Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
 
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The Box of Bones

by M.N. Tarrint




Where was that damn box again! James wondered for the second time that year as he stumbled around the dusty exhibits. The box was an unexpected find in one of Charleston's old neighborhoods and was purchased for the collection of Jim's Oddities Roadside Museum. Oddly enough, it was the one item that kept disappearing. James sighed and picked up the phone to report another theft to the police department.
* * *

Roy Eller was an unassuming looking man, balding and portly with a thin mustache and a preponderance for wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He was unaccustomed to the late summer humidity and heat even though he had spent the last two decades in South Carolina. Running from an air conditioned office to an air conditioned car and then to an air conditioned apartment did not allow for much adaptation to the local climate. This was his second term serving as a census taker and as it was a special occasion for Mr. Eller occurring only once every ten years, he had made an exception and had ventured out into the heat. He would be able to escape north to cooler climates later to pursue his particular interests in greater comfort.

In the middle of an exceptionally hot August day, Roy unexpectedly found himself on a dusty dirt road, rutted from downpours and the passage of trucks, but now silent and deserted except for the hypnotic buzz of the cicadas. He had always thought it was odd how so small an insect could make such a loud noise and yet hardly ever be seen, the only evidence of its existence being the haunting buzz and ghostly shells left clinging to the sides of trees. Was he supposed to go left or right? The map provided by the census bureau didn't say anything about a fork in the road and definitely didn't give any indication of whether these back roads were paved. This was a road, so someone had to live around here somewhere, he thought. Sweat dripped down his face and into his eyes and mouth but he didn't want to waste his water on washing himself down. He took a quick drink of the bottle of water he took from the car after it overheated a mile and a half back down the road, and supposed he would have to make it last a little bit longer.

The tops of the trees whispered as a breeze tauntingly passed by overhead. Roy looked up at the overcast sky and squinted against the glare coming through the clouds. The thought of being stuck in a late afternoon downpour occurred to him and he hoped that the next house he came to offered him shelter and a phone. The cell wasn't getting any reception out here.

He looked to the right. The road curved around about fifty yards ahead and disappeared from view.

The left fork of the road inclined up a hill and then dropped out of sight. Both options were equally rutted and shaded by the branches of trees arching over the road. Roy stood at the junction of the fork.

He breathed in the humid heavy air filled with the scent of trees and soil, shrugged his shoulders, took a step forward and bumped into something underfoot. Surprised at the sudden object in his path, he looked down and stared at a box. It wasn't a large box, perhaps the size of a cigar box. It was wooden with a glass top and behind the thick glass inside were white objects that shifted and rattled around when he kicked it with the toe of his boot. He grunted in puzzlement and scratched his ear trying to remember if he had seen the box or anything at all in the middle of the road as he was walking and decided that he couldn't. Must have been daydreaming, he thought to himself.

The glass on top had no dust he observed. It must have been recently placed in the road. If it had fallen off of a passing vehicle it would have been at least a little dusty but the box looked as if someone had gently deposited it in the middle of the road and disappeared. Roy looked around to see if there were any foot prints but all he found were his own boot treads lightly impressed into the dry earth. He gingerly lifted the box and found it to be heavier than he expected, made of a dark wood, perhaps mahogany, and when he tilted the box toward himself to view the contents through the glass, he saw what appeared to be small thin bones sliding toward him. The rattled against the side of the box and Roy thought they looked like human finger bones.

He felt an uneasy flutter in his gut and looked worriedly around but there he stood, alone with the mysterious box in his hands. The late August heat had soaked his clothes and his frustration was starting to peak when a portentous rumble rolled over the tree tops.

"Great!" he grumbled. He was hot, sweaty, lost, hungry and soon to be caught in a storm with his briefcase at his side. He began to wish it was not so heavy. It was becoming an encumbrance.

A second rumble sounded closer and Roy knew he either had to keep walking down the road, left or right, or he had to get off the road and find some kind of shelter to wait out the rain. Storms in the south could last quite a while, he knew, sometimes into the next morning and he hoped a house was somewhere nearby. Roy set the box back down and took the left fork in the road.

By the time he reached the top of the hill, the wind had picked up in the trees and large drops had begun plopping down around him. He looked down at the sharply declining road in front of him and frowned. Several yards ahead lay a dark object in the middle of the road. Roy began the descent and surely enough when the object lay there before him, it was the same box with its oddly grim contents, or perhaps an identical box if that was possible. Large drops spattered across the glass top. Roy pushed at his horn rims which were slipping down his nose and then he scratched his ear once more. He was starting to get agitated. Whoever was pulling this trick on him might end up regretting it, he thought.

Gingerly, he walked around the box and peered over his shoulder as he walked away. He kept looking behind just to make sure it was still there and to see if perhaps someone would dart out from the trees to grab it. No one did and Roy kept walking with the feeling that he was trying to put some distance between himself and it. The rain began to pour and above him a streak of lightning stabbed across the strip of sky revealed overhead by the trees on either side of the road. Small rivulets of water were now running down the road and mud was starting to form. Roy moaned. Why did he ever leave his car?

Soon he was soaked through and through and the briefcase was unusually heavy. He guessed that his fatigue and the rain which had soaked through his clothes made everything seem weighted down. He heard a distant rumble and at first assumed it was thunder. It continued to grow closer however and within moments became a large green Chevy pickup that splashed up beside him. The passenger was a large man with a dirty white ball cap and t-shirt who rolled the window down and looked him over. The driver was a shadowy figure on the other side of the cab.

"Lost, are ya?" said the man in the ball cap. It was more of a statement than a question. Roy looked questioningly at the occupants and then at the truck bed which held old auto parts, hoses and a tire.

"Well, want a lift, business man?" said the man in the passenger seat.

The scent of cigarette smoke, sweat and wet dog drifted out to Roy and he wrinkled his nose. He didn't much care for dogs and he noticed a large black lab sitting between the two men. A snarl crept along its muzzle and it began to growl at him.

"Sure, I could use a lift. How far is the next town?"

The man in the cap nodded ahead down the road. "'Bout four more miles. Hop in." He jabbed his thumb toward the truck bed.

Roy decided he didn't have much choice and he grumbled to himself as he climbed in among the auto parts and discarded beer cans. He crouched down in the corner behind the cab clutching his briefcase and scowled through the rain dripping into his eyes. .

"Figures it would be my luck to get lost in a downpour. Damn hicks ought to kick that dog out and shove him in the back of the truck instead of me." Roy's mood continued to darken, especially when he considered how far his plans had gone awry. The car had been essential and now he was dependent on these people. It was never supposed to be this way! he raged quietly to himself. He clutched the briefcase close against his chest.

The truck bumped along until it fishtailed in the mud on a right turn and the town began to emerge. They paused at a stoplight and then drove into the parking lot of what appeared to be a bait shop and restaurant by a small lake. The rain was coming down in torrents so that the lake appeared to be a gray blur and Roy could just make out a couple of small boats tied to the dock. The two men went into the restaurant first without looking back at him so he followed behind.

Once inside, he looked around through the haze of cigarette smoke and fried food being cooked and found himself a table in the corner near a window overlooking the lake. A waitress in her late forties came over and took his order for a cheeseburger and fries. She looked him over briefly while taking his order and Roy decided to try his most disarming look on her. He knew he was not an attractive man but he had spent much effort at crafting particular expressions that would elicit desired responses from other people, mostly women. Women were weak. All you had to do was get them to feel sorry for you and they would just let you right in, he thought.

He widened his eyes just so to get that helpless look that complimented his rounded face and slightly raised his eyebrows. This last touch had been a little difficult to learn as Roy had developed a habit of frowning most of the time. He tried a small smile, no teeth. In his experience, it took a rare hard woman not to respond to these cues he had perfected but apparently this waitress was one of those women. She pressed her thin lips together and raised one pencil thin eyebrow. Without saying a word or cracking a smile, she turned on her heel and returned to the kitchen with his order. Roy's mood grew darker and he had to make an effort not to let his face reflect it.

Moments later, after he had had a chance to finish his meal, he sat gazing out the window at the rain pouring down. He realized that his chance of getting picked up by tow service was gone since he had left his vehicle and that he would probably have to wait for the rain to die down. He decided to go ahead and try to call out on his cell and at last got a call to connect to a service agent at the tow company. He was informed that due to the rain, the tow service was busy on other calls and would probably not pick up his vehicle until sometime the next day. Roy sighed. It didn't sound promising he thought.

The waitress had left the bill on the table and Roy got up to pay at the counter. He lifted his briefcase from the seat and again noticed an additional weight. He would have to find a place to open it to see if rain water had gotten in, but he could see that there was none leaking out. Roy scratched his ear. It wouldn't do to open the case here. He would have to find a hotel for the night anyway so he inquired at the counter.

The cashier was a nervous boy about sixteen years old, Roy guessed. He was skinny with pimples covering his chin and forehead, no doubt made worse by the grease in the local diet.

"You could check on the Starlight Motel on the west edge of town," mumbled the cashier.

"Anything closer?" asked Roy.

Not with any vacancy," grumbled one of the customers sitting at the counter. He was a large man in overalls with huge scarred forearms and hands blackened with what looked like motor oil. Roy decided not to challenge him even though he couldn't imagine any motel doing legitimate business in this town not having vacancy. Who on earth would choose to visit this place anyway?

He was walking out the door when he noticed that the two men in the pickup were getting ready to leave and so faced with the possibility of walking in the rain again, he decided to ask for another ride. By the time they reached the Starlight Motel parking lot, it was close to six in the evening. Painstakingly, Roy reached into his wallet and pulled out a ten dollar bill as a thank you for the lift. The driver's face lightened up at the sight of the ten and he grunted his thanks before pulling out of the flooded lot.

"Probably going to buy some more beer with that," Roy groused to himself.

He flipped on the light switch in the motel room and looked over the full sized bed and night stand with its copy of Gideon's Bible. He would have to put that away in the drawer before bed. He switched on the TV and a televangelist appeared before him preaching about the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"Turn back from evil while you still have time! Turn your face towards God and don't look back!" shouted the televangelist. He emphatically pointed his finger at the viewer and Roy jumped.

"Bible belt preachers, they're all the same," he said to himself. He switched the channel to a sitcom for background noise and then took a shower. Without a change of clothes to wear, he wrapped himself in a towel and hung his wet clothes over the door and towel rack to dry as much as possible. The humidity from the rain permeated the room and Roy felt sticky even after his shower. Finally with the Gideon's bible in the drawer, he placed the briefcase on the nightstand and clicked open the lock with a small key on his key chain. He rotated the small brass combination lock on the case and opened it.

The knives lay neatly secured in their places against the liner of the case and the rope still lay coiled and waiting. In the middle of the case among other items he considered useful lay the box of bones.

Roy stopped blinking. It seemed to him that time froze and that even his heart and breath had stopped. He felt a buzzing in his brain and desperately he thought of the two men in the truck. Surely they were the ones pulling this insane prank! They were trying to drive him crazy! But he remembered that no one had been near his briefcase. He never let anyone near his briefcase. The motel room suddenly felt like a trap and regardless of the rain, he felt the urge to run outside and get away from the tormenting box. He could smash it he thought, but then someone might hear him in the next room. He couldn't stand the thought of sleeping in the same room alone with it so he wrapped it in a towel and put it in the closet. For good measure, he slid one of the nightstands against the closet door and settled down for the night but it was a long time before sleep overcame him with very disturbing dreams.

Roy was sitting up in bed watching the televangelist preacher again but the preacher's words came out as tongues of fire that hung in the air around the man's head. Roy looked down and saw that his own hands and feet were tied with the rope from his briefcase and the box of bones sat open on his lap. He leaned forward to peer inside and saw that it was empty.

He awoke in a sweat. A nightmare! He had never had nightmares before and as far as he knew, he had had very few dreams of any kind. His nightmare had been filled with the kind of fear that he had always thought was reserved for other people. It was not that he was brave. Fear like love was one of those emotions alien to Roy.

He switched on the bedside lamp and slid out of the covers. The nightstand was still blocking the closet door just the way he had placed it before bed, but he felt compelled to look anyway. He pulled away the nightstand and cracked open the closet door just enough to let some light through. The towel appeared to be wrapped around the box judging by the lump inside. However, Roy wasn't satisfied so he pulled open the closet the rest of the way and gave the lump a kick. At last feeling that all was well, he again shut off the light.

The bedside clock read 3:23 AM when Roy next awoke. He lay wide awake and unmoving while staring at the shadowy ceiling as his vision adjusted to the room. For what reason had he been awakened so thoroughly with all senses searching the darkened room? With his eyes adjusted Roy swung his vision across the TV and with reluctance, to the closet door which stood wide open. He caught his breath and unconsciously held it. Long forgotten childhood fears of boogeymen in dark closets slithered up from the backwaters of his memory. In a panicked move, he switched the lamp on again and beheld at the foot of the bed the mahogany box of bones.

Roy sat for a moment immobilized and then snatched up the box and tried to open it. There was no lock to be seen on the box but Roy could not force it open no matter how he pulled and tugged on the lid. The abhorrent box lay on its end now on top of the bed and the bones had slid down in a disorderly pile. Roy struggled between rage and his newfound fear, so that on this balancing point familiarity claimed him. Shaking with vision honed to a white hot point, he snatched the brief case close at hand and pulled it up onto the bed. His trembling hands fumbled with the locks in his haste and finally popped open the lid. There amongst the rope and sharp instruments he had kept so carefully was secured a small, very finely honed hatchet. Roy always sharpened his instruments himself. He then threw the box to the floor and in a frenzy of rage took a wild swing at it with the hatchet.

A metallic ring was all that Roy had time to hear before the hatchet turned on the surface of the box and embedded itself in his throat.


* * *

The noonday sun poured through the open motel door illuminating the scene for the sheriff and his deputy who had responded to the hotel manager's call that someone had been gruesomely murdered. The maid who had come to clean the room had discovered the bloody scene and fled screaming to the front office.

"Weirdo. Freak. God knows what he wanted to do with all them horrible tools," stated the sheriff. "Probably stole our box of bones because it was right up his alley. Guys like him are into collecting some pretty strange stuff, you know."

The night clerk says he came in with a briefcase," said the deputy. "I assume that's the one." He gestured to Roy's open briefcase with the light of day upon the tools of his trade for all to see.

"Looks like somebody got to him first," commented the sheriff. "Mike, would you let James down at the museum know that we need to speak to him at the station? Don't know why he can't ever keep a hold of that damn box of bones. The thing never stays put. Maybe we can convince him to keep it locked up this time. It gives me the willies so's I don't even wanna touch it."

Roy's eyes stared dully at the ceiling while a fly settled on a pool of coagulated blood.


THE END


2013 M.N. Tarrint

Bio: M. N. Tarrint is a pen name for Brandy King, a resident of Arizona, where the snakes are smaller, but poisonous. Her last appearance in Aphelion was in the March '13 issue with Coils in the Dark.

E-mail: M.N. Tarrint

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