Turpentine, a short story
The wailing sirens arrived well before the long, red trucks parked in the middle of her street.
by Janyce Glasper
Hannah Bledsoe loved Linda Crawford.
Yet Hannah desperately needed a quiet, isolated place to paint alone. One simply could not crash on a college friend’s couch forever.
She found salvation in the good neighborhood— a drafty basement converted into a studio apartment. The tightly jarred windows and cracked ceilings poorly congealed together were unfortunate cons to an otherwise affordable space. It solidified a symbolic independence fit for a painter about to have her first solo exhibition in a month.
Hannah painted straight away, simultaneously working on several linen canvases, listening to her late grandfather’s collection of excellent condition vinyl at her desired volume.
Hours of days and weeks fled by.
After her mother disowned her for not becoming a rich surgeon to rescue the family from generational poverty, Linda saved Hannah from homeless shelters. She bought a considerable body of Hannah’s paintings that in turn led to a show at a big local gallery. Hannah vowed to make Linda proud and sell more no matter the cost. In between maddening insomnia and surviving on the foods of traditional still life— hard, crusty bread and overripe fruit— Hannah’s diligent brushes were insatiable lovers greedily consuming her time.
They wanted her every second of the day, of the night. Nothing mattered more than the gratifying act of painting portraits of sepia and umber faces, wreaths of large, thickly applied flowers crowning their foreheads. Her little wooden easel sat inches from her twin sized bed, a breath away if she woke up craving to paint.
With fingers and elbows spotted in her beloved creamy oils, the white lab coat wearing artist proudly dipped long-handled brushes in a new kind of odorless turpentine, watching the clear liquid turn red to purple to muddled confusion.
Soon, little dots played a painful agony behind Hannah’s concentrated eyes, throwing out what others would find eccentric hallucinations.
“Must be that stupid stove,” she sighed, irritably rubbing her forehead.
The unseen landlords had already forced maintenance to replace the first one— a tiny, improperly installed menace that must have come from an adult dollhouse— for causing a gas leak.
Hannah vowed to give it another week before contacting them again.
In the meantime, other nuisances arose. Pesky fruit flies floated in from the kitchen, new targets to her added misery. They flitted in the shadowy corners before landing softly on the bright yellows of her paintings, mistaking the canvas for false light.
“These headaches…” Hannah sighed, rubbing her temple as though trembling fingers could relieve her squeamish sensibility.
Soon, she could not stand up right. She often leaned towards the side, a once equal scale tilting off balance. One night, she could not fall asleep due to her heart racing fiercely, pining for perhaps another round of painting. Other times, food tasted odd in her mouth.
“You might have carbon monoxide poisoning,” Linda said.
“I haven’t used the heat yet,” Hannah said.
“Well, you should still get a detector. You have all the symptoms for sure.”
Hannah sat at her easel, making another painting from scratch, ignoring the strange confusion. She swirled her favorite angle paintbrush in reused turpentine, planning to change it when the brushes themselves told her that they needed to be clean. The flies were not attracted to muddying yellow after all.
“Han?” Linda said. “Han, are you there?”
“Yes,” Hannah replied.
Nowadays, she forgot that the phone was cradled to her ear, so concentrated on the paintings, on meeting this cruel monster called a deadline.
“What were you before you even moved in there?” Linda asked, sounding bewildered by Hannah’s transformation.
“A recluse looking for a home, remember?” Hannah said, making a brown eye look out at her.
“Well, don’t shut people away. Don’t be in there chugging turpentine and paint like Van Gogh. The last thing I need is your bloody ear in my mailbox.”
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Days before the big exhibition, the light-headed Hannah walked in a dreamy haze to the hardware store for screws to hammer D-rings to the back of finished canvases.
She had not slept well in three days, but believed a short trek could remedy her malaise.
The pitch black evening was cool, the dry air smelling like fresh cinnamon. One of the neighbors was probably baking pie or created the illusion with lit seasonal candles.
A stray black cat played a staring game. Its huge yellow eyes competed against the inner glow of a nearby carved pumpkin.
Hannah, a lover of such cats, could not focus completely on acquiring that perfect companion. Her head floated miles apart from the rest of her body. She rubbed her forehead to combat the dizzy spell and blinked to only find the cat fleeing, running in a mad hurry to escape some daunting wickedness.
Hannah thought nothing peculiar. It would be a ten minute excursion to and fro.
Except, as Hannah exited out of the store, placing the plastic bag of screws inside her wallet, spurts of rain fell. She hummed along, crossing the eerily empty streets, nearing her destination.
Suddenly, the gentle sprinkles picked up a vicious crescendo, striking her glasses with aggressive intensity. An unexpected fog steamed up her lenses, amplifying her paranoia. She could not see beyond the horizon. Her flats were rooted to the ground, soaking in the rising flood while her gray sweatshirt and jeans quickly became drenched.
She panted hard on woozy feet, paralyzed with a growing fear. As she managed to turn this way and that, white lightning struck thick trees and their abundant green leaves refusing to color and fall down for autumn.
Hannah’s rattled nerves set off at the raucous sound of terrible thunder gathering closer and closer. She stammered along drunkenly, wobbling at each step, ignoring the sickening nausea that rose in her belly.
The lights of the houses turned off all at once, powerless, leaving Hannah at the mercy of a bleak night. She bumped into more trees, scratching her hands and face, jumped at her own silhouette believing someone was in hot pursuit.
“Ahhhh!” She screamed, nearly collapsing in a heap, her conflicted brain pulsing with too much unnecessary information.
No one came out of their fine homes and mansions. No cars drove about the good neighborhood sequestered in smiley faced scarecrows and Halloween gnomes.
Again, Hannah twirled about, her momentum falling deeper into a twisted schism, her legs eager to shut down in the cold, heavy shower.
The street names were blurry white scrawls on green backdrops, illegible words that she could not decipher. Dots sprinkled her vision, the pain behind her eyes increasing.
She kept stepping in buckets of mud and almost tumbled down a small hill of raked leaves. Her cell phone started ringing and ringing, rushing into her overly fluid ears. She clumsily took it out of her wet pants pocket, scrambling to slide buttons, but the device did not recognize her slippery fingertips.
Linda’s call ended.
Hannah keyed in her code, beyond panicked.
The rain droplets would not relent.
Google Maps said she was only three minutes away from home.
“Walk left and make a right turn,” it instructed her.
Hannah walked in what she perceived to be that direction, screaming again at each flash of lightning. Oh how lightning terrified her.
The three minutes passed.
Apparently, she took the wrong steps. Now she was five minutes away. However, the phone decided to die, multiplying her misery.
“No!” She yelled to the universe still weeping on her.
As the ferocious wind threatened to send her flying into the night, she stood still, closing her eyes and pretending she was at home with paints and turpentine.
And not one single soul in the good neighborhood came outside to check on the owner of a thousand piercing screams.
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“You were in no condition to be out there!” Linda yelled, her voice tinged with worry.
“I know,” Hannah said. “I know. My head feels worse now.”
“It’s probably carbon monoxide. Please call the fire department, Han. Tell me what they say.”
Hannah called them, relaying her fears of being poisoned by the contaminated air of the sealed window apartment. The kind operator instructed her to wait outside, wait in the chilly rain for them.
Hannah sat beneath the awning, sheltered from the endless downpour, reliving that lapse of mental disparity. It took her almost an hour to find the apartment. As she saw the area from which she returned, remembering a wild, unrecognizable terror, she never again wished to experience an infected mind losing equilibrium and sight.
On the safety of the porch, Hannah shivered in a change of warm clothes, still weak with a malfunctioning brain. The wailing sirens arrived well before the long, red trucks parked in the middle of her street. Three rosy cheeked men in caution hats and oversized gear came up, asking direction to her apartment downstairs.
Another man took her vitals.
Moments later, they emerged back outside, shaking their heads.
“There is no sign of carbon monoxide,” the lead fireman said. “All we smelled was paint… and turpentine.”
Janyce Denise Glasper (https://jdglasper.wixsite.