Painting Away the Guilt

"Jasper, how many times have I told you, leave your work in the studio, don't come smear it all over my best tablecloth!"

Isabella's voice cut into my head like a knife, slicing away my daydreams of the current project in my studio. I refocused on the dining room I had just entered and met Isabella's sharp eyes across the table. She looked down, frowning, at my white shirt that had fresh black paint on it. Quickly realizing my mistake, I muttered an apology and ducked out of the room and dashed back upstairs to put on a cleaner shirt. On my way up, I nearly knocked into Zafrina, but her quick reflexes caught my arms in time.

"Goodness, Jasper, where are you going in such a—Oh, you went downstairs with paint again, I see."

She removed her hands from my arms and gave me a mock bow, stepping aside to let me by. "Well, by all means, continue on your quest for clean, inoffensive garments, young master," she said teasingly, her lips quirking up in a smirk.

I rolled my eyes at her antics and continued to my room. Ah, if only she knew what I was working on, I thought, and then grimaced. If she knew what I was working on, she wouldn't let me hear the end of it. The teasing would never stop. I pushed those thoughts to the side, pulled on a clean shirt, and rushed back downstairs to the dining room, just as everyone was sitting down to the beautiful dinner Isabella had prepared. Trying to ignore Zafrina's amused look and Isabella's irritated one, I sat down across from Zafrina at the table. Dinner commenced as per usual, with Isabella and her husband talking about the goings on at their jobs. Isabella had been a manager at the local crafting store for about fifteen years and never hesitated to bring me back paint when I needed it. Her husband, Xavier, had a part time job at the hotel across the street as a doorman, and he often had amusing stories to tell at dinner about customers at the hotel.

We were about halfway through the meal, when there came a knock at the front door. Isabella looked up suspiciously from her plate, her eyes narrowing. Nobody had invited anyone over, the mail had already come today, and one didn't get many Girl Scouts living in our area of town. Isabella rose from her seat, but I stood up instead. She deserved to sit down for a while after working today.

"Don't worry, I'll get it, Isabella," I said, smiling at her, and receiving a relieved smile back. As I walked out of the room, I realized that Zafrina was following me. I turned to tell her I didn't need an escort, but she interrupted me before I had even formed a sentence.

"I know, Jasper, it's just the door, but just in case it's-"

She cut off, but I knew what she was going to say: "In case it's your father." Only Zafrina knew of the full extent of my father's crimes against me and my family. I had told Isabella only the vague outline of them after she took me in off the streets where Zafrina had found me. I didn't have much recollection of myself and my life before my father's betrayal, but it wasn't important. I didn't have a mind of my own anymore. My father had made sure of that.

I reached the door and opened it, expecting a lost person with the wrong address or something. But there was no one there. I looked up and down the gravel road, but nothing was there except the trees. Shrugging, I was about to close the door when Zafrina's hand shot past me and plucked something off the doorstep. Walking back into the light of the hallway, I realized there was a letter in Zafrina's hand with something written on the front. Zafrina read it, then turned to look at me. I was taken aback by the expression on her face. It was shocked and afraid. Bewildered, I snatched the letter from her, and read the envelope myself. The writing was neat and loopy, done with a practiced hand. It was beautiful. It was also a script that I would never have forgotten till my dying day. This was the handwriting of my younger brother, James.

Zafrina had recognized it because I had shown her some of the notes that James and I had passed back and forth at night, because we weren't allowed to talk past bedtime. It was the same handwriting and it spelled two words: my name, Jasper Blackthorn.

"Zafrina," I began, my voice shaking badly, "Could you please tell Isabella that I will not be returning to dinner? Personal business." I felt her hand touch my shoulder and then heard her footsteps return to the dining room. I headed upstairs, but my knees could not support me for long, and I stopped outside my room, sinking down to lean against the wall across from my door. With trembling fingers, I opened the envelope and shook out the contents. A single piece of paper fell out, containing a single sentence: "The wolf longs to reach the moon at night, especially tonight."

I knew immediately what it meant and stood up to go. But as I stood, I hesitated. Zafrina would never be alright with the idea of me being out of the house at night alone, especially since I was planning to enter the woods at some point in my journey. But then again, she was the only one I trusted to accompany me anywhere. I was twenty-three years old, but didn't have a driver's license because of my circumstances, and Zafrina always drove me anywhere I wanted to go.

A noise at the end of the hall interrupted my thoughts, and I looked up to see Zafrina standing there, a worried look on her face. The near-darkness of the hall made her black hair look like a hood around her face. I decided that now was as good as any time to ask her to accompany me, as Isabella hadn't come upstairs to check on me yet.

"Zafrina, if I asked you to come with me to see my brother, would you? Please don't try to stop me or ask any questions. He sent me a coded message and I need to know why."

I could see her face change from worry to concern to pitying sadness. But then, after a moment, she nodded.

"Of course. Wouldn't want you to end up spending all night in the crafts store like last week, now would we?"

I flushed, remembering my walk in the middle of the night last Saturday to the crafts store. When Zafrina had found me at four o'clock in the morning walking through the parking lot, I hadn't realized I had left the house. I had thought I was still in the studio painting. It had been a strange night and we hadn't talked about it much.

Smiling in relief at Zafrina's answer, I stuffed James' note in my pocket and, with Zafrina in tow, started back down the stairs, quietly but quickly, to ensure that Isabella didn't hear us. We sneaked out the back door and stole across the backyard, heading for the woods. True to her promise, Zafrina didn't question my choice of direction, to my immense relief. I needed no concern over my welfare tonight. This was too delicate a matter.

After ten minutes of walking through the moonlit forest, the trees thinned and then opened onto a cliff edge about twenty feet away from the outline of the woods. The cliff itself was lonely in its formation and unique in its shape. If you were looking at it from a distance, you could say it looked like a wolf pointing its nose at the sky. This was the code of the message that my brother had sent me. We used to meet here as children in secret and away from our father, telling him that we went to study groups for school.

The moon was full and beautiful tonight, but I had no time to stand and admire it like I sometimes did for painting inspiration. For standing about five feet from the edge, staring off into the distance, was my brother.

James. If someone had seen us side by side on the street somewhere, they would never guess were related. Where I had inherited our mother's wavy, dark brown (almost black) hair and green eyes, James had our father's straight blond hair and hard brown eyes. But where my father's eyes had been dark and full of reigned anger, James' were nervous, darting, and wary.

Without turning around, James acknowledged my presence in toneless voice.

"Jasper. Good to know you still care enough to visit me, but slightly disappointing to see that I have to prompt you to do so."

His voice had lost all the nervousness and softness that I remembered, replaced by an emotionless drawl that tore at my soul like claws. Where was the James I recalled from my childhood? The innocent boy that had to comfort me after father came home and saw that I still existed? Where was the boy I remember singing soft songs to me at night?

"I'm sorry, James. You cannot fathom how sorry I am that I did not come back for you, that I didn't return to that house to get you out. I was too lost in my own misery and emptiness to realize that you needed my help. That you also needed rescuing. James, please forgive me."

The pleading in my voice seemed to get James' attention and he turned around to face us at last. I had to mask my gasp of horror at his appearance and heard a small intake of breath behind me from Zafrina as well. James' face was hollow, his cheekbones sunken in to his face. His eyes were familiar, and I realized that they looked like mine the day I looked in the mirror when Zafrina rescued me; empty, dead, and tired. The only difference now was that his were now full of hatred as they looked at me. His hair looked like it hadn't been washed in days, and there were several scars around his jaw and neck. His clothes looked like they had been stolen from some man on the streets and were streaked with what looked like soot and dirt. His hands were clenched into fists and trembling.

"James, what happ—" I began, but James cut me off with a sinister laugh under his breath.

"You want to know what happened, Jasper? After you left me to suffer under our father? After you gave up and ran off like a coward? Without one thought to how I would fare without you? Without thinking that father might choose a new target to yell at? Didn't matter that I looked like him instead of our mother, like you. Didn't matter that I was small and defenseless without you. He blamed me for your escape, did you know? He said that I should have dragged you back to this house because that was my responsibility, to make sure you came home every day. Came home to him. He said that he thought that we didn't care about how much he suffered after Mom died. That you ran away to torture him even further. That you were the only connection to his beloved wife that he had, with you being so like her in looks and behavior. Didn't matter that I was his son. So, I left as soon as I could. A week, a week after you left, I couldn't take it anymore. I had to find you and bring you home so that I wouldn't suffer anymore. I hadn't realized that you had been rescued already, brought out of the depths of Hell. Did she nurse you back to sanity, Jasper?" He indicated Zafrina behind me with a jerk of his chin.

"Did you find peace of mind in your new home? Well, guess what, I wasn't so lucky. I got to be found by the people who ran the orphanage across town. They saw me wandering and thought I was an orphan. They asked me if I had any family, and I said no. No, Jasper. I don't have any family. Maybe by blood, perhaps, but not by feeling. You had left me for dead and our father was never our father to begin with, so I thought, why lie? I snuck out to bring you that message. I only knew where you lived because one of my "friends" in the orphanage had seen you walking with your new girlfriend there. He recognized you from the picture I have above my bed. Did you know that? I still keep one, just in case I wanted to go to the police and demand that you be found. But I had lost all purpose in my life. I didn't have any reason to find you. But I wanted to know if it was you that he had found. He said you looked happy. I didn't believe it. How could my own brother be happy without me? So, I left you that message, and lo and behold! You really are here. You do care after all these years. Why? Why did you come tonight? And why in all of heaven did you bring her?"

James stood there, chest heaving with the effort of speaking so much, with so much emotion and anger in his voice. I had slowly begun to burn inside from the fires of guilt inside me, the fires that I had slowly been fueling with every year of not looking for James. The fragile peace of mind that I had built up over the past seven years was gone now, replaced by a blank space of emptiness.

"No answer, huh? You can't even grace me with an answer, can you? Wouldn't expect as much though. I'm not that stupid as to expect you to acknowledge my presence now, am I? After seven years? Why should you suddenly care?"

He shouted the last sentence and then turned and strode angrily to the edge of the cliff. I could see him breathing heavily in anger. I couldn't take it any longer then. I walked toward him until I was close enough to reach out and touch him. But I didn't, no matter how strong my instinct was to reach out and draw him into me like I did when we were younger.

When I got closer, I saw that he had grown almost as tall as me. He was no longer small and fragile.

"James, I don't—"

But he interrupted me again. Spinning around, he grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me toward him roughly.

"No, Jasper, you're right. You don't know, do you? You never did, and you never will. You will ever understand how I depended on you or how much you hurt me when you left. You will never understand how much you're hurting me now, standing with the companionship of an actual human being, able to be comforted whenever you want. Clearly, I've been replaced in that role, so why should I even exist? What's my purpose for being here, Jasper? Tell me!" he yelled, spitting into my face in his rage and desperation, and shaking me violently.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Zafrina, standing right next to me, looked ready to intervene, and I willed her not to, because that would just make everything worse. James had every right to be angry at me, I thought. He was justified in yelling at me, accusing me of not caring, and demanding that I answer for it. I felt like my last grip on my humanity had been lost and I was now free falling through a void in my mind. I had no idea what to say to James now. I had thought about it so many times, alone in my room, and sometimes I had destroyed the room in my frustration of not being able to get up and find him myself. He was right. I was a coward and had never had the need to care about anyone but myself and my own wellbeing for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to care for someone. I had never had the opportunity to do so.

As I snapped back to the present, I realized that James was watching my facial expression with a look of smug satisfaction, as though he had expected nothing less of me.

"Just as I thought. You don't know that, do you? I have no purpose in anyone's life, do I? So, you probably wouldn't mind if I found a little peace of mind, now, would you?"

I didn't see his hand until it was too late. Suddenly, I was reeling back in shock and pain, the side of my face stinging from James' hand. He hadn't released the hand on my shirt yet, and was getting ready to hit me again, when Zafrina intervened. She grabbed James' raised hand and stopped it from descending. James looked around in shock and anger at her, as though he couldn't believe that a girl was stronger than him. I took the opportunity to wrench myself away from James' clenched fist on my shirt and was about to pull Zafrina off him, when James suddenly pulled his hand backwards with surprising speed and force. But he quickly realized that he hadn't thought it through. His momentum and her grip on his hand worked against each other for a split second, and then it happened. James' movement caused Zafrina to lose her balance and his whole body to be shifted back a bit, just enough for his feet to find the edge of the "wolf's" snout. He gave a shout of surprise and wavered on the edge, before falling over, pulling Zafrina with him. She hadn't had time to release his wrist.

In the split second before she disappeared into the void below, she twisted her head around to meet my eyes once more, a great sadness filling them, a sadness I would never forget. Then she was gone.

A ringing silence filled my ears. I hadn't realized that I'd fallen to my knees until I slowly registered them hurting from the impact. I didn't hear myself scream until my throat gave up. I didn't remember crying myself to sleep on the rock.

What I did remember was the emptiness, the thoughtless, dreamless void that filled my head. I remembered the numbness, the way it spread though my entire body and mind. I barely remembered getting up and walking blindly through the woods, back to the house that I could not call home anymore. I didn't know why it wasn't home anymore. It just wasn't. I remembered opening the back door, walking to the dining room to find Isabella sitting in a chair in a dressing gown, demanding to know why I was outside alone at an ungodly hour. I could barely get the words out to tell her. No, I wasn't alone, at least, I hadn't been when I left the house.

"She's gone," I had said in a voice as dead as the fall leaves. "She's gone and she's never coming back."

Isabella had demanded to know if I was talking about Zafrina, but I couldn't talk anymore. I was done talking. I was halfway up the stairs when the doorbell rang. I didn't even pause to see who it was. I walked the rest of the way up and went to my studio. I grabbed my current project, almost finished and covered with a sheet, and my bag of paints and brushes. I sneaked past Isabella and Xavier at the door, not even registering the park ranger in the doorway, and went out the back, heading for the lake that was in the center of the woods.

The sun was just shining through the trees onto the surface of the water when I got there. I set up my easel and whipped off the sheet covering the canvas. There she was, my whole world, my whole mind, both conscious and unconscious thoughts. Zafrina, her hair half finished, the black cloud of it highlighting her already-pale face and blue eyes. In that moment, I realized why the house wasn't home anymore. She wasn't there. She will never be there anymore to comfort me after one of my room-destroying fits of frustration.

I felt as though all my emotions had detached themselves and surrounded me, pelting me with stones of possibilities and reactions, their voices disturbing the peace of the lakeside.

"We should be running, we can't stay in this miserable place."

"You shouldn't have left your brother in the first place, what a disgraceful human being."

"Why aren't you tracking down your father and making him pay?"

"Isabella is probably being told that her daughter was found in the forest, you should be there for her."

"Why aren't you finished with your painting? Were you thinking of showing her? Were you thinking of destroying it, so you wouldn't look obsessed?"

"Who is going to keep you from losing it for the rest of your life? Who will save you from falling into misery?"

"If you paint out your emotions, maybe it won't be so painful."

They were so overwhelming, suffocating me with their reality and bitterness. I couldn't take it for much longer. I strode over to the lake and looked down into it, almost convinced that I would see them, the voices. Dancing around my head, teasing me, threatening to send me over the edge. But it was only me reflected there. My lifeless eyes, windblown hair, and red, tearstained face.

I wrenched myself away from the reflection before I became self-critical and walked back to face my painting. Suddenly, a feeling of overwhelming anger and frustration at Zafrina and her choice to save me came over me. I seized the painting and made as if to throw it in the lake. But something stopped me, and I merely lowered my hand and dropped it on the grass. I couldn't destroy this. It was my only remnant of the Zafrina I remembered in my mind. I had to keep it safe.

I sank down to my knees in the grass beside it in defeat. I raised my arms and yelled at the morning heavens.

"Is this what you wanted? Is this my punishment for abandoning him? Is this the life I'm supposed to live now?"

I lowered my head and closed my eyes at my own stupidity. Yelling at the heavens wouldn't get me anywhere. It wasn't their fault she was gone. It was mine. I asked her to be with me that night. I was too cowardly to face my little brother alone and look where that had landed me.

I opened my eyes and looked down at my shirt. It was covered in red paint, smeared down my front, on my pants, on my arms. I raised my hands and saw they were the thickest covered. Paint was practically dripping from them down onto the grass, ruining its green purity. This isn't paint, I thought. It's blood isn't it? Oh God. Its hers. I killed her, didn't I?

I sprang to my feet, determined to clean myself of my crime. Instead of wiping my hands on the grass, however, I just turned and jumped into the lake, clothes and all.

It was cool and refreshing to the touch, the water folding me into its embrace. I looked at my hands and realized that I had been wrong. There was never any blood there. I looked around at the surrounding water and saw the rays of sunlight shooting through it, like fallen stars from the sky. I was floating near the surface and felt a ray on my own face. Even through the water, I could feel it on my cheeks, forehead, and my eyes. It was warm and comforting, like a human hand. Like her hand.

My eyes flew open and I saw her. Zafrina was floating above me, looking down and caressing my hair with her hand, smiling at me. I almost inhaled water at the shock. She laughed at me.

"Jasper, you've got to keep your breath, you hear me? Don't let out your life for me. I chose what to do with myself that night. I chose to help you. Don't throw away your soul for me. I will be watching you, mister, you understand?"

Startled, all I could do was nod. Zafrina, I thought desperately, hoping she could hear me, please don't leave me, please.

She smiled sadly at me. "Don't you know this, Jasper? I'll always be there. If you're ever afraid, just keep painting me. Yes," she added, smirking at my look of surprise. "I know you started to paint me. I snuck into your studio one night and saw it. I love it. Don't be embarrassed, finish it. For me. Please?"

All I could think to say was "Yes ma'am". I prayed that she had heard my thoughts again. As if in response, she smiled again and propelled herself up and out of the water, into the rays of sunlight, and vanished.

After a few seconds, I remembered that I had to breathe and rushed to the surface, taking a deep breath of morning air. I swam to the shore and lay on the grass, trying to catch my breath.

"I'll finish you, Zafrina, I promise. I won't fail."

I got up and retrieved the painting, putting it back on the easel. After looking at it with a fond smile on my face, I began where I left off. Her black cloud of hair. I finished that painting then and there on that lakeside, where the memory of her was still with me. Where I would later come every day to paint and think of her. I would live for her, for James, and for myself, making up for the time I lost with all of them. As I left the lake, I turned one last time to look at the surface and could have sworn I saw her smiling face looking up at me from it, painted with the rays of the sun, like her face on my canvas. Like her face in my memory forever.