Forget-me-not

by Eve Jacob on May 17, 2012

For Michelle Yee.

Jon was sure he was losing his mind.

He stared at his canvas, sitting just where he’d left it on the easel.  A nearly completed painting, an almost perfect piece.  A commission, fetching a rather impressive sum.

And across his lovely painting, in a messy, uncoordinated scrawl, was one word:

“Sophie.”

The large, indigo letters were more invasive than previous affronts – these covered the entire painting.

This had been going on for weeks now – he’d complete a piece, and when he woke the next morning, or returned form a quick lunch, he’d find that name across his painting, marring it, often beyond repair.

At first, he’d thought one of the bratty neighbor children had snuck into his apartment and done it as a prank.  He’d added two more locks to his door, but it had happened again with his next painting.  He’d nailed the windows shut, but still “Sophie” left her mark.

Now, he didn’t leave the apartment at all.  Not that he’d ever gone out much – Paris had long since lost its appeal.  He slept in a chair in front of his easel, stationed as a guard against this “Sophie.”

When he’d woken up that morning, another painting had been ruined.

Jon tapped his cane against the floor in irritation.  His head ached.  He rubbed the scar that ran across his right temple and shifted his weight, leaning on his cane.  Insanity wasn’t such a far-fetched notion – maybe he was simply going mad.

Unless someone was trying to make him crazy.

He smirked.  “Paranoia – another symptom of instability.”

Yeah, right up there with talking to yourself.

The amusement left his face as soon as his eyes fell on his painting again.  He glared at it for a few more seconds before draping the tarp over it and hobbling into the kitchen for his morning scotch.  The bottle by his easel was empty.

As he searched for a clean glass, he heard a knock on the door.

“Jean?  Jean, are you in?”

Jon groaned.  He selected the least dirty glass from the growing collection on his counter and poured himself a drink.  He downed it and poured another before making his way to the door.

“What do you want, Andre?” he grumbled as he undid the many locks that kept the world out.

“Jean, good morning,” Andre said pleasantly, his English tinged with a thick French accent.  His eyes flicked to the glass of scotch before focusing back on Jon’s face.

Jon gave no reply.

“Jean…”

“It’s Jon, Andre.  I don’t call you Andy, do I?” Jon interrupted.  He wasn’t entirely sure why, but it rubbed him the wrong way when Andre called him “Jean,” even though it was technically just his name in French.

“No.  Pardon.  It’s just that your rent is due…for this month…and last month…”

Jon shook his head.  “I told you, I’m not paying until you fix this issue with my damn apartment.”

Andre sighed.  “Jean, I cannot help you with…whatever it is you’re having trouble with, it’s –”

“It’s a security issue, is what it is.”

“The building is secure.  Jean, if you would just tell me what’s going on, I might…”

He trailed off and Jon glared down at his glass, then up at his landlord.

“Come here, come see this.”

Andre hesitated for only a moment before stepping inside.  The apartment was small, made smaller by the clutter that Jon never cleared away.  Against the window sat an easel, paints and brushes lined the sills and crowded the floor.

Jon pulled the tarp off his most recent work and held up his arms, a fresh wave of annoyance hitting him at seeing his work marred again.

Part of him was conducting a test – he wanted to see if anyone else could see it.

Andre reacted immediately.  His face went pale, his eyes grew wide.  He gaped at the painting as though it terrified him.  He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

Jon watched him carefully, studying his response.

“Jean…d-did you do this?  Did you write that?” he finally managed.

“I sure as hell didn’t ruin my own painting.  This is what I’ve been talking about – someone keeps sneaking in here to write ‘Sophie’ on all my damn paintings!” He wasn’t half as sure as he tried to sound, but he wasn’t going to admit that he might be going crazy.

“Jean…” Andre sputtered.

“Who is Sophie?  Why do you look so freaked out?  Do you know her?”

Andre looked at the painting for what felt like a long time.  Finally, he turned to Jon.

“She…was someone I knew.  Someone I cared for.”

Jon waited for him to continue.

“She died, Jean.  She…I…” he looked back at the painting, unsettled.

“Are you telling me some…some ghost is ruining all my paintings?” Jon demanded, somewhere between disturbed and disbelieving.

Andre continued to stare at the name.

“I don’t know, Jean.”

Jon started pacing in aggravation, ignoring the pain in his left leg.

“Well, why is she haunting me, then?” he asked as he walked the room.  “Seems to me she’s your ghost.”

“My ghost?  I don’t have any ghosts.  Jean – this is ridiculous, there’s no such thing as – ”

Jon pointed at the painting.  Andre sighed.

“Why is she haunting me, Andre?  Get her out of my apartment.  Doesn’t this ghost have any manners?”

“She used to live here,” Andre said softly.

Jon grumbled and returned to pacing.  He resented his body, and all its aches and pains.  Other men his age were at their physical peak.  He stumbled around like a weary old man.  Even Andre, who was probably ten years Jon’s senior, could move with much more ease.  And much less pain.

He sipped from his glass and nudged a few empty paint cans out of his path with his cane while he waited for Andre to do something.

At last, Andre turned to face his tenant.

“Well, what are you going to do about this?” Jon asked.  He sank into the sofa and lit a cigarette, his knee and calf burning from over-exertion.

“Jean, what am I to do?”

“I don’t know.  But I’m pretty sure haunted apartments are the landlord’s responsibility.  Maybe you should add that as an addendum to your lease agreements in the future.  Seeing as this is apparently a problem with you.”

Andre looked like he was suddenly very tired.  He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.  He headed toward the door, saying, “I’ll look into it,” as he passed.

“That’s just you blowing this off!” Jon called after him.  The door shut quietly, and Jon was once again alone.

He sat in the empty apartment, swirling the last sip of scotch around in his glass and studying the messy scrawl.

“Sophie,” he muttered.  “I have enough problems, Sophie.  Go haunt someone else.”

*                             *                             *

Jon spent the remainder of the day trying to fix the painting.  It was tedious work, and he wasn’t pleased with the result.  He was also displeased with the idea that there was apparently some woman named Sophie who used to live in his apartment, and she might decide to mess it up all over again.

But the work kept this mind off the pain in his leg and head, and kept his thoughts from turning too dark.  Jon’s memories were something he tried to avoid at all costs.

He decided to sleep in his bed that night.  He’d accepted the idea of a ghost – perhaps because it was easier than believing that he had finally gone completely insane – and that knowledge made the notion of sitting in front of the already ruined painting all night seem rather pointless.

Besides, the chair made his damaged body ache even more than usual.

As his insomnia finally gave way, he said a silent prayer for a dreamless sleep.

But, as usual, his prayers went unanswered.  The dreams came, as they always did.

The beautiful woman who rotted and deteriorated, collapsing into a pile of putrid flesh when he reached out to touch her.  The room of people with dead eyes and no mouths, carving into him with knives and nails and wicked tools.

The beautiful, serene garden where a blood-curdling scream tore through the sweet-smelling air.  No matter how hard he looked, he could never find the person who was shrieking.

That was always the dream that woke him, shaking and sweating, his stomach twisted into knots.  This time, when he jerked awake, it was still dark outside.  A soft drizzle fell outside, and when he moved, he could feel the pain of the storm in his bad knee.  Jon rubbed at his injured bones and muscles futilely – nothing stopped the pain.

He was still shaking from his nightmares.  His body ached for rest, but he’d never get back to sleep after that.

A gray light filtered into the room, casting eerie shadows on the wall.

As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw something odd on the ceiling.  He peered at it, then let out an angry curse.

Sophie.

Jon sat up painfully and looked around the room – anger mixing with fear.

Everywhere he looked, the name was written.  On the ceiling, the walls, the floor…

Across the window, on the door, the mirror…

In small letters, huge letters, in red and yellow and green and blue…

In chaotic mixtures of color…

Everywhere.  On everything.

Sophie.

Jon climbed clumsily out of bed and staggered out into the living quarters.  The words filled this room, and across the small fridge and kitchen cabinets, he could see more of the same.

Sophie.  Sophie.  Sophie.

Jon threw open the door and screamed down the hall.  “ANDRE!  ANDRE, GET UP HERE!”

People poked their heads out from the other apartments.  Curious, fearful, annoyed.  Jon glared at them and they all retreated – people had a tendency to stay out of his way.

Andre came rather quickly, emerging from the stair well and hurrying down the hall.

“Jean?  Are you all right?  What’s wrong?”

Jon threw open his door and stepped aside.

Andre gaped at the scene inside.

“Jean…did you…?”

“Like hell I did!” he roared.

Andre stepped inside and shut the door.

“Your ghost has really outdone herself this time.”

“Jean…I don’t know what to tell you…” Andre said, adjusting his glasses, as if trying to bring things into focus.

“I don’t want you to say anything.  I want you to do something.  If I have to –” he was cut off by a soft knocking.  It sounded muffled and far away, but it was insistent, almost urgent.

Jon looked at his front door, but no – it was coming from behind his book cases.

“What’s that?” he asked Andre, the fear and anger surging up inside him once more.

“I don’t know…”

Jon crossed the room.  The knocking grew louder and more fervent.

“Help me move this,” he said.

“Jean…”

“Come on!”

Andre’s brow knit, but he didn’t protest.  Together, they pulled the book case away from the wall.  Behind it was a door.

The knocking became thunderous.

For what felt like a long time, both men stood silently, listening to the pounding became more insistent.

“Did you know there was a door here?” Jon demanded.

“Yes.”

“Why was it hidden?”

Andre gave no answer.

“I got the place furnished, Andre.  Why was it hidden?”

Andre looked at Jon with such sorrow that he momentarily forgot about the alleged ghost.

“Andre, answer me,” he said, somewhere between a command and a plea.

“Jean – I don’t…I…I’m sorry…but…I don’t know…I can’t even think where to begin…”

The knocking had turned into a desperate banging.  The door shook with the impact.

Jon reached for the door knob.  Andre grabbed his arm.

“Jean, please!”

“What don’t you want me to see, Andre?  Afraid of what I’ll find?” he spat.

“Jean, please, you don’t understand.”

Jon ignored him.  He opened the door.

Instantly, the banging stopped.

Jon stood in the doorway and stared in confusion at the small bedroom before him.

It was neat, if a bit dusty.  Soft yellow walls made the room seem full of sunshine, even though the light that filtered through the lace-covered window was minimal.  The tiny bed was neatly made with a pretty periwinkle bed spread, and stuffed animals lined the low shelves.  It was the room of a very young girl.

A series of white letters hung from lavender ribbons on the wall opposite where Jon stood.

S-O-P-H-I-E.

Jon’s head ached so badly he thought his skull might split.  He pressed his fingers against the scar across his temple.

There was a silver picture frame on one of the shelves.  A dried crown of small purple flowers was draped across the frame, obstructing the picture.  Jon crossed the room slowly and picked it up.  Three people – a woman, an infant, and…Jon.  A younger, smiling Jon.

“Andre.”

“Yes, Jean,” Andre answered, his voice barely more than a whisper.

“Who was Sophie?”

Andre was silent.

“Who was she, Andre?”

“She was your daughter, Jean.”

Jon continued to stare at the photo.  The woman – his wife? – she was the woman from his dreams.  The one who decayed into dust.

Andre was beside him, his hand on Jon’s shoulder.

“What happened to her?” Jon asked quietly.

“She died.  In the accident that…” he glanced at Jon’s cane, his leg, the scars on his face and head.  “She was in the car with you.”

Jon tried to remember, but the accident and most of his life before it was a blur.

“Come, let’s get a drink – I’m sure you…there are many questions to answer…”

Jon set the picture frame back down and let Andre lead him out of the room, too stunned to resist.

*                             *                             *

The two men sat in the back corner of a pub just down the street from the apartment building.  Between them on the table sat two glasses and a large bottle of scotch.

“Explain,” Jon said flatly after a moment of silence.

Andre took off his glasses and wiped them clean.

“About a year ago, you moved here from England.  Your wife, Anne, had died about six months prior.”

“How?”

“She…was pregnant.  You two were expecting your second child but…I’m not sure what happened, you couldn’t talk about it much, it was still too fresh a wound…” he shook his head.  “Your father lived in Paris, so you moved here to find him.  You were estranged after your parents’ divorce when you were young.  Your mother cut ties and left.”

Jon downed his glass and refilled it.  Andre continued to fuss with his glasses.

“Then what?”

“You leased an apartment from me.  Then, not long after, you had your accident.  Your mind…the doctors could not fix the damage.”

“And Sophie?” he asked with no discernible emotion.

Andre shook his head and looked away.

Jon didn’t ask for more details, and Andre didn’t offer any.

“Why do you know so much about me?” Jon asked after a long silence.  His tone was the same flat, emotionless drawl – Andre feared he was in shock.

“Because…” Andre looked down at his glasses again, scrubbing at some imagined smudges.  “When you came looking for your father…well…he was dead.  But you found me.”

“And you are?”

“Your brother.  Your half-brother.”

Jon blinked, surprised.  He tossed back two more scotches before he was ready to continue.

“I’m sorry, Jean,” Andre said gently.

Jon let his head drop down onto the table.

The seconds stretched on while Andre fumbled uncomfortably with his glass, finishing off the bottle and signaling the bartender for a second.

Jon mumbled something.

“What was that?” Andre inquired.

Jon lifted his head slightly.  “I said, ‘now what?’…what am I…what the hell do I do now?”

“I’ve already given you my recommendation.”

“I’m not going into therapy.”

“I know, Jean.  I know.”

“…You’re my brother?”

Andre nodded.

“Huh…” Jon let his head fall back to the table, completely overwhelmed.

Andre poured himself a fresh glass and settled in for a long night.

*                             *                             *

In the days that followed, Jon suffered in ways that made him miss the months where a battered body and bad dreams were the worst of it.

His nightmares became so intense that he stayed awake for days.  When the sleep deprivation began causing hallucinations, Andre dragged him off to the hospital, where he was sedated and monitored for a few days.  He drifted in and out of consciousness, never sure when he was awake or when he was still dreaming.

When he finally woke, Andre was done playing nice.

“Hey, Andre…” Jon said sleepily.

But Andre was unsmiling and frighteningly determined.

“Listen to me, Jean,” he said, leaning forward.  “You might not remember me, but I remember you.  I was nine when you were born.  I helped to raise you.  When your mother took you away, I was devastated.  Now, you are back, and you are the only living family that I have.  And I am the only living family that you have, whether you like it or not.  I won’t watch you die.  You have therapy tomorrow.”

A nurse came in, interrupting Andre’s tirade.

Excusez-moi?  Le monsieur m’a appelé?

Andre looked quizzically at the nurse, then, in annoyance, turned to Jon.

“You called the nurse?”

“This man is annoying me.  Please have security remove him,” Jon said, ignoring Andre.

Andre rolled his eyes and stood up.

“Rest, Jean – starting tomorrow, you’re going to be very busy putting yourself back together.”

*                             *                             *

Jon had all but given up on sleeping and eating, giving in only when Andre’s insistence became too annoying to ignore any longer.

Beyond that, though, he was rather compliant.  Andre came by daily, and together they painted over the walls, washed the windows, and rearranged the furniture so that Sophie’s room was accessible.  As they worked, Andre would tell Jon about his life before the accident, and the details of what followed, many of which Jon had repressed.  He also shared stories from their childhood together.  Jon preferred those – they were much easier to hear, but he never said so out loud.

And he couldn’t resist hearing more about Sophie.  She intrigued him almost as much as she terrified him.

“How old was she?” Jon asked as they scrubbed the kitchen cabinets clean.

“Two.  She was very talkative, though.  Very bright.  I was…quite fond of her.”

It struck Jon as odd, how he could hear Andre say that, knowing it was about his own daughter, but feel so little regarding the matter.  There was a huge disconnect between Andre’s words and Jon’s emotions.

But other times, when he dreamed, the pain and longing hit him with such force that he felt suffocated.  He would curl up and press his hands over his ears, unable to move until the waves of emotion passed.  And then he’d go right back to his shell-shocked, empty state.  It was disorienting.

His therapist said he was still in shock.

They cleaned in silence for a while.

“She had just learned to write her name,” Andre said out of nowhere.

“What?”

“Sophie.  She had just learned how to write it.  I think that’s why…”

Jon continued to scrub at the counter top.  There had been no more supposed paranormal activity since the day he discovered her room.  Jon had written it all off as part of his madness.  Maybe he really had written “Sophie” all over the place.  It seemed more likely than ghosts.

“You’re still buying into that?  It was probably me.  I am a little unhinged.”

“Aren’t we all,” Andre replied blandly.

With the walls, and some furniture, freshly painted, Jon finally began to de-clutter his apartment.  He avoided Sophie’s room, though – he wasn’t ready to face that again.  Not yet.

Jon hadn’t painted in over a week, and his savings had officially run dry, but Andre had stopped inquiring about the rent, and had even taken over buying supplies and groceries for Jon.  He spent most of his time in the small apartment, which Jon complained endlessly about, but was secretly quite grateful for.  He wasn’t sure he would have been able to face the enormity of all this alone.

They finished cleaning and spent the evening in front of the TV, watching various shows, drinking, and commenting on idle, irrelevant matters.  It was nice.  Almost normal.  Almost pleasant.

When Andre got tired and announced that he had to get to bed, Jon got up and walked him to the door.

“Please, Jean, you don’t have to get up, I know it hurts you.”

“Shut up, Andre.  And it’s pronounced ‘Jon’ – get it right.”

Andre chuckled.  “Pardon.  Goodnight, Jean.”

“Night.  And…thanks.”

Andre raised his eyebrows.

“For doing the heavy lifting.  What, with me being a cripple and all.”

Andre rolled his eyes.  “You’re quite decrepit.  Goodnight, Jean.”

“Yeah.  Night.”

Jon collapsed back onto the sofa and watched the TV with no interest.  He was fighting off sleep , but a day full of hard work and emotional turmoil had left him exhausted, and he drifted off.

And he dreamed.  Not of horrors or pain, but of Sophie.

They were having a picnic on the beach.  Anne was around somewhere, but he couldn’t see her – he only knew that she was off on her own, possibly on walk.

It was well enough – it gave him time with Sophie.  He read her a story as she drew figures in the sand with her chubby fingers.  They collected shells, and as they walked, she held his hand in her tiny, soft grasp and chattered endlessly about the sea in her broken toddler speech.  She referred to him as “Papa,” and every time she said it in her little voice, he smiled.  She would break away from him whenever she saw a sea gull, chasing it until it flew off, laughing hysterically as it disappeared out of her reach.  Then she would race back and leap into his arms.

After a time, though, she ran off to chase a small flock and disappeared behind a cluster of jagged rocks.  Jon chased after her, but he couldn’t find her anywhere.  Dread and terror overwhelmed him, and he raced around, calling for her until night fell, when he began to lose hope of ever finding her.

Jon woke feeling uneasy, having no answers, either in his dreams or in his waking life.

The TV was still on, and his neck and back ached from his awkward sleeping position.  He switched off the TV and stretched his aching muscles.

Had it been just a dream?  Or was it based off some suppressed memory?  It had seemed real enough.  Her voice in the dream – was that how it had really sounded?  Was that what time with his daughter had felt like?

Jon got up and poured himself a drink.  He hobbled back into the room, refusing to use his cane out of sheer stubbornness.

He took a blank canvas and placed it on the easel.  Then he took a seat before it and sat quietly, sipping his scotch and mulling over his thoughts.

His hands were shaking as he picked up the brush.  He took a few deep breaths to steady himself, then began to paint, working from memory, calling up the bits and pieces of fragmented recollections.  Jon strained his mind to remember more until he was so worn out from thinking that he felt he couldn’t go on any longer.  But he did – his hand moved of its own accord, never wavering from its work on the canvas, not even to wipe away the tears that began to blur his vision and wet his face.

Finally, he sat back, exhausted.  It was finished.  The sun was just peeking out from the edge of the horizon, but the morning was still gray and silent.

Jon looked at the painting before him.  It was a close-up of Sophie’s face as she had appeared in the dream, her blue eyes, the wisps of reddish-blonde hair that collected into little curls on her forehead.  She was gazing off into the ocean, smiling at something he couldn’t see.

He studied it, making sure he hadn’t missed anything.

It was almost perfect.  Almost.

Jon fell back onto the sofa, exhausted in every possible way.  He slipped off to sleep, deep and peaceful, and blissfully dreamless.

Sometime later, he was woken by Andre knocking at his door.  Jon jerked awake, startled and disoriented.  The room was bright with late-morning sunshine.

“Jean?  Are you awake?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m up…” he mumbled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

He got up and went immediately to his painting.  It was just as he had left it, save for one small difference.

Across the bottom of the portrait, in a soft lavender-blue, was one word.

“Sophie,” he whispered, smiling.  “Now it’s perfect.”

  • http://marklidstone.com/TheWriter Mark

    Fantastic! Fantastic! I love Jon. His reaction to finding out his apartment is haunted is priceless.

    • http://www.ravenhartpress.com Elena Victoria Elizabeth Jacob

      I’m glad you enjoyed it :) Jon was fun to write – and so was Andre, honestly. He’s just so exasperated by Jon, haha.

      Actually, the whole thing was fun to write.

  • Lisa

    Wow! So many emotions in there. I love it! I really need to hear more about Sophie though! More please ;)

    • http://www.ravenhartpress.com Elena Victoria Elizabeth Jacob

      Thanks, Lisa! I’m glad you liked it :) Sophie is a bit of a mystery, isn’t she? ;)

  • Michelle

    The story was amazing, Elena. I remember the snippet I read a while back, and thought to myself, “Damn, I am so intrigued.. Why isn’t there more????!!” Hahaha, no complaints though, it was worth the wait because this is an amazing read!

    I must start off by stating that I loved Andre, what a fun-light character to balance out “Jean” haha. I love how I never felt despondent reading this tale, there was hope in the mystery of Jon’s mystifying-grim-yet beautiful past, and Sophie. She ignited the story through her “absence” because I constantly wanted to learn more about her-alongside “Jo-ean”! I give it 5/5 and extra points for finishing it in less than a day! I am so honored to have this dedicated to me! I don’t feel like I deserve the dedication of such a piece! I can’t wait to read more of your work Lena! You’re one hell of a writer! ;)

    • http://www.ravenhartpress.com Elena Victoria Elizabeth Jacob

      I’m so glad you liked it, Michelle :) it was an absolute pleasure to write – the characters became really dynamic, haha :D

    • http://www.jacob-crawford.com/ Elena Victoria Elizabeth Jacob

      I’m so glad you liked it, Michelle :) it was an absolute pleasure to write – the characters became really dynamic, haha :D

  • Malea

    what a beautiful story! I quite enjoyed reading it!

    • http://www.ravenhartpress.com Elena Victoria Elizabeth Jacob

      Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it – and thank you for the comment! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.k.eidson Michael K. Eidson

    Love this story, partly because I’m so partial to paranormal and fantasy tales. I like the way you peel away the layers of this story. I wonder whether you plotted this story before you started writing, or if it unfolded in your mind as you wrote. Either way, the result is a marvelous work of fiction.

    • http://www.ravenhartpress.com/ Elena Jacob

      Thank you so much! I struggled for months with this story, as it was requested by a friend and I had to figure out how to work with, “There’s a painter in France who won’t pay his rent to his landlord (but not because he doesn’t have the money). Oh, and they’re related somehow.” Haha.

      I didn’t have any clue how to write it and I was sure it would be terrible…and then one day the scene where Jon wakes up to find “Sophie” written on the walls hit me. I sat down with a notebook and wrote the whole story within hours. It was an awesome experience :)

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