The fireman crashed onto the doorstep, head pushed against a charcoal baby cradled in his arms. Tears fell against the inside of his mask.
It was the fifth Crying Boy fire Lovell had attended that year. He hated the painting.
He remembered it hanging above his mother’s faux marble fireplace as a child. His father would never allow one in the house. But, two years after his father’s death, his mum had bought a copy in a second hand shop on a seaside trip.
It had been set in a gilded rococo frame – painted plaster, the man behind the counter had told her. The boy’s tears falling from his sapphire eyes looked almost real. He’d touched the painting, certain his fingers would be wet.
Lovell watched the coastline from the top deck of the bus on his way home. The North Sea crashed in, its wash hitting the dirty windows of the bus, rolling down like tears on the glass. Blue reflected eyes stared back at him.
Those blue eyes would follow him to bed every night. They blinked in the shadows of the flickering nightlight in his bedroom as he tried to sleep. But his mother saw hope reflected in the tears. A face captured in the moment of joy.
And now, as an adult, it was following him from house to house, fire to fire, death to death. It even followed him home after his mother passed away.
“You need some leave. You don’t want Emily to grow up without a dad,” his wife, Lauren, said.
Lovell had no memory of his own father, only the face in the silver framed wedding photograph on his mother’s fireplace.
Under the Crying Boy.
He promised his wife he’d ask the station manager that night.
* * *
Lauren put Emily to bed upstairs and switched on the baby monitor in the living room.
“Okay boxes, let’s see what you’ve got,” she said, pouring a glass of wine. She shuffled over to the open fire. A splash of red fell onto the carpet and smudged under her knees like a streak of blood.
The first box was packed with her late mother-in-law’s clothes. She taped it up, took the marker pen from between her teeth and wrote CHARITY across the side. She did the same for the next two boxes of bric-a-brac. The final box was marked ‘Pics and Photos’.
When her husband had seen it he’d walked out. He called half an hour later from the pub, already drunk in that short time. He was crying, telling her he couldn’t face what was in there. He asked her to sort through and give everything away except the photos.
She put the albums and loose photos to the side. She placed a wedding photo in a silver frame on the mantle. All that remained were a few old fashioned prints; nothing that could account for her husband’s terror. A faded blue woman and one with charging elephants, which she was certain had been an album cover. The final picture was heavy. She rested it on the mantle. It was a picture of a boy with haunting blue eyes, his cheeks wet with tears. She reached to touch it, sure the tears were real. She stopped short and laughed.
“It’s only a picture, you silly mare.”
The baby monitor crackled. Lauren stopped and listened. Silence. She decided to call it a night and left the living room. Behind her there was another crackle. An ember popped from the fire, rolled across the carpet and came to rest on the old photographs. It began to smoulder and before long the house began to fill with smoke, black smoke that crept under the gap of the bedroom doors. Lauren woke to black snakes squirming down her throat. The venom had bitten into her eyes, a searing pain that blinded her.
Her hands palmed along the scorching walls on the landing. An echo of Emily crackled in the monitor from her bedroom, the cries trapped in melting plastic. The floorboards cracked beneath her feet. She crashed into the hallway as the sirens wailed outside.
Lovell’s house was a pumpkin of orange flames; blackened windows taunted him from upstairs. He dragged Lauren into the street.
“Emily,” she whispered.
He knew even if they could reach the baby she’d be dead from smoke inhalation.
“Did you take out the painting?”
She looked confused.
He gripped her arms. “The boy, the crying boy.”
His wife nodded. He ran back into the house with a quick glance into the living room. No painting.
Lovell climbed the broken staircase, avoiding bursts of fire that descended as if trying to keep him out. He stepped over the hole in the floor on the landing and reached the nursery. Every wall was black. Stuffed bears with melted eyes looked down at the crib as he tried to prepare for something no father should have to do. He noticed a lump under the blanket through the scorched rails.
He lifted off a board that lay across the cot and stopped when he realised it was the painting. Something was wrong. The murky background was the same, but the boy was no longer there.
He threw the painting aside and pulled back the blanket. Emily was covered in water, enough to protect her but shallow enough to avoid her mouth. There was a crackle. The baby coughed. She looked up at her dad and smiled.
Lovell picked her up and ran to ladder at the window.
* * *
Lovell found his wife asleep with Emily in the children’s hospital.
“I don’t understand it,” she said.
“None of us do. The papers are calling it a miracle.”
She cried tears of hope, a face captured in a moment of joy.
Later, as he pressed buttons at the vending machine, he noticed a reflection of a boy with blue eyes between the chocolate bars and crisp packets.
Lovell turned to face him. The boy’s eyes were dry. He was all cried out. He faded into the rush of nurses dragging a trolley towards A&E. Lovell never saw the Crying Boy at a fire again.
Bio: Anthony’s stories have appeared in many collections, the most recent being ‘Thirty Minutes Or It’s Free’ in Jolly Minstrel’s ‘From Bitten to Braaaiiinnnsss…’ zombie anthology. His first stand alone release will be ‘The Brittle Birds’ from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing’s ‘One Night Stand’ series. Anthony is also the horror fiction reviewer at http://thehorrificallyhorrifyinghorrorblog.wordpress.com. Keep up to date at anthonycowin.com