Vignettes Regarding the Artwork of Brendon Kotes
Diana Tagalori—six years old and a perfect cross of princess and tomboy with her summer dress frilly and lavender yet with dirt riding the hem and a frog in a mesh bag about her wrist—sat at a tea table with chipped porcelin cups and hot chocolate leaving brown smears across every available surface. Red hair hung straight across her shoulders, the fronts brushed and carefully stroked now and then, while the back could have hid a nest or three and a couple of eggs.
“Mr. Brendon, will you play with me? I have cookies.” And she held out an empty hand, the mesh bag swinging wildly and the frog fumbling about within, webbed feet strugging to find purchase among all the holes.
Orion swept his fingers across Diana’s, adeptly picking up an imaginary cookie and gobbling it before Brendon could step forward. “Delicious! Ms. Tagalori, you are an amazing cook.”
Diana glared at him. “That was for Mr. Brendon. He’s the one who paints.”
Orion actually moued, stammering apologies in a way Brendon would have never imagined the suave lawyer could do. Calling Diana, Miss and Ma’am and Lady without the added moniker of “young” that often hid a twist of condescension.
With a twirl of a red lock between dirty fingers and an indulgent nod, Diana said, “I forgive you. Dad says I have to forgive anyone who apologizes and means it.”
At the doorway, Paul Tagalori chuffed a laugh and shrugged self-consciously.
“Wise words from your father.”
“Mr. Brendon, here’s a cookie for you.” And she narrowed her gaze at Orion in warning.
After Brendon swallowed an imaginary cookie, he stepped back, feeling out of place within the unicorn and pond décor, colorful treefrog decals climbing up Diana’s wood-stained windowframe as if attempting to escape into the wooded back yard. The area rug sat on stain-riddled carpet and was fast approaching a similar level of stain of paint and dirt and chalk that would have earned him punishment in his youth. He found himself jealous of Diana, wishing his own room had been as much as a canvas as hers.
“Can you tell me about Mr. Brendon’s painting?” Orion nodded behind Diana to where, against the wall right above her bed, hung a merry-go-round, but the top had flown free and the poles sat caught mid-swirl against escaping creatures of the like of unicorns, dragons, and eagles. A pegasus with wings outstretched had just launched itself into the air toward freedom while a fairy hung back, picking at the diminishing pole stuck to her back.
“It’s my painting now.”
“Yes. Your father bought it for you.”
“A birthday present.”
“When she turned four,” volunteered the aforementioned father who still lingered in the doorway, a bemused expression seemingly locked onto his face. “She’s like a whirlwind of color, so I asked Brendon to capture that.”
“And he did, quite vividly,” said Orion warmly.
Brendon turned from the praise, feeling a familiar sense of warmth-wrapped-discomfort rising in his chest. But Orion had already moved on, leaning over Diana’s bed to examine the painting closer.
“Which animal’s your favorite?”
Diana seemed to consider this as she stroked her frog gently. Then she looked up, but toward Brendon rather than Orion. “My favorite is the black kitty.”
“The panther?” asked Orion, pointed toward the half-blocked creature sitting on the opposite side of the merry-go-round center, its paws outstretched in a leap, its eyes skyward, its tail peeking out the opposite curve of the pole.
“The black cat,” she corrected, “He lets me pet him.”
Brendon sucked in a sharp breath. It hung like ice in his lungs, even as he heard Diana’s innocent admission echoing in his ears. Distantly he was aware of Diana’s father chuckling, mentioning how he’d moved the painting once to do some touch-up paint and Diana had cried for days until finally explaining how she missed her kitty. Took them another couple of days until they understood she’d meant the picture, so they’d moved it back quickly, despite the drying paint on the walls.
There was more. Orion speaking about his client and how she wished to have that level of connection with a Kotes painting. Diana murmuring to her frog. The whole of them fading into some unknown space.
And for just a few short minutes, Brendon could all but feel the atmosphere suck into oblivion. For his limbs to go stiff and cold with boiled blood. For an engine’s silent roar to echo in his ears.
Then Orion had him by the elbow and was guiding him toward the car, pleasantries fading, the smell of Diana’s hot chocolate somehow lingering, like it’d hitched a ride on Orion’s suit, someplace hidden.
“She’s safe,” murmured Orion in a surprisingly soothing voice. “She’s safe on her merry-go-round with her fantasy animals and her panther.”
But Brendon hadn’t been thinking of Diana. Nor of Emma or Jennifer or any other customer. He’d been thinking of Casey. And of a long straightaway. And a devil of a car.