A Short Story For Halloween: The Final Painting Of Milton Mackenzie

29/10/2010 at 7:00 pm (Horror)


This is a long post, well it’s a short story, and I invite you to set yourself a little bit of time to absorb it.  For your delectation over the Halloween weekend, I present, The Final Painting Of Milton Mackenzie.

The thick daubs of paint smeared the white canvas. A single deep, scarlet line broke the purity of the white vista. He never worked from sketches. No pencil strokes navigated his brush.

The images were like flashes in his mind; the only way to pull these snapshots from his waking thoughts were to commit them to corporeality. Painting the view from his mind’s eye meant he could rest, until new pictures emerged into his conscious thoughts, and the process would start again.

The painting began to take shape. Almost within a blink, the outline of a figure was rendered. A body, a person, a man… no. Something else. Manlike, but at the same time, formless. Incomplete. He dreaded these paintings. He was left exhausted when they were finished.

Sometimes these creatures could take weeks to complete, even months. Sometimes just a few hours. The ones that were completed quickly shattered him, leaving him unable to leave his tiny studio apartment. While he would recover and return to health, over time this had become exponentially worse.  The last piece he completed left him unable to leave the apartment for almost a week.  His limbs felt unresponsive, and even his ability to eat was affected. He would joke to himself that if this is how artists felt it was no wonder they all went mad.

He could only joke to himself, there was no one else. No one else beside Julia. They used to work together, years ago. She was the one thing in life that was a connection to the outside world. They met in a warehouse stuffing clear, cellophane envelopes with catalogues filled with tartan blankets, label making equipment and devices for catching spiders. It was so long ago that he complimented her on her fold-and-stuff technique, causing them to both collapse with laughter and talk about the pointlessness of their jobs.

Neither of them had met anyone else to form a long lasting or stable relationship, nor had they expressed an interest in each other romantically. They were friends, great friends, but he often felt as though he was holding her back somehow. The girl who threw her head back as she laughed was gone, replaced by sad smiles and hugs. He knew it was his fault, and although the change in both of them was gradual, it was also very visible.

Over the 12 years they had known each other they had noticed how things had changed. They used to have regular people they would both see. A good group of mutual friends would be there to go to the movies with, or the pub, or just hang out. Of course, it was perfectly normal that people change and move on. No one can stay like that forever.

The thick acrylic was now sculpting sinew and flesh, tissue and muscle. Within seconds the eyes were formed from a number of quick flicks of his fine sable brush. A sickly, pale yellow hue filled the narrow almond shapes, punctuated by slitted pupils. Instinct made him turn his brush to paint a mouth.

He stopped. It had no mouth. He should not paint one.

In the brief pause of reason, he was aware of his mobile phone groaning on his bedside table, vibrating with urgency. It would be Julia. Occasionally it could be his agent to point him in the direction of the next art show to take his wares to. But not today.

He was able to make enough money to support himself, and give a percentage to Mr Fenley. Other than that, he wanted no contact with him or his family, despite invitations to dinner. He wanted to keep it separate, although from what he was uncertain, having very little in the way of a social life.

He grabbed the phone, and took a couple of seconds to focus on the buttons to push the right one, easing himself down onto his bed.

“Jules, hey!” He was surprised at how upbeat he sounded, but one of the side affects of these intense painting sessions was the adrenaline that coursed through him.

“Hi, Milt!” She seemed as surprised as he was, sounding for a second confused. Her upward inflection could have been a question to find out where the real Milton Mackenzie was. “Were you busy? Don’t mean to disturb, just wanted to talk to you about something.”

Talking about “something” was always bad. Every human knows that. Already a dozen scenarios ranging from terminal illness to, oh God, meeting the man of her dreams and running off had picked at his mind. “Sounds ominous,” he half chuckled.

“Oh, it’s nothing bad, not really. I’ve got a new job!”

“That’s amazing! Nice one!” he knew she had been frustrated with her job at FocussingFuture, a rather small scale software development company, for a while. He smiled as he enjoyed a feeling of happiness on behalf of his friend. “What are you doing?”

A pause.

He opened his mouth to check she was still on the line. Before he could talk, she cut into the silence. “It’s really unexpected, really something. You know we brought out a run of really popular games lately?” He didn’t have a clue, but not wanting to hurt her feelings, uttered a positive noise. “Tactical Warpigs even made it on the news! It’s the one with the beach party massacre level.”  He smirked. She giggled. “I know, it’s horrendous, isn’t it? Anyway, it’s just gone crazy, and they’re opening a new office.”

“You’re moving away?” He couldn’t hide his disappointment. Of course the western edges of the Thames Valley weren’t exactly the central hub of cosmopolitan life. If she moved further out, perhaps to London, maybe even as far afield as Birmingham it wouldn’t be so bad. He hadn’t driven in years, and was pretty much used to taking trains to odd places for shows. He was even quite adept at it, taking his book of artwork to grab the interest of shops, hotels and restaurants.

Again a pause. With a slight crack in her voice, she confessed, “I have to go to Chicago.”

“That’s America! Bollocks!” He couldn’t help it. It just burst through him, angry, frustrated, raging. He couldn’t speak for a few seconds. Jules kept quiet too. Breaking the habit of a lifetime, she waited for him to say something first. He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ll really miss you.” His voice cracked too, as tears began to distort his vision.

“I know, I just have to. It’s a brilliant opportunity. But I don’t, really don’t…” The sentence held still for a moment. With a puff of air, she continued, “I don’t want to leave you.”

In an effort to keep focussed, to keep it positive, Milt resolved himself to be calm. “What’s the job? What’re you doing?”

“Don’t laugh…”

“Not much chance of that.” He winced at his own callousness. “Sorry. I’m good, just being a twat. Come on, what is it?”

“They want me to be ‘the face of FocussedFutures’. Have you ever heard anything that crazy? It’s ad campaigns, interviews. Just… mental!”

“You’ll be on TV?” In spite of himself, he was excited for her. “Yeah, I’ll let you off. You’re going to be famous! I can’t blame them though, you scrub up alright.”

“Yeah, thanks…” The giggle again. It was so good to hear her happy.

“Just don’t get pissed at some big society do,” he said authoritatively, switching on his over-protective brother voice. “I don’t want to see you in the papers with your head down the loo.”

“Piss off! No, I’ll be proper ladylike. Or as near as I can manage.”

“Seriously, I am happy for you, I am. You’ll be really great, Jules. Still don’t want you to go though.”

“I know, I know. It’s okay, hon. This doesn’t mean I’m not going to see you again. Just a bit of a distance away. You’ve got a computer, use it for something other than porn!”

They laughed hard, reminding him again that they had lost something over the intervening years. And now with his best friend – his only friend – leaving, those old feelings were coming back. The sparkle between them was growing, and now she was being taken away by America.

They chatted and laughed for another 40 minutes. It was getting dark outside, and they said their goodbyes. Milt couldn’t quite shake off his feeling of resentment. Resentment aimed at himself by letting his painting take over. Not that there was anything he could do about it. It was just something that happened.

He didn’t feel like painting for the rest of the evening. He didn’t even feel like looking at his current project. Julia had kept his attention away from the piece the whole time they were chatting. Because of the tiny space and the light, it was better to have the canvas pointed towards the kitchenette, its window angled towards the sinking sun. Prising himself from his bed, he stepped across his quarters to make a cup of coffee.

He never completed his task. He stood frozen as he glimpsed the painting. He turned and stared at his work, shock climbing his body. The being he had painted was human. The face pained and contorted. The jaw was extended, but where he had not painted a mouth, the skin was stretched across the gap where it should be.  The outline of teeth was pressed against the taut membrane, locked in a silent scream.

He had created the image just over an hour earlier, and was barely cognitive of the result. Without realising, Milton Mackenzie had painted a self portrait. It was his eyes that were fixed with anger and loneliness. It was his sealed, skin-covered mouth that was muted with frustration. Like a premonition that the world was leaving him behind, that his one link to everything else was severed, he had painted his own horrific destiny.

He felt dizzy, nauseous. The thumping of the blood in his ears was so loud… a remorseless drumming, beating faster, faster, faster… He felt lightheaded, and his legs buckled under him. This was worse than any of the episodes he’d experienced before. This was an attack.

The lino floor was cold against his cheek. Through blurring vision he could make out the kitchen cupboards – white panels becoming grey, then darker still. Then blackness.

Light. Distortion. A jumble of images, but no detail. Skin cloying and unnatural. A smell… the acrid, chemical smell of acrylic paint. A hundred bells, roars and screams filled his head. His senses, such as they were, misfired. It was a final burst of life from the man that was Milton Mackenzie.

He awoke, but felt a numbness, silence.  His return to consciousness was different this time.  He was in his apartment… standing?

He looked down and saw his own broken body. From behind a silent scream.

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