by Janet Oakley
Once she finished her coffee, Catherine Walker decided to go back to the museum even if the furnace wasn’t fixed. She’d just put on an extra sweater. She ordered a to-go latte and left, deep in thought.
There was so much to do. True, the museum saw few daily visitors, but the one thing that was going well for the institution were the school tours. I may be shy around adults, but I do love showing kids our local history. Tomorrow, the entire third grade at J.D. Walker Elementary School was coming for a hands-on activity workshop. Catherine had sent instructions ahead to the parents on how to run it while she did her tour. That way she could split the group in two.
Doing tours are the one thing that keeps me going here. Though, she thought, as she unlocked the front door and headed down the main hall to the elevator, there was a time when I loved coming to the museum when I was girl. Mr. Van, the education curator (when the museum could afford to have one) gave the most wonderful tours. Thinking of you, Mr. V, every time I take kids through.
As she passed the grand staircase that led to the second floor, she looked up to the top of the stairs where a huge portrait of the museum’s founder hung. Josiah Disparais Walker. My great-great grandfather. For a moment she paused to study him. He looked like a man of his time dressed in a somber suit and a cloth necktie that went around his thick neck a couple of times before ending in a bow. Catherine didn’t quite understand the fashion of mutton chops but there was nothing about him that was prissy. A Civil War Union vet from Pennsylvania who came out West and joined the booming logging industry in Washington Territory that fed lumber to California’s growing cities, Josiah had worked hard to make his first million. That fortune built the mansion that became the Walker Museum in the late 1940s. Catherine had always been drawn to the portrait. Great-grandma Lydia said that he was a kind man for all his formal nineteenth century manners.
Today, when Catherine looked at the painting, she thought that his eyes had shifted, like they were appealing something to her. Or had something else in the painting shifted? Whatever it was, it didn’t scare her. The museum never scared her except for that one time when her fifth-grade class did an overnight camp out at the museum. Things got a little weird. She could swear the Great Auk on the second floor had come into the ballroom where everyone was sleeping.
From the backside of the staircase came a clanking sound and voices from the open doors that led down to the basement (and at one time, the city jail). That would be Lindsay and the furnace man there. Catherine hoped they would get the furnace fixed soon. Her office on the top floor under the clock tower would be freezing. She jingled her keys and stepped into the anteroom/small exhibit room where the elevator was located. Once the elevator doors closed, she pressed the button for the fourth floor and leaned against the wall as the elevator shuddered, then rose.
The top floor of the museum was part of the house’s original structure. Why Josiah had insisted on putting in a clock tower was still a mystery—the town was pretty much in a struggling pioneering stage with its small shops and an astounding number of saloons and cat houses that served the workers in the mills, waterfront, and the rowdy loggers who came in for the weekend. Maybe it was just for show. Whatever it was, this floor was a maze of heavy beams and rafters hewn from old growth timbers that supported the roof and clock tower. In the center was an iron spiral staircase that led to the trap door below clock’s inner workings. When she was a little girl, her father would take her up there in his strong arms to show her the view. As an adult, Catherine felt a bit dizzy when she had to go up there, but memory of her father was powerful and sustained her.
Catherine turned on the light in her office. The room was separated from the expansive floor space that held crates and shelves of artifacts by framed walls. It had been years since they could afford a curator of acquisitions so there was a huge backlog of cataloging. At least here in her office there was some organization. Though windowless, her office felt snug and safe with its bookshelves and cabinets and a large poster of the bay at the turn of the century on the wall. All I really need is good wifi and a working phone. And the furnace on. Everything else was in order. Dad would approve.
She put her coffee down on her desk and eased into her computer chair. For a moment she did nothing except to sip on her latte.
I suppose it’s what Lindsay said, she thought. I know the board has pushed her into a corner, but she was really trying to be nice and let me know that she doesn’t think I’m some sort of obligatory lump like the rest of them do. Especially, that Toni Masters. Catherine looked at the small picture frame on her desk. I trust Lindsay, Dad. For moment, she thought he was nodding back at her. Maybe the creaking rafters were approving, too.
“I will have to explain to Lindsay, though,” Catherine said out loud, “that despite her kindness toward Mother’s condition, there are some things she’ll need to know about her. Mom is not a Walker.”
She smiled at the photo of Dad. It was taken when she was leaving to go to college in Seattle. He had his arm around her and he looked so proud. “You’re going to do well, Honey,” he told her. “Remember our family motto, “Je disparais mais je retournerai.”
Catherine remembered her reply and his answer. “Disparais. My great great-grandfather Josiah’s middle name, right? It’s French.”
“More than that. ‘Je disparais’ means ‘I disappear’ in English. The second part, ‘Je retournerai’ means ‘I will return.’ I have relied on that second part many times since the Walker mansion became a museum. I have always thought it was the perfect fit for the old building. I recently found I was proved right. Some time when I have a chance, I will explain it further.”
But you never got a chance to explain it to me. A month after she graduated from college, he was killed in a terrible car crash on I-5. That was fifteen years ago. A lifetime ago.
For a few years or so the museum continued do well, but something was missing. After a time, it began to struggle. The last five years were especially hard.
And Mom was no help. Of course, she was grieving, but sometimes Catherine wondered if she just didn’t care, never believed in Dad’s vision and love of the old mansion’s new purpose—it’s true purpose— a museum. Disappointed, Catherine got a job as a secretary at a non-profit two counties away and left town. It was a job in which she felt wanted.
Then, six months ago, several things happened. First, Mom had a bad fall. After she was released from the hospital into rehab, Catherine learned that Mom was experiencing some memory loss issues.
“She’s struggling with simple things like where she left her keys to leaving the gas burner on,” a friend and neighbor told her. “But it’s not like Marilyn to walk off and leave the car running all night. Maybe you should come home.”
The second thing that happened was Lindsay DeMan’s hiring as the director of the Walker Museum. Catherine read about it in the newspaper. She was young, maybe a bit too young, but she had some experience. Maybe the museum would get back on track.
It was the third and final thing that happened that would eventually bring Catherine back home to help out her mother. Just after Lindsay’s hiring, Catherine started to have weird dreams. Sometimes, it was her father. Or Mr. Van. Sometimes, it was Josiah himself. The dreams were always situated in some part of the museum or at least the parts she knew. Sometimes, they were completely strange and confusing. The only consistent thing was a whispering voice saying, ”Je retournerai.”
A loud banging noise made Catherine sit up straight and nearly spill her cold coffee. As it gained momentum before settling down to a rumble, warm air came through the vent in the floor. The furnace was back in action. “And so should I be,” Catherine said out loud to the photograph on her desk. “School tours, Dad.”
She got up and unhooked a clipboard on the side of the file cabinet next to her. She studied the names of the teachers and checked off the supplies she needed to put on a cart for the workshop. Sixty kids. It would be a big group and something she and Lindsay had hoped for.
Lindsay. She said that she would look for the building’s plans. Some, Catherine knew, dated back to the 1870s. And newer. Years ago, Dad had shown her a copy of a map he discovered from the 1920s. It had been sketched out on a cloth napkin from the speakeasy rumored to have been in the building. Where that map was Catherine didn’t know. It was lost along with Dad.
As for talk about hidden treasure, Dad never spoke of that. She wasn’t even sure if that story was true. Nice thought, though. It could help with the museum’s finances. She’d let Lindsay explore that.
Catherine finished up her tasks for the tours. The fourth floor was finally warm, but she had to squeeze her hands to bring warmth back into them. She moved around some old posters from past exhibits rolled up into tubes in a tall box. She unrolled one and smiled. It was from an exhibit on masks from back in the 1990s. They had been incredibly lucky to get one of the two or three Darth Vader masks used in the filming of The Empire Strikes Back. The museum was doing so well then. Dad was on the museum board and loving it. But what is my purpose here?
“Je disparais mais je retournerai.”
She rolled the poster up and stuck it down into the box. Something stopped it from going to the bottom. She jiggled the other posters around, but it still wouldn’t go all the way down. She pulled out the mask poster and leaning over, she reached deep into the box. Her stiff fingers touched the smooth metal of a box. She pulled her hand away as if it had been burned.
“What?” Catherine reached in deep again and pulled out an old cash box. There was a faded label with a red border on top. What remained of the handwritten notation was too hard to read. The only way to find out what was inside was to shake it. She expected the sound of paper or at least the clinking of coins. Instead, the box rattled a single clunk. “Seriously?”
Catherine took it back to her desk and tested the latch on the front. It opened with—was that a sigh? Catherine looked around, feeling an odd presence in the room. Taking a deep breath, she laid the top back. Inside she found a brass key and a note: For the elevator.
Catherine held the key in her fingers and turned it around. Why did it end up in the bottom of the storage box? It certainly was not one of the museum keys kept secured in the main office. It was small and old. “I wonder.”
There was a keyhole below the elevator’s panel. No one knew what it was for. Lindsay had made Catherine search the office for it when she came on board as secretary. “I wonder.”
She went over to the elevator and pushed the button to send for it. The doors immediately opened. Stepping in, she tested the key in the slot. It slipped in like a knife in melted butter. Suddenly, the elevator doors shut. The elevator began to descend.
“Wait!” Catherine shouted. “I didn’t say, ‘Go’.” She frantically pressed on the second floor button and watched in horror has the elevator passed it and continued on down. “It has to stop at the basement. Please stop.”
It didn’t stop at the basement.
“Help,” she cried out. She pounded on the panel and door. When she tried to take out the key, it stayed stuck. The elevator kept going until it slowed down like it was floating on air.
Catherine was close to fainting when the elevator came to a gentle stop. It rested, then opened its doors.
“Who are you?” she addressed the figure in the dim hallway.
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