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The girl has always loved this painting, despite its gray dreariness. 

Her father says the painting reminds him of the kind of day when it rains every time you step foot outside, slogging through puddles with soggy shoes, and even when you come inside, you never get warm.

The girl sees beauty in its dark swirls, takes comfort in the eddies of blue-gray-brown, muddied indistinct shapes in the painting’s unending dullness.

“It’s impressionist, Dad,” she says with a wry grin. “You only see yourself. Back up for a better view.”

They step back ten feet and look together.

“Still looks about as good as a dog’s ass to me,” he says. 

The girl thinks she see can see a whirlpool and fairies around the edge. She doesn’t say this to her father. Instead, she laughs and says, “You always call ‘em.”

“I like your hat, kitten,” her father says. “Suits you.”

“It’s a beret,” the girl says, adjusting it. “Tres chic.”

Her father sets a gentle hand on her shoulder and then leaves. The girl stays, staring at the painting. Blues are always her favorite. She steps closer, leaning in until the indigo strokes fill her entire field of vision.

There’s nothing gloomy about this, she thinks. Or maybe it’s nothing but gloom purified, which is the same thing as impeccable beauty.

The girl thinks of Dorian Gray, eternally youthful and beautiful, while his hideous portrait ages for him.

“I would have loved his portrait,” she says.

The swirls of the paintbrush on the canvas beckon, and she brushes her fingers over its rough surface.

A brief flash of light and she is pulled forward. She is inside the painting.

The girl catches her breath. It is the same blue-gray-brown with indigo flecks and yet excruitiatingly rich and full. There is more color in this landscape than anything she has ever seen. It’s as if her eyes have expanded to receive the moreness of this saturated scenery.

It’s night and she stands on a cobblestone road, glistening in the rain (her father was right about that) streetlights bouncing off the gutters, shops and puddles. It feels French or European, like there ought to be a cafe nearby where lovers meet for espresso and scones, their breath mingling as they come in from the damp. She’s right at home in her red beret.

The slick empty streets await her.

She can go anywhere. Where would she like to go?

She notices a strange urge to go DOWN.

Down? Going down symbolizes a visit to the unconscious realms. The shadows. 

If this is a dream or a vision (which it must be because who ever walked into a painting?) then there must be a way.

At the edge of the cobblestone road, she notices a drainpipe and follows it to a manhole.

“Ah ha!” she says aloud. “The path downward emerges.”

She lifts the heavy cover from the manhole, checks to gauge the depth, and drops down. The darkness smells of fetid earth.

The girl turns on the flashlight app of her phone. It would be more convenient if she had a torch–

No sooner does she think it than she noticed a lantern mounted on the wall.

“Is this a lucid dream?” she wonders. Yes, she must have fallen asleep on the couch and dreamed of stepping into the painting. 

Regardless, the lantern is too convenient to pass up, and she lifts it off the hook and moves forward into the darkness. Water drips down the stone walls of the sewer, and her sneakers are quickly soaked from walking in two inches of water.

“Dad, you were right again,” she says aloud, comforted by the sound of her voice. “Soggy socks.”

The girl thinks about how suggestible we are, the way our unconscious mind opens to receive images, ideas, emotions, and spits them out in the form of dreams and experiences of non-ordinary reality.

“Non-ordinary reality. Check,” she says.

The sewer passage seems to stretch for miles and she splashes through. Each time she comes to a fork, she pauses. Feels.

“Which way is my way?”

One of the corridors inevitabley pulls, as if there are invisible strings attached to her chest. The girl is accustomed to navigating therapy sessions with clients in this way, stepping into the Unknown and letting the pull of this action or that guide her.

The water is deeper now, up to mid-shin, soaking her jeans. She wonders about the symbolic significance of wading through sewer water in the darkness, bumping into unseen objects (Rats? Feces? Body parts?) as she moves towards an unknown destination.

“Why couldn’t my unconscious plop me on a tropical beach somewhere?” she thinks. 

The girl comes to a split in the passage; she can continue  straight ahead or make a left turn.

“Which way is mine?” she asks, feeling for the answer.

She feels the pull in her chest from both directions equally.

This is odd. Each time before she knew clearly which way to go, but now, there is no discernable difference between paths.

“Are you telling me they’re both mine?” she asks. “Come on, Unconscious. Get your act together.”

The girl notices that she’s thinking too hard, trying to figure it out instead of letting it reveal itself. She stops and takes a deep breath.

“What if I take both paths?”

No sooner does she think it than her body replicates itself, like an amoeba, and the girls feels herself simultaneously taking both directions, her awareness no longer centrally located, but somehow in each of these discrete bodies.

“Fascinating,” girl Version One thinks.

Girl Version Two splashes down the right tunnel with gusto.

The girl’s mind expands to hold both versions of herself, monitoring their separate actions, thoughts and emotions. Both of them seem fairly comfortable with their discomfort. Version One has emerged again on a street outside of town, her lantern illuminating a dirt road. Version Two wades downward into deeper water, encounters a rickety raft, and climbs in.

“Wait a second,” the girl thinks. “Who is the one watching Version 1 and Version 2? Am I Version 3? Or something else?”

It’s the kind of question her father would hate, and she would love asking just to see the roll of his eyes and the irritated shake of his head. 

But now it’s real. She’s having an experience of her Self, or of something, being aware of her other selves. It’s not just a thought experiment.

The Girl Who is Watching — we might call her Version 3 or the Version Before-All-Versions — wonders just how far she can expand this awareness. 

As soon as the thought occurs, she is conscious of the entire landscape, cobblestone streets, dirt road, girls, night, moon, rain, planet (which is not Earth, she knows somehow) and beyond. Without point of view, without thinking, she now watches all, experiences the wind as it moves through the night, into the lungs of girls Versions One and Two, circulating through their bodies.

The thought occurs, “How will I ever find myself again?”

Fear contracts in the awareness of the Girl Watching, and her experience consolidates into a single body looking out through two eyes. She stands once again on the cobblestone street in her soggy sneakers. She can scarcely breathe.

“There’s something inside me that holds me together,” she thinks. “A core.”

She can feel it, a cylinder of cool metal running through her body, vibrating with the essence of her. There is a pull in it, a compulsion to merge, as if magnetically drawn.

“Trippy. Even for me.”

There’s nothing more for me here, she knows as she closes her eyes. A surge jars her body, and when she opens her eyes, she’s standing once again before the painting.

“Am I really me?” she asks, running her hands over the familiar curves of her body. Everything seems to be in place, and she laughs aloud at the ridiculousness of checking to see if all her parts are where they are supposed to be after waking from a dream. Or whatever it was.

“Always said I’d regret reading too much Madeline L’Engle and Issac Asimov.” The girl laughs again.

Stepping back, she surveys the painting with suspicion. Its desolate gray seems placid enough.

“Wait–” The girl leans forward, studying the painting.

There is a speck of red amongst the swirls, that was not there before. Red, like a red hat.

“Am I still in the painting?” she asks.

When she closes her eyes, she can still feel the rainy cobblestones beneath her feet as she wanders in an unknown land.

She opens her eyes wide and pinches her wrist until it hurts. “I’m here,” she says, willing herself to believe it.