“Are you ready for the opening tonight?” Will asks when Carmilla opens the door for him. She doesn't respond, just sits down, stretching her legs along the couch. “Carmilla.”
“Yeah,” she says, steepling her fingers, fingertip to fingertip.
Will steps inside and closes the door behind him. “You have to be ready.” Carmilla switches her fingers around, trying to touch every finger of one hand to every finger of the other. “Carmilla,” Will says again, louder this time.
She looks over her fingers at him. “What.” A challenge.
“You need to get out of this. It's been over a year, and this is the biggest exhibition yet.”
Will sighs, then sits down on the coffee table opposite her. She's returned her attention to her fingers, halfheartedly swapping them between the same four patterns over and over again. He watches her for a moment, then reaches out and touches her hand. She looks at him, fingers stilling. “Carmilla. This is a huge exhibition and a huge gallery. You need to get yourself together.”
“I've got it together,” she says, pulling her hands away and sitting up. The black couch is spattered with paint and she absentmindedly traces a green blotch.
Will looks at her suspiciously. “You sure?”
“Of course I'm sure!” Carmilla jumps to her feet and paces around the couch, looking at the paintings still dripping wet on the easels against the wall. She runs her finger along the side of one and pulls it away, smeared red. “Why wouldn't I be?”
“You can't go off on the reporters this time. Remember Amsterdam? That was such a fiasco. I've spent two months cleaning that up, and now you have another chance. I mean it, this is serious now. If that was a college team, this is the world series.”
“I don't like sports.”
“You know what I mean. You're well known, you have to present an image, and we need it to be a good one. Especially now.”
She looks over the canvas at him, wishing he would leave her alone. “I'm not a child. I know what I'm doing.”
Will raises his eyebrows skeptically. “You sure?” he asks again.
Carmilla just glares at him. He's a good manager, really. He keeps everything in order and does a good job making sure she gets publicity and her art gets shown, but he doesn't understand. She clenches her fist. All she wants is to be left alone.
“Fine,” he says after a moment of silence. “You say you're together, I'll leave that to you. But you'd better not be late, and you'd better have it together at the opening tonight. For real this time.” He stands up, checking his smartphone. “I've gotta go.” As he opens the door to leave, he looks back at Carmilla, still standing among her easels, running one paint-stained finger along the edge of the canvas. “Oh, and before I forget, your mother called. She wants you to call her back.” He closes the door without waiting for a response.
Carmilla is frozen, ice dripping down her insides and coating her stomach, rising to encase her heart. After a moment, she manages to thaw at least enough of her to move, and she unclenches her hand, picks up her paintbrush. Maybe if she paints enough, she'll cover everything up.
Laura hits send on her last email of the day and looks at the clock. Almost time to go. She's about to pack up her stuff when-
“What are you doing tonight?” Perry asks, appearing beside her as though by magic. Laura, already short, looks up at her editor.
“Nothing,” she says. In an effort to not feel so small, she stands up. “Why?”
“You know Carmilla Karnstein's in town, right? She's got that big exhibition opening tonight at the Silas Art Gallery?” Perry looks a little stressed, but Laura can't tell if it's normal stress or excess stress.
“Yes,” she says. “I know her art at least.”
“Good,” Perry says. “Do you want to go to the opening?”
Laura frowns at her. “Why?”
“Well, the foundation got us two tickets to the exhibition. Would you go, please? And try to interview her?” Perry says all of this very fast, and it takes Laura a moment to catch up.
“If you can get this, it'll be huge; we can feature her in our next issue. We never get opportunities like this, and an exclusive interview would be amazing.”
“Why won't you go? It seems like exactly the sort of thing you'd like.”
“Lafontaine and I have plans already, or I would,” she says with a smile. “Please? You're the only one in the office without plans tonight and we really need this.”
Laura thinks it over. It would be good to go out, and this is a one-time event. It would also be good for her career to write this article, and to have gotten this interview. She takes half a second more before saying, “Sure, I'll go.”
“Yes! Thank you,” Perry says. She presses two tickets into Laura's hands. “So it's at eight, at the SAG. Here are your tickets,” she says. “She'll be there, and please at least ask her a little bit about her art, even two questions."
Laura examines the tickets. They look legit, printed double sided and glossy. “Okay, cool,” she says.
“And, um,” Perry pauses, “it's a formal event so make sure that you dress appropriately.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, a dress, heels, maybe a nice necklace if you own one.”
“Do you think I don't know how to dress?” Laura asks, mock offended.
“No, I'm sure you can, I just wanted to make sure,” Perry says hastily.
“I got this, Perr,” Laura says with a smile. “Don't worry about it. I'll go with Danny. It'll be fun.”
“Great. Lafontaine's going to be here in a minute so I'm gonna get my stuff. Thank you again.” Perry hurries off, and Laura picks her own coat off the back of her chair, swinging it over her shoulders. The door of the office opens and she looks up to see Lafontaine.
“Hey,” she says, and they wave in return. “Perry's getting her stuff she'll be right out.”
“Thanks,” Lafontaine says, crossing the room to join her. “What're you up to tonight, Laura? Got any fun plans?” they ask, leaning on the edge of Laura's desk.
“Working,” she says, rifling through the pockets of her coat.
“Working? On a Friday night?” Lafontaine sounds incredulous, and Laura can picture the look on their face without even looking at them.
“Yeah,” she says, finally locating her keys and pulling them out triumphantly. “Perry asked me to go to a gallery opening. She really wants me to cover it, and hopefully get an interview with the artist. Figured I might as well say yes. I don't have anything else to do.”
Lafontaine smiles and nods, but before they can respond, Perry emerges from her office, jacket on and purse hanging from her shoulder.
“Hey,” she says, giving Lafontaine a quick kiss.
“You ready?” they ask.
Perry nods. “I think I've got everything. See you later, Laura?”
“Yeah,” Laura says. She follows them out, locking the front door behind her. In her car, she pulls out her phone, and presses number one on speed dial. It rings only once before Danny picks up.
“Hey, what's up?”
“Wanna go out tonight?” Laura asks, sliding her key into the slot without turning it.
“Sure. You thinking the Lustig?”
“Maybe something a little more formal,” Laura says. “I have tickets to this art exhibition opening at the SAG and I figured I'd ask you. I get if you don't want to go but I think it'll be fun.”
“I'm totally down,” Danny says from the other end of the line. Laura can hear the smile on her face. “What time and where?”
“It's at eight. I'll pick you up at seven-thirty?”
“And it's formal, so dress nicely.”
“Got it,” Danny says. “See you then.”
Laura smiles as she hangs up the phone and puts her car in gear.
The SAG entry hall is packed almost wall to wall with people. Or it seems that way to Laura as she hands the tickets to the guy at the entrance and steps into the building. Everyone and everything glitters around her, from the chandelier to the polished floor to the people's fancy clothes.
“Damn,” Danny says quietly, looking around. “These people really go all out. Remind me who this artist is again?”
“Carmilla Karnstein,” Laura says.
“Never heard of her.”
“She's gotten pretty famous in the past couple years,” Laura says, trying to remember the wikipedia page she'd speed read over a bowl of cereal two hours earlier. “She's a painter, does abstract art, and everybody loves her. I saw some pictures of her art online. It's not bad, actually.” She finally finds a place by the wall and stands with her back to it, Danny beside her.
“She was famous before, and then went off the map entirely for eight months or so. She didn't paint or go out or anything. Then when she finally did, she was really different.”
“I'm not entirely sure. Wikipedia didn't say.”
“Ah.” Danny looks at Laura. “You look really good, by the way.”
Laura blushes, running her fingers down her pale blue dress. “Thanks. And you look great too.” She'd never seen anyone who looked so good in a suit, and she's frankly a little glad that she's expected to look at art. Otherwise she might just watch Danny endlessly.
“Where is this famous art?” Danny asks, looking over the heads of the crowd. “And the famous artist.”
“I don't know about the artist,” Laura says, “but I think this is just the entrance hall, and the art is through there.” She points to a doorway, watching people file slowly through it. “I've never been here before so this is just a guess.” It takes them ten minutes to get into the gallery proper, and once they do, the people around her disperse and she takes her first deep breath in what feels like forever.
“Glad that's over,” Danny says. “Art time?”
“Yeah,” Laura says, looking around. This room is significantly darker than the entryway, with most lights dimmed save the ones illuminating the art. The paintings on the walls are dark, painted unevenly and in mismatched colors that don't always seem to fit together, crisscrossed with lines and jagged edges of broken shapes. They're lit from underneath, the edge of the canvas shadowing the lower part of the canvas, and shadows from the layers of thick paint echo the lines and corners. The effect is striking. Laura feels like she's looking into someone's mind, deep into the dark parts of a life she never expected to see.
As she and Danny make their way around the room, Laura feels rather than sees the emotions behind the paintings evolve. Sometimes she thinks she can see a flicker of an eye, or the suggestion of a mouth or nose in the lines, but it's gone the instant she tries to catch it. Some have paint running down them, thick and blotched, like they couldn't express themselves smoothly. Like they're a part of something that can't stay together.
“Isn't the artist supposed to be here?” Danny asks. “She's gotta be forty-five minutes late at this point.”
Right on cue, the sound of a microphone echoes through the room, and the lights come up. At one end is a man standing on a stage, dark hair, dark suit. Laura and Danny gravitate, with the rest of the guests, towards the him. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the opening of this exhibit,” and that's all Laura catches before she's distracted by the woman standing at the side of the stage, looking over the crowd. She wears a dress like midnight, seeming to glitter with stars, and long black gloves pulled up over her elbows. The edge of her dress barely brushes the floor, and she stands perfectly still, her dark hair falling in waves over her shoulders, perfectly matching her dress.
She's beautiful, Laura admits to herself, much prettier than she'd expected from cursory glances over grainy internet photographs. What captures Laura, though, is the look in her eyes. She looks sad, like she's been sad for a long time and she's used to it. Laura can feel that everything is inside of her, and her face is closed off, as though her eyes have been bricked up and only vague sadness seeps through the mortar. Even if Laura hadn't seen her picture, she would have recognized the woman immediately as the artist of the paintings surrounding them.
Even when she's introduced as Carmilla Karnstein, and takes her place at the mic to say a few words, her eyes don't change. Her face changes, almost-genuine smiles appearing and then fading, but she still is closed, still contained.
Laura doesn't move and doesn't take her eyes off Carmilla until the lights are dimmed again, though not as dim as before, and Danny taps on her shoulder.
“Earth to Laura,” she says, jokingly waving a hand in front of Laura's eyes. “You still here?”
“Yeah,” Laura says, shaking her head. “Sorry, I just got distracted.”
“You gonna go talk to her?” Danny asks, gesturing towards the end of the room, where Carmilla has descended from the stage onto the main floor of the gallery. Laura can't even see Carmilla, she's so surrounded by people.
“I think I'm gonna give it a little bit,” she says. “Let the crowd thin out.”
“Good call,” Danny says. “Oh look, food!”
They spend the next half hour getting acquainted with the various tables of food and drinks set out around the room, Laura keeping a constant eye on Carmilla as the painter drifts slowly along the wall, constantly talking to some person or another. They are taking sips of very expensive champagne when Danny says, “So what'd you think of the artist?”
Laura takes another sip and tries not to blush. She'd hoped that her distraction during the speech hadn't been noticeable but Danny's tone is oddly suspicious. “She seems.... interesting.”
“Interesting? You seemed pretty fixated on her.”
“Yeah, she seems interesting,” Laura says, turning around, trying to keep Carmilla in view. “And I really like her art.”
“I don't know,” Danny says, shrugging. “It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.”
“I feel like it gets at something deeper than other art does.”
Danny finishes the last of her champagne and puts the flute down on the table beside them. “I thought she seemed a little intense. Or not real. Like she was faking it.”
“Uh huh,” Laura says, only half listening. Carmilla breaks off from her admirers, moving alone across the room “I gotta go,” Laura says, handing her plate to Danny. “I'll find you after.” She doesn't hear Danny's protests as she slips away after Carmilla. Laura follows glimpses of Carmilla's dress and hair, trying to keep up. Finally, she emerges from the crowd, and sees Carmilla walking away, talking to the man who'd introduced her.
“Miss Karnstein,” Laura says, as loudly as she dares, and walking as quickly as acceptable towards them. “Miss Karnstein.”
Carmilla pauses, turning around to look for who's calling her. The man accompanying her, however, moves towards Laura and puts a hand out to stop her.
“Excuse me, who are you?” he asks sharply.
“My name is Laura Hollis, and I'm a reporter for a local arts magazine. I was wondering if I could ask Miss Karnstein a couple questions, just-”
“No,” the man interrupts her. “Miss Karnstein is not doing interviews tonight.”
“Just one or two,” Laura says. “It won't take long I promise.”
“I'm afraid I can't allow it,” the man is saying, when Carmilla puts a hand on his arm and he stops.
Laura's eyes meet Carmilla's, and for a moment Laura forgets who she is. The intensity in Carmilla's eyes takes everything else away, and it's just them.
“I'll give her an interview,” Carmilla says. The man begins to protest, and she cuts him off. “Will, I said I would do the interview.”
The man sighs overdramatically and motions for Laura to follow him. “Come with me then.”
The office is quiet, and Carmilla takes a deep breath, her first since she'd stepped onto that stage. She's gotten used to dealing with people, it's a job requirement, but that doesn't mean she enjoys it any more than she ever has. It's always the same people, wanting to shake her hand and ask about her art, sometimes they want to give her money, or want money from her, and she's learned how to politely decline or accept as the situation demands. Mostly it's the same compliments over and over again, from different people in different cities, who think that she'd never heard it before. Mooching is an acquired skill, Carmilla has learned, and she's had enough practice to make her into a master.
Carmilla settles down on the couch opposite the reporter, watching her. She hadn't caught her name when she had spoken earlier, and she kind of wants to keep it a mystery for now. The girl is hardly Carmilla's age, and seems more than a little nervous as she takes her seat, pulling a small recorder from the clutch under her arm.
“Thank you, Will,” Carmilla says. From where he stands in the doorway, Will glares at her. She knows he didn't want her to do any interviews tonight, and part of her thinks that might be half the reason she agreed to the interview in the first place. “That will be all,” she says, driving the point home.
He gives her one last glare before closing the door and leaving them in the office. Carmilla looks around. It's very nice – large with a big desk cluttered with papers, a couch, several chairs, and a wall of tall windows, curtained.
“Okay,” the reporter says, and Carmilla turns to look at her. “So are you ready?”
Carmilla nods wordlessly. At first the questions are normal, standard. She doesn't ask about Amsterdam, and she doesn't ask about Carmilla's disappearance. She seems to grow more comfortable as time passes, and Carmilla finds herself drawn in against her will, interested beyond reason in the reporter. She is so full of life, so energetic, it seems to shine from her even when she's listening instead of talking. It swirls around her, fills the room from corner to corner. Carmilla begins to feel at ease, for the first time in forever it seems, she's understanding and interacting with a person, and not wanting to run away.
“So can you tell me a little bit about this exhibition?” the reporter asks.
“In what way?”
The girl pauses, looks at her. “What do you want people to get out of it?” she asks, quickly, as though she's not sure she wants to say it at all.
Carmilla's taken aback. Nobody has ever asked her that question, and she's never really thought about it. She takes a moment. “I'm not sure,” she says. “Isn't art mostly in the eye of the beholder?” It's a cop-out answer, and she knows it, and she knows the girl knows it.
“Yes,” the reporter replies, “it is. But art is part of the artist whether it's in the eye of the beholder or not.”
Carmilla nods, impressed. “I guess so. I'm not sure really what I want people to get out of it. Maybe I want people to think about the mind.” She doesn't realize it's true until she says it.
“In what way?” The girl has leaned forward, engaged, interested. Her energy wraps around Carmilla, and she wants to lean forward as well, be closer to the girl. She resists the temptation, tries to bottle it up inside of her where it can't get out.
“It's such a mysterious place,” Carmilla says, searching for the right words. “Nobody knows what's going on, even in their own, and certainly not in anybody else's. But people's minds are different, and in putting them in a space from my own mind, I want them to think about their own, and the way they interact with it, and with the representation of somebody else's mind.”
“What got you interested in this?”
Carmilla feels like this has stopped being an interview and has become something else, a conversation between them. Parts of her are screaming to turn away, to escape, but she can't look away. She wants to talk to this girl, she wants to turn away, she wants to do both and she can only do one. The reporter watches her intensely, and finally Carmilla says, “I'm not sure. Maybe it's a desire to understand my mind.”
“Not somebody else's?” she asks. She doesn't look down, she keeps Carmilla in her gaze and Carmilla doesn't look away.
“Maybe if I understood my own, I would understand someone else's.”
Something fills the air between them, but before Carmilla can figure out what it is, can name it and bottle it and swear never to feel it again, a sharp ding echoes from the girl's clutch and the feeling is shattered. “I'm sorry,” she says, reaching for it. “I totally forgot to silence my phone.”
“It's okay,” Carmilla says, leaning back. She tries to let the intensity drop, but it clings to her like fog.
“Oh no,” the reporter says, the bright screen illuminating her face. “I've gotta go, it's so late.”
Carmilla looks at the clock on the wall above the door. It's almost eleven-thirty. The gallery will be shutting down soon, ushering everybody from the building.
“Thank you,” the reporter says, standing up. She holds out her hand, a little piece of paper offered to Carmilla. Carmilla stands to take it, then shakes the girl's hand without thinking. It feels like a moment of forever when their hands and eyes meet.
Then the girl jumps, moving towards the door. “I've gotta go, thank you,” she says. “Have a good night.”
Carmilla raises her hand, still feeling the girl's fingers in hers. The door shuts behind her, and Carmilla stares at it for a second, trying to process what it is that's happened. The room still feels full and bright, like the girl left some of her presence behind when she ran out the door. Carmilla sits back down on the couch and turns the card over between her fingers. Laura Hollis , reads the print on the front. The name seems to stare at her, and Carmilla stares back for another moment. Laura.