I stared at the man, watching him repeat himself over and over. Jax made his way over to us. I stood there, mouth agape, trying to convince myself that this man was just nuts and one of the many muttering hobos I'd seen around the city. "What's that?" Jax leaned his head over my shoulder to better hear the man's refrain.
"They're gone…They all poof, dis-disappeared." He continued to fiddle with a torn portion of his jacket. He studied it as if by staring and fiddling long enough, the jacket would heal itself.
"Hey," Jax snapped his fingers. "Hey!" He moved between me and the man. "What are you talking about?" Jax waved his hands in front of the man's face.
"Babe, stop," I put my hand on his forearm. "Don't scare him. He's already shaken up." I pulled on Jax's arm and turned back to the ticket counter.
"I'm not crazy." The man raised his voice for the first time in the time we had been in the museum. "I know what I saw." He straightened his back and stared right into my eyes for the first time.
I turned back around. "What did you see?"
"I didn't want to believe it, but I saw it. So did Tony and Rob and Cam. They all saw it." He cleared his throat and eyed my corner store coffee. "Got anything else to drink?"
Jax looked around. "The gift shop is as empty as any other part of this museum. Let's go in there and get you what you need and you can tell us what you saw." Jax unhooked the elastic crowd dividers between the ticket counter and the gift shop. They zipped past us and snapped as they reached their parent poles. "Heh. That's kind of fun."
I rolled my eyes. Normally, Jax's childlike glee in small things was fun and uplifting, but today was not the day to take the time to play. "Are you sure?" I looked above us to the security cameras. But they were all askew and none were moving.
"Girlie, after I tell you what I saw, a shoplifting charge will be the furthest thing from your mind." He pushed past me and through the now clear path to the gift shop. "Besides, they'll get me for a lot more than you. I'm gonna revive my wardrobe a bit if I can."
I trotted to catch up to Jax as he pushed through the revolving door to the gift shop. I saw the two of them exit after a spin and then I pushed through myself. Even though there was nothing out of place, everything was wrong. I'd never been in the gift shop when it wasn't operational. The lights were on, but they just illuminated the emptiness of the place. No one was fiddling with the little Van Gogh magnets, there were no children begging for the Beginner's Artist Studio set, there were no guards milling about watching for shoplifters, and Suzanne, the cashier, was no where to be seen. It was all wrong.
"We saw it. It felt like it happened quickly, but I know it had been going on for a few hours at least." The homeless man started to explain as he grabbed some Gatorades from the fridge. Though his pants were dirty and worn on the edges, his pockets were still capable of holding three of the four Gatorades he grabbed. "No one really pays attention there, but I just happened to be awake and listening." He shoved his hand into a display of potato chips and jerky, clutching a variety of sodium I could never imagine ingesting.
Jax grabbed him on the shoulder. "What did you see, exactly?" The man shook Jax's hand from his shoulder.
"I'll tell you, Jesus. Don't fucking grab me like that." He huffed and bit into a slimy stick of beef jerky. "As you can probably tell, I don't have a place to stay right not, so I been sleeping at the City Men's Emergency Shelter. It's been nice out, so I would have been staying outside, but there's been a bunch of attacks at camps the last few weeks, so I figured staying in the shelter would be safer."
"I read about those. So terrible," I shook my head.
"Yeah. Well, I didn't read about 'em. I was at two camps that were attacked. Buncha college looking shits rolled up in a few trucks and jumped out yelling about us being worthless drains on society. Lit a few carts on fire, dumped buckets of water on some people then dragged a few guys out in the middle and started punching and kicking them. I got out of the first camp with my bag and tent, but two nights later they lit my tent on fire while I was sleeping in it. I ran off, but I lost all my shit. So, yeah sweetie, it was pretty terrible." He tipped up the remainder of his Gatorade.
"Sorry." I felt like such a shit. I lowered my head and crouched to sit on the display stool for the Beginner's Artist Studio.
"Anyways, so I been at the shelter for about a two weeks. Got a cot and one meal and a shower everyday, so it's been ok. But we have to leave by 9 am everyday, so I was trying to find some of the other guys from the camps. A few had made it to the shelter, but since everyone is scared, it's always full up. Anyway, the last few days there've been some people outside protesting. Yelling at us as we leave in the morning, and screaming about wasting tax dollars. I recognized a few from the camp attacks, but the cops never come to talk at the shelter, and I'm not walking into a police station to tell em about how these frat boys are picking on the hobos. So whatever, I just keep my head down and go about looking for my friends. I found Rob and Cam and Tony from the first camp I was in. They said they had found a bed at the church shelter, but that they didn't like it there because they had to listen to a guest speaker before every meal. The church places love to make you feel guilty for not getting saved before they serve the sandwiches." He sighed and stared at the floor for a minute.
"This is all fascinating, but what does this have to do with today?" Jax gave me the look he used when he was stuck on the phone with his mom. I tried to hide my smile by staring further at the floor.
"Dammit, I'm getting there. Hold your damn horses." He stomped behind the register and grabbed the chair that Suzanne used to sit in. "So anyway, I got those three to head back to the city shelter with me that evening. You had to show up early to get a bed for the night, so I made sure they were in line right behind me. When we got in line, those fucking frat boys were back out front, harassing everyone in line. One of em got right in my face and screamed, 'What if you wake up and there ain't no one here left to take care of you? You'd die!' Well, I shoved him back and then they all loaded up and drove off before the cops came. When the cops did arrive, the shelter line was moving, so I didn't hang back to tell them anything. But I heard a few people say that they were the ones attacking the camps."
Jax sighed and leaned on the edge of the counter. "And?" He waved his hands around. "What does all of that have to do with the fact that the museum is empty? Where did they all go?"
The man sighed. "I told you, I'm getting to it, you little bastard. Stop rushing me." He looked at me, "Is he always this impatient?"
"Not always. But, you know, we aren't always in a situation where people have vanished without a trace."
"Uh huh. I see. Well, sweetie, if you don't mind, grab me a couple of them t-shirts there. Get me a long sleeve and a short sleeve. Large. Anyway, so last night I was sleeping light, as I had been since someone tried to burn me alive in my sleep. So it's about 3 am, and I hear some hushed whispers. I hear some shuffling. I look up, and I see every person who works at the city shelter being shuffled out the door at gunpoint. There were two dudes pointing the guns and bossing them around, and one dude sitting at the door shuffling the people into vans. I heard the van guy shout, and he sounded just like the prick that screamed at me in front of the shelter that afternoon. I didn't see his face, but that was definitely his voice." I stacked the shirts he had requested on the counter in front of him. "Thanks, sweetie."
"You're welcome. But I'm not sweetie. I'm Paula. And this is Jax," Jax waved. "And you are…"
"Samuel. Sorry. I forgot my manners." He held the t-shirts up to is chest.
"So Samuel, you're saying a group of protesters rounded up all the employees of the city shelter and hauled them off? Why?"
"Do you think they came here and took the museum people too?" I was really worried about my dad if what Samuel was saying was true.
"It's possible. The gangs I saw at the shelter and at the camps were way bigger than the three man crew I saw at the shelter. Maybe they were splitting up all over the place." He opened a bag of potato chips and popped a few into his mouth.
Jax started rubbing his hand through his hair again. I could tell he was thinking. "So, a mob of people who hate homeless people shuts down city services. That doesn't make sense."
"Well, it kind of makes sense. If they're the types of people who see homeless as moochers, maybe they see other 'freebies' as drains. You know the type, always complaining about how they don't want their tax dollars paying for 'welfare queens' and 'habitual drug addicts.' This would be the logical conclusion of some of that complaining. But I can't imagine them ever being organized to pull this off." I gestured to the emptiness around us. "Did you check Twitter or Facebook this morning?" I looked at Jax.
"You know I didn't. We just got up and came here."
I started walking to the back of the the gift shop, to the "Employees Only" door. "We should see if there's any mention of anything. Also, we should check the news."
Samuel stood up. "Where are you going?" He pushed through some stacked up boxes by the door.
"My dad works here, so I'm heading to his office to use his computer." I pushed the door open and crossed the break room beyond it to a door on the opposite side of the room. Through there, we entered a long hallway with tiny offices on either side. Four down on the left, we found my dad's office, unlocked. "Have a seat." I motioned to the metal folding chairs behind the door. I sat at dad's desk and shook the mouse on his desk to wake his computer. I went to the local news site looking for clues.
I didn't have to look for long. The ticker at the top, usually filled with local sports results and weather predictions, was two times as large as normal. In bold red letters it read:
BREAKING NEWS: ALL CITY OFFICE CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. LIBERTARIAN MILITANTS HAVE SIEZED CITY EMPLOYEES AND ARE HOLDING THEM AT AN UNDISCLOSED LOCATION.
Below the ticker were multiple blurbs from witnesses detailing abduction after abduction following similar patterns to the story Samuel had told us.
"Jax. It's true. It's all true." My eyes filled with tears as I looked at him across my dad's office.