The paintings were what kept me tethered to this place, I knew that much. I had faint memories that this place had always been a hotel, though I remembered little of its past. Or perhaps all of the years had simply blurred together. All I knew was years of wandering the hotel's halls, visiting the rooms where my portrait hung. And each year, in the spring, my lady arrived to paint my portrait and to ask a task of me in return.
My lady rose and turned her canvas around to show it to me. "Well?"
I did not answer. I cannot answer. Death had rendered me as mute as the canvas, paint, and wood that formed my lady's yearly gift to me.
"Don't you like it?" she asked. I shook my head no. She opened her mouth as though to ask another question, but no words passed her lips for a long moment.
"Suit yourself, then. I thought I'd hang this one on the eighth floor, so that you could have a view of the water on clear days."
I shrugged and looked out the small window in the room that my lady used one day each year. The window looked out on a gnarled old apple tree in a small, interior courtyard. Few rooms looked out over this area. The tree was not in keeping with the beach-like atmosphere found in the rest of the hotel. It always nagged at the back of my mind that the groundskeepers had overlooked this single tree, a relic of an earlier time.
"There is the other matter that we must attend to on your birthday, Julia Elizabeth Prynn." Her use of my full name drew my attention back to her. "Need I remind you?"
I shook my head no, but she continued nonetheless. "In exchange for your painting, you must bring me one soul. You will find your quarry in room 304." When I failed to respond positively, she whispered, "Remember, Julia Elizabeth Prynn, if you fail, you will cease to exist."
I remembered. It was one of the few things that I did remember from year to year. Though I had lost track of the years, I could count the paintings in the hotel. This newest painting made one hundred and seventeen. In all of this time, my lady never changed. She was still as young and beautiful as she was the day when she presented my first portrait, and showed me how to wrap my fingers around a person's neck and take their soul. The painting would keep me in my ghostly form. The soul would keep her eternally youthful.
It hardly seemed fair, I thought, but I was not ready to give up my existence. And so I was kept bound to her. Three hundred and sixty-four days out of each year, she went about her business and I went about mine, roaming the halls of the hotel. One day in every year, we followed our long standing tradition.
I manifested in front of the painting of me that hung in room 304. The room was quiet, nearly silent except for the man's faint breathing. I looked at him as I hovered above his sleeping body. He looked no different from any of the other guests in the hotel.
I sat beside the man. He did not even stir. Slowly, my form became more solid, and I began to stroke the man's hair gently. At one time, I had taken my victims more forcefully, reveling in their fear. In recent years, I found that I preferred my victims at peace when I took their soul. My lady seemed to have no preferences related to the emotional state of the souls she received, so I did as I pleased.
I began to reach my slender fingers around the man's neck, preparing to squeeze his soul from his body, when the door to the bedroom opened. A faint sliver of light fell across the bed and illuminated one of my hands. A small boy's face appeared in the space between the door and frame. "Papa?" he asked.
Without warning, I remembered. I remembered the ghostly young woman's hands around my father's neck. I remembered how her attention turned to me when I stumbled into Father's room in a daze. I remembered my Lady's fingers on my neck, growing more and more real and solid as she drained my soul away.
I broke off contact with the man and backed away from his body. He coughed as he awoke, and rubbed absently at his throat. He saw his son in the doorway and extended his arms to the child. I slipped back into the painting before either of them spoke a word.
I had never returned to my lady immediately after obtaining her yearly soul. But now I stood over her still sleeping body. Her face was twisted, though I could not discern if the expression she wore was one of pain, anger, or fear. I felt no need to calm her. I wrapped my slender fingers around her neck to take her soul.
"One for Every Year" also appears in Dawn Vogel's collection, Volatile Figments.
This story originally appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination.