“You ought to get rid of your Great Grandfather.”
Over the past six years, Isaac had become accustomed to Aunt Madeline and her oughts. They were always unprompted, always pointed, and more often than not vaguely insulting. She had told him, in the early days of their acquaintance, that she was far too old to worry about politeness. Isaac was not entirely sure how old Aunt Madeline was, save that she was older than his mother. He followed her gaze over to the large oil painting that hung over the fireplace, a gray stone monstrosity framed by two large windows that looked out onto the expansive, but largely barren, gardens of the family estate. The man in the portrait eyed the pair of them with disdain, peering down over half-moon spectacles perched precariously on the tip of his thin nose.
Despite the fact that, as a child, he had often refrained from coming downstairs in the middle of the night from a sheer unwillingness to pass in front of the portrait’s gaze on his way to the kitchen, Isaac felt like it was breaking some kind of rule to get rid of paintings of one’s late relatives, and the violation of that final social mores would sever for good the last vestiges of connection he held with the family. Though even now, as an adult, he often angled himself on the sofa so that the steely blue eyes of Mathers Nathanial Flores the First were not fixated on the back of his neck.
His face must have conveyed as much because Aunt Madeline arched an eyebrow.
“It’s not as if he’s going to fit in your apartment.”
“And you’re not keeping the house.”
“I don’t… think so.”
He had an appointment scheduled with a realtor. At the words, Isaac was relatively certain that the portrait narrowed its eyes.
“Then what else are you going to do with him?” Aunt Madeline asked. “You could probably get a decent price for him. I know someone who works at the antiquities auction house. They pay loads for oil paintings of miserable old bastards there.”
Isaac did, on some occasions, understand why he had never been permitted to meet his Aunt Madeline as a child. Why he hadn’t even known his mother had a sister until he was fifteen and tasked with scanning several generations’ worth of family photos during his summer break because no one else had bothered to learn how to use a computer.
Respectability before all else, his mother always said. It was not the official Flores family motto, which was something in Latin that no one could agree on the direct translation of, but it might as well have been. Better to be known as the family with the exquisite grounds and seemingly endless supply of finger sandwiches than the family who bought said grounds and finger sandwiches through a well-known, but nominally secret, contract with a warlock.
“I don’t know.”
“You do know,” she said. “You’re just pretending not to because you’re worried about offending a man who died years before you were even born.”
Instead of responding, Isaac took another one of the chocolate sandwich cookies off of the ceramic serving tray and stuffed it in his mouth. He could not, after all, be reasonably expected to answer difficult questions while eating. From the expression on her face, Aunt Madeline had seen through the ruse.
“You also ought to buy food that isn’t chocolate cookies.”
Isaac swallowed. “I bought eggs.”
“Congratulations,” she said without enthusiasm. “You still need to decide what to do with the painting.”
Isaac glanced back at the portrait. The gray light from the dreary afternoon spilled in two even rectangles on the floor of the sitting room. He resisted the urge to tangle his fingers at the roots of his hair and pull, and instead settled for slumping back against the couch. The cushions were stuffed stiff, which did not produce the desired effect of feeling swallowed completely by them.
“I know. I’m working on it.”
By the time Aunt Madeline left, the entire plate of cookies had been finished and Isaac was still unsure what to do about the painting. His parents would have wanted him to keep it. Then again, his parents would have wanted him to do a lot of things. It had begun to rain, the kind that drummed a rising and falling rhythm on the roof of the house. Droplets peeled down the large windows that flanked the fireplace. Isaac balanced his sketchpad on his lap and stared outward, tracing the shape of the haggard rows of Crepe Myrtles that had long since lost their leaves, smudging the path between them in charcoal.
The house might’ve felt emptier if he could remember a time in which it had been full. His parents had used to throw house parties, but even those had been tight-lipped affairs where guests were restrained to only the first floor of the house, and little boys who would rather be building mud castles in the garden were expected to sit quietly and answer the occasional invasive question from their parents’ colleagues.
Issac’s smudging went wide, obscuring the upper branches of one of the more delicate foreground trees. He swore, wiping the dust from his hand onto the front of his sweater, like that would somehow undo the damage. It did not. He set down the sketchbook and stood up from the couch, taking a few steps back. It was foolish. The emptiness of old houses often made sounds that resembled words; it did not need to mean anything. A quick glance at the makeup of the sitting room revealed nothing obviously amiss.
Isaac chanced a look at the oil painting. Mathers Nathaniel Flores the First looked back.
“Look, I paid off the last of your debt.” At that, he scooped up the darkened curls at the base of his neck, exposing the pointed scars for emphasis. “So this is my house now. I’m the heir, and I get to decide what to do with it. I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but that’s what is happening.”
The wrought iron chandelier above his head went dark in protest. Isaac stood for a moment letting the dim echo of the rainy afternoon seeping through the window be the only source of light in the room before picking the charcoal back up from the top of his sketchpad and tracing over the worn sigil that had become a permanent fixture on the wall next to the useless switch. The circle of candles lit in succession.
“Thank you,” he muttered testily before glancing back at the portrait over the fireplace. Or rather, at the empty black canvas that had once housed a portrait of his great grandfather. A heavy weight settled beneath his sternum. Isaac closed his eyes, counted to ten, and finding that an ineffectual calming strategy, proceeded to the alphabet. He opened them again after Q, saw the still-empty canvas hanging in the ornate gold frame, and finished the alphabet in a snappish whisper, looking pointedly at the thing the entire time.
It was well-past dinnertime and pouring when Isaac Flores first stumbled onto the doorstep of an aunt he had never met. He’d had a friend scry the address years ago, when he’d first happened upon the old photograph in the family album, and wasn’t sure why he’d gone through the trouble, aside from morbid curiosity. Perhaps his foresight was better than his teachers had thought, Mr. Thornhill.
Or had been better. Back when he could do magic. His hand involuntarily crept for the back of his neck. He tried not to think about the cold fingers curling around it, and the seizing sharp pain that he’d felt echoing through his body.
Isaac closed his eyes and rapped against the door three times before he could talk himself out of it. It was one of those narrow brick houses, squeezed in a row of other identical brick houses, each with their own variant of half-dead potted plants resting on the concrete porches. His Aunt Madeline’s strangled potted-plant of choice was apparently a Japanese fern. He flinched backward when he heard the sliding of a lock.
The woman in the doorway gave him a skeptical once-over. She didn’t look much like Isaac’s mother, though there were the faint echoes of her in the contours of her face.
“I’m Isaac. Flores. You don’t know me, but I’m–”
“You’re Angeline’s kid.”
He swallowed. “Yes.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I didn’t renew the contract,” he said, watching her expression go slack. “And I know we don’t know each other, but you’re the only person I could think of who – I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
She recovered remarkably quickly. “Well,” his Aunt Madeline said. “In that case, you ought to come in out of the rain.”
Despite having his old bedroom available, Isaac had opted to sleep in one of the guest suites. He’d somewhat unintentionally wound up in the one his eight-year-old self, lacking creativity, had dubbed ‘The Green Room.’ The wallpaper was tangled vines that crossed over each other in a pattern that could give a person a headache if they tried to trace it with their eyes, not that Isaac knew this from experience. Between the three-pronged leaves of ivy, there were several black and white photos of people who might have been relations but whose faces Isaac could not place.
He pulled the deep emerald quilt a little higher over his head when the first appendages of sunlight curled their fingers around the base of the curtains. Finding this ineffective, he pulled the blanket down and stared up blankly at the ceiling, and tried to ignore the strange sensation of being watched.
It would have been a lie to say he did not flinch when he spotted the visage of his great grandfather inhabiting one of the small ovular frames on the wall. It would have also been a lie to say that the strength of his reaction to it did not cause him to fall out of bed, limbs wound up in the comforter.
Isaac rubbed a hand down his face, trying to peel the sleep from his consciousness, and glared. “I need to get out of this damn house.”
He had expected her to ask him to start from the beginning, or at least provide a bit of evidence that he was who he said he was, and not a home invader with questionable methods. Instead, she gestured to a row of stools by the kitchen counter.
“Take off your shoes.”
He did, wordlessly, and glanced near the doorway for some kind of coat rack. There wasn’t one, so he folded the black wool peacoat over his arm and awkwardly walked into the kitchen, letting it rest on his lap when he sat down on the closest stool to the fridge, beads of water rolling from the coat into the fabric of his slacks.
Aunt Madeline leaned on the opposite end of the counter, studying him. She didn’t try to hide it, either, tilting her head and sucking in a cheek absently, as if to say huh, this is unexpected. It wasn’t really insulting, but most adults Isaac knew took great pains to hide what they were thinking.
“You take after your Mom,” she said, finally. “I didn’t think she was going to tell you about me.”
Isaac ran a finger over the metal clasp on the front of his coat. “She wasn’t going to. I was scanning old pictures and asked.”
She did not look surprised, though maybe slightly disappointed. “That makes more sense. Disavowed family members are as good as dead.” She said it like a joke, but her smile was brittle. Isaac’s grip around his coat clasp tightened, metal digging into his palm. They never had forgiven her for dodging the contract, but even she had not refused to renew it altogether.
Aunt Madeline must have arrived at a similar place because she gave up on the smile.
“Do you like hot chocolate?”
Isaac blinked, taking a beat too long to process the question. “I guess so.”
She nodded once. “I’ve got some of those chocolate shortbread cookie things, too, if you’d like.” A pause. “Never thought I’d get to meet my nephew. I’m guessing we’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“You ought to get out of that damn house,” Aunt Madeline said, her voice tinny over the phone.
“I did.” And he was inexplicably pleased to have beaten her to that particular punch. The cement benches surrounding the fountain were still somewhat damp from the previous night’s rain, leaving the park largely empty. Isaac had been able to take up one in its entirety because of this, lining up his charcoals along the stone, and propping up his sketchpad between his knees.
“He’ll follow you around until you get rid of him properly.”
“I can’t exactly sell an empty canvas at auction,” Isaac pointed out. “And it’d do no good to destroy the original painting if he’s not in it.”
“That’s true. You’ll have to lure him in and keep him there. How’s your entrapment sigil?”
It would’ve been incredibly easy to weave a binding spell over the frame. He’d mastered far more complicated tethered magics years ago. But those were no longer at his disposal, and his sigilry was rudimentary at best.
“You ought to get it up to at least ‘decent,’” Aunt Madeline said. “He won’t fall for that more than once.”
Isaac nodded absently, massaging his kneaded eraser against his thumb, before remembering that he was speaking on the phone.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll work on that. Thanks.” He moved to hang up but was stopped by a short intake of breath.
“Isaac?” Aunt Madeline paused for a moment, her tone uncharacteristically soft. “Don’t let him bully you out of selling, alright? You’ve come too far and you don’t – you don’t owe them anything. Okay?”
He curled his fist around the kneaded eraser, squeezing the putty into the space between his fingers.
“Okay. Thanks. I’ll talk to you later.”
He set his phone face down on the stone bench after hanging up, staring at the statue on top of the fountain. The area was usually pretty well-maintained, but the first gnarls of ivy were beginning to creep around the torso of the mermaid statue that rested in the center of the fountain.
Isaac tilted his head, examining it, before opening the next blank page of his sketchbook, the darkened underside of the previous sketch flipping upwards. He paused. He hadn’t completed the shading on the base of the sketch of the backyard, so there was no reason for it to be that dark. He stretched the eraser between his thumb and pointer finger like he was forming a cord, before, jaw clenched, turning the page backward.
The acerbic expression of Mathers Nathanial Flores the First looked back up at him, and Isaac reflexively threw the sketchbook. It landed a few feet away on the wet cobblestones, and he did not bother to check for damage on any of the previous pages when he picked it up again. Destroying the expy would not do much of anything in the long run, but crumpling the page and tossing it into the white-speckled water of the fountain was still immensely satisfying.
Sometimes, in the years that followed, he would relive some variation on the moment when he let his mind wander. He’d be standing in the sitting room with the fire flickering and the curtains drawn, uncomfortable in the starched white shirt and navy blue cable-knit sweater his mother made him wear. The warlock, who from afar looked like any other affluent white-haired man, dressed in a black waistcoat with gold accents and a large red gemstone sitting at the collar of his shirt in place of a tie. He hadn’t said much, as Isaac’s parents twittered nervously, talking about his accomplishments while Isaac wondered if the sink-in-the-floor spell he’d found scribbled in the margins of one of his school books actually worked.
And then he’d dismissed them, and the door to the sitting room closed silently, gesturing for Isaac to sit on the ottoman while he rifled through his grimoire.
“What are you taking?” Isaac asked, though he wasn’t sure he was supposed to talk. Every generation bound by contract owed him something. His grandfather’s eyes, for his foresight. His mother’s index finger, for her careful spellwork. Sitting under gold-accented chandeliers, they told themselves it was worth it.
“Your parents say you are skilled in tethered magic?” he said, in lieu of an answer.
“I guess.” Isaac hadn’t even really noticed he was drawing a cord – pressing the thumb and pointer finger of each hand together and slowly pulling them apart – and winding it around his right hand until he caught the warlock’s eyes drifting down to it.
“A witch’s tether can be used for a large range of spells. Very valuable.”
Something cold like dread pressed into the small of his back, running from there through his veins to the heat of his palms where the gold cord – the last he’d ever draw – dissipated into nothing.
“This will only hurt for a moment,” the warlock said, moving to stand behind Isaac, cold fingers curling around his neck. If he noticed the way Isaac’s entire body twitched and tensed beneath his grasp, nothing in his stance gave him away. “And then we will speak of renewing your contract.”
His fingers left charcoal smudges along the wall, like prints at a crime scene. Isaac had removed the few other photos and landscapes that usually populated the sitting room as a precaution. With both the walls and shelves starkly bare, he could not help feeling that he was assembling some kind of barricade around himself. Against a painting. In his own damn house.
He hadn’t trusted his sketchbook to practice the sigil in the way he would have normally but had managed to refine it on paper napkins from a coffee shop that he wasn’t sure was a good idea to visit again. He’d ordered a steaming ginger tea and tipped generously, but doubted either of those would detract from the impression of the strange young man in a black peacoat who had spent the better portion of the afternoon drawing eye-shaped insignias on napkins and muttering to himself. It was not perfect, but it was the best he could manage under the circumstances, and he’d placed one near each of the four corners of the portrait frame.
“Look,” he said, to the empty room. “Maybe we can come to some kind of understanding. About the house, if nothing else. You can’t just keep following me everywhere.” Silence. “Coming into my sketchbook was kind of crossing a line.” He turned back. “But I am willing to negotiate.”
Isaac swallowed. “That’s a bit unfair, don’t you think? I held up my end of the bargain. Every generation has the chance to refuse renewal. That was in the original contract.” He forced himself to pause and take a slow breath, fingers tightening around the charcoal. Bits of black dust became embedded underneath his fingernails. “I know I’m not your favorite person, but we are family. Can’t we at least try to talk like civilized people?”
The room went entirely dark, as the flame from the final candle wisped into smoke, the dark gray curtains slid closed, the silver rings of metal screeching against the rod. Isaac stood for a moment in the darkness, before walking over to the nearby wall, and drawing the light sigil. The chandelier remained unaffected. Ignoring the nerves slithering an infinity symbol in his stomach, Isaac picked a flashlight up off of the coffee table and flicked it on, letting the circular beam trace the wall up to the portrait. Mathers Nathaniel Flores the First was back in his frame.
“Acquiesce?” Isaac repeated.
Acquiesce and you will be permitted to leave.
He blinked slowly. “I will be permitted? You do realize how ridiculous that sounds, right? You’re a painting.”
This house is the will of the family, Isaac Flores.
The deadbolt on the front door audibly slid into place.
It will not be left behind so easily.
Isaac’s jaw tightened. “Then maybe you ought to stop leaving us behind. I gave everything to you lot for years and then you threw me out the first time I did something you didn’t want. That’s not a great way to inspire loyalty.” The flashlight began shaking in his hand and caught the edge of one of the charcoal-drawn sigils. “Aunt Madeline was right. I don’t owe you anything.”
With the charcoal in one hand and flashlight in the other, he approached the portrait. The sigil for fire had been one of the first ones he’d learned – Isaac’s cooking abilities began and ended with boiling water.
As soon as his intent became clear, the chandelier came back on, the flames on the candles arching higher than they ought to have so that black tongues streaked across the ceiling. The curtains shrieked back and forth on their rods, and the constant light to dark shifting forced his eyes to keep adjusting. The fireplace itself in front of him lit, and the metal grate that was meant to keep it in began to glow red from the heat. In the kitchen, the kettle he left on the stove and always forgot to empty began to whistle, high pitched and desperate.
Isaac grit his teeth and continued drawing first the outer circle, and then the two lines that intersected just off of center. He was reaching for the final line when a bony hand closed around his wrist. He looked up, cursing himself. A skeletal thump pressed into the soft flesh of his wrist, the blue veins in the connected hand the same ones he’d seen folded for years on his great grandfather’s lap. Entrapment sigils on the frame but not on the front of the damned thing. The grip was tight enough to bruise, and Isaac’s breath caught in his throat. Mathers Nathaniel Flores the First pulled backward, stronger than should have been possible for a man his age, even if he had been an immensely talented witch. Isaac felt his hand gliding against the edge of the surface of the oil painting, the skin that made contact with the surface going numb, absorbed into the gleaming oils. He did not want to think about what would happen if he was pulled all the way inside.
“Let go!” Isaac pressed a foot against the wall to try and increase his leverage, pushing back as hard as he could. “Just stop, you can’t–” The sigil was nearly complete. He tried to press the tip of the charcoal back to the edge, but a second hand emerged, grasping the end of the piece and dragging it into the painting, letting it flatten and drop out of the dappled backdrop. Isaac balked harder, threads of panic tightening.
The request was cut off by the snap of a silver cord, coming down like a whip over the wrist that was keeping Isaac trapped. It loosened, startled, and he pushed off the wall, with enough force that when he managed to get his hands free, he dropped to the floor, hard, and scrambled backward.
“Stay down,” Aunt Madeline said, turning to glare at the painting. “Hello, Grandfather.”
The house continued to rattle in protest. Aunt Madeline threaded her fingers together and pulled them apart, forming five neat cords between her fingertips. A quick jerk of her wrists sent them grasping for the edges of the frame of the painting.
Mathers Nathaniel Flores the First’s face twisted once, from quietly disapproving to utterly enraged before the entire painting burst into flames.
“You don’t have to give it up entirely,” Aunt Madeline said one afternoon, while Isaac was peeling carrots next to her in the kitchen. “Magic, I mean. The untethered arts are there.”
He’d glanced over from the carrots, the fallen peels curling like the leaves of a Japanese fern on the granite countertop. She was not looking at him.
“You want me to practice cleromancy?”
“You can cut down on the judgmental tone, nephew mine,” she said. “I saw you eyeing those twenty-sided dice at the bookstore. But no, I was actually thinking sigilry.”
Isaac frowned. “Drawing wards?”
“Amongst other things. It’s not that different from weaving.”
“It’s weaker,” he felt the need to point out, though he winced at the petulant edge in his own voice. “And less convenient. Am I just supposed to carry chalk around everywhere?”
“Most beginners use charcoal or graphite,” Aunt Madeline said. “But a sketchbook. People will think you’re an artist.”
They stood for a moment in silence, observing the charred twists of paper, flaking in curls down from the frame. Isaac rubbed his wrist and winced.
She offered him a hand. “I always did hate that painting. Ugly thing.”
The house had gone still in defeat, returning to the kind of empty quiet that had characterized its halls for as long as Isaac could remember. He would not be at all sad to leave it.
“Well, then,” Aunt Madeline said. “You ought to get the ash out of that rug before the realtors arrive.”
Laney Gaughan (she/her/hers) loves to write about haunted places and people. Her work had previously appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and Not An Anthology: A Not a Cult Collection, and is forthcoming in Hell is Real: A Midwest Gothic Anthology.
photo by Nick van den Berg and no-longer-here (via unsplash and pixabay respectively)