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Wicked Muse by Lexi Whitlow (1)

Prologue - Hayes

“What’s he got you doing now?” A sultry voice interrupts my work, and I startle.

I look up. Amy, one of the younger designers working in the firm, leans over my shoulder, peering. She’s pretty, with short blond hair and big brown eyes. Every time I see her, I start to sweat.

“Tracing the Bodoni font. Trying to figure out how to make it right.” She’s so close I can smell her shampoo. All the girls working here make me nervous, and she’s no different. When I’m nervous, I ramble.

“Giambattista Bodoni was a text designer in the late eighteenth century. His typefaces are classified as Didone, or modern,” I continue, hoping she’ll be as fascinated with this trivia as I am. I turn back to my work as I talk because when I look at her I tense up. “Bodoni departed from the old style by increasing the stroke contrast, reflecting the evolution of printing technology—”

“Yeah. That’s great,” Amy interrupts.

I stop talking. I could drone on another ten minutes about the nuances of Bodoni’s dazzling font family, but…

No one cares but me.

“Hayes, you sound like a college professor. Ease up.”

“Okay.” I get back to my work.

Amy lets out a deep, pitiful sigh. “As smart as you are and he’s making you do that shit?”

I like Amy a lot because she doesn’t treat me like I’m in the office for Bring your kid to work day. She talks with me like I’m a sentient being. A lot of the people here treat me like I’m the company mascot, or they just ignore me because I’m a fifteen-year-old ‘genius’ and they don’t know what to make of me.

I know Amy means well, but in the back of my head I believe that Guy Harvey knows what he’s about, giving me all this weird, labor-intensive grunt-work. He says doing these tracings will make me look at the design of the font face more intimately. He says doing this will make me appreciate space—the limits of it and the words to communicate an idea or an emotion. I believe him, because everyone in the whole world has settled on the idea that Guy Harvey is one of the best graphic designers of his generation, along with being one of the greatest font designers of all time.

More than all that though, is the fact that Guy Harvey is my friend.

When I told my parents I wanted to study graphic design at Columbia, Mom said she wanted me to meet Guy Harvey. After she introduced us, he invited me to his design studio in Chelsea. He showed me his firm’s dark rooms and photo studio, and six different antique presses they use to create 19th century style lithographic prints. He showed me the silk screen studio where he has a team working on low-budget projects for independent record labels, nightclubs, and neighborhood bands.

“We don’t make any money on this stuff,” Guy had said as we passed through. “But it’s damn good community relations and it wins us a lot of awards.”

Guy agreed to put me on as an unpaid intern if I agreed to do everything he asked.

“If you want to be a designer, you need to learn the fundamentals,” he said. “I can show you the best work being done all over the world today, but you’ll never be able to understand it, much less surpass it, until you learn to take it apart—take it down to its elemental pieces. I’m going to start you in the small pieces, and we’ll build from there. What doesn’t make you go blind or go crazy, will make you think like an artist. You good with that?

I told him yes without having the first clue what he was talking about, only caring that he spoke to me like a human being, not a kid, or a freak of nature.

I am a freak of nature. I graduated high school last year at fourteen, at the top of my class with a perfect score on the SAT, having already earned credit for almost all my general college courses. Columbia won’t let me start college until I’m sixteen because their legal department has issues with letting a kid my age run around their New York City campus unsupervised.

I’m okay with waiting; I hate being the kid. I’m hitting a serious growth spurt and I’m hoping that by the time I start school, I’ll be bigger than I am now. I look young for my age, and being so much younger than everyone else just makes things harder. In high school some of the kids were nicer to me than others, but really, who’s going invite a twelve-year old to prom?

While I wait to turn sixteen, and wait for Columbia, I come to work every day at Harvey & Company.

Here, I eat lunch alone. Somehow—someday, I’ll find a place that I make sense.

I’m pulled out of my waking dream by the shadow of a large man behind me. My heart rate quickens, and I turn to see Guy Harvey’s sparkling, intelligent eyes peering into mine. Like he sees me.

“Oh—hi—” The words come out in a stutter, and then I freeze.

“Hayes, I’m taking you to lunch. I need to ask a favor.”

Guy never asked a favor before, I can’t imagine anything I can help him with. He’s the one going out of his way to help me, because my Mom asked him to.

I put my tracing work away, grab my jacket, and head out with him. The day is brisk. It’s late September and traffic is heavy on 10th Avenue on any day of the week, but it picks up around lunch time. The sidewalk is crowded with people, all headed somewhere, most in a hurry.

I was born and raised in the city, so it doesn’t faze me. Guy, who’s from some small town outside Richmond, Virginia, is always commenting on the noise and the pace, and how much Chelsea has changed since the 1980’s, when he first bought the building we’re in.

Guy calls The Red Cat to get us a table. Because he’s a regular, they’d give him a table even if the Mayor was in line waiting to be seated. When we get there, the maître d' sees Guy before we’re even in the door. He clears a path among the loitering lunchers and shows us to a two-top up front.

We order and while we’re waiting, Guy levels a serious gaze my way.

“I’ve got a problem that’s come up, that I hope you might help me with.”

“Okay…” I’m worried that somehow, I’ve done something that’s displeased him. He sees that concern on my face and quickly reassures me I’m mistaken.

“No, it’s not about you, it’s… My daughter.”

I didn’t even know Guy had a daughter.

“My daughter, Chloe, is thirteen, and I just learned yesterday that she’s going to be staying with me for a few months—which has me scrambling.”

How in the world can I help him with that?

“In fact, I’m headed to the airport to meet her as soon as we finish lunch. She’s flying in from Richmond.”

“Okay.”

He folds his hands on the table. “She’ll be starting school here as soon as I can get her in somewhere, but in the meantime, I need to keep an eye on her, and that’s gonna be really tough to do while running the firm, going to meetings, jugging all the balls I have in the air.”

“You want me to babysit?” I ask him in disbelief. “Your thirteen-year-old daughter?” When I say it, I hear my voice crack and I know the expression on my face is showing sixteen levels of terrified. My mother doesn’t even trust me to walk her dog.

“Not exactly,” Guy says, “In fact—not that at all. I’m proposing something different.”

I’m all ears.

“First thing you need to know is that Chloe is a little bit like you. She’s almost too smart for her own good. Unlike you, she’s rebellious and inclined to do exactly as she pleases. She hasn’t had a lot of adult supervision growing up. She lives with her mother in the suburbs of Richmond. Her mother has custody and her mother is… a wreck.”

“Okay.” I’m still clueless.

“Chloe is precocious, and curious, and headstrong, and I’m not going to be able to keep her under my thumb. I have way too much going on for that, and she’d hate me if I tried.” Guy hauls in a deep breath. “I don’t know my daughter well, and this visit—it may be the chance to correct that. If I come down too heavy on her, I’m just going to piss her off. But if I’m too slack—”

“Then she’s going to find a world of trouble here in the city,” I say, finishing Guy’s thought. It doesn’t take a genius to put that together.

He nods. “Exactly. She’s from the sticks. She’s gonna love New York. She writes me letters, begging me to bring her here. I’m scared to death she’s gonna love it a little too much.”

I understand his concern. The city is awesome. It’s also dangerous if you don’t know your way around.

“What I’m proposing is that you—incredibly mature, very bright city boy—take Chloe under your wing and maybe just give her some guidance when you think she needs it. Show her around. And teach her some street smarts. She’ll take it a lot better coming from you than from me. She’s going to be hanging around the offices until I can get her in school, and probably still in the afternoons. I dunno what I’m going to do with her on weekends. I’ll figure it out.”

“Okay,” I say. “I think I can do that.” I have no clue what I’m signing up for, just that I very much want to please my friend and mentor.

After lunch, after Guy goes to JFK to collect his daughter, my mind starts working double time. I don’t think I’ve met a thirteen-year-old girl capable of speaking in complete sentences. They giggle a lot. They wear glitter lip gloss, and like smacking bubble gum. They listen to terrible pop music and scream over boy-band pin-ups. All the girls I’ve ever known at that age made fun of me. This one is probably going to be no different. I’m know I’m setting myself up for an epic catastrophe. Guy’s going to hate me before this is all said and done.

What the…?

I look up from my Bodoni tracings just in time to see a long black limo pull up through the big plate glass windows in front of my desk. Guy steps out onto the curb hefting a worn backpack onto his shoulder, offering his hand out to a girl inside the car.

She puts a long, skinny jean wrapped leg out. A cowboy boot clad foot touches the pavement, and she stands, her head lifting, looking around at the tall buildings like she’s taking in a vision of some alternative dimension.

She doesn’t look like she’s from the sticks. She looks like she just stepped off the runway at one of my Mom’s Fashion Week shows. Thirteen? She looks like she’s at least sixteen, going on thirty.

But she’s not, I remind myself. I see glitter lip gloss reflecting in the late afternoon sunlight. She’s in eighth grade. She’s a kid. She’s from the provinces. It doesn’t matter that she’s got long legs and a little bit of development up top, snugged in a tight sweater, tucked under a hip leather jacket she probably bought off eBay. She’s just a thirteen-year-old girl in the city for the first time.

I think I got this.

Guy walks her in and gives her a quick tour of the main floor, then he walks her over to me.

“Chloe, this is Hayes,” he says. “He’s in charge of our intern program.”

I blink. I am? As far as I know I’m the only intern that Harvey & Company has ever had.

“On the drive in from the airport, Chloe expressed to me that she intends to study design when she goes to college. She asked me if we could let her get a feel for the business. I think that’s a wonderful plan.”

Guy sets her backpack down on the desk beside me. He looks to his daughter, who has an expression of wonder painted across her pretty face. “Sweetheart, I have a meeting to go to. It won’t take me more than an hour, then we’ll head out to the apartment to get you settled in.”

Guy turns to me. “Hayes, would you give Chloe a real tour of the shop? Introduce her around. And get her settled at a desk?”

I nod. “Sure.”

In a second Guy excuses himself, leaving me and Chloe alone. She looks at me curiously, then she casts her gaze around the room at all the busy people—people a lot older than either of us. She turns back to me, a quizzical expression furrowing her brow.

“You’re in charge of interns?” she asks, smacking a piece of gum in her teeth, blowing a small bubble. “You don’t look old enough to shave.”

I shave. I shave at least twice a week.

“I’m in charge of interns,” I say to her. It’s good to be in charge of something. I stand up, relieved to find that I’m a solid two inches taller than her. “Let’s take a walk, get you acclimated.”

And that’s how it began.

Like me, she falls in love with the big presses, the bellows cameras, the bare brick walls downstairs lined with racks of screen printed posters, t-shirts, and limited edition thirty-three and-a-quarter LP record sleeves. Her eyes stick on the studio walls tacked with pencil and marker sketches.

“This is all my dad’s?” she muses as we walk up to the top of the building where Guy has a little rooftop apartment. He likes to sit outside on nice afternoons—or sometimes in snowstorms—watching the city go by, thinking.

“Yeah. Guy’s got a couple of junior partners, Dan and Scott, but mostly, this is all his. Harvey & Company is the best design firm in the city. Best in the country as far as I’m concerned. Everybody wants to work here, and we have our pick of clients. We turn down more work than we take.”

She’s amazed.

She looks down from the edge of the building into the bustling street below, then out at Manhattan rising like a range around her. A flock of passenger jets circle overhead, their lights making a show in the loaming sky. It’s getting late and I know Guy will be done with his meeting soon. Rush hour traffic is picking up. 10th Avenue is packed; horns honking, lanes crowded with impatient commuters trying to get out of the city.

“I should have been here all along,” Chloe says, not to me but just to the air. Her jaw clenches. Her fists roll inside the sleeves of her jacket. “I should have been here the whole time.”

She’s beautiful. And she’s angry. Her gray eyes darken in the late afternoon light. In that moment I don’t know what it is she’s angry about, but in the coming weeks and months, I’ll learn.

She came to New York to stay with her father because her mother had to go to rehab—again. Her grandmother, who she stayed with before when her mother was sent away, died a few months earlier. Chloe is used to more drama in her life than I’ve ever known, and as a result she’s resilient. She’s tough.

She’s also a pissed off and very much alone.

Guy doesn’t know what to do with her. She doesn’t know what to do with him. I watch them dance around one another cautiously. She idolizes him, a little like I do. He’s afraid of her. Afraid of losing her, too, so he doesn’t hold her too close.

We meet on Saturday mornings for brunch and then we go to museums and galleries. I show her my city, from China Town to Tribeca and Brooklyn. She wants me to take her to clubs in the Bowery. Instead I take her to all ages afternoon shows in the park and to community centers where the same bands play for free. We walk Central Park and watch the speed chess matches that look like boxing tournaments on some days. We eat lots of street food and I watch her take the city in, piece by piece, block by block.

She starts school and I only have her company for a couple hours a day during the week, but in those couple hours I put her to work on press work and tracings—the elemental parts—so she’ll start to get an understanding of how design is assembled into a whole emotive, intimate thing, assembled from its essentials.

By New Year’s, she tells me her mother is getting out of rehab and she’s going back to Richmond.

I’ve gotten used to her; the first, the only real friend close to my own age I ever had. But this, like so many other things, is out of my control. I try not to think about how much I miss her when she’s gone. She promises she’ll be back in the summer, but when she comes it’s only for a week and Guy has it all planned with just the two of them. I hardly see her. Then late August arrives with me beginning at Columbia, and my world tilts sideways into a whole new dimension.

I put Chloe to the side of my brain as I take on a life with an entirely new combination of challenges.

The world moves on. I grow up. I grow into myself, taking on the big, often cruel, ruthlessly competitive, very real world of adulthood.

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