Their disappointment usually appeared in their voices first, then their remarkable-but-strange avatars. A furrowed brow held true on the delicate digital musculature of their forehead—it was usually the eyes, or the smile, that gave them away. The pale of each client’s eye held no gleam, and therefore no indication of the life that writhed behind it, the life that was connected, umbilical, to their headset. The mouths, for their part, never quite kept pace with the words, so there was a delay between the client’s facial expression and what they had said.
The woman frowned. “Hm. It’s not quite right,” she said. At least her voice was apologetic.
Vera quietly sighed.
Sometimes this job was just like when she’d processed orders for an office supply company, spending eight hours a day with a half-full bladder, getting yelled at over the price of copy paper or how a certain brand of highlighter was currently out of stock. She did her job the best when imitating a psychic, somehow intuiting what the customer wanted based on a combination of context cues and sheer luck. The method had made her a top seller once, for whatever that was worth. She was embarrassed to have once been proud of it.
Vera checked the username again: Janet1616.
“That’s no problem, Janet,” Vera replied. “This is all part of the creative process. Would you like me to refresh the easel and start again?”
“Yes, if you could. I want—”
The face of the woman glitched.
Vera closed her eyes and hoped the connection wouldn’t be lost or else she’d lose her commission.
“—omething a little more, like, sacred. Yeah…I think that’s what I mean. Sacred art. Do you know what I mean?”
Vera tried to recall what she knew of sacred art. She felt overwhelmed. What was sacred? The whole of art history was filled with people trying to capture the face of the divine. She raised her digital hand to the easel and waited for inspiration to strike—divine or otherwise.
The man entered the room. The telltale sound of the chime dinged in her ear, indicating the session had begun.
“Hello,” Vera chirped. “What can I paint for you today?”
The tan avatar had a shock of flaxen yellow hair. The head looked about the room.
“Nice digs,” the man said.
“Thanks,” she replied. She glanced at his username. “JZeroZero. Please, sit. Can I call you J?”
The man shrugged as he took a seat. “I have a particular artist in mind. How does this work?”
“You can describe what you want in a few simple words, or you can tell me a more complex idea. Then you can select any of the painting styles up on the wall.”
She gestured up at some of the most famous paintings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was nothing too contemporary. The experience was meant to evoke history: hardwood floors, peeling paint on the walls, sturdy wooden chairs and wash basins in the room. It was modeled after some dead artist’s studio, though she could never remember whose.
The man stared at her.
Not wanting to get into a staring contest, Vera gazed down at her canvas.
“Is this, like, timed?”
“No, we can take as long as you’d like,” she replied.
Please just pick something, she thought.
The silence never felt comforting. Yes, she was lonely, but she wasn’t so lonely as to need this kind of company, their insect-like eyes unblinking and strange, trained on her like she was an alien, like she was their prey.
“I dream of death all the time,” he finally said.
“I see,” Vera said. She’d had clients like this before, usually silly bastards who wanted piles of skulls stacked under some cartoon character’s feet. She preferred to complete those requests as quickly as possible.
“I want to paint my nightmares, but I don’t really have the talent,” he continued. “I’ve tried to write about them. Usually I’m able to journal my thoughts, but I can’t write this. If I describe the dreams, can you paint them? Is—is that something you think you can do?”
“Yes,” she said. “Describe your nightmare to me.”
“Do you know what vivisection is?”
She winced. “Yes.”
“Well, in the dream I’m being vivisected,” he said. “My chest is sliced open—sawed really—and I can feel the heaviness of the surgeon’s hand, the sharpness of the blade as it’s dragged down my sternum. I can feel the crack as they break me open. The air sings over all my organs as they pull them out of me, and there’s a metal taste on my tongue as my heart beats in futile panic. My jaw is clenched shut, and I try to tell them that I’m awake, but they just stare at me and tell me it’ll be okay, that everyone is waiting for me. They say not to worry, not to struggle, but they’re…they’re cutting things out of me. They’re cutting me from myself. They weigh each organ and decide that I won’t survive.”
Vera’s hand trembled over the icon for red paint.
“It’s painful,” he added. “I can feel all of it. And then they start dismembering me. They stitch me up wrong. I’m bleeding at the seams of myself, and they start breaking my fingers and then severing them, and they’re…they’re sewing these pieces of me onto these small, fleshy creatures…”
He trailed off at this. His avatar stared up at the ceiling.
After some time, Vera spoke. “You said you have an artist in mind. What is their name?” Her voice was quiet and gentle.
The man returned his gaze to her. “Right,” he said. “Right. Um. So, have you ever heard of the cadaver libraries?”
“I don’t recall hearing about them. Is it what it sounds like?”
“Yes,” he said. “There was an artist who would borrow body parts from a local morgue just to paint them. His name was Theodore Géricault.”
“Okay,” Vera said. “It’s starting to ring a bell.”
“The dead flesh he kept in his house stank so much that his neighbors would complain. That smell sticks to things, you know. These nightmares remind me of that.”
Vera didn’t know what to say.
“I need to make sense of these dreams, to get them outside of me. They need to be expelled. These nightmares are becoming my body. Do you understand?”
Vera nodded and began to paint. As her brushes hit the canvas, the red of the pomegranate became the red of dried blood, raw flesh, cadaverous calamities. Cataclysm and misfortune came alive on her canvas as they took the shape of many monsters, weapons in hand, scrubs soaked in viscera, overseeing an ornate tableau of gore.
“What were their eyes like?” she asked. “The surgeons?”
“They had none,” he said.
Nothing went right over the next few weeks. Each painting she did was too trite—a blur of cloying sweet hues and scenes that meant nothing. It was torturous to do them, to make small talk with each client, to bring their mundane visions alive. Each one would have been vastly improved by being shot with the violent beauty and exquisite horror that J—which she now knew stood for Jason—brought to her in his nightmares. She loved the contorted faces and still-life agonies that he described to her, his offerings before her altar, each macabre vision a bouquet of funeral flowers. Ecstatic, her fingers would move over the canvas, creating monstrous creatures with needle-thin teeth that devoured their imagined world. She would work feverishly with the thrill of crossing the threshold of so many layers of reality—from his mind to her canvas, paint in the shape of carnivorous dreams alight and alive with novelty. These paintings felt more real, more tangible, and somehow, more holy.
The requests of other clients, with their desires for ordinary things, like meadows and sunflowers, felt unimportant. These subjects had nothing to say. Interacting with these dull people and their dull ideas was excruciating. She yearned for her session with Jason, yearned for the ways her colors were transformed by the weight of his dreams: the white of exposed bone, the golden-yellow of pus. These works had a sense of urgency. Not like the others. She wanted to break the neck of every bird brought to her by those simpering people.
“Oh,” the client named BernieG33 said, frowning as Vera turned the canvas to them. “That’s…nice. It’s just—”
“What?” Vera said. “It’s just what?”
“Well, I can’t put my finger on it,” they said. “It’s technically a very good painting of a rabbit, but there’s something…disturbing about it. I don’t know.” They paused. “Is it meant to be in decay?”
Vera heaved a loud sigh and reset the canvas.
“Hey!” the client yelled. “I didn’t say to do that! What’s wrong with you?”
“Sorry,” Vera muttered. “This session is over.”
She tapped the session-end button and took her headset off. She let the follow-up call on her work phone go to voicemail and silenced the quiet hum of her fan with a click. Vera needed to get out of her apartment. The world out there would surely provide something, possibly many things, to make her bleed from the seams of herself. She needed her soul torn open by something new, needed to see something that contorted in strange new ways, needed something to whisper a new hymn into her ear. She would bask, incandescent, in the vile light of knowing.
Copyright © 2023 Tiffany Morris