A short story to draw you in...
The car boot sale was thronged.
Every market stall had at least half a dozen bargain hunters swarming around it. Pockets of people were standing around talking on the pathways, oblivious to the muttered curses and dirty looks of everybody who had to detour around them. Parents were using prams as battering rams. Others were carrying large pieces of furniture at awkward angles, moving through the crowds with single mindedness and woe betide anybody who got in their way.
It was late in the afternoon and most everything worth buying had already been snapped up by the early birds. Rainclouds that had rolled in from the Atlantic were now dumping their payload along the Galway coast.
Charlotte wasn’t even half way around the circuit of the sale when the downpour started. ‘Ah, to hell with this,’ she said.
She turned back was making her way to the car park, along with droves of others, when something caught her eye. It was a stall, if you could call it that. Being as it was just a small table with a single item on it.
A framed drawing of a woman.
Charlotte stopped in her tracks and stared at the picture, mesmerised and oblivious to the muttered curses and dirty looks of the people detouring around her. She stood there for some time before she began to move towards the table, feeling trepidation but not knowing why.
She moved unobstructed. Everybody else seemed to have vanished. The world went quiet. The rain had stopped and the air felt heavier, harder to breathe.
She reached the table and saw up close what she thought had just been her imagination from twenty feet away; The woman in the pencil drawing was the spitting image of her, right down to the hairstyle and clothes.
Charlotte was so taken aback that she didn’t notice the old man appear behind the table.
‘It’s a remarkable likeness, isn’t it?’ he said
Charlotte gasped and took a step back ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,’ she said.
‘No I should apologise, I startled you,’ he said.
A smile stole across his lips that made Charlotte feel uneasy. It was at once charming and sinister. She didn’t dwell on this though, as her attention was drawn once again to the picture.
‘Did you draw this?’ she asked.
‘Guilty as charged,’ he said, and his smile grew bigger still. The wrinkles this created on his face, along with his thinning grey hair and stooped posture, made Charlotte think he was probably in his seventies. But something in his smile and his eyes gave the impression of youth.
She looked at the scrawled signature in the bottom right corner.
‘You’re Plok…..Plokimju?’ she asked.
He laughed, ‘A nom de plume. One I’ve been using for quite some time. I had a good Christian name once,’ he said, his smile faltering slightly, but only for a second. ‘But that was a lifetime ago, it seems.’
‘Well I’d very much like to buy it,’ said Charlotte ‘How much do you want for it?’
‘I’d very much like for you to have it,’ he replied. ‘How much would you pay?’
Charlotte was flustered ‘Oh I really don’t know.’ Wary of making a derisory offer, she eventually said ‘Maybe…50 Euros?’
As soon as the words left her mouth it, she thought that the amount was way too low, so she was surprised when he replied ‘That will do fine. It would be a travesty if anybody but you were to have it.’
‘Thank you very much,’ she said, and waited for him to take the picture to wrap or bag for her.
He stood smiling benignly at her, with his hands behind his back. After an awkward silence, she pointed at the picture and said ‘Should I just…?’
She took the picture, put it under her arm and rooted out a fifty from her purse. She held it out to him but he didn’t move to take it from her.
‘You can just leave it on the table,’ he said, ‘If you wouldn’t mind.’
She thought it odd, but did as he asked.
‘Thank you so much,’ he said and smiled broadly again, only this time his face appeared to be a lot less wrinkled. She thought he looked at least ten years younger.
As she began to back slowly away from the table, the sounds of the car boot sale started to increase in volume. Her breathing became easier. She felt the rain again, light at first, quickly increasing to torrential. She was almost knocked off her feet by someone walking straight into her, but kept her balance and wheeled around. The old lady she had backed into had dropped a box of nik naks and they had scattered on the muddy ground. Charlotte hunkered down and helped the woman gather her sundry items up, apologising all the while. Charlotte’s apologies were ignored as the sour old lady walked away without a word, but with a scowl.
Charlotte watched her for a second, before turning back towards the stall. At first she thought she was seeing things, because she was seeing nothing. The stall, and the man, had vanished. She looked everywhere, every direction, even though she knew exactly where it had been. There was not even a gap where the table could have stood.
She was confused and reluctant to leave, but the rain continued to fall and the wind had picked up, so she made a dash for her car. Driving home she started to feel more like herself again, the feelings of confusion and unease lessening. The stall and the man felt like something from a dream, and if it wasn’t for the fact she had the drawing, (Which now looked nothing like her), on the passenger seat, she would have doubted it had happened at all.
By the time she walked through the door of her bungalow she had forgotten everything strange about the purchase. As far as she was concerned, she had just bought a drawing of a woman from a nice old man. She hung it over the fireplace in place of the generic ‘Fruit bowl on a table’ print that had been there when she moved in, and thought nothing more of it.
The following week progressed like any other.
From Monday to Friday she went to work as usual. She felt slightly more tired at the end of each shift, but there had been a rush on in the office to meet a deadline so she put the fatigue down to the extra workload.
Her evenings were, for the most part, uneventful. On Wednesday she went to the cinema with friends. Every other evening was spent in front of the TV with her laptop and her cat. She was in bed by 10:30 at the latest.
Every morning she woke with the vague memory of having had a dream or a nightmare. By the time she put the kettle on, it was completely forgotten.
That changed on Saturday morning.
She woke screaming, clawing at the air in front of her, still trying to fight off the old man from her nightmare. It was fully two minutes before she realised where she was and that she was alone. She lay back and tried to relax, but the remnants of the nightmare didn’t fade this time.
The man’s face remained clear in her mind. He was younger again since she saw him last, maybe fifty years old. He had the same sanguine smile that somehow conveyed malice, as if any happiness or joy he was feeling was at her expense. He had pursued her through the house, relentless, keeping pace at a stroll even as she ran at full pelt. The house looked like her house, the same furnishings and décor, but the hallway seemed to go on for miles. Occasionally she would come across a door but every time she went through one she found herself in her sitting room, it’s ceiling too high, the furniture distorted and misshapen. The only thing that remained the same each time and was exactly as it was in the real world was the drawing above the fireplace. She would then find herself in the hallway once again, making another desperate dash for the next door. This scenario repeated over and over, seemingly a thousand times, before he eventually ensnared her. She struggled to free herself from his grip, lashing out with all her might, but still he held on. Twisting and writhing, but still he kept smiling. She had kicked and punched and eventually she found herself… in her bed. In her room.
It was almost half an hour before Charlotte felt able to get up. She went to the kitchen and put the kettle on, hoping a cup of tea would help her shake off the feeling of being watched. Whilst waiting for the water to boil, she went to the sitting room. She glanced at the picture above the fireplace and a chill struck her at what she saw. Or didn’t see.
The frame still hung there, but now it contained nothing but a blank sheet of paper. Her mind raced in search of an explanation, but could come up with nothing. Confused and scared, she was trying to summon the courage to approach the picture when her attention was caught a racket coming from the kitchen. The kettle was boiling, but it didn’t sound quite right; far too loud and she would have sworn on a bible that she could hear “Charlotte” being said over and over from within the tumult.
She returned to the kitchen and saw the kettle rocking from side to side. Boiling water bubbled over and a jet of steam shot forth from the spout. And yet it kept boiling. She approached, intending to turn off the switch, but before she reached it, the appliance exploded sending scalding water across the kitchen. Charlotte just managed to turn away in time and crouched down covering her head. She cried out as the scalding water rained down on her back and hands.
Every door in the house began to open and slam shut. Invisible hands began to pound on the windows and walls around her. Above her it sounded like a herd of cattle were stampeding through the attic. Scurrying under the table, she covered her ears and closed her eyes and let loose a scream that not even she could hear over the din.
After two minutes it ended just as abruptly as it had begun. Charlotte continued to scream into the silence for another two minutes. When she stopped, her throat was burning She fumbled around for the light switch, but when she flicked it, nothing happened. The kitchen door was closed so she opened it and stepped unsteadily into the sitting room.
The room was similarly cloaked in darkness so she went to the window. Outside was pitch black, with not a glimmer of light visible on the ground or in the sky. She tried to open the window, but it wouldn’t budge.
She made her way around the house, quicker and less cautious as she became accustomed to the dark, more frantic as she found each exit blocked. She spent several minutes at the front door, pushing and pulling, kicking and punching, but it was shut tight. She could open the letterbox but could hear no sounds outside. She tried to scream for help, but no sound would escape her throat. Alarmed, she tried to talk to herself, to make any sound at all, but she was unable.
What the hell is happening to me?
Her arms began to feel strange. She tried to lift her hands to her face but they were just hanging limp at the wrists. A feeling like pins and needles spread up her arm and they too fell useless to her sides. She started to make her way back up the hall when a pain flashed in her head. It felt like the worst migraine she had ever had and after only a matter of seconds it subsided. Her head fell forward, her chin coming to rest on her chest. She was unable to lift it.
Panicked, she rushed forward, straight into the hall wall. She just about managed to keep herself from falling over and stood in the hallway, her back against the wall. She was finding it difficult to breathe with her head tipped forward. The little breath she did have, caught in her throat when something brushed her cheek.
A voice said, ‘Not long now. There’s no use fighting it.’
She ran from the voice, towards the sitting room. In her haste, she ran into the side of the couch and fell, landing on her side. Her arms being no use, she struggled to sit up and found she could not lift her torso.
She kicked out her legs, trying to move in any way she could. She managed to get onto her back before she lost power over her legs as well. She lay on her back in the dark unable to do anything except blink. She began to wonder if she couldn’t see anything because she was blind. This thought didn’t last long though because, in a flash, sunlight poured back into the room. She closed her eyes at the sting of the light and when after several minutes she could open them without pain, she saw she was lying in the centre of the sitting room, her head pointing towards the fireplace.
She looked up at the picture and it wasn’t blank anymore. The woman was back and she could see now that it was and always had been a drawing of her. The only part missing were the eyes and ears. She kept her gaze on it, couldn’t look anywhere else, and as she watched, the left eye began to take shape, drawn by an invisible hand. Her vision from that eye began to blur and when it was complete, she could see nothing from it. The other eye was started and within a minute she could see nothing. She heard something in the room. Somebody was moving around.
‘Beautiful,’ a faintly familiar voice said. ‘You’ve been an inspiration to me. It’s been an age since I’ve had a muse like you.’
She was acutely aware of every sound now. Children playing outside, cars driving by and a plane flying overhead were crystal clear. The tick of a clock and the settling of a floorboard became amplified.
‘I just have to finish this off and then I can be on my way. It’s some of my best work, even if I do say so myself.’
She heard the sound of pencil on paper, and then she heard no more.
Martin and Laura were just about ready to leave the car boot sale.
There was nothing good to be had and the kids were driving them crazy, either asking them to buy something at every stall, or wandering off every five minutes.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Laura.
‘Yeah, there’s no use hanging around is there?’ replied Martin.
‘Where’s Katherine?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Mark, where’s your sister?’
His son, who was holding his hand, pointed towards the stall his sister had wandered over to. They all went over and Martin said ‘Right girly, time to get going.’
She didn’t respond and he was about to repeat himself when he saw what she was looking at. I was a hand drawn portrait of a family of four that looked the spitting image of them. He was lost for words, as was his wife when she saw it.
They didn’t notice the man appear behind the stall.
‘It’s a remarkable likeness,’ he said.
They looked at him with surprise. He seemed to be in his early forties, but his voice sounded much older.
‘It would be a travesty if anybody but you were to have it,’ he said with a smile.
©2015 by C.R.J.Smith