Short Story: The Townhome

The art gallery in Midtown, New York swarmed with bees. Not the kind that sting, per say, but the kind that buzz. They buzzed about how this symbolized that and how this actually was a metaphor for capitalism and how this color scheme meant to evoke that emotion and how this paint stroke had been painted purposefully for that effect. She hated bees. All bees ever seem to do was make honey and buzz.

Everyone’s a goddamn patron. She thought. She laughed softly, sloshing her pinot lazily in her glass, already way in with five servings.  Is every guest at the gallery too scared to be a contrarian? She wondered. It’s art. It’s subjective. Isn’t that the point?  On a sleek, maroon couch – the kind with cold, unforgiving, sharp edges – she sat slouching in her plain trench coat she never bothered to shed. She felt contained in her trench coat, and it was always easier to feel contained than exposed for Judith May.

“Excuse me” chirped an unfamiliar voice.

Judith looked up, away from the buzzing to find a woman. “You can sit here. There’s room.” Judith replied.

“Oh no, that’s not it.” After a brief pause, “Are you…Judith May? It’s just – I’ve been to all your exhibits. I feel like I would recognize you anywhere” gushed the fan.

“Yes, I’m – that’s me.”

“I’m sorry. If you’re trying to stay under the radar, I can just go-” but the fan sat down beside Judith anyway much to Judith’s dismay. “I just now had the courage to come and speak with you. I had to down two glasses of wine just to do it. You probably don’t know what that’s like.”

Judith chugged the rest of her pinot. If I don’t know what it’s like, I certainly know what it’s like now. She looked around for an end table on which to set the glass, but found none. She resolved to awkwardly place the glass on the floor while slyly looking for an escape route. 

“If you had a moment, I was wondering if I could talk to you about your paintings?”

“Which ones?” she said as if the prospect of being congenial felt tedious. 

“The series with the townhome. Shall we walk over?”

Judith looked once again for an exit, but the art gallery was packed with bees. The noise was incredible – an incessant hum from the ones who wish to be closer to culture but have too much money and too much time – time spent on the fleeting, the material, the instant gratification – the ones who would rather pay to have culture made for them then make anything for themselves, the ones who blindly praise culture for fear that their negative opinion may make them come across uncultured, the ones Judith found were a necessary evil, the ones who could help sweeten the world as long as she didn’t piss on their patronage. Their honey kept her fed, but the pollen in the air from their propagation caused her throat to swell.

“I suppose” Judith said flatly. “I can’t leave just yet.”

The fan laughed as if the two of them were best friends  “I hear you, girl. I need time to settle from the drinks too.”

Judith veered her gaze from the woman, aloof, as the pair walked over to a series of paintings entitled Home. Each panel featured a single townhouse, and each panel showed the same single, solitary townhouse in progressive stages of decay. The townhouse was gray, painted in expressive brushstrokes the way one felt it more than saw it clearly. A partly cloudy sky surrounded the townhome, enveloping it in a familiar but otherworldly backdrop for the entire town home floated in this sky – suspended, yet still feeling the constraints of time. In each panel the house chipped away until the last panel featured only a barren foundation.

“What’s the meaning behind this series?” the fan inquired.

Judith guided her to the plaque on the wall describing the series, “You can read the description here on the wall.”

The fan laid a hand on Judith’s shoulder. “Oh, but I wanted to hear it from you. What does it mean to you?”

“I think what it means to you, and how you interpret it for yourself is far more important” Judith cut their conversation, and started to lean out, the type of leaning out one does when one has reached the climax of a conversation, when there is nothing left to talk about, and all time beyond the point feels stalled.

“I was told it was something…personal” remarked the fan.

And in that woman’s eyes, Judith saw burning. She saw a reflection of flames in her irises. Fire. The inescapable heat. Judith’s lungs burned and her skin began to shrivel up as if de-atomizing, an instantaneous combustion into nothingness. She tried to yell out, but only choked instead. If only she were able snuff herself out like a wick and suffocate the flames, she might stand a chance. It was all going away so fast. From squinted eyes she saw all that was before her aflame in a hellish tableau, the building collapsing around, its occupants flailing in chaos all with no sound except for the incessant ringing in her ears.

She closed her eyes, accepting death.

With a gasp, Judith popped up from the angular couch. Breathing heavily, she checked herself for burns, but found none.

A slender, chic woman approached Judith dressed in black appearing just as angular as the maroon couch. She was taller than most women with broader shoulders than most too, and muscular arms. She spoke with a low, but lightweight, feathery voice, “Honey, you need to go home. I called you a cab.”

Judith looked around to find the guests filing out of the gallery. I slept through the whole thing. She looked up at the gallery owner. “Yes, thank you.”

The owner spoke thickly with a hint of smugness, “Next time, if you want to sell some damn paintings, don’t drink so much damn wine, and talk to some damn patrons. Are you okay? You look ill. You better not throw up in that damn cab, or they’ll charge you, girl.”

“I just had a bad dream” Judith said softly as she rose from the couch.

In the cab, Judith pecked her hand through her shoulder-bag purse, a suddenly hyperactive hen. She pulled out a crumpled stack of money, every bit that was left in her purse, and waved it near the driver’s right ear.

“Take me to Jersey” She said.

She spelled out the address to the man. Together they drove in silence. It was late, almost midnight, as they approached a small, sparsely populated neighborhood in Jersey. As the taxi driver approached the residential area, he passed one young man on a bike. The bicyclist stopped and stared at Judith.

“Know that guy?” the driver inquired with a gruff accent.

“No” Judith replied, concerned. She stared back at the young man, and her breath caught in her throat. 

“He’s sure looking at you like he knows you.”

Judith looked closer at the young man’s face, far too closely to be considered polite. Something was not quite right. She cocked her head forward, giving into innate childlike curiosity, pressing a hand to the backseat window. As the taxi turned the corner, the young man took a few measured steps forward into the wash of a nearby street lamp. And then she saw it, the thing that was not quite right, for this man was missing both eyes.

Judith turned swiftly back into her sitting position, and took a deep breath. It’s late. You saw shadows. She slowly peered back out the window to find the young man wheeling his bike home in the opposite direction. She could no longer see his face, only the back of his head.

The cab driver finally approached to a ramshackle, ashen townhouse at the end of the neighborhood with boarded up windows. He pulled the taxi over to the curb directly in front of the house.

He hesitated before he asked “you sure this is the place?”

“Yes” she answered as she exited the car.

The cab driver stalled by the curb watching Judith walk up the front porch steps. Once she unlocked the door and stepped inside, the cab driver took off. Judith stood in an empty entrance-way looking at an emptier living room off to her right. The floorboards creaked as she walked toward the fireplace above which sat an old painted portrait of a couple lost in time. Somehow the woman looked familiar. She knew her, and yet maybe she didn’t. But maybe one day she would. As for the man, she didn’t know him either. However, she felt the similar sensation of deja vu if deja vu could be reversed or manipulated by time and space. That is, if one could feel deja vu for something they will experience rather than something they have experienced.  She brushed her hand lightly across the mantle, rubbing the forgotten dirt between her thumb and fingers. The dirt lingered on her fingertips along with something else, something much more sinister in nature.

“Soot” she whispered to herself.

A snap. A flash. She lit up again, burning, screaming. Then she was back.

Beep. Beep. Beep. She heard it like a metronome never skipping a beat followed by whirring, and the faint image of something. People? Moving about with some kind of equipment?

She gasped as her focus returned to the mantle. She held onto it as if to ground herself to it indefinitely. What’s happening to me?

She heard a stern knock on the door. Three times. BANG. BANG. BANG. She released her grip on the mantle, and backed toward the corner of the living room. BANG. BANG. BANG. The knocking persisted, impatient.

“Leave!” She commanded, yet the incessant knocking continued. BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG.

“Please stop!” Then there was silence.

Just as Judith released her held breath, the front door handle began to vibrate with great ferocity. Judith tried to leap, to block the door, but it was too late. The door eased open in an ominous fashion. What stood in the door frame was what looked to be a human on its last limb of life somehow remarkably standing where it stood with a gaping hole where the heart resides. The woman raised a hand at her. In a panic, Judith slammed the door in the woman’s face offering her just enough time to head toward the back door, which she somehow knew the location to, though, she didn’t know how or why.

She ran.

As she opened the screen door to the back, the teenage boy with no eyes walked up the steps, and for the first time he spoke.

“Give me your eyes so that I may see.”

She scrambled away from him back toward the front door, sandwiching herself between two creatures of mysterious origin.

The woman spoke, “Give me your heart so that I may love.”

They reached their arms out for her, for what was inside of her. What was her. They were too fast. It was all too fast, and with his bare fingers he plunged into her eye sockets to take what he deemed his. The woman dug through the flesh and bone to get to the life-giving organ deemed hers. And in that moment, there was peace. Time. What was time? It felt as if in that moment, time was suspended, everything was suspended and floating on a cloud, and she would be floating on that cloud, forever to be disassembled. In this twilight, she began to understand what she was and what she would be. 

The flames came back, engulfing her into the present light, a fluorescent light which hung above her as she laid on a gurney. She saw people in face masks and white uniforms crowding around her. There was a man by her side. She thought of the townhome. It wasn’t her home, but maybe someday it could be and would be. In the twilight sleep between life and death she saw that someday she would be something people would admire, but it would make her bitter, cold, and alone. And for the first time in a long time, she reached out to a nearby hand…

Until her hand began to spark and the buzzing filled her ears.

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