Sometimes I write shit. Enjoy the short story.
What’s in the Box?
Ruth didn’t mind the long drive from her apartment in Fort Collins to Golden, Colorado where Cover to Cover, an old used bookstore was located. For a small fee, the locally owned shop was offering bulk buying options on selected titles. As stated in the going-out-of-business ad, for 75 dollars, anyone could get a decent-sized box and fill it with books of various genres. Ruth was planning to appraise, with a little help from Google, and then resell the goods online. The owners of the bookstore, Gabe and Kitty, were in their 70s and didn’t have much of an online presence for their shop, but word of mouth kept this little gem in business for over 30 years. Now they were retiring, selling the store, and moving to be near one of their daughters in Oregon.
She left Fort Collins early on a Monday afternoon in the middle of October. Colorado was in a beautiful period of Indian summer with extended warm days of intense mountain sunshine and blue skies followed by brisk dark evenings. The scenic route took a little longer, but it was a lovely drive and provided an opportunity for her mind to wander as her car rolled along the open road, mountains in the distance to the right and the city of Denver far off on the left hand side. Her hair flapped in the wind with her window rolled down, no radio or highway traffic to disturb her thoughts. Her boyfriend, Greg, was out of town, but she planned to give him a call on her way back, just to check in. For now, she was enjoying the meditative state driving put her in, no distractions, just her alone on the road.
The drive went smoothly, and it was just past 2 p.m. when Ruth found street parking and walked about a block to the bookstore. It was the first day of the three-day sale, but already, the shelves looked sparse. Gene was busy tending to the front desk, and Kitty was helping a customer on the floor but gave a nod and a smile when she saw Ruth walk through the door into the old building with its tall ceilings and bright artificial light.
The owners had known her for years since Ruth had been purchasing books from them since she started college at the nearby Colorado School of Mines nearly 10 years ago. When Gene finished organizing his station, he finally looked up to see her and greeted her with a big hello accompanied by a vigorous wave. Both he and Kitty were always kind to her. She smiled back and came over to talk before she began her shopping. Gene handed her a box and told her they could catch up later, that she should probably get busy picking out some books before all the good ones were gone. She smiled and took the box, adding, “All books are good ones,” and began perusing the shelves.
There were still some great selections available, mostly paperbacks -- history, biographies, mythology, novels, religion, true crime, and more -- so it was no trouble filling the box. She even included a horror book and one on paranormal activity, genres that weren’t high on her preference list but would likely be of interest to someone looking to buy online. There were also two reference books that she selected. These were separate from the bulk box purchase and were considered rare and, therefore, worth more than any standard titles. Satisfied with her picks, she headed over to pay.
It would be the last time she would see Kitty and Gene, so she stayed and talked with them after making the purchase. Eventually, they all said their goodbyes, complete with warm hugs, and wished each other well before Ruth placed the reference books on top of the box, lifted the whole thing up, and headed out the door to her car. Gene, always a gentleman, offered her help to the car, but Ruth insisted she would be fine. He walked her to the door and held it open for her as she exited the store for the last time, a sense of sadness coming over her as she stepped onto the sidewalk and made her way to her car.
As she was putting the box in the back seat, a man called out her name. Still bent over, half in the car, she looked up to see Seth, a guy she had met a few years ago at Cover to Cover. They were both browsing in the history section, and Seth started up a conversation about a book he had recently read, a deep dive into the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. He and Ruth had gone out a few times after that, but it was during her last semester at school. They hadn’t kept in touch after she left. She thought it great luck that she would see him there that day, considering the closing of the store meant that it was unlikely she would visit the area in the future. Ruth quickly scooted the box over and tossed the reference books in the passenger’s seat before standing up to say hello. She was glad to see him and the two immediately caught up on what books they were currently reading and the favorites they had recently read. These kinds of conversations were not of interest to her boyfriend who preferred television over reading.
The afternoon slipped into evening as the two were chatting, so Seth suggested they have dinner before Ruth headed home, which she was happy to do. She locked the car, and the two walked a few blocks to Seth’s favorite little pizza parlor where they shared a double cheese with mushrooms. Seth had a beer while Ruth stuck to lemon sparkling water.
The conversation rolled along smoothly from topic to topic. To anyone looking at them, it would seem like the two were a couple on a date, both smiling and laughing, leaning toward each other to catch every word. They lingered after they finished eating, and Ruth eventually mentioned that she should get going. “I couldn’t persuade you to get some ice cream, could I?” Seth asked. “I wish I could, but it’s already getting dark. I have a long drive home,” she responded. She saw the look of disappointment in his expression, and she really didn’t want to leave. “What’s your number?” she asked and pulled out her cell phone to add him to her contacts. He brightened and offered the number. She reciprocated by giving him hers.
They took their time strolling to her car, neither one wanting the evening to end. The night sky looked nearly black, but the stars shone bright against the dark background. When she went to give Seth a hug goodbye, he misread her signal and, thinking she was leaning in to kiss him, ended up bumping his nose against her cheek. They laughed and tried again. This time, as the hug drew out, it was Ruth who pulled back slightly to reposition herself and kiss him, just briefly. “I’m sorry,” she said and pulled back more fully. “My boyfriend…” she started but trailed off. “No, no, I’m sorry,” Seth said. “I shouldn’t have,” he added. She smiled at him and held his hand. “I better go,” she said. “Yes, yes. It was good to see you,” he said and awkwardly pulled away and gave a quick little waive goodbye before shoving his hands in his pockets. She smiled. “It was good to see you, too,” she said before she got in the car to leave. She eased out of the parking spot, catching a glimpse of the box of books in the back seat as she looked in the rearview before pulling onto the road. It had been a productive day.
The roads were even more quiet than they had been that afternoon, hardly a soul around, which was rare, even though it was later in the evening. Ruth was facing conflicting emotions. To keep from thinking too deeply about the evening and her attraction to Seth, she turned on the radio. She felt guilty, but the truth was, while she wasn’t exactly unhappy with Greg, she just wasn’t fully happy, either. Her boyfriend of six months didn’t live with her and there was no indication that the relationship was heading in any permanent direction. More importantly, they didn’t share the same interests, and Ruth was often bored around him. Their first encounter at a bar was a fluke, considering Ruth almost never frequented those kinds of establishments and was only there that night because a friend of hers insisted they go. Greg was persistent, though, and there was something about feeling desired that helped push her toward a relationship with him.
Seeing Seth was giving her second thoughts about everything.
As if he could sense what she was thinking, Seth called, the buzz of her phone startling her out of her ruminations. She placed the device on its magnetic holder and set it on speaker. “Hello?” she answered. Happy to hear her voice, he replied, “Hey. I’m glad you picked up. I wanted to tell you again how nice it was to see you. I don’t want to complicate things, but it would be great to see you again.” She couldn’t help but smile. “I’d like that,” she said. From there, they fell into conversation easily, both comfortable and engaged in whatever topic arose.
They continued talking as Ruth reached an isolated section of the road. There were no houses nearby, just endless fields on both sides of her, open road ahead. “How strange,” she thought that out in the middle of nowhere, there was suddenly a stop light. She didn’t remember it on the way there, but, she figured, if she had driven through it while the light was green, it’s possible she wouldn’t have noticed. Easing her foot down on the break as she approached the light, she slowed to a stop. It was hard to say which she experienced first because they seemed to occur simultaneously, but all at once there was a bright flash of red light in the field to her right and a piercing siren-type noise that was so loud, it sounded like it was coming from inside the car. Seth’s voice was drowned out even before she screamed and clapped her hands over her ears. The noise that surrounded her was shrill, painfully loud and sharp to her ears, despite them being covered. And then there was silence. Ruth had an eerie feeling and glanced in the rearview. There was nothing but the box, still sitting there undisturbed. Everything was quiet and back to normal, almost. Her phone and the car radio were dead, and, oddly, she was still alone on the road. She looked up to see the light had turned green.
Still shaken, she took a few deep breaths and then slowly placed her foot on the gas. The car rolled on smoothly. The air in the car felt thick, oppressive, and musty. Something seemed off, and Ruth was finding it hard to catch her breath, so, despite the chill in the air outside, she opened her window a crack and turned on the heat. At this point, she knew she was spooked, scaring herself, but couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching her. Probably in some kind of effort to keep herself calm, her mind tried to rationalize what had happened. It must have been a power surge, maybe coming from the stop light, she considered. The sound probably came from the radio. Maybe it was because of faulty speakers or a problem with the receiver. The battery in her phone was low when she left, so it had to be a coincidence that her phone died, she thought. But she wasn’t sure about any of these explanations, and none of them brought her any comfort.
Ruth was concerned that Seth would be worried, wondering what happened. She didn’t have his number committed to memory, so she couldn’t stop anywhere to call him. He would have to wait another hour or so until she got home.
As she drove, she thought it strange that there were so few cars on the road. Seeing one eventually passing in the other direction made her feel a little bit better. The night had turned colder to the point where she could see her breath. She shivered and rolled up the window. Even though she was not as afraid as she had been, she still had the uneasy sensation of someone watching over her shoulder. It was unsettling. She shifted in her seat and glanced in the rearview mirror. It was becoming a habit for her to look, half expecting to see something there. For a brief moment, she wondered if everything occurring was related to something in the box. It was a childish thought, she knew. Of course there was nothing out of the ordinary happening. All of this could be explained... somehow.
She continued along the road, the radio softly playing in the background. She hadn’t noticed when it came back to life, but she was glad the music soothed her. When she glanced in the rearview mirror again, she saw what looked like a shadow drift across the back seat. She quickly turned to look, but there was nothing, just the box sitting undisturbed. A wave of embarrassment washed over her. Whether it was a shadow or her eyes playing tricks on her, she realized that she was overreacting.
As a distraction, she fiddled with the dial on the radio, flipping from station to station, and finally landed on something she liked. Unfortunately, she soon hit a stretch of road where the reception was poor and she heard nothing but static. She turned the volume dial down low and waited until the speakers emitted a few squeaks and noises. It seemed the reception was returning within a few minutes, but the station she had found earlier was gone. Ruth flipped to the next station, and suddenly a song came booming through the speakers. She shrieked and quickly tried to turn the volume knob down to its lowest setting, but it was already low. Her hand shook as she turned the knob hard until it clicked to the off position.
Her ears were ringing, and she was still shaking from fright. Because she was so upset, she decided to pull over to compose herself. When she did, she abruptly got out of the car, opened the back door, and looked into the box. Nothing but books. She was safe. It was all just her mind playing tricks on her. There was nothing wrong, so, with a sigh of relief, she took a few deep breaths and got back in the car to continue her journey toward home.
Not even five minutes had passed before she caught a glimpse of what looked like a shadowy figure in the rearview. It was just a flash of something dark gliding across the seat as before, but this time it had more form. It was darker. She turned abruptly and looked, but there was nothing there. Ruth was on the verge of tears. How could her mind be playing these kinds of cruel tricks on her? Determined to ignore her terror and get home, she pressed on the gas and carried on down the road. The next time she glanced in the mirror, she was horrified to see a dark, wretched and distorted face staring back at her from over her shoulder. Terrified, she cried out, and the car veered to the right, slamming into and then over the metal railing on the side of the road. The last thing she heard was the sound of the metal-on-metal collision, and then everything went black.
Ruth woke up the following day in a hospital in Denver. She had been transported by ambulance after a driver came upon the crash scene, stopped, and called for help. Ruth’s car was totaled. It had rolled over the metal rail and out into the field. The doctors said that she was lucky, that she would survive with little to no long-term complications. Her arm was in a cast, a fracture of the ulna, and she sustained a concussion along with several other broken bones. There was no major internal damage, fortunately. She needed to rest, though. She had been through a tremendous ordeal.
Ruth spent most of her time at the hospital in bed. While she rested, she occasionally watched TV but slept more than anything. Her nurses got her up for short walks down the hallway and back. She still hadn’t called Seth or her boyfriend, but, apparently, both had tracked her down separately and called to check in with her nurses. Her main focus was on getting well, and she didn’t feel like talking to anyone. After a few days of rest, she was beginning to regain her strength. On her fourth day in the hospital, a nurse came into her room carrying a box and a bag of her belongings. Inside the bag were Ruth’s purse, her clothes, sunglasses, and her phone, the battery still dead. Ruth knew the box. “Get rid of it,” she begged the nurse. “I don’t want the box,” she added. “Don’t be silly,” the nurse replied. “I peeked, and there are some nice books in there,” she assured Ruth. “Get it out!” Ruth cried, twisting her face into the pillow. The nurse set the box on a chair near the bed.
Without saying another word, she grinned wide, a distorted, ghastly grimace, and left, closing the door tight behind her.