It was the way she stood; legs crossed, hands behind back and head leaning to one side so that her long, chestnut locks tumbled into the air. Entranced, completely entranced by the painting. That’s why Carl had paused. Few people were interested in the exhibits, and pretty women? Never.
Carl’s office was on the other side of the room. He could, he realised, say something to her as he walked past. A friendly ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’. That would be normal, wouldn’t it? But she was so concentrated, he didn’t want to disturb her.
While he pondered his dilemma, he bobbed from one leg to the other until, finally, he reached a decision. He’d do what he always did. Nothing.
Creeping silently forwards, he caught the scent of sugar and jasmine, like a garden on a warm August night, the smell of flowers drifting on a cool breeze.
Then, to his surprise, she turned and said, “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
He blushed. Was it obvious he’d been enjoying her perfume?
“The colours,” she continued. “The red and the white. So simple, yet so involving.”
The painting. She was talking about the painting. “Oh, yes.”
“I feel good when I look at it. I don’t know why.”
Her voice was honey, but all he could think of saying was, “Yes.”
“I get tongue-tied too, sometimes.”
She giggled. Not maliciously, though. In fact, it made him a little more comfortable. He found himself saying, “I’m sorry. I was thinking about something else.”
“Of course. You work here. You must be busy.”
“No! Not at all. I’d be glad to answer questions. If you have any.”
Her shoe squeaked on the varnished floor when she stepped forward for a closer look. “Is it from the Dark Ages?”
“Before. It’s three thousand years old, if it’s a day.”
Excitement shone in her eyes. And in that moment Carl thought her face was familiar. Where had he seen her before? It didn’t matter. This was the longest he’d ever spent talking with a girl.
“Do you think it means something?” she asked. “It must mean something. What about these wavy lines?”
“Red is a sign of danger. So, some think it may be a territorial warning. ”
“That makes sense.”
“For this one, maybe. But not for the rest.”
“There are more?”
“The others are in storage. Four or five have pictures of people looking happy.”
“So, it’s not a warning, then. What about those marks there in the corner?”
“Writing. We think.”
“Do you know what it says?”
“I have a theory. But what about you? What do you think?”
She put her hand to her chin, thinking it over. “Maybe it’s a message of hope. Joy in dark times.”
Her voice was wistful yet optimistic. Sweat broke out on Carl’s forehead. He knew that if he didn’t do something now, he never would, and he’d spend the rest of his life regretting it.
“We could go for a drink?” he blurted. “And I’ll tell you my theory?”
Her smile slipped. He hunched his shoulders in preparation.
“You’re going to be okay,” she said. “I promise.”
It wasn’t how he’d expected her to phrase the rejection. But still he had to look away at the painting to keep his composure. When he looked back, she’d gone.
He turned round full circle. There were only two exits from the room, and she couldn’t have reached either so quickly. He scratched his head. Maybe he’d looked at the painting longer than he imagined. Had to be that. What other explanation could there be? He shrugged and headed for his office. He didn’t even have her name.
He thought about how pretty she was. How bright. He thought about her last words. Then he stopped dead. Instead of going to his office, he turned left and raced down the stairs to the basement. There, at the back of the storeroom — the huge paintings found in a radioactive-free zone in Merica; all with that distinctive red and white colour-scheme; some with pictures of happy people.
And there she was. Up there on the wall. Head tilted to the side so her chestnut curls fell into the air. Smiling.
Was he losing his mind? Girls walking out of paintings from the past? It was crazy.
Or maybe not. His theory about the paintings had been that they were a mass-persuasion device, intended, for whatever reason, to homogenize behaviour. But now he realised he’d been wrong and she was right. How had she put it? They were a message of hope. Joy in dark times.
And it had worked, hadn’t it? He’d spoken with her. He’d actually asked her out. If he’d done it once he could do it again. He no longer had to be alone.
Smiling, he looked at the scrawl in the corner of the painting that no one could decipher: “Coke is it.”
He didn’t understand the words, of course, but for the first time in his life he knew what they meant. An urge arose, the silliest of things, to punch the air.
He gave in.
Richard J. Dowling used to be an advertising copywriter. Now he’s changed sides.