TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
Holding the sleeping infant on her shoulder, she gazed peacefully at her surroundings. Tourists wandered in and out of stores, an old man was setting up his easel by the lakeshore, and a child’s balloon escaped into the breeze. A moment later, she looked up as shouts startled her and the baby. Everybody was running in her direction…
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That sultry afternoon, the park in the central part of town was lush with healthy, multihued perennials situated in perfect geometric patterns, the likes of which had never been seen before.
Peter turned toward his wife Nancy and pointed to his side, out of his field-of-view, grazing his arm against several tourists. “Look! Someone released several dozen balloons, every color in the rainbow. What a beautiful welcome.”
Peering over her shoulder, Nancy said, “I don’t see anything.” She bent down to re-tie her shoelace, but was grazed by a group of gregarious tourists swinging bags of souvenirs, talking about their afternoon schedules.
“You’re joking.” Peter spun around and stared at a sky painted with cumulonimbus clouds. “Huh? Rain wasn’t in the forecast.” He blinked only to then see a bright blue sky dappled with cumulus clouds. “I shouldn’t have had the third margarita at lunch.”
Nancy faced the lake. “Strange. Now, six kites are flying.”
“I see them, too. They’re over the area where this summer’s college landscape painting competition is being held.” He scratched his head. “But, there’s no breeze.”
“And, now, no kites. They vanished into thin air.”
“Remind me not to drink before I walk in the hot sun,” he said. “I wish I had a cap.”
“I suppose the heat could be getting to you, to us.” Nancy situated her hand across her eyebrows and surveyed the park. “I don’t see any open benches, but there’s some shade ahead.”
“That sounds fine,” he said. “I wonder if we should have visited off-season. There must be hundreds of tourists milling in and out of the stores. They’re certainly crowding the park.”
“Why don’t we go down to the lake. I’d like to watch the artists. In the activities brochure, I read that eight college students were invited from out-of-state this year, two from abroad,” Nancy said, placing sunglass clip-ons over her metal-rimmed glasses.
As Nancy and Peter strolled arm-in-arm toward the lake, they stopped at a water fountain and, while Peter splashed water on his face, they were startled by a sudden rush of tourists who ran past them toward the lake’s edge.
“Peter, let’s hurry, so we can-”
Looking toward the lake, drying his eyes with his short sleeve, he said, “Weren’t there more trees ahead of us? All I see now are a few very tall evergreens.”
“I don’t remember, but let’s pick up the pace so we can find a good spot.”
Nine minutes later.
“Peter, the crowd is thinning. We can move up a few feet.”
“Thinning all right, but where did they go?”
“They probably trickled off to the picnic area that we saw earlier on the map.” Nancy stepped forward, but paused. “I’m sorry, but my back suddenly hurts. I need to sit down.”
Peter placed his arm behind her back. Shocked, he recoiled. “When did you pick up this backpack? What’s that noise?”
“Neh. Neh. Neh. Neh. Neh.”
“That’s the noise a baby makes when it wants to be fed.” When it registered with Nancy that the sounds were coming from the backpack, she trembled and jumped into the air, dropping her arms to free the straps, jettisoning it toward her husband. “Peter, what’s going on? I’m getting scared.”
He scrambled to catch the object before it hit the ground. “Nancy, this isn’t a backpack. It’s a baby carrier. And, there’s a baby in it… and a full bottle.”
When she gently lifted the infant from the carrier and cradled him in her arms, he cooed. Carefully, she examined his face. “Peter, he has your green eyes… your nose, your ears… and your blond hair.”
“What? Whose baby is he? How? Why did you get him?” With terror in his voice, Peter pushed his way through the crowded and repeatedly yelled, “Did anyone lose a baby?”
Nancy muttered under her breath. “This must be a dream. I can’t have children, but I’m holding a baby that’s the spitting image of my husband.” Trembling, she glanced toward the artists, but saw only two young men. “Peter? Where are you?”
Four minutes later.
Nancy changed her focus from the rapidly, inexplicably thinning crowd to the noticeably rising lake water only to see Peter using two oars to row a small, metal boat back to shore. With the baby in her arms, she ran toward him. “I thought you had disappeared, too. I’m really scared. I want to go back to the hotel now.”
Stepping out of a leaking canoe that was resting on a nearly dry lake bed, Peter dropped the sole paddle and said, “This can’t be the alco-”
“Ladies and gentlemen.” An older man hobbled toward a makeshift podium, without looking at the contestants, and addressed the audience. “I would like to again thank Malle Apple City for hosting this year’s college artists in their landscape painting competition.”
“Nancy, one more minute. Okay?”
The older man looked at his watch and said, “Artists, time is up.” Ever so slowly, he pivoted toward the competitors and counted the easels on his fingers. “What? Where are the other six of you?”
“You old fool,” said the red-haired artist as he painted over the speaker’s image on his canvas, sending him into the ether.
The people standing near the speaker screamed. A few poked their hands through the air where he had been standing. Most bolted full tilt back toward the shops and the hotel.
“And, now you, you do-gooder,” the red-haired artist said to his remaining competitor.
Both competitors raised paint-laden brushes above each other’s image on their respective canvases, while Nancy, carrying the baby, and Peter continued fleeing to safety beyond the edge of the identically-framed landscape.