Bob’s Emporium of Wonders by Matthew Gomez
It’s late morning when Bob arrives at his shop, Bob’s Emporium of Wonders, an out-of-the-way brick-faced business on the distant edge of Detroit’s industrial district. He heads inside, loads a basket of cheap coffee into the brewer on his desk in the back, then moves to the front where he’s surprised to see a young woman standing outside the front door in the cold, her breath drifting out in steamy plumes. Bob ambles down a narrow aisle of crowded, dusty shelves toward the woman.
He twists the deadbolt, pulls the chain on a red neon “OPEN” sign, and heads back to a stool behind a counter laden with yellowing newspapers and an ancient cash register.
The woman watches Bob for a moment as he walks away, then cracks the door open and pushes her head inside. “Excuse me, are you open?” She doesn’t bother hiding the frustration in her voice.
“Sign says so, doesn’t it?” Bob replies, shifting his weight on the stool and unfolding the day’s paper.
The woman doesn’t move except for the flitting of her golden hair as a gust of wind pushes inside.
Bob lowers the newspaper and peers over the top edge. “Come in if you’re planning on it. It’s freezing outside, and it’ll be freezing in here too if you don’t shut the damn door.” Bob isn’t a cranky man, at least he doesn’t believe so. He simply prefers a certain routine to establish the ebb and flow of the day, and a frigid breeze doesn’t suit his ideal.
The woman’s eyes bulge in disbelief, but she steps inside anyway. Bob knew she would.
She casts a disapproving look at the chaotic shelves and pulls her tailored waistcoat tight around her thin frame. She does this even though the thermostat inside Bob’s Emporium of Wonders has held steady at a balmy 80 degrees, regardless of season, since Bob moved in over 50 years ago.
The woman huffs and walks down the narrow aisle toward the counter, her elbows pressed against her sides as if the random objects on the shelves might reach out to grab her.
Trinkets of all shapes and sizes load every square inch of flat space in the store: a wooden desktop clock whose arms have long-stopped spinning, a varnished handheld mirror, a dingy stuffed elephant, and other objects that look useful only by the fact that they aren’t occupying space in a landfill.
She stops on the other side of the counter, separated from Bob only by the newspaper he holds aloft between them. She makes her presence known by releasing an exasperated hiss of air from her nose.
“Excuse me,” she says. “My friend Adrian referred me here. Are you Bob?”
Bob lowers the paper once more, exposing a lifted eyebrow. He looks to his left and right, then directs his gaze back at the woman.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she says. “Jesus, you don’t have to be so rude.”
Bob lifts the paper. “No one’s forcing you to shop here.”
“Fine, I’ll leave.”
“I doubt it.”
A shocked cough erupts past her lips. “What makes you so sure?”
“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need help, and I expect, judging by the looks of you, that you’ve come more out of desperation than any genuine desire to visit my wondrous emporium.”
She flares her nostrils but keeps her mouth shut, which Bob takes as confirmation of his theory. “The only wondrous thing about this place is that it hasn’t caught fire,” she mumbles.
Bob lowers the paper. “What was that? My hearing isn’t what it used to be.”
Bob moves to lift the paper, but the woman darts a hand out, stopping him. “You’re right, I need your help.”
For the first time since she’s come in, Bob smiles. “Who was it again that sent you?”
The woman pulls her hand back and crosses her arms tightly across her chest. “Adrian.”
“Hmm,” Bob says, scrunching his face in concentration. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Adrian Baum. Don’t you keep any kind of records?”
“Ah, just a moment.” He stands and disappears behind a curtain leading to the back room.
The woman twists around to further inspect the store, occasional rattles and clinks coming from the back. Bob emerges several minutes later carrying a stained coffee mug filled to the brim. The coffee is so full of cream it’s more off-white than brown. He resumes his seat on the stool, takes a careful sip, then lifts the paper again.
The woman walks back to the counter. “What did you find?”
Bob, finally exasperated with the interruptions to his morning routine, folds the newspaper haphazardly and sets it aside. “Find what? If you want to buy something, let’s make it quick. I’ve got coffee to drink and a paper to read.”
“A record of Adrian Baum. Wasn’t that what you were in the back for?”
Bob shakes his head like the question were a fly landing on his nose and takes another careful sip from his mug. “I don’t keep records. It’s all up here.” He points a chubby index finger to his head. “I was making my coffee.”
“Oh my god,” she says, eyes rolling. “Adrian Baum. He bought a ring from you. He won’t stop talking about how it changed his life. Says you gave him everything he needed to fix his problems.”
“See, now that’s helpful—the ring I remember perfectly.”
The corners of the woman’s mouth twitch upward into something barely resembling a smile, but her eyes belie her annoyance. “I’m so glad I can be of use. Is this the kind of place where you sell me something, and in the end, I realize I had what it took all along to fix my problems?”
The accusation rattles Bob, and the woman’s smile turns genuine.
“Listen here, miss.”
“I prefer Meghan. Mrs. LeBlanc, actually.”
“Listen here, Mrs. Meghan LeBlanc. My services are more than some glorified tarot deck. I don’t lay out a series of objects and allow you to interpret their meanings. I wouldn’t have stayed in business so damn long if that was the case. At Bob’s Emporium of Wonders, I give you something, tell you how to use it, and it fixes your problem. Easy as that… most of the time.”
Bob is irked at the comment, and Meghan seems to sense she’s unsettled him. She leans forward. “Let me guess. The ring you gave Adrian whispered business secrets that helped him climb the corporate ladder? Adrian isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the box. It’d take some serious magic to help that dumbass get two promotions within a year.”
“I thought you said he was your friend.”
“Acquaintance is probably a better term to describe our relationship.”
“Two promotions in a year, huh?” Bob lifts an eyebrow. “You sure you wouldn’t describe him as your boss?”
“Fine, yes, he’s my boss. Now, at least. We were hired at the same time, and I’d blame it on sexism, but he got drunk at the Christmas party and started blabbing to me about his stupid ring. Was I right? Did it tell him trade secrets? Make others respect him?”
Bob chuckles. “You’re overthinking it.”
It’s Meghan’s turn to lift an eyebrow.
Bob shifts his weight on the stool. “The ring tells him when to shut his mouth. I warned him about drinking, but no one ever listens to ol’ Bob.”
“It tells him when to keep his trap shut? That’s it? You’re kidding.”
“How does that get him two promotions?”
“He came in complaining that no one respected him. From the moment he stepped foot inside my emporium, he wouldn’t stop blathering on about his problems. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I had to threaten to kick him out to get him to shut up long enough for me to explain my services. It didn’t take me long to find the right item for him, seeing as I couldn’t wait for him to stop talking.”
Meghan’s face illuminates with sudden understanding. “That’s why he always seems so intense now. He used to be such a pushover, but now it always feels like he’s two steps ahead of me, just waiting for me to make a mistake.”
Bob shrugs. “According to your theory, he had it in him all along, and the ring just helped him find his inner strength.”
Bob smiles. He no longer doubts whether he will secure Meghan as his next client. It’s a much-needed stroke of luck. Things at the shop have been slow lately, and Bob fears he’s losing his touch, though he somehow never considers how his sour attitude might be a contributing factor to his emporium’s decline. The thought of losing his business makes him nauseous. What good is he without it? With no wife or children, it’s the only thing he’s got, and he couldn’t bear to lose it.
Meghan untucks her arms and places her hands on the counter. “Show me what you’ve got.”
“Certainly, Mrs. LeBlanc.”
“What exactly is the problem you need help with?” Bob asks.
Bob’s sudden interest unnerves Meghan, but she reminds herself of Adrian’s story. “My mother-in-law.”
“Pfff,” Bob says. “Deal’s off. I don’t help people commit murder, Mrs. LeBlanc.”
Meghan is taken aback by the accusation. “I don’t want her killed. Dear god, do I look like a murderer to you?”
Bob scans her up and down then gives a gentle shake of his head. “Not at first glance, but you never know these days, do you?”
“I just want her to move out, but my husband would never agree to it.”
Bob stares in silence, waiting for further explanation.
Meghan rolls her eyes. “Well, it’s actually her house. Blake and I couldn’t possibly afford property in Palmer Woods. Not unless I got a few promotions, which is unlikely now that Adrian has that stupid ring.”
Bob makes a face like he’s sucking on a lemon. “You want her to move out of her house?”
Meghan doesn’t answer immediately, but eventually nods. “She’s horrible. If you met her you’d understand. Blake and I haven’t stopped arguing about it since we moved in, and I fear it’s driving us apart. I can’t risk that. She’s got to go.”
“Are you sure your husband isn’t arguing with you over this because he’s afraid of her moving away?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Blake would be just fine without her. Plus, she’s getting old, and with both Blake and I working, neither of us are around to lend her a hand like she needs. If she moved to their other property, she would be less reluctant to hire in-home help. She’d be much more comfortable there I’m sure.”
“Where is this other property?”
Meghan hesitates, but Bob’s expectant expression pulls a response from her. “Florida.”
Bob laughs, which makes his ample belly press against the counter so his whole body rocks with the sound. “Not exactly down the block.” He gets off the stool, comes around the counter, and heads down one of the cramped aisles. “I think I’ve got something that will help.”
He returns a moment later, sits on the stool, and sets a bronze compass on the counter in front of Meghan. “Behold, the Compass of Comfort.”
Meghan rolls her eyes. “Compass of Comfort? I don’t want her more comfortable. I want her to leave.”
“Have you considered that she’s reluctant to leave because she fears you won’t provide for her son like she can?”
Meghan doesn’t answer, but the way she crosses her arms lets Bob know his instincts aren’t that far off. Perhaps he isn’t losing his touch, after all. “Give it a shot.”
Meghan lifts the compass off the counter, flips open the tarnished lid, and watches the needle spin aimlessly. “It’s broken.”
“It needs direction.”
“It’s a compass.“
Bob chuckles, realizing his unintentional pun. “You need to tell it who needs comfort before the needle will react.”
Meghan cocks her head to the side, then lifts the compass to her mouth like a phone on speaker mode. “Bob needs comfort,” she says before setting the compass back on the counter.
The needle flits around for a moment before going still and slowly spinning to face his nearby cup of coffee.
“Ha!” Bob laughs. “It’s true. I’m a cranky old bastard without this stuff.” He lifts the cup to his lips and takes a slow sip.
The compass needle spins around before settling once more, this time pointing at the newspaper.
“Right again!” Bob reaches for the newspaper, but Meghan slaps a hand down on it.
“Please,” she says. “Let’s finish here first.”
The needle moves once more, this time pointing to Bob’s left hand.
“That’s odd,” he says. He moves his hand, but the needle follows it. “Must be on the fritz. For that, I’ll offer you a discount.”
Bob narrows his eyes, making mental calculations of the item’s worth. “Three hundred.”
“For a broken compass?” Meghan asks, incredulous.
“It worked the first two times. That’s my best offer. Take it or leave it.”
Meghan sighs then reaches into her purse for her wallet. “And what if it doesn’t work?”
“I seriously doubt that will happen, but if it does, you can come back, and I’ll be happy to make an exchange.”
Meghan holds out a credit card. “You’re not exactly inspiring much confidence, Bob.”
Bob raises both hands like the credit card is a long-barreled revolver. “Cash only, I’m afraid. There’s an ATM around the corner.”
Meghan bites her lip, her nostrils flaring as she stares at Bob in disbelief. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be here.”
Bob arrives the next morning, loads a basket of coffee into the brewer, sets the day’s paper on the counter, and heads to the front door to unlock the shop.
Meghan stands outside, her hands cupped on the glass so she can peer in.
Bob’s stomach sinks at the sight of her—surely it means the Compass didn’t work—but he can’t deny he’s at least glad for some company. It’s been awfully lonely in his shop of late. He twists the deadbolt, and Meghan barges in.
“It’s 9:45,” she says, pointing the screen of her phone at Bob’s head like a gun.
Bob is unfazed. He settles onto his stool at the counter and checks his wristwatch. “A little after that, actually.”
“Google says your shop hours are 9 to 5. You’re almost an hour late.”
“That’s ridiculous. I don’t have shop hours, regardless of whatever The Google or whatever you called it says. I open when I get here, and I close when I leave.”
“You’re impossible,” Meghan says. “And I need my money back. This thing is useless.” She digs the Compass of Comfort out of her purse and slams it down on the counter.
The claim stings Bob, and his self-doubt encroaches. “What do you mean, useless?” He won’t accept defeat that easily. Surely, Meghan used it incorrectly. “I don’t sell broken goods.”
“Compass of Comfort, my ass,” Meghan says. “More like Compass of Chaos.”
Bob sits up straighter on the stool. “I very seriously doubt that.”
Meghan’s eyes narrow. “After work yesterday, I got home, pulled out the compass, and did everything it told me to, and now things are worse than ever.”
“I’ll need more than that to assess the compass’s effectiveness.”
Meghan holds up her index finger. “First, it pointed to her cup of tea, so I rushed to the kitchen to make her more, and when I brought it to her, she fumbled the cup and spilled boiling water all over her lap.”
Bob winces. “You really must be more careful.”
“That’s what she said, over and over, as I helped her to the bathroom where she spent nearly an hour applying burn cream and bandages to her blotchy legs.”
“To be fair, that’s not the compass’s fault.”
Meghan, still holding up her hand, flicks up another finger. “Second, it pointed to her plate halfway through dinner, so I offered to get her another helping.”
Bob straightens, expecting further assurance that the compass did nothing wrong. “I’m sure she appreciated that.”
“Except it turns out the takeout we’d ordered had shellfish, which she’s allergic to. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of her vomiting in the hallway.”
Bob shakes his head. “Still not the…”
Meghan flicks up a third finger, interrupting him. “Which brings me to point number three. Before bed, the Compass pointed to the thermostat. I asked if she was cold, which of course she was despite the burns on her legs, because she’s insufferable and nothing is ever right according to her. I later learned the chill was because her food allergy had begun to work its magic, which was giving her the sweats. Being the dutiful daughter-in-law that I am, I turned up the thermostat. Unfortunately for all of us, the ancient, finicky thing got stuck, so when Susan woke up with a gurgling gut full of shellfish, she rushed to the bathroom but didn’t quite make it. She was covered in sweat from the blazing furnace, and her bare feet slipped on the freshly waxed floors. When I got to her, she was scrambling in a pool of her own puke.”
“Terrible as that all sounds, I really…”
“I want a refund, Bob!”
Bob points a finger at Meghan and draws in a breath, but he doesn’t respond. Everything Meghan said is reinforcing his fears. He really is losing his gift, but he’s unwilling to accept it as fact. “Let me try again,” he pleads.
Meghan begins shaking her head before Bob finishes his sentence.
Bob’s expression softens, and he places his hands flat on the counter. “Please,” he begs. “Let me try again. I can help you, I swear. This is what I do. It’s what I’m best at.”
Meghan continues shaking her head. “I want a refund.”
Bob slips off his stool, ducks into a cramped aisle, and returns a moment later with a glossy black fountain pen. He sets it down on the counter and slides it toward Meghan. “The Portentous Pen. This is sure to do the trick.”
“Does everything in here have an alliterative name?”
Bob shrugs. “Helps me remember things. Regardless of what it’s called, this is one of my most powerful items. I’m sure it will help.”
Meghan picks up the pen and turns it over to inspect it, careful to hide any signs of interest should she decide against the exchange. “What’s it do?”
Meghan sets the pen down. “I’ve had enough games, Bob. I want my money back.”
“Wait, wait,” he says, sliding the pen toward Meghan. “You ask it a question about the future, then put it to paper, and it writes an answer. Try it.”
Meghan hesitates, expecting failure. Still, she lifts the pen to her lips. “How do I get my mother-in-law to move out?”
“Good,” Bob says. “Here.” He shoves the newspaper across the counter.
Meghan uncaps the pen and presses it to the paper, where the tip begins to drag across the surface of its own accord.
“T,” Meghan says, watching the pen move, then her mouth falls open. On the newsprint, the pen has inked “Take me home.”
“See,” Bob says. “I knew I was right!”
Meghan shakes her head, but she slides the pen into her purse. “If this doesn’t work…”
Bob lifts his hands in the air, palms out in surrender. “I’ll give you a full refund. Promise.”
“In that case, I hope this pen does what you say and I don’t have to come back.” She turns on her heel and walks out.
Bob watches the door shut, hoping just as much as Meghan that the pen does the trick. If she comes back, it’ll mean he’s really lost his gift, and he couldn’t possibly handle such a blow. “Me, too,” he mutters. “Me, too.”
The third morning, Bob arrives at the store before sun-up, something he can’t remember ever doing during the last 50 years. He won’t admit it, but he’s nervous Meghan will show up again requesting her refund. It’s silly, of course. The Portentous Pen is his most powerful item. It couldn’t possibly fail.
He finishes half a pot of coffee in the first thirty minutes, shifting his eyes from the newspaper to the front door so often he has to re-read the same article three or four times before he gathers what it’s about.
He glances at his watch, and just before nine, sees movement outside. It’s Meghan, but she’s not alone.
The door swings open, and Bob sets down the paper, his stomach twisting with nerves. He’s failed. He can’t believe it.
Meghan holds the door open, and an older woman with glossy, silver hair follows her in. She’s wearing an ankle-length floral dress that bursts with color against the gray, industrial street behind her. An equally bright tangerine shawl drapes over her shoulders like a tropical sunset. Bob thinks she looks like royalty.
“Finally,” the woman says, stepping inside. “A business in this frigid city that isn’t afraid to run the heater and keep the temperature at something approaching bearable.”
Bob jumps off his stool and approaches Meghan, who gives him a look that drives a chill through him.
“Good morning, ladies,” Bob says, stepping backward toward his counter, afraid Meghan might shove him back if he doesn’t move quickly enough. “How may I be of assistance?”
“Is this Bob?” the woman asks Meghan. “You didn’t mention he was so handsome.”
Bob flushes at the compliment and smoothes his hair.
Meghan groans, turns to the woman, and guides her down one of the cramped aisles, away from Bob. “Why don’t you take a look around, Mom? I want to check with Bob about something, anyway.”
“Oh, of course,” the older woman says. “I could spend hours in a place like this. So many gorgeous pieces.”
Meghan darts to the front counter and slaps the pen down. She leans in close, anger radiating off her. “Don’t say a word to her about why I came here, you understand?” she hisses. “I want my money back.”
“It didn’t work?” Bob asks, but it comes out more like a statement—a confession.
“I did exactly what you told me,” Meghan says in a hoarse whisper. “I got home, asked the pen how to make her leave, but the damn thing just kept writing ‘take me back, take me back, take me back.’ It started writing so fast, ink began to fling from its tip. I panicked, and of course she noticed.”
“Take me back,” Bob says, utterly confused. “That’s not helpful at all.”
“What was that, Meghan?” the older woman asks, peeping around the corner of an aisle.
“Nothing, Mom,” Meghan says. “I’ll be right there.” She resumes glaring at Bob. “She noticed the pen and asked me about it, saying it looked just like the pen her father used to use. She went on about it all night, inspecting the pen like an artifact from a museum. She asked where I bought it, so I lied and told her an antique store, and of course she insisted on visiting today.”
“The Portentous Pen has never failed me,” Bob says, uncapping the pen and frowning at the ink-stained tip. “It’s why I’ve always offered my clients a partial refund for returning it.”
“Not anymore,” Meghan snaps back. “Now give me my money back. All of it.”
Bob sighs, mashes a button on his cash register, and sucks in his belly to allow room for the drawer to slide open. He begins to dig out three hundred dollars, but Meghan’s mother-in-law approaches the counter, and Meghan quickly shakes her head.
“I haven’t seen a register like that in a long time,” the woman says, setting down the Compass of Comfort.
Meghan’s eyes go wide as she stares at the patina-blotched relic.
“They just don’t make things like they used to,” the woman says, pointing at the register. She sticks a hand out toward Bob. “I’m Susan, Meghan’s mother-in-law.”
Bob takes Susan’s hand in his and gently shakes it. He can’t help but notice how smooth her skin is, her hand warming his clammy palm. “Pleasure to meet you, Susan. I’m Bob, and this is my…”
Meghan narrows her eyes at him.
“This is my antique store,” he says.
Susan smiles. “It really is lovely. So many wondrous things in here.”
Bob’s face lights up. “I’m not one to boast, but I completely agree.”
Susan reaches across the counter and points at the Portentous Pen. “Meghan showed me that pen last night, and it reminded me of my father, and just a moment ago I found this compass. It reminded me of one I had as a little girl.” She lifts the Compass of Comfort off the counter, flipping its lid open. “Shame it’s broken.” She holds it out, and the needle is pointing directly at Bob.
“Mom, we really ought to get going,” Meghan says, reaching for the Compass.
Susan holds the Compass out of Meghan’s reach, rolls her eyes, and flicks her wrist toward Meghan as if she’s brushing away a gnat. “Don’t mind her,” she says to Bob. “She’s always rushing around from one appointment to another. Never taking time to appreciate what life has to offer.”
Bob laughs, and Susan joins him. “May I see the Compass?” he asks. “Perhaps it just needs a tuning.”
Susan hands him the Compass, and the needle flits around in the opposite direction, this time pointing at Susan.
“Ha! How funny!” Susan says. “It appears we’re both North.” She pouts dramatically. “Though I certainly wish I were South. Anything to get away from this frigid place.”
Bob leans in conspiratorially. “Truth be told, I’ve always dreamed of living elsewhere as well.”
“Oh?” Susan says.
Bob nods. “It’s true. I have to run the heat in here almost non-stop to keep it warm enough to suit my liking. It costs me an arm and a leg to keep the temperature even close to the place where I’d rather be living.”
Susan lifts an eyebrow. “And where might that be?”
Bob shakes his head and looks at the ground, bashful as a teenager asking for a dance at prom. “Florida,” he says. “It’s silly, I know. Such a cliché for an old man to retire there.”
Susan smiles, her eyes suddenly brighter than the shawl draped over her shoulders. “That’s not silly at all. I’ve got property there, you know?”
Bob looks up from the ground to stare at Susan and inadvertently catches a puzzled expression spreading over Meghan’s face. “Is that so?” he asks.
“It’s true,” Susan says. “Since my husband died over twenty years ago, I haven’t had much reason to visit there, though. My son refuses to go with me, and I’d hate to leave him home alone with this one.” She juts a thumb toward Meghan. “Who knows what I’d come back to if I left her in charge of the house.”
Bob hops off his stool, an extra bounce in his step. “Forgive me if this is too direct, but could I take you to dinner sometime?”
Susan smiles. It’s her turn to look bashful. “I’d love that. Just make sure there’s no seafood.”
“I hate the stuff,” Bob says, casting a mischievous glance toward Meghan. “Shellfish in particular.”
Meghan’s mouth drops open in disbelief.
“It’s a date then,” Susan says.
Behind her, Meghan picks up the Portentous Pen, whispers something to it, then presses it to the newspaper Bob had set aside. It scrawls something, and she drops her face into her hands. “Oh my god.”
“Oh, please,” Susan says, turning to Meghan. “You can’t expect an old woman to stay locked up in the house all the time.”
Bob looks at the newspaper and sees a giant “Yes” scrawled across it. He smiles, knowing exactly what Meghan had asked it. Turns out he hasn’t lost his gift at all.
Matthew Gomez believes that stories connect us, and these insights grow empathy and help us understand our place in a world that sometimes feels full of others. He has worked as a tree trimmer, barista, journalist, editor, and high school educator. Currently, he serves as the podcast editor for Metaphorosis Magazine where he produces weekly episodes featuring original science fiction and fantasy stories. He graduated from Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program in 2019. Matthew is the recipient of the University of New Mexico’s Lina M. Todd award for poetry, and his fiction has been published in Conceptions Southwest and is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine. Find him online at his website or on Twitter.