It finally went on the living room wall, watching over the larger part of the house. When Peter went back down the basement to pack in his hammer and nails, Jane stared at the face. She wasn’t sure, but when she finally took her eyes off it she felt that a kind of communication had passed between them.
Not that she could repeat any of it.
The next morning came, bright and sunny and golden. Jane woke up and looked at the alarm clock – was that the time? She was getting lazy, she thought, and flung the covers off.
She didn’t really notice it coming down the stairs, hurrying as she was to get everything ready before Peter came, the black coffee and the ritual. She was going to check the alarm clock, make sure it rings tomorrow –
It was Friday. Tomorrow would start the weekend. As the kettle hissed and bubbled, she placed her hands firmly on the counter, leaned on it, shut her eyes and breathed out.
That’s when she heard it.
Laughter. Muffled, coming from the living room, loud and crackling, and Jane spun around, her heart beating like crazy.
She stood there for a while, waiting from her heart to slow down. When it did, all she could hear was a buzzing fly in the heavy quiet of the house.
She walked to the living room wide-eyed, the only sound the shuffling of her slippers on the wooden floor. She looked around, half-expecting someone to leap out of the corners.
But she heard it, didn’t she? She was sure if it, as sure as she was that there was someone coming up on her from behind –
When she turned, two things happened: first, she was blinded by a sudden flash. Second, she realised that she was holding the carving knife in her right hand, its sharp blade reflecting the morning sunrays pouring into the house.
She lowered the knife slowly, and for the first time that day, she remembered the painting. It was right there on the wall, staring at her with those eyes, its mouth twisted in a peculiar way, a strange crook that seemed like a smile, but a mocking one.
“Good morning”, she mumbled, and ran to get the hissing kettle off the stove.
Another week passed, rituals and all, even though Jane attached another one to the larger play: Every morning, just as she came down the stairs to the kitchen, she looked at the painting. It was more of a quick, mechanical glance, first unconscious and then a habit: Down the last three steps, thud on the floorboards with her bunny slippers, turning around to the kitchen, and she would see it, a fast click like a snapshot.
It was later, much later, that Jane realised that she was slowly building an album of the face in her mind. Had she known, she would perhaps have taken the time to look at her gallery in a row, to compare images. By the time she finally did it, the result was hardly surprising anymore.
And so the autumn carried on, with its everyday rituals and routines, and the face became part of them. It blended in with everything else like a chameleon, not as dominating as it was at first, but in a way friendly, benign. It fitted in. It became part of Peter and Jane’s daily life, smiling at their joys or frowning for their troubles. But always slightly, ever so slightly, its veneer seemed permanently imbued with an imperceptible mockery.
“You’re overreacting”. Peter opened his beer can and took a long, satisfying swig. “Aaah”, he said and stretched his legs across the floor. Then he looked at Jane, who sat huddled on the other end of the sofa with her knees under her chin.
“I mean, come on, it’s just a painting”, he went on. “Look at it!” He pointed at the face on the wall.
Jane shook her head. “I’m telling you, that thing is weird. I have this strange feeling every morning, like it’s watching me.”
“‘Watching’ you?” Peter’s brow arched.
“Yeah. Me, us, the house… I don’t know, it’s crazy –”
He grinned. “Hey. Is this some kind of wheedling trick? Y’ know, trying to make me get rid of the painting? Don’t you think it’s a little late for that?”
She sighed, angry. “You’re not taking me seriously.”
“Sure I am.” He was still grinning, but it was an alien, sarcastic grin she’d never seen before. “In fact, I’ve heard legends tell that this face is actually alive. Yeah. Like a Stephen King book, huh?” He got up and walked to the painting. “Hey, Mr Face. Whassup? Wanna pull some faces for us tonight?”
The Face just stared back, unaffected. Jane noticed that she’d been holding her breath.
Peter put up his can. “Maybe you want a cold one first?”
“How ’bout it?” He was shouting to it now. “Hell-ooo?” He knocked on the wooden frame, and the noise made Jane jump. “Anyone home?” He turned around and looked at his wife. “Guess not.”
She glared at him. “That’s not funny.”
“Oh, come on, hon.” Another swig. “It really bothers you, doesn’t it?” He glanced at the face over his shoulder. “You know how important it is though,” he added thoughtfully. “To me.”
“Yeah, Piper Jack.” She honestly never meant it to say it like that.
Too late. Peter’s eyes flashed. “Yeah, Piper Jack. What about him, huh? What’s so wrong with keeping an old man’s memory alive? But everyone’s like that – everyone’s forgot how good he was once – he was a pilot at the Korean war! He was even wounded; decorated twice! Did you know that? Did you? Of course not. Why? Because you’re just like everyone else – you don’t care. Man, this world is a jungle: A good man falls and everyone kicks him while he’s down. Everyone’s just out for their selves. Well, I was Piper Jack’s friend – his only friend – and that’s why he left me that painting, and it’s staying right where it is. Goodnight!”
He stormed out the living room, leaving her there on the sofa staring at the air behind him. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. It didn’t work. Five minutes later she was still there, knees under her chin and a tear in her eyes.