It wasn’t any less impressive when they were inside. Lizzie, Hobbes and Aunt Charlie were soon in the center of the Grand Central Hall, where a striking dinosaur skeleton stood. There, they paused for a moment and like the other tourists around them, they took in their surroundings.
The Grand Central Hall was a huge room. It was marked by terra cotta walls, which gave it a warm and cozy feel, with colours similar to that of sand. Lizzie and Hobbes also saw that the walls were rich with detail. They were peppered with countless sculptures of animals and plants, so many that it forced their eyes to meander and explore. Suffice to say, both children in that instance, thought that the space was very grand indeed.
“I believe Diplodocus was one of the longest dinosaurs ever, and if I recall, even the tail was something in the neighbourhood of 50 feet long.” Aunt Charlie was talking about the huge skeleton, seemingly oblivious to the stunned silence of the children, who were now looking straight up.
What Lizzie and Hobbes saw was a ceiling, as high as the sky, and apparently made from a gallery of plant paintings. These canvases were arranged in neat squares, where each was a glorious work of art, accompanied with the plant’s name in ornate letters. Lizzie thought that they were incredibly beautiful, and especially loved the way the different shades of green and cream blended with lines of gold. As well, here and there, flower petals gave out the odd hint of vibrant colour. Overall, she thought that the whole ceiling looked like a brilliant quilt of flowers.
“You see those words up there?” Aunt Charlie was noticing the children’s upward gaze. “Those are the scientific names for the plants. For instance, over there is Cornus Capitata, which is what normal folk might call a kind of Dogwood Tree. Matter of fact, all of those plants up there, see, they were all important to England at some point in our history.”
Aunt Charlie had a great big grin on her face. It was evident that the ceiling was of special interest to her. “Some were used because you could eat the plant, or drink the plant, or maybe just because the plant looked pretty or smelt nice in their homes. I’m glad you noticed the ceiling, since well... Plants are my favourite!” She then took a deep breath, “Truth be told, I study plants.”
For the rest of the morning, Aunt Charlie took the children around the sights of the museum. Highlights included the precious rocks, the dinosaurs, and the mammal hall. Lizzie especially liked the area that depicted the history of the planet Earth, and Hobbes was most intrigued by the people who congregated around a white marble statue of a bearded man named Darwin.
Eventually, the children found themselves on a large balcony, high above the Grand Central Hall and high enough to bring them tantalizingly closer to the quilted ceiling. Here, they were also standing in front of a very large tree trunk slab mounted on the wall. It was so huge, that it had thousands upon thousands of tree rings.
“This came from a Giant Sequoia,” explained Aunt Charlie. “No doubt, a very big tree when it was still standing.” Hobbes was trying his best to count the narrow tree rings, but to no avail.
“A bit sad really that they chopped down the poor thing all those years ago. It must’ve been a remarkable sight.” Aunt Charlie’s voice was hushed, and Lizzie sensed an air of sadness in her manner. “Anyway... No time to dilly dally. This way now.”
Aunt Charlie walked towards an old wooden door. It had a sign that made it perfectly clear that this was the way to areas that were NOT FOR PUBLIC ACCESS.
From her purse, she pulled out a stringed necklace that was attached to a plastic card with her picture on it. “See this card here… This will get you in most every room of this museum.”
She then placed the card in front of a black box next to the door handle, which, in turn, answered back with beep and a click. She then gave the children a wink, as if she had just showed them a wonderful secret. Then, she slowly pushed the door open.
Inside, Lizzie and Hobbes very soon lost their bearings. Aunt Charlie was walking quickly, and led them through many hallways and many doors. And after what seemed like an eternity of walking, Aunt Charlie finally stopped in front of an old oak door. This door also had a sign on it. It said, “PLANT LOVERS ONLY. ALL OTHERS CAN MAKE LIKE A PLANT AND LEAF!”
“It’s only half serious,” grinned Aunt Charlie, “although it does seem to work.” She unlocked her door and pushed it open. “I usually like to be left alone when I’m working with my plants.”
Aunt Charlie’s office was definitely a sight to see. It was small, with a strong but pleasant earthy smell. It was also stuffed from top to bottom with hundreds of plants, which were growing in pots, in coffee cups, and even in odd places like pencil cases and lunch bags. There were also plants carefully hung on lines that crisscrossed the ceiling. The greenery was so overwhelming that Lizzie and Hobbes briefly thought that they were stuck in a section of lush forest.
Another curious thing about Aunt Charlie’s office was that there were books everywhere. Lizzie, in particular, loved this. She had never seen so many books in one room in her entire life. It was as if the forest had decided to open a library right there in the wildness.
Sunshine was happily streaming into the room through a large dusty skylight. This only made the room look more wild, but it also highlighted a large desk in the center. Here, Aunt Charlie sat herself down, and put her purse in the drawer. On the desk was an antique microscope, made out of nicely polished brass, which gleamed in the sunlight.
“Right!” said Aunt Charlie, “I have work to do. So, it’s time for you children to, in a manner of speaking, leaf me alone!” She took out her card key, and extended her hand. “Here Lizzie, you get to look after this.”
Lizzie took the card and with a slightly uncomfortable expression on her face, inquired, “But where exactly should we go?”
Aunt Charlie seemed not to hear this question. Instead, she grabbed a small glass jar from a shelf and opened it up. The jar was filled with a clear liquid and contained a specimen of some sort of plant. Using a pair of tweezers, she carefully placed it under her microscope. “Just go explore!” she said quite suddenly, “That card key you got there, will get you into pretty much any room in this building. Fact is, this museum is big and has many secret spots. There are many parts of the museum that even I haven’t seen - and I’ve been here for decades!”
She got up from her desk, “How about I see you at 5pm?”
She then nudged them towards the door, herded them through, waved a polite goodbye, and (to the children’s shock) gently closed the door in their faces.
Standing in the hallway, Lizzie looked to the left and to the right. She was a bit taken aback by what had just happened, but she also very quickly realized that they were lost. She had no idea where they were, or for that matter, how to get back to the Sequoia tree or the Grand Central Hall. However, they didn’t want to disturb their Aunt and as a result, it was soon decided that they would take Aunt Charlie’s instructions to heart. They would simply go explore.
For the rest of the afternoon, the children wandered happily through the non-public areas of the museum. Lizzie had her journal with her, and did her best to make map-like notes as they navigated their way around. They shuffled through endless passageways, went up and down steps, and entered rooms. Sometimes, these rooms had people working in them, but mostly they were vacant, such that the building felt a little deserted, and the children could easily pretend that they were archaeologists looking for hidden treasures.
Often, the room was home to papers and files, usually stacked haphazardly on wooden tables. These papers were mostly handwritten notes, or drawings, usually of some sort of animal or plant.
A few times, they stumbled upon rooms that seemed to house only shelves with thousands of tiny boxes. Both Lizzie and Hobbes would peek inside these little boxes and saw that they contained seeds, rocks, or small bones. A rare few would contain pinned down insects or spiders.
As five o’clock approached, they eventually came across a strange sign. It read, “This way to the Giraffe Corner.” Curious, they decided to follow the sign even though they weren’t sure what a “Giraffe Corner” might be. And although, they didn’t find a giraffe, they soon found themselves standing in front of an unremarkable set of double doors. The children might have missed these double doors entirely, if it were not for the smart looking wooden plaque bolted on one of them, which had the words (in large and formal letters, like that of a typewriter but obviously hand painted): “ZOO STORE ONE.”
“That sounds kind of important, doesn’t it?” asked Hobbes. He touched the plaque, “I wonder what a zoo store is?”
“Don’t know, actually.” Lizzie was looking at her watch, “but it’s getting late. I think we should be trying to head back soon. Might take us a while to find our way back to Aunt Charlie’s office.”
“How can we not check out something called a zoo store? And who knows if we’ll ever find this part of the building again,” said Hobbes.
Lizzie looked at her watch again. She thought that Hobbes made good sense with this argument. “O.K. then, one last room...”
Zoo Store One was quite large, about as big as a school gymnasium, and although it didn’t have basketball nets or ropes, the light walls and dark concrete floors did give it a gym-like feel. However, unlike a gym, the space was not open. Instead, it contained rows of large cabinets and shelves. These were arranged to separate the room into many lanes, much like a supermarket. Most of these cabinets and shelves were also very tall, and therefore they created the illusion of walls. In fact, many of the cabinets were obviously built for exhibiting things, with large glass doors that reminded Hobbes of waterless aquariums.
Coincidentally, a few of the cabinets did contain fish, or at least dead stuffed fish. Their bodies were mounted on small wooden stands, displayed in a row so as to look like ghost schools floating on dusty shelves. But fish were only a small part of all the different creatures that were on hand. As Lizzie and Hobbes explored the room, they saw hundreds of different beasts, all dead and stuffed in poses that Lizzie could only assume were meant to look “natural.” Some were small like a large shelf with beetles, cleverly arranged in concentric circles around a large pile of pins. Some were very large: for example, a few animals with antlers, at least two giraffe heads, and the strangest looking shark the children had ever seen.
“What’s with all these dead animals?” asked Hobbes.
“It’s called taxidermy.” Lizzie could always be counted on for knowing the proper word for something. “All of these animals... they were alive once. It’s kind of creepy if you think about it.”
Hobbes nodded, but didn’t say anything. He was keeping an eye out just to make sure that all the animals remained motionless.
Then, all of a sudden, something very strange happened. The entire room shifted. In fact, it groaned.
Although Lizzie would later think that there was probably a much better way to describe this, perhaps with long and fancy words, the truth was that this was exactly what happened: the room... groaned. The sound was as if the cabinets, the shelves, and even the walls, were reluctantly being moved.
And it wasn’t even just the sound that was odd: the children also thought it felt odd too. The whole room seemed to tilt, even if only slightly, and for a moment, it felt like being on board a boat that listed gently to one side.
As well, seemingly from nowhere and at the same instant, a phone rang. Except that this wasn’t your usual ring. It was a very weak and slow sounding ring.
Lizzie and Hobbes looked at each other, and immediately felt the keen collective glare from all of the stuffed animals around them. It was as if the animals were waiting to see what the children would do next.
“Did you feel that?” whispered Lizzie.
“Umm...yes.” Hobbes said in a slightly shaky voice. He didn’t know why, but the hair on the back of his neck was standing on end.
“And you heard the groan, right?”
“And the ring?”
Lizzie paused. “Good.” she said. “Then I wasn’t imagining it.”
The children quickly looked around the room. It was then that Hobbes saw the phone, which was sitting on a small table next to one of the cabinets. It was also a very old phone, with bits of broken wire coming out of it, and a round yellowish sticker (where the numbers would have normally been) written with the following message: “PLEASE REPLACE TELEPHONE ONLY WHEN FINISHED.”
Lizzie and Hobbes stared at this for a moment, both wondering what that message might mean.
“It’s weird that it even rang,” said Hobbes. “It looks ancient, and it’s not even attached to anything.” Hobbes was holding the broken wire and noting that the phone was far too old to be of the cordless variety. Hobbes then carefully picked up the receiver. “Hello?” he said, but there was no sound on the line.
Lizzie scanned the room some more, and then exclaimed, “Those pins!” She went over to the beetle area and stared at the pile of pins.
The pins were still lying there with the beetles, but now they were all lined up perfectly - all pointing in the same direction. It was very odd indeed.
“Are you sure they were all messed up before?” said Hobbes.
“Definitely...” said Lizzie hesitantly. She opened the cabinet door, and touched one of the pins, so as to nudge it slightly. To the children’s amazement, they saw the pin quickly move back so that it was once again pointing in its original direction.
Hobbes looked at Lizzie. He did not look happy. “Lizzie... I think that maybe we should leave now...”