I recognized it immediately. The House. Our House. I didn’t remember living there, remembered almost nothing about this town. Why should I? We moved away when I was four years old. Barely more than a toddler. But I recognized the house. I painted it in the ninth grade, using an old photo pulled from the memories box in my mother’s closet. I won an award for it in the school’s art contest. That being my first award, I had the painting framed and still have it hung up in my studio space.
It was an old Tudor house, a design I always privately enjoyed, though it was long out of fashion. Two stories with a steeply gabled roof, as is typical of the style. The first floor’s exterior was composed of decorative stone, and the second floor was white masonry with crisscrossed half-timbers, also typical of the style.
I’m the sort of person who is highly susceptible to pareidolia, and always think of the front of a house as its “face.” This one had a very friendly, welcoming face. If I had to characterize it, the house looked like a smiling, stout, bearded man. The sort of man who would give you a hug upon meeting you and thrust a frosty mug of ale into your hands. That’s what I thought.
I smiled up at the house and glanced into the messy passenger seat: camera, sketchbook, loose pages, charcoal stick, and a grimy smudger staining the upholstery. I had already stopped a few times to sketch before meeting with my agent to hash out the finer details of the gig that brought me out here to the countryside. I glanced at my watch. 12:36. I still had time. It was a teleconference anyways. I could do that in the car if I needed to.
I stepped out into the warm air of early autumn with my camera around my neck, ready to take pictures if I felt compelled to do so. The first thing I did was walk up to the front door to see if anyone was home. In my experience, people tended to get a little edgy when you stomped around their property uninvited to take pictures or sit down for a charcoal sketch. The front walk was made of the same sort of flagstones as the first floor of the house. The entryway had an archway that I’m sure real estate agents would refer to as “charming.”
The front door was made of dark wood with leaded windows arranged in a diamond pattern. Also charming. I knocked three times and waited. And waited. No answer. I shrugged and turned back to the car, and that’s when I noticed the sign in the yard. The house was for rent by a group called Horndike Realty. Awful name. On impulse, I pulled out my phone and dialed the number on the sign.
This time I didn’t have to wait. On the first ring, a woman picked up and said, “Horndike Realty! This is Susan Lakewood, how can I help you find your dream home a reality?!” in a sunny and well-rehearsed manner.
“Hi Susan,” I answered, “My name is John Benson. I’m calling in regards to the house for rent at 737 Bluebird Avenue. I was wondering if I might arrange a tour of the home at some point.”
“I’m sure that can be arranged. Give me one moment, hon.”
I could hear keys clattering on the other end while I waited and wondered just what I was doing.
I had only planned to stay through the fall, and I didn’t expect anyone to rent a home to me on a three-month lease. Additionally, it was far more room than I could possibly need.
Susan came back on the line and said, “All right, Mr. Benson, if it works for you, I can meet you out there later this afternoon. How does three-thirty sound?”
I told her that sounded just fine, left my information with her, and told her I would see her then. I stared back up at the house for a few moments and it stared back at me with its friendly bearded face. I turned back to the car. Across the street, a bald man in a tank top was mowing his yard. He waved at me in a mildly suspicious sort of way and I waved back. His house was also a Tudor.
My agent slash manager, Lisa Kandinsky, claimed a distant relationship to Wassily Kandinsky, the famed Russian abstract painter. She did not claim an iota of his talent, but perhaps because of this familial connection, she had a great love of the arts. She also had a great love of making money from art, and so with no small amount of cajoling, convinced me to take on this job. Like most pretentious artsy types, I thought commercial art was so far beneath me as to be invisible to the naked eye. She was persistent and eventually I relented, though not without much grumbling.
I teleconferenced with her in the back of the local diner, which had the mystifying name of The Scalded Dog Grill. Most of the patrons sat at the counter and though many of them gave me the sort of dubious looks all small-town types seem to give out-of-towners, they left me alone to my Skype and patty melt.
Lisa’s face appeared on my smartphone screen: Short, smart hairstyle in blazing silver, high cheekbones, elaborate makeup. Small, pursed lips. As always, she sounded very happy to see me. She always asked me dozens of questions rapid fire. Eventually, I learned she only wanted an answer to the final query. The rest was just small talk, and she had no time for mutual small talk.
“Johnny! How is my boy? How is the countryside? Are the locals treating you well? Blink S.O.S. if they are planning to sacrifice you to their corn god! Is the water drinkable? Do they say Y’all out there? Did you receive my email with the packet detailing the wishes of our generous benefactors?”
“Yes,” I told her, “And I looked over it. Twelve paintings, at least half of them including a rustic structure. All watercolor, all bursting with autumn foliage. It should make for a remarkably trite and artistically vacuous calendar.”
“Don’t be snotty, Johnny, it doesn’t become you,” she scolded. “They are paying an obscene amount of money for your vacuous calendar art and that’s to say nothing of paying all your expenses while you’re out gallivanting in the sticks. Speaking of which, have you made living arrangements yet? Don’t be stingy, find a nice place you can work in. No reason to stay at the Bates Motel on their dime.”
“I’ve looked at a few places,” which was only half a lie. The only place I actually looked at was the house. “I’m meeting with a realtor later about a place.”
“Splendid!” She exclaimed.
We went on to discuss other tedious details and particulars of the project while I ate my patty melt. It was pretty good, actually, and probably not made of scalded dog. After a time she was satisfied that I knew what I was doing and was not going to waste away my advance on a mad artist’s opium binge. I was then released out into the world to kill time until three-thirty, where I would meet with the realtor.
Susan met with me outside the house and reintroduced herself. She looked more or less exactly as I expected. She was middle-aged, pear-shaped, had a cloud of graying hair, and wore a pink pantsuit that may have once been fashionable in the days of shoulder pads and pantsuits. After educating me about all the exterior features and generally raving about the location, the neighborhood, the schools, and all manner of other attributes about which I cared little, she finally let me into the house.
The inside of the house was in pristine shape, although in some way I couldn’t quite pinpoint, it did not seem to have been occupied recently. It didn’t smell musty, it smelled like cinnamon roll scented candle. The source of it this feeling of desertion was more subtle. It did not seem unwelcoming, however. More the opposite, from the moment I stepped inside, I knew I wanted to stay there and be damned to any notion of practicalities. The second floor had a sunroom with a hardwood floor that I knew would be perfect for painting.
While I half-listened to Susan’s pitch, just enough to answer her stream of questions, I subconsciously sought out some feeling of familiarity, though there was none to be had. Of course there wasn’t. Who can remember anything from when they were that young? Well, some people could, perhaps, but I couldn’t. The earliest memory I had was in the house in which I spent the rest of my childhood. I was sitting at our kitchen table trying to read a newspaper, though with limited success as I did not know how to read more than a few words at the time.
After a time, when we had already seen all the rooms and Susan was reaching the end of her pitch, she received a phone call. Apologetically she told me she had to take it, and that I should explore on my own for a few minutes. I took her advice. The house had three bedrooms, two on the bottom floor and one on the top floor. I sat in all of them, spending the most time in the bottom two, one of which had to be my own room. I felt nothing from any of them. Finally, I returned to the living room and sat on the hearth to wait for Susan’s return.
It was here that I had the memory. It was little more than a flash but clear as day: I held in my hands a drawing, which I presented to someone. It was a teenage girl whose features I recognized in my own reflection. She had to have been a relative.
I said to her “Look, Maddie!” and she smiled, taking the drawing from me. That was it: maybe a two-second memory of someone I knew then, but have no recollection of now.
I was stumped. I knew all of my cousins and all of the girls were my age or younger. None of them were named Maddie or anything similar. She didn’t even look like a cousin, she looked like she could have been my sister. If I had a sister. I’m an only child.
Shortly thereafter, Susan returned. I explained to her my situation, that I was very interested in renting the house, but only for a short term lease. Money, however, was no object. To my great surprise, she beamed at me. It seems a family intended to move in after the first of the year and the call was them, arranging to make a deposit. As long as I was clear by then, she would be happy to rent to me. Deposit plus first and last month’s rent paid in advance, of course.
Lisa handled the fine details of the rental agreement, including all the check and document signing. I am perfectly capable of doing such things myself, but Lisa insisted, always eager to earn her cut in any way she could find. I usually accommodated her desires, as it freed up a lot of my time to artistic pursuits, such as goofing off and watching motel cable. I had to wait until the next day to move into the house.
A true multitasker, I sketched and drank beer as I watched television, though I was able to truly focus on none of these tasks. My mind kept drifting to that transient memory from the fireplace. Who was Maddie? Where did Maddie go? What was Maddie short for? Madison? Madeline? Could have been Maggie, considering how young I was, so maybe Margaret? I glanced down at my drawing. Not work related, I sometimes dabbled in figure drawing and sequential art. Blame it on a childhood love of superheroes.
I flipped the sheet over and started a new sketch, one of Maddie. I could still recall her face, somehow. It seemed that having regained the memory, my recall of it was surprisingly vivid. Her chin was sharp like mine, but her cheekbones were rounder. Her eyes were almond-shaped like mine, but darker and glinting like coins at the bottom of a deep well. Her hair was sandy blonde, much lighter than mine, shoulder length and wildly teased. That makes sense. It would have been the early nineties. People still wore their hair pretty big back then.
Her smile was an enigma, one that tested my eraser. It was warm but cold, loving but… not cruel exactly. That’s not the right word, but much like rendering it in pencil, describing her smile in words proved elusive. Elusive. Perhaps that’s it? Reasonably satisfied, I set my pencil aside and viewed my sketch in full. I frowned.
If the drawing was accurate, she nearly had to be a close relative. The family resemblance was uncanny. I was almost convinced I had been filling in blanks in my memory and made a sketch of myself as a teenage girl. Almost. If I didn’t snag on the smile I would have been convinced the whole thing was a fantasy, some sort of wishful thinking. That smile though, it meant something. I sipped at my beer, still staring at the sketch, wondering what it all meant. I had no answers, and so I threw the sketch aside.
I spent the rest of the night, what little remained of it, sipping at my beer and vegging out to sitcoms. It had been a long day and soon I could feel my eyelids grow heavy and my chin sink into my chest. I left my fourth beer half-empty on the nightstand and switched off the television and bedside lamp. I set an alarm on my phone to ensure I was up and around in time to pick up the keys from Susan at Horndike Realty. Awful name. I was asleep in moments.
That night I had a dream. I dreamt of Maddie. She led me by the hand through fields of gold, swaying in the warm sun. The sun blazed in the sky, the sky an impossibly vibrant blue. She kept looking back at me, smiling, laughing. I laughed too.
“Come on!” she urged, not impatiently but with the joyous imperative of someone who has something wonderful to show. “We’re almost there!”
I glanced down at my feet, still small and not totally sure of myself, not at these speeds. If I fell I would stain my pants. They were corduroys and went swish swish swish with every stride. My shoes were bright red sneakers with bright white soles. They had a lightning bolt on the side, and that made me run faster. Or so I believed.
“Almost there!” She cried and seemed to restrain herself from running faster. If she did she would have had to drag me the rest of the way. “Wait until you see!”
Finally, we burst through the golden fields and Maddie helped me through an old and crusty wooden fence, taking special care to guide me away from snagging nail heads and other dangers. Beyond the fence was a strip of old trees and shadows. I started to get scared but I didn’t get too scared. Maddie was there. Maddie would look out for me. She smiled down at me and gave my hand another tug.
“It’s right through here,” she told me. I smiled to show her how brave I was. Not a baby at all.
Birds were in the trees, big ones. They looked down at us and they were big as houses. But Maddie wasn’t scared, no she was mad at the old birds for staring at us.
“Go on! Get!” She cried up at the birds, throwing a stick at one. It didn’t hit but they got the message and flapped away. She laughed again and I laughed too.
“Dumb birds,” I said.
“That’s right!” Maddie said, and my heart soared.
We skipped through the rest of the forest, which wasn’t much of a forest at all, really. On the other side of the forest was a yard all overgrown with grass as tall as I was or taller. I was afraid again, of snakes this time, but still not too afraid because Maddie was there and if she could scare away the birds she could scare away the snakes too. There was a path and she led me through. The bugs went reeooreeooreeeeee… on and on.
I was looking down at the grass, still kind of worried about the snakes because they could bite me if Maddie wasn’t fast enough, so I didn’t see what we came to see until Maddie said:
“There it is, kiddo.”
I looked up and my heart skipped a beat and fell two stories. It was the oldest building I ever saw, all rotted out and dark with one big door and one big window in the top and it loomed down at me. It looked like the face of an angry monster, all mouth and hungry for little boys. It could swallow up my whole entire class in one gulp if it wanted to…
Maddie chucked me on the shoulder, having seen me shaking like a leaf at the sight of it.
“Don’t be scared, kiddo. It’s just an old barn, that’s all. But now that you know about it, it’s our secret clubhouse! Now come on!”
She tugged at my hand and I started to follow her. What choice did I have? But no sooner did we reach the big-mouth door, but a loud and warbling siren filled the air. It was a bad siren, a stay away siren, a-
A cell phone alarm, telling me it was time to wake up.
Even after a shave, a hot shower, a cup of gas station coffee that was as hot as it was mediocre, and a surprisingly good gas station cruller, I could not shake the dream from my mind. Dream? It was a memory. I had no doubt of that, though I also had no evidence to back it up. I could remember nothing further than what was revealed in its contents, and could certainly not recall any crusty old barn clubhouse.
As for the identity of Maddie, I could think of only one thing that could help shed light on the mystery. Unfortunately, it was calling my mom to ask her. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my mother and like a good son I called her twice a year whether I needed it or not. It was just that calling her meant having to hear a load of passive aggressive judgment.
See, even when my paintings started to sell and real money began to filter in (thanks in no small part to the efforts of my professional mother, Ms. Kandinsky), she still vocally disapproved of my career. Or hobby, as she still calls it.
She was equally disapproving of my swinging bachelor lifestyle. Also as she called it. It seemed she wanted a son who would marry a nice girl, move to the suburbs, get a job as an office drone, and sire half a dozen precious angel grandchildren for her to dote and impose her will upon. I was perfectly happy to be single and also gay. She had yet to refer to my sexuality as a “hobby” but I could sense her thinking it.
Swallowing my dread, I pulled out my phone and pulled her number up in my contacts. She answered on the third ring, as per usual sounding delighted to hear from me and deeply disappointed in my every decision, my sporadic contact with her in particular. Wading through the mire of conversation with her proved a grueling slog, but eventually, I managed to steer the conversation to the matter at hand. I explained to her where I was and what I was doing there.
She seemed baffled that anyone would want paintings of “some dead trees and some nasty old barns,” but was “happy that I was keeping myself busy.” The usual condescending crap. I tried to remind myself that she was a loving mother who only wanted what was best for her only son. Enough small talk, I decided, I was going to ask my questions and get the hell off of the phone with her.
“So,” I started, trying to ease my way into what felt essentially like an odd question, “Turns out the old house was up for rent. I’m gonna stay there while I’m working here.”
“What would you need with a house that big?” Mom asked, trying to sound nonchalant but sounding brittle instead.
“Why? Place like that is too big for a swinging bachelor like you.”
“Maybe,” I allowed, “But, I don’t know. Just liked the place. My sponsors are footing the bill anyway, and it’s got some great studio space upstairs.”
“I guess,” She sniffed, “But it kind of seems like you’re wasting those poor people’s money.”
“Mom,” I groaned, dragging my free hand through my hair. I was starting to get a headache. “They don’t care about a couple of thousand dollars for rent, it’s chump change. All they care about is getting my paintings on time, and I can do that more reliably when I’m relaxed. Anyways, that’s not what I’m calling about.”
“Well, what are you calling about? I have a life too, you know. And a job, for that matter.”
“Look, it’s just…” On the spot, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to phrase this. “The thing is, being back in that house brought back some memories.”
“I doubt that,” Mom said, more brittle than ever, “You were just a baby when you lived there. Barely out of diapers.”
“Well, I remembered something. I remembered… Did I ever get babysat by a relative?”
“Your grandmother a time or two,” she said dismissively, “Why?”
“No, not grandma. Someone like a teenager. A cousin maybe?”
“What, like Jeff? I wouldn’t trust that little punk to watch my pet rock. Look, I need to get going-”
I cut her off. “No, not Jeff. A girl. Maybe fourteen? Her name was Maddie or maybe Maggie. Something like that.”
There was a pause on the other end. Gathering her memories, maybe?
“Oh! I just remembered,” She said, finally, “Maddie. You had an imaginary friend named Maddie for a while. You grew out of it, I guess. Yeah. Listen, I gotta go. It was good talking with you, John. I love you.”
“I love you too-” but she already hung up. Maddie, an imaginary friend? Bull. But if she was lying, why would she lie about that? It figures, I go to my mom for answers and wind up more confused than ever.
I glanced at my watch and saw that I was already late to meet with Susan, so I abandoned my questions for the time being. I gathered up the empty bottles and the remains of my dinner and threw them in the trash, gathered what little gear I brought into the motel, and hopped into the car. After leaving my keys with the clerk, I set off to move into my new old accommodations, vowing to count that phone call as my Christmas call.
By early afternoon I was moving my meager possessions into the house, which thankfully was furnished. The back of my van was loaded with a massive roll of watercolor paper (I worked large), several shipping tubes, a plastic tub loaded with tubes of paint, a box of fresh new paints, mostly autumn colors, two suitcases of clothing, a box of paperbacks I hadn’t had the time to read yet, a pile of sketchbooks, a motley assortment of brushes, a canvas bag stuffed with other assorted art supplies, and my laptop. I brought exactly no furniture or kitchen supplies. I would take inventory after lugging all of these supplies inside and plan a shopping expedition for later in the day.
Utilities, including WiFi, were already set up by Ms. Kandinsky, and I made a mental note to thank her later. She thought of everything. I put some music on to make the place seem less empty and tomblike and began to set up shop.
I had just about set up my studio space the way I liked it and was admiring the way the sun shone in at this particular part of the afternoon when the doorbell rang. Mildly perplexed to have a visitor so soon after arriving, I journeyed back downstairs to answer.
At the door was a uniformed gentleman accompanied by a dolly loaded with boxes. Handsome, but a bit too young for me and straight besides, I judged. Anyways, I was here to work, not break hearts.
“John Benson?” He asked. I nodded.
“I’m with Marvin’s Thriftway, I’m here to deliver your groceries.”
Kandinsky. She really did think of everything. She was a marvel.
“Thanks,” I said, “Come on in.”
I led him to the kitchen and we made small talk while he unloaded the groceries into the barren pantry and refrigerator. His name was Wayne and seemed desperately eager to leave for the big city and start a band. He was impressed by my status as a professional artist. He wanted to see my work, but as I had nothing to show him, all I could do was give him my business card which had a link to my Flickr account.
I left him a generous tip since it wasn’t my money, to which he said “Thanks, fam,” and departed. He left a joint on the counter, which I promptly threw into the wastebasket with a laugh.
With the shopping portion of my afternoon covered thanks to the marvelous Ms. Kandinsky (she even remembered toilet paper and toothpaste), I was free to scout for potential subjects for my paintings. Though I was more or less ambivalent about landscape and architectural paintings, I loved scouting aesthetically pleasing locations. I grabbed my knapsack, loaded it with all my gear, and dashed out the door.
The leaves were beginning to change in earnest and the sky was as vibrant as it appeared in my dream. Color and beauty were everywhere, I could scarcely narrow my search. The weather was warm and sunny but with a crisp breeze. It was a perfect day to explore and I spent hours and took thousands of photos, sketched dozens of scenic vistas, and scouted numerous likely barns and old structures. I was having the time of my life, and I could remember thinking over and over again how lucky I was that someone would pay me to do this.
Eventually, the day reached its end, and though the sunset was as gorgeous as any other component of the environment, I almost cursed it for bringing an end to my good time. I judged there to be just enough light left in the day to scout a final barn, the location of which was given to me by a helpful resident. Word of my presence had spread quickly, it seemed, and most seemed happy to assist me in my efforts.
By the time I had reached the building, the last of the light was fading out of the sky and thus I could not take a proper reference photo, but that was all right. I would just have a look and head back for the house.
As I looked up at the barn, as beautiful in its decay as any other I had seen that day, I began to feel strangely apprehensive. Though it wasn’t the same barn as in my dream, I’m certain of that, I felt the same fear and trepidation I experienced in that so recently recovered memory. The door was open a crack, revealing nothing of the dusty darkness within. Dust. Dark. Now, why did that make me feel worse, almost nauseous?
I snapped a few cursory photographs of the place, a sort of denial of my ephemeral fears, and quickly departed. It wasn’t a long walk back to the car, but I intended to make it before darkness fell entirely.
That night I had another dream. This one was shorter and murkier but felt no less like a memory to me. I dreamt I was somewhere dark and dusty and hot. Maddie was there, once again.
I was frightened, though I was not certain why. I held something in my hand which reflected what little light there was to reflect. I don’t know what it was.
“Go ahead,” she told me. “It’s okay.”
“I can’t,” I told her. I was on the edge of tears. I don’t know why.
“Yes you can,” She assured me, gently, “It’s easy. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.”
It was hot in the dusty darkness, and it smelled. It smelled of dust, and of hot, and of sweat too. It smelled of old canvas bags and hay and decay. I felt nauseous, and I had to pee.
“Can we go?” I asked, fidgeting. I didn’t want to be in the dusty dark anymore.
“Sure,” She told me, brightly. “We can go, and I’ll buy you an ice cream. But you have to do this first. Or else you can’t be in the club with me.”
I wanted to be in the club with her. I loved Maddie. But what she wanted me to do, it scared me. I don’t know what she wanted me to do.
“Okay,” I told her, and I swallowed hard. I would do anything for Maddie.
I gripped the something I had in my hand, and though I could scarcely see her in the darkness, I could tell she was smiling at me. I loved when Maddie smiled at me. She was holding something, too.
I couldn’t tell what she was holding, but it jerked around in her hands. It groaned.
It was alive.
I gasped awake in the night, sweating. I could still smell the dust and the heat and the decay. And I had to pee.
I spent the next morning chugging coffee and reviewing my photos and sketches from the day before. After waking up from that nightmare my sleep for the rest of the night could be described as fitful, at best. Despite this, I could not hold on to a bad mood. From the aforementioned thousands of photos, I found numerous likely subjects for paintings, including one or two I was eager to start upon immediately.
I never claimed to be a professional photographer, though I was competent enough for my own purposes. When I worked from reference I had a tendency to sort of embellish in the name of artistic license, which I felt made up for my shortcomings in that department. Probably due more to the beauty of the day and the perfect timing of my arrival, I had some photos I judged I would hardly have to embellish at all. Easy Peasy.
According to the clock on the wall and the rumbling in my stomach, it was just about lunchtime. Probably wise I should eat before starting a painting, as I was unlikely to stop for the next several hours. In art school my workload was so heavy I barely had enough time for my other schoolwork, let alone for eating and sleeping. For days I would live on tums, coffee, and cigarettes while working nearly around the clock to meet the deadlines. I was a bit more relaxed after graduating, which is probably for the best since I quit smoking immediately after getting my diploma.
For lunch, I had a ham sandwich and a bowl of soup, but I was too eager to get started to really taste it at all. Hell, I was too eager to eat it at the table, I just scarfed it down over the sink and dumped my bowl there when I was finished. For desert, I had a tums to counteract all the coffee and dashed up the stairs to my studio space.
I used the same paper I used in college, Fluid watercolor paper that measured 30 x 40 and was of a 90 lb weight. As wet as I tended to work, that was a bit light and had a tendency to warp, but I didn’t mind. I liked the way it lifted and held the color. Also, it was a bit cheaper, which was a definite plus for a poor college student. I kept using it mostly out of habit. Clamps helped with the warping.
I glanced at the photo reference and decided an underdrawing would not be a bad idea, at least for the barn and the fence. I turned back to my computer and turned on my painting playlist. The Pixies came first, Bone Machine. I nodded and grabbed a pencil while Black Francis began his baffling spoken word intro over a rolling rhythm section and Joey Santiago’s wailing guitar riffs.
The next few hours ran by in a blur, I could scarcely feel the aching in my back and legs as I stood bent over the table, rendering the scene in strokes of reds, oranges, blues, browns, and greens. Pools of color defined themselves slowly though inexorably into shapes, images, light, and darkness. As always my mind was a blank during the process, it was practically a meditative exercise.
Eventually, I had to stop to let the paper dry before setting down another layer, for fear of that loathsome gremlin of watercolor: muddiness. I washed my brush and set it down with the others on a folded paper towel, sipped at my glass of water, and laid down flat on the floor. While I rested my back I stared at the ceiling and listened to Silversun Pickups sing about a little lover, so polite.
For the first time that day I thought about Maddie, long lost memories, and strange dreams. What did it all mean? Why was I only remembering these things now? It was all so confusing and strangely frightening. Why? And what happened in the darkness? What was the thing Maddie held? what was the thing I held? Was any of it real?
I couldn’t help but feel that these were, in fact, real memories, but if so what happened to Maddie? Why wouldn’t my mother talk about her? If I loved her so much, why was I afraid of her too? Nothing made sense. I tried to push her and all these questions out of my mind. I was here to work, not to unfold some mystery. It was a waste of my mental energy, and I wanted to finish this painting tonight if I could.
I sat up with some protest from my back muscles mostly ignored and checked the paper. Still wet, of course. I had only been ruminating for a few minutes. With nothing better to do, I decided I would sketch out another painting while I waited. With this in mind, I grabbed my laptop and started rifling through photos again.
I guess thoughts of Maddie were still sticking in my metaphorical craw because the first photo I pulled up was that of the last barn, the one of ephemeral fears. Of course, I had no business inspecting this photo, considering my haste and the lateness of the day resulted in an artistically useless image. It showed the face of the barn and not much else, with its door open a crack and revealing nothing, the hayloft open above.
Though yesterday it was the open door that emitted a strangely sinister aura, it was the hayloft that caught my attention this time. It was nothing but a portal of darkness, betraying nothing, and yet I could not help but feel it was a clue somehow to all of this. Why?
Staring ever closer, I thought I could detect a slightly darker shape in the portal that piqued my interest. Already feeling that strange nausea again, I opened my photo editing software. Now photo editing interested me even less than photography in general, so I never mastered the program, but I did know how to do one thing at least. I knew how to change the brightness. I turned it up until the entire image washed out.
There was a shape. Now the program couldn’t work miracles, I still couldn’t tell what the shape was, exactly, but I knew what it could have been. Something I dearly did not want it to be. It looked like the top of someone’s head.
I swore softly to myself and closed the program, declining its offer to save my changes. It could have been anything, I told myself. Literally anything. Old barns like that were full of old junk, old equipment rusting in the darkness. Could have been anything.
Suddenly I felt exposed before the cluster of windows that so appealed to me in the light of day. That was stupid, of course. I was on the second floor and anyways, this wasn’t the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of a middle-class neighborhood. I drew the curtains anyway. Who needs open windows after dark?
The paper was dry enough, I judged. I turned up the music, raising Modest Mouse’s Perfect Disguise to a dull roar. Why not? This wasn’t an apartment and I wouldn’t disturb the neighbors. While I worked on my bucolic autumn landscape I could push strange memories aside, likewise fears both ephemeral and otherwise.
It was close to midnight when I stood back from my work and judged it to be finished. I also judged myself to be near starving. I didn’t have the stamina I had as a starving college student. Back then I could have set this painting aside and after a gas station hot dog (or more likely more coffee, tums, and cigarettes), I would be good to start on another. Today I would go downstairs and eat something that had a vegetable in it and retire to the bedroom.
I felt good about the painting, maybe even ready to disavow my earlier grumbles about the project. Maybe landscape art wasn’t fine art as I saw it, but if I could communicate something I felt was beautiful and it would make someone else happy to look at it, that could be enough. For now.
I washed my paint brushes, dumped the grimy water down the sink, and snapped a thumbnail photo of the painting to send to Lisa for approval. She would be happy to see progress so soon. I wasn’t thinking about Maddie at all. Well, not much, anyway.
I had another dream that night. Two, actually. The first dream was another Maddie dream.
In the dream I was in my bedroom, a bedroom I did not remember until now. I was laying in my bed, my first big boy bed with its superhero bed sheets. Action figures were scattered all over the floor and spilling from my big toy chest. They offered me no comfort, I was crying.
Someone knocked on the door and I stiffened, stifled a sob. It was Maddie. She smiled down at me sympathetically from the doorway. She was wearing a sundress with a floral print. Her hair was wild as it always was. She was holding something behind her back.
“Hey kiddo,” she said, “Can I come in?”
I sniffled and nodded. She sat down on the bed beside me and gave me a side hug. I felt better, in spite of myself. We sat there and she swabbed the tears from my cheek with the hem of her dress.
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” she told me. She was the only one who called me that, but usually, she just called me kiddo. I liked when she called me Johnny. “I guess I thought you were ready for that big kid stuff. It’s okay if you’re not ready yet.”
“It is?” I sniffed.
“Sure, kiddo.” She smiled down at me again. “You have plenty of time for all of that. And I’ll be there to teach you. One step at a time, you know?”
“Uh Huh,” I said.
“And don’t you worry,” She said, leaning in confidingly, “You’re still in the club. Vice president!”
“Yeah?” I said. My tears were already nearly forgotten.
“Hey, I got you something at the store today. Do you want to see?”
“Sure!” I said. Maddie gave me the best presents. Not even for Christmas. Usually for no reason, just to see me smile.
From behind her back she produced a shopping bag and revealed my gift: It was a G.I. Joe fighter jet. I had been dreaming of getting one for weeks, ever since seeing the commercial during Saturday morning cartoons. I squealed with delight and planted a kiss on her cheek. She laughed and handed the prize to me.
I immediately set to ripping it open, but she stopped me.
“Wait a second, Johnny,” She said, looking me in the eyes. “There’s just one more thing.”
“What’s that?” I asked, ready to agree to anything at that point.
“It’s about the club.” She said, cautiously.
“Well, it’s about the big kid stuff, actually. See, I think mom and dad would rather you learn about that stuff when you’re older, you know?”
“I guess so,” I replied, unsure. I didn’t like the idea of doing something if mom and dad didn’t want me to.
“It’s just that I don’t think they understand how smart you are, how big you’ve gotten. Mom and dad, they just think you’re still their baby.”
“I’m not a baby!” I protested, with the fervency that only a child fresh out of diapers could produce.
“I know you’re not!” She smiled down at me again, “So here’s the thing: I think if we can keep a secret, we can make a big kid out of you in no time! But if mom and dad found out, even if you tell one of your friends at school they’ll find out, and you’ll get in trouble. And here’s the other thing, kiddo.”
“What?” I asked.
“Well, I would get in trouble too, you know. And maybe they wouldn’t want us to play together anymore. I don’t want that to happen. Do you?”
“No!” I cried, and I meant it. I loved Maddie, I couldn’t stand it if she couldn’t play with me anymore.
She nodded, satisfied, and said, “Well that’s that then. Clubhouse business is just between clubhouse members. That means you and me only. Okay?
“Okay,” I quickly agreed.
“Pinky Promise?” She asked, presenting her pinky. I linked mine with hers, a sacred vow.
“Great!” She said, smiling big this time. “Now let’s play G.I. Joe, huh? I’ll be Cobra.”
That dream faded to obscurity, and the second dream came later. It wasn’t a Maddie dream, or at least it didn’t seem to be. I was laying in bed, in the dark. I could see someone standing at the foot of the bed, but in the darkness, I couldn’t tell who it was. I couldn’t move and I was terribly afraid of the person, but they didn’t do anything. Just stood there. The next thing I knew, it was the morning.