The canvas was blank. Joe Messiah had been at his easel all night long, had barely breathed, hadn’t blinked since midnight, felt his fingers bent like stone vices around his brush and palette. But before him, the canvas was white.
When the morning sun crested the penthouse windows, he inhaled for the first time in hours and, like trying to bend steel with his bare hands, twisted his head toward the windows. Across the splattered once-white tarp, the open tubes of paint scattered about, the unfinished hard wood floor poking up in places, the sky was vermillion and blue.
He imagined a stroke of one hand, three fingers pressed into a color on the other side. A diagonal stripe and a vertical flutter. A curlicue wind, barely visible.
The canvas, however, remained untouched.
Joe pried back his fingers and let the palette slide from his hand and strike the tarp with a muffled thud. A slight loosening of his other hand allowed the brush to slip with ease to the floor. He inhaled again, forgotten if he’d remembered to exhale before that, and scratched his fingers down the stretched linen before him.
The sun had almost risen entirely. Joe looked up at the ceiling and swallowed. He looked over his shoulder at the penthouse door. Soon it would open. Soon it would be too late.
He considered walking to the window, sliding it aside, stepping onto the ledge and letting gravity take him.
A burst of red at the center. Stripes in black and violet spreading out like sound waves. A scream. Three white birds, barely scratches, in the upper right corner.
There was a knock at the door that drew his attention from the piece. He rose like rusted metal broken into effect and then staggered toward the door as a sudden weakness in his knees overcame him. The knocking came again as he fell onto the door, breathing heavily, his eyes shut.
He leaned away, gripped the knob with trembling fingers more like jelly now than stone, and with one fatal inhalation of the stale air around him, wrenched open the door.
There was a little girl standing in the unfinished hall. Her beady black eyes stared up at him from beneath an entanglement of chestnut hair. Her round face was pale and soft lined, but stoic at the lips and vacant in her cheeks. She strode past Joe without giving him more than a passing glance and came to a stop at the unfinished canvas.
“I am displeased,” said her voice, sweet, a note of bitterness behind the honey. “I wanted something beautiful. You’ve given me nothing.”
She turned in one quick motion to face him. Now her innocent eyes were inflamed.
“Please,” he said, falling onto his knees before her, finding himself pleading so much sooner than he would have wished, “please, just give me one more chance! Please!”
She smiled at him with such distaste all her childish sweetness vanished for a moment.
“I have given you a week, Messiah, and you have produced nothing in this time. Why do you deserve another chance?”
He stared up at her, tears budding right behind his eyelids, saw her familiar face, the dark behind her eyes, the nest of hair through which she glowered down upon him. He could not think of any more reasons to delay. He had exhausted all his mind could produce.
“I don’t know,” he muttered, crumbling before the child, turning from stone to dust that was quickly settling upon the paint-stained tarp, “I don’t know.”
“One more night,” the girl said, a mock softness returned to her tone. “One more night, Joe Messiah, and if I am not satisfied come morning, I shall keep her forever.”
The girl left on her own.
It was midday before Joe was able to pry himself from the floor. He sat before the canvas once more. Considered her glare, the evil her youth encapsulated.
There was a circle of black amid a white background. Spotted along the exterior were pinpricks of orange and red. Within the circle, waves of purple and blue converging upon a single point just north of center. And at that point–
He envisioned the depth to her eyes, the loathing and contempt. What had brought him this? He couldn’t bring himself to think of it, to waste any more of his precious time. He had to paint. He had to do something.
He lifted his brush and dabbed it in the renewed palette. He made a stroke here, a mark there, covered the canvas a dozen times in as many minutes until he was left staring at a mess of black swirls and undetectable shapes.
He felt the tears splatter down his face before he realized he was crying again. What could he create that would look beautiful to this monster, this beast? What in the world had it not seen, not loathed? What terror could he capture in a mere mortal painting to appease her?
He grabbed a nail that he saw lying on the floor and returned to his canvas. He began chipping away and scratching through the black paint, outlining what at first looked like a forest, then became a skyline, then at last, when morning neared, became discernible for what it truly was. He sat back, dropped the nail, was smiling.
All his elation, however, deflated the moment the knock came upon the door. The morning light cast strange shadows over his piece, but in a way they seemed to accentuate all the curving lines he had carved into the darkness. Even still, this did not fend off his fears.
He pulled open the door without breathing and let the girl march by without interruption. He followed her with uneasy steps into the center of the penthouse and saw her gazing at the portrait. From a distance he thought he was crying again, thought his tears were obscuring her standing before him, but with a closer look, he realized he wasn’t crying at all.
The girl, still before his painting, was slowly turning to paint herself. Large globs of black and iridescent colors rolled from her cheeks, dripped from her hair, poured out of the sockets that had once held eyes and now only housed pools of oozing paint.
Joe backed away as she melted, cringed at the sight of her body crumbling, turned away when she splattered onto the tarp with a final sound of ejected bile striking concrete.
When the penthouse remained silent for some moments, Joe braved himself to peel his hands from his eyes and step toward the painting. The girl was gone, the splatters of paint dried into a thick crust atop the tarp, and the painting was just as he had left it: The face of the girl, carved from the blackest shapes of shadow, but glowing with the rainbows of colors that had been painted underneath.
He smiled at his work, wished to see again what it had represented, and then walked away. He left his paints beside his easel, left his brushes and the nail he had carved her face away with, left the tarp. He passed the open elevator shaft and made for the stairs. Twenty-two flights later he emerged into the sunlit street bustling with cars, his jeans stained and his white shirt splotched, both hanging off him in languid ways, the torment of a week’s worth of starvation.
He stopped briefly at a burned down building where his wife and daughter had once lived, then turned to stare at the sun and walked on into the world.