The painting in the living room gave me a funny feeling. It followed me around the room like those pictures with eyes that never look away. Only this painting had no eyes. It was a swirl of reds and pinks with a rectangular suggestion of houses along the bottom of the canvas. If I stared hard, a crowd of shapes revealed themselves — Chagall-like people floating in the sky, animals and plants, cars and buildings. Then I saw The Shape.
“What’s that?” My hand shook as I pointed.
“What’s what?” asked my husband, admiring the painting. He loved his birthday present.
“That.” Didn’t he see it? The grey, angular shape looked like it was crouching in the doorway of one of the houses. It looked wrong, like it had been scratched onto the canvas amidst the light, colorful images.
Dan squinted, tilting his head. “I see… a doorway? What do you see?”
What did I see? I moved closer making sure my hand didn’t touch the canvas. An image flashed through my mind of my finger dripping blood onto the green velvet couch.
I shook my head to clear it. “It looks like a sort of dog. See the three legs?” My voice fell to a whisper. “It has a snout.”
Dan laughed and I lowered my arm, feeling silly and comforted, as always, by his smile. “Dogs do have snouts,” he said. “It’s perfect over the couch, isn’t it?” I hugged him, trying to shake off the feeling of doubt. Or was it dread?
For the next few days, I avoided the living room.
At first it was easy. We rarely used the room, but with Beth due home from college, it was time to set up the chess board. She and Dan always played at the coffee table. The one in front of the green couch.
I stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, my eyes flitting between the painting and the coffee table. Back and forth. How stupid to be afraid of a piece of art.
It looked to be about ten steps to the chess board. I cleared it in eight. My hands moved quickly, grabbing the board and slamming pieces into place. The hair prickled on the back of my neck like a warning — faster, move faster.
I looked up and my heart stopped.
The Shape had moved. It was beyond the doorway and white, jagged jack-o-lantern teeth lined its pointy snout. They had not been there before.
They were there now.
I stumbled back, chess pieces clattering to the floor. Not a dog. It was never a dog. The Shape was a wolf. What did it want? Why was it there? Was it there? I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them quickly. The Shape was back in the doorway, toothless.
On shaking legs, I retreated to the bright lights of the kitchen.
When Dan came home that night, I threw my arms around his neck.
“I’m so glad you’re home.”
“Is something wrong?”
Over his shoulder, I could see the painting. The wolf — no, The Shape — was in the doorway. Suddenly, I felt foolish.
“I’m just glad to see you.”
With Dan home, friendly talk and good food, the whole thing seemed ridiculous. Everything was as it should be. Still, I slept closer to my husband that night, curled up by the comfort of his broad back. I used his breathing to calm my own, matching the rhythm of his quiet snores.
In the morning, the sun sparkled through the windows. I picked up the scattered chess pieces and arranged the board. Glancing quickly at the painting, I confirmed The Shape was where it belonged. I hummed as I baked cookies for Beth. The sweet smell of chocolate chip and peanut butter, her favorite, filled the house. I could almost see three-year-old Beth sitting on the counter ‘helping’ me cook. Her chubby little hands passed me ingredients as she made up a story about a cat and a talking horse who liked cookies.
A low growl rumbled from the living room. I froze, holding my breath. Listening. It was too quiet. Finally, I crept to the living room doorway and peeked in.
A shaft of sunlight shone right on the canvas illuminating The Shape. It was out of the doorway and from its jagged teeth — they were back — dripped grey saliva pooling between its front legs. I squinched my eyes shut, then opened them, watching in horror as a drop fell into the puddle.
Was I going insane?
The kitchen timer went off. I backed out of the doorway and picked up a hot pad with trembling hands. I managed to open the oven door on the second try, felt the blast of heat as I removed the pan, almost dropping it, then scooped the cookies carefully onto a rack to cool.
Click. Click. Click. From the living room I heard the sound of clawed feet on hard wood.
“I won’t look,” I whispered. If I didn’t look, it couldn’t be there. My looking brought it to life. I. Must. Not. Look.
When the front door burst open, my shoulders hunched, prepared to feel claws sinking into my back.
“Mom. I’m home.”
When we hugged, I hid my tears in Beth’s hair.
“Something smells great. Oooph. Too tight.” Beth looked at me. “Okay, Mom?”
I wrenched out a tight smile. “Sure.”
“Come on, Beth,” called Dan from the couch.
I shifted the cool cookies to a white bone china plate and followed them into the living room. My eyes flickered to the painting. I stopped short. The plate shook in my hand.
The doorway in the painting was empty.
The Shape was gone!
I heard a knock. Still searching the room for The Shape, I went to the front door, reached for the handle.
The plate crashed to the floor; white jagged shards pierced the cookies. A growling moan rose from my throat. Was it real? Was I?
Mary Sloat lives on an island in the PNW where she watches for eagles and mysterious creatures in the woods. She is the studio lead at the BARN Writers’ Studio.