted about the quality of the wine bar, the area, and where to find good pork buns. Whenever I’ve had a few glasses of wine, I instantly turn into the mayor of the situation: giving helpful tips on restaurants, parks, and events to check out. It was an easy way to pass the time for a few minutes, and it felt rude not to engage the drivers as real people. We were all using an impersonal app, but we didn’t have to be strangers.

When we pulled up, I was in the middle of trying to find my keys while still wine-swirled. Wishing Paul a good evening and hoping he would check out the pork bun place I recommended, I tried to pack back up while also exiting the car. I stood on the curb as he drove away, double checking that all the zippers were sealed on my bag before going upstairs. 

I glanced down then, and saw it — the Polaroid — laying in the street. It was right where the car had just been, and I knew it had fallen out with me. 

The picture was face up. It had missed being run over by the departing car, and was looking vulnerable on the blacktop. I picked it up; there were no markings to indicate what year it was from. 

It showed a pretty woman, in a black sundress, with large, round, gold sunglasses. She was against some foliage too grainy to identify. She was vibrant and half laughing or saying something, her hands gesturing in a way that made me think she was probably talking to someone off-camera. Her hair was up in a clip or bun, but I could tell it was quite long, and would be lovely if she’d only let it down. 

I carried the precious snapshot as I let myself into my building and walked up to my third-floor apartment. I had the idea that I would immediately find Paul the driver and return his, or a recent passenger’s, beloved treasure. 

However, my good deed was thwarted, either because the app didn’t want to connect me, or because my wine-fuddled brain was struggling. I put the Polaroid on the coffee table and vowed to try again the next day. 

In the bright of the morning it was still there, not a figment of the orange-twilight street light. I re-inspected it, but found no more details. The laughing, captivating woman wasn’t looking into the camera — it was a candid moment. 

Really, who loses a Polaroid? Did they still even make Polaroid cameras? I remembered distantly that they may have been discontinued and then revived. I had no messages from Uber, nothing that indicated Paul had noticed anything missing. In the app, there were options for saying something was lost, but I couldn’t tag something as found. I could report the driver as inappropriate, but I couldn’t say he was refreshingly delightful and needed his property. There were links and buttons, but nowhere to write a message to a real human. 

In the end, I logged a lost item report, and tried to describe in 200 words or less that I’d found a photograph that wasn’t mine. I placed the Polaroid on my high shelf where it couldn’t go astray. 

On Monday at work we chatted over our uneventful weekends filled with TV, chores, and trying out something new, but not too new. 

And when it came to my turn, I blurted out, “Lane and I went to that new brewery, the Guilde, on Sunday. They had a waffle pop-up and a live band, it was good.” 

And there she was in my memory: Lane, the woman in the photograph. 

She liked German beers and waffles with bananas, but asked them to skip the Nutella. She’d worn a black top with a geometric pattern, and dark skinny jeans. Her hair was up in a ponytail so it didn’t get in the way while she ate. Her shoes had stars on them and she wore them when she wanted to have fun. We had been dating for two weeks, and I think I knew I already loved her.

My coworkers remarked on the new gal in my life. How had I never mentioned her? I deflected and explained that we’d only been dating a couple weeks, but surely they’d noticed her in my Instagram? I just figured it was silly to announce a new partner when you could clearly see her in my social media feed. 

The lie was taken as truth and we moved onto talking about work and work distractions. It’s so easy to miss things on social media. There’s so much of it.

During the 3 p.m. slow hour at work, I opened up Instagram to look at the fascinating lives of other people. I had a few likes, no comments. Remarkably, my account had brewery pictures … except I hadn’t actually gone to the brewery. The whole event had been a lie. 

But there it was, pictures of the beers we’d tried, the band (appropriately tagged), and an order of waffles with bananas and no Nutella. Lane wasn’t photographed, but she was there

I quickly scanned through my past pictures, and there were other additions. No pictures directly of Lane, but pictures of our life together. The previous weekend, we’d apparently gone to a retro duckpin-bowling alley. She’d tried a porter we both agreed tasted like “the worst cookie you’ve ever eaten.” (My coworker Kortney thanked us for the heads up and would avoid that beer.) Our score sheet had silly nicknames: She had called herself “Lanitude” and I was “Darkwing DDD.” Lane beat me with a score of 170 to 120 — neither of us was very good at duckpin bowling, apparently. 

We’d also had a low-key pasta and Netflix night. Cooked up with some fresh tomatoes and shrimp. There were pictures of the pasta and wine, a silly picture of my cat begging for food, and a heaping pile of dirty dishes to be done the next day. I had posted that we watched “The Magicians” — a show I’d already finished. But I wanted to rewatch it with Lane, because I knew she’d love it too. 

Looking at the pictures, I could remember the feeling of her hair as we snuggled on the couch. It was indeed long when she let it down, and she loved when I ran my fingers through it. 

I could even find the hints of our first date. We’d gone to an outdoor concert. Scrolling through the pictures of beers and bands, I could remember it had been awkward at first. It was so worrisome, figuring out if we would insult the other with our choices, but quickly we were sharing our favorite foods and it was brilliant. We finished the date by buying a cookie as big as a dinner plate and eating the whole thing in a slightly drunken glow. 

And the pictures kept coming. Every few days, a small new moment to treasure. We went to an exhibit of historic advertising illustrations, and became fascinated with the depictions of people who seemed to have totally mysterious customs and formalities. How did everyone seem to know that lawns were cut into vertical stripes and not horizontal stripes? Did women really once serve every meal out of cans? Surely nobody ever had so many rules about the number of jello desserts needed at a cookout? The women in the ads always looked so lonely, trapped in their perfect product-placement worlds.

You would think it would be hard to hide Lane from my friends and family. But that’s what makes social media so perfect. It was so easy to say her job prevented her from being on social media. The same job that prevented her from making plans. We could do things together on the spur of the moment, and it was just too hard to sync up with others. 

People tend to fill in whatever details they want: she’s got a job in the government, is a high-paid executive, travels for work, or she’s just a private person. 

Nobody asked, but they enjoyed that we seemed to enjoy each other. Lane obviously took so much joy from shooting goofy pictures of me and I looked so happy. It was she who held the camera, she documented our adventures, but no one asked to see her or needed to tag her. 

It became even easier when the pandemic hit. We all worked from home, and the less I and my coworkers saw of each other’s actual interiors, the better. 

Lane and I upgraded to a larger apartment, so we’d each have space to work. We didn’t want work to consume our lives, but needed our own desk and space. I hired movers, but made sure to handle the Polaroid personally. It never left my sight, and I always carefully held my precious plastic square. I couldn’t put it in my pocket, it might crumple and damage the image. 

Again, it was all very easy. They were hired to wear masks, not get too close, and just move my stuff. No one asked for my help or wondered why I sat clutching a small photograph. 

The Polaroid never changed. She was always Lane on a sunny day amongst the green, happily chatting with someone we couldn’t see. I would like to pretend it was me, but I knew it wasn’t. She was always so great to everyone she met, and the photograph showed her being her natural and wonderful self. She was everybody’s friend and made sure no one felt lonely around her. 

In the new apartment, the Polaroid went in my office, on another high shelf away from the cat. And I closed the door when I finished work so she was extra safe. I thought about buying an actual safe — but she wouldn’t like that. First thing every morning, I checked on her picture in case something might have happened. If I lost the photograph, I wasn’t sure what would happen. She might disappear. Or, worse, I would see our breakup play out in my feed. Vague-posts about our fights, her moving out, dividing up our stuff, my solitary pity dinners, and the lonely too-big apartment we’d chosen together. 

She had to be safe. She was my everything. Although my life had gotten more simple, in my feed it seemed to remain full, and she was always a presence.     

We found a large historic cemetery only a couple miles away and had secret picnics amongst the tombstones. 

We got a mix of silly and serious masks to wear for errands and going out. Nobody recognized me with the mask, and in my photos I was a stranger to myself. 

We tried bread making, but the starter just grew black mold. It looked like an opulent alien forest in the photos, but we agreed to end our baking experiments. 

My cat, old but not really that old, passed away. Lane made us go through a ridiculously elaborate funeral for it, and I love that she went above and beyond for my cat. It really helped. 

Even though the pandemic had caused a pet shortage, we managed to get a dog. A black mutt we named Than, though neither of us can remember who came up with that name or why. 

The dog, like her, was only online. Which was very convenient since it meant I never had to go out in the cold to walk the dog. But I would have, because he made her so happy. We both loved the dog and took way too many photos of him. For Christmas we dressed him up in a sweater vest and a big bow. We ate picanha we made with the new sous vide she bought me. The last photo of that day was a very adorable selfie of our candlelit dinner while the dog begged at our feet. 

During the pandemic my branch office closed. Luckily, we all kept our jobs, but there’s been talk of going back into work “someday” and maybe having to relocate closer to the main office. 

But I like working from home, making my employer lots of money, and having a good rapport with my coworkers in our chat channels.

Living with Lane is easy. Having real-world time with coworkers just introduces difficult logistics. I’ll petition to remain remote, or even find a new job if I need to. I don’t want to risk moving again. Risk losing Lane into a box, under a radiator, or have her falling out of a moving van. 

She’s safe on my shelf. Safe with me. 

Lane has really given me the best life. I don’t need to worry about what I’ll be doing for the weekend. She’ll be there. We’ll eat waffles with bananas, watch a new movie, and laugh over how the protagonist makes the dumbest decisions. We’ll eat at the best new restaurants, the ones no one knows about and that haven’t gotten too trendy yet. She’ll take pictures of my ridiculous bedhead, and then we’ll snuggle in a patch of sun while I’m tangled in her long hair. 

I don’t know who would lose Lane’s Polaroid in an Uber, but it doesn’t matter. I now know the rapture of a captured heart. I found a love that never fades, chips, or cracks. Lane was lost, fragile, alone, and I found her. 

I’m her protector now, while we’re together. One day I’ll die, and I know she’ll find her next love. My beloved will carry on in a billion deathless, digital reflections. 

And everyone will know how amazing we were together. She’ll make sure there are photos of everything. 

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Mel Reynes

Mel Reynes

Mel Reynes writes horror and science fiction about the fantastical terror of living in the early 21st century. Mel is afraid of the woods, frogs, biking at night, and using her phone. Mel has three spooky cats and enjoys living in Rhode Island. If you ever meet Mel in real life, offer her a tasty duck and run away.
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