“Where’s Grandpappy?” I asked my Grandmama. She sat in a wooden chair that rocks when you lean, watching the flames of our fireplace.
“Gone,” she answered, focused on her knitting.
“But gone where?”
She sighed. Her hands stopped and she looked up at me. Her eyes that always sparkled like the amber in our trees became a dull, trampled twig on the ground.
“Nowhere. Grandpappy’s dead.”
A part of me knew this. I even remembered it.
I had gotten angry at Grandpappy. I wanted him to carry me on his shoulders, as he used to before, but he refused to pick me up and would not tell me why.
“I thought you loved me and wanted me to be happy!” I had shouted, stomping away with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was not sure if I heard a weak “I do.” All I knew I heard was a thump on the floor, and Grandmama screaming. She had me help her get him on a bed, and I helplessly sat as she tried to heal Grandpappy. The sun rose and set twice as I watched her put glasses of water to his mouth, drape cold towelettes on his forehead, and rub various medicines on his chest. As the sun rose for the third time since Grandpappy collapsed, he was squeezing my hand. I remember it was clammy. A second later the pressure was gone, but I refused to believe that he was too.
“So make him not dead.” I watched as she motioned me towards her. The glasses resting on her nose reflected the fireplace, but her crystal eyes did not shine through the light. With a now shaky hand, she removed her glasses.
“Come here,” she said, opening her arms. I stood in confusion, but then took a slow step forward, letting her pull me onto her lap. We just sat there, in the shallow warmth of our fire. It crackled away, laughing at our misery. I hated the fire.
Suddenly, Grandmama moved her arm from around my shoulders to grab a golden chain that hung from her neck.
“Do you remember why they destroyed pictures?” she asked me with a shaky voice. I nodded my head. At least I thought I remembered it right.
See, when I was very young, the entire world had changed. All stories were erased, and all pictures were burnt. “They are too dangerous,” people used to say. “They are blurring the lines of reality. People spend so much time escaping from the real world, they get stuck in one that does not exist.” A world without stories and art sounds bleak, but that is not what the world had been. There still is art and stories, only no printed photographs or books written in cursive. Apparently, something about writing in cursive brought stories to life in a way that print cannot.
I was only three years old when a man in brown uniform barged into Grandmama’s cottage. I remember him sticking his large nose everywhere it could fit: in closets, drawers, cabinets, under furniture, even in my bed. He walked out with a flat thing that hung above my fireplace and a couple of objects that rested along a hallway. I can also remember the tears. I had never seen Grandmama cry before, and I never saw her cry again.
Grandmama then slowly opened the pendant hanging from her neck.
“Shhhhh…” she placed her finger on my mouth. “Yes, my dear, it’s a picture of your Grandpappy. I’ve been keeping it close to me, keeping it safe. And it worked, because what kind of officer would dare lay a hand on an old woman like myself?” I was shaking with laughter, snorting a couple of times as well. Grandmama’s eyes began to sparkle once more. That’s better.
“But why are you showing me?” I asked. I thought I knew, but I had to be sure.
“How did you put it,” she mused, “making him ‘not dead.’” I grinned. Perfect. The universe heard my wishes after all. I snatched the pendant in one swift motion, but a strong hand caught my arm mid-way.
“A-a-ah,” Grandmama scolded. “You must listen very closely. You have never been inside a picture, and they can be quite dangerous. You mustn’t stay long, or else I might lose you forever.” I gasped.
“That’s horrible, Grandmama! No wonder they were destroyed,” I replied, pouting. Grandmama chuckled.
“Don’t you worry. Just follow these directions.” I nodded.
“Good,” she smiled, clasping my hand. I watched her very carefully as she took a deep breath. Whatever she would tell me, I was ready.
“You probably know how to enter the painting, right?”
“You look at it for ten seconds!” I exclaimed in excitement.
“That is correct. But do you know what happens once you’re inside?” I furrowed my eyebrows. I had no clue what happens when people enter paintings.
“Well, your body sleeps, and your soul is what travels. That is why nothing in art can physically hurt you. Inside the painting, you can speak with Grandpappy as he was. This image was captured when you were only a year old, but I have no doubt he will know who you are. There, you may say what you must. But remember to be brief. I wouldn’t want to lose you too.” I hugged her tightly.
“You will never lose me, Grandmama.” I felt a gentle hand rub my back.
“And I know I won’t because you are quite the smart girl,” she beamed. I pulled back from her hug.
“So… how do I get back?” Grandmama grabbed my hands and placed them over my heart.
“You put your hands here like this, close your eyes, and…” she trailed off, lost in thought.
“And, you think of me. You do that, okay? That will bring you safely home.” I nodded. “Think of me, and only me. As much as you will want to think of Grandpappy, when the time comes, you mustn’t. Can you do that?”
Could I? I always thought about him. How could I let him go when he would be right beside me? But I nodded.
“Good.” She let go of my hands and unclasped her necklace. She handed the pendant to me with an extended palm.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
Grandmama opened the pendant and I looked inside. Grandpappy did look a bit younger than I remembered, but I could see the same glint in his eyes, stronger than when he was lying in bed during his final days. His fluffy white hair was like that of a puppy! If I could-
Sunlight hit my face and I opened my eyes. I was in some kind of garden, and an old man was sitting in a chair, smiling to himself. I was in the picture, with Grandpappy.
“Mira, mi nieta, Esperanza!” he cried, opening his arms. I ran to him and jumped into his lap, and we both laughed. Grandmama was right. He knew exactly who I was. He placed a big kiss on my head.
“Hi Grandpappy!” I said with a grin.
“Oh, look how big you are now! How old are you, seven?”
“NO!” I said laughing. “I’m five, silly!”
“Five? You sure? You could’ve fooled me. Oh, look at you,” he said, pulling back from our hug. I reached out to his hair and ran my fingers through it: fluffier than my favorite fur coat. No wonder people got lost in these photos, it all felt so real!
And then it hit me: none of this was real. That wasn’t really Grandpappy, just an echo of him. Wherever this garden was, I was still in the cottage with Grandmama. How did I forget so quickly?
“I have to make this fast, Grandpappy,” I told him, looking away. He was going to be sad, and I didn’t want to see that.
“I see,” he said quietly. “What brings you here, then?” I could hear the frown on his face.
“You- you’re gone.”
“I’m right here, Esperanza,” he reassured with a smile. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“But you’re dead. In the real world.” He simply nodded. I played with some loose strands from the fabric of his chair.
“Before you were gone, I wanted to play with you. I wanted you to lift me up and carry me on your shoulders like we used to. You said ‘no,’ and I got angry. I said you didn’t love me.” I looked up at his face. At least he wasn’t frowning.
“I’m so sorry for getting mad at you, Grandpappy. I know you love me no matter what.”
“It’s okay, Esperanza. I will always forgive you. And you know what?” I shook my head. Grandpappy had that silly glint in his eyes that meant he was about to do something Grandmama would scold him for if she found out. He waved at me to get off of his lap. In one swift motion, he lifted me by the waist up over his head. I was flying! We laughed and shrieked in happiness.
We both tumbled to the ground, laughing.
“Why don’t you stay a while, Esperanza?”
“Of course!” I cheered. “Why would I want to leave?”
We spent the afternoon playing together, and everything was perfect. My hair was all tangled in the wind, but that didn’t matter. Grandpappy let me make him a flower crown! As I started to get tired from the day, Grandpappy told me great tales of his adventures as I curled up on his lap.
“Do you want to hear the story of how I met your Grandmama?”
“Where is she?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
Grandpappy just laughed. “I’m right here with you, and that’s all that matters. This is perfect, right?”
“You’re not him.”
“Sorry?” He asked, with a smile on his face.
“My Grandpappy always cared about Grandmama. You’re not him.”
“I’m not me? I’m not real? No matter. soon enough, you’ll be here forever.”
No wonder these pictures were destroyed.
“NO!” I screamed, jumping up. He fell backwards, but pushed himself upright, still smiling.
“Oh Esmeralda, always so stubborn. Why not just let go?” I felt something wet slide down my face.
“I can’t leave her,” I said quietly.
“And you can leave me?” He replied. Still, he was smiling. How could he be smiling?
I thought of Grandmama, back home in the cottage, all alone. Grandpappy was gone, and I had to get back to her. None of this was real. As perfect as it seemed, I had to get home. Perfect isn’t good after all.
“Yes. I have to.”
I shut my eyes tight and thought of home. Of Grandmama.
“You’ll hate yourself for leaving me,” an echo of his voice cried. His hand caught my wrist. I didn’t dare open my eyes.
“I want to stay with you, Grandpappy. I do. But this isn’t real. I have to go home. You’re right, about one thing. I need to let go.”
My hand slipped right out his grip, and I placed it over my heart, just as Grandmama showed me. With one last thought of home, the world seemed to melt away. I was cold, terribly so, and I felt sicker that I can remember.
“Esmeralda, you made it,” she said, so quietly I barely heard it. I opened my eyes and looked around. Back home. The pendant was still in her hands.
“Destroy it,” I whispered. Grandmama did nothing.
“DESTROY IT!” I screamed. “It, it…” I couldn’t find the right words.
“Alright,” Grandmama replied calmly, handing the pendant to me. “You do it.”
I stared. “Why me?” Grandmama looked away, like I did with Grandpappy in the picture. She didn’t want to see me sad.
“You know why I held on to it all these years? It wasn’t for you. It’s because I never could let go. But you? You see things more clearly; you can let go.”
I nodded, not really getting her point. I slid off her lap and opened my palm. The pendant fell heavy in my hand. It was heavier than I thought it should be.
“Sorry, Grandpappy,” I whispered.
I walked over to the fireplace, which was still crackling. I was wrong about the fire: it wasn’t the one hurting us, it showed us what we were still holding on to that hurt us the most. I reached over the fire, and I let go.