Dust loomed on the photo frames’ clustered atop the ornate onyx mantle. Dust loomed over the collection of stone gargoyles in the foyer. Dust loomed over the empty Chinese food containers, slumming it in darkened crevices in the kitchen. The only thing the dust didn’t loom over was the small girl gallivanting through the dilapidated mansion. She knocked each photograph down as she passed. The ways the frames thud-thud-thudded against the grimy carpet and sent dust spiraling up in the air, instead of looming down on her, made her gallivanting more closely resemble skipping.
Thud went her aunt holding her infant son, her eyes lined and red.
Thud went her cousin Malcom, grinning cheerfully from behind a gleaming crimson award. Its reddish tint was because of the fuzziness of the camera diluting the color. She hadn’t understood that until she’d seen the trophy in person for the first time; while she obliged Malcolm’s plea that she smash everything in his display case to smithereens.
The next photograph, a photograph fitted with a ruby encrusted frame, made her pause. Her parents had warned her against touching anything valuable, so they had more to inherit after Malcolm’s death.
A sudden breeze flew through the musty room, it stirred up shimmering cobwebs and dust piles. She pulled her black hoodie over her head.
Thud, went her sneaker on the first step leading up to her cousin’s deathbed.
She cracked the door open and opened her mouth to call to him, but his name died on her lips. It wasn’t the only thing that died.
And even though the girl had expected him to die, she hadn’t expected that feeling of abyssal emptiness upon seeing his gray eyes glossy and glazed over. She also hadn’t called for him to die of a knife to the back instead of his undiagnosable disease.
The rest of his room seemed unchanged, except–
The only thing Malcom had sworn to leave her, his glass orb, was missing. It resembled a crystal ball with two slivering, silver, sinister dragons made coiled up to form its base. They were kissing it as if they had turned the sand into glass with their fiery breath. That had been the only thing in the display case he’d told her not to destroy.
Someone gave it to her once-uncle as an outlandish wedding present. The whole wedding had been outlandish, especially with the groom’s disappearance the following morning.
The orb huddled on the floor and sported a crack, deep and jagged as fissures on a frozen lake.
Once she’d scooped it into her palm, she flinched at its freezing touch. The chills it gave her multiplied by thirteen as a laugh broke the tomb-like silence of the house. She whirled around to see a man hunched in the corner.
The slanting shadows of the cloud-covered sun half-hid the man. But the girl could just make out his red-rimmed eyes and storm of clumped and knotted hair. Sallow skin, punctuated with protruding veins and scars, hung off his frame like the torn and filth encrusted clothes he wore. Her heart reached up and choked her, and her oncoming scream crushed under its hold. “You own it, don’t you?” He asked in a voice that slithered into nightmare fuel. The…orb? With Malcom dead, it did legally belong to her.
The orb flashed with cold again. “It doesn’t like that. It’s a haughty lil’ thing, proud.”
“Do I look like I care what it wants?” She spat around her closed throat.
His face stretched into a lopsided smile, making the spittle on his lip stand out even more sharply. She had to look away. Doing so made her glance at Malcolm’s body — though it didn’t look much like the body that belonged to her cousin. Soccer and his natural sturdy built made him a distinctive figure. And his tan, round, smiling face didn’t hurt. But in recent months he’d been growing paler and skinnier, and his face haggard and his eyes dull. He hadn’t cared about his appearance-but when it affected his performance on the field, he’d cared. A lot. That with the blood staining his clothes and bed… did she really know that corpse at all?
“I broke the curse. I had to. Once you’ve owned it once, it never lets you go. But I beat it. I got out.” He rose his hand and revealed the knife clutched in his red soaked palm. “The orb said if he died, I’d win my freedom.”
At his words, the orb flushed with warmth, pulsed with it. It was as disgusting as its cold. “Why?”
“I– I don’t know.” For a moment he was silent, and that breeze barged through the open window to buffet their hair. The movement of his hair gave off the impression of a choppy sea in the middle of a lightning storm. When he spoke again, he pitched his voice up in lilting pleasure. “It doesn’t matter because I can get my pride-my joy- my pride and joy, back.”
He smiled, and she could see his face was once round, and the dim light through the lampshade revealed his washed-out tan.
His mouth twisted in an even bigger smile, and her body jolted with shock. It was the same smile Malcom had in the picture she’d knocked down in the hallway. “I can see my family again.” He whispered. And then back again was the frost gnawing at her fingertips.
The clouds rolled away from the sun. Its light glowed through the dirt-encrusted windows and threw the man’s gray eyes into focus.
Her eyes traveled down to the gleaming crimson knife in his trembling right hand, and her own blood ran as cold as the clammy death clenched hard between her fingers. “You just did,” She muttered.
Thud, went his knife on the floorboards.