The bell above the door of my favorite art supply shop jingled brightly against the sounds of rain as I left. I waved goodbye to some of the staff who knew me there, and turned to face the torrential downpour which had started falling only minutes before I checked out. I peered through the wall of water for a minute trying to locate my mother's car through the haze, catching sight of it parked in a space nearby. Not wanting to have to run through the rain to get to the car, I waved my arm in a wide semicircle above my head a few times hoping to catch my mom's attention. When that didn't work, I added small hops into the routine, bouncing up and down on the ball of my feet. No luck.
Well, Naomi. . . I chanced a glance at the angry sky above my head, hoping in vain to see a reprieve in the rain in my near future. Looks like you're just going to have to put your big girl galoshes on. I heaved a sigh and wrapped the plastic bag I was holding as tightly around itself as its contents would allow, and unceremoniously tucked it under my shirt.
My feet hit the pavement in a quick tattoo as I raced through the parking lot in a bee-line towards the old white Ford, soaking my sneakers on the way in one giant puddle that had amassed in the short time since the storm started. I reached the vehicle, heart pounding, and knocked urgently on the window. My mother's shocked expression met mine for only an instant before she caught her bearings and unlocked the door. I yanked the door open and nearly dove into the car.
My rain soaked shoes squished on the floor as I slammed the door behind me. "If that isn't God's worst weather this year!" I shouted, more from the rush of the run than anything else. I absentmindedly ran a hand through my now-wet hair to catch the strays that were sticking to my forehead as I fiddled with the heater in the old clunker, hoping I could get it running before any major chill set in.
Mom sat and took in my current state for a minute before she started laughing.
"I'm glad you can enjoy this," I quipped, rubbing my hands together to warm them.
"This is what we have phones for," she said between chuckles. "I would have picked you up at the front." I gave her an abashed look.
"I left it in the car," I mumbled regretfully. My own fault I was now a walking wet blanket.
"Convenient," she laughed again.
"Very," I deadpanned.
This was our usual style of banter. Mom's sarcastic wit had been something I picked up on while still very young, never taking seriously her near biting remarks –merely playing along to the same ironic tune.
"Get what you needed?" she asked, shifting into reverse. I drew the white plastic bag from under my shirt and held it up triumphantly just long enough for her to glance at it before I placed it near my feet for the duration of the car ride home.
"Various sizes of canvas, charcoal, oil paints, and new brushes," I listed, "all there. And dry." Mom tossed a pleased look my way as she turned her eyes back towards the front of the car and guided it out of the lot.
"Have you given any thought to what you'll do this year?" she asked as she drove. I listened for a moment to the gentle thumps of the windshield wipers as they pushed the rain away from her view before I answered.
"I have several ideas, none of which I especially favor."
"You'll figure it out," was her confident reply.
I sighed. I had better figure it out, I thought. The annual state-wide high school art competition –though still 8 months away—was fast approaching, after all, and I was dead set on finally securing the first place slot. After three long years of entering my pieces only to have them fall frustratingly short of my aspirations, I was desperate for that win. I needed the $5,000 scholarship reward if I even wanted to dream about attending college at this point. It was now or never.
But in order to win award money, I needed an award-winning piece. And that simply wasn't something I could conjure up.
We pulled into the driveway of our small apartment complex just as a loud crack of thunder split the sky, it made me jump a good couple inches out of my seat. I looked at my mother, who looked back at me.
"Mad dash for the door?" I asked evenly.
"Mad dash for the door."
We rushed out of the car, mom barely hitting the lock button before she slammed her door shut. Our feet echoed each other on the way up the stairs, and we didn't slow down until we reached the second floor landing, safely out of the rain. We were laughing loudly at how we must have looked during our little escapade by the time we came to our apartment at the far end of the second floor hallway. Mom stuck her key in the doorknob, jiggling a little as the lock sometimes stuck, and opened the door.
"Go get cleaned up," she told me. She was considerably less soaked than I was. "I'll put something warm on for us." I nodded my agreement, still laughing in small bursts.
In my room, I un-tucked the bag from my shirt for a second time and unpacked its contents before I changed my clothes, laying them out gently on the bed so I could inventory them. I pulled out one package of oil paint with 24 different colors, 6 canvases primed for oil paints ranging in size from some of 5"x5"s for brush stroke and technique practicing to two 12"x10" panels for my final piece (one canvas was, of course, for backup in case I did some terminal damage to my first attempt), and one pack of charcoal pencils for initial sketching. I frowned. Something was missing. I checked the bag again for the set of brushes I bought, making an absent "huh" noise when they weren't located.
I retraced my steps out of my bedroom to the front of the apartment without luck. I thought back to when I stood in the checkout line in aisle 5 and a conversation I'd had with Gilbert, an elderly gentleman that reminded me of a grandfather I never really knew, and my usual clerk. He had noticed the brush set I'd picked up, and expressed his approval of that particular brand:
"My grandson uses these," he had remarked. "Little things are darn near indestructible, they could probably outlast me." We had both laughed at that –I less enthusiastically than the older man. Gilbert scanned the brushes and handed them to me separately before he scanned the rest of my items. We got caught up in a conversation about the art competition (he asked if I knew what I was painting yet, I told him no) while he bagged the items. I paid in cash and needed change. He handed me a few bills, but the coins managed to slip out of my grasp and fall to the floor. I bent to pick them up, laying the brushes down on the counter and . . .
I never picked them up. I had gotten my bag from Gilbert after I retrieved my dropped change, but I had left the brushes on the counter. And that's likely where they were now.
In the kitchen, mom was rifling through a cupboard for something while the kettle rocked gently on the stove. There was a sweet, warm scent in the air that was unmistakably cinnamon buns. She saw me come out of my room, still soaked.
"Hun, your clothes are in your dresser, not the oven." She grinned at me, but the expression fell when she saw whatever look I wore on my face. "What's the matter?"
"Uh," I started, "I think I might have left my brushes at the store." She stared blankly at me. I stared back for a second. "Can we go back?"
Mom arched a brow at me. "You do realize we'll need an ark to even leave the parking lot right?"
I groaned. "It's hardly a flood, mom. Please?" I shot my best pitiful look at her, and she stood there a moment, considering. I was sure she was just about to give in when her phone rang.
"Hold that thought, hun," she said as she glanced at the caller ID. I let out a defeated sight. So close.
"Hey, Em . . . Yes? No, you know today is my off day . . . It's not my fault she didn't show . . . You're putting me in a spot here, Emma," my mom pinched the bridge of her nose between her index finger and thumb. "Fine. Fine. I'll be there in ten."
Even if the conversation had told me nothing, my mom's apologetic look told me everything. "Do they seriously want you to come in on a Saturday?" I asked. "Especially this Saturday?" I said, motioning to the rain outside the kitchen window.
"They do," she stated simply. She moved around the kitchen, grabbing her keys off the counter and her coat off the rack again. She saw me watching her, and sighed. I don't know what she saw on my face –maybe disappointment that we weren't going to spend our afternoon together as usual, or maybe frustration at stupidly leaving my brushes at the art store— that made her come over and hug me. "The life of a nurse isn't easy, Naomi." She explained softly. "But I work this hard so that you won't have to."
There was nothing in the world like my mother's hugs. They were warm; sincere; comfortable. So much larger than her small frame should have been able to offer. Since I was a little girl, nothing could calm me down quicker than a hug from mom. "I know." I said. She released me and looked at my face again.
"If I'm back before the shop closes, we'll go for your brushes, okay?" I read the regret in her eyes, and nodded in understanding even though we both knew she probably wouldn't get off work in time.
"Be careful out there," I reminded her.
"I will." She smiled, placed a quick kiss on my forehead, and began moving towards the door. "I left the kettle and toaster on," she said as she went. "Don't burn the house down." And she was gone.
I retreated to my room to change, replacing my wet jeans and t-shirt with a loose pair of track pants and a black camisole, and toweling my hair to a more comfortable saturation level. I decided to allow it to air dry the rest of the way before padding bare-footed back to the kitchen to check the cinnamon buns and treat my sudden craving for cocoa. A quick rap at the door gave me pause. Mom probably forgot her keys, I thought quickly before redirecting my steps towards the door.
I smoothed my damp hair back out of my face again as I peered through the peephole. It wasn't my mother. Instead, a girl about my height was smoothly brushing the hood of her jacket off her head. I couldn't see much else about her other than her short dark hair, hanging loosely around her face. I considered for a moment as I watched her. She didn't look like anyone I knew, but I had yet to see her face properly. I held out a few more seconds to see if I could recognize her. As if on cue, she leaned forward again suddenly and placed a few more quick knocks on the door, surprising me. A shocked noise escaped my mouth without my permission, and I cringed, eye still to the peephole.
"Hello?" She called over the rain. She'd heard me. Busted. "I'm looking for Naomi Reed?"
Something inside me inexplicably sparked at that –a silent acknowledgment; a distinct curiosity. I don't usually open doors for strangers of any kind –male or female— not generally wanting to have to deal with anyone I didn't know (or, you know, get killed), but I found this instance especially unique. This one had called me by name. I took a deep breath, and –cautious but curious— I opened the door.