Steve and Vanessa were leaving the gallery for the night, a fancy dinner planned; then home, then wine, then each other.
It had been a long week, and the stress of working together to pull off this exhibit had taken its toll on the both of them. It was either dinner and sex, or they’d wind up strangling each other and (likely) be just as satisfied, but as that would result in handcuffs and jail they took the more pleasant of the two options.
The weather, thankfully, was cooperating, and the evening air was pleasantly mild. The summer was winding down, and the days were getting shorter, but the nights so far carried no herald of a winter chill.
Their footsteps were loud in the lofty, high-ceilinged corridor as they walked past a picture gallery full of paintings they were unfamiliar with by a new artist.
Steve didn’t like them. Vanessa didn’t either, but she found them interesting in a repulsed – fascination kind of way, like rubbernecking at a really bad accident scene.
Faces of Decay, it was titled, and lived up to its name. Paintings of faces with various things wrong, out of place, or missing, but what was consistent were the wild eyes of panic and desperation in each one, as if they just felt something go wrong with them.
There was almost a pleading look to them, and with the fading light coming through the ceiling, it gave the eyes a brightness not evident in the day.
Vanessa couldn’t help but shiver, even though Steve was walking in lockstep beside her.
They both looked pointedly at the floor, avoiding looking at the ghastly portraits, feeling the weight of the shining eyes following them, judging them for not helping, for leaving them behind.
The anticipation of their date was dulled somewhat by their fright, so they hurried through, each trying to be brave.
Vanessa stopped short.
“What is it?” Steve asked.
“There’s no guard on duty.”
“So the doors lock automatically…”
“And we’re stuck in here. Shit!
They pulled out their phones and walked to the security desk, rummaging through it to see if there was a contact number or card they could use to call the security company and see what happened.
There were numbers galore, but it was after hours, or between shifts, and no one was answering.
Evening shadows oozed across the floor as the sun went down.
“What do we do?” Vanessa said.
“We have keys to offices, food, and water. We’ll just keep trying the company, or maybe we can just call the cops.”
“They can’t help us without knowing the lock codes.”
“True, but they can help contact the company, maybe send an officer to pick up one of the guards or something.”
Vanessa considered it, but had nothing better to offer. “Okay.”
Steve walked off and made the call.
Vanessa picked that moment to try and brave the gallery once more.
They’re just paintings. It’s just their eyes. Their eyes are painted, and have no power.
As Steve chatted with the police dispatcher, Vanessa stopped in front of the first painting she saw.
The woman in it was brunette, hair up, pretty brown eyes, a pert nose, and lips that were twisted as if she’d been tortured; they were scarred and bleeding, so she wasn’t smiling.
That’s really sick, Vanessa thought. Why disfigure the face…?
As she looked at the painting, the brown eyes of the painting’s subject seemed to take on a lighter cast, and the woman slowly blinked, eyes unfocused, as if she were just waking up.
Vanessa took a step back, hands over her mouth, her thoughts racing.
It’s dark now, this isn’t happening, you’re just scared of being stuck overnight, the painting isn’t real, and nothing-nothing-nothing you’re seeing now is really going on.
The woman’s eyes fastened on Vanessa, who took a step back, her own eyes widening, somewhere between panic and curiosity.
You’re tired, Vanessa. Steve will make this all okay, later, when we’re in bed mauling each other.
The woman’s eyes widened, as if surprised to see someone there.
That awful, scarred and twisted mouth was trying to smile.
Vanessa looked for Steve; he was in front of another painting, one where half the man’s face was drooping and cut. He was gazing at Steve imperiously, as if the living man was nothing more than a towel to dry his painted hands.
The darkness deepened, and Vanessa called Steve’s name, but the only answer she saw was the eyes of the painting move in her direction.
She wanted to go to run, but she’d have to pass more paintings, and now, the whites of their eyes were glowing the colors of street lights, reflected on the polished tile floor.
Steve came beside her. “They’re on the way.”
His presence was a comfort for her. “Good. I’m imagining things now that it’s dark.
“You’re not imagining anything.”
She looked at him as he stepped in front of her.
Not-Steve laughed and shook his head, the whites of his eyes shining points of light onto the top of Vanessa’s blouse,
“He’ll be back tomorrow, Vanessa. In the meantime…” The light traveled over Vanessa’s face as he looked at the woman in the painting. “Join me, my dear.”
Vanessa’s vision went dark for a long moment, and when it came back, she was staring at the marble floor, staring out at herself standing next to Steve, her painful smile now framed in perfectly fine lips as she took his arm, and they passed through the gallery doors.
She wanted to scream, but her lips were twisted, scarred, and bleeding, and as her eyes widened in panic, two points of light reflected from them onto the polished tile floor