Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Jack and the Box

by L. K. Pinaire


Howard Meyer again pushed his gardening spoon into the soft soil. It struck something hollow and wooden and stopped. He glanced around and pushed his blade into the ground one more time. Thump -- the same result.

He unearthed a black wooden container, the size of a cigar box, cleaned off the top and then pried against the rusted hasp. It wouldn't budge. It looked old and intrigued him, but he wanted to finish the bulbs, so he set it aside and continued planting. A sharp bolt of arthritis pain went through his knees when he stood, but that paled in comparison to the emptiness in his heart. That pain had overshadowed any physical discomfort since the moment three months ago when his wife, Helen, had run off to Texas with his firm's former law partner, Frank.

After he finished and cleaned up, Howard placed the box on the garage workbench. The latch wouldn't open, so he sprayed it with penetrating oil. It might have some value, and though he knew he could force it open, he might ruin it if he did.

Next morning, Howard sat at his old metal army desk in Jones and Jameson's smallest office. Helen would have been embarrassed to see his workspace, but she never got past Frank's during her only visit. Every day at work left him reeling from the life he could never quite get a handle on. He wanted so much to be like everyone else.

After another day at the law firm where his coworkers treated him like he'd just crapped in his pants and no one wanted to mention it, he went to the box that still sat on his workbench. Howard truly wished he could change his life. With no idea how something like this got in his flowerbed, he again tugged on the lid. Dammit, nothing. Placing the blade of a screwdriver into the seam, he pried, then twisted. Nothing. "Open, dammit."

A hushed pop announced the parting of the lid from the rest of the box. A musty scent preceded a flash of blinding light, and a sudden euphoria washed over him.

Then, a delicate voice from neither inside nor outside of him whispered, "I am enchanted, and I am yours."

"Shit." He sat his lanky body in an old chair to catch his breath. On this warm day in late April, a chill slipped down his spine. As brightly as the box's contents shone, he couldn't look inside. The echo of those unbelievable words from that silky voice hung in his mind.

Howard stood, rubbed his eyes and dropped his glasses to the floor. When he reached, his first step crushed them. Damn, he wished he hadn't done that. When he lifted them to his face, he found them whole and undamaged. Did he imagine this? Was this as the voice had said – magic?

To test the maddening thoughts inside his mind, he focused on great problems that he might solve, but settled on the pain and loneliness in his heart. He pictured a woman, young and nubile.

Something touched his shoulder. He jumped, and his heart fluttered.

A girl stood there looking back, with strawberry hair to her shoulders and freckled skin everywhere. Maybe twenty, she wore a halter-top so tiny and shorts so short that her full beauty required no imagination. She looked up with eyes like puddles of blue; her sexy dimples marked the ends of her smile. She put her hands on his shoulders, and her breasts jiggled like gelatin. "I'm Jill."

Her presence washed away his loneliness, and a smile swept across his face. When he filled with guilt, the girl vanished. Despair returned to fill the void she left. He hadn't meant to send her away, but no amount of flesh alone could heal the wound in his heart, especially with a child so young. He closed the box with terror in his heart.

That night, sleep refused him. He tossed and turned with thoughts of Helen and the box. In that terrible moment of loneliness, Howard concentrated on Helen, the way he did with the girl. Then considering the foolishness of his thoughts, he was stricken with shame.

At 1:15 am, the sound of heavy footsteps thumping across the living room floor carried up the stairs through the open bedroom door. Helen? Then, a scream resounded through the house, one so chilling he leapt from bed. A wave of terror followed.

Howard stood by his dresser, surprised at his courage. Then, garbled voices rose from the first level. That couldn't be her, but someone was down there. He ought to call for help but couldn't with the phone still downstairs, charging.

So, he slipped into his jeans, tightened his belt and remembered the gun. He hated it, but Helen had insisted. With hands trembling, Howard took a deep breath, reached into the drawer and removed it. With fingers that wouldn't cooperate, he fumbled three times before managing to insert the clip. Then, he pulled back the slide and loaded a round. A bit calmer, his mind returned to the downstairs intruder.

Just months ago, Helen had chided him relentlessly for lack of backbone. She'd called him spineless in front of friends and family, but maybe a man could grow beyond that. Holding the pistol in both hands, he saw Helen in his mind, telling him he would never change. The anger from that moment guided him down the stairs. He looked into the darkness of the main floor.

A voice from the room below spoke. "I told you he would hear us. Now you've done it."

"I found it in the garage," a woman's voice said. "The box."

"Then, it's too late," the man replied.

Howard's adrenaline surged, he aimed at the voices and flipped on the light switch -- to a room, no different than before he went to bed.

"If he's been using it, he can hear us." Her subdued voice still carried through the large living room.

While he tried to make sense from the unfolding events, Howard's eyes moved from the wooden bookcases, all his books, to the walls he painted before Helen left and then the dark plank floors. Then, the scent of something dank and nasty, like a bag of rotten potatoes, took his breath.

A woman clearly spoke again. "If he's heard us, we ought to tell him. He doesn't know what he's done … or anything."

The strange voices sent uncontrolled shivers running over his flesh. Howard took a deep breath and looked around again. Nothing. In the moment's stillness, a falling book smacked the downstairs floor. Howard's pistol fired without his consent, and silence echoed the thunder. Now, his heart pounded. He hadn't meant to do that. Half the neighborhood likely heard it.

Howard almost convinced himself that he was having a breakdown and wasn't much fighting the idea until he calmed himself using deep breaths. Maybe someone would call the police. Now he'd done it.

When both living room mirrors crashed to the floor, sending shattered glass rising into clouds of sharp debris, Howard jumped six inches straight up and almost fired the gun again. It took seconds before he caught his breath.

"I think we have his attention," a female voice said.

"You might be right," a male voice answered.

Howard tried to quell the furies in his mind. "Who are you?" He wondered where he found the guts to speak out.

No answer came.

Howard wiped his brow. "I can't see you, but I can certainly hear you. What in the hell is going on?"

"That's good for you," she said. "We've been dead a long time, and you don't want to see us."

Here again came the madness, invading his old if-you-can't-see-it, it-doesn't-exist, world.

"Who are you and what do you want from me?" Howard waited for a response.

"I'm Al and this is Bea. You don't know us, but we used to live here and we can't go away, because you've used it," she said.

"The box? Okay, I used it. So what? I found it. On my property. And besides, I didn't know what it was."

"It's his," they said in unison.

Howard felt helpless. "What do you mean, ‘It's his? Dammit, talk to me!"

A shimmering light appeared in the air not far from him.

Still, no answer.

He aimed the pistol downward and stepped toward the front door.

Unexpectedly, Howard's massive bar-on-wheels, which usually sat in the dining room, struck him. The impact sent him to the floor on his palms and face. The bar rolled on, blocking the main entrance to the house. Stunned, he looked up just before the ceiling fan tore loose and hit his back and head.

Bruised, battered, confused and shocked, he pushed himself up, the pistol still in his hands. "Who are you – and what just happened?"

Silence filled the room, occupied only by him -- and the voices.

The woman spoke again, "Well, I told you, I'm Bea and this is Al and we're from Lexington, Kentucky. We both died in a car accident, years ago, and we've been keeping an eye on the house and now you."

"I'm Al," the man's voice said, "I was a butcher in 1961. We were married for thirty-three years and lived here almost that long."

"Al," Bea said.

"Yes, Sweet Pea."

"We're running out of time."

"Oh." he answered. "You'll have to meet Jack. The bar and everything else were his doing."

"Jack?" Howard echoed.

"Yes, Jack," Al answered.

"Oh, damn," Bea added. "Another one, and this is such a nice young man. I think he's cute."

"Bea, please be quiet. Behave your age. You were fifty years old in 1961."

"I may be dead, Al, but I don't feel like it. You're the reason I'm in this mess. If you had paid more attention to your driving that night. It's all your fault. Yours and Jack's," she said.

Howard drew a deep breath and listened to the pounding of his heart. "This is my home, and I'll decide who I speak to and when."

"I'm not so sure about that," Al warned him. "Jack still sees all this as his."

A sick feeling grew in Howard's stomach, and in desperation, he turned and ran for the table beside the banister. He pulled his phone from its cable, leaped for the stairs and with his third stride, reached halfway up.

A seven-foot-tall smoky presence appeared and hung mid-air above him in the stairway. It hovered, changing size and shape like rolling smoke from burning oil. Howard froze, trembling while acute pain surged through his chest.

"I am Jack," a voice boomed from the smoke, enunciating and emphasizing each word. "I felt you in my dreams when you dug up my box, and I'm very pleased."

A strong barnyard scent forced Howard to cringe.

"Pleased about what?" Howard asked with anger in his words and an Alice in Wonderland understanding of the things around him.

"Pleased that you used it. I awakened to collect what you owe me."

Howard tried to focus on the moment, but his mind swam. A few minutes ago, he had been trying to sleep. Now, he was arguing with ghosts and something else, maybe a demon, and none of it made much sense.

The smoky creature took shape, the ethereal vision of a half-man, half-ox. Then the smoke rolled upward into itself and reformed.

"What do you mean? I owe you?" Howard had had enough.

The ox crossed its front, hooved legs and stood erect. "Magic. You will pay me in turn for what you've used, or there will be another owner of this house. Didn't you just bring back your wife?"

The creature's words failed to ring true. Helen wasn't anywhere to be seen. Howard reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He keyed 911. It rang once and --.

The ox grunted, a flash of darkness, spread across his view, and he found himself somewhere else, bathed in a deep obsidian backdrop over endless star fields that struck him as remarkable. It had willed him somewhere between the stars, yet he could still breathe and felt warmth there in the depths of space or his mind, or wherever he'd been stolen to.

Howard looked around in disbelief.

The creature's body hung suspended in space. "I have taken us someplace where we won't be disturbed. Earth's sun doesn't shed so much as a glimmer of light out here."

Nothing made sense. In minutes he had changed from agnostic to a believer in demons and ghosts. Howard didn't suspect; he knew. Somehow, he had to deal with his situation before it dealt with him.

"I want your full attention. I live for these moments, sleeping and waiting for someone to come along and join me in my little game. Of course, no one can ever pay me back. I settle with them in my own way, and Al and Bea return the box to the garden. I love this house. You wouldn't believe how many people have lived here."

On the brink of being overwhelmed, Howard considered surrender, but something inside him would not allow it. He applied his remaining reason to this creature's words and remained silent.

"Give me my box and repay the magic you have used."

"Jack. Why have you brought me here to make wild, impossible demands and heinous threats?" Perhaps by naming the beast, he might find some power over the creature.

"All of those like me have a purpose, puny man. We are but humble servants." It grinned.

"Ha! You serve yourself."

The ethereal beast bolted upright and expanded its chest. "I serve darkness itself. I tempt people with unlimited power."

"Unlimited? And what purpose does that serve?"

"I'll show you."

Jack and the beast materialized in his living room again. It never looked so good before.

"When people can't return my magic, I offer to accept their essence as payment. Otherwise, they die like the others before who defied me or like the woman who suddenly appeared downstairs a few minutes ago. I ate her. Please excuse the mess." The monster touched its front hoof to its mouth to hold back the drool and then pointed to the dining room.

There, blood dripped from the walls and covered the floor along with strands of hair and torn pieces of flesh. Nausea struck him, and he fought to hold back the vomit in his mouth. Helen. Memories of her spitting out the word loser returned, but he had called her to her death. Howard searched deep for strength and pushed aside his fear and guilt.

Howard's heart ran full with despair. His anguish, though, did not linger. Slowly, the sight of Helen's mangled remains brought a surge of anger. He lunged at the creature in a flying tackle, like the ones he had delivered on his high school football team. He never reached the monster.

Its hooves straightened, pounding the side of Howard's jaw, sending him back against the wall.

Blood poured from Howards's face onto his shirt. Then he felt the pain through his whole body.

"Stupid little man. I'm losing my patience."

Howard saw his end coming. He should have been filled with terror, but something inside him pushed it away.

"Change him," Bea's voice whispered near his ear. "He has no control over the magic. It is without limits and belongs to the darkness."

Her words struck a chord inside him. He wondered if he could he trust her. Howard had rarely found the elusive inner strength necessary to follow his instincts, but he couldn't fight this demon. Maybe he could change it into something he could fight -- or better, something he wouldn't have to fight. Howard concentrated with all his strength. A man.

The monster transformed into rolling wisps of smoke that thickened and turned solid. Blood flowed through transparent flesh and veins, visible in flashes as the body took form, and air moved in and out of its contracting and expanding lungs. The thing knelt in Howard's living room, perhaps marveling at its new body.

"Look what he's done." Bea's voice cried out with glee.

Jack looked up and snarled in response. "No magic can bestow mortal harm on me. That was my master's promise." He turned to the shimmering mid-air glow. "I don't need you anymore, Bea. You and I are through. Al and I will do just fine without you."

She must have known how Jack would react.

The monster placed his palms against his face and groaned. "Oh no, ohhhhhh noooooo!" it said as it moaned. "Why?"

Perhaps, he had done the right thing. "Something wrong, Jack?" Howard waited.

"I've never felt regret before." The man looked pale as though in shock.

"It comes from your humanity. I think you've earned this, Jack." He winked at where Bea's voice had been.

"I never had a choice. I owe a debt myself."

"You're a man, now. That's what your magic did for you. I thought you might need a new perspective."

The demon groaned again. "But there's so much."

"You've led a busy life. Men are accountable for their actions, and sometimes guilt is as natural as realizing what you did wrong."

The creature dropped to its knees. "Oh, please. Help me."

"I'm done. You earned it."

"I'm pulling in your debt." Jack placed his new hands on his bare hips. "Give me my magic back, the original amount or give me your soul. I'll deal with this misery when I get it back."

"Ha. Do what you will to me, but where's your power now?"

The demon grimaced.

"Now, you're like the rest of us. I told you; you're human. If there's a God, then you'll be responsible to him for your actions."

The monster lunged and pulled away the pistol tucked under Howard's belt. He turned it toward his head.

"If you do that, you'll be sorry."

The man, naked and with flowing tears, looked up with pitiful eyes. "I can't stand this."

"I couldn't have given you a greater gift." Howard paused while Jack still looked around, wearing a dazed and befuddled expression.

Jack looked up again as though guided by some epiphany and spoke, "Thank you. I guess I need to make some changes, while I have some time left. Maybe I can make up for some of the things I've done." He turned, dropped the gun and walked out the front door, closing it behind.

Howard rushed to the window. The dark-haired man, sporting only his birthday suit, walked away toward town.

The cries of Al and Bea's voices, rejoicing their freedom permeated the room as the couple danced through the house. He'd done something right.

Then Bea's words grew closer and she whispered in his ear. "Bring it to me. I must have it."

Howard left and returned with the box. Though Helen was gone and a deep sense of loss saddened him, for her and for her new husband, he now had so much he needed to learn for himself.

"Thank you very much, Mr. Meyer. You've set us free," Bea's voice sang out with a shrill, joyful tone.

"He is gone now," Al spoke. "You've not only released us from Jack, but you've released me from her." Al's tone rang both joyous and sad when his voice broke up. "Thank you."

Howard held out the box. "I have a few ways in mind to use this for the benefit of everyone." He placed it on the floor, but before he could say anything, it vanished.

"Why did you do that? Where's my box?"

"Howard, I'm sure you intend to use it for good purposes, but it's far too dangerous and there are things you don't know." The glistening air grew thicker, moved then faded. "The box didn't always belong to Jack. I found it here when Al and I first bought this house. When we opened it, the magic drew the demon and then his master, the darkness. They took command of our lives, and we died a few weeks later."

Howard took a deep breath and listened.

After a moment, Bea's voice said, "I just pulled Helen from the depths of where Jack had sent her, and she is living and well with her husband. The box is now gone to a place that only I know, and I'll never be made to tell. If I can put up with Al all these years, nothing else in hell or on Earth, not even the darkness, can frighten me."

The grief built up inside him, slipped away in a wave of relief. Howard wasn't sure if he'd helped or hurt the pair of once captive specters. Perhaps he'd never know, but he had changed in this brief period and felt thankful. Now he had the business of his life again to deal with. At forty-five with a little time left, he intended to do a better job than he had in the past.

THE END


© 2010 L. K. Pinaire

Bio: L. K. Pinaire is an active member of The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

E-mail: L. K. Pinaire

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