Beyond the Firs by Michael Balletti

Edited by Jacqueline Dyre

There’s something behind that painting at work. I hear it buzzing when I walk past. It’s an oil pastel on canvas featuring three fir trees: one is prominent in the center while the other two are smaller, barely in frame to the left and right. A vast grassland stretches out in the background, and two clouds float on either side of the middle tree amid a purple-pink sky.

Sometimes, the buzzing gets louder as I approach. Other times, it stops when I get near. I work at a medical device and pharmaceutical company; the painting is one of many hanging along a hallway that leads to the men’s room on the seventh floor. I don’t remember when I first became aware of the buzzing, but I must have walked by that painting, and the others along that otherwise nondescript corridor, dozens of times before noticing. I didn’t give it much thought in the beginning.

I try not to stare too long at that painting. It looks like those fir trees are swaying and the sky is growing darker and darker, but that could just be a trick of the light. I’ve noticed cameras protruding from the ceiling in that hallway. I assume it’s a security thing; lots of crazies in this world. But they also could be monitoring people’s reactions to that painting.

They’ll never catch me, though. For all they know, it’s just something that I pass on my way to the bathroom.

I don’t talk to many people at work. The cafeteria reminds me of my old high school, so I eat lunch at my desk. My supervisor’s office is on another floor, and she prefers to communicate via IM: All of my assignments are delivered this way. The workload has been slow, so I’ve been trying to look busy at my desk. It’s not that hard to do—most of the cubicles around me are empty. There are days when I wonder if anyone is doing any work at all. But, that’s above my pay grade. I’m more than happy to collect a check, waiting around for IMs.

But I swear, that buzzing is getting louder. Sometimes, I think I hear it all the way at my desk. I can’t be the only one.

One afternoon, a janitor I chit-chat with on occasion was walking towards me in that hallway on the seventh floor. He’s an affable enough fellow who hails from some country in South America, the name of which I can never remember. In any event, I slowed my gait near the painting, close enough to hear the buzzing, but far enough away so as not to look conspicuous. I waited for the janitor to get closer before nodding ‘hello’ and then turned my head slightly towards it, pretending to hear the sound for the very first time, hoping that he would hear it too.

The janitor’s eyes—a warm shade of brown with glints of green—slid to the painting. He seemed to detect the buzzing, and it was then that the eyes bulged and started to swirl, spinning like a tempestuous whirlpool before turning completely black, pupils along with the sclera. His friendly smile widened, twisting into a rictus of such intense pain and revulsion that tears formed and then fell from the rims of his onyx orbs. We stood there for a moment, an hour—I couldn’t gauge—staring at each other. Me, in shocked silence. He, in what I can only describe as morbid, acute curiosity, all while that buzzing behind the painting rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell in pitch. Eventually, the janitor’s dead eyes turned away, down to the mop and bucket that he held in his hands, and he continued down the hallway and around the corner as if nothing had happened at all.

The next morning, I walked right up to that painting on the seventh floor, cameras be damned. The fir trees were gone. In their place were three wooden crosses, positioned the same way as the trees: one prominent in the middle and smaller ones to the left and right. The middle one appeared to have been scorched by fire, and all of them were stained with dark splotches of what looked like blood. The sky had turned to night, but there were no stars, and a barren desert had replaced the once fertile field. The two clouds hung in the same location, but they now resembled shapeless eyes, devoid of warmth, empty as skulls.

I stood there, shaken. Mystified. I waited anxiously for the buzzing to start, but it never came. I looked behind the painting, lifting it ever so slightly, but this revealed only smooth cream-colored wall. At some point, a coworker I’d never seen before tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was ‘okay’. I’m not sure what I said exactly, but I assured him that I was fine and walked off towards the men’s room. Before entering, I glimpsed back down the hallway.

My coworker, his head cocked to one side, a hand stroking his bearded chin, was examining the painting: the painting that once depicted three fir trees. He must have sensed my gaze because he turned to me, his mouth slack and doltish, his eyes suddenly ablaze with a malignant glow, and pointed an accusatory finger in my direction. I slipped quickly into the bathroom, pretending not to hear the unearthly moan that emanated from behind the closing door.

I stopped going to work last week. My supervisor has not contacted me, for which I am grateful. I want nothing else to do with that place. My lease expires at the end of the month, but I may have to leave before then. I think I hear that buzzing sound in my apartment now. It surfaces during those odd times when I’m on the verge of sleep, and I’ve been having the most peculiar, recurring dream.

It’s about that painting. The second version, the one with the crosses. The janitor is on the one to the left. Coarse ropes hold his arms and legs in place. His eyes are yawning black holes, and his mouth is stretched open in a ghastly grin. That mysterious coworker is on the one to the right. Barbed wire keeps him affixed to the cross. His mouth is a sagging sack of flesh, and his eyes shine like exploding stars. Both men are naked.

I’m nailed to the middle cross. I, too, am naked and my body is on fire, but rain falls from the two clouds situated above me, dousing the blaze. The relief I feel is short-lived, however. My eyes begin to bleed profusely, obscuring my vision, but I can make out a gargantuan shape, flying off in the distance. It moves towards us with the aid of monstrous wings which create a sickening buzzing sound, not unlike the one I used to hear behind that painting at work.

This shadowy thing reaches us, turns its massive bulk and extends its leaking, scaly tail. I scream as the horrifying appendage inches closer; I scream with all the breath I can muster, a hideous high-pitched squeal that appalls and disgusts me.

I wake up before it finds its mark.

But, as the dream dissipates and I find my bearings in the real world, it registers that the stinger creeping closer, the gore, the fire—these are not the most unsettling parts of my dream.

With shame, I realize: I am not screaming in fear as the beast approaches. Instead, I am screaming in joyous anticipation.

MICHAEL BALLETTI lives in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Weird and Whatnot, Nothing's Sacred: Vol. 4, Theme of Absence and 200 CCs, among others.

Artwork by Novel Noctule team.

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