Thank goodness it was Sunday; the museum offices would be mercifully vacant. The back parking lot lay empty, the silence beguiling. No one would distract Rita from her critical mission: submitting the grant proposal. Museum admissions barely covered the salary for her underpaid and overworked staff. Year after year, the rafters rotted and the plaster cracked, and she had no funds to repair them or anything else. Either she got that grant, or her museum was done.
It wouldn’t be easy. The application was due last week, and her grant writer had left without notice. Fortunately, she’d heard the other proposals to the foundation hadn’t been reviewed yet. If she could submit hers before the director was back in the office, she had a shot. She would stare down the grant until it was frightened into order.
She swung open the back entrance and entered the immense storage room. Fresh boxes from a generous bequest consumed the space. Most of the new packages were already opened and sorted, their contents marked with yellow tags for cleaning and blue for repair. Rita would send them out as soon as the grant was approved. For now she could only retreat to her office. She inched around the boxes.
Rita turned in dismay. A girl emerged from behind a column of crates. It was Seung, the intern they’d asked to sort the bequest. Her cardigan was buttoned with left side higher than the right. Yellow and blue labels were caught on the frays of her long braid.
Other employees could be managed with a few nice words and a pat or two, but not Seung. For every minute Seung worked, the intern asked five questions. Each answer had to be doled out piece by piece as Seung made notes or drew flowcharts.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” Seung said breathlessly. “Some of the – ”
“What are you doing here?” Rita asked.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t get the sorting done on Friday, and Bill said – ”
“Nevermind.” Rita held up her hand. She couldn’t waste time; she had a grant to conquer. “I’ll be in my office. You may continue with your work, whatever it is.”
“Okay, but…umm.” Seung frowned and bit her lip. “Well, I was marking things with yellow or blue tags, and this weird thing happened. I was hoping you could tell me…”
“You can ask Bill on Monday, please just pretend I’m not here.”
“Oh.” Seung paused, brows creasing. “It’s just there are these – ”
“Bill sent you here to work independently; you don’t need my help. Just face whatever it is that’s intimidating you and say, ‘I am strong, capable, and I can handle this.’ The problem will take care of itself. I promise.”
Seung looked back at something behind the tower of boxes, twisting her braid in her hands. “All right, I guess.”
“Don’t guess, do!”
Rita fled to her office and closed the door. She maneuvered past a pile of old flags, rusted weapons, and mismatched armor to reach her desk. Then she set up her laptop and downloaded the PDF of application criteria. She benchmarked the draft against them; her margins were a quarter inch too thick. After she fixed that, the document was five pages too short. Rita sighed and took off her glasses. She’d spent five hours yesterday debating the usefulness of every word, barely squeezing the grant down to the size she thought they wanted. Now she had to put half of it back in.
She pushed her glasses back on and looked at the criteria again. The font had to be Helvetica, not Arial. If that made the document longer, it could close the gap. She scrolled through the nearly infinite font menu. Helvetica wasn’t listed. An internet search on “where is helvetica?” revealed that the font only came bundled with a Macintosh; she’d have to buy it. She clicked on an ad and purchased what was hopefully the right thing, downloaded a strange file, installed it, restarted her word processor, highlighted the full document, and finally opened the font menu to make the change.
A loud crash came from the other room. Rita jumped and hit the keyboard, replacing the entire grant with the letter f.
“Ah, crap.” She tried to undo the change, but the mouse barely budged from its previous position. She shook it; it flickered. Her laptop was almost frozen, and she hadn’t saved her changes. If she restarted her laptop, she’d have to start over, but if she waited on the small chance her computer recovered, she’d waste precious time to complete the grant. She had to get her laptop running again.
Rita prodded her mouse pointer, glaring as it dawdled over every inch of her screen. After a romantic interlude with a talking paperclip, it finally reached the red “x” in the upper right. She closed every program but her word processor. Thank heavens that did the trick. The computer sped up, and the Undo feature restored her work. She poked through the Options menu, looking for some way to turn on autosaves or revisioning in case it happened again. Revisions were already available. In fact, one version was the length she needed, even after changing the font.
That didn’t mean she was done. In the draft, Figure 3 still had “[Get Terryl to put in some impressive looking numbers].” The foundation required that data; how had she forgotten to fill it in? She combed through her Finances folder and skimmed several large spreadsheets for the projected budget. Then she did a computer-wide search. She didn’t have it. She’d have to call Terryl on his day off.
He didn’t answer his phone, so she left a message. Then she called again, sent a text, and even used that blue bird thing everyone chatted on these days. Finally her phone rang. Thankfully, Terryl could access the data at home. She put her cursor on the open spot in the data table.
“I’m ready,” she told him. “Read those numbers to me.”
A large thump scattered the papers on her desk.
For crying out loud! What was Seung doing out there? Well, it couldn’t be as crucial as this grant.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
The door handle rattled. “Ms. Moreno!” Seung called, shaking the hinges.
“Terryl, could you wait a moment?” Rita put down the phone. As soon as she unlocked the door, Seung burst in. The intern slammed the door and braced her back against it, panting.
“What is it now?” Rita asked.
“I tried saying I was strong and capable, just like you said. But they didn’t go away.”
Rita took off her glasses and rubbed her temples. She didn’t have time to manage Seung’s work. If the intern wouldn’t stop interrupting her, perhaps she should send the girl home.
She opened her mouth to say as much but paused at the wild look in Seung’s eyes. The intern didn’t want to be a nuisance. She was genuinely upset. Seung needed leadership that was caring and inspiring, not dismissive.
Rita clasped the intern’s hands in her own. “Seung, why do you think you were chosen for this position?”
“Because I was willing to do it for free and my uncle is on the board?”
“No, that’s not why. You were chosen because we knew you were the right candidate, from the first time we spoke with you. Do you think we didn’t anticipate these issues? We did. We selected you because, more than anyone, you’re qualified to deal with them.”
“You did? But the things out there – ”
“Are completely within your ability to manage. You’re very special, Seung. You have the rare combination of talents needed for this work.”
“Really?” Seung gaped.
“Of course. I know new things can be scary, but there’s nothing out there that can defeat you. All you have to do is trust yourself.”
“Trust myself… ” Seung paused, brows furrowed. She took a deep breath and met Rita’s gaze. “I think I can do that.”
“I knew I could count on you.”
“Now go out there, and fight until you’re victorious!”
The intern stepped toward the door, paused, and then turned toward the pile of assorted antiques. They clanged as she pushed some aside and pulled out a great sword. Dragging it behind her, she opened the door and marched into the hall.
Rita blinked as she closed the door. What did Seung want with the sword? Rita shrugged. What mattered was that Seung took initiative. Rita had her own challenge to defeat.
Terryl wasn’t on the phone, but there was an email from him with the projected budget. Rita donned her headphones, muffling the irregular clanks and crashes from the other room. The next hour was blessedly free of interruptions. As she worked, Rita gained steam, checking off each application requirement faster and faster. Finally she reached that delectable moment when she was done. She pushed the button to submit the grant and cheered.
She packed up her laptop and put on her coat. No sounds came from the storage room. Had she been too hard on Seung? Now that she was finished, she could help the intern with whatever was bothering her. The door creaked softly; the office lights buzzed overhead until she flipped the switch. Silence. Rita was the only living thing in the museum.
Out in the hall, a note was pinned to the corkboard. It was from Seung. Ms. Moreno, I finished all my work. Thank you so much for cheering me on – I never thought I’d do what I just did! I’m heading home now. I hope the important things you’re doing go really well. Rita smiled and tucked the note in her purse as she headed into the storage room.
The space was still consumed by a mound of boxes, but they were empty. Along the near wall, the bequest was sorted in its entirety. Fabulous. Strangely, the sword Seung took from the office now held brown stains. It had a yellow tag for cleaning. Oh well, she could ask about that later.
Rita turned toward the door. Five mummies loomed in her path; their twisted forms reached for her with clawed hands. Rita shrieked and jumped back. Nothing moved. The bodies were completely still…and headless? She took a deep breath and stepped closer.
Five severed heads were lined up in front of the mummies; each had a blue tag for repair.
Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.