I kept my paintings in the crawl space in my closet. I found the loose whitewash board behind the build-in shelves of the closet when I first moved into the apartment. I was putting down my shoes on those very shelves when my hand hit the back. There was a little echo, and when your seven and read a lot you tend to look for little things like that.
Intrigued, I worked my fingers beneath the loose backboard and sure enough it came out easily. I looked past the sawdust that had erupted from the wall, half expecting to see mounds of gold and treasure (once again, I was seven). It was empty though. It was a very small area and only a small shaft of light shown through the cracks of the boards on the opposite side. The sunlight illuminated the golden dust particles floating through the air and I sneezed.
I committed that spot to memory even though I didn't need it then. I can't really pinpoint exactly when I started painting. Or sketching really. That's what I did first. Soon I would paint them in, giving the gray skeletons life and color. But I didn't want anyone seeing what I created. I worried it would give them some deep insight into my soul. You know, the whole The Shining type situation. A window into my madness.
Which is exactly what I looked at it as. My paintings weren't good or anything. Not even a hobby. Just a way to show how pitiful I really was. I am such an optimist.
Caroline was the first to find them. She was only at my apartment because all of her other friends were out of town or busy (which is the only reason anyone would visit me anyway). She had been flipping casually through my clothes on their hangers when she noticed a shaft of light shining on her sandals.
I cursed myself for not closing the crawl space backboard all the way. I was careless. But it was too late now.
"What's this?" Caroline asked as she kicked the backboard where the light was coming from. And the kick wasn't gently I might add.
The board fell out easily.
"Whoa." Caroline breathed in the sawdust. It didn't seem to bother her like it did me.
Her fingers licked the canvases of my paintings.
"What is this?" she asked as she took one out.
I snapped the painting out of her hands and shoved it back into the compartment.
"Nothing," I said quickly and readjusted the backboard carefully.
"You knew that was there?" she asked in disbelief.
"Yes." I said as I shut off the light in my closet and withdrew, praying Caroline would follow.
"What were those pictures?" she asked.
"Just some stupid paintings." I said quickly.
I knew Caroline wouldn't praise my work. I hadn't even considered she might. Girls like Caroline don't compliment girls like me.
This was because Caroline was one of those popular, queen-bee types. You don't question her; you respect her and you crave her authority and acceptance. It's a sad truth that there are girls out there with that much power. I'm not even sure how girls end up like that.
But the fact of it was that Caroline was a queen-bee and I? I was a back up friend. I was the girl that would tag along with her and her friends for the simple fact that I had no one else to hang around with. They only let me because if no one else in their group was around they could always turn to me. I was only back up.
So because of all these things I knew Caroline wouldn't compliment me. Which she didn't. She just nodded thoughtfully and went on to talk about how we should get out of the stuffy apartment and make a trip to the mall.
Other than that no one had seen any of my paintings. But at the beginning of the summer of my junior year in high school I began to spend more and more time painting. I didn't have any friends, minus Caroline and her group who never spoke to me unless it was on IM or they had nothing better to do. So I stuck to my room.
My dad didn't know what I was doing. I wanted to keep it just like that. Me locked in my room alone with my art and my dad having no clue of my new obsession with a paintbrush.
But Dad, of course, had different plans for me that summer. It was the end of the first week of summer, those days when the summer seems to stretch out before you like it's never going to end. And for me, whose days were filled with nothing but a room bursting with toxic smelling oil paints, it seemed like one long and lazy summer to drag myself through.
I had just come into the kitchen for dinner when Dad brought it up.
"You should get a job at the pool." he said thoughtfully as he placed a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table.
It took me a few minutes to comprehend that.
"Because you have nothing planned for this summer. No camps, no vacations, nothing. You should do something fun."
Fun? Fun? "I don't know, Dad."
"All you have to do is take the lifesaving course. And you'll get paid."
I sighed and set out four plates. One for Dad, one for me, and two for my brothers.
"I don't know anyone working there." I said, trying desperately to think up excuses. Lazy summer days will do that to you, make you feel like doing anything is a chore. I didn't want a summer job, not really.
"Sure you do," he said. I knew he had probably already thought of just about every excuse I would come up with not to get the job and already had a counter argument. There was no point in fighting someone like my dad. "Don't you remember Nina?"
"Who?" I asked, giving him his answer.
Dad rolled his eyes. "Ian, Corey, dinner!" he called.
My younger brother came in first. He sat down at the plastic table and immediately started in on the potatoes. His favorite. I smiled a little as I watched Ian loading cheddar onto his food.
Corey dragged himself in. He and I are fraternal twins although no one would guess it. We are so different. He started making himself a plate of roast beef and potatoes in a very less enthusiastic way than Ian did.
"You know, Nina! Her mom works with me at the office." he said.
"Oh…" I tried to think of this as I speared a piece of steamed broccoli with my fork. "That lady with black hair who was on her cell phone during the Christmas party?"
"Yes, Ms. Phillips." he said, clearly happy I remembered.
"I totally forgot she had a daughter." I said. That was the truth. I'm sure my dad had mentioned it once but I didn't really care for Ms. Phillips so why should I care about her having a daughter only one year older than me?
"See, you do know someone working there."
"Dad," I said, just a little bit of a whine working it's way into my voice. "I don't really know Nina."
His face grew serious. "Elizabeth," he said gravely. "If you don't like it you don't have to continue. Just give it a shot would you?"
"Yeah Liz, why don't you do some work for a change?" Corey teased.
I flashed him an angry look and then half-turned toward Ian for help. But he was too intent on making his mashed potatoes into a donut shape. I rolled my eyes now and tossed another piece of broccoli into my mouth.
"Fine," I sighed. "But if I don't like it I will quit."
The next day Zack picked me up. He was leaning against a stone column by the lobby door. His beat up Ford was parked just behind him.
"Hey, Zack." I said with a little shake in my voice. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought I would take my girlfriend out on a date." he said.
I blushed. "I…really?"
"Sure." He said and shrugged. "We haven't done anything in a while."
"I mean… I'd love to but I didn't know you were coming…"
"Well, surprise. Come on, let's go."
"I can't." I said softly.
His face tensed. "Why not?"
"I'm taking a lifesaving course down at the pool today." I told him quietly, as if I were ashamed.
"Skip it." he said simply.
"My dad really wants me to get this job."
"So?" When I didn't answer him right away he looped his arms around my waist and swung me close to him. "Would you rather go to a boring old lifesaving course or go to a nice, cozy restaurant with none other than your good-looking boyfriend?"
I smiled tightly at him. "I don't think you made those choices sound equal."
"That's because they're not."
He started to lead me toward the car as if I had already answered.
"Can you take me out after the course is over?" I made one last desperate attempt to dissuade him.
Zack's eyes shaded over. I knew that look. I knew it well. I knew exactly what he was thinking, I knew what he was about to say, and I knew why he would say it.
"I can't. I have plans already."
I grasped his hand, the one still poised on my hipbone, and pulled it tighter around me. Maybe if he saw my reaction he would know what I was thinking, read me like I'd read him. But when I glanced up at him next his eyes still held that glazed look. It was a look that blocked out all else and I knew he didn't even feel the warmth of my skin beneath his fingertips.
When we reached the car I tilted my face toward his, my breath tickling his neck. Maybe he would feel that. But all he did was brush my mouth with his lower lip and then unlock the car.
I slid into the passenger seat, not even bothering to wait for him to open it for me. I knew he wouldn't. I knew that his mind was elsewhere. I fumbled with my seat belt buckle as he started the car.
Loud rock music blasted from the stereo and hit me with such an impact I could almost visualize my hair shooting out behind me. This blew the glassy look right out of Zack's eyes. He turned it down and leaned forward to give me a better kiss. This time his lips pressed to mine with more pressure and his free hand held me steady.
"You should just drive me to the pool." I told him as he backed away.
"You should just give into temptation and come to lunch with me." he countered but his face wasn't joking. I was going out to eat with him whether I wanted to or not.
I watched the apartment buildings sail past us as Zack pulled out of the parking lot. We passed right by the pool and clubhouse that was attached. I watched it go by with some lingering sense of guilt. I'll just go tomorrow, I told myself again.
I glanced at Zack. His good looks were obvious and new girls at school were always immediately attracted to him. But the crushes turned to lust quickly before ending. His reputation made him more desirable and more off-limits simultaneously. And a smart girl would stay away after hearing about his past. But most girls, ones that were only turned on by the fact, still followed him around like rabid dogs.
When I moved here when I was seven I only had one thing on my mind and that had been the fact that my mother had left. Years passed without me caring very much about my social life. Friends came and went, but the majority of the time they left because I pushed them away.
Then my first year in high school I saw Zack Bedford. Charming, sexy, and of course, off-limits. His black hair was crisp and his gray eyes penetrating. He didn't have much of a reputation at that time because it was only the beginning of our freshman year at a new school. But it didn't take him long.
I had all my classes with him in my sophomore year. He started flirting with me immediately, though I couldn't figure out why. I wasn't sexy. Not that I was ugly. I had light, chocolate brown hair with a few scattered blonde highlights. My mom used to describe my eyes as light hazel though it's hard to tell.
I wasn't the most popular, although I was sort of friends with Caroline and her group. But if he really cared about that criteria in a girlfriend he would be able to tell that I was merely back up and a tag-along in that clique. But it apparently didn't matter to him since he didn't notice this small detail about my social life. All he saw was a semi-good looking girl with some friends and a huge amount of innocence.
And that was really what turned Zack on. Innocence. And danger. He asked me out in the first week, and me, star struck as ever from his smile, said yes. The little fact that I actually dated one of the most sought after guys in school certainly upped my ratings with Caroline. For a while I might have actually been accepted. But that didn't last long. Admiration for dating Zack never lasted long, primarily because of the results of his reputation.
Zack drove me to Panara Bread. It was truly a very cozy restaurant that sold soup, pastries, and sandwiches. There was a fire in a fireplace even though it was hot outside. Zack kept flashing me flirtatious smiles as if I might leave at any minute and he was convincing me to stay. But of course I wasn't really going anywhere. I was lucky to have a boyfriend like Zack. I was. Really.
We shared a bowl of tomato soup but the whole time I was glancing nervously at the Panara Bread designed clock that had breadsticks as the clock hands. Zack talked about things that I really didn't care about. I would tune him out now and then and just nod to assure that I was actually listening. I didn't find Zack interesting. It didn't even excite me that his hand was poised on my knee. It used to.
But not anymore. I was just happy that Zack had chosen me. I didn't really try to think if he made me happy. I made him happy, to a certain extent, and that was all that mattered. As I scanned the room and pretended to listen to Zack I noticed a very pretty blonde college student sipping on a decaf coffee and typing something on her silver Dell laptop. I absently noted that it was the same laptop my brother Corey had.
"I'll be right back." I said after a while and slipped out of my chair. Zack watched me for a little while before averting his attention elsewhere.
I found my way to the bathroom and pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. I was half hour late for the lifesaving class if I tried to go now. It was too late. I washed my hands and splashed some water on my face as if trying to wash away the guilt of lying to my dad just to go out with Zack. He should have respected the fact I had plans. I knew that. But I never questioned Zack. Simply because he was too good for me. I didn't deserve someone so good-looking and popular as Zack was. And I wasn't about to give him up.
I walked out of the bathroom and began to turn the corner back to our table when I noticed the blonde college girl who had been sitting at the table just beside ours was no longer there. Her coffee and laptop still sat there and her leather purse was still slung over the arm of the chair, but she wasn't there. I hadn't seen her in the bathroom and I could clearly see the counter. She wasn't there either.
So I knew where she was. But just to check, just to see if on the off chance my guess wasn't correct I peaked around the corner. My heart dropped. I had been right. I hadn't wanted to be. I wished I hadn't been. I knew I shouldn't have even hoped that this wouldn't be the case this time because of course it was.
The college girl had taken my seat across from Zack and his hand had lapsed on top of hers. She was leaning forward her lips poised before his. She withdrew a pen from her pocket and began to write on his hand. Probably her number.
I turned around slowly and quietly; just to be sure they didn't see me watching. Then I walked back into the bathroom to wait until I knew the girl would be gone. After that I would return and act like I had never seen anything. I would go on acting like I didn't know Zack cheated on me every night.