Drowning in Painted Petals

June 29, 2020

Fingers gliding across his iPhone screen, Jacob turns his music up as the chorus climbs the wires of his earbuds and into his brain. The short nap on the plane from Dublin to Heathrow airport was a success, for the most part. As the train rushes through the Tube towards Charing Cross station, he only hopes that the tapping of his foot to the beat of the song and the thought of his awaiting boyfriend and friends can keep him fully awake and energized. The month before, Andrew got the idea of him, Dana, and Caroline taking Jacob to the National Gallery as the perfect present for Jacob’s upcoming birthday, and Jacob would be damned before letting sleepiness get in the way of that. Living in different countries certainly stretched the definition of long-distance relationships, so whenever they did manage to meet up in person, everything had to run smoothly. They felt they deserved that much, at the very least.

As the bridge of the song hits Jacob full force, his phone buzzes with a message from the appropriately named “don’t be suspicious” group chat he shares with Dana and Caroline.

Dana: When do you think your train will arrive? Andrew’s getting antsy over here

Jacob: should be less than 10 minutes now

He watches as Dana’s circular icon drops to the bottom of the screen to show that she’s seen the message. The icon is a selfie that, according to her, had taken a truly ridiculous amount of time and effort. Not because looking good took effort, oh no. That was nothing if not effortless. What had taken effort was cropping the photo in such a way that the white ring around the icon curved perfectly to her Afro, making it resemble a halo. It wasn’t vanity that drove her to this precision, but efficiency. If she could get her icon perfect this once, it’d be a few years before she ever had to put that much effort into it ever again.

Next, Caroline’s icon bolts to rest next to Dana’s.

Caroline: are you exciiited? ;)

In her picture, Caroline’s hair is pulled back in her typical braided pigtails. Any passerby could take a quick glance and assume that she and Andrew were siblings, with their ginger hair and stereotypical ginger complexion. Siblings in most things, except temperament. She was the sort that would make Jacob want to vomit, if her sweetness wasn’t so earnest. A genuine Disney princess if there ever was one. He was amazed she hadn’t learned to talk to animals yet.

Jacob: you asking that question in THAT way shows you know the answer. Of course I’m excited. Not cause I miss him or you two or anything, I’m just here as an excuse to see the museum

Dana: Oh, I bet. That’ll explain why you’re spending so much time and money on seeing us

A pause.

Caroline: ANDREW HAS DISCOVERED THE CHAT. ABORT MISSION, ABORT

Shit. They’d been found out. Jacob laughs as a message from Andrew flashes across his screen a minute later.

         Andrew: How long has that chat existed?!

The same flutter of affection Jacob feels every time he sees Andrew’s icon hits him now. It’s a picture of them both from Andrew’s birthday party several months ago; the last time they’d been in the same room, in the same country. His boyfriend lacked the freckles that dusted Caroline’s nose and cheeks, and while Jacob mourned the loss of the opportunity to wax poetic with clichés like freckles being compared to constellations, he did not mourn the hours that would have been spent trying to draw every single one of those freckles every single time he sketched Andrew. Peaks and valleys, he reminds himself.

         Jacob: we created it a few weeks ago, while planning this trip. I promise we haven’t been teasing you too much

         Andrew: A few weeks?! And I doubt it.

         Andrew: ...I miss you.

         Jacob: good thing you’ll be seeing me in 5ish minutes. Love you

         Andrew: I love you, too. See you in 5ish minutes.

         Shoving the phone back in his pocket, he turns to gaze out at the rush of blurred grays that makeup the Tube station. The blurs start to solidify, changing into cream-colored subway tiles as the train slows to a stop. Soon enough the doors are opening up, allowing a rush of the musty smell of the London Underground to claw up his nostrils. Trying to keep his sneer to a minimum, Jacob steps on his tiptoes in search of his friends.

While standing on tiptoes is useful for people who aren’t the tallest, they don’t exactly help keep one’s balance when a great force hits them from behind. Arms wrap around Jacob’s waist to steady him, and his surprised yelp quickly turns into a shout of joy as he turns to see Andrew leaning in to press a firm kiss on his cheek. He lets his boyfriend guide him over to a bench where Dana is pretending to gag, more to make Caroline laugh than to tease the soppy, reunited couple.

        

         Eyes dancing from one detail to the next, Jacob runs his free hand across the railing leading up the steps towards the entrance of the Gallery. His other hand squeezes Andrew’s, swinging it back and forth, far too giddy to keep still. “You’re acting like you’ve never been to an art museum before,” Caroline says, chuckling at his barely-contained excitement.

“You know I’ve been to plenty! I mean, Dublin’s got IMMA, and that’s brilliant. That’s my favorite place in the world. But being able to see the classics, there’s something thrilling about that.”

         Giving him a onceover, Dana raises an eyebrow and tries not to laugh. “And let me guess, your favorite is Van Gogh?”

His ears turn pink as he drops Andrew’s hand to adjust his denim jacket, trying to cover up his Starry Night T-shirt. “Knew I shouldn’t’ve worn this….”

         “No,” Andrew gasps, “you’re adorable! Your geekiness is adorable. Don’t listen to Dana, she’s just upset all of her friends are more artistic than she is.”

         “Uh, excuse me, Caroline’s on my side, ‘cause she likes zoology. Science nerds unite. Caroline, back me up.” She looks around. “Caroline? Caroline!”

         “I’m right here,” she says, skipping back over to the group. “While you lot were bickering, I thought I’d be useful and grab a map. Not that we’ll really need one; it looks like it’s gonna be a slow day at the Gallery. No need to rush to see the art when no one’s there to create a line. AKA, the best conditions for wandering.” She opens it up, humming as she traces her finger across ink hallways. She stops on a green dot, labeled with the room number 43. “That’s where Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is. Do you want to start there?” She giggles as Jacob takes the map from her and marches in that direction, dragging Andrew behind him.

 

         Maybe it’s the stinginess of English presentation, but there’s something terribly unsatisfying about seeing monumental, life-changing, history-altering pieces of artwork in this museum, Jacob decides, as he follows his boyfriend around the grayish beige room, soaking everything up. Even though Jacob’s experiencing the National Gallery for the first time and is beyond thrilled, letting everything wash over him in waves, he’s come to the conclusion that this is by far the worst way possible to show off the world’s masterpieces.

         They shouldn’t be crammed into one dull room where you can just float from one painting to the next, slowly being desensitized to the greatness staring you in the face. Jacob starts imagining tiny rooms to showcase one picture at a time, each room personalized to suit that work of art’s aesthetic. Once they’re out of here and down at a pub or whatever for dinner, he’ll bring this up to Andrew. He’ll agree with him, and maybe they’re start brainstorming ideas for Jacob’s own art gallery. When he has one, that is. Eventually. They could own a flat above his art studio, and Andrew could have an office in the back, and...well. He was getting ahead of himself. But once they leave, Jacob will bring up this idea of a gallery with separate rooms. He doesn’t want to spoil this experience for Andrew with the thought of something better.

“I don’t mean to sound like some pretentious art critic,” says Caroline somewhere behind him, “but I can’t understand why someone would want to paint rotten apples in a picture that otherwise looks so pretty.”

Jacob glances over his shoulder to see which painting she’s referring to. Still Life with Water Jug, by Paul Cézanne. No one ever said artists were the best at thinking up titles. Andrew was good with words, much better than he was. Maybe, when Jacob starts building up that art gallery, he could ask Andrew for advice about what he should title his paintings….He shakes those thoughts from his mind. “They’re not rotten, it’s just the style of the brushstrokes.”

“I’m not saying I’m an expert on painting or anything artsy, really, but I know what rotten apples look like.”

Dana walks over so she’s side-by-side with Caroline, clearly resisting the urge to brush their hands against each other’s. A betting pool’s been placed on those two. Andrew think’s they’ll get together by the start of the summer holiday. Jacob think’s they’ll get together any second now. “She’s right,” Dana mutters, “these’re disgusting. I can practically smell them.”

“Listen,” he says, tugging on Andrew’s hand to guide him over to the painting, “I’ve stared at and studied these paintings for longer than I’d like to admit, I know that--” He stops when Dana lets out a loud shriek of disgust as she and Caroline back away from the painting. An elderly couple close by sneers at the commotion and exits the room, leaving the friends alone in the exhibit, with the exception of their several questions. “What’s--?”

“A worm! A fucking worm wriggled out of one of the apples!”

“Don’t hurt it!” Caroline squeals as Andrew steps forward to comfort her. She leans down and scoops the worm up from its place next to Andrew’s sneaker.

Jacob groans with horror. “Shit. We have to tell someone right now! If the walls are infested, worms could ruin the entire Gallery!” He grabs Andrew’s hand again and pulls him towards the doorway, in search of the nearest security guard.

Before they can reach one, Dana’s numb voice travels back to them, though the words don’t sound quite right in their ears. “It didn’t come from the wall.”

“What do you mean, it didn’t come from the wall?” asks Andrew.

“There’s no hole in the canvas! Look.

Peering around Dana, the two boys study the texture of the oil, how the blue outlines merge into what had once been delicious, ripe apples. Now, the rot gives it a purple-brownish hue, a bruise on the painting’s skin. There’s certainly a hole in one of the apples, but it’s painted on. Jacob’s mum had given him a fat, juicy book about Post-Impressionist art for his fifteenth birthday, and by the time he was sixteen, he could have quoted it cover to cover (which would have been fairly easy, considering it consisted mostly of pictures). He knows that wormhole wasn’t there originally, he knows the rotting apples shouldn’t exist. Ignoring his boyfriend, who’s too busy being a wannabe journalist by taking a picture of the altered painting, Jacob turns to stare at Caroline. She’s cooing at the worm in her hand like it’s a sweet baby chick.

“So you’re saying the worm fell from the ceiling?”

No, Jacob, we saw it come out of the painting!” Dana attempts to pull him closer to the picture by yanking on the lapel of his jacket, but miscalculates his weight, sending him headfirst into the painting. The four of them shout, but Jacob’s scream is lost on their ears as his head disappears through the canvas.

 

The first thing to shock his senses is the quality of the air. It’s thick, but breathable. As it floats across his face, Jacob remembers the feeling of rubbing oil paint between his stained fingertips, and decides that this is the same experience, the same texture. Rancid, like when his gran forgets to take out her trash. Shapes and lines start to pop up in front of his adjusting eyes, until they become more sensical. The apples. Still Life with Water Jug. It’s crumbling around him, brown and sickly. What had decidedly become his second favorite masterpiece in that room is now drowning him, replacing the space where his guts should be with decay and pushing them out of his mouth. Or, at least that’s what it feels like in that moment. A huge, overwhelming worm inches across the rim of the jug, dangerously close his coif. Unlike Caroline, Jacob will not try to save this worm, or allow it to become best friends with the gel in his hair. The oil is starting to paint the insides of his throat, layering itself, but as the tingling panic begins to prod at his brain, his head is dislocated from this reality.

 

Lanky arms wind themselves around his waist, yanking him away, making Jacob cough and sputter and see stars. Andrew squeaks out an apology as he backs up, disentangling himself from the hug. “Fuck, Jacob, are you okay? Are you alright?”

“What happened?” asks Dana. “What did you see?”

“Don’t talk, you look terrible! You need a hospital. I’ll call an amb--”

“No!” He shakes his head frantically to stop Caroline, whose worm-free hand is halfway to her pocket. “Don’t….” He sucks in a breath. Oxygen, definitely. Good, that was good. “Don’t call anyone. I’m fine.”

“Jacob,” whispers Andrew, reaching out to soothe him, “you just...you just disappeared. Into a fucking painting! This is not fine. We need to find someone, demand to know--”

“Oh hush, child,” comes a sharp voice from behind them. “There’s no need to demand anything.”

The group of friends swivel their heads at the sound. A middle-aged security guard sets up velvet ropes to block off the entrance to this exhibit before walking over. Her horn-rimmed glasses sitting firmly on her nose, they mirror her square, stern jaw, setting off pistols of intrusive thoughts inside Jacob’s brain. She’s got the sort of face that’s fun to draw, that should be captured so he can display it and ask people what looking at this face makes them feel. They’d probably say something along the lines of, “I feel like my professor’s about to tell me off,” or, “I’d egg her house after two days of knowing her,” depending on who he asked. He hates these intrusive thoughts, most of the time. Sometimes they’re useful to an artist. Right now, they’re making him miss what’s coming out of Horn-Rimmed’s mouth.

“I said, how are you feeling, young man?”

Oh. She’s talking to him. Brilliant. “Head’s...a bit fluffy. Throat’s sore….What was that? What just happened?”

She pushes her way through the group and studies the painting, rubbing her fingers across her very square, very drawable jaw. “The poor thing’s getting so old...I told Herman to give Cézanne a little spring cleaning, but he’s practically been running marathons around the halls these days. He’s bound to forget a few odd jobs every now and then. But this,” she says, picking up the worm from Caroline’s cupped hands, “is unacceptable.” She chucks it at the painting, unphased by Caroline’s protests as it falls through the canvas and onto a rotting apple.

Several moments pass in what seems like deliriousness shocked into silence. Dana is the first to regain her voice. “Ma’am...you’re not making any sense. We just saw Jacob’s head disappear, and you threw a worm and it just--just vanished. But not really, ‘cause I can see the thing moving, crawling around inside that painting! You’re obligated to explain. Jacob could get PTSD from what he’s been through. We could sue.” She elbows Jacob in the ribs before he can protest her exaggerations away.

The woman laughs at that, or maybe more at them. It’s a trained, formulated laugh, the kind that scares people who’ve worked in customer service too long, because they suddenly realize they’ve created an entirely different laugh--an entirely different personality--for their job. “There’s no need to make such a fuss, young lady. Every painting is like this. At least, every painting that matters. What, did you think you’re told not to touch paintings because you’ll ruin the art?” She scoffs. “They do that enough on their own.”

Beckoning them closer, the woman traces a finger across the edge of the frame, flirting with the risk of dipping it into the pool of canvas and oils and rotting flesh. “When artists say they put their heart and soul into their work, they mean it. Every few years, paintings get tired. They wilt and depress and disease. So, qualified professionals, such as myself, are hired to keep them in check. Oh, you should have seen Sunflowers on Vincent’s birthday. By closing time, Herman had to haul over a vacuum cleaner to suck up all the petals that’d fallen out onto the floor. What a mess….Of course, you can’t blame Sunflowers. It gets so exhausted, keeping up its sunny disposition everyday, what with being one of our more popular attractions and all. But it must have been dreadful, being inside Still Life with Water Jug.” This is directed straight at Jacob, as if she knows what he tasted, what he choked on. “Apparently, it hasn’t been cleaned in some time.”

Four pairs of eyes stare at her silently, dumbfounded. A moment passes before a laugh rings out, echoing across the room. Andrew clutches his side. “This is such utter bollocks. If you’ve drugged us, lady, just cut to the part where you stuff us in the back of your van. I can’t handle this.”

“Andrew! A worm fell out of this painting. I felt it, I held it! How can you know that and not believe this?”

“I dunno, Caroline, he’s got a point,” says Jacob. “I’d really like to think I hallucinated getting sucked into Still Life with a fucking Water Jug.”

“But you know you did not, young man.” She stares at Jacob with that smile, the cousin of customer service’s laugh. This cousin has served two years in jail. This cousin served two years in jail for some petty crime that secretly almost ended in murder and he hates it. He also hates that this is how images make sense in his head. Just call it a villainous grin and be done with it.

“Alright, say we’re not all losing our heads and you’re telling the truth. Why didn’t the painting look like it was rotting when Andrew and I first passed by it? It only looked like that for Caroline and Dana.”

Tapping the side of her glasses thoughtfully, the security guard hums, mulling the question over. “Have you acquainted yourself with Still Life with Water Jug before today?”

“Uh, yeah. I own an entire book on Post-Impressionism. Favorite era.”

“No wonder, then. Still Life probably sensed that and put on a brave face for you. Your friends would not have known the difference, but you know its skin inside and out. That’s why Sunflowers is always feeling so drained. Everyone knows what to expect from it.”

He shakes his head. “This can’t be possible. People would know about this. I could go home, paint a picture of the sky, accidentally touch it, and--”

Again with the customer service laugh, but this time it was customer service worker running on two hours of sleep. Crazy and accepting of that fact. “You stupid boy. I said paintings that matter, that are priceless. You can’t just paint a picture of the sky and expect your soul to be in that. As for these paintings around us, of course there are people out there who know. They’re either recruited into our organization or written off as conspiracy nutters. No one is willing to risk going to jail for touching the Mona Lisa, just to prove they were right all along. If they are, they either deserve to be in our organization and will go through the process of being inducted, or they deserve to be in a padded cell.”

“So what’re we, then?” Dana asks sharply. “Fit for your Illuminati club, or a mental hospital?”

“You? You’re a group of teenagers. Hormonal, depressed, constantly having mood swings, desperate for attention. When has anyone ever believed you?”

Fair point, that. Jacob has to admit, no one could have ever prepared for a situation like this. Still, he feels like his imagination is failing him--failing them all--as he watches his boyfriend pathetically try to puff himself up, like a lion without any mane. Certainly not even close to being intimidating, but still cute, despite the problem at hand.

“I’m going to be a journalist someday,” Andrew stammers out. “And I took a picture! You can’t keep me from telling the truth!”

Before he can continue his very heroic speech, Caroline rubs his shoulder, trying to pacify him. “Don’t, Andrew. Let’s all just go….”

“Yes, I think you should listen to your friend, Andrew. You’ve all just been through such a frightful event, and like you pointed out,” she said, turning to Dana, “Jacob could be terribly injured, up in the head. Soon he’ll start telling stories about falling into paintings. What a fantasy. An utter joke.”

“But what about my picture? I can expose you!”

Jacob turns his head, looking around the room before his eyes roll up to stare directly into the CCTV camera. Enough heist and spy movies have crossed Jacob’s path for him to know what’s going on behind that machine. Someone from this overly-dramatic secret organization is watching this scene play out. Herman is probably deleting the footage of this conversation as they speak, as Jacob stares back at him. He knows a piece of tech as primitive as Andrew’s three-year-old phone can’t phase a secret organization. For all they know, Herman could have deleted Andrew’s pictures as soon as they were taken.

His eyes land back onto Dana, who’s doing her best “Mum” face, which is never to be messed with under any circumstances. “Come on, Andrew. Just let it go.” She turns to the security guard, her “Mum” face now turned up to eleven. “You can’t hold us here.”

Shaking his head, Jacob walks around the group slowly, examining each picture. Possibilities are setting off like firecrackers inside his brain, exploding in blue and red as he considers their options. “She doesn’t have to hold us here. We won’t cause any trouble. Andrew, listen to Dana. Forget about the picture.”

His boyfriend sputters. “How can you even suggest that?!”

“We don’t need your picture. We don’t need proof to a conspiracy, ‘cause we’re not going to start a conspiracy. You don’t have to worry about us, ma’am. Just do us a favor.”

The woman’s face flushes with indignation. “You are in no position to be asking favors of me, young man.”

“Come on, I’m trying to make this easy for you! No hacking our phones, no drugging us and stuffing us in that van you probably really do have. Just one question: is Sunflowers doing fine today, or is that just for my benefit?”

“It was restored not a week ago. Why?”

 

“Hold onto the frame the entire time,” the security guard says. “If you don’t, you’ll fall in and be lost. Trust me, that’s happened far too many times.” Jacob can guess by her tone that she wouldn’t mind if that happened to them.

“And you’ll make sure she doesn’t push us in?” Andrew asks Dana and Caroline, his voice a little high pitched for the sake of nervousness. They nod, trying to appear reassuring.

“One trip in payment for our silence,” says Jacob. “She’ll keep her word.”

“And Caroline and I can have our turn afterwards?” asks Dana, her eyes bright with these sudden possibilities. The woman nods, arms crossed, unimpressed by a curiosity that probably died down years ago in her case. Wonders of the world must be boring after having this job for too long. Still, her eyes may be cold, but the creepy malice is gone at least.

It shouldn’t be possible after everything that’s just happened, but Jacob will trust this bizarre, cheesy, incomprehensible stranger for the sake of this once-in-a-lifetime chance. He has to trust her, or this day really will be too much for his mental health to handle. Locking his gaze onto Andrew’s, he nods, begging silently for this to work, for his boyfriend to love this. They each take a deep breath before leaning headfirst into Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

 

Gone is the smell of foul worms making homes out of rubbish. The air is clear and humid, due to some unseen sun heating the water in the vase. A cycle that isn’t going anywhere, trapped in this space forever. There’re spices floating around--cinnamon, especially--and something sweeter. As his eyes adjust once more, Jacob realizes that the sweetness is the golden sunflower an inch from his face. He giggles, turning to see Andrew’s reaction, and finds his breath peacefully taken away. The bright yellow surrounding them reflects off of Andrew’s hair, turning what’s usually a muted auburn into sunset orange.

Trying to hide his embarrassing amount of adoration, he plucks a petal off the nearest sunflower and sticks it in Andrew’s hair in a hasty attempt to goof off. This has just made everything ten times worse, and Jacob’s sure he’s the color of a once-ripe red delicious from Still Life. Nevertheless...it isn’t awful, he admits, as another petal drifts into Andrew’s hair. He knows now that the dreadful woman standing just outside this perfect pocket universe was wrong. There is something out there he could paint and put his whole soul into, something important enough to create a whole other dimension, and this is it.

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© 2023 by MCLA Spires.