Museum De Phantasia
You know, like West World but without all the death and risk. Without the hassle of trekking out into a deserted wasteland propped up by cardboard city structures. In a tall skyscraper, eleven stories high. Each floor with its own theme. You know this. It’s very infamous.
I don’t know it.
You know, like a theme park, but real-life.
Not all that special then.
You’re not understanding.
Let me explain it, Dorothea. Horace and I have actually been there.
Oh that was one hell of a time. Thanks for reminding me.
Oh quiet, Horace, you stiff log. Sip your rum and get fat on your nuts and sausages.
Listen up, guys. Eileen’s gonna tell a story.
Well it stands on 31st street. Near where Gimbels used to be. And it has thirty-one stories, not eleven. My aunt and uncle had gone there the previous Christmas and got us a gift from the souvenir shop on the top floor. It was a pair of baby’s shoes that changed colors to match whatever outfit was being worn. They were cute but we hadn’t told them that we weren’t ever planning to have kids. Instead of telling them that, we thought we’d return them and get some cash for them. They had to have been expensive knowing my aunt and uncle, plus the quality of the shoes were just so spectacular.
Oh, no one cares about those details.
Yeah me too!
Yeah quiet, Horace.
Thanks, guys. Okay, fast forwarding. We decided to make a day out of it and drive up to The City. Turns out, they’re closed every day except for Christmas Eve. So, we waited a year. A whole year passed until we finally got the chance to return.
A man in his early thirties introduced himself to us on the first floor. His name was Sullivan, and he was handsome as ever with light grey spots in his hair with an equally light grey beard that covered up his entire face. He said that he was to be our tour guide for the rest of our visit. We told him how that wouldn’t be necessary because we were only there to return a gift we’d been given the year prior from my aunt and uncle. He replied by saying, ah yes, that’s a very special tour all on its own. The gift shop is all the way on the top floor, however, and you will have to go through the tour in order to receive the refund in full.
Some rip off deal that was.
Life would be different today had we not gone through with it. The first floor had a Nordic Christmas theme. Vikings and ice castles and all that.
That was cool. I’ll give them that. I don’t know how they got so much snow into one building.
It ended at a pair of ice elevators. Sullivan directed us to ours and he walked toward the other one. Horace asked why he couldn’t come with us. Sullivan just smiled and said, company policy.
We exited our elevator and Sullivan his. He asked how we liked the ride. Horace said, it was rather chilly. Sullivan apologized but also quipped, what else would you expect from a Christmas themed park? They chatted like old pals, and I could tell that Horace didn’t notice what I had. I was so speechless; I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. The light grey hairs on Sullivan had somehow disappeared and his beard even shrank, though not by much. I asked, what happened to your grey hair? He reacted sort of uncomfortably, it was an awkward question I suppose but all he said was, I hope I’m years away from that ever happening.
He continued the tour. The second floor was gingerbread themed. We walked through large gingerbread houses, and we could even rip chunks of them off and eat it.
It was very good gingerbread.
Yes, it was. But while Horace ate all the gingerbread he could grab, I studied Sullivan. I tried to pick out any distinguishing features I could as if I was a witness to a crime and had to draw details from a fading memory. I first noticed his wedding ring. Then I spotted a scar on the side of his right hand, running from his wrist to the base of his pinky. He had a faint tattoo on the top of his left hand that disappeared into his sleeve. It was of, what I could tell to be, a U.S. Navy insignia. When he turned his back toward us, another scar appeared clearly in the back of his head where there was an absence of hair. He spoke in a rasp baritone, someone who’d maybe smoked too many cigarettes in his military time. His teeth weren’t brown but they were yellowish with mildly receding gums.
You’re not a dentist.
Oh, and you’re not a professional golfer but you seem to know what’s wrong with everyone’s swing. But, that was all. That was all I could notice until we arrived upon our new mode of transportation—two gingerbread elevators. He went into his and we went into ours.
I don’t remember all the themes. One was north pole—
That was the top floor.
Oh yeah. I think the third floor may have been Nutcracker themed actually.
Yeah. Boring floor that was.
I agree actually. Nothing exciting happened. But, Sullivan’s beard grew just a little bit smaller.
The Grinch! Plus, Sullivan’s voice sounded much less coarse and smoother than it did before. It was here that I hinted at my suspicions toward Horace. He surprised me to reveal that he was beginning to notice oddities independently from myself. He whispered to me that he was no longer making references to his son’s baseball games. References he wouldn’t shut up about in previous floors. It made me realize that I hadn’t even begun to focus on the content of Sullivan’s tour.
No wedding ring and his stature had obviously slimmed down by a significant amount. Those muscles that are in the neck area, what are they again?
Right, those. They had been ginormous on the guy. Now, they were nothing but a normal citizen’s.
This was the Dickens themed floor I believe.
That sounds about right.
And the tattoo on his left hand was gone. Like it’d been washed off. And no more beard. No sign of any facial hair at all really, aside from maybe a five o’clock shadow.
Which was odd.
The man we’d met on the first floor was totally gone by this point.
Like a boy who thought he’d become a man but really hadn’t yet.
Then the phone call came.
No, was it that early?
Yes. I remember it happening when we first became absolutely convinced that this was a younger person. Not just someone that kept changing their outfit.
My aunt. We told her that we were at the store they’d gone to the year before. Not mentioning anything about returning anything obviously, but simply because they’d made it sound like so much fun. I pulled Horace aside so that we could all have a chat in private. Then Aunt Martha told me that the place they went to wasn’t actually a Christmas park. It was just Christmas themed for the holidays. Under normal circumstances, the park would recreate different eras in world history. And that none of the attractions we’d seen so far rang any bells to her. They’d only seen Roman Christmas, or Western Christmas, or Medieval Christmas. Then, Sullivan came to interrupt us. Hey, guys, I’m sure you’ve got places to be after this too, he said. After all, it’s Christmas Eve. Can we keep it moving? There’s still a lot of floors to see.
We had some questions that needed answering at that point.
The first of which was, why did my aunt just tell me that this is a different park but had the same address as the one she went to a year before? He said, that’s because you’re on the return tour. Your aunt must’ve gone on the main tour if she came. And then I asked -- and I was just so annoyingly confused at his point -- is that tour open any time of the year? If you can find where it begins, was all he said in reply. And then, oh did you say something to him, Horace?
Yeah. I asked if we could leave.
Why would you want to leave? It sounds so mysterious.
That’s what I’m thinking. I’d want to stay till the end.
Well, Horace and I were getting kind of creeped out by that point. The themes were getting darker and even somewhat satanic. But Sullivan, to his credit, remained a nice guy.
Right. And he understood that it wasn’t ideal for us either.
So, did you leave?
Horace and I were going to but then, well, he laid something new on us.
A bunch of garbage. Corporate lies is what I call it.
What did he say?
He said, unfortunately, since you’re on the return tour, you do have to stay till the end. If you leave early, we’re going to have to charge you for the full price of the tour.
What was the full price?
Oh, well I don’t wanna…
Fifteen hundred per person.
It was insane.
The voice was so obviously different by this floor. Just not even close to when we first met him.
And he kept talking about how he’d just graduated from college and was enrolling into the Navy.
Most of the distinguishing features I had made a mental note of were now gone by this floor, except for the scars. So I thought I’d ask how he’d gotten the one on his hand. He said, oh that, silly thing. I tried opening a beer bottle by karate chopping the lid on a street sign about nine months ago. The whole bottle exploded in my hand, and I was left with seven stitches.
No more scar.
He still had the scar on the back of his head, and so I asked how he got that one. He wanted to know why I was so interested in all of his scars.
And I thought it was significant that he still had a memory of what happened on the previous floors.
Me too. Anyway, I just told him that I thought scars could tell a lot about a person. He said he’d gotten it when he was six and that his brother got his fishing cast stuck into his scalp.
Shakespeare themed for some reason. Almost no meat on his bones.
He talked a lot about high school and how he was enrolled at NYU.
He had a general loss of interest in what he was doing. Like his job was nothing more than a hobby. He also shrunk by what had to have been four inches.
He got kind of snappy with a few of your questions, Horace.
You were still asking questions about the tour?
You think I wasn’t going to get my money’s worth out of a three-thousand-dollar tour?
His voice cracked a few times. He was maybe a full foot shorter than when we’d first started.
He spoke in unrecognizable child’s voice and seemed to lack any of the decisiveness he’d displayed before. Just a very skittish boy.
This floor was weird. He just led us through the attraction. Didn’t say more than three sentences.
Completely different than the one before. He was just a youthful boy taking us through something he was genuinely excited to share with us.
He talked a lot about his baseball league and how his team won their championship. Horace, you asked him a lot of questions by this point.
Well I just couldn’t understand how he had a memory from previous floors. So I asked what it was that we were there to return.
And what did he say?
He said, didn’t we just talk about that a few hours ago? You’re returning the shoes from your aunt and uncle. That’s why we’re doing the tour.
He also said, you guys really ask a lot of weird questions. I don’t remember anyone asking me all the strange stuff you two do.
Twenty-First to Twenty-Fourth Floors
Just incremental stages of a boy transitioning from prepubescents to childhood before our eyes.
The scar on the back of his head had disappeared. The hair covered over it normally.
He showed us his first lost tooth. He bragged about being the first of all his friends to lose a tooth and how he didn’t even cry when it came out.
He talked about how much he missed his mom and dad, and that the nativity theme always makes him cry. I remember Horace whispering into my ear, when the mood couldn’t have been any more somber, how’s an infant supposed to give us a refund?
Mommy says this and daddy says that. His only knowledge of the Charlie Brown theme was only of things his parents seemed to have already told him.
He didn’t speak a word. He just babbled unintelligibly. He clumsily fell upon his rump a time or two as well.
A baby crawled from attraction to attraction as Bach’s In Dulci Jubilo played on a loop. We followed him from behind at a snail’s pace.
No, it wasn’t Bach. It was Mozart. And the song was Vesperae Solennes De Confessore.
Now how would you know that?
I like that song.
Well whatever it was, the thirty-first floor had—
Wait, I think someone’s at the door.
Oh I bet that’s Van and Jamie with our grandson! Answer it you lazy oaf.
Van! Jamie! Isaac! What took you so long?
You seen the roads out there, dad? The second someone plows em over, a new layer piles on top of it.
Come, get warm. Your father and I were just finishing up a story.
Okay. Just let us take our coats off. Dorothea. Jack. Randi. Mike. How are you?
Swell, Van, thank you.
Just mesmerized by your folk’s superb storytelling is all.
Oh which one is it this time? The day they got lost in Vegas?
Nope. The time they got lost in Museum De Phantasia in New York City.
Oh. I hadn’t heard that one.
Well we were just wrapping it up anyway.
Van, since when did you get that tattoo on your hand?
Oh that? I’ve had that since my time in the service. Why do you ask?
Just noticed it is all. Don’t know why it took me this long to realize it.
Stop it now. We’ll chat soon enough. Let me finish the story.
Can’t wait, Eileen.
So, we get off on the last elevator stop. And there before us, as the doors open, is a baby swaddled in clothes and lying in a bassinet. Such an adorable baby. And I looked at him, and then at the shoes I’d been holding all day, and something so powerful just changed Horace’s and my mind in that moment. And if we hadn’t, Van, Jamie, and my most favorite little boy ever, Isaac, wouldn’t be here with us today.
Beautiful story, mom, whatever it was.
Say, Van, and sorry to keep harping on it. Is that a scar there on the side of your hand?
Why are you so suddenly interested in the details of my skin, Jack?
Oh I don’t know. Just thought that stuff like that could tell a lot about a person.
I got it in college when I tried opening a—