It’s a good thing it was closing time at the store where I work, because I was exhausted. I gratefully locked the door and turned the sign around so that it said CLOSED. I peered through the glass door and watched the last few customers shuffling their way to the shopping mall exit.
“The mall will be closing in five minutes,” boomed the public address system. It sounded muffled through the glass. Some small child lost a toy balloon and had to be dragged out of the mall in screams and tears. I watched from inside the store.
I smiled inwardly and yawned outwardly as I emptied the cash drawer and began to fill out the deposit slip for the bank. I should never have agreed to work the evening shift: decimal mathematics gives me a headache! The numbers always seem to add up too fast: five and five is ten, but when you write it down, it looks like sixteen. I yawned again, and puzzled my way though the paperwork. I glanced up sharply as I heard a sudden tapping at the door. It was Harv, the mall security guard, wishing me a pleasant evening. Actually, I can never hear what he’s saying, but I always pretend I can. I smiled and waved back.
Harv is a very amiable fellow. Always smiling, never complaining; and very competent guard, too. He keeps tabs on us all after the mall closes. I know the shoe store manager is especially appreciative; he misplaced his keys inside his store last Christmas Eve. Without Harv he would have had to spend Christmas locked up inside!
Gosh, that takes me back! It reminds me of the time a security guard saved me from a similar fate.
It was a long time ago, when I was just a young man of fifteen in Lower School, back in Thorgelfayne. My class had made a field trip on Fifthday to the Lakeshore Provincial Museum of Extra-Homelander Cultures. Alien civilizations didn’t fascinate me much back then; we were the age that loves to show urbane disdain for such things. We turned up our noses at every exhibit, deprecated every thing we saw, and competed with each other to see who could invent the best snide remark! I can only chuckle when I think of it now, but when you’re that age, it’s serious business.
I remember the exhibit on ‘Everyday Life on Zerpick’s Largest Continent’ very well. We were looking at a diorama that depicted a kitchen, as found in the typical Zerpicker household of Natonian nationality.
“Hey, take a serious gaze at that oven!” came a sarcastic female voice.
“That’s a fearsome sight,” confirmed a young man, “I wouldn’t live in the same province as that thing! It might go off!”
There was raucous laughter.
“Teacher?” came a third voice, “Is it true that fried elbows are a Natonian delicacy?” Giggles echoed from the walls, “That’s about all you’d get if you tried to cook with that contraption!” There were howls of laughter from everyone, including (alas) me.
The teacher was indignant. “Students!” he announced, “The next person to make a derisive comment will become the proud possessor of a matching pair of fried elbows!”
That put a damper on things, and we continued the tour more respectfully. We spent the whole afternoon walking around in that stuffy museum, and it made me very sleepy.
Somewhere in the Earth exhibit, I fell asleep in a chair. There were so many students in the tour that day that my absence was not noticed. I awoke once or twice, resolving to catch up with the group, but slumber quickly reclaimed me. Each time I dreamed that I had caught up with the others and had gone home.
Finally I woke with a start in the darkened museum, seated directly opposite the ‘North American Urban Culture’ diorama. All the lights were dimmed, and the place was deserted!
I sat bolt upright in the chair and glanced at my watch—my panic heightened as I saw that it was half past twenty-nine o’clock! My mind raced with a thousand thoughts: Where are the rest rooms? Are there any vending machines that sell snacks? I couldn’t remember seeing any, but I was starved. What am I going to do all night? I can’t sleep in this chair that long. My parents are going to be angry with me when I get home!
The reason I panicked? Museums have to be locked at night during Hugmup season, otherwise they’d try to clean the exhibits, with disastrous results! Unfortunately, the locks designed to keep the Hugmups out would also keep me in.
When I shifted my position, my aching muscles confirmed what I couldn’t believe at first—that I had slept so long in a chair. I sat there, rocking my head in my hands, with one guilty thought in my head: I should not have been up all hours of the night last night with my friends! This will teach me to stay up late on a school night!
Then I looked up. The diorama on North American Urban Life looked artificial by day, but when it’s half-lit by the museum night lights, it’s surrealistic and sinister. Even terrifying.
It made such an impression on me that night, that I can remember every detail even today: it was an alley scene. There were concrete walls on either side of the alleyway, both of them painted with the names of businesses in those curious alien characters. I had not studied any alien languages yet; so I did not even know the name of the language the signs were in. General disorder reigned; bashed up, unsanitary trash cans stood on one side. A neatly attired muscular alien (that is to say, a Human) carried a large box on his shoulder down the alley, right past a bum (or a corpse) lying in the trash on the left. Several small animals picked over the rubbish. In the far distance, the alleyway intersected with a busy street that was full of vehicular traffic.
It sent a chill through all my bones! I rubbed my arms, as if to warm myself. The lurid tawdriness of the scene repelled me even as it compelled me to stare at it. I stood there for at least a half hour, transfixed in morbid fascination. The diorama snatched me up, embraced me with its sinister arms, and smothered me against its squalid breast.
“Hey, kid!” came a sharp voice.
I nearly jumped right out of my skin! I gasped for breath. “Who is that!?” I asked, turning in the direction of the voice.
“The security guard,” came the reply from an elderly woman dressed in green. She hung a flashlight on her belt as she walked towards me. “Why are you in the museum so late?”
“I fell asleep in a chair,” I confessed bashfully. “You see, I was up very late last night, and, I guess I was awful tired.”
“I see,” she said curtly, “I’d better be letting you out so you can go home.”
“That’s nice of you,” I replied gratefully, “but I remember how to get to the entrance. Just tell me how to work the lock.”
“Can’t do that!” she said. I gaped with astonishment as she pulled a bundle of keys out of her pocket.
“What do you need those for?” I stammered, “You don’t mean to say you actually have to use a key?”
She sighed an impatient sigh, as if explaining the obvious to an idiot. “Hugmups are patient enough to figure out a simple bolt. Five Hugmups broke into the museum back in ’8F, and you should have seen the mess!” She walked over to the Urban Life diorama and waved at it with her arm, “Some of these exhibits can terrify those poor creatures, and we certainly wouldn’t want that to happen.”
“No, I guess not,” I conceded. I studied the diorama again.
“Well?” she asked impatiently, “Are you coming, or spending the night? We don’t keep any blankets around here!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I insisted. “But first, could you explain something to me?”
“What is it?” she sighed. The keys jingled as she placed her hands on her hips. We stood there side by side, facing the exhibit.
“I don’t understand what this is supposed to depict,” I said, pointing to the right side of the diorama. There were two men in a doorway: one was neatly dressed in fine cloth with his back to the door, the other was wearing a torn animal skin jacket and coarse cloth pants. He was facing the well-dressed man. The well-dressed man’s arms were upraised, as though he were hailing a comrade from afar, except his facial expression was wrong for that. The man in the animal skin jacket held some sort of outlandish kitchen knife in his right hand, the point of which was aimed at the well-dressed man’s stomach. His facial expression was only partly visible, but it was clearly belligerent.
“That’s a mugging,” the woman said, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. “Don’t you ever pay attention in class?”
I didn’t answer that question. I just looked back at the scene, and then asked the guard softly, “What’s a mugging?”
“It’s an illicit, violent appropriation of another person’s property,” she said, pointing as she spoke, “The knife is a weapon, which is used to facilitate the deed.”
“That’s awful!” I protested. I scrutinized the mannequins again. “Of course, the attacker wouldn’t actually harm the other fellow,” I said, “Or would he?”
“Yes my friend, he most certainly would!” she asserted. “The Human race is still a backwards species. Even if the victim cooperates in a situation like this, the attacker often inflicts serious wounds.”
“Deliberately?” I asked breathlessly, unable to fathom it all.
“Of course,” she said, “If the victim dies, it’s often impossible to identify the attacker. So the attacker attempts to kill the victim to escape punishment.” She put one hand on my shoulder, to impress upon me the need to leave.
We walked back to the entrance in silence, since I was too busy contemplating these new concepts to carry on a conversation. The guard unlocked the door for me, and I walked home. I arrived before thirty-one o’clock, so I didn’t get into trouble with my parents. Was my weary body ever grateful to slip into bed!
I had originally planned a career as a school teacher, but that half-lit diorama of the exotic and alien planet of Earth lured me like a siren’s call to extra-Homelander anthropology.
That was many years ago, when I was just a young man of fifteen in Lower School, back in Thorgelfayne. I went on a field trip with my class one fateful Fifthday to the Lakeshore Provincial Museum of Extra-Homelander Cultures. Alien civilizations didn’t fascinate me much back then; but now I live in the middle of one, on the planet Earth, twelve light-years from home.