Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com. This time our inspiration is the photograph portrayed below that he and his wife found in San Francisco at an eclectic little shop. Make of it what you will and so will I. Here is my flash fiction below.
You Shouldn’t Laugh
They said that those who laid eyes on it died within the day. This was the reason he was wearing a blindfold as he groped through the cabinet for the portrait. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“If it’s as bad as you say it is, why don’t you just throw it out?” I asked.
The shopkeeper’s sudden laugh was riddled with anxiety. “Tried.” He said no more. I watched his facial expressions. Since I could not see his eyes, I had to rely on the twitch of a frown that had momentarily settled on his mouth. “Only way to get rid of it is to sell it. Changing hands, the… the portrait—it swaps souls, so to speak.”
I covered my mouth to stifle the snicker.
The shopkeeper’s hand found the item that I had flown three thousand miles to write about. I had always found it ironic that I worked for a magazine specializing in the paranormal when I did not believe it in myself. Yet millions did, so I made a decent living.
When he placed the flimsy matted photograph in my hands, my heart skipped a beat, a physical reaction unlike anything I had ever experienced when faced with something thought to be supernatural. My intestines groaned and my hands grew clammy and cold.
“Fucking creepy, regardless whether it’s real or not,” I muttered. I turned to glance at the shopkeeper, but he had already left the room.
I set the photo down on an oak coffee table, at once feeling a little better, warmer, and pulled out my digital camera. I snapped a few photographs for the story and pulled out my notepad again.
Boy, twelve? I wrote. A photograph meant to look antique… Photoshop? History of pic disputes possibility of computer touch-up. Some other method? Bottom half of boy’s face is skeletal, strange whiskers… Fucking creepy. Mouth agape, like screaming. Just—
“Do you want to put that thing away now, Sonny?”
I pivoted in my spot. The shopkeeper was groping blindly across the room towards me.
“Uh—yeah,” I whispered, and I couldn’t help but watch the mutant boy as he was placed back into the cabinet by gloved hands. The shopkeeper, a sixty-something man who had survived twenty years with this photograph in his possession, grunted as he affixed a padlock to the front of the cabinet.
I flicked through the snaps on my camera. “I’m sure it’s just a trick. I mean here, you can clearly see where the image of the boy doesn’t quite fade properly into that of the… the…”
“Demon?” The shopkeeper lifted the blindfold and glanced at the LCD screen of my camera. “Seems that pictures of the photograph don’t harm anyone. That’s how I know what it looks like… That’s the only reason I’m letting you print this story. People see the picture… shouldn’t harm them… No harm… Shouldn’t harm them.”
A wave of chills surged through my body then. “Trying to convince yourself?”
The shopkeeper shrugged and turned away. “Either way, Sonny, I’d finish that story before the end of the day. Maybe you’d be best to do it right here. Don’t think you’re going to make it the night. Sorry.”
It could have been my reckless demeanour or my naturally confident attitude, but I laughed.
I shouldn’t have laughed.
“My hotel is downtown San Fran, not even five blocks from here. Think I can make there alive,” I said with a smirk, but for some reason, my intestines groaned again, stomach clenched. Heart beat faster.
I think I actually had a mild case of fear working into my system.
The shopkeeper waved me away as he passed through the first floor of the old home, a floor that had been transfigured into an antiques shop, and took a seat behind the cash register. “Do what you want. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Back in my hotel room, I pulled out my laptop and began to type. I was writing this article as a story with a timeline rather than as a report. Start to finish. My arrival in San Francisco to my departing of the antiques shop. Even included the java I had stopped for earlier today. My readers loved hearing about the little things I did during the day. Somehow, I had become a celebrity in their eyes, and everything I did interested them. So in went the mundane.
As I began to work on the bulk of the story, explaining the photograph, explaining the chills I experienced—this time I did not need to exaggerate my fear for the sakes of those paranormal believers—I grew restless. Something like this warranted a stiff drink. I wanted to laugh at it again, but couldn’t. It was just a fucking picture, after all, a doctored one, some sicko’s idea of a joke. Hell, maybe it had been the shopkeeper that had done it, reeling in a quick hundred bucks each time someone wanted to see the creation.
I rubbed my eyes and closed them for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. Only a few more paragraphs.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that the screen had gone black. A reflection bounced off it.
A boy—the boy.
I whipped around, almost toppling over in the chair. Standing on the bed in an oversized tweed coat was the mutant boy, his face like that of any boy I’d ever met. No demon in him, surely, but how had he gotten into the room?
I rubbed my eyes again. I’d lost it entirely. Too much work, no booze. Bad combo.
When I lowered my hands, I jumped. The boy’s face was inches from my own. And his face began to transform. A sick shriek emitted from his throat—or maybe it was mine—as whiskers of skin protruded from his face and that of his jaw melted away.
I know then that I did scream. Couldn’t help it.
The thing suddenly bent down and ripped a chunk of my throat out with its teeth. My blood squirting onto the bed—through the boy… through the boy—was the last thing I ever saw.
© Lindsay Mawson 2011