by Mary Brunini McArdle
Kelsey yawned, reluctant to get up. She lay in bed a few more minutes trying to deny to herself that she hated her job, but she couldn’t deny the persistent reluctance to go to work, to be there.
But she had to rouse her seven-year-old, Ben, and get him to school on the way. She always made an effort to fix him a good breakfast and to be cheerful in the mornings. It wasn’t hard to be cheerful with such a delightful little boy, all smiles and dimples and unrestrained joy.
And she had to work; she had no choice. Alimony and child support and her job, plus ownership of her small house allowed her to make do; hopefully she could find herself a better place to work someday.
The Museum of American History had hired her because she was a History major. Since she had chosen to stay home with her child for four years, she had little experience in the work force. She knew she had no earning power to speak of.
“It’s not really History anyway,” she mumbled to herself as she scrambled eggs and made buttered toast. “It’s more like Souvenir City.”
She continued thinking in the car. I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher, so I didn’t prepare for that in school — no education courses. I thought a Museum would be interesting, that I’d meet interesting people. She just hadn’t realized how dark and gloomy it was going to be.
“Got your lunch box, Ben? It’s a nice day; you should be able to play outside in aftercare. See you at 4:30, darling.” I hope Lynette will be able to meet me for lunch today, she added silently.
Thirty minutes of preparation time, then the rest of the morning spent in giving guided tours. Kelsey longed for meaningful questions from patrons. What she got was requests for directions to the gift shop or the restrooms. In the afternoons she gave brief presentations and ran films. If the Museum was busy, Kelsey enjoyed working with the projectors and having everything ready on time for each school group on a field trip. On slow days, she nearly died from boredom.
The parking lot by the side of the Museum was predominantly for visitors and was empty when Kelsey arrived. Most of the staff parked in the back; however, there were a few places on the side near the rear: one was Kelsey’s; the other three were for the secretary, receptionist, and bookkeeper. The latter worked afternoons only. Kelsey let out an expletive when she saw the two empty spaces; both the receptionist and the secretary were late again. This meant Kelsey would have to fill in at the front desk and miss her preparation time. Fortunately she had a key.
“This is a constant problem,” she muttered. “Those two women need to be called on the carpet. They’re both so mean I think they have the Director intimidated.”
She nodded at Amos, the security guard as she opened the front door. Dr. Hickman met her at the desk. “Joan called in sick and Nora’s late,” the Director said. “Can you man the desk until Nora gets here?”
“Certainly, Dr. Hickman.”
She’d better be here by lunchtime, Kelsey thought. The Museum’s volunteers were few in number and none could handle the front desk.
* * *
“You never go out to lunch with any of your co-workers,” Lynette remarked as she and Kelsey found themselves a booth at a favorite restaurant.
“Mrs. Clay, the bookkeeper, eats at home before she comes in for the afternoon. Nora and Joan hobnob with each other, but they’re both so unfriendly to everybody else that lunch with either one of them isn’t a possibility. The rest of the staff are married men except for the gift shop manager, who brings her lunch, and the Assistant Archives Curator, whose nose is in her personal pile of dust all the time. She can’t carry on a conversation like a normal person. So it’s you and other friends I have to rely on.”
“And no one there you could date, I guess. I’ve never even met any of the Museum staff.”
“I know, Lynette, and believe me, you haven’t missed anything. I envy you your job at the bank: you people are like a big, happy family. Going out to dinner once a month, giving each other birthday parties-”
“It’s grand, Kelsey. I’m lucky. You know, I feel a little remiss. I haven’t even been by to see your Museum.”
“I haven’t been working there that long, just three months. There’s plenty of time.”
“Let’s get Ben and Tammy together Saturday, forget all about work,” Lynette suggested.
“You’re on. Good idea.”
The afternoon was dull; Kelsey was relieved when it was time to pick up Ben and go home. “Any homework?”
“Get it done, then you can play in the back yard while I fix dinner.” She and Ben played card games after dinner, then bath time and bed. Kelsey took a paperback to her room once Ben was settled. The next morning she followed her usual routine. When she arrived at work, neither Joan nor Nora’s car were there. “Dammit,” Kelsey muttered.
Amos wasn’t there either. Kelsey used her key and entered the lobby, surprised at the total silence. Dr. Hickman or some of the curators should have been around somewhere.
She sat down at the front desk and checked the phone system, then diddled with a grocery list. She checked the time and decided to peep in at the offices and gift shop before unlocking the front doors for the public.
The gift shop was empty. Kelsey walked down the hall toward the Curators’ offices. They also were empty. When she discovered the archives were void as well, she began to question her sanity. “Do I have my days mixed up? No, Ben’s at school; there was no problem there. It’s not Saturday. It’s Friday. Where is everybody?”
Nervous, she decided to investigate the back parking lot. There were no cars there, none at all. “Damn! What the hell?”
Lynette had already told Kelsey she wouldn’t be able to do lunch that day: a prior commitment.
“I’m going home,” Kelsey said aloud. “I’m getting the blue blazes out of here. Right now.”
She had until 4:30 to pick up Ben. She made herself a cheese and tomato sandwich and sat on her sofa, thoughts whirling through her head. Suddenly she had an idea. Rummaging in her desk, she pulled out her telephone directory.
Methodically she looked up every staff member’s name, beginning with Dr. Hickman. Down the list: Nora, Joan, Amos, Mrs. Clay, the gift shop manager, the archives people, the exhibits curators, the maintenance man. None was in the phone book. Kelsey ended in the business section: the Museum wasn’t listed there, nor was it included in the blue pages.
“Damn. It’s as if the place doesn’t exist. But my paychecks were real. They went in the bank; I’ve been living off the money. Wonder if Lynette is free tonight? I’d like her to come over. But right now, I have to pick up Ben and fix dinner.”
Kelsey found it difficult to concentrate driving to the school and back home. Ben chattered constantly; she barely responded. She tried to come up with something for dinner, gave up, and drove through Kentucky Fried.
“Chicken!” Ben chortled. “Can I have two biscuits?”
Kelsey picked up the phone as soon as she and Ben got home. “Ben, I’ll put dinner on the table in just a minute, okay? Lynette, hi. This is Kelsey. Listen, I got enough Kentucky Fried for you and Tammy. Could you two come over and eat with us? I really need to talk to you.”
Lynette agreed; Ben was too hungry to wait, so Kelsey went ahead with his dinner. Lynette lived close by; it wouldn’t take her long to arrive.
“Hi, come on in. Hungry, Tammy?”
“Oh, yes, Miss Kelsey.”
“Well, sit down and I’ll get out the food. It’s still warm enough. How about some milk for you, and Lynette? I know you probably want just ice water.”
“Right. Now tell me, what’s going on?”
“Why don’t we take our plates into the living room, out of the kids’ hearing?”
“Must be serious.”
Kelsey sighed. “It’s downright freaky. I came home from work early because there was no one at the Museum this morning. No one at all. No guard, no staff. The building was completely empty. And this afternoon I checked the phone book. No staff were listed, nor was the Museum itself.”
“Lord, Kelsey. It’s as if the place doesn’t exist.”
“But I’ve been living off my pay checks. Wonder if I’ll get a W-2? I’ll have to pay my own taxes, I guess, and claim I earned the money freelancing. I’m going to look for another job.”
“Listen, drive by the place tomorrow and see if you notice anything unusual outside. Just don’t go in.”
Lynette took a sip of water. “Kelsey, has anything out of the ordinary happened to you before?”
“Nothing like this. I haven’t had any strange experiences I can think of.”
“Yes, you have, Kelsey. Remember that incident with your Uncle Cecil you told me about?”
“Oh, I sort of decided that was one of those memory rerun things. Déjà vu.”
The incident the women referred to had happened a year or so before. Kelsey opened her front door one afternoon after picking up Ben. The day was overcast and the living room was in shadow. For a moment it looked like her grandmother’s parlor — and there on the sofa sat her Uncle Cecil, blurred and indistinct, doing his silly neck exercises in a vain attempt to retain his youthful features. Then Kelsey blinked and the vision (or whatever it was) cleared away.
Kelsey started gathering up the plates. “Let’s put on a video for the kids. I think they’re finished eating.”
“You know, Kelsey, it might be a good idea to think back and dredge your memory for any other bizarre incidents in your life.”
“Well, I’ll try, and I’ll drive by the Museum tomorrow. See what it looks like on a Saturday when it’s closed.”
“Why don’t Tammy and I pick you up? We could take the kids to the park after. Nice weather for late November.”
* * *
Kelsey found herself drifting off to sleep, beginning to dream... somewhere at the edges of her mind was a picture of a place. It was a park, an ordinary park, but it was tugging at her memory. Then she really was asleep and forgot all about her dream until she was brushing her teeth the next morning.
I remember a park, she thought, something odd about a park. Like I had been there but I can’t remember where it was or even if it was real. Of course it wasn’t real, it had a couple of unrecognizable lizards, bigger than racoons, up in some strange trees. Then why did it seem so familiar?
Because I did see it, when I was in first grade. I was on the playground, then I was there. Only for a few minutes and I never told anybody about it. And later, again in the eighth grade next to the basketball court. And that time the lizards lumbered down and disappeared. And I saw my grandmother there smiling, but she had died the year before.
Am I nuts? Or have I really experienced some sort of time distortion off and on? I’ll talk to Lynette while the kids are playing. She’ll believe me.
* * *
“Is this where I turn?” Lynette asked.
“Uh-huh. Take a right. There, the next corner. Oh, my God!”
The lot the women and two children were approaching had been cleared. There they saw mounds of dirt, several parked construction vehicles, and a large sign.
“Get closer, Lynette, so we can read that sign,” Kelsey whispered.
“Sure this is the right street?”
“Of course I’m sure. Pull over for a minute.”
Lynette read the sign aloud. “Site of our future Museum of American History. Projected opening date: April 30 of next year. Be sure to follow the papers in case the opening is moved up. A big festival is planned, and the Mayor will be on site to welcome the public.”
“I’ve got to start looking for a job Monday,” Kelsey muttered.
* * *
Kelsey lucked into a better job than she had had before. It took some ingenuity on her part; she didn’t find it through advertising. She remembered she had a minor in Journalism and she had always been a lucid prose writer. You couldn’t major in History without writing quite a bit.
She subscribed to the local newspaper and she had noted in the past there were never good articles or editorials that referred to History of any kind. So she talked to the Editor, showed him some samples of her work, and discussed several ideas for features. Kelsey used references from before her position at the Museum: temp jobs, substitute teaching, tutoring. The hours for staff writers at the paper were wonderful, 8:00 to 3:30. Perfect for a single mother. And the pay was adequate.
Kelsey’s new job was so exciting and the people there so interesting it wasn’t long before she left Ben with Lynette and went shopping. Spring was approaching. She bought a violet jersey outfit, a pink sweater, and a crimson blouse. Then she decided to get a haircut. Her blonde hair was getting a bit long and droopy; it needed some bounce.
The salon at the department store had a stylist available. “Nora can take you,” the receptionist offered. The stylist ushered Kelsey back to her booth. The other woman looked vaguely familiar with her medium length red hair and brown eyes.
The stylist and customer chatted a bit, of course, and, pleased with the cut, Kelsey mentioned she would like to use her the next time she needed a trim.
“Well, thanks, honey, but I won’t be working here. I’ve gotten myself a better job.”
“Oh. I’m sorry — I mean, not for you but for me. Maybe you could suggest someone else?”
“Sure, honey. Ask for Judy, she’s real good.”
“Thanks. Where will you be working?”
“At that new History Museum. As the receptionist. Better pay.”
Kelsey’s heart thudded. The red hair was wrong, but cut shorter and lightened to a medium brown, yes, it was Nora, all right. The same Nora who was Joan’s sidekick, the same Nora who was always late for work.
Kelsey walked shakily to her car, anxious to pick up her boy and confide in Lynette.
Weird, Kelsey thought. Really, really weird. Wonder what Lynette will say?
Copyright © 2007 by Mary Brunini McArdle