by Greg McCann
When the Young Woman finally tracked the Artist down, he was living in a small village on the coast of Newfoundland, his home a modest one bedroom walkup above a red painted cafe facing the wharf. It was full summer by the time she had arrived, and she found the coast to be just as beautiful as she'd always heard. This was a classic fishing town, built along the grade of a sloping seaside hill, with brightly coloured clapboard houses and wooden sidewalks that provided steps for her to walk down to the water. The sun was out today, warming a dappled pattern against her face through the weave of the sun hat that she wore. Occasionally she would raise her head fully to the sun and watch the seagulls as they cast and careened overhead, dipping down between the houses and back up into the bright blue sky. The Young Woman smiled as she stepped her way down the street, a light breeze stirring her skirt and softly cooling her legs. She had never been “down East” before, as the saying went, and as with many sayings she wondered if it really was something the locals even said to each other anymore, or just a phrase promoted by the tourism industry and repeated by all of her friends back home. In fact she wondered what would happen if - now that she was here - if she were to go into a bar, raise her glass and yell “Sociable!” at the top of her lungs. Would everyone take a drink, or would they just stare at her with disgust?
She figured they probably would go along for the sake of the economy, but as for what they thought of it, well, who really knew? Such was the way that the Young Woman's thoughts tended to go, vacillating between a sort of cynicism and insecurity. She was, after all, a Toronto girl, through and through. This place was starting to grow on her, though. She could begin to feel that tight sense of mistrust and judgemental attitude slowly slipping away, like heavy unwanted winter clothes. Not altogether, mind you, kind of moving back and forth in fact, but overall... less. She thought that perhaps once her business here was completed, and she'd settled everything up back at home, she wouldn't mind possibly returning for a longer stay.
As she reached the wharf and turned the corner of the cafe she felt a mild sense of disbelief, that she was finally reaching the end of her long search. Of course, by this point it was rather important that she had found success. The Young Woman had committed – risked, to be perfectly honest – she had risked a great deal in order to see this plan through to it's fruition, with resources that were close to the point of their limit. And so she had to maintain control of her emotions, to master this feeling of resistance within her, that irrational sense of wanting to turn around and run away, now that she was so close. Of course there was no way she was going to turn back now, but it was vital to not let such hesitancy effect her thoughts, lest they should dampen her resolve upon this first meeting.
She paused at the corner and took a long, slow breath, deeply inhaling the scent of the sea, of loose bracken, brimming algae... Dying fish and salt. It was like a bracing tonic for her lungs, and as she exhaled, the energy in her grew both stronger and more settled. Turning her head to her right she gazed at the seashore. Several rickety boats bobbed and tilted against the docks, swinging chains and lines of rope rising and falling in a sort of seesawing metronome. A few figures – fishermen? Most likely tour guides, now – moved between the boats like dancers on a stage near to collapsing. She mentally uttered a silent benediction of thanks to the supportive sea. It was going to be all right.
The Young Woman turned back to the Cafe, directly on her left, and stepped forward into the shade of the building. THE FOOL'S SHANTY, read a large weather beaten sign. She smiled to herself and looked up, to the windows above the cafe. The shutters were open, and since the sunlight was now at the back of the building, she could see straight through the window glass and into the room. There was an easel planted directly before the window, half covered with a tarp. The Young Woman sensed a quickening within her chest, and, quite contrary to how she had felt just a moment ago, she was now impatient to go forward with this, and meet this man once and for all.
As she began to walk past the cafe front window and entrance, towards the second doorway, a middle aged couple approached along the sidewalk and passed by the Young Woman, smiling openly at her. “Afternoon, Miss.” The man tipped two fingers against the brim of his cap. She smiled her brightest smile back at them, showing her gleaming white teeth to their fullest, but she did not speak. The couple walked on, contentedly. That part really was true, how friendly everyone was out here. She hadn't spotted a single cell phone since she'd arrived. This was a place where you probably were never even recorded on camera, unless you used a bank machine.
As she stepped up to the door, the Young Woman unconsciously reached up and lightly rubbed the edges of the oval brooch that hung from her neck. A gift from her Grandmother, it was to her a symbol of her continuous good fortune. For the Young Woman had always been lucky, at least as far as the things that mattered to her were concerned. Lucky in love, lucky in her job, her family, friends... She was definitely an optimist at heart, her big city cynicism directed firmly outward. Not that she was without her doubts and insecurities, it's just that these were always about other people. You could never really know any one else, but you could always know yourself well enough, if you were willing to. All told, this was a mindset that had served her well, over the years.
There was a burnished copper doorbell next to the door, and she lifted her hand from her brooch and pressed her finger against the button. A faint buzzing sound murmured within the building. As she waited the Cafe entrance swung open with a loud jingle and a pair of young men bustled out, laughing at some shared joke. They didn't even notice her, wrapped up in their own shenanigans as they veered down the sidewalk and away. And then she was alone, facing the door.
Above, the sound of seagulls cawing to each other echoed through the billowing wind. The dock creaked and groaned behind her. She began to feel a slight chill, being in the shade with the sea breeze at her back. After a moment she started to lift her hand up to the bell again, only to be stopped by the sound of a voice, calling out from overhead.
She stepped back from the doorway, craning her neck upwards. Above her a man's face was just now leaning out of the window as though he had hesitated after calling out. The man gazed down at her. He looked... somehow younger than she had expected, based on the photos she'd seen. But then he'd shaved that grey beard of his, and the rest of his hair, curling locks that spilled around his downturned face, was still a warm chestnut brown. Nonetheless, his face seemed somehow fuller, more rounded, which may have been the effect of gravity, from this angle.
“Hi!” She called up to him, grinning widely. He smiled back at her, but with one eyebrow cocked, now that he realized her to be a stranger. “Hi,” He said back, a little hesitant, and then he continued to peer uncertainly down at her. She didn't say anything after this, just kept grinning up at him, smiling and shifting slowly from foot to foot, hands clasped behind her back.
A low bell from one of the boats rang lightly in the wind. The waves slapped lazily against the docks. He definitely looked younger to her, which was not much of a surprise, all things considered. He had unburdened himself, after all, hadn't he? Such a thing was bound to make a man feel younger, and consequentially look younger, at least for a while. And now his younger looking face was beginning to crease just a little, his brow was showing the first beginnings of – what? Impatience? Nervousness? Or something else, something deeper... And when he spoke again there was a lightness in his voice that almost carried away on the wind, like lost scraps of paper.
“Can I help you?” he asked, and as she stood below him, studying him, she thought of all the things that she had rehearsed saying, intricate stories and deceptions designed in the hope of getting him to open his door to her. Of course she knew that he would see through any lie that she told him right away, but then it had occurred to the Young Woman that he might in some way appreciate her tact and play along with the ruse; a sort of shared illusion that would, all things considered, be the most appropriate thing to do, after all. A continuation of what had been a virtuoso performance, the final touches on what was, by all accounts, his masterpiece.
However, now that she was here, something told her that he would, in fact, respond far more favourably to an honest and straightforward approach. He would probably be craving a little honesty in his life, at this point. Besides which, artists were usually touchy about their work, and one had to demonstrate patience and subtlety when attempting to initiate a collaboration.
And so it was, seemingly counter to the very idea of patience and subtlety, that she spoke to him in the most direct manner she could think of. In a clear and strong voice that carried up easily to the window, the Young Woman simply addressed the Artist by his full name.
For several seconds, he stared down at her, the expression on his face unchanged since she had spoken his name. And now that she had done it, now that she had uttered this secret phrase, the Young Woman simply lowered her head and began to wait, her gaze fixed steadily on the door. After a moment she heard the sound of the shutters gently closing above her.
No one stirred behind the windows of the Fool's Shanty cafe. The street behind her was empty; even the boats seemed abandoned, now. The day was entering into it's dead hour, a time when most activities had paused and the world became still. She loved moments like this, for all of her talkativeness and sociability... It was when life revealed itself as a vast, deserted field upon which she could feel her power growing. You are alone, the world told her, but that is all that you will ever need.
A series of awkward footsteps grew erratically louder from behind the door of the front entrance. He was walking down the stairs, to open the door for her. He was going to let her in. Normally she would fidget during such a moment of waiting – straighten out her clothes, try to fix her hair – but this time she found herself perfectly calm and still. She was ready.
The footsteps came to a loud and abrupt end, punctuated by a clunking thud against the door, followed by a muffled curse. A few moments passed. Then, after a few more awkward thumps and thuds, the door opened and he was standing there, looking at her.
Neither person said anything. They just stared silently at each other, no one giving anything away, until after a while he shrugged his shoulders and turned around, tromping his way back up the stairs. She followed him inside and closed the door behind her.
The stairs were steep, narrow and short; she could see why he had a difficult time making his way down. To steady herself she placed a hand on a rusted and bent side railing , only to find it almost falling away from the wall it was built into. Bits of drywall shook loose onto the wooden stairs, and the railing protested with a screeching whine, before thumping back against the wall as she snatched her hand away.
“Yeah, you wanna forget that railing,” He muttered over his shoulder. “Landlord still hasn't gotten around to fixing it.” He reached the top of the stairs, stepped through the doorway and turned right, disappearing from view. She followed after him a few seconds later, tentatively emerging from the stairway into his kitchen. The sun blazed through an open window on the back wall, momentarily blinding her. She raised a hand to her eyes and turned away, to her right, in the direction she had seen him go.
He was standing right in front of her. For a second she thought he was going to attack her; it had been the perfect spot for it, the perfect moment, too, with the sun's position as it was. And she'd chosen the time so carefully...
But he didn't make any move, just stood there, watching her, stroking his chin. She came up with a nervous smile for him, bringing only a slight lifting of his brow in response. She felt her own eyebrows perk up reactively. Then he must have gotten tired of wagging eyebrows with her, for he turned away without a word and stepped across the kitchen to an ancient Wurlitzer fridge that sat in a corner next to the living room entrance. In the living room beyond, she could see canvases leaning against the walls, all of them facing inwards, showing only their hollow backs. The fridge door had a steel latch which clunked noisily as he pulled on it and opened the door, leaning inside and rustling around for something. She looked around the kitchen. It was old and well worn, with cracked checker tiles and weathered linoleum countertops, but he kept it clean. There was a small formica kitchen table with a couple of vinyl backed chairs beneath the window, gleaming in the sun. The sink was emptied and washed and the few small appliances were well ordered. She felt a little disappointed – with herself, for having such stereotypical expectations.
The fridge closed with an even louder clunk. This was the type of fridge that kids used to get suffocated in, she thought. They don't make em' like they used to...
The Artist straightened up and popped the cap of the beer in his hand, wheeled around and sauntered into the living room, his gaze avoiding her the whole time. She followed him into the room, noticing how he dropped the bottle cap into a waste basket as he passed by. He made his way over to a high chair near his easel and settled into it, straddling the seat backwards with his arms folded over the back frame, his hands hanging loosely down with the beer dangling from his fingertips. He was looking directly at her now, his expression unreadable.
He hadn't offered her a beer, hadn't offered her anything, for that matter. She might have thought that his time in solitude had rusted his social skills, but then she noticed that the rows of canvases really had only the front painting turned around; he must have hastily turned them all before coming down the stairs to meet her. It was going to be tough to get him to open up, she could see. Once she realized that he wasn't going to ask her to sit down, she went ahead and moved a pile of sketches from a small loveseat directly opposite from him, clearing a space for herself and settling down into it. He seemed a little anxious at this, as though regretting not hiding the sketches from her, as well. Then the room became silent and they both sat and stared at each other.
The Young Woman clutched her purse in her lap and took a look around. The living room was pretty bare – sketches, canvasses, a loveseat and a chair. And the easel, of course, with the tarp covering the canvas completely, now. He must have done that before coming down, as well. And he must not have painted recently, the canvas being dry enough for the tarp. Maybe he'd been working on sketches. Or maybe he was blocked.
When she looked back at him he was gazing out the window with a wistful expression. He took a swig of beer and, still looking out the window, spoke to her in a flat and rueful tone.
The Young Woman blinked. “Excuse me?”
The Artist turned his head back from the window and levelled his eyes at her, his expression laconic and almost amused. And yes – he actually was, he was smiling at her.
“I said, 'how much'? As in, how much do you want?”
The Young Woman straightened up in sudden comprehension of what he was saying. She set her purse down on the couch next to her, on top of the sketches, trying not to damage them, and as she turned back to the Artist her brooch began to swing on its chain; she took hold of it lightly with her fingertips, to keep it still. It had never occurred to her that he would see things this way, and she needed a second to recover, to gather her thoughts. She rubbed the brooch between her thumb and forefinger, touching the sides, almost superstitiously avoiding the ruby centre.
“I didn't come here for money.” She raised her gaze to meet the Artist's eyes directly. He spread his hands out before him. The beer swung back and forth between his two outstretched fingers, looking to her as though it were about to drop.
“So what did you come here for?”
Amazing. That he couldn't even understand at all, didn't have any inkling... But maybe he was being coy with her. So she decided to be direct.
“I just want you to tell me about it.”
His eyebrows popped up again, but she didn't mimic his expression, this time. He took another swig of beer.
“You want me to tell you.” His tone was incredulous, and she found herself getting annoyed.
“Yeah, sure, why is that so hard to believe?”
He snorted. “Well it's just the way you've been acting – first you were staring at me at the window, then you stared at me at the door, then you stared at me in the kitchen, and then you stared at me in here after we sat down just now... I figured you must be holding out for something.”
She stared at him. He pointed a finger at her.
“Yeah! See? You're doing it right now! You're weird!”
And then she found herself laughing, realizing how it must look to him, the way she had approached him. The Young Woman had a very open and engaging laugh, and she could see that it was having it's usual effect on him, his smile turning softer, more open. He was warming up to her, just like that.
“I'm sorry,” She chuckled, “I guess I was holding out for something. I guess I thought you would be eager to share your story...”
He looked down at the floor, descending into thought. She leaned forward.
“I mean, isn't that what all artists are, really? Storytellers?”
He raised his eyes to hers, with a look of such naked rawness that she had to turn away. Then he closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when he opened them, the look was gone.
“And how about you?” he asked, “Are you a writer of some kind? A reporter?”
She smiled. “No... I'm not working for anyone. I guess you could say that I'm a fan.”
And now it was his turn to blink. “A fan...”
She shrugged her shoulders, carefully. “Sure... I've been following your work for a while now.” She looked at him a little more closely. “That seems to surprise you.”
He leaned back on his stool and looked down again, seeming contrite. “Yeah, I suppose I should be getting used to that,” He swallowed awkwardly, blinked rapidly. “It's just that I never really had any fans before, well, you know...”
She leaned forward again. “Really? There must have been some.”
He shrugged. “Well, a few people have bought some stuff over the years, but not enough to survive on.” She nodded her head, listening. He glanced up at her, then continued. “For the most part I had to take on shit jobs, while doing my real work on the side... Either that or go into debt, to finance periods of work. And I kept saying to myself, 'This is temporary, this is temporary', until one day I woke up and found that this temporary state of affairs had become, well... Not so temporary.”
He looked at his beer, seemed about to drink, but then changed his mind, leaning down to set it on the floor. The bottle wobbled slightly on the floorboards, then was still. He kept watching it as he continued.
“I had painted myself into a corner...” He grinned sheepishly at the pun, but did not look up. “There had never been any time to learn any other skills, at least nothing that you could put on a resume. And my networking ability was... less than desirable. That kept the public option out of reach.” He sighed to himself, looking around the room. “This was all I had and it wasn't working out, it had never really worked out. And of course I knew it wasn't because I wasn't any good. I knew I was good. But I also knew why I had never had any success.”
Her voice was barely a whisper. “And why was it?”
He raised his head but still did not look at her, lifting his gaze to a corner of the ceiling, seeming to decide whether to answer her question. Then he dropped his eyes to hers.
She considered this statement for a few seconds. Was he talking about porn? Was he telling her he should have made porn?
“That's my name for it. Other people call it 'specialization', but to me it's all fetish. All these different artists that only make one type of thing – romantic art, horror art, bicycle art, animal art... Not to mention all the sub genres and sub sub genres, all these little categories and boxes...” He was twisting his hands in front of his face, his expression focused on his hands with intense contempt. Then he relaxed a little and smiled bitterly at her. “And don't even get me started on the fan market. Hell, I could probably sell a thousand paintings of Wolverine if I wanted to.”
“So why didn't you?” She didn't really want to ask that question, but knew she had to, if she was to move things to the point where she wanted them to be. Some of that raw intensity flashed in his face.
“Because I'm an artist!” He flung his hands up in the air. “Because an artist shouldn't have to pander to anyone's lifestyles, to any particular tribe of people!” He swung an arm wildly up towards the covered canvas. “This! This is my fetish, except that it's more than a fetish, it's something that I need to explore fully, all of it's possibilities, not just settle into one way and never try anything else!”
She studied him some more. All this time she had admired him, admired his work... With an absolute effort of will she managed to hold back on her feelings at the moment, to remind herself of her purpose and continue forward. The thing that helped her, was the realization that the way she felt, her reaction to him, were only a part of this piece that they were creating together, like a colour of paint, or a particular size of chisel. A knot of wood in her chest, forming the final outcome.
“You felt like you'd been left behind...” She whispered, knowing full well the subtly antagonistic nature of her suggestion. She was beginning to shape the piece some more.
“No. Cast aside. I was cast aside because I refused to kiss the public's ass.”
For a moment neither of them said anything. Cawing gulls passed by the window, bright flickers reflecting the mid afternoon sun. The Artist took another swig of his beer and then rose from his chair.
“Okay,” he says, “Before we go any further we need to talk some business here.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. They'd already started, and now he wanted to talk business?
He stood before her, leaning forward with his hands on his thighs, peering intently into her eyes. “What are you planning to do with this information? You say you're just here as a fan, but I'm sorry, that's bullshit. You're definitely going to be selling this story to someone, aren't you?”
She had to remind herself that he didn't know her. She had to try really hard not to be insulted. He had been living out here alone, and she couldn't expect him to just be a mind reader.
“I'm not working for anyone.”
“Yeah, but there's money involved for you, isn't there?” He straightened up and headed into the kitchen. “Hell, that's half of what this whole lifestyle bit is all about. Profit.” Teetering on his heel, he stalked away into the kitchen, opening the fridge again. She realized that he was getting drunk. Had he been drinking before she arrived? There didn't seem to be any other empties lying around. Maybe he was a lightweight. He shut the fridge and stood in the kitchen doorway with another beer in his hand, unopened.
“Tell you what,” he said, gesturing toward her with the beer. “We'll form us a verbal contract, here and now. Any revenues generated from this interview, you agree to share with me, 50 / 50, right off the top and down the middle.”
She looked at him. He was just standing there, leaning against the entrance. Watching her with a smirk on his face. “Hey,” he said, tilting his head and lifting a shoulder, “If you're really not in it for the money then there won't be anything to split anyways, right?”
The Young Woman looked down at her hands and pretended to consider things for a minute. Of course she had expected him to propose something like this, but she had to play coy, for her own reasons. After several seconds had passed, the Young Woman lifted her head and looked back into the Artist's eyes.
“Well, if that's really how you want it,” she said carefully, “Then okay, fine. You've got a deal.”
The Artist pulled himself away from the doorway and approached the Young Woman. He stopped at her side and held out the beer, offering it to her with the stem between his knuckles. The young woman accepted the beer with long delicate fingers, and they both worked together, twisting opposite ways to pop the cap off into his fingers. She settled back into her seat with the beer and he smiled down at her, tossing the cap up and back into his palm.
The Artist sauntered over to his chair, stopped, hesitating for a moment. He was looking at his canvasses, lightly shaking his head. Perhaps he was considering showing them to her? But then he took a step and settled back onto his chair, facing her again. A long thin rectangle of sunlight had formed across the hardwood floor between them, slowly widening as the sun began to beam from the kitchen window and over into the living room.
He raised his hand with the beer cap between thumb and forefinger, snapping his fingers and sending the cap straight into the garbage pail. The Young Woman smiled.
The Artist smiled back at her and leaned forward across the back of the chair. Then the smile slowly dropped and he gazed at her for a long moment. She leaned back and waited, fingering the top of her beer. The light grew across the floor, inching towards the nearest canvasses.
“Well,” he sighed, “The first thing I want to make clear is that the body I used had already been dead.”
She looked up from the bottle. “That's good to know.”
The Artist grunted to himself and dropped his gaze to the floor. A seagull flew by one the windows, it's cry suddenly piercing the silence of the room.
“I had a friend who worked for the coroner's office in Bankok,” He said, shaking his head slightly. “It's amazing how much loyalty a family portrait can get you in some places.” He looked up and his eyes followed the seagull outside of the window, now arcing away into the deepening blue of the afternoon sky. “Turned out there was some white guy with the same build and facial structure, same age, a John Doe. Homeless. Died of an overdose. There's a lot of guys like that over there, Westerners that drop out and live on the street.”
She decided to restrain her opinion on the type of men these most likely were, covering her reaction by leaning forward into a posture of listening. His eyes flicked to hers as if he were aware of her true feelings, but she paid this no mind. Of course, his story was of interest to her, and well worth her full attention.
“So, yeah!” He spread his hands and leaned back. “I didn't even see the body. My friend took care of everything, planted it in my home, that little shack next to the river-”
She cut in on him. “Sorry to interrupt, but there's one thing I'm wondering about. How did you manage to pull off the dental match? Was the head coroner in on it, or...”
He smiled and clicked his teeth together, then opened his mouth and let his top palate drop onto his tongue. Her eyes widened in amazement. “You pulled out your own teeth?”
He popped his mouth closed and his palate clicked audibly into place. “ My friend installed my teeth onto the body. Glue that calcifies in fire. The head coroner didn't suspect a thing. And remember, I was virtually unknown at the time.”
The Young Woman looked around the room, thinking of how it had all come to this. Then she settled her gaze onto the Artist. “This friend of yours seems very loyal. Aren't you concerned that revealing these details could track back to him?”
He waved this away. “He's not in that profession anymore, not even in the same country.”
She smiled back at him. “Living off of the proceeds of your 'family portraits'?”
“Something like that.”
She leaned back and took a short breath. “Okay, so let's talk about the day it happened.”
“Oh I was already out of the country by then.”
“Yep. I'd already set it all up, figured it wouldn't do for anyone to spot me at that point.”
“So where were you?”
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Away.”
“My research shows that you already had arranged for buyers by that time.”
With one cocked eye he regards her. “Is that how you managed to track me down?”
This time it was the Young Woman's turn to shrug. “You left a lot of trails. Frankly I think you wanted to get caught.”
He chuckled and expanded his hands. “All part of my master plan.”
The Young Woman smiled at the Artist. He lowered his chin to his forearms and regarded her with a morose expression. “Wanna know how I got this idea?”
She waited patiently, the bottle warming slowly in her hand. He grunted softly and looked away.
“I got the idea from every person that I'd ever given a drawing or painting to when I was young. I'd thought these were my friends, at one time. They would run in to me, and when they could see that I still wasn't famous yet, that the gift I'd given them still didn't have any resale value, they'd look right at me and say right to my face, 'I can't wait for you to die'...”
He looked back at her, his eyes large and fixed, seeing past her. “'I can't wait for you to die'... And then they would laugh it off as a joke, y'know just kidding, but still... So after awhile, I thought-” he threw up his hands in mock surrender, “'Okay! Why not! It's all for you anyways, so fine. I'm dead!'”
He dropped his hands and took a shaky breath, seeing her in front of him again. She gave him a moment to get it together, then continued.
“Lets talk about the explosion. How was that arranged?”
“Another friend, he was, let's say, and amateur fireworks specialist. He knew how to make it with the maximum effect and image.”
“That image being the same as your final painting?”
“Yes, I'm so glad people eventually noticed. Of course I made sure there would be footage from as many angles as possible. And then you just leave it up to the Internet, and sooner or later one of those obsessive autism types examines the footage, and the parallel is drawn.”
“And the legend is born.”
“I do so love the Internet.”
A sly smile escaped from her lips. “So do I...”
“Hmpf. I would think for someone your age, loving the Internet would be like loving a pair of socks. Just something that's there for you.”
“I try not to take anything for granted.”
He frowned at that statement. “I know exactly what being taken for granted is all about.”
“Well, you certainly changed that.”
“Yeah, I did.” The Artist stood up quickly from his chair and moved towards the window. “I certainly did.” He looked out from behind the shutters, peering down at the street below. After a moment he turned a suspicious eye her way.
“Who do you work for?”
She stared back at him. “I told you. I work for no one.”
He continued to eye her for a seemingly long period of time. The sliver of light had widened to a rectangle on the floor, marking the space between them.
“Is this conversation being recorded?”
Her eyes flickered down to the medallion at her neck. The Artist's eyes lit up. “Ha!” He leaned forward, grinning.
“Hello!” The Artist waved at her medallion. “Hello people of the Internet!”
Something cold dropped into the centre of the Young Woman's chest at that moment, dropping and settling just behind the medallion. Her Grandmother's brooch. Passed down to her through three generations... And here he was, mocking it.
“You know,” she said, “I notice that you seem to take death rather lightly.”
He straightened up and chuckled for a few seconds, before seeing that she wasn't smiling. He shrugged his shoulders. “Well, it's not like there was any sort of real death involved...”
“That's where you're wrong.” Her voice hardened, and he glanced at her nervously, unconsciously taking a step back. “For your 'replacement', death was very real.”
“Yeah, but that would have happened anyways. I had nothing to do with that.”
“Nothing? And what do you think are the odds that right around the same time of your plan, that there just so happened to be a white guy of the same age and build as you, who just so happened to die of a drug overdose, in the same city as you, halfway around the world. I mean, did you even check the details?”
“Hey, now look-”
“No, you didn't, because you didn't care.” Her voice was tired, sad. “You just wanted to escape, and make some money. And your friends helped you for the same reason. To escape.”
The Artist looked away, his head bent and his chest rising and falling. “You can't just come in here and...” He pointed at her brooch, eyes flashing with sudden panic. “Is that thing uploading right now?”
She sighed. “All of these people, trying to escape. Escape from their lives, from the world...” The Young Woman set her beer down on the table and reached for her purse. Then she stood up, stepping over to face the Artist directly. “Do you think I really care if you had some guy killed? Some loser that ran away from home to go be a druggie and a pervert in Thailand?”
He looked up at her and pointed at the door. “I want you to leave. Right now.”
“That isn't the point.” She continued on, unperturbed. “Do you want to know when I first became a fan of yours?”
“No. I want you to leave right now-”
“It was when you died.”
The Artist blinked at the Young Woman in the hazy and shifting light. She had stepped directly into the sunbeam, and could feel the rising warmth of it's rays on her shoulder. He stared at her with a look of dawning comprehension. His voice was soft and fragile, barely more than a whisper.
“But, I didn't die.” He pressed the fingertips of one hand against his chest. “I'm right here. I'm alive. You... you understand that, don't you?”
She turned away from him and walked over to the window, the sunbeam lowering down her back as she moved. She stopped at the sill and looked out through the slats of the shutters, just as he had done. The shadows had grown longer in the streets, and this building was casting almost to the shore. It was colder here, at the window. Colder from the memory of the sun, mere seconds before.
“Your death was the finest work of art that I had ever seen. But almost from the start, amidst the sheer joy of discovering such a thing, there was a doubt in the back of my mind, a nagging doubt that refused to be denied.”
She could sense him, behind her, shifting uncertainly from foot to foot, looking back and forth around the room. Trying to decide what to do. Would he attack her? But there was her brooch; he had no way of being sure. Maybe he would run. That was okay. If he ran, she would find him.
She would hunt him to the ends of the earth.
“I had to know. Because it was me – I was the one who helped you.”
She turned around to face him. “I was the obsessive autistic type that discovered the image in the fire. Your final painting.”
He blinked at her, and just as she'd thought, he was shifting back and forth, from foot to foot. Then his eyes lowered to her side and he froze completely.
The gun she held was small and compact, of a very simple design. A strange object, but a gun, nonetheless.
“When I did that,” She whispered tightly, taking a single step forward, the gun still held down at her side, “when I did that, I became your collaborator. You had sent out a call, and I responded to it, and now I'm here.”
A long moment drew out between them. The light on the floor diffused into the dusty air. She could feel the gravity in the room begin to loosen it's hold, and this thought brought a strange smile to her lips.
“Now I'm here to complete our collaboration.”
The Artist took a step backwards, hands held up before him. “Hey, now, listen... Listen to me, um -”
“'Um' what?” The Young Woman said, “'Um', my name? You want to know my name now, do you?”
The Artist darted his eyes around the room, as he inched backwards away from her, turning away from the kitchen and back towards his bedroom. So he wasn't going to run again, after all. Did he have a gun back there? A weapon? She thought that he might. “Hold it right there.” She whispered. “Don't move.”
The Artist stopped in his tracks, eyes flicking down to the gun that she still held down at her side. The Young Woman regarded him with an expression of pitying contempt. “Do you know what you're problem is? You don't really like people. Do you? I mean, have you even bothered to make a single friend since you got here?”
“That's not fair. I'm in hiding, right now...”
“You've always been in hiding!” The Young Woman flashed a look of hot rage at him. “You've spent your whole life in hiding! You hide from life!”
Something seemed to release in the Artist's eyes. She had hit home with that last comment, and so she pressed further. “All this time spent trying to somehow reinvent the wheel or something... You think you're so unique.” Her own voice curdled with disgust. “Don't you know we're all just copies of each other? Once you accept that you are nobody special, only then can your work truly join the world. Only then can you create anything of real value.”
His face grew hard, determined. “You're going to lecture me about how to create things? Do you know what your problem is? You don't really make anything. Do you? When is the last time you created anything real? I mean, have you even bothered to make a single thing with your own two hands, since the day you were born?”
“You're the one who said we were all copies of each other.”
The Young Woman was done talking. She raised the gun, pointed it straight at the centre of the Artist's chest. The Artist's mouth quivered for a moment, and then his face contorted into a mask of pain. “I worked my whole life, worked my ass off and never got anything for it! I worked and worked and gave and gave and it was never enough, and now that I've finally made something out of all my hard work you're going to take it all away!” Tears were streaming down the Artist's face now. His hands twitched spasmodically at his sides. His anguished voice shook and broke as he continued to cry, like a boy. Like an angry child. “This was my sacrifice and my reward! I earned it! I earned my reward!”
“Sacrifice. You started your own sacrifice, and I'm here to finish it. That's your reward.”
With a strangled cry of frustration the Artist launched himself at the Young Woman. She was ready for this, simultaneously pulling the trigger and stepping to one side.
The gun that she used was of a modern design. Not quite an air gun, but rather a device that created a chemical reaction that caused instant compression. Basically the same principle as a normal gun, except the chemical reaction made very little noise as it hurtled silver fletchettes from the snub nosed barrel, driving into the Artist's chest as he charged towards the Young Woman. His charge became a stumble, and his body hurtled past the woman into a table of oil paints and brushes. He crashed to his knees as the table overturned, the tools of his trade spilling out across the floor around him.
The Young Woman stepped back and watched the Artist as he knelt on the floor, hands planted in front of him. His hair dangled loosely in front of his face, and he was shaking slightly, taking short, gasping breaths, each one raising to a high pitched whistle. After a few seconds, blood began to drip from his chest onto the floor.
The Young Woman adjusted a knob on the side of her gun. The pressure reset within, making a short vacuum like sound before registering a digital beep. She stepped forward, closing the gap between herself and the Artist on the floor. His breathing was growing more rapid, more ragged and broken. His blood was flowing more freely from his chest wound, now mixing with the spilled paint on the floor in front of him.
“It's mine,” he wheezed, turning his sweating, tear streaked face up towards her. “It's mine...”
The Young Woman raised the gun and planted the point firmly against the Artist's forehead.
“It's ours.” She said, and squeezed the trigger.
She stood in the centre of the room. Slowly darkening around her, the space seemed to her like a living photograph, a snapshot moving subtly towards completion. She turned around in a continuous arc, regarding the paintings with their backs turned towards her. Should she turn them out? Reveal them to her audience?
She decided not to. They weren't really a part of this piece, or, if they were, they served a better purpose just as they were. Instead she finished her turn, facing the body that lay fallen on the floor, crumpled up against the wall next to the overturned table. Amongst the paint.
She moved in close and crouched down next to the body. With a steady hand she pulled the brooch forward, getting a good closeup of her work. That's what he was. He was her painting. He was her art.
The Young Artist emerged into the cooling afternoon, stepping from the doorway onto the cobblestone sidewalk. She turned to her right and walked past the cafe, warm light spilling from the windows onto her face. Music echoed from within, along with the sounds of laughter. She continued on to the corner, turning right again to climb the street, back up from where she had come.
The sun had dropped below the houses, lowering behind the hill above, and the streets were in shadow, but for the streetlights that glowed strangely against the sky overhead. The gulls were gone now, but the street was filled with more people than before, moving past her as she climbed up the hill.
The Young Artist pulled a pair of glasses from her purse and slipped them on. She pressed a button on the left arm of the glasses, activating the Heads Up Display installed within the lens. She had considered wearing the glasses to her rendezvous, but thought that they would have been too obvious, so she had opted for the brooch to use for the recording of the event. She'd had to replace the ruby at the centre with the crystal cam she had used, but it was still her grandmother's brooch, nonetheless.
With a pattern of blinks, she connected to the Network. It was something akin to the Deep Web, or so she had been told. The highest level of encryption possible, and all that. She didn't really understand how it all worked, but her friends did, and that was all that mattered.
The Young Artist had a lot of friends.
Mercador: Ruby yr a genius! AMAZING work!
Shofun<Y: Wow. You did it. And I got to witness.
Tam1kin: Score one for the good guys.
Hestia: Score one for ART.
CambellsIsGoodSoup: @Tam1kin, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” here. He was on the right track with his work, he just needed Ruby to help finish it.
BlabberNose: @CambellsIsGoodSoup Agreed. This was a collective effort. We all made this happen. Good work, people!
Systerious: am currently walking with his spirit, helping him to the next level. He understands and sends his love, especially to you, Ruby. He's grateful.
Noloveforhate: @Systerious VERY releived to hear that even the soul of a white, straight, cisgendered capitalist male can make it to enlitement. Watching the vid on a loop, and lerning something new each time. RUBY YOU ROCK!
Fdskbv2fhbdhsc: HE HAS BEEN SAVED HIS BLOOD HAS CLEANSED HIS SINS HE IS BUT THE FIRST LET THE OLD WAYS FALL AND MAKE WAY FOR THE NEW ENLIGHTENMENT
Life+: Truly Progressive, in the best sense of the word. Proud to have been a part of this moment.
The Young Artist read a few more of the comments as she made her way up the hill. Using timed blinks she scrolled them past her left eye, smiling bemusedly to herself at some of the things her people were saying. With a tap of her finger on the arm of the glasses, she could see new videos, mashups of her own. One was just a repeat of his face when he first looked out the window and down at her. The sight of his face repeatedly popping out the window and peering down became too much and she released a short barking laugh, causing a nearby woman to glance nervously her way. It suddenly occurred to her how strange her own voice sounded to her, now.
Of course, it wasn't really her own voice. The micro implants in her neck had altered it. This was a better way to disguise her identity than trying to apply audio filters to her transmission, an idea that had excited her the moment it had been first suggested to her. Filter at source, was the strategy. A very simple procedure, both the implantation and the removal. And she sounded perfectly natural.
It was quite astounding the level of technology the Young Artist improvised her work with. Of course, she herself had no idea how any of it worked, but that was the power of groups. The ability came from somewhere... Her job was in the interpretation.
This was something that her subject, the painter guy, didn't seem to grasp. Art is all about interpretation. And interpretation is a group process. It simply wouldn't do anymore to sequester ourselves away in solitude and work on developing some skills or, needless to say, that most rotten and decadent of all possible delusions: talent.
How can talent exist in a world of endless processes? The people; that was where lay the spark of love, of art. The people were themselves one continuous work of art.
We is Art.
The Young Artist had reached the end of the the rising road, arriving at a narrow three way intersection close to the top of the hill. She stood at the corner and looked across the intersecting road, against which stood a rough stone wall lined by trees, and beyond that she could see the bright orange glow of the sun as it shone outwards in diffuse beams from between the slowly stirring leaves. She took a deep breath and turned her crystal cam on again, before making her way across the street and towards the wall. She was glad to have made it in time for the sun.
Thoughts and words descended over her vision as she climbed over the short rock wall and through the trees, emerging into a wide grassy glade. Here the wind was stronger, and the grasses shifted in waves against the soft light. Moths battered the air around her, and further on a humble creek gurgled within the shadows of a small valley filled with trees. The air was ablaze with the light of the setting sun, accenting every movement like continuous brush strokes that surrounded her on all sides.
Bneethewavz: Oh my god that is so beautiful! Yr SOOO talented
Shofun<Y: We are witnessing the birth of a new artist.
She turned to her right, where the glade sloped upwards into a hill, and began to walk. The rock wall continued alongside her as she ascended, while the road beyond lowered slowly into the shade of the hillside. She made her way with familiar ease, stepping lightly over rocks and hillocks of windswept grass. Her legs didn't seemed tired at all, considering how much climbing she had done already. It was like she had found a new source for her energy.
As she continued upwards to the apex of the hill, the Young Artist reflected on the deal that she had made with her subject. Fifty percent of all revenues. The thought of this brought a wry grin to her face.
That wasn't the way she worked. That wasn't the way her people worked. There would be no profit to be made for her: she didn't need profit to be secure. Sure, it had cost a lot to get to this point, but that was because she had no choice but to deal with the old world, the old ways. And even then, there was much that had been provided to her free of charge. Her people had taken care of her.
Her people would take care of her for the rest of her life.
The Young Artist had reached the top of the hill. She stepped up to the cliff's edge and looked out across the vista before her: the town, with its' lights and buildings haphazardly arranged downwards to the shoreline, the boats resting peacefully against the docks that jutted out into the rusty water... And the sea, turning light beyond the shadows, still reflecting the setting sun in countless prisms of fire, fading slowly towards the horizon. The sky was cloudless above, and in the distance an early moon had risen like a pale chalk smudge against the deepening blue. Looking back down at the village, she thought she could spot the painter's apartment, veiled in the evening dark; a small square blot against a grey wall that represented his kitchen window.
Tam1kin: OMG Ruby, are you going to jump?
LuLuLimey: That is SO cool
Bneethewavz: It's okay, Ruby. We understand. You can do it
Magdal1ne: YOU CAN DO IT WE SUPPORT YOU
Systerious: he is waiting for you
Superpants73: It's ok we will catch you Ruby
Goldenlightseed: We will catch you
Systerious: we will walk with you
The messages were coming faster now, all of them filled with love and devotion. Telling her to jump. All she'd wanted to do was show them the beautiful view, so they could reflect on the possibilities that lay before them all! She frowned and stepped back from the edge of the cliff.
CambellsIsGoodSoup: Everyone, we need to stop pressuring her! Ruby has to make this decision for herself!
Life+: @CambellsIsGoodSoup I agree, but
That was enough. She reached up and turned off her glasses, decided in fact to take the glasses off entirely. Then she reached down and deactivated the crystal cam at her brooch. Let them wonder.
Suddenly the Young Artist felt very tired; it seemed that her activities of the day had finally caught up with her. She turned away from the cliff's edge and stepped gingerly towards a winding path that made its' way inland through some trees and onto the small gravel lot where her car was parked.
Something strange and unnerving flittered momentarily within the Young Artist as she walked along the path. Like a sudden module of rude light, flickering, then gone... She thought about that moment before she had knocked on her subject's door – the moment when the Universe had spoken to her, had told her that she was alone and that was all that she would ever need. To her mind, this in no way contradicted with her relationship to her people. For her people were a part of her. She was one with her people. She was one, and that was all that she would ever need.
And she was in control. This was why she could walk away from the cliff's edge.
The Young Artist emerged from the path and crossed the gravel lot towards her car. As she got in behind the wheel, a small secret smile drifted across her lips. She could feel herself calming down a bit, the tension easing away from her shoulders, from behind her eyes.
She fingered the brooch at her neck, touched it to the tip of her chin, then decided to hang it up from her rear view mirror, the crystal cam facing the back window. She also decided, at that moment, that she would never return to this place after all, as pleasant a place as it may have been. Once she was on the road, she would turn the camera on, and show everyone the world that she was leaving behind. The world that they were all leaving behind, together.
Slowly, with the ease of a calm and implacable determination, the Young Artist pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. She was alone and in control with her people. Together they would change the world.