Sunday 17 March 2013
'Boxes' by Dathan Auerbach
This is part of a series. Please read them in order:
If you haven’t read “Footsteps” or “Balloons” please do so before reading what’s below so you’ll understand.
For those of you who have read my other stories and asked if there was more and received cryptic answers from me, I want to apologize for being dishonest. I said several times in the comments that nothing really happened after “Footsteps,” but that wasn’t true. The events of the following story weren’t locked away in the recesses of my mind; I’ve always remembered them. It wasn’t until I remembered “Balloons” and spoke with my mother about the following events that I realized how intertwined this story was with everything else, but I originally hadn’t really planned on sharing this anyway. My desire to withhold this memory was due mostly to the fact that I don’t think I showed good judgment in it; I also wanted consent from another person to tell it, so as to not misrepresent what transpired. I didn’t expect there to be a lot of interest in my other stories, so I never thought I’d really get pressed for more details, and I would have been happy to keep this to myself for the rest of my life. I haven’t been able to reach the other party, but I would feel disingenuous withholding this story from those who wanted more information now that I’ve spoken with my mother and another connecting line has been drawn. What follows is as accurate a recollection as I could manage. I apologize for the length.
I spent the summer before my first year of elementary school learning how to climb trees. There was one particular pine tree right outside my house that seemed almost designed for me. It had branches that were so low I could easily grab them without a boost, and for the first couple days after I first learned how to pull myself up I would just sit on the lowest branch, dangling my feet. The tree was outside our back fence and was easily visible from the kitchen window which was just above the sink. Before too long my mother and I developed a routine where I would go play on the tree when she washed the dishes because she could easily see me while she did other things.
As the summer passed my abilities grew and before too long I was climbing fairly high. As the tree got taller its branches not only got thinner but more widely-spaced and so I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t actually climb any higher, and so the game had to change; I began to concentrate on speed, and in the end I could reach my highest branch in 25 seconds.
I got too confident and one afternoon I tried to step from a branch before I had firmly grasped the next one. I fell about 20 feet and broke my arm really badly in two places. My mom was running toward me yelling and I remember her sounding like she was underwater – I don’t remember what she said but I do remember being surprised by just how white my bone was.
I was going to start Kindergarten with a cast and wouldn’t even have any friends to sign it. My mom must have felt terrible because the day before I started school she brought home a kitten. He was just a baby and was striped with tan and white. As soon as she put him down he crawled into an empty case of soda that was sitting on the floor. I named him Boxes.
Boxes was only an outside cat when he escaped. My mom had him declawed so he wouldn’t destroy the furniture, so as a result we did our best to keep him inside. He’d get out every now and then, and we’d find him somewhere in the backyard chasing some kind of bug or lizard, though he could hardly ever catch one because he had no front claws. He was pretty evasive, but we’d always catch him and carry him back inside. He’d scramble to look back over my shoulder – I told my mom that it was because he was planning his strategy for next time. Once inside we’d give him some tuna fish, and he came to learn what the sound of the can-opener might signal; he’d come running whenever he heard it.
This conditioning came in handy later because toward the end of our time in that house Boxes would get out much more often and would run under the house into the crawlspace where neither of us wanted to follow because it was cramped and probably crawling with bugs and rodents. Ingeniously, my mom thought to hook the can-opener to an extension cord out back and run it right outside the hole that Boxes had gone through. Eventually he would emerge with his loud meows, looking excited by the sound and then horrified at how we could run such a cruel ruse on him – a can-opener with no tuna made no sense to Boxes.
The last time he escaped to under the house was actually our last day in it. My mom had put the house on the market and we had begun packing our things. We didn’t have much, and we stretched the packing out a while, though I had already packed up all my clothes at my mom’s request – my mom could tell I was really sad about moving and wanted the transition to be smooth for me, and I guess she thought that having my clothes in the box would reinforce the idea that we were moving but things wouldn’t change that much. When Boxes got out as we were loading some things into the moving van my mom cursed because she had already packed the can opener and wasn’t sure where it was. I pretended to go look for it so I wouldn’t have to go under the house, and my mom (probably completely aware of my little scam) moved one of the panels and crawled in. She came out with Boxes pretty quickly and seemed pretty unnerved, which made me feel even better about getting out of it. My mom made some phone calls while I packed a little more, and then she came into my room and told me that she had spoken to the realtor and we were going to start moving into the other house that day. She said it like it was excellent news, but I had thought we had more time in the house – she originally said that we weren’t moving until the end of the next week and it was only Tuesday. What’s more, we weren’t completely finished packing, but my mom said sometimes it was just easier to replace things than pack them and haul them all over the city. I didn’t even get to grab the rest of my boxed clothes. I asked if I could call Josh to say bye, but she said that we could just call him from our new house.
We left in the moving van.
I managed to stay in touch with Josh for years; which is surprising since we no longer went to the same school. Our parents weren’t close friends, but they knew that we were and so they would accommodate our desire to see one another by driving us back and forth for sleep-overs – sometimes every weekend. For Christmas one year our parents even pooled their money and got us some really nice walkie-talkies that were advertised to work across a range that extended past the distance between our houses; they also had batteries that could last for days if the walkie-talkie was on but not used. They would only occasionally work well enough that we could talk across the city, but when we stayed-over we’d use them around the house, talking in mock-radio speak that we had taken from movies, and they worked great for that. Thanks to our parents we were still friends when we were 10.
One weekend I was staying over at Josh’s and my mom called me to say goodnight; she was still pretty watchful even when she couldn’t actually watch me, but I had gotten so used to it that I didn’t even notice it, even if Josh did. She sounded upset.
Boxes was missing.
This must have been a Saturday night, because I had spent the night at Josh’s the previous night and was going to go home the next day because we had school on Monday. Boxes had been missing since Friday afternoon – I gathered that she had not seen him since returning home after dropping me off. She must have decided to tell me he was missing because if he didn’t come home before I did then I would be devastated at, not only his absence, but how she could have kept it from me. She told me not to worry. “He’ll come back. He always does!”
But Boxes didn’t come back.
Three weekends later I stayed at Josh’s again. I was still upset about Boxes, but my mom told me that there had been many times when pets had disappeared from home for weeks or even months, only to return on their own; she said they always knew where home was and would always try to get back. I was explaining this to Josh when a thought hit me so hard that I interrupted my own sentence to say it aloud. “What if Boxes thought of the wrong home?”
Josh was confused. “What? He lives with you. He knows where his home is.”
“But, he grew up somewhere else, Josh. He was raised in my old house a couple neighborhoods away. Maybe he still thinks of that place as home, like I do.”
“Ohhh I get it. Well that’d be great! We’ll tell my dad tomorrow and he’ll take us over there so we can look!”
“No he won’t, man. My mom said that we couldn’t ever go back to that place because the new owners wouldn’t wanna be bothered. She said that she told your mom and dad the same thing.”
Josh persisted, “ok then we’ll just go out exploring tomorrow and make our way to your old house—”
“No! If we get spotted your dad will find out and then so will my mom! We have to go there ourselves . . . We have to go there tonight . . .”
It didn’t take that much convincing to get Josh on board since he was usually the one to come up with ideas like this. But we had never snuck out of his house before. It actually turned out to be incredibly easy. The window in his room opened to the back yard and he had a latched wooden fence that wasn’t locked. After those two minor hurtles we slipped off into the night, flashlight and walkie-talkies in hand.
There were two ways to get from Josh’s house to my old house. We could walk on the street and make all the turns or go through the woods, which would take about half the time. It would have taken about 2 hours to walk there taking the street, but I suggested that we go that way anyway; I told him it was because I didn’t want to get lost. Josh refused and said that if we were seen they might recognize him and tell his dad. He threatened to go home if we didn’t just take the shortcut, and I accepted it because I didn’t want to go by myself.
Josh didn’t know about the last time I walked through these woods at night.
The woods were much less creepy with a friend and a flashlight, and we were making pretty good time. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were, but Josh seemed confident enough and that bolstered my morale. We passed through a particularly thick patch of tangled trees when the strap on my walkie-talkie got caught on a branch. Josh had the flashlight and so I was struggling to get the walkie free when I heard Josh say,
“Hey man, wanna go for a swim?”
I looked over to where he was shining the flashlight, though I closed my eyes as I did, because I now knew where we were. He was pointing at the pool float. This was where I had woken up in these woods all those years ago. I felt a lump in my throat and the sting of fresh tears in my eyes as I continued to struggle with the walkie. Frustrated, I yanked on it hard enough to break it free and I turned and walked to Josh who had partially laid down on the pool float in a mock-sunbathing pose. As I walked toward him I stumbled and nearly fell into a fairly large hole that was sitting in the middle of this small clearing, but I regained my balance and stopped right at its edge. It was deep. I was surprised by the size of the hole, but more surprised by the fact that I didn’t remember it. I realized it must not have been there that night because it was in the same spot where I had awoken. I put it out of my mind and turned to Josh.
“Quit messing around man! You saw I was stuck over there, and you were just laying here joking around on this float!” I punctuated the sentence with a kick to an exposed part of the float. A screeching rose from it.
Josh’s smile inverted. He suddenly looked terrified and was struggling to get off the float, but he couldn’t in a quick manner due to the awkward way he had been laying on it. Each time he would fall back on the float the screeching would intensify. I wanted to help Josh but I couldn’t move myself any closer – my legs wouldn’t cooperate; I hated these woods. I picked up the flashlight that he had thrown in his thrashing and shined in on the float not knowing what to expect. Finally, Josh got off the float and rushed next to me looking at where I was shining the light. Suddenly there it was. It was a rat. I started laughing nervously and we both watched the rat run into the woods taking the screeches with it. Josh lightly punched me in the arm, the smile slowly returning to his face, and we continued walking.
We quickened our pace and made it out of the woods faster than we thought we would, and we found ourselves back in my old neighborhood. The last time I had rounded the bend ahead I had seen my house fully illuminated, and all the memories of what transpired came flooding back. I felt a skipping in my heart as we were finally turning the corner and about to face the full view of my house, remembering last time how incandescent it was. But this time all the lights were off. From a distance I could see my old climbing tree and as my mind traced the steps of causality backward I realized that I wouldn’t back here this night if that tree hadn’t grown, and I was briefly in awe of how all events were like that. As we got closer I could see that the lawn looked terrible; I couldn’t even guess when it had last been mowed. One of the shutters had partially broken loose and was rocking back and forth in the breeze, and over all the house just looked dirty. I was sad to see my old home in such a state of disrepair. Why would my mom care if we bothered the new owners if they cared so little about where they lived? And then I realized:
There were no new owners.
The house was abandoned, though it looked simply forsaken. Why would my mom lie to me about our house having new people in it? But, I thought that this was actually a good thing. It would be easier to look around for Boxes if we didn’t have to worry about being spotted by the new family. This would make it much quicker. Josh interrupted my thoughts as we walked through the gate and up to the house itself.
“Your old house sucks, dude!” Josh yelled as quietly as he could.
“Shut up, Josh! Even like this it’s still nicer than your house.”
“OK, OK. I think Boxes is probably under the house. One of us has to go under and look, but the other should stay next to the opening in case he comes running out.”
“Are you serious? There’s no way I’m going under there. It’s your cat, man. You do it.”
“Look, I’ll game you for it, unless you’re too scared . . .” I said holding my fist over my up-turned palm.
“Fine, but we go on ‘shoot,’ not on three. It’s ‘rock, paper, scissors, SHOOT,’ not ‘one, two, THREE.’”
“I know how to play the game, Josh. You’re the one who always messes up. And it’s two out of three.”
I wiggled loose the panel that my mom would always move when we she had to crawl under here for Boxes. She only had to do it a couple of times since the can-opener trick usually worked, but when she had to do it she hated it, especially that last time, and as I looked into the darkness of the crawlspace I had a greater appreciation for why. Before we moved she said that it was actually better that Boxes ran under here, despite how hard it could be to get him out. It was less dangerous than him jumping over the fence and running around the neighborhood. All that was true, but I was still dreading doing this. I grabbed the flashlight and the walkie and began to crawl in; a powerful smell overtook me.
It smelled like death.
I turned on my walkie. Josh, are you there?
This is Macho Man, come back.
Josh, cut it out. There’s something wrong down here.
What do you mean?
It stinks. It smells like something died.
Is it Boxes?
I really hope not.
I set down the walkie and moved the flashlight around as I crawled forward. Looking through the hole from the outside you could see all the way back with the right lighting, but you had to be inside to see around the support blocks that held the house up. I’d say that there was about 40% of the area that you couldn’t see unless you were actually in the crawlspace, but even inside I discovered that I could only see directly where the flashlight was pointing,; I realized that this would make scouting around the place much more difficult. As I moved forward the smell intensified. The fear was growing in me that Boxes had come here and something had happened to him. I shined the flashlight around but couldn’t see much of anything. I wrapped my fingers around a support block to pull myself forward and as I did that I felt something that made my hand recoil.
My heart sank and I prepared myself emotionally for what I was about to see. I crawled slowly so I could prolong what I knew was coming and I inched my eyes and the flashlight past the block to see what was on the other side.
I staggered back in horror. “JESUS CHRIST!” escaped my trembling mouth. It was a hideous and twisted creature, badly decomposed. Its skin had rotted away on its face so the teeth appeared to be enormous. And the smell was unbearable.
What is it? Are you ok? Is it Boxes?
I reached for the walkie No, no it’s not Boxes.
Well what the hell is it then?
I don’t know
I shined the light on it again and looked at it with less fear in my vision. I chuckled.
It’s a raccoon!
Well keep looking. I’m gonna go into the house to see if he might’ve made it in there somehow.
What? No. Josh, don’t go in there. What if Boxes is down here and runs out?
He can’t. I put the board back.
I looked and saw that he was telling the truth.
Why’d you do that?
Don’t worry man, you can move it easy. This makes more sense. If Boxes ran out and I missed him then he’d be gone. If he’s down there then grab him tight and I’ll come move the board, and if he’s not then you can move it yourself while I look in the house!
Some of his points were good, and I doubted he’d be able to get in anyway.
OK. But be careful and don’t touch anything. There’s a bunch of my old clothes still in boxes in my room, you can look in there to see if he crawled in one. And make sure to bring your walkie.
Roger that, good buddy.
I realized that it would be pitch-black in there; the power would have been turned off since no one was paying the bill. With any luck he’d be able to see from the streetlights that might cast some light inside – otherwise I’m not sure what he’d do.
Before too long I heard footsteps right over my head and felt old dirt raining down on me.
Josh is that you?
chhkkkk Breaker, Breaker. This is Macho Man coming back for the big Tango Foxtrot. The Eagle has landed. What’s your 20, Princess Jasmine? Over.
Macho Man, my 20 is in your bathroom lookin’ at your stash of magazines. Looks like you’ve got a thing for dudes’ butts. What’s the report on that? Over.
I could hear him laughing without the walkie and I started laughing too. I head the footsteps fade away a little – he was on his way to my room.
Man, it’s *dark in here. Hey, are you sure you had boxes of clothes in here? I don’t see any.*
Yeah, there should be a couple boxes in front of the closet.
There aren’t any boxes in here, lemme check to see if you maybe put the boxes in the closet before you left.
I started thinking that maybe my mom had come back and gotten the clothes and just given them away because I had outgrown a lot of them, but I remembered leaving the boxes there – I didn’t even have time to close the last one up before we left.
While I was waiting for Josh to tell me what he found, I kicked out my leg which had started falling asleep because of the position I was in and it hit something. I looked back and saw something really strange. It was a blanket and all around it there were bowls. I crawled a little closer to it. The blanket smelled moldy and most of the bowls were empty but one had something that I recognized still in it.
It was a different kind than we gave to Boxes, but I suddenly understood. My mom had set up a little place for Boxes to encourage him to come here instead of running around the neighborhood. That made a lot of sense, and it seemed even more likely that Boxes would have come back to this place. “That’s so cool, mom,” I thought.
I found your clothes
Oh cool. Where were the boxes?
Like I said, there are no boxes. Your clothes are in your closet . . . They’re hanging up.
I felt a chill. This was impossible. I had packed all my clothes. Even though we weren’t supposed to move for another two weeks when we left, I remember packing them and thinking that it was stupid for me to have to get clothes out of the box and put them back in. I had packed them, but someone had hung them back up.
Josh needed to get out of there.
That can’t be right, Josh. They’re supposed to be in boxes. Stop messing around, and just come back outside.
No joke man. I’m looking at them. Maybe you just thought that you left them. Haha! Wow! You sure like to look at yourself, don’t you?
What? What do you mean?
Your walls, man. Haha. Your walls are covered in Polaroids of yourself! There are hundreds of them!
What’d you hire someone to—”
I checked my walkie to see if I had switched it off somehow. It was fine. I could hear footsteps but couldn’t tell exactly where Josh was going. I waited for Josh to finish his sentence, thinking that his finger had just slipped off the button, but he didn’t continue. He seemed to be stomping around the house now. I was just about to radio him when he came back.
There’s someone in the house
His voice was hushed and broken – I could hear he was on the verge of tears. I wanted to respond, but how loud was his walkie turned up? What if the other person heard it? I said nothing and just waited and listened.
What I heard were footsteps. Heavy, dragging footsteps. And then a loud thud.
“Oh God . . . Josh.”
He had been found; I was sure of it. This person had found him and was hurting him. I broke out in tears. He was my only friend, next to Boxes. And then I realized: What if Josh told him I was under here? What could I possibly do? As I struggled to compose myself, I thankfully heard Josh’s voice through the walkie.
He’s got something, man. It’s a big bag. He just threw it on the floor. And . . . oh God, man . . . the bag . . .
I think it just moved.
I was paralyzed. I wanted to run home. I wanted to save Josh. I wanted to go for help. I wanted so many things but I just lay there, frozen. As I lay unable to move my eyes focused on the corner of the house that was right under my room; I moved my flashlight. My breath hitched at what I saw.
Animals. Dozens of them. All of them dead. They lay in piles all around the perimeter of the crawlspace. Could Boxes be among these corpses? Was this what the cat food was for?
Seeing this broke my shock as I knew I had to get out of there and I scrambled to the board. I pushed on it, but it wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t move it because it was wedged in there and I couldn’t get my fingers around it since the edges were outside. I was trapped. “Goddamn you, Josh!” I whispered to myself. I could feel thunderous footsteps above me. The house was shaking. I heard Josh scream, and it was matched by another scream that wasn’t full of fear.
As I continued pushing I felt the board move, but I knew it wasn’t me who was moving it. I could hear footsteps above me and in front of me and shouting and screaming filling the brief silences between the footsteps. I moved back and held my walkie ready to try to defend myself, and the board was thrown to the side and an arm shot in and grabbed for me.
“Let’s go, man! Now!”
It was Josh. Thank God.
I scrambled out of the opening holding the flashlight and the walkie. When we got to the fence we both jumped it but Josh’s walkie fell, he reached for it and I told him to forget it. We had to move. Behind us I could hear yelling, though they weren’t words, only sounds. And we, perhaps foolishly, ran for the woods to get back to Josh’s quicker and be somewhat harder to follow. The whole way through the woods Josh kept yelling,
“My picture! He took my picture!”
But I knew the man already had Josh’s picture -- from all those years ago at the ditch. I supposed Josh still thought those mechanical sounds were from a robot.
We made it back to Josh’s house and back into his room before his parents woke up. I asked him about the big bag and if it really moved and he said he couldn’t be sure. He kept apologizing about dropping the walkie at the house, but obviously that wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t go to sleep and sat peering out the window waiting for him. I went home later that day as it was about 3am already.
I told my mom the basics of this story a couple days ago. She broke down and was furious about the danger I put myself in. I asked her why she made all those things up about bothering the new owners to stop me from going – why did she think the house was so dangerous? She became irate and hysterical, but she answered my question. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it harder than I thought her capable of and locked her eyes to my, whispering as if she was afraid of being overheard:
“Because I never put any fucking blankets or bowls under the house for Boxes. You weren’t the only one to find them . . .”
I felt dizzy. I understood so much now. I understood why she had looked so uneasy after she brought Boxes out from under the house on our last day there; she found more than spiders or a rat’s nest that day. I understood why we left almost 2 weeks early. I understood why she tried to stop me from going back.
She knew. She knew he made his home under ours, and she kept it from me. I left without saying another word and didn’t finish the story for her, but I want to finish it here, for you.
I got home from Josh’s that day I threw my stuff on the floor and it scattered everywhere; I didn’t care, I just wanted to sleep. I woke up around 9pm to the sound of Boxes’ meowing. My heart leapt. He had finally come home. I was a little sick about the fact that if I had just waited a day none of the previous night’s events would have happened and I’d have Boxes anyway, but that didn’t matter; he was back. I got off my bed and called for him looking around to catch a glint of light off his eyes. The crying continued and I followed it. It was coming from under the bed. I laughed a little thinking I had just crawled under a house looking for him and how this was so much better. His meows were being muffled by a shirt, so I flung it aside and smiled, yelling “welcome home, Boxes!”
His cries were coming from my walkie-talkie
Boxes never came home.
To Be Continued: Part IV
Written by Dathan Auerbach
Originally Appeared: Nosleep