At first I didn't even know it was there.
But the more I looked over the decades of precious memories, stuck to pages upon pages of family albums, the more I realized just how much a part it had been of my life.
I was only an adult when I noticed it had been there, hidden behind the trees in the foreground of my first birthday. I had found myself browsing over it after the recent death of my parents, trying to remind myself of the good times we had once had. I had paused in disbelief when I had noticed it in the background, unnoticed by the smiling relatives that surrounded my younger self in his high chair as he messily stuffed handfuls of cake into his mouth, cheek bulging in a happy smile. At first, I thought it was just double exposure, or maybe just a trick of the light.
Peering closer, I saw that it was the unmistakable figure of a pale humanoid, crouched behind a tree and half-obscured by the sun. It didn't seem to be wearing clothes of any kind, exposing a bone-white, near- skeletal body. What really caught my attention were its hands, with fingers that seemed too grotesquely long for them, scraping the bark of the tree its hand were perched on.
And how it seemed to be looking straight at me as I celebrated my birthday on the family patio, just as oblivious to it as everyone else.
There are a lot of stories floating around, about unexpected things caught on photograph or video. As a seasoned skeptic, I had dismissed mostly all of them, but found myself at a complete and utter loss to explain whatever this was. It wasn't a trick of the light, as it was clearly physical, the sun against its back casting a stretching silhouette of its unnaturally lanky frame on the grass.
I found my curiosity piqued by the bizarre figure I had discovered, enough to flip through the rest of the photo album and see if there was anything else strange in the background of the photographs. I didn't expect to find anything at first. I had resigned myself to believing that it was a one-off anomaly, something that appeared and would never appear again.
Turning the next few pages, my heart froze as I peered closer.
It was another photo of myself, but a little older this time, maybe four or five. I was perched on the seat of my brand new red tricycle, dressed in bright blue little overalls. I only fondly remembered it now as a present from my parents, maybe from Christmas or a birthday recent to the photograph, but it was mostly hazy. My sister, eight at the time was perched with her head on my shoulder, her arms wrapped around me.
As we stared into the camera, neither of us were aware of the strange white creature watching us in the background. hunched on its knuckles like an ape.
Its bony face was twisted into a toothy grin as it stared at us with its beady, black eyes. There was no mistaking the direction of its gaze now- it was looking right at us as it sat there, almost looking ready to attack.
I wasn't just unnerved anymore. I was terrified.
I had found myself rushing to the cabinets for the other family albums, collecting as many photographs as I could. I already knew that I was digging myself into a hole that I knew I couldn't get out of. But I knew that I had to find out.
I found myself praying to be wrong about my sudden yet growing fears.
It was there. It had always been there.
In every family photograph I looked at, it was there, its grotesque form usually peeking out somewhere in the farthest background. It stood behind us at every family holiday, every school play, every precious family memory that you could think of. Sometimes it was poking its head from the side of the frame, other times it was just a grotesquely skinny arm curled around the nearest object, or on all-fours, crawling like an animal across the ground. But in every picture, one thing was the same-
It was always there. Always watching.
My body found itself gripped in a cold sweat, my heart beating a little faster than usual.
How, I wondered? How could it had been hidden for so long? How had no-one managed to notice it hiding among us, even after all these years?
And most importantly of all-
Why had it been watching us?
What did it want with us?
The happiness of the photographs, as well as the many memories I had held, had been spoiled by the sudden appearance of this mysterious new guest. The very idea that it had been always there, this barely human figure, always watching us from afar no matter where or how old we were frightened me on a level that I couldn't even begin to explain.
The photographs lay scattered around the floor, like curling autumn leaves as I wracked my brain over the sudden discovery, wondering what it all meant.
After looking over the pile of photographs and the album for what felt like the fifth time, trying to decipher some meaning from it.
It was then that I noticed the direction the creature appeared- no matter the location or time of the photograph, it always appeared on the right.
Right behind where I was standing.
With a growing horror, I reviewed the photos over again with a sick rising within the pit of my stomach. It hadn't been watching my family, I realized- it had been watching me.
It had always been watching me.
Looking over the family photographs, I realized that my life, from my birth to right now, had been audience to something that was human, something that had been hiding within the foreground in every happy memory that I had ever had. Every sick day, every birthday, every Christmas...It had always been there. Always watching me.
And all the while, it had been getting closer, moving ever slowly and steadily in the foreground. As it it had been stalking me.
I slammed the album shut, collecting the rest of the scattered photographs. I didn't know what to think, my mind caught in the mixed emotions of frozen horror and dread. Any illusion of normality in my life seemed to have been shattered in the space of less than half an hour. I wanted to laugh, or at least cry. This couldn't be real.
In my shock, I suddenly remembered something.
I reached for my phone. After unlocking it, my finger pursed over my photo album.
I didn't want to do this. I really didn't want to do this.
But some sick curiosity pushed me to do so. I just wanted to know if I was still being watched from afar, the same way I had been my whole life through past photographs.
There was a set of pictures taken at a local bar with my friends, after a recent Friday night out. The affair had been a relatively relaxed fun one, with plenty of drinks and good laughs. The kind we always had. But as I viewed over the pictures, I felt a growing sense of dread weigh down my shoulders. Every photo I swiped through, I feared the sight of that grotesque, bone-white grin hiding somewhere in the background.
Swiping through the photos, I felt a slight relief at the absence of the creature in the background of the darkened bar. Maybe it really all had just been in my head, a trick of my the light-
When it came to the last picture, however, I almost dropped my phone.
On the lower right hand side of the photo, squinting in the camera at the sudden flash as I laughed along with my friends, was a large, skinny hand clasped around my shoulder from behind. In the darkness, I could almost see the reflective glitter of two dark and beady eyes.
I shut off my phone at that moment.
I haven't taken anymore pictures. Nor have I entertained the idea of social occasions, despite the pleading of my friends and family. I know that they're worried about me now, after all, I haven't left the house in a while. I want to tell them, but I know they'll never understand. And I don't want the watcher, whatever it is, to turn their attentions.
I've been starting to hear things. Feel things. I can't help but feel that someone is right behind me, but every time I turn around, there's just a gust of air and nothing. It's clever that way. That's how it really gets inside your head.
Above all, I've been avoiding photographs like the plague. I know now that it's been stalking me my whole life. And all the while it's been getting closer and closer.
I don't know what it wants with me. Or why it chose to follow me my whole life, hiding in the shadows of the background of my life. I just don't want to find out what it's really capable of.
Because the next photograph I take just might be my last.