A bolt of lightning shot across the horizon, producing a power surge that caused the attic light bulb to glow with intensity and then blow out entirely.

“Cripes, let’s get out of here!” Mike said.

“Hand over your flashlight.”

Jacob nervously fumbled with the flashlight; it slipped from his fingertips and tumbled to the floor. The beam died in an instant and the attic was suddenly engulfed in darkness.

“Nice,” Mike said.

Mike grabbed Jacob by the wrist and pulled him toward the open door.

“Knock it off,” Jacob insisted.

“Okay,” he said. “But just in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s nothing in there.”

The boys gazed into the dark empty space, squinting and trying to interpret its blackness. The scent of mothballs was strong and bitter.

“Well?” Mike asked.

Before Jacob could answer, a series of lightning strikes illuminated the stifling room. It was then that they saw her smile, from deep within the closet. It flashed only for an instant, lit by the electrical storm outside. But they saw it, nonetheless. Mrs. McGarrity stared out from the blackness, her face the portrait of a woman frozen in time. An oil and acrylic smile stretched across her face, and although there was nothing especially sinister about the grin, there was, in fact, an inhuman quality that caused both boys to feel uneasy.

It was as if they were staring, not at a painting, but at the woman herself, somehow alive, and flattened under glass, eyelashes almost twitching. Waves of rain smacked against the ceiling shingles directly overhead. A gust of wind suddenly blew in through the drafty attic window frame. Through crackling snaps of lightning, they watched the portrait of Mrs. McGarrity fall forward onto the dusty wooden floorboards of the closet. The frame’s glass shattered from the abrupt impact. Twin voices screamed.

“Shut it! Shut the door!” Jacob cried.

Mike shoved the door closed as if their souls were at stake. Jacob grabbed Mike by his shirt sleeve and pulled him toward the stairs. They tumbled and stumbled like marbles, rolling down the staircase, until crashing at its foot surrounded by a dozen pairs of old shoes. Bodies bumped and bruised, they moved slowly, trying to reorient themselves. With clenched teeth Jacob stood up and threw shut the attic door.

A distant sound of canned TV laughter rose from the first floor, and they realized that the storm hadn’t knocked out the electricity. Both boys breathed a sigh of relief.

“Did you see–” Jacob began, while struggling to catch his breath.

“I didn’t see anything,” Mike said, unfolding to a standing position and brushing the dust from his clothes.

“Me neither. There’s just one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“We left Ker-Plunk in the attic.”

“And that’s where it’s staying,” Mike said.

They staggered down to the first floor, through the living room and past James, who was still glued to the TV, though he’d given up on the Pirates and was engrossed in a Green Acres rerun. The storm continued its assault as rain pelted against the walls of the house.

“You shouldn’t watch television in a thunderstorm,” Mike cautioned.

“Who are you, my mom?” James asked, distantly, absorbed in the antics of the TV sitcom.

Jacob stole the emergency flashlight from beneath the kitchen sink along with two black-cherry pops from the fridge. He and Mike stepped onto the porch to watch the storm: It was as far away from the portrait as they could get but not nearly far enough.

“Do me a favor,” James said from the sofa, a twisted smile forming on his face as the wooden screen door began to squeak closed. “Next time you see Mrs. McGarrity’s ghost, give her my regards.”

The rain continued, but the wind and lightning had ceased. The boys snapped open their cans and rocked silently, sipping soda and twisting the pull tabs into rings which they slipped onto their index fingers.

“Our power rings will ward off evil,” Mike said, extending his ringed finger.

The storm ended about an hour later.

“I can’t sleep,” Mike said, wrapped within his Hot Wheels sleeping bag but feeling not the least bit warm.

“Welcome to my world,” Jacob said. “You did shut the door, right?”

“Of course I did. At least I think I did.”

Jacob grimaced and zipped his army-issue bag a bit tighter. She was overhead. They stayed awake through the night, a single flashlight beam protecting against the unknown. It remained lit until its batteries expired just before dawn.

Mike and Jacob kept away from the attic the rest of the summer, except on those rare occasions when it was bright and sunny, or when their parents were present, gathering together boxes filled with old letters and receipts, discarded moth-eaten clothing and, hopefully, unnatural portraits, to be tossed away like the past they represented.



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