Short Story: Life in Portraits
I wrote this short story five years ago, for the first assignment in my very first fiction creative writing class at university. This was probably the first short piece of fiction I've ever written, unless you count role-playing with other people as short fiction. If so, then I've been doing it since I was 12. But I don't consider myself a short story writer. Novels are more my thing. Coming up with ideas for short stories are difficult for me, but I came up with this particular one by looking through my list of old characters, picking one I'd never really used for anything, not even role-plays, and trying to write something that embodied him. Here it is, and I hope you enjoy it for what it is!
The left side of the desk was lined with colored pencils ordered by their places on the color wheel. The back of the desk held massive stacks of paper. At the front, a young man with unruly brown hair sat at the desk as he drew while hunched over, eyes glued to his work. A trash bin sat next to him on the floor, half-filled with dejected and crumpled wads of paper.
“What are you drawing this time, Benjamin?” a voice asked. It came from one of the myriads of portraits that lined the walls in his bedroom. This one was of a young boy with blond hair and a baseball cap turned sideways.
“A monster,” he said without looking up.
“What kind of a monster?” the boy asked, his fists flying around on his page. “It better breathe fire!”
“It breathes darkness,” Benjamin said to the boy. “It's a nightmare monster.”
“Really? I want to fight with it when you're done!”
Benjamin shook his head. “I'm selling this one.”
The boy snorted. “You're no fun, Ben. What would some rich snob want with your monster anyway?”
“It's going to be terrible,” said the black-haired teenage girl. She was the boy's neighbor – neighbors on the wall of Benjamin's studio apartment. “You'll just throw it in the trash like you did the last monster.”
“No. This one is the one,” Benjamin said. He clenched his fist tighter around his pencil as he drew the monster's black fur, so long that it twisted and curled right off the edges of the paper. “I can tell.” He had already tried to draw this same monster five times. The last one ended up in the overflowing trashcan beside him because its glowing eyes had been too far apart for his liking.
The girl rolled her eyes and the boy started laughing, loud and obnoxious. This woke up the middle-aged woman on the wall above the desk who was almost always sleeping. She stirred and blinked open her bright hazel eyes, the same color as Benjamin's. She frowned as she looked down at what he was working on. “You guys better not be discouraging my Benny,” she said. Her voice was soft but firm as she looked around at the two children on the wall.
Benjamin glanced up at the woman briefly. “It's fine, Mom.”
She sighed. She had killed herself fifteen years ago and didn't want anything to do with those children bullying her son. “Happy birthday, Benny. You're doing a great job.”
Benjamin blinked at his paper but never stopped drawing. He had forgotten he turned 28 today. “Oh. Thanks, Mom.”
“You should go cook yourself a nice celebration lunch. I know how much you like cooking,” she said.
He shook his head. “Can't. I have to finish this. The client wants it tomorrow.”
“Yeah, he has to finish his shit drawing,” the boy chimed in.
“Look at it, the head is way too big,” said the girl. “Why don't you just work full time at the warehouse? You'd get in shape and be able to live better. Why torture yourself thinking you actually stand a chance at making money off of drawing?”
“Eventually I'll be able to quit the warehouse job and just draw,” Benjamin said. His shoulders tensed up as he added detail to the fur.
The girl laughed. “Yeah, and you'll end up losing this shitty excuse for a home and living in your dad's basement. Hopefully you won't kill yourself too over the young women he brings home every night to keep him company. It's a different one each time, isn't it?”
“That is uncalled–"
The boy broke Benjamin's mother off. “Just watch, that's exactly what will happen. You'll end it before you even make a name for yourself because it's not possible to live off of drawing.”
“It will be fine, you'll see.” There was no fight in Benjamin's voice. He stared at the paper. His hand was still moving, but it moved slowly, less eagerly. Rain clouds formed in his eyes. “This is what I love, so it's worth it.”
“Whatever you say, dreamer boy.” The girl's lip curled in distaste as she stared at him drawing. “Just don't come running to me when it all comes crashing down on you.”
“You're just a drawing. That's not possible.” He placed the ice blue colored pencil right next to a bright red one and picked up a maroon one to draw with.
“Maybe not, but you're the one that drew me. I live because of you. I don't know why though.”
“We exist to yell at him,” the boy said to her. “So we can knock some sense into his thick skull.”
“You're killing his spirit.” Benjamin's mother tried to reach for him from her place on the wall. She was the only one on that wall. The only one he could see if he ever looked up from his drawing.
The other pictures on the wall ignored her.
“If we're killing your spirit, you should just die now,” the girl told him. “Get it over with. What's the point in even trying if you're just going to fail?”
The maroon pencil dropped onto the desk with a sharp clatter. Benjamin picked up the piece of paper and crumbled the monster between his hands before he dropped it into the trashcan. His portraits hushed while he did this, watching as he pulled out a new piece of paper.
“What was wrong this time? Was the tail too short and stubby?” the boy asked, a smirk on his face.
Benjamin didn't answer; he just drew the basic contours of a face on the page.
“Oh, shit,” the girl said. “You're gonna add another one of us.”
Raindrops fell from the clouds in Benjamin's eyes as he drew, dripping from his chin onto the page. The wetness made the paper wrinkle where it dropped. The portraits watched him in silence. Once he got the basic outlines down correctly, he dug in the drawer in his desk and pulled out a small mirror. He laid this on the left side of his paper and glanced at it as he drew.
Benjamin's mother's eyes widened as she watched him from above. “Benjamin,” she said. “What do you think you're doing?”
“Are you drawing yourself?” the boy asked in amazement.
He remained silent, his mouth pressed into a thin line of concentration as he started to draw more specific features.
The girl giggled and a grin spread across her face. “He's gonna do it,” she said. “He's gonna make himself permanent on the page and then he's gonna do it. But you know, you'll still be trapped in the page. Just like we all are. None of us are free.”
“Benny, you can't! Please. Stay alive for me. You have so much potential as an artist. You already have people who want to buy your work and everything. They love it. You can't–”
“Shut up, lady.” The boy cut Benjamin's mother off. “He knows what needs to be done.”
“Yes, he does. And it's not what you horrible children are telling him.” His mother was no longer soft-spoken; now her voice was rising, a spark of fire in it.
Benjamin's stomach roared in the midst of their argument. His mother looked back down at him, her gaze softening. “Honey, take a break and clear your head. Cook yourself something nice. You'll feel better, I promise.”
His pencil dug into the page as he worked on the right eye and tore through his face. “It won't make them shut up,” he said. His voice was thick with the rain as it choked him on the inside.
“You're the one that made us,” the girl reminded him again.
“And I'm the one that can destroy you,” Benjamin said. He looked up from the portrait of himself and looked around at all of the other portraits.
“You wouldn't dare,” the boy said. “You care too much about your art. We're part of your pride and joy, remember?”
Benjamin dug once more in his desk drawer and found a lighter. He stood up, pushing his chair back. Slowly, he walked over to the boy.
“You coward. You can't even deal with pieces of yourself?” the girl said as he lit the boy on fire. The girl was still talking, still badmouthing him when he set her on fire, too.
One by one he set each portrait on fire, until the only one that remained was his mom above his desk.
“I'm sorry, Mom.”
He lit his mother on fire. As the shrieking portraits burned around him and spread to the walls, he sat back down at his desk and continued the portrait of himself, ignoring the fire as it grew into a rage that engulfed the entire apartment.
Sirens sang in the distance. The last thing that anyone ever saw of Benjamin was the charred, finished portrait of himself, floating away in the wind.