About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Depending on your point of view, I'm either famous or infamous. I'm called by many names: Ward of the State, Orphaned, Foofool (only by Sister Mo), and Kevin. That last one makes me feel like I'm wearing someone else's clothes. Tight and loose in all the wrong places. So, I came up with my own name, though no one has ever connected it to me. The identity of street artists should never be revealed.
I flick turpentine at a rat that's getting a little too curious about my brushes. The alley smells like something died, making me wonder if there's a body in the dumpster. Michelangelo cut up dead people to better understand how we're built. If he was willing to do that for his art, I can endure this stink for one night. I breathe through my mouth and get back to work.
After four straight hours, the painting is coming along great, and I know I can finish it before people start heading out for their nine-to-five jobs. I paint madly, getting lost in the scene, moving from figure to figure, jersey to jersey. It's my best work yet, and I want this one to last.
At least, for a few days.
I take a moment to admire the shading on the faces. Peter's skin is a little dark, but the rest are just right, especially Jesus. I initially wanted to paint him with missing front teeth, but he isn't smiling in da Vinci's version — nobody is — so it would be too cartoonish. The stern glare of a defenseman is perfect.
I did give Judas a black eye, though. Who wouldn't?
It's three in the morning in Brooklyn, and I'm glad I brought the ratty tarp to conceal me from the street. Sister Mo would've called it divine intervention. I call it experience. I've been caught in the act before, but not found out. There's a big difference.
I don't want to brag, but not many painters can recreate a da Vinci on cold brick in one night. If anyone who knows anything about street art sees my half-finished painting, my anonymity will be history. And if people start to think St. Catherine's Home is sheltering delinquents, not only could I be thrown out, but the nun who's lovingly cared for me the past sixteen years, Sister Mo, could be in serious trouble.
"Can I see?" I hear a girl ask.
I pray she isn't talking to me, but I know better. There's no one but me hanging out in this alley. I look up and spot a Latina girl, a couple years younger than me, leaning over the rickety fire escape.
How long has she been there? I'd scoped out this location and didn't see any late-night activity in the apartments looking out onto the alley. Big mistake. One I can't afford to make.
I should get out of here and paint somewhere else tomorrow. But the da Vinci is coming to life, and I can't abandon it. Except for this girl, no one has seen me. Not even one close call. I hear Sister Mo's disapproving voice in my head. Don't start what you don't finish, you. But she also loves to spout, Pride goeth before a fall. Which nun's proverb should I follow tonight?
"What's your name?" I ask, barely above a whisper.
"Rosa." She gives me her name as if daring me to try to take it from her. There's mischief in her eyes: the need for something exciting to happen, the innocence of not knowing what could. I can't help but think about painting the defiance in her face.
"Rosa, can you keep a secret? A big secret?"
"I'm great at secrets."
"If I let you watch me paint, will you promise not to tell anyone you know who I am?"
"How could I? I don't know your name."
"You will tomorrow."
Rosa looks down at me and crosses her arms with more attitude than a girl her age should possess. "I can watch you?"
She should've been asleep hours ago, but I understand the loneliness that clings to people in the middle of the night. "You can if you keep my secret."
Rosa scrunches her face like she's really thinking it over. "Okay."
A blast of excitement hits me. I actually get to see how my painting affects someone. I might regret it later, but at this moment, when it feels like we're the only people in the entire city, I choose to trust her. I dive back into the painting. Mixing colors, abusing my brushes on the brick, making motion and light where there weren't any before. And it's nice having Rosa to talk to. Being alone in an alley at night is more than a little scary. But how long could I paint in Times Square before getting arrested?
Knowing that Rosa will soon discover my street name makes me want to tell her more: who inspired me, why I have this need to leave my mark on these grungy walls, and how I dream about painting for a living. I also come to understand why her mom isn't aware that Rosa is on the fire escape in the middle of the night, hanging out with a stranger.
Instead of distracting me, Rosa keeps me focused. I become absorbed by the Disciples' jerseys, shading the folds to look right, cheating just a bit. You've got to find a way to make it yours. Almost everyone in da Vinci's version is wearing blue or red, so it's perfect for my home team. Sister Mo might not approve of Jesus in a hockey jersey, but there's not much she won't forgive when it comes to the Rangers.
I finish all their names on the silver base of the Stanley Cup sitting between Jesus and John. Then, in the most Gothic-looking letters I can style, I paint the title on the table's edge: Take This Cup. Finally, I reach for my signature orange paint and tag my work with the name my followers know me by.
"Orfyn?" Rosa asks. "Is that your real name?"
"One of them."
Her look tells me I'm not the only one who understands about hiding in the shadows.
"Is it done?" she asks.
I step back to soak it in. It's closer to the image in my mind than anything I've ever painted. The geometry is accurate, as well as the positions and expressions of the thirteen men. And twenty-three hands. Twenty-three! No small feat in just one night.
I spend another moment examining my work. "Yeah, it's done." The exhaustion of a night's worth of painting begins creeping through me. "Want a closer look?"
Rosa climbs down from the fire escape as if she's been doing it all her life. When she takes in the whole painting, she gasps. Her face shifts from shock to fascination to awe. I no longer wonder whether I got it right.
The risk was worth it, and I'm glad I let her be a part of my best painting yet. My New York Rangers version of The Last Supper and Rosa's rapt expression make the space between the tarp and the brick wall feel almost like a cathedral.
"I had a good teacher," I say, as if being able to pull off a da Vinci in a dark alley — or anywhere — is something that can be taught.
"Are you famous?" I swear I can see the colors as the words leave her mouth. Warm yellow, Mars orange, a splash of deep gold.
"What fun would that be?" I say, trying to sound cool.
The truth is, I don't want anyone to learn my true identity. Within minutes of someone posting the news that they've found a new Orfyn, people will flock to take photos before it's ruined or removed. When this painting hits social media, even more people will learn about my art. But they'll learn nothing about me, which is how I like it. Admired, yet mysterious.
"Will I ever see you again?" Rosa asks, suddenly acting shy, even though she knows more about me than pretty much anyone. Except Sister Mo.
"If you keep your promise."
"I'll never tell."
I want to believe her. So I do.
There's a reason I stumbled across this particular alley. Rosa will get to see Take This Cup every day ... or for as long as it lasts. Most of my paintings have disappeared. Stolen and sold. Destroyed. Tagged over. My last painting was cut out of the side of an old couple's house and sold at an auction. I don't care; really, I don't. I hope it changed their lives.
I painted this one on a brick wall, hoping it lasts longer, but you never know. One thing for sure, this Last Supper isn't going to make it five hundred years, but a few weeks would be nice. It would make Rosa happy. I think she deserves that.
Then I get an idea. "Rosa, how would you like to be famous?" Her face fills with excitement.
"Do you want to be the one who discovers my painting?" I say. "You'll get a lot of attention for a day or two. I promise."
She gives me a look no one has given me before. As if I could work miracles. I suddenly feel braver. More important.
Rosa takes a few photos of my painting, agrees to post the one we chose, and promises — four times — not to betray me. I know I'm taking a big risk. No one can predict how fifteen minutes of fame will affect someone, but something inside of me trusts that she'll keep her word.
The sky is brightening, and when the second person obliviously passes the alley, I know it's time to go. I pack up my stuff and pull away the tarp to reveal Take This Cup to the world. Or, at least, to this gritty alley in Brooklyn.
"I'll come by again," I promise.
"You better," she answers, with an attitude half as hardened as it was earlier.
I steal one last look at my painting, peer around the corner, wave good-bye, and sprint down the street. I'm exhausted, but there's no way I'll be able to sleep. I'm already thinking about my next painting.CHAPTER 2
"I've found the boy," the man in the gray-blue suit reports to the woman and two men arranged on the opposite side of the highly polished, mahogany conference table.
One wall is lined with framed portraits of serious-looking people, most of them etched with decades of wrinkles. Their eyes hold the cool confidence of aptitude and accomplishment, although each gaunt face betrays the fact that none of them are well.
"The boy?" the man with a perfectly trimmed, white beard asks.
"Yes. I'm certain."
"Will there be complications?" asks the man with slick, raven-black hair.
"There's no reason to believe he'll be a hostile recruit. The situation is favorable."
"Are you sure they'll keep it confidential?" the woman with the helmet of gray hair asks before turning away to cough. An ominous, gurgley cough.
"It's a good arrangement ... and I've uncovered a few things. They won't betray us."
"I would like to underscore my opposition to this plan," the white-bearded man says, firmly. "Including Art debases our core disciplines."
"We had no choice," the raven-haired man says. "We needed that grant. Still, every subject is a risk, and doubly so with that kid." He shakes his head in disgust. "He's a street punk."
"He's an orphan," the woman says. "That doesn't automatically make him a hoodlum."
"And you're certain this is the one he insisted on?" the bearded man asks.
"Unconditionally," the man in gray-blue answers.
"Perfect." The raven-haired man slaps both hands on the conference table. "Let's proceed."CHAPTER 3
After sleeping off my exhaustion, I go into Sister Mo's office and turn on the ancient computer to look for posts about Take This Cup. On Rosa's page, as I instructed, is my painting with the caption, A New Orfyn.
The blues and reds stand out well, and the Stanley Cup looks almost three-dimensional. The flesh tones are lifelike, and the glares of Jesus and his disciples make them look badass.
Then I see it.
A reflection in the dirty window next to the painting. Lampblack hair cut in a fade, and a streak of Cardinal red paint slashing across the guy's light brown cheek.
It's clearly me.
Rosa posted the wrong photo. My stomach twists so hard it nearly bowls me over. Beads of sweat sprout on my forehead. My identity is blown. I want to believe it's not disastrous, but I know better. The mayor offers a reward for turning in people like me, and it's only a matter of time before someone needs the cash. The thing is, no matter how beautiful my paintings are, or how much people like them, it's still vandalism. Officially, criminal mischief. I could be facing up to a year in jail and some serious fines I could never pay.
How am I going to tell Sister Mo? My recklessness will damage the reputation of St. Catherine's Home for Children — something Sister Mo takes very seriously. When word gets out that one of her orphans was arrested, it'll prove to those people who think we're no-good that they were right all along.
I am so screwed.
Rosa has to delete that post. I start to message her, but then the site acts funny. When I refresh it, not only is the post with the incriminating photo not there, all of her previous posts have disappeared.
She must've noticed my reflection, but why would she remove everything about herself? I search every site that's ever posted anything about Orfyn. No alerts about a new painting. No slightly blurry but recognizable photo of me in the window. No Take This Cup. No Rosa. No nothing.
The last thing I should do is go see her. The surest way to get caught is to return to the scene of the crime. But I have to. There's bound to be a bunch of people there taking photos, so I get into disguise, which pretty much means covering my T-shirt with a hoodie.
By the time I get to Rosa's neighborhood, I'm feeling twice as nervous as I did in the alley. My hastily-made plan is to loiter in the bodega up the street and case the scene from there. That is, if the store owner lets me hang out without buying anything. When I get near, I'm surprised there's no crowd. Is it possible no one noticed something that colorful? I stroll by the alley, trying not to seem like I'm obviously looking for something, pushing my hoodie slightly to the side.
It's gone! Take This Cup is gone.
The brick wall is still intact, though it looks like it's been acid-washed, leaving not even the slightest haze of color. It's as if my painting was never there. I'm used to my work being ruined, but not this quickly. Or thoroughly. Why would someone go through the trouble of erasing Take This Cup from an alley wall?
I look up at Rosa's fire escape. Maybe she saw what happened. I count the windows and figure out which apartment is hers. After making my way to the front of the building, it only takes a few random buzzes on the panel before someone lets me in. The entryway smells like urine. I make my way up the sticky stairs, and pass an old man sleeping on the landing between the second and third floors. The sound of gunfire blares from behind a door, and I'm seriously hoping it's coming from their TV. My unease grows with every step.
Rosa's door is ajar. I push it open a crack. "Hello?" I'm greeted by silence. I push the door open a bit further and peek in. "Rosa?" Even from the hallway, I can tell they've moved out. And in a hurry. There's the stuff you take and the stuff you leave. Her place is strewn with the things that weren't important enough to pack up.
Then it hits me. No painting. No Rosa. Abandoned apartment.
I need to leave. Now.
* * *
"I have to tell you about something I did."
I lead Sister Mo into her office as dread latches onto me. I shut the door, sit in the chair in front of her desk, and tell her what happened, not daring to leave anything out. I brace myself for her reaction.
"There is a chance no one saw that photo," she says in her thick, Kingston lilt.
I want to believe her, but it all happened too fast to be a coincidence.
She crosses herself. "Good Lord willing."
I follow her example, needing all the blessings I can get. Lesson learned: street artists and photo ops don't mix. I'm sorry, Rosa. I thought I was doing something nice for you. And yeah, I admit it. I was showing off, too. My pride getting in the way again. I can only pray she's okay.
Sister Mo studies me with her deep-set eyes, and I swear she's been aware of every thought I've ever had. "The girl who saw your painting, did she say she was leaving today?"
"No." Rosa would've told me. We talked about everything.
"Does she know who you are?"
My stomach clenches as I think it over. "I never told her my real name or where I live."
Sister Mo gets a distant look, as if she's seen the ghost of someone who used to piss her off. "Don't go back to that place, you. I'll call the Chief, and we'll learn what we can learn."
She means this. The family tree of St. Catherine's includes a council member, two state senators, more than a handful of lawyers and, yes, the Deputy Chief of the New York City Police Department. Couple that with a bishop who owes Sister Mo a few favors, and you get the idea of her pull.
But because of me, she needs to admit all is not right at her orphanage. If they discover I'm a vandal who stays out all night, people may start to question if Sister Mo is properly watching over her wards.
If it's the last thing I do, I'll make sure this doesn't screw things up for her or St. Catherine's.
Excerpted from "Merged"
Copyright © 2019 Jim and Stephanie Kroepfl.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.