The museum designers configured the galleries in a circular maze, the perfect immersive experience for its patrons back in the day — whenever that had been. Instead of enjoying the exhibits, Sophia, Josh and Ajay kept an eye out for phones or exit signs or movement: all three nil.
Someone had crafted each area too well to be marred by step ladders and cardboard boxes. Cabinets and shelves no longer in use leaned against walls or lay stacked on the floor.
“No one’s opening this place in the morning,” Josh whispered.
Dirt, dust, and loose bolts on the ground made checking the mannequins’ feet for viable shoes Sophia’s top priority.
“What kind of museum do you think this was?” Josh asked.
“I want to say a film museum,” Ajay said, “because of the car I woke up next to.”
“Was that a reference to something?” Sophia asked. “Because it just looked grim.”
He blinked at her as though she had to be joking. “Ek Philm Sheershak?”
Sophia dropped the pant leg of a mannequin, letting another pair of metal shoes go. She had no idea what Ajay said and was sorry she’d asked. He wasn’t even trying to look for a shirt; even with the scars, she guessed he liked showing off those abs. They were as smooth as his clean-shaven face.
“It’s a very famous film,” Ajay continued. “Released three years ago. I starred with Anuksha Rai and Shahid Khan.”
Sophia and Josh exchanged glances and picked across a string of dead lights on the floor.
“Let me guess,” Ajay said, stunned by their blank expressions. “You’ve never seen a Bollywood movie.”
“Sorry,” Sophia said.
“I make over seven crore per film, which is well over a million US dollars.” He paused. “I’m India’s Tom Cruise, if that makes it easier.”
“So,” Josh said, “how long have you been here, Ajay?”
His flashlight beam on a taxidermy cat hanging as though walking on the wall.
“Weird,” Sophia whispered.
“Just as long as I’ve seen the two of you,” Ajay said. “Few hours at most?”
“Do either of you remember the date?” Sophia asked.
Josh and Ajay looked at each other.
“It’s August,” Ajay repeated. “I know because it’s scorching.”
“I just sent out my Christmas cards.” Josh said.
Sophia nodded. “Yeah, we were starting cap season early at work. November sounds right.”
They were silent while they waited for who would ask the inevitable next question. Sophia did.
Ajay shook his head. “I lived through that bullshit about the world ending because of the millennium.”
“We haven’t —” Josh’s voice caught. “I performed a concert last night. She was there.”
“There’s no way we’ve been here for almost a year,” Sophia said. “Josh would have a beard about a mile long.” But one of her longer-than-natural braids dropped over her shoulder.
“Wait, is all this from the computers freaking out? Y2K?” Josh asked.
Ajay shook his head. “Nothing happened.”
“The electricity’s still on,” Josh said.
“Then there’s bound to be a phone somewhere,” Sophia said. “Maybe in an office?”
“Sweetie,” Ajay retorted, “Look at this place. If we even find one, it’ll be disconnected because nobody’s coming back.”
“I’m not your sweetie.”
She continued through the gallery without waiting for the guys.
“Not with that attitude.”
Feminine mannequins all in the same aggressive pose lined the wall. Most wore incredible, unwearable shoes, like the ones Sophia had kicked off earlier, but one, dressed in dried flowers, sported soft slippers, barely visible under the skirt. Petals dropped to the floor as Sophia finagled one shoe off; the mannequin crashed backward when she tried for the second.
“You okay?” Josh’s flashlight beam crossed her.
“Just getting some damn shoes.” She sat on the floor and dusted her soles before putting them on.
“Typical, isn’t it?” Ajay said.
“Wear a shirt!” Sophia shouted. She stood and continued to the next gallery: a dead end filled with taxidermy. She sighed and sat beside a lion, hoping the guys would leave her alone.
She’d never been so hungry.
The men’s voices continued low in the next gallery, their words indecipherable, until Ajay said something loud in Hindi and Josh poked his head through the opening.
“Sophia!” he called, and when his flashlight landed on her, said, quieter, “Oh.”
“I kind of backed myself into a corner,” she said. She pet the lion as though it would protect her, but it was dead and its fur was rough. Her hand went back in her lap. “What’s going on?” she whispered.
Josh ruffled the lion’s mane. “Who’s a good boy? Oh —” He pulled his hand away. “Not the softest.”
He sat beside her.
“I feel like this is all a terrible dream,” Sophia said. “I mean, how is any of this real? If I woke up in my bed, that’s the only thing that would make sense.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I haven’t seen any exit signs. This place is a wreck, and yet all the pieces are still here. How does something like this even happen?”
“Well,” Josh said, “Museums go bankrupt like any other business. Sometimes they don’t have the wherewithal to remove anything when they go.”
“And just leave it?”
Josh’s smoky voice evoked memories of comfort, taking the edge off the situation even with no music behind it. Her musical tastes varied daily: how frustrating her hour-long evening commute was determined which mix tape she’d play on the subway. Sometimes screaming guitars allowed her to play out her fight or flight when some dude “accidentally” touched her butt, other times the pop flavor of the day was enough to prop her up till she got home. Opera was never for the subway; the screechy brakes and deafening chug of the cars drowned it.
She had a special collection at home dedicated to the wind-down: Sophia would enter the house, usually without a word to Ms Nina, and close herself in her room. The purse and coat came off, and Sophia would flop on the bed with noise-cancelling headphones and listen to one track of her “Cool Down” mix with her eyes closed. For three to five minutes, the strings and horns and voice were everything. No frustrating boss. No sardine can subway. No passive-aggressive roommate.
Joshua Rossi dominated the mix. Because she didn’t know what he looked like — didn’t know his name — she imagined an Italian with a dark ponytail streaked with silver. A young-looking forty. He’d sing to her in an outdoor cafe or a garden, or beside her bed in Queens, culminating in at least a kiss.
Josh picked through the taxidermy lion’s fur, inspected its teeth.
With the real man in front of her, the voice still calmed, but the fantasy dissipated.
“I think it’s that guy Ajay,” Sophia whispered.
“You think what’s him?” Josh left the lion alone.
“I think he put us here. I mean, he wasn’t at the theater last night. Since he says he’s an actor, we can’t believe anything he says. I mean, he lies for a living. And —”
“The stunt with the blood,” Josh finished.
“Yeah. Who’s Erica?”
“Oh!” Another entry on the cassette mix. “She sings the most beautiful version of the Queen of the Night aria. I was so happy she actually performed it last night. How could she be involved?”
“All I know is she played around with some fake blood backstage —” He shook his head instead of finishing.
“Ever heard of Ajay?” Josh continued.
Sophia shook her head. “He wasn’t in the one Indian movie I saw.”
“Is he acting now?”
“But he’d want something, right? Money or… What do kidnappers want?”
“Interrupting something?” Ajay asked. He stood near one of the mannequins in the exhibit entrance as though he’d been hiding, eavesdropping.
Sophia stood. “We were just talking.”
“Since you’re both taking such good care of each other, you might not have heard there’s someone else out there,” Ajay said. “I came to see if it was maybe one of you, but …” He shrugged. “Good to know you’re conspiring.”
Josh got to his feet. “No one’s conspiring. What did you hear?”
“You two asking each other if I’d faked my injuries, if I —”
“The noises,” Josh interrupted. “Why do you think there’s someone else here?”
“Footsteps,” he said.
The scars on Ajay’s abdomen were smooth and white with age. They weren’t as new as he had suggested, but they were real. She’d touched them herself when he was panicking.
Ajay wrestled an orange, big-lapeled shirt from a mannequin beside him; the bang of the figure hitting the floor startled Sophia.
“Here,” Ajay said, pushing his arms through the sleeves. “A shirt. I wouldn’t want you to be offended by the nudity.”
“I’m not —”
A thundering bang in the distance brought them all to attention.
“A noise like that,” Ajay whispered.
The shadows in the curving hallway swallowed Josh and Ajay when Sophia focused her flashlight too long on a statue in the corner. It was mostly an armchair with black scorch marks on the seat; legs leaned against it from the floor, bent at the knee, and burned off at the thigh. One of the shoes was half off. The piece reminded her of a spontaneous human combustion victim she saw on a conspiracy theory show late at night. The longer she looked at the statue, the more she wondered if they were real remains.
Something snapped in the distance.
Sophia swung her light around the room, watching for movement near the cabinets and mannequins. The guys were gone.
With a last glance toward the disembodied legs, she hurried forward and opened her mouth to call out. A muffled WHUMP shook the floor, freezing her.
The flashlight beam shook with her hand.
The sound had come from below. Something big and industrial.
She couldn’t keep her panting breath quiet. No matter where she trained the light, there was more darkness in the room than she could uncover. Anything could be hiding.
Even worse than the noises were the pockets of silence.
When she unplanted her feet, Sophia crept toward the next gallery, where a flickering light at the other end of the room reflected off a grid of glass cabinets. Her throat made a choked sound.
A door marked Employees Only stood ajar halfway through the room. Though she wanted to continue after the men, she peered inside, hoping to find a phone. Reasonably, they must have already tried it, but she went inside anyway. The overhead light switched on automatically.
In contrast to the rest of the museum, the walls in the claustrophobic office were painted beige. Mostly empty shelves surrounded a central desk. Cardboard boxes filled with books and papers sat on the floor, most not even taped closed. The tape gun lay on top of one of them. Garbage bags sat full amongst the boxes.
Amongst the papers, binders, and empty water bottles on the desk stood a multi-lined phone.
Sophia stumbled over a box. She dropped the flashlight on the desk, snatched the receiver, and listened. Nothing. She pushed several buttons to find the dial tone. Checking if the phone was plugged in, she traced the line to the wall, jiggled the connector, and pushed a few more buttons on the keypad.
She dialed 911 for good measure.
Something clicked in the receiver.
“Hello?” she said.
Even without a dial tone, she pressed the switch hook and punched in the emergency number again. It didn’t ring, but someone was breathing on the other end.
Sophia gripped the receiver and squeaked out, “…uh?”
A man’s even, low voice said, “Someone there?”
Sophia shrieked and hung up.
The voice had been calm, weary maybe, but disquieting.
Though her heart raced and her skin prickled, Sophia knew she should have said something to him. She picked up the silent receiver again and said, “Hello?”
Nothing on any of the lines. No clicks or buzzes or breaths.
“Is anyone there?”
Sophia hung up and sat on the chair behind the desk. It made a rusty groan as she leaned back, so she sprang back to her feet, ruffling papers as she steadied herself on the desk. A sticky note containing a pencil portrait sketch whooshed from under the stack. Sophia recognized it immediately as something she’d drawn a few weeks prior at work before cap season.
“What the …?” she whispered.
David, her manager, had corrected one of her files in the only way he knew how: beratement in chicken scratch. Because he hadn’t offered guidance in his defrocking, Sophia retreated to the ladies room, calmed herself, and came back to a photo on her keyboard: a picture from Halloween of David, hamming for the camera in costume drag with his arms around two teammates — neither of whom looked happy. His wig was crooked, and his makeup was sarcastically bad.
To get rid of his face, Sophia stuck a Post-it to the photo and seethed. Since she wasn’t in the photo herself, David had to mean for her to pass it along to her comrades; none of them liked David either. But a thought came to her: she moved the sticky note and drew the best likeness of him she could. At the bottom, mimicking his horrendous handwriting, she wrote, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” and stuck it back on the photo before flicking it over the cubicle wall.
The titters around the office made her effort worthwhile. To her surprise, David displayed her drawing alongside the photo on the bulletin board in his office.
“He’s so egotistical,” Anna, one of her co-workers said, “he probably thinks you want to fuck him.”
“You’ve got balls, I’ll tell you that much,” Anna continued.
This was the same drawing. Nothing in the museum office suggested David worked there, but either someone she worked with moved the drawing, or David had.
The thought of David holding her hostage made her dry-heave again. A monster with a mask and chainsaw was easier to mentally handle than David “I can’t give you positive reinforcement because you never do anything right” Ames.
The sticky on the back was nothing more than a brown crust.
David’s sketchy face grinned back at her. Sophia dropped the paper and stepped back against the chair, the creak of which prompted a startled a yelp. Once her voice escaped, though, she screwed her eyes shut and screamed.
“What do you want from me?” she shouted. When she opened her eyes again, they stayed on the drawing even as she bumped into boxes and felled trash bags around the desk. She stumbled through the door to the dark gallery and screamed, “HEY!”
Without waiting for a response, she knocked a mannequin to the floor and shouted again.
“David, you fuck! You can’t do this to me! You don’t own—”
The motion sensor light in the office behind her switched off, plunging the gallery into darkness.
“No,” she moaned. “My flashlight…”
Something in the distance crashed.
“Sure,” she whispered. The anger in her chest bloomed. “Maybe I am a bad paralegal, but this is bullshit!” She groped forward, pushing things blindly aside, shuffling to avoid tripping. “You dump on me every day and this is where it gets me? All I wanna do is make a goddamn living!”
The floor stopped beneath her, and she pinwheeled her arms to steady herself. She stayed upright, holding tight to a railing. Carefully, she tested the ground and found herself at the top of a staircase. Bringing herself closer to the rail, she peered over at a faint light at the bottom.
Sophia continued downstairs. As she approached the light, her eyes adjusted and landed on an open door marked Private. Stepping inside the lit employee break room, her eye immediately went to a refrigerator.
In her fear and anger, she’d ignored her grumbling stomach until a dull nausea developed. The possibility of food brought it roaring back. After yanking the fridge door open, she covered her nose and slammed it shut. The refrigerator was warm and rank, its contents covered in a film of black mold.
Sophia coughed and fought the urge to vomit, keeping her eyes steadily on the speckled laminate floor.
Once the smell dissipated, she focused on the rest of the room. It wasn’t big, but didn’t feel close either. Two tables in the middle of the room sat six chairs each. A bulletin board on one beige wall held workplace notices. The other walls were blank except for doors and a couple of sofas. A TV with a boxy back was bolted to a shelf near the ceiling.
No windows, though. No windows anywhere in the building.
Empty granola bar wrappers on the counter and tables gave her hope she’d find unspoiled food. The cabinets above the sink contained plates and glasses, bulk boxes of snack bars, chocolates, and canned goods. It was as though someone were living in the building.
She grabbed a box of granola bars and ripped one open with trembling fingers. During her second bar, she explored the cabinets under the sink. Bottles of Coke, cases of beer, cereal, paper towels, cleaning supplies, wadded plastic shopping bags — everything a kitchen should have, including a musty smell.
Sophia opened a closet door beside the bulletin board and gave a little gasp at the stacked pallets of bottled water. She took three bottles and put them on the table behind her. With a pause for thought, she returned to the lower cabinets and pulled out a plastic bag; she’d run into the guys eventually, and they’d be hungry too.
As she bagged the goodies, a murmur made her stop and listen. With the bag in hand, she crept to the room’s exit and listened. Nothing — then a grunt.
Another doorway off the stairwell was cloaked in darkness; she’d completely missed it earlier.
“Hey! Whoa!” a man shouted deep in the dark room, where a glimmer of light shone around a corner.
She wished she hadn’t left her flashlight in the office upstairs. But when she took a step into the dark room, the light switched on.
In the middle of the black room, a spotlight shone on a large stone figure crouched in what had probably been a shallow fountain, holding a silver ax. The round pool enclosure was discolored with black mold, but dry; a water ring stained the base of the statue.
“You got it?”
Josh and Ajay were definitely the voices, so Sophia hurried around the fountain toward them. When she rounded to the next room, she stopped short. Josh and Ajay were crouched beside a large, fallen shelving unit, straining to lift it a few inches off the ground. It had been covering at least ten feet of wall, large gouges in which suggested the anchors had failed. The other walls still supported their network of shelves, each cubbyhole housing disturbing fashion accessories.
Josh glanced at Sophia. “Give us a hand? Someone’s trapped.”