A gathering of bleary-eyed people waited for the number seven bus. Nods of acknowledgment bobbed from chin to chin. Though Marin stood at the corner every weekday for the past two years, she didn’t know anyone’s name. She was the quiet sort, preferring assumptions to small talk.
The morning simmered under a fresh sun as sparrows, wrens, and chickadees performed their dawn chorus. The scene was beautiful if you could ignore the sight of the abandoned strip mall and the muddy blocks of apartments. Marin’s thoughts drifted until an old man pressed his thumb to his nostril and blasted off a snot-rocket. The mucus landed two inches from her left shoe. She closed her eyes and imagined exploring a forest thick with vegetation and magic. She pictured collecting roots and herbs in a wicker basket. It was a silly daydream that she’d indulged in since childhood. She preferred her invented wilderness to reality.
A loud clanging pulled her back. Marin’s eyes opened. The sky had gone gray. Metal shutters ascended revealing red and white letters reading Museum of the Unseen. She didn’t recognize the cobblestone street or the crisp apple scent on the chilly air. Her heart seized. This wasn’t one of her daydreams. She’d no idea where she was or how she’d gotten there.
“Ahem.” A woman with deep cavernous eyes studied Marin from a ticket booth. “Will you be viewing the exhibit?”
“I was waiting for the bus…”
“Please Miss, a line is forming. We’re only open an hour each week.”
“Why would you only be—”
“Miss, time is precious.”
People milled behind Marin but none of them seemed to be queuing up, or even really there. She wondered if she was having some sort of stroke or if the bus had hit her.
Unsure of what else to do, she extracted her wallet. “How much?”
Marin looked up from her bag. The ticket-taker’s eyes were lavender and serious.
“We never know, do we? The majority of memories are insignificant.”
“What do you do with them?”
“This and that. Some are chosen for exhibit. You agree, yes?”
“If I say yes—”
A bright white light flashed. The world dissolved before reappearing, developing like a Polaroid. The ticket-taker was gone. The space transformed into a grand, marble foyer.
This was the only interesting thing to ever happen to Marin. Her chin dangled and eyes bulged as the building swelled. Halls unfurled like octopus tentacles, stretching out in various directions. The ticket-taker said that museum was open for an hour. Marin intended to see it all.
She whirled around, looking for someone to exclaim to, but she was alone. Running her finger along the red velvet rope she arrived at the first exhibit. Behind the glass wall…was nothing. As she leaned in to see if she’d missed something, a mustard-yellow fog seeped into the enclosure. The fog hung low, dragging against a peeling linoleum floor.
The placard shimmered and jet black letters appeared.
Transfixed, Marin pictured her own sadness as a more traditional blue. The yellow cumulus wept raindrops before blackness overtook the enclosure, announcing time to move on.
The next enclosure was also empty and the placard blank. Marin ducked under the rope for a closer look. Nothing but a black speck, she focused on it, trying to determine how it all worked. In the space between heartbeats, the speck grew until a tiger leaped out. The beast slammed its claws against the glass splintering it like falling stars. Marin fell backward over the rope. Above her red neon lit up: Jeremy’s Rage. She knew she was screaming but could not hear herself over the roars.
The pane was breaking.
The tiger jumped again. This time the glass rained down in pebbles. Growls shook the marble floor and she ran and ran.
Looking back, Marin expected the tiger to be mid-pounce and ready to maul. It was quiet. There was no sprinkling of glass. The red velvet rope stood still and undisturbed.
She walked, glancing over her shoulder now and again until she arrived at the next exhibit. This was not an enclosure, but a circular area with a red dot the size of a serving platter at the center. A sign floated over the bull’s-eye.
She thought of the tiger, it hadn’t hurt her. Curiosity won over fear and Marin stepped onto the center dot.
Aazim’s Anxiety formed like sky writing, the first letter vanishing as the last appeared. The ground trembled. She tried to move from the red dot but her legs were stiff, stationary. After a moment of tugging at her legs, a distant thudding caught Marin’s attention. She looked up and saw the horses.
Hundreds of galloping horses stampeded. Brown. White. Black. A cyclone of blowing manes and clattering hooves came at her. An equine scent—earth and sweat—filled the air. Their eyes blurred like comets burning through space. So many horses, Marin shielded her face with her arms. Flanks slipped by her in waves of suede. Lowering her arms she watched the surge of horses until they were gone.
Her legs were shaky but free. She no longer stopped at every exhibit—there were countless—but some called to her.
A display table with a tiny black box that held a single droplet. The Last Tear Shed by Annalisa for Michael. Peering at the droplet Marin felt the love, the betrayal, and the great hurt that wove together like a braid; then snipped off in a moment of finality. She avoided a gilded frame haloing a set of inked infant footprints. They were too familiar. She wanted to leave, but to go where? She didn’t want to be back at the bus stop. The realization that she shouldn’t be at the museum came like a slap. She wasn’t sure where she
She walked down great halls filled with objects: Rocks, earring backs, broken umbrellas, a shopping list done in a loopy hand, and never-ending corridors of exhibits. Marin felt nauseous and certain that they—those behind the museum—were trying to trap her. They wanted her to look, to ensnare her in moments belonging to strangers.
A butterfly flitted against Marin’s cheek and she was a child again. The world turned the green and gold hues of a faded photograph. Bubbles swam on the currents and all she wanted to do was to pop them. When the last bubble burst, the room dimmed and morphed back into the museum. She tried to view it again; to feel that simple yearning. The exhibit’s placard remained blank.
She ached for those seconds of youth before reminding herself that some of these things—most—were terrible. Still, grief settled in her stomach alongside the knowledge that a simple soap bubble could never bring her such joy again. She couldn’t even remember the name of the exhibit. Only that it had been written in purple crayon, waxy and uneven.
“Miss?” The ticket-taker stood next to Marin. “The Museum of the Unseen is now closed.” The words puffed from her lips like plumes of smoke. “Thank you for your patronage. Please exit through the gift shop.” The woman stepped aside revealing a door.
Inside the gift shop, there were thousands of snow globes. At the center of each globe, submerged in water and glitter, was a miniature exhibit. Marin selected and shook one: A first kiss. Another showed a woman’s slender hand pressing a cool cloth to a child’s forehead. Longing for her own mother, she wondered what the globe cost. A noose of twine and tag appeared displaying the fee: The best dream that you never remember.
Fluorescent lights flickered overhead. Marin let the globe slip from her hands and fall and fall.
It never hit the floor.
The sound of brakes grinding filled the air.
The bus arrived. Marin didn’t board.
Instead, she walked directionless, feeling as if something important was missing. Marin kept moving even as the cheap flats she wore rubbed her heels raw. When she stopped, she stood in front of a tiny duplex. The unit on the right looked so familiar but she couldn’t say why. A rosemary bush grew by the front door. Marin could feel its seedlings in the center of her palm. Her fingers remembered pressing loamy soil, anchoring the plant. She knew that every spring the bush became enchanted purple blooms that always seemed to appear from nowhere.
The curtain in the front window trembled and a set of eyes peeked through the blinds. Marin turned back. She’d never make the next bus. She would just have to call in sick. Something was wrong with her. The ambiguous sense of loss grew as she struggled to record the events of the morning in her mind before they drifted away like all dreams did.
L.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. When she’s not writing for places like Gamut, Bartleby Snopes, and Spirit’s Tincture, she’s busy reading for and editing a peculiar little journal called Speculative 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com/