“What are you doing after school?” her mother called from the kitchen.
Victoria walked in from the hallway. “I’m staying after to finish a painting. Miss Witherspoon said she would be staying late tonight so I could stay too.”
“Who are you walking home with?”
“Bobby and Tucker.”
Her mother walked over to Victoria and handed her a sack lunch. “They’re going to wait around after school for you?”
“Well, Tucker is. Bobby is helping the new French teacher write the exam.” Victoria said. “We should be done around the same time.”
Her mother laughed. “Guess he’ll be passing that class.” “Why the sudden interest in my after school activities?” Victoria asked. “You know Bobby and Tucker always walk home with me.”
Diane smiled, but Victoria saw a glint of fear in her eyes. “I’m just, you know, trying to do everything right.”
“Is this about your illness last month?” Victoria asked, remembering the afternoon she had found her mother unconscious on the floor when she came home from school. Victoria called Mr. Martin, Bobby and Tucker’s father, and he rushed over. Diane had come to before he got there, but ever since, she seemed a little lost. Paranoid even. Her mother had a security system installed the next day and while doing the laundry, Victoria found a long curved knife under her mother’s pillow.
“I know I seem overly worried lately,” Diane said. “And maybe it is about my illness. I just want to be careful, that’s all. You be careful too.”
Diane hugged Victoria tightly.
“I will, mom. Don’t worry. What’s for lunch today?” Victoria asked.
“Take a peek.”
Victoria opened the bag and laughed; an apple and a five dollar bill. Pizza day.
“Please eat the apple first,” her mother said.
Victoria put the money in her pants pocket. “Five-thirty.”
“What’s that?” her mother asked.
“The answer to your next question. I’ll be home at five-thirty.”
“Am I that predictable?”
Victoria kissed her mother on the cheek. “It’s all good parenting. Rule one: ask questions; two: know where your kids are; and three: meet their friends.”
“On that line of questioning, how late did you stay up last night finishing your project?”
Victoria hesitated. “Maybe eleven-thirty?”
“Your light was still on at one o’clock this morning,” her mother said, pouring coffee for both of them.
“If you knew the answer to that question, why did you ask?”
“Oh, you know, rule four: checking for honesty.”
Because since Miss Witherspoon offered Victoria free range of the studio after school, making it to the end of the day was like walking through knee-deep mud. Victoria managed to schedule two art classes into her school day, as well as being a teacher’s assistant for the freshman class, but she still had to trudge through all the core classes: English, History, Calculus, and Biology. When the bell rang, dismissing the last class of the day, Victoria went straight to the art room. Miss Witherspoon wasn’t there yet, but Victoria liked it that way. Time alone in front of an easel with a paintbrush in hand, was time spent doing what she loved without the worries of a mother who keeps cutlery under her pillow.
Victoria was free to paint anything she wanted without the restrictions of an assigned project. The brush wore paint and undressed on the canvas. Painting drowned out all the other distractions.
But today, the paintbrush became a key to the landscapes. Victoria painted grass in the foreground, which dropped off sharply to a river, a narrow, blue ribbon cutting through the land. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. It would be the perfect place for a picnic. She knew that if she could stand on that bank the river would be wide, the water clear, with rocks like stepping stones providing a way across.
And then she stood there, holding her brush, her shoes squishing the grass as she breathed in the spring green of the scene she had just painted. The river filled her ears with its melodic splashes. Victoria’s mind reeled. She rubbed her eyes, feeling the sting of exhaustion.
Escape, sudden escape, is disorienting.
When she opened her eyes, she was standing in front of her easel again, a smudge of paint where she had imagined she stood by the river. She must have imagined it. That’s all it could have been. Too much school, too little sleep. She decided that it was time to go home.
After cleaning the brushes, Victoria left a note for Miss Witherspoon and another on Bobby’s locker that she went home early. She told no one about it of course, because really there was nothing to tell. We all see things, imagine things, she told herself, but that doesn’t mean that it’s important. It rarely means that it will change you forever. But names came to mind of people who had been changed by visions. Moses’ face shown after a glimpse of God. Saul was blinded by his vision of Christ.
Victoria? She changed physically.
Her mother noticed it immediately. “Victoria, wha-? Your eye.”
Victoria touched her cheek below her eye.
“It’s changing,” her mother said.
The mirror confirmed it. Her right eye was not brown anymore. It was hazel, much like the bluish-green of trees reflecting on water. Nothing else had changed: her blonde hair still lay thickly over her shoulders and down her back and the skin over her nose was still lightly freckled.
More upsetting than her eye turning a shade of blue was her mother’s reaction. She didn’t ask Victoria, “Are you alright?” or feel her forehead. She simply stared at Victoria with tears in her eyes.
“What does it mean?” Victoria asked.
“I don’t know.”
They ordered take-out that night from a little Chinese place down the road and watched a movie.
“But it’s Monday,” Victoria said. “Didn’t you buy the biscuit dough for the Roast Wellington? Mr. Wood should be here soon.” On the occasional Monday night, Mr. Wood, the principal at Victoria’s high school, came over for dinner.
Her mother didn’t look at Victoria when she answered. “I’m just too tired. I’ll cancel our dinner. You’ll see him tomorrow at school, he’ll understand. Besides, a movie sounds fun.” But all through the movie, her mother didn’t look at the screen or at Victoria. She stared at the floor, her forehead wrinkled.
Walking to school the next day, Victoria should have recognized that other things were changing too: a tree shivered when she walked by, as if the squirrels racing through the branches had tickled the woody trunk. She chose to ignore it, chalking it up to her imagination or a breeze that only affected that tree.
There was a man, too, who stood near the bus stop and watched as she walked by. Victoria wouldn’t have paid him any attention but his clothing was odd, not obnoxious or out of style, just odd. Maybe it was the long shirt that looked home-spun, or the fact that he was wearing all brown. In a desert, he would have blended perfectly, but here in the early green spring, he looked washed out.
And then there was the fountain outside the high school. Every other day, it bubbled lightly and filled the courtyard leading up to the front steps with a cheerful atmosphere. The fountain was not fancy, just a two-tiered sculpture of scalloped clams with mildew growing on the underside. Victoria never understood why a clam-shaped fountain stood in front of a school surrounded by farms; a corn stalk fountain or maybe a collaboration of all the old cars driven in this town made into a fountain. But clams? Had anyone here actually seen a real clam?
As Victoria approached the school, passing the fountain, the water churned like a tiny ocean frothing in the midst of a hurricane. The entire student body on the front lawn of the school was engulfed in silence as more and more eyes turned to watch the rolling water. Pennies and nickels clinked as they rode on the tiny waves.
Tucker touched Victoria’s arm, “What’s happening?” he asked.
She looked away from the fountain to Tucker. The water stopped its angry boil.
Mr. Wood walked up to Victoria. “Are you ok?” he asked.
“Fine. Just wondering what’s happening,” she pointed to the fountain.
Mr. Wood held her gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment. “Perhaps a shift in things to come.”
Victoria looked at Tucker and Bobby. They were all obviously confused by his cryptic comment.
“How are you, Tucker? Did you pass that physics test?” Mr. Wood asked.
“Right,” Mr. Wood said. “I still can’t tell you two apart. How is our new French teacher doing? I understand you’ve been helping.”
“He’s good,” Bobby said.
“How’s your mom?” Mr. Wood asked Victoria. “She feeling better?”
“Yeah,” Victoria said. “I just think she’s been tired since her…whatever happened to her last month.”
“We’ll keep an eye on her,” he winked. “See you all inside.”
As they entered the school, the matter was forgotten amid hallway chatter, homework and slamming lockers.
At lunch, Bobby pointed Victoria’s eye out to Tucker. “Are you wearing a contact in one eye? It looks blue.”
“Who would wear one colored contact?” Victoria tried to make light of her eye. “It’s just…changing.”
“How?” Tucker asked.
“No idea,” she shrugged.
“I like it,” Tucker said. “How many people have different colored eyes?”
And so Victoria didn’t mind it either. Except that she saw things differently. She looked at a tree and knew it wasn’t just a tree but a link between earth and sky, a giant wooden stitch piecing together soil and clouds. That idea stayed with her throughout the day and found its way onto the canvas after school. In her mind, she saw the scene: a vast meadow of knee-high grass with one giant willow tree just off center toward the left. That single tree would be where the birds would land to foil the plans of snakes and foxes lurking in the swaying grass. Leaves danced on the wind, calling the birds of the sky downward to share their stories of sights beyond the clouds.
Near the tree she painted a boulder. To anyone else, it may have been just a rock, but Victoria imagined that it had been rolled there with great effort and a mournful purpose. Etched into the side was a name. No expert had carved the name; they were not artistically gothic-shaped letters. A wife, grieving her loss, had scraped angrily away at the stone, scarring it with her husband’s name, crying because there would be no one left to carve her name.
That’s when it happened again. This time, rubbing her eyes didn’t bring her back.
Victoria had not stopped painting when she found herself standing by the rock; she almost painted the granite surface. She was just suddenly there, standing above his grave holding a paintbrush and noticing his name, Alexander. No last name. No date of birth and no death date; just a token for a life, the rock no longer just a rock, but a tombstone.
Victoria wasn’t hallucinating, she was lost.
Which was worse, she wondered?
How do you climb out of a painting? Where was the edge? There was no exit sign and no open-only-in-case-of-emergency door.
There was no doubt. She knew she was in the painting and she was stuck.
Was all this real? Reaching for the boulder, the cool surface was hard stone, not paint. The tree’s rough bark was warm; the strand of grass she plucked from the earth was not paint, but a smooth collaboration of photosynthesis and fibers. This was real. And if the rock was here and real, and the tree and grass were real, then it stood to reason that beneath her feet was someone’s husband.
She took a few steps away from the rock. Standing over a burial site seemed – well, she had seen a horror movie a few years ago when a corpse had pushed through the earth and grabbed some unsuspecting teenage girl dragging her to his underground lair. It was ridiculous. Impossible. Dead is dead and zombies are not real. But, she told herself, paintings were just illustrations, and yet here she was, standing on her grass.
Victoria knew that the girl in the zombie movie was going to die because she had no name and the music gave it away.
Am I a disposable character?
If this was her painting, she was the main character and you just didn’t kill off the main character. She needed her name. The girl in the zombie movie had no name; the dead man had only a first name, so she would announce her name to her story.
“Victoria Nike!” she shouted. “I am Victoria Nike.” Followed by, “Help!” Can people hear those trapped inside a painting? Was she trapped in a real place? “Help!” the second cry was more desperate. Bile rose in her throat.
Ok, don’t panic, she told herself, just think of ways to get out.
She tried everything she could think of to escape. She jumped on the grass, thinking that perhaps she needed to break through the earth, but that just sounded strange. Not any more strange than falling into a painting, but strange in the way that it didn’t work, so she needed a different plan. Maybe climbing the tree and jumping off would land her back in the classroom – bad idea, she decided. If grass was grass and tree was tree then leaping from a branch was a stupid idea.
Looking around, Victoria decided that her best option was to climb the hill and see what there was to see. Remembering the song from her childhood, Victoria lumbered up the hill, thinking of the bear. And yes, when she reached the top, all she could see was another hill, and another and another. That was frightening, but the two other details at the bottom of each hill: a willow tree and a boulder, caused her stomach to drop.
Victoria spun in a circle; the same landscape repeated no matter which direction she faced. From which tree had she come?
Stupid! she scolded herself. Not only am I lost in a painting, but I’m lost in a sea of hills.
Suddenly, a sharp awareness swam over her. Unlike a breeze or a chill from cold water, something told her she was no longer alone. A woman stood at the bottom of the hill, looking at the tree, then turned and looked directly at Victoria. Her blood ran cold. She knew this woman, recognized her long white hair and the flowing skirts she wore to school every day. “Miss Witherspoon.”
“Victoria?” Miss Witherspoon called. Victoria’s knees melted and she fell to the ground, her mind dizzy with recognition. The woman ran toward her, but Victoria crawled back on her hands, trying to get away but unable to make her body move faster. She kneeled next to Victoria, her face full of worry. “Are you hurt?”
Victoria shook her head. “What’s happening?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“I’ll explain everything,” Miss Witherspoon said and helped Victoria walk back to the tree and boulder – the one near which they had both entered.
“How do we get out?” Victoria asked.
“I’ll do it this time,” Miss Witherspoon said. “But next time…”
“Next time? Forget it! I’m not doing this again.”
Miss Witherspoon ignored her and reached forward, her arm disappearing into an unseen hole just above the boulder. She reached back for Victoria’s hand. Hesitating for only a second, Victoria took it, hoping the explanation was not as scary as realizing your teacher could enter paintings too.
The classroom looked the same, except that everything Victoria held as truth had been shattered. She turned to Miss Witherspoon, “Tell me what just happened!”
“Let’s sit down.”
Victoria didn’t move.
“Please,” Miss Witherspoon motioned to a stool. “I’ve never had to explain this to someone before. It will help my nerves if we can both sit.”
When Victoria finally sat, Miss Witherspoon took a deep breath and started. “Victoria, I’m a Painter.” She leaned toward her. “It’s my career. My gift. I was sent to find you, to see if you were the one.”
“You live here, in this world with so many distractions. And I would venture a guess that you started drawing before you could speak. These paintings,” Miss Witherspoon motioned toward all the paintings in the art room, “are mine. I’m going to venture another guess: Your bedroom walls are covered with your drawings. You can spend hours creating a landscape that you see perfectly in your mind, places you have never visited. As you move the brush over the canvas, you can smell the flowers you paint, you squint your eyes to a sun that shines down on the grass, grass you have drawn and a sun that is only on the canvas because you placed it there.”
For the first time, Victoria heard what she experienced every time she painted or drew. She thought it was just her mind completely engrossed in the task of painting, tricking her other senses into smelling and feeling the landscape.
“Well, sure. I mean…that’s the beauty of painting. It’s an escape. A chance to get away from this little town without really leaving.”
“Exactly!” Miss Witherspoon agreed. “You have the eyes. Victoria, you are a Painter. Not just an artist, but a Painter with a capital P.”
“And that means…?”
“It means this.” Miss Witherspoon waved her hand over a painting. The air between Miss Witherspoon’s hand and the canvas shimmered like heat waves. The scene was nothing more than a plowed field waiting for rain with a dark forest fencing the back acreage, but when the painting moved slightly in the wind that was coming from the left, carrying birds on its unseen waves, it was like looking through a window.
“How did you do that?” Victoria asked.
“I’m a Painter.”
Victoria couldn’t take her eyes off a squirrel, zigzagging across the ground, searching for a buried nut. “But this is…It’s so…”
“It’s a gateway,” Miss Witherspoon said.
Victoria leaned down to peer at a deer walking behind the trees.
“Do you know what a gateway is?” Miss Witherspoon asked.
“You want a definition?” Victoria watched the squirrel chattering loudly at another squirrel that was treading too close.
“A gateway is a passageway from one place to another. This painting is a gateway. Look at it.”
The squirrel was digging furiously. Victoria stopped and laughed. “This painting is a passageway to somewhere else?”
“Yes.” Miss Witherspoon smiled.
“And my painting?”
“Just a window. You saw how the landscape repeated?”
“It was just a window to a place that doesn’t exist. Gateways are doorways to real places.”
“What are they for?” Victoria asked.
“Think of them as roads.”
Victoria frowned. “Roads? To where?”
Miss Witherspoon glanced around the room. “A gateway can take you to places you’ve only imagined.”
Looking around the room, Victoria saw paintings on easels, and more leaning against the wall. They were thresholds to other places. Like Victoria’s paintings and sketches, Miss Witherspoon’s art had no people; just deserts, oceans, rain forests, rocky hillsides, rivers and ice-encrusted land and all were as familiar as distant cousins at a family reunion.
The places Miss Witherspoon painted were the same locations Victoria visited in her dreams and recreated for her own walls.
It was a shock, but she wasn’t afraid. It seemed perfectly logical to realize that the paintings were more than just paint on canvas. How could they not be? So many times Victoria had lost herself to her paintings only to be pulled back to reality when the scene was finished. Could this be the answer to her unrelenting need to paint? A thousand questions whirled through her mind but her mouth couldn’t utter a single word.
“You recognize the landscapes,” Miss Witherspoon was smiling. “Victoria, the places you paint are real. With the right training, your paintings can become gateways. You want a true escape? This is the way.”
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