At first, there was nothing beyond the fire. Fire dancing on his skin, shooting through his arteries, writhing in his mind. . . He would move, think, breathe, if only the fire would let him.
It didn't, of course; even if it had, it would've made little difference. There was nothing beyond the fire.
And then, out of the fire, there came a name. He didn't know how it had come to him, but it was there, solid and cool in the midst of the formless heat. He wrapped his fingers around it, wrapped his lips around it, wrapped his mind around it. . . and the fire was gone, the name the only thing filling the vastness around him.
Out of the name grew memories, as mercurial and hard to pin down as the fire had been. A blank canvas leaning against a stark wall. A small volume, bound in mahogany leather. Tenuous fingers guiding a piece of charcoal over butcher paper in easy, lifelike lines.
Her art, he thought. She had always loved her art.
Pose for me, she had said, leaving a dirty streak as she ran a hand over his shoulder. She pulled his shirt over his head, tossed it into the corner of her studio. There. In the moonlight.
He stood in the beam of silver that slipped in through the skylight. She worked best in the dark, worked best when she couldn't see what she was doing, when she could lose herself in the lines and arcs.
That's good, she breathed, and he felt her charcoal trace the line of his spine onto her paper. Just like that, yes.
Time slipped away from him. The moonlight faded from his skin, only to be replaced by Lenora's fingers, tracing the lines on him now.
It's done, she said.
He knew better than to ask if he could see it. She would show him in time.
He'd looked at a portrait before she had given it to him for review, and it had haunted his dreams, left him all but sleepless for weeks until she'd found him in the bathroom, halfway through swallowing a bottle of pills.
You looked at Gretchen she guessed, cradling his head against her throat.
Is that what you call it? The staring eyes, boring into his core and finding each imperfection and flaw; the malevolent expression, suggesting that the canvas was the only thing separating him from sure destruction; the parted lips, motionless and somehow still forming the words You will be mine. . .
Gretchen hardly seemed fitting.
Gretchen, yes, she said. After my mother.
He considered asking about her childhood, demanding what sort of trauma she'd suffered that had led to the birth of this Gretchen, but before he could, she said, Come. Look again.
He shook his head against her cool skin. No, thanks.
Come, she said again, pulling him to his feet. It will help.
He followed her into the moonlit studio, the room he'd avoided obsessively since his first introduction to Gretchen. Lenora offered him a faint smile, pulling the drop cloth off the portrait to reveal the face.
Only a painting, love, she breathed, lips brushing his ear. And it was. Gretchen's gaze stopped at the canvas, no longer broke into his mind. Her expression was pleasant, vapid. She didn't seem to be saying anything at all.
I love your art, he said, and she took him to bed.
I've got a showing, she had said. Three pieces in a back room of Marla's gallery.
Congratulations, he said, smoothing her hair back. Which pieces are you sending?
She shrugged, looked around the studio. It was a different place in the daylight. The Forest of Eternity, I think. Victor, maybe, or Gretchen. The one of you, if you don't mind.
Of course not, he said, smiling. Do I get to see it yet?
Her eyes met his for a moment, and she glanced at the large canvas leaning, face down, against the wall. No, no, I don't think that would be wise.
"Love," she said, her voice soothing in his scorched ears. "Can you hear me?"
"Lenora." His lips wrapped around the name again. "Lenora, the fire. . . I'm sorry."
"Shh. . ." she breathed, a finger tracing his closed eyelids. "Don't worry about the fire."
The show had been well-attended. She'd set a glass of wine in his hand as they entered. Drink, she said. Look around. Don't go into the Fillmont room. She pointed to a doorway across the gallery floor.
She smiled, a bit sadly, he thought. You're in there.
"No," he said, finding strength in his need to tell her. "The fire, Lenora. . . your art."
"Everything is fine," she told him. "Don't worry about my art."
He had looked, of course, hadn't been able to help himself. The door to the Fillmont room stood open, beckoning him in, and he eased it closed behind him. Gretchen gazed at him from across the small room, nothing unpleasant about her features. On the wall to his right, the Forest of Eternity swept out across seven feet of canvas, warm and somehow sentimental. He gazed at it for a moment longer, feeling the brush strokes trail off his body as he turned to the third piece.
The thin stem of the wine glass slipped through his fingers, and he was only partially aware of the dainty shattering noise it made when it hit the ground.
It was called Moonlight Sonata, although it stirred in him something dissonant. The stark lines of his back seemed carved from darkness, and he could see some creature seething between his shoulder blades. In the mess of dark hair on the back of his head, there seemed to be a single eye, gazing accusingly out.
A hand on the door knob, and he flew into motion.
"I'm sorry," he said again, feeling her cool lips brush against his knuckles. "I'm sorry about the fire, about your art —"
"Don't worry about it. It is better this way. Besides," she added, her lips lifting into a smile that he could feel even in his burned flesh, "the fire loved my art."