The Contract

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The Contract

by

Phoenix Hocking

Susan watched the sunshine creep across the face on the canvas, gradually illuminating cheek and hair, jaw and lips. The oil painting stood on an easel in the corner, awaiting only the finishing touches on the complicated background design. The face had been finished some time ago, but the background was more challenging. She had decisions to make.

She had picked up her brush, ready to begin, when she felt strong arms around her waist and a hot breath next to her ear. “Hard at work, I see,” said the familiar voice.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Do you like it?”

“It’s … “ the voice hesitated. “It’s different.”

“You don’t like it,” she said flatly. “I hate painting children.”

“I know,” the voice soothed. “I know. But this is what you signed up for.”

Susan sighed. “Yes, but if I had known … “

He laughed lightly. “That’s what they all say.” And then he was gone.

She sat heavily on the rolling stool near the painting and covered her face with her hands. Yes, God help her, she had signed up for this, and now she regretted every second it.

Susan Davis had been an accomplished artist; good, but not great. Competent, but not inspired. And she wanted more than anything to make a name for herself in the art world. She’d had a few gallery shows, a few exhibits in the park, but still, she remained only a minor player in her chosen profession.

And then, he had arrived. He’d walked into the gallery where her pictures were being shown and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. He’d offered her wealth, and travel, and most of all, recognition. All she had to do was paint portraits for him whenever he asked. Very specific portraits. It seemed a small price to pay.

There was a contract. One she dared not break.

Good Lord, she often thought, how did I get into this mess? And how do I get out of it?

To be fair, he had kept his part of the bargain. Almost immediately after signing the contract, someone had bought one of her painting for an exorbitant, positively outrageous sum. And then more, and more, and more. She made more money than she literally knew what to do with. Her name became known throughout the art world. Articles were written about her, documentaries made for television detailing her meteoric rise.

And travel? She went everywhere. London, Rome, Istanbul, Moscow, even Timbuktu. She stayed in the finest hotels, drank the most expensive wines, ate caviar and lobster and filet mignon.

He was beside her every day, reminding her that none of this would be possible without him. Her entire life was his to command, and she was grateful, for she had grown to love her lifestyle. The wealth, the travel, the fame, the opulence of her life was like a drug, and she could not imagine living without it.

And then ….

Yes, and then. He came to her one day. Where was it, that first portrait? She thought about that. There had been so many now. Of course. She had been in Milan, relaxing in the private Jacuzzi attached to her suite, when he came in.

“Hello, my darling,” he’d said. “You remember our contract, yes?”

“Of course!” Susan had exclaimed. “I thought perhaps you’d forgotten, since you hadn’t asked me to paint any portraits for you.”

He sat on the side of the tub, idly popping the bubbles that swirled around Susan’s naked body.

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten,” he said, his voice as smooth and seductive as Ghirardelli chocolate. “Tomorrow morning, meet me in the lobby. I have your first commission, and I’ll tell you what to do.”

The following morning, she met him, as arranged, in the lobby of her hotel. He was alone, and she looked around for someone who might be the subject of the portrait he wanted done.

“Oh, you won’t have a live person sitting for the portrait,” he said. He pulled a photograph from his pocket and handed it to her.

The photograph was of an old man, his face deeply lined, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. He sat in a wheelchair, his oxygen tank in the chair’s holder and the canula in his nose.

Susan’s brow furrowed. “Him? Who is he?”

“That’s none of your concern,” he answered. “Paint him as you see him, but in the background, I want you to paint a hospital room.”

“A hospital room?”

“You’re not to ask questions,” he said sternly. “Just do it.”

So, she did. She painted what she saw, and what she imagined the old man’s hospital room to look like.

The instant she put the final dab of color on the portrait, her benefactor arrived. He seemed pleased.

Then he handed her the photograph of a young soldier. “Paint the soldier,” he said, “and in the background I want a battle scene. Afghanistan, or Iran, or some desert place like that,” he instructed.

So, she did.

After that, the portraits kept coming, young and old, men and women, all shapes, sizes and colors of people. A few dogs, but not many. He wanted their portraits, with varying backgrounds, none of which made any sense to her. But, she had signed a contract, and she kept her word, as he had kept his.

Then. Dear God in Heaven. Then …

He brought her a photograph of a famous world leader. She recognized him immediately. “Him?” she’d exclaimed. “You want me to paint him?”

“Yes,” he’d answered. “Him.”

“What background do you want?”

He studied her face, lined with concern. “I want you to paint the aftermath of a bomb.”

“Dear God, why?”

“Don’t ask questions. Just do it.” And he was gone.

She painted the portrait of the world leader. She painted the background, an ugly, complicated, mishmash of what she imagined a scene would look like if a bomb went off behind him.

It was distressing work, so she turned on the television to keep her company. By coincidence, the world leader was giving a speech. The room in which he spoke looked eerily like the bomb-destroyed space she had just painted in the background of his portrait. And as soon as she placed the last dab of color on the painting, the picture on the television went blank.

She changed the channel. All over the stations came the report that the world leader had been killed in an explosion. And when the cameras panned in on the destruction, Susan’s painting showed the exact same scene.

She was stunned. Surely this had to be a coincidence. She hadn’t caused the bomb to go off, had she? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. It HAD to be a coincidence.

Didn’t it?

After that, she paid closer attention to her subjects, and to the backgrounds he wanted her to paint. She searched the newspapers and watched the news in the days following the completion of every portrait. And without fail, the person who was the subject died in the same manner as the backgrounds.

Dear God, who was this man? Surprisingly, Susan had never questioned who her benefactor was. Not really. He had said his name was Nick, and given her some papers to sign, but she had been totally besotted by his promises and not read the contract at all. The words were tiny, and filled with legalese, and there were pages and pages and pages of them. Who had time for that?

She made time. She read every word, and buried deep on page 17, she found it. According to the contract, she was required to paint the portraits of whomever Nick deemed necessary, with the backgrounds he demanded. Failure to do so would result in the forfeiture of her immortal soul.

She confronted him. She attempted to rip up the contract, but the paper would not tear. She tried to burn it, but it would not catch fire.

He laughed at her.

And then he gave her another photograph, this one of a little boy, perhaps eight or nine years old. He was a sweet-faced child, haunted around the eyes by a long illness, thin. Too young to die.

Her heart sank.

She painted the child with care, with love, with an ache in her heart that she, she was to be the cause of this child’s demise. But, what else could she do? Where was there an out?

In desperation, Susan buried her face in her hands and sobbed, “Please, God, help me get out of this mess.”

Tears streaming down her face, she attacked the contract again, peering at the tiny print until her head ached and her eyes burned. There had to be a way out of this.

And then, on page 23, there it was.

According to the contract, if any subject of any portrait failed to expire immediately upon the portrait’s completion, then the terms of the contract would be null and void.

Perfect. All she had to do was figure out how to make sure this little boy lived. But how?

She just sat for a while, not thinking, not praying, not doing anything. Just closed her eyes and sat. She became conscious of her breath, her body, the figures that played in the darkness behind her eyes. And in the stillness, came an idea, and with the idea came peace.

Susan knew he was watching her closely. He inspected the portrait every chance he got. He peered over her shoulder while she worked, made suggestions, urged her to hurry and complete it.

She claimed artist’s privilege and said good art could not be rushed. Especially with a child as beautiful as this one. But she painted. She painted as if her life depended on it, as if the boy’s life depended on it. She painted far into the night, long after the sun had set.

The background of the painting was complicated. It showed the hospital room of the child, complete with heart monitor, intravenous bags full of fluid, medicine bottles, and his grieving parents, their faces contorted with pain.

Just before midnight, Nick arrived at Susan’s little studio.

“Is it finished?” he asked.

“Almost,” she replied, as she leaned forward to put one more addition on the portrait. She straightened up and said quietly, “It is finished.”

He examined the painting, studied the boy’s sickly face, his parent’s sad countenances, and nodded. He left, but returned in ten minutes, furious. “I thought you said it was finished,” he growled.

“It is finished,” Susan replied. “And so is your hold over me.”

She stood in front of the painting, holding the contract in her hand. Easily, she tore it into two pieces and tossed it into the fire where the flames caught it and burned it to ash.

Then she moved away from the painting, and he gasped.

The painting had been utterly transformed. Where before the boy’s face had been sickly, now it shone with health, his cheeks rosy and his eyes bright. His parent’s faces, once contorted with grief were now shining with joy. And around the boy’s neck, almost invisible to the naked eye, Susan had painted a golden chain, and a tiny gold cross.

“What have you done?” the devil cried.

“I came to understand that there is a Power on this earth far greater than you,” Susan said.

“What?” he cried, his face suffused with anger. “What is greater than I?”

Susan paused a moment before she answered. “Love,” she said as she walked out the door.

In an obscure little art gallery, somewhere off the beaten path, you will find the last known painting by the world-renowned artist, Susan Davis. It is of a little boy, looking healthy and happy, playing in a meadow filled with flowers and surrounded by trees. The sunshine surrounds him, and the light illuminates the necklace he wears, a small golden chain with a tiny cross glowing upon the skin of his chest.

Susan Davis dropped mysteriously out of sight soon after this portrait was completed, but there is some speculation that she is currently working as a waitress somewhere in New Mexico.

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