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River's Transparent Desire
Author's note: It's more of a short story than a novel
San Diego wasn’t like he thought it would be. Sure, the sun shone brightly everyday and hot girls were walking around in bikinis everywhere he looked, but he always assumed he’d like living there. Something about the place just didn’t feel right to him.
Aunt Carol never let him smoke in the house. It’s not that the rule was actually enforced, but the last time he came to visit and lit up inside, she began a twenty-minute rant about how smoking would kill him and damage her furniture. He learned to take it outside.
He hadn’t been a heavy smoker until he came to the States. Back in London he only had one, maybe two cigarettes a day. Since he’d been in San Diego, he had become so reliant on their comfort he was going through half a pack a day. He knew that amount would only increase with his time there.
The sun was burning his legs, but he was enjoying his cigarette too much to go inside and put shorts on. He took a long drag and let the smoke play in his mouth before releasing it into the perfect San Diego air. Carol had a nice view from her front porch. There were nice things to look at while he smoked.
His hold on his cigarette was loose; a strong enough breeze would have knocked it out of his hands. That or a powerful stream of water.
“What the-“ his head whipped to the side to see his half burnt cigarette lying on the ground next to him in a puddle of water.
He turned back around to the source of the water. A girl was standing there, a hose, nozzle dripping, in one hand, a glass of pink lemonade in the other. Cut off jean shorts and a loose white tank top hung limply off her skin and bones body. Black ray bans covered her eyes while her feet were bare. Her long brown hair was sitting in a loose knot on the top of her head. Friendship bracelets covered her wrists. As soon as they made eye contact she put her mouth on the straw and took a long sip from her glass.
“What was that for?” he asked, standing up from his spot on the porch. She shrugged and kept the straw in her mouth, continuing to sip her lemonade. He just stared.
“How else was I going to get your attention?” she finally asked when it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything more. The lemonade was almost entirely gone.
“I don’t know. Maybe wave or say hi. Knocking a cigarette out of a guy’s hand with a hose isn’t exactly the kind of attention most people want, is it?”
“Yeah, but it worked.” He couldn’t argue with that. He couldn’t tell if she was for real or not. Nothing about her was easy to read.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I guess that was sort of a stupid question. Why would you make that up?”
He tried to respond, but was immediately cut off by her next question.
“What’s your name?”
“Kurt,” he answered, squinting. The sun was directly behind her head, yet she was the one wearing sunglasses.
“Kurt.” It was more of the question than a statement.
“Like Kurt Cobain,” she said.
“Yeah. Like Kurt Cobain,” he said, feeling cooler than he knew he should.
“Or that gay kid from Glee,” she said, the left side of her mouth rising into a smile.
“Yeah. Him too.” And just like that, the cool feeling was gone.
“Kurt,” she said again, rolling the name around in her mouth to see if she liked the taste. “I’m going to call you River.”
“Why River?” he asked, more than a little confused and, though he would never admit it, slightly offended. What was wrong with the name Kurt?
“Because I miss River Phoenix. I really do. There are no more actors as pure and genuine as he was. The good ones always die young, I swear to God. Just look at Heath Ledger and James Dean”
He tried to think of a clever way to respond. Nothing came to mind.
“Well, River’s cool, I guess.”
“It also sounds really hot when you say River.”
“Really?” he asked, trying to mask the smile that was forcing its way through to his face. She nodded, straw in mouth and finished her lemonade.
“Yup,” she said, turning and hacking her spit half way across her yard. “You got a pool at your place?”
“A house in San Diego that doesn’t have a pool? Jesus, that’s weird. Come over to mine.”
“Yeah. Grab some trunks and come on over. Or just swim naked. I’m easy,” she said, walking away from him and towards the gate that separated the front yard from the back. He didn’t attempt to move. He just watched her. When she reached the gate, she turned back to face him.
“Are you going to change or what?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, and walked into his house. He was glad Carol out; he didn’t want to have to explain to her where he was going. She’d ask a bunch of questions and become overly involved. He hated when adults tried to be overly involved. He couldn’t think of one instance when he genuinely hoped for an adult to ask him about his day.
The stairs creaked under his feet as he made his way up to the top floor. Aunt Carol had lived alone until he moved in. And she didn’t really have friends either. So her house had the bare essentials: a fridge, toilets, bed, the works. There was no artwork, no plants, no TV or stereo. The house looked nice from the outside; it fit in with the rest of the San Diego perfection. But the inside was almost eerie. Kurt hated to be in the house by himself. Which was why he spent most of the time outside.
The door to his bedroom was wooden. The same wood that was used on the walls. And the floor. And it always got stuck. Every time he tried to open it, he had to force it open with his shoulder.
When he finally got it open, he walked to his pitiful excuse for a dresser. He hadn’t brought much with him from London. He stared into the drawers that sat next to his tiny bed in the corner. He wondered if he had even brought swim trunks with him. He honestly couldn’t remember. He dug around for a minute, and luckily found a pair. The trunks were about as pitiful as the dresser.
They were the same pair he’d had since he was thirteen. Good thing he had stayed five-ten for the past four years.
He let his jeans fall to the floor around his ankles and stepped into the trunks. They still fit the way they always had. He left his white t-shirt on and headed back down the stairs.
0nce he was outside, he lit another cigarette and walked over to her back yard. The chain link fence was locked, but he didn’t have any trouble opening it up.
The back yard was pretty plain. Grass and palm trees were the only form of vegetation he could find. He kept walking until he saw the pool. The girl was lying on a Simba towel on a plastic beach chair. She was wearing the same friendship bracelets and sunglasses she had been wearing earlier, but she had changed into a plain black bikini. It made her tan skin look white. He didn’t mind.
“Hey,” she said, propping herself up on her elbow before crossing her legs under her body and sitting up.
“See how easy that was?” He asked, teasing her a bit. “You got my attention and you didn’t even spray me with a hose.”
“I’m also half naked. I had your attention before I even knew you were in the back yard.” He could feel his face getting hot.
“I guess that’s true,” he said, taking a seat on the chair next to hers and setting his cigarette package and lighter on the ground next to him. She laughed.
When she laughed, it was a real laugh. None of those fake little giggles most girls did. She threw her head back and laughed. It was such a friendly sound that he couldn’t help but smirk along with her.
When she calmed down, she directed her head towards him.
“So what brings you to the Golden State?”
“Trouble at home. I sort of wanted to be in a place where people didn’t know me, you know? Things were just getting weird, I guess.”
She stared at him. He wished he could see her eyes. He inhaled and let the smoke distract him.
“You don’t really want to talk about it, do you?”
“That’s cool. So what are your plans for when you’re here?”
“I don’t know. Just living with my aunt. Painting a little bit.”
“You can paint?” she asked, nearly jumping out of her chair.
“I mean, are you a good painter? Like, are you legit or are you one of those people who says they can paint just because they can hold a brush?”
“No, I can actually paint. I’ve gotten national recognition back home for my paintings.”
She smiled widely at him. Her teeth were perfect.
“That’s so cool. I’ve always wanted to be good at something like that.”
“Why couldn’t you be?” he asked, letting his cigarette fall to the ground and stomping it out with his bare heel. She shrugged.
“I don’t know. No one’s ever taught me maybe?”
“I could teach you,” he offered, keeping his eyes set on the cigarette’s ashy remains.
“You probably could,” she said. He looked up to see her smiling. “Or you could just paint me.”
“Yeah. I’ve always wanted someone to paint a picture of me. A good picture, you know? I think that would be so cool.”
“Sure, I could paint you.”
“That’s so awesome!” They way she said it, it almost came out as a squeal, but he could tell she wasn’t the type of girl who squealed. “How long would it take, do you think?”
“Just depends,” he said, stretching out on his chair, letting the sun absorb his body. “I mean if it’s on a large canvas it will obviously take longer than a small canvas. And if you want it to be just you or some sort of elaborate background. Depends on the type of paint. Just little factors like that.”
“I want it to be on a big canvas and of just me. You know how celebrities get those huge pictures taken of themselves all the time? I want it like that but with a painting. I’ve lived two hours away from LA my entire life and I’ve never had anything cool like that done. But I’ve always wanted to. I want to be a celebrity so bad.”
“Why’s that?” he asked, eyes closed.
She didn’t respond for a moment. He could tell by her silence that she’d never really thought about it extensively before.
“I don’t know. I just want to be famous. I mean, I really, really want to be famous. I want people to see me on the streets and know who I am. Is that weird?”
“Not at all.”
“Have you ever wanted to be famous?”
He thought about it for a second.
“No, not really.” She didn’t say anything. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s as good as people make it seem. Plus, I don’t think I’d do well in that sort of limelight. I think being famous is good for a certain type of people, but I don’t think I’m that type of person.”
“Am I?” she asked. Something about the question was reserved, yet somehow completely open at the same time.
“I mean, I think so. I don’t really know you all that well.”
“You don’t have to know me that well. Do you know anyone famous that well? I think you probably base it off the first impression, don’t you?”
“Well, if we’re going by first impressions, then I would say so, yeah.”
“Good.” He could hear her get up off the chair, but didn’t bother opening his eyes to look at her- he didn’t want to seem too desperate. He didn’t open his eyes until he heard a splash. When he raised his head, she was completely submerged. He waited for a few seconds before her head popped up above the surface.
“It feels really good,” she said, dragging out the words like she was singing a song. He smiled. It was then he realized that he couldn’t deny anything that came out of her mouth. He had known her for less than an hour and already she had him completely in the palm of her hand. She could tell him to set every house on the block on fire and he would willingly oblige. He stood up and yanked of his shirt, before tossing it on the chair.
“Ow, ow!” she called from the pool, letting out a laugh and reclining on her back. He smiled a shy smile and walked to the edge of the pool, looking down at his stomach the whole time. He wasn’t fat, but there was definitely nothing to cheer about there. He wondered how the water could possibly be so still with someone in it. It was probably because she was so damn skinny. The water barely rippled around her frail body.
“Get in,” she called again, drifting toward him and sinking lower beneath the surface. Almost her entire body was submerged. The only parts that stuck out above the water were her black Ray Bans and he top of her soaked head. He looked down at the water and jumped in.
The California sun had done nothing for the temperature of the water. As soon as his body made contact, he could feel himself shrivel up in an attempt to preserve body heat. It didn’t work.
“Jesus Christ, this pool is freezing!” he exclaimed after shooting up above the surface. He clutched his arms around his sides as tightly as he could manage. He wanted to get out and lay in the sun, but he didn’t want to look weak. After all, she looked just fine, and he had at least three times that body fat she had. Though most people did, he assumed.
“It’s not heated.”
“Thanks for the heads up.”
“If I had told you, you wouldn’t have gotten in. Besides, it feels good. I love the cold.”
“I hate it. That’s why I was so eager to leave London.”
“Well, you came to the right place if you like constant sunshine,” she said. For a while, they said nothing. They just drifted lazily around each other, as if they were secretly sizing each other up for some sort of fight.
She drifted slowly towards the shallow end, never taking her eyes off him, before diving underwater and into a handstand. Her legs were perfectly still above the water and then they slowly started moving away. He could tell she was walking away on her hands. He wanted to follow her. He liked the look of her perfect smooth legs. Then she stopped. Her legs shot down and her head shot back up. The glasses hadn’t even quivered from the spot where they rested on the bridge of her nose.
“I wasn’t always completely mediocre, you know.” He didn’t know how to respond. He hadn’t known her for long enough to contradict her statement. So he said nothing.
“I used to be a gymnast. Number one on the west coast, number four in the nation.”
“Wow, that’s impressive.” He liked talking with her, but he felt like he never had anything to say. She would throw things in his face and he’d respond with meaningless one-liners. “Why’d you quit?”
“High school girls letting the competition get the best of them. I was pretty hated because of my talent. And I hurt both my wrists at the end of last season. The doctor said I couldn’t have continued with it even if I wanted to.”
“What happened to them?” he asked, his body slowly getting used to the temperature. He treaded water to keep the warmth circulating through his veins.
She paused for a second, and even though he couldn’t see her eyes, he could tell she was looking off somewhere only she was familiar with.
“Well, I can’t give you the scientific terminology or anything. All I know is that I came down on them wrong doing a trick on the floor.”
“God, that sucks. I can’t even imagine having to quit painting. That would kill me.”
“Yeah, not being able to perform anymore killed me too. But you get used to it over time.”
“So you probably can’t do any sports now, huh?” She nodded. “And you can’t paint. What do you do when you’re not at school?”
“Hang out. Be anti-social.” He cocked an eyebrow in her direction, not fully believing what she was telling him.
“I find it hard to believe that you’re anti-social.”
“You also just met me an hour ago.”
“What happened to your first impression philosophy?” She grinned a little bit and shrugged. “And how many anti-social people do you know who get other people’s attention by shooting their cigarette out of their hand with a garden hose?”
It took her a moment to think about. She looked down at the water before coming up with an adequate response.
“Ok, well, I guess I’m just anti-social with the people at my school. I go to a really small school and for some reason gymnastics is, like, really popular there. I mean, we have the fan base most high school football teams envy. So it was pretty easy for all the other gymnasts to turn literally everyone against me.”
“What a b**** move.”
“Tell me about it. It’s like something straight out of a reality TV show. Petty, wanna-be Orange County girls revolving their lives around drama.”
“What did you do to make them turn against you like that?”
“Well, let’s see. I transferred there two summers ago, before my sophomore year, and when I tried out I made number one spot on varsity, no sweat. So that gave all the seniors and other varsity members a reason to dislike me. And then I started winning all sorts of titles and stuff for the school, which they really didn’t like. I had single handedly won more awards my first year on the team than all of them together had won the year before, which is saying a lot because the team has a lot of talent, as much as I hate to admit it. So that’s another reason they didn’t like me. I feel petty saying they didn’t like me purely because they were jealous, but that’s the only reason I can come up with. I can honestly say I never did anything negative to those girls. Except,” she trailed off. He waded toward her, legitimately interested in whatever this ‘except’ might be.
“Well, I did sort of steal the boyfriend of the girl who had been in the number one varsity spot the year before. But in my defense, I had no idea he was her boyfriend. He started flirting with me on my first day and it wasn’t like I was going to pass up the opportunity to have a hot senior boyfriend at my new school. I mean, what girl would turn that down? So we started going out and like a day later all of these girls on the team come up to me and they’re like, “You whore! Brian was Jordan’s boyfriend! You stole him from her, you stupid b****!” And, you know, stuff like that. And, I mean, I didn’t really care. If she couldn’t hold onto a boyfriend, that was her problem. But then she turned it into my problem.”
“She paid one of Brian’s closest friends to say I gave him a blow job at a party.”
“I know. Completely bogus. But Brian dumped me even though he knew I was out of town that night and he knew that I thought his friend Josh was the most disgusting thing that ever came into my life. I guess he had been looking for an excuse to dump me. It didn’t look good going out with the most hated girl in school. So I had no boyfriend, people who didn’t previously know about our fighting now thought I was a total whore, and the gymnastics girls started bullying me. Like, TV worthy bullying. I mean, I didn’t know that girls would actually go out of their way to bully people. I thought that was just a rumor someone made up so everyone would just get along in high school.”
There was only one question he could ask after hearing something like that, but he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate or not. But something about the way she talked made him know that she wanted him to ask.
“What did they do?” he asked cautiously, waiting for rejection to be thrown violently in his face. But none came. She jut rested her head back on the water and let out a deep breath.
“It wasn’t too bad at first. Just the occasional nasty texts or posts on my Facebook wall. I could deal with those. I just blocked their numbers and their pages. When they caught on that attacking me with technology wasn’t working out the way they planned, they started to come at me physically. I’m a naturally small person, but they started putting these weird weight loss things in my water bottle. I mean, I used to be small, but now I’m tiny. I hate the way I look now,” She muttered the last part so he could barely hear her. “One point them.”
He tried to interject to tell her not to give them any sort of credit, but she didn’t even give him time to open his mouth.
“And, I mean, they would trip me and throw pencils at me and shove me into lockers and s***. I don’t know. It sucked.”
“Did you do anything about it?”
“Yeah, I actually got the whole thing resolved. I’m being completely serious. But they still don’t like me because I brought attention to the fact that they were making every waking moment of my life a living hell. So they’re still mad at me, because they were being horrible people.”
He waded back in the pool. Letting the entire story seep into his head.
“What jerks,” he finally said.
“Tell me about it,” she muttered. “But I guess I’m better off. I don’t want to hang out with people who would do something like that to me.”
He nodded slowly, making a sincere effort to bring his head back up each time it had dropped. He had known her for an hour and a half at the most, and already he knew just about everything about her. Her dreams, her life, her accomplishments.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how do you have so many friendship bracelets if you didn’t have any friends? No offense.”
“None taken,” she smirked. “Good question. See, I went to this summer camp every year and in the down time literally all we did was make friendship bracelets. I’ve kept every bracelet anyone’s ever made for me. And for the last year or so, my camp friends have been the only friends I have. Too bad they all live in the north east by the camp.”
He nodded and lifted his feet off the bottom of the pool, letting the tiny ripples in the water move his floating body.
“Have you ever been to camp?” she asked, in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood.
“No,” he said, looking down at his pale arms. “We could never afford it. I used to get sick a lot and so all of our money went to paying for hospital bills.”
“Oh,” she said awkwardly.
She lightly drew circles on the surface of the water while he watched, not understanding how he could be so fascinated with one tiny hand gesture. He was a little relieved she had decided to stop talking and almost grateful for the uncomfortable pause; it gave him time to think about everything she had just given him.
“Sorry I had to lay all that on you. You barely even know me.” It was like she was reading his mind.
“Don’t worry about it. Sometimes it just feels better to vent about things.”
“I heard that,” she scoffed, and dove back under the water. She swam past him, her body just barely skimming the bottom of the pool. He watched her from the moment she went under to the moment she emerged on the other side. She placed her hands on the side of the pool and propelled herself out of the water. She sat on the edge and slipped her thumb under her mass of friendship bracelets in an attempt to massage her wrists before standing up and grabbing her Simba towel. She wrapped herself in the towel and sat back down on the chair. The towel covered her entire body and she was almost a complete bundle of fabric. She looked like she was asleep, but he couldn’t tell. She never took off her glasses.
He used the ladder to get out the pool, even though he didn’t have damaged wrists. His shirt was where he’d left it. The warm cotton felt good against his shivering body. There was only a slight breeze, but it was enough to make him tremble, just a little bit. He went back to the chair next to hers and lay down on his back once more. The rays seemed to fill every pore in his body. His skin had never felt so good.
“So, do you think you could maybe paint me tomorrow?” Her lips were the only part of her body that moved. She still looked like she was asleep.
“Yeah, sure.” Her grin took up her entire face. When she smiled, her cheeks filled her face, and her glasses rose well above her eyebrows.
“Right on. Do you have supplies with you or do you need to go get some? Because I could give you money and I know an art supply place in town that’s pretty good.”
“I hate to ask, but yeah, if I could borrow some money that would be great. I didn’t bring much over with me.”
“Don’t worry about it. There’s money in my bag, just grab how much you think you’ll need.”
After a quick pause, he turned to look in her direction.
“You want me to go now?” he asked, propping himself up on his right arm to get a better look at her.
“Yeah, why not?” she responded, not even bothering to move to face him. “If you get the stuff now you won’t have to waste time getting it tomorrow.”
He shrugged and stood up.
An orange purse was leaning gently against the other side of her chair. He walked over to it and took his time crouching down beside her.
When she had said there was money in her purse, she meant it literally. Bills littered the inside, and that was all.
“You don’t believe in wallets?” he asked, jokingly, pulling out a couple of twenties that were sitting at the top of the bag. Then he grabbed the rest, not knowing how things were priced in California. He didn’t want to show up short.
“They’re too time consuming. It’s easier if you can just reach in and grab your money. I also don’t believe in banks, which is why there’s so much hanging out in there.” While he was rummaging through her bag, she had uncurled her body and was laying flat on the chair. Her upper half was still completely covered by the towel, but from the thigh down was exposed.
He rubbed his hand across his eyes and then through his hair before shaking his sight away from her.
“So where is this place?” he asked, sitting down again on the chair across from her.
She sat up so quickly he thought she might fall back down the other way. In the upright position, she let the towel slide of her shoulders and lay in a heap around her sides.
“It’s so easy to get there from here. So basically you just keep going straight down our street until you get to Market Street and then make a right. It’s on the right hand side next to Ace Hardware. You can’t miss it.” She used the most absurd and unneeded hand gestures when she gave directions.
“And I’m assuming you’re not coming?” The look on her face was almost queasy. She picked up the towel and wrapped it around her shoulders again.
“After last school year I sort of prefer to just stay at my house.” Her gaze was fixed on the concrete that lay below her feet. He waited for her to give him anything else, but she said nothing.
“Alright,” he said, folding up the bills carefully before tucking them into the pocket of the swim trunks. He grabbed his cigarettes and lighter from the ground next to his chair and stood up. “I’ll be on my way then.”
He left without hearing another word from her.
The sun felt good beating down on his back and bare legs. He was glad he had changed into his swim trunks. He grabbed a cigarette from his pack and lit up, inhaling the sweet smoke that had become his closest friend.
The walk to the art store was longer than she had made it seem. Not unenjoyable, but long. By the time he got there, he guessed he had been walking for at least the past twenty minutes. He didn’t really care though. It wasn’t like he had any sort of time limit.
He felt out of place in the streets of San Diego. His pale skin made him look like a ghost compared to the sun-kissed tans and bleached blonde hair of the natives. Everyone looked at him like they knew he was foreign.
The familiar smell of paint slapped his face as he entered the art store. The place wasn’t very big, but it had exactly what he needed. He stood in front of the canvases; examining each one before realizing she never specified which size she wanted. He pulled the money out of his pocket and counted up how much he had. His sixteen bills totaled up to three hundred and twenty dollars, so he decided to buy four canvases. He could tell she wasn’t the type of girl who would mind having her picture painted more than once, and he definitely wasn’t the type of guy who would pass up an opportunity to just stare at her.
He grabbed the varying canvases and headed over to the paint and brushes. He picked out a set of basic acrylics and a good-looking pack of brushes before making his way to the register. He regretted not getting a cart when he entered the store, and practically threw everything onto the counter.
“Hello sir, did you find everything you were looking for today?” asked the guy behind the register, who looked like he was taken straight out of a magazine ad for Southern California.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, fishing around in his pocket for the cash. The guy behind the register took the hint and decided against an attempt at small talk. The guy continued to ring up the items, but kept looking at him, like the guy was trying really hard to see him.
“Are you from around here?” he finally asked.
“Uh, no. No I’m not.” The guy pursed his lips and nodded.
“Ok, well your total today is one fifty-nine, ninety-five.” He counted out his bills carefully before sliding them across the counter. The guy at the register didn’t look away from his face once, even as he was getting his change. It was like he’d never seen someone who hadn’t spent their entire lives engrossed in the sun’s rays.
He rubbed his hand through his shaggy hair, using that as an excuse to look away from the guy behind the register. He knew he looked different, but had they really never seen anyone like him before? The guy’s staring was getting more and more uncomfortable and he wished the guy would hurry up and rings up the rest of the items. It seemed liked the guy was ringing up everything as slowly as he possibly could, in order to have an excuse to look at River for a longer period of time.
“Five cents is you change. Have a nice day.” He grabbed his bags from the counter, and slid the larger canvas under his left arm before heading back out to the street. Most guys his age he saw in San Diego had a surfboard under their arm; he had painting supplies.
By the time he got back to Carol’s house the sun was beginning to set. He made his way across her front lawn and over to the fence that divided the pool from the rest of the world.
There was a mutt standing in the opening of the chain link fence, it’s hind legs facing him. The dog’s back was hunched slightly, and it was obvious to see that every hair on every inch of its body was standing on edge. He didn’t have to see the dog’s face to see that its teeth were clenched and it was snarling viciously.
He considered waiting for the dog to leave; after all, this was a stray dog more than willing to attack whatever it was it was looking at. But then he decided he didn’t care. And he walked right past the dog.
Oddly enough, it seemed to calm down when it saw him. Probably because it realized it wasn’t the dominant species in this situation. The dog turned and trotted away.
“That damn dog is so angry all the time. I have no idea why. He used to be this super nice, adorable neighborhood dog. But after my whole wrist accident, he just comes over here to snarl at me on a regular basis. They turned people against me, they turned dogs against me. Man those girls were just too good,” she said, shaking her head slowly. She was fully clothed again, but the towel was covering her folded legs like a blanket. It was the first thing she’d said to him that he didn’t really find interesting. So he brushed it off and changed the topic.
“I didn’t know what size you wanted, so I brought options,” he said, presenting the canvases to her. He could see the grin slowly spread across her face like a disease.
“Can you do them all?” she asked, looking up, earnest interest over flowing her voice.
“Sure, I guess. If you’re willing to pose for all of them.”
“Of course I’m willing to pose for all of them,” she said, as if that was more than clear.
“Oh right. I forgot the whole wanting to be famous thing.”
“Yeah, well when I tell you my life story in under an hour I can understand how it would be easy to forget some details.”
They smiled at each other. He wished he could see her eyes making contact with his, but she was still wearing her sunglasses.
“Ok, so why don’t you come over tomorrow at noon and we can get started. I have this really old school looking couch in my living that would probably be good for a back drop since it’s in front of a plain white wall.”
“Alright. I’ll be over at noon.”
“Cool. And do you mind keeping the painting stuff with you? I’m just going to be totally honest: I don’t want to deal with it right now.”
“Sure. I’ll take it with me.” He couldn’t help but think to himself that this was the perfect example of the absolute power she held over him.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling sweetly.
“Oh, hey,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “Here’s you change from the paint store.”
She didn’t even look at the bills wadded up in his palm.
“What?” he asked, more taken off guard then he thought he would have been.
“Yeah, consider it payment for doing this for me.”
“I’m not going to make you pay me.”
“I don’t care.”
“I can’t accept this. It’s way too much. And I really want to do this just for the sake of painting. I didn’t even consider asking for payment.”
“River,” she said, getting up from her chair and moving inches away from his body, her eyes ferociously plunging into his. He was a good four inches taller than she was, but her stare made him feel tiny. “I appreciate you doing this for me, and I appreciate that you were willing to do it for free. But just take the damn money and run, ok?”
His face was blank for a second, but then he grinned.
“Wow,” he muttered, looking down at his newfound cash. “Thanks, I really appreciate it.”
She shrugged and walked back to the chair, picking up the Simba towel. She stretched her arms high above head, and bent backwards slightly. He could hear a faint yawn.
“I’m pretty much dead right now. I have to go to sleep or I think I might fall over.”
“And you’ve got to be well rested if you want to model properly for me tomorrow.”
“Of course. There is always that.”
“I’ll see you at noon,” he said, slipping the bags over his shoulders and grabbing the canvases.
“Yes you will,” she said. He studied her face one last time before she began walking to where the back door was located on the other side of the house and wondered if tomorrow she’d still have the glasses. He’d make her take them off while he was painting her. He needed to see her eyes. Then he got serious with himself: he’d never make her do something if she wasn’t completely on board with it.
He walked back to Carol’s house and set all of his supplies down in the front room by the door. For some reason, her wave of tired had completely infected his body.
He walked up the stairs and got in the shower, turning up the heat as high as it would go, which wasn’t very high. Carol kept the house freezing at all times because she thought San Diego was too hot. He didn’t feel like actually cleaning himself though. He just stood under the pouring water for twenty minutes until he felt somewhat satisfied.
All of the towels in the house were rough, so he didn’t even bother using one to dry his body. He threw on a clean t-shirt and pair of boxers and used one of the towels to dry his hair.
He could see her house perfectly from his bedroom. He glanced out the window at her house. None of the lights were on. She obviously wasn’t kidding when she said she was so tired she thought she would die.
He pulled back the sheets and laid down, his view of her house still perfect. When his eyes closed, visions of her face clouded his mind. He kept thinking of different ways he could paint her. He wanted to depict her in a way that perfectly exhibited how complex she was. Every few minutes he would break away from those thoughts and look out his window again, as if he was checking to make sure it was still there, that it wasn’t all a dream.
When noon finally rolled around, he had been awake for hours. His night had been filled with insomnia and restless leg syndrome, so he didn’t see the point in trying to go back to sleep when he woke up again at five in the morning. He got up and went into the kitchen, looking for any source of food, and finally settling on Cheerios. He took the entire box with him to the living room and sat on the couch, munching mindlessly. He would have watched TV, but Carol didn’t believe in those sort of technological advances.
He couldn’t even taste the cereal. His mind was too preoccupied with what events lay ahead. He wished noon would hurry up and get there already.
At eleven fifty, he was pacing in front of the door, wondering how it was possible for ten minutes to stretch on for more than an hour. At eleven fifty-five, he had gathered all the painting supplies and was waiting for eleven fifty-nine, when he would cross her yard.
When eleven fifty-nine finally came, he took off like a shot, but then slowed down. He didn’t want his desperation to show.
He could see her lying on the front porch step when he stepped outside. Her left arm hung limply on the step below her and her right arm covered her face. He wondered if there was anything else covering her eyes.
She sat up when she heard his footsteps on the lawn. The glasses were still there.
“Hi,” she said, her bright toothy smile gleaming.
“Hey,” he said, walking over to her. “You ready to do this?”
“Yeah, come on in.” She turned to face the house but then spun around again, nearly knocking him off the bottom step.
“Crap, I totally forgot to put the pool cover on last night. I need to go do that, you go ahead inside.”
“Oh, the door gets stuck sometimes, but if you just push your shoulder against it, it will open.”
“All the doors in my aunt’s house do that too.”
“That’s because every house on this street is ancient. You’d think they’d be abandoned by now. But I guess some people really like preserving the past.” She shrugged her shoulders and leapt off the front porch, making her way towards the pool.
Sure enough, her front door stuck, just like his bedroom door stuck. All of his supplies were lying on the ground next to him, as he thrust all of his weight into the door. The first few times were uneventful, but he finally got it, throwing himself against the door so hard he almost fell inside. With the door open wide, he grabbed his supplies and walked in.
“Oh s***,” he muttered under his breath. The room was painted completely white. And not an off white or eggshell color; pure white. The wooden floors were waxed to a glossy perfection, and shone immensely when the sun’s rays hit it. The combination of the completely white walls and waxed floor caused an almost blinding sensation.
“Sorry, it’s kind of intense the first time you see it,” she said, coming up from behind him. “Put these on.”
The infamous Ray Bans were in his hands, but he didn’t bother putting them on. He turned his face straight toward her eyes.
“Wow,” he trailed off in slight disbelief.
“Your eyes. They’re incredible.” He knew that even if he wanted to he wouldn’t be able to look away. Her eyes were the deepest, most intense shade of emerald he’d ever seen. He could have sat there for the rest of the day just staring into her eyes.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, turning and walking towards the hallway, brushing off the comment like a speck of dust. “I’m going to go get changed. You can set up in here. I’m going to pose on that couch.”
“Alright,” he said, setting everything down on the floor by his feet. It was then that he realized he didn’t have an easel. He decided to just paint on the floor. He spread out his paints and brushes and put the largest canvas in front of him first, setting the other three to the side.
“How do I look?” she asked, reentering the room. She was in the process of zipping up her dress. She struggled with it a little, and he got up to help her, but it was as if him offering to help just motivated her to get it done on her own. She was nearly bent over on top of herself, but some how she made it so her arms were long enough to zip up the dress.
When the zipper was in place, she stood up straight and faced him, then struck a pose. They both laughed and she went on to do a runway walk to the other end of the room and back. He jokingly applauded when she returned to her starting position.
“Bravo, bravo. Really, well done.”
“Well, thank you!” she exclaimed in a snooty accent before laughing along with him.
“The dress looks fantastic on you. It really does.”
“Thanks. It was my home coming dress last year.”
“I like it. You look incredible.”
“Thanks,” she said, and for a second, he thought he saw her blush.
“I’m going to shut the curtains just so it’s not so blinding in here the whole time,” she said, strutting over to the window.
“Sure,” he nodded and kneeled down on the floor beside the canvas.
“This is ok light, right?” she asked, hands still on the edges of the curtains.
“Yeah, this will do.”
“Cool,” she said, making her way to the south end of the room and sitting down on the couch.
“You’re sure you’re ready to hold a pose?” he asked, watching her every movement.
“I was born ready,” she said with more emphasis than she needed. He laughed. She grinned. She tucked her left ankle behind the right before moving her hand behind her head, intertwining her fingers in her hair. She still had all of her friendship bracelets on both wrists. He couldn’t decide if he liked that or not.
“Is there anything in particular you want from this portrait? I mean, any exaggerated details, obscure colors, anything like that?”
“She lowered her arms half way and thought about it for a second before bringing them back up to their former position.
“Just paint the real me. The me that most people don’t see.”
“What makes you think I know the real you?”
“You aren’t most people.” He looked her straight in the eyes and for the first time, she had to look away first. He began to lay out his brushes.
“You’re going to have to remain absolutely still.”
“I can’t even talk?”
“You can talk if you keep your movements to a minimum.”
He looked up at her and then back down at the canvas, envisioning her form looking back at him. He looked up again, and tried to memorize her every detail. When he had her set in his head, he grabbed his paint and poured it on the canvas.
“Do you always pour your paint straight on the canvas? I mean, don’t most artists usually use pallets or something?”
Not a single muscle in her face moved. She was good about talking and remaining absolutely still.
“Most do, yeah, but I’ve always done it this way. I taught myself back when I was a kid, and my supplies were so limited that I couldn’t afford to waste any of the paint on the pallet so I would just pour it straight on the canvas.”
“Hey, whatever works, right?”
“Yeah,” he smirked. “Whatever works.”
When he painted, it was like everything else in the world was still. Even his heart beat. Even his breath. The only things that moved were his hands.
Painting was also the only time he felt genuinely paranoid. If he messed something up, if even the slightest detail was out of place, it destroyed him. Everything had to be perfect. He prided himself on that.
This picture especially, though. He needed it to be perfect. He tuned everything else out. The only thing in the world that mattered to him was the paint. Not even she could distract him. Nothing could distract him.
It usually took him four to five hours to finish a painting, a good one that is. This portrait took two and a half. And he had to admit, when he was done with it, it was by far the best thing he’d ever painted.
“I’m done,” he said, motioning her over. She got up off the couch and stretched out her arms and legs before walking over to his side, crouching next to him.
“Holy-“ He heard her gasp and turned to face her. Her left hand was covering her mouth and her eyes were darting across the image in front of her.
“That’s unbelievable,” she said standing up. He followed her lead.
“Thanks,” he said, grinning proudly.
“Can you do another one?” she asked suddenly. His look of pride turned to one of confusion.
“You just held the same pose for over two straight hours and now you want to do it again?”
“Yes! Can you do the last three? Is that ok with you?” Her sincerity was overwhelming. She was begging like a child.
“Yeah, that’s ok with me,” he said, picking up the completed painting and carefully leaning it against the wall before placing a clean one in the old one’s place.
He spent the next eight hours painting, but he didn’t even feel the time pass. It got to the point where they weren’t saying anything to each other. He would finish a painting, and she would change poses without any sort of verbal exchange. It was like each one of them was by themselves.
“That’s the last of them,” he said, putting the final touch on the final painting. Consecutively, each painting got better. He had beaten perfection. He had beaten perfection three times.
She raised her arms in a stretch from her spot on the couch and let out a long yawn.
“Tired?” he asked, gathering all of his supplies and putting them back in the plastic bags he had brought them over in. He would clean out the brushes when he got home.
“You have no idea. I literally can’t feel my body right now.” He laughed.
“I warned you.”
“That you did,” she said, twisting her body on the couch in an effort to crack her back. “I can’t believe it’s already eleven.”
“I know. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since this morning. You want to go get something to eat? I’m sure there’s something open at this time of night.”
“I would, but I am so worn out from all of that laborious posing. Plus, I had sort of planned on making you paint all day, so I ate my weight in Pop-Tarts before you came over.” She let out a loud laugh, and he couldn’t help but laugh along with her, no matter how disappointed he may have been.
“Maybe some other time,” he said, picking up his bag of art supplies.
“When do you think the pictures will be dry?”
“Well, the paint isn’t too think, so I’m guessing about half a day, give or take.”
“Right on,” she said softly, nodding to herself. He nodded too, not sure if that was his cue to leave or not.
“So guess what?” she asked after a few seconds of awkward nodding from both parties.
“I don’t know. What?” he asked with a shrug.
“My birthday’s tomorrow,” she said, her lips gradually forming a smile.
“Seriously?” he asked. She nodded, the size of her smile growing with each nod of her head. “Happy birthday!”
“Thanks,” she said almost shyly.
“Got any big plans?” he asked.
“I was pretty much just going to hang out here by myself, but if that dinner offer carries over to tomorrow…” she trailed off and looked up at his face.
“Of course it carries over to tomorrow. How could I deny you a meal on your birthday?” She laughed.
“Alright then, it’s a date. Be here at seven tomorrow.”
“Seven it is.”
“Seven it is,” she agreed, nodding her head. After a long pause, she continued, “You want to know something?”
She took a minute to properly gather and arrange her thoughts before speaking again.
“That was the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me. That sounds cliché and stupid, but it’s true. I haven’t even known you for a full forty-eight hours and you’re already the best friend I’ve ever had.”
He looked at her half in shock, half in gratitude.
“I don’t know what to say to that.”
“I don’t really want you to say anything. It might ruin it for me.”
She smiled sweetly as he chuckled under his breath before she headed to the door, her way of saying good-bye. He followed her and opened the door. The warm night breeze poured into the house. The few minutes they spent together standing in the doorway looking into each other’s eyes felt like a lifetime. But eventually she smiled a toothy smile at him and walked away from the open door. He watched her round the corner and disappear somewhere else in the house, before closing the front door behind him and walking back to Carol’s.
He set the paints down on the kitchen counter next to the sink, and slowly pulled out each brush one at a time and began the washing process. Whenever he washed paintbrushes, his mind went off in several different tangents, none of which ever involved washing the brushes.
As soon as the water hit the bristles, his mind went back immediately to the paintings. When he had finished each painting, he thought they were perfect and could think of nothing that would improve them. But the more he thought about them as he washed their evidence out of his brushes, the more he questioned their perfection.
She had told him that she wanted her paintings to demonstrate the “real her”, and for some reason, he was questioning if he had actually done that. Something about the paintings just seemed too mysterious. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew he had to fix it. He would drive himself mad until he altered the paintings.
He had only cleaned out one brush, and he set it down on the counter next to the other ones that were still full of paint. He shut off the faucet and wiped his hands on his pants before heading to the front door.
All of the lights in her house were off again, but he knocked anyway. He was sure she wouldn’t have minded if he just walked in and grabbed the paintings, but he would have felt creepy going into her house without her permission.
“Come on in,” he heard a muffled shout from the other side of the door and used his arm to force the door open. It stuck a little, but he got it open with much more ease than the previous time.
She was standing in front of the hallway that led to the rest of the house in a pair of pajama shorts and a t-shirt from some national qualifier she must have done back in her gymnastic days.
“Hey, sorry to bother you when it’s so late, but I need to change something on the pictures.”
“Do you need me to pose again?” she asked, looking slightly concerned.
“No, no,” he assured her. “I’ll just take them back to my house and fix them up a little bit. The changes won’t be anything too drastic, but I want them to be more upfront. Right now they still have this sort of mystery about them. I want them to be as direct as possible.”
“Ok, yeah. Go for it.”
“Thanks. And I want to take each one over individually so the paint doesn’t get ruined, so you can go back to sleep and I’ll just let myself in between trips.”
“Ok, thanks. Good luck with them.”
“Thanks,” he said, grabbing the nearest painting as she disappeared to the back of the house. He carried it back to Carol’s and set it up in the living room before going back to get the next one.
The dog was there again when he walked out of the house with the third painting. Its teeth were bared and it looked like it was ready to attack. It must have been there for him this time; he did look like he was robbing the house of the portraits, after all.
“Get out of here!” he called, not bothering to actually chase the dog away. In any other situation, he would have, but he was worried that if he went towards the dog with the painting, the dog would retaliate and destroy it. That wasn’t a risk he was willing to take. In all honesty, he would have just killed the damn dog before it destroyed one of his latest masterpieces.
So instead he just yelled as he crossed lawns, hoping the dog would get the message. It did. By the time he came back out of the house again, it was gone.
When he got back with the final painting, he lined them up side by side against the couch. Then he sat down on the other side of the room across from them and examined their every aspect.
He must have spent forty minutes on the floor examining the portraits before he finally knew what was wrong. He got up so suddenly he had to pause and wait for the vertigo to pass before continuing his walk to his supplies. His movements were quick, yet nearly silent. He got his brushes and paints and immediately went to work perfecting perfection.
When he was done with all four, he stepped back to examine his work. He could finally say it was perfect and actually mean it.
He wanted her to see the finished product when she woke up. He grabbed the first one and headed back to her house. He didn’t even bother knocking. She had already given him permission to come in her house, and he wanted it to be a sort of birthday surprise for her when she woke up and saw them waiting for her in the front room.
He was quiet about entering the house and was glad the door chose not to stick. He left it cracked in between trips just to assure that he wouldn’t have to force it open. He didn’t want to wake her.
The paintings had all been moved back to her house and he shut the front door for the final time that night. He thought about the paintings as he walked back to Carol’s and this time, when he pictured them in his head, he didn’t reconsider a single thing.
He woke up the next morning at around three in the afternoon. The sun was shining directly into his eyes, and it took a few minutes of adjusting before he was finally used to it.
He stretched his body out as far as it would stretch, causing almost the entire bottom part of his legs to hang off the bed.
Every morning since he’d been there he’d had the same routine. Wake up, pee, go down to the kitchen, grab the Cheerios and eat them on the couch straight from the box.
This day was no exception. He had four hours to kill before he went over to her house. He sat on the couch, absently chewing his cereal and wondering how he could fill four hours. He considered calling her and seeing if she wanted to do something before hand, but he didn’t want her to feel like he was suffocating her with their time spent together.
As he sat on the couch, eating his Cheerios, he began desperately thinking of ideas for ways he could fill the day. There was nothing to do at Carol’s house that interested him. The only form of entertainment she had was books and the newspaper. He didn’t want either.
He hated books because he didn’t think authors had any real talent. Anyone could make up a story. Authors just added in fancy words and figures of speech to make their story sound better than all the rest. But all stories were the same. There was really only one original plot line. If you gave him any book, he could show you ways in which it was exactly like at least one other book, destroying any chance for the author to be unique.
He hated newspapers because he felt they were only there to remind everyone how terrible the world was. Every now and then they’d run a story about a dog saving an old woman from a fire, or a triumph in the medical world that lead to a cure for some major disease, but even then, both of those stories sparked from something sad. Those stories wouldn’t have even happened if it hadn’t been for something bad happening first. Plus, it was never the happy stories that made the front page. The articles that made the front page were the ones that talked about death. The higher the death toll, the closer they got to the front of the paper. And every politician made the front page because they all screwed up eventually.
And the weird thing was, he actually really loved reading. As a child, he read all the time and the most obscure things. But the more he aged and developed an opinion on society, the less often he read. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to; he couldn’t bring himself to.
He stopped thinking about his love-hate relationship for reading and began to think of other ways he could possibly fill his time.
Then he remembered the money she had given him.
He threw the empty box of Cheerios in the trashcan and walked up stairs. He opened the top drawer of the dresser and grabbed the same white t-shirt he had been wearing the day before and unfolded it. The money was folded neatly in the center of the shirt, and he grabbed it all and stuffed it in his pocket. He then grabbed his cigarettes and lighter from the top of the dresser and headed outside.
He stopped on the front step to light his cigarette and was then on his way to town. He figured he’d use his newly acquired cash to buy something nice to wear that night. But not too nice; he had to have money left over to take her somewhere she wouldn’t forget.
But he wanted to look good. She always looked good. He needed to impress her.
The walk to the shopping center was a lot shorter than he had remembered He tried to find a store that sold suits by himself, but gave up after half an hour of trying an asked a woman on the streets for directions. She looked at him like she was confused, but gave him the directions anyway. He knew she was looking at him like that because of his appearance. His hair was tangled and hanging in front of his face. His shoes were dirty and his shirt was ripped. His appearance didn’t exactly scream, “I’m a man who needs to buy a suit”.
The moment he walked in he could slowly feel the self-confidence oozing out of him. A guy like him should not have been in a store like that.
“Good afternoon, sir. My name is Emmett, is there anything I can help you with today? Any measurements I can take for you?”
“Uh, no,” he said, looking everywhere in the store but Emmett’s face. “I think I’ll just try stuff on until I find something that fits.”
“Very well, sir. Just tell me if you need anything.”
He could feel every pair of eyes in the store upon him. Their perfectly groomed faces and pressed suits were judging everything about his out of place hair and tattered clothing.
He went to the rack in the back of the store in an attempt to avoid their judgment. He slowly sifted through pant and jacket combinations. He couldn’t help but think of his father while he looked through the suits. Each one reminded him of his father.
He finally found a light gray suit that looked like it would fit him all right. He took its hanger off the rack and brought it with him to the fitting room.
The fitting room, similar to his room at Carol’s house, was small and cramped. He hung the suit on the wall and slowly began to undress. When the suit was on, he examined himself closely in the mirror. He didn’t think it looked too bad. Plus it was on sale. Every other suit in the store was way out of his price range.
But the thing that really attracted him to the suit was the transformation it brought him. He could honestly say he felt like a new man as he was wearing it. When he wore the suit, and looked at himself in the suit, it was like something inside him changed, but for the better. He decided to take it.
He placed the jacket and pants back on the hanger, smoothing them out along the creases, until they looked just as good as they made him feel. He put his original outfit back on and walked out of the dressing room.
His good feelings were gone as soon as he stepped back into the main part of the store. It was like they had all been waiting for him to return so they could rip him apart with their eyes. He walked up to the register casually and tried not to let it affect him. He didn’t succeed. He could feel his face turning a deeper shade of pink as his hands became more and more clammy.
“Will that be all for you today?” asked Emmett, ringing up the suit.
“You’re sure I can’t interest you in a pair of shoes? Our Zelli leather loafers are selling extremely well right now.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
He didn’t have the money to buy another pair of shoes. His black Vans would be fine, even if they were dirty and old. He didn’t see the point in buying expensive Italian shoes if he would just wear them once.
“One fifty-three, fifteen. You’re lucky you got this one while it was on sale. The original price was around three-ninety.”
He did some quick mental math before realizing that he wasn’t as lucky as Emmett made him seem.
“Um,” he started awkwardly, looking down at the ground. “Is there any way I could get just the pants?”
Emmett looked at him like he was insane.
“It’s just that I’m taking this girl out tonight and I want to have enough to take her out and look nice.”
Emmett looked back down at the register and began punching in numbers. He could tell Emmett was pissed.
“Your new total is seventy-nine, ninety-eight.”
He counted out the bills and slid them across the counter toward Emmett. Emmett grabbed them and stuffed them in the register before counting out the change, handing it back to him and putting the receipt in the bag.
He didn’t say anything. He just grabbed his bags and left. He had never been more eager to leave any place in his life.
He would have stayed in the shopping area for longer, seeing as he still had two and half hours before he had to be at her house, but his vibes were so offset by the suit store that he decided it would be better if he just left.
When he got back to Carol’s he dropped the bag of clothes in his room and went into the bathroom. He braced his weight on the sink so much so that the veins in his arms began to pop out. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. He looked like a crazy person.
His hair was sticking out in every direction. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d combed it. And his skin was ghostly. That was normal though, but after being in San Diego, anyone who wasn’t tan looked unnatural.
He looked around for a comb and finally found a brush in Carol’s bathroom. He brought it back to his own bathroom and slowly brushed out the tangles. With each motion of the brush he grimaced a little. He made a mental note to himself to brush his hair more often.
When he was done with the brush, he went back to Carol’s bathroom. But instead of putting the brush back and leaving, he stayed for a moment. He wondered if maybe she had some sort of product that would help him blend in with the people of San Diego. He was tired of being stared at because he looked whiter than their sun block.
But then he decided that it wasn’t worth it. He also didn’t want to try too hard. He had already bought a suit and brushed his hair; going any further would just prove his desperation.
He walked back to the mirror and looked at himself one more time. He had never realized how naturally terrified his face looked. If he wasn’t smiling or frowning, he looked downright afraid. It was like his natural mindset was that of paranoia. He didn’t let that take up too much space in his mind though. Everything else looked decent. That was good enough for him.
He had to find a way to fill the time, so he went outside and smoked for an hour.
He was less confident in the pants in his house than he had been in the store. He wished he had bought the jacket and even looked around the house for a few minutes for money. He had the twenty he had brought over with him and the ninety or so dollars left from her, but that was it. He gave up after he had searched the entire downstairs. He wouldn’t have had enough time anyway.
He looked at himself in the mirror. His white button down shirt, gray pants and black Vans didn’t look nearly as good as he thought they would. Some guys could pull of the nice suit with grungy shoes look. He wasn’t one of those guys. Turning away from the mirror, he hoped the confidence he felt in the dressing room would somehow find its way back to him.
He assured himself she wouldn’t care about the clothes. And even if she did care, she was too polite to say anything about it.
He turned back to the mirror again for one more look, something he’d been doing increasingly more often since he’d met her. He never thought his appearance was important until he met someone he cared about looking good for.
With one final nod of approval to himself, he grabbed his remaining cash and headed downstairs. The clock in the entry way read six fifty-seven. He considered leaving the cigarettes at home, but decided against it and placed them in his right pants pocket. He folded the money up neatly and stuffed them in his left pocket before heading out the door.
He made his way briskly across her yard and could feel his heart rate quicken with every step. He rang the doorbell and waited, hoping she’d wear the little black dress she wore the day before again. He also hoped she had a car. Carol didn’t have one and he didn’t want to make her walk.
After minutes of standing outside the door with no response, he rang the bell again and knocked twice. Another minute passed, and still, he had nothing.
“Hey, it’s me. I’m going to come in, alright?”
He waited for a response, but got none. So he went in.
The door stuck a bit, but he finally got it. His pictures were right where he’d left them.
“Hello?” he called, and waited for some sort of answer.
“Hello?” he shouted this time. Still nothing.
He stood in the front room, pondering what his best move was at this point. He decided the best thing to do was go look for her. After all, it was already ten after seven and she had said she’d meet him at her house at seven. He had waited outside for her patiently, but she never showed. He could completely justify wandering through her house.
He decided to go through the back hallway that she always entered and exited through instead of going up the stairs first. He walked through the doorway and hit the light switch, shedding a faint beam of light on a massive kitchen. She wasn’t there.
He continued this pattern through the entire bottom floor before he moved upstairs. When he had no luck on the second floor, he went back down to the first to try again. But there was still not sign of her.
He checked his watch again. It was seven twenty-five. He thought of all the possible reasons she could have for not being at the house. He couldn’t put his finger on any reason though, so he decided to go outside and wait.
He closed the front door behind him and sat down on the front porch, leaning up against the handrail.
He grabbed a cigarette and the lighter from his pocket and lit up. He deeply inhaled and let it out slowly. He let the smoke tickle his lips and thought about the comfort that feeling gave him before taking anther drag from the cigarette. He was glad he had decided to bring the cigarettes. They were like an old friend. They calmed him down. They kept him from going insane.
Ten o’clock rolled around. There was still no sign of her. He had already smoked thirty-four cigarettes. That was a new record.
At one point, he had had to go back to his place to grab another pack, but was worried he’d miss her if he did. The more he thought about missing her, the more he stressed out, and the more he needed a cigarette. So finally, he sprinted to his house, up the stairs, grabbed a pack and ran back so quickly he figured only forty seconds could have passed. There was no way he could have missed her. But just in case, he rang the bell again. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
He didn’t have her number and she didn’t have his, so there was no way they could contact each other unless it was face to face. Thinking about how stupid he was for not getting her number was making him sick to his stomach.
At ten thirteen a car began to drive up their street. Every time he saw a car he got so excited believing it would be her pulling into her driveway. Each time he had been let down; the car had driven past the house and well down the street.
This car was a cop car. Upon recognizing this, he felt flashes of so many emotions he honestly couldn’t pinpoint exactly how he was feeling.
He was worried because he thought maybe she was dead somewhere and they were coming by the house to report her tragic death.
He was relieved because he could tell them she was missing.
He jumped up from his spot on the porch and ran towards the sidewalk, flailing his arms in the air in hopes of getting their attention. Their lights flashed on for a second and they pulled over next to him.
“Is there a problem here, son?” asked the officer in the driver’s seat. He was a middle aged white man with wrinkles around his eyes but nowhere else. There was something about the officer that reminded him about how paranoid he looked when he wasn’t showing emotion. This cop wasn’t showing anything, but he also looked slightly terrified.
“I think I need to report a missing person.”
“You think you need to?”
“Well, I was supposed to meet this girl here for a date at seven and I know you don’t report people missing unless they’ve been gone for twenty-four hours, but she never showed up. She never called to decline or anything either.”
“Why were you meeting her here?” the officer asked, a look of suspicion clouding his otherwise paranoid face.
“This is where she lives.”
The officer’s eyebrows began to furrow and he looked like he was about to scream. His partner, a young Hispanic man gave him a look that said, “Oh God, what the hell have you done?”
The white cop put his car in park and pulled the keys out of the ignition before opening his door gradually and stepping out onto the street. He slammed the door behind him and stood up as tall as he could. The car had done an excellent job of masking his at least six foot two frame.
“What kind of s*** are you trying to pull, kid? This house has been abandoned for the past year.” He could hear the officer’s voice quiver. It was as if the officer was trying his best to keep himself under control. And just like that, the officer’s appearance began to make him feel even more terrified than he was sure his face led on.
“That can’t be true. I’ve spent everyday with her for the past three days.”
“Who is this missing girl?” asked the white cop, folding his arms across his chest. The Hispanic cop got out and stood by his door facing the two of them, as if to monitor whatever was about to go down.
“Her name is,” he trailed off. He had no idea what her name was. Not a clue. He had never bothered to ask. It had never seemed important until that moment.
“What?” asked the officer, leaning in closer to him, as if, by getting a closer look, he could see straight through his brain.
“I don’t actually know her name. But I know she was about five foot five, she had really long brown hair, sort of tan-ish skin, really skinny. I mean like a skeleton with skin, basically. She wore friendship bracelets all the time,” he trailed off again, wondering if any of this information was actually helpful. But then he remembered. “Wait a second. I have paintings of her inside the house. I have four paintings. Three of them are just her face, but there is one full body. That should help, right?”
He didn’t wait for the officers’ response; he turned and half ran back to the house.
The door was jammed again, so he pushed his shoulder against it and wiggled the knob. It didn’t open. But he was desperate to get inside. He practically threw himself on the door and swung it open using all his force.
He stumbled inside, almost losing his footing from pushing the door open so hard.
And when he regained his balance, he saw his paintings for the first time.
“Oh holy Christ.”
Staring back at him was no longer the face of a beautiful girl, but that of a ghost. Where her friendship bracelets had been were now deep gashes, blood flowing steadily out, staining whatever was in its path.
He thought he was going to cry; instead he vomited.
No sooner had he finished throwing up than he heard screaming. He swung around just in time to see a fist fly in his direction, narrowly missing his face.
“Who the f*** do you think you are?” screamed the white officer. He could see that the Hispanic officer had both of the white officer’s hands behind him and was holding him back from acting upon his current fit of rage.
“That’s not-I didn’t-“He couldn’t finish any of his sentences. He knew anything he would say to the officer would be a lie. He wanted to tell him that he had never painted that. He wanted to tell him that painting her that way was never his idea. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized both of those statements were lies. He hadn’t wanted to hide anything. He had wanted to portray her exactly as she was. He had wanted to show the real her. He wanted people to see her the way he really saw her.
“You sick son of a b****,” muttered the white cop, his face turning a deep shade of red. His eyes began to well up, and he was shaking his head violently, muttering his last statement over and over again, each time with more anger.
“Carl, go out to the car. I’ll deal with the kid,” said the Hispanic officer to his partner. Carl didn’t move, but kept an angry glare fixated on him. He looked back in fear, hoping that the feeling would come back to his face. All of the sudden, Carl made a vicious break to get free, but the Hispanic cop just tighten his grip.
“Carl! Get back to the car now!” Carl looked down at him before nodding slightly. The Hispanic officer let go of his wrists and Carl walked out the front door.
“Kid,” said the officer walking toward him. His nametag said Frank. “What the hell are you doing here? How could you do something like that to someone? Especially a father, man. How did you even know he’d want to drive by here on her anniversary?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Anniversary of what?”
Frank looked long and hard into his eyes, trying to get some sort of read on him.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No sir, I’m from London.” Something about the word London sparked and interest in Frank.
“What’s your name?”
“River?” Frank asked. He immediately felt like an idiot for telling Frank the name she had given him.
“Kurt. I meant to say Kurt. My name is Kurt Blanchard.”
“I knew it.” Before he could blink, he felt himself being pushed up against the wall by Frank. His chest hit so hard it snapped his neck back. But he lost interest in the neck pain as soon as he felt the cold clamp of metal around his wrists. A sensation he was all too familiar with.
“You really are one sick son of a b****,” said Frank, forcefully leading him back out to the squad car.
His mouth was protesting, but his legs were cooperating completely. He didn’t want to go back. He didn’t belong there. But somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he had to.
Sitting in the back seat of the car reminded him entirely of his last night at home. He sat and watched the house slowly turn into a tiny speck on the horizon, just as he had done before.
“Alright, Kurt-“ “My name is River.” The man paused for a second. “Alright. River. River, do you know why you’re here?” “Yes.” The man waited for an elaboration. “Are you going to tell me why?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because you and I both know why I’m here.” “I want to hear you say it.” “I’m not going to say it. Not again.” The man let out a deep breath. “You’re here because you murdered your mother, father and younger sister, then escaped from our facilities and ran away to America where you broke into two different properties.” “Don’t f*ing tell me that!” he screamed, half leaping up from his seat. But he sat back down quickly. He didn’t want to get in trouble for getting up. He’d gotten in trouble there before. He was avoiding it like the plague. “Why don’t you want me to tell you that?” The man looked calm and collected, but he knew the man was terrified on the inside. Everyone who talked with him was. “Because it’s not my fault.” “Which part of that wasn’t your fault?” “All of it.” “Alright, the part where you killed your entire family, how was that not your fault?” “I had to do it.” “Why?” “For my art.” “You slit their throats!” “It’s not my fault blood looks good in a painting.” The man just sat back in shock, completely unable to comprehend the logic. River couldn’t understand why. “What about the part when you broke out of our facilities and escaped to another country on another continent?” “It’s not my fault you couldn’t contain me. It’s not my fault the police are so stupid that they didn’t even look for me at my house, the obvious first place I would go. It’s not my fault that cargo ships don’t check their cargo thoroughly enough before they head out to sea. It’s not my fault that my identity wasn’t known in America until after I had taken a bus across the country.” “Nothing’s ever your fault, is it?” He shrugged. “What about he part where you broke into two different properties in San Diego?” the man continued. “My aunt let me stay at her place.” “You don’t have an aunt in San Diego.” “Yes I do. My Aunt Carol. She’s my mom’s sister.” “Your mother was the only girl in her family. And all of her brothers and their wives live in or around London.” “No, I got a note from Carol specifically asking that I come spend some time with her over the summer.” “No, you didn’t.” “Then how do you explain how I knew exactly where to stay? And how I got food and running water?” “The only food you had in the house was Cheerios, which you stole from a grocery store your first day in San Diego.” “That’s not true.” “Yes it is. We have video proof.” He settled back smugly in his chair. The man continued. “The houses were abandoned. The water was never turned off, for some unapparent reason, and it wasn’t clean it and it wasn’t hot. You made yourself believe your conditions were better than they were, which is why you could live so successfully in a house with maybe one or two pieces of furniture that hadn’t been used in at least forty years.” He looked at the man like he was going to hit him. But he couldn’t hit him. If he hit him, he’d get in trouble. “Then how do you explain the house?” “We were hoping you could shed some light on that subject.” “I can’t.” “Well, then I don’t know what to tell you.” “Whatever,” he muttered, leaning back in the chair. “Do you know a girl named Savannah Waters?” He sighed and rubbed his hand through his messy hair. He missed it being combed. “No, I don’t.” “She’s the young woman you painted.” And just like that, his emotions made a drastic switch. Before he had been feeling anger towards the man for holding him there. But now he was jealous and even a little sad. He had loved Savannah Waters and was just finding out her name. The man knew nothing about her, but had known her name longer. And he didn’t know why, but that really hit him hard. “How do you know her name?” His voice was a harsh whisper. He knew that if it got any louder he wouldn’t be able to hold back. He clenched the arms rest of his seat so hard his knuckles began to turn white. He didn’t care. He needed the distraction. “It was filed in your report. Why didn’t you ever ask what her name was?” The sorrow turned to rage and he bit down hard on his bottom lip. “I didn’t matter.” “Why not?” “I knew everything else about her. I didn’t need to know her name. We got along fine with me not knowing her name.” The man nodded, but didn’t seem at all convinced. “River, do you believe you should be here?” “No.” “You don’t think you belong here?” “No sir, I do not.” “Why do you think that?” “These people are crazy.” The man just looked at him, his eyebrow slightly raised. “Kurt-“ “River.” “River. You painted an entirely accurate portrait of a girl you had never met who had died almost exactly a year prior.” “That’s because I could see her.” The man just stared again. “How many sane people do you know who say that? “One.” “Who?” “Me.” “You don’t count.” “Why not?” “Because you are criminally insane.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He thought he might cry. But if he cried, the man won. “I’m not like these people.” “Why not?” “I’m not crazy.” “River, you murdered your family and talked to the dead. Whether you admit it or not, you are classified as insane and extremely dangerous.” The man wouldn’t take his eyes off of him. And the man’s eyes were like daggers. He slid further down into the chair and sagged his head so his chin was resting on his chest. He gave up caring about winning or loosing. He let the tears flow. Their salt residue burned his face and he tried his best to make sure the tears were the only signs of his true emotions. He finally sat up and stared the man straight in the eyes. “Yeah, but I don’t want to be.” For the first time in the entire interview, the man looked somewhere beside his face. He looked down at the notepad sitting in front of him and scribbled down some notes, before hitting an intercom button. “Kurt is ready to go.” “I already told, you my name is River.” He was griping the armrests of the chair so hard at that point, he didn’t know which would break first: the armrests or his hands. A hefty black male nurse walked in and forced him out of the chair. He watched the man until they were down the hall and he could no longer see through the window in his office. The male nurse brought him back to his room, and put him in his jacket. He had resisted it the first few times, but found that it wasn’t so bad if he just pretended it was her skinny arms wrapped around him. Plus, resisting his jacket meant he got in trouble. The male nurse secured his jacket and left him sitting there, helpless in the middle of his all white room. He could only remember liking one completely white room in his entire life. He knelt on the floor and stared down at his knees, which were bent under him. He let the tears flow freely once more. No one could see him in there. Only she could see him, and he didn’t care if she saw him cry. He looked up at the luminescent lights on the ceiling; tears streaming down his face, as if somewhere in those lights lay a solution. As if those light would tell him the way out. As if she would be waiting for him in those lights.