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Finding Her Museby Megan O'Shea
High school was hell for everyone.
But for most, its demons -- pop quizzes, bad prom photos, unrequited love triangles -- ended with the turn of a tassel and the reception of a diploma.
For most, the woman thought as she held the cheap plastic school visitor’s pass in her hand like a purpose for living.
But then, she’d never been most people. She’d needed to drop public high school for home school to complete her GED a few months before she would have graduated with the rest of her class. Most of the demons she had left behind those doors eons ago hadn’t resurfaced in the half-hour since her return; they were all but buried.
All but one.
Taking a breath, she placed her hand on the classroom doorknob. The downstairs receptionist had said he would be here after teaching hours as always; his habits hadn’t changed these ten years. Yet the more she hesitated, the more this felt to her like a potential Pandora’s Box. Maybe she hadn’t the strength for this after all.
She toyed with the notion of turning around, going back, back to the safe parking lot where her car waited and then --
No. Now or never.
She exhaled and twisted the knob open, expecting to find her demon waiting. Instead, the room was empty. After a moment’s hesitation, she stepped in, inhaling the odor of stale floor polish and chalk. Everything just as she recalled it -- even the desks were in the same places --
Wait, one thing, one small thing, was different. On the largest desk in the room, a hardback book sat open. The difference its presence made compelled her. She became a smiling Goldilocks on her third bowl of porridge as she turned the book over to see its dust-jacket cover.
He would speak to her now, regardless of how unhappy he might be to see her. Taking her former seat in the empty desk by the window, her smile grew along with her confidence as she heard the staccato rap of feet ascending stairs and then he was in the doorway, every bit as startled to see her as Papa Bear had been to see his too-hard bed torn asunder by a stranger’s hands.
More gray in his precisely parted hair than before, but those penetrating, questioning eyes were the same, as was the horridly patched coat he favored even when she had attended his class.
They stared at one another. Then she shattered the silence between them.
"Do you remember who I am?"
Niall Ingersoll almost jumped at the voice, but held his composure. The English teacher had believed his classroom to be free of students for the day and he scowled now at this unwanted development, looking the woman over with a frown. He made note of two things, the first being that she looked, in a dim, dream-like way, familiar.
The second was that she had in her likely unwashed hands his freshly-purchased copy of the first book he was genuinely enjoying in twenty years, the very thing he’d forgotten and had come back to retrieve before locking up for the day.
"Parent-teacher conferences are next week," he informed her curtly. "We discuss the exact reasons why I made your son or daughter cry then and not before." He made a mental note to tell Julia not to allow these people to see him after-hours; after being his receptionist, his shield from these sorts of situations for fifteen years, he wondered why she’d lapsed now.
"I don't want to discuss a son or daughter, Mr. Ingersoll. I want to discuss when you made me cry. Ten years ago."
He gaped. A past student returning? That hadn’t happened in -- if he thought about it, it had never happened in his thirty years of teaching. Most of his pupils, if they didn’t change classes within the first week of having him, gladly exited his classroom door at semester’s end with a look about them like war survivors.
He had to be dealing with a madwoman.
"I haven't the time for this, miss." He was thankful that the administration had finally caught up with the other modernized districts last year. Now all he needed to do was phone the first floor to alert campus security. Picking up the receiver, he stabbed in the first number with an agitated finger. Three more buttons to go and she would be gone, this stranger--
Behind him, the window squeaked open.
"I'll do it. Like I did to Bobby Keller's copy of Chaucer over winter term."
And he turned to see that the woman was holding his precious volume between thumb and forefinger, threatening to drop it into the dew-soaked grass two stories below. Bobby Keller was a sudden wraith in his head, the little hooligan that had thoroughly destroyed his school-issued edition of Canterbury Tales out of what Niall guessed at the time to be spite by throwing it into a snow drift from the upper storey. He'd blamed another student--
He spoke her name with an undercurrent of wonder. It pleased her. She allowed the book to slip further from her grasp and saw his eyes widen. Not in anger, as they had that long-ago day when he’d called her up to the front of the class to berate her, the day she’d decided to drop out, but with fear. That habit hadn’t changed either; Mr. Ingersoll always had demanded his books back in the condition they were given. Poor Bobby -- maybe he shouldn’t have made fun of the pimple on her forehead that day.
"So you do remember my name. Do you also remember telling me in front of eighteen other kids that I was the best example of a hack you'd ever had walk into your classroom after twenty years teaching creative writing?"
"What is this?" Niall waved the stack of offending papers under her freckled nose. Somewhere in the back, Bobby Keller snickered as what he saw to be just desserts were meted out. The others watched with the perverse relief of those that had escaped the proverbial hangman for another session. 'Teacher's pet' was their favored appellation for her as they threw the wadded remains of their own red-slashed failures at her back the week before. Now Ingersoll's angel had fallen from grace into the inferno of his discontent.
"This," and the sheaf flapped, a bird's broken wing, "is garbage, Ruth. Last assignment I give you an A -- which was a generous gift, mind you -- and this is what you give me? Some twaddle about little muses with fairy wings being inspiration? When I asked you to find your muse, I didn't mean 'go on a jaunt into La-La Land and give me rubbish'! Do you know what you'll amount to in this field if you write things like this? Nothing more than a hack!"
And the story became confetti, raining down for the custodian to gather into his dustpan later in the day with smashed soda cans and spitballs. Or so she'd later heard as she huddled in the ladies' room in one of the stalls, refusing to come out until the last bell of the day had sounded.
He suppressed a wince at the memory and sighed. "I don't see what throwing my new book out the window is going to accomplish there, Miss Harding. What's done is done. If it's an apology that will remove your metaphorical beak from out my heart and remove your form from off my chamber door, I'll grant it to you now. I have to be getting home and it's a long way from here."
"I'm surprised you're reading modern literature." Ruth withdrew the book from probable doom to glance at the cover. "You told us modern literature was going to be the downfall of civilization." She was gratified to see him flush.
"There are some who may yet be worth perusal," Niall admitted, taking a step for her. "Now, come along and be reasonable. It's a bestseller I waited for three weeks before I could order from the book store because it's a special collector's edition pre-signed by the author."
Ruth flipped the novel open to its first page and smirked. "Yes, I can see her signature right here. You said you only read authors with talent, Mr. Ingersoll."
"Because I do." He was losing patience again. "Does this all have a point, Miss Harding? It's growing late and I do have a long way ahead of me --"
"The apology wasn't what I came for. I've already long since forgiven you."
Niall opened his mouth as if to speak, becoming a mortified, interesting shade of purple. "Then why did you--?"
"To thank you. If you hadn't given me that speech that day, I might have never kept up with my writing as seriously as I have. I kept thinking about what you said each time I wanted to throw in the towel. I was holding the book hostage so you would listen to me until I was finished. I came to say my thanks and sometimes, the 'thank-you's are the hardest to say. Maybe I should be sorry for taking so long to do it. It's kind of a funny situation when you stop to think about it."
So saying, she produced a pen from her purse and poised it above the inside cover. "Good thing you bought it already; I was prepared to give you one of my copies instead. To whom should I make this out? 'Mr. Ingersoll' or 'Niall'?" She paused, considering, then brightened. "Hmm, maybe..."
She lowered the ballpoint and jotted something down before sliding away from the window and pressing the novel back into his astonished hands with a smile.
"Ruth," Niall began, flabbergasted, "you couldn't have..."
"Written the book? It's under a pen name."
And sure enough, as he opened the book to compare signatures, they were precisely the same down to the way each 'i' was dotted with a small heart. Before he could formulate any further protest, she'd wrapped him in a hug and was gone, the patter of her heels disappearing into the corridor.
Shaking his head, he read the inscription she had left him.
'You're right. Muses aren’t little things with fairy wings. They’re malcontent old men in motley jackets.'
"'Motley jackets,'" Niall snorted as he gathered up his briefcase, then stopped, shrugging his shoulders to loosen the coat from around his back.
Sliding a sleeve down, he reached to scratch the feathers at his shoulder-blades with a half-smile. Maybe the whole affair was more amusing than he was first willing to acknowledge now that her visit had allowed him to properly reconsider it.
'Fairy wings' indeed; the poor girl had no idea.
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