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The Artist's Friend

It was the most beautiful place to create. It possessed a quiet solitude that allowed ideas to coalesce in unexpected ways. Life fermented here and discovered new planes of being. It wasn’t work when he set up his canvas in this room.

"What are you painting?"

The child’s question took him by surprise. He hadn’t heard her enter.

"A portrait."

"Can I see?"

"In a few moments. I’m almost finished."

"Who is it a portrait of?"

"A friend of mine. It’s a surprise for her birthday. She doesn’t know I’m painting it."

The young girl tilted her head, pursed her lips, stared out the window. She hung there, unmoving, like the bits of dust caught in the sunlight that spilled into the darkened room. The artist looked around the canvas, wondering at the quietness.

"Something on your mind, Lara?"

"I was thinking about my friend. I wish I could paint her a portrait. I miss her."

"What has happened to her?"

"Nothing," Lara answered, the word trailing off as if something were being remembered as it was spoken.

The artist’s room was in an old warehouse or workshop, on the second floor in one of the barrio’s many abandoned buildings. It was quite large. The building was made of red brick, as were the room’s walls. Its wooden floors were warped and the wood dried. Dust had taken up permanent residence. It possessed its own form of quiet, the room, with a scent that was at once old and freshly alive. In spite of its sparseness - empty save for the artist, his tools and Lara - the room felt cozy and inviting, a place that time had side-stepped. It was a calm place.

"My mother says I’m not allowed to see her anymore. She’s not the sort of person I should be hanging around with."

"Well that’s too bad," said the artist. "A trouble maker, is she?"

"Not really, I don’t think. She’s just different. Maybe my mom is right."

The artist smiled, looked around his canvas, "Lara we’re all different in the barrio."

"Why is that? What do you mean?"

"You are too young to understand, I think. But … we are the rejects. The square pegs that won’t fit in a round hole. We think differently than those on the outside, many of us, anyway. In all societies there have always been those on the fringes. Sometimes they are visionaries, free-thinkers, intellectuals and artists, like me. And sometimes they are lunatics and criminals, but mostly they are the downtrodden. They - we - are the stuff of life."

"The downtrodden?"

"People who are down on their luck. The poor. Those society has abandoned or beat down, oppressed."

"I think that would include my friend."

"Why do you think your friend is one of the downtrodden?"

Lara thought for a moment, shuffled her feet, put her hands in her pockets. "People just treat her differently. They don’t like being around her sometimes. They get quiet when she is around and ignore her. Or they seem uncomfortable. I heard some people say mean things to her."

The artist cleaned his brush, slapped it on the towel in front of him and grabbed a new color of paint with it. "Why do you think that is?"

"I think they’re scared. Mom is. She’s always scared, I think. Scared of the Oligoi, scared of losing who she is. Scared that Pan21 will come back."

"Well," said the artist, "when people are scared they can change. Some of them turn away, turn inward. Others get angry and lash out in unfortunate ways. Sometimes they even get violent and hateful."

"How old is this friend of yours?"

"I don’t know, older. Your age, maybe."

"My age? What’s her name? What did she do to upset so many people?"

"Nothing much, really. She just survived."

The artist froze. "Oh," he said, after a minute. "I see." A Pan21 survivor, the plague that had decimated humanity, culled its numbers by nearly half, and turned the few who had survived ashen. He lifted his canvas from the easel and lowered it.

"Let me ask you something, Lara. What do you see when you look at her, your friend?"

"Just her, my friend."

The artist smiled. "And so you should. Would you like to see the portrait of my friend?"

"Sure!"

The artist turned the painting for Lara to see. She gasped. "It’s beautiful," she said, her voice a whisper of wonder.

The portrait was of a survivor standing on the curb in front of a cafe. She had the ashen skin and hair and the grey eyes. But she was so alive! So beautiful. She stood there strong and tall, even though somewhat aged, her long coat falling elegantly around her. The street scene was so full of color and life and the artist’s friend was the most vibrant and luminescent thing in the painting.

"When we get to know people," the artist said, "beauty becomes a relative thing. Better, I think, to see them for who we know them to be, than what others believe."

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