Beneath a swollen harvest moon, the city breathes.
It pulses and quivers in its own strange light, a garish, buzzing, glittering watercolor stain in the falling autumn rain. Like an exotic beast it sucks in and devours travelers hungry for beauty and dreams and impossible fancies. Like a gorgeous whore it ostentatiously flashes all of its frills and lights and beckons invitingly. It is old, it is new, it has been destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again. It could be any city; it is every city. It is beautiful and hideous, gaudy and drab, heaven and hell. Its citizens are born, blossom, die, and molder to the beat of its urban heart.
Beneath a swollen harvest moon, the city is an ode to terror, to filth, to beauty.
The rain is falling steadily now, catching snatches of glassy moonlight as the night clouds drift overhead. He walks through the rain, through the city, a stranger in a strange land.
He no longer remembers how long he has been here. It may have been a few days, it may have been centuries; time matters little to one who is as old as creation itself. The cold rain beats down around him--tiny, shimmering daggers slicing through the half-darkness. He passes like a shadow beneath streetlamps, and drops of rainwater glisten like diamonds in the tangles of his dark hair, on the shoulders of his coat.
He passes into an older, meaner quarter of the city near the sea. Here the derelict plaster buildings lean moldering against each other, seemingly held together by the ancient glue of a thousand peeling posters and the swipe of graffiti spray. Brick warehouses squat like toads, boarded-up and silent. Rubbish whispers through the empty streets before becoming sodden by the downpour. He is mostly alone. Aside from the occasional squatter, huddled miserably in a broken doorway or under a dripping eave, he walks without company.
He passes through a narrow alleyway and emerges into a wide, empty intersection, an urban crossroads. He sniffs the air; he smells magic here. He stands on the corner, looking across the street, his dark eyes hidden by oppressive shadows.
Here, an industrious few have converted some of the old brick structures into shabby live/work lofts. Places for a strange sort of pauper--men and women driven to a poor, hungering life by the insatiable need to create, an urge as powerful as the need for food or sex or drugs. This is the sole building where some of the huge paneled windows are lit, staring out into the rainy night like ominous golden eyes.
Figures move in and out of the light behind these windows. Artists, musicians, poets. Aspiring and miserable. Anguished, seeking fulfillment.
He is looking through one window in particular--a wide lower panel that gleams gold, drawing him in. A small, delicate silhouette passes restlessly through the light, pacing like a tiger in a cage.
She is moving, moving in that space. Working. Creating.
He slowly backs away from the lamplight, backs into the shadow of a wall. There he stands and watches her, never moving, never uttering a sound.
He only disappears when the sun begins to rise.
Psyche was pissed. Really, seriously pissed.
She stood back from the canvas, snarling to herself. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be cake.
She was having a rough time with this creative block. It was something dismal, something almost ominous, as it hovered over her like a shadow. And it was seriously pissing her off.
Stress. It's just stress. Who the hell can help that sometimes?
Sighing, Psyche glanced across the wide, dingy studio space at her reflection in the full-length mirror--a small, slender young woman dressed in paint-splattered jeans and a ratty grey sweatshirt, her coal-black hair cut femininely short and ironed flat. A pretty heart-shaped pixie face. Dark circles wallowing beneath otherwise dramatic sapphire blue eyes. She groaned, rubbing her fingertips against her temples.
Robert Butter, her big old orange tabby cat and one of the few possessions she had brought with her, lolled lazily on her bed. Psyche glanced at him and sighed.
"Shit," she said to the empty loft. "Shit and spit." She looked back at her current painting and casually flipped it the bird before dropping her brush into the stained coffee can filled with turpentine, unused paint scumming the surface of the solvent.
The loft had been her sole residence since she had drifted into this city barely two years ago. After crashing on the couches and living room floors of various friends and friends' friends for several weeks, she had landed this place for a song.
Not that it was a palace. Dingy, dusty, peeling paint, appliances on the edge of shorting out or possibly combusting. Funky, threadbare furnishings left by the previous tenant.
Still, despite the aged, moldering digs, Psyche felt at home here. For a very young woman who had been alone since the death of her mother just over two years earlier, the loft was a strange sort of sanctuary.
Here were her canvases, her brushes poking from rusted coffee cans and ornate vases, her twisted, wrinkled tubes of half-used paint. Her sturdy wooden easel, which held the canvas with which she currently struggled. Here, she was greeted by the sharp, bright tang of solvents and the dusty scent of books and ragged sketchpads stacked onto makeshift shelves. Despite the raggedness of the space, she had managed to make the most of it, hanging swaths of sumptuous jewel-toned fabric as canopies and curtains. A richly patterned velvet quilt salvaged from her mother's meager estate clothed her wide, rickety bed, and her big sweet old cat was also here, keeping her company. She had pinned up prints, old flyers, and postcards gathered from cafes and bars and sidewalks all around the city. It was a motley space, a cluttered, pasted-over, paint-splattered haven. Here she plumbed the depths of her own mind and rehashed her visions on paper and canvas.
Tonight, however, the process wasn't working. Tonight, she was mucking it up.
From his spot on the bed, Robert Butter yawned and looked bored.
Exasperated and worn thin, Psyche turned away from her latest work and paced across the floor to her tiny bathroom, tearing her paint-stained clothing off and scattering it in front of the bathroom door as she went.
She showered, scrubbing her skin and nails free of paint and solvents, watching the whorls of color vanish down the rust-stained drain.
Wasted night. Work in the morning. Fuck.
She knew she was going to be exhausted.
Psyche painted by night, when her ego shook off the last of the day's grind and her dreams could be revisited in a tangible form. By day her time was dominated by two dead-end jobs--mornings found her in a shabby independent coffee house, and evenings found her in a tiny art supply store. She kept the company of a small group of close friends. Having no family, they had become the glue of her life, patched together with the artworks she created. Her huddled circle of companions had been gleaned from the city's creative underbelly--aspiring poets and writers, other artists, fashion designers, musicians, students. Most struggling, all on some level convinced they were failing and were soon to be swallowed alive by this urban wasteland. They clung to each other and suffered and drank and smoked and bitched dismally. And they all obstinately kept going, an uphill battle every day.
As annoyed as she was now with herself and her latest failing opus, Psyche had decided solidly as she shampooed that it was time to get together for a beer. Or three.
"I can't keep doing this," she said aloud to the empty bathroom, and rinsed her hair.
It was a lie, and she knew it. Art was like a drug, and she was a born junkie with no hope of rehabilitation.
She had wrapped a big, fluffy towel around her slender frame and was brusquely drying her hair when there came a businesslike rapping on her door. She emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of soap-fragrant steam and trudged across the worn hardwood floors, already scrawled with her own faded paintings, sketches, and notes. She drew near the door cautiously (heaven knew this was hardly a safe neighborhood) and stood on tip-toe, peering suspiciously through the tiny peep-hole. With an exasperated groan she unlatched the door and swung it open, looking out into the fluorescently lit hallway.
Standing before her was a tall, narrow-framed girl, built very much like a high fashion model. All lines and angles. Clothed in chic urban designs--high-end jeans and a high-collared cashmere sweater decorated conspicuously with big ornate buttons that had no real function. A brightly colored silk scarf in a trendy Asian motif slung around her neck. Pale blonde hair stylishly mussed with a mousse that smelled decidedly expensive. She flashed Psyche a huge, polished white grin and winked.
"Hey, babe," she said perkily, which Psyche found insane at this hour. "Still working?"
Psyche smiled crookedly at her and promptly flipped her the bird. The girl laughed.
"Oh, nice. Things not going the way they should, Jackson Pollack?"
Psyche snorted. "Pollack sucked. He was a scamming Hollywood conman, just like Warhol. Don't speak that name in my presence, Rachel."
"Okay, Thomas Kinkade."
Psyche rolled her eyes, her mouth twisting in disgust, but said nothing. She gestured behind her, waving her hand randomly in the air. "This one isn't behaving, or maybe it's just me," she sighed. "I tell you, I should have been born a mathematician."
Rachel walked past her and into the loft, dropping her expensive designer handbag on the threadbare sofa that separated Psyche's measly little kitchen from her main living space. Robert Butter spotted her and immediately jumped up, darting from the bed and into the shadows on the far side of the loft like an orange comet; he was not fond of visitors, especially Rachel and her noisy ways.
Rachel slowly walked across the floor and stood in front of the easel, looking over the new painting in awed silence.
She had been Psyche's closest friend for the last year and a half. She was an aspiring stage actress who had thus far found little success in the local theatre scene. The two young women had met and bonded during the opening cafe shift they shared ("the old red eye", as Rachel called it) and had found comfort in each other's company. Unlike Psyche, who was frugal by nature and very careful with her meager funds, Rachel chose to "live while she could", clothing herself in the latest fashions and sporting all the luxury her nearly maxed-out credit cards could bear. Psyche guessed secretly that Rachel had already sunk herself into a financial hole so deep she would still be wallowing in it the day she died, surrounded by Gucci handbags and Prada heels as she slowly drowned in a sea of debt.
Psyche came to stand beside Rachel, who was gazing silently at the canvas, her arms folded and her brow furrowed, like a comical art critic. Psyche let out a heavy sigh, stirring her fingers around a clump of brushes that sprouted from a cracked blue china vase like a bundle of strange, thick grass.
"I'm really not happy with it," she began. "It's been such a bitch tonight ... I've been working on this fucking thing for three months now and it refuses to behave--"
Rachel was shaking her blonde head slowly, aghast.
"I've always said you're out of your fucking mind," she breathed softly. "I mean, Psych ... it's gorgeous."
The painting before them still shone with a thin luminous slick of linseed oil. The highly detailed image within the canvas' borders was dreamlike and mysterious, painted in a wash of rich color and deep, velvety darks. In the lower center of the painting stood a young woman, black haired and blue eyed--a conspicuously biographical figure. The girl stood in the midst of a group of ominous shadowy figures who seemed to lean in around her. Above her, emerging from a velvety darkness, was the mysterious figure of a man. It was as if he were hovering in the air, keeping the shadowy creatures at bay. In her frustration Psyche had rubbed out the features of his face; it was now an oily smear, a shapeless featureless mass surrounded by a clot of thick black hair. Rachel stabbed an accusing finger at the ruined figure.
"Damn it, Psyche, why the hell do you do this? Why do you so obviously hate such a masterpiece when the rest of the world can barely crank out a fucking stick figure?"
Psyche shook her head doggedly, groaning. She was developing a killer headache, her eyes and hands hurt, and Rachel's banter was hardly what she needed right now.
"I ... I don't fucking know, okay? I have reworked and reworked that section of this piece a million times over! I just can't seem to get it right..."
Rachel threw up her hands. "I don't get it. It's a painting. It's not like you're using a model this time... I mean, make up his face, or something! Can't you just do that?"
Psyche swept her damp hair back from her eyes in frustration. She clenched her hands in front of her: trembling, angry fists aimed at her most recent creation.
"I have a specific idea. I feel like ... like he needs to look a certain way, that's all. Like someone out there really has his face ... fuck, I don't know!"
Rachel rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Must be an artist thing. Don't ask me to understand it."
She stabbed her finger in the direction of the work. "Hey, this painting looks like one of those freaky dreams you've been telling me about lately. This is based on a dream, isn't it?"
Psyche nodded slowly. "Yeah, it is. And--" she gestured at the scrubbed-out figure, "--he's in my dreams. A lot. Problem is I can never really see his face. He's like ... a ghost."
Rachel's pink mouth twisted into a smirk like a fat knife. "Sounds like your dream man."
Psyche snorted. "Don't start that shit with me, Rachel. Not at this hour. Not at this time in my life."
Rachel stared at her, one eyebrow raised quizzically. "Whoa. Touch-y. Am I wasting my time telling you to go to therapy?"
Psyche shot her an irritated glance, and she chuckled. She folded her arms around Psyche's slender frame, hugging her tightly despite the dampness of the bath towel.
"Look, you're tired, little girl. Get a few hours of sleep--early shift at The Fix. Six a.m."
"Thanks for the cheerful reminder."
Rachel offered a twisted smile.
"Don't mention it."
* * * *
In the black satin cradle of sleep, Psyche dreamed.
She is being swallowed by a vast, stinking darkness. Her senses are overwhelmed with a sulphurous miasma that makes her choke and her eyes water. In the black she can hear screams, as if from a very great distance--shrieks raw with terror. She stumbles blindly in the darkness, moaning in the back of her throat; it is as if her very soul is paralyzed by the most terrible fear, a fear she cannot define.
Voices whisper and hiss around her, uttering her name foully. There are sudden flashes, like bright shards of steel, in the dark. She glimpses faces, half-formed in the shadows, pale and watchful. Fingers pinch and grip at her in the blackness. She cries out and defensively claws empty space. She begins to run, unable to see even an inch in front of her, stumbling, sobbing, begging, fleeing from the faces and groping hands and flashes of bright, cold light that she knows, somehow, means death. A warm, heavy wetness begins to patter down from the blackness above, falling into her eyes, staining her skin and matting her hair, a red rain that soon has her drenched in crimson like carrion. A rain of blood, hot and stinking, carrying a message of horror and doom--
And suddenly he is there. She all but runs into him, another shadow but one that, somehow, holds no fear for her. She is enclosed in his arms, in the folds of the coat or cloak he wears, and she can smell rain in that rough fabric, real rain, clean and sweet. She raises her weary head and for a moment, just a moment, she is staring into his bottomless eyes...
Alone in her bed, Psyche moaned and wept in her sleep, sweating, gripping the bedclothes with white-knuckled fingers. Beside her, Robert Butter lay quietly, almost protectively, and watched the shadow hovering in the lamplight outside the window with his shining green eyes.
* * * *
Psyche saw him, really saw him, for the first time that morning.
She was bustling behind the counter of The Fix, whipping up whatever caffeinated concoction her customers demanded. She was feeling the ill effects of the previous night--staring at the canvas till her eyes went bleary, only a few hours of sleep before her alarm's harsh wail forced her to rise again. And her sleep had been restless, haunted by the same strange dreams, leaving her feeling what an acquaintance had long ago deemed the "artist's hangover".
She and Rachel were taking turns delivering coffee and tea and pastries to the cafe tables, shooting each other tired smiles as they moved back and forth behind the counter. Psyche absorbed her surroundings as she worked--the whir of blenders and the perk of bubbling coffee, the pleasant flow of indie music from the cafe speakers, the muted conversation of a dozen or more patrons as they sipped and nibbled and rustled their newspapers. The cafe was decorated in a dramatic fusion of ethnic influences--Moroccan, Spanish, Indian. Warm Byzantine gold and rich velvet and spiraling wrought iron. Ethnic mobiles hung like jewels in the cafe windows, and the walls were crowded with yellowing prints in ornate antique frames. Despite her apathy for the job, Psyche found herself appreciating the funky surroundings.
She was standing at a table near one of the huge floor-to-ceiling windows, setting fluffy cappuccinos down in front of a pair of busily chattering girlfriends, when she glanced through the thick glass and saw him. Still, unmoving, watching her through the window.
He was standing under one of the half barren trees that lined the street, a scattering of dead fall leaves swirling lazily down around him. He was draped in a mundane dark grey trench coat half-buttoned over drab garments she could not make out. A thick, dark brown scarf was knotted at his throat, the ends tucked into the front of his coat like an ascot. He was tall, with handsome, masculine features, firm and beautifully chiseled. His hair was thick and dark, falling in lush curls and waves that touched his broad shoulders. His eyes were large and deep-set, fringed with long black lashes. They were the color of rich dark earth after a rainstorm--melancholy, wistful, as if he were harboring some distant, painful tragedy. Even here, seeing him for the first time, it was as if Psyche could drown in those eyes, in their deep-seeded sadness, and be utterly overcome.
Fallen leaves were scattered at his feet. Psyche felt as if she were one of them, tumbling in the wind, golden and anonymous, a captive of that strange, dark gaze.
She blinked. Rachel was standing behind her, one hand occupied by a steaming cup of Chai tea, the other holding a plate dominated by a massive slice of spice cake. She was looking at Psyche with a narrow, concerned gaze.
"Hey, you okay? Ground control to Major Tom..."
Psyche blinked again, as if she were rising from a waking dream, and glanced abruptly at her. "Oh, sorry ... uh, yeah, I'm fine. Burned the midnight oil a little too late is all."
Rachel nodded. "Gotcha. Look smart--thirty minute break is nigh and I'm in serious need of some caffeine. I'll meet you at our corner table in five minutes."
* * * *
The corner table was, blessedly, unoccupied. Psyche and Rachel, having removed the long black aprons denoting them as employees, sat down in the two little iron-backed chairs with big steaming cups of sweet black coffee set in front of them. Psyche stared through the big window, looking for the mysterious stranger.
He was gone. All that was left in his place were the crisp fall leaves, still swirling in a graceful death's dance to the sidewalk below.
"Hey," Rachel said quietly, leaning close. "You sure you're good? You seem ... out of it. It's like that frigging painting sucked your brain."
Psyche slowly shook her head and took a big slurp of coffee. Her hands were shaking slightly, and the big cup rattled in its saucer as she set it down.
"No Rachel, I'm fine ... just fucked up and exhausted and confused as shit." She rubbed her temples and gently pressed her fingertips to the puffy undersides of her eyes, wincing. Rachel smiled, reaching out to pat Psyche's head, as if she were soothing a tired, cranky child.
"There, there, dear. All of us have had our mornings where the bags under our eyes could rival the size of P Diddy's luggage."
Psyche burst into hysterical giggles, causing several of the cafe's patrons to briefly look up. Rachel's smile widened. "Glad to help," she quipped.
Psyche sighed and cast her a tired, cynical smirk. "Sorry if I was a bit of a bitch last night. You know how it is. Moody artists, license to be temperamental, shit like that."
"Think you're figuring it out?" Rachel asked, sipping her coffee. Psyche looked through the window again, looking for the stranger. She saw no sign of him.
"Not yet," she said. She raised her hands and rubbed her temples again; her head was heavy with disturbed sleep.
"Look," said Rachel. "You shouldn't be obsessing so much about that painting. Who cares what the guy's face looks like? You've pulled more difficult shit out of the air before and come through smelling like a rose. You have a rare, rare talent--I haven't seen anyone in this city painting anything like you do. So why do you always have to turn into such a fucking headcase?"
Psyche was silent for a moment, her eyes downcast. When she raised them, they were shiny with tears.
"I don't know if I should keep doing this, Rachel," she whispered. "I'm so broke and so fucking burned out! The art scene here has been so shitty lately, everyone is struggling--"
"No shit, girl," Rachel answered, handing her a paper napkin to dry her eyes on. "You should see the theatre scene. Not a goddamn thing worth mentioning lately ... and I haven't gotten a part in over six months. It's complete bullshit."
She reached out and touched Psyche's wet cheek with soothing fingertips. "Hey, no crying," she said softly. "You shouldn't be worried about a thing. You have more talent in your pinkie finger than the rest of the gang does put together. Your time will come."
"I should quit. Sometimes I wish I had never been born with this ... ability."
Psyche spit the last word with a tad of venom in her voice. Rachel's dark blonde eyebrows furrowed, and she frowned deeply.
"You don't mean that, Psych."
Psyche just sat there, staring across the table, her blue eyes hard. Rachel's mouth twisted, her pink lips turning over in a sugar-sweet smile, and her gaze softened.
"You know," she said, "I think it's time for our gang to meet down at The Brewer's Droop for a rollicking good time. Get the old gang together to share a little angst. Maybe tomorrow?"
Psyche chuckled through her sniffles, daubing her eyes.
"A good bitchfest would be killer," she said. "Tomorrow night? I'm off from the old art store at eight."
Rachel grinned and patted her hand comfortingly. "Awesome. Bitchfest at eight. I'll definitely mark my calendar. We both need it."
They sipped their coffees in comfortable silence. Rachel thumbed through a gossip magazine. Psyche stared through the window, at the shadows lengthening toward a gloriously golden early afternoon. Her eyes searched the street, searched the myriad nameless faces that walked and shambled and jogged past the window. Searched for the strange figure that had stood in silence and watched her with his wounded eyes.
* * * *
Psyche was fairly certain she was about to drop dead. She was that stinking tired.
She unlocked her door and dragged herself into the loft. She had finally escaped from the art store that was her second job, lugging a fat brown paper bag that contained the one genuine perk she had managed to bag from either job--sharply discounted art supplies. She was officially shot to shit, and was determined to strip and collapse into bed, stinking of an acrid blend of coffee, turpentine and shelf dust and not giving a good goddamn.
She flicked on the ornate iron lamp that dominated the ceiling of the loft. Oily yellow light filled the cavernous space. She shuffled across the floor and dumped her messenger bag unceremoniously by the bed.
Sleep. Blessed sleep would be so very welcome...
Psyche turned around and found herself staring at the painting drying on her easel. It was as if a bolt of lightning had streaked brightly through her brain, shocking her into action.
She rushed to the canvas with sudden energy, reached out and brushed her fingertips across the smudged-out face of the man hovering in the darkness above the female figure.
"Oh ... my ... God..."she whispered, and a delighted smile spread across her face.
She flicked on the lamp adhered to the top of the easel, bathing the surface of the canvas in mock natural light. She dug through her new bag of precious supplies, snatched up tubes of paint and began to squeeze their contents out onto her stained wooden palette, to lay brushes out onto the old rickety stand beside the easel.
This time, she painted till dawn.