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Trompe L’oeil

“Can I draw you?”

Gwen looked up from her book. A tall, gangly man was standing beside her booth, hiding beneath the hood of a black zip-up sweater. Draped across one shoulder was a bag loaded with art supplies and he wore a goatee that looked as though it had been penciled on. He was the kind of guy that had never passed up the chance to hit on her in college, the kind that would constantly brag about reading Dostoyevsky or never shut up about how pop music and summer blockbusters were “killing art.” So she said, “I’d rather you didn’t,” and returned to her book.

The man sighed, letting a patch of messy bangs spill over one eye. “Please?” he begged. “It’s for this color study, it’s due tomorrow and your hair is—well it’s just the perfect shade of red.”

Gwen raised an eye from her page and gave him a second look. “Fine,” she said, waving to the bench opposite her. “But only if you keep quiet.”

The man nodded and smiled as he took a seat across the table. It almost seemed too perfect, his smile, like the smirk on a statue. After pulling a sketchpad and portable easel from his bag he extended a hand, “My name’s Oskar.”

“Gwen,” she said, shaking it briefly before turning her attention back to her book.

After ten minutes had gone by, Gwen found herself pleasantly surprised that the man hadn’t interrupted her. Peering up from her pages, she found him scratching meticulously at his drawing pad with a host of various colored pencils. She craned her neck, trying to see around one of the corners, but Oskar pulled the piece away. “When it’s done,” he told her, not stopping or even looking up.

The quiet continued until Gwen ordered a second cup of chai, when the man demanded that the barista put it on his tab. “It’s the least I could do,” he’d argued, and after the polite amount of protest Gwen let him. The rest of the afternoon drifted by as quickly as the pages in Gwen’s book until, shortly before five, the man brought down his pencil and let out a long, exhausted breath. “Finished.”

Gwen stuffed the tarot card she’d been using as a bookmark between her pages. “That was quick,” she said.

Oskar smiled, showing teeth this time. Gwen tried not to grimace at how unsettlingly straight they were. “It’s not about the time it takes,” he said. “It’s about the final product. Would you like to see?” Gwen said she did and after mimicking a drum roll on the table, Oskar flipped the pad toward her. She nearly spilled her tea.

The man had made her again, a replica in pencil. The folds of her ear, each auburn spring of hair that cascaded from the nape of her neck, the small mole on the right side of her chin, it was all there, just as alive on the pale surface of the sketchpad as it was against the busy backdrop of the coffee shop. It was as though he’d taken a page out of time, more real than a photograph.

“What do you think?” Oskar asked, after she’d offered no more than silence.

“It’s incredible,” she said, finally finding words. “I almost wish I could take it home with me.”

Oskar’s lips curled behind his beard. “You could take it home with you,” he said. “If you let me take you to dinner first.” He reached out a hand and rested it on hers.

There it was. Spell broken.

Gwen pulled her hand away and pointed to the ring wrapped around the fourth finger on her left hand. “You best go sniffing elsewhere.”

“It’s just dinner,” Oskar said, pouting. “You’re really going to let something as trivial as a ring keep you from good food and company?”

Gwen started to collect her things. “It’s not the ring, it’s the person who gave it to me. Good luck with your little pictures though.” She gave the words just enough venom that she saw them spark a flame in his dark eyes. She flagged down the waitress to close her tab.

“You know what?” Oskar said, scratching at his chin and reexamining the drawing. “There’s something out of place here. Just let me touch it up.” He put the pad back on his easel and raised the stubby pink eraser that had sat previously unused beside him. Gwen ignored him as best she could, watching the waitress as she punched her transaction up at the cash register with painstaking sluggishness.

“There,” said the gangly man, turning the easel back around.

She sighed, glancing back toward the piece. She’d expected him to have given her horns or decorated her upper lip with a toothbrush mustache, but when Gwen inspected the drawing again the only difference she noticed was that her ring was gone. “Very cute,” she said, raising her own left hand to him again. “She might not be married, but I still–”

Gwen blinked once. Then again. But both times when she opened her eyes she found that the same jeweled band that had disappeared from the picture had vanished from her finger as well. Her face twisted in a sneer that she shot back across the table. “Alright,” she said. “This might have been funny at first, but I’m done. Where’s my ring?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said his tongue, but those chillingly perfect teeth said the opposite as they crept upwards in a devilish grin.

“Do you want me to call the cops, asshole? Give it back.” When this didn’t provoke a response, Gwen dug her phone from her jacket pocket and raised it in threat.

Oskar sighed and turned the easel back toward himself. “Watch your finger,” he said, picking up the eraser once more.

“What?” said Gwen, “This isn’t a fucking game. I’m dialing right–”

“Watch your finger,” he snapped, all kindness abandoning his tone.

Gwen was to the second “1” in “9-1-1” when she noticed something peculiar on the nail of one of the fingers gripping the phone. It was growing shorter. Disappearing.

Her phone dropped and her stomach with it. “How? How are you doing that?”

The man across the table glanced up at her, that spark behind his dark eyes now a full blaze. “Will you go to dinner with me?” he asked again.

Gwen stared at him, saying nothing but unable to look away. After a few moments he brought his eraser back up to the paper and, still wearing that too-straight smile, began to rub at the page.

She didn’t want to look down, but the longer she didn’t the more the sick feeling growing inside told her she must. Grudgingly, she leered down and saw that her fourth finger was now only just as long as the little one that trembled beside it, capped off in a knob of ghastly flesh just below where her outermost knuckle had been. She might have screamed if she’d had any breath to do so. Instead, she whispered, “s-s-stop. p-please.”

The gangly man’s eraser froze, his eyes glowing as he stared at her. “Gwen,” he said. “Would you like to go to dinner with me?”

Trying to hide the trembling in her voice, Gwen reached out across the table and took his perfectly drawn hand in her mangled one. “Y-yes,” she whispered. “Yes.”


The Big Magicks

One Comment

  1. Jufe Jufe

    wonderful transition into the function of the drawing. I have to admit I laughed imagining a menacing voice, sneering a request for a date. another, more ambiguous request would have had a darker effect in keeping with the general tone of the story. clever idea nonetheless.

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