With the door shut, Keats’s office might have been a room anywhere. Unadorned, crowded but not messy, the room seemed unexceptional, with the exception of the window opening on various shifting realms. With the door open, however, showing a black and shadowed path that stretched towards a glowing portal, the office took on more than a hint of the uncanny.
Keats looked up from his typewriter, frowning at the doorway. “You might consider knocking before barging in like that.”
“If I thought you would answer, I might,” Belgae replied. The door swung closed behind him, and once again the office was nothing more than a room.
“Did you want something, or are you here to disrupt my work?” Keats asked at last, when his invisible guest seemed more inclined to drift around inspecting the bookshelves and old magazine issues than to talk.
Belgae picked up last month’s issue of Unknown Realms. “I was most impressed by your investigation of the fairy realm’s search for a new leader,” he said. “Especially considering how unwelcome you still are among them.”
It had been a good story, Keats knew. Fairy Realm in Political Upheaval. Inter-Realm Invasion a Massive Failure. Backlash against Lordship Bid by Sir Bogle.
“I didn’t write it for your opinion,” Keats said, since that much was true. He rarely cared about reactions to the magazine issues he wrote – though he would admit to a dry amusement from the fairies’ annoyance at finding the story published and distributed to half-lives, folks, and residents throughout the Netherworld.
“Nevertheless, I enjoyed it,” Belgae said, returning the magazine to its place. “As I enjoy many of your works.” He tilted his head back towards Keats. “I was merely curious as to whether you intend to cover the show in your next issue.”
Keats paused, frowned at the sudden shift in conversation. “What?”
“Since it will be so close to your publication deadline,” Belgae elaborated, as though that explained anything. “No one is certain if you plan to put the story in this issue or the one after it. Several of the half-lives at Ganconer’s pub have asked about it. And I’ve heard quite a few of the fairies are interested, though naturally they won’t ask directly.”
Nothing strange about Belgae speaking in riddles, but with the man’s matter-of-fact discussion, the clear expectation of information – Keats got no sense of a deliberate effort to confuse. He narrowed his eyes, pinned Belgae with a glare. “What are you talking about?”
“The art show, of course,” Belgae said. “As generous as it was of Ellen to send all those invitations out through the portals, none of the Netherworld residents dare go to a show open to the human public. They shall have to depend on your descriptions when –you – “
Belgae’s voice stilled as he looked at Keats, seeing the locked jaw, the fingers frozen on the typewriter, the eyes wide at unexpected news. “Oh,” Belgae said. “Oh, I see.”
Keats found he had to unclench his teeth to reply. “A reporter would be remiss to delay publication of a relevant story.” The right words, the right tone, but not enough to stop the way Belgae was staring at him.
“I see,” Belgae said again. He opened his book, drew a card from between the pages. “Well, in the interests of a thorough investigation…”
Keats’s gaze tracked the card as it dropped to his desk, bright colors blurring through the air.
Dublin School of Art and Design, he read when it lay still. Show for non-majors. All welcome.
“Yes,” Keats said, picking up the invitation. “I do think an investigation is in order.”
It had been months since Keats had left the Netherworld – not since he’d realized the truth, so inexcusably late, at the end of everything. He’d had stories to write after that, and the stories were important, using relentless lines of neat black print to force muddled events and hazy memories into a coherent whole.
But writing one story didn’t stop the lure of another mystery, and this one needled at Keats’s thoughts despite his best efforts. Ellen had invited every halflife and fairy she knew to her art show except for the one who could have attended.
Why exclude him? In anyone but Ellen, Keats would have dismissed it as some kind of manipulative ploy to avoid actually having any Netherworld inhabitants in attendance – but Ellen didn’t have that level of subterfuge in her. Any invitations she sent would be genuine, if poorly thought through.
Someone else might have taken offense and stayed away to sulk – but Keats could never stop himself from going where he wasn’t wanted. Besides, it felt good to set foot on solid ground again, breathing air that hadn’t fought its way past his closed window.
He had wondered briefly whether he’d even be able to travel to Dublin, so far from the village of the dead, but the portal outside his door had quite obligingly opened on the graveyard of a small church. Something to do with the broken Seal of Baral, perhaps, Keats mused, stepping over the low stone fence marking the border between church and school. That would be something to investigate further.
The gallery was only a short walk from the church, and to Keats’s surprise, quite a few of the pedestrians wandering across the campus were heading in the same direction. “Must be a slow night on campus,” he said, joining the line of people flowing into the gallery. “Or the artists have a lot of friends to blackmail.”
Entering the building, Keats snagged a pamphlet from the nearby table before going further, scanning it for information. Background on the class who produced the show – nothing of note there. Very shoddy writing, not even proofread, but Keats hadn’t expected better from a group of college artists. Information on the program, interspersed with pleas for donations. List of the artists – ah, and there was Ellen’s name.
Keats slid the pamphlet into a pocket – always good to have reference material when putting a story together – and started to make his way through the different rooms of the gallery. Considering the initial display, he didn’t hold high hopes for the entire exhibit. Most of it was purely amateur nonsense, unimaginative landscapes or ill-formed portraits. He wouldn’t even have needed the pamphlet to tell him none of this was Ellen’s work.
According to the map, Ellen’s pieces would be further in, ensconced in an offshoot room. Rather like a Netherworld realm, really – he’d have to conquer the minutiae before reaching the real point.
As Keats navigated the gallery, pausing occasionally to mutter particularly scathing comments at a few works he found unbearably offensive, he noticed that several of the people passing by were giving him odd looks. The first few times he ignored them, assuming they simply took umbrage at his commentary on yet another picture of someone’s pet, but even when he was silent the looks came.
Keats frowned, wondering if he really looked so out of place. He looked older than the students themselves, certainly, but there were friends and relatives of all ages wandering around the place. And though he could hold his transcended state for a great deal longer these days, the initial transformation still took considerable effort. A moment’s look in a mirror – well, a bit of reflective sculpture trying to mimic a waterfall – confirmed that he looked as human as ever.
Without any further clues available, Keats filed away the questions about why he might draw undue attention from people heading out of the gallery. The questions were interesting, but he was hardly going to change to a less urgent mystery when he was at the verge of a breakthrough on a more pressing one.
According to the sign at the next door, he’d finally reached the room where Ellen’s pictures were displayed.
Keats had thought he was prepared for anything he might find when he stepped across the threshold, whether it was badly daubed seashores or maudlin sketches of little blonde girls and dark-haired boys. But Ellen had always been able to take him by surprise.
He’d expected Doolin and the Netherworld, of course – what else would Ellen paint but the flowering fairy fields, the forgotten palace crumbling to nothing, the Henge alive with light in a night otherwise oppressively still? – but he hadn’t expected the rest of it.
On every painting, bright and bold and captured to a perfect likeness, Keats’s own face looked back at him. He saw himself smirking, scowling, reaching for something just beyond the painting’s end. He hovered at a watery crossroads, solid and stable while the rest of the painting shifted and blurred. He stood backlit and vibrant in the Hellrealm court, brandishing a videotape and all but glowing incandescent against the threatening shadows. He stepped forward, arms spread protectively to shield what lay just off the canvas, as the barely recognizable birds Scarecrow had summoned dove for him.
Six paintings in all, all of their adventures given form, and Ellen had woven Keats into every memory of it that she’d shown. Keats had never been more grateful that his expression could be so difficult to read.
After an eternity of taking in the paintings, Keats finally looked away – only to see a familiar young woman standing across the room, her face burning scarlet.
Keats met Ellen’s gaze for a moment, the two of them held in the spotlight of a dozen painted eyes. The light glared from Keats’s glasses, and Ellen’s fingers tangled in her necklace chain.
And the moment shattered with the crash of sound as a group of students jostled through the door and around Keats.
“Hey, so your mysterious model showed after all!” a russet-haired boy exclaimed. “I thought you said he wouldn’t want to come.”
Startled, Ellen’s gaze darted from Keats to the boy, who took the opportunity to step closer and touch her shoulder.
The remaining students jumped out of his way as Keats swirled and headed for the door, leaving behind the bright canvases of the Netherworld and Ellen’s brilliantly colored memories.
The campus had gone dark in the time Keats had spent in the gallery, twilight melting into truer black. Only a chain of streetlights marred the darkness, stretching off like lifelines to break up the infinite. He strode along the trail, coat streaming behind him as he headed back to the church and the portal that would take him away.
The only voice that could stop Keats in his tracks echoed through the night. Keats halted beneath a lonely streetlight, turning just enough to see Ellen racing along the path behind him.
“Keats, wait, please!” she gasped out, as if she couldn’t see perfectly well that he had waited.
She’d caught up with him unreasonably quickly, considering what she’d been wearing for the gala. Keats frowned down at her, his gaze dropping to her feet. She’d lost her precarious heels somewhere along the way, tearing barefoot after him across the rough ground. Hardly worth it when she could have opened a portal to his realm after he’d returned – but Ellen never seemed to make decisions by logic.
“You wanted me to wait,” Keats reminded her, when she only look at him without saying a word. “Or was it merely that you were hoping to hear that your masterpieces have impressed the critics and will receive nothing but five star reviews?”
“No,” Ellen said. “No, of course that’s not it.” She stared at him like she expected to find answers in his eyes if only she could look into them long enough. “I just wanted to tell you – I’m glad you came. I never dreamed you would, but it made me happy.” She smiled at him. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t come for you,” Keats told her, the well-practiced words coming smoothly to his lips. Easy to say it, over and over, a defense against other words too soft to speak.
Ellen’s smile brightened, and Keats knew he might as well have said the softer things for all that he’d hidden them. “Is there a story in it?” she asked.
“Messenger chooses a slow, easily misinterpreted, and unoriginal method to tell humanity about the Netherworld,” Keats said. He shook his head. “It has the seed of a story, but it’s too soon to see if it will come to anything.”
“Well,” Ellen’s eyes slid away from his, “the collection isn’t finished, exactly. And of course you’d need all the information for your story. But I may not even get to have another show, at least not for a while. The standards will be much higher if I actually get into the art program, instead of just the non-majors classes.” She bit her lip. “You’re welcome at any of them, of course. If you want to attend.”
“I’ll have to see how the story develops,” Keats told her.
Ellen looked like she wanted to say something more to that, but a roar of noise from an approaching bus stopped the words. As light and sound shattered the streetlight’s still glow, Keats retreated into the darkness, letting the shadows take him home to his portal. If Ellen ever found her nerve, she knew where he would be.
Of course, finding the nerve had never been an insurmountable obstacle for Ellen. Two days later, a package plopped onto his in tray – or more precisely, onto his entire desk. Keats grabbed hold to steady it before it crashed to the ground, taking half his possessions with it.
Only Ellen would try to send a painting the size of a desk to an in tray meant for paper. Keats placed the parcel against the wall, removing the post-it note on the top. “To brighten your office,” it read, in Ellen’s neatly curling script. As if Keats couldn’t easily brighten the office himself if he’d wanted to. He shuddered to think what Ellen’s idea of brightening the place might entail.
“If she’s sent me the picture of hellrealm,” Keats muttered, tearing open the brown paper wrapping with cautious fingers, “she will be getting it back.” He drew the paper away, stepping back to see what she’d sent.
It wasn’t the picture of hellrealm. It wasn’t a picture of any moment that had happened. And unlike the rest of the collection, it wasn’t a picture of Keats – or at least, not only of Keats.
The rest of the paintings had blurred and changed and rippled the landscapes, leaving them unsteady with only Keats’s own figure solid and clear. This painting reversed that theme, the landscape detailed with loving clarity.
Though Keats had never seen the room on the right, he could see Ellen’s touch in the easels, the brushes, the neatness and the order. It bled towards the center into black, and from black into another room, one that Keats saw every day and Ellen had only seen once.
And against that middle blackness, almost too hazy to see, two figures stood together. A man in a purple coat, slouching and harsh, bent towards a woman in white. The posture might – might – have been meant as nothing more than protection.
Another note was stuck to the edge of the frame. Keats tore his eyes from the figures leaning towards one another, taking up the second note. This one was more formal, a printed descriptive tag rather than a post-it.
“From Ellen Reid’s Guardian collection,” the note read. “Title: The Rest of the Story…?”
The note crumpled in Keats’s hand as he clenched his fist, his eyes going back to two figures, a man and a woman, drawing together across the worlds. The memory of six other paintings swam before his eyes – himself as she saw him, as she imagined him to be. More accurate than she knew – solid and steady only in retrospect, faint and fading away in the future.
Too much to bear, from a girl who could look through him and smile at what she saw. Keats turned away from the painting and went back to his typewriter. Stared at the half-written page and failed to remember what he’d been writing. Raised a hand to the keys, only to find it still clenched around a simple note.
The Rest of the Story…?
A question. The question she’d had in her eyes the night at the art show, that she hadn’t had the chance to ask. A question that was a painting that was and wasn’t part of her collection, that she’d given to him as part of his story.
You’ll need all the information for your story, she’d said.
Keats stood again, dropping the note onto his desk. Looked at the painting, two worlds and the black unknown between, where a man leaned towards a woman. Looked at the protectiveness, and looked at the rest of what it meant.
He strode to the office door and opened it, to the dark pathways and the shining portal light.
“My office will hardly be brightened by a trite and sentimental conclusion to an overly idealistic body of work,” Keats said.
Ellen bit her lip. “I can take it back, if you don’t like it.”
Keats looked down at her, confused and unsure but never backing down, driven by emotions powerful and deeply rooted, and always, always unable to find the answers to her own questions even when they were right in front of her. Looked at the fading hope in her eyes, the question she was asking. The question she’d come here to have answered.
The spark and flare of images lit Keats’s memory. A voice on a phone, a transformation underground, a choice beneath the sea, terror and a cage in a twisted court, falling from a bridge, crying as heartbeats sounded from all sides, leaping to battle an undefeated monster, fighting to absorb the darkness of the world alone. A kind smile, bright eyes that understood, and a thank you for so much unspoken.
Ellen’s gaze dropped away, drifted over to the portal that would take her from the shadowed paths. “I can go,” she said.
Her smile was gone.
“The story isn’t finished,” Keats said.
Ellen looked back at him, puzzled and hesitant and waiting to see if she dared to hope. Looked back and stayed in the place that was neither her world nor his, where the light was hazy and the way was unclear. Looked back at Keats. And hoped.
Keats placed a hand on her shoulder, and bent towards her.