Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Weekly Story #34: The Painting

I grew up in an artistic family--both my mom and grandfather were painters, and I dabble in drawing myself on occasion. I've also noticed I have a tendency to base the evil in my stories on the things I find good and right and just in the world. Evil is, after all, a privation or twisting of the good; it has no inherent existence of its own. The antagonist in Thresholds of the Grand Dream, for example, resembles a priest, and his goal is a corrupted version of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. And here, we have an evil painting.

 

THE PAINTING

Judging by the layer of dust, the shoebox had been lying underneath Grandmother's bed for several years. It was one of many items the family gathered up the night after she passed away. Olivia couldn't say what drew her to it when she saw it on Grandmother's kitchen table, unless it was the sheer ordinariness of it. There were only a few things inside: a blank postcard from Seattle, the head of a Barbie doll, and a small painting of a young girl in profile.

Olivia took the painting out, holding the edges by her fingertips so as not to smear the paint. "When did Grandmother get this?"

Her father reached for it. "Let me see." When Olivia handed it over, he checked the front and back. "Can't say. It's not the sort of painting Mom usually bought." He pointed at the Cezanne landscape on the wall. "All these are prints. This looks like an original. I can't tell, is this oil or acrylic?"

"You're asking me?" her mother said. "I wonder who made it. I don't see a signature."

"Or a price tag."

Olivia said, "Maybe Grandmother painted it herself."

Her mother shook her head. "Sweetie, your grandmother was many things, but she was not an artist. Maybe this picture's a gift from someone." She turned toward the living room, where Olivia's uncle and cousins were straightening things up. "Anybody ever seen this painting before?"

Everyone said no.

Olivia's father passed the painting back to Olivia. "It's too bad Dad isn't here. He probably would have known."

Olivia let out a sigh of regret. Grandpa had died only last year, a few months after Olivia turned fourteen. Grandmother had basically given up after that. Hopefully at least they were together now.

The painting didn't seem altogether special, at least on the surface. It was just a girl in a blue dress shown in profile from the waist up. The girl had jet-black hair that draped down to her shoulders, with white streaks depicting the reflection of light. In the background was a window looking out on a cloudy sky. It didn't seem special, and yet…

"Whatever it was," Olivia said, "it must have been pretty special to her, for her to keep it in such a safe place. Can I keep it?"

Her parents looked at each other. "Don't see why not."

So that evening, when they got home, Olivia placed the small painting on her desk, where she could see it whenever she went to sleep and whenever she woke up. A little reminder of Grandmother that would never leave her.

Snow fell the following morning. At any other time, the sight would have delighted Olivia, but now the snow just emphasized how gloomy the world was now that Grandmother was gone. At least the painting was here.

But once she got up and took a closer look at it, something wasn't right. Or maybe it was her imagination. At any rate, she didn't remember the girl's lips being so bright red the day before. Maybe it was the difference in light, but Olivia thought she would have noticed the girl looking like she'd just lovingly applied some lipstick.

On the other hand, Olivia did still feel raw over losing Grandmother. She used to sleep over at Grandmother's every few weeks until she turned twelve. Over the last few years she'd started helping out with the yardwork for some extra money and some of Grandmother's sausage and biscuits. Then they lost Grandpa, and then the cancer took hold, going straight to her brain along with the painkillers. Olivia hadn't had the chance to visit as often as she would have liked, so it seemed like one day Grandmother was as bright and lively as ever; the next, too weak to get out of bed; the next, gone. Olivia still didn't feel like she'd gotten a proper goodbye. Of course she'd miss a detail in a painting she'd only discovered yesterday.

The snow didn't even get her out of school, just a two hour delay.

When she got home, she found polka yellow dots on the girl's dress.

She took it to the living room to show her mother. "Notice anything different?"

Mom put down her iPad. "Can't say I do."

"You sure? Look close. See those dots?"

"What about them?"

"Were they there yesterday?"

"What are you talking about? Of course they were. That's how it was painted."

Olivia took another look at the painting. The dots were added with the same paint as the rest of the image, and had dried the same way, as if they were dabbed on at the same time. Same with the girl's lipstick. "But that can't be right."

She showed her dad, who was on the couch reading a magazine. "Looks just like it did before." He gently touched her hand. "Look, this has been a painful time for everybody. There's nothing wrong with getting a few details wrong."

"That's what I thought, though," Olivia said. Back when it was just the lips that changed. Still, her parents had their own ideas, and weren't going to let go of them, so she headed back to her room to start her homework. She placed the painting back on its original spot.

Only now Olivia could hardly concentrate. All her attention was on the painting, in case it changed again out of the blue. The girl's hair might turn red, or a werewolf might appear in the window, or who knows, maybe Grandmother herself would turn up somehow. After the homework was done, Olivia then tried distracting herself with her phone, checking messages from her friends and funny pictures online. But the painting was always in the corner of her eye.

She went to bed a full hour later than intended.

The next morning, a new snowfall overnight had refreshed the blanket of white on the ground. The world outside still looked gray and dead. The funeral was tomorrow, a Saturday.

And the painting had changed again, this time even more drastically. The girl's dress had switched from yellow dots on blue to blue stripes on yellow. Not only that, but the sky behind the girl had turned blue and clear.

Olivia took a picture with her phone. If anything changed, she'd now have proof.

She went to school, checking the picture on her phone every so often in case it changed, too. So far, it was still the same. But now she couldn't concentrate during class. The readings in English were just collections of words. The x's and y's in Algebra might as well have been ancient Assyrian for all she knew. Even her friends noticed. On the way to Biology, Cassandra came up to her and asked, "Are you okay?"

"Huh? Oh, I guess." Olivia had been checking the picture yet again.

"You've been out of it all day. Is it your grandmother? I know you miss her."

"My grandmother?" Now that Olivia thought about it, she'd barely thought about Grandmother since waking up. It was all the painting. "Y-Yeah. I do. It's just…"

"Maybe you should talk to the nurse. She might let you go home and get some rest. If you're that depressed…"

"It's not that," Olivia said. "It's more…" How to say this without sounding like a lunatic? "You ever feel like something just isn't making sense? Like it's actually trying to make you crazy?"

"Like gaslighting?"

"No, not even that. It's like… Ugh, I don't know. Look, I'll probably be okay after the funeral. This's all just a lot to process."

"Will you talk to the nurse?" Cassandra said.

"I think so."

And to Olivia's surprise, the nurse was perfectly sympathetic and let her call for a ride home. Olivia never mentioned the painting.

"I understand," Mom said as she drove home. "I'm not really sure your father should have gone to work, either."

"Mmm." Cassandra checked the photo again.

When she got to her room, the girl in the painting was now facing the other direction and wearing a red gown.

Olivia opened up her phone. Finally, the proof she needed. All she had to do was compare the photo to the painting, and…

And the girl was facing the other direction, wearing a red gown.

Olivia let out a howl of the deepest rage, threw the phone at her bed, flung the painting across the room, and fled out to the hall. Her mother rushed to her and grabbed her by the arms. "Olivia, what's wrong? What happened?"

"It's that painting!" Olivia screamed. "I can't stand it anymore! Every time I look at it it's different!"

"Olivia, what are you talking about? That painting from Grandmother's?"

"Yes! That one! I hate it! I don't want it anymore!"

"Y-you sure? But you loved it so much the other night."

"I want it out of my room!"

"Okay, okay, if it's got you that wound up, I'll put it away."

As Mom went to Olivia's room, Olivia pulled her hair out of her face and rubbed her eye. "Thanks. God. I'd sure love to find out who painted that thing."

"Maybe somebody at the funeral would know. Ah, here it is." Mom came back out to the hall, holding the painting. "It's too bad. It's a perfectly good painting."

"Wait," Olivia said. "I need to know… What color is the girl's dress?"

"Red."

"What color is the sky outside the window?"

"Blue."

"Which way is she facing?"

"She's looking at me." Mom giggled. "And she looks kind of grumpy, if you ask me."

"What?" Olivia seized the painting from her. "No it can't be. I—"

The girl was now indeed looking at the viewer, not straight-on, but no longer in profile, either. Her eyes were narrowed and her lips curved into a vengeful frown, as if someone had turned off her cartoons while making her pose. But there was something about those eyes…

Terror gripped Olivia right in the throat. Somehow, the girl didn't seem to be looking at some generic viewer. The girl was looking at her, Olivia, right now. And hidden behind those eyes was hate for Olivia, for what she had just done to the painting.

Her mother remarked, "I do remember thinking it was an odd thing for you to pick out, with an expression like that."

"No… No, it was different. She was different."

"Olivia, are you feeling all right?" Mom placed her hand over Olivia's forehead. "It's just a painting. It's not going to hurt you."

Olivia jerked herself away. "Keep it away from me." She left the painting on the dinner table, ran back into her room, and shut the door. That wasn't just a painting. It was alive. And she was the only one who knew… or at least, the only one allowed to know. She buried herself under her comforter. What if Grandmother had seen the same kind of transformations in that painting, felt the same unnatural life? What if that was the reason she'd left it under the bed so long? Out of sight, out of mind?

Later on, her dad knocked on the door. It was time to go to the viewing. At that point, Olivia had no choice but to get up. On the way out, she spotted the painting on the dinner table. Mom had never put it away. She must have forgotten. Her parents probably thought she was out of her mind right now. Either way, she'd feel safer once that painting was out of her life once and for all.

There were so many people at the funeral home, so many relatives she hardly ever saw. Both her great aunt Gretchen and her great uncle Buddy were there—Grandmother's last remaining siblings. Grandmother lay in the coffin, her face crunched up, as if she had difficulty resting in peace.

Olivia forced herself to check the photo on her phone again, and the scowl on the girl's face. It wasn't as intense now, probably since it was a photograph. But while Olivia and the girl stared at each other, Uncle Buddy passed by. "Where in God's name did you find that?"

"Huh?" Olivia nearly dropped her phone. "Uncle Buddy! Y-You know this painting?" But how, when it didn't even look like this a few hours ago?

"Oh, I know it all right, and the sunuvabitch who painted it. Where'd you find it?"

She handed the phone over to her great-uncle. "I-it was in a shoebox under Grandmother's bed."

"So she kept it all this time?" Uncle Buddy sighed. "Poor thing. Probably never decided what to do with it."

"Who's the… um, sunuvabitch… who painted it?"

"This man who lived in our neighborhood growing up, about two houses down. Painted that just for your Grandma when she was about, oh, nine years old. Then we come to find out he… he…" His face tightened into a hateful grimace. "He was not a good man."

"Oh my God." Olivia's blood became as cold as the snow outside. She turned to her grandmother. "He didn't—"

"Hurt her?" Uncle Buddy said. "I dunno, and I don't wanna know. I like to think we put him away before he got the chance. But we all trusted him… And I still ain't forgiven him." A tear ran down his cheek.

"Uncle Buddy…" Olivia laid a hand on his arm. "I never knew."

"Must have haunted her all her life. Where's that painting now?"

"At home. It was in my room, but…"

"My advice? Get rid of it. Nothing of that man belongs anywhere near this family."

"Oh. Okay, sure," Olivia said. "One more thing. Who is this girl, anyway?"

"Really?" Uncle Buddy said. "You don't know your own grandma when you see her?"

Olivia looked at the photo of the painting again, and over at Grandmother, and shuddered.

That night, Olivia waited until parents went to bed, when the rest of the house was empty. The painting still lay on the dinner table. Mom must have forgotten all about putting it away. The girl now had a fierce glare on her face, and wore a black dress. As if for a funeral. It was snowing outside the window behind her.

"I'm not dead yet, you little brat." Olivia grabbed the painting and marched to the garage, where she found an empty paint can, some lighter fluid, and a hand torch. She put on her jacket and shoes and took them all out to the backyard, placed the painting in the can, sprayed the fluid on it, and lit it up.

She sat on the back porch watching it burn for an hour, then watched it smolder for another before squirting with the hose.

Before going to sleep, Olivia checked her phone one last time. The photo once again looked the way it did in the morning. She deleted it.

If her parents found out what she had done, she knew just what to tell them. She simply didn't think Grandmother would have wanted her to keep it.