For Rachel Maddow, who points to the past when searching for answers to the present and future.
And for all journalists who refuse to stop asking questions.
About the Author
Books by Joelle Charbonneau
About the Publisher
My stool creaks in the slate-gray silence. I stretch, then turn once again to stare at the partially finished canvas.
A single desk lamp bathes the picture in a soft light. Shadows dance outside of the light’s glow as I attempt to imagine what my mother was creating when she placed the geometric lines on the canvas over an ash-black background. Some of them, around the edge of the canvas, are thick and strong. Others move at a diagonal and seem to fade into the empty white area in the center of the work, as if disappearing into some mysterious place that only an artist could understand. Some lines at the edge are silver. The ones in the center are a burnished gold. Small red stars in the corners of the image make me believe there would have been more color had Mom had more time.
Now it is up to me to take the next step.
Looking down at the screen in my hand, I pick up my stylus and begin to draw on the copy I made of my mother’s work, just as I have done every single day of the last eleven weeks and six days. I extend the lines—add detail. Match the color of red she used with one from my palette and begin once again to draw.
Sunlight creeps through the windows of my mother’s studio, telling me that the time to get ready for school is approaching. But I don’t move. Not yet. I stay seated on the rickety stool my mother had set up for me years ago when I begged to be allowed to watch her wield her brushes against canvas—a medium no longer used by artists but one my mother refused to completely abandon for electronic screens and the high-tech accessories that could do everything the tools on her desk did.
They can’t do everything, I remember her telling me as she frowned into my eyes. The things on the screen aren’t real. What we can touch—that’s real.
Maybe I should have asked what she meant. Or maybe she should have just told me why she was spending so many late nights in this room using tools the rest of the country had discarded to create images that are impossible to understand. If she had been clearer, maybe I wouldn’t be here right now trying to finish this painting for her.
I push a strand of hair that has escaped my ponytail out of my eyes and return to my sketch, working from the edges inward. I add a door in the empty space my mother left in the center of the work. The door is partially opened, as if waiting for someone to push it and walk through.
Over half my attempts have this door. Although until now the entryway has been closed. This time, without thinking, I painted it open. Does that mean something?
Streams of golden sunlight through Mom’s studio window chase the rest of the shadows away. I layer color and shading until finally, I cock my head to the side and study my efforts.
The image is . . . interesting. If I brought it to my art class today, Mrs. Rudoren would certainly praise my talent, something my mother rarely did. In the middle of the other geometric lines, the entryway seems almost otherworldly with the slight arch I have added at the top and the light coming from somewhere inside. The picture is the most compelling of the dozens upon dozens I have created thus far, with the red patch on the side acting almost like a warning to keep someone from walking through my door.
And still, I know it’s wrong.
I punch the erase feature on the screen. My part of the image disappears in a blink. As if it never existed. But my mother’s work remains. She’s gone, but that is what is left of her, and that’s all that’s left to me.
I rub my eyes, pick up my stylus, and touch it to the center of the screen to begin again. Wait. . . .
A persistent beeping sound echoes from above me. I slide off the stool and hurry through the door of my mother’s studio, into the hall, and toward the stairs. I’ve been so busy working on the puzzle of Mom’s painting that I lost track of the time.
The beeping gets louder with each step. The fact that it doesn’t stop before I reach the landing tells me exactly what I will find as I step across the threshold of my parents’ room.
My nose wrinkles.
The wailing of the alarm continues.
I step on a crumpled shirt and kick aside a pair of wadded-up gray trousers as I pad across the light blue carpet toward the nightstand. A push of a button and the room goes blissfully silent, but a look at the clock’s display tells me I have spent far more time in my mother’s studio than I’d intended. My father isn’t the only one who is going to be late at this rate.
“Dad,” I say, turning toward the bed to where my father still sleeps. His breathing is raspy. His dark, normally wavy hair is plastered against his head. The mouth that once so quickly curled into smiles is mashed against a dark blue spot on the pillow, and a large, empty go cup rests next to one of his hands.
“Dad! Get up!” I snap.
He doesn’t move.
“You slept through your alarm,” I say louder. “If you don’t get up now you’re going to be late for work.” And it wouldn’t be the first time.
I stalk across the room and tug open a window to let the fresh, almost-summer air chase the heat and stale smell out of the room.
“Dad!” I yell.
When he snorts and rolls over, I head into his bathroom and turn the shower on. Then I grab a slightly stiff washcloth, run it under ice-cold water from the sink, and stomp back to drop it on his face.
The cold washcloth does the trick. Dad yelps, sits up, and snatches the wet washcloth from his forehead with one hand while knocking the go cup off the bed with the other. The cup rolls under the bed. Dad blinks his puffy red eyes several times before shifting them to look at me.
“The shower is already running. You can’t be late,” I say as I wait for him to swing his legs over the edge of the bed and plant his feet on the floor. If I leave now there is a good chance he’ll just lie back down. It’s happened before.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he says, running a hand through his hair before pushing to his feet. I wait for him to sway, but he’s steady, and despite the swollen redness, his eyes are mostly alert. It’s an improvement over last week. Maybe I should find hope in that. But I’m not ready for hope.
“Be downstairs in fifteen minutes,” I say, heading for my room so I can get myself ready for another day. It takes me half that time to yank on the pair of navy-blue pants and pale yellow shirt that make up my school uniform. I used to hate it, but now I’m grateful for the required sameness. Figuring out what clothes to wear is one less decision I have to make.
I brush my hair, start to pull it neatly back into a ponytail as is my typical style, but one look at my eyes in the mirror has me leaving it loose. Hopefully, the fatigue won’t be as obvious that way.
The smell of coffee hits me as I hurry downstairs and walk into the cozy yellow-and-white kitchen. My father gives me what I’m sure he thinks is a cheerful smile, but it comes across as more than a little desperate. His hair is still wet from the s
hower. His face is shaved and he’s dressed in a blue shirt and gray jacket that I picked up from the cleaner yesterday after school. His eyes still look a little tired, but they are way clearer than they have been in the past few weeks. If I didn’t know better, I would think that he was back to the dad I used to know.
He holds out a green apple—my usual choice for breakfast. A peace offering. I shake my head and grab a banana, even though it has brown patches on the skin.
My father sighs, turns back to the counter, and pours himself a steaming mug of coffee. In an upbeat voice he says, “Only one day left of class and two days of finals before summer break. Has the City Art Program made their decision yet?”
“I don’t know,” I say, taking a seat at the butcher-block table. “I didn’t apply.” I frown at the banana, knowing that picking the thing up means I’ll have to eat it.
“Wait a minute.” Dad sets his mug down on the counter. “Why didn’t you apply? You worked so hard on your portfolio pieces. What happened?”
“You know what happened.”
Mom died and my dad started to drink.
We did what we had to do in order to get from day to day. Those things did not include essay writing and portfolio development.
Before he can try to initiate some kind of father-daughter-heart-to-heart thing, I shove back my chair, spring to my feet, and cross to the garbage. “It’s okay.” I drop the overly ripe banana into the can with a thump and shrug as if it couldn’t possibly matter. “There’s another project I’m working on. I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied this summer without being a part of City Art. And I can always apply next year if someone drops out. So it’s fine,” I lie. “Look, I’ve gotta go.”
“I can give you a ride to school,” Dad offers.
No. He can’t. Not without being late for work. It’s an empty offer and I can see from the slump of his shoulders that I’m not the only one who knows it. More than anything I want to call him out. But I bite back the angry words and instead say, “Rose said she might wait to walk with me. She’ll never forgive me if I don’t show up.” I shift the bag on my shoulder and make a beeline for the back door.
My hand is on the knob when my father says, “Meri, I’m sorry. I should have asked before about City Art. I know your future is on the line and I—I’m screwing it up. I’m trying to do better, it’s just . . .”
I glance over my shoulder. My father looks down at the coffee in his hand so I won’t see the tears. But I see them anyway, and even if I couldn’t I can hear the sorrow thickening his voice when he quietly admits, “I miss her.”
Everything inside me freezes. The red-hot anger I stoke like a life-giving fire suddenly extinguishes, leaving me cold and weak and raw.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t speak.
It’s like the moment I relive every night when I try to fall asleep—the one where the police officers come to the door with their serious, rosy-cold faces and stiff words, telling us about the vehicle that slid on a patch of black ice and couldn’t stop in time.
They were sorry. Everyone was sorry. My friends. My teachers. Our neighbors. The guy behind the counter at the market two streets over. Everyone told me first with their words and now months later with a shake of the head how sorry they were that the person who drove the vehicle too fast during a spring snow was alive and well and my mother, who had simply been standing on the sidewalk in front of a potential new design project, was dead.
We’re all sorry. So what? It doesn’t change a damn thing.
“I’ll see you tonight.” I yank the door open and head outside, clinging to the anger that once again sparks inside me. I hate the pain my father is in. I hate that I understand why he drinks, and I hate knowing that if I didn’t force him out of bed every morning he would drink himself into oblivion to forget what we have lost.
His work gave him two weeks off after the accident, and people looked the other way for the month after as Dad showed up late or in the same clothes he’d worn the day before. Finally, Dad’s boss came to the house with a warning that he had to do better or he would lose his job.
The drinking continued, but little by little, day by day, Dad seemed to be doing better. Surrounded by more grays and dark blues than shrouded in empty black. He didn’t have to reach for something to add to his morning coffee in order to face a world without my mother’s lopsided smile and observant gaze.
I hurry down the steps and around the house, toward the street.
A gray squirrel darts across the sidewalk in front of me and bolts under the moving van parked in front of the house two doors down. I used to watch every new person moving into a house on the block for signs of kids my age, especially in the last few years when so many older folks moved away for work or retirement—or just because they wanted something new. Now I was glad not to see any signs of teenagers in the back of the van.
Robins chirp in the branches of the fairly young trees lining the street. The city’s gardeners planted them only two years ago. Between the golden sunshine, this being the final week of school, and my dad’s less glassy eyes, I should be feeling positive about the day. Maybe if Dad hadn’t brought up the City Art Program I would find it easier to be happy about the little things, but thoughts of all the work I had done—the time wasted—what I had wanted so badly until my mother’s death—made it hard to find the good in anything.
I’d worked for months on my portfolio so that I could be one of the four sixteen-year-olds chosen to intern alongside the city’s design and beautification team for the next two years. Being chosen isn’t just an honor. Being chosen gives a student the chance to work with the very best imaginations in the city and maybe even assist in designing one or more of the city’s ongoing projects. It’s one of the sure ways to gain a coveted slot as a visual arts major. Without a visual-arts degree it’s impossible to secure a job as a working artist here in Chicago’s City Pride Department or in similar departments in other cities across the country.
Of all the government jobs, the City Pride Department’s were among the most important and prestigious. Years ago, a pilot program spearheaded by the best artists in the country was launched here in Chicago under the theory that people who lived in beautiful surroundings felt better about themselves and their futures, thereby causing them to make positive choices that would benefit not only themselves but the community they were so proud of. It was a radical idea, but the new City Pride Department was determined to make every part of the city beautiful—especially those most touched by neglect and crime, because the people living on those streets needed to see that they were worthy of beauty.
And it was working. Bit by bit. Block by block. The citizens here blossomed under the inspiration of the city’s new beauty. But the project is never ending, because the city is large and always changing. So often my mother worked long into the night to create the perfect mural for the side of a neighborhood market or select the ideal color palette for a sign intended to draw the community into embracing a new park. She had even received a silver plaque last year to celebrate the work she had done. She was one of the top designers. The work she uploaded into the National Elevation through Arts database was some of the most often downloaded for use around the country.
Was it any wonder that I wanted to capture beauty in an image the way she did?
Everyone assumes my mother wanted me to submit to the summer program. That she encouraged me to walk in her talented footsteps. I’ve let them think it because it’s easier than talking about the way, in the months before she died, she pursed her lips whenever I asked her opinion about my work.
Are you sure that’s the color palette you want to use, Meri?
Is that really what you want to work on or just what you think you should be working on?
Then finally the one I’ll never forget. When she fastened her hair at the nape of her neck with a long-handled, tapered paintbrush and turned to me, eyes shimmering with disappointment.
u should think about doing an internship at Gloss instead. Designing layouts requires a sharp eye and there’s a lot less competition for those positions than there is for government jobs.
Those words made it clear to me that she thought I wasn’t good enough. Maybe if I hadn’t shut myself off from her from that moment on, maybe I would have found out why. Maybe—
“Hey, I almost gave up on you.”
I look up and spot my best friend, Rose, standing in the shade of an old elm tree.
“Isaac decided you weren’t coming and went on ahead. He’s going through a self-important phase because Dad got him a summer job with city security. I’m not sure what is so amazing about filling in for security officers who are spending the day at the beach, but what do I know?” Rose rolls her eyes, which tells me everything I need to know about her opinion of her older brother’s plans. Then she frowns. “Actually, it’s good Isaac left, because you look terrible.”
I shrug. I could take offense, but she’s just telling the truth.
“Well, you look perfect,” I respond. “So we balance each other out.” The thing is, I’m not kidding about the perfect part. With her thick black hair twisted into a French braid, her glowing brown skin made even more flawless by makeup applied with a skilled and light hand, Rose looks more like one of the models in the fashion e-zine her mother edits than a sixteen-year-old high school student on her way to class.
“I’m not kidding, Meri.” Rose steps toward me. Her intense brown eyes narrow as she studies my face. “You didn’t sleep again.”
“I slept.” Sort of. When Rose purses her lips and gives me her don’t-mess-with-me frown, I add, “Okay, so I woke up extra early and couldn’t get back to sleep. It’s no big deal.”
Rose sighs and slides the straps of her yellow backpack off her shoulder. She unzips the front pocket and pulls out her purple-and-white-swirled makeup kit. “You keep saying that it’s no big deal, but when was the last time you slept for an entire night?”
I wish I could answer that, but it’s been too long for me to remember.
“I’ve had some bad dreams,” I say.