The ad for the museum’s new exhibit was everywhere, demanding her attention. It showed a photo of a small figurine, a little girl in a pink frock blowing bubbles, set against stark black background. For one week only, see Nalia, the laughing child. was blazoned across the top of the advertisement. Cheryl saw it immediately as they entered the baggage area, even with the swirl of travelers circling around them.
“Look mommy! It’s my sister,” giggled her son, as Cheryl kept a firm grip on his hand.
Cheryl’s heart turned inside out, sending pangs of loss radiating through her body. She calmly smiled at her little boy. “And look, she loves bubbles too! Just like you.” Her hands started to tremble with grief. She transferred her son’s hand over to her husband, Dave.
“Watch Sam, okay? I’ll go look for our luggage,” she murmured to him, before turning and slipping into the crowd by the baggage carousel.
She had lost the baby six years ago. A miscarriage, the doctor had said, but not why. He had mumbled something about natural selection and waved his hand airily, as if that settled it. For Cheryl, it did not. Five months pregnant, she had known it was a girl, had already imagined her sleeping peacefully, had held a small, warm baby in her mind. They had already picked a name. Sarah.
The little girl inside her had filled her thoughts back then. She imagined her unborn daughter growing up, her first bike, her first lost tooth, her first day of school. The miscarriage had been painful and bloody, and she’d been hospitalized for three days. Afterwards, she’d tucked the loss away and three years later she’d gotten pregnant with Sam.
Standing by the slowly crawling belt, her heart slowly twisted back into place. She searched for their big black suitcase. There was a dent in one corner, from when it had fallen off the shelf in the garage. Dave had been terribly upset. The luggage had belonged to his parents, and he fussed over trying to fix the damage before deciding that even dented the suitcase was fine. Cheryl was grateful for the dent. There seemed to be a thousand black blocks sailing by her, all the same. She spotted their own slightly marred luggage easily and tugged it off the belt.
People pressed in on her on all sides, and she stood for a few minutes, the suitcase tight against the front of her legs. She let her breath go back to normal and spared a glance for the museum ad, well lit and high on the wall. The little girl looked exactly like Cheryl had imagined her unborn daughter would. Blond hair, impish face, slight.
Back when the Nalia exhibit had first arrived in their part of the country, Cheryl had cut out an ad for it from a magazine and put it on the inside of her closet door. She didn’t think why, and at the time her grief still lay simmering, bubbling deeply inside her. Sam had spotted the ad one day and declared the bubble blowing girl his sister. When reproductions of the figurine started showing up in local stores, she bought one and hid it in her sock drawer. Sam never found that one.
The crowd around Cheryl dissipated as people got their luggage and left. She pulled their suitcase back over to her husband and son, smiling brightly.
“You found it. Great!” said Dave. “Shall we head to the hotel?”
Cheryl nodded and the three of them went out the automatic doors, the blustery wind whipping into them as soon as they stepped outside. She slipped her hand inside her coat pocket and felt the porcelain of the figurine, smooth and reassuring.
They spent most of the week visiting with Dave’s enormous family. Cheryl’s face was tight from smiling. The day before their flight home, she sat on the small chair in their hotel room, watching carefully in the mirror as she wove her hair into a crown of braids. David was on the phone with his mom, talking and pacing, with Sam clinging to one leg.
“Really?” he said, his voice hopeful. “Great! We’ll see you there! Thanks so much, Mom. Love you.”
He hung up and scooped Sam into his arms, giving him a huge hug. “Sammy! Guess what Grannie got us!”
“A fish!” said Sam, with great enthusiasm.
“Nope! She got us tickets to the museum. We get to go see the Nalia exhibit!” He turned slightly towards his wife, his face cautiously hopeful. “I told Grannie how much you love the bubble blowing girl Sammy, and she said you absolutely have to see the bubbles in person.”
Cheryl felt the room tilt. She carefully tucked the last bit of braid up and pinned it into place. Her eyes in the mirror blinked slowly, one, two, three times. “How kind of your Mom, Dave. What time are the tickets for?”
Dave looked at his watch. “Five. That gives us two hours. I know we wanted to go eat at that place on the river, but Nalia’s only here for a brief time.” He moved to the closet and started pulling coats out with one hand and piling them on a now chortling Sam. “We can grab a quick bite somewhere near the museum. We should leave now in case there’s trouble getting a cab.” He spun around and frowned. “But wait, we can’t leave without our little buddy! Where’s Sam?”
“Here! I’m here Daddy!” yelled Sam, pushing the coats off himself with delight.
“Sammy! There you are.” Dave put his son down and pointed towards a small pair of sneakers in the closet. “Okay, let’s get our shoes on.”
Sam and Dave busied themselves with getting ready to go out. Cheryl put on her coat, and slipped her hand into the pocket, feeling the reassuring curves of the figurine.
The museum was packed. Throngs of people moved through marble hallways, their footsteps echoing, murmurs punctuated by an occasional burst of laughter. Cheryl kept an eye on Sam as he trotted ahead of her, clinging fiercely to his beloved Grannie’s hand. They were finally here.
She hadn’t planned on seeing the Nalia exhibit. The image had been enough, holding her grief carefully, calmly over the last few months had been more than enough. The figurine, so small and fragile, had felt like a gift from unseen gods. Now, moving closer, pulled on relentlessly by the forward motion of those she loved, Cheryl felt the hallway narrow and stretch before her. She followed as her family turned a corner. There was a doorway ahead. Light blazed from it. She went in.
Bubbles filled the room, jetted out by a machine carefully camouflaged in the corner. Sam ran around wildly for a moment, batting at bubbles before Dave reined him in. Nalia was in a glass case in the center of the room. She stood as tall as a hand, poised on one foot, the other peeking out from her pink dress. Her face was lifted up, the small frame of the bubble maker in front of her tiny lips as they blew. The bubbles streamed out, connected, translucent, transparent, ethereal.
Cheryl circled the display, her hand in her pocket, feeling as her eyes cataloged details. Was that a hint of blue under Nalia’s eyes? A slight tiredness in the lift of her hand?
Cheryl felt a jolt run through her. Was this little girl alright? Was she weary of being trapped in the glass case? Was she hiding some flaw, some weakness? Was there something wrong with her? Something distorted, decaying? Something mortal?
Tears came to Cheryl’s eyes and flowed down her face. She let them go. Grief bubbled up in her, bursting, and a sob escaped, rough and ragged.
A sound to the right of her rang in her ears. She turned and saw her. Dressed in a pink frock, running wildly, a little girl was blowing bubbles, one hand clutching a neon yellow bottle of bubble soap.
A woman skillfully scooped up the girl, nabbing the container before it spilled. “Alright now, wildling, let’s cool our jets for a bit.”
“Mommy! Look! It’s me!” The little girl squirmed in her mother’s arms, twisting around to point at Nalia.
“So it is,” replied her mother calmly. “I wonder what she’s thinking?”
“She’s thinking of cake,” said the little girl firmly.
“Mommy!” said a voice to her left. Sam ran into her leg, throwing his arms around it and beaming up at her. “You should catch bubbles! They’re everywhere and Daddy says we can make them at home.” He grabbed her hand and led her over to the bubble machine.
She bent down to look at the machine as he pointed out the different parts and explained his own version of what each bit did. She nodded and made encouraging comments as she wiped away her tears. Sam spotted his father and ran to him, tugging on his hand and leading him towards Nalia’s display case.
Cheryl reached in her pocket and took out the little figurine. This close to Nalia, in her glass prison, she could see the crudity of her talisman. It was an approximation of the real thing. Recognizable, but not even close to the grace and beauty of the original. She placed the small statue on top of the bubble machine and stood up slowly. Her eyes scanned the room until she spotted the little girl in her pink dress, and then she calmly, quietly, looked for her son.