Her clenched hand opened stiffly, walked over to the living room and closed her eyes. She already knew what she was going to see when she would open them: Peter talking to the face, and the face answering back to him, being some haunted antiquity of some sort, some portal to hell from where the infernal blue light came – so hell was blue, then, not flaming red – and then Peter would be sucked into it or something, or made to chant some unholy incantation from the depths of darkness that would unleash nightmarish hordes of imprisoned demons that would fill the world and –
She opened her eyes. In that fraction of a second the blue light went off and the house was dark again. She blinked furiously and it took some time before her vision readjusted. When it did, she saw Peter’s back. He was naked, standing in front of the face and staring at it. Jane thought about turning on the lights, but then she remembered something about not waking somnambulists. What if Peter was sleepwalking?
She came up behind him quietly. She squinted in the gloom: his eyes were wide and glassy, staring inanely at the painting. He was sleepwalking alright. But Jane was not. She had heard two voices, two echoing voices, and that blue light had been real just a minute ago. What had just happened? She looked at the face and frowned. It was still as impassive as ever. She turned to her husband. Now what? Peter was just standing there, his dead eyes fixed on the face.
She decided to wait. She sat heavily on the sofa and watched Peter. He had never sleepwalked before. Why now? And why stand there? What could have triggered it? Stress? There was not much in his work – true, he had a responsibility as a night-guard, but he’d been doing that for years and it was more boring than dangerous. No, then – not stress.
“No”, said Peter.
Jane flinched and jumped up.
Peter was still staring at the face, but his lips were moving. “No”, he said again. “It isn’t stress, Jane. It’s all this life. It’s the lost dream and the lost chance of seeing that dream come true and having to keep on living without it. It is trying to find happiness away from it and pretending that things are still okay. But they’re not, Jane, and it gnaws at your soul like a woodworm, and it hurts like hell. And really”, he said and turned around, his eyes looking at her without seeing her, “all that pain must lead somewhere.”
The first blow took her by surprise. Her head swam and she felt half her face burning. Her nose was wet and warm and when she looked up she only saw Peter’s heavy hand coming down on her again. She managed to yelp, but this second stroke sent her sliding across the floor to the stairs. Senses failing, Jane turned on her back and raised her arms to protect from the oncoming beating, but Peter was gone. In a split second he had disappeared and she had been left there, bleeding and laying by the bottom stair.
She rose painfully on one elbow. She knew her face was swelling and could not stop crying, more from shock than pain. Her eyes searched the room frantically, but everything seemed quiet, still, and ordinary. She sat there on the floor, trying to catch her breath and put some order in her head. And then her eyes came to rest on it. Actually, she felt as if they had been drawn to it.
The face. It was clearly changed now, grinning widely in its malicious way, eyes bulging in contempt. Jane couldn’t take her eyes off it and felt again as if she was being drawn to it, as if she was called to crawl to it and –
A thunder came from upstairs. Her senses were still reeling and it took time to understand that all the noise she heard was nothing more than her husband slamming the bedroom door behind him and running down the stairs to her.
She cowered as he suddenly towered over her. But this time he knelt beside her, his face scarred with shock.
“Jane? Honey? Babe, are you okay? What happened?”
Jane looked up at him dumbly for a moment, wondering if he was making fun of her. No, his worried face was sincere. This was her Peter.
“Honey, your face! It – What did – you fell down the stairs?” He lifted her head gently and she pulled on his sturdy arms to raise herself.
“You broken anything? How do you feel?”
She whimpered suddenly and then hid her swelling face in his chest and began to sob. He was surprised at this but nonetheless held her firmly, taking the weight of her battered body.
Peter glanced around, trying to figure out what had happened. Had she been sleepwalking? His eyes came to rest on the face. For a crazy moment he thought he saw it change expression – eyes bulging over a malicious, mocking grin – but then he realised it was only the streetlights from outside sending a sallow light on the canvas, a sickly ray of light now and then broken by some trees skeletal branches moving in the night winter’s wind.