She said she didn’t know where she found it. That one day, it had just shown up — hanging in her hallway, encased in a silver frame, slightly askew. When I’d ask her about it, she’d give me the same answer and laugh, pinning it on her flittering memory. And I’d let it go.
It wasn’t even anything peculiar — a fading oil painting of a farm and field, a few chickens peppered around, the sun bright in the sky. Something you could find at a hundred different thrift stores. I’d barely noticed it until my fourth time over.
For one reason or another, when I stepped out of her room, it caught my eye. I stood there transfixed, although less like staring at a masterpiece and more as though observing a particularly shiny stone.
She stood next to me, a strand of golden hair twirling around her fingers. “Whatcha looking at? The painting?”
That snapped me out of my trance. “Yeah, I guess. It’s … it’s cool.”
“You don’t have to be nice,” she laughed. She trailed her finger aimlessly along the surface, then wrinkled her nose as it came back caked with dust.
“Where’d you get it from?”
She shrugged. “Dunno.”
We headed down the stairs, creaks reverberating around the antiquated house. The cavernous hallways were nearly bare, save for that one painting, and the light streaming in through the windows illuminated the dust drifting lazily through the air.
I wasn’t satisfied with her answer. “It was there when you moved in?”
“No. I remember when I had it, but I also remember when I didn’t. It just … appeared. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
As dissatisfied as I was with her vague answer, I could hear frustration begin to leech into her voice, so I stopped. Aside from offhanded questions and ambiguous replies, neither of us brought it up again.
We used to meet by the bus stop on the corner — I’d step off the bus, and she’d walk over from the school she attended. We’d head over to her place, where I’d stay until I got called back home, and she’d be left alone. I didn’t know where her parents were, and beyond shaky guesses and restrained responses about ‘some business trip’, I never found out.
It happened in November. I remember the last leaves fluttering from the barren trees, the chilling breeze in the air, the geese flocking overhead towards the south. I remember how one day, out of the blue, she didn’t show up.
I thought nothing of it, beyond being slightly miffed and a bit worried. On my way home, I paused outside her family home. The sprawling property was by far the largest in our neighborhood, yet its lavish exterior belied a lonely and plain, although gargantuan, interior. I bit my lip, and after a moment of furious internal debate, I stepped towards the door.
Ignoring the bell, I fished my copy of the key from my pocket. The door groaned as I swung it open and I winced — I’d need to remind her to fix that.
“Are you there?” My voice echoed alongside my footsteps as I climbed up the stairs and stepped into her room. I peered inside, ready to give her a piece of my mind when the words died on my tongue.
She wasn’t there. I scoffed. Great. Her house was huge, and if she were hiding for fun, it’d take me forever to find her.
“I’m leaving!” I called out, making sure my voice rang out. Silence. I stepped out of her room and closed the door behind me, then faltered. The painting on the wall, for the first time since I first saw it, had been straightened. Strange … she’d once mentioned that the screw holding it up was broken, had she finally fixed it? I bent in closer to look.
There, amongst the coarse wheat and washed out the barn, was a tiny figure, gold hair gleaming in the sun.
I recoiled. The upturned nose, the scattering of freckles, even down to the scarred left hand, it was her in the painting, leaning against an apple tree, fear unmistakable on her face.
I laughed, disbelief coursing through my veins. It had to be a prank. “Who painted you there? Gotta say, they did really well.”
Sure that she was in her room, ready to jump out at me, I slammed the door open. She didn’t seem to be inside … could she have been in another room down the hall?
Then I stopped, and all the blood in my body seemed to drop to my feet. The girl in the painting, whom I remembered so clearly to be standing by the apple tree, had shifted towards the centre of the canvas. Her hand was outstretched, pellets of grain suspended in midair, and the chickens were now clustered around her feet. The terror on her face had been replaced with a frightening blankness, so unlike what it had been mere moments ago.
She had moved. The painting had moved.
I brought a shaking hand to the frame, then jolted back when I felt dust. Dust …
There was no one else in the house with me.
My legs gave out and I crumbled to the floor, the mahogany carpet swimming in and out of view as I took deep breaths, trying to calm myself. I’d clearly remembered it wrong. She must have asked someone to paint in her likeness, and I had just forgotten where. After what seemed like hours, I managed to collect myself and haul myself up.
Outside the house, the sun had begun to set, and so it seemed to be in the painting. She was still there, but her arm had come up against her eyes. The bright blue paint that once coloured the sky alone now mixed with the rusty orange of a setting sun.
She had shifted again.
I’m not proud of what I did next, but trapped in a decaying manor with a painting that didn’t seem to be frozen in time, I didn’t know what else to do. I fled.
It’s been years — decades — since then, and I’m thinking about her again. It’s not the first time, it won’t be the last.
I’ve been back to visit her. The first time I went back after I found her, she was picking apples from the tree. Her golden curls had been tied up and her back was turned to me.
Next, she was looking out the barn windows, eyes shining, smiling at the chickens. And then fixing the fencing, maintaining the farm, then just wandering around. I’d stare at her for hours at a time, hoping she’d do something, anything, to acknowledge that she could see me. But she just stayed static, rough strokes of colour against a rotting canvas.
Once, when I climbed the steps to that unwillingly familiar hallway yet again, she was crouched down on the dirt, tears streaming down her rosy cheeks. I didn’t go back for a while after that.
Throughout the years, I noticed something else. As my hair greyed, so did hers. As my back began to ache, her posture seemed to stoop. As my hands wrinkled and my eyes grew feeble, she spent less time outside, and the only way I’d know she was there was by the light glowing ethereally behind curtained barn windows.
I’m missing her again … I think I’ll return tomorrow. I’m not sure how much longer we have. As much as she is frozen from the rest of the world, she too is another unavoidable victim of time. And as she grows old, the farm falls slowly but surely into disrepair.
Sometimes, I’ll blink and the painting will seem to vanish. In the space where it hangs, peeling wallpaper will be all that remains. I’ll close my eyes, just like I do to get the painting to move, and the barn, the field, she will return. Recently, it’s never been for long.
It seems that, after a few more years at most, the painting will no longer have use for her, and it will turn up somewhere else.
I don’t wish to find out where.
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