DOUG LANE WRITES: 

WHAT’S NEW AND STRANGE? (THE BLOG)

AUGUST 2, 2019

FICTION: THE BOX

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Introduction: How The Sausage Was Made

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In 2009, I wrote and filmed a digital short titled “The Box” for a grad school class; it was a fantasy/horror piece starring my friend Geri, with a nice character turn by Bernie and a small but pivotal role by Bernie’s daughter Brianna. The results were very engaging as five minute creeping horror films go. (The professor showed it to subsequent classes to demonstrate what one could do with video editing, which was a fine compliment). A few years later, I decided as an exercise to reverse-engineer the script for the film into a prose story; the mechanics of visual storytelling and prose are wildly different in structure, economy, the ‘how’ and ‘why’. Plus, I hadn’t ever done it before. The end result is below. I may some day include it somewhere alongside the original script, just for the fun of full comparison. For instance, the flow of the story necessitated an additional character and scene that better connect revelation and ending. 

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When the story version was done, I found I had no interest in sending it anywhere - it was, after all, an exercise to me, and sometimes you do a thing just to prove to yourself you can do it. I had, so “The Box” met The Trunk, but it’s now emerged twice, so who knows? I’m going to need material for a ‘next collection’ at some point…BTW, the above is a still of the original film’s title card. I considered putting the whole film up, but I can’t find the releases, and I’d want to be sure all involved swore fealty to being streamed globally before I actually do so. (It’s not like they all aren’t out there already, but still - protocols.)

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THE BOX

by Doug Lane

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    Walking home from the convenience store a little past one, Donna Magee spotted the box in the overgrown weeds beside the street. 

    She shifted the plastic bag with her bottle of sweet tea and a couple of scratch-off tickets to her other hand and squatted to get a better look. It was an oblong box, wood the color of raw pine, glistening with uncounted coats of lacquer. She could almost wrap a fist around it. It reminded her of a gift box for a fancy hot sauce or expensive balsamic vinegar, like the one Sheila brought to the office White Elephant exchange at Christmas. 

    Donna pulled the box from the weeds, more from curiosity than a desire to carry it home. Coins and bits of broken jewelry were one thing—she’d once stumbled across a perfectly good pink pearl earring; she’d transformed into a pendant for herself—but discarded packaging smacked too much of garbage picking, and she wasn’t a rag lady pushing a cart. 

    Her mind changed when she flipped the box over. 

    The lid of was beguiling, a slab fitted into grooves in the sides with a tab at one end for sliding it open easily, except it wouldn’t. White wax formed a solid bead that filled the seam. A thin green cord was embedded in the wax. The ends were tied in a bow that rested under a further wax seal in the center of the lid. There were markings pressed into that central seal, three symbols Donna didn’t recognize.      

    She shivered despite the sunlight. The lid had the look of trouble, the weird electricity of something best left undisturbed. She reached to return the box where she’d found it. Stopped. Wondered. 

    Pandora had a box, she thought. But then, so did pirates, large locking trunks of gold and jewels. Someone had gone to great lengths to seal the box. It almost promised treasure. Who couldn’t use treasure? 

    She glanced up and down the street as if someone might see her, stop her, claim the box and take it from her. Nothing stirred in the August heat. 

    Donna slipped the box into her bag and stood. Still seeing no one about, she continued on her route home.

+++

    Hers was an older house, kept as well as she was able. There were items of deferred maintenance that needed attention. The roof was on borrowed time. One corner of the porch had begun to sag. The yellow paint was curling in places as if to escape the shiplap. But Donna owned it, and in the end severity had a way of telling her which project got the lion’s share of what she could spend.

     It was with thoughts of such improvements she sat in her simple living room and contemplated the box, debate raging behind her eyes over whether to open it. 

    If there’s something valuable inside, she thought, I could certainly use it to take care of things around here. That’s smarter than sitting on it. But perhaps whoever lost it is offering a reward.

    The weird wax seal smacked of lines not to be crossed. Seals closed things inside, kept them from prying eyes. from prying eyes. If she broke the seal, whoever owned the box would know she’d transgressed. If there was a reward, it might vanish if the box’s owner knew her eyes had seen the secrets within. People could be volatile over secrets.

    A sharp knock on the screen door made Donna jump.

    She glanced from the door to the box to the door again.

    There was a second knock before Donna could peek around the inside curtain. An older man stood on the step, heavy set, neatly attired, his hair and beard unruly but clean. Worry informed his expression. A bag was slung over his shoulder.

    Donna opened the inside door. “Can I help you?”

    “Good afternoon.” Not a timid voice, but soft, belying his frame and general appearance. Donna expected he could shout down a bear. ”I’m sorry to bother you, miss. I hope this isn’t a bad time.” He paused as if expecting her to say. When she didn’t volunteer, he continued. “I was wondering if you could help me.”

    “Is something wrong?”

    “Well, if I’m being candid, yes. I was visiting the park a few blocks from here earlier today, you know the one?”

    Donna nodded.

    “I lost something between there and my car. I was parked in that municipal lot around the corner, you see, and walked the long way up to that park, and the cover on my bag wasn’t clipped closed, and what I lost must have fallen out somewhere along the way. I’ve been all around the park with no success, so I’m going door to door making some inquiries about it, in case I dropped it along the road. A box.”

    Donna had grown up with three brothers. Her poker face served her well. “What kind of box?”

    “It, um, well, it’s a small box, about this long and wide.” He pantomimed the approximate size of vessel sitting out of sights around the corner on Donna’s coffee table. “Sealed with wax. It’s not especially valuable. Well, except for sentimental value, maybe.” 

    The air of evasion wasn’t lost on Donna. Something in his voice undercut the faint smile on his lips. “What’s in it? I mean, if I see neighborhood kids playing with it or something—“

    “Oh, no. It’s not dangerous, and nothing kids would care about. It’s a silly thing, really.” He paused. Sighed, a heavy thing with theatrical weight. “The box is important in my divorce. Critical to it. It’s something I can’t let my wife have. Sadly, that’s the way of some things. And it was wrong to keep it on my person. Careless. But it’s not the kind of thing to leave laying around all willy-nilly.” He glanced up and down the driveway. “I need to make sure I get it back without the box being opened.” 

    He was normal enough, so why did Donna’s skin want to slip off and crawl away without her? She fought the urge to slam the door, lock it, sit along the opposite wall with a baseball bat and wait in the event he tried to come inside. 

    If she gave him the box, he’d go away, wouldn’t trouble her, wouldn’t come back. She knew this. 

    She felt she couldn’t do that. 

    She spat out her deception. “I’m happy to keep my eyes open for it.”

    “That would be wonderful if you could.” He slipped a hand in his pocket and pulled out a business card. 

    Donna cracked the screen door and took it from him with gentle fingertips. “No trouble.”

    “If you see it, call the moment you can. The cell number. There may even be a reward.”

    She was certain there would be no reward. “I will.”

    “Thank you.”

    He offered a crooked wave with matching smile and retreated down her driveway. Donna closed the door, waited until she was certain the man was far enough away to not hear, and bolted it.

    She read the card. Laird Randall. Financial Consultant from down in the city. She set it on the table. Stared as if he might crawl from under it. 

    He hadn’t menaced her, hadn’t acted crazy. Why did she feel this way? Why had she lied to him? 

    I need to make sure I get it back without it being opened. 

    She wasn’t sure if it was a demand or a dare. Was he trying to get her to open it, dangling curiosities like worms from hooks? It had been a long time since Sunday school, but wasn’t it possible to trap a demon in a box? Lock it inside using a spell? What if this was some terrible ploy by Laird Randall to put some innocent person in harm’s way? She’d heard stories of people being possessed. Was it as simple as opening the wrong box?

    His concern over losing it, his interest in finding it intact—those were sincere. Creepy, but earnest. Not having the box troubled him, even if the ‘what’ of it rang alarm bells.

    She tarried in the kitchen long enough to retrieve a butter knife from the kitchen drawer, then sat on the couch before the coffee table and Randall’s box.

    She snapped the seal holding the bow, untied it, and pulled the strands. Wax cracked and fell as the cord broke through, small bits of white debris like hailstones on the coffee table and into the pile of her carpet. What few spots remained sealed were no match for the thin blade of the knife, and soon the lid was free. She set the box on the tabletop, gripped one end with her left hand, and slid the lid open with her right.

    The box was mostly filled by a soft clay figure. Gray, smooth, its arms and legs suggested by curves and lines rather than fully sculpted, its eyes and mouth small depressions, as if scooped out.

    A piece of fabric was pinned to the clay form at the neck and chest, the stomach and side. It was little more than a triangular swatch, yellow with white trim. Seams on two sides led to a tapered point at the end. The third side was ragged where it had been snipped from something.

    Donna studied it, unwilling to touch it. 

    Everything she knew of things like voodoo came from TV and movies. It certainly looked like that, with the pins and the figure. She didn’t believe in such things. It wasn’t her beliefs that were disturbed.  

    She noticed the corner of something sticking from beneath the figure. She tipped the box to displace the clay, careful not to touch it, and pulled the item from the bottom of the box. 

    A photograph. A portrait of Laird Randall, with a woman Donna presumed was the wife he was divorcing. Sitting on Randall’s lap was a smiling young girl with dark, curly hair, a daughter. She was cute, more of her mother in looks than Laird. She clutched a toy in her arms, a yellow and white bunny that wasn’t familiar. 

    Save for the tip of its ear.

    The box is important in my divorce. Critical to it. It’s something I can’t let my wife have.

    Donna stared at the pin-studded piece of clay, the raggedy bit of child’s toy those pins attached. She couldn’t have children, cheated by biology, but she had two nieces and a nephew she cherished. She loved children. Once a month, she volunteered to read at the kids corner at the library. Even the appearance of what might be going on raised her anger like a tide.

    Between the business card and the internet, a little work gave her the contact information she needed. With careful fingers, Donna began removing pins.

+++

    Sixty miles away, two strange things happened to Beverly Randall in rapid succession as she sat in her daughter’s hospital room. 

    Beverley had grown accustomed to strange in the month since telling Laird she was finished with him, his cheating, his lies. He’d stormed out, promising her a long, hard fight. Their daughter Tina took ill two days after Laird left, but the illness stumped doctors. Her heart, respiration, brain function had all slowed, but her affliction defied the definitions of coma. Her skin had grown cool to the touch, taken on a pallor. She’d been in the hospital a month, Beverley all but moved into her daughter’s room, the entire time Laird making demands through his lawyer or taunting via text messages. He seemed unconcerned about Tina, even as he vowed he would have custody in the end. You’re unfit, he told her. You can’t even figure out why she’s sick. Maybe it’s you.  

    The first strange thing was the sudden breath Tina took, a loud gasp with a bit of snore. The girl sat up in bed, sent Mister Bun tumbling over the side in a yellow heap. Her heart monitor beeped with greater frequency, color flooding her cheeks. She glanced around the room, saw her mother, and gave the woman a puzzled stare. “Momma? Where am I?”

    Before Beverley could answer, the second weird thing occurred. Her cell phone rang—UNKNOWN NUMBER. Beverley’s thumb moved to send the call to voicemail, but something stayed the impulse. She answered instead. “This is Beverley.”

    “You don’t know me, ma’am, and this is a weird question, but is your daughter okay now?”

    Overcome by the confluence of Tina wide-eyed and a stranger making inquiries about it, Beverley blurted, “Yes, she is. She’s awake, and talking, and—who is this?”

    “Like I said, you don’t know me.” Was that anger in the strange woman’s voice? What was she mad about? “But I don’t think your daughter will have any more problems. You either. It’s taken care of.”

    The call disconnected. Its curiosity was swallowed as both a confused nurse who came through the door and Tina, alert and speaking and looking alive again, peppered Beverley with questions.

+++

    It was about an hour before sunset when Donna heard a rustling outside her back door. Too early for raccoons to be sifting the garbage for treasure. She peeked around the curtain to see Laird Randall digging through the bags in the round plastic can.

    She pulled the inside door wide and pushed the screen door open. “What are you doing?”

    The man turned towards her. Winced. He pressed a hand into his chest.

    “Are you alright?”

    The man struggled in contrast to his words. “I’m fine. Have you… seen anything? Or heard? From neighbors? I think somebody found my box.” The last through teeth clenched against some internal agony. 

    “I’m sorry, I haven’t.” She studied the man on his unsteady legs. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

    He snarled at her. It was clear if she knew nothing, he had no use for her, her chatter or questions. “I need to find that box!” He staggered from the door, clutching himself as if his soul might break loose and fly away, and stepped an uneven path towards the street. “Somebody has to have it!”

    Donna closed the door behind the retreating specter, heard him raving as he made his way up the street. She allowed herself a wry smile. “Somebody does.”

    She returned to the living room, past the curio cabinet in the small hallway and the display on the top shelf: a wooden box, a dozen pins with brightly colored heads binding Laird Randall’s business card to magics of his own design. 

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