You lose your friends somewhere in the first hallway. At the entrance, your eyes still dazed from sunlight, you were offered a choice between the Long Way Round and the Shortcut, and your friends asked for the Long Way Round, and you went with them because you were part of the group. You fantasize, now, about the Shortcut. You can see people in the distance, stick-figures from here, being ushered beyond a rope barrier, shortcutting the museum. You visualise yourself, for the briefest of instants, leapfrogging over sculptures and ornate chairs and scampering after them.
The crush is too deep, though. You’d never make it.
The rope barrier fits back in place with a tiny, tiny CHINK which echoes around your eyeballs like a gunshot.
Somewhere behind you, your friends examine paintings and read captions. They have some interest in or engagement with Art that eludes you. You don’t know your Caravaggio from your arse. The Art recedes like a vertigo effect and your foreground fills up, horribly, with people, people, people. Herds of people engulfing you and trampling round you like cows. Uncountable people, braying and hallooing like a foxhunt on acid.
You suck in a breath. The air tastes of dust, polish, and European sweat. You start to walk, faster, then faster, until you’re at full speed, arms swinging, marching past those who pause to gaze at the Art and those who stop to tie their children’s shoelaces and those who blunder in and out of your path, mouths slack, existing at a slower pace than you.
This isn’t so bad. At this speed it’s almost like a video game. The scenery blurs past you as you speed, Mario Karting through the Art, without even turning your head.
The corridors continue. When they said Long Way Round, they weren’t joking. You’ve been power walking for fifteen minutes now. Twenty. You’ve passed so many people you’ve forgotten what people even look like. Some of them have multiple heads, or arrows sticking out of their chests, or babies whose sides ripple with impossible muscle, squirming for virgin breasts. From every side, the grimace of Christ howls down at you. Saints are impaled and torn blithely apart and set on fire. Around you, people point and mumble. Their jaws hang open, in infinite slowness, in otiose bleats.
You speed up, though your thighs are beginning to fill with heat. On you march, faster and faster, relentless. You part the herd like Moses. They assume you’re a manager, perhaps, or some Person of Importance, somebody on some official business. Art carpets the walls, the ceilings, the floors on which your aching feet stomp.
Before you can escape, you come to it: the famous chapel. The route you’re following narrows and shuffles to a halt at the chapel doorway and your relentless march is stilled. A man in uniform stares you down, disapproving. He catches the beads of sweat that roll from your forehead, holds them pooled in his cupped hand, and pours them into a filthy bucket by his feet. The teenage boy behind you is stopped with that same hand to his chest. The hand turns, beckoning: give it. Wincing, the teenage boy bends, works his mouth, and spits a wad of chewing gum into the hand. The uniformed man holds his hand over the bucket but the chewing gum sticks. Impassive, he wiggles the hand. When you walk past, the chewing gum is still stuck, the hand still wiggling.
More uniforms guard the chapel. They corral the bovine flow, chivvying hooved feet onwards, onwards. You are stopped for fifteen seconds, to look at the Art. Maybe thirty. You are pushed along and pushed along. On benches lining the path, lost-looking people sit. How long have they been there? Are they trapped? They are no longer part of the current. Like dropped stones, they sit and stare at the people passing by, and the people passing by stare up, at the ceiling.
You tilt your head. The famous ceiling is there. It’s just there. Art. Your neck hurts. Around you, people champ and snort and breathe and fart. You feel a sharp pinch on your arm, a pinch as of teeth, and jerk your head back down. Zombie eyes swivel, unfocused. Art. The floor is pooling blood, the excretion of many miniature injuries, with here and there scraps of skin kicked by tourists’ shoes. The uniformed guards hustle you along. Keep walking. Look at the Art. Walk.
By the time you get out of the Chapel, you’re gasping for air and you take the last gallery – something Modern – at almost a run. Outside, the sweat bastes your skin in the sudden heat. Sunlight boils the wet blood from your shoes.
There’s a café ahead of you. Empty tables, under a large awning, in a courtyard. You sit. Your hands are shaking. You check your phone, breathing, but your friends are miles behind, maybe haven’t even realised you’re gone.
The waitress approaches. She tries you with Italian, then with stilted, over-exaggerated English. You ask weakly for coffee. When she brings it, you try to pay. The money trembles in your offering palm.
“No,” she says. She’s trying to smile at you, though it must be hard. She says, “You pay later. Relax.”
The shame of it hits you then. The waitress leaves. You sit alone in the shade, with no memory of the Art, with only a blank, panicked space where this Experience ought to have been, and you can’t stop thinking of the zombie teeth in your arm, the blood under your feet, the heaving, sweating corridors, and the ache in the back of your neck.
Katie McIvor is a Scottish writer and library assistant. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines such as The Deadlands, Interzone, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and her three-story collection is out now with Ram Eye Press. You can find her on Twitter or on her website. You can find her on Twitter or on her website.