Foothill Art Institute
Kate Mitchell tripped over the ridge of cracked asphalt, the stumble sending her backpack falling to the ground where it scattered notebooks, pencils, and a bag of lens caps and filters across the parking lot. Her camera bag started to slide. She caught it just before the padded case slipped off her arm.
“Perfect,” she said as she glared at the backpack. Kate shoved her unruly red hair out of her eyes and set the carefully packed camera case with her SLR and lenses to the side before she began to pick up the rest of the scattered mess from her backpack. She could already feel the sweat starting to trickle between her thin shoulder blades as the Southern California sun radiated from the blacktop. “As if this day couldn’t get any better…”
She had a sneaking suspicion that she’d forgotten to put sunscreen on again, and she prayed her pale, freckled skin wouldn’t be red by the time she got inside. She finished tossing the last of her school supplies in her backpack and hustled toward the old building set in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.
As she neared the sprawling building that housed the school of visual arts, she heard the clanging and ringing of hammers from the metal-fabrication shop just past the ceramic kilns, and the chatter from a group of splattered painters who were gathered by a bench near the entrance. Kate finally reached the cool shade of a spreading pepper tree, set her bags down, and tried to tame her hair into a bun before continuing on toward her first class.
Though it wasn’t even April, the temperatures were already expected to be in the high 80s, and Kate was flushed by the time she reached the glass doors of the entrance. She felt her phone vibrating in her pocket and grabbed it to read a message from her boyfriend.
Call me when you finish class and meetings today. —Cody
Curious, she sent back a quick text.
What’s up? —Kate
Pulling open the side door to the building, she sighed at the rush of cool, dry air that poured out.
What are your plans this weekend?—C
She walked down the wide hall toward the restroom to check her hair, which had probably already flown in eight different directions.
I have thesis work, and there’s an exhibition I need to go to.—K
No one else was in the bathroom, so Kate took a moment to splash water on her red, freckled face. She patted her skin dry, pulled herself together, and hurried out, checking the screen on her phone to see if she had enough time to make a quick pass through the alumni gallery before her History of Photography class.
Deciding she could stop for ten minutes, Kate turned right instead of left and wandered down the long hall containing past student work from notable alumni of Foothill Art Institute.
Nope. You’re going to San Diego with me and the guys.—C
She rolled her eyes.
That’s news to me.—K
Kate walked through the gallery, scanning the walls for any new additions. Her work would be here one day. She’d already picked out the print she would submit to her advisor, Professor Bradley. She may not have been sure of other parts of her life, but when it came to photography, Kate knew exactly where she wanted to go.
Come on, babe. Take a break for once. Mom already booked a room for you.—C
“Damn it, Cody, some of us don’t run surf shops,” she said to her phone. She thought about Cody’s mom and dad, who she had loved since she was a little girl. The last thing she wanted to do was ruin a weekend that Barbara had planned. Their families had been close friends for years. Their mothers met when Kate and Cody were babies. They’d grown up together, and been friends before they developed an undeniable chemistry as teenagers. By the time college rolled around, it took no one by surprise when they started dating.
Cody had been her first boyfriend and the only man she’d seriously dated since graduating from high school. In the back of her mind, she knew their parents were both expecting marriage. But Kate had always been focused on her education and her photography, and no one seemed to question whether she was settling too quickly.
Until recently, she hadn’t questioned it herself.
She glared at her phone and sent a quick text back.
I can’t. I’ve got to get this done, Cody. I’ve got deadlines coming up.—K
Cody had been supportive and proud of her work as long as they’d been together. He’d been her unofficial assistant on a shoot more than once, especially if it was at the beach. Still, the closer she got to finishing her master’s thesis and getting serious about developing her portfolio, the more Cody seemed to be dissatisfied with where she was headed.
Walking swiftly past the screen prints and paintings at the beginning of the gallery, Kate moved around the partitions to make her way to the back corner where photography prints from past students hung scattered on the walls.
She felt her phone buzz again.
Fine. Whatever. I guess I’ll tell my mom you’re not coming. Maybe Brad can invite his girlfriend.—C
Shaking her head, Kate continued on toward the center of the photography exhibit. She stopped and sat on the small bench, trying to quash her irritation with Cody so she could absorb the numerous images produced by Foothill Art Institute’s most famous graduate, Reed O’Connor. With her back to the rest of the gallery, she studied the early work of one of her favorite photographers, who was also partly the subject of her graduate project.
Reed O’Connor had made his name quickly in the art world. Still in his early thirties, his dramatic good looks, mysterious personal life, and reclusive persona made him an intriguing and attractive subject for gossip. But his work, in Kate’s opinion, was the real mystery.
Even as a student, the tell-tale characteristics of what would come to be known as an “O’Connor portrait” were evident. Along with an impressive technical prowess, the young photographer exhibited an almost impressionistic use of light and shadow and an artful isolation of features. It was a singular style he’d perfected in the eight years since he graduated from Foothill.
Kate leaned her thin arms against the back of the bench and scanned the collection of photographs.
O’Connor’s portrait work was often controversial to the celebrities and other public figures who clamored for his attention, but the artist had managed to create a stunning mystique with his meteoric rise from fashion to portrait photography. His portrait work had appeared in leading magazines around the world. He was notoriously private, constantly in demand, and stubbornly single-minded. He used no assistants, she knew from her research, and he absolutely never captured the subject’s full visage.
“Hey, Kate? Are you in here?”
She turned, hearing a familiar voice call from the entrance of the gallery. She smiled when Michelle, her friend and roommate from freshman year, walked around a corner. Kate lifted a hand in greeting.
“Hey.” She scooted over to share the small bench. “How’d you know I was in here?”
“Where else are you before your first class on Thursday?” Michelle sat down beside her. “Still studying the enigmatic portrait?”
“Mmhmm,” Kate said with a nod, then both girls fell silent as they stared toward the wall. “It’s just so… not him.”
“But it is him.”
“But it’s not.”
Michelle rolled her eyes. “Whatever, photography geek. You’re obsessed.”
The picture that continued to fascinate Kate, even after years of contemplation, was a small 8×10 in the top right corner of the wall. It wasn’t a typical “O’Connor portrait” for a number of reasons—though it might appear to be to someone less well-versed in his work. It had always caught her eye, despite the fact that it wasn’t the most prominently displayed picture on the wall.
The light was unique. The lens, less sharply focused. Most importantly, instead of a singular focus for the camera’s eye, the model was shown as if the photographer was looking over her right shoulder, and a man’s hand was visible resting on it, as if he was trying to capture the girl or get her attention.
It was in soft black and white. The light spilled over the the gentle curve of the girl’s jaw, shadowing her neck and reflecting off the soft strands of hair which waved behind her ear. Her head tilted as if the photographer had captured the image just before the subject turned her head, and the rise of the cheek hinted at a smile without showing one.
The man’s hand rested on the shoulder, but the tips of the fingers curled, as if they were just about to grab hold. They were long and stained at the tips. Dark hair dusted the back of the hand and wrist. The nails were neat, but the skin was cracked near the cuticles. She’d always wondered if O’Connor was the owner of the hand and who the model was whom he’d captured with such uncharacteristic tenderness.
“Don’t you have class at nine?”
Kate shrugged, still staring at the print on the wall.
“Class, Kate.” She felt Michelle shove her shoulder. “You know… the reason you’ve been coming here every day for six years?”
Finally, she shook her head and looked over at Michelle. “Yeah… class. What time is it?”
“About ten to. You should get going.”
She grumbled and bent to pick up her backpack and camera bag. Tossing another look at the mystery portrait and hoisting her bags over her shoulder, she trudged toward the exit with Michelle.
“Hey!” Kate suddenly stopped, looking at her friend. “What are you doing in here? You don’t have class on this floor, do you?”
“Oh!” Michelle’s eyes lit up. “Professor Seever told me about some new sketches that someone cleaning out the painting studio found last month. They’re by Rhodes, from when she was going here. Just anatomy studies, I guess, but she’s notable enough now that they matted them and put them up. I was going to take a look.”
Kate nodded toward the painting section. “Well, let’s go. My class is right down the hall, so I still have a few minutes. Plus,” she grinned, “Bradley’s teaching this one; he won’t mind if I’m a little late.”
“A little?” Michelle laughed. Heading toward the opposite side of the long, narrow gallery, the two girls approached an collection of paintings from various graduates, some still known and many others who had drifted into obscurity. In the middle of the far wall, between an abstract portrait in charcoal and a watercolor seascape in oils, hung three simple frames containing pen and ink studies. They were small, no more than eight by twelve inches, but had been matted so the notable signature of the artist was evident.
The top sketch was a study of a man’s arm and neck from the side. It was long and muscled, the definition particularly detailed along the neck and shoulder. The middle picture was a leg and foot. The thigh was lean and defined, its knee bent as if the model was lying down on a flat surface.
It was when Kate’s eyes reached the bottom sketch that her breath caught in her throat. She stepped closer, her eyes riveted to the wall. Inside the plain matte was the study of a male hand—a very familiar hand. In fact, one glance told her that the long fingers, smooth calluses and slightly cracked cuticles of that hand belonged, without a doubt in her mind, to the same man who grasped the shoulder of the model in the mysterious O’Connor portrait.
She stared, transfixed by the same hand that she had studied from a different angle, in a unique work, done in an entirely separate medium on the other side of the gallery.
“It’s the same,” she whispered. “It has to be. Who—”
Her wide blue eyes finally left the frame to stare blankly at her friend.
Michelle looked at her watch. “Class, Kate. You’re going to be really late if you don’t leave right now.”
“Oh.” She drew in a ragged breath. “Okay, thanks.”
Michelle cocked her head and looked at her. “You all right?”
Kate nodded. “Uh-huh. Sure. We, uh… we better go.”
Glancing back at the sketch, Kate turned and left the alumni gallery where the two hands, one drawn in pen and one captured by the lens, almost seemed to reach toward each other from opposite silent walls.
coming May 2012
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