Fiction Coming of Age Friendship

Craig closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and took a deep breath. Opening his eyes, he looked down at the paintbrush in his hand and then over to his younger brother, sitting across the room on the floor. "OK, Jonny. Do you see this big white square sheet with the tree stump on? This is your canvas."

Jonny looked up momentarily, then down again. He was facing away from Craig and the canvas, building with his Lego. On a white plastic base in front of him was a Lego wall patterned with repeated red, blue, and yellow rows. Craig walked across the room, and as he rounded his brother, he observed him squinting, carefully counting the bricks along each row. Jonny's left shoulder was twitching.

"Come on, Jonny, Mum has been nagging me to show you how to paint. It's like Lego, but with liquid, and you can create so much more."

"One more layer," Jonny replied without his squinting eyes leaving the bricks.

"You can finish your wall later. It looks unstable, anyway. You need more bricks on the bottom row. It looks like an upside-down pyramid."

"Two bricks on the bottom, held between these two pieces of playdough, so the wall won't fall," Jonny said.

"OK, Jonny, that's really smart… as always, now come on."

Jonny continued, "The rows are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, and the next row will be…"

"…19?" Craig interrupted, rolling his eyes.

"Yes, yes," Jonny replied.

"So, five-year-olds know prime numbers now," Craig said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Jonny took one last squinted glance at his wall before standing up. Craig then led him to the canvas, which rested on a blue wooden easel. He craned his neck to observe the painting of a tree stump positioned centrally on the large white sheet. Great care had been needed to capture the structure, along with many corrections. The tree's base and the exposed jagged upper perimeter were perfectly proportioned; however, the distinct bark of the tree was distorted and smudged.

"Do you like my stump, Jonny?" Craig asked.

"I like the shape…" Jonny replied.

 "…Yeah, I was just painting with my imagination. The bark is tricky… Right, Jonny, this is your big brother's special talent, so I want you to listen carefully." He tore the canvas sheet with the tree stump from the pad and tossed it aside before picking up a clean paintbrush on the easel tray. "I got you that little crate in the corner to stand on to reach the canvas. Go and get it." Jonny headed over for the crate and placed it by the easel. He then rotated it 90 degrees, 90 degrees again, before being satisfied.

"OK, step up, Jonny. Be careful. No one should ever twist an ankle painting." Jonny stepped up carefully. Craig looked at him, standing alert by the canvas, ready for action. He hesitated briefly, took another deep breath, and handed him the paintbrush.

Jonny's left shoulder twitched as he rotated the brush in his hands, inspecting every inch, flicking the bristles with the end of his index finger while Craig watched on. Jonny's eyes widened, and he smiled as if holding a magic wand. 

Craig picked up a small box from a low-standing table by the easel. 

"Show your brother how to paint," his mother had said several times over dinner. "It will be good for him".  

"Everything is good for him, and he's good at everything," Craig had snapped while Jonny stared into space on the other side of the dinner table. 

He ran his fingers over the engraving in the lid of the box. It was maroon and was given to him by his parents seven years ago for his fifth birthday. His name had been laser-engraved in a ganache font. As he opened the box, revealing a six-by-nine array of colors, he recalled the first time he used them. His father had filmed, and his mother gasped as he painted the old oak tree visible from the window. The picture now hung framed on the wall to the left of the same window. Craig looked at the picture. He looked at the crude brown trunk and smudged green mass that crowned it. He was a much better painter now but was unsettled by how good Jonny could be.

"Craig, Craig, what's the box?" Jonny asked.

Craig snapped from his reverie and looked into Jonny's curious eyes. "These are what really make the magic happen?"

"It's a box of spells?" Jonny asked.

"A box of colors," Craig replied. "And this is your palette," he added, taking a brown artist's palette from the table. He again hesitated before handing the palette to Jonny. "Now, take your time with this stuff. You already have your music and math, and that gymnastics you do. No one will be angry if you're not the greatest painter as well." He looked at Jonny flipping the palette. The fluidity made him anxious. "You don't have to do this today if you don't want to…"

"The shape is weird," Jonny said, placing his squinting eye by the thumb hole and peering through at his brother. He twitched behind the palette harshly, causing it to tap his head and startle him. 

"You OK, lad?" Craig asked, laughing. He interpreted Jonny's silence as a yes. "The palette shape needs to be weird. You place your left thumb through that hole and rest that curved edge against your tummy… that's right."

"Now what?" Jonny asked.

"You see how your fingers are free to wiggle? That is where you can hold your brushes."

Jonny nodded as Craig handed him the brush he had already inspected and two extra ones from the paint box.

"Now, we will add some paint spots to the palette. First, red, yellow, and blue, and I will give you some black and white to make the colors darker and lighter."

"But aren't there more colors in the world?" Jonny asked. His left shoulder twitched, jolting the paint spots slightly and warping their shape.

"Careful, Jonny," Craig said, steadying his brother by the arm. "There are more, but you can make many mixtures with these five alone. Just use this small plastic spatula to create new spots of mixtures." Craig handed him the spatula. "Don't worry about getting the colors perfect right now. Just practice with your brushes. Don't try too hard… please."

"What shall I paint?" Jonny asked.

"Whatever you want," Craig replied.

"That picture looks easy. It has no color," Jonny said, pointing to a picture of a leafless tree further up the wall to the right of the window.

"Ah, yes," Craig replied. "I painted that picture five years after I painted this one here… it wasn't easy. We wanted to see how I had progressed, but it was winter, so the tree had lost its green. That's why the paintings look different. Look through the window. It's December, so the tree has lost all its leaves again." They both stared through the window at the tree. The sky had become overcast, so the garden was gloomy, and the tree's bare branches jerked in the wind.

"The green tree on the wall looks much happier," Jonny opined.

"Maybe," Craig said, "but look at how much better the painting is with this one. Look at how much detail there is. Maybe you shouldn't attempt to paint something like that just…"

"… OK," Jonny said, "I don't want to paint a sad tree. Can I just paint you?"

Craig laughed. "Well, I'm not sitting still for you, rookie!"

"It's OK, I've already seen you today," said a confident Jonny.

"Alright, smarty pants," Craig said, rolling his eyes again.

Craig began to show Jonny how to pick up paint from the spots he had laid and mix them on the palette. He quickly blended a yellow and blue to form a green as Jonny squinted and twitched in wonder.

"You want to try? No pressure," Craig asked. He then watched on as Jonny took the spatula and began mixing colors. Within minutes, there were shades of pink and turquoise, and the green he had mixed himself was now partitioned into three subtle shades.

"Now dip that end of the brush into the paint you want." Craig guided the brush in Jonny's hand to the black paint and then up to the blank canvas. As they began to glide up the canvas, painting a line, Jonny quickly resisted and took the painted line in another direction. Craig pulled back his hand as if it had been shooed away. He watched his brother squint at the painting and twist his neck in what looked like an agonizing contortion. Jonny twitched and jolted as he carried the brush from palette to canvas and vice versa. Craig felt hypnotized by the spectacle.

After several minutes, Jonny was painting at a frantic pace. As he did so, he whistled Beethoven's Für Elise, a piece he had learned in a piano lesson that morning. Craig had heard it being played from his bedroom, evoking memories of his own less graceful attempts years ago. Shaking the thought off, he backed away and began to pace the room as Jonny fiddled with the brushes and the paint, mixing and experimenting. 

Craig reluctantly looked as the early form of a human head began to emerge on the canvas. As Jonny whistled away, he continued pacing and picked up three balls by the far corner that Jonny had been juggling with earlier in the week. Craig attempted the same but quickly dropped them as always. Kicking one ball across the room, he looked back to the painting to see perfectly proportioned eyes, a nose, and a mouth appearing on the sheet before turning his back to the image completely. In front of him, on the far wall, was a painting of an acorn recently entered into an under-13s competition. Craig had finished second but considered the acorn his most accomplished work. His parents had been so proud they had it reframed in a rich pine. To celebrate, the whole family visited galleries on Trafalgar Square and ate in an Italian restaurant. He took the picture from the wall and dropped down to the floor with his back still to Jonny and the canvas. 

The white seed of the acorn was perfectly crafted, with subtle patches of reflected light on its surface. There were grass stains dotted over one side, and the beginnings of a crack had been captured perfectly, albeit over several hours. Detailed likenesses of the brown cupule and stem completed the picture. He knew the painting was good, but he was 12, and Jonny was 5. He knew his parents loved it, but what would they think of whatever Jonny painted. He laid back, with the picture resting on his chest, nodded off to the scribbling and whistling of his brother, and began to dream.

Jonny painted on stage as Craig watched from the back of an auditorium. The thousands watching in front would repeatedly stand and sit, up and down, and Craig struggled to see clearly. As Jonny finished, the crowd erupted in applause to a beautifully painted tree. He watched his brother, who was unresponsive to the applause. Audience members began to whoop and whistle while front-row critics nodded to each other in approval. Flowers were thrown at Jonny, one hitting him on the shoulder, but he remained still and unresponsive. As the congratulatory noise grew deafening, Jonny only stared blankly into the crowd and twitched.

"Craig?" Jonny called.

Craig sat up. He put the picture of the acorn aside, stood up, and walked over to his brother. The sky had cleared outside, and the sunlight from the window brightened Jonny's face.

"I need a break," Jonny said.

Craig stared at the beginnings of the portrait. The inchoate likeness was blurred in its outer edges, and the hair and jaw were incomplete; however, the facial features were striking. Much of the picture was colorless, but care had been taken to capture the sharp green of his eyes. They stared back at him as if from a mirror. The nose possessed the subtle bump on the bridge that had recently bugged him, and the perfectly realized mouth glistened as if ready to vocalize his thoughts. Craig looked at the image's distorted beauty and shed a tear. At that moment, an overwhelming touch of genius washed away any feeling of inferiority or jealousy. Jonny began to tweak the eyelashes as if in a trance but stopped suddenly.

"Can I take a break to use the bathroom, Craig?" Jonny asked.

Craig didn't respond.

"Craig?" Jonny repeated.

"Sorry, I was just looking at your painting."

"Is it right?" Jonny asked.

"It's wonderful."

Jonny smiled. "He looks sad, angry, or upset, like he is thinking hard about something."

"Maybe he is, Jonny… and you captured it. Come on. Mum will be home in 10 minutes. I can't wait for her to see your picture". 

He turned to the hallway door, and Jonny followed.

"Craig?" Jonny said.

"Yeah?" replied Craig, as he wrapped his arm over his brother and pinched his left shoulder gently.

"Tomorrow, will you show me how to paint acorns?"

"Sure thing," Craig said as they left the room.

September 27, 2023 14:43

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Michał Przywara
20:59 Oct 19, 2023

Very nice take on the prompt, and it sounds like Craig's fears were well founded. The five year old sticking to primes was indeed ominous :) And jeez, this kid! Sharp mind is one thing, but he's got incredible motor skills too, to pick up painting so quickly. But, the story progresses, and Craig overcomes his fear. It's not that he no longer worries Johnny will overshadow him as a painter - that much seems to be a given. Rather, it's that he realizes that Johnny isn't competing with him at all, and indeed looks up to him. In that way, th...


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Kailani B.
16:18 Oct 05, 2023

It's nice that Craig doesn't let jealously overcome him, but in my own experience, siblings need to have their own niches and I feel like the parents should consider letting Craig be the painter and Johnny doing whatever else. You did a good job capturing the inferiority some siblings can experience.


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Belladona Vulpa
22:01 Oct 04, 2023

I like how you depict the characters and their relationship. Nice take on the prompt!


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Rebecca Miles
20:09 Oct 04, 2023

This is a finely nuanced realtionship that steers well clear of cliche. The painting motif grounds it all: the second place; the dream of the masterful tree and the acorn painting he laboured over and was eventually happy with, depite it not winning first place. I do like it when imagery carries the message as it does here: majestic and masterful oaks can only grow from those hard-working acorns. Jonny's brilliance is die to his brother's diligent nurturing: a powerful message.


Tom Skye
20:32 Oct 04, 2023

Thanks so much for reading Rebecca.


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Danie Holland
12:29 Sep 29, 2023

Faith, hope, and love The greatest of these is love What a beautiful way to capture an internal struggle between realizing someone else's value while undermining your own. I love the way Craig realizes all of his little brother's strengths, yet perhaps doesn't even realize his own in the end despite how hard it is to master. To love someone even when it comes at a cost to ourselves. Very beautifully written,


Tom Skye
19:06 Sep 29, 2023

Thanks so much Danie :)


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Mary Bendickson
21:19 Sep 28, 2023

Perfection. Hard not to be proud of a little brother like that. But he will undoubtedly have his problems eventually. Thanks for liking my Wild Things 😊


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Marty B
18:03 Sep 28, 2023

I liked the connection between the brothers, and the symbolism of the tree. To me the acorn represents the possibilities of what Jonny can do, "Everything is good for him, and he's good at everything," though he is still young, just a seed. And the tree is Craig, grown (at 12) and seeing the world for what it is, his tree is smudged, good but not great. Jonny doesnt care, he just wants his brother the tree, to be happy But Craig is willing to show Jonny how to grow, and eventually he can be the tree outside, vibrant, tall and re...


Tom Skye
18:30 Sep 28, 2023

Thanks for the detailed feedback Marty. Appreciate it


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Michelle Oliver
11:38 Sep 28, 2023

This story is lovely. Two brothers one exceptionally gifted and the other a talented artist who works hard. Your story shows love and a little envy that can cause bitterness in relationships, however I get the feeling from the way you portray them, that they will be close all their lives. The younger brother clearly admires his older sibling and you showed that marvellously in the last lines of dialogue.


Tom Skye
11:58 Sep 28, 2023

Thanks Michelle. I'm glad it worked alright


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AnneMarie Miles
15:39 Sep 27, 2023

What a touching story about two very impressive brothers. Jonny, the prodigy 5 year old and his older brother, the painter. I got the sense Craig didn't want to share this gift with his already so gifted brother, for fear he would steal his one "thing" but in the end, there are no hard feelings, no jealousy. Especially at the sight of, not only Jonny's incredible talent, but of the detail and care Jonny took to capture his brother. There is such admiration in the way his brother portrays Craig, and it overpowers any of Craig's bitter feelin...


Tom Skye
19:03 Sep 27, 2023

Thanks so much AnneMarie. I really appreciate the closer analysis of the characters. I really wanted to find a balance between making the Craig character envious, but still have him be likeable. It seems like that worked out well from what you said. Thanks again


AnneMarie Miles
19:36 Sep 27, 2023

Twas a success! I definitely got the sibling irritability and it was well balanced with sibling love. Thanks again for sharing!


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