It was always a treat for the three Levine children when they got to visit Gran’s house. Gran’s house was big, with plenty of rooms for hide-and-seek, and a pond in the garden filled with fish and frogs. For the Levines, who crammed together in a four-bedroom apartment, Gran’s house was a fairytale castle. It was also a veritable treasure-trove of toys; bags of shiny marbles, ebony dominoes stacked neatly in their boxes, striped hoola-hoops and skipping-ropes, boxes of coloured chalk that the children could use to draw on the flagstones around the pond, teddy-bears in all shapes and sizes, and a plethora of dolls with curly hair and frilly dresses.
Then there was the box. Some days it was in the front room, proudly displayed on the mantel above the fireplace, other days it was in the dining room, hiding among myriad framed photographs, and other days still it was upstairs in Gran’s bedroom. Sometimes it wasn’t on display at all but just sitting on the floor or halfway up the stairs.
The youngest child, Vivian, once asked, “Why do you always move the box, Gran?” Something dark flitted across Gran’s face like a storm-cloud blocking out the sun.
“I don’t. That box has a mind of its own.”
“You mean it moves by itself?” This wasn’t incomprehensible to a six-year-old. “The box does what it feels like and I don’t interfere,” Gran said. Vivian’s sisters were more interested in the dolls. They’d spend hours brushing their hair or rearranging their clothes, but nothing peaked Vivian’s curiosity like that box. She was never allowed to touch it, no matter where it moved itself to.
Every time they went round, Vivian would look at the box and wonder. What was its secret? Why wasn’t she allowed to touch it? Years passed and visits to Gran’s house became less and less frequent. The girls were growing up; they had their own lives to live. When Vivian was twenty-two she moved to the heart of London and that was the last she saw of Gran for a while. She’d stopped thinking about the box a long time ago.
Until Gran died.
The wake was held in Gran’s house – it was the only one big enough to fit everyone in. Gran had made a lot of friends in her lifetime. Vivian felt a sharp pang in her chest when she stepped over the threshold. It had been years since she’d been in this house yet everything looked the same. Older, perhaps, more faded, but still igniting the potent memories of childhood.
Everyone wanted to offer platitudes and condolences but all Vivian wanted was some time alone. It would probably be the last time she was in the house she’d loved as a child, and she wanted to indulge in a memory-lane trip. While the guests congregated at the buffet table, Vivian quietly slipped upstairs. Everything was as she remembered it, the carpet patterned in various purples, the off-white wallpaper and the paintings of Gran’s old dogs that lined each and every wall. Somehow she found herself in Gran’s bedroom. The shelves on the walls were still lined with glassy-eyed dolls but their curls were limp now, covered with a grey film of dust. And on the dressing table, surrounded by pots of powder and lipstick tubes, was the box.
Vivian froze when she saw it. All her childhood curiosity came flooding back. Gran’s mysterious box that no one had ever been allowed to touch. Looking at it now, Vivian didn’t even know it had fascinated her. It was a plain wooden box, thirteen by six inches, the brass catch fastened by a padlock. It was nothing pretty, nothing special but Vivian could swear it was calling to her. It wasn’t a voice as such, more like a tugging sensation as if invisible hands were trying to pull her towards it. She took a tentative step forwards and picked up the box.
Suddenly she felt six years old again, breaking Gran’s most stringent rule. She half-expected Gran to come into the room and start scolding her. But Gran wasn’t here anymore. Vivian made up her mind there and then. She was taking the box. She slipped it into her handbag and didn’t think about it again until she got home. It was ten o’clock by the time Vivian arrived back in London. Her flat was located above a butcher’s on the corner. She hated walking past the butcher’s during the day when all the slabs of meat were on display, sitting in pools of blood.
At least at night the windows were dark, the meat stored away. Up in the flat, Vivian took the box from her handbag and placed it on the freestanding bookshelf by the side of her bed. She didn’t plan to keep it there permanently but she was too tired to find a proper home for it now. Kicking off her shoes she flopped into bed. Sleep crept over her in minutes. Vivian dreamed she was standing in a field, waist-deep in grass. There was nothing around her but green, an endless countryside.
The sun was setting; it looked like spilled blood on the horizon. Dread prickled up her spine. There was something wrong with this place. She couldn’t see it but she could feel it, some bone-deep sense of self-preservation that kicked in when danger was close. She started to run. Somehow she had to get out of this field. She hadn’t run more than a few metres when a hand broke through the ground, scrabbling blindly at her ankles. It was grey-skinned, the yellow finger-nails gnarled and broken. Vivian screamed and kicked the hand away but another punched through the earth. It caught her foot and she pitched forward onto the ground. More decaying hands broke through the ground, fumbling over her body, pinning her down. She fought and kicked and writhed but the hands were too strong. A pair closed round her throat. Vivian tried to scream but she couldn’t even breathe.
She snapped awake, clutching at her throat, gasping. Her lungs ached as if something really had been trying to choke the life out of her. Gran’s box was sitting on the nightstand next to the bed. Vivian frowned. She was sure she had left it on the bookshelf. Gran had told her the box had a mind of its own but that seemed like such nonsense to Vivian now. Besides, that had just been some story for Gran to tell the children.
She hadn’t actually believed it…had she? By the time the sun was up, Vivian felt thoroughly silly for allowing a dream to frighten her so much. Dreams were nothing but the workings of the unconscious mind. True, she hadn’t had a nightmare in years but on the night following her Gran’s funeral, she was hardly going to be dreaming about rainbows and candy-canes. And she must have moved the box to her nightstand without realizing it. It was the only explanation. Still, Vivian felt a twinge of unease when night fell.
The shadows shifting through her flat seemed more menacing now, as if grey-skinned hands might burst forth at any second. Her nightstand was empty now except for the lamp; she’d moved the box into the kitchen. It didn’t look quite right there either. The nightmares were worse this time. Instead of grasping hands, whole skeletons climbed out of the lonely field, their eyes empty and blind but all turned in Vivian’s direction. The air was heavy with the stench of blood and meat. The skeletons opened their mouths to speak but all Vivian could hear was creaking bone. This was a dream. She had to wake up Vivian lurched awake gasping. The blood stench still clung to her nostrils, so strong she could taste it. It was like someone had slaughtered a pig in her flat and she could smell everything spilling out of its body.
Take me back
The sibilant hiss slithered through her mind. Vivian bit back a scream. Gran’s box was sitting on the nightstand, angled towards her. The wood-whorls looked like eyes glaring out at her. This time Vivian knew she wasn’t imagining things. She had left that box in the kitchen. There was no way it could have got in here unless…what if Gran had been right? What if the box did have a mind of its own? All those years Vivian had visited Gran’s house and been forbidden to touch the box. What if Gran had a good reason for keeping it away from people? The next morning Vivian took the box and threw it in the bin.
It was silly to be frightened by a piece of wood but every time she looked at it, she got the feeling there was something sinister luring just at the corner of her vision. She was never fast enough to see it but it was there, a presence. She hoped that with the box out of the house that would be the last nightmare she’d have, but that third night they were worse than ever. It was raining in the lonely field, fat red blood-drops falling from black clouds. The creaking sound of skeletons trying to talk scraped against Vivian’s ears. In the distance she could see a house and she started running towards it. As she drew nearer she recognised the front door with the lion’s head knocker, and the flowers overflowing from their window-boxes. It was Gran’s house.
Take me back
The voice lashed the air, deeper and angrier than it had been the night before.
Take me back to my house
Vivian gasped and clutched her chest. It felt like something had just hit her with a baseball bat. She fell to her knees as her lungs constricted. There was a dead weight on her chest, like something was slowly suffocating her. When she opened her eyes Gran’s box was sitting on her chest. Vivian screamed and threw the box across the room. The lid rattled as it hit the floor and that terrible voice came spilling out.
Take me baaaaaaack.
Gran’s house had been in the nightmare. That was where the box wanted to be. Vivian grabbed her car-keys. She didn’t want to touch the box and wrapped it in an old towel. As soon as she was in her car, the smell of blood and meat filled the air. Vivian opened all the windows but it didn’t make any difference. Gran’s house was three hours away from London but Vivian made it there in less than two, violating every speeding law known to mankind.
Gran’s house stood dark and empty, the windows like sad eyes. When Vivian lifted the box from the backseat, it seemed to tremble in her hands. Like it knew it was coming home. Vivian didn’t have a key and the box wouldn’t fit through the letter-box, but she couldn’t explain that to it. So she did the only thing she could think of – she threw the box through the window. Amid the noise of shattering glass she thought she heard a deeply satisfied sigh as the box thudded on the carpet. Vivian got in her car and drove away. She didn’t look back.
It was years before she was in the area again. Despite everything she couldn’t resist walking past Gran’s house again. The flower-boxes and the lion’s head knocker were gone. The door had been painted red. Vivian’s steps slowed as she tried to peer through the window. On a coffee table in the living room was the box. It didn’t have a face but Vivian sensed that it was deeply content. It was back where it belonged. Vivian never visited Gran’s house again.