EIGHTY-EIGHT, 2.0

Robert downed his water in one gulp. His throat was dry after giving his rather verbose offer for the fourth time today, and he was happy to quench his thirst. But he took the moment to reflect that this was the first time he’d been able to give his pitch and offer together without interruption.

Judging by the Artist’s reaction, he had done an amazing job.

Robert was pleased with himself, and could see that she was, too. The Artist stared at Robert with her mouth half open, coffee mug just below her bottom lip. Robert waited for a reply, patiently sipping his water through to the last drop.  After another minute, he couldn’t take the silence so he said, “Well?”

The Artist slowly put down her mug. She rubbed her hands together, as though nervous, then crossed her arms and leaned back. “You don’t have any money for payment?”

“No, not yet. For now this would be off the books, but soon I’ll have an income — hopefully from this book — and then we’ll be flying high!” He watched as the Artist gathered her notebook and adjusted the bandana on her head, then she stood up. “Where are you going?”

“If this gig doesn’t pay, I wish you would have told me that before I took the bus all the way here, or taken the time to sketch out the characters. Waste of my time.”

She was already walking to the door when Robert broke out of his shock. “What about the sketches?”

“You don’t get them until you buy them. My God, is this how you treat all of your artists?”

“They’re my creations!”

“My art,” she said. She pushed open the door, then doubled back as if a thought had come to her. Robert smiled and held out his hand. Instead of handing him the sketches she snatched his wrist and stabbed his open palm with a pocket knife. A squirt of blood shot into the air, and Robert still screamed out in shock. The Artist then spit into the cut, and rubbed it into hand. “My art,” she repeated with a smirk, then stormed away to kick open the door.

Robert stayed in the booth, in shock. His stomach growled, so he drank up the Artist’s coffee and went to town on the eggs while wrapping his hand in a napkin. A quick look at the clock told him he would be right on time if he left in the next few minutes. Hopefully this next meeting would go better.

Four artists had now turned him down — and this one had been the first woman. At least she had done the sketches. He had wanted to pay her — to pay all of them — but what’s the point of the book without paying rent, and a place to live, and food to eat, and the–

But he put his rambling mind on hold as he went into the bathroom. He leaped out of the bathroom window and quickly dashed to the bus stop on Ventura. The eggs were hardly cooked and the coffee was hot but tasted like empty walnut shells, so Robert didn’t see that it was worth the few remaining dollars resting comfortably in his pocket.

Three stops later, Robert stepped off the bus whispering to himself, adjusting the pitch he’d make to the next artist. “Going to be huge, just trust me… no, just trust the story…” He heard a THUMP before he felt the knock to his head, and stepped back rubbing what would soon be a bruise.

He looked around, expecting a stop sign or perhaps a light pole, but he couldn’t tell anything that he had run into. “The hell?” He started walking and again there was a THUMP. He dropped his bag and held his head with both hands, shouting, “Alright what the hell?!” He could feel the bumps growing, one on each side of his forehead.

Slowly, Robert reached out, feeling for something, anything. A businessman walked past, on the phone and eyeing Robert with interest. The businessman kept walking, but Robert’s hands had reached some kind of invisible wall, an encounter with a stopping point in the air. He felt to the left and the right, and there were now invisible walls on each side of him as well as in front. “Huh, that’s… okay that’s different.”

He turned and picked up his bag. Then he walked away from the wall, and soon found he was walking up stairs, but couldn’t see them. He was about twenty feet off the ground when he noticed and finally looked down and behind him to see a little girl staring up at him, mouth wide with wonder.

“Oh, hi there, um, don’t come up here. It’s private, heh.” Robert watched the girl run away, then tried to step down, but there was no step below his feet and he almost fell. He caught himself, strained to climb back up and sit on the invisible landing. When he sat, he reached and kicked in all directions, but there was no floor, nothing to catch him. “Okay, not funny.”

He didn’t have a clue who he was talking to, but — “Psst” Warm breath skirted his ear. He turned, but there was, of course, no one beside him on the invisible landing.

“Whoever you are, this isn’t funny.” There was a soft laugh which turned to a chuckle, a woman who’d heard a funny joke. Before Robert could turn in the direction of the laughter, he was released and fell to the ground.

He snapped his ankle and held it, screaming. A few minutes went by, and he soon realized there was no one else around him, so he reached out for his backpack — but it was gone. “Come on! That’s my — dammit!”

He ran, then, hard, away from the wall and the stairs. After a few hundred feet, he paused to catch his breath. When he looked up, he was back at the diner. The Artist was sitting on a bench by the entrance, smoking and sketching in her book. She stared at him and allowed smoke to trickle out her mouth into her nose. She winked at him, smirking. “My art.”

She erased, hectic, and Robert started to walk toward her only he wasn’t walking, he was tumbling because his legs had disappeared below the knees. Looking from his legs to the Artist, he shouted, “Alright, alright I’ll pay, I’ll pay!”

Then she erased his mouth, and he felt his face go numb.

His vision became cloudy and suddenly he could suddenly only see to the sides, not straight ahead. He struggled to jump but his body fluttered about, and when he tried to call out her name, or for help, he couldn’t create the words and the world became larger and he couldn’t breathe. He found himself lifted into the air and immediately careening towards a bowl of water and tried to hold his breath but couldn’t breathe and then when he was under water the air filled his lungs.

He swam to the wall of the bowl and saw the Artist staring at him, smiling. He shouted her name, angry, then forgot her name and shouted something incoherent and then saw a flake of food at the top of the bowl and swam up and ate it. Then he swam in circles and was just happy to be alive and — oop!

The Artist showed her face again, and Robert smiled back and swam in a circle, happy to be alive!

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