I was seven the first time I unlocked the latch on my bedroom window and climbed out onto the roof of my house to see a man painting the sky.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"My job," he said quietly without looking at me. "You should be in bed."
"I'm not tired."
He nodded and drew his paintbrush across the horizon, layering the rosy shades of sunset below the dark blue of approaching twilight.
"Is that hard?"
He shrugged. "It's what I do, what I was made to do. I could ask you if being a little boy is hard."
I sat down next to him as he began dotting the sky with the first stars of the night. "Sometimes it is. My dad makes me do chores all the time, and my mom makes me eat vegetables with every single meal! I don't like vegetables."
"I don't either," the painter said. "But you still eat them, don't you?"
"Well, only because I have to."
"That's why I paint the sky, because I have to."
We sat in silence as he finished painting the rest of the sky, finishing with a brilliant full moon.
"I'm done for tonight," he said, wiping his fingers off on paint crusted pant legs. "You should go to bed."
I yawned and nodded sleepily. "Okay." I walked over to my window and pushed it open. "Will you be here tomorrow?"
"Of course I will, I have to be."
He was there the next night, and the night after that. I liked talking to him while he painted, liked how he never got mad at me hanging around him all the time like some adults did. At first when I mentioned him my parents would smile and ask questions about him, sometimes laughing at the answers I gave them. After a while I stopped mentioning him, and my parents stopped asking questions.
I was stuck in school, trying to listen as my fifth grade teacher talked about multiplication. I glanced out the window and saw the painter sitting against the school's old oak tree, looking up at the sky with intense concentration. I couldn't see what he was painting, but I hoped it would be finished by recess.
"Jacob, are you listening? What is so interesting out there?" My teacher walked over to my desk and looked out the window.
"I was watching the man under the tree." I waved to try and get his attention and smiled when he waved back. "He's my friend. We've been friends for a long time."
"I see." My teacher looked at me for a moment. "Jacob, could you let your parents know that I would like to speak with them please?"
"I would just like to talk to them." She smiled at me and walked back to the front of the class. "Now, let's continue with the lesson."
My mom answered, her voice muffled by the door to the office. "He talks about him all the time; we just thought he was playing. Everyone has an imaginary friend when they're growing up don't they?"
"Imaginary friends are fine, but Jacob seems to be unable to distinguish this friend of his from actual reality. I'm worried it might be signs of a psychological problem."
"Now wait just a second!" My dad sounded angry. "Are you saying that our son is crazy?"
"By Jacob's age most kids have grown out of their childhood fantasies. I'm just saying that it would be a good idea to have someone who deals with this sort of situation professionally to talk to Jacob, just to make sure everything is alright."
I heard my mom begin crying as my dad said something I couldn't make out. I turned to look at the painter. "Why am I in trouble? All I did was answer a question."
The painter was standing by the window working on some clouds in the distance. "You aren't in trouble, your teacher said she just wanted to talk with your parents remember? Say, does this look like a bunny to you?"
I studied the cloud he had been painting. "Yeah, a little bit." He frowned and went back to painting, obviously not pleased with my answer. "But if I'm not in trouble, then why is mom crying and dad yelling so much?"
"It's hard to explain," the painter said, "sometimes, when grownups don't understand something, they get upset, even though there's nothing to be upset about."
"But what don't they understand?"
The door opened and my teacher walked out, followed by my parents. "Come on Jacob," my dad said. "Let's go."
I stood up and followed my parents, hoping that I wasn't going to be in trouble when we got home.
The doctor they took me to made me sit in a chair and answer questions for hours. I spent the entire time wishing I could be outside playing. When he was done he asked my mother to come in and started talking to her using really big words that I didn't understand.
"…and so it seems that your son has a form of schizophrenia coupled with a mild form of psychosis, now there are medications that can limit the effect of the illness, although they are still in the experimental stages. The important thing to understand is that your son should be able to maintain a completely normal life once we find the correct dosage to treat his particular case."
My mother smiled and shook the doctor's hand, thanking him over and over again.
The pills arrived in the mail several weeks later. My mother gave me one with a glass of milk.
"It looks too big; I'm not going to be able to swallow it."
"I know sweetie, but it's going to make you think better, so try to take it ok?"
I nodded as she smiled and walked out of the room.
"Don't swallow that," the painter said as soon as she had left the room.
"But mom said it's going to make me better."
"She's lying to you; she's trying to make me go away. You don't want me to go away do you?"
I shook my head. "No, I want you to stay, but I have to obey my mom."
"No you don't. Hurry, wash it down the sink before she comes back."
I hesitated for a moment, and then did what he said. I poured the milk into the sink after the pill, hoping my mom wouldn't come in and catch me.
"Thank you Jacob." The painter knelt down and looked me in the eye. "Now, this is very important. No matter what, you must never take any of the medicine your parents give you. Understand?"
I shifted uncomfortably. "I understand, but I'm going to get in trouble if they find out."
"Then you better makes sure they don't find out."
I throw the pills out my bedroom window when I couldn't wash them down the sick. Sometimes I had to pretend to swallow the medicine if my parents were watching until I could spit it out when they looked away. The painter grew more worried every day; sometimes he would paint clouds that hung dark and heavy, blotting out the sky.
My mother took me to the doctor again, I tried to tell her I didn't need to go, that I was better, but she wouldn't listen.
"…it doesn't seem to be helping. He's still having hallucinations during the day." My mother said.
"That is strange." The doctor steepled his fingers and looked over them at me. "The medicine should have had the desired effect by now. Has he been taking it every day?"
"Yes, he has."
"Are you absolutely sure?" The doctor leaned over his desk. "Jacob, have you been taking your medicine every day?"
I looked down at my feet. "Not every day exactly."
"Jacob!" My mother exclaimed, "How many have you missed?"
I saw the painter turn to look at me from where he was standing behind the doctor. "A lot of them? But I had to! He said he would disappear if I took them!"
"Jacob…" My mother started, then trailed off as the doctor held up a hand. "I was afraid of this, some patients with Jacob's condition start to exhibit signs of paranoia and refuse to take medicine that is prescribed to them."
"I don't want to take the pills! I don't want him to disappear."
My mother ignored me. "Is there any other way to treat him?"
"There are, of course, facilities set up for treatment of cases like this."
"I'm not going to have him placed in an institution for the rest of his life!"
"No, no," the doctor held up his hands, "it would only be for a few months until he has had a chance to adapt to treatment. At that point, the paranoia should dissipate and he will be fully capable of taking the medication on his own."
My mother said I was staying at a hospital, but it wasn't a hospital like I had been in before. All the windows were really small, and there were large men in uniforms that stopped me from going outside. That night they put me in a small room with an uncomfortable bed and told me that I was going to be sleeping there. The painter spent the first night pacing around and around, as if looking for an exit that never appeared. The next morning they forced me to swallow one of the pills as the painter looked on sadly. Afterwards they had me swallow some drink that made me really sleepy.
When I woke up it was almost dark, and the painter was gone. So were the men in the uniforms. I found the door unlocked and wandered out of my room and down the hall until I found the door outside. The big men were standing there, but they didn't pay attention to me. They were too busy staring up at the completely starless sky.