It is one seventeen in the afternoon, and you are bored. Who cares about mummies and old statues and broken bowls someone found in the dirt, anyway? Not even a whole bowl. Your feet drag, and once again Mrs. Webster’s voice calls, “Keep up, everyone, remember to stay with your buddy!”
Her voice echoes around the drafty museum, and Sabrina Linklater is most definitely not your buddy. She smells like cotton candy and she doesn’t like you. You know this because she’s told you every day since you were both five, so it’s just your luck to be stuck with her now.
“We’re going to see a very special exhibit,” says Mrs. Webster, which means nothing; she’s said this about all of them, all day, and your feet hurt. Nobody listened this morning when you insisted these shoes pinch your toes, too busy trying to make you eat horrible slimy oatmeal and remember your bag for the field trip.
This room is dim, and cool, like the others have been. Spotlights bounce off glass cases and the walls seem to swallow every noise, turning voices down to whispers. A few other visitors are wandering around, stopping in front of each piece before slipping through the swathes of shadow to pop up at the next thing to see.
It’s the statue that makes you pause. There’s nothing special about it, in fact it is another boring thing, just a figure of a small man, cast in white stone.
It looks exactly the same as it did in the last room.
And the room before that.
Which is cheating, really, isn’t it. The museum should try to put different things in all the exhibits, or there’s no point to traipsing through the entire building, and maybe then your shoes wouldn’t squash your feet so much. You’re certain you have a blister, just there, on the outside of your left pinky toe.
But you move toward the statue. The air in the room smells funny, like the second before a lightning strike in the dead heat of summer. Slotted neatly between two of the statue’s fingers is a small card:
Puck, or Robin Goodfellow
England, c. 1805
Mythical trickster and nature sprite
Kindly donated by Mr. Alistair Harbuckle
Boring. You turn, and a tiny sound breaks the hush that smothers everything else, including Sabrina Linklater’s whiny voice and Adam Beech’s constant questions.
Scrape. Scrape. You’ve made that sound before, striking two rocks together to start a fire—which, you can say with authority, absolutely never works.
You whirl back. The statue is perfectly still, and looks no different, except it must be like that famous painting, because its eyes seem to follow you, and the hairs prickle on the back of your neck.
“This way, kids,” says Mrs. Webster. You can barely hear her.
“That statue is weird,” you say when Sabrina reluctantly falls into step beside you.
“You’re an idiot,” she answers.
The next room is filled with bones and the ghosts of the dinosaurs who wore them, grinning skulls with hollow eyes peering down from overhead. This is more interesting than half an old dinner plate or an ancient chess set, and you move up close to read the names on the little cards, inspect the hinged, talon-pointed feet fixed to the stands.
The statue is in the corner, stone-frozen and smiling, its finger crooked, beckoning you, glowing white in the shadows. Nobody is watching. Your buddy—ha, ha—is way over there, exclaiming over something that would once have had huge, leathery wings. Mrs. Webster is leaning against a pillar, her hair loose from its pins.
Closer, the outline of a door scratches itself onto the wall beside Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, mythical trickster.
And this is not boring. Your heart beats faster and you check again that no one is watching. Just for a minute, that’s all, and then you’ll go back to looking at the bones, but the statue chose you, not stinking Sabrina or annoying Adam Beech, and this is very, very interesting.
“In here?” you ask, and it doesn’t even feel silly to be speaking to a piece of stone, however humanlike it suddenly seems to be.
Scrape. Nod. Scrape.
You push on the wall. It’s cool, but not cold, smooth, but not perfectly, and it gives way without a creak, a doorway just large enough to slip through.
Into a forest. A square, room-shaped forest, but a forest. The sunlight from the ceiling is warm on your face, the earth soft underfoot. It smells like it just rained, fresh and clean. A fat bumblebee buzzes lazily in a cluster of snowdrops, the air is tinged with green so rich and sweet you can taste it. Birds twitter, something clawed scuttles away, unseen. The nearest tree is thick, branches gnarled like an old man’s hands grasping for the sky, and carved into its trunk are the words:
Elsewhere, c. The Year of the Mocking Mirrors
Generously donated by Lord and Lady Hummingbird-Glass
It is real, the bark rough as bark should be, catching your fingertips when you trace each one of the letters. Fallen twigs snap with each step deeper into the trees. This is a different kind of quiet, here, a silence that is such even though it sparkles with birdcalls and rustling.
At the far side of the forest, between two trees growing right from the walls, another door stands an inch ajar, enough to welcome. The one you came in is too far behind to see, but one more room won’t hurt. This is a clever trick of the museum’s, and maybe the next exhibit will give a clue as to how it works.
This is what you tell yourself.
Mostly, this is decidedly interesting.
The next room is empty. A dull, gray box, bare of the merest smudge or speck of dust.
You begin to laugh. Laugh so hard your eyes water and your belly hurts and you fall to your knees, holding your sides as if the air itself is tickling you.
“Help!” you gasp. “Stop!”
No one comes. It’s up to you to crawl, cackling, to the next door, and the instant you’re through the laughter stops, smothered by the weight of thousands of eyes, watching, all turned to stare.
Paired up in jars, in rows and rows on shelves. Green and blue and brown, floating in water or something like it.
Everywhere, c. The Beginning of Time – Who Knows?
Generously donated by: please see labels
“Would you care to make a donation?” the statue asks. He’s still holding the sign with his name on it in one hand. In the other is an empty jar with your name on it. And a spoon. “Yours are lovely.”
“You mean, these are—?” and there is nowhere in the room that’s far enough away from any of the staring eyes. That jar, right there…one is brown and one is blue. Everything goes dark.
You uncover your eyes. “Do I have to?”
“Oh, no. It’s not required. Please, enjoy your stay. There is always one who is bored.”
The watch on your wrist has stopped. Perhaps it’s time to go back. You look up from the unmoving hands and the statue is gone.
So is the door from the laughing room.
A tingle crawls slowly down your spine. That thud is your heartbeat. Thud. Thud-thud. Thudthudthud.
Inside their jars, the eyes follow as you walk, then run the length of the room. Through a room of music boxes, each playing a different tune. Another full of spiders, all spindly feather-light legs that crawl over you through the next four rooms, rooms you don’t see because you hate spiders most of all. In the one after that, it’s snowing, the snow of a hundred Christmases. And a room of ghosts, cold and dark, generously donated by…everyone. The next room makes you scream as you tumble inside.
For it has no floor. It is only sky. Generously donated by… and a gust of wind blows the rest of the cloud letters to nothing, tossing you this way and that, soaring, flying, blowing you through a hole in the blue to land on a hard, bruising floor.
This has become, perhaps, a little too interesting.
“Hello?” you call. “I need to go! They’ll be missing me!”
No one answers.
There is no scrape of stone.
Only laughter. Distant laughter.
“This isn’t funny now! It’s all very interesting, but I need to get back!”
Laughter, laughter, laughter.
You grit your teeth and look around this room. This room that might be the strangest, most wonderful and terrible of all, for it is yours. Everything as you left it this morning, in the shoes that pinch, belly full of slimy oatmeal.
The sweater you hate is at the back of the closet. The secret thing you don’t tell anyone about is under the bed.
It can’t be.
Outside the window, the sky is pink and orange, the first stars glinting in a tinge of darkness at the edge of sunset.
It can’t have been that long. They’re all going to be so furious. Maybe they’ve even called the police, desperate to find you.
You sit on your bed. Feel the lump in the mattress that’s exactly where it always is. Read the plaque on the bedside table that is the only unusual thing, and stop when you get to your parents’ names.
Not generously donated, no, no.
“Is this all because I was bored?”
“Mostly it’s because I am,” says the statue. More scrapes. He snaps his fingers, two doors appear. “One of these will lead you back out, one will keep you here. If you go through either, you cannot return to this particular room. Your only taste of home.”
Flutter, flutter, your heart beats. “Is this a trick?”
“Yes. No. Possibly.”
And he disappears again.
The doors are identical, down to the knots in the wood, the polished brass handles. No way to tell them apart, so which do you choose? How can you choose?
You close your eyes.
Feel the round doorknob, chill against your hand, perfectly smooth.
The draft as you pull it open.
And you smell…cotton candy.
“There you are,” says Sabrina Linklater. “You’re a terrible buddy. I don’t like you.”
Mrs. Webster is still leaning against the wall, her hair loose from its pins. The rest of the class is clearly tired of the dinosaur bones. The statue stands in the corner, and you wonder if maybe the donation from Mr. Alistair Harbuckle wasn’t the biggest trick of all.
The watch on your wrist ticks away, working just fine.
It is one forty-three in the afternoon. And you are not bored.