Read on for an excerpt from my short story, The Muse.
The day she met Dalton, Paula had been sitting in the middle of a museum, staring at the statue ahead of her. The white lights glared down at the room. She bent over her sketchbook, but she couldn’t get her hand to do what her mind wanted it to; she just couldn’t get the jawline quite right.
The bust she had been studying was in the middle a small, shallow room with deep, plum purple walls, one or two paintings hanging on each side of her. Her bench was between the statue and the arched doorway. The statue’s shoulders were angled toward the entrance, but the face was turned in sharp profile. She was planning on staying in the museum until she got too hungry or she was thrown out. People had been filing through often, some in groups, some alone. She would hear footsteps behind her as people walked in and out of the room, seeing the hem of a coat or a pair of shoes out of the corner of her eye. They gazed at her curiously, and if they were brave enough, would crane their heads over her shoulder to try to see what she was sketching. Her room didn’t have any windows and there wasn’t a clock. She had turned off her phone and shoved it into the bottom of her bag. She had no notion of time passing other than the steadily growing ache in her back.
She saw a pair of shoes stop next to the statue in front of her bench. Her hand pressed the pencil too hard and the integrity of the drawing was lost. She let out a grunt of frustration and tore out the paper, stuffing it into her bag. She swiped her hand over the fresh page and leaned in to start again.
“Why’d you do that?” a voice asked, startling her out of her own mind. She jerked her eyes upward and saw a tall man standing over her. He must’ve seen the alarm in her expression because he held up his hands warily. “Sorry, I was peeking.”
Laughing nervously, she explained that she had been having trouble with the statue all day, throwing her hand at it angrily. As he then started to study the statue carefully, she watched him, her eyes unable to move away from him. Something about him intrigued her. He was tall, wearing a long, black woolen overcoat with a red scarf carefully placed over his shoulders so that it looked casual. He had a strong, curved nose, but strangely, every time she blinked, his cheekbones were deeper, wider, or higher. The next moment, his eyes were blue instead of the brown she thought they were. She rubbed her eyes, wondering if they were being skewed from starting at her paper all day.
“I don’t think the jaw is that important,” he finally said, looking back at her.
She raised a brow. “How is the jaw not important? It’s the frame of the entire face.”
“Because,” he said, laughing lightly, stepping around to the other side of the statue nimbly, “He doesn’t have one on this side.”
“What?” Paula said, her voice raising sharply as she stood up and moved to the other side. She gasped. The statue was missing half of the right side of his face and neck, from just under his eye to the protruding collar bone. She hadn’t even looked at this side. The statue had caught her eye and had a bench directly in front of it, so she had sat down immediately and started to draw. She pressed her lips together firmly and put her hands on her hips, staring at the mutilated statue.
“So,” he said after a moment of silence. “I think you can let go of the jaw.”
She let out a scoff, folding her arms and glancing up at him. He was looking down at her now, and his features had slowed. She could see that his eyes were a deep, dark brown under drooping eyelids, like he was a martyr looking up to his savior in a religious painting. He smirked at her.
She realized how close they were standing, and her face was suddenly warm. She put the backs of her perpetually cold hands to her cheek as she sat, turning away from him to hide her blush.
He drifted around the room after that. She tried to focus on the statue again, but just his presence in the room was enough to make her forget any responsibilities she ever had. She didn’t want him to leave. When her eyes found him across the room, she saw him turn away quickly, as if he had been looking at the painting in front of him the entire time rather than staring at her. When he wandered back to her, he was trying to be cool about it.
He sat down next to Paula, her bag between them. They both stared up at the statue before them, waiting for the other to talk first. The bust was pearly white, thin gray cracks etching across the surface. It was jagged at the bottom, as if it had been a part of something more, once upon a time. The face was frozen in a state of anguish, the brow knitted together, eyes squeezed shut as the mouth stretched wide with a scream. She was drawn to it because she always had a hard time drawing suffering expressions. Pain was a hard expression to nail; everyone reacts to it differently.