I got this package in the mail from my dad: brown paper wrapping, large but flat, with the word “FRAGILE” written on it in black ink. When I unwrapped it, it was this big, acrylic painting, framed in some sort of bronze-gilded plaster.
The painting itself was of this long hallway full of doors, kind of like you’d see in a fancy hotel. The walls had edging about halfway up, the upper part was painted sort of an off white while the lower half was a crimson red that blended into the carpeting. Between each door was an up-turned light, as well as on the far wall at the end, where the corridor seemed to connect to another hallway running perpendicular to it, disappearing around a corner.
It was really amazing detail, though I wouldn’t call it life-like by any means. Just the sheer amount of intricate pieces to each aspect of the scene showed that the artist really paid attention to every little thing, like somewhere in the world was this hallway, and you could stand in it and hold the painting up in front of you and if it weren’t for the border and the clearly stylized art, you wouldn’t be able to tell where the canvas ended and the real world began.
I called him up and thanked him immediately.
“But where’d you find this?”
“I got it at an auction.”
I kinda figured as much.
So I hung up the painting in my office, just behind my desk, which I realized later wasn’t the best place for it because in order to actually look at it, I had to swivel completely around, but there wasn’t anywhere better really, and once I’d gotten it hung up, I felt less willing to take it back down, so I just left it there. It kind of hung out over my shoulder and watched me work, and every now and then I’d turn around and stare at it and get entranced by it, feeling like I could get up and put my hands in the frame and climb into the painting as if the frame were a window.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if something weird didn’t happen as a result of the painting.
We had a couple friends over, Marc and Sabina, and Marc and I went into my office when the women-folk started talking about knitting, which has become my wife’s new favorite hobby. I went and sat down at my laptop to find a video I had been telling Marc about, and Marc wandered over and started admiring the painting.
“Where’d you get that?”
“My dad bought it at an auction and gave it to me.”
“It’s not that creepy. It’s kind of… I don’t know.”
I turned around to look at it with him while the video loaded. He got up close and was running his finger over the canvas, feeling the raised acrylic, and I just let my gaze wander over all the details again.
“Huh, I didn’t notice that before.”
“At the end of the hall, there’s some sort of light coming from around the corner, and it’s casting a shadow on the floor.”
I got up and looked closer, because I really hadn’t spent a lot of time studying the far end of the hallway. There was definitely some yellow and some darker colors making what looked like the shadow of a person coming from around the corner. I even reached out and touched it to make sure it wasn’t some trick of the light in the study making it just look like there was this shadow in the painting, but I felt the paint and sure enough it was actually there in the painting.
“See what I mean?” Marc said, “Creepy.”
I genuinely felt weirded out by it. It was one of those moments where you start thinking, Why didn’t I notice this earlier? Was it there to notice?
A couple days later, I was working on a project in my study, and it was like 9:30 at night, and I just couldn’t focus, so I spun around in my chair to look at the painting and I felt this sudden vertigo effect, like the ground wasn’t there and I had to grab my chair to keep from tumbling into emptiness.
You wouldn’t have noticed it if you hadn’t looked at the painting a hundred times like I had. The hallway was long, with exactly six doors. I remember, because I counted them the first day. three on the left, three on the right, each with a little shiny, metal doorknob.
Only now there were seven doors. Three on the left, four on the right. It didn’t make sense. Everything looked proportionally exactly the same, and the far end of the corridor was just as far away, and yet there was a fourth door in the right side of the hallway, with its little metal doorknob. I don’t even know which door was the fourth door, that’s how well it blended in, I just know that there were four doors where once there were three.
“What the hell is going on?”
I turned away in my chair and back to check several times and make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, but the number of doors remained constant.
I called my dad again and I asked him, “Is this a trick painting you sent me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it keeps changing. I can see it changing.”
“Not as far I know. It was just one in a bunch I picked up all at the same auction.”
After I got off the phone I took the painting down and checked the back for some some of mechanical or digital hocus pocus, but it was all soft canvas so I left it on the floor behind my office chair with the painting facing the wall because the thought of it was freaking me out.
The next day I pulled my wife into my office and held the painting up so she could see it because she hadn’t had a chance to before.
“How many doors are there?” I asked.
She looked it over for a moment. “Seven.”
“When I first got this, there were six.”
She just looked at me like I was being a goofball. “Okay, so which one wasn’t there before?”
“I have no idea.”
“You don’t know which door magically appeared?” and she laughed and gave me a kiss and went back into the other room.
It gets worse.
The next time I chatted with Marc, I told him about the extra door in the painting.
“Are you sure there weren’t seven doors to begin with?”
“Well, I would swear I counted six.”
“Well, if another one shows up, at least Melissa counted seven, and can confirm it then. You know what you should do? You should take a photo of the painting so you can prove it if anything else changes.”
What a great idea, so I got my phone and took a photo of the painting.
Two days went by. Nothing.
On the third day, I walked into my office and there was a man staring at me. Well, I mean… it wasn’t… I can’t say that it was a man or a woman. Hell, I can’t say that it was human. There was a shape at the end of the hallway in my painting. It was oddly lacking in the detail that the rest of the painting had, like someone had hurriedly painted it on. I even ran my hand over it to make sure it wasn’t fresh, that someone hadn’t actually come in and painted over my painting to drive me crazy.
It was really there.
And the look of it scared me more than anything else, changing painting included. I wish I could do it justice with words, but the best I can describe it is that it was human-ish, with legs and arms, but it seemed squat, or hunched, and lopsided, like someone had slapped a blurry Quasimodo onto an otherwise beautiful painting. You couldn’t see the details of its face, but you could see shading on it, defining really warped features. I was almost glad that there wasn’t more detail to it, except that it left just enough to the imagination to give one nightmares.
But I had proof! Here was proof that the painting was changing. So I brought up the file on my laptop to show my wife for comparison, only when I did, the figure was in the photo I took too!
At no point did I start questioning my sanity about all this. Something unnatural and terrifying was going on, so I took the painting out of the house and set it on the curb where we put our trash for pickup. I was so done with that painting.
Or so I thought.
The next evening, when I got home from work, it was gone from the curb. I figured someone had seen it and taken it home, and I waved my hands and said, “Good, now it’s someone else’s problem.” I went in, played with daughters, had dinner, put them to bed, and after watching a show with my wife, went into my office to check my email.
No, the painting wasn’t back on the wall. I made sure of that the moment I walked in the door.
But I got a message from Marc, asking if the painting had changed anymore, and I told him about the creepy new addition and also how I had gotten rid of the painting.
“Oh man, that sounds cool. I wish I’d gotten a chance to see it.”
“Well, I can send you the photo I took of it.”
So I opened the image file.
The thing in the painting had raised its arms.
Before, you could only barely make out the arms hanging at its sides, but now both arms were raised up over its head, and its fingers were spread apart like it was waving hello at me. I think it was waving hello at me.
I zoomed in, as best as I could without pixelating the image, and the shaded contours of the face seemed stretched into a grin.
Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
I sent Marc the file, but the connection kept fucking up, so I put it in a folder on my dropbox account and gave him access to it.
“The file’s corrupted.” He texted me.
I tried to open it as well, but he was right. Every time I copied the image file, somehow it got corrupted.
“It must be the spooky magic.” Marc joked.
“This is no joke. I’m freaking out here.”
“Delete the file if it’s scaring you so bad.”
So I deleted the file.
But it gnawed at me, you know? The painting was still changing, in horrible, terrifying ways, seemingly acknowledging my observation of it, and now it was gone. But if it was gone, why should it matter? If something unholy happens, it’s the problem of whoever has the painting now, right? And they’ll see it changing too, won’t they?
It was two days later, and I was organizing a folder of documents and had accidentally deleted a couple I hadn’t meant to. I went into the Windows recycling bin and — you guessed it — there was the image file along with the documents.
I had to look. I was trembling with dread at the thought of it, but when something so surreal happens to you, you have to witness it and see it through to the end.
I recovered the file and opened it.
The walls of the hallway seemed to be melting. The partition separating the red from the off-white was lower than it had been before, and drooped in places. The ridge on the lights looked like they were peeling off. The carpet seemed less crimson and more reddish brown.
And the figure had taken several steps down the corridor toward the viewer’s perspective. More details had become defined: hair hanging off its head, long and black like it had been painted with a fine-tipped brush, the eyes were little more than dull black points under the shading of the brow. The grin came with teeth, uneven and fat, like those of a child more than an adult. Its arms were extended out on either side of it, touching both walls. One foot was ahead of the other, as if I had caught it mid-step in a game of red light/green light.
I realized I was panting and shaking as I looked at it. It was really hard to breathe, an anxiety attack. The painting was going to make me pass out, just from looking at a digital photo of it.
Quickly, I closed the image to calm myself down, but that suddenly brought forth the thought, What if it progresses every time I look away? The only way to stop it is to keep looking! and I opened the file again.
No change. Oh– no, wait, that wasn’t a new change, I had noticed it before, but it hadn’t dawned on me. One of the doors was open. There was a dim blue light coming from the room inside, moonlight I thought. And just outside the threshold of the door, there was an object lying on the floor.
I zoomed in for better detail.
It was a little, yellow, stuffed lion with a scraggly, orange mane. A child’s toy. Of all the details, the melting hallway, the grinning fiend with arms wide open, the blue light from the open doorway, it was the innocent nature of that little toy lion that filled me with the most dread.
My wife came into the office.
“Come kiss the girls goodnight.”
I went into their darkened room, where they were both wrapped up in blankets in their bunks, each hugging a half dozen stuffed animals and looking cute as could be. My little darlings. I love them both so much.
I kissed my oldest goodnight. She kissed me back and hugged her little pillow pet with the built in night light. It glowed through a variety of colors.
The little one in the lower bunk gave me one of her super strong hugs where she presses her cheek against mine and squeezes for all she’s worth.
“I love you, baby.” I told her.
“Can you get my Simba?”
I looked around. “Where’d you leave it?”
“Over there.” She pointed to the closet. The door was open, and her toy lay on the floor just inside.
Simba, her little, yellow, stuffed lion with the scraggly, orange mane.
Seeing it lying there, just past the threshold of the closet door, while the dim glow of my oldest daughter’s night light faded from red to purple to blue, I felt my heart rise up in my chest. The closet was just a closet. I could see it was just a closet. There were clothes on hangers and bags with toys and blocks in them. They were right there. And yet, as I looked at the stuffed lion lying on the floor, waiting for me, I felt as if I could see carpeting on the floor inside the closet, even though there was none. Carpeting, not in my vision, but in my imagination. And maybe if I went in and shut the door, I’d find that the walls beyond those clothes had a wooden partition, red below, off-white above.
And maybe there was something hunched and terrible shambling its way toward us even as I stood there staring at that toy.
I walked, briskly, trying not to look half as frightened as I was, snatched up Simba and shut the closet door. My breathing was heavy, like I’d just run a mile, and I struggled to avoid gasping for breath as I tried to calm myself down.
“Hey, did that poster fall down?” I asked nobody in particular, then pretended I was trying to adjust a cat poster that had been on the floor by their dresser for months, and shoved the heavy dresser over so that it partially blocked the closet door.
“Here’s Simba, sweety.” I handed the lion to my littlest, gave her a quick hug and kiss, and wished them both goodnight before rushing back to my office.
The painting had changed, as I knew it would. The open door was closed, the toy gone from the floor, the hallway was dimly lit with yellow light from the melting lights again. But the thing, that not-quite-human fiend, was standing right outside the now shut door, its body turned to face it with both hands pressed up against the door itself like it was running its hands down it, caressing it, and its head turned toward me, still grinning that awful, frightening grin full of gnashed, crooked teeth.
Oh God how close had it been? No, it’s just a closet! The hallway is not there. It’s not real. None of this is real.
I’ve put up signs around the neighborhood, knocked on doors, asked everyone I know and many I don’t if they know who took the painting. I need to find it and get it back. I want to tear it, shred it in my hands, throw it in a fire and watch it burn to ashes. Jesus God in Heaven, I hope it didn’t end up in some landfill.