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The Picture of Gorthaur the Cruel

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Celebrimbor was getting hungry. All these art shows, all these works, in hundreds of styles, but none of them seemed to be able to manage decent catering. It was sad, really. He was reaching in his pocket for his phone to look up a nearby restaurant when he saw it.

The piece had an unusual geometry to it, wheels and gears and many-pointed stars on a background of fanciful blue whorls. In the center was an angel.

The figure had no wings, and the only suggestion of a halo was the off-center oval of a watch face that might have been placed over his head by coincidence. But there was something about the spread of his hands, something about the way he stood on a surface that might be empty air, or a pile of trinkets, or a cloud, or a figment of Celebrimbor’s imagination...

He had to have it. He hoped it wouldn’t be too expensive. This was further from the center of the city than most of the shows he’d attended; there was a good chance it wouldn’t be.

He looked around the room and noticed a girl of perhaps twenty-five standing next to him, looking at the same picture. She wore thick bangles and thicker glasses. “So you see it too,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“You want it?”

She squinted one eye at him and shook her head. “Too rich for my blood.”

Why? This isn’t an auction. “All right then.”

“It is for sale, isn’t it?”

The inconspicuous signature in the bottom right of the painting had read Jenny Palisano, matching this older woman’s name tag. Celebrimbor pointed at the picture again.

Jenny shook her head, looking distracted, and for a moment he felt a stab of dismay—if it wasn’t for sale, that was it. But then she shook it again, and he realized she was probably just trying to clear it.

“How much do you—will you pay?” she asked, and his heart leapt.

He thought about it for a moment before deciding on a number. “Four thousand dollars?”

“Sure,” she said—a little too quickly. He got the impression he’d guessed too high, but still, it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve it; he wrote out a check then and there.

As he brought the piece out to his car and settled it onto the passenger seat, he could swear the angel was watching him.

He couldn’t sleep.

The new picture was on his desk in the next room over, leaned against the wall—a staging area until Celebrimbor could find a place for it on the crowded walls of his apartment, as was his usual process with recent acquisitions. But what if it fell? He had to see it again, had to know he was safe—to know it was safe.

Celebrimbor rolled out of bed, clothed in only his boxers, and went to check on it. When he saw it, faintly illuminated by the light of the old laptop computer that he left running his webpage server, he was captivated, unable to look away. Slowly piecing together the details of the image in the dim lighting, he found it even more beautiful than before.

He realized he was walking forward—going to what? To touch it? Surely no; surely he could only wear it, damage it, an unthinkable transgression. Still, he was drawn closer. He felt the weight of the angel’s gaze, and he met it unflinchingly.

A painting he may have been, but in this moment he looked real, more than real, radiating presence and power from the set of his shoulders and the flash of distant sunlight on his teeth.

Had he been smiling before? Regardless, Celebrimbor strove to accept his blessing.

After an indeterminate period of time, the spell lifted. His face was only inches from the painting. Celebrimbor leaned back and shook his head, then carefully shook the sleep from his hands, one at a time. Thus prepared, he moved the painting to lean against the bookshelf in his room. He could find it a more permanent position on that wall later, perhaps by moving one of the wilderness prints. He fell asleep feeling relieved and protected.

The next morning, he woke up at dawn and looked over at the painting. Something seemed slightly off about it. The angel still gazed at him boldly, and the instruments still twirled around him, but—

The signature. That was it. It had said Jenna... Palisano? With a creeping feeling at the back of his neck, he read the new signature: Celebrimbor Telperinquar.

And if he looked very closely, the ink seemed not quite dry.

He inspected the rest of the painting. Nothing seemed to have changed. The swirly background was just as consistent behind the signature as it always had been—it couldn’t have been repainted during the night as some kind of prank by his neighbor and friend Paul, though it was the sort of thing Paul might have done, if he’d had the means.

He went into the shower, still pondering how this could have happened.

His shower was interrupted by his alarm going off, and he rushed out, undignified and dripping, to take care of it. As he was a deep sleeper, the alarm was set quite loud; he had to wake up early for his day job as a fashion designer. He imagined the painting was watching him with fond amusement.

When he got home from work, he was resolved to get the painting hung. Ordinarily he might wait a day or two until he was sure he had the time to do it, but it seemed somehow more urgent than usual.

He looked over the wildlife prints—one of a tiger against tall grass, one of a mother monkey and her monkey children, and one of a puppy-pile of dormice—and decided against taking them down. They may not be originals, but they’d been with him through thick and thin, and that was worth more than any pedigree.

Celebrimbor instead moved a striking portrait of a woman in an orange sweater which he had bought years ago because it reminded him of his mother. Now he had trouble seeing the resemblance. He would put it up for sale on his website soon. It went in his staging area at the back of the desk.

In his room, he reverently brought up the picture of the angel to the place where the portrait had hung. It was already in a frame with wire drawn across the back, and it was smaller than the other picture had been, so it fit in perfectly. Half ironically he blew it a kiss before turning to leave—he and Paul were going bowling together, as they did most Monday evenings.

Celebrimbor stretched as he got out of Paul’s car. The bowling alley was closer to the university they’d attended together than to their current lodgings, but it was too longstanding a tradition between them to be broken up by mere distance. Besides, Paul had good taste in music; the drive was never boring with Coldplay rocking from the speakers.

Now that they were there, he noticed that Paul looked nervous about something. He decided to wait to ask until they were inside.

They were already wearing their bowling shoes, Paul having put them on before leaving his house and Celebrimbor having grabbed his on the way out the door and put them on in the car. They alternated on the $40 payment for the hour. This time it was Celebrimbor’s turn. Luckily he had his wallet on him.

Paul picked a larger but lighter ball; Celebrimbor a smaller, heavier one—fondly remembering the arguments they’d had over their respective physics.

“So, what’s eating you?” Celebrimbor asked.

Paul looked away. “Was I really that... of course I was; you know me well enough. I guess...” There was a long pause. “I had a nightmare last night,” he said suddenly, looking back. “New one.”

Paul collected nightmares in much the same way, Celebrimbor imagined, he himself collected art. For a horror writer, he supposed it made sense.

“I dreamed I was staring down an angel with golden hair, and I was standing on the scales of justice with him on the other end, and he was I guess heavier than I was, so I was being pushed up into the air—and then he walked across somehow, without tilting it toward me at all—isn’t that strange? Like walking across a seesaw, wouldn’t it tip?—reached out and strangled me.”

Celebrimbor blinked. Then he blinked again. Finally he got up the courage to ask, “Did the angel have wings?”

Paul looked past him. “Funny, you know, I don’t think he did.”

A horrible trapped feeling was coming over him. Instinctively Celebrimbor looked around for exits, but he found only the open door to the bowling alley behind them, and being outside wasn’t safe, nowhere was safe—

Paul had turned to the lane and was checking angles for his first shot. Celebrimbor felt hot and cold all over and had a momentary urge to throw up. It passed quickly, but the lingering anxiety remained.

“Tell you what,” he said, too loud, “I’ll just be going to the bathroom.”

In a stall in the men’s restroom, Celebrimbor put his hands over his face, screwed his eyes shut, and resisted the temptation to scream.

The quasireligious experience he’d had last night, Paul’s nightmare, the signature somehow altered overnight... it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t plausible. These things didn’t happen. It was all in his head.

He’d get home, and the painting would have the artist’s signature on it just as it always had, whether or not he’d remembered it correctly, and definitely not his own.

He strode out of the restroom, and a painted angel would have flinched at the fire in his eyes.

When they got in the car to go home, Celebrimbor went to start up the playlist again, but Paul stopped him with a hand over his. “Not this time,” he said quietly.

Celebrimbor frowned.

“It’s nothing personal, dude,” he added. “I just... I wanted to...”

The pause stretched out. “You wanted to...?” Celebrimbor finally felt compelled to add.

“I wanted to know if you wanted to go out with me,” he said in a rush.

Well fuck.

“Um,” he started. “...sorry, but... no thanks.”

Paul sagged in some combination of disappointment and relief. “Straight?”

“No, I’m bi... I just, I guess I don’t see you that way.” And why had his first reaction been to think I’m taken? He hadn’t had a serious partner in, oh, months; his last breakup had been amicable but hardly forgettable.

“You are? Man, I... I can’t believe I never asked before, haha.”

“Wait, how long have you—and—we’re still friends, right?”

“Of course, dude!” Paul said with genuine concern. “It’s chill. I’m not going to abandon you over—I’m not going to abandon you. Friends forever, OK?”

“Friends forever,” Celebrimbor agreed. There was a short pause. “Is now a good time for me to turn on the music?”

Paul blushed. “Yeah, dude—totally. Sorry about that.”

“It’s fine, it’s just...” He made a vague gesture. “The quiet.” It wouldn’t have bothered him under most circumstances, but today it seemed vaguely unsettling.

He set the music playing and leaned back in his seat. In retrospect, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed with Paul. Ah well. It had all worked out in the end.

He fell asleep again that night under the searching gaze of the angel, but this time it brought no comfort, and he dreamed of scales tipping precariously back and forth. When Celebrimbor awakened to the insistent jangling of his alarm clock, he could almost still see himself staring up at Paul on the other end of a lever with the angel dancing on the fulcrum. He stubbornly avoided looking at the picture all morning, although by the time he left the temptation to do so was almost unbearable.

After work, he was less surprised than he should have been to find Paul’s apartment swarming with police.

They wouldn’t let him in, of course, but he knew with a strange clarity that defied explanation. He could imagine the headlines now—“Local Man Found Strangled to Death in Apartment.”

He entered his own residence and allowed himself to be dragged over to the image. There was a tiny, distant smile on his face. His angel. His angel had done this.

No person would ever be convicted of the crime, of course. It hadn’t been committed by a person. It had been committed by an idea, a concept, an image.

Softly, in his sleep...

Celebrimbor was still in shock, still in altered time—an eternity in an instant repeated ad infinitum.

Paul is dead.

He stared into the angel’s eyes like an accusation.

Paul is dead.

The angel looked back into his.

He was my friend.

“How can I forgive you for this?” The words came out low in his throat. “How can you just stand there—”

The angel—moved.

Celebrimbor recoiled from the picture frame.

The angel was smiling. No, not smiling; it—he—it had always been smiling. The angel was smirking.

“And what are you going to do about it?”

His voice was beautiful, melodious, high and clear and remote, like a mountaintop covered in ice. Celebrimbor felt the echo of his earlier urge to submit, to make obeisance, but it was overridden by mounting anger.

“How dare you.”

He raised a hand to tear apart the insolent, murderous angel, but he felt it drop to his side again, relaxed, impotent. He could not suppress a wave of remorse. How dare he have wished harm on such a treasure, such a beautiful painting? How dare he call himself a collector, when this is his willingness to protect a true work of art? Yet he did not look away.

“You killed my friend,” he said, his voice shaking. “You’re not even sorry. You...”

The angel had dropped his smirk and now looked merely pensive. “How dare you still love me?” he mused.

Celebrimbor’s shoulders slumped. “Paul is dead.”

“You look at me like that’s a contradiction.”

“A—” he fought to control his anger; violence was clearly not going to be effective (and he felt a burst of relief at that realization that was not entirely countered by his growing horror). “—that’s not how I would describe it, but yes, it—how can I—he wanted to date me. I—”

“He was not worthy of the honor,” the angel pronounced solemnly.

And you are?

There was a pause. “I can see that we have a disagreement.”

Despairing of getting through to him on the matter, Celebrimbor looked down at last to see his own signature still inexplicably emblazoned on the corner of the painting. It could have been his imagination, but he thought it might be a little bigger than before.

The next day he saw the headline, “Local Man Found Strangled to Death in Apartment,” just as he had predicted. He cried sprawled before the angel on his bed, the pages of the newspaper wet with his tears.

His angel offered him purpose and strength and passion. And he refused. Oh, he refused.

But how long could he really last in the end, when he had so little of his own?