There aren't many things more infuriating than a deep paper cut. An infinitesimal fragment of a second earlier, your finger feels absolutely normal, and then there's that sudden, stinging, sharp pain that feels like it will never go away. The blood starts seeping out instantly. Before you even realize you've been cut, there's bright red fluid all over your finger, usually getting on the rest of your hand.
Most of the time, not much comes of it. You suck the blood off your finger for a couple seconds, throw on a bandage. No big deal.
Not this time.
In an example of remarkable dumb luck, the piece of paper Jason Rollins happened to accidentally slash across his finger also happened to contain an original ink landscape by Masaki Okajima, one of the seminal artists of imperial Japan. Okajima, along with most of his life's work, was forever lost during the Allied bombardment of Tokyo. That made this piece of paper irreplaceable, and therefore extremely valuable.
Less valuable than it was now that it had a long streak of Jason's blood on it, but no less irreplaceable.
The reality of what had happened dawned on Jason quickly, though that fragment of a second didn't let him react in time to stop it. Like the time he'd locked his car keys in the car, part of his brain saw it coming, but couldn't fire his synapses fast enough to do anything about it.
The situation was bad enough for Jason, but made worse by this being his first day as an assistant collections manager after five years as a docent, tour guide and curator. He couldn't think of a worse way to ingratiate himself with the collections chair, Charlotte Kincade, than to destroy a priceless work on day one. Getting fired was a sure thing, and he couldn't very well get his old job back either. Just fired, if he was lucky. They could sue him too, take his house and his car and his bank account as partial compensation.
He'd been so careful with the exhibit, which made things more disappointing. He'd taken each piece from one frame to another with the utmost care, touching them gently at the edges to prevent sweat or prints getting on the artwork. Now he wished he'd used gloves instead.
Jason's brain ran through the stages of grief until he settled on reevaluation. He could hear Ms. Kincaid's high heels echoing through the mostly empty museum hallway, and knew she'd be in his workspace soon, not giving him much time for a solution or explanation.
He grabbed a rag from the eyeglass case in his pocket, and started dabbing the blood. This succeeded in removing some of it, but more was already dry and—Jason realized to his horror— while he'd kept the cut finger off the paper, blood had gotten onto the palm of his hand. Some had rubbed off onto the drawing, leaving a prominent red streak.
Already in for a pound, Jason quietly walked to the men's room, holding the ink drawing behind his body to make sure no passing docent could see what he was doing. Once inside, he checked each stall to make sure he was alone, used the trash can to block the door, and gingerly placed the drawing down so that it straddled two sinks. Looking at it, he saw the blood had spread down the page faster than he'd realized. He noticed that the artist's signature was in red characters, and hoped for a second that such a fact might prove useful. But the seventy-year-old ink maintained a more vibrant hue than did the minutes-old dry blood.
His next idea was to dampen a paper towel and try to wash off the blood. At first, the faucet released no water, so he turned the handle more, and was greeted with a sudden blast of cold water that splattered onto the paper. Jason attempted to wipe the droplets with a paper towel, but the water and the pressure from his hand combined to make Okajima's ink run. The leaves of his trees now looked as if they were falling and blown by a mighty wind, but only in the most impressionist sense. The sun appeared to be melting, and the seawater looked too much like real water. Jason considered turning these explanations into his presentation, trying to pass them off as the artist's intent. Maybe Ms. Kincade didn't know the piece that well… Jason realized that was a stupid idea. This wasn't quite the Mona Lisa suddenly crying or David losing an arm, but it was still an obvious desecration of an iconic piece.
Jason considered making a run for it, just taking the drawing and getting out of there. That idea died quickly. He'd clocked in, so everyone knew he was in the building, and the drawing had some kind of sensor he didn't understand that protected it against theft.
As he wrapped a paper towel around his cut finger to try denying the wound any air, he realized he had no plan at all. He was stuck in the men's room with the carcass of one of the great works of the twentieth century. He looked at the drawing again. Now stained. Now water damaged. He could hear his boss's heels echoing again, getting louder as she entered the gallery he'd been assigned. She would know the drawing was missing in a matter of seconds.
Stupid paper cuts.
-- Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row literary journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket Third Coast Review, Pioneertown, Crossborder Journal, Zoetic Press Non-Binary Review, Chicago Literati, Crack the Spine, and Indiana Voice Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries (Zest Books, 2015), Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections (Zest Books, 2016), and The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.