Darkness cloaked large portions of the gallery. Ghostly mannequins with hidden faces stood along the walls and half-hidden in recesses, some spotlit from a bulb in the floor or streaked from rigging above. Multiple floodlights in the ceiling were off.
Except for the music, the museum was quiet. No hum of HVAC, no whispers or voices. When the weakened speakers sporadically gave out, the only sounds came from Sophia’s and Josh’s feet: his hard clicks, hers a smack of bare feet on dirty tiles.
Most of the exhibited pieces dealt with fashion. Glass cases on wooden platforms stood at regular intervals, featuring antique handbags, jewelry, and art pieces one needed the description card to make sense of. The glass was dull and fingerprinted; the brass fixtures tarnished.
From one themed gallery to another, the music shifted with the tone of the room. A mournful operatic alto sang in an unidentifiable language over the buzz of a cello. The ceiling vaulted in dusty, rough-hewn bricks, and dress forms in tattered, period costumes — some of which were lit, others cloaked in shadow — hung from the ceiling, leaving the floor an open expanse, although three of the costumed forms had fallen.
While Sophia tried to bravely press forward, keeping a careful eye on the headless bodies, the blanket of darkness at the end of the gallery drained her cold. She turned on her heel and collided with Joshua. For a moment, she could only focus on the satiny patterns on his jacket, the zigzag weave of his button-down shirt.
By reflex, he braced himself and his hands landed on her bare arms. The scales on her bodice clinked.
“Um,” she said, keeping her eyes on his chest, not wanting to admit being afraid of the dark, or the potential threat of being in an empty building with a strange man.
Soft brown curls wreathed his face, brushing his shoulders; stubble pricked his jaw. His thick, knit eyebrows framed deep, chocolate eyes as though he were meant to be on display himself.
“I just,” she whispered.
He squeezed her arms and tried to maintain eye contact even as she looked away.
She tried to laugh away her nerves, but it almost came out a cry. “I have to get out of this thing,” she said, pulling at the scales.
He scanned the room and took a few quick steps to the first costume on the floor. After turning the form over, he said, “What about this one?” Even before she answered, he was undressing it.
Sophia approached. The dress was simple and lacy, more an Edwardian undershift than anything. Though the fabric was starched, it wasn’t made of scales and feathers.
“I can turn around,” Josh offered. “Or I think there’s a restroom at the start of the gallery.”
Sophia took the dress from him. The restroom door was half hidden, the symbol of a woman on the plaque beside it barely visible.
Josh took her hand; his were cold too. Together, they approached the room and Josh pushed the door open. After fishing around the wall for a switch, the light sprang on.
“Must be on a sensor,” he said.
The restroom was plush and bright.
“I’m going to find a phone,” Josh said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Sophia nodded. “Get me some shoes,” she whispered, and stepped inside.
The door closed, muting the lachrymose music from the gallery. She could have been in any upscale bathroom in the world. All the lightbulbs worked. A fluffy cream rug spanned the middle of the marble tile to a pink love seat at the far end of the room. A vanity table stood against one wall, complete with mirror and toiletries. Through a small opening, three stalls closed with white floor-to-ceiling doors, nestled beside a double sink and full-length mirror.
Her stomach growled.
The dress in her hands opened in the back with a delicate zipper. After holding it flat to her front to check the size, she lay it on the love seat. Since the scaly top of the dress had no back to speak of, it released easily and hung down the front of the feathered skirt. Bare-breasted and feeling around her waist, there were no zippers or hooks to open. She picked through the feathers, trying to find the fabric base, but everything underneath was smooth, even as she circled the skirt around her middle. It was too fitting to pull down her hips and wouldn’t clear her ribs. After two full circuits, she found a seam. The scales on the bodice offered a sharp enough edge to cut through the skirt’s seam; with a sharp pull, it opened wide enough for her to step through.
Sophia wished she had a bra, but was grateful for the cotton undies she found herself in. She quickly slipped into the white dress, which was snug, but it zipped.
The mirror at the vanity showed her severe look. Two tight, thick cornrows hugged her head and tapered to her waist, glued at the ends instead of held with elastics — longer than her hair had ever been. Inky black eyeliner winged her eyes to her hairline; her lips as blood red as the dress she’d removed.
The tap hissed and gurgled when Sophia opened it. When the pipes groaned, she shut it off and stood motionless, listening with a pounding heart. She opened the faucet again gently, holding her breath until the splutter became a rusty stream. When it ran clear, she scrubbed her face with a wet paper towel and hand soap from the counter.
Since Josh hadn’t come back by the time she patted her face dry, she abandoned her plan to unbraid her hair and opened the door a crack. The shadowy gallery displayed its exhibit of dangling human forms, pockmarked along the walls with black recesses, but no sign of Josh. The door swung closed, muffling the music and ghosts outside. Josh would be back. He’d find a phone and call someone to get them. Not that she couldn’t call someone herself; she’d conjure one of those annoying collect call jingles since whoever had brought her to the museum and changed her clothes had also stolen her purse.
Considering the late hour — or what she assumed was late since she hadn’t seen a clock since she’d woken, and the concert had ended at ten — calling anyone other than the police could be risky. Sophia’s parents lived in Westchester and would pick her up regardless of the hour, but not without a stern lecture about taking more responsibility for her newfound adult freedom. She was twenty-five: young enough to be stupid, old enough to know better.
“You’re a college graduate, for godsakes,” her dad would say with mom silently fuming in the passenger seat. “Makes me wonder how you got through that by yourself.”
Her roommate in Queens was basically a stranger with whom Sophia cohabited. The ten-by-ten bedroom cost five hundred a month, which included a personal mini fridge, access to the shared bathroom, no pets, and no male visitors. It wasn’t that Ms Nina was unkind or wouldn’t help, but calling her would be confiding in a stranger, and might jeopardize Sophia’s room and board.
No. Either she or Joshua would call the police, log their alleged kidnapping, and from there Sophia would take the subway home. No one had to know.
With a deep breath, she left the restroom. She couldn’t wait all night for Josh to rescue her. The music was atmosphere; the exhibit was made of mannequins, not spirits. No monsters under the bed. If all the lights were on, nothing in the building would be creepy.
The cry in the distance was.
The voice came from the darkest end of the gallery. The person didn’t say anything intelligible, but it was definitely a man. Definitely live. Definitely in trouble.
“Josh!” she called. Before a reply came, she was already running toward the opening.
“Come back here, goddamn it,” a man shouted.
Darkness enveloped Sophia. She stopped as her hands found drapes of fabric.
“Josh?” She let go of the silky pleats and blindly toed around a large pedestal. “I can’t see.”
“He has a torch,” a man with an Indian accent said.
“Who’s there?” Sophia whispered. Behind her, the gallery was comparatively bright; if she returned there, she could see the stranger approach, but in turn lose her cloak.
“Please, help me. I need help!” His voice grew exponentially frantic with every word.
“I can’t see! What do I do?”
“The torch!” he screamed.
Sophia did a frantic visual sweep of the black room. When she felt around the pedestal, a muted light shone on the floor, dampened by something soft. She knelt and cautiously tapped the floor with her fingers, gasping when she touched a person. She pulled the flashlight from under the man and landed on her butt.
With the light swung forward, she found Josh lying prone on the floor, slowly moving his hand to his bruised forehead.
“Are you okay?” Sophia asked. “What happened? What’s going on?”
“Someone’s bleeding,” Josh said, pulling himself up to lean against the pedestal.
“What happened to you?” she asked, cradling the flashlight to her chest and shrinking beside Josh.
“Don’t worry about me. He’s back there,” Josh said. “I can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
“Somebody please!” the man cried.
Sophia crawled around the pedestal until her light caught a man lying hunched against the far wall, covered in blood and trembling. He clutched his abdomen amid a tangle of fake branches, grasses, and gravestones. Streaks of black-red marked his face, arms and bare chest.
A sports car was accordioned beside him against the wall.
Black clouds swam into Sophia’s vision and she understood why Josh was rattled.