‘One Year Earlier’
They are close. Closer than they have been before, these foolish near-adults who dare each other on with their whispered obscenities and angry gestures. Do they not see the charred remains of what was once a family home? Do they not brush up against the imposing wire fence and signs that read ‘Danger Do Not Enter’?
Clinging to the boards that blindfold the ghostly dwelling are the claws of an old wisteria that now wraps itself around the building. The derelict house cares nothing for the adolescents who trip fearlessly up to its front door. The stench of burnt wire and rubber is already irritating their airways. The house has no neighbours and sits uncomfortably close to the edge of the moor. The landscape resembles an ocean of black ash but the teenagers bring torches and matches with them; things that they know will get my attention. I wonder at their stupidity. It’s not as if they haven’t heard of the ‘curse’ before. They are all too aware of who I am.
Am I not the reason they are here now? Why they have been hovering these last few wintry nights, staring up at what is left of the blackened walls as they try to drum up the courage to do only what the reckless young will.
Like them, I, too, have been waiting. I have also been listening out for the sound of their car racing on gravel. I liken myself to a faithful dog grown accustomed to the sound of its master arriving home. But unlike a faithful dog, I do not know what it is to be surrounded by family and a sense of belonging; so when at last I see their torches eerily lighting up the room, I feel no pity.
Suddenly, one of the torch lights swings around to investigate the burned-out remains and there is a sharp intake of breath that I do not think is mine.
‘Fuck,’ the first boy wears a woollen hat pulled tightly over his ears. The second wears a look of superiority.
With them is a young girl with Bambi-sized eyes.
‘They say he died right here on the floor.’ The superior boy’s arrogance leads me to suspect he comes from a privileged background and I despise him all the more for it. Meanwhile, all three gawp at a spot on the floor – imaginations in overdrive as they conjure up delightful images of dead bodies.
‘That no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get out because none of the windows or doors would open.’
‘Fuck.’ The woollen hat boy is easily impressed and the superior boy relies on his fear, as if it were an addiction.
‘The cursed painting was found lying next to him… the only thing to survive the fire.’
‘And there’s our man… or should I say – boy?’ At last, superior boy’s torch comes to a dramatic halt on my face.
Bambi-eyed girl buries her head in the woollen hat boy’s chest as if she cannot bear to look upon me, even though I was once thought beautiful and admired by many.
‘They say anyone who damages the portrait will reawaken the curse and never get out alive.’ It dawns on me then that although the superior boy is enjoying himself, he doesn’t really believe in the ‘curse’, not yet. Not like the other two, who at least have the sense to be in awe of me.
Superior boy takes out an aerosol and sprays a green cartoonish moustache on my upper lip. All three wait for something horrific to happen. And when nothing does – ‘This is a load of shit.’ Bambi-eyed girl breaks the spell and superior boy collapses with hysterical laughter.
I know little of such laughter. It has been shockingly absent from my life. There have been tears of course and smiles, but a few. I do not know of any kindness, either, but I am aware that the other two have turned away from me (as many before them have done) and only the woollen hat boy’s eyes are on me now. I feel such contentment when I see his expression change from relief to horror.
The other two swing around, follow his gaze and stare in disbelief as they watch the moustache fade to nothing in front of their eyes.
‘No fucking way, man.’ The superior boy reminds me of a poisoned rodent with his grey skin, gaunt body and twitching face. He takes out a box of matches from his pocket and shakes them at me.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t,’ Bambi-eyed girl pleads.
‘Maybe we should.’ Superior boy strikes a match and the scent of sulphur seems to restore his confidence. Although my breath is invisible, it finds its way toward the flame just as easily as any human’s. And the light goes out… to be replaced with the muffled sound of a child crying. The sound echoes around the dilapidated building and appears to come from above and below us. I have grown good at this kind of deception as I have had many years to practise. So good, in fact, that I find I can be anywhere at a moment’s notice.
Bambi-eyed girl grabs hold of the superior boy’s arm but he has no intention of saving her. I can see it in his self-serving eyes.
Then, the patter of feet vibrates above us – the sound of a child’s footsteps running out of one room and into another. I shut my eyes for a second and take delight in what they must be imagining – the glimpse of yellow hair and flash of cornflower blue iris.
All three teenagers stare up at the condemned ceiling and follow the movement around the upper floor. The sound gathers momentum as the owner of those footsteps starts to descend the stairs. Panicking, superior boy takes out a lighter and with trembling fingers, holds it dangerously close to my face.
We lock eyes and I can see his confusion as it dawns on him at last that I am not just a painting – or a myth.
‘Burn, you fucker.’
There is a whoosh of flames as the lighter explodes into an angry ball of fire. Superior boy’s hand is on fire. He screams in agony and beats the flames out with his other hand. The Bambi-eyed girl stands among the debris and screams as if she has been practising this moment all her life.
‘Fuck. I fucking told you, man.’ Woollen hat boy grabs hold of his friend and propels him toward the door. Not wanting to be left behind, Bambi-eyed girl quickly follows.
Now they are gone, the house is mine once again and I wouldn’t swap the smell of burning for the finest of perfumes.
I have heard it said by some that the purpose of a painting is to capture a moment in time. Others argue that the intention is to express an emotion. And still others say it is to make a connection with the living. But what if its purpose is to do all three?
MYSTERY & SUSPENSE WRITER Jane E James weaves supernatural elements through her novels to create chilling reads that appeal to fans of psychological thrillers & dark fiction.
Jane has always been interested in dark, disturbing subjects and finds damaged and dysfunctional people far more intriguing than ordinary, everyday characters, especially unreliable narrators who never let truth get in the way of a good story.
She enjoys living ‘the good life’ in the Cambridgeshire countryside with her husband but can mostly be found with her head in a book or writing at her desk with a Jack Russell Terrier curled up at her feet. Rebecca, Carrie, The Woman in Black and Wuthering Heights are among some of her favourite reads.
A long walk in the woods or a stroll along the coastline is what inspires her to write but most of her ideas come when she is relaxing in the bath with a glass of wine. Not being afraid of ‘being afraid’ is another of the forces that drives her. She says she writes what she likes to read and makes no apologies for that.
Visit her website www.janeejames.com or catch up with her on facebook and twitter. But bring Monster Munch and wine..