17 Jan The Pale Child
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"The Pale Child"Written by
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
It was just a painting… simply a creepy painting. That’s what I kept telling myself. Perhaps I should elaborate a bit. My name is Colin McFetridge and I come from a long line of McFetridge men. My father, Patrick McFetridge died in an unfortunate boating accident when I was young, leaving behind a small collection of paintings that still to this day hang in my room. My grandfather too was a painter and his father before him. This inheritance went all the way back to my great great grandfather, Bartley McFetridge. Just like Bartley, I too possessed various artistic talent. I have always excelled in art class and nearly every art teacher admired my “unusual art style,” whatever that means. I do, however, differ from my ancestors in that I don’t take much pride in my work. My heritage suggests that I should be proud of everything I make just like my father and his father was. They were so proud of every piece, that they would keep them close until they died, then the paintings would be sold to the highest bidder. That’s how it works in the world seeing as the dead don’t hold pride. Since I didn’t acquire the pride gene, I would always give away my work.
Mom always told me, “Your father would be turning over in his grave if he knew you were just handing out your paintings.”
Ever since dad died she had shut down and became a self-consumptive drunk. Don’t get me wrong, she was still a good mother, but dads’ death changed her. Whatever, I only gave away paintings to friends anyway, so they were going to people I trusted. It’s not like she cared about my paintings, merely that I finish school and make the right friends. We also had a curse in the McFetridge lineage. We never had the fortune of dying peacefully in our sleep, instead, all the McFetridge men in my family drowned without explanation. It never bothered me. I just considered it to be a coincidence, until I came across Campbell, the pale child.
Last Thursday I was on the computer, most likely looking at porn or reading random articles on Wikipedia. That night before I went to bed, I decided to check my e-mail to see if anyone responded to my offer on my school art projects. My brother, who was stationed over in France, sent me an e-mail saying he would be sending some paintings to the house. The paintings were from my brother’s friend’s grandfather who just recently died. Apparently he had slipped in the bathroom and fell unconscious in a full bathtub. Bizarre, but I didn’t think to question it. My brother’s friend didn’t care for the paintings, but my brother valued them. He said in the e-mail I could look through them and have just one if I found any I had liked to hang up in my room with my own work. That following Monday the doorbell rang while I was making my lunch. I saw the FedEx truck drive off and a few boxes were left on my porch. I brought the boxes inside and almost immediately my Alaskan husky, Spooks, began to bark at one of the boxes. We named her Spooks because she had a phobia of just about everything excluding food. I just assumed that she was hungry or wanted to play so I sent her outside. She can play with a stick or something, I have treats of my own to attend to. I cut the boxes open one by one. Each painting depicted a different child playing and laughing. Paintings of children? This is a bit bizarre for my brother’s taste, but the work was decent, yet a little familiar. I cut the tape of the last box, however, as I was cutting, the tape started melting itself to the blade of my knife ever so slightly.
“This is some really crappy tape,” I thought.
Spooks continued to bark like crazy outside the door. I gave her the finger hoping she would get the message, but she just ignored me. When I finally ripped the box open I saw that the painting was of a little boy sitting in a chair with no emotion on his face whatsoever. The most striking thing about it was the boy’s skin was so pale it almost shined. Almost, it’s just paint after all. The boy looked about six years old and he was dressed in tattered, filthy rags. For some dumbass reason, I thought it was a good idea to pick the one of the pale, expressionless kid over the ones who seemed to be enjoying themselves. I proceeded to take the rest of the paintings to the back room in my basement. As I did, I heard what I can only describe as knuckles cracking, but very slowly. This unnerved me a bit. Then, the cracking noise grew more profound until it sounded like someone was cracking their neck. I just brushed it off as the air pressure in the house changing which made the floors creak.
I brought the painting up to my room and found a glass frame in my closet that perfectly fit the canvas. This kind of excited me because I can never seem to find a compatible frame without first taking measurements then ordering a border that fits the measurements from eBay, but the painting had an average size and I had a few standard frames up in my closet. As I turned the painting around to place it into the frame, I noticed a title and description painted on the back of the canvas.
It read, “Campbell. This child is now with God. I only hope my work can give me redemption for the soul that was once full of life, now pale as the moon.”
Further down the back of the painting I saw, written in ink, “Return this evil portrait to Scotland immediately. Let not another soul suffer.-PM”
Suddenly it hit me, my great great grandfather always painted the name of his piece on the front of his paintings. I flipped the painting back over so that the front side was facing me and looked in the bottom right corner. The name Bartley McFetridge was painted right there, just like in all his other paintings.
“Well I’ll be fucked.” I said out loud in excited disbelief.
I couldn’t believe that I had one of the paintings by my great great grandfather. I had thought they were all given to art collectors or wealthy families looking to liven up their dining room. I finished installing the frame and mounted the painting on my wall.
That night, after I had just gotten to sleep, I opened my eyes to see my ceiling fan light had been on. I distinctly remember turning it off before I climbed into bed. I looked over at my new painting and noticed that the paint had started to run as if someone had put a radiator in front of it. The colors intermingled and the boy started to warp as the paint melted off the canvas. His expressionless face became perverse and collapsed in itself. I was too shocked to move. The paint started trickling off the frame, slowly dripping at first, then it escalated to a stable flow of paint oozing from the bottom of the frame. The space between the glass and the canvas started to swamp with the coat of dye that was once the boy. The pressure of the paint against the glass caused it to crack until there was a spider web pattern all across it with paint bleeding through the fractures. Ultimately the glass shattered and paint gushed from the portrait into my room, filling it up. I ran to my door struggling to open it, soon realizing it was locked. The room imbued with paint until my feet could no longer reach the floor and my body started to float. I screamed helplessly as my head sank under and I began drowning. As my lungs could no longer withstand the absence of air, I instinctively inhaled. When I did, I pulled a chest full of air in which caused the delusion to shatter. I had awakened. It was just a nightmare.
The next day at school, my friend Conor approached me, “Hey Colin, you don’t look so hot. You’d better wake up, it’s only Tuesday.”
Conor was a good friend of mine, if I told him I had been having nightmares all night it would just make him worry. I just told him I played Grand Theft Auto all night again. He asked me if I had any more of my work I was willing to sell.
“I still have to go through some old stuff but if I find anything, I’ll leave it in the garage.” I said as I rubbed my drowsy eyes.
Conor responded, “Payment will be a little delayed this time because I’m going to my dad’s lake house down at Dunkerdale Lake this weekend.”
I assured Conor that payment wasn’t necessary because we were good friends, although he always insisted. I was going to tell him about the Bartley McFetridge painting but the bell rang before I could get a word in.
When I got home from school that day I saw my mom, raking leaves in the yard. I decided to ask her about the painting. I asked her what she knew about Campbell, the pale child. When I did she froze and the color had washed from her face. She insisted that I don’t bring it up again and that I should stop asking so many questions. Typical crazy mom response. I knew that if mom wouldn’t tell me then grandma would. After trying to settle my mom down for about an hour we came to an agreement. She would stop freaking out and make us both dinner, and I would never talk about the painting as well as take a bath. I did need a bath, after all. I didn’t take one this morning before school and I had been perspiring like a pig that previous evening from the nightmare I kept having. Lack of energy and smelling like ass was starting to ware on me anyway. The aroma of moisture carried through the air which meant rain was on its way. As I prepared my bath a storm hit out of nowhere. I turned the nozzle mounted above the tub and it started to fill with the warm water that would serve as just the thing to calm my nerves. I stripped naked and hopped into my bath, closing the shower curtains as I did. A few minutes into my bath I heard a loud pop come from outside and the lights went out. It sounded like a gunshot right outside the house and I felt the vibration when it happened. It scared the shit out of me. The soft drone of the rain hitting the roof of the house mixed with the cozy bath water put me into a zen-like state, so you can imagine my surprise.
Shortly after the lights went out, I heard mom yell, “The electrical transformer on our street just exploded. Power’s out. I’ll get the candles.”
I sighed in relief and assured her that I was okay. I know that storms make my mom nervous and the power being out wasn’t helping, along with me getting her all stressed out about the painting. She’s probably a wreck right now. I felt bad and hoped that I could ease her mind a bit over dinner. Later I noticed something strange while bathing there in the dark. The rain had paused and the wind had halted. It was silent. Then I heard the bathroom door slowly get pushed open. I could hear what sounded like labored breathing approaching the tub. I knew mom wouldn’t barge in on me like this but none the less I called out to her. When I did, the rapid breathing hesitated momentarily and then continued, this time much closer to the shower curtain. My heart sank. I looked over and saw my mom’s hair curler hanging from the shelf under the shower head. The hair curler was my weapon of choice. I lunged forward to grab it and pulled the curtain back. With my blunt weapon raised and ready to strike I saw the folded ears and lowered head of Spooks as she yelped in fear. I stop myself from almost taking a swing at my petrified dog.
“Spooks, you scared the hell out of me”, I said as I took a sigh of relief, “Spooked by Spooks, that’s a new one.”
Now I realize that the power going out and the vulnerability in the bathtub is a cliché, but sometimes clichés happen.
I drained the water and changed into some fresh clothes, eager to get to dinner. Mom was patiently sitting at the kitchen table with our supper prepared. A single candle lit the table. The aroma of pumpkin spice from the candle reminded me that Halloween is right around the corner indicating that mom made her October special tonight. Popcorn balls, roasted pumpkin seeds, cinnamon bread toast, candy corn, and a nice big ham steak with apple cider to wash it down. She prepared quite the meal considering the short time she had before the power went out. By the end of our meal, we were both full and content. She told me she enjoyed the quality time and that we should make it a regular thing, I agreed. Stuffed with food we both decided to retire to bed early. I wasn’t about to argue with a full stomach so I happily made my way to my room. When I opened the door to enter my dark blank room, I saw something sitting in my chair. It looked like a kid, perhaps messing about with my paint brushes. I immediately flicked the switch to turn on my light, but the bulb never illuminated. It then hit me that the power being out is just teasing my imagination. I just need to get some rest. Merely to assure myself I called out to the figure sitting in my chair. My eyes started to adjust to the darkness and I could almost make out what I thought was a face, but it wasn’t moving. I rationalized that if it were a person then I would be able to see it breathing at least. I stared at what I believed to just be my own eerie creation in the dark for what felt like two or three minutes. Then, I saw its two little eyes blink. I felt a knot twist in my stomach. Seconds after it blinked, the lights came back on and the room lit up. My chair was vacant, and I hadn’t taken my eyes off it so it really must have been a hallucination.
“It’s all in your head.” I told myself.
I turned off my light and tuned my clock radio to a late night political talk show for some white noise. Lately, it’s better than silence.
The next day, school dragged on. The previous night was filled with nightmares and left me drained of all energy. Conor was so stoked about going to the lake this weekend that it was the only thing on his mind. Well, that and making it to second base with Lucy Mills, but I don’t blame him. Lucy is fricken’ gorgeous. After school that day I made my way to my grandma’s house. Her five cats greeted me at the door. Yeah, my grandma is your classic weird cat lady. She told me to come in and have some cookies, she had just made them a few hours ago. Her Halloween cookies were my favorite and they really livened the mood for me, all things considered. She inquired as to why I looked so exhausted. I told her I had been having nightmares and that last night I kept hearing a high pitched voice say, “I’m your favorite, right?” Her face grew flushed and she went silent.
“You okay grandma?” I asked concerned.
After a moment she reassured that she was fine. I asked about her strange response and she hesitated for a second, then informed me that her husband, my grandfather, had complained of hearing the same thing right before he died.
She hissed, “It’s that damn Campbell. Bartley should have never painted him.”
I asked as to what she was referring to, acting as if I had never heard of my great great grandfathers Campbell painting. She told me that Bartley McFetridge was a good man and a talented artist. However, before his art became famous, he worked in construction. One day the company that he worked for assigned him and a group of construction workers on a building project. About halfway through the building process, just as they finished digging and cementing the entire foundation, a storm came along and interrupted the whole project. This was before the roof had been built, so the rainstorm had hit the interior of the unfinished building pretty hard. It rained for an entire week and over time the rain water accumulated into the elevator shafts. After the storm had passed and Bartley went in to resume the project with his team, they found the body of a boy floating in the pool of water in one of the elevator shafts. Bartley blamed himself and made a portrait of the boy titled “Campbell” in his honor. He was most proud of Campbell for many years until he painted his piece “Lost Sailor”. Lost Sailor of course was bought by an Irish museum, giving Bartley the fame he deserved and taking the place of Bartley’s most prized creation. After that he started having awful nightmares until one night he turned up at the bank of a river, bloated and discolored. The painting has been handed down from generation to generation, not knowing it was the cause of every one of my ancestors’ demise. They only caught the pattern after my father and labeled it the family curse. After that, my father had sent the painting back to Europe, but that was the last thing he ever did. According to my grandma, the curse took his life on a boating trip after meeting up with an art collector overseas. By the time grandma finished the story, I had finished the entire plate of her orange, pumpkin shaped cookies. I assured her that I didn’t know of the painting and that everything was going to be okay. After a bit more small talk she wiped some cookie frosting from the corner of my mouth and hugged me goodbye.
When I got home I laid down on the couch and thought about what my grandma had said. Dad must had died on the way home from handing off the painting because the painting did end up in Europe. Before it got to me, it was in France with my brothers’ friends’ grandfather. The message written on the back of the painting that said, “Return this evil portrait to Scotland immediately. Let not another soul suffer.-PM”, that PM must stand for Patrick McFetridge. As convincing of a story as it was, I still didn’t believe in the supernatural crap. I always looked for solid, scientific answers. One thing didn’t add up though. If Bartley was as proud of his paintings as my family suggests, then why did he sell Lost Sailor in the first place and set the curse in motion. This inconsistency reinforced my skepticism and put my mind at ease. I dosed off after reflecting on it for a while.
I had awakened on the couch with a blanket over me. Mom came in the room with chicken noodle soup and claimed that I had been looking rather ill the past few days. I looked over at the clock on the end table to see that my school day was half over. Mom said that she called the school and informed them that I wasn’t going to be in today. I think that this was her way of saying thanks for the awesome dinner the other night. I dug into my soup as we watched movies for the rest of the day. It was nice, even if it was my nightmares that had brought us closer together.
Later that night mom asked me to go out to the well to fetch some of the rain water that had accumulated in it over the past few days. She liked the taste of the rain water mixed with her soup, and since I had been eating soup all day, she figured she wanted some too. I made my way to the well. I knew that if there were a time to see the pale child, it would be right now and right here. I peered down into the well expecting to see his expressionless face looking up at me. I slowly pulled the bucket up and to my surprise there was no child. I let out a small chuckle. I knew that my family was crazy, and that the irrational stories about the McFetridge curse were simply bullshit. Of course my grandma would believe something like this, she is psychologically compromised. Anyone would be if they lost their husband and son. I shouldn’t let this get to me. They are just stories. The little boy is just dried up paint on a canvas. There is no haunting only an overactive imagination. A sense of relief overcame me and I made my way back inside. I gave the water to my mom and told her I needed to head off to bed. We said goodnight and I made my way into my room to find Campbell still on my wall, right where I had left him.
“You are a work of art, not a curse. You can plague the minds of my family, but you can’t bother me anymore. I will sleep well tonight.” I said out loud to it.
Just then the glass of the frame started to fog up in front of the boy’s mouth. It looked as if the boy had just breathed on the glass. I took the picture down and removed the frame. I was not going to deal with this tonight. I was sure that there was a perfectly good reason for why that just happened. I just didn’t have it all figured out. I turned on my clock radio and got nothing but static. Fuck it, must be interference from another radio or something. I truly did overcome that fear, because I got a full eight hours of sleep that night.
When I awoke the next morning I felt refreshed and ready for school. I got dressed and before I left I took one last look at Campbell. He was just sitting there next to the frame, but I noticed something different about him. His face, he had a twisted little smile on it.
“That’s fine. Go ahead! Smile at me all you want you creepy little asshole. Doesn’t bother me any.” I said in an angry tone.
I left my room and headed towards the front door. Mom caught me before I made it out.
“Who were you talking to?” She asked.
“Oh umm, I was on the phone with Conor. We were quoting movies.” I lied.
Mom shrugged it off and told me not to be late for school as I did have yesterday’s work to catch up on. I made my way to school and found Conor in the library with my make-up work.
He looked at me and said, “It means crooked mouth.”
“What?” I asked in total confusion.
Conor responded, “The phone call last night, you wanted to know what the word Campbell meant. I would have told you to look it up yourself but you hung up before I could say that.”
The sinking feeling overtook me again. I regained my composure and asked him exactly what I said over the phone last night.
“You called at about 11:15 and you just said I want to know. What does it mean? Campbell. When I asked you what you were talking about you just said, the name Campbell! What does it mean? C-A-M-P-B-E-L-L! What does it mean? Then you hung up. Honestly Colin, don’t you remember or were you just prank calling me?”
I told him that I was drunk and just to ignore it. He laughed and then jokingly told me that next time I steal some of my mother’s whiskey to remember that Campbell is a Scottish name that means crooked mouth. This way I wouldn’t weird him out randomly at night. For the rest of the school day I couldn’t focus. The word Campbell kept playing in my head.
After school Conor ran up to me and announced, “Good news! You can come with me to the lake tomorrow! Hurry home and get packing!”
This news instantly made my day better. I had always loved going to the lake with Conor and this would sure take my mind off that uncanny painting.
My happiness was short lived, when I got home I found my mom standing in the kitchen with her arms crossed. Shit, she found the painting. Mom screamed at me, telling me that grandma called worried about me and that she knew I had been acting strange this past week. Finally she told me that after I left this morning she heard Spooks growling at something in my room. I had left in such a hurry this morning that I forgot to close my door and consequently Spooks made her way in there. When mom went to see what she was growling at she discovered the painting. She yelled at me for another hour then grounded me from my computer and forbid me to go to the lake with Conor. Defeated and upset I went into my room, shut my door, turned off my light, got into my bed, and slept like a baby. Best sleep I’ve had since yesterday. Looking back on it now, it’s probably because she confiscated the painting from my room.
The next day I awoke to the smell of bacon, eggs, and toast cooking in the kitchen. I apologized to mom hoping to get my computer back; it didn’t work. She said that there was no excuse for lying and that the painting had an awful history to our family. I assured her that I was in no danger, but she wasn’t having any of it. She claimed that I would be destroying it tomorrow and that she put it in safe keeping until then. She told me she couldn’t bring herself to destroy it. She justified that if I’m comfortable enough to keep it in my room, I was comfortable enough to set it on fire. I really didn’t want to destroy it, but I didn’t love it enough to give up the trust of my mother…and I wanted to see my computer again.
Then I got an idea, “We don’t burn it,” I said with a smile, “We sell it.”
Mom looked up from her morning paper right at me.
“A Bartley McFetridge painting in good condition has to be worth a good chunk of money to the right people.” I claimed.
Mom smiled, “You know, what you did was wrong. You kept this awful thing a secret and lied to your grandmother, but you’re absolutely right. We can make a nice profit off of it and keep it away from you at the same time.”
The two birds with one stone idea struck gold with mom so now was the right time to ask for my computer back. She said yes under the condition that we watch the news together. As much as I hate the news, I didn’t mind bonding with mom plus I could start e-mailing museums that would be interested in Campbell. Mom went to go fetch my computer from her hiding spot she uses when she grounds me. I turned on the TV and took a seat on the couch.
“This is News Channel 9 with Jessie Stone and Neil Brock. First, the president signs a new bill that helps gas stations fill your tank faster but will it empty your wallet? Then in sports, we give you the game plan for tomorrow’s game and how it will impact Coach Perkins of the Mississippi Mammoths. Later, we will investigate the strange disappearance of a young man in Dunkerdale. Finally, we will join Tim Elliot with our weather forecast. Looks like this weekend will be a sunny one. All this coming to you from News Channel 9.”
“Here’s your laptop back Colin. Anything good coming up?” Mom asked as she handed me my laptop.
I explained that the news wasn’t interesting and that I wasn’t really paying attention. She didn’t take it to heart because she was glued to Neil Brock talking about who cares on the not interested. I booted up my laptop and checked my e-mail. I got lots of spam and a few art requests from my online artist archive page. Then there was an e-mail from Conor. It’s probably about how much fun he’s having with a few pictures attached. Still I was interested to see what he had to say.
I opened the e-mail and it read, “Colin, I’m sorry you couldn’t come with me to the lake. That’s a total bummer man :( Before I left I stopped by to see if you were home, but you were already asleep and your mom told me you were grounded. That’s rough. Anyway I went into your garage to have a look at some of the art you didn’t want anymore. Remember you told me I could if you weren’t home, well I considered at home but asleep one of those occasions. Hope you don’t mind. I found some pretty cool stuff. I came across that twisted picture of Mr. Franklin that you drew in chemistry. I also got the painting of this messed up looking clown, you know the one with the blood coming from his mouth and nose. It’s pretty gruesome dude. I can’t believe you are scrapping some of this stuff, but I’m not complaining. Oh I found this one of the guy with the nails in his shoulders and neck, which was pretty cool. I took this one of this pasty kid sitting on a chair looking all creepy with his little grin….”
I froze. No. I turned to my mom and started to ask her where she put Campbell. She told me to be quiet and that we can talk during a commercial break. I was about to say something back when I heard “Dunkerdale Lake” come from the TV. I turned and watched in silence.
Neil Brock spoke, “Police found the body of a young man early this morning in Dunkerdale Lake. The boy had arrived in Dunkerdale late last night and went missing after he didn’t return when going out on his jet ski.”
I looked back at my computer screen and continued reading where I had left off, “I don’t know which one I like the most. Probably the one you painted for me last year of me and Lucy Mills making out while each of us holds a knife to the others back. That one is still the most badass thing ever. I’ll send you some pictures when I can. Later dude, Conor.
Neil Brock continued, “This just in, the body has been identified as Conor Stanley.
It was just a painting… simply a creepy painting.
Credit To – Uncanny Spaghetti