by Brittany Newman
Ashen sheets cloaked the expanse above the city, blanketing the cool earth below in the tones and colors of a silent film. Rain dismally cascaded from the gray expanse as if all the tears of humanity were contained within and could no longer be endured. The city groaned under the weight of water drowning its streets in silver streams.
Through this tumultuous atmosphere a sputtering car pulled up in front of a house, its windshield wipers furiously dashing off water in a vain attempt to keep up with the steady pounding rhythm of the storm. The man within extricated himself from the confines of the car and dashed to the house.
Once inside, he shook himself off and smoothed his clothes. They were the best he owned which didn't say much. Unemployment had taken a toll on his closet. What money he had left after paying bills was spent on art supplies. His Geo Metro, a family photo album, barely functional computer, and easel and brushes were the few cherished possessions he had.
If only he could get a job! The last interviews had seemed promising, but nothing had come of them. He had applied to every restaurant and chain store he could think of in the city. Unfortunately, his fine arts degree wasn't going to land him a job. The places he was applying to couldn't care less if he'd been a neurosurgeon. All they required was willing flesh, pieces of meat to blindly do their bidding.
If only he could sell some of his paintings and generate money; then he wouldn't have to think about the bills, or those certain creditors he owed who loomed over him like circling buzzards. He had only sold a few paintings in his lifetime, mostly to people he knew.
He trudged upstairs to his living quarters, the musty attic of his friend's house. When he could no longer pay the rent for his apartment, Adam had invited him to live at his house, rent free. When you're an unsuccessful artist without a job, you don't say no to such an offer, especially when it comes from your only friend. Necessity had driven him to accept, and he'd lived there ever since. He'd needed a place where he could do what freed him from reality, what gave him wings to soar.
He set up his easel and a canvas and began loosening the ties to reality. When he was alone and painting, he felt suddenly alive, as if this were the world he truly belonged in, a world of vibrant colors and patterns and images, a world that expressed the essence of who he was, a world of pure bliss where nothing and no one could taint his happiness. When he was painting, the world outside was nothing but a distant nightmare from which he'd been awakened.
A knock sounded on the door, interrupting him.
"Come in." Adam peeked his head around the door.
"Hey, Griffin! Saw the car out front'n thought I'd ask how it went."
"Yeah, it went okay." Understanding crossed Adam's face. Poor Griffin. The interview must not have gone well. He needed some cheering up.
"Well don't give up. You're doing great. Hey, I had another thing I wanted't ask you. Me and Michelle are going out to dinner tonight. She's got this great friend she wants you to meet. I think you'd like her! Long legs and curves like you wouldn't believe." Adam winked at him. Even more reason for Griffin not to go. There could never be another Lyra. "Anyways, if you feel like it, we could go on a double date. Wouldn't that be great?"
"Yeah, Adam, it would be," Griffin lied. "I'm kinda in the middle of this painting, though. Artistic inspiration and all that. You understand."
"Yeah, I understand you're becoming even more of a recluse. All right, all right, I'll leave you to it." Adam shut the door and went downstairs.
Later that evening, Griffin heard the car pull out of the driveway. Adam and Michelle, the perfect couple, never having to feel the ache of loneliness, never having to feel the ever-enduring torment when the one you loved was forever out of reach. He turned to his painting. In a sudden frenzy, he began agitating lines and applying reds, purples, and oranges, obliterating reality in layers of color.
Several hours later, too tired to continue painting, Griffin went to bed. It was in these moments that his existential crises crushed him. He was weary and alone, with too much time to think, to ponder twenty-eight years of life. The missed opportunities that would never be offered to him again, the family and friends he'd left behind, that sweet hope and optimism he'd once had in the golden years of youth—all of it was gone, never to return. In these moments remembrances of Lyra came to him, afflicting him further. Oh Lyra, sweet Lyra…
He had first met her at an art show that was displaying his work. She had been gazing at his work, studying it. Other than her appreciating his art, he didn't take much notice of her that first day. But the next day she was there again, captivated by his paintings. This time she asked him about his inspiration for a particular painting, and he had been delighted to expound upon his creation. No one had been so interested in a painting of his before. She told him she was in art school and wanted to learn about his techniques, so would he be interested in going to coffee with her to discuss it? Flattered by her interest in his art, Griffin agreed.
They seemed to have a connection that day as they sipped coffee and discussed aspects of art. It was the start of a good friendship; she was one of the few women he felt comfortable around. The two of them began seeing each other more often and talked about everything. At first, Griffin saw her as a pretty girl with unremarkable features and treated her as he would a sister. Then days, weeks, months passed and he became increasingly fond of how she laughed easily, of how intelligently she spoke, of how brightly and optimistically she viewed life. Her face became more dear, and for him those hazel eyes held a vibrance that encapsulated her spirit. He only realized he loved her when it was too late.
Laying in bed, Griffin remembered these things, remembered Lyra, and wept. In darkness silent but for his pain, he wept for the things he could have said to her but didn't, he wept for the life he might have had with her, and most of all he wept because he would never see her again. He shouldn't have let her go.
Too restless to sleep, he got out of bed and went outside. The cool, damp smell of night greeted him as he walked down the street. A crisp breeze ruffled his hair and caressed his face. In the distance, dogs gave voice to their disapproval. Shafts of glimmering moonlight filtered through sable clouds above. Strolling along the street, Griffin began to realize that life was an incomprehensible darkness interspersed with rare moments of brilliant joy. It was those moments he had to hold on to, or he would be lost in the tumultuous waves of despair. Sometimes his own thoughts frightened him; they threatened to rise and devour his soul. They told him that death was freedom, that it was the only way. Maybe they were right, maybe death was the only way…
The soaring melodies of songbirds had begun when Griffin got back home. Adam was still asleep, so he tiptoed up the stairs. He spent the rest of the morning searching for jobs on the computer. Finding nothing new, Griffin decided to start a new painting.
Remembering that he'd used all his paints, he drove to the art supplies store. He always became giddy with the pungent smell of new paint and the sight of color in every hue and shade, rows upon rows of unending glory. When he entered the shop none of this greeted him. He went to the rows where the paints were, but the shelves were empty. Perplexed, he went to the front desk to ask a worker where the paints were.
"Sorry, sir, but the shipment never came in this month. We sold out of the last paints yesterday."
Irritated, Griffin left. As he walked out the door, he heard a voice call him. He turned around, and a man steeped in congeniality approached him.
"Hello, sir! When I was in the store, I couldn't help noticing you weren't able to get the paints you needed."
"Yep," Griffin bit out.
"Well, I'm actually in the art supply business myself. If you need paint, I've got a huge selection to choose from."
"You got some to show me?"
"Indeed I do, sir!" The man set down a large briefcase and took paints out of it. As he presented the paints, Griffin inspected them.
"I've never seen this brand before. How do I know they're any good?"
"I assure you, they're of the highest quality! Haven't had a complaint yet. I tell you, they'll do wonders for you. Their special properties have made masterpieces from lesser artist's hands. I guarantee you'll never go back to regular paints again."
"Right, whatever. How much do they cost?"
"For you, I'll make a deal. I'll give you a set free as a trial run. How's that sound?" Too good to be true, but he couldn't complain.
"I'll take 'em." Although Griffin was unsure of the man's motives, he figured he didn't have anything to lose. Worst case scenario, the paints were low quality. Right now he didn't care. He needed to paint, to draw the brush across the canvas, to feel whole again. Taking the paints, he started to walk toward his car.
"Oh, one thing I forgot to mention." Griffin paused, waiting. He knew there had to be a catch. "The paint takes on a life of its own on canvas. Be very careful what you paint." With that, the man went back inside the art supply store. Griffin didn't know what to make of the cryptic statement and promptly forgot it.
Griffin began the painting. This time he'd decided on a self-portrait. The paints seemed perfectly normal; really, they were better than the paints he normally bought. The salesman was a nutcase, but he was right. Griffin would never go back to the regular paints again.
It took him several weeks to complete it, but when he was finished, it was the best painting he'd created yet. As Griffin began to clean up the mess he'd made in artistic fervor, he noticed movement in the corner of his eye. Looking up, he saw the self-portrait, Other Griffin, had moved. He went closer to the painting and scrutinized it. It had moved. The Other Griffin had moved. But no, he'd had many sleepless nights lately. That was all. He really needed to get rest.
The next morning, Griffin awoke feeling refreshed. He'd slept soundly last night. As he gazed across the room at his self-portrait, a cold shock overtook his body. Everything on the canvas was present except for the Other Griffin. That wasn't possible.
"Oh, but it is possible." Startled, Griffin frantically searched for the source of the voice. "Over here." On his right stood Other Griffin, abstract, vibrantly colored, and all too real. Dreaming, he had to be dreaming. "You're not dreaming. I'm real. Touch my skin." Griffin shakily touched Other Griffin's arm––solid, warm. Okay, he wasn't dreaming. He was crazy. He'd finally lost it. "No, you're not crazy. I realize this will take awhile for you to accept. It's okay though, I don't mind."
"What are you??? How can you be reading my mind?!?"
"I know your thoughts because I'm your other half." Griffin stared. He'd read about artists who had slowly gone mad. Maybe he could write his experiences down and get a book deal, promoting his art at the same time. People loved stories of the grotesque, of madness and depravity. This might not be so bad after all...
"All right, suppose I believe you're real. Explain how you came out of the painting."
"I'll simplify it for you. Reality isn't linear, like people believe. Reality bends. Artists like us can brush against the borders, but don't understand the principles involved. Leave science to the scientists. Those paints you used are chemically structured to allow the user unlimited access to imagination and the subconscious, where reality is more flexible."
"Wow. Okay." This was going to make a great book. He could see psychologists poring over it, analyzing every detail. "What am I gonna do with you, though? You can't go around looking like that."
"You've shut me up long enough––don't think you're keeping me in this room forever."
"No, no, I won't. You just need to stay here until I figure this all out. I need to think about it alone, if you don't mind." Maybe if he left and came back, the apparition would disappear. "Okay, I'm going for a walk. Don't leave. And don't make any noise! I can't have Adam finding you."
"Don't take too long or I'll get bored and think about leaving."
"I'll be back."
The afternoon sun gleamed through the attic window as Griffin entered the room. Would it still be there?
"Of course I'm here. You're still doubting?"
"Sorry." As Griffin regarded the Other Griffin, he noticed where there were once sharp lines, hazy, indistinct edges had taken over. Once vigorous colors were now pallid. "You look a bit different. What's going on?"
"Nothing to worry about."
The next day, Griffin scrutinized Other Griffin. Instead of hazy features, Other Griffin was exhibiting rounded, more distinct features. Skin was no longer sickly shades of color but flesh toned. He was dubious no longer; Other Griffin was morphing. He looked somewhat human now, sitting on the floor sifting through old photographs. Griffin stood there watching him. It was eerie seeing this version of himself moving, breathing, living. What was this delusion? Would he awaken in relief to an orange tinged dawn? Or would he be committed, forced to illuminate his mind and reveal the pathologies behind this phantasm? Griffin stood deep in the trenches of thought, watching without seeing. Other Griffin continued to sift through photographs, slowing down when he reached a particular one. He held the photograph gently, contemplating the figure before him.
"She's so beautiful," Other Griffin whispered.
"Lyra, of course. I miss her just as much as you, you know. Where is she now?"
"I don't know. Wish I did."
"Why didn't you try to find her?" Griffin shrugged. "I would have tried to find her," said Other Griffin. "But then, I wouldn't have let her go in the first place." An uncomfortable silence permeated the room like a dark shadow.
"I don't want to talk about this anymore," said Griffin as he left the room.
That evening, Other Griffin seemed restless and moody. Griffin attempted to decipher whatever was bothering him. Being unaware of himself, of this Other Griffin, was unsettling. He played chess with Other Griffin, and tried to pry into his mind, but it was to no avail. Whatever was going on in Other Griffin's mind was going to stay there. He was being stubbornly enigmatic, but Griffin figured it had something to do with Lyra. He decided to be direct.
"All right, what's going on with you tonight?" Silence greeted his question. "Come on, you can hardly keep things from yourself, right?"
"I don't want to talk about this anymore." Other Griffin coolly stared at him, effectively shutting down the conversation. "You'd better pay attention to the game, or you might find yourself on the losing end," he said as he took Griffin's queen. For the first time that night, Other Griffin grinned. "Your move."
Griffin didn't know what to do about Other Griffin. It had been a week since Other Griffin's physical manifestation had appeared. Griffin wasn't dreaming––he knew that now. Was he crazy? He had to be for this to have gone on so long. Other Griffin was keeping more to himself lately, barely ever breaking the silence that had grown between them like some malevolent force. Something had been broken between them, a nameless thing that could never be repaired. And once broken, it had leaked toxic chemicals that had begun eroding anything they had once shared. It even appeared that Other Griffin couldn't read his mind anymore. He supposed it had to do with the physical changes that were slowly metamorphosing Other Griffin. It seemed reasonable that there would also be mental changes.
Other Griffin sat in the corner, surfing the web. His hair was darker now, more like Griffin's; his features had grown even more distinct and less abstracted. He needed to think of something to do with Other Griffin. He could pass him off as his twin, he supposed, as long as his family didn't find out. And that wasn't much of a problem, considering how they'd parted. The first step would be giving Other Griffin a name.
"What should I call you?" he asked Other Griffin.
"My name's Griffin."
"Yeah, but that was my name first. Maybe I should call you Griffin 2.0," he joked.
"No, call me Griffin. I'm not going to be treated like some copy of you."
"Isn't that what you are?"
"That's what you'd like, isn't it? For me to be weak like you. Well I'm strong, and I'm going places. You're not holding me back anymore."
"Whoa, hey, no need to get snarky. If you want to leave and go do your own thing, fine. You can leave tomorrow." Other Griffin was quickly wearing out his welcome.
"Aahhh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. It's just these changes are getting to me, making me cranky." He smiled apologetically at Griffin.
"I know. I'm sorry, too. Guess I'm a little on edge."
"As you should be."
Other Griffin acted like a new person after the exchange. When Adam was gone, he would go downstairs and make dinner for the two of them. He washed their clothes, made their room presentable, and organized the paints. He appeared happy. But something was boiling beneath that facade. Other Griffin was acting...odd. Griffin wasn't sure what was happening. It was too sudden, this change. In place of the peace he should have been feeling now that he and Other Griffin were getting along, a vague foreboding plagued his mind. It was a sinuous thing, slithering into his consciousness no matter what he did to suppress it.
The nightmares must have triggered it. The night after Other Griffin had appeared, he had dreamt of Other Griffin, grabbing him as he walked into the room and pulling a computer wire around his neck. Griffin struggled, but still the wire gnawed into soft flesh. In manic desperation he grasped at Other Griffin's face, his face, clawing at it as life ebbed from his body. When his eyes glassed over, Other Griffin stood over his strangled body, laughing. Suddenly beside him were Lyra and Adam, laughing along with Other Griffin. That first night the dream descended upon Griffin, he'd awoken clutching his neck and gasping. He looked around the room and saw Other Griffin from across the room, sitting up in the couch that was a makeshift bed, gazing at him. A few minutes passed, then Other Griffin lay down.
The subsequent nights had brought nothing but terror to Griffin. The dream was the same but for the mode of his murder. One night it was a knife, another, poison. He didn't tell Other Griffin about the nightmares. They came with such frequency that he began to wonder if they were premonitions. He found himself more suspicious of Other Griffin. That night, as he went to bed, he fervently hoped he would have a dreamless sleep. He turned out the lights, and heard the couch creak as Other Griffin lay down.
"Good night, Other Griffin. Sweet dreams," whispered Other Griffin.
One day, Griffin came home from an interview to find Other Griffin painting. He looked so real now, so perfectly human. His movements were graceful and smooth, and he was now the same height as Griffin. Facially, the two were still different, though they could have passed as brothers. These similarities between them made Griffin wonder when Other Griffin would stop morphing. What he would look like when he did stop? Griffin quickly pushed the thought away. Curious to see what Other Griffin was painting, Griffin peered over his shoulder. Before him was a striking portrait of Lyra.
"A vision of angelic beauty. The perfect woman," said Other Griffin when he saw him staring at the painting.
"Yes. Although she was hardly perfect." As soon as he said this, Griffin saw that he'd made a mistake. Other Griffin's face contorted unpleasantly.
"Don't you dare criticize her, Other Griffin. You're the one who made all the mistakes. You're the one who ruined my chances with her. You're the one who let her GO!" He advanced toward Griffin, getting right into his face.
"Hang on, don't you mean we? WE let her go." An odd feeling began to stir within Griffin, the curling tentacles of fear.
"Since you've shut me up in this room, mostly by myself, I've been thinking about my life. You know what I've come to realize?" A strange light gleamed in Other Griffin's eyes. "Hmmm? Do you?" Griffin decided to humor Other Griffin; he didn't want to augment his anger.
"You've destroyed my life, little by little, chipping away all the good things until they were dust. You don't deserve to live my life," Other Griffin snarled. "I've been putting up with you, even feeling sorry for you, but no more."
Griffin wanted to get away from Other Griffin, from this waking nightmare. He had to protect himself from the increasingly combative Other Griffin. He needed to find the salesman that sold him the paints.
"You know what," said Griffin, "I'm gonna leave you here alone until you're ready to chill out. There's no point in arguing this now." As he walked toward the door, he felt hateful eyes boring into him.
"Your move, Other Griffin," said the Other Griffin. An icy chill trickled down Griffin, but he walked out the door, choosing not to comment on the cryptic warning.
As soon as he got enough money for a tank of gas, Griffin drove to the art supplies store, hoping the salesman would still be there peddling his paints. The man was there, large briefcase in hand.
"Hey, you! I've had a problem with the paints you gave me."
"Really. And the problem is?" Griffin knew the man would deride him, but he was desperate.
"They're alive and threatening me." Griffin was surprised when the man believed him.
"Aaahhhhh! Well, I did tell you to be careful what you painted. You were warned. Now if you would kindly stop bothering me, I must talk to a potential customer."
"Wait, hang on! It won't take long to tell me how to get rid of it."
"What's it worth to you?"
"Anything." The man perked up.
"In that case, your prospects are looking good. But I can't give you the remedy if you don't tell me the problem. What exactly did you paint?"
"Myself. It was a self-portrait."
"Okay then. What you can do is buy some counteractive paint. If you get your problem inside its original painting and paint over it with this paint, you'll be free from that nasty little irritation."
"Where would I get these paints?"
"From me, of course. Except these ones will cost you." The gleam of avarice alighted in the man's eyes.
Griffin began to feel ill. "How much?"
"Your soul." Griffin gaped at him and the man began to laugh. "Oh, that's a good one! They fall for it every time!" When he'd regained his composure, he said, "I don't really want your soul. Just seventy percent of the money you make off your paintings and any additional revenue obtained." A scroll materialized in his hand. Unrolling it, he presented it to Griffin. "Sign here, please."
"You planned this. You knew I'd be back." Griffin was livid. What a disgusting excuse for a human being. He didn't even know if the counteractive paint would work. But he had no other choice. The man grinned.
"Life is a game, my friend, and you drew the losing lot. Now do you want the paints or not?"
"Fine. I'll do it." The man handed him a pen, and as Griffin signed the scroll, he felt a strange electric jolt run through his body.
"Oh, and don't think about trying to get out of this contract. It's for life. I have ways of finding out exactly where you are if you try running." He beamed at Griffin. "Pleasure doing business with you. Now I really must talk to that potential customer." With that, the man went into the paint supply store.
Griffin took the counteractive paints home. With each passing day since their fight, Other Griffin had become increasingly hostile. The most chilling part of the whole ordeal was that Other Griffin was Griffin's precise replica now––same body, same eyes, same face. He didn't like the way Other Griffin was changing. Griffin intended to use the counteractive paint as soon as he walked in the room. He hoped they would work.
Griffin stared at the Other Griffin. He knew he was planning something, he could tell. Well, he wasn't going to wait for Other Griffin to attempt it. He rushed at Other Griffin, surprising him. They wrestled with each other, each trying to push the other toward the painting. They grappled, fell, and threw punches. Other Griffin bit him, and he yelled. Griffin pushed him back with as much force as he could muster. Thrust back, Other Griffin fell into the painting. Grabbing the brushes and counteractive paint, Griffin painted bars over the self-portrait as Other Griffin began to reach out. Other Griffin froze as the counteractive paint touched the surface. It was done.
Six months later, Griffin drove Lyra and Adam to the Museum of Modern Art to see his new exhibit. It was the painting that had made him famous. The self-portrait, his crowning achievement, had intoxicated the masses and art critics alike. He called the painting, "Reality Bends." There was something about the painting that people couldn't get enough of. Some said it was the face of the artist, frozen in raw fear, while others said it was the artist's hand, reaching out to the world, trying to touch reality. In either case, Griffin was now a rich man. Everyone who was anyone wanted to buy his paintings.
Adam, gazing at the exhibit, said, "Y'know, Griffin, you've changed a lot in the past six months. One day you were a recluse living in my attic, the next you're hanging out with high-society and living in a penthouse. It's like you transformed into a different person." Griffin smiled. Oh, he was so very different.
"What can I say? I'm a new man." A man fated for bliss.
He heard a small cough near him, and turned his head toward the sound. A man steeped in congeniality stood next to him, holding a large briefcase. Griffin wondered who he was and how he could have possibly gotten past security with the unwieldy thing.
The man held out his hand and said, "Hello, Other Griffin. I believe we have some business to discuss."