The following story by Bethany Gotschall is the 5th place winner in the Becoming Writer Story Contest. Bethany hopes one day to publish a novel. In the meantime, she has been collecting a list of random jobs to put in the dust jacket bio, which currently includes library book repairer, speed reading instructor, UPS delivery person, pet sitter, SAT tutor, and even one very brief, very ill-suited stint as a vacuum cleaner salesperson. Currently, she runs adult public programming at the Cleveland Museum of Art, with a secret mission to make as many connections between art and Doctor Who as possible. Find out more about these adventures in her blog www.artmuseumpop.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @BethanyinCLE.
“Wow, that one looks just like you,” said Max, draping his arm around Susan’s shoulder.
Susan felt herself stiffen under his embrace, too familiar for someone she’d met only an hour ago. This close, she could smell his deodorant, the soapy scent not quite masking the sweat. She stepped a little too quickly towards the painting on the wall.
“Portrait of a woman,” she read from the label. “Identity unknown.”
“Maybe you’re related,” said Max, sighing a little.
“Maybe,” said Susan. There was a certain similarity. Same dirt-blonde hair, same long, thin nose, same tilt of the chin. Same pale brown eyes.
“I always think it’s a little creepy when they look at you,” Max said. It was the kind of portrait whose eyes followed you around the room.
“That’s just a trick,” Susan said. “It’s easy. You just get the pupils in the right place.” She’d learned in a high school art class how to use bits of paper to test out different spots of light. Two of the boys had gotten the hang of it and chased each other with their portraits held in front of their faces until the bell rang.
It would have been a funny thing to share with Max, the kind of story to tell on a blind date, but she let the pause stretch out instead.
“Still seems weird,” said Max at last. Susan didn’t reply. He sighed again. She looked over her shoulder and saw him disappear into the next gallery, hands in his pockets.
Her shirt was still damp from his sweaty arm. She felt the portrait’s gaze on her back as she followed him out of the gallery.
In the shop, she stood by the door and looked at a rack of postcards. The portrait was there, its eyes following her like the real painting had. She could buy the postcard and make it a first-date joke with Max, this painting that looked like her.
With a huff Susan turned it face down. But she kept staring at the blank reverse side, wondering if she could slip out of the museum unnoticed.
“Here, Sue,” said Max, appearing suddenly by her elbow. She jumped and her purse flew off her shoulder, crashing to the floor.
“It’s Susan,” she snapped, snatching her purse back up. Max’s face flared red, the blush creeping down the sides of his neck and over his ears.
“Sorry,” he said. “Susan. I got you these.” He held out a little box with the museum’s logo stamped on top. She opened it to find a pair of earrings.
“Maybe you can wear them next time?” Max said.
“Next time?” Susan asked.
“Uh, next time we go out,” said Max, and the red of his ears deepened. “I mean, if you want to. I’m up for a second date – try again—”
Susan looked away, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the store windows. With her hair blurred from the angle of the glass, she thought for a split second that it was the portrait looking at her again, not her own face.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” she said, and left him standing there.
She didn’t go to the bathroom. Instead she cut back through the lobby and went up to the maze of galleries, striding through them until she found the portrait again.
Susan glared up at her, wondering if Max and his clammy arms and tomato-red ears would be waiting at the entrance or if he would leave her at the museum so she could pretend he had been the jerk who ruined the evening, not her. She closed her eyes against the portrait’s cool gaze and clenched her fist around the box until the sides buckled, regretting that stupid moment when she’d agreed to meet Max, sweaty, trying-too-hard Max.
A voice over the loudspeaker said, “The museum closes in ten minutes,” and she opened her eyes.
But she wasn’t standing in front of the portrait anymore.
Before her stood a woman dressed in the same outfit she had put on before meeting Max. In her hand, she held a small, slightly crushed box with the museum logo on top.
Susan couldn’t feel her legs.
The woman took the earrings out of the box and slipped them into the holes in her ears.
Susan’s arms wouldn’t move either.
The woman wearing her clothes turned as Max strode through the gallery entrance with a security guard. “There she is. Thanks for your help, man.” He put his arm around her, and looked pleased when the woman didn’t move away. “You okay, Sue? I saw you go back up to the galleries but you never came out. I was getting a little worried.”
“Sorry about that,” said the woman. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“I just wanted to make sure you weren’t, like, sick or something,” said Max. “Hey! You like the earrings?”
The woman smiled again, and tossed her head a little so the earrings swung back and forth. Max smiled back at her.
“She does look like that painting,” said the guard, and his finger pointed to Susan. “Wow.”
Susan’s lips were frozen into place. She couldn’t speak.
“I just wanted to see the portrait again,” said the woman who looked like Susan. “The way she looks right at you… it’s so lifelike.”
“Well, you’ll have to come visit your twin again soon,” said the guard.
“Oh, I think I’ve spent enough time here,” the woman replied. She looped her arm through Max’s, and walked out after the guard.
From her frame on the wall Susan screamed at them, but no one looked back.