The old lady was staring at her. She knew it.
Four months ago, Julia had married the love of her life. Her husband, Mike had just been named head curator at the art museum where he was working in. She was three months pregnant with a boy they would call Joey and after Joey is born she would quit that stressful writing job of hers to be a full-time housewife. Nothing could go wrong in her perfect life.
The day it arrived, Julia and Mike were busy unpacking their luggage from their trip to Venice when the doorbell rang. Julia ran out to get the door and when she opened it and looked down, there it was.
The package was encased by a bubble wrap, with an additional layer of plastic over it. At first glance it was about two feet tall and one foot wide. Julia carried it into the living room and unwrapped it. The rectangular wooden frame in the package was old, but kept in good condition. Flakes of the golden paint that coated it were coming off but it was still a beautiful frame, with very fine carvings of flowers at its corners. But Julia didn’t notice that, her eyes were fixed on the painting in the frame.
It was a portrait of an old lady who looked almost in her eighties. She had a sharp chin and high cheekbones and her pale skin was weathered and covered in wrinkles. The old lady’s graying hair was tied up in a bun and over it she wore a white bonnet. She had a hooked nose, almost too big for her face, with a sharp tip like the beak of a hawk. Below that nose she had very thin and dry lips. The edges of her mouth slanted slightly upward, giving her a smile that looked more like a smirk to Julia.
Most frightening of all were her eyes. The icy-blue eyes of the old lady stared up at Julia as she examined the painting. Unlike her mouth, the old lady’s eyes did not smile. They were unforgiving and full of contempt. Her crow’s feet and lack of eyebrows did not help. Julia could feel the old lady’s gaze piercing through her, leaving her with nothing to hide. She bit her nails nervously as a chill ran down her spine.
“Who was that?” Mike came out of the bedroom. “Wow! A painting! Let me have a look!”
“Here, did you order this? Or did someone you know send this over to you?” Julia showed the painting to Mike. “I just found it at our doorstep and it’s not addressed to anyone.”
“I don’t think so,” Mike examined the painting. “I don’t recognize this painting and I don’t recall anyone who wanted to send me any. But look at the artwork, the colors and shades. Doesn’t it just bring her to life? It’s a masterpiece.”
“And why would anyone just dump a masterpiece at our doorstep?”
“No idea.” Mike shrugged. “I believe that this oil painting dates back to the 19th Century. It’s not just a great painting. It’s an old and great painting! An antique! Whoever dumped it there must have really poor taste. I’m keeping this for him.”
“Are you sure you want to keep this? She looks really sinister, I don’t feel comfortable looking at her.” Julia protested.
“Don’t be silly, darling. It’s just a portrait of an old lady. Look, she’s even smiling. Sinister is the last word that I’ll use to describe her. I think I’ll hang this in our living room! Just in front of the dining table, the golden frame would match our walls. What do you think? I can’t believe our luck, you don’t just chance upon such a masterpiece every day!”
“Alright then, if that makes you happy I’m fine with it.” Julia had her reservations but she kept them to herself, seeing how excited Mike was about the painting. He never could contain his excitement when it comes to art. She didn’t want to be a wet blanket and most of all, she didn’t want to seem paranoid and silly in front of Mike. He had been a great husband to her and she wanted to be a good wife too, it wouldn’t be worth it affecting their relationship over a painting.
The painting had been hanging in the living room for almost two weeks now. Julia would try her best to ignore it by pretending that it wasn’t there. A few times she allowed herself to forget all about the painting, focusing on her work at the dining table and typing away at her notebook. But the moment she looked up, the old lady would spring into her life once again, making her shudder.
Sometimes she would gather up her courage and stare back at the old lady, trying to convince herself that she was just being paranoid, that there was nothing sinister about the painting. Look at her, she’s smiling, and she’s all dressed up in white. She must have been a kind old lady when she was alive to have someone willing to paint her. Yes, that must be it. Maybe she was a saint and someone sent her to watch over us, to watch over our baby.
No matter how hard Julia tried to convince herself, she would still be terrified by the painting. The icy-blue eyes were so cold that Julia could feel the chills in her body. Whenever she walked past the portrait, she could feel the old lady’s eyes following her, making her feel naked and exposed, as though there was nowhere she could hide from the gaze of those unforgiving eyes.
It doesn’t matter, I’ll just ignore it. A painting can’t hurt me, can it? Julia chuckled at her own foolishness as she shut down her notebook and squinted at the clock on the wall. She had been working for the past two hours, rushing out the latest assignment that the chief editor had given her. This would be one of her last articles for the magazine before she resigns to give birth to the baby and become a housewife. The thought of that brought a smile to her face. No more deadlines to meet, no more late night typing, and no more deranged editors breathing down her neck.
Julia wiped the sweat off her face and stood up from her seat to get a glass of water from the kitchen. She looked up and her eyes came into contact with the old lady’s. As she stood up, she felt the energy leave her knees as they crumbled under her own weight. The old lady’s features began to blur.
“Help me…” Julia groaned, as her world went silent. The last thing she saw was the pair of blue eyes, and everything went black.
“You got to eat more, darling.” Mike chided. “You’ve been eating so little ever since the day you fainted. Thank goodness I happened to come home that day. God knows what would have happened if I didn’t send you to the hospital in time.”
Julia prodded reluctantly at a piece of her sunny side up with her fork and took another bite.
“You must take care of yourself. You need more nutrition for the two of you.”
“All right, all right, I know. You don’t have to repeat yourself.” Mike had not stopped his nagging since she had fainted in the house that day. The doctor said that she was overworked and had fainted because of her low blood pressure but thankfully, the baby was fine. Although Julia felt light-headed and nauseous in the few nights she stayed in the hospital ward, she slept soundly every night. She knew that the old lady’s gaze could not reach her while she was there. She had begged the doctor to extend her stay at the hospital but the doctor insisted that she would recover faster at home and discharged her a week later.
If the picture had only made Julia nervous at the beginning, it now made her scared. After her incident, Julia had not dared to look at the painting for fear of seeing that pair of eyes again. Regardless of the doctor’s diagnosis, Julia was convinced that the old lady was somehow involved in her fainting. It’s her. She was staring at me when I collapsed. Smiling at me. It made no use telling Mike what she thought. He would only dismiss it as her imagination getting the better of her and tell her that she was being absurd. She couldn’t blame him; paintings don’t usually make people faint.
The chief editor had given Julia time off from work for her to recover. She had nothing to do all day and Mike refused to let her cook, for fear that she might faint again. Staying alone at home the whole day only served to feed her wild imaginations.
“I’m off to work. Take care of yourself, alright? I love you, darling.” Mike said as he gave her a kiss on her cheek.
“Good bye.” Julia returned the kiss and watched her husband walk out of the door. Once the door closed, she put her fork down and got up from her seat to clear away the remainder of her brunch; there was no point in trying to force it down her throat when she did not have the appetite. On the way to the kitchen, Julia kept her eyes looking at the ground to avoid having to see the painting.
As she did the dishes, Julia looked up at her own reflection in the mirror in front of her. It had been a few weeks since she had fainted. Her stomach was significantly bigger now but her face was much thinner. Her skin was pale and dry and her cheekbones jutted out as a result of her poor appetite. Her lack of sleep was also clearly evident from the dark circles and heavy eye bags under her eyes.
Julia could not help but feel that she was not alone in the house. She is staring, Julia could feel it, that horrid old crone. Sometimes Julia felt so helpless and terrified that she would burst into tears, crying for hours on end till her eyes were puffy and dry. A few times she had tried to confront her fears by shouting at the old lady to leave her alone and get out of her life, but she could never look at it for too long without feeling faint again.
Julia only felt safe when Mike was at home with her and everyday she would look forward to his coming home to tell her about all the interesting people that he met at work. The critics, the art collectors, the aspiring artists and the occasional vandals. Mike would tell her everything and as he spoke, Julia would bury her head in his chest and close her eyes, enjoying the short period of peace that she is allowed each day.
When Julia was done with the dishes, she went back to her bedroom and lay down on her bed, letting out a groan as she stretched. She had woken up early that day for a morning appointment with the gynaecologist and her body ached all over. There was a slight drizzle outside the window and Julia could feel the cold breeze blowing at her through the open window. She relaxed her body and as her eyelids grew heavier, she allowed herself to fall asleep. Maybe Mike would be home by the time I wake up. Maybe she wouldn’t appear in my dreams this time.
She was sitting on her bed in her bedroom as she observed her surroundings. It was unnaturally dark. Julia looked at the open window and it was pitch black outside, and she could only hear the howling of the wind. The door was wide open as well, and outside the room there was only darkness. Julia could see something moving in the darkness and she narrowed her eyes for a clearer view. A pair of blue eyes materialized in the darkness.
Cold and menacing, the eyes were scrutinizing her, as though they wanted something from her. Gradually, the other features began to appear. A large, hooked nose emerged below the eyes, followed by a mouth with thin and cracked lips as the owner of the eyes hobbled into the room from the darkness outside.
“No, no, don’t come any closer! Get away from me!” Julia tried to stand up but found herself stuck to the bed. She could feel the energy leave her body as she tried to lift her arms and legs but to no avail. She looked up at the old lady, who had made her way into the room. She was very short, only about five feet tall with a hunched posture and she was draped in a cloak that was as white as her bonnet. The old lady opened her toothless mouth as she made a weird cackling sound. Her skeletal arms were outreached as she grabbed hold of Julia’s bulging belly. The yellowish and long fingernails dug into Julia’s belly as she tried to break free. The more she struggled, the weaker she felt. Fear overwhelmed her as Julia screamed.
When she opened her eyes again, the old lady was gone. The drizzle had stopped and the sun shone through the window. Outside of her open door, Julia could see her living room clearly. She frantically touched her belly where the old lady had grabbed her. There were no scratches, only patches of sweat. Thank goodness, it was just a nightmare. Julia buried her face in her hands and broke down into tears.
That night, when Mike returned from work, she hugged him tightly and tearfully told him everything. “Please, take the picture away. I can’t take it anymore,” she cried.
“It’s just a painting, it can’t harm you. Don’t be silly, you just had a nightmare, that’s all. I’ll take it down and keep it in the store if it makes you feel better, alright?” Mike patted Julia on the back of the head and kissed her forehead. “You must be really tired, go and get some sleep. I’ll take a shower and join you in a while.”
Julia returned to her bedroom and fell asleep almost immediately. The next morning when she woke up, the painting was gone.
Julia didn’t dare to sleep. The old lady was waiting.
Mike had removed the painting and kept it in the store. However, every time Julia walked past the store, she would feel the old lady glaring at her through the door. Worst of all, the nightmares did not end. Some nights Julia would find herself stuck on the bed in that dark room again, unable to move while the old lady attacked her. With each successive nightmare, the old lady edged closer and closer to Julia, trying to rip her belly open.
She would wake up from these nightmares screaming and covered in cold sweat. Mike had taken her to a doctor the previous week and the doctor had diagnosed her with depression. He claimed that this was a normal occurrence in pregnant women and that she shouldn’t be so worried about it. Julia wanted to scream in his face and tell him that there was nothing normal about being attacked every night by an old woman from the 19th century. That useless doctor. The medication that he prescribed did not help at all. It might even have made things worse.
Mike thought she was absurd too. He didn’t explicitly say so but Julia could sense that he felt that way. Every time she woke up crying he would comfort her in that condescending tone that never failed to make her feel childish and ridiculous. She felt bad for Mike as well. He had also been losing sleep over her problems and she could see that it was taking its toll on him. When he came home from work he would often doze off and his eye bags were almost as thick as hers now.
Julia looked at her husband. He was curled up under the blanket next to her and snoring loudly. She smiled and kissed him on the cheek as she promised herself that they would get through this together. Julia got up and went to the kitchen to look for her sleeping pills. She knew that she had to make herself sleep, not just for herself, but also for her husband and the baby. She hoped that the sleeping pills would put her in a deep sleep and the nightmares wouldn’t come. Julia recalled the previous night’s dream. The old lady had gotten so close to her, clawing at her belly and ripping it apart with those talon-like nails of hers. The old lady reached into her womb for the baby, but Julia had woken up before she could do it. The old lady had been getting closer with each passing night, and Julia feared that she would succeed this time. Julia downed the pills with a glass of water and went back to her bedroom. She muttered a silent prayer to herself and closed her eyes, hoping for the best.
When she opened her eyes, she was in that dark room again, sitting on the bed as the old lady hobbled towards her slowly. “No! No!” Julia screamed, she was not supposed to dream, this wasn’t the plan. The pills were supposed to help her sleep. She would need to wake up now, before the old lady got her. Julia screamed loudly, hoping that Mike would hear her and wake her up. She screamed till her throat was hoarse and sore but she was still stuck in the dream. The old lady’s fingers were at her belly once more, just like every night. Julia tried to kick her away but she could feel no energy in her legs. She couldn’t lift her arms either to push the old hag away. Julia wailed and cried and begged as the old lady ripped open her belly with those sharp nails, reached into her womb and pulled out the foetus.
“My baby, give him back to me, you old bitch!” Julia shouted at the old lady, who was cackling at her smugly. The baby was only as big as the crone’s hand but Julia could already make out his shape. He was red from head to toe with blood and made a sickening crunch as the old lady crushed him in her fist. Julia shrieked. She killed my baby, oh my god, she killed my baby. She looked at the old lady’s eyes. The blue eyes were full of exhilaration and they were mocking her. Julia stopped struggling and dropped back onto the bed. She had nothing to fight for now, she was defeated. But the old lady wasn’t done; she began to force herself into Julia’s open womb. Julia felt the unbearable pain and she screamed as the old lady fitted her whole body into her womb and sealed her belly up from the inside.
“Wake up, Julia, wake up!” She heard Mike’s voice as she opened her eyes to find herself in her bedroom once more. “It’s just a nightmare, darling, don’t be scared, everything’s all right.”
“Oh my god, Mike, she’s inside, I have to get her out.” Julia could feel the excruciating pain in her abdomen. The old woman had killed her baby, went into her womb in his place and was now attacking her from the inside.
“Who’s inside? Inside where? It’s just a dream, Julia, don’t be ridiculous. Hey, where are you going?”
Julia ran to the kitchen and grabbed the largest knife she could find. The pain was overwhelming her but she had to stop the old lady. Perhaps she would even harm Mike after she was done with Julia. Julia could not allow that to happen. She opened the door of the storeroom and there it was, the painting of the old lady with those icy blue eyes, staring right back at her through the darkness with that self-satisfied smirk. Julia buried the knife into the old lady’s eyes with as much force as she could muster as she heard the ripping of the paper. She had to make sure, so she stabbed the painting a few more times till it was in an irreparable state.
It was no use. Julia could still feel the pain in her belly and it was growing sharper. It’s too late. She’s no longer in the painting, she’s inside of me. There was only one thing that could be done now. Julia closed her eyes, lifted the knife and plunged it down into her belly. She pulled it out again and stabbed the old lady two more times. That should do it. Julia felt the life extinguish from her womb as she opened her eyes. Mike was screaming at her hysterically with a look of horror on his face, but she could not hear a thing.
“It’s okay, darling, we’ll be safe now.” Julia smiled at Mike and assured him as she closed her eyes. She would finally be able to sleep soundly this time.
“Are you sure this is the house, Johnny?”
“Yeah, I’m quite sure. The white house with the light blue door, he said. This is the only one.”
Jacob sighed. Three months ago while moving their house his dear brother, Johnny, had somehow managed to lose their family heirloom by entrusting it to one of those bums he called friends. It was a portrait of one of their ancestors, some old lady who had been the matriarch of the household about 200 years ago, when the family was much better-off. Generations of poor businessmen had brought down the family business a few decades ago and the downward spiral had not stopped since. The family even had to downsize their house a few months ago.
One of Johnny’s friends who claimed to run a delivery company had offered to help the family move to their new house and to his credit, he had done a pretty great job of it. Everything had reached their new house successfully, except for the painting. Some part-timer was tasked with delivering it separately to make sure it didn’t get destroyed in the moving process and that nasty little joker had left it at some random doorstep as a prank.
Their father had flipped when he heard about the missing painting. It was the only reminder of the glorious days of their ancestors, he said, and they had to get it back. Jacob reckoned it might even be the most valuable item that they had. The dodgy delivery company that Johnny’s friend owned kept no records of the part-timer and they had spent a long time locating the prankster, who then denied ever touching that painting. Jacob was not interested in the details, but Johnny and his gang of friends managed to help the prankster recall the events of that day and he claimed that it was left outside this particular house. Jacob hoped he was right, their father had not stopped ranting about getting the painting back ever since its disappearance.
“You know, Johnny, to be honest I’ve never liked that painting.” Jacob confessed. He had actually been glad that they had lost it. He had always found the old lady too creepy for him and she used to frighten him a lot when he was much younger. She must have been a really sinister woman, or the artist who drew her portrait detested her. The same blue eyes ran in the family but Jacob had yet to see any relative who was capable of pulling off that same menacing glare that the old lady managed to achieve in a painting.
“Yeah, me neither, scares the shit out of me. But we have to get it back anyway or Dad will kill us. That’s scarier.”
Jacob pressed the doorbell beside the door. “Well, Johnny, I just hope the owners of the house weren’t too freaked out by the painting.”