"The Museum of Haunted Objects" by Megan Neumann is original fiction from the anthology Speculative Story Bites. Get the whole anthology from Amazon, Kobo, or World Weaver Press.
Ellery rolled his eyes as the family approached the “Boiling Pot,” his most predictable display. As he expected, the kids—a girl with a messy braid and a greasy boy nearing his teens—gasped when the water began to boil. Like all his visitors, this family was predictable, expecting nothing more than a cheap thrill and temporary amusement from his museum. Although, he reminded himself, that’s all his displays were: temporary amusements.
He knew he shouldn’t be hateful. He had, after all, collected the displays himself, but he found no excitement in the attractions after forty-seven years.
The family moved to the mirror next. The mirror, he knew, would make them shriek. Ellery waited for their reaction, but he tried to appear as if he wasn’t watching them. He focused on writing in his logbook with his fine fountain pen, adding detailed descriptions of the family as he watched. He did this with all his visitors.
Mundane, lower-middle class family. Cheap shoes, he wrote in his neat script.
Then he heard the scream. It was the mom. She let out a high-pitched yelp. Then the whole family laughed nervously. They slowly scooted away from the hanging piece of glass.
The woman in the mirror, Lavinia was her name, ran toward the family as though running down a long hallway. She never reached the end, however. She ran and wept for eternity. Such was the nature of this haunted mirror—repetitive and lifeless.
Ellery sighed and stared at his logbook without writing. He hoped he wouldn’t have to fret over this much longer. He had put out an ad three days earlier:
Wanted: Curator needed for museum of haunted objects. Pays little, but little work required. Must not startle easily.
No one had applied yet, which surprised Ellery. Fifty years ago he would have jumped at the chance to work in such a place. He had, in fact, responded to such an ad posted by his predecessor nearly fifty years ago. At that time, a disgruntled old man had explained to a young Ellery that he would maintain the museum and acquire new haunted objects. For his efforts he’d receive a small salary and a place to live above the museum. His salary came from the anonymous owner whom Ellery had never met.
But fifty years ago Ellery had been stupid, naïve. He hoped someone even stupider would show up to take his place behind the front desk and pass their days in monotony.
“Look at them go,” the boy said, interrupting Ellery’s thoughts.
They were watching the marching boots. Ellery’s nose wrinkled in disgust.
“There’s not any legs,” the girl said dumbly.
Ellery coughed as he wrote the girl’s idiotic comment in his logbook, noting she probably inherited her intelligence from her dull-eyed father.
The family moved into the room of “Asian Wonders” where he could no longer see or hear their reactions. But he didn’t need to see or hear to know how they would react. They would look away from the petrified root, which writhed in its case like a newborn infant in a crib, its tuberous growths resembling a child’s face and limbs.
Then they would gaze in awe at the China doll that danced in a small circle, smiling mysteriously and beckoning onlookers to come closer.
He harrumphed and closed his logbook. There would probably be only one guest entry today, perhaps only one entry this week.
Ellery prepared to return to his office for a cup of tea when he heard faint thumps of footsteps. The sound did not come from the marching boots but from the front of the museum.
“Hello,” said a male voice, “I’m inquiring about the advertisement.” The voice was smooth, a young man’s voice. Though when Ellery looked up, he found an awkward not-so-young man standing in the doorway wearing suspenders over a stained white button up shirt with a green bowtie. One of the man’s eyes was larger than the other. The larger of the two twitched almost rhythmically. His thick lips were pulled into a smile revealing two rows of square teeth.
“This is the Museum of Haunted Objects, correct?” the man asked.
Ellery cleared his throat and tucked his logbook under his desk. “What else could this place be?” Ellery asked. He waved a hand at the rows of objects, thumping noisily on their display tables.
The man smiled again. “Of course,” he said. “Of course, this is the museum.”
“So you want the job, eh?” Ellery stepped from behind the desk and approached the man. “You think you have what it takes?”
“The ad said the work wouldn’t be hard.”
“Hmph,” Ellery said. “Maybe not physically, but you must be prepared to maintain each object, understand each spirit’s idiosyncrasies.” Ellery paused dramatically, or so he hoped, but the man’s expression did not change. “Your name?” Ellery asked.
“Lyle Hammer,” he said.
Ellery did not like the look of this man, but he knew he shouldn’t be choosy when it came to selecting his successor. He desperately wanted to retire and get out of the business of disappointment.
“All right then, let me show you around,” Ellery said. “You can get a feel for the place. You’ve had some experience with hauntings, I take it?”
“I’ve encountered a number of spirit-inhabited objects in my life. Far more than any average person,” Lyle said.
“Yeah? Then the pieces here will not surprise you.” Ellery paused before the boiling pot. “This is one of my more useless, irritating pieces. The water appears throughout the day, boils, and then starts over.”
“It’s useless?” Lyle asked. “Why would a haunting be useful?”
“Well you can’t use the water for anything. Don’t try to burn someone with it. Don’t try to make a soup in the pot. As soon as you tip the pot, the water disappears. Useless.” Ellery walked on to the marching boots.
“Were these a soldier’s boots?” Lyle asked.
“No,” Ellery said, sighing, “but most people assume they are. Sometimes I tell people they are because it’s more interesting and nobler than the truth. Actually they’re the boots of a clarinet player in a marching band. A sousaphone fell on the fellow, knocked him down, and he smashed his head on a rock. Poor man. Forever marching to the tunes of John Philip Sousa.”
They moved to Ellery’s largest piece, a car engine that periodically revved and roared. As they approached it, the engine kicked on and Lyle jumped a little at the sound. Ellery chuckled and said, “This is one of the most frightening pieces considering the noise it makes, and its bloody history.”
Lyle gasped. “Is this the engine from James Dean’s Porsche?”
“I wish!” Ellery exclaimed. “But no. It’s from a Ford Pinto. Still, many deaths occurred in this Pinto.” Ellery turned to the table across from the engine. “I actually have the steering wheel from his Porsche, but it does nothing. Just sits there. I think the man who sold it to me ripped me off.”
They walked farther into the museum, pausing at each display. When they reached the end, Lyle, having been silent most of the tour, let out an ecstatic laugh, clapped his hands, and said, “This is all amazing! I’d love to work here.”
“Good!” Ellery said. “I can finally retire.”
“May I ask why you’re retiring?”
Ellery, pleased he found a successor, was reluctant to tell the truth. But he saw the excitement in Lyle’s eyes and doubted his own reasons would deter Lyle’s eagerness.
“Honestly,” Ellery said, lowering his voice, “I’ve grown bored.”
“Bored?” Lyle said. “How can you be bored with such wonder around you?”
Ellery shrugged. “Is it wonder? These things have spirits in them, but just barely. They’re more like residues. They’re souls, but they have no soul.”
He turned and started back toward the front of the museum. “They do exist, you know,” he said, “objects with such strong spiritual attachment it’s like you’re interacting with a live human. Once in Egypt, nearly fifty-years ago, in another museum such as this, I encountered the most amazing quill. Haunted by a French empress and as lively as any day she lived. You could talk to the quill, have long, thoughtful conversations with it. It was a beautiful thing to behold—a truly haunted object. This stuff—” Ellery waved his hands around. “They hold no more humanity than a television screen, and no more wonder. Maybe I’m retiring more out of disgust.”
“Disgust for the objects?” Lyle asked.
“No,” Ellery said, “disgust for failing, failing to collect one good haunted object for this place. It’s been my hope my whole life, and I’ve failed at it.”
Lyle looked at his feet and seemed to be contemplating something. When he looked up, Ellery saw real sympathy in this stranger’s eyes.
“A tragedy,” he said to Ellery, blinking back what appeared to be tears.
Ellery cleared his throat and said, “You’ll do fine here. Let me show you the office where I keep the books.”
The family was leaving now. The little girl still gazed around with wide, curious eyes, but her brother used his cell phone to play some video game.
Typical, Ellery thought. All these spirits living for eternity, but they were not as interesting as a video game.
There wasn’t much left to show Lyle. The museum was a simple business. Visitors paid a small fee to enter, and Ellery kept simple financial records. Ellery deposited the little money the place brought in each month, and each month he’d receive his own paycheck which would sometimes be more than what the museum had made. It was always enough to pay for his simple lifestyle. Sometimes Ellery wondered who the owner truly was and how they had kept the museum afloat over the years, but he tried not to question the museum’s existence or its finances too much. Such matters didn’t interest him. His logbook, however, required a little more of his attention.
Sitting at a small table in the back office with a fresh pot of tea, Ellery set the enormous and ancient logbook before Lyle. Lyle opened the book and paged through it.
“I have everyone who visits sign their name in there,” Ellery said.
“What is this written beside the names?” Lyle asked.
“Those are my descriptions. It’s almost like a journal. I like to keep track of who’s visiting, not just with names, but who they actually are.”
“‘Fat man with a big-nosed wife and sickly child,’” Lyle read aloud from the book. “Is that who they actually were?”
“It’s my log, my impressions,” Ellery said. “I like to be honest.” He slammed the book shut. “Anyway, if you’d like to keep the logbook, I’ll leave it with you. I could even leave you my fountain pen.” Ellery held up his fine fountain pen. He’d been writing with it since he’d taken over the museum. He loved the smooth black lacquer finish and the gold overlay in the shape of a coiling snake with tiny emerald eyes. He’d hate to part with it. The pen felt natural between his fingertips, like an extension of himself, an extra extremity.
“I’ve never been much of a writer,” Lyle said. “I don’t know if I’d do it justice.”
With these words, Ellery felt a pang in his heart. The realization that his life was changing and he would abandon his work hit him suddenly, leaving him feeling old and tired.
“That’s fine,” he said in a quiet, cracked voice. He picked up the logbook and held it to his chest. “I’ll take it with me, read over it in my spare time. Didn’t want to part with my pen anyway. I’ve had it for so long.”
At this Lyle, leaned in close and squinted. “It is a very fine pen,” he said. “May I see it?”
Ellery held the pen out reluctantly, and Lyle snatched it up.
While Lyle examined the pen, Ellery thought on his museum. He was only sixty-eight, still young enough to travel for many years. He still had time to find one truly haunted object. If he did, he could bring it back to the museum to display.
He was about to tell Lyle his plan when Lyle leaned across the table, holding the pen tightly in a fist. Ellery felt the cold pain of the pen in his throat.
Then he was sprawled on the floor, his limbs growing cold. His blood pooled beneath his head. Standing over him, Lyle smiled. The pen—held in Lyle’s fist—dripped with Ellery’s blood.
“You bastard,” Ellery sputtered. “I was going to give you a job.”
“You’ve already given me the job, and I’ve already started working,” Lyle said. He bent at the waist and placed the pen on Ellery’s chest. “I think I’m doing quite well.”
The pen somehow felt heavy, like a pile of bricks. Ellery’s vision grew darker as the weight of the pen seemed to sink into him, pressing into his body and breaking through his ribcage.
Ellery no longer had eyes, but he was able to see. Although seeing was not the right word. It was more like knowing. For instance, he knew since Lyle had taken over the museum, a great number of new haunted objects had joined the displays. Lyle seemed to have a knack for finding them.
Also, at that moment, he knew a woman, whose face was stuck in a perpetual frown, came into the museum and signed her name: Margaret Baker. Beside her name, the fine fountain pen, its emerald snake eyes glowing, wrote these words on its own: Unattractive face with a poor fashion sense. Most likely single and lonely.
“That’s very rude!” Margaret said to Lyle, who stood behind the counter. His face remained impassive and unmoving except for his eye, which twitched like a drum beat.
“I can’t control the objects, ma’am,” Lyle said in his smooth voice. “The pen is actually our most haunted item. It’s conscious and reacts. You are quite lucky to witness it in action.”
Margaret turned and stomped out of the museum.
Ellery wrote in his logbook, At least she paid.
Lyle smiled. “Yes, she did.” He pulled his lips away from his square teeth to form a hideous smile. “Some people can’t appreciate a truly human object.”
Ellery thought this was quite true, and was at last proud of his museum of haunted objects.
Megan Neumann is a speculative fiction writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her stories have appeared in Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and Luna Station Quarterly. She is a member of the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group and is particularly appreciative of their loving support and scathing critiques.
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