The book Victor took with him was called Horrid Mr Hobble. It was a children’s novel about a mean school librarian who makes life miserable for students. The protagonist, Billy Finch, was a fourth grade student with a penchant for elaborate pranks. Victor’s bowels were in such a state of discomfort he read a third of the book while sitting on the toilet.
After surviving his gastric ordeal, Victor set the book on the edge of the basin and washed his hands.
“Good grief, that was nasty,” he said. “Have to avoid that fruit.” He picked up the book and flicked through the pages, pausing at the illustrated ones. “Let me guess,” he said. “Billy pranks Mr Hobble until the old man leaves the school. Yep. Ha! That one looks funny. Huh. What’s this?”
One of the illustrations near the end of the book showed Mr Hobble suspended upside down from a crane, yelling at students as he is about to be dunked in a barrel of hot English mustard. Beside the illustration, someone (presumably Gary) had written in black marker, BUTTFACE ARTHUR.
“I don’t know what you did, Arthur,” chuckled Victor, “but whatever it was, Gary wasn’t a big fan.”
He took the book and one of the candles from the floor, and returned to the bedroom. Late afternoon sunshine filtering through the cursed window gave the room a peachy blush. He set down the book and the candle, and checked his watch.
“I should start getting ready.”
He went down the hall and entered the fireplace room. Just as before, he edged along the wall to his right, then crouched and crawled past the fireplace, ensuring he cast no reflection in the mirror. Near the armchairs he stopped.
He backed up against the wall, breathing silent, deliberate breaths. The shadows of the armchairs stretched out across the floor and onto the far wall where the door to the dining room was open.
“I left that open,” said Victor to himself. “I’m sure I did.”
His gaze crept up the staircase to the haunting light at the top, which now seemed brighter. He exhaled, trembling. At the sound of a soft crackling his breathing steadied, and his eyes continued to scan the room. The vast wall. The painting. The door to the hallway. Victor’s eyes darted back to the painting.
“Wait, what happened?”
The painting of the gruff, moustachioed officer was no longer at ground level, but hung halfway up the wall. It had also shrunk to half its previous size. Victor dabbed a bead of sweat from his temple as he peered at the portrait, the details of which were now harder to distinguish. As he knelt, staring at the traumatising artwork, a nearby clunk startled him off balance, and he fell sideways onto the floor. He turned, terrified, to the fireplace, and then a broad smile stretched across his face. He began to laugh.
“Well how do you like that? I crawled right past it, too.”
The fireplace was aglow with a delightful, mumbling fire. Victor crawled in front of it and stared, smiling. Another clunk as a burning log dropped to the bottom of the blaze. The wood was burning, but somehow not. As Victor watched, dancing amber flames devoured the smaller pieces of wood, but then fresh pieces would emerge elsewhere in the fire. He moved back, onto the bearskin rug, and watched the fire some more.
His eyes followed a glowing piece of ash as it leapt from a crumbling log and floated upward. It rose to the height of the mirror before descending in lazy pirouettes, but Victor’s serious stare remained on the mirror. He sat bolt upright and turned around, looking at the ceiling.
“It’s gone,” he said.
The electric light high above no longer shone; the fireplace was lighting the room.
“Then… that means… no curse?”
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