By Lisa Fox
For ninety-six years, I’ve resided inside the recesses of Anna’s mind, the tempo of her firing synapses guiding my hand over the canvas of her dreams. I paint for her the landscape, the pleasure and the ache, of her subconscious journey lived in parallel to her waking world.
My artistry flows, deft and deliberate, aligned with emotions Anna shares when she closes her eyes and opens her world to me. On the day of her birth, her dreams were but a series of abstract images hovering on a fissure of light. Over time, the scenes sharpened with her growth, the canvas expanding with her intellect.
My smooth pastel brushstrokes complement Anna’s invoked symbols of joy, images prancing across a lifetime of memories and hopes.
A puppy’s bark.
A daffodil swaying in the breeze.
On these nights, she breathes easy, as do I.
When the staccato beat of her anxiety guides me toward brisk stiff-bristled strokes of red and black, the manic display confines her in chaotic paralysis. Her raging heartbeat commands motion; her numbed legs betray her.
Sometimes she falls. Sometimes she flies. On her worst nights, I stand ready to catch her, though I remain an enigma she will never know.
She locks her pain inside darkened corners. I attempt to mend the shattered fragments that spill into my view:
A tarnished gold ring.
Empty photo frames, blank albums.
Wilted flowers hanging from shriveled vines.
And always, a faceless man who hovers in shadow.
Each time these pieces take shape, she thrusts a cauldron of black paint in my hands, willing me to splash a dark veil over the canvas. Rare is it for a charge to commandeer her dreams with such vigor. By duty, I oblige, yet I seek only to help her.
A near century of sunsets begets a litany of losses—parents and siblings, nieces and nephews, friends. Anna is alone, the last of her family. The day her mother died, I painted Anna a portal to the spirit world, where she might reunite with the souls of those passed, should they come knocking. Should she allow them in.
Spirits queued outside, waiting. Her mother and father wrung their hands at the threshold of their daughter’s dreams, begging me for entry. But only Anna could invite a spirit inside, and she kept the door shut tight, its seal as hardened as her aging mind. She relented only when Jack, her beloved childhood dog, barreled through the portal, barking and wagging. She ran her fingers over his fur; his tail thumped in time with her heartbeat. So real, she whispered, before succumbing to daylight.
The desolation of Anna’s waking hours resonates in her nighttime murmurs, shivering over the surface of my paint wells. Though Jack’s presence encouraged Anna to open the portal to her parents, too, an inexplicable longing echoes, heavy as footfalls in an empty room.
Now that her breaths come short and the cadence of her synapses weakens, I prepare to paint Anna’s final portrait—the last image her closed eyes will see. It will be my final tribute to a lifetime spent rendering the divinations of her heart. When her light fades, I will be assigned to a newborn brain, left with fleeting images of Anna’s psyche, phantom feelings of our connection. But my love for her, that will persist. Always.
I paint with broad strokes on the blank page as she drifts. I offer rolling waves over a sandy shore and the pink hues of sunset cradling the fading light. I sketch her footprints, forever embedded in the earth, yearning for them to be strong and bold as she walks on.
Anna’s breath falters. She summons storm clouds over the sea. The waves crash. The wind wails. An empty picture frame rises through the sand, protruding like a lone tombstone. The faceless man materializes and drops to his knees in a glow of adoration. He reaches for her; she turns away. Sea mist, rain, and tears wash over Anna’s youthful face. Dark grey splotches of despair stain her flowing white dress—inkblots marring a masterpiece.
Lightning sizzles. A flashbulb pops from an old-fashioned Polaroid camera that rests on a tripod made of shriveled vines.
An empty square flutters down—a photograph never taken.
Anna’s fingers graze the paper. It crumbles, whisked into the sand along with the faceless man, whose disintegration falls like the curve of her endless frown.
“William.” Anna’s voice echoes into nothingness. “I should have stayed.”
William—his name, a distant sigh drowned at the edges of her consciousness; his spirit, blocked from the threshold of Anna’s dreams.
No brush I select, no hue I blend will alter this landscape, this scene Anna has hidden from herself—from me—for decades. But now it repeats, an endless loop of regret tainting her final dreamscape.
I cannot leave her to die with this image.
I cannot move on if she is not at peace.
Abandoning my brushes and paints, I extricate myself from Anna’s subconscious and step through the portal into the spirit world. The rush of a million zooming souls stings me as I do the unthinkable. The forbidden.
I cry out for the faceless man.
He approaches in a glowing orb, his features taking shape. Deep-set green eyes under a shock of black curls. Strong chin. Shy smile.
“Please, come,” I say. “She needs you.”
He nods, a quiver tugging at his lips. “I’ve been waiting for her.”
William glides through the portal toward the beachfront. He whispers her name in the breeze, and Anna’s storm clouds retreat.
I paint a vibrant sunbeam over Caribbean-blue water. The waves undulate, steady as a heartbeat. Daffodils sprout in the sea foam: they burst into butterflies, flitting through the sky. It’s a landscape befitting paradise.
William takes Anna’s hand and softly kisses it.
“I will,” she whispers. He leads her toward the portal.
A flashbulb pops.
I detach, drifting through darkness. Onward.
* * *
Lisa Fox is a pharmaceutical market researcher by day and fiction writer by night. She thrives in the chaos of suburbia, residing in New Jersey (USA) with her husband, two sons, and their double-doodle puppy. Her work has been featured in Metaphorosis, New Myths, Luna Station Quarterly, and Brilliant Flash Fiction, among other journals and anthologies.