The Portrait

artist: Denny Stoekenbroek

A short story by Jeannette Miller Mickenham

Amanda looked down at the crowd. They were all there for her. Celebrating her latest masterpiece. She sipped her champagne and thought about how much her life had changed in the last year. A year ago, Amanda was eating Ramen noodles and running out of couches to sleep on. Her friends were running out of patience for her art. She couldn’t give her paintings away. No one wanted them.

Amanda could feel him approach and saw him out of the corner of her eye take position next to her at the balcony.

“It’s a wonderful party, isn’t it?” He said. Kage had changed her life. Although, looking back, not in the way she really wanted.

“Yes.” Amanda couldn’t pretend much longer. Her soul was empty and she knew her time was coming to end. She didn’t realize how much she looked forward to leaving this world behind until just then.

She met Kage at a gallery where she was trying to submit her art. The gallery wasn’t interested but Kage asked if he could see more. She said yes before he could change his mind.

She took him to her studio, which was the little corner of a storage room in her friend’s apartment. It was cramped and poorly lit which didn’t help; but, Kage said he saw promise in her work. It was like a gift from God. Amanda couldn’t help herself and began sobbing. Kage took her in his arms, led her back to the living room, and made her a cup of tea.

When she was settled, he asked, “Amanda, I would like to help you. But I’ll need a commitment.”

“Of course. I’ll do anything. At this point. I need to sell my work.” Amanda couldn’t believe this man was real. She was so desperate to make it. She was committed.

“Alright” he said. “Tell you what, I will take one of your paintings to a friend’s gallery. His gallery is not as well known as he caters to a different clientele than here in the city.”

“Thank you so much, Kage, for this. You’re saving my life.” Amanda was relieved someone was actually interested in her work. Kage took the one portrait she did of her roommate a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t the strongest piece she had but Kage said it was going to change everything.

It had been weeks since she met Kage and gave him the portrait. She should’ve known he was scamming her. She had been to every gallery in town and no one wanted her art. Why should Kage? She went back to the gallery where she met him and no one knew who she was talking about. Of course, she thought. He doesn’t exist. Even better. She walked back to the apartment, knowing she didn’t have any money for her roommate or job prospects. What excuse was she going to give this time?

She saw Kage standing in the doorway of the building. She was immediately angry and relieved to see his face.

“Where have you been? It’s been weeks! You just left without saying, without telling me. I couldn’t find you.” Amanda asked in rapid succession.

Kage calmly replied, “Amanda, I told you I would take your work and have it seen. It takes time and I needed to…make some arrangements for you.”

“Arrangements?”

“Yes. My friend would like to commission you for some work. That’s why I took the portrait.”

“Commission? I’m being hired?”

“Yes.”

Amanda was beside herself. She was so happy, so confused. She didn’t care. She just wanted to work and get paid.

“What do I do next?” She asked.

“Gather your things and meet me at this address in one hour.” Kage handed her a small piece of paper with an address scribbled on it. “Gather ALL of your things. You’ll be staying there as well.” Amanda couldn’t believe it. She was going to make it.

“You’re deep in thought.” Kage observed.

“I was thinking of how we met. How you changed everything for me.” Amanda replied.

“Ah, yes. You were so eager.” Kage gazed across the sea of people, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

She couldn’t answer. Everything she knew and loved about art was destroyed. Yes, she wanted recognition for her work. Fame. Money. But the price. The price was far too much to bear and she welcomed the release from her commitment. 

“Kage, you know the portraits I’ve been doing the last few months? I saw one of the subjects in the newspaper listed as a missing person. You don’t think it could be the same person, do you?”

Amanda thought it must be a coincidence. She didn’t mind painting portraits since the money was good; but the set up was weird. Kage would give her photographs of the subject, she would paint the portrait of them, and Kage would deliver the painting to the gallery where it would be shipped to the owner. Amanda never met the gallery owner nor the purchasers or subjects.

“Missing person? Strange.” Kage replied sipping his tea.

“Kage? I’ve been thinking.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. These portrait commissions are great, and everything, but—”

Kage interrupted, “But, you want more. You want people, art people, to recognize and appreciate your work.” 

“Yes. I want to see my work in a gallery.”

“You’re not happy with our arrangement?” Kage prodded.

“No, I am happy.” Amanda blurted. “But, I’m more than portraits. I want to tell people, show people, my work. I haven’t been able to since we started. All my friends know is that I live somewhere upstate and work for some eccentric guy who pays me to paint portraits. Portraits I’m not allowed to show anyone. I want to do something I can show people.”

The words hung in the air. Neither of them spoke for a moment. Amanda started to feel like she sounded ungrateful for all Kage had done for her. As Amanda was preparing to take back what she said, Kage replied, “Very well.”

“Really? I’ve been working on some other pieces. I can show you?” Amanda should’ve trusted Kage. He always came through. “I’m sorry, Kage, I hope I didn’t sound ungrateful. You’ve been so good to me.”

“I suppose you’d like to live in the city as well?”

Amanda couldn’t believe her ears. “Yes! Can I? I would love to see my friends again.” Amanda missed them desperately. Being cooped up in this big old house, painting portraits with Kage always in the room, was getting to her. She longed for food cart hot dogs, snobby art collectors, and the dive bars she used to frequent with her friends.

“I have one portrait for you before you can go. Do it while I make the arrangements for you. You’ll have to continue with the portraits, while in the city, but you cannot show them to anyone per our current commitment.”

“Yes, of course, Kage. Thank you so much!” Amanda went to work with a renewed energy from this good news. She was going back to the city. She couldn’t wait.

Amanda should’ve stayed out there in that old house. It would’ve been better living in ignorance about her art.

“Kage, why me?” Amanda knew it was a dumb question but she couldn’t help herself.

“Why not you? I gave you an opportunity and you took it.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“You didn’t ask. Would you have declined?”

Amanda thought back to the woman she was then. She was desperate. She would’ve done anything. “No.” It was just the knowing that bothered her.

 It was weird seeing her art hanging in a gallery; especially since it wasn’t her best. The art world kept buying it though just as Kage said they would. It didn’t matter what she painted, they bought it. They wrote amazing reviews about her work and she couldn’t keep up with the requests for more pieces. She submitted work she thought was garbage and the art world accepted it as her Avant Garde phase. She was becoming more disillusioned as her success grew within the art community. She felt nothing when she should’ve felt on top of the world. Being widely accepted was worse than being unseen. At least back then she painted how she saw the world even though no one cared.

“No one understands me or my art.” Amanda declared to Kage.

“You want people to understand you? I thought you wanted recognition.” Kage replied.

“I do. I did. But…”

“But, what?”

“I want to mean something. I want my work to mean something.” Amanda knew she sounded pretentious but she couldn’t stop herself.

“Amanda, art doesn’t work that way. Your art, regardless of how you feel about it, draws something within a person and their response to it.”

“Maybe I just need a break.” sighed Amanda. “It’s been almost a year and I’ve been working nonstop since that first portrait. Speaking of which, do you remember me telling you about the missing person I thought I recognized?”

“Yes, of course. A strange coincidence.” Kage replied.

“Yeah, it is strange. What’s even more weird, I thought I ran across another one a few weeks ago. I forgot to mention it. I was going to ask for one of the photos I returned so I could look into it.”

“People go missing, Amanda. Better to leave it alone.”

“Don’t you think I have a moral obligation to tell the police if I know something?”

“What do you know, Amanda? What do you think you’re going to say to the police? That you’ve painted a portrait of someone who has gone missing?

“Well…” stammered Amanda.

“Well what? You know nothing about the person, who they are, where they come from, or who commissioned the work. Do you?”

“Well, no, but it’s something. A clue, right?” Kage hadn’t spoken to Amanda this way before which made Amanda sure there was more to the story. She decided to up the ante. “I’m going down to the station tomorrow and talk to someone in missing persons.”

“I don’t think that’s a wise idea, Amanda.” Kage said calmly. “You have no proof. You have no photos or even a portrait to show them. They won’t believe you.”

“I have my current work. I can show them the photos I do have and the piece I’m working on.”

“Which proves you’re a painter. So?”

“So, if these people are missing, shouldn’t we tell them so someone can find them?” Amanda didn’t understand why Kage was against her attempt at doing something good. “Kage?”

“Amanda, I think it’s time you and I had a talk.” Kage said without looking at her.

“Okay.” Amanda was pretty sure this was not going to go well. She had a sudden feeling of dread and wished she wouldn’t have brought up the missing person thing.

Kage began, “Amanda, when I met you, you were a struggling painter. I saw potential in you so I gave you an opportunity which you took. Without asking what was needed from you in return.”

“I know and I’m grateful for that.” Amanda interjected.

He continued, “You wanted to do more, live in the city. I gave you those things. Now, it seems to be the time to discuss the terms of your commitment. I would’ve preferred to do this another way; however, it’s your right to know.”

“What do you mean? My right to know? To know what?” Amanda became nervous. She looked at Kage. His face had grown hard and dark.

Kage took a sip of his tea and let Amanda’s mind race. “The portraits you paint are special, Amanda. They contain the souls of those within. Once painted, the subject enters the painting and exits the world as you know it.”

Amanda stood there with her mouth agape. She must have painted forty portraits since then. Was he saying forty people have gone missing?

“Are you saying as I painted these people, I was killing them?” Amanda thought she would be sick but she felt paralyzed and betrayed.

“You were not killing anyone, Amanda. You were merely opening the spiritual door for them to pass through.” Kage explained.

“But… I don’t understand. Who gave you the photos? How were these people chosen? Why?”

“It is not for you to understand who or why. It just is. There’s a price to pay for things in this world and, in exchange for the life you wanted so deeply, these people had to be released from their commitments.”

“Oh my God. What have I done?” Amanda pleaded with herself. She couldn’t undo her actions and she felt betrayed by her ambition. How could she have been so blind? “I cannot do this anymore. I cannot paint anymore portraits.”

Kage nodded. “I see. Well, I’m afraid in order to be released from your commitment, you’ll have to paint one more portrait. Of yourself.”

Amanda shook. “And if I don’t?”

Kage took a sip of his tea, “Someone else will paint it for you.”

“There are others?” The dread had fully washed over her as she realized the enormity of her situation.

“Of course. Did you really think you were that special?” Kage’s words cut her deeper than she ever imagined. “The choice is yours,” he said. “You can continue to paint portraits and live a successful life or you can paint your own portrait and leave this world as you know it.”

Amanda’s head was spinning. If she really thought about it, painting portraits wasn’t really that big of deal. She didn’t know any of the people. She didn’t know anything about their lives. They could be horrible people or they could be people just like her. She was disgusted with herself for even trying to justify it. She knew what she had to do.

“I’ll paint my own portrait.”

“Very well,” Kage said. “You have one week. I’ll throw the biggest showing you’ve ever seen for the reveal.”

“It’s almost time for the reveal,” Kage said. “Are you ready?”

“Yes, I’m ready.” It was the greatest work Amanda had ever done. She poured everything into this portrait knowing it would be her last. “Thank you, Kage, for allowing me to paint this one in private. I really want it to be a surprise for you as well.”

“Of course, Amanda. Shall we?” Kage took Amanda’s hand and led her down the stairs to the gallery hall where the portrait hung behind a large red velvet curtain.

Kage lifted his hand and called out, “Attention please, everyone, may I have your attention?” The room quieted and people gathered closer to where they were standing. “May I present to you, Amanda’s latest work!” Kage pulled the curtain and the crowd ooh’d and ahh’d. Kage turned and saw the portrait was not of Amanda as promised but of him. He smiled.

“I’ll always remember you Kage. I hope you like it.” Amanda said.

“It’s your best work yet. Thank you.” Kage replied.

2496 words based on the elements: Genre- Horror; subject– ambition; character–a painter.

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