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Captured in Color

Rebecca Lang is a substitute teacher who occasionally scribbles down story ideas while showing high school students the same science video for the fifth time in a row. She lives in California, attends Cal-State Fullerton, and published her first novel, The Changelings, last year.

They'd shut out every photograph, every video, every image of her face. But they couldn't shut out his dreams. Her beauty clawed at his chest, like a living thing trying to get out. So Frank took to the streets with tubes of paint and a can of brushes.
Tonight he painted her face on a wall of crumbling concrete bricks.
Blue. That was the color of his work. Deep indigo, mixed with violet, as rich as her eyes. Long strokes with a thick brush formed the frame of her face. Delicate swipes created wispy strands of hair. The pent-up pressure of his chest eased, and Frank's heart became as still as a mountain lake.
Once more, he saw her.
Once more, the memories rushed through him.
Back then he was just a poor kid with dirty hands. He didn't belong in her house. But the window was open, the gauzy apricot curtains fluttering in the breeze. So Frank climbed in.
He'd broken into mansions before, pilfered jewelry and crystal paperweights and silver cigarette trays. Never sold them. He collected them. Pretty little baubles for his dumpster apartment. Some nights, when the shouting got too loud, he'd turn them over and over in his hands, staring at their shiny exteriors, as though they could somehow gloss the darkness of his soul.
In the house with the apricot curtains, a porcelain vase sat on a table. Frank wrapped his hands around it.
Light flooded the room.
There she stood. Golden curls trembling against peach skin. A little red mouth, lipstick just starting to chap off. Clear blue eyes, wide with shock. She froze, and their eyes locked together. Electricity sizzled under Frank's skin.
She was the perfect summer day.
Sirens sounded, blue flashing lights. Jane, his parole officer, pulled up to the curb.
"Oh, honey, not again."
Jane was a tall, stately woman with hard angles to her face. She had short brown hair and long fingers. While Frank cleaned his brushes, Jane snapped a photo on her tablet for evidence and called in the vandalism charge. Out of respect to the victim, she took a can of black spray paint and blotted out his portrait.
"That'll be another six months added to your chip," she said. "You're only hurting yourself."
Frank shrugged.
No one really understood why he kept coming back. Why night after night, he broke into her house, stood over her bed, gazed at her sleeping face, and left pink and yellow portraits dripping on her walls.
Stalking, they called it and put a chip in his arm. The chip blocked her picture from any electronic device he used and websites bearing her name. He couldn't come within five hundred yards of her or an alarm would sound on her phone and he'd get a meeting with Jane.
They shut out her face.
But not his feelings.
Frank had to paint. It was the only way to keep that connection alive, to feel her summer warmth again. It no longer mattered that Jane always destroyed his work. It was a routine.
He painted.
She caught him.
He painted.
She caught him.
And sometimes, if it was a good night, Jane bought him coffee, while she typed up her report and lectured him for wasting his life.
Tonight was a good night. The diner was empty, but the coffee was fresh.
"Fourteen years." Jane dug into a slice of blueberry pie. "Ever think of moving on?"
"Not a chance." Frank drained his mug.
She sighed.
"One day, the painting will get out," he said. "One day, she'll see."
"See what, Frankie?" Jane asked in a low voice.
"What she means to me." He peeled his hands from the white cup and looked at his blue prints. "She's the only color I have in my life."
A wrench was in his grease-blackened hands when Jane walked into the auto shop. Her eyes were cast down, her jaw tight. Frank's heart thudded.
"What'd I do?"
"Nothing." Her voice sounded dull. "I've come to remove the chip."
"I still have two years."
"Doesn't matter."
Frank's lungs tightened, and his breath stopped. He felt light-headed, dizzy.
"What happened?" he whispered.
"She's dead."
The wrench clanged as it hit the asphalt.
Fourteen years.
She'd changed. Her hair was brown now, her skin artificially bronzed. She was a middle-aged woman. Frank stared into the casket, trying to find the remnants of the girl he remembered in that lifeless visage of death.
He failed.
The chip gone, he scanned the Internet for images of her youth. Blond hair. Blue eyes. But her beauty evoked no feelings from him, no stirrings of the heart. Her face was a laughing mask. He did not know her.
Frank drove to the police station and walked over to Jane's desk.
"Frank?" She glanced up. "What are you doing here?"
"I want my paintings back."
For each of his portraits, Jane had snapped a photograph--a portfolio of evidence neatly organized on her tablet. Silently, she handed over the computer. Frank flipped to the first picture he'd ever painted.
The pink and yellow swirls that formed her sleeping face were clumsy but at least they brought back all those tender memories. The knot of fear in Frank's stomach loosened. He remembered why he needed her.
But then the portraits began to change. In the years after the chip was placed in his arm, her face became abstract, blurry. His memory failed; his imagination took over. He began to see her not in yellow and rose, but in violet and blue. Her round face grew hard and elongated, her hair became short and thin.
The girl from the first portrait was gone.
Frank looked up. He gasped.
"It's you," he said. "I've been painting you this whole time."
Jane nodded sadly. "I know, honey. I know."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 8th, 2016

Author Comments

I was trying to get my aunt, a poet, to write a short story, but I became so enamored by the prompts I drew for her (Frank the Painter wants love but the Inspector is standing in his way) that I ended up writing a short story instead. Initially, I wanted to explore the nature of love, and the anti-stalker chip was just an obstacle to keep Frank away. But the idea of blocking someone's image, as a means of security, resonated with me. Technology has a lot of possibilities in the area of criminal justice, but in protecting the victim, do we take away the rights of the offender? And to what extent are we okay with that?

- Rebecca Lang
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