After giving it some thought, I think I would call the genre of this short story ‘lite horror’. Enjoy!
The shovel struck something hard and solid, the vibrations jarring my hands. Frustration boiled up in me.
“Goddamn rocks,” I said then immediately winced. “Sorry, Grandpa.”
“It’s alright, Jake,” he said, looking at me from the lawn chair, large but solid frame well past its prime making the chair sag. “The Lord can take a little blaspheming.” His blue eyes twinkled. “What he can’t take is how the Bears are playing this year.” He chuckled and took a sip of his coffee.
I grinned and returned to my work, which was not going well.
The hole for the tree was growing bigger ever so slowly. I was fighting every inch of the way against the rock-filled soil. Most of the rocks were small, some were big and required a lot of extra work and digging to shift.
The towering ash nearby provided merciful shade from the early sun. Somewhere a cicada hummed the soundtrack of summer. The smell of the grass was clean and fresh and mingled with the darker smell of the just-turned earth.
Visiting Grandpa as often as I could was habit now, ever since Grandma died. I was spending the weekend at his house just across town from where I lived. Sometimes, if I closed my eyes, the house still smelled like buttery french toast and frying peameal bacon, my favorites that Grandma always made for breakfast when I stayed over.
I chopped down with the shovel again. I took aim farther and farther away from what I hoped was the center of the rock.
It must have been huge, bigger than a watermelon, sitting there a foot from the surface.
Clang, dull and metallic and hollow. Rocks aren’t metal or hollow.
I started scraping with the shovel working around to the edges, then got down on my knees to dig with my fingers.
Gray undulating metal peeked through the dirt. I dug faster like I was chasing sand crabs at the beach as they burrowed down, down into the wet sand.
“Grandpa, look at this.”
Caught napping, Grandpa opened one eye. “What?”
“What’s that? A piece of sheet metal?”
“Well, keep going. That’s where I’m putting my maple.”
I heaved the shovel and set to work. I dug furiously as shadows grew short towards noon and the ash leaves whispered overhead. I dug at the sides and sent dirt falling back over the exposed metal, thankful that the shovel was hitting soft soil again rather than the hard metal that jarred my arms.
Curiosity replacing fatigue, I dug faster, widening the hole to three feet across and removing all the loose dirt.
I found myself standing on a badly rusted piece of sheet metal that extended under the earth far beyond the area I had exposed.
“There’s no edge, Grandpa. I can’t pull it up.”
“Get the angle grinder,” he said without opening an eye. “Wait.” He checked his watch. “Lunch first.”
We sat there eating sandwiches and drinking cold beer in the shade of the ash tree. “Don’t tell your mother or I’ll get in trouble,” he said winking
I grinned and nodded, mouth full of sandwich.
We both watched the hole as if waiting for something to happen.
Sandwich eaten and the quarter of my beer left to sweat in the shade, I slapped safety glasses over my eyes and fired up the angle grinder. The hot orange sparks cascaded over my legs and feet, bouncing around the hole in a fiery display. The noise was deafening. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t stand on that thing. It might be hollow and you’ll fall in.”
Alarmed but grateful I climbed out, laid down on my belly, head, shoulders, and arms dangling over the side and resumed cutting.
After a foot of progress, a rich, earthy smell came wafting up, mixing with the smell of burnt metal. After cutting more than halfway around the sheet metal began to sag and as I completed the final cut it fell down into the darkness.
We stood looking down into the hole not quite able to make out the bottom with the sunlight alone.
“Go get a flashlight in the garage. Bring the ladder too,” he shouted as I had already started running.
I rounded the side of the house, went in the open garage and grabbed the flashlight from my grandpa’s workbench and the aluminum extension ladder from where it leaned in the corner and, making sure to keep clear of grandpa’s car, a blue Buick sedan with impeccable paint, I hurried back.
I turned the flashlight on and pointed it down the hole.
The circle of sheet metal was lying on the ground. All around was hard, cracked earth. The walls looked like bricks or cinder blocks of some kind.
We lowered the ladder down into the hole. I grabbed the flashlight, put one hand on either side of the hole to steady myself and stepped onto the ladder. It held.
“You good?” Grandpa said.
“I think so.”
I descended the ladder carefully. As the sunlight faded, my eyes started adjusting to the darkness. The air was old, musty, thick. It tickled the end of my nose. The ground crunched underneath as I stepped off the ladder. I thought it would be soft and wet, even flooded, but it was dry. I flicked on the flashlight and sent the beam around the room.
“What do you see?” Grandpa’s voice sounded far off and echoed, even though I was only about ten feet down.
“A lot of dirt. Some old rags. Wonder how they got here. The whole thing is round, like a big cylinder. The walls look like cinder block. It’s pretty dry though. ”
“Probably an old cesspool or cistern.”
“A cesspool is an old kind of septic tank before there were septic tanks and a cistern was used to collect water.”
“I don’t see any pipes though.”
Grandpa grunted acknowledgement. “If there’s nothing else come on up.”
I darted the flashlight around one more time and kicked the pile of rags for good measure. My foot struck something solid and heavy. I squatted down and threw the rags aside. There in the middle of the dirt and decaying cloth was a beautifully ornate wooden box, a perfect cube with rounded edges and corners. It was covered in a twisting vine-like pattern that gleamed in the light.
“I found something. It’s a wooden box, I think.”
“Well bring it up.”
I tried to pick it up. About a foot across, high, and deep, it must have weighed fifty pounds and it resisted my efforts, seemingly stuck to the soil. I bent down, sweat dripping into my eyes, braced my back and heaved. The box groaned and broke free of the soil. I set it down at the foot of the ladder.
“I can’t carry this up the ladder.”
“I’ll get a rope.”
He disappeared. Leaning on the ladder, I stared up at the oculus sending a shaft of sunlight into the earth. Clouds drifted lazily across the opening making me feel as if I were peeking through a rift between worlds.
Several feet of rope smacked me in the face.
I tied the rope around the box. I lifted the box to chest height and Grandpa pulled the rope taut. Then I pushed it up above my head and, supporting it from below while Grandpa pulled up, I slowly made my way up the ladder.
One final heave at the top and the box thudded to the ground in front of my grandpa’s feet.
“What on God’s green earth…”
“I don’t know.”
“Get the hose. We’ll wash it off.”
“Look at it. It’s clean.”
“Well give it a wash anyways. Who knows what’s been down there.”
The box gleamed faintly in the afternoon light. I ran my fingers over the carved surface feeling where each face of the cube ran into a perfectly rounded edge and cascaded over onto another side.
We dried the box and Grandpa carried it into the house, showing no sign of struggling with the weight.
The round mahogany kitchen table creaked as we set it down in the middle. Grandpa flicked on the light.
The cube was made of wood, darker than the table, without the reddish mahogany color. Perhaps black walnut. It was covered on every side with the same intricate, wandering carving that twisted and spiraled in a totally irregular pattern, reminiscent of ivy or vines, each side blending into the next over each corner and edge.
Grandpa got his reading glasses from the counter, pulled a beer from the fridge, and sat down at the table. I sat down next to him. Glasses perched on the tip of his stubby nose he peered at the box, then scratched his head and attempted to smooth the short white hairs that crowned his bald head.
“What the hell did we find, Jake?”
“I don’t know.” I rotated the cube. It made a dull thud as it flipped onto another side. “It looks like each side is the same, and not. It’s the same carving but each side isn’t quite the same. How old do you think this is?”
“No idea. I’d like to know what it is. Does it open?”
“I can’t see a hinge or a key hole or anything. It looks like it’s made of wood though.”
“What kind of wood? It’s damn heavy, too heavy to just be wood.” Grandpa leaned back in the chair. “It got knocked around coming out of that hole but it doesn’t have a mark on it. It should be chipped and scratched. And it’s been in the ground out back for how long? It should be rotting. That’s not wood.”
“Could it be petrified? You know, hardened?”
“I guess it could be stone, but it’s got grain, just like wood.”
“I’ll call Harold over at the historical society in the morning. Maybe he’ll know something.”
We were silent for a moment.
“Grandpa, what was here before your house?”
“Nothing. Well, farmland. Developer subdivided the parcel into lots and Rose and I built in ‘57. Your dad wasn’t even born yet.”
“Was the farmer’s house nearby?
He thought for a moment. “No, I think it was right up on Springfield. Makes sense to be right on the road.”
“Then why have a cesspool all the way out here?”
“I don’t know. Might have just been a cistern to water the crops or animals. After the historical society we can stop by the county clerk’s office and see what records we can find about buildings on the property.”
We ate dinner in silence, the box looming over us until Grandpa got to his feet, hoisted the thing through the air, and slung it into a corner.
“That’s better. I don’t like the look of that thing. Don’t know why.”
I pushed back my plate. A faint whispering sound drifted through the air. I looked around.
“Grandpa, did you leave the TV on?”
“No. I never do that,” he said smiling.
I went to the living room and checked. It was off.
“Is there a window open somewhere?”
“Not in this heat. I’m not sending the AC out the window.”
“Then what am I hearing?”
He paused to listen. “I don’t hear anything. Come on. It’s almost bedtime. You can get ready and then read in bed or something.”
“Okay,” I said, eyeing the box suspiciously.
I was lying in bed reading one of my grandpa’s old books, The Adventures of Buster Riggs, adventurer, archaeologist, ladies man. Through the wall came the gentle drone of Grandpa’s radio. He didn’t sleep most nights and liked to listen to the news or talk radio.
I woke with a start when my book, propped precariously in my hands above my head, fell and hit me square in the face. The radio was off. The clock showed it was nearly two in the morning.
A voice, gentle, whispering but insistent, called from downstairs.
I closed my eyes.
That sounded like Grandma. But she was very much dead. Dead and cremated and packed in an urn on the mantelpiece that Grandpa couldn’t yet bring himself to bury. And there it was, the rich butter and cinnamon smell of french toast and hot peameal bacon, crispy around the edges, the yellow meal breading giving way to a thin bit of soft fat and finally the salty pork loin in the middle. My mouth watered.
I got out of bed, not quite believing but totally entranced. Despite the darkness, I knew my way and walked as quick as I dared, heart thumping, to the top of the stairs.
“Coming,” I said, not believing that I had spoken. Who was I talking to? Grandma was dead. And yet.
I took each stair slowly, too slowly.
Hurry up or she’ll be gone. This is your one chance to see her again.
I came to the bottom of the stairs and rounded the corner.
The kitchen was dark. There was no french toast or peameal bacon on the table. No Grandma standing at the stove. I turned on the light.
I jumped. My stomach jumped, that kind of jump when you’re expecting something to happen but you’re not sure when and you aren’t sure you want it to.
The voice came from the dark corner where the box still sat.
“Jacob, come here. Isn’t it wonderful we can see each other again?”
“Of course, silly. Come here and let me out.”
“I don’t think I should, Grandma. I don’t think that’s you in there.”
There was a whining note to her voice. “Don’t be silly. We go to different places when we die. I woke up here and I don’t want to stay in here anymore. Let me out and I can make you something to eat. Think of how happy Grandpa will be to see me again.”
“There’s no way to open it. I tried.”
“Don’t worry,” she said cheerfully, “I’ll show you how. It’s quite simple.”
I moved one leaden foot at a time over to the corner. The box felt remarkably light in my arms, though I distinctly remembered struggling to get it out of the hole. I placed it on the table.
The twisting carvings on the box seemed to dance and swirl, moving from one side over the edge to the other side, constantly changing direction.
I felt a wave of relief. It was so easy and it would be so nice to see her again. “Okay. How do I open it?”
“I’ll show you. Go get a knife.”
“Jake, what the hell are you doing?”
That voice clawed at my consciousness, buried deep beneath the fog in my brain. Who was that? There’s the box, there’s the knife in my hand. Is that my hand? Yes, that’s mine. Now, what was I supposed to do with it? And who’s shouting my name?
Grandpa was standing in the doorway.
“Grandpa,” I said, smiling, “we’re going to see Grandma again. She’s going to make us breakfast.”
“Jake, what are you talking about?”
“George,” came the voice from the box.
“Rosie?” Surprise, consternation, grief, then anger. Ripping out his hearing aids he flung them to the floor. He came at me, moving fast for his age, twisted my wrist and made the knife drop. He forced me into a chair, put the knife away, hefted the box under one arm and stormed out.
“Jacob,” the box said, pleading. “Jacob, help me.”
The door slammed. The engine roared, tires squealed, then nothing.
I was left alone in the kitchen, now so quiet the ticking of the wall clock was deafening.
I was still sitting there when a few hours later the car purred into the garage, then the door closed softly, and Grandpa was there again in the doorway.
He looked tired, grim, older. He bent down to find his hearing aids, placed them back in his ears, and straightened up looking at me as if to try to reassure me. I ran over and hugged him.
“It’s all over now, Jake.”
“The box is gone, yes. That wasn’t your grandma.”
“I wanted it to be.”
“I know. But that’s not how it works.”
“What was that?”
“I don’t know. Something very old and dangerous. But it’s gone now.” He paused. “You know what this means, Jake?”
“We’re going to have to put that tree someplace else.”
I laughed through my tears and held on tight.
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