Content warning: racism, discussions of hate crimes
“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” — Oscar Wilde
Jade didn’t know how she ended up at the front door of Sarah Matthew’s house. She paced in place as she rubbed her palms against the faded blue of her jeans, suppressing the urge to shiver in the early evening cold. She looked up at the enormous house she was standing in front of, taking in the ridiculously long windows, Greek-inspired pillars that ran several feet tall, and the wraparound porch. The entire architecture of the place made an uneasy feeling dance through her stomach. She sighed loudly and leaned forward to ring the doorbell once more. Jade fiddled with the ends of her braids as she looked over her shoulder. If it weren’t for her ridiculous art project, one that was conveniently a group project, she could have been cozying up in her bed, book in hand, mind fully immersed in the story — the perfect way to spend a Friday night.
Instead, here she was, standing in front of a house that looked straight out of antebellum America, preparing to knock on the door of the creepiest girl at her school.
Sarah had a reputation for being “the strange girl.” She never said a word to anyone, and only offered something between a snarl and a growl when anyone dared to make eye contact. At first, everyone thought of her as the quiet newbie who was simply anti-social. But when she was caught taking photos of the African American Studies teacher, Mr. Andrews, during class, she was officially labeled “the school weirdo” whom everyone was only just a little bit afraid of.
Just a little.
“I know art when I see it,” she’d said with a smile that made Jade nauseous, her eyes fixed on Mr. Andrews’ thick afro, plaid button-down shirt and green framed glasses. Sarah was immediately suspended, and Mr. Andrews had resigned two days later, claiming, in a letter sent to the entire school, that the situation had made him extremely uncomfortable, and that he no longer wished to be a part of the institution.
Jade never heard from Mr. Andrews again, but she made a mental note to stay far away from Sarah after that day.
Still pacing back and forth in front of Sarah’s house, Jade scraped her foot against the white deck of the porch and froze. Her eyes caught the paintbrush that lay between the cracks, just on the verge of falling.
She crouched down to pick it up; the tip of the brush was saturated with the darkest red paint she had ever seen. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she touched it, rubbing the still wet paint across her finger tips. Her eyes widened at the sticky texture of the paint and she quickly flung it to the floor in disgust. “What the…?”
The jingling sound of a lock sounded as the front door burst open. Sarah, standing in the doorway with her blond hair tied up in a high ponytail that looked pretty painful, greeted her with a toothy grin and yellow paint streaked across her cheek.
“Jade, hi! I’m so sorry for making you wait. When a portrait calls, you must answer.” She chuckled softly as her eyes looked over Jade, like she was inspecting a product for sale.
Jade fought the urge to let her discomfort show as she shifted awkwardly. She had never heard Sarah’s voice before, but she certainly hadn’t expected her to sound as chipper as she did.
Let’s just get this over with, she thought as she flashed an equally bright smile. “It’s fine, really. Nice place you got,” she replied, motioning to the arches.
Sarah smiled softly, her eyes never leaving Jade’s, and hummed thoughtfully, “Pretty braids.”
Jade grabbed her braids and nervously twisted them around her fingers. “Thank—”
“Is all that hair yours?”
Jade blinked, caught off guard. “Excuse-”
Sarah snorted and let out a boisterous laugh. “Please, please come in!”
Jade hesitated a moment, every bit of her body shivering with discomfort, her instincts telling her to turn around and go home. But she exhaled and stepped through the threshold.
When she turned around briefly, the paintbrush was gone.
The door clicked shut and Sarah offered another bright smile. “Hungry? We have time before we need to start on the project. Feel free to look around as well.”
Jade’s eyes darted left and right, rapidly trying to take in her surroundings when they landed on Sarah’s red fingertips.
Sarah let out a short laugh. “I don’t bite, I promise. Despite the rumors I’m actually quite nice.” She wiggled her fingers to show Jade. “You caught me in the middle of a portrait.”
Jade looked around briefly. “Are the others here yet? I know Daniella and Jasmine were supposed to come together.” Jade furrowed her eyebrows in concern and reached for her phone to send a quick text to her other group members.
But before she could hit send, Sarah placed a gentle hand on her arm. “Oh, don’t worry, they texted me earlier saying that they’d be running late.”
Jade froze mid-motion, staring at Sarah’s ever-glowing smile, and exhaled as she dropped her arm. She motioned towards Sarah’s painted fingertips, “I didn’t know you were an artist.”
She nodded as she led Jade to the kitchen.
Jade allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the grand hallway, and the line of portraits that lined the walls. She paused, taking them in. Each one was scarily realistic, with every detail, from the rich brown of the subjects’ skin to the tiny pores on their faces meticulously drawn.
She looked into the deep brown eyes of one of the portraits, and as the irises stared back into hers, she stepped back with a chill that spiraled down her spine. She felt as if these portraits were looking straight into her soul, as if they were brimming with tears. Her eyes widened as a single drop raced down the cheek of the portrait in front of her.
Jade’s heart skipped a beat as she blinked hard. The tear was gone and only a very realistic painting stared back. So realistic that she half-expected it to jump out at her. With a shaky exhale, she sped up to catch up to Sarah.
“Are all of those paintings yours?” Jade asked, unable to erase them from her mind. She had to admit Sarah truly was talented.
Sarah nodded proudly. “Those are some of my favorites. I keep my most prized ones elsewhere.”
A long stretch of silence sat between the two girls before Sarah said, with fascination threaded through her words, “I’ve met many people as dark as you but never one whose skin compliments their eyes so well. But I personally think a nice cobalt blue for the eyes would stand out more. It’s more exotic that way.”
Jade stopped in her tracks, reeling from the sheer audacity of this girl. Her nose flared as she yanked the leash just barely wrapped around her frustration. “Listen, Sarah, I don’t know who you think—”
“Did you know there are actually people like that in Africa? White hair, blue eyes, black skin; just so fascinating! I’d love to paint—”
“Sarah!” Jade snapped. “What is your problem?”
Sarah spun around, confusion painted across her features. “Problem? Oh, I don’t have a problem.” She giggled innocently, taking in Jade’s heaving chest and widened eyes. She visibly winced. “It was just an observation. No need to get angry.”
Sarah let out an exasperated sigh. It was as if she was examining some artifact, some… thing to watch and tweak.
Like an artist with her subject.
Jade let out a slow, calculated breath. “Sarah,” she said slowly as if explaining a complicated subject to a child. “You cannot just go around saying things like that.”
Sarah snorted. “Like what?”
“Are you serious? Everything you just said was racist.”
Sarah’s mouth widened in a comically wide O, her hand on her chest, taken aback, as if she had just been accused of murder. “Racist? You’re calling me racist? I am not racist.” She sputtered and put a hand to her forehead in disbelief. “I’m not racist. Besides, it’s not like I’ve owned slaves, or— or lynched anyone. In fact I’m the opposite of racist. I’ve seen those awful videos of Black people being beaten, and— and those terrible pictures of the lynchings and God I just feel so bad for you.”
She snapped her fingers as if coming to a realization. “I have Black friends. More than you can count, and then there’s Daniella, Jasmine and you!” She smiled and nodded in a way that made her look more crazed than enthusiastic.
Jade swallowed uncomfortably. “Watching videos of Black pain and having Black friends doesn’t make you an anti-racist, Sarah—”
“I’m not racist!” Sarah screeched. Her face was now beet-red, her veins bulging and eyes unfocused. “Why don’t you understand? I watch the videos and— and I even posted in support of Black Lives Matter, you should be thanking me—”
“Thanking you? Posting a Black screen and watching videos don’t do anything if you’re spouting nonsense like this. I mean, you’re reducing Black people to their pain and suffering. In the few minutes you’ve been trying to convince me that you’re not racist, all you’ve been able to mention is the violence and the pain.”
Sarah’s eyes darted rapidly, her mouth twitching trying to find the right words. But there were none. There never were.
“Don’t make a spectacle out of Black violence so you can get a few hundred likes and feel good about yourself. I’m not another one of your little paintings that you can fix up to perfection and cloak in a lie of sincerity.”
Sarah closed her mouth and then scoffed as if she was in on a secret. Then mumbled, “I’m not racist.”
Jade let out an incredulous laugh. “You know what? I’m leaving. This project isn’t worth this much.” She pulled out her phone and dialed Daniella’s number, stomping away as the line rang.
Sarah’s hand grabbed Jade’s wrist, desperately. “You can’t leave. Our grade—”
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you—” Jade froze at the distant echo of a light jingle. A ringtone. Daniella’s ringtone, which Jade knew too well. She yanked her arm from Sarah’s grip and followed the tone, running back down the long hall toward the entrance, leaving Sarah behind. She paused for a moment to get a better sense of where the sound was coming from.
She walked slowly as the sound of the ringtone grew louder and louder. She turned the corner of the hall and came to an abrupt stop.
There, lying on the floor, was Daniella’s phone.
Jade slowly crouched down to pick it up, but stopped at the sight of the new set of paintings on the wall. Her phone clattered to the floor as she cupped her hands over her mouth in horror.
There was yet another line of portraits, only these were more unsettling than the last. They looked just as realistic as the ones in the hallway, each one dressed in linen blouses or cotton dresses, some wearing bonnets tied around their heads, others wearing knit caps. Looking further down, Jade saw more paintings, but these were different. These were paintings of violence — a Black man being beaten on the gray concrete of a street, another with his hands tied with a rope, and so on…
Faces, so many faces. In every painting, no matter how horrific the image, there was a face that looked straight ahead, straight into the eyes of the viewer with an expression that was almost begging for help. Jade could feel in her bones the sadness, grief and pain that emanated from these faces.
Jade stepped back in a mix of horror and disgust, her eyes watering. She heard Sarah’s voice from behind her.
“Jade? Jade, where did you run off to?”
Jade sucked in a sharp breath and looked for a place to hide. She eyed a door a few feet away, threw it open and shut herself in.
She was in the bathroom. She locked the door and leaned over the sink, taking deep breaths in and out, willing herself not to vomit. All she had to do was find Daniella and Jasmine and find a way to get out of here.
“Oh Jaaaade. Did you get lost?” Jade heard Sarah call out again as the sound of her footsteps passed through the bathroom door and faded down the hall.
Once Sarah was gone, Jade took a deep breath and stared at her reflection in the mirror, contemplating her next move.
She flinched as something warm dripped onto her hair, then frowned as it dripped down her forehead. She caught her reflection in the mirror, her eyes nearly popping from their sockets as she watched the bright red, thick liquid race down her forehead and down her nose.
She looked up and screamed. Looking down from the ceiling was a portrait of a young Black woman with the same attire as those in the hall, her skin being peeled from her face as she stood with an eerily bright smile, showing every single one of her teeth.
Jade screamed once more, vigorously wiping away the blood from her face and furiously wiggling the doorknob to unlock it. She ran outside and caught sight of the line of other portraits again. One had tears of blood running down his face, behind his green framed glasses, his afro seeping with red, and…
Jade let out a sharp gasp as her eyes focused on the portrait. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. Green framed glasses, afro. “M— Mr. Andrews?”
Her eyes then shifted to the two portraits just to the left of it and she stumbled to the ground.
Daniella and Jasmine. They were both in the paintings, their skin peeling, blood streaming from the dark holes where their eyes used to be.
All at once, a symphony of crying sounds filled the room, echoing and bouncing across the walls. It was the sound of pain, pleading, anger.
SAVE ME, HELP ME, SAVE ME, SAVE ME.
She clapped her hands over her ears, her heart thrashing in her chest. Then, she heard Sarah’s voice again.
“You are so nosy.” Sarah giggled as she took in Jade’s state. She held up her paintbrush, the same one she’d left on the porch when Jade arrived, and waved it as if it were a piece of candy, the sticky blood dripping from the tip.
“How would you like to be my next portrait?”