I'd been rotting away in silence, gradually being eaten from the inside out with every new art project, every contest, and every new exhibition. I couldn't explain it, and I seems to be the only person who even knew what was happening. My mother smiled at me as usual, my father pat me on the back as usual, and my sisters carried out their one-sided conversations with me as we painted in the family studio as usual. No one saw me rotting away, no one could see the enthusiasm they shared as a family slip out of me with every new art piece I created. My works soon became duller — less interesting, but yet I was the only person who'd been able to see it.
"You don't look like you're enjoying yourself."
The words had been sudden, ringing as a short laugh by my ear as a hand clamped on my shoulder. I'd looked up, partly surprised and partly amused. The new teacher had been standing by me as I sat on the donkey bench with my watercolor project pinned to the drawing board that had been resting on my lap. He'd shook his head at my expression, his thick brown locks bouncing with the action.
"Take a break from that for a while. I want to show you something," he'd said, leaving me for his desk. I'd looked down at my painting with mixed feelings before abandoning it and getting up from the bench to head over to his work desk.
He'd been behind his laptop, looking through a folder, and when he noticed that I was at his table he looked up at me with a grin. "Do you have a flash drive? I have a bunch of resources you could use."
"I do," I'd muttered, searching the pocket of my blue jeans for my sixty-four GB flash drive. I'd found it, pulling it out before handing it over to him. He received it with a smile — a smile that made my usually pale face to warm up, a smile that I wanted to see again — a smile that had been directed specifically at me.
I'd watched him transfer his folder to my flash drive. He also transferred some video reference from his laptop to my flash drive, and when I returned to the bench I'd been working on, giving them a look or a watch, they did help like he said they would.
His smile stayed registered in my mind, and I started coming to the art room with the hopes of meeting and talking with him. He took an immediate interest in my work, monitoring my projects as giving me pointers. My paintings became brighter — more lively. I'm not sure if it was because of the resources he shared with me or whether it was because that there was someone willing to look at my work with keen eyes, someone, who didn't just look at the technicalities I used to create my work, but someone who was willing to take my painting apart frame by frame to find me in it.
To make sure that I wasn't just producing art, but that they were meaningful to me.
I started smiling more, coming to the art room when I knew he'd be there more. He'd even said that I could call him just Toby.
"I'm just twenty-three, I'm not old," he'd said after he'd asked me to stop attaching 'mister' before his name.
I'd sit by his desk, watching him work, and sometimes I'd be lucky enough to talk with him. Everything I learned about him made me smile. I liked his taste his music, the odd pattern in which he did his work, the multiple sketchbooks he had stacked up at the foot of his desk — I liked everything. I liked him a little too much, and the fact that I did only became clearer with time.
"You look... happy?"
I'd heard Candice say awkwardly at one point. We'd been at home in the art room, working on our individual projects. I'd stared blankly at her, watching as she shook her head while muttering a 'never mind' before looking away.
Odd. I'd thought, turning away and continuing my painting.
Candice had been right. Something had been different — I had been happier, but at the same time I hadn't been able to pinpoint why exactly so It didn't question it at the time. It was later in the year that I realized what it was. I'd felt bothered by the idea that I would graduate soon and leave — leave Toby behind. The feeling had been overwhelming, and I came to terms with it.
"You think you're in love?" Ava had asked me when I'd spoken to her. I'd needed someone to talk to, and she was the person I was closest to. We had been sitting at the dining table, her hands had been wrapped around the lilac colored coffee mug in her hands as she stared at me with part disbelief and part interest.
"With who?" she'd eventually asked, making me look away from her and turn my gaze towards my hands that I had placed flat on the wooden table's surface. I remained silent, not wanting to answer her question. I'd heard her sigh soon after, making me look up to find her running a hand through her long dark brown hair.
"Well, if you like the person — whoever it is — that much, why not tell them?" she said, making me look away in thought. I'd taken her advice, staying behind in the art room after school was over the next day, observing the other two teachers until I saw that it was only Toby and me left in the room alone. My heart had raced as I sat on the donkey bench thinking of how to tell him as I watched him move supplies around. He'd even thrown smiles my way when he'd noticed that I'd been looking at him.
I loved his smile. I was warm — welcoming.
Now or never. I'd told myself as I watched him head back to sit behind his desk. He took a pencil, continuing a sketch he'd started earlier in the day. I got up from the donkey bench I'd been sitting on before walking over to stand by his desk.
"Is something the matter?" he'd asked, his brows cocking and giving me a look forward concern. I shook my head, running a hand through my it before looking straight at him. I could feel myself shake. I could feel my nerves raising its tiny head.
"I want to tell you something." My words had come out rushed — panicked, and I hadn't even disclosed anything yet. I wondered why I'd felt like that, and if it was a normal reaction to wanting to say something so personal.
"Well, go ahead," he said, dropping the pencil he'd been using to sketch before looking up at me and giving me an encouraging smile. I nodded, proceeding to put my feelings into words.
I'd gotten it out in chopped sentences and in between breaths. Toby had stayed quiet the whole time, watching me with a blank stare as I spoke to him. When I was done I took in a breath, looking straight at him. We stared at each other for a while until I blinked in both confusion and embarrassment when he started laughing.
"Love?" he said, shaking his head with a chuckle as he rubbed his full brows with the base of his thumb and pointing finger. "You don't know what that is."
And just like that, I was shut down.
I left the art room after that and walked home as quickly as I could. My chest and heart burned. I hadn't even been rejected, I'd been dismissed like a delusional child.
It hurt so much.
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