Things That Are Not ...

A THIRD SEASON ROUND ROBIN STORY


Chapter 4

by Kuli und Heft

 

The nap and Peter’s little blue pill, whatever it was, had done wonders, like she’d spent the day in the gym instead of pushing papers and sleeping. Whatever this bug was, it wasn’t going down without a fight. It was a good thing she had backup.

No sooner had the thought finished forming than she found Vincent looking at her, his head cocked to one side. “You’re tired,” he told her. “You should eat. Rest here while I heat the soup.”

He stood and retrieved the afghan that usually lived bunched up and shoved half under the back cushions. Before she could situate her tea well enough to reach for the blanket, he had expertly folded it and knelt down to wrap it snug around her shoulders. She leaned in against him with a grateful sigh, and he wrapped his arms around her, too. Muscles that she hadn’t even known were tight began to relax against his radiant warmth.

“Who knew? Suddenly, being sick doesn’t seem so bad.”

He only held her a moment longer before heading back to the kitchen. He had been like that more and more lately, caring so achingly much in so many ways, and yet maintaining certain distances. She had thought they were past all this backwards and forwards, but there seemed to be something eating at him, slowly, day by day. Giving him time and space to come at whatever it was at his own pace hadn’t yielded any apparent results, and it was frustrating as hell; but if there was anything she had learned over three years, it was that words could never be pulled out of him until he felt they were ready to be spoken.

She watched his back as he took the soup out of the refrigerator, rummaged for a correctly sized pot to put on the stove. It was always endearing, watching him operate the microwave with squinty-eyed precision, with deep respect for the owner’s manual and the general ritual of preparing food, but he favored more traditional methods overall; and anyway, she swore the food always tasted better for the effort, carefully stirred and evenly heated through.

Her gaze drifted over to the two portraits, and the more immediate mystery caught her innate curiosity anew. “So tell me more about this Gentian character.” She let the bits and pieces she did have swirl in her mind for a moment. “And where’s this picture he did of you and Catherine?”

“The painting is Below, where it is safest.” He considered the newest portrait, bowls and spoons in hand. “Where this one will have to go, as well.”

“Now that’s not fair,” but her protest had no fire in it, only disappointment. His proclamation was hardly a surprise, after all. Even if most of the world Above would dismiss the painting as pure fantasy, he would safeguard it Below. With his life utterly dependent on secrecy, she could hardly grudge him the paranoia. “Well, take the other one with it, then.”

He looked up at her, clearly surprised. “You do not wish to keep it? It’s a very flattering likeness.”

“Yeah, well, you like it so much, it’s yours.” She tried not to be hurt or angry at how uncomfortable the offer clearly made him. Instead, she went on as airily as she could manage. “A little white paint, I bet Elizabeth could use the canvas. Or some of the kids. Or something.” She rubbed her temples, worried that her temper would conspire with the virus to bring on a migraine.

“We survive by reusing many things Below, but art cannot be so repurposed. The loss would be greater than the gain.”

Well, good for friggin’ art is what she didn’t say. “So what was Catherine’s take on her dead artist friend?”

He turned back to the stove. “Catherine was certain he had faked his own death to gain notoriety.”

“But you don’t think so.”

Stirring the soup, he considered. “There was something entirely singular about him. Something…lingering. He was visible, vibrant, even; as full of movement and energy as flame, and exactly as substantial to the touch. Empathically speaking.”

“So how does this all work, then, with ghosts? If his art’s been seen and sold and he’s done his portrait of you and Catherine, why’s he still hanging around? How is it possible that he’s still hanging around?”

“I don’t know.”

Of course. Weird, with a capital W, followed Vincent around like the proverbial puppy; and as much as he could sense it, experience it, describe it, he had no more real knowledge of how or why than she did. She was sure Jacob would be much the same as his world expanded beyond the safest, nearest tunnels.

“But I suspect that Kristopher Gentian, perhaps of all spirits, is not restless in the way we read about in stories. I have thought before that somehow, the afterlife suits him. The way that Catherine described him, he seemed to have little care for what life…or death…were meant to be. There was only his art. Perhaps, as long as it lives, then in some way, so does he.”

“That still doesn’t explain why he’s leaving portraits of you and me around my building.” She sipped her tea, surprised to find it had cooled to only vaguely warm. “Well, you’re the one with the classical education. Tell me what the paintings mean.”

Vincent pulled the pot off the stove and ladled two bowls full before upending it to give her the lion’s share of the broth. “I’m no artist…”

“Don’t give me that. You have an opinion. I can tell you do.”

He eyed her as he crossed back to the couch, and she realized there was laughter in his expression. With her tea exchanged for soup and himself comfortable once more on the couch, he continued. “I’m no artist.” He paused there, as though challenging her to interrupt again, but she only pulled a face at him. “But art, literature, music all fulfill the same human needs. They all speak to each other. So what I can offer is some possible interpretations.”

Her first spoonful of broth was a wonderful shock of rich spiciness. Even as it warmed her, she realized she was hungry for the first time that day. That alone proved what she had always suspected: there really was magic in the world Below. Intent on her meal, she spared no more than a quick wave of her spoon to bid Vincent to continue.

“There’s a lightness to these portraits that I don’t recall in what I’ve seen of his other works. The frivolity is apparent, but I think he must have found a certain humor in depicting us each in such…uncharacteristic poses.”

“You think that’s why he did it? For a laugh?” She would never, ever, ever admit it, but she found that possibility deeply disappointing.

“I think there is a point he believes he’s making, but I imagine a certain relish in the knowledge that we would each find our own likeness uncomfortable.”

Diana considered. “Maybe he’s telling you that a little frivolity wouldn’t kill you.”

But Vincent didn’t rise to her bait. “The color is also important; you see that the same shade of green is used in both portraits, in relation to both subjects. He’s using the color to draw some kind of connection or parallel between the two.” He thought a moment. “Green is usually a symbol of nature or fertility.”

“Not greed or envy?” She didn’t want to see either in the portraits, but it was best to cover all the bases.

Green with envy is a colloquial phrase that has little influence in the arts. Besides, there’s no sign of irony in his use.”

Diana wasn’t sure how a color could be ironic, so she decided to trust him on that one. “OK. So green is nature or fertility. That makes sense.” She pointedly skipped right on past the most obvious remarks. “How about the chalice?”

“In many contexts, and chalice is only a chalice, a symbol of drinking and high spirits, good fortune. In Christian contexts it’s the vessel that holds Christ’s blood at the last supper. In more pagan settings, it represents the female…femininity.”

“The uterus,” Diana supplied bluntly. This was starting to get interesting.

“The womb,” Vincent corrected.

“So Gentian’s got us in matching outfits, green for fertility or nature, and you holding a symbol of either a womb or Holy Communion. You can guess which one I’d place my money on.”

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” he answered.

She smirked. “How do you explain all the chest hair, then?”

“It does seem a bit…excessive.”

“No, I think he got it about right.”

And just like that, the conversation was over. They kept talking as they ate their soup, and Vincent gave no outward signs of being uncomfortable, but the shutters had been closed, the emotional distance reestablished, so it was nothing more than an exchange of words. Diana filed away the timing of his shutdown to mull over later. Like when her empty bowl wasn’t beginning to feel heavy in her hands, or when her bed didn’t suddenly seem miles away.

Vincent took her bowl away and returned with pills and a glass of water. Then he helped her to bed and got her all tucked in. She was already drifting off when he closed the door behind him.

*                      *                      *

There was something she was looking for. It was urgent, and it wasn’t any place that she had looked yet; but she couldn’t remember what it was. Every time she tried to think, it eluded her, and she came to the conclusion that remembering wasn’t the important part. Finding it was.

She was down in the precinct office. It was busy; no one seemed to notice her frustration. And anyway, the place was just all wrong, so she went in to her captain’s office to tell him she had a lead to follow, but he was on the phone; and before she could get his attention, she was down in the tunnels. That was better. It wasn’t right, exactly, but it was definitely better. Except now she was lost. She didn’t know her way, not down so low. There were no more electrical lines at all, just guttering torches and rocky, uneven passageways closing in on all sides, but she was getting closer.

She saw a lighted doorway up ahead, so she went to it and was relieved to have found Father’s chamber at last. Devin looked up at her from Father’s desk, pulled Father’s glasses from his nose. Was it important that he was wearing an old Mets cap? She felt like it was, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. She tried to tell him that she was searching for something, that he had to help her, because she was suddenly absolutely certain that he’d be able to help, that finding him was a stroke of luck, but he didn’t appear to notice that she was speaking.

“Jacob won’t sleep,” Devin said. “I’m going to take him Above. Has he been to Venice before?”

Venice sounded at once glorious and terrifying, but Devin waved away her protests with a disarming grin. “It’s all right. I’m an artist.”

And then he wasn’t Devin anymore, and it wasn’t really Father’s chamber, and for a moment, all Diana knew was darkness and a sense that something was wrong.

With a jolt, she woke up, disoriented in her own bed, her hair and her pajamas damp with sweat, but feeling stronger for all that, like the fever was not just lowered, but actually gone from her body. Then she realized what had woken her: she heard growling in the next room…Vincent.

 

contact the author: kuliundheft@gmail.com

 

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