The Portrait: Part One
It was a very dark and dismal night. The moon hid behind a heavy veil of clouds; its silver light hoped to pierce through the shroud, but to no avail. If one were to look closely enough, they might see the occasional moonbeam spread across the ground. Wind howled through the treetops, and the old oaks and pines groaned. Somewhere, a Meowclops was caterwauling pitifully, until a gust of wind silenced it.
The trees were old and gnarled, with snaking limbs for arms and gaping holes for mouths. They twisted towards the sky and earth and all directions all at once. Beneath the wind’s constant assault, they made no notion that they might buckle or snap. They were as stubborn as they were ancient. Surrounding them were patches of blackened grass, long dead, now decaying. Apart from the black grass and crooked trees, there was empty brown earth. All of these things encircled the house, which was perhaps the most ancient thing of all.
The house on the hill was once called a manor, but it could hardly hold such a pleasant honorific in its current state. It was dilapidated and creaky; each gust of wind caused it to give a violent shudder. The windows were obscured by coats of grime, the grime of age and neglect. The shutters, quite dusty, had not been shut for decades. Beneath the windows of the first floor were mounds of dirt and rotted plants that had once been flowerbeds. The porch was missing several banisters, giving it the appearance of a mouth missing several teeth.
All of the lights in the house were off, save one, coming from the highest room. The glow was faint, but even so, it was the only color in the dark black night. The faint golden rays slid through the grime of the window of the highest room, enwrapping the house’s highest point in a bubble of light.
Within the room were four pets, each one quite different than the next.
The first was a shadow Grarrl, prim and refined in appearance, bedecked in navy pinstripes and clutching a brown leather briefcase. He wore a single silver ring upon his right index finger, which he displayed proudly every time he moved his hand. He was tall and well-built; a businessman by trade, his appearance was his greatest pride. He bore a somber expression, but the look in his eyes was not one of solemnity. Rather, it was one of expectation – one eager for what was shortly to come.
The second was a red Cybunny. She wore a burgundy nurse’s uniform, with a skirt that reached her ankles. A pristine white apron hung across her front. She was no slight thing, but she was proud of herself and her accomplishments – it mattered not to her how she appeared, just so long as she was making a difference. Beneath the cap that rested upon her head was a usually cheery face, presently drawn into one of great sadness; her lips were drawn into a melancholy frown, and trembled.
The third was an old striped Scorchio. He had a thick white moustache and beard, which betrayed his age. The white doctor’s uniform he wore easily identified him, as did the nametag that was pinned above his lapel. A cold metal stethoscope hung around his neck. The expression upon his face was one of both concentration and desperation – there was something he was focused on completing that he knew could never reach fruition. Sweat beaded at his silvery brow. His face was wizened, for he had seen much. His eyes glowed with vigor.
The fourth and final individual in the room was an Aisha, who lay beneath heavy white covers on a most ancient bed. She was green of color. Her face was unfathomable; her lips were drawn flat, her eyes were shut, and her breaths were ragged. Her wrinkled face, a testament of the many years she had lived, bore no emotion. Long white curls lay atop her head, splayed upon the pillow on which her head rested, which moved in rhythm with her breathing. She wore an old grey nightgown, and no jewelry.
There was one other in the room, if she could indeed be considered an individual. Above the ancient bed upon which the elderly Aisha rested was a portrait. It depicted a young pink Aisha. Her hair was drawn into glistening ringlets, each one a vivid chocolate brown. She wore a pale blue dress, the color of a cloudless summer sky. Her face held no smile, and bore no emotion at all. Her most defining trait – the one that made her seem the most lifelike – was her piercing amber eyes. They stared out from the painting and seemingly down upon all those in the room; all in the room averted her gaze, unwilling to face her.
A heavy silence hung in the room, permeated only by the hacking, desperate breathing of the old Aisha upon the bed. Finally, the Grarrl shattered it; the tone with which he spoke was professional and cold to the Aisha’s plight.
“Mrs. Prynn,” he spoke in his soft, emotionless voice, “your will is in order. I assure you, when the time comes, it will be carried out.”
The Aisha gave a great heave. With much effort, she replied, “Thank you, Mr. Fedari... As such, I no longer desire your services... Please leave.”
The Grarrl gave a slight nod. “Thank you for your business, Mrs. Prynn,” he stated, and departed from the room.
“Dr. Creed,” the Aisha said, after he had left the room, “I am... thirsty.”
“Nina, go fetch Mrs. Prynn a glass of water,” the old Scorchio spoke. His voice was firm and commanding. The Cybunny nodded in compliance, and swiftly left the room.
“Dr. Creed,” Mrs. Prynn muttered, “Thank you for all you have done for me... in these last few... weeks.”
“It has been my duty, and privilege,” Dr. Creed replied, blinking softly. Mrs. Prynn nodded. “I just hope I have made it easier for you.”
Nina returned with the glass of water, but as she offered it to Dr. Creed to take, the old Aisha gave a great heave. A hacking cough left her lips, and her eyelids fluttered open, revealing the tawny orbs behind them.
“Goodnight, Elise,” she said, without a single pause.
With that, the Aisha’s eyes shut, and she exhaled one final time. She suddenly trembled, and then was still.
Mrs. Prynn was gone.
Nina stared towards the ground, blinking hard to stop the tears from coming. Dr. Creed paused for a moment, and uttered some words beneath his breath, too softly to be heard.
“Let us depart, Nina,” he said suddenly, staring up at the young Cybunny, who merely nodded in response.
The two left the room, leaving Mrs. Prynn and the striking portrait behind.
The next morning, the town all knew what had happened to old Mrs. Prynn in her manor on the hill. As their parents discussed it in hushed whispers, children pondered the implications of her passing. Was her house any less creepy because of it? Perhaps she would return to haunt them? If anything, her death had heightened the intrigue that plagued her estate when she was alive. If indeed she was a ghost, there was more risk to sneaking inside that ramshackle old mansion – that made it all the more appealing.
“Such a sad tale,” Mrs. Violet remarked to her neighbor, Mrs. Green. The day was cold and foreboding as all winter days were, but the pets of the town still went about their business.
“Indeed,” Mrs. Green, a brown Wocky, replied. “Her life was just one tragedy after the next. Her husband disappeared, and her daughter died of illness.”
“That wasn’t the end of it, though,” the yellow Krawk replied. “She spent her whole fortune trying to find her husband, and seeking a cure for her daughter. Both efforts ended in naught.”
“Ah, yes, I do remember that as well,” Mrs. Green responded. “And then the poor old lady was under constant criticism by that nasty sister of her husband, oh, what was her name? She lives in that town nearby...”
“Mrs. Alicia Prenderghast, if I do recall correctly,” Mrs. Violet said. “She was always ridiculing old Mrs. Prynn for not finding her husband, and for her daughter’s death. As if that witch had any room to talk. Mrs. Prynn tried her hardest, but what did she do? Nothing.”
“I heard Mrs. Prenderghast was just jealous of Mrs. Prynn’s art collection,” Mrs. Green remarked. “In any case, it is true Mrs. Prynn had an extensive gallery. They all belonged to her husband, I think, but even when times got tough, she still refused to sell them. What a stout heart.”
“I feel so bad for her, sometimes,” Mrs. Violet said softly. “All the children were against her. They taunted her to no end; always sneaking into her house in the dead of night and causing a ruckus. Half of them thought she was a witch, or some such nonsense.”
“That tends to happen with children.” Mrs. Green sighed. “I should know; I am a schoolteacher.”
“Any word about when the funeral is to be held?”
“None yet, at least to my knowledge,” Mrs. Green replied. “I’ve heard it is to be a private ceremony, however. Not just anyone is going to be allowed to attend.”
“I suppose that’s good, in a way,” Mrs. Violet replied. “At least the children won’t come to taunt her.” The two pets nodded in agreement.
“There is something else, though,” Mrs. Green said. “I believe an auction is to be held, since she had such a wide art collection. All of the works in that old house of hers are to be sold, probably to pay off her debts. Truly, a sad tale; she left no heirs.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Violet responded. “She might have been a recluse, but Mrs. Prynn was truly a heroine of this town.”
Again, the two pets nodded in accordance.
“Truly, hers was a tragic tale.”
It was nighttime again. This time, the sky was clear, and not a single cloud blemished the dark surface. A ribbon of stars stretched from one end of the sky to the other, shining brilliantly. The moon was full, shedding vast quantities of opalescent light upon the ground and fields below. The houses of the slumbering townsfolk were bathed in it. The manor on the hill, too, was illuminated by the moonlight.
This time, however, there was no light in any of the windows. The house produced no interior light at all. It was quiet, and deathly still; no winds shook it this night. The shutters were still left open. The grass was still black with rot and the earth was still bare and desolate. The flowerbeds were still neglected, the trees were still gnarled, and the house was still as aged as it always was.
It was well past midnight when the two children finally reached the summit of the hill. Both now stood before the veranda, which still appeared as the gap-toothed mouth of the ancient abode.
The first and larger of the two was a yellow Usul, dressed in dark woolens. A bandana, black as the night itself, was wrapped around his head. His feet were clad in simple leather shoes, which looked fairly worn and perhaps a size too small. His hands were clad in fingerless black gloves; further examination would reveal them to be just a pair of ordinary leather gloves with the fingertips cut. The devilish gleam in his eyes was magnified by the moonlight. An air of dishonesty surrounded him.
The second child was a brown Grundo, who was the smaller of the two. He wore a black woolen cap and sweater. He also donned a pair of pale red pajama pants, which glaringly contrasted with the rest of his dark attire. He also wore a pair of simple leather shoes, which appeared to fit him fine, though they were shabby. His hands were free of gloves. There was no devious twinkle in his eyes – just one of great fear. He was trembling.
“Here we are, Quinton,” the Usul announced, gazing up towards the empty house. The gleam never left his eyes.
The Grundo made no response.
“Hey, why do you look so scared?” the Usul asked, smirking slightly. Quinton turned to him, eyes wide with fear, still trembling.
“They say this house is haunted, now that she’s gone.” Quinton gave a great shudder, and was still. He then continued. “They say that the house groans even when the winds are not blowing. They say—”
“Who cares what they say?” the Usul responded with a sneer. “They’ll all think we’re heroes, once we go into the house and come back out alive. We’ll prove them all wrong.”
“I’m having second thoughts,” Quinton stated sheepishly, staring at his feet.
“What? Oh, c’mon, don’t chicken out now, Quinton.” The Usul looked slightly vexed. “It was your idea in the first place anyways!”
“Yeah, but I never realized how creepy this house really is!” Quinton shot back. The fear was still glowing in his eyes.
“You are such a baby,” the Usul snarled.
“I’m just being cautious,” Quinton replied softly.
“What, do you honestly think that old bat is going to rise up and haunt us? I don’t believe in ghosts. There is nothing in that house. We have to prove everyone wrong. We’ll be heroes for it.”
“Why do you care so much about being a hero?” Quinton asked. “As long as I’ve known you, Nathan, that’s all you’ve ever cared about.”
Nathan turned to him with a look of sheer unbelief. “Are you joking?” he spat. “Why wouldn’t you want to be a hero?”
Quinton made no response.
The Usul took several steps towards the house. “Well, are you coming or not?” he asked, turning back to Quinton. The Grundo sighed.
“I guess,” he murmured.
The two made their way up the steps of the front porch. Each step creaked loudly as they did so. Quinton suddenly found his heart throbbing in his ears. Nathan pushed open the front doors, and within moments they were in the dusty darkness of the house’s foyer.
“How are we going to prove we went in?” Quinton whispered.
“We will prove it,” Nathan replied confidently, without lowering his voice, “by taking something.”
Quinton froze. “There is no way you are going to steal something from a dead woman’s house,” he breathed.
“What, are you going to stop me?”
Quinton mumbled something about bad luck and disrespect, but raised no further protest. Nathan, satisfied, continued through the foyer. The room was filled with cobwebs and smelt of must and age. Nathan ignored these obstacles, and Quinton followed closely behind him, having no intention to be left behind.
At the present, they were able to see from the moonlight that was reflected through the windows. As they entered the next room, however, Quinton realized the moonlight did not extend here – they would not be able to see.
“I can’t see a thing,” Nathan suddenly replied.
“Let’s go back then—”
There was a clink of metal, the scratch of a match, and suddenly there was light. Nathan was clutching a candleholder, in which rested a stub of wax with a miniscule wick. Regardless, it was lit, and produced enough light for the two of them to see.
“There is no turning back,” Nathan said, smiling, his teeth glistening in the candlelight. Quinton repressed a shudder.
“Why can’t we just take the candleholder as proof?” the Grundo suddenly interjected, his voice still a whisper.
“Because,” Nathan snapped, “we got it in this room. Anyone could just walk in here and take it. We need something that will prove we went deep inside the house.”
The two intruders continued their trek through the house in silence, only permeated by the sounds of their breathing. The deeper they went, the dustier the air became. A detail Quinton picked up on was that nearly every wall of the home was covered in paintings. Some were dusty, and many were covered in cobwebs, and the sheer quantity of them gave Quinton the creeps.
One he passed depicted a Dark Faerie, her lips twisted in an unsightly frown, her winged staff extended in one hand, her eyes smoldering with unspoken malice. The very sight of it sent chills tumbling up his spine. He could not quite get the look of her face out of his mind, and every time he blinked, he could swear he saw her staring at him from the back of his eyelids.
A countless number of rooms, two flights of stairs, and one and a half hours later, Quinton had reached his wit’s end. He was not just terrified of the house, now. He was quite tired, and the foul state of the air was doing nothing to ease his exhaustion.
Nathan, however, was much the opposite. The Usul carried on with confidence, and the toothy grin never left his lips. His stride was one of arrogance and pride. His steps never slowed, and his breathing never became fast-paced or urgent. He remained calm and collected.
In the candlelight, Quinton could see that they stood before a tall flight of stairs. From a nearby window, he realized they were no longer on ground level. In his state of fatigue, he had forgotten they had climbed two flights of stairs, and merely wondered when they left the first floor.
“Yes, let’s go home,” Quinton murmured, stifling a yawn.
“No, you twit,” Nathan snapped. “We’re going up the stairs.”
Quinton grumbled, and followed. The stairway was taller than any they had yet faced, to the extent that neither Quinton nor Nathan could see the end of it. Each step they took creaked louder than the last. Paintings of peaceful landscapes lined the walls that stood on either side of the staircase. However, they did nothing to assuage Quinton. Recognizing just how creepy his situation was, Quinton slowly found himself less and less tired, and more and more frightened.
Suddenly, they were no longer walking on steps, but standing before a door. The room they stood in was dark and incredibly musty. In the candlelight, Quinton could have sworn he saw a Spyder glaring at him from one corner of the ceiling. As he was naturally terrified of Spyders, this sent a fresh wave of chills up his spine.
“This is it,” Nathan declared, still quite confident.
Anxiety mounted within Quinton, who made no reply. Terror and apprehension peaked within him. He heard absolutely every noise the room produced with utmost precision; his tired, frightened mind interpreted each one as the groan of a spirit, the twitch of a Spyder, the cackle of a Dark Faerie. He wanted to leave, and now.
“I want to get out of here,” Quinton whimpered, unable to contain his emotions.
“Quit being such a baby! All we have left is this room. We’re deep enough in the house, now.”
Without further ado, Nathan, still clutching the stub of a candle, threw open the door that loomed before him.
The room was very dark, and both pets could see absolutely nothing within its murky depths. However, the very end of the room was illuminated by moonlight – and it was this scene that scared both Nathan and Quinton out of their wits.
For at the end of the room was the bed of Mrs. Prynn, bathed in silver light. Her bed was empty, but her bedroom was not. Hanging above it, upon the wall, completely visible in the light, was the portrait of the young, expressionless Aisha. Every aspect of her glowed silver, as if traced of mist. From her shining ringlets to her pallid blue dress, she was as grey as any specter.
One trait that remained unchanged by the moonlight, however, was her eyes. They still burned like amber coals, staring hostilely outwards, searing all who gazed into them. Both Quinton and Nathan, unprepared for such a sight, stared into those glaring eyes. The two let out a collective scream. The candleholder left Nathan’s grasp, and as it clanged upon the ground, the candle was snuffed. Both pets ignored the fact that they had lost their only source of light, as both were too busy running for their lives.
The two pets turned away from her blazing glare, leapt down the stairway, and dashed into the darkness. How they made it out without light, Quinton never could quite recall.
The only thing he could remember, and ever could remember, of their flight from the house was the portrait.
To be continued...