My uncle Pat was the first to be killed by one of my paintings.

It took him five days to die, but everyone knew he was beyond saving by day three. I hadn’t even meant to paint him. I had been doing a cityscape — quite bad, because back then, I was fifteen and my paintings were filled with really horrible color choices and melodramatic, florid compositions — and one of the men on the street had ended up inadvertently looking like him. Of course, I hadn’t known then that it would kill him. I’d actually been proud.

I stay in the third floor of Trenton House. At first they’d locked the door to make sure I didn’t get out, but now they don’t need to. Yes, I miss the feel of grass under my bare feet and getting sunburned on the beach and riding in the car with the window down, but I don’t miss them enough to kill people.

My father was the second to be killed. And then, my local congresswoman, who I’d seen on the news. Three times, as they say, is the charm, and by now it was obvious what was going on. They wanted me to stop painting, but I couldn’t, and I wanted to stop killing, but I couldn’t, so this is where I am. I have a text-only computer, so that I will not see anyone’s face by accident, and I have a radio, and I have a distorted mirror that reflects another mirror that reflects the street view from a window high in the wall. All I can make out is wavery cars and the occasional blobby jogger. Everything is twisted into curls; really, the only thing that’s interesting in the mirror are the colors.

I had been a prisoner on the third floor of Trenton House for three years when Matthew Gallagher arrived. I jerked when the door opened, because it had been so long since I’d heard anything but the sound of the dumb waiter crawling up the walls.

Half his face was covered with a black mask, like Zorro, showing me his crooked nose and a mouth made interesting by virtue of a scar cutting through both lips on the left side. And I could see dark hazel eyes. But the mask rendered these details unimportant; I’d already discovered by then that the eyebrows were the most important element for proper likeness. Still, he was very brave for showing me that much of his face. Who knew what I could do with just that little bit.

“I’m Matthew Gallagher,” he said, and my eyes widened. He was famous; he was the president’s favorite portrait artist and painter to the stars. Madly successful by twenty-five. I had read an article on him; the photograph of him, of course, had been carefully cut out by my parents.

“I saw your portrait of Congresswoman Bosch,” Gallagher said, carefully closing the door behind himself. “It’s pretty promising. I’d like to tutor you.”

“In what?” I demanded.

“Botany,” Gallagher said. I glared at him, and he continued, “Painting, of course. Are you interested? Do you want to be good?”

“At botany,” I replied.

And his ruined mouth smiled. “I’ll get my things.”

# # #

Sitting side by side on matching stools, casting identical shadows across the weathered yellow-pine floor of my room, we painted landscapes, me copying his stroke for stroke and pigment for pigment. Every day he returned with a new image of a landscape to tape to the faded plaster wall behind our canvases and with a new supply of oils. The room stank of turpentine and the overhead fan ran ceaselessly, a whirring soundtrack to our painting.

Gallagher complained bitterly the entire time.

“I am not a landscape painter,” he told me, between bites of granola. Gallagher, I had discovered, ran on granola. He always had a baggie or box of it. I wasn’t sure if he ate anything else.

“And I’m not Mother Teresa,” I replied. “What is it you expected me to paint?”

“I hadn’t thought that far ahead. My genius runs far ahead of my planning, sometimes. More yellow ochre in that one. There.”

“I like it without yellow ochre,” I said.

“Well, I’m teaching you, and I’m teaching you to use yellow ochre.”

Bitterly, I added a dab of yellow ochre to my palette, and Gallagher glared at me from behind his mask, disappointment written on the line of his mouth. “You could say no,” he said.

“I did say no.” I looked away so that I wouldn’t have to see his expression.

“Only once. That hardly counts.” He jammed a glob of paint onto his canvas with such force that some of it splattered my canvas as well. “You could stand up for yourself. I’m just your tutor.”

“A very clever tutor,” I pointed out, “Widely acknowledged as one of the best modern portrait artists. Who has my best interests at heart. The best interests of a killer.”

“You don’t have to be so melodramatic,” Gallagher said. “And that still doesn’t make me right all the time.” He stood up.

“You’re going?” It had only been a half hour. The prospect of the rest of the day dragged out in front of me; hours upon hours with only the radio’s voice to keep me company.

“I need to let my planning catch up with my genius,” he said. He packed up his paints while I watched in silence, afraid to say what I was thinking, since my thoughts felt very melodramatic at the moment. I didn’t know if he was leaving for the day, or the month, or forever, and the idea of returning to hours upon hours of watching the twisted mirror seemed unbearable.

But I didn’t even know why he came in the first place, so how could I say something to make him stay?

Through the distorted mirror, I watched him leave Trenton House, saw the blobby action of him peeling off his mask before he got into his black car and drove away. And I went back to painting and watching the world go by without me. Because what else could I do?

# # #

He returned the next day, to my extreme joy — which I took great care to hide.

“Your planning caught up to your genius faster than I expected,” I said.

Gallagher took out a bag of granola and laid it on the table by his stool. “That’s why they call me the best,” he remarked, tugging at his mask to situate it better on his nose. “Are you going to stand there all day goggling at me? Get your paints out.”

“Prick,” I told him, mostly because I was still angry at not knowing how long he would be gone.

“Possibly,” he acknowledged. He reached into his case and took out a paper sleeve of the sort that you got from a photo developer. I caught a glimpse of a face and I immediately jerked my head away, my heart thumping. My fingers were tight on the edge of my stool.

“Oh, seriously,” Gallagher said. “Don’t be so melodramatic. Do you think I’m trying to make an assassin out of you?”

I bristled. “You wouldn’t think I was so melodramatic if you were me. I still kill people, even now. I accidentally painted the postman and my parents showed me his obit the next week. And one of my teachers from middle school. All I have to do is just –”

“Unless you’re Jesus, you’re not killing any of these people,” Gallagher said. Reaching out, he cupped my chin in his hand and pulled my face to the images in his other hand. “Because they’d have to be raised from the dead.”

I frowned at the photos in his hand. They were all images of famous portraits. Old, famous portraits. Of people long since dead. It was sort of brilliant. I felt my cheeks flush. “You could’ve told me before you whipped them out. You just like to be mysterious. I might be melodramatic, but you’re way too theatrical.”

“What do you mean, theatrical? I am not theatrical.”

“You are. The whole — you knew that when I saw faces, I would flip out, but you didn’t warn me. And — even when you first came in, months ago, you just walked in and were all ‘I’m Matthew Gallagher and I’m going to tutor you’. Ba bum BA! You could’ve sent a letter warning me first. But no, you like to shock people, don’t you?”

Gallagher looked at me, and a wide smile that I’d never seen on him before split his face as the half of him not covered with the mask grinned at me. He taped up a portrait of a black-haired lady above our canvasses.

“The secret,” he said, “to a painting’s power is that we paint what’s really there. A camera only shows what you look like. A painting shows a little of what you are. A good painting shows everything you are — and that’s what makes you so dangerous, my little protege. Because how can you live without that once someone has taken it?”

My skin prickled.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” he asked.

I said, “You aren’t mad that I called you a prick?”

“It’s nice to be called something beside genius every once in awhile,” Gallagher said. “Sometimes one likes to be defined by their less well-known attributes.”

# # #

My birthday fell on a Sunday, which meant that I would be spending it alone. Gallagher only came on weekdays, leaving me the weekend to pace and daydream. With Gallagher coming for much of the week and my room slowly filling with portraits, I should’ve been happier. But instead, I was more dissatisfied. I was half-sick of painting portraits other people had already painted. I was tired of watching the distorted shape of Gallagher get into his car and drive off into the world. He got to feel the grass beneath his bare feet and get sunburnt at the beach and to drive with his windows down.

This wasn’t a life. This was the shadow of a life, a painting of a life.

The empty hours stretched ahead of me and I threw my stool through my twisted mirror. It sheared into huge slivers, sliding across the floor like great, jagged pieces of ice. I could see how the distortion was actually caused by a film placed over the top of the mirror; a true reflection of the ceiling flashes back at me where the film has torn off.

I wondered if I could have told them no when they presented me with this tower. I couldn’t remember if I’d tried.

I threw open the door and pelted down the stairs, crashing through the empty house towards the memory of where the back door was. In my head, all I could think of was the great flat meadow that sloped down to the river. I would take off my shoes and run through it and be back in my room before tomorrow, before anyone knew the terrible risk I’d taken.

But as I pushed open the back door, I ran right into Gallagher, who was just jerking his mask down over his crooked nose, backlit by the brilliance of the summer day. I wasn’t sure what shocked me more: that he was here, or the sensation of his body jammed up against mine.

“What are you doing here?” I gasped, breathless.

“What are you?”

“I was rebelling,” I said, backing away from him so I could think better.

“Me too,” Gallagher admitted. “Rebelling against my prickish ways. Where were you going?”

He didn’t tell me not to go. So I told him.

“Okay,” he said.

I looked at his painting supplies, held under his arm along with a sizable canvas. “Should I get my –”

“Not today.” When I looked at him, he added, “I’m not telling you more. I’m being theatrical.”

We went out together into the meadow. Gallagher paused at the edge of the patio while I took my shoes off and left them on the iron bench, and then he followed me as I swept out through the grass. The sun burned at my fair shoulders and the window whipped at my red hair; I felt, for once, like I had stepped out of my painting and into the real world.

Gallagher took out his paints and his canvas and propped it up.

“What are you going to paint?” I asked him. “Since you are –” and I mimicked his voice — “not a landscape painter?”

He just gestured at me with the end of his paint brush. “Something I’ve wanted to paint for a very long time.”

“What if I said no?”

“It depends on if you said it once or twice,” he replied. “Are you going to?”

I shook my head. Together we sat down, flattening the long grass, and I leaned back on my hands and stared at the towering white clouds above me while he painted. He kept the canvas turned from me, but I imagined him shaping the line of my eyes and the arch of my eyebrows. Tracing the contour of my neck. Hesitantly touching the blush to my cheeks.

Finally, he smiled, his self-satisfied smile, and I knew he was done. I started towards him, and his face instantly clouded. Pulling the canvas away, he smeared a hand across the surface; his arm came away covered with the remains of my face.

“Now that was melodramatic,” I said.

He was unsmiling. “Do you think I would let you see your own face?”

The day was beautiful and I felt the grass beneath my folded legs and the sun burning my skin and the wind tearing at me, but I felt tears pricking my eyes. I wouldn’t let them fall, though I felt them trembling and wet on my bottom eyelid. I pushed to my feet. “I should go back inside.”

Gallagher stood too, and he placed a slow hand on my shoulder; it felt cold on my reddening skin. “Don’t be so melodramatic,” he said. “You haven’t killed anyone today, have you?”

And he kissed me. The kiss smelled of granola and the leather of his mask. He stopped long enough to push the mask up a bit on his nose, and then we kissed again.

“There is a way around this,” he said, finally. “If you have a man-killing tiger, you don’t need to cage it. Just keep it away from men.”

“You’re a man,” I said. I felt giddy in his arms, my face and shirt smeared with the oil from the painting of my face.

“Other men,” Gallagher corrected himself.

When the sky began to darken and the air started to cool, he packed up his supplies and I retrieved my shoes.

“Tomorrow, you have to work,” Gallagher said. “I let you off easy today.”

I smiled at him, and we went our separate ways. Him to his car, me to the stairs. I knew what he was doing, behind my back, as I opened the door, because I had seen him do it in the mirror, every time he left. Take off his mask, hang it on his rear view mirror, pull away. I knew that right behind me, there was Matthew Gallagher, all of him, the face that had kissed me, and my heart thumped with the danger of it. All it would take was one glance and I would see his face. It couldn’t happen. It could never happen.

But I looked anyway.

He was pulling out of the driveway, and through the car window, I saw his crooked nose, the wicked scar that cut through his lips, the way the skin puckered and snarled up across his cheek and ruined the entire side of his face. And I saw his eyebrows — they softened the arrogance of his face and showed me who he really was.

All I could think about was painting that face.

# # #

Five days. That was how long they lasted after I painted them.

I don’t know how Gallagher found me the next morning, because I had left no note and the meadow grass had lifted back up as soon as I’d stepped on it. And there was none o of me to see above the edge of the boat where I lay, staring at the towering skies. The water rocked me slowly back and forth, back and forth.

“What are you doing?” he asked me.

“Dying,” I told him.

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Gallagher said, because he hadn’t seen yet.

I gave him a moment to sweep his eyes down the length of the boat to where my first self-portrait leaned against the helm. Everything about me caught in a canvas; me, my sting removed and lodged in pigments.

It was, thanks to him, the best painting I’d ever done.

Author’s Note: I still remember memorizing the Lady of Shalott in middle school. I used to always say "The Lady Nonchalant" in a very sophomoric attempt at humor. So sad.

Image is John William Waterhouse’s study for "The Lady of Shalott (Looking at Lancelot)"

17 thoughts on “Portrait

  1. Ooohhhh, I loved all the interaction between the characters in this one, every conversation was great.

    But ending so sad! And melodramatic!

  2. *grin* Thanks!

    I seem to always default to this cocky, vaguely insensitive male characters. I’m sure this says something about me.

  3. Wah. I’m so sad now! But in a good way. I really liked this, though I was resisting the inevitable right up till the end.

  4. It would’ve never worked out. Their kids would’ve had to wear masks too, and that would’ve been awkward at school. They would’ve looked like The Incredibles.

  5. Yowza.
    I knew how it would end, but… even knowing it, I was SO deeply IN this.

    This was really pretty much flawless. Well done, you.

  6. The Merry Fates leave me green with envy. Thanks for another wonderful story! Hugs and smiles, Jean Marie

  7. I used to always say “The Lady Nonchalant” in a very sophomoric attempt at humor. So sad.

    I *might* have just laughed at that.

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