Home > Uncategorized > Day Two Hundred and Thirty-two: The New Sketchbook

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-two: The New Sketchbook

Willem pulled up his hood against the cold and trudged home from school. The other kids were laughing and catcalling each other as they got on the bright yellow buses. They passed him by on their way to their houses families and families, and never spared a moment for where Willem was going. He left school the way he always did. Alone. He didn’t blame any of them, though. It’s not like anyone had to care about where he came from or where he went every day. There was nothing in the rules that said they did, and he figured that if he had what they had, he probably wouldn’t give him a second thought earlier.

He cinched the straps on his backpack a little tighter and followed the sidewalk.

The walk home was about an hour. By rights, he should have been using the school bus, but he didn’t want to. The administrators had brought him in for a little talk about that. About how it was safer for him to be on a bus. It would take less time, there would be less chance of an accident.

He said he didn’t like being around that many people. That he didn’t mind the walk. They made him get on the bus once, though.

Once.

The bus driver brought him home, like she was supposed to do, but Willem had heard that the lady had gotten into a screaming match with the principal about how fast she would quit if “that freak” was put on her bus again. After that, no one bothered Willem about how he came and went.

His foster mother was waiting for him when he got to the house. “Bag,” she said, holding out an arm. She was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and reading some news magazine. Willem slid his bag off his back and handed it to her. With the cigarette in the corner of her mouth, she began to go through it. “Got a lot of homework?” she said, piling books and notebooks on the table. Willem didn’t say anything. The textbooks formed a small tower on the table, and was topped by his battered sketchbook. She put that aside.

She unzipped every pouch and unsnapped every pocket, jamming her hand into every one and feeling around. Willem had a flash of inspiration go through his head: fill one of them with ground glass. It wouldn’t be that hard, probably.

But no. It was that kind of thing that got him kicked out of the last home he’d been in. And it wasn’t fair, really. She didn’t deserve it.

He wondered if his mother would have searched his bag like this. He hoped to find out. Someday.

“Okay,” she said, putting the back up on top of the refrigerator, as if that was a place he couldn’t reach. He was short, but not stupid. “Get to work,” she said. She ran her cigarette under the faucet and dropped it in a coffee can. “You have until ten.” She took her seat again and flipped the page. Willem took the seat across from her and took the book on the top of the stack. Biology. It was review work, so he just went through his notes again and marked them as he went. When he was finished, he handed it over to her. She put her magazine aside and scanned the work – not so much for correctness, but just to see that he’d done it. When she was satisfied, she started a new pile and lit another cigarette.

The smell reminded Willem of his father. It always did, but it didn’t hurt as much anymore. He still thought of him, though, and the last time he saw him. When he found him, anyway. An empty pack of Adastras on the floor to his right, the smell of old cigarette smoke but one of the smells competing for his attention. Even through the smell of gunpowder and blood, Willem was still able to pick out his father’s tobacco.

He blinked to clear his head and realized he’d been staring at the same history worksheet for a while. He looked up – his foster mother was still reading. The cigarette was about halfway done, so she probably hadn’t noticed. He scrawled his name at the top of the worksheet and started arranging key dates of the Civil War into a timeline, as per instructions.

After that was English. He had to read a short story and write a paragraph on it. The story was by some dead guy and it was about some kid who went crazy on TV and declared himself Emperor. Willem wrote that he thought the kid was probably crazy to do something like that, and deserved to get shot. He handed it to his foster mother, who scanned it and raised an eyebrow at him. He shrugged and went on to math. Then chemistry. Then geography. Each assignment he finished went across the table, was briefly inspected, and then put on a growing stack. The clock moved, she sat and read, smoking two more cigarettes as she did so. At some point, she put some food in front of him, and Willem ate with without really thinking about what it was.

When he was done, the clock gave him an hour to himself. His foster mother squared the stack of homework, took his bag from atop the fridge, and refilled it. She zipped it up again and put it back, then handed over his sketchbook. He took it quickly and held it to his chest. “Okay,” she said. “You have until ten.”

Willem got up from the table, and in his head he was already in his room. Already unlocking the steamer trunk that had been his reward for getting through the last semester with good grades. Already taking out –

“Wait, Willem,” his foster mother said. He stopped, and his shoulders slumped. “Come here a moment,” she said.

It would probably be a lecture. If not that, then an interview, disguised as concerned questions. She had to do it, he knew that. She was part of the system that was supposed to help him, to guide him out of the hell his life had become and into a world where he could be a productive member of society.

Maybe she really did think she cared about him. It wouldn’t matter, though. Either way, she was just doing her job.

“Willem,” she said, sitting down again. She looked tired, and it was the first time Willem really noticed that. He wasn’t sure how old she was. Older than his mother, he was sure. At least, if he remembered her correctly. His memories of his mother were faint and blurry, and he wasn’t sure how much of what he knew was real and how much was what he wanted to be real. What he knew was that she was nothing like the woman being paid to look after him. Nothing like this tired, thin, ash-blonde smoker, whose eyes were sharp and whose voice sounded like she’d spent her day screaming.

“I talked to your teacher today, Willem,” she said. He felt his hands go cold. She tapped a cigarette on the table, but didn’t light it. “She said you were doing better,” she said. “A lot better.” A brief smile bloomed on her face, and vanished as quickly as it came. “You’re paying attention more, not disrupting as much. Even working with other students.”

All true. He didn’t want to do any of that. If they just left him in the library all day, he’d be perfectly happy and probably learn just as much. But he was beginning to understand how the system worked. Resist, and life gets harder. Play along, and everyone leaves you alone.

His foster mother stood up and opened a cabinet, the one she usually kept baking supplies in. “I’ve been holding on to this for a little while,” she said. “And I wanted you to know that I know how hard you’re working.” She took something from the cabinet, something flat and broad. She turned back to him and held it out.

It was a book. The cover was blank, bound in an antique-looking fabric, and the fifty or so pages were a dark white. “Your sketchbook is starting to look a little ragged,” she said. “I thought you might like this.”

Carefully, slowly, Willem took the book. It was heavier than it looked, and the cover was smooth to the touch. He opened it, and the pages were blank. The paper was good and clean, not the recycled stuff that he had been drawing on for so long. His finger slid across the surface of the paper, and he could already see drawings and sketches blossom where he touched. He looked up at her again, and this time the smile on her face didn’t flee. It lingered, looking out of place where it was.

Willem cleared his throat and closed the book, holding it together with his old one. “Thanks, Kay,” he said. Her eyebrow went up again, but she didn’t say anything. Willem held the sketchbooks close, turned around, and walked carefully and deliberately back to his room.

He closed the door and placed the book carefully on his bed. He pulled the trunk out from underneath, unlocked it and opened it, and when he did, he let out a long sigh.

The chest was full of paper. Old quizzes he had taken and essays he had written, handouts and worksheets from class. There was half a ream that he had stolen from the teachers’ office one time, but other than that, there had been some original use to the paper. Newspapers, flyers, magazine subscription cards. He took his old sketchbook and started to flip through it. His foster mother had been right – he had been over every page, many of them more than once. There were pictures that walked up the sides, that dipped into the gutter between the pages, that sat in corners and even walked around the edge of the book itself.

The papers, the pages, the book – they all had the same drawing on them. A hundred times, maybe a thousand. Each one was a little different in pose or action or composition, each one distinct from the others. But they all showed the same person.

A woman. She had dark hair, long and straight, that was pulled back in a ponytail. A few strands escaped and hung down by her ears. Her eyes were large and bright, and almost always looked out from the page. She was slender and strong. In some pictures she looked like she was soft and gentle, and in others like she was an unstoppable force. But in all of them, she was beautiful and brilliant and perfect.

Willem placed the old sketchbook in the trunk, and then took out the case of pencils that he kept in there. He lay on his bed with the new sketchbook and ran his fingers over the paper again. It seemed almost… wrong to make marks on paper this nice. But that didn’t give him much pause.

He sat up with his back against the wall and the light falling full on the page, and with a light but deliberate touch began to draw his mother.

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