***"Tag" was inspired by Wendig's flash fiction challenge (he does those a lot on his blog, so if you need writing prompts, you should follow him. That and all the other good advice stuff about the writing and the things.***
Spray painting on the walls, even the unused ones, was illegal in the city. Painting on anything other than assigned surfaces was outlawed. Once outside the perimeter, the ground outside was okay. But sometimes it killed the grasses. Taj found that the trunks of trees, big trees, worked very well when rocks of decent size couldn’t be found.
He pulled the cheap paper mask over his dirty blonde hair and fastened it to his young face. It wasn’t great, but he’d had to use rags before, or just pull his shirt over his mouth and nose.
Time was up and any more minutes wasted looking for a better spot meant his picture wouldn’t happen, so Taj had picked the first fat-enough tree he’d come across. Another artist had been here before. There was a tag at the spot of the tree where the branches began to sprout off. It was just a name in bright yellow. “Dutch” was written in a beautiful yellow script. He didn’t like the idea of using someone else’s workspace, but he wasn’t going to let any time free of the city get wasted.
He set his backpack on the ground and all the cans of colors rattled. The canvas could be changed to anything, but he knew what he wanted to do and had sketched it many times just before falling asleep each night. It was what he’d seen in his father’s telescope last winter-the giant planet. Mostly green and surrounded by bright blue moons that extended out almost like an arm, waving. Space backgrounds were easy to make beautiful with lots of soft strokes over black and spattering white paint with a dry brush for stars. Taj used a stencil for the planet and moons, though. It was too hard to get things perfectly round on tree trunks or rocks.
The sun was close to setting and he forced himself to call it finished. Taj began to stack the cans back into his backpack. He didn’t have time to clear out the nozzles. He could do that back at home.
“That’s a good job. That’s an excellent job,” Someone said, a deep male voice. But there was nobody there. Taj hadn’t seen, hadn’t heard, or even felt anyone approach. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard unidentified voices. He shook it off and began to walk away while pulling off his mask and trying to put it into his too-small pocket.
“Goodbye, then. Will you come ‘round to paint any more pictures?”
“No, I can’t use the same spots again, I waste time looking for things, things to paint on,” Taj said before he could stop himself. The voice sounded friendly, needy almost. It broke his heart not to answer it.
“Oh, well. It was nice of you to do this one for me, anyway.”
“You?” Taj looked around.
“Yes, I know artists don’t do pictures just for trees. But it’s nice to have. We get to keep them for a long, long time, usually.”
“Trees?” Taj doubled back and looked at his artwork and to make sure he’d heard right.
“Here, if I won’t see you again,” the tree’s longest branch twisted around and dropped two things at Taj’s sneakered feet; a round and fat purple plum, and a tiny, hand-sized kite that looked like a spaceship. It had knots in the string. And twelve was almost too old to be flying kites, but Taj picked them both up anyway.
“My name is Dutch.” The tree looked as if it bowed.
“That’s your name written there, then? Who painted that?”
“Another boy. Well, he isn’t a boy anymore. Hasn’t been for some time. But he traveled out here and wrote our names for us,” the tree said. It was shaking playfully back and forth. “The plum isn’t mine, I’m too large to be a plum-grower. But it was a gift from a friend. The kite I accidentally took from someone, but they never came back to get it. I think it’s better you have it.”
“Yes, that’s fine then. Thank you.” Taj said.
“You’re very nice.”
“People say that a lot,” Taj said, “I have to go now, though. Nobody can come back into the city after dark. Kids aren’t supposed to be here at all, but sometimes they let us.”
“I’ve been here for hundreds of years. Nothing at all has happened to me. Except for my lovely paintings,” The tree said.
“Yes, but you’re not a boy.” Taj knew enough to walk away. The tree kept talking. Taj only waved to be polite and then ran back toward the tall white walls of home. When checking back into the city, he handed the toy and the fruit to the new officer with the long brown hair who was working the kiosk. Taj tried to avoid handing the same officers dangerous stuff too often. They would end up restricting his outside time for his own good.
“The tree gave this to you?” the officer asked, “You didn’t take a bite of this or anything else, right?”
“No ma’am,” Taj said.
“I don’t know about the toy, it looks okay. But this is poison,” She held the round purple fruit up to Taj’s face for a moment before finding a clear bag to place it in. “It looks like you’ve found another aggressive area. Do you have a minute to fill out paperwork on where you were exactly before you head home? It’s important. Other kids could go out there and get hurt.” The officer was already standing up like she knew Taj wouldn’t refuse. “For the life of me, I don’t know why you kids don’t just use regular canvas and paper for your art. This gets more dangerous every year,” She said, putting her hand on his shoulder.
“I know. But it’s not the same,” Taj said. He shifted his backpack and the spray cans rattled together like strange bells.
Thanks to the photographers on Unsplash for the images used in the artwork- Aleksander Naug
Watch this if you have never heard of All Hallow's Read and think you might want to celebrate.