Jimmy didn’t return while Marie tidied up around the museum and made sure that all the doors and windows were locked. That was a very quick job as she’d had no reason to open any of them during the day. Then she checked that the statue was in its display case, put the printout on the desk in the catalogue room, and set the alarms. Just as she was putting the dirty cups next to the sink, deciding that they could wait until the morning to be washed, a key turned in the lock of the entrance doors and Jimmy came in.
“Still here?” he said, seeing her with the cups in her hands. “You’re working late tonight! Don’t tell me we got some visitors in for once!” He chuckled and rubbed his hands together.
“No,” said Marie. “That would be nice. I was just finishing off the cataloguing and didn’t notice the time.”
“What? Oh, the new statue. Did you find a place for it that isn’t the fridge?”
Marie forced herself to smile, but knew that there were too many teeth showing. “Yes, it’s got its own display case and there are plenty of lights on it to keep it warm,” she said. “It’s in the Northern Hemisphere wing if you’d like to check on it.”
“I’m sure you’ve got it all under control,” said Jimmy. “And the alarms are probably on by now, aren’t they?” Marie nodded. “No point unsetting them and setting them again just to look at an ornament. I’ll take a look tomorrow, I’ll be in all day. Then on Thursday I’m off out again, down to London. I’ve got a meeting with a chap who says he knows a guy who might be able to get us some more stuff. It’s probably a waste of time, these things usually are. He’ll have junk, or old bones he’s dug up from a garden somewhere, but now and then you find a little gem in all the shit.”
Marie nodded again, not wanting to join in a conversation that she didn’t really understand. There was a hint of impropriety here, she was sure. How could Jimmy know if the stuff wasn’t stolen?
“You look like you want to leave,” said Jimmy. He patted her shoulder with a large, calloused hand. “Go on then, have a good evening. Do something fun!”
He stood in reception watching as she left, and was still watching when she turned back to close the door and lock it from the outside. She thought that was a bit odd, but also entirely typical of her boss.
The roads were quiet and she was almost all the way home before she stumbled on something. She looked down, and there was something long and dark, almost hidden in the gloom. Probably a tree-branch, she thought, and carried on walking. She stopped again though, whatever it was had caught on her shoe somehow. She shook her foot, but it didn’t dislodge it, so she tried stamping, and then shaking again, only harder, and still it didn’t come free. She looked around for something to hold on to so that she could use her other foot to help force it off, but there was nothing. She looked down again, and then realisation struck her and she looked back around.
There was nothing around her. No sign of the road, no sign of the pavement she’d been standing on a moment earlier. No houses in the distance, not even trees or hedges or bushes, or anything. Just an emptiness that rolled out on all sides around her. Above her the sky was dark and huge, and she realised that the stars above her looked different. She turned around, barely feeling the thing dragging at her foot, looking for Orion, but there was no constellation like that anywhere in the sky. None of the stars up there were in patterns that she recognised.
She squeaked, a tiny little scream automatically muffled because you don’t scream in public, and her breath puffed out in a cloud before her. Then whatever was gripping her foot shifted of its own accord, and she felt it moving up and wrapping around her ankle.
Now she screamed, and uncaring of her balance lifted her free foot and stamped down, scraping the heel of her shoe down her ankle and mashing it onto whatever was holding her. There was a distant hiss like the rush of escaping air from a pressurised bottle. She stamped again, raking her ankle with her heel some more and whatever was holding her seemed to slacked its grip. She stamped again and again, her breath coming in tight little gasps, puffs of white escaping from her and drifting off into the still, foreign air.
There was a sensation of sliding, as though the world had been waiting just out of sight, round a hidden corner, and the road and pavement and houses all came back as though they’d never been away. She stumbled, surprised, and her foot tore free from what was obviously just a tree branch, woody and thorny. Behind her someone cursed her for not looking where she was going, and she turned, so relieved to see another human being that she didn’t care that all she saw was their back as they angrily marched on their way, muttering about people who had no manners.
She looked around, making sure that everything was where it was supposed to be again, and then ran the rest of the way home.