A flash fiction story about a man and a missing painting. 
Jackson heard about the exhibition from his Sunday newspaper. He almost missed it since the paper was being used as a makeshift coaster for the cup of black coffee he drank. But between sips and aimlessly scanning the inky words, he noticed a stain left by the bottom of his mug. It was circling a particularly interesting section of letters—an advertisement for a famous art exhibit being newly displayed at the museum in his city.

The advertisement read:

Opening Day of Exhibition Features Piece from Artist’s Famed Set of Missing Paintings. A collection from Mary Maeja, painter from the early 1900s, is on display now. She is most known for her set of two matching paintings, one of a mother and one of her child. The painting of the mother was unable to be located after Maeja’s death in the 1920s—only the portrait of the child remains. Art Historians refer to this incomplete piece as “The Motherless Child.” Come see the famous exhibition while it’s still here!

Jackson laid the newspaper flat on the table and using a pair of scissors, cut out a small square around the advertisement. He slipped the stained piece of paper, now the size of a postcard, into the pocket of his worn jacket and dropped his unfinished coffee in the sink.

Jackson felt he would like to see the “motherless child” for himself and the museum was only a short walk from his apartment. He thought of his own mother living at his childhood home alone, still angry and smoking a pack of Virginia Slims a day. He rubbed a small scar on his arm and felt a ghosting of pain. It was one of many, a round burn mark branded on his body.

The museum was free on Sundays so Jackson entered easily. People surrounded him, all moving from art piece to art piece with an easy rhythm. He fingered the worn newspaper clipping in his jacket pocket as he watched a married couple speak softly underneath the painting Sunday by Edward Hopper.

“This one is quite beautiful, don’t you think?” He said to the man next to him.

The man turned his head, gave a slight nod, and then continued onto the next painting with his wife.

Jackson noticed there was a bigger crowd collecting in the next room and thought it must be about “The Motherless Child” exhibition. He lingered near the back but couldn’t see much from all the heads in front of him. Even though the painting was obscured, he could hear the docent speaking about the piece, her voice filling the hollowness of the large room.

“Maeja was a prolific painter, famous for her oil renditions of nostalgic elements within the American family. She subverts this traditional family dynamic though by incorporating dark colors, somber scenes, and abstract features to her subjects. Her work is thought to be representative of the hidden truth behind the American dream”

Jackson carefully weaved through the people to get a better view of the painting. Slowly it was unveiled by the separating people around him, like paint chipping from a canvas. His eyes burned as he stared into the face of the child. Jackson was deep water, silent and still.

A hand popped up in the crowd and a girl about fifteen years old spoke, “I heard the other painting is missing cuz Maeja destroyed it. My teacher said it’s probably cuz her son died or something.”

The docent smiled, amused. “It is true that the artist’s son was tragically killed in an accident at her family home, but it’s possible the painting was sold by someone in her will after she died. It remains a mystery to this day.”

Jackson thought he saw the woman looking directly at him as he stood unmoving. A warning glance, a question, an accusation.

With shaking hands and an unsteady voice, Jackson spoke, “I- Is there a reward for returning the missing painting?”

The docent answered, “Why yes, sir there is. The current reward for anyone in possession of the piece is about $10,000.” Her voice lifted at the end of the large sum and her eyebrows shot up in a show of surprise.

Murmurs sounded from the crowd; one man even joked, “Well damn, that amount of money could retire me and my wife right now.”

Jackson smiled uncomfortably and turned around to leave. That amount of money could do a lot for him too.

He walked quickly back to his apartment where he jumped into his rusted 1964 Pontiac and hit the gas. Jackson was not one to speed but his jittering leg kept pushing him past the speed limit. After driving for about twenty minutes outside the city, he turned down a familiar road to a small house on 268 Hickory Ave. Opening the car door, he took a deep breath and could already smell stale cigarette smoke in the air. He clenched his fists and knocked on the screened-in backdoor. A hand with skin thin enough to show an estuary of purple veins opened it wide, and the smell of smoke consumed him.

His mother’s eyes went big and her lips pressed into a firm line. “Jackson,” she said, voice scratchy and rough. Before she could question him though, he pushed past her and toward his old bedroom.

“What the hell are you doing, son?” she called after him.

The door to his old room came open and he turned to the right where a large wall sat empty. Empty, save for a beautiful, sad woman (a mother, he now realized) hung up with an old screw. He sighed loudly as his mother stood confused in the doorway with a lit cigarette in her hand, backlit by the setting sun streaming through the curtains.

“That what you came all the way here for? An old piece of shit painting? It’s not worth a damn thing” she said, her eyes scanning him from his boots to his thinning hair. “Nothing in this house is.” She inhaled a thick breath from her cigarette, the butt glowing red like a cherry. Like a memory. He felt the burns on his arm start to itch and sweat.

Jackson looked at her, looked at her life, how nothing changed except time.

“You’re right ma. None of this was ever worth anything.”
Back to Top