The Box

By: Ileandra Young

Written: 09 August 2003

Edited: 10 August 2003

Mark Seers groaned under the weight of the heavy, wooden box, heaving it onto the tall table and wiping the sweat from his brow. "Marsha, tell me again why the hell I'm doing this." Slowly and carefully he stretched his arms above his head and leaned back, wincing at the sharp snaps and cracks as his spine stretched back to its original shape.

"We're doing this, because the attic is cluttered and needs to be cleared." Marsha Seers kissed her husband gently on the cheek, transferring some of the dust and grime on her own face into the wiry hairs of his dark beard. "You know there are things up there from before we even moved in? That was twelve years ago, after the-."

"Yes, yes, yes, I know Marsha I know." Dismissing the explanation as one he had never truly wanted to hear, Mark wiped the dust from his beard and forehead with the back of his hand. Again a loud crack as he eased himself upright and set one hand to lean against the kitchen table. "Well what do you want me to do with this thing?"

Marsha tucked a stray wisp of fine blonde hair back beneath her headscarf and peered at the box. "Its nice," she observed thoughtfully, "looks old too. Did you buy this?"

"No, did you?"

"No. I think it was here when we moved in." She suddenly grinned. "Put it with the other things. I want to take a look at it. There might be something inside worth seeing." She turned towards the stairs, rocking slightly with each step at the limp in her right leg.

The stairs creaked as she hurried back up them, preparing to bring down the next cardboard box from the attic. This one in particular was filled with photos of holidays, their wedding, anniversaries, birthdays and the children; she was especially eager to reach those.

Mark watched her leave with a sigh and wandered into the front room, wary to keep his dusty feet on the large, plastic sheets lain over the brand new carpet. Dust didn't mix especially well with beige. "Sorry, natural yoghurt." He almost chuckled to himself, trying to guess just how many names a carpet shop could make up for the same colour. "I might have called it baby puke myself."

The black leather sofa creaked as he flopped into it, a cloud of dust billowing upwards and settling about him. "Shit," he murmured; Marsha would have a fit if she saw this.

He leapt to his feet and ran back towards the kitchen, dislodging a picture from the cabinet as he ran. He stooped to grab it at once, lifting it and blowing the attic dust from the cracked glass. "Cornwall," he whispered, running a finger over the two people caught forever in photographic still life. "She wanted to walk along the beach so badly." His wife stared back at him, slouching easily in her wheelchair. "At least she can now."

Carrying the picture, he continued into the kitchen, grabbing a cloth and running it under the cold tap. When satisfied at its dampness he prepared to run back into the front room when the wooden box caught his eye again.

He set the picture on the table.

It was an ordinary box, rectangular, deep with a keyhole on the front half rotted and rusted away. Mark absently ran his hand over it, his hand gliding over the surface as the dust gathered beneath his questing fingers.

"What the hell is this anyway?"

Forgetting his initial mission, he brushed the damp cloth over the box, clearing it of dust, cobwebs and grime to reveal the picture on the lid. He traced the scene absently with the tip of his finger, picking out a naked man and woman standing beside a tree. It was an apple tree, the branches heavy with fruit. Something slithered along the ground, its form obvious, though distorted because it seemed almost larger than everything else in the picture. It was a snake with huge red eyes and long fangs, flicking its forked tongue towards the naked couple. The woman carried an apple.

Chilled suddenly he stepped away. He had always hated snakes. Indiana Jones had nothing on him, all Mark needed was to hear the word snake before he was leaping for the nearest table. He cradled his hand against his chest, as though the mere act of touching the snake had somehow harmed him.

"Marsha, dear!" He called towards the stairs. "Are you sure you want this box?" He eyed it doubtfully.

"Yes Honey," she called back, "I want to see what's in it."

"But it's creepy!"

There were hints of a giggle in her voice as she yelled back. "Don't be so ridiculous! If it's so bad open it yourself then throw it away if there's nothing interesting inside."

"You want me to open it?!"

"Mark…!"

"Fine!" He threw up his hands and glared at the box again. The heavy lacquer reflected the fluorescent lights of the kitchen, almost blinding him as he stared.

It seemed an age before he could gather the nerve to go near it again. Trying to ignore the snake painted in blue on the surface, he snatched up one of his screwdrivers from the pile on the table and jammed it into the keyhole. The lock, however, needed no such persuasion; the lid popped open as soon as he laid hands to it and another cloud of dust erupted from inside.

Mark coughed and waved his hands in front of his face, trying to clear the strangely thick and cloying red dust from the air so that he may examine the contents. In spite of his initial apprehension, there was no denying the fact that he was disappointed at what he saw there. The box was empty, utterly empty but for a thick layer of red dust lining the bottom.

He pushed his hand into it and stirred it carefully, the fine grains slipping through his fingers like the sand in an hour glass. "What a waste of time," he murmured, preparing to slam the lid down.

It was only by the queerest chance that his hand brushed against the inside to the lid of the box. It fell away as his fingers touched it, the thin piece of plywood dropping into the dust and letting fall a small photograph.

Mark took it up and stared at it, feeling a deeper chill in the room by no means accounted for by the open window, or even the chill outside. The picture showed two children, a boy and a girl, so alike they could not but be related. They shared the same large dark eyes Mark had so often admired on Marsha and the determined set of the chin that Marsha had so often observed on him.

The two children were standing beside a car, rosy cheeked and tanned from hours in the recent sun.

Mark could almost see the day in his mind. Mandy and John had so badly wanted to go to the beach. They had stormed into the room that morning with buckets and spades at the ready demanding to know if they were there yet. They had made lunch themselves, small hands, handling the butter knives as carefully as they might a delicate flower, making up the sandwiches with painstaking care. Everything was so perfect.

There was a sudden wrench in his heart and he dropped the photo as another image came to mind. Blood. Pain. And blood. Glass scattered across the road like diamond rain. And blood. A mangled car. And blood. The huge lorry on its side, the content spilling into the well littered street. And blood. Flashing ambulance lights. So much blood and on that same perfect day. The road seemed to swim in it, the very air itself saturated by the nauseating smell of pain and death.

Mark lowered his head into his hands and let out a huge sob, subconsciously reaching for the scar across the front of his head under his floppy brown hair. That was where his head hit the windscreen before it shattered. Where the impact against the ground outside had driven three inch long shards of glass deep into his skull. He had been lucky to survive that night; by rights he shouldn't have. The doctors had repeatedly told him so.

~*~

The air seemed to be growing heavier, it was weighing down on him, pressing from all sides, crushing him, compressing his lungs. Even drawing breath was painful. The smell of blood was thick on the light breeze, soaking the air as sure as water fills a sponge. Something dribbled over his forehead and into his eyes. It was warm and red.

It was blood. It was his blood.

With a jerk he sat up, the road swimming in and out of focus. Glass littered the ground around him, but he ignored it, ignored the pain as it drew more blood from his hands when he used them to force himself to his feet.

"No," he breathed.

Then he saw the car. Or at least the crumpled, mangled wreck that had once been a car. The bonnet was folded up like thin paper, the windows free of any glass that might have once called those frames their homes. There were red streaks down the sides of the BMW pooling on the ground below.

"No," he said again.

Stumbling, placing foot after aching foot forward, he lurched towards the remains of his car. Marsha was slumped forward against her seat belt, her head pillowed against a large white airbag. Beside her, in his seat he saw what remained of the steering column, damaged so badly by the impact that his own bag hadn't worked.

"No." Once more, as though the collision had totally destroyed his vocabulary but for that one word.

The back seat was worse. The two bloodied lumps there seemed far too pulped to be human, far too red and soft. The car was a pool of blood that he was forced to wade through to reach the young head of fine blonde hair. "Mandy?" The head of dark hair so like his own. "John?"

He slumped to the ground beside the car, cradling his right arm against his chest, only half aware of the pain in his hands.

Bright red and white lights began to fill the dark air around him, coupled with the sound of sirens and loud, terrified shouts; a dark and sombre symphony of pain.

A hand reached down to him out of the dull, inky, black night, reached down and touched him gently on the shoulder. "Come on. We need to get you aside so we can work to free the others."

Mark let himself be led, only half aware of the scene around him. His mind was in another place, another world completely, but he heard clearly the gasps of the paramedics as they arrived. "Not a chance. Crushed on impact, no seat belt. I'm surprised they weren't thrown through like he was, they might even have survived that way. They're both dead."

"NO!" He spun around, aiming to run back to the car, force his way through the throng of uniformed paramedics for his last look at his children. But as Mark turned, he was no longer on the street. It wasn't even dark.

~*~

It was a large hall, wide and high ceilinged. There was a seat towards the front near a large stage and it was marked reserved with his name beneath it in long looping letters. There was one beside that too, this one marked with Marsha's name. She was already sat down, dragging him into the seat beside her and brandishing a camera.

"Can you believe it!" She cried. "I never thought to think this day would come! After the scare with the crash and all; it made me so wary. But look at us now! The twins are graduating! Can you believe it! And the pair of them with honours! Our babies Mark!"

He hugged his wife, feeling his entire being swell with joy. He remembered clearly how Mandy had so adamantly insisted that she would never graduate. That she would drop out after the first month of university showed her just what the real world was like. She had been convinced she might end up working in Mc Donalds for the rest of her life. John had never entertained such thoughts; he was always going to be a doctor and now here he was, with his degree tucked firmly under his belt.

He and Marsha clapped the hardest when their children trotted on stage, their faces red with a mix of embarrassment and pride. They waved their certificates at the crowd and posed long enough for pictures.

John even broke free in the middle of it to yell out to the crowd. "Rock on doctors of 2003!" He yelled suddenly turning and lifting up his robes to display his bare backside.

"That's my boy!" Cried Mark, pumping his fist into the air.

The crowd roared with laughter and Marsha lifting her camera for a picture. "That boy!" She said gruffly, but the gleam in her eye showed that she had never been more proud of her children than that moment, in spite of John's childish prank.

Mandy was a deal more dignified. She merely waved politely and turned to take her seat, waving to her parents in the front row.

Again with that inflow of pride, Mark felt he might burst. He stood up to applaud his children and grinned as wide as church doors. Nothing could mar this day. Nothing could darken, spot or stain this perfect day.

Not even the tall figure dressed wholly in black at the end of the hall. The figure was starring about himself, peering this way and that as though lost. Knowing how he might feel if he missed seeing his children graduate, Mark stood to help the man find his seat.

"Are you lost Buddy?" He called as he approached. "I can help you find your seat if you tell me your name. We went through every one of these seats trying to find our own you see."

The man smiled. "No, I am not lost. I was looking for you. I have a proposition for you."

"Really?" Mark frowned. "I'm sorry, I don't think I know you."

"No you would not. But then you should and in a way you do. You know me just as well as you know your wife and your children. I know you much the same. We are very much the same, you and I. I am a part of you."

"Right," realising his mistake, he quickly turned away to make a hasty escape back to his seat, "I'm sure we are. Headcase." This last word he muttered under his breath.

"How long did it take for Marsha to take her first steps after the crash Mark? Her legs were crushed quite badly were they not? She still has a faint limp does she not? And you? How much of your brain did they remove to save you from the glass that almost killed you?"

It was then that Mark paused. "What the hell-?"

"Yes Mark. I know much about you. I even know so much as that your children did not survive the crash as you so happily believe they did."

"Of course they did," he said hotly, unconsciously touching the scar on his forehead, "they're up on stage right now. Surely you recognise them if you know so much. You must have mistaken me for somebody else."

"I think not." Said the man calmly. "I speak the truth. This place, this time, these things you see; it is not real. Any of it. But I can make it real. I can do that for you if you would like me to."

"What are you talking about?!"

The man leaned against the wall, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a packet of cigarettes. He slipped one into his mouth and sucked gently on the filter, returning the packet to his pocket on Mark's refusal to take one. "I mean that- no, no, no. This will not do. I must show you instead. Only then will you understand. I had hoped there was no need to take you back there twice, but I see now that I have no choice."

He waved a hand in front of him and abruptly the scene around them changed. It was dark. Night time. Flashing red and white lights filled the murky night air, alive with shouts and sirens.

Mark gave a start of fright and stared about him. There was something horribly familiar about this place.

It wasn't long before he recognised his car. He saw the twisted and crumpled block of metal and recognised it as the one that so many years ago had killed his two children.

"But that can't be true," he murmured, "it can't be. I was just at their graduation. I saw them take their certificates. John is going to be a doctor. Mandy is going be a biochemist! This can't be true."

"It is Mark. This is the truth, see for yourself."

Mark looked and saw, to his horror, a stooped figure even more familiar to him than his old BMW. He watched as he, himself, Mark Seer walked away, led by one of the paramedics, while two remained to inspect the wreckage of the car. He watched himself be led away weeping for his dead children. Yet at the same time he had clear memories of their graduation.

"Their graduation was not real Mark. None of your memories of your children after this night are real. I merely put them to you to show what your life could be had they survived."

"But I remember so much of their growing up! Mandy's first boyfriend, John's university acceptance letter-!"

"All fake I assure you. You and your wife live alone, she unable to have any more children after the accident so damaged her body."

Mark bowed his head as, like a switch being flicked in his mind, all the memories came back to him. The doctors, the wheelchair, operation after operation. Marsha weeping as she gave him the horrific news. No more children. No children at all.

"My children are alive!" He yelled, in one last desperate attempt to deny what he knew to be the truth.

"Really?" The man frowned. "Then I beg you to listen to those two paramedics over there." He pointed and Mark followed the finger to watch the two uniformed men.

"Not a chance." They were saying. "Crushed on impact, no seat belt. I'm surprised they weren't thrown through like he was, they might even have survived that way. They're both dead."

"No!" Mark screamed, the sound dragged, ripped, torn from his very soul.

His black clad companion merely watched, lighting his cigarette with a match from his other pocket. "Yes Mark. Dead. Both of your children are dead."

"You!" Cried the distraught figure. "What did you do? Why did you bring me here? Where am I anyway? How do I get back to my life?!"

"So many questions! The Whats, the Wheres, the Hows and the Whys and yet none of these is the correct question." Another sweep of the stranger's arm and the scene changed again, showing a girl with fine blonde hair. A woman stood beside her with the same golden locks. They were talking and laughing, running across a sandy beach.

Mark ran towards them. "Marsha! Mandy, oh my Mandy!"

They vanished.

In their place was a twisted car wreck and a sea of blood and glass.

A bright flash of light, a camera perhaps. John stood in the centre of a football pitch, his powerful legs eating up the distance between himself and the ball. He gave it a powerful kick and sent it spinning into the back of the opposing net, screaming his triumphant to the rest of his university friends.

"Well done John! Show them how its done eh?"

It was gone.

The football pitch became a dark road, the net; an ambulance.

A woman in bed, with fine blonde hair, cradling a newborn baby in your arms. "Dad, its your grandson! Look, I called him Mark, just like you."

The hospital scene disappeared.

The bed was nothing more than the car, still wrecked, still holding its lifeless cargo.

A church, with loud bells pealing their clear note. Sending joyous songs high into the midday air. John ran through the doors with a dark haired woman cradled in his arms. Her dress was a beautiful snow white. "Never thought you'd live to see me settle to one woman eh Dad?"

The church faded away.

In its place lay an over turned lorry, the cockpit hanging loosely from the train of the truck.

"Stop it!" Yelled Mark. "Please, I can't take it any more! These memories, these visions; they aren't real! I know they're not real, stop torturing me, I beg you."

"But I can give them to you Mark. I can make them real."

"No please! Just let me go back home. We're cleaning the attic, me and Marsha I mean. She'll wonder where I am. Just send me home."

"So you do not want to see your children then? See them grow? Have children of their own? Get married?" By this point, the man had finished his cigarette and was reaching for another. He lit it silently and spoke again only after savouring his first two drags. "I can give you this Mark. I can give you anything. All you need do is ask."

Mark stopped panicking, long enough to give this man a long hard stare. "Who are you?" He murmured. "Why are you here?"

"To help you my friend. That is all."

"And what would you want from me if you could give me all this?"

The man smile. "No more than you can afford. Name your offer and I shall just see if it fits."

He sighed. "Anything, I'd give anything to see my children again. I don't know, all my money, my house, my car. I'd give my very soul to see my children again."

The smile abruptly grew wider. "Your soul? Let us see what I can do about that." The man tossed his cigarette to the ground, stamped it out and clasped his hands in front of him. "Let us see." He stared.

Mark shifted nervously, glancing back behind him as if to check there was no one else there. Why was this strange man staring at him so intently?

Suddenly white hot pain laced across his skull, seeming to split his head from the forehead down. His entire body seemed to be on fire, awash with a pain he'd always prayed he'd never feel again.

Something warm and thick began to dribble down his forehead and it didn't take more than a glance to tell it was blood. He reached upwards and gently touched the piece of glass protruding from his skull.

"What have you done?" He asked breathlessly

The man shrugged. "You were lucky that night. This time you will not be so lucky. Goodbye Mark, I shall see you later; I am sure of it." He vanished.

Mark fell to his knees, wracked by unspeakable pain. He was only vaguely aware of the voices around him, the hands pulling at him, heaving him onto a stretcher and pressing a clear plastic mask over his nose and mouth. The world was hazy all about the edges. There was a cold creeping through his toes and fingertips. Something rustled at the top of his head, and there was the strangest sensation of something leaving his body before it was all over.

And then there was nothing.

Nothing.

~*~

Marsha stared at the pictures with tears in her eyes. Her two beautiful children, killed before they even had time to live. Replacing them in the box she carried them down the stairs, walking slowly and stiffly so as not to fall on her weak leg. She dropped the box on the kitchen floor and looked at the sea of tools littering the table.

"Mark," she began, pausing as she spotted a picture near the dusty box, still unopened, though clean. She picked it up, carefully so as not to cut her fingers on the broken glass and gasped. It was the picture of Cornwall, where Mark had taken her after the accident for a break. She was still in the chair then, although she had learned to manage without it after six months of gruelling physical training.

They had stopped a Japanese tourist to take the picture for them, thanking him by pointing out the best fish and chip shop around.

There was only one thing strange about this picture however and that was that Mark wasn't in it. She remembered the picture well, she sat was in the chair and Mark was stood beside her with his hand resting lightly on her shoulder.

Mark was nowhere to be seen. The space where he should stand was completely empty but for the scenery; a crumbling brick wall and the sea beyond.

Nonplussed she set the frame down and stepped around the table, almost tripping over the body sprawled across the ground. "Mark? Mark!" She threw herself down beside him and turned him over, her heart racing somewhere in her throat as she guessed the worst. "Please! Please be alright! I couldn't bare it, I can't loose you too!"

Her frantic guess was not far from the tragic truth.

Mark was dead. That much was plain. And he had been dead for a great length of time too from the rotting decay of his features. But there was no mistaking her husband. Marsha fell forward over the body, gasping in mingled confusion and pain as something sharp sliced against her palm.

Looking to the hurt, she saw a large piece of glass protruding from the skull, a dribble of blood at its exposed tip. Her blood.

"What is this?!" She cried, standing and reeling away. She turned towards the sink and promptly threw up into it, spinning the taps on and gulping down mouthfuls of clean cold water. "I don't understand!"

"No, I am afraid you would not. But I can help you with that." At the end of the room stood a figure dressed wholly in black. He held a lit cigarette in his hand and drew on it gently, blowing a long stream of blue-grey smoke curling into the air above his head.

"Who are you?"

"A friend. A friend here to help you, should you be willing to save your Mark. What would you give to save him Marsha?"

"Anything!" Blurted Marsha. "Everything I have."

"Even your soul?"

"Yes, if that's what it took! I would give my soul to save him." Tears streamed down her face.

The man in black smiled. "Well then… let us see what I can do about that." Gently, he took her by the arm and stood her in front of the box. "Open it."

Marsha raised her hands, hesitating over the scene on the front that was so obviously a diagrammatic rendering of the Garden of Eden story. The snake convincing Eve to eat the forbidden apple, condemning herself, Adam and the rest of mankind to pain and suffering for as long as the world survived. Suffering, because she had taken what was never meant to be hers. Eve had given over her soul that day.

"What will opening it do?" She asked softly.

"Trust me." Said the man.

Slowly, she lifted the lid, seeing nothing more than a pile of red dust. That and a photograph. She picked it up and stared, feeling tears sting at the corners of her eyes. It was John and Mandy, she was sure of it, though she had never seen them so old. They were in graduating robes, each proudly holding a rolled piece of paper bound with a red ribbon.

Tears slipped down her cheeks, falling into the fine dust on the bottom on the box. "Please," she said, "help me."

The man simply nodded and placed his hand on top of her head. "You will join them all Marsha. You can all be together. You can be a family again and I will take care of you forever.

She nodded and closed her eyes, almost able to see the graduation ceremony, John's wedding, Mandy's beautiful baby boy, she and Mark renewing their wedding vows on their fiftieth anniversary. "I'm coming," she whispered softly, reaching out to embrace her family, "we'll be together again soon."

There was a vague sensation of something lifting, rising out of her body and leaving through her head. She felt cold

And then there was nothing.

Nothing.

~*~

The man clad in black smiled as the body dropped heavily to the ground. He reached out and tucked the large wooden box under his arm. "Silly humans," he murmured softly, pausing briefly to inspect a picture lying on the table in a broken frame. "They are seldom grateful for what they do have, no matter how wonderful it is. They are easy prey for me. They always were, even in the Garden."

He glanced at the picture and saw a woman in a wheelchair, smiling up towards something that wasn't in the picture. Or was it something that had been there and was no longer? Unconcerned he dropped it on the ground and walked calmly out of the house, noting that he must return later to collect his prize.

Back on the kitchen floor, near Marsha's lifeless outstretched hand lay the picture. Slowly, the woman in the chair faded, faded, faded and then vanished. The picture of the empty wheelchair fluttered in an invisible breeze and blew away.

The two bodies on the kitchen floor then began to crumble. Crumble up, discolour and finally fall apart. Soon, all that remained was two large piles of fine, red dust, awaiting collection.