Life Among the Whispers
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[column size=”one_half” last=”no”]By Mathilde Fox-Smith
Illustrated by Anika Knudson
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He had decided earlier that he wouldn’t do it tonight. This nagging annoyed him profoundly. Though now that he was already plastered against a wall, inches from the swerving shaft of police-car headlights in the city, it might as well happen. As soon as the tires rolled over the crumbly pavement, he crept from the shadowed wall, slipping down the road.
The streets were licked by shadows and mostly undisturbed by the din of passing cars. He could faintly picture a blank, ancient building in the back of the park a few roads over, one that he had seen before. To avoid being questioned or recognized by drivers, he kept his head down, his eyes burning into the sidewalk.
A tall gate guarded the entrance to the quiet park, made up of thin black posts set close together. A barrier of thick bamboo crowded the borders between grass and street. He began to shove aside the flexible trunks, squeezing in between the stems. It enclosed him in a chamber of green as he pushed through to the park’s grassy edge. Pale moonbeams pooled over the dark ground.
Barbed wire twisted between the park and the site of the old building. Gingerly taking the smoother bit of the wire in between his fingers, he jerked it up as far as he could to create an entrance for himself. Crumpled leaves and rust-colored pine needles concealed cans of spray paint, stashed there on his last encounter with the police.
Lifting a random container, he scrubbed away a patch of the dirt and scanned the color: brown. Pictures fluttered back into his brain. Selecting a cream-white from the paints, he also chose a scene. And then, he began to paint.
Lise woke abruptly. The cheerful chirping of a robin rang in her sleepy ears. Roused by it, she slipped out of bed. Her long hair was matted from sleep. Lise clomped into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes.
“Morning!” she was greeted by her mother. Lise returned a smile and plopped down into a hard wooden chair.
“Would you mind much if I go to the new art exhibit?” she requested.
“Well, we have a party, and dinner out tonight… you know that your father’s running for office again,” she warned. “He might want you to help with pamphlets and flyers.”
“I won’t be long.”
“Yeah, I guess. But be sure to be back by two-fifteen,” she agreed. Lise smiled in thanks and finished her breakfast hastily.
The brutal August sun cast its blinding rays over the city and the people that swarmed like ants in the streets. An art gallery was featuring a new exhibit, and Lise was eager to visit it. Though her intention was to stay for that exhibit only, she decided to wander about the old ones, too.
Just as she exited, Lise was drawn into the cheerful green park. Her feet ached from her brisk walking in the gallery, so she swiveled around to where she thought was a bench.
That ambition quickly vanished from her mind.
She remembered the building quite clearly; that was why she didn’t recognize it at first. Its crumbly surface was completely slathered in paint. Lise blinked repeatedly, astonished. The only thing that remained of the eerie side of it was the floppy fencing of barbed wire. Otherwise, it was majestic.
A painting of a sunset flourished over the bricks. The vibrant sky was streaked with crimson, magenta, vermillion, and turquoise. They blended beautifully above the magnificent, blazing sun, reflecting in the rippled ocean. Even the water nearly moved. The beach was a golden stretch of beige, shining in the sun’s rays. Just in the front of the piece, a single luscious palm tree leaf waved. No longer was the building a building, but a window. Lise was petrified with amazement at the artwork, her breath blown away.
She stepped closer, examining every flawless stroke of the painting.
“Wow,” she breathed.
A tiny signature was traced with black spray paint: “Tobias Acosta.” She suddenly remembered the stern reporters on television who spoke of the so-called Tobias Acosta, a graffitist. Although his paintings were signed with that name, no recorded resident of the city was called by it.
Of course, she knew this painting was outrageously wrong—it was graffiti, but her amazement defied her consciousness. Lise uttered, “I never thought I’d see one in person before they erased it.”
She moved close enough that her fingers curled around the rusty barbed wire and took in every perfect detail. Unexpectedly, Lise’s eyes strayed to her digital watch and she gasped at the square letters. “Three o’clock! Oh, I’d better go.” She took one last examination of the picture and reluctantly turned to leave.
Lise took a particularly long time returning home, the image glowing in her mind. By the time she approached her doorstep, the little watch ticked three-fifteen. Entering the apartment, she was first greeted by her mother, and her daze quickly dissolved.
“Sorry. I… lost track of the time,” she stammered, because it wasn’t a total lie. What would her parents—her campaigning father, mostly—think if she marveled over the artwork of a criminal? Lise passed her mother and entered her own room, standing before the dresser and gazing at the girl in the mirror.
“Will I ever be able to draw like that?” she wondered aloud. Lise’s favorite activity was art, and she was praised at school and home for her artwork. The girl repeated her question, but something in her aqua eyes made Lise know that her inquiry was foolish.
* * *
“Mom… I left my purse in the car.” “Lise, do you really need it?”
She sighed, “I’ll get it.”
Her mother’s forehead creased, but she tossed Lise the keys to their vehicle and called, “Be quick!”
The warm August air was much more welcoming at night. Lise hurried under the blanket of stars above her head. Shadows slid around her, sliced away by the dim glow of streetlights. The black automobile reflected the crescent moon like tranquil water. Lise pressed the button on the keys and watched the headlights flash. She quietly extended a hand and pulled the glossy door open, retrieving her handbag.
A certain shadow suddenly caught her eye. Lise turned worriedly, afraid at what her curiosity might lead to. The shadow slunk in the darkest corners of the street, moving with mastered stealth. All at once, it hesitated, and its head turned, catching sight of Lise. She drew in a frightened breath, locked the car quickly, and ran.
Dinner was quiet on Lise’s part, but that went unnoticed. The chatter in the crowded restaurant droned on about the campaigns and changes that should be made—including heavier investigation of a certain graffitist. The party was spectacular; but Lise was strangely anxious to leave. The shadow—whatever it was—triggered a peculiar mix of fear and curiosity.
It was late at night when the family returned home to their clean apartment. Lise was exhausted, but the deep, soft bed was not much of a comfort. The eventful day had stirred her mind. She fruitlessly tried to beckon sleep.
* * *
Lise passed the park again on her errand to the grocery store for her mother. The metal sign immediately caught her eye, dangling from the locked gates. Interested, Lise craned her neck as far as she could around the bars. Officers stood before the spectacular painting, and just at their presence, Lise turned away sharply. They were erasing it, obviously, as she had thought before.
* * *
Indigo evening haze hung in the air, cooling it from the temperature before. Shadows wrapped around the streetlights, spilling over the ground. The sky was uncovering stars one at a time, each glittering in the everlasting black above. A slight breeze fanned Lise’s loose brown hair and ruffled the short sleeves on her shirt. As she passed the park, she paused, wondering if the piece was completely gone. It had been a few days since her last outing around the park—she was just returning from a late school activity. Out of curiosity, she tentatively tiptoed up to the gate, her stomach churning nervously. Then she saw it.
An unmistakably-shaped shadow lingered just outside of the line of clustered bamboo. It hesitated while it moved, turning and noticing Lise immediately with hawklike eyes. She clutched the bars to the gate. It slowly approached her presence, and she took a stride back. The shadow was a person; and though its face was barely visible, she knew precisely what person.
Lise felt inclined to leave, but her feet were glued to the sidewalk. What if this was the only time she saw the artist of that spectacular painting. With a raspy voice, she whispered, “They erased it.”
What she could see of Tobias Acosta’s face did not show surprise or anger. It lacked much sign of expression, but it was darkening outside each second. Finally, the figure replied quietly, “Yes.”
It had addressed her. Lise looked down. “Don’t you care about it?”
“I’ll do another one.”
Lise quickly raised her eyes, amazed. She tried to muster, how? But it ended up as a “Why?”
He shrugged. “I can’t stop it. I don’t want to.”
The explanation seemed simple, but was complex. It meant that he both needed and wanted to paint, that he loved doing it. He scrutinized her face one last time before slinking down the sidewalk again.
In bed, Lise struggled with sleep again, her eyes staring blindly into the depths between herself and the ceiling. Many times, she squeezed her eyes shut, but they always pulled open again. At the peak of exhaustion, she finally closed her eyes for good. But just before she drifted to sleep, an image of the old abandoned hospital just next door appeared in her mind’s eye….
* * *
Lise had found sleep much more easily the next night. But a stream of bright moonlight disturbed her light slumber, and she instantly woke. The milky ray of light trickled over her cheek.
She pushed the covers off of her white nightgown and peered out of the window that opened above her low bed. The old hospital loomed nearby.
“Well what do you know?” she gasped. The infamous shadow lurked at the foot of the hospital, mostly blocked from view by several tall shrubs. Blinking decidedly, she threw her legs over the windowsill and lowered herself to the ground. In the presence of the structure, her pace slowed. She lingered at the border of the shrubs and watched Acosta pick up a can of spray paint. Lise breathed loudly, afraid to speak, and he turned to see her. Alarm flashed across his face automatically, but it dissolved when he recognized her face. As if she wasn’t there, he sprayed the color over the brick.
She wasn’t a threat. Lise felt ever so slightly more comfortable and inched forward, her bare feet stinging on the sharp rocks. She was actually watching him create the piece, watching it birthed. Gingerly, she sat on the ground behind him and watched, fascinated.
He stole a glance at her, and she caught it. “Should I leave?”
“I don’t care.”
Curiously: “Do you think I won’t tell?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think you did before.”
“I didn’t.” She blinked in the darkness.
They conversed, their sentences stretching slightly with each word. Lise felt nervous, but less so than before. “Why don’t you be an artist instead of a graffitist?” she blurted. He hesitated. Acosta was a lot younger than she thought; he couldn’t have been much more than a year older than her.
“I was tricked into it when I was younger.” His phrase was chopped, and Lise abandoned the topic.
Deep into the city’s sparks of light, Lise could see the horizon. It glowed with dawn behind layers of buildings, and she stuttered quickly, “I… I have to go.” She wobbled to her feet. Tobias Acosta glanced back, a momentary smile flickering on his face. Then he turned his back.
The wind rumpled the curtains in the window as Lise clambered back through. It was worth a dirty nightgown.
* * *
Officers didn’t immediately notice the painting, which gave Tobias more space and time. The hospital was a large building, and he could surely fit quite a lot of paintings on it. Lise visited each night and built a strange, fearful friendship with a “criminal.” After a while, she refused to name his artwork crime.
On one particularly bleak afternoon, Lise found a newspaper scattered over the floor. On retrieving it, she started at the headline: “Key Clues to Graffitist ‘Tobias Acosta’s’ Identity Detected.”
When she met him again, he seemed extremely uneasy. At every gust of wind, he threw a worried glance over his shoulder. Afraid to mention it, Lise kept quiet.
Then, a chorus of loud, triumphant voices began to call from the woods. Even without seeing them, both recognized the voices of the police, and both sprang up quickly. Tobias began to race away.
Lise heard the faint “Goodbye” from behind her and wondered why his tone held such finality. When she turned again, he was gone.
* * *
The Parisian sun glowed warmly, a jewel in the spotless sky. France was a brilliant country, and the vacation should provoke a sense of happiness. Lise, though, didn’t find full enjoyment. Bitter feeling was added to the lovely vacation. She was internally creased with the now familiar loneliness. This was her disposition for the last five years. This was her twenty-first birthday.
Lise adjusted her gaze downward. She could see a faint reflection in the polished marble floor. Her lips tightened.
The art gallery was bustling with Parisians who were absorbed in admiring the neatly framed artwork. Lise had studied French for four years now, and she had come for her twenty-first birthday to France. A particularly stunning painting beckoned her gaze. The natural setting was a forest in flames, magnificently terrible. Cinders rained from the trees, and flames fingered the thick smoke that mingled with the clouds. Lise was torn between whether to smile or frown, examining the technique.
She ended up smiling.
He came out of the crowd, hardly different from their last meeting five years ago. Instead of being veiled in worry, though, he confidently emerged from the swarms of people. The Parisians smiled their sweet, sophisticated smiles. He and Lise locked glowing eyes.
“Bonjour,” she whispered.