A Painted Sky

Chapter 9

"The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn."

-David Russell

He was waiting for me outside of our apartment building when I got home that day. His tall, lean figure leaned against the passenger door of his car, while his fingers drummed against the hood.

I walked right up to him. "Miles. What are you doing here?"

"Watching the grass grow outside of your apartment. You take forever getting home from school, you know?"

"I live twenty blocks away," I pointed out, thinking off his first-class school sitting a mere three blocks from his first-class townhouse.

"I walked home from school, fed Dala, showered, made myself look pretty, drove all the way across the city, and waited out here for half an hour before you showed up. I'm pretty sure you could've dragged your body those twenty blocks and still made it back before I finished all those things."

I shrugged. "I would've walked faster if I'd known someone was waiting for me."

"Great. And maybe I would've only had to wait fifteen minutes before you showed up."

"You've got quite the mouth of you today. What has got your pants all twisted?"

He rolled his eyes and stepped away from his car. "Can we take a walk?"

I sighed. "Did I mention the part where I had to walk twenty blocks?"

"I'll buy you coffee. Come on." He started walking down the block, hair flopping with every step he took.

I looked longingly at our apartment window on the fifth floor, before hurrying to catch up with him. "You don't actually have to buy me coffee, you know. I kind of hate coffee."

"How do you hate coffee? It's a necessity of life, right there below food and above clothing."

"I'd rather take clothing, thanks."

"I could do without clothing," he said, smirking.

I rolled my eyes. "You're really arrogant. But then again, you're from Brownstown so I guess by your standards, this is average arrogance."

He suddenly moved so that he was facing me and walking backwards. My feet stuttered, trying to rematch the pace he was setting. "What are you doing?"

"I need to see if you're lying for what I'm about to ask you," he said seriously.

"You're going to cause a traffic accident."

"I'll admit I'm pretty, but I'm not that pretty, darling."

"Don't call me darling. Why do you need to see if I'm lying for what you're going to ask me?"

I quickly yanked him to the other side of the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding a mother with five kids and a stroller. She gave us both the stink eye as we passed.

Miles moved back by my side, falling in step with me. "Because I think you're a liar."

"One lie and I'm labeled for life?"

"You lied about why you came home so late today."

I stared at him. "Right. And why would you assume that?"

"Because you're a runner, and runners aren't slow getting from point A to point B." He turned towards me. "But right now, I'm not going to ask you why you lied about that. Tell me, has your art crew done a lot of murals?"

My head snapped up. I automatically glanced around to make sure no one was listening, but everyone around us was too involved in their own little bubbles to even give us a second look. I led us across the street, into a large park. It wasn't the same park Landon and I had fought at earlier. This one had lush green grass, overlapping trees sheltering a running and biking trail, a full baseball field on one side, and in the middle, a large colorful playground with swings that weren't rusted or chained.

I chose a spot beneath a maple tree that looked like a fire-colored pointillism painting from afar.

Without looking at him, I pulled a sketchbook and case of watercolors out from a messenger bag Winnie sewed for me using three large sweaters no one in our house seemed to fit anymore. I felt Miles's curious green eyes on me as I pulled a water bottle out as well and tapped a few drops into my watercolors set. I took my duct-taped together paintbrush and made a few test strokes on the back of my hand before adding a bit more water.

"What is it?" he asked, after a while of me making long strokes on the page.

"It's the gigantic black hole I'm being sucked into. See?" I asked, running one narrow streak of black through my entire blob of colors. That wasn't it was, though. It was Landon, and my mom, and Winnie, and Tren, and Carmen and Lena and Darcy and Tomas and Emma and my dad and everyone I'd ever messed anything up with. It was the two boxes labeled Life as a City Painter and Life as a Normal Teenager, and how they collided right here on the page along with everyone else. It was me having to decide which ones to save and which ones to let fly into the black hole.

"It looks more like how I felt when my dad came home drunk the night after my mom left and ripped all our family photos off the wall."

I looked up, my paintbrush frozen in mid-stroke. A large drop of indigo fell off the end, splattering against the page like an indigo tear.

"Sorry," he said, pointing at it. "I messed up your black hole."

"No, don't apologize," I murmured, packing my watercolor set back into my bag. I held the open page on my lap, waiting for it to dry. "So, would you like to explain why you had to find me so badly today?"

He sighed, leaning back against the tree trunk. His hair was a soft caramel almost blending in with the tree trunk. There was a little stubble on the very edge of his jaw where he must have missed it shaving. Without warning, he turned his eyes on me, and I had to resist the urge to grab my paintbrush again and capture the green in them before he looked away again. "Here," he said, pulling something out of his back pocket. It was a slightly crinkled slip of paper, folded several times.

I took it, puzzled. I flipped it over. In slightly worn out handwriting, it read, To the Artist of this Mural. My eyes widened as I unfolded it. Although the outside was worn out, the writing on the inside was still crisp and clear:

To the Artist of this Mural,

Imagine me; waiting at the same gray bus stop I have my entire gray life in this same gray city with the same gray people. My heart is broken in a million and one pieces, but I look down the street, just once as a blue jay streaks past. And there it is. My little sister, running and laughing and leaping towards me. It's beautiful. She's beautiful. I might never know who you are, or why you chose to do this for us, but the least I can do is tell you how beautiful and amazing your mural is. I can't tell you the kind of hope that springs up when you see something like that. I don't know where I go from here, but every day I walk to the bus and see Cynthia's face, I get a little stronger and my heart gets a little less broken. Thank you so much.

The letter wasn't signed, but I already knew who it was from. I reread the first line and did what she said, picturing the girl with curly brown hair in a trench coat, standing beside a bus stop, and then her face lighting up the moment she glanced up. I smiled at the image.

"It really is amazing," Miles said quietly. I blinked, reality crashing back into me.

"Where'd you find this?" I asked, holding up the letter.

"At the bottom of my sink cabinet."

I nodded, remembering the white object falling out of my jacket pocket that night. "Right. Thank you then, for returning it. Even if you did read it first," I added, raising an eyebrow at him.

He smiled sheepishly. "Dala made me, you know?"

I laughed, slipping the letter carefully in my bag and standing up. "Right. Well, thanks again. I should get going now before it gets too late."

He didn't reply, instead staring after a group of elementary school kids rollerblading and biking down the trail with a strange look on his face. I shifted uneasily. "There wasn't anything else, was there? I mean, I wouldn't want to make you drive all the way across the city again. I'm sure you have lots of more important things than pass on notes to little old public school girls like me. Or watch my paintbrush spit a bunch of color on paper. Because if that stuff really does entertain you, I would have to question your judgment of en—"

"I want in," he suddenly said, looking up. My nerves gave a little kick-start at the level of intensity in his eyes.

"What?" I asked, backing up a step.

He stood up, just as a wave of fire-coated leaves swept by our heads. "Kari, I want in. I want to be in your art crew."

Thank you so much for sticking with me for this much of the story. I really appreciate the support I've gotten. I know the story can be messy and chaotic and ohmammamia-what-is-this-writer-thinking at times, but you guys are awesome for not running the other direction anyways. Like always, feel free to leave any comments or thoughts. My writing is a work in progress and any advice from a fellow writer/reader is welcome. Thanks again!