She may be young, but she only likes old things. Her purse, which was actually just an oversized faded blue tote we got for free at the Central Park zoo last summer, was wrapped around her torso and dragged on the floor as she walked from one hall to the other in a hurry. She refused to let me hold onto her bag while she ran to the different exhibitions, claiming that all of her treasures were inside and I was not responsible enough to manage such precious cargo. I can confidently say that our ideas of what is considered precious differ wildly, as I knew within the tote was a bag of withered leaves she thought resembled dying old men, knobs and handles she collected and stole from loose furniture and dusty floors, and an assortment of other old and ugly objects. She liked old and useless things, even though she was so young.
“Layne, it’s nice to see you this early in the morning. Big plans for the day?” The sweet, jovial voice echoed from across the hall from inside the customer service kiosk. The older man smiled brightly, squinting through his glasses at Layne as she made her way to the front stands that housed all of the museum’s pamphlets.
Grabbing one of each, Layne patted them down very professionally, skimming through the titles as if she could read every word, though by then I was sure she had them memorized even if she could not read in any other outlet. The mini booklets would ultimately get clutched in her small, clammy fists throughout our visit, occasionally getting unfolded as she pretended to recite each exhibit’s highlights to other museum goers that would listen eagerly and smile at her precociousness. Yet, at the end of the day they would get tossed into her tote, where at least six of their duplicates resided, and we would get fresh ones the following week.
“It’s Sunday, John. I always have big plans on Sunday,” Layne answered, peering over the kiosk desk and holding out her hand expectantly.
Muffling his laughter with a cough, John reached underneath his desk and pulled out a plastic id card attached to a bright yellow lanyard. The card read: SPECIAL GUEST. Layne placed the lanyard over her head, fixing her hair accordingly, and gave a polite nod to John, who gave his best bow to the little girl tottering off.
There were spotty rain showers that day, so Layne took the opportunity to wear her black and white stripped rain boots that squeaked against the linoleum floor, like a bell signaling where the cat was. Her auburn hair was hanging loosely past her shoulders, her slight uneven bangs pinned back with a clip in the shape of a rain drop. She took these cloudy days very seriously.
“One day, I want one of those special guest cards,” I said.
“You’ll have to get Layne to share,” he said bemused. “The Butterfly Conservatory is opening at ten o’clock, but just make sure Layne doesn’t try to swipe one again, we will check her bag at the door.”
After a wink and a nod, John went back to shuffling through the contents of his desk, openly excited for the day. John had been there since Layne and I started coming to the museum three years ago and probably long before, gradually moving around from one position to another, all of which were respectively lower leveled, but he loved them all the same. He was devoted to the visitors and would occasionally walk around as a guide, giving away secrets of the artifacts and the construction of each exhibit that made everything appear more real. Knowing how the sciences were built made them more tangible and somehow a little more beautiful. John made sure to make each experience better and would even go so far as reciting crude and strange facts about the miniature historical figurines. Not many people know Theodore Roosevelt was known to go skinny-dipping in the Potomac River during the wintertime. John did.
“Lisa, we are going to be late,” Layne cried from across the room.
She had a very strict schedule and thought it an insult if she did not visit each of her friends on time.
“Yeah, alright. Lead the way.”
Layne ran up to the second floor on her tip toes, trying to remain as quiet and secretive as possible. Entering into the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, Layne jumped round the corner to surprise her stuffed friends.
“The giraffes are looking sick today, Lisa. I don’t think they are getting enough water. The elephants aren’t sharing again,” she said disappointed. She pouted her lips at the Water Hole diorama, leaning in closely to scrutinize the painting depicting the Guaso Nyiro River Valley in Kenya.
“It’s December and flu season, they probably just have colds and here you are judging what they look like and blaming the poor elephants.”
Her mouth went into a mortified ‘O’ and she shook her head profusely, backing away.
“I’m sorry guys,” she whispered. “I was sick last week too, remember? My nose was huge, until I blew it and then it went to the size of a tiny squirrel’s. It’s normal now though. I think.”
Layne pushed her nose up and out with her finger for me to judge.
“It looks alright to me, but I can clearly see you haven’t been doing your noise exercises,” I said in a stern voice.
“What. . . what are those?” She asked grabbing hold of her nose.
“Oh, don’t you know that you are supposed to stretch it out every morning? Or else it will stay the same size forever. I helped you out when you were a baby when mom made me watch you. I stretched and pulled your nose so it wouldn’t look ridiculous when you got older, you’re welcome.”
Her face was torn between gratification and terror.
“Don’t Listen to her, Layne,” A young tour guide said laughing. “She is just being silly.”
Layne smiled up at the new girl styling a navy polo, standard black pants, and a Capuchin Monkey doll in her arms like a baby.
“Abby says you’re lying, Lisa,” Layne said crossing her arms.
“Abby is also holding a stuffed monkey,” I pointed out curiously.
Letting out a shy laugh, Abby handed the doll to Layne, making it do a little dance in her arms.
“This little guy is meant to go in that crate of stuffed animals, right over there. You can take him over and introduce him to the others,” Abby said sweetly, directing Layne where to go.
“She is adorable,” an older woman in a similar outfit to Abby’s exclaimed, staring adoringly toward Layne as she animatedly talked to the dolls about the new friend.
“I forgot you never met her before,” Abby said surprised. “Carolina, this is Lisa and her little sister Layne. These two come every Sunday.”
“Oh, how sweet. Is she a little history fanatic?” Carolina asked, watching Layne now line up the monkeys, pretending they were in a classroom.
“I suppose she would be now, but it was Lisa’s idea to bring her here. Isn’t that right? Layne had terrible social anxiety and she thought this would help her overcome her shyness.” Abby was not only the most supportive member of the museum’s staff, but she became an integral part of the family too. After meeting Layne only once, she was smitten and would occasionally take her out on their own adventures when she thought I might need a break. Never on Sunday though.
“Oh, you thought a little girl would come out of her shell here?” Carolina asked a little skeptically.
Abby peered at her coworker sideways, her eyes defensively alert.
“Oh, definitely,” I started. “Layne didn’t do well talking to people, so we went to a place that didn’t threaten her. Nothing talks back to her and she is learning to read better. She can hear different stories and then plays make believe with the rest.”
That was only part of a lie. Layne was insecure and couldn’t read well for eleven years old, but it wasn’t shyness that kicked me into bringing her here. We could hide and play in parts of the world that we would probably never touch. Layne got to see the stars and stories of heroes, and for one afternoon she didn’t have to be someone and think about how she acted and how she was going to speak and how someone would react. And here, I could let her lead.
Three years ago Layne never stopped talking about stories she played out in her head and would draw fantastic pictures all over her walls, a commendable act on behalf of my mother’s patience. She never seemed to invite friends over, but that never bothered us. Every afternoon at three thirty she came running home to show off her latest concoction of crayon, marker, and paint she made from things she found outside at recess. Her teachers were consistently suggesting meetings to talk about ways to get Layne to interact with the other kids better, but my mom never wanted to push her into groups she had not connected with. The school faculty tried to take it into their own hands by assigning specific groups for field trips, homework buddies, and even assigned lunch tables. My parents laughed and thought if they couldn’t get Layne to forcibly make a friend in the second grade it wasn’t the end for her social life.
The week before Layne’s summer break she came home with an invitation to a sleepover and my parents were beside themselves with excitement, going so far as to buy her a new sleeping bag, pajamas, and my mom taught her how to make a French braid so she could show it off to the other girls at the party. Layne was more or less indifferent, up until the day of where I caught her practicing her braiding skills and even making small talk in the mirror. She had the spirit of an awkward older woman getting ready to go into a reunion full of people she didn’t remember. All of her stuff was packed very pristinely and organized in a way that made it easy to get to whatever she needed without much fumbling around. She informed us that in this case she could jump back into the party without getting sucked into her backpack. And what if something got pulled out and left behind? How would she ever get it back now that it was summer break? Would she wait out the three months for the lost thing? Surely she would forget and then it would be lost for good. No, she had a plan.
It was surprising to hear the phone ring at seven o’clock the next morning. It was two hours too soon. My mom guessed that one of the girls must have gotten sick when the birthday girl’s mom had suggested we go get Layne as soon as possible. I wasn’t nearly prepared for what happened when we showed up, and still will never be able to think about the scene or their names or faces without my anger and disgust boiling over again.
All the girls were huddled around the kitchen table, silent and terrified the moment we walked in. The birthday girl’s mom, led us to the bathroom where Layne had locked herself. When she heard us on the other side of the door she twisted the lock to let us in. Layne was standing so small in her new cloud pajamas, cheeks stained with tears she looked at us through swollen eyes as she held out a large chunk of her hair to my mother. They had waited until she fell asleep and had cut off half of her hair from the left side of her bangs. They thought she was weird and so what better bonding than to prank the weird girl.
I don’t remember much of what happened after Layne fell by my mom sobbing, but I do remember the birthday girl’s father pulling me out of the house and fighting for me to stay quiet—it was so early in the morning he said. Layne and my mom came out after, struggling to hold all of her things and unfolded sleeping bag.
Layne refused go back to school. Layne refused to draw. She cut off the rest of her hair one night when we were all asleep and it never seemed to grow back evenly; a physical reminder of that night every time my mom brushed it or when she tried to put it up in a ponytail and several loose pieces fell out stubbornly.
“She has opened up more now than when she first came,” Abby’s voice chimed in. “ The first few months she wouldn’t look up at anyone when they tried to talk to her and she would just stare at the exhibits, while Lisa explained what was written on the plaques. Now, she could probably have a good job as historian.”
Abby smiled fondly in Layne’s direction, unknowing of the history she barely touched the surface of.
“Did you want to show her the butterflies?”
“I was actually thinking today was more of a firefly day,” I whispered back.
Caroline stared confusedly for a few seconds and then took off with a box of stuffed animals to the gift shop.
The Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway was empty, except for a few men cleaning around the spiral walkway. We started at the base of the Hayden sphere and slowly made the journey around the 360 foot path laying out the 13-billion-year history of the universe. Layne ran her hands along the walls, stopping occasionally to stare at a depiction of space and asking which dot was hers.
“I think it’s this blue one, some of the other dots look like they exploded, but not this one. And this one is yours, it’s all alone and looks gray and angry,” she said pointing to different spots on the wall, drastically far away from each other, but larger than most of the others.
“I like to be alone, my dot can’t get hit by someone else’s explosion then,” I said nudging her to continue walking. She considered this thought for a little while and settled on picking out another dot for herself further along the walkway, a nice purple one that I was sure was an entire galaxy, but in contrast to her first, it was very much alone.
We stopped at each and every artifact that included a meteorite that dated back to the birth of the solar system, samples of the oldest rocks discovered on Earth, and a fossilized tooth from a giant carnivorous dinosaur. Layne spent extra time on the oldest objects and relics, wishing so badly we could take them home and asking how much it would cost to buy the first animal with eyes, whose skull was on display.
“Your obsession with old things is really unsanitary,” I reminded her when she struggled with the urge not to touch anything.
The entrance to the Hayden Big Bang Theater was coming up to our left, but before we could enter, Layne wanted to see the end of the universe timeline. It wasn’t much to look at, one stride was the equivalent to millions of years and the last section of the picture depicted the insignificance that was the human era. I didn’t want to tell Layne that was where her dot actually was, but I couldn’t help but notice how pathetic it was to see all of human existence represented in the thickness of a single human hair in the bottom corner.
Abby was waiting for us at the theater entrance, holding open the door just barely enough for us to squeeze through.
“There is a show in about an hour, but you can watch for fireflies until then,” She said directing us to one section of the reclining chairs.
The ceiling was in the shape of a dome, caving inward to give the allusion of sitting in a fish tank. Layne ran down the third aisle from the projector in her usually chair that angled her perfectly center. She reclined backwards to face the ceiling, her legs dangling off her chair, missing the floor by five inches. Her round face stared expectantly at the blank screens and with the lights still on the projector highlighted the dozens of freckles that lined her nose and cheeks. The rainy day curled her hair up around the tips and each strand had a little more shine than I have ever seen before.
“When you go to college, are we still going to come here?” She asked quietly.
“My school is only thirty miles away and I can come home all the time. You will think I don’t even go to any of my class,” I said realistically. “There’s no school on weekends and I already asked for Sundays off from work, so you can’t get rid of me that easily.”
“But one day you’ll grow up. Then we won’t come. But that’s okay, one day I’ll grow up too,” she said not morbidly or even sadly, but matter of fact.
“Or we could just stay here forever. Nothing seems to age here, just new pieces get added.”
At that point Abby dimmed the aisle lights and turned on the main projector. A flash of fire and light exploded across the ceiling, signaling that the Big Bang had happened and now the newly formed Milky Way was swirling and shaping before our eyes. After a few minutes of motion and creation, the projection settled on an arrangement of stars and meteorites that circled around our planets, the Earth ominously brighter than the rest.
“Fireflies,” she gasped brightly.
When Layne was younger she used to beg to go firefly catching, even though I told her repeatedly that fireflies didn’t live in New York and we couldn’t run around outside for them, the only thing we could probably catch would be roaches, and they would go willingly. The first few times we visited the museum the planetarium shows were either down for maintenance or sold out, but she always stared at the promotional posters and demanded that the lights were fireflies and we needed to go. On our fourth visit we arrived so early most of the museum staff was still blinking away their grogginess, but Layne wished to wait outside the theater door for three hours, playing tic-tac-toe with the square patterns in the carpet with stray buttons we found in her purse.
“Even when we grow up, Lisa, we should still come see the fireflies. They would miss us.”