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ThE WooD BoX

I. Alison

Alison Henry pulled into the dirt driveway of 11 Brooklyn Road. Most of the homes she had visited so far today had been neighborless, fallen into disrepair, lawns unkempt and littered with debris. This home was no exception. There were no cars in the driveway, and there didn’t appear to be anyone home. But an effort needed to be made.

She cut the engine.

She glanced in the rearview mirror to check her appearance. She grimaced at the gray streaks that populated her once blonde hair. She smiled wide to try and stretch the permanent puffiness beneath her eyes, a byproduct of sleepless nights, worrying how she and her husband were going to pay the bills. Nights on which her husband, Gary, appeared to sleep just fine, even though he had been jobless for nearly nine months.

And in no apparent rush to find one, thought Alison, grabbing the clipboard of U.S. Census forms and stepping from the car.

Again, she regretted wearing her work shoes with the two-inch heels. But old habits were hard to break. Her previous job as an assistant bank manager left her with a nice wardrobe but a nagging question: why had she been laid off in the first place? Granted, she was earning a high salary, but her twenty years of experience should have counted for something?

Of course, she could have stayed home and collected unemployment. But staying home would have meant being a housewife to a man she no longer knew, a man she no longer even cared about, a man she no longer loved.

She strode onto the home’s front steps. Realizing there was no bell, she took a deep breath and politely knocked on the door.

The house was of an unremarkable style, square and plain. It sat on a lot surrounded by tall woods. It was unremarkable except for the unfinished front steps–steps that had no railing. Unremarkable except for a wood box, the size a miniature coffin without a lid, sitting on the concrete beside the door.

As Alison waited for someone to answer, she glanced at the wood box.

In the box lay nearly a dozen sticks; some were as long as walking sticks, others short as clubs, and still others were bent and twisted like letters of some foreign alphabet. All were stripped clean of their bark.

She leaned over the box. It appeared as if some of the sticks were hand carved. In fact, if she were not mistaken, nearly all of the sticks bore strange symbols etched into their surface. She wanted to reach in and pull one of the sticks out, examine it, confirm what she suspected. But she would have been trespassing. She had no right.

Still, she wondered.

She knocked again, then stepped back from the door to make herself more visible in case anyone should peer out from behind the curtained windows to see who was there. But there was not a sound or movement from inside the house. No television blaring, no dishes being washed, no footsteps, no voices. There were only the noises outside: the occasional cry of a bird, the soft susurration of the breeze filtering through the woods, and the intermittent whoosh of a vehicle passing by on the road behind her.

And singing. She heard singing.

She looked down at the wood box, at the tumble of sticks inside. She set her clipboard aside, placing it on the corner of the box, and leaned over, her ear guiding her, following the faint melody. And without hesitation, as if her hand knew exactly where to go, she reached in and pulled out one of the sticks.

In that instant, the singing filled her head. The world fell away leaving only an amazing white light. The light surrounded her. A gentle whisper of a breeze caressed her skin. A feeling of pure joy she never knew existed occupied her being. It was the most wonderful experience, devoid of thought, devoid of worry… devoid of fear. She wanted it to last forever.

But it was just a taste. A tease. A glimpse at what could be.

She was suddenly back on the steps of the unremarkable house. The day had gone from late afternoon sun to near dark. A cold wind moved through the branches of the surrounding trees.

She stared at the stick in her hand. There was now blood on the end of it that wasn’t there before. Blood, dried and tacky, and what looked like several hairs stuck to the stain.

She dropped the stick–it clattered inside the box like the rattle of bones–and she backed away, nearly tumbling from the steps–steps she discovered were not made of concrete but two stone slabs neatly stacked on top of each other.

A horrible chill ran through her. She stumbled back to her car, the metal handle of the car door cold in her grip. She got in and started the engine, her clipboard forgotten on the steps.

She hurried home, driving fast and reckless, knowing in the pit of her stomach something horrible had transpired, something dark and irreversible… something she didn’t ask for but deep down inside knew she had wanted for a very long time now.

II. Robert

Robert Messier felt another migraine coming on. The company van smelled of sour milk and diesel. The clink and rattle of the parts racks were particularly loud today. He double-checked the address on the requisition sheet: 11 Brooklyn Road. Power had been shut off at the residence over a year ago, but now and then a spike occurred that couldn’t be explained… unless someone was pirating electricity illegally.

“Here we are,” Robert spoke to no one in particular, slowing to pull into the dirt drive. He rolled up to the abandoned home and killed the engine. The warning chime signaling he’d left the keys in the ignition grated against his optic nerves. His head didn’t throb; it merely ached. He kept his sunglasses on as he stepped out into the October daylight.

He walked to the back of the van and opened the doors. When he did a human skeleton fell toward him.

He jumped back, his heart stabbing in his chest. The skeleton tumbled from the van onto the driveway.

That’s when he realized it wasn’t a skeleton at all but somebody’s idea of a practical joke. The “skeleton” was nothing but a white hard hat perched on top of a grounding rod, wearing a company t-shirt. It had been propped in a coil of cable to keep it upright… until he opened the van doors. On the shirt was a note written in black magic marker that said: “Boo!”

“Fucking Henderson. Go ahead yuck it up.” Robert picked up the hard hat and tossed it back into the van, along with the shirt and rod. He grabbed his utility belt, slipped it around his waist, slammed the van doors, and headed for the home’s meter box.

Now his head did throb. Each throb increasing the pressure behind his eyes and expanding outward like an ever-tightening metal band around his skull.

Back at the company, Robert was considered a fun sucker, a bit too serious for his own good. His co-workers–especially Henderson, a brash young upstart–tried their best to loosen Robert up, include him in their daily conversations and jokes. But Robert perceived their attention as making fun of him, using him as the butt of their jokes, mocking his dedication to his work. “Leave Bob alone, he’s having his period.” “Hey, Bob, did you forget your smile at home?” And one of Henderson’s favorites: “Bob, the Guinness Book of World Records called, you can smile now, you’ve got the record.” The more they encouraged Robert to get happy, the more it pushed him away. He began to avoid personal contact altogether. That’s why he didn’t mind going out on calls like these. It was just he, his tools and a telephone pole… or a junction box… or a house meter.

He waded through the low level migraine, the sunglasses helping to relieve the pain of the late afternoon autumn sun. The first thing he noticed was the lead seal on the meter box was intact. The revolving power reader was motionless. It looked as if the box hadn’t been touched since it was disconnected. In fact, a large papery hornet nest hung underneath, dormant now due to the cooler weather.

Robert reached for his tin snips out of habit–then thought twice about it. No sense in disturbing something that didn’t need it. The thought occurred to him that this might be just another practical joke. So close to Halloween, Henderson probably thought it would be funny to send ol’ Bob out to the middle of nowhere to chase ghosts.

Robert squeezed the tin snips handle until his knuckles turned white. I hope they all burn in hell, he thought. It was then there came a flicker of movement. The meter wheel began to rotate, spinning slowly at first but then picking up speed.

“Ah, hah!”

There was something inside drawing electricity after all–intermittent though it might be. “Well, I can fix that,” he said out loud. He put his tin snips up to the copper wires that held the lead seal… and paused. Through the growing tsunami of pain he felt in his head, he heard singing. It was faint but unmistakably near. It was unlike any singing he’d ever heard, not quite human and yet….

He slowly walked around the side of the house. The singing led him to the front steps. At last, he homed in on the sound; it appeared to be coming from a wooden box filled with sticks. Robert eyed the collection of what he thought were kindling wood. But he quickly realized the haphazardly arranged pieces were much more than that. They were works of art, whittled smooth and engraved with decorative patterns and designs.

He reached in. The hairs on his arm stood up as if immersed in an electro-magnetic field. When he grabbed the stick he believed was responsible for the singing, his migraine suddenly lifted. As did the world as he knew it. He found himself in a place he didn’t think possible again. He was with his wife and she was alive. And not just alive and battling cancer, but alive, free of illness. Free of even the threat of illness. As if that part of their lives had never happened. As if his slow retreat from the world–his friends, his co-workers, even God–had never taken place. He was home again–or something that closely resembled home–and his wife–or someone closely resembling his wife–was there at his side. He cried as he held her in his arms, weeping and sobbing with a joy he couldn’t express in words. And just as quickly… it was gone.

Robert found himself back on the front steps of the house, standing beside the wood box beneath a much darker sky. The stick in his hand was now singed with a smoky char. He heard sirens and looked up. On the main road, a fire engine and rescue vehicle raced by, headed toward town… headed, Robert knew, toward the company he worked for. He also knew, as certain as his wife’s death, that the building was already too late to save, as were the people inside.

III. Kevin and Kyle

Kevin and Kyle Walsh were on their way back from a Saturday afternoon bike ride into the center of town. The twelve- and ten-year-old brothers hung out in front of the local pizza shop, each grabbing a slice to eat and washing it down with an energy drink. They ran into a couple of their friends, and Kevin even saw the girl he had a secret crush on drive by in her parents’ car. He wanted to wave but couldn’t make the muscles in his arm work. After a couple hours Kyle and Kevin headed home again.
They chose a circuitous route that visited old haunts as well as new ones. Forever the back road explorers, their new route took them along a very old road–a road once traveled regularly by motorists driving west to east across Eastern Connecticut toward Rhode Island–before Route 6 was rolled out through woods and over fields to provide a straighter, faster access.

Brooklyn Road.
It was a perfect bike route with its ups and downs and meandering curves that mimicked the lazy path of nearby Five Mile River. There were fewer houses but one had to be careful; each house had a dog or two, and not all adhered to the State’s leash law. It was important to keep an ear out for the jangle of a collar or the full speed gallop of a canine intent on taking a bite out of the rolling two-wheeled beasts that dared enter their territory.

“Hey, check it out.” Kyle skidded to a halt, his tire biting into the roadside sand.
Kevin kept going. He looked over his shoulder, then reluctantly turned around. “What is it now?”
“I wonder what’s in the box?” Kyle’s eyes were fixed on the wood box that sat on the front steps of an abandoned house.

Kevin looked up at the sky–at the clouds that had sealed over and blocked out the sun. He felt a chill.

“C’mon, we don’t have time. We have to get home.”

Kyle looked at his older brother and smirked. “No, we don’t.”

This was in fact true. Kevin and Kyle’s parents had many demands on them. There was work and meetings and evening social gatherings. The boys’ mother belonged to the town appropriations committee; their father was often away on business trips. The boys each had an I-Phone; their home entertainment center consisted of an X Box One X, A PS4, an 80 inch OLED TV and over 200 cable channels. But ever since they received their matching BMX GT bicycles at the beginning of summer, they pretty much rode them everywhere. Because each couldn’t stand to be home–just like their parents.
Kevin pulled out his I-Phone, held it up first in one direction then the other, holding it high, then low. “Crap! No service.” He pocketed it. “Okay, let’s make it quick.” He rocketed past Kyle and wheelied down the driveway toward the empty house.

“Hey, no fair!” Kyle did his best to catch up and skidded to a halt in front of the house. He dropped his bike and hopped onto the steps and looked inside the box.

“Nothing but sticks,” said Kevin. He was leaning out from the steps, clinging to the door casement, trying to look in the front window.

Kyle gazed into the box, looking for something Kevin might have missed. Kevin always seemed to get first dibs on everything. He always came in first when they raced. He always had to lead whenever they were riding. Always the one to decide where to go and what to do. Kyle just wanted to be first for once.
But the box contained nothing but a pile of sticks, just like his older brother had said. Kyle let the air out his lungs, and just as he turned to walk away… he heard singing.

“Do you hear that?”

Kevin looked at him. “Hear what?”

“It sounds like music… and it’s coming from one of these sticks.”

“Yeah, right. Have another Red Bull.”

“No, I can hear it.” Kyle leaned over the wood box. He now saw the sticks for what they were. They were special. They were magical. And they were old. His eyes searched for the source of the strange musical tones and he suddenly knew which stick it was. He didn’t know how he knew. With a grin as wide as Christmas morning he reached down… but before he could grab the magic stick, his brother’s hand shot into view and plucked it out of the box.

What happened next was difficult to describe. Kyle watched as his brother stood straight up on the steps, the stick gripped in his hand like a live wire. His eyelids fell shut but the eyes underneath were darting back and forth as if they were trying to escape his skull.

Kyle’s grin flat-lined and he shouted. “Kevin, cut it out! Stop playing around, I mean it!” When Kevin finally did stop, Kyle had tears sprouting at the corners of his eyes. “Kevin? You okay?”

Kevin turned to him as if he’d just come back from a far away place. “I’m fine,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.” Kevin got onto his bike and peddled up the driveway to the road, the stick still in his hand. Kyle stared after him, then finally hopped on his own bike, pleading to see the stick.

A half-mile later, Kevin turned his bike onto a footpath that led into the woods to an old grown-in fieldstone foundation. Kyle followed. Kevin didn’t understand why he needed to do what he was about to do–something about his parents’ indifference being caused by the fact they had two sons, and maybe if they only had one they would pay more attention to him.

When Kyle once again asked to see the stick, Kevin gave it to him. Over and over again.

IV. The Woods

The woods surrounding 11 Brooklyn Road were thick and deep. When the sun went down noises rose up out of the trees. Oftentimes, those noises were the nocturnal movements of opossum, raccoons, foxes and owls. But there were times the night grew absolutely silent, particularly when the moon was nowhere to be seen and the dark was as black as coal and as even as a slab of slate. During these moments something could be heard crawling forth from the darkness, its legs scrabbling, its breathing ragged and raw… crawling across leaves and lawn to the empty house, to the front steps where the wood box sat… at last, reaching up, delivering another totem to the collection already there.

THE END

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