; lyht leaves the eyes—expelled by a relentless laesr of poignant realisation that reality is but absurdism x impossibility.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

the nightmare box

The night before she disappeared, Cassandra cut off her eyelashes.

Easy as homework, Cassandra Clark takes a little pair of scissors out of her purse, little chrome fingernail-scissors, she leans into the big mirror above the bathroom sink and looks at herself. Her eyes half closed, and her mouth hanging open the way she puts on mascara, Cassandra braces one hand against the bathroom counter and used the scissors to snip. Each long black lash falling, settling, fluttering down the sink drain, she doesnt even look at her mother reflected there, standing behind her in the mirror.

That night Mrs. Clark hears her slip out of bed while its still dark. In the one hour when theres no traffic in the street, she goes naked to the living room with all the lights off. Theres the rumble of springs inside the old sofa. Theres the rasp andclickof a cigarette lighter. Then a sigh. A whiff of cigarette smoke.

After the suns up, Cassandra's still there sitting naked on the sofa with the curtains open and cars going past. All of her arms and legs bunched tight around her in the cold air. In one hand she's got the cigarette, burned down to the filter. Ashes on the soft cushion beside her. Shes awake and looking at the blank television screen. Maybe looking at herself reflected there, naked in the black glass. Her hair looks lumpy with the tangles from not combing. Her lipstick from two days ago, its still smeared across her cheek. Her eye shadow outlines the wrinkles around each eye. Her eyelashes gone, her green eyes looking dull and fake because you never see her blink.

Her mother says, Did you dream about it?

Mrs. Clark asks: does she want French toast? Mrs. Clark turns on the wall heater and gets Cassandra's robe off the back of the bathroom door.

Cassandra hugging herself in the cold sunshine, sitting knees-together, her breasts are pushed up by her arms. Flakes of gray cigarette ash are scattered on top of each thigh. Flakes of gray ash settle into her pubic hair. Her feet twitch with tendons under the skin. Her feet flat and side by side on the polished wood floor, theyre the only part of her not statue-still.

Mrs. Clark goes to put the bathrobe around her daughter, tucking it up tight around her neck. She says, it happened in that gallery. Across from the antique store.

Cassandra doesnt look away from her own dark reflection in the off television. She doesnt blink, and the bathrobe slips down, putting both her breasts back out in the cold.

And her mother says, what did she see?

I dont know, Cassandra says. She says, I cant say.

Let me get my notes, Mrs. Clark tells her. She says, I think I have this figured out.

Its when she comes back from the bedroom, her thick brown folder of notes in one hand, the folder open so she can pick through it with her other hand, when she looks around the living room, Cassandras gone.

At that moment Mrs. Clarks saying, The way the Nightmare Box works is, the front

But Cassandras not in the kitchen or the bathroom. Cassandras not in the basement. Thats their whole house. Shes not out in the backyard or on the stairs. Her bathrobe is still on the sofa. Her purse and shoes and coat, none of them are gone. Her suitcase is still on her bed, half packed. Only Cassandras gone.

At first, Cassandra said it was nothing. According to the notes, it was an art-gallery opening.

There in Mrs. Clarks notes, it says, Random Interval Timer

Her notes say, The man hung himself

It started on the night all the galleries open their new shows, and downtown was crowded with people, everyone still dressed up from the office or school and holding hands. Medium-young couples in dark clothes that wouldnt show the dirt from the taxi seat. Wearing good jewelry they wouldnt wear on the subway. Their teeth white, as if they never used teeth or anything except to smile.

They were all watching each other look at art before watching each other eat dinner.

Its all in Mrs. Clarks notes.

Cassandra had on her new black dress. The short-short one.

That night, she wanted a long glass of white wine, just to hold it. She didnt dare lift the glass, because her dress was strapless , so she kept her arms down at each side, holding her elbows close in. this flexed some muscle shed found playing basketball in school. It pushed her breasts so high her cleavage seemed to start at her throat.

That dress it was black and stitched with black sequins and beads. It was a crust of rough black glitter with her breasts pink and meaty inside. A hard black shell.

Both her hands, the way her painted fingernails meshed together, they looked handcuffed around the stem of her wineglass. Her hair coiled and pinned up high, it was so heavy and thick. Strands and curls were coming undone, dangling, but she didnt dare reach up and fix it. Her bare shoulders, her hair coming apart, her high heels clenched the tight muscles of each leg, pushed her ass up, curving it at the bottom of a long sipper.

Her perfect lipstick mouth. No red smeared on the glass she didnt dare lift. Her eyes looking huge under long eyelashes. Her green eyes the only part of her moving in the crowded room.

Standing and smiling in the center of an art gallery, she was the only woman youd remember. Cassandra Clark, only fifteen years old.

This was less than a week before she disappeared, just three nights.

Sitting now in the warm spot and ashes Cassandra left on the sofa, Mrs. Clark looks through the folder of notes.

The gallery owner was talking to them to them and the other people gathered around.

Rand, her notes say. The owners name was Rand.

The gallery owner was showing them a box on three tall legs. A tripod. The box was black, the size of an old time camera. The kind of camera where a man might stand, hunched under a sheet of black canvas to protect the glass plate coated with chemicals inside. The kind of Civil War camera that took your picture with a flash of gunpowder. A mushroom cloud of gray smoke that hurt your nose. When you walked into the gallery, thats how it looked, this box on three legs.

The box was painted black.

Lacquered, the gallery owner said.

It was lacquered black, waxed and smudged gray with fingerprints.

The gallery owner was smiling down the stiff, strapless front of Cassandras dress. He had a thin mustache, plucked and trimmed perfect as two eyebrows. He had a little devils beard that made his chin look pointed. He wore a bankers blue suit and a single earring, too big, too fake-bright to be anything but a real diamond.

The box was fitted along every seam with complicated moldings, ridges and grooves, that made it look heavy as a bank vault. Every seam hidden under detail and thick paint.

Like a little coffin, somebody in the gallery said. A man with a ponytail, chewing gum.

On each side of the box were brass handles. You had to hold them both, the gallery owner told them. To complete a circuit. If you wanted to make the box work right, you held both handles. You pressed your eye to the brass peep hole in the front. Your left eye. And you looked inside.

Person after person, a hundred peopled mustve looked that night, but nothing happened. They held on and looked inside, but all they saw was their own eye reflected in the darkness behind the glass lens. All they heard was a little sound. A clock, ticking. Slow as the drip drip dripfrom a leaky faucet. This little ticking from inside the smudged, black-painted box.

The box felt sticky with its layer of grime. The gallery owner held up one finger. He tapped his knuckle against the side of the box and said, Some kind of Random Interval Timer.

It could run for a month, always ticking,. Or it could run for another hour. But the moment it stopped, that would be the moment to look inside.

Here, the gallery owner said, Rand said, and he tapped a little brass push-button, small as a doorbell, on the side of the box. You hold the handles, and you wait. When the ticking stops, he said, you look and push the button.

On a little brass nameplate, a plate screwed to the top of the box, if you stood on tiptoes, you could read The Nightmare Box. And the name Roland Whittier. The brass handles were green from people holding tight, waiting. The brass fitting around the peep-hole was tarnished with their breath. The black outsides were waxed with grease from their skin rubbing, pressed close.

Holding the handles, you could feel it inside. The ticking. The timer. Steady and forever as a heartbeat.

The moment it stopped, Rand said, the push-button would trigger a flash of light inside. A single pulse of light.

What people saw then, Rand didnt know. The box came from the closed antique shop across the street. There it had sat for nine years and never stopped ticking. The man who owned it, the antiques dealer, he always told customers it might be broken. Or it might be a joke. For nine years, the box sat ticking on a shelf, until dust buried it. Until, one day, the dealers grandson found it, not ticking. The grandson was nineteen years old, going to college to become a lawyer. This teenager with hair on his chest, all day girls came into the shop to use their eyes on him. A good kid with a scholarship playing soccer, a bank account, and his own car, he had a summer job at the antique shop, dusting. When he found the box, it was silentready and waiting. He took the handles. He pressed the button and looked inside.

The antiques dealer found him, dust still smeared around his left eye. Blinking. His eyes focused on nothing. He just sat in a pile of dust and cigarette butts hed swept up on the floor. The grandson, he never went back to college. His car sat at the curb until the city towed it away. Every day after that, he sat in the street outside the shop. Twenty years old, and he sits on the curb all day, rain or shine. You ask him anything and he just laughs. That kid, by now he should be a lawyer, practicing law, but now you can go visit him in some fleabag hotel. Public housing, on Social Security from a complete mental depression. Not drugs even.

Rand, the gallery owner, says, Just a case of total crackup.

You go and visit this kid, and he sits on his bed all day, cockroaches crawling in and out of his clothes, his pant legs and shirt and collar. Each fingernail and toenail is grown long and yellow as a pencil.

You ask him anything: How hes doing? Is he eating? What did he see? And the kid still only laughs cockroaches moving around, lumps inside his shirt. His head circled with houseflies.

Another morning, the antiques dealer comes in to open his shop, and the dusty clutter is different. It could be some place hes never been. Again, the box has stopped ticking. That always-quiet count-down. And the Nightmare Box sits there, waiting for him to look.

All morning, the dealer doesnt unlock the front door. People come up and cup their hands against his window to peek inside. To look for something back in the shadows. For some reason why the shop isnt open.

In that same way, the antiques dealer could have peeked inside the box. To see why. To know what happened. What would take the spirit out of a kid, now twenty years old, a kid with everything to look forward to. All morning, the antiques dealer scrubs the toilet bowl in the back. He hauls out a ladder and picks the dry dead flies from each hanging light fixture. He polishes brass. Oils woods. He sweats until his starched white shirt is soft with wrinkles. He does everything he hates.

People from the neighborhood, his longtime customers, they come to the store and find the door locked. Maybe they knock. Then they go away.

The box waits to show him what for.

Its going to be somebody he loves who looks inside.

All his lifetime, this antiques dealer, he works hard. He finds good stock at a fair price. He carts it here and puts it display. He wipes the dust from it. Most of his life, hes been in this one store, and already hes going to estate sales and buying back the same lamps and tables, selling them for the second and third times. Buying from dead customers to sell to live ones. His shop just inhaling and exhaling this same stock.

This same tide of chairs, tables, china dolls. Beds, cabinets, little knickknacks.

Coming in and going out.

All morning, the dealers eyes keep coming back to the Nightmare Box. He does his bookkeeping. All day, he fingers the ten-key adding machine, balancing accounts. Totaling and comparing long columns of numbers. Seeing the same stock, the same dressers and hat racks arrive and depart on paper. He makes coffee. He makes more coffee. He drinks coffee until the can of grounds is empty. He cleans until everything in the shop is just his reflection in buffed wood and clean glass. The smell of lemon and almond oils. The smell of his sweat.

The box waits.

He changes into a clean shirt. He combs his hair.

He calls he wife and says how, for years, hes been hiding cash in a tin box under the spare tire in the trunk of their car. Forty years ago, when their daughter was born, the antiques dealer tells his wife, he had an affair with some girl who used to come in on her lunchtime. He says hes sorry. He tells her not to hold dinner for him. He says he loves her.

Next to the telephone, the box sits, not ticking.

The net day, the police find him. His accounts balanced. His shop in perfect order. The antiques dealers taken an orange extension cord and knotted it to the coat hook on his bathroom wall. In the tiled bathroom, where any mess would be easy to clean up, hes knotted the cord around his neck, and then justrelaxed. Hes sunk down, slumped against the wall. Hes chocked, dead, almost sitting on the tiled floor.

On the display counter, in front of the store, the box is ticking again.

This history, its all in Tess Clarks thick folder of notes.

Its then the box comes here, to Rands art gallery. By then, its kind of a legend, Rand tells the little crowd. The Nightmare Box.

Across the street, the antique store is just a big painted room, empty behind its front window.

It was right then, that night, Rand showing them the box, Cassandras arms bunched in tight to hold her dress up, it was that moment somebody in the crowd said, Its stopped.

The ticking.

It had stopped.

The crowd waited, listening to the quiet, their ears reaching out for any sound.

And Rand said, Be my guest.

Like this? Cassandra said, and she gave Mrs. Clark the tall glass of white wine to hold. She lifted one hand to the brass handle on that side. She handed rand her beaded little evening bag, her little clutch, with her lipstick and emergency cash inside. Am I doing this right? she said, and lifter her other hand to the opposite handle.

Now, Rand said.

Mrs. Clark stood there, the mother, a little helpless with a full glass of wine in each hand, watching everything ready to spill or break

Rand cupped his hand against the back of Cassandras neck, the bare skin above her spine, where only a soft curl of hair fluttered down. At the top of her long-zippered ass. He pressed so her neck arched, her chin coming up a little and her lips moving open. Holding her neck in one hand and her purse in his other, Rand told her, Look inside.

The box goes quiet. Silent the way a bomb might be the moment before it goes off. Explodes.

Cassandra opens up the left side of her face, her eyebrow held high, her eyelashes on that side trembling, thick with black mascara. Her green eye, wet and soft, something between solid and liquid, she puts her eye against the little glass, the darkness inside.

The crowd around them. Waiting. Rand still holding the back of her neck.

One painted fingernail moves to the button and, Cassandras face pressed to the black wood of the box, she says, Tell me when.

The way you have to look inside, to make your face fit against the box, you have to turn your face a little to the right. You have to stoop because this puts you off balance. Your weight, it has to rest against the box, pressing through your hands, balancing on your face. Cassandras face against the black, complicated corners and angles of the old box. The way she might be kissing it. The trembling curls of her hair. The sparkling dangle of each bright earring

Her finger moves to the button.

And the ticking starts again, faint and deep inside.

What happens, only Cassandra sees it.

The random timer starts again for another week, another year. Another hour.

Her face stays there, pressed into the peephole, until her shoulders sag. She stands, her arms still hanging down, her shoulders go round and sloped.

Blink-blinking her eyes, fast, Cassandra steps back and shakes her face a little. Her eyes not meeting anyones eyes, Cassandra looks around at the floor, at peoples feet, her lips shut tight. The stiff front of her dress bags forward, gapping out away from her breasts with no braw inside. She reaches out and pushes her self back from the box.

She steps out on each high heel, standing flat-footed on the gallery floor, and the muscles in her legs disappear. The two rock-hard halves of her ass, they go soft.

A mask of loose hair hangs in her face.

If youre tall enough, you can see her nipples.

Rand says, Well? He clears his throat, pushing breath out through a long sound of spit and snot, and he says, What did you see?

And, still not looking at anyone, her eyelashes still pointing at the floor, Cassandra reaches a hand up and plucks the earring from each side of her head.

Rand reaches to give her the little beaded purse, but Cassandra doesnt take it. Instead, she hands him her jewelry.

Mrs. Clark says, What happened?

And Cassandra says, Can we go home now?

They listen to the box tick.

Its a couple days later she cut off her eyelashes. She flopped a suitcase open across the foot of the bed and she started putting things in, shoes and socks and her underwear, then taking things out. Packing and repacking. After she disappeared, the suitcase was still there. Half full or half empty.

Now all Mrs. Clark has are her notes, her thick folder full of notes about how the Nightmare Box must work. Somehow it must hypnotize you. It implants an image or an idea. A subliminal flash. It injects some message into your brain so deep you cant retrieve it.

You cant resolve it. The box infects you this way. It makes everything you know wrong. Useless.

Whats inside the box is some fact you cant unlearn. Some new ideas you cant undiscover.

Days after they went to the art gallery, now Cassandras gone.

On the third day, Mrs. Clark goes downtown. Back to the gallery. Her thick brown folder of notes tucked under one arm.

The streets door unlocked and the lights are off. In the gray light from the windows, Rand is there, sitting on the floor in a dusting of cut hair. His little devils beard is gone. His fat diamond earring, gone.

Mrs. Clark says, You looked, didnt you?

The gallery owner just sits there, sprawled, legs spread on the cold concrete, looking at his hands.

Mrs. Clark sits cross-legged on the floor next him and says, Look at my notes. She says, Tell me I'm right.

The way the Nightmare Box works, she says, is because the front is angled out on one side. It forces you to put your left eye against the peephole. It has a little glass fish-eye lens, set in a brass fitting, the same kind in anyones front door. The way the front of the box is angled, you can only look with your left eye.

This way, Mrs. Clark says, what you see you have to perceive with your right brain

Whatever you see inside, its the intuitive, emotional, instinctual side of you, the right-brain part, that has to witness it.

Plus, only one person can look each time. What you suffer, you suffer it alone. What happens inside the Nightmare Box, it only happens to you. Theres no one you can share it with. Theres no room for someone else.

Plus, the fish-eye lens, she says, it warps what you see. It distorts.

Plus, she says, the name engraved on the brass plateThe Nightmare Boxit tells you that youll be scared. The name creates an expectation that you fulfill.

Mrs. Clark sits and waits to be right.

She sits, watching for Rand to blink.

The box stands over them on its three legs, ticking.

Rand doesnt move except his chest, to breathe.

On his desk, near the back of the gallery, theres still Cassandras jewelry. Her little beaded purse.

No, Rand says. He smiles and says, Thats not it.

The ticking counts down, loud in the cold quiet.

You can only call the hospitals, asking if they have a girl with green eyes and no eyelashes. You can only call so many times, Mrs. Clark says, before they start not hear you. To put you on hold. Make you give up.

She looks up from her thick stack of paper, her notes, and says, Tell me.

The antique store, its still empty across the street.

This isnt what happened, Rand says. Still just looking at his hands, he says, But this is how it felt.

One weekend, he had to go to a company picnic for a job he used to have. A job he hated. And as a joke, instead of food, he brought a wicker crate full of trained doves. To everyone, this was just another picnic basket, more pasta salad and wine. Rand kept the hamper under a table cloth all morning, keeping it shaded and cool. Keeping the doves inside quiet.

He snuck the crumbs of French bread. He squeezed bits of corn polenta through holes in the wicker.

All morning, the people he worked with, they sipped wine or sparkling water and talked about corporate goals. Mission statements. Team building.

At the moment when it seemed theyd all wasted a beautiful Saturday morning, that moment when all the small talk comes to an end, Rand says thats when he opened the hamper.

People. These people who worked together every single day. Who thought they knew each other. As this white chaos. This storm exploded from the center of the picnic. Some people screamed. Some people fell back into the grass. They covered their faces with their open hands. Food and wine fell. Good clothes got stained.

It was the moment after when people saw it wouldnt hurt them. When people saw this was safe. It was the most lovely thing theyd ever seen. They fell back, too amazed to even smile. For the countless hours of that one long moment, they forgot everything important and watch the cloud of white wings twist up into the blue sky.

They watched it spiral. And the spiral open. And the birds, trained by many trips, follow each other away to someplace they knew every time was their real home.

That, Rand says, is what is in the Nightmare Box.

Its something that goes beyond life-after-death. Whats in the box is proof that what we call life isnt. Our world is a dream. Infinitely fake. A nightmare.

One look, rand says, and your lifeyour preening and struggle and worryits all pointless.

The grandson crawling with cockroaches, the antiques dealer, Cassandra with no eyelashes wandering off naked.

All your problems and love affairs.

They're an illusion.

What you see inside the box, Rand says, is a glimpse of the real reality.

The two people still sitting there, together on the concrete gallery floor, the sunlight from the windows and the street noise, it all feels different. It could be somewhere they've never been before. Its right now the ticking from the box, its stopped.

And Mrs. Clark was too afraid to look.

a short story in Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. i love this so much. its a minimalist parody of the worldwide epidemic of existentialism and convoluted self-worth.

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