One of the themes for our Cult Fiction horror shows I used to run was ‘Box of Shadows’. The stories had to be horror and some sort of evil box had to be central to the story. I wrote my story ‘HorseHammer’ and the final scene takes place in a large, walk-in, icebox freezer. I like the story a lot, but I never felt it really captured the intent of ‘Box of Shadows’ well. So, I decided to write another, much more focused on the box, and this is the result. It was originally published in The Dream Quarry online magazine. I’ve been told it’s one of my more bleak stories. Consider yourself warned.
The corpses of children are heavier than you’d expect. The people who know this don’t tell you. They hide the details. Nobody wants them. Cross that bridge when you come to it and pray that you never do.
Melissa knew the details.
She knew that skin could pull taught overnight, thinning the lips. She knew the surfaces of eyes could go dry and gummy. She knew fingers and toes could curl up like dead spiders.
She wished she didn’t know these things. She sometimes wondered if she could induce her own amnesia by injuring her head, or by using drugs. She never went past wondering though. She was too afraid. There was no way she could ever be sure that when these terrible truths left her mind they wouldn’t take the good memories of Victoria with them. Those well-worn thoughts were all she had left.
For a while, for a such a long while, it was only pain and loss and emptiness. And then…
The floor creaked as Melissa moved across the moon washed hardwood.
“Are you doing it again?” asked Jon. His voice was deeply tired.
“I… I’m just going to get some water.” He was silent. Melissa left the bedroom. Who was she kidding? They both knew where she was going. Since she’d already been caught, she didn’t bother with the facade of a drink and went straight to Victoria’s room.
They kept her door shut. Their marriage counselor said that wasn’t a good idea, but Jon claimed he wasn’t ready. He told them that he couldn’t bear to see her things, as if she still lived in the house. He avoided the room like the plague. He’d never even gone into it when they found her, just stood in the doorway, gaping. He hadn’t set a foot in it since. At first it had bothered Melissa, but not anymore. Now, she was glad he stayed out. It helped.
She stood in the dark, fingertips on the doorknob; her forehead rested on the wood as she breathed slowly. A full minute passed before she turned the handle, entered, and gently shut the door behind her.
She couldn’t see anything, but she didn’t need to. The contents were etched into her brain; the framed pages of illustrations from old children’s books on the walls, vintage copper lamp, light oak dresser with nightstand, and the matching antique wooden toy-box from her own youth. The box had been in her family for generations and had come over from Norway with her great-grandmother. The top and sides were hand carved with swirling curls like waves or wind. The edges had writing in what Melissa could only assume was some old form of Norwegian. Jon hadn’t wanted to pass it on as a toy-box. He thought the old battered thing would clash in a child’s room. But Melissa had managed to work an old world theme into the decorating. Instead of the bright pastels of most kid’s room, Victoria’s room was lush with warm browns, copper, and the deep grey-greens of the sea.
She navigated the furniture deftly and got into bed. There was no mattress anymore, just a box spring. They’d taken the mattress. She’d heard one of the policemen give an estimate on how much blood was in it. It was more than she’d thought. Well over a quart. Once, when she was two, Victoria had dropped a fresh quart of milk on the floor. The plastic jug had split and exploded all over the kitchen. It was an enormous mess and the milk flowed into everything. That was only one quart. Melissa couldn’t imagine her daughter even having more than that inside her.
But she had, and she’d lost it, right where Melissa was lying. She put it out of her mind. It didn’t matter anymore. She stretched out on the box spring, her feet extending off the end of the bed, and waited.
In the weeks that followed Victoria’s death Melissa had hounded the police, pressed for answers, and translated her grief into a hunt for the truth. There had been boot prints left in the yard, but no dirt inside. No forced entry, but her window had been unlocked. One deadly cut, but no molestation. The authorities toyed with the idea of Melissa and Jon as suspects, but like the other evidence, nothing could be proven.
Jon hadn’t focused on the question of how it happened. He attempted to absorb the harsh reality without details. She was gone, that was all. He refused to think about how.
Neither of them had gone back to work yet. Jon spent his days out of the house on long walks. Aimless walks in the woods behind the house. He’d get home and follow dinner with a desert of sleeping pills and vodka. In his drunken state he’d stand in the hallway outside her room, muttering about throwing her things out, tossing them into the fire pit, or giving them away. It never lasted and he’d stagger off to bed. He didn’t have the courage to enter the room. To face what had happened. If he spent one hour awake in the house on any given day Melissa would have been surprised.
For her part, Melissa had barely slept in weeks. A cat nap on the couch here and there, but not much else.
She had better things to do with her nights.
A wave of goose bumps washed over her as she heard it. That sound she’d become addicted to. From the dark corner of the room came a quiet scraping; fingernails on wood. It scratched in the darkness and was followed by the slow creak of a hinge. The toy box was opening.
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