The Museum Guard

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: November 06, 2017

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Submitted: November 06, 2017

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The Museum Guard

By Brie Scott

 

 

The first six months of working security at the Art Institute, Tamara Munroe experienced a false sense of calm. She had convinced herself that her panic attacks were a thing of the past. When the attacks resurfaced the onslaught felt like a betrayal. A cruel reminder she was trapped between two worlds.

Tonight’s attack started when the button between her breasts popped. In a heartbeat, her mind went black. Her throat tightened. Her ears rang and her knees buckled. The room swirled as she stumbled towards the sinks at the far wall of the locker room.

“You okay there?” Aisha said and slammed her locker shut.

The metallic clang set Tamara’s teeth on edge crushing the ability to breathe. When she finally reached a sink she turned on the faucet, lifted the cool clear liquid to her face and, felt a wave of relief.

“Tamara hey,” Aisha’s voice was soft. “Hey there,” she said standing near the bank of white porcelain sinks.

“The button on my uniform popped,” Tamara said her voice harsher than she expected. She let her ebony braids provide a curtain of privacy to deflected Aisha’s view.

“Oh, I hate that,” Aisha said in a gentle tone that both comforted and irritated Tamara. Aisha leaned back against the counter and folded her arms across her chest, “Winter Gala nerves?”  

Tamara nodded.

 “You wanna know something?” Aisha asked. “The first year I worked the Winter Gala, I threw up all day.” She lifted her hand as if to swear. “All day,” Aisha sighed. “The endless stream of glittering celebrities. I mean the jewels, the clothes, and the shoes. Oh, the shoes.”

Tamara splashed the second handful of water on her face. It felt good but always paled compared to the first. She yanked a few paper towels from the dispenser and wiped her face. “I’ll be fine,” Tamara lied.  If she told her the truth, Aisha would have to report it. A security guard with panic attacks wasn’t reliable; even one with a cushy job at a museum.

For a veteran, working security is ideal. Vets can deal with the odd hours, crowds and, are able to intervene at the first inkling of trouble. During her two tours in Afghanistan, Tamara learned a multitude of skills dealing with trouble. If the guys from her squad could see her now the teasing would be brutal. Funny as hell, but brutal. She tossed the used paper towels in the bin.

“Guess who’s the guest of honor tonight,” Aisha whispered.

Tamara shrugged. She wasn’t really interested but if it gave her a moment to pull herself together, she’d listen. Small beads of sweat collected behind her ears as she forced herself to breathe in and out, in and out.

“Marcus Donovan,” Aisha mouthed the name.

“Who?” Tamara said and straightened up.

“Tamara! Really? He grew up in our neighborhood,” Aisha said and gave a wicked smile. “Marcus Donovan the old football player,” she mused and licked her lips. “Mm-mm, he was fine. And, now he owns that sports bar down by the harbor.”

“I’m not much of a football fan,” Tamara said and reminded herself to smile. It was a trick she used to fool people. Get them to think she was all right. Not haunted.

 “I’d go for a football player any day, even a retired one.” Aisha laughed then stopped and studied Tamara’s face. “You need help looking for that button?”

“It’s probably behind the toilets.” Tamara gestured with her head towards her open locker. “I’ve got a pin stashed in there somewhere.”

Aisha leaned in towards Tamara. “Listen, come out and have a drink after. We’ll go to Marcus Donovan’s Bar and flirt with the players,” Aisha said

Aisha’s suede eyes held Tamara for what felt like a lifetime. Tamara wanted desperately to tell Aisha she wasn’t going to make it tonight, that she was deep into some shit. But her mouth didn’t respond. She worked her left hand to stay focused. Grip relax, grip relax. Tamara whispered, “We’ll see.”

“It’ll be good for you,” Aisha said then glanced at her watch. “Oh, I’ve got to get up there.” She tugged one of Tamara’s braids and left.

Once the door closed, Tamara placed her hands on the edge of the sink and leaned into the white curve of the bowl. She sobbed so intensely she choked on saliva mixed with tears. She rinsed her mouth out with water and scanned her reflection in the mirror. Mascara had left dark tracks down her cheeks. Grabbing a few paper towels she tried to wipe off the smears.

Mentally, she went through the perfect alignment of triggers like a row of dominos. First, a walkie-talkie crackled next, a locker door slammed shut, then the center button on her shirt popped exposing the vulnerable curves of her breasts. “Loser,” she whispered to her reflection. She took a deep breath and began to search for the renegade button. No luck. With a resigned sigh, she returned to her locker to search for a safety pin.

On the top shelf of her locker sat a plastic tray filled with assorted items and tucked behind that a pharmacy of medication. Two bottles for back pain, three for anxiety, assorted cold pills and an extra large bottle of Advil. She caressed an anxiety bottle. A shock like a bolt of lightning sped up her arm. She was tempted, but not tonight. These pills never diminished the panic, only made her head fuzzy. She returned her attention to the plastic tray. With one hand she fingered through lip-gloss, paper clips and loose change, with the other she rubbed her forehead. 

Tamara found the pin and with trembling hands, struggled to close the button plackets from the inside so no flashes of gold sparkled through the white uniform shirt. A squawk from her two-way radio startled her and she pricked her finger with the pin. “Shit!” she cried and jammed her finger in her mouth. At least pain distracts panic that much she learned in the Army.

“Tammy? You there, Tammy?” A male voice said. 

“One minute,” she muttered as she checked her finger. Taking a deep breath, she picked up the walkie-talkie and pressed the button, “I thought I told you I don’t like to be called Tammy.”

“Oh, right. But I love it when you correct me,” the male voice teased.

“What do you want, Spider?” Tamara snapped.

“It’s show time,” Spider said.

“No, guests have wine and cheese first, then dinner, then the exhibit. No one is getting in that hall until at least 8:30.” She recited from memory as she checked the front of her shirt for blood.

“Hey, Tamara,” her boss Dinesh spoke over the two-way radio.

“Yes, Sir,”  she said and snapped to attention.

“A guest has requested a private tour. Can you get up to the exhibit room?” Dinesh lowered his voice, “He’s a VIP.”

VIP meant one thing: Big Donor. Her heart raced. She had to buy some time. She clicked on. “Yes, sir. I’ll be there in a few, I’m-I’m having trouble with my uniform.” 

“Dinesh?” Aisha’s voice clicked on the walkie-talkie. “I’m in the exhibit room now. I’ll do it.”

“Okay, good,” Dinesh said. After a pause, he added, “Tamara, you don’t have to call me sir. Dinesh will do.”

Tamara tried to respond but the knot in her throat had doubled and speaking was impossible. She returned to the sink, placed her walkie-talkie on the small shelf, and opened the tap. For a moment she watched the water splash against the porcelain sides. The sound was hypnotic. Her knees gave way and she sank to the floor. There was no way to stop the images from Afghanistan.

Closing her eyes, she tried to picture the things she wanted to remember. Smoking stolen cigarettes with Lang and Marquez, the countless nights they froze in the mountains and recited lines from movies to stay awake. The times she laughed so hard it hurt. But there were the painful memories that intruded day or night. The blaze from a Humvee exploding in front of her, the crushing heat of the flames. The horrific smells of burned flesh mixed with rubber seared her nostrils and destroyed her sense of smell. And hate boiling everywhere. Hatred so thick it infected soldiers and civilians alike.

When she returned stateside, these images fueled countless nights. She knew she needed to do something or lose her mind completely. Aisha suggested a job with her at the Art Institute and pulled a few strings. Tamara got the job. She’d never betray Aisha’s trust.

She told herself she had to get up and stood on weak legs.

The radio squawked. “Tammy! You should see the bling coming in tonight.”

 She grabbed the walkie-talkie from the shelf and said, “Spider! My name is Tamara. You want me to answer, call me by my proper name.” Damn, this boy could rile her.

“All right, all right, don’t get all-uppity, Tam-ah-rah,” Spider said.  “But what is strutting in the front door needs to be seen to be believed. Hollywood’s got nothing on Chicago style.”

Dinesh clicked in, “Eyes front, hands down, Spider.”

“These skinny women get so drunk over one itty bitty glass of wine all I do is escort them to the bathroom,” Spider said. “Can I help it if they think I’m a hero cause their husbands can’t be bothered? Besides, I am Michelangelo’s David in the flesh,” he bragged.

Tamara snorted, “Oh, please.”

 “Aisha?” Dinesh clicked in.

“Yes, Dinesh,” Aisha answered.

“How did it go?” Dinesh asked.

“Marcus Donovan is one fine specimen,” Aisha cooed.

“He’s an odd bird,” Dinesh said.

“How so?” Aisha asked.

“His driver told the valet that Marcus and his girlfriend argued the entire way down in the limo. Almost came to blows.” Dinesh spoke quietly, “We were told to keep an eye on him.”

“I’ll keep an eye on her anytime,” Spider chimed in.

Aisha teased, “Spider, have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Son, that’s way too much car for you?’”

As Aisha and Spider bantered about types of cars and Spider’s driving ability, Tamara reminded herself that Spider was harmless; a kid full of excitement like so many recruits she met in Afghanistan. Young and eager.

“Tamara?” Dinesh clicked on. “We need you in the dining hall.”

Tamara heard the chamber orchestra in the background when Dinesh talked. She figured he must be near the Grand Staircase. “Sir, I cut my finger and got some blood on my shirt. I’m just rinsing it off.” She didn’t have any blood on her shirt, but she knew she couldn’t face people. Not yet.

 “What?” Dinesh asked in a confused tone. “Oh, I get it. A stain.” He seemed to understand. “Go get a new shirt in my office, then come up as quickly as you can.”

“Yes, Sir,” Tamara answered in a high-pitched voice. She set the walkie-talkie aside. If she couldn’t do a simple job like this, what use was she?  “You are a disgrace to this outfit, soldier,” She said to the face in the mirror. The rage reflected in her eyes frightened her. Her chest tightened. The urge to pound her head with her fists raced through her. She gripped the sides of the sink.

“God, I am tired,” she cried. In the reflection of the mirror, she spotted the row of orange pill bottles. All refilled yesterday. Small mercies.

“Tamara?” Spider’s voice squawked over the walkie-talkie.

Tamara picked up the walkie-talkie and pressed the button. “What is it Spider?” She heard the sharpness in her tone and instantly regretted it.

“Do you want me to tell you how it’s going? It’s first class,” Spider asked in a playful tone.

Lowering her voice she answered, “Sure.”  The walkie-talkie trembled in her hand. She worked her left hand. Grip, relax.

“The honored guest? He’s Marcus Donovan of the Chicago Bears!” Spider said sounding like a big kid.

 “Aisha said he retired,” Tamara answered in a flat voice. As if in slow motion, she sank to the floor clutching the walkie-talkie to her ear. It was quiet and warm in the locker room.

“They called him The Torpedo,” Spider said filled with awe. “Oh man, he launched himself headfirst into guys bringing them down. Nobody got that ball past him,” Spider said and laughed. “Got the team to the Superbowl. Twice.”

“Oh,” Tamara said but her hand was shaking so hard she couldn’t press the walkie-talkie button. Proof she was broken. Used up. Damaged goods.

 “Are you still there, Tamara?” Spider asked.

Tamara finally pressed the button. “Yeah, I’m here.” But Lange and Marquez weren’t. They would never take a stupid job like this, and if they did, they could at least keep rich people from touching the paintings. What did Lange say, “Nothing is as it seems, Tammy. Nothing.” God, she missed him.

Spider kept chatting, “Yeah, Donovan’s getting some award. A Philo-Philo, something of the Year.”

“Philanthropist,” Tamara corrected automatically.

“What the hell is that?” Spider asked.

“It means he gives his time and money to charities,” Tamara whispered.

“Why don’t they just say that? It makes it sound like he is some kind of Philistine,” Spider said. “I know what that means.”

Tamara muttered, “Yeah.”

Aisha jumped on the walkie-talkie. “Guys, you should see dinner. There’s little puffy white stuff with grass on top.”

“That is beef tenderloin medallions. And that grass stuff, as you call it, are Shiso leaves which adds a smoked onion flavor to the mashed potatoes,” Dinesh clicked on and corrected her.

“That’s steak and potatoes?” Aisha asked. “$500.00 a plate for two bites of steak. Damn, no wonder they is all so skinny.”

While Aisha and Dinesh argued about the amount of food, Tamara looked over to her locker and the white-capped pill bottles. One hand fell off her lap. Her eyes closed and a wave of nausea swept through her. Rest for a moment, she thought. Maybe sleep for the first time in months.

A knock on the door startled her electricity raced through her. She clamped down on her jaw.

“Tamara?” Spider slowly opened the door a crack.

“What are you doing, Spider?” Tamara demanded and pulled her knees closer.

 “I won’t come in. I’ll stay here,” Spider said.

“You’d better,” She snapped.

“You said something about blood on your shirt,” Spider began, “I can help with that.”

Tamara heard the concern in his voice.  But she couldn’t move her legs. “I pricked my finger on a safety pin,” her voice sounded disconnected to her body.

“Those things aren’t very safe, are they?” Spider said.

 “No, they’re not.”

“I’m just going to open the door a little bit more, okay? I just want to check on you.”

“Oh, shit,” Tamara said and tried to stand but her shoes slipped on the cement tiles.

“I’ll stay at the door.” Spider cracked the door open and saw her struggle. “I’ll just sit here with you, okay? I’ll keep the door open.”

“Knock yourself out,” Tamara said and watched him awkwardly lower his muscular frame to the floor. He crossed his legs in an attempt to get comfortable and leaned against the door holding it open with his body. “Why are you here, Spider?” she spat.

Spider stopped moving and stared at her.  Tamara watched him struggle with an answer Finally, he found his voice. “My cousin Damien and I were tight. I mean ti-i-i-ight. I grew up in a house with three sisters, my mother and, grandmother. Damien was like my father and big brother rolled into one. He served two tours. When he came back, he was,” Spider said and leaned his head against the door, “different. Sometimes, I would hear a thing in his voice. He’d say, ‘Everything was cool, everything was fine.’ I got used to it and one day I stopped paying attention. That was the day he gave up.”

Tamara and Spider held each other’s eyes. Tamara broke the connection and looked over to the pills. She leaned back and breathed through the pain. The yearning for blank nothingness intensified.  

 “At his funeral, I promised if I ever heard that thing in a Vet’s voice, I would be there. No Vet would give up. Not while I breathe.” Spider closed his eyes for a moment. He took a deep breath. “I heard that thing in your voice tonight.”

The room became that kind of noisy quiet she remembered from night patrols. Tamara focused on Spider’s dark brown eyes. Grip release.

“How did you know I was a Vet?” she asked.

Spider pushed a puff of air through his lips, “You address everyone as Sir or Mam, your posture is amazing-”  

Tamara waved her hand to stop him, “Why didn’t you enlist with him?”

“4-F. I got a heart murmur thing.” Spider said and hung his head.

The walkie-talkie squawked. Tamara jumped at the noise and felt close to tears. “Spider?”  Dinesh called.

Spider watched her and slowly picked up the walkie-talkie and answered, “Yes, Dinesh?”

“Everything all right there?” Dinesh asked. Music from the chamber orchestra flittered through the two-way. She heard murmuring of voices in the background. The Gala was in full swing now.

“Yeah, we’re good. You can handle the rest of the night without us, right?” Spider said.

Aisha clicked on, “As if we can’t run this place without you, Spider Washington.”

Hearing Aisha’s voice tickled Tamara. For a moment she teetered between laughter and tears. Uncertain what to do she looked to Spider. He smiled slightly and clicked back, “Okay, okay. Just save us some of that fancy dessert.”

Aisha said something about not being his personal assistant and he could damn well get his own desert. That was all it took to tumble Tamara into a trembling giggle fit.

Once she caught her breath she asked, “You sure you don’t want to help skinny rich women to the bathroom?”

“Naw, I like a little more,” Spider gestured with his hands, “something to hold.” He tipped his head to the side and smiled. “You’ve got the right amount.” He flushed burnished red.

Tamara tilted her head back and this time tears flowed. But it was the nicest thing anyone had said to her in a long time.  

End

 


© Copyright 2018 Brie Scott. All rights reserved.

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