The Most Amazing Museum of Los Angeles

Read the first two chapters of MAMLA below for a preview of the Shafer Family’s exciting and unexpected adventure in a museum that is easier to enter than it is to leave.

Chapter 1 — Family Day

Ryan had been lying awake since he heard his dad leave to pick up Vanessa in Pasadena. A flutter of tension kept him alert as he listened for the sound of his younger sisters. His mom must have gotten back late from The Vistaview Living Community because he never even heard her get home. Getting a call at dinner to work someone else’s shift was lame, as far as he was concerned, being a Certified Nursing Assistant was a bad as being a doctor.

When he heard Maria and Leah trundle down the stairs, he popped out of bed and threw on his sweats. The girls were talking as they went down to the kitchen. 

“SHHHH!” hissed Ryan over the railing. His sisters looked up at him, startled. “Mom’s trying to sleep.”

“You’re louder than we are, Captain Obvious,” Maria whispered back. Leah giggled. 

Ryan skated silently down the steps in his socks, but lost his balance on the second-to-last step and almost landed on the two of them. Maria pulled Leah back as Ryan caught his balance with four stumbling stomps. All of them turned to look upstairs with dread, and breathed again when nothing happened. Then they all bounded into the kitchen to make themselves breakfast.

A flurry of bowls, spoons, and glasses landed on the kitchen table along with milk, bread, butter and jelly. Leah stood on a chair and got most of her Fruit Loops in the bowl, and Ryan’s Reese’s Puffs sloshed onto the tabletop with a wild shot of milk. Maria toasted four pieces of bread and scraped each one with melted butter before throwing on a blob of strawberry jelly. All of them took their food and orange juice into the living room to eat in front of the TV.

When their mother dragged herself into the kitchen hoping for some coffee, she saw the table and countertops looking like a creation by Picasso. Scattered cereal bled green, pink and brown in puddles of spilled milk while melted butter dripped from the microwave and a trail of crumbs led from the bread bag to the toaster to the kitchen table. Bowls and spoons, plates and glasses, lounged haphazardly on every surface including a chair, the floor, and the top of the refrigerator. She slammed two cupboard doors shut.

“Ryan! Maria! Leah! Get in here, now!” 

They scrambled up from the TV as Carrie poured exactly four drops of grainy coffee into a mug that had been re-shelved with a streaky dark crust on the rim. She slammed it down on the counter. The children pulled up short at the kitchen linoleum, wondering why their mother was upset. 

“This kitchen is a disaster area!” said Carrie. “No one is going anywhere today until this mess is cleaned up. Ryan—trash. Maria—dishes. Leah—food.” She turned her back on them and started making a fresh pot of coffee.  

* * * * *

Vanessa irritably flipped the page on her sketchbook and started another version of the Golden Ballroom beginning, this time, with the princess entering from the narrow passage beside the throne. Her dad would be there any minute and she had to get the picture out of her head and onto the page. Maybe make it simpler, she thought, more anime and less realistic. 

The doorbell rang and Vanessa heard her mother open the door to their apartment. “You’re late, Miguel.”

Since the divorce, her mom measured time like a track coach with a stopwatch. The motto of her acting teacher was: “Early is on time. On time is late. And late is inexcusable.”  Vanessa had heard her say it, like a million times. 

She found just the right pen to make a dark line that would separate the princess from the rest of the royal wedding and began drawing long, flowing curves.

“I know, Alyce” said her Dad. “Parking is impossible in this neighborhood. I was actually here ten minutes ago but I had to drive all over the place to find a spot.” Vanessa hastily switched to a dull pencil to sketch the corridor. 

“There’s this thing called a cell phone, you know. Everybody has one.” 

“Stoooooop,” moaned Vanessa over the page as she tried to tune out her parents and add more shape to the dress.

“Sorry, I was just all about looking for a spot.”

“Don’t tell me,” said her mother, “tell your daughter.” 

“Is she ready to go?” 

“She’s in her room. You can ask her yourself.” 

Vanessa slapped the sketchbook shut and threw a pillow on top, then grabbed her phone and purse, opening the door just as her dad started to knock. She slid past him and headed for the front door. 

“Hello Vanessa,” said Miguel flatly. 

“Where are you going to take everyone?” asked Alyce. 

“The Circo Nocturno in downtown Los Angeles,” said Miguel. “I saw an ad and thought it sounded like something fun. Something the whole family could enjoy.” 

Why did her dad work so hard to sell his plans for Family Day? 

“Whatever,” said Vanessa, turning to go. 

“Dinner is at six,” said Alyce Webb, shutting the door firmly behind them.

* * * * *

Leah had already put away the bread, butter, milk, and orange juice by the time Ryan wiped up the floor and countertops. Then she sang her ABC’s and lined up the cereal boxes in the lower cupboard starting with Cheerios and ending with Wheaties. Now that she could read, she loved words everywhere and anywhere.

Maria stood at the sink, elbow deep in soap suds, vigorously cleaning every breakfast dish and every utensil, including several from the night before. Her coach had taught her that a job wasn’t done unless it was done right, and if it applied to putting away soccer equipment it applied to cleaning the dishes. 

Carrie had gone down the hall to shower while the coffee brewed and the children followed her orders. They shouldn’t have to be told, she thought, waiting for the hot water, they were old enough to figure it out for themselves. Ryan, especially, was starting high school after all. She stuck her head out the door and called up the hallway. 

“Ryan, are you taking out the garbage?”

“I’m trying, Mom,” said Ryan as he dug around in the kitchen closet for a new trash bag.

“There is no try,” said Maria in a high growly voice, “only DO.” 

“Bite me, Yoda,” said Ryan. 

“What’s that?” called their mother. 

“I got it!” Ryan yelled. 

* * * * *

Vanessa knew it was going to be a long ride when her Dad pointed to a house on the corner saying, “I did the photos on that house a couple of years ago. The light blue one with the long porch across the front. Classic old school Pasadena architecture from eighty years ago.”

“Uh-huh,” she agreed vaguely, not looking up from her Instagram. He never talked about anything important, so what else could she say? 

Vanessa had complained to her mother about going with her dad for Family Day every other weekend, but her mom said, “Miguel just wants you to feel like their sister.”

“Half sister,” Vanessa had answered. 

She let her streaky brown hair fall around her face as she concentrated on her phone. 

“New hair color?” Miguel asked. Vanessa lifted her head and looked forward out the windshield.

“A month ago,” she said, waited three seconds, then returned to her phone. 

Miguel took a deep breath and pressed on the accelerator.

* * * * *

Leah laid her clothes out on the bedroom floor. With Maria already dressed and back downstairs Leah had time alone with her imagination. The clothes she had chosen several days ago had been hanging all the way to the left side of her closet. She liked to line up her outfits from left to right like the days on the calendar. Today’s Family Day required a special outfit and she had all of it spread at her feet like a deflated doll. 

Dressed in her pajamas, Leah lay down on the purple leggings and the pink shirt with the ruffled waist, spreading herself over the clothes. She closed her eyes and imagined her pajamas melting away and rolling themselves up as a flying hangar draped the purple and pink clothes over her body and returned itself to the closet. 

In real life, Leah popped up from the floor, stripped off her pajamas, put them under her pillow, then quickly put on her outfit before lying back on the floor. She pretended that her clothes had changed themselves and shut her eyes again to enjoy the magic. 

“Leah!” yelled Maria from their bedroom door. “What are you doing? Dad’s here!” 

* * * * *

Miguel pulled the SUV into the driveway as Ryan heaved the trash bag into the can. 

“Hi, Dad,” said Ryan. “I think everyone’s about ready.” Miguel circled the car and walked quickly toward the front door. 

“Let’s get this show on the road, Ryan,” he said brusquely. Ryan checked to see if Vanessa was in the car and then hurried to catch up with his dad.

His stomach twisted when his father spoke sharply like that. He went over what he had just said. Did he say something wrong? Did his dad have a problem with “I think”? 

“What can I do to help?” he asked. Miguel pulled up short at the door. 

“Look for something, Ryan,” he said with exasperation as he tapped his son on the head. “Use your noggin.” 

With that he went in and Ryan kicked the concrete step hard enough to hurt through the toe of his sneaker. After the throbbing subsided he kicked it with the other foot and carried the pain with him through the front door of the house.

* * * * *

Mom and Dad were arguing as Leah walked down the stairs. 

“Well you could’ve made some coffee for me, anyway,” said her mother, grabbing tote bags with snacks, towels, extra shoes, and band-aids.  

“Carrie, I had no idea when you were going to get up,” he said, filling the travel mugs with coffee.

“Go shave, Miguel. I’ll get that.” 

“I already did,” he said snapping on the lids and heading toward the front door where Ryan stood stone-faced. “I used the electric razor in the car.”

“You know how dangerous that is?” she asked grabbing sweatshirts from the coat closet and tossing them to Ryan, Maria, and Leah. “People get killed doing that!” 

“Well I didn’t,” said Miguel, jamming his house key into the lock on the front door. 

* * * * *

The silence in the SUV was as constant as the noise of the traffic all along the drive into downtown Los Angeles. Vanessa scrolled through Snapchat, Ryan added a siege wall in Civilization, Maria watched gymnastics on YouTube, and Leah twisted a lock of her short red hair while she read the next chapter of Bridge to Terabithia on her Kindle app. Carrie slumped in the front seat, dozing while she waited for the coffee to take effect.

“Take I-170,” said the voice of the GPS, “south towards Los Angeles.” 

“We’re already in Los Angeles!” Miguel complained to the dashboard, “we never left Los Angeles!”

When they arrived at their destination, the Circo Nocturno was closed.

Chapter 2 — A Change of Plans

The Shafer Family stepped out of the harsh sunlight and into the lobby of The Most Amazing Museum of Los Angeles. The small worn room had scuffed tiles laid out in a black-and-white diamond pattern like someone had kicked a chessboard aside and caused it to turn at an odd angle. The copper colored walls had a well-beaten texture with large letters mounted a few inches out, spelling the name of the museum in a typestyle that reminded Ryan of old newspaper headlines. The MAMLA logo glowed in a circle above.

“Not much of a museum,” said Maria. “I vote we go to a movie.”

“Go, go, go, Maria! Always going somewhere!” said Ryan. 

Leah had wandered off to one side where she discovered several glass boxes sitting on pedestals with figures inside posed dramatically in different rooms and activities. A lone figure of a girl in one box had grabbed Leah’s attention. She sat on a staircase with a small pile of books by her side. Instead of looking at the book in her hands, though, she listened to something down the stairs. Leah, found herself sitting on the stairs as family arguments snaked up from below. When she felt the claws of a restless animal in her belly scraping and pinching her insides she shook off the feeling with a yelp, finding herself back at the pedestal in the museum. 

“Leah,” said Carrie, suddenly by her side, “are you all right?”

“Yeah, Mom,” said Leah looking away, “I just slipped on something.”

The other members of the family were discovering glass boxes on other pedestals, walking around them to see each of the figures inside. 

“They look so real,” said Vanessa, “the detail on that dress is incredible.” 

“He looks so frustrated,” said Miguel, peering at a box with a father at the head of the dinner table. “Just once, I’d like to have this family eat without bickering!” Miguel’s sudden outburst caused all the other members of the family to turn and stare at him. 

“Thanks for sharing,” said his wife with a raised eyebrow. 

“This isn’t funny,” said Maria pointing a shaking finger at a box with no figures inside. 

“What?” asked Ryan. 

“This is our house!” said Maria. She looked like someone had slapped her in the face. “That’s my soccer bag behind the sofa.”

The rest of the family surrounded the glass box to examine the scene. The easy chair nearest to the kitchen had Carrie’s scrubs tossed on it, Ryan’s Xbox controllers were piled in front of the TV, and Miguel’s camera lay on the coffee table by a scatter of lenses. 

“Welcome, welcome!” exclaimed a cheerful round woman stepping through a panel that had opened on the other side of the MAMLA logo. Everyone jumped at the sudden greeting. “You’ve discovered the dioramas, I see. Aren’t they striking? Just a glimpse of what awaits the Shafer Family on their visit to The Most Amazing Museum of Los Angeles!”

“How did you know we were the Shafers?” asked Carrie. 

“Well just look at you, dear,” the woman laughed. “Who else would you be?” 

Leah giggled nervously at this remark and the woman gave her a wink. 

“My name is Doris Weatherton,” said the woman waggling the brass name badge on her lapel. “And I am your MAMLA docent.” She paused as if expected applause, then continued when she got nothing but blank stares. 

“Docent anyone want to know what a docent is?” The room remained silent. 

“I do.” said Leah finally, with her hand up in the air. Maria and Ryan raised their hands mostly from the habits of middle school. Vanessa, stood her ground and just waited. Carrie and Miguel both nodded. Doris Weatherton clapped her hands together in delight. She peered at everyone over her glasses and spoke with a slow, quiet voice.

“A docent is your guide to the museum.” 

“That’s it?” asked Vanessa after a pause. “You’re just a guide?”

“Oh, my my, you are a sharp one aren’t you, dear.” 

Vanessa wasn’t sure if she she had just been complemented or insulted. Having recently turned fifteen, she had learned that many things adults said actually had a second meaning. 

“We were taking them to see the Circo Nocturno,” Miguel explained, “but the—”

“Not until dusk, yes,” Doris Weatherton interrupted. “So inconvenient when you’ve already paid for parking.” 

“Are you a mind reader?” asked Maria. She was thinking of her favorite movies with superheroes and characters who had fantastic powers.

Doris Weatherton let out a burst of laughter. “Why bother reading minds when it’s written all over your faces? Good for business, though.” 

“Well, you’re right,” said Carrie, “so we thought we’d bring the children to see your museum.” 

“And MAMLA is happy to see you!” She pronounced the name of the museum so it sounded like MOM-luh.

“How much for all six of us?” asked Miguel, reaching for his wallet. 

“Oh, dear me. Wouldn’t it be awful if every museum only wanted money.” 

“…and here it comes,” said Vanessa sarcastically. 

“What’s the price of admission?” asked Carrie, put on guard by her stepdaughter’s cynical remark. 

“Your full participation!” sang Doris Weatherton airily. “…and a quick tour of the gift shop afterwards, if you’re so inclined.”

“I am SO inclined!” said Leah. 

“Afterwards,” Carrie emphasized. 

Miguel shoved his wallet back in his pants. Most of the family looked willing to give it a try; Vanessa just shrugged, so he turned back to Doris Weatherton. 

“Okay, we’ll take the tour.” 

“First things first,” said Doris Weatherton. “Pull out your smartphones for the Why-Fi agreement.” 

“Nice,” said Ryan with approval. He fully intended to keep building walls in Civilization. Everyone opened their devices and turned them on to discover an agreement that had popped up on their screens. At the top of the page it had the “Why-Fi” logo and at the bottom of the page were two choices: YES and NO. In the middle were the words “User Agreement.” 

“I’m not getting anything,” said Miguel to his wife tapping on the words in the middle.

“Me, neither,” answered Carrie, “It’s not taking me to the agreement.” 

“The agreement is YES or NO, dear,’” Doris Weatherton explained. 

“But what are the terms of the agreement?” asked Miguel. 

“Quite simple. Your phone will provide Why-Fi if you choose YES. And it won’t work at all if you choose NO.” All four children immediately chose YES. The adults hesitated, then did the same. On every screen a single gray app appeared that simply said “Why-Fi.”

“And what’s with the spelling of wifi?” asked Miguel. Doris Weatherton turned to Leah for help.

“What does ‘Why?’ mean?” she asked.  

“It means “How come?’” answered Leah. 

“Wonderful answer! And the second part is a little bit harder, so I won’t make you guess.” This was directed at the rest of the family. “Fi is short for the Latin word fidelis, or faithful. Ask the Why-Fi for help and it will faithfully respond.”

“That should be very useful,” said Carrie. 

“I’m sure it will be,” said Doris Weatherton. 

“I’m ready,” said Maria like she was sprinting onto the soccer field, “let’s do this.” 

“How soon is the next tour?” Carrie asked. 

“No waiting. Just enter through the Howl of Mirrors and you’re on your way.”

“Did you mean The HALL of Mirrors?” asked Miguel. 

“Look at the sign, Dad,” said Leah. “It says ‘Howl of Mirrors.’”

“Look at you,” said Doris Weatherton extending her arms toward Leah as if she were within reach of a hug. “You can read already.” 

“I’m five.” 

“You’re gonna be six next month,” said Maria.

“She taught herself to read,” said Carrie firmly to Maria. 

“That will be useful, too,” said Doris Weatherton. She walked over to the door and placed her hand on the knob. Then she spoke to the Shafers in hushed tones and looked into the eyes of each family member one at a time. “The Howl of Mirrors is your portal into the entire museum, and your opportunity to choose your own path. I won’t tell you where to go, and you won’t know where you’re going until you get there. Just remember that wherever you go, that’s where you are meant to be.”

She pulled the door open to reveal a shiny mirrored surface on the back, and a bright clean room full of mirrors inside. The Shafers entered one at a time. 

“Are we supposed to howl?” asked Ryan.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” whispered Doris Weatherton. 

“Mm-mm,” muttered Vanessa, possibly having said “thank you.” 

“Remember everyone,” Doris Weatherton said from the door. “Think before you speak.” With that she closed them in with a distinctly loud click. 

©Eric Margerum – all rights reserved