This is well over 1000 words, but it feels like the right length, behold:
They called him The Watcher in the gallery because every day he would come and sit in front of the new reproduction of The Raft of the Medusa. This started at the opening of the exhibition on a Monday in autumn and lasted for many a long week, each day the gentleman showing up at the same time with a carton of juice and a small package of wrapped sandwiches.
Sometimes art students would come and sit next to him and regard the painting as he did, pencils scritching and sliding across heavy, creamy paper as they sketched a small part of a figure, or roughed out a detail of swirling sea and soaked, broken timbers.
Every now and then, he would lean over, look at the book and nod, smiling if he saw a figure from the scene rendered well, with the subtle vibrancy that Gericault had captured. For himself, he never drew the painting, just sat and regarded it, his legs crossed and his demeanour one of repose at a perfect ease.
In the same way as he sat and watched, he would stand every day, ten minutes before the gallery closed and walk over to the painting, looking in what was obviously plain admiration at the rendering of grey flesh on the drowned man in the lower left hand corner of the painting, the corpse depicted draped over the battered timber of the raft. He would then leave, and in leaving, pass the coffee stand as it closed up, politely and quietly asking for a fresh latte before he paid and took the drink out with him into the early evening air.
It had been a long two months for Livia, her heart still heavy from the brutal uncertainty of mourning in front of an empty coffin with her family. As she opened up her satchel and saw her drawing box, she felt tears sting her eyes, dashing them away with the backs of her hands as she sat, on a bench in the middle of the gallery.
Her tutors had been understanding, but she had to compile extensive sketches of this painting and write up her report before the end of the semester in order to avoid having to resit or do summer study. With the cost of the flights home for the funeral, she needed to be able to work all summer long to pay for the next semester anyway and now that Mario was gone, she would probably be glad of the company.
There was nothing to do but to work hard and aim for the best grades she could.
Turning to a new page in her sketchbook, she pulled out her conte crayons and got to work, her mind slowly clearing and emptying of all other things as she sketched and sketched, her mind away and quiescent as she let her hands find the shapes of the figures.
A guilty part of her knew that part of this escape was from thoughts of her brother, missing now for months, the subject of a manhunt that had briefly captured the imagination of the city before fading into the foetid wallpaper of urban life, his existence reduced to a few desperate flyers pinned to lampposts asking for information.
Still, she worked, sketching out the structures on the canvas, the famed triangular composition of hope and death and despair, the romantic loucheness of these naked figures, sprawled in mockeries of sybaritic repose, limbs tangled artfully and morbidly in the accidental embraces of death and suffering.
She smiled wanly and absently as her neighbour leaned over her sketchbook and nodded, smiling at the drawings pencilled there.
As he stood and made his way over to the painting, studying the figure lying drowned in the bottom left, she sighed and leaned back, rubbing her neck and taking a breather. She would carry on drawing the handsome corpse when he moved out of the way.
The tape was stretched across the gallery entrance as she walked up the steps, her brow creased in confusion as the police milled around in the foyer, their eyes dark and haunted as a black bodybag was pulled out of the building on a gurney. Beside her stood the gentleman from the bench in front of the painting, the carton of juice unopened and sticking out of a dark blazer pocket.
She paid him little mind as he sighed quietly and brushed past her, gently strolling across the grounds and out of sight as she tried to get the attention of an officer.
“Uh, can you tell me when the gallery is going to be open again? I don't want to sound heartless, but my degree is riding on this...”
The man she had asked demurred and shrugged helplessly, saying something about proper procedure and prints and evidence. She felt like she had been kicked. It could not get any worse.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked into the grey eyes of the detective her family had been talking to those months ago. He looked older now and unhappy, but still resolutely courteous as ever.
“You'll have to come with us, Ms. D'Angelo.”
She sat outside the precint, her face in her hands, and wept in deep ragged sobs, her sketchbook lying closed in her lap and anointed with the splashes of fresh tears.
The detective had explained in great depth but it was like a nightmare: the body had been found in the attics, lit carefully and arranged in the same repose as the figure in the painting. The flesh of the body had been dehydrated and plastinated, preserving it in mannequin like death, the skin tinted with balms and dyes to mimic the original image.
They had only found this out when the prism mounted to the back of the reproduction canvas had come unglued, leaving a dark hole where the drowned man should have been. Where Mario's corpse had stood in for so long, eyes closed and patient under the distant scrutiny of his younger sister.
As she blew her nose, she tucked the used tissue into her jacket pocket and felt a card in there, the plain rectangle of business card stock.
Pulling it out she stared at the neat, even type on the card, seeing the marks where it had been embossed, looking at it, but not understanding it.
“You drew him so well.”
Her screams brought policemen racing out of the precinct, their hands on their guns and panic in their eyes.
When they saw her, they could only marvel that the grey paleness born from the depth of her terror made her look like she had simply stepped out of the painting and into the world; drowned, but still breathing.