Helen’s reflection rippled across miles of brown, dead fields. Road markers blurred past her window, urgent smears screaming then gone in an instant. Impetuous. Impulsive, her mother had called her.
Josh forced his way in and out of lanes, tires snapping across pavement. Tepid air leaked from the car’s vents, the system struggling to surpress the humidity outside. He slapped the steering wheel when a move didn’t work out, the look of tight control on his face making her skin crawl.
This was their third day, and she knew she’d made a mistake. She’d learned to almost ignore the feeling, distracting herself with so many miles of nothing, when he ambushed her again.
“You told me we wouldn’t stop any more.”
“Don’t start your complaining now.” His dry hand kneaded her thigh.
Prickly heat sawed into the backs of her thighs. “My legs hurt Josh,” she whispered.
Josh’s grip tightened on the wheel. His elbow floated out into the wind. “Some wife you’re turning out to be.”
Her reflection’s forehead crumbled, bit its lip. “Fine. It’s fine, we’ll go.” Her mother was right. Again.
“Let’s go see the mummy Ricky,” Josh called to his son in the backseat. Ricky grunted from his video game.
Gray, humid miles slipped past. Lines of flame bubbled up her legs. A divorced father with a good job. She’d told herself she needed that stability. Josh hammered the horn, sped into the right lane. She thought of throwing open the door, gravel digging into her palms, carving into her knees as she rolled.
A sign directed them from the highway to where the museum thrust its country stonework into the sky. Released from the car, she stretched as Josh and Ricky walked ahead. Birds soared into the haze above a nowhere town of warehouses and steeples. A place to disappear. She trailed them, scratching at her legs.
“Helen. Let’s go,” Josh called.
And she did, thoughtful.
Inside, at least it was cool. The guide slipped off his stool to take their admission fees. Josh patted his pockets, shrugged at her. “Can you get this?” he asked, then bent to the map Ricky brought him.
Helen sighed, digging in her purse. “So what’s there to see here?” she asked the guide.
“Well, there’s the mummy. Brought over by one of the men who built the railroad in 1852. It’s really a sight.” He smiled at her. “For these parts, anyway.”
She looked up. The guide was young, with a hard tan. A boyish wave of hair crowned his broad forehead.
“Are you coming?” Josh called.
Her dress fluttered in the air-conditioning’s breeze. The guide smiled.
“I’ll meet you at the mummy,” she said. Father and son shuffled away, two thicknecked brutes who came to see an oddity.
The guide returned to his chair, tapped into his laptop. Helen waited a long beat. Another. Drew a deep breath.
“Will you show me around?” she finally asked.
“Oh,” the guide looked up. She noticed the slight tilt in his smile. A day’s worth of stubble on his cheeks. “Well sure. Leave your purse here though, no bags allowed. What’s your name?”
“Helen.” His rough palms shivered into her hand.
“Nice to meet you Helen. Tell you what. Let’s start with the fountain. It’s in our Sackenmeyer wing, and it was donated by the founder of the museum.”
Their footsteps rang on the marble floor. A door opened, closed, and Ricky and Josh were lost behind her. The air brimmed fresh and pure. An urn rose up out of a flat pool, water shimmering down its corrugated sides into a garden of lilies.
“This used to be in Adolph Sackenmeyer’s mansion. He had it imported from Greece after a trip there, from a temple of Aphrodite.”
Helen leaned close to one of the flowers, drew in a sweet breath and closed her eyes. “Who was Adolph Sackenmeyer?” she asked.
“Well, he was one of the most powerful men at the…”
She stepped back into the guide, pressed against him. His hands met her shoulders, separated her gently.
“Sorry about that,” she said.
“No, uh, no problem at all.” A mottled flush rose up his neck.
“Well, ah, upstairs we’ve got some sculptures, some Egyptian ruins, then the mummy.” He led her up a deep stone staircase to a glistening bronze forest of breasts, hips, thighs, bellies. The women danced free, uninhibited. Smiles ran from the statues’ faces, dripped in oxidized shimmers down their cheeks.
She covered a smile, knowing what Josh would say about this room. Large windows looked out on the parking lot. The sun peeked here and there through the haze. Their car hunched on the asphalt, alone. Expectant.
“Who did you say these were by?” she asked.
He’d walked briskly ahead, and called back. “I’m actually not sure. I’m just here for the summer. You’d have to read the cards.”
“Wait,” she called. He called, She caught up, patted his arm. “That’s ok, let’s see the mummy.”
He held open another door for her, ushered her into a room with great stellae of wheat, grain, pigs and rice lining the walls. The offerings marched toward the mummy’s chamber, where a brilliant gold and lapis mask shone down above the entrance to the sarcophagus.
Helen stopped. Josh would have to come through here.
“These are all symbols of power in the ancient world,” her guide began.
He didn’t wear a name badge. He could be anyone.
Helen hooked her fingers into his belt loops, kissed him sharply. She felt him breathe in, then relax into her. Part of her unwound in long warm sheets. His arms were thick, corded with muscle. She raked a hand across his back when they pulled apart, felt the strength there.
“Would you leave with me?” she panted.
He stared, the flush on his neck growing. “Would I what?”
“How old are you?”
“I’m 26. This…this is my graduate internship.”
Helen grabbed his neck, closed her eyes, felt blindly for his lips. They were gentle, still in shock. She giggled, feeling the freedom, knowing what was coming. Her body loosened, and she could almost believe…
“Mom!” Ricky’s voice piercing, echoing. She shoved the guide three stumbling steps backwards. “Did you see the mummy? How cool!”
“What do you think you’re doing?” the guide said.
She grabbed her son’s hand. “I haven’t seen it yet, let’s go honey,” she said, and started toward the chamber. Tingling brittleness rushed into her legs
Ricky pulled against her. “Wait for dad!”
“You’re a married woman,” the guide’s voice rose.
She turned and pulled Ricky back toward the statues. “It’s time to go honey.”
The boy dug his heels. “Where are we going? I want to see the mummy!”
“We’re leaving Ricky.” She gritted her teeth and, on impulse, tore him from the ground. His arm straightened, drug his little boy body into the air.
He landed stumbling. “Mom, owww, mom!” She felt a power flowing through her, a giddy freedom.
The guide stood frozen, forgotten. Then Ricky’s wide face split open in a wail. “Why’d you do that?” he sobbed.
She dropped his hand. She didn’t want him, either, and kept moving down the stairs, past the lillies. Cool air slapped at her neck, her calves. Echoes chased her through the gray stone rooms.
Outside the heat shocked her numb legs. The car pinged with thousands of miles of heat.
But her purse, with her keys, was back in the museum. On the guide’s desk.
“Helen!” her new husband shouted from behind her.
She stared at the hot car, her legs on fire. Her reflection shimmered in the windows. Ridges of sweat erupted through her dress, shone on her forehead. The hot metal rang in her heart.
A hand dug into her arm. Spun her around.
“Helen! What the hell did you do?”