Smiling for the Camera

Stormy

“I’ve witnessed the love that shines through Stormy’s broken foundation, like the sun’s warmth shines through sidewalk cracks coaxing flowers to grow. A blossoming creativity that shines like a faraway lightning storm, dazzling as it pierces an inky sky,” says Roberta Kay in this beautiful story. She also exhorts the reader to respond to his/her own Muse.

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I know the demons that drive her.

The demons she soothes with her charcoal pencil, acrylics, or sidewalk chalk. Her pain runs deep in the folds of her body—an ache that flares in her leg giving her a limp.

I know how she translates her pain into beauty.

Like her name, our girl’s a whirlwind of beauty and chaos dancing together in a teenage body.

Stormy.

 

In a cramped apartment sandwiched among hundreds of identical apartments in a smoggy urban block surrounded by the hustle and bustle of people just getting by, Stormy stands in front of a wall in the girls’ bedroom.

Mama’s hand rests on her shoulder, and they stare together at what the muse has shaped through Stormy’s hands. The scent of acrylics and turpentine permeate the space.

The wall is a gift. A blank wall given to her as a tapestry—Mama’s way of saying, “I know this is hard, but you are strong, and together, we’ll make the best of the situation.”

Change, an unwelcome guest, has crossed their threshold—a change that sends Stormy reeling with rebellion.

Ever since she arrived, Stormy’s days gloom and doom. For as long as she’s had memory, that tiny apartment has been her whole world—a perfect life, just her and Sunny and Mamma. Now, they have to squeeze another body into their already cramped quarters.

As a baby, Stormy didn’t speak a word until long after her toddler years. Her only form of outward expression was through crayons and paper. Most parents would have taken her to specialists and therapists, but Mamma didn’t have that luxury. During those formative years, they lived in their station wagon, traveling a zig-zag route—west to east, with an eye behind them to be sure they were not followed. From one town to the next, stopping only long enough for Mamma to find some menial job to scrape a few dollars together for food and gas.

Drawing was Stormy’s nourishment. More interested in the sketch books Mama provided for her than the PBJs her sister had to encourage her to eat. Stormy spoke through her pictures. Her older sister understood every line. Every squiggle.

Older by eighteen months, Sunny would wrap Stormy in her protective arms in the back of the station wagon parked outside the bar or restaurant where Mamma worked. Before Sunny could read the words, she’d whisper stories while the two snuggled under a blanket and looked at picture books with a flashlight.

Some of our greatest gifts rise from our broken places—flowers blooming through cracked sidewalks.

This girl with a limp possesses an acute sensitivity and attention to detail that empowers her creativity. But it makes being a teen feel like walking barefoot on broken glass.

Mother and daughter stand together in front of a mural of golden sun playing with a dark billowing cloud. Two girls with wings dancing in the light, playing hide and seek in the shadows. Playing catch with lightning bolts and dancing in sparkling diamond raindrops.

Mamma’s soft voice doesn’t accuse, but disappointment blushes her expression. “Isn’t there something missing? I see Sunny and Stormy—two. But now you are three. Isn’t there room for another?”

“Mamma, we don’t have room for her here. You just got that raise. Sunny and I thought we were going to get new clothes, new stuff. Less scrimping.”

“Come here and sit.” Mamma gets Stormy’s hairbrush and sits next to her on the bed. As she brushes her long, dark hair, she asks, “What’s the real problem?”

Stormy squares her shoulders and puffs out her answer. “Too many people in too small a space.”

Mamma continues brushing without speaking. When she finishes brushing, she braids Stormy’s hair in one long braid down the back as she did in younger years. “Okay, sweets.”

Then she turns her daughter around face to face, putting her hands on her shoulders. “Sometimes we receive good things not just for us but because others need them too. Liza needs us now. Can’t we share our home and our love?”

By the time Stormy was ready for first grade, they’d found a tiny place in a bustling city to settle down, thousands of miles from home. A monolith of an apartment building in black stucco with immense, outdoor, slate-gray stairwells, zig-zagging across its back side.

Stormy loved the tickle of the stucco across her palm. When she walked the fat, colored chalk across the wall’s grooves and niches, it limped like she did. The wide-open space provided freedom of expression not found on paper.

But the building manager was less than enthused by the splashes of color Stormy used to brighten up the walls of his building. She has a clear memory of the blue vein that throbbed in the balding red head as the manager waved his hands and pointed a fat accusing finger at Stormy.

Mamma soothed the man, like a balm on a sunburn, with a calmness that indicated experience in the face of such outbursts. She negotiated permission for Stormy to draw on the cement sidewalks and floors of the outdoor hallways.

“Weather and feet will eventually wash it away. Besides, a little color never hurt anyone.”

With a huffy “Fine,” he concluded negotiations with the threat to make her pay for the paint job if he found one speck of chalk dust on the black stucco.

The rough cement wasn’t nearly as interesting to draw on, but even at a tender age, Stormy knew better than to inflame the embers of an angry authority.

If the man recognized his face as she practiced sketching that round head and bulging vein on the sidewalk floors, he never mentioned it.

Stormy blooms beauty into the world. She sees nuances and contours like the pause between each breath. When a cardinal sings, Stormy sketches crimson wings. When thunder rolls, she draws ocean waves crashing on rocks. When children laugh and play, her curvy chalk lines are so bright and light they seem to dance above the ground.

Sitting silently on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building, Stormy listens to the slow pattern of fat raindrops plip pop plopping around her. A lazy summer shower. Not refreshing, but tacky on her skin. The salty, sizzling drops steam from the pavement, tickling her nose. A charcoal sky presses upon the stifling day, another layer of gloominess to her miserable summer.

Plop—more raindrops drip onto her scalp and ooze down her neck, down her bent forehead, into her ears, onto the chalk drawing on the sidewalk. Drawing is her only comfort. Sunny spends all her time with the other one, the intruder. What's so special about her, anyway. Just cuz you're practically twins. I'm your sister. She's a cousin, a cousin from a family we never knew existed.

Far off, over the drone of traffic, thunder grumbles.

Without a word to anyone, Stormy slipped out of the apartment with a handful of the darkest colors from her box of sidewalk chalk. Out of sight of the windows, she’s alone. As if they’d even notice I was gone. When her angry thoughts poke at her heart, she closes it. And her mind. All her emotions flow through her hands. Lost to the world around her, she draws lines and curves. When the raindrops make a hole, she colors it again, or leaves it, depending on which looks better.

From time to time, she comes out of her trance when a door clacks shut. Then, with ears wide open, she pretends she isn't listening. Her back faces the building, stiff as if anticipating a touch to her shoulder.

Her artwork draws her out of her dismal world and carries her into dreamy new horizons with escapes and escapades only she can see. For a delicious moment, she lives in places that only exist in her heart and across the bridge into her mind. Only she decides who’s worthy to share her art and her heart.

A voice behind her startles her. “Oh my God!”

The chalk clatters to the ground. Her heart races. In the split second before she recognizes the voice, Stormy worries it’s The Creep. He’s snuck up on them too many times.

“Stormy, that's gorgeous! Oh, this damn rain is going to wash everything away.”

The Intruder. Stormy’s heart slows to an angry thud.

Liza, in her cut-off jeans and baggy t-shirt that exposes her shoulder, sits next to Stormy, tracing her fingers across the lines and smearing them.

“We made chocolate monster cookies.” Liza’s voice is light and cheery.

“It's sooooo hot.” Liza waves a limp hand in front of her. “I can't believe we baked on a day so stuffy.” She leans back, her arms propping her up and turns her head, so the raindrops splash her face.

Stormy gathers her pieces of chalk and moves to the other side of her drawing.

Liza sings in a deep, throaty voice. “Don't you love her madly…” Her knees swing back and forth, bouncing a drawn-out rhythm while she continues the song she and Sunny were dancing to when Stormy walked out the door.

“Sunny's washing her hair. Cold bath. I'm going in after her.” Liza pushes off her hands and lifts the bottom of her t-shirt to wipe her damp face. The hairs on the back of Stormy’s neck prickle under the steady gaze of her cousin.

She wonders if Liza can feel her animosity as sweltering as the summer heat.

With a voice still light and cheery, Liza gets up after Sunny calls for her and says, “I'll be quick. Then we're going to feast on chocolate monsters and orange soda. You have to join us, Stormy. It's more fun with all of us.”

Liza runs inside, but before the door clicks shut, Stormy hears her run back. With a camera, Liza takes pictures of Stormy’s drawing.

“It's too beautiful to be washed away and forgotten.” Then Liza gazelle-prances back into the house before she hears Stormy’s reply.

“I never forget.”

Pizza night, their special night, started from nights on the road. Sometimes, when the tips were good, they could afford a motel room that didn’t have a rusty tub, and the girls could luxuriate in a bubble bath and takeout pizza. Those were the best nights when they could bounce and laugh all they wanted on the bed until they tired themselves out and then stretched out together in a nice big mattress.

A precarious life. They scratched out a living, but they were happy together.

The first pizza night after Liza’s arrival, Mamma totes home extra pizzas and two jumbo tubs of mint chocolate chip ice cream. “Let's celebrate. A welcome party for Liza.”

Stormy refuses to participate.

Mamma piles everything on the kitchen table. Her keys clatter as they drop next to the bounty. “Sunny, put on some music, then get some sodas. Stormy, open the pizzas and put them on plates.” She moves to the sink to wash her hands.

Stormy grumbles but obeys. She pulls the tops off and lets out a little gasp. “Oh, what's this?”

Without looking behind her, Mamma says, “I believe it's anchovies, sweets.”

“A whole pizza?”

“Yes, well, it's a celebration. Liza dear, pour the chips in a bowl.”

A whole pizza with her favorite toppings—anchovies with extra cheese and olives. A whole pizza. She’s the only one in the family who would touch anchovies. 

Liza Minnelli pours her soul out from the living room. “Maybe this time…”

They carry everything to the coffee table in front of the couch, then toss the couch cushions on the floor around it and feast.

After they devour the food with gusto, and before the movie starts, Mamma calls the girls to curl up with her on the couch.

“I'm so sorry for what you're going through, Liza, but we, all three of us, welcome you. We are your family, if you'll have us. Your mother and your sisters. We will love you no matter what.”

Mamma tucks a lock of Stormy’s hair behind her ear. “Liza’s mom was my sister. Like you two, we were practically twins. We did everything together. We got married, had our first babies about the same time. My heart aches for her every day. The hardest thing I ever did in my life was leave her behind.

“I’m your godmother, Liza. I made a vow to take care of you if anything ever happened. So when your mother and father died in that car accident, the lawyers knew how to find me and bring you to our home.”

She looks at Sunny and Liza. “Liza, did you know that Sunny’s real name is Isabella? You two were named after beautiful daughters of glamorous movie stars.”

The girls have never heard the story of their names before.

“And you, Audrey,” Mamma says as she looks at Stormy, “I gave you the name of the actress with the most spunk and personality.”

“Mamma, why didn’t you tell us…”

Mama's eyes got dreamy. And when she inhaled, her breath kept catching, like there was something stuck in her chest, an obstacle that the air had to pass around before it could fill her lungs. “Yes, it's a story you need to hear, but it's a long story. And not all the parts are happy.”

Another deep sigh. She strokes each girl’s cheek before she starts again. “Some parts will be difficult for you to hear. So, we'll take it in small bites. I don’t want you to be afraid of the shadowy parts of life. That’s why I want you to remember, it’s family that keeps you strong. Family that will help you face the shadows without being swallowed up in them.”

The needle on the record player scratched on the vinyl. Before she got up to turn it off, she said, “Tonight, we celebrate. We’ll save those stories for other nights. We have time, girls. I'm not going anywhere. Yes, there are shadows. There's pain in the telling, but there is also love. Much love.”


“That damn Creep. I don’t like being a prisoner in my own home.”

A steamy August afternoon and the girls sprawled over the furniture in the stuffy living room, aching to get outside. Their self-imposed confinement caused by Mr. Cooper, a.k.a. The Creep who came home from work at about this time. The Creep with his grimy paws and dirty fingernails, always finding excuses to lay his hands on the girls’ heads or backs.

Liza and Sunny sit on opposite ends of the couch. Sunny, upside down with eyes closed and singing with the vinyl records from Mama’s collection—one of the few things from their old life. Liza reads from a stack of fashion magazines lying in a messy pile over the floor.

Stormy is curled up in an overstuffed recliner by the window, chewing on her charcoal pencil with her sketchpad in her lap.

With a lion-esque yawn, Liza stretches and tosses her magazine in the middle of the couch. After an enormous body stretch to match her yawn, she gets up and gazes out the window over Stormy’s shoulder. “Wow, you’re so talented.” Liza reaches out to touch the drawing, but Stormy pulls it into her chest and stares out the window without a word.

Liza moves the curtain back to peek outside. “I think it’s going to rain. That will wash all your drawings off the pavement.”

Stormy bites harder on her pencil and grunts a non-committal, “Yeah.”

“All that work gone.”

Stormy shrugs her shoulders.

Sunny gets up to change the record. “Stormy has so many ideas in her head she could fill this whole building with drawings over and over again.” She plops back onto the sofa and swings her legs up over the back, resuming her upside-down position. “Eh, Stormy, girl?”

Another shrug from the artist.

Back on the couch, Liza picks up another magazine from the stack and resumes her position. “Why Stormy? Why Sunny?”

Silence fills the room like low-hanging clouds just before the rain. Except for the hiccup on the skipping vinyl.

Sunny jumps up, changes the record and dances around the room, crooning in an over-exaggerated deep voice. “Don’t know why… so much sun… in sky… stormy… stormy… stormy weather.”

Heaving a dramatic sigh, Stormy untangles herself from the chair. “How do you expect me to concentrate with all your racket?” With pencil and sketch pad in hand, she leaves the apartment.

Head swiveling between Sunny and the door, Liza gets up and searches out the window. “What about The Creep?”

Sunny falls onto the couch again but remains right-side up. “Don’t worry. Stormy will sit in the stairwell, going up where he won’t see her. It’s easy to hide there if you’re just one.”

Liza sits in the vacated recliner to keep watch out the window. “So, a song? Your mom named her after a song?”

Sunny laughs. “Not mom. Me. It’s my earliest memory. I don’t remember anything from the time we lived where you lived.”

They sit without speaking until the needle scratches the vinyl, signalling the end of the album. Sunny turns the player off.

“I got my name first. One day Stormy started dancing around and poking me, singing, ‘Sunny days! Sunny days!’ You know, from the kids’ show. Over n’over n’over n’over till it just became ‘Sunny.’ I remember it because of the way Mamma laughed. She didn’t laugh so much back then. But boy, the way she laughed when Stormy sang my name like that…”

Liza slinks down in her chair. “Here he comes.” She peeks over the windowsill, careful to stay behind the curtain.

Liza whispers from her crouched position. “So, then you changed Audrey to Stormy?”

Sunny squishes herself next to Liza and peers out the window. “Look. That bastard is actually looking around for us.”

“Are you sure Stormy’s okay?”

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s out of sight. Besides, she’s tough. Maybe if she’s alone and threatened enough, she’ll kick him in the balls.”

Liza stifles a laugh, and the girls hold their breath while they watch The Creep. After he descends the steps, they unfold their legs like fast-blooming flower petals and step out of recliner.

Sunny goes to the kitchen to grab a package of fig cookies. “C’mon. Let’s go find Stormy.”

“What about her name?”

“You know, I’m not sure if it’s a real memory or if I’ve been told so many times, it’s now imprinted on my brain. Anyway, it’s Stormy’s name and her story to tell.”

Mr. Cooper, a.k.a., “The Creep” lives in the basement apartments and uses the staircase that exits not far from their front door. As flat-chested girls, they held little interest for him except to kick their stuff out of the way and to grumble. “Damn doodling kids.”

The summer the girl’s bodies changed, his interest perked up like a rat sniffing for food. All of sudden Stormy’s chalk designs became as important as work in the “Looovure in gay Pareeh.” He pressed his scruffy face in so close, the girls smelled the beer waft from his breath. He became bolder with his gestures and his hands would rest on their backs, legs, or elbows.

Liza’s presence delighted him. “Three.” His voice sounded like a hungry man ordering three juicy steaks. It made their skin crawl. His leering eyes set off alarms.

Mamma taught the girls to be polite, but what would Mamma say now?

Together in the stairwell, tummies full of fig cookies, their minds calm, lulled to a sleepy stupor with the pounding rain, Sunny speaks up. “How can we be prisoners in our own home? What right does he have acting like that toward us?”

Liza raises the voice of caution. “You really want to let him touch you again?”

Not satisfied with hiding like rabbits, Sunny exclaims that something needs to be done. “We can ask him to stop.”

Stormy grunts. With a raspy, gruffy Creep voice, she says, “Stop what, little girl? Whatch yooo think yooo seein here? Got yourselves all in a little huff over what?”

The others laugh, but the seriousness of their dilemma cuts it short.

Sunny brushes the crumbs from her clothes and stands. Mamma’ll be home soon. “You’re right. We have to be smart about this. But what can we do?”

After a few days of plotting and scheming, they’re ready for action. Liza is posted inside the apartment. “Now remember, remain aloof. We don’t want to seem like we’re baiting him.”

Sunny and Stormy sit in their usual place, doodling on the sidewalk and basking in the morning sun.

The Creep stops at the top as he emerges from his stairwell. He pauses, as if taking a picture in his mind or waiting for the girls to acknowledge his presence. He leaves without a word.

Again, that evening, Sunny and Stormy sit outside when he returns. He stretches out his hand with an offering.

Without looking up, Stormy says, “No, thank you, Mr. Cooper.”

He doesn’t take no for an answer. “All girls love chocolate. It’s yours.”

Sunny answers this time. “No, thank you, Mr. Cooper.”

He places a jumbo bag of chocolate candy on Stormy’s leg. The girls stand, the bag falls to the ground, and they walk into the apartment without another word.

The next day, the same routine, but instead of chocolates, he brings teddy bears. The girls return to the house without speaking and without the bears.

The following evening, reeking of beer and sweat, he sits with the girls as if they’d accepted his gifts and were now his pets. He leans in with his stubbly face and stinking breath and asks, “Whatchya drawin? Shore is pretty.”

When Stormy doesn’t answer, he lays his hand on her head to stroke her hair. Biting down outrage, she stands and walks into the apartment without a word. Sunny right behind.

Stormy dashes to the bathroom to wash her hair. With a towel wrapped around her head, she returns to the living room, finding Sunny and Liza sitting crossed legged on the floor with a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream between them. Stormy shakes her head, refusing the spoon they offer. “I’ve had it. The Creep is getting too close. What if he makes a move and I can’t fend him off?”

Sunny smacked her lips around her spoon. She pats the floor next to her where her sister then sits. Taking the comb from Stormy’s hand, she sits on the couch behind her. First, she towel-dries her sister’s hair, then runs the comb down her long dark tresses. “You’re right, Stormy. If you don’t want to go out there anymore, that’s fine. I’ll just go out alone.”

Blowing a noisy sigh through her lips, Stormy knows Sunny has spoken the exact words needed to get her back out there. “Are you sure about this?”

“We’re close. I think we can get the bastard. Are you with me?”

“I’m always with you.”

Over the next couple of days, every time The Creep tries to sit down or move close to the girls, they rise without a word and return to the apartment. One evening, he comes home with a brown paper bag cradled in his arms. “Guess what I got, girls?”

“No thank you, Mr. Cooper.”

“Ah, come on, you don’t even want to know what it is?” He shakes the bag as if it were a Christmas present that wanted opening.

“No, thank you, Mr. Cooper.”

He descends the staircase. But from the bottom of the staircase, he calls up in a sing-song voice. “Come and see-ee.”

They don’t bother answering. Instead, they look at each other, poking fingers in their open mouths, pretending to gag.

Clink. A sound on the steps. Clink. Clank. Clink. He lines up bottles along the steps, setting one on the top, and waits for their curiosity to kick in.

“What is it, Mr. Cooper?”

“What? You girls never seen wine coolers before? All girls love wine coolers.”

“Did you say wine coolers, Mr. Cooper?” They spoke in unison.

“Not so loud!” His hands wave up and down as he pokes his head around the corner to see if anyone is looking, then rubs them together like he’s sharing a sordid secret. “Now come on, before they get warm.”

“You want us to come down to your apartment and drink wine coolers with you?” Sunny asks in a clear and loud voice.

“You girls dense or what? Yes. Now let’s go.”

“No, thank you, Mr. Cooper.”

With that, they get up and return to the apartment. Liza’s dancing with glee. Her video camera in her hand. “Look at this. This is perfect. I even got a good zoom on the bottles, so there’s no question.” With a long glance at Sunny, she says, “You cool cat, you. How smart to repeat his grossness out loud. No way for him to weasel out of this.”

High fives all around.

Stormy rubs her hands over her arms. “All I want is a long, hot shower. I need to wash a layer of scum off me.”

Sunny squeezes her sister in a great big bear hug. “Thanks for sticking it out, kid. No way, I could’ve pulled this off without you.”

Pizza and movie night. And boy, do the girls have a movie to show Mamma. After the video, they talk long and hard. Mamma plans to contact a lawyer in the morning for the best advice to handle The Creep.

They talk and plan and laugh over pizza and a movie. A vision grows in Stormy’s mind, and she spends the evening developing it while the others laugh at the comedy they put in after the adventures of The Creep.

When Mamma returns home the next afternoon, she finds Stormy in her room, face smudged with paint, studying the changes she’s made to her mural.

They stand together in comfortable silence for a long time. Without taking her gaze from the wall, she wraps one arm around her daughter’s shoulder and speaks in a soft voice. This time, pride colors her voice.

“So, you’ve figured out that the more you share love, the more it grows.”

In response, Stormy kisses Mamma’s cheek.

Sunny and Liza, who were banned from the room while Stormy worked, burst into the room and gasp at the mural.

Woven in the sunny beams playing with the stormy clouds is a vibrant rainbow. A third winged girl dances along the arc of rich colors.

Mamma’s smile beams. “Sunny, Stormy and Rainbow. Now you are three.”

I know the demons that drive her.

I was there, the day, when on wobbly toddler legs, she tottered and teetered and reached in loving happiness for the arms that should have caught her, comforted her, cradled her in paternal love.

I’ve been with her since her chubby hand picked up that first crayon.

I’ve witnessed the love that shines through Stormy’s broken foundation, like the sun’s warmth shines through sidewalk cracks coaxing flowers to grow. A blossoming creativity that shines like a faraway lightning storm, dazzling as it pierces an inky sky.

How do I know all this? I have watched through her eyes, listened through her heart, danced with the musings of her mind. I am Stormy’s Muse.

You believe muses are a myth? Ever receive a sudden epiphany from nowhere? A creative flash in the face of a monstrous challenge? Creativity is simply your unique voice in the world, seeing what others do not see. If you’re ignoring your Muse, you’re denying the world your unique talent.

I’ve shared Stormy’s story. So now it’s your turn.

The world is waiting to hear your story. Talk with your Muse.
 

Image by lilartsy

Roberta Kay currently lives in Gabon where she first came as a Peace Corps volunteer. She has enjoyed a long career as a teacher and an English (ESL) coach. Currently, she is  shifting her interests to writing and editing. Roberta works as story editor for After Dinner Conversation Magazine and interns with the copyediting team for a Christy award-winning author. She is also a volunteer reader for Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Roberta Kay weaves tales in the quiet before dawn, where dreams and reality tango and flow through her pen. A poet at heart, lifelong learner, and world wanderer, she writes stories that wrestle with the shadows and illuminations of the crazy kaleidoscope chaos of this world. Roberta Kay has settled with her family and four dogs in their home nestled in sun-soaked hibiscus gardens on the equator.