Have you ever felt like someone’s watching you? The warmth that falls on your body from the direction of the stare? It’s like a force that awakes your consciousness and makes you turn around to find its source. Sometimes that source piques your interest. Sometimes, you want to run from it.
The sculpture was propped on a ledge, on the wall directly in front of the museum's entrance, right where the first set of stairs ended. The best way to see it was from the second floor, peeking through a glass wall that faced it. It must have been a new acquisition because it wasn’t there during my last visit, about a month before. I saw it as I was walking in, the reds, blues, and yellows grasping my attention so tightly that, instead of starting on the left room as usual, I ran up the steps to see it first.
For a late morning on a Saturday, the museum was overly packed. Rivers of people moved from room to room, many of them children, who were either in awe of the exhibitions, or bored to death. I usually avoided the museum on days like this when the entrance was free but, as soon as I woke up, I felt the urge to visit. I regretted my decision the moment I had to fight my way up the stairs.
Like a kid with her nose pressed on the window of a toy store, I leaned on the glass wall once I reached the second floor, wanting to absorb the sculpture with my eyes. It was a cowboy riding a wild horse, but instead of being brown or white or gray as most sculptures are, it had spots of screaming colors that usually have their place in paintings.
I was mesmerized by the artist’s creativity when I felt it. It was more than a warmth, it felt like someone was gently pulling me away from the glass. I looked behind me, in the direction of the pull, to see the crowds coming and going, minding their own business. But for a split second, the multitude cleared, giving my eyes a path to the other side of the room, where he was.
An angel fallen from Heaven would sin to look like this guy. He was standing there with his legs spread and his arms behind his back, like a soldier, clad in black suit, shirt and tie. His pallid, squared-jaw face slightly tilted back, his black eyes piercing mine, with a perfect smile on his well-defined, full lips.
As ice cubes fell down my spine, I quickly turned to the glass wall, like a child caught doing something wrong. I felt naked, stripped down to my very bones. In my head, I wanted to run from there, but my body froze, my hands glued to the glass. Even though we were surrounded by people, there was silence, as if he and I were alone in the museum.
I want you. I heard it whispered so close it felt like a thought. I jerked and turned around, to find him standing a few steps behind me.
“Hey,” he said, lifting his hand, his eyebrow faintly arched as he smirked.
“Hey,” I replied and looked down, the room getting a little warm all of a sudden.
“I noticed you like that sculpture.” He pointed at the cowboy and walked to me, standing by my side. His words came out as the notes of a piano, when played by someone with a broken heart.
I don’t know if I replied. I don’t remember saying anything.
“We got that piece last week. It’s a loan from a private owner, a good friend of mine. The colors hypnotized me when I saw it.” He looked straight into my eyes. “I had to have it.”
I stumbled, I’m not sure over what, but I had to place my hand on the glass wall to keep myself from falling.
“D’youworkhere?” The words ran over each other as they left my mouth.
“Yes, I’m the curator.”
My dad was an art history professor, so I spent my childhood and teenage years surrounded by art. Instead of taking up sports or musical instruments, going out to the movies or shopping with my friends, I would spend afternoons and weekends with my dad, immersed in books that depicted the great masterpieces in history. We would go on museum tours, even traveling to other cities to see the collections. This very museum had been my monthly routine for the past couple of years, since I moved out of my parents’ house. In all that time, I had never met a museum’s curator. I always imagined them looking like my dad, smart and wrinkled, not like a piece of art.
“If you like that sculpture, I think you’re going to love this. Walk with me?” With his hand, he invited me to walk toward the room right behind us. We had to dance around a family of four with a screaming kid in tow, a group of teenagers that all giggled at once when they saw him, and the museum guided tour, which was very popular at this time of day.
Pieces from the masters of cubism welcomed us when we finally reached our destination. Picasso, Cézanne, Braque, all my favorites were hanging on the walls. Even paintings that should have been in other museums were there.
“This is amazing!” I said, a little too loudly for a museum. “These weren’t here a few weeks ago.”
“Well, let’s say I have some influence with some powerful people.”
“You did this? How long have you been working here?” I asked, approaching one of the paintings to examine it up close.
“A couple of weeks.” He followed me. “There is something in this museum I couldn’t find anywhere else, so I decided to come get it.”
“And what’s that?” I blurted the question out of courtesy, more interested in the strokes of a Picasso.
He was standing two steps away from me, but I felt the warmth of his breath on my ear when he talked.
“A soul... mate?” I said after a moment of silence, ignoring the butterflies rumbling in my stomach, fighting to make their way up and escape through my mouth.
The succulent sound of his laughter permeated the space. I started laughing too, without knowing why.
“Come this way,” he said as he walked on.
We entered a room filled with Dalí, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. At the sight, I stood still, covering my gaping mouth with my hand. A tear broke free and rolled down my cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I said, wiping it with my finger. “These are my dad’s favorite artists. If he was here, his face would light up.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. I find it lovely that you have such a sensitive heart.” He smiled. “Tell me about your parents.“
“Well, they still live in my hometown, a couple of hours away. I moved to the city after college to teach art history, like my dad. He was a professor, I’m a schoolteacher.” We were walking side by side, looking at the paintings as we talked.
“Where do you teach?”
“Southside. A lot of unprivileged kids go there, that’s why I chose that school to teach art. Art gives them the opportunity to glance at the beauty sometimes they lack in their lives, and to travel around the world through the paintings and sculptures. I have a few students that are pursuing art now. I would love to bring them over here on a field trip, but it’s hard to convince the powers that be... and the parents.”
I suddenly realized I was rambling on. I stopped in my tracks to find him looking at me as a groom looks at his bride on their wedding day. For someone as simple as me, having the complete attention of this specimen of a man should have been flattering. Instead, I felt self-conscious.
“Please continue.” He must have seen the conflict on my face. “It’s refreshing to know that there are still people who care for others. This world grows more cynical and selfish by the minute.”
“I prefer to believe there’s goodness in everyone.”
That’s why I chose you. I heard his words in my head, but I didn’t see his mouth move.
“What?” My voice barely came out. It was more of a gesture than a sound. He either didn’t hear me or pretended not to.
“Follow me, I want to show you something else.”
As we walked to the stairs, it dawned on me that the crowds had diminished. In fact, the two rooms we had visited were empty, even though we had to swim across a river of people to get to them.
“Hmm that’s weird,” I said out loud to myself, following him down the steps.
“Where has everyone gone? When I arrived, not half an hour ago, I had to walk around people. Now there’s barely anyone. Those two last exhibitions should have been packed, but they were empty, except for you and me. Don’t you find that odd?”
He stopped short halfway down the stairway and turned around to face me, the smile gone from his face. Without it, his ravishing features looked dark, menacing, as a predator about to kill its prey.
“Those exhibitions are brand new; they are still closed to the public. You’ve had the privilege to see them because you’re with me.” His pearly whites were once again on display. “And what do you mean there are no people?”
As if conjured from thin air, we were surrounded by crowds, coming and going, minding their own business. They were rushing up and down the stairs, the heat of their bodies brushing me, the sound of their conversations mingling in my ears.
My mouth went wide again. I knew what I had seen, or not seen for that matter. Maybe the interest he’d shown in me had made me oblivious to the presence of others. Maybe I had chosen to ignore them, to pretend it was just the two of us.
He took my hand and lead me down the final steps to the first floor. His hand was smooth and cool, like the skin of a snake. He walked fast, moving me through the throng like a bodyguard.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we turned left into the first room, near the museum entrance. We entered a chess exhibit, with boards from different places and times in history. Chess had always fascinated me. When I was a child, my dad and I would walk to the park where people of all ages and gender would go against each other in friendly, and sometimes, very loud chess battles. I always enjoyed seeing others play, seeing the faces they made trying to concentrate while their opponents jeered.
I took a few steps ahead of him to check the first display in the room. I was captivated by the intricate details of each chessboard, with their pieces made of wood, metal and marble. Some of them were standard, others were geometric figures, or little statutes of people. There was one where the pieces were Greek gods. On another, Chinese dragons.
“Talk to me about your dad. It seems you’re pretty close.” He had caught up with me.
“Yeah, my dad is my biggest influence and my best friend. He taught me about art, literature, history, but he also taught me to be kind to others and to be of service.” I chuckled. “You should see him, he’s already retired, so he spends his days volunteering, teaching art for free. I hope I can measure up to him some day.”
“I think you already do.”
“You’re too kind to say that, but you don’t know me.”
“But I do.” He positioned himself right in front on me, blocking my way.
My legs quivered. At that moment, I realized there was something in him that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I had sensed it since I laid eyes on him. The cold rush in my spine, the butterflies in my stomach, my uneasiness. It didn't feel like excitement, it felt like trepidation. I chose to ignore it because no one as beautiful as him had ever paid attention to me, but when he said those words, I wanted to run away.
I looked down and walked past him, feigning interest in the next group of chess boards. Maybe it wasn’t fear, I thought. Maybe I was giving my insecurities too much weight, letting my low self-esteem get the better of me. Maybe what seemed like fear was really anxiety of being the object of his attraction. I wasn’t used to that and it was scaring me.
As I stared at a chessboard set with white and red pieces, I silently asked myself, How come I never learned to play?
I’ll teach you. The words hit my ears as the wind, when you’re standing in the middle of a storm.
I lifted my eyes to see his reflection in the case’s glass. He stood behind me like a soldier, with a crooked smile on his lips. I believed that the voice in my head was his, that he could hear my thoughts, invade my mind. My heart jumped to my throat and I had to swallow hard to send it back to my chest.
I turned to face him, getting so close to him that I could smell him. He smelled like warm apple pie, like recently brewed coffee, like clean laundry. He smelled like comfort and cuddles, as if he somehow knew he made me nervous and wanted to make me feel safe.
“Shouldn’t you be curating something?” I said, forcing a smile.
“You don’t want me here?” he answered, getting even closer.
“No, it’s not that. I just find it strange that...”
“…that I’m interested in you?”
“Yes. What do you want from me?” I looked directly in his eyes.
“I want you.” He fixated on me.
I fell in his black eyes like a drunk falls into a pool. My apprehension melted away, replaced by a desire to hug him, kiss him, undress him right there. His hand grazed my cheek, pushing me to move closer to his appetizing lips.
I was about to touch them with mine, when I caught my reflection on his eyes. I didn’t recognize the face looking back. Two black holes took the place of the eyes, no lids, no eyebrows. The mouth extended from one ear to the other, as if it had been opened with a knife, with teeth so sharp that sharks would be envious. The skin was completely covered in ulcers. I’ve never been a saint, but in his eyes, I looked like a demon.
I tripped back, catching myself on the chess board case, hitting it so hard I heard it crack.
“I've gotta go,” my mouth uttered without my permission. Convinced that I was going crazy, I took a step to the side and walked past him. With the corner of my eye, I saw him place his hands on his face.
What sounded like sobs made me look back at him. His shoulders were shaking, but as he uncovered his face, he was laughing.
“So close!” he said, as he approached me with a huge grin that gave him an air of grandeur. “I knew you were going to be difficult. Thankfully, I came prepared.”
I was paralyzed.
“The world is in chaos,” he said, “all because of divisions and hate. Because human beings are determined to see the differences instead of the similarities between them. Because each day, selfishness and carelessness for others increase while compassion and love die a swift and painful death.”
His voice turned from sweet melody to rapid gunfire, his hands gesturing at the rhythm of his speech.
“People do not care about beauty anymore. The oranges and purples of the sunset are ignored every day, the sounds of the waves drowned out by screeching notes coming out of speakers. No one pays attention to the softness of the grass, or the smell of rain. They are living senseless lives, worried about what they lack, ignoring how good what they have already is.
“You are an exception to this rule, my dear,” he continued, slowing down. “You’ve lived your life surrounded by love, and you share it indiscriminately with every one you encounter. Beauty moves you; it brings tears to your eyes.
“I’ve worked too hard to steer humanity to this path, and I don’t intend to lose my grip. I don’t intend to let you loose in the world to undo my work. The end for them is close. And when that day comes, I want you by my side.”
My head was in a stormy cloud. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Funny, your choice of words.” He chuckled. “Let me see if you understand: the voice you’ve been hearing in your head? That’s me. The reflection in my eyes that spooked you? Mine, not yours. You’ve been feeling uneasy in my presence because that’s what I do to souls like yours.”
His face was inches from mine, and I screwed up my nose at the smell of rotten flesh emanating from him. With a smug smile on his lips, he said, “I know everything you think and feel. I know your past and present. And soon, I will be your future.”
The earth shook under me. Without completely understanding what he was saying, I ran out of the chess room to the main entrance. As I reached the door to leave the museum, his voice slithered around me.
You can’t run away.
I couldn’t push hard enough; the door wouldn’t give. I looked around for someone to help me, but there was no one in sight. The museum was completely empty.
“I can give you everything your heart has ever desired.” He walked slowly toward me, his hands behind his back.
“I don’t need you to give me anything! Just open this door!” Beads of sweat slid down my back. I was sure now. It had nothing to do with my insecurities or low self-esteem. My heart was racing and I was at the brink of tears.
With a smirk, he turned and walked away. I kept pushing the door to no avail, while keeping my eyes on him.
“Look around you, my dear, I’m doing all this for you.” He opened his arms like a circus master. “Every piece that’s displayed in this museum today is here because I chose them. I chose them because they mean something to you. That one at the top?” He pointed at the colorful rider at the end of the stairs. “I knew that one was going to catch your attention the moment you came in. You love vibrant colors, contrast.
“All those paintings we saw before? They remind you of your father. He taught you to love them.”
He stood at the foot of the stairs, still with his back to me.
“Chess brings you cherished memories, and it intrigues you, mostly because you don’t know how to play.” I heard him snicker. “That’s why we have the chess sets.”
He turned his head to look at me. “I wanted to show what I can do for you, only if you accept to be with me. You can live your life surrounded by what you love the most. Go ahead, explore, tell me if I missed anything. I promise, I won’t follow you.”
More to find another exit than to comply, I darted into the adjacent room, glancing back at him to make sure he stayed where he was. Once alone, I searched for an exit sign but my eyes caught a painting on the wall. I had seen it when I was a kid in a book about the Louvre. I had fallen in love with it since that day, and I had dreamed of traveling to Paris to see it in person, a dream that hadn’t come true. Until that moment.
With my mind in a fog, I came closer to confirm if it was the original painting. I stared at it for a few seconds, finding no evidence of a fake. Instinctively, I looked at the one beside it. Another one of my favorites from another book. And the one beside that, and the next. I looked at each of the paintings in that room, knowing them all from books or from visits to other museums, loving them all since I first saw them. They were all here, under the same roof, where they shouldn’t be.
I sprinted to the next room to find a collection of sculptures. A marble forest of known faces greeted me as if we were old friends. A muffled scream got stuck in my throat.
As if in a race, I ran through all the rooms on the first floor, pushing every exit door I found, all blocked. At another time, the masterpieces I encountered would have made me stop and stare for hours. Right now, they were smudges on the walls.
I ended up back at the main entrance and found him standing at the foot of the stairs, where I had left him.
“What do you want from me?” I placed my hands on my knees, gasping for air.
“I want you.”
“But why me?” I screamed at him as I straightened up. He smiled.
“This world is full of filth. You’re pure and loving, you’re unique and scarce. Every soul you touch is a soul away from me. Having you would be my greatest prize.”
After a brief silence, I mumbled, “What if I say no?”
“I thought you might say that, so I’m prepared to tap into your greatest quality to persuade you. “
He pointed his finger to the top of the stairs. There, where the colorful rider had been, I saw another form, humanly shaped. From where I was, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing, so I ran up the steps to the second floor, to the glass wall that gave me a good view of that area.
A man was propped on the ledge. His eyes were closed, his gray shirt covered in red. The flesh on his cheeks had been ripped off, leaving holes through which I could see his teeth. The skin had been left hanging from the corners of his mouth, making it droop down to his throat. He was fixed to the wall with what looked like a lance through his chest.
I felt dizzy, a bitter taste in my mouth. My head couldn’t make sense of what my eyes were seeing. My mind was clogged with questions, but the louder one was if he was dead. He had to be.
As I placed my hands on the glass to support myself, his eyes opened, looking straight at me. His tongue moved through the hole in his cheeks. I fell backwards with a cry, pushing myself away from the glass wall with my feet.
On my hands and knees, I moved to the next room, where the cubism masterpieces had been. Holding myself on the doorway I stood up, using the back of my hand to dry my eyes. The warmth of many stares compelled me to lift my face.
Hung from the walls like paintings, women, men and children looked at me, unable to move or talk. Some of them had the flesh of their cheeks ripped off, like the man from the ledge. Others had their jaws hanging from their faces, dislocated and pulled down to their necks, their teeth and tongues completely exposed like a snake about to attack. All were bathed in blood, with holes in their chest that showed me their beating hearts, alive when they shouldn’t be. All were looking at me, screaming for help with their eyes.
I ran to the following room, and to the next, and the one after that, meeting the same scene in all of them. Bodies where paintings should be, pleading in silence, blood on their bodies, on the walls, in pools on the floor. A heavy weight pushed me down when I understood what I was seeing. The museum was not empty. These were the visitors and employees, the people that crowded the museum when I arrived in what now seemed like days, but was probably a couple of hours. He had done this to them. The curator had made them colorful works of art for me to see. For me to save. He thought my greatest quality was compassion.
“I’m doing all this for you.” His words hit me in the head like a bat, making me curl up and cover my ears. “You know how to stop this.”
My whole body ached.
“What if I still say no?” I yelled until my throat felt weak.
“You don’t want to do that.” His voice changed. It went from melodic and sweet to a growl that filled the whole museum.
I crawled to the top of the stairs, and slowly, I lifted myself up until I faced him, still standing at the bottom.
Right behind the curator, a man floated in midair, his arms and legs stretched out as if pulled by horses, with his eyes shut and his face contorted in a silent scream.
The curator gave me a half-bent smile. “If you want him to join the others…”
A dark emptiness filled me. “And if I accept?” I whispered.
He went up one step. “All of this will be over for them. They will go back to their miserable, insignificant lives, with no memory whatsoever this happened. You will bind your life to mine, becoming my companion and partner for the rest of time, helping me collect the few valuable souls left, so I can complete my work. When my time comes, you’ll witness the demise of humanity, untouched by the fire that will consume them.”
I went down one step.
“So, I give myself to you for eternity in exchange for a temporary relief for them?”
“Isn’t it worth it?” With a head gesture, he pointed at my dad.
I turned my head to avoid that sight. Through the tears, I caught a glimpse of the man on the ledge. From where I was, I could also see some of the people hanging from the walls. I took a deep breath, shutting my eyelids hard before directing my eyes to my dad, still floating behind the curator.
He went up another step. “All you need to do is take my hand and all of this will be over,” he said extending his hand to me.
I was sure my chest was going to explode.
“Take it.” He took one more step.
I kept my eyes on my dad.
Memories of my childhood bathed me. The first time we went to a museum together, I must have been 5 years old. The first time I saw him teach, how his passion for art infected his students and made me want to follow in his steps. His wide smile whenever he caught me in his office, reading his books. His words of empowerment, telling me I could do whatever I wanted with my life, teaching me how to stand up for myself, how to be strong.
A faint smile came to my lips. I could have sworn I saw it on my dad’s face as well.
I finally lowered my gaze to meet the curator’s.
“Do you know what else my father taught me, besides loving art and chess?” I said, wiping my cheeks with my middle finger. “He taught me not to take shit from anyone.”
The curator frowned, showing me his teeth like a mad dog.
“Take. My. Hand.” He snarled.
“Take it!” He covered two steps at once.
“Not as compassionate as you thought I was?” I grinned.
“TAKE IT!” In a matter of seconds, he was in my face. His scream made the whole building shake.
I heard a yell even louder than his. A noise started in my throat, took over my body and lifted me like a spring.
The room went dark. My heart pounded in my head while I gasped for air. I couldn’t see much but I knew I wasn’t at the museum anymore. I was sitting, and it was cold. As my eyes started to get used to the lack of light, I realized I was in a familiar place: my bedroom.
Had it all been a nightmare? If so, the line between dream and reality was so thin it felt like a memory. I could still see those poor souls’ faces; I could still feel the curator’s presence.
The sudden appearance of a dim light brought me closer to my awoken state, making the cloud with the visions of the dream lift quickly. I felt the ruffle of the covers besides me, followed by a hand on my shoulder.
“Another nightmare?” My newlywed-husband said as he caressed my arm.
“Yeah, but it felt so real.” I touched his hand with mine. “I’m still shaken, but I can barely remember it now.” I moved my hand to my forehead. “So weird, I did two seconds ago.”
“This is the third time this week. Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” His melodic voice, like the notes of a piano, was close to my ear. He smelled like warm apple pie, like comfort and cuddles.
“I’m sure. I wouldn’t know what to talk about anyway. The moment I open my eyes, the dream fades away. It happens every time, like if I wasn’t meant to remember it.” I sighed. “Let’s get back to sleep.”
I turned around to meet his black, piercing eyes, his pallid, squared-jaw face, his perfect smile, so gorgeous an angel fallen from Heaven would sin to look like him. His well-defined lips softly kissed mine before lying down.
I wrapped myself with the covers and closed my eyes. The warmth of his stare was the last thing I felt before dozing off.
Carolina Servigna was born with her head in the clouds, watching stories unfold in her mind's eye until one day she discovered she could put them on paper. She has been writing since, mostly for her own amusement. Sharing her stories with others is just the cherry on top.