The Memory Painter: New Excerpt

The Memory Painter by Gwendolyn Womack is thriller about an artist whose vivid dreams are not only his work's inspiration, but also a look into the lives of others (available April 28, 2015).

What if there was a drug that could help you remember past lives?

What if the lives you remembered could lead you to your one true love?

What if you learned that, for thousands of years, a deadly enemy had conspired to keep the two of you apart?

Bryan Pierce is an internationally famous artist whose paintings have dazzled the world. But there's a secret to his success: Every canvas is inspired by an unusually vivid dream. When Bryan awakes, he possesses extraordinary new skills…like the ability to speak obscure languages and an inexplicable genius for chess. All his life, he has wondered if his dreams are recollections, if he is re-experiencing other people's lives.

Linz Jacobs is a brilliant neurogeneticist, absorbed in decoding the genes that help the brain make memories, until she is confronted with an exact rendering of a recurring nightmare at one of Bryan's shows. She tracks down the elusive artist, and their meeting triggers Bryan's most powerful dream yet: visions of a team of scientists who, on the verge of discovering a cure for Alzheimer's, died in a lab explosion decades ago.

As Bryan becomes obsessed with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the scientists' deaths, his dreams begin to reveal what happened at the lab, as well as a deeper mystery that may lead all the way to ancient Egypt. Together, Bryan and Linz start to discern a pattern. But a deadly enemy watches their every move, and he will stop at nothing to ensure that the past stays buried.

One

The paintings hung in the dark like ghosts. Too many to count—not an inch of wall space remained. The canvas eyes looked alive in the darkness, staring at their surroundings as if wondering what alchemy had transported them to this place.

The artist’s loft had an industrial air with its Lego-like windows, concrete walls, and cement floor. A dozen bolts of Belgian linen leaned in a corner next to a pile of wood waiting to be built into frames. Four easels formed a circle in the center of the studio, a prepared canvas resting on each. Their surfaces gleamed with white gesso that had been layered and polished to an enamel-like perfection, a technique used in the Renaissance to obtain a nearly photographic realism. This artist knew it well.

The paintings themselves were an eclectic ensemble. Each image captured a different time in history, a different place in the world. Yet the paintings had one thing in common: all depicted the most intimate moments of someone’s life or death.

In one painting, a samurai knelt on his tatami, performing seppuku. He was dressed in ceremonial white, blood pooling at his middle. The ritual suicide had been portrayed in excruciating detail, the agony on the samurai’s face tangible as he plunged the blade into his stomach. Behind him, his “Second” stood ready, his wakizashi sword poised to sever the samurai’s head. In the next painting, an imperial guard on horseback dragged a prisoner across a field in ancient Persia. And further along the wall, an old man wearing a turban stared into the distance, as if challenging the artist to capture his spirit on the last day of his life.

The studio had three walls, and the entire space was closed off by an enormous partition of Japanese silk screens. On the other side was a spartan living area with a kitchen hidden behind a sidewall. Down the hall, there was a smaller room unfurnished except for a mattress on the floor. The artist lay sprawled across it on his stomach, shirtless and in deep sleep.

Without warning, he sat up and gasped for air, struggling out of the grasp of a powerful dream.

“I am here now. I’m here now. I’m here now. I’m here now.” He chanted the words over and over with desperate intensity as he rocked back and forth in a soothing motion. But then, just as suddenly, his body went slack and his eyes grew distant as a strange calm descended over him. He got out of bed.

Entering his studio like a sleepwalker, he selected several brushes and began mixing paint on a well-used wooden palette, whispering words in ancient Greek that had not been heard for centuries.

His hands moved with a strange certainty in the dark. Time passed without his awareness. He painted until the hours towered above him, pressing down upon his body and begging him to stop. His feet grew numb, his shoulders stiff with pain. When the sun’s glaring noon light reached his window, a piercing pain lanced through his head, jarring him out of oblivion like an alarm clock.

I am Bryan Pierce. I am standing in my studio. I am here now. I am Bryan Pierce. I am standing in my studio. I am here now. I am Bryan Pierce. He forced the words into his consciousness, grabbing onto their simple truth like a child reaching for the string of a kite. The words were the only thing that kept him from flying away.

Bryan’s legs buckled and he sank to the floor, leaning against the wall for support. Hands dangling over drawn-up knees, his arms were streaked with every pigment on the studio shelf. His bare chest displayed similar stains.

He forced himself to study his most recent work, knowing that this was the quickest way to assimilate the dream. Only when he felt able to stand did he get up and walk over to the video recorder in his studio. It was the highest-end digital camera that money could buy and came equipped with an infrared setting to catch nighttime activity. He always kept it on. Bryan didn’t need to review the footage to know he had been speaking Greek all night again. But the recording proved that it had happened.

Most mornings, observing himself on camera gave him some sense of peace. But today he didn’t feel like watching it—his vision was still too present, like a messenger in the room. Somehow, this dream held answers. But to what?

Origenes Adamantius, a priest from ancient Rome, had invaded his consciousness a week ago, and every night since he had been painting memories from the man’s life. He had delivered the first canvas to the gallery before it had even dried. He knew it had to hang in his next show, but he had no idea why.

The opening was tonight. It would be his first show in Boston since he had moved from New York, and all week he had been toying with the idea of going. But then he would dismiss it just as quickly. He could not justify the risk. Being surrounded by so many people, having to stare into their eyes as he shook their hands—his paintings a screaming backdrop—would most likely trigger an episode. And how could he explain that?

When he hadn’t appeared at any of his openings in New York last year, the press had pounced, portraying him as some kind of arrogant recluse who spurned the public, when nothing could be further from the truth. He put his work out there with the hope that someone, someday, would recognize his paintings for what they were, that someone else in the world suffered from the same curse. But maybe that hope was delusional. He had been searching for years and was beginning to feel it was a lost cause. Hundreds of paintings and not one answer.

Bryan rubbed his eyes. He could feel a headache setting in—the need to shut off his thoughts had become too great. Maybe he should take the day off, go outside for a long walk.

But first he wanted to go to the exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. All week, colorful banners had been waving in the wind next to the streetlights downtown, announcing its arrival: “Mysteries of Egypt and The Great Pyramid.” Every time he saw them, it felt as if the last remaining Seventh Wonder of the World had come to Boston just for him. He’d been planning to attend, and today would be the perfect day to go.

He grabbed his keys and left, passing one of his neighbors in the hallway—a young woman he had seen only once or twice before. She lived at the opposite end of the hall with her husband, and she was looking at him with a mixture of embarrassment and allure.

With a faint smile, he murmured a quick “Hello” and turned around to go back inside. He had forgotten to put on a shirt.

 

Two

“The amount of stone in the Great Pyramid could build thirty Empire State Buildings, or a three-foot-high wall across the entire country and back.”

Linz gazed up at the projections, wearing her headset, astounded by the facts the prerecorded guide was ticking off.

“The stones were cut with a tolerance matched only by our best opticians today. Every stone is the same. Expert stonemasons think ancient Egyptians must have used tools with a precision five hundred times greater than a modern drill. The exactitude they achieved is astonishing.”

But how is that possible? Linz asked herself, growing more perplexed by the minute. The self-guided tour seemed to pose more questions than answers.

“Ancient Egyptians were purportedly unaware of the Earth’s shape or size, and yet the Great Pyramid stands exactly one-third of the way between the equator and the North Pole. Its height and perimeter are in perfect ratio to the circumference of the Earth and radius of the poles. Its axis aligns to true North–South—even more accurate than the Greenwich Observatory in London. It is the largest and most precise structure ever built in the entire history of our civilization, and even today we cannot re-create it.”

Growing restless, Linz took off her headset, abandoning the tour. The truth was she hadn’t come to the museum to see this exhibit, but for a far more personal reason. Linz had only been a baby when her mother had passed away, and almost thirty years later she still felt drawn to this place that her mother had loved so much.

Linz had spent the last two hours roaming every gallery, but by the end of the morning she still felt melancholy. Maybe I’ll go play chess at the park, she thought. It had been several months since she had moved back to Boston and she had not yet made the time to return to her old haunt at Harvard Square.

Heading toward the exhibit entrance to return her headset, she stopped to look at an exquisite Egyptian armband, meant not for a woman but for a warrior. A little smile flickered across her face. It looked just like the tattoo hidden under her sweater.

Just then another person touring the space came to stand beside her—not too close, but close enough to make her look up. He was the most arresting man she had ever seen with eyes an electrifying blue. They both stared at each other for a suspended moment. Then he walked on.

Linz stood rooted to the ground, watching him leave. She wanted to pull him back and replay the moment all over again.

As if he could read her thoughts, the man turned and stared at her once more before disappearing into the next room. Linz hovered, unsure of what to do. She felt a strange compulsion to follow him, to reenter the galleries and pretend that she had not just wandered through the whole thing. But it wasn’t like she could just strike up a conversation about Nefertiti and ask for his number. She had never hit on anyone in her life, and she wasn’t about to start at the MFA. With a sense of reluctance, she dropped off the headset.

When she exited the museum, the world outside felt different somehow. Playing chess at the Square didn’t seem as appealing as it had five minutes ago, but she figured she would go anyway. Maybe focusing on a game would help still the strange flutter of her heart.

As she left, she couldn’t quite brush off the brief encounter with the man inside or the odd feeling that she was making a mistake by walking away.

*   *   *

Harvard Square was a postcard come to life, where people from all over the city gathered to play chess. Her opponent, an old man wearing a golfer’s hat, made his first move. Linz countered within seconds, listening to the quiet play from the other tables, and her pent-up tension gradually released. Within ten moves, she had won.

The old man grumbled and set up the board for another round. Linz won the next game too and he gave her a sharp look, obviously reassessing his assumption that the pretty girl would be any easy win.

What her opponent didn’t know was that she had been Junior Grandmaster at age fifteen, the most prestigious title awarded young players. As a child, she had pursued chess with an all-consuming passion and had only relaxed her obsession when she entered high school, where she took care to downplay her various talents in order to fit in. Most teenagers didn’t appreciate a know-it-all chess champion with a scholar’s mind beyond her years. It was only in college that she embraced her eccentricities and found the confidence to allow herself to openly excel. And when she began a fast track to earning her PhD in neurogenetics, she was no longer self-conscious that she was the smartest girl in the room because everyone was brilliant.

The old man moved on to another table with a disgruntled look.

“This table open?” someone asked.

Linz looked up and froze. It was the man from the museum—her man, the one she had almost followed.

Her mind racing, she computed the likelihood of this outcome given the variables. Impossible. In a city the size of Boston, the chances of their meeting at the museum and then running into each other at another random location was one in a billion, if not more. For the first time in her life, she had no idea what to say.

“You’re quite good,” he said, sitting opposite her.

In disbelief, she watched him reset the pieces. They were going to play chess. She and Mystery Man were going to play chess.

He must have followed her here. But within seconds she torpedoed that idea. She would have noticed him trailing her, plus he had been deep inside the museum when she had left.

“The old man you just beat usually likes to boast that he’s a top-ranked player in the Chess Federation,” he told her with a quizzical smile.

“You’ve played him before?” she asked with surprise, wishing he would look up and meet her eyes, but he kept them fixed on the board.

“I’ve been coming here every week for the last couple of months.”

The news came as a disappointment instead of a relief—he hadn’t followed her. This was bizarre chance, nothing more.

Linz decided she would postpone winning to extend their time together. However, within the first three moves, two things became apparent: he was an expert at chess, and her strategy to prolong the game wasn’t going to work.

They had completely different styles. He was lightning fast with his choices, mercurial even, while she was meditative. He won after six moves. Like her previous opponent had done with her, she had underestimated him.

Her ego thoroughly trampled, she vowed to annihilate him in the next round. “Again?” she asked sweetly.

He chuckled and nodded, studying her hands. His refusal to look at her was beginning to drive her crazy.

But then his eyes met hers. “Why were you at the exhibit?”

She stared back at him, her mouth suddenly dry. “My mother used to work there,” she blurted.

He waited, as if knowing there was more to the story. Somehow, his unwavering gaze pulled the truth from her.

“She died when I was only six months old. Sometimes I like to imagine she’s still alive and that we’ve lived a life together…” Linz trailed off. Although it had been muted by time, the ache of her mother’s loss had always remained, and she never spoke to anyone about those feelings. Today seemed to be the exception.

“What was her name?” he asked gently.

“Grace.” Linz could feel the lump rising in her throat and swallowed. “She was from England … she came here to help curate the Egyptian Art collection.”

Dr. George Reisner had led the longest-running and most successful excavation in Egypt from 1905 to 1942, a joint effort by the MFA and Harvard. It had resulted in Boston becoming home to one of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. Linz had thought it quite fitting that the visiting exhibit centered around Egypt too.

“When I was growing up, I would sometimes go there alone and pretend she was still here … that I would round a corner and bump into her,” Linz confessed, astounded she was sharing something so intimate with a stranger.

But he only nodded and said nothing. There were no knee-jerk condolences or sympathetic remarks. He simply accepted and understood.

“Ready?” he asked softly.

Linz felt like he was talking about more than the game.

“Your move,” he said.

She blushed and looked at the board, trying to recapture her determination to win. But as the game progressed, she began to realize it was pointless. He was unlike any player she had ever encountered. Most people mastered chess by remembering thousands of essential patterns and potential plays, but he played with no pattern, creating new ideas as he went. It was impossible for her to get ahead of him. Still, she retaliated with every tactical position and forced move in her arsenal. She caught him smiling on several occasions after one of her plays.

This went on forever. Neither said a word, until finally he spoke, “It’s going to be a draw.”

Linz checked the board, unwilling to admit defeat. A draw was not a win. But after a moment, she saw he was right. It irritated her that he had seen it first.

“I’m here every Friday if you want a rematch.”

She glanced up at him, trying to see what he meant by that. Was he signaling that he wanted to see her again? Because she wasn’t quite sure what to make of this whole encounter. But he was staring at the board again. Maybe the attraction she was feeling was all in her head.

Linz checked her watch and was startled to see that two hours had flown by. She had plans tonight and she needed to head home and change. She gathered her purse and stood.

“Thanks for the game,” she said and held out her hand in goodbye, unable to explain her disappointment. Their strange meeting was about to end.

He stood too. Bowing his head, he took her hand and raised it to his lips. The slightest feather of his breath touched the skin at her wrist, and then her arm was once again dangling by her side.

“Until Friday, I hope,” he murmured.

She felt her heart flutter inexplicably again. “Until Friday,” she found herself saying.

As she walked away, she could feel his eyes on her the entire time, and it took all her willpower not to turn around and go back to ask him the one question she had meant to ask a hundred times during their game: she had never found out his name.

Copyright © 2015 Gwendolyn Womack.

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Originally from Houston, Texas, Gwendolyn Womack began writing plays in college while freezing in the tundra at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She received an MFA from CalArts in Directing for theater and film and was a semi-finalist in the Academy's Nicholl Fellowship. She currently she resides in California and can be found at her keyboard.

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