It was your standard blue collar work day—in at 9, work for eight hours, out by 5. My dad was on his way home to have a standard blue collar evening when something not-so-standard happened. Driving home from work, his car was hit by some douchebag pickup truck driver on the freeway trying to merge into the fast lane—he merged into my dad, instead. My dad’s car was sandwiched between this big-ass pickup truck and the concrete divider—it came out of the accident looking like a Picasso rendering of a meat grinder. My dad fared only slightly better: he broke several ribs, and his left arm looked like it had been run through said cubist meat grinder—the surgeons couldn’t save it. The doctor said my dad was lucky to have lost his left arm, since he’s right-handed. Lucky, the doctor said. How is it they all have such God-awful bedside manner?
My dad had to stay in the hospital a good two months—long enough to rack up a breathtaking amount of debt in the form of medical bills. When my dad finally got out, he was nowhere close to functional—he had a long road of physical therapy and routine hospital visits ahead of him before he could go back to work, assuming there’d even be a job left for him when he’d recovered. He was next to useless around the house; you’d never guess how much you have to use your off hand for, well, damn near everything. What this amounted to was a giant crock of shit for me, my mom, and my sister to deal with on a daily basis, to say nothing of how my dad must have felt: useless. Powerless. A burden to our family.
I’m not telling you all this to get sympathy—my family and I have had our fill of that, and it doesn’t do much for anyone. I’m telling you this so you understand why we were so grateful for it at first—the little wooden box.
My dad started seeing a psychiatrist about a month after being released from the hospital. He’s not much for getting mental help—one of those guys that seems to think people get fixed the same way cars do, and doesn’t understand why someone can’t just take a look under the hood and fix it themselves. But as he put it, he’d felt too shitty for too long, and had to do something about it. His doctor recommended the psychiatrist to him—about the only useful thing that doctor did. The psychiatrist, this dweeby guy with an equally dweeby Dr. Freud goatee, diagnosed my dad with “post-operative depression.” Not that terms like that tell you jack shit about what the person’s going through.
After a couple unproductive sessions, the psychiatrist decides to try something “unorthodox.” The psychiatrist takes out this little box made of cedar, pine, or some other light wood. It’s small—you could fit a dime-store book in there, but not much else—and mostly plain: some modest scrollwork in the corners, but little else in the way of decoration.
“Whenever you feel angry, or sad, or frustrated,” the psychiatrist says, “I want you to take some time to yourself, all right? What you’re going to do then is take this box, open it up, and stuff all the bad feelings inside. You keep doing that until you get all that icky stuff out, and when you’ve done that, you’re going to close that box, put it away, and you’re going to focus on getting better until you need the box again.”
My dad spent a good hour stomping and swearing when he got home from that session—lots of talk about pretentious medical professionals, wasted money, and some creative ideas for alternate places the psychiatrist could put his little wooden box. I half-expected my dad to take out his frustration on the box, and break it in two; once he was done ranting and raving, however, he just set it on a shelf in my parents’ room.
A week and a half after my dad got the little wooden box, my dad’s boss called the house. He told my dad that he had to let my dad go, and replace him—in plain terms, my dad was fired. Time is money, as the saying goes, and my dad was taking too much of both to recover. There was no screaming and cursing this time—getting fired took the fight right out of him.
After hanging up the phone, my dad locked himself in my parents’ room. My mom and sister tried to get him to come out and talk, but he was having none of it. I almost decided to help, but I figured my dad might have needed a little time to himself. It turns out I was right—after three hours, my dad comes out of there with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen, and starts making mac and cheese for dinner. It was an absolute mess—he got flour and dry pasta on every flat surface of the kitchen, and the sauce was full of cheese chunks that he hadn’t been able to cut properly—but that smile never once left his face. And I’ll tell you what, that shitty mac and cheese was the best dinner I’ve ever had.
It was all thanks to that box—my dad sat down with that thing for three hours, dumped all his frustration into it, and came out of my parents’ room a changed man. After using the box, he wouldn’t get discouraged when his missing arm stopped him from doing something—he’d just come back at it with twice the effort, and eventually he’d get done what he wanted to get done. He went to therapy with a smile, and came back exhausted, but still smiling. When things got rough—when his job search wasn’t going well, or the medical bills got too expensive, even if he just had a hard time brushing his teeth—he locked himself in my parents’ room with that little box, and came out a couple hours later ready to take on the world again.
My family and I were grateful for that little wooden box. It was a godsend, when we needed one most. It’s not the nature of things to just magically get better, though—miracle wooden boxes aside.
It started with little bumps in the middle of the night a week or two after my dad used his little box for the first time. Unsettling, but not too worrisome; my sister and I talked about it a little, but when you’re talking about it in the middle of the day, you find easy explanations. Older houses crack and pop as they cool off with changes in the weather; these explanations seemed thin when I sat in bed listening to noises that sounded not at all like “cracks” and “pops,” but I hung in there, and soon they were more of an annoyance than anything else. If it had stopped there, I might have contented myself with that easy explanation.
It did not stop there, however. Bits of our house would go from warm to freezing in seconds; I’d never known our house to be drafty, so when my mom and sister chalked it up to seams in the house causing drafts, I had a harder time buying it.
Now, a little about me: I’m a curious person. I see something I don’t understand, I stare at it, think about it, poke it and prod it, until I do. I’m not going to start jumping at shadows for no goddamn reason. But if it walks and talks like a duck…
So, I did a little research. Our house was around a long time before we moved in, so I figured there might be an unpleasant bit of history that could shed some light on what was going on. I went the whole nine—went to the courthouse to get the original permit, asked around at the city planning department, checked newspapers. I expected to find an old owner who died tragically, or maybe a dysfunctional family that might have left some bad blood in the house.
Instead, I found nothing. Nothing especially dark, at least, or even out of the ordinary; just a list of previous tenants, and an old article about my neighborhood’s construction. Skeptic that I am, I found myself a little disappointed. Everyone loves a good ghost story.
I let the matter sit for another week or two. My curiosity had not been satisfied, however—and the bumps in the night, the footsteps where there shouldn’t have been any, didn’t let up. I was forced to consider a possibility I would have preferred to ignore—the little wooden box. I was sure it had nothing to do with anything, but I had a hard time convincing myself that it was a coincidence that everything started happening after my dad brought it home.
I called up my dad’s psychologist. Hearing that my dad was putting the box to good use put him right over the moon; after he settled down a little, I asked him about the box. I half expected to hear that he bought it off some seedy vendor, or found it in the basement of an old mansion; I was disappointed to hear the profoundly mundane explanation that it was a woodworking project given to him by his nephew.
Before I called it quits on my little investigation, I wanted to take a look at the box itself. I doubted I’d find anything, but if I didn’t take a look, it would eat at me until I did. My sister said I shouldn’t—it was an invasion of my dad’s privacy, she said—but I figured what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. So when my mom took my dad to therapy one day, I decided to check the little box out.
The box wasn’t hidden, or anywhere out of reach—just sitting on my dad’s bedside table. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, exactly; I just wanted to look at it, if nothing else. Hold it in my hands, see if I felt any kind of vibe coming off of it.
I picked it up, and was immediately struck by its weight. The wood wasn’t heavy—I remembered my dad waving it around after he first brought it home like it was nothing—but the box felt dense, somehow. I tilted the box in my hands—nothing inside shifted or rolled around as the box moved, though. Attempting to curb my curiosity a little—I couldn’t completely deny that I was snooping on something personal of my dad’s—I ran my hands over the scrollwork on the edges of the box, feeling the uneven finish along the sides. There’s only so much you can do with an empty box, however, so I decided to indulge my curiosity a little more, and open it.
I had barely managed to open it a crack before I heard car doors closing—my parents were home. I hurried to close it and set it back on its table, and threw it into the wall by accident; it seemed half as heavy as it had before, though I had probably just adjusted to its weight. Setting the box down more carefully, I noticed an odd odor in the air—whatever was in the box smelled like burnt motor oil. I turned on the fan in my parents’ room, hoping it would take care of the smell. I dashed into my room as the front door opened, flopped on my bed, and opened up a book. My parents said hi as they headed back to their room, and closed their door. Fifteen minutes passed without incident—I decided I was probably in the clear, and breathed a sigh of relief.
That night—maybe early the next morning—I was awakened by an odd noise. These were not new at this point, but I felt especially uneasy for some reason. I listened for a moment, hoping I could identify it as something 100% normal. I was somewhat relieved when I recognized it: TV static. Not wanting to add a high electric bill to my parents’ long list of worries, I willed myself to shake off my lingering anxiousness, and get up to go to the family room and turn it off.
Walking into the living room, I saw a figure sitting in a chair in front of the TV—my dad, silhouetted by the static the TV was playing. I asked my dad what he’s doing watching static in the middle of the night. For a moment, he didn’t answer; then, in a tired voice I recognized from the first days after he came home from the hospital, he told me to go back to sleep, and stop bothering him. He picked the remote up off the end table to the left of the chair, and turned down the TV a little.
I was more than a little curious about the sudden change in his mood from the past few days, but decided it would be best not to push the issue, and went back to my room. As I got into bed, something bizarre occurred to me—when my dad grabbed the remote, I didn’t see his shoulders move to reach across to his left. I dismissed it as my half-sleeping brain playing tricks on me, and tried to go back to sleep.
As my sister and I got ready for school the next morning, my dad emerged from my parents’ room sleepy-eyed and yawning. My sister asked him if he slept well; he said no, he’d had trouble sleeping. I told him that looking at TV static in the middle of the night wasn’t likely to help a bout of insomnia—maybe not the greatest thing to joke about, but I get pissy when I don’t get enough sleep.
My dad looked at me all confused. He asked what the hell I was talking about; I asked him what the hell he was talking about. Again, tact is not my strong suit when I’m tired. This carried on for a minute or two before my mom told us both to knock it off. When I’d cooled off a little, it occurred to me that my dad had seemed genuinely confused by my question—he didn’t remember me finding him in front of the TV last night. Maybe it was a weird side effect of the billion-and-one meds he was on.
I thought nothing more of it until the week afterward, when I came home to find my sister having an argument with my dad. She was complaining that he had yelled at her from our parents’ room to stop making so much noise when she got home; my dad insisted he’d been napping for hours, and she was imagining things. When I walked into the family room, my dad stormed out, complaining about having to deal with this shit after his box broke.
I asked him what was wrong with the box. I tried not to appear nervous, remembering my clumsy handling of it while my mom and dad were away the previous week. My dad said one of the hinges on it was broken, and it wouldn’t close all the way. I offered to try to fix the hinge; my dad just about lost his shit, threatening to ground me for half a year if I touched his box.
We all stood glaring at each other for a minute before my dad sighed and left the room. He shut himself in my parents’ room, probably to use the box. My sister and I decided to focus on our homework until our dad came out. A couple hours later, he emerged from my parents’ room shuffling his feet and acting sorry. He apologized for yelling at us; he still didn’t remember hollering at my sister about making noise, but he apologized for it, anyway. We said it was okay, and went back to our homework.
Not wanting to add to the increasing amount of eerie shit going on at our house, we tried again to find easy explanations. People sometimes get forgetful as they age—hell, I can barely keep my own schedule straight, and I’m supposed to be in the prime of my life. A guy in his mid-forties, with all kinds of drugs with unpronounceable names pumping through him all day? Things will get forgotten, and that’s likely to make a person a little frustrated—perfectly natural. Perfectly normal.
This is what my mom told me and my sister when we talked to her about dad forgetting things we’d all seen or heard him doing. Neither of us believed it, and our mom knew it; our mom didn’t believe it, and we knew it. But that little box was what kept our dad going; none of us wanted things to go back to the days before the box, so none of us called anyone else out on our little merry-go-round of denial.
These slips of memory got increasingly hard to ignore, and were never pleasant—it was always my dad yelling at someone, or stomping around upstairs while the rest of us were cooking dinner, or watching TV. We did our best not to point out these strange things—we talked about it amongst ourselves, but never in front of our dad.
My dad isn’t stupid, though. He could tell that we were keeping things from him—try as we might, it was too difficult to know what he would and wouldn’t remember, and we might occasionally let something slip. When this happened—when any of us received that blank stare that meant we’d just mentioned something he didn’t remember—we did our best to change the subject, and keep from bringing it up again.
My dad noticed when this happened, and that pissed him off royal—I guess that’s where I get my aggressive curiosity. This meant more and more time spent alone with the box to calm himself down. As my dad used the box more and more, however, his memory slips became more and more frequent—he would forget things more and more often, and his mood during these slips would get worse and worse. What started as irritability turned into rage—and eventually, violence.
Late one night, my sister woke up to get herself a midnight snack, and found our dad standing in the middle of the kitchen with all the lights out, staring out the window into the backyard. She asked him what he was doing; he didn’t say anything. She told him to stop scaring her, and go back to bed. My dad still didn’t say anything; instead, he took a pan from the sink, and threw it at her. Thankfully, my sister was able to dodge it and run back to her room, where she cried herself to sleep. Naturally, my dad remembered nothing in the morning.
That’s where I drew the line. I understood wanting to be considerate, and giving my dad some leeway on his road to recovery. But that shit was inexcusable, and my family deserved better than this Jekyll and Hyde bullshit—the next time my dad got into one of his moods, I’d call him on it. It would get ugly, but it needed to be done.
I figured I wouldn’t have to wait long—I figured right. The night after I decided I needed to level with my dad about everything, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of static from the TV. This would be the third time this month I’d find my dad sitting in the dark in the living room, staring at a dead channel on TV. Fighting a growing sense of unease at having to confront my dad, I got up and went downstairs to the family room.
I found him just as I had before: sitting in darkness and silence apart from the static from the TV. By way of greeting, I told him he would have trouble getting sleep staring at the TV all night. He told me to mind my own goddamn business and go back to bed; that sent my politeness right out the window. I told him he had to cut this shit out—he was scaring the hell out of my mom and sister with his behavior, and it was tearing our family apart. He wasn’t doing himself any favors, either—he just ended up angrier, and was relying on that little box more and more. I told him he had to end the vicious circle here, and talk about what was bothering him, like an adult.
My dad was silent for a moment. I nearly yelled at him to just say something—anything—when I noticed his shoulders heaving. I thought he might’ve started crying before I heard it—he was laughing. The old bastard was laughing at me.
I told him that of all the reactions he should have to what I’d told him, laughter was the least appropriate. My dad got ahold of himself and said I should go get his box for him—we could talk after he spent a little time with it. I figured he was probably stalling, but I went to grab the box anyway. That laugh had severely unnerved me, and I wanted to get out of the room as soon as possible.
I walked back up the stairs, and opened my parents’ door as quietly as I could. My mom is a pretty heavy sleeper—so is my dad, when he’s actually sleeping—but I didn’t want to be careless and wake her up on accident. My eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the dark; not wanting to bash my toes on the furniture in my parents’ room, I turned on my phone and used the screen for minimal light. I aimed the weak light at the nightstand, and was surprised to see the box with its lid wide open. I walked closer and was hit with a strong odor—burnt motor oil. I moved to cover my mouth, and accidentally shined the phone light on my mom—and my dad.
They are both in bed, sleeping. My dad stirs, and mutters something as he rolls over. I stare at my sleeping parents, uncomprehending. I start backing out of the room, shaking my head as if I can make sense of this mess with mindless denial.
Backing out of the room, I bump into something behind me. I turn around and I’m greeted with a nightmare version of my dad. His eyes are bloodshot and glaring at me in abject rage, but they are also watery, leaking tears down his contorted face. His mouth is twisted in a grimace of pain—no, of anguish. I feel feverish heat rolling off of him, and I’m overwhelmed with waves of horrible feelings—anger, depression, pain, exhaustion, it all washes over me and I am paralyzed by it all and I can do nothing but gape at this warped twin of my dad.
Before I can begin to process the horror standing in front of me, the thing wearing my dad’s face pushes me. I fall down the stairs as it looks at me with that horrible mixture of everything awful that a human being can feel. I hit the bottom of the stairs hard enough to knock the wind out of me; I try to yell for my parents, but I can’t get anything louder than a wheeze out.
I look around to find something to grab onto and pull myself up. Before I can find anything, I feel myself being lifted by the throat. Already short of breath, I see dark spots appear before my eyes; before my vision fades completely, I see my nightmare-dad’s twisted face leering at me as he lifts me in the air with his left arm.
His left arm. I look again at the arm that shouldn’t be there, and see blackened, shriveled skin—what little flesh it had was hanging off in decaying chunks, and bone showed through gaps in the skin. My stomach heaves to no avail as my throat is crushed, and my lungs burn.
As I lose consciousness, a final disturbing thought fires through my dying mind. The thing holding me by the throat—this vision of rage and agony and misery that’s been haunting my family—I set it free. You don’t need to die to leave a ghost—you cram enough suffering into one place, force it from your head and into a plain wooden box for someone to open and unleash on the world, and you’ll get a tormented spirit as surely as if you’d died a tragic death. Looking at the thing one last time, its face contorted into a mask of misery as it holds me by the throat, I have just enough time to pray that my mom and sister don’t have to learn this the hard way.