When Ryann’s neighbor called her with the news, she hurried the two doors down. It was actually the daughter of Mr. Mallory who summoned her. The elderly Mallory had not been in the best of health for years. And now he was dead.
“I wanted you to have first pick of Dad’s stuff,” Jody, Mallory’s daughter, said when she ushered Ryann into the house. “You took such good care of him over the years.”
Ryann smoothed back a loose strand of hair and waved a hand to deflect the praise. “All I did was fetch his mail for him, and make a grocery run every now and then.”
“But you were here for him, and I appreciate that.” Jody beckoned to Ryann to follow her farther into the house. “And my brothers won’t know what’s missing. They were never around, always too busy to drop by, Dad said.”
They traipsed through the living room, dim with heavy window drapes, and into the dated kitchen. Ryann had been this far in the house to deliver Mallory’s groceries. The tired décor and dim lighting never enticed her to linger when she visited. She might be a widow, but living alone did not mean one had to stay stuck in a time warp.
“Anything catch your eye?” Jody turned in a circle in the kitchen, arms outstretched.
Ryann shook her head. “I have everything I need, but thanks.”
“Then you’ve got to see what I found upstairs. I know you love art, and this is right up your alley.”
Without waiting for a reply, Jody climbed the stairs to the second floor, Ryann close behind. It was true that Ryann collected art, and proudly displayed several local artists’ works on her walls. Mallory had hung only cheap framed prints of animals and exotic beaches, as far as she had seen. Whatever lay upstairs was likely just a continuation of the mundane.
The two women passed three bedrooms and a bathroom. At the fourth door, Jody pushed it open and entered another bedroom, empty save for a double bed frame holding a set of springs (no mattress) and a brass floor lamp. She picked up a picture frame covered in black cloth, and with a flourish uncovered the art beneath.
“What do you think?”
Ryann stood speechless . It was a still life, a real painting; she could see the brush strokes. Oil, she guessed. But it was more than the fact that it was not a print: The painting itself captured her interest. Excellent design and color. Clever choice of objects to feature in the setting: a goblet that glinted gold, an exquisite folded cloth, a filigreed chain, a small tiara with a cluster of diamonds across the top. A plate on the frame offered the title: Treasured Objects.
“It’s … astonishing,” Ryann stuttered.
Jody smiled. “I think so, too.” She held it out to Ryann, who backed away.
“I can’t accept this,” Ryann said. “You should keep it … or take it to an art dealer. I’m sure it’s worth a lot. More than I could afford to pay you.”
Shaking her head, Jody stepped to Ryann. “Dad did not splurge on things. I’m sure this is a yard sale special, so I’m not giving up a fortune by making it a present to you.”
Still Ryann hesitated. She knew the piece was valuable.
“Okay,” she finally said. “I’ll take it, but I’ll get it appraised, and if it’s worth what I think it is, I’m giving it back to you.”
Ryann propped the painting on the sideboard in her dining room and in the busy-ness of her life – volunteer work, grandkids to babysit, friends to visit – she forgot about it for almost a week. It was when she was tidying up after her daughter’s toddler twins had left that she paused to look at it again.
I wonder what it’s worth.
She turned away and then turned back. A hand that she swore hadn’t been there previously lay casually within the still life. The unknown model’s hand and arm faded off to the right in the picture. The artist apparently wanted a hint of something live within the assemblage of inanimate objects on the table.
Why hadn’t she seen that before?
And then the hand moved. Just a twitch. A moment later the hand turned over, palm up.
Ryann fled the house. At Mallory’s front door, she rang the bell and pounded her fist on the panel.
When Jody opened the door, Ryann tried to compose herself, taking deep breaths.
“Tell me,” she gasped. “If you don’t mind my asking, what did your father die of?”
Jody wiped her hands on her jeans, dust in her hair and grime on her cheeks. “Forgive my appearance,” she said. “I’ve knee-deep in cleaning up this old place.”
“Please,” Ryann said. “It’s none of my business, but I need to know.”
Stepping out onto the porch, Jody closed the door behind her. “We’re not sure,” she said. “How he died, I mean. No one’s found his body, but he doesn’t appear to have left. It’s been over a month since anyone has seen or heard from him, so the family assumes he’s dead.”
“Come with me,” Ryann said. “I think I may have found him.”
After three sleepless nights, Damian had the bad luck to draw the early shift at Fitzy’s Diner. His eyes were slits as he broke egg after egg for omelets and poured round after round of batter for pancakes.
“Hurry it up, Dame!” Fitzy shouted from the kitchen doorway. “This ain’t no five-star dive.”
“Shove it,” Damian wanted to shout back. But he had rent and a late car payment earmarked for his next paycheck. He was six months clean, and Fitzy, with his sharp eyes and weasel nose, was looking for any excuse to send him back to the streets—or that’s the way it seemed to Damian, who could never move fast enough to please the boss.
When Fitzy slipped back through the swinging doors, Damian turned his focus to the griddle, scraping it for the next omelet. That’s when the spiders crawled out from behind the stovetop, into the pool of melted butter, and skated across the hot surface. Five of them—big, hairy, and long-legged, with eyes that stared him down.
“Jesus,” Damian half-yelped. How is this possible, he thought. He hated spiders. Too many legs.
When he reached for the whisk, his hand brushed something moving.
“Aaahh!” This time he yelled. More spiders covered the egg carton and spilled onto the work table.
No, no, no, his mind screamed. Could the hallucinations return even if he wasn’t using?
“Dame?” It was Helena, on the morning wait staff. She stood in the doorway, concern etched on her face. “You okay?”
Quickly, Damian wiped the sheen of sweat from his face. “Yeah. Just burned myself,” he lied. “Stupid of me.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Be careful. We can’t lose you.” And she was gone, back out to the front counter.
With shaking hands, Damian surveyed the griddle and work tables. The spiders had multiplied, filling the entire stovetop. These couldn’t be real spiders—real arachnids couldn’t survive that heat, could they? Yet he could hear the minute scrape of their feet as they moved.
He shut his eyes tightly, willing the hallucination to cease. I can’t lose this job.
The paranoia that had been his every waking moment—and often every moment of attempted sleep—had finally driven him to rehab. He could no longer live constantly looking over his shoulder. His counselor had assured him the effects of the inhalants he’d once craved had subsided for good—but maybe they’d been wrong.
The swinging doors squeaked, and he opened his eyes to Fitzy’s bark. “Where’s the short stack and ranchero special?”
The spiders now covered the mixing bowl with its batter and the bacon Damian had planned to fry up next. He shuddered at the expanding multitude.
Fitzy grabbed his shoulder, hard, and jerked. “Get moving or you’ll be moving on out of here.”
The spiders descended from the bank of overhead lights and dropped onto Fitzy’s head, swarming down his neck and onto his bare arms. Red welts from their bites began to swell.
After a moment of indecision, Damian removed his apron, hung it on its wall peg, and left the kitchen to Fitzy’s screams.
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