Shades of Darkness
I used to think that drawing studio would be my favorite way to start the school day. Then we started doing nudes, and I realized—after spending an hour and a half staring at an old dude’s junk—that no amount of coffee or optimism could get me through the full two-hour class. Especially not today. Not after a month of drawing the same guy in the same chair with the same expression to the point where I had nightmares about his draping skin. And definitely not after pulling an all-nighter just to finish the still-life homework.
“Looking lively, Winters,” came a voice behind me.
I nearly jumped.
“Why do you think I’m in line, Davis?” I asked as I turned.
Ethan stood in the short outdoor line for Islington’s saving grace: the Dark Note Café. He was the type of boy any self-respecting mother would love to have her daughter date. He was gorgeous in that sharp-angled, European model sort of way. He even dressed nice—when he had to—though today he was wearing a holey cable-knit sweater and had a beanie squashed down over his mousey-brown hair. He’d totally read you poetry by the lakeside and bring you flowers for no reason at all other than that they made him think of you. Any mother’s dream.
Which was a shame because, like pretty much every other gorgeous, sensitive, artistic boy I knew, he was gayer than a rainbow-shitting unicorn.
“Let me guess,” he said, sidling up to me and hooking his arm through mine, prom style. “You didn’t do the drawing homework last week either? You look like you haven’t slept in ages.”
I reached over and gently rubbed a spot of charcoal from his cheek. It only made it worse, which, again in the typically unfair fashion, just made him even more attractive, in that brooding-artist sort of way.
“You know me well,” I replied. But being up until two a.m. drawing eggs didn’t account for my insomnia or the dreams that followed. Ethan just didn’t need to know about that right now. Before I could wonder if that counted as lying, the violinist in front of me walked off with her coffee and it was my turn to order. “Quad-shot mocha with caramel and hazelnut, por favor.”
“Make that two,” Ethan said. He squeezed my arm. “I love it when you’re buying.”
I pulled his hat down over his eyes, but I didn’t refute.
“Yeah, well, we always knew I’d be your sugar momma.”
He pulled off his hat and tried to fix his hair while I paid the barista. I didn’t know of too many boarding schools that had a private espresso bar on campus, but then again, with four hundred artists locked away in the middle of Michigan’s woods, an espresso bar was about the only thing keeping us from mutiny or a sexual revolution. That and homework.
“I’m still banking on Oliver,” Ethan said, sliding his hat back over his mop of hair and adjusting it so it looked just disheveled enough. His eyes took on that lovesick dreamy cast while he mused about his boyfriend. “He’s gonna be the next Mozart.”
“Bank away. Just remember the little people when you two are honeymooning in Aruba.”
Ethan just laughed.
The barista leaned out the window and handed me the drinks. He was in his thirties, with long black hair and a goatee that made him look like either a performer at a Renn Faire or some heavy-metal guitarist. The tag on his T-shirt read MICHAEL, but he’d crossed it out and written IKE over it.
“How’s The Hierophant coming, Kaira?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s coming,” I muttered, taking a sip from both drinks, just to screw with Ethan. “Thanks again for modeling.”
Yeah, I know, a little creepy that I asked the barista to model for me, but seeing as I’d just taken a photo of him sitting on a bar stool for reference, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s not like I invited him back to my room.
“Not a problem,” he said. “Good luck in class. Your model just ordered a triple espresso, so I doubt he’ll be sitting still.”
Another thing about Islington I loved and hated, depending on the moment: Everyone knew everyone else’s shit.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said, and threw an extra dollar in his jar for tips.
Ethan snatched his drink from my hand as we walked toward the visual arts building. There weren’t many kids out and I couldn’t blame them; the morning sky was the usual overcast gray that Michigan seemed to favor and tourists detested. I kind of loved it, though—it made the fir trees stretching up between the school buildings a little greener, the snow a little whiter, as though everything was pushed to the edge of living and stillness, caught in the perfection of its prime. We wandered down the winding path, the hem of my patchwork coat trailing in the dusted snow at our feet, while I tried to figure out how I’d best capture the shade of brown of the cafeteria’s log staircase. Probably a mix of umber and yellow, with a definite need for sharp white and black framing to make it pop. . . .
“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” Ethan said, nudging me nearly into a snowdrift.
“That when we’re both old and decrepit we’ll never force high school students to draw our private bits.”
I chuckled and said, “You’re already kind of decrepit.”
“And you’re already kind of old,” he retorted, flashing me a winning grin.
“Touché, young’un, touché.”
Ethan was only four months younger than me. Apparently that meant I was a geriatric.
“Ugh,” Ethan muttered into his cup. “You really are old. You say things like ‘young’un.’ ”
I punched him in the side, gently—can’t mar my delicate flower—and said nothing.
We wandered down the long asphalt drive, the academics concourse stretched out to our right and rows of house-like dorms on our left. Even with all the windows closed, I could hear someone blaring pop music from Graham (all the dorms were named after famous artists, which was often unfortunate, seeing as artists rarely had happy endings—case in point, the other female dorm: Plath) and someone else practicing tuba in the basement practice rooms of Rembrandt. Everything on campus was the same rustic style, all bare wood and raw stone, which meant it all looked like one big Christmas card when covered in snow. And, being in northern Michigan, it almost always was.
The arts building loomed at the end of the road. Nearly every wall was made of glass, including large chunks of the ceiling. It still had the rustic log-cabin charm, but with a little more Frank Lloyd Wright mixed in, complete with odd-angled corners and a second story that sat atop the first like a slightly offset block.
“How do you think they got the name?” Ethan asked as we walked.
“What?” I asked.
He nudged my shoulder and gestured up, to the power line laden with crows.
“A murder,” he replied. “I mean, a flock makes sense. Or even a clutch. But a murder of crows? I don’t get it.”
I took another long drink of coffee, suddenly colder from all those beady black eyes staring at me.
“No clue,” I replied. “Maybe it’s symbolic or something.”
“Speaking of,” Ethan said, “how’s your project really going?”
“Well, it hasn’t killed me yet.”
He didn’t inquire further as I opened the great glass door to the arts building for him. The moment that first draft of warm air embraced me, I felt at home. The floor was slate slats and the walls flat white. Yesterday the walls had been blank. Now, the foyer was filled with black-and-white photographs. I slid off my coat and wandered up to the nearest photo.
“Beauty,” Ethan muttered, and took a sip of his coffee.
And he was right. The photo was slightly surreal, clearly a double exposure and some darkroom manipulation, showing an abandoned clapboard house with a figure floating in front of it, but the figure—a small child holding a balloon—was upside-down, as though she was floating and the balloon held her to the Earth. Below it was a small piece of cardboard with the piece’s title and artist.
“Untitled thirteen,” Ethan said. “How original. I dread to read the artist’s statement.”
I shrugged. Truth be told, I hated the whole “untitled” thing too . . . but then again, I still hadn’t settled on a title for my own upcoming exhibition. Untitled was becoming a strong contestant.
“Kai never was one for words,” I replied. “Come on, we’re going to be late.”
Which was a lie. We had a good ten minutes before class. I just didn’t want to stand out here, staring at another senior’s thesis. Kai had applied to many of the same colleges I had, albeit for a different department, and I hated comparing my work to his. Especially since my paintings would soon be dotting this very hall. Ethan didn’t protest as we walked away. Probably because he, too, was facing an upcoming exhibition and, like me, was entirely unprepared. At least he had a month to finish; his thesis went up two weeks after mine.
We headed down the maze of a hall toward the back of the building. A few other seniors had their final projects on display deeper in—Tina had her funky silver-and-found-object rings scattered about on a few pedestals; Jeremy displayed a collection of rather tasteless line drawings that almost but not quite resembled genitalia; Kah-Yee showcased a textile exhibit that involved one large crocheted web over the ceiling, bits of found objects dangling from it like old memories—which just made the usually comforting walk more stressful than it should have been. My time was ticking. Soon, too soon, I’d have to compete with the big guys. And I couldn’t convince myself I’d pull this one out of my hat. Not even the scent of oil paints drifting down the corridor could help. We took a stairway off to the side and headed toward the top level.
“We should go fishing tonight,” Ethan said when we reached the big black door leading to the drawing studio. He pushed it open and gestured grandly for me to enter. “If, you know, you aren’t terribly busy.”
“You’re the one with the boyfriend,” I said, giving him a half curtsy as I walked past.
“I know,” he replied. “And yet I’m choosing to spend my Friday night with you. Feel the love, Winters. Feel the love.”
I blew him a kiss and let my brain switch over to class mode.
The drawing studio was probably my fourth favorite place on campus. Only one of the walls in here was glass, but since it was on the second story and overlooked the forest, that was okay. The other three walls were white and as pristine as a giant studio can be when said room hosts charcoal drawing classes. Easels and stools were set up in a half circle around an overstuffed armchair. Thankfully, the armchair was empty; our model stood in the corner by our instructor’s desk, still fully robed. It always felt awkward walking in when he was already naked.
Ethan and I settled onto our respective stools. I flipped to the first clean sheet of paper on my easel and took one last sip of my short-lived mocha. The Dark Note seriously needed to invest in thirty-two-ounce cups.
The rest of the class—twelve of us in all—was already there and settling in. Another reason why I hated being even a fraction of a second late.
Jane sat down beside me. Her family was Korean, though she’d lived in the States for so much of her childhood, her accent was flawless. She was also seriously the only painter I knew who didn’t have at least one splotch of paint on every article of clothing she owned. I glanced down to my own ensemble: faded skinny jeans covered in patches and hand-drawn runes (not my doing), pink long-sleeve shirt covered in ink smears (admittedly my doing), studded black vest with some alchemical wheel drawn on the back (again, not my doing). Paired with the magenta streaks in my hair (definitely not my doing—Ethan demanded I let only him touch my hair) and the burgundy eye shadow and Eye of Horus spiral I’d drawn under my right eye, I definitely bordered on the edge of “trying too hard.”
But hell, if growing up in the Midwest taught me anything, it was that people stared at me no matter what. Probably because I was some unknown blend of Native American bloodlines. Makeup was my mask; it gave people a reason to stare for nonracist reasons.
“How was the still life?” Jane asked the moment she settled in.
Despite the coffee, the very thought of last night’s last-minute homework made me yawn.
“Same,” Jane said, smiling. “I feel bad for Cassie. She’s the one who really suffers when I’m up till two drawing eggs.”
“No wonder she and Elisa are friends,” I said. “They always have something to commiserate over.”
Well, I’m sure there were many more reasons Cassie and my roommate, Elisa (pronounced ah-LEE-zah, because she said it made her sound refined), got along, but having visual artist roommates definitely gave them cause to bond. The girl beside Jane asked her something, so I turned back to Ethan.
“Are we really on tonight?” I asked. I didn’t want to get my hopes up in case he changed his mind last minute to hang out with Oliver. It was Friday night, not that it meant anything (because yes, our school ran Tuesday to Saturday—don’t ask, I swear they only did it to be different), but Oliver often took Ethan to the movies on Fridays so they could pretend they were a normal high school couple. But I could really use getting off campus, even if only for an hour.
“Totally,” he said. He rubbed a hand across his nose and left a charcoal smear. I said nothing—it just added to the charm. “Oliver’s roommate’s finally out of town, so I’m staying at his place tomorrow night.”
My jaw dropped.
“No way. How did . . . ?”
“I’m old guard, Winters,” he said with a wink. “Four years here and you can get away with murder.”
Before I could ask how Ethan managed to score a sleepover at his boyfriend’s, our instructor, Andy, came forward. He was in jeans and a blazer, dapper as always, but there was something about him that seemed a little off. Maybe it was because he was in his sixties and still tried too hard to connect with his students. I mean, all teachers at Islington tried to connect, and most of them succeeded because we’re all a little batshit. But something about Andy just made him feel like a doddering uncle. Potentially because he kind of smelled like cabbage.
Our model, Mr. G., took his place on the chair and carefully arranged his red bathrobe to cover his delicate bits. Give him a pipe and a library and he’d look like the perfect English gentleman: thinning white hair in a cunning combover, wispy eyebrows, and skin that didn’t appear to have seen sunlight since birth.
“Good morning, everyone,” Andy said. “It’s Mr. G.’s last day with us, so we’re going to hit the ground running. After break we’ll bring out your assignments for critique. Sound good?” My classmates gave a couple of half hearted nods. I couldn’t help that skin-crawly feeling I got whenever Andy spoke to us. He just made every interaction so awkward.
Without any further forced preamble, Andy nodded to Mr. G. and went back to his desk.
At that, Mr. G. disrobed completely and the work began. Our warmup was simple and familiar: minute-long sketches in charcoal to capture overall shape and tension. I grabbed a piece of willow charcoal and began to sketch, my arm and wrist arcing across the tablet of paper, black lines blooming under my fingertips like curving road maps. I looked over to Ethan only once; beyond that glance, I was lost in the flow of the line.
The figures that formed were simple and clean: Mr. G. adopting The Thinker pose, him standing on one leg, him reclining with legs crossed. Figure drawing had always come easily to me, which was a good chunk of the reason I’d sent myself off to Islington in the first place. Not many kids my age cared to go to an arts school that promised an extra two hours of daily class time, extended summer hours, required after-class studios, and double the workload. But I did. I couldn’t stand public school, with its stupid cliques and braindead jocks. I couldn’t even fit in with the goths or the geeks or the band nerds. I wasn’t dark enough or gamer-y enough or into obscure music. Though, if I wanted to be perfectly honest, that was only a small part of the reason I came here. Home was filled with ghosts. And here, hundreds of miles away, their cries were silenced. At least, in theory.
You just need to get out and relax a little, I convinced myself as I drew. You’re just stressed. Too much work and too little sleep. That would make anyone a little nostalgic and a little . . . sensitive.
After the warmup, we did a few ten-minute poses and worked our way down in time until we ended in twenty five-second traces, each in a different color of oil pastel but occupying the same space. My hands were greasy and looked like a rainbow had vomited all over them, but the resulting explosion of color on the page was fantastic. Andy paused behind my stool and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Nice work, Kaira. Really nice work. It almost looks angelic.”
He moved on and said something to Jane that I didn’t really catch because I was too busy trying not to laugh over Ethan mouthing “akwaaaaaaaard” when Andy’s back was turned. I tried to focus on the sketch instead. The center of the page had a dark outline of Mr. G. from where his parts had overlapped, but there were strands of color arcing off—arms and legs and arching torsos, so it almost looked like he was sprouting rainbow wings.
“Show-off,” Ethan muttered in my ear. I jerked and looked back. He was standing right behind me, his lukewarm coffee in hand (he wasn’t a pro coffee drinker like me). I swatted him in the chest, leaving a light blue smear on his now multicolored sweater.
“Come on,” I said, standing up to stretch. We had a five-minute break before the next set of sketches. “I need to pee, and you need to gossip.”
“Hopefully, not all at once,” he said. I just shook my head and led him from the studio by the cuff of his sleeve.
• • •
Ethan waited for me outside the bathroom, leaning against a cardboard Roman pillar. My little sanity anchor. My reminder that the past was the past and this was the present, and the present was pretty fucking great. He was doodling something on his wrist with a Biro pen and leaning beside one student’s collage rendition of a Monet, looking like he was waiting for someone to snap his Polaroid and label it Too Hip for Hipsters.
I’d known Ethan since I came to Islington. We were given peer mentors before the start of term to help us newbies acclimate to the school’s quirks, and Ethan had been mine. He’d attended Islington since his freshman year and knew the place inside and out. During our first meeting, while our group lounged on the leather sofas in the Writers’ House with the electric fireplace going despite the late-summer heat, Ethan had presented us with a particular dilemma: Each of the mentor groups had been given a stipend to spend for group activities, and he wasn’t interested in doing the usual tie-dyed shirt and movie night thing. He recommended we use the money to fund a weekly café trip in hopes of finding hot men. He affectionately called the project Fishing for Dick. Then and there, my love for him was affirmed.
“Come on,” I said. “Spill it.” I nudged up beside him and looked down at the notes on his skinny wrist. Sadly, they were just reminders of upcoming assignments and project ideas. Nothing juicy.
“What?” he said. He glanced around as though we were already discussing his sex life, cheeks blushing. Save for a few girls chatting as they went into the bathroom, the hall was empty.
I grabbed the pen from his hand, grasped his wrist with the other, and wrote in my hastiest cursive: “will u fuk?”
When he looked at what I wrote, he went an even brighter shade of crimson and tried to scrub it off. He didn’t succeed.
“You’re classy, you know that?” he said. Then he looked up at me, and a stupid little grin perked up the corner of his mouth. “And yes, probably. Maybe. Definitely. Gods I hope so.”
I sniffed and wiped an invisible tear from my eye. “My little boy’s all grown up,” I said, making my voice crack.
“Yeah, well . . .” But he didn’t say anything else because the girls came out from the bathroom then and it was clear our short break was up. He cleared his throat. “Did you want to go fishing or not?” he asked. Even though the mentor group eventually disbanded, Ethan and I had kept up the good fight: Nearly every Friday we went to the same teahouse, though it had become more a ritual for finishing homework before the weekend than finding men. Especially since Ethan had found Oliver at the beginning of this year.
“Of course,” I said. I’d never miss out on these tea dates. Ever. Even if we did have to shuffle them around a bit now that a romance was in the picture.
“Good. If you’re nice, I’ll tell you more about my planned seduction. Casanova’s got nothing on me.”
“There’s still lunch,” I offered, because we didn’t have any more classes together today.
“And my boyfriend still sits with us,” Ethan said.
“Then you can tell me on the way there. You know I hate waiting.”
Ethan just rolled his eyes.
• • •
“I swear to Paula Deen, if Andy assigns us one more still life this term I’m going to scream.”
I snorted into my hot chocolate. We sat in the far corner of the cafeteria, nestled between a wall of past students’ art and a window overlooking the frozen lake. A flock of crows circled lazily in the sky. Sorry, a murder.
“Did you really just swear to Paula Deen?” I asked Ethan.
He nodded and crossed himself, holding a packet of butter in his hand as he did so.
“I don’t think praying’s going to help,” I muttered, looking out at the lunch crowd. “Andy does love making us sketch the most exciting of subjects.”
There was a groan, and then a thud, and when I looked over Ethan had his head on the table in defeat. I reached over and rustled his hat. His hand snatched up and caught my arm.
“Watch the hair,” he mumbled from the tabletop, not budging an inch.
“I am,” I said. “I’m giving you that hot disheveled look.”
“He’s already hot and disheveled,” came a voice behind me.
Oliver stepped around to the other side of the table, setting his tray beside Ethan’s. Ethan immediately sat up, grinning at his boyfriend.
“Hey babe,” Ethan chirped. Oliver grinned, leaned over, and gave Ethan a quick peck on the lips.
“Afternoon gorgeous,” Oliver replied, then sat down.
Oliver was, as my mother would say, a tall glass of water—not that I’d ever say such a thing to his face. Six foot two, gorgeous coffee-color skin, and brown eyes to match, he looked like he should be playing bass in some smoky jazz club in Paris. His penchant for wearing button-downs and vests—and the fact that he actually did play bass—only made the image more tantalizing.
“How you doing, Kaira?” he asked. He reached over and took my hand, raising it up to kiss the backs of my fingers.
“Better now that my Prince Charming is here,” I said with a grin.
His smile could have lit a cave.
“You look tired,” he said, studying my face. “Have you been sleeping okay?”
“Okay, seriously, I’m starting to consider plastering my face with foundation. I thought gay boys were supposed to be good for a girl’s self-esteem?”
Ethan laughed. “I don’t know where you got that idea.”
“Fine,” I said, shaking my head and readdressing Oliver, who hadn’t stopped grinning at me. “I was up all night working on homework last minute, just like you said I would be, oh prophetic one.”
“Sometimes I hate being right.” The smile said quite the opposite.
I went back to eating my veggie lasagna. Oh heavenly carbs, at least you’ll never betray me.
“Anyway,” Oliver continued, unfolding a napkin onto his lap, “I need you to make sure this one gets his work done. I worry I’m distracting him too much.”
“You know my babysitting rates double on weekends.”
“I’ll pay. Pretty certain being your friend is paying my dues.”
I chuckled. “Most of the time. But yeah, I’ll make sure he doesn’t slack off.”
Ethan leaned across the table and waved his hands. “Um, guys? Still here. Can hear every word you’re saying.”
“Of course,” Oliver said, completely ignoring his boyfriend, “this goes both ways. You only get paid if you both have your theses finished.”
My hands shot to my heart. “Lo! I am slain!”
Ethan slugged Oliver on the shoulder. “I told you never to mention that word to her.”
“Thesis,” Ethan gasped. “The word of death.”
As expected, Oliver just chuckled to himself and went back to eating. Ethan shot me a glance, one that read both I’m sorry he said anything and Oh gods, we really do need to finish these soon. “Thesis” was one of those words that carried the same sort of weight between me and Ethan as “juxtaposed” or “post modern.” We simply didn’t use it—ever—out of mutual respect for each other’s feelings. Oliver knew this, but it didn’t carry the same punch for him. He thought it was funny, the way we squirmed around like he’d just asked which of us he should behead first.
Trouble was, he had a point. Ethan and I needed to get our shit together. Otherwise we’d both be showcasing Post-it notes of stick figures for our senior theses. And we couldn’t copy Jeremy.
“Fine,” I relented. “We’ll do it. Prepare your kidneys, Ethan. We’re about to consume more coffee than any mortal has before.”