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       Fresco, p.1

           Chinye Ijeli
 
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Fresco


  A Novel

  by Chinye Ijeli

  (2014 GSMST Senior Capstone Project)

  Copyright

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events or locations is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2014 Chinye Ijeli

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

  Cover designer: Mallory Kane

  Dedication

  To every family member, friend, and half-stranger that believed in me from the beginning, and to all of the Brendas and Connors of the world

  Prologue

  FRESCO PAINTING is the art of procrastination. A fresco artist essentially lays down a layer of wet plaster and paints his masterpiece on top of it, rushing to finish before the plaster dries—a period of about ten to twelve hours. Once the plaster has solidified, it is too late to make seamless additions to the painting. To make a change, an artist has to chip away the plaster that was already there. Many of the fresco painters of the Renaissance laid down a section of plaster a day and created their artwork piece by piece; each section was referred to as a giornata, a day’s work. Often, the lines between each section were plainly visible, and painters couldn’t go back and change these smaller sections, either.

  Ironically, frescoes last forever. These paintings, made with simple lime-based paints, may remain unscathed for millennia. Fragments of frescoes dating back centuries before Jesus Christ was born still sit in museums today, their colors often nearly as bright as the day they were painted. This fact only adds to the pressure placed on a fresco painter; he must work knowing that whatever he creates will last at least as long as the wall he paints it on.

  Realistically, almost no one paints frescoes anymore. It’s arduous work that is said to require extreme levels of talent. This is exactly the reason why the National High School Fresco Painting Competition was created in 2012—to preserve the art form. Student teams of up to three students from across the United States send in their paper drafts and are then chosen to compete at the regional and national levels. The team that places first at the national level wins $20,000 in scholarship money, a $2000 grant for their school’s fine arts program, and a chance to have their fresco displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for years to come. Regional level prizes vary from region to region.

  The 2013 qualifying competition for the southeastern region was held in Valencia, Georgia, a podunk college town situated in the coastal plains near the Florida-Georgia border. Students from as far north as Virginia, as far west as Mississippi, and as far south as Puerto Rico gathered in a big top tent on a spacious lawn near the center of the Valencia State University campus to sign in and get started on what they hoped would be masterpieces. Only the team awarded first place in this competition would be allowed to progress to the next level.

  Brenda

  BRENDA CASTILLO and her twin brother Brandon, a two-person team from the metro Atlanta area, were running a little late. After spending half an hour trying to find their way from the parking lot to Vitali Lawn (the great lawn behind Vitali Hall), they arrived at the opening of the giant tent. The volunteer working the sign-in table just outside the tent regarded them with a questioning look.

  They must have looked pretty peculiar. Brenda guessed the loose bun that she’d arranged her dark hair into was coming undone, and she felt her oversized, square-lensed glasses proceeding to slip down the bridge of her nose as she placed her hands on her knees in an attempt to catch her breath. Despite the sultry summer weather, she wore her favorite gray hoodie, the hand-me-down from Brandon that seemed big enough to swallow her whole. Brandon had tied his white T-shirt around his head like a turban, and his undershirt was soaked through with sweat.

  “These gnats,” Brenda muttered apologetically as her brother swatted at the insects incessantly with his free hand. Her words never seemed to come out as loudly and clearly as she meant them to. The volunteer didn’t seem to hear her.

  “Names?” the volunteer asked.

  “Brandon and Brenda Castillo.” Brandon breathed. “C-A-S-T-I—”

  “Got it. Peachtree Ridge High School?”

  The two of them nodded and smiled. In this unfamiliar place, hearing the name of their school said aloud was a comfort.

  “Alright,” the volunteer said after shuffling through a few papers and pulling a large, white roll of poster board off of the large, white plastic shelf behind her. “You guys get Section Seven on Wall D, the wall furthest from the entrance.” She smiled up at them, her face mostly shielded by a visor. She reached over the table to hand them the roll. “Here is your stencil.” Brenda accepted it reverently.

  Brenda and her brother rushed into the tent, but Brenda slowed to a stop almost instantly, somewhat awed by the sight that greeted her. Immediately, a wave of cool air washed over her, and her ears buzzed with the sounds of excited young artists chattering away. The walls were lined with off-white slabs of plaster in metal frames, each one four feet wide and eight feet high. The majority of the floor space was taken up by the vertical metal beams of an extensive scaffolding system.

  Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Brandon trying to weave his way through the throngs of people. She decided to take her time, wandering between the beams and craning her neck to see the ceiling of the tent. The highest tier of the scaffolding system held three rows of identical plaster rectangles, and a handful of people roamed the platform on the level just below these. These people’s features were almost indistinguishable against the bright sunlight filtering through the translucent, pointed roof. Everything within the tent appeared to be tinted a faint baby blue, the color of the tent itself.

  “Brenda!”

  Amid the noise, she just barely heard her name being called from across the space. Brandon had found their spot, and he was gesturing for her to come over. He had put his shirt back on. She hurried over to where he was standing and began unrolling the poster board stencil and setting it up over the plaster using clips attached to the metal frame. Luckily, each team had been provided with a stepping stool. In addition to this, each station was equipped with a table holding a tray of paint cans and a little bag of charcoal dust.

  As Brenda got to work, Brandon pulled his small stereo out of his backpack, switched it on, and plugged his cell phone into it. “Hey Brenda, what’s a good song I could play?”

  “Are you sure we’re allowed to do that?” she asked warily.

  “It’s just music.”

  She sighed and decided to humor him. “Okay. Play ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele.” She’d discovered Adele recently, and she couldn’t stop listening to her newest album. “Someone Like You” was her favorite track. She found it to be both soothing and empowering.

  He made a face. “Seriously? That song is such a downer. I don’t even know if I have it on my phone. I mean, I could find it on YouTube, but—”

  “Then do it.” Realizing how forceful she sounded, Brenda wished she could retract the words. “Please.”

  “Alright,” he said after sighing dramatically. He obliged, ever so slowly cranking up the volume. The melancholy sounds of a grand piano and a crooning, soulful female voice mixed with the relentless chatter filling the room, slipping in between spaces in sentences. “This is an experiment,” he told her. “When things start happening, I’ll point them out to you.”

  When things start happening? Brenda thought to herself. Would the song evoke an ali
en invasion? She smirked a little at the idea. As she gently patted along the dotted lines with the little bag of charcoal, she imagined adorable little extraterrestrials gathering in the sky over the tent in their flying saucers, singing along to the song with buzzing voices. When she glanced at her brother, she noticed the rare look of pure concentration on his face. Her eyes wandered back to the stencil she’d just aligned over the plaster. She traced the perforations with her fingers.

  “Okay, so, you’ve heard of how stringed instruments resonate when you play the certain notes really loud from computer speakers or something like that, right?” Brandon spoke without looking at her, but he still waited until Brenda nodded before continuing. “Yeah. I’m trying to see if people resonate, too.” Suddenly, he smiled, his eyes widening. “Look, look, look!” he whispered as loudly as he could, pointing at something a few yards away. Brenda glanced over her shoulder and saw a girl wearing boots and a beret that appeared to be swaying and humming as she mixed paints in paint cans. “And there goes another one!”

  “Hmm?” Following Brandon’s finger with her gaze, Brenda spotted someone standing on the elevated platform bobbing his head and singing along. More people doing the same sort of thing could be found within a ten yard radius of their area.

  “See?” Brandon laughed. “They’re resonating.”

  “So, by resonating,” she asked, “you mean singing, humming, and dancing along with the music?”

  “Well, when you say it like that, it sounds stupid,” Brandon scoffed.

  No, Brenda thought, it’s actually a pretty beautiful metaphor. But she refused to let him have the satisfaction. She laughed as she unclipped the tall piece of poster board and rolled it back up. Faint gray lines of charcoal outlining their future artwork were now visible on the wet plaster. The sight took Brenda’s breath away. It was a copy of the sketch they’d submitted months ago, but it had been magnified to a far grander scale.

  Brandon whistled. “Dang,” he said. “Looks good already. Maybe we should just turn it in like that.”

  Brenda pulled a few color swatches out of her bag, and she began mixing their pigments. She and her brother, just like every other team, had been provided five colors—red, yellow, blue, black, and white. From these, they were expected to create, well, anything. They were mostly focusing on red-oranges and steely grays. To Brenda, this part was a bit tedious, but it was a task that she could easily lose herself in.

  Brandon had no patience for things like that. Right way, he picked out the paintbrush with the finest tip from their set and began to trace over the charcoal lines with black. Brenda was often envious of his steady hand.

  “Hey Brenda, add a little more blue to the darkest gray,” Brandon called over his shoulder, humming and snapping along to the song that was playing. Brenda resented his suggestion. She would have preferred that shade of gray to be pure, or even a little warmer. It probably would have fit the picture better. Nonetheless, she did as he said.

  Brenda loved her brother to death, but there were times when she felt a little overshadowed or even eclipsed by him. It wasn’t his fault; he just had such a big personality. Everything about him caught people’s attention—his big, brown, puppy dog eyes and bushy eyebrows, his booming voice, his equally loud laugh. His dark hair used to turn heads, too. It was once a long, curly, straggly mane, but one day, he’d come back from the barbershop nearly bald. He’d said that the hair was weighing him down.

  Later that same day, Brenda had spent almost an hour in her room staring at her reflection in the mirror and holding a pair of scissors to her hair, blades open. She just couldn’t bring herself to make a move. Her hair remained as long and wavy as ever.

  By the time she had finished mixing all of the colors, her brother had already started painting in the ground, carefully shading in the brown and rust-colored leaf litter. She stretched and grabbed a paintbrush, swirling the tip in a can of rich azure blue. Next, she set her glasses down and stepped onto the stool, paintbrush in hand.

  Briefly, Brenda examined the world around her with new eyes. Lines between shapes became indistinct, and each rectangle of plaster became a hazy white window. The faces of the painters moving about in frenzied activity became featureless ovals, and words on signs faded to nothing. Her eyesight was even worse than she remembered. As a test, Brenda held her hand before her face, moving it towards her and away from her in an attempt to find the point before her eyes at which objects became clear. This point was a mere five inches away from her face. She sighed, deciding not to let it bother her much—after all, as long as she wasn’t blind, her vision could be corrected.

  Brenda had been the first child in her grade to get glasses. At the time, she had been seven years old, and her mother had warned her not to wear them to recess or PE class for fear of them falling off and being trampled underfoot.

  Brenda very vividly remembered the day she forgot to take them off. She’d stood at the top of the jungle gym and surveyed the entire playground, a wide expanse of crisp, clear imagery. For the first time, she was able to make out individual blades of grass on the ground and recognize the faces of her friends from a distance. Clouds had defined edges, and red dust kicked up from the ground was suddenly visible in the air like wisps of fiery smoke. All of a sudden, even sounds and textures seemed more intense.

  The thing that had been most dizzying, she remembered, was the sudden awareness of all of the motion. With clearly defined boundaries and reference points, everything seemed to be moving faster, and she realized that almost nothing stood still. There was far too much to take in all at once.

  As she had later discovered, removing her glasses had the opposite effect. The amount of sensory information that she was bombarded with was greatly diminished, and the world around her was smeared like a drenched watercolor painting. It became easier for her to focus single-mindedly on whatever she wanted to. Turning around to face her own workplace, she made small shuffling movements with her feet until she was standing at the edge of the stool and her face was hardly four inches away from the plaster. Painstakingly, she touched the paintbrush to the surface and made a single diagonal streak of blue, marveling at how much it looked like a tear opening to the sky. She had done well.

  “Are you going to paint the whole sky like that?” Brandon laughed. “One streak at a time?” She stuck her tongue out in reply, her face reddening with embarrassment. When he looked up at her, she couldn’t pinpoint the pupils of his eyes, finding it hard to maintain eye contact. Her gaze flitted back to the blue streak. She continued to widen it on either side with her paintbrush, working much faster now.

  About five songs later, the blue streak had grown to encompass the top third of the plaster surface. Brenda had decided weeks ago that she would leave the sky completely cloud-free. She wanted the kind of open blue sky that made you wonder why you couldn’t see the stars, the kind that made you wonder whether daylight was just another type of blindness. Wanting to get a better look from farther away, she stepped down from the stool and groped for her glasses.

  After a good three minutes of patting the table frantically, Brenda felt panic beginning to well up within her. After checking every inch of their designated area—under the table, inside paint cans, and everywhere else—Brenda double checked, triple checked, and quadruple checked, knowing that the fact that she didn’t have her glasses meant that she was more likely to overlook them. Immediately, that saying about repeating the same action and expecting different results being insanity came to mind—as she continued to search, she was definitely beginning to feel a little hysterical.

  “Brenda! Brenda, what’s up?” Brandon asked when he noticed that something was wrong. “What are you looking for?”

  She plopped down on the stool, seeming to melt a little as she exhaled. “I can’t find my glasses.” Immediately, she jumped up again for fear that she’d sat on them. “I looked everywhere.” She squinted hard, but she couldn’t bring Brandon’s face into focus. She hid her face
in her hands.

  “Okay, let’s see . . .” Brenda heard Brandon begin to shuffle cans and unzip backpack zippers. “Not here, not here… Oh snap!”

  Brenda looked up, her eyes wide. “You found them?!”

  “No, not yet,” Brandon said, “but I did find my camera! Totally forgot that I brought it.”

  Classic Brandon.

  “Think of it this way,” Brandon explained. “You can’t see very well, right? Until you find your glasses, I can take pictures of everything for you so that you won’t miss anything.”

  Brenda resisted the urge to laugh. It was a pretty ridiculous idea—she’d much rather just have her glasses back—but at the same time, it was a little comforting.

  Unfortunately, Brenda immediately forgot this small consolation when she remembered the biggest reason why she never removed her glasses in public, an issue even more pressing than the fact that she was nearly blind: Without her glasses, her eyes looked as big as an owl’s. The dark circles that surrounded them didn’t help much. Suddenly aware of how she looked, she hid her face once again, behind an arm this time. Brandon snapped a picture of her with his bulky black camera.

  Brenda considered getting back to work on the blue sky, but she knew that she would be unable to focus without knowing for sure that her glasses were in a safe place. “I-I’ll go check and see if there’s a lost and found,” she told her brother rather shakily, wondering how exactly she would do this.

  “Okay,” he replied absentmindedly, tinkering with the settings on his camera. Reluctantly, Brenda left their little space.

  The tall support beams that had been a mild nuisance before were now Brenda’s greatest source of reassurance. They were large and easy to see. She touched her fingers to each one she passed as she made her way to the front of the tent at a painstaking pace. She had given up squinting entirely. Now, she looked at everything with wide eyes, trying to take in as much as she could. Without her glasses, it was even easier to notice the sunlight shining through the tent material.

  When Brenda arrived at the last support beam, she leaned against it, desperately trying to make out what word had been printed on the giant sign hanging off of the table a few yards away from her. She saw a set of two E’s side by side, and a letter that was either an R or a P . . .

  “It says, ‘Volunteers,’” a seemingly disembodied voice told her. It sounded like a boy her age.

  Brenda panicked. “Of course,” she laughed sheepishly. “I was just, um . . . Well, I should be getting back to my station now.” She turned to face the direction from which she’d come.

  “Wait!” cried the voice. Brenda nearly jumped out of her skin as a hand touched her shoulder. At last, she was able to match the voice to its owner. From what she could see of him, he appeared to be rather tall and skinny with dark hair and caramel-colored skin. She couldn’t really see the irises of his eyes, so she guessed that they were light colored. “Did you need some help?” he asked.

  “Um,” Brenda said very quietly. She hated it when her voice became so soft, but she had almost no control over it. “Yeah. I can’t find my glasses. Is there . . . Um, could they be in . . .”

  “Could they be in the lost and found?” he finished for her. “Yeah, I’ll check. Follow me.” He placed a guiding hand on her back. Brenda felt butterflies flutter within her. “My name is Roshan, by the way.”

  Ro-shun, she mouthed, repeating the name. It sounded very exotic.

  Brenda stood by as Roshan pulled a cardboard box out from underneath the volunteers’ table. She peered into it along with him. There were only three items in it: a paintbrush, a wallet, and a set of keys on a key ring. They accidentally bumped their heads together as they lifted their faces from the box. He laughed and rubbed his forehead, and she laughed too, relaxing a little.

  Roshan momentarily disappeared under the table again and resurfaced, arms akimbo. “Well, seeing that I’ve got nothing else better to do, I guess I could help you look for your glasses,” he offered. Brenda couldn’t tell for sure, but she thought he might have been smiling.

  “That would be nice.” Brenda smiled briefly, but her smile quickly faded when she realized with a pang of embarrassment that it was too late to hide her deeply-shadowed owl eyes. Luckily, Roshan was looking elsewhere.

  “Which station is yours?” he asked as they walked away from the volunteers’ table.

  “Seven-D.”

  “Got it. Middle of the back wall.”

  “I, um, my partner and I have already checked there,” Brenda objected. She didn’t think Brandon would react well if she brought another person to their station to redo a job he’d already done. Roshan didn’t seem to hear her. Luckily, when they arrived at her station, Brandon was nowhere to be found. He was probably off taking more pictures.

  “Wow.” Roshan sounded completely awestricken. “This looks pretty amazing.” Brenda believed that he was referring to the painting, but when she looked, all she saw was the plaster rectangle with a wide strip of blue near the top and a hazy brown stripe near the bottom. “Your partner’s pretty good,” he added. “The sky looks really cool so far. Really realistic.”

  Brenda felt a twinge of annoyance. “I did the sky,” she told him. “I paint without my glasses.” Immediately, she wished she could retract the second statement. Now he’s going to think I’m weird, she thought hopelessly.

  “Ah. Now I see.” He laughed at his own pun. “Ha, get it?” When he saw that she was not amused, he cleared his throat and attempted to change the subject. “Is that some sort of special technique? Does it help?” He began checking all of the same places that Brenda and Brandon had checked moments earlier.

  “Uh, yeah. It helps me concentrate. I just have to get really close to the canvas.” And it works best when I’m listening to opera music with headphones, she thought, but she decided to leave that part out. “Thanks for helping,” she began when Roshan had exhausted all the possible places to look around their station. “I guess I’ll find them later—”

  “What? We’re not giving up just yet.” Once again, there was a pause in which Brenda imagined him to be smiling. “We should ask around.”

  Her heart skipped a beat. “Ask around?” Asking around meant confronting more strangers. She could feel the uneasiness rising in her stomach.

  “Yeah. To see if anyone has seen a pair of glasses lying around,” he explained. “I could do most of the talking, if you want.” Before she knew it, he was approaching another station. Unsure of what to do next, she followed him.

  At first, speaking to other painters was almost disappointingly uneventful, and Brenda’s nervousness was displaced by boredom. Each time, Roshan asked the painters if they’d seen the glasses, and she described them as “your average ‘hipster’ glasses—big, black, and square.” After these words were spoken, Brenda didn’t have to say anything else. She preoccupied herself with taking in as much sensory information as she could without her glasses, treating it like a sort of game. She tried her best to make out body shapes, hairstyles, and eye colors, all the while listening more attentively to voices and sounds than she ever had before.

  Instead of matching names to faces, when given a name, Brenda attempted to match it to a voice. A tall girl named Carrie had a high, tremulous voice that was full of laughter, and she spoke with a Southern accent. A guy named Yann sounded like a Wikipedia article read aloud—precise and technical, but at the same time, casual. Roshan’s voice was not especially high or low, and he spoke as if nearly every sentence he said were a punch line.

  Brenda compared these voices to the voices of others. Her mother’s voice was warm and a little low for a woman’s, and it had a sort of huskiness to it. Her mother spoke both English and Spanish with a definitive, singsong Mexican accent. Brandon sounded a lot like their father.

  Like their father, Brandon always made himself heard, even if others listened somewhat unwillingly. Their voices only differed in pitch, one of them deep and rumbling and
the other youthful and unadulterated. Brenda remembered the days when all three of these distinct voices—her mother’s, her father’s, and her brother’s—had clashed like cymbals on sultry summer nights. She remembered how discordant that sound was.

  “Hey, um, you.”

  Brenda was yanked away from her thoughts when she realized that Roshan was addressing her. She’d been following him absentmindedly for some time, and they were now standing under the shadow of the platform upheld by the beams. “Hmm?” she answered as if she were hard of hearing.

  “I forgot to ask your name,” he laughed, a little embarrassed.

  “Brenda.”

  “Brenda,” he repeated slowly, mulling over it as if it were a sip of fine wine. “It’s pretty. Like you.”

  Brenda gushed. Maybe she didn’t look as bad as she’d thought. She tried to manage a “thank you,” but all that came out was a tiny, embarrassed laugh.

  “Yeah, I know, it’s cheesy,” he admitted. Brenda shrugged, still unable to speak. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had given her their full attention for this long. Not even Brandon seemed to be capable of it. It felt nice. “What’s your last name?” he asked. “Just curious.”

  “Castillo.”

  “Castillo. Is that French?” he joked.

  Brenda laughed aloud. Castillo was a really common Hispanic name. “Very funny.” A part of her felt a little grateful that he didn’t immediately ask, “Oh, so you’re Brandon’s sister?”

  “So you’re not so quiet after all,” Roshan said instead. Brenda felt as if this was the greatest compliment she had ever received.

  “No, I’m not,” she said slowly, and before she knew it, the words were bubbling out of her uncontrollably. “I don’t know how I ended up that way. I don’t think of myself as ‘quiet.’ I speak when I have something to say, and I wait until I know someone will listen. I guess that just doesn’t happen very often.”

  “Mm hmm,” said Roshan. “Well—”

  “Maybe I would talk more if my brother didn’t do all of the talking for me,” Brenda continued, tugging at the too-long sleeves of her hoodie. “He goes beyond finishing my sentences. He says them before I can. And he doesn’t always accurately predict what I’m going to say next, but people accept the answer that he gives, so what can I do about that?”

  Once again, Roshan attempted to cut in. “Oh, so you have—”

  “And back when my dad lived with us, he was relentlessly nagging my mom about a bunch of little things, and the only way she could get him to leave her alone was by not saying anything at all. Brandon—my brother—never got that. He’d yell at my dad to shut up, and they would go on for hours. I would just coop myself up in my room and lock the door. Usually, I would blast bachata and alternative rock on my speakers and fill pages and pages of my sketchbook with things that I see around me from day to day. After Dad left, the house became quiet.” She frowned. “We used to sing along to ‘Cielito Lindo’ together all the time. You probably know that one.”

  Roshan shook his head.

  “Oh, I’m sure you do. You just don’t know that you do.” Brenda cleared her throat and sang operatically, “Ay, ay ay ay, canta y no llores . . .”

  Roshan guffawed, probably surprised that Brenda had sung aloud. “Yeah, I do know that one. I’ve always known the tune, but I’ve never heard the lyrics clearly up until now. Canta y no llores. That means ‘Sing and don’t cry.’”

  “Yeah,” she replied. She was rather impressed that he knew some Spanish.

  “That’s beautiful,” he said, and there was a moment of quiet between them.

  For a second, Brenda closed her eyes, and she could hear the strumming guitar, the singing strings, and the harmonizing voices erupting into the chorus of the song as she, a young girl, skipped around the kitchen in circles and her mother and father belted out the words along with the radio. She could almost smell the meat and spices on the air. When she opened her eyes, however, she found nothing but blurry alternating stripes of sunlight and shadow lining the floor and covering the tall boy beside her so that half of his face was in darkness.

  “It was beautiful,” she agreed, knowing that he could not fully understand.

  They continued talking for what seemed to be an eternity. Brenda told Roshan all about her school and how everyone back home knew she was a talented artist, but it didn’t seem to help her with the important things, like making new friends or acing U.S. history. He told her about his mopey older sister and his caring but controlling dad.

  He also told her about how the National Fresco Painting Competition got started. His mother was the director of the southeastern chapter, and she also doubled as a judge. He told her that, besides getting “a gazillion service hours” towards his college applications just by running errands and talking to contestants, his favorite part about attending the competitions was seeing the completed masterpieces after the artists had already left. He liked to guess what the artists were like based on the painting that they left behind.

  Roshan suddenly reached for his pocket and whipped out his cell phone. It was buzzing insistently. It turned out to be a text message. “Hey Brenda, I have to go do something really quickly. Volunteer duties. How about I catch up with you in a couple of minutes, alright? We’ll keep looking for your glasses after that. Maybe you should go back to painting until then.”

  Brenda nodded and smiled, but she could feel her heart sinking in her chest. Without having someone to follow around and talk to, having such bad eyesight felt like a severe handicap. After standing alone in the same spot for a minute or so, Brenda began to calculate exactly how to get back to her painting station. By holding her cell phone very close to her face, she was able to see that it was nearly twelve o’clock. The sunlight was shining more intensely into the tent than before.

  If Roshan went that way, she thought, turning to face the direction in which he’d gone, then that must be the way to the volunteer desk. I should go the other way. Brenda stepped out backwards from underneath the platform, shielding her eyes from the light.

  After taking a few steps, she backed into a metal beam, colliding with it with surprising force. As she turned to face what she’d bumped into, she heard a metallic rattling sound overhead. Before she could process what was happening, three metal paint cans emptied themselves upon her one after the other, pouring cold paint over her head and shoulders. The cans clattered definitively as they reached the ground.

  For a few moments, she could do no more than stand in place, totally dazed. She began to walk towards the entrance of the tent, quickening her pace to a sprint as she passed the volunteer desk in hopes that Roshan, wherever he was, couldn’t see her. No matter how she tried, she wouldn’t have been able to see him. Tears clouded her vision even further.

  Once outside, Brenda clambered into the nearest porta-potty and slammed the door shut. She grabbed sheets and sheets of the rough paper towels and dabbed furiously at the paint that was slowly soaking into Brandon’s beloved hoodie. Maybe it’s a good thing his hoodie is ruined, she sneered bitterly. It was only a symbol of how much he tries to control me, anyway.

  Deep down, she knew that this idea was absurd. She had received the hoodie from him last Christmas, and she loved it dearly.

  After dabbing herself dry, Brenda left the portable restroom and began to sprint across the lawn towards the domed, stucco building with shingles the color of red clay. She could feel the spray of the giant fountain on the back of her neck. Reaching the building, she pushed the back door open forcefully with both hands. Her footsteps echoed on the tile floor. The only light in the building was streaming through the giant domed skylight in the ceiling.

  She came across a women’s restroom soon enough. She pulled off the hoodie, exposing the white camisole she had been wearing underneath. Thankfully, it was still clean. After soaking paper towels in water and soap, she laid the hoodie out in one of the pearly white, oval sinks and scrubbed vigorously. The tears wouldn’
t stop falling. A few of the stains were beginning to fade, but they would not disappear.

  Now the jacket’s ruined, she thought. It’s ruined, it’s ruined. And I can’t see a damned thing around here. I feel like I can’t do a single useful thing without my glasses. And there’s no one left to help me find them. They were so expensive. Mom is going to go insane. Brandon might be mad too, once he sees his favorite old Gap hoodie. Where the hell is Brandon, anyway? On any other day, he sticks by me like a shadow, and the one time I need him, he’s disappeared into the crowd to take a bunch of stupid pictures. She removed the ponytail holder that had kept her bun in place and abruptly switched to rinsing and wringing out her hair. Knowing him, the pictures probably won’t be of anything useful like paintings. Ugh, I wonder what life would be like if I wasn’t stuck with him. Maybe if I didn’t have a ridiculously loud Chicano interrupting every sentence I spoke, I wouldn’t have been branded as the quiet one . . .

  She paused to lean in and examine her face in the mirror. Her owl eyes were now red and puffy and glistening with tears. Sniffling a little, she proceeded to move to another sink and wash her face, methodically taking deep breaths and regaining composure the same way she always did. She’d become a master at siphoning her emotions back into a corked bottle deep within her, where they belonged. Her primary goal was to look as if she’d never cried.

  “No,” she said softly, glaring at her reflection. “No. I’m not quiet.” She wasn’t going to bottle up her emotions this time. She was angry, and she was going to tell someone about it.

  She dried her face and her hands, tossed the paper towel towards the trash can, missed by a long shot, picked up the paper towel, and slammed it angrily into the can with a swift kick for good measure. She then returned to the hoodie in the sink. As she picked it up to take a look, she heard something fall into the sink with the soft clanking sound of plastic against porcelain. She could hardly believe her eyes.

  It was her glasses.

  She was at a loss for words. “What?” she cried aloud, her voice echoing against the walls of the empty bathroom. “How?!” They had fallen out of the hood of the hoodie.

  Brandon had a lot of explaining to do.

  Brenda put the glasses on and pushed them up the bridge of her nose, remembering how they felt on her face. The world immediately came into crystalline focus. She was so overjoyed that she readily overlooked the smudged fingerprints on the lenses. All of the lines, shapes, and augmented colors were so beautiful that she nearly started crying all over again. She could see the grout lines between the big white floor tiles and the two separate bars of the fluorescent lights running along the cream-colored ceiling. She could see her own reddened face and matted eyelashes in the mirror. Brenda felt as if she had regained a lost superpower.

  Returning to the dimly lit, circular space she had passed through hurriedly before, Brenda stopped to take a good look. The glass dome above her was artfully detailed in the style of an elaborate mandala, and through it, she could see the clouds floating by overhead.

  Immediately, she remembered a story she had heard in art class when they were learning about fresco art. Their teacher had told her about how the artist Andrea Pozzo once painted a fresco of a similar glass dome on the ceiling, creating a three-dimensional illusion that appeared to be perfectly lifelike when examined from a certain spot. The painting had been so realistic that when viewers looked on from somewhere other than the intended spot, they cried out in fear that the dome was leaning to one side and would soon collapse on their heads. Brenda wanted to paint something as powerful and unsettling as that fresco someday.

  Hearing a tapping sound, Brenda nearly jumped out of her skin. She turned to face its source. It was a teenaged boy—probably one of the other painters. He was sitting on the edge of the circular, four-foot-high balcony that rounded the space with his legs dangling through the gaps in the railing, the heels of his shoes periodically tapping against the earthy tile. He had messy blond hair, and he wore a large white T-shirt over a white dress shirt with khaki slacks and dark dress shoes—an odd ensemble. His two hands gripped the rails in front of him, and he was breathing heavily. He looked distraught. When he noticed Brenda, he pulled his legs in and turned away.

  “Hey,” Brenda said gently, “are you alright?”

  “Um, yeah,” the boy croaked. He turned towards her again. “I just—I think—” He began to wheeze even harder, one hand gripping his hair and the other clawing at his chest. Brenda bounded up a nearby set of steps and joined him on the balcony.

  “Do you have asthma?” she asked, her eyebrows drawing together in concern. He shook his head and closed his eyes, and tears began to fall slowly, leaving shining tracks on his cheeks. Immediately, Brenda realized that he was having a panic attack. She was able to sympathize with that experience all too well.

  In that moment, Brenda did something she never would have expected herself to do in a million years—she knelt beside the stranger and hugged the side of his head to her chest, slowly rocking him back and forth until his breathing slowed to a normal pace. The boy didn’t protest or pull away.

  When Brenda released him, he just looked straight ahead for a moment, appearing to be staring at something that Brenda couldn’t see. Finally, he dropped his gaze to the floor and sat cross-legged with his hands in his lap. Brenda sat beside him in the same way.

  “What happened?” Brenda asked softly. “Well, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

  “Well, there’s this girl I know . . . um, it’s a little complicated, but I just found out that she’s gone, and it’s my fault that she left, but I started missing her long before she left, back when I saw her all the time . . . I just wish I could have told her how much I missed her,” he explained. “She used to drive me crazy, for stupid reasons, but I got to the point where I was convinced that I would be better off without her. Big mistake.”

  “Why was it a big mistake?” she asked, feeling a bit of guilt rise within her. His situation was starting to sound a bit like hers.

  “I didn’t realize until we were separated that we leaned on each other a lot, for support and stuff. And we had way more good times than bad times. And she only ever had good intentions.”

  “Well,” she said, pausing briefly, “in that case, she must have missed you, too. So, once she figures out you missed her, she’ll be happy. Maybe you could still find a way to tell her that somehow, even if you two can’t be together anymore.” The boy nodded, seeming to accept this suggestion.

  “Hey,” he said, “I think I have to get back to my painting now. One of my team members is probably freaking over my disappearance.”

  Brenda nodded. “Yeah, I should be getting back, too. My team is really behind on painting. How about I walk back with you?”

  The two of them walked back to the mighty tent in silence, Brenda with her arms crossed and the blond boy with his hands in his pockets. As they approached the entrance, Brenda realized that she’d never asked him for his name. “Hey, what’s your—” she began, but before she could finish, she realized that he had already disappeared among the other painters. She made a full 360 degree turn, but she didn’t see him anywhere. What she did see, however, left her in awe: rows upon rows of half-finished frescoes, all colorful and fascinating. Some were abstract, and some represented realistic scenes, like beaches, city streets, animals, and people. Brenda knew that her fresco was probably nowhere near as far along as these were.

  Brenda found Brandon at their station painting gray clouds into her blue sky. In an instant, Brenda was upset all over again.

  “What the heck are you doing?” she yelled aloud. She could feel the eyes of other artists on her, but she didn’t care much. “There weren’t any clouds in that sky!”

  “Oh hey, Brenda!” Brandon said cheerily, waving a paintbrush at her. “Oh, you found your glasses! Awesome!”

  Brenda was now overcome with anger. “Yeah, you know where I found them?” she asked
, her voice dangerously quiet. “They were in the hood of this hoodie.”

  Brandon immediately launched into a fit of laughter. “Oh my . . . oh my gosh . . .” Hopping off of the stool and keeling over, he could hardly breathe, he was laughing so hard. “I totally forgot I put them there. It was supposed to be a joke. Oh gosh . . .”

  Brenda was not amused. “Why are you painting gray clouds into my sky?”

  “That’s what the grays were for, right?”

  “No,” Brenda replied slowly, “the grays were for the caterpillar and the butterfly, remember?”

  “Oh. Then there shouldn’t be any blue in them.”

  “EXACTLY!” Brenda barked. “I wasn’t going to put any freaking blue in the freaking gray, but you told me to do it, because you always think you know what’s best!”

  “Well hey, you didn’t say anything!” Brandon waved his hand dismissively. “And what happened to the hoodie I gave you? Who did this to you?”

  Almost instantly, Brenda’s temperament switched from that of a lioness to that of a kitten. “Well, this volunteer dude was helping me look for my glasses, and—”

  “Did he do this to you?” Brandon was suddenly livid, beating his chest with his fist as he spoke. “If I find the guy who did this, he’ll be done, I swear. They’ll have to call the cops on me when I’m through.” He was beginning to rattle off in Spanish before Brenda stopped him.

  “It wasn’t him, geez. I bumped into one of those metal beams and a few paint cans fell on me.”

  “And where was the volunteer?” Brandon asked.

  “He was busy.”

  “That son of a bitch.”

  “Don’t be calling anybody that!” Brenda snapped. “You weren’t there, either. You were off running around, same way you always do.”

  “I was taking these pictures for you so that you wouldn’t feel like you missed anything!” He took the camera that had been hanging around his neck and thrust it into Brenda’s arms.

  “Oh, give me break! You were looking for another excuse not to do any work! And then you came back just to paint some gray clouds in my clear blue sky! It’s not fair!”

  “What’s not fair?”

  “You’re the loud one. You always get a chance to express yourself, and people always listen. For once, I wanted my work to be on display for everyone to see so that people would see a part of me.”

  “You never said anything,” he repeated, guilt beginning to show on his face.

  Brenda was still fuming. “Why would you even assume that some random guy spilled some paint on me?”

  “Hey, I’m just trying to be on the lookout for you, alright? That’s all. You’re my little sister.”

  “I’m your twin sister. And maybe if I didn’t have you ‘on the lookout’ for me all the time, I would have the chance to be my own person.”

  “Hey, you know what happens when girls like you don’t have brothers looking out for them? They end up like Mom.” Brandon paused, practically shaking with emotion. “They end up with lousy, deadbeat husbands that never give them a break.”

  “No, that’s not it at all,” she explained. “Girls like me end up with lousy, deadbeat husbands that boss them around when they don’t stand up for themselves.” She almost didn’t want to say the next sentence that she had in mind, but she knew that it was important that he heard it. “You’ve been acting just like Dad.”

  “How could you even say that?” Brandon looked conflicted, as if he didn’t know whether to be enraged or heartbroken. He looked down at his hands as if he had been the one to take his mother by the shoulders and shake her as his sharp words brought her to tears. The pain and regret that showed in his eyes were remarkable. “When did this start? When did I start?”

  Brenda struggled to remember. “I don’t know. It wasn’t so bad until seventh or eighth grade or so.”

  “I’m not going to be like Dad,” he resolved, shaking his head. “I refuse to be like him.”

  Brenda patted him on the shoulder. “You are a good brother, Brandon. You only ever had good intentions. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

  “Good intentions,” he muttered to himself. He appeared to be deep in thought.

  Brenda turned on the camera and began to go through the pictures on the memory card. Quite a few of them were of paintings and painters, and somewhere towards the middle of the reel, people began to pose for the pictures. There were pictures of people painting, laughing, and making goofy, cross-eyed faces. There were also pictures of people explaining their designs, and a couple of the pictures had been taken from the top of the platform, showing the tops of the heads of the people below. She noticed that one particularly pretty redhead showed up unusually frequently in the photos. The girl must have caught Brandon’s attention.

  Brenda stopped on one picture that made her scratch her head. It was a picture of two guys standing side by side, fists to their hips and chests puffed out as if they were superheroes. Seeing the name tags that they wore, she assumed that they were volunteers. A third volunteer, one that was making a face in the background, looked vaguely familiar.

  “Is that . . .” she began, her voice trailing off as she examined the image. He had dark hair and green eyes that contrasted with his tan skin. “That’s Roshan, the volunteer.” He’s kind of hot, she thought to herself, seeing him clearly for the first time.

  “Huh? Who? Which one?”

  “That one right there.” She pointed. “He’s the one that was helping me look for my glasses.”

  “Oh, whoa, this is your partner?” someone said from behind them. “That’s kind of hilarious, actually. He was taking pictures of everybody.” Simultaneously, they looked up from what they were doing.

  “Oh, hey, Roshan,” Brenda said a little sheepishly.

  “Hey, Brenda. Glad to see that you found your glasses.” He ran a hand through his hair and glanced at his shoes. He didn’t sound all that glad.

  “Uh, yeah. It turns out that my brother here hid them in the hood of my jacket. Ridiculous, right?”

  Roshan laughed. “Oh, wow. I feel a little stupid for not noticing, actually.”

  “Yeah, me too.”

  “That’s the brilliance of it,” Brandon said with a grin. He leaned in and whispered in Brenda’s ear, “If he makes a wrong move, just let me know, and I’ll skin his skinny little Indian—” Brenda shot him a murderous look, and he stopped, smiling coyly at Roshan.

  “Well, Brenda, I guess I should get going now. I just came by to give you my number so can, you know, text me if you need help with anything else.”

  Brenda smiled and shrugged. “Well, you know, I may or may not need some more help later on. It’s good to be on the safe side.” They traded cell phones and typed in their numbers.

  “Hey,” Brandon cut in, “I don’t see why he needs your number, unless he’s going to be asking you for help!” Neither Brenda nor Roshan acknowledged the comment.

  “I guess I’ll see you around then, Brenda,” Roshan said with a smile, handing her the phone back. “You can tell your brother that I’ll try my best not to make any wrong moves.” With that, he left them.

  “I don’t like him,” Brandon muttered, twiddling a dry paintbrush between his fingers.

  “Do you remember what we just talked about, Brandon?”

  “Yeah,” he sighed. “But if he hurts you in any way and you don’t stand up for yourself—and by standing up for yourself, I mean giving him a good right hook to the jaw—I will.”

  “Deal,” she said. Paintbrush in hand, she climbed onto the stool and proceeded to paint a horizontal black line straight across the center of the fresco.

  Brandon had a field day. “What are you doing?! Are you crazy?”

  She stepped down and admired her work. “I get the top half, and you get the bottom half. That’s how were going to do it.”

  “But—But the line—”

  “It’ll be fine. Just trust me.” She watched as he unclenched his fists
. “Come on, let’s actually get some work done! ¡Ándale!” In preparing to pick up where she left off, she remembered to tuck her glasses into her pocket this time.

  Frescos could not be fixed without the artist chipping away at the plaster that had already been laid down. Neither could people.

  It was 12:28. Brenda felt like she was starting a new chapter in her life, a fresh giornata. Another day’s work.

  IT WAS A windy October day, and Brenda was strapped into the passenger seat of her father’s Mazda. Using the screen of her cell phone as a mirror, she applied a little lip gloss and smiled at her reflection.

  “Your hair,” her dad said in Spanish. “It’s so different.”

  “Yeah!” She took another look at her wavy bob, patting it fondly. “I cut it myself,” she told him, also in Spanish.

  “What did your mother say?”

  “She loved it,” she replied matter-of-factly.

  “And your brother? What did he say?”

  “He’s still getting used to it. I told him that I’m just like him now, and he smiled.” She shrugged. “What’s important is that I like it, right?”

  “Are you sure you’re my daughter Brenda?” he teased. She stuck her tongue out at him. He switched to English. “Where are we headed?”

  “The mall, Dad. The closest one to us.”

  “Who’s going to be there?”

  “Well, my friend Roshan from the painting competition invited me. It’s going to be him and some of his friends from Brookwood.”

  “Brookwood?”

  “The high school.”

  “Roshan is a boy?”

  “He’s a friend.”

  There was a brief moment of silence.

  “You know, your brother called me the other day.”

  Brenda was surprised. Usually, Brandon didn’t want to have anything to do with their dad. “He did? What did he say?”

  “He said that he has forgiven me, and that he won’t make the same mistakes I did.” The car slowed to a stop as they approached a red light. “I told him that I was glad.”

  The relief that Brenda felt at that moment was indescribable. Maybe this would mean the end of their cold war. “Yeah,” she said, grinning. “Me too.”

 
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