Chapter 1 - Us of Lesser Gods

JIM BANKS had never seen this view of the Boston skyline, because it did not exist. Hundreds of low-rise buildings stood silhouetted against the starry sky, some of them softly lit by sweeping chains of lamps lining the haphazardly arranged streets, and more than a dozen tall church spires spiked at the night. He opened his eyes and the dreamscape remained, painted onto his bedroom ceiling by a memory that was already fogging the view. The sense of dislocation remained.

He could switch on his bedside lamp—Jenny hated when he did that, but she never complained—and sketch the basics of that view. But he knew that even if he managed to re-create the shapes and silhouettes, the many church spires and unevenly pitched roofs, the feeling would fade away. Wakefulness was already stealing those disturbing dream visions, swallowing them down into his subconscious. There was only one way that he could retain the flavor and tone, the strange light and shape of that fleeting vision of a Boston he had never known: he would have to paint.

Jim sat up and slid his feet into his slippers. Goosebumps formed on his arms. Damn, it’s cold. Winter’s on its way. Jenny mumbled something and turned over, sighing gently. Jim stood and stared at her vague shadow for a few seconds, making sure he hadn’t woken her and enjoying this private moment. He relished watching his wife sleep. It was a precious time, and as an artist, he could not help wondering what secret things she dreamed. He always looked for a reaction when she viewed one of his new skyline paintings—images that unsettled him so—but her attitude toward them was ambivalent at best.

He walked to the bathroom, closing the door and leaving the light off. Light would wash away more of his dream. Every second that passed diluted it, and he was keen to get up to his attic studio and start painting as soon as possible. But first he needed to use the toilet, and if he didn’t slip on his bathrobe, he’d freeze to death up there.

Up there on those low roofs, he thought, trapped in a roof valley when the first snows come, listening to the hourly chimes from so many church bells—because they all ring on the hour, though there’s no way I can know that. Watching the pigeons flit from roof to roof, listening to the sounds from the street below, the people passing by and the cars, and the lilt to their voices that I can’t quite place because …

“Because I’ve never really heard it,” he muttered, and the memory of his dream faded a little more.

He hurried across the landing, glancing in at Holly as he passed her bedroom. She was snoring softly beneath an avalanche of cuddly toys, surrounded by the trappings of a little girl’s life—pink walls that he’d decorated with Disney characters, books about fairies and imaginary lands, posters of puppies and horses and a landscape from Oz. He smiled, heart aching with love for his daughter. Then he went up the narrow staircase to his studio, closing the door behind him. Jim always painted to music, and he knew how annoyed Jenny would be if he woke them up.

It was three a.m. He’d get no more sleep tonight.

He switched on the lights, and the studio was reflected back down at him from the wide roof windows. He loved this space. During the day the east- and west-facing windows let in the best of the light, and the south-facing balcony at the gable end was often where he took his lunch and coffee breaks. Sometimes Jenny came up to eat with him, on those rare days when she wasn’t teaching, and they’d chat quietly as they watched the world go by below. There were at least half a dozen people he waved to regularly—he didn’t know their names, but routine gave them the opportunity to acknowledge each other. He didn’t want to know their names. Unusually for an artistic type, routine was important to Jim, and to discover their names and perhaps become friends would be to move on to something new.

But now all the light was contained—an even white illumination from the expensive system he’d had installed a few years before. His midnight painting sprees were not that common, but he often found them the most rewarding.

He turned on the music system and ran his finger along the three full shelves of CDs. Chance usually dictated what he listened to while he worked, and sometimes a subconscious decision based on what might influence a current painting. His forefinger slipped across a case. He saw his daughter’s name—No, it says Flogging Molly—and he slipped the CD into the player. As the first strains of mandolin and fiddle slipped from the speakers, he stood before his working plinth. The current canvas was an advertising design for a new chain of pubs in Boston, part of their forthcoming Christmas campaign. He took it down carefully, set it to one side, and mounted a blank canvas. The dreaded blank canvas. He was confident in his abilities but also acknowledged that every new project began with fear.

Jim closed his eyes, trying not to think too much, music passing through him, breathing deeply and trying to hang on to the last vestiges of sleep. Later he’d have coffee, perhaps even sitting out on the balcony if he wrapped up warmly, but that would be when he was properly awake. Now he had to begin. He breathed slowly, deeply, letting that mysterious skyline swallow him, and when he opened his eyes again the canvas was no longer blank.

He picked up a brush and began to transform his dream into reality.

“What time did you get up?” Jenny asked. Jim had heard her moving around half an hour ago, and when her feet trod gently up toward his studio he was already sitting in one of two comfortable chairs, ankles crossed and relaxing as he stared at what he had done.

“Hey, babe,” he said. “About three.”

Jenny smiled and shook her head. Her gorgeous auburn hair hung free, obscuring one eye and swinging across her face in a way he found unbelievably alluring. She wore her long bathrobe and fluffy pig-faced slippers and carried a tray bearing two steaming coffee mugs and a large plate of pancakes and crispy bacon. Her eyes were still swollen from sleep and her hair a mess, and Jim loved her dearly. Eight years of marriage and no sign of an itch yet.

“Slave to your muse, as ever.” She set the tray on the small table between chairs and slumped into the one beside him, reaching out to squeeze his hand.

“Yeah, but I’ll ride that bitch till she obeys my every command.”

Jenny raised an eyebrow and one corner of her mouth, playfully stern. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”

“You look good enough to eat,” he said, glancing down pointedly at her long legs.

“Bacon and pancakes,” she said, yawning.

“I was thinking you might rather have sausage.”

“Jesus, it’s obvious you had a little too much wine last night.”

Jim smiled and shrugged, picking up a coffee mug and inhaling the warm aroma. He always seemed to be horny the morning after a night of drink. Sipping coffee, he looked back to the canvas he’d been working on for almost four hours, and any other thoughts faded away.

I have no idea where this comes from, he thought, but it was not the dreamy origins of these scenes that worried him. There were at least a dozen such canvases in his storage room at the other end of the studio—of this strange Boston, and another that had also never existed—and three more hanging in Boston’s Rose Gallery, part of a permanent display from local artists. The thing that disturbed him was that he didn’t know why they disturbed him. If it was only him that they affected that way, perhaps he could have attributed it to some feeling from those dreams that lingered in his painted representations—a subconscious fear that was given life in his strokes, blocking, and shading. But Holly didn’t like these skylines, either.

To Jenny, they were simply strange. “This one’s a bit different,” she said.

“Well … they all are.” He glanced sidelong at his wife, watched her regarding his night’s work over the rim of her coffee mug. She seemed to be hiding behind the steam, as if that would protect her from something.

“No,” she said, and then fell silent again. She was examining this painting more closely than usual, her slight frown remaining in place even as she put the mug down and picked up a pancake. She took a bite and chewed, never taking her eyes from the painting.

It’s not finished, he wanted to say. It’s just blocked out, really. There’s shading to do and the sky’s wrong. It’s dark enough, but not heavy enough; there’s no depth. But he held back, because he always found himself striving to defend his work. He had a strange relationship with his art: he was utterly confident in his abilities and talent, yet never content with a finished piece.

“I know what it is,” she said through a mouthful of pancake. “It’s more detailed. Closer.”

“Closer.” For a moment he wasn’t sure what she meant. It was still an unknown skyline—although it was Boston, he’d insist to anyone who doubted him, always Boston—this painting was more real, more there than any he had ever done. “Yeah …,” he said, then the studio door opened.

“Can I have ice cream for breakfast?” Holly asked.

“Morning, sweetie!” Jenny said, standing and sweeping their daughter into a hug.

Holly squeezed her mother tightly and smiled over her shoulder at Jim. Jim smiled back, then made a face, sticking out his tongue and waving his hands beside his head. Holly did the same back at him.

“Hey, what’re you up to?” Jenny asked, leaning back to look at her daughter. Holly giggled, and the sound warmed Jim inside. He and Holly often indulged in secretive stuff—silly faces, name calling, silent singing—and she called it their special time. Jenny knew what was going on, of course, but that didn’t matter.

“Nothing, Mom,” Holly said, giggling some more. Then she saw the remnants of breakfast and her eyes went wide. “Yay, pancakes!”

Jim snatched up the last pancake, folded it around a piece of bacon, and stuffed it into his mouth.

“Not fair!” Holly wailed.

“Jim,” Jenny said, smiling and shaking her head.

“Ony hut ons for oo,” he mumbled, and a blizzard of crumbs settled on his chest. Holly squealed with delight, and as Jim chewed the huge mouthful and raised his eyebrows at Jenny’s mock sternness, he reveled in the moment.

Jim had just hit forty. And realizing how far through life he was, he’d started to concentrate more than ever on the here and now. He’d always been an ambitious person, rushing around to make sure tomorrow brought what he most desired … and the todays were often lost with him barely noticing. In his darker moments, he would berate himself for the way he sometimes treated Jenny. She never complained, and he loved her for that, but she had always been the contented one of the partnership, able to cruise through life and appreciate the moment rather than constantly looking ahead. Jim always seemed to be somewhere else.

And then one day, one moment, walking in the woods in Breakheart Reservation up in Saugus with Jenny and seeing Holly leaping from a fallen tree into a muddy puddle, he’d had an epiphany: he was luckier than most. Beautiful wife, gorgeous child, good friends, a nice home, and a job he loved. He’d done his best to hold on to that truth ever since.

Living for the moment had become his new, unspoken motto, and he’d done his best. If Jenny had noticed a change, she hadn’t mentioned it, but for the past few months he had felt a calmness to their relationship that he hadn’t noticed before. They had never had any doubt about their love, but sometimes there was a distance around Jim that love strained to cross.

“What are you trying to say, Daddy?” Holly said through her giggles.

Jim swallowed and picked up the empty plate. “I said, only hot ones for you. Come on, honey, help me make some more pancake mix. And I see blueberries in our future.”

“Cool,” Holly said, but she had become distracted. “Where’s that?” she asked, looking at the new painting.

“Just somewhere from my dreams.”

“What’s wrong with it? It’s one of those wrong places again.”

“What do you mean, honey?”

“I don’t like it.”

“Daddy hasn’t finished it …,” Jenny began, but the girl seemed to cling tighter around her mother’s neck.

“Well, at least we don’t really have to go there.”

“No, we don’t,” Jim said. “The only place we’re headed is the kitchen. Pancakes. Blueberries.” Holly’s smile returned the instant she looked away from the painting.

“Yay!” she squealed, and it was as if the smile had never slipped.

What’s wrong with it? she’d asked.

It’s closer, he thought.

Jenny gave him a quizzical look, though she couldn’t hide her pleasure. “Hey, I don’t mind if you need to stay up here for a while,” she said.

He stood, leaned in close, and kissed Holly, still clinging around Jenny’s neck. “Nah,” he said, and he gave his wife’s behind a squeeze. “I’m done here.”

“Well then, maybe Holly can watch some TV after breakfast,” she said, turning and giving him a glance over her shoulder that made his knees weak.

Jim whistled as he gathered up the coffee mugs and plate. At the studio door he looked back at the canvas. Viewed from this angle, with morning sunlight slanting across it from the sloping skylight, the painting retained its potency. Closer, Jenny had said.

“Maybe tonight I’ll dream of somewhere else,” he said aloud. The echo of his voice was the only reply.

Holly helped him mix more pancake batter, spilling half of it across the counter and the stove, and by the time they’d cooked and eaten several blueberry pancakes each it was almost nine o’clock. It was a Saturday, and Jim’s agent, Jonathan Morris, was due around ten for coffee and a chat. Jonathan had been his agent for longer than Jim and Jenny had known each other, and he was one of their best friends. When it came to the business, he was beyond compare, and much of what Jim had achieved was due to Jonathan’s expertise when it came to corporate negotiation and contracts. But for the last year, Jonathan’s private life had been a mess, and the Saturday visits had become a regular occurrence. They were never really about business.