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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Lock (03/06/06)

TITLE: Behind the Painting
By Jeffrey Snell


Cut by the horizon, sunrise began bleeding onto the silver Lexus LX470 backing down the driveway. Mrs. Cale climbed in at the mailbox, joining her husband with a smiling kiss as they began their daily carpool. She'd drop him off at work and run errands and visit friends until at least ten a.m. No children left, house paid for, they were obviously enjoying the fruits of their labor.

As they cruised into the dim morning, I lowered my mini-binoculars and circled stealthily behind the boxwood hedge to the taupe two-story house, small backpack bouncing. Peering inside, all was deathly silent and dark, except the blinking LED on the foyer's security panel.

Mom had always told me I possessed a "God-given gift" for electronics. The stuff just came naturally. Who cared how I got my skills--for a college-dropout, they were providing quite a lifestyle at twenty-five!

I discovered the Cale home through a knowledgeable associate. For ten days, I had noted every detail of the Cales' movements, discretely photographed the combination to their bedroom safe, even watched as they repainted their front door. Most importantly, I researched their new security system of electronic locks.

Risky daylight rising, a familiar rush charged my limbs into motion and my gaze intensified with a burdened blackness. Time for my "gift" to pay off. A grey tunic blended my body into the front door like a chameleon in the low light. I studied schematics of the alarm controls. Positioning a small black metal case near the door jamb and holding my breath, I flipped a switch. The case's light flashed green for four seconds then went solid with a click. Alarm disabled, door open. With one last glance at the neighborhood, I entered.

"Always behind a painting." I couldn't resist a little snicker as I replaced the large print of Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatta over the now-empty safe. The featureless young boy with his mother centered in the print detained my gaze. I shook it off.

Guzzling borrowed beer, I eyed the plasma TV and reclined on their living room sofa. The navy fabric looked professionally cleaned. Ceiling fans whirred above and framed photos covered the cherrywood table at my knee, mostly shots of the Cales' young son. One read "Danny, 11." In another, his parents seemed to stare at me as the grandmother clock in the corner chimed seven a.m. Purple-rimmed clouds sailed lazily outside and memory pricked me--my ten-year-old brother, Jason, with his new camera begging me to drive him to school early to shoot another sunrise. I let my heart drift to his funny gapped smile, his laugh... his bloodied little body, crushed in a dark crosswalk. Driver never saw him, they said. He walked in the dark because I--

No. Annihilating the vision, I clawed my way back to the present.

With a deep breath, refocusing on the mission at hand, I noticed a small book on the mantle. A glance under the brown woven cover revealed journal entries.

Let's see what else they've got. Feminine handwriting gouged into a recent page captured me.

Two weeks since Danny was killed. Why God?

I tore my stunned gaze away. Swallowing perplexedly, I was drawn back.

He had our money, why kill my little boy? He was just watching TV! Jesus help me, help me

A tear splashed the page. Jason's face flashed again and my chest burned.

New security system. Repainted door. Cleaned sofa. Danny Cale had been killed just like Jason--no, murdered--by a thief, right here. A thief like me.

I stumbled backward onto the sofa, shaking. This couldn't be real. A strange groan echoed off the walls, and I realized it was my own voice, spewing toxic sorrow.

I killed Jason!

Agony drowned time. I rocked, doubled over, begging anyone to unlock my heart and bleed out the guilty darkness. After what seemed like hours, my tears abruptly slowed, and I realized Mrs. Cale would soon return.

How could they smile? How could they even live? She had written as if... as if God could really hear her. Staring at my backpack, I mulled over the stolen contents; the Cales' loss; my own pain. Maybe there's time to undo this.

Rising as a few sunbeams pierced the clouds, I felt an odd sensation oozing in, dissolving the edges of my grief. A feeling Mom had talked about incessantly but I didn't immediately recognize. Peace.

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Member Comments
Member Date
Jessica Schmit03/14/06
This story truly astounded me. I though it was terrific in so many ways. One of the best I've read yet. I think you have a good shot of placing!
Jan Ackerson 03/15/06
Very powerful, and well-written.
Helen Paynter03/16/06
Reaaly well written. What a fab first line!
Virginia Gorg03/16/06
I must be the only one confused by this. Did this thief kill the couple's son?
T. F. Chezum03/16/06
Well written, emotional story. Good job.
Shari Armstrong 03/17/06
Well done, you take the reader step by step to his realization.