A Five-Minute Life - Emma Scott

Part I



Richmond, Virginia, two years ago

My sister’s voice echoed up the stairs from the foyer.

“Thea, let’s go.”

“Coming,” I shouted back from my old bedroom in my parents’ house.

I’d turned it into a temporary art studio while I stayed for the summer, with a tarp on the floor and an oversized canvas on an easel by the window. Delia bitched I’d only been home for three days and could I not make a mess of myself for her graduation? But not painting for three days was like asking me not to eat or breathe.

Behind me, I had Netflix running through episodes of The Office, the World’s Best TV Show. I’d seen every one a hundred times. Mom said I was probably obsessed with it because it was like me: funny and honest and prone to cringe-worthy jokes at the worst times. Guilty on all counts.

I brushed a lock of blond hair out of my eyes and wiped my hands on my linen smock. Purple and orange smears joined streaks of yellow and midnight blue. I used my fingers as well as brushes to manipulate the paint. Dad liked to tease I began finger painting as a toddler and never grew out of it.

The tarp shuffled under my bare feet as I stepped back to study the canvas. An Egyptian pyramid cast a dark shadow across gold desert sand as the sun set in swathes of twilight color.

My gaze jumped to the photo I’d taken of the real deal on our family trip to Giza last summer. I didn’t know what it was about those damn pyramids—or all of Egyptian history for that matter—that fascinated me so much, but I couldn’t leave the subject alone. Tombs that huge were mind-boggling to me. The Egyptians packed the pyramid’s inner chambers with all the things the dead pharaoh would need for the next life.

As if they weren’t dead forever but just going away for a little while.

“Like on a trip,” I murmured.

“Althea, get down here right now,” Delia shouted. “We’re going to be late.”

“It’s not possible to be late if you insist we leave three hours early!” I shouted back.

I cocked my head at my work and a slow smile spread over my lips. I always let the painting decide when it was finished, and this one was done. Its colors and shapes evoked the majesty of the pyramid, the beauty of the desert, and the vastness of the sky above, exactly the way I wanted.

I took off my smock. Beneath it, I wore a silky pink dress that swirled around my knees. A quick inspection showed only a few spatters of paint at the hem.

Delia’s voice whipped up at me again. “I know my graduation doesn’t mean anything to you—”

“Thea, dear,” my mother called up, smoothly interjecting. “Please come down now.”

I gave my painting a final glance and grinned. “Not too shabby, Hughes,” I murmured.

“Thea, I swear to God…”

“I’m coming,” I said. I shut off the TV and bounded down the stairs. “By all means, let’s hurry, or else we won’t be able to sit around and wait for hours.”

My parents—Sandra and Linden—were smartly dressed, waiting with Delia, who was in her navy-blue graduation gown that she wore like a uniform. She smoothed an errant strand of her shoulder-length dark hair and gave me the stink-eye as I forced my feet into the low-heeled pumps she urged me to wear for the occasion.

“It’s my graduation and I say when we leave,” Delia said. “And what are you wearing?”

“Heels,” I said. “But only because you’re forcing me.”

“I meant your dress. There’s paint all over it.”

“It’s only a few drops. Gives it character.”

Delia rolled her eyes. “You’re a mess. As usual. I’m surprised you brushed your hair.”

“It’s a Saturday, isn’t it?” I shot my dad a wink.

He winked back. “Let’s go, my dears. It’s an hour drive, and if we leave now, we’ll be…” He pretended to check his watch. “Yes, quite early.”

Delia sucked in a breath, switching on her infamous Business Mode.

“I know you think I’m crazy, but you’ll thank me when we don’t have to hunt for parking. It’s going to be crowded and I get anxious if we run late.”

“You? Anxious?” I said. “Get out of town.”

“God, can you take anything seriously for once in your life?” Delia said, rounding on me. “Stop with the jokes. And when the ceremony starts, you are not to cause a scene and embarrass me.”

I blinked my eyes innocently. “Whatever do you mean?”

She gave me a Delia