Red Lights

Few were aware of the book’s existence and even fewer had actually seen it. Those who had laid eyes on it had never been allowed to view the entirety of its contents.

Nevertheless, the story, affixed forever between the first and final drawings, had garnered a following which had endured for decades. A phenomenon which is best understood through acknowledgment of the inquisitive nature of human beings. Unanswered questions have driven people to discover gravity, atoms, electricity, that the earth isn’t flat, and of course, have led to the plaguing prolificity with which we peruse the contents of articles with click bait titles.

The story, which had gained such an exceptionally large cult following, was contained in a series of illustrations and their titles. The first of which appeared as the winner of the BP Portrait Award. The image was of a girl; the title was unconventionally long, a snippet of it is reproduced below:

“Drawing 1: Heaven kisses the earth where their feet touch the ground. They are as close to perfect as people can be. They are the people who are too good for this world. They are the ones whose motivations are so pure and their passions so just that they inevitably reside amongst those ten percent of individuals who actually change the world.  They are a light in the life of those who know them. They are destined to be great and no one begrudges it, because we all know they deserve it. The only person who dares to doubt them is themselves. They do not believe they are special; in fact they refuse the very notion that such a thing is possible, which only serves to heighten the adoration they evoke.”

The author of this portrait, James Addison, was not one of the aforementioned ten percent. In fact, he was distinctively ordinary in almost every way. He had average ambition, went to a mid-level college and worked an ordinary job. His life would have been completely unremarkable had it not been affected by two variables. The first was his unparalleled ability to turn led and paper into the most intricate drawings the world had ever seen. The second was his dorm’s coincidental proximity to that of a girl’s by the name of Mary Peterson.

Mary was the story. She was the light of James’ life. He devoted himself to her, he drew for her, was consumed by her secrets, because without her, he was the embodiment of mediocrity. This is in no way meant to convey that James used her to avoid being average. No, the whole thing happened quite by accident.

Their friendship was initiated under somewhat unusual circumstances. Mary and James shared a proclivity for seclusion, which was intensified in their collegiate years. James required it in order to draw; Mary pursued it in an effort to study. In Mary’s first year and James’s second, at university, they both found their haven in the old art building. This structure was essentially abandoned, the new art building was located across campus, leaving the old one empty until such time as the administration saw fit to repurpose it. On the particular occasion which resulted in their bizarre introduction, James was walking past one of the many abandoned classrooms inside the building, when he heard a sob. The sound halted his steps. He peered into the room from which the noise had emanated and saw a girl sitting on the floor. She was glaring at a substantial quantity of paper scattered around her with tears streaming down her face. James was immediately struck by how uniquely beautiful she was. She had high cheekbones and brilliant green eyes that were striking against the backdrop of her long, red hair. He stared at her for what felt like an eternity before she noticed him.

“Oh, hi,” she said, wiping the tears from her face. “I’m sorry. Am I? Are you? I didn’t know anyone else ever came here.” She fumbled, hoping that he would explain why he was staring at her, or better yet, walk away.

“I didn’t know anyone else came here either,” he finally remarked.

“Oh..” was the only response she could manage to articulate.

“Sorry, I just, I mean, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I.. umm, yes, I am, thanks.”

“Do you want help or something?”

“No, thanks, I’m just frustrated, sorry.”

James chuckled a little before replying, “Why do you keep apologizing?”

“Sorry, I don’t know, I guess I just assumed I was disturbing you, sorry.” She smiled at the ground before looking up at him and laughing out, “Oops.”

This shift of tone generated a slightly more welcoming atmosphere and was all the invitation James needed to enter the room. He walked over and sat on the floor in front of her.

“So, what’re you working on?” he asked.

“Chem one,” she responded, staring down at her notes. As she looked at them her face developed a far-off expression, as though contemplating something entirely unrelated.

“That class is awful,” James responded, snapping Mary back into reality.

“You’ve taken it?”

“Yeah, I was pre-med my freshman year, but I switched to graphic design over the summer.”

“How come?”

“I just prefer art and honestly, I don’t want to go to school for half of my life. I got an A in that class though so I’m happy to help. My name is James by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Mary. I’m actually about to be late for class, but I’m here every day if you want to study some time.”

“I’m surprised I’ve never seen you. I’m here almost every day, too. Yeah, uh, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, Mary. Same time?”

“Yeah, I’ll be here around 2:00pm. See you then.”

James helped her gather her things before watching as she exited the room. He would never forget this first encounter. How disheveled her hair had been; even the way she smelled would haunt him for decades after she ceased to contact him.

Solitude is only joyful when it is sought. Aside from which it becomes loneliness. The difference between the two is subtle in verbiage, but drastic in emotional implication. For the rest of that day after meeting Mary, James felt lonely. He went about his day, driven only by the desire to wake again to morning.

When the next day dawned, James was struck by the intensity with which he anticipated 2:00pm. It was almost alarming to him the extent to which he valued his next encounter with Mary.

At 1:50pm James began his trek to the art building. Walking in the door at 1:55pm, and turning the corner he saw her, sitting in the same position, the top portion of her hair intricately braided while the bottom fell in waves over her shoulders. He couldn’t help thinking that she was too beautiful to exist.

She smiled when he walked in. “I’m honestly a bit surprised you came.”

“How could I not?”

She raised an eyebrow, “Helping a little freshman girl with homework doesn’t strike me as overly exciting.”

To that James could only manage a shrug.

Mary laughed, and then paused for a second before looking up “You’re going to think this is weird, but do you live at East?”

“In the residence hall?” James replied, surprised, “Yeah, how do you know that?”

“I knew you looked familiar. I live two doors down, across the hall from you.”

“Really? That’s crazy; I can’t believe I’ve never seen you.”

“Maybe you have and forgot.”

“No, I’m pretty sure I would remember.”

Mary blushed a little and pretended to become re-invested in her homework, an action which James used as an excuse to move closer to her under the pretence of providing his assistance. Mary permitted the advancement, but, whether by mistake or design, believed it to be a sincere gesture to transition into studying. So, for the next hour, General Chemistry One became the only topic of discussion. This however did nothing to inhibit the small jolt James felt every time her hair brushed his arm, or her leg accidentally leaned into his.

Others may have lent less weight to this encounter. Thinking little of the event, different people may have enjoyed the moment and gone about their day, eventually forgetting each other entirely. This was however not the case with Mary and James. In one another they had found a kindred soul. Without ever formally confirming it, their study dates continued for two semesters, always at the same time and place. As did their proximity in residence, at the onset of their third semester of acquaintance, being their second and third year in college respectively, they both transitioned into apartments. Not at all accidentally, their dwellings were located next to one another.

They had become inseparable companions and James had grown to develop feelings for her that surpassed the boundaries of their friendship.

Here it could end. The reality however, is that the harshness of the world would never allow it to.

For Mary, this story ends on a walk home through the trees to her apartment. For thirty minutes in the woods the universe closed its eyes, and when it opened them she was gone.

An entirely new woman exited those trees. She mumbled to herself, hands shaking, her legs coated in blood, trying to pull herself together until she reached her apartment. Every step felt like a knife. She reached her door, fumbling at the lock for a few minutes before making her way inside.

“Now what?” she questioned her empty apartment, fighting back a flood of tears.

“STOP CRYING!” She yelled, “Stop crying” she mumbled.

Slowly, Mary walked to her stove, walking herself through the steps in her mind. She opened the cupboard above the sink and brought down the kettle.

“Put the kettle in the sink. Turn on the tap. Fill the kettle with water. Go to the stove. Turn on the stove. Put the kettle on the stove. Go to the cabinet. Take out the box of tea. Pick a teabag. Reach back in the cabinet. Get the sugar. Wait for the water to boil, wait for the water to boil, wait for the water to boil, wait, wait, wait…” she trailed off, nothing to do but cry.

The water was boiling. As she removed the kettle from the stove, Mary glanced at the water. She went over to the sink and poured the boiling water onto her hand. Staring at her hand for a moment, she felt, nothing, for a moment and then she started to scream.

James heard her and immediately came running. Bursting through the door he saw her standing by the sink, covered in blood and bruises, holding her burnt hand. She stopped crying, looked at him and mouthed “help me”, before collapsing to the floor.

For James, this story ends when Mary woke the next morning in the hospital. She opened her eyes. Looked James in the eye and with the utmost sincerity said

“I never want to see you again.”

James felt his face go numb with shock.

“LEAVE” she screamed “GET OUT”

He couldn’t stop staring. Like seeing a car wreck in slow motion, he couldn’t look away.

“Please” her voice caught, holding back tears.

“Okay..goodbye Mary” he said, backing towards the door. He glanced over his shoulder as he left. Hoping to see regret, a change of heart perhaps, but all he saw was her stone cold gaze. He walked dejectedly out of the door and down the hall.

As soon as he was gone Mary exploded into tears. It was irrational, even to her, but she hated him for seeing her like that, hated that he knew or could guess what happened, hated that she was in a hospital. All she could feel was hate. It was easier to direct it towards James. The alternative meant admitting that she hated herself. She shouldn’t have been alone in the woods, shouldn’t have left her pepper spray at home, shouldn’t have left her door unlocked so that James could find her, shouldn’t have burned her hand, shouldn’t have screamed, shouldn’t have, shouldn’t have, shouldn’t have.

Mary never spoke to James again. Upon her release from the hospital, she disappeared completely, abandoning who she was, who she had been, gone.

James tried to find her, for years, but eventually gave up hope. Yet he was determined not to lose her. Wanting to keep a part of her with him, he did the only thing he could, he drew. He drew and drew and drew until his fingers went numb.

Thus, the story was created.

He entered the drawings in competitions around the world; the titles were intended for her. He hoped one of them would reach her. That she would see them and contact him. But she never did.

This was how he won the BP Portrait Award and The Frieze Artist award to name a few. Together they became a legend, everyone wanted to know who the girl in the drawings was. A secret he never revealed. More and more pictures appeared in various places. People started to piece together the portraits and discovered that they told a story. Everyone wanted to know how this story would end, the beautiful girl captivated the minds of many, until one day she just disappeared.

This was the greatest trick. The world loved the girl in a way one can only love a person they do not know. He never revealed the night before her disappearance. Those terrible drawings were only for him. He showed the world only that which flattered her, he made her perfect.

James’ death revealed the pages of the book he’d never shared. These images depicted Mary’s death, the drawings showed her morphing into a hollow frame, and she was nothing, merely a shadow of who she once had been. The last page of the book was blank, but this too was an image of the girl. The title read “For Mary, the light of my world, I give you a page to contain an alternate ending. For the life so wonderful it couldn’t be drawn.”