I get paid to watch paintings at night and sometimes they watch me back. - Chap 3
“Thank you for coming in, Perry.” Said Mr. Calgary as he opened his office door on the first floor of the museum. I shimmied in from the lobby and into the small strangely bare room. After settling into the small uncomfortable metal chair sitting across from his desk, he said, “Oh no! That’s not a chair!”
I stood up quickly from the spot and twisted around, worried I’d done something wrong. “Are you sure?” It most definitely looked like a chair.
“That’s an art piece. Quite an expensive one too!”
My eyes shot down to the little folding chair. Along the front of its seat, it had a little gold plaque reading out its artist and name. “Are you sure?” I eyed it over. It looked like a normal chair, but its name was: Contemplation. I didn’t get it.
He sighed. “I am sure.” Mr. Calgary lifted the chair and folded it, leaning it against the wall.
I awkwardly stood with my arms behind my back as he rounded the desk to sit on his cushy chair. He sucked on the gum in his mouth loudly, shuffling papers around. What was going to happen? Why did I feel so sweaty? Dingus, I was about to lose my job. That’s why. God. Why wasn’t he just getting it over with? He could fire me right then and there. Was it apart of some weird elaborate prank to watch me squirm before he brought the hammer down?
“I’d looked over your application and seen that you’d never worked in security before. That’s actually why I hired you. Did you know that?”
“No.” I said. What the hell?
“I didn’t want some idiot snooping around too much. Somebody new to the field would do fine. You’ve met Daryll? You’ve seen how little he cares about his actual duties, yes?”
I slowly nodded, not wanting to needlessly rat the guy out.
Mr. Calgary blew a tiny bubble with his gum and pushed his hands together in a teepee over his desk, interlocking his fingers. “Then you understand that that is what I expected from you. Come in. Keep your head down. Make the rounds. Don’t make a fuss.” He sighed, closing his eyes; the way that he clenched his teeth in his mouth raised a vein next to his right eye. “You know they move around then?”
Again, I nodded. I uncomfortably fidgeted from one foot to the other. Where was this going?
“Then you understand that you were never really hired to watch out for thieves. I’m sure the art pieces could take care of themselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t need any late-night visitors coming around, taking pictures, feeding the rumor mill, or getting involved with any of the artwork in this establishment. You understand?”
“I guess so.” I could feel my hands quivering so I placed them in my pockets. Why did this guy always make me feel so weird? “Why didn’t you just tell me?”
Mr. Calgary craned back in his chair as he scoffed, “Would you have believed it?”
I shook my head.
“There you go. You’d have thought I was mad anyway. Better to have you find out this way.”
I shuffled and found the very briefest of moments to exercise some courage. “What’s to stop me from feeding the rumor mill?”
Mr. Calgary’s mouth took over more than half his face as he leaned forward and smiled. I swear, even his glasses seemed to reflect a beam of light directly into my eyeball. “Of course.” While maintaining eye contact, he removed something from one of his desk drawers and thumped it heavily against the surface of his desk. It was a stack of green backs bound in a flat rubber band. I felt light-headed and initially refused to move. “Go on,” he motioned to it, “It’s yours. Take it.”
The place the money had been was cleared and it took me a moment to realize I’d taken it. It sat on my inside jacket pocket against my chest.
“Good. Now that that’s out of the way, I expect you to be on time tonight.”
Just as I turned to open the door and leave, he spoke again, “Oh, I almost forgot. About your friend you had in here last night.” My hand gripped the handle in a white-knuckle grip, and I bit the inside of my cheek. “Make sure he doesn’t say anything. You understand?” A knot wormed its way around in my stomach. Was that a threat?
“Of course.” I said.
“Feel free to let him visit if you get too spooked,” He cackled at this. “But if he says one word about what he sees here… Well, it would be in his best interest if he did not do that.”
I scuffled from the office, closing the door behind me quickly and moved from the lobby to the front steps of the museum. Daryll stood there, leaning against one of the black pillars, smoking a cigarette. The older man coughed into his hand and wafted the smoke from his eyes then noticed I was watching him. This was followed with a warm grin, so I approached him.
“Got your first raise, didn’t you?” He chuckled and tossed the cigarette. “God, I need to quit.” His tone was warmer, friendlier, almost like he knew I was totally a part of the ‘crew’ now.
“So, you know?” I asked.
“Who do you think had your job before you? Took ages till the guy who works days quit. Now nights are your problem. Say hi to Abby for me, by the way.”
“Oh, I guess you haven’t met her yet? I know for a fact you’ve seen her.” He raised an eyebrow then checked the time on his wristwatch. “Looks like I have to get back to work.” Daryll nodded at me and pushed into the museum, leaving me on the steps alone, feeling the stack of bills against my chest.
“Fuck this.” I said.
Hurrying home, I entered our home and threw the stack of bills onto the coffee table in the TV room. Felix, who was sitting on the couch cross legged while watching a rerun of Kitchen Nightmares, widened his eyes, sat forward, and lifted the stack. “Who the hell did you rob?”
“A hooker.” I said sarcastically.
Felix thumbed through the bills. “Holy crap.” He fell silent, letting his mouth fall open. “There’s got to be at least a thousand bucks here.”
“I know.” I flopped onto the couch next to him, forcing him to scooch over.
“Seriously. Where did you get this?” He shook the blocky stack at me.
“My boss.” I idly watched as Gordan Ramsey slapped his hands together in front of the camera, explaining away all the problems in the world with his stern expression.
“He doesn’t want me saying anything about the living pieces of art.”
“So, he’s paying you off?” He asked.
He returned the bills to the coffee table. “That’s nuts.”
“Please don’t tell anyone.” I said. “Don’t tell anyone you saw what you saw.”
“God, you’re never this serious.” Felix toyed with the piercing on the left side of his mouth.
“That’s because this situation is coocoo banana pants.” I forced a smile and twisted to look him straight in those beautiful dark green eyes. “Please promise me you won’t tell anyone, Felix.”
“Okay.” He said.
“Good.” I stretched. “I need to get to bed if I ever want to make it to work tonight.”
I kissed him on the cheek and left him watching Kitchen Nightmares.
More strange dreams followed. I was being chased through a labyrinth totally devoid of color or light. The sounds of screaming echoed all around me and I could feel things brushing past me in the blackness.
I got ready for work, kissed Felix on my way out the door and contemplated exactly what I was to do next. I could always quit, but would Mr. Calgary come after me now that I knew his secret? The money was pretty alright not even counting my bonus. Maybe I could just lock myself in the camera room. Who could stop me?
My skin sprang up in gooseflesh as I took the steps leading up to the entrance of the museum. My knees grew weak as I met Daryll on my way in. He nodded at me and whispered, “Don’t forget to say hi to Abby for me champ.” Then carried on walking past.
Mr. Calgary was long gone, and the day staff were just heading out as I settled into the camera room. I started to wonder about the people that worked at the museum during the day. Tour guides and such. Did they know about the things that happened within its walls overnight? Was it just Calgary, Daryll, and me that knew? Well, me and Felix. I pushed the thoughts of the living museum out of my mind and focused on blowing to cool the hot thermos lid of coffee. At least I felt cozy.
Soon enough, my phone rang a tune letting me know it was time to take my rounds through the museum. I sighed and stood. “Let’s get this over with.”
I clicked on my flashlight and wandered down the second story hall, briefly glancing at the nude statue I’d seen wobbling across the lobby the previous night. I kept waiting for the thing to shift its head around to look at me. It didn’t and so I shifted my flashlight around to face out in front me, bathing the surrounding hall in a magnificent glow. I was sure that at any moment Rod Serling would come around a corner and start his spiel: “Welcome art lovers. We offer for your approval, a still-life.” Felix has got to stop watching that weird stuff around me; it blends too well with my imagination.
I swiped the card at the rear of the second story and about-faced, focusing on little more than what was directly in front of me.
“What sort of whacko stays at a job like this?” I bit my lip, pulling up a bit of dead skin. “You do. Whacko. Fucking idiot.”
“You’re not an idiot.” Said a small voice behind me.
“Oh yeah? What do you-” I stopped in my tracks as my voice trailed. My tongue felt extraordinarily uncomfortable in my mouth. Slowly, I turned around on my heel and pointed the flashlight. Standing in the hall there was a little girl perhaps two and half feet tall, wearing a bonnet and a soft chubby grin. I recognized her from her hyper-realistic portrait.
“Hi.” She said, waving at me while keeping her other arm behind her back. “I’m Abby.”
The light quivered in front of me. “Abby? Like Daryll’s Abby?”
“I don’t know what that means.” She said. “I’m nobody’s anything. But I like Daryll.” Abby cocked her head to the side. “Where’s he been anyway?”
For a moment, the fact that I was having a conversation with a living painting eluded me and my brain short circuited just long enough for me to accept the surreal nature of it. “He was moved to days.” I responded.
“Tell him I miss him.” She said.
I swallowed hard. “Will do.”
“You know. You always run away anytime we try to talk to you. What’s that about?” She asked. “Do you think we’re scary?”
“Yes.” I sputtered. Looking at the little girl standing in front of me though, I was forced to confront the fact that perhaps I’d been a little foolish in the past when it came to speaking with the living art in the place.
“That’s not nice, you know. How would you feel if someone screamed in your face and ran away?”
“I wouldn’t like it.” My words came in little bits.
“That’s right.” She nodded, putting her hands on her hips.
I remembered, “Daryll says ‘hi’.”
This sent her grinning. “Tell him I say ‘hi’ back.”
“Will do. So, what now?” I asked Abby.
“It seems like you should probably continue your patrol.”
She fell into stride alongside me, skipping as I walked; her small pitter-pattering feet went in unison with the ringing of the tiny bell necklace she wore. We descended the stairs, all the while I kept her in my periphery. I swiped my card through the reader near the entrance and began my journey towards the rear of the building. Abby began a little game of ‘don’t step on the crack’ as we walked, every so often saying something like, “Don’t walk so fast. You almost made me fall on a crack!”
We came to the hall with Before Fall and my skin grew cold; I pushed the collar of my security jacket up but that did very little to quell the chill I felt as I approached the painting. The lady was there, at least. Sitting in her wheat field with that little house far off in the background. She looked to the sky. As we passed by it so that I could hit the spot near the glass doors leading out the back, I kept my eyes on the painting, waiting for her to look at me. She never did. She stayed that way. I relaxed my jaw. I hadn’t even known I was clenching it.
“I don’t like her.” Said Abby.
I jumped, totally forgetting that she was next to me. The flashlight smacked the ground. “Dammit!”
“Don’t cuss!” she said.
“Okay.” I said, retrieving the flashlight from the tile floor. “Why don’t you like her?”
“She’s not very nice to the rest of us.” She said.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s just not a good one.” Abby shook her little head in disapproval.
“I’m talking to a painting.” I said, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. That thought was finally settling in.
“So? You talk to yourself all the time. Right?”
I relaxed my shoulders and actually found a thin grin. “I guess that’s right.”
After swiping my card and starting back to the camera room, my phone pinged. Felix had sent me a message:
How’s the night going?
Just hanging out with the exhibits.
I sighed and pushed the phone back into my pants pocket.
The little girl reached out to touch my arm, “Who are you talking to?” I recoiled. She touched me. I felt her physical presence. She was as real as me. At least for now. Then in the daylight, she’d crawl back into her frame and be frozen in time.
“Sorry.” I said. “I’m just jumpy.”
“I can tell.” Abby eyed me suspiciously. “You’re not like Tabitha, are you?”
“Tabitha?” I remembered, that was the name of the artist that had painted Before Fall.
“Yeah’. You’re not like here, are you?”
“Would that be a bad thing if I was?” I asked.
Abby nodded. “Yes.”
“Well then I can promise you, I’m not bad. So, I guess I’m nothing like Tabitha.”
“Good. I thought you were a good one like Daryll.” She beamed at me with that great big chubby smile.
“Abby.” I said as we rounded the corner and started up the stairs.
“Does it hurt to be a painting?”
“Sometimes.” Said the little girl.
“Well.” She put a thick little finger to her chin and tapped it as though she was looking for precisely the right words. “I get to see so many people. They get to live. That much hurts. But normally it’s fine when I don’t think about it.”
“Why are you alive?”
She shrugged. “Why are you?”
We went to the camera room and I sat at the desk in the glow of the monitors, sipping on my coffee.
“You don’t mind if I sit with you, do you?” she asked.
“No, Abby. I guess I don’t.”
She hoisted the skirt of her dress to her knees so that she could settle into a cross-legged position in the floor and then patted it back down.
“Do you know Mr. Calgary?” I asked.
Abby scrunched her face up and wiggled her round nose. “I don’t like him either.”
I chuckled, searching the desk for something, anything, maybe a deck of playing cards. “Is there anyone you do like?”
“Yeah. He’s nice.” I thought of the older man and surmised he must have worked my shift for at least a handful of years. “How old are you?”
Her forefinger found her chin again as she tapped it to think. “Over a hundred.”
If any other child had told me that, I could have rolled with the punches and accepted it as a figment of their imagination. Somehow, I did not believe that was the case with Abby.
That’s when the thumping started. In a heartbeat, I dove across the girl sitting in the floor and slid on the heels of my shoes into the hall, head darting back and forth, looking for the perpetrator. Had Felix come to prowl on me again? Was it the sound of that statue? I clicked on the flashlight and searched the hall, finding the statue with the impeccable crevice work as still as a statue should have been. Good.
The thumping did not stop, however.
“It’s probably the basement!” squealed Abby.
I shifted around to see that she’d pounced to her feet and was standing within inches of me. Was she cowering behind me? It sure looked that way. My heart melted and I all of the sudden felt an immensely powerful urge to protect this little girl. Painting. She’s a painting. Not a little girl. It doesn’t matter. I like her. “The basement? I didn’t know this place had a basement.”
“Sure. That’s where they store the old pieces of art and all the tools and junk.”
I grabbed her small hand in mine and darted down the hallway towards the stairs. “Slow down. You’re making me step on the cracks!” Yelled Abby.
“Sorry.” I muttered, ushering her along with me by the arm. “Where’s the basement?” I asked as we came to halt at the base of the stairs. I shone my light all around the lobby.
“There!” She pointed to a door adjacent Mr. Calgary’s office. How had I never noticed that door before? I must have assumed it was a broom closet or something.
We took our next steps very carefully so that Abby could position her feet in twisting motions so as to not step on any of the cracks the tiles offered. Really, I was not looking forward to inspecting that door. We came to it and I reached out to open it. Just as my fingers wrapped around the brass knob, Abby tugged at my hand. “What?”
“Don’t do that.” She said. “There’s nothing good down there.”
“How do you know that?”
“I was put down there a long time ago.” She shook her little round head. “Nothing good is down there, Perry.”
I pulled from the door and closed my eyes, rubbing them with my forefinger and thumb. “How much more of this craziness must I endure?”
“Perry! Look out!” screamed Abby at the top of her lungs.
My eyes shot open as I felt something tickling the bottom of my pant leg. The coffee gurgled in my stomach and I immediately started doing the hop-step mamba, trying to get away from whatever the dark long thing was. I jumped a few feet back and shone my light on it.
Creeping up from beneath the door was a finger. Not your ordinary, run of the mill finger, but a finger that extended out about two or three feet. It curled, uncurled, curled, and uncurled with its segments like a spider leg. A scream was caught as a gasp in my throat. Without thinking, I removed the pepper spray from my hip and began squirting at the thing. It thrashed around then disappeared back to its dwelling on the other side of the door.
Let me tell you now, I’ve never used pepper spray before. I did not know that it often times hits the sprayer as well. At first, I was sure I was just sweating profusely. Then the burning started at my hairline and quickly ran the length of my face. I did scream then, dancing around and throwing the canister into the dark shadows. The flashlight went the way of the pepper spray and I fell to my knees, attempting to wipe the stuff off my face with my coat.
“Hold still!” said Abby. “Concentrate on the sound of my voice.”
Through erratic blinks and heavy breathing, I saw Abby wielding the flashlight just as more fingers crept from beneath the door, clawing at us. I shuffled away on my bottom and Abby came with, waving the light around so that I could hardly see a thing. Well, to be fair, I don’t think I could have seen much of anything what with the pepper spray and all.
We made our way to the bathroom, Abby leading me with a small hand and the sound of her calming voice. After flushing my lids and wiping my face, I could see my beet red face through twitching eyes stare back at me in the mirror. “That fucking stings!” I stomped my foot on the ground.
“No cussing.” Said Abby.
I turned to look at her through my blurry vision. I wanted to scream at the little girl, but seeing the concerned look on her face, I softened. “Alright.” I said. “This fricking hurts!” I stomped my foot harder.
The remainder of the night was spent with me and Abby sitting in the camera room and her escorting me through the museum whenever I had to make my rounds. Besides Abby, none of the other pieces exhibited any signs of life; whenever I heard the thumping come from the basement, we ignored it. As daylight began to illuminate the museum through the skylights, we approached Abby’s frame and I hoisted her up so that she could climb in. Her body pushed into the canvas like it was the most natural thing in the world. As she shimmied around to look at me, she smiled and waved and then she was frozen. I felt sad leaving her there but went back to my post to wait out the remainder of my shift.
Daryll came in just as my eyes were growing heavy.
“Were you crying last night?” He asked.
“Sure.” I said, offering a tired grin.
“Then I guess this isn’t yours?” He lifted a small spray canister and tossed it into my lap.
“You found it, huh?” I could not care in the least if it were against protocol for a guard to lose their pepper spray.
“Yup.” Said the older man, lifting his arms above his head and yawning. “So, you’ve been snooping around the basement, eh?”
“Nope.” I clipped the spray onto my belt.
“C’mon mister jokester. You’re the one that’s supposed to be all energetic. Don’t be such a Debbie downer.”
I stood, clocking out on the keyboard, and shifted to hand it off to him. “I said ‘hi’ to Abby for you.”
His face lit up. “Oh yeah? How is she?”
“She’s alright, but I think she misses you.”
He clocked in. “Yeah.” There was a pause. “Take care of her for me, will you kid?”
I went home and collapsed onto the couch just as Felix was getting ready to leave for work. He came over and planted a kiss on my forehead.
“Holy shit! Why are my lips so hot?” He began waving a flat hand in front of his mouth, trying to cool it.
“I pepper sprayed myself last night.”
Felix pressed his mouth tightly, trying to restrain a giggle. “Oh. Poor thing. I’m so sorry.”
“Yup. I think I need to shower, but I might be too tired to move.”
“Well I guess you’re just the way I always thought you were on the inside.”
“You’re spicy!” He winked and leaned over to give me another kiss on the lips, immediately regretting it and cussing, “Fuck that’s hot!”
“Have a good day.” I said.
“Are you going to be alright?”
I nodded and he left me to fall into another weird series of dreams. This time, long fingers reached from every shadowy corner of dreamland.