I toss on two more patties and squeeze the hell out of two already frying. Wish it was Hunter I was throttling. The reason I didn’t tear out of that art attic with Echo over my shoulder was that damn light shining from her face when she saw the blank canvas and paint.
I don’t claim to understand her obsession with art, but I understand Echo. If I don’t grant her the space she needs to play with her passion, she could run from me.
Mia sashays up and bends over to rest her arms on the counter, exposing what she thinks I want to see. “There’s going to be a field party tomorrow night at the fry cook’s place. Drinking, drugging, a little casual sex.”
I flip a patty and slam my spatula on it. The grease pouring out sizzles. “I told you—”
Her laughter cuts me off. “That you’re going to get your heart ripped out very soon because you can’t read the signs of a bad-boy phase going downhill. Yeah, I know. You told me. That doesn’t mean that I can’t find other mice to play with in the meantime. So here’s another bullet point to add to your growing number of checklist items. Did your boring person once enjoy being at a good party and now wants to stay home and watch Wheel of Fortune?”
The answer is, I don’t know. I watched Echo throw a few beers back before graduation. Fuck, one of the first times I screwed with her was at a party where she was drunk off her ass. But after we left Kentucky, parties haven’t come up. “Not your business.”
I slide the patty off the grill, lay it on the bun and shove the plate in her direction. “Someone pays you to deliver this, don’t they?”
She only winks. “Party, tomorrow night, nine o’clock. Ask your girl and find the answer.”
My muscles lock up when I think of Echo at those gallery shows this summer. She glided through the parties as if she belonged, as if she was finally in her element, and I stood out like that damn beaver with the headphones.
This morning, Echo said she was terrified that we were going to change, but what if the problem is that she has and I haven’t? If I ask my girl to a party, would she say yes or no? Does she still belong in my world?
I rub the tension out of my shoulder. Fuck it. It’s a party. Not a verdict from the jury. Mia’s good at messing with my mind, and I’ve got to stop letting her.
I glance at the clock then at the neighboring grill. The other cook is already filling orders. It’s fifteen minutes past the end of my shift, and I’m done. I yank the bandanna off, and my hair falls into my eyes.
“I’m out,” I shout at the manager.
“Noah!” he responds from the register. A line of people shift impatiently as they wait for him to ring them out. “Just a few more minutes.”
A few more minutes with Mia may cost me my sanity. “I’ve got to pick my girl up.” I clock out then bolt for the alley door.
The evening air cools the sweat crawling along my neck, and I lean against the brick wall to gain my bearings. A car honks from the main street at the end of the alley. Real life isn’t what’s happening in that fast-food joint. The real world is out here. It was last night under the stars and holding Echo in my arms.
We made love. Echo never would have made love to me if she wasn’t going to stick it through. Me and Echo. We’re good.
“We’re good,” I say to myself, and push off the wall. It’s time to find my girl and prove it.
Crouching on my knees, I brush the red paint along the curvature, and heat licks along my skin. Images flash in my mind, so hauntingly real, so utterly divine. It’s like Noah’s fingers are gliding against my body. His hands are rough from the wear and tear of his normal day, but they are also gentle. So gentle that with a simple touch he can easily coax my body to respond to him, and then those encounters of being with Noah leak into my dreams.
My mind is racing—so fast that my hand can hardly keep up. A stroke here, a smudge there, a blending of lines here to show how Noah and I were separate then merged into one. My eyes dart over the painting, searching for the next color, the next shadow, the next way to bring the canvas to life.
A curl swings into my eyesight, and my cheek becomes wet as I impatiently wipe it away. My fingers are slick, and a drop rolls from my hand onto my arm. It doesn’t bother me, but the slickness of the brush does. I readjust my grip yet the brush falls from my hands and rolls on the floor until it stops at bare feet.
I’m not alone.
Fear rages through my veins, and I jump back. My heart gallops as if I was on a dead run, and my hand flies to my chest as if I could catch it. I assess the room filled with people, attempting to find the threat.
Filled? Maybe not filled, but full. My mouth dries out. Yeah, there was nobody here before. Hunter was here, but left, then it was empty and I was alone and now it’s full…almost filled…and every eye is gawking at me.
“Nine hours.” My head whips to the right, toward the sound of Hunter’s voice. “You haven’t moved from that canvas for nine hours. Not to think. Not to use the bathroom. Not to eat. Your hand moved like you were a machine. I’ve never seen a thing like it.”
I smooth out my clothes as if that would save me from this weird attention and try to maintain eye contact with Hunter. No threat. There is no threat. Deep breaths, Echo. Stop acting like a sideshow freak.
But still, there’s a room full of people—watching me. Not only are they sitting on the floor, they’re also lounging on stools or standing against the wall, but they’re all staring at me as if I’m twirling flaming batons.
“I get this way sometimes,” I explain, then clear my throat as a girl leans over to whisper in another girl’s ear. They share a glinted look then smile. Blood rushes to my pressure points. They’re probably disgusted by my scars. “I…uh…get lost in the painting.”
“Does it happen every time you paint?” asks Hunter.
“I usually get pulled out pretty quick.” By the school bell or Dad or Noah.
“But you didn’t answer my question.” Hunter weaves through the mass of bodies. His loafers click against the wooden subflooring. Most of the people in the room are young. My age or twenties. Over to the left there are several women with gray in their hair. For kicks there appears to be one or two token older men. “Is this what happens to you when you paint? Do you always become…hypnotized?”
Yes. And only my art teacher and Noah know. It’s something that’s private because…because I’m scared what it means at times. If I lose myself in a painting, what does that imply for my sanity?