Picture This

C.J. Carter-Stephenson

Originally published in Hadrosaur Tales, Volume 17.

Amy Vermont watched with relief as a faded welcome sign loomed out of the darkness announcing the arrival of the Greyhound bus at the small town of Seven Springs. She gazed out of the window at the rows of picturesque Colonial houses. It had been a long trip and she couldn't wait to get to her hotel. She closed her book and slipped it into the backpack on the seat beside her. Then, for the first time in hours, she looked around and noticed how few of her fellow passengers were still on board. She doubted any of them would be getting off at Seven Springs. Not that she could blame them. She wouldn’t be here herself, if Jake fricking Gooding hadn’t sent her.

She produced a small compact from her handbag and began reapplying her make-up, running over the conversation in her head. There was no doubt the assignment had sounded intriguing - an in-depth investigation of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with a higher disappearance rate than anywhere else in the U.S. - but she wished it hadn’t taken her so far away from Detroit. There were so many things she ought to have been sorting out right now! Still, that was the price you paid for being a top-notch reporter. You did what your editor told you and to hell with any inconvenience it might cause.

She looked up as the bus jerked to a halt. “Seven Springs,” grumbled the driver perfunctorily.

Amy rose quickly, picked up her handbag and headed down the gangway. She smiled at the admiring glances she received from the male passengers, shrugged off the jealous glares from the women. Both reactions were par for the course.

The driver stood up and hurried down the steps to assist her with her luggage. A couple of other passengers disembarked as well, drifting into a nearby convenience store to stock up on provisions, but as she had predicted, she appeared to be the only one who was actually staying.

She gazed around her as the driver heaved her suitcase out of the luggage compartment onto the sidewalk. The town really was charming with its quaint houses and spattering of small shops. She peered into a distant window, where racks of clothes were visible in the dim glow of the streetlights. Certainly, the store wouldn’t have anything to rival the boutiques of Detroit, but it might be worth a look. The little art gallery next door also looked like it might be of interest.

She pressed a couple of dollar bills into the driver's sweaty hand. He grunted his thanks, adjusted his shirt collar and climbed back onto the bus. The passengers who had gone into the convenience store got back on board and the bus pulled away.

Amy watched it disappear into the distance, then turned to look for her hotel. She tutted irritably - it was right at the other end of the street. How typical! She tilted her case backwards to allow the wheels to come into contact with the ground and started forwards.

Blinds twitched in the windows of the houses as she plodded onwards. Obviously visitors were rare. Under the circumstances, it was a miracle there even was a hotel. Reaching the entrance, she manhandled her case up the the steps and went inside to speak to the desk clerk. To her relief everything was in order with her reservation. The clerk handed her a key and she hurried up the stairs to find her room.

Science Fiction Story Divider.

Amy awoke the following morning to the warm caress of the summer sun streaming through a gap in her curtains. She sat up in bed and began flicking idly through the pile of newspaper cuttings she had left on her bedside table. They were all about the unexplained disappearances that had taken place in the town over the years. What suprised her was in each case there had been nothing more than a cursory investigation. It was almost as if the inhabitants of the town accepted the possibility of themselves or their acquaintances vanishing as a residential hazard.

As far as she could see, there had been no FBI investigation of the town. In fact, Jake seemed to be the only outsider who had noticed there was anything going on, and even he would have missed it, if an anonymous letter hadn't appeared in his pocket one day drawing it to his attention. At first, he'd been tempted to ignore this strange communication - after all, anonymous tip-offs were a dime a dozen in their line of work, and usually led to dead ends - but for some reason, he'd become curious and started look into it. The figures he uncovered spoke for themselves, and so it was Amy had found herself being sent to investigate on the first available bus.

Tossing the bundle of clippings back down on the bedside table, she plodded through to the bathroom and studied herself in the mirror above the sink. The deep sleep she had fallen into the previous night had completely erased any physical sign of her long journey from Detroit. No bags marred her vivacious blue eyes and her thick golden hair seemed miraculously free of tangles. With just a touch of make-up to further enhance what nature had given her, she would be ready for anything!

Once she had availed herself of a light breakfast of toast and orange juice in the plain but reasonably comfortable dining room, she left the hotel. Pausing on the sidewalk, she looked around. Going by previous assignments, the convenience store was probably the best place to start gathering information, but being a creature of habit, she headed straight for the boutique.

A young sales assistant stared unashamedly at her as she breezed through the door. Although the girl was pretty herself in a provincial kind of way, she was clearly jealous of Amy's appearance. Amy pretended not to notice.

“Good morning, madam,” the girl said mechanically as Amy began to browse through the rails.

Amy smiled at her pleasantly and went back to what she was doing. There were one or two garments that caught her eye - a delicate white blouse with intricate floral patterns cut into the edges, a pair of trainers in funky pink, which would be great for jogging - but for the most part, the clothes were far too dull and she soon bored of looking around. She walked across to the sales assistant. “This is a lovely town.”

“I'm glad you like it,” replied the sales assistant. “What brings you here?”

Amy decided not to tell her the whole truth. If people thought you were visiting a place purely to snoop around, they could become very tight lipped. “I work for a newspaper in Detroit; I’m writing an article on life in small town America.”

“Well we’re always glad when folks come to visit us,” said the girl, sounding less than sincere.

“Have you lived here all your life?” Amy asked.

The sales assistant shuffled some papers by the side of the cash register. It was plain she didn’t relish the thought of entering into a long conversation. "Yes."

“Do you like it here?” Amy pressed.

Another monosyllabic response - “It's okay.”

“It seems to me like there isn't much going on," Amy said chattily, "but you can never tell with small towns. Sometimes there's more to them than meets the eye - dark secrets, skeletons in people’s closets.” She grinned as if she didn’t mean her comments to be taken too seriously. The girl looked at her stonily. “Do you know where I might try looking for some local gossip?” Amy went on. “Who I should talk to?”

The sales assistant continued shuffling her papers. “Try the art gallery. Magdalene knows just about everything about everyone.”

Amy nodded. "I'll do that. Thanks very much.” She walked briskly towards the door.

“Have a nice day!” called the sales assistant.

“And I’ll bet you really mean it,” Amy muttered sarcastically as the door swung shut behind her.

As Amy had noted the previous evening, the art gallery was directly adjacent to the clothes store. She had earmarked it as a wothwhile place to visit, but peering through the windows in the uncompromising light of day, she wasn't quite sure why it had caught her eye. Certainly it was a far cry from the art galleries of downtown Detroit, consisting as it did of a single pokey display area with poorly arranged interior lighting. No whitewashed walls here to avoid distracting people from from the feast of art; instead the decor consisted of garish orange and brown wallpaper that looked like it came straight out of the seventies. Wrinkling her nose in distaste, she went inside.

Straight away, her eyes were drawn to a withered old lady, who sat behind the counter. It would have been very hard to hazard a guess as to her age, but her wrinkled face and frail body suggested she was a good deal too old to still be working. She peered at Amy over a pair of thick reading glasses and smiled warmly. Amy couldn’t help thinking how much the woman reminded her of her grandmother, especially in the way her gray hair was tied up in a neat little bun on top of her head.

“Good morning and welcome to the Seven Springs Art Gallery,” the old lady said in a grandiose voice, which was quite incongruous with the unattractive surroundings.

Amy smiled back. “Thank you. When I saw the place, I just couldn’t resist coming in."

“Can I tell you about anything in particular?” asked the old lady.

Amy picked a picture at random and went over to look at it. “This is a nice piece.” The picture was a brightly painted watercolor of a little blonde girl in a party dress, sat on a wooden swing in the middle of a sun-drenched meadow. The name that was printed neatly in black ink in one corner meant nothing to her, but it was obvious from the detail of the brushwork the picture was the work of a master painter. She looked at the cascade of ringlets falling about the subject’s shoulder’s, marvelling at the way in which every hair seemed to be imbued with the illusion of reality. As she continued to stare at the girl, she began to have the distinct feeling she had seen her somewhere before, although she couldn’t for the life of her think where.

“Indeed,” came the voice of the old lady close behind her. "I’m particularly proud of that one."

Amy looked around in surprise. How had the woman got so near without her hearing. “You’re particularly proud. You mean you painted it?”

“I did, deary,” replied the old woman, “though it was some years ago now. All the pictures you see on these walls are mine.”

Amy re-read the signature on the painting. “M. Richardson - that’s you?”

“That’s me,” agreed the old lady. “Magdalene Richardson. Dedicated to preserving the memory of this quaint town.”

“So all these pictures are of Seven Springs?” Amy asked.

Magdalene nodded, losing herself in thought for a moment. “I love this place,” she said finally. "That’s why I've spent my entire life living here. What about you? What brings you to Seven Springs? Surely you didn’t come here just to look at art.”

Amy shook her head, continuing to study the girl in the picture. “No, I’m a reporter from Detroit. I’m researching an article on small town America.” Best to give everyone the same story. People in this kind of place were liable to discuss strangers until the cows came home and any discrepancy was bound to be picked up on.

“Well Seven Springs may not have been the best place to choose,” Magdalene informed her.

Amy leaned forward slightly in anticipation of some priceless nugget of information. “How do you mean?”

“I just mean that people around here are reluctant to talk to strangers,” replied Magdalene.

Amy smiled at her confidently. “Don’t worry, I’m used to dealing with insular communities. I’m what you might call a people person.”

“I guessed that about you the minute you walked in,” Magdalene said. She sighed. “Well, I suppose I’d better get back to my referencing. Let me know if you want to ask me anything.” She hobbled across to the counter and started making notes in an enormous leather-bound book.

Amy studied the picture in front of her. The child’s eyes seemed to stare out at her with a palpable intensity. Very real, but also a little disconcerting. She pulled her eyes away, and it was then that she began to suspect why the picture looked so familiar. Not wishing to waste a moment’s time, she hurried off to find out if she was right.

Science Fiction Story Divider.

Magdalene Richardson was mildly surprised by her visitor’s sudden departure, but was too absorbed in her writing to give it more than a passing thought. Her pen flickered back and forth across the pages of the book as if it had a mind of its own. It was not uncommon for her to work at this kind of speed. It was the only way she could hope to finish the mammoth task she had set herself - to get down detailed biographies of all the people she had chosen as subjects for her beloved pictures. She would have to find out a bit more about this reporter from Detroit in case she decided to use her.

Science Fiction Story Divider.

Amy hurried back to her hotel room and sat down on the edge of the bed. The thing that had struck her about the picture in the art gallery would probably prove to be insignificant, but it was worth looking into. She grabbed the newspaper cuttings from her bedside table and began rifling through them. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for - a photograph of a girl alongside one of the articles. Sure enough, it was the girl from the painting. The eyes were unmistakable. Amy congratulated herself on this rare feat of recollection and quickly skimmed the article. The girl’s name was Clarissa and she had vanished way back in 1974. Obviously Magdalene Richardson had been painting pictures for quite some time.

She played with her hair as she considered what to do next. Naturally she would have to ask the old lady whether she could remember anything about the girl, though this was a probably a long shot after so many years. It would also be worth finding out if she had painted any other of the missing people. Knotting her brow in thought, she stuffed the newspaper cuttings into her handbag.

When Amy arrived back at the gallery, Magdalene was nowhere to be seen. Most likely, she was in a back room or something. Surely no one in their right mind would leave their business premises open and unattended even in a little town like this.

She picked out a newspaper article about a missing boy called Jacob and scanned the walls for a painting that corresponded with the accompanying photograph. Success! He was clearly shown with a group of other kids in a large picture by the door. It was a scene a lot of kids could have related to - a game of baseball on a summer’s day at the bottom of a quiet cul-de-sac. Amy studied the picture for a moment, then dropped her eyes to the article. Strangely enough, it said that Jacob had last been seen playing baseball with a few friends in the street outside his home. A strange coincidence, though the explanation for it was probably something as simple as the boy being a keen baseball player.

Only when she started examining some of the other articles did she start to think there was something very wrong. In each case, there was a picture in the gallery depicting the missing person doing the exact thing they had been doing before they went missing. There had to be more to it than coincidence!

Amy was startled from her reflections by a sharp tap on the shoulder. She swung around to find Magdalene Richardson standing behind her.

“See anything interesting, dear?” the old woman asked in a voice that sounded ever so slightly hostile.

Amy looked at her levelly. If she thought she could intimate a Detroiter, she had another thing coming. “As a matter of fact, I do. Every single missing person in these newspaper articles seems to have been painted by you just before they disappeared.”

“Odd that, isn’t it?” said Magdalene. “What do you suppose it means?”

“I was hoping you could tell me that,” Amy said warily. She was starting to think Magdalene was anything but the mild-mannered old lady she appeared to be.

Magdalene planted her hands on her hips and glared at Amy with eyes of stone. “Seek not to know, for the knowledge could be dangerous to you. Better you toddle along back to your hotel, pack up your things and take the next bus back to Detroit.”

“No can do!” exclaimed Amy. “A bunch of people have disappeared in this town over the years and I’m betting you’re involved, that you might even be responsible. I’m not leaving until I know the story.”

“Very well, my dear, I'll give you the story, if that's what you want,” said Magdalene softly, “but first, would you care for a drink? It’s such a hot day outside and you must be thirsty.”

Amy gave a perfunctory wave of her hand. “Not for me.”

Magdalene shrugged her shoulders. “All right, but you don’t mind if I make myself one, do you? A woman of my age seems to need an awful lot of fluid.”

“Go ahead,” replied Amy.

Magdalene trotted through to a back room and returned presently with a cup of iced tea. Then she locked the door.

Amy raised her eyebrows.

“I don’t want us to be disturbed,” said Magdalene by way of explanation. She stood in a beam of sunlight shining through the window and gestured down at herself. “Before we go any further, let me ask you a question - how old do you think I am?”

Amy shrugged. “What a funny thing to ask. I dunno. Seventy?”

“Good guess,” said Magdalene, with a flicker of a smile. “I suppose that’s how old I look. What would you say if I told you I was actually over a hundred and fifty?”

“I’d say you were lying,” said Amy matter-of-factly.

“I’ll admit it sounds unlikely,” Magdalene agreed,” and yet, it's the simple truth. You see, there’s something in this town - something very big and very powerful - and this thing is keeping me alive beyond my time, because I gave my word I would help it.”

By now, Amy was quite convinced the old lady was out of her mind, but as she appeared to hold the key to the mystery of the missing people, she decided to play along. “Help it how?”

“Help it to exist,” Magdalene replied. She sat down behind the counter and studied Amy over her glasses. “The creature feeds on souls, you see, and I am the one who provides those souls.

Amy pointed at the paintings. "These people?"

Magdalene nodded. “Would you like to know the secret of the pictures?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Amy, who was starting to find Magdalene's delusions more than a little intriguing.

“The truth is they are no ordinary paintings,” said Magdalene. “They are windows to another universe, for the creature does not destroy the souls of its victims when it feeds; it merely transports them to another place - its former home - where they exist outside of time. The pictures are its gift to the families of those it takes, a way of ensuring that although they are separated from their loved ones, a piece of them will always remain.”

“How sweet,” Amy said sarcastically. “One thing puzzles me - if this universe is so great, why did your beloved creature decide to leave it?”

“The creature describes it as a dark reflection of our own universe,” Magdalene replied slowly, as if she was thinking about each word to ensure she got it right. “I know that makes it sound like a place of evil, but it really isn't. It's merely an inversion of what we know here - dark is light and light is dark.” She closed her eyes, lost in thought.

There was a long pause. “You haven’t answered my question,” Amy said at last.

“The energy source the being lived upon is dying out," Magdalene told her, "and while the human soul is by no means equivalent, it is at least a substitute. The creature’s coming to this universe was a simple matter of survival.”

Amy leaned against the wall, folding her arms. “Right, and how did you get mixed up with it?”

“As I said, I bring it souls in order that it might replenish its depleted life force," Magdalene said. "I have done so since it first came to Seven Springs, when I was just seven years old. You have never heard its voice, so you can't know how seductive it is. It called out to me as I was playing alone in the woods and I couldn't help but respond. It wasn't a sound as we understand it, though. It was something I heard in my mind. I followed it deeper into the woods, until I came at last to a clearing.

“All of a sudden, my body was wracked by the most searing pain and I collapsed to the ground. As I lay there, staring at the sky above, words began to formulate deep inside my brain - words that came to me with such force they swept away all thought of anything else. It revealed where it came from and why it had come here. Then it told me what it wanted and made it known what it could give me in return.

“What happened next, I cannot properly describe. All I can say is that in some unknowable fashion, the creature proceeded to join with me, flooding me with its energy and recoding my DNA to extend my lifespan and eradicate any genetic imperfections. Since that moment, I have carried a part of it inside me. Through me, it is able to look into people’s souls and determine which ones are suitable for its purposes. Those it wants, it takes. Then, when it is done, we set about creating a tailored window into the dark universe.”

“And you feel quite happy about kicking these people through the door to oblivion?” Amy asked.

“It's necessary, dear” said Magdalene firmly, “and as I told you before, their souls aren't destroyed, merely displaced.”

“What about their families?” Amy pressed. “How do they feel about all this?”

Magdalene smiled. “The creature has a way of helping them come to terms with it. It’s highly telepathic, you know. The situation is explained to them and they accept that what has happened is for a greater good. When they wish to be near the one they have lost, they simply visit the gallery.”

“And I suppose the creature uses its telepathic abilities to stop people finding out about this place,” Amy said, continuing to play along with the fantasy.

The old woman nodded.

“So how come I’m here?” Amy asked.

Magdalene eyed her like a bird of prey watching the hopeless escape attempt of an intended meal. “Because I invited you here, my dear.”

Amy's throat tightened. “Why?”

“The energy in Seven Springs has dried up,” Magdalene told her. “By which I mean the creature has taken all the viable souls that are available here, so we have been forced to look elsewhere. I wrote to your editor, because I knew if I gave him enough information, he would send someone to investigate, but without involving the authorities. Those who know you are here are relatively few and can easily be manipulated into keeping the knowledge to themselves. You have been brought here for a higher purpose and you will be pleased to hear you have passed the test. Your soul is suitable for our needs.”

Amy waved her hand dismissively. “This is the biggest load of garbage I have ever heard! You wanna know what I think’s been going on?”

“Of course, dear,” said Magdalene.

Amy edged towards the door. “I think you’re some kind of schizo, who hears voices telling her to kill people. Perhaps you’ve managed to keep it hidden in the past, but not for much longer! I’m going straight back to my room to call the police, the FBI and anyone else I can think of. By this afternoon there’ll be so many officials crawling around here you won’t know what the hell happened. Whatever the secret of Seven Springs really is, they’ll find out.” She ran the last few steps to the door and reached for the handle. Only then did she remember that it was locked.

She glanced at Magdalene over her shoulder. The old lady was moving towards her, a mad gleam in her ancient eyes, her mouth set in a tight frown. She flinched as a withered hand reached towards her. She was half expecting it to seize her around the throat and strangle her to death. Instead, it put the key in the lock and turned it.

With a kindly smile, Magdalene pushed open the door and motioned Amy towards it. “You run along, deary. We'll come for you when it’s time.”

Amy didn’t need to be told twice. She hurried out of the art gallery and ran up the street back to her hotel.

When she burst into her room just minutes later, she was immediately struck by the unearthly stillness. It was as if the world around her had suddenly ground to a halt. She sank down on the bed and considered how best to approach her intended phone calls to the authorities. Obviously she wouldn’t be filling them in on Magdalene’s bizarre story - if she did that, they wouldn’t take a word she said seriously - but she did need to come up with something; something that would bring them to Seven Springs as fast as possible. Speed was of the essence, as now, she was obviously at risk herself.

Given the urgency she felt, it is perhaps strange that she sat there for so long thinking. Time ticked slowly by and Amy Vermont, who had previously thought herself to be perpetually ready for action, sat on her bed staring into space, always on the verge of making her telephone calls, but never actually making them.

Science Fiction Story Divider.

In the art gallery, meanwhile, Magdalene Richardson stood admiring her latest masterpiece - a visually stunning picture of a young woman sitting thoughtfully on a bed in the local hotel. The woman was impeccably turned out with the kind of hair that looks to be composed of purest sunlight and eyes that could thaw the very coldest of hearts.

As one looked at the picture, one couldn’t help thinking the woman shown was on the verge of making some kind of movement, but whatever it was, she would never do it. All she could do was sit in silent contemplation, forever wrapped in unchanging beauty. In the dark universe, time as we know it does not exist, in the dark universe a single moment can last an eternity.


The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this story has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.