At first, I stood still and waited for the man outside to do something—anything that would demonstrate his purpose. I sucked in my breath and let it out in one slow exhalation. Then I tiptoed into the living room with its darkness and distance from the porch, and its carpeted flooring.
I paced. I’d meant to slip out the front door and run for Anthony’s car, but I was too afraid, and so the pacing commenced. My nose began to throb as if in memory of my previous attacker. It was still swollen and a little red and, to the average observer, appeared as if I’d caught a summer cold or eaten one too many hot chiles. My fragile mental state, I suspected, couldn’t handle another kick in the head.
Where was Anthony? And what was I to do? Maybe the man on the porch had chloroformed him as he would have done if he were a character in a Nancy Drew book. Maybe Anthony was slumped in the shadows somewhere, beyond my reach. Maybe I should call the cops and ask them to send somebody who had known my dad and, consequently, knew me, too. But I couldn’t remember the names of any officers who hadn’t retired to administrative work—or to civilian life.
It was my fault, I realized. Since I was an adult, I’d avoided cops like the plague. Good Lord—I began to pray—and I turned away from the corner I was facing and walked right into a man who was practically breathing on my shoulder.
My throat tightened. I yelped, and managed to sound like a perturbed cat.
“We should finish this job in five minutes or less. What’s left?”
I waved my arm frantically toward the front porch.
“You were already in there. Are you sure you want to search the kitchen again?”
“There’s a man. On the back porch. I saw him when I was looking for you.”
“Yeah. You know, my primo? I called him earlier and asked him to meet us here. I figured he’d show up when he wanted to. He can play lookout while I help you.”
“And what have you been doing all this time?”
“Watching you walk back and forth and stare at the wall.”
I re-focused on the task at hand, which was to break into my mom’s studio. If I didn’t focus on that, I would have to hurt him, yes, hit him for the expression on his face, the infuriating look of smugness. I clenched my fists.
“Ella, don’t you think we should finish up what we came here to do? Not that I know exactly what that is.”
“We need to break into my mom’s studio. It’s in what used to be the garage.”
“Lead the way.”
I backtracked to the locked door, and he bent to the work of picking the lock. Several minutes passed.
“Why are you taking so long?”
“Excuse me? You want to do it? Some locks are harder to pick than others. Your mom’s got a high-security lock on her door.”
“I’m sorry. It looks like all the other ones.”
“That’s because you can’t see inside. It’s got security pins in it. Hold on, I’ve almost got it.”
“Wow, impressive,” I said, but my teeth chattered in nervousness as the lock gave, and he pushed open the door.
And that was the moment the alarm began to blare.
“Ah, shit. Hurry up. The APD could either take hours to respond to this, or be here right away since your dad’s an ex-cop. Whichever, I don’t want to be here.”
I didn’t either. In fact, my body froze again, and I was unable to think clearly. I wasn’t used to this kind of work. I was a waitress, not to mention, a literary type. I was used to jumping at the sound of customers demanding coffee, before clocking off and reading about this sort of situation in books.
Anthony gave me a push and scanned the interior with his penlight. “Get moving. You take the back half, and I’ll take the front.”
I moved forward a few paces and stumbled over a paint box. Inside, my mom’s various art tools rolled around: scrapers and brushes and feather dusters and pencils. I studied the painting that was propped on the easel, the parts that she had finished, and the background, much of which was still painted in a ghostly blue layer. She painted in layers, thin and meticulous with pure pigments that she mixed herself.
“Isn’t that . . .?”
I wasn’t certain, but it appeared to be a rendition of Demetria, whose head was barely visible as it peeked over the shoulder of a man whose back was to the viewing audience. The two were dancing on the plaza, beneath a moonlit sky. The gazebo, in the background, was nothing more than a line drawing, still. On the gazebo appeared several blue, wraith-like figures.
As quickly as possible, I stepped out of the studio and into the hallway, where I felt for the doorknob to the linen closet. I grabbed several soft blankets and ran back in the studio. I was determined to steal any of the paintings she had recently finished or was still working on. There were three stacked one on top of another on the easel. This was only possible because my mom painted on Masonite boards, which were thinner than canvases. Plus, she was sloppy with her works of art, not seeming to care whether her paintings were damaged. She could always fix them, she claimed. Paint was not permanent.
No, it certainly was not. I wrapped the three paintings without really looking at them. Maybe I would hang them in my room. Maybe I would bring a little bit of my family with me, even if the paintings revealed nothing.
At the last moment, I spied the butterfly painting, leaning against one wall. I added it to the pile. Meanwhile, Anthony flipped through a thick file folder filled with papers.
“Let’s go,” I said. “We’ll bring it with us. I’ll take responsibility for her things.”
He looked up at me and, in the darkness, his eyes looked sad. “I’m not sure you want that responsibility, Ella.”