the museum of americana

a literary review

Kiev to Carolina—Fiction by Kara Oakleaf

In the museum, Carmen Sandiego pauses to admire a marble sculpture: a woman wrapped in a toga, the folds of chiseled fabric thin as water and almost as transparent. This isn’t what she’s here for, it’s not even in the same wing as the jeweled necklace she’s going to slide between the seams of her long red coat. But there’s something about the marble. When she touches it—she always touches the art—it’s a cold rock, and she’s not sure what she expected.


Once, before a flight, she checked a suitcase that held a velvet pouch of rubies in the lining. As she watched the orange-vested men load suitcases into the belly of the plane, she swore she heard the gems clinking together. They sounded like wind chimes, and the tinkling sound of all those jewels in the breeze followed her the whole way across an ocean. For hours, she was convinced that everyone—the snoring man in front of her, the pilots, the stewardesses wheeling carts of soda down the aisle—could hear their music. But no one ever noticed. The sound was only for her.


It’s unclear what happens to the treasures she pilfers from every corner of the earth. She rarely thinks of it; she hands the riches off to nameless men who give her another assignment, another valuable artifact to chase down. What she craves most are not the priceless objects themselves, but the few moments in time when they are hers, when she can turn them over in her hands and feel the weight of thousands of years compressed into a diamond, the last remains of a lost civilization in a single stone statue. Walking out of a place with all that history secretly pressed against her skin.


Carmen Sandiego can sense when someone’s following her, but she’s rarely frightened, despite close calls and narrow escapes. Mostly, she’s amused by the amateurs who will never understand the shape of the world as well as she does. She’s been traveling longer and farther than all of them, has the dirt of every continent on the soles of her boots. Eventually, they all stop chasing her—the exhaustion of crisscrossing the globe wears on them, and they all have a home to return to. Carmen loves it though, feels most herself during those hours in airplanes. The roar of the twin engines eating the air, all other sounds silenced, and nothing but miles of empty sky in all directions.


On one of her jobs, she swallows whole diamonds like miniature cubes of ice. They’re hard as glass on her tongue, but they slide down her throat like they’re melting. Carmen is certain she can feel them the whole time they rest in her stomach, as if they’ve always been a part of her. She imagines their shine spreading beneath her skin until her insides are glittering. But later, back in her hotel, she pushes a finger down her throat to cough them up and they only look wet, nothing more than pebbles fished from the bottom of a river. She rinses them in the sink and lines them up on the porcelain countertop, staring until she finds the exact sparkle at the center of each diamond, where they catch the light and throw it back to her.


Little surprises her anymore, but on her last job, there’s this: the pitch-dark inside a museum vault, the middle of the night. With more time, she’d throw on a flashlight, spend hours running her hands over every secret treasure they’ve locked away, but she’s cautious and takes only the single item she came for: an oval emerald once owned by a duchess, its unique shaped carved by an artisan whose name was lost to history.

She can’t make out the details in the dark, but she doesn’t need to. Once touched, her skin remembers. She’s held this emerald before.


If people were more honest, Carmen Sandiego thinks, everyone would admit that they, too, want to possess some piece of the world. Why else do they draw these borders, name every ocean and island? What are they doing memorizing the globe, reciting the names of each small tract of land, if not trying to hold those places, just for a moment, in their own mouths?

The rest of the world is not so different from her.


Many years ago, she carried a camera, a thick canvas strap slung around her neck. It helped her look the part of a tourist, unremarkable and easy to ignore. She took pictures in the hotel rooms, after the jobs. She placed her items on the smooth white duvets of hotel beds and snapped photos under the yellow fluorescence: pictures of golden crowns, piles of sapphires, once even a long-extinct spider, fossilized in amber.

The images never captured the exact shimmer of the objects, their spark lost in development, but still she took the photos, had the film developed in anonymous places, tourist shops and chain drug stores with glassy-eyed employees who gazed through the images like they were cellophane.

One day, a gangly teenage boy asked her about the pictures as he handed over the paper envelope. The lie spilled easily off her tongue: appraisal work for a museum she invented on the spot, giving it a foreign-sounding name the boy would forget before she was through the revolving doors. Less interesting than it seems, but the travel is nice, she told him in an offhand way, tipping the brim of her hat lower to cover her face.

Still, his question shook her, and she stopped taking pictures. Now, she wakes early on the mornings after jobs and opens the curtains of her hotel rooms as the sun comes up. She sits with each treasure in her hand, turning it over and over until she’s memorized every facet, until she knows the exact colors it radiates in the sunlight, until its shape is imprinted in her palm.


This is why she recognizes the oval emerald, its surface smooth as an egg. She remembers the first time she stole it—years ago, from a cracked safe in a countryside manor. Back then, it was the centerpiece of a necklace, large silver talons gripping the gem. The necklace is gone now; it’s only the jewel, as if the talons had released it to her.

It is the first time anything she’s let go has returned to her.


When she holds the emerald in the natural light of the hotel the following morning, it glints like sea glass, throwing a pale jade on the walls and coloring the palm of her hand. It is not the most remarkable item she’s ever held—like so many carefully preserved artifacts, its real value is in the people who once owned it, in the stories it’s carried across the centuries—and Carmen senses that the men who asked her to steal it all those years ago did not take care of it the way they should have. This is enough to make her decision.

When her bags are packed, she slides the emerald into her pocket. She won’t hide it in any of her bags; she wants it close. Before leaving the hotel, she lights a match and burns her passport, leaving its blackened traces in the ashtray. There’s another passport  tucked inside her boot, a clean copy from one of the smaller countries that no one remembers and no one asks about. When she arrives at the airport, it’s early, and she goes past her gate and into the next terminal, slipping onto a crowded flight headed for another quadrant of the world.


She knows there are men—vile, vengeful men—who might hunt her down. But if they were careless enough to lose track of this emerald, Carmen Sandiego knows they won’t be able to find her. It’s the risk those men have taken, she thinks—all those years sending her across oceans and continents until she knew all the pathways of the world.

She knows which landscapes will help her disappear, how easy it will be to vanish off the map.




Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Nimrod, and other journals, as well as the anthology Short-Form Creative Writing (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). She received her MFA from George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book festival. Find more of her work at

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