The bristles stopped just before my naked eye. The brush quivered in her hand as she held it there.
“You know I can’t finish until you stop crying, right?” said Em.
“I know, I know,” I answered as I fanned myself with my hands. “Just give me a second. I need to call him.”
She looked away, setting the brush on my desk.
“Alright then. But make it quick. Don’t have that much time til we need to leave. I’ll go and check out some of the new pieces in the studio.”
“Thanks. It’ll just be a second.”
Em forced a smile. She closed the door behind her on the way out. I looked at myself in the mirror. My hair was still wet and my makeup half-done. I felt and looked like a wreck.
The argument I had gotten into with Kurt on the phone earlier was still lingering. I needed the pressure go away.
This was supposed to be my night. I spent years dreaming of when I would be sitting in that spot. And because of that stupid fight I had gotten into with Kurt, I couldn’t even get my makeup done.
I had to work it out. It was the only way I was going to be able to get on with the evening.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
I knew I wouldn’t get an answer. He was still livid with a point to prove. He lost it on me before hanging up when we last spoke.
The tears tried to force their way out again. I worked so desperately to hold them back as I reached his answering machine.
“Kurt, please call me back. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean any of it. You aren’t an asshole. You’re right, I’ve been stressing about the show for too long. Please, please come tonight. It would mean the world to me to see you there.”
I threw the phone on my cluttered desk. It fell into the mess of art supplies, sketches and assorted beauty products.
My message was more apologetic than how I really felt. How could any girl be okay with her boyfriend not coming to her art expo? And it wasn’t just any routine show. It was one of LA’s biggest of the year. This kind of opportunity may never come again. I had been working at it for the entirety of our relationship.
It didn’t matter if the big wigs around the executive table needed him to stay late. He needed to make an excuse and get out of there. This was the most important night of my life.
I had spent the better part of a month locked up in my parent’s cottage, getting all the pieces ready. Demolishing pot after pot of coffee, I worked like a mad woman late into every evening. I painted endlessly, completing hundreds of pieces. It was all a matter of producing the select few that would suffice.
I talked to Kurt maybe three or four times over that month. They were only quick conversations on the phone. Each time felt like more of a distraction and a chore than something I really wanted to do.
And that was the reason. That’s why he didn’t feel guilty about staying late at the office. If I was going to put my work ahead of him, why shouldn’t he put his ahead of me?
It was our gift and our curse. We both cared too much about what we do. All too often that meant our relationship was put on the back-burner.
But, I had never seen him so mad. It was like he was another person. I was stuck with it now. I had no choice but to let it go.
“Em,” I called into the hallway. “I’m ready now.”
I straightened my back and stared hard into the mirror as her footsteps approached from the hall. I wasn’t going to release any more tears. Nothing was going to ruin this evening for me. I sacrificed too much for that happen.
Em returned to her spot behind me. Her eyes met mine in the reflection.
“Your style certainly has changed a lot since I’ve last seen it,” she said.
“And, do you like it?”
“Yes, I do. I really do. It’s just so much more human than it used to be.”
I double blinked. It was hardly the reaction I expected from my best friend.
“And how would you describe it?” I asked.
“Dark, but beautiful,” she said as she placed a hand on my shoulder. “I think it’s perfect. Just like you.”
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach on the drive over. But they paled in comparison to the sheer panic that enveloped me as we pulled into the Randolph Art Center parking lot.
It was the cars that did me in. Nearly every spot was already occupied. All of them filled with a vehicle worth at least $50,000. We must have looked like we were on welfare pulling up in Em’s ‘09 Civic.
She chuckled as she pulled into a spot near the back of the lot. I saw her get up out of the corner of my eye as I fixed my gaze out the back window onto the giant glass building. I didn’t move until she finally opened my door for me.
“C’mon now Charlotte, it’s time.”
She yanked me out of the car. There was no use in trying to hide how nervous I was. Rather than explain myself, I started my march towards the building. My heels clapped hard against the asphalt as I approached.
I reached the granite steps. They spiralled up to the main entrance on the second level. Even the fucking stairs were amazing. They intimidated me, just like every other piece of incredible architectural design on the building I was about to enter.
I relied on the support of the railing on the way up. It wasn’t my first time being there. I had visited countless times before. It was the context that was different. For the first time, I was not merely a spectator for the works of others. This time I was here with my work. Now it was my turn to enjoy the spoils of the onlooking eyes.
If things went just as I had them pictured in my mind, it would be the first exhibit of many with my pieces on display. And perhaps, if things went really well, it would mean the end of the 9 – 5 office job.
That would be anyone’s dream come true.
Em managed to catch up by the time I reached the top. She caught me staring wide-eyed at the crowd of early-birds through the glass doors of the front lobby. She noticed me trying to distract the obvious distress by looking down at my phone. There was one pending message. It was one sentence long, from Kurt.
We’ll see how things play out.
Before the inevitable emotional response engaged, Em snatched the phone from me. She tossed it into her purse and zipped it closed.
“It doesn’t matter what he does,” she said. “It’s only important what you do tonight.”
She was right, we both knew it.
I flipped my straightened hair behind my shoulders and adjusted the crimson dress straps. As I looked onward at the sea of cultured art aficionados, Em took hold of my hand.
She didn’t let go until we were inside.
I recognized a few of the faces in the lobby. I didn’t allow eye contact. I didn’t bother stopping to talk. It wasn’t time for the pleasantries yet.
We went straight to the main pavilion. The place was enormous. The ceiling towered over our heads. Metal racks with giant white lights hung from the ceiling. The building was equipped to display more than just art. They could have car shows there if they wanted.
I had to slip a little extra to the right person to get my spot. $2,000 more than anyone else paid, to be exact. It was right at the back, lined up against the far wall. In my previous visits to the gallery, I learned that people always gravitated there.
Not only was it centrally located, but it was right next to the main stage. Your eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to that spot as you walked down the main aisle. It’s where the bright lights were. It’s where the action was.
It would also be a short walk for me when they revealed the award-winning piece for the night. My award-winning piece. I entered it on a wing and a prayer. I never really considered winning a real possibility. It was created in the midst of my painting frenzy at my parent’s cabin. It was the proudest I had ever been of one my works.
As Em and I made our way to the three concrete walls that made up my little area, my eyes stayed glued to the paintings. Sixteen of my works were there, each of them covered by white cloth and hanging at a different height from the ground.
“It’s so surreal,” Em said, setting her purse down on the desk in my exhibit’s center. She twirled, looking at all my covered pieces. “The fluorescent lights make everything look so extravagant.”
I agreed with her. My exhibit looked like something out of a magazine. It looked even better than the pictures the event coordinator had sent me a few days earlier. The extra money was worth it.
“I can’t believe we’re finally here,” I said.
“We? You mean, you. You’ve earned the right to be here, Char.”
I laughed as I locked our purses in one of the desk shelves.
“Should we start uncovering the paintings?” she asked.
“No, the staff will do that when they start to let people in.”
“Don’t think I can wait that long. Can you show me at least one?”
Her words raised another laugh out of me. I nudged her as I walked passed.
“Only for you, Em.”
I chose the painting nearest to the desk. It was, in my opinion, the most moderate. Starting with it would leave me nowhere to go but up. Her inevitable barrage of compliments would ensue.
Moon Over Sea, that was its name. It was nothing special. Just a few shades of faded blue making up the water, and a dull yellow circle resembling the moon above.
I pulled the cover off and saw Em’s head reel back.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, aware I noticed her reaction.
“Is there something wrong?”
“No, it’s just that style again. Like the ones in the studio.”
I looked closer at the painting. As if I needed reassuring of exactly what it was that I created. It was the same as I remembered, save for one detail. Right next to the moon, I saw the outline.
A face. A man’s face.
Perhaps it was a coincidence. The result of different strokes of the brush at the right point. And somehow, in my exhaustion and frail mental state in the midst of all the painting, I didn’t notice I had left it there.
It’s possible I would have never noticed had Em not mentioned it. But now that she had, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
I heard the front doors open. The voices of the many eager people started to enter.
“It’s great,” Em said as I turned towards the crowd. “So much different than anything I’ve ever seen from you before.”
The show staff started to walk through the varied exhibits. A lump was in my throat as they began to unveil all my other pieces.
I saw my mother right away. The green dress sparkled as she sprinted ahead of the others like it was some kind of race. She stopped only to nab three narrow glasses of wine from one of the server’s trays.
“Charlotte! You look adorable,” she said, putting the glasses down on the desk. She kissed me on both cheeks before grabbing Em and doing the same to her.
“You know, I could hardly sleep last night. I was so excited for you. A few of my friends will be stopping by. We can’t wait to see your new pieces.”
I noticed her eyes cheating over my shoulder, looking at my paintings mounted on the wall behind me. Her bottom jaw lowered. I meant to ask her what the matter was, but I ran out of time.
Behind her, I saw that some members of the mob were already at the fringe of my exhibit. Thousand dollar dresses and Armani suits, rubbernecking at every piece from the hopeful artists that caught their eye.
It was time for the show to start. Nothing else mattered anymore. Not Kurt, not what Em and mom had noticed about my new pieces, not any other possible distraction. The first old couple wandered up to me. I braced for impact.
The next forty-five minutes flew by. I never moved from where I stood behind the desk. I was stuck, surrounded by a sea of rich, ancient faces. Each of them was seemingly captivated by the work of this young artist. If not that, then they did a good job of making it seem that way. Perhaps some of them just wanted to be near the main stage when the award-winning piece was announced.
Between calculated sips of wine (enough to look comfortable, not enough to loosen the tongue), I recited the same rehearsed phrases over and over and over. Every time, the mix of old acquaintances, rich old strangers and the occasional specific person I was trying to impress, ate it right up.
“Thanks so much for coming!”
“I left my heart in that painting.”
“Just knowing that people appreciate it is enough for me.”
Everything was going as well as I could have hoped for. Then, Em, who was busy entertaining people as they queued up to see me, tugged my arm.
“Someone wants to make an offer.”
I couldn’t believe it. I expected the good wishes, I expected the compliments. But someone wanting to buy one of mine so quickly, at a show like this… it wasn’t possible.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The one of the mountain range.”
“That’s one of my favourites! Oh my god, I can’t believe it!” I said as I did a little hop. “Okay, let’s go see if they’re for real.”
He approached me with an outstretched hand before I could even reach the painting. Childlike enthusiasm was in his eyes.
He grabbed my arm before it was fully extended. He pulled me into a half-handshake, half-hug. My dress rubbed against his old wool suit. I felt his whiskers scratch against my cheek.
“My dear,” he said. “You’re hardly the face I imagined by this beautiful work of art.”
I blushed. I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” was all I could eventually think of.
“No. Thank you, young lady. I’m quite stricken by your painting of the mountain range. It’s your style. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
I turned to Em. She smiled wide. She rubbed my back with excitement.
“I’d like to put an early offer on the piece if that’s alright? I’m not sure if you’re open to selling tonight. But if you’ll entertain the idea, I’ll gladly write the cheque right now.”
My stomach dropped when he said that. My feet shook so much I thought my heels were going to dig into the floor.
The man picked up on my reaction. The wrinkles on his cheek stretched as the corners of his mouth lifted.
“What a pretty little thing you are. Well, how about we cut right to the chase? How does ten thousand sound? If you don’t try to wiggle the price up, I’ll write you the cheque right here. I must have that young woman under the mountains on my wall.”
“Wait, what? What woman?”
“The one you’ve painted lying at the base of the mountains. She has her mouth wide open.”
I shivered. I had no painting with a woman lying under a mountain range. Only a painting of a mountain range. Nothing else.
Then, I saw what he was talking about. I walked towards it without saying anything.
There was no debate this time. The anomaly was there. It was no mistake.
The woman lay flat on her back. Her body made up the collective base of the mountains. They looked like spikes shooting out from her abdomen. Her slender neck was coiled back, her mouth gaped open. The fog I had painted at the bottom appeared to be coming out of her like visible breath in cold air.
My body shook. It was not the same painting I had sent to the gallery the week before.
It was more than just the fact that the woman was inexplicably painted there. The workmanship, it was unmistakably the doing of my own hand. The style, the fluidity of the strokes, the use of colour – all of it was mine.
The only difference was the subtle precision. The attention to detail was finer than my own. Like someone had programmed my personal touch into a painting machine.
Someone was fucking with me. Who or why? I had no idea. But this was no overlooked error. Only a twisted joke.
“I absolutely love it. It’s so real,” the old man said as he came up beside me. “Shall I write that cheque then?”
The cheque dangled from my fingers. I stood alone in front of the painting long after the man had left. I had neglected to return to my post behind the desk. I dreaded the idea of having to go back and talk to them. It was impossible. I couldn’t pretend everything was alright.
Did I really paint that and forget? Was I really that out of my mind for that month alone in the woods? No wonder Kurt was so angry. His girlfriend was losing it.
I turned to the painting to the right, dreading what I would see there.
It was supposed to be a green meadow overlooked by a light blue sky and white clouds. It was simple, minimalist. There wasn’t supposed to be a man’s face. The same angry face I had seen in the first painting. Now it was finer, more detailed. It glared back at me from where it was positioned among the clouds.
That’s not a work of art. Somebody tampered with that painting. Was someone at the studio trying to sabotage me?
“Char, you have people waiting to speak to you,” Em said, returning to my side. She snapped me out of a trance. “You need to get back to the desk.”
“Em, I need you to cover for me. I need to go freshen up,” I answered as I saw the same woman’s face in the Koi pond of another piece.
“Can’t you wait? I’m running out of ideas to keep them entertained.”
“I just need a sec–“
A loud buzzing filled the giant space as the sound system turned on. A man with greased back, grey hair was on the stage. The crowd started to move towards him. He beckoned them with a white glove as they approached.
“Need your attention for just a moment here folks,” he said into the microphone. “It’s time to reveal this year’s winning piece.”
I wished I could have just disappeared right then. It would have been the perfect time. All the eyes that were just on me, had shifted over to him. But I couldn’t. I just stood there, frozen.
The announcer made his way to the center of the podium. He looked at my piece, still completely covered. He grasped the corner of the cloth then turned back to the audience.
“I just want to take a moment to thank you folks for coming out. Great turnout again this year.”
Mild applause from the audience sounded in response.
“I haven’t gotten a chance to see this year’s big piece yet, but the judges on the panel voted for it unanimously. Apparently, it’s quite the changeup from any of our previous winners.”
He grabbed the white cloth covering my painting again. This time, he didn’t let go.
With everything that was inside me, I hoped that it was the painting I remembered submitting. I prayed so much that things would proceed as they were meant to.
Good Morning, Beautiful, that was its name.
It was a painting of the sun rising above the desert. The sky was orange and purple, little yellow stars were all over. The sand was brown and orange. The land and sky blended into each other where they met.
It was a simple landscape with a unique range of colours. That’s all it was. I knew exactly what that painting looked like before I sent it in. There were no faces.
“Before I treat us with the big reveal, I just also want to mention that this year’s winning artist is the youngest winner we’ve ever had. Thirty-one-year-old, Charlotte Gauthier. Her exhibit is just next to the stage over here.”
He pointed directly at me and hundreds of heads followed along. I forced a smile and a gentle wave just above my head. I could feel lipstick stuck to my teeth.
“Please start making your way up to the stage young lady. And get set for some fireworks. Because, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, theeeee 2016 Randolph award winner.”
Time stood still. The fabric ran through the fingers of his glove endlessly. Slowly, he pulled it off. The crowd went impossibly silent in the giant convention room. All my dreaded suspicions became reality.
It stood as a pillar of terror. So much worse than all the others. There was no semblance to the piece I remember creating. Not even a trace of a desert landscape remained.
It was a bloody mess. I walked towards the stage, covering the side of my head. Tears started to pour down my face as the spotlight from the ceiling turned on me.
Both the face of the woman and of the man were there. The same ones that had somehow managed to find their way into every piece in my exhibit.
Except on this one, their details flourished. The long face of the woman now clearly expressed fear as she was sprawled on her back across a tile floor. The man’s face, now, so clearly angry and determined above her.
They had distinguishable body parts as well. Her hands were up in a defensive position, blood running through her fingers. It was a helpless attempt at self-defense.
The man lunged off one knee. In his right hand, held high, just above his head, was a knife with blood lining the blade. It was coming right down on her.
In red, dripping letters across the top, the piece read the name that I had remembered giving it. The only part of the painting that was remotely mine.
Good Morning, Beautiful
The announcer pressed the microphone against his chin. He looked almost frightened of me as I walked up the steps towards him.
“Uh… Ladies and Gentleman, here is the lovely woman behind the painting. Let’s give her another round of applause.”
The claps were slow and sporadic at first. But soon, the few hundred people that had just gazed towards me were all clapping together. It started to get louder.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” the announcer finally continued. His initial composure had returned. “Quite graphic, I must say. But also, so visceral, so human.”
I only looked at the painting once when I got up onto the stage. Just like all the others, it looked like a finer version of my own work. Another appalling masterpiece I had no recollection of creating.
The applause grew thunderous. A staff member came up with a bouquet of roses and laid it in my arms. The spotlight still on me burned my skin as I stood there facing the audience.
Em ran up the stairs and embraced me.
“You’re so happy that you’re crying. You’re ruining my makeup job,” she said as she giggled in my ear.
She was only half correct. I was crying. But not out of happiness. Only terror.
I forced a bow. The applause kept getting louder.
I was numb for the remainder of the evening.
Somehow, I succeeded in feigning a smile for a few more hours. I managed to carry out the conversations. The performance kept going.
I couldn’t even feel a thing when I heard someone put an offer in for $100,000 on the twisted version of Good Morning, Beautiful.
It wasn’t until I was alone again, standing outside my studio door, that I returned. Sadly, it was unwelcoming and familiar. It was the uncertainty once more. Just what the hell was I going to see when I opened that door?
The studio was filled with the rejects. All the pieces simply not good enough to make the cut for the exhibition. And now, it was time for me to face them.
I pushed the door open and turned on the light switch.
Panic was immediate. The scattered works of art lying on the floor, leaning on the wall or sitting on canvases all featured one common theme. The same two faces. Sometimes hardly there, sometimes dominating the entire work of art. But there was not a single one that didn’t feature the man or woman’s face in some way.
I fell to my knees. My dress constricted my legs as I started to crawl forward. One knee in front of the other, I kept my eyes away from any of the painting within my line of sight. I started to heave. I needed some sort of solution.
Eventually, I found something that could help. An empty canvas. Clear of any of my own work or the ghost hand putting faces everywhere.
It was a chance. An opportunity to create a piece of art in this room that was actually mine. Something devised within my own mind and nowhere else.
I gathered up whatever brushes and paints were within reach. I didn’t think. I just started to paint.
Hours passed. The work was frivolous, uninterrupted. My elbow ached from relentless labour.
I went until I couldn’t sit up anymore. I slowly let my body drop forward. I stretched out and lay next to the work that I created. It wasn’t complete, but it would have to do.
It was a picture of me, accepting the roses after winning the award earlier. Except, this scene was different. The painting behind me was the desert landscape that I remembered submitting. And there were no faces or any tears, just a genuine smile upon my face.
It was perfection. Just the way the evening was meant to go.
As my eyes started to close, I ran my hand along the painted version of myself. I felt the texture of the strokes from my own hand.
I didn’t know what time it was when I awoke. There aren’t any windows in the studio.
I rubbed my eyes and sat up. I heard steps coming up the stairs. It sounded like Kurt had finally come home.
My back ached from sleeping on the hardwood floor. I winced when I realized just how much paint I had spilled over my dress.
The feeling passed quickly. It paled in comparison to what I saw next. I soon realized that the painting I knelt in front of was not the one I remembered creating the night before.
Once again, a piece I had been so proud of was gone. In its place was something else.
It was the same woman from all the other paintings. Now, she was alone. She was on her hands and knees. Blood poured out from a wound in her stomach. She reached out for a phone sitting on a desk on the far side of the room. Once again, the title was written in bloody letters across the top.
It was so human. So real.
The door creaked open behind me. I heard Kurt’s voice as he stepped into the room.
“Good Morning, Beautiful,” he said.
Then he lunged.