Masterpiece

Elise Broach; Illustrated by Kelly Murphy

Square Fish

CHAPTER 4: A Present for James
 
The journey through the dark apartment to James’s room was an arduous one. Rolling the nickel across the kitchen tile went relatively smoothly, but hoisting it over the door sills left Marvin exhausted and panting. He had to watch for trouble every step of the way, not just night-roving Pompadays, but the booby-traps of forgotten gum or scotch tape on the floor, or worse yet, a foraging mouse.
     When he finally reached James’s bedroom, he had to sit for a minute to catch his breath. A streetlamp outside the window cast dim light across the walls, and in the bluish blackness, Marvin saw the mountainous silhouette of James, asleep under the blankets. He heard the boy’s deep breaths.
     Marvin thought about the birthday party. Had it been a good day for James? The boys at the party weren’t his friends. The presents had been an uninspired mix of electronic games and designer clothing. Mrs. Pompaday was as fussy and self-centered as always, and even James’s father, whom Marvin liked a lot, hadn’t come up with a present that seemed to please his son. Marvin glanced down at the worn face of the buffalo nickel. Would the coin make up for everything else? Probably not.
     Suddenly, Marvin felt so sad he could hardly stand it. A person’s birthday should be a special day, a wonderful day, a day of pure celebration for the luck of being born! And James’s birthday had been miserable.
     Marvin rolled the nickel to a prominent place in the middle of the floor, away from the edge of the rug where it might be overlooked. James would see it here. He looked around the dark room one last time.
     Then he saw the bottle of ink. It was high up on James’s desk, and it appeared to be open.
     Curious, Marvin crawled across the floor to the desk and quickly climbed to the top. James had spread newspaper over the desk, and two or three sheets of the art paper his father had given him. On one page he’d made some experimental scribbles and had written his name. The pen, neatly capped, rested at the edge of the paper, but the bottle of ink stood open, glinting in the lamplight.
     Without really thinking about what he was doing, Marvin crawled to the bottle cap and dipped his two front legs in the ink that had pooled inside. On his clean hind legs, he backed over to the unused sheet of paper. He looked out the window at the nightscape of the street: the brownstone opposite with its rows of darkened windows, the snow-dusted rooftop, the streetlamp, the naked, spidery branches of a single tree. Gently, delicately, and with immense concentration, Marvin lowered his front legs and began to draw.
     The ink flowed smoothly off his legs across the page. Though he’d never done anything like this before, it seemed completely natural, even unstoppable. He kept glancing up, tracing the details of the scene with his eyes, then transferring them onto the paper. It was as if his legs had been waiting all their lives for this ink, this page, this lamp-lit window view. There was no way to describe the feeling.  It thrilled Marvin to his very core.
     He drew and drew, losing all sense of time. He moved back and forth between the bottle cap and the paper, dipping his front legs gently in the puddle of black ink, always careful not to smear his previous work. He watched the picture take shape before his eyes. It was a complicated thatching of lines and whirls that looked like an abstract design up close, as Marvin leaned over it. But as he backed away, it transformed into a meticulous portrait of the city-scape: a tiny, detailed replica of the winter scene outside the window.
     And then the light changed. The sky turned from black to dark blue to gray, the streetlamp shut off, and James’s room was filled with the noise of the city waking. A garbage truck groaned and banged as it passed on the street below. James stirred beneath his bedcovers.  Marvin, desperate to finish his picture before the boy awakened, hurried between the page and the bottle cap, which was almost out of ink. At last he stopped, surveying his miniature scene.
     It was finished.
     It was perfect.
     It was breathtaking.
     Marvin’s heart swelled. He felt that he had never done anything so fine or important in his entire life. He wiped his ink-soaked forelegs on the newspapers and scurried behind the desk lamp, bursting with pride, in a fever of anticipation, just as James threw off his blankets.
     James stumbled out of bed and stood in the center of the bedroom, rubbing his face. He looked around groggily, then straightened, his eyes lighting on the floor.
     “Hey,” he said softly. He padded over to the nickel and crouched, picking it up.
     Good for James, thought Marvin. Of course there was no reason to worry that he’d overlook it.
     James turned the coin over in his palm and smiled. “Huh,” he said, walking toward his desk. “I wonder where this came from.”
     Marvin stiffened and retreated further behind the desk lamp.
     James gasped.
     Marvin watched his pale face, his eyes huge, as he stared at the drawing. He quickly looked behind him, as if the room might hold some clue that would explain what he saw on the desk.
Then slowly, brows furrowed, James pulled out the chair and sat down. He leaned over the picture. “Wow,” he said. “Wow!”
     Marvin straightened with pride.
     James kept examining the drawing, then the scene through the window, whispering to himself. “It’s exactly what’s outside! It’s like a teeny, tiny picture of the street! This is amazing.”
     Marvin crept around the base of the lamp so he could hear the boy better.
     “But how . . . ?” James picked up the pen and uncapped it, squinting. He lifted the bottle of ink and frowned, screwing the bottle cap back on.  “Who did this?” he asked, staring again at the picture.
     And then, without planning to—without meaning to, without ever thinking for a moment of the consequences—Marvin found himself crawling out into the open, across the vast desk top, directly in front of James. He stopped at the edge of the picture and waited, unable to breathe.
     James stared at him.
     After a long, interminable silence, during which Marvin almost dashed to the grooved safety of the wainscoting behind the desk, James spoke.
     “It was you, wasn’t it?” he said.
     Marvin waited.
     “But how . . . ?”
     Marvin hesitated. He crawled over to the bottle of ink.
     James reached across the desk and Marvin cringed as enormous pinkish fingers swept tremblingly close to his shell. But the boy avoided him, carefully lifting the bottle and shaking it. He unscrewed the cap and set it down next to Marvin.
     “Show me,” he whispered.
     Marvin dipped his two front legs in the ink cap and walked across the page to his picture. Unwilling to change the details of the image, he merely traced the line that framed it, then stepped back.
     “With your legs? Like that? Dipping them in the ink?” A wide grin full of wonderment and delight spread across James’s face. “You really did that! A bug! That’s the most incredible thing I ever, ever, ever saw in my whole entire life!”
     Marvin beamed up at him.
     “And with my birthday present too! You couldn’t have done it without my birthday present.” His voice rose excitedly, as he leaned closer to Marvin, his warm breath almost blasting Marvin over.
     “It’s like we’re a team. And you know what? I didn’t even want this birthday present before. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this, I’m not like my dad, I don’t even know how to draw.’ But now, it’s the best gift I ever got. This birthday is the best one ever!”
     Marvin smiled happily. He realized that James could not for one minute see his expression, but he suspected somehow that the boy knew anyway.
     Just then, they heard a noise in the hallway and Mrs. Pompaday’s voice: “James, what are you doing in there? Who are you talking to?”
     Marvin dove for cover, squeezing under James’s china piggybank at the exact moment that Mrs. Pompaday swept into the room.
 
Excerpted from MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach.
Copyright © 2008 by Elise Broach.
Published in 2010 by Square Fish.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.