Martin Tuffet threw down his pencil in frustration. It clattered on the hardwood floor, the lead snapping off in a jagged, angry hunk that cracked the wooden casing around it. He looked back at the drawing in front of him and rolled his eyes.
“Some illustrator,” he muttered, and snatched the page from his sketchbook. He crushed the paper between his palms and threw the wad across the room, to the recycling bin. Insult to injury, the wad bounced off the rim of the blue plastic and knocked over a vase. Water and flowers spilled everywhere, but at least the glass didn’t break.
And then it rolled, and then it fell, and then it broke.
Martin’s chair tipped over as he tantrumed out of the room. He slammed the screen door behind him, leaving angry mutters in his wake. Gravity helped the puddle of water eventually find the chair, and then the broken pencil.
An hour later, and he was back at his desk, the mess cleaned up and a fresh piece of paper in front of him. He stared at the page, tapping a new pencil in his hand lightly against the side of his head as he mapped out the drawing in his mind. Outside his window, the sun had slipped below the horizon, and the air that crept in from the screen door was now chilly and carried the sound of crickets. Steam rose from the cup of black coffee beside him, curling up and dancing under his desk lamp, hot from the pot.
Martin closed his eyes, seeing the empty page behind his lids. Blank pages did not tell stories in children’s books, and thus did not pay the bills. Pages with pretty drawings on them paid the bills. The drawing should be there in the story, and all he had to do was put it on the page. This story, however, did not tell him what to draw. It did not conjure a specific picture, and would not give him direction. It baffled and frustrated him. He couldn’t imagine a child being interested in it at all. He struggled with his grown-up mind to find a child’s pictures for the words, but all he had come up with was the blank page before him, and the scribbled on, crumpled page in the recycling bin.
He rubbed his eyes, flipping back to the first page of the prose he had been given. It was a simple book, not even a story, really. It was the most basic of bedtime books; ‘now it’s time for sleep’ roundup of things from a kid’s day, but the things in this story were oddly ambiguous.
“Today I played, new friends I made, before me now the light does fade,” he read aloud. “It’s dark tonight, and wish I might, naught will hurry back the light.”
Martin snorted. “A bit morbid, isn’t it? For a bedtime book?” He tossed the prose back onto his desk and stretched his arms over his head, hearing his shoulder joint crack and pop. Crepetis, it’s called, or so his ex-wife had told him. She had been a nurse, and prone to pointing out his many quirks, medical or otherwise.
He wondered again at the first two lines of the story, and tried to imagine what they could possibly mean to a kid. He had been a kid once, hadn’t he? It seemed like another lifetime. Too much had happened between ages five and forty-five, and mind-cobwebs had begun to overtake age five.
What did he like when he was a kid? Comic books, Laffy Taffy, Saturday morning cartoons, and all the crayons he could get his hands on. He had wanted more than anything to be a comic book artist, and had made up many of his own characters to write about. He vaguely remembered a complete rendering of Star Wars done entirely in crayon and construction paper. His mom had been so proud of it she had put it in the bedtime book rotation. He wondered if she still had it somewhere.
Why had he taken this gig again? This was his first foray into children’s literary illustration, a fluke, really. The school textbook circuit was his usual gig; finding spot-color ways to illustrate word problems for math books or famous historical moments for the history books. His contact at the publishing company had sent him this as a favor to a friend of hers, as a freelance project. The friend was paying decent money for a couple of drawings to go with his manuscript, and Martin had never turned down decent money. Hell, he never turned down indecent money; but that was another story.
The desk chair groaned as he leaned backwards and recited the first two lines out loud, again, cupping his hands over his eyes. The pencil was now tucked behind his ear, on hold, as if putting it closer to his brain would bring some sort of artistic, inspirational osmosis. “ … Hurry back the light, hurry back the light …”
“She’s afraid of the dark,” came a voice form beside him.
Martin gave a strangled cry and nearly fell out of his chair. He spun to face the intruder, and gaped at what he saw – a small boy stood in the doorframe, his expression matter-of-fact. Martin hadn’t even heard the screen door open.
“How the hell did you get in here?” Was the first question that came to his mind, even before “Who the hell are you?”
The boy ignored his questions and pointed past Martin, to the sketchbook. “She’s afraid of what lives in the dark.” He shuffled forward as a baffled Martin watched, stopping next to the desk and holding out his hand. “Here,” he said, his palm outstretched. Martin shook his head, but pulled the pencil out from behind his ear and handed it to the boy.
Pencil went to paper, a look of concentration on the child’s face, his tongue sticking out ever so slightly between his teeth as he focused on the sketchbook. The graphite scratched on the paper over and over, around and around, and out of the pencil came two scenes; one, a scene of a little girl playing in her room with dolls and stuffed animals artfully arranged in a tea party. The second was a dark, ethereal scene. The dolls and bears took on menacing forms, and in the middle of it all sat a small girl in pajamas on a circular braided rug, eyes wide, taking it all in. The boy turned and handed the pencil back to Martin.
“There you go.” He grinned.
Martin was agape. “How … ?”
“It’s easy. It’s right there in the words.”
Martin stared at the boy, who stared back in that simple, pragmatic way that kids do when they know their logic is right. He looked back at the drawing, noting how very good it was. He recited the first two lines of the story again, while staring at the drawing. It made sense. It all made sense. Relief flooded him. As did inspiration. He turned back to the boy.
“Thanks,” he said.
The boy gave him a crooked smile. “Don’t mention it.”
Martin watched as the boy shuffled back toward the screen door, noting his pillow-mussed hair and Star Wars pajamas. I had a pair like those once, Martin thought. Before he could think more on it, the boy stopped and turned back to face him. “You know what else? You should start buying comic books again. That’d be rad. Maybe draw some too.”
Martin smiled, and the boy smiled back. He pushed the screen door open and disappeared into the twilight.
Martin turned back to his desk and picked up his pencil. He reached for a notepad and scribbled “Call Mom, RE: old sketchbooks,” and then stuck it to the calendar hanging next to the desk. Then he turned back to his sketchbook and smiled a crooked smile.
Graphite scratched against paper, over and over, around and around, and well into the wee hours of the night.
Marcy Mahoney writes the spooky and the fantastical and sometimes the hilarious. She lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow her on Twitter at @PlaytymAtHazmat.
To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page.