The rules are simple when you live the way Eddie and his sister, Maya, do: lay low, trust no one, and make sure you have plenty of duct tape on hand. But Maya is growing up fast. She’s forgetting how to play the game and Eddie is finding it harder and harder to keep them both safe from the outside world.

When their lives become suddenly complicated through a mistake Maya makes, Eddie begins to lose his composure. And why wouldn’t he? He hasn’t had time to address his own emotional scars. He’s been too busy looking out for his sister. But even in the worst of times, even when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, there is always hope.

Told in the third person, present tense, along with first-person excerpts from the pages of Eddie’s sketchbook/journal, THE PICASSO PROJECT is a novel about strength and courage, and what can happen when you finally own your past, let it go and open yourself up to possibility.

THE PICASSO PROJECT

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CHAPTER 1

EVERYTHING changes the day the cops come. Eddie knows he'll remember the stupidest things, like the way the Ravioli has bubbled over in the aluminum saucepan on the stove. And the fact that the T.V. is on—Real Housewives of Some Shit—its volume cranked high even though no one has been in the living room for hours.

Eddie’s mother won't come downstairs. She's been locked in her bedroom all night, yelling and throwing things around, mostly breakable things. That's why the cops show up in the first place. Somebody called.

Probably Old bitch, Mrs. Taylor next door.

When they get the bedroom door open, his mother is out of control. She's swearing and swinging one of Eddie's father's old belts that must have been left behind.

The shorter police officer is a dickhead. He tells Eddie’s mom to stop being such a drama queen, but he shuts his ugly mouth when he sees Eddie standing on the stairs. He has one of those stupid cop moustaches and a beer gut, and he smells like onions or B.O. Maybe both. He tells Eddie that they have to talk to his mother like this - that they can't take her away and get her help unless she gets violent. They are trying to piss her off.

Eddie stares at the cops, unable to say anything, then steps over the mess of unpaid bills on the stairs. He stands in the doorway of his mother's room, but he doesn’t go in. Most of his mother's hair has come loose from her ponytail and hangs limply in front of her face. Her skin looks even paler than usual, and her eyes aren't blue anymore. Now they're the same colour as the dull grey January sky outside the window.

The cops keep talking at her, circling her like jackals until, finally, she strikes Sergeant Dickhead's shoulder with the silver Jack Daniels belt buckle.

Thirty seconds later, she has stopped yelling and started crying. And a minute after that, she is sitting on the bed, cuffed wrists twitching in her lap. The sharpness of her collarbone juts out from where her shirt has slipped off her shoulder.

Man, when did she get this small? She looks like a broken bird.

Eddie hears something and turns to see Maya sitting at the top of the stairs, peeling remnants of black polish from her bitten nails. Jesus. He'd forgotten about his sister. How long has she been there? She looks at her brother with terrified eyes, the same blue eyes their mother used to have.

"Listen," the other cop says. He is taller than Sergeant Dickhead but has the same moustache. "It's gonna be okay, but we need to call someone for you kids."

"No," Maya says suddenly. "We're fine."

But they're not fine, not even a little, and both she and Eddie know it.

"I'll call my aunt," Eddie says this because it sounds good, even though Aunt Judy is the last person he wants to see.

"We'll call her, son," Good Cop says," and I'll stay here with you both until she gets here. Okay?"

 

"Okay,” Eddie says. Then he follows Sergeant Dickhead and his mother down the stairs toward the front door.

When Eddie walks past Maya, she grabs at the leg of his jeans. He stops, and for a moment, they just stare at each other. Maya speaks first. "I don't want to go out there, Eddie. I don't want to see her. Not like that. I want to stay here."

Eddie nods and walks out to the police cruiser where their mother now sits slumped in the backseat

He places the flat of his hand against the window by her shoulder. He wants to talk to her, but he knows she won't hear him. She's somewhere else in her head, and through the crack in the window, he can hear her whispering random things about purity and grace and quoting shit from the bible.

How does she know all that stuff? It's not like we were ever big on church.

"You're okay, Mom," Eddie lies. "You're going to get better. You just need another rest, that's all. Maybe a longer one this time."

He waits for her to respond, for a flicker of recognition to appear on her face, but none comes. Instead, she bangs her head repetitively against the cruiser's window. Bang! Bang! Bang! 

Eddie might as well be invisible.

She stops, and for a brief second, Eddie thinks she's finally going to look at him. But she doesn't. She starts to sing that song Maya loved when she was little: You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. That's when Eddie knows it's going to be different this time. This time, his mom won't be coming home in a day or two.

Like a ghost, Maya appears at her brother’s side in the driveway. Together they watch the cruiser back out of their scrub of a driveway and head toward town.

When their aunt finally arrives, Good Cop calls for his ride and leaves.

"Wow," Aunt Judy says to no one in particular. "This place is a total sty." She doesn't bother to talk to Eddie, nor does she notice Maya has bitten her nails so far down that four of her fingertips are bleeding. What she does see is the bottle of wine in the fridge. She pours herself a coffee mug full and sits down in front of the T.V. Ten minutes later, Eddie overhears her talking on the phone.

"They took her ass away in a cop car. Yeah, I know, right? Didn’t I always say she was bat-shit crazy?"

A day later, a brown pick-up truck stops in front of the house, picks Aunt Judy up and drives away. She doesn't come back that night or the next.

On the fourth day, the hydro shuts off. The fridge stops humming, but it doesn't matter because there's nothing in it except an old bottle of ketchup and half a loaf of bread.

Maya refuses to go to school, so Eddie doesn't go either. He can't leave her alone. Not like this. She's barely fourteen. But it sucks because he's already a grade behind—because of the year he was nine—the year they moved four times in two different towns. There wasn’t time for school.

He finds a few dollars in change in an empty yogurt container on top of the fridge and buys three boxes of Kraft Dinner from Gina's Grocery, this week's special at 99 cents each. He and Maya cook the noodles on the old Coleman stove with the bit of propane that’s left.

On day six, he sees the eviction notice tacked to the front door, the word FINAL written across the top in angry, bold letters.

They don't wait to see what day seven has in store for them. Instead, they throw what clothes they have into green garbage bags and toss them onto the back seat of the old Buick. The inside of the car smells like mould and cat piss. Will it even start? But Eddie remembers the jerrycan under the porch stairs beside the lawnmower. No one has cut the grass since his dad left, and that was forever ago.

He gets the can. There isn't much, but there's enough—enough to get them out of here, that is, and anywhere is better than here.

***

Three weeks later, Eddie cuts class and takes the bus into Victoria. He doesn't tell his sister. But he has to know where his mother is, needs to know if she is safe. If she is getting the help she so desperately needs. If she is even alive.

He checks at the main hospital. Yes, a Suzanna DuMont had been admitted to City General three weeks prior but was released after twenty-four hours.

Released where, and to whom?

He checks the other hospital, the smaller one—the one with the psych ward—and sure enough, a Suzanna DuMont had been there, too, but after four days, had again been discharged.

Eddie isn't stupid. He knows how the system works: treat 'em and street 'em. It sucks, especially this time when there was no husband to collect her and take her home. She had never been able to manage things when Eddie's dad had been away for too long. She'd always gone back to the drugs. Coke mostly and mixing that shit with her meds was never a good idea.

But Eddie wants answers, so he takes himself to the worst part of town. He finds himself in dark alleyways and underground parking lots because he knows that some people who hang here might know something.

He spies a woman near the food court pushing a shopping cart. Smoking, her fingers stained yellow, her arms bruised. "Oh yeah," she tells Eddie. "I know Suzanna. Skinny thing. Likes the blow."

"Sure," a man says a little while later. "I saw her a couple weeks back. She was hanging with Garvey. That dude's bad news, man. I told her to get away from him, but she told me to mind my own damn business. So, I did. I don't like sticking my nose in."

Toward the middle of the afternoon, he spies a big burly guy with a red beard sitting near the Bank of Montreal; a brindle dog curled up on the pavement at his feet. Eddie recognizes him right away. Harold—a guy his mother knew years ago, during one of her especially rough patches. Eddie used to call him, The Viking because of the red beard.

"I know you," Eddie says. "You're The Viking. Harold, right? You know my mom."

The man looks at Eddie through rheumy eyes. He mutters something unintelligible.

"Come on, Man. You know her. My mom! Suzanne DuMont? You used to play guitar with her. Remember? Old Hip songs, mostly. Sometimes some Pink Floyd."

The haze lifts from Harold's eyes. "The Tragically Hip,” he says, coughing into his sleeve. “‘Scared.’ I used to play that one a lot. Sooze always liked that one. She would sing."

"Yeah!" Eddie says. "Yeah. She would. Great. You remember. So, yeah. I'm looking for her. Have you seen her lately, Harold?"

The man narrows his eyes. He has a scar across his cheek that Eddie doesn't remember from before. "Your dad treated her like shit."

"Yeah. I know."

"She was crazy 'bout that asshole."

Eddie’s face twitches a little. "So, have you seen her?"

Harold shakes his head. "She's gone."

"Gone? Where?"

"Gone, kid. A week or so back. Too much blow. Least that's what people are saying on the street."

 

"Wait. What?"

"Sorry, kid. Really. Sooze was a real nice lady."

Eddie opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. It’s too much to take in. Too surreal to process.

Mom is gone? Just… gone?

He walks around town in a daze before he eventually gets on the bus back to Bridgeman Lake. When the bus pulls up to the Bridgeman library, Eddie gets off. Then he walks for an hour in the woods by the school, mostly in circles.

Jesus. Gone? Maybe it's true; maybe it isn't. Maybe old Harold is bat-shit crazy, too. But Eddie calls his Aunt Judy, anyway, from the school phone. She would know if it was true, wouldn’t she? She’s Mom’s sister, for Chrissakes.

The phone rings once, then twice. Then ... the number you have reached is not in service.

Eddie goes to the washroom near the gym and splashes cold water on his face. He stares at his reflection and blinks hard. His face is flat, expressionless, guarded.

Sooze is gone, kid. She was a real nice lady.

FUCK!

Eddie does not tell his sister.

***

REVIEWS

"I absolutely loved this book and read it in 2 days! I couldn’t put it down. From the very first page I was totally gripped by the story and the characters and felt like I was right there with them the whole way. Wonderful details that bring this story to life. I can’t recommend it enough!"   (K. Fuoco, Vancouver, BC)

***

This is one of my favourite stories. Two teens - a brother and sister are homeless and alone. They live together in a car and struggle to make ends meets. Eddie is terrified that they'll be taken into care and separated if anyone twigs about their living situation.

There's a lot of twists and turns here. Sad moments but also heartwarming ones.
  (B. Dougal, UK)

***

Carol Anne Shaw has written a book that gives us a look at what we don’t know about people around us. The introductory chapters are blunt and at times brutal. Revolving around the two teenage protagonists, homeless and living in a car, the author presents us with the struggle for normalcy while the two children continue to go to school and succeed in the tricky and harsh emotional tableau of high school.

The characters are finely drawn and believable, the reader will begin to identify with the young characters almost immediately so hang on, you’re going back to a high school of your worst experiences replete with bullies and sexual sociopaths. You will have that nightmare where you arrive at school only wearing your underwear. 
(M. Pointer, USA)

***

I binge-read this in one night; Eddie and Maya's journey is absolutely gripping. In some ways, their situation is terrifying, but in others, it's heartwarming - the siblings seem to have the uncanny ability to bring forth the very best (and, in some cases, the very worst) in people. Their adventure was riveting, and I'm so looking forward to obsessively rereading this. This underrated gem is indescribably brilliant; I'd recommend it to anyone looking to erase their feelings of hopelessness and find new characters to inspire themselves by. This is more like a 10/5 for me, if we're being honest.   (O. Vaughn, USA)

***

Masterful character-driven stories, well-layered kids with very real and contemporary problems. Is it really surprising why I'm in love with this book, and this author?  (P. Pereira, Uruguay)