Story-A-Day May #19: The Maddening Melody

Today’s storyaday.org prompt is to write about a mysterious object found in a thrift shop or antiques market.

This time, my story is about a seemingly-broken music box found in a thrift shop, and what one woman will do to possess it.

***

The Maddening Melody

There was no place Josie loved better than a thrift shop. They offered all the oddities, knick-knacks, and curios she could never allow to clutter her home, even if she was sorely tempted to. She loved the sense of discovery and mystery among the shelves and bins of items never before seen or imagined. Not to mention the rush of nostalgic joy every time she stumbled upon a toy from her childhood. That’s when the urge to buy frivolous junk got worse, and Josie had to remind herself she was a grown woman. She had a real oven, and a husband who cooked for her; what possible use would she find for some plastic Easy-Bake oven?

Browsing the racks of clothes was like traveling through time, a mish-mash of vintage and new, styles she once favored in her youth, and mysterious garments that she couldn’t imagine anybody in the history of the planet ever wearing. But they sure looked fun hanging on the rack.

Her favorite thrift shop find of all was that rare, unidentifiable object, whose purpose completely eluded her. On this particular, innocuous afternoon, the item in question was an antique wooden box.

At first glance, Josie had been confident she had its measure. It resembled a music box, with a plain lid, and an old iron key still protruding from its side. A gold plate screwed to the front had been scratched so badly, she couldn’t read whatever had once been written upon it.

She turned the key, which still had good tension, until it was fully wound. Then opened the lid.

Silence, except for the faint click and whir of shifting gears.

There was an empty, spinning platform, where a figurine might stand, but no sign of a matching one on the nearby shelves.

When she delicately pried off the platform, to expose the inner mechanism, she found a more complex arrangement of gears and springs than she’d anticipated. More like the innards of an elaborate clock than the simple workings of a music box, with its spinning teeth that sang a tune on a metal comb. She spied no damaged parts, no gaps where a missing piece could have fit.

She began to doubt its purpose. As a long-time visitor of thrift shops and antiques stores, she knew that music boxes invariably had a single, near-identical design. That’s because it worked, and didn’t easily break. There was no reason for all this extra machinery — if it was a music box.

Josie placed her ear atop the box as the gears continued to spin. Maybe… maybe there was a very faint melody, almost on the edge of her hearing. She could hardly pull herself away from it, whether real or imagined.

Promising herself she wasn’t going to buy the intriguing piece of junk, only satisfy her curiosity, Joise took the box to the shop’s front counter. An incredibly bored-looking teenager slouched beside the register.

“Excuse me,” she said, placing the box down, “But I don’t suppose you know what this is?”

He shrugged. “Music box?”

“I don’t think so. See, it’s…” Josie could already see he truly didn’t care. The tortured expression was a dead giveaway. “Nevermind. I’m going to see if it has any missing pieces that got left on the shelf.”

“Okay,” he said flatly.

Her thorough search bore no fruit, and she returned to the front counter. The antique box was gone. She asked the employee, “What happened to the box I left here?”

He pointed at a woman with curly gray hair near the exit. “She bought it.”

“What?” Josie hurried over and lightly touched her arm. “I’m sorry, but there’s been a mix-up. That box is mine.”

The older woman did not appear impressed. “Did you pay for it?”

“Well, no. Not yet.”

“Then it isn’t yours. Buzz off.” She shrugged Josie off and waddled out the door.

Josie returned to the employee in frustration. “How could you let her do that? Couldn’t you back me up, and explain the situation?”

The pimple-faced teen shrugged. “I’m gonna be honest with you. They don’t pay me enough to care.”

She rolled her eyes, but she had a personal policy against yelling at minimum-wage workers. Even if they really ticked her off.

This wasn’t the end, though. It was no longer about the antique box; it was about principle. She exited the shop and scanned the parking lot. The thief was already making her getaway in a blue Chevy. As the car sped past, and the old woman gave her the finger through a rolled-down window, Josie took out her phone and snapped a picture of the license plate. She knew once she’d cooled off she’d forget all about this, and never actually do anything with the info. But for a moment, it gave her a surge of vindictive validation, imagining all the ways she might get her revenge on that awful, rude cow.

However, all that evening, and into the next day, she couldn’t forget about the stolen music box. She even dreamed of the melody she thought she’d heard it play, though in her imagination it was much louder and sweeter.

Eventually, laughing at herself, insisting she didn’t mean to follow through, she hopped on the internet and searched up sites that could trace someone by their license plate number.

They all demanded a fee, of course. Though it wasn’t too expensive. Still, it became more difficult to treat her actions as a harmless joke as she punched in her payment info. An address popped up. A blue Chevy, that had to be it. Only a few minutes from her house.

Josie picked up her car keys and absentmindedly spun them round her finger. It’s not like she was going to drive over there, right now, and confront the thief. That wouldn’t be sensible. Staring at her unchanging computer screen, she found herself whistling a song she’d never heard, except maybe in a dream.

Later that evening, she proudly showed off her new music box to her husband. She turned the key and a beautiful, haunting melody began to play for the first time. Bright and clear, with no mistaking it. “Isn’t that tune amazing?”

“Very catchy.” He bent for a closer look at the twirling figurine atop the box, and frowned. “That’s… different. Don’t these things usually have a ballerina, or something? And why does the old woman look like she’s frozen mid-scream?”

“Don’t be silly! She’s singing to this wonderful music.”

Josie’s mind was singing harmony, right along with her.

***

Thanks for reading!

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