Sometimes, he looks at me funny, appraising, smiling. He lets me work in my own way, at my own pace, and that’s all I can ask for. He visits me sometimes when I’m working to ask a few simple questions, always circling back to how much time it will take me to finish. I can never tell him. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, what I’m creating—I only know that it has to be just right, that each brushstroke has to be precise, my subject shaped to perfection. There are entire days when I am forced to paint over what I have done because it isn’t good enough. I only know that I am working toward something important, something meaningful and powerful. I have to trust in my artistic instincts. He tells me not to worry, that I’m doing a good job, but sometimes I wonder. He tells me not to think too hard about it, that true artistic expression comes from something deep within, yet larger than ourselves.
“Colin,” Mr. Klimt says, looking me in the eyes. “It is not ours to question, but to create…”
PART ONE: THE PARTY
“There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”
―Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death
People talked, of course. People said he’d once had a family, a loving wife, but she’d killed herself and their two daughters. People said his life was filled with tragedy, that he’d been bankrupt and destitute, despite his Harvard education, but that he’d made a triumphant return, come into a large fortune, and now had one of the largest private art collections in western America. They said he had a Dali. They said he had several of da Vinci’s original sketches. They said he’d made his money on the stock market, or as a diplomat for a foreign ruler, or as a Hollywood movie producer, or in an inheritance from a great uncle he’d never known. They said he’d killed a man who cheated him over a poker game.
But, despite what people said, or perhaps because of it, he was a man generally well-liked and well-regarded in the community, although he’d only lived in Mesa Rapids for a few months, mostly due to his free-spirited generosity with his money, and the lavish parties he held, to which everyone in town longed to be invited.
In fact, ever since Harold Klimt had come to Mesa Rapids, people in town had been acting strangely—more foolhardy, more excitable than usual. But that was only the normal course of things when a new and rousing face appeared in town. After all, many wealthy and eclectic characters lived in Mesa Rapids. There were well-to-do horse ranchers and businessmen, artists and art collectors, inheritors of oil fortunes, and several people in the Hollywood movie industry—producers and directors, camera operators and special-effects engineers, and everyone in between—Mesa Rapids’s scenic landscapes and surrounding desert being the perfect setting for films ranging from Westerns to other worldly science fiction, further incentivized by the state’s support of the industry through massive tax write-offs.
Most of the wealthiest people lived atop Aspen Mesa, a small plateau, twenty miles across, rising above the surrounding river valley; the poorest, below, where the hobbled houses and trailers clung between the train tracks and the Colorado River, there being no middle class in Mesa Rapids. Below the extravagance—the perfectly contoured adobe walls selected for their muted sandstone color; the horse trails and private parks; the ponds, and brooks, and aspen orchards that blazed stunning colors of orange and red in the fall; ridiculous gabled towers; private pools and fields—the less fortunate congregated. These people were comprised of the usual assortment of maintenance workers, and teachers, and young adults still struggling to find direction for their lives—especially within the artist’s community that was a prominent part of the culture in Mesa Rapids. The citizens of “the valley” rarely intermingled with those of “the hill,” except for the occasional town meeting or when an art collector took a fancy in an artist and sent a car to drive the lucky individual up the hill to be paraded about as a “discovery,” with lazy bravado and condescension.
Which is why people found it peculiar when Klimt, a man with seemingly endless resources, had chosen the Upshaw Mansion—abandoned and dilapidated—in the valley by the train tracks, as his place of residence.
“You’re such an asshole,” Colin Thorne said.
His friend Derek smiled, driving the car. “Why? Because she’s your sister?”
“If you insist, but I’d rather fuck Stephanie. She has needs, man. Just like everybody. She’d like it.”
Colin groaned. “I should have known better than to show you that picture.”
Derek chuckled. “Yeah, can you send it to me? The one where she’s in the booty shorts? Is she on Facebook?”
“She’s fourteen, you horny fuck!”
“All right, all right.”
Derek floored the car through a yellow light.
“Are Phil and Bennie still having that party this weekend?” Colin asked.
“Fuck yeah, they are.” Derek shifted restlessly in his seat. “One thousand Jell-O shots.”
“A thousand? That’s a lot, man. They’ll never make that many.”
“They almost did last time.”
Last time, a couple of weeks ago, Colin had watched Derek spew colorful chunks of undigested Jell-O across the bathroom floor before he could help his friend to the toilet. “Shit,” Derek had said, his shaggy hair matting on the toilet’s rim. “This shit’s never coming out.” Colin had slumped against the wall, woozy and disoriented. He’d watched Derek retch, spew, retch again. Someone had pounded on the door and Colin had yelled, “Occupied!” From the toilet, Derek had mumbled, “Yeah, too much...never coming out...”
Colin had laughed, “I think you puked it all up, man.”
“No...not that...this dream...every night...this nightmare...”
Derek had been Colin’s friend since they were boys—sort of. They’d been in the same first-grade class. They’d walked to and from school together every day, taking turns kicking rocks or pinecones, tightrope-walking the curb, hiding behind bushes to throw snowballs at the girls from their class. The year after that, however, Derek had been in a different class and their friendship had drifted apart. Derek hadn’t spoken to him again until they were in high school, Colin being shy and always unsure of himself, spending his time playing video games with his friends, while Derek played soccer and wouldn’t have anything to do with the nerd crowd. But in high school, a girl named Sarah had convinced him to try a cigarette and, even though he was shy, Colin would have done anything for Sarah and her freckled nose and her auburn eyes and her curving hips, and had begun hanging out at the “Cancer Pit” behind the school. At first, he clutched by Sarah’s side, too intimidated to speak, but when he’d come around the corner one day after science class and seen her sloppily kissing Jack Stanton while Jack rammed his hand up her blouse, he’d been devastated. It had been Derek, who’d been watching him closely from within the smoker’s circle, who had taken him aside and said, “Fuck her, man. She’s a dumb slut anyway. Everyone knows it.”
He began hanging out with Derek again, first smoking in the old Toyota Four Runner Derek had gotten for his sixteenth birthday while they drove around town, then drinking beer stolen from Derek’s father’s private stash in the garage.
When Colin had turned eighteen, their senior year, Derek had taken him to a place called “The Ice House” and forced him up on stage. Colin had been petrified with embarrassment at the bulge in his pants and mortified for the girls slapping their breasts in his face. He’d been disgusted and fascinated when one of the girls had made a show of launching Ping-Pong balls from one side of the room to the other. He’d been offended at the spectacle, as he’d been taught to be by his Christian parents, although the bulge in his pants had continued to throb, almost painfully, with heat.
When Derek had announced he was going to the state college in town, Colin had decided to go there too; it was the only school he applied to. They’d been dorm mates. Colin wanted to be an illustrator and took an introductory drawing class along with several of the usual recommended/required bullshit classes (like Astronomy and Psychology 101). Derek, as far as Colin could tell, had not chosen a major nor shown any interest in one; Derek rarely attended his classes.
Only a month into the semester, Derek had shown up in their dorm room with a huge duffle bag clinking with bottles—Permafrost, and Goldschlager, and Hot Damn 100, among others. “Go ahead,” Derek had said, grinning that shit-eater’s grin of his, “open it.” Colin had tugged the zipper back, the flaps on the duffle bag peeling outward like trembling lips, and stared inside. “What?”
Derek nodded his head: “Shrooms.”
The large Ziploc freezer bag had been filled with dried and shriveled brown things. Together, they’d passed a bottle back and forth, until they were slurring their words, and had the courage to eat the mushrooms. Derek had gobbled a few and grinned: “Here we go.” Colin had chewed them tentatively, like cardboard, but had still taken too many.
The lights had brightened, the colors deepened. The blankets on the beds had begun to crawl down over the floor like creeping slugs. Colin couldn’t speak, although he’d been aware of Derek mumbling constantly. It had felt like many hours, sitting in one place, staring around the room. In the early hours of the morning, Colin had looked up and Derek was passed out on his bed. He’d stood, his legs like rubber strands, and tentatively taken a step. He’d realized then that the floor was covered with piles of luminous eggs and that with each step he took he crushed more of those eggs. When all the eggs were crushed, his life would be over. He’d slumped to the floor and cried, as the pastel sun began to fill the room with light.
Not long after that, Derek had been kicked out of school. They’d been at a house party of a friend of theirs, but it hadn’t been as big as their friend had thought, and in the morning, still drunk and reeling, Derek had said how funny it would be to fill balloons with flat, leftover beer from the keg. Colin had been too hungover to go with him and heard later that Derek had been caught on the roof of their dormitory tossing his beer balloons at girls as they walked by (just as Colin and he had tossed snowballs when they were kids), aiming for their chests, screaming, “Wet T-shirt contest!” at the top of his lungs over and over.
Derek got a job making sandwiches and Colin stayed in school, eventually taking more art classes and becoming a somewhat skilled painter; he was on track for a graduate program at a nice art school out of state. Colin still hung out with Derek on the weekends and they still partied together.
“Hey, slow down,” Colin said. “You’re going to get a ticket.”
Derek scoffed. “Who gives a fuck?”
It was Saturday afternoon and they were hanging out, driving around, shooting the shit, but Derek seemed, to Colin, more reckless than usual. Derek had dark bags under his eyes, as if he hadn’t been sleeping well.
“What do you want to do tonight?”
“I don’t give a fuck,” Derek said; his eyes looked glassy, stoned.
“We could... Hey! Watch it!”
The SUV didn’t see them speeding through the red light and clipped them in the rear-left fender, jolting the car ninety degrees in the wrong direction. Derek’s hands flew off the wheel; grunting sounds escaped him, a deep chuckle.
The red truck, which had been accelerating through the intersection, smashed into them head-on. Derek grinned, tried to say something before he died, but his abdomen had been crushed against the steering wheel, and thick, bubbling blood covered his final words.
The first things Colin looked at were his hands, lying palms up in his lap, shaking uncontrollably. He took one look at his friend—jutting bones shiny with blood, steaming, neck wrenched, face turned toward him, grinning hollowly—and threw up. It’s my turn, old buddy, he thought crazily. It’s my turn to puke. He gripped the door handle and pushed the car door open. He fell to the pavement, scraping his knees. He stood. He seemed to be unharmed. He blinked. Other drivers were getting out of their cars and rushing toward him.
Coming in May... Until then, check out some of Keith Deininger's other titles here.