I have no bleeding clue.
Stretched out before him, the fabric taut and without relief; flat as a the top of a plateau, as the stomach of a goddess. Stretched and pinned at all four sides with metal, stapled with an acquired expertise that had cost him many bandaged fingers.
The wooden tool rolled in his long lithe fingers, held precariously by fingertips so fine and thin they were more like the ends of feathered quills. It was with a deft ease that these fingertips guided the brush across the finely textured surface of the canvas. The brush had yet to touch paint; it moved with a faint, dry swishing as he swept it slowly across the canvas, getting the feel of it.
Canvas. Brush. Paint.
He dipped the small hairs into the well of paint, and they came out dripping emerald. His eyes admired the hue, so close to their own shadowy color, but lacking somehow. Or then again, perhaps more full than their iris-cousins. . . .
He raised the now-wet brush again, poising it before the still immaculate face of the canvas. His heartbeat was now inside his head; his breath was chilly-warm with anticipation. Cautiously, almost fearfully, he touched the brush to the fabric, smearing emerald green into the fibers.
Canvas. Brush. Paint.
With practiced dedication, his hand began to spread the paint around on the canvas, going from small green spot to blob, to something with actual form. As the brush depleted itself of paint, he paused, replenished it in the well of paint, and resumed his work.
This was an age-old ritual, one he was well-accustomed to; it was as though he had been doing it forever. He could scarce remember a day when his hands weren't smudged with paint or oil or lead or charcoal. Sometimes, began with an idea. Sometimes, not. They took forms of their own, it seemed. Their life dawned from his fingers and his materials, but flourished by their own means. Some came from the Romantic Era; others from the Renaissance; some had Gothic or Post-Impressionist roots; some had completely modern origins.
But they all took the energy from his hands and crafted it into their own monsters.
It was what he painted, what he breathed life into: Monsters. Disasters. Apocalypse after apocalypse.
Some were full of sunshine. Some happened without sound.
He shouldn't know so many things and know nothing at all, he felt. He was too young.
Looking at him for the first time, though, it would have been impossible to tell his age. He was a chameleon as much as any average shadow; without his face, his thin, nearly scrawny form could declare an undernourished seventeen-year-old just as easily as a starving, broken middle-aged man. His face itself was haunted, covered in darkness with bones jutting out and stretching the skin, his translucent skin capturing light with an almost ghostly whiteness. His lips were dry, and his tongue was constantly venturing out of his mouth to wet them. His eyes were deep-set and sunken into his face like blackholes; in such dim light, there was only a glimmer of their dusky emerald hue, the only sign of real life in the face.
Quietly, he began to hum to himself, and his humming was just a ghost-whisper soft as the swish of his brush, just as steady, just as rhythmless. A nameless tune. The kind you hear on a grey day in the park and the autumn leaves are whirling about you and you think you are reminded of something but it was only a passing notion, a fancy lost as easily as a stranger's face. This tuneless tune he applies to his art now in the same manner he applies the paint: gentle, nurturing, but driving all the same.
He lifted his brush from the canvas and dipped it into the blob of blue paint on his palette, where he just barely blended it with a touch of gold. He brought his brush back to the canvas, prepared to begin again. . .
But he stopped.
He hesitated a centimeter before contact. He watched his brush quiver, his hand shake. He waited.
Then, in his stomach, a roiling pain arose. It spiraled up through his core like a shockwave through a coil of copper, magnified itself with every inch it traveled. He took deep, steady breaths as he let it climb up through him, the worst of it settling in his constricting belly. . . .
This was the price of his passion— for the moment, at least. He was sure that the price would escalate as he continued, as he grew richer or poorer, famous or completely and incomprehensibly anonymous. For now, though, he was living the way a real starving artist did: holed up in the rattiest apartment he could afford, working and spending all but ten percent of his earnings to pay off the agent that hadn't called in a month, and spending all his free time creating art. While art supplies were a necessity, groceries were a luxury item, something he bought once or twice a month.
And maybe his landlady, an obese but matronly woman who wandered around in a powder-blue bathrobe and a San Antonio Spurs baseball cap, complained that he was too skinny; but she was the only one.
The rest of the world was content to call him a thankless mongrel without enough sense to buy food when he needed it.
He'd gained something of a reputation in that way. Though his real name was Jak Bane, most of the people around this block called him Ghandi of Garner Street (there was an old, grey-toothed hobo, Tram, who alternately called him Twinkles or Skipper, but that didn't count); this was supposably because you could point and count every single one of his ribs if he lifted up his shirt. "Ghandi!" they'd hail; and he'd smile and think, Fuck you, and they'd smile back and go along their way. He would watch them go, and then turn back around and continue walking with a new malice in his eye.
It wasn't that he was so jealous or resentful of either people or humanity that phrases like Fuck you came up whenever he saw someone; but there were things that you would just as soon do to a starving animal as a starving person.
The brush swam before his eyes. He blinked, and realized that his eyes were watering.
Willing the wetness from his vision, he wiped the clammy skin above his brow with the back of his hand, streaking a dab of blue paint across his forehead. Pulling together his concentration, he surveyed the work he had done thus far.
Decent enough, he decided, looking the canvas up and down. He'd gotten the basic outline of something— a man, he guessed, since that seemed like what it wanted to be. A man, holding something up. The background was lush, mostly scarlet with cerulean and green accents thrown in for a richer effect. Even now, in its most basic and skeletal form, there was his trademark vibrancy and vividness of color.
He resisted the notion to grin condescendingly at himself. When he had first met Julie Stephens, his agent, the orchestration of color in his artwork had been one of the things that had excited her the most. She had been convinced that he'd be an immediate sell-out— maybe not Venetian Museum of Art material, but definitely destined to be hung upon the walls of the fancy apartments that belonged to the city's wealthy entrepreneurs and connoisseurs.
There wasn't a day he didn't thank the high heavens (or whatever deity happened to have the world spinning on their fingertips) that he wasn't naive enough to believe her. However, after months of unprecedented and unimaginable success (which, without sarcasm translates to "months of being shot down by buyers"), what small amount of optimism he'd clung onto had dissipated. And Julie, apparently professionally disheartened, began spending more time on her other clients, neglecting to even call Jak at her previously-regular, weekly interval.
So for six months, he basically lived off stale bread and overripe bananas to pay an agent who didn't really do anything for him.
Ain't life fuckin' peachy?
Of course, one could argue that it wasn't entirely Julie's fault that his art didn't sell. He supposed it didn't help that his paintings— all of them— were disturbing on an intrinsic level. When he went with Julie to interview buyers and gallery directors, the conversations often went like this:
[Scene: Semi-fancy restaurant. Seated at a table: JULIE STEPHENS, JAKOBI BANE, and an ART DIRECTOR. DIRECTOR is looking at print-version of some of JAK's paintings.]
DIRECTOR: Interesting, very interesting . . . The man . . . he's holding . . . a pig?
DIRECTOR: And the woman . . . a quail?
JULIE: It's symbolic. Much of Mr. Bane's work is.
DIRECTOR: Really. And why do you choose to use so much symbolism, Mr. Bane?
JAK: Honestly, it just appeals more to me.
JULIE: (kicks JAK under the table)
JAK: (hastily) However, I've come to appreciate the fact that abstract subject matter often forces my audience to think a little more about the piece.
[JULIE and the DIRECTOR talk amongst themselves. JAK sits, twiddling his thumbs intelligently.]
DIRECTOR: (voice fades in) . . . really am not quite sure what to make of you, yet. Your work is certainly unique, and we'd love to use it in a showing . . . it's just that this may not be the best time. The show we're preparing is somewhat futuristic and innovative; this is rather . . . well, Old Testament, so to speak
DIRECTOR: On acid.
[Another awkward pause. JULIE begins, sweetly]
JULIE: 'Old Testament' doesn't sum up the entirety of his work. He has, in fact, done several new-age-themed paintings—
DIRECTOR: Yes, but there's a particular feel that we're looking for. Mr. Bane, your paintings are skillful and imaginative— and, as I have said, we'd certainly love to use them in future galleries. They just don't present what we're looking for right now.
And these pointless little episodes were always— and emphasis on the always— followed by little lectures from Julie.
JULIE: That was disappointing.
JULIE: You've got talent. These people see that. But they don't like what you're painting. It's too dramatic, too . . . moody.
JAK: Moody? But the colors—
JULIE: (bluntly and unkindly) The colors aren't the issue. It's your subject matter. It's disturbing.
JAK: (with chilliness) What shall I paint then? What is mediocre and safe enough to make it into an art exhibit—
JULIE: I don't care. Just create something that someone somewhere will want to buy. Paint something relatable, something not so scary. Don't try to become the next Picasso.
JAK: But Picasso's a genius. And famous.
JULIE: Yes— now that he's dead.
[Exodus. End scene]
It was consequently about a week after that particular conversation that Jak made his decision to "put Julie on hold"— that is, gently, let her go with the implication that it was only temporary, only until he could both feed himself and afford her.
Nevermind the fact that this will happen when hell freezes over, Jak grumbled to himself. He jabbed his paintbrush onto his artist's pallette with bitter force, and proceeded to stroke the outline of his mysterious rampant figure with, giving it a misty-grey aura. He then took the brush away, using his index finger to smudge the edges a bit. His hand was fairly clean; only a splotch or two of paint clung to his transparent skin.
He pursed his lips. This was not a good sign. Even though he was only a little ways into the painting, he should be covered in paint: it was the one omen he could count on to know whether or not the painting would be good ("good" meaning something he could look at later and not be disgusted/disinterested by). Especially since he was looking into selling some of his paintings freelance to make ends meet, which had become an even worse chore after Julie had mailed him a financial kick in the teeth.
Clenching jaw against both another wave of hunger and anger, Jak continued smoothing over the paint with his finger.
Having been fired from numerous (but not quite countless) jobs for a plethora of reasons, Jak was very accustomed to being kicked off a line of duty. Julie, it seemed, was not as experienced in that field, and took the matter personally. The bitch had left him with a whopping "final fee"— one so substantial that, even after a month of being free of her (yet devoting all his paychecks to her petty "fee") he was still working two shifts at different jobs and playing the endearing "Ghandi of Baker Street". Even with the two jobs he was holding, it was difficult for him to make ends meet with the rent, bills, and keep food in his pantry— Julie's parting gift just made everything all the more abominable. Right now, he was down to one box of stale crackers and three bruised, overripe apples he'd stolen from a Afghani fruit vender on his way to work yesterday.
Fortunately, the way he figured, after he took away money for living expenses et al., Jak was about five paychecks away from fully paying Julie off.
Speaking of which. . . .
Five seconds after his eyes hit the clock (one of the only working electronic devices he owned, hung right next to a decidedly grotesque self-portrait), he had leapt from the stool, snatched up his cheap, holey boots, and was struggling to put them on. Shit. It was 2:45. In fifteen minutes, he was going to be late for his shift at the Steel Guitar café.
Scrambling to shove his socked feet into his boots, Jak hopped into the kitchen and leaned against one of the dust covered (but otherwise spotless) counters for support. When he'd gotten both feet into their respective boots, he swiveled on the spot, and grabbed one of the remaining apples from his cornucopia (aka, his depressingly and unappetizingly near-empty fruit bowl), he loped back across the expanse of his livingroom/bedroom-turned studio, towards the front door of his apartment. His black jacket was lying on the floor in the corner where he'd thrown it earlier; he picked it up and slung it over his scrawny shoulders.
Giving one final glance back at his apartment, he headed out. The door closed behind him, lock clicking into place.
From his apartment on Baker Street to his first job, it was about a distance of eight blocks. For most people in a hurry, this would warrant taking a cab; poverty volunteered him to be the exception to that generalization. Having zilch in his pockets forced him to keep trudging down the rain-sodden street, moving with the current of migrating masses, stepping in puddles and feeling the water sop up through the holes in his shoes. A dull annoyance bloomed in his head as his toes curled against the cold liquid. He shivered in his jeans. At his apple at two different intersections. Was still hungry.
By the time he was two blocks away from the Steel Guitar Café where he worked, the crowds had thinned out, as it had begun drizzling. Cursing, he pulled the hood of his jacket up and hurried along, scrunching his shoulders. In another two minutes he was on Cordy Street, and the blinking blue and white sign over the café became visible, growing larger as he made his way toward it down the street. The rain was coming down harder now, forming big fat droplets that were soaking through his jacket, and he cursed as he felt a cold trickle of water run down from his scalp to his neck, keeping his eyes determinedly on the sign—
Perhaps he was so fixated with his current state of combined tardiness and misery, but somehow, he managed not to see that he was about to collide right into someone.
"Wha— fu— " he uttered nondescript syllables as he felt someone's bony shoulder connect with his own with enough force to bruise. Startled, he stumbled back and nearly lost his balance as the person swept past as though unaware that they'd collided with another being. They moved so fast that by the time he was no longer looking at his feet, their footsteps were already behind him.
Feeling foolishly apologetic, he turned with an apology on the tip of his tongue. "Sor—"
His mouth came to a halt as he stared down the empty street.
He stood there, jaw open, eye brows creasing together. Where the hell did they go? he wondered, narrowing his eyes at the damp darkness. All he could see was a desolate street, and it glared back at him in its emptiness; no cars, no jaywalkers; even the sidewalk now suddenly devoid of all other life. A lone street lamp six feet away cast a shameful, unhelpfully dim glow on its surroundings. There was no sign of whoever he ran into.
He stood there, dazed, looking down the street curiously. From one of the alleyways, a stray cat, grey fur matted with rain, appeared and moved skittishly across the sidewalk, scuttling for shelter under a car. He followed it suspiciously as it slunk underneath the car. Then he looked at the vacant street again. Where— ?
Whipping around, Jak saw through wet bangs the squat manager, Top Iggy, standing halfway out the door under the plaza's colonnade, just out of reach of the rain.
"Where the hell you been, boy? Your shift started fifteen minutes ago! Get in here!"
Without thinking, Jak made a dash, loping across the slick pavement over to where Iggy was standing. He nearly slipped in a puddle of water around Iggy's feet, and gave him an apologetic look. "Sorry, sir. I— "
"If I have to hear it, I'mona fire you, Bane." He jerked a fat thumb at the inside of the café, which emanated a warm, yellowish light. "Just get inside, before you come down with pneumonia or somethin'— "
At the word "pneumonia" a shiver wracked Jak's body, and he clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. Muttering a quick "sorry sir," he shook himself like a dog and scuttled past Iggy's impressive belly into the warm, burger-and-ketchup smelling restaurant.
Outside, the lone street lamp quivered, spat, and went out.
Leaning against a tree, just outside of a dim circle of halogen light, Lyric looked disinterestedly at the mass of human flesh lying dead at her feet. Her cat-eyes followed the blood that oozed out of a star-shaped wound at the corpse's head; but this was due less to the fact that it caught her interest than that it was the only thing about the body that was moving. Nonchalantly, Lyric rubbed her shoulder; it still throbbed oddly from her collision with that boy. She hadn't meant to be so reckless; it had been an empty street, hadn't it? She should have sensed him there. . . .
The body on the ground make a small noise as a bit of leftover air left its lungs. Unperturbed, Lyric smoothed her thumb over the rain-splattered material of her leather jacket, going over the small throbbing area thoughtfully. Not a special encounter. Just a boy, trudging through a dark street. Boy meets Girl. How quaint.
Bringing her thumb away, she gently pushed herself away from the tree and went to crouch over the body. She cocked her head slightly, thoughts still on her accidental brush with the boy. Really, it hadn't been special; just odd. Unlikely. After all, she had only been half corporeal when she knocked into him— and it was less that she knocked into him than she failed to jump through him, which had been her original intention. And it should have worked; she'd been halfway in the ether, the other dimension that lay beneath this material one— the nigh, as they'd come to call it— totally capable of passing through solid objects and people. Why had she been stopped by him? She thought hard, tried to remember his face: a wisp of black hair; pale skin; clammy emotions, filled with a strange kind of nervous apathy that she was more or less familiar with. And hunger.
Her eyebrows dented ever so slightly. Starving boy. Street monger. But a hint of something sweet on his breath, accompanied by something acrid on his hands. . . . and all over him, all over him smelled like—
The corpse gave another death-exhale, it's last judging by the length and level and length of sound. Satisfied that she had seen what she was meant to see, Lyric reached over the body, and picked up the unlit cigarette that the victim had dropped before being gunned down. She put it between her lips, sucking on the herbs inside, enjoying the small rush from the nicotine. She wasn't human enough anymore for silly drugs and chemicals to affect her much anymore. But the sensation— any sensation at all— was welcome, every once in a while.
She stepped over the body, black cowboy boots seeming to hit the pavement but not making a sound as she strode away from the crime scene, the dead black kid with a hole in his head and the bullet sticking out the back. She walked away, back up the same street she had swept down about fifteen minutes before. Back up the street, past the building where she'd watched a man get two of his finger cut off whilst attempting to fix an elevator twelve minutes before the black kid got shot. It was the same building where, in 1989 Reed Daceny, a mousy little man with a hole-in-the-wall apartment not too terribly far from the Bayou District, brought a semi-automatic to work and shot sixteen of his coworkers in their cubicles.
She knew this. It was her job to know this.
She had been there.
She had even been there when Daceny first bought the gun, two months before he took it to work. And she'd been in Daceny's apartment the morning of the shooting, watching him go around, getting ready for work; all in his usual, nervous way, as if that day were no different than the rest. Then, before he headed out the door, he doubled back; looked at the gun on top of his always empty answering machine. And, almost carelessly, she watched him pick it up and slip it into his brief case.
Shouldering the memory, Lyric passed the building, giving it a small nod with her head. Reed Daceny. She'd known everything about him, from the scar on his knee where he'd fallen on the playground at age four, to the suicide letter he'd written (and then erased) the day before the shooting, after some office dick spilt hot coffee on him and laughed it off. She'd known his every fear, had seen in a second every single night he'd spent lying awake, wondering why he was alive.
She had known his misfortunes. And that was all that she was required to know. It was her job to bear witness to the tragedies of the world, to know all these things and to know only them, even if the world, in its moments of blithe, forgot. She moved with the people, but did not live amongst them. She didn't live. She watched. She was nothing more and nothing less than an attestant to the burning of the world. A Watcher. And through her intrinsic knowledge, she was privy to every disaster before it even occurred.
Why? Hell if she knew.
Do what you're told. Do as fate dictates. On to your next observation, your next adventure in voyeurism. That's really all it was, she reasoned, as she reached the corner of the street. Spying on humans in their most intimate moments. Voyeurism.
Except that there was no satisfaction attached to this. No pleasure and no release. There were no feelings attached to it at all.
Holding back an uncharacteristically long breath (so akin to a sigh, she would never admit it), Lyric trudged along. As she was now going up Cordy Street and heading into the Coal Miner's Plaza, she now found herself amongst a small crowd, which increased rapidly in number and size the further down the street she walked.
Letting her feet guide her, she closed her eyes, slinking amongst the people in her half-corporeal form. Unaware of her presence, the throng moved through her and she it, neither taking care to get out of the others' way. They moved both separately and simultaneously, the crowd ebbing and flowing like a mist, and her passing through it, riding the undercurrent. The crowd thickened, faces meshing together in shapeless, flesh-colored blobs.