There was nothing the least bit remarkable about the old Underwood Art Gallery located on the corner of Third Street and Pine. And nothing particularly remarkable about the paintings displayed inside. For the most part, the works of art were uninspired scenes of landscapes and seascapes and an occasional still life, except for one rather large painting in the back of the gallery. It depicted a tall, fair-haired man wandering in the moonlight through a heavily wooded forest that bordered a calm blue lake.
The painting was by an artist named Josef Vilnius and was aptly titled Man Walking in the Moonlight. Karinna Adams had never heard of Vilnius, but it was an interesting piece in that the colors seemed to change depending on the time of day: the blues and greens and golds bright and cheerful when she observed the painting during the afternoon, the hues more somber and subdued when she arrived at the gallery in the evening. The changes in hue were especially puzzling since they had nothing to do with the gallery’s interior lighting and seemed to be some anomaly inherent in the painting itself. It was most peculiar, and it had drawn Kari back to Underwood’s time and time again.
Tonight was no different. Kari stood in front of the mysterious painting, her gaze moving from the old rowboat tied up alongside the narrow wooden dock to the gray stone castle perched high atop a grassy hill. A shaggy black and white dog slept in the shade on the north side of the castle, and a gray kitten frolicked in a bed of flowers. A lamp burned in an upstairs window. Swirls of blue-gray smoke curled up from one of the castle’s many chimneys. A white horse grazed in a large grassy field, its coat shining like silver in the moonlight. The horse looked so real, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see it galloping across the greensward.
Kari had visited the Underwood gallery every night after work for the last two weeks. And every night, the man in the painting had been either in a different pose or in a different location, first walking in the moon-shadowed woods, next fishing from the boat under a starry sky, next looking out at the night from one of the castle’s second-story windows, next resting on a large rock near the water, next sitting on the edge of the dock.
Tonight, he was astride the horse, his head turned to look back at the castle on the hill. Moonlight shimmered in his hair, which fell past his shoulders. He wore a loose-fitting white shirt, snug buff-colored breeches, brown boots, and a long black cloak that fell in graceful folds over the horse’s hindquarters. His hair was dark blond, as were his brows, above crystalline blue eyes that were so vibrant and alive, it was hard to believe they were just paint and canvas. He had a sharp nose, a sensual mouth, a strong, square jawline. He was a remarkably handsome creature, and she often wondered if the artist had used a live model, or if the figure had been drawn from the artist’s imagination.
Kari moved closer to the painting, trying to determine how the figure of the man moved from place to place. So far, she hadn’t been able to determine how the artist had managed such a remarkable feat. At first, she had thought the man might not be a part of the painting itself, but perhaps a cutout figure that could be moved and posed at will. But she had quickly dismissed that idea. He had to be part of the painting, just like the boat, the dog, the kitten, the horse, and the castle. She wondered if the artist had painted several versions of the same scene and the gallery owner changed them from time to time, just to mystify the public, but that hardly seemed likely. Perhaps Vilnius had just used the same technique that made it seem as if the eyes of a painting were following you, like the ones in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
With a shake of her head, Kari glanced at her watch. The gallery would be closing in a few minutes. She could scarcely believe she had been standing in front of the painting for almost an hour!
When she looked back at the canvas, the man was staring at her.
Startled, Kari took a step backward, then leaned forward, her eyes narrowing as she studied the figure. His lips seemed to be moving, forming the words help me.
That did it, she thought. She was losing her mind; that was the only answer. Painted figures did not move, nor did they speak. Filled with a sudden cold fear, Kari turned and ran out of the gallery.
She was breathless by the time she reached her car. Sliding behind the wheel, she locked the door, then drove home as if pursued by demons. It wasn’t until she was safely inside her own house, with the front door securely locked behind her, that sanity returned. She was behaving irrationally, letting her imagination get the best of her. People in paintings didn’t move. They certainly didn’t speak. Tomorrow, she would go back to the gallery and the man would be walking in the moonlit woods, where he belonged. He wouldn’t move, he wouldn’t look at her, and he definitely wouldn’t speak!
Blowing out a sigh, she went into the bathroom. After turning on the water in the tub, she added a capful of bubble bath, then lit a blue candle. Blue for serenity and harmony and to soothe a troubled mind. And her mind was more than troubled. It just wasn’t normal to be so obsessed with a painting. And, as if it wasn’t bad enough that the man in the painting dominated her thoughts during the day, he had started haunting her dreams at night.
With the candle glowing softly and the bathtub filled almost to overflowing with fragrant bubbles, Kari stepped into the water for a long, leisurely soak. She had been working too hard. That’s all it was, just job-induced stress combined with a vivid, overactive imagination.
She closed her eyes. It was just stress. Nothing to worry about. Lots of people suffered from it these days and it was perfectly understandable, what with the state of the economy, the high price of gas, ever-growing tensions in the Middle East, and the ongoing investigations into the questionable benefits and possible risks of several high-profile, over-the-counter drugs. Add to that the ever-increasing number of floods, earthquakes, and tornadoes that were pummeling distant parts of the earth and it was a wonder the whole world wasn’t going quietly insane.
Kari blew out a sigh of relief. Stress, she thought again. Of course, that’s all it was. She wasn’t going crazy after all.