Red splashed against Presley's face, staining her clothes and caking in her hair. She grabbed her brush again and hurled the paint through the air with a guttural scream – the drops separating from the brush and splattering on the paper. It dripped slowly down the blank, white paper and pooled at the base of the easel in a shining crimson blob.
Presley was distraught that day, not because of the gloomy gray sky, the smell of garbage piling up in the corner, the scuffle of rats running through the walls, or the cold air that wafted through her broken windows, raising bumps on her skin and chilling her bones. No, she was used to the presence of all these things in the destitute loft she called an art studio. She was taken over with frustration and anger with her work because she was attempting to finish the most important piece of her life, and just could not get the details right.
The painting depicted the upper side of Tate City, better known as the Jewel District because of the wealth it possessed. Known for its shiny buildings, upscale shops, and streets filled with people donning the expensive fashion produced in the lower side of Tate City, also known as the Garment District, the Jewel District mesmerized Presley and dazzled her imagination.
And yet, Presley lived here: in the dirtiest, loneliest, most forgotten section of the city. She was exhausted from living in this destitute place, suffocated by the cloud of mundaneness and depression that blanketed her birthplace. On a routine day, the people here would wake at dawn (not with the sun but out of habit, as the sky was constantly dark due to the factory fumes that filled the air) and make the trek to the textile factories. After working all day, the people wandered through the city in search of small scraps of food to quell their aching stomachs. This was not a life Presley could bear to live any longer. It was becoming too much to be reduced to a lowly worker because of where she was from. She had much more to offer and she desperately needed to prove it.
Presley had no desire to paint this depressing place so many called home. She decided to paint the Jewel district, because it was much happier, yes, but also because she needed to appeal to the elites who lived there. She had gone to one of the most famous galleries in the Jewel District earlier that day, attempting to sell her paintings. She had been laughed at and kicked out, forced to return home with her head hung low in shame, fists shoved into her pockets to keep from freezing, balled up in anger that the elites were allowed to treat her with such hatred. But she endured, because they were her only chance of success as an artist.
If she could depict the beauty and luxury of this part of the city, the elites would be drawn to the rendition of their home, and accept her painting with open arms. So she hoped. Of course there was a chance she would again face rejection, but she chased the thought from her mind, unable to bear it. No Garment District worker had the money to buy a piece of art or anything remotely luxurious, but the Jewel District housed the best art galleries in the world, in addition to its wealthy residents who had the money to buy her paintings.
If she could sell this painting, she could finally be recognized and shed the curse of invisibility that came with being from the Garment District. Anything less than her best would be again rebuked, meaning she would never make it out of this grimey place. That was why the piece had to be perfect. Absolutely perfect. She was close, so close, she just had to get it right.
As the sun began to set, the dark sky became darker and the only light left in the miniscule studio was a single fluorescent bulb. I could see it buzzing above the easel as the painter worked diligently. I watched through the night as her painting began to take shape. The glinting buildings were stunningly depicted as their shiny silver roofs reached up to the sky, perfectly clear glass windows turned blinding white as the sun reflected off them. I could see the streets of marble and the crystal blue sky. She even painted the expensive cars that lined the marble streets, and the people dressed in their fur coats to keep them warm and safe against the cold. Ah, what a wonderful city. My city. My heart squirmed with a twinge of envy as I realized I could never create such a beautiful depiction of the place I lived in. When I heard of this girl from the Garment District who had attempted to display her paintings in the Crown Jewel Gallery, my gallery, I was appalled and shocked. How could anyone from this disgusting place have the nerve to believe their work could ever be good enough for my gallery, where only the most talented artists had the pleasure to see their works displayed. I could not begin to imagine such talent coming from the Garment District, so I had to come to this forsaken place to see who would dare to believe they were good enough. The gallery was my pride and my life’s joy, as much a part of me as my skin, my hair, or my nails. I squirmed with discomfort that I was even standing in this rancid area, yet, as the artist put down her brushes and stepped back to gaze at her finished painting, I could see through the window that this was a masterpiece. I was nauseated by who made it, but the painting itself was beautiful. As the artist turned and finally fell into her bed, an idea began to grow in my head. It would look wonderful in my gallery, but no one could know it was scum from the Garment District who created it, so I would take it and claim it as a work of my own. That painting would be mine.
Presley awoke to the sound of the factories as the garment workers began to start their day. Out the window, she could see the last few stragglers trudging through the gravelly streets to work. They walked with their arms around them and their heads down to protect them from the cold. The gloominess of the day barely registered with Presley that morning. For once, she felt calm. A masterpiece was finally made. She may have been turned away from the gallery before, but with this painting, she knew she could finally have her work displayed in the Crown Jewel. She leapt from bed, excitement coursing through her body…and then, panic.
The painting, her masterpiece, was gone. All that stood in her little loft was an empty easel, and the papers stained with red paint that she had taken out her frustration on the day before. She ran to the easel and searched the entire expanse of the small loft, but it was nowhere to be found.
She sank to the floor, her body convulsing with sobs. She had lost her chance, her one chance to get out of the Garment District and finally be recognized for the talents she had thought she had, for the painstaking work she had spent her life perfecting.
At once, her eye caught a glint of something shiny and white on the floor near the easel. She blinked, and her vision cleared as the tears escaped her eyes and dripped down her face. It was a pearl, a small pearl earring encrusted with gold. An item like this did not belong on the dirty wood floor of the loft, it did not belong in the grimey, despairing world of the Garment District. It could only have come from one place.
As she stared at the earring, her eyes burned with rage, her whole body felt hot and fiery and her hands shook with anger. Her vision was no longer clouded with tears, it was clear and sharp with madness, a red mist of hatred creeping into her periphery. Possessed by fury, she pocketed the earring and grabbed her easel with both hands, she turned and threw it towards the window. It whizzed through the air and crashed onto the street surrounded by a pile of glass. Presley marched to the door, seeing a gas can which she grabbed, and stormed out of the apartment, determined to find who had ruined her life and taken away her last chance of being free, of being happy. In her rage, she had knocked over a can of paint.
The crimson red glistened as it seeped out the door and followed her down the hall.
People had come from far and wide to visit my gallery. Word of the new piece had spread like wildfire. There it was, hanging on the pristine white wall in the center of the room. I could barely see the spectacular details of the piece over the heads of all those gathered around it. A sea of fur coats and sparkling jewelry surrounded the painting.
I stepped closer and people turned to lay their eyes upon me. Words of congratulations flowed out of their smiling mouths and washed over me like a warm ocean tide. My heart swelled with pride as my eyes drifted to the lower right corner of the wall beside the painting. There stood my name, it floated off the plaque and through the air as praise continued to pour in: “Congratulations Jackie!” “You’ve done it again Ms. Gold!”
I felt as if I was floating on a cloud. Everyone loved my gallery, everyone loved my painting, everyone loved me! The masterpiece would sell by the end of the night. I could smell the money, I could smell the diamonds and the pearls and the fur I would buy with it, I could smell the smoke…the smoke?
The screams of gallery goers suddenly filled my ears. Heat filled the room and red flames flew up the walls. I fell to the ground, my hands burning as they came in contact with the scorching floor. I tried to scream but smoke filled my lungs, I tried to cough, I tried to speak, but everything came out as a quiet rasp. My head fell to the side and I could see out of the glass doors.
There she was, standing with a torch and a gas can. The artist’s eyes burned red with fire. I clawed my way to her, to the door. I had to get out. I couldn't speak, couldn't breathe. A burning beam hurtled to the floor from above me, sending up a cloud of smoke that fell around me like dirt. The fire engulfed me, and I gasped my last breath as I realized I was to be no more than an image in someone else's mind.
I can see the woman clawing for her life through the glass doors. Fire engulfing the gallery around her. People screaming around me, devastated to see the Crown Jewel going up in flames. The people inside have their mouths open, but I can’t hear their screams over the sound of the roaring fire. There it is, my masterpiece, depicting the very city I stand in now. The tears come again as I see my beautiful work go up in flames.
But it doesn’t matter to me now. Let it burn, let it all burn. Let them feel the suffering of the garment workers, working away their lives so that these elites can live in luxury.
Let them all burn.
The woman has crawled her way to the door. I take her earring out of my pocket and throw it. It lands next to her outstretched hand as I turn. Heat warms my back as the Crown Jewel explodes in a red ball of fire. I begin to run, so fast I can’t feel my feet touch the ground. My anger recedes as a wave of guilt washes in. My heart beats so hard it might break my ribs and my breath catches in my lungs. Icy tears roll down my face just as fast as they are whipped away by the wind that flies past my ears and stings my eyes. My chest tightens as I breathe and between my gasps I begin to laugh. No, I’ll never feel what it's like to be free from the pain of my god forsaken life. But I've set fire to their lives, so now neither will they. I keep running on, the image of the woman’s outstretched hand following me through the night.