Christine's bare feet sank into the dew-soaked grass and she tried to decide whether she was dreaming.
She was in a grassy field with no recollection of how she got there. The sky was going dark. She was, for some reason, dressed in nothing but a thin white gown that was almost transparent. An enormous willow tree drooped over her head. Nothing was familiar.
Yes, it seems like a dream, she thought, but she still wasn't sure. Everything felt solid and tangible. She could hear her heartbeat. The air was so crisp that it stung her throat when she inhaled; had she ever noticed her breathing in a dream?
Something rustled in the grass nearby.
"Hello?" she said. Her voice sounded strange. It was like hearing an echo come out of her own mouth. "Is someone there?"
More movement, but she could see nothing. She pressed her back against the trunk of the tree. It's all just a dream anyway, she thought. None of this can be real. I will wake up any minute.
She heard footsteps approaching. The sky was going dark, and something was getting closer, and it was just as she felt the touch of an unseen hand at her throat that the scream welled up inside of her, and-
Christine woke to sheets tangled around her body and staleness in her mouth. It was hot. Everything was damp with sweat. She kicked her way out of bed and stumbled to the window, sticking her head out. Three stories below she could see the pavement baking on the street.
She was sure she had been dreaming a moment ago, but now she couldn't remember anything about it. The clock told her it was noon. She dressed without even knowing what she was putting on. Her mind was already on the thing that was waiting for her in the living room: the painting.
The easel stood in the center of the room, and she approached it slowly, almost reverently. She felt a little thrill run through her as she turned it and saw the canvas she had finished last night: the scene showed a pale, blonde, nymph-like woman in a barely-there gown, lying in a green field under a rather dreary willow tree. She reclined on her side, head propped on one hand, chin tilted down, all daintiness and gossamer fabric and flowing hair. She looked (or at least, Christine wanted her to look) carefree and distracted.
There was a second figure in the painting too, a lean but muscular man who was covered in shadows. He stood over the distracted nymph, apparently unseen, his posture hunched, one arm reaching toward her. His fingers were a few inches from her throat.
The idea for the painting had come to her out of nowhere six weeks ago. One second it hadn't been there and the next it just was. Dazed by the sudden inspiration, she'd wandered for hours until she found an art supply store, where she spent hundreds of dollars on brushes, paints, canvasses, and other essentials.
That very night she had drawn her concept sketch, and then made her first attempt at the real thing. Disliking the result, she had tried again the next day. Christine had painted the same scene over and over, every day, for weeks, and every morning she appraised her work and found that it was not yet good enough. The rejected versions were stacked by the dozens all across the floor of her apartment.
Her fingers were sore from the effort of gripping a brush, and they were always stained with paint. The chemical fumes had stung her eyes to a permanent pink. Her back and knees ached constantly now from all the hours spent standing in one spot. She hardly noticed.
Days worth of mail was piled by the door, last month's unopened bills on the bottom. She almost never left the apartment anymore except for occasional jaunts to get supplies. At first people had called to see why she wasn't around, but now few bothered. Christine paid them no mind.
She barely thought of anything from the moment she woke up each day except for the painting. When she closed her eyes, she saw the scene, perfect in every detail. She wanted to put that perfection onto the canvas. She wanted it so much she could hardly breathe when she thought about it.
She considered the new version from every angle. It still wasn't right. She had painted a day scene, but the patches of blue sky poking through the tree limbs looked out of place, and she didn't think the lighting was right. It should not be day, but dusk, she decided, the last minutes between day and night.
She had fixed the problems with the woman's proportions, but she still didn't like her face, which didn't seem to express anything. And there was something off about the man too. He should be darker, to set him apart from the woman's paleness. And something about the way he was reaching out? Was he going to touch her or strangle her? She couldn't tell.
She frowned. The male figure had always made her uncomfortable. Sometimes she was afraid to turn her back on him.
This one was an improvement, she decided, but still not good enough. She'd have to start over. That would mean buying another canvas, and they were expensive, but if she just let the cable bill go for the month she could afford it. A few weeks without television would probably be good for her anyway.
Her phone beeped, telling her she was going to be late. She had cancelled all of her recent appointments to afford more time for painting, but there was still one meeting she couldn't miss, even now. She found her purse and tried very hard not to think about who she was going to see.
Just as she got to the front door, there was a knock, and she jumped. Settle down Christine, she thought. "Who is it?" she said. No one answered. She fumbled with the knob. "I'm sorry, but you caught me just as I was leaving. Maybe we can-"
No one was there when she opened the door. She looked in both directions. No one in sight. She realized she was holding her breath and exhaled all at once. She looked back into her apartment from the other side of the threshold. If something had been there, she thought, I would have let it in when I opened the door. Now I'm locking it inside. It will still be waiting for me when I get home.
Stop it, she thought. You're making yourself late. This is just stress. She put one foot in front of the other and resisted the urge to look behind her. Instead she thought about the painting. The cool green field relaxed her almost immediately.
Maybe tonight would be the night. Maybe tonight she would finally make it perfect. She would start as soon as she got back. She just had to do this one thing first...
"No," said David. "Don't say it. Don't say 'I'm sorry I'm late.'"
Christine slid into the booth, where a cesar salad was already waiting for her.
“A wonderful person without a thought in her head, yes, I know, which is why I've already ordered for you, and look, here it is. Wine?"
"It's the middle of the day."
"That's why I'm drinking white. Is that blood on your sleeve?"
Christine looked down. "It's paint."
"Redoing the living room?"
"No," Christine said, poking at her salad and glancing at him out the corner of her eye. He looked tired, but David never exhibited the same marks that made other people unattractive when they became run down. It was one of the things about him that annoyed her the most.
"You look-" he started, and she jumped to cut him off.
"You look exhausted!" she said. "Is it the job?"
"Oh God!" He made a big gesture of putting his head in his hands, and she took a bite to disguise her smile. "It's slow death. I feel like I've been there for a million years."
"It's been three weeks."
David pantomimed stabbing himself with his fork. "Why am I doing this?"
"The money, I thought."
"Oh no, of course not, people who only do jobs for the money are sell outs. I'm doing this because I have an all-consuming love for patent law, right?"
Well it would be nice if you loved something, she thought, but chose to stuff her mouth full of croutons rather than say so. They lapsed into silence for a few seconds.
"I'm glad you came out," he said. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you too," she said, moderating her tone. "I was surprised when you called me."
"I don't know why. We agreed to be friends. Friends see each other, from time to time."
"Yes, but after last time-"
"Let's not talk about that."
More silence passed. Christine mentally composed dozens of statements about David, herself, and the general state of the world, then discarded each of them in favor of extending the silence.
David cleared his throat. "Okay Christine, you were late after you swore you never would be again, and that means it's time. It's time for the question."
"No!" Christine said, wincing as she swallowed.
"I'm sorry, but as per our agreement, you must hear me out."
"I never agreed to that!"
"I agreed for you."
"For the last time, I'm not interested."
"Troy is a great guy, I don't see why you won't at least meet him."
"Because I said no, I've said no repeatedly, and that's just the end of it." And because I hate you more every time you bring it up, she added, silently. "I don't see why you think this guy is SO right for me. Just because he's a doctor-"
"Intern. And he's thinking of quitting. That's all got nothing to do with why I wanted to fix you up."
"Non-doctor then. I think I can find a non-doctor on my own, if I wanted one."
"Christine, I worry about you. You haven't worked in six months, you haven't dated anyone in a year-"
"That's not true! I go on dates all the time."
"One night stands who you never see again."
"I'm playing the field. There's nothing wrong with that. You did," she said, sounding more hostile than she meant to let on.
"When was the last time you talked to someone other than me?"
Christine scowled. "I don't keep track. Correct me if I'm wrong David, but I thought you no longer had a controlling interest in my love life?"
"I'm not trying to control you, I just thought-"
"Well stop thinking."
"Christine, you don't-"
"Don't say that! Don't say 'You don't know what you want,' I hate it when you say that."
"Alright, fine, I'll drop it. So," he said, switching gears without even a pause, "what is this about painting?"
Christine hesitated. Almost any change of topic would have been welcome, but somehow she didn't feel comfortable telling David about the painting.
"It's just something I'm doing," she said.
"A while ago. I wanted to try it out."
"I didn't know you were interested in art."
"Maybe there are lots of things you don't know about me."
"I'm having trouble believing there's even this one."
Christine sighed and closed her eyes, and as soon as she did she saw it again: the grass, the tree, the woman, and the dark man. The scene fluttered in and out of view as fast as she blinked.
"You look like you have a headache," David said.
Christine opened her eyes. "I do, all of a sudden."
"Do you want something for it? I have-"
"No, it's okay. I'll do something about it when I get home." Christine's fingers curled around the brush she wasn't holding.
"You know who I heard from the other day? Trina. She's pregnant, apparently. Eight weeks along and due in August. You remember that guy Eric? He's the father. I thought we should all get together sometime."
Christine nodded, but she wasn't listening anymore. She was looking out the window, squinting against the bright light. There was a tree across the street, with a bent trunk. A willow tree? Had it always been there? She had never noticed it before.
"I have to go," she said.
"Now?" he looked down at his wrist for the watch he no longer ever wore, like he always did.
Christine stood, went for the door, remembered her purse, found it, then went for the door again. "It's this headache. I really have to go David, I'm sorry."
"It's okay," he stood as if to follow her, but stayed where he was. "If you want I can call later and-"
But she was already gone.
She went straight to the art supply store, then home, and then she painted for eight hours, until her hands were so cramped and sore that she couldn't hold a brush. She barely made it to the couch before passing out, and there she slept, curled into a ball, hands still spotted with paint. She closed her eyes and-
Her bare feet sank into the dew-soaked grass. She looked up into the gently swaying branches of the tree. The breeze was mild, and she felt it tickle her through the sheer fabric of her gown. She wondered, briefly, where she was, but soon stopped caring, distracted by the streaks of orange in the sky as the day dwindled into the night.
Something rustled in the grass nearby.
"Hello?" she said. She squinted, but it was too dark to see anything. "Is someone there?" Silence, then the sound of a branch breaking. "Hello?" she said, louder. "Please don't go. Who are you?"
She jumped when a voice came from only a few feet away, although she could see no one.
"I thought I'd frightened you," it said.
Christine spun around, unable to find where the voice had come from. "Only just now," she said.
"Not now. Last time." It was a man's voice, but it was soft and slightly hoarse.
"Last time? I don't remember-" she stopped in mid-sentence as memories swam to the surface. "Wait...I remember. I felt something touch me?"
"I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to hurt you." The uncertainty in the voice almost made her laugh. Whoever he was, he sounded like a grade school boy asking a girl out on a date for the first time
"You didn't hurt me. I was just surprised is all. And I didn't know what was going on. And I still don't. Where are we?"
"We're dreaming," said the voice.
"We are, you and me both. I dream for you all the time."
"You dream about me?"
"Not about you. For you."
"Where are you? Aren't you going to come out?"
"If you would like me to. But I warn you, you might find me..."
"Frightening?" she said, and laughed. "If it's all that bad, I can just wake up."
"As you wish," the voice said, and then someone was sitting just three feet away. It was a man who was barely no longer a boy, with a narrow face, large brown eyes, and long, unruly hair. His naked body was lean but muscular, and his complexion was a strange dark grey, the color of afternoon shadows. When he shifted his position a little she saw that rather than feet, he had hooves.
He ducked his head, blushing. "I must look terribly ugly to you," he said.
Christine wasn't sure how to respond, but after a few seconds she came out with the truth:
"Not at all! I think you're beautiful. Strange, very strange, but beautiful. I just don't...that is to say, I'm not sure...what are you?"
"That is a very difficult question to answer," he said, glancing up long enough to make eye contact for a split second. "Just know that I am your most devoted servant, and that I've spent many, many years dreaming about the moment when we would finally be together." Christine blushed. His words were halting, but there was an earnestness about his expression that made her believe them.
She touched his cheek with the tip of two fingers. She was amazed by how hot he felt, and by the rough texture of his skin. "Are you sure this is a dream?" she said. "It feels so real."
"Only in dreams do perfect moments like this happen. Only in a dream could I talk to you, or be touched by you. If this were real, you would hate me."
"I'm sure I wouldn't," she said, not moving her hand.
"Ah, but you would. I know these things. It's part of my nature. In dreams we can be together, but in life? In life you will never return my love. And when I finally come to be with you, you'll break my heart."
He sounded resigned. Christine frowned. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Well Komos, I don't know where you got that idea, but I'm sure I would never do any such thing."
"Ah, that's what they always say, in dreams."
Christine laughed. "This is a dream, isn't it? I keep forgetting. And if it's a dream, then...I suppose I can do anything I want." She cupped her hand against his cheek and, acting before she had even fully conceived the impulse, she kissed him.
His lips were rough and coarse, and they were hot, so hot that she thought she might be burned. Rather than pull away, she pushed closer, turning her initial, hesitant kiss into a fuller, deeper one. The heat of his mouth made her lips tingle.
At first he was perfectly still, body rigid, and then he began to tremble. When she laced her fingers behind his head, running them through his long, luxurious hair, he sprang to life, wrapping his arms so tightly around her that she gasped. He was incredibly strong, and for a second she was afraid she would be crushed, but then she relaxed, realizing that he was not using enough force to actually hurt her.
The translucent gown she wore did very little to separate them. The contours of her body hugged his, breasts crushed against his chest as he pulled her into him. The surface of his skin was so incredibly hot that she began to sweat almost immediately. She wrapped her legs around his waist, her lips still on his, her tongue slipping into his mouth where she nearly cut herself on his sharp incisors.
He pressed his mouth to the side of her neck, rough lips massaging her soft, sensitive flesh a few seconds before his sharp teeth sank into her throat. She clung to him, head lolling to one side, eyes rolling as she moaned while the sharp edge of his tongue lapped at the bruised red mark his teeth had left behind.
It took all of her strength to push him away even for a second. His shyness and boyish hesitancy were gone, replaced by hunger and desire so intense that she almost flinched in the face of it.
She smiled, wagging a finger at him when he leaned forward to close the distance between them again. She turned and, glancing at him over her shoulder, she moved down to all fours, arching her rear into the air, smiling still as she wiggled her hips back and forth.
The sharp point of one his nails pressed down between her shoulder blades. His fingertip traced along the curve of her spine, shredding the flimsy fabric of her gown until it slipped away and off, leaving her naked and trembling in the tall grass.
She gasped when his hands took her hips, dragging her an inch or two back toward him. He leaned over her, kissing the nape of her neck, burning lips gliding over her bare shoulders, sharp edges of his tongue and teeth pricking her naked flesh. She could feel the overwhelming strength in his body, but his touch was always just soft enough not to hurt her.
Christine moaned when his hands slid down the sides of her body and up to cup her breasts as they swung underneath her with the rhythm of her squirming, gyrating hips. He squeezed, once, and her knees went weak. Pinching pressure on her swollen nipples made her head swim, and she bit her lower lip in an increasingly futile bid not to cry out.
She wanted to direct him, but didn't dare. She was afraid that she had unwittingly broken a dam and that she might now be crushed under the weight of what was behind it. She heard his hungry panting as his hands wandered across the curves of her body, seemingly testing how much she could take. He was as hot as a furnace now and she thought she might catch fire under his touch.
There was a throbbing ache at the center of her and a wetness between her thighs that he couldn't possibly miss. Ever other second she let out a tiny, panting gasp as he continued to fondle her, his body leaning on her more and more, the coarseness of his touch sending shivers through her. His hips were pressed against her as he leaned hard from behind, and she felt pleasantly trapped by his embrace.
After a few helpless, panting minutes never being able to form a word, she finally managed to push out in a single, breathless exhalation: "Please..."
Then he took hold of her, one hand on her hip and the other gripping the hair at the back of her head, pulling so hard that she screamed and then screamed again as he entered her, passing the welcoming entrance of her sex and burying himself inside.
It was impossible to measure the passage of time in a dream. Minute, hours, days, Christine had no way of knowing how long this went on, her body bowed underneath his, the steady, mechanical, pumping rhythm of his thrusts rocking her back and forth, over and over again. She imagined that, in reality, they would both have passed out from exhaustion long ago, but here there was no limit.
Untethered from the world, Christine was plunged into an ocean with no bottom. Komos, never having experienced physical restrictions of any kind, instinctually pushed himself and her past anything connected to the material. He was a raw, raging torrent pouring himself into her. She shook, gasped, moaned, screamed, panted, clawed, swore, sweated, bit, writhed, and ached in synch with the cues he provided. He held her hand, pushed her over the edge, and then caught her, just barely, before she struck bottom.
After, he lay with his head in her lap as she ran her fingers through his hair.
"Komos?" she whispered.
"What did you mean before, about coming to be with me?"
"I'll come for you when you're finished."
"When you're finished calling for me."
"I don't understand?"
He rolled over to face her. "You will, once you're awake. Although you won't remember this."
"Then how am I supposed to-" but he was gone, vanished right out from under her.
"Komos?" she said, standing. "Where did you go?" There was no answer. The wind was blowing harder now, and it had grown cold. The boughs of the tree leaned in the dark. A few drops of icy rain spattered her bare skin. And then-
It was the pain in her hands that woke Christine up. In the dull, fumbling state just after waking, she couldn't place what was wrong. Then she realized that in her sleep she had balled her hands fists so tightly that her nails dug crescent-shaped gouges in her palms.
She was stiff from spending all night slumped on the couch. The flotsam of a particularly vivid dream floated across her mind, then disappeared. She sleepwalked to the kitchen. It was a sweltering day again, so she decided to forgo hot coffee in favor of the cold pot left over from last night. Her stomach growled and she realized that she hadn't eaten anything since the salad at lunch yesterday. In fact, she wasn't sure if there was even any food in the house?
But then she saw the painting and forgot about everything else.
It was almost perfect this time: the glade looked fresh and alive, haphazardly placed brushstrokes creating a riot of individual grass blades while long, thick lines defined the lazy fronds of the willow tree. The sky was the faintest shade of blue, streaked with orange.
The reclining nymph now appeared suitably enchanted by her surroundings, lost in her own little world. She looked graceful and confident, but vulnerable, just as Christine had envisioned. The shadow man was a shadow no longer, at last fully fleshed out. His hunched pose as he reached toward the nymph reminded Christine of the leering gargoyles in old churches.
By some trick of the light, the shadow man's chest appeared to rise and fall with heavy breaths. She was sure that if she touched it the canvas would feel warm, like the body of an animal. She put her hand out...
A knock on her door broke the spell. She jerked her hand back. For some reason, her heart was pounding in her chest. If she had touched it...
A knock again, louder. "Just a minute!" she called.
She was being silly, of course, and letting her imagination run away with her again. The painting wasn't even that good, she decided. Better than the last, better than an amateur like her had any right to expect, but still not good enough. She had another canvas, she would work on it tonight.
She needed more paint, she decided, as she made her way to the door. Her palette wasn't wide enough, that was the problem. The scene itself was finally right, but the colors were off. If she could just get the color right, it would be perfect.
Impatient knocking for a third time, and Christine bellowed "Hold on!" just as her hand closed around the knob.
The door swung open onto an empty hallway.
She peered out in both directions. No one in sight. "Hello?" she said, and her echo chased its way down the hall.
Neighbor kids, she thought. Just as she was turning back, something caught her eye; on the carpet, just to the side of her door, a black mark she didn't remember ever seeing before. She got down on her knees to look at it. It was a splotch of black paint, in the shape of an oval.
No, not an oval, she realized. She leaned in even closer, scrutinizing it from a few inches away.
It was a hoof print.
In her rush to the get to the art store, she had forgotten her phone. The message alert greeted her when she got back in. There were two voicemails, the first from David:
"Hi, I just wanted to let you know I'll be at the office until five, you can call me here if you want to yell at me."
She frowned. Then the second message played:
"Uh, hi, Christine, my name is Troy Owens, I'm a friend of David. This is a little awkward because I don't usually do this kind of thing, but Dave's told me all about you and, well, he thinks we'd really hit it off..."
That was all she heard before the droning pulse of her own anger drowned out everything else. Her hand shook as she dialed David's office. He answered in the middle of the first ring.
"No, this is not because I feel guilty," he said.
She was momentarily stunned by the non sequitur opening, and in the face of her silence he kept talking.
"That's what you were going to ask, right? Am I trying to play matchmaker because I feel guilty about our breakup and this is my way of weaseling out of that? Well no, I'm not."
"I knew you'd be angry, but I thought this was the only way to give you the push out the door that you needed. You never know what you want, Christine."
"You UNBELIEVABLE asshole, how dare you?"
He didn't seem to hear her. "I'm not going to lie Christine, I'm worried about you. You're in danger of becoming a shut-in. And, honestly, Troy is a great guy, but he needs someone to shake him out of his rut too. I saw the both of you and I thought how much I know you'd both enjoy meeting, so if I have to take a more active hand in getting you together then that's what I'll-"
"Shut up! You had absolutely no right to go and do that after I repeatedly told you not to! Where do you get off deciding what's best for me? For you to sit there and give me this smug, condescending bullshit about knowing what's best for me when you didn't give a damn what was best for me ever, EVER the entire time we were dating is just so...so...YOU!"
There was a pause. Then: "You have to get over me sooner or later Christine."
The phone landed somewhere near the bathroom door.
Christine stuck her head out the window, taking deep breaths to avoid bursting into tears. She hated that he could still do this to her. She hated the sound of his voice. She hated his smug face and the worn-out shoes that he always wore and the fact that he put honey in his coffee and the-
The phone rang again.
"You are STILL an asshole!" she screamed into the receiver.
Another declaration of "asshole" died at the back of her throat.
"Hello, is this Christine?"
She swallowed hard. "Yes. Yes! I am so, so sorry about that, I thought you were-"
"Yes, I know who you thought it was, I was just telling him that same thing myself. This is Troy Owens again, I just got done talking to David. I'm calling to apologize, I had no idea that he had given me your number without your permission."
Christine took a few more deep breaths.. "It's alright. I mean, I know it wasn't your fault. David can be so pushy when he thinks he's right, and you just got caught in the middle of it."
Troy sighed, and although she had no idea what he looked like, she could picture his long-suffering expression. "Yeah, I know it. He's been pushing me about this for weeks, and I kept telling him I wasn't really interested-"
"I mean, nothing personal, it's not about you, I don't even know you, I mean, that's the point of course, but-"
"No no, I completely understand."
"I finally gave in just to get him off my back. Not that I'm saying that dating you is only preferable to constant harassment..."
"If you were to say that, I'd probably agree. David would definitely agree."
There was a pause of a few seconds while they both decided if it was acceptable to laugh. It was.
"Wow," he said, "so neither of us wanted anything to do with each other?"
"Not a thing. I won't be offended if you aren't."
"What if I am?"
"That's okay, I reserve the right to be a little offended even when I say I'm not. Woman's prerogative."
"I think I want to go back to the harassment."
"Too late, you already made the call."
"I'm being punished for one mistake?"
"Two mistakes. You called me back. You're calling me back right now. This is the call."
"Ah yes, the old two strikes law, I think my parents used to use that one."
"I know, I called them and asked." Christine frowned. She should not be talking to him like this.
"Called my parents before we'd even talked huh?"
"I was checking if you were good stalking material. Afraid you didn't make the cut."
"There's some sort of tailoring pun to be made here about cutting 'stocking material', but my better instincts tell me to avoid it."
"That sounds like the first time today that your better instincts have worked out." She realized she was smiling and scolded herself.
Another pause. They both tried to talk at once, then she let him go ahead:
"Of course," he said, "If we were ever to meet up, even once, it would validate all of David's unethical methods."
"Yes, I suppose it would."
"So even if it seemed like a good idea, we could never do it."
"Nope. We'd never hear the end of it."
"Right. Kind of a shame though."
"That David really knows how to spoil a good thing." She was counting down silently in her head.
"He does. Of course," she could almost hear him summoning up his courage, "if we were to meet and then hate each other, that would be the ultimate repudiation."
"It would, wouldn't it?"
"Because then everything he did would have been for nothing."
"And he would realize once and for all that he doesn't know us as well as he thinks he does."
"Right. Almost sounds like a plan, doesn't it?"
"So it's agreed, we'll meet up once, just long enough to realize how bad we are for each other, and then we'll never speak to each other or to David again."
"Except to harass him about how bad we get along."
"Right, except for that."
"And it will be entirely about petty, passive-aggressive revenge, right? Nothing more than that."
"Nope, nope," he said. "That's all there is to it."
"Do we have time to hate each other tonight?"
She looked at the bag of paints and the easel in the next room. "Well, I had plans, sort of...but I can cancel them."
"Great. Why don't I call around and make some reservations? That way you'll at least get a decent meal out of this tragic, ill-fated meeting."
"My, how considerate. It's a shame we're not going to hit it off at all."
"Well, we can't. It's a matter of principle."
"That's right," she said. "I almost forgot. Principles are important, I suppose."
"Help me unzip this," Christine said, pulling Troy's hands around her waist and guiding them to the zipper on the back of her dress. She stood on the tips of her toes so that her mouth could reach his neck. He must have shaved in a hurry, because tiny, coarse bristles tickled her lips when she kissed his throat.
She exhaled in relief as the tight dress loosened and slid partway down. "It'd be a shame if you really quit the hospital," she said. "You have a surgeon's hands."
The tips of his fingers grazed the bare part of her back. "I'm not that kind of doctor," he said.
"You're not any kind of doctor from what I hear, but don't spoil my happy illusions" she leaned up even higher, trying to kiss his earlobe.
For the record, she thought as she kissed him again and they both tumbled onto the bed, I am only doing this to get back at my ex. It's not because I have any sort of genuine interest in this man at all. If I did, then I would probably never live it down. So instead, as far as the official story goes, this is about me using him to work out my anger at a third party. Anything else you might hear is malicious slander.
True, she had rather liked his cute disheveled look when he'd picked her up; his sandy hair had an untamable cowlick, and he had obviously had no idea how to work the tie he had on. And she had, in spite of herself, been impressed by his command of the wine list (she was never attracted to any man who wasn't at least slightly a snob), and, oh, she supposed she would say, if you had pressed her about it, that he was funny. And attractive, in that way that men who can't tie their own ties can be.
Not that she was officially acknowledging any of that.
Christine sat up just enough to wriggle out of her dress, then kicked it to the floor. Stripped down to bra and panties, she sat on the edge of the mattress, fumbling in the dark with Troy’s belt. He reached to help and she batted his hands away playfully. There was a satisfying click when it gave way, and she pulled it off in one motion. She heard him grunt and realized she must have given him some friction burn when she did. Oh well, she thought, I’m sure I’m about to make up for it.
“You like to take it fast,” he said as she tugged his pants down his hips.
“Keep up,” she replied, leaning forward and, using her hands to guide in the dark, pressed her mouth to the tip of his cock. Spreading her lips, she kissed it wetly just below the head, extending the tip of her tongue and tracing a tiny, close circle along the shaft. She heard him swallow whatever he was about to say, and she silently commended him for being smart enough to realize when to keep his mouth shut.
She continued to tease him, licking her lips to wet them and then trailing open-mouthed kisses down his cock, stopping at the base and then tracing all the way back up with the tip of her tongue. She completed this circuit three or four times, listening for that distinct change in the pitch of his breathing that let her know when he was on edge. When she finally heard it, she responded by swallowing the head into her mouth, sliding her lips down and around it, then pursing them tightly. The shudder that went up and down him was extremely gratifying.
Christine wrapped her arms around his legs, tickling the backs of his calves as she swirled her tongue around and around the tip of him. She tasted a stray drop on her palate and opened her mouth wider, slowly sliding down, letting him feel the hot, wet, soft touch of her lips gliding over one inch at a time. She stopped halfway and bobbed her head, swallowing, and his hips bucked a little, almost on command. She liked that he was responsive. It invested her with an urge to toy with him.
For a long time she continued to provoke him by never taking the full length into her mouth, always stopping just halfway down and tickling his shaft with her tongue, pursing her lips around him so that an obscene but gratifying sucking noise accompanied the motion. In the dark she could hear the faint sound of his hands knotting the sheets. Come on Troy, she thought, just show a little initiative and it'll pay off...
Deciding he needed a bit more motivation, she cupped his balls in her hand and gave a soft, massaging squeeze at the same time that she ran her tongue around the rim of his cock. This finally elicited the reaction she wanted; Troy tangled his fingers in her hair, tugging once, hard, in a way that made her ache, then pushing down, gently but firmly, at the same time that he thrust with his hips. Good boy, she thought, opening wide and taking him all the way in, gagging slightly as he came to the entrance of her throat.
Now she let him set the pace, responding to the touch of his hand on the back of her head and the increasingly needful, rhythmic thrusting of his hips. She adjusted the pressure of her lips, gently gliding across the sensitive skin of his shaft, moving off just long enough to kiss the tip before swallowing the entire thing again. She tasted a hot, sticky dribble on her tongue, and decided it was time to move to the next step.
Pushing away, she slid further back onto the bed, the springs groaning under her, pulling him along with her, so that he almost fell down in the dark. They lay in a tangle together, her limbs twined around his, her lips seeking and finding the ridge of his ear, kissing, then whispering: “Well come on; show me what you have for me...”
He didn’t respond for a few seconds, and at first she worried she might have miscalculated. Then, in one motion, his right hand pulled her head back by the hair so hard that her back arched, just as his left hand grabbed a fistful of her panties and pushed them aside.
All at once he was on her, pinning her, and then inside of her, the hot, tight confines of her sex accepting his. She gasped, shocked at the sudden, violent force of it, but before she had time to recover he was moving again, thrusting up into her, rocking back and forth.
She purred: “Mmmmm. Good Troy. Just like that...”
For the rest of the night he held her like that, until the ache inside of her dulled and faded away. In the dim hours before dawn, she half-dozed naked in his arms, and when he switched the lamp on she felt warm and satisfied at the sight of his boyish face with their deep, serious blue eyes.
They lay and talked for another hour, her head on his chest, until he had to leave for an early shift at the hospital. She promised she would call him and realized, to her surprise, that unlike all the other men she had said that to, with him she really meant it.
She was still smiling when she opened her front door, but the smile soon collapsed into a scowl. She hadn't realized how dreary this place had become, or how stuffy it felt. And it was a mess! Boxes and bags and art supplies everywhere!
She looked at the painting as she went by, and tsked. How could she have spent so much time on something so ugly, she wondered. She particularly disliked the shadowy man's face now.
I guess I'm just not meant to be an artist, she thought, setting the canvas aside and collapsing the easel. What on earth am I going to do with all this now? Throw it out, she supposed.
She’d worry about it tomorrow. It was nearly five AM now. She had just barely enough time to undress and land on the mattress before sleep caught up with her, and then-
Drops of icy rain fell on her through the boughs of the tree. She huddled underneath it, and heard Komos' voice mixed with the wind.
"You've been with someone else."
She blinked, looking around for him. "Komos? Where did you go?"
"Where have you been?"
"I don't know what you mean! I was right here, and then you were gone, and then-" she stopped. She was dreaming again, she realized. What had she done while she was awake to make him sound so angry? And how did he know?
"Who is he?" Komos' voice was vacant, like someone who has been so angry for so long that he can't summon up the effort anymore.
Christine leaned against the tree trunk. "I don't know," she said. "What does it matter anyway? This is just a dream."
There was silence for a while. Then: "Just a dream?"
"Wait, I didn't mean it like that. All I meant was-"
"Just a dream. Fine. Then we'll see exactly what a dream can do."
And then he was gone, and she was alone, in the dark and the rain.
She woke to pounding on her door.
"Not this again!"
She dressed in a hurry, bare feet kicking through the disaster area in her living room. Heads would roll if she ever found out who was doing this every morning (or afternoon, according to the clock?). She flung the door open, expecting to find the usual empty hallway, and nearly fainted instead there were two strange men on her doorstep.
The oldest of the unfamiliar pair held something up to her face. It was a badge.
"I'm Detective Bradley, this is Detective Norway," he said. "We'd like to have a word with you."
Am I still dreaming, she wondered. Out loud she said: "What is this about, exactly?"
"This is about Troy Owens and David Sanderson. If you haven't heard already, then I think maybe you ought to sit down."
For the next fifteen minutes she sat and let their words wash over her, seemingly disconnected sentences and phrases drifting by, occasionally breaking through the fog of shock:
"...both found dead between the hours of five AM and six AM..."
"...separate incidents, but we have reason to believe they're related..."
"...apparently you were one of the last people to speak with both victims..."
"...friends say that David was upset over a fight the two of you had yesterday..."
"...doesn‘t look like a break-in. In fact, it looks like they both just opened the door for their attacker..."
"...blunt force trauma to the head. We'll spare you the details, but suffice to say..."
"...I'll be frank, I've seen a lot of murders, but never anything like this. There was... an unusual amount of force used. A very unusual amount of force..."
"...if you can remember anything either of them said that might give us an idea why someone would do this..."
"...we realize how you must feel right now, but the early stages of an investigation are the most important. If you can remember anything, anything at all..."
Christine said nothing until the detectives were getting ready to leave.
"We can see that you're not in any condition for this right now," one of them said. "And that's understandable. We'll come back. In the meantime, if there's anything you want to tell us-"
"Did you find any kind of mark on the floor?" she asked, the first words she had spoken in some time. "Something like this?"
She traced a hoof print in the dust on the coffee table. Neither detective answered, but the look that passed between them told her what she needed to know. The younger one (she had forgotten their names already) appeared particularly troubled. "Why do you ask?" he said.
"I found a mark like that painted on the floor outside my door yesterday. You walked right by it when you came in."
They both sat back down.
"We can't give out specific information about the crime scenes," said the older one. "But, hypothetically, do you think that this 'mark' might be a message or a threat of some kind, directed at you or the victims? Do you have any idea who might have put it there?"
Christine tried to answer, but instead she started crying. She cried and cried and every time she tried to talk she only cried more, because all at once she was remembering things that had been said to her in dreams.
The detectives told her they would be back, and that there would be officers watching her apartment tonight. They were sure she wasn't in any danger, they said, but it was a basic precautionary measure. They told her they were sorry about what had happened. Christine could read the looks that passed between them, the ones that said: Well, if she's dead by tomorrow, that means she didn't do it.
She locked the door as soon as they were gone. And then she sat, and thought. She remembered something now, something that someone told her in a dream:
"I'll come for you when you're finished calling for me."
And then she knew what to do.
Christine set up the easel. She gathered up the supplies she had bought the previous day, and the one blank canvas she had left. Her fingers were still bruised and calloused from all the hours spent with a brush in hand, but she picked one up anyway and, careful not to think about what she was about to do, she started to paint.
It took her all day; the sun was going down when she put her brushes down again. But when she finished, it was perfect.
As it grew darker outside, she went to the closet and took the box down from the top shelf, the one her father had insisted that she take when she moved to this neighborhood. For emergencies, he said. Then she sat, staring at the painting, drinking wine, and waiting.
At midnight, there came a knock on her door. She approached it slowly. She could hear something scraping against the floor outside. As she reached for the knob with one hand, she gripped the gun in the other. The hinges squealed.
"Hello?" she said.
There was a dark shape on the threshold. It stirred, and she heard a familiar, whispering voice: "Christine. You finished it. You called me."
Her heart battered the inside of her chest. "Yes," she said. "I did." She kept the hand with the gun hidden behind the open door.
"I knew you would,” said the voice. "Now we can be together, forever."
Fear sweat broke out over her body. Her voice quivered when she spoke: "What do you mean?"
"I'll take you away from here, and after you're gone people will find your beautiful painting, and they'll take it somewhere and put it on display, and it will be us, we two, together forever, in that perfect scene that you made, just as you made us. It’ll be just like you always wanted."
She took two steps forward, but kept the doorway between them. "Is that what I wanted?”
"Yes. It's why I chose you.”
Fresh tears blurred Christine's vision.
"You know," she said, voice thick with the effort of restrained sobs, "a man I used to love always told me that I never know what I want."
And then she pointed the gun at the shadows, and pulled the trigger.