It’s odd that my first reaction was to take a photo. I guess it’s because I already had the camera in my hand, ready to take snap of Jessica in her bathing suit. My legs were frozen to the spot, and my hands needed something to do. Or maybe it’s that I felt the need to normalize the situation somehow – to put it into some kind of context that I could comprehend, or at least process.
You might imagine that I understood, in that moment, how important that picture would be. To the world. To science. To my career and my future. To Jessica’s parents. But the truth is, I didn’t. I wasn’t thinking anything at all. I just raised the camera, and clicked.
It really is as simple as that.
That’s how I took the last picture of Jessica.
Waves lapped at the shoreline of the secluded Cancún beachfront where Jessica and her best friend Leanna were bodyboarding. Tropical sunlight shimmered on the surface of the Gulf waters. Seagulls squawked overhead. But where Jessica had stood just moments ago, a grotesque specimen now rose out of the waters.
Its monstrosity defied any biological explanation. A twisted serpentine body heaved itself out of the ocean, rising thirty feet into the air before drooping back onto the sandy beach. Cracked, pockmarked, blistered, and mottled skin varied in color from boiled-lobster red to asphyxiated purple. Tentacles, fins, and bizarre spines protruded in contempt of any sense of symmetry or beauty. Lifeless eyes larger than beach balls shifted their focus to me.
Insanely, her friend Leanna stood unfazed, knee-deep in the water, dark hair whipping in the ocean breeze.
I held my camera in front of me, as though the cheap plastic device would shield me from the wrath of this hundred-ton beast. I wanted to run. I wanted to shout a warning to Leanna. Instead I stood mute.
The creature’s grotesque body twitched in anger. It thrust a sinewy tentacle out of the water at me, and opened its enormous maw.
“Creeper!” the monster shouted at me in Jessica’s voice.
Her friend Leanna turned and flipped me off. “Get out of here! F’n peeping tom!”
My hands were still trembling four hours later when, after a change of shorts and a double shot of tequila, I knocked on the door of Jessica’s hotel room. It swung open, and I was face to face with the hideous creature’s gigantic eyeball.
“What do you want?” The eyeball twitched in annoyance as Jessica’s voice emanated from somewhere beyond.
“I… um… I…” My voice jumped an octive, but after several tense seconds, I squeaked out a complete sentence. “I just wanted to apologize for earlier.”
“Apology accepted.” Suddenly the monstrous eyeball was gone, and there was Jessica — blonde hair, blue eyes, tanned skin — standing in the doorway in a t-shirt and cutoff jean shorts, as though nothing were amiss. “You should be ashamed, though. Sneaking around and taking pictures of girls on a private beach?”
“Oh, I am.” I hung my head, but breathed a sigh of relief.
“Say, do you have plans this evening? Me and Leanna are about to go out for dinner and drinks. Want to come along?”
Dinner? As long as I’m not the main course.
Seeing my hesitancy, Jessica smiled at me. “Come on,” she insisted. “It’s our senior trip. We’re all supposed to be having fun. Soon it’ll be September, and we’ll all be gone away to college.”
I never argue with Lovecraftian eldritch abominations. Especially ones as pretty as Jessica.
For the rest of our seven day, seven night stay, we hung out together and explored everything that the tropical resort had to offer. Surfing. Hang gliding. Fire dancing. We hit the cafés and beach bars with the other students in our travel group.
We swam with the dolphins. We toured the Mayan ruins at Ek Balam. We limboed in the sand under a full moon. We did anything and everything in a colorful blur, with a passion that only youth can muster.
All in all, it turned out to be the most memorable summer vacation ever.
But I never took another picture of Jessica.