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Picture Perfect

by Anitha Murthy

The room was empty and metallic when she entered. An automated voice startled her.

“Good morning. Please slide your appointment card into the slot below.”

A flashing red light that seemed to have somehow materialized on the wall to her left guided her. She slid the card into an opening just below the light, hoping that the sweat of her palm wouldn’t mess up whatever it was that the card held.

“Welcome to Picture Perfect, Ms. Carol Fisher. Your host, Mr. Bradshaw will meet you in ten minutes.”

The room went silent again, and the companionable red light disappeared, sliding into a concealed hollow. Carol looked about, uncertain. The walls gleamed coldly, and the only piece of furniture was a large cream sofa with a multi-coloured rug on the floor. It felt cold and she shivered. She wasn’t quite sure if it was due to the chill or her own rising apprehension.

She perched on the edge of the sofa, and wondered what she was doing here. When she had seen the ad, it had looked like just the right job for her. Wanted: creative assistant at modern art gallery. She had sent in her application, a bit tentative, and was rather pleased to receive a call for an interview. She certainly hadn’t thought that the gallery would be this modern. Perhaps she wasn’t really cut out for this sort of thing. A mild sense of panic began to unfurl.

She stared at the rug. It looked untidily woven, as if the creators had been in a hurry and got the design all wrong. It had streaks of red, cream, black, and brown, shooting wildly in all directions. The more she looked at it, she felt as if she was being sucked into a dizzying vortex over which she had no control.

And then she saw him. A male figure, with a punk red hair-cut, rowing with an oar. She blinked. Yes, it was very clear. The pattern stood out like an island in a turbulent sea. She smiled as a warm feeling spread over her. She was used to this — seeing patterns stand out suddenly in an otherwise normal world. It made her feel she was not alone.

There was an old stain on her bedroom wall that looked like her granny; it was the confidant of her innermost secrets. There was another on the elevator door, where the paint had chipped off. It looked like a smiling baby, and she blew it a silent kiss every morning. They popped up everywhere, these unexpected friends who comforted her with their appearances.

So, when she saw the punk, she felt happy. “Thank you,” she whispered. Her eyes wandered over the rug, and spotted another one of them. A tall stylish lady with a long plait and a bizarre elongated neck standing, as if waiting for something to happen. Ah! More company.

Something on the far side of the rug caught her attention. The more she looked at it, the more it resembled a cat looking rather shocked as it fell down. The body was sprawled, with the two hind legs spread out, and the tail pointing straight up in between. The two forelegs were almost as if the cat were covering its eyes in horror.

Something disturbed her about the pattern; she wasn’t quite sure what. And then she remembered a photo her brother had taken of her when she was a child. It was a similar expression of horror, and the way her hands had shielded her face from the unwelcome intrusion.

“Good morning, good morning! I’m Mr. Bradshaw.”

A short, rotund man, in an ill-fitting tight suit, had entered the room and was walking towards her briskly with his hand outstretched. He mopped his brow with a large hankie, and it was almost amusing that he was perspiring so profusely in such a cold environment.

“Do come in. This way.” She followed after a brief pause, a little shaken by the sudden presence of another human.

He held the door open for her, and she entered another small room. It had a large oval table in the center, almost filling the room, with two chairs on either side. The rest of the room was bare and had the same metallic gleam.

As she sat down on one of the chairs, she noticed the two large paintings that hung on the opposite wall, set in beautiful carved-wood frames. A chill went down her spine as she gasped in shock, and her face grew pale. The paintings were of the rowing punk and the tall lady! They looked exactly as she had seen them on the rug. She had thought they were just random patterns she had discerned in the weaving, but this was downright weird.

Mr. Bradshaw must have noticed the change in her face, for he asked in a concerned voice, “Is everything okay?”

“Those... those paintings... how... the rug...” Carol was babbling.

“Ah! You noticed!” Mr. Bradshaw beamed. “Excellent! I think you’re perfect for us. We like a keen eye, you know... what is it?”

Carol had twisted around in her chair, certain that the falling cat would feature in a painting behind her. But the wall was maliciously bare.

She tried explaining to him. “The cat... I thought there would be a cat. There was a cat, I saw a cat. On the rug. It was falling down and...”

The room seemed to close in on her, as Mr. Bradshaw’s face darkened and the smile became a malevolent sneer.

“You saw a cat? On the rug? Hmmm... very, very interesting...” He was leaning towards her now, pinning her down with a gaze that seemed to pierce into the depths of her soul.

“Yes... a cat... it was falling...” Carol whimpered, as she leant back in her seat, terrified. His face kept getting closer and closer to her till she closed her eyes and screamed.

She didn’t know how long it was before she recovered consciousness. She could hardly move. Her body seemed frozen. She looked down, and was seized with a panic attack. She was falling down from a height, the street beneath rushing up to meet her. She wanted to scream. Her mouth was open, but no voice came out. She couldn’t move her hands or legs. And then she realized something strange. She was not moving. Everything was at a stand-still. She was suspended in mid-air.

Waves of panic swept through her, as she tried to recollect what had happened. Where was she? What had Mr. Bradshaw done? Why was she trapped like this?

Even as she struggled with the deluge of questions that threatened her sanity, something caught her eye. All around her ran a low fence of wood, rich and dark with elaborate carving.

The paintings of the rowing punk and the tall lady hung on the opposite wall. They seemed to be smirking.

Copyright © 2009 by Anitha Murthy

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