For as long as I have been on this Earth I have favored books over people. And in time, I learned to associate people with the characters they remind me of. While genuinely believing they are original, humans reek of the character archetype they project. Whether or not they believe they are doing so, they come off as stereotypical; readable. Like ghosts roaming the planet in circles with stories caught in their throats or pasted onto their foreheads, never reaching their full potential, desperate to be understood– stuck in one place forever. Like frozen, unfinished sketches in a starving artist’s portfolio.
I guess that’s why I became a horror book illustrator. So I could use my judgmental powers to make a profit, while also having an excuse to “people-watch.” The park used to be my go-to place, but not anymore. Since my unknowing muses were beginning to catch onto my creative process.
There I would sit, harmlessly on the damp park bench overlooking the family picnic area. I’d set up my mini easel, adjacent to the lake and pebbled shores, littered with striped beach towels and waddling toddlers. Then I’d pull out my client’s story outline from my leather satchel, and choose which scene to illustrate first, scanning the crowds for the perfect main victim.
She was nowhere to be found, my gaze darting from family to family, my eyebrows angled and disapproving of the lack of originality in the crowd. Every mother, suspected aunt, and cousin was styled as if in an Old Navy photoshoot– modestly blanketed with polka dot sweaters and light denim cargo shorts. The complete opposite archetype of what my victim would embody. I capped my pen, ready to move to a different section of the park, the playground perhaps when a blaze of auburn caught my eye. There she was, my victim, climbing onto the lifeguard tower for her next shift of “people-watching.” Her eyes, as forest green as her sweatshirt, danced upon the lake’s surface, as mine danced on her bland smile. She was an uncanny resemblance to the book’s main character, so I had convinced myself, regardless of her stark red hair when the author insisted on blonde.
“I can fix that,” I mumbled, copying her likeness onto my sketchbook, and carving her cheekbones into a horrified expression. Trying my best to imagine how wide her eyes would stretch when scared. Would she cry for mercy or stare blankly, frozen in fear? Her shift was almost over, and the illustration was simply wrong. Her eyes didn’t scream for help, her frown didn’t dip as low as I felt it should’ve. Would her hands cover her face? Or would she fall to the ground in defeat? As her flip-flops clapped against the pebbled sands, trudging past the traveling eyes and onto the secluded trail, I knew I had to find out.
“Anything for the craft,” as I always say.
This would usually be the time when my therapist would stop me mid-fantasy and reflect on my urges, but this was different. This was for work, and heaven knows I’ll do anything for my work.
Long story short, I made the deadline on time, and to my surprise, the author already hired me for the sequel’s illustrations.
“Listen, Ben, I know I insisted on black and white graphics, but this red ink was an amazing choice. My God, the expression in her eyes. It’s so…raw,” he marveled, unable to take his eyes off of my muse. “These red splatters, they were intentional?”
“Not at first,” I mumbled, my hand reaching to rub the soreness on my neck. “But once I started I didn’t know how to stop. You know how it is.”
When I finally grew the courage to look him in the eye, his head was bobbing like a buoy in hightide, flicking the papers, saying, “Well whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
“Oh, I intend to.”