A man is haunted by malevolent ghosts of his family’s past. Part 1 of 2.
“Wet Pain” by Terence Taylor originally appeared in Nightmare Magazine.
A transcript is available on the NIGHTLIGHT website.
Narrated by Matt Peters.
Produced by Jen Zink and Tonia Ransom.
Executive Producer and Host: Tonia Ransom
All episodes are brought to you by the NIGHTLIGHT Legion. Join us on Patreon for as little as $1 per month to help us produce more stories for you to enjoy.
Hi. I’m Tonia Ransom, creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives from all over the world.
This week, we have a tale of a man who’s haunted by the malevolent ghosts of his family.
But before we get to inescapable pasts, I want to take a moment to say thanks to our newest patrons. Thanks to Antoinette, Bonnie, Raymond, and Caroline. Thanks also to Claire for a donation via PayPal. NIGHTLIGHT will be produced year-round thanks to the NIGHTLIGHT Legion, and now, we’d love to bring you new episodes every single week. Just go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion and get a shoutout on the podcast. And don’t forget, you can also support us by sporting NIGHTLIGHT-branded gear. Just go to merch.nightlightpod.com to get your t-shirts, hoodies, notebooks and more!
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Now sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy “Wet Pain”, part one, written by Terence Taylor, and narrated by Matt Peters.
I once saw a sign on a pillar in a New York City subway station, “WET PAIN,” written in bright red block letters on glossy white card stock. Back then I thought it was a joke or mistake, meant to read “WET PAINT,” but maybe I was wrong; maybe it was a warning of a different kind and I just missed the point because I didn’t know enough to understand what I was reading.
That’s how I feel about what happened to my good buddy, Dean: that I saw the danger signs all along but never realized what they meant, what they really warned me about. Not until he opened my eyes and I saw a side of the world I never wanted to see.
It all started when Dean moved back to New Orleans.
* * *
We met almost five years ago, on a job.
Dean was master electrician and I was tech director for a live multimedia press conference announcing the UPN Network’s new fall season. The client reps for the ad agency handling it were assholes, cut corners in all the wrong places, so we had to cover each other to survive. We worked together on floor plans for his lighting and my video equipment to do what they wanted with what they gave us, and made it through a two-week job from Hell without killing each other or anyone else.
We stayed in touch. No one expected a white, reformed redneck from New Orleans and a black gay geek from Park Slope like me to become best friends, least of all us, but we did. We were opposites in taste, education, upbringing, everything but how we saw the world and thought it should work; Dean called us “Twin brothers of different mothers...”
I made regular treks out to New Jersey for dinner with the family, but didn’t know his wife, Lynn, was a black girl from the Bronx until my first visit almost a year after meeting Dean. I must have looked surprised when a stylish black woman opened the door instead of the suburban southern belle I’d expected. A short Afro crowned a dark, pretty face, big gold hoops hung on either side of her broad smile. She feigned shock when she saw me, raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes as she turned back to yell at her husband.
“Omigod, Dean! You didn’t tell me he was a NEGRO!” I loved her immediately.
After dinner we discussed Dean’s colorblindness over beers on the back porch while their three year old, Milton, an only child then, ran around the yard in circles. Dean was built like a truck, six foot tall capped with a military-style crew cut. Lynn was small, compact; she nestled under Dean’s free arm on the couch while we sipped beer and the two of us talked about her husband like he wasn’t there.
“Dean says since he doesn’t care about race, he sees no reason to bring it up. I think it’s passive-aggressive. You just know he only married me to see if it would kill his cracker family...”
“Worth it, even if I am stuck with her,” Dean said with a grin. She smacked him lightly. He winked at me, took a deep swig of beer.
“Anyway. I say ignoring color implies something’s wrong, when difference should be recognized and celebrated,” finished Lynn.
“Just sounds like a cheap way for them to get off the hook to me,” I said. “‘Black people? What black people? Everybody looks the same to me!’”
“Yeah, I get it.” Lynn slapped Dean on the thigh with a grin. “No black people, no reparations! ‘Slavery? What slavery? We don’t owe you shit!’” We laughed like co-conspirators, while Dean waggled his empty bottle until Lynn passed him another beer.
“Y’all need to keep me on your side,” he said as he twisted off the cap. “We remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends...”
“Smartass,” said Lynn. “He quotes King, but doesn’t fool me. Shakespeare said even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose...”
“Never marry a teacher,” laughed Dean. Lynn kissed him hard, and he kissed her back; they kissed a lot, had an easy affection for each other I envied.
Between jobs I’d hang with Dean at his place or mine, kick back, knock down tequilas and take apart the world. Most of the time we talked by telephone. I had a headset that let me chat with both hands free while I drew floor plans at home on my Mac. He’d call on his Bluetooth earpiece from location while his crew set up lights and we’d burn up free long distance by the hour while we both worked.
Lately more conversations were in person, less about Dean’s dreams than nightmares about the war and a looming recession. A downturn in New York’s economy after the Twin Tower bombings cut back on jobs for both of us; a few years of the Iraq War hadn’t made things any better. I was single with low expenses in a rent-controlled Brooklyn apartment, but Dean had a family to support in Jersey, a wife and two kids.
Debts grew and no work was in sight; his wife’s teaching salary wasn’t enough to pay the bills. They’d already gone through their savings and started cashing out their IRAs, no matter how much they lost in early withdrawal.
“Freelance sucks, bruh. You know what they say,” he said with a sigh. “Sometimes ya gotta chew off a leg to set yourself free...”
Then his mother died.
* * *
I heard the phone ring as I walked upstairs with my grocery bags, but couldn’t get inside my third-floor apartment in time to answer before it went to voicemail. There was a short message when I checked, no name, but I knew it was Dean.
“Greg, give me a call on cell, will ya? No big, bruh. Just need an ear, okay?”
He was down in New Orleans with the movers, getting furniture and boxes unloaded and into his mother’s house before the wife and kids arrived from New Jersey to help unpack. I called him back on my headset phone while I put away groceries. “Dean! How’s life in the Big Easy?”
“Nothin’ easy ‘bout it, bruh.” He paused. I heard a ring top pop, followed by what sounded like a long swallow from a tall cold beer. “Got everything in, so I’m takin’ time off with my ol’ pal Sam Sixpack. Don’t think he’s long for this world.”
“How’s the place look?”
“Like Hell, but always did. Still can’t believe what this dump is worth. Glad now I didn’t burn it down as a kid. Lord knows I tried.”
He grew up in New Orleans, a short walk from the main tourist drag of the French Quarter. Dean and his generation moved out first chance they got, but his widowed mother stayed in the family house until the end, in a quiet neighborhood called Marigny.nging craps to America in the:
“From losing at craps?” I asked.
“My roots have cursed me, bruh; it’s why my fortunes rise and fall.” Dean had been out of work for over a year, had a family to support. “You know what houses in the French Quarter sellin’ for now? Shit. Had no choice but to move back, and cash out ma’s place to stake a new start.”
The move to New Orleans was only temporary. Lynn made that clear. Even in the early twenty-first century she didn’t look forward to being the black half of an interracial couple in what she still considered the Deep South, no matter how “New” everyone said it was.
I finished unpacking groceries and started making lunch, commiserated with Dean about the twin nightmares of a major move and low cash flow. He sounded more down than usual; I wrote it off to the stress of moving. It was only later I’d look back and see it as the start of something more. By the time I made a sandwich and heated a bowl of soup, he’d finished three beers and was opening his fourth. I signed off to eat, but couldn’t get the last thing he said out of my head.
“They say you can’t go home again, bruh, but they’re wrong. It’s not that you can’t, only that you shouldn’t. Sometimes leaving home’s the best thing to do, and you should stay away like you had sense.”
“Too many memories?”
“Too many ghosts.”
I laughed as I sat at the table to eat.
“Don’t tell me you believe in ghosts.”
“Don’t matter, bruh,” he said, “They just have to believe in you.” That was the phrase that struck me.
They just have to believe in you.
* * *
Dean called back a few days later.
His mother had lived on the ground floor of her worn yellow clapboard corner house and kept everything else stored in the small narrow rooms upstairs, packed so full over the years Dean could barely get in to clean. He’d dug in, found things he’d forgotten and others he never knew about. Old family photos, even a few original daguerreotypes, trunks of antique clothes, books, family papers. Some he packed in garbage bags to throw out, some he put aside to be appraised.
“Might be sumpin’ worth a few bucks. Maybe I’ll give it all to some local museum. The Dean Duvall Collection.”
“Yeah, they could name a wing after you.”
“Be some ‘preciation, bruh. More’n I get round here.” Dean's speech was slurred, his accent the bad cliché movie redneck he always affected when drunk. It sounded like he’d been sitting with Sam Sixpack again, plus a few of his pals. I looked at the clock. It seemed a little early even for Dean to be in the tank.
“What do you mean?”
“Damn wife, f’true. Don’t matter what you do, never enough.”
“It’s just the move. She’ll settle down once you get the place cleared out.”
“That’s what they say.”
I tried to lighten the mood. “Hey, how’s the famous food down there? You have a chance to go out and check some of your old haunts?”
“Only haunts I seen been up here, bruh. No time or money for fun. Wife makes sure of that.”
“You’re upstairs now?” For some reason the news startled me, sent a shudder through my body, like some childhood fear was triggered by the thought of him crouched in a long low dust-filled upper room while we talked, sunlight streaming through small windows to cast long shadows while he labored late into the afternoon, alone with me... and the ghosts.
“Where else I gon be, bruh? Takin’ care of business while we talk. All I do’s take care of business...”
We talked a while longer, but conversation never strayed far from complaints about his wife and kids weighing him down, giving him a hard time. I wanted to be supportive, but felt drowned in his self-pity. When it was clear I couldn’t pull him out of it, I had to escape before I sank, told him I needed to get to a store before it closed, the best excuse I could think of to get off the phone.
“No problem, bruh. Catch ya later. Oh, and keep an eye out. Got a little surprise headed your way...”
He wouldn’t say what it was, no matter how hard I pressed. The way he’d been talking I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hung up and poured a drink, stared at my computer screen instead of working or going out and wondered what was happening to the man I’d known in New York.
* * *
A few days later my present arrived.
The bell rang and the mailman called me downstairs to sign for an oversized delivery sent priority mail. It was a long flat package wrapped in taped-together brown paper bags, thickly padded inside with cardboard for protection, “Do Not Bend!” and “Fragile! PLEASE Do Not Fold!” scrawled all over it in Dean’s blocky print. I carried my gift upstairs and opened it on the dining table where I had room to lay it out flat.
I unwrapped it and carefully removed the packing. Inside was an old panoramic photograph over three feet long, brittle, cracked, the black and white image gently faded to sepia browns on thick, yellowed paper. It was a huge crowd at the base of the Washington Monument, ghostly pale women and children in the foreground, scattered in a semi-circle around the edges of an open clearing.
Outnumbering them many times was a multitude of men that extended back to the horizon as far as the eye could see, dressed in dark street clothes or light robes, with and without hoods, many with left arms outstretched in a salute to the monument, to their fellow Ku Klux Klansmen, to their families, their country, and their God.
In the middle of the photo, Klansmen and their women stood around the edges of a massive American flag, long enough to take twenty to hold aloft at chest level, displayed proudly as if at a patriotic event, and on that day it was. I felt a chill despite Brooklyn’s late summer heat.
The casual audacity of it scared me the most, the easy social exchanges among people in the crowd, that the photographer had snapped the picture and labeled it in precise handwritten text at the bottom, as if it were a quaint scene of any other approved public assembly:
“Gathering of the Klans”
Virginia Klans arrive at Sylvan Theatreth:of the first Klan, founded in:One site said by:
“Bruh! Guess you got my little package.”
“Pretty big package for a white man,” I joked.
“Yeah, well, saw it and thought of you.” He laughed, long and loud.
“Not sure how to take that, but thanks. I’m touched. It’s probably a collectible.”
“Don’t say I never give yuh nuthin’.”
“Did Lynn see it?” She’d marched in demonstrations against Bush and the Iraq War, organized petitions for feminist and civil rights issues; I could only imagine what she had to say when he brought it downstairs.
Dean laughed. “Yeah, took one look and said if I wanted to live with it, I could move my picture and fat white ass into the garage...”
“No surprise there.”
“Guess not. Nearly told the bitch where she could put it, but like they say, you gotta pick your battles.”
I paused. Despite their differences, Dean and Lynn were one of the most functional couples I knew. “Since when are you two fighting?”
“Ain’t no fight, bruh. Just me layin’ down law on who’s boss around here. You know what they say, give ‘em an inch and they’ll take your balls!” He guffawed.
I tried to laugh it off, but was disturbed by the force of his cracks about Lynn. Dean made the usual guy jokes about his wife in the past, but never anything this hostile. I asked to speak to her later and he either didn’t hear, or ignored me.
“Me, bruh, I think it’s a piece of history. Real Americana.”
“I’m with you. What’s the story? You related to any of these guys?”
“Hell, probably all of ‘em. You know how inbred those old bastards were.” He laughed and coughed.
“Did you know you had Klan fans in the family?”
“Bruh, I’m learning more than I need to know. You’d never believe the shit I found. Scrapbooks of lynching photos, newspaper and magazine clippings of hangings and burnings, a fuckin’ museum of the misbegotten. My roots. ‘Fraid some’s worth somethin’, or I’d burn it all.” He started to drift. “Need cash now. Never get this place cleared in time...” When I asked again to talk to Lynn, Dean made an excuse and rambled on until he ran down like a spent windup toy. While I considered ways to get past him to talk to her, I got off the phone and rewrapped the photograph.
I took it to a local frame shop in Park Slope. The teenaged white clerk behind the counter did a double take when he realized what it was, smiled slyly while he took my order as if in on some secret joke between us. His manager came in from lunch as we finished up, a professional-looking young woman, styled with current fashion magazine cover perfection. She glanced at the photo with a polite smile of feigned interest that dropped as soon she read the caption.
“Is this for a museum or gallery?” she asked, pushed back frosted blonde hair for a better look.
“It was a gift. A friend found it in his mother’s house in New Orleans.”
She arched her eyebrows, as if wondering what kind of friend he really was. “Well. I wouldn’t want to live with it.”
“Sometimes it’s good to remember it wasn’t so long ago.”
“I suppose...” She looked unconvinced. “I know my grandparents don’t keep postcards of Auschwitz.”
“They were there. The rest of us need reminders.”
“I suppose,” she repeated, smiled professionally but failed to conceal a scowl as she turned to walk away. I pictured her coming back that night, turning off the alarm, unlocking the door and tearing the picture to pieces with her well-manicured nails, savaging it with the sharp stiletto heels of her designer shoes, then dismissed the image. This was the civilized Slope where we publicly aired our differences in the light of day, not Dean’s inscrutable South that sent me souvenirs of a time when they were settled under cover of darkness.
* * *
I got busy on location for a job and lost touch with Dean. After a few more calls like the last one I was glad for the break. We traded messages on voicemail, but by the time my job was over, I was too tired to deal with one of his repetitive rants, so I put off calling back until I’d regained my strength. Hopefully by then things would have improved.
The phone rang one night after I fell asleep on the couch watching TV. It woke me enough to fumble for the phone without thinking to check caller ID, and I caught it just before it went to voicemail.
“Yah?” I said.
“‘Bout time! Who do I kill to hear back from you, bruh?”
“Dean.” I stretched, carried the phone to the kitchen to get coffee and a drink. A double. “Sorry, I got tied up on a gig. Had to spend more time on site than I thought. You always say beggars can’t be choosy.”
“I ain’t mad at you. Do what you gotta, I’ll do the same.” He was so drunk I could barely understand him. It was exactly the call I’d been trying to avoid.
He snorted, blew his nose and laughed. “You know what they say, the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice... Bitch is fine, boy, why? You want some of that?”
“Boy? Excuse me?” My voice went up like a Richard Pryor routine. “Don’t call me boy, asshole. And stop calling Lynn a bitch. I don’t like it and I doubt she does.” I’d had arguments with Dean over politics and art, but never really been mad at him until now.
His voice came back low and deep, dead serious. “I’ll call you whatever I want to, boy. You ain’t got no right ta tell me what to do, no more’n that black bitch downstairs.”
There was a moment when I was going to respond with an easy retort, tell his cracker ass what I thought as usual, but there was something in his voice that stopped me. When he said those words, it hadn’t been the slurred accents of the drunk who called me. It was a voice of authority, clear and decisive, stating the truth. I wouldn’t be challenging Dean, but everything he thought and believed in. I wasn’t sure enough of what that was anymore to start a fight. Not without knowing what I was up against. “We’ll talk later. When you sober up.”
“Ain’t drunk, boy. I’m high on life.” He laughed like that was some kind of joke. “Yeah, that’s it. High on...” He started to cough again, from a chest thick with phlegm.
“Enough with this boy shit, okay?”
Dean wheezed as he chuckled into the phone.
“High on lives, boy. We high on lives...”
I disconnected, turned up the TV to drown my thoughts.
I’d never been called boy by anyone before, and to have a good friend be the first made it all the worse. I felt trapped in the apartment, the scene of the crime, and needed to get out, so I called a nearby friend and asked him to meet me at Excelsior, a local gay bar only a few blocks from us.
Winston was tall, dark, and dressed to kill as always, already posed, cocktail in hand at the long, curved wooden bar when I arrived. He’d just had his shoulder-length dreadlocks done, still moist and glistening with fresh oils, and toyed with them while we talked.
It was a quiet night at the bar, still early, and the jukebox played soft music instead of blasting dance hits. Excelsior was like any neighborhood bar, only gay, one of the few bars I’d ever felt comfortable hanging in. I’d met Winston there when he’d introduced himself to one of my friends that appealed to him. They lasted one night, but Winston and I ended up friends for years.
“What can I say, honey?” he said after I told him about my grim conversations with Dean, raved and ranted the rage out of my system. “I’m from Louisiana. White folk down there can be that way. Friends for years until you hit a rough patch that shows you who they really are. He’s just getting back to his racist roots.”
“I can’t believe that.”
“I tell you true. It’s pack nature; when the choice is between you and their own...” He waved a hand to finish the rest of the thought while he downed the last of his drink.
I told him he was crazy. I told him he was wrong. I told myself to stay calm and give Dean time to redeem himself. “Sometimes friends need a vacation from each other, boo. Let it go,” Winston said as I finished my beer. “Forget it and him.”
We walked out the door and hugged as we said goodbye. There was a crash of breaking glass against the sidewalk behind us as we heard voices yell, “Faggots!” from the street, then the roar of an engine.
People ran out of the bar before Winston and I understood what had happened and described it to us. A car full of teenagers was passing when one of the kids threw a bottle while the others jeered and cheered him on, then they took off through a red light. Regulars made sure broken glass hadn’t hit us while the owner, ordinarily a quiet gentle man, ran out with a cell phone in his hand, snapped out orders to his burly partner behind him.
“I’m on hold with the local precinct. Did anyone get a plate number?” Someone waved, and he went to talk to her while I checked out Winston. He was furious.
“Goddamn them! How dare they! Goddamn motherfuckers!” He stamped back and forth in front of the bar, cursed while people tried to console him, or encouraged him to let it out. The owner came back over to me.
“Lord, Greg, I am so sorry. The cops are on their way. I don’t know what to say. We’ve been open for years and that’s never happened. Never. Come in if you need a drink while you wait. On the house.”
Winston headed back inside before I could answer for either of us. He turned at the door and gestured to the street, in the direction the car had sped off. “Pack nature,” he said, and disappeared inside.
* * *
Over the next week I noticed a rise in news stories about hate crimes; synagogues and cars vandalized with swastikas, fires in Baptist churches, Hassidic Jews attacked by Latin teens, black men beaten with bats by a white gang in Howard Beach, a turbaned Sikh assaulted for the Twin Towers. I was extra watchful on the subway after a news story about an outpatient off his meds who’d pushed a girl onto the tracks, stopped wearing my MP3 player so I could keep my ears open for suspicious sounds behind me on the street. I couldn’t tell if the surge was real or if what happened outside the bar made me pay more attention to stories that were always there. It was as if whatever shadow Dean was living under had made its way up here to look for me.
I picked up a voicemail message that my picture was ready, and stopped on my way back from the city to pick it up. When I got it home I saw they’d done a great job, despite the manager’s reservations. The matte was a narrow strip of ivory with a thin blood-red border on the inside. The frame was rounded, high-gloss blood red to match the border. The best place to put it seemed to be over my desk, so the long-dead Klansmen could watch over me while I worked at my computer.
When I was done hanging it, I sat in my chair with a shot of tequila to take a look. Smoldering eyes stared down in disapproval, an allied assembly of racists who would gladly have lynched me for being the free nigger cocksucker I was. I was everything they’d tried to prevent, I thought. Trapped in framed glass, their world was harmless, frozen in the past, too far away to hurt me, but Dean had proved me wrong.
I stared up at the panorama, examined faces and details while I tried to forget my last conversation with him, tried to let the anger die down, but drink only fueled my fury. The rest of the night was spent brooding, as I gulped tequila and smoked weed, tried not to call Dean and start a new fight, used all my years in therapy to try to understand what made him change. I’d picked a bad combination; the tequila broke down my defenses, left me open to paranoid fantasies inspired by the weed. They came all too easily and all made sense when I was stoned. There were only two explanations, internal or external. If the answer was internal, Dean was having a mental breakdown. The expenses and pressure of the move had been too much, even for him. He was striking out at the only ones in reach, his family and me. But if it was external... All I needed to spur my stoned fantasy was the photograph in front of me. The crowd of Klansmen swarmed in a ring like white blood cells gathered to engulf invaders, a mass of individuals united to think and act as one killing organism. What if evil wasn’t born of any single thought, but was the product of a group mind, spread through the body of society like a virus that ate into healthy heads and converted them, made them its own?
What if there was an evil infecting America, demons, haunts, call them hungry ghosts. Something that followed us from the old world and made its home in the heartland where it grew and nourished itself on lynchings, serial killings, race riots, and state executions. It could have started in Spain during the Crusades, accidentally unleashed by the same Knights Templar that inspired early Klan leaders, crusaders foolish enough to test powers they didn’t understand and couldn’t control. Maybe alchemy or incantations woke an ancient hunger that followed them to inspire the tortures of the Inquisition, the violence of the French Revolution, sent somber pilgrims across the sea to murder natives for their land, advised judges to hold witch hunts in Salem, donned hoods of the Ku Klux Klan to spread terror through the South, ordered officials to inter Japanese Americans and drop the atomic bomb, while its forebears in Europe bred the Holocaust, traveled with soldiers to My Lai and Abu Ghraib, pushed misfortune into disaster, whenever, wherever it could to make things worse, fed our fear of each other to nourish itself. I didn’t know what it was, what form it took; maybe it was hidden in all our hearts, passed down from generation to generation like a congenital disease.
So here was Dean, freshly infected by the Old South he’d fled. Whatever it was had slept buried in boxes of his family’s racist memorabilia, waited for the right host and woke when it found Dean in its reach, weak, afraid and alone, sank in its fangs, fed on his soul, and regurgitated what was left back into his brain like poison.
That was the hate I heard, not Dean’s, but the raw fury of the hungry ghosts of America, speaking through Dean’s mouth like ventriloquists through a dummy.
I fell asleep on the couch in front of the photo, sure I had it all figured out, and was going to let Dean know first thing in the morning.
Thanks again to our patrons for supporting this podcast. Because of your support, listeners around the world get creepy tales in their ears every other week. If you want new stories every week, the only way for that to happen is to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion by going to patreon.com/nightlightpod and supporting this podcast. You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal at PayPal.me/NightlightPodcast. If you’re unable to support us financially, word of mouth is the next best way to help. Give us a shoutout online on Twitter or Instagram @nightlightpod, or like us on Facebook @nightlightpod. Reviews are also a huge help, so be sure to leave a few kind words on your podcast platform of choice.
Audio production for this episode by Jen Zink, and me, Tonia Ransom.
And to thank you for listening until the very end, we have a creepy fact for you.
The Driskill Hotel, right here in Austin, Texas, is known as one of the most haunted places in America, but it’s also home to one of the most haunted paintings. In the hotel hangs a painting of a little girl that resembles 4-year-old Samantha Houston, who died there when she fell down a flight of stairs after chasing a ball. Those who visit and work at the Driskill have reportedly seen the painting change expressions, and say that just looking at it brings on feelings of nausea, dread, and dizziness. Although the painting isn’t of Samantha, legend has it that she’s decided to make the work of art her permanent home.
We’ll be back next week with part two of our story.