Do Not Touch

Do Not Touch

illustration by faith erin hicks and noreen rana

Lane doesn’t understand why people have such a hard time following directions. All these paintings are clearly marked “DO NOT TOUCH” for a reason.

This short story was acquired for Tor.com by senior editor Calista Brill.

Ninety-nine out of a hundred missing kid alarms are meant for Boris, whose poet’s soul wearies with the stresses of running museum security.

He carries a walkie, a fistful of terrifying keys and passcards, a belt-holstered Taser, handcuffs, and—most important—a pocket pack of tissues for the inevitable crying teaching assistant or volunteer field-trip aide or parent when the hysterics set in. The museum quietly shuts all its doors, has the local police do a perimeter check, and usually in the next fifteen to twenty minutes, someone rustles the little shit out of a stairwell or from a hiding place somewhere behind a section marked CLOSED FOR INSTALLATION.

The one other missing kid is a whole different story.

That other missing kid is Lane’s problem.

 

It’s a Thursday in September and the museum is lousy with school groups. Even if nobody gets lost and nothing gets shoplifted out of the museum store, there’s still the emotional stability of the docents and tour guides to consider. Autumn weekdays are relentless battles in the worksheet gore of the Impressionist galleries, Lane knows.

They’ve already had two spills, one kid groping a statue—Catholic schools, Lane and Boris agreed in disgust—and a pair of teenagers necking in a restricted area heaving with Spanish early medieval panels. Lane thinks that if you can be surrounded by that much creepy dead Jesus and still want to lead off of second base with a date, you’ve probably earned your petting, but museum administration disagrees. It’s barely 1:00 p.m., an hour ripe with possibilities of disaster catalyzed by the post-lunch/post-recess platoons of elementary-age kids.

 

The TV in the employee break room is—either though science or magic—permanently locked on to PBS, and so Boris and Lane are parked around it, watching the second season of Downton Abbey for the millionth time when the alarms go off.

“Have fun with that,” Lane says to Boris, not looking away from the mesmerizing perfection of Dowager Countess McGonagall, distributing shade to all and sundry.

“Sorry to break it to you, Lane,” comes a voice from the doorway, “but this is one of yours.”

Boris punches a fist into the air, victorious, and says something foul in Russian, barely glancing away from the television screen. Lane, on the other hand, gets to swivel around with resigned unhappiness to face Eugenie Dixon’s wincing expression of apology. Eugenie is five-two on a tall day, usually dressed in a two-sizes-too-large cardigan, and she’s responsible for Lane’s least favorite gallery in the museum.

“Please tell me it’s not that stupid painting again,” Lane pleads.

She flushes and, sounding extremely remorseful, says, “I’ve already asked for them to move it out of the reach of patrons five times.”

“And yet here we are.” Lane sighs, heaving himself out of his chair. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find some antique francs.”

 

When Lane accidentally graduated from Tulane with a degree in art history after a decade of military school and a lifetime’s practical education with Southern good manners, he’d considered himself professionally FUBARed.

And then he’d gone to the museum to sulk and watched a kid fall into a Dalí, slipping elbows over toes and casting a shadow over the DO NOT TOUCH sign mounted along the bottom of the gilded frame.

The guards are shooing out the last of the afternoon rush: whining kids and annoyed blue-haired ladies and hipsters pouring out of the doorway en masse clutching backpacks and sketch pads. There’s a huddle of tourists at one of the already-closed gates asking, Why is the exhibit closing? There wasn’t a sign? Do you know they paid fifteen dollars to get into this museum? The Impressionists are a very important part of their twenty-minute speed walk of the joint, which usually starts at the mummies, goes straight for the Van Goghs, then involves being lost in the contemporary wing looking for a bathroom and buying forty dollars worth of useless art-print notebooks in the gift shop.

Gary, who’s been a docent in the Impressionist galleries for roughly a thousand years, lasers in with a death glare the minute Lane and Eugenie step out of a service stairway.

“You know where this crap never happens?” Gary says to them, poking at a couple of middle schoolers with a cane until they toddle off with their school group.

“English painters?” Eugenie and Lane recite together.

“English painters never has crap like this!” Gary rants, waving his cane in the air now at a couple of rubbernecking visitors. There’s a white board in the security break room that currently reads 26 DAYS SINCE SOMEONE THREATENED TO SUE US BECAUSE OF GARY. Lane suspects that number’s going back down to zero soon. “What the hell is wrong with you two?”

Eugenie ducks under the security gate, halfway down the wall already, calling over her shoulder, “Looks clear.”

“You should just leave the little bastard in there,” Gary suggests.

“You’ve got a heart of gold, you know that, Gary?” Lane tells him, and follows Eugenie in before Gary can throw his cane.

The security gate shuts behind Lane with a resolute click of tumblers and locks falling into place—the voices outside the gallery beginning to fade as security guards block off the next two rooms with velvet ropes, closing off all lines of sight.

Ahead of him, Eugenie is taking a left and heading for the far wall, against which is a dour-looking gold frame with a cobalt mat, Georges Seurat’s Le Cirque trapped inside: eternally unfinished in its sodium yellow and lapis lazuli mosaic of paint daubs. At close range, the painting is like a dot matrix of color: individual reds and blues and yellows perched side by side, giving the illusion of blending from a distance. In raking light, the surface is rough, uneven, and Lane can understand the reflexive curiosity, how some kid with a good eye and bad impulse control might reach out and try to run the pads of his fingers against the canvas, to know for sure.

That kid is Alex Edison, twelve, on a school trip with North Garland Academy. The teacher, in fits and already bundled off by museum administrators for tea and damage control, said Edison is four foot nothing, asks too many questions, and would be dressed in a pair of wrinkled khaki pants and the dark green blazer of all the school’s students. Thankfully, Lane’s people skills are considered “substandard,” so he’d only been forced to endure the poor woman’s frantic sobs that Edison was obsessed with Moulin Rouge and Toulouse-Lautrec and how could this have happened? Did that painting eat him? for a few minutes before he’d bailed. They’d confiscated a cell phone off of one of Edison’s classmates for a photo reference: the kid is skinny the way all little boys are, with wildly curling blond hair and startled brown eyes.

“You know the worst part when it’s this painting?” Lane complains, reaching into his supply bag for the envelope of francs. He’d been forced to more or less thieve them from the archivists, who have begun hiding when they hear his voice in their offices.

Eugenie extends her arm to take his hand. “How you don’t speak French?”

“How I don’t speak any French,” Lane mutters, and presses the fingers of his free hand through the surface of the image, over the white mane of the galloping pony.

 

It’s never less of a shock to stumble out of the basilica quiet of the museum into a field, a snowscape, the edge of the crashing sea—a crowd, heaving at a circus in 1890s France.

Lane hits the sawdust and dirt ground with a thud, landing heavy on one shoulder because there’s no graceful way to tip over from the edge of the frame into the stereoscopic image of an artist’s state of mind. Eugenie doesn’t do much better, flopping down with her fingers still tight in Lane’s, her skirt going halfway up over her head in the too-hot crush of the circus, night pressing into the opened flap of the tent and up against the cluster of people standing at a break in the bleachers.

“Every time,” Eugenie swears, letting go of Lane’s hand to bat the fabric down over her neon-blue panties, the lace edge stunning against the milk white of her thighs.

Not that Lane is looking, nope. Not looking at all, because he is busy turning red and reaching blindly out into the undifferentiated space behind them until he finds a hard ledge. It is invisible but real to the touch, and Lane slaps on a piece of neon reflective tape, which hangs suspended in midair. It isn’t a perfect solution, but with any luck, it will still be there when they wander back over.

The first time he’d gone through one of these to fetch a kid, he hadn’t bothered to mark the exit. It was a sunny afternoon Parisian street scene by a middling artist, and the passersby thought Lane was an incredibly shitty mime for half an hour before he felt his way around the air to the frame again, the little monster from Rock Creek Elementary making snotty comments about Lane’s short-term memory the entire time.

It’s dark enough that the sartorial changes that map the chasm between 1891 and 2012 aren’t too noticeable as long as the locals don’t spend too long looking at the length of Eugenie’s skirt. Sadly, that also means finding the kid is going to be a pain and a half.

“Ready to go?” he asks.

Eugenie nods, and takes his hand again because it is a standard policy he’d instituted not to get lost on the inside and for no other reason at all.

“Yeah,” she says. “Let’s go.”

 

Weird stuff gets recorded in the paint.

Lars, who’d handled this crap before he’d scammed Lane into taking the job, said nobody knew why or what caused some paintings to go from innocuous to eating little kids who didn’t know how to follow museum directions. Sometimes buried in the provenance of the pieces there’s a footnote that warns of a history of shenanigans, but just as often paintings develop the nasty habit spontaneously.

In 2010, a lady had gotten too close to Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado—until then unknown for this sort of behavior—and fell inside. It had taken museum security staff half an hour to draw short straws to see who’d have to go into the damn thing to fetch her, and rumor has it the poor woman still has a nervous breakdown every time she sees a crow. There’s a reason you’re not allowed to take pictures in that gallery, and there’s always a guard standing watch; if you’re going to get sucked into a painting, the surrealists and the weird medieval stuff are the worst.

But just like the paint retains Dalí’s melting clocks and bleak red-cliff landscapes or the frenetic mix of batshittery that is Bosch’s three-panel opus, it also keeps feelings, a pervasive mood. Nothing is so beautiful and depressing as tumbling into a Van Gogh, because the colors are searing and the sun is ambrosial, and everything around you is convinced of its abject failure, every painting is a desperate bid for relevance and the bitter knowledge of likely disappointment.

Lane does a lot of emotional eating after the Van Goghs.

Seurat was an intellectual painter, copying paragraphs out of color theory books and studying the best way to achieve harmony in paint. Plus he ate it at thirty-one, so a lot of the worst middle-aged ennui hadn’t settled in yet. Everything in a Seurat painting is very orderly, arranged in tiers, and when something bisects that arrangement, or moves in a diagonal along the plane, then he’s meant for it to draw your eye: every brushstroke and dot of color as precise as a pixel. He believed colors and shapes could be used to evoke perfect harmony in a painting, and stepping into one usually feels serene—balanced.

Except Le Cirque is unfinished, and it’s basically plagiarized from a poster, so everybody in the painting is a little shifty and uncertain.

There’s an orchestra perched high over the risers, which are peopled by women in long dresses and marvelous hats, wide-eyed little girls tucked in close to their fathers, men in dour three-piece suits, mustaches neatly waxed. They’re all staring into the center of the ring, watching a lissome girl with gold tights balance on the back of a white pony—galloping full speed—her hair streaming out like auburn ribbons behind her, the music lilting over the crowd’s delighted sighs as she does a backflip from one foot to the other, the horse not missing a beat in its run.

And trailing after the horse and dancing around the edges of the crowd are tumblers and jugglers and clowns with jester hats, their smiles painted madly all over their faces. In the center of it all, brandishing a long, gray snake of a whip, the ringmaster is saying something in grave, thrilling French, making his captive audience gasp. There’s a ribbon flying: dull peach over the flurry of colors and performers and horses below.

It’s all stunning, really. Very nice. Exceptional balance, visually entertaining, blah blah blah, except this is like the sixth time that Lane’s been forced to visit this particular Paris night and smell these particular animal-and-people smells. The only painting he hates more than Le Cirque at this point is an upsettingly loony one down with the rest of the contemporary art, which gives him awful flashbacks to going one toke over the line in college and wanting desperately, desperately not to be high anymore.

Getting to hold Eugenie’s hand as she pushes her way through the crowd declaring, “Pardon, pardon!” is the only bright spot of this entire exercise, so Lane tries to enjoy it as well as he can, throwing elbows into people left and right and keeping his eyes peeled for bright blond curls and an out-of-place school uniform.

They shove past everybody in the cheap seats, and they’ve been through this routine so many times Lane already knows what faces he’s going to get from which disapproving matrons, and how many of the antique coins he needs to count out to get them into the risers, which creak under their feet. The girl on the horse has slipped down to ride sidesaddle now, and in a moment she’ll seize the pony’s mane to slide around its belly to lean out, arms and legs extended gracefully, and everyone will shout in delight again.

“Do you see him?” Lane shouts, over the cacophony of French he doesn’t understand and music that sounds atonal in the din. They’re getting a few weird glances from the patrons, but hell, it’s the circus. People in strange costumes speaking in tongues probably barely register next to the tattooed man and the bearded lady.

Eugenie looks over her shoulder, which means the circus lights limn her face in a way that makes Lane’s knees go a little bit weak as she says, “No—maybe he’s hiding under the risers?”

Lane sincerely hopes the kid—Edison—isn’t, because God knows what’s under the risers. It’s Paris at the turn of the century and there’s already a high concentration of shady folks in open attendance; the people who’ve resorted to hiding under the bleachers have to be real gems.

“All right,” Lane says, grim. “Let’s check under the risers.”

Down there, they find some loose change, a ton of garbage, a heavy smell of pee, a few semicrazy drifters, a trio of prostitutes, but—probably for the best—no Edison. So after Lane digs the money out of the dirt to take home to the archivists waiting desperately in reality, he and Eugenie beat it out of there to regroup somewhere that doesn’t smell like a urinal.

“So he’s not anywhere around the ring,” Eugenie says, frowning.

The pony and its rider have been swapped out for some complicated interpretive clown performance, which is even worse to watch than it sounds. One of them is miming heaving with tears. It’s very European.

“I hate this kid,” Lane says, more to himself than anything. Next to him, a woman in an enormous hat narrows her eyes at him suspiciously; they’ve never started a riot in one of these paintings before, but Lane isn’t ruling out the possibility.

Because the problem that now faces him is that they’ve run out of places and corners to check in the circus tent. Lane’s covered in dirt and sawdust; he smells like carney. Eugenie’s nails have left half-moon marks on the back of his hand as they’ve scoured the place once, twice, three times, and then stopped by the corner with the show ponies again just in case the little monster is hiding there.

It leaves them with a single, uncomfortable possibility.

Lane peers out, beyond the risers and past the phalanx of gentlemen in evening wear and long tails, past the acrobats that have arranged themselves like a human arch now, soaring over the ringmaster. Past everything is the back door of the tent, flapping in a brisk evening wind—ominous.

He’s been to Paris, circa 2009, with its smart cars and ancient cobbles, Saint-Chappelle tucked away inside the Palais de Justice, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore along the Seine, and the sigh-inducing view of Notre Dame from behind. But that’s Paris with modern policing, hygiene, and smartphone translation programs for emergency bathroom requests. The world out there is an age away, recorded into the tiny slivers of the painting from a time when people got into brawls about Divisionism and color theory in the streets.

More than that, Lane doesn’t know what happens once they leave the scope of the painting: Does the world out there actually exist? Can they come back if they leave the tent? Will there be solid ground to step on, even, once they leave the perimeter of Le Cirque’s range of vision? Lane’s scaled walls and traveled huge landscapes, but always carefully, with the knowledge that the frame eats into the painting at the far left, that past the demarcation there may not be monsters, but there may not be anything at all.

“So,” Eugenie says as they stand there, looking out into the vast unknowable.

“Seriously, I hate this kid,” Lane swears. “He better not have gone outside the tent. I haven’t even gone outside the tent. Who knows what exists outside the tent.”

“There’s nothing left inside the tent to check.” Eugenie sighs, glancing over her shoulder back toward the risers, toward the sea of onlookers, still spellbound by the performance.

“What kind of punk falls through a painting—which is an extremely traumatic experience—and decides to go explore?” Lane goes on, because really, who does that?

Eugenie looks pensive and toes the line of the circus tent’s sawdust floor, the tips of her gray Chuck Taylors lining up along the dirt and wood shavings, carefully kept away from the grass and mud beyond. “I think we have to give it a shot,” she decides.

Lane’s quiet for a long time. “I don’t know what happens if we go out there,” he admits.

Eugenie slants him a look. “You’ve never been?”

“In some pictures—but every painting’s different,” Lane murmurs.

It looks like a city, with streets and buildings and people ambulating here and there, the earth solid beneath their feet. But it’s also a memory, a momentary shock of feelings that coalesced into something solid in the paint.

“Some of them, you can see into the horizon, some I bet you could go forever,” he goes on. “This one, I don’t know.”

Eugenie’s fingers tighten around his, and Lane hazards a glance down to her face: lovely and soft in the lights of the circus.

“You don’t have to go,” Lane starts, because the cultural DNA of him demands a chivalric gesture even though he doesn’t want to let go of her hand.

She raises an eyebrow at him. “How many words in French do you know?”

Lane knows four entire phrases in French, thank you very much. Two address the most immediate bodily functions, one is a request for cheese, and the third one is either about tumors or pricing a hooker. His Romance language of choice during college had been Italian, mostly because he’d been grievously misled by some quote involving wooing women in Italian and talking to horses (?) in German during his youth.

He squares his shoulders. “I know enough,” he lies, and nods back toward the circus ring, to the huddle of people beyond and the tape that marks the exit in the distance. “You should go back—tell them I’ll be a little longer.”

“That’s adorable,” Eugenie retorts. “You’d be dead in an hour.”

“I would hold out for two hours at least,” Lane protests, but feels compelled to say, “You could get stuck here, if we go through.”

“So could you!” she argues.

And then the whole discussion gets shifted into the realm of the academic because there’s the roar of a lion, and the crowd gathered behind them rears back—enough to send them both pitching forward into the night.

Lane hears Eugenie say, “Balls,” before they hit dirt, getting a face full of matted grass, in the sudden coolness of evening outside of the crushing heat of the crowd.

 

The first thing they test is whether they can get back into the tent.

The answer is: Yes, but the circus employees are going to make us pay for tickets again. The next question is: Are they technically out of the range of the painting yet? Is there a range of the painting? And after a while of taking three steps forward and four steps back—literally—they look at each other beneath the rapidly darkening sky with the uncomfortable, shared recognition that everything else aside, there might be a scared little kid waiting to be found, and adult cowardice really has to take a backseat.

“The question becomes: Where the hell is he?” Eugenie says.

The Paris outside the tent looks as seamless and sprawling as the real thing, its medieval cathedral spires reaching heavenward and bridges arcing over the Seine. That means there are twenty arrondissements to search, and within the Latin Quarter a mire of narrow streets, a hundred little churches with opened doors and hiding places, Sacre Coeur looming over—

“Oh, shit,” Lane realizes. “I know where he is.”

 

It takes almost an hour of speed walking before they get to the ninth arrondissement, curled up at the foot of the monstrous hill leading to Montmartre. Lane hates this part of Paris more than ever, and not just because random English fops keep trying to offer Eugenie money for sex; it would be offensive if it wasn’t so funny, and he wasn’t so exhausted from half running across the city, dodging horses and hobos every step of the way.

“Are you sure Edison’s going to be here?” Eugenie asks, bent over with her hands on her knees, red cheeked and breathless. It’s fetching, and Lane can’t really blame the milquetoast trickle of attempted johns that keep hitting on her, given both her flush and the provoking nature of her uncovered ankles.

“Pretty sure,” Lane says grimly, and snatches her hand, hauling her up. “Come on.”

“Now I hate this kid,” she tells him earnestly as they head down the Boulevard de Clichy.

Lane can already see the lit-up windmill spinning in the distance, and they can track how close they are to the Moulin Rouge by how weird the prostitutes get. By the time they can hear the cabaret music through the streets, Eugenie’s bare legs are too commonplace to garner much attention. That’s nice for her, but only prompts Lane to start having horrible mental images of poor dumb Edison getting sold for parts in the worst corners of Pigalle.

The crowd around the place is impossible: an enormous jumble of absinthe-addled writers and painters and aristocrats and floozies of all orders rubbing delirious elbows. There’s a person—gender unclear—sporting a fantastically ornamented hat, riling up the crowd and waving expansive arms toward the entrance, calling all comers.

Lane feels Eugenie sliding her arm through his, pulling him tight along her side as she frowns into the rabble. The warm curve of her breast along his elbow is distracting enough that Lane has to clear his throat three times and shout over the noise: “I say we just leave him. There’s no way we’re finding him in this mess.”

She shoves at him, playful, and when she tilts her head to the side, smiling up at him with a sparkle in her eyes, Lane feels his knees go a little weak.

She says, “If he’s here, I’ve got a hunch where he might be.”

Weak-kneed or not, Lane still has the fortitude to narrow his eyes. “And where would this be?”

Eugenie’s grin just gets wider. “Come on—it’s out back.”

Getting there is easier said than done, and along the way there’s a lot of sneaking past guards and trying to look like they belong, which is hard to pull off in dark jeans and gray Chucks, clothes and looks out of time. It also doesn’t help that, apparently, Edward VII is here, contributing a great deal to the overexcitement and the excessive numbers of people and shoving, everyone gasping with curiosity over the Prince of Wales, come to France to see the infamous quadrille.

Lane ends up using the last of the money to buy tickets to the show, which—unsurprisingly—has far stricter security than the circus, and they stagger in after a bevy of women in floor-length gowns and their gentlemen squires.

Through the simultaneous blessing and curse that is Lane’s incredibly stupid job, he’s witnessed something like fifteen adorations of the magi, an annoying number of Rococo sexual shenanigans, apocalyptic depictions of the flood and the Earth splitting open, and one horrible run-in with a Salvador Dalí that doesn’t bear repeating.

But he still feels a little overwhelmed when he looks up and sees the opening number of that night’s cabaret act: the row of heaving bosoms and curvy legs, smoky eyes and smiles. He’s only human.

Eugenie, bless her, gives him about three minutes to gape at the display—and it is definitely a display—before she slaps him upside the head and drags him away.

Her hunch turns out to be for the massive stucco elephant just casually lounging in the garden behind the Moulin Rouge, watchful next to a pavilion overflowing with its own set of dancers. He has a curled-in trunk and a long-suffering expression on his wrinkled face, watching over the crowded tables of patrons in the cool October night.

“This is going to end badly,” Lane says.

“It’s gentlemen only,” Eugenie explains, giving him a little shove toward the people gathered at the elephant’s knobby knees. She smiles at him. “I’ll wait here.”

“This is going to end really badly,” Lane revises.

Fifteen minutes, a lot of fast talking with the elephant guards, and the discovery that Eugenie can cry on cue convincingly later, Lane says, “I’m psychic,” because he finds the kid, but finds him in the belly of the elephant, drunk and watching a private burlesque show with the future King of England. In shambles around them are a number of empty champagne bottles, some firecrackers, two men in suits passed out on a bench, and a dwarf in a ball gown.

“Edison,” Lane snarls, grabbing the kid by the back of his collar and nearly overturning a table of champagne glasses, fizzing merrily away, “you’re dead.”

“Another American!” Edward VII declares, almost as red-faced as Edison. “There’s no rush, you may join us as well! The madam is merely changing costumes!”

Edison, huge eyed, stares at Lane. “She said she’s coming back with a snake,” he murmurs reverently.

“Alexander James Edison,” Lane tells him seriously, “forget the snake. It’s going to be a miracle if I don’t drown you in the Seine on our way back.”

 

The kid almost skids down the elephant’s staircase three times, and Eugenie’s first reaction when they reach the ground is to seize Edison with operatic maternal joy, yelling something crazy sounding in French and squeezing out a few more alligator tears. Lane is never falling for her “I’m just so tired and frustrated will you please move all this heavy stuff for me while I cry pitifully” act again.

“Who—?” the kid asks, muffled through Eugenie’s shoulder while the elephant guards look on approvingly at the reunion.

“For the purposes of this lie, she’s your mom,” Lane says. “Be convincing.”

Thankfully, squirming out of Eugenie’s grasp is totally convincing behavior for a kid his age. The guards just laugh and allow her to pepper them with grateful kisses on the cheeks, thus underlining yet another reason Lane hates this job and wants to be back on the other side of the painting, where Eugenie doesn’t pepper anybody with kisses while he’s forced to watch bitterly.

Lane checks his watch instead of watching this foolishness and winces. It’s been five hours since they climbed into the painting, now past closing time at the museum and past the point of smoothing this over with parents as a case of a wayward student gone lost in the guts of the Met. He’s already entertaining visions of lawyers and furious parents parked in front of Le Cirque, inconsolable, the minute they climb out the other side.

“Is it bad?” Eugenie asks, untangling herself from the guards.

“About five hours,” Lane says, and glares at the kid. “Your parents are going to have you murdered, buddy.”

“I thought you were going to drown me in the Seine,” Edison says, snotty.

“Parents have ways,” Eugenie assures him, and peers into the kid’s eyes with a thoughtful expression that melts into one of horrified amusement in under a minute. Whirling around to Lane, she gasps, “Is he drunk?”

Lane covers his face instead of answering.

“There was this cancan dancer,” Edison says reasonably, “and when she saw Eddie—”

Eugenie frowns. “Eddie?”

“Edward VII,” Lane elaborates. “Prince of Wales.”

Now it’s Eugenie’s turn to cover her face.

“—she yelled, ‘Champagne’s on you, Wales!’” Edison concludes.

Recovering, Eugenie grabs Edison by the collar—woman after his heart, truly, Lane reflected—and starts to march him out of the Moulin Rouge garden, leaving a wake of curious bystanders as they go. “Unbelievable,” she mutters. “How did you get in here, anyway?”

Edison shrugs, unrepentant, and waves at a trio of dancers as they alight the pavilion stage in a flurry of corsets and frills. “I’m short. I just snuck in.”

“There is no way you just snuck into the elephant,” Lane protests, and Edison’s response is to look a tiny bit sheepish.

Eugenie frowns down at the kid. “Oh, that one I know. Apparently he told the guards he was part of a midget performing troupe.”

Lane stares at Edison, who stares back for a long time before saying: “What? It worked, didn’t it?”

“You’re in for a life of crime, aren’t you?” Lane asks, reluctantly impressed. “Ten years from now, when I see your face on the ten o’clock news, I’m going to tell people I had to drag your skinny tail out of an elephant back when you were still in school.”

Mulish, Edison ripostes, “That assumes I get caught.”

“All right, Al Capone,” Eugenie says pleasantly, hustling him along the wall and toward the exit to the street, “let’s just get home first and you can plot your brilliant career as a criminal mastermind during the small eternity you’re going to be grounded.”

It takes them almost fifteen minutes to shove their way past the crowd and back onto the street, where Edison takes a few minutes to wave fond goodbyes to the barely clothed members of the revue to whom his brief career as a fake dwarf had bound him in eternal friendship. Lane has a sudden, terrible certainty that this little bastard is going to be a repeat offender and that no painting in the Impressionist gallery is going to be safe from his greasy preteen hands.

“What the hell were you thinking, anyway?” Lane finds himself asking, once the crowds thin out and they’re walking down now thinly populated streets, meandering back toward the circus in the park. “Most people fall through a painting, they freak out, they try to find a way to climb back out.”

About half of them are successful, too, which is good because it spares Lane the trouble of going to fetch them, but bad because then he has to spend ages carefully cutting security footage so that when the inevitable inquiry gets raised with the board of directors, the staff have something to point at while looking innocent.

Still firmly in Eugenie’s grasp, Edison shudders. “Clowns,” he whispers.

Lane can’t help but think, fair enough, at that.

“And then, what, once you were out of the tent you decided you needed a few miles of clearance between you and the clowns?” Eugenie asks, because as far as Lane has been able to figure in the years he’s known her, Eugenie is scared of the peer-review process, pigeons, and almost nothing else.

“Well then I figured if I was already outside I should go check out the Moulin Rouge,” Edison argued, stumbling a little over the edge of a curb and swaying for balance. “My sister’s made me watch that movie, like, a hundred times.”

Lane remembers Edison’s starry eyes in the elephant boudoir.

“Oh, I’m sure she ‘made you,’ all right,” he says, and motions for them all to hang a left, down a long, sloping street and back south beyond Pigalle into the city center.

It’s an unseasonably warm night, and even if they’re running late, the rest of it looks like it may actually be smooth sailing now that they’ve located the kid. The skies are a soft velvet blue, the wind is blowing Eugenie’s hair away from the pale curve of her neck, whipping up the hem of her skirt, and she’s examining every street and passerby with that hungry, interested look that makes him listen to her talk about painting on ungessoed canvas and take her introductory museum walking tours over and over again.

Lane thinks that this would be the perfect moment to say something, to loop around to Eugenie’s free hand and slide his fingers between hers again. To smile down at her and make her explain Rembrandt to him.

Edison—who is a life ruiner—thinks this is a perfect time to say: “I don’t feel so good.”

 

He doesn’t. He feels so bad in fact that they end up stopping all over the place to let him hurl: in a bush, in a gutter, in the part of the Seine that Lane had been looking forward to drowning the kid in. The last round, they’re finally at the park, which is good since Edison manages to nail Eugenie’s shoes, and at least at the park there’s grass to walk on.

“You shouldn’t walk barefoot outside, there’s probably crack needles,” Edison moans, lying down and using his school blazer as a pillow, releasing intermittent, feeble noises.

“You should consider that next time you decide to get hammered inside a painting you aren’t supposed to be touching and throw up on my shoes,” Eugenie replies, almost pleasant, and doesn’t look up from where she’s resorted to playing Fruit Ninja on her smartphone until the kid sobers up enough that they can flip him through the frame into the museum again.

“Plus, I think this is a pre-crack-needle era,” Lane adds.

Sighing, Eugenie asks, “How much longer, do you think?”

Lane leans over Edison’s miserable face. “Think you can stand up straight?”

“Why do adults drink?” the kid moans in answer. “This is terrible.”

“Maybe another fifteen minutes,” Lane tells Eugenie.

“Or you can just leave me here to die,” Edison suggests.

“So tempting,” Lane says, and goes back to his own phone.

Actually, it’s another thirty minutes before they can compel Edison to stand on his own steam, and even then he’s whiny and sullen and not at all happy about having to tramp back through the circus tent and brave the potential presence of clowns.

“This is not cool,” he complains, clinging to Eugenie like a limpet, burying his flushed face in her side. “This is leaving me scarred for life.”

Seriously, there’s precocious and then there’s this little bastard.

Thankfully, Eugenie’s not having any of it.

“You?” she scoffs. “Hey, kid, which one of us is walking through a circus from 120 years ago barefoot with a pukey child felon here?”

She’s similarly unsympathetic when they have to sneak into the tent—all the other patrons gone by this point in the night—and find their way to the tape mark, still suspended in an unassuming corner at the far end, away from the risers and the ring.

Lane reaches for the tape, shaping out the edge of the frame and pressing his hand through experimentally to feel the cool air of the museum on the other side, relief pouring through him like cold water in his veins to know they’re not stuck.

“We’re good,” he says, trying to keep the shakes out of his voice. “Come here, kid—let’s get you through first.”

Edison just stares at the empty space in front of them, suddenly wary when he’d been fearless about traipsing through Paris, smuggling himself into the Moulin Rouge, and being a generally mouthy irritation all night. He’s quiet for a long time before saying: “I’m in huge trouble, aren’t I?”

“Why do you think you’re going back in first?” Lane asks, grabs Edison, and shoves him back through the frame.

 

All told, between the crying, the recriminations, the bawling out Lane gets from the head of museum security, the multipage nondisclosure agreements everybody has to sign and have emergency notarized, it’s almost midnight before Edison and his furious parents clear out. Lane makes a note to distribute the kid’s picture to every docent and the entire security staff first thing the next morning.

And then it’s quiet: the easy, comfortable kind, with the distant sound of the night watchmen walking the medieval gallery and the sculpture court, the labyrinth of rooms that make up the European painting collection. Lane has his coat on and his messenger bag slung over a shoulder, and no idea why he ends up back in the Impressionist gallery except that Eugenie went missing five minutes after they’d swanned back into the museum and he thinks he already misses her in some obscure way.

He’s staring into the luminous evening of Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose when he hears Eugenie say: “This has always been one of my favorites in the museum, you know.”

Lane looks over his shoulder to see her standing there in her dusty cardigan and bare feet, toenails painted the same neon blue as her panties, smiling at him.

“This?” he asks, pointing at one of the soft orange-pink lanterns, lit up from within. “Compared with all the other pictures here?”

Eugenie tilts her head to the side, looking past Lane to the painting. “Something about the color of the light,” she murmurs, and slanting her eyes toward him, she asks, “It’s funny—why haven’t we ever done it?”

Lane almost swallows his tongue. “Excuse me?”

“Go explore,” Eugenie says, either exquisite in her obliviousness or an exquisite tease. She takes three steps closer, reaches out to the gilded frame of the painting, running her fingers along the whorls and flourishes. “With all the pictures we’ve been in and all the times we’ve had to go to that horrible circus—how come we never thought to do it?”

He holds his bag in front of himself, flustered. “Because we’re adults? Because we have impulse control?”

This time, Eugenie turns so that her grin hits his full force, fingers lingering on the DO NOT TOUCH plaque inscribed on the frame.

“Not that much impulse control,” she says.

Lane feels a little light-headed. “Are—are you serious?”

Her smile gets wider, and she curls a hand around the frame. “Come on,” she whispers.

“You don’t have any shoes,” Lane protests, but he’s already reaching for her, lacing his fingers with hers the way he wanted to in Paris, in a way that’s different than when they’d been running across the city.

Eugenie laughs and tugs him closer, saying, “It’s summer. It’s a field of wildflowers along the Thames, and we aren’t going to need shoes for what I have planned,” before she presses a palm to the canvas and they’re swept away.

 

“Do Not Touch” copyright (C) 2013 by Prudence Shen

Art copyright (C) 2013 by Faith Erin Hicks (illustration) and Noreen Rana (color)

23 comments
Natenanimous
1. Natenanimous
Well done! I enjoyed that quite a bit. The writing was nice and fluid, the characters interesting, and the concept well-executed. Good stuff.
Chuk Goodin
3. Chuk
Yes, fun story. That kid is a brat but an entertaining one.
Natenanimous
4. Jerusha
This is lovely.
Natenanimous
5. MonicaW
Thank you, that was lovely. Funny how the most amazing & fantastical job still becomes a job when you forget how amazing & fantastical it is.
Natenanimous
6. Mbg1968
Love this plot idea! Please tell me you're thinking of expanding it into a novel?
Natenanimous
7. jasonb
Really liked it!
Natenanimous
8. Marla J.
Ha! That was fun. Thank you.
Luke M
11. lmelior
Very entertaining! Loved the "Dowager Countess McGonagall" bit and the art references, most of which I had to look up. I am woefully uncultured, it seems. The best I can offer is: it's a good thing they've never had an MC Escher exhibit!
Natenanimous
12. Amy Goldschlager
I can absolutely understand wanting to walk into Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. I've always loved it myself. I wish it really were in an American museum instead of at the Tate.
Natenanimous
13. Fitz
Great soory, love the concept of falling into the painting.
George Walker
14. georgewalker
Great job on the illustration, too. The graphic panels fit the story nicely.
Natenanimous
15. iaindonnachaidh
This is great! I was hooked.

I just noticed one error -- "lim" should be "limn" in this sentence:

...which means the circus lights lim her face in a way that makes Lane’s knees go a little bit weak...
Natenanimous
16. sooze
What a brilliant story....had me gripped from the beginning. The author's voice was really distinct and the desciptive narrative didn't impede the flow of the action one little bit....lovely. Pleeeeeeese make it ito a book, then a film, or even better, at TV series!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D
Natenanimous
17. trishna
Wow! What a story!! Loved it!!
Natenanimous
19. Everbright
Bravo Pru! This is really lovely, you ought to advertise on the podcast site when you have stories out. I want to read allllll your stuff! The hapless/competent balance on Lane was good, I never wanted to beat him for being a moron, despite his mooning over Eugenie.
Natenanimous
20. Un
Loved this story.
Gessika Rovario-Cole
21. Myschyf
I really love this story. Thank you. :)
Neil Ottenstein
22. nottenst
Just read this story. It is wonderful. It goes on my list of possible Hugo nominees.
Natenanimous
23. OliviaZ
I just moved out of New York after four years there. I used to go to the Met almost weekly and now I'm sobbing. So thanks for that.

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