Harry Willaston first saw the box on a Monday morning.
He opened the bedroom curtains, letting the grey winter light pull itself wearily over the stained, rumpled sheets of the bed, the carelessly thrown clothes and unsealed bin-bags on the floor, the small wicker bin overflowing with empty beer cans, each one crushed angrily before being dropped. The fog and confusion of last night’s alcohol slowed his thoughts and reactions, so it was several long, squinting seconds before the trailer parked in the driveway across the road finally drew his attention.
And on the trailer, the box.
Wood, with the dark stain of creosote. Nothing special in that. It looked like the kind of wood you could buy at the local DIY shop. Not that Harry had done much DIY, other than laying the new concrete floor in the basement. That was one of the complaints Mary had usually thrown at him, often accompanied by a plate, a half-full can of beer or, on one memorable evening, a kitchen knife. He absent-mindedly fingered the scar on his right elbow where the knife had gouged a path in passing. She would have criticised the basement floor too, if she were still there to notice it. So, the wood was not worthy of note. But the size, the shape… Rectangular, over six feet in length. The more he looked, the more he saw it as one thing and one thing only.
He stepped back, unnerved by the thought. A rough tongue licked over dry lips. The couple across the road were new, moved in after Mary had gone, after he had withdrawn into his own squalor and self-pity. He had never spoken to them, did not even know their names. He certainly could not walk over there and ask why they had a coffin in their driveway.
He pulled on the underpants and jeans he had taken off last night, thought about changing the t-shirt he had slept in, decided against it, and wearily stomped down the stairs to find some breakfast and his morning can of beer.
He began feeling better after gulping down a few mouthfuls of cold Budweiser and, after checking for green mould, he threw two slices of bread into the toaster.
There was a smell in the house, an unpleasant odour not completely hidden by the more acceptable smells of stale beer and toasting bread. It had been there for some weeks now, but only on the very edge of his senses. Lately it had seemed more prominent, impossible to ignore.
He blamed Mary for the smell. He blamed her for most of the problems in his life. Even so, he missed her, in his own way. There were times when he broke down and cried, wishing she could come back to him. But it was no use. He had to accept she was never coming back.
Not unless she could claw her way through three inches of concrete floor with dead hands.
Harry sat at the table, staring out of the window, watching the police car drift slowly by. He waited for the knot of fear in his stomach to ease. Every time one drove past he expected it to stop at his door.
He was certain no one suspected, that everyone had believed his story of how Mary had left him in the middle of the night. After all, they all knew how violent she could be, and how she was always threatening to leave. All his neighbours were sympathetic, and neither he nor Mary had any family to ask awkward questions.
Still, the coffin across the street did not exactly help his frame of mind.
He knew he shouldn’t call it a coffin. It was a box. It was the wrong wood for a coffin, the wrong shape too. Also, now he looked closer, he had never seen a coffin with a heavy padlock hanging from a metal latch at the side. He knew all this, but he couldn’t help it. His first impression had been of a coffin, and that was what it would remain in his mind.
Not for the first time that day he wondered what might be inside it. Then he thought about what could be inside it, if he was clever.
It was time he faced the outside world again. It was time he said ‘hello’ to the new neighbours.
“Hi, my name’s Harry.”
He had bathed, found fresh underwear, fresh clothes from the depths of his drawers. He smiled. He held out a welcoming hand.
The man who had opened the door said nothing. He did not smile. He did not shake Harry’s offered hand. If anything, Harry thought he looked confused, perhaps a little frightened.
Harry turned the unshaken hand and pointed towards his own house.
“I’m from across the road. Sorry I haven’t been over sooner, but I’ve not been well.”
The man, in his mid 60’s Harry guessed, with thinning grey hair and a frail, almost emaciated body, followed the pointing finger and a sudden, relieved smile cracked the weathered wrinkles of his face.
“Nice to meet you….”
“Come in, Harry. I’m George. My wife will be pleased to see you. We haven’t really met many of the neighbours yet.”
Harry followed George as he led him into a dimly lit living room that smelled of old cabbage and gathering dust. Heavy curtains were pulled tight over the bay window, blocking all but a thin sliver of daylight that jabbed, finger-like, across the dull red carpet. The only other light in the room came from a small table lamp in one corner.
“Sylvia will be through in a minute.” George sat himself in an armchair next to the lamp. “Sit down, sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Harry felt his way to a second armchair and sat. He could feel the springs through the seat cushion.
“Yes, a cup of tea would be nice.”
Sylvia was as old and frail as George, but she nevertheless insisted on making a pot of tea and carrying a tray of teacups into the room. The tea itself was grey and tasteless and Harry declined further cups after the first one.
When he finally left the Carpenter’s house, he knew they came from Birmingham and had a grown-up daughter, named Jackie, who had gone out to Africa on Mission work. He was no wiser as to the contents or eventual destination of the coffin, the box, in front of their house, but he had not expected to find that out on his first visit.
It took him almost two weeks.
By that time, he felt the smell in his house had permeated every room, every piece of furniture. He no longer answered the door to anyone, afraid the stench was too obvious. He began to not only watch passing police cars carefully, but also to hide behind a chair, just in case they glanced in his window.
In contrast, the smell in George and Sylvia’s house was almost pleasant.
When he dropped the subject of the box almost casually into the conversation during one of his many visits, George answered without hesitation.
“Oh that’s got some old stuff of Jackie’s in there. When we moved here we knew there wouldn’t be room to store all the stuff she left behind, so we packed it in the box and locked it up. It’s being taken to a long-term storage depot next week, until she collects it.”
” We keep the key by the front door just in case,” said Sylvia, “but we’ve never needed to use it. Everything’s safely packed away.”
Harry nodded and said no more about it. Inside, his mind raced back and forth in panic, in turmoil. Next week! He didn’t have much time.
For once, Harry’s lack of DIY skills were in his favour. The concrete of the basement floor was flaky and loose. Easy to dig up. In fact, the whole job went smoother than he had expected. The rusty pickaxe and spade made short work of the poorly mixed concrete, the handkerchief that was his mask, sprayed liberally with air freshener, managed to disguise some of the clinging, sweet sickly smell of decomposition and he only threw-up three times during the exhumation and once while scraping the remains into the plastic bags he had, as an afterthought, brought down from the kitchen.
He stood, hand to mouth, trying to hold back a fifth rising of acid bile, and surveyed his work. The concrete would have to be re-laid. That could wait. The vomit would need to be cleaned. Messy but not difficult. He smiled, relaxed, realised his mistake too late and added to the mess.
Mary dripped as he hauled the two black sacks up the cellar steps. A dark, slimy trail followed as he dragged them through the hallway to the front door. They brought the full strength of the smell with them, but he thought he could live with it for the short time they would be there.
He slipped the padlock key off the hook by the door during his next visit to George and Sylvia’s, easily distracting them as he was about to leave. He felt confident he would be able to return it before they realised it was missing.
He just had to be patient until he was certain most of the street would be asleep. It was an old person’s neighbourhood. He didn’t think he’d have to wait too long.
It took until then for him to be sure all movement in the street and houses had stopped. He was tired. He had drunk more coffee in the last hour than in the previous week.
He could wait no longer.
He checked himself in the hall mirror. Black trousers, black shoes, black sweatshirt. He pulled on a black woolly hat and sneered at himself. He looked like a middle-aged ninja, but he felt it should be easier to hide in the shadows dressed this way.
He pulled open the front door and sighed, looking out onto the street, bathed in the orange glow from the new streetlamps. The old ones had barely lit the base of their own concrete posts, but these new ones, installed only last month, shone out from the top of their slender metal poles and pushed away all but the smallest and most stubborn of shadows.
He had no choice.
Hesitantly, feeling exposed and vulnerable in the artificial light, he walked down his path to his gate and scanned the area. Everywhere was quiet except for the rumble of traffic carried from the out-of-sight main road, sounding closer than it did during the day.
Satisfied, pressing a hand to his stomach to stop the nervous twisting and sickness that grumbled, he hurried back to his open door and grabbed the two sacks in black-gloved fists.
He dragged them, glaring at the shining trail they left, knowing he would have to clean the path early next morning. It couldn’t be helped. He did not want to make two journeys across the road.
He tried to lift the bags, but the way the plastic pulled made him afraid it would tear. Dragging was the only way, dragging and hoping there was nothing on the road to snag and rip the thin barrier between his wife and the rest of the world.
He was more than halfway across when he heard the clink, the rattle, and the gentle electric purring.
A milkman? At this time?
With grim determination, and forcing down the fear that threatened to push whatever was in his stomach out into the world again, he pulled harder at the sacks, moving faster as he neared the far pavement.
One of the bags resisted. He pulled. He heard the soft rip of plastic. A blackened, decomposed hand slid through the gash torn by a small nail on the road. Harry could have sworn the middle finger was raised in his direction.
Muttering curses under his breath, Harry reached down, flicked the nail away and tried to push the hand back into the bag. After three attempts, and many more frightened looks towards the distant sound of rattling milk bottles, he conceded defeat and returned to dragging. He was almost there now. One dead hand scraping over the road, the pavement, leaving rotten scraps of flesh and bone on the paving slabs, did not matter in the greater plan.
He had made it. He had reached the box, the coffin. He grinned with more than a little relief, and a touch of desperation. It really would be a coffin soon.
He fumbled in his pocket for the padlock key. Gloved fingers were too clumsy, too thick to grasp it. Shaking with fear and an immense adrenalin rush, he tugged off the gloves, threw them to the ground, and pulled out the key.
How hard could it be to fit a key into a lock?
Harry began to wonder if he had the right one as it scraped, stabbed and scratched the padlock before, finally, slipping home. He turned it. The padlock snapped open.
Movement. A shadow, seen from the corner of his eye.
He stopped, his heart beating so loud he felt sure it could be heard in the nearby houses. He had seen something in the bushes at the far end of the Carpenter’s small front garden. He stared for a moment. Everything was still.
He had no time to stand around. He had to finish the job. It had probably been a cat or a mouse anyway.
He slid the padlock free, wincing at the rattling, scraping noise it made, and put it in his pocket. Couldn’t afford to forget to lock everything up again afterwards.
He lifted the latch, ready to open the box that would soon become the last resting place of his not-so-dear departed wife.
He smiled. This was going to work. He was going to get away with it.
He pushed the lid back, gasping and coughing at the sudden onrush of smells. Musty, spicy, earthy smells. He had expected to find bits and pieces, boxes, bags, inside. He had not expected to find a body.
He stared. He gagged.
The corpse was bound in dead, brown vines and creepers. It was naked, no sign of decomposition. In fact, it was almost pink, marred by deep red gashes that slashed across the legs, the belly, the breasts. It was a woman, Harry regained enough composure to notice that, but then he saw the eyes and had to look away.
The eyes had been ripped out, the scars of the blade used still evident on the face, and in their place two grey stones, marked with strange symbols in deep red/brown. Blood!
Harry staggered backwards as, with a cracking and grinding, the mouth of the corpse moved, breathing one word out into the night air.
Something slammed into the back of Harry’s head and the orange streetlamp glow faded to black.
Harry woke to the rattling of spoons in cups and the unmistakeable odour of freshly brewed tea. Grey tea. He needed no other clues to know, even through the pounding of his head, exactly where he was.
“Ah, Harry. I’m glad you’re awake.”
George’s voice, calm and steady, as if Harry had called round for a chat and dozed off in the armchair.
“I’m sorry I had to hit you so hard,” said Sylvia. Frail and withered Sylvia, who had hit him over the back of the head with… something hard.
“If you’d struggled I wasn’t sure I’d be able to restrain you. And George was busy inside, getting everything ready.”
Harry opened his eyes, slowly. The Carpenter’s living room was, as always, dark, and for once he was grateful for it. His head pounded harder as he tried to focus. George and Sylvia sat on the settee, sipping tea and smiling amiably.
These people are mad, thought Harry. They had a body in the box. No, not a box. A coffin. He had been right. It was a coffin.
“The body…” His voice croaked, broke. His throat felt dry and he coughed, painfully.
“Yours or ours dear?” asked Sylvia, the barest trace of amusement in that old voice.
“Mine?” Mary. Oh shit. He’d forgotten about Mary.
“We opened the bags Harry,” said George, shaking his head sadly. “Very messy. We were never formally introduced, but I’m guessing that was your wife?”
“I’m sure she was a very nice lady,” sighed Sylvia. “Not deserving such a gruesome end. Was she pretty? Difficult for us to tell, given the circumstances.”
“Don’t worry, we’ve put her somewhere safe.”
Don’t worry? Somewhere safe? But they were hardly about to call the police were they? Not with their own body hidden away.
The dead body that talked.
No. He had been in shock, surprised by his discovery. It had just been his imagination. Dead bodies did not talk.
Perhaps he could talk his way out of this? They were mad, but they were as guilty as he was.
He tried to sound calm, reasonable, as he cleared his dry throat and began to talk.
“I forgive you for the bump on the head Sylvia.” Like hell you bitch! “I understand, you couldn’t take any chances. But now, you see, I’m in the same fix as you. We’ve all got… things we’d like to be rid of. Surely we can come to some arrangement?”
As he spoke he carefully moved his arms, his legs. He wasn’t really surprised to find he was tied to the chair
“Fix?” George looked puzzled for a moment, and he and Sylvia looked at each other as if, together, they could work out what Harry meant.
“The body in the coffin? I mean, the box, in your driveway?” Harry could not believe they didn’t understand.
“Oh, you mean Jackie? You think…” George laughed. “You think we killed her?”
Sylvia shook her head.
“We would never kill our daughter Harry. We brought her back from Africa like that. She was cursed.”
“A local witch doctor didn’t approve of her missionary work. They had a… disagreement. They tortured her, Harry. Said she was possessed. Then this curse was put on her.”
“But she’s not dead.” Sylvia smiled. “Not really. We’ve just been waiting for a replacement. It’s the only way the curse can be broken. Someone had to break into her resting place of his own free will, someone deserving.”
“You, Harry. You are perfect.”
Perfect? Replacement? It began to dawn on Harry what they were suggesting. That he should lie in that coffin in their daughter’s place.
“You’re even crazier than I thought.”
He struggled against the ropes, tugged and twisted until the cord had scraped away the skin on his wrists and his shoulders ached with the effort.
“Let… me… go.”
With a final, supreme effort, he gave up. The knots would not loosen. The ropes were too tough to break. He slumped in the chair, his brain working furiously. There had to be a way out. He couldn’t be beaten by two old age pensioners.
George and Sylvia had watched his struggles with amusement, and now Sylvia placed an affectionate hand on her husband’s arm.
“George was in the boy scouts dear,” she said to Harry. “He prides himself on his knots.”
George smiled and pushed himself, with some effort, off the settee, walking slowly across the room to stand behind Harry.
Harry twisted in his seat, strained with his neck to see what was happening. What was the old man doing behind there?
Before he could get an answer, he saw Sylvia also standing, even slower than George had. He turned his head back to face her. His throat hurt. His mouth was dry. He licked his lips nervously.
“What are you going to do?”
“Don’t worry Harry,” said George from behind him. “It’ll all be over soon.”
“There’s someone here who’d like to meet you.” Sylvia lifted a gnarled hand towards the dark shadows in the corner of the room. “She has something for you.”
Something moved out of the darkness, shuffling, unsteady, a trail of vines and creepers slithering on the floor behind it.
“Oh God. No!”
Harry tried to move backwards, away from the figure, but the chair would not give. He had nowhere to go.
It was the woman from the box, the coffin. The old couple’s daughter.
Not quite dead.
Harry found his eyes drawn to the face. He fought against it. He had no wish to see that sight again, but his brain would not obey. As she moved closer, her face came out of the shadows. He looked into black holes where the eyes should be, where the stones had been earlier. Deeper and darker than should be possible. He could not tear his gaze from that blackness.
She lifted her arms towards him, palms upwards. And in her palms, the two inscribed stones she had pulled from her eye sockets.
“She’s taken them out especially for you, Harry.” Sylvia smiled, a heady mixture of pride and joy brightening her lined face, lifting years from her leathery skin.
George grabbed his head from behind, holding it firmly, much more firmly than a man of his age should be able to. Harry struggled but could not move.
“Now, all we have to do is prepare you to receive her gift,” whispered George in an almost reverential tone.
Harry finally lost all control of his body, his mind, as old Mrs Carpenter, Sylvia, the gentle old lady across the road who served grey, tasteless tea and could barely carry the tray, reached into the pocket of her fraying cardigan and pulled out a small knife.
He urinated, defecated, and, in all probability, screamed as the tip of the blade gouged out first one eye and then the other.
He was not conscious as the stones were set in place, the words said, the ceremony performed.
Two days later, local residents watched from behind twitching curtains as Mr and Mrs Carpenter prepared to leave. The moving van had already gone, the house now empty and bare. No one had got to know them that well during their short stay, but those who knew a little were glad to see their daughter getting into the car with them. It was nice that she was back with her parents.
The car pulled out of the drive and moved slowly through the narrow roads, pulling a trailer behind it. And on that trailer, a box. Wooden. Rectangular. Padlocked.
Harry Willaston travelled silently with the Carpenters towards their new home, not quite dead, not quite alive. Red hot agony where his eyes had once been. Crawling, itching restlessness in a body that would not move.
And on his feet, two black sacks, oozing and moist. One decaying hand protruding from the rip. One blackened finger raised in final salute.