Excerpt: Phoenix

“You have a real talent,” his father used to say. “You’ll have to think of something useful to do with it.” His mother had always been more generous with her praise. Ever since Alex could remember, she’d exclaim, “That’s beautiful, dear,” to every single picture he’d showed her.

Alex smiled wanly at the memory, stepping back from his easel. He was painting another picture of his parents, this time a shot from a summer barbeque. His father stood at the cooker, tongs in hand, sunglasses up on his head. His mother was by his side, one hand resting on his shoulder. They were both smiling proper smiles that crinkled the eyes.

His parents had smiled a lot. They’d made an attractive couple, both very good looking. Alex’s brother, Aiden, the eldest, took after their father, with his tall, broad build, handsome face, and peppered brown hair. His sister, Amy, took after their mother, who’d done a brief stint as a model in her youth. Amy had her dark, chestnut-brown hair.

Alex wasn’t sure who he took after most, but was perhaps a watered down version of the two. He had his mother’s blue eyes, but overall, he’d never paid much attention to himself, always more interested in his art.

He examined his painting, almost finished. He just couldn’t get the shine in their eyes right, and that was important. Alex easily heard the knock on the door over his stereo, which was playing the Tchaikovsky collection his mother had given him for his last birthday.

“Yeah?” he called out. He hated being disturbed when he was painting, but not being in his own house any more, he didn’t feel he had the right to tell anyone to go away. The result left him tense, constantly anticipating interruption. He couldn’t lose himself while painting here, and that was what he so desperately needed.

The door opened and his aunt Jane stuck her head in. “Do you want anything more to eat, love?”

“No, thank you, I’m fine.”

“Okay.” Jane lingered by the open door. “I’ll just leave a snack out on the dresser here, in case you need it.”

Alex wished he could tell her to stop fussing. He wasn’t far off seventeen, and just because his parents had died didn’t mean he wasn’t able to fix himself a sandwich if he wanted to. But his aunt and uncle had been kind to him so far, so he forced a smile.

“Thank you.”

“You all set for tomorrow?” Jane asked.

Alex tried to hide his grimace. Tomorrow was his first day at his new school, the same school his little cousins went to. After four months off school after his parent’s unexpected deaths, Alex had tried to go back, to finish his GCE’s, but he couldn’t do it. His classmates had already finished. He was way behind. They’d said he’d have to sit new tests, re-do coursework, so he might as well repeat the last year.

Repeat? In the same school where everyone already knew him? Alex couldn’t bear the thought of them tip-toeing around him, asking him how he was, or giving him sympathetic looks. He knew he probably wasn’t helping matters by being quiet and withdrawn, but how was he supposed to feel? It was as though a light had been switched off inside him, and he couldn’t muster the motivation for anything except painting.

Jane and Tony, his aunt and uncle, had talked with the school, then offered Alex the transfer to their local school. He would still have to repeat the year, but it would be among strangers, and they all felt that it’d give Alex the chance to catch up to where he’d been…

Before the accident.

Alex had agreed, and said goodbye to his private school, to his friends, his teachers. Now he’d be going somewhere where he wouldn’t know anybody. Well, only his little cousins, but they were eleven and thirteen, way below him. If he was lucky, he’d never even bump into them at school.

“Yep,” Alex said, fixing the smile on his face. “All set for tomorrow. Thanks.”

Jane looked at him a moment longer, as if trying to gauge how happy he really was. Finally, she nodded and said, “All right, love. We’re watching TV in the living room if you need us.”

“Thanks,” Alex said again. God, he felt that was all he ever said lately. Not that he didn’t appreciate his aunt and uncle’s help, but putting on a brave face for them was wearing.

Left in peace, at last, Alex finished his painting. He wasn’t happy with it. In fact he was half tempted to paint over it in white and start again. The paint was still wet, even though he’d only used acrylics. The paper was soaked from his constant corrections. He should’ve used oils, but sometimes Alex got frustrated with oils. He was still learning, he told himself, he was allowed to make mistakes.

Sighing, he took the painting off the easel and stacked it against the wall, somewhere he wouldn’t see it. He’d look at it tomorrow with fresh eyes, and decide then if it was worth keeping.

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