Jackson sighed as soon as he entered the space. Nicole had left the work space in complete disarray. Her paints were open on the floor, a thin film at the surface indicating they’d been forgotten for some time. Her hoodie was draped on a ladder rung and the high powered light was still on, though it had been daylight for a good four or so hours. Jackson flicked the switch to the light, muttering a few unsavory words. They were all paying for that electricity. She could be a little more considerate. She probably got distracted and went out drinking. The deadline was arriving swiftly, and if she wanted her name on this piece, she’d need to pull her weight.
Replacing the lids to her paint and washing her brushes, Jackson decided something needed to be said. It wasn’t the first time Nicole had neglected to be a conscientious partner in this project. He’d shown up to a mess. Nicole had one of those stereotypical artist personalities, which Jackson suspected she wore as an excuse when laziness suited her mood. The world let her get away with it, too, because she was gorgeous. One of those haunting, timeless beauties that your instincts tell you to draw near. And she wasn’t a bad person; not at all. She was fun, and spontaneous, and free-spirited. And messy. Jackson smiled despite his annoyance, and setting her brushes on a towel to dry, he got to work.
The project was a cross-medium collaboration between seven art majors. The mural was only a piece of the final project, and would be the centerpiece of the show. Nicole took the midnight to 8am shift, painting. 8am to 4pm was Jackson’s time with the mural. Jackson worked texture onto the canvas, using found art. Aiden came in from 4pm to midnight. Isabel, Chad, Greg and Brad, saw to the filming. Cameras were trained on the piece 24/7, and the footage of the mural’s progress would be projected across the walls, ceilings and floors for total immersion. He’d seen a few of the segments already and it was going to be powerful. Jackson barely stopped to eat or take pit stops. Today was a good one, and Aiden’s arrival caught him by surprise.
“Is it four already?” he asked, tidying up the shreds of newspaper he hadn’t yet used.
“Dude, it’s almost five,” laughed Aiden. “Looks good,” he added, dropping his backpack.
“Hey, did you see Nicole on campus?” asked Jackson. “She left a mess again. And the light on.”
Aiden shook his head, his eyes already drifting over the mural with designs in mind. Aiden’s detail work was unmatched. Jackson suspected it would be Aiden’s contributions, in the end, that would catch and hold peoples’ attention.
“No,” he said, already pulling a thin paintbrush from his back pocket, “but Chad’s on his way in to start in on last night’s footage.”
“Yeah, I’m a little curious to see when she cut out,” said Jackson, going to the sink with his trays. “We need to talk to her about the electricity,” he added, but Aiden was already gone from their conversation, his tiny paintbrush flicking away in careful swirls. Jackson finished cleaning up and followed Chad when he arrived to the small side room they’d filled with screens.
“Well, let’s see what she was up to,” Chad said when Jackson voiced his complaints. “She doesn’t usually mess around as much as you’d think,” Chad added as he called up the footage of Nicole arriving at eleven-thirty. Aiden was nowhere in sight, so she opened up her paints and got to work. Chad set the footage to fast-forward and dug into his kung pao chicken. “It’s fun watching her work,” he added through a mouthful.
Jackson had to agree. Nicole was graceful and passionate. Her painting style was broad and bright. It looked like she was having a conversation.
“Does she talk to herself?” he asked.
“She has been, yeah,” nodded Chad. “For the last week or so.”
“Can we hear her?” asked Jackson.
Chad slowed the footage and turned up the volume.
“When are you going to show yourself?” Nicole asked, pausing and looking around.
The high-powered light made it so that the rest of the large space was utterly black. During the day the place was overrun with light from the high windows overhead, but it occurred to Jackson that this place must be pretty creepy at night. Why hadn’t anybody insisted she take his morning shift? Nicole hadn’t wanted it, claiming she was a night owl, but nobody had given a lot of thought to her safety, being in this big old building by herself all night.
“Has she ever had anyone else with her?” asked Jackson.
“Nope,” said Chad, turning up the volume. “We agreed that would interfere with the project,” he reminded.
“I know,” said Jackson, leaning closer to the screen, “but she’s talking to somebody.”
“The doors lock automatically,” said Chad. It didn’t need saying. Jackson knew that. But Chad could see that Jackson was right. She was talking to somebody.
“You don’t think…” but Chad was already fast-forwarding the film, obviously having the same thought. Had something happened to Nicole?
She continued painting, and talking, but no one else showed up in the footage. And then she disappeared.
“Woah!” they shouted in unison, Chad already rewinding.
Nicole reappeared, standing before the mural, making small movements. Chad set the footage in motion again, turning the volume up more.
“Yes,” she said, and her voice was weighted with meaning. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back a little, swaying. Her hands came together near her stomach as if…
“Does it look like she’s standing in someone’s arms?” asked Jackson.
“I don’t know what it looks like,” said Chad.
Their breath caught as she faded away. Chad was on his phone in an instant, calling Isabel, then Brad, and then Greg to get one of them to fess up to helping Nicole manipulate the film. Meanwhile, Jackson backed the footage up farther.
“I do trust you,” Nicole was saying. Jackson couldn’t hear anybody respond. “I’d trust you more if you let me see you,” she added with a teasing smile, turning toward the darkness. She laughed, as if someone had told a flattering joke. She added more paint to the mural. “Well, what do you look like?” she said. “I’m imagining wings, or a tail. Ooh, or both!” She turned another dazzling smile at the darkness.
Jackson saw it then. A shadow drifting across the floor briefly. Nicole cast a shadow from the high-powered light, and now a second one joined her. It moved across the floor as if someone was walking up behind her. Jackson’s nails bit into the wood of the table. He wanted to shout a warning. She turned, and judging from her expression, she could see whoever, or whatever, was casting the second shadow.
“Hi,” she said with a another dazzling grin. She closed her eyes, and it looked like she was kissing the air for a moment. She turned then, toward the mural and into the position that Jackson knew would be her last. “I think it is,” she said. It sounded like she was talking about the mural. Her hands came up to her stomach, and Jackson had the impression of someone putting their arms around her, her hands coming to rest on top of his.
“What about my life here?” she asked.
Jackson held his breath. He realized Chad was watching, too, and Greg and Aiden, from the doorway.
“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. “Will it hurt?” She seemed to listen for a long while. Finally, with the weight of a life-changing decision, she said, “yes.” And faded from this world.
“Look!” cried Jackson, pointing to the screen.
Two shadows moved across the floor, blending into the darkness beyond. They were holding hands.
You can find this short story in THE PARALLEL ABDUCTION:
Written by W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome! Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog at http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading