The Family Museum
The house had aged from the time he’d packed his bags. Simon felt his presence in the home leaving before he physically did. College started the following week. He looked around his bedroom. It had changed little since he had moved in five years ago. Faded to a dusty pink, the red wallpaper revealed only ghostly traces of its vintage pattern. The walls had no personal effects; his family had not intended to stay permanently.
The center of the wall showcased a watercolor of a couple sitting on a bench by the river. His mother’s signature was barely visible after years of sunlight casting on it. An antique typewriter with an old essay from junior high school draped over it sat center stage on his desk by the window. Two stuffed duffel bags, a milk crate of lined paper, and new plastic binders lay on his twin bed. He folded and tucked an orientation letter into the front pocket of his backpack.
“Iz? Are you there?” Simon spoke to the wall shared with his sister’s room. Her room was empty, her bags gone. When had she left?
He walked down the hall, arms outstretched as if the walls were closing on him. Photographs of his grandparents’ younger selves and school portraits of his dad hung on the wall and formed a timeline from their marriage to his father’s high school graduation. The front bedroom remained empty, and the smell of antiseptic remained. A walker sat by the door. A plush, ruby-colored recliner by the front window maintained the imprint of his grandmother. His grandparents’ presence was so strong that he could imagine their ghosts. If he waited long enough, his grandmother might manifest in the chair; head tilted to absorb the outside world. At the slightest creak in the silent house, he thought his grandfather might emerge from a darkened corner of the hallway. He paused, anticipating a warm heavy hand on his shoulder. Simon continued searching.
“Dad?” He descended the stairs as if running the bleachers for cross-country practice. The back bedroom on the first floor was vacant as well. His mother’s presence was long gone after she moved to the opposite side of town. Simon glanced at his wristwatch and went outside. The trunk of the Subaru station wagon was open and awaiting his baggage. He continued his search in the old shop next to the house.
Not much had changed inside the shuttered store. Through the years, the only thing that arrived was more dust. Behind the maze of dining sets and abandoned vendor booths of antique kitchen utensils, toys, and cloth-covered books was the family museum Simon’s father had constructed after his grandparents had died and his mother moved away.
He called again for his father in the dim back room lit by a feeble fluorescent ceiling light. A presence lingered in the emptiness. His grandfather’s last wishes were to preserve what they had held most dear: portraits of his grandmother and identical twin sister, his grandmother’s first lady doll collection, and a sepia-colored landscape by his mother. There was a clay-baked car made by Simon and a ceramic face that his sister had sculpted. His father included a vintage erector set.
There were mundane objects like plastic souvenirs from the bordering states, Idaho and Oregon, and more recently, his father had added his and Izzy’s graduation stoles from the Class of 2009. All were entombed on the other side of the plexiglass case. A small placard marked the years they represented. Simon touched the glass, then shoved his hands in his pockets.
The last case held the Truth Box, which forever hummed beyond its enclosure. It was the size of a typewriter and remained self-powered with the smallest amount of natural light it absorbed. Simon unlatched the door and removed it as if it were an explosive, counting down the moments with its mechanical heartbeat.
“What did I tell you about the truth?” Simon listened to his grandfather’s gruff voice, but it was only the device replaying the room’s strongest memory. He set the device on a pock-marked workbench and let the past inhabit the space. No one wants to hear it. He thought.
The Truth Box’s hum intensified until it projected a burst of light. His dead grandfather appeared but looked through him at a younger Simon of two years prior. This was the device’s chosen recording from the space.
“Time is an invention to track aging,” his grandfather told Simon’s 16-year-old self. The old man adjusted the inner gears of an antique shelf clock. Both Simons observed him.
“The clock’s hands repeat the same movements daily, but every hour of a new day is different, even if we don’t think we’re doing anything. Every action leads to a consequence; no matter how much we plan and calculate, it will always turn out differently from our inner vision. Do you understand?” His grandfather’s digital specter buzzed under the fluorescent light. It blurred his facial features and flattened the pigment of his slate-gray eyes. The illusion wasn’t human.
Simon’s younger self nodded. The blank look resembled an avatar’s portrayal rather than an accurate depiction of the exchange. Present Simon felt as if he was watching the memory through a filter. His actual memory of it was warmer, although he had forgotten the details of it.
“Of course, you don’t. You’re too young to have made any mistakes, yet they will shape your life,” his grandfather said.
“You heard me, but understanding comes with time. Ask your father about that.”
Younger Simon cast his head down as if scolded. “He says you won’t forgive him for moving away after high school.”
“There’s nothing to forgive him for. This town and this house hold too many shared memories, most of which we’d rather forget.”
“Do you mean—” the younger Simon started.
His grandfather looked at the black-and-white photograph of the old, water-ravished town on the wall.
“Yes. You can try to leave and forget life’s tragedies, but they follow you no matter where you go. Your mind plays them on a loop. For this town, the aftermath of the flood and the war remained long after we had returned and rebuilt. Maybe you have been spared?”
He looked at his mother’s preserved watercolor painting.
“Simon?” His father’s voice boomed over the holographic memory playing, cutting through the darkness. His lanky silhouette emerged from the main showroom’s maze of antiques. His gaze gravitated to the hologram. “Saying goodbye to the past?”
Simon nodded and froze the hologram projected by the Truth Box. “Can I bring this to college?”
His father shook his head and clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Grandpa created this here, and it should stay in this town with its memories. I wish things could have been different for you and your sister. This was only meant to be a temporary home.”
“But we were all together.”
“For a time, and it inevitably pushes us apart in some form or another. The future will always be different than how we envision it.”
“That’s what Grandpa was saying.”
“It is the Truth Box after all, and as they say, ‘history repeats itself,’” his father said.
“Good things could be repeated,” Simon told him.
“It’s best to move forward and leave this behind. It’s only natural. I’m glad you’re moving on to college. Are you ready for your next chapter? Iz is packed and waiting in the car.”
“Dad, what are you going to do here alone?”
His father shrugged his shoulders. “Keep teaching history and maybe revive the store, even if Grandpa had thought it was a bad idea. Getting everything ready would keep me busy enough. But you didn’t answer my question.” He smiled at his son with tired eyes.
“I’ll be ready,” Simon said looking at the Truth Box in front of him. He snapped the opening where the hologram projected shut and returned it to its place in the showcase.
After his bags were loaded in the car next to his sister’s, he looked up at his bedroom window and ran back inside. Simon grabbed the thin typewriter pages from atop the machine and returned to the last case in the family museum. He unlocked it and slid the essay, “The Way Things Used to Be” inside.