“Red Lights”

Devin Thomas


Few were aware of the book’s existence and even fewer had actually seen it. Those who had laid eyes on it had never been allowed to view the entirety of its contents.

Nevertheless, the story, affixed forever between the first and final drawings, had garnered a following which had endured for decades. A phenomenon which is best understood through acknowledgment of the inquisitive nature of human beings. Unanswered questions have driven people to discover gravity, atoms, electricity, that the earth isn’t flat, and of course, have led to the plaguing prolificity with which we peruse the contents of articles with click bait titles.

The story, which had gained such an exceptionally large cult following, was contained in a series of illustrations and their titles. The first of which appeared as the winner of the BP Portrait Award. The image was of a girl; the title was unconventionally long and is reproduced below:

“Drawing 1: Heaven kisses the earth where their feet touch the ground. They are as close to perfect as people can be. They are the high school valedictorians, who are also active volunteers. They are beautiful, kind, and smart. They babysit for everyone’s kids for free and always seem to have time to help anyone with anything. They are the ten percent. If you don’t know what I mean, you will one day. Everyone meets at least one of them. They are the people who are too good for this world. They are the ones whose motivations are so pure and their passions so just that they inevitably reside amongst those ten percent of individuals who actually change the world.  They are a light in the life of those who know them. They are destined to be great and no one begrudges it, because we all know they deserve it. The only person who dares to doubt them is themselves. They do not believe they are special; in fact they refuse the very notion that such a thing is possible, which only serves to heighten the adoration they evoke.”

The author of this portrait, James Addison, was not one of the aforementioned ten percent. In fact, he was distinctively ordinary in almost every way. He had average ambition, went to a mid-level college and worked an ordinary job. His life would have been completely unremarkable had it not been affected by two variables. The first was his unparalleled ability to turn led and paper into the most intricate drawings the world has ever seen. The second was his dorm’s coincidental proximity to that of a girl by the name of Mary Peterson.

Mary was the story. She was the light of James’ life. He devoted himself to her, he drew for her, was consumed by her secrets, because without her, he was the embodiment of mediocrity. This is in no way meant to convey that James used her to avoid being average. No, the whole thing happened quite by accident.

Their friendship was initiated under somewhat unusual circumstances. Mary and James shared a proclivity for seclusion, which was intensified in their collegiate years. James required it in order to draw; Mary pursued it in an effort to study. In Mary’s first year and James’s second, at university, they both found their haven in the old art building. This structure was essentially abandoned, the new art building was located across campus, leaving the old one empty until such time as the administration saw fit to repurpose it. On the particular occasion which resulted in their bizarre introduction, James was walking past one of the many abandoned classrooms inside the building, when he heard a sob. The sound halted his steps. He peered into the room from which the noise had emanated and saw a girl sitting on the floor. She was glaring at a substantial quantity of paper scattered around her with tears streaming down her face. James was immediately struck by how uniquely beautiful she was. She had high cheekbones and brilliant green eyes that were striking against the backdrop of her long, red hair. He stared at her for what felt like an eternity before she noticed him.

“Oh, hi,” she said, wiping the tears from her face. “I’m sorry. Am I? Are you? I didn’t know anyone else ever came here.” She fumbled, hoping that he would explain why he was staring at her, or better yet, walk away.

“I didn’t know anyone else came here either,” he finally remarked.

“Oh..” was the only response she could manage to articulate.

“Sorry, I just, I mean, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I.. umm, yes, I am, thanks.”

“Do you want help or something?”

“No, thanks, I’m just frustrated, sorry.”

James chuckled a little before replying, “Why do you keep apologizing?”

“Sorry, I don’t know, I guess I just assumed I was disturbing you, sorry.” She smiled at the ground before looking up at him and laughing out, “Oops.”

This shift of tone generated a slightly more welcoming atmosphere and was all the invitation James needed to enter the room. He walked over and sat on the floor in front of her.

“So, what’re you working on?” he asked.

“Chem one,” she responded, staring down at her notes. As she looked at them her face developed a far-off expression, as though contemplating something entirely unrelated.

“That class is awful,” James responded, snapping Mary back into reality.

“You’ve taken it?”

“Yeah, I was pre-med my freshman year, but I switched to graphic design over the summer.”

“How come?”

“I just prefer art and honestly, I don’t want to go to school for half of my life. I got an A in that class though so I’m happy to help. My name is James by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Mary. I’m actually about to be late for class, but I’m here every day if you want to study some time.”

“I’m surprised I’ve never seen you. I’m here almost every day, too. Yeah, uh, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, Mary. Same time?”

“Yeah, I’ll be here around 2:00pm. See you then.”

James helped her gather her things before watching as she exited the room. He would never forget this first encounter. How disheveled her hair had been; even the way she smelled would haunt him for decades after she ceased to contact him.

True to his word, James went to that room the next day and saw her, sitting in the same position , the top portion of her hair intricately braided while the bottom fell in waves over her shoulders. He couldn’t help thinking that she was too beautiful to exist. His fingers ached with the desire to immortalize her image on paper.

She smiled when he walked in. “I almost didn’t think you’d come.”

“How could I not?”

She raised an eyebrow, “Helping a little freshman girl with homework doesn’t strike me as overly exciting.”

James shrugged, “Eh, agree to disagree.”

Mary laughed, “Okay.” She paused for a second before looking up “You’re going to think this is so weird, but do you live at East?”

“In the residence hall?” James replied, surprised, “Yeah, how do you know that?”

“I knew you looked familiar. I live two doors down, across the hall from you.”

“Really? That’s so crazy; I can’t believe I’ve never seen you.”

“Maybe you have and you just forgot.”

“No, I’m pretty sure I would remember.”

At that, Mary blushed a little and pretended to become re-invested in her homework, an action which James used as an excuse to move closer to her under  the pretence of providing his assistance. Mary permitted the advancement, but, whether by mistake or design, believed it to be a sincere gesture to transition into studying. So, for the next hour, General Chemistry 1 became the only topic of discussion. This however did nothing to inhibit the small jolt James felt every time her hair brushed his arm, or her leg accidentally leaned into his.

Others may have lent less weight to this encounter. Thinking little of the event, different people may have enjoyed the moment and gone about their day, eventually forgetting each other entirely. This was however not the case with James and Mary. In one another they had found a kindred soul. Without ever formally confirming it, their study dates continued for three semesters, always at the same time and place. As did their proximity in residence, in the third semester of their acquaintance, being their second and third year in college respectively, they both transitioned into apartments. Not at all accidentally, their dwellings were located next to one another.

They had become inseparable companions and James had grown to develop feelings for her that surpassed the boundaries of their friendship. In fact, James was privately determined to marry her one day.

His only restraint from acting on the emotions he held for her was the knowledge that she was under monumental amounts of pressure from her family. They expected nothing less than perfection from her, something James always perceived as being incalculably damaging.  They forced Mary to push herself in every aspect of her life. Her presence on campus was extensive there was almost nothing she wasn’t a part of, hardly anyone who hadn’t heard of her and she still maintained a perfect GPA.James knew she was constantly buried under a mountain of stress; he never expressed his feelings for her, out of fear of adding to it. Yet, he stayed by her side, as a friend and support.

Perhaps, if he had known whether or not she returned his feelings it would have been easier to let her go. Either way, telling her would, undoubtedly, have lessened the guilt he felt about the whole thing. For he always wondered if maybe, in telling her he would have been able to save her from what happened. From the day she stopped calling until his final moments on earth, he regretted never expressing the depth of his emotions to her.

It started at the end of that third semester. He came home one day to find her sitting at his dining table, something that he found not in the least bit odd, they both had spare keys to each other’s apartments, and often used them. What was unsettling however was that it was obvious she’d been crying. He sat across from her and reached out his hands. She responded by gently placing hers in his.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Her lip quivered a little before she took a deep breath and whispered, “I failed OChem.”

“Whoa, what? Why didn’t you tell me you were failing?”

“I was embarrassed” she said, removing her hands and looking away, “besides, it’s not like you could’ve helped.”

“Okay, hurtful.”

“I didn’t mean it like that; you just haven’t taken the class.”

“I know I’m just teasing you. Look don’t take it to hard okay? Organic Chemistry is, like, the number one failed class ever.”

Mary mumbled something in response that was incoherent apart from the words “parents” and “disappointed”

“Oh come on, they’ll understand, it’s one class and you can retake it in the summer so it won’t even affect your GPA.”

“You know my parents James, they will not understand, they’re going to disown me.”

“They are not going to disown you Mary.”

“Never mind” she said, standing up.

“Where are you going?”

“I just need some time to think, sorry.” She said as she left.

“Okay.” James said to the closing door.

As had been James’ prediction, Mary’s parents did not in fact disown her. However, they did refuse to speak to her for over a month.. During which time Mary was visibly distraught. She locked herself in her apartment and maintained almost no contact with anyone, including James.

Here is the point in our story where Mary hit a wall. Helplessness rushed over her. There was nothing more she could do; her life was a series of calculated moves, meant to avoid what was now happening. She was consumed by a desire to run away, to be done, to start over.

So she developed a plan and after a month of self-assigned solitary confinement, Mary had everything in order; she called her parents and was sent to voicemail for perhaps the thousandth time. This time however, she had news. She called and left a message saying that she had been offered a job in Germany she was leaving school and would begin working as a German Translator in two months.

Finally, her parents called her back. They were ecstatic, which was all the encouragement Mary needed to cement her decision.

The day she told James was one of the worst of his life. Second only to the day he discovered what she was really doing in Germany.

She was able to fool her family, but she couldn’t fool him. He knew she wasn’t being entirely truthful about what she was doing abroad. He begged her until the day she left to tell him the truth, but she never would.

After she moved he called her every day, they would talk for hours, but he could always tell she was holding something back. When she finally told him the truth he nearly died. She pleaded with him to keep her secret and he promised he would.

After that day she stopped calling, James tried time and again to speak to her, to help her, but despite all of his efforts, they never spoke again.

The secret ate away at him, but marked by his loyalty to her image he could not allow anyone to share in his pain, which only served to heightened its intensity.

So, he did the only thing he could, he drew. He drew and drew and drew until his fingers went numb. Thus, the story was created.

He entered the renowned drawings in competitions around the world; the titles were intended for her. He hoped one of them would reach her. That she would see them and contact him, but she never did.

This was how he won the BP Portrait Award and The Frieze Artist award to name a few. Together they became a legend, everyone wanted to know who the girl in the drawings was. A secret he never revealed. More and more pictures appeared in various places. People started to piece together the portraits and discovered that they told a story. Everyone wanted to know how this story would end, the beautiful girl captivated the minds of many, until one day she just disappeared.

James lived out his life quietly, he never stopped drawing her, but he did, eventually stop sharing the images. He didn’t want to give away too much for fear that someone would connect the dots.

He died peacefully, worn down, but content. He had kept the secret all his life and in doing so, achieved more than he had ever envisioned himself attaining. He had lived for her, and he knew that this fact was the only reason he had accomplished what he had, he had lived her life and become what she should have, could have been. If only she had been able to live for herself, to be a little selfish.

James’ death revealed the secret the world had long been waiting to uncover. Amongst his personal items was a book, a book which would later be published under the title “Red Light”. The book revealed the final pieces to the puzzle.

The portraits depicted a stunningly beautiful girl, who, over time, cracked. The pictures show the girl working at a project, moving to Germany and packing a secret. A secret which, over time, weighed so heavily on the girl that she was forced to entrust it to someone.

The final drawings revealed that the girl spent her nights in the Red Light District. The brilliant flame of her future forever extinguished. This was where the person she had been died, the drawings showed her morphing into a hollow frame, she was nothing, merely a shadow of who she once had been. The last page of the book was blank, but this too was an image of the girl. The title read “For Mary, the light of my world, I give you a page to contain an alternate ending. For the life so wonderful it couldn’t be drawn, for what could have been.”

Fiction piece by Devin Thomas