Victor clapped his hands together. “Yes! I knew it. That’s the best news I’ve heard in three days. All right, so, help me out here—what’s in that room? How do I defeat it? Gary?”
Gary looked down and took a deep breath. “Before I tell you that… I need to ask you… As you enter the house there’s a hall, with paintings.”
Victor nodded. “Yeah, I remember.”
“I haven’t been in that hall for a long time. I don’t like it—it reminds me of… of what happened to all those people.” He paused and looked at Victor. “Do you remember,” he said, enunciating each word, “if any of the paintings were empty?”
“What do you mean, ‘empty’?”
“Did all the… What’s the wood around the outside called? You know—the rectangle around the painting.”
“The picture frame?”
“Yes, that’s it. Did all the picture frames have paintings inside, or were any empty?”
Victor thought for a moment. “There was an empty one,” he said. He scratched his chin. “Yes, I remember the frame at the very end had no painting.”
Gary sunk in his chair; his breathing became shallow and his face grew pale.
“Are you all right?” asked Victor.
Gary slapped his hand to his forehead and dragged it down over his face. “No, I should have… I forgot about it… and then…”
“Whoa, slow down, Gary. Take a breath—it’s okay.”
Gary breathed deeply in, and then out. He sat upright, and stared at the floor in front of him; he breathed in and out again, and adopted a resigned look of defeat. “I’m sorry,” he said, in a toneless voice. “I’m very sorry, Victor.”
“What is it, Gary?”
The old man’s calmness was unnerving. “The hall with the paintings. Each painting is a picture of someone who has died in this house—all the people the curse has killed over the years.”
“Okay…” said Victor. “So…?”
“The curse knows who will die here. There is a picture frame for every painting that will go on the wall. A frame for everyone who will die in this mansion.”
Victor shut his eyes and shook his head. “Wait, what… what do you mean? A frame for everyone who will die here? How does that… what…”
“If there is one more empty frame in the hall, then one more person will die by the curse in this house.” He looked Victor in the eye. “I’m very sorry, Victor.” Gary stood up from his chair. “You’ve been good to me—the only friend I’ve had in fifty years.” He shrugged his shoulders; a tear rolled down his cheek. “I only had one friend when I was alive, too. I’m sorry to have brought this trouble on you.” He turned and walked toward the door, fading and vanishing before he got halfway there.
Victor sat speechless, staring in disbelief. After a minute his lips began trying to form words, but found nothing to say. He shook his head. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. Finally, his voice returned. “Wait, that… that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t mean that… It’s a picture frame—it doesn’t mean anything… It… it doesn’t mean anything.” He stood up from the chair and walked across the room, rubbing his forehead. “Nothing in this house makes sense. I’ve already been through the… the vampire and the beast and everything else. It’s just another part of the curse to be defeated. It has to be.” He stood by the painting and looked up at it, without really observing it. “Gary’s not even in charge of the curse—he said so himself. He doesn’t know what’s going on.” He nodded to himself.
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