A thick stream of blue paint spiraled down from the bottle, hitting the palette and pooling in a viscous puddle. Ethan squeezed the bottle harder. More paint flowed out, more than he would need, but he kept his fist clenched around the plastic, watching the blue descend. His teeth were gritted, his eyebrows knit together, his fingertips turning white. Finally, as the blue threatened to spill over the side of the palette, Ethan capped the bottle, dropping it onto the floor somewhere near his feet. He ripped a paintbrush from its cozy position amoungst its fellows, sending a few of the smaller ones bouncing to the floor. He had never used this brush before; it was the biggest one he owned.
Ethan snatched off his glasses, and they slipped through his loose fingers to fall to the carpet beneath his easel. Lifting the paintbrush, he stabbed it into the puddle of blue paint, then brought it to the awaiting canvass in a wide, sweeping arc. As the blue covered up the white, Ethan's fierce frown melted away.
Rebecca stood a moment before the door, hesitating. Ethan's parents weren't home, their red station wagon gone from the driveway. The curtains were drawn, the porch light glowing silently in the autumn sunlight. She looked up and saw that a purplish light illuminated the attic window. After a few seconds, she raised a thumb and pressed the doorbell, hearing it sound somewhere in the depths of the house.
She stood on the Welcome mat for a minute, then another. She didn't turn and leave, even after five minutes, because she knew Ethan was home. He never turned on the purple lava lamp in his attic unless he was painting, and sometimes when he was painting it took him a few minutes to gather his mind together and answer the door.
Another minute passed, and then Rebecca heard the click of the lock, and the door swung open. Ethan stood in the doorway, a lost expression on his face, as if he didn't know who he was. Blue paint was spattered across half his face and streaked his tousled hair. He wasn't wearing a shirt, his glasses were missing, and only one foot had a sock.
Rebecca sighed. This had happened before, and she was used to it. Sometimes Ethan got so furious at his restrictive parents that he lost himself in the world of painting, forgetting about everything else as he punished the canvass with colour, but this was the most severe case she had ever seen. Usually, he seemed vaguely confused, and he often had flecks of paint dotting his clothes, but she had never seen him so utterly lost, as though the vulnerable little boy that lived in his consciousness was looking out through his eyes. Something was desperately wrong.
"Ethan," she said, taking his hand and leading him down the hallway towards the bathroom, "what happened?"
He didn't answer. She knew it would be a few minutes before he would remember how to speak.
With the precision that came from practice, Rebecca drew Ethan into the bathroom, sat him down on the toilet lid, and found an old washcloth in one of the cupboards. She soaked it with warm water from the sink and sponged off Ethan's cheeks. His face was calm, trusting Rebecca's hands and the swipe of the cloth against his skin. He waited helplessly, eyes half-closed, hands laying limply in his lap, shoulders slightly hunched in submission. Rebecca cupped his chin and carefully wiped the paint from his eyelids, then his forehead. She rinsed out the cloth, blue-tinged water filtering down the drain.
"Okay, Ethan. Put your head in the tub," she said, reaching up to pull down the showerhead. He did as instructed, slowly, unstably, as she turned on the water and tested its temperature. The back of his head hung over the edge, hands and knees on the floor, water jetting past his ears. Rebecca drenched his hair, blue washing away to reveal blonde.
When all of the paint had left his hair and the water pouring off his head was clear, she shut off the faucet and pulled a towel from its bar. Gently patting Ethan's hair dry, she watched as his eyes slowly descended from the faraway place they seemed to go to when he lost control.
Rebecca guided him, hair still dripping, up the stairs to the attic. It was his lair, his hideout. His studio. As always, she found herself gazing around at the artwork covering the walls. There were paintings born of joy, of sadness, of desperation, of wonder, of emotions unnamed. Newer paintings, some she'd never seen before, overlapped the older ones, creating layers of feeling that circled the attic walls. Ethan's artwork ranged from people's faces to wild splatterings of colour. On the north wall was one of Rebecca's favourites: a dream catcher shaped like a pentagram, a spider crawling across the threads to catch the glittering star that had lodged itself in her web.
Withdrawing her eyes from the walls, Rebecca sat down on the old green rug and motioned for Ethan to do the same. He did, putting his head on her shoulder as he'd done a million times before, quiet tears beginning to glitter on his eyelashes. His damp hair soaked through her t-shirt as she put an arm around him.
"What happened, Ethan?" Rebecca asked softly after a minute. "Parents again?"
He inhaled. "They're taking me away."
Rebecca understood his unintentionally cryptic words. "You're moving?"
"To a different school. A Christian one."
Rebecca's heart dropped.
"Becca, I don't want to leave you. I don't want to leave any of my friends. I love North Lake." He was crying, whispering through his tears.
"Your parents think that if they make you go to a Christian school, you'll suddenly decide not to be gay?"
"Yeah. You know, Dad prays about it everyday. I can hear him when I'm in my room. 'God, please let my son realise he's not a homosexual, and that homosexuality is a sin.'"
"Ethan, I'm sorry. That's really horrible."
He continued. "'Homosexuality is a message from the devil, Ethan. You aren't listening to God. He doesn't want you to be gay. He doesn't want you to follow Satan. Ethan, follow God.'"
They were quiet for a minute. Rebecca could see blue on Ethan's canvass, the easel turned sideways so she couldn't make out what he had painted. His hair was sticking up in damp strands, falling across his forehead and obscuring her view of the painting. He didn't move, except the rise and fall of his chest and the brush of his eyelashes when he blinked.
"Why must love have rules?" Ethan said suddenly.
Rebecca could tell by his voice that he didn't want an answer.
"In art, everything is free. You can paint anything. No matter what you do, someone will think it's beautiful." Ethan scrunched his eyes shut. "I always thought love was like art. Just beautiful. Just free. But now there are rules. Limits. Restrictions."
"Why are we painted this way?" he demanded, his voice fierce. "Just because I don't follow someone else's rules, it makes me wrong. It makes me a bad person. But why are gayspainted black? Is what I feel wrong? I didn't choose the harder path. Sometimes, I'd give anything to be straight. But it doesn't work like that. I can't just change the way I am…. even if the way I am is wrong." He said the last sentence in a small voice, curling up as though to protect himself from his own words.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe love shouldn't have rules," Rebecca said.
"Painted," he whispered. He rocked forward and stood up, walking across the room and turning the easel so that the canvass was facing Rebecca. She had been expecting angry swatches of blue, splatters and streaks in a crazy crisscross of paint, but that wasn't the image on the canvass. The background was an ambiance of blues, greens, and purples, and in the foreground was a crouched human figure, stylized wings punching upwards from a hunched back to brush the top of the painting. One wing was straight and proud, black lines defining a gossamer membrane that stretched between the frame. But the other wing was bent and crumpled, skin torn and ragged along the edges, black lines twisted.
It was beautiful and heartbreaking at once.
Rebecca stood outside in the frozen autumn air. The wind whipped her scarf against her jacket, and she huddled into it, hands thrust deep into her pockets and head bowed against the cold. Threads of vapour spiraled out when she breathed, and dead leaves skated along the concrete sidewalk like torn pieces of orange cloth. Footsteps thumped towards her, and Ethan gazed through fogged glasses at the blur of red hair and blue coat standing in front of him.
"Hey," he said, stopping and pulling up his hood with mittened hands. He had set down a paper bag, but picked it up again as Rebecca turned towards him and smiled.
"It's Friday. My last day at North Lake," Ethan said mournfully.
Rebecca didn't know what to say. "What've you got in the bag?" she asked after a moment, motioning at it without taking her hands out of her pockets.
Carefully, he eased out the stretched canvass he'd painted last weekend. The image of the broken-winged human was unchanged, but Ethan's sprawling signature now accented the lower right corner of the picture. "It's for you," he said.
She didn't want to take it. Somehow, it seemed like finalising Ethan's departure from her life - as though by accepting the painting she would be accepting the end of his existence. Eyes bright, she pulled numb hands out of her pockets and threw them around Ethan, hoping that if she held him tight enough she'd never have to let go.
The canvass tipped over and clattered to the ground, painted side up, the brown bag snatched away by the wind to bound down the street in pursuit of the fallen leaves.
When she looked back up at him through blurred tears, it seemed for a moment that the eyes behind his glasses were not brown, but the clear blue of splattered paint.