The Artist’s Smile

by Emily Gaither

Sarah woke up suddenly, jolted out of a good dream, or maybe just a sleepy memory. She pulled on her robe and went into the kitchen to start the coffeepot. She knew she was smiling, but couldn’t seem to shake it as she doled out the coffee and the water. Surprisingly, her mother was awake, slumped over the newspaper.

“Mornin’, darling; did you sleep good?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did.”

Her mother reeked of cigarettes and alcohol, and she could only imagine what she had gotten up to when she got off work last night. She worked in telephone customer service, the late shift, and usually ended up going out with co-workers until all hours of the night. Sarah rarely saw her.

There was a loud noise from the back of the house, accompanied by cursing and objects falling out of the closest. Sarah’s stepfather, Ray, was awake.

“Where the fuck is my hunting vest, Mama?”

Sarah’s skin crawled more than usual by Ray’s presence. She hoped that if she ever got married, they never started referring to each other as “Mama and Daddy.”

“I don’t know, Ray, but could you stop yelling? I’ve got a little bit of a headache.”

“Never mind, I found it.”

Through this exchange, Sarah hadn’t stop smiling. Ray walked into the kitchen and said, “What’s got you so happy?” He looked at where her robe had started to open around her cleavage, “I can make you real happy if you let me,” and he reached for the tie around her robe.

“Leave me alone!”

“Ray, I told you about that. She doesn’t know you’re joking.”

Joking. Yeah.

Since her mother and Ray had married four years ago when Sarah was 14, she had caught him watching her shower, watching her dress and undress, and most recently, she had forcibly removed him from her bed by threatening to tell her mother she had proof he was cheating on her. She didn’t, but it did the trick and got him out of her bed.

She didn’t know why her mother stayed with him, except for the money. He was a part-time contractor, but a few years back, he had gotten lucky and won $100,000 in the lottery, he had inherited his house and all the land, so they didn’t have to worry much about money. He did what he wanted, and he didn’t seem to care much what her mother did. In fact, she heard them talking through the walls one night about somebody paying them to have sex with her mother. She was only 38 and turned heads everywhere she went. It made Sarah’s stomach crawl. She just wanted to get as far out of Virginia as possible, study art, and now, maybe, go with Kurt. She smiled again.

Thinking of Kurt and last night took her away from the bleak scene before her. She didn’t have to think about her mother and what she had become or how long it might be before she couldn’t fight off Ray anymore. Kurt made her feel like sunshine lived inside her; she didn’t know that feeling was possible. The only time she felt like that even a little was when she was painting, and it wasn’t the same.

The painting did take away some of the dark thoughts she had that she had never told anyone. Her mother tried to make her talk to that man, Dr. Elliot, after she cut off that bitch Tammy Thorsen’s hair and told her she would slit her throat in her sleep. She didn’t even remember doing it. She remembered Tammy making fun of her clothes and telling her that she knew where her real daddy lived, in a big house in Richmond, with two little girls. She just wanted her to stop talking, and the next thing she remembered, she was being pulled off a hysterical Tammy.

She never thought much about her real father after that. Her mother never mentioned him, and when she did start to think about him, a dark cloud entered her head, and she had to paint to get it to stop. She didn’t have many, well, any, friends at school, just the art teacher, who was so excited for her to get an art scholarship to the University of Georgia.

She was walking home one day a few months ago, covered in paint, praying Ray wouldn’t be home, and she heard somebody say her name. She didn’t see anybody, so she kept walking. She heard it again, turned around, and there was the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen. She’d seen him before, of course, at school. He was the IT guy, Kurt Davenport. He was the sports guys, the honors society guy, he was head of the popular crew; she had no idea why he’d be calling her name.

“Did you lose something, Sarah?”

“Um, d-d-d, I wha?”

He was holding one of her best paintbrushes in her hand, the light hitting his piercing eyes as he cocked his head amusingly at her.

“Oh! Yes, that’s mine; thanks so much!”

“No problem, sweetheart. Can I walk with you?”

“M-m-me? Walk? You? Yes, walk.”

Get your shit together, girl.

They walked in silence for what seemed like hours, but was only a few minutes, and Kurt said, “Art, huh? You into that?”

Sarah stammered, “Uh, yeah, I know it’s not, like, cool or anything, but I like it, and I don’t have to have anyone around to do it, so, yeah, I’m into it. I guess that won’t get me into any parties.”

“Whoa, calm down, I think art is cool. I’d like to learn a little if I had the time. Most of my activities keep me pretty busy. If I had a teacher as pretty as you, I might give it a try.”

Sarah blushed so hard, she was sure her face must be on fire.

“Oh, okay, Kurt, sure, I’m pretty, whatever you say.”

“It’s true. You hide behind your hair, but you’re a knock out. Think about what I said about giving me art lessons. I’m serious. We’d kind of have to do it in secret, because my parents would flip if they heard I was taking art lessons, but I want to learn more about you, um, about what you do.”

It’s amazing the things you can ignore when you’re happy. Ray’s skulking and sweaty breath constantly behind her melted away, her mother’s hungover morning conversations and the sudden occurrences of her co-workers not much older than Sarah staying the night, finding what looked like burned spoons in the trash one night — none of it mattered anymore. She and Kurt met in an abandoned warehouse that her art teacher owned and let her use, and she was teaching him to paint.

He was a terrible artist, not that she would tell him, but he seemed to be so much more interested in learning about her. He asked her questions about growing up, which she sidestepped, and he asked her questions about her hopes and dreams and fears. He kissed the tip of her nose and her eyelashes and told her he couldn’t imagine why she didn’t think she was pretty. She felt all the bile and hate she had always felt towards everyone dissipate, and she began to imagine a future with Kurt.

Of course, they never went anywhere in public together. He said it was easier this way. Until they were ready, there would be too many questions from everyone, and he wanted them to stay in their bubble. She thought she might meet his parents, soon, but he hadn’t mentioned it, so she didn’t push it. She was perfectly content in their bubble as well. She always found that if you let the outside world in, something awful happened anyway. She thought he might have mentioned their relationship to some of his friends, because they had been acting a little nicer to her at school, but then she decided her imagination was just running a little wild.

She couldn’t think about much else when they weren’t together. She couldn’t believe that someone so amazing wanted to spend time with her, and he was all she wanted to breathe. Now, she knew what it must be like to be on drugs. Her fix could never last long enough, and she wanted to see him all the time. Of course, with all of his commitments and responsibilities, that was impossible, and the few times she had texted him wanting to see him, he had gotten a little mad at her. She was on his timetable, and it was frustrating, but she’d do just about anything to be able to spend time with him.

They had a special night planned on Saturday. They were finally going to have sex, and Sarah was a bundle of nerves. She was excited, but also terrified, because she knew Kurt was experienced, and she was the exact opposite. She was going to buy something lacy and sexy and special for him and hide it, of course, so her mom or Ray wouldn’t find it, and she knew after this night, nothing would be the same between her and Kurt. He was going to ask her to be with him after graduation, and they would work out the details. She could hardly sit still thinking about the possibilities.

She made so many preparations. She bought candles and flowers and wine and lingerie and had to strategically hide all of these things all over the house. If her mother or Ray found any of them, she would have to answer so many questions, it wouldn’t even be worth it. She took extra special care with her appearance, brushing and coaxing her hair into voluminous waves, expertly applying make-up after an online tutorial, and sliding into a form-fitting outfit she knew Kurt would love. Luckily, Ray and her mother were gone, so she didn’t have to explain herself, and she headed to the warehouse.

Leaves were falling around her as she rushed to get there, crackling under her boot steps. She loved when the weather started to get cooler, and you could almost smell the new possibilities in the air. She saw Kurt’s Jeep already hidden in his usual parking space, and her heart began to pound in her ears. She couldn’t wait to see his reaction to how she looked or to begin their special night. She opened the door, and Kurt looked up, appraising her fully.

“Why do you look like a whore?”

Her face burned like he had thrown acid at her.

“What do you mean? I wanted to look pretty for you.”

“I don’t think you’re trying to look pretty for me. You look like somebody that just finished working a street corner for the night.”

She couldn’t believe he was speaking to her this way. Tears started streaming down her face.

He walked towards her. “Baby, I’m sorry. I’ve just had a long day. My parents are pressuring me, and I didn’t mean to take it out on you. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

She reluctantly let him put his arm around her, and he started kissing her. He started off gently, but then became more fevered with his movements. He pushed her down on the futon almost angrily. She could barely catch her breath, and he was on top of her, holding her arms and touching her roughly.

“Stop it, Kurt, you’re hurting me. I don’t like this, not this way.”

“It’s fine, Sarah, you’re fine. This is what you wanted.”

“This is not what I wanted. It’s like you’re mad at me. Stop. Get off me.”

Kurt straightened up, let go of her arms, and gave her a look so dark, a chill went through her body.

“You don’t get it, Sarah. You’re really in no position to tell me what to do. No one knows where we are, or that we have ever been together. You can’t defend yourself against me. If I were you, I would just shut up and do what I want. Did you think I wanted art lessons this whole time? I don’t give a shit about art or you. I knew you would do anything to appease me, and that’s what you’re going to do now. And when I’m done with that, I’m going to slit your throat, roll you down this hill, and no one will ever find you again. No one cares about you or where you are, and no one ever will. You’re a ‘throw away’ girl, and that’s what I’m going to do with you.”

Sarah was horrified and glued to the spot. How could she have been so wrong about Kurt, and more pressingly, how was she going to get out of this situation? She might not have the greatest life, but she wasn’t about to die at the hands of this douchebag. Kurt remained on top of her, fumbling with her buttons and shirt, and her mind raced. He had just ripped part of her shirt when she felt the X-Acto knife she sometimes used, and her hand closed around it. She began to moan approvingly, which momentarily gave Kurt pause, but he soon went back to what he was doing. Just as he tried to work his hands down her body, her hand shot out from under the futon, and she gouged him in the neck. Blood sprayed everywhere, and he howled in pain.

She quickly scrambled up and stood watching while he floundered all over the room, grabbing at anything, brushes, knocking over the table, kicking over the lamp, all the while blood pouring out of his neck. He stumbled around for what seemed like an hour, but was probably only 5-10 minutes, and he grew more and more ashen and less mobile. He finally collapsed in a heap on the floor, and with his eyes open like those of a glass doll, he stopped breathing. Sarah may have held her breath until his stopped as well.

She was lucky to have this many cleaning products on hand, although she never imagined she’d be sopping up blood instead of paint. Her mind was moving very fast now. She had to clean up as soon as possible, wrap up everything with blood on it, take it with her, push the Jeep over the gulley a few miles from the warehouse, and set it all on fire. She wasn’t traceable to Kurt anyway, but that would hopefully destroy any damning evidence. She knew a lot of the jocks rode around out here, getting drunk or high, or probably committing date rape, so it wouldn’t be that unusual that he was out here. She would have to push Kurt down the ravine, so it would look like he flew out of the Jeep when it went down the hill.

After finding her gloves and cleaning the warehouse as spotlessly as she could, she bundled up all of the bloody blankets and rags, put them in a trash bag, and planned to take them with her to burn. Several people had driven their cars over this ravine, so it wasn’t far-fetched that it would happen again. She got the Jeep in neutral, and started the flame as the Jeep went over the hill. She watched, vaguely fascinated, for about a minute, and then headed home, utterly defeated by the day’s events. She rolled Kurt behind the Jeep, slightly to the side, so it would look as though he had been thrown. His dead eyes caught hers right before he rolled down the hill.

She took the bloody rags and cleaning supplies to the landfill, where she sometimes took her art castaways and then headed home. She had managed to clean herself up, but she smelled as though she had been barbequing, and she had to put an art smock over her ripped shirt, so she looked vaguely insane. That’s fine; she felt insane. As she approached her house, she noticed with a sinking heart that Ray was home. She was not in the mood for Ray, and she had really hoped her mother might be there. Even if she was useless, she was still her mother, and a hug would have been nice.

She opened the door and smelled the marijuana. Ray was sitting on the couch with a half-empty vodka bottle in front of him, and smoke filled the air. He turned around and slurred, “Hey, beautiful, where you been?”

She ignored him.

“I said, where you been?”

“Out.”

“Out where?”

“Just out. I went to an art show.”

“Oh, yeah, you and your fancy-ass art. You want a drink?”

She kind of did. She knew this was a slippery slope, but after the day she had, she didn’t even care anymore. “Sure, Ray.”

“Well, alright, then. That’s more like it.”

They sat there in mostly silence with the occasional ice cubes clinking, drinking vodka tonics, and she thought about what had happened that night. She absolutely couldn’t believe it. She would never get the images of Kurt’s dark, murderous look or his dead, nothing eyes out of her head as long as she lived. All she had now was art school. That was her salvation, her ticket out of here, away from everything. She started feeling a little delirious as the alcohol went to her head.

Ray leaned over to her and said, “You sure do look pretty tonight. I think I’m finally gon’ have to do something about that. It’s not fair what you’re doing to me, teasing me like women like to do. It’s not right.”

“Ray, I want to tell you where I really was tonight. Take another drink. I think you’re going to like the story. It ends with you and the captain of the football team hanging out together. I know you always wanted to do that.”


Bulltrogg’s Parade

By Joseph B. St. John

I sat alone waiting for the fright of night to begin, alone like always in the summer’s warm charm. I stared over the concrete barricades of my fortress.  Putting my wildness aside for a short moment, I let the breath fill my tired lungs.

Throughout the night, I stood plastered to my personal insurrection. I pulled myself down into the basement of my old tenant house. It was the perfect place, hidden beneath the stench of the city.  A small 20X20 room created especially for me. Its bare concrete walls breathed moisture throughout the room. It was my cauldron and refuge.

With the lights out, I could see the wonder of my eyes. The visions danced through my head, projecting a shockwave of memories and illusions. Memories locked from a childhood long since denied, long since forgotten, except for moments of memory. A small child locked in the closet of un-forgiveness never really sees the light of day.

In my hole, I was king, the giver of all good and bad. I never stayed long without seeing the mysteries of my mind, fantasies gone wild, totally unleashed. It scared me and thrilled me, all at the same time.

Trapped in my own environment, I watched as time slipped carelessly away. My drunken, saddened mind was gripped by fear. I stammered in horror as I tried to speak into my unconsciousness. I was a dreadful little troll living under the city streets, feeding mercilessly on the night and its inhabitants.

I loved, lusted, and craved the wildness of the street. I carefully positioned myself in every alley I could find.  I waited patiently, as the night grew darker and more forbidden. I felt the excitement build like thunder, knowing I was watching them, but they could not see me.

My heart raced, as I peered deep into the hearts of mankind and saw their sad, pathetic faces. I lived for the moment of ecstasy. The moments were fantasy intermingled with life, where reality and imagination seared together in climax.

I had seen the witches dance at midnight. They thought they could not be seen, but I had seen them by the light emanating from their moon. I had seen them devour the old and young alike.

I’d stayed locked in my room waiting for the moment when the night’s dark air would shelter my existence.  I moved carefully into the darkness, hoping that no one would see my wretched face in the crowd.  The night’s wonder and the liquid merriment had dulled their senses. They no longer noticed the broken little man. Their minds were occupied by more important things, occupied by thoughts of long, hard nights and soft, warm desires.

I was on my way to bigger endeavors. I felt the lust spring up in the wells of my heart. I slipped unnoticed into the crevices of the city. Sitting quietly under the windows of tenant houses and flats, I heard the sounds of passionate cries. I heard the moans of lovers cut through the silence of the summer night.

Pretty girls, all of them, pretty as I had ever had the pleasure to observe. The alleys held the real story of life, the real tales to be told. And only a sad, little troll of a man could be lucky enough to see it. I spent my days in terrified anticipation of the night, but when it arrived, its passion stimulated me.

Tonight would be a special night. I had looked forward to it for months. A parade would be held at midnight, the City Council’s way of legitimizing the bastardization of its city. A night of melancholy laughter, where the whole town could paint on a happy face and pretend to be something other than themselves.

I arrived early, positioned myself behind a small mailbox and scarcely moved. The sweat on my face gave me a glistening look. The shine made me appear like a small mannequin, or so I fantasized. My large bullish head sat squarely on my shoulders and I was sure my appearance was that of a large elf. My thick, black hair fell over my eyes. I tried to smile, but the deformities of my teeth made me look rabid so I kept my mouth tightly shut. It was my appearance that made the children call me that terrible name, Bulltrogg. It caused me shame, but the name stuck and followed me.

As the crowd gathered slowly, a young lady, twenty-something, looked at me.  She tried to fake a kind face, but she walked away. I enjoyed when the crowd grew larger because it was easier for me to hide. I positioned myself next to a large phone pole and knelt on one knee. Another young lady was near me. The gathering had gotten huge and the mounds of people had begun to push against one another. I took the opportunity to rub my hand against her thigh.

She looked around and I quickly stopped. If I had been caught, I’m sure I would have been beaten or mobbed. At first, she looked upset, but as she heard the first blast of the music, she quickly forgot her violation. The jazz played and danced through the atmosphere. Its sound was a strange elixir. It made otherwise sane people forget their inhibitions.

I loved to watch the young missies move to the hard beat. Their hips swayed an addicting message. I felt the excitement race through my mind.  Bad girls, each and every one of them, they knew they drove me to passion. It wasn’t my fault I experienced such emotion.

Gray, sweaty men pushed through the crowd. They were there to see the savageness of the moment.  They felt as I did; however, they had learned to hide their feelings. But, I could look in their eyes and see the truth, the thoughts they tried to hide so deeply.

I could see their desire to control and dominate. Those with girlfriends and wives in the audience gyrated to the music, forcing their pelvises into their lovers’ backsides. And those of us who were unfortunate and alone just sat and watched the spectacle.

The parade continued to pass and my eyes were fixated on a certain float. It depicted the scene of a voodoo princess. She was dressed in sheer veils and tied to the base of a cauldron. Above her stood two high priestesses, dressed completely in black, with a hood revealing only their delicate dark-eyes.

I was mesmerized by her beauty and helplessness. She tried to pull herself away from her captors, but she was trapped, and her dilemma was exciting to me to dizziness. I could feel the pain and humiliation of her suffering, yet I felt no sorrow. The feelings of suffering and pity for others had long since disappeared from my mind.

And, as I glanced at the wonderful, hurting sight, I noticed something strange about the thinly veiled girl.  She was smiling and not only smiling but smiling at me. It left my mind perplexed. I was not sure what this could mean.  I stood shocked for several minutes, but then quickly felt drawn to the float. I no longer cared if anyone saw my tragic figure. I bolted through the crowd, trying to catch up with the float.

I pushed my way through the crowd, hoping to get another glimpse of this wild child. I could feel the heat upon my neck from the crazed gathering. The smell of sex and alcohol permeated the steamy streets.

My mind ran with wild enchantment, as I stalked this dark-eyed princess. Finally, I approached the edge of the city and watched as the float made a turn down one of the many dirty side streets. I gathered my thoughts and hid quietly in the shadows. The strange display had stopped and moved away from the others. My heart raced as I watched my helpless lass struggle against her chains. Her two captors stood motionless above her, and unlike the other parade participants, they made no effort to move.

I watched gleefully at the sight. My heart moved frantically, sending blood racing out of control to my emotions. She looked helpless but still possessed a small grin upon her face.

I moved down the roadway and stooped behind a garbage can. I could see her better now.  She was slender and wore a thin veil covering her body. Her body was easily distinguished underneath the garments. Her tormentors could not hide their pleasure at the situation.

The other entertainers left quickly from the alley, but my strange trio never made a move, except for my love pulling lightly at her chains. Her face never changed expression. As the road emptied, the two sentinels of the chains unlatched their prey from her post. Her chains still bound her wrists, and they controlled her every move. A black, ominous van moved toward my femme fatale. The doors opened slowly and a large man exited the vehicle. He was clothed in black and his hypnotic eyes fixed on each subject in turn. The eyes of the two high priestesses dropped, and they took a step back from the young girl.

The female, the object of my passion, suddenly appeared fearful, the small grin erased from her face. I moved closer to the light, closer to see this sorrowful siren. I no longer cared if anyone could see me. The three figures dressed in black moved back as I approached my love. She was gentler than I had ever imagined. She looked up at me with sad eyes. Her voice broke as she spoke.

“I noticed you in the crowd,” she said. “You seem like such a kind man.” My mind stopped. Her friendly words astonished me. She had not even seemed appalled by my sickly frame. She continued to speak.  “Come closer. Let me see you in the light. You seem so tired and scared. Let me touch your lonely soul.”

She touched my brow lightly and slowly moved towards my face. Without a whisper or hesitation, she kissed me. My head swooned and my chest palpitated. The rush was such that I was overwhelmed and confused. She kissed me longer and harder, until my breath was no longer my own; until my mind was spinning out of control; until my mind went blank and dark.

I woke up soon after, dizzy from my desire. I heard the crowd screaming from every side. I was part of a parade. I tried to stand up but my chains pulled me back to the ground of the strange moving device. I was now chained to the awful, black cauldron. Above me stood three women dressed neatly in black. One, I recognized as my personal master. She was still smiling a sly grin. The crowd cheered wildly at my predicament. They cheered madly at the sad, little man chained forever to his vice.