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21
Aug

“The Night Artist” by Brady Golden

Speculate_blogA single large painting hung on the otherwise bare wall. Tim didn’t need to check the signature to know that it was an Owen Steig original. It featured the artist’s favorite and, as far as Tim had been able to turn up on the Internet, only subject matter—the Earth’s moon floating in a night sky. The paint had hardened into gloppy chunks. The sky was a dull purple, heavy and oppressive. Within it, the stars appeared to be sinking, as though into tar. Only the moon stood defiant; a swollen yellow thing too alive to be pulled in. The brush strokes gave it the look of striated meat, of a single, spherical muscle, held aloft by its own strength, fighting and winning against the darkness sucking at it.

Owen himself had disappeared into the house’s depths with Tim’s suitcase, leaving Tim and his mother alone in the living room. She took a seat on the sofa and motioned for him to join her. He declined. Part of him hoped that he wouldn’t have to stay long, that his powers of persuasion would be enough to get them on the road before Owen reemerged. Unlikely, but not impossible. Claire had always been an agreeable woman.

“So, this is where you live now,” he said.

“I know how strange it must seem. You’ve probably got a lot of questions. I’m so glad that you came to see me. To see us. It means so much.” She leaned forward, clasping her hands in her lap. She’d picked up a deep tan since he’d last seen her, and the silver of her hair only set off its intensity that much more. “I need to know you understand that your dad and me—that our separation doesn’t have anything to do with you. It doesn’t change anything between us.”

“I’m thirty, not twelve. I think I can handle the whole child-of-divorce thing,” he said.

“How is your dad?”

“He’s worried about you. Same as me.”

That wasn’t exactly true, or if it was, Tim had no way of knowing. Upon discovering that he’d been kicked to the curb after four decades of marriage, Chuck’s exact words had been, I’ve got better things to do that drive down to the ass-end of nowhere to beg on the doorstep of the man who stole my wife. In the week since then, his feelings hadn’t softened. Tim had kept his visit a secret to avoid the conniption the old man would have inevitably thrown if he’d found out.

Behind her, a bay window gave a view of the landscape Tim had driven through to get here. Brown hills that looked like massive heaps of gravel rolled to the horizon. For the last hour of his trip, he hadn’t passed so much as a gas station.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “I’m wonderful. Really, really wonderful. The happiest I’ve been in a long time.”

“But this Owen guy. You met him, what, a month ago? You barely know him.”

“I know he’s passionate, sensitive, driven. I know he pushes me creatively. When I’m with him, I see the world through different eyes. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that.”

It took an effort to keep his face blank. This didn’t sound like his mother. In all his life, he didn’t think he’d ever heard her use the word passionate in any context.

“What about Dad?” he said.

“Chuck is a good man, a good husband, a good father, but I think in my heart I always knew I’d leave him one day.”

Tim wondered how much of that she really believed. “I want you to be happy, and if you say you need a change, I’m on board. Anything I can do. But is it really out here? With him? Don’t you think you’re rushing into this?”

“I understand why you think that. But being at the colony, just me and my work for so long, it clarified things. I learned more about myself last month that in the past twenty years. This is where I need to be. And Owen is who I need to be with. This is my life now. It’s right. I know it.”

For two years, she had been taking art classes at the continuing education center, cranking out paintings of flowers in vases and charcoal sketches of middle-aged nude models for her weekly assignments. One of her teachers had told her about the Soledad Art Colony and suggested she apply for a spot there. Visits, which cost a small fortune, lasted for one month. Guests stayed in private cottages with desert views. At night they ate gourmet meals prepared by a resident chef, drank wine, and talked art. By day they did nothing but work, free of distraction. Real, honest-to-God professional artists were paid to hang around, offering critiques and advice.

Tim had heard the excitement in her voice when she’d first described it to him, even as she’d told him that she wouldn’t be applying. She could never, she had explained, leave her husband alone for such a long stretch. Ultimately, Tim had talked her into it. He wondered if his father knew that. He wondered just how much responsibility he bore for the fact that one of those artists-in-residence had, over the span of one month, launched into an affair with his mother, and then convinced her to come home with him when her stay at the colony ended.

She said, “I know you came here to rescue me, and I’m touched, deeply. It’s so sweet. But I don’t need it.”

The sound of shuffling footsteps signaled Owen’s return. He entered the room carrying a wine bottle in one hand and a trio of glasses in the other. The first thing to occur to Tim when Owen had greeted him at the front door had been a question, whether the reason so much of the painter’s work focused on moons was that he himself looked like one. The man was almost spherical.  His belly had a perfect curve to it. The top of his head was bald and shiny. A brown-grey hobo beard hid most of his face.

“I hope you two are all caught up,” he said. The smile he flashed never made it to his eyes.

Later, after drinks, dinner, and more drinks, Owen led Tim down a twisting staircase to the bottom of the house. It ended at a hallway with three doors. At the upper register of his hearing, Tim thought he detected a faint humming sound. If Owen noticed it, he gave no sign. In succession, he jabbed a finger at each door.

“That’s the guest room. Your bag’s already in there. The bed’s comfortable. I’ve slept in it plenty of times myself. That’s the bathroom. Use the green towels. This one’s your mom’s studio. Sometimes she comes down here late at night to work, so if you hear someone moving around, that’s what that is.”

Tim thanked him and tried to step past into the bedroom, but Owen took up most of the hallway and didn’t make any effort to move. His skin was flushed and shiny.

“How long are you planning to stay for, exactly?” he said.

“The invitation was for a week,” Tim said. “I got the time off of work.”

“Sure it was. But I think you already asked the question you came here to ask, and if I’m not wrong, you already got your answer.” He folded his arms across the top of his stomach and gave Tim a professorial look. “Your mom’s doing some important work here. Artistically, I mean. She could do without the distraction. And since you know she won’t be leaving with you…”

“Are you kicking me out?” Tim asked.

“Not at all. I just hate to see you wasting your time. And hers.”

“I think I’ll stay then, if it’s all the same.”

Owen’s mouth turned to a thin, hard line. He stepped aside to let Tim through. In the guest room, a twin bed with a knit blanket folded over it occupied one corner. Tim spotted his suitcase at its foot. Beside the bed was a nightstand, upon which stood a ceramic lamp, its base sculpted into the shape of a crescent moon with the wizened, wrinkled face of an old man. His nose was hooked, his grin mischievous. Another of Owen’s paintings hung on the wall above the bed, almost identical to the one upstairs. Across the room, a sliding glass door looked out onto a small wooden deck. As Tim closed the bedroom door behind him, he heard his host mutter something. It might have been “good night” or something else entirely.

When he woke up some time later, it was still dark out. A sound followed him out of whatever dream he’d been having; a piece of music, wordless, with a slippery worm of a melody. It called to mind memories he couldn’t place—the smell of wood smoke, the rustles and chirps of a forest at night, the feel of cold, damp air on his skin. He stared up at the ceiling, tasting the sourness of his own tongue, sensing the headache from all the night’s wine as it gathered in his temples. It took him a minute to understand that the sound—the song—was real. It was what had woken him up. At first, he thought it might have been that same hum he’d heard earlier, but after listening for a while he decided that it was coming from outside the house.

He got up, went to the glass door, and opened it. The music’s volume shot up. Wearing only his pajama bottoms, he stepped outside. The wood beneath his feet was rough and splintery. There were no clouds in the sky, just an immense dome of stars. The moon shone bright enough that the rocky hills seemed to glow silver-blue.

03NightArtist1Owen stood on a balcony two floors up. He had an easel and canvas set up in front of him, and he held a brush in his hand, but he wasn’t painting. His arms hung limp at his sides, and his face was lifted to the sky. Tim thought for a second that he might be the source of the strange melody. Tim wouldn’t have guessed it was a human voice, but it didn’t necessarily sound inhuman, either. The longer he looked, though, the more his eyes adjusted and the more he could see. Owen’s lips weren’t moving. His mouth was closed, turned up in a sleepy, blissful smile. He was the music’s audience, not its source.

Tim looked back out at the hills. What could it be, then? There was no wind, not even a breeze. It didn’t sound like any kind of bird he’d ever heard before. There were no trees, no other buildings. He craned his neck, looking up, up, up, until his eyes landed on what he knew with sudden and absolute certainty to be the music’s source, and his mouth went dry.

It was the moon. Impossibly, it was the moon. Two-hundred-and-some-odd-thousand miles away, it was singing. The meandering melody originated up there, traversed a silent vacuum, and reached all the way to this place, to him.

The sharp grind of metal sounded nearby, and Tim spun around. On another deck only a few yards from his own, a door was sliding open. He watched as a figure emerged. When he caught a glimpse of his mother’s silver hair, he ducked back inside and eased his own door shut. He slipped back into bed and shoved his head under a pillow, using one arm to hold it in place. It muffled the music, but didn’t block it out entirely. Eventually, he fell asleep like that, squeezing his teeth and eyes because he couldn’t close his ears.

In the morning, he dressed, washed his face in the bathroom sink, and started upstairs. Halfway up, he heard his mother call his name. If she hadn’t, if he’d made it up there without encountering anyone. He couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t have kept going, straight out to his car, out the driveway, and gone. She greeted him at the top step. She was practically buzzing with excitement. Tim glanced over her shoulder for any sign of Owen and saw nothing, just the empty living room.

“I need to talk to you about something,” he said.

“I bet you do.”

“It’s about Owen. Last night, before I went to bed—“

She shook her head and waved her hands as though shooing a bug.

“Listen,” he said. “He basically gave me a ‘Get out of Dodge’ speech.”

“That doesn’t matter anymore,” she said.

He wasn’t getting through, couldn’t tell if she was even registering what he was saying.

“Mom, he’s not a nice guy.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” She took his shoulders in her hands and leaned in close enough for a kiss. Her eyes were wide, unrelenting. “I know you heard it last night,” she said. “This changes things. I know Owen didn’t want you coming here. He’s a very private person. Very focused on his painting. He was convinced you would wreck what we have. I promised him and promised him you wouldn’t. You’re not like your dad. You’re like me. And I was right! Not everyone can hear it, you know. Owen says it takes a particular kind of sensitivity. And you have it. Once we tell him, we could put all these negative feelings behind us. You’ll be welcome to stay. He’ll want you to stay. He’s in the shower now, but he should be down soon. We can tell him together.”

“Mom,” Tim said. “What did I hear last night?”

She let her arms fall and motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen. There, Tim watched her assemble Owen’s substantial breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and toast. She offered to make Tim something, but his stomach felt like a pouch of hot oil. The cup of coffee that he nursed was the most he could handle.

“I heard it for the first time at the colony,” she explained. “It was the start of my second week there. I was enjoying myself—I loved all the time to myself, I loved all the painting I was doing—but I hadn’t gotten to know any of the other guests. They would get together at night to socialize, but I stayed away. I’m shy, I suppose. You know that. Instead, I took walks. There were these beautiful gardens of desert plants, and these little footpaths going through them. The way they had it set up, you could walk twenty feet and be completely alone, no one in sight. Especially when it was dark.”

She flitted from cupboard to counter to sink. “It was one of those nights. I was out there alone, and I heard this strange, beautiful sound. This music. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first. Then I looked up and realized.” She looked at him. “It was the moon, Tim. The moon was singing. It was the strangest thing, but it was also sort of wonderful.

“Then Owen came along. He’d been with the other guests, but he was on his way back to his cottage. He saw me there, staring up at the sky, thinking I’d lost my mind, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘You hear it.’ Not even a question. Like, he just knew.” She paused to let that sink in. “He’s been hearing it since he was a child, and in all that time, he’s only ever met three other people who can. Now, with you, it’s four. He thinks only people with a real deep sensitivity can hear it, and only if they really know how to listen.”

“Why that night and not before?” Tim said.

She pointed at him with a spatula shiny with grease. “You and I have lived in the city for our entire lives. Owen says, ‘It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.’ It’s why he bought this property, because the music is louder here than anywhere else. Anywhere else he’s been anyway.”

“What does Owen think the music—what does he think it is?”

“You should ask him. He’s got theories. Lots and lots of theories. It’s fascinating.”

Eventually, Owen showed up, his skin still flushed from the shower. He kissed Claire on the cheek, but did not acknowledge her son, even as he sat down across the table from him. Tim watched his mother set a steaming mountain of food before him. Owen settled into his meal without speaking, and Tim thought about how familiar it all seemed. Three hundred miles away, in a different house with a different man, and his mother was still the unthanked servant. He wondered what the best way to point that out might be. She lingered beside Owen, though he was too focused on his meal to notice. For several seconds, the only sounds were of chewing.

She said, “We have something to tell you.”

Owen grunted a questioning noise around a mouthful of food.

“Last night, Tim heard the moon.”

The chewing slowed as Owen processed this. He swallowed with a tremendous bob of his Adam’s apple, swiped at his mouth with a napkin, and twisted in his seat to look up at her. “You told him? Do you have any sense?”

“I didn’t tell him anything, honey. He heard it. He told me.”

“Dammit, it’s a secret thing. Our secret thing.”

“And now he’s one of us, you see? It’s a good thing.”

“He is, is he?” He shifted his gaze to Tim. “Tell me, then. What exactly did you hear last night?”

Tim looked down into his coffee. The lack of a discernable melody made the music a challenge to recall. Already, it was slipping from his mind, like a fish escaping into darker water.

“I’m not sure what I heard,” he said.

Owen smirked and, to Claire, said, “He’s lying to you. He’s trying to get close to you so he can turn you against me, drag you back to your husband. Is that what you want? Your old life? Because he’s part of that. Your husband’s son. Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I got the impression you were pretty miserable then.” He gave Tim an appraising look. “He didn’t hear a thing. He thinks we’re crackpots. Small-minded, no imagination, just like his dad.”

It felt to Tim like he ought to say something, to get mad, defensive, something, but who was he going to stick up for? His father? For someone who’d never met the man, Owen’s description hit pretty close to the mark. Himself? Yes, he had heard something, and yes, he thought they were crackpots. The two weren’t mutually exclusive.

“He doesn’t need to get close to me,” Claire said. “He’s my son. He is close to me. And you’re wrong. He’s not like he’s father. He’s like me. He’s like you. You’d see it if you’d just give him a chance.”

Owen glared at her, then at Tim, working his mouth. He looked to be on the cusp of saying something, but he gave up on it. With a snort and a shake of his head, he said, “I’m going for a walk.” His chair squealed on the floor as he pushed it back. A moment later, he was gone. The house swallowed the sound of his footsteps. Claire made an attempt at a reassuring smile, but she couldn’t quite suppress the tremble in her lips.

Downstairs, Tim took his cell phone out onto the deck. The sky was cloudless and powder blue. The air smelled of warm dust. He placed his hands on the railing and listened hard for anything that might, in the light of day, offer an explanation for last night’s strangeness. Somewhere far off, a car engine was buzzing. It grew fainter by the second, until it was gone. After that there was only silence. He dialed his parents’ house, brought the phone to his ear, and waited for his father to pick up.

“Hello?” The voice was phlegmy and a bit bewildered. If it was anyone else, Tim would have guessed he’d woken the person up, but this was how Chuck always sounded. That he should ever be expected to interact with anyone was a source of bafflement and frustration for him.

“Hi, Dad. It’s me.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, during which Tim could easily imagine his father trying to puzzle out exactly who me was.

“Tim,” he said. “How are you?”

“I’m good. I’m at Owen Steig’s house.”

This time, the pause was heavier, charged. Tim waited, then realized that this wasn’t a pause at all, but a silence.

“I came to see Mom,” he said.

“Oh, yeah?” Chuck was trying for indifference, but the anger came through anyway.

“Yeah.” Tim chose his next words very carefully. “I think I can get her to come home. This Owen guy, he’s a real piece of work, and I think she’s starting to see it.”

“Don’t waste your time.”

“What?” Tim said.

He heard the creak and slide of his father shifting on his leather couch. “If she comes back, she comes back. It’s not like I’m sitting here on pins and needles. Don’t be so sure I’d even take her back if she came.”

“Come on, Dad. Who are you kidding?”

“I’m a forgiving guy, but that’s thirty-nine years of marriage she pissed on. That’s me and you. How thrilled do you expect me to be by the prospect of her crawling back with her tail between her legs just because the guy she ran off with turned out to be an even bigger piece of shit than me?”

“Jesus. This is your wife.”

“And look how she’s treating me,” he said. “Look, you do what you want, but my advice is leave her where she is. If it’s where she wants to be, she’ll stay. Otherwise, she’ll leave. It’s not my business either way, and it sure as hell isn’t yours.”

Leaving held a definite appeal, and his father’s permission to do just that made Tim feel lighter, more mobile. He almost did it. He started gathering his things and folding his clothes into his suitcase, then stopped himself.

The music he’d heard last night had unnerved him. If he was being honest, it had scared him in a way that he could no more explain than he could its source. Not for a second did he believe that the moon was humming tunes for the benefit of the world’s most creative souls, or whatever nonsense Owen had come up with, but he didn’t have an explanation of his own, either. He didn’t think he needed one. Some of life’s mysteries might be worth exploring, but this wasn’t one of them. It had his mother mesmerized, though. It didn’t occur to her to be scared, which meant that it fell to Tim to be scared on her behalf.

Owen worried him too. Fewer than twenty-four hours had passed since they’d met, and even that had been too long for the artist to keep a lid on the fact that he was possessive, jealous, and delusional. Tim didn’t know what someone like that might be capable of. There were no other houses out here, no neighbors. If something were to happen—Tim wasn’t ready to guess at what—who could his mother turn to for help? How many people even knew she was here?

It was simple. He couldn’t leave until she agreed to come with him.

Claire spent the day in her studio. Through the door he could hear occasional sounds of movement. The first couple of times he knocked, she called out terse instructions to leave her alone while she worked. After that, she stopped responding at all.

He took some time to explore the house. It was narrow and tall, with multiple staircases that wound up and down its interior. Nearly every room had its own deck or balcony. Most had at least one of Owen’s paintings on display. He found several bedrooms, a game room, and a room with no furniture at all, just stacks of audiocassettes piled up against the walls and no means of playing them that Tim could see. He never found a TV, but he didn’t open the doors to either the master bedroom or what he guessed to be Owen’s painting studio. He crossed paths with his host a few times. Owen never said anything, just got up and walked out of any room that Tim entered. Each time, he had a glass of something brown with ice that he carried with him. He kept it full throughout the day, and by the time they gathered for dinner, he was glassy eyed and swaying from the alcohol.

At the table, Claire tried repeatedly to start a conversation, but Owen ignored her, so for a while they sat in silence. She and Tim ate, but Owen didn’t touch his food. When he finally spoke, his voice came out as an animal bark. “Why don’t you tell us more about this whatever-it-is you heard last night?”

Claire answered for him, sweetly, but with a hint of a challenge in her voice. “You know what he heard.”

“Let him speak for himself.” To Tim, he said, “Was it like anything you’ve ever heard before?”

Tim was about to answer in the negative, but he stopped. It had sounded familiar, hadn’t it? His first thoughts upon waking—they’d been more like impressions, really—had been of a forest. He’d been unable to place them, but they’d had the feel of memories. His family had only ever undertaken one attempt at a camping trip that he knew of. He’d been five or six at the time. As far as he could remember, the trip had consisted almost exclusively of his parents arguing, and had ended prematurely in the middle of the night when Tim had pissed in his sleeping bag. Had there been anything else to it? Something he’d forgotten? A reason he’d not wanted to leave the tent to pee against a tree?

What had his mother said? It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.

“Maybe,” he said finally.

Owen arched an eyebrow. “Maybe. Maybe he’s heard it before. He’s not sure what he heard.”

“You’re being rude,” Claire said.

Owen shoved his plate away, untouched. “Come with me, Tim. I want to show you something.”

“We’re eating dinner,” Claire said.

“This is important. I’d appreciate his insight.”03NightArtist2

“Owen, please,” she said, but he was already on his feet, walking away.

Tim hesitated. This could be the moment. His mother’s displeasure with Owen was simmering. He might be able to get her to leave. If he miscalculated, though, she would only remember that he was the reason her boyfriend was throwing such a snit, and then redirect some or all of that displeasure onto him. He pushed back his chair and stood.

Owen led them downstairs to the closed door of Claire’s studio.

“I told you that your mom’s been doing some amazing work,” he said.

Important work, is what you said.”

“That’s right. Important.” Owen levelled a finger at him. “And it is. I’d love for you to see it. I’d love to hear what you think.”

Tim’s mother started to speak. “Don’t—”

He did.

The door swung inward, revealing the room. A table stood against the far wall, its surface cluttered with half-crushed paint tubes and brushes soaking in jars of murky water. An easel held an unfinished painting. Other paintings in various states of completion were propped against walls and in corners. In all cases, the subject matter was the same. Claire had given up on her still lifes, landscapes, and figure studies, and had stolen her boyfriend’s muse. She was painting the moon, over and over again.

She didn’t have Owen’s talent, though. Her work was amateurish—flat objects on flat backgrounds, shading that didn’t make a lick of sense, everything just a little bit lopsided. Her work differed from Owen’s in one other respect. For some reason, she’d opted to paint her night skies with the darks and lights inverted, like a photographic negative—a navy circle against a periwinkle sky, plum purple against muted pink, black against white. The moons were all full, Tim noticed. Time didn’t pass in her paintings. The moon had no phases.

He followed Owen into the room.

“Do you hear it?” Owen said.

He did. The music, the meandering, high-pitched melody from last night, came at him from all directions, fainter now that before, but everywhere. It was the paintings. As it had come from the moon, now it came from the paintings.

Owen saw something in Tim’s face. “You do, don’t you?”

Claire hovered in the doorway, nibbling on her knuckle.

“You do!” Owen said. His eyes flashed. “Tell me, then. Your mom goes on and on about how smart you are, how insightful, how sensitive. So tell me, how is this happening? I’ve been hearing the moon’s music my entire life. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been hearing it, trying to understand. I’ve devoted my life to it. My art? My career? That’s all it is. Just me, groping for answers. What does the music mean? Why do I hear it? What am I supposed to do? Decades. Sixty goddamned years. Then your mother comes along and does this.” He spread his arms wide, putting the whole incomprehensible scene on display. “What is this? What has she done that I never have? What does it mean?”

Tim cast about, looking from one painting to the next, but never for too long. Facing them directly sent pain spiking through his skull. Dark, sloppy circles stared at him like hollow eye sockets. A cold mass formed in his stomach.

“They’re not moons.” The timid voice didn’t sound like his own. “They’re holes.”

“No, Tim,” his mother said.

Owen snorted. He screwed up his face to say something derisive, then softened it again. “Holes,” he echoed.

Owen snatched the painting off the easel and regarded it. With his free hand, he swept the assorted jars, brushes, and paints off the table, sending them crashing to the floor. Glass shattered, and water splashed out in a violent V. Tim’s mother let out a yelp. She crossed the room to him, but Owen shoved her off with a twist of his shoulders. She stumbled backwards. Dimly, Tim knew that he should be doing something, that this was his time to intercede, but the melody twirled and spiraled, and he couldn’t follow it.

Owen set the canvas on the table. He grabbed another and laid it on top of the first. He took a lap around the room, picking up each painting, finished and unfinished alike, and bringing them to the table, where he stacked them into a squat tower, a dozen canvases tall. For several seconds, he gazed down at what he’d done. His beard twitched. No one spoke. He reached out one hand and held it above the pile, as though gauging the heat of a skillet on a stove. Then he brought it down. Reality squirmed away. When his hand should have landed flat on the top painting, it passed right through. His arm vanished up to the elbow. So assembled, the two-dimensional images had taken on a third dimension, like a gag in a Roadrunner cartoon.

“It’s a tunnel,” he said, his voice was breathy with wonder.

Claire started to say something. Owen cut her off with a scream. His face turned pale and the chords in his neck went taught. He snatched his hand back. Not much remained. His middle and ring fingers were gone entirely, severed at the knuckles. Strips of skin and stringy red tissue held his pinky together. Blood came in two distinct squirts. His voice weakened, and he collapsed. Claire rushed to catch him, and Tim stepped forward to catch her. They were no match for Owen’s weight, though, and all three of them went down together.

Tim heard Owen moaning incomprehensibly, heard his mother shouting something about an ambulance, but all of his attention was focused on the stack of paintings on the table, and on the music’s crescendo. From the ground, he couldn’t see the top of the pile, but he could see the thing that emerged from it. First there was a head, the shape and size of a garden shovel. Branches of purple-black veins ran beneath its scarlet skin. Its mouth was wide, smeared with blood, and crowded with teeth like shards of shattered black glass. Where there should have been eyes and nostrils, there was only smooth skin. The neck came next, three feet long and serpentine, then a lizard-like body. A dark growth sat on the creature’s back. Its tale was thick and muscular, and tipped with a hook the size of a thumb. Yellow fluid dripped from the point.

It crawled headfirst down the stack of paintings, inched to the table’s edge, and dropped to the floor with a meaty thud. Tim scooted back. Before he could muster a warning, another one appeared, identical to the first. It flopped to the ground. A third followed right behind it, landing on its companion and rolling off.

“Mom—”

She looked up, saw what he saw, and let out a whimper. Owen’s face was as gray as cigarette ash, his eyes half-closed. He didn’t see the three creatures. They lunged for his splayed legs, mouths gaping, and sank their teeth in. Blood geysered. Thrashing and bucking, he threw back his head and howled.

More came, clambering out of the paintings two and three at a time. They tumbled down, landing on their sides and their backs, and twisting to right themselves. They swiveled their eyeless faces, and then started toward the three people on the far side of the room. They moved fast, crossing the floor in seconds. As they moved, they sang.

It was the growths, the strange protuberances on their backs. They looked to have erupted from within the creatures. The skin around them was split and shredded. They looked inorganic, even metallic, like coarse iron. Tiny holes of varying sizes perforated the growths. As the creatures crawled, they forced air through the holes, creating the sound. There were a dozen of them in the room now, and more coming. The music spilled over itself, swelling.

Tim pushed himself to his feet and backed away. They covered Owen, tearing at him, effortlessly rending clothing and skin. Tim’s mother looked up at him, eyes wide with disbelief. He knew what she saw in his face, and he couldn’t believe it either. Owen’s massive torso lay across her legs. Those things surrounded her and were drawing closer. He couldn’t get to her, not without coming in reach of their teeth and lashing tails. She already knew it. He was going to leave her there.

He broke for the door. At the first sound of her cries, he tried to slam it shut behind him. One of the creatures launched itself at him and landed between the door and the frame. The force crushed it in a burst of black fluid. Another one appeared in the gap, clambering over the remains of the first. Tim turned and ran. He took the stairs at the end of the hall two at a time. Behind him, the door banged open. Music flooded the house. The floor vibrated. A hundred melodies came together to form a single overbearing, harmonic drone. Faintly, beneath it, like percussion, he could hear their feet patting along the floor, catching up with him.

Turning at the top of the stairs, he caught a glimpse of a wave surging up the staircase behind him. One of them scurried along the wall, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind it. Strands of hair dangled from its mouth. His mother’s. Darkness pressed at the corners of his vision. He willed it back, kept running.

Outside, the air was hot and dry. This time, he managed to the get the door closed after he’d passed through it. Something banged against the other side an instant later. It began to scratch and gnaw. Already, he could feel the wood giving way. He bolted past his mother’s and Owen’s cars to his own.

Digging into his pocket, he experienced a moment of despair—had he left his keys inside with his luggage, wallet, cell phone, and everything else?—that evaporated when his fingers touched metal. He climbed inside and started the engine. His headlights offered him a last glimpse of the house. A lizard-thing clung to the inside of a window. Others crawled along the walls and ceiling behind it. He watched as one knocked one of Owen’s painting first crooked, then to the ground. At that moment, the door gave way, and they poured out into the driveway. Tim reversed and sped away.

The road twisted and curved. His headlights shined on a cloud of dust that hovered a foot off the ground. He gripped the wheel with both hands. The hills were featureless shadows that loomed over him like a tribunal of giants. Framed above them, the moon looked deflated, flat, a collapsed Mylar balloon pasted against a paper sky. He didn’t need to roll down a window to know it was silent now. Its tunnel was built, its contents disgorged. It didn’t matter that he could drive for an hour and find a gas station, that he could drive for two and reach a town. The music belonged to the hills now, and they went on forever.

 


Brady Golden lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two daughters, and an indeterminate number of cats. His short fiction has appeared in Mythic Delirium, DarkFuse 2, and on the podcast Pseudopod.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.





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