My latest novel, CINDERS, is available now on Amazon. It’s a contemporary adaptation of Cinderella with a hot firefighter and the high-society princess she’s been pining over for years. When a fire breaks out in the princess’s garden, Cinders finally gets the chance to make her move.
The painting was one of those abstract deals.
He’d been standing in front of it for the last thirty minutes and he’d be damned if he could make anything out of it. There were colorful paint splatters and a few geometric shapes. For a minute or two, he thought he saw a duck in the bottom right corner, but it was just a bunch of nonsense shapes. Pieces of paper cut and pasted randomly onto the canvas, then splattered with more gobs of meaningless paint.
The longer he stared at it, the more certain it seemed that the artist was mocking him and his fruitless search for the hidden message within the painting.
Sure, let me waste half an hour of my day looking at this fucking thing, he thought, trying to figure out what you’re saying to me. Really, it’s just a great big middle finger pointed directly at me.
The tiny foam board plaque hanging on the wall at the bottom right corner of the canvas seemed to prove his suspicions. It had the artist’s name and the title of the piece printed on it.
Anthony Rosen. “Two Lovers at Dusk,” 2018. Enamel on canvas.
Yeah, as if that clears things up, he smirked, looking again for anything even remotely resembling a pair of lovers… or anything humanoid at all. Lovers, my ass.
There was nothing there. It was all inside the charmed mind of Anthony Rosen, and yet here he was, with his so-called artwork hanging in the Grimm Falls Museum of Art. Anyone could make something as unintentional as this. It was a Jackson Pollock with a few extra scraps of paper glued on for good measure.
Hell, he thought, even I could do something this terrible.
What made Anthony Rosen so special?
He put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and his fingers found a small cylinder in his right pocket. He slid his thumb along the plastic casing until he found the metal wheel at the top of the lighter. The metal was slick and warm beneath his touch, and even though he’d only just picked it up this morning, he’d already gotten into the habit of rubbing it like a worry stone.
Well, back into the habit.
He hadn’t bought a pack of smokes in three years because everyone knew they were killers.
Not great for job hunting, either – a lot of companies won’t even look at you twice if you show up to your interview smelling like an ashtray. All they see is insurance money going up like so much smoke.
But this morning was different. When he walked up to the counter at the gas station where he stopped for a cup of coffee every day, he pointed to the Winston Lights on the rack behind the clerk. “The gold pack,” he’d told her, and just like that, it was as if he’d never quit. Of course, he needed to buy a lighter to go with the cigarettes, so he snatched one from the Bic display and slid it across the counter to her.
He was tearing the cellophane off the cigarette pack before he was even out of the gas station. He was so itchy for a smoke, he left his coffee cup on the counter and didn’t figure out his mistake for another twenty minutes. But that first, long inhale never tasted better, even if it did make him cough and hack a bit.
And then he’d come to look at “Two Lovers at Dusk” – really look at it, because up until today, he hadn’t been able to see a thing. Now that he was here, the lighter wheel was begging to be flicked.
He looked around, but there weren’t many people in the museum at this hour. It was the middle of a weekday and besides the group of third graders who had marched obediently and disinterestedly through the Grimm Falls Local Artists exhibit twenty minutes ago, he was alone.
He had to admit it was satisfying to see how little those kids cared about Anthony Rosen and his featured artwork. When they showed up, he stepped aside and watched them. Did a nine-year-old give any more fucks about abstract expressionism than he did?
Turns out, no.
They walked past the paintings in the exhibit room in an orderly line that had been orchestrated by a teacher who seemed determined to get this over with. Some of them glanced at “Two Lovers at Dusk,” and some didn’t even bother.
He had a crazy urge to hold out his hand for a high-five from those kids. They knew ego and favoritism when they saw it. Then the kids were gone, moved on to another exhibit hall, and it was just him and the painting again.
And the lighter.
He hadn’t seen so much as a docent in the last five minutes – it was all too perfect. Like the universe wanted him to show Anthony Rosen where he really stood.
He took out the lighter and flicked the wheel once, not hard enough to ignite the flame but enough to let off a thrilling spark. It felt good, like scratching an itch. Same as that first cigarette this morning.
The four he’d smoked since then didn’t taste quite as good as the first, but that was to be expected. How much could you really ask of a pack of smokes?
The itch came back stronger this time. All he wanted was a little taste – a tiny bit of relief. It felt good to buy that pack of Winstons on impulse this morning, and where had he ever gotten by ignoring his impulses, playing by the rules?
He flicked the lighter again, letting the flame catch this time. His heart was pounding and he could feel every nerve ending in his body spring to life, on high alert.
He reached forward and touched the flame to the bottom corner of the canvas, right next to Anthony Rosen’s foam board plaque. He just wanted to singe it, to leave his mark. If a disaster like this got a little bit blackened, nobody would even notice, right?
The flame licked across the bottom of the canvas and he blew on it, but it didn’t go out. The fire really loved the enamel paint and it kept spreading across the front of the painting.
He could have blown harder, or used the sleeve of his jacket to smother the flame. Hell, there was a fire extinguisher mounted to the wall not more than twenty paces away. But as he watched the orange fire bubbling up the paint and eating Anthony Rosen’s smugness, he felt calm. The way the fire danced along the bottom of the canvas frame was almost elegant.
He watched for a minute, entranced, and when smoke began to curl up toward the sprinkler system, he stuffed the lighter back into his pocket and walked away. He ducked into a nearby exhibit on pointillism and a few seconds later, a docent shuffled briskly up the hall.
“Fire!” she yelled, her voice cracking with panic.
Then the museum director ran up the hall, his fingers twisted into his thinning hair as he told the docent, “Call the fire department!”
He heard the sound of the fire extinguisher being yanked off the wall, and the whoosh of chemicals as it obliterated the flames and what was left of the painting. Inside the pointillism exhibit, he slid his hand back into his pocket, stroking the lighter wheel once more. An unexpected smile formed on his lips. Today was a great day to pick up smoking again.