My mom was the one who “suggested” I volunteer at the little history museum in the park. Her idea of suggesting was signing me up and popping her head in my room later on to tell me I was expected to show up the following Saturday at 7 AM.
“It’ll look good on your college applications,” she said.
I grumbled and groaned the whole week, even tried to get Dad to talk her out of making me do it, but nothing would change her mind. Finally, that Friday night, I put my foot down.
“I’m not going, Mom,” I said, my back straight, my chest puffed out, pure confidence and bravado. I was a man who would not be swayed.
7 AM the next morning, Mom dropped me off at the entrance of the museum.
“Have a great day, Jason! I’ll pick you up at 3,” she called out of her car window as she drove away.
I frowned after her until she’d disappeared around the corner leading back to the exit and then I turned to frown up at the three story brick building in front of me. As soon as I did, the door opened and an older, pudgy woman came bustling out.
“You must be Jason,” she crowed, far too enthusiastic for such an early hour. “Come on in, we open at 7:30 so I’ll just show you around a bit, ok?”
Greta, as I came to find out, was the museum’s head volunteer. While she led me from room to room, she gave me a brief overview of the place and what I’d be doing there. The building itself, a classic Victorian with all the shadowy corners and long hallways one might expect, had been built in the late 1800s and been home to a prominent family for over a hundred years. After the last living member had died, they left the house and it’s expansive grounds to the city, to be used for preservation and education.
“We mostly cover local history, it’s what the Deacons wanted,” Greta said as we passed a corded off room decorated as it would have been at the turn of the twentieth century. “We have some clothing displays that way, once a week we do a culinary demonstration in the kitchen, some artifacts from around town are kept in that room down the hall.”
I nodded along and offered the occasional “Uh huh” to show that I was listening.
“You won’t have to worry about remembering too much of this right away, of course; you’ll be at the front door selling the tickets. Maranda and Faye are our tour guides, and Herbert on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Ok,” I was a bit relieved to hear that as I hadn’t really retained much of what she’d been saying.
Once we’d finished the tour of the top three floors, Greta led me back down to the kitchen, where she unlocked a door in the back corner with a sign that said Employees Only.
“Watch your step here, hon, the stairwell’s a bit steep.”
“What’s down there?” I asked, keeping one hand on the railing while I followed her.
“The basement, it’s where we keep exhibits that aren’t currently being used. I may ask you to come down here and get stuff from time to time.”
I had expected it to be a dimly lit, musty room, but the overhead fluorescent lights that Greta switched on illuminated it brightly. While it was a bit cool, it didn’t feel damp and the only odor was like that of old books. A walkway had been made between rows of neatly organized furniture and display cases covered in tarps and cloth.
“We switch things out depending on the time of year,” Greta explained. “We also have a room for visiting exhibits, it’s just around that corner there. Other museums will lend us items and we’ll return the favor. They’re the exceptions to our local history only rule. Have a look around.”
While she smiled encouragingly, I wandered idly about, halfheartedly lifting up the edges of the covers and peeking at what was underneath. An arrangement of antique knives was kind of cool and there were a few reassembled small animal skeletons in glass specimen jars, but overall my interest was mostly just put on for Greta’s benefit. She seemed nice and I didn’t want to come across like a jerk on my first day.
I rounded the corner to the visiting exhibits storage room.
A figure, almost as tall as me with arms outstretched as if it were reaching for something, was blocking the door.
I yelped and stumbled backwards, unable to look away from the hollow black sockets where the thing’s eyes should have been, and I heard Greta’s shuffling footsteps as she hurried across the basement towards me.
“Jason? Jason!” Greta was beside me, patting my arm with concern.
And then she saw what had startled me.
“Oh dear,” she giggled and I was finally able to tear my eyes away to look at her sympathetic, but amused smile. “I see you’ve met Vermelda.”
“Ver-what?” I croaked.
“Vermelda; she’s one of the puppets on loan for an upcoming exhibit. One of the girls must have left her here as a prank to alarm you. I won’t tell them it worked if you won’t.”
Now that I’d had a chance to calm down and start breathing again, I could see Vermelda for what she was; a giant puppet made from felt over a wooden frame. Standing at almost six feet, she had long yellow yarn for hair and a tiny mouth painted on in faded red.
“Where are her eyes?” I asked. “And why are her fingers like that?”
Greta gently lifted one of Vermelda’s hands and gave the limp fingers, little more than curled strips of felt, a small shake. “Our girl has seen better days, hadn’t she?”
“Yeah,” I agreed with a shudder.
“She’s very old, you know,” Greta said with a wink. She sucked in her stomach and inched around the puppet to pull it back into the visiting exhibit room. “Rumor has it that she’s based off of some kind of noblewoman from Europe; Germany or Sweden or something like that. I don’t know for sure. Supposedly the real Vermelda was quite vain and loved to be the center of attention, so she had these larger than life puppets made and put them all over her home and lands for people to admire.”
“She wanted her servants and the peasants to pay tribute to her puppets and forced them to leave gifts at their feet, which she would then collect. Anyone who was caught speaking poorly of them, vandalizing them, or leaving without an offering would simply disappear. After a while, the people fought back, there was uprising against her family, and, as the story goes, she and all of her relatives were killed and hung around town like her puppets had been.”
“That’s a bit dark for a kid’s museum, isn’t it?” My question had a sour tinge to it. Now that I’d recovered from my fright, I was embarrassed Greta had been there to witness it.
“A lot of history is ‘a bit dark’ for children, I suppose,” Greta agreed. “But we’ll clean her up a bit, make her backstory a little less Brothers Grimm, and voila, she’ll be just another interesting Victorian era puppet in the crowd.”
“Great,” I said unenthusiastically.
Greta finished getting Vermelda put away and then ushered me out of the room. I was only too happy to put that creepy thing behind me.
Working at the museum wasn’t too bad. There was a slow, but steady trickle of families with young kids who wandered in throughout the day and I’d greet them and sell them tickets and let them know when the guided tours were if they wanted more in depth information about our exhibits than what was on the description placards.
I met Maranda and Faye, who both swore they’d not touched Vermelda since her arrival, and since they were both pretty cute, I decided it didn’t matter either way.
I was a couple weeks into my weekend volunteering before Greta asked me to go back down to the basement to retrieve something. Without thinking about it, I told her I would and left her at the ticket booth while I went to hunt down an engraved letter opener in storage container 2C.
The container was not where Greta had said it would be. I searched the surrounding tables and shelves, but there was no sign of it. I stood in the middle of the basement, arms crossed over my chest, and slowly surveyed my surroundings as if the container would magically appear if I was just patient enough.
From just around the corner leading to the visiting exhibit room, something creaked, like old wood straining.
I jumped and goosepimples sprang up along my arms and across the back of my neck. I remained rooted in place, unable to move except for my eyes, which went immediately to where the sound had come from.
Another creak of shifting wood.
I managed to take a step back.
“Maranda?” I whispered. “Faye?”
A wheezing, choked breath was my answer.
I abandoned my search and darted back to the steps two at a time. Once I was in the kitchen, I slammed the basement door behind me, startling a nearby small group of museum visitors, and locked the door.
“Something was down there,” I insisted to Greta after she’d come in to see what all the commotion was about.
“Oh dear,” she said’ concern creasing her brow. “An animal? We have to call someone, it could damage the items!”
“No,” I said quickly, “I think…I think it was the puppets.” Or one puppet in particular.
“The puppets?” Greta looked confused.
“It came from the visiting exhibit room, the noise I heard.”
“Oh, hon, I think you just gave yourself a little fright down there.” She said with a reassuring smile.
“No, I swear!”
“Come on, Jason, I’ll go down with you and we’ll find the letter opener together, ok?”
I felt like a small child who’d had a nightmare being talked down to by a parent, but Greta was heading back down to the basement with or without me. Hesitantly, I crept along after her, my eyes darting back and forth for any signs of something unusual.
Greta, having noticed, chuckled and boldly strode towards the room where Vermelda was being kept despite my anxious warnings not to go. I heard the click of the light switch and then she called me over.
“See?” Greta said after I’d dragged myself to stand beside her.
Vermelda was standing in the same corner where we’d left her last time I’d seen her. Her face was turned towards the door, her empty sockets boring into me.
“Ok, you’re right, it was my imagination,” I conceded, but only so I didn’t have to stay in the presence of that horrible thing.
“I know she’s kind of an ugly thing, hon,” Greta said, “but it’s just a puppet. Nothing to be afraid of.”
I nodded, but as Greta closed the door, I was sure I heard a low, angry hiss coming from the shadows.
I wasn’t allowed to leave my position. Mom said that scary dolls weren’t a good enough excuse and that I needed to get out of the house more anyway. I told her that I’d go elsewhere, volunteer somewhere new, but she wouldn’t hear it.
“You made a commitment, Jason, stop trying to get out of it.” She said.
I almost reminded her that she had made the commitment for me, but stopped myself just in time. It would only have gotten me in more trouble. Besides, as a seventeen year old guy, I wasn’t exactly wanting to have to keep admitted I’d been scared by a big puppet.
So the next Saturday, I was right back at the museum.
“Hey, Jas, can you go down to the basement and grab me some of our coupon books? I accidentally brought them down yesterday,” Greta asked as she passed by on her way upstairs.
If she even remembered what had happened the weekend before, she didn’t say anything about it.
I hovered at the front desk for a few, long minutes, hoping one of the girls would come by and I could pass the task off to them. When no such opportunity presented itself, I inhaled deeply, squared my shoulders, and told myself it was time to man up.
The lights were already on when I opened the basement door.
Good, I thought, someone was down there. I wouldn’t be alone.
Feeling a bit more confident, I strolled as casually as I could down the steps.
“Hey, have you seen the coupon books?” I asked.
There was no reply. I glanced around the room, my heartbeat quickening. It was empty.
Empty except for the almost six foot tall puppet with yellow yarn hair standing in one corner.
I froze on the last step. A list of rationalizations ran through my head, she’d just been moved by a staff member, someone was playing a joke on me, they’re getting ready to take her upstairs, but none rang quite so loud or true as the single word that followed each plausible suggestion.
I half turned on the stair and it groaned beneath my feet.
The puppet in the corner moved.
Vermelda’s head snapped towards me so those black empty holes were fixed on me. One arm was raised and then the other, and they stretched out, the hands with their thin, curling fingers opening and closing. Her movements were jerky and slow, like a marionette being controlled by someone new to its strings.
Her wooden joints creaked and protested with every motion.
I made a small, desperate sound and she took a lurching step forward, her arms swinging and reaching and trying to grab. Another step. She was making that same wheezing growl I’d heard before.
I fell backwards onto my bottom and scrambled, crablike, up a few steps.
Overhead, the lights flickered.
I clawed my way up the stairs. I could hear her behind me, moving more quickly, getting closer, and I started to scream while I hauled myself towards the door leading to the kitchen.
It was yanked open and I fell into Greta’s arms.
“Close it, close it, close it!” I shrieked, completely oblivious to the terrified children looking on.
I didn’t offer an explanation, I knew they wouldn’t believe me, I just threw my volunteer badge on the front desk and ran out of the museum. I walked all five miles home.
Mom tried to talk me into going back, but something in my face or voice must have told her that wasn’t going to happen. I swore to myself I would never set foot in that place again.
And at the time, I meant it. I really never wanted to go back. But as the weeks wore on and the nightmares of being chased up endless basement steps started to subside, guilt began to set in. I felt bad for leaving Greta like that; she’d always been very nice and she deserved to know why I had left. I had a feeling she’d think I was crazy, and that would suck, but I owed her an apology at least.
Mom drove me to the museum and waited outside while I went in.
“Hey, Faye,” I said to the dark haired girl behind the ticket counter.
She couldn’t hide her surprise when she saw me. “Jason, wow, hi. Didn’t think we’d see you again after…”
She trailed off and I tried to shrug.
“Is Greta here?” I asked to break the awkward silence that followed.
“Oh,” Faye said quietly, “you haven’t heard.”
“Greta, she…” Faye swallowed hard. “There was an accident.’
“What happened, Faye?” I asked hoarsely.
“She was cleaning up the basement after hours, she must have bumped a shelf. It…it fell on her.” A tear slid down her cheek and she was quick to wipe it away. “It happened a couple weeks ago, I thought you’d have known. Maranda said she’d call you.”
I turned numbly away from the counter, my throat dry and painfully tight. An accident, Faye had called it, but I knew better. If I had just come back sooner, if I had tried harder to make Greta listen to me. I clenched my hands into fists and, without so much as a goodbye, headed to the front door again.
As I turned to close it, I caught sight of a new exhibit just off the lobby, one I hadn’t noticed when I’d come in. Puppets of all shapes and sizes lined one wall, blocked off by a red velvet rope.
And in the very middle, tallest and most eye catching of all, Vermelda smiled out at me.
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