In this thriller/horror short story the Snake War Museum is just one of many, an opportunity for Claire to confront history. It’s just her, the collection, and the audio guide… at least until she hears her own name in the headphones…
(reading time: 34 minutes)
If a museum does its job well, its physical location in the world is inconsequential. The best place for the George Washington museum might be his birthplace, Westmoreland County, Virginia, but the best museum would be the one that had his actual shoes, his actual buttons, his actual tools, his actual quills and inks, wherever they were, even if the collection was accidentally shipped to, say, Ulverstone, Tasmania.
When a collection was successfully divorced from its surroundings, relevant or irrelevant, that was when a museum succeeded. With objects and information alone it transported you and kept you safe as you explored the perils of history. Anywhere along the Snake river, which slithered through several states, would have been a decent location for the Snake War Museum, but Claire Thorn didn’t care if it was in Oregon or Idaho.
All that mattered to her was the authenticity of the experience as she walked in that day, the building creaking around her as it woke from its nap, perhaps surprised to see a patron since it was currently the sagging bottom of the off season. She was able to stand in the doorway, hands in her pockets, and breathe its aura in without blocking anyone else.
It smelled like cedar, glass polish, and brochures. Claire loved that smell more than anything. It was preservation, without a hint of the dangers of what was being preserved. The smell of dull swords and fossilized fangs. Of dolls with no paint left and helmets with missing pieces. The world declawed and seen whimpering in the rear view mirror.
The subject matter didn’t matter to her either. She’d been to museums of chocolate, war crimes, dog shows, plagues, radio dramas, aqueducts, and nearly every other subject that was old enough to catch the corner of her eye. She always went alone, and always with a smile, but first she had to get through the worst part: the person at the desk.
“Oh,” the bespectacled man said as he sat up and lowered his men’s health magazine. The overall shape of his body and depth of his hairline suggested he was very close to becoming serious about being interested in men’s health. “I didn’t think we’d get anybody else today.” He leaned forward and glanced toward a closed office. “I was thinking about closing up early and slipping out…” He looked again. “I’ve got a date tonight.”
“I thought dating was a thing of the past,” Claire mused. “Fun of you to stick to tradition. I can come back another day if it’s going to be a really good date.”
“No, no, there’s really plenty of time. One adult ticket?”
“Yes please.” She pulled out a twenty dollar bill, one that looked like it could tell stories of a thousand different pockets, much rougher neighborhoods than Claire’s handmade wool coat. She spied black boxes hanging on the wall behind him, headphones and wires dangling. “And an audio guide please.”
Audio Entry 01: Welcome to the museum of the Snake War, an irregular conflict between Native American tribes and Western settlers that lasted from1864 to 1868, though skirmishes outside of that range could arguably be included. Such was the nature of these events, snaking, treacherous, venomous, and difficult to tell end from end, like an ouroboros. I will be your guide today as we navigate the Snake River and the bloody battles that turned its length red. Proceed to the second mark.
The man’s voice was pleasant enough, crisp and deep. He sounded friendly, like a tour guide who could guess what county you were visiting from correctly eighty percent of the time, and when he was wrong the only word he would ever say was ‘shucks’. He would be a tolerable companion, as long as nobody who could speak without a button press showed up.
Claire stepped forward gingerly, savoring the creaking of the floorboards. Everything was wood, the decorative square columns reclaimed from old barns and rail stations. Pitted nails of black iron with heads the size of her fist stuck out here and there, some bent into curious shapes.
Aside from the creaking she had silence. That was important. She might miss something without it. She had before thanks to boisterous animatronics that shouted and gesticulated as soon as she was in range. Luckily this was a classier place, having full confidence in the old standbys of placards and headphones.
Before proceeding she crouched down and looked straight up, twisting her neck this way and that to see around the old wooden beams in the ceiling. Sometimes when you committed to that authenticity you attracted not only winter drafts, but small birds looking to nest up in them as well. They could be just as problematic to her afternoon as any cowboy robot shouting ‘yeehaw’ through its mouth speaker.
There wasn’t a single swallow or sparrow, so she felt safe to proceed to the second mark. That put her in front of a display of three cylindrical sections of trees sat next to each other. Judging by the few knobs that remained around their bases to stabilize them, they had been stumps before they were trimmed down to seats. One bore a dark red stain that looked equally of resin and blood. She typed in the numbers on the audio guide’s pad: zero then two.
Audio Entry 02: We don’t know the tail of the snake from the head, not yet, but many point to this instance as the most formal end to the Snake War. After peace talks between U.S. officials and several chiefs of the Shoshone and Bannock bands, one miner turned combatant on the U.S. side protested by raiding a Native village.
Along with his two cohorts, ‘Crooked’ George Bundeswort captured and killed fourteen noncombatant Shoshone, including women and children. To prevent the conflict from reigniting, he was put on trial promptly in a clearing, as the courthouses were full with further peace talks.
All three were found guilty of murder and hung, scrapes from their massacre not yet scabbed over. These stumps were where they say during the outdoor trial. Their design is rather spartan; this was intentional so as not to honor or aggrandize the accused. Proceed to the next mark.
Claire liked the phrase ‘rather spartan’. It suited a good museum as well, nothing to distract from the brutality or wonder, merely encapsulate it while obscuring as little as possible. It brought to mind a stoic cage, though that sounded like more than this Crooked George fellow deserved.
The stumps must have been one of their showpieces, as the collection got decidedly more pedestrian after that. It was mostly arrowheads, saddlebags, and other things that tended to fall off a horse as it plodded along through the forests. They were dressed up somewhat by the tall glass display cases, some of which had three tiers and were as long as library bookshelves.
Uneventful as her visit was so far, she had to admit she attained the buzz she was after when she selected this building and this time. There was nobody else. The arrowheads had led her far enough into the building that she no longer remembered the exact twists and turns that got her there, and couldn’t point to the direction of the front desk.
It was now an opportunity for history to really speak for itself, now that the flow of the collection fully determined her direction, like a leaf drifting down the river. Claire stopped in front of a frontiersman’s hat. It was in remarkably good condition. She leaned so close to the glass that she could see several hairs on the brim. Original to the owner perhaps? There was a small sticker on the glass next to it: thirty-seven. She pressed the numbers.
Audio Entry 37: This hat was owned by ‘Crooked’ George Bundeswort on the day of his death. He famously refused to remove it for the hangman’s rope. When the time came it was taken and given to his wife Sarah, who was present for the execution. She was with child at the time, so the Bundeswort line did not end and persists to this day.
Claire clucked her tongue. Tlukt! She eyed the rest of the room. Something had struck her, but softly as a breath on the back of the neck. She was still alone, so what was it? Her hand hovered over the audio guide’s play button… nervously. When she realized that, the feelings narrowed down to a conclusion.
Entry number thirty-seven was not like all the others. This time he sounded almost wistful. The way he said that the mass murderer’s line had ‘persisted’ struck her as… less spartan than the tone set by the stumps. There was perhaps a little aggrandizement. Now that she thought about it, the word ‘crooked’ sounded different this time too, almost sarcastic, like the man recording it had used air quotes while saying it.
“You’re supposed to be impartial,” she whispered, making a little loop with the audio guide’s cord and punishing it with a few little tapping whips. “Everyone here is dead; nobody persists.” She continued on in search of something more interesting than the hat and its hairs that most likely belonged to a naughty curator who had donned it for a photo.
Two paths presented themselves at the end of the room, but each looked identical. She stopped cold, squinting. The items behind the glass looked identical as well. Pottery and shards in both. Each path had one large pot at the end of a shelf, big enough to make out every crack. Same pattern. Same cracks. It had to be an illusion, one that could be broken by simply examining one closely and then the other. She chose left.
It was a jug, made by settlers but painted by natives, a symbol of collaboration from early on in the peace talks. There was a second one next to it, but in pieces, only a few large enough to show a full figure riding a horse without one or more limbs cut off. Something terrible must have happened, as there was an unmistakable blood stain on the point of one of the larger shards. Claire had been to enough museums to know she shouldn’t let her mind exaggerate. A dry reddish-brown stain could be anything from sauce to paint. Except it wasn’t brown. Not dry either. Whoever had been stabbed with it had suffered the wound not five minutes ago and was probably still crawling away, desperately searching for an end to the Snake River labyrinth.
There were no red smears on the glass, no other signs of struggle either. The audio guide would be hopelessly out of date with such recent events, but she looked at the tag anyway.
Audio Entry 43: George Bundeswort might not have acted that day, had he not come across these hideous jugs and the laughable cave paintings marring them. Seeing the traditions of his people bastardized and hybridized before his very eyes, he was driven to smash them.
Less than ten hours later he had captured the Indian painters responsible and demanded an apology. When some of them refused he used a shard he had taken with him to make new red paint to coat over their childish efforts. Proceed to the next mark.
“What the hell?” Claire ripped the headphones off and stormed away from the shard. The guide had dropped the ‘crooked’ from George’s name. The natives were now Indians. Her breath was shallow, and she was afraid if she looked down she would see someone grabbing at her ankle, begging for help in a language she didn’t know.
All she could think to do was tackle a different mystery: the identical looking room. It only took a few seconds to rush back to the choice and go right instead. Jug. Shards. Wet blood. The same glossy red droplets beneath the sharp edge, little big little. It was the same room. Claire put up one hand as a blinder, refusing to look at the rest of the display case. She started jogging back the way she came.
The sound of her sudden stop echoed through the rooms. The flat-footed smack would’ve disturbed any nesting birds, but the ceiling beams were as lifeless as ever. This part was unfamiliar. It was a collection of saddles sitting on wooden horses, but they hadn’t paid the craftsman to make legs, so they were just bodies on sturdy posts, heads carved with manes but without eyes or nostrils. The audio guide numbers were still climbing.
She knew full well the dark fantasies of the George Bundeswort fan club wouldn’t help her escape, but she didn’t want to move, lest she strand herself further in the museum’s depths. The headphones went back on, but carefully, as if they were full of earwigs.
Audio Entry 61: These are the saddles of the posse sent to wrangle ‘Valiant’ George after his successful skirmish with the Indians. They still placed him under arrest even after seeing the evidence of his victory. Knowing it was his last chance to speak freely, George shouted at the top of his lungs all the way back to town despite being thrown over the back of this black saddle, dirt kicked up by the beast flying into his mouth.
“What I say lasts longer than any Injun paint!” he declared. “This land belongs to good Christian men! They’re free to drink downriver of where I wash my underthings, long as I don’t have to lay eyes on them. I will straighten out the Snake river myself if I have to!” Many heeded his words that day, and his rebellious spirit could not be choked by any mortal rope. Proceed to the next mark Claire.
Shfhfhfhfhkunk went the audio guide as it slid across the floor and hit the wall. She’d whipped it hard enough to earn a spot on a baseball team, but it didn’t so much as crack. A groan emanated from its position, moving through all the old wood, stirring it.
It knew her name. This was no recording; someone was talking to her. Someone who knew George Bundeswort had dirt in his mouth more than a hundred and fifty years ago. She whirled around and yelped, one of the faceless horses staring at her even though it had been aimed the other direction moments ago.
“This isn’t funny!” she yelled, doing her best to not look at the audio guide when she did. There was someone around a corner, surely. That was who she yelled at, someone with a headset, deviously tickled that a patron had finally picked the sabotaged audio guide. When nobody answered she took matters into her own feet, storming out of the room and into the next one, which contained saddles, unfinished horses, and an abandoned audio guide.
Twice more she tried to leave and twice more she found what she dropped. Apparently the guided tour wasn’t over, and it wouldn’t be until they said everything they had to say. With a flustered growl she jumped through the gap between two horses and swiped the audio guide off the floor.
“What is all this?” she demanded of it before putting one side of the headphones on. “And what do you want?”
Audio Entry 00: This is the way it was, the way it is. The blood’s still fresh because I’m still here. I never got my apology.
“You’re supposed to be Crooked George? You expect me to believe you’re a ghost. Well, I don’t okay?” She held the guide away from her chest, as if the end of the headphone cord might strike like a scorpion’s stinger. “Whoever you are, I want out of here. Stop doing whatever you’re doing to the building and show me the exit.” Claire started walking. If she kept moving the perpetrator might have to struggle to keep up with her decision making.
The saddle room finally gave way to something else: a miniature of a section of the river, the surrounding settlements, and a fort. Claire leaned over it. The water flowed realistically. There was a fly buzzing by the treetops, definitely a fly, and not the world’s smallest hawk. She spotted three pegs. The stumps. An empty noose hung nearby, dozens of matchstick figures watching as if it was full and squirming.
Audio Entry 00: You want to leave and I want people to know the truth. All you have to do is promise to tell them that old George Bundeswort wasn’t such a bad guy. He fought for his country. He stood up for himself. He faced an unfair rope like a man. Promise that you’ll defend me, out there in that silly world of yours, and I’ll clear the path.
“I’m not spreading propaganda about a racist murderer.” She left the model behind when the river started to flow over the side of the table. She talked as she walked, peeking around every corner for a sign of the modern world creeping in, like a bathroom placard or a security camera. Everything stayed wood and glass. “Ghosts turn lights on and off, throw things. Plus, they’re not real.” The slight sound in the headphone was like someone bristling, a porcupine tensing its quills. “They’re not M.C. Escher architects.”
Audio Entry 00: Spoken like someone who has never been in a truly haunted house. People like you hear those stories, six dead in the attic, blood dripping through the floorboards into the bathtub, and you think it was a whole family of morons. Why didn’t they just leave? They tried Claire, like you’re trying right now. The other skeptics won’t mourn you; they’ll wonder why you were so damn stupid. How you slipped on one step down and busted your pretty head open.
Claire froze. Her toes on one foot hung off a step that shouldn’t have been there, what obnoxious people the world over would call a ‘doozie’. Cautiously she stepped down, continuing on at a slower pace, as if each step was a button that could trigger poisoned arrows from wall launchers.
Her reality came closer to that nightmare, as she entered the firearms portion of the collection. Rusty long guns were mounted in rows on the wall and she could smell the patina of death inside their barrels. She didn’t even realize that she was crouching, spinning as she walked, trying to keep every weapon in sight at all times.
Audio Entry 00: Wish I could take credit for this trick, but it was invented by the living. They call it hostile urban design. If a vagrant’s going to sit on your shop steps, you put down studs to make it painful. If you don’t want them lying on a bench, you put an armrest in the middle.
Back in my day they had it too. They put stone cones in the corner of buildings so men wouldn’t piss there. Like this.
Claire stopped again. She had just finished a complete circle, but that spot had been a wall seam before. Now there was a cone of tile, erupting from the floorboards like an errant fang from diseased gums. Nothing had moved yet, not that she’d seen. George’s designs couldn’t take place in her line of sight. Perhaps that was a rule ghosts couldn’t break.
“I’ve seen stuff like that,” she admitted, not knowing where to aim her quivering voice. “Lots of museums have sloped windowsills so you can’t sit on them. It makes them unwelcoming. I saw an old lady once who just needed a place to sit down, and she slipped trying to lean on one. How are you going to convince me you’re not a bad guy when you’re using the stuff the bad guys use?”
Audio Entry 00: I don’t need to convince you. You’re going to do it. If not now, then in eight hours when you start to get thirsty. Until then all the drinking fountains are locked up in pockets of wall, a curious oversight on the part of the architect.
“What if I just lie and say I will? You’re in the building… so… so you can’t follow me. You’re the one who’s trapped.”
Audio Entry: I will need a little collateral. A piece of your spirit. All you have to do is say that it’s okay, then I can keep it safe here and you can go out and do good works in my name. Where do you want me to keep it? There are lots of nice places here: in a coin, a bullet, an arrow head…
“I’m not afraid of you!” she shouted, speeding up again. She couldn’t help but picture herself by the end of the day, nowhere to sit or lay, walking in a circle of stairs, doors only opening enough to squeeze through after a toll of skin… She wanted out of the guns, and after a left turn spotted a patch of sunlight up ahead. A window meant the outside world, freedom. She bolted toward it, already screaming for help.
It wasn’t an illusion. She winced against the light but still saw the green of trees, the wind rustling their leaves, and the clouds overhead. In the span of a single breath it went wrong. Wincing wasn’t enough anymore. The sunlight, bouncing off a telephone pole, burned across her forearms and face.
Claire yelped and fell back just as an eye-sized circle in the middle of the floorboards exposed to the window’s light caught fire. She panic-swallowed air as she shuffled backward. It was yet another trick he’d borrowed from the failures of city planning. Sometimes the glare off a skyscraper could cause intolerably high temperatures if your apartment was situated at the wrong angle, even a great distance away.
It was awfully clever, coming from the ghost of a man who probably originally thought disease came from poor work ethic. He must have spent all his time trapped there eating details off of the patrons as they came and went, learning how to toy with modern men and women. He could’ve pulled this death glare tactic from a magazine left open; maybe it was the highlight of his month.
Fshit! The sprinkler only sputtered for a second, just enough water falling to douse the sniper bullet flame that may have been meant to scare her or ignite her hair. There was no alarm. Crooked George had spat on it to extinguish it; his control of the building extended to its internal systems. Plumbing. Electrical. Plus the windows themselves, she realized. He likely couldn’t make the telephone pole outside more reflective, but he could alter the glass, turn it into a magnifying lens.
She retreated to what was, sickeningly, the safety of the gun room. It struck her as odd that she was still there. It was getting familiar now, and familiarity made people feel safe. Why wouldn’t he dump her somewhere new, perhaps closer to a dark basement? This was the room then. Perhaps she had to be close for him to take the piece that he wanted, so he led her there, where his spirit was based.
Claire’s demeanor shifted, breathing returning to normal. She pulled her hair back and tied it up, then rolled up her sleeves. Her hands ventured far from the shaking that had characterized them since George first spoke up, touching the walls, testing the curving triggers of the mounted hunting rifles.
Audio Entry 00: Easy there darlin’. Not that I don’t enjoy the touch of a beautiful girl, but I’m a married man. You don’t need to do anything but speak. Just say, ‘Crooked George has me right, has a right to me’. Then you’ll find the front desk. It’s easy, and it doesn’t hurt. I promise.
“The people I spoke with say differently,” Claire countered. The audio guide offered radio silence as she braced her foot against the wall and started pulling the guns down. One by one she piled them up, making sure to keep her eyes on the pile the whole time.
Audio Entry 00: What do you mean? What are you doing?
“They said you never gave the pieces back. It’s like a ball of black iron in the middle of their soul, eating all the warmth. I only found three, but for you to have this degree of control over your surroundings, I’m sure there are more. How many have you done it to?” All of the long guns were down, and there hadn’t been a peep out of him, so it wasn’t any of them. That left the revolvers, of which there were only three, each on a pedestal and inside a glass box.
It only took her a moment to figure it out. These were the guns of George and the two monsters who helped him with his massacre. Undoubtedly the pedestals were supposed to have placards on the front, but the ghost had squirreled them away, in a seam of wall or under the floorboards. Whichever one belonged to George was the one she was after. She played it cool, continuing to wander around the room and stop in front of the long gun pile as if she still suspected it.
Audio Entry 00: You knew. You don’t look like the kind that comes around eager to find spirits.
“I’m not one of those types,” Claire confirmed, “with their EMF meters, infrared cameras, and ultra sensitive microphones, just waiting for some lingering Nazi or ripper to hiccup. Some of those things might be useful here, but they would give me away. I wouldn’t look like a poor, shy, little victim who hangs out in museums because people scare her. Those tools are for those looking for proof. I’d say the spirits I’ve destroyed were proof enough.
Audio Entry 00: So you think you’re a ghost hunter.
“Something like that.” She paused. “You could just call me the Rather Spartan.” She took one of the long guns from the pile and examined it closely, the way her eyes traversed it indicating she already knew where every part was supposed to be and what it was supposed to do. She held it against her shoulder like someone who spent every Friday for the past three years at a firing range. She wasn’t aiming at anything in particular, just judging the weight.
Audio Entry 00: It doesn’t matter how many floating bed sheets you’ve ripped. I’m George Bundeswort, American hero. This is my shrine, my temple. People don’t come here to feel relief that the past is behind them. They come to worship.
“Oh I’m sure there’s a certain kind of guy that comes here to pay his respects. He usually spends a lot of time on the internet, saying something racist before he tries to claim it was a joke. That’s how I found you by the way. These lies you’re forcing people to tell spread just like you wanted.”
She put down the rifle and picked up another, performing the same routine as the last three. She didn’t let on that she felt a difference. It was practically the same model as one of the others, but almost imperceptibly heavier. The weight of a bullet and a percussion cap.
It was a Colt revolving carbine, .44 caliber, six shots to the cylinder. As part of the collection it should not have been fit to fire, or loaded, but when she felt its heft she knew Crooked George had made the alterations. It would be to scare her of course, not kill her, with a loud bang and a hole in the wall he could quickly swallow up and hide before anyone else came along.
Prey of the Rather Spartan had tried such tactics on her before. There was a mutineer at the Museum of Piracy who had managed to load a single ball into a flintlock and give it enough powder to ignite. Ghosts were limited to the raw materials on hand, so it had taken him weeks to make his one shot, moving minute molecules of metal from all sorts of different sources and compacting them in the pistol’s barrel. Cobbling together the powder must have been even more difficult. That fiend had confessed to wanting to shoot her, as he slipped from existence entirely, but she had been wise to his strategy.
As long as she kept her eyes on the flintlock it couldn’t fire. She didn’t know who made the rules governing the spirit world, but she’d seen enough to discern a few. They gained power by successfully frightening people, getting them to hand over pieces of their own spirits. The more powerful they were the more they could alter their environment, moving beyond bumps in the wall and flickering light bulbs.
No matter how well they did, there were certain restrictions she’d never seen transcended. They couldn’t make any changes as long as a living soul laid eyes on what they wished to alter. That was why little birds nesting in the ceiling, looking down for dropped snacks, made it so hard to track her quarries. That was why George couldn’t simply shrink the gun room down to the size of carry-on luggage, crushing her bones and organs until she looked like a junkyard car fresh from the compactor.
She had all the long guns in the pile pointed in the same direction, and she kept it in the corner of one eye, the three pedestals in the other. Whichever gun was George’s was surely loaded as well. He would take the shot as soon as he had an opportunity, but so would she. Slowly Claire positioned herself with the Colt carbine, closer with each step.
The most important restriction was the item. All spirits were anchored in the world of the living via possession of an item, a substitute for the body they lost. Those who wished to rewrite history, scar the museums, the way George did, needed their anchor close to their victims to take their prizes.
Thus the charade. The Rather Spartan knew he couldn’t help himself, that he would try to frighten her, and in the process draw her closer and closer. His pistol was surely the anchor. If it was destroyed he would suffer his second death, and this time nothing would slip from the noose. The Snake War could finally come to an end, no doubt bringing some peace to his victims. But which gun was it?
Audio Entry 00: You don’t scare me Darlin’. I don’t spook; I am a spook. The only thing those damn Injuns were right about was how wild the worlds beyond are. Those are what’ll put hair on your chest, and on your tongue, and on your eyes. Transforming beasts cackling from both ends. Colors in the sky that watch you back.
I’m coming back to this Christian world, where it’s safe. It calms me down to hear what I already know. George is a good man. George was protecting his family. George doesn’t stand for insults, especially not from any savage red-
Bok! The pistol in the leftmost case fired, shattering its glass. Claire’s hand instinctively clutched at her heart, waiting to locate the sensation, a geyser of blood somewhere on her body. George had another trick up his sleeve. He’d been practicing his timing, honing his reflexes beyond that of any quick draw powered by rushing blood. Even though she’d been looking at the gun she had to blink sometime. His grand speech was just a distraction.
Keeping himself safer behind the glass had been his downfall. Breaking through had altered the trajectory, so the Spartan had less of a geyser and more of a lazy creek on her left shoulder.
“A little too crooked George.” The hunter took aim and fired, even louder without glass in the way. Bok! The revolver split from its grip, clattering to the floor in two pieces. She couldn’t relax quite yet. The building would return to normal without his influence, but not the things she had changed. She picked up the two pieces of firearm and rolled one around in each hand, feeling for any tingle of life. He seemed to be obliterated, another invisible head to mount on her wall.
Once she was satisfied she reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a small tube of glue. Eventually an employee would notice the seam, but hopefully not until the Spartan was in another state, repairing another century. She glued the gun back together and replaced it on the pedestal. After that all the long guns went back up on the wall; she wiped them down with a fine white cloth to remove fingerprints.
There was nothing she could do about the broken glass, but with luck it had never been there in the first place. If George had put up the box as protection the pieces would disappear as soon as she was out of sight anyway.
As a final test she checked the placard next to a canoe in the next room: seventy-seven. She punched the numbers into the audio guide, ears prickled.
Audio Entry 77: This is a replica of a funerary canoe, used by some native groups to float the honored dead down the Snake river. In the local folklore, am amalgam of native religion and settler superstition, there was a serpent’s mouth hidden somewhere in the river’s waters. Though the body could seem endless in its serpentine wandering, things would always come to a head. When the snake swallowed your remains you would finally know life’s journey had ended, and that the darkness would be peaceful. Proceed to the next mark.
It wasn’t even George’s voice anymore. This new one recited things so dryly it practically made her ears chafe. Now this was a museum. Properly dead. Nothing fine tuning, nothing whitewashing. She imagined his victim’s faces, his more recent ones, as they suddenly felt their stolen pieces return, like bowling balls falling out of their chests.
In no time at all she made it back to the room with the now infamous jugs that had offended the monster so. There was no confusing duplicate. The drippings on the shard had gone back to dry, back to brown, now didn’t have to be blood.
The mouth of the snake was indeed approaching, as Claire found the passage that would take her back to the front desk. She even considered staying, taking in more of the disinfected collection, but the battle had left her nerves rattled. Plus she needed to dress the minor wound on her shoulder and stitch her coat back together.
Instead she said a few quick silent goodbyes to the early exhibits: a few straw dolls, some lengths of rancher’s rope, a camping stove, George’s lousy crumpled hat, and the trial stumps behind their glass.
Claire stopped dead. She squeezed the audio guide, jumping down her memories like uneven stone stairs. There was no glass before. She could’ve reached out and touched the stumps, she was sure of it, because she remembered their woody smell. Now all three were encased in a massive clear cube, and it looked thicker than anything else she’d seen.
She marched up to it and banged on the glass. There was no give, no wobble. Thick enough for submarine windows. Probably even bulletproof. It wasn’t his pistol after all; it was the last place he sat before the rope. The stump with the stain. It was the blood of Crooked George, slowly filling the flat rings of time until everything was his color.
“You’re not getting away with this,” the Spartan hissed. She banged harder, bruising her hand. There had to be something she could use. She scanned the room, found a fire extinguisher in the corner. She turned it into a battering ram, charging the box and bashing it with all her strength. It didn’t so much as crack, but the resulting sound was extremely loud. George made sure it echoed all the way to the right place.
“Hey, is somebody back there!?” she heard the man at the front desk shout. “No touching the exhibits!” A familiar voice made its triumphant return to the headphones.
Audio Entry 00: It’s over Darlin’. I win. This glass could keep out a grizzly. By the time you come back I’ll have moved into something else, something random. A padlock. A light switch. A piece of gum stuck under something. You’d have to burn down the whole building to get me. Proceed to the next mark, which is outside of my god damn museum.
“Don’t tempt me,” she growled. She hated to admit she’d fallen for his safety precaution. He hinted he was in the gun room, got permission to chew on their soul there, but didn’t actually do any of the chewing until they were on their way out, just in case somebody fancied themselves a ghost hunter.
Flat-footed steps were coming. The employee wasn’t that close, not yet. George was just making the sound louder to rush her. She had time. “I’m sorry to ask this of you; I know you don’t like coming out. Can you take this one?”
Audio Entry 00: Who are you talking to Claire? God? I’m afraid he doesn’t meddle in affairs like thi-
Audio Entry XX: Howdy!
Audio Entry 00: What the hell? What are you- Ahh! Get your paws off me you-
“Did I ever say the Rather Spartan worked alone?” Claire mocked him. She pulled the headphones down, since she didn’t need to listen to what she could see plain as day. The stump rattled behind the glass, remaining bark cracking in places.
She wanted to root for Nona, whoop and holler, but now that the ghost of the cowgirl had stopped possessing her she felt empty, and more than a little afraid. Sharing her body made her feel immortal, fortified her heart, but when they split it made the organ race like a hummingbird’s as it was chased by a grim reaping hawk.
“Who do you think taught me everything I know about ghosts?” was all she could muster. Nona was running from something, something she would never explain to her partner in supernatural crime, probably one of those ‘cackling from both ends’ that riled George so. Living in a stationary object isn’t sufficient when you’re something’s prey, so the two of them had made a deal.
Nona knew all the ins and outs of haunting, and of bar fights and hogtying, but only one was of any value to Claire. Together, growing closer to being one all the time, they corralled remnants like George and kept them from spreading their recasting lies. Only together were they the Rather Spartan.
Glass was no obstacle to Nona, who flew straight out of Claire’s heart invisibly and into the stump, battling George for ownership. If she forced him out he would flounder and dissipate in the air, their job actually completed. Claire couldn’t see the struggle, but the stump reflected its intensity as it rocked back and forth.
“Come on Nona. You’ve got him. He’s nothing. He’s a footnote.” The bloodstain started to fade away. She was doing it. Clair had to trust her, do what she could to keep up appearances. She bundled herself up, feeling the terrible chill of only one spirit in her body, like being a barn after all the animals were let out, and walked away to meet the investigating employee. He couldn’t be allowed to see the stump moving.
“Oh hello!” she sputtered as she ran directly into him at the threshold. “You startled me!” He tried to look around her shoulder but she handed over the audio guide and its piled cord, forcing him to take it in both hands.
“Did you just hear something loud?” he asked.
“Oh that. There was a fire extinguisher that fell off the wall; I just put it back. Hope that’s alright.”
“That darn thing? Well, thanks. Did you enjoy the collection?”
“Exhilarating at every turn,” she said honestly, “like rapids.” She started walking past him on shaky legs, but he called out.
“The battery’s run down,” he said, referring to the audio guide, “and you tangled the cord! You should learn to respect history a little more.” Claire didn’t know what to say, but then Nona hit her, filled her up with confident victory. The Rather Spartan walked the world once again, stopping by any memorial that whispered, listening, but not revering.
“History first,” she insisted with a smirk.