Painted Blue Eyes, Part 2 of 2
And now, the second half of Painted Blue Eyes! This story was was published in June 2015 as part of eFiction Vol. 06 No. 04.
I turned to the painting, scanning its faded colors as my mind worked. My hands clenched and relaxed, my stomach churned. Finding no answers, I snatched the painting and stormed down the attic stairs.
Motes of dust hung in a beam of gold pouring in through warped glass. The battered table at the side was bathed in the light, my mother’s unfinished works now showcased for an audience of one. Next to those rough works was a blank canvas I had found and put to use as I tested pigments and reaffirmed long-neglected skills.
Two weeks had passed since that afternoon in the attic. I wanted to leave, I was ready to endure the bus ride to campus and arrive well before the semester began. I nearly left her alone in her family’s ancient house, nearly left her to sort out the details in the wake of her brother’s death. Instead, the mystery compelled me to stay. A need to know, despite the betrayal that churned within. I turned to the canvas, channeling raw feelings into brushstrokes in the solitude of creation.
Steps sounded behind me. My back was still to Auntie as she pulled the room’s other old chair over the bare stone floor. A breath escaped her as she sat near my workspace. Without looking, I knew she was gazing into the painting I had placed on one of the easels among Mom’s old supplies.
“You still haven’t touched it,” she remarked softly.
“Need to practice. Been a while since I did this without a computer.”
I continued painting, refusing to break from the soothing work. The other chair creaked as Auntie shifted. After a few more strokes of my brush, I broke the silence.
“Something to tell me?”
“I wanted you to know,” she whispered, “Your mom and I were so close before she married. She was so … set on marrying and having a kid, just like everyone else. I was the one who set her up with my brother. I thought that way, we’d still see each other often. I missed her after the wedding. I was often … jealous.”
“Jealous?” My brush stopped, but I still didn’t turn.
“My hair was never that red. I hated my freckles – I thought they were a disease.” She chuckled dryly, her voice growing distant. I turned to see her talking to the painting, her eyes glazed as she continued, “You see the way she curled up my hair – I’d be a rare day if my hair looked so nice. And that dress was absolutely filthy and worn out – it was a hand-me-down, like all our clothes back then. But you know, if I ever painted her, I’d give her wings and a halo.”
I turned to her now, raising an eyebrow. I knew somehow, but still had to ask, “Just … how close were you?”
Auntie looked down. She shook her head, stammering several times before letting out her answer.
As I studied her face, she rose to meet me with that familiar sternness. She would not speak of it more – she could not.
“Dear Lord,” I whispered.
“Aye,” she sobbed, “Please. I’ve got to tell you now … I need to confess.”
I was still holding my brush, paint dripping from its tip onto the desk. I quickly set aside the paints and supplies, turning my attention to her. She reached over to me, and I clasped her hands tightly. I kept my face stoic as I looked into her eyes.
“It was back when your mother had her exhibitions, and your father was working with the police. I quit my old job at the greasy spoon – I moved in to look after you.”
“I remember,” I said with a nod.
“It was summer. You were at camp with the Scouts – and good thing, too.” She shuddered, swallowing as she began again. “Her bloody teeth clattered on the floor when she hit the bottom of the stairs. She dragged herself up, grabbed that damn painting like it would save her. Nail came right out of the wall, and she was back on the floor with the painting on her face. She didn’t get up again.”
My hands tightened around hers. I had to keep myself together, had to let her finish.
“It was a stupid spat. I never meant to …”
Tears traced the wrinkles under her eyelids. Her mouth twitched. Her eyes were on me in anticipation. She straightened her back, the tips of her grey curls shining as they met the stream of sunlight.
“You… You killed her?”
My mind filled with countless images of Auntie helping me through cuts and scrapes, or offering me wisdom when my heart was heavy. In my mind, she wore that stern face through those moments, and I knew it now for the mask it was. Behind it was the woman who pushed my mother down the stairs.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Gregory, I …”
“You’re my second mother! You’re all I have left! I trusted you, worshipped you.”
“Please, I know. I feel it every day. That’s why I raised you. Why I never complained when you needed money, why I always tried to listen.”
“Out of guilt?”
“Out of love! You are her son – I loved her, I love you.”
“So much you’d push me down the stairs?”
My stool clanged to the floor as I stood. She stood as well, shrinking back from me.
“Gregory, never! It was an accident!”
“I want to believe that!” I forced a deep breath. I lowered my voice, forcing more care into my words. “I want to believe it was an accident.”
“So did your father,” Auntie said, wiping away tears, “I offered to confess, to go to jail, but he wouldn’t have it. He convinced himself it was an accident, and that was what he told everybody. Folks around here listened. They never forgot his days as chief of the force.”
“But he knew you fought before?”
“He never admitted it.”
“Stubborn to the end,” I whispered.
We were somber as we stood in the sunlight. My breath began to slow as my hands slowly unclenched. She looked down again, and I let my eyes wander about the grey brick walls around us. After several moments, she turned to me again.
“Leave. Leave now.” I turned away, returning to my painting. She stayed a silent minute, watching my work, then turned and quietly left.
I returned to the old house several times that semester, helping Auntie while maintaining careful silence. When I wasn’t needed, I confined myself to the basement. Aunt Beatrice watched patiently at times. She began helping silently – retrieving supplies from cupboards or buying new brushes and paint. Later, she prepared new canvasses or mixed paints as I worked, always without saying a word.
On my final visit, the house was barely recognizable. Most of the furniture was gone, and new woodwork had removed many of the groans from the floors. Only the basement had survived remodeling, but it would soon be emptied.
It was our final session. Aunt Beatrice was now sitting at her practice canvas, smiling slightly as the light through the window found her paintbrush. Her other hand showed me the palette I had given her, where she mixed the various hues she had bought or found among the drawers under Mom’s workbench. I looked at the spot on the canvas where she had tested the mix with a few tentative strokes.
“It’s perfect,” I said flatly.
I took the palette and dabbed my paintbrush, but stopped an inch from the painting. So far, I had only cleaned the blood and restored the colors it had hidden. I was now touching up unblemished work – trying to improve on my teacher’s art. I bit my lip, watching as bright blue welled on the fine tip of the brush, gathering in a droplet that would soon drip to the newspapers covering the stone floor.
“It’s okay,” Auntie whispered, “She’d understand.”
I nodded, steeling my nerves. A few, precise dabs brightened up the blue of the girl’s eyes. When I had finished, the eyes were brighter than the idealistic sky around her.
We both stepped back from our seats to let the sunlight saturate the restored painting. It was her again. The crimson was gone, cleaned away and replaced with her peach–colored skin. Her eyes blazed with new life – a look that was now reflected in the eyes of the woman next to me.
“She looks … I look … so young.”
“Yeah, well, I kept as much of Mom’s work as I could,” I chuckled awkwardly.
“Look,” her smile dissolved in the afternoon light, “I can’t ever expect you to … to forgive what I did …”
I took her hands, cutting off any further stammering. Looking into her eyes, I shook my head deliberately.
“Thank you for helping me,” I said evenly.
She nodded in reply. After careful silence, she turned to the painting.
“You’ll visit me at the home?”
“Not right away.”
“Aye. You’ll need time.”
“Yeah.” I shook my head, quickly changing to a safer subject. “You know, I’m surprised you went with that place. You hated it!”
“You know,” she gestured to the painting, “Your Mom would love it.”
There was a flicker in the painted blue eyes in front of me. They were watching, one last time.
Later, after returning the painting to its proper place for the short time before the move, I would try feel her watching me. Many years after, when the painting hung in my own house, I would often look to the painting, but I would never feel those eyes again.
In Mom’s basement, just as that moment was fading, I turned to my Auntie with a hint of a smile.
“I know she would.”
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