Memento Mori

(Malexmale) Struck by tragedy, Calael Black - a popular young artist - isolates himself in his new home in the countryside in a desperate bid to save his sanity. However, Semper Place is far from empty and abandoned, and the ghost that haunts the property is neither malevolent nor disinterested in him. On the contrary, the spirit of the beautiful Artemus Moon has been alone for too long, and the two isolated souls soon find themselves locked in a dark, toxic romance, reliant on each other for happiness.

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14. Chapter 14

The time of the exhibition rolled around far too quickly. Calael spent much of the following day at the town gallery, preparing everything in the order and fashion that he wanted it. But he couldn't say he enjoyed this side of things the way he used to. Everything seemed unnecessary and tedious.

"You're certain about the white vases, Mister Black? I can have a better flower arrangement delivered if you'd like," suggested the gallery curator, a tall and almost skeletally thin red haired man who was rather young by the standards of others in his role. After a moment with no response, he caught onto the artists dismal stare into the middle distance and his brow furrowed. "Are you quite alright? You seem rather.. unenthusiastic, about all of this. Stress, is it?"

"Stress? Not at all. It's only a small event, it would be ridiculous of me to be stressed," Calael murmured. "I suppose unenthusiastic is closer to the truth."

"I hear you've been somewhat absent from the art world for a while now," the man said tentatively, gesturing to a couple of apprentices to continue arranging the decorations for the event as they previously had been.

Calael forced a smile that he hoped would prevent the man from asking too many pitying questions. "Absent; yes. But things are better now."

He turned to look at the room as it had been arranged, with long white panels running through the centre containing art and annotation, as well as other pieces framed along the walls. Elegant white columns were set up to hold flowers as decoration, in a colour scheme befitting of his art style, and tables containing light snacks and free beverages took up a couple of the corners at the far end of the room. At the other side was an area cordoned off for the auction later in the evening. While he had donated a couple of his paintings to the gallery, the rest of his work was to be bid on by clients, both new and curious, and old and loyal.

He used to feel a certain thrill when an event was approaching. There was an excitement to knowing your work was to be on display, and that everyone present would be celebrating in your talent together. Right now he did not feel that. He simply missed Artemus, whom he had left asleep in bed that morning. Even the immaculately arranged vases of flowers that decorated the room did not appear beautiful to him, but rather quite gaudy, because in his minds eye he knew that Artemus would have prepared them so much better.

"I'm certainly glad to hear that. The art community has been rather excited to hear of you hosting an event, after so long without showing your face," the curator chuckled nervously, before clearing his throat. "You're so young, to be so sought after."

"You're young yourself, to be curator of such a prestigious gallery, Mister Avary," Calael responded politely.  "Age doesn't really define talent, does it?"

Avary chuckled again, and being as thin as he was, Calael could see his Adam's apple bob rapidly. "Well thankyou Mister Black."

"Calael?" called a familiar voice, and the artist looked up to see his father strolling inside. Seamus Black was a name that held a fair amount of weight in the correct circles, and so it made sense that he would be allowed in without question. It also made sense that Mr Avary's back would immaculately straighten at the sight of him.

Calael just frowned, recalling what Artemus had said about the man. About his concern over reputation. He answered in a flat tone. "Dad. Here on business?"

"I'm here because a certain son did not leave a key under his doormat. Did you forget I was using the guest room tonight lad? Your mum would have loved to be here this evening too but she.. Wasn't able to make it. Some - spa retreat, I believe, that's taken her all the way to Saint Ives."

"Saint Ives," Calael repeated dubiously, nodding his head. "Of course. I don't care at all. Am I done here, Mister Avary?"

"Of course. I'll see you here again at six o'clock sharp so that you may begin greeting your guests," Avary smiled, escorting the two men to the exit of the gallery, where they stepped back out into the dismal town and towards the car park.

It wasn't, by the standards of most, dismal at all. It was a very pretty town; the perfect combination of whimsical cottages and unique little shops, modern intrigue, and the comforting views of rolling hills and distant forests. Calael scarcely noticed any of this. He noticed the grey colour of the tarmac, and how the unforgiving smell of sheep dung permeated the air.

"How are you today, anyway? Prepared for tonight?" Seamus asked with a somewhat weary smile. "How's the, uh, how is the boyfriend? Will I get to meet him soon enough?"

Calael was beginning to passionately regret such a lie. How was he possibly going to convince his father that he wasn't utterly insane when he couldn't even pull up a photograph of the man? There was no way he would ever be able to meet him.. This situation was entirely unsustainable. 

"Everything is going good. Fine. I just see him very rarely," he said calmly, while his mind whirled into a distant panic. He could in no way now reveal to Seamus that Artemus was the muse behind all of these paintings; that would entail him being a local, and one that he would be seeing almost every day at that. He was grateful that the man had not yet asked who was depicted in his work, because this spiral of lies could only go so far. How much of a stretch did he have to take just to prove his sanity to his father? "Shall we head back to the house then? You take your car, I'll take mine.. I'm sorry if it's slightly messy, I almost forgot you were coming as I was in such a rush with all of this.."

"Can't be worse than our house on Boxing Day," Seamus joked lightly. "I'll see you back there."

As he boxed himself back into his car, Calael hurriedly dialed the number of his land-line on the interface, and waited for Artemus to pick up as he started down the country road, off away from the town and along a more rural, up-hill pathway. Artemus surprisingly picked up almost immediately, however, with a cheerful; "Cal! Are you coming home to get ready? I have your suit laid out! Ah, I am such a doting wife.."

"That's nice, love.."

"Be still my quiet heart," Artemus scoffed, "Having sense of humour failure, are we?"

"I'm sorry, it's just - I forgot to tell you that my dad is staying in the guest room tonight. So I need you to be, uh.. Quiet, if that's possible."

"He's what? I need to be- Calael, he cannot hear me. To him I am nothing more than a specter, a ripple in the air. Also, it would have been nice if you'd asked me!"

"Yes, but I need you not to touch anything, rearrange anything, or otherwise haunt the place while he is present, alright? Can you do that for me? I would really, really appreciate it.. This cannot be a repeat of that time with the gardener! I know you don't much like him and he's by no means my favourite person either, but he's my dad and I'm trying really hard to make him believe I'm as normal as can be."

Artemus sighed softly, and a brief quiet fell. "I don't understand you and your incessant need to please him, Calael, when he has done nothing but bother you since Harry's passing. But, fine, if it makes you happy, I will make myself scarce.. Can I still share your bed? I don't want to sleep in the attic again."

"Of course Artie. But I'm not really going to be able to talk much."

"Naturally. But we can whisper together," Artemus said softly, before putting down the phone, allowing Calael to drive the rest of the way in silence.

Soon enough, the two men arrived at the house and made their way inside, Seamus talking idly about some business venture in Amsterdam that Calael no longer cared about. Upon entering, he noticed Artemus sitting on the bottom step of the staircase. He looked up with interest upon seeing his lover, but his gaze fogged at the sight of his father behind. 

"Here - I'll take your bag up to the guest room," Calael offered, dashing promptly up the steps to do one final check of the house for remnants of a second person living here. He could find none. Artemus had been very thorough, even going as far as to hide his flower pressing books in the attic. His memorial, however, remained in the studio, and he knew realistically that he needed to keep such a thing out of sight. Reluctantly, he turned over the black and white photograph, tucking it back into the corner of the windowsill.

Seamus meanwhile investigated the back garden, appearing quite amazed at the sight of such vibrancy, wondering how long it must have taken to perfect the site to this degree. Calael took his time dressing in his suit for the evening, and as he did, Artemus lingered in the doorway. "He's in the garden. You're safe."

"You were thorough.. Thankyou."

Artemus shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, a somewhat saddened expression on his face "I tend to be. But Calael.. Must he really stay overnight? I don't like him being here, I like it being us and us alone.."

Calael looked sympathetic. He reached out and took the man's hands gently, bringing them to his lips to deliver a loving kiss to his knuckles. "I promise you, love, it won't be happening again any time soon.."

"You don't understand.. I hate how sorely it reminds me of my mortality," Artemus breathed, "I.. I saw you turn over my photograph just now. That hurts me, don't you know? He takes you from me in these little ways - everybody does! It just reminds me of how one day you will leave me.."

"Artie I could never-"

"Don't lie to me! You will! Either willingly when you realise you like the outside world more than me, or when you grow old and wrinkled and weak.. Have you forgotten that fact? You are mortal. Love cannot freeze time," he stated bitterly. "You are going to grow old and I will remain as I am in this cursed house, and I will be alone again!"

Calael stared at him with eyes full of sorrow. "Artemus.. What has brought this on so suddenly? You don't need to think of these things right now.."

"I think of these things constantly. Don't you remember what I told you about the flowers? Tempus edax rerum.. Time devours all things. Even love. I know that all too well."

"Calael?" Seamus called from the kitchen, having made his way back indoors.

Artemus took a slow step closer to his distraught lover, and lifted a hand to caress his cheek with tenderness in his gaze. "If you love me truly, you will remember what I've said. It matters. We cannot ignore time forever; it passes every moment that we wait."

"Wait for what?" Calael whispered.

Artemus just smiled prettily, and leaned in to press a kiss to his lips. "This conversation can continue later.. Go to your father."

Staggered and confused, Calael slowly left the bedroom, blinking hard in an attempt to gather his scattered thoughts and still his pounding heart. He made his way downstairs, to see his father stood smiling brightly in the entry hall at the sight of him dressed so immaculately. It reminded him of the day he'd come out of his rebellious phase as a teenager and cut his long hair; Seamus had been delighted to see him conform to his expectations then, too. "Ah, I never thought I could miss the smell of hair gel!"

"Are you ready? It's already time to head out," Calael said, his tone somewhat flat and lacking in enthusiasm, though he disguised his troubled thoughts with expert success. "We'll take my car; saves you a job."

"Of course. You know, you really ought to pick up the energy tonight, lad, this is important. You need to come back with a bang. The art is beautiful, but if the artist isn't fascinating, it loses it's meaning," Seamus smiled, walking from the house with him and watching as he locked the door behind him swiftly. The property of Semper Place loomed over them as they walked to the car, and Seamus wondered to himself if he could bring himself to simply believe his son's dubious claims after all. The house was immaculate, and so was he. That garden at least showed some signs that a hobby had been developed. And god knew that the boy had been back at work with a flash of determination.. Perhaps they had jumped to conclusions far too quickly concerning his mental state.

He was somewhat reassured further as Calael offered him a smile in response. But, this expression also struck him hard with the realisation that he had long since forgotten how to tell the difference between when Calael was being genuine, and when he was being fake. 

They drove to the event in a mutual silence, broken only by the sound of the radio, and were greeted promptly by Avary; who offered them both a small glass of complimentary champagne. The fact that he was going to be hosting perhaps a hundred people tonight hit Calael like a speeding train the moment it was put in his hand, and he downed it rather quickly, requesting another. A little liquid happiness couldn't hurt to raise his confidence, as they surely expected eccentricity of a young artist. Eccentricity that he wasn't sure he was capable of delivering anymore; sober, at least. The energy required to merely smile with teeth was enough to make his head spin. 

Yet still, guests soon began to pour into the venue, decked out in lavish attire. The ladies were in delicate dresses and their most expensive necklaces, in little court shoes and heels. And their husbands, or - in a couple of cases, wives - were standing beside them in evening suits as they were served beverages and light snacks. Calael was standing nearby, doing his best to maintain the endearingly detached nature of all of the most intriguing artists. His paintings had all been uncovered to be viewed at the visitors leisure, aside from one; his grand masterpiece, a canvas the length and width of a fully sized door, covered over with a red curtain.

"Oh here he is, the elusive artist himself!" called a cheery, elevated voice. The woman approaching him was one he knew well; one of his most adoring clients. June Maxwell was a very bohemian woman, adoring the whimsical charms of vintage attire. She perhaps thought it made her look unique and individual and cultured, unlike the other middle class individuals here who endeavoured only to showcase their wealth. However, in many ways wearing a 'vintage' floral dress that had been worn in a 1950s issue of Vogue served only to do the same. Her red painted lips curved into a bright smile, and she notably corrected her auburn ringlets as she finally stood beside him. "Oh Calael dear I have so missed you - where on earth are my kisses?"

Calael noticed then that Seamus had made himself scarce, essentially throwing him to the wolves; with the alpha wolf being the overwhelmingly affluent and painfully jovial Miss Maxwell. Relenting to her affections and forcing a charming smile, Calael leaned in to kiss both of the woman's cheeks lightly, then allowed his hands to be taken. "Ah, merci beaucoup!" she chirped. "I have been taking French lessons, don't you know? Flying back and forth from Paris as often as I do I thought it about time I got more accustomed to the culture.. Some business clients at my chalet asked all about the painting I commissioned - it has a prime spot above the fireplace and matches my oak furniture beautifully!"

"I'm so glad to hear that, June," Calael said mildly, maintaining an interested expression. "It's lovely to have you here, I hope the roads weren't too exhausting."

"Ah, it could have been significantly worse than it was," she smiled, shrugging nonchalantly. "It's such a pleasant drive. I can see what would motivate an artist like yourself to move all the way out here.. Is it terribly inspiring?"

He noticed a few of his other guests had gathered around to hear him speak, all smiling expectantly as they approached him in the manner that visitors to a zoo might tag nonchalantly along to a tour guide, snapping flash photography. "Well," Calael began, straightening his tie a little. His mind went to Artemus, his inspiration, and his smile grew a little less false. "Very much so.. I'm inspired by the beauty I see around me every day."

"Won't you walk with us around the exhibit, Mister Black?" croaked another of the guests, a woman as old as Methuselah and dressed for the part. Calael wasn't sure he'd ever seen her or her equally as decrepit husband before, and that only gave him more reason to be on his best behavior, motivated by an encouraging smile from Avary nearby.

"Of course," he said, and offered the far older woman his arm politely. He began to lead her along to the first exhibit, other guests following like ducklings behind them. The painting depicted Artemus seated sprawled half over a wooden kitchen chair, his nightshirt riding up to his thighs, an androgynous yet sensual grace in his delicate features as his long hair trailed loosely over the back of the structure. In his lap was a bouquet of lilies; reflecting elegant beauty, as well of a subtle hint of the macabre.

As the guests huddled around to analyse the progressive beauty of the painting and praise his talent, Seamus stood at a distance regarding the exhibition as a whole. How every single piece with the exception of a few focused on flora and fauna were depicting this mysterious blonde stranger.

"Oh Mister Black you never cease to astound.. These pieces transcend the limits of gender, in such a terribly charming manner," gushed one of the other women, an affluent lady in her mid forties; dressed to appear much younger.

Calael chuckled softly and gave a mock bow, although his gaze was drawn to the incriminating cracks in her drawn face, in which a layer of poorly applied foundation appeared to stick and sink. "Thankyou, Mrs Welsh."

"Do explain the next one, they are quite fascinating," she smiled, the kind of smile telling of an artificially kind nature, attempting to seem far more cultured and intellectual than she infact was.

The event went on with feverish and perhaps feigned curiousity from the guests, and he drifted from group to group, speaking to as many clients as he could - which was painfully tedious and required another glass of white wine to get through in earnest.

"Oh, Mister Black I absolutely adore the arrangements you chose - the colour schemes are so very pleasing! Tell me, on the side; how much money will you be expecting for a piece such as this..?" asked Mrs Welsh, in a low, conspiratorial voice.

Calael gave a soft, somewhat weak chuckle. "They will be put to auction with a lower limit recommendation from Mister Avary of four hundred pounds. From there I will take whatever I can get.. I personally think that is quite steep."

"Steep? Oh no. In my opinion that is criminally low. You must appear confident in your high prices, young man, or nobody will be intrigued enough to make a purchase on the beautiful pieces."

Calael struggled to absorb any of this praise to his ego or self esteem; he could hardly believe on any level that the level of kindness and interest expressed by his guests was genuine. He thought that, like his father, these people looked out for themselves first and foremost. For their own reputations. Events like these were not for simply the artistically inclined alone; there was a good reason why the vast majority of attendants consisted of the upper middle class and above. The compliments given overlapped majorly in a fierce yet quietly dignified contest to appear most informed, most cultured, most progressive.. To be in the presence of the host of the event was a social booster, no matter how young he might be and how uninterested they were in him personally. He was from a respected, new-money family of business people, and he was talented, known, and well recieved by the art community. That was why the cost of these pieces had risen to hundreds; not because of his level of skill. Influence was decreed in stone cold numbers, and when it came to advancing ones social standing, the numbers counted far more to them than the paintings themselves. By all accounts, the Mona Lisa would be as plain as could be, and not nearly as sought after or impossibly high in value, if it were not for the weight of the name in the bottom corner.

"Thankyou, Mrs Welsh," he said mildly.  "Would you excuse me?"

He slipped away, and headed over to the far larger frame in the centre of the room, where Avary was waiting patiently; looking rather skittish as he observed whether the event was going completely to plan. He gave Calael a quick smile as he saw him approach and reached a hand up to his shoulder. "Ah, the man of the hour! Are you ready to unveil your master piece?"

"Yes, you're too kind. Please would you call everyone over?"

"My pleasure," Avary said, before producing a small silver bell from his pocket and ringing it, gaining the attention of everyone present. "Ladies and gentlemen, we will now be unveiling the centre piece of this exhibition."

"It's my honour to be hosting each and every one of you this evening, and to be revealing perhaps my greatest work yet.. I have titled the piece, 'Desire.'"

With that, he pulled away the curtain, and a wave of murmured praise rippled over the observing crowd at the sight of such beauty. Artemus, in this piece, had been stark naked. His lissom body was positioned among the crimson sheets of his bed, his expression a sultry yet peaceful one with not a note of concern for the flowers that he held between his legs. The vase of delicate lilies, mingled with three crimson red roses, covered his decency gracefully.

From this gorgeously serene look in his features to his luxuriously lounging posture, he looked exquisite, and Calael felt a rush of pride to have been able to capture such beauty on a canvas; to showcase him once again to the world. 

Nearby, Seamus' eyes sparked with interest. Looking at the exhibit as a whole, and the vast array of pieces dedicated to this mysterious blonde Adonis, his son's dedication began to look borderline obsessive.. He looked over at the young man again, who was stood talking with June and an excitable group of others once more, and kept his respectful distance as he listened intently, his lingering concern peaking.

"So do tell us Calael, it is the question on everyone's lips this evening! Who on Earth is this man who has so captivated you? Your muse?"

A smile drifted to Calael's lips at the thought of him. His tongue loosened by the wine and unaware of his father's presence nearby, he saw no harm in letting the name slip, if only to this small group. "His name is Artemus."

Seamus homed in on this statement, his eyes widening a fraction, but the raucous of Calael's audience only continued. 

"Artemus? What a fascinating name.. He is completely exquisite, if your art is to be trusted!" gushed another of the women, smiling wryly. "I should very much like to meet him in fact."

"He would do fantastically at my modelling company! Is he not here tonight dear?"

"Perhaps you could provide his contact details or some way of gaining access to work with him?"

Just as quickly as Calael allowed himself a moment of pride and joy, the reality of the situation had come crashing down on him. He thought for a moment desperately, then his breath hitched in his throat as he stammered for some story or excuse. He instantly regretted revealing his lover's name, for there was only way around this now that would protect the impossible truth of the matter. Another lie.

 "Actually.. He is not a real man at all," he began, with a somewhat nervous smile. "I.. I named the character after the Greek idols. But.. Artemus is entirely of my own imagining."

Seamus' heart dropped into his stomach. He ducked behind the paneling inconspicuously as he attempted to calm himself, his mind whirring and piecing together everything that was now fact. That he had heard Calael talking, home alone, to an 'Artemus.' That he had given this name to a stranger at a nightclub in a moment of frenzied confusion. That he had revealed himself to be in a relationship with an 'Artemus.' And finally, that this mystery man, who he had been obsessively painting and drawing for endless months isolated in his country home, was a figment of his imagination.

It was in that singular moment, as Seamus' hope for his son's stability imploded inwards, that Calael Black had truly sealed his fate.

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