I never should have agreed to this. Modeling, for most, must be freeing – posing in darkness, nothing but thoughts and the quiet observation of the artist across the room. But Cassandra’s face haunts me even in the dark, peering out of every shadow despite the sterility of the room. I expect her ghost prefers haunting meadows, gardens, fields of lavender and rose and golden light, but her memory must follow me. Drifting across my vision, she smiles at me from behind the bronze form of a dancer. Imitating the pose, chin tilted upwards, hands clasped behind her, one foot stretched out. When she relaxes, she grabs my arm, laughing. Curving through mine, her hand feels smooth as marble. She makes every bit of earth her own paradise, and I, cast out, catch only glimpses of her through the fog.
Dried petals crumble, and the taste of her perfume lingers on my lips. Lavender, midnight, and a champagne soaked kiss. My body curls in on itself, back curving like a frightened cat. I sink downward through a sea of shadows, light rippling above me.
Her hands held this paper, her mind penned the prose. The blossoms, falling apart in my hands, graced by her fingers, pressed to her lips and mine, and preserved long after she abandoned them. After she abandoned me.
Words flow over the yellowed pages like smoke. I know you were supposed to be in Paris, so thank you for coming to my show… I miss you, but you know that… I love you.
Where were you tonight, you promised… Am I not important to you … I don’t know you anymore… I hate you. Though the letters stopped long before then.
Across the room, another girl stands under a halo of pale light, leaning against a desk, examining the piece before her. Trailing across the canvas, her brush slips through lines of paint like a voice, soothing and gentle. A hand taps against the industrial steel tabletop, her fingernails coaxing ringing notes from the surface, as if from a piano. Somewhere in the distance, a furnace whispers. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her. Briallen. Painting, her brush moves rapidly over canvas with quiet scratches. A glint of canine shines through pink as she worries at her dry bottom lip. Pencils stick out from the mound of her high bun, and a lock of ashy hair sags across her forehead.
Cassandra’s hair weaves through my fingers like ribbon. “Leave my hair alone for a moment, won’t you?” Of course I can’t. I never should have. “I’m glad you’re here.” Her words float through the quiet, fluttering like moths. “I need to practice. Will you listen for me?” She sings the way she speaks, light and joyous and beautiful.
Crackling with protest, the letters collapse like dying stars in my fists. The paper scratches at my palms. My eyes water from the sharp acrylic. I keep my face down, lest it catch the light. Draped in charcoal and curtained by shadow, pale light hitting me only in select places, I imagine I look like bone. A skeleton, undeserving of the letters I hold. Undeserving of anything.
Silence swallows me whole.
I shift slightly as my feet and thighs go numb, trying to regain the blood flow without upsetting the pose I need to hold. The quiet cracks as linoleum squeaks beneath me. Pale light flickers through the narrow window to my right, the only window left open. Cool breeze brushes my cheek, then turns tail and whips through the trees outside, making the branches sway like a conductor’s baton. Droplets of dew form on the window sill. Across the room, papers rustle and frustration hisses through teeth. Birdsong, childish yells, and squeaking tires trickle into my ears as if through water, followed by a current of curses that draws my head back up, eyes roving over the artist with concerns I deny to myself.
Briallen catches me looking at her and smiles. Plunging back down, my gaze fixes itself on a cluster of ebony specks on the ground –pieces of coal in a field of ash. With another plop, she smears a fresh clump of white paint across the black canvas. Blue eyes flit over my face, across my shoulders, down the curve of my back. She barely looks at her work now, yet her hand zigzags over the canvas without hesitation.
Legs burning, back straining, eyes sinking. Harder to stay awake, as hard as this floor, harder than living. Harder than living without her. Cassandra. Trembling, my hands refuse to release the worn pages. Briallen flexes the fingers of her right hand, wrist clicking with the strain. Outside the window, the wind groans and birds pause their chatter. Pattering against the sidewalk below, raindrops tumble through grey clouds.
Rocking back and forth on her heels, Briallen taps the end of her brush against the table. Smooth violin and forlorn voices spark like static through the headphones draped around her neck. Pausing, she peers at her fingers, swears, and wipes them across her jeans. A white streak joins the vermillion, cadmium, and cerulean lining the denim.
Though she had folded them all the way up to her biceps before we began, her flannel sleeves have snuck down her arms. She ignores them. Rain beats like a drum against the roof.
I stare back down at the letters, battered and broken in my hands. I hear Cassandra’s voice rising and falling in the ink. I gingerly smooth them out.
Briallen hums disapprovingly. I stare at her. Standing at the edge of the dark, Briallen coaxes me out of a field of shadow and lavender.
With an exhale, I crumple the pages again.
Thunder applauds, drowning out the rumble of engines in the street below.
“I shouldn’t have made you bring the letters.”
Sliding my arms through the sleeves, I tug the coat over my shoulders as Briallen flicks on the lights. The collar chafes against my neck. “It seems like it’ll be quite the storm,” I say.
Briallen opens the curtains with a clatter, wind tearing at her hair as she pulls the window shut. “It was stupid; I wanted to capture some emotion, you know? Something… real? I shouldn’t have used your pain like that. I’m sorry.”
Buttons slip through their holes with practiced ease, like notes in a song. “I’m fine, Briallen. I just hope I didn’t ruin the composition.”
“How? By crumpling them? It didn’t, but I deserved the trouble even if it did… What kind of bitch asks someone to model with an ex’s letters?” Shaking her head, she locks the window and touches her forehead to the glass. “It’s ridiculous. I’m ridiculous.” Straightening, she wipes droplets of rain off her forehead, water catching the disappearing daylight like gems. Lightning shouts, and the light catches her silhouette, turning her to bronze. Flickering and pulsing, halogen lights buzz like tabloids after a scandal, but they darken with a sharp crack. “There goes the power. Awesome. Are you going to be good getting home?”
“I’ve been through worse.”
Briallen tilts her head and raises an eyebrow.
“It wasn’t a metaphor. I’ve been out in worse weather.”
Shaking her head, her nostrils flare as she exhales. “But are you going to be okay getting home? You could always stay?”
Stay. Stay. Lavender and roses vanish under clouds of paint, canvas, and vanilla.
I shake my head and adjust my scarf around my throat. “I’ll be fine, Briallen.”
“At least wear your hood. Christ, you’re going to get hypothermia.” Briallen steps up and flips my hood over my head, gently shifting the fabric. She steps back and examines the effect before making another adjustment. “Do I have to do everything for you?” Her wrist brushes against my forehead, and her pulse thrums, a violin singing by my temple.
My lips quirk into a smile. “Of course not.”
Paper rustles in my coat pocket. My fingers ghost over the hidden edges. Briallen takes my hand and pulls it away. “Thanks for modeling today, I know you have better things to do.”
I know you were supposed to be in Paris…
“You’ll come to the show, right?”
… so thank you for coming to my show…
“I was unaware this was for a gallery piece.”
“You don’t mind, do you? Just say the word and I’ll take it out of the lineup.”
I miss you, but you already know that…
“No, it’s alright.”
“So you’ll come?”
… I love you.
“Of course.” I reach for the door handle, twisting the lock with a metallic click. Her hand rests on my shoulder.
“I mean it. Thank you for modelling. Seriously. I know you hate it.”
“Briallen, it’s fine.”
“It’s really not. Isn’t it kind of unfair to you?”
Where were you tonight, you promised…
Metal cold against my skin, I turn the door handle. “Not at all. That’s what I’m here for.”
Am I not important to you …
“I’m here for you too. You know that, don’t you?”
I don’t know you anymore…
“You’re my best friend. Even if you hate modelling.”
I hate you.
Turning back, I lean down and press my lips to her cheek. “I know.”
Her nose scrunches up in the same way it does when a viewer stands in front of her paintings for too long. Brushing a loose strand of hair back behind her ear, she asks, “Are – are we still on for tomorrow? Not for a gallery this time, cross my heart. And there’ll be lights; one of the clients wants to see some detail work, is that okay?”
Lightning flashes through the room, carving out Briallen’s silhouette in bronze and ivory. Ivory, like the ribbons in Cassandra’s hair that night. Will you leave my hair alone for one minute? Air sparks, and the voices from the auditorium echo faintly through the water around me. “Where were you tonight? You promised…” Her forehead gleams with stage makeup and sweat. Blue beads glint accusingly from the folds of Cassandra’s dress, taffeta rustling as she walks away, and the bundle of lavender drops out of my hands. But the halogen lights buzz back to life, and Cassandra’s face disappears under Briallen’s.
“Of course. Goodnight, Briallen.” I step out the door, letting the rain run down my body, through my skin. Waterfalls pour over the edges of my hood, cutting me off from the grey streets, and I give up, slipping it off my head. As the water closes around my head, my mind quiets. A song hums through my throat, and I focus on the melody, thinking of the music commissions I must compose, considering the songs newly complete, the songs Cassandra would have sung… Her voice echoes through my head, distant and faded. In the middle of the street, I stop, the storm swirling around me, and I stand in the eye of a hurricane. I lift the letters out of my pocket, watching raindrops pooling in the crevices. The black ink curls into grey smoke, seeping over my fingers.
I never should have agreed to this.
Modeling traps me in a prison of my own design. But tomorrow, when Briallen leans against the steel table and requests another session, I agree again. Ringing in my ears are all the times I told Cassandra she outweighed everything else in my life. “Do you promise?” Briallen understands I might fail. But modeling for her, for the thing she cares for most, I commit my time. I cannot break. Not again. Loosening my grip, I watch the letters tremble in my palms. Curving around them, the wind sidles through the papers, rocking them back and forth in my hands like a child on a swing. But when the breeze turns to gusts, I slide the furrowed papers back into the depths of my coat.
Behind me, lavender blossoms trail through the shadows.