The drawings lay out on the floor, sprawled in a half circle of crumpled sheets. The partially erased attempts and scratchy outlines of the individuals depicted suggested that Sam was perhaps more of a tortured artist when he created pieces than one who found his center in art, but the boldest lines of the sketches portrayed people who nearly jumped off the cheap sketch paper. Ella picked up attempt after attempt of Sam’s portfolio pieces, finally settling on the thick manila folder at the end of the arc of sketches. She opened the folder, and stared in awe at the final watercolor pieces that Sam had enclosed. As she paged through the paintings, she recognized Meg perched on top of a log in front of the fire and Teddy grinning a crooked smile up at her. She saw herself as a nine-year old crying outside the moving van, with her dad angrily cleaning up her overexcited vomit. There was a painting of Sam, sitting on a high bar stool at a kitchen island and devouring the rum cake, with the sticky note announcing the liquor laying forgotten on the floor. There was a painting of Paul, sitting up in the tree with his tail flailing about and Ella up on the tree branch, legs wrapped around the limb tightly to keep from falling. She turned to the last painting. She carefully picked it up and showed it to Sam, wide eyed. He grinned.
“Sorry, I guess I should have asked before I put that in there.” He returned to his laptop, and left her to contemplate the painting.
It was her, on the day they had gone to Capitol Park and sat on the cement walls to the flowerbeds surrounding the Capitol building. He had painted her at the moment she had closed her eyes to soak in the sun and the wind more efficiently, with her bare feet crossed under her knees and her hands lying open in her lap. Her hair hung in unruly waves around her face, and Sam painted the sun to catch her cheekbones and each individual eyelash, betraying the care he took in making the painting represent Ella just right. She took a deep breath.
“This might just be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.” Ella said.
“Well, I didn’t say it, I painted it.”
“I mean, you’re the one who inspired me to do all of this… I figured you should get to be the final piece in the series. You’re the story that made all the other stories happened,” said Sam. Ella held the painting loosely in her fingertips, stroking the corner of the paper with her thumb. She huffed a sigh and put it back with the rest of the paintings, closing the manila folder and redirecting her attention towards Sam.
“So… when do you need to get this submitted by? Pretty soon, right? This is amazing, Sam. They’ll definitely let you get into whatever the heck program you want to there.” Ella gushed. Sam had been typing away at something as she had been paging through the portfolio, but at the mention of submitting the portfolio, he froze. Turning slowly on his swivel chair, shoulders pulled into his chest, he met Ella’s gaze.
“I’m not going.”
She furrowed her brow. “Wait… so… you’re just not… I don’t understand.” Paul had made his way over to the pile of sketches and decided to sit down on the one of high school Ella falling into the pool. Absentmindedly, she picked him up and held him on her lap, but Paul still left gray smudges where he stepped. “How can you not be…”
Sam leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “It’s just that… you know, financially it makes more sense to stay here and I just got out of four years of my worst nightmare in high school and I just want to take a second to let my brain stop and I don’t even think I’m good enough to compare with the other people at this school. I mean, c’mon, Ella, these kids are all fantastic and I’m just making these dumb little sketches of people I don’t know and fricking watercolor, when they’re going to want me to do graphic design and whatever, and I’m not good enough. I’m just not. I’m glad you like them, and really, that’s all that matters ‘cuz they’re kind of your stories anyways, so you should just take them ‘cuz I don’t think they would be enough to get me into that kind of school.”
Ella just stared at him, stonefaced.
“Plus, you know, Laura’s here, and she thinks it would be better for us to stay in the same area because neither of us wants to make a long distance thing happen and she really needs me to stay ‘cuz you know how much crap she’s gone through, and how much I need to be there for her. I mean, Laura’s the kind of girl who doesn’t pull any punches, which I appreciate, and a couple of nights ago we had this really long talk, and she said that it wasn’t practical for me to go all the way across the country, and I think she’s right. I mean, what am I going to do with this degree, Ella, especially if I’m wasting my time doing watercolor when the world wants Avengers movies?” Sam grabbed a pen from his desk and started clicking the pen on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off. “It just doesn’t make sense, Ella. I can’t do…”
“I wish you would stop being so afraid,” Ella said softly, burying her hands into Paul’s fur.
“Excuse me?” Sam asked. Ella shifted her weight, but Paul stayed put.
“You said you like it when people are straightforward and blunt with you, right? Okay, this is me being blunt. You’re being a coward. There’s no reason for you to be afraid of this, this is a normal adult thing to move away. You ARE good enough. Believe me, I know what kind of art sells, and this stuff speaks. But for some reason you can’t let yourself believe you can be anything other than mediocre. You are amazing, okay? You are smart and you are ambitious and you could do so many things, but for some reason you bring awful people into your life that bring you down and keep you from doing anything remotely interesting. I know you can do more and be more, and I can’t understand why you won’t. Chicago is the best opportunity you’ve had in forever, and you deserve to let yourself become something amazing.
And I’m sorry, but if Laura can’t let you leave and still love you enough to make the relationship last, then that’s not worth it anyways. You should be with someone who encourages you to be the best person you can be and who recognizes the person that you could be if you just buffed up a little and stopped being so scared of the future. You could do such amazing things if you just gave yourself the chance, and I think Laura knows that, and she wants to keep you down so she can stay with you but get to do the rest of her life her way instead of watching the great things you could do. I know you’re not going to appreciate me saying this, but I am so sick and tired of you being the only person who doesn’t see how incredible you are, and I can’t sit around and watch yourself wither when you could have done something so revolutionary in your life. The world deserves to see you. Maybe Laura doesn’t if she’s going to hold you back from that.”
Sam glared at Ella, mouth tight and dangerous. “Laura knows me. I’m not a coward… I’m sticking up for the people who I know are on my side. You’re just a tourist passing through this, and you think you can tell me how to live my life? You’re not permanent. You don’t get a say.”
Ella rolled her eyes and spoke to her hands. “I’m not telling you how to live your life, I just think you could do so much more than…”
Sam shook his head. “I don’t think you should be here any more. Get out.”
Ella shoved Paul off her lap, who yowled in indignance, and stood up, angry tears glinting in her eyes. She stalked across the room, held the doorknob in a poised position to slam it with all of her might, and then reconsidered and whipped around to face Sam. She forcefully pointed at the pile of sketches now haphazardly thrown about the room.
“Giving that potential up,” she managed to say through the huge lump in her throat, “is the worst decision you will ever make in your life.”And she slammed the door.