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Pushing the Limits(7)

By:Brooke Cumberland

I finish grouping everyone and hand out the worksheet I want them to  start on. I wait a few minutes to see if she returns but worry I've  embarrassed her. When she doesn't return, I decide to go after her.

I'm not exactly sure what I expected to see when I found Aspen, but it  wasn't this. I know an anxiety attack when I see one. I've experienced  them myself, but she's … she's a mess. It seems unfair that such a  beautiful and talented woman has to suffer this way. From the outside, I  never would've guessed she held this kind of pain.

I don't believe her in the least when she says she'll be fine. I want to  comfort her, wrap my arms around her so she doesn't have to handle it  alone. But I barely know her and it'd be highly inappropriate given I'm  her professor. I tell her to take her time and wait anxiously in the  classroom for her to come back.

When the groups finishes, and everyone is seated again, I discuss what I  want them to do next. Although I was able to look at their portfolios  beforehand, I want to see how well they each do with a shortly timed  assignment. They all grab their supplies and sit back in their seats  except Aspen. She stays standing.

It's hard to not notice her as it is, but now I'm able to watch her  while she draws. She moves her hand so effortlessly as her eyes follow  every stroke her pencil is making. I walk around the classroom silently  watching, but I stop just behind her as she begins to shade in her  outline of a tree trunk. I can't tell which number from the  questionnaire she's drawing from, but just the intensity of her focus  tells me how important it is to her.

She grabs her putty rubber to lighten an area near a branch when she  finally senses my presence behind her, but I tell her not to stop. I  could watch her draw for hours. Just the simple act of watching her eyes  and body captivates my attention to the point that I forget we aren't  alone.

Students begin filing out at exactly eight p.m. They have plenty of time  left to work on their project before it's due, but that doesn't stop  the wave of sadness that overcomes me as I watch Aspen pack up her  supplies and leave. Her portfolio is so somber, but in person, she  radiates light. She's friendly and gives off that carefree vibe on the  surface, but when she's lost in her work, her persona changes into  something completely different.         



I'm just not sure what that is yet.

I pick Natalia up from school every day in between my classes. She was  able to continue attending the same school after she moved in with me,  but it hasn't been an easy transition. She's been getting into trouble  for talking back, pushing girls in the locker room, and even throwing  food in the cafeteria.

They've been pretty sympathetic given her situation, but she's still had  to do detention after school multiple times. I know there's nothing I  can say that'll help her feel better or give back what's been taken from  her. I know there's nothing I can do that'll change it either. And that  guts me.

"Hey, Short Stuff," I say as she hops into the passenger side. "What  number?" I ask her every day after school. It's a rating system from one  to ten that I came up with to so she'd talk about her day.

She tosses her backpack into the backseat and scowls at me.

"If you're expecting me to read your mind, this could take a while."

She huffs at me. "It was an eight … " Which means her day was going quite  well. "Until Cooper Turner spit on me." So much for that.

I pinch the bridge of my nose. Oh, for fucks sake.

I turn and angle my body toward her. "What happened?"

She hands me a piece of paper that was concealed in her palm. "Here."

I take it and pull it open. My eyes move quickly over the note, and I gasp.

"Natalia Hampton!" I'm biting my lip to avoid bursting out in laughter. "You said what?"

"I said he had an itty, bitty penis and that must be why he's such an obnoxious airhead."


"Because he's compensating for having a small-"

"Not that! Why did you say that?"

"Well, it's not a lie."

"I don't think talking about those body parts in school is appropriate."


"So now what? You have another week of detention?"

"I guess. I don't know why Mrs. Fields got so upset. He's the one who spit on me!"

"Before or after?"

She frowns and it's all the answer I need.

Tonight she has her therapy appointment, so I wait outside the room for  forty-five minutes while Dr. Kingston tries to teach her ways of dealing  with her feelings by using a healthier outlet. Six months of therapy  later, and we're still trying to help her manage the way she acts out.

Not that I can really blame her, though.

Once her session is over, we drive home, and I start browsing in the kitchen for something to make for dinner.

"Shit, I forgot to go grocery shopping," I mumble as I stare at the  half-empty orange juice container and Chinese takeout boxes in the  fridge.

"You shouldn't swear."

I slam the door shut, not realizing she was behind me. "You shouldn't  creep up on people," I tease, spinning around to her sitting by the  breakfast bar.

"Grandma says swearing is the devil's voice."

"Well, you should ask Grandma what whiskey is then."

"I already did," she responds matter-of-factly. "She says it's the Lord's blood."

I snort. "Grandma's a liar." I begin opening cupboards and digging through boxes of food.

"I know." She grins. "So what are you making? Or should I say … burning?"

"You know … for an eleven-year-old-"

"I'm almost twelve," she interrupts.

"Whatever. For an almost twelve-year-old, you have quite the smart-mouth."

"I prefer gifted."

"I prefer it shut."

She narrows her eyes at me and sticks her tongue out.

I opt for pizza delivery instead of cooking until I get to the grocery  store again. And even then, I'll probably grab frozen pizzas and boxes  of mac 'n cheese.

Back in Ohio, there was this small family-owned deli and sushi bar that I  always stopped at on my way home from work. But now that I have Natalia  with me, I actually have to remind myself to hit the store.

Either that or I'm going to go broke from ordering in seven days a week.



I arrive at my night class early Thursday, knowing the room will be  empty beforehand. I can paint in my apartment, but there's just  something about the atmosphere and being in a room filled with other  paintings. I grab an easel and settle in with my ear buds while I paint.

Most recently, See You Again by Wiz Khalifa has hit home for me. I've  had it on repeat for several days and every time I draw or paint, I'm  able to tune everything out when I listen to it and think happy thoughts  about her.         



The lyrics inspire me to paint an abstract of her face. I use the entire  canvas to lightly outline her features-her heart-shaped face,  almond-sized eyes, and the strong bridge of her nose.

Once I finish, I lightly draw a line down the middle of her face to  emphasize her different layers-happy on the outside, depressed on the  inside.

I grab a tube of red paint and squeeze it out onto the palette. I swirl a  round brush into the paint before outlining the lines and angles of the  face.

I focus on one side at a time. Warm colors with light shading reflect  her outside personality the best, so I add in some yellow with a  blending brush over her cheeks and jawline. I add in some white to  create the lighter shading around her eye and slant of her nose. Once  I'm finished with that, I add some teal paint and use my fan brush to  accent the cheekbones with the yellow underneath it to create a lighter  allusion.

I finish up the left side with my pointed round brush and paint in the  eye blue. Once that's complete, I smooth everything together with a flat  brush and wait for it to dry. I stand back and study it for a moment  before deciding I'm satisfied with it for now. It feels like her-happy  and energetic-the teals and yellows of my past life.

I begin the other side with a base coat of purple and then layer a light  shade of blue on top. This side of the face is meant to be dark and  oppressed-her inner personality-so I add in the shading to exaggerate  the features more.

I wait until it dries a bit before adding another layer of blue, this  time a couple shades darker than before to accent the cheekbones. I run  the angular flat bristles alongside the jawline and up near the ear,  making the blue stand out more than the purple. Once I'm done with the  blue, I blend in the white to outline the other side of the nose and  eye.

The song continues repeating in my earbuds as I sing some of the lyrics  aloud. I take a step back and look at the two sides as a whole.

I tilt my head left and right, checking out the different angles before deciding to add another layer of blue to the right side.

I quickly glance up at the clock and see I still have a good twenty-five  minutes before I need to clean up and pretend I was never here. Just as  I'm dipping a clean flat brush in the paint, I feel someone behind me.