The first picture — he and Beth side by side, holding hands — looked normal. Jack looked up at Beth, but she just kept her lips pressed in a firm line, and gestured for him to turn to the next picture.
The second should have looked the same. It was only taken a second or two after the first.
Jack caught his breath. He and Beth still stood side by side, but behind them, some trick of the sunset painted the Dragon’ Tree’s bark like scales. Jack blinked, but the pattern of shadows and wear did not fade, or shift into another pattern. Some twist of the tree’s main boughs caught the sunset, and it looked as if two blazing eyes stared down at them. A haze of the sun’s flare was even angled in such a way as to appear to be smoke, drifting from knots in the branches, nostrils along the great dragon’s snout.
Jack slid the first picture back over the second, then looked over to Hannah.
She could only shrug. “It didn’t look like that when I took the picture.”
Jack swallowed, his throat gone suddenly dry, as he teased the third picture out from the bottom of the stack.
The Dragon Tree was nearly washed out of the picture, lost behind a brilliant glare radiating not from the sunset, but from Beth.
Jack had seen the glowing motes of light dance from her hair before, months ago, as they struggled along the stream. She’d even shaken out her hair, agitating the phenomenon. He’d seen the picture Hannah had taken later that night, remembered the flurry-like cloud that hung, captured in the split-second after the girl had sneezed.
That was a paltry nimbus, next to the blazing corona that streamed around the girl. Jack found himself squinting, even though he knew the black-and-white photograph couldn’t hurt his eyes. Even through the glare, he could see fine detail — individual strands of hair were still clearly visible. Her eyelashes gleamed, as well, casting sharp light against Jack’s face, reflecting off the surface of his wide-eyed stare.
It looked as though the two of them were surrounded by a whirlwind of light particles, some hanging motionless as points of light, but the vast majority tracing wavering, counter-clockwise trajectories around them.
Beth stood out in stark relief against the mostly-dark forest. But except for his eyes, Jack seemed out of focus. Hazy. Blurred, even though he knew he hadn’t moved all that much in the thirty seconds Hannah had kept the exposure going.
His gaze drifted to his hand, resting along the top of the photograph. It was solid. The table felt solid beneath his hand and arm.
“What—” His voice cracked, and he swallowed again. “What does it mean?” he asked.
Beth reached across the table, her fingertips brushing over the back of Jack’s hand, the one he’d been staring at.
“It’s backwards, Jack,” she said. “It’s all backwards.”