Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
“Huh?” I jerked up as my cell phone buzzed loudly, emitting an insultingly bright light. I rubbed my face and winced as I slapped at the screen in a half-ditch effort to shut the damn thing off. There was a muted thump as my hand brushed the edge of the phone and knocked it off the desk on to the carpeted floor.
I groaned and wiped at my face again. A thick, sticky glob of drool smeared across my hand in the process. Lovely. At some point a few hours earlier I’d evidently face-planted into my keyboard and passed out there. My ten page research paper on gender politics in American film was now twenty pages of unbroken lines of “g’s.” I squinted at the clock on my laptop screen. 3:30 A.M. My paper was due in five hours.
“Shit,” I hissed as I reached down and patted around blindly for my dropped phone. By chance the tip of my index finger brushed the corner of the rubber Otter Box case. I strained and managed to hook my finger over the edge of it and tease it into reach from there. I scooped it up with a triumphant grunt. And then I saw the message and my chest went cold with dread.
She had texted me three words: “Come get me.”
I snatched my car keys off my desk and bolted out the door without bothering to put shoes on. My hands were shaking so badly it took me three attempts to unlock my car door and another two to get the car started. Once I managed to get the engine to turn over, I peeled out of the small parking lot fast enough to leave twin strips of rubber in front of the dingy apartment building.
Nicki was my former roommate and the best friend I’d ever had. She and I had been friends since high school and we had only grown closer when we were accepted into the same small college in Oregon. We promptly put in a request to room together, and we started off our college experience practically holding each other’s hands. I dove into Literature and Environmental Studies classes while Nicki went straight for Art; drawing, painting, and sculpture.
I was steady in my classes but Nicki blossomed like some exotic flower showered by the praise of her professors and classmates. Her side of the room was quickly papered with sketches ranging from bowls of fruit to people wearing old fashioned cloaks and whimsical jewelry. Strange, lacy shapes danced from page to page, darkly unique and beautiful.
By our sophomore year I trusted her capabilities as an artist – and a friend – enough to let her design a tattoo for me. I gave her complete freedom with no input from me other than the request that she make it as true to me as she could, whatever that turned out to be. Less than two weeks after I commissioned her, it curled in delicate feathery fronds of green and blue around my left bicep. It was vaguely plant-like, and more than a little alive; it was perfect and I loved it.
At the end of our sophomore year, we managed to land a cheap off campus apartment together, largely to make room for Nicki’s ever-expanding collection of canvases, oil-paints, and sketch books. Her creativity blazed so bright that sometimes I was almost a little afraid of her.
She would disappear into her room for days at a time over the summer, only coming out to eat or use the bathroom, streaks of jewel-bright color dripped and smeared and dried all over her skin and clothes. In a rare move in the tenure of our friendship, I was forbidden under pain of doing all the dishes for six months to so much as peek around the door into her room until she invited me.
”Not until it’s ready,” she said solemnly, extending her pinky finger towards me.
“Not until it’s ready,” I repeated, hooking my pinky around hers and sealing the unbreakable oath that is the pinky swear.
One day, midway through July, she asked me to come in with so much excitement in her voice that her words trembled minutely. Her excitement was contagious. I raced up the stairs to her room and skidded to a full stop in her doorway, thunderstruck. She had created an entire world in there.
A castle bathed in strokes of a brilliant sunset crowned a distant hill in the first painting by the door. I caught my breath, imagining a warm summer wind blowing through the ancient stone. A tangled forest, lush with a multitude of greens and alive with clever, brown, elfin faces peeking through the foliage here and there bloomed on the opposite wall. A tavern nestled far back against a line of houses painted of timbers I could practically hear creaking. Portrait after portrait of characters so vivid I more than half expected them to step out of the frames.
I was too entranced to be startled when she slipped in beside me and laced her fingers through mine. I finally tore my gaze from the living, breathing paintings before me when she gave my hand an insistent squeeze.
“Well?” she asked, her lips quirked in that half-smile she always had when she was nervous and trying to hide it. “What do you think, Rose?”
I turned back to her room, struggling for the first time in years to find the right words to say to her.
“What do I think? It’s… Nicki, it’s incredible! I don’t know what to say here, it’s just…” I broke off, my focus dragged back to the fantasy world framed around us. Never in my life had I more keenly longed to plunge into a world outside of our own.
Finally I looked her right in the eye, taking her other hand in my free one.
“If I could step through those picture frames and live the rest of my life there, I would die happy.”
A relieved smile broke like the sun through the clouds of her nervousness. “You mean it, Rose?”
Spontaneously, I leaned forward and laid a quick, light kiss on her cheek. “I absolutely mean it, Nick.”
I grinned at her and nodded towards her paintings. “Why don’t you show me around and tell me all about them? I want to know everything.”
And she had. By the time we had stepped out of her room, we were both surprised to realize we’d been in there for three hours. It had felt like three minutes. Periodically throughout the rest of the summer she’d call me in to check out a fresh painting or meet a new character. I came to know her secret world almost as well as our own.
The ash-blond man with pointed ears and the tattered maroon cloak was Eldin, a pirate who scourged seven kingdoms. The tall woman with brown skin and blue beads braided into her thick, black hair was B’dera, a healer who roamed freely across all borders in search of a hidden secret. The little girl sitting cross-legged on a mossy log and grinning at the purple tongues of fire cupped in her small hands was Meda, a young conjurer who always skipped out on her magic lessons to play in the woods.
I grew to know them, and many dozens of others even better than our real-world friends. When Nicki inevitably started running out of room for her paintings and sketches, I immediately volunteered my walls and all the unused space in our shared living room. In those three months, Nicki burned like a new star, and I eagerly waited to see each new painting, watching her world unfold like the petals of some rare flower in our home.
And then our junior year started up and it took less than six weeks for it all to come crashing down. Nicki didn’t come home one night in late September, although I admit I was too focused on my homework load to really notice until she stumbled in the next morning with her hair in disarray and a sheepish smile on her face. Turns out she’d met someone in her Art History class.
Was I maybe secretly a little disappointed? Probably. But I was her friend first and foremost, so of course I enthusiastically threw my support for her being with this guy as he seemed to make her happy. At least I did until the day she brought him over to meet me and show him her secret project.
I know everyone says they knew it from the start long after everything is out in the open, but I sincerely felt it when her boyfriend reached out to shake my hand; there was something very, very wrong with him. His name was Jesse, and he was (to my irritation) undeniably handsome. Piercing eyes, strong features, thick, dark hair, and nearly flawless skin. I wish it was just jealousy on my part, I honestly do, but there was something in his little half-smile that immediately struck a wrong chord with me.
I came to see more than I wanted to on the subsequent times Nicki brought him over. He was complimentary of her paintings of course, but there was something in his tone that was always just a few steps away from mockery. He never looked directly at her if she was talking to him, I noticed one day. Not that he was blatantly looking away exactly, but either just above or just to the side as though she wasn’t really worth his attention. He’d sometimes let out quiet little amused snorts, so soft I wondered if I imagined them when she showed him a new painting she was particularly proud of, like he was privately making fun of them and wanted her to know it.
I was so focused on him that I didn’t realize what was happening to Nicki until it was too late for me to do anything about it. She had been withdrawing into herself so quietly I didn’t notice the signs at first. Her chestnut hair gradually lost its shine and her skin began breaking out as she slowly began showering less and less frequently. Her weight yo-yo’d as she’d go from eating nothing but McDonald’s one week to practically nothing the next. She began wearing the same outfit day after day, and never washed her clothes unless she was washing Jesse’s for him too.
Looking back all the red flags were there, but I swear to God they happened so slowly that with my focus primarily directed at my classes, I didn’t put them all together until mid-October. I came home from my last class, mulling over our latest research assignment and almost tripped over Nicki as I came in the front door.
She was sitting on the floor hunched over a sketchbook. She didn’t even look up as I came in. Carefully I slipped my heavy backpack off and crouched next to her, craning over to get a look at what she was drawing.
A cloaked figure turned away from the viewer, one leg hiked up on a boulder as though surveying a distant landscape that hadn’t been drawn in yet. Other than that one leg, well-muscled and vaguely feminine, there was nothing discernible about the character. I blinked, puzzled. It wasn’t like Nicki to draw someone like that; normally she’d be sure to have at least half of her character’s face visible.
“What are you drawing, Nick?” I asked softly, reaching out to touch her shoulder. She flinched back.
I dropped my hand back into my lap as she flashed me an apologetic grin. Her eyelashes were suspiciously clumped together, as though she’d been crying recently.
“Oh hey, Rosie, I didn’t hear you come in.” She shrugged, closing her sketchbook. “I dunno yet. I have this idea for a character, but it’s like I can’t really see her yet.”
I frowned. “That’s weird,” I commented.
Nicki had told me once over the summer that she always started by sketching a basic figure in a random pose and suddenly all the other details: Face, name, outfit, even backstory would just flood into her head all at once and be on the canvas before she had time to process it all. She wasn’t bragging – she never bragged about her artwork – she was just stating a fact. That she didn’t know anything about this new character was how I finally figured out that something was wrong.
“Thalia,” she said abruptly, interrupting my dawning realization.
“Her… her name. It’s Thalia.” She smiled at me then, and I saw a flicker of the old Nicki. “That’s all I know for now, but I feel like she’s important.”
I smiled back, hoping my worry didn’t show on my face. Maybe it should have. Then maybe I could have stopped her when she told me she was moving in with Jesse a week later and he wouldn’t have been able to twist my concern into jealousy to make my concerns sound petty and unnecessary. I tried so hard to talk her out of it, but it was too late. She wasn’t listening.
Nicki did ask if her precious paintings could stay with me for a while, as well as her canvases and all her art supplies except for a few sketchbooks. I agreed, of course, dread twisting in my gut; she quickly explained that it was because there wasn’t room at Jesse’s place, but I knew that was bullshit. He just didn’t want her to get drawn into her own world and stop paying attention to him even for a small amount of time. It was like he was slowly starving her of her creativity.
I saw very little of Nicki over the next few months. When I did manage to catch a glimpse of her on the quad or on the sidewalk between classes, she was always gone before I managed to catch up to her. She barely answered any of my texts beyond generic “I’m fine’s,” she bailed on every plan, and stopped coming by to work on her paintings. Nonetheless I knew what was happening well enough just in those passing glimpses.
She had grown desperately thin, her clothes hanging like old bags of her bare frame. Her hair was starting to look thin and patchy. Sometimes I could smell her before I saw her; stale body odor and cigarette smoke. Sometimes she wore long sleeves in weather way too hot for them. Once in a while the skin at the corner of her mouth or high on her cheekbone would be suspiciously dark, like a badly concealed bruise.
Then all of a sudden, I stopped seeing her. I tried not to worry, but as days rolled around into weeks, my texts became more and more frantic. She never responded. And then a mutual friend who worked in the admissions offices tracked me down and told me that Nicki dropped out. It hit me like a gut-punch. She dreamed of getting this degree, then her Masters and becoming an artist. If Jesse had sapped this much of her dream out of her, I was terrified of what might be left.
I drove to Jesse’s place just once to check in on her. I was too angry to be afraid when I pounded on his door. After what happened next I was too afraid to go back. He let me in calmly, even courteously, as though this was a normal social visit between friends. Nicki was huddled up on his couch with her knees hugged to her chest, eyes fixed on the ground.
I never got to bring my concerns up as it turned out, because before I so much as opened my mouth Jesse had pushed me into the wall and pinned me there. It wasn’t pain but shock that kept me silent as he started talking.
“Listen up, you fucking dyke,” he snarled. “You’re going to turn that bitchy little ass of yours around, get back in your car, and leave. Nicki doesn’t want you here. I don’t want you here, and you aren’t going to come anywhere near her again. Got it?”
I gaped at Nicki, silently begging her to get up, to do something, tears streaming down my face. She still stared at the floor, but her shoulders were shuddering. I’d apparently taken too long to respond. Jesse grabbed my neck and squeezed until I gasped for air, clawing uselessly at his hand.
“Got it??” I nodded until I felt like my head was being bobbed up and down on a puppeteer’s string.
“Good.” He let me go and I slumped against the wall. “Now get out and don’t come back.”
I slumped against the wall struggling to catch my breath. Behind Jesse, Nicki finally raised her eyes to mine. They were blazing with a rage I never suspected she could have in her.
“Go,” she mouthed.
And I did. I fled like a coward and didn’t try to contact her again. A few months passed. And now she was calling me for help. From the moment I read her message asking me to come get her, it took me all of ten minutes to get to that fuck-head’s apartment. The minute I pulled up, Nicki came flying out the front door, sketchbook hugged to her chest. With my headlights shining into their apartment, I could clearly see Jesse running down the stairs after her. Nicki reached my car just ahead of him, slid into the passenger seat and screamed: “GO!!”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. We roared out of the parking lot, leaving Jesse behind.
“Will he follow us?” I asked, quietly cursing my voice for trembling.
Nicki shook her head, “No; he knows I’ll call the cops and he’s too much of a coward to deal with that.”
Bitterness laced her words like poison. “He’ll send some angry messages and then spend the rest of the night drinking til he passes out. Getting me back is too much effort. Give him two days and he’ll move on to someone else.” She shook her head in disgust.
“Do you think you should call them anyway? Do you need a doctor? Are you hurt?” the questions came pouring out in a flood.
But Nicki just shook her head. “No, I’m not hurt. And I don’t want to deal with anything like that tonight. Honestly, I just…” she trailed off for a moment, staring out her window. Then she turned and offered me a wan smile. “I think I want to paint.”
I risked taking my eyes off the road for a brief second to shoot her a look of surprise.
“I mean it, Rose,” she insisted. “I feel like more than anything in the world right now it’s what I need to do.”
I nodded. I thought I understood. We drove on in silence until we pulled into my apartment.
“I know who she is now. Thalia, I mean,” Nicki broke the silence suddenly.
I strained back my memory to the cloaked figure. “Who is she, Nick?”
“She’s an assassin. A freelancer. And she is very important,” she responded, fiddling with the corners of her notebook.
I was too tired and too strung out on emotions to ask any more questions, so I just nodded and unlocked the front door for her. She immediately sat down at a blank canvas and started sketching the bones of what would be her new painting. I watched her for a moment, relief spreading like warm water through my chest. Nicki was finally building her world again. I headed upstairs; the excitement of the night didn’t make the reality of my paper’s deadline go away. And I had ten pages worth of “g’s” to erase.
I finally put the finishing touches on my paper and electronically submitted it around 5:00am. I could faintly hear the metallic pop of paint bottles being uncapped downstairs. I smiled to myself and laid down on my bed. I drifted off to sleep on the comforting smell of fresh oil paint. It was the best sleep I had had in a very long while. I slept through my first, second and third alarm and didn’t wake up until nearly 2:00pm.
I laid there for a few minutes, snuggled up in my fluffy comforter. The whole apartment smelled of fresh paint. I rolled out of bed and staggered downstairs. Nicki had evidently painted all night: The finished canvas was set up on an easel and she was curled up asleep on the floor in front of it, paintbrush loosely resting in her hand. Her head rested on her sketchbook like the world’s flattest pillow. I glanced at her fondly and headed into the kitchen to make coffee before checking out her new painting.
It was stunning. The backdrop was sparse: a few slim, bare trees against a soft wintry fog of white and gray. It could have easily been blank for all the attention the main figure commanded. She still wore a long, slate-gray cloak, but now her hood was thrown back, allowing her chestnut hair to hang down in wild ringlets past her shoulders.
Her cloak was likewise slung back behind her shoulders, revealing a compact, muscular frame. Silver knives and corked vials of poison green and orange liquids dangled like deadly fruits from her leather belt. She was posed similarly to her initial sketch, one leg propped up on a boulder, but now she stood half-turned to face the viewers. One hand clutched a small, bulging drawstring bag; a coin purse, I assumed. The other hand was painted in a rather odd position towards the viewer: palm forward, fingers spread, as though she were pressing her hand against a wall or a window.
Her face is what really stole my attention though: almond-shaped eyes a brilliant shade of green, burning with ferocity. Her teeth were bared in what could either have been a snarl or a feral smile. She was beautiful of course, but then again, I’d always found her beautiful.
She had given herself elven ears and a thin scar that neatly divided her right eyebrow, but the face sneering defiantly from the canvas was definitely Nicki’s. All of the passion and fire that Jesse had sapped from her blazed stronger than ever from the figure on the canvas. It was in the determined set of her jaw, the flinty look in her eyes, even in the cold glint of her bared teeth. This was the Nicki I had only ever seen glimpses of; a fiercely strong, proud, wild woman.
I stepped closer to the canvas, edging carefully around the sleeping artist on the floor. Something about those eyes drew me like a magnet. I stopped less than a foot from the canvas, feeling something odd in my chest, something like pride and pain. Unconsciously my hand drifted up to her extended one, my fingertips coming to rest in the blank spaces between hers.
The painting never moved, how could it? At the end of the day it was nothing more than colored oils arranged in a lovely pattern on a sheet of canvas. But I felt it, nonetheless, when her fingers interlaced with mine, as warm and living as they had always been, and gave my hand one last fond squeeze. The smile on her painted face looked softer then, less teeth and more laughter.
I don’t know how long I stood there in front of the canvas, but when the moment ended and I stepped back, my cheeks were stiff and itchy with dried tears. I instinctively knew it down in my bones the minute I felt her fingers twine with mine. Nicki wasn’t sleeping. I kissed the tips of my fingers and lightly pressed them to the inert image before me.
“Goodbye, Nicki,” I whispered.
I called 911 immediately of course, but they just confirmed what I already knew. Nicki had been hurt after all. Jesse, as it turned out, was a master of aiming his blows where they could be easily covered. While I had typed away on my term paper, she had somehow created her masterpiece while she internally bled to death from a ruptured kidney.
Jesse got an unfairly light sentence, I thought; just ten years. He ended up serving less than a month though; late one night, someone somehow slipped into his locked jail cell without alerting the guards or any of the other prisoners and neatly slit his throat while he lay in his bunk. It was so skillfully done with so few leads that the newspapers termed it a professional hit rather than a murder. I had my theories of course, but I felt it would be wiser to keep them to myself.
I offered Nicki’s paintings to her family but to my mingled relief and annoyance, they politely rejected the offer. I finished my Bachelor’s program, received my degree, and quietly packed up my belongings and moved out to a small cabin out in the Cascade Mountains. I didn’t intend to stay there indefinitely; I just needed some time alone to process. I couldn’t bear to bring the paintings with me… not yet. I had them stored safely and securely in the meantime.
I spent the next few weeks eating simple meals and walking through the woods looking for exotic plants and flowers. There is a lot of living beauty to be found in the deep forests. I found I would go days without speaking. There was no need for it here. Gradually I found peace in the mountains, but there was still deep pain I had no idea how to even begin to address. I retreated into my grief and very likely would have stayed there if not for Nicki’s last gift to me.
I woke early one morning about a month into my self-imposed exile. I wasn’t sure what woke me, but I had no intention of getting up just yet. I stubbornly rolled over and reached for my second pillow, planning to cuddle it until I fell asleep again. My pillow wasn’t there. Instead of soft cotton, my fingers found the edge of something slim and stiff.
I bolted up. Nicki’s sketchbook lay innocently on the bed next to me.
“It’s not possible,” I insisted to the empty house.
But there it was, even in the face of my denial; penned neatly in black sharpie on the maroon cover: This book is the property of Nichole Thalia Quaid.
My hands trembled as I picked it up. For a moment I debated whether I really dared to open it. Maybe it was a trick of a drafty house, but the pages fluttered briefly, flipping the cover open. I caught my breath. There, sketched in subtle color on the first page was a full-blooming, perfect rose.
I found myself turning page after page. Nicki permeated every page. Playful designs, mystic swords, flowers blooming in deep clearings. Jesse hadn’t managed to take it all from her after all. She had continued building her world in tiny pencil sketch increments up until the end. And then I reached the last page.
It was a character sheet. Penned in Nicki’s looping script was the base description.
“Amara. Half-elf. Scholar. Deeply, deeply loyal to her loved ones. Known for taking on too much responsibility. Dearly loved by all her friends. Often looks to the natural world for answers. Wise and should always be trusted, even by the most stubborn of asses.”
The accompanying sketch was simple, but gorgeous. Amara knelt in a grassy field, wearing a plain blue tunic and leggings. She was busily engaged in examining a bright orange flower. Even if I had somehow failed to recognize the short, choppy black hair or deep brown eyes, I could not fail to catch the strange, feathery green and blue tattoo coiling around her bicep.
The pain festering deep in my chest seized once, like a clenching muscle, then released. It wasn’t gone, by any means, but I knew deep down that for me the worst of it was over.
At the very last, even when Nicki felt the need to escape further than anyone ever had, she still brought part of me with her.
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