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The Blank Canvas

By Bernadette JohnsonPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

Alyssa stepped into her studio, stopped at a support post that inexplicably stood just inside the room a couple of feet from the door, and gazed at the small framed painting of a bull that hung there. She kissed her fingers, pressed them to the bull’s head, and walked past the post.

Finished paintings littered the room, most propped or stacked several works deep against the walls, with a chosen few framed and hung in full display.

An easel in the middle of the floor supported a white canvas. Alyssa picked a clean plastic palette off of an adjacent table, squeezed on a few mounds of different colored paint, picked a brush out of a jar, and stared at the blank slate. She dipped her brush into the blue, lifted it, and began the first stroke.

“Why do you still do that?” said Nick from the doorway behind her.

“Jeez, you scared me,” said Alyssa, turning to him. “Do what?”

“The bull thing.”

“I dunno,” she shrugged. “Tradition. What does it matter?”

“It’s childish.”

“Says the guy who stayed up all night playing video games.”

“You were playing, too.”

“I don’t think it’s childish. Just making the point that some people might say the same to you about gaming.”

“It’s not the same. The kiss thing is some crazy superstition. Or OCD thing.”

“Why are you doing this? You know I have a show coming up.”

“It’s just a school project.”

“No. It’s my final project. I don’t do well, I don’t graduate.”

“I’ve barely seen you all month,” said Nick.

“Yeah,” said Alyssa. “Sorry, babe. In two weeks, it’ll be over and I’ll have more time. We can—.”

“You gonna kiss the bull out in the real world?”

“My studio is my real world,” snapped Alyssa. “I came in here to work, not get belittled.”

“I leave for work in an hour.”

“Okay. Cool,” she said. “Why don’t you go relax outside of this room and let me do my thing.”

“It’s my apartment, too.”

“And when you have a big show coming up, I’ll stay out of whatever room you want.”

They stared at each other for a moment, then he trudged out.

Alyssa looked at her canvas. It bore a short blue streak that took a sharp turn at one end.

She stared longer. Nothing. It was gone. She threw the brush at the canvas, creating an array of splatters above the streak, then pressed her palms to her face and stifled a scream.

After a moment, Alyssa picked up the brush, grabbed the palette, and took it to their small kitchen, where she rinsed all the paint down the drain.

“That’s a waste,” said Nick, walking in with an empty glass. “Why’d you do that?”

She held her tongue.

He went to the fridge, opened it, and pulled out a two liter.

“I’m going to the gallery,” she blurted.

“What, now?” He poured his soda.

“There’s a show tonight,” said Alyssa. “It might inspire me.”

“You know I can’t go,” said Nick, replacing the bottle.

“I know.”

“You might wanna rethink it. Might not be safe out there alone.”

“I’ll text a play-by-play of my whereabouts to Janine.”

“Whatever,” said Nick, turning to go.

Alyssa made a face and shot a bird at his back as he exited.

She pulled her phone out and ordered a Lyft, then jogged to the bedroom, disrobed, threw on a black dress, jean jacket, and boots, and put the phone in her jacket pocket.

Alyssa stepped into the bathroom, and, under its brighter light, noticed paint all over her hands. She scrubbed off as much as she could, but gave up on the dark blue under her fingernails. She smeared on eyeliner and lipstick, pressed her lips together, took a look in the mirror, and said, “It’ll do.”

By the time she got to the street, a car was pulling up.

“Alyssa?” said the driver out a window.

“Yeah. Michael?”


She got in the back.

“So, art gallery?” asked Michael.

“Yeah. Going to a show.”

“A friend’s?” He pulled away from the curb.

“No. Just going to check out a fellow artist.”

She pulled out her phone and texted, You home or at the thing?

“Oh. What kind of art do you do?”


At the 6, said the reply.

“Cool, cool. Like abstract stuff?”

Alyssa typed, In car. Driver named Michael. Drag river if not there in 10.

“Some abstract, some realistic. Lots in between,” answered Alyssa. “Depends on my mood. Or the assignment.”

Sweet. Didn’t think u were coming.


“Yeah, but nearly done. My final show is in a couple of weeks.” She typed, Unfavorable conditions changed my mind.

“I love art,” he said. “I do my own. At least of the music variety.”

“Oh?” said Alyssa. “What kind?”

Lemme guess. Rhymes with dick.

“Mainly I’m a DJ,” he said.

“That’s cool,” said Alyssa. She typed, haha.

“But I play guitar,” said Michael. “Looking to join a band.”

Someone here I want u to meet.

“What kind of band?” She put her phone away and chatted about his burgeoning music career the rest of the way to the gallery.


“Alyssa!” Janine yelled from across the room, waving her over.

Alyssa approached her friend, who was dressed head to toe in purple, with glitter makeup to match. A woman in a long green shirt, black leggings, and green Converse stood next to her.

“Marti,” said Janine to the new person, “This is my bestie, Alyssa. She’s a genius, like you.” Janine motioned to the paintings on the walls.

“Oh, so you’re the Martinique Hayes,” said Alyssa, extending a hand to Marti.

“That makes me sound way too important,” said Marti, shaking Alyssa’s hand.

“I’m not the one with a show at Studio 6 before graduation.”

“I was lucky,” said Marti.

Alyssa glanced at nearby show pieces. “Looks like more than luck.”

“From what Janine says, your show won’t be far behind,” said Marti. “I’d love to see your work.”

“Oh,” said Alyssa, reddening. “Sure. Anytime.”

“Why don’t you give her the tour?” said Janine to Marti. “I’ll have drinks waiting.”

“Yes,” said Marti. “There’s an order to them. One that I prefer, anyway. Ready?”

“Sure,” said Alyssa.

Marti grabbed Alyssa’s hand and led her away.

“Oh, sorry,” said Marti, letting go. “I probably shouldn’t manhandle you without permission.”

“It’s okay,” said Alyssa. “That’s the most skin-to-skin contact I’ve had in weeks.”

“Oh,” said Marti, raising an eyebrow. “Janine said you had a boyfriend.”

“Yeah,” said Alyssa with a frown.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.”

“S’alright. I’ve been busy. And he’s been—.”

“A dickhead?”

“You’ve been talking to Janine.”

“And interpreting your expressions.”

“Yeah. He drove me out of the house tonight.”

“So you didn’t come to see the ‘genius’ work of the Martinique Hayes,” said Marti with a smirk.

“Oh, sorry,” said Alyssa, growing redder. “I wanted to come. I’m just stressing about my show. School final. I was working on the last piece. Or trying to start it.”

“Nothing like a little healthy procrastination,” said Marti.

“I had a few false starts. Trashed the last three.”

“I’m kidding. See that one?” Marti pointed to a painting of a brilliant sunset where the sky, water and land all looked to be ablaze, or even alive. “Did that two days ago. Don’t tell my agent.”

“I wouldn’t know an agent if I stepped on one.”

“You will. Then you’ll wish you didn’t.”

Alyssa laughed. “Wish I had your confidence.”

“After the tour, why don’t I come over and check out your stuff? Maybe some of my confidence will rub off.”

“Don’t you have an after party?”

“Didn’t plan one. Maybe it can be a small impromptu affair at your place. With Janine, of course.”

“She wouldn’t miss a party.”

“Great!” said Marti. “We’ll grab a couple of bottles on the way out and make a night of it. Will the boyfriend object?”

“He’ll be at work by then.”

“Good,” said Marti.

Alyssa’s cheeks flushed again.

“Now, feast your eyes,” said Marti, stopping at a mesmerizing primordial scene. Alyssa thought the water had been alive in the sunset, but she hadn’t seen anything yet. “I call it ‘In the Beginning.’”


“You sure Dick isn’t home?” Janine looked around the apartment, clutching a wine bottle in each hand.

“Should be at work,” said Alyssa.

“I’ll get glasses,” said Janine. “Go ahead and show Marti the studio.”

“I’m afraid Janine has overhyped it,” said Alyssa.

“Doubt it. I’ve seen some of your work on campus.”

“Oh.” Alyssa didn’t know what to say.

They walked through the studio doorway. Alyssa greeted the bull painting as usual before realizing what she’d done.

“You have a good luck charm?” asked Marti.

“That just Bully,” said Alyssa, embarrassed.


“It’s silly. But I kiss at Bully whenever I come in to paint.”

“I pray to Minerva, goddess of art, just before I let my brush touch a blank canvas,” said Marti. “Never apologize for your rituals.”

Alyssa smiled, relieved. “Minerva, huh? I should give her a try.”

“So who’s Bully, anyway?”

“My first real painting,” said Alyssa. “With an art set from Mom on my tenth birthday. He was my grandparent’s bull.”

“Bully was a real bull?” said Marti with delight.

“Yep,” said Alyssa. “I talked to him on every visit. Then started painting him every time. But this was the first.”

“He’s your childhood soul and your first muse rolled into one.”

“Yeah,”said Alyssa with a smile. “I guess so.”

“I love the lines,” said Marti, tracing the bull with a fingernail. “You were a talented kid. And an even more talented adult,” she added, glancing around at the other paintings.

“Nothing like you,” said Alyssa. “That show—amazing.”

“Thanks. I’m proud of it. And afraid it’ll all be downhill from there.” Before Alyssa could respond, Marti added, “But Enough about my insecurities. Which are the show pieces?”

“The ones on the walls. My own little preview.”

“Smart.” Marti walked around and scrutinized each in turn.

“Janine’s right,” said Marti. “You have nothing to worry about.”

Warmth washed over Alyssa.

“It reminds me of my show,” said Marti. “Beginnings. Endings. But you went pastoral to urban.”

“It’s all over the place,” said Alyssa.

“I didn’t mean it as an insult,” said Marti.

“I know. I’m just…stuck.” Alyssa motioned to the blue spattered canvas. “I feel like I need the perfect piece to tie it together. I’ve gessoed this canvas so many times. And buried rejects in the closet.”

“Just breathe,” said Marti. “Kiss Bully. Or borrow my goddess. It’ll come to you.”

“I hope so,” said Alyssa.

“And if it doesn’t, these will still stun them.” Marti took Alyssa’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

A tingle went up Alyssa’s spine.

“A little help here,” said Janine, breaking the spell. She stood in the doorway holding three half-full wine glasses in two hands.

Marti and Alyssa giggled and took a glass each.

As they walked to the living room, Janine gave Alyssa a wink and whispered, “I knew you two would get along.”


“Great turnout,” said Janine. “Too bad there’s no bar.”

“Still a dry campus,” said Alyssa. “We’ll go to The Dark Room after.”

Marti walked up.

“How’d the espionage go?” asked Janine.

“Do I want to know?” asked Alyssa with a crinkled brow.

“They love it,” said Marti. “If you don’t pass with flying colors, I’ll eat my last painting.”

Alyssa smiled and exhaled.

“I’ll leave you to it,” said Janine. “I see a guy I’ve had my eye on.” She traipsed off.

Alyssa and Marti turned to face the first in a line of paintings. It was the last painted for the show.

“I knew you’d figure it out,” said Marti.

“That’s not all I figured out,” said Alyssa, sliding her hand into Marti’s.

Marti beamed.

They leaned into each other as they admired the latest incarnation of Bully.

Short Story

About the Creator

Bernadette Johnson

Bernadette “Berni” Johnson is the author of The Big Book of Spy Trivia, many tech articles, movie reviews, short stories, and two novels in perpetual editing.

You can find her blog, other work, and mailing list at

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