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This is a short story that I hope to expand to a middle grade novel one day. I really hope you like it! 

The Trudelle
 

I saw you steal the painting last Tuesday night. I was there, crouched beneath the Picasso- and I saw you steal Trudelle’s painting. 

Renee tore the letter from her notebook, crumpled it to a ball, and tossed it to her feet. It all seemed so foolish! She started again:

Dear K,

Look. I know I shouldn’t have been in the Jepson Center late last Tuesday night, either. But the “PHOTOGRAPHY STRICTLY PROHIBITED” signs plastered in every room and the vigilant security guards standing in each corner gave me no other choice- I, too, wanted to see that Trudelle painting. So at 11 pm, I am there, too, crouched beneath the Picasso, wearing my softest, quietest soles, armed with my camera and a fresh roll of full color film. I adjust the aperture and shutter speed- *tic, tick, tlick… the hallways are dark and dead- I square up the Trudelle. It looks even more beautiful through the viewfinder - 

It’s an oil painting showing a summer scene in Old Montreal, Canada, after a fresh fall of rain. Tall brick buildings in tan and cream line the cobblestone streets, purple flowerbeds in nearly every window. The scene is bustling with people… talking together, walking together, riding bicycles or sharing strawberry croissants outside Le Tangerine Cafe, its lights spilling orange warmth into the streets. A small white terrier waits hopefully near its tables. Further down the street, one carriage car stops in front of a boutique with windows boasting sequined dresses in burgundy and bronze, goggling three excited women, and two black-tie bellhops eagerly await to open the door to “Le Grand Palace,” a squat hotel painted entirely purple and gold. Pigeons and children alike scamper every square inch of sidewalk, leaving crumbs and bouncy balls in their trails. The puddled street stretches towards the horizon, kissing the cloudy sky. There is one building in the far distance, almost concealed by low clouds, that is slightly taller than the rest. It is the only building with a balcony…  The balcony juts out awkwardly into the street, catching the attention of children below. One points up at it, his mouth gaping open. I can barely make out a small cluster of people… children, I think, sitting together atop a smoke-filled balcony. I squint closer. They are talking together. One is a young girl, with carrot colored hair… her brow is furrowed, her tiny hand clenched around a small bouquet of purple, flowers… is that lavender? What’s that about? I readjust my lense, hoping to catch a closer look when- 

 Something black blocks my view.

I snap my shutter, impulsively. The flash goes off.

And there you are, caught in my photograph, stealing Trudelle’s Canadian Street Mingle.

Look, K. I don’t want to turn you in. I just want to know why you stole the painting.

-R

Renee stood up from her desk. The last tea-colored rays of sunshine struggled through her bedroom window. Across from her was a squat green sofa strewn with library books and paper scraps. She sighed gently and slumped into it, sending little bits of handwritten notes into the air. It smelled of mothballs and defeat. She’d been researching Montreal all week and still found nothing… How could she when her newest library book, Canada in the Summertime, was over ten years old and had nothing but pictures of flowers? Even The Political French Climate told nothing of the war raging in Canada. She screamed into the cushions and stale, starchy lint balls collected on her tongue. Above the couch hung a bulletin board filled with pictures. Renee looked at the photo of her on her last birthday, celebrating with her grandmother. They smiled in their shared home, a homemade pie with 21 candles and a vase of Grammie’s lavender on the table. They had the same, ample brown cheeks and fuzzy hair that stuck out in fifty different directions like soft cacti. Renee smiled- she knew where she got her looks from. Beside that, pinned directly in the center, was the photograph.

K stands like a ninja in the dim museum hallway, clothed entirely in black. She wears red cateye glasses, the same color as the museum chair she stands on, and has carrot-colored hair that balloons out like puffy foxtails. Renee looked closely at her gloves… then up at her eyes, red and widened from the flash. Strapped across her body was a silky fanny pack and, hanging from it, a chunky silver keychain with the letter K. She holds the painting. 

Why did she steal it? And who was she? Renee wasn’t even sure if her name began with K, afterall… but she had nothing else to go off of. She opened her desk. Inside was a clipping from the newspaper, published the day after.

New Painting Disappears from Museum. 2018.

The Jepson museum’s latest installation, Trudelle’s Canadian Street Mingle, went missing last night at 11:40 pm. This painting, unviewed by public eye, arrived in suspicious package and was under investigation by state officials. The Jepson security kindly invites anyone with knowledge of its whereabouts to please step forward. Search will intensify if not recovered.

Renee reread the article for the thousandth time and let out a long sigh. The painting, she knew, harboured clues of present-day Montreal. She had risked her life to take a picture of it. It had somehow made it down, across the border patrol, and into her small town of Williamsburg, Virginia, of all places. But why here, what did we know about Canada? She had heard of Les Araignees, French for the spiders, the French rebel group and their street warfare. She had heard of women and children who went missing, kidnapped under their control. She hadn’t, however, heard what had happened to Grammie, who promised she was just visiting on a short mission trip. Renee wanted to know so badly what had happened to her. How had she gotten across the Canadian border? What happened to her, and why couldn’t the police tell her? It made Renee so angry, she wanted to fight back, take back what they had stolen from her, bring Grammie home even though she smelled too strongly of perfume and bleached lavender. It’s to ward the bugs away, a natural dazer to humans, too. Grammie’s voice rang in her head. She missed Grammie’s homemade soup, even though it tasted like curdled milk. I could poison a crowd with this recipe! Grammie’s little voice continued. And she even missed Grammie setting the house on fire with her pies… Renee wanted every bit of her back. Where was she? Had something happened to her? Could she… have been killed by Les Araignees? Renee couldn’t think about that. She stood up, shook the image from her head, and snatched her car keys- she needed jam and coffee cream.

She parked the car in the Provigo Grocery parking lot. 

“Papers for 50 cents!” screamed a gray-haired man sitting just outside the entrance, waving a rolled up newspaper in her face. Police to Search Homes for Missing Trudelle.

“I’ll take one,” she handed him a dollar, “and keep the change.” Inside. Bright lights and colorful boxes. I’m in a jam, she thought, reaching for a jar of strawberry Smuckers. She pulled the last jar from the shelf and could see light coming through from the next isle over. She peered into it, watching people pass shelves of bread. 

“Put that back,” a mom scolded her son. One man in scrubs squinted at the back of a tomato can. To his right, an elderly couple inched by cradling prunes and canes. But wait- who was that? A shadow wooshed past, wearing a bright pair of red glasses. Renee craned her neck, following her, and saw a short, foxtail-haired lady heading to the cash.

Renee grabbed her groceries. Her mind felt like it had been bathed in ice. She crept to the end of the isle and craned her neck over the spice rack… foxtails disappeared behind a mountain of bananas. Renee took another step but her shoe struck something hard, sending her backwards into a whirlwind of bright boxes and fluorescent lights. She tried to catch her fall but her arms were filled with groceries. She landed flat on the ground. The piercing cries of shattered glass enunciated her landing.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” The shopper jerked his cart out of the way. He continued on, the tiny wheels squeaking, even though they now were covered in strawberry jam. 

“Shoot,” Renee whispered. She stood up, grabbed what she could, and scurried to the registers. No foxtails at Cash 1. Cash 2? No, the line was too long… and Cash 3 was for lotto tickets. She must be outside. Renee dropped her groceries and ran for the door, ignoring the worker’s disgruntled scolds from behind her.

Outside, seas of cars surrounded her like fish, glinting in the sun. Okay, look for the hair, Renee scanned the parking lot, she can’t have gone far. Ginger pigtails, sixties beehive, pink mohawk… was that a toupee? Focus! Renee snapped. She ran through the rows. Think, think, think! Still nothing, nothing, nothing, and then- there it was. A chunky silver letter K dangling from a fanny bag. Renee stared at it in disbelief. K hand tugged at the zipper and pulled out a key ring. Renee looked up. Ting, ting! Her little pink car sang, and she pulled the doors open and set her groceries down, smiling lightly. And then K turned, ever so slightly, catching Renee’s eyes. They both froze. It was the same lady from her photograph, and they both knew it.

K dashed into her car and turned the keys, roaring the engine to life. She backed out so quickly that her car bounced like a cartoon, screeching little cotton balls of smoke into the air. She rolled down the window, tossing her foxtailed hair behind her.

“Get in,” she said, flashing a toothy smile.

Renee pulled the door handle and stepped inside, feeling the fuzzy pink cheetah lining. A little solar powered chicken danced on the dashboard.

“Why did you steal it?” Renee surprised herself with her impulsiveness. K peered over her cateye glasses, pursing her cherry-red lips.

“Listen, hun, you wouldn’t believe me even if I lied,” K sang, raising her eyebrows. Steam filled Renee’s mind.

“The police are looking for it everywhere.” Renee stared back in disbelief. K shrugged, smacked her lips, and turned the radio knob to the right.

“I know, hun. So what d’you like to listen to?”

Renee sat, stunned. Familiar buildings flashed quickly past. She felt her pocket, just to be sure that her phone was still there… 911 was only one call away.

“Where are we going?”

“Oh sugar plum, why don’t we go shopping on the beach? Or, I don’t know,” K giggled excitedly, “Canada!” 

“Listen. I’m not here for your stupid games.”

“Nobody’s callin’ anyone stupid, hun,”

“Why did you steal that painting?” Renee said through seethed breaths. K slammed on the brakes. Someone honked behind her. Renee whipped around.

“K! Could you not do that on the fricken highway!”

“The name’s Kitty, dang it!”

“Fine! Whatever your name is!”


Kitty’s car screeched like a record before tumbling onto the grassy side. She punched the radio off.

“My daughter went missing ten years ago.”

Everything was silent except for the soft tick, tick of the dancing chicken on the dashboard. Kitty started to sob. 

“She’s… she’s in that painting!” Kitty collapsed, hitting her head against the wheel, sounding the horn. It made a low dribble like a deflating balloon. Renee’s mind went tight as if someone had wrung it dry. 

“I’m- I’m sorry,” Kitty straightened up, black tears running down her chin, “You shouldn’t have to see me like this.” Renee looked at her. She thought of Grammie. She knew what it felt like to miss, to lose, to spend hours searching their mind for someone.

“It’s why I’m here,” Renee grabbed Kitty’s shoulders.   

Renee still remembered the day Grammie left. They were both in Grammie’s room, packing her case. It was brimming to the zipper with dried lavender sachets.

“That’s to keep Les Araignées away,” Grammie’s eyes were wide as vinyl records, “them spiders despise lavender.” She hugged Renee tightly, promised she’d be back soon, and reminded her that she’d only be gone for a short while on her mission trip. When she let go, Renee felt a shower of love and empty promises, knowing her trip would be a lot longer than they’d hoped. Renee brushed the memory away.

 

“Can you tell me what happened, with your daughter?”

They sat there, parked at the side of the street, and Kitty told Renee her story. 

“Ten years ago there was a riot in the streets. I was visiting Montreal, with my daughter, Gogo. It was only our third night there. We heard worried whispers in the streets and saw hands cupped over ears, folded notes passed around us in haste… something was going on, and Gogo was especially afraid. ‘When will we make it home, mama?’ she kept asking. One night, we were visiting Le Tangerine, the famous orange cafe on Main Street, when an army of black-vested men marched past its windows. I was chatting with the owner, a small, gray-haired lady. I asked her who the men were. ‘We do not speak of them,’ she told me, ‘anyone who does disappears, never to be heard from again… the healthy ones have heart attacks and the sick ones die, if they’re lucky.’ A young, bearded man with paint on his nose looked in my direction, and I could tell he knew we were foreign, knew we were confused, knew that we knew nothing. This was Trudelle, but I did not know him yet.  My daughter hugged my sleeve. Her eyes were wide, she had never seen men so strong carrying guns so big.  The next day, she was taken.” Renee reached out and grabbed Kitty’s arm, letting Kitty wail into her shoulder.

“I’m so, so sorry,” Renee stammered, “You can keep talking, but only if you feel like.” Tears stung Renee’s eyes now, too.

“We were in the streets. Trudelle was there with us that day. He was at his easel, painting. It had just rained, and the sun was poking out through the clouds. We were on our way back to Le Tangerine for breakfast, when we heard the grating sound of rolling tanks behind us. Out jumped Les Araignees. Everyone turned to look at the men. They wore spiders on their backs. We could not see their covered faces, could not see their eyes through their dark masks. Children scampered in the streets, even the pigeons flew away… I heard a single gunshot. I could not look. I reach for Gogo, grabbing as tightly as I can to the back of her pink dress. Another loud bang  and a piercing wail. Dirt, blood, screams, gun smoke stains the air. I cannot see, cannot hear anything above the screaming and ringing in my ears. I lift Gogo up, locking her to my chest, shielding her from the war around me… The bullet hits my shoulder. I am still clutching her, clutching for her dear life… a strong arm wrenches her away. I scream, I wail, everything is turning into a blur around me, my heart fills with pounds of swollen lead, when the bearded man from the easel gently pulls my collar and ushers me aside. I later wake up to his painted face, dirtied from the street, in Le Tangerine. The place looks like a hurricane has passed through, its windows shattered out and insides littered with sleeping bodies and broken plates. ‘Mademoiselle,’ he says, and I can hardly understand him through his thick French accent, ‘Stay with me.’ He nurses my back with napkins and liquid from his flask. Days pass. I sleep there, too paralyzed and fear-stricken to move. I remember seeing Trudelle check in on me, feeling for my pulse and touching wet rags to my forehead and shoulder. Soon, the troops came, wearing little US flag pins on their collars. They swooped me up, told me I needed to return to America, where I will be safe… I kicked and screamed, I could not leave without my daughter.. Gogo! Gogo! I cried. ‘I will write to you,’ Trudelle screamed, ‘and I will search for her.’”

Renee stared out at the street. Her face squeezed like a lemon, and sour tears rolled into her mouth.

“I’m… I’m so, so sorry,” she croaked. “Did he ever write to you?”

“While he could. He told me terrors of the rebellion, that it was getting worse and worse, that they were taking over, that he was afraid his letters might be intercepted…” 

“That’s horrible,” Renee sobbed.

“Then one day, the letters stopped. It reached our newspaper that the rebel army had gained control, were taking over.”

“So… your daughter, she’s in this painting?”

“Ah. I believe this is Trudelle’s message to me. That girl on the balcony, with the puffy orange hair?”

Renee looked over at Kitty and, it was true, she could see the resemblance. Kitty continued,

“When I saw the painting, I just knew. She looks the spitting image of me when I was ten. And that street… It’s the street. I last saw it flooded with gun smoke.”

Renee understood.

Kitty dropped Renee off at her house that evening with her cell number and a box of tissues. Renee returned to her room, exhausted with emotion, ready to slump into bed and drown the day away. She turned the handle. Inside, everything was upturned. Her room had been searched. She ran to her desk. Her letter and picture of Kitty stealing the painting were gone. 

“Listen, they have your picture. They know you stole the painting.” Renee screamed at Kitty through the phone.

“Pack your bags,” Kitty said, “I’m leaving Williamsburg. And you’re coming with me.”

One day later

Kitty parked the car outside of the red Gas ‘N Go. The door opened and Renee ran out  with a small wad of dollar bills. 

“And don’t forget my Pickle Chips!” Kitty screamed after her. 

 In the checkout, Renee glanced nervously around the store, testing her audience. She felt like she was being watched. Don’t be silly, she thought, the photo was of K, not of you. She eyed the trashy magazines at the counter. Edwin Shea had a new tattoo, John Sierra got married, again. And then, right below, she saw the headline. TRUDELLE THIEF PHOTOGRAPHED and Renee’s picture of Kitty, caught stealing the painting, blown up across the front.

Renee was too nervous to put her seatbelt on.

“Just DRIVE, Kitty.”

“Look, I can’t go too fast! I’ve… I’ve got precious cargo.”

“Precious cargo, really? What’s that?”

“D’you really wanna know?” Kitty drawled, throwing Renee a side glance. “Look in the backseat.”

Renee turned her head. There it was, the Trudelle painting, in its full glory, resting face-up on the cheetah print seat cover. Renee stared at it in disbelief, then at K, who smiled. The painting was as beautiful as she remembered. She spun around in her seat to look closer. Her eyes went straight to the wide-eyed kids, shocked and staring. She followed their gaze, landing on a young girl sitting atop the balcony. There was no doubt about it… there she was, Kitty’s girl Gogo, with carrot-colored hair. But what else? What was Trudelle trying to tell us? Was this where the children were being kept? Renee’s thoughts were interrupted by the blaring of sirens. Red and blue lights flooded her vision.

“Shoot. Shoot, shoot, SHOOT!” Kitty screamed. The police car was riding directly beside her now. Kitty sighed and pulled over to the roadside and rolled the window down slowly. 

The police officer was very friendly- he wrote a ticket because Kitty was speeding and Renee did not have her seatbelt on, chuckled because young women can be foolish and bade them farewell… but just as Kitty was pulling off, the police officer called after her,

“Wait a minute, ma'am… I saw you on the front page of the paper!”

Kitty pressed on the gas and the car went flying. Renee looked back at the painting. It was only a matter of time before the police caught up to them, and she knew it. She wanted to take one last look at it while she could. She wanted to memorize its colors, discover its secret… The kids on the balcony. Why was their building different from the rest? The balcony doors were open, smoke was flowing out… She thought of Grammie, and she thought of Grammie’s burnt pies. The little bush of lavender in Gogo’s hands… lavender. It’s to ward Les Araignees away, Grammie sang in her head.

“Kitty…” Renee choked.

“Not now, Renee! Can’t you see, I’m trying to outrace the police here…”

“Kitty, my Grammie…”

“How far behind us are they?” her cateyes filled the rearview.

“KITTY! Listen to me! I think my Grammie has your daughter!”

Kitty swerved.

“Where in the world did you get this idea from?”

“Lavender… it’s how my Grammie made it across the border. She left on a mission trip last year, her suitcase was filled with the stuff. She’s always said it would keep the spiders away, that it had the power to put anyone in a daze. And Gogo? She’s holding lavender.”

“So what?”

“That balcony, that must be where Grammie is staying! That smoke flooding the balcony? She burns pies, everything she cooks. We can get past the border, find her, find your daughter. You know where the street is?”

“I could never forget. You in?” 

“I’m in,” Renee croaked, “Let’s go save that daughter of yours. And my Grammie.”

“But first? To the florist.” Katherine smiled. She rolled the windows down, sending her foxtails flying swiftly behind her. The police behind them were gone, had given up the chase, had probably thought they were seeing things. Renee felt the breeze rustle her short hair, and smiled at the little chicken, dancing on the dashboard. K pushed down on the gas, sending her pink car flying down the dusty highway. The Canadian border was only a few more hours away. 

 

Six months later

TRUDELLE RETURNED TO JEPSON, 2020.

The Jepson museum boasts the return of Trudelle’s Canadian Street Mingle, famous for cluing local Renee and Katherine of Williamsburg to the war-torn streets of Montreal. After crossing the border with armfuls of lethal lavender and poisoning soups of the rebel army with the help of Renee’s Grandmother, the two found Katherine’s missing daughter. Gogo. If you look closely at the painting, you will see Gogo sitting atop the balcony, holding lavender. 

 

As peace slowly returns to Canada, we invite you to a public viewing ceremony with none other than Trudelle and the heroes themselves. Tickets 5 dollars each, proceeds benefit war-torn Canadian families. Lavender available for purchase at the entrance.

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