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Shadow Painter MAG
Helen liked to paint. She liked smoothing the colors over an inviting white canvas, liked the brushes, mixing colors to make new ones that people didn't even know how to describe. She liked making hidden pictures that popped into existence without warning or plan. As a result, unexpected things started showing up in her paintings. That little smiling man behind the leaf, the tiny eyes in the center of the flower, the shape in the moon, of course, and the Tall One in the shadows. The Tall One worried some, but he was misunderstood. He'd never hurt anyone; everything she painted was her friend.
People liked her paintings. Wasn't that color so unique? Where did she come up with the ideas? Weren't those little hidden pictures darling? Really, it must be her amazing husband who gave her the inspiration.
Yes, of course, she'd say, wrapping an arm around Greg's waist, she couldn't do this without him. And he'd softly kiss the top of her head.
She was successful for a while. Some of her paintings sold for $300; she was mentioned in the paper several times, and a couple of emerging artists tried to base their work on hers, though never quite duplicated her mysterious, hypnotic moods. For a while, she and Greg were happy in their big colonial house, which always smelled of jasmine and coffee and paint.
If it had lasted, she might have had a life that made its way into magazines, with her and Greg smiling on the cover, their arms around each other, with a full page for the guest bedroom she'd painted to look like Van Gogh's “Starry Night” and another for the bathroom she'd remodeled to look like the one in Monet's house. If it had lasted, she might have been looking forward to interviews on talk shows. If it had lasted, she might have had a future with golden retrievers and children with Greg's long fingers and her soft, dark hair.
Sadly, it didn't last. In June, Greg – sweet, kind, smart, darling Greg – was shot on the way home. The robber was never found, making off with $40 and the picture of Helen he'd found in Greg's wallet. Helen had never even considered the idea that they'd be separated. It wasn't in any of her strangest nightmares. It didn't seem to fit into her reality.
After that, things started going downhill. She didn't sleep for a week, forgot to shower, sometimes forgot to breathe. She had to tell herself how to do simple actions. Breathe. Blink. Lift hand. Breathe. Blink. Touch handle. Breathe. Blink. Turn handle. Push. Step. Breathe.
Sometimes her feet would carry her to places in the house where she could almost see him. Sometimes her body would resist those places with inhuman resolution.
Finally, her hand wandered to a jar of paint – #0317, scarlet. The smell finally awoke her, snapping her eyes open and dilating her pupils. The thought of Greg suddenly made her angry, a kind of despairing anger. How dare he leave her? He loved her! He'd promised her eternity, promised it with that ring on her finger. She looked down at the ring now, and for a moment, her crazy feelings softened. Greg had chosen a custom ring with black sapphires and diamonds, saying it matched her personality.
She pulled the ring off, then put it back on. It would be a reminder. Nobody would ever leave her again. She thought this as she took them all out, all of her paintings. There they were, those hidden pictures, those eyes and tails where you didn't expect them, and there he was. The Tall One, always in the back, giving the painting a dark atmosphere.
Yes, darkness, that was her life now, she thought, grimly brushing black paint over the too-white canvas. It had to be darker, darker, like her life, like her soul. She smoothed the inky darkness over the page. Within three hours, her first Darkling was born.
It was terrifying, the kind of thing you hoped never to find under your bed when you were little. Black fur, claws, yellow teeth – some strange cross between wolf and bear and human and nightmare – it jumped out of the painting and into your dreams, an image that was hard to dispel. Its eyes glared out of the frame, filled with hate and a desire to banish you from the world. It was followed by similar monstrosities: zombies, skeletons dancing, and grotesque, indescribable shapes.
The series of paintings that followed was different. A dark cell with a single barred window, barely illuminating the limp form of whatever was staring silently at the back; a door with a hideous shadow coming from behind; a patch of shadows with dark, venomous eyes. She still included her hidden pictures; there were always patches of gray and black that hinted at something more, all the more terrifying for how they played on the viewer's peripheral vision and imagination. To look at them was to experience sheer terror.
Helen painted dozens of these. She sold a couple, coldly satisfied to be spreading her black, black, black as Hell world, but she kept most of them. The Darklings were her companions, almost her friends. After all, her other “friends” had been useless after she realized how the world really was. Her Darklings were part of her world of hatred and despair.
But slowly, she started getting nervous. She swore they whispered to each other at night, and she knew it was dangerous. They were starting to resent her; they wanted to kill her so that they could break out of their canvases and frames and truly live. She wanted them to have a keeper, someone more powerful that they could ever be, someone who was the reflection of her soul.
It came in the form of Him. Of course – he'd been there even before she realized how cold the world was. His cloak was as dark as the space between the stars. He walked along the paths that were never meant to be walked, paved with fear and pain and doubt, which he feasted on. His eyes didn't hate, like the other paintings. Instead they were filled with mocking amusement. He didn't need to destroy you – he knew you'd do it yourself, but he was all too willing to help.
Helen hung Him on her door to watch over her while she slept, and he whispered secrets to her. He told her she was right, that the other paintings wanted to break free of their frames, that they were jealous of him for being in her presence. He could easily stop them if she set him free. How? she asked. Didn't she remember? She had poured her sweat and blood into him, there was the proof, right where his heart might have been: a tiny circle where the paint was discolored. She must have bled on him somehow when she was painting, too crazed to notice. It would be so easy to set him free, wouldn't it?
The answer was in her hands, on her finger, in fact. All she had to do was take off that ring. Greg had left her, hadn't he? Yes, she answered. She looked at the ring and doubt probed her mind. Was it Greg's fault that he'd left?
Yes! Yes, it was definitely his fault! He'd never even loved her, had he?
“You never did, did you?” she asked, starting to sob wildly, as she tore off the ring and held it up. She suddenly saw Greg's reflection in the largest black sapphire, and his eyes were so sad.
“Good-bye, my love,” he seemed to whisper. She felt something really leave her then, replacing the pure part of herself that had been devoted to him – the core of her real self – with a scrap of blackness. She slowly wiped the tears from her cheeks, looking at the ring. With a shriek, she hurled it to the ground, where it started to pulse black, then red, then a million colors in between, before its glow illuminated the room.
There was a sudden tearing sound as the painting expanded and the One slowly stepped from the canvas. His eyes swept the room before alighting on her, and he bowed.
“I should thank you,” he said, “for you gave me form. You gave me being. And now …,” gliding toward her, “you give me life.”
She couldn't move. He was coming toward her, he had Gary's ring, and whatever would come next wasn't going to be good. Her last thought, as he slipped the ring back onto her finger, was how Gary had proposed. But oh, now she couldn't move … she couldn't move and it hurt.
Officer Rex straightened up where he was squatting in that weird woman's basement.
“Jeff,” he said, “you'd better take a look at this.”
The junior officer took in the scene, eyes watering in sudden fear. He cleared his throat. “Ah. I see.”
“Looks like she was going through some really tough times,” Rex supplied. “Strange, though,” he said conversationally, “how there's that one clear patch on the ground when the rest of the room was completely covered in paint and dust, like the room just exploded. It almost looks like a silhouette ….”
“Not as strange as that black c-c-coat in her r-r-room,” Jeff shuddered. “I hope I never have to see anything like that again. I mean it was just a coat but ….”
“What did the medics say? Something about her heart exploding?”
“They said it was the weirdest thing. She was alive, but her heart was weak. She had to be hooked up to a machine to breathe. Almost like a coma, but she kept screaming out and crying.”
“Good thing that neighbor heard her and called us,” Rex said, feeling somewhat spooked himself.
“Luckily her husband turned up. Funny, I thought he was dead, but when they asked he had some story about being on a trip and said it was all a misunderstanding. Kept saying something about never taking that ring off her finger, like it was the only thing holding her to reality.”
“Her hand looked funny to me, all scratched up like she was trying to tear it off … I dunno, Rex. Let's get outta here and get some coffee. These paintings keep looking at me funny.”