Scarlet in Blue
by Murphy, Jennifer

Told through alternating voices, this page-turning story follows Blue and her artist mother Scarlet as they finally settle down in a small Michigan beachfront town where Blue thrives as her mother prepares to escape the shadow of her traumatic past, no matter what the cost.

Jennifer Murphy holds an MFA in painting from the University of Denver and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington.She is the recipient of the 2013 Loren D. Milliman Scholarship for creative writing and was a contributor at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference from 2008 through 2012.In 2015, her acclaimed debut novel, I Love You More (Doubleday, 2014), won the prestigious Nancy Pearl Fiction Award.Her love of art led her to start Citi Arts, a public art and urban planning company that has created public art master plans for airports, transit facilities, streetscapes, and cities nationwide. She hails from a small beachfront town in Michigan and has lived in Denver, Charlotte, Seattle, and Charleston. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.

*Starred Review* Blue Lake and her mother, Scarlet, have been running from a mysterious villain as long as Blue has been alive. They change their identities when they move, choosing colors from a box of crayons to name themselves. Now that Scarlet and Blue are in the small lake town of South Haven, Michigan, Scarlet means to stay at least long enough to plot the villain's murder. She begins seeing Henry, a therapist she's connected to, although he doesn't remember her. Scarlet's schizophrenia interferes with her plan, and Blue tries to stay afloat in another new town. But when Scarlet inevitably succeeds, it will change their worlds. Murphy (I Love You More, 2014) dazzles, creating unique perspectives from Scarlet, Blue, and Henry, plus a flash forward to Blue's life as a concert pianist years after the murder. This novel will leave readers questioning what is real and how mental health can affect generations in kaleidoscopic ways. Murphy also explores the way art and music collide, bringing mother and daughter together through their passions. The subject matter and luminous writing will appeal to fans of Violaine Huisman's The Book of Mother (2021), while those who enjoy a plot-driven mystery will also find what they are looking for. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.

September 1968

We killed him today.

It was more difficult than I had imagined. Not the gory part-I relished watching the blood ooze from his flesh-but the lifting and dragging. He was heavy.

Now I paint.

The book on Impressionism lies open to the portrait by Renoir. I can't remember Madame ever looking so real, so alive. Everything is alive. Me, my surroundings, my canvas. Light drenches the room. Sheer curtains flutter and soar. My senses are crazy sharp. Distant waves roll and splash. A hummingbird's wings tick like a clock. Apron strings brush my bare flesh. The scents: a pungent stew of turpentine, linseed oil, and corpse. My palette a sea of glorious reds. Scarlets and roses, carmine and crimson. I can't help but swirl my fingers through the gooey mixture.

I study my canvas. Compare it to Renoir's Madame. Poor thing. Her reds had faded long ago, but I tell her not to worry. Because now I can fix that.

February 12, 2014

Chicago, Illinois

46 Years After the Murder

The Pianist

I see her there sometimes, inside that frozen wave. Floating, white nightgown billowing, blond hair swirling. Sometimes she's holding the knife she used to slit his throat. Sometimes it's she who is dead. When the bad images come, I try to replace them with good. Her smile, her playful spontaneity, the particular choreography of her body when she applied paint to canvas.

But these attempts don't always work.

It's cold and windy today, as it is most winter days in Chicago. Symphony practice just broke for lunch. I listen to Vivaldi through my newfangled earmuffs (a birthday gift to myself for a number I'd rather not discuss) as I cross Michigan Avenue. Who knew that one day they'd put miniature speakers inside fur? Like always, I slow my pace as I near the Art Institute. I never enter it. Yet I choose to walk by it every day. I tell myself I prefer the wide sidewalk that fronts it, admire its Beaux Arts architecture, appreciate the large green lion statues that flank its grand entrance, but I know those aren't the real reasons.

I glance at the colorful exhibition banners. They don't change much, every few months or so, but I see there's a new one. I try to make out the lettering. Squint.

Renoir's True Colors.

My heart beats fast and loud. I read the banner again to make sure. It is the exact title my mother had used for a lesson she gave me that final year on the little-known art term fugitive pigment.

Then, just like that, I'm propelled forward. I cross the plaza, pass under the arched doorways, file through the ticket line, wander along the maze of halls displaying works by Van Gogh and Matisse and Seurat until I stand before duplicate paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Madame L?on Clapisson.

I catch my breath, feel faint. I'm not certain I even know there is a bench behind me when my knees buckle.

For Madame was the painting on my mother's easel that day.


South Haven, Michigan

Nine Months Before the Murder

FUGITIVE PIGMENT: Pigment that either fades with prolonged exposure to light, is susceptible to atmospheric pollution, or tends to darken when mixed with other substances.


My eyes still burn from the thick cloud of cigarette smoke. We are walking home from dinner. A dark wood-paneled bar sporting dead animals. There's a menu item called popcorn shrimp I really like. My mother didn't eat. She rarely eats dinner, perhaps an apple or cheese and grapes, but she never skips her pinot or chardonnay. She insists she should have lived in Italy, where people consume more wine than water. It has just begun to snow. Christmas music pipes through the streets. Decorations are still up. Santa and his reindeer fly from building to building. Colorful lights wrap around trees and posts and boat masts. My mother, drunk, is even more animated than her normal not-normal self. Dressed all in white, she leaps and twirls along the sidewalk, her arms cupped above her head like a sugarplum fairy.

She inhales, sighs. "Do you smell that? How about we pick up some fresh scones and clotted cream from the bakery? I can make a mushroom omelet and new potatoes and berry tarts."

"Can we sleep first?" I ask.

She laughs. "Of course, silly."

My mother's favorite meal is breakfast. We often engage in long, leisurely morning feasts. We can enjoy this luxury because she doesn't have a day job. She is a painter. Nationally recognized. A gallery in New York exhibits her work.

She rushes ahead, motions me to follow. "Come on. Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud. It's a joyous night."

I don't like it when she calls me a stick-in-the-mud. "Circumspect," I say.

She doesn't hear me. She is in front of the bakery by now, peering through the window. I see what happens next in slow motion. I see her reach for the door handle. I see her face distort. I see her recoil, slump to the ground.

I run to her, help her to her feet. "What's wrong?"

"It's HIM."

HIM is the man who is chasing "us," meaning her and, by association, me. She refuses to utter his name because names, she says, give someone value. I have another name for him, the Shadow Man, because I've never actually seen him, and so, especially when I was a child, I imagined him lurking in shadows-around corners, behind doors, under my bed-waiting to devour me. I have yet to conquer my fear.

"Where?" I ask, my chest tightening, heart pounding. I see the clerk behind the counter. I see people sitting at tables. A family with two children. A blind woman with a German shepherd. No singular person stands out.

She points. "There. In the glass. His car."

"You mean a reflection?" I check the street. Nothing.

"We need to leave," she says. "Now." She grabs my hand and we run.

Once home, a small but clean apartment above the five-and-dime, she pulls the large rucksack out from under the bed, brushes off the dust that has accumulated over the past several months, and says what she does every time we move. "Grab your backpack. Remember, just five of your favorite outfits, a jacket and parka, a pair each of sandals, shoes, winter boots, and no more than three books and five valuables."

"What about my piano?" I ask. "And my sheet music?"

We'd found the piano the week we arrived in Erie. An upright with wheels. My mother pointed out it was next to a dumpster, a sure sign the owners meant to discard it. I had been stealing time on other people's pianos for years, and the thought of owning my own overshadowed my reticence. Everyone stared at us as we rolled the behemoth down the streets. We laughed so hard we peed our pants. It took four clerks at Woolworth to get it up the stairs.

"Don't be difficult," she says. "You know the routine."

I do, but don't want to. "My piano is valuable."

"I'm leaving my paintings behind," she retorts.

"That's not true," I say. "Won't your gallery come and get them?"

"Drop the tone."

I start to argue.

"Conversation over," she says.

She rolls her brushes in tinfoil, making sure to protect their hairs from separating or bending, puts her paints, turpentine, and linseed oil in plastic bags, places them in the rucksack's front pocket. I gather the assigned clothing, along with the blue ribbon I won when I was eleven for playing Pachelbel's Canon in D at the Indiana State Fair. Then I grab my three favorite books (worn from repeated readings), Animal Farm by George Orwell, Silas Marner by George Eliot, and Sunset Gun by Dorothy Parker, the only ones I actually own. I bought them three moves ago for one dollar each at a library book sale.

Just before we ready to leave, as she does before every move, she retrieves the tattered box of sixty-four crayons from the dresser's top drawer.

"Close your eyes."

I hear the crayons hitting one another as they land on the bed, a waltz of hollow pings, their waxy scent comforting, and run my fingers through them. I never choose the first one I touch. I've convinced myself that the right one will find me, which it does. And in this moment, I stop being Maize, and become Blue.

Now we board a bus. It isn't the first bus we've boarded. I've lost track of how many journeys we have taken and how many places we have lived. My mother says the changing-our names, our towns, our story-is essential to our survival. She goes first. I climb the narrow steps, concentrate on my mukluks. During transitions, any form of communication is forbidden: talking, smiling, even eye contact. "It's important we aren't remembered," she always says.

"Happy New Year," the bus driver says. A fat man with round cheeks and a red nose. Jolly. "I have it on good authority that it's going to be a good one."

His smile is infectious. I note that my mother is already partway down the aisle. "Happy New Year," I say, and hurry past him.

She drops the rucksack on the floor, shoves it toward the window with her foot. Grabs thin blankets and small pillows from the overhead rack. I slide into the seat. Use the sack as an ottoman.

"You're going to want to sleep," she says. "We have a long journey ahead of us."

"How long?" I ask.

"Through the night."

"But it's snowing," I say. "I need to stay awake to make sure we don't slide off the road."

"You can't control that," she says.

I lean my backpack against the window, position the pillow atop it, snuggle into the blanket. Big snowflakes fall from the sky. I try counting them. Sound of engine revving. Smell of diesel fuel. The bus lumbers forward. A woman coughing somewhere behind me. Baby crying. Child singing. "Frre Jacques." I close my eyes . . .

A jolt. Screech of grinding gears. The bus stops. I don't remember falling asleep. I look out the window. Still dark. Still snowing. The crank and clap of the opening door.

"South Haven," the driver bellows.


The bus pulled to the side of the road.

"South Haven," the driver announced.

We gathered our backpacks and headed to the door.

"How far to town?" I asked the driver.

"About a mile," he said.

"A mile which way?" I hoped the question was clipped enough to avoid further conversation.

He pointed. "This here's Broadway. You'll turn left at the first traffic light. That's Phoenix. Best bundle up. It's cold out there."

We took our first steps onto new ground, a symbolic moment for me. None of the other towns had mattered. Town selection had always been an on-the-spot decision, made when buying our tickets. "Where to?" the clerk would ask. "Wherever your next bus is going," I'd say. But not this time. Though I'd known for several years that this town, and what would happen here, was my destiny, it hadn't been time yet. Now it finally was.

The bus drove away. There was no station or shelter, only a rectangular sign on a post. Better at least than some of our towns where merely a stick or a mound served as demarcation. A thin sheet of snow covered the ground. The wind was biting.

"Come on," my daughter said. "You're dilly-dallying. It's cold out here."

Dilly-dally. Those were my words. She'd been throwing some of my words back at me for a while now. When had it begun? Two moves ago? Three? She had always been shy, quiet. Easy. Never one to complain. All I needed to do was make our bus rides fun and adventurous. Every journey led to an imaginary place: Wonderland, Emerald City, the Enchanted Forest. We played the Map Game (which revealed the locations of long-buried treasures) or the Clap Game. "Close your eyes and clap three times," I'd say. And poof, there was the white rabbit checking his pocket watch while running ahead, or Dorothy and Toto skipping along, or Little Red Riding Hood picking flowers on the way to her grandmother's house while the Big Bad Wolf hid behind a tree. And there we were, mother and daughter, entering these imaginary worlds, losing ourselves inside them. Blue's face, her wide eyes and large smile, was enough for me to be transported right alongside her. To believe. Now, more often than not, she fought our moves. She refused to play I Spy or the Alphabet Game or any kind of pretend. And she was forever testing the Rules. Making eye contact with bus drivers, striking up conversations with strangers, playing the piano in the presence of adults. Five towns ago, when we lived in Savannah, Georgia, I caught her sneaking piano lessons from a teacher at her school. The same thing happened in Wilmington, Virginia Beach, and Charleston. If anyone was certain to remember us, it would be one of those teachers. My daughter wasn't merely talented; she was gifted like my father had been. My mother once said that when my father's fingers touched piano keys, they spun pure grace. How do you stop a child from spinning grace? How do you deprive the world of receiving it? But I had no choice. The Rules were not arbitrary. They were our life jackets. If we didn't follow them, we could die.

Blue (her new crayon name) ran ahead. I positioned the rucksack and followed. The mile felt more like ten. I hadn't slept. I was dragging. The straps dug into my shoulders.

"How much longer?" Blue asked.

"Just a few more blocks."

"Don't blocks usually have sidewalks?"

"Be grateful there are streetlights."

I didn't remember town being this far from the freeway, but it was so long ago that I'd come here with my parents.

I rented a house downstate, my father had announced at dinner one night. On the beach. I thought we could use a vacation. He had just won a big case.

"Vacation?" my mother asked. "Is that even a word? I don't think I've ever heard it before."

"Funny," my father said.

We stayed for a week.

It was the last vacation we took together before they died. It seemed fitting it would be the town where I carried out my plan.

As instructed, Blue and I took a left at the light. A slew of touristy stores and restaurants lined the two-lane road. The lights were on in one.

"The rental office won't be open for a while," I said. "Let's stop here and get something to eat."

"It's a drugstore," Blue said. "Do you plan to eat cough drops?"

Blue's newfound obstinance could be challenging, but although I chastised her sometimes, I tried not to do so too often. I liked that she spoke her mind. I considered it a sign of strength, and strong she needed to be as a girl in this world.

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