Clara sat down at her usual spot on the balcony, paintbrush in hand and easel before her. And, of course, with a smile on her face. This was her hundredth painting. It was a portrait of one of her dearest childhood memories: she and her father proudly lugging their prize-winning hulk of a watermelon from the town fair back to the car, while her mother let her older brother play with the ribbon in his stroller—he had been so adorable back then, and Clara smiled in fond remembrance.
She hummed a small tune as she painted, her movements swift and precise. She practically lived on the balcony now, basking in sunlight by day and moonlight by night (unfortunately, the electricity in the house had stopped working—but she loved the ambiance of moonlit paintings, anyways). She was glad their home was so big—even if it was a bit of a chore to clean every morning, it meant there was plenty of space for her to hang her paintings. She couldn’t wait for her family to come home so she could show them—any day now, she figured.
The front door banged. “Hello? Anyone there?” she heard a stranger’s voice call.
Clara startled, smudging the red of her lips in the painting into a ghastly smeared slash. She sat frozen, almost as shocked by the error as she was by the arrival of an unknown guest.
She heard muffled voices for a few moments, then a jittering of metal on metal. The door opened.
Mechanically, she forced herself to stand up. She didn’t know what to do. Should she be scared? But it had sounded like they had a key… she couldn’t recall what her parents had told her to do in such a scenario. She had no frame of reference. Slowly, she made her way through the balcony doors and to the hallway, her childhood home suddenly feeling like uncharted waters.
There were two men in the foyer below, dressed smartly in work attire. One wore glasses, the other a beard. Both held sleek touchpads, and they noticed her instantly.
The man in the glasses cursed. “I told you! The relatives said they had one of those.”
“Who are you?” Clara’s voice trembled.
“Town housing inspectors, ma’am,” said the bearded man.
“Dammit, I had the codes here somewhere,” the man with the glasses muttered, swiping and tapping furiously through his own device.
Her mind felt thick and slow, like cogs poured over with hot toffee. She didn’t understand. She didn’t understand. Her family was supposed to be here, not these strangers. She was supposed to show her family her artwork. “Where are my parents and my brother?”
The two men exchanged looks. “They died three years ago,” the bearded man said. “Accident while on a countryside vacation. I’m sorry.”
Clara jerked back. “You’re lying. They can’t be.”
The man in the glasses grimaced. “Did you have to tell her?”
“Just hurry up with the override!”
She had kept the house so tip-top tidy. She had straightened every sheet. She had polished every glass. And she had waited, and waited, sleepless days and nights spent pouring her heart out onto her canvas, the years bleeding into one long fantasia. She thought she didn’t dream, but maybe she had been dreaming all along.
Her family was gone, and they were not supposed to be gone. It was an impossibility, a flagrant violation of one of the core axioms of Clara’s life.
“I made so many paintings for everyone.” She took a step back.
The man in the beard was looking at her pityingly. The man with the glasses had stopped hunting through his documents.
“Please,” Clara whispered, not even certain what she was pleading for yet—only knowing that it was as important as anything she had ever done, but events had gathered too much momentum now, and she should have tried to stop something earlier, or done something differently—
“Our revels now are ended,” read the man, peering over his glasses. “You our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air.”
Clara blinked, a state of absolute calm overtaking her. She straightened. Her body relaxed. She smiled and inclined her head. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” she found herself saying, continuing the little eulogy, “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Something vital inside her, some spark that had sustained her all these years, petered out, and away Clara slipped, a slow gradient into the infinity of nothing.