This story is by Jacqueline Houchin and won an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jacqueline Houchin is a retired journalist, book reviewer, and sometime editor. She wrote serialized Christian mystery stories for her three granddaughters when they were young. She’s traveled to Africa on several mission trips and has begun a series of “Missionary Kids” stories for elementary children. She loves reading and storytelling.
Since Labor Day, Audrey had wondered what to do about the painting. She’d kept it five years as instructed. She hadn’t pawned it even when jobless, her apartment rent due, her car repossessed.
Things were better now. She had a nice job in an upscale art gallery. Her miniature paintings had begun to sell. And the gallery had allowed her to keep Autumn Gold in their front display window. It was safe there and it brought in customers.
Five years ago, her beloved Peter painted the woodland scene, a stand of hardwood trees shimmering in yellows, golds, burnt oranges and mottled pale greens. Deep mahogany and umber shadows contrasted with the sun-lit trees giving the painting an almost 3-D look.
And then he did the impossible. He painted an image of her face in the trees, capturing her auburn hair, fair skin, and green eyes in a fine mist of paint that wasn’t apparent at first glance. Viewers had to look twice and at a certain angle in a certain light to see it. But when they did, they stared amazed.
“How much?” they would ask, and then, “Who’s the painter?”
It was not for sale, of course, and Audrey couldn’t risk giving out Peter’s name. She’d smile, point to a smudged signature in the corner, and then show them through the gallery.
Autumn Gold was how she met David, the shopkeeper across the street. He’d admired the painting in the window several times on his way to the Starbucks on the corner. One day, he glimpsed her image and stood transfixed, holding his breath, staring. He came in then and saw her, Audrey Gould, and fell in love with both her and the painting.
She had coffee with him that day. And the next. They picnicked in the park, and visited an art museum. She explained how her . . . deceased husband . . . had painted Autumn Gold and how she could never sell it. He seemed relieved and excited even as he murmured his sympathy for her loss.
Audrey hated telling David that lie, but what could she do? How could she tell him what she and Peter had done five years earlier, and what they purposed to do this month? She told him she might be taking a vacation to see her sister’s family, but she hadn’t told him where. She didn’t know where. Not until Autumn Gold told her.
After the gallery closed, Audrey carried Autumn Gold to the back room. She laid the painting gently on the framing table and adjusted the overhead light. She brought a small bottle of turpentine, a brush, and a soft rag to the table.
She took a deep breath and looked at the lower left corner of the painting, a place of shadowy rocks. She opened the bottle and dipped in the brush, pulling off the excess against the lip. Could she do it? If she acted on what was revealed beneath the paint, her life would change forever.
Her mind flashed back five years when she and Peter were true “struggling young artists.” They both wanted to paint and to make a living by it, but nothing sold. Nothing! They were hungry for fame and fortune, and in a real sense, for food. They had no possessions except the paints and brushes and canvases. They lived in the poorest neighborhood, in a basement studio. They owed money to everyone. But still they painted and hoped.
Then Peter created the stunning painting that now lay before her. It was an omen, a promise of real money that would change their lives in a wonderful way.
That evening they walked hand in hand in Central Park, hope rising in their hearts. They found a bench tucked into a grove of flowering hibiscus and snuggled together against the chill. Peter rubbed the third finger of her left hand. “Soon.”
Suddenly they heard running steps and hard breathing. They drew back in the shadows clutching each other, holding their breaths. They nearly cried out when a heavy bag was thrown into the leaves at their feet. Frozen in place, they watched as two men raced past and darted into the foliage further down the path. Then silence, only their hearts pounding in their ears.
They looked down at the object at their feet. It was a bulging canvass bag stamped with the name of the neighborhood bank they knew so well. That bank had recently given their default loan to a collection agency.
Peter carefully lifted the bag to his lap, feeling its heft. He looked at Audrey, his eyebrows lifted, questioning. She nodded. Dear God, she had nodded!
Quickly hid the bag deep in the bushes. When it was dark, they came back with Peter’s backpack. They had to struggle to push it inside, their hands clumsy with fear. Back in their apartment, with blinds drawn, they cut a hole in the padlocked bag and stared at the packs and packs of hundred dollar bills.
Peter, his mind whirling, devised a plan. They would hide the money for five years, separate themselves as far as they could from it and from each other, lie low, and do the best they could to survive. After five years, exactly to that date — the first day of Autumn — they would meet, marry, and use this windfall to live the life of their dreams.
There was no time for second thoughts. Peter chose the burial spot, hastily painted the clues to it in Autumn Gold’s foreground before carefully repainting over them. He divided a pack of the bills between them to pay for their “get-away” and to help establish them in other places. He kissed her deeply, a promise of a future together, grabbed the backpack, and was gone. She slipped away the next morning with the treasured painting, eventually coming to this town and her new identity.
Now, after five years of silence she stood ready to reveal the directions to the meeting place, to Peter or whoever he was now, and to the prize, the gold at the end of the rainbow.
Her face darkened and she allowed the thought that haunted her to surface. They were criminals! Could they ever be truly happy living on that money? As soon as she could she’d saved a thousand dollars from her earnings — the amount they’d taken from the bag — and given it to charity. Not the same, but it assuaged her guilt.
Quickly, before she lost courage, she dipped the drying brush back into the turpentine, tapped it, and began feathering it over a dark rock. She dabbed at the spot with the rag, reloaded the brush and touched the spot again. Brush, dab, reload, again and again. Then she saw them. Two lines of faint numbers. She threw down the brush, picked up a pencil, and scribbled them on a piece of paper before they could fade. She verified them once, and then they were gone.
She found the compass app on her phone and typed in the coordinates. A map of the United States appeared and then zoomed to the West Coast. It settled just north of California’s Golden Gate Bridge, at Vista Park. How appropriate, she thought. Their treasure was hidden at the end of the Golden Gate.
Now she knew where to direct her travel plans. She had two weeks to firm up everything. She wouldn’t resign her job until she knew how things went at the other end. She could always call later to explain a family emergency, give her regrets . . .
Regrets. So many regrets.
Early the next morning Audrey placed Autumn Gold back in the window, the lower corner perfectly restored. She slipped the sale card she’d made with its astonishing dollar amount into its frame. She would miss the painting, but they would need the money to live on, she and Peter. If he was there. And if she could convince him to abandon their plan.
She looked up and waved at David who was setting out a sign board in front of his shop. He waved, and then signed drinking a cup of coffee. He pointed to the corner and then to his watch and raised ten fingers. She smiled and nodded. She would miss David too.
A sudden thought came. Should she become Autumn Gold again, or stay Audrey Gould? She laughed. Soon she would be Mrs. Peter —.
The New York Times, September 3, 2018
Cash from a NYC bank robbery was discovered late today by two young boys climbing a hillside in Vista Park just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The money had been missing for six years. Two men were apprehended and prosecuted for the robbery, but there must have been a third who carried the cash across the country. Bank officials reported one pack of hundred dollar bills ($1,000) missing, but the boys’ father assured officials his sons had delivered the bag intact. They were awarded $100 each.