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Pushing the Limits(4)

By:Brooke Cumberland

How her brain isn't connecting the dots to, I'm not interested is beyond  me. If she were any other woman at a bar or we shared the same mutual  friends, I'd have no issues letting her know it was never going to  happen. However, to avoid pissing my colleagues off before class even  begins, I have to play nice for now.

Truthfully, if it weren't for a certain portfolio that's captivated my  attention, I'd be doing all this prep work from home. But there's one  specific student-Aspen Evans-that's grabbed my attention more than the  rest. She has high honorable mentions, has excelled in all of her  classes, and already has some letters of recommendations for graduate  school. She passed into the accelerated art program with flying colors.         



Studying her pieces over the last couple of weeks, I feel like I've  grown to know her already. I realize this sounds crazy, considering I  have no idea who she is, but it's obvious by her paintings that she's a  deeply emotional person. Her dark and dramatic pieces are consistent  since her freshmen year. Some are bright and bold abstract paintings,  some are watercolor portraits, and some are pastel drawings. Then there  are some pencil-drawn and heavily shaded with sadness. She's definitely  drawing from some kind of inner turmoil, and I can't help but be  intrigued by the stories she's telling.

A part of me connects with them, aches in familiarity. The feeling of  losing Ryan only months ago feels like bile in my throat and chokes all  the air out of me. My eyes burn with tears that I refuse to shed,  considering the way things ended between us. It had been five years  since I'd seen him, aside from his funeral, of course, but even though  he died a hero, I fear I'll never have any real closure.

Not because of what he did, but who I let come between us.



After spending the afternoon with Kendall and Zoe, I come home and go  straight to my studio. Several hours of staring at the same blank canvas  later, I brew myself a pot of coffee. The canvas just sits there on my  easel, mocking me as I chastise myself.

I haven't felt this blocked in months. Everything I start, I end up  tossing out or getting so frustrated I throw it across the room. I hate  everything I paint or draw, and considering school is starting in less  than twelve hours, the pressure to get my shit together is even  stronger.

Skinny Love has been playing on repeat, which is usually my go-to song.  It helps me escape into a place where I can create the things I see in  my mind. But after five unsuccessful attempts, I give up and sit in the  middle of the floor-where I ultimately pass out.

The sound of knocking startles me out of my sleep. The achy feeling in  my back and the sun beaming through the blinds indicates I've slept here  all night. The knocking gets louder and more persistent, so I lazily  stand up and walk toward the door. "Coming!" I shout.

When I whip it open, I see Kendall with an amused look on the other side. "I hate you," I hiss.

She grins, eyeing me up and down with a raised brow. "You're covered in  paint." I look down and see that she's right. "Fall asleep in the studio  again?"

"Looks that way." I sigh.

"Well, rise and shine. We're leaving for school in forty-five minutes."

I groan and open the door wider for her to step in and wait while I  shower. After a half-ass attempt at doing my hair and makeup, I quickly  dress in jeans and my favorite heels and pack up all my supplies.

"Are you all right?" she asks, her eyes narrowing at my appearance.

"Ask me after a couple cups of coffee." The half pot I sucked down the night before did nothing for my energy.

She snorts and leads me out the door and down the hallway.

"What's your first class?" I ask.

"I have a nine a.m. philosophy lecture."

"With Professor Hennington?"

"Yup." She sighs. "I plan to stay in the back and sleep."

I laugh. "You get a B just for showing up."

"Then I'll go once a week and aim for a C." She looks at me and grins as we walk through the parking lot toward her car.

We chat and make plans to meet up for lunch as we drive to school. Once  she finds a parking spot, we head off in separate directions to our  first classes.

The first day of school always goes like clockwork. Syllabus and a  schedule of assignments are handed out, and I soon find myself feeling  overwhelmed with five classes and working three to four shifts at the  gallery each week. But when you leave home with hardly any money, you do  what's necessary to survive.

Tuesday starts and ends just as uneventfully. I've been looking forward  to my night class, Advanced Art, ever since I signed up for it last  semester. I've had a variety of art classes throughout the years, but  painting has always been my passion.

Kendall and I meet up for a quick bite to eat before I head to the Lakin  Arts and Behavioral-LAB-building. I don't recognize the professor's  name on my schedule, so I assume he or she is new this semester.

I walk into the classroom and notice all the chairs are arranged in a  large half circle. Only a few other students have arrived and look like  they're about to fall asleep already.

I choose a seat in the middle and start rummaging through my bag of  supplies. I look up briefly as a guy sits down next to me. He looks to  be in his late twenties or perhaps early thirties. I sneak another  glance and notice he has brown hair, nicely trimmed all around, but a  tad longer on the top. He's wearing a dark blue V-neck sweater with just  the collar of his white button-up showing underneath it.         



His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, accentuating his broad chest  and muscular arms. I lower my eyes to his dark wash jeans and admire how  well they fit him as if they were custom made just for him. He looks  casual but not overdone. I shift my body and lower my eyes just in time  to avoid him catching me staring at him.

He turns toward me as if he wants to say something, but before he can,  Ellie, a girl I've had classes with previously, sits down on the other  side of me. "Hey, Aspen! Back to the grind."

"Yup … another class, another semester closer to graduation!" I say happily.

"What's with the get-up? You going out after class?" Her eyes scan up and down my body.

"Uh, no."

Her brows rise. "You look like you're going on a manhunt while I'm here looking like a poor art student."

"You are a poor art student." I deadpan, ignoring her comments about my outfit.

"That's beside the point." She laughs.

I shrug. "I just like wearing them. They make me feel good, I guess." It's not a lie, but not exactly the full truth.

Ari didn't like wearing dresses. She was all about the adventure and  getting dirty, but I loved dressing up and wearing Mom's high heels.  After her death, my mom and I struggled to find a common ground that  connected us. I found any excuse to be out of the house just to get a  little bit of clarity.

Once I found my first babysitting job, I saved up enough money to buy my  first pair of designer shoes. A whole summer of babysitting toddlers  for one pair of heels.

My parents weren't pleased with me at all, but for the first time in  years, I felt good about myself. I had earned something for myself and  they couldn't take that away from me. They'd already taken so much. It  represented my independence, something I had fought so hard  for-something I still fight for.

"Well, good news for you then, because I hear our professor is a hot piece of ass," she says with a giddy smile.

I laugh and shake my head at her blunt words. "What? It's like the university's way of apologizing for this god awful class."

I hear a choke of laughter next to me. The guy overheard everything.

"Jesus, Ellie … " I bite my lower lip to keep from bursting out in laughter.

"Oh, come on … " She rolls her eyes and laughs. "Wouldn't you agree with  me?" She leans forward and directs the question to the guy next to me on  the other side. "A little eye candy never hurts, am I right?"

Directing my attention toward him, he responds, "Can't say it would." He  smiles and shifts his eyes to mine. "However, I'd be more for the  female eye candy proximity." He winks.

"Oh!" Her eyes light up as if that surprises her. "Well, the campus has  plenty of that." She smiles and twirls her blonde hair around a finger,  batting her eyelashes like a love-struck schoolgirl, but his eyes are  fixed on mine.

"This class isn't going to be so bad," I defend. "I mean, I guess if the  professor has a nice, squeezable ass, then, yeah, it's a bonus. But  most of us-" I scowl. "-are here to learn."

She snorts and sits back in her chair. "But it sure as hell doesn't  hurt." She smirks. "Either way, he'll be off limits anyway," she says  matter-of-factly. "Which is really a tragedy. Hot guys shouldn't be  teachers. It's a distraction."