Monday, March 28, 2011

Workin' for the Weekend.

Hey! It's this week's flash challenge from Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds. This week's challenge is titled "The Portrait" and follows the normal rules. 1,000 words, any genre and style, and the inspiration is the creepifying picture you see to the right here. Enjoy, and as always, feedback is highly appreciated!

"Smile." Jake said with burnt enthusiasm. He figured he was batting about 300. One little victory in three was good enough for him. He never had a talent for it, but he always tried, even when he didn't really care at all. Like right now. The bulb radiated its instant pulse and a moment later they were left in that room. His room. His cell. He knew the kid's smile, if it was ever there in the first place, vanished just as quickly as the blinding man-made light.

He dreamt of being a photographer - open his own little studio. He made his way through the drudge of English, the perplexing Algebra, and the myopic Chemistry in high school by taking little mental snapshots constantly of his friends, teachers, classrooms, pencils, whatever he laid his eyes on. All that practice at escaping the mundane by celebrating its ubiquity and what did he get out of it? A debt for life to art school. A small crappy shop barely supporting two rooms, and all the faux-wood paneling surrounding him casting grim aspirations towards an early death and a coffin made of balsa.

His eyes glazed over for a second as he searched fruitlessly through his mind for something - anything - that he could look forward to in the next year. Then he went out five years. Then 25. Nothing. He was self-employed and so planned on working his entire life. He couldn't imagine retirement although he played at it as best he could every weekend. Of course he had big business on Saturdays and Sundays what with weddings, parties, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, so his weekends were Wednesdays and Thursdays. Still, it was rare even then for him to get both days off straight in a row without having some senior picture or family portrait session scheduled. Today was different. It was Tuesday. It was his Friday, and he had a solid two days of laziness planned for himself with no interruptions, no exceptions.

"Can I go now?" asked the eight year-old boy stuffed into a navy blue suit that was clearly trying to kill him by the way he reacted to wearing it. Jake snapped back to reality and nodded. The boy raked at his throat like some poacher had caught him in a snare in the wild, and the tie went loose. He ran out of the studio making karate and laser noises while his mother followed, paying no attention to Jake's spacing out. He might survive the work week if he could just get the Hendricks out of there and take care of his one last session before freedom.

Mrs. Hendricks halted in the doorway between the studio room and the front room. Her back was to Jake, but still he could feel a rigidness in her. A moment later Jake realized little Noah Hendricks had ceased shooting monsters and karate chopping in just the next room. Am I being robbed? Jake thought to himself. I better not be, it'll be embarrassing to have to tell the robber that there's really not much to take. 

He walked past Mrs. Hendricks to the front room, bracing himself for an episode of pistol waving and nervous, quick demands. Walking into the other room he was greeted by a father and son dressed in ancient, moldy, tattered tuxedos. Jake supposed that the penguin suits decked to the nines with top hats and tails would have looked quite fetching about 70 years ago. The father was gaunt and his head was hairless with the exception of the thickest pair of bushy white eyebrows he'd ever seen. The strange man wore a face without expression. The son, at least that's what Jake guessed of the unusual pair, stood facing out the front window into the black, starless night. Noah started to cry.

"Can I help you, Mr..?" Jake asked the father while looking over his shoulder at the younger man behind him.

"Rosenbaum. Yes, we require your services." the gaunt man replied.

"I see. Well, we could schedule a session for... Friday I have an opening at 11:00?"

The gaunt man considered this. "No, we'll be using your services now. Immediately. My son cannot wait."

"I'm sorry, but I have another appointment coming in and I have a strict first come, first - "

"They are not coming," interrupted the gaunt man. "We are your concern now." He looked towards the sobbing eight year-old and his mother, and without further word, the two of them left. The fact that they hadn't paid was the least of Jake's concerns at the moment. "Now, you will go into your room. Prepare a brown outdoor landscape where my son will then sit for you. You will then take his picture and deal with what comes next in your own way."

"Alright." Jake replied. And so he did. All the while the son stared out the window, not moving, while the gaunt man observed Jake and gave him directions. Jake wasn't distracted, he wasn't brain-washed, and he knew exactly what was going on. He was content to simply follow the man's orders. The last order was to get into position behind the camera, focus on the empty space the son would soon be filling, and close his eyes. The son was summoned to the room.

Jake heard his cheap wooden floors creak as the otherwise-silent figure entered the room. He found that he could visualize the whole scene after spending years in the same room with countless customers all going through the exact same motions to be captured motionless and lifeless forever in time.

"Wait until he gets into the proper position at which point you will open your eyes and take your picture. I'm afraid time wears thin, as does my son." The man hesitated for a moment, and then spoke. "You may open your eyes and take the photograph."

Without thinking, Jake yelled "Smile!" as he opened his eyes and clicked the shutter. The light practically blinded him. He saw a mass of appendages writhing in the harsh exposure of the flash as a face unlike the other thousands of portraits he'd taken appeared just inches away from the other side of the lens. The strobe went out, and darkness engulfed him.

The son had disappeared and Jake was no longer Jake. The gaunt man laid his stretched, withered hand on his son's - formerly Jake's - shoulder, freshly groomed and free of his hunger now standing behind the camera in the spot Jake was standing just a moment in the past. The son straightened, smoothed his fine black tuxedo and removed the negatives from the camera.

"Now father, we must attend to your needs." The son tested the faded and frayed lapel of his father's tuxedo coat between his fingers. "Your suit is in no condition for a night out on the town."


  1. Oooo...spooky! So the son was transferred into poor Jake, and in a few years they'll end up doing the same thing again to some other poor photographer. Well, at least he doesn't have to worry about retirement and debt anymore, eh? Nice story, Paul. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Really creative, Paul. Great descriptions. Held me spellbound :)

  3. Thanks to both of you! I had a lot of fun writing this, and "burnt enthusiasm" is probably my favorite single phrase I've ever come up with on my own.

  4. I can't help but feel this story has a happy ending. Nice work!