Josh (art)

by Brady Golden

He stays up late, watching cable news cover the same story for hours. When the chatter of the bickering reporters, analysts, and would-be experts becomes distracting, he mutes the TV. Something inside him is uncoiling, something important; a giant, prehistoric serpent twisting to life in subterranean darkness. Finally, he’s on his feet, power-walking down the hall of his empty house, past rooms he never goes into anymore, and up into the attic, not even slowing as he swats the switch by the door that lights up the single naked bulb hanging from the low ceiling. The boxes he’s looking for are stacked in sagging towers against a slanted wall, each tagged in black marker with a name and a one-word parenthetical description of its contents.

JOSH (school)

JOSH  (clothes)

JOSH (photos)

His wife wanted to leave their son’s bedroom as it was, untouched and frozen in time, like a caveman display at a natural history museum, but the man refused. That’s how he put it. “I refuse.” That fight was one of their last big ones. When she eventually moved out, she left all the boxes behind.

He hoists the boxes off the pile one at a time until he reaches the one he’s after. He doesn’t bother to clean up after himself, just clutches the box to his chest and hurries back down to the living room, stumbling occasionally because of the unbalanced load. The TV is still on, its light flickering white and blue in the otherwise dark room. Outside, a few blocks over, a fire engine speeds along, siren wailing. The windows in the other houses on his street are black. Either his neighbors are asleep or they’ve abandoned their homes.

He spends the next half hour arranging the box’s contents around the room, propping up canvases on the sofa and chairs and affixing charcoal sketches and ink drawings to the wall with thumbtacks. At the bottom of the box, he finds a thick stack of poetry handwritten on lined paper. He fingers through the pages, scanning the scratchy text that covers them. Finally, he puts them back in the box. There’s enough to deal with as it is.

When the would-be art gallery is all set up, he backs into the doorway and takes it in. On the TV, the same loop of footage plays over and over again. Four figures move along a beach. Ragged seaweed clings to them like blood-soaked gauze, dragging in the sand around their feet. It hides their skin, but not the fact that there is something severely wrong with them. Their heads are the size of football helmets. Their arms dangle past their knees. They move slowly, ploddingly, from the water to the road, ignoring or oblivious to the crowd of gawkers gathered around them. The autofocus on the cell phone camera that captured the scene can’t decide what it should be paying attention to, so it jumps repeatedly from foreground to background, giving the footage a flickery, skittish quality. A caption at the bottom of the screen identifies the video as having come from Batam, Indonesia.

That caption is the only detail that didn’t make it onto Josh’s painting. The rest is the same, right down to the camera angle. The proportions and perspective are wrong—the creatures and the people all appear to hover in some stretched, flattened universe—but the colors are spot-on, a dozen shades of green and brown, the thick streaks of paint glistening wetly.

A tourist shot the video this morning. The painting is four years old.

Nearby hangs a pencil drawing of a small church, its pews crammed to capacity. Every parishioner is slumped at an awkward angle, their eyes bulging, their tongues lolling, and he knows it’s of a church in Sao Paolo where last week the congregation passed around Draino like Communion wine, pausing on multiple occasions to open a fresh bottle when the last one went dry. Beside it, there’s a charcoal sketch of a smudged, messy black circle that looks an awful lot like the helicopter footage of an enormous sinkhole that recently opened up beneath Zolfo Springs, Florida, swallowing every last man, woman, child and pet.

His son made some of these pieces in art class before they pulled him out of school. Others were from his brief, frequent stays at the many clinics and hospitals around the state. The vast majority he crafted right here in this very house, sealed in his bedroom for hours at a time, loud, dissonant, hateful music filtering through his door. You had to pound for a solid minute to get him to answer, and when he did, his eyes were glassy and unfocused, his face pale and shiny with sweat. At that moment, he was just as likely to stare at you like a stranger as he was to start screaming and swatting at you with clenched, paint-spattered fists.

The doctors took the view that the pictures were a symptom of the boy’s illness, and all things considered, one of the least troubling ones. His mother felt differently. She believed, though she could not explain why, that all the paintings and drawings and scraps of writing were not a result of what was happening to their son but the key to it. Whenever he finished a new piece—or rather, whenever she discovered one in his room; he definitely never shared anything with them—she insisted on bringing it along to their next meeting with the doctor, of pouring over it with him, examining every gory corpse, ever oozing creature. Then she would sit quietly, teeth clenched, as she listened to the doctor’s smiling, noncommittal variation of the same remark: “He is a very talented boy, and such an imagination!”

He’d always agreed with the doctors. A teenage boy’s interest in death and monsters had seemed to him the most unremarkable thing in the world, especially when that boy had a history of self-cutting, arson, and fits of violence against his teachers and classmates. Until tonight, that opinion hadn’t wavered. After all, one thing he never painted was a pilfered Bic ballpoint, its ink cartridge removed and its tip filed down so that it looked more like a tool for leatherworking than a pen. He never painted white walls of a shower stall running red, or water turning pink over a backed up drain. After the funeral, it didn’t take long to start finding ways to blame his wife, and the easiest one, the one he kept coming back to, was the art. “Maybe if we’d spent a little more time talking about the things that mattered and a little less time on some fucking doodles, we could have seen it coming.”

One more thing he was wrong about. One more failure as a husband and a father. He tacks it onto his mental list, as though it matters at all anymore.

Propped up on an armchair, a fuzzy pink thing that he and his wife had lugged along with them since their very first apartment together, is a painting of the comet. Before, he did not recognize it for what it was, any more than he recognized the one in the Hubble pictures that they broadcast on the news when everything was starting. Flames, if that’s what they are, don’t so much trail after as squirm around it, as though its surface is coated in layers and layers of snakes, doused with oil and set alight. The colors are strange. There should not be so many. Purples and greens and strange shades whose names he does not know. The colors of no fire he has ever seen before.

The boy got it just right.

His son had his own name for it, another chunk of unpronounceable gibberish, another figure in his indecipherable mythology. Its actual name, or the truncated one they used on the news, is Weller-17. Not as dramatic, but probably easier on the reporters. There is no more evidence that Weller-17′s fly-by of Earth started it all off than there is that all the strange and awful occurrences of the past few weeks are connected, and yet now not even the most rational of thinkers argue that they aren’t. It all feels connected. Part of a greater will.

He examines the pictures of all the the horrible things he’s seen on the news and right outside his window—all the things his son knew—and when he feels that he can’t put it off any longer, he takes in the things he hasn’t. Cities alight with strange flames. Bloated, writhing things with a thousand eyes and a thousand mouths but no shape to speak of swallowing up whole houses. Bodies, hundreds of thousands of them, piled atop one another in towering heaps,  stretching to the horizon.

He whispers his son’s name, unsure if it’s an apology or a prayer.

He thinks of the last hospital, the one in the city, where they swore his son would be under constant supervision, where he’d be safe. His bedroom was stark. Its one window looked out on bars painted rubbery white. The blankets on the bed looked uselessly thin, incapable of providing warmth, and he remembers feeling a painful swell at the thought of the boy shivering and curled up on himself during the night. He thinks of his son wailing, tears streaming down his red, twisted face. He thinks of grabbing him—”It’s not real!”—trying to pin his flailing arms—”It’s not real!”—and his grip going tighter and tighter—”It’s. Not. Fucking. Real!”—as the concern turned to fear turned to rage, and the orderlies, with their shaved heads and barrel chests, came bursting through the door.

The End