The painting was a pleasant landscape of a forest, full of soft brown tree trunks and the warm colors of autumn. A white path dappled with yellow specks of paint to imply sunlight streaming through canopy bisected the composition. It had only one defect: a smudge in the far far background, left there uncorrected as if the artist had let their brush slip for a moment and not bothered to hide it with a final layer of paint. Shame, since the rest of the painting was so beautiful save this one mark, which was a pure ebony. Painters don't usually use true black. More often it's a shade of blue or gray.

"It isn't that noticeable." Audrey leaned with one knee propped against the back of my tiny couch and squinted at the painting. Her nose was so close she might as well sniff the paint.

"You think?" I asked.

"I think it livens the place up. No one's going to notice something that small anyway. The only reason you do is because you're so anal about everything."

"Am not."

She did that thing with her eyebrows and the tilt of her head that always drove me crazy. Just like always, I couldn't tell if the crazy was good or bad.

"Anyway." I changed the subject. "Now I have some art in here. No more bare bones. Aren't you proud of me?"

"I do believe I am." She awarded me with one of her perfect kisses. I lost myself in it. Good crazy. Definitely good crazy.

It took exactly one day for me to regret buying the painting. As I do every morning, I stepped out of the bathroom and meandered around my apartment while I brushed my teeth. My gaze happened to fall on the painting, and I stopped to stare at it. That's when I saw. I don't know why I noticed it. But I noticed it.

The smudge was three trees closer.

My jaw went slack and the toothbrush started slipping out of my mouth, so I chomped down to catch it. The toothbrush skidded between my teeth and jammed into my palate. Bristles poked my gums and mint toothpaste gone stale smeared along my taste buds. A hospital taste. Antiseptic. Invasive.

I knelt on the couch, braced myself with both hands flat against the wall, and scrutinized.

The smudge had eyes.

I'm not one to reel back or otherwise flail for the sake of drama, but you can bet I bit my toothbrush harder. With one adrenaline-fueled motion I wrenched the painting off the wall and flung it across the room. The canvas skittered across the checkerboard tile and banged against the opposite wall with a thump that sounded like a stab. Then it lay there on its face motionless, taunting me with its normalcy.

I stepped toward it.

Stepped again.

It lay still.

I removed the toothbrush from my mouth and spat. Heard the squelchy plunk as the spit hit the floor.

The painting did nothing.

I could hear myself breathe. My blood seared in my veins. Sweat licked my forehead and slid in cold trails down my face. I was going crazy. Bad crazy. Had to be. I had to stop going crazy.

Under the pretense of getting a rag to clean up the splatter of toothpaste on the floor, I returned to the bathroom. I placed my toothbrush back in its little container on the sink like a rational person. Like a person who wasn't imagining malevolent smudges inside paint strokes. Then, taking my time, I took a swig of water, sloshed it around in my mouth, and spat in the sink. Where spit is supposed to go. I grabbed a rag to clean up the unsanitary splotch on the floor of my living room. Breathed in and out. Exited the bathroom, rag in hand.

Took one step, then another.


And halted. The rag slipped from my fingers. I didn't hear it hit the floor.

That smudge had never been a smudge.