Brushstrokes And Shadows

For Bree, the lifestyle in New York City is like a person hyperventilating—there is never a moment of silence or rest. Bree’s boss forced her to take the two weeks of vacation she had earned. All she had to do was figure out where she wanted to go.

Bree coiled her shoulder-length brown curls into a messy bun and called her best friend, Nancy.

“Oh my gosh. Bree! What have you been doing? How are you?” Nancy said.

“Hey, girl. How’s everything in Charlotte, N.C.?”

“Well, not bad, except our dog disappeared two weeks ago. Oh, and so did our indoor cat. It’s weird, we never let the cat out, and our dog Curly never went out without us.” Nancy changed the subject. “So, what’s been going on with you?”

Bree stretched out on the love seat, rested her head on the arm, and explained, “My boss is forcing me to take a vacation.”

“Your boss is smart, Bree,”

“Yeah, whatever. I thought I’d visit you if you don’t mind having me around for two weeks.” Bree knew Nancy would love the idea.

Nancy made a fist, thrust it into the air, “Yes! Of course, you can come here for two weeks. You’re going take the full two weeks, right?”

“I sure am. I can’t wait to get out of the city for a while, but Charlotte isn’t much calmer.”

Nancy rolled her eyes and shook her head. “We don’t live in the middle of Charlotte, Bree. We’re outside of Charlotte, and we have four acres of land—which will be much quieter for you.”

Bree giggled and sat up on the love seat. “Okay, I’ll complete my reservations with Greyhound. Tickets are cheaper if I leave on Wednesday, and it looks like a 16-hour trip. I’ll email you the itinerary so you’ll know when to pick me up at the bus terminal.

“Cool, sounds great. I’m so excited to see you!”

*****

The bus arrived at the Charlotte bus terminal, and she saw Nancy waiting near her car in the parking lot. Finally, she could relax and catch up on some reading.

Bree grabbed her luggage and ran to the parking lot. Nancy met her halfway.

“That’s a small piece of luggage, you didn’t bring much for two weeks,” Nancy said.

“Yeah, but I brought my biggest handbag. I have my computer and two books in it.”

“A handbag? It looks more like a second piece of luggage, and holy crap that thing is heavy. So, how was the trip?”

Sighing, Bree said, “Not bad. I think there was a bomb on the bus.” Seeing the look on Nancy’s face, Bree laughed, “I’m just messing with you.”

“You’re crazy. You’ve always been crazy, Bree.” Nancy placed her hand on Bree’s shoulder and gave her a shove.

“Hey, you cut your hair, Nancy. You look great. Did you lighten the color?”

“Yeah, I needed a change. I lightened my hair a bit. Dan seems to like the color, although he doesn’t like short hair. I told him hair grows back.”

“So, how is Dan? You two are the perfect match—you balance each other.”

“He’s great. His job is the best one he’s ever had. His boss just promoted him to Office Manager with a good raise. And I am now working at home.”

“Really? That’s fantastic for both of you. What are you doing at home for work?”

Nancy gave a side-glance at Bree, and with a laugh, she said, “I make soap and sell it at the local flea market and farmers market.”

“Seriously? Wow, you are officially no longer a city girl,”

“I even have my own Etsy shop, and it’s doing pretty good,” Nancy said. “Well, here we are. We’re home.”

Nancy pulled into the driveway; Bree could see how big the 4-acre lot was. They had a flower garden with a rainbow of colors to the left of the house that included a lavender gazebo. Their land butted up against a small wooded area, which appeared dark and mysterious.

“Who owns the woods?” Bree asked.

“I’m not sure,” Nancy said. “We’ve never been able to find out, and we’ve asked several of our neighbors.”

Unnerved by that answer, Bree said, “That’s weird. Nobody knows who owns it.”

“Yeah, but Dan and I don’t care who owns it as long as we don’t’ have any problems.”

Nancy and Bree made their way up the front steps to the two-story brick house. The brick made the house look ancient in some respects. Once inside, it told a different story. Each room had a theme, painted with blue, yellow, or peach. Nancy led Bree into the family room, which was adjacent to the home office.

They sat down and reminisced about their spontaneous nights out in the city, club hopping and flirting with all the cute guys. Bree glanced up and noticed a painting. It seemed out of place with the other décor.

She pointed to the opposite wall, “What’s that?”

Nancy looked up. “Oh, that? It’s a painting of the woods near our back yard.”

“Who painted it?”

“I don’t know. Dan found it on our front porch, wrapped in brown paper. We figured it was a nice gesture from one of our neighbors, but none of them said they painted it.”

“Isn’t that a bit strange?”

“I don’t know, I guess. Why? Does it bother you?”

Bree crossed her arms and rubbed her shoulders. “It’s creepy if you ask me. So, you’re saying that someone was in your backyard long enough to paint that, and you or Dan never noticed?”

“We thought about that, but figured they took a photo of it and then painted from the photo.”

“But still, they were in your backyard, and on your land.”

Nancy shrugged her shoulders, “We haven’t had any problems since we moved here, so we just let it go.”

“No problems? Didn’t you recently lose your dog and cat for no apparent reason? When did you find the painting?”

“About six months ago, I guess.”

Nancy and Bree stood in front of the painting and stared for a while.

Bree tapped a spot in the painting with her finger, “Doesn’t that look like a person standing there?”

Nancy looked closer, “I think it’s strategic. You know how painters are. They play with brushstrokes and shadows.”

“I don’t care what you say; you should throw that painting out. You should burn it,” Bree said. The painting gave Bree a sense of dread.

“Dan likes it, though. Just don’t look at it.” Nancy picked up Bree’s luggage. “Come on, scaredy-cat, let’s get you settled in.”

Nancy brought Bree’s luggage into the guest room. It looked out onto the backyard. Bree could see the section of the woods the painting highlighted. She shivered.

In the corner of the room were a box and a duffle bag. “Bree, this stuff here is Jackie’s. She didn’t take it with her when she left.”

“Jackie? That girl has issues. Why would she leave all her things?”

“I don’t know. Six months ago, she called me. She said she needed a place to crash for a while, and since we had the extra room, we said yes. She was here for about a month. She came by bus as you did, so I offered to take her to the store with me one day. She didn’t need anything, so she stayed here. When I got back, she was gone—no note.”

“And you didn’t think that was odd?”

“Not really, she has always been in the habit of leaving abruptly.”

“Okay, but why would she leave her belongings? Did she take her phone, her handbag, her wallet?”

“Nope, that’s all here too.” Annoyed with all the questions, Nancy changed the subject. “The guest bathroom is across the hall. I put some fresh towels in there. Help yourself to anything in the fridge.”

“Thanks, Nancy. I’m sorry for asking a lot of questions, but don’t you think it’s strange that after you received that creepy painting, people and animals start to go missing with no explanation?”

“Look, Bree. It’s just a stupid painting. Those are coincidences.

“Fine, have it your way. I want to relax.” Bree gave up on the conversation. Nancy was a realist and didn’t believe in strange or paranormal phenomena.

*****

One day, Bree sat at the window in the guest room, reading. When she looked out the window, she glanced in the direction of the woods that were in the painting. She noticed that the squirrels wouldn’t jump through the trees in that section. Instead, they would run through the backyard, making a wide arc from the area and then to the other side before jumping back into the trees again. Just then, a neighbor’s dog made its way into the backyard. It stood staring at that section of the woods, and then it crouched down, turned around, and ran out of the yard.

Whispering to herself, Bree said, “There has to be something bad in that section. I know it.”

Nancy yelled up from the kitchen. “Bree, do you want to come downstairs and have some coffee and cake with me in the family room?”

“Sure,” Bree said. Great, the family room and the painting again.

“Okay, I’ll start brewing some coffee.”

“Nancy, you really need to move this painting,” Bree yelled from the family room.

Bree took a closer look at the painting. What she thought looked like an obscured person began to move—or so she thought. Wait, no, maybe I am crazy. Then, everything within the painting looked as if it was moving, like waves in the ocean. Bree began to sway back and forth in slow motion synchronizing with the picture. Her breath caught; she grabbed her chest and started to cough—something gripped her throat. Bree choked from the force of the painting drawing her in.

“Bree, how many creamers do you take? I can’t remember?”

“Bree?”

Thinking that Bree didn’t hear her, Nancy walked to the family room.

“Bree, I thought you were in the family room. Bree? Are you upstairs?” As she turned to go upstairs to find Bree, something grabbed her and dragged her back toward the painting with such force that her neck cracked. The picture crashed to the floor, and the room went silent.

That night, confused and concerned, Dan called the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. “I’d like to report two missing persons, my wife and her friend Bree.”

Dan walked into the family room to wait for the police to arrive. He picked up the painting and hung it back on the wall. He turned to walk away, and caught his breath, grabbed his throat as if to pry something from around it. He flew backward so hard his back fractured, and the painting cracked in half. Again, the room went silent.

*****

A year later, real-estate agent, Susan Carlson, met a young couple at a beautiful, fully furnished brick house just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. She was hoping the couple would like it well enough to get the house off the market. Rumors that the house was haunted made it the most difficult one on the block to sell.

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