Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Exhibit

by Frisco Macae


Bill Padinski had been the night watchman at the Founders City Museum of Experimental Art for a long time, and he had seen his fair share of odd exhibits, but this one took the cake. The exhibit was titled "An Allochromatic Experiment in Purity", but as Bill passed by, his shoes echoing down through the empty museum, it just looked like a large white room.

Some physicist whose name Bill couldn't recall had designed and installed the room as a permanent exhibit, with the approval of Thomas Mossely, the Museum's founder. Still, even if Mr. Mossely had only gone along because the physicist was a close friend of his, that was good enough for Bill.

Tonight had been opening night for the exhibit. Even Bill had come out in the only suit in his closet that still fit, a dark grey number with lapels that had always been either too wide or too narrow to be in style, and he'd been stunned by the size of the crowd. Only two hundred people had been allowed to view the exhibit tonight, but over five hundred had come.

Bill hadn't waited in line though. No, Bill knew he would have plenty of time to experience the exhibit tonight once he had done his first round. And while he was interested, Bill always prided himself in his work at the museum. In his fifteen years at the museum nothing had ever been stolen or broken on his shift.

The museum wasn't enormous -- in the Smithsonian sense -- but it certainly wasn't tiny either. Its ceilings were by far its most prestigious feature, reaching heights only god could see without a telescope.

At the top of the square ceiling in the main lobby, which was where all the large exhibits were held, was a dark green spiral that slowly thinned as it approached the center. If you stood in the middle of the lobby and looked straight up, there was no center; your eyes were forced to follow the spiral outward, as if your body was trying to make physical sense of a philosophical concept. You felt dizzy and were forced to either look away or sit down on the cold marble tile. Brandt Hershman once put out a chair in the measured center of the room and allowed people to sit in it as part of an interactive art exhibit. One man sat and stared at the ceiling so long that he began to drool and was immediately taken to the hospital. Nothing was biologically wrong with him, two days later he was back at work, but he could never describe what happened.

This was the last interactive exhibit the Museum had allowed -- until this morning.

Bill passed by the room and paused to glance inside. There was a small window in the metal door, just large enough to press his face against. Bill did so now. What he saw on the inside was nothing other than what he expected; a completely white room from floor to ceiling as bright as a cloudless noon in a Texas summer. Bill had seen his far share of crocks, but this by far was the worst. The amount of money people had paid to see this exhibit for just a minute yesterday was ridiculous, and to think that people would continue to pay to see it tomorrow and the day after absolutely befuddled Bill.

"Should have thought of it myself, eh, Lord Chancellor?" Bill spoke, turning his head over his left shoulder to look at a statue. In the dim lighting it was difficult to tell, but when the museum was fully lit the statue Bill was currently talking to stood a towering twelve feet. The statue had been sculpted right here in the lobby some twenty years ago when the museum opened. It was of a man wearing a tuxedo, top hat and all, but instead of a cane he held a shovel.

Bill didn't know what this was supposed to mean, but he felt comforted by the old statue nonetheless. In spite of the odd contrast between the statue's clothing and the workman's tool in its hand, it made a kind of sense to Bill. It felt normal. Not like that other piece...

That statue had been carved from a solid piece of oak, yet somehow it seemed to have a red tint. It had a shiny, glazed finish and stood at least three feet above Bill, who was six foot four on a bad day. The statue was of a winged goat-man, who Bill, of course, immediately recognized as the Devil. The museum came across it when the wife of the husband who had brought it home took a shotgun to it while he was out hunting. She swore that it had moved its head. The husband said she had always hated it, so he gave it away to the museum, which gladly accepted it. The only hole in their story was that there was no damage done to the wood. Oak may be a strong wood, but certainly a shotgun at close range would have put a nick or seven into it. There was no sign that it had been repaired -- no sections where the color or texture didn't match the rest. You could almost believe that the statue's wounds had healed by themselves...

Eventually a private collector purchased the Red Devil (as Bill thought of it) from the museum for a respectable sum, and it was gone. Bill shivered when he thought about it now. He had hated that statue. He wasn't the type of man who got scared easily, three tours in the Vietnam War set your fear threshold pretty high, but it was easy to get spooked in a big place like the Museum by yourself -- especially if there were devil statues hiding around the corners. Bill knew it was easy to let his mind run so far away that, if he wasn't careful, it would be impossible to catch until sunrise.

This new exhibit, though, didn't bother him at all. "I could have painted a room completely white, Mr. Chancellor," Bill said, "no physics degree required." He turned back to peer through the window.

"What was -- did you see something move, Mr. Chancellor?" Bill frowned and opened the door.

As he stepped into the room, the light stung his eyes and he squinted. The room was an impossible white; there was no dirt on the floor or hand prints on the walls. Sure enough Bill's mind had played on him a practical joke and there were no devil statues in the room. But a curious thing happened as Bill stepped into the center of the room that caused him to breathe in sharply.

When Bill stepped directly under the center light his shadow split across the floor to the wall in front of him, but also to his right and to his left, and Bill knew that if he turned around his tall shadow would stretch out towards the door and possibly out into the lobby, towering over Mr. Lord Chancellor. He stood there, frozen for a moment in his perplexity. He understood what was happening, but up until seconds before had not known that it could. Without moving, he turned his head around back over his shoulder as far as he could and sure enough there lay his shadow on the floor, stretching beyond the door and out into the darkness.

Bill smiled and forgot all about devil statues as well as the entire reason he walked into the exhibit in the first place. There was more to the exhibit than just extra-white paint!

"I guess maybe I couldn't have put this together," he said to himself as he stepped back out through the door. "Time to get moving Bill, there's no time for play." He closed the door behind him and walked away from the bright white room. He started back down the hall towards the rest of his round but then paused after three steps. Something had changed slightly behind him momentarily and he sensed it the way you feel someone enter a room. The light in front of him, which was brighter than it had once been due to the new exhibit, had faltered for a second, like a cloud passing across the sun. Bill turned, frowning, back towards the white exhibit and watched. Nothing out of the ordinary. He stared through the small window in the door. After a moment of waiting he turned to his favorite statue and spoke.

"I've changed my mind. I don't think I like this new exhibit, Mr. Chancellor," he said. And as his voice echoed around the statues and exhibits and padded off the canvases of paintings hung against the wall Bill realized just how alone he was, and suddenly the size of the lobby sunk into him slowly, like a weight dropped down his throat and left to sit in the pit of his stomach. He looked up at the ceiling and could barely see the green spiral as the faint light reached the top, but he felt dizzy nonetheless and sat down on the cold marble. Bill had felt dizzy before looking at the ceiling, but as a practical man he needed a practical reason for his dizziness, and faux-umbrae was nowhere on his list. Bill closed his eyes and as he faced the window of the exhibit the light shined in through his closed eyelids and turned his darkness red the way the sun might if he tried to take a snooze by the pool.

Bill sat there for a moment, trying to regain himself. Then a flash of black screamed across the red lenses of his closed eyes and they slammed opened.

"What?" Bill startled like a man woken from a pleasant dream by shaking. He stood up, his eyes darting around the dim museum yet seeing nothing.

"Hello?" His timid voice shot out into the darkness beyond visibility and the only response was the 'lo, lo, lo,' that the walls sent back. Bill had put his back to the exhibit and was now frantically looking about the lobby.

"Don't make me call the police! There's nothing in here worth stealing, trust me." The sound of his own voice echoing back at him made Bill more uncomfortable than he had been before and then something passed behind him and he spun around. At least it had seemed that something ran behind him, though there was no sound of clicking foot-falls, and there was nothing there. Bill stood for a moment, unable to decide where to put his eyes, where the danger was, where he should guard. It was impossible to protect himself from all directions at once. And while he stood, his panic reaching a height Bill hadn't felt since the jungle, something moved quickly just inside Bill's peripheral view. This time Bill was certain where the movement had come from: The other side of the exhibit's window.

Bill, paralyzed with fear, stared at the window and watched as something dark and smoky passed by the window again. This time it was in perfect view and there was no mistaking. Something was inside the exhibit.

Bill took a couple of slow, shallow steps towards the door of the exhibit. He swallowed. His hand rested upon the metal of the door. It sat there for sometime as he looked in the window. Bill peered through the small glass hole in the door and he saw it. There was a shadow in the corner of the room, backed up against a wall. It didn't belong to anyone. It wasn't attached to anything. It just hovered in the corner. Bill's lips pressed together preparing to form the ‘Wh' sound that begins the word ‘what,' and he blinked.

The shadow was gone.

Bill shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck with a callused palm. His eyes found the light switch on the wall right next to the door and he wondered: Does this still work?. Frowning, he watched as his hand reached up and flipped it down.

The exhibit went dark.

He flipped the light back on and there was the shadow, this time it was in the opposite corner. He stared at it, trying to decide what it was. It didn't have the dimensions of a regular shadow, it wasn't flat. It seemed to float off the wall and floor like a black fog. It didn't move, it simply stood, if standing was what it was in fact doing. Bill flipped the switch down again then flipped it back on.

The shadow was in the center of the room.

This is when it became apparent to Bill that whatever was in there was not exactly a shadow. The shadow wasn't reflected onto a wall, or onto the floor, but instead it hovered in the center of the room. Before it could have been attributed to a trick by the lights of the exhibit, but Bill was no longer afforded this luxury. The shadow was there. Bill closed his eyes and held them shut. He pushed his wrinkled knuckles into them and rubbed. He squeezed his face up tight and pressed into the sockets of his eyes. When he opened them the shadow was back in the corner it had originally been in. Bill shook his head.

"This is bologna," he said. "I'm not going to let some scientist's tricks outwit me." Bill flipped the switch down, turning the exhibit dark, and gripped the door. "Let's dance, Mr. Shadow."

He pulled the door open and stepped into the white room and as he did, a gust of air whizzed past him. The gust was so strong it knocked him onto his back and his head hit the marble.

Bill blacked out.

Someone was shaking him, asking him to Wake up, wake up, Bill!. Bill rubbed at his eyes then opened them. Standing over him was the museum's owner and founder Thomas Mossely, and standing just over his shoulder was a man Bill didn't recognize. This other man was staring into the empty white room shaking his head. The lights had been turned back on.

"Come on, Bill," Thomas said. He helped Bill to his feet then turned to the man pacing back and forth in front of the exhibit. When he turned, Bill recognized his face, the pacing man was the physicist that had created the exhibit, Naveed Padel. "He's up," Thomas said. Naveed turned on Bill with a ferocity that surprised him and made him take a step backward.

"Did you turn off the light?" Naveed asked, stepping forward at Bill. "Did you open the door?" The big man grabbed Bill by the shoulders. "Answer me!"

"I -- I -- yes. I did both." Naveed stared at him as though he had just freely admitted to burning puppies alive. And Bill thought the man might be just short of crying.

"Why?"

"There was something in there, and it--"

"Oh god," Naveed said, raising both of his hands in the air in a motion that suggested he wanted no part of what Bill was saying. Then he turned away.

"--Kept moving around," Bill finished.

Naveed ran a hand through his hair then spun on Bill once again.

"Do you have any idea!" Spit flew from his mouth as he spoke. "You've--" Naveed said throwing his hands into the air "You don't even know!" Both of his large hands sprinted through his hair and tugged at the ends.

"Navey," Thomas said. "What can we do?" Naveed turned slowly towards the museum owner and spoke softly and slowly, as though he were speaking to a child about a complicated subject.

"Nothing," Naveed said. The holding chamber is open. It's out." Thomas stared into the face of his long time friend as Bill watched, dazed.

Naveed took a deep breath, then darted out, down the long stretch of hallway towards the big doors at the front. He burst through them. Thomas went next, and Bill after him. The doors were heavy, and as they pushed through and came to the outside, Bill shielded his eyes. For a brief moment he thought that he had gone blind.

The night outside was not dark. It was a bright glowing white, like burning metal, against the almost nonexistent sky. The buildings didn't glimmer, or reflect in the light, but seemed to disappear, as though a deep white fog had settled over the city. The light came from nowhere and everywhere.

Bill raised his hand to his eyebrows, trying in vain to shade them, and gazed down the street, his eyes attempting to adjust to this impossible light and failing. And there, just beyond the arts district Bill thought he saw something dark move, like the sun had passed behind a structure so dense that it created a perfectly black shadow that stood alone, in the center of the street, then it was gone. The light began to burn and sting at Bill's eyes so much that he thought he would go blind; they began to water. And as the man just out in front of him dropped to his knees and started crying, Bill closed his eyes, and let darkness fill them.

THE END


© 2010 Frisco Macae

Bio: Frisco Macae is a twenty-three year old student and writer who works as a bartender in Denton, Texas to pay the bills. Macae's story Escape Hatch appeared in Issue 18 of the Denver Syntax.

E-mail: Frisco Macae

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