Walk by the sea (66)

-Mr Morgan… what a surprise, seeing you here! -Andrew exclaimed when they reached the bottom of the stairs. -I didn’t know you were a fan.

Joshua moistened his lips but gave no reply. Blinking slowly, he turned aside to examine the painting once again, allowing a terrified Mary to look at him more closely. His shirt was hanging loose around his thinning frame, his hands were sinewy and the smell that floated her way was anything but pleasant. She looked around, praying she’d find Sara, or Jo, or someone- she couldn’t deal with this alone. Not now, not ever. How could she, when it meant facing their past together with all the lost chances and stolen moments from a happy fate she was not supposed to have, not at his expense.

-Joshua! -Sara appeared from behind her, and without further ado, hugged the young man who almost lost his balance. -I’m thrilled to see you…

He looked at her with a momentarily blurred look, then smiled, recognizing her.

-S-sara. The charity worker -he saluted, and shook her hand vehemently. -We have much more in common than I thought. I do charity work, too! -he laughed, sending whiffs of stale alcohol their way.

Andrew cleared his throat with discretion, while Mary stood rooted, unable to move. She only then realized that the two men did not know about each other… Andrew had no idea the painted god who still kept her heart hostage was none other than this wobbly, pathetic-looking ghost.

-How admirable -Sara smiled politely, abstaining from glancing over at Mary: she knew exactly what Mary thought, and she was racking her brains to save the situation.

-Yes… I signed a deal with the devil himself as a result of which I’ll be serving myself on a silver plate for longer than I can take it, probably -he replied with a burp, then looked over at Andrew. -Hello, do I know you…?

-We met fleetingly the other night. Andrew Hodgins, art dealer. I tried to offer you a better record deal but you refused to listen to it.

-Oh, true. Yes, I remember now -Joshua wavered from side to side, frowning his once beautiful eyebrows. They reminded Mary of a god in exile, someone who forfeited his right to an eternal life of bliss. -Listen uhm… if you kill Ferguson at Capitol, we should be fine -he waved nonchalantly, then chuckled at the shock on Mary’s face. -I’m sorry… did I offend you… Mary?

She felt her powers leave her. This was the beginning of the end, when everything and all would be found out. She would need to be the centre of it all, strong with flames of forgiveness and renewal. She was at the core of Jo’s unhappiness, she was the result of Andrew’s reticence. But mostly, she was the reason of Joshua’s ruin. Watching the once beautiful man hover before her as someone snapped in two was taking a toll on her weakened heart; she was breathing hard, which fact was only noticed by Sara, who happened to turn back just when her friend reached out to no one in particular. She grabbed the old hand and kept her steady, giving Andrew a knowing glance.

The latter seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation, and when he gazed at Joshua next, his gentle eyes expressed a little bit of the jealousy that Sara expected to see. When she saw his eyes full of sad recognition, she sighed of relief: he would be fine. Humans always were. At least he was fully aware now.

-Mr Morgan, I believe you’re causing distress to someone special in our company… please allow me to take you home -he spoke slowly and articulately, the fine tremor in his voice betraying emotions only Sara and Mary detected.

-No, I would very much like to stay some more -a rakish Joshua replied. -I have unfinished business with these paintings… unless my memory fails me, these belong… to me.

Mary, supported by her younger friend, closed her eyes in dismay. The paintings… she never should have exhibited them… they had become part of the show when Andrew persuaded her one night. These are the best ones, love… exactly because they mean so much to you. The love with which you portrayed him is unequalled… I am sure he would give his consent. It’s up to you… are you ready to share this beauty with the world, like you shared it with me? He had sounded so right back then… why would Joshua mind, after all? Back then, she thought he had left for good, and was living his own life, happy to be rid of an old hag like herself. Joshua’s behaviour now proved how wrong she had been, once again… yet another horrible decision the ripples of which were only reaching her now.

-Ten thousand dollars… not bad, for a relatively unknown artist like yourself… -he went on, eyeing his own two-dimensional self on the soft-hued canvas. -Fifty thousand altogether, is that correct? Of course, if I think about it… these should not be on sale… at all.

Mary shook her head, or thought she did, but no one seemed to notice. They were too busy watching in horror as Joshua took the hanging sunset off the wall with an uncertain movement of hand and torso.

-Please, sir… don’t touch the paintings -an eager assistant rushed forward, placing an unknowing hand on his shoulder.

The words that would leave his mouth were plastered on his face, turning him into the caricature of himself. The eyes that once expressed so much emotion were dark and savage, the lips that once conveyed such tendernes and affection seemed to only bear venom and hatred. Mary watched her beloved angel turn into a demon right before her eyes; the grip his hands had on the frame were the claws of vultures. He made a vain endeavour to shirk the assistant, who made the mistake of being pushy; Joshua took a few unstable steps, his irate eyes widening, his first angry, now miserable lips sputtering words that by now quieted down the whole gallery and shot across the silent space like a mythical foreboding.

-You don’t know… this is me… it’s me… I have every right to take it… she stole… this… this -he grabbed his shirt with one hand, almost dropping the painting, tearing at the cloth, then at his hair, then pummeling his chest, and his cheeks.

-Sir, please, give the painting back -the terrified young woman whispered.

Andrew was at a loss, seeing both Mary and Joshua fade away from reality. Before he could make a decision, Joshua had stumbled in the leg of the table. The shattering of glasses and the soft thudding of his light frame over the floor was accompanied by the painful, splintery sound of a frame breaking in two, and then, the deliberate, raspy sound of a canvas’s soul tearing, all too familiar to both the half-dead artist and the resigned subject of her affections.

The moment froze with everyone in it. Faces blurred into oblivion, all but his, for a broken Mary. She saw him on his side, struggling to prop himself up. He looked like a bug unable to find his feet, but she had no power left to even turn away. He noticed the torn canvas and emitted a laugh that was the most gruesome sound she had ever had to hear. He laughed on and on, his tears joining in the false merriment. Not even she realized that his tears fell for the canvas that seemed to be doomed to perish in his hands once again, the symbol of his missed happiness. She could not see the dark thoughts career in his mind, but his face told her more than she could physically bear.

Shaking off the hands of those who could not save her from her fate, she literally fell on her knees before the young man who in his distress looked notably older than herself.

The look of surprise in his eyes gave way to anger, than sorrow. He detected the pity she felt for him in that moment, and saw himself through her eyes. His vision then widened to include the faces of pity and revolt and shame standing tight around them with him in their crossfire. He would not have minded, not in his state of disturbed self-consciousness, but he did mind her eyes brimming with tears of remorse and regret.

Suspended between the desire to pull her in his arms, beg for admission into their past world of carefree happiness, and the wish to behave decently so as to not bring shame to her whose gentle gaze he was too weak to hold, he took a deep breath, and with it, gained enough strength to accept her extended hand with dignity. In her eyes, he read her fears, her desperate pleas, and knew that her weak hand was the only apology she was able to give, an offering for her real sins, and those he selfishly inflicted on her. In an instant that passed as quickly as it came, his own sins became clear and grew detached from hers; when he realized that with his obstinate attachment to the anger he harboured against Susan, he had accused Mary of evils that were never her intent, he greedily took her flimsy apology and held onto it until he was standing on his feet once again.

Eager to read her mind, he searched her face, willing her to move from where she seemed frozen into the floor. From the corner of his eye he saw Andrew watch them with consternation and a certain look about his features which penetrated his flesh, to his bones: he saw love in the man’s eyes, resigned love, love that was ready to liberate the one he loved.

Stepping aside, he freed Mary’s hand, casting a futile glance at the remains of his dreams. Torn and tattered they were, fragments of orange and blue. He could not claim them, not even the memories she painted for both of them. He lost them twice. This time, he understood the weight of fate’s decision, one that had been made long ago.

Looking back at Mary, he noticed two arms hold her up, and he looked away. Yes, it was meant to be. Someone like him would love her without any doubts or fears. In a way deserving of her.

He didn’t need Mary’s pleading gaze to tell him she still loved him. He knew from the touch of her fingers on his wrist that still bore the softness of her pale skin. The knowledge gave him unusual strength, propelling him as far as the entrance door where alcohol floored his long defeated body and he collapsed in a state of unconsciousness.

Mary shook like a leaf in the arms of Eileen who dragged Jo to come closer and forced him to offer his understanding. He did, albeit in a puzzled daze, holding his own mother with a surprising gentleness he didn’t remember her ever holding him with. For a brief glimpse of time, she was his mother no more, but a woman whose past and present were tearing her in two; he watched Andrew and Sara help the stranger up and walk him outside to Andrew’s car, then he returned his attention to Mary. She felt so tiny and weak; in that moment, he was unable to hate her.

He heard her whisper something inaudibly and pulled her closer in his embrace.

-What is it, mom? -he asked, feeling his anger get released with a long exhale.

-Please take me home -she begged him, and he obliged without any further questions.