Barren was the plain upon which she stood, pale-nude and swathed in the wind, raw-howling out across that rutted waste. The forms rose soundlessly from the ashen sand, porcelain masks glistening bone-white beneath the moon. Unease and silence so total that she felt the world itself had ceased it’s celestial transit. Then a cracking as the masks fell away revealing faces commonplace and banal. They screamed; oh how they screamed. Then burst into a thousand squirming things, briny-black and still shrieking. Thence came the eclipse and from that garland blackness a dripping substance, a null placenta discharging a slithering blackness, darker still; amniotic sheened and sounding like the heartbeat of some olden god of war.
The sound grew louder as the blood began to seep from the trembling, naked thing that had once thought of itself as ‘self,’ here there was no identity, no consciousness, no mind – only fear. A fear that grew larger as the mores-pitched and seething mass slunk from the gaping wound in the sky, running to fester the ground, it likewise in squalid quandary. From that mass rose the form of a man, shadow-garbed and smiling, a grin like the upturned moon, waning scythe-thin and icy-white. Extended from that fickle form was a hand, black-gloved, apple proffered, and it a gray dappled thing more akin to stone caricature than blossomed goods of gold and green.
The terror gripped her entirely now, tightly as the glistening, stony sphere in hand, a slithering sensation of absolution descending. But it was not the familiar remission, that of sin, but rather one more stark and terrifying, the utter abdication of all hope. She knew then in that moment what the stranger offered up to her; it was forbidden, sacrilege, profane to all the world beyond those two static lives. Unthinkable in the disaster inherent.
Hesitantly, the woman reached up and out, to grasp the apple; instantly it shattered in her hand, quickly turning to dust and flowing down in ashen rivulets to the similarly gray-wasted ground below. The smile widened as the shade engulfed her; then all was blood and gore and horror unimaginable. Sand now so red that no color from it would run from the moment of until the end of time.
She awoke with a start, the dream still brewing malignantly in her mind. Sweat clung to body and it shiver-wracked and warm. Throwing the blanket away, Claire Andretti rose from the mat, stretching in the pale moonlight. The thin, silver beams danced in from her window sill, dusty-gray and garland in spider’s silk. The drawings scattered about the floor reflected the dreams of days past, the contents of her lucid mind crystallized in ink and charcoal, graphite and dye. She looked to the rough-born drafts, those twisted aberrations of light and shade and smiled, a golden pride swelling in her breast as she surveyed her work.
Stepping gingerly over the drawings, Claire made for the dresser adjacent the bed and withdrew tattered jeans, underwear and a plain white short sleeved shirt. She dressed haphazardly, then snatched cigarettes and matches off the nightstand. She needed an ash tray. Having forgotten to purchase one upon moving into the cramped, stucco plastered abode she padded to the kitchen and picked up the empty tin peach can she’d eaten from the day before. Then she walked back to her bed and living room and sat cross-legged amidst those myriad creations, grotesque and inspiring. She lit a fag and closed her eyes, falling into a silent, wondering reverie. Then picked up an errant pencil and ripped out a fresh page in her sketch pad which lay at the foot of the slow deflating air mattress.
From that moment til sunrise the contents of the nights terror poured forth upon the paper, the hiss of ash on peach juice and the scratching of pens the only sound.
The roar of the crowd subsumed all other sound, even thought was lost to that schismatic bio-hum. They were at it again, the protesters, scantly assembled outside of the lecture hall, fists in the air, eyes wild, like rabid dogs. Ape-like in their dissension.
The students assembled in the stone-wrought gallery listened momentarily to the raucous din outside as one might listen to the ramblings of some senile invalid until the dean took the stage. Hands held out over the podium in entreaty like some preacher of old.
“Due to a scheduling conflict Mr. Partridge will be unable to join us today for the awards ceremony. However, we have arranged it such that he can still be with us in spirit for this momentous occasion. For today, three of you will be chosen, due your artistic excellence, for a monthly showing at the Partridge Museum of the Arts Regional Gallery. But I know you don’t really want to hear it from me – so without further adieu I give you, Mr. Lynder Partridge!”
White noise. Static fizzling of the lectern loudspeakers. Then a voice, smooth, rich, charismatic and effusive cascaded out and over that rumbling mass of flesh, hair and dreams.
“Greetings and salutations, students of VU. This is Lynder Partridge speaking. For the past four years I have been following a select few of you with intense and undivided interest, watching with unbridled joy as you honed your craft and sharpened your spirits into fearful lances, your art the arm with which you hurl it out amongst the not-quite living – to shake and stir them from their slumber with the force of your ceaselessly raging souls.”
Several brows were raised and a hushed cackling sounded through the marbled ambit of the vestibule.
“Thus it is with great pleasure that I announce those bright and distinguished few, here today in these hallowed halls, who shall present their work to the city wide: Brandon Chase, Jonas Beach and Claire Andretti. My sincerest congratulations to this most distinguished triumvirate. And to the rest of you, best of luck… for those that need it.”
Just as abruptly as it had sounded, the speakers hissed and fell silent. Then nothing but the murmur of the crowd and Claire Andretti’s soft, nearly inaudible intonation, “Holy shit…”
Brandon Chase ran up to Andretti and lifted her straight up off the ground in a mad embrace, twirling her about the air in jolly pirouettes.
“Haha! Can you believe it! Our own gallery showing!”
“Chase, put me down before I put you down.”
“Well done – Chase, Clair. You both deserved it.”
Chase turned fractionally to the speaker with Claire still in his arms, she abruptly reached up and pinched his left nipple incurring a high shriek and the young woman’s immediate freedom. The young man whom had previously spoken smiled faintly, slowly shaking his head as Chase cackled and Claire approached him with an extended hand.
“You deserve it as well, Jonas. You never have any confidence in yourself.”
Jonas opened his mouth to speak but fell silent as Chase rushed up behind Claire, pinching her love handles with a jackal-wide grin.
“You cheeky minx.”
“Would you knock it off, I’m trying to congratulate, Jonas.”
But even as she scowled at the man she couldn’t help but begin to smile, Chase was never capable of taking anything seriously. It was a charming, infectious kind of frivolity. She’d always liked that about him, how he counterbalanced her own staid personality.
“Yeah, yeah – how about we celebrate tonight? We can go to the club, what do you say?”
“I hate the club, can hardly hear myself think there.”
“Ok, ok; not the club then, we can go wherever you want, that boring old cafe you like, anywhere – this kind of news deserves a celebration!”
Again Jonas attempted to interject but was cut short by the emergence of a short, pale ginger with a disgruntled countenance.
“Who’d you have to fuck, Andretti?”
Andretti snapped to the ginger with raised brow as Chase’s smiled faded, quickly replaced by a severe, unwavering stare.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t bullshit me, Andretti, we both know you wouldn’t have even been accepted into Lynder’s gallery unless you sucked a good one.”
“What the hell is wrong with you, Cole?”
Cole Hathers’ venomous sneer shifted instantly to Chase. Hathers hateful smiled widened.
“White knighting for her as usual I see, Brandon.”
“What’s you’re problem, man?”
Claire held up her hand, taking a dismissively unconcerned posture, her fine red lips pursed and crimson-brown eyes narrowing ever so slightly down upon the wrathful young man.
“I know what his problem is.”
“Oh, and what’s that?”
“Pff, as if.”
“You’re a third-rater. Always have been. A third-rater with a inferiority complex.”
“Hey, fuck you, Claire, fuck you!”
A cruel smile cracked out over Clair’s pale, glassy face as she stepped again towards her furious detractor like a hyena encroaching upon some gutted wildebeest.
“You wouldn’t know how to satisfying a woman even if I showed you,” she turned to Jonas and Chase, her rictus expression widening, “Probably wouldn’t even know where to put it.”
Hather’s fury reached it’s apex, leading him to snarl something indiscernible before leaving off with shoulders slumped in defeat, fists balled, teeth clenched, knuckles white as snow. He departed through the lobby’s high, glass doors and vanished in the seething mass of midday traffic, students and teachers bustling to and fro with mechanical detachment.
At the same time the Dean’s voice rattled out of his whiskey-eaten throat.
“Let’s hear it for our up-and-comers; a round of applause everybody!”
A stuttering of half-hearted clapping then sounded, bitter, begrudging envy mixed with apathetic roboticism. After the clapping had ceased and the crowd returned it’s attention to the dean Chase moved to stand beside Clair, who still glared fixedly at the space where Hathers had stood, as if beholding some spectral form, some phantasmal afterimage.
“He’s just jealous, a lot of people are.”
Clair turned to him with a wicked smile.
“They should be.”