by Tara Calaby
It was nine months and thirteen days since Gia had emptied her side of the wardrobe and left a three-line note on the bed. For the first six months, Violet’s friends had been sympathetic, but since then they had been doing their best to drag her back into the world. In March, she had returned to her phone after a trip to the bathroom to find a screen full of dating apps, courtesy of her best friend, Lou. In April, she had turned up to dinner with her sister, only to find a sweet-but-so-not-her-type lesbian sitting in her sister’s place. And, in May, Lou and her partner Nix had all but manhandled Violet into an Uber and carted her off to some chintzy country town, where the cafes only served breakfast until eleven.
“You’ll love it,” Lou had said, as she pulled Violet from the comfortable nest of cushions on her couch. “And, if not, the fresh air will do you good.”
Huddling under an antique shop’s eaves for shelter as the wind whipped icy raindrops towards her face, Violet couldn’t help but wonder what kind of good Lou had meant. She was still single, still lonely and directionless and cross, and now she had a dripping nose and wet trouser legs as well. It was easy for Lou to call the storm exciting. She had Nix to laughingly dodge the puddles with, her hand and theirs knotted and warm. Violet had rain-frizzled hair and the beginning of a blister.
When the rain eased, they ran to the next cluster of shops. The first was a butcher, with a row of plastic calves and lambs smiling down upon the laid-out cuts of meat. Their features were age-worn: some blinded, some noseless, one missing part of one leg. Violet felt a surge of kinship. These last nine months, she had been the one wearing a mask of happiness while everything around her had faded.
Lou dropped Nix’s hand so she could tug Violet away from the window. “Let me show you the gallery,” she said. “For the back of beyond, they always have quality stuff.”
Violet followed her friends through the panelled wood door. Once inside, she could see that the gallery had once been two shops, the adjoining wall replaced by a steel girder that ran the length of the white-lit room. The walls were covered with paintings, while the floor in between was broken up by sculptures on Perspex plinths and jewellery in tall glass displays. She left Lou and Nix to look at a cluster of brooches and moved to the back of the room, where the paintings were framed and elegant, unlike the colour-daubed canvases near the door. She examined the first few, barely interested, and then froze as she turned to a portrait rendered in autumnal oils.
The painting was of a fair woman lying pink-cheeked upon a bed. The sheets twisted around her body—not artificially, as though for modesty, but organically, as if the model had been just aroused from slumber. Her eyes were grey, her nose was long, and her lips curved with a smile that was lazy from sleep or sex. The exposed skin was pale, almost translucent, marked only by a small mole on the exposed swell of the woman’s left breast.
Violet felt dizzy. Hair, skin and face, she was looking at herself.
Nix joined her, letting out a huff of surprise as they took the painting in. “Well, that’s a bit creepy,” they said. “Got a twin you’ve never mentioned?”
“No,” Violet said, one hand rising to touch the place where an identical mole lay on her own chest. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s a hell of a coincidence,” Nix said. “Either that or she’s your evil clone.”
“Nothing to worry about, then.” Violet kept her voice light, but the words in her ears were muffled, as though spoken from a distance.
“You didn’t tell me you’d been an artist’s model,” Lou said, her tone almost accusatory as she came up beside them, wrapping her arms around Nix’s waist.
“I haven’t,” Violet replied, still in that strange, lost voice.
“Then you’ve got yourself a stalker.” Lou moved closer to the painting, bending to examine the white card below it. “Jacqueline Tran,” she read. “Ring any bells?”
Violet shook her head. “None.”
Just a coincidence, then, like Nix had said. It was foolish to think the painting was of Violet, regardless of the resemblance. She didn’t know the artist, and that was an answer in itself.
But the mole, her mind prompted, as she turned away. How do you explain the mole?
That night, after she had finally persuaded Lou and Nix to leave her alone with her X-Box and a takeaway pizza, Violet sipped an iced tea while checking her email. There was a message from Gia, the first in several weeks, and Violet was relieved to find that the sight of her former lover’s name no longer twisted her stomach with dismay. It was difficult, remaining friends with an ex, even when you’d known all along that it wasn’t likely to work out. Violet’s relationships never did. Previous girlfriends had called her cold for loving differently, but Gia had taken Violet’s oddities in her stride. “My brother has Asperger’s,” Gia had said. “Don’t worry; I get it.” She had stayed with Violet longer than all those before her combined, but in the end the relationship had crumpled like any other. Gia had moved in with an emotionally intelligent masseuse and Violet had played her favourite video games on repeat, until she could recite the cut-scenes along with the actors. It could’ve been worse.
Her emails sorted, Violet opened her browser, meaning to check the weather forecast but instead stilling as soon as the Google logo appeared on her phone screen. It can’t hurt to look, she told herself, although the sudden tension in her chest seemed to predict otherwise. She paused for a few seconds longer, then typed “Jacqueline Tran” and hit search before she could change her mind. The top result was promising—jacquelinetranartist.com—so Violet followed the link.
The site was basic, with a lot of white space, and Violet clicked the “gallery” link without reading anything else. She wanted—needed—to see the painting: to reassure herself that the resemblance in the gallery had been no more than an odd similarity, made worse in the artificial light. It seemed silly that it even mattered to her, and she wondered briefly if this was some new stage of breakup grief before dismissing the possibility. She was over Gia; she knew she was. It was only the potential that she mourned now: the happiness that she’d hoped for and the dream of a soul mate who loved her for all her quirkiness and never went away.
The first two paintings in the online gallery were landscapes, watercolour impressions of low, grassed hills fringed with a border of uncut bush. Violet didn’t recognise the scenery and she couldn’t work out whether the sensation that washed over her was one of relief or regret. It was odd to feel somehow jealous of a place—for existing without her, perhaps, a space without her in it.
She sat without movement for so long that the phone’s screen went black. This could be the end of it, she told herself, but instead she pressed her fingerprint to the reader and scrolled further down the page.
The landscapes were anomalies. There were nine other paintings shown on the page, and each of those nine was a portrait: a portrait of the same fair-haired woman, with Violet’s eyes and smile. Three of the paintings showed only the head and shoulders of the model, but the other four captured her in different domestic situations, as though she had been painted whilst simply going about her life. In one, she sat on a grey couch, her legs bent beside her and a mug balanced on her lap. In another, she stood, profiled at a kitchen sink, suds on her elbows and her lips slightly parted, as if caught mid-speech. The third—more impressionistic in style than the others—placed her in a small courtyard beside a mandarin tree. And the last…
Violet felt nauseous. Her heart beat with an excited rhythm, her pulse throbbing in the fingers that curled around her phone. The distant sensation had returned again, that uneasy recognition of something uncanny, inserted between the patterns of normal life. The last painting was impossible, preposterous—and yet it existed and had been photographed and uploaded for everyone to see.
In it, the same woman stood in front of a second painting. Her brow was furrowed in confusion, her features tense where in every other picture they had been soft and relaxed. Her surroundings were painted with broad brushstrokes, keeping the viewer’s focus on the woman herself, but there was enough detail for Violet to recognise the very gallery she had visited earlier that day. And, on the woman, expressed perfectly in oils as though painted from a photograph, the very hoody and torn-kneed jeans that Violet still wore.
Violet stared for a long time, and then silently turned off her phone, placed it on the coffee table in front of her, and walked to the front door to pull on her shoes. It was dark and still drizzling, but she needed to walk: to somehow, through exercise, bring order to the clutter of thoughts inside her head.
Before leaving the flat, though, she returned to the phone on the table. The site’s pull-down menu contained a link to a page entitled “About the Artist.” There was no photo of Tran—just another painting and a few short lines of text detailing training, exhibitions and the artist’s love of Brie and bad TV. The painting showed the same woman in the courtyard again, but this time she was not alone. Her smile—how long had it been since Violet had smiled like that?—was directed at another woman: shorter, broader, with smooth, black hair and dark brown eyes. Violet had never seen her before, but a part of her recognised Jacqueline Tran all the same. There was a refrain, deep within her mind, too far off to hear.
Jacqueline Tran’s studio was the second from the end of the row. Violet walked past acrylics and beaten silver, rough-chiselled stone and multi-coloured glass. The adjoining studio was cluttered with pottery, and the smell of wet clay stuck to Violet’s nostrils as she took a slow breath and pulled open Tran’s studio door. As she entered the airy room, she quickly realised that she was the only person inside it. The only breathing person, that was, for the walls and an army of easels supported close to three dozen canvases, all painted with the same familiar, thickly applied oils. Some depicted interiors, some soaring blue skies and expanses of green. To the right, there was the courtyard again; to the left, there was a kind of airport that looked more Star Trek than Tullamarine. Several paintings showed the same bedroom, only the colours changing, as though it had been painted in different lights. And, in every picture, there was the woman—there was Violet—splashed over the canvases, as though she could never not be there.
The other woman was in the paintings too: in most of them, at least. As she looked around the room, Violet saw holidays and tragedies, slow Sunday breakfasts and springtime adventures in foreign countries and local streets. In many of the paintings, Violet looked as she had that morning, when she had stared into the bathroom mirror, clutching the vanity with nervous hands. A few, however, showed wrinkles that were yet to form, streaks of grey in once-black hair and rounded bodies where now there were straight lines.
By the window was hung a canvas much larger than the rest. Upon it, an arch of red and white roses formed a bower above a couple standing with linked hands. The darker woman was suited and beautiful; the blonde’s white lace dress matched the veil in her hair. They were facing each other and, in their painted eyes, there glowed a happiness deeper than Violet had ever known.
She was overwhelmed, suddenly, with a feeling of great loss. The oil futures strewn about this room were not hers to experience, would not be hers to ever know. It was like a tearing deep within her, an agony she couldn’t explain. She had come to this place to solve a mystery, but the answer felt like a broken heart. She was just a doppelganger—yes, after all this, just a coincidence—intruding in another’s life.
Her eyes stinging, Violet turned to leave just as a familiar woman walked through the studio door. She was more beautiful in person: her dark eyes warmer, her lips pink and full. She was carrying another canvas and, as Violet’s gaze fell to look at it, she felt her breath catching in her chest. In the painting, the blonde stood with the wedding canvas behind her, her expression startled and her cheeks pale and wet. Her dress was rendered in perfect detail, each line of plaid matching that of the original, even the chipped top button retaining its damaged form.
Violet looked down at her own dress and then back at the painting, a new warmth filling her as she lifted her gaze to the artist’s eyes.
When Jacqueline Tran smiled, it was like a thousand futures hitting Violet all at once. “I’m Jack,” she said, holding out one paint-daubed hand, “and I’m so glad you’re finally here.”
About the Author:
Tara Calaby lives in Melbourne, Australia with her wife and far too many books. She is currently a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, researching the social worlds of women in Victorian lunatic asylums.
Tara’s writing has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Grimdark Magazine and Daily Science Fiction. In her free time, she enjoys playing video games, attempting to learn Danish, and patting other people’s dogs.
Tara’s website can be found at http://www.taracalaby.com and her twitter handle is @Tara_Calaby.