Short Story Contest - First Place Winner: Tiffany London
He watched Catherine in the greenhouse, picking up her brush, swirling it in a light, misty colour–almost grey. She always imagined the man on her canvas to have eyes light in colour, but she felt a chill falling down her spine before she could even lift the brush to the canvas.
“Wrong shade?” She questioned under her breath, so quietly she was more so asking herself than anyone else, but the ghost in her house heard her and let her know he disapproved of her choice of colour. “I always imagined you with blue or grey eyes,” she mumbled still. “You have to understand, this is still new to me.”
It was true, Catherine had dedicated the better part of her life to oils, not painting ghosts. Since the death of her late husband, Julian Roussin, she’d spent more time with this ghost in her house than she would have liked to admit.
Before washing the paintbrush clean of the grey, she leaned over and marked the leg of her easel. One mark for today, and a million marks for the past. The ghost had introduced himself into her life almost two years ago. She’d kept track everyday, using paint to make a mark on the leg of her easel for each day that passed and he was still here. She did it at first to prove to herself she wasn’t going insane, but by now it was merely habit.
Every month since then, she’d spent anywhere from days to months, painting the face of a man, the face of the man that she believed was in her house. “We do this every time,” Catherine said, studying the canvas. “You let me mix my paint, and it’s always the wrong colour, but you never stop me until I’m finished.” She shrugged her shoulders. “And by then, I’ve already wasted so much paint.” Turning her chair, she cringed at the number of paintings resting against the wall, all collecting dust. Every one of them wore a different face. One with eyes so bright and blue they just looked like bowls collecting water. One with a crooked nose that you could hang your clothes on, but they were all wrong. None of these were the ghost, and if attempting to capture him in acrylics was the only thing keeping her sane, she would do nothing but.
A short rap at the door of the greenhouse caught her attention. Catherine didn’t have many friends, not before Julian and definitely not since his death. Not to mention Catherine hadn’t been anything short of hostile towards any friends who had stayed put.
“It’s raining cats and dogs out there,” Marjorie said, letting herself into the greenhouse before Catherine could open the door all the way. Her jacket was drenched to the bone, her curly hair now stringy and limp around the shoulders. It was always like this with Marjorie–loud and her personality was often described as overstimulating, but she was one of the only people who still came around the house anymore. Being Julian’s older sister, she was only obligated to tolerate Catherine.
“Well, why on earth should you come walking over here, then?” Catherine asked, deciding today was not the day to beat around the bush. “I was painting.” “You’re always painting,” Marjorie remarked, pulling a small wrapped parcel out of her coat pocket. “I tried to bake cookies. A gesture of my love.” She looked to the side, not entirely surprised to see the plethora of paintings littering the walls. “You’re still painting your mystery man?”
Catherine pushed her shoulders back, “He’s not a mystery man,” she said. “And I’m trying to paint him, but you keep interrupting.”
Marjorie cocked her head, turning back around. “You’re obsessed with this man, Catherine, the least you could do is introduce us.” She pushed the wrapped cookies into Catherine’s hands, before taking a seat. “We need to talk.”
Catherine placed the parcel on a random table, refusing to let herself throw Marjorie out in the rain, but she remained standing. “About what?” The woman paused for a second, staring at Catherine, knowing her next words would have to come out carefully. “I’m worried about you, Cathy. You never come outside, you’re always in here painting, and you’ve become infatuated with this man that you won’t tell anyone anything about.”
Catherine’s jaw locked, stopping her from speaking and she knew it was the ghost. He was stopping her from saying anything.
Marjorie took this as a sign to continue speaking. “You stay in here any longer and you’ll go insane. I’m going to have a doctor come over.”
The ghost released Catherine. “I’m not insane, Marge and I don’t need to have a doctor come and tell me I’m fine when I already know I am. You’re overstepping.”
Marjorie looked around at the greenhouse, the slash marks on Catherine’s easel and the way Catherine herself looked older than her real age. “He’s going to be here tomorrow. I’ll be here too. Please, Cathy, for your sake. It’s what Julian would have wanted.”
It took a great deal of effort for Catherine to open the door to the doctor the next morning and it took a great deal more not to get rid of him. For one, he was utterly convinced that Catherine should be bedridden until he could come to any other conclusion. He said she was practically on the road to madness and ought not to spend so much time painting.
He even stayed over to sit in the garden with her, talking to her about plants as if she could give a care in the world about any of it. He asked who built her wooden planting pots and who trimmed the hedges and even more! She’d never heard someone so interested in pots and dirt before.
Marjorie suggested she stay over, at least for the next couple days to help around the house. She didn’t realise how little Catherine already did to keep the house clean and running, but it was no use anyway. Catherine insisted she was fine on her own and that was the end of the conversation.
So she pretended to be perfectly okay when the doctor suggested another visit and waited until both he and Marjorie were gone before making her way to the greenhouse. She needed to paint this ghost, it was the only way she would meet him. It all made sense to her–to encapsulate him in her paintings would essentially be the same as talking to him, seeing him in real life.
Taking out her acrylics, she decided to stand this time around.
“Silly doctor,” she said aloud for the ghost to hear. “Silly Marjorie. They both believe me to be crazy. I’m not.”
She stared into the eyes of her painting. They were staring back at her, she could tell. Catherine couldn’t look away. They held a warmth only dark eyes could and these were the darkest.
“Ghost?” She mumbled. “It’s you, isn’t it? These are your eyes?” She didn’t feel anything. Nothing stopped and the world kept moving. She started to feel a rigidness in her back. She needed this to be him, she was desperate to be near him.
Gradually, the rigidness built up inside her, anger and frustration making it difficult to see and breathe.
“Why are you hiding?” She asked herself, her voice small and tone sharp. “I’m right here–can’t you understand? I want to be with you. I can’t do this alone, you know this. Talk to me.” Her words came stumbling out of her mouth rushed, as if she was a little girl learning to speak again.
A rash anger flooded her body. Catherine staggered around the greenhouse, tears dampening her cheeks in a hot rage, flinging her canvas and bringing it down to the ground. A pained scream left the depths of her throat leaving it scratched, but she couldn’t stop. This was her only chance to love again.
She heard the drawings and cabinets opening and slamming on their own, then the familiar voice of Marjorie, yelling for Catherine and her hands palming the greenhouse door. It was only until the door finally gave in to Marjorie’s body slams when the noise stopped and Catherine stood there, her hands in shaking fists by her sides.
Almost immediately, she felt Marjorie’s hands on her arms, pulling her and tugging her. After that, there was nothing.
The doctor arrived early that morning. Marjorie had invited herself to stay the night after Catherine’s meltdown, which she had described to the doctor as ‘a display of complete and undeniable mental derangement’. And how could Catherine argue against that? There was no way, not since Marjorie witnessed her smearing paint on the floor and on herself, and not since she left the greenhouse looking like nothing short of a madhouse.
Therefore Catherine didn’t try to oppose and settled for silence when the doctor ordered Marjorie to lock the doors to the greenhouse, believing it was the painting that led her to experience such large amounts of hysteria.
She was already bedridden, but Marjorie had taken it upon herself now to stay sitting in the kitchen. Catherine saw her moving her stuff into the room next to her own earlier. She’d been rifling through the linen closet only a few minutes ago looking for clean sheets and pillow cases.
“Honey for your throat,” Marjorie said, setting a thick rimmed mug down on the side table, eyeing Catherine, who hadn’t so much as whispered one word since last night. “You won’t talk,” the woman noted. “Don’t. Rest your voice. You nearly broke the windows with your screams.” Catherine noticed the way Marjorie’s voice wavered as she spoke. She was scared of her. She was scared of the crazy woman she was now looking over.
Catherine stared straight ahead. Marjorie had never seen a presence so dark in a woman with eyes as blue and light as Catherine’s. Before she could walk away, Catherine suddenly grabbed Marjorie’s wrist, her hands cold–almost lifeless.
“It’s not the painting,” she wheezed, her head turning and her eyes finding Marjorie’s. “It’s the ghost. He’s here, Marjorie. He’s in the greenhouse and he’s looking for me.” Catherine didn’t say anything after that. She stayed sitting in bed, even as Marjorie labelled her as clinically insane and left her, closing the bedroom door behind her.
Catherine watched as Marjorie brought in laundry, listened to her shuffling around the house cleaning everything Catherine should have cleaned before. She sat and watched the wall, waiting for the moment.
She let herself be taken care of, drinking every ailment and sleeping a great deal when ordered. She let herself be dressed and bathed and then put back in bed once again, just to be told to sleep once more. Catherine could hear him in the greenhouse, his breathing and his footsteps, calling her down.
When everything was quiet, when she was sure Marjorie was asleep, she climbed out of bed. Passing Marjorie’s room, she locked the door from the outside, her feet then making slow, small steps towards the greenhouse. He was there and he wanted to talk to her–Catherine already knew.
Passing by the living room, she picked up a fire iron, letting it drag across the wooden floor as she walked down the hallway, the stick scratching up the wood. Catherine used the fire iron to force the greenhouse door open with an explosive crack, dropping the stick by the frame of the door.
She could already hear Marjorie yelling upstairs, her hands banging and her feet stomping on the floor. It was deafening. Catherine could feel that rigidness ignite in her body once again, a humming noise filling her eardrums and Marjorie’s constant cries weren’t helping.
“Help me,” Catherine asked the ghost, now back in the greenhouse. “Silence her for me. Can you hear me?”
Everything stopped. The clock stopped in its place and the wind dared not to play with the curtains hanging over the windows. Catherine stood in the middle of the floor, surrounded by nothing but the absolute quietness of the evening. Looking outside, she watched as Marjorie fell from her room, her body still as it landed on the ground.
All at once, the chandelier fell from the ceiling, crashing and splitting apart at Catherine’s feet. Every diamond previously attached flew across the room, the lights giving up. The mirrors slid down the wall, pieces of glass finding a home in every crevice of the room and littering the floor. Catherine saw her photo of Julian, once sitting prettily on her nightstand, shatter and she covered her head with her arms, hearing the metal photo frame slamming into the wall.
Looking up, she watched as the large bay windows, sheets of glass, fractured and disintegrated into slivers smaller than dust. Falling, the shards of glass looked like rain against the darkness of the sky.
Catherine lost her voice at the back of her throat, every attempt at speaking met with nothing but short, staggered breaths. A nervous weakness spread throughout her arms and legs.
Her eyes focused on a large shard of mirror. She knew what she had to do–to be with the ghost. Picking up the glass, she smiled.
“My love,” she whispered. “I’m coming.” And she brought the glass to her throat.