beta by Eliza "super-beta!"
White-grey sand vanishing into a grey sea swallowed by a dark-grey sky; or whatever it was, Toby thought and stepped back to take a look from a different angle; abstraction maybe, but his mind insisted on showing him lazy waves washing over a beach under a grey sky –strange choice considering the wide range of colours offered by the surrounding landscape –deep blue sea, intense blue sky, bright green and everywhere stunning riot of red and yellow flowers.
The spell was so strong he stood a long time outside the gallery, watching the painting in the window; wondering if the other ones were alike, wondering if he'd go in. Gen was having lunch in a little restaurant nearby with the kids and of course Toby never sat inside a restaurant or a bar or anything like that anymore; besides, he wasn't hungry.
It was the hottest hour of the day in the south of France, in this old village that had been built 10 centuries ago by stubborn local lords at the top of a rocky hill, towering over the seaside; an impenetrable stronghold, small houses nestled around a fortress, lanes narrow to keep the burning sun away. Toby liked the place and they'd spent the night in a hotel nearby before leaving, going back home –reluctantly, as far as he was concerned, he would've loved these holidays to go forever.
Well, he guessed he'd go inside get a look.
Three steps plunged him into the fresh shadow preserved between the thick walls; the room was small and empty but Toby saw a red curtain separating it from another room, and thought someone was probably there. In front of him 8 paintings were hanging on the bare stone, framed in black thick shiny wood.
Thick layers of oil; Toby didn't know much about painting but certainly the artist had used a palette knife; the grey wasn't so grey after all; he could see light touches of blue that made it colder, made the white shine and freezing, and red barely visible traces trailing along an ominously dark sky; he remembered a class in high-school about paintings; white was never quite white, the teacher had said, if you look closely enough you'll see that and he'd spent an afternoon at the Met with Leslie staring at paintings, enthusiastic –that was 2 months before she was killed. Leslie would've loved these paintings, she would've accompanied him here and bought one, probably, her blue eyes shining with pleasure; Gen wasn't quite like that; fine but different. But of course no one would ever live up to Leslie's sanctified memory, the adoration Toby felt for her was somewhat unfair, he knew that; dead people are so much easier to love than living ones and Gen deserved more than the half-hearted love he was giving her.
He sighed, losing himself in the strange universe opening in front of him, grey, beige, subtle gradation of lights and shades; hell the guy was a talented one, his instinct told him. He came closer and made out a name. C. Keller? He remembered seeing it written somewhere before, probably about an exhibition in the area; he wondered what the man, or the woman who'd painted that looked like.
"Are you looking for someone?" a voice said on his right as the curtain moved.
The man had spoken in English, no real accent, and the voice, Jesus… Toby stood absolutely still, ears ringing, throat tight, frozen by sheer terror.
"Hey, something wrong?"
Someone please take me away from here, I don't want to hear this voice again, please let me go, please don't kill me, pleasepleaseplease… It took him all he had to turn around and face the man who was saying "I am Chris Keller, I painted these. Like them?"
Toby stepped back, moving to the door and the man, Keller, frowned at that, held out a hand and grabbed Toby's shaking arm, moved with him out of the shadows of the little room into a ray of light - their eyes caught.
"Jesus fucking Christ," Chris Keller said, not even trying to hide, not trying to disguise, or lie or anything, his fingers tightened around Toby's arm. "Jesus fucking Christ."
But Toby's mind was gone, he was back 13 years ago on a late day of June, in a bar in the center of town with some friends, far from their wealthy suburbs, too far maybe; celebrating Leslie's birthday; she was 18, and Toby loved her, as much as she loved him -madly. It was late, the place was empty, they were about to leave, they'd drunk a bit too much; Toby felt sharper, stronger, bolder and he leaned to kiss her again.
But in his arms her body went limp suddenly, and he heard the noise –gunshot, he had time to realize before a sharp pain stole his breath, and he fell to the floor, still holding her, blood running down on him from her mouth, and slowly, across the fear, the thought she was dying and so was he; and the gunshots going on, screams and other bodies falling on him.
Then the silence and the smell of powder and death; the bar being broken down –they were robbing the place.
"Let's clear off!" A voice said and another one, a voice he'd never forget, deep and growling and that kept haunting him, haunting his nightmares, the voice of the man the police said had never existed.
"Wait. I wanna check; make sure they're all dead."
His friends' bodies piled upon him had been removed, Leslie torn away from him and he'd stood as still as he could, hoping the guy wouldn't hear his heart beat, wouldn't see his chest rise, wouldn't smell the panic of an animal about to be slaughtered.
Through his lashes he'd seen a young man crouch beside him, look at him and sigh; "shit," the voice had said again and he'd heard the trigger of the gun. Then he had been unable to resist, he'd opened his eyes, caught a very dark blue gaze, and whispered, "Please! Don't kill me!"
The man had hesitated for a fraction of second, looking shocked.
"Hey, what the fuck are you doing?"
Toby had seen a smile on the guy's face, Jesus he was young, not much older than him.
"Finishing the job, Ryan."
The deafening sound of another shot and Toby'd passed out, sure he was dead.
At the time the story had been on every channel, in every paper, his picture everywhere –Toby didn't give a damn, he was lying on a bed in a hospital room, crushed with pain and grief; a bullet had smashed his shoulder, another one gone through his belly; nothing too bad; but his mind, Christ, his mind was shattered, his own life was shattered. He'd lost Leslie, he would never be alive again.
"Why didn't he kill me?" He asked his father for the hundredth time and Harrison Beecher sighed again.
"Toby, remember what the psychiatrist said; there was no blue eyed man, he didn't exist."
"I saw him! I fucking saw him!"
Harrison caressed his son's hair lovingly, soothingly.
"I know that but… The police shot two of them down and the other one's locked inside a high security prison, he doesn't look like the man you described."
"Why don't you believe me? Why does no one believe me? Why do you think I'm crazy? There were four of them!"
But he was wrong and the only survivor had confirmed it; they were only three, all under 21, high on speed or stuff, and they'd seen the rich pricks celebrating in the bar; life had been unfair to them and they'd decided to take their revenge, entered the bar and opened fire on all of them –killed seven of them and fled; but the cops were outside, they'd been easy to catch.
"They robbed the cash, I heard them."
"The cashier says it was empty; listen to me, Toby, you've been through very difficult, traumatizing moments, your mind has been badly…"
"No! Fuck, no! I know there was another one! I saw him, I could recognize him, recognize his voice!"
But he'd recognized none of the suspects the police had so patiently shown him; and when he'd questioned Ryan O'Reily in the security prison he was locked in, waiting for death, months later, the Mick had shrugged.
"You dreamt, rich boy, there was no one else."
And he'd believed, eventually, believed that fear and trauma had stuck this false memory into his mind and gone through a long therapy and got cured –or so they thought. He'd left grief and anger behind, become Toby Beecher again, nice guy, rich guy, a bit shy, maybe, who sometimes drank a bit too much; he'd resumed his scholarship, gone to Harvard, graduated as a lawyer and he was working with Gen in his father's practice; doing corporate law, pleading sometimes. Married, two kids, an average yuppie.
And Chris… at first he'd only thought the guy was great; good-looking, nice clothes, too long blond hair bleached by too much sun and sea, slightly tanned skin, cute nose and the way he looked at the paintings had been flattering, moving, his concentration, the way he frowned and tilted his head on the side to have a better view… Chris had stood still, enjoying the sight. After a while he'd had enough and he'd gone to him, talked to him- very wrong move, Keller.
He'd seen that in the clear blue eyes, their expression when the man had turned to him; the flicker of madness and the change in the man's gaze, lips tightening, eyes narrowing –stubborn and crazy looking.
Fuck. Memories and sickness had overwhelmed him. How far was he supposed to run away? How far to be left alone? How far to let bygones be bygones?
Fierce look, bared teeth… a wild animal and Chris came nearer, cautious and slow; until he was near enough to touch him, brush his fingertips against a bare arm and hear a low rumble; he grabbed the man's wrist, trying to soothe the cold rage he felt simmering inside the man.
"Hey, hey, come on, calm down, OK?"
Toby was looking him deep in the eyes.
"You're real," he said, not believing he was able to talk "No one believed you were, they all thought I was crazy. But I wasn't. Jesus! You killed my friends, do you remember? Do you remember me?"
He was whispering those words, his voice stumbling on them, his eyes roaming over Chris' face with the intensity of a lover's gaze.
"Yeah," Chris said, "you're the one I didn't kill."
After that Toby remembered nothing clearly; there was a desk on his left; on the desk a pair of scissors, sun flickering on them; he was fast, seized them, plunged them, once, twice in the man's body, heard a soft painful hiss and stepped back in horror, staring at the form slowly crumpling down on the floor, his heart racing madly, scissors still in hand. Turning to the door he saw that the place was empty, knew he was given a chance to escape; before he left, he lacerated the paintings, staining them with blood, the same blood he saw dripping through the man's clenched fingers and smearing on the floor, as red and shining as Leslie's blood had been.
It's not me, he thought; I didn't do this; it's the bloodthirsty demon inside me that did it.
Then he ran away.