Nassia got off work in seven minutes. She counted down the seconds as they ticked away on the clock behind the counter. Seven minutes until she could close the little green door, walk out of the bookshop, and head to her favorite place in the world.
She cracked her knuckles against the counter and rolled her eyes as the last few customers came in through the doors. A kid wearing yellow overalls and a baseball cap, followed by his parents. The kid’s father nodded towards Nassia and she nodded back. He clearly wanted to leave as much as she did. Nassia did her best to smile and watch helpfully as the family roamed the dusty bookshelves.
“Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?” She stayed behind the counter as she asked the kid, not wanting to give the impression that she would keep the store open for them. One minute on the clock. Her feet felt tight and heavy in her shoes. “Um, I hate to rush you… ” (she didn’t) “… but I have to close up so if there’s something I can help you find I’d be happy to.”
The father smiled at her before turning to his wife. “Honey, this nice lady obviously has somewhere to be. Why don’t you and Josh come back another day when there’s more time to look around?” His gray eyes were pleading, round with dreams of catching Monday night football hour, Nassia guessed.
Nassia grabbed her purse and moved out from behind the counter. “Ma’am? I”m sorry, I need you all to leave.”
“Look here, I don’t know where you have to be in such a little hurry, but we’re looking for something super important and if Josh doesn’t find it… ” She leaned in, as though she was going to share the secrets of the world; “… there will be tears.”
Nassia folded her hands. “That’s why I asked if you wanted help to find anything, you know, one minute ago when the store was still open.”
“If we’re still here, you still have customers. If you kick us out now we won’t come back, Miss,” Khary looked up at Nassia’s name tag, “Nay-sigh-ah.”
“Hon, I think that’s pronounced Nah-see-ah, actually.”
Nassia liked the husband best out of the three. “It is. Let’s please go. I’m sure there are plenty of other bookstores around still open.”
“No, this is the closest to the museum. We have an important meeting there, and Josh cannot be bored. I cannot risk another meltdown. On another note,” Khary grabbed her kid’s hand and her husband’s arm, “we will be leaving.”
“Good! I’m right behind you!”
Khary stormed out of the bookstore with Josh and her husband in tow behind her. Nassia waited a few seconds and then followed, after securing the door and three dusty windows. She took a deep breath as she walked towards the museum at the end of the block. The air smelled like incoming rain; like rotting honeysuckles, budding elm leaves, and an old building about to die forever.
The sky was overcast with knitted grey clouds. Nassia held her hand up, palm facing the sky, as though begging the rain to fall. The museum always stayed open a little longer if it rained.
The Brodkin History Museum was a beautiful building, built like classic Greek theaters melted together with pseudo-Frank-Lloyd-Wright suburban homes. It stood higher than the other buildings on the block, like a holy temple reaching for the face of God. Its deep brown doors, carved with scenes in American history, stood out like polished knots in wood, with curling iron banisters following polished concrete steps all the way down to the damp, rushing street. Nassia automatically relaxed when she saw it. She loved the outer architecture, but she knew it was what was inside that was the most beautiful of all.
She wasn’t too sure why she loved it so much. It could be the exhibits, with their smooth word plaques and stories told in pictures, songs, quilts, and clothes. It could be, too, that the museum at the end of the street was the place where she remembered her best friend the most; someone who she missed with a particularly sharp pang today.
As Nassia pushed open the wooden side doors with a grunt, opening onto a large rotunda with a gasp of fresh air, she found herself recalling something that Yvonne, her therapist, had said a few months ago.
“Imagine there’s a box, Nassia, and in the box there is a ball. And on the side of this box is a button.”
Nassia didn’t know what the button said. Yvonne went on, “This button says PAIN, and whenever the ball rolls, it hits that button and it hurts you. But over time, the ball gets smaller and smaller. It never goes away, and there’s always a chance that it’ll bounce up and smack that PAIN button hard, but it gets easier to avoid it. The box represents grief.”
Well, walking into this building without Juliano was like inflating that ball all over again. As a kid, Nassia had never been to a museum. Not until Juliano asked her to go with him, one quiet rainy day at school.
She’d wanted to say yes, but hesitated.
She’d never been or wanted to be part of the cool crowd in school or otherwise, and the invitation seemed as much like a set up as a genuine date. She was shy to a fault and to the outside world, not very smart. She’d wanted to say no, but Juliano had such an honest way about him, she had no choice but to let her guard down and say yes.
From the first second she walked into the museum she wanted nothing more than to spend time inside its walls. With him, of course. All the exhibits, the history, the knowledge all in one building and Juliano right there next to her enjoying every second just as much, if not more.
Nassia smiled reminiscently as she walked through the familiar museum rotunda. It was unusually empty today, empty and quiet and echoing the escalating sound of the rain outside. She tucked her hands into her pockets and wandered through the first exhibit, the one about Benedict’s Rule and his monks. She and Juliano had loved this one most of all.
She moved onward through the first floor of the museum.
Sometimes Nassia and Juliano would challenge themselves to find something new in an exhibit they had studied a thousand times. Other times they would just sit on a bench and read silently, content to be learning something new, together. At night, she would dream of a lifetime in this museum and the others she had yet to visit. Forever wandering through the archives of human legacy, forever learning, forever with Juliano. Now those dreams seemed like nightmares—when she could think of them at all.
Nassia ran a finger underneath her eyelids. How could she enjoy herself now that he was gone? The thought was monstrous and oppressive.
She climbed the steps up to the second floor, avoiding the worn-away places on the granite steps where you could jump and a single, organ-loud musical note would blare out. She and Juliano had bounded up and down those steps all the way through high school, monopolizing the path upstairs day after day. They got it down to an exact science, with the help of a friendly museum guard, and they could eventually play a decent rendition of Shriner’s Convention. When they’d played it for the museum talent show, they made even the proprietors laugh.
It was even emptier on the second floor. They’d already started clearing the upper floors out in preparation for the impending property sale, even replacing the expensive colored mosaics from the windows with plastic.
Nassia stared at the milk-colored window openings with tears in her eyes.
The second floor was all about the kings and queens throughout history. Half of the floor was devoted to Western royalty, not leaving out prime ministers and constablewicks and things, and the other half was for Eastern rulers; obas and khans and everything in between.
She’d last seen Juliano by the exhibit about Rus czars, five years two months thirteen days ago. No more, no less.
“Bye, Nassie,” he’d called gaily, working through a group of women in dark dresses and Amish caps, banging his way down the musical steps. “See you tomorrow!”
She’d called after him; he was only going to the bookstore (the one she worked in now) to buy a birthday present for “someone.”
They both knew “someone” was Nassia.
He didn’t have to go. She’d told him he didn’t need to buy her a present. She already knew he loved her. But he went, he left, he’s gone, and only the ancient crooked elm on the avenue outside saw the streak of silver Mazda and the pool of blood.
And Nassia had been inside, rereading the plaque about emissaries to Kublai Khan. And she hadn’t known until she began to head home. And out there on the sidewalk, surrounded and obscured by faceless people in white hospital uniforms, was his body, and then it was in a flashing box and on its way away. And she never saw him again.
Nassia wiped her eyes again and moved up the stairs to the third floor. This was where they had the temporary exhibits and the rooms for sit-ins and lectures.
It was dark upstairs. Maybe they’d already cut the power for the third floor. The plans were for a new flashy SuperBuyFoods; one floor of flat concrete and shiny tin lights. It didn’t need a creaky, always-chilly third floor with flickering Edison-style bulbs. Nassia moved silently through the third floor like a thief. She felt at home, though; she and Juliano had hidden away after hours a few years before and stayed the night among replicas of King Tut’s mask and tiny figurines modeling the Battle of Agincourt. Juliano had wanted to use Eleanor of Aquitaine’s mantle as a blanket, but Nassia wouldn’t let him.
One week. It would be one week before they moved everything to other museums and unleashed the bulldozers of war.
She could hear voices. She could hear a small, quiet murmur now that she’d moved farther into the third floor. One of the lecture rooms shone with the familiar Edison bulbs. Nassia walked forward, shivering a little. A plastic wrapping must have been whipped loose from one of the windows.
A paper on the door of the room read Moving On from Grief: Discussion. All are welcome.
Nassia remembered this group. It had met here a few weeks after Juliano died, and his parents had gone. She knew that because she’d tried to go, but when she opened the door they looked at her darkly, intensely, and she left. She didn’t go to the subsequent meetings, either. She was afraid of them. And of her grief. She found Yvonne instead.
She stared at the sign. She could just… go inside. And listen. She didn’t have to join the discussion. She could just listen.
Nassia tried to peek through the crack between the door frame and the door. If Juliano’s angry parents were there, she’d leave and not return.
The door jerked open and slammed into Nassia’s eye. She jumped back with an inelegant howl, cupping her hands over her right eye. “What in the world!” she shrieked. “Damn—”
She stopped. It was the kid from the book shop, baseball cap and all. Staring up at her. Unapologetically.
The father appeared at the doorway. “What was that?” he said. “Oh! Were you hurt? I’m so sorry!”
“No, no, it’s okay, it’s just… pain.”
“Did Josh do that?”
“If Josh is that little… cherub… right there, then yeah. But I don’t think he did it on purpose.”
Josh’s father rubbed the top of his head. “I’m sorry, we’ve been working on impulse control… Josh, say you’re sorry, man.”
Josh yawned. “Where’s Mom?”
Khary, always on alert, rushed into the doorway behind her husband and grabbed Josh’s face. “What happened?” She threw a terrible look at Nassia.
“Are you guys going to that meeting?” Nassia pointed at the poster.
“Yes, we are. And we’re going to be late again.” Josh looked up at Nassia. “Sorry about hitting you with a door.”
“Wait, why are you going to the meeting?” Nassia knew she wasn’t allowed to ask questions like that. She didn’t know these people. She didn’t want to. But still, it made her curious.
Khary’s pale lips curled. She whipped around towards her husband. “Ken? Is she serious right now?”
“My sister died,” Josh said without waiting. “She was walking to school and a car drove around the corner too fast and they hit her and she died. That’s why we’re going to that meeting. That’s why I wanted that book earlier today. It was her favorite and we donated it, with the rest of her stuff, but I wanted it back.”
“Oh.” Nassia dropped her wide eyes towards her shoes. “I—” She started to say the traditional I’m sorry but she knew that was usually more annoying than nice. “I should go to the meeting too. I should have gone a while ago. Do you mind if I walk in with you?”
Khary shook her head. “No, we can’t stop you.” She paused. “Who, I mean, why are you walking in with us? Who died?”
Nassia laughed, her question had come back to bite her. “Um, someone I loved. A boy, from a while ago. He started with a J, too, like Josh. Juliano. He showed me this museum. Gave me history and that was our world.” Her smile faded. “But he was killed by a car like your daughter. Sister.”
Khary’s face softened. “I’m sorry to hear that. Death is so permanent. As is the emptiness left behind.”
“This museum was our place,” Nassia interjected. “It just occurred to me that I come back here to mourn but never to enjoy its beauty, its treasure of knowledge.” In an instant, Nassia felt the pangs of guilt that come with an uncomfortable epiphany. “Juliano would be mortified to know his death stole those from me.”
Khary burst into tears.
“I’ve been so angry, angry with the world, angry with Anastasia for leaving us. I’ve forgotten to remember the gift she was while we had her. Her love of color and song, and people. She was never angry, not really. Why is that so hard to remember?”
Khary smiled tearfully and Josh pushed open the door to the meeting. Nassia felt her heart squeeze. The person in charge of the group was sitting at the front of the room. She had bright green eyes and wore a blue tank top, leaving the tattoo on her left arm visible to everyone else. She introduced herself to Nassia as Connie.
“I hope it’s okay I joined you guys,” Nassia told Connie. “I saw some people walking this way and thought, well, maybe it was time. I’ve seen this poster every week for the last five years and I’ve never been able to come in alone.” Nassia looked over at where her new friends were sitting together. Ken, Khary, and Josh. “Today I guess I didn’t have to.”
“No, of course not. We’re never really alone, are we?” Connie clapped her hands together and winked at Nassia before starting: “Let’s get started, shall we? We have a new member today. Would you like to introduce yourself?”
Nassia gave the room a small smile, one that she hoped looked less like she was about to cry and more like she was happy to be there. “Hi. I’m Nassia. I came with Khary and Ken and Josh. I mean, I don’t really know them, but it doesn’t matter.” She laughed nervously. “We had a whole weepy moment in the hallway and everything. Feel like we bonded already.”
As the rest of the members introduced themselves, Nassia felt something shift inside her. She listened carefully to what the people were saying, and as she did, she realized why she had never come to this meeting -- or any like it -- before tonight. She was scared that they would try and take her box, her ball, and her button away from her, that they would tell her to pack it all up and smile through the life she had now, without Juliano.
This meeting was nothing like that, it was about remembering people for what they were, when they were. Not washing away the happy times they’d shared by wallowing in regret.
People. Friends. Brothers. Sisters. Partners. Spouses. Sons. Daughters. Fathers. Mothers.
Nassia left the meeting, her head spinning.
She was going to call her therapist in the morning, and they were going to have a long talk.
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Fantastic take! Love the descriptions and the deeper themes of grief and moving on. Keep it up!
Hey there. I did like the narrative in this one, and Nassia has depth and development, so nice work there! One thing I would mention is I was a bit thrown off by the naming of the characters. Khary's name is introduced very quickly while Ken's name appears only at the end. I felt we were closer to the husband earlier, so I'd actually name him instead of the wife. She didn't seem to like Nassia so calling her simply "the wife" would keep us even farther away from her, which could've been good. A similar issue happens when you reveal Juliano...
Great point with the names. It was all mostly for humor but since it's also supposed to be a heartfelt story your suggestions all make perfect sense. It's been approved already (of course) so we can't edit, but thanks so much anyway.
Hey there Manticore! I'm not usually one for sad stories, but I think you did a great job with this one. You've introduced Nassia nicely and slowly revealed why she was in such a hurry to get to the museum. The fact that they're going to destroy the building ties great with her grief - it's like a sign that she should move on too. Though the place where memories were made will be no more, they will still exist in her mind and heart. And that's okay. Great job :) So, for the helpful part; In the beginning, Khary never told Nassia her name (n...
Dude! Thanks so much. Sadly the story's been approved so we can't edit. The name thing, oops! And the crying thing, we had to cut some parts for word count, so I guess the buildup to tears was dropped. Thanks again!!
I especially like the narrative rhythm and the character development. The plot works as well. What I'm going to say now should not be taken as negative. However, there is a point in the final third where the narrative seems a little forced. A sit-in is a protest act, in my experience. That is hard to imagine in a museum, unless is is regarding one of the exhibits. Of course this museum is rather unique. I also think you might be able to tighten up the ending, perhaps by condensing or using different descriptions. You have real ability to h...
Thanks, Kathleen! One of the manticores suggested a protest against destroying the museum but the one writing this comment said no, everyone's going to do a protest for these prompts... not realizing you're SUPPOSED to. Ah well, thank you again.
One of your best. I loved it from start to finish.
Thank you for reading, Thom. The Manticore appreciates your feedback.
I just noticed your bio! So, this, it's like a group of (if I may say wonderfully talented) writers?
We are all the next Shakespeares, so yes. If you're looking for a place/way to write after leaving Reedsy, we'd love to collab with you every now and then...
Same here! Of course! I'll think about it :)
Hiiiiii!!!! I really like the tone of Nassia's voice, and the multiple sides to her subtle cynicism (jeez alliteration). On the other hand, I feel like there are some names that were thrown out that might not have been needed. this could be the therapist, the wife, even the boyfriend until she says it to the family. I feel like that would be sadder, as if it actually pains her to say his name. In addition to this, I feel like the interaction with the family were a tad bit unrealistic, because I don't think the wife would be that eager to con...
Thanks, Luke! Yeah, I think Splinter mentioned the names before, but it was approved sooner than we expected, so... Thanks again, and looking forward to any future collabs(?)... :)
Ah, welp I guess he did! hehehehehe
Hi Luke! Wanted to let you know we have an application up in our bio.
Hope you consider me!!!
We will definitely consider you!
Gorgeous story! You have a clear, elegant style that made this piece a joy to read:) The theme running through this story is also incredibly touching - really made the characters and their stories come to life. Would love to see more of your work!
Wonderful! I loved the title, it just clicks in the right place with the story. And, lovely names!
Gracias miss Sia :)
Aw, Welcome! :)
This is awesome! The narration is great!