By popular demand, another short story by author Michael Collins. Dark, horror themes.
The box first appeared on a cold November morning, in the middle of Stenmore’s little village green. It hadn’t been there the previous evening, and nobody’d heard about anything being delivered. It seemed as if the thing had, overnight, materialised out of the thin chilly air.
The box was large, and heavy: the bandstand and the benches that had previously occupied the green had been crushed under its weight. Shattered splinters of the bandstand surrounded the edges of the box. It had been, in the words of young Tommy Mitchell, ‘perfectly smooshed’.
The box was the colour of midnight: a smooth matte black. It appeared perfectly square, at a height of perhaps thirty feet. Neil Sims and his lad Callum stood a stepladder against one side of the box and after a brief, whispered argument Neil clambered up.
The box had a flat, closed lid, Neil reported from its top. There were no flaps, hinges or seams, nothing he could attempt to prise open. It appeared completely sealed. He banged his fist against the roof, producing a metallic ringing that echoed across the village green. A question floated up from the crowd gathering below: could he hear anything coming from inside? Neil shook his head.
The conversation began; what could it possibly be? It’s a gift from God, suggested Reverend Cundy. Aliens, said little Johnny Redman excitedly. No, no, said Jenny Eager, it’s a modern art installation. Soon naked revellers would come out of the box and perform a version of La Appassionata in interpretive dance. The crowd scoffed and tutted at Jenny, who was considered a great oddball; a writer and painter, she’d once appeared at the local fête with a tray of funny-tasting chocolate muffins which she said contained her secret creative juice. Graeme Knott stroked his beard thoughtfully. It could be the government, he mused, a way to keep their eyes on us all the time. Heads nodded at this sagacity: everybody knew that Graeme was a sophisticated man, an expert in world affairs; he’d worked in London once.
Other theories, each more outlandish than the next, swept through the villagers as Neil Sims prowled across the box’s surface, looking for a way in. He found none. After a while, people began to drift slowly away, the tidal pull of their lives gradually reasserting influence – the WI weekly tea meeting was due to start, and Darryl Briggs was setting up his regular Tuesday book in the Fox and Hounds. By the time darkness had fallen the box was standing alone in the village green, not forgotten, but its reality absorbed into the life of the village. Whatever it was, it was, said the regulars with shrugged shoulders in the Fox and Hound. Let the Mayor take care of it.
The village began to die the next day.
When the Mayor arrived (with his usual cohort of councillors in tow, Graeme Knott prominent amongst them) the next morning, the grass surrounding the crushed bandstand had all turned black, and a faint smell of decay pervaded like dirty smog across the village green.
What is this thing, demanded the Mayor. What should we do?
The councillors murmured between themselves. At length Graeme Knott was pushed forwards.
We should remove the box, he said. Tow it to the sea and drop it in. If it’s the government spying on us, we want nothing to do with it. Get rid of it.
The Mayor nodded in agreement. Good thinking Graeme, he said. Make all the necessary arrangements. And off he strode to his next meeting, with the heads of the PTA.
Graeme turned to the councillors, standing huddled under umbrellas in the morning rain. Get me Neil Sims, he said importantly. I have a job for him.
An hour later Neil Sims arrived in his trusty white Ford Transit, Callum hanging out the window, agog. Neil and Callum reversed the van up to the box, broke out the winch and wound it twice around the box. Neil revved the engine, put the van into gear and pulled away – for about ten feet. Then the winch chain became taut. The box moved not an inch.
Neil revved the engine again, standing on the acceleration pedal. The van strained against the winch chain; its tyres tore great gouts from the earth. The engine roared. The box stood there, immense and immovable.
For twenty minutes Neil tried in vain to move the box. On the fourth attempt he backed up right against the side of the box and then accelerated as hard as he could. All he achieved was to rip the rear bumper off his beloved van. After that he gave up. Shaking his head he said to Graeme Knott, you’d need a tank to move that thing.
The box stood there, rain coursing in tiny little rivers down its smooth black sides. It looked bigger.
That night Neil and Callum regaled the regulars of the Fox and Hounds with their heroic attempts to remove the box from the village green. There was much laughter and good humour in the bar, although a few noted quietly that neither Neil nor Callum had seemed quite themselves. They were pale and thin, and Neil’s skin had a cloudy unhealthy quality. Of course, it was almost winter, and flu season was just around the corner. They’d picked up a bug from somewhere, most likely.
Two days later, kids playing in the stand of trees behind the village green that marked the edge of the Sandleford wood found the corpse of a fox, its teeth bared in the throes of its final expiration. Some of the older kids wanted to take it back and throw it into Jenny Eager’s back garden. One of the boys forged a path through the branches of the thicket in which the fox lay and called back to his mates. Come ‘ere, lads, he said. There’s more of ‘em.
There were: lots more. In a perfect circle surrounding the village green were the bodies of more than two hundred animals, including dogs, cats, badgers, foxes, and birds seemingly struck down from the sky. All seemed to have died fast and hard and in considerable pain. Eyes were open in anguish; feathers stripped from limbs; mouths and snouts open masks. Some of the birds appeared to have flown directly into the structure; their wings were broken snapped twigs. The boys retreated, stunned into rare silence. A couple of them were coughing.
The box began to hum steadily.
On the following Sunday, Reverend Cundy saw, to his great surprise, every seat in every pew of his modest church filled with villagers. Even Graeme Knott, who generally disdained the dubious comforts of religion, was in attendance for morning service, looking less puffed up than usual. Every family in village had dragged along the children. Many stood at the back, or along the walls. All had poor Neil Sims in their thoughts. He was clinging to life in the Winford hospital coma wing, twelve miles up the road. Callum had died the previous afternoon. And of course, they held their own lives in their thoughts too. Because the box was still there, the ground around it black and lifeless, its humming invading the brain of every person in village, twisting their thoughts.
If God had answers for the congregation of Stenmore, he did not disclose them that Sunday. The people returned to their homes restless and fearful, with the ever-present hum of the box pulsing in their ears and in their brains.
Neil Sims died at nineteen minutes past three the next morning. As he reached his moment of expiry he breathed in a huge lungful of air. His eyes opened for the last time. What he saw, only he could know. His last words, whatever they were, were heard by nobody. He passed into the unknown alone.
At the instant Neil died, in the middle of the park, witnessed by nobody, the box flexed in and out, as if breathing. Its north facing side – the side facing the hospital – came apart briefly, folding open. It looked like a mouth.
People in Stenmore began to lose their minds.
The first was Jenny Eager. Not many took notice; it was crazy Jenny Eager after all. Her frequent appearances at the Hortons’ grocery shop, her eyes wide and wild, her hair tangled and torn (it appeared she had ripped out entire clumps of her hair, that blonde wave much-admired by certain elder ladies in the village), muttering about voices in the dark and strange apparitions at her doorstep, did not inspire much comment.
Others soon followed, however. Mr and Mrs Kaur (he a retired optician, she a devoted wife and mother of two sons), the Indian couple who had moved in a couple of years ago, both much loved and much discussed by the village, hadn’t been seen for days until Mr Kaur appeared upon Dr Williamson’s doorstep one bitter Sunday evening. Mr Kaur, in a state of great panic, bade the doctor to come to his car, parked askew on the curb. Inside was Mrs Kaur, shrieking, hands clutching at the air. Dr Williamson noted an extraordinary, unsettling thing: Mrs Kaur, a woman who had proudly maintained long flowing locks of hair as dark and rich as treacle, was now almost entirely bald. Only here and there upon the desert of her scalp were forlorn little branches. Her eyes were both wild and vacant. ‘It was the spiders,’ said Mr Kaur, his voice a chronicle of despair. ‘She said there were spiders living in her hair.’
She died later that evening; the death certificate gave the cause as a heart attack.
But of course, it wasn’t.
Many people in the village began hearing voices, the voices of disembodied ghosts, perhaps. Not many words could be deciphered from this quiet cacophony, but some carried across the chilly air quite clearly. Soon, and Time, and Must, and Will. Despite themselves – the villagers thought of themselves solid, dependable, and quite rational indeed – the people began listening more and more to this dreadful chorus.
Many began reporting electronic failures – lights not switching on at night, telephone lines being cut, and worst of all, hissing static on the television where EastEnders or Corrie should be.
Warren Conroy, an unemployed, drunken lad, who frequently ‘roused rabble’, in the words of Graeme Knott, with the rascal Darryl Briggs, tied a noose around the top banister of the stairs at his house, then leapt off the top step. Sadly, this did not kill him straight away. It took him over forty-five minutes to strangle himself as he dangled over the banister, swinging slowly in the morning’s grey light. Stapled to his chest was a sheet of A4 paper; written on it in a faltering, shaky script were the words PLEASE DON’T PUT ME INSIDE THE BOX.
Jenny Eager threw herself off the rail bridge in front of the 3:20 to Exeter.
Little Sally Shepherd, fifty-eight years old and all of seven stone with her shopping bags all full up, killed three men in the queue for the butchers. She achieved this terrible feat by ripping out their throats with her teeth, screeching absurd gibberish in a nonsense language as she did. It took another four men, including Sergeant Nelson who stood at six and a half feet in his socks, to subdue her. Six hours later she awoke in the station’s holding cell and tore out her eyes with her thumbs. As Nelson and his constables tried to stop her from tearing out her throat, she was screaming ‘I can still see their faces!’ She died from blood loss in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
All the while the box loomed, immovable, in the ruins of the village green.
The Mayor called a meeting of the council to decide what they should do. Many options were suggested – call the army, said George Fisher. Graeme Knott had to remind poor George, who was something of a Luddite, that none of the phones were working at present. Let’s stick some dynamite to the thing and blow it up, said Jerome Grant with an excited, little-boy gleam in his eye. One or two eyebrows were raised at this fanciful idea. How gaudy, said Graeme Knott. We’re not Americans, you know. Fire was discussed – too windy, said Graeme Knott, shaking his head. What if we burn down the whole village?
The council fell silent for a moment, then the Mayor roused himself, puffed out his chest and pronounced, ‘Don’t worry, everybody. We’re a proud village and I’m sure we’ll find a solution. Stenmore wasn’t declared the third best village in the county for nothing, you know! I’m confident that we’ll come through this stronger together and take back control of our village again!’ This rousing sally was met with fists thumping tables and cries of ‘Hurrah!’ Everybody felt much better, even Graeme Knott.
The council agreed to send George Fisher off to Little Dever to raise the alarm. The next morning George set off in his battered little VW up the B road to Little Deaver. The Mayor and Graeme Knott saw him off with a wave. They watched him crest the hill leading towards the edge of the village and out of sight. Graeme patted the Mayor on the back and gave him a brisk nod. ‘Well done, Al,’ he said graciously.
These two luminaries were the last to see George Fisher alive.
When, after seven days George Fisher did not return, the Mayor called upon the village council once again. This cluster of frail, pensive old men bore little resemblance to the council that had discussed the situation with such bombast the previous week. What do we do next, the Mayor asked. Nobody had an answer.
There’s only one thing to do, said Reverend Cundy. All heads turned to him.
‘Pray to God,’ he said.
Little Johnny Redman, eight years old, stood astride his BMX on the outskirts of the village green, gazing at the box as it stood there in the moonlight. Johnny had no memory of arriving there, and he could not say what urge or impulse had led him there. But here he was, and the box was talking to him. Most of the things it said Johnny couldn’t understand. But the box was saying lots of things, lots of fun things, and Johnny listened, smiling after a while.
Two days later all the trees – every single one – in Sandleford Wood fell, the crash of their dying echoing across the village green so loudly that everybody could hear. The rotten branches gave off a noxious stench that was so thick it could almost be seen in the chilly autumnal air.
Many people had become very worried about Johnny Redman, who had been acting very strangely, even by the standards of behaviour in Stenmore since the box’s arrival. Johnny had been seen standing in the middle of the high street, arms wide and eyes unfocused, chanting in a high, shrill voice. With him had been a great number of the village’s other children, gathered round in the manner of a church congregation listening to a sermon. The children began following little Johnny around, scaring the pensioners and graffitiing the walls of buildings, besmirching the clean, white brickwork that adorned so much of Stenmore’s historic architecture.
It was Graeme Knott who approached Reverend Cundy to ask his thoughts on what they should do with the boy. Graeme knew that Reverend Cundy had extensive liturgical experience of straightening out little boys; he would surely know what to do with the troublesome young imp stirring up such trouble in their village.
Over brandy, in the cosy little sacristy behind the altar in the church, with the log fire blazing away merrily, the Reverend and Graeme formed their plan to deal with little Johnny and save the village. God has given me the answer, proclaimed the Reverend.
Graeme nodded importantly. Tell me, my friend. Tell me what we must do. I can promise you the full backing of the Mayor and the council.
The Reverend looked at his old friend. His eyes shone in the firelight. He said one word.
The word was, ‘Sacrifice’.
The box, standing implacably in the ruins of the village green, gleamed in the moonlight. From a certain viewpoint it looked as if it was smiling.
The boy’s parents were told of the council’s decision during a fraught, whispered conversation with the Mayor, the Reverend, and Graeme Knott after Mass that Sunday. The boy’s mother tearily, wearily assented to the plan – little Johnny had ever been a naughty little boy, a scourge on the family name. Mr Redman, his face the colour of ashes, stood rigid with one arm around his wife’s shoulder. He asked the Reverend if this is what God really wanted. The Reverend, his eyes wide and sad, nodded. It is, he said in a quiet, reverent voice.
It is, he said, expiation.
They took the boy at night, appropriately. Constables Malone and Nicholson, informed by the sarge to bring the boy to the station, appeared at the front door of the Redman house amid softly falling snow. The snow smelled bad, metallic and caustic, and it burned and hissed on the cold ground. Both constables were grateful for their helmets; neither wanted the flakes to land on their exposed skin.
The coppers were let in by Mr Redman. The father, now almost entirely bald, held his son in his arms. Wordlessly he carried the sleeping boy to the police car parked on the kerb. The boy was muttering in his sleep. He did it all the way to the station. The PCs were grateful to dump the kid in the single cell in the station and get the hell out of there. They went straight to the almost deserted Fox and Hounds and started drinking heavily. Anything to get the sound of the kid’s voice out of their heads.
The snow kept falling, casting a dreadful pall over the village. The rooves of houses began to collapse under the weight and the corrosion. One such buried Darryl Briggs alive in his garden shed, crushed under the tumbling pile of ceiling timbers, roof tiles and suffocating snow.
A notice went up outside the village hall, and word was spread throughout the village. Sunday service the following weekend would not be held inside the church – a special service would be held on the village green, in front of the box. The people of Stenmore didn’t need much persuasion. Their mental disintegration, their lost loved ones, the lack of telly and radio, all weighed heavily on them. And if cosmopolitan, urbane Graeme Knott said that it must be done, who were they to argue? None of them had been to London.
That Sunday dawned as the coldest day that anyone in Stenmore could remember. The wind howled in the eaves, rattling the gutters, lancing through clothing to strike chills into peoples’ bones as they walked, heads down, through the awful-smelling snow to the village green. There was nothing green left of the green, all the grass dead and withered away, any life in the trees blasted away by the wind and the snow. The ground exposed the dead black roots of trees and branches clutching up to the sky in their death throes, and patches of snow were dotted here and there like gleaming pools of nuclear waste. Above this wasteland stood the box, immutable and evil and eternal. Although no sunlight permeated the grim morning sky, the box glowed atop the shattered remains of the bandstand like a bright black star.
The pyre stood in front of the box, a flat half-pyramid of logs. A tall, thick wooden pole rose into the air from its centre. Tied to the pole and blindfolded, still muttering in that nonsense dialect, was little Johnny Redman. He was garbed in a long maroon robe that Graeme Knott had found stashed in the cupboard – it had belonged to Mrs Knott, now passed, sadly. Graeme Knott stood, arms folded across his chest, to one side of the pyre, alongside the Mayor, plump and pleasant in suit and flat cap, and the Reverend, stooped and damp eyed.
The crowd, some coughing quietly into their gloved fists, many with pale blotchy skin stretched tight across the bones of their skulls, gathered around the pyre.
The Reverend cleared his throat and began to speak. He told the crowd that not even the wonder of God’s mystery could account for the sudden appearance of the box that had cursed their village and their lives, but that God had, as He always would, light the way of their understanding and be their saviour. Heads nodded in the congregation. The Reverend began to warm to his theme and his audience. Who amongst us, he cried, his voice carrying across the dead air, who amongst us could claim to be without sin before God? Every one of us who has cast a covetous glance at the wife of a neighbour or friend is a sinner. Every one of us who has put God aside for the ephemeral pleasures of the earthly world is a sinner. All of Stenmore, he said, reaching a crescendo, is sin.
He thrust an arm backwards at the box. This is our sin, he cried. The sin of Stenmore. And it belongs to us all. And we must atone. We must all share together in the expiation of our sin, to allow God once more to enter our hearts.
The Reverend’s arm now sought out the boy on the pyre. This is our penance, he proclaimed. This boy stands for us all, ready to welcome God and ready for God to welcome him into heaven.
The boy’s parents came forward. Each held aloft a makeshift torch, a tree branch wrapped in cloth and soaked in petrol. At the Reverend’s woeful nod, Mr Redman produced a lighter from his pocket and lit the torches. Bright orange fire illuminated the village green, sending little sputtering sparks upwards into the morning sky. Firelight danced on the surface of the box.
Little Johnny’s mother touched her torch to the base of the pyre. It caught almost instantly in a crackle and a rush of warm air. Smoke began to rise into the air, drifting through the pyre, making Graeme Knott cough uncomfortably.
The crowd watched, silent, dazed.
The flames reached the boy’s feet. Johnny Redman suddenly raised his head. His eyes flew open. In a shaking, painful voice he screamed, ‘May God forgive you!’ Then, as his shoes began to melt, he screamed.
The burning pyre was now a snapping, crackling, sizzling cacophony, but the boy’s screams could be heard clearly above it. A few in the crowd began to murmur amongst themselves, heads shaken and hands wrung. The Mayor shared a look with the Reverend. They read dismay and fear in each other’s eyes. The murmuring became an angry hum.
Graeme Knott stepped forward. He knew what needed to be done. Straining to make himself heard above the boy’s dying cries he flung his arms wide and told the crowd to disperse, to go home, back to work. The box would soon disappear, and things would return to normal, just like he’d always said. There was a broad smile on his face, one which said, you people can trust me. I know best.
The boy cried out once more. ‘May God forgive you!’ This final cry dissolved into a lingering, gurgling scream. Then all that could be heard was the crackling of the fire.
A few of the village’s younger lads surged to the front of the crowd, faces distorted in anger. Graeme Knott pointed a peremptory finger – don’t you dare. One of the youths – it was Dave Fisher, George’s only son – snapped. He rushed forward, wrestling Graeme Knott to the ground, muddying up his nice suit. The Mayor took a step towards the struggling pair. He said, ‘Don’t mishandle Mr Knott like that, he’s a very important man!’ He put his hands on Dave Fisher’s shoulders and pulled hard, tearing the collar of his jacket.
This snapped the crowd like an elastic band. They poured forward through the smoke of the burning pyre.
It all escalated rather quickly after that.
When the smoke finally cleared and the flames were finally doused, the villagers saw something amazing; the splintered remains of the bandstand. The crushed ground around it, where the box had previously stood, was now clear. The box had disappeared.
A few were desultorily attempting to clean up the site, hacking away at the steaming charred pyre. A few blackened bones could be seen poking through the detritus here and there. Dave Fisher and his mate Gav Barnes stood watching.
‘Well, that sorry mess is all over,’ said Dave.
‘What d’yer reckon we’ll do now?’ asked Gav, scratching his balding head.
Dave watched as two men pulled down a section of the pyre, bringing with it a clatter of bones.
‘Reckon we’ll need a new Mayor first,’ he said. ‘P’raps a new Reverend, too.’
The two lads laughed.
Michael Green was first to arrive at Little Dever Cricket Club – the club captain was always first, ready for practice. As he parked up, he saw that there wasn’t going to be any practice today.
The grand old pavilion of Little Dever Cricket Club was gone, only splinters and shattered glass remaining. In its place, where the pavilion had stood for one hundred and thirty eight years, was a large black box, thirty feet tall and the colour of midnight; a smooth matte black, all the way around.