Thursday, October 30, 2014
The Box (a little halloween treat—a short story from "So It's All Done With Mirrors, That's No Reflection on You")
by Tim McMullen
"What the Hell happened here, Sarge?" said the younger officer, addressing the man who had just sat down at the desk and picked up a small digital recorder. The older man listened for a few seconds and then motioned for the speaker to be quiet and go about his business. The sergeant pushed the rewind button and adjusted the earpiece. Then he hit the play button and began to listen in earnest.
"I've sat with this recorder in my hand for half an hour trying to figure out how to start. I'm a bus driver, not a newsman. Still, I want to get it all down carefully and clearly in case something happens.
"I guess the weirdness started with the box. I found the box yesterday...Sunday. I'd been digging in the backyard, taking out some fenceposts so that Phyllis, my wife, can plant a vegetable garden. Somebody put a chain-link fence across the middle of the yard before we moved in, and I'd just left it there for the last three years. I guess they had a dog or something. Anyway, I was working on the last post when my shovel clanged on something metal. It was only about a foot and a half down. I used the hand trowel to get it out. It was a square, black metal box. I figured my shovel must have dented it pretty bad, but there wasn't a scratch on it. It was black and smooth and shiny. I went to put the box up on the porch, and when I turned around, I was surprised to find that the last post had fallen over on its own. It was lucky, though, because the light was fading. I quickly scraped the dirt into the hole, put away my tools, and carne into the house. I admit I was anxious to get a look at that black box.
"I sat down at the kitchen table to examine it, but there wasn't much to examine. It was just a metal cube, about eight inches a side. That's it. No top or bottom. No hinges. No latches. No markings of any kind. I banged it on the table but nothing happened. I quickly decided that if I couldn't get it open, then I didn't need it, but as I went to toss it in the trash, I held it up to my ear and shook it. I don't know how I missed it before, but the damn thing rattled ...loudly! Just then Phyllis hollered from the bedroom, so I laid the box on the table and went in there.
"When I came back, I must have cried out because I remember telling Phyllis that nothing was wrong. But there...on the table... he box lay open. There were no hinges or anything; the top was simply not there. Inside was a big, brown rock. I took it out and looked at it. Then I went in the bedroom and showed Phyllis the rock and the box and told her what had happened...where I got them. She said it seemed stupid to stick a rock in a box and bury it. Then she said, 'Maybe it's valuable?' Oddly enough, this hadn't occurred to me, but it made sense. That could explain the trick lid; it was a sort of mini-safe.
"I looked down at the rock and checked it out carefully. It was about six inches, and it was rough and jagged. It was mostly brown, with a few shiny spots. The shiny places were weird, though, not like granite or quartz. Not like anything I've ever seen. They looked almost like glass, but they didn't scratch. I even scraped on one with the diamond in my ring, but it didn't make a mark. After that Phyllis said that I was crazy, it was just a stupid rock, and to throw it away. I pretty much had to agree.
"Anyway, none of that matters. Here's the point. As I stood there with the rock in my hands, I felt something. It moved. I jumped and yelled, and it fell out of my hand and hit the carpet. 'It moved!' I yelled to Phyllis, 'The damn thing moved!' When I bent down, I saw that the rock had cracked, and when I picked it up, it broke in half.
"I guess I about lost it then, when I saw that. The rock, or whatever it is, is thin. I mean the outside is thin, and the thing is hollow. And inside. Inside the outer shell I saw that horrible ooze. It was like...I don't know...like a brown jellyfish. It was sort of liquid; it spilled out of the rock and pooled on the carpet, but it didn't let go. There was a strand of it that strung from the rock to the pool, and it hung on when I lifted or lowered the rock. I didn't have time to experiment much because my wife yelled to clean it up and threw me a box of Kleenex. I laid the dry half down. Only one side had the ooze on it. Then I picked up a big handful of tissues—the stuff was really ugly—and I tried to scoop it up into the rock. It worked, but it was weird. It all went back in the rock. It didn't soak in at all; both the Kleenex and the carpet were bone dry. But God that stuff was ugly! I held the wad of tissue under it and walked right out of the back door and to the trash. I opened up one of the plastic trash bags and threw the whole mess inside; then I closed it up tightly.
"I felt such a relief to have that stuff out of my hands, but then I've always been squeamish about things like that. I mean, if something has spoiled and gone all fuzzy in the refrigerator, I'd rather throwaway the container than try to save it.
"On my way back into the house, I saw that the back porch light was out. I was surprised because it was so bright out there. I looked up and saw that the moon had just come up above the trees and it was huge. The whole block was brightly lit, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I found this big, bright moon very comforting. Nevertheless, I switched on the back porch light and checked to make sure that it worked. The back yard was flooded with light.
"When I came back to the bedroom, Phyllis asked if I'd gotten rid of all that crud, and I said, 'Yes,' but then I saw the other half of the rock on the floor. She was sitting on the other side of the bed watching television, so she didn't see it. I nonchalantly picked up the rock and walked toward the bathroom with it. As I moved, I looked down at this hollow half rock, and I realized there was something in it. I tipped it over into my hand and found a feather, a claw, and a bone. I sat down on the side of the tub and stared. It struck me that this stuff had been laying in that slime for God knows how long, but they were completely dry, just like the rug. You talk about getting the creeps. I thought about the box and the rock...and the slime...and the things in my hand. I held the objects closer to my eyes, closer to the light, but they were just what they looked like. The feather was jet black and about four and a half inches long. The claw was huge and pointed, and it was a dirty yellow-brown. It was like the claw of a big cat or a wolf. In fact, it looked too big for a lion or a wolf ...maybe a bear or something. And the bone? I'm no geologist or archaeologist, so I don't know what the hell it was, but it was clean, smooth, and white. Snow white.
"Needless to say, all this stuff—everything that happened with that box—really bugged me. Bugged? Hell, it scared me like I couldn't remember. But then I asked myself, What's the big deal? It's just a rock with some junk in it. Rocks get formed lots of different ways, don't they? So this stuff from some animal, or a couple of animals , got surrounded by a rock. Then I remembered the box. Who put the rock in the box? And who buried it? Then I realized that I didn't have the box. I couldn't even remember where I'd put it. I mentally retraced my steps and decided that I must have left it in the bedroom. I put the stuff back in the rock and put it in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. I figured I could wait until morning to decide whether to show the rock to somebody or to just toss it out.
"I went back to the bedroom, but I didn't see the box. I asked Phyllis about it, but she hadn't seen it either. She said she thought I had it with me when I took it all out to the trash. I don't think I did have it then, but I'll admit that I was agitated, and I might have tossed it. I looked all over for that stupid black box, even places I knew it couldn't be. Finally, I decided that I must have put it in the trash, but I also decided that I could wait until morning to find it.
"Phyllis was already asleep when I got in bed. I lay awake for a long time. I couldn't stop thinking about the box and the rock. And the slimy ooze. Actually, I was a little afraid to go to sleep because I'm once in a while bothered by nightmares, and I figured tonight it'd be unavoidable. I remember seeing 11:53 on the clock, so I'd laid there for almost an hour. After that, I must have gone to sleep.
"I had a restless night—tossing and turning—then at 3:30, I was suddenly awake. Phyllis must have snored, or I thought she did, because it woke me up. Although, when I turned over to look at her, she was on her side. Phyllis seldom snores, and when she does, it's always on her back. But now she was on her side and sleeping soundlessly. I wanted to just go back to sleep, but I knew from experience that I'd never make it. I needed to go to the bathroom, and I knew that I'd never get back to sleep until I did.
"I got carefully out of bed—Phyllis is a light sleeper—and I walked down the hall to the bathroom. When I was done, I ran the water very softly so as not to wake her. I can't explain what I felt in that next instant. I slammed off the water and sprang to the window. I had heard something right outside the bathroom window. It was a snarling and a kind of scraping sound. I'm still not sure why I'm alive right now. I'm truly amazed that my heart didn't stop altogether...I was so freaked. This God-awful growl just burst up out of my backyard. I couldn't have hesitated more than a second before I slipped open the louvered window and looked out. I couldn't see or hear anything. It was pitch dark. I looked up, and I could still see the moon big and bright through the trees. Then I realized that Jack Stratton's yard next door was bathed in moonlight and porch light. I looked back into my yard, but I couldn't see a thing. Nothing. I slammed the window shut and ran...RAN...to the back door, but it was already locked. I flicked the porch light switch up and down, but nothing happened. I ran to the front door, which was also locked, and then I went from room to room locking all the windows. In the den I noticed this recorder, and I decided to put this all down. I went to check on Phyllis about half an hour ago, but she was still asleep.
“As I re-listen to all this stuff, it sounds dumb, but it still gives me the creeps. It's almost five o'clock now, but dawn hasn't started to break. At least, not in my yard. I've decided what I'm going to do when morning comes. I'm going to get the rock from under the sink, and get the other half out of the trash; then, I'm going to find that damn black box, and I'm going to put it right back in the hole it came out of and bury it! And then I think we're gonna move out of this house and never come back, whether Phyllis likes it or not. In fact, I think I'll get the rock in the bathroom right NOW..."
When the sound stopped abruptly, the sergeant stared for a moment at the recorder and then looked up blankly. Then he heard two men speaking loudly, way off at the back of the house.
"Geez, Bill, wouldya' look at this!"
"These scratches...look at 'em...in the cement...bunches of 'em! What the Hell could have dug into the concrete like this? They must be over three-quarters of an inch deep."
"Yeah, and look at this door. Whoever broke this in must have used a truck!"
The sergeant looked down at the recorder and then stood up and walked to the bedroom. The young man looked up, his face quite pale, and said, "Sarge?" His voice quavered, "Sarge, is this really a body...a human body?"
Instead of answering, the sergeant, with the recorder still in his hand, turned back to the door where another voice had just appeared.
"What do you make of this, Sarge?" the man said, and held out a large, black metal box.
©1985 Tim McMullen
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