Walking past a pair of glass doors held open by a jamb, Dr. Marion James passed through the doorway and out of his second floor office. The massive stone balcony overlooked the galleria’s back yard; its verdant green lawn, its courtyard with a statue in its center, and the chest-high pots full of multi-colored flowers at each of its four corners. He clumsily fished something out of the right, front pocket of his suit jacket; it was the remaining three-quarters of an inexpensive khunatani cigar. He knew well that the board of directors strongly disapproved of any smoking on the grounds, but he flipped open his lighter and lit it even so, puffing away at it until the familiar odor of the smoke surrounded him like a favorite blanket. Hey, what they don’t know can’t hurt ‘em. But don’t forget this time, you’ve got that two second-clock interview … then later, dinner with Nancy at O’Malley’s at around six. His mouth began to water a bit, as there were few things in life that a sixteen-credit corned beef reuben on rye bread the size of a small pig couldn’t fix. He smoked contentedly for a minute or two, then rubbed the stub out on the outside of the balustrade so the excess tobacco would fall harmlessly onto the lower veranda. He re-entered the office and walked over to his desk, which was almost completely covered with several stacks of journals. The room had shelving on all four walls, even abutting the door-frame; books and periodicals of all kinds, old FHS tapes, and even Metamax units stacked eight to ten items high were everywhere. The phone rang and he answered; it was Arianne calling from the downstairs office. “Your appointment is here. Shall I send him up?”
“Yes, please do. Thank you.” When the applicant reached the top of the main stairwell, Dr. James was still rummaging around in a file cabinet that was against the western wall; so when he heard the footfalls on the hardwood floor, he called to him through the doorway. “In here, please.” The man walked into the office; he was tall, with slicked-back hair and wearing a well-fitted dark blue suit with a matching sixty-credit tie. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties; his face was prematurely lined around the eyes but rather bland, as if it were unused to strong emotion of any kind. “I’m going to need more folder space for all of these tax forms soon, I’m afraid.” The man gave him a noncommittal smile and stretched out his right hand for a shake; Dr. James loathed shaking hands, but the applicant had no way of knowing that, so he reluctantly complied. “Hi, I’m Michael Connor. I’m here about the personal assistant to the curator position.” Dr. James sat down in his corporate rolling chair across from him, a shadow briefly passing over his features. “Please, sit. And, no … I am the director of this galleria. I know the ad was a bit vague, and it’s just semantics i’m afraid, but if the Board were to hear you call me a curator, they would be … dismayed. It’s currently out of vogue, you see.”
“I do, sir.” Connor nodded. Dr. James paused for a moment before continuing. “Good. So, we spoke briefly on the phone about your qualifications. Refresh my memory, if you would.” Connor swallowed carefully and then began to speak in a very even, controlled tone. “Sure. Well, I began taking art classes while I was still upstate, attending Tomas Leeds High School for advanced placement, and then I attended the Theatre Des Artes College for seven years here in Greater Nehansett. I received my Bursar’s Degree in Art History there in 2026, then took a short break for two years to pursue my own work, and I am currently enrolled in their Advanced Studies program, the first semester of which I will begin this coming fall.” They went back and forth with inquiries and answers like that for the next twenty minutes; Dr. James steepled his hands on the green desk pad, age lines furrowing his brow under the salt and pepper of his scalp. “That’s very impressive. Now, you say your ‘own work’. And that is?” Connor crossed his legs, left ankle to right knee. “Well, I paint, sir. Oils and watercolors. That’s actually a large part of the reason why I am applying for this position, actually. I was told that you have a nearly priceless collection.” Dr. James smiled at him for the first time, and Connor visibly relaxed. “We do, young man. Immeasurably so. That’s why you had to pass through those fine security gentlemen downstairs. You seem to be a very good fit for the position, Mr. Connor …”
Connor interrupted him gently. “Michael, please.”
“Yes, Michael. That’s something that I don’t say to many of our applicants. I’ll tell you what, though. Enough ancient history, as it were. Are you ready for a tour of the place?”
Connor smiled at the director and answered without hesitation. “Absolutely.”
“Great. Let’s get on with it, then.” Several minutes later, they were on the first floor. Dr. James flipped a light switch to the outside left of one of the doorways on, then grasped the knob and opened it for the younger man. “This particular room is called the Baroque Room. It’s for eighteenth and nineteenth century work only.” Connor was totally enrapt; he walked a few paces into the room and began to stroll along the west wall, where the first of the paintings was well-mounted and artfully lit. “Work from some of the best painters of the period …” He murmured at them in an appraising manner, then continued down the row until he almost ran into Dr. James, who had stopped at about the midway point for some reason. Dr. James covered one of the placards with a big hand, then queried the younger man. “This one is quite sinister. Surely you know the artist and year?” Connor stared at the painting, as if memorizing its every stroke. “Of course, sir. This piece is quite unique, and leaves little room for doubt … though I’ve only seen scans of it online. It’s the work of Salague Maletto, probably the most famous of the Optrani Academy artists. This is his work, A Study Of Birds Taking Flight, completed in 1741. Few modern artists can even comprehend, let alone imitate this use of color.” Dr. James grinned at him smugly, then turned about to look up at the piece as well. “Indeed. It’s as if the subjects might begin breathing at any moment, or even fly right off the canvas. Maletto captured life; it was probably modeled on moving targets, as Maletto had a nearly perfect, photographic memory. You know much about the school?”
Connor’s smile widened. “I try to stay current with all the new finds and whatnot, but with discoveries being made every day, there’s only so much one can do … but yes, I have read extensively about the rumors.” By the time he had finished speaking, the shadow from earlier had returned; it darkened the director’s features like a cloud. “Ah, yes. Well now, that’s all they are; rumors. There’s no conclusive evidence that the optrani artist collective was involved with the occult. It’s all conjecture, you see; the fact of the matter is that once one achieves a certain level of talent, people are suddenly willing to believe any old, negative story that explain why that is.” He turned to the right dismissively. “Now on to the Work Room. I have something don’t show this to all applicants, but … you show more promise than most.” The Work Room had a whorled, polished hardwood floor and three bay windows that looked out onto a treeline almost due west of the building. In its center was a single canvas on an easel under a covering that had been spattered with stray paint droplets of many colors. Dr. James whisked the covering off to reveal its surface; it was barely even worked; it just had several shades of blue, apparently random strokes across it and then, in the very bottom left corner, there was … “A hand.” Connor frowned slightly; his eyebrows had drawn in towards his aquiline nose, but Dr. James just chuckled. “More than just a ‘hand’ … much more; this piece is a Maletto, young man. You see, when they finally went to demolish the home he had lived in for most of his life in 1775, the workmen accidentally found a hidden chamber in the basement. But the really strange part about it was that this unfinished piece was the only thing that they found in it. It was presumably intended to be a self-portrait, but he never completed it …” Connor tore his gaze away from the director’s and looked at it again. “Really …” As they walked out, taking a left at a large stained-glass window and walking on down the west corridor towards the front foyer, Dr. James said, “You have the position, Mr. Connor. When’s the soonest you can take residency?”
After that, several months flew by. Connor was like a god-send to Dr. James, exceeding his every expectation, to the extent of even finishing his thoughts at times. The assistant was more well-versed in modern art and art history than the director could ever have imagined. Many endeavors that the Fisk Galleria had been forced to put down or abandon over the previous ten years were picked up again, reinstated and their mission statements rewritten. Connor and his girlfriend, Mandy Thompson, moved into a small apartment on the western wing of the second floor, which was coincidentally right above the Work Room. One night, Mandy came to the doorway to the room that Connor was using as a studio while he worked, with nothing but a sheet wrapped around her naked body. “It’s three. Are you coming to bed or not. I’m only supportive to a fault, you know. Are you just going to stir that paint all night or are you going to do something with it?” She was using her most sardonic tone; he knew it well. He smiled and said, “I know. Just … give me a few minutes more. I’m working a problem area here, this has to get done tonight.” Mandy shook out her long brown hair, wrinkled up her little pixie nose and snorted at him like a pig; Michael just rolled his eyes. “Listen, I have to find the specific pastel shades necessary, otherwise the whole piece won’t work.” He raised his brush to the canvas, but then let it drop back down to his side; as he did, he caught a tertiary view of himself, his tee shirt spattered with spots of paint of every size. “Not gonna wait up, cowboy.” She gave him her tightest-lipped smile, which he returned warmly. “That’s fine, hon. We can catch up tomorrow, okay?”
“That what you think? We’ll see.” She turned around and returned to their bedroom down the hall; once she had gone, Connor put down his palette and brush on the covered chest that he used in lieu for a desk. He walked over to his futon, which was under one of the diagonal west windows, and grabbed his white chamois shirt off of it and threw it on; then he put on his thong slippers and picked up his keys from a bowl near the front door of the unit and he was off and headed for the main staircase. Not once in the several months that he had been employed by the Galleria had he returned to the Work Room, and yet not a day had passed when he had not spared several idle moments to wondering at the strange, unfinished work that he had seen; and now, he had to see it again. When he had retrieved his key-ring and opened the door, the piece was in exactly the same place as it had been when Dr. James had shown it to him during his initial interview. Almost involuntarily, he found himself walking over to the cabinets along the north wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the fingers depicted on the canvas seem to move. But when he walked back over to it and focused his gaze on it in study, nothing was changed. It’s just a figment of my imagination … been staying up too late apparently. He returned to the cabinets and began taking out supplies; a palette, paints, a jar with some cleaning solution, and a brush. Then, he went over and unmasked the piece just as Dr. James had; it was still there, still unfinished, still somehow … mocking him.
He brought the brush back up to the canvas, to resume painting it where Maletto had somehow left off. But while he did, its contents began to swirl and reform on their own. He stopped, retracted the brush and stood back from the canvas, stunned. What the? He made as if to put the brush down on a side table without rinsing it, but instead he raised it again and began to paint; one slow, painful stroke at a time. The paint on the canvas began to slide about and move of its own volition again, as if still wet after hundreds of years; and an image began to emerge, composed all of vibrant shades of red and blue and orange. After several moments, it had become a badly rendered portrait of Salague Malleto himself, standing in a chamber made of hewn stone, presumably also raising his brush to a canvas; but it was from the canvas’ point of view, so it appeared to mimic Connor’s own physical position as if a mirror. And without warning, their positions were reversed; rather than the basement being behind Maletto, Michael was now saring at a portrait of him standing in the Work Room. Both the palette and brush dropped from his hands as his arms fell limp to his sides; but the image of Maletto calmly placed his own down on the side table and then gave him an impish smile.
Connor looked around himself; he was no longer in the Work Room, no longer in the Fisk Galleria for that matter. He was in a basement chamber which had a hard-pack dirt floor and mortared stone walls; yet one of them was completely missing. He walked up to the gap thus produced, and reached out his hand only to discover an invisible barrier. This is impossible. I’m literally inside that damned painting, he thought to himself, as the color drained from his face; then he fell backwards onto his posterior in the dust. Several days later, the entire room tumbled about as the piece was moved to the Baroque Room; he became bruised, and bloodied, and reduced to brooding in the chamber’s dimness. After a time it stabilized again; Dr. James and even several members of the Board of Directors came to view it. It seemed as if they stared directly at him, before commenting to each other animatedly. At first he tried to call out to them, bashing his forearms against the barrier with all his might; then he began yelling, and finally screaming. They made no response whatsoever; they apparently couldn’t hear him at all. As he turned, tears blurring his vision, he saw a detail that he had initially missed; fine lines in the far wall. A doorway! Connor ran over to it as fast as he was able, suddenly optimistic; he tried to work his right index finger into the gap, but it was tightly mortared shut. Oh gods … it’s been sealed from the other side.