Here’s another excerpt from the novel so far, written last week. Enjoy!
Everything smelled like paint; Aaron lay back on his couch and breathed in the acrid reek of his oily artistic tools lying a few feet in front of him on the table next to his easel. Everything was ready, set out in a militaristic line and waiting to do his bidding. All he needed was the feeling, and even though part of him still felt a nauseating dread over Jason’s visit – and promise – earlier in the day, he knew that in a few moments all of those fears would be comfortably obliterated for a little while.
His music blared loudly from a pair of ancient speakers set up on either side of his easel, a playlist he had crafted years ago when he had first moved to New York. The songs filled his ears in the same way the scent of his paints filled his nostrils, soothing him and taking him over. Or that could have been the heroin, at this point Aaron wasn’t sure exactly what was giving him the warmth and serenity spreading through his limbs. He didn’t care. He had a show coming up, and he obviously needed money, so he had no choice but to answer his artistic calling.
Standing up slowly, Aaron heard something fall to the floor with a soft ‘clunk’ at his feet. He looked down, feeling as if he were moving through syrup, and saw the glint of his silvery-black teaspoon lying forlornly next to a fallen cigarette lighter. His ‘works’ had a tendency to get scattered about once he got going, but Aaron knew he’d find them again. Having a small apartment combined with an old friend who knew the best places to get clean needles made his artistic methods easier than most. Moving slowly over to his easel, which in the half-dark of his dingy, candle-lit apartment looked more like a shrine than anything else, Aaron picked up a paintbrush as if it were a conductor’s baton and he was about to lead an orchestra through a tremendous symphony.
The candles were pretentious, and Aaron knew it, but he enjoyed the scent of the wax mingling with his paints, and it saved on electric bills, which were just one more expense he had to keep in mind in his day-to-day habits. If only his day-to-day habits weren’t so cost-consuming.
Staring down at his palette, a thin wooden square dotted with brightly-coloured blobs, Aaron gently dipped and twirled his brush in the nearest smear of paint, a shining stain of blue that bled into shades of black in the half-light. Or so it looked to Aaron, and as he stared down at the paint he found himself smiling almost idiotically. It had been days since he’d felt this good, felt this alive, this ready to bend himself to a creative will. After his initial testing of the waters, his colour selections came to him as naturally as breathing. Paints flew onto canvas so fast Aaron left splatters across his tattered green shirt, and he paused rarely, only occasionally stopping to step back and observe his creation, and only whenever there was a lull in the music.
Aaron couldn’t remember the first time he had picked up a paintbrush, but he knew that his love of art had existed since before he could remember. His family had always encouraged him, his parents and siblings all being aficionados to some degree as they grew up and older and expanded their horizons. In his twenty-three years of life Aaron had lived in Japan, Germany, Italy, New York, Illinois and back to New York again. He still remembered his first visit to Vatican City at the age of seven, stumbling behind his sisters on short legs as they urged him to keep up through the throngs of people. He remembered staring up at the Sistine Chapel and thinking it was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen, and that he could barely believe anyone could have created something that wondrous from nothing. He’d always enjoyed art, but he still had that moment of his life burned into his brain, and ever since then he had known that he had wanted to be as those artists, as Michelangelo and Botticelli, creating art that took people’s breaths away until the end of time.
Those moments always came back to him when he made art now, especially considering his methods. Echoes and memories of the past always came back stronger, and he smelled and tasted them as clearly as the candle wax and the paint that now stained his mouth, his lips being a common resting place for his brush whenever he paused to take stock of his work. He looked now as if he had recently eaten fresh blackberries, but he was too lost in his work and his memories to pay any attention.
Prodigy had been the word most commonly used to describe him. His art teachers in high school were left astounded by his designs and methods, as had his instructors at art college here in New York. Had. Times long past now. Aaron paused again, adding a splash of pale red to his lips as the brush rested there. Had it really been almost two years since he had dropped out of art school? It somehow seemed longer, as if the entire experience had been some kind of insane nightmare. He thought that often about the last two years of his life, and frequently felt also as if they had never happened and before he knew it he’d wake up in his old dorm room bed and still be matriculated, still with a complete family and no reason to drown his sorrows in anything at all.
He smeared another thick line of red across the canvas and found himself laughing almost hysterically. Such a cliché, he thought to himself, leaning forward to mark his piece and then spun around once on his heel, dancing to his music. Sad little starving artist, dealing with his grief in drugs and alcohol, unable to handle death or hardship. Pathetic genius at work right here, that’s what this is. What a sad little show you put on for yourself. If anyone still cared about your artwork, you wouldn’t be living in this run-down loft giving blowjobs for heroin.
“It’s no way to live,” Aaron whispered aloud to himself, shutting his eyes briefly. “But it’s all I’ve got now. Watch me live. Watch me.”
He continued whispering as he moved and spun with the music, splattering his skin and his clothes with paint and wax. His face frequently contorted into snarls or into freakish giggles, his eyes leaving his canvas only when they were closed and he was losing himself in the music.
Somewhere in his reverie, it could have been minutes, could have been hours, Aaron heard the sound of a ringing, something jingling with a jarring cacophony that ruined the flow of his music. He scowled and looked back at the couch, where his cell phone sat vibrating and chirping with all the infuriating racket of a sparrow on the fire escape.
Leaning down to turn his stereo down, Aaron placed his paintbrush in his mouth and picked up the phone, which he answered and pressed the speaker phone button, not bothering to see who was calling. At this point he was too lost in his art to really care. “Hello?” he asked the air in front of him, taking the brush out of his mouth and sweeping up another glob of red paint.
“Hey, Aaron?” a voice he recognized. “It’s Ellen.”
“Hey sis,” Aaron said, face sliding into a half-smile. How had he known she’d call sometime today. “How’s it hanging?”
“Off a bridge,” she replied, ever sarcastic. Aaron could picture her talking to him a thousand miles away, probably walking down a crowded street with her face hidden by her hair, as usual. “How’s New York?”
“Same as ever,” Aaron said distantly. “Too hot, too crowded, cockroaches and cockheads galore. Chicago?”
“Similar,” Ellen said, and he could her the grin in her voice. “How’s the art?”
“In progress actually,” Aaron said, pride bleeding through in his voice. “Just adding another piece to the collection I’m showing soon. You should come visit.”
“No can do big brother,” Ellen sounded sad. “Spent all my money on summer classes and videogames. Maybe over Christmas break.”
“Hey,” Aaron shrugged and cleaned his brush, peering down at his palette to examine his colours, more of which had blended together at this point. “I can dig it. How are the ‘rents?”
“Worried about me, but that’s normal,” Ellen said. “They ask me how you are a lot. You should call them.”
Aaron laughed. “Yeah, that’ll happen when they stop telling me to go back to school. That goes for Fiona too.”
He swore he could hear Ellen rolling her eyes. “Whatever dude,” she said. “You do whatever makes you happy, but they’re gonna keep asking me about it since I’m the only one in the family you actually communicate with on a regular basis.”
“So?” Aaron smiled down at what looked like a perfect blend of turquoise and teal, scooping it up with his brush.
“So I’m sick of them bitching at me when I have better things to worry about,” she said. “Start answering your phone when they call, or I’ll have to relate all their self-righteous bitching second-hand, and you know how that gets old.”
“Do I?” Aaron laughed. “It’s older than Adam, sis. Older than Adam.” He hummed cheerfully to himself. “And it’ll stay that way until they finally understand.”
“Right, right,” Ellen said, and this time he knew she was rolling her eyes. “Tortured artist, nobody understands me, whine whine whine, save me your pity party. I’m just calling to check in.”
“’cause we haven’t talked since the fourth?” Aaron asked. “I was disappointed that you were sober.”
“Still only nineteen dumbass,” Ellen said. “No, I’m calling because it’s… well, today. I know you know what day it is.”
“Sure,” Aaron said, flippant as he stepped back from his canvas again. “Today’s two years since the accident.”
Silence crackled from the other end of the phone. He wondered if his sister was crying, or if she was just angry. Finally her voice came through, calm and restrained. “Exactly.” Ellen said. “And how are you dealing with that?”
“Just peachy, little sister,” Aaron said, closing his eyes again as his quiet music swelled. “Takin’ it a day at a time, just like I have been since she died.”
“Yeah,” Ellen sighed. “Me too.”
“You holding up all right?” Aaron asked, still feeling distant and detached, trying to care but more interested in the way the blue in his painting caught the low light. “Heard from the family?”
“Like you haven’t,” Ellen said, sighing again. “Fiona called me at eight this morning. She was drunk as hell.”
“That’s our eldest sister for you,” Aaron said, laughing with a strangled chuckle. “Dealing with her pain in a healthy way.”
“Yeah,” Ellen said, her voice sounding almost angry. “Because you’re so great at that.”
Silence echoed between them for a few moments, Aaron pausing for a brief moment and letting his hand fall to his side. “We all have our demons El,” he said, resuming the movement of his brush across canvas. “And we all have our ways of dealing with them.”
“Sure enough,” Ellen said. Another pause. “Aaron, are you…”
“What?” Aaron asked, his tone dreamy, his mouth still crooked in a half-smile. “Am I what?”
He heard his little sister sigh. “Never mind,” she said. “You’re painting, so I already know the answer.”
“Glad you managed to clear that up with yourself,” he said, his tone suddenly caustic, and he grimaced. Apparently it had been long enough that things were starting to wear down. Next time he’d need a higher dose. Good thing he was almost done. “Anything else I can do for you?”
“Not really,” Ellen said, sounding sad again. “I’m on my way to visit Holly, and I just wanted to know if you wanted me to say anything for you while I’m there, since you’re too poor to fly out to visit and all.”
Aaron felt guilt creep up and over him, and he grimaced again. Not the emotion he was looking for today. Not that Ellen didn’t have a right to guilt-trip him, but he really had no interest in hearing it. “Tell her I’m still okay with being out of school,” he said, pausing in his painting again and staring at his canvas. “That I’m still running around engaging in godless acts of hedonism, following in her undergrad footsteps. And tell her that I’m still painting…” he trailed off and looked over at his dilapidated mantelpiece. In the center sat a framed photograph of his three sisters, Fiona the oldest but captured in time before her graying hair and alcoholism, Ellen still in braces with an unembarrassed smile, and Holly, the pretty one, fresh out of law school and ready to cause some trouble judging by the mischief in her eye.
He coughed and added a speck of blue paint to his canvas. “And tell her that today, this one’s for her. She’d know what I meant.”
“I know,” Ellen said. “I’ll pass that along.”
“Thanks El,” Aaron said, putting down his brush for the first time in hours. “Sorry I couldn’t come out for today. See you at Christmas, hopefully.”
“Hopefully,” Ellen said, and he hoped that he could hear her smiling again. “Thanks Aaron. Let me know how the painting turns out.”
“Will do,” Aaron said, smiling with a warm satisfaction.
“And…” he heard Ellen trail off and he raised an eyebrow.
“Hm?” he muttered, glancing at the phone.
“Be careful,” she said. “Just in general. With everything.”
“You know me sis,” Aaron said, grinning lazily. “I’m the king of care.”
“True enough,” she said. “Talk to you later dude. Take care.”
“Later,” Aaron said, picking up his phone. “You too.”
His sister hung up the phone and he pushed a button to take it off of speaker, shoving it into the pocket of his paint-spattered jeans and sighing. He took two steps back to look at his completed work, and then suddenly strode across the room towards the mantelpiece. He picked up the photograph of Fiona, Ellen and Holly and held it up, studying his older sister’s face. Then he looked back at the painting critically.
“Yep,” he said, glancing from the photograph to the painting and back again several times, examining the laugh in the eyes, the curve of the red lips and the dark brown in her hair. “That’s Holly all right.”
Aaron smiled widely at his completed portrait of his dead sister, and felt exhaustion take him with a sudden force. Leaving the photograph on his coffee table, he stumbled over to his bed and had fallen asleep before he even hit the sheets.