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by Sephy Atlas 11 months ago in Short Story
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Dignity in Details

Photo by Alberto Clemares Exposito/

I sat at work, bent over a stack of paperwork. This whole day, I could hardly concentrate. Almost everybody else had left, but I was covering for a coworker of mine, who supposedly had to leave early for an appointment. At this point, considering how often he asked me to do this, I couldn’t even convince myself that he was telling the truth anymore.

But suddenly, I received a phone call. It was from my older sister. I answered it, not bothering to speak quietly now that it was empty in here.

“Hello?” I said.

“Wyatt, we need you to come by Mom’s. We finally found those paintings Dad wanted you to have.”

“Um, is it okay if I come in an hour or two? I’m still at work.”

“Still? I thought you got out at five.”

“Not today,” I said.

“Well, okay. See you then.”

After the call, I worked for about another thirty minutes before I just couldn’t do it anymore; I was nearly falling asleep at my desk. I put the unfinished paperwork on Derek’s desk and left the building.

When I arrived at my mother’s house, my sister answered the door.

“They’re in the living room,” she said.

As we walked down the hallway, I heard rustling from the living room. As it came into view, I saw my mother going through old, dusty boxes, which she clearly found in the basement. When I emerged from the hallway, she looked up and started walking over to me.

“Oh, it’s good to see you, Wyatt,” she said, giving me a quick hug. “Those over there are yours.”

I walked over to where she was pointing. There were several boxes. I sat down on the floor and opened up the first one.

Inside it was a large stack of canvas paintings—some framed, some not. I picked up the first one I saw. It was a close-up painting of a bull, facing forward, looking like it was about to charge. The next one was of a bullring, with a bull and a bullfighter in the distance, and an audience painted with colorful, impressionistic strokes.

Each painting had a certain uniqueness to it, like a different angle or lighting or distance. I knew my father painted bulls, but I didn’t know there were this many. He painted other things too, certainly, but I couldn’t remember what.

I picked up the box of bull paintings.

“I’m gonna take these to my car,” I said.

After taking the first box to my car, I came back for the second and third.

“Okay, is that all of them?” I asked.

“I think so,” my mother said.

“I’ll be heading out then.”

I hugged my mother and sister goodbye, then drove back home. When I got there, I took all the paintings inside my apartment and began to observe them again.

What compelled him to paint bulls all the time? And why did he want me to have them?

I knew he’d always wanted me to paint—or rather, he'd wanted me to be a good painter. As a child, and well into my teens, I'd paint with awkward, stunted strokes, until eventually he’d grow too frustrated to continue teaching me. “No, no,” he’d say. “That’s not right.” Eventually, he just gave up completely, showing absolutely no interest in what I amounted to. We weren’t very close at the time of his death, but from what I knew, his last days were spent doing exactly what he’d always done: holed up in his room, painting.

The more I observed the bulls, the more beautiful they seemed. One was of a bull in a field at night, the sky was filled with stars, like holes pierced by the bull’s horns.

I observed the paintings till midnight, noting every detail, trying to extract some meaning, though I never found it. Darkness stole over me as I fell asleep.

My dream began in a dark place. As I looked around, I saw an arena, but the stands were completely empty. And in the distance, I saw a bull. His eyes were set on me as he pawed the ground. Moments later, he began to charge.

I twisted around and started running, fear gripping me. Every time I looked back he was closer. There was no way I could outrun him. Closer, closer… he was inches away now. He was going to reach me; I couldn’t escape—

Then my eyes shot open. I jolted upward, my chest heaving. I could hardly catch my breath.

I checked the time: 4:03 AM. I tried falling back asleep, but I couldn’t. I got up and made some tea.

I went to work that day exhausted. I poured myself a big cup of coffee in the break room before sitting at my desk. A few minutes later, I heard footsteps behind me. Then, a stack of papers landed on my desk.

“You said you’d cover for me.”

I looked up: it was Derek. I glanced at the papers, then at him again.

“Huh? You got nothing to say? These reports are due today.”

My throat tightened. Derek was a big guy, probably twice my size.

“Sorry,” I said. “I had something come up yesterday.”

“Yeah, so did I,” he said, his eyebrows furrowing.

“I’ll get to it,” I said.

“Yeah, okay… and next time, don’t make commitments you can’t handle.”

I wanted to tell him he shouldn’t either, considering he couldn’t even handle his workload, always dumping it on me. But instead I just nodded, and he left me alone.

I begrudgingly did his work that I didn’t finish yesterday, then started on my own. But as it neared 5:00 PM, I wasn’t even close to finishing. I went to my boss’s office and told him.

“I need some extra time for these reports,” I said.

“Extra time? You’ve never been one to miss a deadline.”

“I know, it’s just I’ve had some family stuff going on, and it’s hard to concentrate lately.”

“Listen, if you want to slack off, use your sick days. I don’t need that kind of inefficiency around here.”

“So, what should I—”

“Well, guess you’ll have to stay till you’re finished.”

I left his office and went back to my desk, continuing to work for hours after everybody else had left.

When I got home that day, I was still exhausted, so I went to bed early that night, at just 8:00 PM.

Once again, I dreamt the same bull dream; he chased me, but right before he could reach me, I woke up. Wanting the dreams to stop, I put all the paintings away, stuffing them into a closet. But every day for the rest of the week, I dreamt of the bull regardless.

On Sunday, alone with my thoughts, I decided I needed to look again.

I dug through the other boxes, with the paintings I hadn't seen yet. I found ones not about bulls, but about a multitude of things—plein air paintings of nearby parks, my childhood dog, stormy skies. But then, at the very bottom of the stack, I found one of my whole family together, reminiscent of one of our family portraits from when my sister and I were teenagers.

In the picture, I noticed just how similar my father and I looked, with the same long, gaunt face. My father had been a small, thin, soft-spoken man. His looks and mannerisms had been much like mine. But that was where our similarities ended.

Though he may have appeared timid at first glance, he was a strong-willed man. When it came to things he valued, he never compromised.

I, on the other hand, always compromised. And here I was, working a job I hated, in contrast to my father, who spent his whole life doing what he loved.

That night, when I went to sleep, the bull dream came again. I ran away as the bull chased me, terrified. But when the bull was close, I didn’t wake up. He pushed me forward, and I spun around, nearly losing my balance. Facing the bull now, he shoved me forward again, his sharp horns digging into me. I kept nearly falling, disoriented, until I zoned in on the bull’s horns, glowing from moonlight; they were the brightest thing I could see as he flung me this way and that. Holding my arms out, I reached for the horns, trying to regain my balance.

And suddenly, I felt one in my hand, cold and curved. I grabbed the other one quickly, wrestling with the bull. He shook his head viciously, but I refused to let go. I knew if I did let go, I wouldn’t stand a chance. As the bull thrashed, I closed my eyes, clenching my hands tighter on the horns.

And then I woke up, covered in sweat, breathing heavily. I took a cold shower before heading to work. When I got there, I pored over paperwork as usual.

Near the end of the work day, I saw Derek approaching; he moved swiftly, deliberately, his dark eyes boring into mine.

“Hey, Wyatt, uh, what do you say you finish up this report for me, will ya, buddy?”

I was appalled, especially because he didn’t even have the courtesy to think of an excuse. I observed him, watching him grow impatient with my slowness to respond. Because I always accepted his weak excuses, he probably didn’t think there was a chance I’d say no.

But he was mistaken.

“No,” I said.


“No, I’m not going to do your work for you.”

“Hey, man. What’s your deal?”

“There’s no deal, I just don’t want to waste my time.”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay, sure.”

After that, he simply left my desk. That surprisingly went much easier than I thought. But a few minutes later, my boss came to my desk. It was just as I suspected, that Derek and the boss were buddy-buddy and just wanted to saddle me with all the work so they could get out early.

“Listen,” he said, leaning forward and speaking quietly. “If you’re not gonna pick up the slack around here, then we’re gonna have a problem.”

“All I did was refuse to do Derek’s work for him.”

“Well, if it’s less work you want, how about I demote you?”

I gritted my teeth. Then I stood up, turning to face him.

“That won’t be necessary,” I said, “because I quit.”

He took several steps back, in silence.

“You’re lucky I even gave you this job.”

“If that’s what you call lucky, then I don’t want to be lucky.”

Scoffing at me, he walked back to his office. I began to gather up my things, clearing my desk.

I spent the rest of the evening feeling like a weight had been lifted. Even though I’d have to find another job, it didn’t concern me because I knew I’d discovered something much greater. Something I’d never lose, so long as I never let anyone take it from me again.

When I went to sleep that night, I dreamt I was in the same bullring from all the nights before. The perspective, however, was different. I felt... stronger, more powerful. And when I looked off in the distance, I didn’t see the bull like I usually did. I saw myself, standing there, wide-eyed and afraid.

Then I looked down and realized… I was the bull.

I felt a surge of energy course through me. With my hind legs, I kicked back dirt, preparing myself. Anger overcame me. This was my arena, my world, and nothing could stop me from lifting my horns and piercing stars into the sky. I charged, watching my own body run away from me.

But this time, he wouldn’t get away.

Short Story

About the author

Sephy Atlas

Writer, passionate about poetry and storytelling.

Instagram: @sephy.atlas

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