It’s time for the last photo flash fic of the year. I don’t even know how that’s possible. What the hell, man?
“Seriously, Maggie. Why can’t you just do your Christmas shopping at the mall like a normal person?”
I rolled my eyes at my brother, Aaron. “Because it needs to be perfect.”
“Perfection is overrated,” he muttered as he turned down one of the narrow downtown streets filled with indie art galleries and high-end specialized boutiques.
“Oh please,” Audrey said. “Don’t listen to her bullshit. It’s not about the perfect gift. She’s just trying to win Christmas.”
“You can’t win Christmas,” Aaron scoffed as he looked for a place to pull over and let me out. “It’s not a competition.”
Audrey took a swallow of coffee then turned toward the back seat to glare at me. “It is if you’re Maggie.”
I shrugged. She wasn’t wrong. There wasn’t anything else in life that I was the least little bit competitive about. Except for gift giving. I wanted to make sure that whatever I gave was the best thing they got. Not the biggest or the most expensive–but the most thoughtful. And if it involved learning to knit or macramé, then I’d do it.
My sister was just pissed because she never won–and she was competitive about everything. Well, there was that one time our niece was going through her Marie Antoinette phase, and Audrey found the Marie Antoinette doll with the detachable head before I did. My gift had paled in comparison. That wasn’t happening this year. Not if I could help it.
Aaron stopped the car in front of a little store that sold handmade paper and journals.
This looked promising.
“Hurry up,” he said. “I’m double-parked.”
I grabbed my purse and climbed out of the car.
“We’ll be back around four,” he called as I shut the door.
I nodded to let him know I’d heard, and walked into the little shop. I immediately found a leather-bound sketchbook and handmade colored pencils for my nephew, but I couldn’t find anything for my niece who was now heavily invested in mid-eighteenth century miniature portraits. Because of course she was. What 15 year old girl didn’t love miniature portraits? Audrey had already gotten Annabelle a book on portraiture, so whatever I came up with needed to be better than that.
I left the paper shop holding my purchases and crossed the street. It had begun to snow while I was inside, and snowflakes clung to my eyelashes. I blinked them away as I ducked inside a gallery I didn’t remember seeing before. Glancing around at the items on display, I noticed that it looked like the artist specialized in oils.
As I wandered through the shelves, my gaze fell on some pendants lying in a glass case. On each chain hung a miniature, perfectly rendered painting. Most were landscapes, but there were a few people and animals scattered among the rolling hills and churning oceans. Inspiration hit. I knew what I wanted to get Annabelle. Her very own miniature portrait of herself.
A woman approached. “Would you like to take a closer look at anything in the case?” she asked, surprising me with an English accent.
“Are you the artist?” I asked.
“No, no. I don’t have that kind of talent.”
I smiled. “Do you know if the artist does custom orders?”
“Oh, he does. Absolutely.” She pulled a pad of paper and a pen out from beneath the counter. “If you’ll just write a description of what you’d like, I’ll get it over to him.”
I glanced at the paper in her hand. “Actually, I was kind of hoping to speak with him directly.”
Her lips thinned for a moment. Then her smile was back in place as if it had always been there. “Cornelius!”
A little boy, maybe nine or ten, rounded the corner. He was dressed from head to toe in gray wool–trousers, jacket and sweater. He wore a slightly darker gray newsboy cap on his head. “Yes, mum?”
“Take this lady to Augustus.”
“I don’t want to trouble anyone. If you’d just give me an address or a phone number or email address, I’ll be out of your hair.”
There was something off about this situation, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.I looked between the woman and what I assumed was her son. I really didn’t want to miss this opportunity for the chance at the perfect gift, and who knew…I was likely imagining things anyway. The stress of holiday shopping was probably getting to everyone.
“Nonsense. Augustus will be glad of the company. Now, off you go.”
Cornelius looked up at me with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. “This way, mum.”
I followed him through the labyrinth of boxes and packing material that made up the back room of the store hoping the kid wasn’t leading me to some kind of murder basement. He stopped at a big steel door and picked up an old fashioned lantern that sat on a nearby wooden stool.
I watched, curious, as he lit it. Glancing back at me, as if making sure I was still there, he tugged open the heavy-looking door, and a swirl of snow blew in. I adjusted my scarf and followed him outside. Augustus must have some sort of studio in the courtyard that ran between the businesses on this street and the next one over.
I blinked at the blowing snow and stepped away from the building, trying to catch up with the little boy. I stumbled slightly and looked down. The courtyard had been paved with cobblestones. But when I looked up to see Cornelius at least fifteen yards ahead of me, I realized I wasn’t in a courtyard at all.
I was in the middle of a street, about to get run over by a horse drawn carriage. I jumped to the side and bumped into a…lamplighter…?
“Oy! Watch it, will ya?”
I turned back to the building I’d just left, but it was gone. Vanished as if it had never been there. Panic built in my chest, and I ran after the child, keeping my gaze fixed on the lantern light bobbing in the distance.
Okay, so that’s the last photo fic of the year from me. Be sure to check out Deelylah’s story.