The Portrait on the Wall

I tried my hand at flash fiction again this week, with the final word count being 1,025. I wasn’t intending for this piece to come out as flash, but it was a good exercise to keep the story concise and avoid unnecessary details, while also telling a story that could stand on its own. Like my previous attempt, this post is also a decent first draft in need of polishing, but I was really inspired by one detail and a real-life story I heard recently, so I ran with the idea.

Read on and let me know what you think – did I nail this flash fiction story? How did it make you feel?

Image of woman sitting on an armchair, with her hands on her lap, with a dog in front of her.
Photo by Camellia on Unsplash (This was not meant to come out this eery, but I had a hard time finding a photo of the ACTUAL detail I focused on for this post).

The portrait of the man in the living room hung on the wall on its own.

Imogen’s chair was in direct view of the portrait, so she spent her days looking at the serious expression on her late husband Ricky’s face.

Imogen was tired. She didn’t do anything with her time to warrant being so tired, but at ninety-seven, even breathing required effort. Things kept getting handed to her while she sat on her rocking chair: an over-ripe banana she didn’t want to eat, a small TV with pictures of people she didn’t know, babies she didn’t recognize.

There were always people in her house, and she wondered how that had happened when she had only had two daughters. Imogen thought Alice and Rosie only had two kids each, Alice a boy and a girl, and Rosie two girls. Imogen had helped raise all of them while living in the house that she and Ricky built after he came back from the war. Even after he died almost 50 years before, she would not leave the house. Imogen would instead help with the grandkids so her two daughters wouldn’t fight over who had more rights to the house.

Ricky also stayed in the house with her after he died. Imogen would see him walking around the kitchen as she fixed the kids’ meals, or standing in the doorway looking at her as she dusted his portrait. Imogen would catch him smiling at her as she fussed over a doily or arranged and rearranged the flowers for the kitchen. On the days she’d catch him with that smile on, she woke up in the middle of the night to his singing voice at her bedside. She was never afraid when she saw him or heard him nearby – Ricky was keeping his wedding day promise of always looking after her.

“Your dad came by today,” she’d say to Alice. “He thinks your little ones are precious and wants the boy to be a soldier, like him.”

“Mom, Daddy died years ago. He never met the kids.”

Imogen would insist that her dad had come by the night before too, to serenade her with a ballad he’d written for her while he was away at war. “The same one he sang to me when he came back.”

“Okay, Mom,” Alice would say, and Imogen would walk away without noticing the concern on her daughter’s face.

Without her permission or awareness, Imogen had started remembering less about life after her kids and more about her life before them. Strolls and fights with her sisters when they were all kids; ice cream and bicycle rides with Ricky when they were fifteen; the day he shipped out when they were nineteen, how he’d kissed her and said he should have married her the week before so he’d die a married man.

“Then you need to come back intact,” she’d said. “Don’t think you can run away from me to some other country.”

The day he came back was as vivid in her memory as the day he died. Imogen’s sisters had pulled their resources and their husbands together to get her that portrait of Ricky. She was glad they’d picked that expression on him, the serious soldier look and not the sweet boy look he had only for her. The same smile on Ricky’s face when he came to see her.

As more days without him passed and as her hair went whiter, she spoke less and only sat on her chair facing the portrait. Alice and Rosie would come up and speak to her, and other kids called her Grandma and Mammy while giving her hugs and kisses. She returned them, not because she felt anything, but because it was nice to feel loved when she was so tired.

She sat eating the banana, looking around to everyone who had gathered in her house. She knew it wasn’t Christmas because the tree wasn’t up, and it wasn’t Easter because Rosie hadn’t pushed her to leave the house for church. She looked for Alice or Rosie, to ask them why everyone was in her house today and why she had been handed a banana. She couldn’t taste the fruit – it was only getting mushed between her gums before making its way down her throat. It tasted no different than the mush she was given at all other mealtimes.

“I think it’s time to go,” Imogen said out loud.

“Go where, Mammy?” A little boy that was next to her said. He didn’t look anything like Alice or Rosie, and Imogen wondered how he’d gotten in there. “Mom, Mammy said she’s going somewhere.”

“It’s alright, honey, she’s probably confused.” The boy’s mom looked a little like Rosie. “We’ll let you rest now, Grandma.”

Later, when Imogen was lying in bed, her eyes opening and closing as she was drifting off, Ricky was at her bedside. He smiled at her, and when he serenaded her, his voice didn’t sound far away anymore. It was the clear and assured voice he’d had for her that dripped with love and devotion, the voice that made her name sound like a sacred melody.

He stretched his hand out, but she didn’t need support to get out of bed. She knew she hadn’t fallen asleep, but her perpetual tiredness wasn’t with her anymore. She could move freely again, and when she looked down at her hand as she gave it to Ricky, all wrinkles were gone. She turned quickly to the mirror and saw herself as she remembered on her best years, no wrinkles and with brown hair falling at her shoulders.

“I feel so alive,” Imogen said. Ricky smiled and pointed to the figure lying on the bed. Imogen looked at the old woman, her face sad and with some tears falling down the corners of her eyes.

“Come on, Immy.” Ricky said, grabbing her hand. “It’s time for you to be with me now.”

She went, because she wasn’t tired anymore. And the portrait in the living room was later taken down because there was no one on the chair to look at it anymore.

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