Imogen sat by the fire and listened to the windows shake. Sounds like the frozen devil, she thought with a shiver. Come to take over the world by storm and ice. Well, you aren’t getting me, mister Devil.
She glanced up above the fire to the line of portraits marching along the fireplace then over the walls, till they burst out alongside the cottage. She loved her pictures.
Robert E. Lee gazed at her stoically from above the flames, his gray beard curled like clouds. A small oil painting of a girl feeding ducks sat beside a dancer, with her elegant neck curved upward, amid many others. So many lovely works of art.
Imogen bent forward to prod at the flames with her gnarled old poker, taking satisfaction in the bright hiss of the fire curling around the beaten metal. The wind howled louder, the noise building up into a shrieking gale. Imogen grunted. “Shaddup, now,” she said. “You’re not so big and scary.”
The storm disagreed, and Imogen scowled at the triangles of ice slamming against the windows and the side of the house.
She heaved herself up out of her chair and tottered towards the kitchen, her hip grinding painfully, bone against bone. She huffed and reached for her cane.
The teakettle clattered against the side of the sink as she filled it with water and set it on the stove, before turning and fumbling around in her cabinets for dishes.
Where’s Bill to help me with this? she thought, annoyed. Why isn’t he here to get the dishes?
It occurred to her that Bill had been dead for over twenty years. She paused a moment so her brain could slowly cycle around and catch up. Lump on his neck. Doctor’s office. Cancer. Dead. She nodded slowly. Right.
She had to think hard to make sure she wasn’t missing anything else, but decided that was probably it. Bill was dead, Annie had moved away, and she… she was here in her cottage, the cottage she hadn’t left for ten years.
Imogen walked back into her dining room with a cup of steaming tea and a book tucked under her arm. She studied the portraits for a few moments then sat down in her padded armchair to pull out her book.
“It’s supposed to be a good one,” she informed the walls. “Amazon said so. Amazon’s never wrong.”
She pulled it open and began to read, calmly speaking over the shrieks of the storm outside. The portraits all watched with blank, painted eyes.
She read for hours, until the tea was stone-cold and the fire was dead, little embers still puffing out bits of heat. The sound of her voice seemed to soothe the gale outside, so that the wind dwindled down and eventually settled just to listen.
She closed the novel around three in the morning. “That was a good one. Quite an unexpected twist at the end, right?” She stood up. “I may just have to recommend it to Annie.” She looked at the walls as if waiting for an answer. Silence.
“Well,” Imogen said. “Goodnight. Tomorrow’s our anniversary, remember. See you all then.”
She made her way up the stairs, listening to the storm scrape against the window.
She missed Annie. She wondered where she was, if she was okay. Was she happy? Did she miss her? She certainly didn’t act like it.
That’s not true. She calls, sometimes.
She couldn’t seem to recall exactly when or what she had said, but she had called, Imogen knew that. She must have.
Her room was tiny and dark, with pink walls and sticky glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling. A puffy white-and-pink bed, a spotted carpet. It used to be Annie’s room. Imogen sighed and stripped down for bed.
She caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror just before she turned off the light. Gaunt, sagging eyes and age-spotted skin. Her hair was thin and wiry gray, and she was skinny, shockingly so, the bones in her hands and face more prominent than ever. She looked like a skeleton draped in folds of rotting human skin.
No wonder Annie didn’t call anymore.
She fumbled for the light switch and sat in the blackness of the room, feeling frustrated and angry and sad all at once. She felt small and very alone. She wished that hollow feeling would disappear.
Well, not entirely alone. I have my portraits. She smiled at the thought of them, and rolled over and closed her eyes.
The minutes ticked by in silence. She opened her eyes with a frown.
What was I just thinking about?
Despite what her mother might have believed, Annie was a good daughter. Most of the time.
She called her mother occasionally, whenever she felt like it. Sometimes she was lonely. Sometimes she was angry or sad. Once she called to ask if she was adopted.
Annie did her best to give her mother updates on her life, when she felt like talking to her. “Hi Mom. This is Annie. Um, I just called to tell you about the guy I’ve been seeing for the past few months. His name’s Michael. I think you would like him a lot. Maybe you guys could meet sometime. Bye. Annie.”
Or, “Hey Mom! Great news, I just got promoted! This position’s amazing, better pay than before. I’ve got lots of people I’m in charge of now. It’s awesome. Call me! Annie.”
Or, “Hey Mom, Merry Christmas! I hope you like the present I sent you! The baby’s been crying like mad. Danny and I are both exhausted. Maybe you could come over and help sometimes? Love you and miss you. Annie.”
She never answered.
Imogen woke up thinking about Annie and missing her. She wondered if she was okay.
Her brain felt strange, like it was wrapped in sea salt and cotton and being shaken around in a glass jar. She rose, touching her forehead, and made her way downstairs.
“Good morning,” she said to the portraits she passed. “Good day. Can you believe it’s our anniversary already? Makes me feel so old.”
She made a bland breakfast of eggs and toast then stepped into the living room and sat down wearily.
“Well,” she said to her painting of Robert E. Lee. “This is it.” She sat there a long time in silence. She sighed. “When do you think Annie will call? Now that Bill’s dead she doesn’t have anyone else to turn to. She needs her old mother.”
“Does anyone want some eggs?” Imogen called. “They’re going to go cold soon. I don’t feel much like eating.” She sighed and pressed a hand to her forehead again.
What an odd feeling. Was I drinking? Does this have something to do with our Anniversary?
She paused. What was I thinking about?
“I’ve been very forgetful lately,” Imogen said mournfully. “Can someone please help me remember? Why hasn’t she called?”
Suddenly there was the click of the door. Imogen froze. Everyone froze. Nobody had opened any doors in years and years.
“Hello?” Annie called. “Mom? Are you there?”
“Annie!” Imogen cried, jumping up. The portraits all hissed.
“Mom? Where are you?”
“In here!” she shouted, waving. “Annie! I'm in here!”
She can’t hear you, Mary growled. Her long mermaid tail thrashed back and forth over silver rocks.
“Yes she can!” Imogen said angrily. “Annie!”
“Mom?” Annie came into the living room cautiously. She looked like a dream. “Mom? Where are you?” She stopped, staring at the mass of artwork that hung over the walls. “Oh my God. I forgot about all these.” She stepped forward.
“Annie!” Imogen called. “Annie! Right here!”
Annie brushed her fingers gently over a painting of a small brown dog. He giggled and wagged his tail but she didn’t seem to notice. “Oh wow. There’s even more than there used to be.” She gazed up at Mary. “I remember you.”
Mary’s tail flipped back and forth faster. Brat, she growled, with the blond pigtails, rubbing your jelly hands all over my scales. I remember you too.
“Annie!” Imogen protested.
“Wow.” Annie murmured. She was gazing straight at Imogen. “Look at this one. It’s this house.” She stepped closer so she was right up against the fireplace. “Or a painting of it, I guess.”
She touched the canvas gently, the snow swirling around the paneled wood, deep in the forest. The ice-blue sky, the frozen little pond…
“Wow. Did Mom paint this? It looks so real.”
“Annie?” Imogen asked.
She can’t hear you, whispered Robert.
“But…” Imogen’s hands dropped to her sides. “I thought…”
“Mooom!” Annie called, turning away to gaze off into the empty house. “Mom, are you there?” She sighed, glancing back over at the paintings. “Guess she’s not home.”
“Wait…” Imogen whispered. “Annie.”
She can’t see you, said the dancer Alouette.
“I’ll call later,” Annie muttered to herself. She pulled out a pad of paper from her purse and scribbled something on it. She placed the note on a little table.
She doesn’t know you’re there, said the chubby little girl feeding ducks. Because… she hesitated.
Mary snorted. Her yellow eyes glared into Imogen’s soul. Where do you think you are?
Imogen’s heart stopped.
Robert gazed at her with sympathy in his eyes. It’s always hard to hear.
Imogen’s breath was shallow in her throat as she watched her daughter walk away. “Do you mean-”
Well, yes, Robert said. You’re one of us. In that painting, in fact. He gestured to the painting of Imogen’s cottage across the wall.
Imogen turned slowly to look at him. He smiled. Happy Anniversary. Can you believe it’s been twenty years?
“Twenty...t-twenty years…” Imogen swayed. “Oh God.”
The front door slammed shut.
Imogen stared at the walls. I’m living inside a painting. I’m living inside a painting. That was her last thought before she blacked out.
It’s always so hard to get used to, Robert mused.
Maybe we should have told her earlier, suggested the girl with the ducks.
We thought she knew, Alouette pointed out.
I certainly didn’t care, Mary offered.
When Imogen came to, she was lying on the floor. Oh. I must have been asleep. She sat up slowly. Her head felt like it had been wrapped in sea salt and cotton and shaken around in a glass jar.
Whoa. Deja vu.
She frowned around the room. How’d I get to the living room? I thought I just went to bed.
There was a winter storm howling outside, as usual. Imogen wandered around the house for a while, trying to remember whatever she’d forgotten. She sighed, and eventually sat down with a book and a cup of tea. She watched the snow spray against the windows. Have I ever actually been outside the cabin since I moved here? She couldn’t remember. It was getting harder and harder to remember things these days.
She gazed up at her portraits. At least she had them. Oh, and someone named Bill, wherever he was. And another name… she frowned.
Well, her portraits would tell her the truth, she was sure of that. She glanced over to one of the Civil War generals, Robert E. Lee. His eyes were so full of wisdom.
“Robert,” she said. “Has Annie called lately?”