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The Devil's in the Details · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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“It is an… interesting piece.”

The phrase was one that Antonio Curcio spoke a lot in his line of work: running an antique shop. He considered it an effective means of getting whatever customer had walked in with a family heirloom or garage sale find to stick around and discuss a price reasonably, rather than start a shouting match over the worth of whatever they had come to sale. “It emboldens them just enough,” he’d say to his friends, family and the one employee he actually had on payroll. However, it required a practiced, neutral tone to pull it off.

Now, looking at a painting that had been brought in, the phrase escaped as if it were a genuine reaction: hushed, spoken under his breath and with an expression of curiosity on his aged face. It was as if he could tell there was something about the piece that did warrant calling it “interesting,” but what exactly that quality was escaped him. Antonio looked it over once, twice, three times before looking back up at the man who had brought it in.

The customer was of higher class than the aged grandparents or young adults that made up the bulk of Antonio’s clientele. He wore a well-tailored grey suit with a blue silk tie that drew out the matching color of his eyes just enough. His beard was well-trimmed and his black hair was done in a simple, but stylish looking crew cut. The expression he wore, however, looked tired.

“You said you had three others like it?” Antonio asked, looking back over the painting a few more times with a careful eye. He was mostly looking for a signature to potentially identify the artist, though he couldn’t help but spare a glance to the painting as a whole in an attempt to find that elusive something that had caught his eye on first glance.

The painting was a detailed drawing of a small village square. Cobblestone streets circled around an aged fountain and forked off into the foreground and the edges of the painting, flanked by simple brick buildings, the largest of which was a two-story shop off to the side of center frame. In the background, there were rolling hills and a mountain, though their features were mostly covered in shadow by the setting sun just above the peak of the mountain. Shadows covered the streets as well, though the fountain was perfectly framed in light. Not a single person was drawn on the streets or in the windows of the buildings. There wasn’t anything remarkable about it that would make it a masterpiece.

“Yes,” the man replied, pulling Antonio’s attention away from the piece as a whole. “They were my father’s. He passed away recently, but we weren’t very close.” Even though Antonio was still inspecting the painting for a signature, he could hear the man rubbing the back of his neck and the collar of his suit jacket, along with the pain in his voice.

“Did he paint them, Mister...?” Antonio asked as he put his search for a signature on the painting to rest and flipped it to inspect the back of the frame.

“Filch, Marcus Filch, and no. I don’t think so, at least. The will didn’t say anything about if he made them, though I certainly don’t remember them from my childhood.”

Antonio’s search on the back of the frame had no results, and so he flipped it back so that the painting was facing up. He looked up at Marcus and took off the small the small reading glasses he had on. He noticed, for a moment, that Marcus seemed like he was trying not to look down at the painting.

“Well, I certainly think I can move them if they’re all of this quality,” Antonio began, before moving to his left to grab a large photo album from the counter. He flipped it open and cleaned his glasses for a moment before putting them back on. His shop, Curcio’s Curios, didn’t have the space to display artwork, so he kept a book of what he had in stock to sort through. “Are they all this size?”

Marcus took a moment to clear his throat before replying. “Yeah. I’ve got them out in the car.” The painting was a little over two feet by three feet.

“Alright, then I can probably give you five hundred for the whole lot. Sound alright?” Antonio held out his right hand for a shake, as his left took off his reading glasses once more.

Despite his tired expression, Marcus smiled and shook Antonio’s hand. The grip of the handshake was strong, and the smile seemed practiced. Antonio assumed that whatever line of work Marcus did to have such nice clothes, he likely needed a well-practiced smile. He at least hoped that his was more genuine.

As Marcus headed out the front door to his car, Antonio took a moment to look around the rest of the store. There were a number of names for what he trafficked in: knick knacks, bric-a-brac, antiques, vintage items, heirlooms, curios… He chose the last to name his store not just on the basis of alliteration (as he could have easily called the shop Antonio’s Antiques), but because he had a deep respect for his family.

He had a grandfather who served in two wars, a mother who spent her life teaching and helping their community enough to have a wing of the neighborhood library named after her, an uncle who spent his life creating whimsical inventions and even managed to make a name for himself with one or two of them and many more that he could spend hours talking about to strangers and friends alike.

He’d even gotten his first interest in antiques because of a few items his great-grandparents brought over from Italy when they moved to America. It wasn’t much, just some old buckles and coins, but they were kept so pristine when Antonio got them that he felt compelled to keep them in such condition. Dozens of years of practice and patience, and he felt he made enough of a name for himself around town for repairs. Half of the items he had in stock were nowhere near as well-maintained when he purchased or found them, though to any but the most discerning eye, it was impossible to tell. Regardless of what his customers wanted to call the items he sold, he liked to call them “relics,” in hopes that someone generations later would open his store like a vault and proclaim everything inside as such.

There were a few pieces of antique furniture sitting off in the corner, flanked by two walls that had three grandfather clocks and an assortment of other time-keeping pieces along them. Another corner held a variety of smaller vintage pieces: jewelry boxes, music boxes, mirrors, statues and picture frames. The rest of the shop was set up into a few aisles of miscellaneous pieces and items, and the glass counter held several smaller, more valuable items, like jewelry and pocket watches. Overall, it was a modest amount of merchandise, and Antonio was proud of most all of it. Granted, there was no one else in the shop floor now that Marcus had left.

He reached down for the painting and picked it up with a bit of effort. As he turned towards the back room, he called out, “Zach! Need some help with a customer in the back.”

Zach was the only employee that Antonio had for the past two years, though he had known the boy for five. Zach would often spend afternoons in the shop biding time while his mother was busy with work, much to Antonio’s initial consternation. The first few times of having to tell the boy to be gentle with anything he picked up managed to fall away to a budding interest in antiques from Zach, which made Antonio more than happy to offer him a job to help with manning the counter or cleaning up the shop when he finally turned sixteen.

With a steady hand, Antonio moved the large painting towards the backroom, but was greeted by Zach’s hands on the other side of the painting before he could make it through the doorway. “I got it, Mister Curcio. You should take it easy.”

Antonio, for his part, didn’t release his grip. “Nonsense. I’m barely pushing sixty, Zachariah, not shambling off to the crypt. Just help me get it over to the shooting table.”

Zach groaned and rolled his eyes. Antonio knew he could a reaction out of the boy just from uttering his full name, though he had to use it sparingly to avoid lessening the effect.

The two moved into the backroom with the painting, much faster than Antonio would have managed alone. The backroom, unlike the shop floor, was much more cramped. There were several tight aisles off to the side where Antonio kept a variety of tools and parts he used for repairs. Past them, to the left, there was a small workshop area with a simple desk for repairing smaller items, and a door connected to that which led off to thick-walled room for larger objected that needed power tools.

The two moved, instead, to the right, where there was a larger open area for storing bulkier items that couldn’t yet be put on the shop floor, needed more work, or, in the case of the paintings, had to be kept back here. Just past that was the shooting table: a large shelf against the wall that was all covered and surrounded by white canvas, with a trio of bright lights above and around it to light it. The painting was set down just as a load knock came from the back door.

While Zach ran off to answer it, Antonio grabbed the camera sitting on the shooting table and looked at the painting. In the brighter light, he was reminded of some old photographs that his grandmother on his father’s side shared of the village his great-grandparents came from. He could imagine the colors of the painting in that old black and white photograph, and took a few pictures as his mind drifted.

He had been looking for something to put on the empty wall of his study back home, and he was sure that the painting would fit nicely there. Even if the room was a little dim, it would certainly look nice on the wall, with the firelight across the room bringing out just enough of the sunset’s colors. He always wanted something there, like most things in his study and home, that reminded him of his family he didn’t have the time or energy to go see anymore.

In the flash of photograph, for one moment, though, he swore he saw something; it was that “something” that made him call the painting “interesting” several minutes ago. His mind seemed to pick up on the color red, but then he put the camera down from in front of his eyes and scanned the painting, it was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it was just the way the orange of the sunset looked under the bright flash of the camera.

“Got the rest of them, Mister Curcio.”

Antonio jumped as he heard Zach’s voice, but a few short breaths were enough to calm his startled heart. He handed the camera off to Zach and told him to take a few pictures of the others as he went to meet Marcus at the back. Along the way, he stopped to pick up a small cash box he kept near the door, and gave the three paintings a quick look, just to count that there were indeed four total.

“Alright, Mister Filch. Want anything in particular?” Antonio asked as he flipped open the cash box.

“Twenties are fine,” Marcus replied.

Looking up at him, and then over his shoulder, Antonio could see that the man drove a car that seemed to match the price tag of his suit. He let out a small whistle at the sight of it, but then quickly coughed to try and cover his surprise. He pulled out 25 twenty dollar bills, and put the cash box down on the table next to the door. His mind was still on that old village his family came from.

The man’s clearly in pain over it, he reminded himself. It isn’t your business. However, Antonio’s curiosity and his sense of familial pride was too great for his tact to overcome. “Why don’t you want them?” he blurted out as he counted off the twenties. One, two, three…

“I’m sorry?” Marcus asked, though it was quiet as he was busy looking over his shoulder at his vehicle.

Ten, eleven, twelve… “Just… curiosity, you know? I’m curious why you don’t want the paintings.” Antonio was still focused on the stack of twenties in his hand, but he could feel the glare he was getting.

“I just don’t, sir.” The reply was simple, sharp and curt.

Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. Antonio finished his count and handed them out to Marcus, looking up to meet the man’s eyes. The tiredness in his face was still there, but his eyes were a piercing blue. Even without that silk tie, they would have stood out from across a room. “Apologies, I didn’t mean to offend. Just so you know, though, when it does come to the items we purchase, there’s a two-week grace period. If you want them back, we’ll gladly give them for what we paid in return.”

Marcus took the cash quickly and counted it himself. Satisfied, he folded the stack and put it in one of his pockets before taking out his keys. “I’ll keep it in mind. Honestly though… they just unsettled me.”

Antonio nodded and closed the door as Marcus walked away. He walked back over to the shooting table, taking a look at the three other paintings in more detail. The first was forested valley between two mountains in the moonlight. The second was the portrait of a young woman in what looked like a Victorian home; she was smiling. The third was a bustling city street in front of what looked like a town hall, carriages lining the street and a few small groups walking this way and that.

They look fine to me, Antonio thought before looking back at the first painting. “Hey, Zach, get the pictures in the album at the front and clean up before you close, alright?” With that, he picked up the painting of the village square, and headed for home.

Later that night, Antonio was in the final steps of putting the painting on the wall. The study was filled with items that wouldn’t have been out of place in his shop: an antique reading chair and a matching end table, several older books on shelves, several decorative boxes and miscellaneous items on both the shelves and an old writing desk and even a vintage typewriter. Antonio didn’t fancy himself a writer by any means, but he did like the way the typewriter looked.

The barren stretch of wall was right next to the large bookcase. Some of it was already covered in old family photographs and pictures of friends, but Antonio had been looking for a good piece to fill it out. As he set the last nail in place after double checking measurements, he set his tools down and hefted the painting up. With just a bit of strain and effort, he set it in place, keeping his hands close for any sign that it might fall. Satisfied, after a few moments, he started to move away, until he caught sight of that “something” once more.

It was red, again, but this time it wasn’t the momentary flicker of red from the flash of a camera. The only light he had in the room was from the desk lamp angled towards the wall, and the firelight coming from across the room, but he was certain he saw it. He leaned in close, scanning the picture. Not in the hills or the mountain; not on the cobblestone streets leading into the square; it wasn’t on the face of the buildings or in the windows of the shop.

It was the fountain. There, on the right side, was a streak of bright red. Even in the shadow of his body cast by the desk lamp, he could see it, clear as day. He took a step to the side, though, just to be sure it wasn’t a trick of the light, or at least lack thereof. It was still there. “Why would they paint it red?” he asked himself aloud. Antonio had taken every precaution in taking the painting home, so he was certainly that it wasn’t some problem that he had caused.

“Maybe it’s rust, or… no, it’s far too bright for that. Paint? I mean, in the scene he was painting? It must be…” Antonio tried to reassure himself, but he trailed off as his eyes followed the streak of red down the side of the fountain. There, almost impossibly small, was a small dot of red on the cobblestone road next to the fountain. Antonio felt his mouth hanging open, turning dry, and his right hand shaking. Slowly, he stepped away from the painting, moving left and right, eyes locked on the streak of red and that drop of bl-- red in the street.

He tried to look away from that spot, to the rest of the painting and then back, but his eyes wouldn’t leave it. It was true he was getting old, certainly, but he wouldn’t miss something like this when he looked at the painting earlier that day, and his memory wasn’t that bad yet either. “It shouldn’t be there. It isn’t right,” he said to himself, as if affirming it would make it vanish. It didn’t.

Finally closing his mouth and swallowing, he turned and walked towards the door. Casting one look back at the painting, he couldn’t make out the red from the distance. Maybe it could stay, if it was so unnoticeable. He hardly took the time to look at the pictures on his wall closely anyway.

Mister Filch had not taken Antonio up on the offer of a grace period. It had been three weeks, and there had been no sign of the man or his expensive car anywhere near the store. Instead, Antonio was back to his usual customer base. There was, right now, an elderly couple on their way out with a few pieces of jewelry and a matching box, and a young man looking at the photo album on the counter. Antonio, however, was walking through the shop floor, doing some cleaning and admiring his work.

He took the time to stop and look over a few items, lamenting that they hadn’t been sold. One of the older grandfather clocks took him a good two weeks just to do the exterior, but it hadn’t caught a single customer’s eye. There was also a porcelain doll that set next to the jewelry box recently sold that took quite a bit of time to repaint, though the antique music box below it was still on the shelf. He quickly moved the music box next to the doll, opening the lid for a moment to hear the florid tune before heading back to the counter.

The customer wanted one of the paintings in the back. It wasn’t one of Mister Filch’s pieces, but it was one that Antonio had there for a good six months. Walking to the backroom, Antonio looked for the marked canvas covering that matched the number. It was in the same stack as the other three pieces Marcus had sold. Pulling the canvas down, Antonio took a moment to look them over again.

He immediately felt the breath catch in his throat. The painting of the moonlit forest valley looked as if it were tinted red. It was a minor discoloration, all throughout the painting, but Antonio took a moment to close his eyes and look again, just to be sure. “It wasn’t…” he muttered, pulling the painting towards him as he looked at the next.

The young woman was still sitting perfectly in her chair, and Antonio’s first instinct was to look for red as well. He wondered, for a moment, if perhaps the paintings had been a trick played on him by Mister Filch. Perhaps there was some slowly oozing through layer of paint below them that would ruin them in time. However, the red hadn’t tainted the woman’s portrait. Instead, her smile had faded, replaced with a more neutral expression. Again, Antonio blinked several times, but the painting wouldn’t change.

The final painting of the busy city street seemed entirely unaffected at first glance. It certainly wasn’t red, and while he couldn’t remember every minute detail of the crowds or carriages on the street, they all looked like they were where they were. Then, looking over the building, he spotted it. Just one window, up on the third floor, was broken. He could swear, leaning in closer, that there were shards of glass flying through the air deeper into the building, as if it were just smashed in.

Antonio took let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and flipped the third painting towards them. The one behind them, which the customer had wanted, was certainly normal. He looked it over five times, as closely as he could, but there was no errant detail that would go missed without close inspection. It took so long that he heard them yelling from the front counter.

Grabbing the painting, Antonio put the canvas back over the others to spare himself another look at them, and took the requested one up to the counter. After the quick transaction, he was left alone in the shop once more. Slowly, his eyes drifted over to the photo album, laid out to the painting that had just been purchased. He knew the new ones were just underneath the page, and that the sold painting needed to be removed.

He also knew that they could tell him the truth. They would have to be the way they were when he purchased the paintings. All of them, even the one in his study that he hadn’t spared more than a glance to before hanging it up. Still, a fraction of his mind wandered to the impossible: what if the pictures were different too?

Slowly, his hand trembling without his recognition and heart pounding in his ears, he reached to the album and pulled it in front of him. He unlocked the binder with a push of his left thumb, and pulled the sold painting from the album in a quick motion with his right hand; it was like pulling a Band-Aid.

There, beneath it, was the picture of the village square painting. He didn’t spare the rest of the painting any mind, and looked right to the fountain. There was no red. He turned to the next page; the forest valley was only bathed in white moonlight. He turned the page again; the young woman smiled happily back at him. One final turn; the window was fine; there wasn’t even a sign of anything in the air that would break it.

His heart rate slowed, and Antonio took slow, calming breaths. Had he imagined the whole thing? No, there was no way that his eyes would lie to him, but he would have to check to be sure. No. No, I can trust myself, he told himself, closing the album and sliding it away from him.

As he closed his eyes and continued to breath slowly, he could hear the loud grandfather clocks in the corner of the store, winging in time with his breaths. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tictick, toctock, tictick, toctock.

His eyes shot open, and he moved towards the trio of clocks while reaching into his pocket to pull out a glove. By the time he was next to them, he could tell that the left was moving too quickly.

Sliding the glove on, Antonio carefully opened the lower door and brought the pendulum to a stop with his gloved hand. Tick, tock, tick, tock the other two went in time with one another. He reached below the pendulum bob and adjusted the nut beneath to the left before starting the pendulum again. Tick, tock, tick, tock the trio went in time together. Antonio closed the lower door and moved to the clock face, adjusting the time to match the others.

It was nearly 5:30 PM, and while the store was supposed to stay open until seven o’clock, Antonio could already feel a headache starting to form. Walking to the front door, he flipped the sign to closed and left without a round of cleaning, or a second glance at the covered paintings in the back.

Later that night, Antonio couldn’t sleep. Any attempt to close his eyes and empty his mind was met with the image of those paintings, flickering back and forth between how they originally looked and what they were now… or at least what he thought he had seen. After two hours of restless tossing and turning, he pulled himself from bed and shuffled off towards his study, in the hopes that a few minutes of less than light reading would sap the restlessness from his body.

Still, he took his time, knowing what was waiting there in the dark of his study. He paused to look at a few pictures on the wall, though it was more a glance, and gave a good half a minute to admire the detail on a small lamp he kept on a table near the bathroom. All the while, he tried to steel himself, convincing his mind that what he had seen might have been some hallucination, brought on by Mister Filch’s words: “they just unsettled me.” That red was too bright, too constant to be unreal, but I saw those pictures too. It wasn’t there when I bought it!

He suddenly found himself at the closed door of his study, feeling his chest tighten and his hand shake. He reached up to grab the knob, noticing as he grasped it that his hand felt clammy. With a quick turn and push, the door swung loudly open, and Antonio stared into the pitch blackness of the room, eyes locked on the spot he knew that the painting hung. Before, when leaving the room, he couldn’t see it. It wouldn’t be there now. It couldn’t be. He moved his hand to the light switch and flipped it on, turning on a corner lamp in the room, along with the desk lamp. While the light did not illuminate the room as if it were the middle of the day, it was enough.

The red was there, even more noticeable from this distance than it had been when he examined the painting that night from inches away. Worse, it did not cover just the side of the fountain. Drops, larger, marked a path from the fountain’s edge to the nearest building in the right of the frame. Antonio flicked the light off moments after he shut his eyes to the sight.

It won’t be there. It won’t be there. It won’t be there, he repeated to himself for what felt like hours, but was only seconds. His heart was racing, pounding in his ears. The headache from earlier returned with renewed vigor, pounding away like a sledgehammer against his skull. Still, that image wouldn’t leave his mind: of these painting changed, no, ruined by someone, or something.”They aren’t pristine,” he muttered to himself, even as he continued to force himself to think that what he had seen was nothing more than a figment.

He curled his fingers against the panel of the light switch, nails grinding into the plastic before he grasped the switch between two of them. He flicked it on, and then slowly opened his eyes. He couldn’t see the red. Slowly, his feet began to move him closer, his eyes transfixed on the painting and the fountain within it.

His mouth and throat were dry, a breath held in his lungs for an eternity as he inched closer and closer to the painting, looking for the first sign of red. He wouldn’t blink, lest the painting transfigure itself into something more gruesome in the momentary lack of observation. Finally, he was inches from it, and there was no red on the fountain. He allowed himself to exhale, and breath, one hand clutching his chest just above his still pounding heart. The headache began to fade.

“Just a waking nightmare,” he reassured himself aloud, supporting himself against the wall next to the painting with his other hand. Slowly, his heart began to calm from the slow, deep breaths he took. He spared a glance to the painting, greeted once more by the absence of red. However, a part of his mind would not let the subject rest. The red was going somewhere…

His eyes began to move to the right, following the unseen trail that he had glimpsed from the doorway for but a second. The cobblestones were clean, either black in the shadows or grey in the sunset’s light, and he followed them to the face of the building on the right of the frame. It was a single story one, and Antonio could vividly recall it, like the others, being vacant, yet closed. However, he found the door slightly ajar.

His attention was pulled away by the sudden sound of cracking wood and the thud of a heavy object on the floor behind him. Jumping in place, he kept himself steady against the wall with his hand before turning around. One of the legs of his antique reading chair had snapped, sending the piece of furniture falling to its side, luckily away from the end table. Antonio quickly left his thoughts of the painting be as he hurried over, mind rambling with worries for the worst.

He bent down, grabbing the broken chair leg and inspecting it as best he could in the dim light, before moving over to the desk to get a better look beneath the lamp. His fears of termites were assuaged by the lack of any exterior damage, but as he looked at it closer, it seemed like the wood had dried out, and the leg gave way under the chair’s weight.

“That’s impossible,” he mumbled. Antonio had taken great care with placing the chair and end table in the room. They were far enough from the fireplace to not be concerned with the heat when it was on, and there were no heating vents near where it was placed. He even kept the curtains to the study drawn to avoid any issues that might be caused by exposure to sunlight. A humidifier in the winter even made sure that the room was not too dry.

As his worried climbed, however, his eyelids began to droop. Regardless of the experience, it had sapped the restlessness from his body far better than any book would have. He set the chair leg down and resolved to fix it at the store the next morning.

Antonio was hard at work when Zach arrived. He’d arrived two hours before the shop was supposed to open, taking the time to inspect the broken leg of the chair. Despite the dried out wood, it was possible to get the leg set and glued back together. After that was done, he’d taken to a few other repair tasks, just to keep his mind occupied, particularly on a small desk clock that needed replacement parts.

He did look up when he heard the heavy back door shut. “Morning, Zach,” he said before turning around, trying to hold back a yawn.

“Morning, Mister Curcio. Not sleep well?” Zach asked, taking off his backpack and setting it by the door before heading for a closet to get the cleaning supplies.

Antonio hadn’t, even though he had fallen asleep rather quickly. He knew what it was from, too; the same reason why he hadn’t pulled back the canvas on the other paintings since arriving. “Not the best, no. Had my reading chair break last night. Hit the floor so hard it woke me up. Could have sworn the house was coming down!” He did his best to laugh, and Zach shared one with him.

“Well, if you want me to handle the front today, I can. You seem like you’ve got your hands full with more repairs.” Zach was on his way to the front, but paused in the doorway with the vacuum cleaner and a small bucket of supplies in his hands.

Maybe it could get my mind off of them, working with my hands, Antonio thought, before giving Zach a nod. “Sure, sure. Just make sure to call me if there’s something you need help with. Don’t want you going and giving a customer the wrong information on a piece again, Zachariah.”

Zach groaned and shrugged his shoulders. “I won’t, old man. Just try not to doze off on your own, back here,” he said, heading out to the front.

“Now that was one time, boy!” Antonio shouted back before breaking into a chuckle. The hours passed by very quickly as Antonio busied himself with finding the right parts and replacing them in the desk clock, faintly listening to the sounds of Zach discussing items with customers.

By the time he was done, Zach was talking to someone about a music box. By Antonio’s guess, it was the one he had placed with the doll, and part of him hoped that the two would be leaving the shop. The conversation died down as Zach opened the box, and the florid tune began to drift through the store. Antonio closed his eyes and hummed along, though his face twisted into an expression of discomfort after a few notes. It was off-key.

“Someone must have messed with it,” he mumbled as he got up and started to head for the front with a mind to fix it. Even if it was only a slight difference in pitch, it wasn’t pristine. In truth, they’d always be breaking, ever slightly, even after he sold them. His march was stopped by the sudden bang of something hitting the floor. It came from towards the shooting table, and the canvases covering the paintings. Slowly, Antonio twisted on his heels to face it.

The canvas covering Marcus’ pictures had fallen down, the front one having tumbled forward. How did that happen? he wondered as his feet carried him closer. Even if he had seen strange things related to them, he was still worried that one had been damaged. His eyes were on the canvas, covering the back of the frame, and he tossed it off before picking the painting up.

His eyes went wide. It was the painting of the forest mountain valley. It was no longer tinted red, it was bathed in it. The once silver moon was blood red, painting the mountain tops and trees in a dark red. Worse, a billow of smoke seemed to rise from deep within the trees, and several trunks were tinged in orange as well. The signs of a forest fire. Antonio blinked several times; he looked about the room and then back to the painting; he even slapped himself to ensure he wasn’t dreaming. Nothing would change the picture. He quickly set it aside and looked to the next, still leaning against the wall.

The portrait of the young woman still had her seated in her chair, but there was the faintest shadow being cast from off the frame: a person, with what seemed to be a weapon in hand. The woman, however, was no longer smiling or even neutral in her expression. She had a look of utter fear and horror, tears welling in her eyes and her hands clenched tight against each other in her lap. It seemed as if she were fighting the urge to run, scream or do both. Antonio moved it aside in a hurry, not even bothering to make the image vanish.

The painting of the street in front of the town hall was in chaos. Carriages were overturned, people gathered with torches in hand, and all of the windows were shattered or boarded up. Police formed a line in front, trying to keep them out, though there were the faintest colors of vibrant orange from within one of the windows that showed the startings of fire inside.

“Are you alright, Mister Curcio?” Zach’s voice cut through the haze of Antonio’s mind.

He suddenly realized how quick his breaths were, how heavy his body felt, how sweaty every inch of his face and hands were. The headache was back once more, pounding furiously in an attempt to outrace his heart to the goal of who could shatter the cavity containing itself first. Swallowing a lump in his throat, he reached for a handkerchief in his pocket, quickly wiping the sweat from his hands and brow. He turned to see Zach standing in the doorway.

“I… one of the paintings fell over. It’s… Do you see them?”

Zach seemed confused, looking slowly between Antonio on his knees and the paintings resting against the wall next to him. “Yeah, they’re… they’re there, sir.”

“No, do you see them, Zach?!” Antonio shouted, grabbing the portrait of the woman and stumbling to his feet. He held it out towards Zach with each step he took towards him and the doorway. “They changed. They’re ruined! Don’t you see?!”

Zach’s expression turned from confusion to bewilderment. His mouth hung open, his mind searching for words. How can he not see? Antonio thought.

“I think you’re stressed over something, Mister Curcio. They look the same as the pictures I took. They’re not damaged or anything,” Zach said, stepping forward and reaching out to take a careful hold of the painting.

Antonio’s grip gave way as soon as Zach pulled on the painting. His heart and head were still pounding, but they seemed to dull slightly as he turned towards the other two paintings, still leaning against the wall. They were perfectly normal again, at least from a glance.

“I… I need to… to go, Zach. Watch the shop for a while,” Antonio mumbled as he continued to wipe the sweat forming on his forehead. He didn’t hear Zach’s affirmation as he headed for the back door.

As soon as he was home, Antonio made his way up towards the study. His mind raced on the drive, distracted enough that he nearly hit two different cars while changing lanes. He had to be going crazy at this point, it was the only option that made sense to him. Marcus’ words, those four simple words, had somehow wormed their way deep into his mind, and it had been happy to oblige the man’s intention to twist Antonio’s perception to some unseen and misunderstood whim. The paintings were normal, they had to be!

As his feet stamped loudly on the stairway, Antonio dragged himself up with all of his strength. They were works of art. They were relics. They had to be preserved. They had to be maintained. The door to his study was still open from when he’d carried the reading chair out earlier that morning. It was still dark, however, with the curtains kept drawn. Antonio didn’t bother with the lights.

He walked right up to the painting. There, in the faint light coming from the hallway, he could see it clearly enough. Sure, the colors weren’t vibrant like they should be in real light, but he could see enough. The red, no, the blood, was there on the side of the fountain. The door to the building on the right of the frame was flung open wide, hanging slightly off its hinges, broken. A trail of blood, starting with faint trickles and then turning to a streak in the cobblestones, connected the two.

Then, he saw it, hanging over the edge of the fountain; it was a hand, limp and bloody. The faint sign of torn cloth was on the arm beneath the wrist, but the rest of whatever body it was attached to was safely hidden in the fountain itself. “Why?” Antonio asked aloud. “What do you want?”

There was no response from the painting, but as Antonio watched it, he swore he saw the blood on the tip of one of the fingers build into a large spot, and then fall to the ground below with a wet splash.

His hands were on the sides of the frame, arms stretched wide in the process. His fingers curled, bones aching as his fingers dug into the wood and his nails cracked from the pressure. With a primal yell, he yanked the painting back, tearing off nail and a piece of the wall with it. He turned his body and threw it with all of his might across the room. It landed with a thud and crack, painting down, on the floor; part of the frame had cracked. With cautious steps, as if the painting would leap back at him in retribution, Antonio approached it. It was minor damage; he could fix it, just like the clocks, the doll, the music box. Everything; it would all be pristine, for one last moment.

It was the dead of night when Antonio pulled back up to his shop. With the painting under one arm, he fumbled with his keys for several seconds at the back door, before finally managing to get them in and unlock it. He stepped into the work room, flicking the bright lights on. He set the painting down next to the others before pulling the canvas off. They all needed work. He headed out to the car to grab his supplies.

Then, Antonio walked out to the shop floor, flicking on the lights. He took the time to inspect everything, and they were all left wanting. Jewelry that didn’t shine like it should, clocks running too slow or too fast, paint and wood and metal all showing signs of wear. So many pieces he’d neglected. It would take ages to fix all of them, to make them pristine. Luckily, he didn’t have to. They’d still be as they were supposed to be in his mind. They always would be.

He hefted up one of the gas cans onto the counter and then unscrewed the cap of the other. He made his way through the shop with deliberate pass, coating it all. It took one and a half cans, but he was sure that everything had enough for the job. Then, he walked to the backroom, dousing the paintings and tools and spare parts. He even covered the still bound and glued reading chair. He’d already torched its end table partner at home, so it made sense to finish the pair here.

Once it was all covered as well as the front, Antonio doused himself. He stood in front of the four paintings, looking over them in all their true grotesque details, and then flicked the lighter in his grip.
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#1 · 2
· · >>Bachiavellian
I really appreciate the work that you must have put into crafting the prose, here. Even though we're pretty heavy on description, nothing felt purply or overly flowery, and this really helped maintain the momentum this story builds up. And the way you've set this story up, the momentum is crucial. You do a good job of constantly winding up for a punch, leaving the reader in suspense.

Now, for me, I will have to admit that as steady and consistent the aforementioned wind-up was, it might have been a little too long. Most of the other stories this round felt pretty similar in terms of length to me during my reading, despite the differing wordcounts. But this one just felt long to me. Part of this is all the time we spend in descriptions. I know that it's important to how you're trying to present your mood, but I think you can afford to dial it back a bit. A lot of these descriptions don't really seem like they relate directly with the plot or give us new insights to the mystery, so it becomes tempting to skim, especially on subsequent readings.

As for the ending, I mentioned in the chat how to me it feels a bit too... uh... tidy, I guess? I know this might sound harsh, but I was not all that invested in personally caring about Antonio's well-being, so the fact that he dies and his shop goes up in flames doesn't really hit me. In fact, it's actually a bit tension-relieving, because both the madness-inducing paintings and the madness-inducted person are taken care of. I think it might have a bigger impact if someone else had to take the fall for Antonio, like Zach (who's feeling a little under-utilized to me right now).

So in the end, while there's no doubt that this one takes great care in lining up its dominoes, I do feel like for what we get in the end, the story might be spending just a little too much time smelling the roses along the way. I think my primary suggestion would be to trim some of the fat, or to find some other way to make all of the descriptions and re-descriptions feel relevant and important. I still had fun with this piece, no doubt, but it just doesn't feel as efficient about what it does than I think it could be.

Thank you for writing this!
#2 · 1
I just had a thought this morning that I wanted to add real quick. It occurs to me that maybe a first-person perspective might have helped with the engagement problems that I was having with this. I mean, we're already pretty deep in Antonio's head, so having him directly speak his thoughts to us might be a good way to build immediacy and intimacy.

Just a random thought I wanted to share!
#3 · 2
A nice little creepypasta with some suitably eerie images, but I think it is mostly let down by its length. This is just waaaaay too long, which results in it being fairly unfocused. What you've got here, I think, is a nice, tight little 3k piece. At 7+K though? You are just losing the focus and meandering too much.

The first scene is a really great example. All that really needs to happen is we meet Antonio, we learn the painting is weird, he buys it. That doesn't need to be... 2.5K? And I think the big culprit is really just that you do a lot of description, some of it doubly unnecessary because contextual clues would suffice (Zacariah's full name being used, for example). But like, in the first scene, really all the other description you do kinda detracts from the idea of the painting being this uncanny, eye-catching thing... because everything gets lavished in detail.

Heck, as structured, you could entirely cut Zach with no real difference to the story!

The other core issue is that the end doesn't really tie back to the beginning well. I think you would better served by establishing that Antonio was maybe a bit obsessive about his restorations, maybe judgmental of people who didn't take good care of their stuff (for example, maybe the frame on this painting is damaged and that annoys him), which then allows you to build the painting in as an amplifier to that behavior. Maybe have him escalate to a notable (but still lesser) level, like lashing out at Zach. Then you can go with the ending, at which point the slide into that is easier to accept.

Descriptions are solid though, especially the stuff with the paintings. Really good and eerie. I do wish the portrait had been the painting of choice (woman slowly gets mad at him) but still, your presented ones are really good.
#4 ·
I'm having:

"Night Gallery" flashbacks!

All the elements are here, author, but I agree with folks above that they don't quite mesh together. I'd like, for instance, to get some feeling for how Filch's father died: if the paintings are generically cursed, they would've affected him, I'd've thought. And maybe there'd be a scene at the end where Zach's being told that only three items survived the burning of the shop or something like that.

But if they're only cursed for Antonio, then, yeah, I'd like to know more about him so I can see that he's responding to the paintings in a way no one else would. Still, good stuff here.

#5 ·
I enjoy some of the creepy imagery here, but the story does meander a bit with the descriptions, and the ending feels like it comes out of nowhere. Trimming it down and removing some things that don't payoff, and maybe even cutting the paintings down in number, would go a long way.
#6 ·
So I really liked this one. Hoping it does well in the contest!

Most everyone has already said what I'd agree with, in that the beginning is a little slow and that there's a lot of extraneous information. I really enjoy the character of Antonio, though, and I think after reading this fic my mind has gone to his "interesting" comment a lot in various parts of life. Also agree with what some have said in that the ending is a little confusing, and could probably be changed to much better effect.

Thanks for the entry anon!