Why Don’t We Add a Cozy Little Cabin?
~ Mike Robison
Finally, after two years and just over a hundred thousand YouTube subscribers, Oliver Young felt comfortable enough to tell people what he really did. Although, when pitched the question in public, he rarely beat Angela to the swing.
“He’s today’s Bob Ross,” she would say, usually leaning with one arm on his shoulder. “He’s a one-man art school. Everyone digs his paintings.”
Well, that was of course a lie, as heartening for her support as it was grating for its untruth. Like Bob Ross, he did landscapes on his channel—as indicated by the name, Youngscapes—though he aimed to add more dynamic variety, even a touch of the surreal. One of his more popular was the Atlantean ruins canvas, with a smoldering Pompeii-style volcano looming in the background. “Deviant” pieces, he sometimes called them. For the most part, his repertoire was forests and streams—quick mental escapes into Mother Nature.
Of course, a wider dragnet catches the delectable and detestable, and the trolls rode in parasitically on the backs of his fans. Rip-off, said some of the milder ones. When you gonna paint some tits or something cmon it aint PBS. Or those from the art world, so claimed, who with haughty diplomacy weighed in that he was another paint-by-numbers kind of guy—in short, a hack.
But it was no troll or critic that pushed him to the brink, that stripped over twenty pounds from him and reunited him with cigarettes and forced a wedge between him and Angela and remains responsible for his last upload being over six months ago.
It had actually been a fan. A fan who, as Oliver still claims, no less than saved his life.
As far as Oliver could tell, there was no other reason for it to have started during that episode, his 37th. Or why “it” (and who knew what “it” referred to) chose that canvas.
He’d been tired the night before and that morning and, even with two espressos in him, hadn’t prep-sketched anything particularly interesting. Thus, the episode, already a day late for the weekly upload schedule set by his producer (also Angela), was going to be generic filler. Or, as they called it among themselves, a hand-warmer.
“Every once in a while it’s good to recalibrate a little,” he told the camera at the beginning of the episode. “To brush up on basics, and to appreciate the so-called ‘normal’ beauty of Nature.” Palette in one hand, with the other he emphatically dabbed his brush toward the viewer. “And remember, as always, at the end I’ll take a few calls for Q and A.”
By then, the ending Q&A segments had grown from occasional to regular, a must for when he did live shows, which he’d been doing more of as viewership grew.
The scene he had in mind was simple: a forested riverbank with lordly Grand Teton-like mountains sawtoothed across the horizon. Snowcapped, of course. Maybe with bulbous clouds sliding over the summits. Like Ross, there was unabashed romance in his subjects, and in the way he approached them. Some used words like sappy or sentimental. ‘Borderline schmaltzy’ was one that had made him grin. He never thought twice about it, especially as he got older. If art gave you a sense of wonder or nostalgia, or even just that warm-cider-in-your-belly feeling, it was slowly, infinitesimally, diluting the poisons of the world.
For the first twenty-one minutes of his thirty-three-minute episode, nothing unusual happened. He had knifed in most of the evergreens, dabbed in the river and the riverbank and was about two-thirds of the way through the majestic visual sentence of the background mountains.
“You know what,” he said. “I like this area. I might want a place to live here. So . . .” He moved down toward a clearing near the riverbank. “Why don’t we add a cozy little cabin?”
To anyone watching (except that one fan, of course) the late idea to paint in a cabin appeared just as he intended it: a fun afterthought, a rustic punctuation mark of human habitation that temporarily fulfilled just another of Oliver’s regular Thoreau fantasies.
Truth was, he’d no idea why the idea had felt so urgent, why the impulse to add his cozy little cabin had dizzied through him so primally, as if he’d been walking and, glancing down for the first time, realized he was mere feet from a cliff’s edge and had to pull back.
Standing behind the lights and the camera, Angela looked concerned. He felt paler.
And though not really indicated by the close-up shot, his hand quivered that much more when laying down the roof and the wood panels and the highlights of the cabin. More detailed work always brought to his fingers the apprehensive tremble of his perfectionism—something which, privately, he hoped his live shows would subdue—but this was a colder, graver tremble.
He painted no doors or windows.
“Okay, there we go,” he said, flashing a smile at the camera, then adding his own episode-ending catchphrase: “The world is now that much bigger.”
Yes, one painting bigger. One vision bigger. One unit of beauty bigger.
The Q&A segment began. Callers ringing in from all over, so often lifting his spirit with every accent or strange new name, with the knowledge that he was making his mark, defying all borders and merging something of his spirit and imagination with so many others’.
He fielded three calls before taking hers. One concerned paintbrush sizes, another easel brands, another from London asked why it was that he couldn’t get the snow right on his own “infernal mountains”?
Then came her call. A Joanne Bell. From Twilight Falls, California.
“Hi Ollie,” she said. He noticed Angela’s eyes widen at this unexpected show of familiarity. Only certain family members called him Ollie. “I don’t have much time, really. But I wanted to make sure I got to you quick and clear—”
“Okay.” His brow furrowed.
“I’m very glad you put a cabin in the painting,” said this Joanne Bell from California. “And I’ll bet you’re glad, too.”
Coldness rimmed his organs. He swallowed, his eyes narrowed a little and he maintained his smile. In later reviewing the footage, Oliver thought he actually looked pretty composed.
“I always like putting in those details,” he said. There was no way he could keep the confusion from his voice, which seemed perfectly reasonable—who wouldn’t be confused by the oddball statement?
“The problem is,” Joanne continued, “you need to put a cabin in each of your pieces from now on.”
“I’m a big fan and I don’t want to scare you . . .” Joanne’s voice seemed to volley between wise, middle-aged throatiness and a flightier youthfulness. There was a faint echo on her end. “But the cabin needs to be there. That’s the only thing it’ll recognize.”
“Joanne, I’m n—”
“Oliver,” she said, more forcefully. “It tried to come through you. But you contained it. And it will be contained. As long as the cabin is there.”
“And what is it, exactly?”
No response, only dull electric click. Oliver shook violently now, a condition only worsened by efforts to suppress it. Some alarming, ambiguous truth rampaged within. His outer demeanor remained puzzled yet polite, no more than a twitchy dance of eyebrows and half-grins.
“Thank you, Joanne of California, for the ring,” said Oliver. “I’m so glad you enjoy the show. Let’s go to one more caller here . . . ”
The last question came from Texas, an older man annoyed that “my palm trees never come out as good as yers.” With a chuckle, the caller added, “They always look like dead spiders.”
There was no saying when he awoke that night, because he never really fell asleep. Sleep had deserted him, leaving Oliver only with its mocking shadow, that loose dream-state that was more a brief dimming awareness, lit with the flashes of delirious little movies assembled by his tired, thought-wrung mind.
By two AM, Oliver found himself reanimating a motion he’d successfully stifled for almost a decade, but which right then felt eminently natural. He rose, dressed and left his house for the 7-11, on a tunnel-visioned task to buy a pack of Native Spirits.
He smoked one on the way back.
Only when he saw the porch light of his house again did something of his more conscious self, the Oliver of Today, break through the relapsed automaton and realize that he’d forgotten his phone, that even in her sleep Angela had probably sensed the half-empty bed and woken up and flipped out (a little) and would even smell the smoke on him. Not that she was one to talk, having quit her “only do it with the girls” phase less than two years ago.
But the house remained dark and still. From the living room, he heard Angela grunt in her sleep. The darkness was like overgrowth, swallowing an old, abandoned building.
Second unlit cigarette between his lips, Oliver grabbed his sketchbook and pencils and stepped out onto the back patio, where he hunkered down on the couch swing and stared at the night and, with the click of the lighter, blew smoke at it.
His pencil hovered over the blank page. A muscle twitched in his forearm. Here he was alone, at home, surrounded by night shadow yet Oliver felt transported back to those childhood moments of drawing in public, when the act itself exerted its own gravity, pulling in those passing curious eyes eager to glimpse some unfinished creation.
Something now huddled over him.
With his third cigarette, the automaton took over again, and Oliver began sketching. He hadn’t done faces in a while, and for good reason—they were never his strong suit. Nevermind portraits of actual people. But a good challenging hand-warmer always kept the dust from accumulating.
He drew Angela, best as he could. Or started to, anyway. Like the cigarette run, the choice had not been totally conscious, but the tug of a familiar current to which he found himself surrendering. Almost too easily.
He’d sketched in the basic framework—the spheres, the rough measuring lines—and had begun the features when some dull click in his brain made him pause, brought him to attention that whatever was coming through him or the pencil was not Angela but a thing with larger eyes and a larger mouth that, like an even more odious version of the impish kid who would pry into his drawing sessions to judge or direct, suggested itself in his every movement.
His trembling increased. His arm had become a wind tunnel amidst a hastening gale.
He wrenched his hand to the lower righthand corner of the page, where he quickly sketched the cabin: same height, some angle, no doors or windows. He couldn’t tell if it was exact, of course, and his heart raced thinking that maybe he needed the same materials, the oils, the palette knife, the exact same strokes of the exact same measurements . . .
But, with the cabin crudely finished, all shaded and erect, Oliver’s tremble weakened.
The cork in place.
Ash from the burning cigarette in his lips crumbled onto the page and slid off onto his lap. He shut the sketchbook, removed the cigarette and breathed.
Angela stared at him from across the kitchen island, over the steam of her morning coffee. Perched on his stool, Oliver’s gaze was mostly sunk in his bowl of soggy cornflakes.
“You believe that weird caller?” she asked.
“It’s not about believing. It’s . . . feeling. You saw me.” He shoved a dripping spoonful into his mouth. “You told me I looked pale toward the end and I told you why.”
“Ollie.” Angela snorted. “Part of you never crawled out from under the bed. Mostly I find that endearing and I even love that about you. But—”
“Something took hold of me. Even before she called. I’ve never had a panic attack, I don’t think, but I imagine it was on that scale. It was like a voiceless voice and it said, Stop it it’s coming stop it’s coming stop—”
“I know. I get it.” Angela set down her coffee and crossed her arms. “All right, now I’m about to sound a little out there, but—what if she put those thoughts in your head? Before calling?”
Oliver studied her. “You mean, like telepathy?”
“Maybe. Or something more, I don’t know, technical. Aren’t there ways to focus sounds at people now? Like those Americans in Cuba that got sick that weird sound no one else heard.”
Oliver shrugged, munched his cereal though he had no appetite. “Nothing about this feels technical. I feel cursed. In some . . . medieval way. And I don’t know why. Or what.”
Angela leaned forward on the counter. He saw in her eyes a certain caution he realized he’d not seen since their first date.
“And what’s the deal from here on out?” she said. Her tone bothered him. It was cool, a little exasperated. The tone of a metal-boned businesswoman annoyed that the assembly worker’s severed arm might dare delay the product. “Do you just paint woodland scenes with cabins? They didn’t have cabins in Atlantis. And you can’t exactly put cabins in your coral reef pieces. Or . . .” She leaned up, crossed her arms again. With a crack of humanity in her voice again, she said, “You stop the show, and stop painting?”
He bussed his half-finished bowl to the kitchen sink.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want that.”
That afternoon, Oliver shut himself in his studio. He mounted a blank canvas and stared at it. Just days ago, the blankness would thrill and terrify him, in that exalted, sublime way he imagined skiers felt when gazing down an unblemished alpine run. Now the terror had crashed to earth, become a primordial thing that oozed and crawled.
And yet, the urge to paint, to draw, to reproduce himself artistically, had not diminished. It almost seemed to have grown, gaining heat in its own springtime fever. A heightened lust to engage and to spread.
In the righthand corner, he painted a cabin. Same size, same angle. He inhaled.
In regarding the rest of the canvas, Oliver felt lightened. The unholy terror had lifted away once more to the realm of that sublime thrill-terror. The blankness was his again. And so, brush in hand, he began skating and skipping and swirling across it, becoming both watcher and doer.
He made a costal landscape, pine trees arrayed along a rocky beach, weathered cliffs sloping away into curling, crashing waves. The cabin was clearly not an organic part of it. But—had it freed him? Could he pass it off, in time, as just a quirky signature?
Oliver resented that he was even standing here doing and thinking all this. Why?
What had he done?
Biting his lower lip, he stared at the cabin. Something . . . bulged there, but not physically. There was a stirring that he could almost feel on a distinct, vibrational level.
With a mix of anger, curiosity and a burst of perhaps undue confidence, Oliver grabbed his palette knife, scraped up a sliver of yellow and leaned into the outer wall of the cabin—where, after a brief pause, he added a small, glowing window.
He recoiled a little. Watched. What breath he was holding he released in small, hiccupping sputters. Testing. Yes. Cautious. Reserving some in case—
Oliver wasn’t sure how long he looked at his yellow dab of a window. The edge of his vision clouded over, some timeless fog encroaching on his senses, his seconds.
Eventually, he turned to wipe off the knife and wash the brushes. He almost didn’t want to look again. But he did.
A tiny silhouette stared from the window. He could see nothing but the circular head and shoulders. He felt its gaze.
Shaking, he grabbed the palette knife, cut a line of brown and scraped out the window.
Then he hurried out the studio.
That she came from a small city—or large town, as it were—Oliver considered a hopeful sign. She was easy to find. There was only one Joanne Bell in Twilight Falls, California.
It had been a week since he’d set foot in his studio, the days a sludgy tide of Netflix and YouTube binging, solo hikes and smoking (about which Angela said nothing, as if long resigned to the habit’s return), all blurred at the edges by a buildup of harried thoughts, willed distractions to outrun deeper thoughts, and the growing itch to paint.
Across social media, Angela made the announcement that Youngscapes would be going on hiatus. It was Oliver’s idea to make a video of himself saying the same thing, to assuage any concerns he might be sick.
Though he did feel ill.
Less than ten minutes into Google and he had Bell’s phone number, the one listed, anyway. He spent several more whiskey-smeared minutes following her name into Facebook, where, again, the Twilight Falls signifier made for an easy trail.
As expected, she was an older woman, maybe early sixties, with gray curls and a melancholic smile. Oliver recognized her banner image as a version of a tropical waterfall grotto he’d presented on Youngscsapes maybe eight months ago. By the looks of it, she was pretty good. A little heavy-handed, but lightness came with practice.
She hadn’t updated in over a month, and the top posts all appeared to be from other people.
. . . praying for you . . .
. . . in my thoughts every night . . .
. . . so wrong and so weird . . .
. . . ♥♥♥ . . .
He made his way down and found a post from a Diana Bell, blonde and visibly younger: Thank you for all the support re: Mom. She’s still in stable condition. I visit every other day and read to her as the docs think that helps (have heard that too). I think it does but may just be convincing myself. Doug and the kids come w/ me as much as they can. Trevor plays his flute for her.
Scrolling further, Oliver came across a link to a GoFundMe campaign for “Joanne Bell’s Medical Expenses.” A foreboding gathered around his mind which he tried to ignore. Diana Bell, presumably her daughter, had also posted a batch of Joanne’s paintings—all landscapes, some direct copies or deviations of Youngscapes canvases, others more original. Multiple people had “liked” and “loved” and commented on the pictures.
. . . She loved her art. Was getting so good, too! . . .
. . . I remember during a picnic how she had to stop eating and sketch . . .
. . . Hopefully she’ll be able to paint again . . .
One comment asked: She has more recent stuff, right?
To which Diana had replied: She does. But I’ve decided not to post them. She became weirdly obsessed with doing cottages. Kept polluting her pictures with them and I wouldn’t be able to say why. That was the first weird thing I noticed (though I didn’t realize how crazy it had gotten) and I’m positive it had something to do with her current condition but we’re all clueless. MRI and stuff were clean.
Heart pounding, Oliver scrolled down and saw a post from Diana Bell from just over a month ago.
All friends and family: my mom Joanne is in the hospital. She is in a coma. Hard for me to even type those words. No one is sure what happened. It’s a mystery because I know some of you were concerned since she kind of stopped posting here (she always loved posting her art) and truth be told I noticed odd behavior leading up to this but so far doctors aren’t sure what caused her coma. They are thinking of transferring her to UCSF.
Only when it reached a certain threshold of bloodletting pain did Oliver realize he was biting his lower lip, and that a thousand muscles in his body were aching and taut. He kept scrolling.
He was both heartened and horrified to stumble across his own face, smiling back at him from what turned out to be the last thing Joanne herself had shared—the 24th episode of Youngscapes.
Smoking and pacing his backyard, Oliver waited four rings before she picked up.
“Call me Oliver,” he said. “Or Ollie.”
“Okay.” Diana Bell sounded curt, guarded. Understandable. He was used to this demeanor now. Angela had affected it every day since they’d pre-empted the show.
“I appreciate you talking to me,” he said.
“It’s not big deal. You were one of Mom’s favorite artists. Or channels, I guess. Thank you again for the kind words.”
“Sure.” The meat of the discussion, the very reason why they were on the phone together, grew thick and smoky and vortex-like between them. “So, I’m assuming you watched the episode I sent you?”
“I did.” There was a shudder-breathed pause. “I don’t know what to tell you. It certainly sounds exactly like my mom. Even though . . .”
Even though, Oliver’s brain finished, she was in a coma by then.
“Something was wrong with her, leading up to it all,” said Diana. “I feel cheated of closure, of any kind of explanation. What particularly disturbed me about what . . . ‘she’ said, I guess, to you was that she herself had started painting—”
“Uh huh. She was sort of a closet Thomas Kinkade fan. She liked nature, but also her quaint comforts. She even talked of retiring to some nice mountain cottage around here, near the redwoods somewhere. So she loved to paint her fantasy.” Diana signed, a long sigh that contained the last few weeks. “And I thought she was getting obsessed with it. She would always have a cottage in her art, even if it didn’t make sense. And she started adding more. Two, three. I didn’t really understand at the time how crazy it got.”
Flicking ash from his cigarette, Oliver watched the embers spark out and fade in the wet grass. “What do you mean, ‘crazy’?”
Another pause. Oliver thought he could hear the hum of her hesitation.
“It’d be easier if I just showed you,” Diana said. “Mind if I send you a few photos?”
His stomach tightened. “No, go ahead.”
He put the phone on speaker and watched the screen, waiting, dragging long and slow on the cigarette, the smoke obscuring his vision and he thought how that might be good and that he ought to just hang up and even turn off the phone and put it away for now and then forever.
A text arrived. Then another.
He drew in a mouthful of smoke and held it as he opened the first text. It contained a picture of a canvas leaning against a wall—high cliffs, distant snowy peaks, pine trees.
And three identical cottages, in a row.
The second picture: a marshland piece, with six cottages arrayed across the bank.
Third picture: three open sketchbooks, littered with the same cottage, some in pencil, others ink, one in charcoal.
Fourth picture: no canvas, no sketchbook. Just a shot of a bedroom, its partially empty bookshelves, a dresser and a lone mattress and a glowing lamp throwing light on—
The walls. Where the cottage was everywhere. Manic wallpaper put up one repeating image at a time. The room felt like a braiding of determination and despair, the sweat-stride of prey running from pursuing jaws but deep down knowing the inevitable. It had the futility of someone trying to plug up every pore on their body, lest something get in.
But there were too many pores.
The weeks became months. Oliver increasingly felt like he was holding back a train. The desire to paint, to sketch, to doodle, to release something, anything, thickened in his veins, emotional plaque that even seemed to assimilate other more bodily desires—to the point that all of him became just a vessel for the passage of breath and the swelling press of this drive.
Though they had a decent amount of money in the bank, Angela insisted they both get “at least part-time jobs, if you want to piss away all we’ve built.” By the third month, the fight had drained from Oliver, and he no longer responded to such comments.
He actually came to appreciate the distraction of looking for work. Though he took walks a couple times a day, which became multiple times a day, he had begun to feel useless and imprisoned. Funny, too, since, by the metric of sheer hours, he’d spent more time in his home when doing Youngscapes. But he had escapes then: magic brush rides into beautiful, fantastical Elsewheres that fulfilled him. Regular liaisons with his muse.
Surprisingly, he and Angela had more frequent sex. It was release, some kind, anyway, but the mood was different—disconnected and temperamental.
It was normally sometime in the post-coital hour, with the sweat cooling and aches subsiding, that Angela brought up nostalgia for Youngscapes and her desire to bring it back. “I still go through the socials,” she said. “You got lots of fans waiting for you.”
Oliver landed a part-time job at Hartmann’s Market, two districts over. Mildly concerned about being recognized, even though it had only happened once, he considered asking that they not put him on cashier duty, yet he kept quiet.
A little over a week into the new job, Oliver burst from bed, consumed with the dream that had visited him. He’d been painting, as free and unencumbered as he’d been since that first time in his parents’ garage when he was five. The endeavor had seemed wildly, dangerously unhinged, creations run amuck, world after vivid world.
“The cabin,” he muttered half-consciously. He had to tame all the creation, otherwise it might slip through. Spill out.
He had managed to stumble down most of the hallway when the first bit of awareness struck him.
Where are you going?
By the time he’d woken up, he found himself poised over the kitchen island, elbows on the cold tile and pencil in his hand, quivering above a blank notepad. It took another few lugubrious seconds to convince himself he’d not actually drawn or painted anything. At that point, he’d done nothing in nearly half a year.
The clock read 3:36 AM. He didn’t sleep that night, and called in sick to work the next day.
That afternoon, he received a call from Hartmann’s manager, a pockmarked guy named Blake who Oliver wasn’t sure was younger than he, and didn’t want to find out.
“Hey Oliver,” Blake said. “Sorry, I know you’re under the weather, but I just found out about your YouTube channel. Holy cow! Amazin’!”
He frowned, tried to keep his voice lighthearted. “Who spilled the beans?”
“A customer. Regular. She recognized you, asked if it was you.”
“It’s me. I guess.”
“Amazin’! Listen, I won’t bother you further, but given this new info, how would you like to do some in-store murals for us? Same pay. But it would be your main focus. No stocking, no cash registers, nothing. For as long as it takes.”
Oliver bit his lower lip. “Could I do what I wanted?”
“Well, within reason, sure. Why don’t you and I chat about it tomorrow, during lunch?”
Closing his eyes, Oliver said, “Yeah. Um, sure.”
“Amazin’!” said Blake. “See you then.”
He dreaded sleep that night, but was pleasantly surprised to be granted five hours’ worth. Few dreams came to him, at least those he remembered, though on waking around dawn Oliver had the vague impression of light flares in darkness, like muzzle-flashes across some deeper trench in his mind, and some thunderous thing strengthening.
“There’s our resident arteest!” Blake said, arms outspread as he leaned back almost dangerously in his desk chair. Oliver stood in the doorway of the man’s office. “Sit down. Let’s rap.”
Oliver sat on the edge of the office’s only other chair.
“First things first,” said Blake. Grinning with awareness of his own goofy positivity, he pushed a blank paper and pen over to Oliver. “I’m sorry to be like this, but you gotta give me a little sketch, and sign it. So I can retire well-off.”
Taking the pen in hand, Oliver felt the swell of six months of pent-up expression, every urge that had come to him but had not left, forced into slumber but now stirring awake in his bones at this smallest and silliest of requests.
“Doodle whatever you want,” Blake said. “So long as you sign it.”
“Okay.” Oliver touched pen to paper. “How about, um, a little cabin?”
Blake blinked. “Like in the woods? Sure. Whatever.”
Oliver drew the cabin. Though rusty, his muscles had not forgotten their motion. Some small pressure lifted, but it was like a passage in fog, quick to be swallowed once more. His hand hovered over the paper.
Blake glanced over. “Did you sign it?”
His hand trembled. “I will.”
“The world is that much bigger now,” Blake said. “That’s what you always say, right?”
“You okay, man? You look kinda pale. Still sick?”
With the best grin he could muster, Oliver said, “Let me add one more.”
A writer since age six, Mike Robinson is the award-winning author of ten books, including the dark fantasy trilogy Enigma of Twilight Falls and the short story collection Too Much Dark Matter, Too Little Gray. His work has sold to Audible, and his short fiction has appeared in over twenty outlets. A lifelong resident of Los Angeles, he is a charter member of GLAWS (Greater Los Angeles Writers Society) as well as a screenwriter and producer. In between, he is a freelance literary editor, hiker, doodler, tries to play baseball again and keeps his two dogs smiling.
[ issue 7 : summer 2022 ]