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Artsonists

“For the last time, would you turn your music off?”
Jules Ashton exhaled heavily, his lips ballooning out like a doleful fish’s when he received, yet again, no reply. He supposed this song was less satanic in comparison with the others his fraternal twin sister had been blasting for half an hour. But fewer swear words and a more structured melody did not amount to better in his book. In his book, specifically, in Jack London’s To Build a Fire, he could find no solace from the fury-laden beat. His concentration was dripping, like the paint on a canvas, out of his mind. No, actually… it had slipped out the door the moment Willow Catherine walked in.
Willow Catherine drew her arm back with a practiced motion and prepared to throw The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce across the room. Jules did not bother to duck.
Willow aimed for the stereo’s power button. The room went silent.
Jules yawned affectedly. “Thank you. Would you like to continue the rest of our affable sibling reunion hour in this silence? It is very refreshing.”
“Stop trying to be smart with me.”
Her silver-blonde eyebrows did really dance when she was angry; Corning, an Irish boy in Jules’ art class, had been telling him that. A regular little jig, just like the dance in the old homeland, he’d said. Unfortunately, Willow had overheard him and attempted to use the boy’s ponytail as her paintbrush by way of retribution.
A jig, Jules snorted. Much too flattering, too happy leprechaun kind of thing. Willow was not happy, hadn’t been since their parents had separated (not divorced, because that would damage their business reputations) three years ago, and no amount of sibling bonding time could remedy that. Yet their parents would like to feel better about tearing their children apart without actively working to put them back together. They accomplished this feat every Saturday, when Mr. Ashton kidnapped Jules to his mother’s house at two, entrusted him to Willow, and reassured himself that the building would be intact when he returned at three. He then departed with Mrs. Ashton to meet with the family counselor and hem and haw about their marital status quo.
“I don’t have to try, Willow,” Jules said. “You make it easy with your fiery temper.”
She knew he was right, and that she should work on getting her temper under control, if only to deny him the pleasure of annoying her. Though truth be told, it was rather flattering to be described as fiery, considering that the recent burning of the fancy cars’ dealership was the best thing that had happened in town for a long while. Well, that, and the graffiti, too.
Jules picked up in the wake of her thought. “Speaking of which, whose side are you on?”
“Whose…?” She pretended not to understand.
“It’s only been on the news twenty-four seven for the past week, Miss Lives-Under-Rock. Who do you support, the firebrand or the graffitist?” He twisted a golden strand around his pinky. “Personally, I’m for the graffitist.”
“Then I hold with those who favor fire.”
“Goodness, and I thought you always slept in English class,” Jules mocked.
“Only sometimes,” Willow defended.
“Sometimes, as in every day for the past week?”
“So you noticed. I didn’t know you had it in you to care.”
“What makes you think I do?”
*~*~*
Willow crouched down, swirling her finger through the sparse layer of ash that covered the ground. It was the Wednesday after she’d spoken to Jules, and she loitered after school at the southern end of the complex where the fire was supposed to have started. A dumpster and nondescript vacant field complemented the once-glorious face of the building, all glass and marble. Now, the ruins spoke with one voice, two words: “Who?” and “Why?” She read the carnage as she would a painting, the words bright as brushstrokes.
Here walked Guy, sanest among madmen, the blackened foundations whispered.
Tortured by brands of gold and silver, he turned his own on us, knocked down towers of bullion.
A lightning-sharp mind struck here, idle hands unsheathed the flaming sword because they could, wanted to, and had nothing else to do.
Perhaps it was her own wishful thinking, but Willow felt a kindred soul breathing at her back. The complex that had burned to the ground belonged to her father’s law firm. Hourly consultation fees started at $850.
With gold dust trickling through his fingers, you’d think he’d have the sense to put it away in a safe to keep others from choking on it, Willow thought bitterly. But instead, he kicks it up like the next Dust Bowl, and it coalesces into a wall splitting his family. So here I am.
The Ashtons’ financial squabbles had dissolved their matrimony like aqua regia, and Willow vowed, as she watched the acid bubble sluggishly, that she would not sit by for long. Her mysterious beloved arsonist was clearly on the same wavelength as she, though she was no closer to identifying who.
She continued to caress the ash, imagining it to be gallons of acrylic she would sometimes plunge her fingers into, a very therapeutic recreation—amusing, too, when she flicked it at clean freaks like Jules. Then her vengeful fingers closed around a scrap of paper.
“The match fell into the snow and went out.”
A little ironic, considering it doesn’t snow around here, and the match certainly didn’t get snuffed out this time around, Willow mused.
It seemed to be torn from a book, with that sentence being the only one distinguishable on the scrap. Was it intentional?
Willow’s nostrils flared unflatteringly. People had always stared at her for it, but those that knew her (oh precious few) knew that inflection to be the visual representation of her muse descending upon her.
*~*~*
It’s too familiar, Jules pondered as he had a staring contest with the ruined car in front of him. Though ruined wasn’t really the word he would use. Rather, the flamboyant piranhas and eye-watering vermilion lobsters, nonsensically juxtaposed onto the windshield and hood of some expensive vehicle, decidedly improved it. Nothing else had been touched. Who would make a point of spray painting the crown jewels of the town’s automobile business?
He flicked his lighter, relit his cigarette, and tried to reignite his memory. Why was it so familiar to him? The piranhas’ gaping jaws, the lobsters’ unrealistically sharp claws and trailing antennae, swimming through the sleek surfaces of not just this car, but nine others, all lined up at the front of the exhibition lot. He was surprised the company hadn’t moved them. They might be stocking up on publicity, yes, but not the good kind. People would come and gawk for a bit, but they wouldn’t buy more cars just because of this incident.
Not that Jules would spare a heartbeat worrying for the company’s welfare. The more Lamborghinis that sported exotic seafood, the better, because that meant fewer to sell and swell his mother’s purse and head. If only this had happened before his parents had separated. Mrs. Ashton, manager of the dealership branch, drove one of her own sedans, carousing around town with her true love, Money. Jules had gotten accustomed to being home alone with Willow from an early age, as both parents (Mr. Ashton was equally faithless) snapped up hors d’oeuvres and business clients in the same mouthful at social functions.
“Remind you of someone?” came an oiled voice from behind him. Jules turned to stare at… oh, him. Corning. He was the one who had remarked on Willow’s eyebrows.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Jules said in a monotone, glaring at the burgundy ponytail bouncing in time with jaunty steps.
“I must say the same to you, my fellow prospective sleuth. By the way, how’s the sister recently?”
Jules tasted irritation, sour and raspy on his tongue for the briefest moment at the mention of Willow. Why was Corning always so keen on discussing her and her odd ways? Jules maintained no pretense of brotherly protectiveness; he simply had better things to discuss.
The two regarded each other, seemingly accepting that Jules would not answer. Jules absently shifted his weight to his left leg as Corning’s bottle green eyes scrutinized his soul. The eyes darkened ever so slightly, the eyebrows tightened, the thin lips parted, and Jules resigned himself to fielding yet another gibe against him.
“Your sister’s skin is less ruddy than your own,” Corning observed loftily.
Oh. That.
“Therefore I would advise you against borrowing her concealer when coloring under your eyes. I would also recommend you refrain from flushing as you are now and further accentuating the difference.”
“If you’re done playing detective, you can go now. You’re not doing much to improve the scenery,” Jules snarled.
“You yourself have said it. The real masterpiece: neither my face, nor your sloppily concealed raccoon eyes, but instead…” Corning gestured grandiosely at the garish graffiti. “Tell your sister to get some sleep, will you?” With this prim parting parry, Corning waltzed away across the lot with far more poise than his cactusesque personality belied.
Jules looked at the piranhas again, blinked several times, looked again, and thought about it. He chewed his cigarette and suddenly spit it out to lie forlornly on the ground.
*~*~*

Willow tossed the much-abused contents of her backpack into her locker and slammed the door on the whirlwind of Thursday’s homework within, only to come nose to nose with Mr. Ponytail.

“You should know that anyone in our art class would recognize the fish,” he said enigmatically and without preamble. “Your work is hardly forgettable, even if you hadn’t chosen my lovely locks to paint your masterpiece.”

Willow gaped at the cherry redhead and his half-smirk brimming with aplomb. “Well?”

A slight lift of his upper lip asked, “Well what?”

“It’s kind of you to warn me before you turn me in,” she hissed.

“Woman, you dishonor me,” his electric eyes widened theatrically. “I have not the slightest intention of revealing you. I would be doing this town an indelible disservice.”

“In that case, you should know about my brother.”

“I am aware of his unscrupulous raiding of your makeup supplies.”

“No, that’s irrelevant. I’ll be sending him a letter momentarily. Please try to be more discrete about reading it than you have been in this conversation.” Willow stalked away towards the cafeteria.

And I thought I was the grand master of touché. Corning’s jaw clenched as he gazed after the retreating figure.
*~*~*
Dear Jules has spent the past ten minutes spouting artistic minutiae to his drowsing tablemates, Willow grumbled acerbically as she sat one table away from her brother. What I wouldn’t give to plague him with lockjaw for a day.
His friends did indeed look less than interested as they all fixedly memorized the contents of their plates. Willow glanced at her own, half-thawed hamburger buns flanking a patty of mystery meat, nothing interesting there.
“So where will the artist strike next?” someone next to Jules interjected. It was the redhead, the only one not ogling his plate, though not for long; now everyone’s gaze rose to him.
“Next?” Jules inquired delicately. “Pray tell us, Corning, what makes you think there will be a second incident?”
Corning arched his sparse eyebrows at Willow, the both of them blatantly reveling in the knowledge of exclusive self-revelation. Jules followed their eyes. Everyone else resumed staring down their food.
“Feu de Elegance is as good a bet as any, I should think.”
“Feu, the club?”
“There’s just the one, Julie.”
Jules’ eyes unfocused for a few minutes, only to cross themselves dramatically as a rather pointy blue paper airplane found its target on the bridge of his nose. He looked up to see Willow leaning against the frame of the cafeteria door, meeting his eyes levelly. Then she turned and trudged out, morose as ever. Jules unfolded the airplane as if he did it every day; Corning rested his chin on pristinely folded hands and eyeballed the paper.
It was Willow’s senior quote form. “The match fell into the snow and went out.” Underneath the spaces for the quote were two words in her topsy-turvy scrawl.
Midnight, tonight.
Corning called him back to reality. “It’s a date, Julie.”
Jules stuck his tongue out absentmindedly, tasting smoke and spray paint on the air.
*~*~*
No more jaws and claws, Willow, she said to herself. They’re not very tasteful—why not something more iconic? Something along the lines of “Anarchists unite! Oh wait…”
She blushed, though no one was there to hear her ludicrous thoughts. She embarrassed herself, sometimes. She imagined her face from the outside in and thought the blood in her cheeks made her chalky pallor rather masklike. And then she remembered one such mask, one scarecrow, one poem by T.S. Eliot. She proceeded to make them real on the wall before her.
She worked quickly when inspired. Her fingers had just finished an obnoxious set of silver sparklers when she heard the voice she was expecting. She’d smelled the smoke already.
“A welcome present for me. How touching.”
Willow Catherine turned and plucked Jules Ashton’s cigarette from between his bitter lips. It was the first time she had not wanted to throw anything at him.



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