The Perfect Portrait
something’s in the house! Please help me!” she screamed into the phone, but by
the time the police arrived, the house was empty and silent. They couldn’t find
Marie. There was no blood, no broken glass or signs of struggle. In the whole
large house, not a clue was uncovered. The only thing the police found odd was
the empty painting; a blank canvas in a golden frame, and below it, wet on the
wooden floorboards, a puddle of mixed paint. As if the image had slipped off
the canvas and melted into the floor. Marie Montenue was never found.
This was how the great painter Valier Montenue came to be single again. The sensitive young artist, stung by the tragic loss of his beloved wife, painted his sorrow. He created a beautiful portrait of her that thrilled the art world and thrust him even higher into fame. The portrait was praised as “hauntingly realistic. Provoking in its subtle surrealistic qualities.” It sold for $2.5 million.
Valier was the perfect brooding artistic genius. His parents were tragically killed in a car accident when he was young, causing him and his sister Tammy to be moved to a Christian orphanage. Valier, virtually a mute after his parents’ passing, enraged the head priest for refusing to repeat the prayers or answer his questions. Valier’s silence also made him unpopular with the other orphans. It was then that Valier started to paint. “So I wouldn’t feel alone,” Valier would say later in interviews.
His talent began to really manifest itself when he started to paint people; the children of the orphanage, the nuns, and especially Tammy. He preferred to paint her more than anyone else. This made it all the more devastating for him when she suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. The head priest, eager for any reason to throw Valier out, blamed the young boy for his sister’s disappearance.
Thus Valier became homeless, forced to fend for himself in a lonely world, all at the age of thirteen. With the little money he had, Valier bought paints, a brush, and a single canvas. He then set to work on recreating his beautiful lost sister. When he was done, he’d created “a most fantastic, moving piece of photorealism…with eyes that pierce into the viewer, as if to say ‘please find me’,” as it was later described by famous art critic Avon Julibar.
Valier, while only thirteen, was no fool. He didn’t wait around wishing and hoping to be discovered. Rather, he took his painting, immediately upon completion, to the nearest well-respected art dealer. It was just before closing time at the gallery when the security man marched the young boy into art dealer Normandy Phiffle’s office. Phiffle rose from his seat, unable to see the small boy over his high desk, and studied him, intrigued. Valier stood before him slumped and glassy-eyed, with his torn shoes, disheveled hair, and tattered, paint-covered clothes.
“What do you want?” Phiffle asked him curiously. Valier’s eyes brightened. He straightened himself, whipped out the canvas he was carrying under his arm, and held up the remarkable, breath-taking portrait for Phiffle to see.
“Sell this,” young Valier said flatly; his first words in over three years. Phiffle did. Valier had been the talk of the art world ever since, building fame upon fortune and growing up to be quite the creative, romantic, and devilishly handsome young artist.
And now that he was single again, Julia was desperate to make him hers.
Julia Rox was believed to have it all. She’d been born into wealth, to a well respected family. She was clever and classy. She was described as “the epitome of grace”, and indeed was precisely that; in every movement, gesture, smile and word. Plus, she was beautiful. Even with her “tragically common brown eyes” as she called them, everything about her was perfect, from her milky skin to her golden wavy hair and the curves of her tall, thin body.
But Julia didn’t have it all. Of her many suitors, never had she found a man of such honesty, talent, and history as Valier. The painter fascinated her; she read everything about him, attended his every art exhibition, delighted in discussions about his work – all that, and of course she found him incredibly sexy.
So Julia set to work on him. She and Valier had common friends, most of whom loved to throw parties, so it was easy for the two of them to meet. Soon enough, the two of them became friends.
“I’m sure Marie’s in a beautiful place…perhaps as lovely as one of your paintings,” Julia dared to say to him late one starry night on the balcony during one of Avon Julibar’s exclusive parties.
For the first time Valier looked up into her eyes. He studied her face; her smooth cheeks and red lips. His eyes followed the waves of her golden hair down the curves of her body. “My god, you’re beautiful,” he whispered. She’d heard the compliment before, but somehow it felt realer from him.
Julia was hardly able to contain her excitement the day Valier invited her to live with him. The mansion in which Valier lived and worked was old and fantastically Victorian. It felt as though she’d been invited to live in a fairytale castle. And like a fairytale, it even had a touch of mystery; Valier had told her everything he owned was hers and she could go anywhere she wanted – except his studio. The mysterious forbidden room lay behind a brilliant, carved door just down the hall from the bedroom. Valier kept it locked at all times.
At first Julia thought Valier simply valued his privacy. Her curiosity began to grow after Valier started disappearing into his studio for long periods of time. This wouldn’t have concerned her, except he stayed shut up for days on end, and returned always wearing such a peculiar smile. He never spoke to her about his work. In fact, Valier hardly talked at all…It was funny how she hadn’t noticed this about him before. Julia came to realize his silence was hardly sensitivity or shyness. Rather, it was concealment…Valier was hiding something.
Thus Julia plunged into researching his past, keen to discover his secret. This led to all sorts of interesting little discoveries, such as that of the disappearance of Sister Catherine. The nun had disappeared from Valier’s orphanage only a month before his sister Tammy. Julia dug deeper into the mystery, but not a trace of Tammy or the nun was ever uncovered. Julia waited for the right time to tell Valier, eager to see how he would react.
At first, Valier simply looked shocked. Then, quietly, he managed two words: “the curse.” Intrigued, Julia forced him to explain. “I’m cursed,” he told her solemnly, looking out at the moon through the pale silk curtains. “Anyone who gets close to me disappears.”
“Well, I suppose I should be careful, then,” she had teased laughingly. Valier responded with a most bizarre smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe…until destiny parts us.”
It was only a week after this conversation that Julia’s nightmares began. At first, the terrors were simple and short. Little anxiety dreams of someone creeping around the house, or something crawling up the stairs, desperately looking for her. She decided it was simply her anxieties about the house. She wasn’t used to it yet, the old, imposing building, and often times at night, walking down the corridors alone, she felt she was being watched. It wouldn’t be so bad, she thought, if it weren’t for Valier leaving her alone so often for so long, to work in his studio late into the night.
But then the dreams took a surreal turn. She dreamt of slow, choking scenes of drowning in paint. Other times she dreamt of long, thin fingers slipping out from beneath Valier’s studio door looking for her, looking to steal her, looking to pull her away into an infinite white. Often she awoke in the middle of the night and the dream would linger. Some nights she swore there was something in the room…something peering out at her through the dark.
The lack of sleep was getting to her head. It seemed that more and more often her mind was playing tricks on her. She often imagined shadows on the walls following her, or heard dripping on the floorboards above her head. Not footsteps. Dripping. And Valier’s studio…there was something eerie about it. A chill ran through her whenever she passed by its intimidating carved oak door. Like there was something dark or terrible inside.
There came a night when Julia was sitting alone in bed, staring into the haunting eyes of Marie Montenue’s portrait from the art book open on her lap, when she swore she heard a woman’s voice. Julia held her breath and stayed perfectly still, listening. She had heard a voice, but it wasn’t from the book. Slowly, quietly, she tiptoed down the hall to Valier’s studio door.
“Like this, like this?” she heard Valier speak within. Something was dripping. A floorboard creaked. Then a wispy weak voice responded, “Perfect, perfect. The time is soon.”
The next morning, Julia doubted herself. Surely it was just another nightmare; still, her paranoia stayed with her, like a shadow, all day. I’ll investigate tonight, she finally promised her worried mind. If she heard the voice again, she’d force Valier to open the door, and find out once and for all what mystery he was hiding.
Julia dreaded the sunset that evening, despite its beautiful oranges and pinks. Valier had locked himself in his studio all day. “I think it’ll be done tonight,” was all he had said that morning before disappearing. The light outside grew dim over the horizon, until, at last, it was night. The house was dark. The world was quiet. Julia sat upright, stiff in bed, listening.
At one o’clock an incomprehensible voice slipped down the hall to her room. Julia threw away the covers and sat up, listening. Again she tiptoed down the hall. Again she could hear Valier whispering inside. But was there an answer? She heard something, but couldn’t tell if it was a whisper or just Valier’s brush working across the canvas.
Hissing? Dripping? Quietly she leaned her head against the door, not expecting for it to give, ever so slightly, inward. Julia held her breath. Blood flowed hotly through her veins. She heard footsteps, and then, the door opened.
“Julia, come in!” Valier greeted her with unexpected excitement. “Come look!”
He rushed over to a life-sized canvas set up in the center of the room and waited for Julia with gleaming eyes. Cautiously she approached. The image on the canvas became clear…a throne. That was all. In the whole large painting, nothing but an elegant, empty red throne.
“That…That’s it?” Julia looked at Valier and fell silent. Valier was staring at her hungrily. “Nope,” he responded with a sinister smile, picking up a small can of paint.
He threw the whole can of paint across the canvas. Quickly he grabbed up the other cans at his feet. Furiously, passionately, he splashed these too onto the canvas, and then more, and more, thickening the mixture of color over the image of the throne while Julia watched, stunned. The paint was heavy now on the canvas, yet still he added to it, and still it soaked up every drop.
Something was happening to the painting. The different colors mixed and swirled with each other, and suddenly the shape of a woman was forming. The painting seemed to shiver. And then, to Julia’s horror, the painting opened its eyes.
“V-Valier? W-what…” but Julia lost her words when the thing ripped a dripping hand out from the painting. But Valier didn’t stop. He slopped more paint on, and the creature grew. Stretching and squirming, it pealed itself from the canvas and dragged towards where Julia stood, wide-eyed, terrified, backed into a corner.
Her scream was stifled when it snatched away her mouth. Her tears dried when it stole her eyes. Her choking breath and quick beating heart were silenced when it absorbed these, too…till finally there was nothing left.
Only when the thing stood beside him did Valier stop his frenzy. Wearily he dropped onto his stool, attempting to catch his breath. Then, smiling, he looked up into those bright brown eyes that Julia used to describe as “common.”
“You wear those eyes well,” he said to the thing, and it smiled back at him, lovingly.
“What a wonderful artist you are,” it teased in a mixture of Marie’s sultry voice and Sister Catherine’s strict tone. The thing then touched the painting and a girl resembling Julia appeared from the swirling colors. Seated on the red velvet throne, the girl with golden hair smiled with Tammy’s pink lips and peered out at them through Marie’s glittering green eyes. The only thing odd was the position of her hands, frozen in the act of scratching at the arms of the chair, as if forever desperately attempting to pull free and escape from where she sat on the canvas.