Barbara sat restlessly at her desk and clicked the button to refresh her e-mail’s inbox. Still nothing new. No word from Dr. Heinz about why he was late or if he even planned on coming in. She popped a bubble with her gum and then smacked the piece between her teeth a few times. It was disturbingly quiet in the office this morning. Dr. Heinz usually had something interesting going on. Or at least the phone seemed to ring more often.
And then, as if cued by the thought in her head, the loud electronic chirp of the phone on her desk began. It startled her enough to jump at first, but she smiled to herself and picked up the receiver.
“Dr. Heinz’s office, this is Barbara. How may I help you?” She said into the mouthpiece with the syrupy sweet voice she preferred to use on the phone. It was the best way to disarm an uptight or outraged caller before they even began. She had never imagined before taking the job that a museum would ever get outraged callers, but it happened all too frequently. There were the people bothered about the evolution displays. There were people bothered that their favorite dinosaur wasn’t on the floor. There were people who thought the ticket price was too high. One lady even had the nerve to complain that the waxed floors were too shiny and had given her a migraine.
“Hi, uh, Barbara. My name is George. I’m down in the basement.” A voice said from the other end.
“Uh-huh. Your basement?” She asked, examining the chips in her fingernail polish. She would need to touch those up after she hung up.
“What? No, no. The museum basement. I’m new. I’m overseeing a new display that just came in.” George said. His voice was a little nasally. Typical nerd, working at the museum.
“That’s great. Welcome aboard.”
“Oh, thanks. Hey, listen, Barbara… sweetheart…”
“I am not your sweetheart.” Barbara said impatiently and then wondered if her tone had been too harsh. He did sound sort of cute, after all – even if a little nerdy. She shook her head silently to herself and covered the goofy smile that came to her face with her free hand. It was silly to think that someone’s voice sounded cute over the phone. She had seen one of those prime-time news magazine shows that made it perfectly clear how the phone sex industry was built on people whose voices were much more attractive than the speakers themselves. In reality, the callers would have never given the operator the time of day if they had known how large and unsightly and even old most of them were. But it wasn’t about reality, was it? It was about fantasy. That’s how the transaction worked. So where was the harm in her own fantasy, if that’s the way she wanted to play it.
“Yes. No, you’re right.” George said. “It’s just… see, we have this new installation down here…”
“The caveman.” She said.
“He’s not — yeah, let’s just call him The Caveman. I’m just freaking out because we’re supposed to have three units running down here at all times to preserve the ice he is frozen in and I’ve only got one. The second is broken and the third hasn’t even been installed yet. So I really need to talk to Dr. Heinz about this.”
“Uh-huh.” Barbara said, doodling a picture of a caveman on a yellow post-it note. She wasn’t an artist, but this picture might actually make it to the fridge door. She especially liked the protruding brow. “And what happens if he thaws out? He wakes up?”
“No. I don’t know what happens. Here’s the thing, swee — Barbara — we don’t know what kind of ancient bacteria or viruses or molds or what have you that might be on or in this guy or the surrounding ice. Some of that stuff, I think it can come back even after being frozen, you know? So that’s the bind I’m in. I really need Heinz.”
“Sure, George, and I really understand. And I feel for you. Really, I do. But he’s not in right now. I’m not just covering for him or screening his calls or anything. He really isn’t here. He hasn’t been in his office all day, which is really strange for him. I haven’t heard anything from him. But, I promise, as soon as he comes in or calls me or whatever, I’ll let him know that you called.”
“Okay, that’s great. But I –”
“Sorry. That’s all I can do for you right now. Oh, I have another call. Let me get that and I’ll call you as soon as I hear something.”
George tried to get another word in, but she disconnected the call and hung up the receiver. Everyone seemed to think they were the most important person in the world. Now, now, now. Like everybody else in the world was waiting around to lend a helping hand whenever they needed it. And it was so much worse in the museum. No one ever called Dr. Heinz to chat about last night’s game or the weather. They always wanted something.
And how was she supposed to help George? What did he want from her? He couldn’t think that she was in a position to help him or authorize the expense of some kind of third-party help. That was the kind of thing Dr. Heinz made the big money for. He was the boss. The leader. The problem-solver. She was the secretary. Answering phones, scheduling appointments, chewing gum. Nowhere in her job description did it say anything about helping the geeks in the basement with their cooling units. The more she thought about it, she wasn’t even sure she knew what a cooling unit looked like. Was it like an air conditioner? She doodled another caveman on the post-it note next to the first. He was shivering and covered in snow up to his hips. Maybe she was working in the wrong kind of museum. She was clearly more of the artsy type. History had never been one of her strong subjects.
Lunch was a chicken salad and diet cola, as usual. She sat quietly at her desk and ate. Surfing the internet had lost its appeal already and the phones had been abnormally quiet after her brief talk with George. The silence in the office was unsettling. She could hear the sound of her own chewing and it was making the meal less appetizing with every bite. Finally she sealed the plastic container and returned it to the shelf in the refrigerator.
On her way back to her desk, she passed the door to Dr. Heinz’s office. Normally, it would be open and she would wave to her boss as she passed by. He was usually buried nose-deep in a boring book or stack of paperwork or shoveling fatty red meat into his mouth. Occasionally he would be cogent of his surroundings and give a faint wave back. Most times, though, he was too oblivious to know she was even there.
She sat down in her chair and pulled a dog-eared copy of some trashy romance novel out of her purse and turned to the page she had last left off. It wasn’t that romance novels were particularly entertaining, but for some strange reason she found that they really helped her to make it through the day. There were always long stretches of silence, especially in the afternoon, and being transported to another world of shirtless men and burning loins was the best way to pass the time. The days were seldom this boring, of course.
Three pages into her reading, right when Antonio was revealing his secret mission to Yvette, the phone rang again. Barbara nearly dropped her book. She took a moment to recover from the sudden panic the noise brought on and then picked up the receiver. She was greeted by the crackle of static.
There was nothing but white noise on the other end. She listened for a moment longer and was about to hang up when she noticed a strange sound. Like a voice from a great distance calling through the static.
“Hello? I can’t quite make out what you’re saying. You will need to speak up. There’s some kind of interference on the line.”
“Barbara!” The voice called. It was still small and distant, but slightly clearer. “Barbara, is that you?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Barbara?” The voice called out again. She couldn’t be certain, but it sounded like Dr. Heinz.
“Yes! Oh, Barbara! It’s me. It’s Dr. Heinz! Thank God you answered the phone!”
The voice was familiar, but Dr. Heinz never talked like this. This man was much too excited to be the stick in the mud who sat in the curator’s office.
“Dr. Heinz, where are you? Why aren’t you in the office today? Is everything alright?”
“Barbara, listen, I don’t have long. I need you to do something. It’s very important that you do everything I say, exactly as I say it. Do you understand?”
She took a post-it down and prepared a pen. “Yes, I’m ready.”
“You must go to my office. In the left middle drawer of my desk you will find an amulet. Take the amulet and lay it on the floor. Then, get a piece of chalk from the blackboard on the wall and draw a circle around the amulet. Finally, grab the small excavation hammer I have on top of my desk and smash the amulet. You must completely destroy the amulet. At least five pieces. And you must, I repeat must, do so only after you have drawn the circle around it. Do you understand?”
The man had clearly lost his marbles. It must be a prank. A Friday afternoon goof. Maybe he was drunk. She had never seen him drink before, but that was the only logical explanation for this bizarre request.
“Barbara? Are you there? Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Barbara said, confused. And then she decided to test the caller. “What do I eat for lunch?”
There was a long pause. The static continued to crackle and she thought she could just make out something that sounded like the tinny tune of a music box.
“What?” Dr. Heinz asked.
“I eat the same thing for lunch almost every day. What is it?”
“I don’t understand –”
“If you’re really Dr. Heinz…”
“Okay, yes, I understand now. It’s some kind of stinky salad, I think. In a plastic container. You always store it on the second shelf.”
That was the best answer she could expect from her boss. He rarely acknowledged her presence except when he needed someone called or a paper faxed or filed. To believe he might actually pay any attention to the food she ate was asking a lot. It wasn’t perfect proof of his identity, but it seemed close enough.
“You must do this quickly!” He said. “Now, please!”
A sudden click ended the static and the line went dead. Barbara hung up the phone and stared at it for a moment in a desperate attempt to make sense of it all. The curator was an odd duck, to be sure, but he had never made such a ridiculous request. And the instructions seemed so… esoteric. He was a man of science. But on the phone he had sounded like a raving lunatic. Something just didn’t feel right.
She glanced up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 1:30. And it was decision time. It was a safe bet that Dr. Heinz would not be coming in to work that day. And the office was especially quiet. No guests. No phone calls. It would be easy to sneak out early. He would never know. Cough syrup, she thought. Or pain meds. Maybe he’s sick or in pain and is now all doped up on some kind of medication. The call may have been a drug induced dream. He might not even remember calling and making such an unusual request when he returned on Monday. The best thing would be to treat herself to an short day and get an early start on the weekend.
But what if he was serious? What if he needed this to be done for some unknown reason? Maybe he would return on Monday and be upset with her for not following his orders. It might be a test. Was failing to smash an amulet a fireable offense? She decided it would be best to follow his instructions. She would smash the amulet and then leave early for the day. That was an acceptable compromise.
She opened the middle drawer to her desk and found the spare key to his office in the pen holder. With a certain amount of trepidation, she took it back to his office door and unlocked it. She turned on the light switch beside the door and strolled across his office to the desk. She opened the left middle drawer, as he had instructed, and found a palm-sized emerald amulet and gold chain laying on top of a stack of papers. She held it up to the flourescent lights and watched the green sparkle. It was breath-takingly beautiful.
Then she noticed the strange green outlines of glyphs that were dancing along the walls of the room. The light appeared to be bouncing through the amulet’s jewel and projecting the images onto the walls. She couldn’t make out the exact nature of the glyphs, but they looked similar in nature to the Egyptian heiroglyphs she had seen in the museum. She stood at the desk and watched, transfixed by the dancing green figures all around her. Finally, she remembered what she was there to do and found a piece of chalk in the tray at the bottom of the chalkboard on the eastern wall. She clutched it in her hand and then found the hammer on top of the desk.
She felt foolish as she knelt onto the floor and laid the amulet down. This was, after all, probably a prank. She could practically hear the senior staff of the museum sitting around a poker table that night, smoking cigars and joking about the dumb blond who would do any ridiculous task she was asked. She sighed and looked at the amulet in front of her. It seemed such a shame to destroy so beautiful an object. But this was her job. This was what she was asked – instructed – to do. All she could do was hope that Dr. Heinz was not high on pain killers.
She took the piece of chalk and began to sketch out a white circle on the dark hardwood floor of the office. Three-quarters of the way around the circle, she heard the phone on her desk chirp. She hesitated. Maybe Dr. Heinz was calling back to let her in on the joke. Maybe he had changed his mind. She stood up and ran to her desk.
“Hey, Barb, this is George again.” His voice was shaky and loud. There was some sort of whooshing sound in the background, like a steam valve bursting.
“Oh, George, sorry I haven’t heard from Dr. Heinz…” She said, biting her lip. “Actually, I was hoping this was him calling.”
“How many exits are there in the basement level?” George asked. He seemed to have not heard her at all.
“Exits? I — I don’t know. I’ve never been down there.”
There was a distant sound she could just barely make out over the line. It sounded like a scream. George began yelling to someone, but he must have covered the mouthpiece. Barbara could hear only muffled words.
“George? What’s going on down there?”
“It’s okay, security just arrived. Thanks. Sorry to bother you.” His voice was strangely calm. He sounded a lot like someone she had once seen hypnotized at a magician’s show. The line went dead and she put the receiver down. Her hands were shaking slightly and a feeling of unease was creeping down her spine. It felt like the museum was going to Hell.
And then, right on cue, the floor began to wobble below her feet and a thunderous clap shook the room. She held tight to the edge of her desk to steady herself and saw a bright green luminescence from the doorway to Dr. Heinz’s office. The gelatin floor settled beneath her again and she stood motionless trying to catch her breath. Her hands ached from the death grip on her desk. Had it been an earthquake? They weren’t common to the area, but there were always freak natural occurrences, right? The green light might simply have been a short in one of the overhead lights. Or a gas leak. Yeah, that was probably it. The whole day was feeling like one big gas leak.
Finally she was able to release her hold on the desk and steadied herself. She took a deep breath, and then another, before cautiously walking back to Dr. Heinz’s office. At the edge of the door, she stopped and closed her eyes. What was there to be scared of? She shook her arms and tried to release some of the fear and tension that had gathered in her shoulders. She was being foolish and allowing this day — this admittedly odd and not-altogether-pleasant of a day — to play tricks on her mind. She closed her eyes, breathed deeply once again and then stepped into the doorway. She opened her eyes and surveyed the damage.
The room was in shambles. The curator’s desk — a large and substantial executive desk made of some kind of dark hardwood — had been split right down the center. There was a smoking hole on the floor where the amulet had been. She noticed the incomplete chalk circle around the hole. Papers and books were strewn across the floor and a torchiere lamp had fallen over. She took a step back. She could not make sense of the scene in front of her. A foggy cloud began to creep over her mind and pieces of the day began to flicker in her mind’s eye.
Then there was a click. She could not be sure if the sound was only in her head or if it had come from somewhere in the office, but it didn’t really matter. As soon as the click had sounded, she no longer cared about the scene of destruction. She didn’t care why Dr. Heinz had never come in or why he had called with such a strange request. She didn’t care about George or The Caveman or the bizarre second call from the basement she had received. She didn’t care about the earthquake. She didn’t care about the museum. She had simply had enough.
Calmly she turned and took her purse from the back of her chair. Without looking back, she strolled out of the office, down the waxed floor of the corridor and out into the mid-afternoon sun. The weekend was waiting. And Monday would be the start of a whole new career.