The Stranger From Out of Town, by John Prescott

(From the short story collection Before Sunrise, by John Prescott.  Reprinted with permission.)

This story is from the John Prescott short story collection BEFORE SUNRISE

Dorian Searls looked out over the lake as the setting sun slowly fell behind the trees to the west. It had been a good day, like many others over the past seven years. Dorian had inherited his parents’ house ten years ago after a drunk blew past a stop sign and hit their car doing no less than eighty-five. They died on impact. The drunk, some dill-witted being named Harry Gureaux, was not the least bit hurt and tried to flee the scene after the accident, shrugging it off as nothing more than what he called a minor fender-bender.

Dorian received word of his parents’ death while at his portfolio show at the Rhode Island School of Design. He carried on till the show was over, knowing that was what his father would have wanted. Many contacts were made that day, and his future looked bright in the artists market, but his momentary success paled after the show was over and the truth of his parents’ death really hit home deep in his stomach.

His friends carried him back to his apartment and said not to worry about his work; they would take care of it. The next morning, Dorian was on a 747 headed home. Walking into his parents’ house was unsettling for him. Silence hung in the air, and he called out for his mom by instinct alone even before he knew what he was doing; the only answer was his own voice slightly echoing off the walls. He collapsed into his dad’s favorite chair in the den and let the blackness take him.

He awoke the next morning and went through the house looking at pictures as the pain swelled in him. He let the tears flow unhindered, not bothering to wipe them away. Dorian was an only child; he didn’t have any siblings to lean on or talk to about his grief, and this scared him to no end. Throughout the day, many people came to visit him and give their condolences. His parents were well-known in the small town and were well-off in the money sector.

He found himself in his mother’s art room at dusk, looking at some of his earlier artwork that he had given her while he was in high school. Tears came again, and he didn’t fight them.

He got himself dressed the next morning and headed to the funeral home. His parents had funeral insurance, so there was no worry there. Still, the ordeal beat him up pretty badly, and he wore his sadness and grief openly on his face. When he returned to the empty house, weariness rode him like a wave, and he decided to go lie down.

The blackness was better; no worry or pain was in the blackness. He welcomed it, and it took him greedily. The funeral itself was nerve-racking for Dorian. Many tears were shed, and many faces ran through his vision as the service and burial came to a close. Feeling the pangs of loss, he stayed at the cemetery for three hours after the service, not wanting to go home to that empty house, which now belonged to him lock, stock, and barrel.

The house was paid for, but it was devoid of life, and the thought of staying in that empty house sent chills through his body. The house was a two-story contemporary, well-built and worth a lot of money. It faced the west on Carpey Lake and had the traditional pier, two-car garage, and a wrap-around porch.

The ten acres which accompanied the house were worth more than a pretty penny, too. His father’s stock options were in full swing and promised a wealthy return in twenty years. All this seemed not to matter to Dorian though; he would have scattered it all to the four winds to have his parents back and alive.

The days passed, and instead of things getting better they got worse. Dorian seldom went outside, and the house was a complete mess. Stale air hung in the home, creating a feeling of gloom that seemed to ooze from its cracks and crevices. Dorian’s state of mind was down in the muck of gloom, or the gutter as some would say.

It was six months later when Dorian found himself with a loaded .45 Colt pistol in his lap, the shades drawn and dusk approaching. He was going to put an end to the ‘big show’ as he liked to call it. In his mind he knew better, but the pain was too great, the loss gut-wrenching, and the loneliness heartbreaking.

The gun was raised to his temple and his finger was on the trigger, ready to pull. Squinting,, he hoped he wouldn’t feel anything as the bullet exited the barrel, entered his skull, and made a nice little piece of artwork with his brains and skull on the back wall.

He took a deep breath and was about to squeeze off the shot when the phone rang. He nearly shot himself by accident at the sudden noise. The phone continued to ring, and he slowly let the pistol fall from his head, looking at the phone with anger. Setting the gun aside, he got out of the chair and went and answered the phone.

To his surprise, it was Doug Kent from college, his best friend. Expecting him to still be up north, Dorian was elated when Doug told him that he was about an hour away and needed directions to his house. Dorian’s somber mood was lifted slightly at this news. The call had been a life-saver for Dorian, and Doug’s two-week-long stay was nothing short of a miracle. The grief was still there, but it was in check, and his spirits were lifted.

The months turned into years; they weren’t always easy, but Dorian delved into his work and produced some of his best stuff in his young, twenty-two years. He had talent, and the world knew it. He prospered with his art – mostly in the advertising sector doing freelance for some of the biggest ad agencies in America. He thought of moving several times, but couldn’t let the house go. It was home, and he decided to stay put. The house was paid for, and the cost of living in a small town in the south was pennies compared to what he would pay living in a big city.

Dorian was no dummy; he got his business sense from his father. After he thought about his options on whether to sell the house or stay put, he wanted to try his hand at his own art. He realized he was in the perfect place to do just that.

The lake and its occupants suffered from a two-fold disease and they fed upon each other like cancer. This disease was called greed and envy and it ran as rampant around the lake as kudzu does on a southern hill. Dorian fed this cancer with his first original oil painting entitled ‘Carpey Sunset’. He had sold it to Mr. Scott Farmington, the doctor who lived next door – “next door” being over a quarter-mile down on the left.

The painting was a beauty, and Scott loved it. Scott loved it so much he had a little party to ‘show’ this painting off. The party was a hit, and he boasted loudly over Scotch-infused breath that it was the only one available, and he alone had it. The declaration wasn’t uppity – it was subtle and sublime – but it hit home just as Dorian had hoped. During the course of the following two weeks, Dorian received calls from everyone who owned a house on the lake. They just ‘had’ to have one, they all insisted. “No, no hurry but don’t make me wait forever,” was the usual final response to Dorian as he hung up the phone.

His plan had worked, and to Dorian’s surprise he had his own little nest egg now which topped over one hundred thousand dollars. The years rolled by, and Dorian became widely known in southern art circles. His style was his own, and it seemed everyone wanted a Dorian hanging in their office or their home.

He finally said goodbye to the advertising world and headed full steam into the life of the fine artist. Dorian had just finished his latest painting and had walked out onto the docks as the sun set over the trees. It had been ten years since he had come home to grief; while the first three were horrid, the last seven had seemed a blessing. Having finished the painting and watched the sun set, he decided to treat himself to a small drink at The Cove.

The Cove was the bar/restaurant on the lake – well, not really on the lake, but close enough to throw a rock into the water. It was the local hangout for many, even those not from the Lake. It was a nice little place where one could go and relax, and Dorian needed just that after working on the painting at a maddening pace. He quickly washed up, changed clothes, and was out the door walking down to The Cove for his little reward. He whistled along with the crickets, joining in their song as he walked on in the moonlit skies of September.

Dorian sat at his usual booth in the Cove. He knew all the wait staff and the owner. Lisa, his favorite waitress, greeted him warmly as he sat down and took off his jacket. The bar was half-full, and the aroma of old smoke, alcohol, and cooked food wafted in the air and permeated his senses. It was a welcome smell to Dorian, and he ordered his usual, Crown and Seven, which stood for Crown Royal and 7-Up. He rarely drank; it was only on special occasions that he would imbibe the spirits.

This night was one of those nights. Dorian had finished his latest painting in record time. Lisa returned with his drink, took his money, and was about to leave when Dorian spoke up, “Hey Lisa, got a second?” He then sipped his drink, watching her. After a few seconds, he thought she didn’t hear him and was about to speak up again when she answered him.

“Sure, Dorian. Whatcha need?” she asked.

“I was talking with Wayne the last time I was in here about those photographs hanging above the bar. I wanted to purchase them for my house; they are quite good. I understand they are yours.” He paused and noticed Lisa put her head down. “Funny thing, though.” He chuckled a little while sipping a bit from his drink. “He wouldn’t sell them to me. Heck, he was pretty adamant about it, too.”

She looked puzzled and slumped her shoulders.

Dorian asked, “Is there a way I can at least get a print of them?”

For a moment, she sat there, silent. Dorian could tell she was taken aback by her new-found fan. “Wow. Thank you, Dorian. I can’t believe that Wayne won’t sell them to you. I will just have to have a talk with him about that. I do try; anything to put some extra money for college and all in the cookie jar. Let me talk with the grumbly bear and see what I can do. You really want the originals?”

Dorian nodded. “Sure do. I will even pay top price for ‘em. Just tell me the amount. They are quite good, Lisa. You should be proud.” Lisa blushed at this and Dorian added, “Just let me know, ok? If Wayne won’t part with them, prints will be fine.”

“Let me talk with him, and I will get back to you. Thanks again, Dorian. It means a lot. Really, it does. More than you know.”

“Just calling ‘em as I see ‘em,” he replied, with a serious tone in his southern drawl. Lisa turned and walked back to the bar, calling for Wayne before she was halfway there.

Dorian liked Lisa. She was a hard worker, and Dorian admired that. Nothing was wrong with hard work – especially if it was working towards a goal. He knew college was expensive. His father shelled out over one hundred grand for school and half for his apartment. Dorian had to work to pay for the other half at his father’s request. He didn’t mind. It gave him a sense of accomplishment and worth.

He knew Lisa was going to the community college in Summit to become a nurse, but he thought she could do just fine as a photographer if she set her mind to it.

The bar began to fill up when the door opened and a tall, thin man with a black trench coat and black hat stepped through the door. Dorian was immediately taken back by the man. This wasn’t the usual customer the Cove acquired. Dorian sipped his drink while watching the stranger step fully inside, cross the bar, and settle in a booth not far from him.

Intrigued, Dorian watched as the man methodically took off his hat and neatly folded his trench coat and laid it in the seat beside him. The man had exceedingly sharp features. Dorian immediately thought of a raven, and the man’s jet-black hair only added to that allusion. He could tell the man was old, but his true age was elusive. The man’s black hair was only interrupted as if someone took the lightest of brush strokes to the sides of his hair with light silvery paint. The stranger’s eyes were intent. Dorian thought he could burn holes in wood if he wanted.

Lisa then brushed by Dorian and made her way to where the man was sitting three booths away. After a few quick interchanges of speech, Lisa was laughing. A charmer to boot, thought Dorian. The man’s smile was wide and genuine and he gave a little salute as Lisa left to get his purchase. Dorian couldn’t take his eyes off the stranger. What sort of man was this? Why was he here in the backwoods of Mississippi? What did he want?

Lisa returned quickly with a simple glass of water for the man. He noticed Lisa bend close to the man as if he whispered something to her. Dorian was surprised when he saw Lisa respond by looking at him and pointing. The man nodded and produced a bill, gave it to her, and took a drink of his water. She quickly left and came, smiling, to Dorian. He was about to speak when Lisa put a single finger to her mouth as if to hush him as she rushed past. Dorian looked back at the stranger who cordially nodded at him. Dorian nodded in return, truly perplexed. He then finished his drink and wondered if he should order another and see how this played out. Lisa returned with the familiar drink of Crown and Seven. She was smiling, and Dorian looked blankly at her.

“It’s from the man in black over there, Dorian.” She set the drink on the table and retrieved his finished one. “I told him you usually only had one when you come in, but he said it didn’t matter. ‘Just bring him the drink; if he drinks it so be it, if he doesn’t, no harm done.’” she finished.

“Well, what is his name?” Dorian asked.

“Aaron Klee, he said. He has a foreign accent and is quite the charmer. He noticed my earrings which I just bought yesterday and the highlights in my hair, which were also done just yesterday.”

Dorian felt foolish for missing something so simple and obvious about Lisa. He was about to say something complimentary when she cut him short.

“It’s ok, Dorian. I’m sure you would have noticed the hair eventually. He also said he would like to speak to you if, let me see how he put it, ah yes, ‘if you are so inclined.’ A real Mr. Big Shot aren’t we tonight, Dorian?” Lisa said joking, though she definitely had a touch of curiosity embedded in her reply.

Dorian sat back in his seat in thought. He looked at Lisa completely blank. “I honestly have no idea what this man would want with me. I’ve never even heard of him. I know no one overseas and I wouldn’t dare believe he is some lost relative. This has me puzzled to no end, Lisa.”

“Now you be polite and go see what he wants, Dorian. Don’t burst the bubble of our southern hospitality now,” she said jokingly.

“Yeah,” he said and chuckled.

“Well, I have done my job. The place is filling up and I am by myself until nine tonight. I’ll keep an eye on you though, if you need anything else. Good luck with the stranger.” She then smiled and was gone in the blink of an eye.

Dorian sat for a minute, thoughts racing through his mind. He wasn’t prepared to entertain tonight. After the hectic pace he had worked these past two weeks, he just wanted to relax and have a drink. He looked back at the stranger and noticed him looking outside over the lake.

Dorian took another drink from his second Crown and Seven, built his nerve, and slowly slid out of his seat, hoping this meeting wasn’t going to turn south. He slowly made his way over to the stranger who was still looking outside at the lake. Dorian cleared his throat so he wouldn’t startle the man. At this, the man turned to face him. Dorian spoke first, “Thank you for the drink. Only I don’t know why I deserve it.”

The man straightened in his seat and extended his hand to Dorian. “Mr. Aaron Klee; it’s a pleasure to meet you, Dorian,” the man said with a firm voice and shook Dorian’s extended hand.

“Likewise,” Dorian replied and carefully examined the man’s face. He had kept his age exceedingly well. Dorian guessed he was in his late sixties or early seventies, and by his accent he thought he came from Germany or somewhere near it. “Do I know you, Mr. Klee? Are you some lost relative? I can’t figure out why you’d be here, looking for me.”

Aaron chuckled and produced a pipe from inside his jacket pocket. “Do you mind, Dorian?” he asked while holding up the pipe. Dorian shook his head ‘no’ and the old man proceeded with ease, filling his pipe, stamping it, and then lighting it with a long match. As the tobacco caught fire, the aroma that lifted from its bowl was sweet and arid, almost hypnotic and lingering in the air. After taking a long draw on the pipe the old man laughed, then continued.

“No, I am no long lost relative, and I would imagine you have no knowledge of me or where I am from. But I’m sure that you would indeed like to know from where I come from and what I am doing here talking to you.” He leaned back and took another draw from his pipe. “Have a seat and join me if you will. This tale might get a little long, and I would hate to have you standing for the whole of it.”

Dorian slid into the seat, ready to hear what the old man had to say. The man took another two long draws from his pipe. The aroma now surrounded Dorian, and he felt strangely at ease as the burnt tobacco sent trails of thin smoke into the Cove’s air.

Aaron cleared his throat and began his tale. “As you might have guessed, I come from across the sea, from a small unknown town in the western sector of Germany named Lexumgraft. I am part of a…select order, one might say.” He leaned closer to Dorian. “We keep things secret, things that would destroy this world in an instant or send it into utter chaos and damnation. These things I will not talk about here.

“Our town is virtually unknown to the outside world, and we like to keep it that way. We bother no one, and we don’t take kindly to strangers who happen upon us uninvited. Our order has saved humanity numerous times in the past and will continue to do so until the Maker finally decides to bring a close to this cosmic game.

“Lexumgraft is small compared to most cities in this day and age, and there are a total of two thousand who reside there – both on the surface and below. It is cared for by our lineage, and the line goes back even before the Son walked the earth. The Bible, as I hope you know it and are acquainted with it, to some degree doesn’t tell of everything in and on the earth. Many things are left out, most we deem for the good of man, their welfare, and their sanity.

“There are things, Dorian, other things that would send you screaming into the night like an infant who cries for his mother when frightened. I am part of that lineage, and I am what we call simply a ‘Seeker’.”

Aaron stopped and inhaled again on his pipe, then drained his glass of water. Gently, he set it down on the table and looked at Dorian. The old man realized Dorian was giving him his undivided attention, and he was staring intently at him to continue the story. “I get ahead of myself though, Dorian. There will be time enough to tell you of the other things I have yet to speak of. I shall now tell you how I have come to sit in front of you this night and how I came into knowledge of your work.

“We have many friends around the world – even across the Atlantic in the United States. Some of our friends are always on the lookout for talented individuals. I, myself, am one of those individuals, but knowledge of your work’s potential came from an old friend and art dealer in Atlanta, Georgia.”

Dorian’s brow wrinkled as he tried to think of a man who fit this bill.

“Oh, Dorian,” Aaron said. “You won’t know him. The piece was brought to him one sunny afternoon over a year ago. Don’t let it worry you. So, after a year’s worth of admiring and looking at your work, I came to the decision to ask for your services.”

There it was, Dorian thought. A job, but from across the sea, and he would by lying to himself if he wasn’t thrilled to find out that he had admirers that far away on the other side of the world.

Aaron continued. “I would like to commission two pieces from you, Dorian: the first painting being a panoramic view of our little town as seen through your eyes. The second will depend on your craftsmanship of the first.” Aaron hesitated a second, glanced around, and then looked back to Dorian. “I must be honest about this commission. There is a time limit on its completion – well…the second one also, if I am to be totally honest with you.

“Before you make up your mind I will give you time to think about it. All expenses will be paid in full, and I will accompany you on this journey. I am sad to say that you will not be permitted entry to our town, only allowed to traverse its outskirts and view its buildings from the outer gate.” Aaron cleared his throat. “How much time would you need, Dorian, to make a decision to take on this commission?”

Dorian sat blankly in the seat and said nothing for a few minutes. Finally, as if some spell was broken, he reached for his glass and took the last drink from its depths. The ice in the bottom chinked in its confines and brought Dorian back to his senses. He felt light and giddy at the same time.

The rich aromatic tobacco and the story – along with the Crown and Seven – numbed him and dulled his senses. Finally he realized Aaron was waiting on an answer from him. He sat up in the booth and slowly traced the rim of his glass, not really knowing how to continue with the conversation but doing so anyway.

“I would need…” Numerous thoughts raced through his mind while trying to talk to the old man. The most important being his schedule. He remembered that he had a small commission for someone up north, but it wasn’t due for another three months. The big question would be how long it would take him to make up his mind about this job. He had wanted to travel. In fact, part of his nest egg was portioned for just that. Dorian also knew that the man had come a long way, and he wanted to be polite and not keep him waiting too long when he was so far from home. “…at least a couple of days, Mr. Klee. I hope that is not too much to ask,” he said sincerely.

The old man smiled and straightened his vest and coat. “Not in the least, Dorian. I was expecting a few days more, but you make your own timetable on this matter. Only remember: this is time-sensitive.”

Dorian sat back in his seat. What sort of painting would be time-sensitive? He looked at his watch and realized it was late.

“Do you have a place to stay, Mr. Klee?”

Aaron had finished his pipe and set it on a handkerchief on the table, looking out into the night and then returning his stare to Dorian. “Yes, I have made the proper arrangements – a little town a few miles north of here named Brookhaven.”

“I know it and would have had you stay a little closer if I had known,” Dorian said and tilted his glass so that a piece of ice barreled into his mouth.

The man looked at Dorian puzzled. “You don’t like my choice of towns?”

Dorian laughed. “No, you stay where you like, Mr. Klee. They’re just a tad bit different up there is all. Something in the water, I guess.”

The old man joined Dorian in laughter.

“Well, if you will excuse me now, Dorian, I must take my leave and have a rest. The journey is long and I am not the youngster I used to be. These old bones need their rest.” Aaron smiled, produced a small card from his inside his coat pocket, and handed it over to Dorian. “Here is my number. Call when you have your decision made.”

The card was simple, white in color with only his name and a cell phone number on the front. Dorian flipped it end over end repeatedly. “I will, Mr. Klee.” He slid the card into his back pocket. “I must thank you for thinking of me for this commission work. I would by lying to you if I said your interest, especially from so far away, has not made the least bit of difference to me. It is quite the opposite. I may not show it, but I am very excited by this recent turn of events. I will be in touch in a couple of days – maybe sooner.”

The man smiled, stood up, retrieved his trench coat from the seat, and put it on. He then placed a gentle but firm hand on Dorian’s shoulder. “I will only hope it is a call telling me that you have agreed to do it!” Aaron said. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Dorian. I look forward to your call.” He extended his hand once more to Dorian, who was now standing and took Mr. Klee’s hand in a firm embrace.

“The pleasure was all mine, Mr. Klee.”

The man turned and walked to the front of the bar, waved goodbye to Lisa, and was then gone, out into the night.

The door hadn’t even shut completely when Lisa all but ran from the bar over to where Dorian was standing.

“What did he want, Dorian?” she asked with impatience showing on her face like a shoreline beacon.

Dorian saw that the curiosity was about to eat her alive. He truly liked Lisa and wondered why he had never asked her out on a date. He looked at her again as she balanced from foot to foot waiting for an answer.

“Did you have a talk with the bear yet?” he asked, pretending not to hear her first question.

“You tell me right now, Dorian, before the curiosity kills me!”

Dorian laughed and Lisa joined him.

“Oh, nothing too much, he wants some paintings done.” He tried to play it casual, but fluffed it and laughed even harder. Lisa gave him a light punch in the arm as to acknowledge his failure. “It seems I am going to Germany, all expenses paid.”

“Wow,” was her only reply.

He wondered if he should try his luck. The night had been a delightful surprise so he decided to draw the card and see what fell from the deck. “When I get back, Lisa, would you like to have dinner with me, or a movie, or something else?” His feet fidgeted on top of each other, and he hoped for the Ace of Hearts.

Lisa gently laid the waitress plate down on the table and looked at him. “Dorian, I thought you’d never ask.”

As Dorian sat at his easel in his studio, he thought over the past two months. He remembered calling Mr. Klee – now just Aaron to him – and hearing the delight in the old man’s voice when he told him he would indeed take on the commissions.

His thoughts drifted then to the trip to Germany. The beauty of the place was beyond his imagination. His eyes took in enough scenery for a lifetime of paintings, and the three three-gig memory cards he filled up with his camera would act as security so that he would never lose those future paintings. Lexumgraft was indeed old and small as Aaron had said. Dorian saw no one while walking around the town snapping pictures. He could see how this town could go unnoticed for so long. It was set in a wide open expanse of land, with mountains making a horseshoe around the town like a natural protector.

Every one of the buildings was made of old stone, and the craftsmanship of the stones would make any stonemason green with envy. Aaron was never short of stories while on his trip. Some were just parts of his life, but some were truly eye-opening to Dorian. Aaron had promised more still – but not until the first painting was completed. Dorian was sad when the trip came to an end, and was reluctant to go.

Aaron accompanied him back to the States, but time wouldn’t allow him to come all the way to his home. They said their farewells, and Dorian found that, as time went by, he missed the old man and his stories. Aaron was like the grandfather he never had; both of his grandfathers had died before he was eight years old.

Lisa had called him once a week while he was away. He was surprised to find her waiting on him when he pulled into the driveway. She greeted him with a hug, and the feel of her next to him was soothing and exciting. Lisa left after an hour. She knew he was tired and the following night they had their first date.

They went to Hammond to a movie and had a nice dinner at one of the seafood places in Manshac. That evening was a delight to Dorian. Over the last two months, the two had become quite an item, and he lightly pushed her into taking more pictures while giving her little tips to help her along. He knew he was falling in love with Lisa, and he knew she returned those feelings. They didn’t push each other to their own wants and needs. They took their time. He had two paintings to complete, and she wanted to finish college.

He found that while he was alone, he missed her company and their conversations. Soon he knew they would make it serious, and the thought didn’t scare him. He welcomed it and thought about the possibilities many times while alone in the house, painting or doing household chores.

These thoughts filled his mind as he put brush strokes to canvas in the cold December night. The first painting had almost painted itself. It came together very quickly, and he figured this was the best piece he had ever done. He knew it was almost complete; it would be finished with another two days of work.

He phoned Aaron that night and told him about the painting’s finishing date. Aaron was genuinely excited to see it. He asked about Lisa and how she was doing. He seemed pleased to know that the two of them were an item, and then said he would be on a plane the following morning and should arrive at Dorian’s home the day the painting was done.

On the second day, Dorian put the final stroke on the painting as he had planned. He woke up early that morning to finish it, and at three o’clock that afternoon his doorbell rang. Dorian opened the door and saw Aaron. He smiled and let his new friend inside. Aaron didn’t waste any time in wanting to see the painting. So Dorian led him straight to it. The painting was turned away from the door, and there he made Aaron wait.

Dorian moved the canvas and slowly turned it around on its easel. He then pulled the sheet that was covering it off with a flourish. The old man, still fully clothed in the same black outfit he had worn when he first met Dorian, turned and stared. His eyes opened at the richness and beauty that Dorian had captured, but he said nothing. Dorian at first thought that Aaron didn’t like the painting, but those fears were swept aside when the old man exclaimed, “MARVELOUS…SIMPLY MARVELOUS!”

Dorian tried to speak and tell Aaron things about the painting, but he would have nothing of it. He simply raised his hand to hush him and said not a word. Aaron simply stared at the painting for over two hours. The silence in the house was eerie. Dorian couldn’t even hear his own breathing. He let the time ease by and finally, after the first hour, Dorian excused himself from the room to let the old man be alone with the painting.

Sometimes it’s like that when you see something that hits that familiar cord within, and this painting did just that for Aaron Klee. It captivated him and held him in its own unique spell. After the two hours had passed, Aaron found Dorian in the den of the house eating a late lunch.

“Dorian, you have outdone yourself with this painting. I could not ask for any better from anyone,” he said sincerely.

After a bite of his sandwich, Dorian happily said, “I am so glad you like it, Aaron. I was worried there for a moment that you didn’t.”

“Nonsense, my young man. What about it is not to love?” Aaron took off his trench coat and jacket. As he laid them on the couch, his attitude changed. Dorian noticed it and looked puzzled. The man sat down and stared directly into Dorian’s eyes. Those eyes bore into Dorian’s own, and Dorian felt instantly uncomfortable. With a somber but serious tone Aaron started, “We must have a talk, Dorian. A VERY serious talk. You will hear things I hope you will not repeat to anyone, not even Lisa. I will say your first commission is beyond measure, the second one will be far more important – not just for me but the whole world, even your very soul. I will begin shortly. I want you to clear your head before I do. Think of nothing while I speak to you and ask no questions while I talk. Let me know when your mind is clear so I can begin,” he finished and slowly sat down.

Dorian trusted the old man and slowly set his plate and glass on the coffee table in front of him. He eased back in the chair and began to slowly relax. Thoughts started to swirl within his mind, and he tried to block them out. It wasn’t easy; Aaron’s warning had created a serious, somber tone in the room, and Dorian was worried. Gradually, his mind began to clear, and he finally relaxed and gave his full attention to Aaron. He nodded to his new friend to begin.

“Very well,” Aaron said and stood and went to the big, paned window that looked out onto the lake. He stood with his hands behind his back for a minute, then took in a deep breath, turned to Dorian, and began. “This is never easy for me, Dorian. I have given the same speech ten times to other such individuals during my lifetime, and it gets no easier each time I do it.

“As you know, I am a Seeker in our town and in plain truth I seek things, like I have sought you out. I also seek other things, things which endanger the world and the people who inhabit it. The time is drawing nigh when this area, your serene lake in particular, will become a beacon to something not of this world.” He paused and looked at Dorian. “I can see the look in your eyes. The look I have seen numerous times before. It is real, Dorian, and I have never been more serious. You and the entire world will be in peril in a month’s time. I told you the night we met that there are things we keep secret from the world, and this is one of them.

“Trust me, the signs are clear. The lines draw and intersect on this lake, along with the date. It is time, and no force on earth can stop it by conventional means. If this thing can get through to our world, it will be utter chaos. Bloodshed would follow, along with the breakdown of many governments and religions. Remember that the Bible doesn’t tell us everything in the world – only how to live, accept, and spread the word of God. It is not a history book, nor a guide book on these matters. It is a book of faith that some get and some do not. It is so simple in purpose that most cannot comprehend it to its fullest. Our society has studied these puzzles which concern us now, and we have mastered them to the best of our abilities. I will say we have had intervention from the Maker at times when it has seemed the darkest and nothing but the tiniest thread of hope remained.

“Thus, we judge our work approved by the Maker of all. We are not a religious society, but don’t think that we don’t serve Him. We do, but we also believe that these matters are best kept from the whole of the world. Yes, it is a great burden, but we hold it with great esteem and honor. Now, back to the subject at hand and to bring matters to a close.

“Where this thing comes from we have some clues, and I won’t fill your head with names, dates, or other facts. The less you know the better, and I would like to keep it that way.” Aaron took a drink from the water bottle that Dorian had handed him and cleared his throat. “Where your part comes into play in this event is the painting itself. Your painting will help close the portal that this being needs to enter our world. It will not be easy. I will not lie to you Dorian: you may even die from this. Once you begin this painting, you MUST finish it or all will be for naught. There are other precautions set in place, but they will only be used in the direst of needs.

“I know the question you would most likely ask, and I will answer it for you. I imagine that question is, ‘Why doesn’t part of our society come here and take care of the problem ourselves?’ Well, it’s a simple enough answer. Let me paint you a little picture this time. Imagine our society here. Complete strangers prodding around the lake, chanting strange things, making rude gestures in the air, and drawing crude lines in the earth. It would last about a day before the whole town was out here – not to mention the local police. So I chose you, Dorian. I sought you out; it is a heavy burden to put on such an individual, and I do apologize for it.

“It is quite queer how things work out and seem to fall in place at just the right time. I speak of meeting you, your enthusiasm with the trip and paintings, and how I would guess that this first painting seemed to paint itself. Then there’s the quick friendship we have acquired, and the enjoyment of each other’s company. They have all been pre-made in the wheel of time. Yes, all of it, even this. You have to decide to do this though, Dorian. I must say again, if you start this you must finish it or it will be your death – that is a certain fact.” Aaron relaxed a little and breathed a heavy sigh. “You don’t have to say anything. I would prefer you not to. It is a heavy load to bear. It must be carefully considered, and a decision must be made. I would suggest a walk now for you, Dorian.

“I expect an answer on your return or soon after. I will leave you now and go back to the studio to admire your work.” He got up, left his jacket and trench on the arm of the couch, and disappeared down the hall.

It’s not every day the weight of the world is dropped into your lap, but on this day Dorian felt the ball fall and land fully square in his gut and nearly make him faint.

It was hard to breathe, and he wobbled on his feet to the sliding door and made his way outside on shaky legs into the night. He balanced himself on the deck railings. The contents of his stomach were in his throat. He wanted to throw up but couldn’t. The light on the pier down below swam in his vision, but after stern determination he steadied himself and began to walk.

He decided that a walk would clear his senses and give him the clarity he needed to make this heavy decision. The sky was black, the moon was hidden, and only stars made an appearance in the heavens. He started slowly at first but soon caught his rhythm about halfway out on his property.

It was December and the night was cold. Few birds or crickets sounded as he walked on. Thoughts raced through his mind like turbocharged roadsters. He continued walking. Dorian knew he had to do this. He didn’t want to. In fact he was scared shitless, and a chill ran up his arm and made his entire body turn to gooseflesh.

As he continued, he noticed the woods became silent and still. The fallen leaves below his feet sounded like stale potato chips being crushed, and they echoed in the night as if amplified through a loudspeaker. His pace had quickened and he didn’t even realize it. Dorian was almost to the point of jogging when he slowed and finally stood still. He had never been afraid of these woods before in his life, but now it was as if the very trees were alive and watching him.

His heart raced at this thought, and he began to sweat. It seemed everything was watching him as he stood motionless in the night. Aaron’s talk echoed in his mind, and made him shudder. The silence was nerve-rattling, but Dorian could not move. Things…Aaron said there were things in this world that could not be explained. Could one of those things be watching him now? A rustle in the leaves behind him made him jump. He stood still, holding his breath. A thing was watching him. What it was he couldn’t dream of, but he was suddenly afraid, and he suddenly wanted to be in his house, safe.

The noise sounded again. He wanted to turn around, but his body would not obey his commands. He was frozen in place. He felt his heart race in his chest, and his breath came in short, quick bursts.

Finally he was about to take a step when the noise sounded again – this time louder and closer. The step would not come. Maybe if he kept still the thing would go away. Fear rose in his gut. He realized he was trembling with fright. A loud heavy noise, similar to a thud, sounded behind him not twenty feet away. He jerked but remained planted to the spot while sweat rolled down his temples. He waited, but nothing happened. No movement, no noise, nothing.

From far off – as if below the earth – he could hear and feel a faint rumbling. He slowed his breath so he could concentrate. Am I really hearing this? he wondered. He tilted his head and bent his entire will to listening to this new sound. It was there – low, but constant, a dull dry sound. As he waited, motionless on the path, the sound grew in volume and intensity. It was also closer. Dorian could now tell that the sound was of footfalls, and they were getting louder and closer. The ground shook with each thud.

Something was coming for him – something that would devour him at the very spot where he stood. An ear-shattering screech sounded behind him, up high. It was a sound that no bird on this earth could have made. It screeched again, and panic finally got his feet moving; Dorian could stand it no more. He ran full speed back to his house. As he crunched them, the leaves below his feet sounded like fire crackers. The five steps that lead from the earth to the porch were easily missed as Dorian bounded over them, not touching a one, and raced inside.

He was only halfway inside the door when he began screaming Aaron’s name at the top of his lungs. Aaron came into the room quicker than Dorian would have thought possible. He made his way over to Dorian who was doubled over, out of breath. Aaron gently placed a hand on the young artist’s shoulder.

Dorian wept openly, and even though a gentle squeeze on his shoulder from Aaron was all there was to comfort him, it was enough. When the tears ceased, Dorian looked up at Aaron who still stood by his side, and he mouthed four small words.

“I will do it.”

Aaron patted his shoulder and gently said, “You have made the right choice. If it eases your mind, I will be right by your side during the painting. There are things I myself must do when you finish certain stages of it. I will give you a day before the painting must start, Dorian.

“I suggest you go out with Lisa, have a nice dinner. I will even treat you to it. You must not mention a word of our talks to her, though. It would bode ill for her if she became involved; even if just a slight mention of the things we have talked about enter her mind, the forces that hide in the shadows and remain unseen to the naked eye would come upon her with a vengeance. They would not kill her, but they would slowly drive her completely insane.

“Tell her whatever you will to get her to stay away. A month’s time is what we will need, and she cannot come anywhere near this house during that time, nor can she call. I trust a month apart from her won’t be a problem for the two of you?” he asked.

“No, fortunately she has a huge final in about two weeks followed by a term paper in the last part of the month,” Dorian said, a little relieved.

“Good. It is only for her safety, Dorian, no more, no less. Now, I must go out to my car and retrieve something. There was one other thing I forgot to mention,” he said.

Dorian looked at him like a sad dog that was about to be lashed again for a second beating. Aaron laughed a hearty laugh. “No, no my dear friend, there will be no more bad news or revelations tonight. I was only going to ask if I might stay here this evening.” He played with his hands and looked down at them then back to Dorian. “I didn’t have time to make the reservations before I left,” he added, embarrassed.

Dorian smiled at this and felt relief in an instant. “Aaron, you sure you’re not just getting old and forgetting things?” He had tried to keep a straight face and to keep the question serious. He lasted for ten seconds until they both looked at each other and began laughing uncontrollably.

Aaron was out at his car while Dorian sat in his studio waiting. The day before had been like a dream to Dorian. His day with Lisa was nothing less than perfect. He made up an excuse for why she couldn’t contact him for over a month. It worked better than he had hoped it would, and they soon found that they didn’t want to talk about the future – only live in the moment while they were together.

Dorian remembered kissing her goodbye; it was soft, passionate, and heartfelt. He had told her he loved her and she replied in turn. His thoughts vanished as Aaron closed the back door. He could hear his footsteps as he made his way to the studio where Dorian now sat patiently.

Aaron appeared in the door with an anvil briefcase in hand, silver in color, with a tiny padlock on the front. At the sight of it, Dorian gave a puzzled expression. The old man walked over to the table and sat the case on top of it. Aaron began opening the lock, and Dorian was amazed at its workings. He had never seen a lock like it. The lock clicked open and by this time Dorian was standing by Aaron’s side. As the lid lifted, what was inside made Dorian look questioningly at Aaron.

“You are looking at history, Dorian,” Aaron said.

Inside the case was what appeared to be a book. It was nestled in the deep recesses of the soft anvil case’s cushioning. The odd thing was that this book was triangular in shape. Aaron’s long, spindly fingers gently lifted the book from its confines. Dorian could tell it was old, though he couldn’t guess its exact age. It was over a foot in length, and its sides were all of the same measurement.

The book was bound in old leather, and the musty pages instantly filled the air with their smell. Aaron placed the book on the table with one of the triangle’s points pointing towards Aaron. He slowly lifted the cover, and Dorian was taken aback by the intricate drawings on the first page. Aaron mumbled some strange words and flipped a page.

Dorian looked on intently as Aaron flipped pages in the thick, heavy tome. The words, if words they were, started at the top and ran from right to left around the book’s sides. In a soft tone, Aaron whispered something unintelligible to Dorian.

As Dorian stood and stared at the book, he was amazed to find that the words began to reveal their meaning to him. It was one at first, then another, each seeming to jump off the page at Dorian and into his brain. The old man sat still and issued words that now Dorian understood. What he heard he did not like, and his mind raced at their meanings.

Aaron stopped and turned to Dorian. “Can you see the letters clearly now, Dorian?” Dorian nodded, and Aaron continued, “Excellent; you must now read the next two pages for the event to start.”

Aaron got up, and Dorian took his place in front of the book. His fingers eased to the pages of the book, and Dorian felt the age-old parchment. He began reading silently at first and then out loud, as if guided by some force. He was halfway done with the first page when he noticed the light outside had dimmed. He ignored it and continued reading.

He faintly heard Aaron say other words while he read. His head swam as his eyes pored over the page, but he continued on. Dorian’s stomach churned, and he felt light-headed as he read aloud. Some words were easy for him while some, once spoken aloud, made his vision blur and then come back into focus a split-second later. He could feel the power of the book surge beneath his fingers and grow as he continued reading.

All of this was REAL and sharp fear almost gripped him. Aaron’s soft touch on his shoulder steadied him and calmed his fear. He finished the first page and was about to flip to the next when a sudden tremor ran through the house. He looked to Aaron, frightened. Aaron spoke aloud, this time with a voice so commanding that Dorian flinched at its timbre.

The old man nodded, and Dorian flipped the page. He continued reading aloud while Aaron continued softly muttering words that protected Dorian from unseen forces that would engulf him and take him to his death. Dorian finished reading aloud and nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Aaron quickly moved beside him, shut the book, and put it back within the confines of the anvil case. Aaron then handed a glass of water to Dorian, who drank greedily and emptied it in seconds.

Through weariness Dorian said, “What have we done? What have I just read?”

“We have set things in motion, Dorian. What you just read was a brief history of the thing which you will prevent from coming, and its motivations for invading our world. But more so than that, you called for it and made it aware of you.” Aaron said and slowly sat beside Dorian and looked into his eyes. “You have remained coherent while reading, and that bodes well. Most, after reading a portion of this book, faint and don’t wake till a week later. This supports my belief that I have chosen the right person for this job. I will say I added a few measures of my own to protect you.” He smiled warmly. “Now, relax and let the words work into your mind.”

Relaxing was difficult. As he thought about what he had read, he found that the words seemed to disappear into thin smoke. He was forgetting the contents of the book, and he deduced that this was Aaron’s doing. After some time Dorian finally did relax, and as he sat, new thoughts and shapes entered his mind. He sat motionless for a time, focusing on them.

Two weeks into the painting Dorian felt as if he could not continue. His weariness taxed his abilities. The painting sat in front of him, daunting him. The background of the piece was a drab color that reminded Dorian of rotted olives.

A single design adorned the top left corner and looked burned into the paint and through to the Masonite board beneath. Its shapes and curves were alien in nature and seemed to form no familiar pattern. The bottom right-hand corner held another such design, only this one was bright as the hottest star and it too seemed burned-in like the other. The center of the board held clouds which were black in color with slight tinges of orange and maroon.

At first glance, one would think them storm clouds, but on closer inspection one would feel uneasy at their form and texture. They formed a funnel of sorts in the way they were arranged and executed. Dorian now sat with his paint brush in his hand in a disjointed hypnotic state. He hated this feeling. He was not himself, and he felt as if alien fingers were inside him, pushing his hand this way and that. What he hated the most was the way his vision seemed to ebb like a thick liquid from an overturned bottle.

At times the painting would be in total clarity, and then the ebb would come and the painting seemed to waver and roll as if a wave were coursing through its confines. He painted on, though, as if by command. The whole time Aaron was present – sometimes speaking quietly and sometimes screaming with a great commanding voice that made Dorian’s whole body tremble.

He knew the two of them were playing with forces he did not understand – nor did he want to. There was no quitting however, no matter how badly he wanted to. The urge to paint was maddening, and each morning, tired beyond imagining, he got up and walked straight to the board. The times he did sleep at night were wrought with livid dreams of unknown things chasing him.

His nerves were tight knots, and eating was a bothersome chore. He felt nauseous all the time now, and he had lost a considerable amount of weight over the past two weeks since this hellish nightmare started.

Aaron, on the other hand, remained steadfast throughout the whole ordeal. He kept Dorian’s spirits high and offered calming words to the painter when things seemed at their breaking point, and Dorian painted on.

The third week was worse than the first two. Dorian’s hair was a mess, his eyes bloodshot, and he shook uncontrollably at times now for no apparent reason. When he did speak, it was in disjointed phrases with no clear meaning. Another design was placed in the top right corner of the painting. It had taken him five days to get the proper look to its alien form. This was evident by all the scratch pieces of paper that littered the floor like bird droppings. These scrap drawings, which were strange and blasphemous, were quickly burned by Aaron in the fireplace.

On the last day of the third week, another tremor shook the house. This time it caused parts of the ceiling to loosen and tiny particles of drywall and paint fell, like feathers, to the ground. Dorian only laughed and continued painting. Aaron got worried when Dorian fell onto the floor in a fit of madness, screaming out to no one and aimlessly painting the floor with uncertain strokes. It was well into midnight before Aaron calmed Dorian down somewhat.

He knew Dorian was on the brink of insanity. He was worried for him, and he said many words to try and protect him from the forces that ate at his mind. The worst was yet to come, and Aaron felt the first pangs of doubt about Dorian’s ability to complete the painting.

It was close to sunrise when Aaron retrieved his cell phone to call one of his friends in the society and tell them things were not going well, and that the backup plan would have to be put into motion. He was going over in his mind how he would tell his fellow comrade when Dorian eased in his shaking and mumbling and fell into sleep. Aaron stood watch over him until the madness finally ceased the following night.

When Dorian awoke the next morning, he seemed better and looked almost like his old self. Aaron knew that the last part of the painting would be the hardest but said nothing of this to Dorian. They both sat at the breakfast table with a clear morning beaming outside. They said little to each other and ate in silence.

After the meal was over, it was Aaron who finally spoke. “Dorian, you have done well, but I worry for you, my dear friend. Doubt has set into my mind, and it won’t go away. Can you finish the job?”

Dorian remained motionless and Aaron wondered if he had even heard him speaking. The blank stare Dorian gave Aaron haunted him for the rest of the day. His face was shallow now, gravely somber and full of fear.

“I will finish it. There is no stopping it once started. I wage war with it and it with me. Who will be the victor…I do not know. I must paint now. Yes…I must go paint.”

Against his better judgment, Aaron let Dorian ease into the studio to continue painting. The pace at which Dorian painted during the last week amazed Aaron. It was a race to the finish, and Aaron knew the end was near. The past six days were long but better than the previous weeks. There were no queer fits and no meaningless ramblings from Dorian. He painted like his brush was on fire. The final day arrived and Aaron awoke to the house shaking.

He immediately got up and raced downstairs after not finding Dorian sleeping in his room. Dorian sat at his easel with a blank expression. His paintbrush hung in mid-air, and his eyes were vacant. Numerous sketches littered the floor again, and Aaron hastily picked them up and was about to leave the room when he noticed the painting.

The surface was moving, as if it were breathing on its own.

He began uttering words, and the painting eased its movement. After a moment, a swollen lump rose from its surface and moved over its confines. Aaron thought the board would burst from the movement, but it held. The shape continued moving, as if searching for a way out. Dorian snapped back to reality and began painting again.

A loud roar sounded in the room – so loud that it made Dorian drop his paintbrush. He bent and picked it up, and when he straightened he looked back to the painting and saw numerous shapes moving within it. He screamed, but the shapes moved on, searching for an escape. Aaron was at his back in an instant. He also screamed, but his screams were full of words of protection and wardings for Dorian.

He then yelled at Dorian, “Paint, Dorian! You must continue!” The air was electric, dry in feel and taste. Dorian’s mouth hung agape as a tiny ball appeared in front of the painting. It swirled with a myriad of colors, then shone with a bright blue hue. It hung there spinning and began to grow in size as tendrils of energy leapt from its center.

It grew into the size of a grapefruit. Aaron had seen this only once before in his life, and he immediately ran over to Dorian, pushing him out of the way. The ball-shaped thing began to unfurl one portion at a time, then began to grow again.

Fully opened, it was like looking down into an open umbrella, except the webbing within was sickish in nature and dripped a putrid slime onto the floor. The color of the webbing was a vomitous green. In the center of the opened thing was a tiny hole. It was moving – as if breathing. Dorian began screaming, and from that hole appeared a form, small at first, but it began to grow in size as it worked its way out of its confines.

Aaron quickly drew invisible signs in the air and began chanting loudly. The form stopped at the chanting and hung there in mid-air. Another tremor rocked the house, this time sending Aaron to the floor. The spell was broken, and the form continued birthing its way into the world.

A loud crash sounded from down the hall as part of the second story fell into the first and made a mass of wood, carpet, and wires on the floor. The shape was now over ten feet in length and searched its new surroundings with obvious intelligence. Aaron stood and was about to begin his chant and gestures a second time when the form hit him squarely in the chest and sent him flying into the cabinet across the room. Aaron fell limply to the floor and did not move.

Seeing his friend lying motionless on the floor got Dorian moving. The long shape that was continually growing was covered in a gelatinous slime that dripped freely to the floor. The stench it emitted into the air was putrid and made Dorian want to vomit. Dorian grabbed his paint brush and moved to the painting. The elongated form was aware of Dorian now, and he dodged its first strike at him, managing to get two feet away from the painting.

Dorian attempted to dodge the tendrils and put the final strokes to his painting. Suddenly, the form wrapped itself around Dorian, and he fought with all he had against this hideous alien thing that had birthed its way into his reality.

Fighting madly against the form, Dorian was lifted off the ground. The painting’s surface now rose with the shape of a mouth that seemed born of nightmares. From the back of his mind a word appeared. It rushed from his brain, down into his lungs, and then out on his vocal cords into the morning air. Dorian didn’t know what he was saying, but the alien form clearly didn’t like it and flung Dorian headlong into the wall.

A scream erupted from the painting and shattered all the windows in the room. The ball and its horrific child vanished in an instant while Dorian and Aaron lay still on the floor, covered with broken glass.

It was night when the low rumblings stirred Aaron back to consciousness. He tried to sit upright slowly, but a pain shot through his left side. He figured some ribs were cracked. Each breath brought new waves of pain. Ignoring it the best he could, he managed to get to his feet and eased his way over to Dorian, who was still lying on the floor.

At first Aaron thought he was dead, but the shallow fall and rise of Dorian’s chest told him otherwise. Aaron gently prodded him, and a low grunt sounded from his lips. Aaron carefully propped Dorian into an upright position. Lights swam in Dorian’s eyes. His vision blurred and then doubled as Aaron came into focus kneeling before him. With great will Dorian spoke, “It’s not finished.”

The old man replied, “We must rest now, Dorian. Are you hurt? Anything broken?”

Dorian slowly moved and checked his body. “No, all intact.”

Aaron grunted as he drew in breath. “I think I am not whole, Dorian. My left side hurts, and my breathing is shallow and painful.”

Dorian asked curiously, “Was that part of it, that…thing that appeared?”

“It was, Dorian. It is not complete yet. Can you continue?” Aaron said over labored breath.

With great hesitation Dorian replied, “I think so…we have to try.”

“Yes,” was Aaron’s only reply.

Dorian got to his feet and wavered. His whole body ached and he thought it miraculous he had no broken bones after being flung like a rag doll against the wall by the thing. He searched for his paintbrush and found it in moments.

Dorian looked around the house. It was clearly shaking again. He looked back to the painting and saw the familiar heaving of its surface. The ordeal was starting over again, and Dorian’s mind echoed with the past fight with the form. He could not go through that again. I will completely lose my mind if that form appears from the painting, he thought. Reluctantly, he sat back down on his stool.

Aaron was now standing behind him and had begun the chanting again. Dorian lifted the paintbrush to the board. A violent tremor ran through the house and knocked him to the floor. Aaron fell again on his bad side and screamed with pain.

The thing was coming again.

In unison they both got to their feet, Dorian positioning himself on his stool and Aaron standing hunched over his shoulder with an arm gently laid over his left side. Dorian dipped the paintbrush into the wet paint while Aaron began the familiar sounding chants.

The house shook again, dust fell as before, and Dorian painted on. The hours crept by: Dorian painting, Aaron chanting, the house shaking. The painting was eerie, and the moving shape beneath its surface finally grew still after midnight.

The two of them were in the kitchen drinking and eating lightly. No words were spoken between them. The house was silent. The air was heavy, and the stench from the thing still hung in the air and made it hard to breathe. Dorian’s thoughts went to Lisa and their last date together. He longed for her embrace and wished more than anything to talk to her and hear her soothing, southern voice. All these thoughts vanished when a loud crash sounded from the studio.

They both got up – Aaron with difficulty, and Dorian began to worry about his friend. A racking cough erupted from Aaron and into a blood-soaked napkin that he used to cover his mouth. Dorian was about to ask his friend his condition, but Aaron only hushed him with a firm look.

They nearly ran as they made their way to the studio. Dorian saw it first: a large crack had appeared on the back wall and had made the inset shelves lose their contents on the floor. Dorian sat at his drawing board and began quickly to sketch out a new design.

Over the next hour Aaron’s breathing became worse. Dorian looked at him repeatedly, expecting to find the old man slumped over on the floor, dead. The clock struck three in the morning when the tremors started again. Dorian finished the design, hastily painting it on the board. The shape had returned, and Dorian painted on at an incredible pace.

Deep, heavy coughs erupted from where Aaron was sitting. Blood and spittle flew from his aged mouth. Pain was etched on his face, and he looked to Dorian with sorrowful eyes. His body shook and trembled as another cough flung him into convulsions. Dorian was about to get up and see about his friend when Aaron motioned for him to finish the painting. Moments later, a dull thud sounded behind Dorian.

He didn’t want to turn around as his fears made his mind race with images of seeing Aaron, the old man who had become his friend over the short course of three months. He turned slowly, and his fears were made real. Aaron lay on his back in the middle of the floor. His mouth was wide open, and his eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling. He was dead, Dorian knew it.

Tears began to fall as he looked at his friend. He muttered quietly, “For you, old friend, and for Lisa … and the rest of the world.” Dorian turned, vision blurred by tears, and started painting again. The house rocked, and Dorian thought it would cave in before he finished.

With new resolve, Dorian continued painting. He would get this done if it was the last thing he ever did. Strange deep and guttural voices filled the room. Most were in anguish and pain and they were many. Dorian’s ears bled from their volume and they made his teeth hurt, but he continued on.

A new trembling now shook the house. Dorian felt it in his feet at first and heard the birds take flight from the trees. He looked out onto the lake and, in the moonlight, saw that its surface was frothing and steaming. Dorian turned back to the painting and put the final stroke on the new symbol that tied all four of the designs together in an intricate pattern.

A geyser erupted from the lake, and the house shook violently once more. An earthquake shook the whole lake and the surrounding houses. Dorian let his paintbrush fall as he watched the new design come alive with what seemed like blue fire. It started at the first design he’d drawn and then slowly worked its way in the order that he’d painted the others.

When the alien fire reached the last design, the ground and house shook so hard Dorian thought the house would fall apart. He wanted to run and get outside, but he couldn’t move. His mind eased, and a gut-wrenching howl of pain and anger echoed across the lake. He stared at the painting. The blue fire was gone; it was a painting now, still and totally alien in nature.

A loud crack erupted from the top of the house. The sound of splitting wood echoed in Dorian’s ears. He would stay here with his old friend. The thought of a life now after these events seemed totally inconceivable. He couldn’t live with the nightmares that would inevitably come if he chose to survive.

He would pay the ultimate price for the sake of all, but especially for Lisa – his one and only true soul mate. The house shook a final time and Dorian looked up just as the whole structure began to fall in on top of him. The last sounds from Dorian’s lips were of joy and triumph: “It is done, Aaron! IT IS DONE!” and the house fell down on top of him.

Lisa was outside in the morning air, leaning against her car as she looked at Dorian’s collapsed house with heavy tears falling freely from her eyes. They were the tears of true loss, originating from deep within her heart.

Inside the pile of rubble, Dorian and Aaron lay lifelessly. They had saved humanity from a force beyond comprehension, but Lisa had no knowledge of those affairs. She thought, as the sun peaked over the tall pine trees of the lake, that the earthquake that rocked the area in the early hours must have leveled the house and claimed their lives. Grief-stricken, she continued to cry and would continue to shed the tears of loss and heartache for many months.

The debt was steep but had been paid in full with both Dorian and Aaron’s lives. Sometimes life works out that way. A debt usually comes in many forms. It can be the breaking of a promise, giving up a girl, or painfully sacrificing one’s life as many have done throughout history – neither wanting nor claiming any glory. These two were no exception, Dorian the painter and Aaron the stranger from out of town.

John Prescott lives in the deep southern woods of Mississippi with his wife Edie, son Grafton Caine, and their three cats. He loves to spend time with his son, take long walks, and draw, and he is, of course, an avid reader. He somehow finds time to umpire baseball and softball and be an art director.  John started taking his writing seriously two years ago and just published his first book of short stories. Click here to purchase John’s new novel, PrayClick here to purchase John’s horror collection, Before Sunrise.

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2 responses to “The Stranger From Out of Town, by John Prescott

  1. John Prescott. I had to write your whole name, and try to etch it into my mind so when I read other anothologies and your name pops up, I will read. Great work. I am also a writer who wishes to finally get serious about my work. Going to look you up on Facebook, you do have a Facebook, do you John.

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