Ori had lied. The next day was not the last day before winter break. Due to his ignorance James had completely forgotten that seniors did not have to come to school. And if they weren’t required to come, nobody would.
James found that out the hard way. After sitting in his homeroom for the morning, waiting for Ori to show up and getting odd looks from the surrounding juniors and sophomores in the class, his phone dinged.
‘LOL SORRY DUDE TOTALLY FORGOT TODAY U DON’T HAVE TO GO SORRY’ her message said.
Just as he read it the teacher strolled into the class. Mrs. Mac looked at him in confusion.
“James? Didn’t you know seniors don’t have to attend today?” She asked. James blushed and grabbed his backpack from his chair.
“I do now.” He muttered as he left the classroom. A flurry of giggles echoed before the door closed.
He had to walk home. The bus didn’t go down this route in the middle of the day and since he was too embarrassed to head back over to the school. James just decided to wander around the local strip mall. It wasn’t the only one around – other larger, more popular malls dotted the town, but James didn’t like the idea of being around many people. And seniors were out, so he knew most of them would be scattered around the shops. And, bonus, Philly’s was there. The sandwich from last night made him crave even more. He could swear that restaurant laced their burgers with cocaine or something – James was addicted ten-fold.
The strip mall was just around the corner from the bus station. He was eager to get there – the closer it got to Christmas the more the weather seemed to hate them. James wouldn’t be surprised if on Christmas the entire town would be buried under snow. He clutched his jacket, and sprinted to the mall.
Being a strip mall meant most of the stores would be crowded in the winter months. Well, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were. But when he arrived, there was barely a soul in sight. His suspicions were correct. Most of the seniors were elsewhere.
James paced along the decorative tiles of the mall. The sky windows were closed – thank God – but that didn’t stop the chill from reaching him. Several times he ducted into the stores just to warm his fingers. When he did sometimes the employees would groan, wondering if they would be forced to help him. Other times they looked so excited that they might pee. Either way, James hung around the entrance for only a little while before stepping outside and bolting to the next store.
The only shop that was able to keep him for long was a rundown art store. James had raced there after a particularly psycho employee at Footlocker shoved eight different pairs of shoes in his face. The smell of paint and fresh wood swamped him as he opened the door. A tiny bell rang to signal his entry. On the outside, the store was much like the ‘world famous’ diner Marcus had taken him to months before, with a broken LED sign and cracked windows that were repaired with duct tape. It wasn’t much different inside.
The walls had a splatter of rainbow colors thrown on them with paintings hanging at odd angels. Paint jars lined the shelves of towering oak wood cases. Easels were stacked in one corner while a cash register sat in the other. Bright, cheery ad displays with different art supplies littered the floor around it. A cashier had his feet up on the counter, reading a newspaper. He didn’t look up as James walked in.
He had no idea this art shop even existed. He had been to the strip mall many times but never had he seen this store. Maybe that was just because he had never really looked farther than the corner store or Joan’s to get his art supplies. He peered at the jars of paint on the shelves. They were in huge quantities but went for the price of just a normal size bottle of acrylic. It astonished him. The picture of his canvas back at home flashed through his mind.
Without hesitating he picked up four jars of shaded yellows, then a blue and more grey. Then he went over to one of the ad displays, grabbing a notebook from it and a few pencils. He stumbled over to the counter with his hands full. The cashier didn’t acknowledge him. James stood, wavering under the weight of the cans.
“Um, hello?” He asked. The man still didn’t move.
“Um, hi, I would like to-“
The cashier sighed loudly, and set down the paper. An old man glared at James through thick glasses. His face looked as if he had sucked on a lemon then blow-dried his skin. James could practically hear his skin crackle as if it was leather.
“Yes, fine, fine,” he grumbled, snatching the jars away from James and scanning them on an ancient piece of equipment. James’ eyes wandered as the old man grumbled and grunted. The wall behind the cash register wasn’t that different – expect that it was just white and only one painting hung above them. It looked bare – it could blend into the wall. He could see the streaks of a brush, including loose horse hair glued in by the paint.
Lemon Man caught his gaze at the painting, and sighed.
“What are you staring at, boy?” His voice was like falling rocks. James tore his eyes away.
“Oh, sorry, it’s just…that painting.” He jutted his chin at it. The man’s eyes narrowed under his glasses.
“What about it?”
“I don’t understand it.”
The man scoffed, bagging the jars of paint. Despite looking as if he’d rather hurl them at James’ head, he stacked them carefully in a plastic bag.
“Of course you would. You’re just as dense as everyone else in this god forsaken town.”
It shouldn’t’ve bothered him, but the little sour frown the man held panged a string of anger. James shot daggers at the old man.
“Excuse me, but-“
“HA, but nothing, boy. My daughter painted that years ago and she had more vision than you ever will,” Lemon Man leaned across the counter, his face sour and evil. He smelled of old paint and dry glue, “yes, you are a painter, yes, I know, everyone who comes in here insists they are a painter, the greatest painter,” James dodged his waving arms, “the next Bob Ross, they say, or Claude Monet, Rembrandt. These are idiots who sling a bucket of blue on a piece of printer paper and sell it for eighty grand. That is not art, I’ll tell you that much. Art was not made for money. Art was made for joy. Art cannot be done expedient. In the words of the great Da Vinci,” he motioned towards the white painting, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Painting is not just throwing colors on a sheet of paper and hoping for the best. It’s expression, and it is release. It is the act of letting go through the brush and showing yourself the true emotion in yourself through your art.”
Both of them stared at the white painting. James’ mouth was open, his tongue going dry. In his head he felt a new respect for the old man, and his daughter. He glanced at Lemon Man. He had a look on his face of wonder and regret. Then he blinked. The sour expression was back. He pulled his eyes away to look at the registers screen.
“That’ll be twenty-five eighty-three. We don’t take checks.”
Philly’s was the only restaurant in the strip mall that didn’t look like it was about to enter an apocalyptic event. On the outside the regular Christmas lights were strung up, with an added pinecone wreath decorating the door to the restaurant. Inside, its freshly painted walls glimmered under the luminescent light of the ceiling lamps. The smell of the paint mixed with the grease of the fries and burgers. James wondered if they got their paint from the Lemon Man’s art store.
“Hey, James. Fancy seeing you here.”
He looked around the restaurant. Yep. Sitting in a far corner was Ori. She was grinning, pulling her hair into a ponytail as a bowl of soup sat in front of her. James smiled back, walking over to her.
“Hey, what are you doing here? I thought you would be out with Tony or another boyfriend of yours after ditching me to school.” He said as he slid into the booth with her. The fact that Ori was here surprised him. He hadn’t seen her car in the small parking lot outside the mall either. Ori sipped on a metal spoon, reading his mind
“I took the bus here. Mom has my car for the day. New job, in the city. Doesn’t matter though, I can take the bus.”
James nodded. His eyes wandered down to her soup. There were floating cubes of ice, slowly melting. Ori picked up one with her spoon and bit into it. James’ eyes widened.
“You know, it’s, like, negative forty degrees out there, right?”
“It’s actually only twenty five above but yes, I know. This soup is amazing though so I ain’t giving it up no matter what the weather.” She cracked the ice in her mouth for emphasis. James rolled his eyes.
“Well, while your insides become as cold as the weather, I’m gonna go get a Philly steak.”
“Sure,” she said, glancing down at his bags of art supplies. He had a funny feeling when he left the table.
“One mushroom Philly cheesesteak sandwich please.” He said as he approached the counter. The cashier sighed – one of those employees that hated customers – and smacked his fingers of the register.
“Would you like it to be a meal?” He asked dully. James understood. He was dead inside.
“Okay it’ll be seven twenty your food will be out soon thank you have a nice day.”
Then he went back to looking on his phone. James rocked on his heels for second, waiting for the teenager to charge him. But he didn’t. So James just slipped a ten on the counter and went to go sit back down. The stench was easier to bear after wallowing in it for a while. Ori was kneeling on the ground when he got back to the table. Her hands were in his bag, fishing out the jars of paint and notebook. He scowled.
“Ori, what the hell?”
She didn’t flinch at his tone. Instead she pulled out the notebook.
“Oh, this is lovely. Where did you get it?” She asked. He snatched it away.
“From the art store down the other way. Why were you snooping in my bag? You have a secret mission or something?”
“Or something.” Ori said, sliding back into her seat.
He ran his hands along the spine and feeling the metal rings around his fingers. He usually didn’t have notebooks – he’s always preferred the canvas. But just looking at the black cover, the endless sheets of white paper inside, he felt inspired. The feeling hasn’t been with him in ages, so after he sharpened one of his pencils he went to work, slowly sketching whatever popped into his head. The lead on the pencil was so fresh he had to remind himself that he shouldn’t move his hand when he drew a line, or an eye or a strand of hair. He felt Ori watching him.
He wasn’t really thinking after that point – just letting his pencil and arm take over to do that work. A few times he considered picking up his bag to get out the paint but every time he tried to find a point to stop or finish, he always thought of something new. After what felt like hours he finally pulled his hand back.
Chloe sat back staring at him. His heart beat like a scared rabbit. He gazed at her.
“You okay there, Casanova?”
He broke his gaze, blushing as Ori raised an eyebrow at him. She pushed away her now empty bowl of soup to look at his drawing. He shifted his weight. He didn’t like it when people looked at his work. And even though it was Ori he could feel embarrassment tingling in his hands. Her mouth pulled into a tight line.
“This is really good.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. He reached out to take the notebook away from her.
He stopped. Ori traced the lead lines. It smudged slightly under her touch.
“It…doesn’t like look a little like..” she stopped, biting the inside of her lip. James frowned.
Ori didn’t meet his eyes.
Then the cashier walked over, holding James’ food in a tray. He plopped it down without saying a word, shot him a dirty look after seeing the pencil shavings and trotted off. The smell of mushrooms hit James’ in the nose. His stomach growled despite the acidic turmoil in his throat. He pushed away the notebook and refused to look at it.
There were no windows in the restaurant except for the large glass ones out front. As he ate he stared out them, watching the indoor naked tree limbs bristled when wind sped through. He could see his reflection with the ceiling lights in the glass.
Ori still looked at drawing. Her eyebrows were knitted.
He ignored her. Thoughts had started to creep up into his mind but he forced them away. If he just didn’t think about it, it would be okay. He couldn’t think about it.
She sounded just like his mom. He bit into the sandwich. His chewing drowned out her voice.
“James, seriously, look at the paper. Why did you draw-“
With frustration, he snatched the notebook, tearing out the pencil sketch and used it as a napkin for the last bits of his sandwich. He finished and gathered up his things he tossed the trash away. Ori followed after him, ignoring the soupy mess she left behind.
“James, god, stop acting like a little girl and tell me what the hell is wrong with you.” Ori called, grabbing onto the strap of his backpack. He practically snarled at her.
“What’s wrong with me?” He stabbed his finger at her, “what about what’s wrong with you? You were the one who went snooping through my things-“
Ori pushed his hand away. Her mouth was drawn into a scowl.
“YOU were the one who drew that picture of Anna. Why did you draw her?”
“It wasn’t Anna, it was Chloe.”
“It did not look like Chloe. How could you believe she looked like Chloe?”
“I’m tired. And all artists draw weird when they are tired.”
“I don’t believe that bullshit excuse for one moment. I know artists like you do that kind of thing, but you don’t idolize the person who raped you.”
“Jesus Ori, I’m not idolizing her. Will you please just drop it?”
“No, I will not just drop it. James, this has gone far enough.” She tugged at his backpack, fury dancing in her eyes. James tried to look as if he didn’t know what she was talking about but the point of her words echoed in his ears. He tried to wiggle free of her grasp but she just held on tighter.
“What has gone far enough? I don’t understand.”
She laughed bitterly.
“Oh, cut the act. You know exactly what I mean.”
“Why do you sound so damn angry? I don’t understand.”
“JAMES, YES YOU DO UNDERSTAND. WHY HAVEN’T YOU TOLD ANYONE ABOUT IT?” She shouted, shaking him. The words bounced off the deserted halls of the mall. James was more grateful for the lack of people now more than ever. He breathed, calming the rage building up inside his chest.
“Because they don’t need to know!”
“Yes they do, James. Your mom needs to know, the police, her parents, your dad-”
He whipped around so hard it made Ori stumble back, letting go of the backpack strap.
“DON’T CALL HIM MY DAD!”
She recovered, glaring at him.
“James! Stop! You need to stop! He is your dad!”
“No he isn’t! How could you say that? You weren’t there! You don’t understand!”
“Stop saying I don’t understand, James! I might not know why he left, or why you are so damn bitter towards him, because at least I’ve seen and heard him try to be a good father! I’ve heard him try to at least be there for you when you really needed him.”
James turned away from her, fearing she would see the tears building up in his eyes. Ori sighed.
“Even if you don’t tell your dad, you have to tell somebody. You gotta admit this is too much.”
Her voice was softer this time.
“Zack will understand. We’re your best friends, right?”
He didn’t argue.
They left the strip mall and headed for the bus stop. It was a little warmer. The sun even peeked out of the clouds for just a quick look at the ground, but the air bit them so hard their cheeks and noses were red and runny when they sat down on the bus stop bench. Ori held her jacket close to her, breathing out puffs of smokey air.
The cold wood soaked through James’ jeans, though he was too exhausted to care. He pulled out his notebook again as they both tried to get comfortable on the bench. Ori looked over his shoulder, watching as he flipped to a new blank page.
“What are you drawing this time?” She asked. James shrugged, fishing in his pocket for a pencil. Once it was sharpened again he held it in his hand for a few minutes, swirling it between his fingers. Ori let her head fall back onto the back rest. Her curly hair glided over the wood in a red shimmery light. The pale flakes of snow dotted her skin. It was a picture worthy of art.
So James tried to secretly draw her. Lemon Man’s words were fresh in his mind. He drew a few lines for her hair, the outline of her jaw gazing up at the sky, and a few ticks of lead for the snowflakes. He had tried to draw her before, even though she would always complain – mostly it was just cubism or lyrical abstraction, but never like this. It was bold, it was beautiful.
The old man was right – simplicity was the ultimate sophistication.
“Hey, that looks like me.”
James glanced over his shoulder to see Ori peering at the page. She was smiling. A strand of hair fell into her eyes. James had the urge to push it away.
“This makes me look better than bathroom mirror selfies do.”
“Everything looks better than bathroom mirror selfies.”
The bus arrived then, coughing and sputtering up to the curb of the station. They climbed on, their shoes skidding on the steps.
“So, what, am I taking you home?” James joked. They sat down together under one of the bus heaters. Ori’s face flushed when she pulled off her scarf. Her hair flopped everywhere.
“Sure. My mum won’t be home in another few hours.” She said. James coughed.
“Wait, you’re serious?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I said it jokingly, so I wasn’t really expecting-“
“James, there are a few reason I’m going with you. One, you were right, even though Philly’s ice cube tomato soup is delicious, it’s cold. I want hot chocolate, and your old man there bought you so a while back, didn’t he? Second, I need to be there so I can make sure you paint that gorgeous picture of me. I can use it as a headshot if I ever want to become a famous actress,” she marked off on her fingers as James struggled to hold back his laughter, “and three, I am going to be there for support.”
It was James’ turn to raise his eyebrow.
Ori gave him a look, and a wave of dread flooded him. He looked down at the dirty floor of the bus.
The rest of the ride was quiet. When they got to James’ home, they both headed up to his room. It wasn’t the first time Ori had come up there, but now when it was just her and he hadn’t let anybody step into his room for months. He felt a little awkward as he stepped over a pile of clothes to get to his bed. Ori looked normal when she chucked her jacket in one corner of the room and brushed past him, pushing aside more trash and laundry before flopping on a dusty bean-bag chair. James had completely forgotten that was there.
“So, will you draw me like one of your French girls?” She mocked. James dumped his stuff on the floor.
“Ew, no. I don’t know any French women that are black.” He said. She tossed a t-shirt at him, giggling.
“Black French woman are the best.”
He set the notebook on his desk. It was open already to the sketch of Ori. He turned to the canvas. The plain picture of a mixture of yellow looked back at him. He took his brush, prying open one of the white paint jars and dipping his brush into it up to the hilt.
Then he started to paint.
“James? James? James, are you in there?”
He jumped when a hand touched his shoulder. The brush fell from his hands. He turned, facing his mother. She was smiling at Ori, who was quietly moving James’ junk around the room to make it look like she was helping to clean up. Mom grimaced behind her back as she looked at the state of his room.
“You really need to clean up in here and not just let Ori do it.” She said. James just sighed. He stooped down to pick up the brush. White paint was splattered on the carpet.
“What do you need, mom? He asked as he resumed painting. The window across from him was slowly turning darker. How long had he been painting for?
“Oh, yes, well, Dad is coming over again tonight.” She said. His skin prickled. She called him dad. Ori shot him a look over her shoulder. She and Mom both looked as if they dared him to say anything. He didn’t. Mom continued.
“I want you to come down and stay for dinner while he is here. Ori, sweetheart, you can stay too if you want. We’re having roast and beans.”
It wasn’t even a request. To James, it sounded like a demand. He dunked his brush into the paint jar, slathering on coats of it to cover up the yellow of the original painting.
Had Mom not learned her lesson? Every time Marcus would come over they fought. They didn’t have to – if Marcus would just stop coming over and invading their life then James wouldn’t have any reason to fight. He bit the inside of his lip. Before he could say anything though Mom turned on her heel and left the room. James blinked.
“You gotta admit, he’s doing something right.” Ori whistled, watching Mom’s shadow fade from under the door, “I’ve never seen her stand her ground like that before.”
James cocked his head to her.
“Stand her ground? All she did was just state that I had to be at dinner – no exceptions no questions.”
“Exactly, before she would ask you politely and you would reply politely “whatever you would like” and she would respond politely “alright dear I guess we can have your favorite dinner again then go out for dessert. You guys sounded like a bunch of stuck-up Downton Abbey characters.”
“We did not,” he chuckled, “you’re making that up. We just have respect for each other, that’s all.”
She shot him another look. All her looks seem to come off a gun that was her face. James shuddered.
“If you do have respect for her like you say you do, then will you-“
He put up a hand. She stopped, but still glared at him.
“I know I need to tell them, but do I need to do it now?” He asked. A cold sweat started on his palm as he looked out to the door. Ori pushed out her lips.
“Yes, you do. If you don’t then I swear I’m going to do it for you.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. Putting down his paintbrush he took a step closer to her.
“That is not in your right.”
“Excuse you? Everything is in my right. Hell, I’ve kept this a secret for far too long James. You are not the only one who has been affected by this, so don’t act like it.”
His mouth dropped open. Ori planted her feet into the carpet, her eyes black. She looked angry. James felt his own anger rise up in his chest. How dare she? She was not the one raped. She was not the one that was taken advantage of. She was not the one who was tormented by this. He got up into her face.
“I think you should leave.” He whispered. Ori didn’t move, but her eyes widened just a bit.
“Why? For making you do something that you should’ve done months ago?”
“No, because you think you can come into my house and make me do something I am not comfortable with.”
“That is the problem, James, you gotta get over that first obstacle and tell. Your. Damn. Parents. You even said you would do it back at Philly’s.
He looked away, heading to the bathroom.
“Ori, please. Just…leave.” He said. A few moments of silence went by, then he heard the crunch of dry paint, the ruffle of her coat and his door slam shut. He allowed himself a moment to breathe. She would be mad for a while. He knew. But it was the best decision. He would text her later. It would be fine. He heard a car outside rumble. Marcus was home.
He felt himself shake as he washed his hands. Maybe he could just stay in his room for a while. They would get hungry, Marcus would suggest they eat. James wouldn’t have to face him. Them He wiped his hand on a towel.
Then the stairs started to scream. James rubbed his face. Was that Ori? Or Mom? Mom wouldn’t thunder up the stairs. The door to his room was thrown open, and he turned to see Mom. She was looking him with horror and fear and tears were already starting to stream down her face. Marcus was standing behind her, the same expression etched on his face. James was confused.
Then he saw Ori behind them. Her face fell.
He looked to his parents. His mom cried.
He shoved them out of the way – a glance at Ori who was crying that bitch – down the stairs snatch the keys out the door-
-in the car in the street-
He raced off. They were out on the driveway. He glanced at the rearview mirror. Marcus was already on his phone. Mom was sobbing into her hand.
They had believed her.