I panted as I conquered the final step of the three flights of stairs (the elevator being defunct). A musty odor of mold and recycled air met my nostrils, making me nauseous. I started down the hall, reading the dusty room number placards beside the doors: 3A, 3B, 3C, and so on. As I made my way to apartment 3J, that of the artist Ottilie Mueller, my shoes clacked on the grime-caked carpet. I wondered how a supposedly marvelous artist like her could dwell in such squalor.
The first thing I noticed when I stopped outside of apartment 3J was the sharp change in atmosphere. The unpleasant heat and dense air gave way to a comfortably cool breeze, with a hint of fresh humidity. It was a refreshing feeling. Admittedly, it perked me up and raised my hopes for this artist, however irrelevant. I knocked on her door, and she was there in moments.
What greeted me was a creature befitting the shrill, vacant caller from a week ago. Ottilie peered at me through the cracked, chain-locked door with sheepish eyes hidden behind semicircle glasses. Her sunken face betrayed malnourishment.
"Mr. Clarence, Lefebvre Art Gallery?" she squeaked. I nodded. She slid the chain lock away and opened the door completely, letting out a gush of almost oceanic air.
I stepped into the apartment and let Ottilie guide me through. I followed behind her, noting her unkempt, chestnut hair and torn, stained clothes. Her apartment was in contrast, though — unlike the filth of the halls, Ottilie's apartment was tidy and well-kept. Even the carpet poofed cleanly under my feet. The ceiling lights were dark, with all lighting instead provided by tabletop lamps here and there.
The lamps cast strange shadows on our way to Ottilie's livingroom, which doubled as her studio. No furniture was to be found, as four steel easels occupied a full quarter of the room. The rest of the room was packed with canvases, painted and unpainted alike, stacked against the walls and reaching to the ceiling. The sheer volume of her artwork stunned me.
Ottilie stopped in the center of the path between the paintings and turned to face me, exasperation on her face. She gestured to the paintings that faced us.
"Sorry for the mess," she whimpered, "but maybe you'll see something you like out of all these? I can explain my process to you, if you'd like."
She began to choke out words of explanation, her voice coming and going, but my eyes were glued to her paintings. They each depicted a surreal scene, in a style heavily reminiscent of biblical paintings. There was nothing biblical or even earthly about her subjects, however; one painting was a collection of elongated, alien forms with their bony backs to me, but with their scornful faces twisted toward me. Another appeared to be an angle of cobbled ceiling supporting dangling shapes, vaguely resembling bodies. Still others were of landscapes with trees replaced by tendrils, horizons with many suns or moons in the sky, cities with impossible geometries, a indecipherable forms suspended in blackness. No matter the gruesome or weird portrayals, one thing was undebatable: all of Ottilie Mueller's paintings were masterpieces of their own caliber.
Of all of the paintings, though, one stood out to me singularly. It was of an island seen distantly from a choppy ocean. The beach extended for untold distances and was strewn with carcasses of beached sea creatures, and in the distance there lurked an unsettling figure among the ruin. Stranger still were the more distant towers stretching into the sky, bent and posed as if organic. The last thing that I noticed were the outlines reaching under the island and into the ocean, symmetrical and teasing the idea of gargantuan limbs.
Ottilie noticed my fixation on this painting and spoke up with a single word, uttered more powerfully than anything I'd ever heard her say: "Telud."
I snapped my head up to face her, my eyebrows raised in surprise. She stared at me with her lips parted and her eyes wide. She stood straight up, but her shoulder soon slouched again and her eyes darted away from mine. She concentrated on the painting.
"I call that one Telud. That's the name of the island." She shuffled to my side and joined me in gazing at the painting of Telud. Moments of silence passed while I anticipated another word from her, but none came. She, too, was fixated.
"Your work is impressive, Ms. Mueller. I've never seen anything like it." She ignored me. I felt a sudden gush of frigid air seemingly from the painting. "This one, Telud, as you call it... It would be a honor to host this in the Lefebvre Art Gallery."
At this, Ottilie looked at me with watering eyes. Her mouth curled down in a tormented frown, and her jaw quivered. She shook her head fast, her disheveled hair bouncing in sync.
"You don't understand. Telud isn't just a painting. Any of the others, take them, I beg you to, but I beg you not to take Telud."
I was bewildered. I was about to argue the benefits of presenting a painting as beautifully odd as Telud, but I gestured a hand too close to the painting and Ottilie slapped it away. I took a frightened step back, holding my hands up. Ottilie put her hands on her face and started to weep.
"I want you to take Telud, but you can't," she sobbed, "It can never be away from me."
I took a cautious step toward her, extending an empathetic hand to her shoulder.
"It's okay, Ottilie. But why can't-"
An intense gust of cold, salty wind tossed me away from the painting and Ottilie, and a bright flash of lightning blinded me as I fell to the floor. A deafening thunderclap shook the room, causing an avalanche of paintings and canvases. When all was settled, I sat up, disoriented, and scanned the room for Ottilie. There was no sign of her. I stood up and approached the Telud painting, and what I saw scarred my mind forever. The ocean in the painting was alive, as were the brooding storm clouds. The towers wavered and danced into the sky, and the sound of the ocean made me feel as if I were really there.
But another sound was there, too, faintly audible — it was the sound of Ottilie weeping. I listened close, unbelieving that it originated from the painting, but when I turned my eyes to the painting, I spotted the outline of a woman standing on the shore of the island. Terror filled me as I knelt closer to the painting, my heart and mind racing, but then I noticed something else. The indecipherable figure who had stood in the distance before was now absent. I scanned the painting for its presence, but found nothing.
"Ottilie!" I screamed instead, vainly hoping that I could rescue her somehow. I stood and screamed for what seemed like ages, while she only continued to weep, far away as ever. After some time, I became aware of something churning in the water a small distance away from me. I saw the splashing of arms and the intermittent surfacing of a skeletal head. Frozen in fear, I watched it until it disappeared under the water, and I relaxed for a moment.
I watched Ottilie in silence until a creeping dread went down my spine, and my eyes gravitated to the bottom of the painting, where a set of blank eyes stared at me from sunken sockets in a greenish, rubbery head. A rotten arm shot up and reached out of the painting, causing me to fall back and shriek in terror. I scrambled to my feet and ran, abandoning everything but my hope for survival.
Everything was a blur as I escaped into the hall and back into the sweltering heat and raced down the three flights of decrepit stairs and sprinted past the baffled attendant at the front desk. Only when I reached the street and ran blocks away did I feel safe, at which point I collapsed onto my side and breathed rapidly until the adrenaline wore off. Never again have I considered what strange worlds that Ottilie Mueller stumbled upon, nor have I sustained any hope of returning to her apartment to recover her paintings. As far as I am concerned, after writing this, they never existed.