White paint was such an underrated tool. It made an empty canvas that much emptier, doing away with even the pretense of texture. It softened the color spectrum into kinder things, nothing too sharp on the eye, but not quite pastel. Just gentle.
Oliver loved gentle art. He coined the term for himself and told no one, content with his own definition. There was something that gentle art, and making art, gave him that nothing else in his life could ever offer. It gave him an escape from the harshness of his own world into something softer. He could run from the clamor of casino slot machines to the whisper of a paintbrush on a canvas, from the burning smell of alcohol to the heady smell of acrylic paint, from the heavy hand of his father to the little, brightly lit studio on the top floor of the Truitt Foundation where very few were allowed and no one could tell him he was wrong or worthless.
He stared at his color pallet. As always, he had already blended most of his colors with even just a little bit of white. They glistened invitingly, enticing him to begin the creative process he knew by heart. He pursed his lips tightly, feeling the muscles in his jaw pulse and ache with the tension of a sleepless night.
The tabloids published the scandalous story of his father’s latest scandal involving a visiting model from Russia. Juicy details procured from their usual dubious sources that very few subjects of the public eye rejected unless the lawsuit would gain more attention than the sordid white lies. Joachim Truitt never fought the tabloids. Most of his features revolved around the truth, anyway.
Oliver raised his eyes to the blank canvas and slouched a little on his stool, swallowing heavily. As always, his mother had learned about the scandal from the tabloids. He could not imagine a crueler way to learn that one’s husband was cheating. Of course, this was the fourth time. She had ceased to be surprised.
“Of course he’s restless, son. Look at me; I’ve been in a hospital bed since you were little. How could he not be the way he is?”
“Mom, don’t you dare give him excuses! You’re worth…ten of any of the women he plays with! He’s just garbage!”
“He’s your father, Ollie.”
“And I’m not calling him that until he starts acting like one. At least until he stops pretending you’re dead. Has he even visited you at all?”
“He’s a busy man.”
“Doing nothing but drinking his luck away. No fortune lasts long on luck and he’s going to find that out soon enough. He’ll have a hard time finding anyone that’ll help him out when he’s finished living it up.”
“I’m not taking that piece of trash in, Mom! Not the way he treats you, not the way he treats me, not the way he lives his life.”
“He’ll learn, Ollie. Be a good example of how money and fame and talent can be used well.”
“Perhaps the father can learn from the son.”
“I love you, Ollie.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
Slowly, Oliver guided the paintbrush to the pale yellow, spiraling just a dab of paint onto the bristles. Ever so carefully, his arm extended to the canvas.
A tiny flower appeared.
Oliver released a sharp breath, letting the rest of the studio come back into focus. He never tried to blur the world out when he painted, or did anything, but it always happened. Dante called it his “Safe Zone” and Oliver supposed that it was not far from the truth. Had he not been expecting an interruption soon, he might not have been disturbed from the creative world he had created for himself.
He glanced over his shoulder with a little smile. “You’re right on time.”
Holly shrugged, slowly crossing towards him, spinning in graceful circles to soak in the little details the studio had to offer. White stucco walls painted with the most outrageous colors, clearly from uninspired fits that resulted in random words in beautiful fonts, flowers, clouds, waves, any other stationary object that would allow itself to be painted. Glass paneled roof that poured sunlight into the small, room, casting playful shadows across the glossy wood floor. Posters for art events and open houses and auctions from years ago to two years in the future tacked to dozens of flat surfaces. Aprons hung on the walls, blown glass vases decorating shelves, pottery, photographs pinned up on lines of cord stretching across the length of the room.
“I hate being late anywhere. This is kind of important, too.” She nodded an acknowledgement to Oliver as he set aside his pallet and wiped his hands on his apron before taking it off. “I hate seeing Chiara mope.”
Oliver nodded in concession, unhooking his purple blazer from a tac in the wall, pinning a photograph in place. “Brody’s in the same boat. Honestly, it doesn’t look that different than before Chiara was in the picture, but it’s been kind of nice seeing Brody smile.”
“I just can’t believe this is Jay’s idea.”
“Yeah.” Oliver shrugged at her asking eyebrows. “I asked why he wanted to get so involved. He’s protective of all of us, but Chiara’s a touchy subject for him and Dante and I were surprised that he wanted to do anything about it.”
Holly gently fingered the delicate, curling leaves of a glass rose tinted pale pink, her glossy dark hair curtaining her face from his view. “What did he say his motivation was? To remind Chiara who’s in charge by making her apologize to the Up?”
Oliver felt his eyebrows tighten in disgust. That was what Jay had had to text to his mom as he formulated this plan. She seemed happy with that idea. Humble the Downs and remind her of her place in life. Then Jay had thrown his phone against the wall. The screen had shattered into splinters.
“I think I’m ready to be Chiara’s friend now, guys.”
“No, in fact.” Oliver picked up the glass rose from the shelf and bowed low before Holly, presenting the delicate flower in the palm of his hand. She straightened, flipping her hair from her wide, almond shaped eyes. Her cheeks colored as she carefully took it, drawing it close to her face to study. Oliver grinned. She was cute when she was flustered. “He just wants his friends to be happy.”
Holly raised her eyes to him. Oliver let his smile fade to resting state of gentility. That was what won the girls over, most of the time. The constant state of content amusement he seemed to entertain. The fact that there was always something on his mind that made him happy, or at least laugh. Of course, Holly, the gorgeous girl from the Downs who also happened to be Chiara Dalton’s best friend, was bound to be different. She had refused to fall for his smiles. The only other time they had spent any time together had been following his art exposition, and then she was purely excited for the art. That was something entirely new to Oliver. Most girls feigned interest in his art because it was him they were after.
Holly loved it, too. She was shy about it, though. Oliver desperately wanted to tease the talent out of her. He knew it was there.
“So Jay considers Chiara…a friend.”
Oliver nodded. “Yes. She saved his life and he doesn’t take that lightly.”
“That happens on a semi-regular basis in the Downs. I hope he isn’t basing everything on that.”
Oliver raised an eyebrow, smirking mysteriously. That would drive all the Ups girls crazy. Holly raised her eyebrows back.
“They’ll definitely have more to talk about if this goes the way we want.”
Holly watched him slide his feet into polished dress shoes tucked carefully against the wall and glide towards the door. He swung it open and held it for her.
“I know how to open a door, Oliver.”
“I know you know. I know you’re perfectly capable.” Oliver winked, watching her straighten just a little, her face going slack behind the glass rose. He had had a feeling that this would be the way to her heart. “I simply respect you and I would like to show in whatever little way I can. I do hope that holding the door for you is not stepping on your toes.”
Holly shook her head a little. Oliver imagined she did not get much treatment like this in the Downs. Neither had Chiara, but Chiara had grown somewhat accustomed to the boys of the Collective opening classroom and cafeteria doors for her and attempting to be gentlemen overall, muttering bashful little “thank yous” under her breath as she passed under their arms, the horde of Globe girls looking on in jealousy and confusion. They did not remember when the Collective had adopted Chiara from the Downs into their own little group, eating together, studying together. Suddenly, the Collective was quite tame in comparison to the years before the arrival of Chiara Dalton.
Holly passed beneath his arm, hurriedly making for the stairs and trotting down them to the next floor down.
“Hurry up, the others are probably already working on their parts!”
Oliver laughed, sliding his hands into his slacks pockets and following her at a leisurely pace. “Slow down! Dante’ll text me when he gets there! You nervous or something?”
“Nervous? No. Chiara was fine before Brody came along. Before the Globe came along, even. She doesn’t need this, you know.”
Slowly, Oliver felt his smile fade, turning the corner to follow her down the next flight of stairs. “You don’t think so?”
Holly shook her head firmly. “She was just fine. None of her troubles really started until she started school at the Globe. If she and Brody never apologized to each other, things would just go back to normal. Chiara could go back to working and providing for her family and pretty much owning the Downs and you guys could go back to terrorizing the Globe with your money and impossible good looks.”
I don’t want that. I don’t want things to go back to normal.
“So why did you agree to help when Jay reached out to you?”
Holly sighed shortly, skipping the last three steps of the last flight and landing solidly on the wood of the first floor. The slap of her boots on the expensive material echoed through the building. Oliver smirked. She and Chiara were definitely raised in the same place. Holly spun on a heel to face him.
“Because Chiara is a fighter. She’s the special forces soldier who goes in and does her best to accomplish her mission with minimal damage. She’s really, really, really good at damage control.” Holly shrugged helplessly. “But she is not good at the relief effort following her own missions. She can clean up after anybody else and make them feel good again. She stinks at cleaning up after herself.” She spun forward again, trotting to the front door. Oliver sped up and shoved it open before she could touch the handle. She laughed, sliding out into the outside and gasping as the cold stole her breath away. Oliver shivered, huddling deeper into his jacket. “That’s my job.”
Oliver chuckled softly, shaking his head. She glanced sidelong at him.
“It’s just funny.” He winked at her. “That’s Brody’s job with Jay. That’s Dante’s job with me. Vice versa across the board. That’s what friends do for each other, isn’t it?” He grinned. “I’m glad Chiara has a friend like you. Now what say we go clean up our friend’s messes, huh?”
Holly nodded to the glossy white Ferrari parked just outside the front door. “That’s yours?”
“I can’t believe you park that on the curb. I’d hide it where no one can steal it.”
“Why not just get another one?”
Holly elbowed him hard in the stomach and he doubled over at the waist with a sharp woof of air, feeling his eyes water in reflex.
“You so deserved that.”
“Yeah,” he wheezed, nodding emphatically. “I did.”
She is something else.