A few years ago, I dated Andrew Edwards. He was one of the most beautiful men I’d ever seen in my life, but it would never have lasted as we had nothing in common.
We met in a dead-end job, both fresh out of university with no experience, biding our time and looking for something better. I had studied psychology and I wanted to remain in that field. Andrew had studied art and did not. At first I had assumed that this was due to the unreliability and competitiveness of the industry, but this was not the case. His reason was revealed the first time I visited his house.
Incredible paintings covered the walls, all his creations. I could not begin to understand why he wouldn’t want to pursue a career in this when he was clearly so talented, and I told him so.
‘There’s no point,’ he replied, with a little shrug, ‘I’ve already peaked.’
I laughed, incredulous. ‘I find that hard to believe.’
In response, he took my hand and led me into a little study where, above the desk, was another painting. He pointed at it. ‘See for yourself.’
I looked up and my breath caught in my throat.
It was a self-portrait, so perfect that it might have been a photograph. Only up close could I make out tiny brush strokes. The detail was so precise that it looked as if the cloth would be soft to the touch and the skin supple. I could make out the tiny hairs on his arms, the light in his eyes…
‘Good lord,’ I breathed.
‘See? Told you.’ Andrew leant back against the wall, gazing up at his masterpiece. ‘I’ll never top it. And I wouldn’t even try.’ His face tightened. ‘What would be the point anyway? I’m twenty-one in that picture and I’ll never be that perfect again.’
I was too overwhelmed by the otherworldliness of the portrait to formulate much of a response so I just said, ‘Like the picture of Dorian Gray.’
He gave me a puzzled look. I was surprised he hadn’t heard of it.
‘It’s an old story about a man who has this painting of himself. It ages and grows ugly with all his cruelty and corruption while he remains young and handsome.’
Andrew seemed interested. ‘Does he stay that way forever?’
‘Maybe he would have done. But at the end of the story he stabs the portrait in a fit of rage and when he’s found, the painting is beautiful again and his corpse is old and ugly.’
‘I’d like that,’ he murmured, staring wistfully up at the picture. ‘To stay looking how I do there. For it to change instead of me.’
‘It’s a good story’, I said. ‘You should read it.’ Not that I thought he would. An interest in literature was clearly another thing we didn’t share. I doubted that he was ever likely to experience the full story of Dorian Gray.
How wrong I was.
It happened two weeks later. Andrew and I had been out for an evening with some work friends and since he had been drinking, I was driving him home. He was sitting in the passenger seat complaining about some film that he hated that a colleague of ours had thought was fantastic.
‘He’s clearly an idiot,’ he ranted ‘The soundtrack alone should be enough to make him see how awful that garbage is, never mind the acting and the story.’ He began patting his pockets. ‘Where’s my phone? I want to text him to let him know what an idiot he is.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘You threw it onto the back seat,’ I said. ‘Which is just as well. Justin doesn’t need to know what you think about him when you’re drunk.’
There was a clunk sound. Andrew had undone his seatbelt and was clumsily reaching into the back of the car for his phone.
‘Put that back on!’ I snapped. ‘It’s dangerous along here!’ We were travelling down an unlit road with woods on either side. Long shadows consumed the weak glow of the headlights and the visibility was almost non-existent.
‘Oh, it’s fine,’ he answered. ‘It’s only for a second.’ He turned back round to the front, prize in hand, and reached for the belt. ‘See? No prob…’
And he got no further. A deer burst out of the undergrowth, dashing in front of the car.
I screamed and swerved, slamming on the brakes, and kept on screaming as I saw the trunk of a tree loom up with awful speed in front of us.
I don’t remember much of the following few seconds beyond the noise of shattering glass and the crunch of metal. After that, there was confusion as I tried to work out what had enveloped me, eventually grasping that it was the air bag. With shaking hands, I pushed it out of my face.
‘Andrew?’ I tried to call out to him, but it emerged as a whisper. He wasn’t in the seat next to me and in the darkness I could make out a jagged hole in the windscreen in front of his seat. I released myself from my belt and opened the door.
My legs felt like jelly as I walked around the front of the car, passing the trunk of the tree we had crashed into.
‘Andrew?’ I called again. An image of what must have happened formed in my mind and a wave of nausea flowed over me. Panic rose in my chest… and then I heard a moan.
My head snapped round and on the ground, some distance in front of the car, was Andrew.
To my astonishment, he was climbing to his feet.
I stared and as I began to stagger towards him he turned to face me.
‘Jesus Christ, babe,’ he said, his voice a little slurred. ‘What the hell?’
There wasn’t a mark on him.
We were both discharged from hospital the next day. My seat belt and air bag had done what they should and I was left with only bruises and a few friction burns. In Andrew’s case… well, no one had much of an explanation for his condition.
‘Amazing,’ said the nurse, ‘Not even a scratch! You’re quite the miracle, Mr Edwards!’
I was inclined to agree but Andrew seemed less enthusiastic about the situation. He kept on getting up to look at himself in the mirror, drawing his fingers down his face as if he expected to see something there.
We were both given a week off work after the accident. I tried to call Andrew several times but he didn’t answer, so in the end I went to his house.
I had to knock four times before he finally opened the door.
I was shocked by his appearance. He was a man who had always looked after himself and I had never seen him so unkempt. He was unshaven, with messy hair and he was deathly pale as if he hadn’t slept in days.
I swore and stepped forward with determination, forcing him to let me in. ‘Andrew, you look awful! Why didn’t you answer when I called?’
He moved away from me, pulling his arms from my hands. ‘I haven’t felt like seeing anyone.’
There was something off about the room but I was too distracted by his state to pay much attention. I didn’t attempt to take his hands again but said, ‘Babe, you’ve had a traumatic experience. Just because you’re not physically hurt doesn’t mean you’re ok.’
My heart was pounding as I continued. ‘It’s really not a good idea to isolate yourself like this. You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to, but you need to talk to somebody.’
He nodded his head, sure, sure, and sat down on the sofa, pressing his face into his hands. I looked at him sadly for a moment and then finally noticed what was different about the room: all of the paintings were gone.
‘Oh!’ I exclaimed. ‘You’ve taken your pictures down!’
‘Uh yeah,’ he murmured. ‘I wanted a change.’
‘Not the portrait too?’ I was almost outraged and walked quickly over to the study.
It was gone.
I turned to ask him where he had taken it but was alarmed to find that he was standing close behind me, with a strange look on his face. Before I could say anything, he said, ‘I threw it out.’
I was heartbroken.
We went back into the lounge and I wanted to stay a little longer but it was clear that he didn’t want me there. I knew it wasn’t personal, that this was just how he was dealing with his trauma and not a reflection on me. But I felt sad anyway.
‘Can I use your bathroom before I go?’ I asked, knowing that I was dragging this out. He nodded and I left him there, trudging upstairs feeling like this might be the last time I was here. I washed my hands and looked at myself in the mirror. I told my reflection to pull herself together and I was just about to go back downstairs when I found myself standing in front of his bedroom door.
I hesitated for a moment and then opened it, flicking on the light.
The portrait of Andrew was propped up against the far wall, but it was not as it had previously been. He had painted over it.
Gone was the pristine beautiful face from before and in its place was a broken, bloody mess.
Deep ragged wounds split it almost in half and the eyes, flat and colourless, rolled up into a head that caved in on one side. Its mouth was hanging open, tongue lolling. The visible skin was a yellowish white. It was grotesque.
I heard a step behind me and turned to face Andrew.
‘What did you do?’ I cried, horrified. He was staring at me with a look of terror burning in his eyes.
‘It’s how I’m supposed to look,’ he gasped. ‘That… is what I’m supposed to be.’
I grabbed his hands then pulled him into a hug. ‘Andrew, you have to speak to a doctor about this. You have to.’
For a moment he stood there and then he suddenly pushed me away.
‘You don’t understand. No one will understand.’ He moved to the side and his body language was clear: He wanted me to leave.
I was crying and I felt sick to my stomach but I knew that he wouldn’t listen to me.
So I left.
We were both due back into work the following Monday. I wasn’t surprised when Andrew didn’t show up.
His manager tried to get hold of him, followed by HR, but with no success. I tried to call him too, but he didn’t answer.
I was worried and eventually I even called the police to have them check on him. They informed me that they’d spoken to him and although he looked like he needed a good week’s sleep, they were not unduly concerned.
I forced myself to wait for another week before I returned to his house.
I’d had visions in my head of shoving past him when he opened the door, or even having to break in, but upon arriving I tried the door handle and found it unlocked. This was another sign that he was not in his right mind. Andrew had always been fastidious about security.
It was night time but there were no lights on downstairs. I called out his name as I walked inside but there was no response. I looked in the kitchen and the study and found them empty, so I climbed the stairs.
Even before I got to the top, I could see that the bedroom light was on and the door slightly ajar. I paused outside, momentarily held by some strange sense of foreboding, and then went in.
Andrew was on the bed, facing away from me. He was sitting naked with his legs drawn up and his arms wrapped tightly around his body.
He was staring at the portrait.
I felt bile rush into my throat and for a moment I was afraid that I might faint.
Andrew had changed the painting again.
The face was unrecognisably bloated. The eyes bulged grotesquely from their sockets and a black swollen tongue sagged out from the gaping mouth like a slug. I could see bone exposed underneath where the jagged wounds had stretched.
The remaining skin was a mix of yellow and black, splitting open in places and sloughing off in others, putrefying.
It was the most hideous thing I’d ever seen.
I ran to him. ‘Andrew,’ I reached out and touched him on the shoulder, wanting him to look at me. When he did, I suddenly wished that he hadn’t. I’d never seen an expression like it. So terrified, so utterly haunted.
‘What have you done, Andrew?’ I almost whispered it. ‘What are you doing?’
He stared at me with mad eyes. ‘I didn’t do it.’ His voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It sounded hollow and broken. ‘I wanted the picture to change instead of me, but I didn’t want this.’
He looked back at it.
‘That’s me. That’s how I should be. I wasn’t supposed to survive the accident, I should be dead. Dead and buried. But the portrait died instead.’ He looked back at me.
‘And now I have to watch myself rot.’
‘No!’ I cried. ‘You survived! You’re fine. This is just your mind fucking with you. You are making the changes to the portrait because you’re not well!’
I moved over to the painting and reached out to grab it but suddenly recoiled.
‘You can smell it, can’t you?’ Andrew whispered. ‘It stinks like decay.’
I looked back at him in bewilderment. Had he done this? He was shivering, hugging himself. He seemed capable of any kind of madness.
I had to call an ambulance; he clearly couldn’t be left on his own. I felt helpless.
‘Andrew,’ I said, gently, ‘I’m going to get you some help. It’ll be alright.’
For a moment, he just sat there, rocking back and forth. Then he looked directly at me.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No, it won’t.’
And then he leapt to his feet, lunging over to the painting. He struck it as hard as he could, his fingers ripping through the canvas, tearing at it, his movements violent but his face oddly calm.
He stood with his back to me for a second and then turned with a smile on his face, the torn portrait in his hand.
I watched as his face split open, as his eyes burst from his head and his skin turned black and started to pour off his bones, and I screamed and screamed and screamed.