Painting.

The house that Simon Robard 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 and taking in his living room, bare as it was. 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 two 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 head down. The subject was a young man, clean shaven with a look of consternation on his face and his hair swept back, with his eyes being the only color aside from shades of red on the painting: a vivid green that stuck out from everything else. 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 watched he carefully, warily, as if at any moment it would spring to life and tell him who made it. Finally, he 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 were different from his in that they were all facing away. 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.

As he fled down the various hallways, they all started to slowly turn to face him, each of them becoming more ghoulish and horrifying the farther he went. 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. A wife gutting her husband as they pose for their wedding picture. A self-portrait of a suicide by large caliber pistol.

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. The eyes that just about glittered in the dim light. 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.

There’s a smell that permeates inside of every government building in the world. It’s not quite the mustiness of a used book store, or of a grand, old house. There’s a more human smell to it, of many accumulated different scents all commingling and then becoming ingrained in the walls. Simon breathed this scent in slowly as he watched the clerk behind the counter consult her computer for the third time, as if it would give a different result from the last two. Simon, however, was confident that she would say something aside from –

“I’m sorry, sir. But there’s no record of your home in our database that goes back farther than a few years ago.” She managed to keep any sort of an edge out of her voice, but it was evident that Simon was keeping her from the rest of her day’s work.

“I-how is that even possible? I thought all of this stuff was backed up on computers?” He had never been very well versed in the intricacies of technology. Simon had always been the sort that doesn’t think deeper of electric machines than, ‘does it work?’ And if the response was in the negative, then he would replace or take the offending object to get repaired according to price.

“Ideally, these records would either be backed up or completely replaced by a database.” She leaned into her explanation with the air of someone who was tired of giving this response and was hoping to never have to give it again, ”There’s only so much money to go around in a town this size. I don’t know if you’ve lived in very many small towns, Mr. Robard, but we tend to direct budget money to things like the fire and police, and everything else gets what’s left over. We finally had the money to move the hard copies to a more secure location and then begin the process of scanning a few years back, but a few boxes-“

“A few boxes?” Simon could hardly believe what he was hearing, always a firm believer that those in charge must know what they’re doing, regardless of how often he found himself grasping for answers and solutions to his problems.

“A few boxes,” undeterred, the clerk continued on, “were misplaced in transit. You are not alone in having your records lost, but I’m afraid that we’re well past the point where these files are considered ‘recoverable.’” She tapped out a few more commands on her ancient machine, “But, our current records show that your house is up to date on all inspections and passed every point concerned before you completed your purchase.”

The clerk continued to explain how it was possible for him to buy the house when there was no official previous owner, but his interest waned and he wished the clerk a nice day.

When he emerged from city hall, he pulled his jacket in close and zipped it up, not ready for the cold air that was tearing around the parking lot. Leaves flew in small tornados while the light quickly disappeared. He drove back to his new home, musing on the encroaching winter. He knew that he had bigger fish to fry, and more pressing concerns at the moment, but this question wasn’t letting up on the back of his mind. He had a strong feeling that he would soon need to let the matter rest, especially now that it seemed as if the house had formed independently of architect or inhabitants.

He was soon pulling into his drive way and  jingling his keys for the lock, when a strong, feminine voice sounded out behind him, “Hey there, neighbor. Mind having some company?”

Simon turned around and saw Sarah at the foot of his front walk. She held a cake container and wore a warm smile on face. “Hi there, Sarah. I suppose I could do for some. What are you going to be feeding me today?”

This was only the latest in treats from his new favorite neighbor. It seemed that every other day since their meeting two weeks ago that she would be bringing him over something to eat, at first because she was concerned for his health, due to the bags under his eyes and the beaten appearance that seemed to be his entire being when the dreams were still plaguing him. After that, it was left over baked goods from some get-together or another that she’d had. “Oh, just some coffee cake left over from my book club meeting.”

“Sounds good to me.” He allowed them both in, and walked into the kitchen to boil water for coffee. She knew the way after her last two visits.

“Well, it’s starting to look like someone lives here, instead of being a used furniture show room.” She said with humor. There was a plate, bowl and mug on the coffee table. The small mess made Simon blush, but Sarah waved him off, “Bachelors! You should’ve seen the state that Marty’s apartment was in when he invited me over for the first time. Swore I’d never marry such a slob.” She eased herself down into a chair around the kitchen table, “Forty years later, and I almost miss cleaning up after him.”

Simon held the body of his coffee cup, letting it warm his palm, allowing the heat to radiate up his body. “When did Marty…uh…pass?” He internally cringed at the phrasing of the question.

Sarah laughed at the awkward way she was being asked, “You Californians don’t think about death very often.” She stated very simply, “Marty died three years ago this past March. It was his heart, the poor man.” She sighed and sipped at her coffee, “Didn’t come as a surprise, unfortunately. He was three pack a day smoker, and was a traveling salesman on top of it.” She shook her head sadly, “He never could unwind fully, not the entire time that I knew him.”

Simon frowned a little, because she was right. Death did make him incredibly uncomfortable, though he had never thought of it as a cultural concept, that level of discomfort. “Was, uh, was it-”

Sarah laughed again, its warm, sonorous sound reverberating off of the walls of the kitchen. “You’re going to give yourself a conniption! Marty went in his sleep in a hotel room in Ripon. He gave his room number to his boss, and when he didn’t show up to the appointment he was due for, they went to the hotel. No one answered the door when they knocked. I gave permission to the hotel for them to open up, and when they did…” She gave a wan smile, “Thankfully, it hadn’t even been a day and it was cold besides.”

“I am so sorry, Sarah.” Simon’s eyebrows knit together in consternation and sorrow. He couldn’t imagine such a warm, lively person suffering anything quite so acutely painful.

She waved him off, however. “Oh, don’t worry about it. Like I said, it wasn’t like his death was unexpected. I think I’d been preparing for it over the years, when his breathing would get ragged and when he would take Tums by the handful, the bottles of Mylanta and Pepto Bismol…” She heaved a deep sigh, “Enough navel-gazing. Anyone special in your life?”

“Oh God, no.” He laughed, happy for the subject change. “I am quite a happy bachelor. I want to settle down more, get used to my job and then start worrying about things like that.”

“Well, while you get settled, I’m going to use the lady’s room. Do you mind?” Sarah said, as she made to get up.

“Not at all. Help yourself.” He told her where the bathroom was and set to washing up after his breakfast to make himself feel slightly less self-conscious.

After he was finished washing up, and Sarah still hadn’t returned, he called out her name. When she didn’t answer, he went in search for her, finding that she stood in front of his painting. He was dully nonplussed to find her where she was. “…Sarah?”

She shook herself awake as if from a dream and looked at him blearily. She blinked a couple of times and then looked back at the painting. “This is…this is fascinating. Where did you get it?”

Simon laughed a little, “Funnily enough, it was in the attic. I want to say that someone left it behind, but it’s more like the thing was…hidden. Strangest thing.”

“Which is why you were asking about who lived in the house before you, and if any of them painted.” She said, as if she were finishing a thought. She looked at it again and shivered. She rubbed her arms a little, “Something about it gives me the creeps.”

“I just wish I knew who made it.” Simon said, leading her back into the kitchen, and their cooling cups of coffee.

“No signature anywhere on it?” He shook his head, “Well, you might want to try the antique store on Main. There’s an art appraiser there on Thursdays.”

Feeling more than a bit like he was on a scavenger hunt, he made mental note of that, now knowing what he was going to do that coming Thursday.

More nightmares, leading up to Thursday’s trip to the antique store. Each one worse than the last, but Wednesday night’s had him up for the rest of the night.

He was a painter, and he stood in front of a blank canvass. He felt compelled to move, to make each brush stroke that marred the blank field in front of him. He was slowly more and more disconcerted, first by the fact that every color on his palette was a shade of red. Then he was made distantly aware of a scream of agony every time he made a stroke, each one louder than the last.

He tried to stop, he tried to put the brush down, he tried to put the palette down, but he seemed to be totally out of control of his body. Tears ran down his cheeks as the screams were now directly in front of him, making him aware that the canvass had turned into a human body, and that the brush was now a knife, pushing into a struggling man suspended in front of him.

Simon sat straight, bolt upright in his bed. He struggled to catch his breath as his heart pounded in his chest. He tried to calm himself as he extricated himself from his blankets and sheets. The heat wasn’t on, but he was more than a little damp from sweat and his body seemed to radiate heat. Yet, he was able to find his bathroom, and when he looked in the mirror, the terror of the weak was vivid on his face.

Dark circles ran around his eyes, and his color was anything but healthy. His co-workers had noticed it the day before, asking him if he was sick, if someone had died but he couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone that the reason he’d been so out of sorts and disheveled was due to scary dreams. “This doesn’t happen to grown-ups.” he muttered to himself, almost wanting to call his mom. After checking the time, he dispelled this notion.

He once again did his usual circuit, checking the doors and windows. Even checking the basement, and could find nothing to be scared of. Yet, there was something especially disturbing at the painting that night, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. Had the figure depicted moved?

Every muscle in Simon’s frame hurt, and he struggled to keep his eyes open as he opened the door to the antique shop. He awkwardly worked himself in, through the front door, with the portrait under his arm. He yawned expansively and jumped at he crossed a laser that tripped an otherwise pleasant jingle, signifying that someone had entered the store.

And what a store it was! In a very deliberate and very carefully contained chaos, odds and ends and assortments were all over and throughout the immense expanse of the antique shop. The smell of age, dust and mildew all mixed pleasantly with potpourri and freshly brewed coffee. A cup of which was poured and sat on the counter, pushed towards Simon.

“You look like you need this. On the house.” The clerk was around Sarah’s age, with glasses resting on his nose that were attached to a thin gold chain that looped around his neck. Simon was at last able to smile as he saw that the proprietor looked exactly like one would expect an antique store owner would look.

“You have no idea how much I appreciate this, sir.” He leaned the painting against the counter and picked up the cup. He smelled in the hot steam as it wafted over his face and attempted a drink, grimacing a little as the beverage scalded his esophagus.

“Looking to offload some fine art, I take it?” The clerk was all business, which suited Simon just fine.

“Well, not offloading, and I’m not so sure that it’s ‘fine’ or ‘art,’ but-” He hefted the portrait up and rested it on the glass counter.

The clerk fit his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose and took a look at it, peering closely at the work that stood in front of him, “So, if you’re not offloading, I assume you’re here for it to be appraised?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Simon said before hazarding another attempt at his coffee.

“Ah, then you’re in luck. She was just preparing to leave for the day.” He looked back towards a curtain partition and called out, “Kelly, this one’s for you!”

The owner stepped aside, sat up on a stool behind the cash register and resumed reading the newspaper. The appraiser, Kelly, stepped out and greeted Simon with a weary smile. “Hello, and what is this that you have?”

“I’m actually not sure. I moved here last month, and I found this painting hiding in my attic, like whoever stashed it up there didn’t want it to be found. I’ve been trying to find out who made it, since there isn’t a signature anywhere, and…this is my last hope of figuring out what to make of this.” He leaned against the counter, as if saying all that much at once had sapped out the rest of his energy reserves.

“Oh, a mystery painting?” She said with an air of humor, while her face was all business as she scanned it slowly, closely. “Do you mind if I take this back with me, sir?”

“Simon, please. And yes, that would be fine. I’ll browse while you do.” He was tempted to go outside for some cold air, but after a few days of threats, snow was starting to drift lazily from the sky.

The antique store, Simon was soon to find, was enormous. An entire warehouse devoted to the area’s discarded, ancient items. Every room seemed to hold new treasures, though nothing that he was willing to spend money on. There were even old, meticulously cared for weapons from the Civil War that were on display that would set him back by a couple of month’s worth of paychecks.

The size of the store, though, was what kept Simon from hearing flat feet stride across the hardwood floor downstairs. As such, he was taken unawares as a hand grasped his shoulder, “Sir?”

He whirled around, his heart pounding and eyes wide in terror to come face to face with a blue uniformed woman around his age. “Oh! You just about scared the life out of me, I am so sorry.” He said, with good humor.

That humor was not received by the officer, whose identity badge read ‘Wilson.’ “Did you bring in that painting downstairs?”

“I…yes?” He said helplessly.

“Could you come downstairs with me?” She turned to go, not waiting for Simon to ascent to her request.

He was fixed with a grave look from the clerk and from Kelly. “Uh, what’s the…problem, here?”

“Sir, are you aware that your painting was made using blood?” Officer Wilson asked.

Simon felt all the color drain out of his face, and he nearly collapsed right there on the floor. He caught himself on a nearby rack and shook his head hard.

“I think that’s a no, officer.” Kelly said in a helpful tone to Wilson.

Wilson’s voice was impatient, clearly finding this call to be beneath her. “I’m just trying to do my job, okay?” She looked at the painting, that was now resting face-up on the counter. “Creepy fucking thing.”

Kelly nodded a little, buying time for Simon to recover from the shock. “I’ve never seen anything like it. A lot of artists mix small amounts of blood into their paint,” She looked up and at the officer, “But not nearly as much as this. It’s like someone painted it with blood as a medium. I didn’t even know that something like this was possible.”

“How were you able to tell?” The officer asked, the edge out of her voice as if she realized that no one in the room had done anything wrong.

“It…it smells. It smells like copper, not musty, not like paint. It smells like copper.” She slid it off the counter and the officer caught it, setting it down. “There’s something really off-putting about it. I’ve never-” She looked as if she needed a grief counselor. “I’m sorry, I know how this looks but I didn’t go to school for this, you know?”

The officer gave her a sympathetic look and turned back to Simon, “Are you going to be alright, sir?”

Simon nodded weakly, “I haven’t been getting much sleep lately, and that was the last thing I expected to hear today.”

From there, things were mostly a formality. Simon told the officer how he had found the painting, Wilson asked if it would be okay for an officer to take a look in his home just for thoroughness’ sake. “Do you mind if I take your painting for testing and evaluation? I realize this is probably just some weird art project, but I don’t want to let this slip if it’s something else.”

“Yes, yes, that’s fine.” Simon was grateful to have it out of his house, now that he knew why it was so vividly red. “Please do.”

Officer Wilson tucked the painting under her arm, thanked everyone for their patience, and walked out into a steadily snowing evening. Simon thanked the clerk and Kelly both, feeling incredibly awkward about what he’d brought into their store, and slunk out, with an odd sense of liberation following him.

Simon slept easily and deeply for the first time in weeks that night, and felt like he soared through Friday’s work. It was as if a shadow had been lifted out of his life, and he was pleasantly surprised, when he realized it while cooking dinner, that he hadn’t even thought of the thing since he left the antique shop. No wonder it had been bothering him since he first saw it, he thought to himself, not to mention the dreams. After the appraiser had said that the painting was instantly off-putting to her, he realized that the same thing had struck him. No wonder his dreams have been so harrowing lately.

Officer Wilson was at his door on Saturday, shortly before noon. She had a fellow officer with her, both of them lightly dusted by snow as if it was confectioner’s sugar. “Hello mister…I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your last name.” She said, extending her hand to him.

“Robard.” He shook her hand, “But please. Simon.”

Officer Wilson, who Simon found out was actually named Rebecca, handed him a ten dollar bill and told him to go have lunch and that the sweep of his house won’t take very long. She checked her watch, “Should be done by around four.” He wished her and the officer she had in tow ‘good luck,’ and ventured into the cold December day to hunt for food.

Lunch was at a coffee shop that he had grown increasingly fond of, the last few weeks, and he was always cheered by the smells inside. For at least those hours that he was in the shop and away from his house and the ongoing investigation, he felt at ease.

He ate his lunch, drank his coffee and paid for a couple of refills while he lounged in an overstuffed couch and read a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre that a previous customer had left behind in days gone past.

He checked the time, and precisely at the stroke of four in the afternoon, officer Wilson called to give him the all-clear. She and her partner waited for him out on the porch, feeling that they had invaded his privacy enough for one day. “Didn’t find anything in there.” The officer whose name Simon didn’t catch said.

“There wasn’t anything out of place, or anything that we would deem to be significant. Black light didn’t find anything unexpected, and finger printing would take way too long. We’re going to have to assume that this was just some art weirdo, rather than anything sinister. You can pick it up at the station during regular business hours.” She turned to leave, but Simon called out to her.

“I’m sorry, but…do you know who the subject of the painting is?” The idea just occurred to him that maybe he had a record and that they would be able to find him that way.

She gave him a sidelong glance before turning to face him, “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?” The look on his face said more than he needed to. She sighed, “Unfortunately, I can’t release any information on private individuals not under investigation for any wrongdoing to any other private individuals. What I can do is if, and this is a big if, the painting matches with anyone in the database, we’ll have to give that person a call as a matter of course.” She made a face, as if mentally weighing pros and cons, “What I can do is release your phone number to that individual, and if they then choose to call you, that’s up to them. Would that be okay with you?”

He nodded quickly, “By all means, please. I just want to put this matter to rest as quickly as possible.”

“Completely understandable.” Officer Wilson turned to leave the porch, zipping her jacket up to her neck as she walked. Before she got into her cruiser, she turned to look back at Simon and called out, “Please pick up that painting as soon as you can. It really is super fucking creepy.”

Simon assured her that he would, while also mentally deciding to put off that task for as long as possible . “Super fucking creepy.” He chuckled to himself as he closed and locked the door behind him, sealing out the darkness of the night.

The weekend passed. Then the week, and the only unexpected phone calls were from officer Wilson, getting more and more plaintive as Simon came up with excuse after excuse for not being able to pick up the painting. He knew that he could just take it to the antique store, but he was pretty sure that they wouldn’t take it. By that Friday, he was looking up other antique dealers that he could unload the curiosity off on.

All in all, he was ready to put all of this behind him, to retrieve the portrait from the station on Saturday to get rid of it as soon as possible, when his phone vibrated. He checked its face, and frowned when he wondered who he knew from Vermont. He turned his stove off and answered the call. “Hello?”

“Simon Robard?” Came a harrowed voice from the other end.

Tempted to tell the caller that he had reached a wrong number, suddenly not wanting to know more about the strangeness that entered his life and ready to put it all behind him, “Um, yes. Who is this?”

“I’d…I’d rather not say. This is weird enough for me without you knowing my name.”

Simon piqued an eyebrow, unsure of how that made sense, but then he remembered the situation he was in. “Well, okay. What can I do for you?”

“Where did that painting come from? That cop sent me a picture of it, and that guy looks exactly like me. I have a small scar under my left eye and a mole on my chin and both of them are there.”

Simon’s blood ran cold and he found himself needing to sit. “You mean, you didn’t sit for that painting?”

“Man, I’ve never sat for any paintings in my life. I don’t even know anyone who has! How did that painting get made?” The voice went from scared to a near panic at this point, “What the hell is going on here?”

“Sir, just…just calm down. We need to remain rational about this and think about it.” Simon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Just…start from the beginning.”

The voice on the other end took a deep breath and he started, “I live in Vermont, and I’ve lived here my whole life. Never done any traveling or anything like that. I have no idea where your town even is, for Christ’s sakes.” He took another deep breath, and Simon almost asked if he was still there, “Sorry. I’m-so, I get a call from that cop friend of yours, saying that my face matches a suspicious painting that the police have. I have a DUI on my record, so I’m in the national database, right? So, I don’t believe her, because that’s insane. She asks for my email address, I give it to her, cause why not? Whole time I’m just thinking this is some kind of a prank from my friends. And I look at the painting and I lose my shit. That cop lady’s got some patience.

“I get myself as under control as possible, and that’s when she drops a bombshell. She says that they ran an analysis on the painting and that it’s human blood. And I can’t say anything cause what the fuck, right? She tells me to sit down and I already am cause I can’t handle this and she tells me that it’s also a partial match with my blood that they drew from the DUI.”

“Wait, what? She didn’t tell me that.” Simon knew without looking in any surfaces that his skin was pale, and also knew that the food on the stove would have to be leftovers for tomorrow.

“Well, why should she, man? Not like it’s your blood. I tell her what I told you, that I’ve never left the state, never given blood, never even been in an accident aside from the time a kid threw a rock at me in second grade. The whole painting was made with my blood!” Simon had to hold the phone away from his ear when the voice just about screamed the last part. He was quiet for awhile longer, and Simon didn’t dare interrupt him as he gathered himself back up, “So now here I am. And I want to know just what the fuck is going on, how someone got enough of my blood to make a painting and how it looks just like me.”

Simon’s heart went out to this stranger, many miles away. He sighed, resigned to all of this, resigned to finally hitting the last dead end, “I don’t know.” He thought it only fair to tell this poor man the story so far, to fill in all the details, but made sure that he was also made aware that the painting depicted him in the living room in the house that he now occupied.

“Look. I hang up, I don’t want to hear back from you. I’m going to drink until I pass out, and then I never want to hear any more about this, ever again, okay?” Simon had to agree with this, “That’s all I’ve gotta say. I don’t have any idea how this makes sense- I’ve never even had an iPhone.” He said, almost as an afterthought.

“So you don’t have any-”

“No, I don’t.” If this stranger was lying, he was the best that Simon had ever come across.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you so deeply, I really am. I hope you’re okay after this.” Simon struggled to keep his hands steady; they trembled in front of himself. He wondered, abstractly, where the peace that he’d had for more than a week had disappeared to.

“You want my advice, man? Take that painting and set it on fire. Get the fuck rid of it, and leave that house. Something really wrong is going on here, and I don’t want nothing to do with it.” The voice hung up, and Simon sat his phone down on the table, gingerly and carefully, like it was fragile. He then placed his forehead next to it and covered himself with his arms, as if he could ward away what he felt encroaching him, smothering him.

The night passed glacially. He built a fire, and sat down in front of it, just staring at the living room window as sheet after sheet of snow fell. A sharp, howling wind gusted so hard that the fire moved with it and Simon bundled up in a blanket in a further effort to not just warm himself, but to somehow shield himself from a reality that was increasingly terrifying.

He’d always believed that the world moved sensibly, that everything in the world was rational to at least some extent. This is what drove him throughout this entire ordeal, that if he somehow had more information, if he had the right information, he would somehow make sense of the place that his life had descended into. But it didn’t. He knew that the memory of that phone call would be with him forever. That he would never be able to put as much distance between himself and that portrait as he needed to.

He left for the restroom, leaving the blanket behind him. He did what he had to do, then turned to the medicine cabinet mirror. He gripped the edges of the sink and looked at himself more closely than he ever had in his life. He felt everything slipping out from beneath him, every bit of sense that he’d ever had in his life, completely revered on him. “Get a grip.” He repeated over and over.

He turned to leave, but when he did, through the corner of his eye he noticed that the mirror image didn’t move with him. It just stood back with the wall behind it and slowly wavered from right to left and back again, blown by an invisible wind. Simon came back to look at this, feeling as if he should scream, feeling it swelling and pounding at his chest. Tears ran down his cheeks as the mirror slowly started turning red.

His knees went weak and he grabbed onto the sink to keep from falling as he watched his mirror image rent and torn open with cut after cut. “This is a dream, this is a dream” he muttered to himself over and over as if he could will that into being the reality of the situation. He was frozen in place, unable to move, unable to do anything until the image began to move towards himself, slowly and with measured paces.

When it was right in front of its side of the mirror, and he could see the reflection of his own eyes shaded in red. He met his own image’s eyes and was finally able to leave the room. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, as if there were something that he had trapped behind him.

Simon closed his eyes and struggled to catch his breath. He felt light headed as he nearly hyperventilated, but when he opened his eyes, he instantly wished that he hadn’t because there in front of him was the painting. As if it had always been there. He screamed and fell to his knees, grabbing onto the sides of his head as he looked at it.

Distantly aware that he was crying, he begged and screamed at the object as if it had intelligence, malign as it would have to be. When finally he regained his sense, he grabbed the offending object and marched it towards the fireplace, passing the front door with a frantically pounding Sarah on the other end. Of course she had heard the screaming and of course she was probably scared out of her mind, but he needed to do this before the rest of his senses snapped and left him.

He looked at the painting one last time, feeling a maniacal smile cross his face and he pitched the entire thing, in one piece into the hearth.

Officer Wilson was one of the first responders on the scene, as she was closest to the case. The next door neighbor, Sarah Olson, was the one who placed the emergency call. She stayed on the porch, waiting for the police to arrive. They knocked a few times before they smelled smoke. Finding just cause, they breached the door and there was the home owner, Simon Robard, burnt and unmoving on the ground.

Wilson swore that she would never be able to make sense of the tableau in front of her. She knew that she could live to be a thousand and it would still puzzle her as deeply as it did right then and right there.

Not only was Simon on the floor, burnt beyond recognition, not only was the entire rest of the house completely untouched by the incredibly localized blaze that had taken his life, but there, in a completely dead fireplace was that painting. The one that she knew for a fact was still in lockup the last time she looked, completely untouched. Unmarred. Still as if it had just been painted.

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