“Can we go to the museum of aardvark?”
There’s a lot of things you expect as a parent. Explaining where babies come from, why the sky is blue, why mommy and daddy lock their door at night for an hour sometimes.
You know, the obvious stuff.
That one really threw me for a loop though.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, sweet,” I shrugged.
She tugged my sweater and dragged me to the computer. Gabby was already way too good at computers. In a few clicks, my six year old pulled up a website for the museum.
The site looked looked like it had been designed in a WYSIWYG from about ten years ago, but the dates for upcoming events showed stuff happening in the next few weeks.
“So, where’s it at, kiddo?”
She clicked on a link at the top and scrolled down to a set of directions.
Corner of such and such in a part of the back woods I’d never been to.
“So, can we?” Gabby asked.
“Some day, baby.”
I’d hoped she would forget about it but the subject came up every few months.
Something in me didn’t want to go. I couldn’t explain it at the time and explanations now seem like weak after-the-fact rationalizations.
Her father asked why I didn’t want to take her and I asked him the same question right back. He said he’d love to but she wanted her mother to take her.
I gave up fighting it and one Saturday, she and I packed up the car for a mini road trip.
The directions led us to a little plaza filled with odd, scam-sounding storefronts. The hair on the my neck tingled when I saw the “Refuge Community Book Store.” I suspected they wouldn’t carry Vonnegut, LeGuin, or Hawking in a place like that, however charitable their intent.
I couldn’t chicken out then, though. Gabby wanted it and her father had guilted me into the trip.
She waited patiently while I gathered a few necessities and she dashed out of the car as soon as I popped my door open.
“Not so fast, young lady!”
I don’t think I walked that slow with her hand in mine since she was three.
The Museum of Aardvark’s storefront windows were covered in foil on the inside. The blinding light of the sun shone off them.
The sign, to my consternation, said they were open. I pushed the door open with my free hand and we walked in.
A woman who seemed maybe 20 or 22 waved at us from the counter. “Y’all are the first guests we’ve had all day. Err, well, I guess the term is patrons.”
Gabby and I walked to to the counter, which displayed about fifteen different plush aardvarks and a blue penguin with bright yellow button eyes. They hadn’t bothered to adorn the rest of the store front. Just a few coats of dark brown paint on every wall.
“Two, please,” Gabby said.
“Of course, ma’am,” the woman said. “One child and one adult … that’ll be twelve dollars.”
I reached for my purse and pulled out a pair of fives and a pair of ones. I handed the money over.
The woman pulled off two tickets from a roll, tore them in half and gave each of us a half ticket.
“This way, please.”
She led us into a dark hall way and waved us on.
Gabby and I walked past the woman and to the first display.
As a vegetarian, I’m going to have to assume the stuffed aardvarks they had were either incredibly realistic recreations or ethically sourced. In either case, I guess that’s the sort of thing I expected.
Which makes my trepidation about the museum so odd.
Sure, if that’s all the museum had been it would have bored me to tears. Gabby’s Saturday cartoon marathons did worse than bore me, though.
We browsed through the dioramas of the aardvark’s natural habitat and read information on their cultural significance throughout the ages.
They even had a display about how common a double-a grouping was in various languages including Dutch, Afrikaans, and—of course—English.
I have no idea how long we spent going through the museum, but I felt a little ripped off as we approached the end.
Gabby must have sensed my irritation. “C’mon, mom. You’re going to love what’s coming.”
Instead of bemusement, I felt a slight twinge of fear and trepidation. My daughter knew something I didn’t. What if she didn’t know how much I hated certain things?
We reached a library. Visitors were invited to read whatever intrested them for as long as they liked. I felt disinclined, but Gabby insisted I pick out a book.
I picked Why I Am Not An Aardvark by Harper Jennings. I hadn’t planned on reading the book. I wanted to humor Gabby though.
“What’s it about, mommy?”
“Well,” I flipped back to the first page and started reading.
I am not an aardvark because …
I noticed Gabby’s absence even before it clicked that the museum disappeared.
“GABBY!” I shouted.
The rolling hills of grass under a star-speckled night didn’t answer.
I kept shouting.
A small animal started, looked at me, and then walked off slowly. The color looked vaguely brownish in the vague moonlight. It looked like one of the aardvarks from a display I’d seen earlier but I couldn’t be sure.
It flexed its toes and scampered on.
because I have a thumb and I am awake during the day.
Gabby looked at me expectantly.
“It’s a book saying why humans aren’t aardvarks, dear.”
She frowned. “I think you might be taking it a little too literally, mom.”
The vision—episode? Whatever. It couldn’t have been real, I thought. I put the book down and found another one.
Why I Am An Aardvark by Eloise McCann.
I took a deep breath, opened the book, and flipped to the first page.
I found myself in wide open country. Looked like maybe Kansas. Green, green, green. Close-trimmed grass. Hotter than it had any right to be. It coud have been a golf course, but wasn’t.
The light forced my eyes into a squint. A woman in overalls walked up.
“Now, what in the hell are you?” she asked.
She seemed so tall. I hadn’t feared her until she’d gotten so close. Just a few feet away.
I ran but fell to all fours and found, for the first time in my life, running on fours felt natural. But so very drowsy.
I set the book down. I didn’t see Gabby. After the weird events, I didn’t worry too much about Gabby being hurt, but I wanted her with me. I closed Why I Am An Aardvark and looked around the table. A pop-up cartoon aardvark stared at me from the position I’d last seen Gabby in.
After a moment’s hesitation, I took three steps over, and read.
Many believe the aardvark has magical powers—
I couldn’t see anything but myself. Unless a bit black expanse of nothing suddenly qualifies as something. I couldn’t tell where the light that let me see myself came from. If the experiences hadn’t felt so real, I might assume the contradiction resulted from the hallucination.
“Hello?” I called.
No echo, no response. Just dead open space that ate my words as I said them. “Is anyone out there?”
I thought, with panicked realization, “Oh, no. I never checked the title of the book!”
“HELP!” I shouted. “I’M IN HERE!”
I didn’t pop back in the museum. I sat in a large chair in a room furnished like you might see in a movie. Some old rich guy’s lair. Leather. Leather everywhere. It smelled like cigars, pipes, whiskey, and musk.
No one else inhabited the room. I walked to a door and opened it. “Hello?”
I entered the hall. Someone had kept the wood paneling up. I didn’t envy the cleaning staff one bit. They’d polished every inch of it from running board to ceiling.
“Hello? Anyone in here?” I called.
I heard a bustling noise near my feet and just barely caught sight of a thick brown tail rounding a corner. I followed it into a room.
The room I stepped into wasn’t a room. A cloud went on forever in any direction. After the empty expanse, this seemed tame, but I hadn’t seen Gabby in so long.
“Gabby? Has anyone seen my little girl?” I called to the audience I felt so sure watched on while I strugged with the senselessness of it all.
“What do you think, Michael?” a voice said. It shook the air around me.
“What do I think? About what?”
“About the creature in our grasp?”
“Hey!” I said. “Where’s my girl?”
“She is clearly an aardvark,” Michael responded to the first voice.
“An aardvark? What? Just let me have Gabby back, you jerks!” My heart thudded in my ears.
“She’s trying so very hard to be something else, though.”
“It doesn’t change the facts—”
I startled. I stood over a book with a pop-up aardvark looking up at me. It grinned knowingly. I thought I saw a wink.
A something brushed against my leg.
I looked down. Gabby. I knelt down and brushed her hair out of her face.
She didn’t open her eyes. “What is it, mommy?” she mumbled.
“It’s time to go,” I said.
She squirmed a little and stood up. “Ok.”
We waved to the cashier on the way out and packed into the car.
“Did you have a fun time, mommy?” she asked.
There’s a lot of things you expect as a parent. Answering that question after the experience I had— Well, it wasn’t one of them.
“I’m not really sure. I’m glad you were with me, though.”
Well, what else can you say? I sometimes harbor the suspicion that an aardvark is staring back at me in the mirror and I really wish you’d never pestered me to go to the Museum of Aardvark?
Not really the sort of thing you say to a kid you want to have a happy life.