Shadow & Light

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someone to stay

prologue III

Aurora; 12 years old

“Before we start peer presentations, I wanted to go over the grading rubric for this particular assignment.”

A collective groan resonates throughout the class, and is awarded a glare from Mr. Conners. Advanced Studio Art had been solely a participation grade until last month, when Caspar West turned in a sheet of printer paper covered in peanut butter, insisting it was “post-modern.”

He started a petition to raise his score when the assignment dropped his grade three letters. He got 637 signatures.

“Forty percent of your final score is derived from your presentation, so if you think thirty seconds is enough time to cover all the bases, you’re probably wrong.”

Mr. Conners never wanted to teach high school art. Aurora knew this for two reasons: one, the man pulled at his hair so much in class that he’d given himself a premature receding hairline, and two, he regularly reminded the class that he never wanted to teach high school art.

“The other sixty percent is divided up in thirds among your score for effort, comprehension, and execution.”

Aurora picks at the sides of her portfolio folder. The rubric system bothers her as much as the next person, not that it affects her grade any, but just the idea behind it. The idea of good art and bad art.

“Any volunteers?” His voice pulls Aurora out of her thoughts, only to see him looking directly at her. She sinks a little lower in her seat. She knows he doesn’t do it on purpose; half the time she’s the only one listening, and she has to sit right in front because she can’t see past the high schoolers’ heads.

“Didn’t think so. I’ll pick cards.”

The class progresses, one presentation after another. The only exhilaration anyone receives is the moment before Mr. Conners reads the next card aloud, followed by a sigh of relief when twenty-four students realize it’s not them.

“Name?”

“Allison Cornell.”

“Medium?”

“Ink.”

“What is your biggest insecurity, and how did you emphasize it in your self-portrait?”

He never claimed to be sensitive.

“My biggest insecurity is my freckles, so I dotted each one with a different colored ink to make them more vibrant.”

“Name?”

“Evan Morales.”

“Medium?”

“Mixed.”

“What’s your biggest insecurity, and how did you emphasize it in your portrait?”

“My nose because I broke it jumping off my roof onto a trampoline when I was twelve, and it-”

“How did you emphasize it in your portrait?”

“...I emphasized the shadows around it to make the break look more dramatic.”

“Name?”

“You know my name Mr. Conners.”

“Name?”

“Mr. Co-”

“Name?”

Caspar releases a dramatic sigh, rolling his eyes before a smile teases his lips.

“Caspar West.”

“Medium?”

“Acrylic.”

“What is your biggest insecurity, and how did you emphasize it in your self-portrait.”

A chorus of restrained laughter buzzes throughout the class as they stare at Caspar’s still-drying portrait on the wall.

He points the giant yardstick he stole from Mr. Conners’ desk at his painting.

“My biggest insecurity is my artistic talent, and that’s why it looks like shit.”

“See me after class, West. Your presentation is over, you can make it up during office hours.”

The class snickers along with Caspar as he removes his painting from the wall and saunters down the walkway. Aurora can’t help the giggle that escapes as he offers her a fist bump before plopping in the seat next to her.

Mr. Conners glances tiredly at the clock. “Okay. We have time for one more presentation before the bell, any volunteers?”

Crickets.

“Didn’t think so.”

He pulls a card out of his plastic cup. His eyes soften almost undetectably, and Aurora immediately knows who’s name is on the card.

“Aurora? Are you ready to present?”

She was the baby of the class, having been moved up to the high school art program during the second month of school. Administration found out that the beginning drawing teacher had quit on the fourth day of class, and Aurora had been teaching the class and recording attendance for weeks.

They were only sort of upset.

“Yes, I’m ready.”

Her metal chair slides noisily against the floor as she pushes it back to stand. She folds it, holding it in under one arm and grabbing her portfolio with the other.

“Fucking kill it, princess, make me proud!”

Caspar applauds at the end of his customary pep talk, and she smiles over her shoulder, giving him a thumbs up as the rest of the class joins in with him.

“Language, Mr. West, there are children.”

Aurora can almost swear that she sees a smile pulling at the edges of Mr. Conners’ lips.

Once she’s standing at the front, she unfolds the chair and sets it in front of the whiteboard. She pulls out her painting, leaning the empty portfolio against the wall.

Looking down at her work, she brushes imaginary dust off the surface, hesitating to pin it up on the board.

She turns her head to Mr. Conners.

“What’s wrong, Aurora?”

She looks back down at her painting and runs a nervous hand through her hair.

“I think I may have misunderstood the prompt.”

His eyebrows furrow in confusion, before his usual mask of indifference falls over his expression.

“That’s alright, Aurora. Why don’t you present anyway?”

She nods, stepping up onto her chair to pin up her painting. Soon as she steps down, murmurs of conversation erupt throughout the class, and Aurora focuses her gaze on her shoes. She glances back up hesitantly to see Caspar’s jaw practically on the floor, just before Mr. Conners clears his throat and begins to speak.

“If you wouldn’t mind, class, I’m sure Aurora would like to begin her presentation.”

He turns his attention back to Aurora, cocking his head as if to ask, ready?

She nods.

“Aurora, what is your biggest insecurity, and how did you emphasize it in your portrait?”

She turns her head to the board, then back to him.

“Um, Mr. Conners?”

“Yes, Aurora?”

“You forgot to ask what medium I used.”

That half-smile again.

“My apologies, Ms. Davis. Your medium?”

She smiles. “Gouache.”

“Insecurity and emphasis?”

Aurora tilts her head up almost ninety degrees to stare at her work. It’s a stunningly executed, but overall pretty typical self portrait, until it reaches the neck. From her shoulders down, her body gradually disappears into the busy city background, until her mid section is almost entirely transparent.

“I feel like I’m too transparent. I can’t really keep secrets, and it seems like everyone always knows what I’m thinking before I even tell them.”

The class is dead silent as they wait for Mr. Conners, who opens and closes his mouth like a fish for an awkward amount of time. After a minute or so, he finally speaks.

“Would you argue, Ms. Davis, that personal insecurities manifest more deeply than physical ones?”

She bites her lip nervously, pulling mindlessly at the seam of her shirt. “What does manifests mean, Mr. Conners?”

His tone remains hard, but his eyes soften a fraction. “To become a part of you.”

She nods in understanding, staring at the table across from her as she focuses on the question.

“So, do I think that people feel more insecure about their personal flaws than they do about their physical ones?”

He is smiling now. Teeth and everything.

“Precisely.”

“Yes, I think I do.”

“Why?”

“Because when we die, people remember us for who we are, not what we looked like.”

Mr. Conners’ eyes remain fixed on Aurora, long enough to make her shift her feet nervously and lower her eyes to the floor. Finally, his focus turns back to her painting.

“Aurora, I think you understood the prompt better than anyone else here today.”

Just about four seconds after the bell, the high school wing of Hamilton 6-12 is already flooded with students. Aurora’s legs dangle against Caspar’s front from where she sits upon his shoulders. She likes to pretend she’s seven feet tall, reaching up to try and brush her hands against the ceiling.

Soon, Caspar is reaching back, lifting Aurora from his shoulders and setting her down in front of him.

“I’ve gotta go grab something from a friend, are you alright walking to your locker by yourself, Princess Aurora?”

She nods, blushing at his nickname for her. “I’ll be fine, Cas.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Hundred and eighteen percent sure?”

A melodic laugh escapes her lips. “Yes, Caspar. Hundred and eighteen percent.”

His large hands reach out to poke at her sides, joining her laughs as she squirms away.

“Caspar, just go!” she breathes out between laughs, and finally he pulls his hands away, rubbing his knuckles over her hair in that brotherly way he knew she hated.

“Make good choices, Princess.”

She nods, running her fingers frustratedly through the now tangled strands of her hair. Caspar laughs, turning and sauntering down the hallway, before disappearing around the corner.

Once Aurora is alone, she hugs her folder and pencil case to her chest and focuses her eyes on her feet. She knows the halls here well enough now that she can navigate the way to her new locker without even looking up.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

She counts each step one-by-one, starting over each time at ten. It’s mostly for something to do besides listening in on the conversations around her. Dominic told her not to do that.

One, two, three-

Turn left, pass the first set of stairs-

four, five, six-

Aurora brushes her hand against each locker before hers as she passes, enjoying the feeling of cool metal against her fingertips.

seven, eight, nine-

“Hey skitzo!”

Aurora skids to a halt, her hand dropping from the locker to her chest, where she hugs her painting tight.

In Aurora’s nightmares, Brennan Anderson is a giant spider. He chases after her faster than she can run, crushing her beneath his giant spider legs as words escape his mouth like venom, coursing through her bloodstream so that she can’t move or scream. Words like, psych ward is that way, Aurora.

“Hi Brennan,” she answers back, still turned towards her locker.

If you had just gotten here a minute earlier, Aurora.

Her hand shakes violently as she turns the code to her lock. Three to the right, three to the left, once to the right.

Click.

She doesn’t even bother with her English book; she just throws her painting inside, slamming the lock closed before Brennan can even think about ruining it like he did the last one.

“Aw, you’re not going to show me your painting?”

Aurora stands in front of her locker, acting as a barrier so Brennan can’t get too close.

“No.”

He takes a threatening step forward, his lips pulled into a mocking frown.

“Why not?”

“Because you ruined my last one.”

Another step forward. Aurora steps back to feel the cool metal of her locker against her spine.

“That was an accident, Aurora.”

“No it wasn’t, Brennan. You ripped it on purpose, I know you did.”

Times like these, Aurora wishes administration had kept her locker in the Junior High wing, even if it meant she’d be late to class.

“You know, it may seem that way, but in reality I just have these crazy impulses. I swear, it’s like, one moment, I’m totally fine, and the next I just-”

His arm shoots out and slams Aurora against the locker, her head clashing painfully with the door.

“and then I just-”

He slams her metal pencil case out of her hands and onto the tile. It lands with a painful crash as the lid breaks off, the pencils and pens scattering like marbles across the floor.

“-and I can’t even control it. It’s a mental issue, you should understand that better than anyone.”

Aurora focuses so hard on the ground, at her pencil case on the floor. The pencil case her father gave her on her fifth birthday. If she focuses hard enough, she won’t cry.

“I’m not mentally ill, Brennan.”

A searing pain erupts in her skull from slamming against the locker. She blinks away the forming tears, only for more to bubble over.

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, Aurora. It’s nothing to cry about.”

“You should leave, Brennan.” A chill runs down her spine at how calm her voice is. It doesn’t even sound like her own. She keeps checking around the corner, willing Caspar or Dominic or even Austin to make an appearance. But Austin works during his free period, and Caspar has class, and Dominic...

“Or what? You’ll beat me up?” He laughs humorlessly. He’s got five years and at least a foot and a half on Aurora.

“No, but Dominic probably would.”

Brennan lifts Aurora by her shirt, pinning her up against the locker so she is eye level. She groans in pain as the metal hits her already bruising head.

“Dominic isn’t here, skitzo. And I really don’t think he’d fucking care.”

“Really? Because I think he fucking would.”

Dominic’s fist meets Brennan’s head before he can even turn to see him there. Brennan releases his grip on Aurora, causing her to tumble abruptly to the ground.

It all seems like a bad dream as he hits Brennan in the stomach next, causing him to collapse in a heap on the floor. Dominic picks him up from the ground by the back of his shirt, locking his arm around his neck and positioning him to face Aurora’s stunned form.

“Apologize.” His voice is so calm, so monotone, it scares her.

“I’m not gonna fucking-”

Dominic flings Brennan against the locker and slams his fist against his face. He drags him back to stand in front of him, locking his arm around his neck once again.

“Apologize.”

Brennan looks down at Aurora’s trembling form in disgust, blood pouring from his nose like a tap.

“I’m sorry, Aurora.”

Dominic lets go of him, and almost immediately he collapses to the floor.

“I don’t fucking believe you.”

He leans on the floor now, pummeling his fists into Brennan’s face over and over and over.

“You’re a fucking. piece. of shit. That precious girl is twelve years old, what is fucking wrong with you?”

Brennan groans, mumbling something incoherently as Dominic throws punch after punch.

Aurora snaps out of her trance just in time to see him slam Brennan against the floor.

“Dom!”

He doesn’t seem to hear her, or if he does he ignores her completely, his fists pummeling the living daylights out of Brennan.

“Dominic!”

Nothing.

She runs to him, pulling at the fabric of his gray sweater. He shrugs her roughly off of him, and she stumbles back. Her heart starts to pound violently in her chest; she’s never seen him so mad before.

He’s gonna get in so much trouble.

“Dominic, you have to stop!”

She runs back to him, wrapping her small arms around his waist and pulling as hard as she can.

“Dominic, please!”

She barely succeeds in moving him an inch, but it’s enough to divert his attention. His bloody fists fall to his sides before he stumbles back to the ground, leaning his head against the lockers and catching his breath. The realization of what he’s done seems to hold no weight on him.

Aurora steps out from beside him with cautious movements. He doesn’t even to notice her, or if he does, he chooses not to acknowledge her. He just seems numb.

She steps tentatively between his parted legs, walking closer to his chest and setting herself down in his lap.

He doesn’t respond for a few tense seconds, until his arms grip her waist tightly, cradling her small form against him. He presses her head into his warm chest, so that she can’t see what he’s done. The only sound is Brennan’s labored breathing before Dominic speaks.

“Aurora, why didn’t you tell me?”

His voice is eerily calm as he whispers in her ear. She is silent as a tear slips down her cheek. Once the first one escapes, she can’t stop the rest, and Dominic clutches her even tighter at the sound, running a shaking hand through her soft hair.

They sit in the empty side hallway for a few more minutes, Dominic whispering softly in Aurora’s ear as she cries, clutching tightly to the fabric of his sweater.

“Shh, baby. He won’t hurt you anymore, I promise.”

The sound of metal clanking against the tile catches both of their attention.

Dominic’s head shoots up, while Aurora turns hesitantly to see the concerned face of Mr. Erikson, the school janitor. He is kneeling on the ground, gathering the scattered pens and pencils and placing them individually into the metal pencil case. He grabs the metal lid, fiddling with the opening before it snaps back into place.

Him and Dominic both move to stand at the same time, Aurora still held tightly in his arms. Mr. Erikson hands her the pencil case, patting gently on her small hand. She smiles, wiping uselessly at the tears which cover her cheeks. He nods with soft eyes, which harden a fraction as he turns to Dominic.

“If you leave in the next ten seconds, I didn’t see anything.”

Dominic nods gratefully, clutching Aurora’s head to his shoulder as they pass Brennan’s limp body.

“Don’t look back, baby. I’m gonna take you home, just close your eyes, and don’t open them until I say.”

Dominic; 18 years old

“Circle, circle, over, under-” Aurora repeats the steps quietly to herself as she bandages Dominic’s bloody knuckles. He sits on his bedroom floor in the dark, the only light comes from the clouded sky which leaks through the window above his bed. Aurora methodically circles the bandage around his wrist and fingers from where she sits on his lap.

From behind her, Dominic uses his already bandaged hand to clean the cut on the back of Aurora’s head. His heart constricts painfully every time she flinches in pain, before she continues talking through the steps.

“Over, under, circle, circle.” She tears the end of the bandage off, using the adhesive tape to close off the edge.

She presses a kiss to his bandaged hand, before he lifts it to join his other in cleaning her cut.

Dominic’s fingers work expertly, applying pressure to the portion of the cut which lines the bottom of Aurora’s little head in order to clean the outside.

“How was class today, Little-bit?” He asks absently, in an obvious attempt to distract her from the stinging.

“I-It was good,” she answers, her eyes clenched shut. “I presented in art. The painting I was working on last Tuesday.”

“Mhm, how did that go?”

“It went good. I got an A.”

His hand pauses for a moment. He leans over her shoulder, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek and nibbling teasingly on her little ear. She giggles, pushing uselessly against him as he tickles the skin. Finally, he lets up with an easy smile.

“My little Picasso.”

He soaks another cotton ball with disinfectant, dabbing it gently on the lower portion of the cut. Aurora’s breath catches in her throat as she flinches in pain.

“Shh, I’m almost done, baby,” his voice is hardly above a whisper, his strong hands holding her head in place.

He dabs the cotton ball over the last portion of the cut, before tossing it and shutting the first aid kit, placing it on the floor by his desk.

Finally free, Aurora moves to scramble out of his arms, but is stopped by Dominic’s tightened grip on her sides. He is gentle, but firm as he turns her around to rest against his chest.

He can tell his actions confuse her. She is hesitant at first, but eventually surrenders to his hold, curling up into his lap. Aurora covers only the span on his chest and abdomen when she sits like this. She is so little, especially for her age, but this is only made more apparent when she cuddles into his large, muscular frame. He raises his arms momentarily as she adjusts in his hold, turning to press her ear against his pulse. When his arms return to lock her against him, she sighs lightly, giving in to the warmth his arms have to offer.

He watches from above her as her eyes flutter tiredly, the rhythmic pulsing of his heart lulling her gently. He tucks her loose hair behind her other ear, before running the same hand through the length of her silky hair and down her little back.

It is a wonderful feeling: holding such a small, yet powerful thing.

Could he forget the burdens of his life and just hold her forever? Would she always depend so fully on him, trust in him, believe in him? He would do anything, he thinks, as she leans her delicate frame against him entirely, anything to make it happen.

“You’re leaving,” the melody of Aurora’s words meets Dominic’s ears before the meaning does. “Aren’t you?”

His heart constricts painfully in his chest, but he remains quiet. He presses her tighter against him, glad just now that she can’t see his face. The NYU early admission letter sits on his desk atop his textbooks like a sellout.

She shuts her eyes tightly, knowing that Dominic heard her and chose not to respond. “Miss Amy told me about the scholarship.”

He shakes his head, lacing his fingers through the strands of her hair and pressing his lips firmly against the top of her precious head.

“You’ll forget about me. And Caspar and Austin. You’ll forget and you won’t come back.”

He pulls her suddenly to sit in front of him, leaning his head so his nose almost presses against hers.

“Don’t you ever think that, Aurora. Never, do you understand me?”

A single tear makes its way down her cheek, but she doesn’t bother wiping it away.

“I said, do you understand?”

“Yes, Dominic. I understand.”

His large hands come up to cup the sides of her face, his thumb wiping away all trace of the tear.

“I’ll come back for you, Little-bit. I’ll come back, and I’ll get us out of here.”

She shakes her head from his hold, backing away.

“You’ll become just like my father.”

“I won’t.”

“Pour your entire life into money and greatness and you will.”

“What do you want me to do, Aurora?” he is yelling now. “Stay here and waste my entire life away?”

She shakes her head. He grips her jaw in his hand and forces her gaze on him.

“I will not sit here, Aurora, and throw away my only chance to make a better life for you.”

She shuts her eyes.

He sighs, lifting her in his arms and walking over to his bed. He sets her down gently on the mattress, grabbing her small hands in his and kneeling down in between her legs.

“It’s not forever, baby. I’ll call you everyday. And you’ll have Caspar and Austin. They care about you so much.”

She shakes her head. His voice softens, his grip on her fists tightening. “Everyone is telling me to do this, Aurora. My counselors, my professors. I won’t ever have this opportunity again-”

She cuts him off, pulling her hands from his and wiping at her watering eyes. When he reaches for her, she tucks her legs underneath her and shifts away from him. She shuts her eyes, turning her head towards the ceiling and taking a deep breath.

When she turns to look back at him, her beautiful brown eyes are red with unshed tears.

“You won’t be the same when you come back.”

“Maybe not. But I’ll still love you.”

“You won’t even know me anymore.”

“Aurora, baby, please-”

“Is it right,” she says, wiping at her eyes, “to do something only because everyone else is telling you to?”

He swallows the doubt that burns in the back of his throat. Aurora is only a child; she doesn’t understand.

“It is right to do what I know is best for you, Aurora.”

She untangles her legs and lies back, curling herself up in his blanket, letting the scent and warmth envelop her. She turns her back to him and faces the window.

“You staying here is best for me,” she whispers under her breath, but Dominic hears.

He stays on the ground, pressing his warm hand against her shoulder. She flinches away.

“Little-bit-” his voice is so quiet, so helpless.

“I want to be alone right now, Dom.”

He shakes his head. “I won’t leave with you upset like this-”

“I’m asking you to leave, Dominic.”

A tense silence fills the dark room from one wall to the other. Dominic stands, walking quietly to the third floor hallway of the group home before stopping in the doorway, turning over his shoulder.

“I love you, Aurora. I love you too much to stay here and be no one for you.”

He stares back at her, the gentle rise and fall of her back as she breathes lightly. He waits for an answer that never comes, before turning back around and shutting the door softly behind him.

She turns her head to face the closed door.

“I love you too, Dom.”

Four months later, he’s on a train to New York.

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