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Rocket on the Highway

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I shouldn’t be here.

Max knew she shouldn’t. He had told her so. Tonight wasn’t supposed to be for her. She should have been in her dorm, studying or reading or asleep. This fate wasn’t meant for her.

“Not yet, at least,” Mr. Jefferson had clarified. She would have had a turn eventually.

She still couldn’t move. Her muscles were heavy, leaden and useless. With her wrists taped so tightly in front of her, and her ankles secured the same way, Max knew she wasn’t going anywhere.

There was no escaping this room, or him.

Mr. Jefferson. The man she so admired.

She wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Having only regained consciousness a short time ago, her mind still fuzzy from the drugs in her system, it had taken her time to realize it even was Mark Jefferson that was taking pictures of her.

Only when she was conscious enough to mumble his name, a slurred but fearful question, had he started talking.

“You should feel flattered, Maxine. I wasn’t going to pick you, originally. My sights were set on Kate. Sweet, pure, innocent Kate. Most of the girls in that class could have made excellent subjects, but none of them had the same… aura, that she carries with her.”

When she had tried to move, a herculean effort that made her head swim, he had snapped at her.

“Don’t move, Maxine. You’ll ruin the shot. I have the perfect angle for this.”

Max had gone still at that. Had she not been so sluggish, her heart would have been racing. It was a strange experience, this terror in slow motion. She knew she should be shaking from the fear of it all, but instead, all she felt was a building sense of unease, her body not yet catching up to her mind.

She couldn’t shake the thought, though. She wasn’t supposed to be here. This should have been Kate.

Instead, she was the one laying bound and drugged on the cool floor of the still-fuzzy looking room, wherever this even was.

At least I still have my clothes on.

The thought offered only cold comfort. She wasn’t sure what to expect, other than not leaving here alive. That he hadn’t shown any indication of wanting to violate her yet didn’t mean he wouldn’t.

That too should have sent her heart racing. When the effects of the drug started to fade, she knew it would.

So what had made her eclipse Kate’s ‘aura’?

“Your answer,” he told her, and she didn’t need to be told what the question had been.

 

“Controversy,” Mark Jefferson said, sitting on the edge of his desk, watching the many faces of his class. Max watched back, from her seat in the rear of the classroom. It wasn’t quite a hiding place, but it was close. She didn’t want him to focus on her – not here in class, at least. Drawing Mr. Jefferson’s attention to her now meant drawing everyone else’s attention with it. He made her flustered enough as it was, and here in the back, she could appreciate his wisdom – and him, more importantly – with a degree of anonymity.

From everyone else. She was pretty sure no one in this class was ever out of his mind when he taught. Mr. Jefferson had a focus like that she admired, able to take in the little details alongside the bigger picture. It came through in his work.

“Every form of art has its share of controversy. Art is expressive, and the best of it can be challenging, even uncomfortable. If you’re going to be an artist, to be photographer, you need to understand what that is like, even if you don’t want to push as many boundaries.”

He had been talking about the contest just before this. Max still cringed at the thought of it, what she would even choose to try and photograph as her entry. She knew everyone would be thinking the same thing, trying to find just the right subject to capture in their lens.

This was, as she had told her journal, exactly why she wanted to be here. Why she wanted to learn from this man.

I just don’t want to be judged by him.

Even as she thought it, she knew it wasn’t quite true. The flutter in her stomach was there precisely because she would be judged by him. She wanted that attention on her, to be assessed and graded by a genius like Mr. Jefferson.

She could easily imagine his eyes on her, critical, piercing. His intellect working behind them, moving in ways she only hoped she would understand some day.

No, the fear came at the idea she might be found wanting, and be dismissed.

“When I was younger, I thought that controversial works were the most important. If you weren’t pushing boundaries, what was the point? Your art should say something, I told myself. Some of my earlier work, the ones I’d prefer everyone just forgot about,” he added, letting the class chuckle politely at his joke, “are examples of this philosophy. It’s why so most of them are average at best and trite at worst.”

Max had already been enthralled in his lecture, like usual. But this subject intrigued her a little more than most. She happened to know all of earlier work. Max never would have called anything he had made trite, and she liked most of it, controversy and all.

She knew why he was bringing it up. His work from this period wasn’t as widely published or known, but one particular piece had garnered a number of criticisms, and several angry letters to the editor of the magazine the photograph had appeared in, that had been published in subsequent issues.

It was one of her favorite photographs. A monochrome image of a slender, pale woman’s face, from just below her eyes down to her shoulders. She wore no clothing that could be seen, nude by implication. Her long, light hair spilled down her back, adding to the simple femininity of her profile.

Her chin had been tilted ever so slightly up, and a masculine hand reached over her profile in the frame to clamp over her mouth. The tightness of its hold spoke to the tilt of her head.

It wasn’t hard to guess why it had been controversial.

The piece had stolen Max’s breath when she had first seen it. It was years ago, and one she had only seen because she had been on a deep dive into a crush on her now-teacher. Obsession might have been a better word. Nothing of his present work was quite like it. Similar themes had arisen, but this had been blunt and almost violent in its subject matter. A woman, vulnerable, made object by the camera, voice stifled by an anonymous man.

One of her very first orgasms had been to that photograph, only a few months after first seeing it. She distinctly remembered that, too, how she had thought, in the aftermath, that she had wet herself from the discharge of liquid.

“Can anyone name an example of a controversial photograph in the last few decades?”

Any number of students could have answered the question. She hadn’t even meant to speak up. Max had just been so lost in thought about it that she had blurted the answer without thinking, speaking over Victoria. No one even heard her answer.

Silence!”

And then all eyes were on her. His eyes were on her.

His easy smile had slipped into a mask of neutrality. Mark Jefferson looked at Max with an intensity she couldn’t name. Its enigmatic focus pinned her, and she forgot to breathe. For an instant, the whole world just stopped in her mind.

“Uh, don’t start drooling, Max,” Victoria chirped, smile edged by her tone. It snapped Max back to reality to realize that her mouth was hanging open, and a deep heat burned all the way up her neck to her forehead.

Oh, god, I want to die!

Several students laughed, and Max shrank in her seat, mouth closing with an audible click. It was bad enough that the other students had seen her like that, or even heard her example. She never talked about that photograph, not in person. But now her idol had witnessed her blurt out an example of his work he had just probably named as trite!

He thinks I’m an idiot! An immature idiot!

Dozens of other shameful thoughts started up, eager to follow along the wound she had just carved in her self-worth.

But Mr. Jefferson saved her, moving the class along as his smile came back.

It didn’t quite touch his eyes. Max wasn’t even sure why she thought that, but the intensity in his gaze hadn’t lessened. It was just under control again.

“Ah, yes. Silence.” Mr. Jefferson rubbed the back of his head and let his grin turn a bit chagrined. “You’ve dashed my hopes it would be forgotten, Max. But since you brought it up, I suppose we can use my embarrassment as an example.”

That got a couple snorts of amusement, and just like that, everyone was looking at him again.

“Is everyone familiar with the piece?” Several students nodded their heads, Victoria among them, and surprisingly, Kate. Max expected her to be more disturbed the choice of example, but the brightness in her eyes betrayed her interest in the topic.

More than a few didn’t, so Mr. Jefferson took a moment to bring the piece up on his laptop. It earned a few murmurs, but little else.

“The name is a little on-the-nose,” her teacher admitted. “This is a good example, though. Can anyone tell the class about the controversy it created?”

Victoria was first to speak, and Max let her. She had no desire to try and cover the topic. After the way Mr. Jefferson had looked at her, it was all she could do to resist fidgeting to relieve the warm, tingling sensations in her core.

I will not get turned on in class. I will not get turned on in class! Fuck, too late for that.

“Following the publication of Silence, you were the target of several letters by other respected female photographers and art critics. They accused you of sexism, presenting an image that glamorized the subjugation of women. The following issue of the magazine it was published in included those letters and your responses to them.”

“Succinctly put. You even remembered one of the exact phrases that followed me for several years afterward,” Mr. Jefferson praised. Victoria practically beamed with beatific satisfaction; Max fought hard not to gag.

“That’s not all, though,” Kate spoke up. Eyes swung to her and she visibly swallowed before continuing, trying to ignore Victoria’s glare at stealing her spotlight. When she didn’t immediately continue, Mr. Jefferson arched an eyebrow and motioned for her to do so.

“Several other female photographers and critics praised the piece. They said it did the opposite of what their colleagues claimed, that it painted a vivid portrayal of the plight of women under a patriarchal society, and their objectification by the male gaze.”

One young man snorted in the background, and was immediately answered by a quick warning glare from Mr. Jefferson.

“I was hoping someone would bring that up. Yes, Miss Marsh, that is also true. I’d like you all to think about that; one photograph, two very different opinions. One condemning, one praising. Although, I believe the woman that Kate paraphrased did say I had achieved it by macabre accident, my gaze being male.”

He stood, then, and gestured to the whole classroom. Max watched the way he moved, fascinated by the beauty of his form in motion.

“Of all my work from that period, Silence is the one piece I am still proud of. It’s a bit trite, a bit too blunt, but it has one quality you should take to heart. Any guesses as to what?”

He clearly didn’t think anyone was going to answer. Even Victoria, for all her eagerness to please, didn’t want to risk getting the question wrong. Not when it was fraught with the point of the entire lecture.

But Max did. She still didn’t know why. Speaking up was the last thing she should have done. Let him deliver the moral, just bask in his brilliance.

Instead, she said, almost quietly enough that he could have missed it, “Ambiguity.”

When his eyes flicked to her, there was nothing ambiguous about the look in them.

Just genuine surprise.

“That’s… correct,” he said, faltering a little. It took him only a split second to pick up again. “Ambiguity. Any photographer can take a controversial photograph. Something obscene, or violent. But as much as art can say one thing, it can also say several. I couldn’t tell you what Silence means. Perhaps it is a work glorifying sexist societal structures. Perhaps it’s a criticism of them, putting their true workings on display. Maybe it’s both, or neither. But it captures meanings, and forces those who see it to engage with them, however they ultimately do.”

The bell rang. Students began to gather their items. But Max was still staring at him, as he finished speaking, trying not to focus only on her, and only partially succeeding.

“You all have a voice. Remember that you don’t need to shout to be heard. Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words.”

A few people groaned, and Mark Jefferson chuckled, satisfied with his joke landing.

His eyes turned to Max one last time, as she stood up to go. They lingered there, and she did her best to walk past him quickly, without meeting his gaze.

But she caught how they moved to her mouth, and stayed there as she fled his classroom, and his vision.

 

“Ambiguity,” Mark Jefferson said, speaking it slowly and clearly, as though tasting the word. “A myriad of meanings. Contrasting concepts. Light and dark mixing together, making grey.”

He was kneeling beside Max now, stroking a cheek, moving a few strands of hair back. She shivered at his touch, her breathing coming faster now, her heart quickening. It was still slow going, but she could feel the effects of the drug waning, if only a little.

“I don’t mean to wax poetic, Max. It’s just that you surprised me. It’s been a long time since a girl did that.”

Max blinked several times, trying to get her eyes to focus. She worked her jaw a little, and managed to murmur, “Why did I surprise you?”

It wasn’t the question she should have been asking. Any number of alternatives were screaming in her mind.

Like are you going to kill me? Jesus Max, focus! You need to get out of here!

“Oh, I’m so glad you asked that.”

The smell of him was wafting to her nose. There was a slight spice to it, probably a cologne or deodorant. It mingled with the subtle but undeniably masculine musk of him. She felt hot under the glare of the lights, and clearly he had been warmed up during this freak photo-shoot as well.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I couldn’t tell you what Silence meant. But what I intended was closer to what those shrieking harpies thought, more than they could know. I wanted to show purity on the moment before it became corrupted. The precipice between innocence and violation. I disguised it, showed the world my true passion without any of them realizing it.”

His fingers moved to her chin, and Max felt her head shifted up a little, so it was fully facing his.

Her vision crystallized into focus, his burning gaze sending a shudder down her spine.

“I saw that same ambiguity in you. Of all the pieces to just blurt out, why that one? How could you have known the answer to my question?”

“I didn’t,” Max mumbled, swallowing thickly, not sure if she was lying. She thought she might be able to struggle now, but dared not to. She could barely breathe, much less think about resisting. Not with the heat that was scorching her cheeks, and burning a liquid inferno in places she couldn’t even try to process right now.

“I think you did, on some level. That’s why I had to shoot you tonight. Kate can come another time. Her contribution was interesting, but it couldn’t hold a candle to you, Maxine.”

God the way he said her name made her tremble.

“You’re that precipice. I want to capture you as you stand on it-”

The manic edge of his smile burned her with fear, and flushed her loins with heat.

“-and fall.”