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Natalie was in the kitchen making soup when she heard a car pull into the driveway. The spoon in her hand went into the sink, she dried her hands and opened the door. She was glad that her brother had decided to drop by. The end of the semester was a busy time for him. “I’m not going to yell at you for not wearing a coat but don’t come crying to me when your car breaks down and you have to walk somewhere.” She gave her brother a hug and a kiss before taking the shopping bag from him. “Thanks for picking this up. It saved me a trip to the mall.”

“I was there anyways. I can only stay for a couple of minutes. I wouldn’t have stopped but I had strict instructions to drop this off so you’d quit worrying.”

Brad worried more than she did but Natalie wasn’t going to make an issue out of it. It was nice to see him again. “A minute is all I need. I want to show you something.”

Brad followed his sister upstairs into the office she shared with her husband. “This is Dan’s latest. I wanted to get your opinion on it.”

The easel was in the middle of the room. He walked past his sister's desk noticing the baby pictures of people in their family. When Natalie turned the painting towards the window color bled into the room. The painting wasn't very big but Dan had captured the scene perfectly. Lana’s hand was resting on the side of her face. She was looking past a large red maple that obscured most of her home. Her view was of his backyard but instead of a pool and patio area there was a neat apple orchard. A shiny red apple hung from the tree closest to the gate. Her backyard now had a high walled garden surrounding it. Every rose but one was white. The red one was in the back corner near a small wooden bench. Brad saw the ceramic tile of his own roof. Someone was in his room sitting at his desk. Someone else was standing behind the person at the desk. The focal points of the picture were all the red parts. The tree, the apple, the rose, the roof, Lana’s hair and what must be Dan’s idea of himself and Brent in his room. A single chilling thought ran through his head: something bad was going to happen.

“So what do you think?”

A wave of shimmering color danced before his eyes. How could something so incredibly beautiful be so incredibly wrong? "It reminds me of your Flower Sisters picture in reverse. There the focal points are white and in this they’re red.”

“Dan calls it Red Innocence. Lana named it.”

Red Innocence. Blood red innocence. Seething dripping sweet warm blood. It was a stunning painting. His eyes focused in on Lana again. Was something bad going to happen to her? It didn’t feel right. Something didn’t add up. He needed sleepAnd something to drink. Someone to sleep with would be nice too. “I need to get going. You need anything else before I take off?”

“No. That’s it. Thanks for picking up dad’s present for me and Brad?” His face was strangely pale as he turned to face his sister. "Thanks for that little baby ring. If we do have a girl she can wear it home from the hospital. Are you okay?”

Brad felt his skin crawl as he turned away from the painting. Picture Perfect. It had a whole new meaning now. How could something so sweet and lovely be so violently red? It practically screamed bloodshed. “I probably shouldn’t have bought something that’s a potential choking hazard and the ring was more Lana’s idea than mine.” 

Natalie chose her next words carefully. “Do you think you and Michelle will ever get married?”

“She’s not real wild about dating someone who would rather play pool and poker than go out on Friday night.”

“You could do so much better Brad.”

“Practice makes perfect Natalie. There’s always the chance that someone better than you is sitting across the table. So far Lady Luck has been on my side.”

“You know what they say Brad. Lucky in cards, unlucky in love.”

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread Natalie.” Angels. Demons. A pool of innocent blood. He had to get out of here. He hoped Dan made a ton of money selling the painting so he never had to see it again.

“I heard Michelle wants to buy a house.”

The only reason he didn't tell his sister to screw off was because she was pregnant and he was worried about her. But he still didn't like the way she bossed him around. Michelle was his business, not Natalie's. “If she wants to live in a cardboard box, that’s her prerogative.”

“So what are you going to do? Live at home the rest of your life?”

Home is where the heart is.”

“So what you’re really saying is you live next door with Lana.”

“We’re friends Natalie. We’ve been friends for a long time.”

“She might be your friend but you’re not hers. You treat her like shit Brad.”

“Her whole family treats her like shit. They don’t know shit about her either. It’s pretty sad when even Jim and Rita start looking like good parents. For some pretty bright people Greg and Gloria Schwartz are doing some pretty stupid things. They’re going to push her right over the edge one of these days.”

“I agree. Dan and I talked about it, someone better do something about all the pressure Greg and Gloria are putting on her. They let Gretchen do whatever the hell she wants but when it comes to Lana all they can think about are her grades which have to be some of the best I've ever seen. Apart from yours of course. You should take a break too.” Brad. Listen to me Brad. Bad things are going to happen. Great. Now he had voices in his head. He tried not to listen but they were insistent. You’re not crazy Brad. Something bad is going to happen. What the fuck am I supposed to do? Tell Greg and Gloria to back off? I'm sure they'd listen to the next door neighbor kid telling them what to do.”

“You could start by not bringing Michelle around.”

“She needed a ride home. What was I supposed to do? Leave her stranded in Madison?”

“All she wants is money.”

“She’s in for a big surprise when she marries your brother the miser then.”

“Brad stop. You’re not a miser and you’re not marrying Michelle. Engagement rings are awfully expensive you know.”

“I know. I was just in a jewelry store. They’re pretty damn ugly too. I’d rather buy someone a car or something useful.”

“Buy yourself a car.”

“I have a car.”

Your car is older than dirt.”

“I like it. It runs well and it’s fun to drive.”

“You just like it because it was Grandma Summerville’s.”

“So what if I do? You got her piano. I got her car, her jewelry and drug addictions. All Brent got was money.”

“They never got along.”

“Too bad. She was cool.”

“Be careful Brad. There’s a lot of suicides on that side of the family.”

Fear made his voice harsh. “I’m too fucking busy to kill myself. Get real Natalie. I’m in school. What would I go and do something like that for?”

“I don’t know. I just worry about you Brad.” A tear trickled down the side of her face.

“Hey Natalie. Seriously. I would never do something like that. Okay?” She put her face against his shirt thinking he smelled just like he always did. Fresh and clean. “I’m sorry. I’m just hormonal or something. You should get going.”

She gave him a tentative hug. Surprisingly he hugged her back. Brad forced himself to smile, he knew she worried about him. School was a bitch now but in a couple years it would pay off. Things were going to be okay. He was tired and that was the only reason the painting was affecting him like that. Bending down he waved at his sister's still flat stomach. “Bye sweetheart, take good care of your mommy. Let her get some rest.” He took the stairs two at a time, shoved his feet in his shoes and ran out the door. Outside it was still snowing, the temperature was ten degrees above zero but when he shivered it wasn’t from the cold.


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