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BRUEGEL TAROT: Knight of Chalices

El Dorado

El Dorado

Lightning flashes over the shining city as the car approaches it. Stuart yawns and hopes they find lodgings before the storm bears down on them. Gloria doubts it, eyeing the laden thunderhead with alarm.

Stuart speeds up the car.

“I hate driving in the rain,” he groans.

Gloria nods, but says nothing. Stuart loves driving, and she suspects he gets a little sadistic thrill in dangerous conditions.

They enter the city, Gloria gazes up at the looming storm cloud, which casts a lingering gloom over the city. Gloria shudders as streetlights flicker and buzz.

“Something’s wrong,” she says, and goosebumps crawl on her arms.

“Where is everyone?” Stuart echoes the sentiment.

They drive through deserted streets though it is midday. Papers whirl across the road like dust devils, and debris lies scattered on the street. Gloria feels the desolation deep in her bones. She focuses on the parked cars. They are rusty, banged up and broken down, lying on their bellies with their flat tires peeking out from under them. Like dragons sitting on their loot. 

The stoplights blink red, and Stuart crawls across the intersection, but no one awaits at the corner. He glances at the store windows and sees only cavernous darkness. Buildings gape in toothless screams, and a shiver runs down his back.

Thunder rumbles overhead as Stuart dares to speed up the car.

“We’re not staying here, Glo,” he states.

“I second that,” Gloria reaches for the map in the glove compartment.

The guidebook falls out with its pages splayed open to the picture of a bright, bustling city. She scans the caption; it mentions the supposed never-ending wealth of the city built beside an enormous gold vein. Gloria glances out the window — of these streets of gold, only rubble remains.

She opens the map and directs Stuart to keep going straight. Thunder rumbles, and Gloria shudders.

“That sounded like a growl,” Stuart says, apprehension quaking in his voice.

Gloria says nothing, but looks at the thunderhead. The cloud shifts and meanders like a cat. No, a snake. A boa slithering across the sky, surrounding and squeezing this city.

“Hurry, Stu,” she pleads, and Stuart steps on the gas.

They speed through deserted streets, flanked by crumbling buildings. The storm cloud seems to glide towards them, and Gloria fears they will never leave if it catches up to them.

Lightning flashes across the sky, and Stuart thinks it looks like fangs, but he says nothing. From his quick glance at Gloria’s ashen face, he knows she agrees.

At last, they reach the city limits. Stuart sees the bright day ahead and wills the rumbling engine to go faster, though the speedometer is at its wits’ end.

The storm cloud roars as the car dashes out of the city into the blazing sunlight.

Gloria turns in her seat and stares behind her. The cloud twists into the shape of a dark snake-like head. It opens its mouth and spits fire into the shining city of eternal wealth.

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OLD ENGLISH TAROT: XVII The Star

Ripper

Ripper

Dainty heels click-clack on the pavement and approach the dark alley. He hides in a doorway, the dim gaslight of the streetlamp shines only on the blade peeking out from his sleeve. His features are in shadow, yet, in the darkness, he smirks.

The heels approach, and the woman rounds the corner, entering the alley. The sputtering gas-lamp flickers as she walks by, but he sees the seductive radiance emanating from her. She shines with the light of the brightest star.

Does she not know a murderer lurks the streets?

He wants her.

He chooses her.

He waits as she passes by the gloomy doorway, oblivious to his shadowy presence. He slithers in the gloom, his footfalls soundless on the cobblestone. Her footsteps echo in the night.

The fingers clasping the cold dagger twitch, and his nostrils flare, anticipating the aroma of flowing blood. It is a metallic perfume so powerful in its seductiveness, he must bathe in it again and again.

She walks on and nears the next gaslight. 

He reaches out and grabs her. 

She snarls. 

The blade flashes in the dim light.

The street is abuzz with the rumor the killer has struck again. Police shove their way through the crowd huddled in the alleyway. In the soft light of dawn, they expect the sight of a woman’s torn corpse. 

They find a man instead; a dagger lies beside him. 

Jagged fang marks slash his throat, and his eyes stare, frozen in abject terror. 

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ALEISTER CROWLEY THOTH TAROT: Queen of Wands

Harbinger

Harbinger

Cleopatra Bysbys sits in her aerie with her rifle resting beside the chair. She gazes at the large windows, but does not see the treetops and full moon shining its silver light on her shabby house. On most days, at this late hour, she uses her long-sight—her mind’s eye—to snoop on the neighbors from the comfort of her bed. But tonight, Cleopatra sits in her belvedere, the small observatory atop her house, with her gun at the ready because she knows danger is coming.

Her next-door neighbor, Adrian Ryder, is in his bedroom, while across the street from him, Cassie Power cries herself to sleep, mourning her dead mother. The soft hum of the TV helps muffle her tears; it is her father’s nighttime resource to numb the pain. Cleopatra Bysbys sees him sitting in the living room, the TV blaring, while he stares straight ahead, not minding what he sees. 

Cleopatra switches her mind’s gaze to Adrian Ryder’s house. His family is far more entertaining than the Powers’ gloomy lives. Adrian is reading a book, enjoying the unusual quiet of his home. His younger brothers are at a sleepover, while his father works late. His mother is…

Adrian pauses his reading and listens for a moment. He senses his mother is in her bedroom, sitting at the vanity table and wiping off her makeup. Adrian resumes reading; Cleopatra Bysbys raises an eyebrow. Can the boy…? Impossible, she thinks, he just knows the family routine. There are no fights tonight, and Adrian basks in the silence, grateful that his father has been working so late these past few weeks. Cleopatra sneers; Mr. Ryder left work hours ago, mere minutes after his new assistant sashayed out of the building. 

Cleopatra Bysbys snaps to attention as the black mist descends upon her street. She does not like this mist. It is the harbinger of an ancient evil, one she thought vanquished eons ago. Her hand slides down and caresses her rifle; a man in a top hat saunters in the mist.

Adrian Ryder pauses his reading and gazes out the window. Cassie Power’s tears have stopped flowing, and she stares at the moonlit glass. The black mist swallows all night sounds; Cleopatra Bysbys raises her rifle and kneels at an open window with the barrel pointed at the mist. Though the mist hides the man in the top hat, her powerful mind’s eye perceives him well.

An eerie atmosphere envelops the street, and Adrian Ryder is on high alert. Cassie Power senses the danger in the night, and the fear paralyzes her. She reaches for the long chain around her neck and clasps the horse-shaped obsidian pendant at its end. Her heart races.

Adrian Ryder clutches the golden coin in his hand, and stares straight ahead. His toes jerk with adrenaline, and he wills himself to run and defend Cassie, but an invisible rock crushes his body and paralyzes him.  

Blinding white soars past Cassie’s window and a barn owl alights on the narrow ledge with its back to Cassie. Cassie gulps in fear, as the barn owl rotates its head and faces Cassie. The sight of the heart-shaped white face comforts her, and the fear lightens a little. 

The Ugly Man in the Mist struts up the Powers’ driveway and climbs the stoop. He reaches for the door knob, smirking and savoring the fear emanating from within the house.

A loud crack whips through the black mist, dissipating it. The man in the top hat snaps his hand back and growls in pain. Blood drips from his hand onto the stoop; his palm has a gaping hole. He scans the surrounding street, but sees no one. The barn owl screeches and breaks his silent spell. Clutching his injured hand, The Ugly Man in the Mist flees into the night.

Cleopatra Bysbys lowers her rifle and directs her gaze at the radiant barn owl perched on the ledge at Cassie’s window.

“The Long Fight is coming, my friend,” she says, “but at least this one bleeds.”

The owl meets her gaze and hoots in response.

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UNIVERSAL WAITE TAROT: VI of Cups

Dark Corner

Dark Corner

Shadows slither down the wall like spilled ink spreads over paper. Darkness envelops the world outside the window until all Colin sees are dark masses of black and gray. He pulls the bedcovers up to his chin and listens to the comforting sounds of Mom and Dad as they prepare for bed. 

Colin wills the light peeking through the crack under the door to shine brighter, but knows the darkness will also swallow it soon. It swallows everything, and Colin wishes that night would never come. He wishes to live on a planet that never rotates on its axis and always faces the sun.

“But life would be impossible on such a planet,” the teacher said.

“So would darkness,” Colin answered, and the teacher gazed at him with a puzzled expression.

“Are you afraid of the dark?” His mother asked when she hung up the phone.

Colin nodded, and Mom promised to buy him a nightlight. Dad said the world stays the same in light or darkness, and he should never fear the dark. Colin nodded and gulped down the embarrassment, but refrained from telling it was not the darkness that he feared most, but the man that appeared in its depths.

Tonight is the last night he will sleep in gloom; Dad turned the closet light on and left its door ajar, and Mom left the bedroom door open.

Colin’s heart beats like a drum against his chest when both doors sway themselves shut, as the shadows ooze in through the windows and plunge the room into pitch black.

Colin stares at the deepest corner; his breath clings to his throat and sweat runs down his feet. The darkness is taking shape, condensing and expanding until Colin sees the clear-cut figure of a hooded man standing there, watching him, glaring at him. He senses its icy stare on his clammy toes and closes his eyes tight, like a kitten, hoping, pleading with the figure to leave.

“Tomorrow,” Colin whispers, “you won’t be here anymore.”

The figure’s lips curl into a sneer.

“I’ll always be here,” it whispers in its deep voice, “just because you cannot see me in the light does not mean I am gone.”

Colin gulps, knowing it speaks the truth. Beads of cold sweat form on his forehead and he wants to scream for Dad. But something in the smooth silkiness of its voice stops him. Colin feels a warm touch on his cool forehead and opens his eyes. The apparition no longer stands in the corner. It sits on the bed now and smiles at Colin with loving warmth.

The apparition strokes Colin’s forehead, and the fear melts away.

“Who are you?” He asks.

“I am Darkness, Loneliness, Fear. Everything you cannot see and do not understand. I am The Unknown, and now that I have introduced myself, you will never fear me again.”

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THE GODDESS TAROT: IX – Contemplation

Contemplation-The Goddess Tarot: IX - Contemplation

Contemplation

Corey lies on his bed and contemplates the ceiling. His fixed gaze and his body’s relaxed demeanor contrast against the racing thoughts in his mind. His life is at a crossroads, and his mind seeks to see as far ahead as possible in all directions before he chooses the path to follow. An innate risk-taker; Corey is always quick to realize and seize an opportunity. He knows the solution—the road to take at a crossroads—will always present itself. 

Until now.

He has two choices: take the job out of state, or move back home and help his parents run the family business.

The job at the big corporation should be a straightforward decision, but still he doubts. It pays very well, and Corey is always open to new experiences. It is a job he has been striving for throughout his college years. He survived the grueling interview process and jumped with delight upon receiving the job offer. The company is solid and offers plenty of advancement opportunities. It even offers to help with MBA tuitions. Yet… 

His other choice is to run the small shoe store his grandfather opened with blood, sweat and tears. It has survived against all odds, and chugged through The Great Depression, several economic downturns, and even the financial meltdown of the 21st-century, though with little expansion. It’s profitable, and Corey would be the third generation to run it. Corey can see its future. In his mind, he sees the 100th anniversary celebrations that will come in the next decade. In fact, he sees far beyond that. But there’s no risk, no adventure in the meantime. The opportunity to expand is years away. And if he takes the corporate job, the adventure starts now. 

So what’s the problem? He thinks. Mom and Dad are still young and healthy, now is the time to try his hand at something else, and learn beyond what his grandfather and father learned in their lifetimes. Corey knows the shop will always be there, a haven to return to when his ship runs aground. So what stops him from taking the corporate job offer?

Corey sighs and shifts onto his side, facing the wall. His bedroom door clicks open, and he hears Dad’s footsteps on the carpet. Confused, Corey turns to face him, but his heart stops when he sees his father’s haggard and ashen face and his blue-tinged lips. Corey opens his mouth to speak, but no words come out. His father stands beside the bed, and gazes at him with the blank stare of a corpse. The apparition carries a gravestone. Shock snags Corey’s breath when he notices the date.

At last, the words flow with the tears, “Will you be dead in two years?”

The apparition nods and fades into the dusky gloom seeping through the window. A sob strangles in Corey’s throat; he reaches for the phone.

“Hello?” Dad’s voice is a soothing balm.

“Dad,” Corey chokes.

“Son! How are you? Did you get the job?”

“I’m fine, how are you?” Corey ignores the last question.

“Fine, fine. A little out of breath lately. Mom thinks I should see a doctor, but I’m sure it’s nothing. The job?”

“No… I didn’t get it,” Corey lies.

In the end, the solution always appears.

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TAROCCHI DELL’OLIMPO: 7 of Pentacles

Aegis

Adrian Ryder tore his gaze away from the book and contemplated the middle distance. He was reading about Perseus and Medusa, but found it hard to focus. The recent dream had sparked a tiny ember of peril that flared and dulled over the following days, but never died out. In the dream, Adrian, riding Ethur, came upon the Ugly Man in the Mist and an evil crone plotting to take Cassie. He had awakened, sensing its reality and the certainty that Cassie’s life was in grave danger.   

The school year was ending, and he kept telling himself this was the last stretch, but the sense of impending menace nagged at him. Yet, the branches of the ever-blossoming trees of the Grove by the Old Cemetery doused this dread almost to extinction. He sought the silence of the biggest ever-blossoming tree and hoped that by climbing it and being in it, not just in the grove, he might move forward with his final school assignment. But the dream…

It showed him the people who wanted Cassie for mysterious and nefarious reasons, but not how to stop them. Later, it had disturbed him even more when Cassie told about the new girl turning into a hag in front of the bathroom mirror. 

He laid his head back on the tree trunk and wished for Athena’s shield, which struck the enemy down in terror, as the soft rustle of the breeze through the blossoms lulled him and their sweet fragrance numbed his worried brain.

“Adrian,” a soft voice said beside him, “Climb down.”

Adrian gazed into a woman’s face. She had Cassie’s striking emerald green eyes, and knew it was Cassandra, her ancestor, buried in this grove.

Adrian clambered down from the tree. He found himself in a moonlit cemetery with old and crooked grave stones spiking out of the gnarled bramble. This place was ancient, much older than any cemetery in New England. He felt it in the moonlight and the soft breeze that swirled around him whispering in a thousand dead tongues. There was an eerie, yet comforting, peace about it. Cassandra stood beside one gravestone shimmering in the moon’s glow, but time had effaced its name.

“Dig,” she whispered.

He kneeled; one moonbeam pointed its long tendril to a glimmering spot on the ground, and Adrian scraped the damp earth with his hands. Dirt caught between his nails and soft brown mud caked his fingers. Digging deeper, the earth’s thick texture changed and covered his hands in fine soot and ash. He suppressed a shudder; they burned witches in this part of the world. Soon his fingers closed over a cloth pouch. He pulled it out of the ground, and turning it in his dirty hands, untied the string and opened it.

A shining gold coin fell on his blackened palm. It had a long, gold chain wound and threaded around it, binding it in a tether like Ethur’s silver bridle. Adrian turned to Cassandra, but she had vanished. A moonbeam caught the coin, and it sparkled in the starry darkness; it had a woman with serpentine hair engraved on one face, the other was a smooth and golden mirror. His heart skipped a beat, but his lips broke into a smirk. He draped the chain around his neck; a hawk screeched and the sound cut right through him.

Adrian’s eyelids flew open. Sunlight hurt his eyes, and the wind gusted through the blossoms. He jerked in surprise and almost fell off the tree. He gazed at his dirty fingers with black soot under their nails. Around his neck he felt the weight of the gold coin: Athena’s shield.

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MINCHIATE: Five of Staves

Was It a Dream?

Was it a dream? Linda wonders as she inspects the back fence. It puzzles her; there are no breaks or marks or upturned soil, no trace of the event. 

In the dead silence of the wee hours, a dog barked. Linda lay in bed listening, unable to sleep, and frozen in fear. Danger, threat, and aggression hovered over the silent night.

Linda recalls lying on her side with her head turned towards the window, and gazing at the back fence through the bony thorns of her bare rosebushes. A bright red full moon shone its eerie silver light on the backyard; it glittered on the frosted ground, and Linda remembers thinking it was too bright.

And how the dog barked. Its howls and growls and woofs pierced the winter night, which glimmered, Linda thinks, the air was too clear, like ice.

She listened to the dog hidden behind the fence, and though its barks rang throughout the neighborhood, she knew it was in the neighbor’s backyard which abutted her own. Such a bright moon! The unnatural brightness disturbed her, and fear throbbed in her pounding heart, yet her sight remained on the back fence. 

A ripping and creaking interrupted the barking, and wide-eyed and ashen-faced, Linda watched the fence rattle. The moonlight shone on the wooden slat as its bottom broke apart, and a big black head poked through it. Sharp white teeth gnashed the slat beside it and snatched it off its nails.

The dog’s head broke and tore at the fence, until the hole was big enough for the big, black furry body to crawl through it and enter the garden.

The dog trampled Linda’s covered herbs and raged through her frosted yard. Its growls and snarls pierced the love and tenderness she lavished on that garden. The dog overturned her patio chairs and table and ripped the cushions. Flower pots cracked, and Linda’s heart raced with fear.

She shrieked when two blazing yellow eyes peeked at her through the dormant rosebushes. Paws reached out towards her, scratching and mauling, trying to enter. She feared the dog would shatter the window and attack her. 

Linda pulled the covers over her face, hoping the dog would not see her, and listened to the thunderous barking outside the window.

Daylight and all is still. In the crisp gray dawn, Linda inspects the untouched the fence. 

Was it a dream? 

She searches for signs of disruption, but finds none. No trampled herbs, no chewed garden hoses, no gashed cushions, no dog hair on upright patio furniture.

Linda pulls her coat tight around her chest, and stands in her rubber boots, gazing towards the rosebushes whose skeletal branches show no sign of attack. Yet, she knows the black dog peered at her through the window.

Was it a dream?

She wants to believe so, until Linda’s puzzled gaze catches the blood-red paw print scratched into the glass, just above the windowsill.

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UNIVERSAL WAITE TAROT: XII The Hanged Man

Mesquite

The scraggly mesquite tree creaked in the soft breeze blowing through the open window and billowing the voile curtains.

“It’s a peculiar tree,” the hired arborist had told Daisy and Paul, “It’s at least one-hundred-and-fifty years old, and though bare, it’s very much alive and healthy. It has no plague or disease, yet, you say it doesn’t regrow its leaves?”

Daisy nodded, “We bought the house at least three years ago, and we’ve never seen a blossom or a leaf on that tree. I love how its twisted branches spread out like a bony canopy.”

Paul shrugged, but the expert had agreed.

“Yes’m, there’s a certain melancholic beauty to it. My advice: enjoy its spidery shade, there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Though the sun shone and the cool breeze blew through the backyard, Daisy and Paul spent the morning in the living room, measuring spaces and pondering whether a new oaken sideboard would fit under the windows that looked out at the tree.

Paul raised his cellphone to his face, “Let’s see if this A.R. app works.”

“A.R.?” asked Daisy.

“Augmented reality,” he answered, “it can overlay a picture of the sideboard we want onto our room, so we can see if it fits before we buy it.”

Daisy nodded, impressed. She glanced over Paul’s shoulder as he pointed the cellphone camera at the windows. She smiled when the image of the sideboard appeared in her living room while the skeletal branches of her beloved tree peeked through the frame.

Paul said, “I think it would look good, don’t you?”

And Daisy was about to agree when she noticed a shadow pass over the image.

“What’s that?”

Paul turned his eyes back to the phone screen. In it, the living room walls disappeared, and the tree stood in leafy pomp, outlined by a blazing firmament.

“Huh,” Paul muttered, and lifted his eyes from the screen.

The warm, yellow sunshine of midday poured through the windows and onto the gray-green vinyl-plank floor, reflecting off the cream-colored walls. On the phone screen, the tree stood on a lonely grassland beneath a fiery red sky.

“It is the same tree,” Daisy said, “I know every tangled bough, but it’s blooming!”

The screen flickered, and silhouettes approached the tree. The couple distinguished a group of rough-and-tumble men on horseback. A man with arms tied behind his back stumbled behind them as one rider pulled him along by a rope.

“It’s a posse!” Paul exclaimed, and they watched transfixed as it reached the tree. 

One man slung a noose over a high branch. The others pulled the tethered man forward and placed the noose around his neck. Then, they tugged on the rope, and the bound man flew upwards. The laughing and cheering bandits tied the rope to the tree trunk, while the hanged man dangled and jerked from the noose. 

The sun dipped on the horizon; the hanged man grew still and swung back and forth. The posse mounted their horses and rode away. The sun shot out its last rays over the empty grassland, and twilight settled over the extinguished life. A mournful wind howled and wailed, blowing away all the leaves from the hanging tree. 

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TAROCCHI DELL’OLIMPO: 4 of Wands

RPG

Martin let out a snarl that was caught between a roar and a growl. The Wi-Fi had been screwy all evening, and he wanted to unwind by playing his favorite video game.

It was the latest installment of a popular RPG — role-playing game — set in ancient Greece. The game crashed and froze several times, and Martin, frustrated, tried once more before calling it a night. He turned off the console and checked the router (it seemed to work fine). He restarted it anyway, just in case…

Martin drummed his impatient fingers on the arms of his gamer’s chair as the game loaded. Outside, the wind howled and Martin felt a tinge of apprehension crawl up his spine. He choked it and forced it down with one dense gulp. Martin hated admitting that storms freaked him out. It wasn’t just childish; he felt canine too.

The storm was coming, and the wind ululated its dire warning. He hoped his game would keep the storm at bay, but it was loading at a snail’s pace.

“Yes!” Martin heaved a sigh of relief as the game asked him to choose a character.

Martin cupped the controller with both hands, his fingers embracing their best friend. A soft, delighted smile crept up his lips as the game’s music blasted from the home entertainment system.

His fingers moved the tiny joystick and pressed buttons as his character, a Greek oracle in golden armor, moved forward in a seamless stream of motion that contrasted with the staccato click-click of the controller.

His character arrived at a ravine where a bloody battled raged.

Martin bared his teeth, the thirst for pixellated blood triggering his adrenaline.

This was it, the ultimate battle, he only had to find the Nemesis and vanquish him. Then he would win the game. He would be the first to beat the game since its release.

The Greek Oracle obeyed all Martin’s orders and fought a deft and valiant battle. Fallen enemy after fallen enemy piled at his feet.

He came upon the hoplite phalanx, a wall of armored soldiers with tall shields protecting them and long spears pointing at the Greek Oracle, their faces obscured by the bronze helmets.

Martin smirked. He made it. He only needed to get past the phalanx and the Nemesis would appear.

Faster than he could say “abracadabra”, the Greek Oracle cast a spell to slow down the phalanx’s movements. He fought and jumped and slaughtered them. Game-blood filled the screen.

The phalanx retreated, and as the smoke from his myriad of fireballs cleared, the Greek Oracle stood mid-screen, ready to fight the looming figure that was forming in the background.

Dark, smoldering and menacing, the Nemesis advanced. Martin’s thoughts rushed through the arsenal of powers and spells at his command, formulating a battle plan.

The Nemesis raced a fiery bow and arrow. He pointed it at Martin’s character, the Greek Oracle, and before Martin wondered why there was no monologue, the Nemesis shot.

The storm raged into the morning. It was still sprinkling as a police officer knocked on Martin’s door.

“Mr. Ludo,” the officer called, “I’m here to do a wellness check. Are you in there?” 

He knocked again, but no answer. The officer glanced around and shrugged. He was about to leave when something caught his eye. He peeked through the living room window.

Martin sat on his gamer’s chair with his hands still clutching the controller. The officer gasped when he stepped sideways for a better look and saw the arrow buried in Martin’s chest.

The TV screen blared “Game Over”.

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OLD ENGLISH TAROT: Four of Coins

Red Sand

The painting hung by itself in the gallery; the enormous canvas covered most of the back wall. When Daphne wandered in, she paused in front of it, and gave it a bored glance.

Abstract art never interested Daphne. She found no meaning to it. To her, it was just a bunch of colors, stains, blobs, and oodles of ego. But this painting seized her. It caught her in its grip, and while Daphne’s mind told her to move away, her body froze with her torso facing the painting while her feet turned sideways, as if unsure whether to stay or go.

Entranced, Daphne contemplated the painting. It was a blob of bright red, with black and blue lines running down it. The uneven lines streaked it with such violence it seemed as if a tiger had mauled the canvas. The red background looked like a bloodstain on the sand. Indeed, the artist had named it “Red Sand”. 

But Daphne saw a city street in a fiery sunset. The blue and black strikes that seared the sunset bled out of the picture and surrounded her. They grew straight and tall, flanking her on either side. Up and up they rose until they scraped the sky. The pavement stretching out in front of her shone with the metallic green of automobile oil. Cars honked in the distance, and Daphne wondered whether they honked beyond the gallery walls, or whether they honked in the painting. Wherever, traffic rushed all around her, but she saw none of it. The sky darkened above the sunset fire, and a chill crept up Daphne’s spine.

Footsteps clacked on the pavement behind her. She wanted to turn around and yank herself out of the painting, but she stood transfixed by the vibrant colors of the sunset and darkened skyscrapers on either side.

The footsteps approached. Daphne followed the click-clack of stiletto heels as they reached her, then walked around her on either side, like water separating around a stubborn rock and flowing back together afterwards. The footsteps overtook Daphne and continued down the oil-slicked pavement towards the sunset. She listened, still staring down the abstract alleyway and waiting to see their owner appear, but the footsteps paused for an instant, then picked up the pace and hurried away from her. A sense of impending danger rose from Daphne’s toes, like a menace careening towards her. The footsteps’ panicking clack-clack hurtled into the blazing sunset as inky darkness fell over the sky and the buildings no longer glowed in the gloaming. Now they were only darkened statues flanking her, like fallen angels guarding the threshold to Hell.

The footfalls faded away; then, a bloodcurdling scream lacerated the painted night and ripped her out of the picture.

Shaken, Daphne glanced around for the source of that heart-wrenching shriek, but the gallery was quiet, with no sound of a commotion anywhere.

“It’s a magnificent piece, its violence rips through you,” a voice wafted in from the doorway. 

Startled, Daphne whipped around towards it. The curator stood gazing at the painting. 

“Yes,” Daphne agreed. 

“You know, it was the artist’s last piece. He called it ‘Red Sand’ because it’s an abstract depiction of his wife’s death. Police found her murdered on a beach. It was a brutal crime—never solved—and the artist never recovered from the shock. He killed himself soon after finishing this painting.”

Daphne stared wide-eyed at the curator, then gazed back at the painting. 

“No,” Daphne said, “his wife didn’t die on a beach, they murdered her in a city alley.”