Ben pulled on his boots, parka and gloves and headed outside. He paused on the deck to admire the view. Despite the cold, it appealed to him in a perverse way, suiting his mood. The pristine white snow was spread over the mountain like a soft cover, smoothing out the contours of the land. The car was just another mound of snow. The dark figures of trees stretched their slender limbs to the bruised purple sky. The moonlight was almost as bright as day. He headed to the shed behind the chalet where the firewood was stacked. He smiled wryly to himself. So much for their romantic weekend. The forecast had called for light snowfall, not a winter storm. Now they were stuck with no power, no phone and no internet. The wind stung his cheeks, and his eyes and nose were running by the time he returned to the house with an armful of logs. Lynn, huddled in the recliner by the woodstove, a blanket round her shoulders, barely glanced up.
“That’s not enough to last the night. You’d better get some more.”
Ben took a deep breath, bit off a retort, and headed back outside. He could understand her frustration, but her mood had been strange for weeks before this disastrous outing. Her lethargy worried him. He’d have preferred it if she’d given him a piece of her mind about being stranded here as she normally would. He’d hoped a nice getaway might give them the chance to reconnect. He’d thought long and hard about what he might have done to offend her, finally asking her bluntly if there was someone else.
“Of course not,” she’d said apathetically. “You know I love you.”
There had been no mysterious absences or phone calls or other signs of an affair. She hadn’t changed her routine or the way she dressed. Ben struggled to put his finger on what was different. Her vibrant personality seemed to be dimming. They no longer had feisty arguments about politics or laughed about the absurdities of daily life. Even when he intentionally tried to provoke her, she responded politely but indifferently as if she were preoccupied.
“You look like Lynn, but who are you and where is she?” he muttered, fumbling as he tried to grasp logs in his frozen fingers. “Jesus, now I’m talking to myself.”
He staggered back to the cabin, slipping and sliding, struggling not to drop the firewood as he entered, kicking the door shut behind him. Lynn had extended the recliner and was curled up asleep. Her face looked drawn and old in the moonlight pouring in through the window. The bedroom was freezing; they would have to spend the night in here. Ben stoked up the stove and tenderly tucked the cover more securely round her shoulders. He noticed something in her hand. It was an old, framed photograph they had found at the flea market a few months ago. Flea market forays used to be one of their favorite pastimes together. It was a faded black and white photograph of a grim looking woman wearing a high-necked blouse, her hair pulled back tightly in a bun, staring sternly at the camera. They had both laughed at the portrait’s likeness to Lynn and he had bought it on a whim.
“Gee, thanks,” Lynn had said, chuckling, when he gave it to her. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to deal with me in a bad mood circa 1900? What a grumpy granny. Maybe this will be me in fifty years’ time.”
“Are you sure there’s no sinister great-great-grandma in the family tree?” he had said.
It occurred to him that this was the last time he could remember Lynn wholeheartedly enjoying a joke. He wondered why she had brought the photograph and why she was clutching it like a talisman. He gently loosened it from her grip. She stirred and murmured but did not wake. At first glance he thought she had replaced the photograph with one of herself. Peering at it more closely, he realized it was the original photo. He squinted at it. The woman’s hair and clothes were the same, but her expression was different. She looked younger and livelier and there was a tiny smile on her lips. In modern clothes, she could have been mistaken for Lynn. Lynn, on the other hand, now looked as worn and serious as the original picture. He tilted the picture this way and that, studying it, blinking as the woman’s black eyes seemed to glitter. He rubbed his eyes impatiently. It had been a long day; he was tired, and the room was dim. His imagination was taking over. He laid the picture down and went to get a beer. He shivered in the kitchen as he popped the top off the bottle. No need to worry about refrigeration tonight.
He grabbed a blanket and a pillow from the bedroom and made himself as comfortable as he could in the armchair next to the stove. Nibbling chips and sipping his beer, he watched Lynn sleeping. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that her odd behavior had started after they brought the picture home. Drowsy, a thought kept nagging at him. What was the name of that book about the picture that changed? The man who did evil things but never looked different, while his portrait became more and more distorted and ugly? He jolted upright, unsure if he had been dreaming, but the answer popped into his head from some long-ago English class. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. That was it.
He got up from the chair stiffly, threw some more wood on the stove and lit a candle. He looked at the photograph again, and almost dropped it as the woman smiled triumphantly back at him, eyes gleaming, looking young and sensual. He hurriedly checked on Lynn. Her face was pale, and her breathing seemed rapid and shallow. He felt nauseous, as if he were trapped on some awful carnival ride, where up was down and bizarre was normal. Lynn stirred awake in the chair.
“I’ve been having weird dreams and I’ve got a crick in my neck,” she said, slowly sitting up and swinging her feet to the floor.
Ben held the photograph out to her.
“Why did you bring this along? That’s an odd thing to bring on a trip.”
Lynn looked at him, puzzled.
“I didn’t. I thought you packed it. I was going to ask you about it, but I fell asleep.”
“Look at it and tell me if you think anything’s different.”
Lynn took the picture to the window and scrutinized it in the moonlight.
“I could be imagining it, but her expression has changed. I’ve been so tired lately that I’m probably not thinking clearly.”
Ben shook his head.
“Maybe I’m crazy, but I think you’re right. I also think you started feeling bad after we brought this picture home.”
Lynn stared at him.
“A coincidence, don’t you think? What else could it be? Maybe I caught a virus.”
Ben ran his hand through his hair and paced the room.
“If it was a virus, I’d probably have caught it too, and that still doesn’t explain why the photograph looks different. I hate to even say this out loud, but maybe the thing is possessed or something. That woman is getting younger and stronger and you’re looking weaker by the day. I think we should burn it.”
“Must we? That seems awfully drastic. She doesn’t deserve it. I feel sorry for her.”
Ben looked from her to the photograph.
“Whoa, listen to yourself. You’re talking as if she’s real. It’s got a hold over you. Give it to me.”
Lynn clutched the photograph to her chest and backed up against the wall.
She sank to her knees crying as Ben snatched the picture from her. Holding it in his fingertips, he rushed to the stove, opened the door and flung it in. The woman’s features contorted as the paper curled and burned. He heard a thud behind him as the stove door slammed. Turning, he saw Lynn slumped on the floor.
“No!” he yelled, kneeling beside her. “Lynn, speak to me.”
To his relief, her eyelids fluttered. She sat up slowly, clutching her head.
He helped her back to the recliner, covered her with the blanket, and brought her a glass of water. She sipped it slowly.
“I’m still tired, but I feel better. Lately I’ve felt as if I've been in a fog. Everything has been muffled and far away and I haven't been able to think straight. Do you really think the picture was evil? Sounds like a cheap horror story.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m glad we got rid of it.”
Suddenly the lights came on and they heard the hum of the refrigerator. They looked at each other with relief.
“The power’s on! I’ll make some tea," said Ben.
As they sipped the tea, watching the sky gradually lighten, Lynn looked thoughtful.
“I wonder, do you think there were other coincidences too? The power did come on right after you burned the picture…”
“Let’s not even go there.”