Michael looked up from behind the large canvas, his blond hair cascaded in front of eyes the color of sapphires. He looked across the small studio to Mrs. Swartz. She sat in a white wicker chair, a pink sun hat tilted to shade her eyes from the skylight above. Michael returned to the sketch before him and added a couple of pencil strokes.
"You said you've been gardening since you were a little girl?" he asked from behind the sketch.
"Oh, yes. It seems like I've spent my whole life surrounded by flowers." She had a soft voice that reminded Michael of his grandmother. "It started out as a hobby, attending the county and state fairs as a little girl. Eventually, my whole life was devoted to my gardens."
Michael peeked around the canvas again. "And your favorite flower must be the rose," he said with a playful smile.
"Why, yes!" Michael watched her expression change to a surprised smile. "I've always had a soft spot for them – especially Double Delight, the way the ivory petals stain red when the sunlight strikes them." Michael took her amazement in stride. The ability to pick out the small details of his portrait subjects was his special talent. As with all of his clients, he could see what Mrs. Swartz was thinking, see the memories come to life around her. He didn’t understand how it worked, and it only worked when he was at his easel. When he looked at Mrs. Swartz, she wasn’t sitting in his studio; the chair she sat in, the table behind her, the walls, everything was gone. Instead he saw her sitting in a garden surrounded by flowers, as she now saw herself, recalling her fondest memories. It wasn’t hard to take her thoughts and put them on the canvas.
"I can still remember my first rose garden,” Mrs. Swartz continued. “It wasn't much, just five small rose bushes, but I was so proud of it." Michael moved back behind the easel as Mrs. Swartz's voice trailed off.
The scratch of Michael's pencil filled the room as it kissed the canvas's surface. This was Mrs. Swartz’s first session for her portrait and, as was his custom, he had sat her down and started sketching. She had tried to talk to him about what kind of portrait she wanted, but he wouldn’t let her talk except to answer his questions. All of Michael’s clients were put off by this at first; they thought they had a say in what kind of portrait he would paint. But every client was mesmerized by what he produced. As soon as they saw his sketch they would stand with eyes wide and mouth slightly open and they’d immediately set up an appointment for their next sitting.
After a few minutes, the caresses of the pencil slowed down and finally fell silent. Michael stood back and, with a quick glance toward Mrs. Swartz, he nodded. He gripped the easel from the top and bottom and turned it to face her. Michael stepped aside with a flourish of his hands to let her admire his work.
Mrs. Swartz stood up and walked toward the easel, her eyes wide and her mouth open ever so slightly. The canvas’s surface depicted a beautiful young woman sitting on short-cropped grass and surrounded by rose bushes. The woman wore a light summer dress and a sun hat perched on the back of her short, curly hair. Even though this was a penciled sketch it was clear that there were several varieties of roses surrounding the woman. In her hand she held a bouquet of Double Delights in her lap. A smile crossed the woman’s canvas face and ended in a set of dimples. Her eyes were alert and appeared to glint through the graphite as she looked toward her left. Sunlight streamed through a small grove of trees behind the woman and Michael knew that as Mrs. Swartz looked at the sketch she would see the trees appear to move in the breeze.
"It's...beautiful." She reached out and softly touched the canvas face of the woman. “She looks like me, only…fifty years younger. It’s like…” She paused to look over to Michael. “Like looking at an old photograph, only so much more real. Is this how you see me?" she asked softly.
All of his clients asked him that question. Michael had never been able to give a satisfactory answer without alarming his clients. How do you tell somebody you can see images from their mind, or feel what they feel when their memories flood through them? He had learned that it was best if he asked a question in return. "Is this how you see yourself?"
She looked back to the sketch. "Yes," she said after a moment, joy enveloping the single word. "This probably sounds funny to you, but even though I’ve gotten older on the outside, in here,” she tapped her chest with an arthritic finger, “I still see myself as the young woman who planted her gardens. My husband, George, worked long hours at the factory on the night shift. He loved to relax in the garden with me before having to go to work. I always wanted to make him happy, so I spent every day coaxing and nurturing the plants so he’d have something beautiful to look at.” She touched the canvas cheek of her youthful doppelgänger. “When George was injured at the factory and we had to sell the house and the garden I think he was more heartbroken than I was.”
"I didn't know that,” Michael lied. He had felt the sadness and deep love come from Mrs. Swartz while working on the sketch. A multitude of images of Mrs. Swartz and her husband continued to fill his vision. These same images had flooded from her memories during their session allowing Michael to create the sketch. Michael put on a warm smile. “I try my best to make each portrait fit the individual. In you, I saw a young, beautiful woman who loved tending her gardens." He picked up the easel and set it next to his workbench. He pushed the hair out of his eyes as he turned back toward Mrs. Swartz.
“Now, I hope to see you next Tuesday to begin the actual painting.” He walked over to open the studio door for her.
“Hmm,” Mrs. Swartz turned from the sketch, a timeless look to her face.
“Next Tuesday at ten,” Michael prodded her.
“Oh yes. 10 a.m. next Tuesday.” She headed out the door and paused in the threshold. “Thank you again, Mr. Collier. This will make a wonderful anniversary present for George. He’ll love it.” With a final, longing look to the sketch she left the studio.
Michael closed the door and walked over to his workbench. "Yes... so lifelike," his voice barely a whisper as he looked over the sketch. “And so boring.”
He reflected on the other portraits he had done over the last ten years. The banker with the passion for golf. The accountant who had never forgotten the summer spent on a dude ranch as a child. And the one that had started it all, the portrait of his parents-in-law he’d done for their wedding anniversary. Each was more real than any photograph; the portraits seemed to move and come alive. All of his clients considered going to Michael to be better than going to a photographer. People said that he had a special talent to pick out the little details from a person's life, something that no other artist could ever match. Word of his skill had spread by word of mouth and he’d become a successful portraitist, especially among the Boomers and other retirees.
But he had never wanted to paint sweet old ladies in sun hats. It hadn’t been his idea. Sarah had asked him to paint the portrait of her parents, not really out of any love for them, but to get him to stop painting the art that was his real passion. Fantasy art. Ever since high school he had wanted to paint knights in armor fighting dragons and other mythical creatures. He did at first, through high school, and afterwards as he drifted aimlessly trying to scrape by. Sarah hadn’t liked his art when they’d been dating, or even after they got married. But as long as he was working she didn’t care. But when he’d quit his boring retail job to paint full time, to try and make his living as an artist she had exploded. How dare he think only of himself. He’d never earn any money as an artist, and did he want them to live in squalor?
Sarah and he fought like cats and dogs, and she’d facetiously told him that if he painted a portrait for her parents’ anniversary he could keep painting. He did, taking it as a challenge, a way to beat her. And when her parents had loved the painting she was actually mad. Then the commissions started coming, and Sarah found a new way to torment him, insisting that he focus on the portraits. Whenever Michael tried to set up a show of his fantasy art, or made an effort to attend a convention to sell his work, she would chastise him, saying, “Why do you waste your time with that crap? You know we need the money your portraits bring in. If you don’t want to paint them then you’ll need to find a real job. I won’t support you so you can waste your time with these toys.”
Michael had no intention of ever getting a “real” job. Being an artist was who he was, so he ignored Sarah’s insufferable attitude and painted retired bankers and little old ladies. And whenever he got the chance he worked on his fantasy art in secret. He’d set up an online account on Etsy where he could show his work and sell to people. He kept everything hidden, having set up a separate bank account that Sarah didn’t know about, and hiding the artwork from her. If she thought he was only painting portraits then she’d leave him alone.
Michael walked over to the closet pulling out a set of keys and unlocking the door. But this painting will change that, he thought as he pulled on the string to turn on the light. This painting had been a commission from a fantasy art collector he’d met on Instagram. After several emails to discuss what he wanted, and haggling over price, the collector had agreed to pay Michael $2,000 for a four by six foot painting. This kind of payment, this kind of recognition, would enable him to get commissions for more fantasy paintings. If he got paid like this – better than what he charged for portraits of retirees who were living on Social Security – he’d be able to convince Sarah that these paintings were not toys. He could then stop painting portraits and work exclusively on what he loved.
He reached in and pulled out the large canvas, setting it on his easel. The canvas was covered with a paint-splattered sheet that Michael pulled off. He’d been working on this painting for two months, and it was nearly complete. He had to have it finished in a few days so he could ship it to the collector.
On the canvas, a battle raged between an armor-clad knight and a fierce, powerful dragon. The knight stood to the dragon’s left, holding a gleaming sword at his side in a defensive grip. The dragon was a long, snakelike creature with short, powerful legs and greenish-gray scales. It stood before the knight, blood flowing down its body to the ground from a couple of wounds to its chest. A shaggy, golden-brown mane crowned the head, which sat at the end of a long, stocky neck and resembled a cross between an alligator and a horse with a large, muscular jaw, long snout, and sharp teeth.
The knight was a tall, broad-shouldered man, his plate armor, once gleaming, was now marred in several places by long gashes and congealed blood. The knight’s helmet had been cast aside and his blond hair appeared to move wildly about, blown by an unseen wind. The two adversaries were staring at each other; each pair of eyes centered on those of their opponent. Fury and outrage creased the dragon's face; its brown eyes narrowed in anger. The knight’s expression was that of cold vengeance; his blue eyes narrowed in a deadly glare and his mouth open in a wild yell.
Behind the two combatants was a large cavern lit only by a few dim torches. Piles of treasure could be seen in the reflected light as well as the lifeless bodies of four other knights. The two combatants were so life-like, and the scene so realistic, that they appeared to move whenever the viewer shifted their gaze. At first the knight and the dragon would appear to be motionless, but when the viewer’s gaze shifted they would seem to lash out at each other.
Michael turned and started gathering paints. He grabbed a small mixing palate and a pair of brushes and started mixing paints. Lifting the brush, he added a couple of strokes. As he reached for a third brush his smartwatch gave a small chime. It was 4:30. Damn, Sarah will be home from work soon, and I still have to fix dinner. If he didn’t have dinner ready Sarah would get suspicious and she’d want to know what he’d been doing since Mrs. Swartz’s appointment had ended. She kept careful track of Michael’s schedule, making sure he was doing something productive every minute of the day. He tossed his palate down with a violent flick of his wrist. She always complained that he never helped with the chores. "You're home all day, you could at least clean up the place," Michael whined, mimicking Sarah's usual complaint as he put the canvas back into the closet. If he didn’t have dinner ready she'd know he was doing something other than Mrs. Swartz’s portrait and she’d bitch about it all night.
Sarah shut off the ignition to her Lexus and got out of the SUV. She was still riding the high that came from closing a deal. She’d finally convinced the Garcias to take the current offer on their home and now she wanted to celebrate. She walked up the front sidewalk with long, determined strides then frowned as she saw a pair of dandelions protruding from the sidewalk. She yanked them out with a violent jerk, muttering, “Can’t you do anything productive around here.”
She unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Her keys and purse went onto the table by the door, her smartphone went into her hand. She could smell dinner coming from the kitchen – pasta it smelled like. At least he has dinner ready, she thought. She walked down the hall, the heels of her Jimmy Choo’s clicked on the hardwood floor.
Michael was at the sink washing a head of lettuce when she walked into the kitchen. She turned and walked over to the stove examining the pots bubbling on top and smiled in approval. Satisfied she gave him a kiss, a quick peck on the cheek.
"How was your day?" Michael asked peeling off lettuce leaves into a bowl. He sounded sincere, but she could tell he was just being polite.
"Great." Sarah tried to give the word enthusiasm as she opened up a screen on her smartphone. "I convinced the Garcias to take the latest offer on their home. We’ll sign the contract on Monday." She walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out the bottle of chardonnay.
Michael picked up a tomato and began cutting slices of it into the lettuce. "That's wonderful," he finally said, his voice flat. The kitchen was filled with the sound of the knife on the cutting board for about a minute as each of them ignored the other.
"I got Mrs. Swartz’s sketch done," Michael finally said, his voice filled with an excitement that had been absent just a moment before.
Sarah set her phone on the counter and pulled a wine glass down from the rack over the kitchen island. Why does he always have to compete with me, she thought. Does he really think I care about his hobby? It’s not as if he has to work hard like me. Aloud she said, “I bet she was happy with her sketch.”
"Yeah. I don’t know if she was more amazed with the life-like quality, or that I knew how she looked fifty years ago. I had to practically push her out of the studio she was so mesmerized by the sketch."
"Kinda like all your clients." Sarah actually meant it. The one reason she let Michael play at his hobby was that he made money at it with his portraits. Why doesn’t he understand that he isn’t cut out to paint anything else?
Michael walked over to the table setting the salad on the corner. "Even more so. Sort of like your parents' expressions when I did the painting of them." Sarah frowned at Michael as he turned back toward the kitchen.
"I think she's always wanted to relive her younger days and my sketch let her," he said. He walked over to the stove and began getting the rest of dinner finished.
Sarah ignored him, her mind recalling the painting of her parents that Michael had given them for their wedding anniversary. She regretted that she had ever suggested the idea to him. Sarah had never seen such a life-like image of her parents, not even from photos. Standing in the room with the painting was like having them in the room with her. She hated being in the living room at her parents’ house where they’d proudly hung the painting. It always felt like they were looking at her, and not in a good way. It was as if they were scolding her for staying out after curfew. They thought she was being crazy, as they adored it, wondering why she didn’t see the obvious love each of them had for each other in the painting. When they looked at the painting their portraits only had eyes for each other.
She was still angry with them. At the time she’d been pressing her father to offer Michael a job at the bank, even though he didn’t have any kind of degree since he’d never gone to college. Instead, her father had helped get Michael’s career as a portrait artist started, recommending him to all of his friends. He’d never considered having Michael do anything else, certainly not working at a real job. She couldn’t understand how her father, who had pushed her so hard to get a college degree, always telling her that she had to work hard, and to make something of herself, would fawn all over Michael and encourage his stupid hobby. Without her father blabbing to all his friends about Michael’s talent he’d be working a real job and being productive around the house.
"Did you want to celebrate your sale tonight?"
“Hmm,” she looked up and brushed her golden-brown hair back over her left ear. Michael was draining the pasta and pouring the damp noodles into another bowl. "Not tonight, but maybe we could go out to dinner Friday night to celebrate."
Michael poured the marinara sauce into a second serving bowl. "I wanted to discuss doing some different art full time, something more than portraits," he said cautiously as he set the pasta bowl down on the table.
Sarah's soft features changed from a well-practiced, neutral expression to a deep frown. Her brown eyes narrowed and her forehead furrowed as she gave Michael an icy glare. "Not this again," she said with a slight hiss. “I let you play with your art because you bring in at least some money with your portraits.”
“I’m not playing,” Michael retorted, his voice rising. “I’m damn good at my art – whether I’m painting little old ladies or actually doing something that I want to do.”
“You mean those stupid dragons and monsters and other crap?”
“It’s not crap!”
“Well, it doesn’t pay the bills,” Sarah tried to keep her voice even, but felt her face flush as her heart started to beat faster. She raised the wine glass to her lips but stopped when Michael gave her a malicious smile. “What the hell have you done now?”
He pulled out a folded piece of paper and tossed it with a flippant gesture onto the table. She tentatively picked it up. “That’s the down payment on a commission I received for a fantasy painting. Just the down payment is more than I’ll make for Mrs. Swartz’s finished portrait. So there, bitch. My fantasy art can make money.”
Sarah stared at the page, not seeing the money. Her eyes were instead focused on the unknown bank account number from a completely different bank. Blood pounded in her ears. “You opened a bank account without telling me?”
“I had to, because I knew you’d react exactly like this. But don’t you see,” Michael said in a wheedling tone, “with commissions like this I can give up the portraits and focus on my fantasy art full time.”
An image flashed through Sarah’s mind of her parents painting, but not as her mom and dad, but as two demonic creatures, staring at her like they wanted to devour her. “No.”
“What do you mean, no? You’ve always said it’s about the money, so there’s your damn proof that I can make better money doing something I like. You won’t keep me from doing what I want to do.”
A cold shudder ran up Sarah’s back as she recalled the art Michael had shown her early in their marriage. They’d been pictures of dragons and other fantasy creatures, and they too had been so lifelike that she thought they’d leap off the canvas to rend the flesh from her bones. “Damnit, Michael. Your art scares me. All of it. The portraits of little old ladies, the dragons and monsters, everything. They are too lifelike. Too real. At least I don’t have to see the damn portraits when you’re done with them.” She threw up one hand in disgust. “Why can’t you just one time do something to make me happy and –”
“One time!” Michael burst in with a bitter, mocking tone. “One time! I bust my ass cleaning the damn house and making dinner for you every day so you will be happy. I paint portraits instead of my own art to make you happy. Everything I do is to make you happy, to hell with my own feelings.” He threw his napkin onto the table and stormed out of the room. The back door slammed shut with a loud BANG.
“First it’s about the damn money,” Michael whined as he stalked toward his studio. “Now it’s just my art in general that she hates.” He entered the studio and flicked on the lights. “I wish she’d make up her damn mind! She’s just jealous that I can earn a living doing something that I love. I know she hates her job.” He opened the closet door with a jerk, pulling out the canvas and setting it on the easel.
The battle still raged on the canvas surface between the armor-clad knight and the dragon. Michael was too absorbed in his anger to notice that the knight now held the sword over his head with both hands, preparing to strike the throat of the dragon. The dragon lay on its side, blood flowing down its body from several wounds to its chest.
The knight’s plate armor was soaked in blood from fresh claw marks and gashes in his chest. The two adversaries still stared at each other; each pair of eyes centered on those of their opponent. The dragon's face was contorted, one lip curled up to reveal large, jagged teeth, its brown eyes narrowed. The knight's blue eyes were wide-open, his mouth open in a wild yell.
"But I know what needs to be done," he said, unaware of the changes. “You are my ticket to freedom,” he told the painting, picking up a paintbrush. He grabbed a tube of paint and started violently mixing together a deep crimson red. “My freedom from little old ladies and their dumb flowers,” he dabbed his brush in the crimson paint. “And my freedom from Sarah!” With a violent stroke of the brush, Michael added a new cut to the dragon’s flank. “And if the bitch doesn't like that then she can just go to hell!"
Sarah sat at the table for a few minutes, trying to calm herself, before she started to clear away the uneaten food. Michael was being an asshole as usual. He just couldn’t let go of his stupid obsession with his fantasy art. It was clear that he cared more about it than their marriage. He’s hidden a damn secret bank account from me.
She stood up and took the un-eaten salad to the refrigerator. “It’s always been about you,” she said, giving voice to her thoughts. “You say everything is to make me happy, but that’s not true. You don’t know what the hell makes me happy because you are never around to find out. You spend every free moment in your damn studio, and now I know what you’ve been hiding.” She grabbed the ceramic bowl holding the pasta off the table. “If you think hiding money from me will free you from your duty to me, then you’re a damn fool. I’ll burn your precious painting before I let you do that. You won’t escape me, and if you think otherwise then you can go to hell!”
As Sarah reached for the refrigerator door a wild, horrible yowl, like a sound that a sickly cat would make if mixed with a movie sound effect, came from somewhere outside. It was immediately followed by a terror-filled scream. Sarah jumped at the noise and dropped the pasta. The bowl broke into several pieces and noodles slithered across the wood floor. Sarah ignored the mess, her heart racing a mile a second. What in the hell was that? Her first thought was that there was a catfight, but she’d never heard a cat – or any animal – sound anything like what she’d heard. The scream had sounded close, possibly from their own backyard. Could it be Michael? She frowned toward the back door. If he’s trying to scare me it won’t work.
Sarah walked outside to his studio, “You can’t scare me Michael,” she goaded. “I won’t let you hide anything from me again.” She opened the door to the studio. “If you think you can scare me into letting you keep working on this stupid…”
Her voice trailed off as she walked around the easel that stood in the center of the room. Michael's body was bent backwards over his workbench. His clothes were shredded, nothing more than blood-soaked rags. Even from where she stood Sarah could see a large gash in his throat. Blood flowed from the wound, mixing with the different colored paints on the bench. His face had been clawed, but she could make out the shocked, surprised expression that stared up from lifeless eyes.
Sarah turned away from the body, hands flung up to her mouth and came face to face with the painting. A cold chill shot up her spine. It was some fantasy battle with a large, bestial dragon, blood dripping from its muzzle, its body glistening in the light cast by dozens of torches. Beneath one of the dragon’s front legs was the body of a knight, his body covered in deep claw marks, his neck looking like it had been ripped out.
As Sarah stared in horror at the painting she caught a flicker of movement. She froze, trying not to attract any attention as the dragon’s head snaked out of the painting and flicked to the left and right. The dreadful, reptilian face gazed down upon Sarah and gave her a bloody smile. She began to shake uncontrollably. As the horrible monster’s front leg stepped out of the canvas, its blade-like claws sinking into the wood floor by her feet, she started taking rapid, shallow breaths. The dragon gave a single, derisive snort at Michael’s body, then gave Sarah a wink from one of its horse-like brown eyes. She collapsed to the floor as the dragon turned and glided out of the studio.
[A special thank you to A.E. Lowan, Angella Cormier, Pierre C. Arseneault, and Sabra Brown Steinsiek who read a draft of this short story and provided me with valuable feedback. And thank you to Emit Blackwell for selecting Brush Strokes as the July 2018 Blackwell Short Story Award winner. You can listen to Emit read Brush Strokes at his Simplecast page.]