THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
Holding tightly to her valise, she glanced over her shoulder before stepping onto the platform. Dark blue clouds stretched from the prairie to the heavens. The blizzard was coming fast and the conductor was urgently pleading for everyone to get on board so they could depart before the storm arrived. As she placed her foot on the first step, anxiety prickled the back of her neck. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d forgotten something…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
If Keller hadn’t already been watching the man, she would never have noticed his double-take. She had been looking at him because the man himself was looking – for someone or something, Keller couldn’t tell from across the street. His head swiveled slowly and constantly as he walked, placing one foot in front of the other with the unhurried precision of a jungle cat.
Keller was watching because that’s what she always did – picked unusual people out of the crowds of usual folks and fixated on them, making mental brushstrokes so that she never forgot a face she might someday want to commit to canvas. It made her a talented artist – and a starving one. She could never focus on the ordinary people long enough to sell them something.
But, perhaps her fortunes were about to change. Mid-swivel, something on Keller’s table had caught this man’s eye. For the briefest moment, his steady gaze stuttered. Then it fixed onto one of her paintings. The man changed course and headed straight for her. No more swiveling, no more scanning the crowds, just one foot in the front of the other towards Keller like a heat-seeking drone.
She pushed to her feet, shaking the sleep out of her legs, and fidgeting as he approached, straightening canvases and checking to make sure her work was properly displayed
It seemed ages before he reached her, eyes still fixed solidly on one painting. Keller tracked his gaze and smiled. It was her favorite piece.
“Caught your eye, did she?” She said when the man was within greeting distance.
The man’s eyes slid to Keller’s face and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up under the icy weight of that unblinking grey glare. Then the man’s lips split into a broad smile, and his rigid frame relaxed into a friendly slouch.
“Good morning,” he said. He stopped in front of the painting. “Are you the artist?”
Up close, the man was undeniably handsome and Keller had no doubt that the flash of his white teeth routinely drew the attention of women and men, even if he was pushing 50. And he could be a customer! It had been months since Keller had sold her last painting, and rent was due yesterday. This needed to go well. She returned his smile.
“Painted her just a few weeks ago.” She told him. “She caught my eye, too.”
“Oh?” The man prompted.
“I was waiting for the red line, at Fort Totten. She was getting on the green.”
The man leaned forward, his eyes growing wider. “The green?”
Slightly taken aback, Keller went on. “The green, yeah. I noticed her because it was super nice that day – remember that day a few weeks ago, when they kept saying we were going to get a blizzard, but for just that day it was like spring came early?
“Yes. I remember that day,” he murmured.
“But she had to have been wearing three layers and this absolutely enormous scarf. You could barely see her face.” Keller was lost now in the memory. “I just kind of watched her for a while. I thought it was weird that even though I couldn’t see her face and she was so bundled up, I could tell she looked unhappy. Then – this little breeze came along, at the same time that the sun peeked out from the clouds. It was one of those perfect little moments. And she looked up into the sky and pulled down her scarf a little – I think so she could feel the air on her skin. She must have been hot in all those clothes. That’s the only time I saw her face. Then the train came, and she picked up her little suitcase and got on. But I remember she looked back right before she got on, like she had forgotten something. She saw me, I think, and she looked…frightened almost. I felt bad that I had been watching. But when I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She was stunning.”
“So you never even took a photo,” the man said, his eyes crinkled at the corners. “You painted her from memory.”
“I never forget a face.” Keller told him.
He grinned wider. “Lucky for me, I guess. I’ll take her. The girl who got on the green line. She reminds me of someone I used to know.”
It was the only painting Keller sold that day, but it was enough. Two hundred dollars in crisp twenty dollar bills was enough to pay the remainder of her rent with enough left over for groceries. A windfall by her standards.
For days, though, she couldn’t shake the strange feeling she’d had when the man walked away. He’d refused to let her wrap the painting, wanting to look at it as he walked. And it seemed like he had been muttering to it as he left.
That feeling had nearly faded away completely the day she saw the girl’s face again. The face she hadn’t forgotten – would never forget. The picture the newspaper used must have been an old high-school photograph. Even the cheap black-and-white print couldn’t detract from the girl’s stunning beauty.
Girl Slain in Virginia by Father after Running Away From Home
And there he was, too, his mugshot next to her smiling face. The man with eyes of ice, who had been so interested in the girl, who took the green line.
“I’m so sorry.” Keller whispered to her. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”