Portraits

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Start your story with somebody taking a photo.... view prompt

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Horror Contemporary Mystery

“Amanda, a picture for page six?” Amanda turned around and smiled holding up her glass of champagne as the event photographer took her picture. “Got it! Thanks.” They said walking away as they began taking pictures of the other guests.

She stood at the gallery balcony and looked down at the crowd. Hundreds of people wearing exquisite gowns and tuxedos were there all for her. Celebrating her latest painting. She sipped her champagne feeling the bubbles float down her throat and thought about how much her life had changed in the last year.

Amanda could feel Kage approach and saw him out of the corner of her eye as he came to stand 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 felt empty and she knew her time in the public eye was coming to end.

A year ago, Amanda was eating Ramen noodles and running out of friend’s couches to sleep on while her friends were running out of patience for her “art”. She couldn’t give her paintings away. No one wanted them.

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 put his arm around her shoulder, 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. I need to sell my work.” Amanda couldn’t believe this man was real. She was so desperate to make it.

“Alright” he said, “I will take one of your paintings to a friend’s gallery. Now, his gallery is not as well-known as he caters to a different clientele than here in the city, but he is very wealthy and knows just the right people in the art world.”

“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? Time was running out. She needed money for her roommate or everything, including herself, was going to get tossed out on the street.

She went back to the gallery where she first met Kage and asked if he had been there recently. Of course, no one knew who she was talking about. Great, 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?

As she turned the corner, she saw Kage standing in the doorway of the building. She was immediately angry and then 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 stammered.

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.”

Amanda calmed herself and said, “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 threw her arms around Kage and hugged him. 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. This was the break she needed.

The address was for a mansion just outside the city limits in the countryside where the wealthy spent their weekends away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. It had a massive iron gated entrance which opened for Amanda’s taxi as they approached and a tree lined driveway which finally curved to reveal a glorious Tudor style mansion. Amanda could not believe she was actually going to live and work here. It felt like a dream.

She stepped out of the taxi as the butler and another man gathered her things from the driver. They paid the taxi driver and gestured her to follow them inside.

“This place is magnificent.” Amanda said as she followed them inside and then up the staircase. The two men said nothing in return and continued to walk until they reached a door, opened it, and went inside. It was glorious. There were easels, canvas of all sizes, oil paints, watercolors, chalk, and everything else a painter or artist would need. In the next room was the biggest bed Amanda had ever seen with a big fluffy down comforter.

“Is everything satisfactory, madam?” the butler asked.

“Yes, it’s more than satisfactory, thank you.”

“Very well. Master Kage will meet you downstairs in the library.”

“Thank you.” Master Kage? Was he kidding? Amanda wondered what kind of fairy tale she had stumbled into and if it was going to have a happy ever after.

It was like a fairy tale of sorts. For the last six months, Kage kept her busy painting portraits for his friends and she was given everything she needed. One morning while Amanda was drinking her tea, she noticed a photograph with a missing persons article below it. It looked familiar but she couldn’t place it at first. Then she realized the person had been a subject of one her first portraits.

Amanda thought it must be a coincidence. She didn’t mind painting portraits since the money was good; but the set up was beginning to feel 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.

Amanda decided to say something to Kage.

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

“I was thinking about looking 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?”

“You’re not happy with our arrangement?

“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. In a gallery.”

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.”

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. I’ll make the arrangements.  You’ll have to continue with the portraits, while in the city, and you cannot show them to anyone per our current commitment.”

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

The city was a breath of fresh air but she was still so busy painting she rarely saw her friends. It was weird seeing her personal art hanging in a gallery. The art world kept buying it 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. She was becoming more disillusioned as her success grew. 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 after returning from her latest showing.

“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 I started with you.

“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 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. 

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. She knew what she needed to do. “Alright Kage, I will paint my own portrait.”

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

And now, here she was, standing at the balcony overlooking a sea of beautiful people drinking champagne as if she belonged here. It was bittersweet.

“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, Amanda. Well done.” Kage replied. 

May 07, 2022 03:56

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8 comments

Andrea Hopkinson
05:55 May 12, 2022

Very different story to mine and we'll written.very inspiring.

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16:26 May 14, 2022

Thank you for reading it and commenting!

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Cindy Strube
01:16 May 12, 2022

Coming from Critique Circle - pleased to get your story! This is a really interesting concept. You kept the level of suspense up really well. When Amanda said, “Thank you, Kage, for allowing me to paint this one in private. I really want it to be a surprise for you as well.” I found myself mouthing, “It’s him!” as I read. And it was completely unexpected to have Kage thank her. To echo him (not with a creepy intention): Well done! P.S As a matter of curiosity, I would like to know how you would pronounce his name - like Cage, or maybe Ja...

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16:26 May 14, 2022

Oh thank you for reading and commenting on my story! I love a good twist so I'm glad it worked! In my mind it sounds like "cage". Thanks again! I appreciate your feedback very much!

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Michał Przywara
21:49 May 11, 2022

A fun story. Right when she first met Kage there was a "deal with the devil" feeling, and considering the souls it seems like that's what was happening. I really like the ending here too. I thought Kage might have been surprised and furious, or that he might have exploded in a shower of brimstone or something, but the fact he smiles and thanks her adds depth to this story. We don't really know what's going on behind the scenes, and now I'm wondering if Kage is also another hapless fool who was tricked into this line of work. Maybe the only...

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16:20 May 14, 2022

I'm so glad you liked the story :) I really appreciate your comments about how the story made you feel. I hadn't thought of Kage being in that position but I like it! It could totally be that! Thank you so much for reading my story :)

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Mike Panasitti
16:41 May 07, 2022

Ms. Miller Mickenham, I was once a painter. This story had me hooked until the penultimate line. With a plot twist, your conclusion could have worked, but I would have preferred if Kage's face had blanched and knees turned to gelatin. Justice served! Excellent effort!

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04:14 May 09, 2022

Ah, yes :) That would have worked out well, too! A stronger double cross. I like it. Thank you so much for reading it and commenting. Super happy you liked it :)

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