Olaf Johansen was enjoying his first cup of coffee of the day in peaceful silence, looking out of the window of his office into a serene garden that was blooming little by little in these early days of spring. This was going to be another good day, he thought to himself with self-satisfaction as he felt the delightful first rays of the sun tickle his face playfully. His harmonious moment was short-lived. A loud commotion outside in the hallway rudely interrupted his reverie. The sound of heavy booted feet running, nay, stomping across the hallway, got nearer and nearer until finally, the door to his office burst open unceremoniously. Niels, the chief security guard at the museum, burst in, his eyes bulging with terror.
-- “Mr. Curator, it’s awful! It’s a catastrophe! The Screaming Man is gone, gone!”
The inside of Olaf’ stomach churned. Not again! He remembered the last time thieves had broken into Oslo’s famous Munch Museum and succeeded in stealing the Edward Munch masterpiece, The Scream, right under the noses of the shocked visitors and hapless security guards. It had been an international scandal that had resulted in the ousting of Olaf’s old boss and his own promotion to the position of chief curator.
-- “What… What…” Olaf kept repeating helplessly as he trotted behind Niels towards the main wing of the museum that had housed Norway’s most celebrated painting. The only thing he could think of right now was thank god the museum had not opened yet. At least, his humiliation would not be witnessed by curious onlookers.
As he entered the main salon, Olaf abruptly stopped dead in his tracks. The painting was there. Right there on the wall where it had always hung. The churning in his stomach stopped. Now, it was his ears that were giving him trouble. They were starting to heat up, always a precursor to a major angry fit in the normally cool, collected Norwegian.
-- “Niels, what’s the meaning of this? Is this some kind of foolish prank?” Olaf asked his employee menacingly. “The painting is not gone. It is right there.”
Niels looked at his boss, flushed in the face.
-- “Mr. Curator, you… You don’t understand. The painting is there. But it’s not there. It’s hard to explain. I don’t know…. I just don’t know what’s happening!”
It was now the turn of Olaf’s rage to disappear, once again replaced by an altogether different feeling: Pity. He looked at the obviously demented old man standing before him and wondered if he would have to be taken away by paramedics or if he could be reasoned with to just return home while the museum worked out a severance package for him.
-- “My dear old chap” Olaf articulated very slowly to his security chief, as if the old man had gone deaf or dumb, “Why don’t we go to my office and…”
But he could not finish his sentence. The museum personnel, including several of the other security guards, the staff of the museum gift shop, and the cleaning crew, alerted to some extraordinary event, had gradually gathered in the main salon while the curator was conversing with his chief security guard. They were now standing huddled in a circle around The Scream. Olaf could hear their gasps and their anxious murmurs buzzing about, growing louder and more frenzied as the seconds went by.
Forgetting Niels, Olaf hesitatingly took one step and then another until he had reached the small gathering. He elbowed his way through the group of people until he came face to face with The Scream. The employees had respectfully quieted down. He could feel all their eyes upon him, on the back of his neck, waiting for him to take the lead, tell them what to do, what to think.
Olaf looked at the painting then looked back at his audience. All blank faces. They could have all been at a poker tournament, their faces drained of all emotion, neither condemning nor supportive. And yet he knew they were all judging him. This was to be his big moment. This was his opportunity to show them all the stuff he was made of. To finally live up to the title of chief curator that had come to him so ignominiously.
Taking a deep breath, Olaf turned back to the painting, his eyes closed, silently praying, it seemed for an eternity. When he eventually opened them up again, the shock was so swift that he staggered back a few steps. His eyes started squinting rapidly until the image before him had become completely blurry. With great effort, he tried to move forward but he just ended up lunging forward jerkily, almost banging his head on the canvas. He opened his mouth to say something but realized that no air was moving in or out. He gripped his chest, tried to call out for help, but it was too late. Like a tree freshly cut, he collapsed rigidly down to the floor in a dead faint.
Indeed, the painting was there, as it always had been. There was the red/orange sky, the wooden bridge, the furious waves of the river below. Even the murky figures in the background still stood grimly at their spot. But in the forefront, where the Screaming Man had always stood for more than a hundred years, spewing out his despair from his round mouth at whoever would dare to stare back at his mad eyes, there was… nothing. The Scream was still there. But his most famous inhabitant, the Screaming Man, had inexplicably vanished into thin air >>> Part 2
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