12:3: “A Painted Room”, by Adam Smith

12:3: “A Painted Room”, by Adam Smith

“If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, & found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Aye? and what then?”

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The painters’ van pulled to the curb as Miranda backed out of the drive. It was a rusty white conversion van, unmarked save for the word “PAINTING” in black text on the passenger door.

Painting had been Will’s idea. One of his better ideas, she’d thought. The mistake had been allowing him to set things up. He had an idea, and wanted the final design to be a surprise for their anniversary.

“Make sure you get referrals,” she’d said. “And…” she’d added, almost as an afterthought, “never take the lowest bid.”

“Why not?”

“Con artists always give the lowest bids. Haven’t you ever watched ‘60 Minutes’?”

She had a sinking feeling that he’d disregarded her final advice. The van had “lowest bid” all but stamped into the license plate.

She hesitated for a moment at the end of the drive, but there was little she could do. The appointment was set, and some portion of it had already been pre-paid for supplies. She eased her foot off the brake and coasted into the street, sending up prayers that this gift wouldn’t turn out quite as badly for Will as some others had.

*

The van was gone by the time she returned home. Will was in the living room with Evan, watching a Sesame Street video they had all seen at least a thousand times. The video was one of the few things that kept Evan contained for any period of time. He watched it with a single-minded concentration that was almost frightening. She planted a kiss on the crown of his oblivious head. Will followed her into the kitchen.

“How was work?”

She shrugged. “How’d the first day of the painting go?”

“So-so, I guess.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like the sound of that. How much is done?”

“It’s done.”

“In one day?”

“Hard to believe, I know. I watched them for a bit this morning, but they looked irritated by it so Evan and I went to the park for the day. When we came back they were already loading up their supplies.”

“But how’s it look?” she said. “I had a bad feeling when I saw them this morning.”

“What? Don’t trust me?” He cocked his head at her like the spaniel she’d owned as a child.

She peeked into the living room. Evan was staring open-mouthed at the television. “Let’s see it.”

Will came up behind her, put a hand across her eyes, and guided her toward the bedroom. “Do I have to be blind the whole way?” she asked.

He ignored her. He nudged open the door with his foot and led her in. Miranda looked from one corner of the wall to the other, trying to take in the entire scene. She put a hand to her mouth.

“Well?”

She walked forward and touched the paint with the tip of one finger. “It’s incredible.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

“You can’t tell me they did this in one day.”

“That’s fairly self-evident.”

“It’s supposed to be…our beach?”

“It is. They used the photo I gave them.”

It was the same beach, even with a few subtle changes. The tables were gone. And the umbrellas, the beach chairs, the pool. All the people. But the rest…

“It’s perfect,” she said.

A crash sounded from the far room. Will beat her to the door, and reached the living room first. The television was on its side next to the stand, with only the taut power cord holding it partially upright. The screen was full of colored bars. Evan was on the couch hugging his knees.

“Show stopped…” he explained. “It wouldn’t go.”

“That’s because it’s over,” Miranda said. “The show’s all done. You know that.”

Will knelt over the television, cursing beneath his breath. He hoisted it back up onto the stand and looked it over for damage. “Dammit! Why does he always do this? He knows better. All day long…all day long this same shit, over and over.”

“Will, we agreed…” she began, but stopped. “Evan. Go to your room.”

He went, weeping.

Will sat down on the couch and kneaded his forehead. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t fly off the handle like that. I didn’t mean…”

“I know,” she said.

*

Before bed, Miranda brushed her teeth in the bedroom, standing so she could look at the new mural. It was only a single wall, opposite the canopied bed. There were so many details, down to the individual fronds and leaves on the nearest palms. She could practically smell the sea. She stared at it for a long time.

“I’m glad you like it,” Will said. He lay on top of the comforter with his arms behind his head. “I was nervous. I really prayed it wouldn’t turn out as badly as the hedge trimming last year.”

She choked on a laugh and hurried into the bathroom, where he heard toothpaste slap against the sink. A few minutes later she stepped out and shut off the bathroom light, her damp hair wrapped in a towel.

“Did you notice the hammock?” he asked. “There, on the right side, strung between the palm trees?”

“I hadn’t,” she said, moving closer to look. It was there, rendered tiny by distance, ropes as fine as spider silk. The ragged bottom eave of a tiki roof was faintly visible at the top of the image, near the ceiling line, as if the viewer was looking out from a seat at the bar. “Where is the picture?” she asked. “The one you gave them to use?”

“On the dresser.”

She held the photo up at arm’s length in front of her. It showed the same scene – a white sand beach, palms, an ocean full to the horizon with pastel water and sun-sparked waves. It was her favorite photo. Their favorite photo, taken from the patio of the Cancun resort where they’d spent their honeymoon. The best eight days of her life.

We need to get back to Mexico had been a common refrain from those early years, when money had been the only obstacle.

That was before Evan. Having a child with Down’s Syndrome changed things. Evan was a twenty-four hour job without paid vacations or holidays. Beach getaways were extravagances, siren songs to be tucked away in a box and forgotten.

Miranda compared the two images. In the mural, the white sand had been transformed into their own private beach for two, complete with a hammock and two empty beach chairs. On either side of the beach, a dense palm forest marched down to the water’s edge, hemming in the bright stretch of sand like a privacy fence.

“I love it,” she said finally. “I feel like we’re there. Thank you.”

“I’ve been lying here,” he said, “trying to think up some ways you could thank me.”

She lifted one eyebrow.

Through the monitor came the sound of shuffling movement. “Daddy?” Then, more frantically: “Daddy!

*

Miranda woke alone. Through the closed door she heard the sound of low, cartoonish voices. She lay staring at the ceiling, gathering the energy to rise. She became aware by degrees of something strangely heavy on her thigh. When it moved she bolted from the covers with a shriek, tossing the covers back in a spasm of disgust.

Will rushed in, flipping on the light. “What the hell was that?”

“There’s something in our bed,” she said. “A spider, I think.” She stepped away from the bed. “A damn big spider.”

He grabbed Miranda’s rubber-soled slipper from the floor and eased the sheets down on the bed.

Nothing.

No…there was something. It was nearly invisible, blending perfectly with the cream sheets. Will prodded it with the toe of the slipper. It drew in its legs and shook, as if trying to burrow down into the covers. He prodded again, flipping it over on its back. “It’s a crab, I think.”

“A crab?” she said. “A goddamn crab?”

Evan stood in the doorway in his pajamas, staring open-mouthed. “Evan, bud, can you bring me a cup? A clean coffee cup?”

“Will? How did a crab get into our bed?”

“No clue. Maybe the painters put it there. Their idea of a joke.”

“Some joke!” she said.

“Just a guess.”

Evan returned with a soup bowl. It wasn’t clean, but at least it was empty. Will scooped the creature up. It skittered about in the bottom of the bowl but couldn’t find purchase on the ceramic. Will held the bowl low so Evan could see it. He glanced cautiously over the edge as if afraid it would jump out at him.

“I need to go,” Miranda said. “I’m running late.”

*

Miranda returned home around six. The living room was dark. She had hoped Will might have something cooking, even if it was only frozen pizza. But the kitchen was as empty and lifeless as the living room.

“Will?” she called. “Evan?”

Evan’s bedroom door was shut, but at the end of the hall the door to the master bedroom was half open. Light spilled into the hallway. Odd light, she thought.

She stepped through the doorway.

A breeze gusted across her, stirring the bed canopy. One of the framed photos – the picture of newborn Evan in the nursery – had been blown from the nightstand and lay facedown on the carpet. An extension cord was plugged into the wall outlet near the foot of the bed. It coiled across the carpet, into a spray of sand at the edge of the room…and straight into the mural.

Miranda shaded her eyes against the brightness. The cord snaked across the white beach, angling between fluttering palms. Footprints marred the pristine sand, like tracks across a fresh snowfall. The twilit sky was the color of ripe cantaloupe.

“Will?” It came out hoarse, but it was the best she could muster.

Some distance away there was movement. The hammock in the right distance swayed and Will dropped ungracefully out of it. He dusted himself off and hurried on tiptoe across the sand.

“Hi,” he said, when he drew closer. He wore cargo shorts, no shirt. “I didn’t realize it had gotten so late.”

“…didn’t realize…” she repeated numbly, staring past his shoulder. She could hear the sea – a gentle, insistent shushing noise. It smelled wonderful. Exactly the way she remembered it.

“I tried to call you earlier – ”

“Where’s Evan?”

“Napping. He was worn out after our walk…” He paused. “The baby monitor is out there. On the beach. That’s what the extension cord is for.”

She only nodded, absently handed him her purse, and brushed past. There was a slight step up from the cream carpet to the beach. Her flats sunk with each step, so she kicked them off without breaking stride. The sand was silky and warm beneath her stockings. She slumped into the hammock.

Will was a pace behind her, almost treading on her heels.

“Will…?” she began. Her voice only shook a bit.

“I called you. Didn’t you get my voicemail?”

“We have a goddamn beach in our bedroom. And you left me a voicemail?”

“So you didn’t get it?”

She sighed. “I had meetings all afternoon. I didn’t check my voicemail.”

“You didn’t answer your phone,” he said, “so I had no choice but to leave a voicemail.”

“What did your voicemail say, pray tell?”

He sat down beside her. The ropes creaked beneath their weight. “It said, ‘I think you’d best come home. Now. Tell them you’re sick, dying, whatever.’ Something along those lines.”

“Does Evan know?”

“He suspects something. We were eating lunch in the kitchen when the bedroom door slammed. Wind must have blown it shut. I told him to stay at the table and went to check. That’s when I realized… It was a bit hard to hide. He wanted to play in our room after that, like he knew something. He was irritable. That’s why I laid him down.”

“I don’t understand,” she said. “How?”

“It wasn’t in the painters’ quote,” Will said, straight-faced. “And I sure as hell didn’t do anything. But it explains the crab.”

Miranda began to laugh. They both laughed, even after the hammock tilted and spilled them both onto the sand.

Eventually, Will sat up and brushed grit from his hair. “It’s a hell of an anniversary present. I can’t wait to see what you’re getting me.”

*

They ordered carry-out pizza. Will ran into town to pick it up.

Evan woke while he was gone. She read him a board book about fire trucks and tractors and bulldozers. When she finished she sat there with the book in her lap for a moment, gazing toward the back hallway. Evan snatched it from her and threw it across the room. “Another book,” he said.

“We talked about throwing stuff, didn’t we? All you have to do is ask.”

Will came back with pizza, beer, and a bottle of margarita mix. He set them all down on the table.

Evan eyed the drinks with suspicion.

“Just something for me and Mom,” Will said. “It’s our anniversary tomorrow.”

Evan shrugged. “Can we put together the big puzzle?” he asked.

“I’ll bring it into the living room,” Miranda said.

“No!” Evan’s voice came out slurred and heavy, as it did when he was upset. “In your room! Where we always do!”

“Mommy and Daddy’s room is messy right now.”

“I want to see the new painting,” he said.

“Later,” Will said.

Evan tipped over his paper plate in disgust and left the room.

*

They tried for three hours to get Evan to bed. He sulked, cried, and tried several times to sneak into their bedroom. After the first time they locked the door from the inside.

Miranda and Will remained in the living room, watching television. Silence hung between them, a strange tension like an indrawn breath.

“The nap was a bad idea,” Will said.

Miranda nodded. She was thinking of Mexico, recalling the feel of sand between her toes, the breeze in her hair. She remembered the delicious margarita buzz she’d acquired each evening after dinner, the faint aftertaste of salt and lime, and the languorous way they had explored one another’s body like blind sculptors tracing every unseen curve.

Miranda couldn’t have said why she felt Evan had to be kept away from the bedroom. Her first response might have been “for his safety”. Children drowned all the time in pools, bathtubs, ponds. How much more dangerous was an ocean? He was impulsive, fearless even well past the bounds of a typical six year old.

But it wasn’t only that. She was honest enough with herself to admit there were selfish reasons. Reasons that had nothing to do with safety. Mexico was their place. It was the place they had been the happiest, the most carefree. They could never have it again, not in the same way. That had been before the medical bills, before the job changes and house payments. Before a child with disabilities.

Somehow, she had been given part of that back. Sand, ocean, palms. Two beach chairs. Only two.

When Evan fell asleep at last, they stuffed a cooler with ice and alcohol. Will lugged the cooler down to the beach chairs, set side-by-side at the edge of the surf. The water was drenched with moonlight, even though no moon was visible, only a scattering of strange stars like salt thrown on a black tablecloth. There was just enough of a breeze to stir the palms.

Will had fished the video monitor out of a cobwebbed box in the basement. The monitor showed Evan’s room in shades of gray and green. He was asleep, a stuffed rhino tucked beneath one arm.

Miranda poured margarita mix and a shot of tequila over ice in a martini glass. Will cracked a beer and leaned back into his chair with a sigh.

The trees that marched like sentinels to the water on either side of the beach were alive with insects and bird calls. They looked dark and unsettling in the moonlight.

“What do you think would happen if we walked into them?” she said. “Are they like the false-front buildings in an old western movie, do you think? Or do they just go on and on, forever?”

She felt his shiver. “I wouldn’t want to guess.”

The thought gave her a chill too. She sipped at her drink, savoring the salty tang in the back of her throat, the slow fingers of warmth spreading outward. Better to think of them as protectors, she thought. Walls guarding the entrance to their little paradise.

Miranda set her hand in his. The wind sighed in the trees. The sea lapped at the shore, a slow inhale-exhale like a panted breath.

“He’s out good now,” Will said.

“Huh?” She hadn’t been asleep. But she didn’t feel entirely awake, either.

He dipped his head toward the monitor. “Evan. He’s asleep.” He squeezed her hand. “Shall we finish our drinks and crawl into bed?”

She purred assent.

*

Unsurprisingly, Evan woke early. Miranda heard him stirring in the monitor and pulled the pillow over her head. She hadn’t slept well. She’d always believed the sound of ocean waves would be the perfect sound for sleep. Macaws and gulls, on the other hand, were less soporific.

The sun was already up over their stretch of beach, and the light that filtered into the bedroom was painfully bright. Gulls swept back and forth across the waterfront, screeching to one another. It would be necessary to hang a nice thick curtain across the beach wall. At the very least.

Will threw a hand up across his eyes. “Good God, what time is it?”

It was six thirty-two, though the glare on the clock face made it difficult to read. Evan began pounding on their door.

“I’ll get him,” Miranda said.

Will pressed her back into the covers as he rolled off the mattress. “Stay. It’s your day off.”

A nice gesture, but the sunlight and noise were too much. She joined Will in the kitchen, where he sat sipping coffee from a Disney mug commemorating their lone trip since their honeymoon.

That had been an unmitigated disaster. Their hotel room had featured an uncooperative air conditioner and a couple in the next room that apparently engaged in gymnastic sex.

Evan had been even worse. Taken away from his usual comforts, he woke several times each night and threw frequent tantrums. He grew tired of walking each morning before lunch, but refused to stay in the stroller afterwards. They’d even lost him once in a group of Japanese school children and spent twenty minutes searching frantically before they found him drinking water from a public fountain.

That had essentially killed any further ideas of family travel. Evan worked best in his everyday surroundings, in routine. Change bothered him. It brought on tantrums and irritability. And it seemed he was able to detect even the faintest whiff of it in the air. Miranda noticed he kept stealing glances at them. His expression was the one he wore when he was thinking hard about something.

“Fruit Loops?” Will asked.

“Eggs,” he said.

Miranda agreed. “And strawberries. Like the breakfast we had on the veranda that first morning in Mexico.”

“Except you were topless then,” Will said quietly, so that the Count’s tally drowned his response. “I didn’t know which course to have first.”

She laughed, remembering the shocked arousal on his face when she had stepped out onto the private veranda in only a bikini bottom. She’d never realized fresh fruit could be put to such creative use.

After breakfast, Will mowed the little square of grass in the front yard. Miranda dug up lilies along the front edge of the house. Evan rode his bike back and forth on the sidewalk, his training wheels rattling on the grass that poked up between cracks.

Miranda felt a sense of entrapment. Lilies. Goddamn lilies. Inside their bedroom was an ocean. Inaccessible now, like all the perfect family trips her co-workers took during summer breaks and weekend outings. It didn’t seem fair.

Behind her, Evan took a corner too quickly, dipped one training wheel off the edge of the driveway, and tipped over with a squeal. He was wailing by the time she reached him, cupping his hands around one knee.

Evan calmed down briefly while she made him comfortable on the couch, but the screaming started again when she tried to cleanse it and apply a band-aid. Only a scrape, but a good one. She sat down with him, his head resting in her lap, and stroked the hair away from his face.

Will slipped Dance Along into the player. He leaned in close to her ear. “I’m going to finish mowing. Be done in fifteen minutes. I’m guessing he’ll be out before I come back in. He looks exhausted.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Up for a drink?”

*

Will shook her briskly awake. “Where’s Evan?”

The question caught her off-guard. Evan? The name tumbled around in her mind like a die in an empty cup. She shook her head.

“Damn!” He spun away from her and crossed the room toward the hallway. He pushed open Evan’s door and stuck his head inside. “Evan!” There was a note of rising panic in his voice. “Evan!”

Coherent thought kept slipping through Miranda’s fingers like water. The couch. Evan had been on the couch. With her. But he wasn’t. She must have dozed.

Will was already pushing at their bedroom door. The doorknob turned easily enough but he struggled to open it. It was as if a weight were pressing against the far side, holding it closed. “Evan! Open the door!”

Miranda caught up to him as he leaned his shoulder into the door and pushed. It gave a bit before it slammed shut again. Wind roared through the crack like a living thing, tossing a family photo from its place on the wall. Will leaned back and hammered his full weight against the door.

It burst open.

The wind struck them in the face like an open hand. A palm leaf like a kite swept past and down the hall into the living room. Windblown sand pelted the wall like hail.

Will ducked his head and entered the chaos beyond the doorway. Miranda raised a protective arm against the wind and dust. It was suffocating. Deafening. Through the open door, she could see their canopied bed on its side. Palm leaves wrapped the bedposts like starched green ribbons.

She entered the maelstrom only to have her breath snatched away. She turned her head away from the wind, trying desperately to draw air.

“Evan!” Will’s voice, broken and distant. It sounded as if it came from a hundred miles off.

She turned back into the wind. She could vaguely see Will’s outline struggling for each step against the howling wind and wet sand. Beyond Will, she saw only the dark horizon and the spume of windswept waves frothing against the beach.

“Will!” Her shout scarcely reached her own ears. Will continued forward as if he hadn’t heard.

She lowered her head and strode into the gale. It tore at her clothing and tossed hair around her face like live wires. Each step was like wading through chest-deep water. Her third step carried her from the carpet onto the beach. Her bare foot sunk into cool sand.

And kept sinking.

The sand swallowed her. The noise of wind, the crash of surf, was all gone as suddenly as it had come. Only an eerie stillness remained, the amniotic silence of the womb.

She lifted her hands. She could see nothing, but there was space around her, space as far as her arms could reach. Cold stone beneath her bare feet. She took a few hesitant steps forward, arms outstretched.

“Will!” Her voice was hoarse. Unfamiliar. It echoed back, growing indistinct. Will…will…ill…l…l…

She stumbled ahead, grasping frantically for something. Anything. But the darkness seemed to stretch interminably on all sides. Only the cold floor left her confident she wasn’t still sinking, wasn’t falling through endless space.

By degrees she became aware of light. A pinprick, as pale and imprecise as a candle flame seen through murky water. An eon away through starless space. With each forward step it grew brighter, as if every stride traversed miles, continents, galaxies.

She lost count of her steps. The pinprick became a golden circle of light, like a train lamp in a long tunnel. She could see the walls around her now, a narrow tunnel with walls of smooth black stone that seemed to drink in the light.

Her final step took her into the center of the light. She emerged onto a beach of warm white sand. Their beach, looking exactly as it had the day before. The storm was gone. The sky was a flawless, unbroken dome of blue. The waves sounded like respiration, the slow surge and retreat of life.

She was naked. She wasn’t surprised. It seemed right, somehow. The way it had to be.

The beach wasn’t precisely the way it had been the day before, she realized, peering back over her shoulder. Where her bedroom had been there was only more beach and, in the distance, another line of trees like the two dense queues that bracketed the sand on either side. The room was gone. The tunnel was gone.

She turned toward the water. Will came wading up out of the surf, the water sheeting away from his naked skin, slicking the hair back from his brow. His feet left watery divots in the wet sand.

They came together in an embrace beneath the twin palms where the hammock swayed. Neither spoke. They lay down together beneath the palms, the soft fibers of the hammock netting their skin. The trees rustled as if whispering secrets to one another.

They lay like that for a long time, listening to the ocean and the hushed leaves and their own quiet heartbeats. The shadows didn’t lengthen. The light didn’t change.

A coconut dropped from the palm nearest their heads, striking the sand with a muffled thud.

Miranda sat up.

She bent forward and lifted the coconut in her open palm. It was malformed, fibrous, dotted with three holes like finger-slots in a bowling ball…or two eyes and an open mouth expressing surprise. Its imperfection seemed out of place here on this flawless beach amidst the straight palms, like a contradiction or a challenge.

Will traced the holes with his finger. “We won’t be able to come back,” he said. “It doesn’t belong here.”

“Neither do we,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

“Are you?”

He nodded.

She held the shell between her hands and twisted. It came apart easily, with a sound like a sigh. Inside, Evan lay curled into a tight ball. He looked as innocent, as imperfectly beautiful, as only a child can look in sleep.

Will lifted Evan from the shell and pressed the sleeping body against his chest.

The sun tipped toward the horizon. The ocean lapped up the beach toward them, mounting higher with each swell, drowning the sand beneath its waves. Miranda rose to her feet and took Will’s free hand.

She could see their bedroom now, a few steps away across the sand. The bedside lamp was on, as if inviting them home.

A small bedroom. A little house, on a narrow street, with lilies growing wild beneath the front eaves. Only that.

Only that.


Adam Smith ekes out an existence in the wilds of Illinois, somewhere between Wrigley’s bricks-and-ivy and St. Louis’s oversized croquet hoop. His previous fiction has appeared in Jabberwocky, Flash Fiction Online, The Golden Key, and Nine, amongst others. He reviews books and blogs occasionally – or, of late, very rarely – at parsing-the-dragon.blogspot.com. He says:

Who doesn’t dream now and then about a getaway from their mundane lives? A little personal Eden they can step into whenever they please? I know I do. And I’ve got things pretty damned easy. Family life can be a tough, beautiful, depressing, rewarding thing. How much tougher must it be to have a child or a spouse with disabilities? How much tougher to know that even a temporary escape from day-to-day life is not an option? All the same, it would have its rewards, and wouldn’t those rewards would be all the sweeter for the effort and sacrifice they cost? Eve may have been tricked into eating the forbidden fruit, but I like to think that she or her mate would have given into temptation sooner or later, serpent or no serpent. We humans weren’t meant for perfection. It’s the imperfections that define who we are. It’s through imperfection that we find beauty.


Untitled painting by Lowell Boyers (2009) is provided by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.



One Response to “12:3: “A Painted Room”, by Adam Smith”

  1. 12:3: “A Painted Room”, by Adam Smith | Ideomancer Speculative Fiction Magazine

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