Flash Fiction Friday: The Artist

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They came for the artist in the night, dragged him down the stairs roughly, but careful always of his fingers, and threw him into the back of an unmarked van. Despite the commotion, his neighbors deliberately did not wake, did not hear, did wonder. To notice was to be noticed, as the artist had been.

That would have puzzled them, if they had dared to think about it. He had never struck them as particularly noticeable. His name was Mendoza. He sold his paintings in street fairs and on the boardwalk—solid, if uninspired, knockoffs of familiar classics. He had painted at least two hundred dogs and other assorted animals playing poker, before branching out into parcheesi and yahtzee. He also had a reasonable successful side-line in portraiture, drawing tourists for what amounted to drinking money. Mendoza was not, in short, the sort of man one expected to be taken in the middle of the night.

The neighbors were not the only ones who were puzzled. The artist himself was utterly confused, as well as frightened, and more than a little cold. He had been taken and given no time to procure a pair shoes or even socks.

Outside his window, a light snow was falling. It melted on a pavement. As he watched the snow fall, shivering, the artist couldn’t help but imagine the horrors that awaited him. He had heard the rumors and the stories of dark, forgotten prisons, of internment camps and torture. He had a vivid imagination, perhaps too vivid at times like these, but no matter how hard he tried, what he had done to deserve those looming horrors continued to elude him.

The car passed through the dark gates and past the ravenous guard dogs, and pulled up outside the governor’s mansion. The governor’s men escorted him up the stairs and into the mansion itself. The wind was biting and the ground felt cold beneath his feet.

The guards did not speak. Not that the artist could have heard them over his own heavy breathing, the chattering of his teeth, and the thundering of his heart. His stomach churned and twisted, and his world contracted into his body and his fears.

They deposited him in a dark room at the back of the house. The curtains were drawn and the shadows were long. The walls were covered with paintings from floor to ceiling and half a dozen more were stacked on the floor. He could not make them out in the gloom, but the governor was known to be an art collector par excellence.

As he began to calm down and his teeth stopped chattering, the artist slowly became aware that he was not alone. There was a tall, straight-backed figure standing in the far corner, studying him as intently as he had studied the paintings, to much greater effect. Realizing that he had been noticed at last, the figure clapped his hands, and suddenly the room was illuminated.

The artist blinked in the sudden light. He was alone with the governor, but there was a greater surprise waiting. The paintings.  They were his. Every single one.The artist gapped, unable to even gasp, so great was his shock.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Mendoza,” the governor said.

“S-sir,” Mendoza managed after a long moment. He could feel the governor’s eyes on him, taking in his shivering form, barefoot in his pajamas.

“I hope my boys weren’t too rough with you,” the governor continued. Mendoza said nothing. There was nothing to say.

“To business then. I’m sure you’re wondering why I invited you here this evening.”

The artist nodded.

“It’s simple enough,” said the governor. “I want you to tell me about her.” He pointed.

There was a young woman in every painting—in the shadows, peeking out from behind corners, reflected in mirrors or windows. She was easy to miss, but once you knew what you were looking for, she was everywhere.

The artist coughed. “Sir?” he asked. “She’s just a little joke. Something to keep myself amused.

“Yes, yes.” The governor waved his hand. “But do you know who she is? Why do you paint her as you do? Why those eyes? Why that hair?” There was an inexplicable need in his voice that Mendoza could not understand.

“No one,” he said. “She’s no one. Just a figment of my imagination.”

“No,” the governor snapped. “She is not no one. She is my daughter.”

The words hung in the air with terrible, perplexing certainty. The artist was dumbfounded. “Your daughter, sir? But I thought…”

“You thought she’d died as a child,” the governor finished. “She did. It was the worst day of my life.”

The artist stared in mute incomprehension. Whatever he had been expecting it was not this. He hadn’t even expected anyone to even notice the woman.

“You have painted her,” the governor continued, “as she would have been. Those are her mother’s eyes. That is my hair. She has come to you, Mr. Mendoza. She has chosen you as her instrument, out of everyone in the world, and now you will paint her. Not in glimpses but as herself, full and proper.”

“I…I’m sure I understand, sir.”

“You will paint my daughter’s portrait, Mr. Mendoza. You will paint her, or you will die.”

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