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Jason can paint a picture with all the colors his bruises have been. He can paint a yellow sunrise like the day-old smudge where Joe Zedan's knuckles burst blood vessels along his ribs. He can paint an ocean, all blue with flecks of black and purple and green, like his back where the locker vents bit into his shoulder. In fact, Jason has had so many bruises, he can paint anything.
Studio Art is the last class of the day, and when Jason enters the small art room, he just stands there for a moment, inhaling the moist, chemical odor of cheap clay and acrylics. It's the smell of familiarity, of an easy A, of safe grounds. He feels his muscles slowly unwind like line from a fishing spool, so he barely even jumps when the class bell blares in the hall behind him.
Art class has had a substitute teacher indefinitely for the past two years. Mr. Cranrow wears red glasses and a wild cowlick and he barely looks up from his own painting to see if there are any students in the room. Mr. Cranrow believes in "teaching through free experience." There are only a handful of other kids in the class. One girl is sketching anime in the corner, another boy, clearly stoned, stares at a brightly colored abstract painting like it's the next Mona Lisa.
Jason proceeds to flow through a routine as familiar to him as breathing. He pulls out a pad of thick watercolor paper, fills a stained mason jar with water from the sink and plucks his fold-up easel from the back of the paints where he hid it yesterday. He sketches a few lines with a 2B pencil before he figures out what the lines want to become. Then he loses himself in the colors, one blurring seamlessly into the next until the end of the day.
The school bell rings one last time and Mr. Cranrow stands with a perfunctory, "Good job, everybody, don't forget to clean up after yourselves." He says it as though the students are small children who have just puked all over the floor. Nobody's listening; the stoned guy is already out the door. A few other students work on shoving their books into neon backpacks while Jason packs up and moves to the sink, slowly cleaning his brushes.
Jason rides home on the back of the bus like he has since he was short enough to actually fit in the child-sized seats. Girls a couple years younger than him file into the seat across the narrow aisle. They recognize him as a senior and whisper, pointing at him like he's the second coming of Michael Jackson. Jason ignores them and leans his head against the back of the seat in front of him. It is scarred all over from pencils and antsy hands and has been poorly patched up with grey duct tape. He is so close he can smell the muted scents of sweat and crayons and despair. Someone has written in acrid smelling sharpie telling the reader to do crude, anatomically impossible acts. Another person had replied in silver ink that the first writer is both disgusting and unoriginal. Jason almost smiles.
When Jason gets home, Maggie is there.
"Oh, you," she says, scampering out the door to meet him. The two simple, sort-of words impart eighteen years of memories. She's wearing a long scarf and rings on every finger and she hugs him so hard his bruises ache anew. For a minute, Jason considers telling Maggie all about his latest bullies, how tired he is, how much he likes his latest watercolor piece. He imagines her reaction, how she would threaten to find his tormentors and kick them into tomorrow or peel off their faces with her long fingernails, how she would make them fear the day they laid eyes on her little brother. Jason indulges in the thought, but then shakes it off. Murder only works on TV.
Maggie plugs her ipod into the big black speakers their dad got before they were born. Loud tunes pulse through the house like a heartbeat. Satisfied, Maggie turns to Jason.
"How 'bout pizza?" Jason nods and dives for the phone on the couch. "Do you remember the number?" Maggie asks from the kitchen where she is scanning over a laminated menu from the place around the corner. Jason confesses that no, he does not remember and Maggie reads off the numbers. They order a large Hawaiian pizza and sit around watching Cartoon Network, chewing bits of baked pineapple until the flickering television screen puts them to sleep.
The next morning Jason feels that it almost might be a good day. He drinks a cup of orange juice, then a mug of hot chocolate. He walks to the bus stop with a sort-of spring in his step and watches the trees rush past the window on his way to school.
By the time the warning bell rings, the halls are thick with teenagers. Jason doesn't feel rushed to get to class. He slowly gets his Geometry text book from his locker and thinks about his painting. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the stoned guy from art slink in looking even more skittish than usual. Then Joe Zedan is there in his orange letterman jacket and Jason forgets pretty much everything, crushing himself to his locker to make as small a target as possible. Joe walks right past him; he's going for stoned guy today.
Like he usually does, Joe gets up in his victim's face. A band geek once postulated that he did this to see the fear in the other kid's eyes. Jason thinks this is quite possible, only it's not working on stoned guy, because stoned guy is looking anywhere but him. His eyes are wild and bloodshot, his hands tremble. Jason sees an unusual bulge in his front backpack pouch and the color black. Jason is good with colors and shapes. He looks up, meets the boy's crazed eyes and he knows.
Joe Zedan is the first one shot. It grazes his side. It would have been worse, but Jason yanked him out of the way. The sound of the gun echoes painfully in Jason's ears as he raises his hands, palms spread wide, as if to push back mountains.
"Stop," he says, and he would have said more, but his voice dies in his throat. The stoned boy looks at him. There's a great bruise peeking out of his t-shirt where his shoulder meets his neck, Jason can see five or six colors in it, and lines where the locker vents bit his shoulder as well. There are ghosts in his eyes. He almost recognizes Jason.
Weeks later, the school board orders a white marble monument engraved with some quaint, useless saying, and puts it at the school entrance. The gardeners surround the thing with rings of cheesy orange flowers and every time Jason sees them, the corners of his mouth pinch down like he just swallowed a frog.
Things have changed some subtly and some less so. The school counselor's hair gets frizzier everyday as she works through her one-on-one counseling sessions with the entire student body. In the hall where It happened, the tiles are replaced where the blood could not be scrubbed out of the floor.
Mr. Cranrow quits in favor of a lower-maintenance school. A permanent art teacher comes in. She has freckles and a two-year old daughter she sometimes brings to class and believes in "expressing your feelings through art." Art class is always full now, the counselor has figured out she doesn't have to do as much work if the school offers "art therapy sessions."
Jason doesn't get picked on anymore. Joe Zedan tried coming back to school for a week. He took one look at Jason and burst into tears. Joe Zedan, like a quarter of the senior class, gets transferred to private school.
Jason takes the bus home every day. He orders Hawaiian pizza and listens to music. He calls Maggie, who is in Connecticut studying, and listens to her talk for half an hour. He thinks about telling her about the kid who offed himself at school, the kid who was treated the same way Jason was treated, he thinks about telling her how it feels to watch someone die. He thinks about it, but in the end, he hangs up, lies in his bed and stares at his ceiling, trying to imagine colors that don't exist.
Saturday morning, Jason goes to school so early that it's still dark outside. He walks straight up to the shiny new monument. He pulls out paint, the thick, sticky kind, and gets to work covering the whole block, smearing the indented letters until they are illegible.
By Monday there is an ongoing manhunt to find the kid who "defaced a symbol of healing and solidarity," but they never find the culprit. One by one as the weeks slide past, new words appear on the monument. People write in marker and pencil and pen, telling readers to do the anatomically impossible. Or they tell those first writers off. Or they confess things that, if spoken aloud, would be too big to bear.
A few observant students know who painted on the memorial. They watch Jason with awed expressions as he floats about the art room and they step aside reverentially to let him pass through doors first.
Jason doesn't notice. Jason is painting.