Prompt: You enter a house with a dark hidden secret; when looking around you see a painting moving faintly. You lean closer, and an arm pulls you in. You’re stuck in a world of paintings; how do you get out?
It was always the quietest house, which was why Michael Roslinger hated being there when he was a child. It was older than his grandparents, even back then, but it never creaked or moaned in the night. It had no personality. As an adult, as a patron of the arts, he knew everything was supposed to have one. That meant the house was like a comatose person, or that it had brain damage somewhere in its dark cellar.
He had to return though, as his parents had finally passed and the deed was now his. He wasn’t going to live there of course. Michael and his wife of fifteen years had a lovely house of their own; they knew the builder, even taking her out to dinner every now and again. His late visit, before he was set to meet his wife at their favorite restaurant for date night, was just to scan the place for things he wanted to keep. Paintings mostly. Michael did some work with an art gallery, and he was confident he could find something to salvage from his father’s eclectic taste.
Michael tried to make the floorboards squeak as he stomped through the dark halls, but they still had no give. There was no power, so he’d brought a flashlight with him. The positions of the paintings were all jumbled in his mind, so he had to check them one by one. In the main hall there was a scene with wild horses, a woman re-potting an exotic palm plant, and a mechanic hard at work on a carousel sea lion. Michael sighed. His father never had a theme in mind when it came to collecting.
The chair! His father had a favorite armchair in the den, and he always put his current favorite painting over it. It was strange, because the wall was behind him whenever he sat, so he couldn’t see it himself. It was like he wanted someone to take a picture of him with it in the background, to become part of the painting by throwing himself into another frame with it.
He always rotated the painting out for another every three months or so. Michael hurried to the den, curious as to his father’s final favorite before his heart attack. The beam crossed over it. Strange. He didn’t even remember that one. It was a portrait of a woman, but she was utterly inactive, simply staring out at the painter, or in this case, Michael’s nearly-bald head.
Only now did he realize that his father’s collection did have a theme: action. The subject was always doing something, never had idle hands, yet here was this woman, mid-thirties, grabbing nothing but her own nails. Michael approached her. What was that look in her eye? Was she… annoyed? Closer. Michael nearly dropped the flashlight. Her brow had furrowed. It wasn’t the shadows dripping in, it wasn’t his contacts drying out…
“Did you just move?” he asked the portrait when his face was inches away. He touched the flashlight to the canvas, as if it was a stun baton. At first there was no reaction, but then that brow furrowed a little more. Her arm shot out, wrapped around his neck, and bent him forward, into the frame of her picture.
He didn’t even have time to panic. The frame squeezed the air out of him as he tumbled forward and landed in soft grass. He scrambled for his flashlight as it rolled away, realizing a moment later that it was daylight within the portrait. It made a certain sort of sense. If it was pitch black, he never would’ve been able to see the woman. He flipped over and stared at her.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she scolded. “You were staring. You’re just as rude as your father.” She turned her head away, which caused Michael to do the same. He could hardly believe his eyes. It wasn’t just her. There were hundreds of people, all stood next to a wall with windows set every few feet. Not windows. Frames! Michael got to his feet, stumbling forward, looking for the end of the line.
It went as far as he could see. These people… They were excellent subjects for portraits, because they were stuck waiting in line! They couldn’t go anywhere, hence the inactivity. Was this what his father saw in that painting? A glimpse of this other world?
“Hey, how do I get out of here?” Michael asked the woman, but she didn’t bother to look away from the neck in front of her when she spoke.
“Out of here! You just got here you twit. You have to go to the back of the line, with everybody else who’s rude. You can leave when you get to the front.”
“What’s at the front?”
“The spotlight,” she swooned, but still didn’t look away. “Up there is fame. Eyes that aren’t rude.”
“You already have fame,” Michael argued. Even as he did, he felt something in his feet, pulling him towards the front of the line. It was like he’d just stepped off a treadmill after a three hour session at exactly the same speed. “You star in a painting. I… I came here to get some of you, because you might be even more famous than I think.”
His feet started to move without him. He pawed at his thighs, shouted for them to stop, but he was walking toward the front of the line, past the occupants of a hundred portraits. It didn’t negatively impact his conversation, as those in line only ever had one thing to discuss.
“A painting’s not fame!” a fat man in a purple tunic argued, having picked up the conversation from further back. “A painting is intimacy, wanted or not. It hangs in one room. It holds only so many eyes. It is just the beginning. Just the back of the line! Hey, get back here! You’re cutting!” He shook his fist at Michael as the foreigner strolled by.
“I can’t help it!” Michael shouted back. “Also, I’m not cutting because I’m not in the line yet.” A few of the heads turned and nodded in agreement. Michael tried to track the portrait stars, find a theme, perhaps a timeline, but they were all over the place: medieval, depression era, the modern day… Maybe it was the order they were painted in. Whatever it was, he didn’t have time to dwell on it.
His legs only stopped when he was in full view of the front of the line. There was some sort of light obscuring those at the front. He could see only their feet, but they all tapped nervously. There was a sound too, almost drowning out his questions. His mind wanted it to be something angelic, something worth waiting hundreds of years for, but he was forced to accept it sounded like an empty radio station.
“I need to get in there,” he argued, but nobody seemed to hear him. He tried to cut in line, but he was immediately pushed out. All of them seemed to have immense strength, perhaps from being impatiently tensed since the moment they were painted. Even the most waifish among them growled at him and tossed him thirty feet back.
He needed to get home. The spotlight had to be a way out. His wife was waiting, at their favorite restaurant no less. She wouldn’t tolerate some clever excuse, wouldn’t even smirk when he said he got lost in a painting. Those in line didn’t listen, even as he shed a tear. Did this happen to his father? Was his body back in the old silent house, sitting there, looking like the victim of another heart attack?
“I have money!” he shouted, digging the bills out of his pocket. “If that’s a portal back to reality, you’ll need some of this if you plan to get anywhere. Especially if you want to be famous.” He wiggled it under their noses, hoping they would inhale its papery smell. An eye turned. A taker! They reached for the wad of cash. “Oh no. I need your spot in line. You have to go to the back. It’s payment for your time, but it’ll be worth it, trust me.”
He swallowed his panic so it wouldn’t show on his face. The tempted portrait sitter nodded, took the cash, and started their long trek back. Luckily, painters never gave thought to the contents of their subjects’ pockets. They were all poor as dirt, unless they had the benefit of jewelry ornamentation.
He slipped into the line and waited his turn. Michael moved into the light. Again, he wanted a heavenly sensation, but he was rewarded with eyes full of electric static, and some cheap tinny music. Something else was coming through, rising out of the static like a log out of a swamp. What was it…
His father’s armchair! He could see it now, just under the dark frame he’d entered. What was he looking through? The television! That’s what they meant by spotlight. This was the TV. He was in a program, in front of who knew who many eyes. He just needed to step out, to be as real and annoying as any old ad. He lifted his foot.
The screen went black. He had only a moment, for the house had no power. Michael was lost in the space between mediums. The woman in the portrait smirked. Not quite as smart as his father either.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by GeekAnonymousOffical during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!