There is Quiet
Suphala Nibhanupudi | Art by Julia Wang
Sybille Bryony wasn’t sure why she was here at the Museum of Occult Art and History (money, she was here for the money), wandering between its thick, black marbled halls, tasting its dense air. The museum was deserted — the clicking of her heels and the coughing ventilation system above were the only sounds to accompany her.
She wasn’t particularly thrilled to spend her Sunday in her least favorite public institution (think of the money Sybille, the money!). Sybille felt a certain amount of sardine-ism, squished between halls and stairways. Dust, partnered with lemon room fresheners, clung to the walls, and clung to her head. She noted the grime that stretched over the floors like slithering vines of ivy.
She rounded another corner to see the slim hallway she came for. The scent of lemon was much stronger here, as if someone had reasoned that enough room fresheners would mask the decay and dirt. The fluorescent lights were working overtime, coating the grime in a layer of brightness.
A lone canvas towered over the man in front of it. His dress shirt was white as bone, and his shoes glinted sharply. From his pale and lengthy fingers dangled a blue security cap that was at odds with the rest of his attire. He pivoted towards Sybille as she stumbled into the blinding hall.
“You must be the detective.” With large strides, he met Sybille at the entrance and gripped her hand.
“Ms. Bryony.” She pulled her hand from his grip and took two steps into the hall. “Are you with the museum board? I know I spoke to a Mr. Yondal.”
“Ah, yes, Elliot is predisposed. I’m sure someone else will arrive to brief you.”
As Sybille resigned herself to awkward silence staring at her shoes, the man spoke up again. “My name is Jennings. I painted this.”
Sybille glanced up at the only painting in the hallway. Every color imaginable wreaked havoc across the canvas. They twisted and fought and screamed with each other. It was loud — the painting was a cacophony of sounds struggling against each other. But if she stared closer, Sybille could sense chilling peace at the centerpoint. Quiet, silence, and beckoning peace.
“Have we not met somewhere before. Your face looks incredibly familiar.”
Sybille turned away from the canvas, turned to Jennings’s smiling mouth. “No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty new to town, you probably mistook me for someone else.”
“You were on the 8th floor, in those red colored buildings across the laundromat. In Chicago. I was there on business, a day or two before a large fire wiped out the block…. I believe so anyways.” He chuckled. “I’m good with faces.”
“… Mr. Jennings, do you know why I’m here?”
Jennings laughed again, displaying his bright white teeth, hiding his eyes. “Yes I do. They want you to investigate the string of deaths linked to the museum. Linked to my art.”
Sybille found that she had been recaptured by the painting and the colors and the eye on the canvas — eye? — and refocused on Jennings. “Do you know what happened?”
Jennings rubbed his polished shoes onto the cleaned tiles. The squeaks cried around the hallway.
He looked back at Sybille. “I’ve heard accounts. Not a lot though.”
Sybille asked to hear them.
Jennings stared at her. He turned to the painting. Sybille did too while producing her pen and notepad. Maybe he didn’t want to be stared down while being interrogated. The detective and the artist observed the painting. They let the painting observe them as well. The chaos at the front and the frozen eye in the center watched Sybille keenly.
“I don’t know that much, or rather, they don’t want me to know that much. They haven’t told me that much. They’re scared.
“First it was the janitor, he came late last Thursday. Greedy man. Always looking, thirsting for what would never be his. He came into this hallway and he got too curious. Slyly, he removed the cloth that covered the painting. Security found his body rotting on the floor. Poor thing. He never left the hall.”
The chaos of the canvas suffocated in the thick air, the eye watching.
“Then it was a mother. Irresponsible woman. She couldn’t take care of her own child; it got away from her. And she came into this hallway and pulled on the cover and she saw the painting and she screamed. Security came in and she wouldn’t be consoled. She wouldn’t stop screaming. Poor thing. She was an opera singer a long time ago, a diva. Oh, did she know how to scream. She had never screamed like that before.”
Her pen and notepad clattered onto the floor.
“A Morgan Jenson heard of the painting and he grew obsessed. He knew about the museum’s hasty coverup. He wanted to concoct some sort of a story in the paper, a bombshell, ruining the museum forever. He wanted to. Poor thing. You boil overconfidence for too long, it curdles into hastiness. He curdled alive. Security saw him in the hall. He never had a chance.”
The eye in the painting was bright and dead. It wouldn’t blink. It was shrouded underneath the chaos of color, but the eye reached, stretched, touched Sybille and it wouldn’t blink. The dizziness from earlier clawed at her temples for entrance.
“They think that I just need to change it, to fix it, like I was the problem.” Jennings ran his tongue sharply along his ice-colored teeth and coughed out a laugh. “Or they want you here, to make your silly little observations, and make your silly little report so they can all point to some cause and move on, move away. Did it help you Sybille? Did it help you when you moved away? It was always too hot for you.” Sybille wobbled. “It’s just so unfortunate, they don’t want to see what they must.”
The chaos was peeling, dripping, cascading. The white eye didn’t blink. The colors paused. The white eyes wouldn’t blink. They bulged, reached out, and touched Sybille’s own. Frozen. The dead eyes promised to eat her whole. Then came the quiet. Then came the roar of her own voice.
Sybille remembered something she didn’t want to remember. She saw something she didn’t want to see.
“That’s why they want you here Sybille. That’s what they want! Again! They need you to fix it! Or they need me!” Jennings was growling now. “Some validation, some assurance, that it couldn’t have been their fault! Packed away, like it’s some treasure, some cursèd idol. It’s always, never them.”
Sybille crashed to the floor, screaming. The eyes were gobbling eagerly at her head, poking around for the memory she had hidden in the depths of her heart.
The fire was edging her vision. Sybille saw someone she didn’t want to see. She felt the match she didn’t want to hold in her hand. She stretched it forward, screaming. Never again, please, I can’t do this again!
Jennings crouched. He reached a bony thumb to her temple, and pressed down. It burned cool.
The fire had devoured the 8th floor already. She could feel it scurrying down, down, down. Sybille screamed. Put it away. Go away!
And mercifully, it did.
Grimy linoleum pressed against her cheek. Her notepad and pen were in the hands of Jennings. He looked irritated. His lips pressed shut.
He didn’t blink once, just stared, up and down, Sybille’s shuddering head, her legs fighting fruitlessly to try and prop her up. He exhaled between his teeth. His white pupils ceased their quivering.
“So you really just burned it all away.” Jennings clipped towards the dead eye and hoisted it off of the yellowed wall. The stain on the wall was bone white. “I’ll take this off of your hands Sybille. I believe Elliot should be waiting for you in the hall.”
“What did you do to me?”
“Nothing you haven’t done yourself.”
Sybille finally found herself upright. Jennings tossed her belongings to her feet, and started towards a door.
He only hummed, in agreement, in amusement.
She stumbled away from Jennings, but kept a last foothold in the small hallway. “I think we still need that, as evidence…”
“You will.” Jennings widened his mouth. The translucent teeth flashed brightly and said “We will see you later, Sybille.”