Mallory and the Hologram
By Brooke Randel
Mallory has better places to be. It’s not true—she’s an eighth grader with exactly nowhere to go—but it’s what she keeps thinking, what she wishes for herself. At least she got her dad to back out of being a field trip chaperone.
The buses pull up to a black-and-white building and everyone shuffles inside. The lobby is dark, lit like a medieval dungeon or one of those fancy fondue restaurants Mallory’s parents love so much. Welcome, a sign reads, to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mallory whispers in Angie’s ear, “Wasn’t Schindler’s List scary enough?” Angie snickers.
Mrs. Carsten, wearing the shoes of a marathon runner, shouts over the heads of her students, “Jackets, everybody! Take off your jacket and move to the right!”
One by one, the eighth graders peel off their coats and stuff them in plastic bins, stuffing those along a black conveyor belt. Once the whole class has cleared security, including Jackson in his unfortunate metal back brace, Mrs. Carsten corrals them down a cement hallway. Mallory’s classmates run their hands up and down the walls and she wonders if the field trip is almost over yet.
That morning, Mallory’s dad fixed her a bowl of yogurt and granola for breakfast. As she sat down, her hair half falling out of her ponytail, he grinned at her from across the counter.
“Big day today,” he said.
“Is it?” Mallory asked, and he laughed.
“I think you’re going to have a great time. Just wish I could’ve joined.”
He pulled out his phone to take her picture and she lifted her head, yogurt on her lips.
“Not today. I told you,” she said.
“Am I not allowed to remember this day? At all?”
In a straight line, the students of Mrs. Carsten’s social studies class amble into the museum auditorium. Mallory is wearing the wrong black sweater, not the thin one she was hoping would let her blend into the wall, but the thick one that feels like a Brillo pad. In a sea of chatty eighth graders, she is hyper aware. She doesn’t crack jokes or talk with Angie. All she does is watch. She can cut a tree with a single look. Or at least, she wishes for such force. For now, she climbs up the stairs of the auditorium, finds a seat in the middle and squeezes her hands tight.
Mrs. Carsten stands at the front of the room, beaming. She does the clapping thing—clap clappity clap clap—and Mallory finds her own hands echoing it back like everyone else. She has been programmed to clap. She hates how automatic her response is, how little thinking it takes to obey this clap stimulus with clap response, but when she sees the excitement in Mrs. Carsten’s eyes, the joy of hearing her class clap as one, Mallory feels bad for feeling bad. Mrs. Carsten is her favorite teacher.
“Before we get started,” Mrs. Carsten says, “let’s take a quick class pic. You know how the school board loves to see your shining faces. Okay, everyone say cheese!” A flash bursts in front of fifty oily teenage faces. Two girls in front of Mallory throw up peace signs. The photos on the walls—emaciated children with short, scruffy hair—glint in the flash. Mrs. Carsten takes two more pictures, then tucks her phone back in her pocket.
“Class, as you know, today is an extremely special day. It is important to listen and, of course, participate. Ask whatever questions you want. This is our chance to learn. All right, with that I’m going to give it over the museum director to tell you how this little contraption is gonna work.”
Dr. Carol Klein is a severe woman with bangs that cut her forehead in two. She dims the lights before flicking on her own wireless microphone headset.
“Today,” she bellows, “we will meet Malka Rosenfeld.”
The kid next to Mallory elbows her. “Do you have any gum?” He smells like stale Fruit Loops. She shakes her head no.
“Malka Rosenfeld was born in Czechoslovakia in 1926. She died fourteen years ago, surrounded by family. Before her death, she recorded this interview, which we have expertly cut, spliced, and coded so you can interact with her today. Let’s get Malka up here.”
The auditorium is quiet. Four loud clicks later and a hologram appears on stage, an old woman sitting in a blue chair.
“Hello, Malka. How are you?” Dr. Klein says coolly.
The hologram flickers. Malka’s lips move. “I am fine. How else can I be?”
Dead, Mallory thinks.
Dr. Klein turns back to the class. “Whatever questions you have about the Holocaust, specifically about Malka’s experiences, you can ask her directly. I suggest we learn more about where she’s from before we get to the war.” The museum director speaks as if she’s reading aloud. “Please remember you do not need to shout or stand. Malka is listening. Malka can hear you.”
Hands timidly rise and Dr. Klein calls on one with a jut of her chin. The hologram glitches before giving a reply, the program jumping to the appropriate answer in the system. Question, glitch, answer, one after another, a life shown in stitches. Malka’s arms bounce from the chair to her side to a ball in her lap.
Mallory squirms in her seat as her classmates ask about her great-grandma’s life. No one knows that’s who she is, of course. Mallory made her dad swear not to tell Mrs. Carsten, who no doubt would’ve told the class and the museum and the bus drivers who brought them. The thought of anyone knowing makes Mallory’s stomach spin.
Mrs. Carsten stands and asks how Malka felt when her family was shuttled into the ghetto. “The ghetto was terrible. But it was also fine. You know, you get used to things.”
Angie asks what the train had been like, if it smelled. “I was on the train for days. Days! Smelled like a bathroom because it was a bathroom. No seats, nothing.”
Malka’s narrow frame hovers slightly off the ground. She speaks of her father and being separated from him, of the shoe polish he wore in his hair. Her hair frames a round, worn face that, besides the wrinkles, looks eerily like Mallory’s, full cheeks, dark eyes, thin colorless lips. On cue, she speaks of watching an SS guard beat her mom with a club. On cue, she speaks of her sister’s wet, crying face when their mom was moved to the infirmary. On cue, she says they never saw her again. When someone asks what she thought happened, Malka answers that, too.
Mallory’s hands tighten in the sleeves of her sweater. She can’t stand everyone questioning Malka like this, how free they feel to pry the horror from her lips. The details aren’t juicy, like junior high gossip can be; they are personal, and to Mallory, that’s different.
She hesitates, but lets her hand rise in the air. Dr. Klein gives her a nod.
“How come you never shared any of this with your family?”
“After the war, I never wanted to think about it again. I never wanted to see another German for as long as I lived.”
“But your own family.”
“I do not understand your question. Can you rephrase?”
“I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“My sister was born three years before me. We were best friends.”
“Why are you doing this?” Mallory asks. Mrs. Carsten crouches on the ground to take her picture.
“I do not understand your question,” Malka repeats. “Can you rephrase?”
“You don’t have to tell everyone everything,” Mallory says.
Mrs. Carsten stands and smiles at Mallory. “How about this: Malka, can you tell us how you decided to participate in this project?”
Mallory stares at the hologram who both is and isn’t her great-grandma, the woman for whom she’s named, who died just months before she was born. She waits for the jump. Malka’s hand moves to her chin.
“I got a call and I said no. I can’t sit and talk that long. But the man, you know him? He says this is how people will learn in the future. This is how people will remember. I can’t stand remembering, but maybe it’s good. Maybe we need to know. So I talk. Not for me, but for you. Maybe you can use it.”
“How am I supposed to use your story?” Mallory shouts, shifting to the edge of her seat. She can feel Angie staring at her, and sees the beads on Dr. Klein’s brow.
“Don’t kill each other. If you can do that, you can do anything.”
“That’s it? That’s the big message? After all those years?”
“Mallory,” Angie whispers. “What are you doing?” Dr. Klein mumbles into a walkie-talkie and the security guard from the lobby, the one who helped Jackson in and out of his back brace, appears at the door.
“After all these years, all I want is to be with family. For holidays, they come. I have five grandchildren. David, Daniel, Rebecca, Louis and Michelle. Daniel has a little one on the way. One day their kids will see this and know my name, know my story. I don’t know if I deserve all this, but it gives me hope to think. A little girl like me, but with a normal little girl’s life. No war. No stars. That would be nice.”
Jackson sneezes an explosive sneeze, a confetti-inspired sneeze, and the whole class bursts into laughter. Snot drips on his hands and he smiles, too. Malka’s face is frozen in a wistful look, but only Mallory notices.
Mrs. Carsten claps them all to attention. Mallory’s hands stay in her sleeves. Daniel has a little one on the way. So she knew about her. She knew she’d come to the museum one day and watch her hologram. Malka had only one hope for Mallory, her unborn great-granddaughter, a vessel for the whole of future, and it was a hope for what wouldn’t be. Mallory slinks into her seat. Her dad, had she let him come, would be beaming right now, giving her shoulder a squeeze, thrilled she got to meet his grandma. She thinks of the hashtags and captions he’d put on this day, the wide-eyed emoji. Everyone wants to remember, but no one wants to pay attention. Mrs. Carsten, having ushered Jackson to the bathroom and back, is at the front of the auditorium again, snapping pictures. Angie is whispering to Ruby, trading fruit snacks under their seats. Dr. Klein calls on Mason with her chin. He asks a question, then José, then Jules. The security guard in the back doesn’t move except to yawn. Malka’s words float above their heads in strings and splices. Do they hear her? Do they see? Mallory scratches her arm, her sweater still itchy and wrong.