THE MISSING PORTRAIT
Sitting on a bed in a stinky room with windows five feet above the ground I took a gulp from a bottle more expensive than the entirety of the furniture around me including the TV. My hands were so cold it felt like the bottle was freezing in their grip. Alcohol, a means of self-destruction for those who aspire to be saved before its spikes hit the target. Basically, a symbol of hope. Unlike a gun, absolute, immediate, and definitive both in its use and its consequences. The nearly poetic contrast made me smile for the first time in a very long time as I turned the weapon around carefully inspecting it from both its ends.
I tried to get my mind off the thing I knew was somewhere outside. I was hoping he would not find me here, that’s why I brought a bottle with me. On the other hand, I was prepared for the worst. Lying down on the bed I turn on the TV to help me fall asleep. There was a documentary about some African dogs. The voice behind said that these beasts are able to keep tracking their target for several days straight. The prey is always a step forward and can outrun its persecutor with ease, but a moment comes when it gets tired of running, or it gets lost, or it feels safe enough to forget about what it was running from in the first place. The beast, however, never stops until one day, when it is expected the least, it tears its prey apart in its sleep.
I fell asleep and, in my thoughts, I returned to the day I walked through that gate for the first time. The iron bars have lost their gloss under the constant pressure of time. What once was a mighty roaring lion in the crest in the center of the gate now looked like a tortured animal screaming in pain while the gate was opening outwards with a chilling squeal. I guess he was trying to get to me ever since.
Although local people called it a ruin, I could not help but wonder at the stateliness of the estate. Being raised by nuns, it was something beyond my imagination to live in such a luxury. Even the road to the town was so long only a rich man could afford to spend their time travelling it. Beyond the dense forest, down the road, there was a misty valley called Raven Island, although I never understood where that name came from.
Neither did I understand where my sudden gain of fortune came from. They found me as a baby in a waiting hall of a railway station. That’s where I got the name Henry Hall. I remember kids in the orphanage putting bugs under my sheets telling me it’s for my own good. That I should get used to that since I will sleep like that all my life. Well, where are you now? I doubt any one of you sleeps as calmly as I am about to. All thanks to a piece of paper in the mailbox with my name on it.
I slowly ascended the stairs to the front door. Or so I thought.
It was evening already when the main door shut behind me. There were four pairs of shoes stacked in the shoe cabinet next to the door along with two umbrellas. The air smelled dusty and damp, and it was quite cold in the spacious entrance hall. The last rays of sun penetrated the thick-glass windows and painted the room in a dim red light bouncing of the fancy red carpet symmetrically dividing the house into two wings. The curator told me that they were going to turn on the electricity today, but that nobody has changed the lightbulbs here in decades, so I grabbed a candlestick and lit it with my lighter.
I walked up the main staircase and took the left turn. I traversed a narrow dark corridor with a strange feeling that someone was watching me. When I pointed the candlestick to the wall, I found out it was lined with paintings – men, women, children all looking me in the eye when I approached them and all piercing the back of my skull with their gaze when I passed them.
At the end of the corridor, there was a closed door. When I came closer, I noticed there were tiny holes in the board and the doorknob looked like it didn’t belong there. I tried to turn it, but it was locked. Luckily, there was a key in the keyhole, so I unlocked the door and briefly inspected the room. It was a library. There were hundreds of books in the shelves covering the walls, a small desk beside the window, and a nice fireplace with a red-brick hearth. I was about to leave the room when I noticed something lying in the pile of ash.
I stepped inside the library and approached the fireplace. I took the object in my hand as I kneeled before the arch. It looked like a diary. It was partly burned, and the cover was deformed by the heat, but some of the pages were left unharmed. Just when I was about to open the book to read it, the lights went on, but immediately the lightbulb broke with an explosive crack and the room was covered in darkness again. I laid the book down on a pile of some other books on the desk and went off to check the lights in the rest of the house.
Some lightbulbs were working and some needed changing. The corridor was well lit now and the people on the paintings seemed less scary than before. I was thinking they were the previous inhabitants of the house given that their appearance seemed to range in time of origin.
I returned to the staircase and went on to the right wing of the building. There were paintings in this corridor as well and the people in them seemed to be quite modern looking. All of them were perfectly illuminated by the lights except for the last one. The candlestick still being in my hand, I passed every painting on the wall step by step, until I got to the one delved in the darkness. It was empty.
Behind the corridor there was another door, this time completely intact and with its original doorknob. I entered a room with a beautiful wooden four-poster bed with beautiful carvings decorating the headboard and the posts. The room was so big there was room for ten times more beds. I’ve never seen such vanity, but I guess I should embrace it as a payback for my previous life experience. On the right side of the bed, there was a large window with a view to the gate and beyond. It was getting late, so I decided to turn off the lights in the whole mansion and call it a day.
I checked all rooms of the house, the entrance hall, the library, the kitchen and the dining room downstairs, the garage behind the house, the guest room, the living room, the seven bedrooms, both wing towers, the tearoom, and the study. There was also a cellar door, but I didn’t have keys for it. I locked the entrance door and went back to the main bedroom. I crawled into bed and with a mighty blow I extinguished the candles on my nightstand and went to sleep.
I dreamt about the house and the people inhabiting it before me. I saw all the people from the paintings dressed in formal attires. They were dancing silently in the common room, no music, no conversation. They were synchronously swaying left and right and it seemed like they were shrouded in mist. I walked among them, but nobody would pay attention to me. Then they sat at the table and prepared for dinner. The servants began to serve empty platters. All chairs were occupied except for one. Nobody was there. Everybody started praying in unison. Then they all started crying hysterically. Even I cried. Suddenly a lightbulb cracked, and I woke up. It was still night, but when I looked from the window, I saw the lawn being illuminated by some light coming from the house.
I wandered off into the darkness of the corridor to locate the source of light. The portraits made me uneasy with their ever-present gaze. But there was something puzzling about the empty one that made it even more intimidating. I descended the stairs and checked the door. It was locked. I took the door to the right. It was the common room; I must have forgotten to check the lights here and my subconsciousness must have warned me in my sleep. Or so I thought. I went back to sleep.
The next morning, I decided to go to town to buy new bulbs and ask around to find out something about the house, the people who used to live here before me, or the man who included me in his will. Having no car, the trip to Raven Island took me about half an hour. I bought my lightbulbs and went on to visit the local pub. Everybody seemed to recognize I was a stranger immediately. I was trying to strike up a conversation with the men at the bar, but when I mentioned the mansion, they would all go silent.
The bartender, listening in on to my attempts, approached me. “People here are superstitious,” he said. I did not understand what he meant by that. “A family used to live there a generation ago,” he explained. “One day, they all disappeared without a word and nobody has ever heard from them since, the staff, pets and all,” he said. I wanted to learn more, but he told me he knew nothing else. The name “John Bale” said nothing more to him, than it did to me when I first read his signature on the yellow paper.
Baffled, I finished my beer and headed back to that place whose history was as mysterious as that of my own self. As I was nearing the gate, I noticed a light coming out from my bedroom. I hastened to the front door to check if somebody got in, but it was locked. I got inside and rushed upstairs, through the corridor and to the bedroom. Nobody was there.
I didn’t remember turning the light off. I must have forgotten. Or so I thought.
Driven by the bartender’s unnerving revelations, I set my mind on investigating the house to find clues that would help me shed some light on the matter. I inspected the rightmost paintings in the corridors. I figured that those people were the last living residents of the house. A man in his forties called Jeffrey Radcliffe, his wife Amanda, and a little girl called Eve. And then the empty frame. Nobody was in there. But I remembered there were four pairs of boots in the entrance hall.
My head was aching from such a mystery. I decided to focus on the father first. I started in the study. It was a room every boy would like to sneak into. There were medieval weapons and hunting rifles displayed on the walls, a large globe with expensive liquor in it, comfy leather chairs, some bookshelves, and a nice sturdy desk with some documents on it.
There was nothing much to tell me anything of substance about the man. There were some papers with the names of Raven Hill businesses written on it. It seemed like Mr. Jeffrey was an active philanthropist and that he was involved in the construction of a hospital. It seemed like he was quite popular with the local townsfolk. But when I went through the drawers, I found a letter with not such a positive message on it.
“I am going to kill you for what you have done to me.”
No signature. I guess Mr. Jeffrey knew very well who the sender was. But will I ever know?
The second night I dreamt about Mr. Jeffrey and his family. They were going down the forest road into town. It was a misty night. They were all holding hands. The father, the mother, the daughter. But the daughter’s hand was hanging in the air like there was another person holding her other hand. But there was nobody. There silhouettes gradually faded until they disappeared completely. Suddenly I found myself in the father’s study. He looked devastated, amused, angry reading the threat letter repeatedly. Every time it would be sent from a different person. A ghost of an ancient chief whose remains were disturbed by the construction of the hospital, a farmer who was forced to sell his land, a former lover of his wife who was not as rich as him.
“Tell me what happened to you,” I whispered. But he did not realize I was there.
Again, I woke up in the middle of the night. This time it was different. When I looked from the window, I noticed there were some adolescents hanging around on lawn near the well, drinking beer, making noise. I got up, opened the window, and shouted. “What the hell are you doing here?” I exclaimed. Some girl screamed and the boys started laughing. I chased after them but when I finally outside, they were already far off. I closed the gate and headed back to sleep.
That’s when I saw a movement inside the library. The damn kids got inside. Or so I thought.
I apprehensively sneaked through the house to catch the intruder red-handed. My heart was beating fast as I climbed the stairs. I headed to the library where the door was half open. The paintings watched my every step as I drew near. My heart’s pounding became so pronounced I felt it echoing through the walls, alerting the intruder of my position. I slowly opened the door and stepped in. Nobody was there. Only some books lying on the floor. There was the diary I pulled from the fireplace earlier as well. The window was open. It must have been the wind, I thought, until a cold hand touched my shoulder from behind.
Terrified to death I quickly turned around to face somebody I wasn’t expecting at all. “Laura! You scared the shit out of me! What are you doing here?” I asked as my stomach slowly returned to its natural position. “I wanted to surprise you, so I came early and sneaked in,” my wife said amusedly while embracing me. “What about the kids outside, you used them for distraction?” I asked. “I didn’t see any kids, someone’s giving you trouble?” she replied. “No, just some kids doing mischief. I don’t think they even knew someone was living here,” I concluded. Then we went straight to bed and made up for the eternity of time we had not seen each other. It was a magical night for the two of us, finally reunited and having so much space just for ourselves. Or so we thought.
When Laura got off the bed in the morning, she woke me up as well. I finally felt more relaxed having the possibility to share the house and all its mysteries with her. Laura had parked her car off the forest road so that she wouldn’t alert me of her arrival. She brought some fresh groceries, so I finally got something better to eat than canned beans. After our breakfast together, I showed her around the house. I told her she could pick any of the bedrooms for us to move into, but she liked the one I chose already because it was the place where we made love for the first time in the house. There was this spark in her eyes that told me she was really excited moving here. And with her being here, the house seemed to return to life as well. She even liked the empty portrait. She told me that one day we could hang our own picture there and that there could be more than two us in there.
We settled in. Started renovating and redecorating the house. Laura set herself up a beautiful garden behind the house. The most beautiful roses and tulips of any color imaginable. We put up new wallpapers and cleaned the carpets. I completely forgot about the circumstances of our moving here.
We were happy for once and planned our life together. Although strange things did happen from time to time. Creaky noises, lights being left on overnight, windows being found open. Often, birds would fly in through them and scare us. But all these things were inconspicuous, we didn’t really think about them and we had no reason to anticipate what was coming. Everything was fine, until one day we decided to clean the library.
It was that diary. It was lying on the ground after the stack of books collapsed the other night. I picked it up and finally opened it to read the first page. The inscription was blurry, but I managed to decipher it. It stated: “Roger Radcliffe”. Excited by this revelation I left Laura standing confused in the library and entered the corridor. I inspected every nametag on every painting one by one, but there was nobody with that name. I concluded that it must belong to the person whose portrait was missing. Laura came to ask me what happened. I was a bit hesitant at first, but I told her what I had learned about the former residents of the house. She looked at me with worried eyes. I told her everything was going to be alright.
Before we went so sleep, I had read several pages of the diary already. At least those that were intact. The boy wrote about his experiences with other family members. He was a quiet child. Parents were busy, his closest relationship was to his maid. The worst moment of his life was when his mother forgot his 10th birthday. Other kids avoided him and made fun of him for being weird. Even his parents felt like there was something wrong with him which is why there were so many strangers visiting him to talk with him. He wrote all about this in his diary. Being an orphan, I immediately felt sympathy for the child. The book was a compilation of melancholy and I had to put it off for the day. Laura had already been sleeping.
I fell asleep as well. I dreamt about the dining room. The family was now complete, there was Mr. Radcliff, Amanda, Eve, and little boy Roger. They were sitting at the table ready for dinner. Roger was facing downwards, and his face was shrouded in darkness. I could not see his facial features. Actually, after a while I realized he did not have any face. The father was angry, he was arguing with Amanda about Roger. Eve gave him a sympathetic look. “I’m so sorry, boy,” I said. “It’s okay, they don’t understand,” he replied. It startled me. “Who is he talking to again?” Jeffrey yelled in frustration and slammed the table. The voices started fading out until into an incomprehensible babble and I woke up.
It was a beautiful morning. Laura had already left the bed. I was on my way to the bathroom when I heard her scream intensely. I immediately ran to her. I found her in the dining room. What I saw knocked the wind out of me. On the table, there were pictures of me and Laura sleeping. There was a picture for every night that Laura has spent here, and, on the backside, there were inscriptions saying: “You look so beautiful together”, “Sleep peacefully”, “Sweet dreams”, etc. Every single night as evidenced by Laura’s variety of nightgowns. I called the police.
The police left us some guards for protection for this night. Laura was shocked. Someone had been watching us and taking pictures of us every night. I didn’t know what to think of all this. Before the night came, I read more of Roger’s diary. Nevertheless, I did not find any relief in it. I learned about his struggles with the so-called healers and gurus who exposed him to several traumatic scenariosin order to “cure” him. It included beating, locking him up in a cage and pulling a black veil over it, and even electroshocks. I did not know what they wanted to cure him from, his writing seemed comprehensive enough to be written by a sane, intelligent person, not a mentally challenged child. However, the last sentence of the chapter made it all clear: “I can hear voices”.
Laura was shivering in the bed, even though she dressed in much more modest and thick clothes. She told me she wasn’t going to sleep tonight. I told her she didn’t need to worry with the guards patrolling the premises, but she didn’t respond to that. The sense of security and homeliness had been broken. Nevertheless, I slowly fell asleep.
In the dream I saw Roger tied to a chair. There was no one else in the room. “Hello?” I whispered in anticipation. “Hello,” he replied. “You can hear me?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. The dream was so vivid, yet so dark. “Can you help me,” the boy asked. “I don’t know how,” I replied. “Oh, I will help you, young gentleman, don’t worry,” said the voice coming from the darkness. It belonged to a middle-aged man dressed in a lab coat. “What can I do? What happened to you and your family?” I inquired. “You will have to read all of my notes to find out,” he said while the charlatan was inspecting him curiously. “I will find a way to talk with you,” he said. “Very interesting,” said the man in the coat and put some kind of helmet on Roger’s head. Then he pressed a button and Roger screamed. And I woke up.
When I woke up, I saw Laura already standing near the door. She turned around, tears in her eyes. She was holding another picture. “I fell asleep in the morning,” she said vacantly and left the room. I showed the picture to the policemen. “All windows were closed, all doors locked, and we were on guard the whole night. Nobody could have slipped around us,” the older man said.
After that, I took Laura’s car and went to Raven Island to buy a CCTV system. I spent the afternoon setting them up around the house. I put one above the door to our bedroom, one above the corridor, one to the gate, and one to each door in the house. Laura was somewhere else. I had some time left to read Roger’s diary. He described a moment when he saw his father being affectionate with the maid. For a while he thought that she was his real mother, but later he realized this is not how things work. One day, Mrs. Radcliffe found out about the affair and the last person that cared for him was gone overnight.
Laura felt safer with the cameras set up, but she was distant anyway. She didn’t like me reading the diary all the time and indulging in fantasies when there might be someone trying to hurt us somewhere outside. I thought my dreams helped me visualize all the clues I have learned and that when I solve the mystery of the Radcliff’s, it might have something to do with all the things that happened here. I also thought it would explain how we got here in the first place.
Feeling safer being watched over, what a paradox, this time I fell asleep pretty quickly. I dreamt about our bedroom. Laura was sleeping next to me. I woke up inside the dream, the camera pointing at me. However, the door was open, and I could see the corridor behind it. There was a shadow closing in. I was afraid, but it turned out to be Roger. “You scared me,” I said. “I’m sorry,” he replied. “I need to talk to you. You are the only friend I have left,” he said. “But this is a dream. You are only in my head,” I told him. He lifted his empty face and said: “You are in your head too, what makes us so different?” He had a point. “Why can’t I see your face?” I asked, but I couldn’t even blink before his eyes, nose and mouth formed before my eyes. “Soon you will,” he replied and got up. “Wait, tell me what happens to your family!” I shouted. “I can’t tell you anything you don’t know, can I? That would be unexplainable, wouldn’t it?” he concluded and disappeared.
The next day, I decided to finish reading Roger’s diary. Laura rode off to work and I stayed in the house alone. I opened the book and read the last portion of the pages. I learned that the Radcliff’s decided to invite a priest after weeks of frustration. They were hoping it would make Roger stop seeing ghosts and hearing voices. But neither of that did work. On the next page, a surprise waited for me. It was a portrait of a boy. It must have been Roger’s auto portrait. Now his empty face got eyes and nose and mouth in my mind. Now the only empty seat at the table filled. Now little Eve held her brother’s hand. I imagined Roger talking to me in my mind. “See, I told you, you would see my face soon,” he said. “Yes, you did,” I smiled. I got an idea. I closed the book before reading the last page and ran off to the study. Picked up a piece of chalk and ran to the empty portrait. “It’s time for you to join your family,” I said and replicated the portrait from the diary.
Laura came in as I was finishing my piece. She looked rather disappointed. “What is that?” she asked unconcerned. “This is how Roger looked like. Now the gallery is complete,” I replied. “I thought we were going to have our own picture there,” she said unappreciatively. “We can put it somewhere else,” I told her and hugger her. She smiled. I was a lucky guy to have a person who tolerates my obsessions so much. After a while I finished drawing and there was a beautiful smiling face looking at me from the frame. It was time to read the last page.
I crawled into bed and took the diary with me. Laura gave me a frown. “Don’t worry, I’m almost on the last page,” I assured her and began to read. After the family’s failed attempts to cure Roger of his problem, things became tense in the house. The parents were arguing all the time and the kids were taking it harshly. The next page was burnt so I skipped to the end. I could not believe my own eyes. I wasn’t prepared for this revelation. The last sentence of the diary stated: “I killed them all.” Suddenly, I got overwhelmed with a rush of panic. “Is this real?” I asked myself. Somewhere in the back of the head I heard myself saying the answer: “Yes”.
“Is something wrong, honey?”, asked Laura. “No, just a bad ending,” I smiled and turned off the lamp.
The dream I had next was the worst of them all. I saw Roger slowly murdering every servant of the house in their sleep. “No, stop it!” I yelled, but he only gave me a brief glance and slit the throat of the butler. And he went on and on, until only his family was left. I tried to cover my eyes, but I could not move an inch. When he killed everyone, he dragged them to the cellar, locked the door and threw the key to the well outside.
When he was done, he turned the knife to me and spoke. „Now you know. Now it’s your turn. It is your fault they treated me like that. I am going to kill you for what you have done to me,“ he uttered menacingly. „You can’t do anything to me. You’re only a dream,“ I replied. „Oh, you think that will stop me? I am everywhere where no one is looking. I am everywhere where I cannot be proven,“ he said and stabbed me in the guts. I screamed and woke up.
I was terrified seeing myself gripping Laura’s throat in my hand. She was bulging her eyes at me in fear. I immediately loosened my grip. „I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!“ I yelled and staggered out of the bed to get as far from her as possible. „Something horrible is happening,“ I said to her as she was massaging her throat.
I told her everything about the book and my dreams. I told her we need to get away from here. She must have thought I was crazy. I ran to the corridor and I noticed the drawing or Roger had changed. He was angry on the portrait. „Look, look!“ I yelled. Laura was paralyzed with fear. She did not say a word. I ran to the study to check the CCTV. There were hours of footage and nobody on them. Up until 3 am, the drawing was left unchanged. Then, for a few minutes there was a white noise. After that the portrait of a good young boy has already been transformed into something evil.
„This is how he does it,“ I said to myself. „He won’t cross the line. He won’t prove himself real. He is a dream.“ But there was something I could do. I rushed outside, took an axe from the shed and went back in. Laura was frightened seeing me run with the axe. „Shhhh, it’s alright,“ I soothed her. „In the dream, he dragged them here. There is only one way to find out,“ I said as I swung the axe in the air and started to chop my way through. „No! Stop it!“ Laura yelled. I stopped the axe midair and gave her a puzzling look. „Please don’t do that. If we look inside, there will be no way back,“ she said.
I dropped the axe and kissed her forehead.
I told her to get away from me as possible without telling me where she is. “If you want to contact me, I’ll be in the place where we stopped on the way here.” I thought this was the only way of keeping her safe. Roger was with me all the time. Every time I fell asleep, he spoke to me. Every time I didn’t remember turning off the light, it was on. Every time something happened that was improbable, but not impossible, I knew it was him. Trying to get to me. Letters were coming with his portrait and a message in the envelope. But only when there was no way to trace its origin. Otherwise, it would be unexplainable, don’t you think?
I took another gulp from the bottle.
One day a letter came with his portrait and an earring. The message said: “You know where to find us.” I panicked. He somehow must have got to Laura. Or so I thought. I took one last gulp from the bottle and threw it in the bin. I made sure the gun was loaded and I headed back to the mansion to do what was necessary to protect my wife.
The lion squealed once more as I opened the gate. I ascended the stairs and opened the main door. There she was. Laura. She was standing in the middle of the entrance room, tears in her eyes. She smiled and ran to me. She held me tight and from her pocket she pulled out a piece of paper. It was a page from Roger’s diary. I read it.
It said that after the numerous failed attempts at curing Roger, the parents decided to leave the house for good without telling anybody so that the ghosts of the house would not follow them. The first few lines explained why Roger had written: “I killed them all”. He abandoned all the voices for a chance for a new life. He would not be controlled by them anymore. He wasn’t in this house anymore. He was somewhere else, possibly still alive. Living a happy life.
Now it was a chance for a happy life for the two of us as well. We never looked what was inside of the cellar. I boarded the door up and we returned to our modest home and way of living. I never took interest in finding out what my past was again, and Roger never returned in my dreams. We made sure to switch every light off before sleep. In a small flat, it was easier to keep track.
Laura never told me where she found the last page. In the end, I chose to believe that she did not write it herself. It is up to you to choose what you believe. But beware of the consequences. Remember that Roger is now in your head as well.
Published: 5 months ago
Unique readers: 28
SHORT STORY: The Missing Portrait
Possible but highly improbable events are scarier than those that you know are impossible. You can't miraculously gain wealth without there being a catch. This is a first short story I have ever written.
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