The house that Simon Winters moved into was, he thought, a significant upgrade from any other place that he had lived in at any other point in his life. He found himself deeply proud of his accomplishment, standing in his living room, and surveyed the bare living room. Granted, the realtor had walked him through previously, but it had stood vacant for five years and there was no significant damage anywhere. There hadn’t been any reported deaths, everything was modern and up to date as far as wiring, heat and plumbing was concerned, so he chalked it all up to the deal seeming too good to be true, and put the matter out of mind entirely.
The transition from his five bedroom apartment to a two-story home with a finished attic and basement was one that he took with great relish, even if he had to undertake the entire thing by himself. Everyone was either unavailable or was honest enough to offer a blunt, “No, I’d rather not.” This didn’t shock him, as his friends were either flakey or honest about being flakey. Which suited him fine, as he didn’t have any furniture that he had to deal with. After all, an IKEA was just twenty miles away and he donated the furniture that he did have, considering this to be an entirely fresh start in every way it possibly could be.
The process of unpacking, all told, took him about three weeks from start to finish. This was a major accomplishment, as far as he was concerned, and the ultimate end goal of a simple and direct life; the ability to easily pick up and move with very little left over. Just the same, no life is ever totally free of clutter and so, even after he had unloaded every box and put away every movie and book that he owned, after he had hung up every shirt and stowed every jacket and pair of pants, he was still left with three boxes. These were filled with non-essential bric-a-brac that he had little idea of what to do with but couldn’t part with. He found himself actually fairly happy with this, as the boxes sat underneath the trap door that lead up into the attic, as it afforded him with the opportunity to actually store things in there. He had never had such an attic, and was a little embarrassed to find himself looking forward to it.
As he reached up to open the trapdoor and pull down the ladder, he realized that the realtor hadn’t taken him up there. In fact, he hadn’t been up there at all, which surprised him. He actually found this rather uncharacteristic of himself, as he was generally more thoughtful than that. In the end, he decided that there was no time better than the present, and so he started the perilous journey of walking the boxes up into the room.
What started precariously, finished rather confidently as he figured out a convenient and unobtrusive place to put the boxes. Once he had, with a great feeling of accomplishment, he toured the surrounding area, taking a good look at everything in it. The space was massive, easily the largest area in the entire house, if a slightly chilly one in the middle of the fall. There were round windows at either end, showing the front and the back yards, each with a grand oak tree filled with leaves showing the vibrant color of the season. It was here, with this light, that he saw the piece of butcher’s paper that almost blended in perfectly with the inside of the roof.
He reached up and ran his hand over it to find that it gave and formed a rectangular depression. He took a step back and stroked his chin to figure out what he was looking at before realizing that it was the back of a framed picture. He went downstairs to fetch a table knife, which he then used to dig out the edges of his hidden treasure. His heart beat faster at the discovery that he uncovered, and once the exact dimensions were revealed, he used the knife to lever it down, carefully, into his waiting hands.
He looked at it and frowned in consternation before he realized that he was holding it sideways. He then turned it right side up, and saw that he held a full body painting, mostly in dark reds, of a young man. He studied it carefully, realizing after moments that the painting was done in the living room of his new house, and that it was made recently. The subject was wearing a simple cotton t-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, lounging back in a low-backed, cushioned seat with his legs crossed and an iPhone in his hands that he studied, with his back to the painter. He sat in front of a window that was veiled and framed with light, white curtains.
He frowned and studied his new possession, wondering what, exactly, he should do with it. He looked for a signature, anything that would identify the painter or the subject. He ran his fingers over its surface, marveling at the brush strokes and the technique, thinking of just how lifelike it looked, even from up close, which was a quality that many paintings couldn’t achieve. Thinking, he couldn’t even figure out how he could go about identifying either its painter or subject, but resolved to find out. With that much taken care of, he carried the painting downstairs, and closed the trapdoor with a broom.
The painting hung in his living room for the time being, and he was quite happy at how it transformed the area. No longer was it just plain wood paneling walls with a plush, red carpet. Now it was the viewing area of an exceptionally well made painting. He stroked his chin, staring at it again as if doing so would unravel any of its mysteries, and went about his day, performing his duties as needs were. The painting was all but completely forgotten when he was turning off the lights and locking the doors for bed.
Simon wasn’t in the habit of having nightmares, in fact, even if he were pressed, he wouldn’t be able to say when his last nightmare was, or what it was about. And yet, as he began to dream, all that could or would fill his imagination was a faint, ominous malignancy. Something that couldn’t be named, but was all the more present and real, surrounding and gnawing at him. His dream-self tried to ignore these feelings as he went through the paces, dreaming his usual dreams, but noticing that things were a little off.
In that way, he woke up, and went about his day. He showered, with that vague feeling of unease, and went to work, wondering at what was biting at his consciousness just at its periphery, at his lunch and his dinner, then finally went to sleep with that subtle dread never quite leaving his awareness. He thought on it, as he brushed his teeth before bed, wondering if there was anything stressing him out that he hadn’t noticed, or if he wasn’t eating correctly. As he rinsed, he tried to shrug it off, and tried not to let it bother him too much when it took him a little longer than usual to fall asleep that night.
The night before wasn’t what most would typically think of when describing a nightmare. This night, would’ve raised a couple of eyebrows.
He was in an art gallery, which struck him as odd because he’d never been in an art gallery before. All he had to go on was his impression of them, reflected through his imagination. It was pleasant, at first, until he noticed that all of the paintings he was looking at were constructed in the same way as that which hung on his wall. All in very deep reds and all featuring human subjects that faced away from the artist. At first, this was just subtly unnerving, but as he continued down the hallways, he noticed that the reds were running and shifting as he looked at them.
At first, he walked a little faster, and then a little more, until he was in a desperate run to try to get out of the area, into another wing, if he couldn’t find an exit to the building. It was hopeless, though, and soon he noticed that the red was running off of the paintings, along the walls and onto the floors. What began as puddles soon reached up to the soles of his shoes. Then up to his ankles. He was now in a full panic as the figures in the paintings now began to turn to look at him as he ran past them. His heart thudding, his breath short and his chest tight, he persevered.
On down the various hallways, past increasingly ghoulish paintings depicting first, innocent figures, that then grew more horrifying than the last. A mother held her infant, then was ringing his neck, then drowning him in a bucket using water as thick and red as arterial blood.
Simon huffed and slogged through the liquid, finding it harder and harder to move, to run in a desperate attempt at escape that he knew was hopeless. Knowing that this was to be his final fate made the hand that grabbed his ankle and pulled him down into the depths a matter of course, rather than a cause for concern or alarm. It was only when his face hit the thick morass of liquid that surrounded him that he woke up in his own bed, his sheets and pillow more than a little damp from his sweat, despite the comfortably cool temperature of his bedroom.
He sat upright and tried to catch his breath, tried to fan off his perspiration as it dripped off of his forehead and splashed onto his comforter. He panted for breath, then got out of his bed and paced the perimeter of his bedroom. He got a glass of water, and then two, and opened his bedroom window to allow some cold, fresh air in. None of this, however, succeeded at slowing his thudding heart down. He closed the window, got back in bed, on the other side than the man-sized sweat spot, and commenced to toss and turn for the next hour. At this point, he got out of bed completely, and paced around his house, thinking that if he could assure himself that he was safe, he would be more at ease.
He unlocked and then relocked every door and window in his entire house. As he walked underneath the swinging rope for the attic, he wondered how paranoid it would be to lock the door to the attic, and decided to pass on it for the moment. So it went until he crossed in front of his painting.
There was something about the way that it looked, as the streetlamps’ dim light came in through his windows. The dark colors made it hard to make out anything between the borders of the frame. He stared at it for a few moments, before shaking his head and muttering about how ridiculous his thoughts were before he finished his ‘security check.’
Sleep found him, in fits and starts, and he was relieved, in the morning, that he didn’t dream any more that night.
Simon was not one for talking to strangers. This was, he thought, the main reason why he was a bachelor without prospects in his mid-thirties. The reason why he wasn’t a stranger type of person came to the fore as he stood, waiting for his next door neighbor to answer his knock. He rehearsed what he was going to say, before the older-than-middle-aged woman came to the door. He opened his mouth to announce himself when-
“You’re the new neighbor on the left. I was wondering when or if you were going to come by and meet the people you were living with for the next however-long.” She said and turned to go into her hall. Simon stood, feeling awkward for a moment before she turned to look at him, “Well, you gonna just stand there and let all the heat out, or are you going to come in for coffee?”
He soon learned that her name was Sarah, and that she brewed coffee so strong that his head was spinning after a few swallows. She was also a very good host, even if she talked a bit much, and was also exceptionally good at making her home warm and inviting. He could tell instantly that she was probably the favorite grandparent.
“So, how are you liking the old place? I hope the creaks and groans aren’t keeping you up at night.” She took a hard look at him, the corners of her eyes bunching up as she looked closely and carefully at him, making him feel as if he were under interrogation.
“I’m really liking it, actually. I’ve never lived in a real house before. It was always apartments or town-houses. Not an actual…house.” He said, rubbing the back of his neck and feeling as if he had entirely lost track of the conversation. “It’s like the sort of houses that you see in movies, you know? Especially with the yard and the trees…I feel like I should get a golden retriever!”
Sarah smiled warmly at that and nodded. “I know what you mean. I saw by your plates that you’re from California. Didn’t figure they made houses like that back there.”
“Oh no, not at all. Especially not made out of wood, or with porches or a yard that isn’t fenced in.” And so the conversation went on. Simon quickly felt himself loving his house and his new area more by the minute. It took about an hour or so, but he finally got to the reason for his visit. “You don’t remember the people that lived in the house before me, do you?”
“Oh, sure. No big story or nothing like that. It was a boarding house for as far back as I can remember. No one really stayed all that long, just for a few months, maybe a year or two. Then they packed up and left.” She sipped at her coffee as if it were water and not the sort of stuff that would strip varnish.
He looked at her closely, “Nothing strange happened there?” He realized how that probably sounded to her and hastened to add, “I mean, you know these old houses. They all have their own stories.”
“That is true, but unfortunately, any sort of story that house has, I wasn’t privy to. Never met the landlord or saw him, that I can recall.” She was genuinely trying to remember, he could tell.
“How about any painters? Anything like that?”
She shook her head, “Not that I could tell, no.”
He was disappointed, but continued with their dialogue until the pleasantries, and soon he was on the porch again. “The county registrar might be able to help you out. For your housing inquiries, that is.” Simon thanked her for her time, her courtesy and her hospitality, and as he walked back to his house, she called after him, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” All of this combined to charge him with a positivity that carried him on through the week.