Chapter 1: Audrey CHAPTER 1 AUDREY
April 15, 2023
“IF YOU DON’T GET DOWN here right now, you’re fired!” a booming voice calls up the steps outside our apartment. I roll my eyes as I shove my feet into my worn Converse and double-knot the laces.
“I’d like to see you try, old man!” I call back, throwing open the door to reveal my bald dad smirking up at me from the entryway, our dog Cooper at his feet, tail wagging. “Good luck finding someone else who’ll work for free.”
I jog down to meet him, and he taps his watch, raising a thick eyebrow. “Six oh one. You’re late.”
I pull my phone out of my back pocket and hold it up to him. “Six o’clock. Your watch is off.”
“Fine, you can stay another day,” he says, his graying mustache ticking up at the corner as he slides past me to head upstairs and sleep after working the overnight shift.
“Don’t forget the drink delivery at noon,” he calls over his shoulder.
“Roger that.” I pat Cooper’s head on my way through the side door that leads directly into Cameron’s Corner Shop, my usual Saturday morning duties waiting for me.
As I make the coffee, I gaze out the window at Penn Avenue, at the new buildings, modern apartments, and hip restaurants that have moved in since I was a kid perched on my dad’s shoulders while he made the coffee. This street, and so much of Pittsburgh, has changed over the past eighteen years.
But not Cameron’s Corner Shop, with its scuffed floors, sagging shelves, and rusting sign. Our little slice of Pittsburgh has remained exactly the same, even if the customers have changed. Regulars come for the cheap coffee and scratch-offs. Students stumble in on Friday nights to get armfuls of snacks and mixers. Tourists pop their heads in to ask for directions and recommendations. And the bougie people from the overpriced apartments meander in as a last resort when they forget to buy their premium milk and ancient-grain bread, settling for 2 percent and cardboard white.
It isn’t much, but it’s my dad’s pride and joy, his childhood dream of opening a shop on the street where he grew up brought to life after a CVS took the place of the one he used to visit. Something simple and homegrown and constant, for our community, the people that have always been here and always will be here. And that dream became my whole family’s, in a way, his love for the place and the customers and the unusual hours infecting me and my mom.
Plus, it’s easy to be coerced when you get free chips and soda for working the register or stocking the shelves. Can’t say no to a bag of Cheetos and a Cherry Coke. At least not when you’re a kid, before sleeping in and dreams of your own start to seep in. But I try not to think about that now.
Coffee made, I fall into the dull but steady rhythm of the morning, perching behind the counter on a squeaking barstool my dad got off Craigslist with Cooper curled up at my feet, reading a new cartoon-cover romance novel in between greeting the blur of familiar and unfamiliar faces that pass through the front door. Gary the bus driver stops in for his powdered donuts, telling me about an accident on 376 that has traffic backed up all the way to the airport. The cool artist girl who moved in over Vince’s Pizza just down the street grabs a yellow pack of American Spirits, paying in crumpled dollar bills and quarters while I try and fail again to work up the courage to ask her about what she’s working on. A guy I’ve never seen before sprints in to buy a pack of toilet paper, slamming a twenty on the counter and bolting before I even have time to ring him up.
Finally, at eight o’clock sharp, the bells on the front door jingle, and my favorite grumpy customer lumbers inside, bony fingers curled around a wooden cane.
“Hi, Mr. Montgomery,” I call out, and he grunts his usual hello at me before shuffling off to collect his newspaper.
“You draw anything yet?” he asks over his shoulder, and my stomach falls.
“Uh…” I glance at the worn, now-dust-covered sketchbook I’ve kept on the shelf underneath the cash register for years. “Not yet.”
“Doesn’t RISD want everything by May first?” he asks, checking his analog wristwatch. “It’s already—”
I cut him off. “Trust me. I know.” I’ve been acutely aware of the date ever since I was wait-listed at my dream school a few months ago and told to submit a portfolio with five “new and different” pieces as my art “showed promise” but was “too passive, lacking confidence and a strong enough personal point of view.”
Which, like, if they thought I was lacking confidence before that glowing review, imagine what little I had left after.
I reach down and pick up the sketchbook, flipping through the older pages. Faces and hands and bodies flash in front of my eyes, all belonging to customers who passed through our doors. In some way, it doesn’t even feel like my art anymore, all done so long ago that I’m not even sure I remember what it felt like to put a pencil to the paper and have a furrowed brow or unruly hair or gnarled fingers appear.
I watch as slowly but surely filled pages give way to half-started sketches and empty spaces, and then…
Nothing. Blank page after blank page after blank page. The shitty, overwhelming, helpless feeling swims into my bones as I watch my inspiration, my passion, my excitement dry up and disappear completely.
I flip to one of the last marked-up pages, pausing when I see a tiny doodle from last summer, the style different from everything else around it, a cartoon Cooper with a thought bubble saying, “I love you!”
I grimace and slam the sketchbook shut.
How am I supposed to draw when I can’t even look at my sketchbook without thinking of him?
Three years ago, when we met at a summer program at the Rhode Island School of Design that our high school shipped the best ninth- and tenth-grade artists off to, it felt like the best thing that could have happened to me. I hadn’t even wanted to leave Pittsburgh, but when our paths crossed and I’d discovered how much possibility was out there, away from this worn barstool, I was so glad I had. He became my critique partner, then my late-night, slightly buzzed sketching buddy, and from that first warm summer night after a full day in the studio, lying on the grass under a darkening sky, I felt seen. He was a year older, a rising junior, but he just… got me. How much art meant to me. How much it was a part of me.
Or at least I thought he did.
After that we did everything together. We were supposed to go to RISD together, too, back to where it all started.
But then he got rejected last spring and gave up on art altogether, encouraging me to do the same. To stop taking it so seriously and to focus on something more practical, like he’d never actually wanted it at all. It didn’t help that all our friends agreed with him. Ben, Hannah, Claire all nodding away at our lunch table like they hadn’t been begging me to sketch them just last week. Maybe because they’d been his friends first. Or maybe because they knew in their bones we’d drift apart after they graduated and I was left behind. And that was exactly what happened with them, but I still thought Charlie and I would make it. That he’d see me again, even if he didn’t want to see that part of himself anymore.
So when he finally came home from Penn State just before Halloween, I wasn’t expecting the breakup. Even though looking at it now, I should have been.
He claimed the distance was too hard. Deep down, I don’t think he meant the miles.
So, taking the leap and applying after he dumped me felt like… a chance to prove him wrong. Sure, I was heartbroken, but if I got in, I could prove to the girl who stayed up late drawing underneath her blanket, the girl who would sneak off to the art museum every chance she got, the girl who kept drawing when he told her it was pointless, that it had all been worth it.
Which made it sting that much more when it turned out he was right.
I was wait-listed a mere month and a half after he dumped me. And, naturally, I spiraled into a deep, dark sadness that felt like I was literally dying and would never experience joy and happiness ever again.
Or something like that. I don’t know.
He was my first love and my first heartbreak, so I’m allowed to be a little dramatic.
The worst part, maybe, is that while the heartbreak has mostly healed, I haven’t been able to draw since. I’ve spent hours upon hours these last few months staring at blank pages, pencil frozen in midair, unable to bring myself to draw anything past a stick figure.
Even my old tricks haven’t been able to work their magic. I’ve had my dad point to every random object in our apartment as a prompt, the plants crowding around the windowsill, our lumpy couch, even the ornate French music box on our living room shelf I’ve always loved, and I can’t ever get past the first sweeping line. I’ll draw it over and over and over, because it just doesn’t look right. It just doesn’t feel right.
I don’t feel right. The spark I’ve always had when drawing is just… gone. Missing. I feel about as distant from the page in front of me as I do from Charlie at Penn State. Maybe more. So getting one new piece for RISD feels impossible. And here they are wanting five.
I let out a long sigh as I slide Mr. Montgomery his usual black coffee with three granules of sugar across the faded yellow counter. “Guess I’ll just stay in Pittsburgh and annoy you for the rest of my life.”
“You sure you want that?”
“I guess so.” I shrug. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to it at this point.
I love the corner shop, and I love my parents, and I know I can always take classes at the community college and do something else. It wouldn’t be terrible. But saying it, I realize there’s no denying the heaviness that still tugs at my chest over the thought of never getting out from behind this cash register. Of giving up on my dream of being an artist, the one that started even before Charlie and that summer program. The feeling that even though it does scare me to leave this shop and this city, here would never quite be enough the way it is for my dad.
He snorts. “In my day we called that wimping out.”
“Back in the 1800s?”
He grumbles something under his breath and shoots me a glower from underneath his wispy white eyebrows, but I can see the trace of a smile lingering around the edges of his mouth.
“Well, anyway.” He takes a sip of his coffee before digging around in his pockets until his hand emerges brandishing a new pack of black Faber-Castell pens. My favorite. “Just in case you get the urge.”
He chucks them on top of the sketchbook and grabs his newspaper off the counter while I bite the inside of my cheek, my eyes growing surprisingly misty.
“Thanks, Mr. Montgomery,” I manage to croak out as he toddles toward the door. At first he just waves his cane in reply, but then he turns back, his hand on the door handle.
“The Audrey Cameron I know wouldn’t let some boy ruin her fancy art school dreams. You’ve been talking about that shit since before you got those braces off.” The two of us exchange a small smile, because of course he’s not wrong. “Don’t give up, kid. If you won’t get your spark back, I’m gonna have to find something to do about it!”
Before I can ask what that could possibly be, he’s through the door, making his way back to the Lawrenceville town house he’s lived in for a thousand or so years, watching me and this whole block grow up. My dad hasn’t let him pay for his coffee or newspaper for as long as I can remember, and moments like these are why. He may be the neighborhood curmudgeon, but he’s also the guy who brought dinner every night for a week when my uncle died. The guy who attends local kids’ dance recitals and graduations. The guy who, as Mom and Dad tell it, helped them through a rough patch back when I was in elementary school. And now he’s the one giving me a pack of my favorite pens when I’ve all but given up hope completely.
“Well, Coop,” I say as I let out a long sigh. “Maybe these’ll do the trick.”
Cooper peers up at me adoringly, his big brown eyes like perfect little quarters, and I reach down to scratch the top of his fluffy black head until his tail wags happily.
Then I turn to a blank page and hope for a spark.