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Part 1:
Scabs

"No."

That word again, that most hurtful word.

His mind raced as the silence continued.

Say something quickly, something to show her.

"I thought we could maybe talk about art over a drink or something," he stumbled, knowing he sounded like an idiot.

She turned from the easel, placed a hand on her hip.

"Look, Ben, I'm really not interested. Okay? I'm just not interested."

He turned and marched to his own canvas, looking from the corner of his eyes to see if any of the other students had heard. They were all concentrating on their work, but he knew they'd heard, they must have. He could feel her watching his back, quietly scoffing at him for even thinking of asking her out.

Idiot.

He studied his painting. It was of a naked woman lying on a bed, one knee raised, a hand lying on her stomach, her head turned away. He focused on the head, the dark hair, the raised contours of drying paint. He didn't like it anymore. He didn't like being made the fool. He didn't like any of it.

He knew he couldn't look up at Polly. She would still be staring at him for sure. He had to make it look like it didn't matter whether she went out with him or not. He'd show her it didn't matter. Picking up the brush and squeezing some red paint from its tube, Ben set to work as his mind raced.

Go over there and she has the right or thinks she has the right to embarrass me in front of all the others when all I did was ask her out and what's the harm in that? I thought she was nice but she isn't; the good looking ones never are. She's probably got them crawling all over her a different one each night and she thinks she's happy and safe and knows what's good for her but she doesn't really know. How can anyone know unless they give a person a chance to show what they're really like?
The instructor's voice near his shoulder finally drew him back.

"Sorry?" Ben replied.

"I said," the teacher repeated, "you seem to have altered the original idea for your painting, Mr. Jackson."

Ben glanced at the canvas. It had changed. The woman on the bed had been obliterated by long downward sweeping red strokes; her legs and a shoulder were the only sign that a woman had once been painted there. The red swirls above the bed gave the painting a nightmare look and the blotches below looked like pools of blood. Ben stepped back quickly.

"Alright class," the instructor shouted. "That'll do for this week, and don't forget I want a perspective line drawing for the next class."

The students began to clean up and shuffle from the room.

Ben stared at his painting, the brush, his hands. A hand landed on his shoulder.

"Ben you really must learn to relax more. None of this is really important, it's just a small university course. We're not trying to win gold medals in excellence here. You've got to remember that or you'll become so up-tight you'll go crazy. Relax. Just remember that."

Ben nodded and put down his brush. "Could I have a -"

"A new canvas for next week?" finished the instructor.

"Thank you, Mr. Franklin." Ben walked towards the door.

"And this painting, Ben?"

"Burn it."

***

Ben walked across the Pitchfield University campus in the early evening. With his classes finished for the day, he decided to head for the library. It rose in front of him, a gothic-looking structure better suited to an old Hollywood B grade film than a university campus.

The library was emptier than usual, its tall bookcases filled with aging tomes rarely if ever touched by the students. The lighting was poor and, coupled with the musty smell of decaying books, made the whole place feel like a morgue. As he walked along, he ran his finger along the spines of the books, ready to pick one at random.

"Hi, Ben," came a low whisper from behind him.

He turned to see one of the librarians, Christine Lloyd, walking silently up behind him.

He sighed. "Hello, Chris."

She stopped and stared at him. "You alright?"

The last thing he needed was a nosy redhead sticking her hawk-like face in where it wasn't wanted. "Fine. Just came in for a book."

"Well, this is the right place," she chuckled as she walked past him and disappeared around a corner.

Airhead, he thought as he rested his finger on the spine of a purple coloured book. He pulled it out and read the title, "UNDERSTANDING PHYSICS." He placed it back on the shelf. It had been a bad day all round.

Walking to another aisle, Ben found himself in his usual place, the crime section. At least here he knew if he chose a book at random it might at least be worth reading. He picked one, an old Agatha Christie. He didn't like her much, silly plots with even sillier detectives, but he had nothing else to do and he wanted to get his mind off Polly. He found his way over to a small table and chair and opened the book, hoping Agatha could rid his mind of Polly.

He doubted whether she could.

***

"Ben. Ben."

It was Christine's quiet but insistent whisper. He was having enough trouble getting through the book without any other interruptions.

"Ben!"

He looked up to find her standing beside him. "What?"

"We've got to close now. You'll have to go."

"Huh?" He looked at his watch and found he'd been reading for three hours. Agatha had done her work well, it seemed. "Oh, sorry."

"It's alright. It's not often we get someone in here who likes reading as much as you."

"Yeah, well, it fills in the time," he stood and went to move off.

"Here," she said, stopping him by placing her hand on his chest, "I'll put that away for you."

Ben handed her the book. "Thanks."

"You know, you can check this out," she replied, smiling at him.

"Sorry?" he asked, not really listening.

"Out of the library. We loan the books out to people. It's a radical idea, but it seems quite popular."

He nodded, "I know. But it's not the same."

"You got classes tomorrow?"

"Yeah, nothing exciting." He walked towards the door.

"You going away for the weekend?"

"Probably."

"Well, we'll see you in here again tomorrow?"

"I suppose."

"See you then."

"Yeah." He opened the door and walked into the night.

***

Polly was so nice, Ben thought as he walked towards his nearby apartment. The wind had sprung up, its chill biting through his clothes and into his heart. But the dark night made it easier to think.

Ben always liked the dark.

She was so nice and bright and her hands as delicate as anything I've ever seen but she still manages to hold the brush and command it and paint things I'd never have a hope of painting. And her hair the way it sits on her shoulders like that and it's not too dark but just the right colour brown and her eyes those penetrating eyes that look so sweet.

So sweet.

But she's a bitch underneath.

He shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his jeans and wondered what it was that made him so unattractive to women. Blonde hair and blue eyes were supposed to attract women, but it wasn't helping him. He took a deep breath, held it, looked down at his chest and puffed it out as far as possible.

So I'm not thin, but I'm not overweight either.

He thought of all the Hollywood hunks who were his build, the men who had all the women flocking to them. But he wasn't having any luck lately.

Lately? He laughed at himself.

Never.

Twenty-two. Twenty-two and still a virgin.

His friends were always going out and having a good time with this date one night and another date the next while he sat in the background and watched.

Twenty two.

They were all happy, everyone was happy, everyone was having a wonderful life.

Except me.

The wind blew harder and colder, but he didn't hurry. He didn't care. He had nothing to do tomorrow, just like today and yesterday.

He walked towards the block of apartments, its ugly facade of peeling paint and cracks, cobwebs and dust, loneliness and despair. The foyer wasn't much better. He took the stairs to the third floor as usual, because they were slower than the elevator.





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