Derek was painfully aware of the fact that he was antisocial. He didn’t even need other people to comment on it; it was obvious with every single one of his activities.
Photography was the one that figured at the top of his list. It was his passion, and he’d somehow been lucky enough to make it his main source of income as well. The activity hadn’t always been as soothing to him as it currently was, of course. It had started as a way to ensure he wouldn’t have any lost memories after his home burned with his family inside, taking away in one fell swoop all of his memories of the place along with most of his relatives. Photography back then had been a desperate denial, and a way to convince his grieving mind that such a tragedy would never occur again.
Over time, the art had shifted from a healing endeavour to a relaxing one. Derek didn’t go anywhere without his trusty camera anymore, and could more often than not be found in the forest where he laid for hours as he captured the daily life of its various inhabitants. Such activities didn’t lend themselves to much of a social life, but Derek loved it and didn’t feel as though he was missing out on anything.
His main source of socialisation had come to him a few years back in the form of a gaggle of teenagers however. “The Pack” as they liked to call themselves – “We’ll stop calling ourselves that when you quit being a brooding lone wolf, Hale,” Erica had griped – were his only source of human company, and even his therapist was beginning to look worried (that was a lie; she never looked worried, but Derek simply guessed she had the most powerful poker face ever).
“Did you meet anyone new recently, Derek?” Dr. Mustafina asked, prompting Derek to come out of his musings.
“The Pack showed up last week,” he answered evasively. He was sure she’d caught the underlying truth of his word: as usual, he hadn’t met anyone new, avoiding any sort of prolonged contact after the few fizzling acquaintances he’d made in the years prior.
“And when was the last time you met someone outside of the Pack,” she said kindly, a smile growing at the corner of her lips, probably due to what the now university students were still calling themselves. After 6 years of friendship, Derek really thought they would end up finding a better nickname for themselves, but it seemed they were too attached to the name.
Derek eventually realised he’d let the silence last too long, but still didn’t answer, and both of them knew why: Derek didn’t willingly interact with people, and even the Pack he only interacted with because they didn’t let him avoid them.
In the end, he came out of that séance with a task: enroll in a social activity of some kind with the goal to form at least a peripheral acquaintance.
“It doesn’t have to be a meeting group of some kind, or even one that requires conversation. You can take a class on a subject you enjoy, for instance,” Doctor Mustafina had said. She seemed confident in Derek’s capacity to get out of his shell. Derek didn’t know where she found that belief.
Derek didn’t take the wheel right away after leaving Doctor Mustafina’s office. Instead, he walked to the nearby park, taking his camera out of his bag in a motion that had become automatic in the last few years. Breathing out slowly, he settled on the grass next to the pond and set up his camera, taking pictures of the ducks playing peacefully inside it. Maybe he’d listen to his therapist’s advice. After all, she hadn’t led him astray so far.
This had been a terrible terrible idea, and Derek would never listen to a single word from his therapist ever again. Taking a class? What had he been thinking, really? Derek had to admit to not having looked very far as far as socialising went. He mostly worked as a freelance photographer and thus didn’t really need to talk to people in his line of work. Most people who contracted his services only talked to him long enough to ensure he understood their instructions, and he otherwise sent digital files when the time came for them to select their pictures.
This wasn’t what he’d expected. At all. And he was currently bound to complete what was sure to be a failure of epic proportions.
“You’ve all received your grade for your first project by now, which means that it’s time for me to present the second one to you,” Onika had said. Derek had attempted to call her Ms. Ekongolo exactly once, and she’d seemed so uncomfortable due to the honorific that he’d respected her request to be called by her first name soon enough.
“Studying your portfolios and correcting the previous project has enabled me to notice where your zone of comfort as well of your strength lies, and my current goal is to make you explore outside of it,” she’d continued. “I’ve already handed out your personalised projects, which should present a challenge and yet, not be outside your range of capabilities.”
Derek had tuned her out as he’d looked at the deceptively innocuous piece of paper on his desk. Human after all, the words had taunted him. He hadn’t even needed to read the rest of the handout to know what his challenge would be. He did anyways, because life had taught him that running away from his fears would only ensure they could stab him in the back once he stopped looking. It wasn’t as bad as he’d thought it would be… It was worse.
His objectives were outlined in bold, and one in particular jumped at him: to find himself a human muse. He reread the prompt bemusedly once or twice, but he’d indeed read right. The words “human muse” were explicitly written, and Derek knew it had to be because 90% of the pictures in his portfolio portrayed animals in various states of motions.
Still, he couldn’t quite believe it. Find himself a muse? And a human one at that? Derek was going to fail. He was going to make a fool of himself, and take terrible pictures, and-
“That’s a wonderful idea, Derek! You’ll get to meet new people!”
Derek stared at Erica with the flattest expression he could muster. It did nothing to deter the young woman, as she simply smiled at him, like she didn’t know this was the exact situation he had been hoping to avoid.”This is not the issue here, and you know it,” he gritted out, looking to the side and away from her too sharp grin as the door to his loft swung open again.
“What is not the issue?” came Isaac’s voice as he entered. “And Derek, there’s dubious goop on your welcoming mat; you might want to check that out.”
“Derek’s got to meet new people for class!” Erica called back, and Derek resolutely did not glare at the ground, unable to focus his ire.
“That’s awesome dude!” Isaac’s face came into focus just long enough for him to start rummaging through the fridge. “Your hermit ways were starting to worry us; I’m pretty sure Lydia was gonna stage an intervention,” he added unhelpfully.
Derek didn’t need to look up in order to feel Erica’s smug gaze on him. Clearly he wasn’t going to find any help in this place.
Rolling his eyes, he headed to the kitchen in order to cook for dinner that night… After all, if Erica and Isaac were already here, others were sure to follow.