Olen blinked and squinted beyond the dim lighting close to the Houston Museum of Natural Science building. This time of night—not late for regular city activity but definitely after hours for the museum—it was rare to hear or see much. Since Olen had taken a job as night security, anxious dread twisted his guts more than he believed was reasonable, even considering his traumas.
He fingered a shoulder scar through his uniform as if that would somehow protect him from whatever he always sensed creeping at the edge of his vision.
At a noise, he tensed. The air smelled as ever of azaleas and green, freshly mown grass. Without the fountains running, he could hear the ambient noise of cars driving by. Civilization wasn’t far away.
Yet, he had heard something. A click. Familiar, but the tiny hairs below the ponytail at his nape stood on end. Something seemed different.
A flicker. Something across his vision similar to an aura. He turned his head, but it was gone. At a whir, Olen held his breath, one hand on his Taser, though he knew it was unlikely to subdue whatever was out there.
He heard nothing now but the sound of his heart, its beat gaining in intensity and speed. His vision tunneled with the rising panic.
Suddenly, the sprinkler system went off. The scent of fresh water filled the air as it arched outward from little metallic heads bobbing from the grass to coat the verdant space between sidewalk and street.
Olen took a deep breath and reminded himself that it was, indeed, watering day. Of course it was. Why was he so anxious?
That also meant tonight he was meant to expect one of the museum’s patrons. Such visits were rare occurrences. Usually they came earlier, and Olen didn’t deal with them. It was even rarer for someone to arrange a visit to an exhibit that had already been around a few weeks, but apparently a Mr. John Smith wasn’t available until midnight tonight. Olen would ensure the lights were on in the Sparta exhibit.
After all the creepiness, it would be nice to have someone else occupying the vast space.
Checking the time surprised Olen; his break was over already. With minutes to spare and dread building in his gut, he let himself back into the building and flipped the switches.
The usual pottery confronted him along with helmets and shields. Illuminated plaques explained the history of King Theopompus and the status of women within the Spartan society. The museum director said it was the most complete collection of ancient Spartan artifacts ever assembled for display.
Though Olen was supposed to make himself scarce, he couldn’t help lingering over the displays. They fed his soul, inspired him, and helped him imagine other lives, other places.
One moment, all was silent. The next, footsteps rang across the tiles, disturbingly close. Olen turned to see a dark-haired man walking toward him, looking so similar to the artwork he’d been admiring that he might’ve stepped out of a display case. A guard should have escorted him from the museum entrance, but he looked rich enough to get away with dismissing anyone he wanted. The aura of power he exuded left Olen’s skin itching.
As the man—ostensibly Mr. Smith—made eye contact, Olen balanced himself against the wall against an overwhelming sensation of falling. He tore away his gaze on instinct. The feeling lifted, leaving him with a queasy gut and the impression of deep eyes so intense they seemed lit from within.
For a breath, the urge to introduce himself seized him. His throat constricted with the need, irritating him with its insistence. Rather than letting the patron frazzle him, Olen decided to complete his rounds. What was wrong with him?
As he neared the exit to the next exhibit, a resonant voice like none he’d ever heard washed over him. It echoed from the marble walls in a trippy cascade of honeyed notes. “It would please me if you remained until I leave.”
A refusal shaped his lips, but it wasn’t as if Mr. Smith had asked him to do anything unusual. Olen wanted to ask why, but instead he stood near the exit from the exhibit, his arms crossed and his senses working overtime.
Staring at the floor, Olen could see the man’s face as if it had imprinted on his retinas. And, somehow, Olen couldn’t sense the man without looking directly at him.
The tall-heeled, handmade boots should’ve clattered against the floor, but now they seemed to make no noise until Olen stared at them. Nor did the man’s capacious silk coat, though it ought to rustle, and his long, loose hair should slither against it. Instead, it was almost as if the man existed only when Olen’s gaze was on him, compelling him to look despite his lingering dread. Instead of sharing space with another human—a comforting notion—he felt as if he were sharing space with something otherworldly.
In the moments between Olen’s peeks, the man moved from one end of the exhibit to the other, requiring Olen to move as well if he wished to keep him in sight. Sometimes the man sighed, and the soft exhalations tore at Olen’s heart, as if he had no choice but to share in sorrow.
Olen longed to head toward the brightly lit greenhouse exhibit. There was something claustrophobic about being near the man, even several yards away. Yet, the thought of leaving his presence filled Olen with anxiety.
Without registering he was doing it, he found himself in step with Mr. Smith, close enough to hear his murmurs, but not so close he could make out words. He looked at the relics when the man did, subconsciously mimicking him, and shoved his hands into his pockets to fight a growing urge to touch the man’s silk coat.
They stood before a case of artifacts dating to the fifth century BC, but the man gazed at them as if he knew each item intimately. He lifted a long-boned hand as if to reach through the glass and seize the shield on the other side.
Then Mr. Smith’s head turned toward him, and their gazes met just long enough to leave Olen trembling. This time the man broke the contact, releasing Olen as if from some transient bondage. He spoke in what sounded similar to the same Greek written upon the labels at either side of the items, but the words tripped from his lips as a song rather than a catalog of relics. For just an instant, Olen thought he saw the shield lift from its stand as if it would fly toward the man, but when he shook his head to clear it, it remained lifeless on its display.
Had Olen slept well the previous night? In spite of feeling watched, he’d actually worked on his art. He specialized in creatures: Minotaurs, gargoyles, strange dragon beasts. What he worked on now, inspired by the display, was a Spartan warrior, but it had a wolf’s head with a lion’s body, standing upright with sword and shield at the ready. The work came from the clay faster than it usually did, and while Olen felt rested and content, now that he was seeing things, he wondered if he shouldn’t set aside that piece for a day or two.
Yet, his fingers itched to be immersed, his mind raced to the lines that needed completing, more definition. It was as if he were home already, rewetting the media, fine-tuning with his wire-end tools to finesse the fur.
And the eyes. Big, dark eyes, wide and heavy-lidded. Liquid. Like the man. When Olen’s fingers met flesh, he realized he was tracing the man’s brows. He snatched his hand away and mumbled an apology.
The man only laughed, melodic and sweet as the most beautiful music Olen had ever heard. It washed away his embarrassment as if it had never existed. Then the man touched Olen, his fingertips hard as marble and almost as cold. He traced along Olen’s jawline and pressed the ball of his thumb to Olen’s lips.
“Why do you resist?” The question echoed in Olen’s mind as if sounding from distant caverns of thought. He couldn’t look away from the man’s rosy, sharply defined lips, and he hadn’t seen them move. The voice in his mind asked, “Do you not dream of me yet?”
The man dropped his hand and turned back to the display case, leaving Olen wondering whether he’d imagined the exchange.
Dreams, though… Olen couldn’t remember any details, only the mad frenzy to create. He dreamed of blood and war and fighting bears. But the man? While there was something familiar about him, he couldn’t say he’d dreamed of him.
But then, why would he? Even if this wasn’t all in his head, did he need another rich, older dickhead to abuse him? He’d been through that already. Never again.
Olen touched his forearm where it had snapped, remembered the bite of the cuffs. It all came back with such nightmarish force, stinging tears rose to his eyes, and he grew light-headed.
No. That asshole did not dictate the rest of his life. He was the past and could no longer hurt Olen. This was the present, and no one would control Olen again.
A gentle touch to his shoulder jolted him from his brooding, and he looked up to see the man already walking back the way he’d come, exiting the exhibit without another word. As the footsteps faded into the distance, his hands ached to capture that face in his art before it too could fade from memory. Words rose in his mind, but they weren’t Olen’s.
“I will return to you tomorrow. Be patient, and leave the lights on.”