If You Could See Inside Pandora’s Box by Chelsea Stickle

from the Screaming Meemies series

Guys like Casey are always trying to prove something. They’re the toughest, the strongest, the baddest. Get close to insulting their manhood, and they’ll torch the world just to see you burn—that glint in their eyes is the flint that’ll start the fire. On days so boring that I wanted to lick lead paint for a little variety, he looked like a good idea. Sometimes I just wanted to see what would happen next.

That old farmhouse had been empty for years. Abandoned houses have a forlorn look when people forget about them like when dogs wait for someone who never comes home again. That was the summer you could pay to scream away the pain in the farmhouse field. Casey said he did it once to scope out the situation. He wanted to throw a rager. I talked him down, said a party was a surefire way to get caught. Might as well deliver ourselves to the Sheriff and save the fuss.

But the opportunity of the empty house couldn’t be ignored, so the four of us—Casey and me, Jessica and Matt—grabbed flashlights. The house wasn’t as abandoned as we thought. The floors were dusty, except for a couple paths, one to the kitchen and the bathroom across from it, and the other down a flight of stairs.

“What are they doing in the basement?” I said.

Casey called me a genius and raced down. The stairs toddled between the walls. Each step sounded like it was about to snap under him. The rest of us followed, slowly, one at a time.

The house was built into a hill, so the basement had a door that opened onto a field. From the window there were miles and miles of unoccupied grass and the occasional tree, all lit up by the pregnant moon. Christ, I would’ve loved to live in a place with huge windows and land—even a yard would’ve been an upgrade from the barely thousand square foot two-bedroom apartment I shared with my parents and my bratty little sister. But, hey, at least we didn’t live in the trailer park like Casey’s family. No wonder he wanted to break into this place. An empty house is an insult to everyone without one.

“What are they doing down here?” Casey asked.

I sherlocked my way to the shelves on the wall covered in jars. It was the cleanest part of the room and the path from the stairs led right there. The jars didn’t look empty. There was glowing white stuff swirling in them, something unnatural and alive. As I leaned in to get a better look, an open mouth appeared on the side. I screamed. It was instantaneous. Like it had been sliced out of me.

Matt curled around me and smothered me with his hand. His sweat smelled like hot dogs and corn chips. I elbowed his gut. He burped and released me, saying, “Ow” piteously. My body teetered into the table against the back wall as I flipped him off. My Jell-O legs were spasming with every heartbeat. The beam from my flashlight danced around the room as I struggled to cross my arms and warm up my freezing body. I saw a mouth. Mouths are for eating.

“What?” Casey asked. He examined a jar and tapped its side. “What’s in these?”

“Don’t,” I said. Jessica hugged me to her and rubbed my arm.

“Are you daring me?” Casey asked.

The blaze in his eyes was blinding. I’d never seen him this bad. He could’ve done anything. Rob a bank, set a fire. It was my job to talk him down. “N-no.”

“Did it sound like a dare to you, Matt?”

“Sure did.”

Casey held a shovel like a baseball bat. Rested the spade end on one of the jars like he needed to line up for maximum damage. “Ready?”

“Casey, please,” I begged. There wasn’t time for me to hate myself then. It was only later when I replayed that night and heard my weakness that I loathed myself, the way I pleaded with him. I knew it was pointless. I tried anyway. What a useless thing trying is. Success is what matters. “Casey.”

At that he smacked the jars with glee. He looked like a little boy using a magnifying glass to kill an ant hill. Because to him everything came down to: How much do you care about me and what would you do for me? He never thought, “I care about them, what can I do for them?” I had committed the cardinal sin of caring more about the jars than his momentary pleasure.

The jars rained down from the split shelf. Matt picked up a rake and helped. The violence left behind clear shards. Glass teeth embedded in the floor. Small piles of glass like ant hills. The boys played Whack-A-Mole with the rest and scrambled to smash them before they rolled away. These white, semi-translucent vapors rushed out of their traps. The mouth. They filled the space like smoke. We had set the fire.



 

Chelsea Stickle is the author of the flash fiction chapbook Breaking Points (Black Lawrence Press, 2021). Her stories appear in CHEAP POP, CRAFT, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Best Microfiction 2021 and others. In 2022 her micro “If You Want It Bad Enough” was selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50. She lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and a forest of houseplants. Read more at chelseastickle.com and find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.