Don't Touch That!, by B. C. Nance
Hesitant doors opened in fits and jerks, and the aging elevator disgorged its human cargo. A wide-eyed Tom Gray led his family through the collection of aging scientific devices, many of which looked like props from a B-movie mad scientist’s laboratory. When Tom was a boy, artifact displays were the focus of the children’s museum, but the emphasis now was on interactive exhibits, and the few remaining artifacts had been relegated to the seldom visited fourth floor. When the museum moved to its new home in two weeks, the rest of the artifacts would be packed off to other facilities, so Tom wanted to immerse his young family in one of his fond childhood memories.
“Look at it, Abby,” said Tom to his wife who smiled at his boyish excitement. “I haven’t seen these things in twenty years.” Neither of their children would remember this trip, but Tom would one day reminisce and show the newspaper headline: “Mysterious Find Linked to Missing Man.”
“Don’t touch that!” a rusty voice slashed across the room, sending two young boys running and hurling Tom back in time. He was ten, and he stood staring at the blue and yellow electric sparks leaping and dancing on a glowing orb. The thing was old and should not have been on display, but there it was, beckoning young boys like the siren’s call.
“Touch it, Tom. I dare you,” said Rusty O’Meara. “See if it shocks you.”
“You touch it,” Tom said to Rusty. “I double dare you.”
“Tom’s chicken,” chimed in Petey Marshall. Petey was the smallest kid in the fifth grade, but he had the biggest mouth.
“I’m not chicken, boner-head,” snapped Tom.
“So,” said Rusty, “you gonna touch it?”
Tom sneered at his friends and reached toward the sphere, stopping with his hand poised inches from the target, preparing to strike.
“Don’t touch that!” The grating voice from behind the boys startled all of them, and Tom felt as though he had been shocked. “These aren’t toys, you little hooligans.” Red-rimmed eyes glared down at the boys as Micah Larkin, considered by most children to be the meanest man alive, gave the trio his death stare. Larkin had worked at the museum for as long as the boys had been alive, and he was a man to be avoided. He pulled a yellowed cloth from his pocket and wiped at the base of the device, pausing to turn a small knob on the back.
“Now I’m warning you,” he said, leaning close enough that they could smell his rancid breath, “Keep your grimy little paws off my displays.”
Larkin had thrown down the gauntlet, and the kids’ code dictated that they must now do exactly what they had been told not to do. They waited until Mr. Larkin had disappeared. Tom had hoped that, in light of the new circumstances, Rusty would take the lead and touch the orb, but it was clear that the boys were still looking to Tom to do the honors. The sparks looked brighter now, and the soft hum of the device seemed to be a menacing groan. Tom reached out and quickly poked the shiny surface. A jolt immediately ran up his arm, and his fingers felt as if they had been struck hard with the thick wooden ruler that their schoolteacher always used for discipline. Tom’s hand tingled and he would have a blister on his finger, but the worst part was that hateful laughter that echoed across the room from Larkin’s hidden vantage point.
“I warned you,” Larkin said as he disappeared again.
“Honey, are you all right? Tom?” Abby’s voice brought Tom back from his unpleasant daydream. “What’s wrong, Honey?” Abby said in her sweet nurturing voice.
“That’s Mr. Larkin,” Tom said, pointing to the old man across the room. “He’s been here forever. He’s the meanest man that ever lived.”
“Oh, Tom,” said Abby. “I’m sure that’s just your childhood perception of him. He’s probably a sweet old man.”
“No,” said Tom, “He was always playing mean tricks on children. I heard that he even cut off a kid’s fingers.”
“Tom,” said Abby, “that’s ridiculous.”
“No, no, it really happened,” Tom insisted. “The kid went to my school for a while, but they took him out because he was slow, you know.” He tapped the side of his head. “Anyway, he was fooling with some contraption they had here, and it started up and ripped off some fingers. The kid said that Larkin turned on the machine, but no one believed him.”
“Tom,” said Abby, “I’ll bet that was just a rumor, and if you talked to the man, you would find that he’s really quite nice.” Tom, though doubtful, knew that Abby’s advice was usually sound.
“Mr. Larkin,” said Tom as he extended his hand, “I’m Tom Gray.” Tom left his hand out though Micah Larkin showed no sign that he would shake it. “I used to come here as a boy,” Tom continued, “and I remember you from way back then.” Larkin still just stared with those same red-rimmed eyes that Tom remembered, and Tom gradually lowered his arm. He laughed nervously and cleared his throat. “Now I’m back with my own family,” Tom said, gesturing toward his sweetly smiling wife and two children.
“So?” Larkin replied in his vinegar tone, and Tom could smell his rancid breath with a hint of whiskey. “You want a medal for bringing two more snot-nosed brats into the world?” Larkin spat. “Well, you won’t get it from me.” The old man turned and shuffled away, hate dripping from his scowling face.
Tom turned to Abby, her mouth gaping, and said, “Told you.”
Tom’s nostalgia trip was short because the children needed to eat and take their naps. They strolled down the old building’s marble-floored corridor toward the exit, passing the janitor who was just starting his work day. The man was about Tom’s age, and he smiled at the children and nodded a greeting. Tom returned the nod. There was something familiar about the janitor.
“Here you go, Micah,” said Cora Lewis, “I made this for you for your last day on the job.” Cora handed Micah Larkin a white box tied with red and blue ribbons. Cora was a middle-aged woman who, unlike Micah Larkin, would be moving on to the new museum. “It’s from the staff,” Cora said, though she was the only one who ever had a kind word for Micah.
Larkin opened the package without the slightest acknowledgment of Cora’s kindness. He knew what it would be because Cora was famous for her homemade fudge, and when he opened the package Micah Larkin found that he had hit the mother lode, four different varieties. Larkin just stared at the gift with his permanent scowl.
“Well, Micah,” said Cora, knowing that she would get no thanks, “I wish you the best in your retirement.”
Cora began to turn away, and Larkin noticed that she held a second, larger box in her hand. This one was tied with a simpler ribbon, but what stuck in Larkin’s mind was that the box, which obviously contained more of the delicious fudge, was larger. “Short end of the stick again,” Larkin muttered under his breath.
Cora turned back. “What was that, Micah?”
“Nothing,” he spat. “Thirty damn years of service to this dump,” he continued, “and they force me out to bring in those college kids with their fancy notions of learning and child development. The little punks don’t care about physics principles; they want to see the goods. They want the displays. They want this.” Larkin held up an antique mahogany box inlayed with a brass eagle. Cora recognized it immediately as the museum’s pair of antique dueling pistols.
“Oh, Micah,” said Corah with wide eyes, “you’re not stealing those are you?”
“Of course, I’m stealing them,” he said. “Thirty years of service,” he growled, “and what do I get for it?” He shook the box of fudge at her. “The small box again!” He flung the fudge at the trash can, stuck the pistols under his moth-eaten coat, and stormed away.
“Good evening, Henry,” Cora greeted the janitor.
“Hi, Mrs. Lewis,” he said with a broad smile.
“Henry, I made this for you,” Cora said as she handed him the big box of homemade fudge. “It’s just a small thank you for all the hard work you do.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lewis,” Henry said slowly. “I love your fudge.”
“Just don’t eat it all in one night again, Henry,” she warned. “You know what happened last time.” Henry bowed his head in embarrassment, the smile still on his face.
“Good night, dear,” said Cora. She saw that Henry was mopping the floor and offered to let herself out the back door.
“Oh, don’t worry about the floor, Mrs. Lewis,” said Henry. He took her arm and helped her walk across the slick marble. When she was safely out the door, Henry returned to the mop bucket and swished the mop in the gray water. Micah Larkin stomped heavily on the marble as he made his way toward the door, the pistol box tucked under his arm. He scowled at the sight of Henry mopping the floor and never considered any route but straight through, but he slowed when he saw the large box of fudge on Henry’s janitorial cart.
“You,” Micah spat. “She’s wasting fudge on an idiot like you.”
“Mrs. Lewis is a nice lady,” Henry said in his slow speech. “You’re not a nice man, Mr. Larkin.”
“You’re not a nice man,” Micah repeated with cruel mockery. “Get the hell out of my way, moron.” Henry stepped back and Micah began walking across the wet floor, but he stopped beside the mop bucket and eyed it with malicious intent. Micah raised his foot and placed it on the rim of the bucket.
“Don’t touch that,” Henry said in a surprisingly clear voice, but Micah kicked over the bucket and let the dirty mop water spread over the marble floor.
Micah laughed as he turned to walk away. His feet felt wet, but it was worth it put the dimwit in his place. With his next step Micah found himself walking through ankle deep water. He sped up but with the next step he found the water was halfway up his calf. This was impossible. He was on a level marble floor that was simply wet. Micah tried to retreat toward Henry who stood passively on dry ground gripping his mop. Micah had sunk waist deep and was in a panic.
“Help me, boy,” Micah called to Henry. “You know I didn’t mean any harm.”
Henry reached out to Micah, the old man sinking deeper with each step. Micah held both arms high, trying to reach for Henry with one hand and keep the purloined firearms above water with the other. With just his head and arms above the murky gray water, Micah lunged forward as Henry reached out. Henry grabbed the box.
A surprised Micah Larkin wailed. “No, you idiot. Those are mine.” He spat a mouthful of foul water and clawed at the box, dislodging the brass eagle. He looked at Henry’s hands clutching the box and noticed that the young man was missing some fingers. Micah looked at Henry’s face and recognition of a boy from years ago dawned. “You,” he screamed. The scream became a gurgle as Micah lost his grip and disappeared under the water. Henry placed the pistols on his cart beside his box of fudge then picked up his mop and went back to work.
Cora looked at the mahogany box on the museum director’s desk. “That’s it, except the eagle is missing” she said. “Micah must have had a change of heart.”
“I have serious doubts about Micah’s heart changing,” said the director, “and he still hasn’t been seen since Saturday. But there’s something I want you to see, Cora.”
The two walked to the front hallway with its immaculate marble floor. The director bent down and pointed at the floor. Cora looked closely and saw the brass eagle on the floor.
She tried to pick it up and found that it was not on the floor but in the floor. She ran her hand across the glassy smoothness of the polished marble with the eagle perfectly inlaid in the swirling gray stone as if it were floating in water.
B. C. Nance is a writer who hasn't given up his day job. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works by day as a historical archaeologist and literally knows where the bodies are buried--most of them anyway. At night, after roaming his neighborhood, he writes fiction and poetry, then stays up too late reading. His stories and poems have been published in a diverse selection of publications.
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