Hide and Seek
This story begins with a man, dark hair like a crow with kind eyes behind tortoiseshell rims and a beard like ink—a conversation over an oil painting and a consensus that the artist hadn't used enough crimson.
"It's violent," Evie observes.
"But not violent enough," he adds with the kind of authority that makes one assume he is right. It's noisy and steamy in the gallery. Clients and patrons are holding drinks and laughing in clusters around stories of accomplishments and failures. Evie doesn't tell him she's the painter. She prefers to hide instead behind the lie that she's just someone who appreciates art or cheap free wine; maybe both.
The story begins with a man, but in fact, it probably begins even farther back. It starts with Evie's ability to disappear. Even as a child, she loved to play hide-and-seek, the thrilling, terrifying sensation of eluding something unseen but sinister. One, Two, Three... Evie pulls herself up into the dark branches of a tree most children wouldn't climb. Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six...she scrambles like an animal beneath the underbelly of a porch. Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine... she holds her breath while the tinsel sing-song of "Come out, come out wherever you are" floats sticky like treacle over the stillness. Evie was good at waiting. She could sit undiscovered for hours. From strange vantage points, she heard and saw things; the slamming of doors, the pounding of fists, the sobs of forgiveness, and the unfulfilled promises that left even bigger bruises. Her neighbourhood was full of secrets that filled her imagination to the brim.
"You're late," her mother would say as she slipped into the house, trying hard to keep the screen door from whining in protest. "Lost in thought," she'd answer, then after dinner, she'd sketch their stories with pastels hiding again, this time behind images that revealed themselves as puzzles to be solved. In her first drawing, a row of mourning doves standing side by side on a telephone wire holds the ribbon from a little girl's dress between their beaks. In another, a broken doll with bruises winks knowingly to the observer while holding a fistful of hair. A helium balloon carrying a dog in a spacesuit aloft while a man with a gun stands taking aim below was the image that brought in the therapists. They were well-intentioned men and women with limp jaws and droopy eyes who tried eagerly to pry her open and flip the off switch, but she had nothing to say. She was happy and healthy. By this, she meant that her father had left at the first sign of trouble, leaving Evie and her mother in relative peace. At the recommendation of her high school principal, Evie's mother sought out a professional, with just as little success. At art college, things changed. "If I'm crazy," she thought, "this must be the asylum." Suddenly her paintings weren't causing concern; they were appreciated by smug professors who encouraged her. Soon she was being heralded with words like "Weird but wonderful," "Dreamy and Deadly," or the one she dislikes, "Able to tap into the dark female psyche."
"It's not honest." The man observes again.
"What in particular?" Evie asks, curious.
He surprises her when he says, "You're the artist. You tell me."
And he's right; she did hold back. The painting is personal. It's a simple enough story of unfaithfulness, a crime of passion. In it, a love letter floats above a table with an overturned glass of red wine that pools like blood at the foot of a man wearing a heavy boot. He's caught her. There should have been more shards, more blood. She lost her taste for the thing and hesitated in the storytelling. It doesn't happen very often. Has it ever happened before? She feels the heat of embarrassment rise in her cheeks and then anger at her body's betrayal. He laughs. She turns to face him, and for a moment, she thinks his glasses are fake. This idea catches her off guard but also puts him back into focus. She won't say anything. She likes knowing that he's pretentious. It gives her a kind of advantage. He asks her out, and she agrees. Not because she likes him but because she hopes to get even somehow. Also, she's curious about the glasses. At home, she's started a painting in which a pair of broken spectacles reflect a full-toothed grin while two eyeballs balance precariously on a nightstand.
At first, it's difficult to be seen by this Bluebeard. That's what she calls him, Bluebeard, even though he's never been married. "Not yet anyway," he says to her one evening at dinner. "Children?" she asks. After all, one isn't mutually exclusive from the other. "Love them, but no," he replies. The word charismatic comes to mind. He has the power to charm and delight people. This makes him popular. It's a magic trick with the ability to erode her cynicism, and eventually, she's ashamed of being incredulous. Lots of people wear fake glasses, which is a lie she tells herself and ultimately believes.
His cabin is two hours out of town on a lake she's never heard of in a county she's never visited. "You're going to love it." He tells her, "It's not one of those rustic things. I had it renovated a few years back. It's state of the art." Something about "state of the art" sounds clinical and bleak. If she were honest, she'd decline. Frankly, she's grown disinterested over the past few weeks and hasn't dared to tell him. Also, the relationship has started to chip away at her time to paint, and tiny buds of resentment have begun to crawl up her throat. A few times, she's coughed up words of bile under her breath after a well-intentioned "What you should do is..." She looks in the mirror and imagines the edges of her body ghosting ever so softly like hot fog on glasses.
"I won't have to forage for berries or fish for trout, will I?" she asks in a pissy and short-sighted way. She hopes he'll shrug his shoulders and say, "Never mind." Instead, he just smiles and says, "The Lake is frozen solid."
The drive is long, and Evie is groggy from sleep. By the time they reach the lane from the main road to his cottage, she has lost track of time. She's had a song in her head for days, little snippets folded into the subconscious of her mind playing over and over again. Something about skating? An old Joni Mitchell song, she thinks. She tries to wake up, but her head feels like sea foam, floating algae particles churning into frothy nothingness. Bluebeard hits a pothole, and her head lolls to one side. "I need a coffee," she says a little desperately.
"You need to rest," he tells her like someone who cares.
The door to the cottage is unlocked. Why wouldn't it be? There isn't anyone around for miles. "Closest house is way across the lake," he tells her as he carries the luggage in from the car. Evie leans against a marble kitchen counter to get her bearings. She can't understand why a man on his own would need such a large cottage, and for a brief moment, it amuses her that there are so many doors. Didn't Bluebeard have rooms with lots of doors? Some tiny riddle feels like it wants to be figured out, but she's too tired. "Coffee?" she asks.
"In a jiffy," he answers as he puts groceries away.
Then suddenly, "Damn! Of all the stupid--" He shoves a brick of butter off the counter in a rage.
"Matches. I forgot to bring matches, and I know I haven't any in the house. The pilot light is out. We are powerless without a flame. I'll have to drive back into town. I'll be 45 minutes, tops." Even half-asleep, she can tell that he's flustered. A lock of hair falls over his forehead as he removes his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose, muttering something under his breath. As his Buick Encore backs out of the drive, she notices he's left the tortoiseshell frames behind. Of course, she picks them up. Of course, she tries them on. Of course, she was right all along.
Evie finds a coffee maker under the sink, plugs it in, and fills the pot with water. Outside it's starting to snow. It's that gloaming time of day. A thin streak of fading sun lights up the horizon like a shot of neon, then sinks below her field of vision. She finds a mug inside a cupboard and finishes unpacking the milk from the bag of half-emptied groceries. The house is quiet. Deathly quiet, she's thinking when the coffee machine makes a gurgling sound like it's having trouble breathing and then seems to expire with a loud hiss. The noise feels intrusive. She's reminded of the times as a child when she hid in cemeteries listening to young lovers' indecent proclamations over tombstones like there was something romantic about being alive that close to death.
She carries the pot to her cup, pours enough to fill it and then, on her way back, trips over her own feet. Coffee flies from the steaming carafe to the floor and pools like the wine in the painting where she and Bluebeard met. "Shit!" she says out loud. Under the sink, she finds some rags stuffed into a bucket and begins to soak up the spill. Afterwards, she's careful to rinse them out, remarking to herself how out of place pink fleece with yellow stars seems in this world of white symmetry. An old pillowcase, she wonders or something belonging to an ex-girlfriend? She folds the delicate pieces of fabric over the bucket, carefully returning them in a way he won't notice. She's aware, hyper-aware, of the orderliness of the home. "It looks like a showroom," she thinks to herself as she pours milk into her coffee and takes the first refreshing sip. On the front of the carton, an illustrated cow with long eyelashes grazes on a strand of grass. It's innocent enough. Just something to make this brand stand out more than others, but Evie finds it irritating and condescending. She doesn't know why milk can't just be milk and turns it around, rejecting the use of anthropomorphism. On the back of the carton is a photograph of a missing child named Layla, a little girl no more than seven or eight. She's in pigtails smiling. Evie speculates on the occasion of the photo; a birthday, a picnic, a day at the beach? The picture, meant to remain in a photo album and remembered as 'that day we were happy,' is now on milk cartons circulated across the state. It's not symbolism but a cold hard fact that monsters exist. Evie is lingering on the child's smile. The image is cropped just above the shoulders, so she doesn't notice at first the tiny, almost minuscule peak of a pink tee shirt with stars, and for a moment, it doesn't sink in. Then suddenly, Evie inhales. Her heart thumps in her chest as she returns to the cupboard, the bucket, and the pieces of fabric folded inside. A pink tee shirt with stars, a black and red striped square of fleece, and a yellow patch of cotton. One, two, three... she looks at the clock. How long has he been gone? Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight... she rushes for the door. Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine... the headlights of Bluebeard's silver Buick are just visible down the ribbon of laneway as she hears the tinsel sing song, "Come out, come out wherever you are," The bogeyman is almost upon her when Evie begins to race across the frozen lake.