Prologue: Midnight Special I
Prologue: Midnight Special I
Ever since she was a little girl, the painter had a recurring dream, at seemingly no premeditated intervals. In her youth, for the longest time, she was unable to determine when she had had the dream for the first time. It would be much later, after she came of age, that she realised the dream’s first, and quite theatrical occurrence coincided with her mother’s death, or rather with the night before her then-thirty four year old mother passed away.
Another curious characteristic of the dream is that she was not all too convinced that it was only that; or a dream at all. While she routinely woke from it covered in her own sweat, with trembling hands and a palpitating heart, which was enough to categorize the episode as a nightmare, it was not so much of a dream as much as it was a repeating concept which evolved and devolved, climaxed and plummeted, each time it appeared. It was like an ever-changing theatrical setting, a narrative with the same performers and story but varying stage instalments.
The notion of it was simple — it always, unmistakably, involved the painter getting lost somewhere. But, it wasn’t that she had lost her direction, or that she found herself in an unknown area. She had not been carelessly wandering and then suddenly realised she had no idea where she had wound up. The concept was somewhat more complex than that, namely, she would get lost in the places she usually knew like the back of her hand, for the one reason that, in her varyingly long absence, the arrangement of the said place would have been turned upside down. Whether it was the village in which she was born and raised, or the intricate web of streets of the city neighbourhood in which she lived today, the houses, buildings, streets, mounds and pathways would rearrange themselves, change name or direction in such a way that once she, in her dream, would start to return whence she thought she had come, she would find herself in a horrifyingly new and alien environment, one that would make her heart pound and her ears ring as panic would set in. She would not be able to recognise a thing.
And no matter how much she would try to figure the puzzle out, to find her way out of the novel labyrinth and make it back to wherever she called home, she would be unable to do so and would spend an undetermined amount of time agonising over her situation, all until something would disturb her in her sleep and she would wake up distraught and confused about her surroundings and yet overwhelmed with a new sense of appreciation for her present address.
Another interesting part of the dream was an addition which first appeared a mere three years after her mother passed. Somewhere between the climax of her early childhood and the threshold of adolescence, the addition inserted itself with graceful precision, so skillfully that the first time she was made aware of it, the painter felt like it had always been there; that it had belonged there. The addition, however, was difficult to discern, too elusive to define, impossible to remember. All she knew was that it was a black-clad figure of an unidentifiable gender. She was quite sure that in her dream she saw, understood and experienced much more than that but each time she woke up, tremoring, she would only know that she had seen the persona somewhere and sometimes in the duration of the dream and that would be as much as she would be able to process before either going back to sleep or dragging herself out of the bed, more tired than she had been when she went to sleep. When she was an adolescent still, she had attempted to sketch the addition, to breathe some idea of life to it on a piece of paper but she had never progressed much. She would give the project up countless times due to a foreboding nausea that would, without exception, build up from the pit of her stomach any time she was remotely close to giving it any sort of a face. She could give up, leaving behind nothing but frantic lines, smeared, erased, re-done. Abandoned.
For a good while, however, she was confident that the addition had disappeared. Years had come and gone, the dream recurred at its own intervals, but at one point, the shadow disappeared, taking with itself the malcontentedness with which it plagued the painter. It was gone, for such a long time and then…
Why, had it, then, returned? Why?
The dream came again about a year prior, bringing with itself the shadow. And upon seeing it, struck by the same anxiety she had always felt upon witnessing it, the painter woke with a desire to paint it. It was an impulsive decision, inspired by a sense of duty instilled into her by something far more powerful than any sense of will or reason. To no surprise, however, once she finally set herself to do it, try as she might, nothing fruitful would come out. She painted and painted, a single idea stretched on a number of canvases. She tried to place the figure from her dreams in various settings, yet no matter how many attempts she made a sense of completion remained unattainable.
She was about to give up on the idea when, miraculously, the previous night, right before her second independent exhibition - an important step in the life of a young artist - she was reminded of the shadowy figure while attempting to escape a labyrinthine set of streets in the centre of the city. This time, however, she was neither anxious nor frightened. Having seen it yet again after months of nothing, she was on the edge of irrational ecstasy, for even in her dreaming state she thought: finally. You’re mine.
With the dream less than sixteen hours old, she was in her gallery, after closing time, trying to finish one of the canvases, one that she was convinced would reach its completion at long last, now that the dream was so fresh. It went without saying that a layman’s uneducated eye would consider the painting done already; however she knew it was not. The past few months she had been tormented by its elusive realization, and she suspected that if her young assistant saw the painting, she would also understand that something was missing from it.
“Miss? We should close and go home. It’s getting late. You should get some sleep before tomorrow’s exhibition.”
Her assistant, standing right outside the room which she was not allowed to enter for the past few months, spoke slowly and carefully, but the painter could not move from her chair just yet. She remained motionless, observing her latest work. Shrouded in a grey matter, the dark figure adorned the canvas giving off a feeling that there was still something missing, a crucial piece she’d been lacking to bless the work with a sense of completion. She heaved a deep sigh. Even after seeing the shadow last night, there was nothing she could do to translate it from her mind, via her hands, into the real world. The real world of art, at the very least. To make the matter worse, she did not know what it was that the painting was so stubbornly missing. Whatever it was, it had gone unnoticed; it had not even been seen when it was there and thus faced with insouciance it decided it was best to slowly disappear.
“There’s a storm coming. You should go home before it hits town,” the assistant speaks again. Her hands fidget around the hem of her button up. The collar around her neck feels too tight, and a hand instinctively reaches for the top-most button, a finger brushes against it but then withdraws without undoing it. An overwhelming sense of curiosity speaks to her, from the back of her mind, inviting her to step into the room and see what her mentor had been working on so secretly, but before she can give into the temptation, she is startled by the painter’s hasty rise from her seat.
If there was anything the painter detested more than the dream, it was storms. She knew not the origin of this phobia, but whenever any kind of storm was approaching, she could feel a deep sense of doom crawling up her spine. Shivering, she covered the canvas with a cloth, took one more look around the room, then put on her coat and rushed for the door of the room. She signed a ‘thank you’ to her assistant and proceeded towards the stairway, without a single glance back. If she could get to her car within the next fifteen to twenty minutes, she thought, she may be able to evade being left out in the weather.
“Be safe,” the assistant watched the painter go. When she was certain that her mentor had left, the young assistant lingered in the hallway, as her eyes met the closed door of the ‘secret’ room. Secret. It was not really so. It was, technically, a workshop. She had been to the room plenty of times, but a few months back, she was unexpectedly asked to not go inside for the ‘time being’. Questions were asked but none received an answer. The assistant knew that the painter had definitely been working on something, and under the presumption she wanted to keep it a total secret before the exhibition, the assistant decided to respect the boundaries with which she had been presented.
However, tonight, she could no longer resist the little voice in her head. She looked around, making sure she truly was alone in the gallery, and then slowly crept into the room. She switched the lights on and was met with a rather bizarre site. There had to have been five canvases, each covered with dark green sheets. The assistant made her way towards one of the canvases and, biting her lip, removed the cover. Upon seeing that the work was unfinished, she moved on to uncovering the next, and then the next, confusing setting deeper and deeper with each motion.
The first canvas featured what may have been a rocky beach, with an unfinished panel of the sea in the centre. Somewhere from the sea, a shadowy human-esque figure was emerging, perhaps a swimmer making their way towards the shore. The second canvas only showed a small tree line on each side, and an empty whiteness in the centre. Somewhere behind one of the blurry trees, another figure was hiding, peeking from behind the trunk. The third canvas showed only half of a countryside house, a nearly demolished front yard fence and at the door of the house, an outline of a third figure, blurred. The fourth canvas was just rough outlines of a cityscape, without any figures.
The fifth canvas seemed to be the freshest, and the most complete. It had nothing but the figure on it. The young assistant stared at the painting, analysing this creature on it. It was unusual to see such a painting here, for her mentor was a Dadaist revivalist, and not a creator of…whatever this was. It was dark and tall. A man? A woman? Neither? It was wearing a long, black gown, of no particular model or size. The gown followed the grotesquely thin lines of the figure’s body. The face was...Unfinished. It was difficult to say that the figure even had a face. In the beginning, the assistant had not registered any facial structure whatsoever, but then, the longer she stared at it, she thought she could see the outlines of a jaw, perhaps the bridge of a nose. She dared entertain the idea that one of the eyes was faintly discernible as well, but blink and the illusion would dissipate, forcing her to refocus and search for the features once again. Though she had all the time in the world to refocus and study the canvas, the issue was that as more time passed, the more uncomfortable she became with looking at it. With...Being around it. For a moment, she thought she could see a thin line of a smirking mouth but this, too, was gone within the blink of an eye. One thing was certain, however: face or no face, smirk or no smirk, the canvas gave off an impression that it possessed something inside of it which knew it was being scrutinised. It knew it was her behind the analysis.
The assistant had had enough. Inhaling a sharp breath, she rushed out of the workshop, determined not to look back.
The world outside was as ominous as the work of art, or least it had been so as seen through the lens of the painter who, as soon as she saw thick, dark clouds gathering on the evening sky, shook violently, though not from cold, but from a more primeval emotion — fear.
She was certain that she would be able to bear having the dream for a week straight, all seven nights of it, but a thunderstorm was an event she could not handle. Especially more so when she was alone, on the streets, making her way to her car which posed no more sense of security than being out in the open did.
Nevertheless, thankful that it did not seem it would rain before she’d make it into the car, the woman marched down the street, trying to hasten her steps without breaking a chant which she could never stop herself from doing ever since she could remember. The chant was of no artistic value; it was a simple act of counting every step she took outdoors, and whispering most of the numbers (those she seemed important) under her breath just so that she would not get confused. As tedious as it sounded, there were two thousand three hundred and sixty five steps between her and her car, but she knew very well that such a distance was covered quickly when she put her mind to it.
When there were one thousand two hundred and twelve steps left to go, the woman stopped, pressing her jaws tightly together as a single lightning flashed over the sky, illuminating the road ahead of her. One of the street lights flickered, then went off for a couple of seconds, only to turn itself back on. A tremor passed through her entire body but she moved forward again and listed around thirteen more steps before ominous groans of thunder resonated from the horizon. The storm was not as close as she feared it to be, not yet at least, so she continued to move, feeling joyful when she got to an intersection a couple of streets away from the lot where she had parked her car hours ago.
Looking up, she saw a large, rectangle-shaped digital clock installed on the building of a small shopping mall, showing that midnight had struck thirty-four seconds earlier, and that the temperature outside measured barely above five degrees Celsius. The clock seemed to have stopped, however, for the digits never showed any number of seconds than thirty-four. While she was waiting, her heart jumped up to her throat when another lightning struck. This one was slower and more menacing as it slithered from behind the hills, vein-shaped, and swept across the sky, tearing it in half with its magnificent glow. The painter’s eyes were fixated on the light which brought her nothing but terror and she watched the vein unfurl, illuminate the world in a palette of orange and then shrivel, returning to whence it came.
The traffic light switched to green and, as though she were set on autopilot, the woman’s legs marched forth, hurrying to the parking lot before she was aware of the movement. An unprovoked sense of relief washed over her when she crossed the section and entered a less lit and narrower alley, between the mall and an apartment complex. This felt like a secure, final path to the parking lot. But just when she thought one thousand seventy five and I’m there the thunder struck, louder than before and she froze on her feet, much against her will. A sudden thought occurred to her.
Something was gone.
At the same moment the thunder groaned, something disappeared — it was snatched away from the world, from her, the universe itself. She likened the feeling she had to the one which overwhelmed her as she observed her latest painting and agonised over what it needed to be completed. The same thing which was gone there had now been gone out here. A pivotal piece of the puzzle, she thought, which created the world she knew was now no longer there and for a moment, despite her fear of getting stuck in the incoming storm, she forgot how to move. The whole notion of walking, one leg in front of the other, became alien to her.
The moment, however, passed. After an undetermined amount of time, she felt herself moving again, more determined than ever to get to her goal. But, as she reached the parking lot, her appeasement quickly dwindled when she realised something was wrong there as well. Nothing should have been wrong. The same cars which she had seen while leaving the lot were there, minus one which must have been off with whoever owned it. She looked around and found nothing particularly distressing and yet as she made her way through the automobile maize, a feeling in her gut threatened to make her sick. Subconsciously, she made even more haste when she thought she was close to her vehicle but once the painter stopped, thinking her car was right there, she learned that a whole other vehicle had taken its place.
To say that she knew the parking lot like the back of her hand would be an understatement and yet the car she found was not the one she needed. Assuredly, it did occur to her that someone might have stolen it in the meanwhile, but her alarm would have warned anyone close by to see what was happening, thus likely preventing the crime from happening and scaring the potential culprit away. And even if the crime was not stopped, the painter was sure word of it would have reached her before leaving the gallery. So, the car had to be there somewhere and yet…It wasn’t. She began to walk around, committing each vehicle to memory, going left and right, up and down between the rows but none of the cars was her own. Wrong colour, wrong model, wrong maker.
It was on the third try back to the spot where she came to first that she realised her heart pounded and her ears rang in the same way they always had in her dream.
No. This isn’t real.
Had she fallen asleep in the studio and was now having a reprise, less than a day later than the last time she dreamed of this?
It could not be. That simply could not be.
Frantic and hysterical, she continued her search, now running around but time stretched on, minutes passed and her chest hurt and she could still not see it. It was gone. It, and whatever piece of the puzzle, they had all gone simultaneously leaving her behind, alone in the open with an incoming storm.
Tears brimmed in her eyes. It had to be there, she thought, it could not have just vanished. But the more she searched the more alien the cars around her felt. It was like she could not ingrain any of them in her memory anymore and those that she did were now wiped out clean from her memory. When it came to the parking lot, her mind was now a tabula rasa.
During the last attempt of her search, the woman had gone to another part of the lot where she simply knew there was no way she could have left her vehicle, and yet she thought it did not hurt to try. If the place had truly rearranged itself like things and venues did in her dream, then checking every corner made as much sense as checking where she knew she had left it. But, before she was done skimming the whole area, a thunder struck again and scared her into letting out a small, short-lived scream and dropping her keys. When she reached for the keys, she choked on a sob, but quickly wiped her tears away and got up.
When she looked ahead her eyes landed on that which gave her a surreal feeling of peace. And terror, somewhere in the back of her soul.
She let out her breath, smiled, and squeezed her keys tightly. Her thumb pressed the unlock button unintentionally and a pair of lights flashed. There was a beep too. A short, familiar beep close to her heart.
“You’re here,” she whispered, eyes focused on what she was seeing. “I’ve been waiting.”