A VIEW THROUGH A WINDOW
Even before she could melt their brains, people thought the girl was odd. She didn’t belong to any of them, and no one belonged to her, and that suited her well enough. In general, she preferred to keep any human interaction at the distance it was now—separated by fifty extra feet and a pane of glass.
She sat near a window, observing through the dark metal bars that caged it as a meandering swath of umbrellas with legs, shuffling like black blood cells through a thrombotic capillary just past the towering black bones of a wrought-iron fence. The view was blurred by jagged rivulets etched into the windowpane. She wondered how it was that all the chaos and violent white noise falling to earth outside came, at last, to this? Lightning-bolt tracks down a few feet of glass, forged as though their exact paths had been charted out when their atoms first exploded from the sun.
A face hovered few feet past the glass, regarding her with an empty, translucent stare. Eyes like the water beneath the ice of an Arctic lake. A chaotic tangle of ear-length hair that faded brown to blue and hadn’t seen its natural color in years. Slender cheeks, whiter than a lie and pocked with scattered freckles.
The girl in the window looked older than she remembered. But then, time had always had a nasty habit of sneaking off when she wasn’t looking.
“Miss Turner?” asked the doctor.
Her reverie melted like spilled watercolors. It was replaced by a stained oak desk, a wall full of books, the smell of hot leather and smoldering wood. The air was dense, like it had caged something that yearned to burst free. Behind the desk, a balding, hawkish man in a brown wool sport coat peered at her over wire-rimmed glasses that perched at the end of his olive-skinned nose, hands folded in front of him. The papers on his desk were stacked neatly, bathing in a war of illumination between the soft yellow light overhead and a harsh white glow from off to the right. It came from a screen, attached to one of those boxy new electric calculation machines full of knobs and slots. A computer. It looked awkward, out of place—like when you bought a shiny new tool, but had nowhere to hang it. An orphan. She felt a surge of empathy for the contraption.
She blinked, her corrupted data centers still processing the doctor’s question. “What?”
A nameplate on the desk read, “ASIL TANIN, PsyD.” Dr. Tanin arched an eyebrow. “Shall I repeat the question?” he asked.
She stared back, not sure how long it was considered acceptable to stall the admission that she didn’t remember having been asked a question in the first place.
The doctor paused to swallow, as if doing so might also drain the exasperation from his face. “Your birthday, Alex. I asked what year you were born.”
She twisted her mouth to the side. She knew this one. Didn’t she? “Twenty-two…No, that’s not…” She squeezed her eyes shut, forced her thoughts to cooperate. “It’s not twenty-two here. It’s nineteen. Because of Jesus. That’s his name, right? 1991. That’s this year. I was born… October. October 5, 1970.”
Tanin looked at her for a moment, nonplussed, then seemed to decide that she had given a satisfactory answer and he, the educated and magnanimous sort, was willing to forgive any slight detours taken along the way. He let the notebook fall back open on his lap and clicked the end of his pen. He scribbled circles, checking the ink. The silence drew on. Alex squirmed in her chair.
“Why do you ask?” she said.
“Just getting a feel for things. It helps to establish a baseline. Start simple.”
She tugged at the neck of the muted green crew neck t-shirt that hung on her shoulders like a paper bag, rough and suffocating against the bare skin beneath, and longed for her favorite hoodie. Soft, dark grey cotton with red trim, and plenty of warm shadows to hide her face from prying eyes.
Dr. Tanin raised an eyebrow, evaluating. “How are you feeling, Alex?”
“Woozy. Like I just woke up, from… I don’t know what, exactly. Where’s Aidan?”
“Do you remember how you got here?”
She rubbed at her wrists. A wide band of the skin there had turned an angry shade of red. She shot him a suspicious glance. “Are you a cop?”
The doctor laughed easily, lifting and spreading his palms. “Not remotely. Nor am I interested in the activities of your former, erm…” He craned his neck, searching for the word. Or perhaps a replacement word for the one that came first. “…compatriots. I am not here to prove guilt, argue legality, or even pass judgment. My only interest is in arriving at the truth. And helping you do the same.”
“Then don’t ignore my questions. Where is Aidan?”
Tanin ruffled through a few pages of notes. “Ah, yes, here it is. Brother… Older brother, is that right? I’m afraid I don’t know. The file here says he went missing at about the same time your mother did.”
Her head sank to her chest.
“Is it alright if I keep going?” the doctor asked.
Alex hesitated, then gave him a nod.
“Try to remember, there are no wrong answers. Just talk about what you know. Right?” He glanced up until he got another shallow nod in return. “Great. How old are you?”
She frowned. This wasn’t a question you were supposed to have to think about. “Elev—” She shook her head. “No, twenty. I think. What month is it?”
The doctor flattened his lips. “Twenty-one is what I have here. Let’s go with that.”
Was that right? Gods, I’m ancient.
Dr. Tanin smiled. The expression never quite made it to his eyes. He made a hasty note to the side of the pad. “Alright. I’d like to explore something you said before. ‘It’s not twenty-two here.’ What do you mean, ‘here?’ I assume you aren’t talking about the Institute.”
Alex dropped her gaze. A shiver passed through her.
“It’s like… There’s a room,” she said, “and a painting. Like that one, maybe.” She pointed at the Van Gogh hanging on the wall off to the left between two full shelves of books. She knew this one. She’d seen the original—handled it, even. The touch of her bare skin to the textured contours of its oiled canvas stirred in the recesses of her memory.
The thought immediately struck her as odd. Bare hands on a million-dollar work of art? What was she, some kind of basic plebe? Maybe she was getting dreams and memories confused again. In any case, this one was a fake. The real one, far as she knew, was still in a museum in New York City, carefully guarded behind an inch of glass and a few cubic meters of its own special under-oxygenated atmosphere. And it was a totem—an object imbued with the power of creation. It had spoken to her. What had it said, again? It was such a long time ago. She remembered it like a play watched from the wings. In vivid detail, but sideways, and surrounded in darkness.
Alex furrowed her brow. If it had all been a dream, why did it feel so real?
Dr. Tanin had turned to consider the replica. “The Starry Night. One of my favorites.”
She wondered. Did he know? Did he know what it really was?
“Saint-Paul-de-Mausole,” she said, the name bubbling to the surface uninvited from her subconscious.
“Beg your pardon?” asked the doctor.
“The name of the asylum where he painted it,” Alex told him. “The view from his room, through the window.”
“Ah, yes. The story I knew, but not the name.”
“Why do you think he changed it?”
Dr. Tanin frowned. “Sorry?”
“Vincent,” she said, throwing him a look she hoped would convey her disappointment in his inability to follow. “Compare the scenery in the painting to the area surrounding the asylum, and none of the landscape matches. His whole life up to this point, he painted things he saw. So why did he change it? Why then?”
The doctor offered a shrug. “Perhaps he evolved. Learned to use his imagination. A sign of healing, that his mind was improving.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “That’s what the asylum said when they released him. ‘You’re cured.’ Two months before he shot himself in the stomach.”
Tanin sighed. “He was trying, then. The darkest period of his life produced his most extraordinary work.”
Alex snorted. “Right. It’s good to be a miserable prisoner inside your own decaying mind, just as long as you make the world some pretty pictures on your way out.”
The doctor tightened his jaw. “Maybe he was trying to imagine a better world.”
“Or he saw the one hiding beneath ours, and it drove him mad.”
“You know a lot about Van Gogh for someone your age,” he said, tapping the pen against his knee.
“I don’t see what age has to do with it.”
“And I don’t see what any of this has to do with the year you were born.”
Alex swallowed. “You spend enough time, maybe your whole life, in the same room, looking at the same painting. And you think, ‘This is it. These are the rules. The room, and the painting.’ But whether you realize it or not, you’re wrong.” Alex shifted in her chair, her knuckles digging into the armrests. “There’s a crack in the wall. We cover it up with a pretty painting so we can pretend it doesn’t exist. But it’s there. Watching.”
“You mean figuratively,” said Tanin. “Like in Plato’s cave—expanding one’s understanding.”
“No,” said Alex, “I don’t mean figuratively.”
“Then what? Help me understand.”
“I’m not crazy,” she insisted.
“That’s a lazy word,” Tanin said, frowning. “For people who fear what they don’t comprehend. You may well be atypical. That’s precisely why your case is of such particular interest to me. But I’m not afraid of you, Alex. Neither should you be.”
Alex took a breath. Something, an instinct—one she’d learned she should trust—told her he was telling the truth.
“There are other worlds,” she said, her voice cracking. “Behind the one we know. Or beside it, maybe. Paths to other places. Incredible places. And…”
A writhing darkness. Hunger. Need. Gobbling up light and laughing as it went.
Alex frowned. What was that? She’d had a thought, or something like it. A premonition? Its remains clung to her like residue. But the substance of it had vanished. Erased, as soon as it was over.
“What places?” asked the doctor.
She squeezed her eyes, willing the memories to surface. “It’s been so long. It’s like telling stories from a dream.”
Tanin leaned forward. “Let’s keep trying. Is that alright? Think back. What do you remember?”
The girl closed her eyes, and remembered—she was eleven, the first time she’d glimpsed that world behind the painting. Everything changed the day Aidan disappeared. It took her years of searching to find it again, to force it to give up its secrets.
Her breath quickened, a cascade of stones rising in the pit of her stomach—reaching, clutching at her throat. The deeper she went, the more the pain and fear bubbled to the surface. A black maw with tombstones for teeth, opened wide in a silent warning: Don’t come digging here. Rob from the dead, and she’d bring the whole world crashing down in ruins around her.
The doctor observed her. “Is that why you broke into the museum? To find these worlds, the ones you believe the paintings are hiding?”
“I broke into the museum to find my brother.”
“That seems…” He searched for the right word. “Extreme.”
“Be honest, doc,” she said. “If you’d been trapped in the same room your whole life and finally discovered you were right, that the world was bigger and stranger than you’d ever imagined, look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t want to find a sledgehammer, smash that crack in the wall wide open, and walk out into the real world. No matter what it cost you.”
She breathed deep in the silence, waiting for her heart to steady itself as the doctor gave some thought to his response.
Tanin removed his glasses and began to clean the lenses with a handkerchief pulled from his coat pocket. The light from the display reflected in his eyes, which Alex now saw were a profound, mesmerizing shade of blue. “Well, I think, personally,” he said, “I would just use the door.”