Here’s another short story for you, this time penned by Beth. This was included in a short story anthology, with all proceeds going to charity. If you would like to purchase a copy, you can do so here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Machine-Green-Moon-Anthologies-Greenwell/dp/1095483927
Jack And The Box
By Beth Jones
Sarah closed the front door, resting her head on it as she did so. She exhaled and closed her eyes, tears rolling gently down her cheeks. After a few minutes she turned to look at her house. It looked cold, dark and unloved. Slowly, she slouched through the door to the lounge, and on into the kitchen beyond. She needed a brew. If there was one thing that could make things look better, it was a good cup of tea! That was what Old Jack used to say to her anyway, so she figured she would put his theory to the test. She filled the kettle and went to the fridge for milk. To her dismay, it was curdled and congealed in the see-through plastic bottle, and the fridge smelled like something had died in there. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and lumbered back towards the lounge, flicking the kettle off as she passed.
She sat in her comfy chair, where Old Jack used to sit when he came around for chats, and pulled a crocheted blanket round her shoulders. She hadn’t felt this alone in a long time. The sense of being totally lost and unsure what to do swept over her; something she hadn’t felt since her childhood. For a while, she sat motionless, staring at nothing, thinking about Old Jack and what she could focus on now he was gone. She had been so busy caring for him for the last two years, she had almost forgotten how to do anything else. When he was taken into hospital, she’d been with him every day, trying to keep him in high spirits, trying desperately to keep him fighting on, but they both knew he was dying, and that it was only a matter of time.
It was only a few hours since he passed, but the desperate need to see him again was like a black hole devouring her insides. He’d told her not to worry, that everything was going to be ok and that he was happy to be going home. Happy that the pain would stop, for both of them. But her pain hadn’t stopped, because now it was the pain of loss. The pain that takes away your breath and seers through your head, forcing every last tear that you own to come out all at once.
The last fifteen years, living next door to Old Jack, had been the happiest and most fulfilled she had ever been. She had no-one else in the world apart from him. She’d been in the care system since from eighteen months old. Both her parents were addicts and had died of drug overdoses while she was asleep in her cot. Apparently, it was at least 24 hours later when the police found her. She was placed into care as her grandparents were alcoholics. She spent the next sixteen years being pushed from pillar to post, from care home to foster carer. She had blocked out most of those years; the emotional scars too deep to face. Throughout that time, no matter how hard it was, she’d always been determined that her horrible past wouldn’t define her. She tried hard in school and ended up a ‘straight A’ student. She’d won awards for her hard work in the face of adversity, and for her achievement in Maths and Science. She had always been fascinated by scientific discovery. Physics was magical for her; like a playground of mystery where nothing was beyond the realms of possibility! When she was too old for the care system, her stubborn determination drove her to make a go of life as a fully blown, fully functioning adult. Social services had helped her locate a house – nothing special, a little two up, two down terraced. That was when she met Old Jack, her next-door neighbour. From that day, those childhood scars had started to heel. Now they felt wide open again.
Jack had been the closest thing she’d ever had to a father figure. She managed a little smile as she remembered the first time she’d met him. He’d knocked on her door the day she moved in and given her a welcoming present of a jar of coffee, a pint of milk, and a bag of sugar. She had told him, quite bluntly, that she didn’t like coffee! He had tutted and shuffled back to his door, then two minutes later had come back with a bottle of Navy Rum and two glasses! They had both sat on boxes and got acquainted over some very large measures. They instantly hit it off, as Jack had been a scientist all his life! She found him fascinating, and pretty soon it got to the point where they were always together, Jack sharing many wonderful stories with her, and her hanging on his every word, making tea in the gaps between stories, then urging him to tell her more.
He had once told her how he’d been a codebreaker in the war. She had her reservations as to whether this was true; it felt like it was just one story too far, but by then she had so much love and respect for this wonderful human who had fallen into her life so unexpectedly, that she never questioned it.
Suddenly, a familiar sound came from the meter cupboard in the hall, and everything went dark. The sound was the electric metre shutting off because she was out of credit again. She swore under her breath. She really didn’t need this now! She was too tired and numbed by the day to go out and get more, so she fumbled about on the mantlepiece for a lighter and lit the numerous candles she had dotted around the lounge for this very occurrence. The warm glow from all the little lights was somewhat comforting.
Then she saw it on the mantlepiece. The letter that Jack had given her when he knew he was beginning to fade. It came with strict instructions not to open it until he was gone, and it had sat there, in the same spot, for nearly six months. She stared at it for what felt like hours, hoping that it would disappear. Wishing she would never have to open it, but still slightly intrigued at its contents. Jack literally told her everything, so what could this little envelope contain that she didn’t already know?
Finally, she picked it off the mantlepiece and began to slowly open it, her hands shaking a little. Jack had the most amazingly precise handwriting she had ever seen; perfectly slanted cursive script, with every letter beautifully formed, and even when his health had started to fail and he’d grown weak, this skill never left him.
The fact you are reading this can only mean one thing. Don’t be sad that I’m no longer here – I’m not in the least bit sad that I have gone! Nor am I worried about what is to come next. For me, I should imagine it will be an extraordinary adventure! I might be flying though space as you read this; or growing into a coral on a far away planet, in a parallel universe, so have no fear for me. I am an explorer, and death is a mere diversion onto a new path!
I am also not worried about you, because you are strong, you are brave, and you are bright. More importantly, you are young. You have your whole life ahead of you, and you shouldn’t dwell on my passing because to dwell is to waste time, and you will need all the time you can get to work on a project that I have designed just for you.
I always dreamed I would have a daughter, and in you, that dream was realised. I sometimes felt you thought more like me than I did, and this is why I am entrusting you with my unfinished work. I know you never believed my codebreaker story, but I want you to know that whilst my story was not entirely true, it did contain elements of the truth.
I was born and raised in Nevada. I did fight in the war for a very short time. I was an engineer in US military, until I was injured on manoeuvres and sent home! I took up a roll within the military on my return, working alongside intelligence to identify and replicate advancements in our enemies’ weapons. In 1957 I was working in the Nevada Dessert, at Groom Lake. You might know this place as Area 51.
What I’m about to tell you, you must never tell another soul! You are the only person to know this about me. This is the reason I never married or had any children of my own. If I had done, I would have put them in danger.
In 1957, the ever-suspicious US air force were working on secret technology, to enable them to create indestructible and undetectable fighting machines, to ensure that there would never be another war that they couldn’t win in the blink of an eye. They wanted to affirm their authority over the rest of the planet in a blaze of glory. The technology they were using there was not of this world. You’ve heard the Roswell stories; the conspiracies; the ‘loony’ UFO chaser tales. I can tell you now, they are all as real as the ground on which you stand, but the cover-ups have run so deeply that it is almost impossible to see things in plain sight now.
As a scientist, I was enthralled and enlivened by the idea of discovering and replicating alien technology, but as a human being, with deep morals, I knew that this knowledge was ultimately destined to be used for greed and power, and I could not live with myself being a part of that. I spent months planning my escape; my own exile from that place. I worked through scenarios and theories endlessly before making my move. That is how I ended up here, in our little town, in the back of beyond, our little secret corner of Britain.
My point in telling you this is I brought something with me. I managed to smuggle it out. I found it whilst picking through some pieces of wreckage debris that had been shipped in from Roswell. It had been passed over by the other scientists as insignificant, so much so that it hadn’t been recorded on any paperwork. So, when I took it, the only person who really knew of its existence was me.
I don’t know why it intrigued me so, but there was something about it that led me to think it was some kind of technology. Some kind of machine not of this world. No bigger that a match box, and with no markings or obvious buttons, I often thought I might be reading too much into it and it was just what it looked – a lump of unknown matter. A chunk of ‘stuff’ that wasn’t man-made or made out of any identifiable material. For years I puzzled over it. Right up until 15 years ago. Right up until the point I met you. I decided pretty quickly this would be my legacy to you.
I want you to have it. I want you to crack the code. Unlock its secrets and come tell me when you have. I have no doubt that you will be more capable of this than I, and although I may have left this earth, this existence; and you will have no physical ‘me’ to deliver your conclusion to, trust me when I say I will hear you.
Inside this envelope, you will find a small key. Take it into my house. Behind the fire in the lounge you’ll find a small safe behind a wood panel. The object, and my research papers, are in there. They now belong to you. Carry on my work Sarah. you now hold the key to the universe in your hand!
Until we meet again, Sarah.
Sarah didn’t really know what to say or do next. She kept looking up at the window, then back at the letter, suddenly feeling suspicious of everything. Was anyone watching? Had her house been bugged by some secret agency while she was at the hospital with Jack? Or was this just one of his crazy, mad science stories? She looked in the envelope. There was a small and dainty key nestled in the bottom corner. No, this couldn’t possibly be real, this must be one of Jacks little musings to cheer her up, she thought. She looked up at the ceiling and cursed him under her breath. She placed the key on the mantlepiece and sat back down in the chair. She drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair and fixed her stare on the key, which was glinting in the candlelight. After not too long at all, her curiosity got the better of her. Thumping her hands down assertively on the arms of the chair, she pushed herself up, grabbed the key, and fumbled in her pocket for Jack’s front door key.
It was nearly midnight and the rest of the sleepy road was tucked up in bed by now, even the curtain-twitchers would be snoring, so no-one would see her if she went round to Jack’s for a little investigation, to see if her dear, crazy friend was just pulling her leg for one last time!
She opened her door, and stuck out her head, looking up and down the street, trying (but failing) not to appear too suspicious. There wasn’t a soul about. Perfect! She tiptoed the few feet to Jack’s front door and quickly let herself in. Although it was pitch dark, she didn’t want to turn on the lights and raise any suspicion. Luckily, the clouds of earlier had cleared and moonlight was streaming though the lounge window, illuminating the room with an ethereal glow. She padded silently to the fire place. The house smelled of Jack. It was a comforting smell, like he was there with her, a protector on her new mission!
She moved the old electric fire over and gently tapped on the ‘wall’ behind it. Definitely hollow! She suddenly realised that her heart was beating fast, and that all her senses were heightened. The super power of adrenaline! She quickly surveyed the wall, looking for a way to dislodge the board. There! In the corner, was a tiny cut-out space, big enough for her finger to fit through! She slowly pushed her finger into the hole and felt something small, round and metallic. She pushed a little harder and, with a little pop, the whole panel moved and inch forward! She had to give it to Jack – a spring loaded secret panel behind a fire was pretty cool for a guy of his age! Slowly, she took away the panel, and sure enough, there was the safe. She put the tiny key in the lock and turned. It was a little stiff; the mechanism was obviously old, but eventually it gave a little click, which made her jump! Carefully, she opened the door, and there it was. A small, grey, metallic looking object, no bigger than a matchbox, sitting on top of a thesis of paperwork, all in the same beautiful cursive script that Jack had used to write his final letter. She sat back and stared, her eyes bulging. She had just opened Pandora’s Box. Her head swam with ideas, emotions, theories, fears. She took a deep breath and reached in to the safe to remove the contents.
Sarah got up at six the next morning. She hadn’t really slept all night if she was honest. Way too much buzzing round her head for sleep. When she’d got back in from Jack’s, she’d done what all scientists do; taken the ‘Machine of Unknown Origin’, as she was now calling it, to bed with her, put it under her pillow and had a good long puzzle over it instead of counting sheep. By 2am she was pacing her room reading the stack of theories that Jack had left with the MUO to try and find something he’d missed. A few hours later, she lay back down. So many questions had occurred to her. What was it made of? Where had it come from? What had Jack seen in it that made it special? Hell, was this even a real thing or was this just Jack trying to give her a project to focus on, so she didn’t miss him too much? If that was it, it wasn’t working. The hole in her heart felt bigger today than yesterday. It felt gaping.
She slowly padded down the stairs to the kitchen and placed the MUO on the work top by the sink. She flicked on the kettle and moved to the fridge, to get the milk, sleepily picking it out, holding it up to the light, and realising that it was the same curdled mess that had greeted her last night. Angrily, she wrenched off the lid and moved back to the sink to dispose of the putrid mess. Through her exhausted eyes, she attempted to aim for the plug hole, but missed completely, pouring the rotten stuff all over the work top, and covering the MUO in the foul concoction. She gasped and quickly bent down to get a cloth from the cupboard under the sink. “This is why I’m not a scientist “she shouted at herself as she knelt, rooting through the bottle of cleaning products. “The most important discovery in the world, ever, and I go and spill rotten milk on it.”
As she fumbled, she became aware of the room becoming lighter. She slowly looked up around the room, her gaze finally settling on the light source. The MUO was glowing, from underneath, with a strange, blue-white glow. She stayed knelt down, frozen to the spot, her pulse audible in her ears. For what felt like an eternity, she sat, transfixed at the enthralling light that was being emitted by this tiny object. Without warning the light faded to nothing. She slowly stood and leaned in closer to examine the MUO, her face now only inches from its surface. The silence within the room was electric, she hardly dared to breath. Time seemed to stand still around her, and nothing could break this fascinating moment.
Nothing would break this fascinating moment!
The MUO had her transfixed!
It had her complete attention!
But it did nothing…
Disclaimer: This short story is solely the property of Beth Jones. It is strictly forbidden to copy any part of this review, unless you have the strict permission of both parties. Failure to adhere to this will be treated as plagiarism and will be reported to the relevant authorities.