The Strongbox

by Benjamin Welton

Kelly Little felt an immediate attraction to the gilded box. Covered in green leather and decorated with golden curlicues that, in a self-applied Rorschach test, Kelly saw as flowers, the strongbox appealed to some hidden sense deep in Kelly’s heart. This was despite the obvious age of the object. To be frank, the strongbox smelled like fire and its frayed edges suggested that the asking price was more suggestion than demand. Still, Kelly knew that he needed to purchase the strongbox on that bright April day.

“Do we need a strongbox?” Kim Little asked her husband. It was a running joke among friends that before meeting new people, the Littles had to clarify that they were not a lesbian couple. As funny as the joke was, Kelly and Kim both had to admit that a lot of people, from bank tellers to the occasional Jehovah’s Witness, assumed too much after seeing “Kelly & Kim Little” written on cards, mailboxes, or other sundry items of identification. Kim rolled with the punches better, while Kelly could get defensive about his irregular name.

“It’s not that we need a strongbox, per se. But don’t you think it goes well with the retro-modern vibe of our place?”

Kim humored her husband like always. She said “Sure,” and let him waste money on the old strongbox. Why ruin a good mood, she thought. They were both excited about decorating their first house, and Kim did have to admit that her taste in furniture tended towards old fashioned. Her one nod to modern sensibilities was the rather naughty choice to load up a wicker basket and the glass coffee table in the living room with editions of Playboy from the 1970s. The decision appealed to the bohemian crowd that the couple associated with, but, in secret, Kim found the confident and all-natural models more erotic and more attractive than her husband.

Kim browsed a collection of antique utensils while Kelly tried his best to haggle with the strongbox’s owner. His attempts at mercenary activity were laughable, Kim thought, but also cute. She felt it best to let Kelly have his delusions. As for Kelly, he came away from the sale feeling downright giddy given his successful reduction of five dollars from the strongbox’s original price. A win-win.

Once home, Kelly found himself apathetic about the placement of the strongbox. The sharp fever of lust for the object had somehow dampened on the short ride from the yard sale to home. Kelly left the strongbox in a quiet corner of the screened-in porch that abutted the house’s west side.

“At least you won’t be lonely,” Kelly said to the strongbox and its cardboard companions. With that, he retreated to his favorite part of the house—the kitchen. There he found Kim beginning the process of cooking dinner.

“Coq au vin. Directly from one of mom’s old French cookbooks,” she said. A slight bit of darkness hung in the air as both Kim and Kelly thought about the late Eleanor Arbogast née Warchola. Kelly always admired Kim’s family, who, despite being Ohio Bohunks without more than a few dimes to their name, had more refined palates than Kelly’s own clan of lace curtain Californians. This love of food made Kim a wizard in the kitchen, and as a result, Kelly considered himself the luckiest man alive. He opened a bottle of imported beer to celebrate.

“Look at us being snobs,” Kim said with mild rebuke.

“Only the best for the best,” Kelly said before kissing his wife on the cheek.

That night, the husband and wife ate a big meal of chicken, roast potatoes, and asparagus. Kim served homemade sugar cream pie for dessert. Kelly ate more than he should have, and Kim let him know by playfully pinching his stomach. Kelly and Kim laughed and drank until both felt drunk. They tried to watch a movie together on the couch, but neither paid attention after the first ten minutes. They were too busy with each other.

Hours later, after both had fallen asleep from lovemaking, a subtle, almost mischievous pitter-patter resounded throughout the dark house. The noise moved along the hallway walls, climbed over counters, and finally came to sit atop of Kelly’s chest. The noise began to take shape. It proved blacker than the night around it. An obsidian outline grew and grew until, with wide-awake eyes of horror, Kelly saw a gigantic spider on his chest. He screamed.

“Honey, what’s a matter? What is it?” Kim shook her screaming husband until, through new and clearer eyes, he recognized the contours of a nightmare.

“God, I haven’t had one of those in forever. Please tell me I wasn’t too loud.”

“I don’t hear the downstairs neighbor complaining just yet, but Roscoe looks a little perturbed.” Kelly saw the tomcat Roscoe perched on a dresser across from the bed. The cat’s eyes glowed with grumpiness. It was easy to see that Kelly had interrupted Roscoe’s slumber.

“You think he’ll ever forgive me?”

Kim looked at the cat and back at her husband. “Not a chance,” she said.

With that, both fell back asleep.

The next day being a Saturday, Kim decided to sleep in well past eight o’clock. Kelly arose at his usual time and busied himself with making coffee and breakfast. Unlike his wife, Kelly loved mornings, and he especially loved listening to the silence of his first home while slowly sipping black coffee and watching bacon fry. This is peace, he thought; this is what tranquility is.

Roscoe joined Kelly in the kitchen before Kim. Kelly offered Roscoe a few peace offerings of bread, bacon, and milk. The tomcat greedily accepted. Kelly stroked the purring cat’s orange fur.

“I think that makes us even now,” Kelly said to the old tomcat.

While on his haunches, Kelly instinctively looked up and around the house. There, using his peripheral vision, he saw something strange about the strongbox. It had moved.

At least Kelly thought it had moved. However, thinking rationally, Kelly knew that boxes, especially strongboxes from the Victorian era, do not move on their own. Kelly stood up and moved to examine the strongbox just to be sure, but then stopped. He chided himself inside for being so superstitious. Life is not a horror movie, he told himself. Best to return to the real world where there is bacon and more coffee.

Kim joined him an hour later. She did not mind cold bacon and cold coffee. She consumed both with gusto. She spent the rest of her Saturday lazily reading magazine articles and watching reality television. Kelly killed two hours by exercising at the neighborhood YMCA. He focused on his shoulders and chest, and he abused the gym’s Nautilus machines until his entire torso hurt. It was a good hurt, as Kelly knew that that hurt indicated that he was finally growing out of his chicken chest.

Kelly returned home in time for lunch. Kim fed him a meatball sub with big and thick meatballs coated in steaming marinara sauce. Kelly ate two, drank some more coffee, and then joined Kim on the couch. They watched TV until long after nightfall. They stopped only to have a small dinner consisting of chicken salad, white wine, and the rest of the sugar cream pie. As with the night before, they made love with two full stomachs. Both snored.

Again, in the early hours of Sunday morning, the strange pitter-patter crept through the house. This time the noise was stronger and had more substance. It sounded heavy, almost as if something with weight was walking through the house. The noise grew and grew until the whole house reverberated with the noise.

There was another noise too. Kim, laying on her back, was moaning with carnal delight. Her back arched and her hips thrusts forward as she wiggled to the left and right. Her moaning turned to dirty words said in a hushed whisper. They were filthy words—far filthier than any that Kim had ever said before. Kelly heard the words, but he heard them as dream words spoken in a dream language. He smiled and listened to his wife writhe in pleasure. Kelly congratulated himself for his vigor and his bedroom prowess. A warm sensation washed over him. It felt like the flush of victory. The sensation was so strong that Kelly woke up. He felt hot and turned on his side. His hooded eyes saw his wife, who was also awake and leaning against the bed’s large headboard.

“I was that good, right?” Kelly asked.

Kim said nothing. She maintained a frozen position and stared into the darkness. Kelly recognized that something other than lust was behind wife’s eyes. In a word, she looked terrified.

“What’s wrong?”

Nothing. I think I had a nightmare too,” she said.

“Didn’t sound like a nightmare to me. Sounded like something very different to my ears.”

“I…I…don’t know. It’s just weird,” Kim said.

Kelly tried to comfort his wife by placing one of his hands on her inner thigh. He stroked her clammy skin and inched closer to her body in a not-so-subtle effort to display his arousal. She brushed him away.

“No, no, please. I just want to go back to sleep. I’m sorry.” With that, Kim rolled on her side and closed her eyes. Kelly listened to her breathe for minutes before he too fell back asleep.

Kelly’s sleep was rough. He tossed and turned and tried to dose but gave up the ghost at four a.m. He left his sleeping wife and made his way into the kitchen. He brewed coffee and waited for the world to wake up with him. He found no takers as he began pacing the silent house back and forth. Well, not entirely silent, as Kelly found out the closer he got to the porch. A low rumbling, a sound fraught with fear and anger, was heard. Kelly knew that the noise was coming from Roscoe. What he did not know was what was causing the tomcat to make that noise.

It was the strongbox.

Kelly found Roscoe with his ears pinned back, his hair standing up, and his back arched. Roscoe was crouched, tail down, and ready to pounce on the piece of furniture. Was something in the box, Kelly asked himself. Not possible. He made several noises to get Roscoe to leave. When these failed, Kelly resorted to gently nudging the cat with his foot. This provoked Roscoe into furious action. He swiped at Kelly’s foot with his paws, drawing small specks of blood from underneath the sock.

“Damn cat!” Kelly said through gritted teeth. He reached down and removed the sock to tend to his wound. It was bleeding, but only a minor cut. He cleaned it and dressed it in the bathroom sink. He then poured a new cup of coffee and sat down. He stewed about Roscoe. He thought of ingenious and cruel ways to get back at the cat, with each being more ridiculous than the next. He was still in the middle of debating different tortures when a groggy Kim joined him in the kitchen.

“Sorry about earlier,” she said. “I do not know why I was doing that.” She did not need to be specific; Kelly knew that she was talking about the erotic events that had happened just a few hours before.

“I had a bad nightmare last night. I guess that makes us even.”

“I guess so,” Kim said with a small laugh. “Maybe we are more stressed out than we think. I mean, this is our first house. What comes next is the baby.”

“Sounds wonderful to me,” Kelly said. “Would you prefer a boy or a girl?”

Kim did not respond. She instead looked down. Kelly could see the discomfort and even fear in her eyes.

“What did you see? I mean in your dream.”

“I can’t say. I mean, I feel that I saw something bad. Something like a black shape hovering over me. What’s that demon that rapes people in their sleep?”

“Succubus,” Kelly said.

“No, no. That demon targets men. I think the demon that attacks women is called an incubus.”

“No, that’s a terrible band from the 2000s,” Kelly said, trying to inject levity. It failed. Kim shook her shoulders a little, almost as if she was brushing off a possession.

“I learned this morning that we’re not the only ones going crazy,” Kelly said. “Roscoe is going nutty too. I found him hissing at the strongbox. When I tried to get him to stop, he scratched the crap out of my foot.”

“He just does not like you. Serves you right for torturing him,” Kim said with surprising venom. One of the few spore spots in their relationship was Kim’s residual anger over Kelly’s past crimes concerning her cat. Namely, during the earliest days of their relationship, Kelly would crawl around the house scaring Roscoe. Each time became more elaborate, with masks, loud whistles, etc. Each interaction was filmed for the delight of Kelly’s handful of YouTube followers. When drunk one night, Kelly made the poor choice of admitting his general disdain for cats. Kim gave him a major tongue-lashing that night, and since then maintained a low simmer of anger against her husband for his anti-feline stance.

Kelly wanted to say something to defend himself, but he kept quiet. He let his wife do her own thing for the rest of the day, which meant nothing at all. Kim parked herself on the couch and did not move. Kelly joined her for a few hours, went back to the gym for a limp and uninspired leg day, and took a stroll through their neighborhood. Both let Sunday lethargy consume them. They fell asleep early without making love.

Again, as with the previous two nights, the pitter-patter noise echoed through the house. For the first time though, Kelly heard it. Wide-awake, he heard the soft creeping of the noise. With his senses alert, Kelly also looked over at his wife. She was sleeping, yes, but she was also moaning. Kelly traced the outlines of her arms underneath covers. Kim moved with dexterous fluidity while her hands played the maestro and conducted an erotic symphony. This was a performance for someone else—some dream figure rather than Kelly.

The pitter-patter grew louder. Kelly followed the noise, but could never get a full grasp on its origin. The noise moved with an unnatural quickness through the house. Before long, Kelly found himself by the porch. He saw the strongbox. It was locked shut. Kelly pulled up on the lid to make sure. He shook the box. He heard nothing inside. Everything was in order except the floor. There, in the ambient light from the city outside the windows, Kelly saw that the blood—his blood—had gone from small droplets to streaks. Someone or something had shifted the blood around. To his horror, Kelly saw that the stains looked like someone had run their finger through the blood. To drink? To eat? Kelly could not be sure.

The pitter-patter grew louder and somehow deeper. Kelly followed the source again to the kitchen. There, on the kitchen counter, was Roscoe. Roscoe was dead. The tomcat was on its side, with its stomach sliced open. The entrails curled out of the corpse like wet onion rings. Blood leaked everywhere. A river of crimson existed on the new kitchen floor. Kelly tried his best to clean up the mess. He stuffed the guts back into the stomach’s cavity, but they just spilled out again. He had better luck mopping up the blood. He was almost finished with his first roll of paper towels when he heard his wife. It was obvious that she was in the midst of sexual euphoria. The noise made Kelly seethe with unbridled rage.

As illogical as it sounds, Kelly returned to his bedroom with the intention of denying the dream entity any more pleasure. He wanted to end the carnal association somehow, even despite what he perceived to be its lack of material substance. Instead, when Kelly entered the room, he found something that shocked him into a complete freeze.

There, on top of Kelly’s wife, was a shadow darker than the night around it. The figure was so black that Kelly could easily discern its outline. The entity was the size of an adolescent—a veritable imp of unknown perversion. Its back was curved at an unnatural angle. Its spine was sprinkled with sharp and dark quills. Above the creature’s head was a cloud of vapor that smelled slightly of smoke. In an instant, Kelly remembered bonfires from his youth. Despite the scene’s horror, that one sweet memory allowed Kelly enough sanity to try and force the creature off his wife. Kelly jumped on the entity and attempted to wrestle it to the ground. The figure was covered in a slick ooze or slime that made it slippery. This required Kelly to use all of his strength just to pin the strange apparition to the bed. Kelly fought with a primordial savagery. He punched, kicked, and bit the entity until he heard it wail. He used his elbows to smash its face and crush its rib cage. His thumbs became knives as he pushed and severed the eyeballs from their sockets. He felt all of this destruction rather than see it. When he was done, a wave of exhaustion came over him. Kelly collapsed on the floor and did not awake until the next morning.

The sun shined on Kelly’s face. It brought him back to life thanks to its spring warmth. First his left eye blinked, and then both eyes fluttered like a butterfly’s wings. Kelly felt the crust of some hardened liquid around his eyes. He knew it was blood when he sat up and looked down at his clothes. His old t-shirt and sweatpants were caked in blood. The creature’s blood, he thought. But wait! The blood was the same crimson color as a human’s. Should not a demon’s blood be black, Kelly thought. To his growing horror, Kelly heard the pitter-patter noise again. This was its first appearance during the day. It forced Kelly to his feet, which also forced Kelly to look down at the bed. Kim was there. His once-beautiful wife was a mass of bruised and battered pulp. Her face was disfigured beyond recognition. Numerous blows had caved in her chest. His blows, Kelly realized. He had murdered his own beloved.

The pitter-patter grew deafening. Kelly walked backwards out of the bedroom. He walked past the kitchen where Roscoe’s remains were decomposing. He walked past the living room and its many great memories. He walked towards the porch and the strongbox. There, despite the haze of hysteria, Kelly saw the thin wisps of smoke coming from the strongbox’s locked keyhole. The smoke smelled like a bonfire.

***

Allan hated the summer. Always had. However, that summer was particularly awful for him because of the ants. Ants were everywhere in Allan’s first floor apartment. He set up traps, sprayed ridiculous amounts of Raid, and called the maintenance team each week until they took his complaints seriously. Allan knew that things were not in his favor. The graduate student was not only behind on his rent (which meant that the landlord could not care less about his ant problem), but was also one of the few renters left in the complex. Everyone else in the building owned their apartments, which they called their “homes.” These people annoyed Allan to no end. He especially hated the stuck up couple who lived above him. Not only did he never see or interact with them, but also Allan blamed their filthy habits for the inundation of ants in his apartment. Allan knew it had to their mess. That was the only logical conclusion he could make.

Finally, just before that awful August ended, Allan paid for his own exterminator. The man who arrived was covered in tattoos. Within five minutes of meeting Allan, the exterminator admitted to being an ex-con. Molestation, he said. With a minor, Allan finished the sentence in his head. He did not care; just get rid of the damn ants, his eyes pleaded.

Allan let the exterminator work in peace for an hour. He drank tea and read a textbook. He wanted to go back to working on his dissertation, but knew that the distraction of having a stranger in his apartment was enough to disrupt the intense thinking required for crafting an excellent, fail-proof chapter. When the hour was up, the exterminator said something to Allan about finding a colony. The man called it “the mother load.”

“I think your neighbors upstairs have a lot of explaining to do,” the exterminator said.

Yes! There it was—Allan was vindicated. He asked the exterminator to put his findings in writing. Allan then sent this information in an email to the landlord. This set off a chain reaction. The landlord and his maintenance team, after months of inactivity on the issue, moved with uncanny speed. The next day Allan saw them standing outside of the apartment upstairs. He heard them knock, then pound on the front door. Allan took great glee in hearing the landlord, a greasy, little man with a Greek accent, says something about opening the door, with or without permission. Allan heard a lot of heavy work boots marching around upstairs, and then nothing.

Complete silence.

The noises would not start up again until the police came, followed by an ambulance and a fire truck. Allan had never seen so many uniformed men before. He wanted to know what was up, but was too timid to ask. So he waited for a few days. Each day he scrolled the Internet for information. When he found what he wanted, the news made him vomit. After cleaning himself off, the broke graduate student made plans to move.

***

Two days ago, city officials discovered the body of Kim Little, 36, in the apartment that she shared with her husband, Kelly Little, 37. Homicide investigators said that Mrs. Little had been dead for several months. They also admitted to finding the decomposing body of a cat left in the couple’s kitchen. As for Mr. Little, responding officers said that they found the man naked, covered in dried blood and excrement, and vigorously hacking away at an antique lockbox. By all appearances, Mr. Little had been trying to open the box for some time. However, the object in question was closed shut and locked when it was taken into police custody.

(Bio: Benjamin Welton is a writer based in New England. His short story collection, “Sick Inside the Citadel,” and volume of poetry, “PANIC,” are both available from Terror House Press. He has a website here. As well as a couple of blogs, here and here. His books “Sick Inside the Citadel” and “Panic” can be found on Amazon here, and here.)

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