The next morning, Liam rolled out of bed with a groan, stumbling straight to the coffeemaker. He’d spent most of the night staring at the ceiling, hoping for a miracle, but to no avail. The blast of inspiration continued to elude him.
While the mud he called caffeine brewed, Liam started hunting for a palette knife he misplaced last week. As he predicted, the cats had batted it under the chair. He brushed the cat hair off, flicking his gaze to the kitchen, and the much needed pick-me-up.
Half full. It was good enough. Mug filled to the brim, Liam shuffled into his studio. Submissions for the expo would end in three weeks. He had to come up with something, and fast.
A sound from the storage closet made him jump, paint splattering the floor in blotches of bright white. Liam crept forward, his grip tight on the palette knife. On his way across the room, he snatched a broom from the wall. It wouldn’t be the first time the cats brought in live prey, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, but he wasn’t keen on having a rat leaping at him again. Liam poked the louver door with the broom, bracing himself for what he might find.
The door slid open, revealing not a rat, but a young man. Liam screeched, bashing the broom into the man’s gut. While the intruder doubled over and groaned in pain, Liam scrambled backwards towards a phone.
In his haste to call the cops, Liam stumbled, cursing when he fell over the easel, shredding the half primed canvas and knocking the paint can to the floor. Stomach sinking, Liam tore his gaze away from the disaster and back to the closet.
He cursed again, heart racing, and scanned the room. Paint covered the floorboards, but he saw no tracks beside his own smeared prints. No one had left the storage closet. Shaken, Liam crept through the house, inspecting every inch for a sign of the intruder, but the man was gone.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Lunari turning the corner into the studio. He watched with abject horror as the cat walked forward and sniffed the paint. One paw hovered over the mess, as if testing him, and Liam stared the cat down with a venomous glare.
“Don’t. You. Dare,” he hissed.
The cat ignored Liam’s warning, leaving a trail of footprints across the house as he sauntered away.
Liam looked back at the empty closet and wondered if he’d finally gone delirious from lack of sleep. For a moment, he considered getting some sleep and dealing with the mess tomorrow, before realizing the paint covering his floor was an oil-based primer. Cursing a blue streak worthy of the best downtrodden college grad, he frantically tore through his cleaning supplies and started scrubbing. By the time he finished, it was past midnight. His arms felt like overcooked ramen and he collapsed on the couch, too tired to haul himself upstairs.
Liam woke a few hours later to the blaring of his phone. Maggie’s cheery voice greeted him when he grumbled out a hello.
“Liam! I told you to call me!”
“Sorry. I spent all of yesterday scrubbing paint off the floor.”
“That’s no excuse. You do that every day.”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s true, but—”
“So, how’d it go? Did Soliel read your fortune?”
“Really, Mags? It’s five in the morning. Couldn’t this wait?” He yawned. “Yes. She did. And it was a bunch of bull. Seriously, why the hell did you waste money on that crap?”
“Details, Liam! What did she say? Anything good? Did she tell you about your future!? Your love life?” Maggie’s voice was dripping with excitement. Liam could almost picture it, her ear pressed tight against the phone, straining to hear every juicy syllable. The woman lived for this spiritual stuff. Back in high school, she even insisted she had psychic powers herself.
“Apparently, I will have a meaningful encounter soon. Said something about impending danger, too. Didn’t really pay much attention, and I really don’t care about my love life.” He didn’t bother to mask his sarcasm, not that it mattered. His sister never noticed how much he hated all this nonsense.
“See?! I told you she was great!” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I have a sixth sense, remember?”
He hung up before Maggie could continue her tirade. She would go on for hours, if you let her.
Groaning, he dragged himself up from the couch and headed to the kitchen. With three weeks before the expo, he needed to get something put together, and fast. After four failed attempts to recreate the scene he’d pictured on the train, he was losing hope, yet nothing else compared to the ghost of that gorgeous landscape. Snippets of the eerie forest scene danced at the edges of his mind, teasing him, vanishing when he tried to transfer it to canvas.
Halfway through breakfast, he froze, a jolt of realization chilling him to the bone. The coffee he’d begun to pour spilled over the counter, unnoticed, and continued onto the floor. His eyes widened.
Soleil had predicted he would encounter great danger, and last night’s break in definitely counted as dangerous. A sliver of worry gnawed at him. Could she have gotten his address and set the whole thing up?
Liam dismissed the thought as the work of his overactive, sleep-deprived imagination. The woman and her weird shop had spooked him, nothing more. It was no wonder he was seeing things. Nothing in the house was missing, and there had been no footprints in the paint. The intruder couldn’t be real. It was simply impossible. Suddenly, Liam yelped. Lukewarm coffee soaked into his socks and scrambled for a towel.
Soliel spoke of impending danger, but danger was always present. That coffee could have burned him. When the cats knocked a candle into his curtains last month—that was dangerous. They’d nearly set the ceiling on fire. He wouldn’t deny the possibility that her so-called powers were real, but in most cases, it was a just farce. Anyone could spew out a bunch of nonsense and it would come true, eventually. The rest was just a result of careful research and reading people.
Liam stumbled through the next few days in a daze, struggling to rid himself of a growing sense of frustration. His key painting remained a muddled mess, the remnants of his attempt to recreate the vivid landscape that eluded him. He’d spent most of the last two days helping organize the expo, but that didn’t stop Maggie from dragging him out for a night on the town.
He arrived at the restaurant in a rush, though no one seemed to notice. Paint still clung beneath his fingernails and his best t-shirt had a bit of red splattered on it. Even as he wove through the tables to meet Maggie at a booth in the back, no one batted an eye. Most of them were college students wearing the school’s signature mustang emblem, and like him, many sported deep eye bags and dull, zombie-like expressions. They were probably cramming for fall mid-terms. Moments after he joined Maggie at the booth, inaudible whispers and gasps of surprise echoed throughout the room. Liam turned to look, his jaw dropping as another young man headed towards them.
The individual was the spitting image of the intruder from a few days ago. He would have recognized that strange attire anywhere. Liam rubbed his eyes, forcing himself to take a deep breath, and resisted the urge to pinch his arm. It was more likely his mind was playing tricks on him. There was no way the young man had been in his home. It was just a coincidence. Maggie mistook his surprise for admiration and swung an arm around his neck.
“This is Wang Ci Yong.” She fixed Liam with a smug grin. “I told you Madam Soleil’s predictions were true.”
Liam bit back a retort, unwilling to refute her in the crowded restaurant. His sister truly had a strange taste in men.
“It’s nice to meet you.” Liam extended a hand, but Ci Yong merely glanced down at it without moving.
“Don’t mind him, Liam. He’s a foreign exchange student at the college. Strange customs and all that” She nudged Ci Yong, who bowed shallowly before sitting down.
“So, when did you two meet?” Liam did his best to sound pleasant, but all he wanted to do was apologize to the poor fool. He gave them two days.
“A few months ago. Ci Yong was researching ancient artifacts, and I ran into him. Literally.” She laughed, ready to dive into a lengthy story.
The waiter’s arrival stopped her from continuing, and Liam breathed a sigh of relief. Dinner arrived shortly after they ordered, and he nibbled on his food while his sister piled Ci Yong’s plate until it overflowed. Smothering a chuckle, Liam wondered if the man noticed how enamored his sister was. Ci Yong remained quiet, despite several attempts at conversation. They ate in silence until Ci Yong tasted the appetizer, and a small smile rose to his lips. He looked up, the question plain on his face, and Liam answered without thinking.
“Pirogies. They’re a lot like jiaozi, don’t you think?”
Wang Ci Yong’s gaze searched his, a hint of something flickering in his eyes, but it was gone before Liam could put his finger on it.
“Wow, these really are amazing! I can’t believe I’ve never heard of them before. Liam! When did you become so adventurous? I thought you lived off ramen and coffee,” Maggie blurted.
“I don’t know. Guess I picked it up from a travel brochure or something.” Liam chuckled. His sister had avoided the strange looking white blobs until realizing how much Ci Yong seemed to like them.
Liam picked up another pirogi, savoring the juicy pork filling, when a familiar urge struck him. A wide grin spread across his face, tossing a few bills on the table before rushing to the door.
“Sorry, something came up. Mags, seriously, you rock.”
“Where are you going?!”
Liam replied over his shoulder, not caring that he was shouting across the dining area.
“I’ve got an idea!”
Light shone through the window, drawing a weak groan from Liam, still slumped over his finished canvas. An assortment of paints and brushes littered the desk to his left and several mugs sat haphazardly at its edge.
“Hey, Liam! Better hurry up, or you’re gonna be late!”
With great effort, he forced his head up, propping it on one arm as he reached for a mug of stale coffee.
After taking a swig, he promptly spat it out, all remnants of sleep chased away by the foul taste of paint.
“Aughck.” Gagging, he stumbled into the bathroom, retching and clawing at his tongue all the way to the sink.
A laugh came from the doorway. Liam looked up, fixing his sister with a foul glare.
“Really, Liam, again? How many times is this? Six? Seven?” She shook her head. “Dad even sent over the ‘Not Paint Water’ set.” She sauntered in, handing him a towel with a twisted grin on her face.
“Screw off, Maggie,” he growled. She was definitely enjoying this.
“Are you sure you shouldn’t get some more sleep first? The expo isn’t until this evening.” A rare bit of concern wormed its way to her lips.
“I’ll be fine.” He looked down, taking in his disheveled appearance and rancid odor. When was the last time he’d showered?
His sister wandered over to the painting still propped on his easel.
“I spent two weeks on that. You touch it—I swear to the gods, I will KILL you.” He tried to sound forceful, but consistent overnighters the past two weeks had left his voice hoarse and raspy. The threat sounded more like a cat hacking up a hairball.
Not wanting to test his patience—or fleeing the stench—Maggie obliged with a chuckle. She stepped back and tapped her watch.
“Come on, you grouch. I made breakfast.” A wicked gleam sparkled in her eyes, and she dashed forward to snatch the painting.
Liam shrieked, lunging for her, but she danced out of reach and slammed the door in his face.
Her voice echoed up the stairs.
“Shower first, or I can’t guarantee I won’t spill orange juice on your masterpiece.”
Fifteen agonizing minutes later, Liam barged through the door and raced downstairs, taking the steps two at a time—he wasn’t taking any chances. Maggie wouldn’t deliberately ruin it, but his sister was accident prone. If he wasn’t careful, the painting he’d put every ounce of his soul into would vanish in the blink of an eye. Turning the corner into the kitchen, his frantic gaze scanned the room, searching for the painting. To his surprise, it lay near the door, elegantly wrapped in spotless black cloth. The shock must have reached his face, because Maggie laughed softly.
“C’mon Bro, even I can be responsible sometimes. This is your chance at fame and fortune! I wouldn’t dare ruin it.”
He smiled, the all too familiar feeling of dread draining away.
“No, you’re just too afraid Dad will give you an earful!” He didn’t plan on becoming an Art teacher, but that didn’t mean their father wouldn’t side with him. The man had always had a soft spot for his eldest son.
Though his father and sister were overjoyed at the opportunity, Liam was hesitant. This was his ticket to one of the most famous art museums of the century, but it was a long shot. At least a hundred artists were vying for the chance to have their work featured.
“Your paintings are truly incredible.” Ci Yong was dressed in the school’s mandatory black and burgundy uniform. The sight was strange, at least until Liam remembered he’d only seen him outside class.
His sister’s friend brushed walked past him with a nod of his head, admiring the painting Liam had finished the night before. Dark clouds swirled above a lake nestled in a forest. Flowers covered the water’s surface, glowing crimson under the moonlight.
“Practice, I guess. I’ve painted a lot of landscapes in the past few years. Maybe that helped.”
“Any real world inspirations?”
“No, I hardly leave Elko, and I certainly haven’t seen anything like this around here.” Liam frowned. Ci Yong’s question had caught him off guard.
While Ci Yong left to see the other works, Liam stared at the painting for a while longer, a spark of something flickering in his chest. Looking at it now, the scene was familiar. How, he could not say, yet the longer he stared, the more he felt drawn to it.
Setting aside his growing confusion and the unbidden feeling of nostalgia, Liam headed for the awards ceremony.