Palo Alto Weekly 30th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Young Adult

On the Other Hand

By Alix Westgaard

About Alix Westgaard

I am a native of Palo Alto and a junior at Palo Alto High School. In my free time, I enjoy reading and sketching, and I am a huge nature and animal lover. My favorite book is "The Book Thief." The inspiration for my story started with my love of art, especially painting. I also wanted to emphasize a friendship between science and art, or Charlotte and Gemini, because I am passionate about both and believe that they can often support each other despite often being labeled as separate. Overall, "On the Other Hand" was meant to convey the evolution of an individual both artistically and internally when entering a new chapter of life.

 

Judge's comments

Gemini Brown, a painter of renown, is driven to abstraction -- and in more ways than one. Left after an accident with a searing eye for detail, but only her left hand left to render her vision, Gemini takes her art -- and herself -- to the next surprising level. Graphically rendered.
-- Tom Parker

Listen to the story read by the author, Alix Westgaard:

The woman stood at the street corner, under the streetlamp and amongst the bursts of color. There were exploding fireworks between the obnoxious taxicabs. The woman, Gemini Brown, watched the gallery window, eyes flicking back and forth as if searching for movement. To any other viewer, the window was abundant with movement. The abstract painting exhibit was cluttered with an array of living art. But Gemini laughed, threw back her head and howled at the moon like the intricate wolf that she could paint. The flecks of moonlight on its nostrils. The delicate highlighted fur.

She looked back at the gallery window. The Carleton Gallery. Celebrating excellence in abstract innovation. Gemini glared through the haze of a couple beers with a half-smile.

"How we have mutilated art," she murmured, ducking down into the driver's seat of her car.

- - -

The hand was splintered and twisted. The bones had been misplaced. The hand was dead, no art left inside. It was the body's first disgrace.

Gemini didn't want to look at it, and each day her eyes did their ritual dance away when she mistakenly reached out with her right hand. For anyone else, there would just be frustration. Under the cool haven of the cherry tree, she watched the blossoms leap free in the wind and thought about the night of the crash. The haziness brought on by the scent of the gasoline, the drunken huffs of air that caused tiny bursts of fog into cold, spring twilight. Little shards of glass glinting with scarlet beads of light from the nearby streetlamps. Her broken appendage wasn't realized until she tried to unbuckle her seatbelt, the one thing keeping her suspended.

"You're lucky to be alive. Yes, there's little chance it'll ever be the same again." The doctor's words echoed inside her day after day, like misplaced lyrics. Her life hadn't yet found a tune for them.

"How's your art going? Can I see your latest painting? I adore the detail." Her friends used to ask all the time. Now it was different.

"How have your handwriting exercises been going? You'll learn how to type with one hand, at least for now."

She struggled with everything. Life wasn't a mountain; it was hanging from a conveniently placed branch off the side of a cliff. With one hand.

She had taken down the few paintings of which she had become too fond to sell. Looking at them was too much of a glance into the eyes of a ghost. Gemini forced one last glimpse at each before leaving them in long-term storage. They were lined up like children. A hummingbird, with its fierce crimson throat, wings frozen in a pulse. She took a thin cloth and carefully draped it over the painting. A young girl glancing up into a distant light source that was revealed in her eyes with a carefully pinned chrysanthemum in her golden, luminous locks. The highlights in the hair had taken a great deal of patience. Such innocent, light, thin strokes held clenched teeth, a furrowed brow and glistening eyes. That was what was left with the beauty, often becoming indistinguishable next to it, blended flawlessly with all the colors.

She jerked away, not bothering to brush the strands of hair from her face.

And slowly, slowly covered each one for safekeeping.

- - -

"Well, maybe you could wait tables for now? Plenty of artists do that anyways."

"Yeah, imagine me trying to balance trays and deal with obnoxious customers with only one hand! Something or someone's gonna end up on the floor involuntarily," replied Gemini indignantly.

Charlotte was only trying to help. But she was a med student. She knew what it was like to struggle thanks to the rigor of her courses and the jaw-dropping price of her education, but science and art were twins that stood back to back, never seeing eye to eye.

The women paced the sidewalk together, coming back from lunch. Gemini twisted the drawstring of her hoodie over and over her finger, eyes glued to the sidewalk. Each foot in front of the other and the other. So fast. So fast. Too fast.

She stopped abruptly and sat down on a park bench. Charlotte arched an eyebrow and swiftly sat beside her, no questions asked. Gemini stretched an arm across the back of the bench and behind Charlotte. She absentmindedly brushed the ends of Charlotte's chestnut hair with her pinky while watching a vendor out in the park hand a young couple two glistening scoops of ice cream on a cone. The two o'clock train ambled past at their end of the park, causing the soccer coach to yell over its persistent screech.

"I know you'll think of something, Gemini. Artists are notoriously resourceful." Charlotte's head was tilted towards her so that she looked through the corners of her eyes, exposing the curved whites under sweeps of lashes. Always the hardest part to draw.

The air was electrically charged. Gemini could feel it dancing around her fingertips, building and building until it was hard to breathe. Her eyes snapped towards the blare of the next train, the electricity crackling down the rail line. A young man stepped onto the tracks and the electricity snapped off, the energy ripped away. But after it had left, he had vanished, the train echoing in the distance.

Gemini found her nose shoved between the bars of the fence by the tracks, a scream fresh on her cracked lips. Charlotte shook her, yanking her back from the bars.

"You've lost it, haven't you? That broken hand has left spreading cracks."

"I think that's the most artistic sentence you've ever constructed, Charlotte." Her lips were slightly parted, eyes glazed.

"Listen, Gemini, I'm going to call you up tomorrow with a list of job opportunities. And, by God, you're going to listen to me."

- - -

The tips of the brushes each held a life. Gemini ran her hand over the smallest one, feeling a little heartbeat pulsing at the end, much like the hummingbird feathers she had used it to paint.

It was midnight, and tomorrow she would have to forfeit her title and become a forsaken secretary or work in a cubicle. That meant that there were no consequences tonight.

The man and the train. The man and the train. There was nothing pretty about a life stripped away like that. Nothing but pain, similar to a work painted with a left hand.

Gemini set to work, cringing at the messy, scarlet lines and the blurry gesture of figure. But all through the night the painting grew and grew until it had a life of its own.

The next morning, when Charlotte's call tore Gemini groggily from sleep, she answered with a red-coated left hand.

"Charlotte, I regret to inform you that I was wrong. A life without art is much worse than art without life. Cheers."

And she hung up the phone. She found the hastily birthed masterpiece propped up against the base of a folding chair. She had said art without life. But in the painting of a man's last seconds, there was all too much life. It was clawing its way out the sides, ripping the canvas, threatening the viewer's eyes. It was born in another country, foreign to Gemini, a land of the abstract.

There was a renaissance to be found here. But first, Gemini had to wash the red from her hands.

- - -

Charlotte did not speak to Gemini the following days, but more strange things occurred nonetheless. Walking in the same park, there was always music to be found. The gentle rustle of the leaves and the low hum of the streetlamps with whispers woven in. The long tone of the train sliding across a keyboard. The electricity danced at her fingertips again, almost giving feeling to her left hand. All of a sudden, there was unheard of cohesion between the sounds, a single voice. It was a song Gemini had never heard before, and for that reason it overwhelmed. She was spinning. She was dancing. She was in love with someone else, some unseen musical deity. The melody seemed to radiate out from her rather than permeating her ears, leaving a glowing figure.

And later that night, after hopelessly pacing her garage. After even bothering to set up an easel and use a proper palette over a used casserole dish. After wringing her silver bracelet, now forced to be worn on her right wrist, around and around, leaving sore fingertips. After it all, another painting screamed out its first breath. It hadn't made it onto the canvas. The canvas was too small. She signed the title there, right below it on the garage wall.

It Came From Inside.

Charlotte came the next morning, still with some steam trapped inside. She let herself in. With their relationship, the fact that she had a key was no surprise at all. She would have yelled at Gemini. She would have exploded and the shrapnel would be found in the house walls years later.

But she didn't.

Instead she found Gemini asleep on the floor of her garage. The smell of paint was pungent. It hung in the room like a ghost, lightly grasping her wrists and pulling her over to the glossy new addition on the wall.

"My goodness, has she grown."

The luminous figure in the painting was brimming with color, causing it to grow in size. Charlotte stepped back to take a closer look and then snapped a picture.

She did not wake Gemini, her damsel in distress.

But when she did awake, Gemini knew Charlotte had been here. The woman had a terrible, unconscious habit of cleaning up things. The open windows and rumble of the dishwasher was a dead give away. What made Gemini's heartbeat become little raindrops was the fact that Charlotte hadn't said anything. Doctors relied far too much on premise, how they thought things ticked. What conclusion had she reached?

Then again, she almost completely relied on her twisted mind.

- - -

"You know, you should eat something. I think you've lost weight since your ordeal."

Charlotte had finished her lunch and now waited, fingers interlaced on the table.

"Fresh air is the artist's diet."

"My nutrition professor would get a kick out of you, Gemini. You're that delinquent that they parody in diagnosis questions."

"Why this restaurant? Why burgers? Usually you pick places near the park and the university, and ones infested with kale."

Charlotte shrugged and pushed the full plate of food an inch closer to Gemini, looking up expectantly with obsidian eyes. Gemini took the opportunity to glance another direction, out the window and across the street. The Carleton Gallery glared back at her with crossed arms and an arched eyebrow. It was amazing how much a building dedicated to art echoed Charlotte.

"The Carleton Gallery," grumbled Gemini. "Oh how I would hate to be called Gemini Carleton."

"Did you know they're curating an exhibit of abstract work by local artists right now?" murmured Charlotte almost absentmindedly. Gemini's gold flecked eyes snapped back to Charlotte, who stared back, unwavering. She took a flier out of her inky Coach purse and slid it across the table.

"You know you should really make use of your bed. Inhaling drying paint can't be good for your lungs."

Gemini didn't say anything. It was a silent, silent game for now.

"The gallery opens again at one." Charlotte arose, slung her purse over her shoulder and looked Gemini dead in the eyes. "I must get to my next class now."

And so Gemini wandered back to the park alone, to where it all began. Her left fingers were curled protectively around the crumpled flier.

The humidity was thick enough to slice. It tasted of musky grass and a yet-to-arrive, sluggish breeze. A young child was doing cartwheels on the grass, laughter like lightning through the haze. Gemini took a thorough glance around. A pair of young men, probably students, were strolling this way down the path. A senior citizen was glancing out into the horizon, enjoying the comfort of one the benches. Off under one of the oak trees, puffs of smoke were coming from what were undoubtedly teenager's lips. And here in the middle of it all was a glowing, laughing child.

All of the other voices in the park were closing in on this one single laugh, dimming it, silencing it. The familiar feeling, the electricity, returned. It snapped at Gemini's throat, spreading upward, entrapping her mind. Gemini bolted, building an atmosphere above that child, ozone turning its shields outwards, causing the darkness to billow around it.

But there was trembling, and the child's eyes were wide. Gemini watched her race away from her while faintly sobbing, back to her mother's arms.

That night, she used a proper canvas.

- - -

The two women stood under the streetlamp outside the gallery. The doors were open, beckoning them inside. "Gemini Brown" was one of the large printed names in the front window, just under "Carleton."

"So you've given up your prejudice?" asked Charlotte.

"I honestly don't know."

The two entered, and Charlotte examined the painting up close. The gesture of a child dancing in a sphere.

"Do you know this child?"

"Perhaps."

"A hallucination?"

"What?"

"One of my friends who's majoring in psych told me the other day that schizophrenia often manifests itself in one's 20s."

Gemini gave her a small, almost reassuring smile and a breathless laugh, though it was really a howl. She took Charlotte's hand and led her off to examine the other abstract works.

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