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Featured Story II • April 2018 • Mythic Delirium Books

Featured Story II • April 2018



Graffiti Guardians


A. T. Greenblatt


Something’s eating at the city, that much he knows. But it takes a special type of crazy boldness to sneak out in middle of the night to fight a monster you can’t see. Adwin definitely isn’t brave, and he’s pretty sure he isn’t crazy either.

Yet here he is, rushing down the night-quiet street, cans of spray paint rattling like guilty reminders from inside his messenger bag, keeping time with his quick steps. There’s a tension haunting the spaces between buildings tonight, clinging to the sticky, still, summer air, something most people don’t notice even though they walk these streets and call it home. But Adwin notices, and every car alarm, yowling cat, and raised voice is making him jump. He just hopes that the lies he needed to tell to sneak out of his apartment tonight are worth it. He hopes that maybe, in the morning, he’ll find the right words to explain this all to Dmitri.

But right now, there’s a silent monster roaming the city, and though Adwin has never seen it and doesn’t know exactly what it is, he can’t pretend not to see the damage. The blocks full of empty houses and empty people. Like a parasite has gorged on their insides but kept the façade intact. And lately, that emptiness has been spreading.

So Adwin hurries. Sweat drips down the small of his back, but he keeps the hood of his sweater up and his hands clenched around his messenger bag. In the distance, colossal cargo boats and cruise ships sit idle at port, bobbing and looming, and the smell of algae-laced freshwater grows stronger as he nears the docks. There are stories about the ships that come to this city, the City of Colors. Sure, they bring merchandise, travelers, and good business, but sometimes things that should have never left their home slip out from those deep hulls.

Adwin tries not to think about the boats or all the excuses he gave Dmitri about not being artistic enough for magic. Or when he and Dmitri sit on the piers and he fumbles and fails to find words for how the city’s moods haunt him.

I’ll make it up to him, Adwin thinks as he picks up his pace. Tonight, I will make a better guardian.

There are other painted guardians, of course, and he passes a few along the way; vast, beautiful graffiti eagles and wolves sprawled across the sides of buildings. Bright spray-painted protectors made by other unknown artists. Some wink and flick their ears at him in salute as he hurries by. Some stamp their colorful feet and paws, restlessly. They feel the city’s nervousness too. And there are not nearly enough of them to keep all the monsters at bay.

Especially not enough to go up against a monster that eats its victims from the inside out.

In his hurry, Adwin doesn’t notice the person huddled in a gray and brown heap on the sidewalk until he almost steps on them. He doesn’t realize what they are right away.

“Crap! S-sorry,” he says, sidestepping quickly and almost tripping again. The spray cans rattle obnoxiously from his bag, sounding out like an alarm, loud and harsh on the deserted street.

The person on the sidewalk says nothing. Slowly, they straighten. Slowly, they lift their face and turn to look at Adwin, and Adwin inhales sharply. In the space of their sockets, where their eyes should be, there is only blackness. And beyond the blackness, there is nothing left at all.

They give Adwin a toothy smile and it is full of hunger.

Adwin recoils, stumbling back. He knows he should spray a rough little guardian on the sidewalk at their feet, just in case there is a shred of their old selves left to save. But his hands are shaking too badly. Instead, Adwin peels one of Dmitri’s bright bracelets from his wrist, the type Dmitri sells to tourists, containing hints of colorful magic to keep the wearer safe, and drops it on the sidewalk by the empty person.

Then he runs. And runs. And runs.

Adwin arrives at his destination—a great, freshly painted white wall—panting. There’s a stitch in his side and sweat runs in rivulets down his face.

Oh God, what am I doing out here? he thinks. He’s supposed to be the responsible one; the steady, good-job type of guy. The person you put on adoption papers as the “provider,” who doesn’t threaten everything by sneaking out at night, only to crawl back into bed right before dawn. If Dmitri wasn’t such a sound sleeper, Adwin wouldn’t be able to pull this off.

Each morning, right before he slips back into their bed, Adwin stands in the doorway looking down at the person he loves most. And he wants to tell him about these spray-paint escapades. But by the time Dmitri wakes up, Adwin has meticulously scrubbed the telling paint off his hands. Next time, he promises himself. Next time you’ll tell him. You’ll find the right words. Know for sure.

Because truthfully, Adwin’s not certain if his art is making a difference. He’s never seen his own guardians come to life. These midnight painting sessions are guesswork and half-formed sentences. A calling at best. A desperate prayer at worst. The only reason he knows graffiti guardians are possible is because other artists have created them.

But you have to try something, he reminds himself as he pulls out his cans of spray paint and faces the wall. You can’t keep ignoring this.

It’s the tension that haunts him. Not just in the city, but a distance that’s grown between him and Dmitri, even when they sit side by side. It started with the empty houses in their neighborhood and empty people that began to huddle on the street. They talked about moving, but they both loved the city too much to leave. The emptiness would probably follow, anyway. Monsters like these don’t just go away.

So they stay, but the adoption papers on their dining room table stayed half filled.

“We need your help,” Adwin whispers to the dark and quiet city, almost wishing someone would hear him. “I need your help.”

Adwin eases his sleeves up and shakes the cans of paint. He has made so many fumbles, told so many lies, but right now, he can only try to repair the damage.

When Adwin paints, he never knows what he will create—he can only spray the first line and see. From there, all he can do is trust his hands. There’s already a guardian on the wall. His efforts just bring it to the surface.

He paints in the colors of his favorite guardians, Dmitri’s lips and bright hair, the vibrancy of the city. In the hues of his hopes and frustrations, his failures and desperate wishes, colors that don’t have names, that shouldn’t appear from simple blue, green, and red cans. But they do.

And the graffiti bear takes form.

It’s the largest painting he’s ever created: four arm spans long, and if he stands on his toes, he can just finish the arc of its graceful back.

But instinct tells him he’s not working fast enough. The city’s nervousness is swelling, with every line and new color. When Adwin stops painting for a moment to roll his stiffening shoulders, even the thickest hairs on his arms are standing straight up.

A glass shatters not too far away.

He turns, strains to see something in the darkness. Down the alley, the streetlights flicker and then go out. The weeds growing between cracks in the pavement shiver though there’s no wind. Something’s coming; Adwin feels it though the street looks the same as before. There’s an emptiness of warmth and companionship. There’s a hunger, and Adwin can sense its fingers reaching out to him. Slowly, he raises the spray can he’s holding and presses his thumb down on the nozzle.

Blue paint mists in front of him and settles on something inches away. The monster before him has a face, but all Adwin can see is the columns and columns of its fine, needle-thin teeth.

Adwin opens his mouth to scream, but his voice fails him. He tries to squeeze the spray can in his hand, but he hears it clatter to the sidewalk.

The monster grins. It is hungry. It reaches out and touches him, and for a moment, Adwin feels impossibly warm. Then icy. Then hollow.

Then Adwin feels nothing at all.

He cannot move. He doesn’t want to move, though he feels himself slipping away. Except there’s a giant colorful paw reaching up over his shoulder. It’s shoving the monster away.

Adwin turns, and when he sees the painting on the wall, he feels his jaw go slack.

The graffiti bear is still a mess of wet paint and fumes. But it’s huge, angry, and very much alive. Its vivid colors shift and swirl as it rears up on its hind legs and growls at the empty monster.

The fight is fast and vicious. The new guardian moves so quickly it looks like it’s vibrating. It’s impossible to tell who’s winning and who’s being destroyed. Adwin knows he should run. Yet he’s rooted in place, watching in horror. In wonder.

At first, the fight is surprisingly fair and it stretches on, second after brutal second. But the bear is still too new, its paint still too glossy and wet, while its enemy is old and patient. His guardian is slowing down, its colors becoming blurred. The empty monster, exploiter of weaknesses, opens its oversized mouth with its many, many teeth, and lunges.

In one desperate lunge, in a quick swirl of colors, the guardian slams down a massive paw and snaps its maw around something. And though Adwin can’t see anything but the monster’s teeth, he hears it being torn apart.

The monster screams for a long time. The sound will haunt Adwin’s dreams for weeks.

Finally, the bear wrangles a good angle and slams a massive paw down again. Something snaps. Then abruptly, stunningly, the night is silent once more.

For many seconds, neither Adwin nor the guardian move, just blink at each other. The bear is dripping paint. Its outline swells and shrinks like it’s panting. But it stares straight at Adwin, its whorl eyes twinkling as if to say “Now are you convinced?”

Adwin has never been good at putting feelings into words. But this is the sort of magic that he’s been praying for, the type of victory that makes art in the City of Colors worthwhile, despite the monsters.

“Thank you,” he whispers, and the bear bobs its massive head.

“Go,” its eyes say. “Come back.”

Adwin nods and gathers up his paint cans, his hands shaking with exhaustion. With excitement. It’ll be risky to come back so soon to the place he has repurposed with graffiti, while the colorful proof of guilt is still on his skin. But Dmitri’s worth the risk. Their future family is worth the risk.

So, in the morning, when he returns home, Adwin won’t scrub the paint from his fingers. Instead, he’ll take Dmitri by the hand and lead him through the sleepy city to the bear. Chances are, he won’t find the right words to explain all this to Dmitri.

That’s okay, though. This time, he’s sure he won’t need to.



A. T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia, where she’s well acquainted with all four seasons and is known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as other fine places. You can find her online at http://atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt.

About this tale, she wrote, “Most of my stories set in cities are influenced by my travels. In the case of ‘Graffiti Guardians’ it was a mixture of the atmosphere and street art of Tel Aviv and the vivid colors the buildings in the Bahamas. The city in this story is neither of these places, but a little of both.

“I wrote ‘Graffiti Guardians’ during a slump in my writing career, where I was questioning if spending night after night hunched over my laptop was worth it, if any of it was making a difference. I needed a rally cry, a reminder that art has a mind of its own and there’s no way of knowing what it will do when it’s out there in the world. Because most of the time, the things you create have more power than you think.

“It was an important thing to remember back then. It’s especially important now.”



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