We are pleased to bring you the 7th place winner of the Becoming Writer Anniversary contest. Christian Opperman is an emerging writer currently based in Tokyo, Japan. When not writing, he enjoys reading anything and everything he can get his hands on, and good food. You can follow him on Twitter @cjaopperman.
The cigarette stub crackled in David’s mouth as he buzzed himself into his apartment complex, the flame crawling close enough to his lips that they stung. Again. He chucked the offending butt into a puddle, already tugging his second-to-last cigarette from the box in his breast pocket.
It took longer than it should have to get the cigarette lit, what with the traitorous end dancing away from the flame in his unsteady hands — he was already on the stairs by the time he managed a solid drag. He paused against the handrail, both to catch his breath and to savor the feeling of calm clarity that had hooked him in the first place after Sophie left.
The calm never came and his hands only shook worse. He glared at the coffin nail between his fingers, his tenth that day and third in the last half hour, and he was just as irritated and jumpy as when he woke up that morning. More, even, given his boss’s attitude in the office.
“Fuck you, Peterson,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in it. Cigarette seven had been party to his ranting already, and he was spent. Still, Petey was an asshole. He suppressed the urge to spit with a long drag. That one didn’t help either.
Everything was where it should be. Table. Refrigerator. Microwave. Sofa. Easel. His second life, in more ways than one, gathered under Sophie’s framed gaze. He never could bring himself to pack that photo away with the rest of them.
The room smelt of acetone overpowering several days’ worth of garbage. Picking his way through what he thought of as his studio to the kitchen, David pulled open the freezer and dug about in the slim pickings for tonight’s dinner. He settled on the last frozen lasagna and threw it into the microwave, ignoring the stench of the burnt remnants of some forgotten meal.
He took a seat at his easel, slipped out of his shirt — letting it drop to the ground beside him — and picked up his palette. A few minutes later, the microwave screamed to welcome the end of its labor. David, brush steady on canvas, didn’t hear it.
David’s face itched when he woke. The rug in front of the sofa rasped on stubble as he pushed himself to his feet. He blinked sleep from the corners of his eyes and unfurled his body, feeling soggy and strained, like a flag stretched out in the rain.
“Two seventeen,” he read from the clock. “Wait, what?” He double checked the clock’s hour hand. The hands weren’t lying. Despite the hour and his body’s protests, his mind was afire, running at the speed of sound.
He headed towards the lightswitch. Or tried to. He didn’t get more than two steps before he caught his foot on something and stumbled to a knee with a curse, clipping whatever it was that tripped him on his way down.
Paintings drowned the floor. Finished and work-in-progress pieces radiated from his easel in a quilt of color; nearly the only flooring visible was where David had woken, contorted to fit onto his too-small rug. More than a few of them were good enough to sell. Maybe even good enough to score him that breakthrough, the one he needed to get Sophie back.
“What the fuck?” he whispered. “When did I do this?”
In that moment, David caught a shifting in the dark. He whirled and ducked, hands coming up to protect his face, but saw nothing. The scent of oil paint grew stronger, strong enough that David could taste it, strong enough that he began coughing. Then he saw the movement again, this time directly in front of him.
A painting was moving.
Paintings didn’t move. Figures in paintings didn’t move. They definitely didn’t stretch out and through the canvas itself to begin clawing their way free. Yet that was what a stunning girl with a cruel, leering face was doing. Already she had an arm hooked over the stretching frame, a second one following, her head bulging from the canvas.
David stumbled over paintings until his back collided with the wall, his hand groping for the lightswitch. As soon as he found it he wished he hadn’t. He’d flicked the switch just in time to see the knee-high figure wrench itself out of the painting. What had been a beautiful girl was now twisted, her face ruined and smudged by her exit, somehow even crueler than when she’d been confined to canvas. Her skin dripped into itself, a swirling whirlpool of paint and something David couldn’t place. Fumes poured from her body, making David gag, and she squelched as she moved.
She chittered in answer, a thousand twitching bugs given voice, and advanced. Step by step she drew closer until she was near enough to grab David. Her hands were steel encircling his arm as she dropped to her knees, pooling on the floor in silent supplication.
Finally, David began to scream.
Behind the horror latched to his arm he could see more paintings disgorging their occupants. She wouldn’t let go. His efforts to dislodge her sent pain lancing up to his shoulder and scattered the ashtray on the table next to him.
Ashtray. A desperate idea gripped him as he watched the crushed butts tumble to the ground around him. He patted his pockets like he was on fire. He was in luck; the disposable lighter was still there.
Whatever she was, the girl didn’t see the pale flame as he brought it to her hair.
He felt a flash of heat wash over him and had to close his eyes against the sudden brightness. When he opened them again, the girl was gone, the gash in his arm and a thin film ringing the points where she’d been touching the floor the only indication she’d been there in the first place.
David collapsed back against the wall, clutching his lighter like he’d found the Holy Grail as a cool wind from the window swept across the empty apartment. The canvases on the floor were empty to the last.
In hindsight, not throwing the easel out with his paints was a mistake. David could see it from where he was curled up on his bed, sitting there mocking him in his living room. Worse, he didn’t have the strength to get up and close the door. He physically itched – needed – to sit at his painting station and let the fever from the night before take him.
Instead, he moaned as another shiver wracked his body. His head hung from the edge of the bed, dangling over a puddle of soupy bile like a stringless marionette. He rolled over just in time to heave what little remained in his stomach onto the floor again.
Painted horrors showed up periodically to dance around his bed, only to vanish when he produced his lighter. He threw his arm over his eyes, ignoring the smears of blood from where he’d scratched his arm open two…three…seven? hours ago.
“I can’t do this,” he said into the arm. Hallucinations or not, the creatures were flaying his nerves, leaving him a jumping, cringing mess in a puddle of his own filth.
Suddenly, a now familiar chittering drew David’s focus away from the sweat and piss soaking his sheets.
“Please,” he said, though he wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or the new arrival. “Not again.” He looked up.
This creature could have been Sophie, he thought, if she’d been born deformed and in a serious accident. Unlike the previous apparitions, however, this one had something grasped in its hands. It kept up its eerie laughter as it came to the bedside.
“Stop,” he threatened, holding the lighter out like a cross warding off evil. It sparked and died in his hands, and a slimy, unyielding hand pried his fingers apart and stole his last line of defense. A retinue of other creatures, all women or children, all twisted, surrounded the edges of the room. In that moment, David faced true despair. And lost. He tried to curl further into himself and found that his body couldn’t contort any further. He settled for whimpering.
“What do you want from me?” he said from between his thighs, his voice hoarse and his arms pressed to skull. The hand returned, making David’s skin crawl as what he hoped was paint enveloped his entire hand for the briefest of seconds before retreating.
In place of the lighter he now held a ballpoint pen and pad. The answer to his question was scratched into the pad in a rough, childlike scrawl, the letters pressed so hard into the paper that they were engraved into the pages below.