THE BOX: AWAKENING

Ira Chester could barely keep the startled scream from breaking the silence after he opened his hazel eyes. Blinking away the remnants of the empty sleep he found himself surrounded by unknown walls. A nightmarish vision. His hands slid across the rough, dirty mattress as his body jolted up, leaving him momentarily disorientated. Ira closed his eyes, squeezing them shut as tightly as he could. Those brief sights were nothing more than remnants of a night mare he told himself. But the musty, rank odor of the room told him otherwise. Iron and rust drifted through his nostrils. The humid air mocked him as his clammy skin and sore back forced him to accept that he wasn't where he should be.

Breathing in the foul air Ira opened his eyes. The room was spacious and almost completely empty. Tall walls of grimy, cracked plaster and torn wallpaper stretched towards a cracked and broken ceiling. Murky streams of golden light drifted lazily through filthy, barred windows too high to reach and too small to fit through. The oak trim along the walls was chipped and full of holes made by the insects feasting upon them. On the wall furthest from the uncomfortable, worn-out bed was a large door resting smugly in an oak frame. Ira pushed his legs over the edge of the bed, feeling the empty chill upon his feet before realizing that his shoes and socks were gone.

"What the..." He stopped, listening to the sound of his voice echo against the walls. Trying to remember anything hurt, feeding the hungry, painful throbbing in his head. That pain was nothing compared to the growing frustration of not knowing where he was, or why he was there.

Ignoring the feeling of the dirty floor Ira pushed himself to his feet and tried to move towards the door. The first few steps failed, a sudden nausea gripping his stomach as the dizziness coursed violently through his body. He fell back onto the bed, his hand catching on one of the exposed springs and cutting into the tender flesh. Ira cursed loudly, the harsh sound of his own voice reverberating against his ears as he pressed his bleeding hand against his dark blue jeans to try and stop the bleeding.

Long moments passed before he felt enough in control of himself to try and stand again, this time keeping his footing as he stumbled across the floor towards the door. It stood six feet tall, its thick wood standing firm against the rusted brass hinges. Like those hinges, the small, round door knob was also made of brass, though the filth coating its surface had recently been disturbed. Ira tried to open the door, his hands sliding through the filth as he tried to grip it tightly and turned. First, he tried to push it out, and when that failed to open it, he tried to pull it. Neither action gave him the result he wanted. The door had been locked from the outside by whomever had left him there.

"Hello?" He called out as he knocked lightly on the door. While he waited for a response he wiped the grime from his hand. "Is anyone there?" Still no answer from beyond the door. Annoyed, Ira began pounding on the door, the dull pain creeping through his hand as he yelled out furiously to anyone out there. When there was still no reply he froze, the pain in his hand spreading as he slid down to the floor with his back against the door.

The floor, like the rest of the room was covered in mold and debris. Small pebbles from the walks and chunks of wood from the decomposing ceiling lay in scattered piles. The light fixture that had once been in its center had been ripped out, its broken cords now hanging lifelessly and without purpose. His hand was bleeding again, the blood oozing over his palm and onto the floor. Knowing that he needed to stop the bleeding and attempt to keep the cut clean, Ira tugged at the red, long sleeved shirt he was wearing under his black band tee shirt, tearing the material around its bottom until he had enough cloth to wrap around his hand.

That was when he first heard it. From somewhere else in the building drifted the light thudding sound, echoing against the walls. It didn't last for long, stopping almost as suddenly as it had begun and leaving him again in haunting silence. For long minutes Ira sat against the door, straining to hear any possible sounds of life coming from outside his room. The dead silence bothered him more than the thudding, making him feel utterly alone. Was there someone else there? If there was, why wouldn't they have said anything when he had called out?

Ira sighed heavily before pushing himself up from the floor to inspect the room. Aside from the bed he had woken in, there was a small, wooden table and a single chair in the middle of the room. Against the wall farthest from the windows was a metal bucket surrounded by a mess of crumpled newspapers. A few feet from the bucket was an antique chest in the same state of decomposition as the rest of the room. From the door to the wall across the floor he took thirty steps, repeating the number to himself as he moved to the wall with the windows. From there, he counted the steps it took to get to the wall with the bucket and chest: forty-two. The room felt much too big for him to occupy, and knowing just how large it was again left him feeling impossibly alone.

The first thing he moved to inspect was the bucket, barely needing to lean over it before the odor assaulted his nostrils and sent him stepping back. Whoever had brought him here expected him to stay for a while. Shaking off the disgust he moved to the chest, pushing his fingertips under its lid and pushing it open with the full force of his strength. Inside of its decomposing body he found a gallon of water, two apples and a loaf of bread. In the opposite corner of the chest was a smaller chest, wrapped in fraying hemp rope with a folded piece of crisp, fresh paper tucked underneath.

Grabbing one of the apples and the note, Ira slowly walked towards the table, sitting in the creaking chair before taking the first bite. He hadn't realized how hungry he was until then, the taste exploding against his tongue and wetting his dry throat. With his free hand he unfolded the paper, laying it onto the table as he began to read.

Ira Chester, welcome to your new home. By now you've found the food and water we've provided for you, make them last. You won't be getting any more. As you may have noticed, all personal possessions we've deemed unnecessary had been taken, you won't be needing them here. No one is going to find you, and there are no ways out. The small chest with which this note was placed is NOT to be opened for two days. If you open it before then, we will know, and any hope of leaving will be lost. Though you cannot see us, we are watching every move you make. Your eventual escape is out of your hands, but your survival here depends entirely on you. Act wisely.

Ira read the note twice more, looking at the carefully written cursive words as he tried to understand what exactly was going on. He had been left here, locked inside of this deteriorating room with very limited supplies and no way of knowing when, or if he would be getting out. But why? What on Earth had he done? The words of the letter played back through his mind in dark voices, sinking in until they were all he could hear. Ira's hands began to shake, the sudden onslaught of fear and anger finally taking over until he could control it no longer. Dropping the apple, its dull thud and steady roll across the dirty floor fading father from his hearing, Ira began to panic.

The trembling in his pale hands moved to the rest of his body an up his throat, simple movements growing into frantic roars as he began to yell unintelligible words at the cold uncaring room. The birds that had made their nests in the empty spaces of the ceiling shook their tired feathers and called out before taking flight out into the late afternoon light. Ira stomped across the floor, back to the locked door and began to pond on it until his knuckles cracked. The blood soaked through his clenched fingers, sliding down his arms as he continued screaming. He didn't care that no one was listening, there was too much negativity within him and it needed to be let out.

Twenty minutes passed before Ira fell to the floor, breathing heavily and wiping the tears away from his flushed face. He sniffled, choking back the sobs as he tried to get himself back under control. The panic was fading, allowing him back onto the path to reasonable thinking. Freaking out wasn't going to help, it was only going to leave him dehydrated and hurt. Ira waited until he caught his breath to push himself back off the floor and towards the chest to grab the gallon of water. Several long drinks later he replaced the lid and set it back into its resting place and looked around the room.

The windows were small, but he was sure that if he could reach them, he could force himself to squeeze through. The walls were so old that he was sure he could pull the bars away from the windows. Moving back towards the middle of the room, Ira grabbed the table and began dragging it towards the far walls, setting it against the wall and climbed onto it. It shook under his light weight but held its place. On his tip toes, he still couldn't reach the bottom lip of the window, so he tried jumping, a small hop to assure that the table didn't crumble beneath him. The tips of his fingers barely graced the sill, briefly sliding over its uneven surface before losing it entirely. He tried again, and when his feet hit the table he slid, bracing himself just before hitting the floor.

Black spots exploded across his vision as the pain flared in his left arm, which had taken the force of the fall. At first all he could do was lay on the floor, taking deep breaths as he waited for the pain to go away. Ira rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling, the rust from the pipes making its once white surface an orangish brown. Cracks ran like spider webs, bursting from the holes in the ceiling exposing the pipes and wooden beams holding the place together. Those gateways to freedom were further out of reach then the windows he'd failed to reach.

He wasn't sure how long he'd simply laid there, letting the frustration go rather than allowing himself to get worked up again. He wasn't certain, but he must have fallen asleep, because the next time he saw those windows the sky had grown darker. The vibrant pinks and oranges of early twilight glowing warmly against the chill of the coming nightfall. Ira brought his hands to his eyes, rubbing away the remaining slumber and smearing dust across his face. The dying sunlight had left a deathly chill in the room, made worse by the waking realization that it was indeed, very cold.

Ira pushed himself up from the floor, taking groggy steps towards the chest and the few provisions he'd been left. Half of one of the apples had already been wasted, how long could the rest of this possibly last? Right now, he didn't want to think about it, no matter how much he knew he ought to. Staring at the bread and water with empty eyes, Ira considered how best to make it last. Hopefully, it wouldn't have to last. The note had said that his escape was out of his hands, so he could only hope that whoever was in control would get what they wanted from him and let him go. Looking at the three slices of bread he'd taken from the bag, hope seemed like a distant ideal.

Ira ate slowly, attempting to make the small meal last and giving himself the illusion that he'd eaten more then he really had. Following the bread, he took one more gulp of water, savoring the brief relief it offered his dry, dust coated throat before returning the cap and moving back towards the bed. He didn't really want to sleep here, but if he was asleep the time would pass faster. In that empty slumber he didn't have to think about what was happening or attempt to understand. There was no chance of being comfortable on the broken mattress, but Ira did what he could, shifting his body to avoid the exposed springs and curling against himself to try and retain heat.

When he closed his hazel eyes he thought of home. His mother, the short, but strong woman who had spent her life looking after him to keep him out of trouble. His father, whom he looked so much like, but was completely opposite of. His father was a strict, dull man who worked all the time. He was successful, but that meant that he was rarely home. His brother had been his best friend until a year ago when he'd died in a car accident. Despite the tragic death, Ira always remembered him for the person he'd been rather then the corpse he'd become. And then there was his younger sister, only two years younger but smarter than just about anyone he'd ever known. She was gorgeous, like their mother had been before having three kids, and there was no counting the number of boys he'd scared off to keep her safe. After all, he was a boy, and he knew how they thought at that age.

He tried to imagine what they were doing right now. Where they lying in bed thinking about him like he was them? Maybe they were getting upset, trying to call his cellular, waiting for him to answer. Perhaps his father had called off from work, and they were all looking for him right now? The thought was as comforting as it was saddening. He wanted to be found, to go home and forget all of this, but he didn't want to imagine just how distraught his family might be. Instead of thinking of them as he knew them, Ira tried to just focus on the light-hearted memories he had, letting their distant comfort take him away from where he was as he slowly fell back into oblivious sleep.

~.~

Before Ira opened his eyes, he heard the thudding sound from the day before and he knew where he was. It wasn't too hard to remember given the feelings of cold and discomfort pulsing through his slowly waking body. The cut on his hand was throbbing, its dull pain forcing him to finally open his eyes to look at the wound. He carefully removed the make shift bandage he'd crafted from his shirt, peeling it away from the red, swollen wound. It would get infected here, and he didn't know what he could do to stop that.

It had crossed his mind that he could use some of his water to at least rinse out the wound, clean out whatever filth the rusted spring had allowed in. But all he had was that one gallon, and he'd already drank a forth of what he had. Without that water, he wouldn't survive long, and there was no way of knowing when he'd be freed. If he'd be freed. Looking at his hand, Ira considered how much it would take for that infection to get beyond repair. He didn't want to lose it. Ira walked over to the chest, his hand held against his own chest as he pulled the water out. He supposed, he could spare some of it.

Carefully, he set his hand down on the table palm up, staring into the wound as he tipped the gallon. It hurt to watch those brief currents fall over his hand, oozing over the now stinging wound and dripping onto the floor. Ira waited until all the poured water had run through the wound before tearing off another length of his under shirt and wrapping the wound again, praying that it would work. Long minutes passed as Ira sat in the wooden chair, his hand held against his chest until the pain finally faded from his thoughts.

Just barely in his vision was the box, its frayed rope poking out like frizzled hair. Without thinking Ira pushed himself out of the chair, going to the chest and collecting the small box before returning to the table and setting it down. Until tomorrow, he wasn't supposed to open it. They said that they would know if he did, and despite not knowing who they were or how they would know, he was afraid of going against their orders. If he opened it before tomorrow, would they hurt him? Leave him here to die a slow, agonizing death? Ira shuddered, pushing the box farther from himself. His fingers lingered over its rough surface. Tracing over the old wood and ropes holding it shut. More than fearful, he was curious. Whatever was in there might help him, might give him some kind of answer to the questions he had.

The temptations were too great with the box still in his sight and under his fingertips. Ira pushed himself out of the chair, nearly knocking it over as he scrambled to get away from the box. His hands went from his sides to his hair, his fingers tangling themselves into the chin length black hair and pulling. He hated feeling this unsure and frustrated. He'd never been able to handle stress very well, and right now it was all he could feel. Hesitantly releasing the tight grip on his hair, Ira began to pace the room, anything to help clear his mind. Thirty steps from front to back, forty-two from side to side. Again, and again he walked around the room, counting the steps out loud to keep the silence from agitating himself.

He continued until his legs were sore and his voice had been reduced to a dry mumble before falling back into the wooden chair and resting his head in his hands. With his eyes covered, he didn't have to look at the taunting box, but he could still feel it there. Just knowing that it was in the room, that whatever was inside he couldn't know about until tomorrow was picking at the edges of his mind. Before he could stop his hands from moving, Ira once again found himself staring at the box, counting how many times the hemp rope was wrapped around it, the small nails holding it together. Once again, his hands were reaching forward, his fingers brushing over its lid.

Then he heard it again, the thudding from the other day. It echoed faintly against the door, coming in slow, hard bursts from somewhere else in the building. Ira turned away from the box, following the sound to the door. Again, he tried the knob, and once again he found it locked. His fingers traced over the oak door, leaving a smear of disturbed filth before he pressed his ear against it and just listened. There were no voices, no sighs that anything living was out there. Just the steady, continuous thudding that stopped as suddenly as it started. As it had the previous times he had heard it.

The sudden silence was broken by the unpleasant moaning of his stomach. Ira turned around, leaning against the door as he looked at the metal bucket against the wall. No part of him wanted to be near the foul thing, but he couldn't stop his body from functioning. Taking slow, dreading steps Ira made his way over to the bucket. Right now, he was glad to be alone, knowing that no one else would see what he was about to do was oddly comforting. Biting his lower lip, he undid the belt and let his jeans fall to the floor, stirring the dust into a small cloud around him. The bucket was cold, the act embarrassing, and the moment he had finished he moved away from it as fast as he could. He wasn't sure what about the act had made it so shameful, but shame was the only thing he could feel now. Perhaps it had just been using the bucket, or the knowledge that they had said they were watching him. Either way, he was glad that it was over.

Ira spent the rest of the day pacing the room, thirty steps then forty-two, thirty and forty-two. All the while he looked over every inch of wall and floor to try and find some kind of weakness in it. Despite its appearance, it was sturdy and inescapable. The hours passed slowly as Ira walked around the room, making note of every crack in the walls and scuff buried under the dust on the floor. Kneeling on the floor, he watched the ants eat away at the apple he had dropped the day before, taking it piece by piece through holes he couldn't fit through. He'd never been so bored in his life, not even at school. There was nothing he could do to pass the time any quicker, and with no one to talk to, it grew even worse.

Soon enough the silence and boredom began drilling at him mind, leaving an empty need where his thoughts had been. His feet took him back towards the chest, his hands grabbed for the remaining apple and water jug. After devouring the apple, Ira took two small drinks of the water and returned it to the chest. It didn't matter how thirsty he was, it had to last. Once again, the thudding sound echoed through the building, and Ira returned to the door, his ear pressed against it as he listened for any clues as to what was making it. As anticipated, no such clue came. Ira continued this way for the rest of the night, continuously searching the room and waiting for the thudding sound to return until he was finally exhausted enough to sleep.

Laying on the mattress, Ira shifted his vision from the window to the box. Outside the stars were shining distant and mocking in their freedom. Inside, the box and its secrets called to him, urging him to peer inside and take whatever it held. Tomorrow, tomorrow he could open it and finally see what they'd hidden from him. He could only hope that whatever was waiting for him would help. Just as he was nodding off the thudding started again. He counted those sounds like a normal person might count sheep, until he was lost in dreams and the silence again fell over the building.