Chapter 12: Muses and musing

When the fifteen minutes were up, Myra released her hold on Joey’s head.
“Are the bad guys done talking?” he asked.
“Almost,” she said. “They just need to exchange the key that will decrypt their secret code to reveal their next meeting time. Listen closely so you don’t miss it.”
Joey fell silent and Myra gently tried to lift the cloth from his head. It resisted, affixed to his head with clotted blood.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
“I’m memorizing the key,” he said.
She dashed over to a storage cupboard recessed in the wall across from the entrance to the kitchen and dug through the piles of junk to find the red first-aid bag emblazoned with a white cross.
She returned to Joey with the bag, unzipped it, and found a roll of gauze among the papercut-sized bandaids and packets of aspirin pills. “Have you finished memorizing?” she said.
“Yes, I’ve got it,” he declared.
“Great,” she said. “The enemy has departed. It’s safe to sit up.”
He followed her direction, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She rolled gauze around his head like a headband, holding the towel in place on his scalp. She cut the gauze using a tiny pair of scissors from the kit, and tucked in the trailing end.
Joey looked ridiculous with the beige gauze headband binding the towel to the back of his head, but he seemed comfortable and cheerful, so Myra wasn’t preoccupied with aesthetics.
The two of them rejoined everyone else at the table.
“What happened to you?” Caitlin accosted.
“I can’t tell you, it’s confidential,” Joey said.
“Are you going to die?” Cassie asked.
“No!” Joey declared, but then he turned to Myra, his forehead furrowed, and said, “I’m not going to die, am I?”
“No,” Myra asserted. “You’re definitely fine.”
Joey turned back to Caitlin. “Yeah, I’m definitely not going to die.”
“Okay,” Caitlin said. She promptly resumed her painting.
After that, none of the kids showed any interest in Joey’s incident. He and Myra took their seats around the table and joined in the art. Alex had gotten the watercolors set up nicely. There were two stacks of blank white paper on the table, and a few glass jam jars were scrubbed clean and filled with water for washing brushes to switch colors. The paints were laid out too, white plastic trays with twin rows of circular color pots. Each kid held a paintbrush, some making strokes on paper, others swirling a brush’s bristles in a pot to replenish the current color, others dunking a brush into the water jar, stirring to shake loose the most recent color, sending ribbons of yellow and green and blue threading through the water.
Myra took a sheet of paper and a paintbrush, then stared down at the blank surface. She thought of Michelangelo seeing his David statue in a block of marble, but she didn’t see anything except vacancy on the paper.
Joey was already diving in, painting away at some scene or object unknown to Myra. She felt uninspired, distracted by death.
She was jealous of Joey’s self-liberation as he just painted the first idea that drifted into his flitting mind. She dipped her clean brush in the water, wetting the bristles in preparation for color. She considered how watercolors needed water as a catalyst to carry the color, but the water was transparent and evaporated away.
She dipped her dripping brush into a paint pot and then let it trail over the paper, imagining herself using art as a Ouija board to commune with some ephemeral spirit that channeled itself through her hand, ran down the plastic handle of her paintbrush, and traced across the surface of the paper.
She was mostly using black, but flickers of color made their way into the work, little red flares and blue shadows. She was feeling more creative now, in a hollow, possessed way, momentum building as she dampened her paper with streaks of watery paint that marked its surface and caused it to buckle, as if unable to bear the sheer artistic force of her image.
But her subconscious-dependent, seance-led technique was working out poorly. The lines were resolving into ghoulish, distorted figures; the red spots took on the role of bloody eyes.  
Repulsed and embarrassed, Myra set out to remedy the unpleasantness she’d depicted. She thought of the phrase, now so cliche that kids repeated it to each other, sometimes sarcastically and sometimes sanctimoniously: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. She applied this principle to her art, adding more lines and colors to obscure the ghouls within a web of abstraction.
Her art was sufficiently meaningless by the time Zoey, seated next to her, asked, “What are you painting?”
“Nothing, really,” Myra said. She let Zoey study the criss-cross of swirling shapes on her paper.
“Is this a game?,” Zoey asked. “I see what you hid in there.”
“Oh, yeah? What?” Myra said, struggling to sound casual even as she felt queasy anticipating the young girl pointing out the hideous creatures.
“There!” Zoey said, pressing her index finger onto one red eye.
“What?” Myra said.
“You can stop pretending,” Zoey said. “I see them.”
“You do?” Myra answered faintly.
“Yes, silly,” Zoey said. Her finger moved up a centimeter and she traced the zig-zag of the ghoul’s head crossing a random line. “M,” she declared. Her finger slid over to the crook of a spindly arm. “Y.” Next she traced a loop with two lines branching off it, proclaiming, “R.” And finally she christened a lopsided little triangle as “A.” Smiling up at Myra, Zoey spelled, “M-Y-R-A. It’s like a signature, except it’s hidden!”
Myra felt her body seething with unwanted adrenaline. “You’re too smart for me!” she said. “I can’t believe you spotted that so fast.”
“It’s obvious,” Zoey said, enjoying herself now. “I saw it right away,” she bragged.
“Okay, little miss clever,” Myra said. “What did you paint?”
Zoey slid her paper over to Myra. “Horses,” she said. “But it’s really hard to get the head right.” She’d scattered horse sketches across the page, outlined in purple and blue and pink. Each horse had its own special deformation, but trends included a sunken torso, a stringy mane, misshapen legs, and a weird giraffe-like neck topped with a grape of a head.
“Yeah, horses are tricky,” Myra said. “But it just takes practice. I can tell you’ve gotten better even since you started today.”
“Really?” Zoey said.
“Definitely,” Myra confirmed.
Zoey went on with her horses. Myra took a fresh paper, intending to draw something more representational. With the blank page in front of her, she glanced around the table, checking in on the circle of kids around her. They were all hard at work, immersed in their own bubbles of creation.
Alex was grinning and chatting with the kids as usual, but despite his easy conversation, he gazed unceasingly down at his painting, working with a transfixed concentration. Even though Myra knew he was talking with the kids, it looked as if he were communing with his art, laughing at its jokes and smiling at its charm. It was eerie but enthralling.
Gripped by the urge to capture his attention, Myra called to him from across the table. “Alex,” she said, but he seemed not to hear her. “Alex, hey! Alex!”
He looked up abruptly, his gaze locking onto hers. His face was still relaxed and cheerful, his mouth floating in a smile, his eyes sparkling. A rush of lightheaded gratification swept through her as she held his gaze, absorbing the energy radiating from his blue eyes. She felt as if she were floating up from her seat, elevated by his magnetic vitality.
“Yeah?” he said.
The majesty melted away. She’d called him and he’d answered. No life-force magnetism was involved.
She stayed silent, reeling. He said, “What?”
She shook her head slightly, shaking away the disorientation. “What are you painting over there?” she said. “You look so focused.”
“Not much,” he said, shrugging. “A token of a prayer for better weather.”
He held up his artwork for her. He’d painted the camp in a wash of soft watercolors. Stately green trees laced together to form the forest, and blue wavelets rippled over one another to animate the lake’s surface. But the light was what brought the painting to life. Somehow he’d soaked the scene in bright, yellow-tinted sunshine, setting the lake glittering and the greenery aglow. Not even a wisp of cloud existed, and the shimmer of a rainbow winked across the flawless blue sky. The image was an homage to the best days at Camp Embla, and a balm for the stormy shortcomings of today.
“You like it?” he said. This time his earnest grin was directed straight at her. She’d earned this one, she hadn’t stolen it like before, and its potency was stronger for it.
“Yes,” she admitted, even though he could obviously tell that she liked it.
“Wow, you’re a really good drawer,” Zoey said, admiring and a touch jealous.
“Thanks, Zozo,” Alex said.
“Can you draw horses too?” she inquired.
“I’m pretty good at horses,” he said.
“Great!” she exclaimed, the envy behind her. “Can you teach me?”
“Sure I can,” he said, and his grin made her smile too. They were too far apart now, and Myra watched Alex scope out the seating situation. There was no obvious way to get closer without disturbing someone else. Alex settled on Myra and asked her, “Would you mind?”
“No,” she consented. She cautiously pushed her chair straight back and extracted herself from the kids sitting close on either side of her. Alex did the same, and they walked toward each other around the table to switch places. As they passed each other, he slipped a hand between her side and her arm. Briefly touching her waist, he said, “Thanks.”
She found her way to his old chair and scooted back into place at the table between the kids. He was already engaged with Zoey, outlining the form of a horse in midair with his right hand, reaching for a clean paper with his left, grinning at the girl the whole time.
Myra was between Percy and Luke now. Percy was painting the intricate veins on a large leaf. Luke was swirling his nearly dry brush across a paper strewn with shapes. The brush traced out a weak, dirty path as it smeared through areas of wet paint, corrupting their color to eke out its own faint lines.
“I’m bored,” Luke grumbled.
“Do you want to start a new painting?” Myra said. “It looks like maybe that one’s finished.”
“No,” he sighed. “I don’t like watercolors. They’re messy.”
“Yeah?” she said. “Do you want to play a game instead?” She painted four red lines, two vertical and two horizontal, to form a 3x3 grid. Instead of wallowing in boredom or frustration at their mediocre artistic abilities, they painted Xs and Os as they played tic-tac-toe. Myra didn’t purposely throw any rounds, but she let her mind wander enough that they each won about half the time.
Myra sank deeper into visions of storm clouds clearing, bands of colored light pressed together and curving in a tightly coordinated arc, and best of all that butter-yellow aura emanating from the entire world. Her tic-tac-toe performance declined, but Luke was pleased rather than suspicious. Myra was pleased too, contemplating the potentially different sensations of feeling the aura caress her face versus sensing herself emitting the magnificent aura, knowing the divine glow was a mere shadow of the highly concentrated essence her being possessed.
“Your turn.”
Her skin was warm and her eyelids were red, as if she were looking into a bright light.
“Myra,” the voice called, tinny and faint as if through a long tunnel. “Your turn.”
She was sitting at the table. Luke was next to her, paintbrush clutched in his fist, more like a crude tool than an artistic implement. He was looking expectantly up at her, his eyes wide and eager.
“Right,” she said. She looked down at the grid-covered paper and picked out the current round’s grid. She studied it for a few moments and realized why Luke was so impatient for her to play. He’d set up a neat little trap, with two separate lines of two Xs adjacent to a blank square, so no matter where she played, he would win.
She painted an O in the right middle square, and he cheerily smeared an X in the bottom left corner.
“I win,” he announced.
“Good one, champ,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, almost more satisfied with her praise than the win itself.