The Museum of Claire

The Museum of Claire is 32 dollars to get in but it’s well worth the price of admission if you’re interested in our time traveler. The numbers vary, but there are currently seven Claires in residence, ranging in age from 24 to 53-years-old.

I would recommend making the trip soon.

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Claire has three rules if she stays with us and they’ve never broken them.

1. She must never have any contact with any of the other Claires in residence. Claire is carefully scheduled and managed to keep her away from her other selves.

2. She must not interfere with herself in any other way. The museum is a place of rest and recuperation. Neutral ground.

3. Claire must stay sober while in residence here.

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The museum houses her, pays her salary, and arms her with supplies and information when she chooses to leave again. Dates, names, locations, clothing, currency, whatever she asks for. In return, we’re allowed to display artifacts from her life and travels. She leaves us clothing, journals, that sort of thing, and every once in a while she lets us know where an item of importance was buried so that we can retrieve it in the present time. Those sorts of finds are the kind that keep the museum running.

Claire herself makes up most of our popular exhibits. We used to let her tell stories, but Claire wasn’t a very good story-teller in her early life. Claire sometimes still tells stories when she’s older, but there have been concerns about having too many of these stories become public knowledge to protect Claire’s safety. There are copyright issues. It’s really a mess. We’ve moved to a different format, now. You can ask one question per Claire, but get here early if you have burning questions. The line gets quite long late in the day.

The questions must be actual questions. No “this is more of a comment” questions allowed. A quick selfie is permitted. Claire will take it for you. She knows her best angles.

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When I started working here, I treated the rules like magic spells, afraid to even think of breaking them. I walked through these halls certain that if Claire saw herself in the hallway then they would both disappear from history in a puff of smoke. Or my parents would cease to have met and I’d disappear by the end of the day. The schedule felt like a holy document from those on high to keep the world running as it should. The echo of footsteps sent my heart racing with the thought that it might be her.

The rules aren’t for the universe’s benefit. At least I pray they aren’t.

Keeping Claire sober was the hardest thing for me after I was promoted to work with her directly. We tell the tourists that Claire is kept on a strict schedule to keep her away from other iterations of herself in residence, but the schedule and the rules keep her from sneaking off to find wine. The last thing the museum needs is a gathering of Claires at a bar somewhere sabotaging each others’ efforts to fix the time stream. Claire is kind of an ass like that.

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I’m personal assistant to Claire #5, the iteration of herself at 28-years-old, and when my Claire started to cough I worried that the fabric of reality would unravel. It’s a deep, wet cough that sounds like the timeline of history being pulled apart one strand at a time inside of her chest. Claire has arrived wounded, dehydrated, starving, and when she is 32 she had a child here. But I’ve never seen Claire seriously ill before. Not like this.

Her illness drags on for weeks. I do what I can for her but hot tea and extra sleep do nothing. She can’t shake whatever illness she arrived with.

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The official diagnosis is “time-travel induced pneumonia.” The antibiotics don’t work. She doubles over when she coughs, now, her body shaking with the effort. The doctors shake their heads and take away samples and leave little bottles of pills. Three times a day, four times a day, five. Steroids to keep her going. Stronger and strong antibiotics. The drugs are so powerful they make Claire sicker than she started.

One doctor shook his head and called it “just a weird confluence of time travel bugs.”

“She can’t die.” I told myself that over and over again. Her future was still being lived by Claires-in-residence. There was no way that she could die. I didn’t know what was going to save her or when it would come, but it had to come soon. Because she was dying even though I knew she couldn’t die.

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We know that Claire sometimes jumps to our present without staying at the museum. You’ve doubtless heard some of those same sightings. If she comes to our time at a stage in her life where she’s not prepared to follow the museum rules, we really do prefer that she not come to us. We don’t interfere with her life when she’s not staying with us. It’s for the best.

Claire #5 refused to leave the museum to be admitted to the hospital. Was she being overly paranoid? I don’t know. We ushered doctors in through the loading docks to keep the other Claires from knowing.

The #5 room became a hospital room and the nurses taught me what I needed to know.

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Claire has rules that she must follow and so do those of us who work with her. Rule number one is the schedule, but rule number two is that we do not discuss the inner workings of the museum. I come home and hold my son close and wave my spouse away when she asks what’s wrong. “Just a long day,” I say, or something to that affect. And in the middle of the night I wake up to the echo of that rattling cough tearing through my bedroom, like the sound of my family being erased from the world.

“You want to talk about it, Haya?” my spouse asks.

“I just need more sleep,” I say, though we both know I’m lying.

The cough echoes through my dreams as a thousand Claires storm me in the hallways of the museum and I fight to keep existing.

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“Let her have whatever she wants,” the doctors say in her final days. Five separate doctors. It must be something they’re taught to say when a patient reaches the end. What Claire #5 wants is booze and company. I sit with her while we drink more wine than had ever been allowed into the museum before in the four years it’s been open. It is two in the morning. Inside of the museum’s private rooms we can just hear the cicadas outside. Claire is drunk. I’m drunk. And finally I dig up the nerve to do something I’ve never done before: I ask Claire her one question.

“What happens next?” I whisper into the darkness, barely daring to say it even with a bottle of wine coursing through my body.

“Hmm?” Claire asks, pouring another glass as though she wasn’t already two bottles deep. Wine sloshes on the floor with each cough. I leave it for the janitorial staff in the morning.

“You’re dying.” As the words spill out I realize no one has said them aloud yet.

“Yep,” Claire says, sloshing half a glass of wine on the floor for emphasis.

Every day of my life I wake up certain that the universe will continue because Claire is here. She has a future self and so we must also have a future. Now I have to know. “What happens to the timeline? The other Claires? What happens to us?”

Claire laughs precious bits of her life’s breath until her lungs fight for their next breath. “The other Claires? I hope all of those bitches catch this. Why do you think I came?”

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Claire is a selfish ass determined to take herself down by any means necessary. The universe doesn’t collapse when Claire dies at 28-years-old. Older Claires don’t disappear. The museum trundles on.

I hold my son so tight that I’m afraid I might hurt him at night and I try to sleep, but some of the other Claires-in-residence have started to cough. I’m too much a coward to ask any of the others a question.

Dianne Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and classic science fiction. She once dreamed of being an astronaut. Or maybe a lawyer. Or an artist. She settled for being as many of them as she could all at once through fiction writing.

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