The Tiniest Starfish
11:24 a.m. Earlier that morning, someone had endorsed Bella on WorkedIn. While she considered the site, with its coy messaging system (“Someone has endorsed you!”), beneath her, or personally irrelevant, at any rate—she wasn’t looking for more work (couldn’t concentrate long enough lately to finish the contract she’d accepted)—she wanted to know who had done it, and how. People could endorse you for the most hilarious things. Though she was an award-winning illustrator, thirty-eight, and a self-diagnosed ADD, internet-addicted couch potato who sneaked cigarettes, last week she’d been endorsed as a wellness expert by her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, Lilith, who sometimes left posts on Bella’s Friendbook wall raving about her naturally skinny legs. Of course, Bella always “kissed” those messages with a black heart—the highest praise—because she didn’t want to appear cold.
11:25 Almost involuntarily, Bella clicked on WorkedIn, noting only that she’d been endorsed by her vague new acquaintance, Andrew Field, then closed the window.
11:27 Her sample cover was due in thirty-three minutes. She was illustrating a children’s e-book called The Tiniest Guppy about the life of a young rainbow fish named Tim. The author had wanted to send a loud-and-clear message about global warming (and the shrinking size of individual aquatic life), but the publishing house had opted to reduce the message to a polite stage whisper. Therefore, the cover needed to suggest splashing joy first—tiny Tim a cheerful fellow—eco-disaster subtly second. Furthermore, she couldn’t use color—too pricy. Bella painted a fish skeleton tied with a balloon. She snapped a shot and posted it to InstaPic. “Starting now, no more social media for thirty minutes,” she told herself.
11:28 Coffee might fortify her, so she made a pot. She’d missed the original cover deadline last week, and her editor, Sam, wasn’t amused. In fact, he’d unfriended her. He’d noted by text: “Last chance: Monday, high noon,” which was pretty close to right now. Whatever—she wasn’t ready yet. The coffee tasted so good she sent her mom a quick thank-you email for the beans.
11:45 Fifteen minutes really could be enough time to draw something amazing. There was that story about the celebrated artist hired by the emperor to design—what? A flag? First, he rested on his laurels ten long years. Then one day, he made two strokes of perfection. She Googled the tale, but got random emperor shit.
11:48 Before picking up her brush, Bella glanced at Friendbook. Her ex-husband, Kent, a chef, with whom she’d remained “friends,” was always online around lunchtime in his restaurant kitchen. He’d sometimes Friendbook-telegram her his daily special. In fact, they got along far better electronically. Today: crab cakes with remoulade sauce. “Yum!” she telegrammed back. Her empty stomach screamed.
11:49 “Make art if you’re such a great artist!” she told herself, lighting a cigarette.
11:50 Now Bella would work, as soon as she posted a selfie of herself makeup-free, hair in a ponytail, cigarette dangling from her lips. “Death by deadline!” she typed.
11:51 Paintbrush in hand, Bella looked out the window at the cloudy sky, listening to Friendbook ding its bells to indicate her “kisses” of approval. She smiled for a second. Then a different tone came through: The text’s quack-quack signaled Sam’s presence. “Call me with the ETA? I’m U-know-where with the author,” he wrote. “Waiting for the elevator.”
11:52 Call him? She wasn’t ever inclined to speak voice-to-voice anymore, to anyone—besides, she still had eight minutes till their scheduled call.
11:52 Ding-dong! Now that was a special sound on Friendbook: a friend request. Andrew, the man with whom Bella had flirted on MatchUp before deciding she wasn’t ready to date, wanted to be added. Interesting gambit.
11:54 Maybe the magic would happen now. Bella dipped her brush in watery black ink and made six sleek marks on a piece of rice paper: a starfish smiling. Another: a starfish crying. They weren’t going to work for the project—they didn’t hint at the shrinking size of sea life—but how nice they were.
11:55 Yeah, Bella knew she really shouldn’t take the time, but she posted them to InstaPic and Friendbook and even Tweedle. Meanwhile, so many distracting bells rang in her ears—black hearts and red arrows of adoration, and perhaps some pity—that she knew she ought to exit the whole damn engine. (Not that she did.)
11:56 “U know I admire U,” texted Sam to her phone. “But consider this contract broken in 3, 2…” Bella hated when people texted ellipses. Almost as much as she hated all caps.
11:56 In his Friendbook photo, Andrew looked less self-conscious than he had on the other sites. Here he sat in a rowboat with a little boy of about five or six. Andrew’s nose was burned pink, and he held a huge live crab in his bare hand. The boy, his nephew, had dared him to. Under the pic, Andrew explained that they’d thrown back the creature. “A shame to part with such a rare fat one,” he wrote. “But you can’t trust these waters!” She accepted his Friendbook request. Within seconds, he’d covered her brush drawings in bell-ringing, black-hearted kisses.
11:58 She started to cry, because time was so short—and maybe crying could help her get her shit together somehow. Sam would phone any minute.
11:59 “Ha—LOL,” she said, sniffling, as she clicked back on WorkedIn. So Andrew had endorsed her as an artist. She cried again.
11:59 She checked the current weather: 50 degrees and overcast; chance of thunderstorm. Her Taurean horoscope: Head for higher ground.
12:00 p.m. On the dot, her phone vibrated. Sam. Yet she didn’t pick up. “Goodbye,” she imagined a mental text from her to him. She stifled a sob. To do so, she pictured Andrew’s hot-pink nose.
12:01 It was a crab, she thought, looking at the puffiest cloud in her line of vision—the emperor had asked the artist to draw a crab, and he said it would take him ten years to complete. One day, he was simply ready and he did so.
12:02 All hope lost anyhow, Bella picked up a different brush and painted the tiniest, most perfect crab any human being might ever paint—like a crab on a postage stamp. The crab crawled the ocean floor. Above him, Tim the guppy swam a circle—Tim was scrawny but larger than his anemically adorable, crabby friend, to whom he waved with a fin. She posted the image on InstaPic—on the off chance Sam might bite.
12:03 Then Bella turned off each of her devices, on a whim. She unplugged her desktop, laptop, and her tablet; she pressed the power button to halt her cell. She actually wanted to work some more, and she did. She painted with watercolors. She drew with pastels and pencils without noticing the time. Faces of friends and enemies and acquaintances—Kent, Lilith, Sam, Mom, and even Andrew, whose eyes were deep-set and green—faces of people she had yet to meet—she drew them all on one long sheet of butcher paper. Lastly, she painted herself as a mermaid swimming among the great, silent group.
5:12 It was getting dark. As she checked various accounts, Bella gasped. A text had come in from Sam. Maybe he wanted to give her a second chance. His vivid message was this: Two bright pink crabs the size of fleas, even smaller than her cool ink creation. “Nice crabby pictures U drew,” Sam typed, and her heart beat faster. “Gave us the idea to illustrate with crustacean emoticons instead of hiring an artist. BRILL or what?” Bella almost called his cell to bitch Sam out—she knew he wouldn’t answer.
5:13 On Friendbook, Andrew had five minutes ago scribbled his landline on her wall and asked her to grab dinner. His actual landline. Thunder clapped in the distance. She imagined her mermaid self swimming to shore, to dry landline, opening her palm and handing Andrew a penny-size starfish. Maybe they could eat enormous crab cakes and talk about whatever, face-to-face—maybe.
5:14 Maybe she’d just check Tweedle and InstaPic once more before she called.
5:14 Fuck it: Instead, she tapped her keypad to life and dialed Andrew’s number. “Is that you?” she heard herself ask him. On the other end: “Bella?”
© Betsy Boyd
Betsy Boyd‘s fiction has been published recently in Sententia, Shenandoah and Verb: An Audioquarterly. Her short story “Scarecrow” received a Pushcart Prize. She is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council award, an Elliot Coleman Writing Fellowship, a James A. Michener Fellowship and residencies through Fundación Valparaíso, the Alfred and Trafford Klots International Program for Artists and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She teaches creative writing at the University of Baltimore.