The Box
© 1997
by Walter Eugene Lane

And he said unto me, Son of man,

can these bones live? And I answered,

O Lord GOD, thou knowest. Ezekiel 37:3.


The vines clinging to the corner of the mausoleum brushed the back of his fingers like cold earthworms crawling against his skin. Harry jerked his hand away and pressed his shoulder against the corner. He leaned forward and peeked around. His head swayed wearily.

A full, yellow moon shone from the east onto the acres that stretched to the distant front gate. The bright orb tinted the rolling meadows a pale green. Headstones solid and crumbling, tombs of granite and brick cast square moon-shadows. Lonely shades like the shadows of death Harry had heard about in the Bible. All that moved were the tree limbs and summer leaves rustling in a light breeze.

Harry stopped panting and listened for shouts of men hunting him or yapping of dogs that might be leading them. But all he heard were crickets loudly singing in the distance and a faint breeze whispering in his ear.

He smiled, congratulating himself on his escape. The smile slipped immediately away. If he were caught they wouldn't bother with a trial this time. He'd just be shot and dumped somewhere, dead as the dead surrounding him. Stumbling half a mile ankle deep through a stream seemed to have worked. The dogs had failed to pick up his scent. Running and hiding all day, he finally came weaving out of the tree line and saw the rear brick wall of the cemetery. He barely had enough strength left to struggle over it.

Okay now to relax, he leaned against the cool granite of the mausoleum and closed his eyes. Instantly he saw The Box again, the coffin-sized torture cell that sat in the prison yard. Solitary had been torment enough. Sitting days alone, hidden away in the bottom of the prison like some dirty secret was torture. To be trapped in the dark with only your thoughts to keep you company was like some kind of self-cannibalism. His hard eyes opened. He glared unfocused as he recalled how the morning light had stung them as they dragged him from solitary confinement into the sun-baked yard. They may have intended on sticking him inside The Box to roast like a thanksgiving turkey but Harry Mayfield had other ideas. Enough had been enough.

***

The two guards clutching Harry cursed loudly when he snatched his arms free. They realized they'd been careless not to have used the irons and very stupid to fall for his feigned weakness. When he grabbed Beaumont by the throat and threatened to snap his neck if they didn't release him, they knew he meant it. Snapping a man's neck, killing him instantly, was what he was in for. Not giving the other guards time to think or react, he dragged his whimpering captive to the gate and ordered it opened immediately. Harry's reputation meant any stall tactics would only get Beaumont killed; his chances of living were slim as it was. The gate had opened just a couple of feet when he began dragging the guard outside, his powerful hand at his throat all the while.

***

Harry blinked and looked down at the headstone squatting to his left. He read aloud the name Elizabeth Charleton Fuller that was chiseled over the dates 1889, the year she was born, and 1935 the year she died, just last year.

“'Scuse me, Miss Fuller. Mind if I have a seat?” He chuckled as he stepped over to the headstone and sat down like it was a park bench. He looked at the grave and wondered if perhaps Miss Fuller had ever been the subject of a manhunt. He grinned and thought probably not. This wasn't the prison bone-yard. This quiet cemetery seemed like the kind of place where nice, decent folks got buried—the kind that made the laws, sat on juries and judges' benches to put away hard-cases like him. He looked over the cemetery once more, and his eyes widened. He realized he'd never been in one at night before. He chuckled again. “Still better'n solitary.”

He rubbed his hand over his tired face and pushed himself to his feet. He stepped around the mausoleum and stood before the heavy, black oak door. He stared bleary-eyed at it a moment and considered taking shelter there. But he shook his head. If this was the only way in he didn't want to get cornered in there.

Harry looked to his left and his eyes narrowed at a low-built wooden structure sitting far back of the mausoleum. The building puzzled him, quite sure it was certainly not a chicken coop in a graveyard. He thought it might be some kind of tool shed, perhaps to store the cemetery maintenance equipment. He looked over the four windows on the side of the shed and thought if the guards did go in there he could at least make a break for it through one of them.

He bowed a stately farewell toward Elizabeth Fuller and then began trudging toward the structure, stepping over graves without any superstitious misgivings. The dead were not frightening while there were armed, living men hunting him. The summer breeze caressed his weary face and the flowers standing in the well cut grass sweetly scented the air. He thought if he were not so tired he might actually enjoy his nocturnal visit. Stepping into a large square of bricks set in the ground, he noticed many of headstones shared the same name, Beaumont. He grinned and wondered if they would bury his former hostage here after they found the body.

His prison overalls stopped rustling as he came to a halt in front of the wooden building. He stared at the inscription neatly stenciled in bold letters in the top panel of the door: OSSUARIUM. Although he was pretty well read for a career convict—many hours spent in the prison library trying to stave off the crushing boredom—the Latin puzzled him.

He stepped to the door and planted his hand against the center panel. Harry pushed it open, stepped over the threshold and coughed into his fist. The dry, stale air hinted the shed had not been entered in a very long while. The cricket song came to an abrupt halt and he whirled around. In a moment he sighed with relief; no one was approaching. Aside from being stale the air was fine, but decidedly warmer than the air outside.

Moonlight struggled through the dusty windows of the east wall and shone through the doorway behind him. Still it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. The building was one big room filled with boxes. They were scattered over the floor and stacked unevenly on each other two and three high. There must have been nearly thirty of them, each chest about half the length of a casket. In the light shining from behind he could distinguish the nearby boxes made of cheap pine from others of expensive cherry or oak. He stepped further inside and allowed the door to creak shut behind him.

After he approached a nearby box sitting atop a stack of two, he slowly began rubbing his hand over the side. The polished oak felt like wooden silk. There were letters carved into it. He thought he could have made them out if he tried, but he just wanted to get a look inside to find perhaps a change of clothes or something worth stealing. He pushed the lid back, leaned over, and jumped back from the skeleton resting inside, its knees pulled up to the ribs.

He shook his head and looked over the boxes again. With all the acres outside, many still untouched, why were they using bone boxes here? He'd read that in some of the cramped European and Asian cemeteries it was sometimes necessary to disinter the long dead and move the bones for storage elsewhere. But certainly not here! Maybe they were left over from many years ago when such boxes may have been needed. Or perhaps they were moved here from a private estate that had been torn down. Harry wasn't sure.

He shrugged and looked again at the skull tilting back from the ribcage. “Hey, buddy! Wha'cha in for? Indecent exposure?” But his smile slipped away. The black sockets staring widely back at him, the jaw hanging opened in a wild grin, it seemed the skull was almost happy to see him. He rubbed his face again. “Boy! I am tired!

Harry stepped into the crooked, center aisle formed by the boxes stacked on either side of the large room. Walking slowly, hoping to find a good spot to take cover, he looked around at the bare, plank walls of the shed, studs exposed, and the naked joists overhead. There were no nooks or crannies anywhere to hide and sleep.

He stepped further down the aisle, looking for a spot among the boxes themselves and came to an abrupt halt. Harry hissed through his clenched teeth and glared at his throbbing foot. There was a box, the corner protruding into the aisle. He raised his foot and stumbled against the stack to his right. The lid of the top box came ajar. The skeleton inside was shaking. He stared at it a moment then snapped the lid back in place. Leaning on the box he waited for the pain to subside.

Looking down at his foot, he noticed an ebony container about the size of a jewel box sitting on top of the box he'd just kicked. It had a curved lid and its brass fittings dimly glinted in the pale light. He lifted the lid and in the gloom he could just make out a rounded object nestled inside. He shook his foot to get the blood flowing and started to pick up the object. He froze at hearing something creak in the room. He listened another moment and heard nothing else.

Grabbing the object, he held it close to his face and stared into the empty eyes of a dark, misshapen skull, small enough to snuggle into his palm. For a moment he thought it was the gloom that made it seem so dark, but holding it over his head in the slightly better light, he could make out that it had been painted black inside and out. Turning the skull over and around he wondered why anyone would want to paint a skull black. Then he recalled the conversations he'd had years ago with a Cajun inmate who had told him some things about Voodoo and the various objects the practitioners used in making a talisman—even the skull of an infant. In this case they seemed to have gotten one who had never even been born. He grimaced, put it back in the box and snapped shut the lid.

A shifting came from the front of the room. Harry spun around and glared at a skeleton sitting up in the box in the corner. He focused on it for many long seconds until he realized it wasn't really sitting up at all. It was simply leaning out of its box against the corner. He looked at the door and again at the skeleton. It of course had already been leaning against the wall when he entered the shed. The door had simply blocked his view when he walked in. He wondered why it was sticking out like that. His imagination showed him kids sneaking into the building, sliding back the lid, the initial shock giving way to laughter as they sat it up and ran away giggling.

He shook his head and glanced around the shed. “Old dump probably creaks all the time!”

He limped to the back of the room and found the dusty floor bare except for a few empty boxes, lids leaning against them. He yawned widely, so tired he was almost ready to fall asleep on his feet. He struggled to decide: The floor or a box? The floor was filthy. He looked at a box against the west wall near a window. Smiling grimly, he recalled the times he'd slept under far worse circumstances—like solitary.

Dust plumed from under his prison boots as he shuffled across the floor. He pulled the lid out of the way. It gritted against the box like a soft-shoe dancer pulling a step over sand. He laid the lid on the floor and rubbed the inside of the box. It was surprisingly clean, cleaner than the floor by far. The box creaked as he climbed inside. He squatted and it was so cramped he had to pull himself into a fetal position. He nestled his face against his folded arm, closed his eyes and breathed heavily...

In twilight sleep, he again heard that sandpaper sound of wood sliding against wood, repeated now in quick successions. He stirred uneasily as sharp knocks sounded from all over the room.

In a nightmare lids slid back from the boxes that had none on top. Skulls began rising like gruesome balloons. Bony elbows knocked against sides of boxes as arms pushed skeletons into sitting positions. The skeletons crawled out of the boxes and stood upright on the dusty floor. Harry’s eyes cracked slightly as the clacking grew louder. A shifting of what sounded like heavy objects being moved began. An image of bony feet marching his way, kicking up dust in their trail, filled his mind.

He tried to shake himself fully awake as the scuffling and tapping across the hard floor grew louder. A current of air suddenly moved over him immediately followed by a soft thump against the rim of the box. A thunderous bang over his head shook the box harshly and his eyes finally flew open. He threw himself upwards but the lid somehow had been put in place. It bulged once but was immediately sealed tight by a second bang that shook the bottom of the box.

Roaring curses, he thrashed madly. Whatever weight was holding the lid down kept the box firmly in place. He pounded his head and fists frantically against the interior of the box. In a few minutes however he became quieter as it got harder to breath. Lying still, he stared wide-eyed at the pitch darkness and panted harshly trying to get what air he could into his starving lungs. He closed his eyes and thought he could hear clacking noises once more, now moving away from him, followed by sharp knocks and wood sliding against wood.

Soon, he again felt very sleepy...

A Note from the author: This story is from my collection 'Bone Ugly and Other Tales of Terror' availabe HERE.