by Liana Willis (Norman North)
The paint wouldn’t come off of Michael’s fingers as he furiously tried to clean them, rubbing his forefingers together, spit laden and burning with tension. There was no telling what the deacon would say if he managed to get a glimpse of his blue tinted fingers. He could just picture it now. “Miguel! How dare you show up to this congregation unclean!” and all he would be able to do is shrug and offer a meek smile in his defense as the rest of the Spanish mass’s attendants ‘tsk’ed him, shaking their bronze faces back and forth like mechanical dolls.
“God!” he yelled. The art room was empty and his voice reverberated off the stark white stone walls, echoing against the subtly cracked mirrors, no one in the room to berate him for his blasphemy. This constant frustration never left him. In his mind a never-ending ‘to do’ list was settled, one after the other, dense enough to irritate but not totally disable him. The only solace he could find was in the few brushstrokes he put to canvas; the tiny lines to which he confined his worries to. Giving up, he let his stained hands rest on the porcelain sink.
He stood with a critical eye examining his latest piece: a portrait of his friend Cassie from the fifth grade. He smiled wanly, running his fingers absentmindedly through his thick black disheveled hair. A wisp of a memory floated to the front of his head from the very day the photo he was referencing was taken. He remembered being a silently amused bystander as Cassie and her parents fought over what she was going to wear, a stuffy red sweater from the sales rack of JC Penney’s versus a tie-dye dress Cassie had made in her art class that was, in her eyes, a masterpiece. Of course, Cassie, with her obstinate opinion always winning out, wore the dress. Her face shined as she beamed at the camera as if she were the sun itself, an emulation of the swirling colors she was so proud of, her black hair cascading down her shoulders with not a speck of makeup to hide her budding blemishes. In his painting his intentions were to capture it exactly only with actual rays splaying out from her face, like the necklace he constantly wore around his neck of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He stared at Cassie, scrutinizing every fine detail. He’d been working on this piece for months, angry with the fact that the portrayal he had envisioned was lost in this hazy state of mind, still unable to come to fruition.
Sighing, Michael began to pack up his things, unceremoniously dumping the turpentine down the sink, turning the water into a murky grey. He guarded his nose with his sleeve to withstand the pungent smell of it as he used the rest of his turpentine to clean his brushes, worn down to barely useable bristles. Memories of the past few months pierced his mind: Nadia smoking in his room without his permission, walking in on Jacob lighting up a bong at Jeremy’s eighteenth birthday party, not seeing Kat for a week because of the mandate from the state to send her to a rehabilitation center for who knows how long. They were the violent, brutal red brushstrokes he applied to canvas when once they used to be stunning, shining faces like Cassie’s.
His phone buzzed in his pocket with a new text message. The name glowed dully on the pitch black screen: “Cassie”. Michael checked the time on the clock hanging haphazardly above her portrait balanced on the weak make-shift easel in the corner. Cassie’s portrait rested on the platform uneasily. It unnerved Michael at how incomplete it was, dark and smeared with the beginnings of a transformation, water lines helplessly running down her face.
“Crap!” he thought. It was already 6:50. He had ten minutes before he had to be at the church.
Muttering profanities under his breath he began slinging his bags over his shoulder, cringing at the added tension. His shoulders and back constantly ached from the tubes of paint and utensils he carried with him. He was always excessively prepared.
He checked the text. It read, “tell mr. g tht i wont b thr 2nite.”
Michael’s eyebrows, thick with concern and confusion, crunched together as he frowned in thought. Cassie never texted with incorrect spelling; it was one of the many things that set her apart. It was this opinion, among many others, that had solidified their friendship as all their mutual friends began changing into different people, all with the same bad grammar and bland way of speaking.
“Why?” he responded briefly, shoving the phone in his pocket as he hurriedly exited the art studio. One good thing had come from so many sleepless nights of sketching and painting and that was the art studio the local university let him use as a sort of sponsorship, a way of encouraging him to pick theirs for his education. He shut off the lights, darkness instantly transforming the studio from a bright place filled with color and many art forms into an ominous alley, the stone walls now foreboding and enclosing. The sculptures of ballerinas and beautiful women were now monstrous beings and wenches along with Cassie’s face, dark and unidentifiable.
The door creaking shut, Michael left the veranda of the studio, his steps creating a heavy but muffled thump in the ethereal November air. He shivered because of the chill and began his slow trudge to his car, careful to balance the bags on his shoulders and to watch the path he was traveling on in the foggy evening.
As he got into his car his phone yet again began buzzing against his thigh, taunting him.
“I feel sick.”
She felt sick? What kind of sickness did she have? It was completely unlike Cassie to let questions, even unasked questions, go unanswered. He hated cryptic text messages. To him, it always meant something was up, something that would upset him. But Cassie had never really done anything to allow him to suspect this of her. It was strange. Her messages were usually robust and complete, fat delicious strawberries, sweet and enjoyable.
After a few minutes of allowing the heater to warm up in his car, he began driving to her house cautiously because of the weather and tentatively, with purpose, because of the oddness of the situation. Michael’s pulse began to harden as he made his way through the cloud of water droplets obscuring his view. Seriously, what could be wrong? He had been so busy lately he hadn’t noticed, but with these few moments to himself he realized Cassie hadn’t quite been around lately. He couldn’t blame her because he himself had not either. Senior year, with all the artwork he had to submit for his college portfolio in order to enter art school made time for friends scarce which, thankfully, Cassie understood. Or did she? Maybe she was mad at him.
Muttering with frustration, he entered her neighborhood composed of quaint country-town model homes with synthetic wood-paneled picturesque shutters. He shuddered at the gnarled trees that would seem unique in the day time. The sliver of pond he could see through the tendrils of fog revealed the impression of a large hole filled with molasses, thick and dangerous, but what was in reality a scenic lake to all passersby during the daytime. Thoughts, misty like the night air, continued to flow from the recesses of his memory with the scene.
He remembered being stood up by three of his friends at the movies because they wanted to go to a party with booze and drugs. He remembered how he made excuses for them, how he tried to respect their want to “experience life” and “take it by the horns”. With every conceivable excuse their tired, useless minds could create they seemed to be begging him to understand… to even join them. But, he would never. It wasn’t about his faith, all those die-hard Catholic Mexicans he congregated with every Sunday. It was just his principles and he didn’t agree. But one thing his faith had taught him was not to judge people and he tried hard not to. He knew they once were good people, perhaps still were; however, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed, alone, and far emptier than the beginning blackness outside.
Hands tightening around the steering wheel, his teeth grinding with anger, he remembered one night at a Church function, his three closest friends stumbling as if children off a merry-go-round, their breath musky and their clothes reeking, coming up to him with huge dilated eyes asking him to join them. He never spoke to Jacob and Nadia again. However, he had chosen to forgive Cassie. She was his best friend, his confidante. Michael busied himself too much to ever admit that since then it was a weight on his shoulders. He hoped by painting her a portrait she might see how much he valued her friendship.
Pulling into her driveway abruptly he shut off the car engine, leaving it to bathe in the damp air. Michael ran to her door, his previous memories bringing him to a state of paranoia. He rang the bell profusely, his blue fingers smearing on the tiny white oval, but he paid no attention to it. The thought of Cassie in pain at all wrenched his heart out and drowned his soul in worry. After ten or so rings, there was still no answer, and the flood within him became a bursting violent waterfall.
“Cassie!” he yelled, his deep worried voice echoing in the night.
“It’s me! Michael! Open the door!” and at this he expected to hear her come running down the stairs as she had just a few years ago, or if she really were sick, slowly descending. Still, there was no answer—the eerie silence somehow deafening.
In the distance he could hear a car screeching its way in his direction. The car pulled to a sudden stop next to Michael’s and then the slam of closing metal, instigating a cacophonous eruption of laughter, a brazen sound in the calm setting surrounding them. His eyes squinting, he was unable to make out who the figures approaching him were through the dense fog. When they reached the steps it was clear: Jacob, Nadia, and Cassie.
“Hey Michael,” Jacob mocked solemnly, “why aren’t you at church? You too good for them too, now?”
The trio began laughing hysterically; the waterfall within Michael building and building. All he could do was stare at Cassie, her face caked with unusual makeup, her hair tousled, and her feet asleep as she tried to make her way to the front door, pushing past him hiccupping and giggling.
“Cassie...,” he whispered. It was the only thing he could manage to say clearly as she brushed by him, the laughter a dull roar in the background as he strained to hear her reply.
Her bright blue eyes with an all too familiar haze slowly rose to gaze at him.
“Please, Michael… I don’t want to hear it,” she muttered, slowly sauntering through the entry way.
Nadia’s hand suddenly grabbed his arm as Jacob followed after Cassie. She looked at him invitingly, saying, “You’re more than welcome to join us.” He couldn’t tell if she was being sincere or mocking what had happened so many times before.
He followed her in, leaving the door wide open. There were so many things he wanted to say, so many questions he had to ask Cassie but all he could do was stare in terror as the trio before him, their backs black in the darkness of the house made their way towards the living room, totally trashing the home trying to function like normal human beings.
Jacob turned around, his bloodshot eyes seeing Michael standing there, taking it as a solemn agreement to participate with them in what they had planned. The familiar words echoed throughout the empty house, “So, care to join us?” he said, plopping down on the sofa, his eyes a captivating, bloody red. Smoke began rising, choking only Michael. He could barely breathe.
Nadia, Cassie, and Jacob completely ignored his lack of enthusiasm, their conversation already shifting to pointless comments slurred and forcibly energetic. Michael sat down, numb with wonder. His eyes roaming, they drifted to the exact same photo he was painting back at the art studio with the same carefree genuine spirit, except now Cassie’s reflection could be seen and instead of a sun he saw a black hole absorbing everything in its path, becoming what it swallowed.
He stood up slowly, his eyes clearer than anybody’s in the room, his body the only one with legs that could carry him through the open doors. He made his way for the entrance into Cassie’s home passing the frames atop sturdy oak tables that housed their many elementary memories now surrounded by the smoke rising from where the three friends were lounging.
“Where are you going?” Cassie’s voice rang out, lonelier than his own.
Little droplets barely perceptible in the dark silently made a haphazard path down his face. He smiled then, managing to say as he made his way backwards through the entryway, “I’m going to church and I’m going to pray for all of you.”
He could hear the laughter behind him as he shut the door. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, letting the damp air fill his lungs. After a few seconds he opened his eyes still unable to see a thing because of the fog. Carefully, he made his way to his car, fingering his necklace of the Virgin Mary tentatively, her figure glowing in the backdrop and rays of light splaying from the heart she held. He could hear the start of noise from the house blaring, a pretentious sound, too bold to be a part of the cold fall night.
“Miguel! How dare you show up to this congregation late!” Mr. Gonzalez would now scream instead when Michael arrived, the bronze faces already bobbing back and forth ceremoniously.
The congregation would sigh in unison as they always did and ‘tsk’ like cozy bugs on the first day of Spring. A little Mexican girl would gaze at him, her mouth a vibrant blue of Popsicle residue framing her lips in trickles. Suddenly her mother would then grab her chin as forcibly but gently as she could and begin scrubbing frustratingly with a napkin wetted with saliva.
Intrigued by the innocence of the scene Michael would smile, then expertly pull some utensils out from his bag and begin sketching.