The first chapter of a novel trying to be born.
|The Picture on the Wall
I pulled off of the deserted highway onto a rough gravel road, shut off the engine and climbed out of my car. As I stared across the field at the red-roofed white farm house, feelings and memories flooded over me. That farm house had belonged to some strangers for a decade, but it was the house my grandmother and mother both grew up in. It was the house in which my large family collected for holidays during my childhood. Most of the memories which filled my mind were of happy times running across the fields with my cousins but the one overriding memory and the one which brought me across the country to this piece of wind-swept prairie was much less cheerful and much more troubling. I thought I was free of the bizarre scenes I experienced in that house, that they were just the product of the over-active imagination of a child, but recently I had been shown very directly that they were not. They had a much more significant and real meaning and an origin far beyond a child's mind.
One night forty years earlier was my last childhood encounter with the demon which had recently come back to me with a much clearer and more disturbing message. I had used every possible tool in my admittedly limited arsenal to avoid having to go to bed, becoming more tense and strident as every effort was brushed aside by mother. The vinyl feet of my flannel pajamas made scuffling sounds on the oak floor as I wracked my brain for a good excuse to delay the inevitable.
“Can I have a drink,” I asked. It even sounded lame to me as I heard the question come out of my mouth, but it was the best I could come up with at the time.
My mother was in a good mood and on her best behavior since she was surrounded by my grandparents, aunts, uncles and several of my cousins of various ages and in the house where she grew up. As oldest grandchild, even I was aware of how my grandparents spoiled me and knew they would both come to my rescue if my mother were overly harsh with me. Besides, my mother was having too much fun catching up on the events of the past year with her siblings to let herself feel any impatience with my silliness. “No, you can’t have a drink. You just had one and you drank a soda with your supper. You’ll wet the bed if you drink anything else.”
I was embarrassed that she would even mention such a possibility. “I haven’t wet the bed in ten years.” I was trying to draw her into a conversation to prolong the inevitable.
“You have too. You are twelve now and the last time you wet the bed you were seven.”
I blushed deeply. What a thing to say in front of my cousins and my favorite aunt and all of my relatives. My grandfather was good enough to ignore her accusation, but I saw my grandmother raise an eyebrow and two of my girl cousins giggled. I quickly realized my mother was right, but I couldn’t let this stand. “No way. I quit wetting the bed when I was two or maybe three. No way I wet the bed when I was seven.”
She realized my dilemma and decided to have mercy on me and let me save some of my dignity. “Well, maybe you are right, but I know what you are doing. You can’t have a drink and you can’t distract me from sending you to bed by arguing with me. You get to bed now.”
“Okay,” I said resignedly, hanging my head and half turning toward the hallway that led to the room I was assigned every time we visited my grandparents. Then I had another thought and turned back to my mother. “Can I sleep in yours and Dad’s bedroom? I could make my bed with some blankets on the floor and I promise not to bother you.”
“No, you can’t sleep in our room. You have a good bed in your bedroom and that is where you are going to sleep.” Her hint of a puzzled scowl showed me that she didn’t know why I would make such a silly request, but that I was trying her patience to the point that she was going to lose her temper with me.
“Okay,” I said, realizing that further resistance was futile. My vinyl PJ feet shuffled down the hall to the bedroom. I had to gather courage before I slowly turned the doorknob, opened the door and turned on the light. Filled with fear and dread, I lifted my head to look at the small picture on the wall beside the bed. It was only a crummy aged print of a painting of a dirt road running between nondescript trees. I knew that this was only a disguise for something much more sinister, though. I stared long at it, then quickly reached for the light switch, flipped it off and threw myself into the bed, jerking the covers up over my head.
I lay motionless under the covers as the minutes dragged on, then slowly, very slowly exerting all of my will to face my fears, eased the covers down. I felt cold air on my forehead in a line creeping down as it slowly emerged from the covers. Finally the covers were down to my nose, no longer hiding my eyes. I slowly opened my eyes and looked up at the picture. It was just a dark, shadowy square on the wall in the feeble light coming through the window. I stared at the shadow until sleep finally took me.
Some time later after the rest of the family had gone off to bed and all was otherwise quiet, I snapped wide awake, feeling a presence in the room, a strong, ominous presence. Once again, the same as every other time I slept in that room, the picture was no longer a picture. It had become a hideous head, a red, scaly, horned head whose horrible eyes burned into my brain. As always, he said nothing, but burst into roaring laughter. I jerked the covers over my head, the laughter ringing in my ears and shivered under the covers until dawn. I might have slept at times, but don’t think I did. Finally, when I could see the cold light of dawn creeping in around the edge of the covers I eased my head out and looked at the picture. Once again, it was nothing but the picture of a road disappearing into the trees.