The woman at the cash register gave a pleasant smile to the customer. It was near closing time, just like every other night when this customer arrived. She saw this customer often, and wasn’t surprised to see him come at the end of every week, paying for even more paint.
“Find everything you were looking for?” she asked the same way she always did.
“Yes, ma’am,” the customer replied.
“It feels like you come here every day!” she chuckled. “How much paint have you used up?”
The customer laughed. “I’ve been working on a series lately.”
“Is that so?” The woman placed all the supplies in a bag and speculated on what the project could be. She then handed the bag to her customer, and once again flashed her sweet smile. “Good luck on your work. I’d love to see it once you’re all done.”
The customer’s face turned serious “You wouldn’t want that,” he uttered lowly.
The woman shook her head and assured, “anyone who’s been spending this much time on his work deserves to have it shown to the world.”
Shown to the world. The customer considered this and then smiled. “Maybe someday.”
If the woman knew who this customer was, she would’ve been appalled by his identity. She never asked for the customer’s name, but she did know his work. She believed that she had never seen his paintings before, but she actually had seen them. All of them.
She didn’t realize that the customer was the infamous painter that had been exposing the secrets of several of the town’s folk. And if she were to find out, she, like many others, wouldn’t be able to comprehend his intentions.
His intentions were fueled by a simple mindset: everyone was incapable of showing their true colors. And this man, who went by the pseudonym The Painter, took the liberty to use those colors for them. Every so often, in the evening, The Painter would be face to face with a new canvas. Plain and white, without a story on it – yet.
He was amassing popularity fairly quickly. It was on the local news almost every night now. The Painter never cared about the news at first, but when he started to see a faint appearance of fear on the reporter’s face, he began to enjoy clicking on the TV and watching the story attempt to unfold.
The blaring of the TV, the plain white canvas, there was one other thing the Painter always had with him: A laptop that displayed one website.
This website was Facebook – The medium he used to let out his painted words.
Tonight was yet another night in which The Painter sat in front of the canvas and painted the true colors of one of his so-called “victims.” He didn’t see them as victims. They were clients. Clients that needed help, but didn’t realize it.
The Painter pulled out the paints he bought and allowed them to fall out of their tubes and onto his palette. The woman was generous and gave him a small discount. She really believed in his potential.
Shown to the world. Her words faintly echoed in his ears. She didn’t know. To her, The Painter was simply another customer. She would go home and would watch the same news report that The Painter was watching. Even then, she wouldn’t make the connection. It was better this way. His art was shown to the world, without his face obstructing the way.
“It’s been six months since the first painting went viral on Facebook,” said the news reporter, “and still no telling who this painter is. Victims and their families are stunned by these paintings that are quickly ruining the lives of many.”
The Painter snorted. That reporter had the audacity to say that the paintings were causing people pain? What she didn’t understand was that those paintings exposed the truth. That “pain” that was coming from the paintings wasn’t The Painter’s fault. It was the fault of the subjects themselves.
Those people who continued to hide behind a façade now had their buried feelings brought into the light. These people would no longer have to bear the burden of trying to conceal their feelings. The Painter painted their story. Their secrets. Their hidden feelings. Sometimes, feelings that they didn’t even realize were their own. For The Painter, the paramount form of expression was the ability to express desires and fears, no matter how shocking they may be.
As the news continued on to a different subject, The Painter dipped a clean paintbrush into the fresh paint, and lifted the brush up to the canvas. Another person was going to be exposed.
As the night lingered on, The Painter’s stamina began to wane. Realizing that there was no harm in taking a short break, he took a step back from his canvas and stretched, lifting both hands up and allowing for fresh air to fill his lungs. Glancing at his laptop screen, he watched as comments continued to flood onto his Facebook page. He sat down on his old black couch, and began to scroll down the page to view what felt like an archive of all his work.
The memories the paintings evoked gave him a wave of satisfaction. He observed one painting in which he exposed a young man’s affair. His wedding was cancelled. He observed another painting in which he exposed a mother who was abusive toward her infants. The children were taken from her. He observed yet another painting in which he painted a man who was wasting himself away with his cocaine addiction. He was now in rehab.
But that was only a fragment of the work he had been doing. A painting once a week had allowed him to expose several individuals. The Painter pondered over the idea of eventually stopping this obsession of exposing such secrets, but every time he considered it, a new subject would emerge, serving as his muse as he went forth to paint again.
The Painter didn’t realize the time pass as he gazed over his laptop screen. But suddenly, a small message box popped up at the right of his screen. He raised a single eyebrow. This was strange. No one ever sent him personal messages before.
He felt his body paralyze when he read the name of the person who sent the message. Angela Hales. He painted her recently. This was the first time one of his subjects messaged him on his Facebook page. After an initial state of confusion, he composed himself and read the single sentence message:
Thank you for helping me.
That was all she wrote. The Painter immediately got up from his seat and stepped away from his laptop. His heart began racing, but he couldn’t explain why. This is what he was aiming for, so why did he feel so panicked over someone’s message?
She had a story to tell, and he helped her acknowledge it. He helped several people, but she was the first to realize it. And for whatever reason, he felt scared because of it.
The room was loud from the blaring of the TV, but the chaos that was ensuing within The Painter’s mind was even louder. Why her? Why her out of all the people he painted?
It was a trap. It had to be a trap! She wasn’t really appreciative, she was manipulative! She was trying to toy with his mind, and that was all. That’s all he understood.
But as these thoughts continued to envelope The Painter’s mind, he slowly began to realize that he was overreacting. He leaned forward and used his knees to support his weight, as he lightly panted and regained his breath.
Angela Hales. She had a story to tell alright. And her story was able to captivate him.
She was young. She was beautiful. She was the girl who grabbed everyone’s attention. Her swift blonde hair and striking blue eyes drew all the less memorable eyes towards her direction. Angela Hales walked with a pleasant little bounce, and her presence was felt by those around her.
But the morning after The Painter showed her painting to the world, her pleasant aura vanished, and although she was still grabbing everyone’s attention, it was no longer for the same reason. She began walking with an unsure posture and her pleasant little bounce was no longer there.
As she walked to school that cold winter morning after the painting was released, she passed by several classmates, all loudly whispering over what they had seen.
“Does she really feel that way?”
“But she’s always so happy.”
“I hope she doesn’t do anything to herself.”
The words piled onto her body one by one, bearing her down until she felt herself stumble as she walked. Shut up, she thought. Shut up, shut up, shut up.
She couldn’t keep the words from piercing into her. She started building up speed and avoided everyone’s stares. The words continued:
“What does she have to be upset about?”
“She needs to get over herself.”
“Don’t be like that! She might really be hurting!”
She crashed. For the first time Angela focused her eyes on someone else’s. Within those eyes she saw her reflection, and took note at how she looked so tiny and frail within them.
“I can’t talk,” Angela said coldly, trying to brush past him. He blocked her path and placed his hands firmly on her shoulders.
“Don’t give me that,” he said hurriedly, and then quickly added, “Angela, please, let me help you.”
She glared at him with disgust. “Don’t try to act all heroic. If you’re here to give me a pep talk, then just forget about it.” She broke away from his grasp and started power walking away. He called out to her, but she didn’t turn back.
She quickened her pace every time she heard someone whisper. Shut up, shut up, shut up. Just a few more sprints and she would reach her school.
Unfortunately for her, the school was no sanctuary. As she opened the door and let herself in along with a rush of winter air, she noticed that all eyes were locked on her. Furrowed eyebrow and worried eyes were evident in the people who glanced and whispered. Angela began to recede into herself. Every muscle in her body was telling her to run away, and she would’ve obeyed those messages if her guidance counselor hadn’t walked over.
She gently placed her hands on Angela’s shoulders, the same way her friend had just done.
“Angela,” the counselor began, “you don’t have to be scared. We can talk about this.” Her glass-framed eyes stared down at Angela, and once again Angela found herself breaking away from someone else’s grasp.
“There’s nothing to talk about!” she growled. She was on the verge of tears as she continued to deny the counselor’s words. “I’m fine!”
“No,” the counselor replied firmly, “you’re not. We’ve all seen the painting. Your parents have been called and-“
“What?” Angela exclaimed. “No!” She turned around and bolted back outside, feeling the rush of cold winter air strangle her as she got out.
She began sprinting as the tears began streaming. Eventually, her strides started to slow down as the minutes passed, and soon she found herself panting and wondering what was left for her to do. By the time she finally reached a stop, she had already gone a considerable distance. As she bent over to catch her breath, she pulled out her phone and checked to see if anything had changed on Facebook.
Comments and posts were filling her page, one after another, each trying to offer words of encouragement and questions about her actions. She clutched the phone tightly as she straightened her posture. She scrolled down and finally stopped at the painting that had instigated this chain of comments.
The Painter had painted a portrait of Angela. A portrait that revealed the way she perceived herself. The painting was of her, kneeling on the ground with a giant boulder strapped around her by ropes. The ropes strangled this painted version of her and connected to the bodies of people she cared about. Angela believed she was nothing but a burden --- nothing more than a weight to carry.
She felt that the world would be better off without her; that her very existence caused trouble for others. She was incapable of being a shoulder to lean on for her friends even in the direst situations. She was incapable of being the daughter that would give her family pride. She was incapable of being a girl who could go through her days without once wondering how much better everyone else’s life would be if she wasn’t given the displeasure of being born.
Angela noticed a teardrop on her phone, and through her disgust over her own weakness, she hurled the phone across the road and prepared herself to start running again.
As she began her first stride forward, she once again heard, though in a much more distressed way, “Angela!” She suspected that she would regret turning around, but a sudden impulse led her to turn anyway.
Another friend was frantically running up to her. Angela didn’t want to hear another word of encouragement from anyone, yet she decided to stay and wait for this friend to reach her.
Once she did, Angela muttered, “I don’t need this. I’ve heard enough sympathy and -” Suddenly, she felt the impact of her friends hand across her face. Feeling shocked, Angela began to regret her hostility. Things like this made her feel like a burden.
“You’re such an idiot!” her friend roared. She then pulled out her own phone from her pocket and extended it out to show Angela the painting again. “Is this how you feel? After all you’ve done for so many of us, this is how you feel!?”
Angela was confused. “Wh-what are you talking about?”
“You should know what I mean.” Her friend then took a moment to catch her breath as tears began to form. “You’re the reason we’re able to keep going. Don’t you hear it? Everyone talks about how you brighten their day. They talk about how you’re the reason they keep going.”
“They’re only saying that now because they feel sorry for me.”
“Angela, what makes you think like that?”
“You know what?” Angela replied defensively. “This is why I’ve kept my mouth shut. Now everyone is staring at me like I’m psychotic and they’re trying to lock me up in the counselor’s office.”
Her friend shook her head. “You don’t understand. Don’t you think it means something if I came running all the way here to see you? Didn’t you ever think that a real burden for us would be noticing that you’re gone?”
Angela froze. Would people really care? Did she really matter to them?
“Even though we don’t say it,” her friend continued, “we need you in our lives.”
Now Angela felt her entire body shake from sheer astonishment. I must be hallucinating or something, she thought.
Her friend chuckled. “You know, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad The Painter painted you. Whoever he is, he showed us all how you thought of yourself. And you know what? It kills us. So please, Angela. We’re sorry.” The chuckling was evanescent. Her friend’s tears came back as she cried, “Please forgive us!”
Finally, Angela collapsed. Her friend caught her and lifted her back into a tight hug. Although Angela felt her body go numb, she managed to clutch the back of her friend’s coat, as her tears dropped onto it.
Faintly, Angela whispered, “I’m sorry.”
The Painter leaned back on his old black couch, wondering what could have possibly caused Angela to respond to him like this. He didn’t know what to type as a response. He didn’t know how to use words to articulate his thoughts. That’s the real reason why he painted. He painted because that was the only way he could truly speak. Despite his ability to free others from their silence, he was still held by his own silence.
Eventually, he decided to respond in the only way that was possible for him. He glanced up at the painting he was working on that evening. It was only half a silhouette of an entirely different person. Although he hadn’t gotten far, The Painter now realized that he had something else to work on that night.
He got up and grabbed a half filled sketchbook and a black pen from his desk, and quickly began drawing. The minutes ticked by and he eventually produced a simple sketch. He took a picture of it and sent it as his message.
Though it wasn’t his best, this sketch held meaning. His sketch was of Angela, free from the ropes of that boulder. The ropes were pulled off from her by those people she thought she weighed down, as they helped free her from her mind’s misconceptions.
The Painter marveled at what he just did. This was the first time a client sent him a personal message. The first time he ever spoke to one of his clients. Most importantly, the first time a client acted as a muse for a second work of art. The way she changed herself captivated him once again, and he was able to use her as a muse again.
The Painter took a final look at his laptop and then closed it, feeling more exhausted than usual. It then occurred to him that he may never have a muse quite as interesting as Angela. People like her are rare to find. She inspired him to paint a story that managed to evolve - a story that he helped morph into a happy ending.
Perhaps that was the reward of having his artwork shown to the world.