The Magic Collector Preview
A year after his young son Xander’s death, a painter set about to do something terrible.
He set his old wooden easel in the center of his studio, a good-sized room on the second floor of his home. A home once filled with love and a beautiful wife, with friends that visited almost daily. Now it was abandoned. Everyone else had moved on after Xander’s death.
Everyone but him.
The painter gathered his paints and paintbrushes, mixing his colors carefully. Then he placed a large canvas on the easel, and got to work.
He outlined a shadowy head, then a body. A hand stretching out, reaching for him…even as it fell away, deeper into the canvas. Then deep, dark blue water that filled the entire canvas, save for the very bottom. On this he painted the edge of a wooden raft, slick with puddles of water.
And in the reflections of these puddles, he painted children running toward the edge of the raft, faces struck with desperation…and horror.
At the very surface of the water, around the shadowy figure reaching for him, he painted violent ripples that expanded outward. As if something had just plunged beneath the surface.
The painter stopped, the pain too unbearable to continue.
He went to the small window in his studio then, one overlooking a wide expanse of backyard. And beyond that, a lake. Moonlight splashed over the water in ghostly silver ripples, the sun having long since buried itself below the horizon. He lowered his chin to his chest, closing his eyes.
I’m sorry son.
Tears trickled down his cheeks, dripping onto his paint-smudged shirt. He turned back to the painting, walking up to it and stretching his arm out to the figure reaching for him. If he’d only been a minute earlier, he could have…
He took a deep breath in, centering himself. Then he put brush to canvas, forging onward.
He filled in the dark figure’s details. An eight-year-old boy’s bare chest, a pair of blue shorts. Skinny legs and bare feet. A head of short brown hair, large brown eyes.
Frightened eyes. Desperate, filled with terror…and hope.
The painter almost stopped again, his guts twisted with grief. More tears blurred his vision, and he wiped them away, pushing past his feelings. No…using them. He painted as if possessed, the story of the painting flowing from his heart and through his brush, so that it might find life on his canvas.
A mouth open in a silent scream, bubbles of air rising from it in a horrible torrent. Life-giving air leaving the boy, rising to the surface even as he sank deeper into the deadly lake.
The painter cried out then, a tortured sound that filled the studio. But still he painted, the strokes at times angry, then bitter. Loving, then guilty. Every stroke a memory, an emotion. Every layer of paint a layer of his soul.
And then, at long last, as the sky outside began to brighten, the sun promising to peek above the waters of the lake any moment now, the terrible deed was done.
The painter stood before his work, studying the painting carefully. His son Xander, reaching out to him, fingers seeming to leap off of the canvas. A painting so vibrant it almost seemed real.
He stared at his son’s face, twisted with horror, desperate to be saved…and extended one hand toward his son’s, reaching for the boy. His fingertips touched the canvas, pressing against it. He blinked in surprise, not expecting the resistance, and withdrew his hand.
It’s not real.
He stared at the boy’s face, that angelic face. A face burned into his memory. Trusting that his father would always be there, that if anything bad happened, daddy would save him. But daddy hadn’t been there. Daddy hadn’t saved him.
The painter’s eyes went to the bottom right of the painting, at the surface of the raft. Then they dropped to the palette in his left hand…and to a fine-tipped paintbrush lying on the floor nearby.
He swallowed in a dry throat, his heart starting to race.
It’s not real, he reminded himself.
But he found himself kneeling down, reaching for the paintbrush. His hands trembled as he stood, dipping the tip of the brush into the white splotch of paint on his palette.
He faced the canvas, his whole body quivering now, his heart hammering in his chest.
He took a step forward, leaning over and pressing the tip of the brush against the canvas. Before he could change his mind, he cried out, signing his name in quick, sure strokes, each letter perfectly executed.
A gentle breeze caressed him from behind.
He stood then, staring at the painting. And in that moment, he didn’t care about the consequences. Didn’t care about what might happen to him. He felt a sudden sense of peace…a feeling he hadn’t felt since…
The painter smiled, reaching out to the painting again, his fingertips touching the canvas.
And passing right through it.
He felt a familiar warmth in his fingers, spreading to his hand as he plunged it into the painting. A warm, pulsing sensation, along with a subtle tingling, as if his hand had started to fall asleep. His wrist vanished into the painting, and then he felt his hand touch something warm and soft.
He drew a sharp breath in, then pressed his own palm against it, marveling at the resistance. Then he hesitated, but only for a moment. Reaching in further, he went past the palm, feeling his fingers wrap around a small, bony wrist.
He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath in…and pulled.
Bella jerked upright with a start, her eyes snapping open. She realized she was sitting in her desk at school…and that a hand had slammed down on her algebra book, jolting her out of a particularly pleasant daydream. Bella stared at the hand, following it upward. A thin, almost skeletal wrist. A black sleeve. A thin, wrinkled neck. And the face of a dreadfully thin, middle-aged woman staring down at her, pale lips pursed in disapproval.
“What did I tell you about daydreaming in my class, Miss Brown?” the woman inquired. Bella stood up straighter, warmth spreading across her cheeks. Everyone in the class was staring at her…and a few were snickering.
“Sorry Mrs. Pittersworth,” she mumbled. Mrs. Pittersworth lifted her hand from Bella’s book, crossing her arms over her chest. She held Bella’s gaze for a moment longer, then turned away, walking back to the front of the room. Bella let go of a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, wiping sweaty palms on her thighs. She felt the eyes of her classmates still on her, and pretended to ignore them, glancing at the clock on the wall.
She sighed, groaning inwardly.
For while her daydream had seemed to go on for hours – a silly fantasy involving a mushroom forest and a sparkling lake, with dragons flying in the air all around her – only five minutes had passed in the real world. And there were far too many more to go before the last class of the day was over.
Bella stared at the black hands of the clock on the wall as Mrs. Pittersworth droned on. The hands made no sound in real life, but in her imagination they rang loudly between each dreadful pause in their movements, celebrating every hard-earned step in the laborious passage of time.
Mrs. Pittersworth paced in front of the classroom, reciting almost verbatim from the textbook she held. But try as she might, Bella couldn’t focus on what Mrs. Pittersworth was saying for more than a minute or so. She found her mind wandering again, and soon her eyelids grew heavy.
Focus, she scolded herself.
Bella sighed, opening her notebook. On the left page were various algebra problems, and on the right a half-finished sketch of a dragon standing next to a teenage girl. The girl was Bella herself. Slender, with dark skin and long, curly black hair pulled back into a ponytail. The dragon was one she’d drawn hundreds of times before, if not thousands. It was no ordinary dragon, the ones with pretty golden scales and elegant wings and such. No, this dragon had no scales whatsoever. Or much in the way of flesh for that matter. It was a skeletal dragon, pinpricks of ghostly light glimmering from deep within in its eye sockets. Bony wings spread outward magnificently from its back, skeletal fingers connected by inky-black skin. The dragon stood between the girl and a menacing figure; a tall man cast entirely in shadow, wielding a long, slender sword that glowed with an eerie light.
She gazed at the dragon – her dragon – for the moment forgetting the tortuous passage of time.
“Now, if you turn to page fifty-seven,” Mrs. Pittersworth instructed, her voice practically quivering with anticipation, “…you’ll find your very first quadratic equation!”
Bella glanced at her textbook, flipping to the appropriate page. Not because she was particularly interested in what it had to say, but because she didn’t want to get caught not paying attention again. The last thing she needed was another day of detention. It was obvious that teachers knew how absolutely awful school was; the worst punishment of all was to give you more of it.
She turned to gaze out of the tall, narrow windows to her left. Stately trees stood in a sea of grass, their red and orange leaves fluttering in a slight breeze. The year was dying, its long, cheery days – and the freedom they’d brought – but a wistful memory now. Dark, dreary days were ahead, cold and devoid of life, with no end in sight.
Bella sighed again, returning her attention to her dragon. She picked up her pencil and started filling in a few details. Long bone-colored horns atop its head. Short spikes on each vertebra of its spine. Each finger and toe terminating in a deadly black claw. And, as always, a heart-shaped ruby amulet embedded within its long breastbone.
Bella hesitated, then drew a jagged crack in the center of the ruby, touching her chest with her other hand. She felt the same amulet there, resting against her breastbone.
She barely heard her teacher, continuing to draw, finishing her dragon’s tail. It was long and thin, curling around its feet.
She jerked her head up, staring at Mrs. Pittersworth from across the room. Mrs. Pittersworth stared right back, her hands on her narrow hips. She did not look pleased.
“Are you doodling again?” her teacher snapped. Bella grimaced. There was no point in lying; Mrs. Pittersworth would march right up and snatch the notebook away to see for herself.
“Yes Mrs. Pittersworth,” she mumbled.
“Show me,” Pittersworth commanded, extending a hand. Bella sighed, grabbing her notebook and getting up from her desk, walking dejectedly to the front of the class. She heard snickering from her classmates.
“Here,” she muttered, handing the notebook over. Mrs. Pittersworth studied the drawing, her lips pulled into a thin, disapproving line. Then she handed Bella the notebook, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Do you think you’ll be able to make a living doodling dragons, Bella?”
More snickers from the back of the classroom.
“No Mrs. Pittersworth,” Bella mumbled, lowering her gaze to her feet.
“Then I suggest you pay attention during class,” her teacher counseled. “Look at me when I talk to you!”
Bella lifted her gaze reluctantly.
“How many times have I warned you Bella?” Mrs. Pittersworth demanded. “And still you don’t listen. So now we’ll be spending some quality time together at detention.”
Bella nodded mutely, walking back to her desk and slumping back into it.
“Weirdo,” someone whispered from behind.
Bella felt her cheeks grow warm, and did her best to ignore the eyes she knew were on her. She glanced at the clock, its hands seeming to move even slower than before.
She gave a heavy sigh, turning her attention to her algebra book and doing her best to listen to her teacher. Time stretched outward before her, a veritable infinity of drudgery. First school, then a job, forever a slave to the clock. Always waiting for something better. For a tiny sliver of freedom at the end of the day, where she could finally be herself…without anyone yelling or snickering at her for it.
She’d been so close, a mere twenty minutes away. But now there would be many more ticks and tocks before she was finally free of the clock.
Bella plodded up the spiral staircase toward the third floor of her apartment building, her overstuffed backpack threatening to pull her backward and send her tumbling down the stairs. A heavy sigh escaped her, the weight on her shoulders both literal and figurative. For though she had finally managed to escape that horrid prison they called high school, she was not truly free from its clutches. A monstrous amount of homework was waiting for her, cackling from its lair within the dark recesses of her backpack.
It offered a grim choice: a quick death by yanking her down the stairs with its awful weight, or the slow, painful disintegration of her soul.
She chose the latter, trudging along until she’d reached the third-floor landing. A dull brown door greeted her, the paint scuffed and peeling. Stepping up to it, she knocked precisely thirteen times, in the rhythm she’d long since memorized.
There was no answer.
She counted to herself, reaching thirty-three, then knocked again, seven times.
“Yes?” a deep, muffled voice inquired from beyond the door.
She recited the following passage:
“A dragon circle,
White and good,
Will one day rise
There was a click from beyond the door, followed by a thunk, then another series of clicks. The door swung open, revealing a short, narrow hallway beyond…guarded by an old man. He would’ve been tall if the weight of time hadn’t bent his spine. Time had been similarly cruel to his short curly hair and haphazard beard, draining them of their color until they were stark white. He wore a ratty brown sweater and gray sweatpants that’d grown far too big for him…the same ones he’d worn yesterday, she noted with dismay. His dark brown skin was lined with wrinkles, only his eyes carrying the spark of life. They peered at her from behind golden spectacles, then past her to the stairwell beyond.
“You’re late,” he accused in a deep, rich baritone, the kind of voice that could fill a room and send chills down your spine. “Are you…?”
“I’m alone Grandpa,” she confirmed wearily, pushing past him and into the hallway beyond. She kicked off her shoes, setting them neatly against the wall, then slid her backpack off, letting it fall to the floor with a thump. Grandpa shut the door quickly, re-engaging the ridiculous number of locks he’d installed on it.
“Did anyone follow you?” he asked, turning from the door and putting his hands on his hips. She sighed.
“Did you see any police?” he pressed.
“No Grandpa,” she repeated, rubbing her aching shoulders. “You met that friend of yours again, didn’t you,” she accused. He was always like this afterward.
“You’re sure you didn’t see any…”
“Grandpa!” Bella exclaimed exasperatedly. His shoulders slumped.
“Fine,” he mumbled. He eyed her for a moment. “Caught doodling again?” he guessed.
“Show me,” he requested, holding out a hand. She sighed, kneeling down to rummage in her backpack. She found her notebook, handing it to him. Grandpa flipped to the proper page with a practiced hand, peering over his spectacles at it. “Hmm, it’s good,” he admitted.
“Mrs. Pittersworth didn’t think so.”
“Bah,” Grandpa scoffed, giving her a look. “Only concern yourself with what people who think think,” he counseled. “Believe me, they’re few and far between.”
Bella smiled at that. Grandpa had a low opinion of most people, Mrs. Pittersworth included. He often mused on how he’d spent the first part of his life trying to make friends…and the remainder trying to get rid of them. He must’ve done a good job, seeing as how he only had one friend left in this world…and Bella, of course. He could stand to have more, she knew. As it was, all he did was sit at his desk and write books that he wouldn’t let anyone read. He left their tiny apartment a few times a year at most, even paying their downstairs neighbor to go grocery shopping for him. It was profoundly unhealthy if you asked her, but trying to get Grandpa to change was like smashing her head repeatedly against a brick wall: the only thing she got out of it was a splitting headache.
“Guess I’ll be in the dining room,” she sighed, grabbing her backpack by one strap and lugging it out of the narrow hallway and across the living room. “Did you eat today?”
“Doing what?” Grandpa inquired, ignoring her question. Which meant he hadn’t.
“Grandpa,” Bella scolded exasperatedly, stopping to glare at him. “You have to eat!”
“Doing what?” he repeated.
“Hard labor,” Bella answered, continuing into their small dining room and tossing her backpack atop the old wooden table there. She began extracting her books.
“No no,” Grandpa retorted, following her and grabbing her by the arm. “You can do that nonsense later. I want to show you something.”
“Grandpa,” she complained wearily. “I really need to get this done. And you need to eat something. I made you that chicken you like last night, remember?”
“Later, later,” he insisted. “Come,” he added, dragging her back into the living room. She sighed, allowing herself to be led toward one of the three small bedrooms in their little apartment. She spotted Grandpa’s old wooden desk in the living room, set against the far wall. His notebooks were stacked haphazardly upon it, with framed drawings of mushrooms of all kinds displayed at the desk’s edges, sketches Bella had drawn for him. She loved mushrooms, but not eating them. There was something magical about things that thrived in dark places.
She slowed, staring at the desk. There was something…off about it. She frowned, then realized what it was.
There was a painting hanging above it. A very large painting.
She stopped, studying it. Nearly as tall as the ceiling and a good three feet wide, it was of a graveyard bathed in ghostly moonlight. Tombstones rose from the dank earth like rotted teeth, and before these lay a body sprawled on its belly over the dirt. A naked body with dead eyes staring right at her.
“Oh god!” Bella gasped, bringing her hand to her mouth. “Grandpa!”
It was Grandpa…an eerie likeness of him, anyway. Grandpa followed her gaze, his eyes lighting up.
“Do you like it?” he inquired. “My friend painted it for me.”
She didn’t have to ask which friend, of course; he only had one. She’d never met the man, and strongly suspected she never would.
“He painted you dead in a graveyard,” she stated. He nodded happily. “You sure he’s your friend?” she pressed.
“Well, we did have a bit of a falling out years ago,” Grandpa admitted, scratching his short beard. “He sort of ruined my life, actually. But he’s doing his best to make it up to me.”
“What do you think of it?” he pressed.
“I like everything except my naked dead Grandpa staring at me.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Tell me you didn’t pose for this,” she pleaded, eyeing him warily. He gave her a look that was far too innocent. “That’s it, I’m shampooing the carpet,” she grumbled.
“I laid on some towels,” he reassured her. “And threw them in the wash,” he added hastily.
“Well, my naughty bits were on them, you see, and I…”
“The painting Grandpa.”
He chuckled, then regarded the painting for a quiet moment.
“It helps remind me of what’s coming,” he answered at last. “And that every beginning has an end…and every end a new beginning.”
“There you go, being all mysterious again,” Bella muttered. Grandpa was always saying things like that.
“I’m a writer,” he replied matter-of-factly, as if that explained it. It was his excuse for just about everything he did.
“You’re really going to keep that up there, aren’t you?”
“Just be glad I wasn’t on my back,” Grandpa replied with a wicked grin, waggling his bushy eyebrows. She pretended to retch, and he laughed. “Come on sweetheart,” he urged, pulling her toward one of the bedrooms again. “I want to show you something.”
“I think I’ve seen enough,” she retorted. But she let herself be led, and they entered the small spare bedroom Grandpa used as a storage room. To her surprise, it’d been cleaned out…and at the far end of the room stood a wooden easel, a fresh canvas sitting upon it.
She drew a sharp breath in, her eyes widening.
“Happy birthday sweetheart,” he declared, gesturing at the easel. She just stared at it, her mouth agape. She closed it with an audible click.
“I had the neighbor get them,” Grandpa explained.
“Grandpa, this…” Bella said, shaking her head. She gave him a big hug, wiping sudden moisture from her eyes. “Thank you Grandpa.”
They disengaged, and she walked up to the easel, running her fingertips over the rough canvas. For the first time that day, she felt a burst of excitement. A spark of life. He’d gotten her everything…the easel and canvas, a palette, brushes, and boxes and boxes of paints.
“You always said you wanted to be a painter like your mother,” Grandpa reminded her, gazing at the gifts with a satisfied smile. “And if you want to be something…”
“You have to do it,” Bella recited.
“Right,” he agreed. “I thought we’d start you off with acrylics.”
“This is great,” Bella murmured, shaking her head slowly. She turned to Grandpa then, her hands on her hips. “How much did it cost?”
“I’ve been saving,” he stated rather defensively.
“I counted our money last week,” she retorted. “We barely had enough for rent!”
“I’ve been saving,” he insisted. “I put some cash away.” Her eyebrows rose.
“You hid money from me?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” he explained. “You only turn sixteen once you know.”
“Is this why you haven’t been eating?” she pressed. He grimaced, but held his ground.
“We can afford it,” he insisted. “We have to afford it. Yes this cost a lot, but not following your dreams will cost you far more.”
She sighed, dropping her hands to her sides. The thought that Grandpa had gone hungry, lying awake at night starving…and all for her…was heartbreaking. But it was clear that he was absolutely delighted with the result, his eyes twinkling with excitement. She gave a reluctant smile, and Grandpa beamed back at her. She stepped up to him, giving him another hug.
He gave her a squeeze, then pushed her away gently, gesturing at the canvas.
“Go on,” he urged. “Try it out!”
She turned to the easel, stepping up to it. Then she hesitated. The pristine whiteness of the canvas was suddenly intimidating, a perfect emptiness that she could only ruin.
“I don’t know…”
“Of course you don’t,” he agreed. “You’ve never painted before.”
“Can you teach me?” she asked. He scoffed.
“I’m a writer, not a painter.”
“But I don’t know what to do,” she pointed out.
“Well it’s easy,” he replied. “Squeeze some paint on this,” he instructed, pointing to the wooden palette, “…then dip your brush in it. Then wipe your brush on the canvas.”
Bella shot him a withering glare, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Thanks for the tip,” she grumbled.
“Have fun!” he exclaimed, walking out of the small room and closing the door behind him. She stared at the door for a long moment, then turned to give similar treatment to the canvas.
Its perfect emptiness was vast, an unconquerable wasteland. She stepped up to it slowly, feeling overwhelmed. The thought of doing homework was suddenly far preferable, and she turned back to the door, opening it.
And found Grandpa standing there, arms crossed over his chest.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“I…don’t know what to paint.”
He relaxed visibly, a smile lighting his features.
“Ah, of course,” he replied, leading her back to the easel. “Terrifying, isn’t it?” he added, gesturing at the canvas. “A blank page is the artist’s most dreaded enemy.” He wrapped a bony arm around her shoulders. “I feel the same way when I’m writing.”
“Oh yes,” he confirmed. “That perfect blankness! Untouched. Pure!” He looked down at her with a conspiratorial smile, his eyes twinkling. “Ruin it.”
She blinked, and his smile broadened.
“Go on,” he urged.
“Ruin it!” he cried, grabbing the package of paintbrushes and tearing one free from its window of plastic wrap. He grabbed a tube of acrylic, squirting it directly onto the brush, then presenting it to Bella.
“No buts!” he retorted, shoving the brush into her hands. He pointed at the canvas. “Destroy!”
Bella hesitated, eyeing the canvas. Then she stepped forward, looming over it. She glanced back at Grandpa, who made violent slashing motions with one arm, as if conducting a mad orchestra. She smiled reluctantly, facing the canvas.
And brought the paintbrush down upon it, violating its perfection with an angry black gash.
“Ha!” Grandpa cried in triumph, beaming at Bella. She broke out into a bigger smile, eyeing her handiwork. The canvas was utterly ruined.
“Now you can paint,” he declared.
“But…what if it’s bad?”
“Oh, it will be,” Grandpa answered matter-of-factly. He gestured to the right of the easel then, at an enormous number of canvases stacked on top of each other, forming a tower that threatened to touch the ceiling. He pointed to the top of it. “This one will be too,” he added. Then he pointed to the canvas at the bottom of the stack. “But this one, ahhh…I can’t wait to see it!”
Bella must have looked entirely unconvinced.
“You’ll be terrible,” he assured her. “Even your mother was at first. And she ended up being the second-best painter I ever met.”
“Just paint,” he interjected. “When you’re done, I promise I’ll devour that delicious meal you made me.” Then he turned about, leaving the room and shutting the door behind him again.
Bella sighed, trudging up to the easel, then glancing down at the tubes of acrylic paint set neatly in their packaging to her left. She knew full-well that Grandpa really wouldn’t eat until she’d filled the canvas with paint. He’d clearly lost weight this month, and couldn’t afford to lose much more. They were barely getting by on him selling his stories.
She sighed again, looking down at the paintbrush in her hand. Suddenly she felt silly wasting her time painting. There was a mountain of homework she still had to do, after all. She had to do well in school to have a chance at getting a good job…one that would let her take care of both of them. Mrs. Pittersworth had been right, of course; Bella would never make a living doodling.
But she couldn’t not paint, not after what Grandpa had sacrificed to get this for her.
“Just paint, huh?” she mumbled to herself. She took a deep breath in, squaring her shoulders and focusing on the blighted canvas. “All right Bella, you can do this.”
And with that, she got to work, proving herself utterly and horribly wrong.
That day, Bella did a painting of an orchid she kept on her windowsill, attempting to transform the angry black gash she’d made into its stem.
It was a disaster.
Her colors were garish and grotesque, her lines far too thick. Every attempt to salvage the painting only made things worse, each stroke of her brush driving it further from her original vision. Her frustration mounting – and matched only by her despair – she’d finally thrown up her hands in surrender, fleeing the scene of the crime and slamming the door behind her to hide the evidence. To her relief, Grandpa took this as undeniable proof that she’d performed the task he’d given her, and he did not ask to witness the gruesome result. Holding up his end of the bargain, he’d devoured every last morsel of the meal she’d cooked for him.
She’d been so distressed by her utter failure that she’d almost given up on painting altogether…and would have if Grandpa hadn’t threatened to go on another hunger strike. He’d insisted that she paint every day, no matter what. Even if she didn’t feel like it. Especially if she didn’t feel like it.
And so she did.
Days passed, each bringing yet another failure. But each was a smaller failure than the last, and the usual dread she experienced with each fresh canvas gradually dwindled, until that once-awful white void was simply an invitation to fill it. She began to experiment with mixing colors, and with brushes of different shapes and sizes. And while the results were hardly to her standards, they got closer bit-by-bit, until the thought of revealing them to another soul no longer filled her with terror.
Grandpa never asked to see the paintings, taking her at her word that she’d painted them. His only request was that he see the last painting, the one from the canvas at the bottom of the heap. Two weeks later, she found herself reaching for that very one.
It was then that she returned to her very first painting, still set against the wall, facing away from her in shame. She turned it around, staring at it for a while. Then, with a deep breath and squared shoulders, she retrieved the orchid from her bedroom that had inspired it, setting it on the windowsill next to the easel.
And she painted.
By the time the sun began to set on that Sunday afternoon, Bella set the final stroke of her brush upon the canvas, backing away from her painting and regarding it for a long moment. To her surprise, it was rather good. A fine orchid with sun-kissed purple and white petals that cast gentle shadows on the leaves below, supported by a slender, stately stem.
“Huh,” she said, tapping her chin with her brush. Then she frowned, realizing she’d painted a purple blotch there. She set her brush down, exiting her little studio and crossing through the living room to go to the bathroom and wash it off. Grandpa was home, of course, sitting on his perennial perch at his desk.
“All done?” he inquired, looking up from his notebook. He still wrote his books longhand, refusing to use a computer.
“Yep,” she called out as she passed, reaching the bathroom and washing her face. She emerged, stretching her stiff back. “Ooof.”
“There’s still time for one more,” he stated.
“We’re out of canvases,” she replied…and instantly regretted it. Grandpa’s eyebrows rose.
“Yeah,” she admitted.
He stood from his chair with a grunt, gesturing at the door to her studio.
“Then I suppose it’s time,” he proclaimed. “Lead the way!”
Bella sighed, dutifully grabbing Grandpa’s arm and leading him toward the studio.
“Should I cover my eyes?” he inquired.
He did just that, allowing Bella to pull him into the studio. She brought him to stand before the easel.
“Okay,” she declared. “You can look.”
He dropped his hand, studying the painting for a long, silent moment. Then he leaned in close, peering at the brushstrokes while scratching his scraggly white beard. Bella chewed a fingernail nervously, the suspense threatening to drive her mad.
“Well?” she blurted out at last. Grandpa stood up as straight as he could, turning to face her.
“It’s good,” he proclaimed, breaking into a smile. “Well done, Bella!”
“You think so?” she asked, daring to hope. He shot her a look, and she smiled. Grandpa was a vicious critic, incapable of telling a lie for the sake of sparing someone’s feelings. A trait Bella had inherited…and almost certainly the reason why they both had trouble keeping friends.
“Where’s your first painting?” he inquired. She pointed to one of the paintings facing the wall. “May I see it?”
He retrieved the painting, turning it around and eyeing it critically. She looked over his shoulder, flinching at the sheer awfulness of it.
“It’s pretty bad,” she admitted.
“It’s downright horrible,” he countered, making a face.
“I’m getting a headache looking at it,” he added, putting it down and making a point to have the business end face the wall.
“Ha ha,” Bella grumbled. “You know what? I’m just going to throw it in the dumpster. And set it on fire.”
“No no,” he retorted. “Keep it. It’s important to know where you started. That way you’ll always be able to remind yourself of far you’ve come.”
She nodded, and he gazed out of the small window at the far end of the room with a wistful smile.
“I remember my first book,” he mused. “Nearly a year of hard work, slaving over my precious story! I was so proud of it.” He turned to her with an impish grin. “I showed my brother, and he read it from start to finish. Do you know what he said?”
Bella shook her head.
“It’s not good,” he answered. He chuckled at the memory, putting a warm hand on Bella’s shoulder. “He was right,” he continued. “Though I hated to admit it. So I rewrote it. And rewrote it again, and again, and again. Eight times I wrote that book, until I was satisfied with it. Then I had your grandmother read it. You know what she said?”
“It’s not good,” he repeated. He cackled then, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “So I wrote it again! And then it was good…or good enough, anyway. My point is, the only way to truly fail is to give up…and most people do.”
“So keep painting,” Bella translated. Grandpa nodded.
“If you want to be something…”
“You have to do it,” she finished. She sighed then, looking around the room. “Guess I’m going to need more canvases.”
“Already ordered,” Grandpa declared with a proud smile. Bella gave him an exasperated look, and he put up his hands defensively. “We have the money,” he insisted. “I’ll have you know I managed to con someone into buying one of my short stories.”
“I did,” he confirmed. “Not for much mind you, but we’ll have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies for another month.”
She smiled at him, giving him a hug.
“I’m proud of you Grandpa.”
He embraced her back, then pulled away, turning back to her most recent painting. He put his hands on his hips.
“I don’t want you painting this stuff anymore,” he declared.
“What stuff?” she asked, taken aback. He gestured at the painting.
“This stuff,” he answered.
“Things you see,” he corrected. “Things outside of you. I know painters who spend their whole lives painting like that. What a waste!”
Bella frowned at him.
“So…what do I paint? My internal organs?” The idea suddenly intrigued her.
“Why did you paint the flower?” he countered, ignoring her quip. Her frown deepened. She hated when he answered a question with a question, which he did far too often.
“It looked pretty,” she answered with a shrug.
“Exactly!” he exclaimed. And that’s all someone who looks at it will ever think. Hmm, that’s pretty. I like the way it looks.” He scoffed. “That’s not art, it’s decoration!”
“If I wrote books that just said: ‘Jack went home. Jack ate dinner. He went to bed. His bed was soft. He fell asleep…’ Would anyone read it?”
“I don’t know,” she replied testily, her hands on her hips. “You’ve never let me read your books.”
“No one would read it!” he answered. “Because I’d just be describing what happened. This, then this, then this. Boring!”
“What does that have to do with my flower?” she pressed.
“You’re just describing the flower with paint,” he explained. “Green stem, a few leaves, nice petals. A flower in bloom. Boring! You need to tell a story.”
“With paint,” he confirmed. “And those stories aren’t out there,” he added, gesturing at the orchid on the windowsill. They’re in here,” he continued, jabbing a finger at her chest. “Tell me, do you really care about flowers, Bella?”
“They’re all right.”
“They’re safe,” he corrected. “Painting pretty petals all day. Where’s the risk? You need to paint things you’re afraid of!”
“Like your cooking?”
“Ha!” he replied. “I mean things deep in your heart. Things that matter to you. Secrets you don’t want anyone else to see. Things you don’t want you to see. That’s where real art comes from.”
“Those canvases,” he added, gesturing at the canvases propped against the walls, “…are mirrors, Bella. They can show you who you are.” He let go of her shoulder, crossing his arms over his frail chest and glaring down at her imperiously. “And you are not a dainty flower!”
She had to smile at that.
“Maybe a black one with thorns,” she conceded.
“Indeed,” Grandpa agreed with a rather rueful smile. He paused then, glancing at Bella’s notebook on the floor beside the easel. He reached down to pick it up, flipping to the last page she’d drawn in and handing it to her. “Or perhaps you could paint this.”
Bella glanced down at the notebook, seeing her latest sketch of her dragon there.
“I’m not ready for that,” she protested. Grandpa frowned.
“I’m not good enough,” she answered.
“You mean you’re not ready to,” he corrected. “Well, at least promise me that you won’t wait forever to be ready,” he compromised. “Part of getting better is becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
“Alright,” she agreed. “I promise.”
“When I write, I’m like an archaeologist excavating an ancient subterranean tomb,” he declared, pretending to grab a shovel and dig through the floor. “Finding priceless treasures buried deep within the earth! And those treasures are pieces of my heart and mind, lost to the ravages of time.”
“Okay Grandpa,” Bella said. Then she hesitated. “So what should I paint?”
“Something that makes you feel something,” Grandpa answered. “If it makes you feel something, it will make others feel it. That’s the magic of art, Bella. Throwaway art pleases the eye, good art changes people’s minds, and great art…great art opens their hearts.”
That evening, after cooking Grandpa his favorite meal – chicken and bell-peppers with roasted garlic and caramelized onion – they both got ready for sleep. Bella laid down in her bed, pulling her warm blanket up to her shoulders. Grandpa laid down atop the blanket next to her as he always did, telling her a story. It was the same ritual they’d gone through since…well, for as long as she could remember. He spun a fantastic tale right on the spot, somehow able to craft a different story every night. Extraordinary tales of a world of wondrous magic and vile monsters, valiant heroes and dastardly villains.
Grandpa had never let Bella read any of his books, but if they were anywhere near as good as his nightly tales, it was a wonder that he wasn’t a world-famous author by now.
When the tale was done at last, he kissed Bella on the forehead.
“Goodnight sweetheart,” he murmured, smiling down at her. She smiled back.
He got up to leave, but Bella stopped him.
“Wait,” she said. “You…you said Mom was the second-best painter you ever met?”
Grandpa laid back down, turning onto his side to face her.
“Oh yes,” he replied. “She was magnificent.”
“Tell me more about her,” she urged. Grandpa hesitated, and she put a hand on his arm. “Please.”
He sighed, lowering his gaze. Grandpa rarely talked about Mom, even when asked. He’d always deflected Bella’s questions by saying he’d tell her when she was older, or that she’d learn soon enough. But “soon enough” had never been soon enough for her.
“All right,” he decided, looking her in the eye. “What do you want to know?”
“What was she like?”
“She was a lot like you,” he answered. “Same eyes, same smile.” He smiled himself. “Her skin was darker, like mine. And her hair was a bit curlier.”
“You’re describing the flower,” Bella accused. Grandpa frowned at her.
“Using my lessons against me, eh?” he groused. “Clever girl. I shouldn’t teach you anything.”
He sighed then, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling. Moonlight cast its gentle silver rays on his dark skin, making his eyes glitter. He glanced at her nightstand then, spotting her notebook on it. And the drawing she’d done at school, of her and her dragon. He picked it up, gesturing at it.
“She had the heart of a dragon,” he declared. “And your dragon has her heart,” he added, pointing to the heart-shaped ruby embedded in its breastbone. He glanced down at the amulet Bella still wore around her neck, and Bella did as well, tracing the crack in the middle with her finger. She had no pictures of her mother. Nothing else to remember her by.
The only thing her mother had left her was a broken heart.
“She was like a dragon,” Grandpa mused. “Powerful and fierce. And always there to protect you, even in…”
He swallowed, putting the notebook back on the nightstand.
“Tell me her story,” Bella insisted. Grandpa sighed again.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he decided.
He cleared his throat, then began.
“One day, your mother brought you to the college I was teaching at, at the time,” he began. He’d been an English professor, Bella knew, before he’d been forced to retire. “You were only four then, such a cute little thing.” He smiled at the memory. “You decided on the spot that your favorite place in the whole college was the great library. All the books on the shelves…you ran around, opening them up just to smell them and look at the pictures.”
Bella listened intently, wishing she could remember. She still loved libraries, especially the city library a few blocks down the road, though she’d only been a few times. Back when Grandpa went out more.
“Your mother was strict with you, almost as bad as you are with me,” he continued, giving her a wink. “She wanted to tie you down to the chair next to her while she and I talked. I told her to let you go and explore. That libraries were places of adventure and discovery!” He chuckled. “She said that there still had to be rules. She was very keen on rules, even though she was the very first to break them.”
“Oh yes,” he replied. “She had a rebel’s heart and a mind that was quite the opposite. And the two fought constantly, like an old married couple.”
Bella smiled at that.
“She sounds complicated,” she admitted.
“Oh, you have no idea,” he replied with a chuckle. “In any case, I told her that she’d made a terrible mistake bringing you to a library. Every book there had been written by people who loved to break rules. All the good books, anyway.”
“What’d she say?”
“She said well, then it was a damn good thing you couldn’t read.”
They shared a chuckle, Grandpa’s eyes twinkling at the memory.
“Your mother was something else,” he mused. “I’ve never met anyone like her, other than you of course.” He smiled then. “She could find beauty in the darkest dark, just like you.”
“Did she…fit in?” Bella asked.
“Goodness no,” Grandpa replied. “She refused to.”
“So she was a weirdo?” she pressed. “Like me?”
Bella nodded, then fell silent, chewing at her lower lip. She hesitated, then looked Grandpa in the eye.
“How did she die?”
Grandpa stared back at her, his smile fading. He looked so miserable suddenly that Bella had the urge to take back her question, to tell him it was okay. That he didn’t have to answer. But she held her ground, remaining silent. And that silence stretched out between them, growing bigger and louder with every passing second.
He rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling. The few times she’d asked the question in the past, he’d avoided answering…and made it quite clear without saying it that she wasn’t to ask the question again. But this time was different.
“She died the way she lived,” he answered in a near-whisper. “Beautifully.”
A lump formed in Bella’s throat, and she swallowed past it, not daring to say anything. Grandpa turned to face her, tears wetting his cheeks.
“Your mother was a great artist,” he murmured, reaching out to stroke her hair. “She painted with her heart,” he added, his eyes dropping to the amulet Bella wore around her neck. “But of all the strange and wonderful things she brought to life,” Grandpa continued, “…the greatest of them all was you.”
Bella smiled, her own eyes brimming with moisture. Grandpa leaned in, kissing her on the forehead again, then pulling her head to his chest. She snuggled against his oversized sweater, letting it soak up the tears trickling down her cheeks. He held her for a while, and she closed her eyes, hearing the lub-dub of his heart beating in his chest.
At length he sighed, getting up from the bed and standing over her with a sad smile. Bella couldn’t help but feel disappointed, knowing the story was over.
“Goodnight sweetheart,” he murmured.
He walked around the bed, reaching the doorway and stepping through. He’d almost closed the door behind him when Bella stirred.
“Grandpa?” she asked.
“Why did Mom have to die?”
Grandpa stood there for a long moment, a dark silhouette against the light from the living room beyond.
“She didn’t have to,” he replied at last.
And that was that.
Weeks passed, the sun rising a little later and falling a little earlier each day. Autumn’s chilly fingers swept through the neighborhood, sucking the life out of everything it touched. Grass yellowed and leaves turned dry and brown, falling from their lofty perches to form a crunchy carpet of corpses below. People combed their precious lawns with rakes, working feverishly to collect the leaves into big piles, bagging them and sending them far away as if they were radioactive. Jack-o-lanterns popped up on porches all over the neighborhood, their faces carved into wicked grins, seeming to relish the stark reality: the year was dying, the great cycle coming to a close once again.
It was Bella’s favorite time of year.
By the last week of October, the first frost gripped the land, coating the streets and grass. A reminder that winter was coming, a Grim Reaper that would blanket the earth with its murderous snow, killing off an entire generation of plants and animals.
And so Bella found herself hopping down from her school bus on a chilly Friday afternoon, landing on the frosty sidewalk with a thump, her backpack bouncing painfully on her lower back. She escaped from the bus as quickly as she could, desperate to leave the school week far behind. Freedom beckoned, and she was eager to answer its call.
She made her way quickly down the sidewalk, leaving most of the other kids behind. No one tried to talk with her, and she didn’t bother to talk to them. She was the weird girl, after all. The quiet girl that kept to herself, holed up in her apartment. Never going over friends’ houses, always reading or doodling. She found the constant chatter of her classmates exhausting after a while, much preferring the quiet of the school library whenever she got the chance to go there. It was her one safe space outside of her apartment, a place where she could lose herself in books…in the minds of authors like Grandpa, who seemed so wise compared to kids her age…and most adults, for that matter.
Something unusual caught her attention as she walked; two police officers on the opposite side of the road, intercepting a few of the kids as they crossed the street. The officers started talking to the kids, gesturing at the bus.
Bella promptly ignored them, keeping her head down and continuing forward. Her apartment building was only two blocks away. She spotted it in the distance, a narrow three-story building with faded yellow paint guarded by a rusty chain-link fence that was clearly not up to its task. It wasn’t long before she reached it. The front gate opened with a loud screech, and she closed it behind her, climbing up the front steps to the porch. She unlocked the front door, propping it open with her foot and checking the mailbox labeled “Brown Family.” Grandpa never checked the mail, of course; that would require leaving the apartment.
Bills, bills, and more bills.
She sighed, stepping inside the apartment and being sure to lock the door behind her. The same routine as always, one drilled into her from the moment they’d moved here nearly a decade ago. Up the spiral staircase she went, reaching the third floor and executing the usual ritual of knocks, followed by Grandpa’s poem.
“A dragon circle,
White and good,
Will one day rise…”
The door flung open before she could finish, and she jumped, nearly falling backward down the stairs. Grandpa burst out of the doorway, grabbing her arm and hauling her bodily into the apartment.
“Grandpa…!” she exclaimed. But he ignored her, slamming the door behind them and feverishly re-engaging the multitude of locks. She backed into the living room, staring at him with wide eyes. He finished, then whirled on her.
“Did they see you?” he asked. It was more a demand than a question. Bella shrank away from him; she’d never seen him like this.
“Did they see you?” he repeated. She shrugged helplessly.
“Those men!” he answered. He pushed past her into the living room, hurrying to one of the windows and peering out. Bella slid her backpack off, walking to his side and following his gaze. He was looking at the two police officers she’d seen earlier. They were still talking to the children.
“The cops?” she asked. He scoffed.
“Cops,” he muttered. “If they’re cops then I’m one too, and so are you.”
Bella frowned, putting a hand on Grandpa’s shoulder.
“Grandpa, what’s going on?”
He watched the police officers for a moment longer, then turned away from the window, running a hand through his curly white hair. It sprung haphazardly from his head, and Bella suddenly wondered when he’d washed it last. He looked frailer than ever, his skin hanging loosely over his bones. Grandpa noticed Bella watching him, and blinked.
“What’s going on?” she repeated. “You’re acting weird.”
“I’m acting weirdly,” he corrected automatically. Then he frowned. “Wait, no I’m not. Those aren’t police officers Bella. They’re bad people.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“They’re…it’s complicated,” he continued, walking to his desk and slumping into his chair. He sighed, shaking his head and staring off into space. “They’re getting closer…we don’t have much time.”
“Much time for what?”
“For…” he began, then gestured at the apartment around them. “This.”
“Grandpa, you’re not making any sense.”
“I know, I know,” he replied with a grimace. “Thank the gods it’s the weekend. That might just give us a few days. But I don’t think you should go to school anymore, not until they move on. If they move on.”
She stared at him uncomprehendingly, suddenly concerned for his well-being. He looked even more disheveled than usual, and his desk was awfully cluttered. Grandpa had always been a bit paranoid, what with the ridiculous number of locks on the door and refusing to leave the apartment, but it was clearly getting worse. Most of the time he was mostly normal, but sometimes there were times like this.
Not for the first time, she wondered whether or not he might be a bit…off.
He glanced at her, and it was clear that her expression mirrored her thoughts.
“I know this sounds crazy,” he confessed, his shoulders slumping. “But I’m asking you to trust me. I know those men. From…a long time ago. They’re dangerous, and you have to avoid them.”
“Okay Grandpa, I will,” she agreed. And she meant it. Not that she believed him, but she had no qualms about avoiding the police. He relaxed a bit.
“If they question you, give them a false name,” he instructed. “And a false address. If they take you here…”
“Do the wrong knock,” Bella finished, having heard this countless times before.
“You’re really going to pull me out of school?” Bella asked hopefully. Grandpa broke out into a smile.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he replied. She nodded vigorously, and he chuckled. “Yes, I will. At least for a few days, until I know they’re gone.”
“Then I’ll do anything you want,” she decided with a smile.
He sighed, looking suddenly rather ashamed.
“Bella I…” he began, his voice cracking. “I’m not crazy.”
Bella said nothing. There was nothing honest she could say without making him feel badly.
“I’m not,” he insisted. “I know it seems like I am sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” she inquired with an arch of her eyebrow. He gave a rueful smile back.
“I wasn’t always like this,” he insisted. “You should have seen me before all…this,” he added wistfully, looking about the room. “Maybe one day you’ll get to see me like I was.”
He got up from his chair, walking up to her and lowering himself awkwardly kneel before her. He took her by the hand, holding it in two of his own and looking up at her with such awful desperation that it was heartbreaking.
“I love you more than anything in this world,” he declared, his eyes brimming with moisture. “You are my world, Bella. And I’m so proud of the woman you’re becoming.”
She nodded, feeling tremendously uncomfortable.
“Trust me for the next few days,” he insisted. “That’s all I ask.”
“Promise?” he pressed. She nodded.
He smiled, clearly relieved. For he knew it was exceedingly rare for Bella to make a promise, knowing how difficult they were to keep…and how easy it was to break them. When Bella made a promise, she kept it.
“Thank you sweetheart.”
“Did you eat?” she asked, desperate to change the subject. She’d had enough drama for one day.
“A little,” he answered. “I could use a bite, now that you mention it.”
“I’ll cook you something good,” she promised, pulling away from him and walking toward the kitchen.
“Are you taking requests?” he inquired.
“If they’re reasonable,” she replied.
“How about your world-famous chili?”
She smiled, reaching the kitchen and grabbing a large pan. She set it on the stovetop with a clang, turning on the flame and opening the fridge to gather her ingredients.
“For you Grandpa,” she declared, “…I’ll do anything.”
After their meal, Grandpa returned to his desk, slaving over whatever it was he happened to be writing. He insisted that Bella paint, seeing as how their downstairs neighbor had dropped off fresh armfuls of canvases earlier that day. The third shipment that month, in fact. Bella was getting quite proficient at finishing each painting, going through at least a canvas a day. The mere act of finishing – of seeing her work to its conclusion – had freed her from the fear of starting another project. For most of that fear was in doubting that she could finish anything.
Now she knew she could.
It was, she knew as she painted a fresh canvas utterly black, just as Grandpa had planned. Sure, he was a complete mess in most aspects of his life, but when it came to teaching he was second-to-none.
She stared at the now-black canvas, tapping her lower lip with her free hand. Her eyes went to the stack of paintings in the corner of her studio; her favorite paintings. Stepping up to them, she looked at each, trying to find some inspiration.
The first was of dull gray stone steps leading up to a pair of ornate double-doors. The rightmost doorknob was slick with crimson blood, and a chocolate-brown hand with long black fingernails faced the doors palm-first. A much larger hand made of dense fog smashed into the doors, forcing them slightly ajar…and exposing a pale golden light that peeked out from beyond.
The second painting was of a long, dark hallway facing the inside of those double-doors. A narrow, blood-red carpet led past long lines of white stone statues on either side, dense fog spilling across the corridor. The statues were of men in heavy armor, carrying swords whose sharp tips touched high above. And standing before the double-doors at the far end of the hallway, twin figures in thick black cloaks rose from the floor, their faces hidden in shadows throw by their hoods. Each wore silver metal gauntlets that emerged from their loose sleeves, clutching identical scythes. Scythes made of entirely of bones, wet blood staining their blades.
And between the two figures was a third. A tall man whose features were hidden entirely in shadow, wielding a long, glowing silver sword in his right hand.
Suddenly, she had an idea, and she went back to her inky-black canvas.
Bella mixed the various acrylic paints on her palette, making a light gold. Then, with a brush barely bigger than a pencil, she began to painstakingly recreate each link in a long chain, not even needing to glance at the necklace she wore that had inspired it. She’d long since memorized its every detail. It’d been Mom’s, after all. The very last thing her mother had given her before she’d died.
When she finished the golden amulet with the ruby heart in the center, she paused, then got some white and silver paint, making a thin, straight line to the right of the amulet.
A silver sword that glowed in the darkness.
She outlined a shadowy fist to hold the sword in a soft white glow, extending the glow upward to silhouette one side of an arm, then a shadowy face. Then she made bright rays of light shoot outward from that glowing silhouette, making them converge on the ruby.
A muffled voice came from beyond the closed door of her makeshift studio, and she stopped, straining her ears.
No, not a voice. Voices.
Bella set her brush down carefully, tiptoeing to the door and putting her ear against it. There were definitely two voices. Male voices, too muffled for her to make out what they were saying. But one of them was Grandpa’s. She frowned, taken aback. Grandpa never had company over, not even the neighbors. When they brought him groceries, he made them wait outside the front door of the apartment.
She twisted the knob slowly, then cracked the door open.
The living room was empty, Grandpa’s chair vacant.
Bella stepped out into the living room. It sounded like the voices were coming from the kitchen.
“Tomorrow?” she heard Grandpa hiss, his voice barely audible. There was a pause. “…not ready,” she heard him say.
More muffled talking.
She hesitated, then creeped across the living room, making her way stealthily toward the kitchen.
A floorboard creaked under her foot.
The voices stopped immediately, and Bella cursed under her breath, sprinting toward the dining room, which led into the kitchen. She heard a loud bang, then muffled swearing. A moment later, she burst into the dining room, turning to look into the kitchen.
Grandpa was standing there by the stove, alone.
He startled, whirling around to stare at her with the guiltiest look she’d ever seen.
“What’s going on?” she demanded. “Who was that?”
“Who was what?” Grandpa asked, far too innocently for her liking. He’d always been a terrible liar.
“I heard him,” she insisted. “You two were talking.”
Grandpa blanched, and he swallowed visibly.
“I was just, ah, talking to myself,” he answered, giving her a weak smile. “Practicing different voices.”
She stared at him for a long moment, then crossed her arms over her chest, shooting him a glare.
“You’re lying to me,” she accused.
She stormed into the kitchen, having a look around. There was no one there but them…and the kitchen was a dead-end. No way out but the way she’d come in. She frowned, then began opening cupboard doors one-by-one, peering inside.
“See?” Grandpa said. “I told you.”
“Uh huh,” she grumbled. But of course he had to be telling the truth; there was no one else here. “What was that banging sound then?”
“I hit my head on the freezer door,” he answered, rubbing the top of his head. “You surprised me.”
“All right,” she muttered. “Fine. So you were just talking to yourself.”
“In different voices,” she continued. He grimaced.
“With the freezer door open while you were getting something from the fridge.”
“I was hungry,” he stated. She arched an eyebrow.
“We just ate.”
“I wanted more of your delicious chili,” he explained, smiling innocently at her. She rolled her eyes, but gave up, skulking out of the kitchen into the dining room. He followed behind her. “You and your mother would’ve made fine interrogators,” he grumbled. “You almost had me believing there was someone else here!”
“I’ll be painting,” she grumbled, crossing into the living room.
“Wait,” he stated. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and she stopped, turning to face him. “We…need to talk.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I know I said I was going to pull you out of school next week,” he began. “But now I don’t think it’s such a good idea.”
Bella crossed her arms over her chest.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“Those men don’t know who you are yet,” he explained. “If they did, they’d have gotten you. But if you don’t show up next week, it might raise suspicion.”
“I know, I know,” he interrupted. “Believe me, I understand how crazy this seems.”
“Really crazy,” she grumbled. “Like, certifiable.”
“It’s very important that you listen carefully to what I have to say,” he insisted. He hesitated, his jawline rippling. “It could mean the difference between life and death.”
Bella rolled her eyes.
“Oh come on,” she groaned. “Seriously Grandpa?”
“Dead serious,” he replied. And judging by his expression, he was. She had the sudden urge to sit down, and walked to the kitchen table to do just that. She rested her elbows on the table, rubbing her forehead with both hands.
“You’re giving me a headache,” she muttered. Then she sighed, looking up at him, still standing there in the living room. “Grandpa, do you think you might be a little…sick?”
“Sick? No,” he replied. “I’m fine.”
“Maybe you should go see a doctor,” she suggested. It wasn’t the first time she’d had the thought. As far as she knew, he hadn’t seen a doctor since they’d moved here. He had to be in his late seventies, if not his eighties. To think that he might be developing dementia…it was heartbreaking.
“Bella, I’m not crazy.”
“Then tell me what’s really going on,” she pleaded. Grandpa stared at her silently, then sighed, lowering his gaze to the floor. He turned to his desk, taking a small golden key from his pants-pocket and unlocking the bottom left drawer. He pulled it open, taking out a stack of papers, paperclips, and handfuls of pens. Then something else; a flat rectangular piece of wood. A false bottom.
“Grandpa, what are you…?” she began, but Grandpa ignored her, reaching into the drawer again and pulling out another key. This one was silver; he brought it to the bottom right drawer, unlocking it and lifting a small black safe from it. He brought this to Bella, setting it on the table before her.
“If anything happens to me, I want you to open this,” he instructed. “Take what’s inside and bring it to a safe place. Follow the instructions inside.”
“But I don’t know the combination,” she protested, eyeing the safe’s dial.
“Yes you do,” he countered with a sly smile. “It’s the same as the front door.
She frowned, mulling it over. Then her eyes widened. She put a hand to her mouth.
“Thirteen knocks, thirty-three seconds, seven knocks,” he recited.
“13-33-7,” she replied. “Got it.”
“I made sure you’d never be able to forget it,” he revealed with a wink. And it was true; she’d been doing that little ritual since she was six.
“What’s in this?” she asked. But Grandpa took the safe away, putting it back in the drawer and returning everything to its proper place. He handed her the golden key.
“Keep this on you always,” he instructed. “And if something happens to me…”
“Open the safe, take what’s inside and bring it to a safe place, follow the instructions,” she recited.
“Good girl!” he exclaimed, grabbing her by the temples and leaning down to kiss her forehead. Bella tolerated this, crossing her arms over her chest and shaking her head at him.
“You’re weird Grandpa,” she proclaimed. “You know that?”
“Well of course I am,” he replied with a smile. “I’m a writer.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Have you ever met any other writers?” he inquired. She shook her head. “We’re all a little weird. It’s because we’re possessed,” he added, wiggling his fingers before her and making a scary face. Bella’s eyebrows rose.
“We’ve all got stories and characters inside of us, clamoring to get out!” he exclaimed, spreading his arms out wide. Bella just looked at him, and he chuckled, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Now go paint, my little one.”
She opened her mouth to protest.
“I promise you’ll know everything soon enough, Bella,” he interjected. “Every beginning has an end.” He smiled. “So enjoy each adventure while you can.”
It was the peculiar habit of Time to plod along at a glacial pace during moments of pain and drudgery, and to speed up during the few fleeting moments of joy life offered. A most disagreeable thing, Time, bent on torturing everything that had the misfortune of being able to sense it.
So it was that the weekend neared its end far too quickly, and Bella found herself sitting at the dining room table that Sunday evening finishing up the homework she’d put off ‘til then. When she was done, she set her backpack by the door wearily, announcing her decision to go to bed. Grandpa finished writing at his desk, then joined Bella in her room to spin one of his wild tales. When he was finished, he rolled onto his side, staring at her for a long moment.
“What?” she asked self-consciously.
“Bella, I’m…sorry,” he apologized. She frowned.
“For all of this,” he answered. “Keeping you in the house every day, not letting you go over your friends’ houses. For…spending all my time writing.”
“I know you say you don’t mind,” he interjected, “…but I do. This isn’t the life I wanted, and it’s not the life I wanted for you.”
Bella had the urge to say something, to contradict him, but held her tongue.
“I adore you more than anything in my life,” he continued, putting a warm palm on her cheek. “And I love to write…I have to write, to escape this dreadful prison.”
“That’s what this is,” he replied. “This apartment. And if it weren’t for you it would have swallowed me whole. After your mother died…” He stopped himself then, taking a deep breath in, then letting it out. “You rescue me from myself, Bella. You make this all worthwhile.”
Bella smiled, having no choice but to gracefully accept this.
He smiled back, giving her a kiss on the forehead. Then he got up from the bed, walking stiffly to the door.
“Why don’t we have any pictures of Mom?”
Grandpa sighed, reaching the door and pausing there. He seemed at a loss for words.
“It’s…complicated, Bella,” he answered at last. Bella was unsatisfied with the non-answer, but she left it alone, knowing that Grandpa wouldn’t say anything more about the matter. He never did.
Grandpa stood by the door, his hand on the doorknob, gazing down at her for a long moment.
“Goodnight Bella,” he said at last. “I love you more than anything in this world. Or any other world, for that matter.”
“I love you too Grandpa.”
And then he closed the door, leaving her alone in the darkness.
The next morning ushered in the start of another long school week, the sun having just peeked above the horizon by the time Bella left the apartment for her bus stop. A few minutes later, the bus arrived, traveling across town and depositing her and her fellow students at the front double-doors of the high school, a dull brick building that she soon found herself inside. The inside of the school was as ghastly as the outside, with stark white linoleum floors and gray lockers set against the walls. The only color was that which the students had added, with hand-drawn posters on the bulletin boards announcing the upcoming election of the next class president.
And so the day dripped along, each class separated by a five-minute frenzy to get to the next. Then lunch – leftover chili – and her study break.
Then came more classes, ending of course with Mrs. Pittersworth’s algebra class. Bella resisted the urge to doodle, weighing it against the threat of more detention. Mrs. Pittersworth’s eye was upon her, she knew, and the woman was downright vindictive. Bella succeeded in not doodling, but not quite in paying attention, and was relieved when the bell tolled to signal the end of the school day. She got up hurriedly, joining the mad dash to the door.
“Bella?” Mrs. Pittersworth called out. Bella grimaced, veering off toward her teacher’s desk.
“Yes Mrs. Pittersworth?”
“You did better today,” she declared approvingly. However, her expression rapidly returned to its natural state…like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “However, I’m extremely disappointed that your grandfather not only failed to come to the scheduled parent-teacher conference, but failed to re-schedule one as well.”
“This is unacceptable,” she continued. “It is of vital importance that your guardian be invested in your education. Regrettably, not showing up gives me the impression that he isn’t.” She put her hands on her narrow hips. “Now that can’t be true, can it?”
Bella chose to be silent, knowing that Grandpa was, in fact, not invested in her education. At least not the one she was getting in school. He often said it was a fine way to train zombies, but not human beings…and mostly served to transform the latter into the former.
“Bring this letter home with you,” Mrs. Pittersworth commanded, handing Bella a white envelope. “Give it to your grandfather and insist that he reads it.”
“Yes Mrs. Pittersworth.”
And with that, she was set free.
The air was ice-cold by the time Bella got off the school bus, the sun already dipping into the horizon. Darkness began its slow spread over the earth, blanketing the skeletal trees and houses. A far cry from those endless summer days Bella had enjoyed what seemed like only moments ago. She sighed, trudging down the sidewalk toward her apartment, passing the Jack-o-lanterns leering at her from the safety of their porches, their face lit with flickering fire. She kept her eyes on her feet, huddling against a frigid wind that assaulted her, whipping through her long curly hair. She shoved her hands in her coat pockets, feeling the envelope Mrs. Pittersworth had given her in the right one.
She hesitated, then pulled it out. Grandpa wouldn’t care if she opened it. Probably.
Bella did just that, removing a folded piece of paper from within. It was a hand-written letter:
Your daughter Bella is having continued difficulty with attention. I have taught countless children over the last twenty years, and many with her difficulties have benefited greatly from medication.
It is imperative that we set up a conference to discuss Bella’s future. Please call me at your earliest convenience.
Bella stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, reading, then re-reading the letter. She felt numb.
Her difficulties. Medication.
She blinked back sudden tears, stuffing the letter back into her pocket. A part of her wanted to tear it to shreds. But she knew full well that Mrs. Pittersworth was right.
She closed her eyes, taking a deep, steadying breath. She’d always known there was something wrong with her. It was why she didn’t have many friends. She preferred the warmth and vibrancy of her imagination to real life…and for the life of her, she didn’t know why.
Because real life can hurt you.
Bella swallowed past a lump in her throat, forcing herself to put one foot in front of the other. She suddenly dreaded showing Grandpa the letter, knowing full well she would. They shared everything, good and bad. A part of her hoped he’d tear it up himself, after going into one of his epic rants about her school.
But what if he didn’t? What if he made her go to the doctor and start taking pills? The thought of having to take something that would change her brain – change who she was – was terrifying. As was the thought that who she was…wasn’t enough.
Shoving the thought out of her mind, she focused on the gate to her apartment building ahead. She opened it with a loud screech, climbing up the steps to the front porch.
She heard the gate close…and footsteps approaching from behind.
Bella whirled around, her breath catching in her throat.
Two men were walking leisurely toward her. The police officers she’d seen questioning the kids last Friday.
She stood there, pressing her back against the front door.
“Hi,” one greeted, mounting the steps and stopping before her on the porch. A very tall man with pale skin, short black hair peeking out from his cap. He extended a gloved hand. “I’m officer Stanwitz.”
“And I’m officer Reynolds,” the other officer greeted, staying at the bottom of the stairs. He was shorter than officer Stanwitz, with broad shoulders and olive skin. They both spoke in strange accents Bella had never heard before. She glanced at Stanwitz’s hand, keeping her own hands stuffed in her pockets. She fingered the refurbished flip-phone in her left pants pocket. It was ancient but cheap, a gift from Grandpa a few years back…and only for use in emergencies.
“We just want to ask you a few questions,” Stanwitz stated.
“Have I broken the law, officer?” she asked, as she’d been taught.
“Relax,” officer Stanwitz soothed, stepping in a little closer. Too close. He loomed over Bella, smiling down at her with his thin lips, but not his eyes. His uniform smelled musty, and Bella shrank away from him. “We’re just…investigating a few minor crimes we think one of your fellow students might have committed.”
“Someone vandalized the principal’s mailbox again,” Reynolds explained.
“Don’t know anything about that,” she stated tersely. “Sorry.” She turned to open the door, but officer Stanwitz grabbed the doorknob before she could, blocking her hand.
“See, now that’s what everyone’s been telling us,” he replied. “They can’t all be telling the truth, can they Bella?”
“I am,” she retorted.
“Are you?” Stanwitz pressed, his dark eyes narrowing.
“Someone has to know what happened,” Reynolds pointed out.
“Yeah,” Bella replied. “Someone else.”
“Well that’s funny,” he stated. He twisted around, glancing at Reynolds, who was still at the bottom of the steps, blocking the only path out of the fenced-in front yard. “Isn’t that funny Reynolds?”
“Hilarious,” Reynolds muttered. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Stanwitz turned back to Bella, slamming his palm against the door beside her head and making her flinch.
“Wanna know why that’s so funny?” he inquired. Bella just stared at him, her heart pounding in her chest. “The other students we questioned? They said you did it.”
“You just said I didn’t break the law,” she retorted, trying to keep her voice calm.
“No, I told you to relax,” Stanwitz corrected. He reached out and grabbed a lock of her hair, leaning in to smell it. “This is gonna be so much easier for you if you do.”
She shrank away, then tried to slip past him, but he blocked her with one leg, smirking down at her.
“Where you think you’re going, honey?”
“Let me go you creep,” she ordered, reaching for the knob again. But his hand was still on it.
“Perpetrator used a rubber mallet to break the principal’s mailbox,” Stanwitz murmured, running the lock of hair against his lips, then letting go. “Guess we’re gonna have to search your place to find it.”
He turned the knob then, but it was locked.
“Open it,” he ordered.
“Do you have a warrant?” Bella shot back.
He rolled his eyes, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her chest-first against the door, leaning his body against her backpack.
“Search her pockets,” he told Reynolds.
She felt hands in her coat pockets, and Reynolds retrieved the letter, glancing at it, then tossing it aside. He shoved a hand into her right pants pocket.
“Hey!” she blurted out.
“Found it,” Reynolds announced, handing the key to Stanwitz. Stanwitz smirked, unlocking the door, then opening it and shoving Bella through. She stumbled, barely managing to keep her balance with her backpack on.
“Resisting a police officer, tsk tsk,” Stanwitz said, smirking at her. “Which floor Bella?”
“First,” she lied.
“Check the mailboxes,” Stanwitz told Reynolds, who nodded reluctantly, going back outside. Moments later he returned with an envelope in his hand.
“Letter addressed to the girl,” he announced. “Third floor.”
Stanwitz shook his head at Bella.
“Bet you thought that was real clever.”
He grabbed her arm, hauling her upstairs. Reynolds followed close behind, and they climbed to the third-floor landing, stopping before the door. Stanwitz turned to Bella.
“After you,” he prompted, gesturing at the door.
“You have the key, remember?” she shot back. He glanced at Reynolds, then smirked, slipping the key in the doorknob and turning it. Then he twisted the knob, pushing on the door.
It didn’t budge.
Stanwitz tried again, then sighed, turning to Bella.
“Okay,” he grumbled. “Open it.”
“It’s deadbolted,” she pointed out. “I can’t open it.”
“Oh, right,” Stanwitz replied, turning toward the door.
Then he spun around, punching Bella right in the gut.
Bella lurched backward, striking the railing behind her, then falling to her side on the landing. She gasped for air, tears blurring her vision. Her stomach lurched, sour fluid filling the back of her throat.
“Jesus Stanwitz,” Reynolds blurted out. “Take it easy!”
“Bella Bella Bella,” Stanwitz muttered, kneeling down beside the pool of vomit, looking at it with disgust. He grabbed a fistful of her hair, yanking her head backward and forcing her to look up at him. The sudden pain in her scalp made her eyes water. “You need to start cooperating honey.”
She gasped for air, clenching her teeth against another wave of nausea. Then she reached inside her left pants pocket, finding her phone and flipping it open inside her pocket, feeling the buttons to orient herself, then dialing 9-1-1. She held her thumb over the speaker, glaring back at Stanwitz.
“You’re not really cops, are you,” she accused. Stanwitz smirked at her.
“Looks like we got a god-damn genius over here,” he shot back. “Bravo Bella! You figured it out.”
There was a BAM! as Reynolds kicked the door. The door held, and Reynolds stumbled backward, nearly colliding with Stanwitz.
“Damn thing must be made of metal,” he grumbled.
“Door frame isn’t,” Stanwitz pointed out. “Hit it hard enough and it’ll break through.”
“You sure about that?” Reynolds retorted. “How about you give it a try.”
“Quit wasting time,” Stanwitz shot back. Reynolds glared at him, but readied himself again, lunging forward and kicking the door as hard as he could.
There was a loud crack, part of the doorframe breaking free. But the door still held. Stanwitz smirked.
“See?” he told Reynolds. “Again.”
Reynolds gathered himself for another round, then kicked.
The doorframe shattered, the door flying open and ricocheting off the wall, slamming into officer Reynolds. He shoved it all the way open, striding into the hallway beyond and unholstering his pistol.
“Grandpa!” Bella screamed.
Stanwitz grabbed a fistful of her hair, dragging Bella across the floor toward the broken door. She cried out, reaching blindly for his wrist and grabbing it with both hands. He dragged her into the hallway of her apartment, the carpet there burning her side as she slid across it.
“Run Grandpa!” she screamed. “Run!”
“Shut up,” Stanwitz growled, stopping to twist around and glare at her. He unholstered his pistol, shoving the cold hard metal against her forehead. He held it there for a moment, then turned around, dragging her into the living room.
And to Bella’s horror, Grandpa was there, sitting in his favorite chair at his desk, his back to them.
Stanwitz let go of Bella, striding forward and aiming his pistol at Grandpa’s back.
“Careful,” Reynolds warned. “We don’t know what he brought with him.”
“Well well ‘Mr. Brown,’” Stanwitz said. “Or should I say Mr. Birch,” he added with a smirk, stopping a few feet behind Grandpa. “Been looking forward to this for a long time.”
He paused, then cocked his head to the side. Grandpa didn’t so much as move, sitting on his chair silently, his hands in his lap. Some of the framed drawings on his desk had fallen on the floor around him, the painting above his desk hanging askew.
“Proud till the end,” Stanwitz mused. He circled around to the right, his gun aimed at Grandpa’s head. “Must’ve been exhausting, knowing we were coming. Hiding for all those years in a book, just waiting for us to find you.”
Still, Grandpa said nothing.
Stanwitz stared at him, then edged forward, stopping a foot from Grandpa.
“What’s the matter Mr. Birch?” he inquired with a smirk. “Won’t stoop to talk to one of us?”
Still no answer.
Stanwitz kicked Grandpa’s chair, sending it toppling over. Grandpa fell to the carpet with a loud thump, sprawling out on his side. Bella gasped in horror.
“Grandpa!” she cried.
Stanwitz nudged Grandpa with his foot. Then he knelt down, putting two fingers to Grandpa’s neck.
“What is it?” Reynolds asked. Stanwitz glared at him, then lowered his gaze, staring at Grandpa.
Then he cursed, standing up.
“I can’t believe it,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“What?” Reynolds repeated.
“Really?” Stanwitz stated. “After all these years we spent looking for your damn book. Ten goddamn years we looked for you, and you had to end up dead.” He looked up at Reynolds. “Honestly, he’s taking all the fun out of the job.”
And then he fired three rounds into Grandpa’s chest.
“Grandpa!” Bella screamed, scrambling to her feet. Stanwitz whirled around, pistol-whipping her in the temple. Her head snapped to the side, her skull exploding in pain.
She barely felt her face strike the carpet.
Reynolds swore, taking off his cap and running a hand through his hair.
“What do we do?”
Stanwitz sighed, turning to look at Grandpa, then Bella, his arms at his sides. He walked up to her then, his boots thumping on the floor until he was looming over her.
“We could have a little fun,” he admitted, tapping his pistol against his thigh. Then he sighed, turning away from her. “You know what? I’m just not in the goddamn mood.”
“Just grab the kid and go,” Reynolds pressed.
“Oh, we’ll go all right,” Stanwitz replied, his thin lips curling into a smirk. “But they told us this little one could come dead or alive…and frankly, I’m not up for babysitting right now.”
He pointed his pistol right at Bella’s head.
“Time for a family reunion, kid.”
Bella screamed, throwing her hands in front of her face and rolling to one side.
“No!” Reynolds cried out, leaping at Stanwitz and shoving him to the side at the last minute.
Stanwitz lurched backward, tripping over Grandpa’s body and slamming into the desk, scattering notebooks everywhere.
Bella stared at him uncomprehendingly, then heard the thunderous sound of footsteps coming into the living room from behind her. She turned, seeing four police officers rushing toward her, their guns drawn.
“Drop your weapons now!” one shouted.
Stanwitz shoved Reynolds away, raising his pistol…and the cops opened fire.
BAM BAM BAM!
Stanwitz fell backward on top of Grandpa’s desk, the rain of bullets striking him in the shoulders and chest. Reynolds cursed, bolting into the dining room.
“Go, go!” one of the cops ordered.
One officer ran after Reynolds, another checking on Stanwitz, who was lying next to Grandpa, blood soaking through his uniform. The third cop ran to Grandpa’s side, rolling him onto his back. He checked his neck for a pulse, then swore, placing his hands over Grandpa’s chest and starting CPR. He pushed so hard Bella heard a crunching sound.
Bella crawled up to Grandpa’s other side, her lower lip quivering as she looked down at him. At his kind brown eyes, staring off into nothing. His head bobbing lifelessly with each thump of his chest.
His face as pale as Death.
She shook her head mutely, kneeling over him and cradling his head against hers. She sobbed, tears streamed down her cheeks, wetting his.
“No Grandpa, no,” she moaned, rocking back and forth.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. One of the police officers was kneeling beside her.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
She ignored him, continuing to rock back and forth, cradling Grandpa’s head in her hands. She brought her lips to his ear.
“Don’t go,” she whispered. “It’s me Grandpa, it’s Bella.”
“Aw kid,” the cop muttered. “I’m real sorry.”
The officer doing chest compressions looked up.
“I need a medic!” he yelled. Sweat was already beading up on his forehead, dripping into his eyes. The cop who’d ran into the dining room after Reynolds came back into the living room.
“He’s gone,” the other stated. “Not sure how. The kitchen’s a dead-end, but the guy’s nowhere.”
“What do you mean he’s nowhere?” the cop behind Bella retorted.
“I don’t know, sir,” he replied sheepishly. “He just, um…vanished.”
“Jesus,” the cop behind Bella muttered. “Call in more back-up. Search the whole damn apartment, every damn floor. And set a perimeter around the building. No one comes in or out without going through us.”
“This one’s dead,” the cop checking Stanwitz notified. “No pulse.”
“Call two ambulances then. And put on some gloves and do CPR.”
The cops got to work, but to Bella they weren’t there at all. It was only her and Grandpa, as it’d always been. As it was always supposed to be, until the end of time.
Grandpa, telling her stories of a better, more beautiful world. Bringing life and color into an existence that too often seemed to have none. A man larger than life, the only one who made it worth living.
But it was the peculiar habit of Time to plod along at a glacial pace during moments of pain and drudgery, and to speed up during the few fleeting moments of joy life offered. And there had been no greater joy in Bella’s life than Grandpa.
So it was that, far too soon, Grandpa’s time had run out.
The Magic Collector will be available June 2019!