The theatre is full of people awaiting the next film screening at the film, but Dominic’s attention is captured by the girl walking down the aisle to the stage. He watches her, rumpled skirt and thick, sleeveless sweater already sticking to her in the heat. She is lugging several large blank canvases and an overstuffed messenger bag with a bottle of wine poking out of it. He sees the obstacle before she does – an unruly cable freed from the thick electrician’s tape attempting to hold it in place. But he waits, leaning against the stage, eyeing her approach to their inevitable meeting. He watches as her foot catches the cable, and – quick as a flash – he’s at her side, steadying her burden and preventing her fall.
“Careful.” He says. “The cabling is loose.”
He is already justifying this decision, excusing himself from the consequences of her gratitude. There wasn’t room for him to turn back after her grateful thank-you drink that turned into drinks. Not when he kissed her and she tasted of salt. Not in the cab with her pressed against him, nor in her studio with him pressed against her. Not after, as he drifted off in unfamiliar sheets in a stranger’s bed, silently congratulating himself for telling his wife that he’d stay in the city during the festival.
Consciousness comes to him slowly, routing him from deep comforting darkness. He is cold and bewildered, as his memory fills in his immediate surroundings. He glances around and sees the source of the coldness – an open window. A ghostly figure sits on the ledge. He watches her, falling back to sleep.
June feels his eyes sliding over her, though she doesn’t turn from the window. She knows that married men are not for the faint of heart, but she has never liked to deny herself what she wants. She waits until he falls back asleep before turning from the window. The lights from the street dance across the canvasses in her loft, rendering those pieces of her unfamiliar.
She moves silently from the window, an apparition amongst her painted figures. Her pieces are her version of tapestries, immense continuous scenes of story-telling keeping the shadows at bay. Her latest is unfinished. She glances towards the sleeping figure in the bed, wondering what role he could play in its completion.
Dominic is dreaming. It is the kind of dream where he can tell he’s asleep. The girl is in it – no longer a girl, but a cross between a fish and a bird. He is trying to determine where she belongs, but every time he releases her into the sea, she tries to fly. It is a frustrating dream with a deep current of desperation threatening to grab hold of him. Fear rises through him like steam, forcing him awake.
The early morning sun floats through the window, caressing the girl wrapped around him. In the light, she looks faint and spectral. Dominic plots his escape. He’s not sure he can extract himself without waking her. He glances around the loft, noticing the canvases for the first time.
There are four of them arranged against the walls and another perched on an easel in the centre of the room. At first, he thinks at first there is a layer of gauze covering the canvas, but on closer examination realizes it’s part of the painting, a thin layer of brushwork creating the illusion of looking through water. There is a figure shimmering in shades of green and blue. The early morning sunlight shines through the window to dance with the brush strokes, and the shimmering intensifies. Dominic blinks, sure the sun is tricking his eyes.
The painting is moving, the dancing sunlight mirrored by the shimmying figure within. Dominic wonders if he’s still dreaming as the aquamarine form pulls itself from the canvas and steps amidst the dust motes on the floor of the studio. He stares transfixed at the figure, the girl in his arms forgotten. The scene before him is not quite three dimensional. There is a hint of fullness as the figure sways back and forth, almost easing into completeness, but falling back into colours and shapes. The figure turns suddenly, fading away into light and dust, and Dominic yearns to follow.
June stirs. The night floods back into her, and she pauses when she realizes the coldness of the arms around her. The chill of the embrace fully jostles June into the world of the living. She pulls herself away, turning to examine him. His lips are blue. She stares at him, knowing what is in front of her and realizing what comes next.
June grasps for her phone, the room whirling around her, light shattering against every shiny surface. She has never called 911 – this thought bubbles up in her head. By the time the paramedics crash through her door, June is as icy as the man in her bed. There is constant motion, orders that she obeys without conscious thought.
“How long has he been like this?” “What were you doing leading up to this?” “What is his name?”
Time passes or doesn’t at all. June feels herself a stranger surrounded by the familiar artifacts of her life, looking at herself through a funhouse mirror, a jarring and unnerving reflection staring back at her.
She is surrounded by faces, the only familiar ones staring at her from her canvases. She wonders if she should call Dominic’s wife. She wonders if this is something she should have asked sooner, if the absence of her asking has marked her somehow, made her suspect. She supposes that it won’t make a difference either way.
June notices one of her canvases is askew and fights the urge to fix it. She is self-conscious, aware of every gesture and movement.
The paramedics continue their work in feverish constancy, a clinical choreography of imperfect motion. June silently surveys.
Dominic is deep under water in the dark, save for a flickering circle of aquamarine light far overhead. It doesn’t interest him. He’s chasing the painted nymph deep into the cold blue of the water. He almost has her – his hand around her ankle – when the same action is mimicked on his own. He kicks it off, intent on his prize, but the tugging is persistent. He glances back, only for a moment, but enough to break his concentration. The figure vanishes into the endless water, and Dominic panics. He glances towards the light, focused on a new quarry, and starts to kick.
In a flurry of green and blue light, Dominic kicks back to the surface, sputtering for breath. He is face to face with a stranger.
“Can you hear me? Do you know who you are? Do you know where you are?”
The light is harsh, the air dusty and bitter in his lungs. He has no idea where he is. He glances around frantically, gulping in burning air. A familiar girl in a green silk robe stands above him.
The paramedic is arranging for his transfer to the hospital, and his wife is meeting him there. She has been told little. “A close call,” is repeated often. Dominic wonders how much breathing space a near-death experience will grant him. He wonders if it’s enough for forgiveness. The girl won’t look at him, her eyes pulled to any face but his, her expression unreadable save for a hint of disappointment. He reaches out to her, demanding her attention.
Exhausted, June meets his eyes. “It might have been better for both of us, if you had let me trip.”
June has always thought love affairs should end with drowning. It seems a fitting way to represent the passion of what preceded. But how to determine who should take the plunge? She wonders again why she allowed this to happen, when the sequence of events had been so clear in her mind. She knew what would happen from the moment the cables came loose – and yet, she did not turn away, she did not refuse his offer. She looks at the not quite finished canvas and sees his face in every corner.
Written by Avalon Bourne
Edited by Alessia Yaworsky
Looking for more? Read other varietal stories: