The Traveling Museum
by Douglas Kolacki
Dad and Mom split when I was three. I don’t remember when Dad left, but Brian told me how it happened: one night Mom got so furious, she exploded and set the house on fire. What she did next was even worse.
“There it is, boys.”
Dad wheels our carpet around a last corner. I wish, like I’ve been wishing since we set off from the suburbs, that he could gone way up and over the rooftops, doing barrel rolls like those party animal frat boys are always getting in trouble for doing. Then we’d have seen that whole iron-horse circle from high up.
“A train!” I point, bouncing and straining my safety belt, making the whole carpet ripple.
“Cut it out,” Big Brother Brian grumbles with arms folded. “You’re acting like a three-year-old.”
He’s seventeen, born two years before me.
I ignore him. “A real locomotive from eighteen thirty-se—”
He reaches over and cuffs me. He doesn’t say anything, not this time; he just cuffs me.
“Brian!” Dad says. I don’t react.
I’ve seen pictures of that beautiful ironclad time capsule, like everyone. The museum is well-advertised in every city where it’s set to stop. This is Henry Campbell’s 1837 eight-wheeler, much of it “meticulously” rebuilt, but the four oversized rear wheels and the tall, flared stack are original to the machine. This is blacksmith’s work, melted and hammered into shape like they did back in a long-lost age. Engines, that burned up coal. Stellar!
Dad eases the carpet down. Actually, carpets never really touch the street; they hover six inches above it per the same city ordinance that outlaws barrel rolls. Out of all the magic tricks popping up nowadays, the biggest is Congress multiplying new laws like rabbits, trying to jam its finger into all the holes in the dyke leaking this phenomenon out everywhere.
Normally you gotta step off carpets carefully, like with boats. But I jump off as if it had caught fire, and the shove from my feet scrunches half of it and pushes it out in the street.
“Alex,” Dad says with great patience.
“Here, Dad.” Big Brother waves once and rolls it up, tight, and hands it to Dad, who slings it behind his back.
The museum owners cheated a bit: they didn’t actually run the Campbell locomotive here, not in the old classic way. It sat on tracks rebuilt like itself, rooted up and transported from city to city, set down in licensed spaces, town squares or parking lots. Ours is in the middle of a park, surrounded by trees, and birds and pigeons that keep flying in and sitting on the engine and all the cars. That’s bound to cause some problems.
Where Brian was, white smoke drifts. I already know where he went—right in front of me in line.
“Cheater.” I keep my eyes on the people falling into line behind us. Some fly carpets; one man in a velvet coat with brass buttons rides a deceptively docile, saddled griffin (muzzled as per another ordinance); a woman has faeries whirling like flashing golden hummingbirds around her head. Others simply walk, or stagger, on foot.
“Boys.” Dad moved in between us.
Poofing is one thing Brian can do better than me. I can never manage it for some reason. Not yet, at least. He says it feels like jumping into ice water that evaporates right after you hit it. Doing it in front of me like that always means—surprise, surprise!—I’ve somehow managed to rankle him.
Everyone around him jumps back, and one guy shrieks like a girl. But Big Brother only has eyes for me. I glare back.
“Brian.” Dad frowns. “Knock it off. You want to get your body parts all mixed up with someone else?”
The guy with the griffin catches my attention. He scatters sleeping powder like crushed glass over its eagle’s head. This species is the size of an alligator and all scaly like one, with a big yellow beak. The beast’s head droops down and the four legs seem to wobble; it crouches, folding feathered brown wings and settling in to close heavy lidded eyes.
“Let’s go.” Dad waves us forward.
The Science Museum includes an engine, passenger car, dining car, and boxcars with exhibits all joined end to end, or rather engine to caboose, in a circle, making a grassy courtyard inside. And the grass is natural—people can make it spring up now with the right waves of their hands, but it never looks right; it’s dry, yellowish and breaks easily.
Dad studies the guidebook, turning it this way and that. People bustle around us.
“We’ll just work back toward the caboose,” he says.
“Let’s go!” Brian runs, weaving through the crowd.
“No poofing!” Dad yells after him.
The day Mother sent both herself and her marriage up in yellow and purple fireworks—Big Brother told me about this too, I don’t remember it at all—Dad took us boys to a motel, and the next morning went back and collected his belongings, most of them smelling of smoke. Luckily, neither of us were in the living room when the worst of it happened, and Dad had gotten clear in time.
Now my father lives in New York, helping to raise new buildings with long scripts of detailed spells, some only a few words, others long as encyclopedias. He showed me one, and it looks like the Rosetta Stone printed on spiraling columns of air. There are spells you utter in concert with other engineers, qualified and enchanted men, for up to three hours at a time, with a boss like Dad directing it all like a symphony conductor.
We boys still live in California with Mom. But Dad sends support every month, visits every summer, and we always find fun things to do.
I catch a whiff of something, wrinkle up my nose. “Dad.”
He must have smelled it too, because his eyes lock on the source: a disheveled man ambling a few feet behind us. The guy doesn’t seem to seem to see anything, just moves his eyes around, like no nerves are attached to them. Dark eyes. He half-limps, hunched over like Quasimodo, wearing a worn top hat a little blacker than the beard that buries most of his face. His shirt and pants look like he slept in them last night. But his smell—I recognize it sharp and clear, knowing exactly what it is, but not knowing how I know.
Brian. The disheveled man has his attention, too, all of it, and Big Brother’s face pales. He knows that odor, just like me . . . and then I realize how I myself know it, even after twelve years.
“Keep moving.” Dad shooed me along.
Not everyone takes to magic. There are always some folks it doesn’t work out for, and who knows why. Gramp, Mother’s dad, was one of those. He tried when he was young, and it did something to him. Not all at once, but enough so that by the time he married Gram . . . well. Then Mom was born, and by the time she was grown up with boys of her own . . . .
Dad looks around. “Where’d that brother of yours go?”
Ahead looms a rickety propeller-plane surrounded by a red rope. I stand on tiptoe, trying for a good look over the crowd, and try to imagine how anything could fly just by spinning that little thing on its nose.
“There you are, Alex.” Dad indicates the exhibit with a grand sweep of his tanned, thin arms. “The Spirit of Saint Louie.”
That’s how he always says the name of that city, “Saint Louie.” “Saint Louie Cardinals,” “Saint Louie Arch,” and so on. I picked up the habit, and use it every chance I get. Little things like that make me feel like a part of Dad stays with me between visits.
Someone really flew that for two days straight, across the ocean? A sad fact about our day and age is that it’s all but put the airlines out of business. The manner of crossing oceans proved not too hard to learn, and now everyone does it despite the inevitable nightmare of regulations, restricting this and that and “designating” landing spaces where customs can check you, but forget it; the whole planet has shrunk to a single neighborhood, where anyone can poof and wander anywhere. In every big city you’ll find people from a hundred countries, and most of those without visas.
Speaking of wandering . . . “Dad.” I have my arm down at my side, thumbing behind me. The disheveled guy’s oozed in.
“Next car.” Dad leads the way.
The guy’s left temple, right cheek and right hand glow a telltale red, like the iron of the museum when it was cast. I’ve heard about it, and Dad’s seen it once in his life.
Who should reappear now but Big Brother. “We haven’t seen anything in here yet,” he protests. He hasn’t gotten it yet.
“Brian,” I hiss. “You see that guy there?”
The disheveled man’s top hat is missing. He mumbles and mutters things in a slurred language I don’t recognize. I might have guessed . . . drunk. His smell is stronger, sharper now, but that’s not because of the alcohol; which, for some reason, you can’t conjure up by magic. Spells work great for travel, but not anything you drink. Thank God for that, many folks are saying.
I’ll bet I could place his lingo if he was sober. He probably poofed in from Spain, or Greece, or France; or really just about anywhere on the planet where bearded olive-skinned, long-nosed men weighing over two hundred and fifty pounds live.
Big Brother gets the message at last. His face, tightening into worry, reminds me of my masterpiece: a photographic spell that follows him around, waiting for him to make a confused or caught-in-the-act face, burning those images into the pages of my notebook. I smile and thought of all the times I’ve fallen down laughing at those pix.
Brian leads the way into the next car.
“Look!” I point, just to try and lighten things up. “Over there—”
“We see it, dope,” Big Brother growls.
It stands on a round platform in the middle of the place. Another car, bright and shiny, surrounded by green rope. The plaque mounted on a pedestal says it’s a Mercedes Benz, almost two hundred years old, made within five years of the last genuine gas-run internally-combusted car ever manufactured. It looks pretty new to me. Up above it hangs a huge banner—a banner attached to the wall, with nails! Nothing is magic here. Anyway, the sign says the car is being raffled off.
“How about it, Dad? Huh?” Brian, proud owner of a California driver’s license, practically jumps up and down. Not too long ago I did that, when I scored tickets to the Gladsackers concert. Brian bit my head off of course.
Big Brother never misses a chance. I’m the only person who can somehow infuriate him just by being in the same room with him. Once, for example, I straightened up the living room before Mom got home from work. He walked in, took one look, and scowled like he’d bit down on a lemon.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked. All right, demanded.
He went into his sputtering, waving, like he can’t think of what to say and is bending his brain trying to come up with something.
“Is it sloppy?” I asked, knowing it wasn’t. I always clean according to Dad’s old Navy saying, A Place For Everything, Everything In Its Place, and all swept and polished. The room gleams.
“Well . . . no, it’s not that . . . everything is neatly arranged. It’s just . . . just . . . !” He sputters, stamps, hems and haws. And never answers.
Another time: It’s summer, and he wants me to go out bicycle-riding with him. I go. Bikes are one thing that seem immune to change, even as everything around them’s shaken up into something new, usually something always impossible until now. But bicycles are still pumped with pedals, and going uphill is still just as hard.
Which was all fine; until, Brian veered off onto a dirt road. We traveled along a bumpy trail to a place of rocky hills. Big brother raced up one and launched himself airborne, landed with barely a puff of dust, and then told me to do the same.
“Well . . .” What I wanted to tell him, but didn’t come to me at the time—it never does, until way later—was, Hey buddy, you’re the one who likes jumps and stunts and all that stuff. I’m not like that, I just ride bikes. Instead, I just told him “Don’t wanna,” and rode off.
Brian followed me, barking and taunting at my back. I soon lost count of the number of names he called me, most of them synonyms for “coward.” He went on after we got home; he jabbed me about it in our room that night, getting ready for bed; he slapped me awake with it in the morning; and he never forgot my sin until I finally caved and told him I’d try it.
Then of course, he followed up with a torrent of advice, tips and things to keep in mind, during the long ride out there. I felt like I was riding to my execution. Probably was. I’d never gotten my feet wet with this, never took any interest in it. I didn’t even like dirt roads.
Brian got off his bike and stood on the crest of the hill he’d picked out—a steep one—and shouted out how fast I should be going, speed up, speed up, stand up, get the front wheel up, and so on, and so on. Me pedaling like mad and him stepping back to let me whoosh by, me leaving the ground at the very instant I remembered that I could have cheated with a floating charm; but too late, I crashed, skinned my elbow and tore my pants and got a few scratches, but mostly burned with embarrassment.
Big Brother didn’t help me up. He stood over me, shaking his head, and got on his bike and rode away.
I had a long ride home, sore and skinned as I was, but was glad he didn’t keep me company; he’d have second-guessed, criticized, and sounded off with all his usual names, most of which began with “un”—uncoordinated, uncool, etc. etc. Which he surely did, when I arrived; and followed me while I put away my bicycle and hurried into the shower. Names, second-guessings, the whole gamut of thumbs-down disapproval.
It was then that it occurred to me: none of this felt any different than usual. The way you respond inside to that kind of crap, the sickness, the anger—that’s how I always felt around him, all the time, every day.
It’s always been that way. Something about me irritates him, sticks in his craw, gets under his skin, bugs the hell out of him—but for the life of him, he can’t come up with a reason. What, exactly, bothers (or enrages) him? He can’t say. What am I doing? He doesn’t ever know. But he’ll bend over backwards rather than admit this.
Now alarms clang in my head. My brain warms up hotter than the rest of me—it’s the first time I’ve actually felt it inside my skull.
I know what’s happening. So does Dad, and he wastes no time sweeping my lanky teenaged self off the floor and lunging behind a pedestal holding an oilcan.
The disheveled man is still following us!
And what had happened to Mom, was about to happen to him. I’ve read about it. Your brain activity builds to a high frequency, like those whistles only dogs can hear. Not words, but raw emotion seared into signals that everyone in the room picks up. It’s happened with severe schizophrenics, hardcore drug addicts, and it’s an occupational hazard in psychiatric hospitals.
Dad and I hit the floor, roll, and then the blast.
It’s sort of like how people used to combust all at once without warning. The body knows it somehow, sort of like when your body knows to release white blood cells when bacteria invade, and rapid-fire disassembles itself so that all the energy can blow itself out.
The “blast” doesn’t sound like an explosion at all, but more like a million little firecracker-pops, one after another. Not a tidy business; of course, warm drops of blood, or something, hit my cheek. Dad, covering me, is probably getting peltered with it.
And now comes the worst part, the part that makes working in mental hospitals so dangerous.
Picture a lifetime’s worth of anger, of sheer hatred, every foul and perverse thought slamming your mind at once. It’s like your skull heating red-hot in an instant, or every demon in Pandemonium screaming and setting off firebombs between your ears. I yell and grab my head with both hands. The worst pain I’d ever felt was a migraine headache that kept me home from school, but that was nothing at all compared to this.
Dad’s holding me to the floor, yelling for Big Brother. I don’t see Brian, or anything else, until suddenly Dad’s weight is off me and my head’s cooled off, as quickly as it heated up, thank God. Spots float before my eyes. I struggle to my feet, ears ringing as if it had all been actual sound waves.
The drunk is lying spread-eagle on his face. He looks ragged, like a human garbage heap. It’s not too hard to believe that just moments ago, he was human confetti. His blood is spattered in mist
patterns all over the walls; he’s going to need a transfusion. Probably handicapped, too. When the body reassembles, it’s never in order like before: one arm is attached lower than the other, one leg set higher, or the head’s not sitting dead center between the shoulders. And there are always some fingers and toes that no longer work.
Brian’s lying out in the open, with Dad bent over him. As bad as that nightmare-storm of thoughts hit me, I was under cover with Dad. But Big Brother caught it full force.
He’s lying on his side a scant ten feet or so from the drunk, bent almost double. Dad softly calls his name. I scramble to join them.
“More like dazed. But his mind is suspended . . .like he’s . . . .” Dad searched for a word—”hypnotized.”
Dad rises to his feet. “Watch over him. I’m going to make sure help gets here.”
He poofs out of sight, the first time I’ve ever seen him do it.
People stagger around the room, stunned, some of them moaning, but conscious. Brian seems to be the only one who got hit full-force.
A closer look shows a serene, if sunburned face. His whole body is swimming in sweat, dark patches under his arms, like he’s run a marathon in his street clothes. His eyes, upon closer inspection, aren’t completely shut, but cracked just enough for slivers of white to show through.
“Brian?” I try.
I give a start, and feel like a dope because he had me and Dad completely fooled. But he doesn’t laugh, doesn’t sit up. He’s still lying where he fell.
People are gathering around now. They’re sweaty, like he is—like I am, too, I realize. That damned drunk raised the room temperature to that of a Turkish bath. “Is he all right?” someone asks.
“Yeah, yeah.” What did Dad say? It’s like he’s—
“Brian.” I blurt this out.
“You sure you’re in a . . . .” I was about to say coma, but it sounds stupid, somehow.
“Never mind. Brian . . .” Move back, people, would you? This is going to get a little personal . . . Oh, never mind.
“Can I ask you something?” I have no idea how to speak to a hypnotized person.
I have to hurry. I won’t have my clean-slate brother to myself for long. “Wh . . . .” My voice falters. “Why?”
“Why?” he repeats.
I lower my face closer to his. “Why are you always finding fault with me? Every day you’re yelling at me about something, criticizing me about something, accusing me of something, snapping, snarling, but then you call me your ‘brother’ like we’re best friends. Like you don’t think anything at all of the way you treat me, and . . . and it’s every day!” My voice catches. “Don’t you realize what you’re doing? You’re making me sick of you! I hate living with you, because of it! Could you tell me . . . .”
Again my damned voice catches, and I wish all these people gawking at us would get lost. I draw a deep breath. “Tell me why?”
“It’s the way things are with our family.”
He says this immediately, in a steady voice. Too steady. If you heard it without seeing him, you’d have thought nothing was wrong.
“Mom,” he says. “You see the way she takes everything out on me. Remember the other night? You and she came back from shopping. I’m sitting on the couch . . . just sitting there, that’s all . . . and she yells at me.”
Yes, I saw that all right.
“She gives it to me,” he says, “and I give it to you.” Then he adds: “It’s not really your fault.”
More people are crowding in. Dad’s among them, but he stands back, giving me a slight nod. His face? Relieved. My heart lifts.
Big Brother still lays motionless, quiet now. Should there be more? A grandiose speech? Volumes of detailed explanations? Is it really needed? No . . . maybe not.
Now an idea presents itself. I bend real close to his face, enough to feel his warm breath. Smell it, too: the corn cereal he and Dad and I had for breakfast. “Thank you, Brian. Now listen carefully. You will not take anything out on me anymore.”
“Alex,” Dad warns.
“No criticizing; no fits of rage, no biting my head off, no jumping down my throat, no telling me not to use such big words, no nothing. I’m as good as all your friends, you understand?”
Dad takes my arm. “Alex, stand aside now.”
“I’m better than your damn friends, you understand, Brian? I’m your brother, like you’re always telling me. Your brother! That makes me second only to Dad in your sight. You’ll treat me like a prince, like you’d want me to treat you. Then I’ll want to treat you the same,” I tack on hastily for Dad’s benefit, who’s pulling me away.
“You are my brother,” Brian says.
Men in uniforms swarm around us and take charge of the victim. I search my father’s face. Not angry as I’d feared, just concerned. It glistens, and his hair’s all a mess like my own. The air’s too stuffy in here, and I want to get outside.
“Thank you,” I tell him.
He nods. “Brian will be okay. I just hope the situation between the two of you improves now. You shouldn’t go tampering with things like that.”
“Sorry, Dad. I had to do something.”
The ambulance men are here now. I won’t tell you what they ride in or transport patients in; just that it’s something living. They float my brother up, rigid and unbending.
And now other things come to mind. I should have told him, “When Mother starts in you’ll always have the perfect answer.” Or better yet: “When she tries to pick fights with you, you won’t respond. You won’t even notice it. You’ll just tune it out. She can’t ever get you mad.” Cut it off at its source! I wish I’d thought of that while I had my chance.
“It’ll be all right,” Dad says. Sensing my thoughts? Magic has opened up all kinds of new possibilities if you’re lucky. Or unlucky, depending on how you see it.
“I hope so.”
“I know so. Want to ride with him?”
I nod, and climb into the living ambulance with the patient. Dad follows on the carpet.