My Delaware school has instituted this thing called ‘Project Week’. That name is given to the final week in every school year, when every student exempt from study leave or work experience must take on a ‘Project’. Not a written project, mind, nor one involving much work. But these projects entail scarier things: coasteering, carpentry or cookery.

I applied for an art project. It looked good to me: ‘Impressionisms of Delaware’; painting the state in which I lived.

But that project filled up with lower-schoolers, as is the way, and I found myself on a project called ‘Stress the Positive’.

Hell, I had no idea what this whole thing was about. It sounded positively terrifying—and excuse the pun. But, I thought with a sigh, maybe I needed a bit of ‘stressing of the positive’. Shani had been serrating my tender nerves lately, and I felt that a bit of winding down might be just what I wanted. I liked psychology, didn’t I? I liked looking at people, analysing them. That was what got me through the dull fog of an ordinary day.

The first event consisted of Shani’s sidling her way onto the same project. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. My assumed week of peace to my own thoughts was destroyed before it had ever begun.

The very first thing we did in the actual week consisted of a colouring exercise. Faced with the twin outlines of two ‘men’, and issued with a pot of felt tip pens in unnecessarily bright colours, I was instructed to allocate a feeling to a colour, and to shade in my first ‘man’ according with how I felt at that moment.

What did I do? I had no idea. I wrote ‘stressed’ in grey, as everyone else seemed to be doing, and proceeded to sit there, staring alternately at my ‘man’ and at the others, who were all shading diligently.

“So I just colour?” I muttered to Shani, who was colouring her man’s torso in vibrant yellow, which signified ‘cheerfulness’.

“Yes,” she said with a wink.

I screwed up my brow and began to colour. ‘Stressed’ in grey, ‘annoyed’ in red, ‘scared’ in blue.

“Aren’t you going to put any positive things in?” said Shani, staring at my man, whose invisible face seemed to be frowning through the negative emotions.

“Like what?”

“Happy? Healthy? Completely hilarious?”

I felt the old depression flood me, as suffocating as ever. “I’m none of those things.”

“Oh, Den, you make me laugh so much,” Shani giggled.

I restrained a scowl. If I was irritated, I wasn’t going to show it. My frustration wasn’t worth demonstration. Shani didn’t value my response as ‘serious’. I was in earnest, and she refused to believe me. So she didn’t value me. Why should I bother to vent my anger? It wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t worth it. If I was annoyed, it was my fault, and my fault alone.

If I’m not going to be taken seriously, why should I waste my energy on forming reactions? Shani’s done nothing wrong but prised blindly at this blanket of harsh sensitivity that has grown up around me. It’s me who’s done wrong, because it was I who knitted it. If she hurts me, it’s my fault for letting her. So what right do I have, then, to punish her for it?

Even with a scowl.

The second ‘man’ was to be coloured using the feelings I wished to possess at the end of the week.

So this week was supposed to change me. One week doing this 'therapeutic' colouring and whatnot was going to change me. Was it? Was it really? I’d like to see it try.

My two ‘men’ turned out identical.

Then the project leaders. Their optimism was frankly sickening to Den O’Derron in an aggravated mood.

“You colour very well between the lines,” thus Ms Avery to Mrs Sallis. “I’ve always wanted to do that. I used to be so jealous at primary school when the other kids won colouring competitions.”

Mrs Sallis just laughed, corkscrew curls shaking with her shoulders. “At least it’s not a do-or-die envy. The trick is to colour in the same direction. It’s like varnishing wood: go with the grain.”

I don’t want to go with the grain, I thought through a clenched jaw. I want to colour in the wrong direction. See if I don’t.

It ruined my ‘picture’, but I didn’t care. This wasn’t Impressionisms of Delaware. This was Stress the Positive. If I didn’t learn the art of optimism this week, I’d never learn it.

The End

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