Jack scratched his head, squinting at the crabbed writing on the scrap of paper, then placed it in one of the many piles before him.
He sat on the floor in front of his bed, surrounded by stacks of the little note papers the gallery had provided, and he was sorting them by reference number to his pieces in the exhibit.
He was not a bit surprised that JJ-09-AAL (as Beth’s painting had been catalogued) had the tallest stack of comments. The pile for JJ-07-DC was nearly as tall: his pencil sketch of Beth sleeping.
A small pile of crumpled up comments sat off to one side — almost entirely consisting of requests for Beth’s phone number or email address.
He crumpled up the next note, adding it to that pile.
He stretched, rubbing his eyes, and started at the tap at his door, gasping as he twisted his neck.
He staggered to his feet, trying to avoid knocking over one of the stacks. He leaned over, opening the door, balanced on one foot, trying to massage the crick in his neck.
A smile tugged at the corner of Beth’s lips as she looked up from the landing. “Are you… busy?”
“No — ow! Just going over the stuff from the gallery Mrs. Chase mailed.” He hopped away from the door, pushing it open, and sank down on his bed.
Beth stood in the doorway, staring down at the multicolored slips of papers sorted into somewhat neat stacks. She took a step into the room, hopped into a wide spot between piles of comments, and pivoted, landing on the rolling chair, spinning it in a circle, drawing her feet up in front of her.
“That’s a lot of comments,” she said, staring down at the papers as the chair swung around on its final pass.
Jack nodded, then winced.
Beth seemed to flow from the chair to the clear spot where Jack had been sitting. It wasn’t a hop, or a spring. She just stretched out legs and arms, and there she was. She plopped onto his bed.
“Sit,” she said, pointing to the place on the floor.
“I’m not a dog, you know.”
“It’s easier to do this if you’re lower than I am, and I don’t think your mother would approve of me standing on your bed.”
He tried to turn, to look at her over his shoulder, and pain flashed through the raw nerve.
He swung his legs over the corner of the bed, and slid to the floor, scooting over to sit before the girl, who had drawn up her legs, Indian style. She tugged him over a bit more, and pulled his shoulders back, so they were flat against the side of the mattress.
He cried out, and tried to turn to glare, and that just turned his cry into a hiss. Beth calmly reached down and did it again, and then set her hands on either side of his neck, her thumbs aligning along his neck bones.
Jack closed his eyes, felt himself relax under her touch. Her hands were steady, and warm, down to the fingertips.
Very gently, she began to rotate her thumbs, and then the heels of her palms, pressing against the muscles along his neck.
Within minutes, the tingling in Jack’s fingertips ceased, and the flutter of pain along the back of his head finally took wing, flying away.
“Yeah,” he said, leaning his head one way, and then the other. He looked up, and saw Beth, staring down at him, upside-down. He smiled. “You should charge for that.”
She smiled back. “What’s to say I don’t already?”
Jack thought perhaps her smile showed a bit too much of her teeth. Or maybe it was just the angle.
“Okay, so what’s your price?”
Beth leaned over, reaching over his shoulder, her hand gesturing at the expanse of the rows of slips of multicolored papers.
“I want to know what some of those say.”
Her voice was a low whisper in his ear. Jack felt his heart beat a bit faster. She was pressed close behind him, her shoulders close to his own, the other hand about the only thing separating them. She smelled of strawberries, and her breath still had a hint of vanilla on it from dessert.
“Why do you—” his voice cracked. His throat, the air, suddenly felt very hot. “Why do you want to know?”
She leaned slightly away, fixing her eyes on Jack’s profile.
“I just want to know if they saw the same things I see.”
Jack leaned forward, reaching for one of the shorter stacks. He plucked the first creased square of paper from the top, smoothing it over his knee.
Beth had withdrawn and her hands were back in place on his shoulders, fingers absently kneading. Jack realized he was clenching his teeth, and tried to relax.
“JJ-04-DC: ‘Three Seasons,’” Jack read. He looked up, at upside-down Beth. “You named them?”
She blushed a bit, nodding. “They do it with paintings and stuff of all the greats.”
“Read on, or the fingers stop.”
Jack sighed. “‘Three Seasons.’ Good detail on the leaf structures. Maybe a bit more shadow on the underside and the background. Good luck with Winter.”
“That was Toby.”
“You’d probably call him ‘the flower guy’ or something”
“Oh. Him. His stuff was so good. He had some good tips in the afternoon seminars.”
“It’s too bad he lives so far away,” Beth said.
“Don’t tell me he asked you out.”
Beth dug her fingers in sharply, and Jack winced.
“No. He could have helped you with a lot of things.”
“That’s what I have you for.”
Beth shook her head, Jack felt it in her knees and the shifting of her weight on the bed behind him.
He reached for another one, from the second highest pile. “JJ-07-DC: ‘Girl in Repose.’ Very lifelike, but lines and shading could be smoother. Take your time.” Jack looked back up at the girl. “I was afraid you might wake up so…”
He reached into the bag for the last slip. Unfolded it.
“No reference number. Your —” Jack stopped, folded the paper.
“No, read it,” Beth prodded from above him.
“No, it— It’s not—”
“What does it say?”
Jack unfolded the paper. “Your feelings for your subject shine through in the love and care that has gone into your works.”