Holden stood there, hands shoved into his pockets, his eyes focused on the clear glass door of the museum. He couldn’t help but consider the idea that Phoebe hadn’t gotten his letter, that she wasn’t going to appear.
As his mind began to spiral, he caught a figure approaching the entrance. It was small, almost childlike, and yet as it came closer he realized it was a girl. She wore a thick jacket, one that hovered slightly over her knees, and a pair of culottes, rolled up at the ends.
If her face wasn’t so damn thin, he would have thought she was a boy. As she reached the door, a petite little hand reached out from her coat-pockets and opened the door. She got inside, looking up and catching Holden’s state.
Holden, far too out of it to realize that she had noticed his questionable gaze, was stuck on her hair. Dark black, and in a peculiar variety of lengths, her hair was cropped very short. She looked as if the hairstyle was done in the dark. Still, as she tilted her head forward, the little wavy strands that nearly covered her eyes seemed to work.
She wasn’t much prettier than Sally, especially with that haircut, but something told Holden that if her hair was neat and pristine, he wouldn’t like it all that much either.
As Holden kept staring, the stranger couldn’t help but feel alarmed as her eyes met his. When he wouldn’t stop, she resisted the urge to wave her hand in his face and ask him to stop. Instead, she chose to ignore the boy who looked like he hadn’t slept in three days, stepping further into the museum. She’d keep an eye on him, she knew that much.
The girl was once again a distant figure as she moved past him, disappearing into the tunnels of the museum that lead to, as Holden knew, the mummies exhibit. He took a step forward, thinking to follow her, when he saw her stop. He wondered if she heard him and got scared. There wasn’t anyone else in the museum, did she think he was going to hurt her? The thought had hit him out of nowhere, and suddenly he wanted to reassure her that he wasn’t going to do anything. His gaze pulled on her though, not quite sure what she was doing. After a few more seconds, she finally started walking again and disappeared out of view.
Holden waited, looking at the museum entrance for a couple moments. He counted in his head a couple times, not to any particular number, just until he was bored. Then he headed over. He had to at least apologize for staring, didn’t he?
He ducked into the tunnel, significantly taller than the girl who just seemed to walk into it normally. He caught sight of yet another ‘fuck you’ written on the wall, in red crayon of all things. He felt himself scowl, thinking about wiping it off, before stopping. He could feel eyes on him, dropping the thought as he walked into the exhibit. As he expected, he saw her dark eyes trained on him, as if expecting him to do something. So he started off as best as he could, without terrifying her of course,
“I promise, I’m not a rotten scumbag who’s gonna hurt you.” He began, watching as her expression remained the same, wondering if he may have said the wrong thing, “My name is Holden.”
She just stood there, stone cold, staring at him carefully. She eyed the distance between them, then looked at his face, before taking a small huff and replying,
“Staring at people isn’t a good way to introduce yourself, you know.” Holden responded by looking away, his eyes turning to the exhibit as he stuttered out,
“Is this better?” The act made her lips tilt up a little, a look of humor on her face as she watched him focus on the exhibit,
“Yes, a little bit.” Holden could hear the lightened tone in her voice, trying to keep himself from grinning like an idiot. He made her smile, at least.
“So, what are you doing here at this hour?” She asked after a prolonged silence, Holden realizing he hadn’t said anything incredible.
“Well,” He paused, unsure, “I’m waiting for my sister, she’s getting out of school soon.” The stranger hummed, sensing the hesitation,
“And what’s the name of this phony sister?”
“She’s not phony, alright.” He turned his head to look at her, his tone harsher than he expected, “I mean, I’m telling the truth, she’s not phony. Her name is Phoebe. She goes to school right here.”
She noticed the irritability, nodding slowly now that he was looking at her. She looked at her shoes, strands of hair flopping over her forehead in a way that made Holden devolve into a stuttering mess,
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so tight.” Shocking him, she laughed, glancing up at him,
“For a stranger, you do say sorry quite a bit.”
“Well, I’m not a stranger, you are.” Surprisingly, this made her pause,
“Huh,” She recounted, “You’re right. I’m the scary stranger with no name. You already told me yours.” He raised a brow, eyeing her short stature, before feeling himself smile,
“Some scary stranger you must be. You’re barely my height!” She seemed to pout, before answering,
“Height has nothing to do with it!” She exclaimed, “I could be carrying a pistol for all you know.”
Holden chuckled, shaking his head. This felt like a scene from one of his pretend movies, a part of him wondering if he made this girl up. He tried to ignore the thought, knowing he’d have to be real bughouse crazy to do all that. Besides, if this was in his head, he would have imagined a Sally Hayes lookin’ girl, dolled up and all, with more manners. Or at least, he hoped that’s what he’d imagine.
“The chances of you carrying a pistol are as likely as me carrying one, and I’m innocent, officer.” He shot back with hands raised, watching as her grin grew and the best damn laugh he’d ever heard left her. It was bright and diminishing, soft and loud, permanent and fleeting, all at once. It reminded him of Jane in the summer, laughing when he teased her about how she kept her kings in the back. Or like Phoebe, smiling and giggling with him as they danced in her bedroom.
All of a sudden, he wasn’t so sure that she was real.
“Well,” She began, running a hand through her hair, “My names Charlie, if that’s what you were wondering.” Holden blinked, looking at her for a few more seconds, before looking at the mummy exhibit to distract himself,
“Charlie?” He said it out loud, like the name made her real. She nodded, following his gaze to the exhibit,
“So, now that I’m not a stranger,” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, “Do you come here often?”
Holden shook his head, glancing over at her, trying to guess how old she must’ve been.
“Not anymore. Shouldn’t you be in school?” She paused, shaking her head,
“Winter break started early. You don’t look much older yourself.”
“Seventeen.” Holden stated, turning his head back to her, “You?”
“Sixteen and six months,” She smiled, “You look pretty rough for seventeen Holden, something tells me you’re not just on winter break.”
Holden scoffed, “Long story, kid,” She didn’t react, like she was used to it, “I gotta know though, who cut your hair?” That’s when she froze up. She blushed, looking up at her stray hairs and running both hands through it,
“It’s a mess, isn’t it? My little brothers did this. I fell asleep one night and they cut it all off.” Holden wanted to laugh, but he stifled it as he saw her face. She saw the humor, chuckling and rolling her eyes, “You can laugh. It’s funny, I know.”
“No, no, it’s a damn tragedy,” Holden said with a small grin on his face, “at least you still look damn nice.”
Charlie let her hair flop back over her forehead, more than a little shocked as she tucked her hands in her pocket, before looking down and away. Holden wondered if he said the wrong thing,
“No, what I mean is, it looks good. It suits you.” She shook her head, smiling and looking up at him,
“I know what you mean,” She looked up at the hair, “I used to have this long, dark hair. Everyone loved it. It was the prettiest little thing. Now, no one likes my hair all that much.”
“Well, I do.”
She chuckled, their eyes meeting for a couple seconds, before she looked at the exhibit,
“I’ve never really looked at the mummies here.” Holden, confused, followed her gaze, “As a kid I’d run to the other stuff, the not-dead stuff. The things that were meant to stay the same. Like clay, or pottery. Mummies are just dead guys trying to stick around and be someone else’s problem.”
Holden didn’t respond, feeling his head pound. He looked around for a clock, all of a sudden worrying about Phoebe. Was she okay? Maybe she really hadn’t gotten his letter. What if one of her friends got to it? His head spun as he blinked, trying to keep himself from spiraling. Charlie, not yet noticing, continued,
“That’s the thing about getting older, you start to notice the things that stay the same, and you try to keep them that way.” Holden let out a mix between a cough and a laugh,
“What do you know?” His voice was harsh, sharp, “You’re barely sixteen and you look twelve. You don’t know anything about getting old.” Charlie stared at him, a mix of shock and confusion on her face. She closed her eyes, her expression calming,
“You’re just scared.”
Holden was stunned into silence. He stared at her, not sure what to say. He opened his mouth to say something, just to understand what she was talking about. Instead, he heard Phoebe’s voice, near the entrance. He turned, seeing her approaching the glass. He looked back to Charlie, about to start apologizing and say that he had to go.
She wasn’t there.
Mouth ajar, he blinked a couple times, thinking it would make her appear. She never did. Phoebe was inside now, heading over to him with a big suitcase in her hands. She could barely carry it,
“What were you staring at?” She asked, looking up at her older brother with worry in her eyes. Holden paused, before rubbing his eyes and shaking his head,
“It was nothing Phoebe, just nothing.”