by China DeSpain
Emily-Jane had no patience for phone photos. The poor composition, the crummy lens quality, the inability to fully control the depth of field…in her opinion, any photographer worth her salt still carried around the real deal. In Emily-Jane’s case, it was a Pentax she’d inherited from her grandfather when he died. It was the only way to truly create great art.
The walls of her apartment served as her personal gallery; not only had she matted, framed, and hung many of her own photos, but that was where she hung the treasures she unearthed in thrift shops and at estate sales. Between her skill with the camera and her nose for bargains, Emily-Jane had curated a collection that many an art aficionado would covet.
But today, she’d found her best piece yet.
She’d spotted the ad for the estate sale in the weekend paper, and on a whim, had driven the twisting mountain road up to what turned out to be a dilapidated mansion. Yes, an honest-to-goodness mansion, complete with weedy formal gardens and a cracked fountain in the center of the circular drive. There were tables and trailers stuffed with prizes, the lifelong remnants of one Mrs. Angelica Peterson. China sets, perfume bottles, shining antique furniture, flyspecked mirrors, and more dotted the back lawn. Naturally, Emily-Jane zeroed in on the art collection. She ignored the stuffy oil paintings and simpering watercolors in favor of the photographs: stern faces rendered in sharp black and white.
She’d won the bid on a bundle of them, which she now carefully unpacked on her living room floor. They smelled old, like dust and faded lavender sachets. Emily-Jane spread them out, studying each portrait. The skill was evident; obviously Mrs. Peterson had had a good eye. All the same, one picture called to her more than the others. It was framed in simple black wood, and the face in it was a poet’s: a young man with a swath of dark hair, a healthy sprinkle of freckles, and lips pouty enough to make supermodels jealous. His dark eyes seemed bottomless, and though his expression was rendered carefully blank, an aura of pain emanated from him all the same.
Emily-Jane turned over the picture, hoping for more information, but all she found was a date scrawled in spidery handwriting: 1944.
Without more to go on, she decided to name him William.
She stacked the rest of the portraits in the corner, to be dealt with later, then grabbed her hanging tools. In a matter of minutes, William was displayed on her bedroom wall, to the left of her bed. The idea of him watching over her at night thrilled her, though she couldn’t pinpoint why. She knew it was a bit creepy, but she couldn’t help it. Something about his poet’s eyes compelled her.
That night, Emily-Jane was plagued by fitful sleep and strange dreams. In her dream, she was sitting on her turquoise couch, sorting through her digital photo library, when a voice called out.
“Emily-Jane. Emily-Jane, help me.”
“Who’s there?” She stood, startled. She was home alone.
“It’s me, William. I need your help. Please!”
She tossed on sweaty sheets. “I don’t understand. How can you be talking to me?” She ran into her bedroom to find the portrait alive and calling out to her. “What are you?” she cried. She grabbed the baseball bat in the corner, ready to smash the picture.
“Wait! You have to help me! I’m not just a portrait. I’m—“
She woke before he could finish the sentence. Disturbed, she threw on sweats and headed out into the dim early morning. She needed coffee, and she wanted nothing more than to get out of her apartment, where tendrils of the dream lingered. Huddled against the November chill, she walked briskly to Vine and Bean, her neighborhood cafe.
She ordered pumpkin bread and the biggest dark roast they had available. Then she snugged herself into a booth and thumbed absently through her phone, trying her best to distract herself from the disruptive dream. It didn’t work. William’s words ran loops in her head. Frustrated, she dropped the phone and picked at her bread.
Why was the dream bothering her so much? She had far worse nightmares before. Besides, the whole thing was ridiculous. The result of nothing more than being overtired and having an overactive imagination. All the same, she wondered if she should move the portrait. Sleeping next to it didn’t seem so thrilling anymore.
“You okay?” A voice startled her out of her reverie.
Mikaela, the barista on duty, grinned. She’d made it all the way to Emily-Jane’s table without making a sound. At least, not one Emily-Jane had heard, preoccupied as she was.
“You seem really out of it this morning,” Mikaela said. She flicked her pink-streaked hair over her shoulders.
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Weird night is all.” Emily-Jane and Mikaela weren’t friends, exactly, but they saw each other all the time. Mikaela worked the early shift on weekdays, and Emily-Jane stopped in at least three times a week. They always made time to chat: Emily-Jane talked about her work and her latest art finds, and Mikaela would tell stories about bellydancing with her girlfriend or taking a weekend trapeze course.
Come to think of it, Emily-Jane thought, maybe they were friends.
“You need to talk about it?” the barista asked.
Emily-Jane frowned at her mug. “I’m not sure there’s much to say. I got some new art at an estate sale yesterday. Last night I dreamed one of the portraits was talking to me, asking for help. Spooky, right?”
Mikaela cocked her head, her septum ring catching the light. “Depends. Is the person in the picture cute?”
Emily-Jane laughed in spite of herself. “He is. But something about the whole thing was creepy. A little too Oscar Wilde for me.”
“Well, I think it sounds cool. But then, I enjoy a little sprinkling of weird in my life. If it’s bugging you, maybe you should just get rid of the picture.”
“You know,” Emily-Jane said, “that’s not a terrible idea.”
Fortified by coffee, Emily-Jane returned to her apartment, prepared to remove William from her bedroom. She hadn’t wholly committed to the idea of getting rid of the picture altogether; it was too captivating to just toss. But she certainly wanted it away from her bed.
She never got the chance to take it down.
The minute she stepped into the room, William’s dark eyes turned, pinning her with their gaze. “You’re back,” he said.
Emily-Jane’s bones turned liquid and she collapsed on the bed. “Oh, holy shit.”
William was talking to her. William was talking to her. William was talking to her. It wasn’t possible, but it was happening. William was alive.
“This is not real,” she said.
“I know this is unsettling for you,” he replied. “But I’m very real. And I need you.”
“What are you? What do you want?” Emily-Jane would have fled if her legs had worked. But the fear had paralyzed her, and all she could do was stare at the portrait.
“I’m trapped in this picture,” he said. “I need you to set me free.”
“How…how do I do that? How did you get trapped there in the first place?” What kind of conversation was this?
“I was locked in the photo when an evil magician took my picture more than 70 years ago.”
She laughed hollowly. “What?”
“It’s true. I was trapped here by a romantic rival.”
Emily-Jane scrubbed her hands over her face. Evil magician? Romantic rival? Trapped in a photo? Talking portrait? “I’m losing my marbles,” she finally said.
“I can explain,” he said. “You call me William, but my real name is Everett Lombardo. In 1944, I attended a magic show. The magician—his real name was Henry, but he went by The Great Morini—and I had known each other since we were boys, but we had become bitter enemies. After the show, he used his magic camera to imprison me in the photo and then convince my girlfriend I had run off. He married her and went on to live a full life. My life. I’ve been trapped here ever since.”
“How old were you?” She shook her head. Why did that matter? Why was she asking questions when she should be running?
“Twenty-three. I never had the chance to make a life. He stole everything from me.”
Okaaaaaay. “Why haven’t you asked for help before?”
“I have,” he said. “But you’re the first person who ever heard me. You’re special.”
“Oh, sure. I feel special. A special kind of crazy.”
“You aren’t crazy,” he murmured.
But what was the alternative? That an enchanted portrait had come to life and was speaking to her? “That’s it. I’m throwing this picture away. Better yet, I’m burning it. Then I will stop hallucinating.”
His eyes widened in horror. “You would kill me?”
“YOU AREN’T REAL! THIS IS ALL IN MY HEAD!” Emily-Jane wasn’t sure if she was shouting for his benefit or her own. All she knew for sure was that she had to get rid of the picture before she went completely nuts.
“I can prove it,” he said. “I can tell you how to set me free. If you do, I’ll leave you alone forever.”
“Fine,” she said, swiping angrily at the tears on her cheeks. When had she started crying? “What do I have to do?”
“It’s simple. How do you break any spell?”
She rolled her eyes. “I have no idea. It’s not like I regularly practice magic. I’m a photographer!”
“Think about it. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. The Frog Princess.”
She sucked in her cheeks. “Are you saying I have to kiss you?”
“Just one tiny peck is all it will take, I promise.”
“And then all this will stop?”
He nodded. “You have my word.”
She stood, rolled her shoulders, and squeezed her ponytail tighter. “All right, here goes.”
She leaned over, squinched her eyes shut, and kissed Everett right on his two-dimensional lips. Before she could break contact, she felt their heat and shape develop. Startled, she opened her eyes and backpedaled, stumbling over the bed.
And then, just like that, Everett stepped out of the photo.
The man before her was tall and slim, and roared into full color as though he’d just wandered into Oz. He blinked for a moment, then grinned and stretched, his joints popping.
“I can’t thank you enough!” he exclaimed.
“No way that just happened.”
His smile gentled. “I assure you that it did. I’m sorry I frightened you, but you were the only glimmer of hope I’ve had in 70 years. I’ll leave you now.”
She shook her head in wonder. “Where will you go?”
“I have places to be. But I owe you a debt.” He moved to her dresser and scribbled something on the notepad she kept there. “If you ever need me, call that number.”
He gave her a shallow bow and was out the apartment door before she could fully process what had happened.
She glanced at the frame still hanging on the wall. The image was mostly blank now, with just the hint of what looked like fabric in one corner. William—no, Everett—really had come to life and walked away. That, or she was in the grips of one hell of a hallucination.
She yanked the frame off the wall and ran outside, tossing it in the nearest dumpster. Then she hurried to back Vine and Bean. As she’d hoped, Mikaela was still working. Emily-Jane grabbed a table and motioned the barista over.
“What’s up?” Mikaela asked.
“Have a seat. You said you liked weird, right? Boy, do I have a story for you.”
“I’m going to tell you something wild. And then I need you to tell me I’m not crazy,” Emily-Jane said.
“Hang on.” Mikaela ran back to the bar. She returned a moment later with two steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
“I have a feeling we might need these,” she said with a smile. “Now. Tell me everything.”
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