by Guy Belleranti
First published in the Winter 2004 issue of Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine. Reprinted by Golden Visions Magazine in October 2010.
Barbara Loraine’s stout figure filled the doorway of Karen’s art studio as I came up the walk. “Right on time,” she snapped.
I didn’t reply. This was the last place I wanted to be.
She moved to one side, motioning for me to enter.
I hesitated, an alarm sounding in my head. She’d phoned me two hours earlier saying she’d communicated with her missing daughter. “Be at Karen’s studio at 2:30,” she’d ordered.
“Now just a minute—” I’d begun, but she’d cut me off, saying, “Be there, Ms. Conway.” Then she’d hung up before I could say anything else.
I’d paced my kitchen for the next hour. The threatening undercurrent in Barbara Loraine’s voice, and her statement that she’d had contact with Karen, had me reeling. To the rest of the world, Karen was just missing, but to me Karen was dead. I knew she was dead because I’d killed her three days earlier.
I blinked, returning to the present. Barbara Loraine was staring at me, still holding the door wide, her lips pressed together in a tight, thin line. “I said for you to come in, Ms. Conway.”
She grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the building, her grip like steel. “This way,” she ordered.
“You say Karen called you?” I asked.
“Not called. Communicated. She wants you to look at a painting. Her last painting.” Barbara Loraine’s eyes were hard, digging into my own.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I began.
“You will.” She flicked a switch, lighting up the back of the long narrow room.
I shuffled behind her. Over the years I’d maintained an outer shell of friendliness to Karen, but privately her rising stardom in the art community had eaten at me. What made her paintings so much better than mine? Why did she get all the glory while I remained an unknown?
“Quit dawdling,” Mrs. Lorraine snapped. “Karen’s painting is waiting.”
I clenched my hands. I was sick of hearing about Karen’s paintings. Still, I better humor the woman and find out what her game was.
“I’ll be back, Crystal,” Karen had spat just before I’d shoved her bound and chained body into the desolate country lake. “I’ll be back. You can kill my body, but not my being…not my soul. I’ll live on in my paintings.”
“Go ahead,” I’d snapped, laughing in her face. “Live on in your paintings. You’ll be dead every other way.” I’d watched as she sank into the black water. Watched as the ring of bubbles rising from her mouth lessened and lessened, finally dissipating entirely.
“It’s in the back,” Mrs. Loraine said.
We moved past painting after painting, and as we did a painful gnawing began in the pit of my stomach.
“I’ll be back, Crystal. I’ll be back.”
Had Karen somehow communicated with her mother from beyond her watery grave?
I shouldn’t have come, I thought. Barbara Loraine was a big woman. Perhaps a bit overweight, but also very strong. That grip of her hand when she’d pulled me inside …
“Over this way, Ms. Conway.”
My heart pounded, but I followed her.
She paused before a cloth-draped easel, her hand shaking as she touched the cloth covering it. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Perhaps I better return another time,” I said, taking a step backward.
“No. You’ll stay and you’ll see.” She swept the covering free of the canvas.
I don’t know what I’d expected, but certainly not what I found myself looking at. The painting wasn’t stunning or extraordinary, just two women, two faces, one the face of the young, beautiful, and olive-complexioned Karen herself, and the other … I sucked in a breath. The other woman was me.
“Have you no comment?” Barbara Loraine asked. She stood right beside me now, her mouth almost pressed against my ear.
“Comment?” I asked falteringly.
“Yes. Note your expression in the painting. The curl to your lips … the cruelty in your eyes. Karen caught you as you truly are, didn’t she? All your jealousy and hatred.”
“No! It’s horrible. That’s not me at all.”
“Oh, but it is. Continue looking. Note that the paint has begun to flow. The picture is changing, moving away from the portrait of two faces, becoming something different, a larger scene. Yes, Karen communicated everything in her work. Watch …”
This is impossible, I thought. Paintings can’t change by themselves.
But the painting was changing, almost like each frame in a movie. I made out the figure of a woman dragging something in the moonlight. Me, dragging Karen’s gagged and struggling bound form across the boards of an old pier, pausing at last when I reached the end.
Can’t be, I thought. Can’t be.
The paint flowed into another scene — Karen working the gag free from her mouth, Karen saying her final words as I rolled her off the pier. And my face caught full on, a gloating face twisted with hate.
“You murdered her,” Barbara Loraine said.
“No! This is some sort of trick.”
“It’s truth, Miss Conway. Karen was a genius, and she lives on in her work, just like she said she would. She’s communicating with me, with us, exposing you for who you are and what you did.”
“Well, she won’t communicate any longer,” I yelled. I knocked the canvas from its easel and swung back my right foot to give it a kick.
But my kick never connected, for the paint had begun to flow again, and I saw myself in the rapidly changing painting, missing with my kick, then losing my balance and falling, then hitting my head against the sharp corner of a heavy table. And then I didn’t just see it – I felt it.
And as the world spun around and everything went black forever I heard Barbara Loraine’s voice one last time. “Karen has returned, Ms. Conway. Karen has returned in her art to exact her justice.”
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