Relic in a Bottle

A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Very Rough Draft; Approx. 16,000 words

Wearing thin transition lenses and a Stetson cap, Jackson walked down the long, grey corridor with unassuming doors on either side. He moved with a stilted gait. One of his legs was longer than the other, though he had never been ashamed of it. Instead, he sported the same pair of bright orange boots he’d worn for four years. His skinny jeans were tucked inside his boots, and the stripes on his button-down were a near match.

“Wonder where they were hiding this,” Jackson said.

No one was there to hear him, but he held an artifact in the palm of his hand, careful not to turn it to the side.

The corridor was wider than a city bus and taller than one too, constructed of smooth concrete that seemed to go on forever. Jackson knew better. When you reached the somber edge, the hallway turned the corner, then it turned another. Beyond that was a warehouse-sized loading dock, where the artifacts came in.

Historical items large and small were carted to the loading dock, bussed in from a storage facility on the other side of downtown Atlanta. Last week, they had towed in a partially dissembled car – a 1971 Javelin-AMX Coupe. Yesterday, they received a shipment of stand-up pianos circa 1832. And today, they accepted a donation of paintings by a local artist no one had ever heard of.

The only problem with the shipments was how hard they made the work. In his 20s, Jackson was a collections specialist for the High Museum of History. He was lean and not too muscular, but he still ended up on the back end when there was heavy lifting. He’d only worked at the museum for a few years, but already he’d become the go-to guy when it came to the strangest parts of the museum collection.

The enormous facility housed archivists, historians, exhibit designers and marketing mavens, but the Collections Department was where the action happened. As part of a nonprofit funded by the state government, everyone depended on the Collections staff to track down, record, move and maintain historical objects of every design. Jackson lived for his work, and he enjoyed every minute of it – except those days when the shipments were the size of aircraft carriers.

Jackson tightened his hand around the artifact.

He’d spotted it earlier that morning, when they opened the vault. Standing three stories tall, the vault was a climate-controlled, underground storage room. Occasionally, the department would open it up, giving everyone on staff a rare glimpse at the museum’s most coveted artifacts.

On that day in July, the staff came down in throngs, eager to see the artifacts and enjoy the deep air-conditioning. A few items were displayed in glass cases, charged to Jackson’s care. But he took this one out of the case. There was one person who had to see it, and she’d never come down to the vault. Unlike the spot where he was stationed, three floors below ground level, she worked on the eighth floor, where the windows looked out over downtown.

The open house, as they called it, was done. The other artifacts had been returned to their rightful place, and the vault was again under lock and key. Deadbolts and clearance codes too, for that matter. On the lower levels of the museum, it was nearly impossible for staff from other departments to get around. Double-doors at every turn locked behind them, whether they had security clearance or not.

Jackson didn’t mind. The lanyard around his neck carried a badge that gave him full access. While other employees had infamously been locked inside the stairwells at the end of the day, he was one of the few on staff that could go anywhere on museum grounds.

Bending the rules ever so slightly, he slid the cap off his head and laid it gently over top of the artifact. He moved swiftly toward the double doors in a sort of rotunda, where the elevators ascended out of the cement dungeon. He turned a corner just in time to see Ruth and Adam pushing a cart full of boxes down the hall.

“You must be off to lunch,” said Ruth, an older woman whose shoulders looked bigger under her brown suit. She stood to the side with Adam, and they turned their cart toward the wall to let him pass. “Isn’t it a little early?”

“No, it’s just that I –”

“Are you kidding?” Adam said, half-heartedly slapping his arm. The burly man must’ve been at least five years his senior, but he always had a dark tan. “Everything goes. That’s the deal when we open the vault.”

Jackson laughed. “The open house went fine,” he said. “Nothing was damaged, and the collections are all accounted for. I just finished checking everything in. Let me run up to the eighth floor, then I’ll help you finish moving in those boxes.”

“Back to the normal routine,” Ruth said, with a monotone.

“Yeah, almost.” Jackson briefly looked down at the disguised artifact, and tucked ‘his cap’ carefully against his chest. “Just one thing. I heard someone slipped the message out of the bottle.”

“The aqua bottle from 1903?” Ruth asked.

“So what if they did?” Adam said.

“We told a few groups the history of the straight-edged Coca-Cola bottle – and what could happen if they removed the note inside. I didn’t think anyone would actually try,” Ruth said. She let go of the cart and stood closer to Jackson. “Wait. Who was it?”

“I have no idea,” Jackson said.

“Whoever it was, they’re in for a wild ride.”

Jackson turned to Adam, who quickly looked away.

“It wasn’t you, Adam. Was it?” Jackson knew more about the relics in the vault than anyone on their team, because he’d spent so much time reading about history. When an urban myth survived nearly a century, he didn’t dare question it. He’d seen some odd things in the vault. “Don’t you know the legend?”

“Yeah, right,” Adam said. “I heard it’s possessed or something, but that can’t be true. It’s not like it has supernatural powers.”

“Legend has it,” Ruth said, “anyone brazen enough to take the paper out of the bottle inherits the content of the message. It becomes them. For better or for worse.”

“You guys don’t actually believe any of that junk, do you?” Adam said. “Nothing’s going to happen to the person who took it. That’s an urban myth.”

“That’s why the family gave it to the museum,” said Ruth. “They would have done anything to get rid of it.”

Jackson wished he could get on with his day, and leave Ruth to tend to other projects. She was the closest thing to a supervisor they had, and she had a way of making history sound sort of blasé. He glanced at Adam, who looked legitimately freaked out.

“Don’t sweat it,” Jackson said. “Maybe the message was about inheriting a pineapple plantation or something. Not an awful fate.”

“Eh, it’s just a hoax.” Adam laughed, but the dark tone of his skin had faded to a rosy pale.

“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” Jackson said. He slipped by the cart, and made his way to the elevator, listening to the heavy doors lock behind him. Going up, to the sunlit floors of the museum.

 

.                       .                       .

 

 

Hiking toward the Savannah River behind an army of men in blue and white regalia, Kat swiped at her phone frantically.

The screen was small, but it had access to 18 Twitter accounts – four of which she updated on a regular basis. Switching from handle to handle was like doing a costume change in the middle of a war reenactment, right between lighting the cannon and watching it fire. Without looking up, she switched from her persona as the High Museum of History to Old Fort Jackson. Now, whatever she posted would reach war buffs across the country. About 15,000 of them. She chewed her lip, reminding herself to use the tone of a historian when she posted, not a pacifist.

Kat snapped a few photos with her phone. She typed in the highlights as she walked, posting them to Twitter.

Ahead of her, four stocky men with silver hair marched in step. Their white military slacks were baggy around their legs, but the blue jackets hung down in the back like a tuxedo, trimmed with red belts around their waists. Kat couldn’t imagine wearing a costume like that, except maybe for Halloween. Even then, she’d don a black top hat and go as Lincoln, before she’d be caught wearing infantry white.

“Can’t tell you how many times I marched down to this river,” said an elderly man. He had scruffy silver hair and kind eyes, but he was sweating tarnished bullets. Like the others, he had a rifle tucked under his right arm. “Gets harder every year.”

“So, why do you do it?”

“It’s history!”

“Yeah, I know, but –” She hoped the rifle wasn’t loaded.

“Brick. Barracks. Barges.” He paused and watched Kat, as if that explained everything. “You see? Doesn’t matter what happens in the world, this place always stays the same.”

“Change is good,” Kat said. She was trying to be polite. “I mean, if things were still the way they were during the Civil War, this country would be a totally different place.”

“You got to have some tradition. It’s reliable,” he said. “Things go on and change too fast, and what do you have left?”

“Well, we have civil rights now,” Kat ventured. “Equality. Justice for all.”

“Justice for who? Nothing ain’t better than it used to be.” He chuckled. “Tell you what though.”

“What?”

“I can’t say we ever had better company in this company! Now, where’s your uniform, young lady?”

The infantrymen laughed, with the exception of one younger man, who stole a glance in Kat’s direction. She looked down at her summery white top, the sleeves billowing above her skinny jeans and sandals, then she shrugged. Women re-enactors had turned out to the fort too, but almost all of them were wearing gigantic gowns from antebellum South.

“Think I’d blend in if I was in uniform?” she asked, trying to match scruffy’s deep southern drawl.

“Miss, I really can’t say. But I will say this. Never cross a woman in uniform,” he said. He and the other re-enactors moved at the pace of a lazy crocodile, and he stopped to slurp water from his flask about every 10 feet. “It’s hotter than the devil’s mistress out here. You sure you want to march all the way up with us?”

“That’s my job,” Kat said, with a wink. They were halfway up the incline that led to the fort from the river below, and Kat wasn’t sure she had much of a choice. She would be marching behind the baggy white infantry pants for at least another half a mile.

Smirking to herself, Kat recorded their march on video.

Hundreds of men had fallen in step, with dozens ahead and even more following behind. The soft crunch of their feet on the grass was embellished with the sounds of tubas and bugle horns – from an antique band up ahead that played the brass in patriotic phrases.

No cannons had been fired yet, but they waited in the center of the fort, where the place would turn into a full-scale version of Colonial Williamsburg by mid-morning.

Being the social gatekeeper of the High Museum of History had its high points. The museum in Atlanta served as a sort of headquarters for the historical society and historic sites across the state. Kat was the social media manager that oversaw all of them. Eight departments. Eleven programs. Twenty-one affiliated museums. For her, that meant creating social content for every major festival, historic milestone and commemorative march on Old Fort Jackson. Not to mention managing social media in a crisis, should one surface.

Moving her feet in step with the costumed men, Kat played back 90 seconds of video before she moved to post it on Twitter. It was shit. Under the bell-like sound of bugle-horns, all you could see was the back of the re-enactors heads – and their baggy behinds.

Kat sighed. She could think of a dozen things she’d rather be doing on a Saturday morning. But to these men and the fort’s faithful followers on Twitter, this march was the highlight of their summer. She turned around, smiled without being too cheeky at the men downwind, and moved her feet the only direction she could to capture good video.

Backwards.

“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”

At first just a denim anomaly in a sea of historically accurate uniforms, Kat’s figure was revealed to the row of soldiers behind her. She was face to face with the gangly man who made the first remark, but she tried to concentrate on putting one foot behind the other.

“As you were, soldier,” Kat said, with a smirk. She really hoped he obeyed her unsolicited command.

“Yes, Ma’am!” The man’s reply came with way too much enthusiasm.

The way he grinned afterward gave her the creeps, but they were nearing the fort walls, and the march would be over soon. Cueing up the live video function on Facebook, Kat decided it was all or nothing. For the next two to five minutes, she would broadcast live to their followers on Facebook. Whatever she caught on film was history. At least on social media.

She fended off any new remarks with a question. “Can you tell us: What inspired you to reenact this march from the Civil War?”

“Now, that there is a fine question,” he said. He reached his hand up to scratch his chin, which created a noise as his canteen clanked against something in his satchel. “This land here is special. You can feel it. History, it’s alive at Fort Jackson. I don’t know if it’s from ghosts on the ships coming up the Savannah River. Or if it’s from ghosts inside the fort, but –”

Kat was already imagining how this would play out on Facebook. Imagine if she had chosen Twitter, where Trending was all it took to get a global audience. How long should she wait? Would this gangly guy come around and say something of historical value? Maybe this was good entertainment, and the history buffs would love it no matter what. Maybe it would become the source of ridicule. It would definitely drive more traffic. So, at least, there was that.

As the gangly rant about ghosts went on, Kat noticed something in the corner of the video on her iPhone screen. It appeared to be a young boy bolting out of the march.

Kat looked up, holding her device steady in front of her.

The man stopped talking. He turned his head.

She glanced at him, hoping he didn’t blurt anything the museum would regret.

“We got a runner,” he hollered.

Kat shoved the iPhone in her pocket, and started putting one foot in front of the other. She weaved through the re-enactors, marching against the grain and getting yelled at by a bunch of crotchety old men in the process. The young war enthusiasts eyed her as she plowed through, but none of them looked younger than 17. Who would bring a child to march in something like this?

As Kat neared the end of the Confederate line, she saw a short man in the back break formation and run toward a woman in an old-fashioned dress. They were gesturing wildly, and the woman was waving her arms in the air as they talked, but Kat wasn’t within earshot. A dense group of soldiers came toward her, and one held his rifle flat in front of his body to show it off to the boys.

Kat grabbed the rifle by the middle of the barrel, and extended it into the crowd.

“Hey!”

“What in God’s name are you doing?”

“Now, look here, miss – ”

Kat held the rifle low and steady, like an officer might hold a baton conducting traffic, and the sea of re-enactors parted. She dropped the gun and ran up to the panicked couple.

“Our son…” The woman said to her. “He lost him, and we have no idea where he’s gone off to.”

“It’s okay,” Kat said, catching her breath. “Try to stay calm. What’s your name?”

“LeAnn,” she said. “This is Ted.”

“What’s your son’s name?”

“Billy.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll find him,” Kat said. “Where do you think he was trying to go?”

“I don’t know,” Ted said.

“He really likes the cannons,” LeAnn said. “Our son is Autistic. We have to find him!”

“Okay. I thought I saw him run by the fort,” Kat said. “I’ll look for him. If you can’t find me later, just go to the gift shop and ask the staff for help.”

Kat dashed off, headed toward the river. She took a shortcut through the marsh-like field. Cannons. Then she raced toward the fort. It wasn’t like they shot cannonballs out of the old guns or anything, but they did something to make the cannons explode with noise and light the fiery air. Whatever they used, it couldn’t be safe for children.

“Billy?” Kat called, as she moved through historical museum guests and re-enactors gathered in clusters. “Has anyone seen a boy named Billy?”

That was when Kat remembered the details from the program. They’d planned to roll some of the old cannons down to the riverbed. To celebrate the Sesquicentennial, the re-enactors and fort staff were going to fire the cannons over the Savannah, which came right up to the marshy grasses surrounding the fort.

“Billy!”

Kat ran back down toward the river.

“Why did I have to become a social media manager? And history, of all things,” she muttered. “Why couldn’t I have gone into botany? Or become a park ranger, for fuck’s sake?”

She pushed her legs through standing water and high grass, until she reached the riverbed. There, men in uniform stood gathered around three cannons. They stood ready to ignite the guns. Kat could’ve sworn she saw sparks, but the looks on their faces were not right.

“Wait!” Kat saw Billy slip in front of one of the cannons. The men, too busy looking at her, hadn’t noticed in time.

Kat leapt in front of the cannon, wrapping her arms around Billy and tackling him to the ground. She held his head down as the cannon fired. An enormous boom cracked the air, and echoed against the walls of Old Fort Jackson.

“God in Heaven.” Ted, his face heavy with guilt, ran up behind them. He helped Billy up, as the boy crawled out of Kat’s arms.

“Are you okay?” Kat asked.

The boy nodded, and his father turned to face her.

“You saved him,” he said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Kat said.

She glanced at the time on her iPhone. Following the firing of the cannons, the fort was scheduled to have its grand celebration inside the fort. It was the main event, and Kat was already late. She started trudging back through the marsh to Old Fort Jackson, only to realize something about her device.

Kat turned off the live stream on Facebook. She buried her face in her hands.

Her supervisor wasn’t working that Saturday, and she could be totally unaware that anything went wrong. Barbara had left the logistics of the Sesquicentennial to the site manager at Old Fort Jackson and the younger people on staff. Even if their followers had seen the live video, most of them didn’t know who was behind the social media feed.

No doubt, someone would notice.

On Monday, there would be hell to pay.

 

.                       .                       .

 

 

Kat stared at the laptop computer.

The screen was the smallest she’d seen on a MacBook, yet it was lighting up with notifications from more than 30 social media feeds at once. The small built-in keyboard cramped her slender fingers, as she swept them across the keys. Kat’s eyes darted across the screen, but it was a challenge to read a single tweet before it scrolled out of view, let alone monitor the interactions on every social media channel. She started to go cross-eyed. With no mouse, her fingers began to blister from friction on the track pad.

Just another day in the life.

Kate was the museum’s social gatekeeper. As Social Media Manager, she was the first point of contact for anyone who took an interest in the organization. Eight departments. Eleven programs. Twenty-nine affiliated museums.

Without any warning, her manager popped her head into the large, white cubicle.

“You coming to the meeting? We’ve got about 10 minutes. I thought we could walk down together.”

The question might’ve been intended as a friendly invitation, but coming from Barbara, it sounded more like an order. Dressed in a grey pants suit, her boss was on the short side, and she had a thick neck. Her face looked rather flat, but her skin shone under cropped blonde hair.

“Sure,” Kat said. She thumbed through Tweets on her screen. “Just a second.”

“I don’t know why you spend so much time on that site.” Barbara pushed her hand through the air, by way of dismissing it. “Is anyone even on Twitter?”

“Actually, it’s really active,” Kat said. “The Collections Department has a huge following, and we have popular Twitter feeds for several historic sites and most of the museums. Hold on. I just have to jot down this question from one of our followers – asking about an artifact from the vault.”

Barbara frowned, but Kat scribbled the question on a bright orange post-it note, while Barbara looked over her shoulder. She knew they had to get to the meeting, so she moved quickly, reading the words aloud as she copied them down.

“’What was the original inscription on the 1903 message in a bottle?’” Kat put down her pen. “I’m sure Jackson would know the answer.”

“I don’t understand what anyone would try to communicate in 140 characters,” Barbara said. She struck a pose as if she had stepped onto a soapbox. She was no doubt getting ready to tell Kat how pointless her job was, despite a steady stream of posts from museum guests. “Nothing of value.”

“Are you even on Twitter?”

“No. If you ask me, we should put our resources into paid advertising. It’s way more effective.”

Kat looked up at Barbara, curious if she would even bother to answer her question. There was no way they’d make it to the meeting before it started, not while Barbara was rambling. Luckily, meetings at the museum were piled on like heavy archive stacks. It was rare that anyone arrived on time.

“Twitter is pointless,” Barbara said.

“It’s more relevant than many people realize.” Kat tried to sound polite and encouraging. She had explained how Twitter worked to Barbara before, but even when she tried hard to make her manager’s life easier, her boss completely disregarded her work.

In her mind, Kat rehearsed the same line she had just given to a group of staffers from the Baby Boomer generation last week. She’d facilitated a dozen social media trainings since she started working at the museum, but somehow, her direct supervisor was the farthest behind. She picked up her sleek iPhone and pulled up a window where she could compose a quick Tweet. Despite Barbara’s ignorance, Kat kept her advice soft and light.

“It’s just like text messaging,” she said, gesturing the to the phone screen. “You can type out a few words, maybe add an emoji, and send a short message. Only on Twitter, it’s public. So, potentially, you’re broadcasting the message to the entire world.”

“I still don’t get it,” Barbara said. Her eyes glazed over, and it was obvious she didn’t care about a word Kat said. “Besides, when would I find the time?”

Kat could think of a dozen examples of time – hours when her boss was either sitting idle or micro-managing the team, which she seemed to do on a weekly basis, just to slow them down.

When Kat had accepted this new job four months ago, she had no idea what she was getting into. Easily a 24-hour position with a peon’s wages, her role had thrust her into a vortex of historical chaos.

So far, she had marched into a Civil War reenactment to find a disabled child, stumbled out of a claustrophobia-inducing caboose to talk teens out of tagging lewd photos, and moderated a Facebook dispute at 2 a.m. on a Saturday about stockpiling antique rifles. Each incident was so inherently public, it had drawn the attention of the CEO, not to mention the scrutiny of the Public Relations Director.

There was the usual slate of social tasks, too. They ranged from filming man-on-the-street interviews for Facebook Live in Underground Atlanta to designing a SnapChat Geofilter to promote Peachtree Street, not to mention meetings with marketers from the tourism industry. The teen advisory committee had asked for her guidance on a SnapChat story about Woodrow Wilson’s childhood home, she had to create all the Facebook Events for the next month of programs, and later on, she was penciled in to take Instagram photos inside the vault. Something Barbara would surely think was a waste of time.

What Barbara didn’t realize was every time they posted new photos to Instagram, they attracted a swarm of new, young followers – Millennials who barely knew the museum existed. If they could inspire these young hipsters to visit, it might even generate – gasp – revenue.

The fascinating nature of the work made up for the sleepless nights. Kat sometimes had to pinch herself. She was getting paid a salary to unveil the most treasured parts of Atlanta’s history to the public.

The only problem was the ongoing stand-off with her supervisor, which drained her energy a little bit each day. What did Barbara’s title even mean, anyway? She was the Director of Targeted Marketing and Partnerships – a position which seemed to entail getting involved in everything and following through on nothing.

“So, did you happen to notice the situation that unfolded last night?” Kat asked, though she immediately wished she hadn’t brought it up. “During the opening reception?”

“Wait. What? When?”

“Last night. Someone tweeted a complaint about a toy we were selling.”

“In the gift shop?”

“Actually, it was out at Old Fort Jackson, but they tagged the official account for the museum,” Kat said. “I guess we sell a Grow-your-own Battlefield toy. One of those sticky globs you drop in the water, and then watch it expand.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“The woman was really offended,” Kat said. “There’s a whole series of these toys. The one she had – the glob doesn’t look like much, but it expands into a six-inch-wide battle scene with a Confederate Flag on top.”

“Of course, it does,” Barbara said. “It’s educational.”

“Maybe to some.” Kat looked Barbara in the eye. “But I’m sure, to others, it’s a slight against common decency. Especially with everything that’s going on in the news right now.”

“You know, what we really need to be focused on is revenue,” Barbara said. “Why not give that woman a coupon, and use this as an opportunity to sell more tickets to the museum? You really need to start thinking about how to turn each encounter into a sale. Come on. We’re going to be late for the meeting.”

With a sigh that was barely audible, Kat got up from her chair and followed Barbara to the conference room. She stayed directly behind her, instead of walking side by side, and revisited the conversation on Twitter. The situation hadn’t been resolved yet, but there was no way it could lead to more sales.

Controversy didn’t come as a surprise to her anymore. After all, this was history. Everyone had an opinion. It was the frequency of the public relations nightmares that had totally caught Kat off guard.

She had applied for this job, coming off of a harrowing stint as a journalist on a violent city beat. The last time she was assigned a breaking news story, she found herself following an ambulance down a rural highway, only to wind up beside a ditch lined with three black body bags. She thought this would be a new start, in one of the fastest growing careers in the U.S. Only, she hadn’t anticipated putting out so many virtual fires. It might’ve been manageable if she had the support she needed from her boss, but she found herself fighting for legitimacy on both the inside and the outside.

Like those bayonets they had on display in the gallery devoted to the Civil War, this was a double-edged sword. And it cut deep.

During a social media crisis, Twitter usually took the brunt of it.

With 140 characters or less, an angry customer would publicly degrade the museum, tagging the official account and using every hashtag imaginable to attract more views. A discrete reply wasn’t really an option, unless the staff wanted to appear unresponsive. Instead, the first move must always be to post the obligatory apology, using the museum’s moniker.

If Kat so much as tried to answer a question first, her words could backfire, no matter how politely she worded them. Even if she only knew half of the story, she had to make a statement, speaking for the organization as the first line of defense. On Twitter, there was no option to hide, delete or archive others’ posts, which meant the worst fragments of the discussion remained intact.

A digital monument to a gut reaction.

Yesterday, Kat had failed the test. Posting as the “High Museum of History” after a 12-hour day, she had forgotten to first apologize. Instead, she simply asked “What’s wrong with the toy?” Kat genuinely wanted to know. She didn’t realize it at the time, but the words came off as a smug defense of the product. Suddenly her apology, issued one second later, sounded like an attempt to retract her initial post. In response, the woman complaining went off the rails, laying into the museum for selling a Grow-your-own Battlefield, let alone one conveying the Confederate uprising.

Kat had a few calls in to Guest Services, and she’d contacted a few department heads who actually cared about the experience of their guests. She had to find a way to fix this, without falling behind.

Across social media channels, her approach had always been to be as responsive as possible. That meant not only responding to complaints, in a prompt and professional manner, but also answering the inquiries of curious fans.

Mulling over the time it would take to moderate the complaint – she had to explain the situation to museum leadership, contact the staff at the Old Fort Jackson gift shop, see if they could take the toy off the shelves, and check museum inventory to see where Grow-your-own Battlefields were sold – Kat could feel her enthusiasm fading.

There was only one way to turn this day around.

Kat wanted to be fascinated. She craved the work that took her beyond the surface of social media, into the depths of time-honored stories. That was the aspect of the job she lived for. Research.

It was time to mix things up, and study the museum collections. She had to find out what happened to the relic.

 

 

.                       .                       .

 

Kat was relieved to get a break from the craziness on Thursday afternoon. There was a lull in her schedule after lunch, so she grabbed her smartphone and rode the elevator down two floors to the special exhibit gallery.

Although she could see the edge of the eighth floor from where she stood under the vaulted museum ceiling, the architecture here was a stark contrast to her cubicle. Leading up to the gallery entrance, the building was tiled with marble in shades of taupe and rose. A fountain decorated the center of the space, sending trickles of water up into the air then down to a wishing pool below. Her high heels clicked against the floor as she walked, echoing in the bustling, open space.

She moved toward the exhibit gallery, pausing in front of sculptures and mounted displays to snap photos for the Instagram feed. With her iPhone camera, she zoomed in on a first edition of “Gone With the Wind.” Moving to the wall, she captured the bust of Woodrow Wilson, bending to get an angle that emphasized the old-timey spectacles that rested on his prominent nose. She turned to enter the special exhibit, “Atlanta Underground,” and she flashed her employee badge at the host stand.

Then her phone buzzed.

Some punk with the handle @2lewd4skewl had sprawled his comments all over Twitter, and tagged the museum in each post. Drug paraphernalia on a field trip! Somebody call the popo on @HighMuseumOH #mofo.

“Just what I needed,” Kat muttered to herself. She weaved into the special exhibit gallery, which was vastly different from the grand entrance. Soft, white lights illuminated photos and murals on the walls, designed largely against a black backdrop. She kept her eyes peeled for the culprit. Maybe he was still in this corridor. “What does this kid think he’s up to, anyway?”

Her phone buzzed again. This time @2lewd4skewl had tagged a photo of a busty silhouette – one that Kat knew to be a stone statue from the Prohibition Era. Field trip is legit! Need a prostitute? Got one right here @HighMuseumOH. Those knockers, tho. #yolo Hahaha.

Kat looked up from her phone, scanning the gallery for a cluster of teenagers or any group that could plausibly be part of a school field trip. She moved swiftly through the gallery, weaving in and out of touring groups without getting in the way.

“Lewd” would tell her he was just exercising his right to free speech. He would say this was a free country. And it was. Still, if he wanted to make a fool out of himself, why did he have to tag the official museum account in his Tweets? Kat knew there wasn’t much she could do. Even if she found the kid and was somehow able to identify him – the boy’s eyes alight on a glowing screen and the world his oyster, at least on Twitter – the most she could do was politely ask the teen to refrain from lewd comments.

But Kate’s social media management skills, particularly on Twitter, were under scrutiny. She could just imagine Barbara spazzing out over this one.

Her boss didn’t understand a Tweet was untouchable, that it couldn’t be deleted by anyone but the user who posted it. She couldn’t grasp the idea of a marketing tool she didn’t have the power to control. Even on Facebook, where other companies censored comments in a lazy attempt to defend their reputation, the reviews posted by visitors became a permanent fixture of the page. For that matter, she probably couldn’t even tolerate the notion of free speech – at least, not when someone’s opinion conflicted with her own.

Kat turned the corner around a gas lamp that was built in 1856, prior to the Civil War. A few steps ahead of her, an awkward teenage boy with gelled hair and his male friends were laughing in a freakish high pitch. Kat cleared her throat, trying to emit a sound that would be audible above their hyena giggles.

“Excuse me,” she said.

The boys stepped forward into a dark elevator – a sort of moving exhibit with an audiovisual screen. They hardly glanced her direction before the contraption ascended into the elevator shaft, whisking them out of view.

“Hey Kat, what are you doing? Chasing the Jonas Brothers or something?”

Kat spun around on her heels to see Jackson standing there, with one hand casually hooked on his pocket. She laughed in spite of herself.

“Well, they didn’t have the hair,” she said. “Or the vocals. But damn, they sure know how to embarrass a girl on Twitter.”

“So, you’ve got the social woes again,” Jackson said. He leaned his weight to one side, which combined to great affect, when he peered out from under his Stetson cap with those cool eyes. He held something wrapped in a white cloth and cradled in his arm. “It’s instant gratification. Just ignore them.”

“Yeah, but one of those idiots said we had prostitutes in the gallery,” Kat said. “Prostitutes!”

Jackson strolled a few feet until he was standing in front of a Jazz Age display. “If you think about it…” he said, and tipped his head to the feminine statue on his right, “…we do.”

“Right,” Kat said, with a laugh. She pulled out her iPhone and scrolled rapidly through the Tweets the museum was tagged in. “She’s going to pin it on me. If Barbara sees that post, she’ll flip.”

“People put under the microscope what they can’t understand,” Jackson said, touching her shoulder.

“Or worse.” Kat looked up into the elevator shaft, trying to remember how long the attraction lasted so she could tell those boys what’s what. She glanced back at Jackson. “What do I do if they decide to get the V.P. involved? You know, they’re watching every move I make this week.”

“It’s not on the museum. And it’s not on you. You’re good, Kat,” Jackson said. “But even you can’t control what other people are going to think or say.”

“I know,” she said. “It takes trust and transparency. Without those things, social media totally falls apart.”

“What do you mean?”

“Things change in the blink of an eye. Snaps disappear after 24 hours, so you’ve only got a limited window to see anything in Snapchat. A Facebook post can be shared hundreds of times over within minutes. A Tweet can go viral in sheer seconds.”

“That’s way too much pressure, for my taste.”

“Know what the beauty of social media is? Aside from the freedom to exchange ideas.”

“What?”

“It’s self-correcting. When someone badmouths the museum on Facebook, our supporters come to our defense in the comments. But we have virtually no control on Twitter, except for our own feed. Imagine how ridiculous the museum would look if we went after a teenage boy in our Tweets.”

“You think it’s better to let that stuff run its course?”

“For sure. It usually is,” said Kat. “Wish more people understood that.”

The gallery was becoming less crowded, as time passed later into the afternoon. Bustling crowds waned to a few scattered clusters of people, until it was just one or two people walking intermittently through the dark space. Kat leaned up against the wall beside the tall post of the gas lamp, and she gazed over at a black and white photo of a claustrophobic storefront that was ripped open by a historic fire.

“I have something to show you,” Jackson said, interrupting her thoughts.

“What is it?” Kat’s eyes lit up. “Something new? Did you get something cool down in Collections?”

“Not exactly,” he said.

“Oh, that reminds me. I got another question for you,” she said. “From social, as usual. We had a woman ask what the original message was in the aqua bottle.”

“The Coca-Cola bottle?”

“Yeah, from what was it? 190 – ”

“1903,” Jackson said. Using one arm, he hugged the artifact a little closer to his chest. “That’s the one, right?”

“Right,” she said, glancing briefly at the covered object. “Do you know what it said?”

“I don’t.” Jackson adjusted his feet, feeling a little uncomfortable. “I don’t know how anyone would know. Even if we did know what the inscription said, how would we know it was the original message? The message could have been changed out countless times, even before it arrived here.”

“You really don’t know, do you?” Kat smiled in surprise. She’d never found a single historic question Jackson didn’t know the answer to – or at least not one he couldn’t answer with a little digging. He knew so much more about history than she did, she couldn’t miss the opportunity to gloat a little. “You’re already admitting defeat.”

“Defeat?” Jackson’s cheeks turned red, though maybe not from embarrassment. “No, not defeat. Just befuddlement.”

She laughed, sliding her phone in her pocket. Foot traffic in the gallery had slowed so much, it was probably a sign of closing time for the special exhibit. She thought she detected nervousness in Jackson. “This isn’t like you.”

“Look, there are some questions that we just don’t have the answer to,” he said. “There are some things we can’t explain.”

Kat had been friends with Jackson ever since she started her stint at the museum, but she’d never seen him act this way. He had worked at the museum longer than her, going on two years. It wasn’t anything like the seniority of the other staffers, but the newbies had to stick together.

She began to walk back out of the special exhibit gallery, and Jackson walked along with her, trailing a foot or two behind on her left.

“It’s different,” he said.

“What?”

“On paper.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes searching for something to focus on. “Thinking out loud. It’s different on paper.”

“Okay, I’m confused,” she said, turning to watch his expression as they walked. “What’s going on?”

“Have you ever… ” For a second, Jackson scrunched his eyebrows down toward his nose. “This is crazy. Have you ever seen something change?”

“Uh… I – ”

“Here. Here, in the museum. Have you ever seen something change?”

“I don’t know.” Kat studied Jackson carefully.

“It’s the message in the bottle,” he said. “I think it might be changing.”

“How?”

“You see, I can never quite read the inscription,” he said. He was nearly as confused as she was. “But the paper is always the same.”

“You’ve touched the paper?”

Jackson shook his head. “But it always appears to be the same.”

Kat tried to imagine Jackson pulling the message out of the bottle, and she couldn’t fathom it. He was always so careful with the artifacts. The oil stains from his hands alone would be enough to keep him from inspecting it up close. She wondered what he was trying to tell her.

“It’s such a romantic notion – this idea of a message in a bottle,” he said. “And the bottle never disappoints. That aqua blue shade on the glass, and the straight edge gives it such an antique look. The paper is fine. It looks like papyrus, and it’s usually tied with a – a ribbon. But on paper, the inscription is different.”

“If the paper is wound and tied with a ribbon, how can you read the inscription?”

“I can’t, really,” he said, struggling to explain what he’d seen. “Only on the edge. On the edge of the inside of that scroll shape, I can see the penmanship and some of the letters. It’s always different. ”

“So, who is doing it?” Kat asked.

Jackson stared at Kat with a vacant look. They’d reached the edge of the special exhibit gallery, where the corridor would soon open up to the grand entrance. Instead of leaving the exhibit, they stayed just on the inside of the dimly lit hallway.

Kat watched Jackson in curiosity, but he was stalling, entangled in his own thoughts. She wondered if he was using his vault access for more than it was intended. She wouldn’t have described either of their supervisors as forgiving, but she was only a custodian of the museum’s reputation. Jackson was a custodian of the museum’s property.

“Who is taking the message out of the bottle?”

“No one,” Jackson said, finally. “Between you and me?”

She nodded.

“I haven’t let the 1903 leave my side for two weeks.”

“But how is this possi – ”

Jackson nudged the white cloth that rested in his arm. Underneath it, she spotted the 1903 bottle. The ribbon on the message was distinctive. It was a long, thin strip, curled in the rich color of ivy.

“Jackson,” she said. “You can’t… What are you doing taking this out of the vault?”

It tickled her imagination to think of who might be changing the message, and what chaos might be consuming them. Urban myths didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

“If you’d seen what I…” Jackson stumbled over his words. He shook his head with his face turned downward. Then he looked up from under his Stetson cap. “There’s something else.”

Kat passed him a quizzical look.

“But you have to come down to the vault.”

 

.                       .                       .

 

Jackson led Kat across the center of the museum toward the elevator, passing under the vaulted ceiling. He glanced anxiously to either side, scanning the space and the open stairway for suspicious looks from other staff.

Kat kept her head down. She was tapping her iPhone rapidly, posting photos from the exhibit gallery on Instagram as they walked. When she did look up, she studied the edge of the eighth floor, her eyes trained on the people who emerged from the offices.

They reached the elevator. Jackson hit the button that would take them below ground. He stared at the elevator doors, waiting for them to open.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Jackson startled. The scold sounded from the grating voice of a woman who came up behind him.

Kat turned a half circle. She first looked at Jackson, her eyes wide. Then she lowered her iPhone to her side, as she looked behind her.

“I… uh,” he stuttered. He tucked the concealed artifact tighter against his arm.

“We need you upstairs right now,” Barbara said. She stared at Kat, her demeanor demanding an explanation for the social media manager’s absence from the stark white offices above.

“There isn’t anything on my calendar until three o’ clock,” Kat said.

“I asked Kat to have a look at something,” Jackson interjected. He looked back and forth at Barbara and Kat, trying to decipher the tension between them.

“It’s good timing,” Kat said, “to capture some of the collections.” Her voice was steady, if a bit defiant.

“You better hurry then. It’s fifteen to’.” Barbara frowned. Her cheeks gleamed even in the dimly lit corner by the elevator.

Kat studied her boss.

“Terry said you might be in the special exhibits gallery. I’m surprised I didn’t find you there,” Barbara said. “I sure hope you aren’t posting photos on Instagram again. No one is going to pay admission to see the exhibits, if we put them all online for free.”

Kat looked straight at Barbara, then she corrected her. “No one is going to pay admission to see the exhibits if they have no interest in them.”

A noise from Jackson’s throat broke the air. It was the start of a chuckle poorly disguised as a throat clearing.

Both of them turned to look at him. Barbara glared, but Kat raised her eyes and parted her lips in a smile.

“You do realize,” Barbara said, her words stamped with staccato syllables, “the museum is not just some park in the middle of the city that people can freeload off of.”

“Oh.” Kat turned her iPhone upright, and stood there looking at her boss.

Barbara stared back at her, trying to understand her meaning.

Kat didn’t say a word.

Instead of conceding to a sell-out social media presence, she imagined the entire floor as a botanical garden. The more her boss spoke of quotas and limits, the more greenery she pictured in the space. Kat could see the glass ceiling opening up to fresh air and the walls coming down. The elegant marble tile sprouting with tall grasses and flower blossoms. The stale fountains giving life to lush willow trees. The sculptures growing moss, and their outstretched arms lined with vines.

Barbara put her hands on her hips.

Maybe it was a ridiculous fantasy. But the thick walls that guarded Atlanta’s history weren’t supposed to be oppressive.

The elevator dinged.

Barbara turned away from Kat, and stormed off.

“I guess she didn’t need the elevator after all,” Kat said, stifling a laugh.

“Guess not.”

 

 

 

Kat rode down the elevator with Jackson, stealing glances at the disguised bottle on the way down. Her usually chatty friend had become still and quiet. So had she. The two of them practically held their breath, waiting for the doors to open below ground.

The elevator dinged. The sound was such a contrast to the silence, it might as well have been a fire alarm.

Jackson walked up to the doors guarding the basement and waved his badge for security clearance. He opened the first heavy door, then the second. Kat followed him into the climate-controlled, concrete hallway. Goose bumps formed on her skin.

“What is it you wanted to show me?” She knew her boss would be patrolling the offices above, looking for someone to micromanage. (NOTE: This is now the only time the word micromanage appears in this piece.) Maybe she would even stake out a space near Kat’s cubicle, timing her trip to the basement. That nonsense would have to wait.

“Not here,” Jackson said. He looked around, but there was no one else nearby.

She laughed, freely at first. “Is this some kind of a prank? Whatever it is, it must be good.” Her voice faltered, with a shiver of nerves. Jackson was still acting strange.

“That’s not exact – ” he trailed off. “The vault. It’s the only place where we won’t be seen.”

Now, Kat was really curious. What did they have to hide? Sure, Jackson was pushing it carrying a museum relic around in his arm, but it wasn’t uncommon for the Collections staff to bring these pieces up to be displayed on the main floor from time to time.

Besides, she wasn’t exactly a huge fan of the vault. She’d heard a lot of stories on the museum’s collections, but some of them were too creepy for comfort. The rarest items were stored in the enormous space – their mysterious nature contained behind the high security doors. When it came to that corner of the museum, Kat was almost thankful for Barbara’s overbearing attitude. At least it gave her an excuse to stay on the upper floors, high above the vault.

Jackson turned the grey corners in the lower level, and Kat followed, passing through massive hallway after massive hallway. Few words passed between them.

Wild visions drifted through her mind. Did something happen to the rare collections? Had there been a disaster in the vault? What did Jackson mean, when he said things change? Why did he ask her to come with him, of all people? Though they often confided in each other about their work, Kat didn’t know that much about his area. There wasn’t much she could offer that he didn’t already know.

Jackson made a sharp turn into a hallway on his left. Then he turned right. He kept making turns, until Kat was totally disoriented. The hallway grew narrower, and the ceiling dropped down to a standard nine-feet-tall. Compared to the concrete labyrinth behind them, it felt like the walls were closing in.

“Quick,” he said. He leaned against a heavy door, while he turned a series of metal keys in the lock pad. “In here.”

“Where are we?”

“It’s the back entrance,” he said. “The vault is so large, they have to have two entrances. Without them, it’d be a fire hazard. A death trap.”

Kat rubbed her arms, fending off a chill while she waited for access.

“This way.”

“Why are you whispering?”

“It’s just … habit.”

The ceiling had opened up again, reaching an incredible height. The vault was lined with free-standing shelves, reaching high above them, that were packed with historical artifacts of every size, from pocket watches to Victorian couches and chairs. In between each shelf was a narrow walkway, barely wide enough to accommodate average shoulders and darkened by the shadow cast by each shelf.

Jackson led her down a dimly lit aisle.

“Take a look at this,” he said. Then he carefully removed the cloth from the artifact he was carrying in his arm, and dropped the fabric on the concrete floor. He lifted up the 1903 Coca-Cola bottle, and handed it to Kat.

Kat glanced at Jackson briefly. Then she turned her focus to the treasured relic. She eyed the message in the bottle.

The aqua blue glass bottle was filled with curls of ivy, which twisted down from the ribbon tied on the scroll. On the very edge of the scroll, she could make out two words in cursive, written in thick ink.

Social.

Sprout.

Jackson watched Kat’s face, waiting with eager eyes.

“This doesn’t seem that odd to me,” she said, looking up at him.

“Look closer.”

Kat held the bottle up, trying to catch more light from the ceiling beyond the towering shelves. She squinted into the bottle, focusing on the inscription. For a second, she thought she saw movement. But she shook it off. She was practically going cross-eyed, trying to read the ink on the inside of the rolled papyrus.

“It’s happening,” said Jackson.

“If that was a – ”

Jackson grabbed the bottle from Kat’s hands, wrapped it in the cloth and darted toward the back of the vault. He hurried out of the narrow aisle. Then he stood in the artificial light, awkwardly hunched over a worktable against the wall. Kat jogged after him, slowing to steer clear of the haunting antiques. When she caught up to him, she watched in curiosity.

“What’s happening? Do you think I should take some video?” Kat asked. She smiled, enchanted by the idea of ‘living history’ broadcast live on social media for all to see. Kat reached her hand out to touch the bottle, which now rested unveiled on the table.

“Don’t –”

She stopped. Neither of them touched the artifact. Instead, they stood frozen on their feet, staring at the eerie changes happening on the inside.

The ivy ribbon twisted before their eyes. The thin strips grew longer with each passing second. They expanded into vibrant, green curls that filled up the space between the papyrus and the aqua blue glass.

“It’s …” Kat struggled to find words. “It’s … growing.”

“I know,” Jackson said. “It’s done this before.”

Kat turned to Jackson, a look of incomprehension on her face.

“But not at this rate.” He looked back at the bottle.

Jackson looked up at her, then back at the bottle. “It’s a beloved bottle,” he said. “The stories freak me, the hell, out. But this bottle… It’s been here for more than a century. I’m just trying to understand the message.”

“Okay,” Kat said. “Forget the video. Let’s try to figure out what it says.”

They moved closer to the bottle, watching it carefully.

“I can’t … ” Kat shook her head, her hair falling into her face. “I can’t see the message anymore. It’s getting too crowded.”

“What if –”

Kat began to panic. She watched the ribbon twist and grow inside the bottle. The thing seemed to take on a life of its own, sprouting like a tiny vine and reaching for something to latch onto. It was moving at an incredible pace. Kat imagined the bottle crowded with curls of ivy, until it became too full to contain the scroll. She worried the vine would tear the scroll and shatter the 1903 bottle into a thousand pieces.

“Kat, what are you doing?”

“We have to do something!” She grabbed the bottle and clasped her fingers around the cork – a cork that was to be touched by no one.

“Don’t open it!”

Kat closed her eyes as tight as she could, and pulled the cork off the bottle, exposing the message and the ivy ribbon to the air.

“Put it down!” Jackson said, but it was too late.

“Okay. Okay.”

Kat set the bottle down on the table. Then they watched in awe, as the ivy twirled out of the glass and into the air. First, one tip. Then, the second. The two tendrils spiraled up into the vault, moving faster as they formed elaborate vines. The longer the ivy grew, the thicker it became at the base. And it began to form a roots system on the table in front of them.

Kat stepped back.

Jackson followed her lead. “What have you done?”

Kat reached forward, pushed her fingers through the felt-like vine and pulled the papyrus scroll out of its grip. She pushed the ribbon of ivy off of the edge.

Kat gasped. She grabbed Jackson’s arm and pulled him back. The system of ivy green roots thumped to their feet, but the bottle and half of the mass remained on the table.

“What is happening?” she asked. She held onto the papyrus with both of her hands.

“It’s out of control.”

Jackson took an uneven step backward, and they both looked up at the towering, twisted vine. It hadn’t really latched onto anything yet, but the enormous shelves of historical artifacts were only feet away from each segment of its curling ivy stem.

A leaf sprouted from one of the low tendrils. Then another. They bloomed along the vine, from the bottom up, the shape of ivy leaves, and they expanded with the zeal of a Venus flytrap.

Kat and Jackson stood beside each other, speechless. They found themselves inching back, nearer to the wall. The back door to the vault was far behind them.

“Look out,” Kat hollered.

A stem of ivy came swirling at them, growing even faster than the rest. It created ornate loops, suspended in the air, and expanded eight inches every second.

“It’s getting too big,” Kat said, glancing up at the expansive network of vine. If it kept growing at this pace, it would wind around the tall shelves of artifacts – the most valuable relics of the museum easily within its grasp. It might even consume the entire vault. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

They bolted toward the vault door, but so did the ivy. The vine spiraled rapidly toward the wall of the vault, and it beat Jackson and Kat to the closed exit door. They stood against the wall, staring at the ivy right in front of them, which blocked their escape.

One tendril of ivy began to curl sideways, toward Kat. Its tip was less than a centimeter thick.

Not knowing what else to do, Jackson swiped the Stetson cap off of his head and moved in front of Kat, holding the hat out in front of them. He used the bottom to catch the tiny tip of the plant inside, and he pushed forward.

“Jackson. No!” Kat urged him to stand down.

“We have to get to the door,” he said.

The strength of the sprout pressed the cap back, throwing off Jackson’s balance and pushing both of them backward.

“It’s stronger than me,” he cried, breathless. “Give me your weight.”

Kat leaned against Jackson, and he in turn leaned his weight against the vine, the tip of its tendril barely contained by his cap.

Together, they pushed against the vine, moving closer to the exit.

Jackson held the Stetson steady, and reached for the rotary handle on the inside of the vault door. He swung the door open. Kat toppled sideways onto the floor in the narrow hallway. Then Jackson slammed the heavy door shut.

They stared in awe at the outside of the vault.

The ivy was closed inside, but a tiny tendril pointed out from the seam of the doorway. It didn’t move.

“Oh my god,” Kat said. She was terrified. Yet, seeing one tendril of the vine trapped by the vault door, she almost felt bad for the thing. It was just looking for an anchor – something to hold onto.

“I can’t believe what just happened,” Jackson said. “I can’t believe you took the scroll.”

“I had no choice,” Kat said. She was still holding the rolled papyrus. “It could’ve been lost!”

Kat looked at the papyrus in her hand, released it, and watched the delicate paper tip over onto the ground. The message from the bottle, its inscription still unread, lay on the floor at their feet. Kat, realizing what she had done, bit her lip. She glanced at her friend, and saw the color drain from his face.

The ivy wilted in a downward curl. Then it cracked under the weight of the vault door, and dropped to the concrete floor.

 

.                       .                       .

 

“The papyrus.”

Kat looked up at Jackson, from where she was laying on the floor. She had landed with her legs and arms sprawled out on the concrete, and they were both lucky the vine hadn’t escaped with them.

“The scroll,” Jackson said. “What does it say?”

No longer hidden behind aqua glass, the scroll from the 1903 bottle sat on the floor between them. Even though the message wasn’t tied with a ribbon, the papyrus retained its curled form.

“Not me. You read it,” Kat said. “You’re the one who knows the history of these relics. Especially in the vault. You read the inscription.”

“But it said ‘social’ right on the edge,” he said. “I figured it must have something to do with you and social media.”

“There’s no way,” she said. She pulled her legs together and rolled over, getting up onto her knees. She inched closer to the scroll, and it struck her with both curiosity and deep hesitation. “What if the urban myth is true?”

“Open it,” he said. “Don’t you want to know what it says?”

Kat bit her lip. She reached over and grabbed the scroll. She held it with one hand on each side, covering any hint of the inscription. She thought about stealing a glimpse, when they heard a cacophony of voices down the hall.

“Oh, no,” Jackson said. “Not now. They must be giving a tour.”

“A tour?”

“A behind-the-scenes tour,” he said. “They set these up for private groups from time to time.”

“Do they ever take them into the vault?”

“Not usually.” His face grew pale.

“Jackson?”

“Sometimes,” he said. He laughed in spite of himself. “You could do live video on that. For sure, that would go viral.”

“Haha,” she said with a straight face. “Jackson, we have to figure out what to do about the vine.”

“I know.” He looked back at the vault door, and stared at it for a long minute. “It’s contained for now. I’ve never seen anything get through those doors. Not even water.”

“Yeah, but it’s the vault,” she said. “Isn’t that the point? I mean, has anything even tried to break through? Ever?”

“Actually, you’d be surprised,” Jackson said. He adjusted the edge of his cap. “We have a real rodent problem.”

Kat shuddered. Then she jumped to her feet.

“It happens in a lot of museums.”

“We can’t let them go in there,” Kat said. She was still holding the scroll. “What can we do to distract them?”

“I’ll head off the tour group,” Jackson said.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ll tell them it’s closed for inventory or something,” he said. “If you go the other direction, think you can check the boundaries of the vault?”

“Sure.”

“Just follow the wall and keep turning right, until you wind up back here.”

“What about the other floors?” Kat checked the time on her phone. “That ceiling is huge. Is there anywhere else the vine could break through? Like the floor above us?”

Jackson glanced at the tour group, and they both panicked, as they overhead the words ‘the vault’ from the tour guide. Then Kat’s iPhone buzzed.

“Don’t tell me someone broke this on social media already,” she said. “We were the only people in there, weren’t we?”

“I think so,” Jackson said. “What is it?”

“A text. It’s Barbara,” she said. “She sounds really pissed. I have to get up to the eighth floor. But I’ll come back to help as soon as I can.”

“What?” Jackson cocked his head at her in disbelief. “You’re leaving now?”

“Jackson, I have to,” Kat said. “They’ve got me on thin ice. If I don’t report to her, I could lose my job.”

Kat made her way back through the concrete labyrinth, holding the papyrus with both hands and looking for the elevator. She took a few wrong turns, but she saw a sign for the staircase and decided to take that instead. The stairs were steep on these levels below ground, but they were well lit. As she climbed each flight, she studied the walls for any sign that the vine had broken free. There were none, but that wasn’t much comfort. She really wasn’t sure what side of the building she was on.

Kat powered through, and gasping to get more air in her lungs, she finally made it to the eighth floor. When she emerged from the stairwell door, she was relieved to learn it was the stairwell closest to her office.

 

.   .   .

 

Kat never took the stairs at the museum, but she had climbed them at a quick clip, often moving two steps at a time. She nearly collapsed into her office, taking a minute to catch her breath.

Without so much as a greeting, Barbara popped her head into the cubicle.

“I want you to explain something to me,” Barbara said.

“Just a second.” Kat stood hunched over, leaning on her desk with one hand, the scroll in the other. Barbara’s timing was the worst.

“I don’t have a second.”

“Fine,” Kat said. She set the papyrus scroll down on her desk, and looked up at Barbara’s shiny face. She was dying to know what the message said.

“Why is there a rumor going around that there are prostitutes in the museum?”

“Oh, uh…” Kat struggled to find an explanation Barbara would understand. This wouldn’t be easy. Just what she needed. Instead of helping the museum get untwined from the biggest twist in history, it was time for another Twitter tutorial with the one person who would never catch on.

“Again, with this?” Barbara turned her face away from Kat, irritated by the delayed response. Surely, she turned to roll her eyes, but it was more like she rolled her entire head.

While her face was turned, Kat slid a paperweight onto the edge of the papyrus scroll, so that it lie partially unfurled. She stole a glimpse at the first line.

 

In the social sphere, our intentions get entangled.

 

“Are you going to answer me?” Barbara demanded.

“The prostitute thing? It was something some guy posted on Twitter – @2lewd4skewl.”

“What is too lewd for school?”

“It’s his username.”

“Why don’t you just delete his post?”

“Well, I can’t just delete someone else’s Tweet.”

“Can’t? Or don’t want to?”

“I can’t, Barbara,” Kat said, her voice taxed. “It’s impossible. You don’t have that option on Twitter. I’ve told you that before.”

“Then why do we even have it?”

Kat tried to contain a laugh, but part of it slipped out. “Why do we have Twitter? It brings us an audience of over 500,000 people! Most of them have probably never been here before.”

“You’re proving my point,” Barbara said. “Why do we care about these people who have never even set foot in the museum?”

Kat’s eyes wandered down again.

 

It becomes too easy to be consumed by doubt.

 

Barbara operated with such a closed mind, Kat wondered how she ever rose to the position of manager. Wasn’t she the one who was always saying everything had to be about growth?

Larger audiences. Higher ticket sales. Increased revenue. History didn’t belong to the people. It was up for sale.

“We’re using it to attract new visitors,” Kat said, matter-of-factly.

Maybe she should have become a gardener after all. She’d never seen such a thing posted on the job boards, but there had to be professional gardeners out there somewhere. Atlanta was the “City in a Forest,” after all. She sighed and leaned against the bland office wall.

In place of the white paint, she imagined the trunk of a climbing magnolia tree. For a moment, she wished the office was overgrown with vines. Just like the vault. Then she wouldn’t have to see that dumb look on Barbara’s face again. A little foliage in the museum could be just what the place needed to open it up. Just what it needed to let the people outside in.

“What we do on social media has the potential to give us a higher turnout for our exhibits,” Kat said. “It gives us a global audience. Our print promotions don’t have that kind of reach, so why would we give this up? Sure, we can’t control it. But that’s the beauty of social media.”

“Oh, really?”

“Don’t you understand? Twitter gives the museum access to this network of history buffs across the world. We have a lot to offer, so our channels grow organically.” Kat smiled. Her excitement for her work resurfaced, and she got more excited the more she talked. “Internet viewers love what we do. They come out in droves to support us online.”

“Now, you’re going to give me some tired line about giving content away for free.”

“Why not give people access to history?”

Barbara’s face gleamed with a vulture-like smile. She stared down Kat, waiting to hear her next defense. It was unnerving, and Kat stole another look at the papyrus.

 

We must instead climb higher than the ivy…

 

“People love it when we open up our archives,” Kat said firmly. Her boss should’ve already known this, but somehow, she’d missed the point. “When we share historical posts without pushing a sales agenda. You should see some of their reactions to the collections! Those posts perform really well.”

“You mention performance,” Barbara said, her voice flat. “So, let me tell you our new strategy.”

Kat watched her boss closely, leaning against the wall. Her smile started to fade, and she couldn’t help but notice a flash of fluorescent light reflect off Barbara’s chin. She hesitated. “What’s the strategy?”

“Starting tomorrow, all posts to Twitter and Facebook will be automated.”

“What?” Kat tried to keep her voice steady.

“The other accounts too. It’s incredible. With our new Customer Management System, we can automate everything. Even social media.” Barbara went on, with no regard for Kat’s wilting expression. “I had our advertising copywriter draft a standard set of posts, that will go out on a routine basis. It should be no surprise. The messages will be focused on raising ticket sales and generating revenue.”

Kat pursed her lips.

Say goodbye to the fans on social media. Her eyes widened as she thought about how fast the automated posts would alienate their followers, how fast the numbers would drop. But that wasn’t even the worst part. If Barbara took away her access or curtailed her daily interaction with the accounts, the next contentious issue could easily transform into a communications crisis.

Imagine if the ivy got out.

“Now, we won’t have any more issues with rogue posts on Twitter,” said Barbara. “Isn’t that great?”

“What if there’s a social media crisis? Other people will still Twee – ”

“It’s a flawless system,” she said.

“ – People can post comments, and questions. You can’t automate – ”

“Granted, it may take some time for you to get used to this new system. I know that,” Barbara said, her voice dripping with condescension. Then she perked up. “Just think of how much it will free up your time! We’ll have to put our heads together on what your new role will look like.”

“Barbara, I don’t think –”

“You’ll help me explain to this to the team, won’t you?” She flashed a superficial smile at Kat. “Anyone else in your position would leap at the chance to make a show of good faith.”

Barbara didn’t wait for a response. Instead, she walked away. She disappeared down the hall, likely headed straight to her next meeting.

Kat reached out to grab the desk chair, and lowered herself down. The fantasy of the climbing magnolia had long vanished, and she sank low in the seat. The stale, colorless cubicle felt more like a prison. The new strategy, a barbwire fence to keep history buffs away.

“Why are they doing this?” Kat said to herself.

This wasn’t about revenue. Not really.

Kat wondered if it was something she’d done, if her social media efforts had somehow gone astray. Sure, it was embarrassing for the museum to post 30 minutes of live video footage from inside her pocket. It was an outrage for some to learn that the historical society sold a grow-your-own battlefield. As for the prostitutes? Well, if she was being honest, there were prostitutes in the museum. Just not the trick-flipping kind.

Kat ran through each scenario in her head, and she realized she hadn’t done anything wrong. Her work had been hasty, maybe. Impulsive at times. Even clumsy. But in every situation, the museum’s reputation had come out clean.

With the exception of this new entanglement.

Anxiety about the ivy ribbon climbed to the top of her mind. Then it morphed into fear. How would they tell everyone about the vine? Would the ivy ever stop growing? What would happen to the museum? Her thoughts spiraled out of control.

That was when she spotted it.

A small strip of green peeked out from the hollow of the scroll. The curl of ribbon lie still on the papyrus, and its rich ivy color gleamed even in shadow. For a second, she thought she saw it move. But it looked more like a ribbon than a vine.

What if there was no way to contain the ivy? No way to control it?

Kat silently scolded herself. In her mind, she was starting to sound like Barbara. The fearfulness that woman carried, not meaning to mention her constant surveillance of her staff, was toxic. It took all the fun out of working for a museum, and made the atmosphere stale and insipid. She refused to be like her.

Kat dismissed her fear.

Gently, she slid her fingers down the papyrus, uncurling the bottom of the scroll so she could read the last line.

 

Clear the air so new beginnings may sprout.

 

“Huh.” She lifted her finger from the papyrus, and let the message curl back into the shadows.

Then it started again.

The tip of the ivy moved.

It grew by a centimeter. Then it stopped.

She studied the curl for five minutes. When nothing happened, Kat sighed.

Compared to the way she’d just been undermined, the ivy on her desk seemed like an innocent relic. A vital piece of the museum, about to be locked up.

Kat gazed at the ivy curl, more casually this time. She wondered what was so wrong about opening the collections to the public. What was so wrong about sharing historical facts?

Moving slowly, she touched a fingertip to the felt-like ribbon. Or was it a vine?

She picked it up, held it still, and then turned it over in the air. The ivy wasn’t cold and crisp like a cut of ribbon, but it wasn’t expanding either. She set it on her palm, and examined it closely. It seemed to be alive. But she didn’t know what made her think that. Somehow, there was more to this ivy sliver than paper or plastic.

If Barbara was so intent on fussing over the small things, maybe she needed a little ivy in her life. Maybe she needed to see what the museum collections were capable of. The vine had surely spiraled out of control by now anyway. There was no way Jackson could keep it contained to the vault.

Kat picked up the curl of ivy. She closed it inside her hand, feeling its energy against her palm. She headed for the floors below ground, hoping there was something she could do to save the museum. On her way to the elevator, she passed the potted tree that stood next to Barbara’s office. The indoor plant was positioned in front of the office window, right beside the door.

Kat looked around for any sign of her boss, knowing what she was about to do could put Barbara in a twist. When she realized her boss was nowhere in sight, she dropped the ivy onto the dirt.

She pulled out her iPhone, snapped a photo of the ivy curl below the tree, and added a caption, preparing to post it on her personal Instagram feed. She smiled to herself, wondering how far the ivy would go. Before she posted the photo, she glanced at the caption one more time.

“There’s more than one way to create growth.”

 

.                    .                       .

 

 

Jackson dashed around the corner, and leaned in to get to the tour group faster, his Stetson cap leading the way.

“Our next stop is the vault,” Adam said, a few yards ahead of him, “which is a storage area for the museum’s rare and valuable collections.” He walked backward, talking to a tour group of ten people as they passed through the concrete hall.

Jackson came up behind the group, hardly slowing down as he caught the rear. His eyes wide, he looked straight at Adam and kept moving forward. He had to distract the tour group, but he couldn’t think of a way to explain the situation.

“Jackson?” Adam passed him a strange look, because Jackson never worked with the tour groups. Sometimes, he would answer a question for folks in the vault, but he was known to avoid the spotlight at any cost.

“Hey.” Jackson’s face was tense and apologetic. He broke through their formation, bumping shoulders with several people as he made his way to the front. “Uh… I –”

“Beg your pardon?” A gray-haired woman griped.

“I – I’m sorry.”

Adam ad-libbed and tried to regain some composure for the tour. “Ladies and gents, this is – ”

“You’re a lucky group!” Jackson interjected, his voice unsteady. He stole Adam’s spot at the front. He tugged his cap down over his eyes, then awkwardly pulled it off and pointed the Stetson at the elevator. “Our vintage machine from 1793 is on display right now. Not in the vault. This way!”

“What?” Adam squinted at him.

“We were going to see the rare collections,” the gray-haired woman said. Whatever Jackson was trying to accomplish, she was not having it.

“The rarest of the collections,” Jackson said. “The Ely Whitney. The first cotton gin. Is upstairs. I’ll lead the way!”

Jackson walked at a steady clip, hijacking the tour group from their guide. Confused, the visitors followed him. He hustled the group through the concrete halls and into the elevator. He stepped inside, pushed the button for the main floor, and tucked his hat back onto his head, pulling the edge down over his eyes. The elevator doors took a minute to close.

Adam was right behind him. After following him down the hall, he planted his feet on solid ground. Miffed, he glared at Jackson. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Get in.”

With a second to spare, Adam obeyed. He was startled by the change that’d come over his usually meek companion.

Most of the visitors were quiet. They exchanged confused looks and tried to decipher what had just happened. But the gray-haired woman was pissed.

“What’s the big idea?” she asked. “Why can’t we see the vault?” It wasn’t a question, so much as a demand.

One of the other people in the group tapped Adam on the shoulder. When he turned, the man softly posed a question. “Is this part of the tour?”

Jackson waited, the air thick between them.

The elevator dinged, and the befuddled tour group rushed to get out.

“There she is,” he said, scurrying ahead of them.

It was a lucky break. A cotton gin invented over 200 years ago was displayed prominently in the center of the main floor. Standing taller than any of them, the contraption of wooden planks, metal wheels and spindles jutted out from the wall, on top of a platform dolly.

“Behold, the first horse-driven cotton gin ever invented in Georgia.” Jackson looked around, wondering how to get back to the vault and what to do when he got there.

Adam turned to look him square in the eye. “Jackson, this isn’t – ”

“Invented by Ely Whitney,” he said, plowing forward. “This machine dates back to 1793.”

Adam lifted his palms, an exasperated look on his face, but Jackson was intent on distracting the tour group. He carried on. A few people went along with it, admiring the old-fashioned cotton harvester. Others stood there, motionless.

“This invention changed the course of the cotton industry in the South. Does anyone know why it’s called a cotton gin?””

“What about the collections underground?” a young man asked.

“The vault,” the gray-haired woman demanded.

“Yeah, what about the vault?”

Jackson studied their faces. “Uh… There’s been a change in – ”

Just then, an ivy green tendril emerged slowly from a vent in the wall.

“The vine!” Jackson shouted. “Get back!”

“What the… ” Adam held his arms out instinctively, shooing people away from the vent.

“Oh, that’s just an overgrown weed,” said the elderly woman.

When she finished speaking, the ivy spiraled out of the vent at a faster pace. Its tiny tip stretched out toward them and the vines expanded in thickness behind it.

“Coming through,” Jackson said. He cut through the tour group again, this time rushing to the back of the cotton gin. He jumped behind the contraption, and pushed the dolly that held it forward. “Adam, help me!”

Adam’s face drained of color, but the vine was spiraling out in multiple stems now. He shook it off and moved to Jackson’s side, the two of them pushing the cotton gin with all of their weight.

“Out of the way!” Jackson shouted.

Museum visitors shrieked and shouted, but they scattered away from the growing ivy and the rogue cotton gin.

Akin to a large cage built out of heavy wood, the cotton gin rumbled toward the ivy. It was flanked by metal wheels and decked out with spindles and containers, but the cotton gin’s defining feature was a set of metal teeth that lined the inside.

The expanding vine and the rolling cotton gin collided, sending a thrashing sound up between the divided tour group. The tendrils curled into the cotton gin, latching onto the wooden planks like ropes sprouting with small leaves.

Jackson flung his Stetson on the floor behind him, pushing with all of his weight. The cotton gin was just what they needed to stop the vine and save the museum. He was sure of it.

Before his eyes, the vine spiraled out of control. Some of its tendrils expanded above their heads, and others reached deep into the cotton gin. The vine grew closer to the metal teeth. Jackson, who had studied the antebellum South, knew the metal spikes were designed to draw the seeds out of cotton bolls. Now, they just needed to gouge the vine and stop its growth.

The tips of the ivy plant curled through the machine, and reached the metal teeth. They grew right past it, but the metal sliced into the thickness of the tendrils. Still, the ivy kept growing. It twisted around the wheels and spindles of the cotton gin, loosely wrapping the machine in vines. Then it twirled into the air beside the gin.

Just then, Kat came down the marble stairs from the floor above.

“Impossible.” She gasped, picking up her pace. She ran across the main floor, toward Jackson and Adam. “How did it get out?”

“Don’t move!” Jackson called out to her.

“What? Why?” Kat came to a stop within feet of the vine.

The ivy spiraled beyond the cotton gin, and expanded in her direction.

Jackson circled around the scene and sprinted toward her from another angle. He wanted desperately to push her out of the way, but he could she was still taking it all in. He stumbled over a small tendril of the vine, which had sprouted ivy leaves on the edges. Then he fell into a mess of ivy, his body held up by the strong vines.

The ivy reached the spot where Kat stood.

“No!” Jackson shouted.

Kat stared at the vine defiantly, curious to see what would happen. She found the wild spirit of the ivy mesmerizing. Maybe it was her green thumb, but she had the urge to touch the plant. She watched in amazement, as the tendrils twisted into tight curls in front of her.

She glanced at Jackson, realizing he was unharmed. Then she reached one finger out in front of her, lifting it to the vine. Kat touched the ivy, and it reacted, spiraling even faster. But the ivy turned a sharp angle, and instead of endangering Kat, the vine spun off to her left.

More tendrils came toward her, but they curled away from her just as fast. The ivy expanded up into the museum in a maze of vines, leaving the people on the main floor unharmed.

“It’s got me,” Jackson hollered. “I can’t get loose.”

“Hold on, Jackson! I’m coming.” Kat moved along the edge of the vine. She kept a close eye on the tendrils and an eye on Jackson, who struggled to get free in a mess of vines. The more he struggled, the more she could see that the vine was still beneath him. Like a boy fighting off a stem of thorns in the woods, he was the one making the tangle worse.

Despite its unreal growth, the ivy beside her acted like a garden plant. It was reaching for the light, the bright rays of sun beaming in through the glass ceiling, and it was looking for something to latch onto, like a gigantic garden trellis.

The vine didn’t touch Kat, even though she was inches away from it. But Jackson fought the sticky vines with his arms and legs flailing. By fighting it, he worked himself deeper into the tangled tendrils.

“I’m trapped!” Jackson shouted.

“Don’t fight it,” Kat replied. “Jackson, just hold still.” She couldn’t find a clear path between them where the ivy hadn’t covered the museum floor. So, she climbed up onto the vines, balancing her shoes on the several stems at once. Grabbing some of the vines between her finders, she crossed over the ivy, steadying herself with the stems.

She reached Jackson, leaning over and offering him a hand.

“How did you make it across?” he asked, wrestling a strand of the ivy that clung to his right arm.

“Relax,” she said. “Stop fighting it. It’s not the ivy that has you trapped.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Hold still.”

Jackson stopped moving and stared at the scene around him. With his arm still, the ivy stood still, though parts of the vine were tacked to his sweater.

“Take my hand,” Kat urged him.

He took her hand and he was on his feet instantly, balancing on the vines beside her. They brushed the ivy off his sleeve, and headed back toward the tour group. The group had been stepping back with each new growth, and they were standing all the way back by the stairs – one of the only parts of the main floor that wasn’t overgrown with vines.

“I tried to stop it,” Jackson said.

“With what?” Kat asked.

“That,” he said, pointing to the cotton gin. The large contraption was barely visible now beneath layers and leaves of ivy green. “It’s still growing. When will it stop?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“The museum isn’t safe.”

Kat looked at Jackson, who returned her gaze, a horrified expression on his face.

He broke into a run across the vines, stumbling over the uneven branch-like piles. He nearly got his leg caught in a snag. He headed for the tour group. “You have to get out of here!” he shouted. “Go down the stairs. As fast as you can. Run!”

Kat ran toward the stairs too, but she was driven by curiosity. Of course, if there was a way to stop the vine, she would try. But what good would come of it? The thing had already overtaken the vault, most of the main floor and it was even twisting into the exhibit galleries. There was no telling where else the ivy would go.

She leapt off the tangle of vines and onto a small piece of the marble floor that was still exposed. Then she started going up the stairs, wondering how high the ivy had climbed.

As Kat took bold steps up the marble stairs, the ivy began to twist around the stair railings. It latched on to whatever structures it could find, and sprouted with leaves at a rapid pace. The staircase scraped and groaned under the stress of the vines. Ahead of her, an uneven crack cut across one of the rouge marble steps. The crack widened before her eyes and formed new cracks, which spread through the marble stone.

Kat picked up her pace, climbing higher, as the marble steps began to split and come apart. She didn’t know what was happening, but the next floor was within reach. She climbed up the steps, avoiding the cracks, and she glanced behind her and down at the main floor as she moved.

Spiraling ever upward, the ivy latched on to almost everything in its path. It wrapped around sculptures in the lobby and the Waco 9 plane replica that was suspended above the second floor. It clung to gallery signs and wall hangings, and it latched onto lighted sconces and window seals.

The larger the vine grew, the more the museum caved under the stress. The spectacles cracked off the bust of Woodrow Wilson, and a propeller was separated from the plane, captured in the ivy tendrils in mid-air. The gallery signs ripped down the center, and the canvases on the wall tore at the seams.

“Oh my god!” With no idea what they’d unleashed, Kat wondered what would happen next. She suddenly remembered dropping a piece of ivy by Barbara’s office, and she shuddered as she thought about what could happen to her coworkers on the eighth floor.

The marble steps cracked down the center, sending an avalanche of stone falling down into the museum. The remainder of the stairway parted from the floor above, and Kat jumped from the steps to solid footing on the third floor. She darted to the elevator and repeatedly pushed the button for the eighth floor.

The elevator doors came to a close, but the ivy curled around those too. Under the growing strength of the vine, the elevator doors burst off of the elevator.

Kat grabbed the bronze bars inside the elevator, holding on tight. The sole person along for the ride, she was suddenly looking out an open-air elevator at a museum of ivy below.

 

“I tried to stop it,” Jackson said.

“With what?” Kat asked.

“That,” he said, pointing to the cotton gin. The large contraption was barely visible now beneath layers and leaves of ivy green. “It’s still growing. When will it stop?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“The museum isn’t safe.”

Kat looked at Jackson, who returned her gaze, a horrified expression on his face.

He broke into a run across the vines, stumbling over the uneven branch-like piles. He nearly got his leg caught in a snag. He headed for the tour group. “You have to get out of here!” he shouted. “Go down the stairs. As fast as you can. Run!”

Kat ran toward the stairs too, but she was driven by curiosity. Of course, if there was a way to stop the vine, she would try. But what good would come of it? The thing had already overtaken the vault, most of the main floor and it was even twisting into the exhibit galleries. There was no telling where else the ivy would go.

She leapt off the tangle of vines and onto a small piece of the marble floor that was still exposed. Then she started going up the stairs, wondering how high the ivy had climbed.

As Kat took bold steps up the marble stairs, the ivy began to twist around the stair railings. It latched on to whatever structures it could find and sprouted with leaves at a rapid pace. The staircase scraped and groaned under the stress of the vines. Ahead of her, an uneven crack cut across one of the rough marble steps. The crack widened before her eyes and formed new cracks, which spread through the marble stone.

Kat picked up her pace, climbing higher, as the marble steps began to split and come apart. She didn’t know what was happening, but the next floor was within reach. She climbed up the steps, avoiding the cracks, and she glanced behind her and down at the main floor as she moved.

Spiraling ever upward, the ivy latched on to almost everything in its path. It wrapped around sculptures in the lobby and the Waco 9 plane replica that was suspended above the second floor. It clung to gallery signs and wall hangings, and it latched onto lighted sconces and window seals.

The larger the vine grew, the more the museum caved under the stress. The spectacles cracked off the bust of Woodrow Wilson, and a propeller was separated from the plane, captured in the ivy tendrils in mid-air. The gallery signs ripped down the center, and the canvases on the wall tore at the seams.

“Oh my god!” With no idea what they’d unleashed, Kat wondered what would happen next. She suddenly remembered dropping a piece of ivy by Barbara’s office, and she shuddered as she thought about what could happen to her coworkers on the eighth floor.

The marble steps cracked down the center, sending an avalanche of stone falling down into the museum. The remainder of the stairway parted from the floor above, and Kat jumped from the steps to solid footing on the third floor. She darted to the elevator and repeatedly pushed the button for the eighth floor.

The elevator doors came to a close, but the ivy curled around those too. Under the growing strength of the vine, the elevator doors burst off of the elevator.

Kat grabbed the bronze bars inside the elevator, holding on tight. The sole person along for the ride, she was suddenly looking out an open-air elevator at a museum of ivy below.

Tangled in a mess of vine, the elevator doors dangled in the air.

Still, the elevator rose higher, delivering Kat to the eighth floor. She didn’t know what she expected to find. She didn’t even know what she wanted to find. She loved the museum, but she hated working for a boss that never thought about anything beyond revenue.

The hours she’d spent in the museum of late had been miserable and tense. For a second, she regarded the ivy as the only sign of unbridled – life she hadn’t seen inside the museum walls for weeks. Of course, it wasn’t. But a long, drawn-out professional death awaited anyone tried to get a word in edge-wise with her boss.

Nothing veiled Kat’s view of the eighth floor, when the elevator arrived at the top level of the building. They were one in the same. Only now, the sun was shining through the glass ceiling onto what roughly resembled a forest floor. On this level, the corporate carpeting was still visible in narrow foot paths, but small stems of ivy and ivy leaves had sprouted all along the edges.

Her workplace looked less like a museum than Chattahoochee National Forest. It was beautiful, but wild.

Kat smiled in spite of herself. Now, this is growth!

She snapped out of her reverie, as the ivy vines curled and clung to the railing along the side of the floor. This area on the eighth floor opened up to the museum below, in loft-like fashion. She looked down, trying to find Jackson and the museum tour guests, but there were so many tall vines, she couldn’t see a single person beneath them.

Still, that didn’t mean they weren’t there.

“I hope they’re safe.” Kat spoke out loud, to no one in particular, but she wasn’t alone.

A few people wandered listlessly toward the elevator. Behind them, a crowd of staff from the administrative offices came running in her direction. Many of them shouted at each other, and they bumped shoulders trying to reach the elevator. One woman screamed, after she saw the vine below.

“Go back!” she shouted to Kat.

“What happened to the elevator?” someone hollered.

Kat glanced in the direction they were headed, tempted to escort them down and explain, but she couldn’t help her curiosity. What were they running from?

The structure of the floor still intact, she darted into the hallway leading to the eighth floor offices. There, in the bleach white hallway, the museum still looked normal. No vines were growing, and it was quiet.

The ivy seemed to be contained to the grand hall behind her.

“This just isn’t right,” she muttered. She could picture her boss’ smug face, as she sat atop the tall spinning chair in her office, shiny and untouched.

Kat started to walk toward her own office door, curious about the fate of the message, but instead she turned and hurried to Barbara’s office. From down the hall, Kat could see that the ivy ribbon had taken root. It had grown into a tree-sized plant, with ivy leaves.

“What is that awful weed?” Barbara yelled. She stood beside the potted tree, her back turned to Kat. She was shouting up a storm, but she seemed to be having an argument with herself. And she kept getting louder. “Who did this? What kind of crap are they trying to pull?”

Kat approached Barbara, but a strand of ivy shot out from the growing vine and latched onto her arm.

“Argh!” Barbara shouted. “Get off me! What is this shit?”

The ivy curled around her arm several times, in eerie, thin lines. Then Barbara ripped through them with her long nails and thrust the ivy on the ground.

“What are you looking at?” she said, as she turned. “I’m getting facilities. We need a weed-wacker. Or some roundup.”

Barbara stomped off down the hall, no doubt irritated that she’d been sidetracked from her meetings. Kat wondered what her boss would do, when she saw the vine over the rail. She thought about stopping her, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to. She didn’t even know which spot was safer. This vine still looked relatively normal, although parts of it were growing unusually fast.

Suddenly, the vine lurched out at Barbara, with several tendrils widening toward her.

“Stop!” Kat whispered.

The vine slowed, suspended in the air.

Barbara turned and looked at Kat. She gave Kat a suspicious look, her eyes going wide at the sight of the vine. Then she ran out of the hallway, waddling as fast as her stout legs would carry her.

With Barbara out of the way, the vine curled in calm patterns beside Kat. It moved vertically to create intricate spirals and shapes, but it didn’t close her in. Instead, it grew strategically along the bleach white walls, moving upward and out toward the grand hall at a steady pace.

As she studied the vine, Kat felt the tension from her work drop away. When Barbara saw the mess in the museum, she wouldn’t come back up here. For once, there was room for creative energy on the floor. Granted, it wasn’t all that conducive to preserving the collections or promoting the exhibits.

Kat couldn’t explain it, but somehow, she was connected to the ivy. It mirrored the wild abandon she craved deep in her soul.

She watched in awe, as the ivy vines thickened along the walls. They swirled in tight twists just beneath the ceiling, until the hallway looked more like the roots system of massive, ivy green tree.

The ivy lifted the ceiling, separating it from the museum walls, and opening up the building to the sun above. Kat was fascinated, but frightened. She ran down the hall, unobstructed, and out to the center of the museum, where the railing opened up to the grand hall.

The vine, now reaching all the way up to the top of the museum, burst through the glass ceiling. Shards of glass glittered in the sunlight as they fell. They stopped, suspended magically in the air above her. One large ivy leaf, with its pointed design, expanded out over the people in the museum like an enormous canopy. Then it caught the glass shards and shriveled up, taking the glass with it as it slid down a far wall.

The ivy sustained more and more growth, busting through windows and wrapping entire walls of the museum in its grasp. Piece by architected piece, it took apart the museum – sometimes with violent crashes, sometimes with gentle precision – until the entire complex was exposed to the sunlight and city air.

Like plants along a forest floor, the ivy leaves and vines sprouted on every grounded surface – even the giant ledges that used to be museum walls. Once a museum, now merely the center of the city, every inch was covered in green. Except, of course, for the face of Scarlett O’Hara, and the ears and nose of Woodrow Wilson, and a few more shoulder busts.

In the center of it all was a fountain – the one that had always decorated the grand hall. It was decorated in moss, leaves, and vine, but the trickles of water still lifted up, created an arc in the air, and streamed down to the pool below. Only now, the pool of water from the fountain gushed out over the broken building and thinned into a ravine between the crushed office walls. It created a stream, which flowed exuberantly through the vine-cleared city square.

Across the way, Kat saw Jackson standing on a wing of the grounded vine-covered plane. His face was flushed, and he was nearly in tears. Historic artifacts all around him had been released from their glass cases, and exposed to the light.

Wearily, he waved to her.

Kat could see he was unharmed. So, too, was the crowd of flabbergasted guests that stood there, gathered behind him.

A steward of the museum on social media, Kat realized her job was probably history. Even if Barbara deemed her worthy of staying on the staff. Then it dawned on her. Instead of fighting for transparency and free access to local history on social media, any role there was to play would be completely transformed.

In the middle of downtown Atlanta, she was standing in an open, botanical garden.

Burying his eyes under his Stetson cap, Jackson came running up to Kat. He turned to look back toward the tour group, but they parted and started wandering through the museum ruins. He jerked back briefly, then looked at Kat.

“Did you see that?” he asked, his mouth gaping open.

Kat gave him an odd look. It was impossible for anyone to have missed the demolition. “Jackson?”

“It’s the message in the bottle,” he said, pointing.

There, at the head of the fountain river, floated the Coca-Cola bottle. It bobbed on the surface of the water, and jostled around in the current.

“But how –”

“Grab it!” Jackson said. “We can’t let anyone else open it!”

Jackson jolted toward the stream. He thrust his hand in the water, reaching for the Coca-Cola bottle. But the current picked up, and the bottle swished past him. It bobbed on the surface beyond where Kat stood.

Jackson came back over to her. “You didn’t go after it.”

“No,” she said. “I know what the message said.”

“What?”

She was quiet for a moment, as she put the pieces together in her mind. This had all started when she took the papyrus out of the bottle, deep inside the vault.

Kat took a deep breath. She closed her eyes. The message was inked on her memory, and she spoke the words aloud.

“In the social sphere, our intentions get entangled.

It becomes too easy to be consumed by doubt.

We must instead climb higher than the ivy…

Clear the air so new beginnings may sprout.”  

They stood there taking it in, letting the words from the message hang in the air.

“What if this is my fault?” Kat asked. “The relics. The vine. The museum.”

Jackson gave her a quizzical look.

“What if I ruined the museum?”

“There’s nothing you could have done,” he said. “The ivy was stronger than any of us.”

Kat stood there quietly. As she looked up at the ivy-covered garden, she realized many of the artifacts were still in tact, held in place by the vine.

“The Coca-Cola bottle…” Jackson said. “It changed.”

“What?” she asked, as she looked eagerly at the floating bottle.

“I think it changed. There’s a new message in the bottle,” Jackson said, “tied with a ribbon. There’s a cork on top too.”

“Oh,” Kat said. She wondered where the stream, and the message in a bottle that floated on top of it, would end up. “What color was the ribbon?”

“Orange.”

.                       .                       .

Advertisements