Prose Header


by Tom Underhill

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Magnified a hundred-fold by the grain-finder, the image was nothing but blobs of varying darknesses melded together. He adjusted the focus knob until the blobs became distinct specks, and stood back to evaluate the larger picture. The black and white girl on the bench stared back at him in perfect clarity. The Artist nodded slowly.

Not quite the same, is it? Stealing the spark instead of kindling it...

He removed the grain-finder, switched off the enlarger, and pulled out a sheet of light sensitive paper. After ripping it into four equal sections, he placed one of the squares roughly where the image of the girl’s head had just evaporated.

Setting the timer, he flipped the enlarger back on. The girl flashed back into existence for five brief seconds before winking back out. The Artist spotlighted the second square for ten seconds, the third for fifteen, and the fourth for twenty.

But this has always been a good deal more guilt than thrill...

Gathering the test strips together, he slipped them into the developing tray, swishing the liquid as he did so by lifting one of the bin’s corners. He watched each piece cling to its dull white nature before bowing to the inevitable and springing into definition.

Excited silver ions morphed the mundane snow of the strips to jet black, fresh ivory, and everything in between. The Artist exhaled unevenly as four floating heads emerged, each set in that determined, depressed expression from the day before. He let them drift a moment longer, and then hurriedly pulled them out with his favorite tongs as the pictures began to blink in unison.

It’s irrevocably in motion, then. Start to say your goodbyes, Child...

Deciding on the ten second exposure, he set the now superfluous tests shots in the trash can as softly as he could, wincing even so. The shots were frowning now, crinkling their noses. Breaking his heart.

You’re mine, now. For better or worse...

* * *

Did you not see my hand? I actually nerved up to ask a question...

“If we’re not better prepared on Monday, a quiz isn’t out of the question. Have a good weekend, but make sure you squeeze some reading in there this time.”

The chorus of notebooks closing, binders snapping shut, and mechanical pencils clicking off filled the room. Tammy let herself be swept up by the exodus, actually having to work to maintain her balance as the line log-jammed through the door before bursting out into the already congested hallway.

Midway to her locker, she remembered a paragraph she had wanted to go over with Mrs. Swanson. Changing directions, Tammy began maneuvering back through the chaos, and almost walked right into her English teacher. She opened her mouth to voice a question... and heard the intended words come from behind her.

“Hey Mrs. S? Can I talk to you real quick? About my story? I need to take my mind off of Math for a while...”

Kathy?!? That misfit dunce actually put pen to paper?

“Did you get another quiz back today, Kathy? Don’t worry. It’ll come. Go ahead and step inside my office for a few minutes, though. I’m not in any tearing hurry.”

Tammy watched the two walk off together through the press of frenzied bodies, her jaw tightening as she noticed the hefty manuscript Kathy held with both hands.

She wouldn’t...

“I’m worried about the title. Is ‘Dance for Whose Amusement?’ a little too heavy-handed?”

You sneaking little bitch.

“Actually I think it’s perfect, Kathy. But sit down and tell me why you’re so worried about it.”

The classroom door shut itself off from the hallway jumble with a reverberating thud. Tammy stood frozen amidst the bustling sea of adolescence, torn between bursting into tears and knocking violently on the door.

“Heya, Star. You wanna figure out the dance details now?”


Tammy turned to answer his comforting voice, and found herself pre-empted again, this time before she had even parted her lips.

“How ’bout you take me to practice and we figure it out on the way there?”


“Sounds good to me.” Jared’s arm was around Molly’s shoulders, their faces close and getting closer. The tears came, and Tammy went.

* * *

The cleanly cropped photograph sank lazily to the bottom of the stop solution, its weak acid freezing the picture’s development. He kept his focus on the clock above the enlarger, preferring the awkward jerking of the second hand to the frantic scene unfolding in the clear fluid below.

His peripheral vision could still make out her bounding hair, however, and soon enough he was watching her headlong sprint directly, willing her to avoid the traffic she seemed so blind to.

It won’t be much longer, Child...

Fishing with a fresh pair of tongs, the Artist snared the picture’s corner, lifted it out of and above the tray, and held the dripping image aloft until the excess stop had streamed off.

Looking as little as possible, he shifted the weeping, running girl into the fix tray to complete the imaging. He risked another full glance, and winced as she stumbled while trying to take a flight of stairs four at a time.

For what it’s worth, I’m sorry...

* * *

The office looked so wonderfully pristine, so familiarly neat and tidy. Sunshine pooled in from the monstrous windows, reflecting off the back of the picture frame she had given him last Christmas.

“Tammy, was it? I’m sorry, my secretary didn’t catch any more than your first name... Sit down and catch your breath a minute. There’s fine.”


The graying man gestured again at the empty leather chair in the corner. Tammy stood trembling for several moments before complying with halting steps and a violent collapse.

“Is everything okay? You’re on Molly’s soccer team, right? I haven’t had a chance to make too many games, lately, but... Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. Here, use all you need. Do you want me to call someone?”

Why aren’t you hugging me... Comforting me... Recognizing me...

“I... I don’t know...” Tammy sniffled into her second tissue. She started to angle around in order to view the picture in the frame, thought better of it, and pulled away.

“Well... How ’bout this: I’m about to knock off early to run over to the field and get Molly out of practice for a nice dinner. If you’d like, I could take you there, or drop you off at your house if you’d prefer.”

Tammy composed herself momentarily, darted a glance at the picture, and broke down completely.

“Hey, now... You’ll be alright. Why don’t we just get you home. How does that sound?”

Please... Tell me this is all a joke. Say “home” like it’s something we share. Look at me like a father looks at his daughter...

“Could... Could you just take to me to the field?”

“Are you sure? Okay... But if you need me to drop you off somewhere else... Well, alright then... Maybe playing is what you need to take your mind off things. I’ll be ready in just a second...”


Briskly, the man pulled on his coat, swept an immense collection of papers into a briefcase, and rose to leave. “And it really is no problem at all. Molly shouldn’t be playing today, anyways, so pulling her out extra early won’t hurt. Her toe’s been killing her.”

* * *

He laid the glistening print atop the dryer’s rollers, paused briefly, and pressed its switch. The inexorable pull of the bars fed the picture into the dryer’s innards, inching from view the girl slumped on that same bench as laughing figures jogged in the background.

A few seconds more, Child... Just a few seconds more...

The girl took her head from out of her hands, her puffy eyes searching the distance beyond the photograph’s borders.

They can’t even see me at all anymore... No one can... What did I do? ...

Mesmerized until the image was fully consumed, the Artist roused himself and took the few anxious steps to the other side of the dryer to await the reemergence.

It’s all but done. My familiar vice springing eternal...

The picture slowly churned out from its kiln, the girl’s dangling right arm, dejected head, and slouching shoulders oozing back into existence. He plucked the completed work with quivering fingers and cradled it out of the studio, into the warehouse to be pinned up at the end of the long line of earlier efforts. Each of the predecessors depicted a central figure arranged in his or her final repose, run to completion, watched to extinction. Frozen in death.

His heavy breathing and her soft sobbing accounted for the only sound and movement in the cavernous hall.

Can you really watch her and still justify stealing back your own? Seeing her tears... All their tears... But she will forget... They all did...

And I did create you, Child. I created all of you. Fashioned your images after the Divine... after perfection... And what if I added Their spark without permission? It was the logical completion, the finishing touch... And for that I’m doomed to this?... Ancient history... Focus on the present. Help her through it.

What did I do? What can I do?

“Go on, Child. Live your life. As you would have. As it should have been.”

He looked on in fascination as she started, scanned around anxiously, and opened her mouth to respond, to express, to scream. The Artist settled back as the fear faded just as suddenly, the knowledge extinguished, the questions died. Black and white winked out, an inferno of colors blazed in. The picture became a new reality: his and hers. And no one else’s.

A reluctant sun peered out from parting clouds, offering perhaps an hour of illumination in compensation for an otherwise grim, gray day. Tammy tapped her feet to an erratic beat, her arms crossed sharply over her rumpled jersey.

And the ultimate voyeurism begins anew. Another stolen story to suck dry for your own amusement. In return, Child, I offer this solemn promise: I will watch, listen, learn, appreciate, and in my own twisted fashion, validate your time.

This is your existence now, Child. Forget the transition. For you, it never was. Continue as you were, as you are, as you will be. The Exiled Artist of the Gods will bear witness, as he’s done so many times before, for so many others...

What little traffic there was sped by her bench indifferently; she had counted a grand total of eight cars in the last ten minutes. Her cleats dangled by her side, their laces joined by a bowknot that lay atop the seat’s armrest like a blooming white flower. The sweat permeating her jersey began to chill, and Tammy huddled further into herself after glancing at her watch.

From here on out, Child, no breath is ever pointless. I will see it, hear it, understand it... I watch, therefore you are...

Six o’clock, Mom. Four to six every day. Do you really forget or just not care? Even Kathy’s trailer-trash parents remembered her. How hard is it to remember me?

Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill

to Challenge 335...

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