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art by Liz Clarke

Painted Haven

Michael writes from Queens, NY. He doubles as an actuary, which means that his days are spent with his nose in spreadsheets, his subway commutes with his nose in a book, and his evenings with his nose in his stories. His work has appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show and Pedestal Magazine.

***Editor's Note: Adult Language appears in this story. You've been warned.***
Alyssa held out her hand and watched the sunlight leak through her fingers. Not ordinary sunlight; certainly not like anything she had ever gleaned from a Physics textbook. It looked like faintly iridescent, golden foam, and she could clearly see it drifting onto her palm like snow and then dripping through the cracks of her fingers. The air glowed with it. Pockets of congealed light collected on the pavement before evaporating or melting away. The effect was subtle enough that if Alyssa tilted her head just so, it would disappear, like rain viewed against a dark backdrop. But even in those moments, the air still sparkled as if concealing a secret.
All Alyssa knew was that it was instinctively, exquisitely wrong. It felt as though the world had decided to end, not with a bang, but with a shudder and a whispered farewell.
And all of this started only two hours ago. Two hours since Alyssa squinted into the sunlight from the library steps and decided that something seemed weird. Now she ran, floundering in this new reality that no one could properly explain. Was it radioactive particles, or perhaps static from a parallel universe? Were the four horsemen of the Apocalypse riding up the horizon? Alyssa ran and listened to the distant sounds of yelling and crying and laughing. To doors closing as people sought shelter from the paradoxical light. But it was too nice a day to waste indoors! She found that thought so funny that she wanted to puke.
Let me out, Alyssa wished silently, let me out, let me out of this beautiful nightmare. But then she thought, Henry will be able to fix this. Or at least explain it. Or hold me in his arms as the world crumbles to pieces around us. Funny how it wasn't her mother or her twin sister that Alyssa ran to in the end, but the on-and-off boyfriend who inspired grief, heartbreak, and cut-the-bottom-out-of-her-heart fondness in almost equal measure. Maybe there was something real between them after all.
Alyssa clung to that thought, gold and shimmering like the foamy light, as she finally crossed the street to Henry's apartment complex, thrust her spare key into the lock, and then threw herself up five flights of stairs. Her mood had taken to oscillating between panicked and detached, and just then she was in full fight-or-flight mode. She lunged for his door and called out, "Henry!"
A dizzying blast of chemical fumes slammed Alyssa flat in the face when she opened the door. She teetered and knocked over something with her foot; looked down to find an upended paint can and violet paint splashed in a wet arc across the hardwood floor.
Paint. That was what the apartment reeked of. Wall primer, acrylics, water colors... containers of every kind of paint imaginable littered the room.
"Shut the door!" Henry barked, and Alyssa jumped and did so.
"Grab a paintbrush," he told her. And then, "I was so worried, why didn't you answer your phone? Here, you do the window." He crossed the room toward her. For a moment their eyes met, and it was like coming home. But then he snatched a can of primer off the floor and rounded on the door, painting liberally between the cracks as if to weld it shut.
Alyssa belatedly turned toward the window. There was a hasty branch painted across the glass--twin to the real branch outside, she realized. And a half-formed swing-set. Henry was apparently painting the scene that he saw looking out.
"Hurry up with the window," urged Henry, "I want that done next. Then we can talk."
Henry had a plan. Alyssa had convinced herself that Henry would save her, and look, here he was: actually doing something. So she suspended disbelief and picked up his abandoned paintbrush... hovered it over his lines... but her hand was shaking. It was trembling so hard, like she was having paroxysms or something. She stared at her own hand, willing it to stop, but then she dropped the brush onto her shorts, leaving a thick gray streak across the red fabric. "Shit!" she cursed. "Shit, shit, shit." Tears collected in her eyes as she rubbed furiously at the smear.
Then Henry was there, holding her trembling hands and kissing her forehead. "It's okay, Lyss, I'm sorry. I'll take care of this, huh?"
"Henry, what's happening?" she said.
"I don't know what's happening."
"What's going on out there?"
"I don't know."
"Well then what," she said, "are you doing?"
Henry pushed his glasses up his nose, depositing a white smear on the bridge. "Dad's idea. No surprise, I know, but look. It's working! The air's not all glowy and stuff. I'm sealing off this room from whatever's going on... out there." He waved in the general direction of outside and then, remembering, jumped up to finish his painted scene.
Oh God, Alyssa thought, of course it was his dad's idea. His lunatic father who he let run his life. But the last thing she wanted was to provoke another argument, so she planted her butt on the ground and pushed her still-shaking hands under her thighs and just watched Henry paint. He slashed out strokes like a samurai working a katana while his left hand brandished three pre-dipped brushes, ready to be swapped on a whim. Then he picked up a thicker brush and dabbed out a pale blue sky. He even managed to affect some wispy, white clouds.
"Henry," Alyssa finally ventured after her nerves had calmed. "I know I promised not to speak ill of your dad, but I think maybe he was sniffing a few too many paint fumes when he came up with this idea?"
With a flourish of his wrist, Henry finished the window and tossed his paintbrushes onto some wadded paper towels. The wet scene glowed from the light behind it, like stained glass. It bathed the room--and Henry--in its swampy, variegated hues. "Maybe," Henry admitted, "but you can't argue with results."
Alyssa nestled against him. She wasn't shaking anymore. Panicked, detached... the pendulum swung toward detached. "What d'you think's going on out there?"
"I don't want to find out."
"What are we going to do?"
"Grab a paintbrush."
She looked up at him. "And then what?"
"I don't know, Lyss," he said, pulling away. "Let's not worry about that. Right now we need to worry about... the floor!" And he shoved some paint cans out of the way, snatched up a roller, and dipped it in light brown for his hardwood floors.
Alyssa stood up slowly and looked around. The walls glistened newly white; even the doorknob dripped coppery-gold paint. Posters were painted over with hasty, almost impressionistic imitations, Henry's digital clock now permanently read 2:44, and when Alyssa glanced into the kitchen, she wasn't surprised to find that the sink had received its own silver coat, sloppily applied. It was as if Henry were trying to trap this particular moment in time. This is my reality, he was saying. Do what you will with the rest of the world, but my room stays like this.
Just then the stench reared up and hit Alyssa with a second blast, pressing at the backs of her eye sockets until she had to hold her head in her hands and wait for it to recede.
When she recovered, she said, "I'm gonna give the wall another coat."
"You think? The white's... somewhere, I don't know, on the floor."
Alyssa saw it, but didn't grab it. Instead, she picked up some rosy red paint and a medium-sized brush and used it to sweep out a few tentative strokes on the wall. Red and white blended to make pink, and only that if she constantly re-dipped. Pretty soon she sloughed off her hesitation and, chewing her bottom lip, sketched out one scene after another on the wall. She jumped onto the bed when it got in her way and, in the wake of creaking springs, heard Henry say, "What's that, Lyss?"
Alyssa followed his gaze. "Our first kiss." She brushed her hair behind her ear, smearing sticky red paint through it. "Well, I figure if we're gonna gut this through together... I mean, we could use the paint to decorate, too. You know, and celebrate what we've got."
"Is that...?"
"Hmm? Oh, the Ferris Wheel, yeah. Remember?"
"Of course."
Henry dropped his roller and floated toward the scene, snatching a brush and a can of paint off the floor on the way. When he reached the wall he extended his arm and swept out a brushstroke all in one motion, as natural as breathing. Several strokes later he stepped aside to reveal a blue-lined teddy bear plopped at Alyssa's painted-self's feet. Its tufted ears reached all the way to her waist--which was entirely accurate and made Alyssa's heart flutter with giddy nostalgia.
After that, they didn't hold back. Henry went over each of the scenes that Alyssa had painted, filling in details and insights and inside jokes. Alyssa went left and Henry went right until they crossed paths at the bookcase, which became a three-dimensional palette itself. Then they nestled against each other on the bed, cheek to cheek, and painted their own figures looking back at them, cheek to cheek, with happy, gooey expressions on their faces.
Finally they dropped their brushes and set down their cans and, holding hands and spinning around slowly, took in their creation. Their own portraits danced around them, blue on pink on blue, moments from ancient history spilling into scenes from last week. Alyssa's favorite hadn't even happened yet. It depicted wrinkled old Alyssa with a cane kissing wrinkled old Henry while he juggled his dentures in his hands.
Their future. Alyssa suddenly realized that it was getting brighter and brighter in there, as if the light were trying to burst through the painted window. And she suddenly blurted: "But what if it goes away?"
"What? Out there? Well, I hope so! We can't hole up in here forever!"
"But what if it goes away and... and leaves us behind?"
"Lyss, what else can we do? This is the best I've got. But we'll get through this."
"I mean, the fridge is stocked, and if you're worried about the fumes, then it's probably safe to--"
"You're not listening to me!"
And just like that, they were fighting. They crossed that invisible boundary. Always, always, always.
All Alyssa had been trying to say was: What if? What if not understanding didn't necessarily mean that it was bad? What if it actually did go away? And what if the worst that they could do was to miss out on whatever incredible thing this was? At first she thought the light was unnatural, but now she realized that the solution was even worse. There was no future in this. And she suddenly, badly wanted a future.
"Fine," said Henry--rather petulantly, Alyssa thought. "I'm listening. I'm listening!"
Alyssa took a deep, chemical-laden breath. She looked at her boyfriend, and then at all of the happy images, a Swiss-cheese history of their rocky relationship. But she didn't want it to stop, she realized. It was what it was, and she had to take everything or nothing.
"I'm saying," she began, "I'm going to open that window. Will you stop me?" It was a question. She wasn't sure what she would do if he said yes, but he did nothing, so she walked over to the window and fit her fingers into its handles. She distantly wondered if she was crazy. Was she absolutely insane? The fresh paint made her hand slip, smearing the bottom of the scene, but she managed to open it a crack, stuck her fingers into the gap, and lifted.
White light hit her face. Bright, so bright her eyes watered. She was buffeted back, not by any wind, but as if the light itself carried weight. The air became thick, jammy, until she actually had to wade through it. And yet she felt buoyant, light.
Alyssa popped the screen out of its frame and leaned out the window. Then she flipped around so that she was sitting on the sill, but leaning back, supported by only light and air.
"If our relationship means anything," Alyssa began, choking slightly on the words. "You'd better follow, Henry." Her voice sounded like bubbles in her own ears. "We've got far more memories to make than can fit on those walls."
Her voice broke at the end and she leaned all the way back and let go. It was so bright she had to close her eyes, and even then it was too bright. Six stories high, she floated down, or maybe up. It seemed she heard a thousand distant voices wafting over her as she drifted, drifted, drifted....
...Henry's hand slipped into hers.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Author Comments

Occasionally I'll challenge myself to write a short story in a weekend. This was one of those. I'm having trouble pinning down the inspiration for this one, but I'm pretty sure the idea originated with the paint rather than the light. Sometimes I just like to give my characters something different to play with. Mess around a bit. Get a little paint in their hair. Many thanks to the Liberty Hall Writers group for their insightful critiques.

- Michael Banker
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