This story is by Lauren Timmins and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There is a world outside the window, and to others it is beautiful. There is a world outside the window, and to the artist it is dead. He stares, trying to remember its heartbeat at the disco, its ragged breath in the bathhouses, its whispers between Victorian houses and seedy apartments. He can’t. The weeks spent inside the dying room robbed him of all memory of life. He sighs and regards the tangle of sheets at his feet. No, there is nothing beautiful outside. Nothing worthy of a masterpiece.
His gaze wanders to the walls. They are bathed in color, portraying reflections of death hidden in a myriad of canvas tombstones. Twenty-eight memorials of weeks passed in a blur of living dreams and sensation. Corpses of feelings are transcribed in acrylic paint from better times. He knows the hangman dances somewhere in the brushstrokes. He kissed the artist and left the purple curse on his skin and the white mark of Cain on his tongue. Once, the artist yearned to find his executioner and force him to behold the destruction he had caused. Like the old feelings, however, his anger is dead. All he yearns for now is to see one last beautiful part of his existence and render it immortal.
The artist decides it is impossible for his last masterpiece to imitate his early work. He sighs heavily and painstakingly reaches for a charcoal pencil and his sketchbook, forgetting the ghosts living on the nightstand. They stand in black and white, beaming at the camera in satin scarves and flared pants. The artist’s lips trace their names … Brandon … Ryan.
Ryan. The artist gently runs his finger along the man’s slightly blurred face. His heart aches in the blue of the dead man’s eyes, his body trembles in time to the memory of his voice. Ryan, his Adonis, the primary colors stippled throughout the artist’s entire life. The early years glowed with friendship’s yellow, but after the summer of 1974 the artist realized he loved the aching blue and the next six years blazed red with love and longing. To the artist’s eternal dismay Ryan was afflicted with a portrait’s blindness to all save for what stood before it and became enamored with the charming regular viewer, Brandon.
Their life together bore a striking resemblance to the artist’s early work – loud, chaotic, abstract. They frequently visited the dark corners of the bathhouses and underground clubs, joining the paintings of a million hues of people. Somewhere, one of them met the hangman’s brushstroke and promptly wound the noose around the other. Color and life bled from their faces as the months passed. Newspapers called it a “gay cancer” – it took Brandon first. Then it clenched its fist around Ryan’s throat. The dead man spent his final weeks in the artist’s bed.
“You’re the only one left,” he had remarked one night. “It’s just you and me in here… no family, no doctors, they all gave up on me.” He sighed. “I should apologize for turning your bedroom into my dying room. And thank you, for staying.”
The artist pulls the photograph to his chest. He had stayed, he had witnessed once strong arms disintegrate into sticks, a vibrant spirit surrender to unending half-consciousness, the aching blue yellow and glaze over. He had clung to the body until every inch of skin was cold, cold as the frame pressed against his chest.
From that night onward, color was lost to the artist.
Shaking, the artist drags his gaze to the mirror. He locks eyes with a living corpse. His sunken eyes are rimmed with folds of swollen purple. Bones pull parchment-yellow skin taut at exaggerated angles. He raises skeletal fingers to his face, his hair, in a half-hearted attempt to trick himself into believing that he was not a dead man, that this corpse was not his own. He could hide no longer. The entirety of his illness was documented under the bed in tatters. In the beginning, the artist had thought there may be some tragic beauty in his unapologetically visible demise. He had spent hours staring into the mirror, painstakingly translating every feature into shades of gray. Yet, every time he stepped outside people cast their eyes to the ground and turned their shoulders to him, fear twisted in their actions and expressions. So the artist rendered himself in two-dimensional chiaroscuro: the disease attacked the viewer in glaring black while the artist hid in negative space. All the while he watched his world die around him. Places owned by beloved acquaintances closed and days later he found their names in the back of the paper, the dearly departed whose deaths lacked definition. Any semblance of reality fled from future portraits; the artist attacked the paper with jagged black charcoal lines, cutting out his features and those of his lost friends until he was left with a monochromatic imitation of a long-broken Picasso. A work invisible to the world.
And now the artist continues to stare. The corpse’s eyes try to well up but no tears come, there are none left. He looks around the dying room, his eyes meeting long shadows cast by the setting sun as his breath begins to hitch in his throat. The sheet draped over his fragile body begins to grow cold, and the artist imagines this must be the texture of Dali’s melting clocks. Of time running out. All that once was beautiful is dead. At last, his gaze falls on the corner of the bed, and the artist touches the charcoal to paper.
One week later, the artist’s landlord opens the door to the dying room. The putrid stench of piss, shit, and death hangs in stale air. His stinging eyes are met with the horror of a body riddled with bruises and open sores, limbs laid to rest at unnatural angles, eyes eternally glazed open. Something rests atop the corpse’s chest. The landlord picks his way over the floor, kicking away balls of gray paper, a cracked portrait of two men, old newspapers, and a charcoal pencil. He pulls his shirt over half of his face, keeping his eyes turned away from the mirror and the grotesque occupant of the bed. He lifts the object from the dead man’s chest.
The living brown of the landlord’s eyes meets the cool gray gaze of a dozen strangers, all staring back at him. Some are standing, some are sitting, some are waving and smiling. They are of different ages, different races, different walks of life. Their faces are separated from the viewer’s by a slight haze and a wood-like border. Had the landlord lifted the newspaper just below the dead man’s fingers, he would find that the faces matched the names written in the back pages.
There is a world inside the charcoal window, and to the artist it was beautiful. There is a world inside the charcoal window, and it doesn’t know it’s dead.