“Step right up, step right up!” the announcer bellowed, waving his brass capped wooden cane in the air. “See the infamous Box of Terror! Experience the bewildering, bewitching, mind-boggling box! All the way from the desert sands of Egypt!” He was wearing a long black cape and a tall Lincolnesque stovepipe hat, but beneath his cape and top hat he wore blue jeans, work boots, and a tee shirt. “See it here and only here, a once in a lifetime experience at the Kansas City King’s Fair!”
The announcer stood in front of a large wooden box. The box looked like a packing crate turned on its side, like something that would be lifted with a fork lift and loaded onto the back of a flatbed or into a boxcar. It was a little smaller than a tool shed and slightly bigger than an outhouse. The box had a single door, no windows, and was painted on the outside with poorly drawn pictures of ghosts, mummies, and werewolves.
For five dollars, the announcer explained, you could enter the Box of Terror. If you lasted for 30 seconds, you got your five dollars back. If you could stay inside the Box of Terror for a full minute, you won the grand prize: One hundred dollars, cash. But in all his years, the announcer promised, he’d never seen anyone take home the prize.
A small crowd had gathered in the dusty Kansas twilight around the energetic announcer and his painted box on the last evening of the Kansas City King’s Fair. The box was one of the few attractions still standing. Most of the rides and games had been broken down and loaded into trucks during the day.
The Box of Terror was not a part of the haunted house. The haunted house, with its painted manikins and UV lights, its rattling chains and smoke machines, its two passenger cars rolling along a small loop of steel track, had already been dismantled. The Box of Terror stood in line with the bearded lady, the merman, the monkey boy, and the glass eater. The Box of Terror was part of the freak show, the first to set up and the last to breakdown.
“What’s inside?” a young man no older than 17 asked, stepping towards the announcer and the wooden box.
“Terror,” the announcer said simply.
The young man opened his wallet and removed a five-dollar bill.
“I don’t suppose you’re gunna leave the lights on are you?” he said, after handing over his money. Several people in the crowd chuckled. The announcer smiled, shook his head and opened the door.
“Here goes nothing,” the young man said, and stepped inside.
Someone towards the back of the crowd began counting and soon everyone joined in. “one, two, three, four, five, six . . .” Twirling his cane in a circle above his head, the announcer spoke in a language that sounded like Latin, but not quite. “seven, eight, nine, ten . . .” When they reached 18, the announcer said, “Maybe he’s going to get his five dollars back. He wouldn’t be the first. It doesn’t happen often, but he wouldn’t be the first.” Before the crowd could reach 21, the young man came bursting through the door.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, “How the hell did you do that?”
“Do what?” Someone shouted, “What happened?”
“It’s like there’s something in there with you,” the boy said, “Something pressing down on you.” He walked in a circle around the box, feeling the wood with his hands as he went. “He must blow air in there somehow. All of a sudden it was like there was too much pressure. I felt like my ears were going to pop. There was something cold and heavy trying to hold me down. Then I felt like I was falling.” The boy looked at the announcer. “You got hydraulics under there don’t you?”
“Nothing like that, I assure you,” the announcer said.
“Did anybody see the box move?” the boy asked the crowd.
No one had seen anything.
“There are no mechanics involved ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, holding his cane and one open hand up to the crowd, as though showing his open palm proved his honesty. “Your safety is one hundred percent guaranteed.”
A few people checked their watches and walked away. It was nearly nine o’clock on a Sunday night. The Kansas City King’s Fair closed at ten, and for most, Monday morning saw the beginning of the workweek. Just as the crowd seemed to lose interest, a fat man who’d been hungrily devouring a hotdog and dripping mustard onto his sweat stained tee shirt stepped forward.
“I gotta try this,” the fat man said, after stuffing the last of the hotdog into is mouth. He handed forth his five dollars and the announcer opened the door.
“Try putting your fingers in your ears,” the boy yelled before the fat man stepped inside. “I bet I could’ve lasted longer if I’d done that.”
Once again, what was left of the crowd started counting. This time, rather than the singsong faux Latin, the announcer spoke in harsh guttural tones, three syllables only, little more than grunts. By the time they’d counted to six. The door swung open.
The fat man came out flushed and panting. His hair was slick with sweat and his dirty white tee shirt was sticking to his skin. He pushed his way through the crowd, holding his hands out in front of him as though he’d lost his vision. When he reached the crowd’s edge, he dropped to his knees and vomited.
“Its not right in there,” he said, wiping puke and saliva from his mouth with the back of his hand, “It’s not fucking right in there.”
Voices rose up among the crowd. “Hey,” someone shouted, “What the hell’s going on here?” Several people huddled around the panting fat man. “Are you all right mister?” someone asked, helping him to his feet. The fat man rose slowly. He wobbled, like a boxer who’d been knocked to the canvas and probably should have stayed down. All the color drained from his fleshy face. After several seconds of silence, the fat man pointed at the box and said, “That place is poison.” One of the men who had helped the fat man to his feet glared at the announcer. “What are you doing to people in there?” he shouted.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, it is nothing more than a trick of the mind, a stimulation of the fight or flight response latent in all human beings, a claustrophobia induced adrenaline surge.”
“I still say you got hydraulics under there,” the boy said.
“Did you smell anything funny mister?” someone asked the fat man, “Maybe he’s using gas or something.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” the fat man said, still wiping his mouth. “Maybe I just got sick. Maybe it was the fuck’n hotdog. It’s hard to think about it now.”
“You sure you didn’t smell any gas? Cuz if he’s using gas you can sue him. He ain’t supposed to use no gas.”
“No, I don’t think so,” the fat man said, “but there was a noise. Didn’t you hear the noise? Like a baby crying, or some type of animal screaming?”
“I didn’t hear anything mister.”
“When a man is shut into a dark enclosure,” the announcer said, “his pituitary gland produces a catecholamine surge, and the imagination runs wild.”
Towards the crowd’s periphery, a man in a yellow shirt was holding a thin blond haired woman by the arm. The thin blond woman, who was a good foot and a half shorter than the broad shouldered man, was holding a small stuffed pink elephant, and was trying (but not really trying) to pull away.
“I saw the way you were looking at that asshole at the dunk tank. Are you trying to play me for a fool?” the man said.
“I wasn’t looking at him any kind of way, I just smiled at him’s all. I’m just being friendly. You should try it sometime,” the blond haired woman said, stroking her pink elephant’s polyester fur.
The man let go of the woman’s arm and snorted. “You’re always flirting with people. You make me look like a goddamn fool.”
“For the last time, I wasn’t flirting. Now hold my elephant, I want to go inside that box.”
“Goddamn it,” the man said, “we’ve been here all day. I’m supposed to meet the guys tonight.”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
The blond handed him the stuffed pink elephant, angled through the thinning crowd, and walked up to the announcer.
“There’s no gas in there, right?”
“No gas, I promise,” the announcer answered, winking at the girl, then louder to the crowd, “Ladies and Gentlemen, there is nothing in The Box of Terror, save the fear you carry with you.”
The girl blew a kiss to the man in the yellow shirt, winked at the announcer, and stepped inside the box. The man glowered at the announcer and squeezed the stuffed pink elephant.
This time, no one counted. Everyone stood in silence waiting to see what would happen. The man in the yellow shirt glared hotly, his eyes darting back and forth between the door and the announcer. The announcer checked his watch casually, ignoring the man’s brash gaze. It seemed like a long time had passed. People wondered if the girl had won the hundred dollar prize, but the announcer broke the silence saying, “28 seconds. It looks like she’s going to get her five dollars back. See, nothing to it.”
The crowd murmured amongst themselves. When someone suggested that the girl was a plant, working with the announcer, the man in the yellow shirt rounded on him.
“That’s my fucking girl in there. You saying my girl’s a cheat? You saying that she’d work with a crooked son of a bitch like him?” he said, pointing to the announcer.
“No offence mister. I’m just saying’s all.”
“Well keep it to yourself, less you want your jaw busted.”
The man in the yellow shirt squeezed the pink elephant between his powerful hands. Stitch by stitch, the seam along the elephant’s back split open and the downy white stuffing spilled out. The man in the yellow shirt, unaware of how hard he’d been squeezing, looked down at the toy elephant, burst and bleeding stuffing. He threw it on the ground and cursed.
When the announcer called out 32 seconds, the door opened and the blond haired girl stepped out. Her eyes were bloodshot and her mascara ran in long dark streaks over her flushed and swollen cheeks. She paused, blinking as though she’d just stepped into the sunshine. She turned her tear-stained face towards the announcer for a moment, then looked at the crowd as though she hadn’t expected anyone to be there.
The girl walked away from the announcer and the box. She did not ask for her money, nor did she pause or look back. She simply pushed through the crowd, covering her face with her hands, weeping. “What happened?” the man in the yellow shirt asked, but she did not answer him, she quickened her pace and kept on walking. The man followed her, but as he went he turned and pointed at the announcer.
“I’ll be back you son of a bitch. When I find out what the hell you did to her in there, you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
Those who remained stood for a moment looking dumbly at one another. Someone muttered something about a rip-off. Someone else said something about calling the police. But one by one they wandered away and the announcer was left alone, and one by one the lights went out as the Kansas City King’s Fair shut down for the night.
With one hand, the announcer doffed his stovepipe hat. He loosened the bow holding the long black cape round his neck with the other hand, tucked his brass topped cane under his arm and walked over to a light blue Ford pickup parked in a dirt lot beside the box. After tossing the cane, hat and cape inside, he reached across the seat and pulled a half pack of Camel Straights from the glove compartment. Slowly, wearily, the announcer returned to the box. He leaned against its painted exterior and smoked in silence, gazing up at the deepening night.
Two hours later, as Venus was sinking beneath the northwest horizon and Jupiter was rising in the southeast, the man in the yellow shirt returned. He listed slightly to the left as he walked. The announcer was standing beside the box casually smoking a cigarette as though he’d been expecting him. He could smell the man’s whisky soaked sweat from five feet away.
“She hasn’t said a word since she got home,” the man slurred. “She just sits there crying her eyes out. Now you tell me what the hell happened to her in there or so help me God I’ll kill you where you stand.”
“See for yourself,” the announcer said. He dropped his cigarette on the ground and pushed the box’s door open. There was a wet smack and quick rush of air, as though a vacuum seal had broken.
Maybe he does use hydraulics, the man thought. He gazed into the box’s interior. It was pitch black inside, and cool, like peering into a cave. He could feel a slight breeze issue from somewhere inside. The breeze carried the scent of rain and wet earth. “How the hell do you do that?” The man asked as he stepped inside The Box of Terror. The announcer stepped in after him and let the door fall shut behind them.
The first thing the man in the yellow shirt noticed was the light. With the door closed, it should have been dark, but it wasn’t. The walls themselves seemed to ooze an odd damp light. He thought of those deepwater fish. Anglerfish? The ones with the pulsing pale luminous orb bobbing seductively in front of their open mouths; mouths full of needles. The walls, he thought, must be bioluminescent, oozing light the way an open sore oozes puss. What? He shook his head. Open sores, what the hell am I he thinking?
Looking at the announcer, the man in the yellow shirt tried to determine his age, but couldn’t. Why hadn’t he noticed that before? Dressed in that silly cape and top hat, he’d looked younger, but now, he seemed ancient. It wasn’t his face so much, the man thought, as it was his eyes. Cool blue eyes that looked a thousand years old. That’s probably just a carnie trick, he thought. His eyes aren’t really old, and they don’t glow in the dark.
The Box’s inner walls were made of wood and like the announcer’s eyes, felt old. Oak, mahogany maybe? The wood was dark, as though blood stained, like a church pew, or an executioner’s chopping block. Were all church pews blood stained, or was it just a trick of the light? Something to do with the stained glass windows? That’s what it looks like, the man in the yellow shirt thought suddenly, like the inside of a church. And his eyes, like a priest’s eyes, old and hungry.
Jesus Christ, my mind is running away from me. The man looked directly at the announcer. Enough was enough; it was time for some answers. He wanted to ask the announcer, what? Something about his girlfriend? That flirtatious bitch. But when he opened his mouth, he shut it again as quickly as he could. What if something poisonous flies into my mouth? What if I stick my tongue out and bite it off?
The announcer did not speak. Standing stock-still, holding the man in the yellow shirt with his cool blue eyes, he remained silent. The man backed away from the announcer. There was something in those eyes he didn’t like. There was no intelligence behind them. No confidence, no fear, no aggression, no cowardice, nothing. They were completely empty, save a blind mindless hunger, like the eyes of a shark. Like the eyes of a corpse. When the man’s back touched the wall, his body pressed itself flat against the wood and held fast.
Earlier that day, he and the blond girl had gone for a ride together on the Round-Up. He hated the Round-Up, but she wanted to do it, that bitch, and she gets whatever she wants. They’d stood inside the giant circular cage with their backs to the wall. The whole thing started spinning, slowly at first, then faster. Once the ride got going, the floor dropped away and everyone stuck to the wall, held in place by centrifugal force. He’d felt like puking for a good twenty minutes afterwards and swore he’d never ride the cursed thing again. But now he felt like he was back on the Round-Up, pressed flat against the box’s hard wooden wall, held in place by a sudden quadrupling of gravity.
But the wood wasn’t hard, it was soft, like a boggy marsh bed and he was certain that if he relaxed, if he just gave in, he would sink into it. He could smell the marsh all around him, the damp summer smells of rain and earth, the high sweet smell of rotting fish. He could hear the cries of marsh birds and the low throaty bellowing of bullfrogs. The man in the yellow shirt closed his eyes and relaxed. He felt the wood, the impossibly soft wood behind his back, rumble, or did it purr? As if the Box itself was hungry...
But it wasn’t a box, it was a marsh, and he wanted to sink into it, to dissolve into it, to disintegrate into it and become one with the soil, one with the plants. He wanted to become a part of the ecosystem, but when he closed his eyes, he saw her. He saw her in the bedroom where he’d left her, but she was no longer crying, and she wasn’t alone. The man from the dunk tank was with her. He was sitting on the bed beside her and his hand was on her shoulder.
The man opened his eyes. He was no longer held against the wall. Did that really happen? Marching across the floor, around the announcer’s feet, the man in the yellow shirt saw hundreds of little elephants. Tiny pink elephants like the one he’d won at the dunk tank, the one he’d crushed outside. They were dancing, sort of. They didn’t dance well. They whirled drunkenly about, crashing into one another and falling over. At first, he was frightened, but as he watched the dancing elephants, his fear dissipated and he began to laugh. “Stupid elephants,” he said. The announcer didn’t speak. He stood in silence, nodding his head to the music. Was there music? Yes, he could hear tinny, high-pitched circus music playing at a winding irregular speed. It was muffled, as though it came from someplace far away.
He closed his eyes again, and when he did, he could see her once more. Her face was covered in blood and there were wet black holes where her eyes should have been. She was holding her eyes in her hands. The man from the dunk tank was massaging her shoulders and drooling like an idiot, like someone who’d had a frontal lobotomy. There was a hole in the back of his head and the man in the yellow shirt could see something moving around inside. The man from the dunk tank slipped his hands under the girl with the blond hair’s shirt and massaged her bare back. A fat grey-brown rat with tiny red eyes and a blood stained muzzle dropped out of the hole in the back of the man from the dunk tank’s head and landed, plop, on the bed beside them. I knew she had a thing for that guy, the man in the yellow shirt thought, I fucking knew it!
When he opened his eyes the floor was once again alive with dancing pink elephants. Now he understood what was happening. With his eyes closed, he could see things for what they truly were, but when he opened them, all he saw was nonsense. The man laughed out loud. Dancing pink elephants! How silly! The sound of his own laughter cutting through the silence shocked him, and he laughed even harder. “Dancing pink elephants!” he shouted, laughing so hard he nearly choked. He couldn’t believe he’d been frightened by such nonsense. There they were, dancing across the floor, but if he closed is eyes, there she was, having sex with the guy from the dunk tank. They were both completely naked and covered in each other’s blood. The bastard was rubbing his blood into her skin like it was baby oil. She was squealing like a goddamn stuck pig. She had her smooth white legs wrapped around that rat-brained bastard’s back. That fucking bitch!
His eyes were the problem. That was all there was to it. The man opened his eyes. The tiny pink elephants were spinning now, whirling about as fast as they could. They were like spinning tops, like whirling dervishes. It hurt to look at them. It was nauseating. I have to pull my eyes out, he thought. He lifted his hands to his face. “It’s the only way,” he said aloud, “It’s the only goddamn way.”
The announcer opened the door and soft night air flooded the box. The man stood looking at his hands. What the fuck am I doing?
“The box’s outer walls,” the announcer said softly, breaking the silence with a whisper, “are painted, but beneath that paint, there are words. Words written in languages that haven’t been spoken for thousands of years. Words with a great deal of power. Of course, the box is quite tame now, a husk of its former self. Three or four hundred years ago, it would have driven you completely and permanently insane. A thousand years before that, it would have devoured your living soul. It is quite old now, old and tired, but still rather playful, don’t you think?”
The air temperature inside the box seemed to plummet. The man was suddenly very cold, freezing, and he could smell the rank stench of rotting meat. He pushed, nauseous, teeth chattering, past the announcer. As soon as he was out of the box, he stumbled and fell, scrambled to his feet, then turned and ran towards the parking lot. He didn’t look back.
“Sixty three seconds,” the announcer called after him, “Congratulations! You won the grand prize!”