Sunday, September 18, 2011

THE BOX

I’m not an excessively dark and moody person, right?  I have my moments of relative cheer.  I have ideas for stories and poems in my little notebook, and some of them are not miserable.  There are writing prompts about flowers, and parrots, and happy coincidences, and cheerful crap like that.  In fact, I just finished a three-year-long contract negotiation that resolved better than I had any reasonable expectation it would, and I’m on the cusp of getting ratification and closing the damn thing out permanently.  I took a bike ride last weekend, albeit a short one; I had a bit of a run in the park yesterday.  The boys are delightful and Kel is back from a week on the road.  Hell, the sun even shone all damn day long today.  I’m not a morbid guy. 

And still....

I have had this idea for a while, about a short story.  Something relating to eeeevilness.  One of those notions that just gets into my brains and clogs up the creative works for a while.  In my scrivening book, a page or two of it kept burbling up in the midst of all the other stuff I’d write - two pages, then a break, then two more, then four pages, then another six… the story seemed to luxuriate in my outbox, slowly evolving (or eeeevolving) and developing.  I was never sure where it was going but that never stopped me before.  It was something I kept having to work on before I could work on other things.  It rode me like a harpy, and some rides you just have to take to the end before you’re done with them - or them, with you. 

Thus it is that I completed my minum opus two weeks ago, and spent my plentiful free time (11:25 pm - 12:15 am daily) all last week editing it and typing it up.  And now I’m ready to move on with my life, so I am pleased to impose upon those of you who like fiction and creepiness, a bit of a misbegotten phantasy.  I leave it for you in the extended entry, in case you don’t feel like clicking through, and so those of you who still visit the site in its original (non-RSS-feed) form aren’t inundated by its length as you scroll through to my obviously very popular recipes below.  Well this is a recipe too, I suppose - a recipe for DAMNATION.  Eat hearty.

THE BOX

My basic problem was being entirely too clever for my own good.  It wasn’t just that I could build anything I needed and fix anything that had ever broken - I lacked the ability to accept any reality I couldn’t explain on my own terms.  As a result, I seem to have gone and messed with something better left un-messed-with.

I don’t shop at Best Buy.  Any electronic gadget I ever needed, I’ve been able to find discarded on the sidewalk.  I started with radios and tape players - usually all I needed to do was to reconnect a wire or replace a transistor or solenoid, and I’d be all set up and better than new.  I was constantly upgrading my television - whatever was broken in a new one I’d discover abandoned at the curb, I could always fix with a replacement part from what I already had at home.  Computers were like playgrounds for me, playgrounds that were constantly being expanded and upgraded every time I found a new motherboard or hard drive in the gutter - and you’d be surprised how often that happens if you keep your eyes open.  My scavenging filled my workroom with the hum of multiple CPUs all networked to a menagerie of different monitors; I even restored most of the data the original owners thought they’d erased so I had massive compiled libraries of music, games, porn, and financial information.  But none of that was interesting to me in and of itself - I only cared about what I acquired as articles of acquisition, valuable because I’d acquired them for free.  I could have bought anything I wanted by pretending electronically to be any of my dozens of benefactors.  But I never crossed that line - didn’t feel the need to.  I could find and fix and build whatever I wanted; why should I resort to fraud?  It seemed an unnecessary risk.  As if I knew what risks I was actually taking.

My DVR was, like everything else I plugged in at home, a cobbled-together amalgam of hard disks, receivers, sockets and sensors, which I operated with a remote originally intended for a high-end lighting system.  It worked pretty well for what it was, but it was definitely first generation - no streaming media or shopping or any of that other good stuff.  None of which meant very much to me initially.  However, I eventually formed the impression that it would be nice to have the extra capability a more modernized box would offer. And it wasn’t long after that, that I scavenged up something I’d have been wiser to have left where I’d found it.

Dumpsters are renowned sources of abandoned treasure.  Some folk get their groceries from them - that always seemed a little extreme to me.  I stuck with furniture, pharmaceuticals, and electronics.  I hadn’t bought a table, bottle of Excedrin, or needless to say a piece of wired hardware, in a decade.  Dumpsters have been my primary household furnishings resource. I’m very comfortable inside them. I like the regularity of their geometry, and their cozy dimensions.  I never knew what I’d find in them, either.  Usually there was nothing worth my effort, and it was easy enough to tell so.  But sometimes I’d discover all sorts of exotic hardware, high-end products, factory parts in pristine boxes, or even raw materials left over from god knows what kind of do-it-yourselfer’s failed project.  People get over their heads so easily with that sort of thing.  And as I reaped the gleanings of their failures, I made fun of them for it.  I thought they were ridiculous for having tried something so far beyond their capacities, that they just gave up and tossed the whole lot of it.  This is exactly how I got in so far over my own head.  I didn’t see what I was doing until it was too late to do anything about it.

If electronics was my hobby, my sub-hobby was spotting promising dumpsters. Some were obvious, like around colleges and repair shops, but for that very reason it was hard to beat the crowds and get to them while there was anything good left inside them.  My best sources tended to be more out of the way - construction sites where neighbors might take advantage of poorly-secured refuse boxes, or behind apartment buildings just before the end of the month when people were getting ready to move, and especially religious institutions.  This last one was prime.  People would donate all kinds of crazy stuff to their local church or synagogue or Vedic temple or mosque.  Denomination was irrelevant - the key criterion was whether the building was in good repair.  Any spiritual refuge with a decently new roof and regularly-washed windows would probably have a dumpster out back where I’d have a fair chance of finding an audio system, microwave, or old hard drive I could use.  Congregants donate anything they’ve recently replaced at home, so a well-heeled church cycles through all its electronics pretty regularly.

The key is, the place needs to look good.  A sketchy little chapel won’t have much to offer - its flock won’t be making those tasty donations that eventually wind up in the trash when a new one comes along.  Anything they get, which probably isn’t much, they keep for themselves.  And of course, you need to watch out for churches that god has forsaken.  But that was a lesson I didn’t learn till recently.

I didn’t previously put much stock in godliness. Churches were all about the same to me - the only serious distinction among them was the quality of their discarded technology.  So when I found myself in an unfamiliar part of town and stumbled across an unfamiliar church, that’s all I considered.  The Black Church - for so it was named in red letters printed on its black-painted edifice - was, by my standards, one hell of a good church.

That’s just what I said to myself as I threw back the lid of their dumpster - “this is one hella good church.” I didn’t even say it ironically.  I certainly didn’t pay any attention to the painted-over windows, the industrial lock on the industrial door, the lack of any traditional iconography or anything else that might welcome a wayward soul.  In the back of my mind I registered a general sense of standoffishness, and I was a little curious about all the stained and torn bibles and Psalters that carpeted their sour-smelling dumpster.  But the building was in great shape, newly painted and built solidly.  I had better things to think about than their theological eccentricities, being distracted as I was by an unexpected - and unprecedented - trove of electronic parts.  And not just regular parts, either- these were items someone had really invested in.  I was pretty sure I knew what some of it was, but much of it seemed to be home-built components of some larger project more complex and sophisticated than any I’d previously encountered.

The stuff in that dumpster was filthy, too - so encrusted with dust and unsavory-looking spatters I couldn’t really tell what I had found.  The mother boards looked hand-made, and all the soldering seemed to be gold - but the light was poor and there was too much to look at for me to see any of it very clearly.  I just scrounged around for a milk crate, loaded up the bits that seemed most promising, and hauled them away as quick as I could.  I made sure to remember where I was so I could come back and cart off more, but when I returned the next day with a big empty suitcase I found that someone had torched the dumpster and the Black Church itself as well.  The road was full of dirty puddles, the windows were freshly blackened with soot and boarded up, and the dumpster had literally melted in on itself.  Somebody had taken special pains to destroy any trace of what had once been in there.  It should have made me suspicious but I just got peeved.  I’d gone quite a bit out of my way to scavenge there.  In retrospect, I should have been grateful.

Back home I started cleaning my take and figuring out what I had.  Much of it was really idiosyncratic - I could see someone had put a lot of effort into it but I had no idea why.  But there was a set of motherboards (black with circuits laid out in hypnotically regular patterns) and memory units (strangely heavy and covered with a dense patterns of runes etched painstakingly into the case) that I was sure I could use as the core for a sweet DVR.  I’d even recovered a remote with all the key DVR commands on it - play, mute, record, slo-mo, inputs, volume, channel.  It was a tidy piece of equipment, a far step above what I’d been using.  I’d have guessed it was a stock product except for two things - neatly embossed in the plastic of the back of the body was the image of some sort of goat-horned head, and right up top in front where the manufacturer usually puts a button with a trademarked logo that brings up the primary operating menu, instead there was a shining black button labeled “Escape.” I wasn’t sure what it did, but I figured the best way to find out was for me to slap the parts together and give them a try.

It would be an understatement to say the parts were unusual, and I was repeatedly surprised to see how they worked together.  I would randomly hold a mystery component over the motherboard and then they’d literally snap into place with a static click - suddenly, I had installed an integrated power source, an input switch, a receiver.  The receiver even seemed to be picking up a networked signal, though over what network and how it was picking it up I had no idea.  That would have been a good time to stop and think about what I was doing, rebuilding questionable hardware from a burned-out perverse-looking church.  Such a question never occurred to me.  At the time I was actually pretty stoked.

For being such a motley collection of mysterious components, they cleaned up nicely and came together quickly.  It was getting on to suppertime on a lowering late winter evening when I slid the board into the appropriate slot in the matte-black, featureless case.  Even though nothing was plugged in nor had been for hours, a deep throbbing shock ran up my arm, a shimmering jolt of energy as the chassis itself seemed to pull together and seize up.  This box wanted to be tested.  So that’s what I did.

The light was fading from the western sky as I hauled the box to my biggest monitor to give it a test drive.  I slipped two AAs into the remote and I swear I heard something chuckle and hiss in it; ignoring that as mechanically unlikely, I plugged the box into the wall and the monitor and felt my fillings chill down in my molars.  The remote, when I reached down to pick it up, was quivering.  The only thing I was thinking was how great it would be to show this system off eventually, but the quivering remote should have gotten more of my attention.

The light in the room was anemic, blue, confusing.  The monitor was large and bright - it fuddled my eyes so shadows seemed solid and familiar corners seemed to shelter secrets.  I was excited to see what I’d wrought.  The remote was hot in my hand but that didn’t even register against my eagerness to hit the power button.  The screen flashed dark for a moment, a pane of black before the main menu materialized.  I had only hooked the box to an electrical socket so the network connectivity intrigued me and distracted me from a flash of disquietude I felt when that black frame zipped by.  I wasn’t sure it had been completely black, and whatever else had been there had given me a momentary apprehension that I shouldn’t have seen it.  I paid no nevermind.  I wanted to see what channels I had and if there was anything saved to memory.

I was extremely impressed with the list of channels.  It looked like everything available in my market, if not more - all the standard channels, all the premium channels, all the pay-per-view, all the specialty channels like hobbies and fringe sports and ethnic broadcasts in obscure languages.  The variety was sort of overwhelming so I navigated over to the saved programming to see what I’d inherited.

It was like a freaking library. The list came up in tiny letters, hundreds of programs at a time, and thousands of screens of listings.  There was loads of content under every genre, from kids to porn, from documentary to fantasy, from sports to horror.  It was too much.  Just to check, though, I selected a program by punching some random buttons to see how nicely it had recorded.  The screen went black again for a moment before the programming started, and in that moment I thought I saw it again, or felt it - something hidden behind the blackness, something flitting as the program loaded.  I caught myself tensing up, feeling suddenly unwell - and then credits, music, a Russian flick about a haunted village, cheesy and obvious but perfectly recorded.  My sudden sense of discomfort faded, physically at least.  But that was twice I had felt a presence and a premonition, and the anxiety stuck with me.  I walked out for a bucket of chicken and some fresh air before diving back in to explore any further.

By the time I got back the night had fully fallen, and my apartment was lit only by the red and green running lights of the various machines I’d left plugged in.  I had shaken off that childish sense that something was wrong and my curiosity had come back stronger than ever.  I resumed my place on the ramshackle couch and grabbed the remote.  I noticed how it felt this time - warm and shivering, like a scared little animal.  It was unpleasant at first, and then intriguing, and finally sort of thrilling.  My fingers curled around the remote and automatically hit the power button.  I wanted to see more of what I now possessed.

When the box turned on, I didn’t think I saw something - I was sure of it.  What I saw, wasn’t clear to me - like a face in the window of a passing car, it slid past too fast to be recognized.  Still, it made me shudder and gave me a headache strong enough to make me gasp.  When the menu screen flickered on, bright and clear, I couldn’t really rid myself of the ugly feeling in my head, and my eyes cringed in their sockets. But those feelings passed as I realized that there were some changes to my channel line-up - some of the kiddie and sports stations didn’t seem to be there anymore.  There was still a huge variety, but not quite as huge as it had been before So be it; I wasn’t a big fan of broadcast teevee anyway.  The library was what interested me.

I cursored over to the recorded programming.  As I did, I sensed that same something in the momentary blackness between active screens.  I was waiting for it this time, watching.  Maybe that’s why it sort of felt like the blackness was a fraction of a second longer this time than it had been previously.  Still, I couldn’t quite make out what I was seeing - only a grey gleam racing around in that brief void, a pulse of energy that was not part of the regular broadcast schedule I felt it in the back of my skull and the pit of my stomach, and I didn’t care for it.  But then the library menu appeared and I diverted myself by reviewing it.  I was sure there was less there now.  There had been dozens of titles beginning with an angstrom - now I saw only a handful.  The Archie cartoons were gone, and All in the Family and most of the old baseball and basketball games.  Archery remained.  Not that I cared to watch any of these, but it seemed strange to be losing content like that.  I selected a Marx Bros flick but when I clicked through to it that weird something behind the screen flashed past yet again, and I couldn’t make myself laugh at anything for the whole movie.  I’m not sure why I even watched it.  I wanted to be in the mood to laugh, but I really wasn’t.

The movie ended and I felt spent, barely energized enough to turn off the set, which I found inexplicably hard to make myself do.  As the screen evaporated to black, I saw in it eyes that locked onto mine.  I fell quickly asleep.  My dreams were unsettled.

I awoke still on the couch, hungry and nauseated.  My hand was still curled around the remote, and my thumb rested on the power button.  As I watched, my thumb automatically pressed down and the screen roused itself.  It took a second to warm up in the chilly room - more than enough time to notice those same two patches of silver-grey, the orb of lighter darkness in which they were set, a smear of rust twisted beneath them. I felt watched, even once the screen leaped back to life with my channel listings.  There were still hundreds of channels, but not thousands.  Nothing for kids anymore; no sports; no sitcoms.  Lots of history and church stuff and heavy movies.  The erosion of the options perplexed me; I couldn’t think of any mechanical explanation.  I clicked back to the library. 

I wasn’t clear exactly why I did this - I hadn’t been off the couch in hours, there were other things I wanted to do.  But I clicked to the library anyway and lost my breath for a second as the screens shifted and something in there peered out at me.  There were a lot fewer options once the screen came back, too - narrowing down to religion, documentary, and dark cinema.  I soon found myself watching Evil Dead in Portuguese.  I’d seen it before, but in a foreign tongue it just felt creepier.  I fell asleep on the couch again before the movie ended, but it kept playing inside my head.

When I awoke again my bucket of chicken was ice cold and smelled wrong. I decided to get up and toss it, since the daylight was waning and I’d killed god knows how many hours staring at the tube.  When I shifted I felt a clammy coldness around my pelvis - I’d wet myself.  Oh well, it was a free couch, and since the damage was already done I persuaded myself to sit back again to watch more teevee and just put up with it.  As I resettled myself my thumb hit the menu button on the remote that still lay cradled in my palm.  The screen was on.  I could manage a little longer in wet jeans. Somehow I needed to see what was happening on teevee. 

I was down to dozens, not thousands, of channels, and they all seemed to be religious, historical, or movies.  I started scrolling through for programming information and it was all stuff about madness, massacres, extinction, and damnation.  As I peered at the listings I noticed a tiny sliver at the bottom of the screen, a black band with two vaguely gray-green spots that pulsed as I watched them.  A bug, I figured - something I could fix by recalibrating the receiver or the monitor or something.  Later.  I had some teevee to watch.  It could wait.  Of course, it was already waiting, and the teevee was watching me.

I clicked through again to the library. That sliver at the foot of the screen leaped up and consumed the whole screen briefly; those pulsing spots turned for an instant into phosphorescent coals in pitch-dark pits, over a gray glob that felt unpleasantly familiar and a rippling red slash that looked like ti had been cut into the screen itself and was bleeding out.  It was more like a face than anything else, and it hung there for a second or two - an eternity to the quickness of the mind’s eye that wished immediately to have never seen it in the first place, to have not imagined those random bursts of energy as ghastly features.  But I couldn’t unsee it, and when the library finally came up I had trouble looking at the printed titles even though there were only a few hundred now: programs about exorcism and history’s greatest monsters, movies about being trapped or eaten or tortured.  The sun had gone down again but I left the lights off.  Things felt more comfortable in the dark.

I raised the remote to my face and tried to focus on it in the deceptive illumination of the big screen. I turned it over and the face embossed on its reverse snarled at me - seemed almost animated as the light played off the glossy lines, making the beard and horns shimmer. I turned it over again and tried to lose myself in the rubberized buttons - digits, commands, simple shapes like FF arrows and cursor control carats and the split cube of the pause button. Their familiarity was comforting, It almost distracted me from that button at the top, the top-level menu button I’d never needed to push.  The regular “menu” button had always brought up the options I wanted.  My breath was steaming in the screen-lit room, but I felt sweaty and clammy.  My thumb slid across the face of the remote, hovered over the shiny dark button at the top.  It still said “Escape” on it. In my heart I knew what I was doing when I pressed it, but my mind just turned itself off. The button was so cold under my thumb; the action when I pushed down on it was so clean and crisp. So yeah, I pressed it.  I pressed “Escape.”

The screen went black - very black, like it was sucking up all the light from every source in the room.  Black, except for eyes that lit up, triumphant and alert.  Something like a nose pressed forward into the screen and through it, bulbous, withered, physically present.  A chin, too, surged into dimensionality, sharp and colorless, pointing at me accusatorily.  But the mouth, that was what really focused my thinking. Finally.  It was lipless and livid, yet a garish red inside with sharp short teeth spaced wide apart, and a long dark tongue that reached out toward me. I watched that tongue stretch wetly across the room, even as the face emerged from the screen followed by a scabbed scalp, a wattled throat, bent and wizened shoulders all of a decomposing gray.  The tongue reached out right at me and fixated my attention. It was just inches from my face when, with a spasm, my thumb hit the power button on the remote again.  I had somehow overridden myself and turned the infernal thing off.  I sat panting in the dark for a moment, eyes bugging, heart racing. I had come too close; this had been a very narrow escape.  From what, I couldn’t say - but there was no denying that, whatever it was, it really had been there - and it had been there all along.

The remote was heating up in my hand, which was shaking and cramping around it.  I wanted to throw it across the room but all I could manage was to set it down. My mouth felt like a compost heap and my eyes were burning, but I’d shut whatever I’d seen back into its box. I expected that, soon, I’d even feel a measure of relief.

Instead, a raspy voice whistled through my workroom, from every speaker and soundbox in every electronic toy in my possession, all through the whole apartment. It was laughing as it spoke to me - “Don’t you know what ‘essssscape’ means?” The monitor clicked back on, a searing brightness in the murky room; at the same time, with a simultaneous electrical snap like the coordinated cocking of an arsenal of guns, dozens of other machines clicked on - some of them still in pieces, some not even plugged in. I felt strength ebb from my body as power surged around me. The thing in the monitor waggled its tongue at me lewdly; its fangs glistened and I felt its breath inside my head.  “Too late, hhhhandyman,” it chortled.  Then all hell broke loose. 

that's just the way it seemed to me at 09:33 PM


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