He crept up to study the image more closely. It was very clear to his eyes: the long hair parted down the middle, the shaded outline of the chin and cheeks, and those eyes. They were simple, almost cartoonish in their depiction, but vivid and piercing. They stared straight ahead with an expression of anguish and sadness. The mouth was slightly agape, and two lines defined the frowning facial muscles. The figure appeared to be wearing a robe formed by dark splotches reaching to the floor. The hands were barely visible, but their presence was indicated by faint marks on the plaster. That scowl of anguish on the face seared Josh’s heart with fear. He could feel his stomach twist in nausea as the adrenaline in his blood subsided, leaving him with a sense of quiet dis-ease as he sat on the tile floor. It did not confound Josh in the least that the old woman would be so afraid of this apparition; it’s form and appearance was indeed jarring and uncanny. What confused him is how Miguel would fail to be skeptical about the face. What had he done before calling Josh to throw out all claims that this was simply a mold stain in a coincidental pattern, or some prank from a bored local boy with nothing to do in such a small hamlet? Whatever the reason, the face was quite remarkable in its balance of intricacy and vagueness. It was too sharp to be gestalt, but too faded and distorted to be from a photograph of any era. Maybe an old daguerreotype that had been wrinkled and smashed could have served as a template for this image, but how it was transferred onto the plaster is another story. Who in this town could have the skill to do such a thing, and to what profit? These questions confounded Josh as he sat on the increasingly cold floor, with the moon rising outside.
What he didn’t notice while sat on the floor was the cold chill wafting through the house. He was so transfixed on the image on the wall that he did not notice the fog formed by his breath right before his eyes. He took out his phone to take a picture of the wall to study later; he was beginning to feel an inexplicable discomfort with the room and suddenly wanted to be out of the house. He switched his phone to voice memo and began to speak to the darkness.
“Is there anybody here?” He said. No voice responded to his inquiry. He forgot his fear for a brief second as he realized that, if a spirit haunted the house, the chances of it speaking English were slim to none. He struggled to remind himself of his old language enough to provoke a response. “¿Quién está aquí?” he said out loud. He would have to check the audio later to be sure, but for the moment there was no sound, no voice to be heard in the old house.
Josh jumped up when a loud rapping noise thundered through the house. “JOSH GET OUT OF THERE!” he heard Miguel yell. Without thinking, he bolted out of the kitchen to the patio outside, where he saw Miguel standing in the driveway, panicked. Josh ran out to his cousin panting in fear and shock.
“What, what is it?” He asked.
“There was something in the house,” Miguel replied, “the lights on the second floor were blinking on and off.” He pointed to the second floor, where the old glass panes were shielded from the inside by thick-lined curtains. Now, the house laid dormant. “That’s why I don’t go in at night.”
Josh could see nothing in the now dormant house. His fear was replaced with ire and fatigue. He was too tired to be upset, but too curious to sleep. As his pounding heart receded to a shallow thump, he pocketed his cell phone, making a mental note to review the audio he recorded for those few minutes before he was called out. The house stood calm in the night, and it was time to retire to the chapel.
Their room was an old cell in an adjoining cloister of the tiny church. It was an unsurprisingly sparse room with no adornments aside from some simple bookshelves, taupe curtains rent by time, and a few icons of Christ hung by iron tacks to the plaster. Each cousin had a canvas cot on which to sleep. Neither spoke that night, save to convey information about the layout of the chapel and the logistics of the investigation over the next few days. Miguel fell asleep rapidly after saying a short prayer to himself. Josh laid awake and reflected on his experience in the old house. He plotted in his mind how he would conduct the experiment, using the scientific method to the best of his ability. There would be controls, quarantines, real science. If Aunt Maria thought he was a scientist, he would damn well act like one, and with no interference.
Saturday morning was bright and warm. The wind still struggled to blow despite the town lying in a wide plain. Despite his lack of sleep, Josh awoke early to jog around the old church. He thought more on his plan for the experiment, and more importantly, how he would get Miguel to comply with his plan. The stoic but unresponsive man had called on Josh for help, and he would do well to abide by his every guideline.
Josh drew water from a well outside the church grounds. The water was cool and refreshing, much to his surprise. Still, as he watched the sun rise higher in the morning sky, he recalled the gravity of the task at hand. His great aunt, just an old woman, was frightened out of her home by what she assumed we’re ghosts. Regardless of how he and his cousin got along, he would help his aunt. Of that he was sure.
Just then it occurred to him that he had collected evidence of the phenomenon the night before. He turned the music off of his phone and selected the photos. He had taken three images the night before: a wide shot, a full-body image of the apparition, and a close up of that haunting face. The close up was just as jarring in the light as it was in person within the creaky old house. He found his eyes locked with the face’s, studying its features as it studied him back through the glass of his phone. The flash of the camera had cast shadows in the small pits of the plaster wall, making it difficult to see if the pigment had seeped into those pores as well. The streaks of black-silver that traced the image’ features showed no immediate signs of brush strokes or dabs of sponges, ruling out for now a prankster carefully applying paint to the wall directly. He could not rule out the possibility that a stencil was used with spray paint’ although if that was the case, there may have been multiple stencils used.
He turned the photos off and searched for his phone’s voice memo library. He scanned through a series of recordings in the database before finding the file with Friday’s date as the title. He stared at the file as he stood next to the well. His rational self denied that there could be anything on that file other than his own voice echoing amongst the white noise. His logical self ridiculed his belief in the moment that a spirit would answer him. Max had often stated that he believed in some aspects of the paranormal, but that he was unsure as to the full scope of that reality. Max always swore he could see things happening far away, or that he could glimpse the future. Josh had laughed off Max’s theories and experiences as fantasy, although he would be lying if he claimed that paranormal lore did not fascinate him. He chuckled to himself as he hovered his thumb over the sound file.
Josh was interrupted suddenly by Miguel. His cousin stood tall in the morning sun, wearing faded blue jeans and an old red USMC T-shirt. “There’s a wash-basin for you in the cell,” he said. “You can clean yourself up in there.”
Josh had begun to get used to Miguel’s blunt and detached disposition as part of his nature. After all, it had been years since they had last met, and even longer since they had separated for good. They were young then, and a person’s demeanor can change quite a bit in that amount of time, especially when growing up. He recalled how much his own mother changed after re-marrying in California. She became, not stricter, but more success oriented than she had been in the past. He could not imagine his Texas mother to be concerned with college or careers, but in California, she was obsessed. Josh wasn’t upset at that, after all he was tracking to become a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and not many people can put that feather in their cap.
“Before I go, I want to talk a bit about how we’re going to proceed.” Josh said. “We need to go back today and take a look at the wall, and maybe do some experiments. I doubt we could do much given that I don’t have any equipment, but there is a good chance we…”
“Before all that, we have something more important to do.” Miguel interjected.
“Tia wants to take us out for breakfast.”
The three of them sat in a wooden stall in the local Belmez diner. All three looked weary and in great need of sleep, but Aunt Maria had a smile on her face the entire time they ate. She questioned Josh constantly about his life since leaving Texas, his new family in California, and his time in college. He answered whatever he could, avoiding mention of the hostility and fear that had torn his family away in the first place. He rambled on about his time in ROTC, about his friends at Cal State Agoura Hills, his adventures dealing with protestors who tried to stop their training, his experiences working with Max and his grandfather, who was also from the San Antonio area. Every word he said pulled Aunt Maria’s smile farther and father towards the corners of her face. The sense of pride she emanated seemed to brighten up the dreary town, except for the space occupied by Miguel, who sat gloomily across the table eating a large plate of huevos rancheros with a mug of black coffee. It wasn’t anger Josh felt from his cousin, but rather the feeling that both he and his aunt’s unyielding interest in his life were being consciously ignored.
Josh began to feel uncomfortable at the sight of his cousin’s detachment and the loss of time conducting their investigation. “Aunt Maria,” he said, “can you tell us a little bit more about what’s happening in the house.” A look of shock and horror flashed on his aunt’s face, and Miguel glared at him from across the table.
“We don’t talk about that here,” Miguel whispered harshly, “the people here might think that the house is cursed, or that she is a witch if they found out what was happening.”
“We’ll talk in the car on the way back, mijo.” Aunt Maria said.
Josh sighed and slumped in his booth. The few people in the restaurant seemed to be minding their own business and not paying attention to their conversation. But in a community this small, a simple rumor could cause public outcry within a few days. After all, the six or seven other people in the diner, mostly middle-aged men, could constitute 20% of the adult population for all he knew, and the rumor would travel from husband to wife, from family to family, and throughout the local congregation at any given opportunity. So despite his initial confusion, Josh decided that it was indeed the best idea to discuss this issue elsewhere.
After a short truck ride back to the chapel, the three decided to discuss the goings on in the house. There was a kind of gazebo in the cemetery, an appropriate location to discuss such maters, thought Josh, where they sat on the stone benches under a wooden roof.
“Aunt Maria, when did this all begin?”
Maria stood above her ancient stove cooking a pot of carnitas for dinner. She watched the pot intently, but her hearing was elsewhere, keeping track of the young child she had volunteered to watch for a couple down the street. The baby boy was no older than two, Maria did not know for sure, but he was all smiles and laughter as he played in the corner with old plastic toys. Maria smiled as she listened. The sounds of youth and joy were absent from her life; she had never had children of her own after her husband died many years ago. She had received the support of the community for years after that, but refused to re-marry, thinking it would never be the same, and that doing so would somehow cheapen the romance her husband had shared with her before his passing.
It was bittersweet, to be sure, but something refreshing that she cherished immensely. She had some training as a nurse, although she was no longer licensed to practice anymore. She used to help in the local clinic until regulations demanded that she receive an accredited degree, which she was unable to do, and lost her job. She made ends meet babysitting, sewing, cooking, and cleaning when she was able, all out of the house she and her late husband had inherited. The house had belonged to his grandfather, who had inherited it from other relatives from years past. The house itself, renovations aside, was around 150 years old, maybe more, and the property itself was much older, dating back to the age of the conquistadors. In fact, aside from the local church, it may have been the oldest site in Belmez.
Maria stirred the meat in the pot. It was beginning to separate into fleshy strings, almost to the point where she would remove them to chop the meat and shred it before serving. She was still lost in thought, drifting further and further into the twilight of her youth and past, when things were happy, and simpler. It was at that point she noticed something strange that she could not put her finger on. Something felt off about the air, as if it had begun to shiver. Even with the bubbling pot of pork in front of her, she felt a chill creep behind her. But what struck her the most was the silence. She turned around to her left to confirm that the baby was still in his playpen sprawled out on the ground. She ran over to it for evidence of where he might have gone. There were no real breaks in the fence-like mesh that sequestered the child from the rest of the house, and yet the child was gone. She ran around the kitchen until she saw him there. The baby sat silently on the floor staring at a black stain in the corner. Maria walked up to the baby to see what was wrong, when she noticed that what might have been a mold or smoke stain impressed on the wall was the image of a human face staring straight back at her. She let out a scream as she grabbed the small, dumbfounded baby and ran into the living room. Tears flowed down her face as she panted and prayed for protection. She had no idea what to do, save to call the priest. Old Father Veracruz would be able to help. He would be able to save her and explain to the world what the strange apparition on the wall was. Before she could pick up the phone, the smoke alarm went off in the kitchen. She summoned up the courage to trek back in to remove the hot pot of carnitas from the stove. She reset the alarm and turned off the stove, but could not help but to turn and stare at the black painting on the wall. It just sat there, staring, wailing silently to itself. Terror gripped Maria’s heart as she ran back into the living room to call Father Veracruz and the baby’s parents, stating that she was beginning to feel sick, and could not care for their child as promised.
“I’ve been living in the chapel ever since,” she said. “That was two weeks ago.”
“She called me asking for help, and to call you.” Miguel said. “She heard from your other aunt that you had graduated college.” Josh struggled to figure out who could have divulged his graduation. He had so many aunts and uncles and cousins that still spoke to his mother, it could have been anyone. Fortunately, that was the least of his worries, and the last thing on his mind.
“Are there faces anywhere else in the house?”
“I don’t know,” Maria said, “I left after seeing the one. Father Veracruz said that he did not see any others.”
“That’s the other thing I wanted to ask you, what did Father Veracruz say?” Josh asked.
“He said he had never seen anything like it. He insisted I stay in the chapel until he could find an answer. He has been reading scripture and his books ever since.”
“And no answer?” Aunt Maria shook her head in reply.
Josh was frustrated beyond anything he could remember. The face was indeed unsettling, but the fact that all that had been done was a priest looked at the wall and the rest of the house and done nothing but read was grating against his sense of reason. He was about to suggest he speak to the priest, before he realized that Father Veracruz only spoke Spanish and Ecclesiastical Latin; Josh’s skills in Classical Latin were diminished since satisfying his language requirement in college, although he could skate by if needed. Instead of talking to the priest, he decided to unveil his plan to his relatives.
“Here’s my idea:” he said, “I want to look through the house and search for other faces. I need to rule out that this is a prank, because right now that’s what I think it is. In the case that it’s…not, we’ll need to determine what is causing this to happen. I’d like to chip away some of the plaster with the markings on it to see if it’s not mold or something in an incredibly unlikely pattern.” He welled up with pride as he exhibited his leadership. His foresight and planning would save the day, and he would be able to go home with one hell of a funny story, with some minor edits of course.
Miguel glared at him from across the gazebo, and Aunt Maria gazed off into the distance. Somehow, his confidence in his briefing did not instill a sense of hope and optimism as he had hoped. Looking in the same direction as his great aunt, he saw she was looking at the faint outline of her house a few miles down the road. Her glasses reflected the still-rising sun as it hovered over the dusty landscape.
“Miguel,” he continued, “I’d appreciate it if you could get some information about the house from Father Veracruz, unless you’ve done that already.”
“I have.” He replied.
“Well then, I think there is only one thing to do at this point.” Josh stood up and began to walk to the hitching rail where his car was parked. “It’s time to do an investigation.”
The interior of the house was a flurry of dust motes hovering and swirling in the air. A gentle light flooded the living room, giving it a strangely inviting look. It had that kind of Kinkade-esque kitschy atmosphere of an antique store, or maybe a museum you’d visited a thousand times before. Miguel stood apprehensively on the fading blue carpet, holding a bag of tools. He was more vigilant, more afraid of the house than Josh was, but he knew he was there to help, and he was visibly summoning the courage to continue with his cousin’s work. Josh sensed this easily and carefully motioned for them both to walk into the kitchen.
The sidled their way into the kitchen to keep eyes on the mysterious apparition. Even in broad daylight, it was still there. Miguel pulled up a chair while Josh stooped in for a closer look. It still had that look, a mix of anguish and pain, but tinged with sadness and longing. It was hard to pin down what the face was meant to express, but it wouldn’t matter much if it had turned out to be a fake.
Josh asked his cousin for a small chisel, or something that could be used as one. Miguel produced a large screwdriver and a hammer, which Josh took into his hands. Carefully, Josh placed the metal tip of the screwdriver onto the plaster an inch and a half above the parted black hair of the figure. He locked eyes briefly with the figure; it’s eyes were painted such that they followed you around the room, and it almost seemed as if it were rolling its eyes up at him. His breathing became slow and deep as he prepared himself to strike the screwdriver and cut loose a piece of plaster. It would all be over in one swift tap of the hammer, and he could head home early to get a head start on his studies for pilot training.
With great focus, he tapped the screwdriver into the wall. Small flecks of plaster chipped off and sailed to the tile floor. He tapped again; more fragments chipped as the screwdriver bit into the plaster. Again. And Again. Miguel leaned in, his intent increasing with each subsequent strike. “Do it.” He said. “Do it now.” With one deft strike, Josh struck the plastic handle of the screwdriver, sending the metal blade through the plaster and against the stone wall, carving off a gigantic slab of plaster. A cloud of dust surrounded the two as the plaster gave, and Josh was sure that he had freed the entire portrait from the wall. The two coughed as they waited for the dust to settle. Josh turned his back to the wall to inspect the plaster slab. After it hit the. Ground, it had split into two pieces on the floor. Josh picked it up to show his cousin. “Well, we’ve got this.” He said with humorous triumph. “Let’s take it back and see what we can find out about it.” As Josh looked up for a visual confirmation of Miguel’s affirmation or rejection of his proposal, he was perplexed to find his older cousin transfixed on the wall behind him. His dark complexion had drained from his face leaving a visage of pale gray features, drenched in cold sweat and frozen in catatonic terror. Josh too began to sweat as he slowly turned to face the stone wall behind him. Where the old plaster had hosted the faded, smudged image of a face in torment, was the image of the same face staring back with features so sharp, it may have been etched in silverpoint. It’s eyes were no longer black dots in the center of almond-shaped fields of white, but crisply detailed and cold. The mouth was in a wide yawn, and the face’s hair draped off to either side. Everything that had been unsettling about the image on the plaster was displayed in striking resolution on the stone beneath.
Josh leapt back in fright as the dust cleared and the realization of what had happened sunk into the fibers of his mind. “Mother-FUCKER!!!” Miguel yelled as he fell out of his seat. “Damn you cabron,what the FUCK did you do?” Josh stared at his cousin fiercely. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHAT DID I DO, ASSHOLE!?! All I did was pull the plaster off the wall, and there’s shit underneath! What the fuck did you drag me into?”
Miguel walked up to Josh with rage and hatred burned into his features. “I didn’t want you here, bastard.” He shouted. “I wanted to move her away from here, take her somewhere where she didn’t have to deal with this shit, but no… She wanted to bring you here. We didn’t need you. I don’t want you here. And now you’ve made things worse!”
Josh glared back, choking back tears and rage. For a moment in time, nothing could have horrified him enough to block out the rage and pain he felt in his heart. His stomach was knotted and his anger distilled into nausea and nervousness. “I don’t care what you do, but I don’t want to see you again, you traitor.” Josh stared angrily as Miguel stared his hate forward one last time. Finally, Miguel turned to walk back out into the living room, through the front door, and out of Josh’s life forever. But as Miguel turned, he shot back with a startled yell. Josh could not help but look to see what had caused his enraged cousin to be so startled. But it was so obvious as it unfolded before him. Another face had imprinted itself on the wall leading to the living room.
Josh ran up to his cousin, but before he could get there, Miguel had dashed out of the house and sped away in his truck. He was left all alone in the haunted house. Obviously Miguel had ceased to be concerned with his safety in the house. In the midst of all the anger and hatred, a new face had appeared on the wall. This new apparition was different. It was the face of a woman, her hair done up in curls and with a long dress hung over her shoulders. This image was very faded, but he could make out an indifferent expression on her face. It was as if she were seated for a portrait.
Josh stood up and went to the sink. He took a dishrag and wet it with water from the sink. He knelt in front of the apparition’s face and began to attempt to wipe it off the wall. His eyes widened as with each subsequent wipe, the image appeared to clearer and clearer, until it had a fidelity similar to the opposite wall before the plaster was torn down.
The other wall! Josh turned around, realizing that he had not considered the other figure for some time. It was still on the stone wall, staring into forever and yet deeply into his heart and mind from across the room. He shivered as his subconscious drifted to irrational fears. His invasive thoughts showed him being taken in a cold embrace by the woman behind him and pulled into the wall with no hope of protest. He imagined the original face, anguished and forlorn, peeling off of the wall and stalking him through the halls of the house. But as he thought such horrific things, he noticed that despite all the terror and fear he experienced in his head, the plaster images simply sat there, staring off into nothing and affixed very securely to their walls.
Josh staggered into the living room and sat on a dusty couch. An ancient CRT TV was placed up against the front wall of the house, decorated on top with a vase of dying flowers and photos of relatives. As he sat, a tear snuck its way out of his left eye, then the right. He blinked in attempt to stop their escape, but in the process freed several more. His fear subsided again to sadness. Anger was no longer present, just sadness and confusion. What did he mean, “traitor?” What had he done in his life that was so damning? He pulled out his phone, which was on its last legs since the previous night. He took out his charging cable and plugged the phone into an outlet in the wall. It would take a few hours to get the phone up to its full charge, but that didn’t matter to Josh. He sat by the phone and stared at it. Out of the corner of his left eye, he could see the imprint of the young woman on the wall, the fresh apparition that he had made more vivid with his towel, staring off into the distance, and yet at him, and yet at nothing. His fear had mixed with his sorrow to yield ambivalence. He took his plugged-in phone and scrolled to the old picture of the first face on the wall. He felt as if he could identify with that face, in a strange way. As it stared at him, he felt as if he were looking in a mirror; a surface that reflected his emotions in a ghastly apparition. He felt, for a brief second anyway, that the face’s sorrow was for him.