The moment Max woke up on the couch in his studio, he noticed his painting had changed. On the face of it — though it had no face — he thought it looked…similar…to the one he’d completed the night before. There was no doubt it was his work. Except when he’d gone to sleep the night before, that pair of feet he’d painted had been in a relaxed third position.
Now they were poised to jump.
There was no mistaking it. Muscles bunched under translucent skin. The angle of the ankles was slightly more open, a wider V-shape, as it were, and energy was concentrated in them, tension building, alluding to a leap, springlike, into the air.
Max walked to the window and pressed his forehead into the still-cool glass. It was early morning. Barely light. When the sun hit the side of his loft apartment building, the wall of glass that made up one entire corner of the studio would warm the room and make it almost impossible for most people to work. But Max always felt cold lately, so it couldn’t happen soon enough for him.
Shadows still lurked behind the boxes of supplies and the rows of finished canvases waiting to be framed or reworked. He hadn’t been happy with his work in a long time. He picked up the altered piece and put it with the most recent ballerina studies in his collection of unfinished paintings.
He then walked across the studio and took out a portrait he’d done of Elena the winter before. It was Elena’s delicate and ethereal beauty that had earned him both a comparison to the work of Degas and his reputation as a man who had a fascination with the adolescent female form.
The first, Max was ready to admit, probably didn’t bother him too much. Because whether the comparison was favorable or unfavorable, both he and Degas painted ballerinas. So the similarity was apt, in the way that it was aptto compare King Henry the Eighth to Burt Bacharach. It was certainly accurate that at one point or another, they had both composed love songs.
Yet any fascination Max felt for the adolescent female form was solely devoted to the ballerina and really had nothing to do with gender at all. It owed everything to the apparent fragile beauty that covered the iron framework of a superior athlete and to the grim determination to endure pain, manifested on a dancer’s ravaged feet.
Max liked to add, for the record, that he liked male ballet dancers far better. However, he didn’t have one who lived up the stairs on the third floor of his building, had summers off from school, and modeled for a fee that was more like babysitting money than a professional model’s model’s wages.
In short, Elena, whose body graced over half of the canvases currently in his studio. Whose torn feet had so moved him that he’d created a whole series of paintings showing the terrible trauma to the axis on which his sylphlike ballerina spun.
Elena had been missing for three days.
The police had already knocked on neighborhood doors asking if anyone had seen her. Soon they’d be knocking on his door again, asking more pointed questions. He would, if he were in charge. He was a single white male in his late thirties. He was quiet; he kept to himself. He distrusted technology. He liked to paint adolescent ballerinas. Even though he sold his paintings and made an excellent living — a terrifying, obscene amount of money that he had little use for but to live well and assist charitable causes — he rarely ventured out. Rarely had anyone in, either, except his models. Even Max had to admit he liked himself in the role of person of interest.
Not that he’d done anything wrong. He’d never so much as sketched Elena’s pinkie finger without the presence of her grandmother, who sat knitting in a small tufted chair he’d gotten especially for her when it became clear that she got stiff in the Italian leather sofa he kept for his own use. Elena called her Abuelita Nonna, a nod to her Hispanic-Italian heritage. In an envelope on the worktable, there were still bits of yarn that Nonna had cut for fringe and not used.
For the life of him, Max couldn’t remember the last thing he’d said to Elena, and it bothered him now. Had he told her to take care? Had he commented on the weather? Was there a boy? Had she sparkled just a little bit more brightly? Had she been afraid of something? Was she subdued? Depressed? It seemed he ought to be able to remember what they’d talked about the last time she was here in his studio. That he couldn’t broke his heart.
The police were still treating it like a missing persons case, but Max had the sick, cold fear that it was more than that. He knew she was close to her family, and they doted on her. She wouldn’t have left them without a word.
When his coffeemaker surged its last puff of steam, he went into the kitchen and poured himself a cup. Police cars had pulled into the parking lot behind the large protoindustrial building that housed his loft. Sooner or later the police would knock on his door. Anything — and everything — he told them would have to be the most perfect truth he’d ever told if he wanted to be believed.
Max looked back at the painting he’d finished the day before. Truth was in short supply. He wasn’t sure if he’d know it even if he heard it. He found he was having trouble believing even what his eyes could see. Because the night before when he’d finished and signed that painting, the feet weren’t about to jump.
Yet now, they were.© Z. A. Maxfield April 2010 All rights reserved.