Lasting Ties

She used the key James had given her to get into the apartment. She flipped the light switch and nearly screamed when she heard the pop of one of the bulbs going out in the living room. Thankfully two out of the three light bulbs were still working.

You’re standing in a dead girl’s living room, something in her said. She shivered away the thought and closed the door behind her.

James had already been through the place. Three bulging trash bags lined the living room wall. The couch had already been taken away along with the kitchen table. Karen moved through the two-bedroom apartment turning on all the lights as she went. The bedroom was a mess, the clothes James hadn’t bagged left discarded all over the floor. Sketches from Glenda’s portfolio were also scattered about, most of them in a pile on the bed around an empty spot where Karen could almost see James sitting down, going through each with empty eyes, the skin on his cheeks beginning to sink with age and too much loss.

That was the problem with loved ones Karen’s mind offered her; you had more people to die on you. She didn’t like the mental image of James both sitting on the bed and sitting across from her at lunch two days before when he had asked her to make this little trip, clean up the rest of Glenda’s stuff for donation.

Self-image was why she was really in Glenda’s apartment. Karen and Glenda’s friendship had died long before Glenda.

She turned away from the bed and Glenda’s art. Mainly she turned away from the art. Glenda had once told Karen she thought her artwork was like a virus she spread across the canvas. Karen understood what she meant.

That’s why she paused before opening the door to the other bedroom. This was Glenda’s studio. Karen had only been in it once, shortly after Glenda had moved in, and before the worst of Glenda’s mental troubles began. Even then she hadn’t liked Glenda’s art, art that had been everywhere, the walls covered with finished paintings and half-finished works in progress. The oppressive nature to it all had driven her away almost immediately. That, she had once thought, was the closest she had ever come to really understanding Glenda.

Before turning the knob Karen glanced over her shoulder at the empty living room. A giant window along the far wall showed Karen the night outside; the darkness contrasted by the pale carpet and whitewashed walls.

“Don’t think about it,” she commanded herself.

The door opened into a windowless room. The light she turned on was low, setting the mood, showing Karen the room through an almost haze.

A painting, roughly four foot by four foot, dominated the far side of the room; the only painting hung on the wall, much to Karen’s relief. There were others stacked along the walls, but most of them were backwards. The one on the wall was enough.

She wasn’t even sure what she was looking at, and that was what disturbed her the most. The painting was a combination of shapes, white, black, and gray the only colors. Objects covered the bottom of it, things that twisted around, blended into one another, their edges indistinct, making it impossible to differentiate between them. In the center of the picture was a massive shape, almost solid black, surrounded by what looked like gray melting into white. The blackness itself was just as hard to understand as the shapes near the bottom, the outer edge of it mixing with the gray. Karen thought of an image held below murky water, the general outline obvious, but the exact nature of what was being seen harder to determine. That’s what the entire picture looked like, this tangle of dark, deformed shapes shimmering just out of focus.

She turned from it, walked back out into the living room, but still she could swear she felt it at her back, not like something watching her, but simply there, indisputably there.

Work helped to quell her apprehension. She opened all the closets, went through Glenda’s dresser, her nightstand, her cabinets, making a mental note of everything. James had left trash bags along with several flattened boxes. He had told Karen he was donating all of it to charity. He would be here himself, taking care of all of it, if it were possible. Business was what he said drew him to the other side of the country for the next few days, not that Karen completely believed it. He didn’t want to go through his daughter’s belongings, remain in the place she had spent the last few years of her life in, died in. Karen could understand.

She gathered up the sketches on the bed while doing her best not to look directly at them. Most were similar to the one hung on the wall, Karen couldn’t help but notice, but less distinct. In fact, the image seemed to fade away the further into the pile Karen saw, until the last few pages were simply waves of dark gray. Karen didn’t like them, and shoved all of the pictures back into the folder they had come from, and then into the bottom of a box.

It didn’t take her long to finish picking up the clothes and emptying out what little remained in the dressers. The miscellaneous things in the nightstand she dumped into the open box on top of the folder. She felt calmer having the folder covered up, out of sight, she realized, and smiled at herself for even thinking it.

She had to pass by the open studio to place the box by the door, and couldn’t help but glance over even as she told herself she didn’t want to.

With the box still in hand she stood before the open door and stared at the wall with the picture hanging from it, and at the black line running down the wall below it.

At first she tried to convince herself there was a perfectly good explanation. It wasn’t so odd, she thought, and maybe it had been there before, the picture capturing her attention so thoroughly she simply hadn’t noticed.

She set down the box and walked into the room more cautiously than she thought she should. So close to the picture, Karen felt the unease in her stomach. Rather than look at the picture itself she looked at the liquid rolling down the wall. Her gaze rose to the picture, and the ink she could see running down the edge of the canvas.

She forced herself to reach out her hand and touch it, just a little, and when she did her finger came away with the tip covered in black paint.

The painting was melting. Why now? The question circled through her, and no, those lines hadn’t been there before, she was quite sure.

More streams of black paint began to run down the canvas and onto the white walls. How bad would the stain be?

She retreated from the room, conscious of the painting at her back as she pulled out her cell phone. She couldn’t help but turn around, keep her eyes on the painting while the phone rang.

“Hello?” James answered in a tired, dull tone.

“James? It’s Karen.”

“Karen.” The word felt flat, almost lost, as if on the other end he was trying to remember who she was. “What do you need?”

“The studio. What do you want me to do about it?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll get to it when I get back. I won’t be donating any of it.”

“Well, just to let you know, one of the paintings is getting paint all over the wall.”

“What?”

“There’s paint dripping from it. That’s all I know, but it’ll probably stain the wall if it’s left like that.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, an abrupt quality to his voice. “It doesn’t matter. Just…don’t worry about the studio. I want it left until I can handle it for…I just want to handle it, okay?”

“That’s fine, I just thought I’d let you know.”

“Yes, thanks. I need to get to sleep now. Call me if you have any problems.”

“Okay. Bye, James.”

Once again Karen was aware of how alone she was in the apartment. She stared at the ever-growing stream of paint dripping from the painting, now soaking into the carpet. The painting itself still looked the same, still almost shimmering with another image below its surface. Karen had to look away.

If he wanted to keep what was in the studio he would probably want to keep the sketches in the folder. Karen rummaged through the box at her feet for the folder.

Folder in hand, she moved back into the dimly lit studio, the presence of the painting so strong she couldn’t help but stop right inside the door; to see the image swimming through the background of it; to see the paint pour down the wall like water.

It gushed from the canvas, the shape behind it reaching forward, sending ripples through the murky gray substance it existed in. In the middle of the painting, where the blackness showed her the furthest depths of that other place, Karen glimpsed the dark outline of Glenda’s face coming into view.

To Karen it appeared as if Glenda swam up to the canvas, her form taking shape until her hand was reaching through it, fingers dripping with thick, muddy gray paint. The folder Karen had been holding slipped from her fingers and scattered images already spewing black liquid.

Karen stared at Glenda’s face, at the fear in her eyes, the grimace of pain, her body pulling further from the canvas, entire arm now reaching out into the room, fingers like liquid held into the shape of a hand. Then her face pushed through, her eyes nothing but black, just like the inside of her mouth when she opened it to speak. A watery gurgle came out, pouring thick sludge down her chin.

Glenda’s face pleaded, entire head now free, long slick hair stuck to her face. Dark tears rolled down her wet face. The room shimmered with liquid darkness. A tremor ran through Glenda’s outstretched form. Something was pulling her back in, another shape, harder to see. Glenda’s hand shook, fingers opening and closing, extended out as close to Karen as they could.

Suddenly Karen came alive, reached forward, latched onto Glenda’s hand. Blackness crept over Karen’s skin, the feeling not painful, but horrible all the same, as if her hand were dying. Glenda wrenched just a little further out, smiling at Karen, straining to get her other hand free. Karen was only partially aware of the feeling creeping into her feet.

Color returned to Glenda’s form, her arm like skin again, almost half of her body free. The paint reached Karen’s shoulders just as it retreated from Glenda’s. Karen understood what was happening even if she couldn’t fathom how.

Her other hand free, Glenda groped for Karen’s arm. Before she could reach it Karen let go.

The paint had retracted enough from Glenda’s face to allow her to scream. Through her open mouth Karen could see the pink of her tongue get swallowed by the oily gray, just as the whites forming in her eyes were consumed, the sound of her voice abruptly cut off.

Karen didn’t know what emotion she saw on Glenda’s face as the monstrous form pulled her back from where she had come. Her complete immersion into the painting sent a splash of black across the walls, but already the paint was beginning to dry. The pictures at Karen’s feet no longer bled darkness. Slowly the ripples in the painting faded, image returning to its wavering form, too distorted to truly see.

Most of the room was stained black, as was Karen’s pants, her arms smeared with it. She slammed the studio door shut on her way to the living room.

James wasn’t asleep. She knew that before she put in his number. It has to be the twentieth, he had told her. At lunch he had looked at her with those empty eyes and said it had to be today.

“Hello?” James asked, his voice wavering, hesitant, and was it hopeful, Karen asked herself?

“James,” she said with a hard edge to her voice.

“Karen.” The word came out as a sigh.

“I have a question,” she said.

“I don’t have any answers.” He hung up. He didn’t answer her calls again.

She didn’t need him to give her answers to know what he thought, and why he had asked her to come here. She didn’t know if it had to be her, if that had any significance, but she understand what he had hoped would happen.

The fury overtook her. Save for the ceiling, the studio was black, the color so strong and oppressive it made Karen feel claustrophobic when she walked into the room. The gray of the painting stood out against the black, almost like a window, Karen thought.

Karen knocked over the canvases along the wall to get to the closet. Inside she found the buckets of paint she had been hoping for. She tore the lid off a bucket of white paint. She stood before the gateway, arms poised, curious if it would simply absorb the paint into itself, but she didn’t think so. Right now the door was closed, if that was what it really was Glenda had made.

Perhaps Glenda really was trapped on the other side. Was it possible to free her? Karen didn’t know, and understood how far beyond her the situation was. She shouldn’t have to make a decision like this, she thought then, arms shaking, but she could no more walk away from it than she could figure out what it really was.

She swung as hard as she could; drenched the painting in white.

The painting didn’t steam or shake or implode in on itself. Nothing special marked its death, the white paint dripping down its front just as the black had so recently. Now the problem was James’s to deal with.

She dropped the empty bucket, droplets of white staining her clothing mixed with the black. She turned from the ruined painting and the thing Glenda’s sickness had created.

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