Author's Note: This is the story that started it all. Lives. The "Just Koe Stories" series. My writing career. This is the story that showed me how much I changed from being the little girl who wrote nonsensical fairy tales to being the older, more mature girl who writes with a degree of sophistication. This is the story that I loved the most out of all the stories I chose to include in Lives. I do not think it is perfect. I do not think it can ever be perfect. But I hope it satisfies you, the reader. So here it is.
The noise from downstairs was shaking her bedroom.
It was always like this. Her dad would be yelling at her mom who would be yelling at her dad and somehow she was always caught in the middle. Alone and unable to diffuse the situation.
She could always go back to her room and lock the door, but then the argument would follow her up the stairs and enter her bubble of privacy. Accusations invaded her room on a regular basis, sliding under the door, and she could do nothing besides plug herself into her music player to drown the noise out.
A loud shout every once in a while would shake her brush, and she would silently curse as a line of paint spurted across her canvas. Her paintings were always flawless except for a random streak here and there indicating particularly loud profanities shouted at certain points in time. But painting was her only form of escape when the noise got too much for her, when she wanted to throw the net of anger off herself and run away from the house forever.
The noise at school was more tolerable. She could hide in the general murmur, blend in with the pinks and blues and yellows of her high school hallway. Here she could usually tune out most of the noise.
"Did you see what he was wearing the other day?"
"Ew, gross. I don't think he's washed that shirt since last year."
"I wanted that solo so bad. But I didn't get it. That girl with the bangs got it. How Miss Cromwell chose her I have no idea."
"Why'd you take my stuff, punk? D'ya know better than to mess with me, kid?"
Bits and pieces inevitably came through the wall she had built around herself. Occasionally something would blast the barrier to pieces and the chaos would assault her once more, but otherwise she had peace.
She slid into her seat as the first bell rang and watched as the other kids came into the room, the last one swaggering in five minutes after the second bell and two minutes after the teacher closed the attendance book. The kids talked in gossipy whispers with each other as they took out their stuff from their weather-beaten backpacks. Speaking as so that no one else could hear them but unaware their voices carried, friends spilled to friends about their personal hatred of others.
In class she always heard what the teacher was saying, but she did not listen. The occasional shout, "Irene!" would get her to listen for two minutes before she sank back into her usual state of disinterest. Each shout would be accompanied by five seconds of her classmates' snickering. She didn't care.
Beneath the façade of general harmony, she knew that her classmates had many feuds and rivalries going on at the same time. Not eager to interfere, she mostly stayed away; being on her own had many benefits anyway. No one usually bullied her because they had other targets in mind, and her invisible barrier protected her from the taunts launched across the cafeteria like globs of potato salad during a fierce food fight.
"Your dad is a slob."
She heard her mother talking to her, but again she wasn't listening. A slight amount of resentment was beginning to build up inside of her; why was her peace compromised when other people felt like complaining?
"No one takes care of the house like I do. He can't live on his own. I'm always there to get him out of his messes, to keep his life running. No one appreciates what I do around here to make things perfect."
Blah blah blah blah blah. She left her mother complaining in the kitchen and muttered she had too much homework to do. The bedroom door upstairs slammed soon after.
A wooden easel stood in a corner of the room. The clean and pristine canvas resting on it presented a stark contrast to its grimy surroundings. Old sheets salvaged from the attic protected the walls and floor from the occasional paint splatter. Papers and stray pens were lying everywhere, mixed with tubes of paint and thin brushes. Her room was a mess and she knew it, defiantly refusing to clean it up despite numerous entreaties. If this was her haven she should decide how it looked. To her, it was perfect.
She was working on a piece for a school contest. The art teacher was going to hold an exhibition of student work, and the most thought-provoking piece would win something special. Probably a cheap plastic trophy or a flimsy paper which would be stashed away in someone's closet later, forgotten. Regardless of what it was, she didn't care; she only competed because it was an excuse to paint.
Glub, glub. Paint squeezed from the tube onto her palette, and her brush dabbled in the colors she liked to use: pale blue, dark green, sparkling gold, warm red. She painted with abandon, sketching her ideas in pencil before painting over them. Somehow this time it didn't seem right but she kept on working, pursuing her vision.
On the floor below a door slammed violently, shaking the house and making her crystal wind chimes tinkle above her desk. A new streak appeared on her canvas, a violent purple dash against a light blue sky. She resisted the urge to scream as she tried cleaning it out, but the damage was already done. The floor was shaking beneath her, and as she trekked down the hall to wash her brushes in the bathroom another argument was in progress.
"Why did you bring this home? You know we don't eat this kind of thing. I don't even know how to cook it."
"Well then find a recipe, darn it."
"Why don't you find it for me then if you want to eat those things?"
"I go to work, woman, so sorry if I can't find the time to do little things for you. I'm sick of your requests!"
"Well, I'm sick of your face!"
They bickered like that every day, straight through dinner and late into the night. She tried to tune them out when she readjusted her glasses and got back to work, but it was no use. The angry words filled the house.
At school she barely noticed the pack of girls crowding around the desk next to her. It was Melissa's desk, the desk of the shyest girl in class. Irene hadn't noticed her much because the girl seemed to drift in and out of existence at school, sometimes prominent in the hallway crowd and sometimes hidden in it. But when the pack started taunting Melissa at her desk, she suddenly became aware of the insults thrown at the girl.
"Go home, twerp. You don't belong here."
They lifted the lid of Melissa's desk, sending her pens clattering to the floor. Irene caught a glimpse of the girl's defenseless expression before the pack converged on her. Notebooks and paper were being yanked from the desk at an unbelievable rate and thrown into the air. A packet landed on her own desk, the title "How to Succeed on the SAT" written in bold black letters. Melissa was crying, futilely snatching at papers the others held barely out of reach. One of the girls saw Irene staring from her desk and snickered.
"Looks like Irene wants to join in the fun." The girl strode over to her desk and whisked Melissa's packet off of it. "Come on, girls."
Irene sat in silence as the pack of girls ravaged her desk. They broke a few of her color pencils and ripped a page of her math homework, tearing questions and solutions apart from one another. Behind her glasses she did not shed a tear.
"What's going on?"
The teacher paused in the doorway and the girls looked up, sheets of paper still floating to the floor. Eventually all items were returned to their proper owners and everything settled down, but as Irene glanced sideways she noticed that Melissa was still shaking with unstoppable sobs. Her head bent low over her work, Melissa refused to make eye contact with anyone, including the teacher. The pack of girls was giving her dirty looks from their seats.
She had walked half of the way home before she realized she left her history book in her locker. Ten minutes later she arrived at school and made her way through the now-silent halls. Her locker was near her English classroom, so as she passed by the door her head instinctively turned toward it. The teacher was talking to one of her colleagues, and Irene heard many heated words. Muffled anger came through the door, and Irene hurried past it. Retrieving her book, she walked past her English classroom again right when the door was imperiously flung open.
"It's not my fault that all those photocopies didn't get made!" her teacher shouted.
"You said they would be done!" the other voice retorted.
"I never said anything like that!"
"I told them that everything would be ready. It's your fault!"
A teacher stormed out, almost walking into Irene in his haste. She stood still, taking everything in at a glance. Irene's English teacher stood frozen, her anger plain on her face as the other teacher marched down the hall.
Irene ran, not sure if she should have stopped to say something comforting but not wanting to appear awkward. Her footsteps broke the silence in the hall as she savored the rare bit of quietness in her life.
"You're useless, you know?" a voice suddenly shouted from behind her. "Worthless." A gaggle of voices echoed the sentiment.
She turned. Outside the girls' bathroom, the pack of girls from earlier in the day clustered around Melissa. Tempted to help, Irene ran forward two steps before stopping herself. She didn't get involved in other people's messes.
"Your dad hates you, you know?" one of the girls spat at Melissa. "He doesn't really care about you."
"He doesn't understand you."
"He thinks you aren't good enough."
The pack of girls took a few minutes taunting Melissa before heading off in the other direction. Irene quickly walked away, not willing to face a crying Melissa. More than her history book weighed down her steps.
She started on a fresh canvas that night. An idea had struck her: she would paint the people in her life all together, together in harmony like she wanted. Having snatched a picture from a photo album, she was going to begin by copying one of her parents' wedding pictures. Back then her parents had drastically different relationship, an insult-free one. In the picture her mother wore a sleek white gown as she leaned on her husband's arm. Irene's dad was dressed in an immaculate black tuxedo, his hair neatly combed and his shoes scuff-free for once.
Her pencil sketching away, she allowed her thoughts to wander a little. She wondered how her English teacher felt after the other teacher spewed out words of frustration and anger. She wondered how Melissa felt after the pack of girls bullied her. She wondered about all the kids who gossiped about each other's problems, about how they would feel if they realized their secrets had been exposed to others.
One by one people were drawn on the canvas, and one by one Irene painted them in black, white and various shades of gray. Her mother had been rather quiet downstairs, allowing her to work in perfect peace until the end. She stepped back and admired her handiwork; it was the first painting in years not marred by a stray stroke or distorted figure. It was perfect.
"Get your lazy butt over here!"
By the time the easel stopped wobbling, her dad had already stomped his way over to the kitchen. She opened the door, and words from downstairs rushed like bullets toward her before she slammed the door shut. Beneath her bedroom, she could hear dishes breaking.
The next day she carried her wrapped-up canvas straight to the student center where she was going to hang it. Threading her way through the other students, she wound up in front of an empty patch of wall designated for her work. She lovingly uncovered her painting and carefully hung it on the wall, ensuring it was perfectly straight. The black, white and grey people gazed at her and she gazed back in content. In the midst of the other artists she stood still, prolonging the moment.
Something crashed, and the peaceful feeling was gone. Irene turned around to find a boy on his knees, scrambling to clean up the shards of something broken on the floor. Nearby she saw a group of students pointing and laughing, their mouths hanging open as they jeered at the boy.
She turned to face her painting. In the center was her face, neither smiling nor frowning. Teachers, classmates, parents all crowded around her as if in support. But then she saw the imaginary lines drawing themselves across the canvas.
An image of the angry teacher from yesterday popped up in Irene's head, yelling at her English teacher. The pack of girls taunting Melissa. The group of students laughing at the boy on the floor. Her own parents at each other's throats, fighting for reasons long forgotten. No one in her life was completely at peace.
Again she gazed at her painting, but this time everything was all wrong. The expressions on the people's faces weren't real. It was just a show of false happiness not backed by sincerity. She could see the lines drawn between people with her caught in the middle, trapped in a web of hatred and anger. Noise built up inside her head, whimpers mingling with screams and accusations until everything combined in a loud roar.
"ENOUGH!" The student center turned quiet as everyone turned to stare at her. Irene walked straight out the door, not caring that the others stared at her. She wanted to escape the web she was trapped in, to get away. Between the people she cared about, lines had been drawn which couldn't be erased.
In the late afternoon when the student center was completely deserted, she walked in with a long pair of scissors and her paint supplies. Her painting stared at her as she rolled up her sleeves and raised the scissors. Then her arm came down. Within five minutes a pool of red formed around her, fluid dripping from the glinting blades.
The art exhibition was open for students in the daytime before the main showing at night. People wandered around the student center, stopping when something caught their eye. Only one piece of work had a barrier around it: Irene's. Students curiously flocked to where the art teacher had marked the floor as out of bounds. Those who knew her dedication to painting felt a pang of sorrow when they saw her canvas.
Somebody had torn through it, ripping through the perfection. The black, grey and white image was marred by splashes of red. People wondered what Irene would think when she saw it; she wasn't at school.
Melissa saw the viciously ripped line between her face and those of the girls who taunted her every day. She understood what Irene had done.
Irene's English teacher stared at the painting of herself, separated by a line of red paint from an angry-looking man. She understood what Irene had done.
The boy whose art piece had shattered saw the jagged tear in the canvas cutting his figure off from a crowd of students. He understood what Irene had done.
Irene's parents called the school when they noticed she hadn't come home in the afternoon. First they thought she was working on her painting at school, but then her mother had the sense and go up to her room. Her paint and brushes were lying on the sheet-covered floor. There was no way she was preparing her painting for the nighttime art exhibition.
After a long, blame-filled and dish-breaking fight, they decided to team up and find her.
No one knew where she was. The teachers reported she hadn't been in school that day. Her parents insisted she had left in the morning feeling perfectly fine, though truthfully they couldn't remember how their daughter felt. They were too wrapped up in their own worlds.
They were directed to the exhibition where her painting was hung. Other parents filled the student center, and it took Irene's parents a while to find it because they had never seen it. But somehow they found the painting, horrifically mutilated by scissors and red paint. The barrier around it was gone now, and they were able to walk up and touch it.
Two of the particularly violent rips were through their picture together. One slash was through where they held hands. The other ran across both of their feet, separating their images from the picture of Irene's face. Stepping back, they saw slashes crossing all over the canvas, the people driven apart in the painting. People divided by angry lines and splattered with red anger.
Her parents understood what she had done.
A girl stepped on a bus heading out of the city. Though cars honked in the street and people were chattering in the restaurants nearby, she heard nothing. It was the end of a long day of walking around the city and she listlessly tuned the noise out. She handed her money to the bus driver and took a seat in the back, not knowing that a few miles away her painting had won a prize. It didn't matter to her anymore if she won or she didn't. Irene just needed to get away.
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