This is the third installment of a story I’ve been throwing up here on the blog, just for the fun of it. If this is the first time you’ve seen it, I recommend starting in the beginning, which you can find HERE. I know I had said this would be the final chapter, but the story doesn’t seem like it wants to end right now, so I guess we’ll see.
I thought about that drawing for weeks, the image burned in my mind. Her finger up to her lips.
One night, after my wife had fallen asleep, I crept up into my daughter’s room. She was asleep, but her breathing was labored. Her allergies were coming on hard – swelling eyes and raspy breathing – and none of the usual medicines were doing any good. I pulled the blanket up and covered her arms, kissed one of her rosy cheeks, then turned to the picture. I hadn’t looked at it since the day we had moved in.
I picked it up and carried it over to the window so that I could see it more clearly in the moonlight. There she was: the large eyes, the cute little bonnet, the parasol over her shoulder. And that hand behind her back.
She didn’t say anything, though, not this time. She just looked at me, as if she was waiting for me to ask the right question. I took the picture back downstairs, down through the second level, down to the first level, through the kitchen, and then down to the cellar. That first step was a long one, and I reached my foot down to meet it.
I left her facing against the rough stone walls of the basement. I closed the basement door. I locked it. I slept much better that night.
* * * * *
A few days later I set out to clean the gutters that lined the front of our house. All around me the city of Virgil was alive with morning commuters and beeping traffic. The air was heavy and humid, and thunderclouds gathered in above the brick buildings, filling in all the negative space. It would be another warm day, and then it would pour, and then it would be another cool night.
The gutters had been neglected for so long that small plants had begun to grow in the dirt and leaves. I propped my ladder up against the metal surface, then climbed up, rung by shaking rung. I got to the top and gripped the edge of the gutter tightly with one of my gloved hands and used the other to scoop out all that muck and then drop it on to the sidewalk below.
Through the window to my daughter’s room, I could hear her coughing, and it concerned me. I made a mental note that we would have to take her to the doctor that afternoon. She didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound like “just allergies.”
I slipped and the ladder shifted to the side. My heart rate spiked and I grabbed on to the gutter with both hands. Thunder rolled in the distance. Small spits of rain started falling, and I could hear each heavy drop, spaced out, like the ticking of a clock. The morning traffic had died away, and the coming storm had emptied the streets.
“Whatcha doin’ up there, mister?” a voice asked, the voice of a little boy. I steadied myself and looked over my shoulder.
“Cleaning the gutters.” I turned back to the job at hand.
“I’m just taking a walk.”
“You know it’s going to storm, right?” I said to him over my should, without looking down.
“Do I know you, mister?” the boy asked.
I turned again and stared at his face. He did look kind of familiar. He had jet black hair that fell down over his dark eyes. He was pretty scrawny, the corners of his shoulders poking against his t-shirt. He was like a bunch of sticks held together by cloth.
“I don’t know. Do you live close by? Maybe I’ve seen you around.”
He laughed. Then his eyes grew big and his voice got all excited.
“You’ve had the picture!” he said, the same way a little boy might talk to a famous athlete once he recognized him.
“The picture?” I asked, but I knew what he was talking about. Right away. I knew.
“Man, you shoulda kept that thing,” he said. Then he shrugged and started walking away.
“Hold on!” I said. “Just a second.”
I started scurrying down the ladder but my foot got caught up in one of the rungs, and I fell backward in that slow motion movement that happens when something is going terribly wrong and you know it but it’s too late to stop it. My back hit the sidewalk, and I almost passed out. The impact knocked the breath out of me, and my vision got fuzzy. Red and black explosions. I thought if I stood up it would keep me from passing out, but I didn’t get any further than rolling over on to my stomach.
“You okay, mister?”
I nodded, gasping for air that didn’t come. The boy stood there quietly, oddly unaffected by my fall. Most kids his age would have been scared, or would have run for help, but he just stood there. Then he bent down and patted my shoulder.
“You’ll be okay,” he said. “You should have been more careful.” He wasn’t talking about the ladder.
“What do you know about the picture?” I asked, still gulping in air.
“It’s a shame you got rid of it,” he said. Where did he get this idea that I didn’t have it? And how did he know I had it in the first place?
“Have you been spying on us while we were moving in?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said, standing up and shrugging. Just then we both heard my daughter coughing from the upper floor window. It was raspy and deep.
“Like that,” he said, shrugging again. “She coulda really helped you with stuff like that.”
“Stuff like what? Who could have helped me?”
He sighed, then turned and walked away.
“What do you know about the girl in the picture?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, stopping and turning towards me. “The picture’s gone now.”
“You wait right here,” I said. “I’ll go get the picture. Then you have to tell me about the girl.”
I ran inside, back through the house, then down into the cellar. My back was tightening up from the fall, and that made me limp. But when I got to the bottom of the steps, the picture was gone. Nothing but a blank stone wall where I had left it. I ran back up the stairs.
“Georgie!” I shouted. “Where are you?”
“Up here,” my wife said from the middle level, and I ran up the stairs.
“Where’s that picture?” I asked, dashing into the room, limping, breathing heavy. She looked at me as if I might be losing my mind. I wondered if I was.
“You know what picture. The girl. The one I don’t like.”
“Oh, that one,” she said, smiling. “I’m sorry I’ve been trying to force that picture on you. I was thinking more about it, and, you know, if you don’t like it, we don’t have to hang it up.”
She moved towards me and put her hand on my waist, drew me close.
“This is your house, too,” she said.
“So where is it?” I asked.
“The picture? There was some kid in the alley,” she said, turning away from me. “I set it out back by the trash, and he asked if he could have it, so I said sure, take it.”
“It’s gone?” I asked, and I’m surprised I could even get those words out. I had never been so devastated in all my life.
“What wrong, Jim?” she asked.
“Did he have black hair?”
“The kid you gave the picture to.”
“Are you okay?”
“Did he have black hair?” I asked again. She squinted and looked at me through questioning eyes. I could see she was beginning to wonder if I had gone over the edge.
“Did he?” I asked for the third time.
“Yeah, I guess he did.”
I turned and ran down the steps, out the front door. The rain came down heavy and lightning split the sky. Drops fell from each rung of my ladder and trickled down the sides of it, like small waterfalls. I looked both ways, deep into the city of Virgil. Nothing.
I ran out into the rain and looked across the street, down one of the long, side alleys that some cars used as a through street. There he was, the boy with the black hair, walking slowly away from me. I dashed from the sidewalk and into the road. I never heard the car. I never even felt the impact when it hit me.
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