STEPPING OFF THE BUS, an icy European wind attacked my face. I hadn’t been home in over a decade, and it was clear that time hadn’t been kind to the village I grew up in. With barely a chance to get my bearings, the old bus, which probably should have been decommissioned around the time I was last here, groaned to life and pulled out into the street, leaving me standing in the cold.
Gazing around, certain landmarks stood out, though many had changed. The brick houses hadn’t aged well and were now covered in thick grime. Broken down fences seemed to be the norm. The little store where the local kids and I used to steal candy from across the street had closed down and become a pawn shop. “Kubin’s” adorned the crude wooden sign above the door which looked like it was carved by the owner himself. The street to the left led to my old family home. I thought rest and relaxation would be easy to come by in an empty house, especially when it was located in a village where the most exciting thing to happen all week is Sunday church. Though I was reluctant to admit it to myself, I think that’s the reason why I really came here. As my eyes followed the street to the Cul de sac at the end, I couldn’t help but notice the hills looming over from behind the house. A sparse European pine forest dusted with a recent snow fall spread out beyond the horizon. It was strange to see this view now when as a kid the trees were much denser and darker.
Crossing the street and heading past the pawn shop, the remains of last night’s snow muffled my footsteps. The grey and dirty snowmelt was like camouflage for the buildings along the street. I was in a hurry to get out of the cold, and to satisfy my curiosity, I took a step towards the pawnshop. Making my way through the shabby door, which felt far too stiff, I noticed the old man leaning behind the counter. His scarred nose and missing teeth were surrounded by a grey mane. Green blotches were all that remained of the tattoos creeping out from beneath his rolled up sleeves.
“You need any help?” he asked in a low growl to no response. Something had caught my eyes, and for a moment I hesitated. A figure stood beside me with a gaunt and restless face. The hair matched the dark winter cloak. I barely even recognized myself anymore. The silver backed mirror was like one you’d see in your grandmother’s house, tall and faded with age. Getting a better look I saw the cold had left its pink tinge on my cheeks.
“I’m fine. Just want to have a quick look around.” I finally replied as I peeled my eyes away from the mirror. Without so much as a grunt, the old man went back to his business.
Tables with missing legs, ornaments, candle holders, and china figurines that hadn’t been cared for in years were just a selection of the detritus which was piled up along the walls in every corner of the cramped store. A layer of dust was caked on every surface. Thick curtains stopped most of the light penetrating from outside, but I could just barely make out the peeling wallpaper on the walls. It was the cheap textured kind. Surveying the junk, a little music box stood out amongst a scattering of crystal glasses out on display. The only reason I could tell it was a music box is because it looked a lot like the one my Gran had when I was younger. It looked out of place as if someone haphazardly hid it away. It didn’t stand out from any of the junk surrounding me, but since it looked so familiar, I picked it up anyway.
“You don’t want that.” The old man’s voice came from close behind me. Looking around I noticed he was standing not more than a foot away. How he got so close without making any noise I don’t know.
“Any why would that be?” I asked.
“Doesn’t work, does it? Been sitting there for years, but I’ve never been able to open it, let alone get it to make any noise.” It didn’t make any difference to me, I’m sure I’ll be able to play around with it when I get home. Pry it open somehow. The scratches and chipped varnish made it look interesting, and it looked so familiar. Why the hell not?
“That’s alright, I’ll take it. How much do you want?” There was no price tag.
“Sold.” I said handing him a crumpled note.
With my transaction complete, I stepped back into the cold, and my muffled footsteps resumed in the direction of the house. Gazing at the bare woods in the hills, I barely noticed the church that had replaced the park in which I spent most of my summers running around in. And winters too for that matter. Gone was the cherry coloured swing set where I once broke my ankle. A brass bell hung atop the tower, readying itself for its daily disturbance of the neighbourhood as noon approached. Opposite the church was a battered old house with a few missing roof tiles and a vile orange coloured plaster that separated it from the rest of the brick houses on the street. The bit of the garden that wasn’t hidden beneath the snow looked like it hadn’t been tended to in years.
The hinges whined as I swung the gate open, reminding me of the time I poked a stick into the key hole. Even though I knew a wasp nest was in there, my curiosity (or was it stupidity?) got the better of me. Found out the hard way not to mess with those flying beasts. The gate didn’t look new anymore. The burgundy paint was tearing itself off, daring the rust to catch it. I took a few steps to the front porch and slid the key into the door. For a second I had doubts it would still even work, but it turned with a heavy thud, and the door swung open. Like the pawn shop, a layer of dust covered all the forgotten furniture. At least I’d have something to do over the winter. I was able to get the fireplace in the corner going with ease, and a steady warmth began to wrestle with the cold I had let in through the door.
Music box still in hand, I sat on the couch, prompting some dust into the air. Examining the box, I saw that the hinges on the lid looked as if they had fused together. The lid itself looked like someone had tried to fix it to the main compartment in order to prevent anyone from opening it. Regardless, I gave it a go and tried to pry it open with my hands. Nothing. Dismayed, but expecting nothing more, I put it down on the coffee table near the hearth, just as the church bell began to echo from outside. Twelve rings. Noon.
Instinctively, before I realised what I was doing, I made my way downstairs the following morning and picked up the box again. Sitting in my hands, I noticed I had no idea why I even picked it up. Instead of putting it back down I decided to sit back on the couch and try opening it again. I didn’t necessarily want to, but I felt compelled to. This time without any reluctance, the box sprang open on what felt like perfectly oiled hinges. “What the hell?” I said out loud without meaning to. There was no music, but a slight vibration was trapped somewhere inside the box. Holding it up to the light to get a better look, I saw the hills through the window out of the corner of my eye. The woods were no longer thin and sparse, but dark and dense. Doing a double take, and looking closer, the usual sporadically placed patches of trees were back. Might’ve been the light, I thought, but I noticed that the vibration had stopped.
Not only was the previously sealed box opening with ease now, but I was seeing things to boot. All this dust was probably making me sick. Taking a walk would be a good idea, and I might be able to see if the old man at the pawn shop has any idea about fixing this thing.
Once more the attacking cold overwhelmed me the second I stepped outside. The wind picked up force overnight and was determined to make me as uncomfortable as possible. This only served to make me hurry through the grey snowmelt and make it back to the other end of the street where I entered the pawn shop once more.
There stood the old man who I presumed was named Kubin, in the same spot as yesterday.
“I opened it!” I said with a grin on my face.
“Good for you.” He replied unenthused.
“The only problem is it’s not making any music. It vibrates, but that’s all.” I hesitated; “Thought you might have some clue as to what the problem is.”
“Give us a look then.” He said holding out his arthritic hand, palm open. Handing over the box I noticed something was wrong. The hinges were once more sealed. I didn’t say anything as he inspected the box.
“What are you playing at? It’s sealed.”
“It was open this morning, maybe it’s jammed again?” But somehow I knew that wasn’t the case.
“Well I can’t help you. It isn’t gonna open.” He replied dubiously as if I was just wasting his time. Dismayed, yet curiously puzzled, I grabbed it and went to leave. “Well, sorry, I didn’t mean to waste your time.”
Back outside, still contemplating my sudden madness, I felt a vibration in the hand which held the box. Lifting it up, the lid had come loose. Again, no music, but the vibration was stronger than ever. Finally! Swiftly turning back to face the pawn shop so I can show the old man I’m not crazy after all, I looked up to see the old grocery store instead. Cracked plastic signs in the windows informed me that Apples were in season and on ‘SALE!’ A group of kids no older than eight burst out of the front doors, with the spoils of their crime sticking out from their pockets. Before my mind had a chance to catch up with me, they blitzed past, one of them running into me.
“Sorry mister!” The dark haired kid yelled back as he ran after his friends.
Finally realising what had happened, I spun around to face the store with such speed that my neck cringed from whiplash. Pain snapped me out of my trance, and I heard two rings echo from the church down the street. My watch informed me that the time was indeed noon, yet the first ten rings seemed to have gone missing. Perhaps I didn’t hear them in the confusion, but the only way I could have missed those deafening echoes is if the bell had failed to ring. When I looked up, the pawn shop stood there as it always had. No store, no kids behind me, and just a closed music box sitting in my hand.
Worried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should leave the box alone. Sitting at home that evening with the window cracked open just enough to let fresh air in, but keep the cold mostly at bay, I handled it carefully and examined it closely. The wood looked like oak, the hinges brass. It was big enough to have some sort of mechanism inside. Intricately carved musical notes and clefs adorned every inch of the sides. Again, I opened the lid with ease. It betrayed no signs of being jammed. As per usual, the vibration began though it wasn’t the same as last time. Though I had to strain myself, I could hear a noise this time. At least, that’s the only way to describe it. I wasn’t sure if I was hearing it with my ears, or somehow my other senses, but I could have sworn it was music. Inexplicably, it wasn’t coming from the box, I sensed it coming from outside.
Pushing the window open I dipped my head into the cold. The music was louder, and it was definitely coming from somewhere outside but I couldn’t see where. It was a soft sound, but there was something wrong with it. How I even knew it was music, I wasn’t sure. Determined to find the source I peeked around and saw swings where the church was supposed to be. The kids from before, ran around in circles. Frightened, I quickly drew my head back inside and shut the window, closing the box in the process. What the hell? Disbelieving my own eyes (and ears) I tried to rationalize it to myself, though I was certain of what I saw. It was clearly the swing set from when I was a kid. But of course that’s stupid. Yet, if the music box was somehow responsible, could it do it again? My temptation to open it up again was kept at bay by the thought of that music. It was off, I knew it was. But I couldn’t figure out how.
It’s no surprise I didn’t get any sleep. My alarm clock flashed 5:09 in bright red. Dawn. I tried to think of every explanation imaginable but nothing realistic came to me. Could I really go back and see myself as a child? If so, why shouldn’t I? Who cares about that music? I took the box outside with me in order to find the source of the music. If it wasn’t coming from the box, it had to be coming from somewhere, and I was convinced that finding the source would bring me answers. The hinges on the box had remained unjammed all night. They didn’t change once. I knew this because instead of sleeping, I had spent the time staring at them.
Once outside, next to the park, I took the utmost caution in opening the box. Trepidation and unease consumed me.
Once more the box opened, and once more the church was gone with the snow along with it. The vibration coming from the mechanism was stronger than ever. Everything looked as beautiful as I remembered it from my youth. Before I could explore, the music crept up from behind me. I looked around and saw the dense woods looming over the hills again. That was it. That’s where the music was coming from. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact source but I could definitely hear it (or sense it). Much louder than it was yesterday, it was also clearer that there really was something wrong with it. Those sounds were not only coming from the woods, but from inside me as well. Just like the strange compulsion I felt before, I felt the need to leave the box open. The remaining sane part of me knew that was a bad idea. Though due to an inkling that the boy I saw yesterday resembled myself far too much than was natural, I needed to see him again. Leaving the box open would probably grant me that, yet the horrid music would continue.
Before I could do anything about it, a whisper joined the chorus. It wasn’t a whisper speaking in any language I could understand, but I made out sounds that resembled words. No, not a whisper, more of a murmur. Together with the music, the strange susurrus dared me to keep staring into the woods.
I couldn’t help but abide, unable to break my gaze into the void that was developing between the trees. As the darkness blackened, the susurrus got louder and louder, and that strange sensation of feeling the music from somewhere inside me began to get worse. Even though I could hear the kids laughing behind me, and wanted desperately to go and join them, I couldn’t break away from the compulsion to keep staring at the hills.
Trying to make a decision, still transfixed by the woods, I hoped to get a look at the source of this noise, but all I saw was the darkness within the trees. I stared in confusion as the vibrations and music slowly increased. Snap. Somehow my hands managed to close the box on their own accord. With relief I rushed back into the house not daring to look back towards the hills, fearing I might see that void once more. Slamming the door shut, I reclined on the couch, throwing the box aside with fear. It slid across the table coming to a halt near the edge. What in god’s name just happened? I didn’t just see myself as a kid did I? And what about those woods? They were too dark. Could I be certain that it was a void I saw developing in there somewhere?
Lost in thought, I drifted off to sleep without noticing. My lack of rest the previous night finally caught up with me. Memories mixed with thoughts of the insanity that just transpired mixed into a blur. I must have been in a trance like sleep for I didn’t wake up till the following day when the church bells began to knell once more, signifying noon.
Hardly daring to look at the box as I awoke, a fear arose that it might have moved on its own, but to my relief it sat at the edge of the table like it did the day before. Finally, I welcomed clarity like an old friend. I knew exactly what to do. In the same dirty clothes as yesterday I stood up to light the fireplace. The cold had crept inside overnight and it was almost unbearable. Fresh snow had managed to pile up along the window sills outside. While there was no noise, no murmuring, no anything, I could think straight. I needed to get rid of it and take it back to where I found it. That’s where all my troubles started. The old man can deal with it. Hell, the bastard probably knew what I was getting into.
The fire started easily enough and the heat began its work immediately. That clarity of thought was re-enforced by this comforting warmth. Apprehensive, I stood up and looked out the foggy window towards the hills. Again, I feared that I might see that void, just as I had feared the box might have moved itself. Thankfully my worries were unfounded, and the sparse trees littered patches of the hills here and there once more.
I knew taking the box back would mean I’d never see the past again, (it was probably a hallucination anyway I reasoned) but it’s a sacrifice I’d happily make in order to never have to feel that noise inside me again. There was nothing else for it. No matter how badly I wanted to open it one final time, I couldn’t do it. “Come on, just for a few seconds won’t hurt anyone” I justified it to myself. No. I knew better. The compulsion wouldn’t get a hold of me this time.
I picked up the box and without even bothering to put on a coat, grabbed the door handle. This had to be done fast. The sooner I took it back, the better. With my hand resting on the handle, I hesitated.
Pausing for a moment, I realised what an idiot I was. Oh boy, what an absolute idiot! And what if I take the box back? Then what? I’ll leave it there and someone else will come along and pick it up. What if that poor sob manages to actually open it? Will the void come through the woods, and will the murmur get louder again? Will recognizable words begin to eventually form from that strange language? I couldn’t risk that. Frozen, not taking my hand off the handle, I felt the fires warmth from behind. It ignited an encouraging thought. Getting rid of it isn’t enough. It should be destroyed. No, it needed to be destroyed.
As if taunting the compulsion to get a hold of me once more, I spun around without thinking, and threw the music box into the fireplace. I couldn’t bear to look. I didn’t want to see it burn. The crackling of wood told me all I needed to know.
Relieved and with a desperation for some fresh air, I walked outside without noticing something was wrong. Stepping outside, I was too distracted to hear the faint music drifting from over the hills. Why didn’t I think to look back into the fire and make sure the box hadn’t opened as it fell? Not even the lack of snow outside clicked. It wasn’t until I heard the buzzing noise coming from the gate that a realization dawned on me. A single wasp flew out of the keyhole and buzzed off towards the playground across the street. I didn’t even feel my face twist into a horrible frown. Now I could hear the music, and I could hear words coming from over hills as clear as day. They definitely weren’t any normal language, but I knew what they were saying. I knew there was no point in going back inside to fish the music box out of the fire.
I was stupid enough to let it open, and now it was gone. There was no closing it now. I don’t think I would have been able to do it anyway. Not after hearing, no… feeling that voice. I couldn’t even tell if I stood there for minutes, or if hours went by. Hell it might have been days, but I wasn’t up to comprehending anything like that. It didn’t matter anymore.
Eventually, I looked around, not because I wanted to but because I needed to. There were those damned hills. But the void… the void was closer. And the louder the susurrus got, the closer the void got. And I knew.
I knew there was nothing I could do.
Having previously written horror film reviews for Australian genre/cult website ‘Digital Retribution’ and the Australian media and culture website ‘M-C Reviews’, Victor is hoping to branch out into horror fiction. After talking about and critiquing other peoples work, it is time for him to create and put forward work of his own for others to critique. A life saturated with horror films and horror literature naturally led him to write genre fiction. For contact and comments he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Story illustration by Steve Santiago.
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