The box was so nondescript that its very plainness almost made it suspect. A light brown cardboard cube roughly the size of a basketball with a shipping label in one corner that was badly smudged, obscuring both the sender and the recipient; it had perfectly taped seams that stopped right at the ends of the flaps and there wasn’t a single dent, tear, scratch, scuff, or crumple anywhere on the surface. It looked more like a computer rendering of a box than the object itself.
Martin hadn’t the slightest clue what it was, but he received packages regularly enough that he wasn’t entirely surprised by it. Granted, he couldn’t recall having ordered anything that size, but it was possible that they’d consolidated a few items into a single shipment or had simply over-packaged the thing; he’d recently received a padded envelope in the mail with a cardboard insert the size of a magazine that held a USB storage device not much larger than his thumb.
He nudged the box with the tip of his boot and found that he was barely able to budge it.
Martin ran down the list of things in his head that he thought it might be and, even taken together, the whole lot couldn’t have weighed more than ten or fifteen pounds—nothing he could conceive of that would’ve been heavy enough to make it difficult to move.
“So open it already.” Martin muttered to himself, but a part of him hesitated. He didn’t like that he couldn’t come up with a match for it, and scrutinized the label again, trying to decipher the sender’s name or even his own address from the misshapen black squiggles, but it was completely illegible.
Maybe he could ask his mail carrier or have them inquire down at the post office, though he doubted that anyone would be able to come up with much with no order number or tracking information.
He nudged it again as if expecting it to suddenly be lighter, but it still felt like it was filled with lead. This was ridiculous. What did he think it was, a bomb? Anthrax? A severed head? Still, he eyed it warily, as if conveying his suspicions to the box before lugging it inside and placing it carefully on the kitchen counter.
Martin went to the kitchen and grabbed a pair of scissors from a drawer. He stood there, body hunched over the box, and stared down at it. A newspaper headline declaring, “Man Killed by Booby-Trapped Package from Anonymous Assailant” scrolled through his head. He put the scissors down on top of the kitchen island, then went and got a beer from the fridge and took a long swallow just to have something else to do with his hands.
As a child, he’d been prone to flights of fancy, a trait both his father and mother had discouraged. They’d sent him to see a psychologist at ten because he’d been distracted at school and neglecting his chores at home. The sessions had gone on for fifteen months until Martin finally forced himself to stop daydreaming and buckle down just to be rid of them. His current predicament constituted a major relapse that his parents would’ve no doubt disapproved of, though he supposed it didn’t matter seeing as how they’d both been dead for the better part of a decade.
But this wasn’t like him.
As an adult, he was rational by nature—orderly and analytical—which occasionally led to bouts of deep introspection that some might not consider entirely healthy.
Martin took another pull from his beer and began peeling the label from the perspiring bottle. When he finished his drink, then he’d open it.
He took another sip from the bottle and sat down on the ottoman in his living room. A prickling sensation began to spread across his back and then moved slowly out into his limbs until soon his whole body felt as if it had fallen asleep. The sides of his face were flush with heat, and he suddenly wanted this box to be gone from his house.
He drained the last dregs from the bottle and rinsed it out in the kitchen sink before tossing the empty into the recycling bin. He envisioned putting the package in the trunk of his car and leaving it in the middle of some forest preserve or heading out to the nearest body of water and letting it disappear into the depths, but quickly shook these fantasies away.
Martin picked up the scissors, opening them wide, and used the edge of one of the blades to slit the tape that ran along the top of the box from one end to the other. He opened the outer and inner flaps and removed a bulky piece of Styrofoam that secured the contents.
And the contents were . . .
He had absolutely no idea what he was looking at. The general shape of the thing was spherical, but several small fissures and chips pockmarked its surface. It most resembled a wrecking ball that had reached retirement age, but Martin didn’t think it was made of metal. The outside was reflective and appeared slick, like ice left to melt on a hot summer sidewalk, but dark, almost black in color, and it shone with flecks of both purple and green, depending on the angle.
Martin reached out to touch it, but then stopped himself. It could be contaminated or toxic. The word radioactive fluttered across his mind and he shuddered and tried not to think about it. He crossed the room and opened the cabinet under the kitchen sink. It took a bit of rummaging around before he finally found the gloves he used for scrubbing down pots and pans. The gloves were sturdy, made of thick, yellow rubber that felt reassuring the moment he slipped them on, though he had no idea if they’d actually protect him. Walking back to the living room seemed to take forever and Martin wondered with each step if he was making a mistake. He crouched down on his haunches in front of the box and slowly reached out one rubberized fingertip until it made contact with the object. The surface felt firm and when he pressed down a bit harder on it the exterior did not give in even the slightest degree. He removed his finger and examined the tip of the glove; there was no visible change to the lemon-colored neoprene that he could detect.
He straightened up and idly paced around the box several times before crouching back down for a second examination. This time he placed two fingers on the object and carefully slid them across its domed top. The gloved digits glided over the scarred surface like tracing the topography of some glittering obsidian globe. Next, he placed his whole palm on the object, letting it rest there for a while and then gently moving it back and forth in small sweeps like he was stroking the head of some elderly pet. He crossed one way and then the other, reaching down the sides to the parts still concealed by the box to see if they felt any different. He learned over and stretched his hand out until it touched the bottom of the cardboard and was working his way along the lower hemisphere of the object when his glove snagged.
Martin flinched and reflexively jerked his arm up, but the dish glove didn’t come with it. Before he’d fully comprehended what had happened, the heel of his left hand grazed the surface of the sphere—and that’s when it started screaming.
Technically, Martin didn’t know if it had begun screaming when he touched it, or if it had been screaming the entire time and he simply hadn’t heard it until he made bodily contact. The cries of pain coming from the object completely overloaded his senses but when he quickly removed his hand, the shrieking inside his skull ceased, much to his relief. A flurry of thoughts raced through his mind as he half-sat, half-stumbled into the easy chair in his living room. The unvarnished anguish coming from the thing in the box was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. It sounded more animal than human, the bleating terror of some tortured creature desperate for an end to its misery.
Martin didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t as if he could simply mark the parcel Return to Sender and wait for the postal carrier to pick it up. The thought of driving the thing out to the middle of nowhere and dumping it occurred to him, but he instantly rejected the idea. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to just abandon it and pretend like the whole thing hadn’t happened; he was involved now, whether he wanted to be or not, and he felt obligated to see this through.
He put his bare hand back on the sphere. The noise was as piercing as it had been the first time and he only managed to hang on for a few seconds longer before he had to stop. He sat down in the recliner with his forehead resting in his palms. The inside of his head ached from the aural assault, and it reminded him of a concert he’d attended a few months back; his ears had rung on and off for a week afterward because he’d accidentally forgotten to bring his . . .
Martin jumped out of the chair and rounded the corner to his home office. The lone drawer in his narrow desk was crammed full of work papers, instruction manuals, insurance forms, and other office bric-a-brac, and buried under all of it was a small, plastic tube. He popped it open and removed his earplugs. Martin placed one in each ear, pushing them in until they were snug. These were musician’s earplugs. They didn’t completely block out sound the way that regular plugs did, but they significantly dampened the highs and lows, bringing the overall volume down to safe levels to prevent hearing damage. Martin walked back over to the box and stared at the sphere. He wasn’t certain the plugs would work. The screaming hadn’t seemed to emanate from anywhere specific; if anything, it felt like it came from inside his own head.
Still, he had heard it, hadn’t he?
Martin lowered his hand and prepared for the onslaught, but what he experienced this time, though still quite loud, didn’t cause him to recoil. After a minute or so of listening, he noticed that the screams and howls seemed to form a pattern with certain sounds following others until the whole thing looped back around and began again. He closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to analyze the arrangement and discern any overarching structure to the cacophony of grief. Somewhere between the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh repetition, Martin noticed something. Buried beneath those layers of torment and suffering, he heard what sounded like someone speaking. It was very faint, riding along the undercurrents of everything else, but it was there.
He listened to the pattern over and over, each time picking up different bits of the voice in snatches of syllables and writing them down on the back of an old shipping invoice from work, though his job had never felt further away. He couldn’t imagine showing up Monday morning to his little cubby on the warehouse floor to check over the container weights on palettes of laundry detergent and peanut oil. The entire idea seemed completely alien to him now, as did every other mundane thing in his life that had previously been so important.
Even with the earplugs muffling the sound, Martin nearly leapt out of his skin when the phone rang behind him. He stood up and snatched the receiver from its charging cradle.
“Is this Martin Vallencourt?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you. My name is Mister Everett.”
“How can I help you, Mister Everett?”
“I’m actually hoping that I can help you, or more specifically, that we can help each other.”
“I’m not sure that I follow you.”
“I believe you received a package this afternoon?”
“Sure, I get stuff delivered all the time, just like everyone else.”
“Yes, of course, it’s a wonderful world of modern convenience we’re blessed to live in. However, in this instance, the delivery was made in error because the package that you received is mine.”
“Nothing’s come to my house with the name Everett on it.”
“It’s possible that’s true; I sometimes have things shipped using my business’s name rather than my own, but all the same, you did receive a piece of my property, and I’d like it back.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You opened it, didn’t you?”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“It’s alright Mister Vallencourt; I’m not angry. Curiosity is a perfectly natural reaction, and what’s in the box is certainly curious, isn’t it?”
Martin couldn’t reply at first; the only thing that came from his throat was a dry clicking sound. He swallowed twice and found his voice again. “What . . . what is it?”
“That’s a rather complicated question, and I am by nature a simple man, so my answer may be somewhat unsatisfying. The item inside the box is a vessel.”
“A vessel for what?”
“Anything you want. Well, anything with a soul anyway.”
“I understand your shock, but these things are actually a lot more common than most people realize.”
“So, the vessel in there—the one you’re saying has a soul—he told me his name was Eugene.”
“Yes sir, that’s old Gene in there.”
“But how is he in there and why?”
“The how is, quite frankly, beyond my own understanding. As for the why, well there’s no better person to ask than the man himself.”
“Go ahead, ask him.”
Martin put the receiver down on the kitchen counter, reinserted the plugs back into his ears, and walked over to the box. He placed his palm on the object and listened for a bit to see if there was anything new, but the message was the same as it had been before. He cleared his throat and spoke directly to the sphere.
“Eugene, my name is Martin. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but you’re in my house right now.”
The message stopped, and for several minutes Martin heard only the cacophony of wails and screams. Martin started to turn back toward the phone, but then he heard that barely audible rasp begin again.
Please—help—Been—here—for—so—long . . .
“I want to help you, Eugene, but I have to ask you something first. I need to know how you ended up in there.”
The cries of agony slowly faded until all Martin could hear was a low murmur.
Tricked—Trapped—and—tricked . . .
The—Devil . . .
Martin glanced over at the phone and then turned his attention back to the box.
“Hang on a minute Eugene.” Martin heard a series of squawks as he removed his hand from the sphere but could not make out their meaning.
“Mister Everett, are you still there?”
“I’m here. So, what did dear Gene have to say for himself?”
“He said that he’d been tricked and trapped.”
“Oh, did he now? And what mean ol’ sonovagun did that to him?”
“He said it was the Devil.”
“Well, I’ve certainly been called worse things, but I’m afraid that Eugene isn’t being completely forthright with you. Do you have speakerphone on your end?”
“Give me a sec.” Martin hunted around the keypad until he found the button at the bottom of the receiver. “Okay, you’re on speaker now.”
“Eugene, you duplicitous piece of shit! What the hell you tellin’ this boy I’m Satan for? You think he’s as stupid as you?”
Martin looked over at the object in the box as if expecting it to activate a speaker of its own.
Everett continued, and Martin could tell that the man was highly agitated.
“Everybody assumes that when someone gets stuck in an amulet, or a painting, or a miniature idol that they were imprisoned there by some malevolent force or evil being. The truth is that nine-times-out-of-ten, they wound up there because of some supreme dumb-fuckery on their end; it almost never actually involves being deceived, cursed, hoodwinked, vexed, bamboozled, or otherwise fooled. Hell, I’m not even the one who put him in there, but I know who did, and more importantly, why they did it, and there wasn’t any sort of chicanery involved.”
Martin walked back over to the sphere and put his hand on it.
“Eugene, I don’t know if you heard that.”
“Oh, he heard me!” The voice bellowed from the tinny plastic speaker.
The wails faded away almost instantly this time, leaving only that low murmur.
Lying—Fred—is—a—liar . . .
“Is your name Fred?” Martin asked.
“I prefer Mister Everett, but yes, my mother did name me Frederick. Only little pissants who can’t be relied upon to handle their business refer to me as Fred.”
Don’t—be—lieve—him—Noth—ing—he—says—is—true . . .
“What’s ol’ Gene yammering about now? Telling you not to trust a word I say I’ll wager. That’s rich coming from a guy who wouldn’t know honesty if it bit him on the ass.”
Martin slumped down into the recliner with his head in his hands. He had absolutely no idea who to believe at this point, assuming he could believe either of them.
“Okay, Mister Everett,” Martin said. “I know why Eugene claims he’s in there. Care to tell me your version?”
“As previously mentioned, I’m not the one who put him in there, and I don’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the individual who did.”
“What exactly is the object in the box anyway, some rare mineral or a gigantic gemstone?”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s just common everyday glass. Raw material left over from some construction project that didn’t have a use until sweet little Eugene slipped up. Generally speaking, trapping a soul in something valuable doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You can’t exactly sell a Hubert Herr cuckoo clock or a Murano vase for top dollar on the open market if it shrieks every time someone touches it.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Martin mumbled.
“Eugene was also an employee of my boss; he helped manage a large warehouse that stored overseas imports awaiting distribution.”
“Is that code for like, drugs and prostitution?”
“It’s code for patio furniture: rattan chairs, sun umbrellas, those backyard bars with the little thatched canopies, and other island-themed outdoor items.”
“My employer isn’t a narcotics kingpin or a gangster. He’s simply a businessman with a number of different interests that require looking after while he’s out exploring new ventures.”
“That’s all fine and good, but it still doesn’t explain why there’s a screaming man’s soul entombed in glass sitting in a cardboard box in my living room.”
“The gentleman I work for spent the last several years in parts of the world that most people have never even heard of. During his extensive travels, he’s come across practitioners of certain arcane rites and rituals and used that knowledge to help streamline various aspects of his business. Let’s face it; mandatory trainings on workplace behavior and HR-supervised interventions have turned the modern corporate environment into a morass of endless meetings and strategy sessions where nothing actually gets done. Our employer decided on a different approach. Let me be clear about something—everyone who works for this man knows the rules upfront. He pays better than most, especially for the menial positions like Eugene’s, but in return for his generosity, he expects loyalty and compliance.”
“So, what exactly did Eugene do?”
“I’d love to tell you that he was some criminal mastermind, but as I’m sure you’ve gleaned by now, our boy isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. No, mean ol’ Gene decided to help himself to some extra cash when he thought no one was looking; he skimmed from a few shipments and then altered the invoices to hide what he’d done. To give him some credit, he was fairly careful about how he doctored the books and was smart enough not to steal from consecutive runs, but eventually another foreman caught wind of what he was doing and reported it.”
Martin stood up and walked back over to the sphere, placing his fingertips on top of the black glass.
Not—a—thief—Didn’t—steal—from—those—ship—ments . . .
“He says he’s innocent.”
“Don’t they all.”
Martin had no idea how to proceed.
“Awfully quiet over there, Mister Vallencourt.”
Martin glanced at the phone but said nothing.
“I know how strange all this must seem to you, Mister Vallencourt, but the moral dilemma really isn’t yours to fret over. You simply received our parcel in error. We’d like it back and are prepared to compensate you for your trouble. Everything else is really immaterial as far as you’re concerned.”
“All the same, I’d still like to think it over.”
“Keeping property that doesn’t belong to you is a criminal offense Mister Vallencourt. Given the fate of our friend Eugene, that might be something you’d want to consider very carefully.”
“Is that a threat?”
“I’m simply stating the facts as I see them.”
“Fine then, send someone over to collect this thing. I don’t want your money; I just want all this to be over and done with.”
“An associate of mine will be there within the hour to collect the package. I thank you for your time and cooperation, Mister Vallencourt.”
Martin started to say something when he heard the line disconnect. He knelt beside the box and put his palm back on top of the object with its iridescent filaments of purple and green. His head filled with the low murmur. It steadily grew louder and more pronounced like a stadium full of people cheering on a victory, or a standing ovation at the end of a performance.
“Listen Eugene, I don’t know if you’re telling me the truth or not, but I sure as hell don’t trust that Everett guy, so here’s what’s going to happen. You and I are taking a little trip, and when we get somewhere safe, you can tell me everything in detail so I can figure what to do next.”
Thank—you . . .
“Be right back.” Martin said. He ran downstairs to retrieve a roll of tape to reseal the top flaps of the box.
Outside on the street, an engine ceased its idling, and a car door opened and closed. Only Eugene could hear the footsteps coming up the walkway. He knew they’d soon be at the door. There was no one present to hear the panicked keening coming from his disembodied throat, and his ability to comprehend—much less enact—any sort of physical movement had been taken from him long ago.
Martin froze at the edge of the kitchen counter, the packing tape dangling loosely from the fingers of his left hand. Across the living room, he could see a silhouette against the window shade that covered the upper half of the front door. The doorbell hadn’t chimed, and he was fairly sure that no one had knocked. Martin thought about calling out to the figure but didn’t know what to say. Instead, he got down on his hands and knees and army-crawled over to the box. He propped himself up on his elbows and pulled off a single long strip of tape, tearing the end with his teeth and securing the top of the box with it.
He’d only lifted the thing once to bring it into the house, and it had been heavy enough to make him feel winded carrying it the few feet from the front porch. Martin would be the first to admit that he was lacking in the physical strength department, but that didn’t change his situation.
The knob on the front door jiggled slightly, and Martin was sure that the person on the other side was trying to pick the lock. Why didn’t they simply ask to be let in? He’d already told them he was willing to hand over the package. Maybe they hadn’t believed him, or they were hoping to surprise him. Neither explanation boded well and only confirmed what he knew he had to do.
Martin popped up on his haunches and grabbed the box firmly on either side. He slowly rose to his feet, his forearms trembling from the effort. The noise on the other side of the door grew louder, and Martin ambled toward the stairs, struggling to keep his balance. He descended the short flight of steps in two awkward lurches and made his way through the family room and out the back door as quickly and quietly as he could. Normally, he pulled his car into the garage, but it was still parked in the driveway from when he’d gone grocery shopping the previous evening.
Thank god for small favors, Martin thought as he levered his elbow under the latch that opened the door on his backyard gate. He peered around the corner just in time to see a figure entering his home. Martin rested the box against the fence while he felt around in his pocket for the key fob. He slipped through the gate, slid the box on top of the car, then carefully opened the car door.
Martin grabbed the box off the roof and heaved it onto the passenger seat. Something in his shoulder made a popping sound as he swung down behind the wheel, slamming the door shut and locking it. He keyed the ignition and reversed out onto the street just as a tall, bald man in jeans and a black leather jacket rounded the corner of the fence.
As Martin sped away, he noticed the man pull something from his coat pocket and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it was just a phone, but that relief felt short-lived when Martin thought about who the bald man might be calling.
A creek ran beneath an abandoned railroad trestle that Martin and his friends had claimed when they were kids. It was their place to adventure and explore during their younger days and later, their spot for smoking cigarettes and leering over skin magazines they’d stolen from the local convenience store.
Martin placed the box on one of the wooden railroad ties and sat down on a rusted stretch of rail beside it. He used his keys to slit the tape on top and opened the flaps. The contents appeared no worse for wear, the scarred sphere still whole and intact after their jarring getaway. He put his palm on the object, realizing a second too late that he’d left his earplugs back at the house. He winced in anticipation of the screams but just heard that low hum.
Yes . . .
“Can you tell me your side of things?”
Ne—ver—stole—from—ware—house . . .
A—no—ther—work—er—framed—me—for—theft . . .
“Did you tell your boss or that Everett guy who actually did it?”
Tried—but—they—didn’t—be—lieve—me . . .
Had—com—mit—ted—crimes—in—past . . .
“For what it’s worth, I believe you, Eugene.”
Thank—you . . .
“Do you mind me asking how it happened; getting trapped in there I mean?”
Was—work—ing—grave—yard—shift—and—sup—er—vi—sor—called—me—in—to—his—off—ice. Said—that—I—had—sto—len—and—be—fore—I—could—ar—gue—he—left—and—two—others—came—in . . .
“Who were they?”
Fig—ures—in—hood—ed—robes . . .
“What did they do to you?”
Brought—out—sphere. Forced—me—to—stare—in—to—it . . .
“They made you stare at it?”
Kept—me—look—ing—for—hours. Held—in—place—so—that—all—I—could—see—was—that—glit—ter—ing—black—globe—un—til—it—be—came—my—en—ti—re—world . . .
“How long has it been since they put you in there?”
Don’t—re—mem—ber—an—y—more . . .
“I’m really sorry, Eugene.” Martin waited for a reply, but none came.
“They aren’t ever going to stop looking for us, are they?”
No . . .
Martin sat on the tracks, listening to the gentle murmur of the sphere, desperately trying to think of what to do. Going to the police would only paint him as a lunatic, and even if he somehow managed to make them believe him, it still wouldn’t help Eugene. He didn’t have the money to stay on the run forever, and his conversation with Everett left little doubt that the man had the means to track them any place they might go. Martin let out a long breath and rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands while the blood beat steadily in his temples.
They were both trapped by the sphere now, struggling to find their way out of a prison with no gates, razor-wire, windows, doors, or bars—just an endless, glittering, obsidian abyss.