The Way Forward

The murmur of the crowd coming from the darkened showroom was like the babbling of a stream running into an underground grotto. Willa let the sounds enfold her and quiet the unsteady beating of her heart as she walked down the hallway. She ran her hand against the rough bricks of the wall to keep herself from falling; perhaps they had been overzealous with killing the lights.

However, she was very glad of it when she reached the showroom and was able to slip in among the many members of the assembly without being noticed. The chill air of the room made her bare shoulders tremble and pebbled her skin. Her fingers tightened on her skirt, the midnight blue velvet puffing up between her fingers as she tried to stop her knees from shaking.

The faces around her were a blur of unrecognizable features; true, she could pull some familiar figures from the crowd, but even the ones she knew well seemed removed from the reality of the scene. A veil hung between her and everything she looked at.

The only thing to penetrate that veil, ripping through its obscurity with the razor edge of a knife, was the sight of her pictures hanging on the wall, each one illuminated from above and below by a flood of pure white light. The lighting gave the startling impression that the figures in the paintings were alive, almost poised to step out of their frames and join the party, laughing at the joke that Willa could ever have been clever enough to capture their essences in such flat media as canvas and oil.

Clusters of people gathered around each painting in the same manner as people drift from bonfire to bonfire at a beachfront party; they held a few minutes of brief conversation, shook their heads in admiration (at least, she hoped), and then moved forward to the next one.

The gentle rotation of the crowd through the room drew her along, and she found herself staring at one of her pieces as though she had never seen it before, pressed in front of it between two men in scratchy wool blazers. Her eyes traced each line, each brushstroke, and in her mind she saw the painting stripped down to the base wash, the pencil outline, and the sketch that had inspired the whole thing.

It was like viewing the x-ray of a loved one. She knew every painting in this room to its very soul. She had created their bones and molded the flesh above them.

Willa shivered again and was glad that her dress was a heavy material that flowed all the way to the floor; her knees were shaking so badly that she had to keep shifting from foot to foot so as not to collapse.

But she was not nervous. No. She had come too far and was too certain to be nervous. This unsteadiness was just adrenaline. Adrenaline…and the creeping dread that at any minute she would wake up and realize that she was either dreaming or insane.

No. Willa dug the sharp nail of her middle finger into the base of her palm and savored the sting. She was awake, and alive, and this was really happening.

There was a hand on her elbow, so sudden that it made her jump. Helen murmured something in her ear, but she couldn't sort the sounds into words right now; her ears had been buzzing with a dull frequency ever since she had set foot in the showroom. All she could distinguish was noise and barometric pressure, and she wondered, as her former teacher led her through the crowd, if this was what one felt after being near the explosion of a bomb.

She wanted to laugh when she saw what Helen was leading her towards. As a bride is escorted down the aisle, she saw—with an uncharacteristic flutter of her heart—that Russell Thorne waited for her at the head of the room, hands clasped in front of him, waiting with the suppressed smile of a groom.

Her smile grew wider but she clamped down on the inside of her lip to keep the hysteria-tinged laughter from slipping out. How Helen must hate the office she had to perform! She knew that there was still no peace between her mentor and her boyfriend—what a strange word to call him—and that Helen, though rejoicing in her success, would rather have had it come from any other source.

Helen placed Willa in the right attitude with two firm hands guiding her shoulders, and then exchanged a few words with Russell before fading back into the crowd. The crowd itself, herd instinct informing it that something new was happening, was stilling into silence and turning towards them.

The eulogy. Willa grimaced—stopped herself—and pulled a plastic smile instead, feeling it tremble at the corners with the same spasms that shook her knees. Her favorite part.

Maybe Russell would keep it short and simple, like Helen.

Maybe she would be too shell-shocked to pay attention, as with Darius' speech at the Lotus debut.

But as her beloved paintings were the only thing to penetrate her dull vision, so was the voice of her dearest friend the only thing to ring with perfect clarity into her blocked ears.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, those familiar words hushing the last echoes of chatter from the crowd, "thank you all for joining us here this evening."

He paused and allowed the last shuffles and throat-clearing to fade out before he continued.

"The name of the exhibit we come to enjoy this evening is Triumph, and I'm certain that it escapes no one as to why it is so called. The artist has achieved a great artistic triumph herself in depicting so many moments that encourage us all to reach towards victory. We owe her a great deal for so doing."

The crowd murmured acknowledgement and broke into a short spatter of applause. Russell took the opportunity and stole a glance at Willa; he saw from the focus of her eyes and the tension in her mouth that she was catching every word.

"We owe her a great deal," he took a breath, "but I owe her even more. When I thanked you for joining me here this evening, I wasn't merely getting a preliminary out of the way; I was speaking from the bottom of my heart."

Though Willa's eyes could not distinguish individual faces, she saw that Russell's could; his eyes roved the crowd as he gave slight nods to the many people he honored for answering his call to come and admire her.

"Many of you here tonight are indifferent to me, or outright hate me—you loved my father and grandfather, and admired what they did—and you correctly judged that I turned my back on their bold traditions. But when I told you that the artist here tonight," another glance at Willa, "was worthy of everything they could have given her…you believed me, and you came. I thank you for not allowing your valid concept of me cloud your responsibility to one of the best painters New York has to offer."

The superlatives had begun, Willa thought, and felt her smile freeze on her face. One of the best…some of the greatest…the most talented…transcendent, beautiful, blah blah blah…she hoped her ears would allow her to tune out the platitudes, if she could be spared nothing else all night.

Russell was still speaking. "I said that I owed her. I do. Most of you are wondering why you don't see any of the "usual crowd" here tonight; all of you are probably wondering why the work of our featured artist is so different from what the Thorne gallery has been showing for years. You owe it to the determination and talent of the artist herself. She reminded me of the duty I had—to the art world and to myself—to feature what I recognized as the best. Not, as I have been doing, featuring that which would be amusing, or get good reviews, or sell well."

There were ripples of assent spreading through the crowd now, and Willa—though still not able to take her eyes off her sole anchor—still caught the motion of several heads nodding and bending together in quickly murmured conversation.

Russell, as always, knew his crowd. He bent his head with humility before raising it to look Willa in the eye.

"So tonight, I give you the best that I know…the best that I have ever known," the quiet sincerity in his voice even reconciled Willa to the platitude, "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Willa Stark."

The applause was pressure on her ears; gentle at first, then digging in like the crush of water at the bottom of the deep end. Willa swallowed and felt the bubble of pressure pop; she nodded and felt the rigid tension in her mouth relax into a more genuine smile. When she stepped away from Russell's side and started shaking hands in the audience, she felt her vision clear as each person she touched suddenly had a face and a name that burned a new pathway in her mind.

Long ago, when she had first started to imagine a scene like this one, she had not been able to pull any faces from the crowd—it was beyond her to dream of those who might be her friends, might understand her, might appreciate what she tried so hard to do.

Now, here…she saw what those shadows in her imagination had concealed from her.

The older man with the goatee just starting to go gray…he was her friend.

The younger man with the deep set eyes and the solemn mouth…she saw it break into a smile as he touched her briefly on the shoulder, and they were friends.

The woman dressed in a suit more expensive than anything she could ever hope to buy and smelling of $400 perfume…they smiled on each other and Willa heard the words, "Well done."

Well done. The words of rest and arrival: well done thou good and faithful servant. Well done.

She had to remind herself that tears would make her mascara run. But it was true: she had done well. With the help of friends and her unrelenting discipline, she had come from shadowy dreams sustaining her through another day of boring, repetitious work and stolen hours of painting to this…shows, admiration, friends, family, and Russell.

Willa smiled.

Christina's arms were around her suddenly, and Willa put her face in the crook of her friend's bony shoulder, feeling Jason's wide hand and skinny fingers patting her on the back. They shook hands and mouthed words—it was too loud to hear anything clearly—and then they were gone.

Willa was deep in another cluster of people before she thought to look back for them.

Everyone was there. She saw all her friends, Helen, Darius, Maria, the assistants from the Thompson and Lotus galleries, some of her show followers…and then, in the back of the room, there was a familiar bulky figure.

Bereft of his sheepskin coat and dressed instead in a surprisingly well-fitting suit, Willa was so confused by seeing Dennis there that she almost ignored her mother entirely. She started when she felt a familiar hand touching hers, but then she was hugging her mother and breathing in the smell of Ivory soap and Head & Shoulders, the familiar perfume which had lulled her to sleep and soothed her in illness for her entire life.

"Oh, Willa," her mother whispered. There were tears on her face when she pulled back—tears from her mother, who never cried—and her hands were cold. "Oh, Willa," she repeated, eyes not leaving her daughter, "It's beautiful."

Willa sighed and closed her hands over her mother's. Then, remembering a quiet conversation overheard, she extended one hand to Dennis and spared him a full look and a smile. She was surprised at how comforting it felt to have him take her hand and step closer to the two of them; they balanced each other well, the three points of a trinity.

"How?" she shook her head and hoped they would understand.

"Dennis insisted we should come," her mother said, patting her husband fondly. "Your teacher Helen called us. I wasn't sure, but he said it was ridiculous to worry about money when the farm doesn't need planting quite yet and we could drive here and stay with her."

Willa searched her immediate circle for Helen, but it was probably best for her teacher that she was not there. She was in danger of asphyxiation by Willa's hug.

"Thank you," Willa could not remember when she had said those words to Dennis and meant them whole-heartedly. "I'm so glad you're here."

A cluster of people broke in on them and she had to pause and shake hands and smile and nod. When she turned back, her mother stood with her hands clasped over her heart, fresh tears tracking down her cheeks.

"Don't cry, Mom," Willa remembered three times in her life when her mother had cried—it made her heart sink—as none of those times had been sparked by joy, "it's all right."

"Of course it is, dabble," she said, swiping a hand across her face, "I'm just so proud."

Willa swallowed against the growing lump in her throat. Her mother shook her head as though flinging the tears away from her, and put a firm hand on her daughter's shoulder.

"Now, go meet and greet. Dennis and I will wander around and take care of ourselves."

As she had always done, Willa obeyed her mother; she looked back just once to see her parents—parents—watching over her with smiles, as they had always done.

The initial frenzy of the crowd to touch her had passed; now, most of the guests were more focused on the art, which cleared Willa's path back to the head of the room, where Helen stood giving instructions to a trio of black-vested caterers. Her strong-armed hug cut off the flow of her conversation, and the caterers had to avert their eyes because the sight of two formally dressed women hanging from each other's necks would have made them burst out laughing.

Helen broke free long enough to finish her instructions—"and for God's sake, no shots!"—before waving them away and focusing on her student.

"My parents, Helen," the words were muffled because Willa still couldn't let her go, "thank you. Thank you for bringing them here."

"It's high time they came," Helen said, sniffing. "Two debuts and not a family member in sight? I know that you don't care for your stepfather, though…is it all right he came?"

Willa pulled back and for the first time that evening, she felt a feeling of guilt threaten to overwhelm her happiness. "It's fine," she said, shaking her head, "I've been…I've been very unfair to Dennis this whole time. He's part of my family—my mother loves him—and if he's not my father…that's not his fault."

"Emotional and financial growth in a single evening?" Helen's brow arched. "This is a special night indeed."

"Don't tease me," Willa shot back, before saying, "financial growth?"

Helen nodded. "I think at last count, eight of the pieces were sold and three more were spoken for."

That was more than half of the exhibit. Normally, the news of a sold painting would raise excitement in her heart as she could calculate what new supplies she could purchase with the money, but now she only felt a kind of leaden blankness, as though her brain were processing the loss of a family member. She looked around the room, searching the faces of each of her creations. After tonight…after the show ended…they would not be solely hers, anymore.

Helen's hand entwined with hers and squeezed.

"It will make you feel better to know that I didn't list Opera girl for sale."

Willa's hand tightened around Helen's to the point of pain.

"I know she's your favorite."

Her nod was almost imperceptible.

"Thank you."

"Do you need to take a break?"

"I think so," her voice was wobbly and no amount of throat-clearing could get the lump of tears to shift, "I'll just pop into the office for a few minutes."

"Take your time."

()()()

A few minutes stretched to an hour, and then an hour and half, until finally Brendan came into the office to drag her out to be a part of the farewell line. She smiled and nodded some more, words of thanks and gratitude falling from between her lips while her fingers grew warm from the pressure of constant handshakes.

Helen was her faithful valet, as usual; taking business cards from those who offered them and storing them in her handbag, filling any pauses in conversation when exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her charge, and running interference when Willa had to go aside with Christina and Jason for a few minutes for a longer farewell.

Her friends were gone—it was late, and they had jobs to get to in the morning—and Darius had left while she was hiding in the office. Maria, who pulled Willa in for a tight hug, murmured that he wished her all the best and insisted she come back to the Lotus for frequent visits. She also pressed a card with both their email addresses into Willa's hand.

Willa shook her head when Helen tried to take it, and instead kept it folded in her left hand, the sharp edges of the cardstock pricking her palm.

Finally, no one was left in the gallery but her parents, Russell, Helen, and the caterers and attendants, who bustled around their little circle and cleared away the detritus left by so many bodies.

"Would anyone like coffee?" Helen said, indefatigable as she hitched up her shrug like a ship under full sail, "I can go out."

"Please," Willa and her mother spoke at the same time.

"What would you like, Catherine?"

Her mother ordered a plain decaf coffee, Willa wanted a large iced latte, Russell jumped in with a request for tea, and Helen nodded and left.

Willa was torn between taking her mother's hand or Russell's. He solved the dilemma by stepping forward and reaching for her mother's hand.

"Catherine," he said, then corrected himself with boyish shyness, "Mrs. Stark," he shook her hand, then turned to Dennis, "Mr. Martin; it's a pleasure to meet you both."

"Mr. Thorne, I assume," her mother's voice was warm, but not entirely friendly, "May I call you Russell?"

"Please,"

"Willa has told us all about you,"

He scuffed one toe against the floor. "I imagine you're confused."

"Not really," she said, and repeated, "Willa has told us all about you."

He looked at her and smiled. Then he turned to Willa, who still waited to see how the conversation would play out. "Your daughter is…" he paused, and shook his head, taking Willa's hand in his own, "she's wonderful."

Willa stared at the floor as her mother agreed; she was certain they caught sight of her flushed face, for the conversation shifted to more general subjects. Russell and her mother talked of the show, of New York, of the farm in Illinois—Dennis put in a word here and there—while she breathed and tried to recover from the relief of the successful integration of the two disparate parts of her life.

Helen brought back two carriers of drinks and shared them out. For a few moments, they were quiet as they sipped and looked once more at the paintings on the walls.

"So what's the plan for tomorrow?"

"I was thinking we could do some sightseeing. I've never seen the view from the Empire State Building."

"We should take a trip out to Ellis Island—remember the trip we took during Willa's senior year? I haven't been there since."

"Isn't anyone interested to hear the rave reviews we got for tonight?"

"Oh, Helen, of course the show was a success, but we could all use a break."

"Well, whatever sightseeing you do during the day, you're all coming to my place for dinner afterwards."

"That's very kind of you…what's on the menu?"

"You should never ask; it spoils the surprise."

"Come on," Willa laughed, taking her mother's arm and Dennis' under her own. "I'm exhausted and I did promise that I'd help Christina pack up her place tomorrow before any sightseeing went on. Helen, you're going to take my parents to your place?"

"Call us tomorrow when you're finished," she replied, "and we'll meet you wherever you want."

She nodded and hugged both parents before sending them out the door with her teacher. The caterers were packed up and headed out as well, and Russell's assistants were long gone.

It was just the two of them. Neither of them spoke.

"I'll call us a taxi," Russell said, seeing that she needed some time alone, "meet me outside when you're ready."

Willa nodded but did not look around until the door shut behind him.

Her heels clicked against the floor sounded like the ticks of a grandfather clock whittling away the hours. She walked a circuit of the room, looking for one last time at each of her beloved friends. The stark lighting was still playing tricks with her mind; out of the corner of her eye, she could swear that she saw some of the figures shifting in their frames.

Willa stood in the center of the room and bowed her head.

Then she turned towards the door, set the security code, and shut off the lights before letting the door shut and lock behind her.