I wrote this short story years ago for a competition, but since the action happens on Valentine’s Day it seemed fitting to share today.
Her lustrous fiery tresses flowed halfway down her back, loose curls swirling seductively around her shoulders and catching on the fabric of her pretty floral cocktail dress. Of course I knew who she was – it was hard to imagine there was anyone who wouldn’t know – but this was the first time I’d seen The Muse in the flesh. And it was Valentine’s Day! I wasn’t into romance, but I think someone was on my side this night.
Equally alluring to both sexes, The Muse is responsible for myriad Facebook memes, reality TV shows, cameo movie offers and her own hashtag: #themuse. But what piqued my interest as an anime-loving geek, was the glossy photoshoot of her dressed in a black leather catsuit that had spawned a new comic book heroine. When I wasn’t working, I was reading comics. Or talking online about comics. The Muse was my favourite character.
While she loves to exhibit her obvious physical assets, The Muse herself is an enigma. Media outlets have offered monetary rewards to encourage someone to spill her real name, but nobody is willing to reveal that secret. I call her ‘Cherry’ because I like to imagine those fulsome lips biting into the equally curvaceous fruit. The purple/red juice runs to the tip of her chin, but I catch it just in time with my tongue. And then we kiss…
My boss Ed, a bad-tempered editor who thinks spicy salami and pickles washed down with stale beer constitutes a balanced meal, was the one who was invited to this swanky shindig. Instead, his date on this sticky summer afternoon was a few cold beers at The Printer’s Devil, an old English-style pub a block away from the office. Still, we needed to cover the story so that task fell to the lowly copy boy (aka office dogsbody).
“You,” he’d said, pointing his stubby finger at me.
“Feel like rubbing shoulders with the arty set tonight? Some bird they’re calling The Muse is making an announcement down by the harbour. Should be a few drinks in it for you. And it’s that day all the sheilas get soppy about, so you might get lucky,” he winked.
“Carol has got the deets. This Muse bird is supposed to be flighty, but get a few pics on your phone of her and some of the crowd for the social pages and Facebook, will ya?”
Ed gestured towards Carol, the newsroom’s administration clerk, with a non-committal wave and shuffled back into his office, slamming the door behind him.
When Carol handed me a printed copy of the email invitation, I scanned it with shaking hands. I couldn’t believe I was going to see the woman I dream, or more correctly fantasise incessantly, about – and it was for work. I couldn’t get out of that office fast enough.
Cherry’s striking emerald eyes were perfectly framed with long, dark lashes. Her trademark scarlet lipstick made those plump lips so inviting, but it was the spider web tattoo that covered her entire neck and left cheek that fascinated me. Others say the tattoo detracted from her beauty, but each night, as I lay in the single bed I’d slept in since I was two, I traced the fine silvery threads of her web mentally with my finger.
Photographers, journalists and bloggers from newspapers, magazines, websites and all the television channels surrounded Cherry like bees swarming about a red flowering gum tree. I hung back, suddenly nervous and feeling out of place, as she announced the launch of a signature lingerie line.
My tie choked and I felt my short-sleeve shirt stick to my back. I pulled out my phone and took a few images that I knew would fit Ed’s brief, then recorded this stunning creature tossing her head back in laughter at one of the entertainment journo’s flirty comments, but then she turned and looked directly at me. Her eyes scanned across my entire body, from the sweaty hair sticking to my cheek, to my badly ironed shirt, all the way down to my scuffed shoes. I was paralysed in a combination of fear and desire.
Then our moment was broken. One of those TV idiots took her attention away from me and I heard her laugh at something inane he’d asked. A hint of acidic jealousy rose from the pit of my stomach. Annoyed at my inability to act when I should have, I mentally berated myself. However, I felt slightly better when I ran over the footage I’d grabbed before I turned into a statue. That video will get lots of likes on our Facebook page, I thought and smiled wryly to myself.
I stuffed the phone back into my pocket and turned to leave. As incredible as it was to see the object of my most vivid fantasies in person, this gig wasn’t my scene. And I certainly wasn’t going to get lucky just because it was February 14. Glancing back towards the throng for one last look at my siren, I was surprised to see she wasn’t holding court any longer.
“Leaving so soon?” a voice purred behind me, causing the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck.
“Uh, I, um, I…”
“It’s no biggie doll, I won’t take it personally. I saw you snapping pics but you didn’t ask me anything. You’re not interested in my bra?” she asked and winked, her bejewelled lashes catching the fading sunlight.
“Lingerie isn’t really my thing, but I love your tatt,” I mumbled, looking up from the ground to meet her gaze briefly. Her taking the lingerie off was another matter altogether.
“So you like the body art more than the body, do you? That’s refreshing,” she said, holding out her hand to me.
“I’m Diana. What do I call you?”
My heart jumped into my throat as I heard her name – the same as the Roman goddess.
“You know my secret now, but you’ll have to decide what to do with it. Run back to your editor with your international scoop, or join me for a drink and I’ll tell you the story behind my tangled web,” she said, closing her long manicured fingers around my clammy hand.
My mind filled with images of Cherry’s face on our front page – my first front page – with the words “The Muse: Uncovered” emblazoned across her chest. The idea of knowing something only a handful of people knew was intoxicating, but the thought of sharing a drink or two with the object of my dreams was worth far more to me.
Ed didn’t care anyway, I thought as I smiled and said, “I can’t wait, Diana”. Her skin was soft and slightly moistened as she took my hand in hers. Together, we slunk off behind the media scrum and found the darkest pub on the harbour. It was full of secret drinking nooks where, “we can share some more secrets,” she told me. I set my phone to record and put it back in my pocket.
During three generous gin and tonics (“with a slice of lime, Doll – it sends a shiver right through me when the bitter juice touches my lips”) and rum and Cokes (“no straw, mate”), Diana opened up and told me enough to fill a week’s worth of front pages.
An only child from a broken home, Diana left her mum at 16 and followed all the other aspiring starlets to Hollywood. She signed up with an agent the day she arrived. He hooked her up with a seedy flatmate who moonlighted as a pimp. When her first casting call for a porn film called ‘Schoolgirls Get Caned’ happened the same day she had woken to find her ‘flatmate’ taking photos of her, Diana knew she needed a new agent – and a new home.
Mentally exhausted and with fast-depleting funds, Diana wandered the less salubrious Hollywood streets hoping a solution would present itself to her. After hours of pounding the pavement and being rejected for four waitressing jobs (“You’re too young for this area, honey”; “I know your kind. You’ll just run out on me for the first acting job you’re offered”; “Come back next week and I might have something” and her favourite: “I can’t hire you, the chef will be ogling you constantly and nothing will get done”), Diana found a crate in a back alley and decided to rest for a few minutes and contemplate her next move.
She leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, the smell of stale urine, rotting food and cigarettes filling her nose and leaving an acrid taste in the back of her mouth. Feeling defeated, Diana decided she had no other option but to walk to her apartment, pack her small bag of belongings and go back to her mum.
As she rose from the crate, the door to the shop opened out and a man stood in the doorway lighting a cigarette. Diana froze, unsure what to do, but knowing she wanted to get away as fast as she could. An imperceptible glance to her left gave Diana all the information she needed: the bearded man was well over two heads taller than her, very muscly and covered in tattoos.
Diana watched the man out of the corner of her eye and when he turned to answer a question from inside, she decided to make a run for it. Two steps into her flight and she felt herself being pulled back suddenly by a firm grasp on her wrist.
“Where do you think you’re going little lady?” the patterned man boomed.
“I was just heading home. I didn’t do anything,” Diana said, tears welling up.
“Oh sweetie, I didn’t mean to scare you. Come inside and get warm. You look like a rabbit in headlights,” he said, his face softening.
With no other option, Diana threw herself at his mercy. But Papa Joe was like a big teddy bear. He took Diana inside, found her a blanket, placed it on her shoulders and made her a strong cup of tea, which she gulped down with two biscuits. Papa Joe owned the tattoo parlour and offered Diana a job as the receptionist, which also involved keeping the four tattoo artists in line. She lived upstairs with Papa Joe, his wife Evie and their Chihuahua named Princess.
Over the four years Diana worked at Papa Joe’s tattoo business Arachne, her confidence grew and she learned how to look after herself on the tough streets of Hollywood. Her workmates became her adopted family, but she was especially close to Juan, a talented artist two years her senior, whose work was so well regarded all the Hollywood A-listers asked for him.
In his spare time Juan illustrated comics, providing carefully wrought images to match words created by his best friend and neighbour, Isaac. Diana met Isaac for the first time a year after she started working at Arachne. He looked at her like she was the only person in the room – and treated her like a queen. But Papa Joe had other ideas for “his” girl that involved her name in lights. He didn’t let anything develop with Isaac beyond a solid friendship.
As Diana’s body found its comfortable mode in voluptuous curves, Isaac’s writing evolved from a combination of characters in each story to just one: The Muse. Respectful of Papa Joe’s wishes, but also desperate to make Diana his, Isaac wrote a series of comics that broke records around the world. The Muse Chronicles set up a comic franchise and associated merchandise that saw Diana become the smart, sexy superhero that men – and women – desired. Her identity as a beautiful shop girl changed to that of powerful seductress The Muse. And her character’s identity became hers.
When Diana was cast in her first television show, she asked Juan to paint her in silken threads. Now in Sydney on an international publicity tour for the show and associated merch, The Muse was starving for real human company, not a seething throng of sweaty fans.
“So, sweet cheeks, now you know my web of a story, what are you going to do with it all? Am I tomorrow’s front page, or what?” she asked, tilting her head to the side and challenging me with her piercing green eyes.
“Nah, I’ll just give Ed those snaps from my phone and we can post a video on Facebook,” I mumbled.
“Thanks hun, I knew you looked trustworthy. Well trustworthy for a hack, anyway. What will you tell him you were doing tonight then?” she asked as she got up to leave.
“I’ll just say I spent the night with Cherry.”
“She sounds delicious,” Diana whispered in my ear.
She grabbed my chin, pulled my face around to hers and then those lips I’d lusted after were on mine for a fleeting second.
“See ya round, Doll. Maybe text me some time,” she said, putting a card in my hand and closing my fingers around it.
I looked down at my hand and saw she’d scrawled her phone number and “Cherry XOXO” on the back of the Channel 10 entertainment reporter’s business card. Stuffing the card into my pocket, I ran back to the office, hoping Ed wasn’t going to be around. Thankfully the cool night air cleared my head because I’d been feeling a buzz building while listening to Diana’s story.
“Geez that bird must’ve been something, you’ve been gone hours,” Ed slurred as I walked into the newsroom, out of breath from my run.
“I hope you’ve got something good for me after all that time. Come ‘ere and show me.”
I downloaded the photos and short video clip into the paper’s archives and sent the link to Ed.
“I’ve just sent you everything Ed. Do you want me to schedule the video to go live on Facebook?”
“Let me take a look first. Knowing you, we’ve got just her ear or the back of her head. Did you get anything worth reporting?”
“Nah, she was swamped by the TV guys and just talked about some new bra line she was launching.”
Ed grunted and started peering at his screen.
“This video is good stuff. Who were you standing next to? Whoever it was, she liked him. Or her,” he laughed to himself.
“She’s winking right into your frame. Get it on Facebook now son, we need to get all the 14-year-old boys’ hormones raging so they share it across the city. This is gold son. I reckon we’ll go viral with this. Look at how she’s looking right into the lens and then winks. She’s my kinda sheila.”
“This sexy bird’s gonna sell me some copies tomorrow. Shame you didn’t use your reporting skills and open your mouth to ask her name.”