My sister Sally and I stood in our grandmother’s darkening living room staring at the wall. Staring at the painting to be exact. The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough or as I referred to it Nightmare Fuel.
Our mother used to send us to our grandmother Rose’s house every summer. We loved our grandmother, but we hated that painting. It hung above the TV directly across from the couch and the two chairs that bookended it. There was no escaping its watchful eyes.
Granny Rose passed away and left me and Sally her home along with all of her possessions. Which of course, included The Blue Boy. Neither one of us wanted to touch it, not even to take it down. Our mother had suggested we stay the weekend at the house to pack up anything we wanted and clear away any trash left behind.
The plan was to salvage what we could, sell the rest, and put the house on the market. Everything had been just fine until now. We’d been standing in this position for the last fifteen minutes.
When I was little I cried to my granny that the eyes followed me and no amount of reassuring that it was only the gift of the painter would stop my fear.
Even as we grew older the painting still frightened us. Sally had just turned fourteen and I was almost thirteen the last time we came to granny Rose’s for the summer. That summer ended in tears and we returned home early. Sally swore that The Blue Boy had been standing at the end of the hallway at the entrance to the living room where it hung.
The most frightening thing about that was the week before, I had seen the same thing. I had been so scared that I ended up sleeping in Sally’s bed. I didn’t tell her why, only that I had had a bad dream. At twelve, I was convinced she would make fun of me. Of course, she hadn’t and a week later, I learned why.
Little things had been leading up to that, the sounds of footsteps outside our doors at night. We liked to sneak up and get a midnight snack and many times we could hear our grandmother snoring from her bedroom only to make it halfway down the hall and hear her in the kitchen.
That never made much sense, but as a child, your mind had a way of rationalizing everything.
It seemed to me that today we had both unconsciously avoided the living room. Instead, we concentrated on the bedrooms, but with night coming I told Sally I didn’t want that thing in the house and she agreed.
“You’re older so you should do it.”
“Screw that Jason, you’re the man so you should touch it.”
“What about all that women are equal to men, stuff you say to me all the time. I wouldn’t want to be accused of being chauvinistic or anything.”
“It would be the gentlemanly thing to do, Jason. Besides, we are equal, unless it’s something icky I don’t want to touch or do. Then you can be superior for a little while.”
“You are so gracious. How about we rock, paper, scissors?”
Three games later, I stood in front of the painting trying to convince myself to touch it.
“You cheat,” I said, looking back at her over my shoulder.
“How do you cheat at rock, paper, scissors?”
“It’s that older sibling sorcery.”
Sally laughed. “How about I buy pizza to make up for it?”
“Fine, but I want meat on it. None of your spinach crap,” I said and she rolled her eyes at me. “Where are we putting it? I only want to touch it once.”
“I don’t know, I hadn’t thought of that. We shouldn’t put it outside because it might get rained on. I mean we might be able to make some money off this creepy little bastard.”
“Screw that, I was thinking the neighbor’s front lawn.”
“Jason,” Sally said and sighed. “I guess just put it in granny’s room?”
“No way, hell no. That thing is not going to be in the room right beside where I’m meant to sleep. Not gonna happen. I’m going to put it right outside those sliding glass doors on the deck. Let nature decide its fate.”
“Fine, whatever. I don’t like the idea of it being next to me either.”
I took a deep breath, grabbed it off the wall, and quickly made my way to the back door. Sally was fumbling with the lock and the door wouldn’t open.
For one horrifying moment, it felt as if something brushed against my chest. This triggered my imagination and I was sure with every fiber of my being if I were to look down at the painting he would be smiling up at me. Not with that smug look he normally has, but with exposed sharp pointed teeth. Drool would be dripping down his chin as his hunger grew. His body beginning to lean out of the...
“Hurry up!” I snapped as I felt the panic building inside of me.
“I’m trying,” she snapped back, repeatedly jerking on the door.
The painting grew heavier and I felt the brush of cool fingers against my stomach. Cold sweat broke out on my forehead and I was on the verge of throwing it when Sally laughed. She bent down and removed the metal security bar.
“Oops. Forgot that.”
Once open, I practically ran out the door and tossed the painting on the deck. My hands were frantically wiping up and down the front of my shirt. For one brief second the frame no longer felt like a frame. It felt like skin. I walked over to it and looked down; I had to see. The painting was normal, there was no creepy face, he hadn’t changed positions and the frame was the same tacky antique it had always been.
“Jesus Jason, what happened?”
“Nothing,” I snapped again.
“You sure? It doesn’t seem like nothing.”
“It just… I felt… Nothing.”
Sally watched me for a moment longer and then looked down at the painting. “I’ll order food.”
“Good idea,” I mumbled as I walked past her. I needed to wash my hands.
She gave me one last look and shut the sliding glass door.
An hour later we were sitting in the living room, eating pizza and watching Jeopardy. That was always one of granny Rose’s favorite shows. The TV was even tuned to that station.
“What is the Parthenon?”
“How’d you know?”
“I do have some smarts.” Sally raised her eyebrow at me indicating she doubted that.
We spent the rest of the show competing and in the end, she won by four points. It had been a long day and we agreed to call it a night. Our tomorrow was to see if we could finish the kitchen and living room. Neither one of us was too keen on the idea of having to come back another weekend.
My room had been exactly how I left it. Army men and GI Joe were on the shelves and desk, along with a ton of Matchbox cars. The amount of Lego pieces I found in random spots was enough to make any child happy. I added them all to my lego bin along with any instruction books I found. Now my room was nothing but boxes and a few bags of trash.
Sally’s had been the same only hers was filled with Barbies, dress-up clothes, old make-up, and costume jewelry. All of the pinks and purples were tarnished by the occasional GI Joe and Gargoyles toys. She wasn’t all girly.
I promised myself that after this weekend I would never sleep in a twin bed again. For a man reaching six feet and weighing at least two hundred and twenty-five pounds, every move sounded as if the bed was going to collapse. That is something I would never live down.
Somewhere between staring at the moon and trying not to move, I must have fallen asleep because I woke to the sound of my phone vibrating.
My mind was instantly alert when I saw it was Sally calling. “You okay,” I said in a soft voice.
She didn’t reply.
“Sally? You okay, what’s wrong?” I asked this as I climbed from the bed. There was no sound on the other end of the phone.
I turned the doorknob as slowly as I could and stepped out into the dark hallway. My heart was racing and I automatically glanced down the hallway. Thankfully there was nothing there.
Her door was unlocked and I stepped inside. Through the moonlight shining in her room, I could see she was still asleep. The feeling of unease slid down my spine like a cold finger.
‘Like the finger, I felt earlier,’ my mind offered, betraying me.
“Sally,” I whispered loudly and shook her. “Where’s your phone?”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“You just called me, Sally. Where is your phone?”
“What do you mean I called you. I left it on the kitchen counter to charge.”
The light of my phone temporarily blinded us both as I pulled up the call log to show her.
“That wasn’t me.”
They both turned as a soft thump down the hall drew their attention.
Sally sat up and touched my arm. “Someone’s in the house.”
“Stay here and shut your door, I’m going to go look.”
“What? No, dummy, we go together.”
The sound of shoes on the kitchen floor stopped any argument I might have made. I slipped into my room and grabbed the aluminum bat that was beside my bed and we made our way down the hall.
I glanced towards the living room on the right and no one was there so I stepped into it. Sally had a death grip on the back of my shirt.
She tugged it and leaned into me, “Jesus Jason, the sliding glass door is open.”
Without looking back I said, “Call the police,” and handed her my phone.
The police came quickly, but by the time they made it, I had already checked the entire house.
“I don’t see any tracks around the house and the door doesn’t look forced,” the older of the two officers said, writing in his notebook.
The younger one walked in carrying The Blue Boy. “This is the only thing I found outside. I guess they were trying to steal it and you startled them away?”
Sally and I looked at each other and then back at the painting. We had forgotten about that. The younger man’s head was cocked to the side studying the portrait. “God this is really creepy.” He set it down on the table and his hand reached out to touch it.
“Simmons!” the older cop snapped. “Come on.”
Simmons started and for a second he looked around as if confused. “Yeah.” He looked back at the portrait and he rubbed his thumbs against his fingertips, taking a step back away from it.
I looked at Sally and she was watching the police officer. He wiped his hands on his hips exactly as I had done earlier.
“Just call us back if you need us, but I think you’ll be fine. I’m guessing he already cased the house, knew it was empty and made his move. You being here probably shocked him.”
“Sure thing. Thank you, officers, I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Sally said to the men, ushering them out of the house.
She did not know how wrong she was.
“Did you notice Simmons’s reaction to the painting?” she asked the second the door was closed.
I looked back at the painting on the table. “Yeah, something seemed to catch his eye. You don’t think he sensed something off about it do you?”
Sally shrugged. “I don’t even know. I think the best thing for us to do is to toss his spooky ass back out in the yard and make sure we lock everything up.”
We took the time to go through the house and double-checked every door and window. Sally grabbed the painting and threw it out into the yard. At this point, neither one of us cared if we could make a few bucks off of it or not.
I watched her flip the latch and yank on the door a few times. She picked up the bar and made a theatrical motion of displaying the bar before stooping down to place it in place. “Voila!”
My eyebrow raised and she laughed. “What?”
“Nothing. I’m going to bed.”
“I’m oddly wired so I’m going to stay up a little while longer. Maybe I’ll pack up some of the books on the shelves. Were there any you wanted?”
“Maybe just the Tolkien’s if she didn’t get rid of them.”
“If I find them, I’ll set em aside for you. Goodnight, Jason.”
I made it halfway down the hall and something made me stop. I turned around and looked back at her. She was holding a box and the remote for the TV.
She caught me and asked, “What?”
“Nothing.” What else could I say? Should I tell her something felt off?
“Go to bed, you weirdo.”
“I’m going, I’m going.”
Within two minutes of my head hitting the pillow, I was sound asleep.
I lay on the too-small bed and stared up at the ceiling. The sun shining through the thin curtains had awakened me. It was fine though, I was ready for this whole mess to be over. “The sooner begun, the sooner done, as granny used to say.” I swung my feet onto the floor and stumbled my way to the bathroom.
The house was so quiet that I assumed Sally was still sleeping. I needed coffee so I made my way to the kitchen and I hoped that granny still had some in there. She always kept it in the freezer and I was delighted to see a nearly new bag in there waiting for me.
The coffee pot was old, but it would do the job I needed it to. Once the machine started to burble I leaned on the counter with my face in my hands. There was still so much to do, but I thought we could get the bulk of it done today if Sally didn’t sleep too late.
I walked over to the sliding glass door and looked out at the misty morning and memories of our childhood floated around my head. It was hard to believe granny Rose was dead. The thought caused an ache in my chest that I wasn’t ready to deal with so I went back to the kitchen and poured myself some coffee.
There was no sense in starting in the kitchen because I didn’t know what Sally wanted to keep. I walked into the living room to see how far Sally had gotten last night and that’s when I saw it. Sally lying on the floor surrounded by overturned knick-knacks and books. She was a strange color and my brain screamed for me to go to her.
She had no pulse and her skin was too cool to the touch. This wasn’t right. I immediately ran back to my room and called the police.
For the second time in twelve hours, the police were rushing through my grandmother’s house. Only this time there were more of them and they had brought paramedics.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware that I was standing in a wet spot. I looked down and my cup was on the floor, but I didn’t care, my focus was solely on the paramedics checking Sally over. I was frozen to the spot as the other sounds echoed through the house.
“Excuse me, sir. Mr…” The police officer stepped between me and Sally where she lay on the floor. “Mr…”
“Mitchum. Jason Mitchum.” My voice sounded weak and robotic to my own ears. I cleared my throat and forced myself to look into his eyes.
“Mr. Michum, I’m Officer Brentwood. I’m going to have to ask you a few questions. Is that okay?”
“Who is the young lady on the floor?”
“She’s my sis... My… Sally,” I cleared my throat again. “My sister Sally.”
“Is she Mitchum as well?”
“Yes, sir. She’s not married.”
“Want to tell me what happened here?”
“I don’t know. I woke up and found her like this. She was alive when I went to bed.”
That was the start of all the questions, the neverending questions.
One of the paramedics stood up and looked towards us. “Sir?”
The officer turned towards the paramedic and he shook his head. “Sir, can you come here please?”
Several things happened at once. They both went down on one knee and the paramedic lifted one of Sally’s hands and then the other, as another officer walked into the room with something in a clear evidence bag.
“Sir, you need to see this.”
I stood up and walked robotically to where they were standing. “Is that my t-shirt?”
All eyes were on me. “Jason, can you lift your sleeves for me?” Officer Brentwood’s voice was no longer pleasant.
“Sir?” I was so confused by what he was asking and why my t-shirt was in the bag. I looked down and was so confused. “I wore that shirt to bed, not this one.”
The officers stepped closer. “Jason, raise your sleeves please.”
I slowly raised my sleeves. “What the-”
Officer Brentwood cut me off. “Would you like to tell me how you got those?”
“No, they weren’t there when I went to bed.”
“Were you and Ms. Micthum arguing before bed?”
I was no longer paying attention to him. There were deep scratches down both arms. Dried blood was stuck to my sleeves and all over my arms. My mind was racing and panic was setting in. What happened last night?
“Nightmare Fuel,” I said loudly and rushed for the sliding glass door.
“Woah-woah-woah!” Officer Brentwood yelled and several other officers grabbed to stop me.
“No, wait, I have to see it. I have to make sure it’s still outside.”
The biggest officer twisted my arm behind my back and pressed me against the cool sliding door. It gave me exactly what I wanted and that was to see the backyard. Sally had thrown that horrible painting outside last night so it should be there, but it wasn’t.
“No-no-no, where is it?”
“Stop struggling, son. Where’s what and what is nightmare fuel. What are you talking about?”
I continued to struggle because I needed to get outside. I had to see the painting. With a big shove backward I managed to break free from his grip and reached for the handle. I jerked a few times and then remembered that Sally had set the bar, but one more hard jerk and the door flew open.
“That’s not right, she set the bar.” I glanced to the side and the bar was lying on the floor next to the track, but not on it.
The large policeman grabbed me from behind and swung me away from the door and down onto the floor.
“No, I have to see!” I screamed and struggled against his grip. My head turned towards the left and I froze as I saw them covering Sally’s body.
All of the fight left me and I began to cry. “Sally.”
“Cuff him,” Officer Brentwood said. He was still talking, but I couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in my ears.
As they led me through the living room and out the front door, I looked up above the TV as I had done most of my life. To my complete horror, The Blue Boy was hanging back on the wall. Back in the place where it had taunted us as children. I screamed as I saw its toothy grin.
The estate agent did one more walk through the house to make sure everything had been removed. The contractors would be there in the morning to paint the walls and replace the carpet. Once all of that was done the house would be ready for the market.
Mrs. Verny had been hired to handle the whole project and was pleased so far that everything had gone smoothly. She had been a bit worried at first at being hired to sell a house where a brother had murdered his sister. That case had been weird, there was no motive and the brother swore it was not him. At first, he made outrageous claims that it was the painting but eventually stopped speaking altogether. Right up to sentencing when he received life in prison, he simply repeated over and over, it wasn’t him.
She grabbed her keys off the counter and froze when she heard a soft thump from one of the bedrooms. Mrs. Verny glanced down the hall. There was nothing there, but it seemed a lot darker than it had a few moments ago.
A cool chill ran down her spine. ‘This is silly, it was just the house settling,” she scolded herself, straightened her back, and walked down the hallway to check out the bedrooms.
Once there she realized why it seemed darker. One of the bedroom doors was closed. She didn’t remember closing it, must’ve been her busy mind. She once more picked up her keys and headed for the living room.
Mrs. Verny was halfway through the room when she saw someone move out of the corner of her eye. “Oh my God,” she squealed and jumped.
No one was there, but that’s when she saw it. The afternoon sun was glinting lightly off the antique frame. She gasped in awe.
“The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough.” Her tone was one of almost reverence; soft and breathy.
Somehow the movers had missed it. “How lucky for me!” she exclaimed. “It’ll match my Pinkie painting.”
For years she had looked for a copy of this painting in this exact size to match her copy of Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence. Despite being twenty-four years apart in age the two portraits went perfectly together.
The estate agent touched the frame but jerked her hand away quickly. For one second she would have sworn the frame was warm and soft like flesh. She shook her head and laughed.
“Of course, it’s warm, the sun was shining on it. Stop being so silly, Marie,” she fussed at herself again.
She carefully took it off the wall and examined it. “Even the frame is the same.” After a quick glance around her smile widened. “It was meant to be so I’m taking it. I mean, it’s not like anyone will ever know and if they do question it, I’ll just write a receipt for it.”
With that settled she locked up and placed the portrait in the backseat of her car and drove home pleased with her bit of luck. At the stop sign, she glanced in the rearview mirror and made a yip of fright. For one brief moment, she thought the boy was looking at her.
With a laugh, she shook her head. “Lord, that artist was good. Those eyes seem to follow me.”