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Leonardo (1)

I've always been artistically challenged.

Sure I started off like all the other kids, stick men and crudely colored pages with crayon marks that did not adhere to the lined forms. But while my peers at least developed some refinement to their craft, I remained absolute shit. Very early on I stopped entirely.

No doodle marks on homework. No crude depictions of teachers or those who had earned my enmity. I had zero interest. That's always been the way I am. If something was beyond me, I simply didn't feed it with my time or my effort. That was me, Richie Douglas, the boy who gave no shits and even less effort when something was difficult.

It was fine. Video games, Stephen King novels, and science-fiction TV shows easily filled any void that being unable to draw left. Besides, I was a consumer not a creator and I was happy to remain so.

After High-school I puttered around the house for a year. Sleeping in. Late nights watching movies, and endless hours on the laptop browsing Reddit and playing games. I'm sure many of you understand. I'm also sure that at some point, just like with me, many of your doleful parents eventually had enough and laid down the ultimatum.

For me it was work, school or out of the house. It wasn't a hard choice. I had cruised throughout high school sporting a beautiful 2.0 grade point average and was sure I could just as easily do so at Stan Ridgeway Community College. By the time I had finished jumping through all the enrollment hoops the only classes open were some computers program scripting course and Portraiture for Beginners.

I played the shit out of video games, going all the way back to those nights in my preadolescence playing Diablo for marathon sessions, but programming just seemed so beyond me. But I figured maybe, just maybe I could pass an art class, if not by skill then by feigned effort and pity.

The art studio was conveniently located in the Art Wing of Stan Hawkins middle school (naturally, right?). Student art lined the halls, nothing spectacular for the most part, penciled work of buildings and people not quite in proper dimensions, blotto paintings of flowers and fruit, pedestrian. And likely miles above anything I could do.

But when I turned down the hallway in the direction of my class (Room AH7) the pictures became both uniform in theme and realism. They all seemed as if they were drawn by the same hand. Stenciled transients, or more colloquially the homeless, peered back at me. Faces so realistically lined with age, eyes vacant or exuding some deep sadness that it was as if they really stood in front of me.

I am not one who has ever been affected by the artistic mediums, with the exception of how cool my battle mages looked in whatever RPG I was playing. But these stenciled drawings gave me a pause and for a second I was truly looking directly into those faces so many others try to ignore in day to day life.

I won't bore you all with mundane details, the first day of class was like all first days of class. Each student takes a seat, a syllabus is read in thorough detail, and the minutes crawl at a snail's pace. The only thing of note was my teacher, Mr. Mendelson. He was an unremarkable man, tall and thin, balding with a mustache and in sloppy attire (I'm talking sweater top and paint splattered jeans sloppy). And if I had nothing further to say he would bear no mention at all. I wish so badly I had nothing further to say.

When I signed up for beginning Portraiture I thought it would be a class I could put minimal effort into while playing up my lack of skill to skate to that passing grade. In our third week all the students brought photos of a family member to sketch, my dad ended up looking like a five year olds version of Mr. Potatoe Head. Week five, draw a celebrity... but my Cameron Diaz resembled a crudely drawn extraterrestrial Blonde shitzu. Mendelson was not amused. At his request, I met with him in his office later that day to discuss my classroom performance.

His office was...not quite what I expected. There were no reproductions of famous works of art adorning his walls. Instead, there were drawings upon drawings of an anatomical nature plastered over each sided facade. Frontal nudes with arms spread and legs splayed, detailed drawings of craniums with each part labeled, a variety of nose get the idea. I only glanced at his bookshelf for a second, but even what I saw there struck me as odd: Building the Superman by H.L. Robinson, Perfecting the Race by Albert Gross and a score of books about human evolution.

"Mr. Douglas," he started with a face straight, still and stern. Mendelson motioned to the seat in front of his work desk. I took it.

"The works I've seen from you these past two months, and I am generous to refer to them as such, are simply unacceptable."

"I'm really sorry," I replied. "I am probably the world's shi-" I caught myself. "... Worst artist. This was the only class open and my parents where gonna kick me out if I didn't start this semester."

Mendelson was unmoved.

"Be that as it may Mr. Douglas, what you have turned in doesn't just demonstrate a lack of skill but a lack of effort. Even your fruit shows zero semblance to reality. To say you are simply a 'bad artist' is a canard. You, Mr. Douglas, are lazy."

He spoke with an icy cold authority that still could not quite hide something akin to disgust.

"The World is filled with the lazy, the helpless and the afflicted. All parading their litany of excuses of why they should be given a pass and a hand up that always in reality is a hand out."

I was 19. I was a full adult but in this moment I was a child again, unable to do anything but listen as I sat frozen. "But my job isn't to fail students Mr. Douglas, it's to teach and to instill in them that what they need not just be better artists, but productive members of society. And so I'm willing to work with you if you are willing to work with me. I could use some help cleaning the stations between classes, which I would consider...extra credit."

There was not much more to that conversation. I quickly but meekly accepted the offer and was gruffly dismissed.

I began my duties immediately afterwards: sweeping the classroom, making sure all the supplies were accounted for, sharpening the myriad variety of pencils, emptying the ash from the kilns and wiping them down with some sort of specialized spray. It really wasn't so bad. He'd always tell me I was free to leave at 4:50 PM, right before his last class of Advanced Portraiture students arrived.

It was in the second week my new 'extra credit assignment' that I discovered something truly shocking. You see, I was always in a rush to get home after being dismissed from my labors, the Sci-Fi Channel doesn't watch itself after all. On this particular day, the rush home led me to forget my backpack by my desk, which would've been fine had it not been carrying my laptop that served as a second life.

"Shit." I told myself knowing damn well that the cantankerous nature of Mr. Mendelson meant I would have to wait until his class was over to retrieve it. Still, the rig was very expensive and custom made for gaming. I simply didn't trust it not to be in my sight so I decided to wait outside the classroom door and make sure no one departed with my precious machine. I left home immediately and set out for the short drive to campus.

When I made my way inside the seemingly empty building I was entreated to the booming voice of Mendelson from behind the closed door of the classroom. Surprising, as he was so often gruff but never loud.

"These are the faces of human depravity." I heard him shout. "You, Richard, are lending them too much humanity. This is portraiture not idealism and here, in this classroom, we draw things as they are!"

Of course I crept myself forward toward the glass slot beside the door. I saw the full class sitting at their desks, graphite pencils in jostling hands. I saw Mr. Mendelson standing stiffly and menacingly beside a nervous looking black haired student I could only assume to be Richard. And I saw a row of homeless standing still in front of the whole classroom, a vacant but sad look in each of their eyes, but they did not move. I didn't even look for my backpack, my gaze was again transfixed by those sad detached faces that captivated me so much on my first day of class.

I sat and watched for thirty minutes, until the class was dismissed and then I waited a few more minutes after the last student had trickled out before I made my way in. There was no one in the room, so I quickly found my backpack which lay beside my desk. Everything seemed so sinister about those portraits, the way he reproached the student who tried to lend the barest trace of dignity to his subject, those vacant glazed sad looks in the eyes of the homeless. I probably should have just left for home but I didn't. A fire of morbid curiosity was lit in me, so I walked to the back of the class, to the doors that lead to the kiln and supply rooms like the moth to the flame. I pushed them open, just slightly, and peered through. What I saw will stay with me until I die.

The indigent where lined up again and Mendelson made his way down the line, stopping at each person, jabbing their arms with a syringe. A smile on each one's face as the plunger was fully depressed. Some said thanks, but the majority were just more or less quietly content. And one by one they tumbled to the ground, a heap of flesh and soiled clothing, unloving. There was still one man remaining, not yet pricked by Mendelson's needle. His sadness boiled over and he wept.

"There, there," Mendelson said consolingly, almost like a human being. "It's okay. This is what you want. The world wasn't made for you and you need to realize that."

The man's sobbing intensified and Mendelson wrapped a monstrous arm around him, presenting affection. It was scary how authentic the action appeared.

"You are a burden," he said with a soothing cadence. "A blight, there is nothing wrong with admitting that. I am just sending you off with one last hit of...serenity."

Somewhere between the words he must have given the man the needle, as that same look of contented detachment made its way on his face before his body went limp. Mendelson let go and stepped back disgustedly and the homeless man's body hit the floor with a thwack.

I stood watching. Frozen and unable to move, rationalize or even think. All I could do was feel. And I felt sick. Sick as I watched him strip each one of their clothing. Sicker as he turned the bodies over again and again while he snapped photos. It felt cold, and surgical, not like he was collecting trophies but more like he was documenting something. My spell was finally broken when I saw him pick up that first body, trudge slowly across the room and open one of the kiln's door. He threw him in, and I backed away. Tripping over a desk I collected myself and ran out of that building, to my car, and sped my way home.

I called the police as soon as I got there. I should've done it sooner but my mind was not processing very well at the time. The dispatcher sounded incredulous but assured me someone would investigate. I hung up when she asked me my name.

It was in the news for weeks. "The Homeless Holocaust" and other cringe worthy headlines were perpetually in the public eye. Police on the scene did not find Mendelson. Of course, he heard me when I tripped and knew he had to escape quickly. What they did find was 14 fired up kilns containing human ashes.

Ashes that I had been unknowingly disposing of for weeks.

I am the world's shittiest artist, but even the world's best can never recreate the horror I witnessed on that night.

-James Moniker (transcriber)