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The Changing Painting

It’s been three months since that dreadful night and this is the first time I’m telling the full story to anyone. You might think I’m crazy or just a bad person. Either way – your opinion is entirely up to you.

I was reluctantly getting ready to go out, telling myself there was at least a dozen things I’d rather be doing. In all fairness that was a lie. I would rather have been doing what I had been doing for the past few weeks of my life – drinking and crying on the sofa.
– It’s ok to be sad for a while – Joanne’s words echoed through my head – but you need to get back to your life.
In that tone, I promised her I would come to the opening of the exhibition. It was a big deal in Joanne’s world, an event to connect young emerging artists with big shots in the art world. To be honest with you, I don’t fully understand the world of art, nor the art itself for that matter. I find most of it to be completely unnecessary and sometimes, even – disturbing. But, the event was important to Joanne, which meant I needed to find the strength to be there. With every stroke of a lipstick my confidence was growing. My eyes were puffy and I looked tired, but my face was still beautifully hugged by my long black hair. My green eyes were sparkling like two smaragds on a bright surface. Only a man with no taste could choose some wench over me. I smiled to the reflection in the mirror.
– We’ll be fine without men – I was recalling Joanne’s words once again. Was that true? Joanne had her art and her gallery; art was her passion and the gallery was her life. And me? I had a high paying job in one of the top tech companies. It’s not a job you grow up dreaming of having, but it pays for most of the things you dream of. I’ve spent my entire career navigating the land of men. I’ve learned to downplay my wit and my brains; I had to be good, but not too good. Men like to feel flattered, but not threatened. I felt I’d mastered the art of deception. Maybe that’s why Noah hurt me so much. It was as if he defeated me on a territory I considered my own.
– You couldn’t have known he was a psychopath – Joanne was sharing some comforting words. – Even professionals have a hard time figuring out psychopaths. Let it be.
I threw one final look at the mirror and I figured I would do just that. For one night I would let Noah out of my mind.

By the time I arrived at the gallery, Joanne was already surrounded by a few guests. You wouldn’t call Joanne a woman of exquisite beauty, but she has charisma that draws people in. People genuinely like her and she genuinely cares about people. I took a glass of welcoming prosecco and gulped it down instantly. No matter how ashamed I am to admit it now, the truth is I was drinking too much those days.

Having assessed the situation, I figured it would be a while before I get a chance to talk to Joanne. My remaining option was to make a lap on my own. Most of the paintings looked the same to me; line over line, curves, some neon coloring. Until one completely caught my attention. It was a vivid representation of an amusement park, portraying a big ferris wheel, two roller coasters in the background, kids running around, smiling, having fun. But the most incredible part was that each detail was carried out to such perfection, that it felt like I could just step in the frame and be there, in the moment.
– Nice painting, isn’t it? – I heard a man’s voice beside me.
– It’s astonishing – I remarked, without turning to look to whom the voice belonged. – So perfectly drawn.
– I knew you would like it, miss Sanders.
This time I turned. The owner of the voice was a short, dark man. He was wearing a goatee, which emphasized sharp edges of his face. His eyes were dark. I couldn’t see a distinction between his pupils and his iris; it seemed like they were both blended into one black circle. I politely asked him if we had met before, pretty sure we hadn’t. He ignored my question. Instead, he pointed me back to the painting. When I turned back to the painting, it was showing a completely different image. This time, the image was black and white, with a raging bull in the foreground, propelled into the air on its two back legs. The amount of details was the same as in the first picture, with every curve of the bull’s body perfectly accentuated.
– Wow – I exclaimed. – How did you do that?
I was puzzled. I assumed this was just a display with some sort of a slideshow, but the image looked like oil on canvas to me. Heck, I could even smell the dried oil.
– I didn’t – the man replied – You did, ms. Sanders.
At that point I was getting slightly annoyed. I assumed this was Joanne’s attempt to cheer me up, but I could image it wasn’t going as she expected. Nonetheless, I took the bait.
– And how did I do that, mr. …? – I paused, hoping he would give me his name.
It was as if I struck the cord he was hoping for.
– It expresses your emotional state, ms. Sanders. You are a raging bull, aggravated, mad at the world, feeling betrayed. You consider a world your personal amusement park. You think people were placed in your life to provide an enjoyable, fun and a thrilling ride. Once they stop doing so, you discard them, like a kid who’s grown tired of riding roller coasters and wants to go home.
– You have no idea how wrong you are about that – I said, not knowing why I had said it. I guess the not-annoyed part of me must have been slightly amused by the conversation.
– You must be referring to your former lover Noah?
This is where I was starting to get seriously annoyed. It was unlike of Joanne to be mentioning Noah to other people, but I couldn’t figure out how else my companion would have known about that.
– The one you wished dead?
I froze. My eyes were glued to the painting again. This time, it was showing a car rushing off from a cliff, straight into the stormy ocean beneath it. The memory of one night creeped into my head. It had been a few weeks ago; I was out with the girls, had a few glasses of wine and was heavily babbling. I said how I wish Noah would get what he deserved, like be involved in an accident or something. If only he would drive his car off a cliff.
How foolish of me to say those things in the presence of my phone. Corporate espionage is a thing and big companies are listening on each other. Now this man was going to try to blackmail me for whatever access to my company’s data he thinks he can get. I paused my thoughts as I nearly burst out laughing. What this man obviously failed to comprehend was how little did I care about all of that. Loathing my job, I would be willing to quit in a heartbeat, not looking back. No blackmail, no access.
– I assure you, ms. Sanders, I am not after your company’s secrets – the man spoke as if he was reading my thoughts.

I had enough. I rushed away from that spot, desperate to find Joanne. When I spotted her in the middle of the gallery, she was still talking to the same group of people I saw her talking to when I first came in. I didn’t care. I walked straight in there and pulled her to the side.
– What the hell? – she was protesting.
– Who is that guy? How does he change paintings? And how does he know about Noah? – I pointed towards the ever-changing painting. This time it was showing two black curved lines, painted over a blue background with green patches. The man was gone.
– Honey, I am seriously worried about you. You need to stop drinking. It’s messing with your mind.
Joanne’s worried look was sobering. I paused. I wanted to apologize, to say how sorry I am for dragging her away from her colleagues like that, to say how sorry I am to make her listen about Noah over and over again, to say I would support her art more.

I didn’t get a chance to say any of those things. We were being approached by a man, who was clearly rushing to get to Joanne. Unlike the mystery man, I immediately recognized this one. He owned a small gallery downtown and was one of Joanne’s long-term associates. The way was he was speaking was so flustered, he was uttering words in no meaningful sequence that it took us a few moments to decipher what he was actually saying. His wife was involved in an accident on a Ropery bridge. The bridge collapsed, sending dozens of cars and hundreds of pedestrians to the cold river beneath it.

74 people died that night, over 200 more were injured. When they pulled Noah out of the water, he was still showing signs of life. He died on his way to the hospital. Investigation into the cause of the collapse is still ongoing. They suspect that the earthquake a couple of months ago damaged one of the supporting pillars. There was a nasty accident just at the exit from the bridge, creating a congestion in the traffic on the bridge itself. Not allowed a free flow of traffic, bridge was under more load than usual. With one of the pillars damaged, it couldn’t take the load and it just collapsed.

After that night, I returned to the gallery six times. The painting remained the same as the one I saw last – few curved lines on a blue and green background. It represents wind energy, renewable energy or something like that, some stuff that young hippy artists are into these days. The artist herself is a Dutch woman Joanne met during one of her travels. I even asked Joanne to talk to her. Joanne agreed, but made me promise I would quit drinking in return.

Mystery man was never to be seen again, but the biggest mystery still remains unanswered – what was my involvement in the accident?

Published in ostalo short story


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