With the final finishing touches complete, the room stretched to life as the examinees tensely rose from their seats, accompanying the echoes of two dozen pencils clattering to a stop. Helen released a shaky breath while brushing a rogue brown hair aside to better inspect her work. A surreal, otherworldly vision of an urban cityscape sprouting from the ground like jagged teeth dominated the page. Bathed in black ink, a solitary figure stood in stark contrast against the ivory city surrounding him. But Helen’s perspective was off. The composition was cluttered. The shading was sloppy. And . . . and . . . and . . .
Helen tore her eyes away as her stomach turned. This wasn’t good enough; she could feel it. This wouldn’t make the cut. She stole quick, jealous glances at the adjacent pieces: a window into a distant countryside and an immaculately detailed depiction of the human physique. Both were far superior. She shakily rose to her feet as the blood flooded back into her legs before shuffling toward the door.
The small group of hopefuls slowly filed into the hallway. The air hung taut with tension; a weighted curtain of anxiety and nervous energy hung over the exhausted students. Helen trudged over to the water fountain, hoping to settle her stomach. Taking small sips, the churning subsided ever so slightly.
“How did you do?” someone asked, shattering the veil of silence. Helen’s heart skipped a beat before stumbling over the next couple.
“H-hey, Kay,” she mumbled, feeling the eyes of the other students on her back. “Honestly, I’m not sure how I did. Kinda scared to think about it. How about you?”
Flashing her a quick thumbs up, Kay grinned. “Nailed it.”
“Really! You think so? That’s great.” Helen returned her smile half-heartedly.
“You’re busy after this, aren’t you? Work, right?”
“It’s fine. I was hoping we could go grab ice cream, but we can do it another time.” Kay patted her on the back before they parted ways at the bus stop. Kay’s mom picked her up while Helen huddled under the awning, accompanied by her anxiety while awaiting the next bus.
Helen pried open her front door to the stench of musty clothes and muddy shoes. As always, her mom wasn’t home, and silence greeted her as she stepped inside. Laundry carpeted the hardwood floor, concealing the countless craters and scratches in it. She maneuvered through the minefield, cranking up the jerry-rigged AC as she entered the kitchen. Old dishes were scattered across the counter and overflowing from the sink due to Helen not being home to wash them. Bustling about the house, Helen cleaned up as best she could before returning to her room. Settling down at her desk, she pulled out a sketchpad and began to practice once again.
The letter arrived the following weekend, and at the bottom of the examination form were four letters stamped in red.
She stumbled upon Mr. H’s art class by complete accident. Throughout the year the children’s museum hosted galleries for local artists. Before now, the shows had never caught Helen’s attention, but recent compliments from her sixth-grade teacher began kindling an interest in art. If scribbles in the margins of her notebooks could draw such praise, what could she accomplish by refining her newfound talent?
Wandering through the museum with her reluctant mother in tow, Helen explored the different artists’ showcases. She surveyed the vast array of art displayed throughout the halls. Nothing held her attention for more than a handful of seconds until she stumbled across an ink drawing on the second floor.
Two people sat underneath a gazebo, both seeking shelter from the rain but separated by a great distance. The unspoken sadness of the lonely subjects felt almost palpable. Another piece depicted a man lying in a field under the ebony tapestry of the night sky sparkling with diamonds. Beyond that were drawings capturing similar moments of silent solitude.
Eventually she tore her gaze away from the artwork, returning to check the information tag next to the original piece. The artist’s name was Mr. Charlie Hugo. After all her searching, she had found a teacher who could teach her everything about art.
Helen begged Kay, who was thoroughly disinterested in art at the time, to come along with her. Eventually Kay agreed to come with her. The following weekend the pair biked to Mr. Hugo’s on the other side of town.
The room they would spend the next seven years in stood behind his house. The quaint building crowded a nearby oak tree. The building’s baby-blue paint flaked off the sides that were not covered in overgrown vines. A quick knock on the door was answered by a middle-aged man with graying hair.
“Do you need something?” he asked. The sound of pencils scratching against paper could be heard beyond him.
“Yes, we were both inter—”
“Nope. Just you,” Kay corrected.
“Fine. I was interested in joining your art class. Plus, I'm already pretty good.”
“Hmmm. If you say so.” He waved them in. “Pick a subject you like, grab a chair, and start drawing. We’ll see where you are at the end of the day.”
Excitedly, Helen rushed over to a seat and began working. This left Kay to wander around the crowded room, peering over the students’ shoulders to see their work. Her attention eventually gravitated toward a charcoal drawing along the back wall. Noticing her fixation, Mr. Hugo drifted over and led Kay over to a charcoal set. Helen was completely focused on her work until she saw him helping Kay get started. Helen smirked.
The hours flew by as Helen lost herself in her art. A tap on the shoulder broke her trance; Mr. Hugo leaned over her canvas, inspecting her work.
A flustered expression crossed his face. “What is this? You haven’t even mastered the basics. You—hey, wait!”
Helen was already out the door, rushing to her bike with her spirits crushed. Helen bought several small sketchbooks, and she would practice in them daily. She would get better; she would prove Mr. Hugo wrong.
As the months passed, Helen gradually filled up her first sketchbook. She began constructing a tower behind her door. The newly finished book was the foundation and the first of many to come. Eventually, she mustered the courage to return to Mr. Hugo’s. Kay welcomed her return with a warm embrace. Mr. H greeted her with a raised eyebrow but also gestured toward the nearest vacant seat.
Kay passed the first exam with flying colors, having long surpassed Helen in artistic talent. She was a natural talent in every sense of the word, excelling at everything she tried her hand at. Helen was happy for her friend, but it was difficult seeing the happiness and freedom success brings but not tasting it herself. And eventually Helen’s second shot at the test came around.
“Thanks for picking me up from work and bringing me over here,” Helen said, the wave of heat washing over her as she stepped out of the car. Even though Kay had already passed the exam, she and her mom still chauffeured Helen over to the second exam.
“Anytime. It saves you money from the bus fare, and, as a bonus, we get to go pick up ice cream like usual. It’ll be Mom’s treat for us.”
Helen’s mouth watered at the thought of the treat, especially on a sweltering day like today.
“Yeah. That’s gonna be awesome! It’ll be a nice way to kick back and relax a bit after the exam is over,” Helen said.
Upon mentioning the exam, Helen watched Kay’s smile fall away.
“What is it? Your face is all scrunched up like you’re all worked up. Are you worried about something?”
Kay frowned. “You don’t have to go to college, you know? I realize how badly you want this scholarship, but you have other options. Maybe it would be better to get a steady job and work on art on the side. Eventually you can open a small studio, and I can help you get started at that point.”
“But you know I can’t do that. I can’t be stuck working in this town while still living at home. I have to get out of here.”
“But this might be for the best. I’m just afraid you’re not cut out for this.”
“You don’t believe I can do this? Even after seven years of working so hard?”
Shifting uncomfortably, Kay opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by her mom shouting, “Katheryn, hurry up! We have to drop by the grocery store before we come back to pick Helen up!”
Kay glanced longingly at her one last time before sprinting off and leaving Helen standing alone by the front doors. Her words sank into Helen, and she could feel the confidence drain out of her. All that preparation, work, and time. None of it mattered. Her friend didn’t think she could do it. And, quite frankly, neither did she.
To Helen’s surprise, she wasn’t kicked out of Mr. Hugo’s class after the monthly payments became increasingly irregular before stopping altogether. Her mom lost another job after getting in a fight with her coworkers again. As their budget tightened around their necks, Helen’s “art allowance” began to rapidly vanish, yet Mr. Hugo’s doors remained open.
A year passed. Then a second. And a third. The stack along her wall continued to grow exponentially, along with her skill and ability. Before long a solid foot of notebooks stood against the wall; she started a second pile next to the first.
Learning from Mr. Hugo was as rigorous and taxing as one might expect, and after three and a half years, the time invested into it began to pay dividends. Helen received a job offer through her school to do illustrations for the local paper, but she wanted a second opinion on her work before she showed it to someone else.
“Bah. What do you want? It’s not those human anatomy sketches again, is it? Thought I gave you enough pointers on that one.”
“No, sir. It’s about something else. I was wondering if you’d be willing to look over some sample artwork I was going to show at an interview with the local paper.”
“A job interview, eh? Let me take a look.”
She fidgeted nervously as he took the notebook and began leafing through its pages, inspecting each individual drawing before eventually stopping on one sketch toward the end. “Hmmm. This one is not half bad. Lead with this one when you show them examples of your work.”
Helen bubbled up with elation. She lived for moments like this. Moments of recognition. Mr. Hugo caught the smile creeping across her face, and she quickly attempted to conceal it.
“Why do you make art, Helen?”
The question caught her off guard. “Well, I guess it’s for the sense of accomplishment and everything that comes with creating something of significance, you know?”
“Is that not why you do it?”
“Not quite. One day creating art should not be solely about praise and personal achievements. It should be about the act of creation itself and developing your craft.”
Helen found the notice from the third exam waiting in the mailbox after work one day. Tucking it under her arm, she fiddled with her keys before opening the front door. As always, the house was empty, and silence greeted her at the door. Boxes now occupied the hall, rubbish spilling over their tops and debris heaped at their bases. The overhead light flickered, welcoming her inside.
Gently shutting her door, Helen spared a brief glance at the stack of sketchbooks behind it. Eight and a half stacks towering two feet each were piled against the wall. Over a hundred sketchbooks full of her art.
Plopping down in her desk chair, Helen exhaled and read the notice, which supplied the date, time, and location of the third exam. It was tomorrow on the other side of town, not too far from Mr. Hugo’s. Her eyes gravitated back to the rejection notice from the second exam. Her stomach sank further into the floor. She felt sick; the burning sensation in her chest persisted. Taking a deep breath, Helen attempted to settle the shaking. This exam would be her last shot.
Sliding open the drawer, she retrieved her current sketchbook and flipped it to a blank page. Readying her pencil, Helen focused on the empty space in front of her. The blank white page stared back, taunting her. She wracked her brain for an idea of something to draw. Anything would do. But her mind remained as barren as the page. The overwhelming threat of failure bore down upon her shoulders.
Panic rose in the back of her throat. Laying her pencil aside and lowering herself to the floor, she desperately clung to the leg of her chair, fighting back tears. No one ever tells you that doing what you love would be hard. No one ever tells you that you won’t always enjoy doing it. No one ever tells you that the thing you’ve devoted your entire life toward can stab you in the back and leave you hanging out to dry.
Eventually Helen managed to reign in her panic, doubt, fear, and anxiety. Gathering herself, she crawled over to her bed, bundled up in the covers, and drifted off into a fitful sleep.
Helen jolted awake from a barrage of thuds, bolting upright in bed and throwing her covers aside. She immediately noticed her mother standing by the dresser. Books lay scattered across the once neat floor. One of her sketchbook towers had been knocked over by the door, which was the likely source of the ruckus.
“Up late?” her mother asked.
“Uh-uh. What are you doing in here this early?” she asked, glancing at the clock, which read two in the morning.
“I just came in here to grab something. Just go back to sleep.”
Helen thought she saw her mom shove something into her pocket. It looked like a wad of cash.
“Okay,” she replied.
Her mother drifted back toward the door but paused upon noticing the sketchbooks strewn around the room.
“Why?” she asked, voice dripping with disappointment. “Why do you continue to pursue this foolish, childish dream?
“Why do you care? You’ve never cared about my art before. Isn’t it a little late for that?”
A glimmer of resentment flashed in her mother’s eye. “There is no guarantee of stability there. How are you going to support us?”
“Who said anything about us?”
“Wh—how ungrateful of you! Do you have appreciation of all the sacrifices I’ve made for you and this stupid dream of yours? You don’t even have the talent, the ability, to succeed in the art field. Kay has it. You don’t. So. Give. It. Up.”
Helen’s eyes stung as she glared at the door, searing holes into it. Biting down on a blanket, she buried her head in her sheets and sobbed, releasing her pent-up emotion. Completely drained, Helen lay on top of her sprawling sheets. This time, sleep did not come. Night lasted for an eternity.
Helen tilted her face closer to the AC vent. The cool air felt refreshing, and it was keeping her awake. Kay, a newly licensed driver, had driven her over. Now the pair sat in charged silence in the parking lot of the exam building. The clock made its final countdown until exam hour. At fifteen minutes till, Helen sluggishly opened her door and stepped out.
“Hey—” Kay started before hesitating. Helen paused.
“You’ll get it this time. You’ve got this.” Kay embraced her friend, burying her face in her shoulder.
Helen released Kay from their hug and stepped back, waving goodbye as she drove off. Moving toward the doors, Helen halted, sat down on a bench, and placed her head in her hands. If she just never went in, all future anxiety, fear, and uncertainty would just disappear. All she had to do was sit still and do nothing. She thought back to the towers of sketchpads lining the wall of her room. Early this morning as she had reconstructed her towers, Helen had leafed through each of them individually before placing them in the stack. Years of her life were tucked between those pages. After all of that, shouldn’t she at least try? Mustering her strength, she shakily rose to her feet and strode inside.