“Aww, look at this picture! The squirrel is so cute...”
“Heidi, the squirrel is dead. They just stuffed it to make it look alive.” Elena peered anxiously over Heidi’s shoulder as she shuffled through the stack of instant photos.
“So? That doesn’t make it less cute.” Heidi retorted.
“Fine, so it doesn’t," Elena said, looking around cautiously. "Are you sure we should be doing this? You know photography’s not allowed in museums!”
“Relax. As long as we don’t get caught, we’re fine,” Heidi said absently. “Besides, we need the photos for our science project.”
“I suppose,” Elena admitted. “So what do we still need?”
“Hmm... we haven’t got lizards," Heidi replied. "Come on, the reptiles are that way.” They headed off.
Heidi and Elena, eighth-graders, had come to the museum solely for homework reasons. After all, what could give your science grades a better boost than including photographs in your project? The museum’s animal exhibits were exactly the place to go. The “no photography” signs at every door made Elena reluctant, but she consented for the sake of her report card. So, they were now running about and snapping pictures of anything animal-related.
After a while, Elena stopped and checked her watch. “It’s almost six. We should get going.”
The girls wandered through various exhibits of mummies, fossils, rocks and artifacts in their search for the exit. Most people had gone home already, so the museum was deserted, and not even a single janitor or security guard could be found anywhere. Their footsteps echoed against the glass cases in the vast, empty, dim space.
Elena paused, staring at the monstrous boa constrictor in the display window across from her. It seemed to stare at her with luminous eyes, and the shadows made it look eerie. She shivered.
“Heidi?” she called. Heidi, who was up ahead, turned expectantly. “Haven’t we been here before?”
Heidi glanced around. “Yes. We’ve been going around in circles, haven’t we? That can’t be good. What time is it now?“
Elena looked at her watch, and stared, puzzled. She shook it. “I’m not sure. I think my watch ran out of batteries.” She looked up anxiously. “The museum can’t be closed already, can it? We still had twenty minutes the last time I checked. We’re lost in a museum at closing time!”
Heidi shrugged easily. “Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Someone has to find us soon. Come on, let’s sit somewhere.” They found a bench and sank down onto it, feet aching from hours of walking. Heidi went through the photo pile again, and Elena gazed around nervously. All was silent, and though the high ceiling was dotted with lights, their shine seemed to be swallowed in the darkness. The brown tiled floor seemed to contract, walls closing in, and the tall display cases seemed to loom over the bench forbiddingly.
The cobra was staring at her, just like the boa constrictor had been earlier. Its eyes were glittering crystal, and its head was reared back as if about to strike. Elena regarded it warily, and the dim light seemed to flicker, so that the snake looked as if it were moving, its tongue flicking out, scales gleaming....
In the corner of her eye, Heidi saw a dark shape shoot by in the shadows. She paused and looked around suspiciously. Nothing looked out of order... there it was again! Something bat-like darted overhead. Bats in a museum? Of course, there was the bat cave exhibit, but surely there weren’t any living bats....
Suddenly, a heart-stopping shriek rent the air, and Heidi spun to see Elena screaming, scrambling away from a hissing brown snake writhing like a rope against its glass case.
Heidi grabbed Elena and stumbled away from the snake in a mad panic. As they ran, the snakes behind the glass began throw themselves against the windows, trying to break free. Heidi and Elena skidded to a stop, panting and wide-eyed in terror, and spun around to see a 12-foot-long crocodile crawling over a display barrier not ten meters away from them. They screamed and dashed in the opposite direction. A seagull with a two-meter wingspan soared over them, along with a cloud of bats. An owl hooted in the distance, and a wolf howled over the cacophony.
The museum was coming to life.
Heidi and Elena ran down a hall where brightly coloured butterflies beat their wings against glass frames, and dodged a chimpanzee that dropped screeching from the rafters.
“This is insane!" Elena shrilled. "What’s going on?”
”I have no idea,” replied Heidi numbly. “This can’t really be happening, can it? Maybe it’s a nightmare. Maybe someone’s playing a joke on us.”
“Who could manage this for a joke?”
A moose plodded down the hall, and both of them ran the other way.
Outside was chaos. Benches and tables were overturned, wood and shattered glass strewn about the floor, fences around the displays bent and twisted. Hisses, groans, growls, hoots and screeches resonated in the air. Water dripped from broken pipes. It sounded like a tropical forest. Heidi and Elena stood frozen and terrified in the middle of the wide, spacious hall that branched into the exhibits. A fountain behind them gurgled softly.
A roar sounded nearby, and Elena saw a lion circling in the edge of her vision. An eagle bellowed and settled on a railing. A stegosaurus skeleton lumbered in, bones clacking. As the girls stood, it seemed that every animal, model and fossil in the entire museum gathered, forming a wall around them. The noise started to die down, and a hush fell, punctuated by rustling wings and occasional low growls. It was like the animals were waiting.
“What’s going on?" whispered Elena. "What are they doing?”
Heidi whimpered. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it can’t be good.”
A ripple of murmurs traveled through the gathered animals, and the crowd shifted in excitement and anticipation. A wave of cold air seemed to wash over the scene, muffling the noises, and Elena felt a chill run up her spine.
A commotion was starting at the back of the crowd, as animals parted to let someone... or something... pass through. The animals were crouching back. Elena swallowed. What could invoke such fear and respect from the greatest animals on earth? What would it DO to them?
Finally, the being came to the front of the circle, and Heidi and Elena could finally see the terrible, fearsome, intimidating creature that made even lions and panthers cower.
A little striped tabby cat, tail held high, trotted proudly out of the cleared pathway. It sat and faced the girls.
Nothing else happened.
“That’s it? That’s who we’ve been waiting for?” Elena and Heidi stared down incredulously.
“WHAT HAVE WE HERE?“ the little cat said inquisitively. They jumped. When the cat spoke, you could hear an astonishing mix of sound: a cat meowing, snakes hissing, roars, howls and chirps of every kind, from every animal you could think of. “YOU’RE THE ONES WHO HAVE BEEN TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS THIS TIME?”
“Um...” Elena articulated.
“Yes...” Heidi admitted. “I know we shouldn’t have... but really, is that so important? I mean... does it really matter?”
“Oh. Well, I guess... we never thought about it... we’re really sorry if you’re offended,” Elena stammered apologetically.
“So what do we do?” asked Heidi. She took out the photos. “Should we destroy them, or what?”
They hurriedly ripped apart the photos and threw the shreds into the fountain behind them.
“There, okay? We won’t do it again. Take pictures, I mean,” promised Heidi.
“The museum will be closing in five minutes!”
“Huh? What....” Elena opened her eyes and found a security guard shaking her awake. Looking around, she saw Heidi blinking blearily on the bench next to her.
“The museum’s closing,” the guard said.
“Yeah, we must have fallen asleep waiting for someone to find us. Can you tell us where the exit is?” Heidi asked.
The guard gave them directions. They thanked him and hurried off.
“I had an odd dream,” mused Elena, “but I can’t remember it properly.”
“Well, that’s weird, I think I had one too. I don’t remember it either. Wait, where are the photos? I must have dropped them somewhere,” Heidi said, baffled.
“Actually, now I think about it, I didn’t like those pictures anyways. We have the internet, right?”
The guard frowned, picking the torn corner of a photograph off the bench. Wondering how it got there, he shrugged and tossed it into the garbage can. Weren’t cameras forbidden? He had never known why.
© 2004 The Richmond Hill Public Library Board