CHAPTER ONEHide and Seek in the Museum
“We’re ready,” Mary said, as she and Helen adopted running stances.
Ike turned to the wall and covered his eyes.
“ONE!” he counted aloud.
With that signal, Mary took off, running at full speed across the museum. Her best friend jogged alongside with ease. No matter that they were the same age—Helen’s long, athletic body was the reason others often mistook the eleven-year old for a teenager.
“… TWO … Three … four!”
“You keep going,” Helen whispered.
From the corner of her eye, Mary watched Helen disappear as she veered into the African pottery exhibit. Mary pushed ahead, her kinky dark hair bouncing as she went.
A feeling of unexpected pleasure bubbled up inside her as she ran. A broad grin spread from ear to ear.
Now’s the time, she thought. It’d been a while since this feeling had last come.
She closed her eyes briefly, imagining the place she longed to see above all others. As she reopened them, the marble floor turned to dirt beneath her feet. The white walls of the museum sprang forth into lush greenery as leaves and vines covered them. The transition took only seconds, and soon Mary was no longer running through the museum.
She was back, flying on her feet through the rainforest. It really had been too long.
“Ha ha!” she laughed, upping her speed a notch.
Mary felt free and fearless, leaping over fallen logs as she bounded through the jungle. Glancing to the left, she saw two lanky monkeys, swinging from branch to branch and hooting excitedly as they matched her speed. The air felt steamy, and beautiful rainforest noises echoed all around.
Mary turned sharply to her right, rounding a wide tree. Ike would never find her now.
An unexpected light appeared in front of her eyes, catching her off guard.
Huh? she wondered.
And with that momentary, out-of-place thought, it was over. The trees around her vanished, returning to the dull, darkened corridors of the museum.
“No!” she cried in despair. “Come back!”
Mary tried to pretend otherwise, but this adventure hadn’t been real.
“I’m in the Amazon. I’m in the Amazon,” she urged herself, straining to get the engine of her imagination to turn over.
It was no use. Whatever had been working before was gone now. All she could conjure up were vague images, like black-and-white photographs that vanished into smoke before she could get a good look at them.
I’m probably getting too old for this, she thought. She’d be twelve soon, after all. Did all imaginations stop working at twelve? Without hers, who would she be?
It’s all because I’ve been spoiled.
Spoiled by the museum. Not that she’d change anything. She likely wouldn’t have formed her imagination in the first place if not for this place. As the curator’s daughter, she’d practically grown up here. But maybe it’d caused an overload. The fires of her mind burned too hot, and she’d used up the finite amount of imagined adventure her brain had to offer.
Mary reluctantly accepted, yet again, that the museum was only a museum. Not the real thing. Just a place that could provide glimpses of what she might find in faraway places. Places that weren’t here, where she was, and probably always would be.
“Ready or not, here I come!” Ike called from the distant wing of the empty museum.
Oh yeah, she remembered. Hide and seek.
Mary began looking for a place to hide. Ahead, that light which had yanked her out of the rainforest shone brightly. It took a moment to realize what it was. As she did, her spirit swelled, and her smile returned.
“My lucky day,” she said, walking toward the light.
She might not be able to will her imagination back, but Mary knew another way to get the results she craved. It kind of felt like cheating, but at this point, she’d take what she could get.
In front of Mary was her favorite thing in the whole museum. The beautiful world map, illuminated by the spotlight, hung proudly on the corridor wall.
Almost immediately, she felt that familiar tugging sensation. The black-and-white photographs didn’t vanish right away. She sighed in satisfaction. There it was.
Adventures. All thanks to the map.
The rest of what the museum had to offer might be losing its potency, but the map was still an effective way to stimulate the imagination. Something about it, and all maps for that matter, could always draw her in.
Nearly ten feet high and twenty feet wide, the stunning map filled the entire wall. It showed the world in amazing detail. It even had pictures of plants and animals lining its border. Each was connected to a spot on the map by a red line, indicating the native habitat of the plant or animal. As always, Mary dreamed that simply touching the map could magically whisk her away to any place she desired. She wouldn’t need her imagination then. Then she’d have it all right in front of her.
In the back of her mind, Mary again remembered the game of hide and seek.
Just another minute, she told herself. It would take her little brother a while to find her, especially since he wouldn’t come looking in these darkened exhibits alone. She had time.
And she needed this.
One bright picture caught her eye, as it had countless times before. A large, spotted cat climbed along a green log in an even greener jungle. She looked at the description and read:
The Amazon jaguar (Panthera onca onca) is one of the largest predators living in the rainforest basin. Accurate numbers are difficult to estimate, but they are very rare, and seldom seen by humans.
A line connected the picture to the heart of the Amazon. Reaching up, Mary traced it with her finger.
“Right there,” she said, tapping her finger in the middle of the rainforest. “That’s where I want to go.”
Her mind’s eye began to produce the rainforest once again, as creeper vines sprung from the surface of the map and wrapped around her wrist. The melody of chanting birds and monkeys filled the air.
Deep down, Mary understood the solution to her problem. She had for a while. Her imagination wasn’t dying. It’d only matured, just as she had. Babies could live on milk, but as they got older, they needed more variety in their diet. Her younger imagination could produce the adventure she craved when fed by the interesting artifacts of the museum, but it needed something more now.
She needed to be fed the real thing.
This was why she’d been begging her parents for the chance to really go somewhere. To keep her imagination alive and healthy.
“Yes, I think it would be an interesting place too,” said an unexpected voice from behind.
Mary yelped as she spun around, startled by the intruder.
All traces of her imagined rainforest vanished yet again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” apologized the janitor.
The tall, aging man pushed a wide broom across the floor. His white hair was trimmed short and neat, much like his narrow white mustache. It matched his pale skin. Mary had seen him before, but had never spoken to him. He hadn’t been working at the museum for long.
“So, you like to travel?” the janitor asked, revealing his slight accent.
She tried to remember the man’s name.
“Yes, well, I think so,” Mary stammered, her heart still racing from the fright he’d given her. “I’ve never actually gone anywhere.”
“And why the Amazon?” asked the janitor. “You like hot weather?”
“I don’t know,” Mary said. “Maybe because there’s more life in the Amazon than any other place on earth. But I think I’d like to go anywhere, really.”
The janitor stared at her again for a moment, smiling awkwardly in a way that only made Mary feel uncomfortable.
“You know,” he finally said, “life is always better when seeking adventures.”
Boy, did she ever know that. She didn’t need the janitor to tell her.
“I wish I could have adventures,” she admitted. “But if my father has his way, I’ll be here forever. He’s not a fan of traveling.”
“Well, that’s understandable,” the janitor replied. “After all, adventures don’t come cheaply. And they take time. Maybe it’s best to just imagine adventures here in the museum.”
Yeah right, she thought. Easier said than done.
“That’s what Dad always says,” Mary replied. “But it’s not the same.”
Not anymore, she added silently.
“I’ve been around the world a time or two,” the janitor said. “It can be more trouble than it’s worth. But maybe things will get better. Perhaps in your lifetime, people will be able to travel wherever and whenever they desire, and in the blink of an eye.”
Mary laughed, realizing she’d only just been wishing for the same thing.
“That would be nice,” she said. “But with my luck, it still wouldn’t work for me.”
“I’ll tell you this,” the janitor said. “Whoever discovers a way to make it happen will become very rich, and powerful.”
“Well, maybe I need to start studying harder so I can be the one to discover it,” she said.
“Not unless I discover it first,” replied the janitor.
A strange greedy look enveloped him, his eyes reflecting like fire in the spotlight. The change in his demeanor caught Mary off guard.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
The janitor shook his head slightly.
“Oh, nothing,” he said. “I’m getting old, so I say strange things sometimes. I should probably get back to work. Have a nice night.”
Before Mary could respond, he turned away abruptly, and resumed sweeping his way down the dark hallway and out of sight.
Mary wasn’t sure what to think about the exchange. There certainly was something strange about that janitor. She shrugged, and turned back to the map.
As soon as she did, her imagination flooded back to life, but only for a few seconds. Voices echoed from somewhere in the museum, jolting Mary’s memory and reminding her of the game. Hastily, she tore away from the map, desperately seeking for a place to hide.
It was too late. Before she could even step away, Helen and Ike emerged into the corridor. Standing below the map’s spotlight, Mary had nowhere to go.
“I found you,” Ike said sarcastically. “Nice hiding spot.”
“Oh man, not again!” Helen said, slapping her palm to her forehead.
“I’m sorry,” Mary replied. “It’s just that I—”
“We know,” Helen said. “You and your map thing.”
“It wasn’t just that,” Mary said. “That old janitor came by and started talking to me, and I couldn’t hide until he left.”
“Uh-huh, sure,” Ike said. “And it’s just a coincidence that you’re in front of your geek map.”
Mary blushed, realizing she was caught.
“Well, so what?” she said in defense. “You can laugh all you want, but if I’m going to start traveling the world soon, I have to be ready. So stop making fun of me, and maybe I’ll let you come with me.”
Ike and Helen didn’t share her enthusiasm. Helen pretended to yawn, as if bored.
“Whatever you say, Magellan,” she teased. “If you ever do travel the world, you’ll need me there anyway to get your wimpy butt out of trouble whenever you find it. Until then, can we at least have fun while we’re stuck here?”
“Who’s not having fun?” said a man’s voice.
Into the corridor stepped Lewis Tucker, chief curator of the Charleston World Museum.
“That’s impossible,” he continued. “A closed museum, all to yourselves? It’s the happiest place on earth!”
“I think you’re confused with Disneyland, Dad,” said Ike.
“We were playing hide and seek, but Mary quit on us in the middle of the game,” Helen said. “She got lost in one of her map fantasies again.”
“Oh she did, did she?” Dad turned to Mary and raised a questioning eyebrow. “What was it this time? The Trans-Siberian railroad? The Australian outback?”
“Dad, I really want to go to the Amazon!” she blurted out. “You know my twelfth birthday is coming up next year. Maybe we could make it a family trip?”
“Now hold on there, Mary,” Dad interrupted with a laugh. “We’ve talked about this time and time again. You know how expensive and difficult it is to take a big trip like that.”
“I know, but I’ll do anything you ask. I can do extra chores for a year, or I could … ”
Mary could tell by the smile on his face that he wasn’t taking her seriously.
“Dad, if we send Mary to the Amazon, can I have her room?” Ike asked.
“Nobody’s going to the Amazon,” said Dad. “For crying out loud, your own father runs one of the biggest museums in all of South Carolina. We can enjoy places without actually having to go there.”
“But Dad! Please? Will you at least think about it?” Mary begged.
“I’m sorry, my girl,” Dad said. “But the only place we’re traveling to right now is home for dinner. If we don’t get there soon, your mother might banish me to the Amazon. Let’s not hear any more about this traveling nonsense, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Mary said, deflated.
There had to be some way to convince him. Pestering Dad for months on end to let her travel was clearly not working. “Not until you’re older,” she was always told. But Mary didn’t think she could be that patient. It wouldn’t be easy to convince Dad to change his mind, and she knew her dream was a big one. But she was smart enough to find away. Maybe she was just going about all wrong. Maybe if she started smaller …
“If we can’t go to the Amazon, could we at least go to Disneyworld?” she asked, flashing her father a big smile.
“Oooohhh, I’d like to second that motion,” Ike said, also beaming.
“I volunteer to come as a chaperone,” Helen offered.
“Why me?” Dad said, raising both hands into the air while talking toward the sky.
Mary and Ike laughed as they said goodbye to Helen, who waited as her father, the museum’s head of security, locked up the building.
I’ll find a way to convince him, Mary told herself as she buckled her seatbelt.
If there was a way, she’d figure it out. After all, she’d never given up on anything before.