This is the beginning of Suicide is for Mortals.
Meliana was the first person I cared to watch in all the years since I died.
She was eye-catching, and in some circles she was even a celebrity, but that wasn’t why she caught my attention.
Every Sunday afternoon, Meliana set up an easel and a couple of chairs outside the restaurant where her roommate waited tables, and she made portraits in pastels for anyone who offered to pay $50 for her work.
She had to charge that much, while most other artists around the area charged more like $20, because the other artists threatened to hire someone to break her arms if she didn’t set her prices far above theirs. This is highly atypical behavior of struggling visual artists, but it was widely agreed in the artistic community that there was no such thing as a fair competition with Meliana Lucas. She had been making art, and I mean well-rendered, beautiful art, since she was less than three years old. Her portraits were the most thoughtfully realistic, judiciously detailed of any artwork one could buy from a chair-and-easel entrepreneur on the street, and all laid out with her trademark preternatural effortlessness. Even with her prices set more than twice that of her competition, it was not unusual to see customers lining up to sit in her chair.
All this is not to say that the other portrait artists disliked Meliana; they wished her no harm, but they also saw it as axiomatic that certain adjustments had to be made where she was concerned to ensure that mere mortals, the ones who had to spend years honing their rendering skills, would not be left invisible. For her part, Meliana saw it as a sensible agreement: she fixed her prices to scare off the bargain customers, and her fellow artists showed up at her gallery installations and congratulated her on yet another job fabulously done.
They had no idea what it meant to be invisible.
Meliana was admittedly the least invisible of them all. It was impossible not to notice her as she walked around town between her studio and her apartment. She was extremely tall, for one thing, but missing the self-consciousness that affects most tall women, moving about on her Amazonian frame just as unapologetically as a much smaller woman, with her sweet face and enviable mane of hair visible over the heads of nearly everyone else on the street. Watching her go about her uniquely charmed life, she often seemed disconnected from reality and oblivious to her surroundings, but always good-natured and cheerful. One might get the impression, without getting to know her, that she was mentally sub-normal, but in fact she was highly intelligent. She had no regard for how anyone viewed her, was more concerned with making art than getting credit, and made no judgments on anyone else’s esthetic tastes.
I soon realized that I liked to watch Meliana because she was the exact opposite of a politician. My career having been what it was, and with the way it had shaped the last years of my life, she was the most refreshing change of pace I could have wished to find.
I normally backed off when she was at home or working in her studio, but I made a habit of watching her do those portraits on Sunday afternoons. She was knowingly in a public place and looking for business from passersby, so surely she wouldn’t object if some ghost decided to observe her at her craft. It also helped that in the unshaded outdoors in the afternoon, the sun was bright enough that I had no worries of any mortals noticing anything outside of their understanding. I had never come across anyone since my death who could realistically see a ghost, or even knew the reality of my attenuated existence, but I didn’t want to cause any ambiguity or confusion while Meliana was at work.
It was early April when she had gathered a crowd of around four people to watch her, possibly thinking about whether to purchase her services for themselves, while she served a 40-year-old woman who wanted a portrait to frame for her mother. There was indeed something captivating about watching Meliana make art. I positioned myself right in front of her, just slightly to the right of her customer, and watched her face while she put color on paper. She worked quickly, but not with the least hurry. She was ambidextrous, using a different color pastel in each hand to apply the under-layer in a blank corner and a top layer in an area already covered. Her facial expression suggested a fugue state, like there could be nothing else on her mind besides the picture taking shape in front of her. The way her hands moved about the board reminded me of a cat’s kneading paws. She went into a different world while she made the portrait, and that world was the most natural place for her to be.
When she finished a portrait, she usually rejoined the citizens of Earth with a cheery smile and showed the result to her customer. This time, she sat back in her chair and with a frown, said, “This is odd.”
Her customer stood up and joined the handful of bystanders behind her to examine the anomalous artwork. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
“There’s this shadow here,” Meliana said, pointing to an area towards the right edge of the paper, where a mostly transparent, unfocused, though still human face could be seen. “If you just give me a few minutes, I’ll fix it.”
“No, don’t do that, it’s perfect,” said her customer, digging into her purse for the necessary cash. “I love it just as it is.”
As Meliana sprayed the board with fixative and covered it in a black trash bag for her satisfied patron, I floated above the crowd, no longer seeing the mortals who negotiated who had the next turn in the subject’s chair. I had underestimated Meliana. She was not just some bliss-headed prodigy who viewed sleep, meals and hygiene as obligatory chores to do between paintings and sculptures. She had the eye to see ghosts.
I needed to learn more about her.