“The Artist Lih”
by Christopher D. Leonard
I followed the attendant to Senya’s bedroom and tripped over an extension cord. From a nearby nightstand, its connected lamp toppled. The unlit bulb, secure and surrounded by a lampshade, did not break; but I almost wished it had. Quiet crash of lamp on carpet did not wake Senya the billionaire, founder of three multimillion-dollar corporations and active CEO over two. Quiet crash of lamp on carpet did not give me excuse to leave, but a shattered bulb might have.
The attendant returned fallen lamp to its stand, clicked it on, and left. Dim pale light fell on drawn window shades. A canvas lay in room’s center, surrounded by a collection of brushes and acrylic paints. In the corner, on his bed, Senya snored. The top two buttons of his nightgown dangled by their stitches.
I had an hour to paint. My instructions: insert a memory that had never happened.
The paint tube caps unscrewed, fell. I selected a brush, one with thin bristles, a ferrule that chilled my hand, and wetted it black. No one could witness the infusion, else it would not work. The memory would not hold. I tiptoed to Senya, signed his forehead, and waddled back. The snores quieted. Sleep would hold him so long as the seal remained unblemished.
A beach grew at downward slant, with waves that rolled to an island dotted by palm trees. Knobby stones rose in the stretch between. A colony of seagulls dotted the sky, vanished behind two rippled clouds. Silver stained cerulean. Ocher muddied silver. Senya’s room sweet and rancid, as though a servant had sprayed air freshener atop an offal they could not find. Lamplight flickered.
He slouches, the attendant had explained to me. He slouches! So lost in his work, never stands straight – not unless we remind him. Give him a memory from better times, some goal he can pursue that might make life tolerable.
No time to live life, I had thought but not replied. Easiest for me to accept the commission, follow instructions, and get paid. Easiest for him to remember life as though he had lived it. Felt balmy that day. Curved lines softened the rigid, overlapped each other in layers. A banquet of salads, churros, hors d’oeuvres lined clothed tables. Glass jugs and cups filled to their brims with cider. Sparse use of shadow accented rather than dominated the celebration. Senya, decades younger and in shorts, paraded through a crowd. Crowds had tended to flock him in his relative though charismatic anonymity. They swarmed him in his fame. After a day’s work, tent for home and body sore, some had to ask the rich why.
Had never heard a good answer – not that I could give one either. In recent years, malpractice had come to dominate the headlines of my profession. Easy to slip through memory an artist’s biases or personal interests.
This commission would not end as some of my fellow craftsmen might encourage. I could not, under any circumstances, compel my client to change their attitude toward others nor myself. The attendant, Senya’s lawyers, my own had made that clear. I could not compel my client to change their attitude toward others nor myself – but no one had mentioned how Senya thought of his own person. I dressed the crowd in clothes dirtied and torn, threw wads of cash in their hands. Green and gold glittered amongst the stained sands. Freshness of an ocean breeze trailed Senya, wallet open and held before himself. He stood straight.
I washed the brush, wetted it black, and smeared my signature in the canvas’ corner. The taste of licorice coated my tongue. Art had implanted itself as memory. The attendant would inspect my finished project, of course, and that would end me. Spat the lighter I had hidden between my cheek and back teeth. Lit the lampshade first, lowered my easel as though I had knocked it over in panic: electric fire; dangerous to use ungrounded cords. Torched the canvas and brushes. Felt torrid, the air; and slimy sweat beaded down my body. Threw the lighter to flame, hollered, threw myself at window, wall, door.
I had tried to get the attendant’s attention, didn’t they understand? I would show off these new bruises. Couldn’t they hear me across the hall and through soundproof doors? I had yelled myself hoarse, but nobody would have arrived without the fire alarm’s blare.
Senya slept through the ordeal. I wiped the sign from his forehead myself. On the bed before me, a new man woke.
In the time between university classes and homework, Christopher D. Leonard writes stories. Daily Science Fiction published his flash fiction piece “Thick as Pea Soup” in 2019.