Witness (Flash Fiction)

Galen listened to the patrons murmuring their approval as they walked through the gallery. He heard the same conversations, the same trite observations. “Bold choice of color.” “Strong brush strokes.” “Interesting choice of subject.” He wanted to leave and repress the night’s memory with a bottle of whiskey.

Becky by Dave DeHetre

“Becky” by Dave DeHetre. Used with permission of the artist.

A light touch on his elbow alerted him to Amanda’s presence. He breathed in the smell of her perfume, Vanilla Lace.

“You’re not going anywhere,” whispered Amanda into his ear.

“What makes you think I was leaving?”

“You have that look. Your left hand gets twitchy when you’re thinking of using your cane.”

She put her elbow in his hand. He let her lead him through the crowd, guiding him through his eternal darkness. After weaving through two rooms – 44 steps – they came to a stop. Muffled sounds from the street told him he was standing near the entrance. A cold wind blew across his cheek as the door opened and closed.

“Galen,” said Amanda, “I’d like you to meet Robert and Willa Rosenberg.”

“It’s a pleasure,” said Galen. Rather than extend his hand, he held Amanda tight as if afraid she would slip away and leave him to entertain two entitled patrons of the arts.

“The pleasure is all mine, young man,” said one of the Rosenbergs. Galen amused himself by wondering if perhaps it was Willa, her female voice deepened by years of smoking.

“I’ve been following your career for the past year or so,” said Rosenberg. “You are very talented.”

Galen listened through the silence, waiting for Rosenberg to add a qualifier like “for a blind man,” or “for someone with your condition.” None came. Galen smiled.

“Thank you. I hope you enjoy the showing.”

“I understand there’s a new painting?”

Galen’s head tilted to the side in surprise, as if listening for an explanation.

“I told Robert you were debuting a new piece. He’s very excited to see it.”

Galen’s work had yet to garner any real attention in the art world. Those who did appreciate his art were mostly interested in him as a curiosity: the blind man who paints. He had yet to find anyone aside from Amanda who took an interest in his collection – let alone anticipate new pieces.

“I’d be happy to show it to you,” said Galen, scratching at his beard. “Amanda, would you show us the way?”

She put her hand on his as he held her arm. The hand was reassuring when she said, “Follow me.”

Nineteen steps later, they came to a stop in the center of the main room where she had hung the new painting. Galen felt the crowds part as he approached, conversations dropped to whispers as they realized who this longhaired man in blue jeans and leather jacket must be.

“Can you tell us about this piece? What was your inspiration for this subject?” asked an elderly female voice. Galen assumed it was Willa, not nearly as gravely voiced as her husband.

He began his practiced spiel, telling the Rosenbergs and any patrons within earshot, how he had lost his eyesight as a child. The subjects of his paintings were the memories of his youth, inspired by the faces and places of his life in the Midwest before moving to the East Coast.

It was all lies of course. He had not told anyone, not even Amanda, about the voices that came to him in the night. The whispers of pain and suffering. The pleas for justice and vindication. Each had been an eyewitness, sometimes the only witness, to crimes of unspeakable horror. They begged him to record their final moments. And so he painted what they told him to paint.

He never painted the victims, for no one – not even the dead – sees themselves in their own story. Instead, he painted those who had committed these acts. He painted an abusive husband, face twisted with rage; a child predator hiding behind clown makeup; the license plate of a car speeding away from the scene of a hit and run; and the latest image, perhaps one of his most disturbing stories.

“The child in this painting,” said Robert. “What does the object in his wagon represent?”

Galen thought back. He had taken care to paint the black barrel and pump in stark contrast to the traditional little red wagon. The child, wagon in tow, walked toward an open door. A cat and a doll left behind.

What could Galen say? It would horrify the patrons to hear the truth, as it had him. He had listened to the crying as long as he could before he acknowledged the voice in his room. Only then had she told her story and its bloody, tragic end.

She talked of her son, still a child in her eyes, who attacked her – not in the momentary heat of anger – but coldly and with deliberate decision. He had been gone for days, god knows where, and she had gone into his room to put away his laundry. As she sat in his room, he returned. He found her there, but didn’t say a word. He opened his closet door and removed the shotgun. He fired, pumped in a new shell, and fired again. Then he walked out the door, as she lay dying.

Galen couldn’t talk about that poor mother’s voice, guiding his hand as he painted. He couldn’t say how she had led him to choose each image so carefully. Unlike many of those who came to him, she didn’t want to accuse her son. She only wanted to record her loss. Her son had lost his innocence, somewhere out there. Whether that had been in jail, on the streets, or on a battlefield, Galen didn’t know. And the mother, in turn, had lost her son.

Galen couldn’t tell them that. He couldn’t tell them the truth. But he didn’t need to lie either.

“The subject is leaving his childhood – represented by the doll and the stuffed animal – behind as he goes off to war. The gun in the wagon represents how our culture makes war into a childhood game, guaranteeing new soldiers with every new generation.”

“Is that how you lost your sight” asked Willa. “In the war?”

“No ma’am,” said Galen. “I lost my sight when my father shot me in the head, before shooting my mother, sister and then himself. It left me an orphan and blind.”

“That’s horrible,” said Willa. “To have seen such tragedy.”

Galen shook his head in the darkness. “I didn’t see a thing.”

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.


  • Wow. Your last line gave me serious goosebumps. Great lead-up to the end. I love what you did with the prompt.

  • Ted Boone says:

    I really like the approach, here. You treated the painting prompt as an actual painting, and used the imagery to color the main character in a very interesting way. For 1000 word story, your characterization is phenomenal.

    You reveal the main character’s blindness a few paragraphs into the story. I’d be interested in your thought process for how and when to reveal his telling character feature. Were there any intentions on keeping it a secret until longer into the story? Or giving it away in paragraph one? just curious.

    • Kevin Wohler says:

      Ted, there wan’t a lot of thought about when to reveal Galen’s blindness. I knew the character would be blind. Once I decided to tell the story in a third-person, limited, point of view, it became important to explain his lack of visual description pretty early on. I just went with what seemed natural. People with disabilities don’t think about them until they come up. So I didn’t bring it up until it was necessary.

      • Ted Boone says:

        Well, it was well done. Hinted at early, revealed when necessary, and explained (to great effect) at the end. Kudos.

  • I love how there are several parallels between your story and mine but they are completely different.

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