Breakfast was prepared a bit earlier than usual, and was a bit fancier than usual: Bacon, eggs, sausages, toast. Juice.
“Who knows when they’ll feed you on the way up there,” Jack’s mother said. “And this is my way of wishing you best of luck,” she said, giving him a hug as she slid the eggs onto his plate.
“It’s not a competition, Mom,” he said. “It’s not like I’m going on to the next round or anything. It’s just… just a show of students’ work from all over the state.”
“Well, they chose your work. And that makes us all very proud.”
Jack told himself that the sudden blurring in his vision was from too much pepper as he shook it onto his eggs.
* * * * *
Beth took the window seat, and Jack sat next to her, thirteen rows back on the tour bus. How she could sleep most of the way was beyond him. At best, he dozed, but not for more than a few minutes at a time. The hum of the road, the buzzing chatter of the other students, the high whirring of the heaters, while they combined to soothe Beth to sleep, Jack found each a distraction.
But the ride up the highway was smooth, once they got onto the interstate, and Jack busied himself with his sketchbook. The cold gray light blended well with the fluorescent lighting on the bus, and Jack found capturing the way it made Beth’s hair and skin glow was something of a challenge. It was very different from the nightlight-illumination of her on the living room sofa, and the soft, warm candlelight of the photographs Hannah had taken.
She awakened once when the bus slowed and jounced through some construction. A glance out the fogged-up window and a yawn later, she’d shifted position slightly, and drifted back to sleep.
Jack turned the page over as quietly as he could.
Drawing her while she leaned against him was an even bigger challenge.
There was a chirp and flash, and he looked up to see Mrs. Chase lowering her camera with a grin and a wink.
Contrary to Jack’s mother’s concerns about a lack of lunch, the bus pulled into the hotel parking lot at just before noon, and after the bustle of getting the students checked in and baggage stowed in their rooms, they assembled in the hotel’s restaurant for sandwiches, chips, and sodas, and then off to the gallery another ten minutes away.
“Now, it’s free time to browse until about five o’clock,” Mrs. Chase told the class, “and then I would like you all to meet back here, so we can get back to the hotel and ready and changed for the dinner, which will be held there. Any questions? No? Have fun, mingle with the other students, take a look at the work, and I’ll see you all here in a while.” She waved the students away.
Jack and Beth quickly decided to go the systematic route, and found one corner of the exhibit, and worked their way slowly around towards where his work was posted.
“Some of this stuff is really good,” Jack said, staring at charcoal work done by a student from further south. He paused again, admiring the oil brushwork here, the watercolor techique there.
Beth stayed oddly quiet most of the time, nodding in agreement, or making what sounded like an assenting murmur.
At the end of one block of work, before they rounded a corner to the next segment of the exhibit, Jack stepped a bit to the side, out of the glare of the track lighting.
“Hey, what is it? You’re quiet. Too quiet.”
Beth shook her head. “It’s nothing. Just… Nothing. It’s silly.”
Jack put his hands on his hips, tapped his foot.
“Well, I didn’t want to say anything…” she said, glancing from this side to that. “But… you’ve been having so much fun looking at all these other works, you haven’t had time to worry a bit about your own.”
Jack stared. “So… you’re worrying about it for me?”
“Well, I picked most of it out, so…. So… If someone is going to … to laugh, then it’s because of ... something I picked out.”
She stared at her shoes: white tennis shoes with thick pink laces.
Jack grabbed her arm, and guided her around the bend to the next section. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “Hannah and Mrs. Chase both had confidence in the choices you made. Or helped me make. It’s not like you twisted my arm to get any of those pieces in.”
“Except one,” she said.
“Well, yeah, except that one,” Jack said. “But I finished your portrait last week, so it’s …”
His voice trailed off.
“Yeah, about that….” Beth said, staring at her feet yet again.
A crowd of students and a few teachers had gathered around the end of that section of the gallery, and most of them were staring up at the framed acrylic on canvas.
It depicted a girl, her face pale and serious, lit from below by a single candle cupped in her hands, while her hair shone somehow from within, a pale yellow-white corona about her head. Her eyes, somber, lit from above and below, were flecked with spots of gold that echoed the brilliance of her hair.