“It has to be him,” Susan said. She and Malcolm laid together in their bed, both of them looking at Susan’s laptop. On the screen was a news report from America, showcasing all of the vandalized billboards. Susan rolled her head over to look at Malcolm. “You know his style better than I do. What do you think?”
Malcolm reached for the laptop, and zoomed in on one of the images. He couldn’t decide whether the smiley faces were abstract, or just icons. But the style was definitely Ruben. The style was definitely old school Ruben, whose graffiti Malcolm had seen for years before meeting the artist behind it—they tagged over each other’s spots so often that it became a game. Tag, you’re it. Mal could spend days painting one spot, staking out hour-long blocks when the place was safe for him to work. And as soon as he was done, Tag! Sometimes Mal wanted to kill the man who so casually painted words over his abstractions.
But then Mal fought back, and what fun the graffiti artists had! They chased each other’s work around the city. Mal would see a smiling stick figure on the side of an apartment complex, and he would twist it, until the stick figure’s disproportionate body was no longer endearing, but gruesome. Until the smile wasn’t happy, but stretched, and pained. Some days later Ruben would see a melting hammer painted in an alleyway, and write, Dalí did it better, right on top of it.
With time, Mal realized that he looked forward to the comments. He enjoyed them; they made him laugh. So one night he set a trap.
He found an electrical box, a big green one away from any streetlights, and he painted a woman on fire. Her clothes were a part of the flames, even her skin beginning to peel and lift away into smoke. When he was done, he waited. He laid prone on the rooftop across the street, peeking just over the edge, waiting for his partner. They were already partners. They complimented each other’s work. It didn’t matter that they had never seen each other.
Sure enough, Ruben appeared before the woman on fire. Mal drank in the sight of his rival. He watched as the comment was written, and then he let the man disappear into the night.
Mal climbed down and had a look. The words were written over the woman’s breasts, clothing them.
“It’s him,” Malcolm said, leaning his head against his wife’s.
She smiled. “Good.”
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015