Contest #124 shortlist ⭐️

11 comments

Horror Speculative

This story contains sensitive content

(CW: brief allusion to child abuse)


The Box is as ordinary as anything. It has six faces, eight corners, and twelve edges, not counting the lid. For now it is wrapped in a perfectly pleasant shade of puce and bedecked with a bold bronze bow. Like all gifts, the Box is at once giving and taking, at once known and unknown, but it is not scary. It has no lips to grimace or grin with; it cannot grumble, or growl, or lash out and grab with grubby little hands. It is ordinary: it can open, and it can shut. The only thing is, it really ought to remain shut.


This is what little Ava reminds herself in the brief penumbra between scattered dreams and the blurry bleakness that greets her when she wakes. Between her and the Box are several thick, stalwart walls and a pair of doors, the nearest of which is thrice locked. This is what is safe, and safe is what is good. Her father taught her that.


The girl swings her legs over the edge of the bed, wriggles her nose, and lithely tiptoes over soft pine to the attached bathroom. Scant light leaking through the porthole window casts a narrow cone of slate gray—just enough light that Ava can see herself reflected drearily in the cabinet mirror above the sink. 


The same as every morning, she runs her hands over her body to make sure that nothing has changed. One cozy hand-knit sweater, every thread in its place. Ten fingers, ten toes, and one nose. Lastly, the cold kiss of metal at her chest assures her that the key is safe.


Next, Ava pats her head gingerly and frowns. Her hair is much too dark, and barely any longer than a boy’s. No matter what she does, much of her pathetic mane seems to float and quiver around her, snootily, contemptuously, like a thick cloud hanging over a town that’s desperate for rain. Perhaps she could tame it if she lit a candle and worked it all over in the mirror, but not for any longer than the next sleep. This is simply not worth the effort, and anyway, Ava does not have very many candles to spare.


The bedroom would be pitch black if not for the little light that follows Ava out of the bathroom. From memory alone, she is able to avoid the little hazards—toys and discarded fabrics, mainly—and hop up into her tea chair. Before her is a small table monopolized by her knitting project of the moment, as well as another chair, a match for her own. This one is reserved for Mr. Quimble, her stuffed friend. Ava would not know he is present if not for his eyes, two glossy black spheres faintly shimmering in the dark.


“How are we this morning, Mr. Quimble?”


A silence speaks volumes. Mr. Quimble, of course, does not reply, but the situation is graver than that. The old house does not settle; the wind does not whistle through the trees outside; and, apart from Ava’s heartbeat and careful breath, no sign of life makes itself known.


“Oh,” she says, smirking. “There’s no need to be so dramatic.”


More silence.


“You know, Mr. Quimble, one mustn’t be a grump on Christmas Eve. Santa won’t come for bitter children, will he? No, he won’t. Nobody will. So be good, alright? Be happy.”


It is only a short while later, as she is knitting herself a new sock from old blanket scraps, that Ava hears it: a brand new sound, or at least one she’s forgotten. Distant, insistent… could it be… a knock at the front door?


“Yes… no, I know. You are probably right, Mr. Quimble. But what if it is a new friend?”


Ava reaches into a shoebox beneath her bed and retrieves one of two remaining candles. She lights it with the first match from her last book of matches. The vibrant orange hue of the flame is the first true color she has seen in a long while, and it coaxes the colors out of her surroundings. For so long now she has been imagining the objects in this room in various shades of gray, the color palette of the pale, dark-haired girl she sees in the mirror. She wants desperately to put the flame to every nook and cranny, to see familiar things for the first time, but the wick is burning, and it won’t grow back. She has to move on.


The knocking at the front door does not cease.


Click. Click. Click. Three distinct locks vanquished by a single key: the one hanging heavy from Ava’s neck. A pendant, or a shackle.


Through the door, leaving Mr. Quimble behind. Down the hall, dark as can be. Through another door, down a flight of stairs, and into the living room, which is touched with the same slate gray found in the bathroom. It enters this space through a skylight devoid of stars. Against the far window is a Christmas tree decked in ornaments and tinsel but lacking lights. Beneath the tree are many gifts. Only one is the Box.


Come, Pandora, it hisses. Give me the key and be free.


Ava does not look. She continues toward the door, thinking It is ordinary. It has six faces, eight corners, and twelve edges. It ought to remain shut.


As Ava draws near to the door, the insistent knocking is gradually replaced by sporadic, heavy impacts, like someone throwing themselves at the door. She places her hand against the wood and feels the reverberations travel from her fingertips to her shoulder blades.


“Who is it?” she asks. Indeed, at this moment, there is no better question. Is it a friend? Or a monster? 


The thumping stops where a man’s voice begins. “It’s me,” the man pants. “I’ve traveled a very long way.”


“Papa?”


“Yes, sweetheart.”


“What do you want?” Ava asks, furrowing her brow. She pulls her key out from under her sweater and places the eye of it to her lips. “Truth.


“I want to tell you I’m sorry, and I want you to let me in.”


“Then what?”


A silence speaks volumes. He hasn’t got anything nice to say, so he won’t say anything at all.


Even if the thing on the other side of the door is what it claims to be; even if she could forgive him like she so badly wants to; she cannot let him in. She must ferociously protect herself and all that she holds dear, and she must always be vigilant of the wolf in sheep's clothing. Her father taught her that, in the worst of ways.


She puts the key to her lips again. “What are you sorry for? Truth.


“Betrayal,” says the man. “Ultimate, unforgivable betrayal. I should rather die than speak of it in detail. Please, do not make me.”


It is a normal door. Six faces, eight corners, twelve edges… only one lock. One lock is not enough to stop papa when his eyes get dark. There ought to be three, or as many as the door can hold. There ought to be a wall instead. Walls on all sides, walls within walls, boxes within boxes until it’s too much to bother with.


“I am angry with you,” Ava says, as evenly as she can manage.


“I know.”


Some search restlessly for the key that will fit the hole inside them. There is no such key; there is a dagger in disguise.


“You’ll try to open the Box,” Ava says. “Truth.


“I will. Partly because doing so might get you out of there. Let me help. I need you to let me help, okay? You don’t understand, Ava… I cannot live with the guilt of what I’ve done.”


The key is ice cold against her lips. “Then don’t.


Choking. Gasping. Nails running down oak. Thump. As the other side of the door falls silent, Ava begins to sob. She should not weep for this man, and she isn’t. She is weeping for the person she used to think he was, and for the person she could have been.


Come, Pandora, hisses the Box. Give me the key and be free.


Before she knows it, Ava is across the room, sitting before the Box, holding the key still in the lock. Welling tears cause her vision to blur in and out, but the Box is always clear. It is not wrapped in puce, or topped with a bronze bow. It is true black, blacker than closed eyes in a dark room, so black that it seems to absorb color from the air around it. It has an uncountable number of corners and edges, but only one face: the face which whispers, Turn the key, Pandora. I will take care of the rest. This will all be over soon.


Just as Ava is about to submit, she spots two glossy black spheres hovering beside her, faintly shimmering.


“Yes," she says. "I know. You’re right. I’m sorry.”


She withdraws the key and tucks it back beneath her sweater.


A friend or a monster? Giving or taking? Like a gift, like the Box, she is both. A guardian, and a menace to the seekers of the treasure she protects. It would be easy to surrender to the Box, to wash her hands of the responsibility. But this would be no salvation.


The name, Ava, was given to her by her father. Nobody else will remember it but her, because it is no longer tied to anything real. She is not Ava, she is… something else.


She will continue to live here, at the heart of her labyrinth, as both prisoner and warden. It will always be Christmas Eve, and she will always be alone, with the exception of Mr. Quimble. That is what is safe, and safe is what is good. As long as her eyes are open, the Box will remain shut.

December 18, 2021 00:33

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11 comments

Jon Casper
02:24 Dec 19, 2021

Moving story. What a powerful way of expressing that kind of damage. The prose is beautiful, e.g.: "The vibrant orange hue of the flame is the first true color she has seen in a long while, and it coaxes the colors out of her surroundings." Rich and evocative. Another remarkable piece, A.G.

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16:32 Dec 24, 2021

CONGRATULATIONS on the shortlist -- well deserved! This must have been grueling for you to write. You infused every word with such depth and emotion. The mythological allusions worked seamlessly and added even more rich layers to this. I'm a huge fan. Well done, sir.

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Shea West
15:04 Dec 24, 2021

Congrats on your shortlist A.G!

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K. Antonio
15:30 Dec 24, 2021

WOOHOOO!

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Zelda C. Thorne
17:38 Dec 23, 2021

Well, I'm thoroughly disturbed. Very creepy, kept me wondering, pulling me along. Great sense of dread. Beautiful prose, as always.

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Ruby Seniva
00:56 Dec 23, 2021

Good job capturing the complexity of the box. I enjoyed the writing.

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Anna Nonymous
18:22 Jan 12, 2022

I loved this, A.G.! Don't precocious children (or something elses) make the very best horror protagonists? You did such a wonderful job creating a fundamentally unthreatening but deeply unsettling scene - even the name Mr. Quimble doesn't seem wholly innocuous, does it? My very favorite line was when you described the box as not being scary - having "no lips to grimace or grin with". Well done!

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Sharon Harris
12:56 Dec 29, 2021

Beautiful, sad, evocative, menacing and above all, amazing. Superbly written, I was taken into the house and locked in with Ava…

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Amanda Lieser
23:19 Dec 28, 2021

EXCEPTIONAL as always! You did an incredible job of creating a play on the age old story. I loved how you also wove in the environment your MC was living in. And the way you captured her spirit as she talks with Mr. Quimble. My heart broke for Ava and I instantly wanted a sequel to this story. Thank you so much for writing it and congratulations on getting shortlisted!

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Wilma Segeren
13:19 Dec 27, 2021

Great story. Riveting.

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Fatima Jawaid
05:26 Dec 25, 2021

This was a brilliant piece, the prose made the world come to life. Well done!

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