The Locked Door

Submitted into Contest #130 in response to: Write a story titled ‘The Locked Door.’... view prompt

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Speculative Romance Sad

“So, what’s next for you?” The reporter’s gray eyes shone in the bright camera light and seemed to pierce through to her subject’s soul. “I mean, you’ve sold art worth millions, you’ve been philanthropic… You even have your own wing at some museums around the world. Are you going to keep painting, even at this age?”

It took her subject everything he had to muster up a response. After thirty seconds, he frowned and muttered, “I… I don’t know. I will keep painting.”

“And can you support the claims that the motif of a locked door in all of your portraits is significant?” The five people in the camera crew and the director leaned in.

Almost a minute passed before her subject answered, “I don’t know. Maybe.” His voice was high and thin, not fitting his large frame or stocky build. The wisps of gray hair on his head certainly matched the voice, as did the little pale rings around his formerly bright blue eyes, but nothing else about the man conformed with the voice which escaped his throat. 

The reporter smiled, though her eyes were cold and calculating. “I see. And are the rumors of the secret studio in your house true? The place you keep all the paintings you never want the world to see?”

Her subject suddenly looked up, narrowing his gaze. “No. The rumors are not true.” In his mind, he remembered an Indian woman thirty years ago who had wonderful brown skin, gorgeous dark eyes, and black hair which flowed like an elegant river down her back. 

The reporter looked at her director, and then smiled again, this time causing dimples to form in her heavily foundationed cheeks. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Ellis,” she said, her voice sticky and warm. “I look forward to the rest of your work.”

He nodded his head slightly. “Thanks.” It was all he could say.

“Cut!” said the director, taking off her headset. “Alright, Tommy, Joe, you wrap up the cameras. Ed, please take care of the sound equipment, and Marcy, if you could help Tori in makeup, that would be great. Oh, Mike… do the lighting, will you?” 

Her staff nodded, the reporter Tori looking exceptionally relieved to be out of the chair. She darted for the bathroom with Marcy, who had a large bag in her hands. The former subject looked at one of the men as he pulled down the lights, making the room seem dark once he’d turned them off. “Your name is Mike?” he asked quietly. 

Mike’s eyes widened and the director snapped her head towards the conversation. “Yes…” he replied, unsure of what to do.

“Is that short for Michael?” asked the subject, his whole body perfectly still save his slow moving eyelids.

“Yes, sir. It’s short for Michael.”

“My name is also Michael,” said Mr. Ellis, “but I never liked the name. I prefer to go by my surname, and I never like to add the mister in front of it… you know what I mean?”

“Yes, sir,” said Mike, the lie evident in his eyes. The director rolled her hands forward as she wrote everything Ellis said down on a notepad. 

After a few seconds, the old man continued, “I… I see the world differently than most people, Mike. To me, the sky is not a shade of pale blue on a crystal autumn day… to me, it is a pastel of azure, sometimes swaying towards a more medium tone, but always remaining chalky in color and oily in texture. Do you know what I mean?”

Mike spluttered, “I… Yes?”

Ellis nodded. “Well, now what color do you see a cloud as, Mike?”

“Uh… white, maybe gray?” His hands were trembling, though even he did not notice it.

“Well, to me a cloud is not so much a pastel anymore… It is a dry, powder paint, scattered upon the azure only to change its texture. The steely gray of a storm.. Now that is less a property of the cloud, and more a property of the sky, yes?” Ellis waited for Mike to nod nervously, after which he continued, “The lone stormcloud is a rare beast, and that, I’ll admit, is an oily gray grotesquely splotched onto the aforementioned pastel azure of the sky.” 

“Sir, I-” Mike began, before his director cut him off.

“Mr. Ellis, do you mind if we turn the microphone and cameras back on?” she asked, still scribbling on her notepad. 

Ellis turned to her, his eyes distant. “You have a dark complexion, madam. You know what it looks like to me?”

“Um… no?” 

He took a few moments and then said, “Textured like an oil paint, but with the fluidity of a water color. The purest form of Earth itself is in your skin. The light and vibrance from a soul rich in warm yellows, reds, and purples shines through the product you apply on your skin. Now, contrast that with Mike. His skin tone is pale, like mine, but it’s like the chalkiness of a moon superimposed on the liquid ink of a night sky. It did not fit his soul so well when he was behind the camera, but I can see now, when he is afraid and his skin pales further; it brings out the regality of a warm red undercurrent I hadn’t noticed before. A white dry brush technique… or… no paint at all! Just the canvas shining through the dark foreground.”

“Sir, the cameras?” asked the director again, a little flustered.

“No, thank you. I gave you an hour of my time in which you could ask any question you wanted to, and now that hour is up,” Ellis rose from his seat with the energy of a much younger man. “Thank you for the conversation, Mike, madam. I trust you will see yourselves out.”

The director’s face hardened as she nodded. “Of course, Mr. Ellis. Thank you.”

“Sir,” piped Mike, surprised at his own boldness, “Do you… really see the world like that? Or is that just how you paint it?”

Ellis turned around and smiled, his thin face stretching painfully. “You will never know the true beauty in a night sky until you have seen it through my eyes, Mike. how the royal azure meets the wellspring of purple which turns quickly into the deep, ocean blue of true night. The stars like little flecks of titanium white on the canvas, sparkling with pure brilliance… and the moon, giving its chalky pale hue to its immediate surroundings. The clouds texture the night, Mike. They absorb all the color around them and scatter it ever so slightly. Yes… that is how I see the world.”

Without another word, he moved through his house with a grace again unfitting for his husky frame. Each wood panel in his living room had its own life, its own breath of chocolate brown color which popped out at Ellis. His world of late had gotten rather pale, and he had lied to Mike when he depicted the night and said that was how he viewed the world. In truth, he had not viewed it as such in many years, and his art reflected that change by switching to an unsaturated, melancholic color palette. Ellis remembered visiting one of his own exhibitions a few years ago and hearing the yearning teardrops of a piano melody grace his ears as he gazed upon two of his paintings. The first was a winter night scene filled with vibrant color as he had explained to Mike, and the latter was an autumnal scene, where the yellows melted into chartreuse and beige, and winter had clearly already taken over the sky and the withering grass. His older work had the colors flowing into one another, touching, caressing every inch of the canvas as though they were hungry for it. His later work seemed trapped, with rigid lines barely containing boxed in bright colors, and where it was only the unsaturated hues which moved upon the canvas. He thought the piano fit the second piece much better.

He came upon the door to his basement. Hearing his front door close, he tapped on the display next to it. “Voice authorization, please.”

Ellis cleared his throat, keeping his index finger on the reader. “Voice on the night.”

“Access granted. Welcome, Ellis.” The door unlocked, and Ellis moved down the stairs quickly, much too quick for a man of his age.

Once he reached his studio, he looked at the seven paintings he had in progress, and realized he hated every single one. The reporter was correct - each painting contained a locked door somewhere, and sometimes it was totally out of place. In his earlier work, he’d been able to disguise the locked door, often in a panic once the painting was nearly completed. In fact, it had become a running theme in his art - misplaced houses, random staircases, and facades which served, in his mind, only to contain that door. Ellis did not linger in this room. He pulled back a rug in the center and ran his hand along the wood paneling until it caught on a slight edge. He slipped a finger under it and pulled, revealing a hidden trapdoor which led down to the sub-basement. The stairs were rickety, and as he flicked on the orange incandescent lights, his mind was thrust back thirty years - the one and only time he’d shown someone the way down to the sub-basement.


***


“Ellis, where are we going?” Sita’s voice was warm, mellow, and luxurious, and she smiled widely as he led her into the studio by the hand. 

“Trust me, darling, you’ll see.” Ellis’ own voice in those days was deeper, more powerful. He threw back the rug and felt the ground.

“You’ve lost your mind,” she observed, the barest hints of a noble accent touching her consonants. 

He laughed. “There it is!” Opening the door, he stood back and watched her face transform from playful curiosity to tentative fear. 

“What is this?” she asked, taking a step back.

Realizing what it looked like, Ellis quickly said, “No, no, my love! It’s another studio.”

“Another studio?” Sita echoed, still unsure. 

“Yes, let me go down first, if you don’t want to.”

“No!” she said suddenly, “I’ll go down first.”

Ellis smiled, his lips sliding into a comfortable position. Sita had always been the adventurous one of the two. In Rome, she had jumped over a barrier in the Colosseum, and in Switzerland she took on the black diamond ski slopes despite having almost no ski experience. The latter had landed her in the hospital with a broken leg, but Sita never stopped exploring on any of their trips. He opened his arms and let her go first. “The light switch is on the left side wall - you’ll feel it after about your fifth step.”

She nodded, heading down carefully. After a few seconds the light turned on, and Sita gasped. “Oh, Ellis… this is… amazing!”

“You like it?” he asked eagerly as he ran down the stairs to meet her at the bottom.

She turned to him, her eyes wide and a wide smile highlighting her face. “Yes… I can’t believe you never showed this to me before!”

He took her hand, which she gladly accepted. Ellis whispered. “I’ve never shown this to anyone before, Sita.”

It seemed she didn’t hear him, as she began to lead him through the room. At that time, there were only about a dozen paintings in the open floor plan, and each of them was very similar - a scene characteristic of a Michael Ellis painting, but the locked door was much larger, looming ominously over the surroundings and casting its shadow upon the art. 

Sita asked, “How come you never sold these?”

“The door,” he said shortly. She raised an eyebrow at him, so he expounded, “I… You know when I was a kid, and my dad…”

“Yes,” she said quickly, squeezing his hand. 

“Well, ever since I… was on that porch, and I saw him go behind that locked door…” Ellis took a deep breath in. “I started painting just a week after that, you know. And every time I picked up the brush, I was taken back to that black door as I stood out there on the frozen porch. I banged on the door, I pulled at it, I pushed - I had no idea who or what I was in that moment. All I knew was that my dad was behind that door. I stayed out there all night, and I caught a horrible cold-”

“Honey, you don’t have to go into this again if you don’t want to,” said Sita, her voice pulling back his heart rate and putting a small smile on his face. 

“You need to know the whole story. When you first asked about my parents, I told you I started painting after… the night on the porch.” He led her to a sofa with a small coffee table he’d found in a yard sale. They sat down, and he looked at her pure brown eyes. “I didn’t tell you that the first paintings I made were horrible… I mean, just awful. I wouldn’t even call them art.” 

“You were twelve years old!”

“Well, whatever age I was, I just couldn’t paint. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind - the last thing I saw before I went to sleep was that horrible, black painted door with its gold handle and gold knocker, and a little peephole on the front. I used to wonder,” he sniffed a little, and Sita pulled him closer. “I used to wonder if my dad was on the other side of that peephole, and if he was watching me whale on the door with everything I had, and just standing there, as frozen as I felt.”

“Oh, Ellis,” she put her head against his.

“Well, after a few months of being a terrible painter, I decided to paint just what I was seeing in my mind - the black door, and nothing else. It’s that painting right over there,” he gestured to the far right wall, where a small 12x12 canvas stood in solitary confinement, almost shrinking back from the other paintings in the room. Indeed, it contained nothing but a black door upon a white canvas, complete with a gold hanger, a knocker, and a small, irregularly shaped peephole.

“That’s not so bad,” said Sita. 

“After that, I realized I couldn’t force myself to paint anything. My hands were the medium for my mind’s eye, and my mind’s eye was just the medium for the place where my soul met my darkest subconscious thoughts. Every scene, every portrait… it was always tainted with the image of a locked door. I never told anyone this before, but it’s how I always start my paintings. I can’t do anything until I have that black, locked door on the canvas. Sometimes I can hide it at the end, when its obtuse contrast with the rest of the work scares me, but other times I don’t have the courage or the skill. Those are the paintings I keep down here.”

“Thank you for telling me this,” said Sita, kissing him on the cheek and rubbing his hand. 

He brushed his eyes and said heavily, “You deserved to know.”

She spied a table with some decanters in the corner, and quickly ran over, coming back with two full cognacs. “I love you, Ellis.”

“I love you too,” he said, clinking her glass and taking a long, shaky sip. 

For a while, the two sat there in complete silence, staring at all the strange locked doors on the canvases around the room. After their glasses were empty, Sita sat up and asked, “Is that a record player over there?” 

He nodded. “I got it as a present after my first painting was sold.” 

“Do you have any records down here?” 

“Nope,” he said with a sigh. “They’re all upstairs in the parlor.”

“Alright, wait here.” She gave him a peck on the lips and rushed upstairs, coming back a few minutes later with a few vinyls, putting the first one gingerly into the record player. She waited for it to spin up, and as the music began, she extended her hand. “Care for a dance?” 

He immediately recognized the high pitched background vocals and the softness of the old drums. “Paul Anka?” he asked.

Indeed, his voice began as Sita nodded. “Put your head on my shoulder,” he began. 

Ellis rose and took her hand. “This was the first song-”

“The first song we ever danced to,” she finished, pulling his body close and putting her head on his chest. 

He began to lead a slow dance. “That was at the Starlight Club, wasn’t it?”

Ellis could feel her cheeks tighten against his shirt as she smiled. “It was. I couldn’t believe it when you came up to me.”

“I couldn’t believe it when you accepted my offer to dance,” whispered Ellis.

“How could I not?” asked Sita, “Those baby blue eyes and… all that.”

The music crescendoed and the two lovers kissed amidst the art. Somewhere a million miles away, the older Michael Ellis awoke from the memory, staring at the same couch, now covered by a dozen useless paintings filled with locked doors. Sita had died just two years after that moment, and perhaps it was then that the color began draining from his art and his life. The locked doors were still there in every painting, but for some time now they had been white, and something else had been behind them. Ellis moved to the right side of the room, where his first ever locked door painting stood. There were some materials there, so he pushed the canvas aside and pulled up a new one, grabbing a brush in his hand. Soon, he thought, the door will open

January 23, 2022 19:51

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