Short Story · Stories

Ashes and Paint

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Artwork by Jon Smith

Written by Russell James

Being free felt wonderful.

And the death certificate in his hands represented Jared’s freedom. He’d demanded a certified copy be delivered as soon as one was ready. His hands trembled with joy as his eyes traced each letter of the name of his dead wife, Denise. By week’s end, the boat would be his. The stocks would be his. The life insurance money would be his.

He’d own the mansion he now stood in. He looked out through the windows beside the double entry doors, across the acres of grass, and down the long driveway. Step One was going to be to put a gate at the end of that driveway. No more uninvited visitors into his new personal kingdom.

Behind him rose an elegant, sweeping stairway that stretched from the white, marble tiles up to the second floor landing. At night, the huge crystal chandelier lit the foyer and made every turn of the glossy banister sparkle. Denise had loved that staircase, thought that it gave the mansion an aura of class. She’d obsessed with decorating it for every holiday, arranging he and the kids upon it for family photos, and keeping the handrail polished just so.

How fitting that it was the last thing she saw as she tumbled down it to her death. How good of her to break her neck as she rolled, instead of cracking her skull on the floor, and staining the marble with her blood.

Jared had hesitated just before he pushed her. The voice in his head that always second guessed him had chided him, saying a cold-blooded shove from behind was cowardly, that snuffing the life of the woman over twenty years his wife was traitorous. For once he’d almost heeded the voice.

Jared laughed to himself. What a fool he’d been in that moment. It had all worked out.

All evidence pointed to the tragic death being accidental. After all, hadn’t he called Dr. Cohen earlier and reported that Denise’s new blood pressure medicines had been making her dizzy? Hadn’t the cleaning service just waxed the floor at the top of the steps the day before? Weren’t the new silk slippers she wore sadly devoid of any traction? (It had been delicious to put them on her feet post-mortem before calling an ambulance.)

Once the estate executor finished his work this Friday, all the wealth she’d brought into the marriage would be his. No longer metered out by her as some condescending allowance, he could spend it as he pleased.

And truth be told, she’d brought this on herself. He probably could have endured another few years with her. But she’d mentioned modifying her will to split her family’s money, as she called it, evenly between him and her two adult children from her first marriage. Mallory, his step-daughter had married rich, so she didn’t need the money. And his step-son Timothy, the robotics nerd, wouldn’t know what to do with wealth if he had it. Jared had to stop a three-way split from happening. He’d earned the payday, not them.

Outside, a dark green minivan rolled to a stop before the front steps. Jared gritted his teeth.

“And this is why I need a gate,” he muttered.

His step-daughter Mallory sat at the wheel of the minivan. It looked like her brats weren’t with her, so thank God for little blessings. He wondered what she was doing here. After Sunday’s funeral, he’d asked to be left alone, ostensibly to manage his grief, though in reality to be able to stop publically faking it. He’d already agreed to have her and her brother Matthew over tomorrow for lunch.

Mallory trudged up the steps and rang the bell.

She had her own key, so Jared surmised her not barging in meant she feared interrupting his mourning. That was excellent.

He screwed up his face into some semblance of sadness and opened the door. Mallory had her mother’s brown hair and fair skin, but her father’s green eyes. Her shoulders sagged, as if weighted down by the events of the last week. She carried a small, rectangular box under one arm.

“Hi, Jared.”

“Mallory! What a surprise.”

They hugged. She stepped inside and he closed the door.

“I know we promised you some alone time,” she said. “But even though we were all having lunch tomorrow, I wanted to give you this as soon as it was ready. I thought it might help.”

“Thanks, honey.”

He opened the box and had to stifle a gasp.

Inside, mounted within a bell jar, stood an eight-inch tall female figurine. She had shoulder-length dark hair and wore a flowered yellow dress. Her little smile blazed like sunshine. In amazing detail, every strand of hair, every fold of clothing appeared to have been carved in stone and then perfectly painted. It was his departed wife, in ultra-realistic miniature.

“What is…”

“Okay,” Mallory said. “At first it might seem odd. But there’s a company that makes these. You send in pictures of a loved one and they make laser-cut, three-dimensional reproductions. Then artists hand-paint them. Isn’t the work breathtaking? A friend of mine had one made of her father, and I thought you’d like one of Mom. It’s like a photograph, only better.”

If only she knew that Jared was a few days away from stripping every memory of Denise from the house.

“Well, yes,” he said. “The resemblance is uncanny.”

Mallory smiled for the first time. “I knew you’d like it. I used Mom’s favorite picture, the one from the Fourth of July when you two first met. Matthew and I both chipped in to pay for it.”

“How nice of you both. It’ll be as if she’s still with me.”

“Not as if,” Mallory said. “She actually is. This was made from her ashes.”

Jared nearly dropped the box on the ground. “Her what?”

“Her ashes. That’s what this company uses to make the statue. You told us you were too distraught to make the funeral plans, so after cremation, we had a portion of her ashes sent over. So she really is here with you, forever.”

The idea of it made Jared’s skin crawl. He’d just gotten the woman out of the house, now his daughter was dragging her back in, with a plan to have her stay forever. He forced a smile.

“This is really nice of the two of you,” he said. “I’ll find a special place for her.”

In the trash, he added to himself.

“I know where she’d want to be,” Mallory said.

She took the box from her father and went to a table centered under the curving staircase. She slid a vase of peacock feathers to the rear and put the bell jar in front of them.

“She so loved these stairs,” Mallory said. “She’d want to be right beneath them.”

“That’s perfect,” Jared said.

Mallory looked at the little statue and sighed. She headed back to the door.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. “Matthew hasn’t seen it yet, so he’ll be so excited to check it out when we have lunch tomorrow. Are you sure there’s nothing I can do for you?”

“You’ve already done more than I could have imagined.”

Mallory gave him a hug and departed.

Jared closed the door and spun around to face the creepy statuette of his dead wife. He leaned back against the door.

His first impulse was to smash it and grind it back into the ash it has once been. But it still had to be here when Matthew and Mallory returned tomorrow. And he couldn’t risk dropping the grieving husband pretense before the financials were finalized on Friday.

“Well, great to have you back, Denise,” he said to the figurine. “The house hasn’t been the same without you. Because it’s been better.”

He took a few steps forward.

“Don’t get too comfortable, though. By the end of the week, you’ll be out of here again, this time for good.”

He peered closer at the bell jar.

Denise was facing the base of the steps.

He was certain that Mallory had set her down facing the front door.

“Now you’re letting the weird little statue get the best of you,” he said to himself. “Keep that imagination in check.”

He reached down and turned the statue to face the door. He considered turning it to face the peacock feathers, but feared he’d forget to turn it back around before the kids returned. That would be tough to explain. He bent down to look the statue in the eye.”

“Take one last look around,” he said, “because by tomorrow night you’ll be in a plastic sack under a pile of coffee grounds.”


It sounded like the noise a knife made when it tapped against a wine glass. It came from outside the den, where Jared was watching a football game on the wall-sized television.

He swapped his bourbon for the remote on the table. He muted the sound and listened.

Tink. Tink.

He dismissed it as something in the kitchen.

It isn’t coming from that direction, his annoying inner voice said. And it’s nine p.m., you’ve been home alone since your step-daughter left this morning, and that sound hasn’t happened.

It was breezy outside. He thought that maybe branch or something must have blown up against the windows beside the front door. He turned the game back up.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

That noise was going to drive him nuts. He shut off the game, levered himself out of his recliner. He swayed sideways and grabbed the armrest for support. Then his equilibrium returned.

He wondered if perhaps he’d had one too many celebratory bourbons. He decided to cut himself off and prevent a morning hangover.

Jared stepped out into the hallway. He turned on the chandelier and checked the two windows beside the door. Nothing out there.

He turned on the outside light and opened the front door. The porch was empty.

He shut and locked the door.

“The damn noise came from somewhere.”

He looked up. The chandelier! Of course. A puff of air, one crystal taps another…

Tink. Tink.

The chandelier hadn’t moved. The noise came from much lower. He checked the bell jar on the table.

Little Denise faced the bottom of the steps again.

A chill shot up Jared’s spine.

“That can’t be possible.”

He went to the bell jar on tip-toes, as if his footfalls might awaken the statue within. He examined the little figure. It was in the exact same pose, beaming its little smile, just facing the stairs again.

Wait, the voice inside him said. Wasn’t her hair slightly different before? A little more to one side of her shoulders?

“Knock it off, idiot,” he said to himself. “I wasn’t paying attention when I first saw the thing. I was too shocked to take in any details.”

But the change in direction? You can’t deny that happened.

There had to be an explanation for that. The base was slanted, the figurine out of balance, the table vibrated a little every time he walked by. There were plenty of reasons the thing could move position. Especially plausible since it moved to the same orientation both times. That damn near proved it was some normal, natural phenomenon.

But that didn’t mean that the tiny statue still didn’t give him the creeps. Again he considered moving it someplace else, but he knew he’d forget to return it before the kids arrived. Then he’d have to explain why he wasn’t cherishing every moment with this diminutive doppelganger of their mother. One question would lead to another, he’d do a poor job hiding his elation at Denise’s demise, and this whole thing would unravel faster than a cheap sweater.

And honestly, he didn’t want to touch the thing. It had a very dark vibe.

Any interest he had in the football game disappeared. All he wanted was space between himself and this statuette.

“Face the stairs if you want,” he said to it. “By tomorrow afternoon, you’ll be out of this house and just a bad memory.”

The stress of the day seemed to be catching up with him as well, and crashing for the night seemed like a good idea. He went up the staircase, and headed for the master bedroom. At the end of the hall, the room was as far from Little Denise as he could get without heading outside. And while that idea had some traction, he wasn’t going to let a figurine and his imagination run him out of the house. At the top of the steps, he looked down at the bell jar on the table.

“See you in the morning, bitch.”

Jared woke up in bed choking.

In the disorienting darkness of his bedroom, he gasped for air. His sheet and blanket pinned him across his neck. Beneath the covers, he flailed his arms and legs to tear himself free. It was if the bedclothes had been clamped to the bedframe at all four corners.

The sheet’s edge bit into his neck like a hangman’s noose. The pounding beat of his racing pulse drummed inside his skull.

With all his remaining strength, he shoved himself up against the sheets. They did not give. If this failed, he was certain he was going to die. Muscles burned as he strained to escape.

An upper corner of the sheet tore loose. Something whizzed by his ear and smacked against the far wall.

Jared jumped out of bed and snapped on the nightstand light.

The door to his room hung open a few inches. He always closed it. He inspected his bed. Three corners of the covers were still tucked in. The freed fourth corner had a shredded edge. It must have gotten hung in the bedsprings.

Bullshit, his inner voice said. That’s not even possible.

Something stained the far wall just above eye level. He stepped over to inspect it.

It looked like brown dust, salted with flakes of yellow.

Then something skittered along the wood floor beneath the bed.

Expensive as the mansion was, Jared had seen rats around the pond at the property’s rear.

“Goddamn rat,” he said. “Pulling at the sheets while I slept. That son of a bitch is history.”

He went to the closet and pulled out one of his wife’s stilettoes. The four-inch heel would pierce that rat’s skull with one blow. He went back to the bed and knelt by the side where the sheet had been pulled up. He looked down under the frame.

Empty. The comforter edge that hung low down the other side ruffled as if something had just passed under it.

He looked up over the bed just in time to see a very un-ratlike, very human eight-inch silhouette dash out the door.

He froze at the sight, unable to believe what he’d seen.

Tiny footfalls raced down the hallway toward the staircase.

Rationalizations metastasized like cancer. He was half-asleep and still buzzed from the bourbon. The light was bad. The statue of his dead wife had skewered his subconscious. All he knew was that there was no way in hell Little Denise was running around the house trying to choke him.

Second call of bullshit, the voice in his head said. Believe your own eyes.

He was starting to agree with the voice in his head.

“Screw staying here tonight,” he said.

He threw on a shirt and a pair of pants, and slid on his shoes without even bothering to tie them. He grabbed his wallet and keys from the dresser and bolted out the door.

He stopped on the landing at the top of the staircase. The chandelier was lit. He knew he’d turned it off. He peered down over the railing to the table at the foot of the stairs.

The bell jar top lay on its side. Little Denise was gone.

Terror bloomed throughout him. His mouth went bone-dry.

He was going crazy. Or Little Denise was after him. Or both. His mind reeled and he couldn’t cut through his fear to figure out the truth. All he knew was that he had to get his head on straight, get away from everything that reminded him of what he’d done.

He ran to the stairs. His left foot hung up, but momentum continued to carry him forward.

What the—

He barely registered the thought as he reached for the bannister. His sweating hand slid off the polished surface. His eyes went wide as he rolled right shoulder first off the top stair.

He struck a riser and shattered his collarbone. A rib punctured a lung.

As his head swung around he caught a glimpse of the top of the stairs. Little Denise stood there smiling.

He rolled down the steps, bouncing and breaking bones with each impact. His head struck the stairs and for a second everything went white. Halfway down, vertebrae crunched like walnut shells, and from there to the bottom he felt nothing from the neck down.

He landed on the marble floor with the grace of a crash test dummy, facing the stairs. His arms lay twisted in an impossible angle, his legs splayed out before him, body bent at the waist. He choked and spit out blood as his organs hemorrhaged into his punctured lung. His blood dripped from the steps in front of him.

After all the awful noise of his fall, the house went eerily still. Seconds later, a tiny noise broke the silence.

Bump. Bump. Bump.

The soft sound approached, coming down the stairs. A fresh round of fear sent sweat streaming from Jared’s temples.

Little Denise appeared, hopping down from step to step. She hit the floor and walked over, stopping inches from his face.

Jared’s field of view contracted, the dark edges creeping closer in a shrinking circle of light. Little Denise stepped closer, still carrying her summer-day smile.

“At least there’s nothing else you can do to me now, bitch,” he mumbled.

Then everything went black, and Jared moved on to the afterlife he had earned.

Mallory waited several minutes after she heard the bone-snapping sounds of Jared’s fall. Then she stepped out of the second floor guest bedroom and into the hallway. With a gloved finger, she threw a switch on the controller in her hand and the green light on its face went dark.

She pulled a black plastic garbage bag from her rear pocket, dropped in the controller, and went to her parents’ bedroom. She untied the three corners of the sheets on the bed. At the fourth corner, she picked up off the floor the clamp that had kept the last corner tight. She dropped it in the bag.

A quick look around the room revealed a brown smudge on the wall. She stepped over and dusted the residue into the sack.

Back in the hallway, Mallory paused at the top of the stairs. She untied the piano wire strung across the top step, coiled it, and added it to her growing collection.

She worked her way down the steps, careful to avoid any blood splatter. At the base of the stairway, she stopped beside the tiny likeness of her mother that stared into Jared’s milky eyes. She picked it up and flicked off the switch that sent power to the mechanical legs. Her brother Matthew had been so proud of his creation, so sad only three people would ever see it. Little Denise looked little worse for the wear of being launched across her parents’ bedroom.

Then she put the robotic Denise into the sack, followed by the bell jar with the rotating base from the table nearby. She only glanced at Jared long enough to confirm that he wasn’t breathing.

She entered the den and went straight for Jared’s favorite chair. Of course the slob hadn’t cleaned anything up from last night. She dropped his dirty glass into the sack, and then the unfinished bottle of the bourbon she’d spiked with a mild hallucinogen. Not enough to make you crazy, but more than enough to make you suggestible. Certainly nothing the police needed to find.

She smiled as she slung the sack of evidence over her shoulder. Jared dying in utter terror was better justice than any murder conviction could have obtained.

She headed for the back door where she’d parked her minivan. That afternoon, to her and her brother’s mutual horror, they’d discover their step-father’s corpse, and in doing so, move up from secondary to primary beneficiaries of her mother’s will. After all, they’d earned the payday, not him.

If you liked this story a second story by this author in the same setting is available to supporting members.


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