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After “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allan Poe
The night is a foggy memory. It's possible one or more elements were figments of my failing mind. Yet, I can't shake the feeling that I didn't imagine anything, that the whole event really happened just as I remember it.
I had been drugged. I turned my back on my drink for two seconds at the after-party, and before long I was stumbling on the dance floor. Someone took my arm and suggested we get some fresh air. I vaguely remember my back against a wall, my roommate shouting—thank God she saw us leave.
Next thing I recall is being half dragged down the sidewalk by my roommate. I was bleeding but oddly numb to the pain. My roommate was saying, “The arts center! We’ll go in there and I’ll call an ambulance. Oh crap, should we have stayed? No, best to get away from him. I’ll text Lexi and warn her. Someone needs to know.”
“The jerk had a knife. He stabbed you when I pulled him away.”
For a moment my thoughts were clear. “Did he—”
“I didn’t see him rape you, and I was right behind you. He just got a hand up your skirt. Looked like he wanted to go further.” Leave it to my roommate to tell it like it is. “We’re almost there.”
We reached the back door to the arts center, and she scanned her ID to unlock our refuge. No lights were on, but we had enough moonlight to see fairly well. Something was wrong here. My roommate shoved a plastic chair under me and checked the two slashes on my arm and thigh, putting her pre-med brain to work.
“Good news, you’re not gonna bleed out. The wounds are pretty shallow.” She peeled back my sweater and tied it around my arm, then tied her sweater around my leg. Both sweaters, and my dress, were dyed with red splotches, but with the roofie and the blood loss, I was too out of it to care.
“Sit tight while I call 911, ‘kay?”
“‘Kay,” I mumbled. She stood by the door with her phone while I reexamined our temporary shelter.
We were in the gallery at the back of the arts center. As I said, I was sure something was off the moment we came in. I was right. The gallery was supposed to be showcasing student artwork that month. My painting of a château in the Apennines was selected for display. But now the walls were blank as veiled faces. Except for the one closest to me, on my left. It had a series of polaroids in a haphazard, generally linear array. Each one portrayed a young woman, about my age. I blinked and drew back. I couldn’t say why until I had a closer inspection.
Unlike myself, the subject was the classic English Rose: wavy golden hair, frail shoulders, skin so smooth she must have been wearing makeup, faint blush in her cheeks, striking blue-gray eyes that appeared to be looking right at me. Every picture showed her in various postures: standing, sitting, reading, holding flowers, eating a chocolate cupcake, drinking from a shot glass, laughing, smiling, serious. But that wasn’t why I recoiled. After a few moments, I deduced the answer. What had startled me was the life-likeness of the photographs. I admired the artistic skill of the photographer who captured the girl so vividly. I searched for a card or an artist statement, but I found none.
“Do you like them?”
I gasped, which made my head swim. A young man stood a short distance away, concealed by the darkness. He took a few steps forward. He looked like an upperclassman, but he had nothing on him indicating he was a student at the college. He wore all black, like he was in mourning. He left no skin visible save his hands, part of his neck, and his pale face. Gaunt, white-blonde, and blue-eyed, he might have been handsome if something about him wasn’t so unsettling.
If I had the mental capacity to think straight, I would have done something smart, like call out to my roommate or ask him if he knew where a first aid kit was. Instead, I asked the only question I could think of. “Who are you?”
“I’m the photographer.” He nodded to the polaroids. “You’re lucky. Most people don’t get to see my gallery these days.”
“Oh?” I had a hard time wrapping my mind around his words. “Um, who’s the girl? Woman?”
“My beloved,” he answered softly, caressing one photograph with his finger. “A lady of the rarest beauty, matched only by her joie de vivre.” His tongue rolled smoothly over the French. His gaze went distant. “The moment we met was lovely and cursed. It was at an after-party. Her beauty imprisoned me. As an artist, I worship beauty. You are a painter. Surely you understand?” He turned to me.
“I do.” It didn’t occur to me to ask how he knew I was a painter.
“We spent that night together, and if Heaven exists, I have lived it,” he continued with a sad smile. “But on the other side of Heaven is Hell. I pursued her after the party, and we fell in love. I idolized her. And I grew jealous for her. I’d discovered her beauty, that offspring of my first love art, and I longed to possess it. So I advised her what to wear and when, to conceal her secrets from prying eyes. When we were alone, I loved nothing more than to photograph her and try to embody her life and beauty. And she, the most patient and loving, submitted to my every desire.
“Our relationship stretched to months, and I grew more fearful. I forbade her from going to parties without me. I spent as much time with her as I could and texted her constantly when we were apart. My love for her bloomed, then hardened, and she remained faithful. Yet her friends, who were scheming to separate us out of envy, told her to break off our relationship and told me to let her go. They claimed she was ill, worried, not like herself. But I saw no change in her. When her friends persisted, I persuaded my beloved to leave them. Still she obeyed. And the photographs accumulated, though none quite captured her spirit.” He gestured to the spread of photos.
My head, strangely, felt clearer as he narrated. Perhaps I was just imagining it, but going from left to right, the young woman in the polaroids grew paler and more wan. The blush in her cheeks and the color of her eyes faded. “And then?”
He sighed, a sound that came from the lowest level of his rib cage and exhaled gloom. “I bid her to live with me in my apartment over winter break so I might never leave her side. I was determined to emulate her in the lens of my camera, whose faith I began to doubt. An artist, doubting his art for love of a woman! It didn’t matter that she rarely ate what I prepared for her, or that she rarely had sunlight or fresh air. As January came, I set her up for a final shoot, and this one, I knew, would be perfect.”
The photographer gently pushed my chair a few yards forward, down the line of polaroids. “The days stretched on, and I refused to let her leave the apartment as I adjusted the angle, the lighting, her hair, her makeup, her clothes, her position, her expression. Finally, I took the very photograph I yearned to capture.”
He stopped me in front of the last polaroid. It had a black background and portrayed the lover from the shoulders up, looking over her shoulder Girl-with-a-Pearl-Earring style. I gasped. The health, the beauty, the joie de vivre of the young woman, it… it radiated so clearly from the polaroid, though that word falls short.
“Wow! It’s so…” I settled for, “It’s so lifelike!”
“Lifelike?” The photographer thrust his head over my shoulder, and I recoiled at the horror scratched on his face. “This is Life itself!”
“What… what do you mean?” My senses were fading, but somehow I sensed the answer.
He looked at the polaroid. “The moment it developed and I realized what I had done, I turned to my beloved.” He looked at me and said the last words I heard before I fainted. “She was dead.”