MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 9
When I got to third period – art, thank god – the chalky fragrance of spilled paint and charcoals wrapped its arms around me like an old friend. My shoulders eased away from my neck as I settled into a seat at the back of the room, beside a paint-splotched counter littered with old brushes. Finally, something familiar.
I reached in my bag for Notebook 19 and made a quick sketch of Nyx: light eyes filled with loathing, a sheet of ebony hair, shoulders straight, chin up. It was an excellent likeness, so good it set my teeth on edge. I wondered what her deal was. Why did she act like she already knew me, already hated me? If that’s how it was the first moment we met, we’d be sworn enemies by lunchtime.
A pair of girls, both dressed in black, rustled in like gothic birds and sat at my table. One wore glasses and a full-length lace gown, her unkempt black cherry hair parted on the side, a small strip of natural brown visible at the roots. The other girl sported a slim pin-striped suit, white ruffles at the cuff, like a fancy undertaker. Her hair, also dyed black, was cut into a severe bob, like a silent movie star from the 1920s. It was obvious they’d spent a long time perfecting their makeup: eyelids thick with black liner and lips stained a deep burgundy. On their pale skin, it looked like a smear of dried blood.
I busied myself with Notebook 19 but the girl in the gown tilted her head. A swath of hair fell across her face, covering one lens of her black-framed glasses. When she spoke, her voice was so soft, I had to lean forward to hear it.
“Are you new?” She blinked and tilted her head the other way. “I mean, I don’t recognize you.”
“Not that we know a lot of people,” the girl in the suit added.
“In high school, that is.” Gown girl blinked her dark-shadowed eyelids, lashes brushing against her glasses.
I closed Notebook 19, intrigued. “I’m Eden. We just moved from San Diego.”
“California. So much sun.” She shook her head. “I’m Maya. This is Valeria.”
Valeria gave a tiny, delicate wave. They were like dainty ravens in a dusty shop in Paris. Next to them, I was a clunky, suntanned giant.
“Do you like Joy Division?” Valeria asked. There was a lilt in her voice, maybe a soft speech impediment, or maybe like she was from Iceland.
“Ummm…” What’s a Joy Division? I wondered. A math club? A web series? I searched their powdered faces for a clue. “I’ve never heard of it?”
They giggled. Maya covered her mouth with the back of her hand. “Not it,” she whispered. “Them. They were a band. In the early 80s.”
“The very best band,” Valeria said in a hush.
“Until poor, poor Ian—” Maya shook her head. A few strands of hair caught in her lip gloss.
Valeria tsk-tsked. “Suicide.”
They clasped hands. In unison, they bowed their heads. “Rest in peace.”
I wanted to express my condolences for their loss, but was interrupted by a smallish middle-aged woman who appeared in the door.
“I am Miss DiPaola.” She tapped across the floor in high heels, a cyclone of strong perfume and gauzy fabric. “Art is my life.”
Their grief momentarily on pause, Maya and Valeria “clapped,” tapping their fingertips together.
“She’s a legend,” Maya whispered under her hair.
“Empress of art.”
Miss DiPaola swept through the room, a colorful scarf waving in her wake. “In my class, we shall discover art together. How to create art. How to create your life through your art. It will be magical. It will be an adventure.”
Her perfume, which smelled like old books, vanilla and gardenias, reminded me of Grandma Cleo’s office. My heart stung with homesickness. It had been weeks since my last strange dream, so I hadn’t mentioned the gypsy to her…yet. I’d tell her when she arrived. For now, I had school. And if I could trust my intuition, art would be my favorite class.
“I don’t believe in grades,” she declared, “and talent only goes so far. But if you put in the time and effort, you will improve. Learn from the life of Picasso, who studied the fundamentals of drawing and painting for years before turning the world on its head with his famous Blue Period. You will find your passion. You will find your spark. And you will set the rest of the world aflame.” She winked at me. “At the very least, you will inspire your classmates.”
I loved her.
Miss DiPaola assigned a series of drawing exercises, mostly outlines and shading. She slipped between our desks as we worked, smiling as she sashayed from one student to the next. I worked on a visual catalog of the gypsy’s sidewalk: chipped dishes, the white cat, my hourglass pendant.
After what felt like ten minutes, Miss DiPaola clapped her hands together. “All right, students, the bell is about to ring, so please gather your things.”
My heart sank a little. I had finally found a small, familiar corner of myself in that art class, and could have stayed there all day, drawing. With a sigh, I closed Notebook 19 and tucked it into my backpack.
The bell clanged and Miss DiPaola held up her hands. “Before you leave! A final announcement! Our first field trip to Pozzuoli is next week. Permission slips are by the door!”
I turned to Maya and Valeria. “Pozzuoli?”
“The art and history classes always go to Pozzuoli,” Maya explained, folding up her project, an expertly drawn skull with a snake winding through the mouth and eye socket. “It’s a beautiful ruin.”
“You can smell the decay,” Valeria added. “So divine.”
“I’ve heard there’s a labyrinth of tunnels under Pozzuoli, too, that connect the real world,” Maya made air quotes with her fingers, “with the Underworld. Like in Dante’s Inferno.”
My arms broke out in goosebumps. The Underworld?
Valeria smoothed the collars of her suit and crossed her legs. “It’s so very haunting. Imagine those who have disappeared into the tunnels and never returned…”
A bad feeling settled into the pit of my stomach. Pozzuoli sounded like a bad idea. High school was enough of a labyrinth. I didn’t know anything about it, but the last place I wanted to visit was the Underworld, real or not.