Sam Mills traded the pen for a cigarette,
waving goodbye to the paper pinned to the desk.
“Adios, Leland. It’s been a wild
ride. We hardly knew ye…”
Reading the four-panel strip, he bobbed
his head noncommittally. Mildly
amusing. He didn’t tend to go for the
self-referential, which usually struck him as pretentious and lazy, but it
worked okay, here. He’d considered the
Lyman / Charlotte Braun / Chuck Cunningham route of inexplicably excising the
character, and then denying it had ever existed, but he knew his type A
personality could never handle leaving that loose thread lamely dangling. He’d
spend the rest of his life looking over
his shoulder, worried that someone was creeping up to ask him “What the hell
ever happened to Leland?”
It had seemed like a promising
supporting character…Part Sluggo, part Reggie Mantle, part Frank Begbie. A
bad influence from the wrong side of the
tracks, sweeping in every so often to corrupt Silas, Dorothy’s eggheaded,
got up, stretching his kinked spine and rolling his neck as he crossed the
studio to Hamelin’s desk. Yes,
there it is…A bottle of Crown Royal
poorly stashed in an empty Kettle Chips sack.
This hiding place struck him as exceptionally stupid and he laughed,
taking a deep swig. Hamelin probably had
the bottle booby trapped, and would be bitching about the theft tomorrow, but
screw it…all of the cartoonists who shared the studio would already be
complaining about his stale cigarette smoke, so…
He went back to the strip he’d just
finished. The boys are playing hooky in
an arcade when suddenly Leland pulls a suitcase from behind a game, and
announces he’s leaving. Silas asks him
where he’s going, and Leland answers “Oakland or Auckland, or somewhere in
between…I can’t remember.” The final
panel shows Leland dramatically fading into a sunset. The suitcase has transformed
into a bandana
bulging at the end of a stick, ala Great Depression hobo.
Walking home through the first chill of
autumn, Sam considered all of the reasons Leland had to go. First of all, Silas
already had a bad
influence in his beer-swilling, cigar-smoking, junk food-eating, fun-loving
grandmother, the titular Dorothy.
Anything Leland might talk him into could just as easily come from the
Far more problematic, the kid brought up a
ton of questions Sam didn’t even want to touch in a goofy little comic
strip. Why was Leland poor, and tough,
and mean? What about his shitty home
life? Where were his parents? Did
he live in a shitty house? And so on.
Leave the awkward moralizing to
Family fucking Circus…
But maybe all of this, Sam knew, was just
justification for the real reason the kid had to go.
Sam didn’t like to draw him.
After working with Leland, with his
unkempt hair and unibrow, his too small eyes and too big mouth, stains on his
tattered denim jacket and jeans, Sam would leave the studio anxious, vaguely
unhappy. Whatever plans he’d been
pleasantly anticipating all day would invariably strike him as depressing and
stupid. It was the same feeling he’d
carry after hearing something ominous developing on the news, some ignorant
remark by the president that might start a war or tank the economy.
the end of the day, I just don’t like being around that little son of a
Yeah, getting rid of the brat felt like an
emancipation. Like breaking up with a
He took a deep breath of the hard autumn
air, lit a cigarette, and ducked into Callahan’s for a few beers and the last
couple innings of the Mariners game.
It was noon by the time he got back into
the studio, having let the night before completely get away from him. Sam crossed
the bright, open room in
sunglasses, grimacing at the smell of ink and chemicals. He’d submit the
strip he finished last night,
bang out some rough sketches and notes for an upcoming sequence where Dorothy
considers moving to Jamaica, and get home, back into bed, by early
Sighing, he sat heavily, took off the
glasses, and saw the vandalism that had been perpetrated upon his comic
“Goddammit. You pricks are lucky I can crop that
out. I’m supposed to be passing this on
in less than an hour.”
The other cartoonists looked up mildly from
Hamelin said “Maybe if you hadn’t gotten so
shitfaced on other people’s booze, you’d have an easier time making your
Bentley added “Now what are you bitching about?
I can’t hear you through the wall of cigarette smoke in here…”
Although they did have a point.
Two points, really.
And he did have to admit, whoever had done
the defacing had absolutely nailed the character. Must have been Kathy. Not only was she the best artist among them,
but she was acting like she couldn’t hear them bickering. The girl doth
protest too little…
A bonus fifth panel had been added. The same sunset, with Leland framed
middle, now looking straight back at you.
“But don’t fool yourself, dickface, thinking I’m gone. I’ll
always be out here, somewhere, trying to
get back. And when I do…”
Goddamn. Kathy hadn’t
just nailed the character,
she’d rendered it truer, somehow, than Sam himself. It’s like she’d
coaxed out some deep,
inherent, existential shittiness in the kid.
Something around the eyes, which Sam realized he’d never drawn looking
straight out at you, like that.
Something in the curl and bow of the thin, cracked lips…
don’t exactly get the joke, but…good drawing.
With an Exacto-knife and a shaky hand, he
cut away the fifth panel, and lowered it ceremoniously into the trash.
Sam had known, of course, that it couldn’t
last forever, the four of them sharing the studio, collaborating on one
another’s strips, caravanning down to conferences and book fairs and camping
trips like some gypsy crew, some circus train.
And while it certainly came as no surprise that he had been the one to
break up the group, no one could have guessed in a million years that he would
do so by getting famous.
While “Dorothy” had provided a perfectly
adequate living, considering Sam’s lifestyle and expectations (a decent
apartment downtown, beer to drink, the occasional steak dinner or weekend
blowout in Vegas…), a situation that only about .001% of working cartoonists
could claim, within a year of his new strip “Dark Alleyways” debuting, the
thing had taken off like a rocket, propelling him out of Portland to L.A., and
into the type of life he would have been embarrassed to even fantasize
Overnight, Sam had become Jim Davis, Matt
Groening, R. Crumb. He lived in the same
building downtown as Ryu and Adam Levine.
He appeared on Conan O’ Brien.
The strip had been syndicated in nearly a thousand newspapers in a
hundred countries, contracted to be made into a movie, and the merchandise…
Merchandise everywhere. T-shirts and mugs. Dolls and pencils and refrigerator
magnets. There was already talk of a
float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
And although there were a dozen recurring characters in the strip, Sam
was referred to, more often than not, as “The guy that draws ‘Renaldo.’”
Fucking Renaldo. Dicey little bastard.
Hair slicked back, grimy mustache, blue jeans
pegged above his leather factory boots and a flannel shirt. Equal parts greaser,
soccer thug, and
cholo. If “Dark Alleys” were a graphic
novel instead of a comic strip, Renaldo would carry a pistol, and hurt people
for money, and slap prostitutes. Within
the limitations of the funnies, he had to settle for popping balloons and breaking
windows with his trusty slingshot, jumping his skateboard over a police car,
coercing the school mascot into shitting (off camera, of course) in the
principal’s desk drawer, and so on.
As the years passed, Sam’s time in
Portland began to seem like a former life, like a hazily remembered dream. Which
With one exception. Kathy.
Right before he’d won the cartoon lottery,
they’d fallen in love. He’d called it
other things over the years, but knew he was lying to himself, and that really
there was only one way to describe it. Fallen
in fucking love…And then he’d
struck gold, and left. He’d asked her to
come, and she’d said no, and he’d left and never asked again. For
years, he’d been expecting her to finally
call, finally consent to moving to Los Angeles.
Which is why he tended to avoid thinking
about that former life. Ancient
history. He’d cinched it up and buried
it, forgotten like an irrelevant dream.
Until the unexpected visit that brought it
He’d finished the background, a cheering
mob in the bleachers as Renaldo disrupts a pep assembly by setting off the
emergency sprinklers and whipping out a giant slip n’ slide, at the same moment
that he’d finished his sixth glass of whiskey.
He nodded, leaning back in the chair, firing up a cigarette. It was good.
Good enough. People loved
Renaldo…And the little bastard is such a
stock character, so clichéd, I can keep writing these hackneyed jokes
forever. I’ve literally got a million of
‘em, as they say…
He went to sign his name at the
bottom of the strip…and stopped. He
leaned closer. The student body…
Sitting in the bleachers between a howling
chest-pounding boy in an Indian headdress and a girl who looked like Wednesday
Addams, staring straight ahead, stone-faced in a crowd of bouncing shrieking
lunatics, was Leland.
Sam laughed. Didn’t
even realize I’d resurrected the little prick.
Although…he smiled at the empty glass, can’t say as how I really
remember drawing most of this crowd…He
continued looking, the smile gradually dropping from his face, and went to
A week later, Sam came into his new
studio, a monstrous glass and burnished steel affair constituting the entire
fifth floor of a new building in Sherman Oaks.
No more sharing with other cartoonists; this place was entirely his,
although it was often bustling with lesser entities: couriers and interns and
assistants and pages for the screenwriters.
He sat down at his deck, and stood back up as quickly as if he’d sat on
There, in deep dark angry-looking lines,
was Leland, drawn from the chest up, thin lips sprouting a speech bubble
proclaiming “Renaldo is just a cheap knockoff of me, dickhead.”
Sam’s breath stopped and his spine went
ice cold. He’d taken two steps straight
back towards the door when he noticed the scrawled message at the bottom of the
page, and burst out laughing.
“Even though this is true, and you are a
fucking hack, I still want to see you next time I’m in town. Had a flight
diverted, then a layover, with
an hour to kill. Knew it was way too
early for your sorry ass to be working today, but I’ll be back for a couple of
days next week (business!), with some time…I’ll come back here Friday evening,
let’s say five-ish. Big news. I
want to tell you everything in person. Don’t be too drunk! (There’s plenty of time for that after I get
Sam said “Oh my fucking God,” out loud to
the empty room. His head swam and his
chest closed up. He couldn’t believe it.
Leaning closer, he recognized her
stylistic touches on Leland, the same she’d used when ruining his strip five
years earlier. He was touched that she’d
The tighter lips, the deader eyes. Little
sucker scared me for a second…
Big news. Had to be moving
here, to L.A. Must
finally be having some luck. Me too, I
guess. I’d officially given up hope of
ever seeing her again, just a couple of months ago.
he thought, laughing, sliding his hand into his desk for the bottle of Sinatra
Select, maybe I’ll suggest she start
working Leland into her strip. She’s a
helluva lot better with him than I ever was.
The week passed in a pleasant dream. Sam went to the gym every night,
avoided booze…Can’t rewind five years in
a week, but looking a little less red and bloated won’t hurt. He scoured
the apartment, throwing out
every trace of ex-girlfriends and one-night stands.
When Friday finally arrived, Sam went
into the studio early but couldn’t work; he was too antsy. He shuffled
papers across his desk, went for
a walk, rearranged the minimalist décor.
Mostly, he reread Kathy’s illustrated note about a thousand times. Finally,
five o’clock rolled around. He had a bottle of Perignon in a bucket of
ice, jazz piping through the surround sound, and a couple of candles
burning. He gave himself a final look in
the mirror…”It’ll do…”
Since he didn’t want her to spot him from
the street, lurking in the window watching for her arrival, he sat at his desk
and went through the motions of drawing.
As Sam’s irritation progressed into
concern, he dialed her number for the first time in five years.
Is something wrong?”
It wasn’t the response he’d expected. “What do you
“I mean why are you calling me?” Her tone was cold.
“Because…you’re two hours late.
Did something happen?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Sam’s mind lurched and he squinted with
concentration. What the fuck was
happening? “Were you in L.A. last week?”
“Listen, I don’t know what this is…but
whatever this is, we’re not doing this.
Don’t call me Sam. And definitely
don’t call me when you’re drunk and spouting a bunch of weird bullshit.”
The line clicked and went dead. Numb, Sam sat grasping at threads. Who’d set him up for this? Who’d
come into his studio and left the
Glancing at the note in his hands he
froze, breath catching and blood going ice cold…
Next to Kathy’s supposed writing was
another Leland. A new one. Coming
from his mouth was a speech bubble…
“Got you motherfucker.”
Slowly, every muscle pulled tight as a
piano wire, he set the paper down and turned around, facing the cavernous
studio behind him…
“Who’s in here?” No answer.
Slowly at first, trying to watch every
direction at once, then nearly running, he left the studio. There was no one
in the hall. He crossed the parking lot to his Mercedes,
looking over his shoulder, pausing to look into the backseat of his own car
before opening the door. From the car,
he watched the window of his studio. No
movement. He pulled out of the deserted
parking lot, heading towards home with his hands trembling and his thoughts
spiraling like paint in draining water.
The lobby of his building was equipped
with a dozen cameras, an elevator code, a “no exceptions” guest list, and never
fewer than two ex-USC football players with bulges under their jackets that
could only be guns. Sam stopped in the
entryway, casing the lobby. Although
hadn’t some nut job just waltzed in
and ridden an elevator in the White House with Obama before they’d figured out
he didn’t belong? Shit happens.
Twenty-seventh floor. The elevator opened, and he stepped into his
living room slowly, carefully.
Canvassing the apartment he saw that it had been cleaned, groceries delivered,
all in preparation of Kathy’s visit, but nothing out of the ordinary…
Then he noticed the charcoal pencil on the
floor, beneath his desk…Could have just
He approached the desk slowly, on numb
feet, warily as if coming up on a dead body, a vicious animal.
That morning, he’d left a half-finished
“Dark Alleyways” strip. A first panel
shows Renaldo watching the thick snowfall through his bedroom window, slouching
and gloomily clinging to his baseball mitt and bat, which would obviously now
go unused. On the wall behind him is a
flyer for an outdoor hitting clinic. In
the second panel, he suddenly brightens, standing straight up, a huge lightbulb
forming above his head. Sam wasn’t
entirely sure where things were going to go from there, but it would involve
some variation of Renaldo tossing and hitting snowballs with his bat, drilling
disliked classmates in the neighborhood…It seemed like maybe the expression
“Two birds with one stone” could come into play…
In his absence, the remaining panels had
been filled in. The lines were thick and
dark, much different than Sam’s trademark feathery etching. A lone figure,
face buried in collar and scarf,
makes its way through the blowing tundra and cosmic desolation. Finally, the
figure reaches a looming
building, vaguely defined through the snow, and throws itself inside. In the
final panel, the lone figure is
revealed as Leland, now inside and stripped to his underwear, trembling by a
fire, feet dark and frostbitten. Through
clenched teeth, within a frigid-looking thought bubble formed of jagged lines,
he says “It wasn’t easy, motherfucker, but I fought my way back.”
With growing horror Sam recognized the
bookcases and furniture, the fireplace, and realized that Leland was inside his
apartment. Hands trembling, ears
ringing, he seized a gum eraser off the desk and began viciously hacking at the
picture of the boy.
As Sam stabbed and smeared with the
eraser, as violent as a knife attack, another speech bubble rose up into
sight. Frantic, scrawled letters “PLEASE
NO!!! DON’T SEND ME BACK!!!”
He continued erasing, attacking the
faintest impression of the figure, as words began to pop up all over the page
“YOU”RE KILLING ME!!! I’LL DO ANYTHING
And then he was gone. Entirely gone.
Sam collapsed against the desk, dripping
sweat, breath rasping, heart smashing in his chest.
He’d just caught his breath when the voice
sounded behind him, very close.
“Just kidding. Reverse psychology.
Thanks for letting me out. It’s fucking cold out there. Cold and dark. It didn’t have to be like that, Sammo…” Sam found he couldn’t move, couldn’t
“You could have killed me off. That would have been better. Or, god forbid, you could have actually given
the delinquent somewhere to go, a grandmother in Des Moines or some shit…Would
that have been so fucking hard? But just
pushing me out into nothing like that…for five years. While here you are,
living like this? And all of it on my
coattails, you hack son of a bitch…”
“I think you messed me up, a little bit,
Sam heard the click of the switchblade,
the same switchblade he’d been picturing in Leland’s pocket for years.
After that strange phone call, asking whether
or not she’d been to L.A., Kathy had started reading “Dark Alleyways.”
A couple of months later, Sam’s name had
started popping up in the news as an item of minor interest. He’d backed
out of the “Alleyways” film
project. He’d announced the popular
strip was finished.
Then he’d come out with a new strip. “Art of Darkness.” It followed the tawdry exploits of a
cartoonist as he struggled to make ends meet, periodically bringing his
characters to life, always with intentions to involve them in some scheme that
invariably blew up in his face.
Sam Mills, it was immediately announced,
is a genius. A bona fide, Berkeley
Breathed, Gary Larson, Alan fucking Moore-level genius.
When he’d started texting, asking Kathy to
come out and see him…
am I, she’d responded, some type of
Although, she’d realized shortly
thereafter, what else do I have to do?
Getting out of the cab, she saw the dark
shape of a man, obscured by the curtains, watching from the window. She smiled,
knowing that Sam would have
wanted to play it cool, but that he must have just been too anxious to see her…
Phillips currently splits his time between Idaho, where he teaches, and coastal
Oregon, where he does not. He has long been a fan of Black Petals, and is
absolutely thrilled to be included! His recently published novel Manifest is
available from Montag Press, or signed copies can be purchased from him
directly, at email@example.com.