The Fake
Last Exit to Brooklyn
I sent Claire a text the morning of our next Geometry class together, offering to help her. I stopped short of saying I could help her catch up, since we probably didn’t have enough time left in our school careers for that miracle. But I could help her fit in, do better, at least. But no answer.
In Geometry class, I fought the temptation to tap her on the shoulder and ask her whether well-mannered country girls ever returned phone calls. My social knowledge of girls was limited to Sydney, who lived by rules of her own making, or Edie, whose rules were all about breaking other rules. The only thing I felt sure of was that this girl would not respond to pushiness.
I tapped my phone’s screen, fighting to keep myself from messaging her a second time. I knew the number I used was correct since I got it from her school records.
Perhaps my worst fear had grown flesh, curly hair, and went by the name of Sydney. She and Claire ate lunch together most days, met in bathrooms, chatted in the halls. They even left together sometimes.
This hadn’t worried me too much because any girl dragged into Sydney’s whirlpool became a Syd-clone, and Claire’s clothing, hair, and makeup had kept the same style: whimsical backwoods. Sydney hadn’t gotten to her yet.
Claire kept low in her chair, frantically scribbling notes while making herself as small as possible. This was not hard since she could barely see over the desk to begin with. If she had answered my call, I might have felt sorry for her. Okay, I still felt a bit sorry for her. She was a wide-eyed lamb in a woods infested with ravenous wolves.
“Did I see your hand raised, Miss Foster?” Dr. Galbraith asked, peering at Claire over the top of his glasses. She shook her head in quick little snaps, and muttered a quick, “No, sir.”
Lifting his brows, he leaned forward to rest his fingertips on his desk. “That is a great pity. You would benefit from asking more questions, I think.”
From behind, I could see the blush from her cheeks spread to the back of her neck and disappear under her ponytail. Typical Galbraith—couldn’t teach an algorithm to save his career, but could make a kid look small so he could feel better about sucking.
“That would depend on whether or not you know the answers yourself, wouldn’t it, Mr. Galbraith?” Who said that? Me? Me! On the inside, I screwed up my eyes and slapped myself in the forehead. On the outside, I kept my face cool and calm.
“It is Doctor Galbraith, Bannister. Detention, and a letter home to your parents.”
I lifted my brows into a suitably worried arch and said, “Be sure to email them. It’s the best way to catch them.”
Most of the class turned in their seats to stare at me with expressions ranging from astonished to amused. I understood how they felt, I stunned myself too. Kids opened their big mouths all the time, but not me. My mischief of choice depended on a low profile.
Claire lowered herself further into her chair, which put her at serious danger of sliding off the seat and under the table. Dr. Galbraith turned his attention back to her. “See me after class, Miss Foster.”
The girl beside her, Tamariah—named in honor of her two moms, Tammy the soap opera actress and Mariah the makeup artist—peeked back at me, shoved Claire with her elbow, and whispered something in her ear.
Dr. Galbraith went back to the board and his regularly scheduled droning, and the class settled back into partial hypnosis. I relaxed in my chair, tapping my phone with my index finger and calculating.
A few minutes later, Claire Foster, Little Miss Idaho, peeked at me over her shoulder. Another few minutes after that, my phone vibrated in my pocket with a new message: “Does the tutoring offer still stand?”
The outside of the Chelsea Lofts apartment complex did not match the inside, but then they rarely did. The elevators had iron gated doors, but Claire and I had to avoid looking at each other in a million awkward mirrored reflections inside.
Claire kept her eyes on her shoelaces. “Thanks for helping me.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t done anything spectacular.” Then I lifted my brows and added. “Yet.”
I watched the red glow spread across all the reflected versions of her cheeks. The blush felt like a small step in the right direction. All I had to do was get through this one afternoon, and it wouldn’t matter what she thought of me anymore.
The elevator slowed, dinged, and the door slid open. Claire yanked the iron gate aside and hurried out. The neutral walls were decorated with giant vases of realistic flowers and artwork that must have made George Foster cringe when he walked by. She fumbled with her electronic pass key as I followed her up the long hallway.
The apartment walls were bare. No art, other than an impressionistic meadow scene above the small dining table. Nothing of Foster’s. Blast.
Claire tipped her books out onto the table. “Drink?”
“Whatever you’re having.” That always worked with Sydney. Imitating her was the sincerest form of good sense, as far as she was concerned.
Claire took a pair of sodas from the refrigerator and handed me one. “Where shall we begin?” I asked.
Without taking a sip of her drink, Claire searched through her geometry notes and read, “Artesian planes, maybe?”
“You mean Cartesian planes.” That had been part of today’s snooze session with Galbraith.
Her face crumpled into a grimace. “Oh.”
“What part are you struggling with, other than the name?” I started to map out an x and y axis on a piece of her graph paper.
Her eyebrows met in an anxious tangle. “There are parts?”
I glanced over at her notes. Scribbled, badly spelled versions of words Galbraith had used, and various exclamations of horror such as: Huh? Quadrant what? Argh! Etc.
Laying down my pencil, I said. “What exactly do you know about geometry?”
Her lips turned up in a sheepish grin. “I’m pretty clear on how to find the classroom.”
An hour later and no sign of the artist, but his daughter could define geometry, recite its basic terms, and tell the difference between seven types of angles.
Groaning, she rested her forehead on her arms. “My brain hurts.”
Mine was fine, but my patience had taken a battering. “Break?”
She looked up at me with a miserable expression. “I was hoping for a vacation.”
“Point me in the direction of your bathroom, and you can relax for five minutes.”
She pointed at the hallway leading off from the kitchen and pretended interest in her new notes. The apartment was big by New York standards, but small enough that I knew Foster had to be somewhere down the same hallway. Claire’s directions were vague enough, I could legitimately open any door in the place without looking suspicious.
First door. Claire’s room. She scurried in there earlier and locked the door on the way out. The door opposite sat slightly ajar, and I glimpsed the corner of a nightstand. Her father’s room. That left two doors. The one on the right had a tiny greasy smear on the handle and even from outside, I caught a whiff of turpentine and linseed oil. My heart thrilled in my chest. Success. I took a deep breath, and turned the handle.
The room brimmed with canvases, empty and full. Hyper-real still lifes of everyday objects turned into something incredible. Detailed. Composed. Brilliant. I palmed the miniature camera from my pocket.
“Hey, Claire-bear.”
I held my breath. George Foster. Or, at least, the back of his head. Mussed, graying curls. Hunched shoulders from too many hours in front of an easel. He had been there all along but was too ordinary to notice among those canvases, as he swirled a brush in a jar of turpentine.
When I didn’t answer, he spun around on his stool and dropped the brush he was cleaning on the table. He gripped his knees, leaving smears on his already paint-spotted pants. “Well, hello there. Are you an invited guest or are you here to rob me?”
A wide smile covered his friendly face, but his too-close-for-comfort guess made it hard for me to get any words out.
He laughed. “You’re Claire’s new study-buddy?”
I coughed to clear the stuck words from my throat and nodded. “Yes, sir. Grayson Bannister. Pleased to meet you.” I stepped forward and held out my hand, camera concealed in the other one.
He stared at my hand for a second before taking it, and immediately, I saw why. Tremor. To be specific, an “intention tremor”. The sort of tremor a person has when suffering certain neurological conditions—the shaking gets worse when they try to move. I took his hand and shook it, feeling the slight shiver in his muscles.
“I’m a fan of your work,” I said. “Especially the landscapes.”
George Foster looked me in the eye. “And what do you like about them?” Famous people often tried to sort people who genuinely understood them from those who wanted a new, influential contact.
“The way your use of values draws the eye to the emotional center of the piece. You capture the spirit of a place, then idealize it into a sort of fantasy.”
His eyes brightened and his smile turned into something more genuine than it had been a few seconds ago. “You know your art, I see.”
I nodded over at the more recent pieces. “There’s something new about these, though. I can’t put my finger on what.” Making a show of leaning in for a closer look, I squeezed the camera in my palm to take a few snaps.
When I turned back, I caught a shadow of worry on his face, but the smile replaced it right away. “It’s a different angle for me.”
He squeezed his knees and I saw it again, the slight tremor. Foster coughed and folded his arms tight over his chest. “Ask Claire for an invitation to the next showing. Always happy to have a real art fan along.”
I did my best appreciative smile. “Thank you, sir.”
“There you are.” Claire said, from the doorway. “This isn’t the bathroom, you know.” She hurried in and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck. They had such an obvious, easy relationship that poked at some part of me I would rather not be poked. While they exchanged a few quick jokes, I directed my palm around the room and snapped every visible piece. The excitement from my success wiped out anything else I felt. My heart skipped along, giving the odd extra thump as the adrenaline rush hit.
I slipped the camera back into my pocket and waited for Claire to turn back around. When she did, she shoved her hands into her pockets, looking embarrassed that I had seen that whole interaction.
“I’m starved,” Foster said. “Why don’t you go get some pizza from that little hole in the wall? You’re welcome to join us, Grayson.”
The camera felt heavy as a stone in my pocket. “I should go.”
A flicker of disappointment crossed Claire’s features.
Well, well. That, I did not expect.
Curiosity twitched inside me. It could pass for hunger, if I used my imagination. “But, pizza would be nice.”
Claire lowered her eyes and grinned. She hid nothing. Everything she felt was always on display for the world to see. She hid nothing. This girl did cute in a way that would look like something ugly and dishonest on most of the girls at Callas.
Her father passed her a couple of twenties. Actual cash. These two were from a different world.
“I better make that bathroom trip before we leave,” I said, and hurried out.
I locked the bathroom door behind me and sat on the counter top. The SD card and the camera were almost the same size. Using my fingernail, I slipped the card out and put it inside my untraceable phone. As I loaded the photos into an email, other images flickered in my mind. Claire, tucking her hair behind her ear, blushing, muddling the word Cartesian, wrapping her arms around her father’s neck like it was something she did every day.
Squeezing my eyes closed, I pressed send.
In the darkness, other pictures filled my head. Canvases, covered in intricately detailed images. Crisp, clear lines. Perfect color sensibility. Not so much as a wobble, despite that tremor. How?
And one last image. The canvas on the easel. Muddied, blurred, a mess. The ugly, early stage of a future masterpiece?
Or not.
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