by S. D. Houston
A car alarm blared from outside, followed by a low grumble. “Dammit,” Jeffrey muttered to himself. He set his dark-gray oil pastel down on the big artist pad laid out on his drafting table and rose to his feet.
Straightening his back quickly in a tight stretch, he ambled into the living room and over to the coffee table, leaning forward to swipe up his car keys. He strode hurriedly toward the front door, murmuring something under his breath about punk kids and lack of respect for other people’s stuff.
A gust of cool air swirled in through the front door as he opened it, carrying in its wake the now louder screeching of the alarm. A moment later, the head-splitting sound was halted immediately by a less deafening, “Chirp, chirp!”
Jeffrey always hated First Friday. All the high-school posers and college punks seemed to make it a point to block driveways and make as much racket as they could while running rampant through his neighborhood on the first Friday of each month. Around the block and all down the nearby strip were festivities and bands; stands selling jewelry, artwork, t-shirts and food. It was a monthly party. He just wished they would keep the party at the party.
“Thank God! Took you long enough.” A huffy, sarcastic voice came from the den where he’d been drawing.
Oh, shut the hell up, he thought, keeping the remark to himself. “Hey,” Jeffrey said loudly as he almost slammed the front door behind him and crossed back through the living room. “If it was such a pain in your butt, then why didn’t you go and shut the alarm off yourself?
The voice sounded more agitated than amused at his comment as it spoke back up. “Oh, haha! Funny! You know, if I had legs and my other arm right now, I’d strangle you, ya jerk.”
The voice went silent for a moment as Jeffrey stood at the entry to the den. He leaned against the door-frame with his hands jammed in his pockets looking almost like a James Dean replica except for the dark auburn hair.
“Okay,” the voice retorted. “You got me there. I wouldn’t, you know. But there’s no need to kick me when I’m down, brute.”
Jeffrey strode back over to the heavy oak drafting table. Lowering himself onto the stool, he leaned to retrieve the pastel he had been so rudely forced to abandon.
“You know, that color’s a little moody and depressing, don’t you think? How about a nice fiery, energetic red or something, huh? Whaddaya say?”
The artist’s eyes scrunched in annoyance at the statement posed as a question and mumbled under his breath, just loud enough for the drawing to hear him.
“My high school art teacher always said that art should speak to you, but this is ridiculous.”
Jeffrey spoke up, cutting the voice off. “Look, do you want me to finish your jacket and your right arm or not? I can make it red if you want. I’ll give you a nice Michael Jackson leather look and let people think you’re a damn freak. That work for you?”
“Ugh! Alright, alright! You’re the artist. Just get me done, dude. I’m gettin’ stiff here.” The voice chuckled at his unnoticed “stiff” joke.
Jeffrey just huffed quietly as he pressed the pastel against the heavy paper, coloring in, smudging and smoothing as he went along, giving the effect of an oil painting. He loved the idea of the painting effect without all the mess. No paint on his clothes, no grueling brush cleaning, no funny French berets.
He still hadn’t quite figured out how in the world he’d found himself in this situation, except that he’d had the strangest dream the night before. In the dream, he’d found himself in front of a changing room in a clothing store. Then, out of nowhere, a man had shown up saying, “Looking for change? I may have the answer for you.” Something like that anyway, but he couldn’t remember for sure. The words he did remember clearly were, “Express yourself. Let the voice of another speak to you, and listen. It will help you find what you are seeking.”
Not sure why, but this struck him as odd after waking up. But dreams were usually odd, weren’t they? Something about this one, though, seemed to really stand out. It was at that point that he had realized who the man was. It was himself, except it wasn’t him. It was a more confident, assured part of him that he had lost somewhere between his divorce and losing his position as an advertising executive. He had lost a big account to a small-time, fast-talking free-lancer. His life had taken a hard left turn, and he wanted things to change very badly.
He then decided to draw the man from the dream.
Once he had finished the vague rough sketch, he grabbed his oil pastels and prepared himself for the grunt work. The second he had laid the white pastel down on the tanned paper to start working, he got the spook of his lifetime.
“Ouch! Easy on the cranium there, heavy-handed Harry!” The voice had seemed come out of nowhere, and Jeffrey literally fell off his stool, landing hard on his backside and shrieking like a little girl. Stunned, he looked around, trying to figure out who had snuck into his house and pulled the prank on him. The voice came back.
“For Chrissake, Jeffrey... that is your name isn’t it? Ah who cares. For Chrissake, stop sitting on the floor screaming like a wuss and get up here. We’ve got work to do.”
He had no idea what to do or say. Shaking, he got back on the stool and tried to regain his composure. What an ass, he had thought, not that it made any difference. It wasn’t normal for a voice to pop out of nowhere, whether it was cocky or not. And how the hell did that thing know my name?
Several long minutes had passed as he tried to convince himself that it was okay and that this was a spirit thing. Then several more long minutes passed of being harangued by a disembodied vocal encyclopedia of insults and criticisms. After a trip to the kitchen and an oversized mug of coffee with too much cream and sugar, he’d reluctantly sat back down at his drafting table.
“You goin’ for a caffeine overdose, or trying to break the world’s record for the jitters?”
“Screw you,” he retorted as he took a huge gulp, burning his mouth, hoping maybe it would wake him up from this freaked-out nonsense. But it hadn’t helped. Not a bit. “I’m going crazy,” he told himself. “I’ll be in a nuthouse tomorrow, hanging out with people who think they’re Joan of Arc, and muttering about their dead relatives coming to pick them up next week. Absolutely freaking wonderful.” He briefly wondered if all artists were insane, and most just hadn’t figured it out yet. He’d never know though, being hopped up on whatever drugs they’d have him on.
“Dude, seriously!” the voice had loudly interrupted. “You’re not freakin’ out and going crazy. Now get over yourself. Look at you! You’re a mess. I’d shake my head if you’d hurry up and give me one. Ugh, you make me sick, ya know that?”
This last part caught him off guard, confusing him. The “if you’d hurry up and give me one,” not the part about making it sick. “What do you mean, if I’d hurry and give you a head?” he’d asked, but the voice just mocked him in a snide tone, parroting his question.
“Whaddaya think I mean, Jeffrey?” It put a lot of stress on Jeffrey’s name. “Wow, you’re dense. No wonder you’re looking for a change. Your whole lousy life is spiraling down the crapper, and your pea-brain can’t process enough information to see why. That ex-wife of yours was a real peach, eh? Too bad you blew that one.”
Jeffrey’s eyes widened, partly from shock at the comment, partly from anger at its presumptuous attitude. “So, how do you know so much about me anyway?” he asked snidely, not sure he wanted to know the answer.
“Well duh, idiot. You created me. It’s amazing what the mind can conjure when it’s at its bleakest.”
You mean to tell me I’m creating voices now? Man, this just keeps getting better.
“Yo, fantasy boy! Stop daydreaming and get back to work! I can’t help you if you don’t finish my freakin’ body!”
Jeffrey snapped back to reality and put the pastel against the paper once more.
It took him another hour and a half, and an aspirin, to finish the piece, listening to the voice prattle on and on the entire time. His head was throbbing. Does this thing ever shut the heck up? He guessed not, but it finally had a finished body. Thank God! Now maybe he’ll go find someone else to bug.
“Okay! Now hold me up to the mirror,” it chimed excitedly. “I wanna see what the ladies are gonna see!” Jeffrey just shook his head.
Rising to his feet, large artist pad in hand, he walked over to a large full-length mirror across the room. He folded the previous pages against the back, holding them so they wouldn’t fall shut as he faced his new work to the mirror.
“Exquisite!” came the remark at the almost lifelike form of a guy in a long, dark gray coat with a black button-down shirt, boots, and blue jeans. “Jeff, my man, you are a genius! How doooo you do it?” Its voice was ecstatic, beginning every second or third word in a high pitch. “Love the hair, man. I always did picture myself as a blond. Let’s do this! Ready?”
“Thanks, I’m glad you approve. Yeah, I’m ready.” Ready for a quiet night and a stiff drink.
“Sweet!” The tone in the voice became more serious, anxious to get this done.
“Okay, now keep the picture up, facing the mirror.” Jeffrey obliged, his arms tightening to hold the picture where it was.
“Now close your eyes and breathe deep. That’s it. Relax.” His eyes closed as his breath expanded, drawing in a long slow stream of air, filling his lungs. The voice began mumbling something in a strange language.
Latin, maybe? It didn’t really sound like it, though. It wasn’t anything that Jeffrey could place.
As the voice’s uttering became more intense, he felt his skin tingling. The weight of the large pad began to dissipate and the feeling of weightlessness suddenly started to overtake him.
The voice then became silent, reminding him of what was going on. He’d become amazingly relaxed and had completely forgotten what was going on. It was as if he’d just woken up from a quickly forgotten dream except that his eyes were still closed. He had no urge to open them; he had not been this relaxed in a long time.
“It’s done!” the voice shouted suddenly and excitedly, sounding different, louder and sharper somehow, almost as if it was hovering above him. “See ya later, chump!”
His eyes flew open in shock at the sudden trill of the voice and being called a chump — just in time to see the ceiling falling away from him. Immediately, he realized it was himself that was falling. Hitting the floor with a soft thud, he watched in panic an auburn-haired James Dean-looking figure walking away, laughing a mock-evil “Bwah-ha-ha!”
“Hey!” he shouted, angry and frightened. “What the hell’s going on?, Get back here!”
The front door opened for a moment, letting in the sound of loud, obnoxious teens and twenty-somethings outside, well drunk by now.
He began screaming for help, hoping someone would hear him. Seeing a shadow falling over him, his eyes shot up. He screamed again, his cries and curses drowned out as the heavy pages of the large artist’s pad flapped downward, falling shut.
Copyright © 2009 by S. D. Houston