The Painted Woman By Rachel Weist

Joel stamped his cigarette out on the damp concrete of the abandoned railway tunnel and lit another, the ember glowing red in the darkness, as he continued to pace before the mural. He inhaled the strong scent of fresh spray paint and exhaled a stream of smoke that wreathed the face of the pale woman rendered on the wall in smooth, perfect detail. Her cat-like green eyes appeared to track him back and forth, the curl of her red lips alluring, seductive. The painted woman’s portrait was captured from the waist up, as though her slender torso sprouted from the moist earth of the tunnel. She wore a purple dress with a plunging neckline, strands of long ebony hair spilling over her bare shoulders. The portrait was ringed in curling vines, a sharp-beaked raven perched on a naked tree in the background.

Pausing to check the time, Joel frowned. It had been Keith’s idea to meet in the tunnel—his overdramatic attempt to breathe life into an otherwise uneventful Halloween. Since Joel and Keith had entered their early forties, Keith had become obsessed with resisting their slide into the monotony of adulthood—in spite of a wife, three kids, and a mortgage—and Joel expected an evening of cheap beer, even cheaper liquor, and well-rehearsed tall tales.

Joel looked up from his cell phone and frowned. The mural had shifted, the change so subtle that he might have missed it, if not for his fascination with the painting only moments before. He approached the mural, noting the lift of the painted woman’s chin, the way she appeared to be leaning towards him, her ivory white breasts pressed together by slender forearms. Crouching eye level with the woman’s delicate features, Joel was distracted by a sudden movement in the corner of his eye. Startled, he fell backwards into a puddle and stared at the raven in the mural, ignoring the cold muddy water soaking into his jeans. The raven was still perched in the tree, but its head was cocked, as though the bird was examining him with its beady black eye, and from the darkness outside the tunnel came the rustling of feathers.

Joel’s eyes darted from the tunnel’s entrance back to the painted woman, the pout of her crimson lips slightly parted to reveal hints of white teeth. The raven had taken flight from the branches, frozen midair with wings spread. There came another rustling sound, Joel turned to find a bulky figure silhouetted at the mouth of the tunnel, and he breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his best friend, forgetting his previous irritation and scrambling to his feet.

“Happy Halloween,” Keith said, slurring. With a weave in his step, Keith unloaded an armful of firewood, handed off a twelve pack of beer, and removed a large plastic bottle of whiskey, half empty, from his backpack.

“You’re late,” Joel said, eyeing the whiskey.

“Bum a smoke, sour puss?” Keith built a small fire and lit the borrowed cigarette, saying, “Had to take the kids out trick-or-treating.”

Joel unscrewed the cap on the whiskey bottle and took a long draught, gagging as the harsh liquid spilled down his throat. He coughed and said, “Fuck, man. Couldn’t spring for the good stuff?”

Scowling, Keith said, “Saving up for the kids’ dentist bills, when all that goddamn candy rots their teeth out.”

The fire crackled to life, shadows dancing on the walls like celebrating specters. Although the whiskey burned his stomach, Joel took another swig from the bottle and felt his head swim with a pleasant warmth. Remembering the mural, he sat facing the painted woman, elbowing Keith in the ribs. “Hey,” Joel said,“are you seeing this?”

“Seeing what?” A beer can hissed, and Keith glanced in the direction of Joel’s pointed finger. “Huh,” Keith said. “Nice tits.”

“It’s been moving—see how her mouth is open all the way? And the bird’s landed on her shoulder, it was in the tree before—“

Keith raised an eyebrow and said, “You been hitting something stronger without me?”

“I’m serious. Her fucking eyes are closed now, like she’s—“

“Like she’s dishing out blow jobs,” Keith said, chuckling. “Okay, I’ll bite.”

Keith struggled to his feet and bent to look at the mural, extending a hand to touch the woman’s open mouth. “Shit, there’s a glory hole,” he said, “right here in the middle. Some clever son-of-a-bitch, whoever did this.”

Joel watched as Keith pushed his fingers knuckle-deep into the concrete and felt a nauseating surge of unease. Releasing a strained laugh, Joel said,“There’s got to be someone on the other side for it to be a glory hole.”

Keith leaned in until his nose was inches from the hole and peered inside, saying, “Not this one, apparently. You are not going to believe this. It’s wet inside—like wet. Come here and look at this.”

With no intention of going anywhere near the painting, Joel poked a cigarette between his lips and mumbled that he was going to take a piss. Feeling light-headed, Joel strode outside the tunnel and into the bushes, taking several deep breaths in an attempt to calm his nerves. When he returned to the fire, Joel stopped short and said, “What the fuck, man?”

Keith stood before the mural, naked below the waist—jeans and underwear puddled around his ankles—stroking his cock and staring at the painted woman. Keith sidled up to the wall and inserted himself between the woman’s lips, pushing forward with his hips until his belly pressed flat against the wall, his cock embedded in the concrete.

Joel was torn between disgust and concern, warring with the desire to flee, unwilling to leave a drunken Keith with the sinister mural. Keith began pumping his hips and released a low moan. Feeling bile rise to the back of his throat, Joel swallowed his fear and clenched his fists until the knuckles turned white, saying, “Come on, Keith. This is sick—you’re drunk.”

“It’s moving, Joel,” Keith said, groaning in pleasure. The painted raven was perched on the woman’s shoulder, its head cocked, eyeing Keith’s thick patch of pubic hair. In spite of the cold, Keith was drenched in sweat. “It’s like there’s a tongue inside, wet, sucking me off. Oh god, it’s been so long.”

“Keith, I’m not sticking around for this. This is just too fucked up, even for you,” Joel said. His attempt to sound commanding, forceful, failed. Instead, Joel’s voice cracked like a prepubescent boy, as he turned his back on Keith and pretended not to hear the ragged panting echoing through the tunnel.

From behind Joel came a sharp intake of breath, and Keith said, “What—“

Keith gasped, and Joel spun to find his friend writhing against the tunnel wall, eyes wide, face stricken with terror. Keith tried to pull away from the wall and shrieked. “It’s stuck! The concrete is getting hard—getting tighter—Joel, I can’t get my cock out. Fuck!”

Keith’s face flushed red, his buttocks clenched, and he released a scream as the hole sucked his cock in further, blood leaking from the base where the rough edges of the concrete were tearing him ragged. Joel seized Keith by the shoulders and tugged, but Keith only screamed in agony.

The painted woman’s eyes had opened again, their gold-flecked green depths glittering in the firelight with malicious glee. Joel recoiled from the wall, as he watched the raven’s beak dart forward and snip shut on the bloodied place where Keith’s cock met the wall. Wailing, Keith shoved himself away from the painted woman, his hands clamped over the severed stump of his cock, as blood spurted between his fingers in steaming gouts. Joel heard his own screams join Keith’s. He saw the painted woman smile, her white teeth stained red.

Groping for his phone, Joel slipped an arm around Keith and dragged him from the tunnel. Joel lowered Keith to the dirt path and called an ambulance, balling up his sweatshirt and pressing it against the wound in an attempt to staunch the bleeding. Sirens sounded in the distance, and Joel held Keith as his friend lost consciousness.

*          *          *

One week later, Joel stood before the tunnel in a black suit, holding a can of paint. Fueled by the memory of Keith’s funeral—the tear-streaked faces of his wife and children—Joel strode into the darkness, removed the can’s lid, and emptied its contents onto the mural with a heavy splash. Joel lit a cigarette and watched, as the painted woman vanished behind the dripping curtain.

Rachel is an emerging author, soon to be published in the upcoming anthology “Twilight Madhouse 4.” She lives in her one-hundred year old Victorian house in Eureka, California, where she graduated with honors from Humboldt State University with an English BA.

Published 10/31/18