Ghastly tendrils of fog, like the greedy fingers of adoring acolytes, curled up from the moor to claw for purchase on the worn façade of the stoic Whitmore Manor. Within the manor's walls, a thin coat of dust gathered like the first snows of autumn, even on the surface of the table where dinner was served.
Young Leo peered trepidatiously into his bowl, stirring rancid pork stew. He considered soldiering through a bite to appease his mother, but upon seeing the pork’s pink hue, he feared it might well bite back. The rolls, too, were inedible: burnt black on the bottom and ice cold in the middle. Leo looked around at his mother, still glistening from the heat of the kitchen, his stiff-lipped father, and their visitor, Emet. Nobody dared address the state of the food, instead opting for the distraction of polite conversation.
Emet took up his glass and tapped it carefully with the flat of his knife. “Here, here. I’d like to propose a toast.”
The Whitmores raised their glasses in response and waited for Emet to continue. Leo’s mother, flustered, was already drinking from hers.
“To the Whitmores, for your generous hospitality over the last week. To Archibald, for taking in a strange traveler and giving him a place to lick his wounds. And to the delightful Vanessa, who has graciously kept my belly full of food and wine.”
Leo’s mother waved away the compliment. “It’s alright, Emet, I know my cooking’s no good. If Hattie were here, you’d have eaten like a king, believe me. Drat, she couldn’t have picked a worse time to up and leave.”
Archibald interrupted, grumbling, “Good help is hard to find.”
Emet studied the Whitmores for a moment before finishing his toast. “Finally, to little Leo, for nearly blinding me with his slingshot the moment I arrived.” He pointed to the gash above his left eye. “You are stronger than that little frame suggests, young one. A protector, the guardian of the manor, God bless you.”
Great, Leo thought, feeling his mother’s gaze burn against the side of his face. I’ll be hearing about that slingshot for weeks.
Archibald took his turn as toastmaster. “To the great Whitmore name. Whereas others are sheep, we are a noble family of lions. We come from nothing, yet here we sit, commanding the respect of all our countrymen. Look at fierce little Leo, only ten. I’m proud of you, boy, for defending what’s ours. That instinct will serve our pride well.”
“To the pride,” said Emet, with a nearly inscrutable hint of sarcasm.
“The pride,” echoed the Whitmores.
“So,” said Vanessa, herself a little queasy over the stew. “How is our portrait coming along?”
A sometime successful artist, Emet had offered to paint the Whitmores a family portrait as recompense for his extended stay. On hearing the offer, Archibald insisted it would be a fine addition to the foyer. A vibrant symbol of Whitmore permanence.
“Coming along fine,” said Emet with a toothy smile.
“You’re taking your time,” said Archibald pointedly. “You know something, sometimes I’ll walk by and you’re barely looking at the canvas. I counted once, you painted with your eyes shut for nearly half a minute. This had better not be a waste of our time.”
Emet swirled the wine in his glass, refusing to be intimidated. “My process, I suppose. Don’t fret. Soon enough the job will be finished and I’ll be on my way.”
“Strange process,” Archibald mumbled.
“My process nevertheless, you twit.”
Vanessa’s eyes widened at the affront. She grabbed her husband by the shoulder as he rose from the table full of rage. “Honey. How about some lemonade? Shame about the stew, I know, but I’m sure I can handle some lemonade. Perhaps I’ll put something a little stronger in it, how does that sound?”
The alcohol soothed the tension for a while, but the men were drinking on empty stomachs. While Vanessa washed dishes in the kitchen and Leo sat tucked away in the parlor reading Lewis Carroll, a relatively tame conversation about politics took a turn once more to the preeminence of the Whitmore family. At this, Emet slammed his fist on the table, sending up a puff of dust.
“On one hand, Mr. Whitmore, you speak fondly of your humble beginnings, yet on the other, you seem hell-bent on distancing yourself from the very idea of humility. Tell me, how exactly did you pull yourself out of poverty and earn your place in this great old manor?”
Archibald seethed. “Grit.”
“Aye, I’ll give you that. But it is a half-truth. Make no mistake, I see it clearly. You are not quite the man you claim to be.”
Archibald’s voice became dark and quiet. “You are mad. There is not a soul would take your word over mine.”
“I’m mad. That is certain, but heed this. I don’t intend to reveal my findings to anyone who’d care. That is to say, you and your family are safe so long as you can live with the guilt of all that you did to get here.” Emet paused, then lowered his voice so that Leo could hardly hear over the water running in the kitchen. “Your wife already knows, I’d wager, and that clever boy will soon figure you out. Tell me, what will you do then?”
“Get out of my house,” said Archibald. Then he stood, his chair clattering on the floor behind him. “Get out!”
Leo got up and peeked around the corner into the dining room as his father stomped away from the table. The boy couldn’t wrap his mind around whatever the men had been talking about, but he was sure his father was in an awful mood. His father was often in an awful mood.
Vanessa came out of the kitchen grimacing and tiptoed after her husband, steeling herself for a confrontation.
Emet, meanwhile, grabbed his bag from the guest room and walked out the door. Leo ran after him and found himself dampened by the rain.
“Emet!” he cried, but the man had already disappeared into the fog.
For a while Leo played with his slingshot, shooting it up into the night and stepping aside at the last moment to let it crash on the lawn. He didn’t want to be outside so much as he didn’t want to be inside. He knew the signs. His parents would be in a shouting match upstairs, and he'd long since given up on trying to get in the way. He forgave them; they were caught up. It wasn’t about him.
The rain started to beat harder on his skin, and then there was lightning. No more escaping. As he’d guessed, the argument upstairs was raging on, drowning even the thunder. The indiscriminate hollering of his father, the high-pitched wailing of his mother. He didn’t like to think of them this way. Every time his parents fought, the world got a little noisier.
Leo saw Emet’s canvas leaning against the fireplace and turned it around to see the painting for the first time. At first glance, it was marvelous. Leo struggled to sketch faces, and here was an oil rendering so realistic as to give the illusion that one was seeing the scene through their own eyes. The manor, too, was sharp in its every detail. A splendid work of art.
Leo admired it for a while, then turned to look away. But as he did, he was left with a sour taste. For all its splendor, there was something strange about the painting, too. Something one didn't want to notice, because it would taint a perfectly good thing. What was it? He returned his gaze to the canvas and scanned every stroke. There it was, in the attic window. A manly silhouette, almost as broad as his father’s.
Leo’s breath caught. He half-remembered something Emet had said about paintings and pictures. What was it? He raised his slingshot and loaded his stone, pulling the contraption back taut and aiming it at the shadowy figure.
Just as he stilled himself to fire, the argument in the master bedroom upstairs came to a peak with a thump on the floor. The impact caused Leo to flinch as he fired, and the stone punched a small tear just below the image of the attic, leaving the shadow untouched.
A shrill scream pierced the air, resonating from the upper floors. Leo picked up his stone and ran toward it.
She’s okay, he assured himself. Mom’s okay.
Indeed she was. Both Archibald and Vanessa emerged from their bedroom, evidently as confused by the scream as Leo was. A boy hugged his mother, then, reinvigorated, bounded up the stairs to the attic, slingshot at the ready.
In the doorway to the attic was a jagged black absence—a three-dimensional tear in a location perfectly correspondent to the hole Leo shot in the painting. What did Emet say? But the tear was erased from his memory the moment he looked away.
Beneath the attic window was a heavy oaken chest. Next to the chest was the figure from the painting: a faceless man made of shadow, wielding in one hand an icy, glowing white blade.
The shadow approached. With astonishing speed and precision, little Leo Whitmore, guardian of the Whitmore Manor, fired his slingshot. The stone rocketed forth and struck its target… then passed through with an ethereal whoosh and shattered the window beyond.
This painting is more than a picture, Emet had said. Leo remembered now. Perhaps if I scrub out his image…
But before Leo could act on his startling discovery, the shadow had him by the collar, lifting him into the air and holding him there, staring without eyes. As Leo began to feel a pressure stifle his breathing, his mother and father burst into the room.
“Let him go!” Vanessa pleaded, voice hoarse with despair and strain.
Archibald spoke evenly, underplaying his own fear. “What do you want? We can work something out, can’t we? I’ll give you whatever you need.”
The shadow turned his eyeless gaze toward Archibald. “Confess,” it hissed.
“Confess?” Archibald asked, convincing no one, least of all himself. “Confess to what?”
The shadow lifted its icy blade and set the razor-thin edge against Leo’s neck. “Confess.”
Archibald dropped his head in submission. “Vanessa,” he said. “Open the trunk.”
Vanessa moved step by quivering step across the room, eyes frozen on the shadow until the edge of the chest collided with her hip, giving her a start. She looked at Archibald, who nodded solemnly, and opened the lid. A rancid smell, far worse than pork stew, filled the room. At first Vanessa looked confused, then horrified, then numb. She pressed herself against the wall with a blank expression.
Leo felt tears welling in his eyes as he asked a question he didn’t really need to ask. “What is it, mother?”
Archibald answered for her. His voice came through thin and raspy, devoid of its usual bravado. “I’ve sinned, son. A great deal more than you know. Well… the simple fact of it is… Hattie. She called me aside about a week ago, right here in this very attic, and she told me I put a child in her. I panicked, I did. Everything we’ve ever built—your mother and I—damn! I didn’t mean to do it, honestly, but I did. I took my knife and I got rid of that baby, and Hattie with it. You have to understand, I did it for our good name. That’s my confession.”
Neither Leo nor Vanessa knew what to do, what to say. They simply stared, wide-eyed, at the balding crown of Archibald’s drooping head.
There were a few moments of unbearable silence before the shadow hissed, “Incomplete.”
Archibald let out a resigned laugh and turned his tear-streaked face up to the shadow, letting his arms fall limp. He spoke with an emotional weight Leo had never seen. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for my family. When my son was born, we had nothing. Dirt and worms. Leo was just a babe, so I couldn’t very well let his mother starve, understand? I couldn't. We came upon this big manor and the little family just like ours and—. Look, I saw the opportunity, I took it. They had everything we needed. Security. A name to be proud of. Can you honestly blame me?”
“You killed the Whitmores.”
“I did. God help me.”
Leo looked at his mother, who nodded her regretful confession of complicity.
The shadow released Leo and glanced at Vanessa. “Leave.”
Then, in one swift movement, the shadow placed his hand on Archibald’s shoulder and let himself in. Archibald collapsed unconscious on the floor, a man with a soul blackened by pride and guilt.
“Leo,” snapped Vanessa. “Go pack a bag and meet me in the foyer.”
Hardly in control of his emotions, Leo went to his room and packed a few essentials away—clothes, books. Nothing sentimental. He didn’t want to be reminded of his time at the Whitmore Manor, the life he’d lived at the expense of another.
As he finished packing his bag, his nostrils began to burn. At first it was annoying, then painful, then an overwhelming nausea. He held his breath as he made his way down to the foyer, where his mother stood wreathed in moonlight by the open door. His father stood at the opposite end of the room, holding up Emet’s painting and a lit match. Leo realized what the smell was: lamp oil, doused all over Archibald and the canvas.
Leo crossed the room and stood with his mother in the door as the fumes threatened to blot out his consciousness. His father had a lifeless, blank look on his face. Whether it was the shadow in control or not, nobody could tell. There were fresh tears streaming. Leo thought perhaps his father was trapped inside somewhere, but knew deep down that it was too late for him.
This painting is more than a picture.
Archibald put the match to the painting. As flame took the canvas, it took the whole manor. Vanessa and Leo stumbled out onto the lawn, gasping for fresh air in the moments before they lost consciousness.
Leo awoke on his back, too weak to lift his head from the grass.
The stars and moon were occluded by an enormous cloud of smoke and ash billowing up from the rubble of the Whitmore Manor.
Four glowing white wisps rose up from the ground, piercing the smoke on their way to the sky. Three for the real Whitmores, at rest after nearly a decade of turmoil. Another for Hattie and her child, one misshapen soul tragically interrupted in its divergence.
Leo felt his mother’s hand fold his in a cool embrace.
“I'll miss the house,” she muttered grimly.
“You can't possibly be proud of anything that happened in there.”
A loaded silence.
“I’m proud of you.”