Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
Deacon loved yard sales, yet despite the size of the ‘neighborhood’ sale he’d found on his way home from work, nothing had caught his eye. Disappointed, but glad he’d stopped anyway, Deacon turned away from the table he’d been going through and tripped over something at his feet. With a few ungraceful steps and a hop, he managed to keep himself upright, and looked to see what he had stumbled over, at the same time choosing to ignore the amused looks and snickers of his fellow treasure seekers. Acting as though nothing had happened, he bent over and picked up the object that had been carelessly left behind him.
It was a simple box; covered in a thin, tight layer of old dark leather, approximately 18” x 18” x 18” with a brass latch and pin, securing a circular lid in its top, as well as brass trimming, and a crank on the right side. The design was clearly that of a Jack-in-the-Box. A common children’s toy that when turning the crank produced a tinny song and a cheap scare as an overly made-up clown or jester popped out upon the song’s completion. This though was not your average Jack-in-the-Box. Typically the toy, now mass-produced in various warehouses across the world, was made out of pressed tin, was feather-light, and about half the size. Also, Deacon could not recall ever seeing one that latched shut. What was the purpose in that? It would ruin the scare if the clown couldn’t ‘pop’ out at the appropriate time. He tried to pull the brass pin out, but it was stuck, and refused to budge even a hair. The result was the same with the crank as well and despite his efforts, he couldn’t get it to produce even a single musical note.
Even though the toy didn’t work it intrigued Deacon. It was clearly old, and probably needed some repairs, but he was willing to bet, that even in its current state it was worth some money. He turned the heavy box over and around looking for a price sticker, but could find none. Someone here must be selling it; perhaps a kid had taken the sticker off in hopes of playing with it. He carried the Jack-in-the-Box to the only table with someone sitting at it. A rail-thin, middle-aged woman, with long red, extremely frazzled hair and tired blue eyes, sat with a clipboard and a metal box, exchanging various odds n’ ends for cash. He waited patiently behind three young boys who were debating the value of a box of sports cards. When they finally agreed on a price, they paid for their cards and moved on. The woman at the table looked at him with such exasperation he was sure she was going to demand to know what he wanted. He was surprised though when her expression softened, “Can I help you?”
“I can’t seem to find a price on this thing. Do you know how much it is?” He held the Jack-in-the-Box out for her to see, but not far enough for her to take it from him.
“What is it?” She tilted her head, but saw nothing but an old box.
“A broken Jack-in-the-Box.” He turned the box enough to let her see the crank on the side.
“You want to buy a broken toy? And a dirty one at that?” She sneered at the box in his hands, mistaking the aged leather for stains.
Deacon shrugged, eager to make the purchase, but not wanting to let his excitement apparent. No need in letting on that he thought it might be worth more than a few dollars. “A project really, I like to repair things in my spare time.”
“Oh, a handyman,” she said with a smile. “Well, I’ll tell you what. Seeing as it’s not marked, let’s say $5. It’ll go in the donation fund for the animal shelter, my favorite charity.”
“Sounds fair,” Deacon agreed. Paying for his new treasure, he hurriedly headed for his car, eager to get home and see what he could do with the toy.
* * * * * *
An hour later he had yet to locate any information on his particular Jack-in-the-Box. There was no manufacturers stamp, no signature or initialing of any kind to indicate who might have made the toy. He was surprised though when examining the box for at least the fourth time since bringing it home, to find a pentagram surrounded by a Latin on the bottom. The sinister star, and Latin, were burned into the otherwise soft leather covering. He hadn’t noticed it earlier, and wasn’t sure how he could have missed it, but it was clear as day now. In his excitement over its age and potential profit, he must have overlooked it he reasoned.
The pentagram certainly added to the mystery of the toy, and he had hoped that the Jack-in-the-Box’s uniqueness would make it easy to locate information about it, but it was quickly becoming apparent that maybe its uniqueness was the very thing holding up his search. Frustrated, but not discouraged he began yet another search when he heard the front door open.
“Hi honey,” he called out to the only other person who had a key to his home; his girlfriend of two years, Melanie.
“Hey baby,” she answered from the hallway as she stripped out of her jacket and shoes, and dropped her purse before joining him on the couch, and planting a kiss on his cheek.
Deacon set his laptop aside, turned his head and eagerly returned her kiss. “How was your day?” he asked.
“Oh you know, long, drawn-out and uneventful. Glad it’s over.” She laughed, tossing her dark hair over her shoulder, and cuddling up to Deacon. “What’s that?”
Deacon reached over and picked up the toy, “Oh I picked this up on the way home from work, pretty sure it’s a Jack-in-the-Box.”
“Pretty sure?” she asked quizzically, looking at it she couldn’t think of anything else it could be.
“Well the crank won’t turn, and I can’t get the pin out of the latch,” he shrugged and handed the box to Melanie. “But it’s obviously old, so even if I gotta get some work done to it to get in working order, I think I can make some money off of it. I’ve been searching online ever since I got home>“
Melanie turned the box over to examine it, noting the pentagram and Latin before setting the heavy box on her knees and rubbing her fingers together, surprised, and a little disgusted by the soft texture of its surface.
“Weird, huh? It’s covered in some type of leather, but that’s gotta make it even rarer, never seen one like that before.” Deacon grinned hopefully.
Melanie nodded in agreement, “What does the Latin say?”
“I’m not entirely sure, I’ve put it through a translator but it makes no sense, something about music and a sleeper.”
“What about these?” She asked, pointing to the metal caps on the boxes corners.
Deacon leaned in closer and noted that every three-sided cap had engraved on each of its flat surfaces the number six, so that each corner read 666. He stared for a moment in disbelief, how could he have missed that as well as the pentagram? Maybe it was time to go have his eyes examined he thought ruefully. “I didn’t even see those!”
“I’m not surprised, not something you usually see on a toy,” Melanie said distastefully.
“Well, it kinda makes sense,” Deacon said, straightening up. “The original toy has been traced back to a sixteenth-century German clockmaker, who got the idea from a thirteenth-century churchman who was said to have protected the city of Buckinghamshire by casting a devil into a boot. The clockmaker took this legend and created the ‘Devil-in-a-Box’, for the son of a local prince. When he turned the crank a simple tune played, and at the end, a comically painted devil popped out and surprised everyone. It was instantly popular; all the nobles wanted their own ‘Devil-in-the-Box’. Sometime during the Renaissance, the devil was replaced with a jester and the toy became known as a ‘Jack-in-the-Box’. Jack was an old nickname for the devil, so it still meant the same thing, but it seemed to have more appeal to people in that way,” Deacon explained.
“Creepy,” Melanie sneered as she picked it up off her knees to hand it back to him. In her attempt to touch as little of it as possible she misjudged its heaviness and her hands slipped, nearly dropping it. Her reflexes were quick though and she caught it by the crank causing the old brass handle to move forward. When it did the first few beats of, Pop Goes the Weasel, rang out in clear tinny notes. “I thought it didn’t work?”
Deacon excitedly grabbed the Jack-in-the-Box and set it on his own lap, “It didn’t. I couldn’t get it to turn at all. Must’ve just been stuck, guess you loosened it.” He tried pulling the pin out once again, but still, it refused to budge. He could see nothing that was preventing the pin from moving, no substance clogging up the latch, but still, it would not move. Shrugging off the disappointment he grabbed the handle and gave it a gentle push. Effortlessly the crank moved forward and the room filled with an eerily slow rendition of the children’s rhyme. Deacon tried to hurry it along, turning the crank faster, but it refused to speed up. As the climax of the song approached, Deacon felt his stomach tighten in anticipation even though he knew the scare wouldn’t come, because of the stuck pin.
Melanie was tensed as well, mesmerized by the languid tune. When the ‘POP’ rang out, the single note did not disappoint, the lid of the toy jumping in its frame. Melanie gasped and grabbed Deacon’s arm who started in surprise himself; the vibration of the boxes movement still ringing through his hand. A second later the couple looked at each other and laughed.
“Clearly Jack is ready to come out and play,” Deacon chuckled, pulling at the pin again.
Melanie sighed loudly, shaking off the scare. “Well I am ready to eat,” she informed him, taking the Jack-in-the-Box from his lap, still touching it as little as possible, and setting it on the coffee table next to his laptop. “I am craving burgers from May’s.” In truth she didn’t really care where they went, she just wanted to be out of the house and away from the creepy toy.
“You got it,” he agreed.
* * * * * *
Dinner at May’s had turned out to be an excellent idea. For nearly two hours they sat in a corner booth sharing food, wine, and stealing kisses while discussing their anniversary plans for the following weekend. After dinner Melanie asked Deacon to drive her home, she was a lightweight when it came to alcohol, and she did not want to drive herself home. Unable to convince her to stay at his place, he dropped her off and promised to bring her car by before she had to go to work the following day.
Entering his place alone, Deacon felt a little light-headed himself, but decided a single beer wouldn’t put him over the top. Grabbing the drink, he flopped down on the couch and looked down at the Jack-in-the-Box, shocked to see the pin; stuck all day despite his best efforts, lay neatly next to the antique toy.
Deacon set the unopened beer on the couch next to him, picked up the brass pin, and stared at it in confusion, unable to reasonably explain how it had come loose and landed so neatly next to the Jack-in-the-Box.
“Ready to show yourself.” Deacon almost whispered, as he flipped the latch back and began to turn the crank.
Deacon felt strangely apprehensive, and wondered for the briefest moment if perhaps it was better to leave Jack alone.
‘Maybe I shouldn’t have the beer.” He said aloud to himself, shaking his head as he listened to the song’s slow progression. When the ‘POP’ came nothing happened, the box sat motionlessly. Not even a thud from within like earlier.
Deacon sighed, “Now what?” He went to the kitchen to retrieve a butter knife. If he had to, he would pry the lid open.
Sitting once again in front of the toy, Deacon raised the knife as the crank began to turn slowly of its own volition, and the tinny song began to slowly play. “I must’ve cranked it too much,” he told himself, as he watched in silence.
As the pinnacle approached Deacon was suddenly unsure whether he wanted to meet Jack or not. Before he could decide, the circular leather-covered lid flipped soundlessly open and a blur of grey and white shot out of the box towards Deacon. More startled then he would ever admit, Deacon jumped and reflexively put up his hand, then cried out as a flash of white-hot pain shot through his palm. “Son of a bitch!”
Deacon cradled his hand against his chest, and stared in disgust at the thing bobbing slowly up and down on its noisy, antiquated spring.
Ten inches high, minus the spring, it looked more like a corpse than anything else, certainly not the typical ‘Jack’. The spine appeared to grow out of the spring itself and barely supported the thin malformed skeleton draped in stringy dry flesh. The mouth hung open revealing a dozen sharp-looking teeth, just below an empty hole where the nose should’ve been. Above the vacant hole, the eyes were sewn shut with thick strands of black thread. The top of its head came to a lopsided point, the skull almost entirely exposed except for a few stubborn patches of grey scalp clinging to short tufts of yellowed hair. Worst of all were the unnaturally long arms, and exaggerated fingers that looked more like claws, tipped red with Deacon’s blood and, pulled close to its desiccated rib cage.
His palm throbbed painfully, reminding him that he was injured. Looking down at the rivulets of blood running down his wrist, Deacon angrily backhanded the toy off the table, satisfied by the noisy way it crashed to the floor before heading to the bathroom to clean himself up.
* * * * * *
After deciding he didn’t need stitches, and bandaging up his hand Deacon returned to the living room, picked up the Jack-in-the-Box, and set it back on the table. Despite his momentary anger, he still thought the toy could be worth something, and hoped he hadn’t damaged it with his childish gesture. Tomorrow he would look into taking it to an expert. For now, with Jack tucked back inside the box, a task that took far more effort than it should have, Deacon latched the toy, replaced the pin and went to bed.
* * * * * *
Just a few hours later Deacon woke, to a sound he knew, but couldn’t place. Wanting nothing more than to go back to sleep but knowing that it was not going to happen until he knew what woke him, he forced himself out of bed to investigate.
Nothing was out of place in the bathroom, so he headed down the hall towards the living room. It was empty, and dark except for the bright blue light from his laptop battery. It flashed its low power warning off the amber colored glass of the broken beer bottle, which lay in a pile between the couch and the coffee table. Looking at the mess he realized what had woken him; the sound of glass breaking, but how had it happened? Even if the bottle had rolled off the couch, the distance was short and the floor was carpeted. It shouldn’t have shattered.
As he stood there trying to think of a reasonable explanation for the beer bottle breaking he noticed the empty spot on the coffee table. Where was the Jack-in-the-Box? The brass latch pin once again removed, lay next to his laptop, but the toy was nowhere to be seen. He closed his eyes and retraced his last few moments before going to bed. He was certain he’d left the toy here. So where had it gone? Was someone in the house? Had he been robbed?
Cautiously Deacon headed to the kitchen, the only room he’d yet to check. He’d barely stepped into the room when ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ began to play from somewhere behind him. He spun around, expecting to see someone sneaking out of his house with the toy, but he was surprisingly alone. The song though continued to play, and to Deacon it seemed to be slowing down, almost as if it were calling to him; enticing him. He left the kitchen, and followed the metallic tune through the living room, past the front door, and into the hallway where the song continued, past its climax only to start over again.
“Melanie?” Deacon called out tentatively. He knew it wasn’t her, but hearing a voice, even just his own, made him feel less alone, less vulnerable as he searched for the misplaced toy. “Melanie, is that you?” He walked slowly down the hallway, certain the music was coming from his bedroom, but pausing to check the bathroom anyway. He didn’t want to admit it, not even just to himself, but he was delaying the discovery of the toy as long as possible. “Melanie, I thought you didn’t want to stay over tonight?”
When he reached his bedroom door he could hear the music as clearly as if he were holding the toy, but even if it was overwound, the music shouldn’t still be playing. Plus he knew he hadn’t shut the bedroom door when he left the room. So… it had to be Melanie, it just had to be.
As soon as he twisted the doorknob the music stopped. “Mel?” he pushed the door all the way open, hoping to see her standing there grinning triumphantly, pleased with herself for scaring him. Instead, he was greeted by an empty room. Empty except for the Jack-in-the-Box sitting squarely in the middle of his bed.
A chill ran through him, covering him head to toe in thousands of goosebumps. The Jack-in-the-Box had not been on his bed he would have noticed it. Melanie had to be behind it. Stepping into the room he looked behind the door, in the closet, behind a large cardboard cutout of Superman, and even dropped to his knees to look under the bed. But despite his hopes, they were all empty.
He was pushing himself up off the floor when the Jack-in-the-Box began its serenade yet again. It was so startling that his hand slipped and he landed back on his knees next to the bed. “Son of a…” the music picked up speed making Deacon’s heart skip a beat. “Stop!” he whispered pleadingly, reaching out to halt the crank. Before he reached it, though, it stopped, one note before the ‘POP’.
Laughing in nervous relief, Deacon sighed, and dropped his head on the edge of the bed. He had never been so relieved, or felt so stupid. He stared at the box and couldn’t believe that he had let paranoia get to him, it was only a toy. Nothing but wood and metal. Nothing vicious. Nothing to be afraid of.
While he knelt there berating himself the single note announcing Jack’s arrival chimed, the metallic ping was like a gunshot in the silence, and as he raised his head the monstrous toy sprang from its hiding place, its long spindly arms reaching out for him. This time Deacon screamed, and threw himself backwards, landing on his backside as Jack continued forward, the momentum carrying the toy off the bed where it landed between his legs.
“Holy crap!” he cried angrily, not sure what he was angrier at, the toy, or himself for fearing it. It was very old; there were kinks and loose parts, things that surely needed to be repaired. Hell, the spring alone was in desperate need of oiling. He knew it was a desperate grasp at logic, but he didn’t care, it was better than any other explanation.
The Jack-in-the-Box lay on its side, Jack and spring stretched out towards him, looking as though it were reaching for him. He shook his head, angry with himself for his apprehension, and forced himself forward to scoop Jack back into the box when it moved. The fingers stretching slowly as he reached for it. Deacon paused, not trusting his eyes, and in his hesitation, Jack confirmed his suspicions, its claw-like hands swinging viciously at his fingers.
Too shocked to cry out, Deacon scooted back, his now bloody fingers making the floor slippery as he tried to stand. After a fumbled attempt though he succeeded, and stared in disbelief as Jack used its unnaturally long and narrow arms to pull itself across the floor towards him.
“No way,” he breathed, his stomach clenching in fear as he sidestepped towards the hallway, not wanting to turn his back on it. He glanced towards the doorway out of the corner of his eyes and as he did he heard the rusty creak of the spring, and for a brief moment he had the crazy idea that Jack was putting himself away. But when he looked back Jack was air born, launching itself towards him, using the force of the spring to push its body forward, and dragging the heavy box along. It landed just a few inches short of Deacon’s bare feet, and in his panic he kicked at it, intending to send the awful thing flying across the room, hoping to break it.
Before his foot even came in contact with the toy, Jack lashed out and grabbed onto his ankle, digging its sharp fingers deep into his skin. Deacon shrieked in pain and began to kick wildly, but instead of tossing the toy off it seemed to energize it, and Jack’s clawed fingers sought purchase higher up his calf as it sank its ragged teeth into his shin.
“Get off!” He continued to thrash his leg furiously until his foot made contact with the heavy wooden box, and he felt at least two toes crush instantly. The pain was nauseating, and Deacon reached down to rip Jack off his leg. When his hands wrapped around the dry, thin body of the toy he could feel the fierce, raw strength that flowed through it despite its apparent delicacy, and Jack released his leg only to snake its way up his forearms.
“No”! Deacon screamed in horror. Blood was running in half a dozen tiny rivers down his leg, and pooling beneath his feet while he fought to get the horrible thing off of him. As he struggled desperately he lost his balance, slipping in his own blood. There was a brief moment of hope, when he thought he could remain upright, but it was quickly lost as he fumbled into even more blood. He fell backwards hitting the floor hard, first his shoulders, and then his head, bouncing off the hardwood with a crack.
The house was suddenly silent, and the pain faded away, as a heavy blackness came swimming up through the corners of his eyes. He saw Jack clawing its way up his chest, but felt nothing. “Please,” Deacon begged, as darkness enveloped him completely.
* * * * * *
Deacon draped his arm over his eyes having no desire what-so-ever to open them. His head pounded ferociously, but he had never been so glad to be awake, he was giddy with relief. That had been by far, the worst, and most vivid nightmare he had ever had in his entire life. He would definitely not be drinking that much again anytime in the near future.
Sighing heavily at the thought of getting out of bed, but loving the idea of a hot shower, he put his arm down and sat up in one motion. But instead of the edge of his bed, and a sun-filled room, all he saw was blackness, filled with a deafening, and heart-sinkingly familiar creak.
Deacon rubbed his eyes vigorously, trying to clear them. As he did his fingers caught something rough, something that made his heart ache with fear. He traced the roughness tentatively with his fingertips, knowing immediately what it was. Thick strands of thread bound his eyelids to the tops of his cheeks, and came together in knots at the corner of his eyes. He shook his head violently, trying to wake himself, he had to be dreaming he thought desperately, because the alternative was too terrible to concede, and he proceeded to fling himself around until he came up against a hard flat surface.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he couldn’t hear his own voice, but he continued the mantra anyway as he explored the walls that confined him on all sides. With every movement, he was taunted by the awful metallic creak that filled him with a sickening dread that he didn’t want to confirm, but could not ignore.
After what seemed to Deacon like an eternity of hesitation, he placed his hands on his chest, startled by the sunken spots he felt. He continued down his waist, aware of areas of pain, and a wetness he was sure was blood, but neither of which concerned him. He forced himself to explore further, past his belly button, and then; nothing. No more flesh, and bone, nothing but a cold downward spiraling ring of metal.
In an instant all reason abandoned him, and he began to thrash, and scream, a raspy torturous cry, drowned out by the incessant creaking of his spring.
Credit: Absinthe Rose
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