Creepy. Crawly. Slightly surreal. Did I mention creepy?
Top of my “Ta-Da” list is to reread this novel, and then to review it. It’s been a couple of months since the first time I read it, and I could use a good spine-tingler right now.
A creepy, crawly, slightly surreal spine tingler.
It occurred to me that there might be other readers out there who’d appreciate Harvey’s fingers crawling up their spines. So I contacted him, and he gave me permission to post the first two chapters here.
He’s a good egg. A creepy, crawly, slightly surreal, spine-tinglingly good egg.
All the best eggs… are slightly cracked.
The Bad Box
by Harvey Click
The lid of the bad box shut. Cold darkness.
Angel knew how to escape the darkness. There was a tunnel she had found, a long, narrow, cold burrow in the dirt. All she had to do was wiggle through it like a worm, and before long she emerged from a secret hole beneath the bushes beside the old grade school.
She crawled out from the bushes into the bright sun and brushed the dirt off her knees and dress. It was a beautiful day but chilly, the kind of chill the sun didn’t penetrate. She needed a sweater.
She walked slowly from the big grassy schoolyard to the gravel playground. No need to run or hurry—she knew there would be plenty of time to play, more time than she wanted, but she didn’t think about that.
There were no other children; there never were. Angel didn’t miss them, but she hoped her friend would visit. Maybe he was hidden behind a tree, playing hide and seek with her. He liked to play games.
She sat in a swing, grasped the cold chains, leaned back her head, and gazed at a fat white cloud. She began to swing, and soon she was sailing in a high arc, the sky and trees blurring together.
The motion was soothing, and it helped her not to think, but she was chilly and wanted to go home, not to Grandpa and Grandma but to Mom and Dad, but she knew she couldn’t go home to them ever again, not since their accident. In fact she couldn’t go anywhere, but she tried not to think about that, tried not to think about anything but the motion of the swing, up and down, down and up, up into the cold blue sky.
Angel started to tell herself a story about Hansel and Gretel and their breadcrumb trail as they wandered lost through the dark woods, but the story made no sense. Why would they leave Mom and Dad to go live with a mean old witch? And why would they waste all that bread? Her tummy ached, and if she were Gretel she would eat the bread instead of spilling it on the forest floor for the stupid birds to eat. The story was right about the mean old witch, but why did it leave out the ogre?
No, it was a stupid story, and Angel didn’t like to think of the cage that the witch put them in, and she didn’t like to think of Hansel because he reminded her of her little brother, and she didn’t want to think about her little brother because he was a bad, bad boy, and it was a stupid story, though she liked the part when the children shoved the witch into the oven, and she thought I’d shove the mean old ogre in there too, but first I’d chop off their heads and then I’d stick their bodies in the oven and cook them up, but I’d keep their heads just so I could look at them and say, “So there! So there!”
Angel shivered. The air on her back felt like cold rain, though the sky was a perfect storybook blue.
She didn’t know how long he had been sitting there. She had been swinging and shivering and thinking of the witch and the ogre and what she would do with their heads, and when she looked he was sitting in the swing next to hers. Appearing like that was one of his games. She was delighted, but she tried not to show it.
“Hi, Angel,” he said, his voice whispery like dry leaves.
She continued swinging, aware of him watching her but pretending she didn’t care. He was a handsome man, big and strong, older than her father had been when he’d had his accident, but somehow more like a kid.
She didn’t know his real name. She called him Baby Beddybye because he reminded her of a doll she had once owned with that name. His head was bald like the doll’s, and his eyes were black and shiny like polished stones.
“Going to ignore me today?” Baby Beddybye asked.
Angel smiled but didn’t answer. She swung a little higher and leaned her head back, letting her long blond hair stream out behind her like a kite tail. She knew that Baby Beddybye liked her hair.
“Aren’t we friends?” he asked.
“Maybe.” Angel kept swinging, staring at the sky and hoping that he was noticing her pretty hair.
“Maybe I’m your only friend,” he said.
Angel tried to remember the friends she used to have, but that seemed so long ago, before the accident.
“Maybe,” she said at last.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“Here.” Baby Beddybye took off his jacket. “Since we’re friends.”
Angel stopped swinging. It was a nice dark gray suit jacket like Daddy used to wear when he got dressed up.
“Go ahead,” he said. “It doesn’t have any cooties.”
Angel smiled and put it on. That felt better, warm and cozy. It was as big as a dress on her, and she wrapped it around herself like a blanket and snuggled into its warmth. It gave her a funny feeling, tingly and secretive, like a tent you could hide under and no one would ever find you.
“It’s a very special jacket,” Baby Beddybye said. “It’s a secret jacket.”
“A secret jacket?”
“Yes. It’s a secret just between you and me. Friends share secrets, don’t they?”
“I guess so.”
Angel began to swing again, warm in her comfy jacket, her hair streaming out behind her. She thought of the witch and the ogre, how she would hide in her secret jacket and sneak up on them and cut off their heads and shove their headless bodies into the blazing oven.
“So there!” she would say.
“I know one of your secrets,” Baby Beddybye whispered.
“No you don’t.”
“Yes I do. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking about an ogre and a witch.”
“Sure you are. You’re thinking of what you’d like to do to them.”
Angel stopped swinging. Such a smart man, she thought.
“Now you haveta tell me a secret,” she said, “since you know mine.”
“I will, if you promise you’ll always be my friend.”
“Forever and ever” he said. “You have to swear.”
“I swear, cross my heart and hope to die.”
Baby Beddybye smiled. “Okay then. Now listen very, very carefully.”
Eva Dietrick stared out the kitchen window across the wide weedy yard at the barn nearly hidden by relentless rain. It had rained like that all day as if it meant to wash the whole farm into a ditch, where it could run all the way to hell for all she cared.
It had been dark all day, but now the deeper dark meant night was coming, and the old fool was still out there. For many years she had regretted that she couldn’t see what Gus did out there in the barn. It certainly wasn’t work, because if the stupid old fool ever lifted a finger except to stick it up his nose, the yard wouldn’t be growing weeds and the barn wouldn’t be falling down and the bills from the grain elevator wouldn’t be piling up like leaves in fall.
“Narr!” she muttered out loud, turning her wheelchair so she could see if the old fool was loitering in front of the barn, too stupid to come in out of the rain, but he wasn’t. He was still inside the barn, where he had been the whole wasted day since noon, when he had gummed down his chopped bacon and beans and potatoes with his wad of wet tobacco beside his plate staining the kitchen table as always.
Eva had a hunch about what he did out there, more than a hunch, a hard suspicion, but it wasn’t her responsibility, and what was she supposed to do about it anyway, stuck in a chair like a bag of sand in a wheelbarrow?
“Dummkopf!” she growled, jerking her chair to face the table, where Gus’s supper sat cold and could rot with maggots for all she cared. She had already eaten her own supper, and a lot more pleasant it was without his wet wad on the table and his hand going down to the crotch of his overalls to scratch whatever itched down there.
At the thought, her own hand shot up to her scalp and her nails dug deep into the skin. Sometimes it seemed as if worms were crawling on her scalp and every other inch of her carcass. Eva despised her body, despised all bodies, filthy itching things racked with pains and obscene needs of their own, too disgusting to consider.
Let his food rot if he didn’t want to come in and eat it. But she turned back to the window, as she had been doing all day, and stared out at the rain.
Dark now, dark as death. Something was wrong. She had known it all afternoon. Furcht. Sorge. Fallen from the haymow. Trampled by a heifer. Impaled by his own manure fork—a fitting end.
But who would take care of her? How was she supposed to get by, helpless like a bag of sand in a wheelbarrow?
Eva pushed herself to the hutch, found the thin phone book, and rang the sheriff’s office.
“I need help,” she said. “Gus has been out there all day, he’s not coming back.”
“Who is this?”
“Eva!” she shouted. “Eva Dietrick. Mir helfen!”
“Sorry. Could you repeat that?”
“Do you not speak English?” she shouted. “I told you. What am I expected to do? A bag of sand in a wheelbarrow. Should I put myself to bed? I tell you, I haven’t been to toilet since noon!”
“Please, could you just give me your address?”
“Furcht! Sorge! Schmerz! Can you not hear me?”
Deputy Joe Miley and Deputy Doug Brown found Gus’s body in the barn collapsed over a bale of hay. Joe called for an ambulance, though a hearse would work just as well. They were young men, and neither of them had ever given news like this to a wife before. Finally Joe agreed to do it because he was three years older and a bit more experienced.
“Didn’t I say?” Eva said. She glared darkly at Joe Miley. Stupid! she thought. What they tell me already I know.
She was in her bedroom, already mostly packed but still finding a thing or two worth keeping, a few letters in German from someone she had known long before she met Gus, an old pair of galoshes that would be useful if she ever walked again, a broken necklace that might be worth something, though she doubted it since it had been a gift from Gus.
“Now I am expected to do what?” she asked. “Is this house something I can live in now?”
Eva poked through a dresser drawer, found a coin and peered at it. It seemed to be made of tin, some trash from the old country, but maybe someone would buy it. She stuck it in her pocket.
“Somewhere else I have to go,” she said.
“Well, there’s County Services,” Joe Miley said. “We can take you there.”
“I don’t know this County Services, but here I will not stay. I haven’t been to toilet since noon!”
The two young men looked at each other.
“You’re older,” Deputy Brown whispered to his partner.
“Maybe she better go in the ambulance,” Joe whispered. “You know, so there’s not a mess in the back seat.”
Eva latched her trunk, and Joe carried it to the dining room while Deputy Brown pushed her chair behind him. They looked out the open door, waiting for the ambulance. The rain was even harder now, battering the weeds flat and bouncing off the ground like balls.
Eva stared out at the bouncing rain and thought that maybe she was forgetting something. A bolt of lightning struck a withered tree along the fence row of a field, and the explosion jarred her memory.
Bouncing balls, she thought. Stupid games for stupid children. Das Kind.
“Das Kind is down there,” Eva said. “Das Kind is in the bad box.”
The young men looked at each other. “What did you say?” Joe asked.
“Can you not hear me?” she shouted above the noise of the rain. “I told you. Do you not speak English? The stupid child is in the bad box!”
Annoyed by the two men, Eva scratched angrily at her greasy scalp. She could feel tiny worms crawling through her hair, burrowing through the skin and bone, digging into her brain.
Filthy worms, filthy carcass, filthy world!