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by Ross Richdale
Description: Astrid Stowell moves to Portland, Oregon to live with her grandfather after her mother dies. Intrique and tragedy mix as Astrid makes new friends and learns to love again.
eBook Publisher: SynergEbooks, 2003 SynergEbooks
eBookwise Release Date: November 2004
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [292 KB]
Reading time: 185-259 min.
The art room at Hayes High School in Portland, Oregon smelt of cleaning fluid, oil paint and damp clay. A girl stood near one window in the back with a paintbrush between her teeth and gazed at her abstract painting with a critical frown.
"It's wrong. The colors are all wrong." She reached for the canvas and would have yanked it down from the easel if her companion hadn't grabbed her arm.
"Astrid, leave it. It's so real, I feel as if I could walk into it."
Astrid pouted. "That's the trouble, Suzanne. It's meant to reflect one's innermost perceptions, not be realistic."
"So you chuck three weeks work away and receive a D for an uncompleted assignment, do you?" Suzanne Wilson gazed at her own still-life painting of a bowl of fruit sitting on a table and sighed. "If I had your talent, I wouldn't need to whip up this hackneyed old thing," She dabbed a little paint on the grapes, shrugged and stared out the window.
The art room was almost directly above the high school's main entrance and visitors' car lot. When not immersed in their art, the students would often gaze out and fantasize about why the latest visitor might be calling.
"Cops again." Hilton, one of the other budding artists in their row, chuckled. "Old Bob will be blowing another safety valve."
Astrid shifted her gaze from her painting. An ancient Chevy had pulled in behind the police car and the driver--a man with a mop of gray hair--stepped out. A police officer walked across to him; together the pair walked inside.
"The old guy looks like your granddad, doesn't he?" Stephanie said. "Similar car, too."
"I guess," Astrid replied.
"It's probably that old pervert who's been stalking those juniors across the boulevard." Hilton chuckled. "If they send him up here, you guys would scare him off for life. One icy stare from Astrid here and he'd be ready to confess his sins of the last five decades on a hundred bibles."
"Oh shut up, Hilton!" Suzanne retorted.
"The color's still wrong," Astrid muttered.
By ignoring Hilton's jibe, she achieved more than Suzanne's angry retort. The youth grinned to himself, realize his taunt had achieved nothing and continued painting.* * *
Though quiet, the chime made everyone's eyes focus on the intercom in the corner.
"Miss Keagy, can I interrupt your class for a second, please?"
A hush settled over the room and the students stared at each other. They all knew the voice.
"We're listening, Mr. Saxby," Beverly Keagy looked worried. It was rare for the principal to contact classes in this manner.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but could you please ask Astrid Stowell to step along to my office."
Suzanne caught Astrid's eyes. "So it was your grandfather?"
Astrid didn't answer. She stood and pulled on a strand of blonde hair as she stared at the speaker.
"You'd better go and see what Mrs. Saxby wants," the teacher said. "I'm sure Suzanne will pack your gear up for you, Astrid."
"Yes, of course, Miss Keagy. I'll go now."* * *
Several people were in the office, but Astrid only noticed two of them--Mrs. Gifford, her homeroom teacher, had a strange of expression in her eyes, one of empathy and disbelief. The man beside her rose and stepped forward. His eyes were red and his tall frame somehow appeared stooped.
"Granddad," Astrid whispered. "What is it? Why are you here?"
"Your mom's been an accident, honey," Steven Barton said. He reached forward to take her hands, but instead pulled her into a massive hug. "There's only us now, Astrid."
"What do you mean, Granddad? Is Mom hurt real bad?" She glanced up and saw Mr. Saxby catch her eyes. Oh hell, she knew. "It's worse Granddad, isn't it?"
The elderly man nodded.
"Your mother didn't make it, Astrid," Mr. Saxby softly voice. "She was killed in an accident on the freeway. It was very quick; she would not have been..."
"No!" the girl retorted. "She's at home. I was going to take my painting home tonight. She always has suggestions." Eyes, wide but dry, stared at the principal. "She's a real artist, Mr. Saxby, far better than I'll be in a hundred years." She held her trembling grandfather in her arms. "They made a mistake, Granddad. Someone drove a car just like ours..."
Her grandfather's chin quivered. "I've just come from the Providence Medical Center, Astrid," he whispered. "It's your mother, there isn't any doubt."
Astrid jerked up and stepped away from him. "Why didn't you come and get me, Granddad?" Her voice rose. "Why didn't you come?"
"I'm here, honey. I came as soon as I could. As Mr. Saxby said, Diane ... your mother ... wouldn't have felt a thing. It was very fast; for that we can be thankful. These police officers brought me straight here after I identified your mom's body."
"Her body!" Astrid screamed. "Why do you talk about her like that?"
"She's not there any longer, Astrid," Steve whispered.
Astrid glanced up and the tears now flowed. "I want to see her, Granddad? Can I?"
Her grandfather glanced across at one of the police officers who nodded. "Of course, honey. If that is what you really want."
Mrs. Gifford reached across and squeezed Astrid's arm. "I'll get all your books and your painting portfolio, Astrid. They'll all be in my office when you need them. Is there anything else?"
"My sweater's in the art room..."
The teacher nodded. "If I can help..."
"You're here, Mrs. Gifford. Thank you for leaving your class to come." She gave a half smile through the tears. "Isn't it that horrible remedial reading class? They'll be climbing the walls by now, I reckon."
Alison Gifford studied her. "Possibly," she replied in a whisper.* * *
The drizzle seemed to reflect the mood for the morning after Diane Stowell's funeral. Bev Keagy arrived at school at twenty to eight to find Astrid waiting outside the art room door.
"I have permission to skip classes today, Miss Keagy," the girl said. "Would it be possible for me to spend the day repainting my canvas? I won't annoy your other classes."
"Of course," Bev replied. "You can use the side alcove." She smiled. "It will help if some of the lower grade students can see something to aspire to. Isn't your painting almost complete?"
"I'm starting again."
"Oh, I see. Is there any reason that you want to redo your painting? You've spent so much time on your present one."
"It's crap, Miss Keagy." Wide blue eyes stared at the teacher. "Everything's crap."
Bev nodded. "Okay, come in. There's just one thing I'd like you to do, though."
Astrid pouted. "And that is?"
"Don't paint over your old painting. I'll give you a new canvas."
"In case I stuff it up?"
"Something like that."
Astrid shrugged. "Yeah, fair enough." She took her favorite easel into the side alcove and wriggled into her artist's smock. After a few preliminary tests with the paint structure she began working.
The first period consisted of thirty rowdy freshmen who appeared somewhat overawed at the senior pupil painting in the corner. Any attempts to communicate, though, were met with a contemptible scowl so Astrid was left alone.
Bev had a free second period so walked across to see how her pupil was managing. The canvas was already at a semi-complete stage. A massive raindrop filled the center of the canvas. Behind, dark thunderclouds and lightning filled the edges around the main focus. At the bottom, pale sunshine peeped from below the clouds over a field of wheat. The background was almost complete but the raindrop remained unpainted.
"I like the raindrop," Bev whispered. "What are you going to put inside it, Astrid?"
"Mom," the girl whispered. "It's not a raindrop, either. It's a tear-drop."
"Of course, I should have realized..."
The girl never replied.
"I found your eulogy at your mom's funeral very moving, Astrid. Your granddad's was, too."
Astrid stopped painting and wiped her hands on a cloth. "Funerals are crap, Miss Keagy. I only agreed to a public one for Granddad's sake."
"I see," Bev whispered. "Can I ask why you think that way?"
The girl blinked and tears formed in her eyes. "They're children, Miss Keagy, no more mature than that bunch you had in here in the first period."
The teacher nodded and decided to wait.
"The preacher never even knew Mom and went on about all that crap about her being in a better place. It's all shit, a fairy tail like telling an eight year old that if they're good, Santa Claus will being them a nice present."
"It's hard, Astrid but he was only trying to make everything easier for your granddad and yourself."
"Was he? He probably takes a couple of funerals a week, recites everything off and goes and plays golf in the afternoon." The girl's voice was bitter.
"Okay," Bev replied. "What would you have preferred?"
"Granddad told about Mom's life. That was all that was needed."
"You're lucky to have a grandfather like him, aren't you?"
Astrid attempted to nod. "It's not fair." She erupted into long shuddering tears that couldn't be contained any longer.
Her whole body shook and she would have run from the room if Bev hadn't intercepted. The teacher grabbed Astrid and just held her close until the shuddering sobs became faint weeping and finally sniffs of fought back tears.
"Here," Bev said and handed Astrid an opened box of Kleenex. "Just let it flow."
"There's nobody except Granddad now."
"Is your father still alive? I can't recall seeing him at the funeral."
"Yeah he's around somewhere. He's remarried and had a couple of kids the last I heard. He left us when I was about ten and his letters dried up when I was twelve. Good riddance, I say."
"I see. Did anyone inform him of your Mom's death?"
"Granddad's lawyer contacted him I think."
Bev Keagy smiled and turned back to the painting. "So this is a memorial to your mom?"
"My English is lousy, I'm no good at music so I want to do something for Mom in the best way I can."
"It's excellent, Astrid. I have never seen such bold use of colors and you did this in less than two hours. You can be proud."
"Yeah, nothing like a little motivation, Miss Keagy. I'll have it finished by Monday's deadline. That's a promise."
"There's no hurry, Astrid. Whenever it's ready will be fine."
Bev stepped back and watched as her pupil began to paint in a streak of lightning. The art teacher knew Astrid Stowell was talented but this painting surpassed anything the girl had attempted before. She wanted to say more but decided this was not the time. Instead, she squeezed Astrid's arm and walked away. The third period class had arrived.* * * *
Astrid sat at the kitchen table with a hand supported under her chin. "So what happens now, Granddad?" she asked.
Steve pulled back a chair and sat opposite his granddaughter. "Well, honey," he said. "It seems to me that with your senior year after the summer you have the commitment here. I have none so if you can put up with this old pain in the butt, I'll shift in."
"You would? What about your home up in Hook Bay?"
"It's a house, honey. There's a wonderful view for sure but one can't live on a view. To tell you the truth it's been pretty lonely since your grandma died last year." He signed. "I was thinking of moving back here, anyway."
"Don't lie, Granddad," Astrid said. "You hate the city. It's not fair to expect you to stay here just for my sake."
"It's not just you, honey. You need someone and so do I. It's as simple as that." Steve grinned. "Of course if you'd rather..."
Astrid reached across and grabbed her grandfather's hands. Her eyes seized his. "We'll go back to Hook Bay over the summer vacation. Mom and I always visited for a few weeks anyway."
"And come September?"
"If you don't mind, we can come back here for my final year."
"That sounds fine. There are loose ends to sort out but everything should be completed by summer. Without your mom's income we'll have to be careful with finance but I'm sure we won't starve. What say we see how things turn out?" Steve stood up. "Now, if you can bring your sheets out, I'm about to start the laundry. Don't you usually change them on a Saturday?"
Astrid smiled. "I've never seen the place so tidy, Granddad. Mom never worried too much about housework." She grimaced. "I guess I take after her."
Steve laughed. "If your bedroom is anything to go by, you're probably right. Anyway what are you planning for the weekend?"
"My oil painting is due in on Monday. I brought it home to finish. That'll take me most of the time."
"And your friends?"
Astrid flushed. "Hilton asked me out to a disco but I put him off."
Steve raised his eyebrows.
"Granddad!" Astrid retorted. "He's just a guy in my art class, that's all."
"She'll be around," Astrid said. "She's always here. Likes it better than at home, I think. She has a kid sister who drives her silly."
"Good," Steve said. "At a time like this you need friends. Tell them they're welcome any time."
His granddaughter frowned. "Hilton, too?"
"Oh, I don't know, Granddad." She bit on her lip.
"Mom once told me you were so strict on her when she was my age."
"I guess," Steve said. "But that was twenty years ago. Times change. I thought I was doing the right thing for your mother but was wrong. Nobody's perfect, Astrid."
"Was that why Mom left home and ended up having me?" Astrid whispered.
"One reason, I guess," Steve said. "It wasn't as simple as that."
"But you never liked my father, did you?" Astrid pressed.
"No, I believe she wasted her life on him. She should have gone onto college. He was ten years older than her and..." Steve shrugged. "It doesn't matter now. He did one right thing, though."
"He did, Granddad. What was that?"
Steve smiled. "Gave me the most wonderful granddaughter in the world, one I am so proud of and one who has coped so well during this tragedy."
"Only because you're here Granddad." Astrid pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. She smiled at Steve and punched a button. "Hi, Hilton. It's me... I reckon I'll be able to come to the disco after all... Yeah you can come around if you wish. I've still got my painting to finish... " She laughed. "Sure... Okay.... See you soon. Bye." She rung off. "Come on, Granddad, let's get those chores done."* * * *
"Granddad, this is Hilton Terrell" Astrid said a couple of hours later. "Hilton, Steve Barton my granddad."
The youth, who towered over Simon, grinned and held out his hand. "Hi Granddad," he said.
Steve studied the new arrival. No Mr. Barton, just Granddad! Twenty years ago all of Diane's boyfriends had too much hair but this young man had none. Hilton wore long shorts, those army type things that hung below his knees and had pockets all over the place. On the top half he wore a bright orange sleeveless shirt. Steve had no idea what these modern clothes were called. He glanced at his granddaughter and realized for the first time she was an attractive young woman whose own clothes left little to a hot blooded male's imagination.
"Granddad," Astrid scolded. "Aren't you going to welcome Hilton?"
Steve smiled and gripped the young man's hand. "Of course. It's good to meet you, Hilton. I hear you're in the same art class as Astrid."
"I haven't her talent, I'm afraid. She's rad!"
"Yes, I'm pretty proud of her actually..."
"Granddad!" Astrid almost screamed.
Oh hell, he was embarrassing her. One didn't say those things, of course.
"Yes?well, I've got some food to get from the market. I'll leave you both to get on with it."
* * * *
An hour later. Steve returned to the sound of music pounding out from Astrid's bedroom window, so loud he was sure the glass was vibrating. He walked inside but nobody was in sight. The bedroom door was shut!
He grimaced and his mind slipped back two decades. He'd come home in a similar situation and found Diane in bed with this guy, what was his name? He couldn't remember, as there were so many. He had flung the door open and was greeted by his screaming daughter all eyes and with a sheet held up to her neck. Her clothes were on the floor and the boy was in the corner trying to pull his trousers up. He'd thrown the youth out and Diane never spoke to him for a week. Their relationship went from bad to worse after that.
Now his granddaughter was behind a closed bedroom door. Steve placed the groceries he was carrying on the floor and tapped on the door. There was no reply. Who could hear with that screaming noise they called music anyway?
Oh hell, was that moaning he heard? Forgetting to be discrete, Steve flung the bedroom door open and stepped inside. There was moaning all right. A music clip was playing on the television and a girl was gyrating around a microphone moaning like a trapped hog. Otherwise, the room was empty.
Steve didn't know whether to feel relieved or worried. Where were the pair? He almost ran through the house to the stairs. The attic; they'd be up there. He swallowed and forced himself to slow down. The attic was a huge area that Diane had converted into an art studio. In recent years Astrid also used it for painting and clay modeling. There was a kiln and equipment everywhere up there.
When Steve arrived at the small upper landing he coughed and pushed the door open.
"Hi, Granddad," Astrid called. "Come and look. I've just about finished my painting."
Looking somewhat sheepish, Steve walked in to see both Hilton and Astrid standing in front of easels. Hilton had quite a delightful painting of a barn with an old Model A truck sitting in tall grass beside it.
"I like it, Hilton," Steve said and turned to gaze at his granddaughter's work. He stopped and jerked back.
"What's wrong, Granddad? Doesn't it look right?"
Painted in the teardrop was a woman with a faint smile. It was Diane's face, so life-like that the eyes appeared to follow him no matter from what direction he looked from.
"Oh my God," Steve said. "Honey, it is incredible. Your mom... " He gripped a nearby rail and just stared.
"Shouldn't I have painted Mom, Granddad?" Astrid whispered. "I thought this was far better than all those empty words at her funeral but if you don't like it I can make the tear look just like water."
"No, honey. It is so perfect, that's all. It is the most wonderful painting I've ever seen."
"It's how I remembered her, Granddad. It was all in my mind and I just had to get it out."
"She's got talent, Granddad," Hilton said.
Steve glanced across and smiled. "You both have, Hilton," he said. "I came up to tell you I've got the coffee percolating and bought some cookies at the market."
His eyes caught Astrid's.
"Can you make it a beer, Granddad?" she asked.
Steve gulped. "Beer, yes of course. Why not?"
He made a hasty retreat but couldn't help smiling when he heard a half-whispered voice behind him.
"Your granddad is a great old guy," Hilton said "My own grandparents still think I'm ten year's old."