Friday, 23 October 2015

FREE SHORT STORY: The Box by Leo McBride

The Box

By Leo McBride

THE box was the key. Simple enough. 213cm long, 71cm wide, and 59cm high, lined with melamine absorbers. Sealed at all points except one, the hatch at one end, which could only be closed from the inside. It was warmer inside the box, Johnson hadn't expected that. Perhaps something to do with the lining, he'd have to ask Carlisle later.

He had been running the experiments for months with little success before the box. First, there had been the experiments with the students taking part, but there had been nothing more notable than Rhine had found back in the Thirties. And those results that did show promise were hard to classify. Was this telepathy? Clairvoyance? For three months, he'd come home every day with results that were next to insignificant, and growled and snarled at Laura. She must have hated living with him through that.

It was when he was talking to Mayes in the refectory that he decided to quit using the students. How Mayes had become a professor, Johnson never knew, but he was good company, and one of the few to listen to Johnson's theories.

“Shit, man, why the hell you want to use them anyway?” he laughed at Johnson. “You're talking about telepathy, right? Walking in people's heads. Seeing what's going on inside their fucking minds, right? Why the hell wouldn't you want to do that yourself?”

Johnson shook his head. “It's not that, Mayes, it's...”

“I mean screw the students. Heh. Well, not literally. We got rules about that, right.”

Mayes leaned back, smiling that wide grin of his. That couldn't-give-a-damn smile.

“I mean,” he said, “why the hell wouldn’t you? Seriously, man. Think about it.”

Hell, Mayes had said. Maybe that's where I'm headed, thought Johnson. Or maybe that's just where Mayes was from.

“Shit, why’d you even get into this experiment if you didn’t have that little voice at the back of your head saying it shouldn’t be them, it should be you? You want to know what it feels like. You want to know what’s going on in there. Hell, you want to get a genuine hit? A bonafide result, and then have to report that your tiny blip was bouncing around inside the head of some dumbass jock who’s never had a thought pass through that skull of his anyhow?”

Mayes sipped his glass while Johnson thought it through. He could feel Mayes’ eyes on him, could feel that grin burning across the table.

“The students, they... they provide the objective evidence, their feedback…”

“Don’t mean squat, man. C’mon now, these are the students so damn broke they have to sign up as guinea pigs to make a buck. How reliable are they? Probably take your, what, twenty, thirty bucks and go blow it all on booze anyhow. They all sober when they show up for the experiment? Hungover? You trust them more than your own damn thoughts?”

“It's about the evidence, Mayes, it doesn't mean a thing without the evidence.”

With a laugh, Mayes slapped his glass down.

“Evidence? Figure out the process, man, then work out the evidence. Know you're right, then figure out a way to show the world. There's evidence out there already, man. Biggest damn telepathic experiment ever staged saw a thousand people sending out an image to five receivers, you know that? Two outta the five got the image, even though they were miles away.”

Johnson cocked an eyebrow at this. “Wait a minute, which experiment was that? I've not heard of that one. I mean there’s been evidence, sure, like Naumov, Swann, Edelman, but nothing on that scale.”

Mayes chuckled. “Grateful Dead, man. Jerry Garcia and co going where no psychologist has gone before.”

Johnson shook his head. “Grateful Dead, are you kidding me?”

“Yup, sure thing, Johnson. Buncha gigs where they got the crowd to send out the vibe. Serious, check it out, bound to be online somewhere, you'll find it. But right there, evidence, and who gives a damn? So prove it for your own damn self first, then figure out how to present it.”

He thought about it. Right there at the table, with Mayes grinning at him from the other side. Finally, he nodded.

“Fair enough,” he said. “There's no harm in trying. If it works, then I replicate it.”

Mayes nodded. “So what are you using?”

“Using?” asked Johnson.

“Yeah, to kickstart it?” said Mayes. “You are using some kind of drugs, right?”

Johnson shook his head. “No, I want clean results. I don't want any confusion between genuine indications of telepathy and hallucinations.”

“You sure about that, man? I mean, seriously? You’ve wasted what, three months already and now you want to waste some more?”

Clean. It would have to be clean. He had to be sure.

Mayes saw it without Johnson having to say.

“See you in a week, man. We’ll see what tune you’re singing then.”



The experiments didn’t improve. He tried. He used some of the ganzfeld techniques, half a ping pong ball over each eye to filter out the world around him. He tried visualising, focussing on extending beyond his own awkward limits. He felt his way out, reaching, reaching. But nothing. He felt like a fool.

One week later, he was back in the refectory, with Mayes. Goddamn Mayes.

“No luck, huh?”

There was no concern in Mayes’ voice. Smug bastard. He knew. He could tell from the way Johnson sat there, shoulders slumped. Hell, even from the dark rings under his eyes, Johnson knew, from the latest damn argument with Laura last night and the lack of sleep that went with it.

“What’s the problem, man?”

So Johnson told him. Everything. How when he tried to reach out with his mind, all he got was a blank. Worse, how his head filled up with distractions. With thoughts about how he’d never keep tenure if he didn’t get results. With thinking about how he could catch the eye of the faculty. With annoyance at the essay he’d had to mark that morning littered with spelling mistakes and na├»ve assumptions. Hell, even with thoughts of all the crap going on with Laura. Thoughts about lunch. Absolutely anything but a genuine hint of a result.

“Maybe I should give up,” he said. “I’ve wasted the whole damn term and what have I got? Nothing. Zip.”

For the first time in a long time, Mayes looked serious.

“You can’t do that, man. You can’t.”

Johnson looked at him. He seemed to mean it. Did he?

“Well, if I’ve got no results…”

Mayes looked to one side, as if he was thinking.

“I shouldn’t tell you this…” he started.

“Tell me what?”

Mayes shrugged, then leaned forward conspiratorially, his voice lowered to a whisper.

“Cuts are coming. Now’s not a good time to have a strike on your record.”

Johnson didn’t know what to think. He felt cold. He felt something shift inside him. He… he suddenly realised what an idiot he had been. Sticking himself out on a limb on an experiment that had been likely to fail from the start. And now he…

“How do you know?” he asked. “I mean, the cuts, how could you possib-”

That brought a bit of Mayes’ grin back.

“How the hell do you think I know?”

Johnson shrugged. “Well, the only people who would know that would be the Dean, maybe one or two of the other…”

“And his secretary. Alice. Nice ass. Tells all kinds of things she shouldn’t after a few glasses of wine and a half-hour in bed.”

At once, Johnson knew it was true. Mayes was always talking about who he’d slept with. At first, Johnson had doubted him, thinking it was boasting, but the stories just kept coming. It was just Mayes’ way. An itch he kept scratching.

“When?”

Mayes sniffed. “Down the line. There’s a bunch of things they need to work out. Robbins is out as dean of engineering, Carlisle probably going to step up. There’s a couple of others they’re negotiating into retirement. So you’ve got some time. But a strikeout now? That wouldn’t look good.

“Now, I sat down here and listened to you talking about all of this back in September. Man, you were alive. Full to bursting with how this was the kind of thing that would get you a bit of the spotlight. How you could screw publishing in the dry journals that no one ever reads except your boss and your mom, how you could use it as a stepping stone to… well, whatever the hell it was you were thinking. Doesn’t matter. What was all that? Did this ever have any juice or were you just talking shit?”

It seemed so long ago now. It had been the summer. At the coast with Laura. On the beach. He loved watching her and now, they had gotten away from all the pressure. A chance to be at peace.

He watched her as she laid out on the towel, the soft breeze stirring her hair, her eyes closed. A twitch of a smile curved her lips.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, gently. One blue eye opened, peered at him, squinting slightly against the sun. She smiled again.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she said.

As simple as that. Wouldn’t you like to know? And what if you could? For the rest of the holiday, he immersed himself in reading. Delving back through his half-memories of Rhine and Zener. Reading the skeptics like Randi. Even a Buddhist text on Abhijna – the supernormal knowledge said to be possessed by some monks. Laura walked the beach, or lay reading her book. Johnson’s mind buzzed with a need to know.

And that’s how he had come to Mayes at the start of the year, his mind a whirl, and a half-formed plan to prove that you could make that leap, that you could know. Except now it was a complete failure. He’d dumped the students from the program, he was all that was left of the experiment. He couldn’t damn well stop his mind buzzing, couldn’t shut out the thoughts and clamour that overwhelmed him when he tried to still his mind.

“What should I do?”

He looked up at Mayes. “What should I do? The experiments are going nowhere. I’ve tried and tried this past week, but nothing. Not a hint.”

Mayes smirked. “Told you what you should do last week, but you didn’t listen.”

Johnson looked confused for a moment. He tried to remember. Then he did. “Drugs?” he said. “No, I told you, I need…”

“You need results, man. Pure and simple. And we’re not talking about taking them just to get you high. You just need something to put you into a receptive state. Open the borders, stop that skull of yours being the limit of your horizon.”

A thousand thoughts bubbled through Johnson’s brain, thoughts that boiled down to a thousand words, words that turned into a dozen arguments, a dozen reasons why not, each of which petered out as he realised he just didn’t have the time. He needed results. And he still wanted to know.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

“Knew you’d come round,” said Mayes. “Shit, we’ll make a Deadhead out of you at this rate.”

“I’ll look into it, see what drugs might…”

Mayes cut him off. “I can tell you that now,” he said. Johnson looked at him quizzically.

“Shrooms, acid, even a bit of weed, all of those I’ve heard people say have had an effect. Bit unreliable, though, I’d say. Reckon something from the 2C family will do the trick better for you.”

“2C?”

“Dimethoxy… something or other. Anyhow, I did a bit of digging after we talked last week. Seems its had some results for people. Illegal, mind.”

“Illegal, then how…?”

“How will you get it?” Mayes spread his arms wide. “Come to your good friend Billy Mayes.”

Johnson thought it over. Finally, he nodded. Slowly. Reluctantly. But inside, a voice asked one question. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

He wanted to know. He had to. “Can you help me? I mean, how much…?”

Mayes let his arms fall as his smile spread. “Heh, sure, I can sort you out. But you'll have to loan me two Bens.”

And with that, he took $200 and slipped away.



It was two days later when he took the first pill. He shut himself away in his office, pulled down the shades, sat at his desk and dry-popped it. Before the effects started to kick in, he reclined his chair a notch or two, and covered his eyes with the table tennis ball halves. He took a breath, let it out. Took a breath, let it out. And waited.

At first, there was no difference. He was sure. He tried to reach with his mind. He tried to detach himself. Nothing. But then he realised there was a difference. The hubbub of voices in his mind, the self-doubt, the worry, the thoughts of work, of Laura, they weren’t there. There was peace.

He couldn’t remember the last time he felt such peace. No, wait, he could. That day on the beach. With Laura. He remembered that smile. Her face bathed in the light of the sun, that striking light at the coast that felt so different. The way it warmed the skin, the soul, the way it warmed the connection between the two of them, taking the chill away that made their love so brittle when it had to bump against the sharp corners of day-to-day life. When work got in the way. When instead of curling up in one another’s arms at the end of the day, Laura would turn away on her side to try to sleep while Johnson read his books. Or when he wouldn’t go to bed for hours, typing away on his laptop long after she had gone.

But it was the warmth of that day he remembered now. That smile. Wouldn’t you like to know? That little sense of mischief in her smile. Teasing and so, so warm. That smile. Her smile. He could almost see it now. See her now. Different somehow, though. A tighter smile, more forced, not so happy. No, he could see her now. He sensed it. He was seeing her right now, in this moment. Somehow he could see her face. But not quite right in some way, different. Then he realised. He was seeing through her eyes. He was looking at her as she looked at herself in a mirror, seeing her reflection as she raised a lipstick and started to apply it. This was real, he was certain. This was now, this was…

The crash startled him. He jumped at the sound of it, shocked suddenly back into his office, his body. He heard the voices outside his office, muted apologies of a student who had dropped his books, the sound of people picking things up. Johnson cursed. He had been close. So close.

The next day, he cornered Mayes and told him everything, from the moment he realised that the noise in his head had gone away to the crash of the stupid boy who had broken his connection. He was alive again, his brain buzzing with ideas. On reflection, later, it seemed that Mayes barely heard him, just nodding in the right places, but they were the right places. And when Johnson said he was going to repeat the experiment, he asked the right question.

“So how are you going to stop yourself from being interrupted again? I mean, you don’t want another bang crash and you’re back awake.”

At the time, Johnson didn’t know. For the next two days, he thought it over, through a weekend where he made his apologies to Laura and devoted himself to his books, to his research. The ganzfeld techniques weren’t enough. He had to do more. He wrote, he scribbled and, before the weekend was over, he drew. The box. About the size of a coffin, but it would have to be lined with something to stop sound penetrating. He had the budget, he wasn’t paying the students any more.

When Monday came, he took his plans to Carlisle in engineering. He suggested the melamine sound proofing, and offered to build it. Johnson eagerly shook his hand.



The days of waiting for the box were unbearable. At first, Johnson was excited. He became a blizzard of energy, even taking Laura out for a night where he laughed and told her how wonderfully everything was going at work. He even took one pill that night, just to take the edge off. She even smiled at him. Not quite like the smile on that beach, but a smile. He’d remember that.

As the days wore on, though, he became more frustrated, growling at his students for their petty mistakes. He had Mayes get him a few more pills, just to make sure he had enough of a supply when the box arrived.

Finally, Carlisle said it was ready, and Johnson arranged for it to be delivered to one of the labs – lab four, tucked away at the back of the building, where he would be least likely to be disturbed.

That night, he waited until all the students had left the building. Even then, he waited another hour for peace and quiet to settle. Then, he picked up the small envelope of pills, left his office, and walked down to the lab. And the box.

It was warmer inside than the cool air of the lab. When he first climbed in, he felt a moment’s anxiety before he pulled the hatch closed, a feeling of claustrophobia. But somehow, that changed when the hatch gently thudded shut. It was warm, dark. Safe.

Johnson took a few minutes to adjust to his surroundings. At least it felt like a few minutes. Inside the box, there was no real way to tell how much time was passing. Johnson fleetingly wondered about bringing a clock into the box but no, he dismissed the idea. The fewer distractions, the better. He took a pill, and waited.

Her smile. He found himself thinking of her smile again. He wanted to reach out to her face, touch her cheek, watch that smile. He reached out.

“…not here.”

He heard her voice. No, wait. He heard her thought. The realisation made him jump. He could hear what she was thinking. No, not hear, but it was there in his head. Almost like a thought of his own, but definitely her voice, his Laura’s thoughts in his...

“Why the hell is he not here? Hasn’t even damn well called.”

Laura’s arm moved, and there, he could see the coffee table in their living room as she swept the books from it, scattering them on the floor.

Her thoughts were a babble now. He could sense anger, frustration, her inner thoughts not settling on one thing but leaping from one thing to another, just the way she spoke, she shouted when they were arguing. She was raging. If he was home now, she’d have probably thrown those books at him. His books, the books he had been using in his research. She swept up the last book left on the table and marched out to the kitchen, and threw it into the trash.

“No!” cried Johnson, his own anger swelling. “Pick it back out of the trash.”

And then, to his shock, Laura stopped. She had been about to whirl on her heel and leave the kitchen. But she stopped. She turned back to the trash, reached in, and took the book back out. He could see the cover stained already from the trash. Laura brushed some of the stains away, and set the book down on the worktop. Then she turned and began to walk away.

Johnson’s eyes snapped open inside the box. In the pitch black, he let out a gasp. For a moment, he struggled to control his breath. Then he laughed. He would have punched the air if he could. Not only had he sensed Laura’s thoughts, he had transmitted a thought to her! And she had listened!

He unbolted the box, and left the lab in a whirl. He hardly remembered the drive home, but he burst through the door and past Laura where she sat on the sofa to dash into the kitchen. There, on the worktop, sat a single book. Trembling, he approached it, looked at it. Laura’s voice spoke from over his shoulder.

“Where have you been? Hello? Aren’t you even going to say hello?”

Johnson barely heard. He was looking at the book, where a smudge of dirt streaked across the front cover.



The next day, he tried to find Mayes to tell him, but he was nowhere to be found. He even thought of telling Carlisle, but the engineer was too grounded in nuts and bolts, he wouldn’t want to listen. Instead, Johnson found himself watching the clock tick by until he could shoo the last of his students out of his office. He wanted to get back to the box.

Barely had the last student left when he grabbed the pills and headed to the lab, opened the box and slid in. He popped one pill, thought for a second, then took another before closing the hatch behind him and sealing himself in darkness.

Maybe it was the extra pill, but he didn’t have to wait long this time. He thought of Laura, and reached out. He reached out, and then, he could see. He could see her reaching out. Reaching out her hand to touch a shoulder, a man’s bare shoulder.

Something inside Johnson shattered. Suddenly, he felt split. He could feel himself grow cold, but at the same time he could feel Laura’s thoughts.

“He can’t ever know,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done this. I.. it’s just I’ve felt so alone.”

She looked up from the shoulder to a grinning face.

“Shit, baby, I’m not going to tell him,” said Mayes. “Why the hell would I?”

He felt Laura’s sigh, a sigh in her thoughts as well as her body. He watched as she looked down across their naked bodies, entwined in the back seat of her car.

“We should get back,” she said. “Before he comes home.”

Mayes shrugged. “Sure. We’ve had fun. Drop me over at Brody’s bar.”

Johnson watched as the two disentangled, as they pulled on their clothes. The cold Johnson had felt was fading now, the shock gone, replaced by anger. He tried to search Laura’s thoughts, but it was as if she was trying not to think, the glimpses that passed through being dismissed straight away.

How could she do this to him, he raged as she started the car and pulled away. How could she cheat on him? And with Mayes of all people? Mayes? And now just driving along ready to drop him off back at some back street bar where she must have picked him up? Johnson practically screamed. “Well if that’s what you’re going to do, you might as well just crash the damn car.”

Suddenly, his eyes snapped back open. He was back in the box. He gasped, his mind racing. Why was he suddenly back here? Why couldn't he hear Laura's thoughts? What had happened to bring him back here? He… stopped breathing, his gasp held. Yesterday, he had put his voice in Laura’s head, and she had listened. What if? What if she had listened again when he screamed?

“Oh God,” he gasped. Had he just made her crash? Had he?

He reached out to open the hatch. His fingers stopped short of the handle. Maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe it was all just a hallucination. It was impossible, it couldn’t have happened. Impossible. He wouldn’t hurt her, he only wanted to see that summer smile. Right now, she was home safe and sound, he thought. Right now, she was hurt in a crash, said the next thought. The only way to find out was to open the box. Johnson took his hand away from the handle.

I can’t do it, he thought. I can’t face it. She’s alive, she has to be. She’s alive, just as long as I stay in the box.




THE END

Leo McBride is the author of the Quartet short story collection, available here, and is featured in the fantasy short story anthology Tales From The Tavern, available here. He is also featured in the new horror short story anthology Tales From The Mists from Inklings Press. The latest anthology is available here. You can follow him on Twitter under the handle @chippychatty

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