Let me drag up a chair. Standing up all day is hard on my back. Not that I have all that many customers anymore. Not now that the town of Clement is mostly dead, and folks zoom right past on Highway 17 since it opened ten years back. But I stay busy one way or another. People can always find things to do if they don't give into idleness.
Like the Watts children on that hot summer day. They had been busy, having already played cowboys and Indians -- Nate playing the cowboy, of course, with Bettie taking the role of a fierce Indian warrior and little Davey being an Indian prince -- and knights and knaves with Nate as Knight Nate, Bettie as Knight Rose, and Davey as Prince Peter. Nate and Bettie argued fiercely about her knighthood, but Bettie had no intention of standing around and just being rescued when clearly the fun was in swinging a stick (standing in for a sword) and vanquishing evil.
As his two older siblings bickered, seven-year-old Davey wandered off. Quite content to splash in the tepid water and catch what bugs and frogs he could find, he followed the stream farther into the woods. He found a large puddle and started floating twigs, leaves, and just about anything else he could find.
Bettie ran up to him. "Davey, you're not supposed to wander off," she scolded.
"Yeah, Davey," Nate said. "Bears might get you."
"Ain't none," Davey said, dropping a large rock into the puddle.
"Are to!" Nate said.
"Are not!" Bettie said, always willing to argue with Nate. "Bears live in the woods."
"We're in the woods!" Nate said.
"Not here, dofus!" Bettie said scornfully. "Alaska and Canada and Norway. Places like that." She actually wasn't sure if Norway had bears, but she thought she remembered her teacher saying Norway was cold, and if it was cold, it should have furry things.
"Don't call me that!" Nate hollered and swung his stick at her.
"Dofus, dofus, dofus!" Bettie ran across the creek, dodging her brother's stick and hurrying to pick up hers.
Little Davey ignored them. He watched the large puddle and wondered why it started to bubble. He didn't know enough to be afraid. Who would?
Nate and Bettie battled it out. Nate had a longer reach, but Bettie had a longer stick so it was an even fight.
As Davey watched, a box floated up out of the puddle, the water parting and sliding off its black sides until it was fully exposed. Davey gave a little laugh of surprise.
"Davey, what you got?" Bettie asked. "Stop it, Nate! I'm not playing anymore." She walked over to her little brother.
"I wasn't playing," Nate said, continuing to swing at the dragon in his imagination.
"Where did you get that?" Bettie asked Davey.
"Puddle," Davey said, pointing.
"No, you didn't," Bettie said, looking doubtfully at the puddle. The box was clearly bigger than the puddle.
"Did," Davey said.
"What is it?" Bettie said.
"It's a box!" Nate said. "Even a dofus knows that."
"You would know," Bettie said, still staring at the box. Made out of a black wood that barely showed the grain, the box had no decoration. Just plain straight black sides that fitted together perfectly and a lid held shut by a black metal latch. She stretched out her hand and touched the box. She jerked her hand back. "It's cold!"
"Let me feel!" Nate demanded and pushed her aside. He put his hand on it. "It is not. You're dreamin' things again."
Bettie pushed him back. "Am not."
"Open it!" Nate said. "There might be money in it."
"No," Bettie said. "People don't keep money in black boxes. Don't you know anything?" She felt uneasy as she stared at the box. "This is curious." She was proud of having remembered that word. "It's a curious box."
"Yes, the Curious Box!" Nate said. "And it's ours."
"No, it's not," Bettie said.
"Finders, keepers," Nate said.
"Finders, keepers," Davey echoed.
"Where did it come from?" Bettie said, looking around the woods.
"Someone must have dropped it," Nate said. "Let me see." He tried to open the latch, but it wouldn't give. "It must be locked."
"It doesn't belong to us," Bettie said. "Leave it alone."
"I bet I could get it open," Nate said, looking for a rock.
"No!" Bettie said, having made her mind up. "We'll leave it here where we found it."
"I'm going to open it," Nate said.
"No!" Bettie pushed Nate. He pushed back harder. Bettie gritted her teeth and jumped on him. The two wrestled with Bettie giving as good as she got and then some.
Davey picked up the box. Despite its size, he lifted it easily. Carrying it carefully before him, he started back down the stream.
"Davey, where you going?" Nate broke free of his sister and hurried after Davey.
"Momma," Davey said. He had a little boy's faith in his mother. She'd know what to do with it.
"Let's open it!" Nate said, reaching out to take the box.
"No," Davey said. "Momma."
Nate tried to take the box, but Davey was determined to hold on to it. Bettie ran up and pushed Nate away.
"Leave him alone," Bettie told Nate. "Let's take it to Momma."
"I wasn't saying we shouldn't," Nate said. "I just want to open it first."
"Here, Davey, let me carry it," Bettie said. Davey readily handed it over and walked on. She grunted.
"It's heavy," Bettie said.
"Heavy for a girl," Nate said. "Davey was carrying it easy."
"Dofus," Bettie said.
"STOP CALLING ME THAT!" Nate yelled.
"Dofus, dofus, dofus!" Bettie said.
"I'm gonna hit you!" Nate said.
"Dofus is as dofus does!" Bettie said.
Nate shoved her hard. Bettie fell back to the ground with a shriek. The Curious Box fell, and as easy as that, it opened. Both Bettie and Nate saw inside.
For a moment, Bettie felt like she was in a nightmare, that one where something was crushing her and she tried to scream and wake up, but that only left her with nothing to breathe and she heard her ribs crack and blood gushed up her throat and down her lungs and blackness took her eyes.
Nate felt hot and heavy, like he had a huge meal. But what he ate was still alive and eating its way out of his stomach and his skin began to tear and lurch as the worms gnawed their way out and he opened his mouth to scream and the shiny black worms flowed out his mouth as he fell.
The lid of The Curious Box shut then. Nate and Bettie stared at each other. Their bodies were untouched, but what stared out of their eyes was something oh so different from the children they had been. They both turned as one.
"Davey," Bettie said happily. "Come here."
"Come here and see what's in the box," Nate said cheerfully. "It's really neat."
And little sweet innocent Davey -- who always looked up to his siblings and trusted them only the way a child could -- stopped and looked at them. He made his way back toward where they stood.
Bettie leaned down over the box. She smiled at Davey, but her eyes were empty.
Nate put his cold, cold, hands on Davey's shoulders.
I have to stop here. I'm sorry. I don't know ... I don't know if I can tell you ... Listen, you should go. Go away. Don't come back tomorrow. If you come back tomorrow ... if you come back ... there's more to tell. There's more. And God help ya, I'll tell you. I'll tell you.
Copyright 2015 by Stephen B. Bagley. All rights reserved.