Today's flash fiction is a sneaky one. If you've been reading along, you might catch on. Enjoy!
It never occurred to me to ask how a cargo container ended up in the middle of the woods, 10 miles or so from an actual train track. The trees surrounding it were thick and tall, and pressing in from all sides. There was clearance for the door to slide open, but you couldn't walk around the perimeter of the container without detouring around various trees. That should have seemed odd.
But then, I was twelve.
Finding the container was the most exciting day of my life to that point. It had started as a pretty decent day anyway, and just kept getting better. It was my birthday, the 12th of October, and it was a Saturday. I woke up like I always do, which was early. I was always early. I loved being the first one awake in the house, with everything quiet and still. It was like being in a different universe. Everything would get very busy soon enough.
I pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, and because it was a little chilly outside I pulled on the old leather jacket my Dad had given me. The brown leather was tough and scratched and worn in places, and it had been through more than one patch of thick forest undergrowth. It smelled like oil and camp smoke and outdoors, and it was a little big for me. But I wore it every chance I got.
I was out the door before anyone else had opened their eyes, and into the thick woods behind our house before the sun had fully risen. The air was cold and crisp, and I could see my breath. I stopped for a few minutes and huffed, pretending to smoke. I had never had a real cigarette, but my mom and dad both smoked packs of them, and I thought one day I might give it a try. Maybe.
Back at it, back into the woods. Today I would go farther than ever. Today I would find that other edge, the other side. I had tried, lots of times, but it was always too tough, or too dark and too scary. But not today. Twelve years old was too old to be scared by the woods, and I knew I could find that edge, or maybe something equally as interesting. There were miles of forest to explore.
I pushed through thick underbrush at the edge until I came to the first clear patch. Once you were far enough in, the brambles thinned out quite a bit. My Dad told me it was the lack of sunlight, that the canopy of the trees was keeping all the light for itself, and starving out anything on the ground. Which was good for movement and visibility. Except that there were also branches and vines on the forest floor, which may not be as thick and tough as brambles, but were just as good at slowing me down. And even better at making everything feel creepy and spooky.
But I wasn't scared. I told myself that over and over, until I finally started to believe it. Sort of.
I kept on. I passed through the first clearing and into more trees. Animal trails and switchbacks were cut through the low tangle, and it was easy enough to keep moving in a general direction.
I brought with me two tools that made me feel more confident. The first was and old compass that Dad told me he'd had since he was a boy. He gave it to me when I started Scouts, and taught me how to use it. That was how I managed to keep moving in the right direction.
The second tool was my old pocket knife, a Swiss Army knife given to me by my grandfather. It was my favorite thing, and I kept it with me always (even at school, though I never took it out of my pocket). It had a couple of knife blades, a cork screw, a leather punch, a small pair of scissors, a file, a saw, a pair of tweezers, a plastic toothpick, a small writing pen, and a few things I didn't really have a name for. A lot of these tools were combined together in a single blade — the saw and the file, for instance. I also added a couple of touches myself, tying a long piece of paracord through the keychain loop and braiding it into a strap that was also attached to a small, metal, cylindrical pill fob cointaining three waterproof matches.
With these two tools, and my dad's old leather coat, I felt ready to take on anything.
I was in the woods for a couple of hours when I stopped to catch my breath. I'd more or less been moving East all morning, and it was unbelievable to me that I hadn't hit the creek yet. I could walk to it in just half an hour on the road, but two hours in the woods and there was still no sign of it. That's when it occurred to me, for the first time, that the creek must veer to the East and shoot off at an angle from the forest. That bugged me, because I had assumed I would come to the creek as a natural edge to the forest, and I could follow that back to the road and then back home. Who knew how far I'd have to go now? Would I have to turn around and go back? Did I blow it?
That's when I saw it.
At first, I thought it was just a particularly thick clump of trees and underbrush, and that I'd have to divert around it. But as I started to skirt the edge, I noticed the straight lines of it, standing out against the organic sprawl of trees and vines. It contrasted with the natural world.
I walked closer, and saw that I was on the back side of it. When I made my way around, I found the door, which was closed and latched. I reached out and touched the reddish surface, feeling the texture of rust and the coolness of metal.
There were no markings. Nothing I could see, anyway. No painted numbers, no logos, no anything that said anything about it.
What was inside?
I couldn't help the question. It was tickling the inside of my skull, twisting itself around in there, crawling down to my heart to make it pound and into my stomach to make me nervous about it. What if someone was inside? What if some thing was inside? What if there was radiation or explosives? What if there was candy or toys? What if what if what if what if!
Too many what ifs to ignore. So I didn't.
I stepped up to the cargo container's door, which was latched but not chained. I took put my pocket knife, and then tapped it on the door. I heard the hollow clang of metal, sounding odd and out of place and a little scary out here in the woods, where it didn't belong. I waited.
If someone or something was in there, it was being really quiet. It was hiding, maybe. But then I looked at the latch, and I realized that if something was in there, it had been in there for a very long time.
The latch was turned so that the handle pointed to the left, and the large metal hook of it was wedged into a loop of metal on the base of the container. Rust covered ever speck of it, though it was still solid and sturdy. Spanish moss, blown down from the trees, had caught and gathered around it, pilled up on the latch along with crispy brown leaves and dry, brittle twigs. This thing had been closed for a very long time.
That didn't mean it wasn't dangerous in there. I knew that. It was something strange, sitting here in the middle of the woods. It shouldn't be here, but here it was. And it could be dangerous.
I brushed the moss and twigs and leaves from the handle and gripped it. It could be dangerous. I put both hands on it. It could be dangerous. I spread my feet, angling one the edge of the container for leverage. It could be dangerous.
It was hard, at first, to even budge it. But as I strained and pulled, I felt it starting to give. And suddenly, it just let loose. It flipped, and my hands, still gripping it tight, were caught between the lever and a knob of metal on the other side of the latch. I yelled and let go and jumped back, flailing my hurt hand as if I could fling the pain away. I did this for a few seconds, my heart racing, my heartbeat in my ears, a slight sizzle in my brain. And then I stopped and looked.
The latch was open.
Now all that was between me and the contents of the container was a sliding metal door. It could be dangerous. I didn't care.
I stepped up to the door and put my hands on its edge. There was a handle, but it was a little high and kind of awkward to grab on to. But the outer lip was enough. I could put my hands on that easily. I gripped it, took a breath, and pulled. The door squealed, metal on metal, and the door ground and growled with built up rust and grime as it slid open. I jumped back, ready to run at the first sign of monsters.
The diffused light filtering through the treetops fell into the container at a slant. It was enough to illuminate drifting dust and rust flakes as I peered into the dark space beyond. Standing back as far as I could, while still able to look inside, I could see a collection of odds and ends within.
I stepped forward, and when nothing leapt out at me, I entered.
Inside it smelled old and musty. Even the sound inside, echoing dull and short from the metal walls, felt stale and abandoned. This place hadn't seen life in a very long time. I couldn't say how long.
I looked around, taking it all in. One end had been converted into a sort of bedroom. A small cot was there, with a neatly folded wool blanket and an old pillow that was black and moldy looking. Next to the cot was a wooden crate that served as a sort of night stand, and on that was an old gas lantern.
There was a table and two chairs in the space. An old deck of cards stood on the table, and next to that was an ash tray filled with an old pile of cigarette or cigar ash.
The other end of the container resembled a kitchen. There was an old, standing ceramic sink, with a bucket under it. The bucket was empty, as was the sink. There was a rotted rubber stopper in the drain. Whoever used this would fill the sink with water using the bucket, then let it drain when he was done with washing his dishes or whatever.
A camp stove was on a makeshift counter top built from small wooden crates. There was a small rack with utensils, including a couple of forks, spoons, and knives.
And then, against the back wall of the container, there was the box.
It was wooden, and carved with intricate patterns. When I looked closer, I could see that the pattern wasn't flowers or vines, like you would normally see on antique furniture. Instead, it formed a scene.
There were animals, like bears and large birds and what looked like big dogs, plus some strange looking creatures I'd never seen before. There were people, dressed in strange clothes sometimes, and other times in what looked like armor. They were holding weapons or gesturing. Some looked as if they were fighting. It was a battle. A battle that included animals as well as people.
I touched the box. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised anyway. It felt ... warm. The air inside the container was a little cooler than outside, but the box felt like it had been in the sun recently. I ran a finger over the pattern of animals and men, and felt the warmth, and could almost feel a movement in the wood as my fingers traced every curve. Not a movement as if something was inside the box, but a movement as if the scene was alive, as if it shifted in slow motion under my fingers.
I wanted to open the box. Of course I did. But compared to opening the container, compared to stepping into the woods while the light was still low, compared to any of the things I had done in twelve years of life, to the very day, opening that box was the most frightening thing I could imagine. Because anything might be in there. Or nothing might. I wasn't sure which made me more afraid.
I put my hands on either side of the box and slid it away from the wall of the container, out into the open, where the diffused light could hit it. There was a small latch on the front of the box, a piece of metal that was probably brass at some point but was now just dark and yellow, like fallen leaves. It wasn't locked. It was standing there, waiting.
Waiting for me.
And I knew it, all at once. This container, the space inside, the box, these had stood here for a very, very long time. And in all that time, they waited, waited, waited. They waited for me. Maybe not me that was this exact me, the me that was 12 years old today, that wore his Dad's old brown leather coat and carried a compass and a Swiss Army knife. But me, the person who would march into these woods some morning and come to this container and be brave enough to look inside. Me, the only human being who had seen the inside of this container in what was surely a lot of dusty years.
It was waiting.
I reached out and put a finger under the latch, wedging under it. The hinge was tight, and it loosened a bit as I moved my fingers under it. I pried, and the latch slowly swung up and open, finally standing with its oval tip pointing straight to the ceiling. I took a breath then, because the next few seconds might not come with the opportunity to breathe. And I opened the box.
I fell backward, gasping. The lid swung up and back and over, and I heard it thump on the back side of the box. I sat up and saw the open edges, fresh and raw-looking wood that didn't tell its age nearly as well as the outside. I could smell it then, the scent of cedar, sweet and fragrant. I had a small travel chess set made of cedar, a little box that opened and latched just like this one, and inside of that were dozens of little red and black plastic pegs shaped like chess pieces. I loved that little set, and that's what came to mind as the cedar smell hit me, comforting me and reminding me of road trips and travel and time spent with my friends and family. But I knew that inside this box would be something else.
I crawled to my knees and leaned forward, slowly, until I could see over the edge.
Inside, sitting on a spill of purple, velvety cloth, was a book.
It was small, and it had a cover made of leather. The pages had rough edges. There was a long strap of leather wrapped around it to keep it closed. Sticking out of the pages, at the bottom of the book, was a piece of bright, purple ribbon.
A book. All this, and I find a book. Not a sword or magic ring or some kind of mystical object, but a dusty old book.
I reached into the box and picked it up. It was small, actually, only a little bigger than my hand. If I wanted, I could probably put it in my back pocket.
I carefully unwound the leather strap and let it dangle, and then cracked the cover.
It wasn't a book after all. Or it was, but it wasn't like books I was used to. It was hand written, and every page seemed to be in a different color ink. It also had drawings of all kinds of things, most of which looked like the kind of instructions you would see when you bought something you had to put together. Little exploded diagrams of things I didn't really recognize or understand.
It was written in English, at least. I could read bits of it. The whole thing was strange, written by someone who felt everything inside was extremely important. I flipped to the inside of the front cover, and written in top right corner of the blank page was the name "Xander Travel."
I flipped now to the page marked by the purple ribbon and then ...
And then I stopped breathing.
There, on the top page, facing me, was something I never would have expected. I stared at it for a long time, confused, and then wondering. It was written in plain print, clean and easy to read.
"Happy birthday, Parker. Keep this safe."
That was me! Parker! But that wasn't ... couldn't be possible. It had to be some kind of joke.
But as I thumbed through the book, it didn't feel like a joke. Instead, it felt like ... what was the word? It had been in the back of my head the whole morning. It had been there when I woke up this morning and decided to find the edge of the woods. It had been a song in mind as I made my way East, until I found an impossible metal cargo container in the middle of the woods. It was ... it was ...
It was the beginning.