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The Paper Of His Skin

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When he was ten, John's grandmother gave him an artist's tool kit.

It came in an old and heavily-polished wooden box. It had a golden clasp that clicked into place when pressed against with both thumbs. John's thumbs were too small and too weak to close it at the time, so he had to get his grandmother to do it. She didn't mind.

Inside, John's grandmother had filled it with charcoal and graphite sticks, with pastels and coloured pencils, with watercolours and acrylic paints. There were wooden paintbrushes, their bristles clean and soft against John's skin. There was a pad of sketching paper, and two small stretched canvases. Everything was crisp and new and colourful.

“This is for grown-up artists, my love,” John's grandmother had told him as he sat in her lap. His hands were buried inside the wooden kit, scattering graphite sticks and paint tubes. They rattled around the bottom of the box, rolled from one end to the other. John giggled.

“None of the other children are as lucky as you are,” John's grandmother told him. “None of them had grandfathers who loved to paint like yours did. None of the other children will grow up to be famous painters like you.”

She told him, “None of them will ever make their grandmothers as proud as you make me.”

“My little artist,” she called him, and kissed him on the cheek.

₪₪₪

John's father took the kit away from him that night, before dinner.

John cried and followed his father down the hallway to the cupboard. His father shoved the box away, up on the top shelf where John couldn't reach it. Even if he pulled one of the chairs from the kitchen down the hallway, even if he stood up on his tiptoes, he wouldn't be able to reach it.

“Stop crying,” John's father yelled at him. “Painting never did my father any good and it won't do you any good, either.”

₪₪₪

Ten years later and John is in his mother's kitchen again.

He stands perfectly still in his pressed black suit and shiny shoes while Harry cries against their mother's shoulder. There's a small crowd of people behind him pretending not to notice. They pick white, wiry dog hairs off their black trousers and off the hems of their black dresses. The dog weaves through their feet, tail wagging.

“There's something for you,” John's mother says to him a few minutes later, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “In the cupboard. I think he left it for you.”

Harry watches, leaning against the wall as John drags the wooden box off the top shelf in the cupboard, standing on the tips of his toes. The contents of the box rattle inside as John lowers it down to the ground. John bends over it, flicks open the clasp and looks inside.

Everything is the same as it was ten years ago. And at the same time, everything is different.

John closes the box and snaps the clasp shut with the press of his thumb.

“How come you didn't say anything?” Harry asks him. He blinks at her shoes, and she continues. “At Daddy's funeral. How come you didn't say anything?”

John pauses. He thinks about it and can't come up with an answer. Instead, he looks back down at the wooden box and says sarcastically: “Thanks, Dad.”

John grabs the box and leaves.

₪₪₪

In between classes at Bart's, John sketches in the park.

He sketches the children playing, the mothers pushing their baby prams, the old men feeding the ducks at the pond, and the dogs chasing after balls and flying discs. He draws the trees, the benches, the fountain; even the buildings on the opposite side of the street. He shades in the brickwork with the edge of his graphite stick. His fingers leave dark smudges across the page.

John gives them silly, simple little titles. “The Running Dog”, or “Laughing Children”. One he calls “Incredibly Pregnant Woman”, and another he calls “Old Man Pretending to Be Asleep”.

He signs his name in the corner.

₪₪₪

John is twenty-eight and in Afghanistan.

It's hot and dry. The sun glares down at him, blinding white. He wipes his brow with his sleeve, tilts his helmet against the glare. There's sand in his boot, and his pack is heavy on his shoulders.

During the evening, he sketches his mates. Sometimes, when they're waiting for an order and it seems like nothing is happening, like nothing will happen again, John draws in the dirt with a stick.

“That's all right,” one soldier says, nodding toward the drawing.

“Ta, mate,” John smiles.

Twenty meters to his left, a Jeep explodes.

₪₪₪

His grandmother was wrong, because John is never going to become a famous painter.

He can't sleep. The pills his doctor gave him aren't helping. The pills only make the nightmares worse. The pain in his shoulder is severe – some nights he nearly blacks out from it. Some nights, his hand shakes so much that he can barely hold his mug of chamomile tea.. Some nights, it spills over his lap, scalding hot, and he swears loudly.

Tonight, his hand shakes around his paintbrush. The paintbrush bristles quiver, and a smear of yellow mixes in with his dab of blue, which drips dirty-green down the canvas. The picture is ruined. John stabs his brush against the surface, creating a blossom of dirty-green. The bristles spread wider and wider the harder he presses. The canvas dents under the weight.

John throws more paint onto it until the canvas is covered in flecks of blue and green and yellow. There are flecks of red and brown and purple. Spots of pink, lines of grey. Tiny polka-dots of white from when he slammed his brush down into the paint.

John's hand stops shaking.

₪₪₪

The local library holds a figure drawing class once a week for two months. The models are usually middle-aged. Some have wrinkles. One man has no body hair, anywhere. One woman has a tattoo that stretches from the top of her spine to the bottom, with vines and flowers and an orange tiger in the middle.

John goes to three and a half classes before he gives up.

On his way home, he limps along the pavement slowly. Accidentally, he bumps into another man. Pain shoots up his arm. He hisses, leans against his cane and rubs at his shoulder, momentarily forgetting his manners. The other man stumbles slightly, the tails of his long, dark coat wrapping around his legs.

“Watch where you're walking!” The man snaps. His pale eyes flash, angry. The dark curls of his hair whip across sharp cheekbones.

“S-sorry,” John says. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean—”

The man stalks away.

₪₪₪

Today, John turns thirty-five.

He paints a red line across the underside of his right wrist.

It drips down onto the floor, between his socks.

₪₪₪

The first time John paints him, it's almost three in the morning and he's drunk on red wine.

He uses yellow and red for the skin, and green for the shadows. He uses purple for the hair, the long, dark coat and the scarf around the man's neck. He uses the smallest brush in his kit and mixes the brightest blue. He paints two small, sharp irises in the man's eyes.

He signs it at the bottom. He calls the painting “Rude Man”.

At half past six, John passes out.

When he wakes up the canvas is there, but the man in the painting is gone. John thinks he imagined the whole thing. He puts his kit away, puts on the kettle for tea and puts on the telly.

Later that day, he gets a part-time job at a doctor's office. His boss is an old, bright-eyed, rough-voiced old man who winks and jokes with him when he hands in his resume. The man spends most of the interview badmouthing his friend's – and business rival's – practise. John laughs awkwardly.

“Might be a bit boring,” the man says.

“That's okay,” John tells him.

₪₪₪

The job is boring, but John doesn't mind.

A week later he asks the receptionist – Marie – out on a date. They go out for dinner a few times. It's relaxed, and fun. John likes her, even if sparks don't fly.

One night, she comes to his flat and notices his sketchbook on the table.

“What's that?” she asks. John tucks it away into a drawer.

“Nothing,” he smiles at her. “Just a bit of rubbish.”

₪₪₪

In the end it doesn't work out, but they remain friends. Which is perfectly all right, John thinks.

He could always do with more friends.

₪₪₪

The next time John paints, he flips through his box of canvases to find one that's the right size. There's one, tucked in the back and facing the opposite direction. John pulls it out, flips it over in his hands, and says, “Oh.”

The man with the dark, curly hair stares back at him.

“I don't remember painting you,” John says.

It must be a trick of the light, because he swears the man in the painting winks at him.

₪₪₪

For weeks, the man is all John paints. He tries different styles, different colours, different mediums. His fingers are covered in pastel smudges, and he breaks two charcoal sticks. The graphite eventually disappears. John buys more canvases, more charcoal and graphite and pastels.

He spills cloudy water on his jeans. Days later, he finds chips of acrylic paint under his fingernails.

At night the curly-haired man breathes. He blinks his eyes in the moonlight. His colours spill off the canvas and out from the pages of John's sketchbook. They crawl across the floor. They spread themselves over him. They tuck themselves into the nooks and crannies of John's body. They press themselves against John's skin, whisper into his hair. The man presses his lips to John's and steals the air from his lungs.

John jolts awake, breathless.

₪₪₪

Harry is the first person to comment on John's reluctance to share his drawings.

They go out for lunch one afternoon. It's more out of obligation than desire that he agrees to go at all. But she's paying, and he hasn't spoken to another human being in a few days, so John agrees. They meet at a small restaurant in the market and sit in the window. John is five minutes early, as usual, and Harry is five minutes late, as usual.

“Sorry,” she breathes, jogging up to him.

“It's fine,” John says, and holds the door open for her.

“Mum's losing it,” Harry tells him while they're eating.

John picks at his lasagne. “In order to lose it you have to have it to begin with.”

Harry stares at him.

“You can be such a prick, sometimes,” she says.

John supposes that's true. He sighs and drinks from his glass of water.

Harry pulls his sketchbook across the table, towards her. John grabs at it, pulls it back. He nearly forgot about it, forgot that he brought it with him. He brings it everywhere, out of habit. He just forgets, sometimes.

John doesn't want her to know. He doesn't want her to see what's inside.

Harry looks up at him, eyes wide.

“How come you didn't say anything?” she asks.

“What?” John blinks.

“When did you meet her?” Harry gestures to the sketchbook. “How long have you been together?”

John frowns.

“I know you.” Harry says. She takes a long drink from her glass of wine, beaming at him from around the rim. “You don't want me to see because there's drawings of your girlfriend in there. I know you.”

John feels his skin burn. Inside his sketchbook, he can feel the man with the curly hair staring up at him from beneath the pages. His long, dark coat is missing and instead he wears a white shirt. The top two buttons are undone, opening up into a v-shape, revealing skin. The sleeves are rolled up his arms, bunched around the crooks of his elbows.

He's holding something in his hand – in his right. In his mind, John can't make it out. He drew it. He must have drawn it last night, and now he can't make it out. John doesn't remember drawing it.

“I,” he starts. He swallows. He tries again. “I, um. I'm not – there's no one.”

Harry glances at his sketchbook again, resting just underneath his arms. He pulls it closer to him.

“There's no one,” John murmurs.

₪₪₪

Most nights, John has nightmares. He wakes himself up shouting, tangled up in his sheets. He thrashes so hard he knocks something over, off his bedside table. The crash startles him awake.

He cries himself back to sleep, and he hates himself for it.

Other nights, nights that he spends painting or drawing or sketching into the early hours of the morning, he falls asleep and dreams of him – the man with the dark, curly hair. The man is warm, solid. He is heavy, sharp, and he chases away John's nightmares.

₪₪₪

It used to embarrass him, before. Drawing nudes. Which is odd, John thinks, because he's a doctor. He sees people without their clothes on all the time. He puts on gloves, he prods and pokes and taps their skin, their knees. He puts stethoscopes to their chests, their backs. He puts sticks in their mouths, on their tongues. He presses down and tells them, “Say 'ahh'.” He looks in their ears, he shines lights into their eyes. He knows the dark, intimate secrets of their lives – sometimes things even their spouses or their friends or their parents don't know.

But this is different. Drawing is different. Drawing, in and of itself, is intimate. Secret. Private. An artist's work is his soul, his subject is his admiration, his muse is his lover. To expose his soul while his subject exposes their body is an act far deeper, far more intense than anything else he has ever experienced. To sketch the lines of their body, to press and smudge and shade over their skin on the page, to capture every blemish, every fault, every perfection is to appreciate them, their natural beauty in a way two lovers would.

The man is not physically present, but John can see him in his mind's eye perfectly. He finds that he doesn't have to imagine the sharp lines of his bones, the angles of him, the curve of his muscles. He can see them as if they were there, in front of him. Something deep inside of him flows out from his hand onto the page. Some outside force tells him where to move his hand.

When he glances up, there's nothing in front of him.

When he glances up, the dark, curly-haired man's lips twist sideways into a sly smile.

John signs the drawing, tongue poking out in concentration.

In the corner, he writes Sherlock. Suddenly, everything falls into its right place.

₪₪₪

That night there's a storm. The rain pelts against the windows, the wind howls and the sky flashes.

John's drawing slips off the page. His charcoal shadows move over his form, slip across the paper of his skin. The lines of his chest, of his ribs, of his diaphragm expand on an inhale, and something cool and invisible fills him. He blinks against the lightning, the smudges of his eyelashes sticking together with moisture, with the humidity in the air, then coming apart, growing thinner.

The figure glides across the floor, side-stepping books and paper and John's jeans, his jumper, his t-shirt. As he moves his body swells, expands, contorts. The paper thins out, becomes warm and soft and smooth. It blushes pink over the fading marks, the fading circles and sketchy lines of his joints. The dark lines of his hair twist, and curl, and spread over his head, down over his ears, along the back of his neck. It grows light, fluffy. It twitches in the draft from the window.

He moves closer to the bed, closer to where John is curled up under the blanket. The thick line of his mouth splits open, his lips parting and there's a feeling of jabbing, of poking, of something hard breaking through skin and then something soft slipping into place. When he closes his mouth something inside it presses together and makes a click noise. Teeth. He runs his tongue over the backs of them.

Then, finally, there's something hot. Something hot, something liquid. It shoots out from his chest, down his spine, into his arms and legs, down to the tips of his fingers and his toes. Something inside him flutters against his ribs, trapped. It pounds, it tingles, it pulses inside him and he gasps as a soft, quiet rhythm fills his body. A heartbeat.

He reaches out. He presses the palm of his hand, shaking, against the side of John's face.

Everything becomes the thump-thump-thump of liquid pumping down his arms and legs. Everything becomes the thump-thump-thump of a bird-like creature beating its wings wildly in the cage in his chest. Everything becomes the thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

He moves his thumb, brushes it against John's lips, and shudders when something shocks his system, when a feeling vibrates through him. That one he doesn't know; that one he can't place.

Everything becomes John's skin, soft and warm under his hand.

John twists under the blanket with a groan. His eyes open, and he blinks up at the figure.

“You,” he whispers.

The figure opens his mouth. He inhales, then exhales. He pushes sound out from the lungs in his chest, from his throat.

“Yes,” he says. Then he says, “John.”

“You. You're. Sher—Sherlock?” he whispers.

Yes,” Sherlock says, then presses his lips against John's.

₪₪₪

The next night, John pulls Sherlock down. He wraps his arms around him, tight. He pulls off his boxers, kicks them to the end of the bed, and then he's as exposed as Sherlock is. John shivers and pulls the blanket up, but it slips back down again. Then everything becomes overheated.

Everything is hot, and smooth. Sherlock's lips are soft and wet and his tongue is like velvet. His hands are like silk, his fingers like threads and it feels real. He feels real. He is real, John thinks.

Everything is hot skin. Everything is hot breath. Everything is hot.

John is on his back with Sherlock moving between his thighs. He has no recollection of how they got there.

Then everything is the soft inhale-exhale of Sherlock's breath against his neck that quickens when he finds his rhythm. It matches perfectly with John's heartbeat pounding up from his chest. Everything is the hot, liquid, rolling waves of Sherlock's hips. Everything is his teeth, sharp and cool against John's neck as his rhythm begins to break.

John gasps, his hands grasping, white-knuckled, at the headboard.

₪₪₪

John wakes up, alone.

The storm is gone. The sun shines in through his window. A bird sings outside, its song getting lost amongst the noise of traffic.

Sherlock watches him from his page, his skin paper-white, his hair charcoal-black.

John rubs sleep from his eyes. When he opens them again, the paper is blank.

₪₪₪

Harry phones him one night, in tears.

“It's Clara,” she sobs. “She left me.”

John takes a train and stays with her. He sleeps curled up on her sofa. It's cold and stiff and uncomfortable.

For the two nights that he's there, Harry is never once sober.

₪₪₪

Four weeks later and Sherlock still hasn't returned.

John's hand shakes worse than ever. He tries to draw, but the only thing that comes out is scribbles. He tears the pages from his sketchbook, crinkles them in his fist and throw them onto the floor. Then he gathers them up.

Finally, he throws his sketchbook into the rubbish. The covers gape open to reveal empty, crisp-white pages staring back at him. He ties closed the binliner and drags it downstairs, out the back, and tosses it into the skip. He climbs back upstairs, shoves his canvases and his artist kit into the cupboard, behind the broom, behind packages of paper towels. Before he closes the door on them, shuts them out for good, he notices: all the canvases are blank.

₪₪₪

Eventually, he finds a therapist. She's around his age. Gentle, soft-spoken. She suggests that he only imagined himself drawing, that he imagined himself painting portraits. She suggests that in reality he never put his hand to the canvas. John doesn’t know. He doesn't really believe her.

“Post-traumatic stress,” she says. She suggests that he start a blog to keep track of things. John doesn't know what to think of that. He thinks he's boring. He doesn't want to read about how boring he is.

She suggests he find a flatmate.

That, however, John thinks, might be an all right idea.

₪₪₪

John is thirty-six and limps across the park, his cane tapping with every step.

There's no where in particular he needs to be, and no where in particular that he's going. He just needed to get out of the flat, needed to get some fresh air. He missed going for walks. He missed walking just for the sake of walking.

He limps along the path, past a bench. Someone says, “John!”

Someone says, “John Watson!”

John stops. He turns and a round, bespectacled man approaches him with a smile.

“Stamford! Mike Stamford!” the man says, holding out his hand. “We were at Bart's together?”

“Yes. Sorry, yes,” John says. He arranges himself, shifts his cane to his other hand. He takes Mike's hand into his own. “Hello.”

They have coffee and catch up. Mike mentions a flatshare and John laughs bitterly.

“Who'd want me as a flatmate?”

Mike smiles.

₪₪₪

His name is Sherlock Holmes, and he's the man John bumped into on the street nearly two years ago. He's the man John felt himself draw, sketch and paint obsessively for a year. He's the man that grew into bones, into muscles, into flesh and blood in the dark of John's room, who laid over him at night, warm and solid. Who whispered in his ear, who kissed the skin along his neck, who chased away the nightmares. He's the man John knows without really knowing.

Sherlock Holmes is tall, and lanky, and thin. His skin is light and smooth and looks cold to the touch. His eyes are pale, almost colourless, and shine with mischief. His lips are plush, bow-shaped, and curl up at the corners when he ties a blue scarf around his neck.

Underneath his coat lies his skin, and underneath his skin lies his bones. Bones John has spent nearly a year perfecting with his hands, with the swipe of charcoal across the page, or the dab of a paintbrush along a canvas. The freckles that dot Sherlock's neck are there because John put them there. The scars along the backs of his hands and in the crooks of his elbows are there because John put them there. He is the man John wove out of threads of memory, out of a one-time, ten-second encounter in the street when he was in pain, when he was sad, when he was lonely.

“The address,” Sherlock Holmes says, “is 221B Baker Street.”

He winks, then he's gone in a swirl of coat tails and the soft snick of a closing door.

John feels his heart leap into his throat and his stomach plummet down towards his feet.

“Yeah,” Mike says, putting a test tube away. “He's always like that.”

₪₪₪

The truth is: John doesn't know if he ever painted Sherlock.

He doesn't know if he ever managed to capture him, put him down on paper the way he thought he did. Perhaps his therapist is right; perhaps he drank too much, or took too many pills, or it was all a figment of his imagination. A hallucination induced by post-traumatic stress. Every night he dug out his supplies, and set them up, and then he passed out, fell asleep, and only dreamt that he painted Sherlock Holmes.

That, John thinks, is logical. Far more logical than painting a man into existence. Far more logical than paintings melting off canvases, than drawings running off pages. Perhaps everything else is merely a coincidence.

The truth is: John doesn't know, and he doesn't care. He doesn't care, because for the first time in a very long time, he is happy.

₪₪₪

One evening, Sherlock sits in his chair in front of a crackling fire and plays the violin for four hours.

Partway through, John sneaks away up to his room. He digs through his wardrobe. In the back, he finds his artist's kit, and a pad of sketchbook paper. There's an abundance of charcoal and graphite and pastels. He kept buying more.

He grabs a graphite stick and his sketchpad and heads back downstairs into the living room.

John watches Sherlock play. He watches Sherlock's fingers dance along the neck of his violin. He watches the bow sweep over the strings. Sherlock keeps his eyes closed lightly. He smiles, and John knows that Sherlock can feel him watching.

John swallows, and puts the graphite stick to his pad of paper. He draws a line, and then another. Then another, and another, and another. John draws Sherlock Holmes, perhaps for the hundredth time. Perhaps for the first.

(He doesn't know.)

He draws, and draws, and draws. He draws until Sherlock stops playing and he has filled five pages of his sketchpad. Sherlock puts his violin away, then rounds John's chair, bending over the back of it. John feels Sherlock's breath teasing strands of his hair along the back of his neck.

“My little artist,” Sherlock calls him. He smiles fondly.

₪₪₪

John is thirty-seven. He crawls into bed and closes his eyes.

He's exhausted from running over rooftops, dodging cars and city buses, chasing down narrow alleyways after criminals. Sherlock keeps him on his toes. Sherlock keeps the blood pumping through his veins. Sherlock keeps him from reaching for the bottle, or for his pills, or for the gun in his drawer.

They had a fight tonight. Sherlock lied about the memory stick. John was kidnapped, knocked out, shoved into the back of a van. A man named Jim Moriarty strapped bombs to his chest, then pushed him out of a changing room into a large room with a pool. Sherlock had stared at him, and it was the first time John had ever seen him look scared.

Moriarty's phone rang, and that was that. They made it out alive, but John was furious. They had a fight. John threatened to leave. Sherlock tried, very hard, not to look hurt. He didn't manage. John decided to stay. That's okay, John thinks. It's okay, because Sherlock keeps him alive.

John wakes up a few hours later to the creek of the floorboards, to a shadow moving over him. When he rolls over and his eyelids flutter open, he finds himself staring up at Sherlock. Sherlock, with his pale skin. Sherlock, with his colourless eyes and his sharp cheekbones. Sherlock, with his dark, curly hair that hangs over his face and his blue housecoat that shimmers in the moonlight.

“You,” John whispers to him.

Sherlock's lips twitch into a smile.

“Yes,” he says, then presses his lips against John's.

John slips his fingers into Sherlock's hair. He inhales his breath, tastes the mint tea on his tongue. Sherlock is solid and warm. Sherlock is smooth and soft. There are bones under his skin, and blood pumping through his veins, and a pulse under John's mouth when he kisses his neck.

₪₪₪

John wakes up the next morning and Sherlock is curled around his back. A mass of dark, curly hair. Of smooth, pale skin. Of blood pumping through his veins. Of bones holding him together. He's quiet as he sleeps. His eyes are closed, his breathing soft.

Downstairs on the kitchen table, John's sketchbook lies rests. Its covers open, its pages yawning towards the ceiling. Inside, the drawings of Sherlock and his violin are still there.

The End