The painting had hung on the wall of his grandmother’s house for as long as anyone in the family could remember. Joshua walked through the house, keeping his eyes off the painting as he crossed the living room. He hated the thing. It was just a simple painting of a Victorian house. There was nothing about it that was the least bit creepy, yet it made his skin crawl to even think about it.
He stepped into the kitchen where his grandmother stood at the sink doing the dinner dishes. “Good evening, Joshua,” she said.
“Hi, Grandma,” he said, walking over and pressing a kiss to her wrinkled cheek.
“Grab yourself a glass of juice and settle into the breakfast nook. We need to talk,” she said, as she cleaned the last of the dishes.
He dropped into the breakfast nook without bothering to grab the glass of juice. He wasn’t interested in it, anyway. A few moments later, his grandmother hung the towel on the handle of the stove. She turned and spoke to him. “I know you’ve just turned eighteen, but my time is running short. So, I need to deal with these things before that time ends,” she said, sitting down on the opposite side of the nook.
He shivered. “What do you want to talk about gran?” He asked.
She took a slow breath. “There are many things I want to tell you. The biggest and most important is a secret I have told no one in over eighty years.” She hesitated. Leaning back against the wall, she closed her eyes. “I’ve lived a lie since I was sixteen years old.”
He reached out and took her hand where it lay on the table between them. “You couldn’t have done anything that bad,” he said.
“Just listen sweetie, by the end you will understand everything I hope.” She smiled, and he thought it looked forced.
“Okay gran. But know I won’t think any different of you no matter what you tell me,” he said.
She gave him a real but small smile. “Let me start by saying not everything in our family is the way it seems. One of those is that painting in the living room. It was painted by my own great grandfather. The story goes he had given it to the architect as the model idea for this house. You will notice the house that was built looks nothing like the one in the painting.”
Joshua nodded. “The house looks nothing like the one in that painting. Why didn’t they build it the way he wanted it built?” he asked.
“Because every time the architect tried to draw it out that way, bad things happened. People died and things were destroyed. Now, when he designed something different, everything was fine. So, he had them build what worked and kept the painting.” She said.
“Why is the painting important?” He asked, glancing over her shoulder and through the doorway of the living room at the painting.
“Because if you watch the painting, you can know what is happening to our family. The lights go on and off as people are born and others die. But none of that is important. What you need to know is that it has to hang in this house unless you want everything to go to hell. If it is removed, people will die.” She said.
Joshua nodded, letting his grandmother think he believed her. But he couldn’t believe that a painting could tell if people were dying or being born. “So why are you telling me this?” He asked.
She sighed. “I’m leaving you this place when I pass. The responsibility of the spirits and things in this house will be yours. It is a cost I don’t want to put on you, but I can’t risk putting it on anyone else.”
Joshua forced a smile. “Okay, gran.”
His grandmother sighed, resigned. “Let’s talk about something lighter,” she said, standing and moving to the refrigerator. Opening it, she pulled out a handmade apple pie. “How about some pie?”
He smiled and nodded. They enjoyed a piece of pie apiece, and he said his goodbyes before heading back out. As he passed the painting, he noticed the light in the upstairs windows was dimmer than normal. How he knew he wasn’t sure, but he knew it was true. He shook his head and kept walking out the front door to his car. He drove home and went about the rest of his night without another thought to the story his grandmother had told him.
He went to sleep with his mind on the plans for college and a life outside of his hometown. He woke the next morning to a strange silence filling his room. Going about the morning, Joshua put all thought of the painting and his grandmother’s stories. As he finished his breakfast, the phone rang, snapping his attention from its wanderings to the present. He walked over and picked up the receiver. “Hello?” He asked.
His mother’s voice was full of tears as she spoke. “Joshua, you need to meet me at your grandmother’s. It’s important.” She said.
“I was just there last night. I have work today. Can this wait?” He asked.
“No, it can’t wait. She passed away last night about midnight. You need to be there. She would wait for you there before they take her away. You don’t have long. Please hurry.” She said.
The story from the night before flashed through his mind, along with the mental image of the fading light in the upstairs window of the house in the painting. “Shit. I’m on my way.” He hung up the phone and raced out of the house. Climbing into his car, he wouldn’t remember the drive to his grandmother’s house when asked about it later.
He pulled to a stop at the end of his grandmother’s driveway. Without shutting the car off, he climbed back out and charged up the stairs to the front door. “Mom?” He called out.
“Upstairs,” her voice called down to him.
He followed her voice and ended up standing in the doorway of his grandmother’s bedroom. The hangings of her bed were closed, which wasn’t normal at this time of day. He swallowed and forced words out through trembling lips. “She’s still here?” He asked, nodding toward the bed.
His mother spoke with calm tones. “Yes, I couldn’t let them take her until you got here. This is your place now.” She handed him the ring his grandmother had always worn on her right thumb. It fit the ring finger on his right hand as if it had been made for it. She took his elbow and lead him back out of the room. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, she motioned for the EMTs he hadn’t even noticed to go upstairs.
“None of this makes sense, you that right, mother?” He said, even as his eyes were drawn to the painting over the fireplace. The window in the house’s upstairs in the painting was now dark. His heart dropped, and he could not pull his eyes from the image.
His mother’s voice was faint as she spoke. “This place is yours now. I will do what I can, but the responsibility is yours. She left it all to you.”
“I will honor her wishes.” The words slipped from numb lips as the weight of the reality set in. There were things far bigger than him at play.