Lou Tewell muscled the unwieldy KING CARRY van from the broad stretch of White Rock Road onto Coco Street, narrowly missing a crooked column of battered trashcans and a forlorn, filth-encrusted man who was picking through their contents. The man looked groggily up from his task then stumbled aside as the truck bounced over the curb and back to the street.
Grady Zimmerman poked his head and right arm through the window of the passengerís side of the cab and hoisted a pint bottle of vodka between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. Those digits, plus the stub of a middle finger, were all that remained thanks to a round from a Viet Cong mortar in 1969. "You grubby bastard!" he shouted. "Looking for some of this?!" He took a mouthful from the bottle and spit it at the befuddled man.
"Ease up, Grady," said Lou, fighting the floor-mounted stick through a shift of gears. "The poor slobís just looking for something to eat."
Grady laughed. "Eat? Grimy sots like him donít eatÖunless theyíre chewing the wine off a cork." He took another pull at the bottle then offered it to Lou. Lou shook his head.
"Mellow out, man," Grady slurred. "This is the last delivery of the day."
"Mellow out, hell!" Lou snapped. "Thatís your second pint. Youíve been mellowing out on that crap since noon."
Grady snickered. "Keeps the blood moving, kid. Youíll see what I mean once you hit my age."
Lou laughed. "Looks like you hit it head on, Grady."
Grady smiled thinly and took a long drink.
"Seriously, Grady. How about giving it a rest, okay? Iím not about to unload that damn box by myself."
For a moment Gradyís face turned sour, his eyes creased. Then he capped the vodka and dropped the bottle to the seat. "Wonder whatís in it?" he asked. "Sorta looks like a coffin, donít it?"
Lou snorted. "You seen many coffins wrapped in a chain with a padlock?"
Grady didnít answer. He was leaning forward, squinting through the windshield into the gathering darkness. On either side a queue of derelict buildings rose up like great rotting tombstones to block what remained on the sunís light.
"How much farther?" Lou asked.
Grady pointed ahead with his maimed hand. "Next right."
Lou slowed the truck and turned carefully onto Roseanne Place, a thin strip of broken, gouged asphalt crowded with dismal two- and three-story warehouses that stared glumly at each other through rows of cracked, grime-streaked windows. All were crumbling, all alien and sinister-looking, and all apparently abandoned. The narrow street between them was bare except for rubble shed like molted skin by the decaying buildings and windblown refuse excreted by surrounding sections of the city.
"Damn," said Lou. "Looks like hell here, doesnít it?"
Grady stared gravely at Lou then answered with a near venerable tone to his voice. "Worse. This is part of Limboland."
Lou, like virtually everyone in the city past the age of reason, knew of Limboland. History had long forgotten how this defiled, squalid sector got its name, but Lou thought "Limboland" fitting in that Limbo, at least to Christians, was an in-between world, a dumpsite for souls denied the sight of God. And short of Hell itself, Lou couldnít think of a worse place to quarter the accursed than this five-square block of sin and depravity. He had partaken of Limbolandís corrupted fruits a time or two as a teen-ager, when hellraising and mischief were compulsory courses every adolescent ghetto male had to pass. And unwritten law in Louís neighborhood adjured that investiture into manhood take place in Limboland, on top, beneath or astride a twenty-dollar whore who would gladly submit to any aberration liquor, drugs, and lecherous young minds could devise.
Lou hadnít been back since graduation.
"This canít be right," Lou said, shaking his head. "Why would anyone want something delivered here? The whole damn block looks given over to rats and ghosts years ago."
Grady used his good hand to grab a clipboard from the dash and ran a finger down the delivery schedule. "Just says 77 Roseanne. Donít say nothing about the décor."
"Cute, Grady. Real cute. Donít you wonder though?"
Grady shrugged. "I stopped wondering about peopleís intentions a long time ago." His gaze shifted to his crippled hand and Lou watched his eyes fill with a dark anger that lingered a moment then wandered off. "Why I seen things in my time that would --"
"Not now, Grady. Look for number 77."
Grady let out a grumpy puff of breath. "Should be just ahead. On the left."
Lou switched on the headlights and eased to a stop. After fumbling twice for reverse, he jerkily backed the van up a cramped alley between number 77 and its hulking, shadowy neighbor. He stopped a truck-length into the alley beside a huge sliding door then killed the engine and the lights. The alley turned black, and for a reason he couldnít fathom, Lou felt a cold brush of fear whisk over his skin. It held his attention a moment as he wondered where it had come from.
"Letís have a look-see inside," said Grady, sliding from the cab with a flashlight and his pint bottle. Lou shrugged the chill from his flesh and stepped quickly to the back of the truck where Grady, bottle at his mouth, hastily swung the flashlight up and down then side-to-side across the exterior of the warehouse.
It took both men to force the screeching metal door along its warped, rusted track.
"Damn," Grady panted, squinting into the opening. "Dark, ainít it?" Lou grabbed the flashlight and stepped inside.
Abruptly freed from God-knew-how-many years of stagnation by the breeze washing in, the air inside the warehouse came alive and rolled thickly off the floor and walls with the dank stale smell of wood rot and moldering cinder blocks. And this air carried sounds, secret rustling noises made by things unseen and not in the mood for company. Rats, Lou thought uneasily, shifting the light around the vast interior. Probably big as ponies. Eyes following the beam, he saw that the large single room was empty except for stacks of wooden pallets in the corners and a swirling blizzard of dust motes that the flashlight transformed into glittering, tumbling stars. He swept the beam across the walls in search of a light switch, but saw none.
"WellÖno place to put it but the floor," said Grady, tucking his bottle into a hip pocket. He slipped back outside, released the door latch of the van, and swung the double doors open. Lou joined him after positioning the flashlight on the floor so the beam flooded the center of the room. He stood for a moment with Grady and looked at the wooden box, which sat squat and mute at the back of the truck.
"But why here?" asked Lou, looking back toward the warehouse. "ThereísÖnothing."
Grady chuckled. "Remember the company motto, kid. King Carry: AnythingÖ AnywhereÖAnytime."
Lou turned stupidly and watched Grady shift his jaw and sigh. "Lou, I keep telling you that this ainít a thinking manís job. But you keep trying to figure out peopleís motives for doing dumb things. Keep it up and youíll go nuts." He looked off a moment then pointed a finger of his good hand at Lou. "Why I seen things in my twenty years that would make your head spin. Like the time that woman in--"
"Yeah, yeah," said Lou wearily, cutting him off. He hoisted himself to the bed of the truck. "The jilted woman in West Falls who had all her husbandís things hauled to the cliffs so she could throw them one by one into the river." He used his foot to push the box toward Grady. It screeched and squealed like something being abused. "Grab hold."
The box, though cumbersome due to the thick chain fastened on top with a huge padlock, wasnít particularly heavy. As it was, Lou might have managed better on his own. The vodka had overtaken Grady and had turned his feet into snowshoes. Lou had to fight his partnerís wobbly gait from the truck to the center of the warehouse.
"Set it down, Grady."
Breathing heavily, Grady did.
Lou noticed a square block of wood that looked to be nailed to his end of the box. As he grabbed it to swing the box around parallel to the door, the block broke free and fell to the floor with a dull thunk. Lou looked at it oddly, then squinted and looked even more oddly at the long shiny key imbedded in the hollow underside of the wood. He reached for it.
"Whatís that for?" Grady asked, walking nearer.
Lou looked to the box, to the padlock, then to Grady whose face was skewing up like burning cellophane. His eyes shifted from Lou to the box. "What do you say, kid?"
Lou knew what he meant. Still, he asked, "You mean open it?"
Grady stared at Lou as though he had just asked the dumbest question conceivable. "To see whatís inside. Why else?"
Lou hesitated a moment, then tossed Grady the key, which was - and Lou was totally aware of the fact - a clear act of cowardice. He didnít want to open the box, yet he wanted to see what was inside. And Lou pondered those inharmonic facts with a queer disquiet as Grady groped for the padlock and began poking at its tiny mouth with the key.
Lou asked another dumb question. "You sure you want to do this, Grady?"
"Just get the light over here, will ya?"
* * *
There was a box within the box.
The box within, crafted from pickled oak, was the size of a small suitcase. Looped handles of waxed rope were fastened to the sides; a strip of worn leather with a hole to fit over a small wooden knob served as a latch. The box was centered between a large X and Y that looked to have been burned into the bottom of the larger box.
"What the hell is that?" Grady asked of no one.
Lou answered anyway and felt a tingle of satisfaction. "Itís a box." But beneath that tingle, the prickly sting of foreboding jabbed at his insides.
A look of raw eagerness spread over Gradyís face as he reached for the oak box with his good hand. He abruptly pulled back, stared at his fingers, then rubbed them together. Eagerness gave way to bewilderment. "Itís moving."
"Moving?" Lou repeated, his voice grabbing at his throat.
"YeahÖmoving, vibratingÖlike a tuning fork. See for yourself."
Except for wiping his hands on his thighs, Lou didnít budge. His throat was filling with sand and that disturbing sense of alarm still stabbed at his stomach. He swallowed thickly and stared intently at Grady.
"Go on, Lou. It wonít bite."
When Lou stepped forward and gingerly touched the box, a mild but steady humming nibbled at his fingertips, a faint, purring vibration that brought to mind a power pole carrying high-voltage wires. "What do you make of it, Grady?" he asked.
Grady answered by reaching for the leather latch. "Only one way to find out." He opened the box.
Inside was an assortment of objects that looked purloined from a handymanís workbench: a ceramic jar with a fold-down ring clasp; a whiskbroom; a small wooden dustpan; and a large, weathered, leather pouch pinched closed by a rawhide drawstring.
Lou felt the tingle in his gut sharpen to a knife blade. "IÖI donít think we ought to be messing with this, Grady. Come on, weíre done here. Letís just leave well enough alone."
Grady snorted and reached for the pouch. Lou grabbed his arm, and Grady brusquely pulled away. "Itís nothing but a God-damned leather sack, Lou! It wonít bite either. You donít want to look? Then back off." He stared harshly at Lou a moment then grabbed the pouch from the box. He opened it and dumped the contents on the floor of the large box.
Wide-eyed, Lou and Grady watched a brightly polished grapefruit-sized metal ball roll slowly to a corner. When it stopped they heard a low, even humming that had them looking at their fingertips. One of the ballís hemispheres was punctured with a circular pattern of evenly spaced holes around a central, larger one; the other hemisphere had a slightly raised depression button directly opposite the central hole.
Also spilled from the pouch were a rolled sheet of stiff, yellowed parchment and a group of thin threaded metal rods held together by a strip of rawhide. Unfolded by Grady, the parchment read RESTORE MEin bold, black, fancy letters across the top. To Lou, the writing looked archaic, like the calligraphy medieval monks used to copy ancient holy books. Beneath the writing was a crude drawing of the interior of the large box with an X at one end and a Y at the other. Beneath the drawing was a numbered list of what appeared to be instructions.
Grady studied the parchment then removed the vodka bottle from his hip pocket with his crippled left hand. He took a swig and placed the bottle on the floor. Next he transferred everything from the box to the floor.
Watching, Lou felt dread collect in a shivering ball in the pit of his stomach. "GradyÖ What the hell are you doing?"
Grady swung the parchment to Louís face. "Number one here says to remove everything from the big box." He pushed the parchment into Louís hand. "Read the rest off to me."
In a bewitching, impossible-to-oppose capitulation to fear-soaked wonder, Lou did.
* * *
Ten minutes later Grady, bad hand and all, had a contraption assembled and positioned on the Y end of the large box. The metal ball sat on a tripod formed by three stubby rods. Six longer, thinner ones were set in the circular pattern of holes in the ball and were canted slightly inward around a thick rod screwed into the central bore.
"Whatís next?" Grady asked.
Lou squinted at the parchment and slowly read. "Carefully empty the contents of the jar onto the X. Do not touch the contents."
Grady opened the ceramic jar, looked briefly inside, then poured what looked to be a pile of gray, fine-grained soil on the X directly opposite the ball. Eyes widening, Grady looked to Lou. "What now?" he asked anxiously.
Lou didnít answer. The cold wings of dread were flapping in his gut like a bat in a basement.
"LouÖ What does the paper say?"
"Push the button on the ball once."
The ball shuddered under a sudden surge of power and the hum intensified to a grating whine. The tips of the six canted rods began glowing in an alternating pattern of green and white. Lou and Grady jumped back.
"Turn it off, Grady!"
"You turn it off!"
Lou took a step ahead then froze. The six thin rods abruptly spit a buzzing, crackling net of dazzling light, which connected them to the central rod. This rod, pointed directly at the grayish pile of soil, suddenly glowed a brilliant emerald green. Moments later, so did the pile of dirt.
The pile began to quiver.
And it expanded.
And it took shape.
The shape of a naked man who slowly sat up as his body elongated and configured.
Not totally configured, however. The manís face was a holocaust of shredded flesh, and there was a huge hole in his chest where his heart should have been. Also, he had no left hand. It had been cleanly severed at the wrist.
Despite these imperfections, this most-of-a-man moved. With a quick flip of his wrist, he grabbed the ball with his right hand and pointed it at Lou and Grady, who stood rooted to the floor, eyes agape, arms intertwined like frightened children. The manís eyes gleamed, and a crooked toothless grin wrinkled across the horror of his face. The grin cracked open and the words Thank you came out. He then pushed the button twice and the ball abruptly pulsed an undulating wave of blinding emerald light that swept over then soaked into Lou and Grady. They stiffened, shuddered, turned a yellowish green, then collapsed to the floor.
* * *
There was no question about the heart; the man took Louís because it was the younger and healthier of the two. After arranging it properly in his chest, he used the metal ball to repair the hole then stood listening. The quiet, sturdy throbbing was music to his ears. But what to do about the other parts he needed - a left hand and a head? Despite having two bodies to choose from, he faced a perplexing problem.
Gradyís left hand was mangled into a grotesque, utterly unsuitable clump of bone and flesh. So he took Louís, positioned it on the stump of his left wrist, then used the ball to solder it in place. Now a head. One look at his own pale white skin confirmed that he had no choice here either. Using the ball with great care, the man severed Gradyís head - even though it wasnít nearly as attractive as Louís. He removed his own with equal care then affixed Gradyís upon his neck, shuddering as the intellect and information contained in his discarded brain soaked into its replacement.
Now fully restored, the man extended his new left hand and twisted and flexed it to work the stiffness out. He then extended his right and turned both hands over and around. Viewed together, they looked very odd indeed, not at all compatible.
The right was white; the left was black.
Given unlimited choice, he would have taken the black manís entire body. But without knowing how, he understood that the ancient edict, which had accorded him restoration, was inviolable: TAKE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED.
* * *
The man dragged the box to the KING CARRY van, hoisted it inside, then closed the warehouse door. Finished, he guzzled the last of the vodka and shivered pleasurably at the warm flood rushing through his chest. The labor of moving the box to the truck had him breathing heavily, but he relished the feel of busy blood coursing through his veins. How long had it been? He wasnít yet sure. There were many things he wasnít yet sure of, but he knew that instructions regarding his purpose would soon come. And he knew that he would obey them.
He wore the black manís clothes; the other manís had been disposed of in a convenient dumpster in the alley. The men themselves had been rendered to fine gray soil by the metal ball, meticulously swept into the dustpan with the whiskbroom, then carefully poured into the ceramic jar. The ball, now dismantled, had been returned with its parts and the hallowed parchment to the leather pouch, then to the small oak box which rested again within the larger box along with the ceramic jar and the other accessories. The chain had been wrapped around the box as before and secured with the sturdy padlock. The key rested once more in the hollow breakaway handle. He was, he knew, to conceal the box in a safe place then dispose of the van. In time he would know where next to ship the box. He understood this certainty without doubt or question, just as he understood that it was his obligation to ensure restoration for those from whom he had been restored. He didnít know whom or what would direct him, just that he would be.
Everything had been made ready for the next time - decades, perhaps even centuries from now - when the ashes in the jar would be restored by someone fearless yet foolhardy enough to explore what could not be comprehended. The world was full of such people. Always had been; always would be. He himself had been one.
But now he was something else. Something nameless to him as yet, but vastly superior to the mortal he had been. He was, he sensed, one of many who had been restored.
It was done this way. Always has been; always would be.
A teacher/writer by trade, J. E. lives in Spring, Texas, and enjoys writing about spooky things...about things that make people understand why they're afraid of the dark. His stories have appeared in Far Sector, Champagne Shivers, Deep Outside SFFH, The Accretion Disk, Redsine and The Writer's Hood.
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