The painting stood out from all the other bric a brac in the junk shop. Julia pushed her way through the overstuffed bookcases and flowery vases to get a closer look. The bookcases wobbled precariously, but she had to get closer, had to touch it. She was drawn to it very strongly, just as though it was calling her. Little did she know from that point on the picture would tell her a tale that she wished it had kept secret.
Julia walked through the front door of her flat carrying the pain-ting she had bought earlier under her arm. She carefully placed it on the floor and lent it gently against the wall. She took the brown wrapping paper from around it, and then turned the painting the right way up, knelt down in front of it and looked at it with amazement.
It’s magnificent, she thought, dreamily. The painting itself was of a landscape. Hills were in the background below an orange sunset. In the foreground stood a solitary cottage made of wood, nestling amidst an abundance of trees and foliage. Julia had heard of the artist before but she had not really liked his work until she had seen this piece. From what she had heard about Paul Marshall, he was an arrogant self-centred man who treated everyone with contempt. She knew from the date after his signature, that this must have been his last painting before he mysteriously disappeared. She had read all about it in the paper and as far as she could remember, for this was five years ago now, no sign of him was ever found. Not that she thought it was a bad thing. Probably the only person who cared about the disappearance was his agent and the money he would lose from his client never painting again.
Julia found a hammer and nail and began to hang her painting. As she walked around her flat, she kept glancing at it. All night as she watched the TV it was like her eyes were temptingly drawn to it.
That night Julia was plagued with dreams of the painting and at one point she even believed she was stood outside the cottage. Maybe if I reach out towards the door the dream will stop, she thought. As she reached for the handle, she heard a voice calling out from inside. She became afraid of what the cottage might hold. She tried frantically to wake herself, by twisting the skin on her arm in a vicious pinch. It didn’t work and with the fact that it hurt so badly, the realization of the situation she found herself in became more real.
She wasn’t at home in bed; she was here for real, in the painting and outside this cottage. Frightened, but curious, Julia pulled up the latch on the door and pushed it open slowly.
A foul smell assaulted her nostrils as though something had died inside. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the cottage and her nose to the smell, she stepped over the threshold. Candles were burning but it was still very dark. She heard the voice again. It had the tone of a frightened and wounded animal. Pitiful and whining.
From the corner of her eye she saw movement. She plucked one of the candles from the wall sconce and angled the light towards the movement, and nearly dropped it to the floor when she saw what was in front of her. A man – about six foot tall – was stretched by his hands and feet by chains that were bolted securely to the wall. The chains were so tight that he could not move. He was stripped of his clothing and she couldn’t help but notice how well endowed he was. He must have noticed her looking and tried to move a little – either out of embarrassment or just being uncomfortable under her scrutiny, she didn’t know which, but she moved her gaze to his face and stepped towards him. When she was closer, she noticed the large padlocks holding the chains together.
She was still gazing at the man’s face when a voice, different to the one she had already heard, called out her name. The man hadn’t moved his lips and she fought hard with the realisation that whoever had chained this man was here in the room with them both. The chained man turned his head slightly to her, looking her straight in the eyes. His mouth opened and closed but nothing came out. She moved closer to see if that helped and when she caught a glimpse of the inside of his mouth, she realized that he had no tongue.
When the voice spoke from right behind her, Julia dropped the candle. She whirled around, suddenly blinded by the darkness. A small strangled cry emerged from her mouth and she desperately tried to feel her way towards the other burning candles. The voice came again, this time more softly.
‘Don’t be afraid, Julia’, it said, ‘I will not hurt you’.
‘Who’s there? What do you want?’ she asked.
‘Who I am is not important’, the voice replied, gently.
‘What have you done to this poor man?’ she asked, trying to remain calm.
‘This poor man,’ the voice mocked, ‘is the most selfish individual I have ever met’.
‘What has he done to deserve such a punishment?’
‘This man is Paul Marshall’, it said, ‘You have no doubt heard of him’
‘He’s the artist whose painting I bought earlier’.
‘Very good,’ said the voice as though playing a game, ‘He called upon me to help him achieve fame and fortune and I gave him what he wanted. As he became more famous, he became more arrogant. He used his position to commit terrible deeds and I realised what he had become and knew he had to be stopped’. The voice paused for a while.
‘So I brought him here, the place that was to witness his last evil crime’. Silence fell in the darkened room and Julia’s mind was reeling from all that the voice had told her.
‘What did he do that was so bad?’ she asked, trembling with fright and anger.
Movement to the left of her caused her to turn her head and a dark shadow moved beyond the candlelight.
‘This monster raped and killed his own wife’, the voice replied, ‘And it was the last straw as far as I was concerned. I had sat back and watched everything happen and let him do it all but he became worse than evil. When he killed her, I knew that he would stop at nothing to create the world he wanted and I knew I was the only one with the power to stop him. Make him repent, if you like’.
Julia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She pinched herself again, and still she did not wake. There were so many questions reeling around in her mind but every time she tried to open her mouth nothing came out. The voice spoke one last time, very quietly.
‘You have no business being here. Now go’.
She slowly made her way towards the door picking up a candle on the way for extra light. She heard movement behind her and turned sharply just in time to see the fire that must have been started from the candle she dropped earlier.
Why I didn’t notice that sooner, she suddenly thought. She looked above her and saw that the ceiling of the cottage was now alight. She began to race towards the door. Just as she passed through it, the roof collapsed and as she watched the whole of the cottage fell in on itself.
Julia woke with a start, the smell of burning deep in her nostrils, clinging to the inside of her lungs even when she coughed to try and clear them.
It was all a dream, she thought. Clambering from her bed she made her way to the bathroom. After washing she made her way to the kitchen. When she passed the lounge, she smelt a strong odour of burning and was panic stricken that a fire had started in there and she had in fact been woken from the smell of the fumes from there. But there was no sign of smoke coming through the door. Cautiously, she pushed open the door and flicked on the light switch. What she saw made her cry out with sheer fright. For right in front of her on the wall was the painting that she bought, but there was one major difference. The small cottage had been burnt to the ground. All that remained was charred wooden remains scattered on the forest floor. She fell to her knees in disbelief.
Somewhere from beyond the shadows a gentle laugh could be heard.
She bought a painting that caught her eye but it led her to a world of death