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The Boy and the Box

The boy looked like any other boy his age, except that, thanks to him, there had been for some time now no other boys his age, or of any other age. The elimination of all others had transformed him into the entirety of a subset that had once numbered billions. He was now the platonic ideal of his type, not just a boy, but the boy.

As the last of his kind currently existing in what he had allowed to remain of the world, he had soft downy skin, a pug nose, a fan of freckles across both cheeks, and hazel eyes that went well with lips arrested in a permanent affronted pout. He hadn’t had any means of washing up since he’d made everything go away, so he smelled unclean and wore permanent smudges on his palms and face. His once-short sandy hair now formed a rat’s nest . . . though that was a meaningless statement as well, as rats were one of the things he’d gotten rid of and there was no longer any need for their nests.

The boy had not only put all the people away in his box, but also all the animals, and all the trees, and all the buildings, and all the surface detail that made the world, even at its most unbearable, interesting to look at. Had the boy needed water, he would have died of thirst. Had he needed food, he would have starved. Had the temperature been anything but neutral, he would have frozen or sweltered. But he’d put away all these concerns as well. He was self-contained, invulnerable, immortal, and free.

He had been wandering around doing nothing for longer than we have the capacity to measure when he got tired of looking at a horizon that offered nothing but a single unbroken flat line and paused in his endless wandering to take out some toys.

First he pulled a favorite squat rock, now the rock, out of the box and placed it on the ground, in order to sit on it. It was a comfortable rock, the best of a number he’d tested and approved for squatting purposes. He rested his weight on it and found it just as superlative as it had been during his previous indulgences and regarded the box the same way any boy would have regarded any familiar but important possession.

There was nothing special about the box. It was not some cosmic vault, glowing with portent, surrounded by a crackle of blinding energy. It was just a jewelry box, lined with soft blue velvet and embossed with the trademark of a well-known retail establishment that, like the ring it had once contained and the store that had once sold it, were now safely stored inside. In the world now stored away, the gift had been removed to be placed on a woman’s finger, and the box seized in delight by the toddler the boy then was. He’d loved the soft texture of that crushed velvet, and the way a line drawn on that fabric with a fingertip caught the light differently from the unmarked material around it. He had taken a deep childish pleasure in the popping noise the lid made when shut, which he’d imagined to be a lot like the snapping of some hungry monster’s jaws. Sometimes, even now, he opened the box and ignored all the panicked cacophony of billions so he could hear that snap again on shutting it . . . but this was not the diversion he wanted right now, not the kind of game he wanted to play.

The boy did not find it difficult to reach into a space that should have been too small to admit his entire hand, let alone his full arm up to the shoulder. Nor was it any strain to pull out a grown man who should have been far too large to pass through the opening or too heavy for the boy to lift. The boy didn’t worry about it. He just did.

The grown man the boy had selected tumbled out, rolling as if tossed onto the hard-baked surface that was now the universe’s only landscape. He pulled himself to his hands and knees and wept, heaving as if denied air for so long that he now found its weight hard to stomach. After long minutes, he peered up and faced the boy, cowering as was only appropriate for him to do, before a creature of such infinite power and limited empathy.

“You can get up if you want,” the boy said.

The man remained on his knees longer than he should have after that instruction but found the strength to rise, though he didn’t draw any closer to the boy than he had to. He was a stoop-shouldered, pale figure with a high forehead, crooked nose, and weak chin, wearing a blue button-down shirt that had come undone from his khaki pants; and even as he stood he didn’t look at the boy, instead facing some neutral spot between his tasseled brown loafers.

The boy asked, “What’s your name?”

The man resisted answering, but after a few seconds said, “Lyle Danton.”

“I didn’t ask you for your last name. I don’t need to know your last name. Last names are stupid.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That doesn’t help now,” the boy said. “You still wasted my time with it. I think I’m going to make it go away so you won’t bother me with it again. What’s your name now?”

“Lyle . . .” the man began, his voice rising as if to tag something else on the end. Nothing arrived. “Lyle.”

“Lyle,” the boy repeated, as if weighing it on his tongue. “No. Come to think of it, I think that’s a stupid name, too.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It sounds too much like liar.”

“No,” said the man, who winced upon realizing who he’d just corrected. “It’s Lyle. Lyle. With another L.”

“It’s a stupid name, Lyle. You can’t use it anymore. What’s your name now?”

The man whose name had been Lyle opened his mouth, then closed it again, lost for answers. “I d-don’t think I have one.”

“You’ll need one if we’re going to have a conversation. I think I’ll call you Stupid-Face. What did you do in the world, Stupid-Face?”

“I was . . . a lawyer,” said Stupid-Face. He blinked multiple times and then, very quickly, said, “It’s, it’s dark in there. I can hear my wife and my kids screaming. I can’t get to them, but I can hear them screaming. You . . . put everybody in there, didn’t you? You’re not God, you’re just a kid. How did you put the whole world . . . ?”

The boy shushed him. “I’ll get back to you, Stupid-Face.”

Back Stupid-Face went, into the box.

The boy rummaged around a little more, and pulled out a woman. She was in her late fifties and had the look some women have, or more accurately once had, as if they reached a point in life where they gave up on youthful beauty and satisfied themselves with being presentable. The boy didn’t know that the official word for this had been matronly, but had observed the principle in a number of maternal aunts. This one was dressed in a gray knee-length skirt, a white silk blouse with a ridiculous bow at the collar, and a gray jacket. Her lipstick was too red for her complexion. She didn’t fall to her knees as quickly as Stupid-Face had, but instead swayed, dizzy at the sudden return of sound and light and space.

“Tell me how much you love me,” the boy said.

The woman blinked, her eyes resisting comprehension. “What?”

“I’ll save you for later,” said the boy.

Back she went into the box.

The boy sat, his knee supporting his elbow and his knuckles supporting his chin, contemplating the box as he flipped it over and over in his hand. The bridge of his nose wrinkled. He reached into the box again and this time pulled out a very big man in an orange prison jumpsuit. The big man had a shaved head, a handlebar moustache, and a swastika tattoo on his neck. His arms bulged like great stones under his sleeves. Another tattoo, a snake’s head that may have been some other color once but was now faded to a dull purple, emerged from his right sleeve and sat displayed on the back of his hand, spitting a forked tongue. He didn’t fall to his knees as Stupid-Face had, but instead tumbled onto his back, butt-crawling as far away from the boy as he could before his initial panic failed him and he stopped moving, his eyes black dots floating in wide white circles.

The boy asked him, “What’s your name?”

“F-foley.”

“Say it without stuttering.”

It took several false starts. “Foley.”

“You just pissed yourself, Foley.”

The big man’s eyes widened a sliver further as he registered this terrible truth.

“It’s okay,” the boy said. “I think it’s funny. Are you evil?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“It’s a simple question, and you don’t have to lie to me. I need somebody evil for a job. Are you evil?”

Foley’s expression relaxed a little, and became something else: crafty and knowing. “Will it keep me out of that box?”

“Yes.”

“Then, yeah, I’m bad.”

“How bad are you, exactly?”

“I’ve killed a couple of fuckers in my time. Did one piece of shit with an iron pipe, first his hole and then his face. Did another with my fists. Left a third piece of shit so messed up he’s been lying around on his back for ten years, broken below the neck and shitting through a tube. Not even brain-dead, neither. Awake so he knows every day what I done to him. I ain’t one of those sick serial killing shits who does that kind of thing for fun, but I got no trouble taking care of business if business got to be done. Some people got it coming. You need somebody for that kind of work, someone who won’t talk back or argue, someone who won’t forget who’s in charge now, I’m your guy a hundred percent. I’ll make you proud.”

The boy spent several seconds absorbing this before offering a slight nod and pointing toward a spot on the horizon, chosen at random. He said, “All right, Foley. Walk in that direction until I look like a dot in the distance. Then sit down and keep an eye on me. When I wave, run back and kill the man I’m with.”

The big man nodded, because when one was trapped with an omnipotent being it was always best to be offered an opportunity to prove one’s worth. He got up and ambled off into the distance, shaking his leg a little to wring his pants as dry as the circumstances allowed him.

The boy waited for Foley to travel the prescribed distance and sit on the cold featureless earth. It was clear that the big man would sit there for hours or days or years, had such things still existed, and not move until summoned. All things being equal, it would not be much of an improvement over the environment in the box. It would only be lighter, more peaceful, and less crowded. That struck the boy as all the incentive he needed to trouble himself with offering.

Next step. He pulled Stupid-Face from the box.

Stupid-Face shrieked and fell back to his knees, tears rolling down his face in waves. “Oh, please. Don’t put me in there again. I promise, I won’t ask any more questions. Just let me stay out here, I beg you.”

“You were right, before,” the boy said. “I am just a kid. I don’t think I’m a freak or a mutant or any of those other things from the movies. I’m not even particularly smart. At least, I wasn’t ever all that good in school. I was just sitting around one day, thinking, when I suddenly figured out how to do something nobody ever knew how to do before. I was just lucky to be the first one to ever have the idea. But really, it was easy. Even you could have done it. You can ask me a question now, if you want.”

Stupid-Face cast about in a mind close to bursting, and after three or four visible false starts, managed, “B-but even if you could . . . why would you . . . ?”

The boy picked his nose. “I didn’t like my Dad.”

“What?”

“Don’t get me wrong. He didn’t beat me or anything like that. He wasn’t a bully or a drunk or a perv. He was just, you know, a guy like you, going to his job in the morning and coming home to his family at night. I’ll give him credit for trying to be a good Dad, for making sure we were fed and stuff, and for spending time with us when he could, but every once in a while it was hard to look at him and not know that when he got tired from trying all the time, he looked at me and my Mom and my two sisters and my dog and kind of wished we weren’t there, because life would have been so much easier for him if we weren’t. When I figured out how to do what I could do, I first made him forget all of us and then put him in the box. Then I did my sisters and my Mom, because I liked them even less. It wasn’t hard.”

Stupid-Face fell to all fours, and shook his head, addressing the dirt because it was solid and beneath him and no less reasonable or empathetic than the boy before him. His shoulders trembled, and he too released urine, the way the big man in the orange jumpsuit had. He muttered, “Oh God, Oh God . . .”

“Now I have a question for you. Were you a good man?”

“What?”

“I’m gonna get really bored if you just keep saying what whenever I ask you anything. If you bore me there’s no point in not just putting you back in the box. So that was the last time I want to hear the word what from you. In fact, just to be sure you don’t say it by accident, I’m gonna make you forget it right now.” The boy shifted the box. “There. You can’t say that word ever again. That’s not too bad, because it’s only one word, but if you keep wasting my time I’m gonna also make you forget and and the and is, and that’s gonna make it really hard for you to say anything at all. So you might as well answer me. Were you a good man?”

Stupid-Face’s mouth moved, providing a moment of silence where he normally would have uttered another what to underline his lack of understanding. It was as if the one key word removed from him had shifted everything that remained, and placed them on unfamiliar shelves, requiring vast internal adjustments until he was able to provide a response. “I think so.”

“But were you really?” the boy asked. “I could have asked the same question of my Dad, and he would have said the same thing, even though he was like most people, just doing what he was taught to do, without ever understanding why. I don’t think he was ever really good or evil, because he was never really asked to do anything but what he was. At least, he was no hero. So I ask you again. Were you a good man?”

Stupid-Face’s mouth continued to work silently, as his mind churned through any number of possible responses and rejected every single one for being attached to too many possible causes for offense. “I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

The boy’s shoulders fell in disappointment. “That’s what I thought.”

He stood up and waved at the distant dot on the horizon, which stirred from its chosen spot and began to grow in size.

Stupid-Face followed his gaze and noticed the other distant figure for the first time. His eyes clouded with dread. His jaw fell, and chewed air for long seconds as the right words were pulled from their shelves. “Who’s that?”

“That,” the boy said, “is an evil man.”

The hulking figure in the orange jumpsuit approached in no special hurry, his clenched fists hanging from arms like coiled springs. His eyebrows were knit over slitted eyes, and his mouth was a lipless grimace. Together they made the kind of expression that drew a straight line between the impulse to murder and the target of that impulse, a straight line that ended in the same spot where Stupid-Face began.

There was no way for Stupid-Face to interpret the still-distant figure’s approach as anything but what it was. He said, “No,” and whirled toward the boy, hoping for mercy, but finding nothing in those placid features but detached curiosity. He rose, stumbled, and said, “No,” again, but mere denial of his circumstances accomplished nothing at all, and so he said, “You can’t, I’m no fighter, look at the size of him,” but that made no difference either. He spun in a circle, searching for havens in a world that no longer had any shelters or bolt-holes or doors to close or trees to climb or authorities to summon, that in fact had nothing at all but the killer coming for him and the boy who could summon more killers any time he wanted. He took a couple of steps back, but then stopped, paralyzed by the awareness that he could run a thousand miles if he wanted and never step outside the reach of what was coming for him. At long last, the only remaining reaction available to him burst from him in a cry so primal that it cracked in his throat. “I loved my children, you little shit!

Foley arrived just in time for Stupid-Face to throw a wild punch at his jaw. It would be nice to report now that the fury of a good man, or at least a not very bad one, fighting for his life and the lives of his children, lent so much power to his swing that it struck the killer down and forever redeemed the world for all innocent men like himself. But Stupid-Face had never been a fighter, not since childhood, and the man in the orange jumpsuit had something broken in him that allowed him to hurt other people as easily as he could breathe. Stupid-Face’s wild punch landed on the bad man’s jaw, to no real effect, and the blow Foley threw in return knocked Stupid-Face flat on his back, to beg and plead as the bad man loomed near, filling his sky.

There was no moment, in the seven minutes the murder required, when the man who had lived as Lyle but was fated to die as Stupid-Face stood even a passing chance of turning the tide of battle. He was half conscious and breathing through a smashed nose after only three, battered past the point of brain damage after only four, and likely already dead after five. A professional assassin might have done a cleaner job of it. But Foley was no professional assassin, merely a gifted and enthusiastic amateur.

After seven minutes, the boy said, “Okay. You can stop now.”

Foley stood and watched, his knuckles dripping, while the boy put the corpse back into the box.

“That’s it?” the big man asked. “I done good?”

“I didn’t ask you to do good. But you did what I asked. Thank you.”

“So, umm. What happens now?”

“What do you want to happen now?”

“I sure as shit don’t want to go back in that box, I know that. If you’re the only game in town I’d just as soon work for you. Be your, like, angel of death or whatever. Maybe get myself a little crew, a bitch or two, if you eventually decide that’s okay. Better than nothing.”

“Angel of Death?”

“That don’t have to be my title if you don’t want it to be. Up to you, man. I just figured, you know, if I’m taking the big job, you might as well call it what it is.”

The boy considered all this. “I don’t know if I’ll get you a crew or any bitches, but I’ll think about it. In the meantime, yeah, why not. You can be my angel of death. Go wait where you waited last time, and don’t bother me unless I wave you over again.”

The boy watched Foley amble off, the increasing distance transforming him from big man to smaller man to tiny receding figure to motionless seated speck.

As of this moment, the boy didn’t think he’d ever call have reason to call Foley over again. The man had completely fulfilled all the purpose the boy had in mind for him. But promises were promises. Foley would never go back in the box. Nor would he ever flee any further, for fear of losing what he had, or approach any closer, for fear of incurring the boy’s wrath. He would just remain in place, in that spot with nothing worth looking at or doing, as aware of the passage of time as any man.

The boy took out a puppy, small and big-eyed and pleased beyond whatever reason it had to be away from the cold darkness of the box. He played with it for a few minutes. It was a very young puppy and soon it grew tired enough to fall asleep with its chin on his foot. This bored the boy. He picked the puppy up by the scruff of the neck and asked, “That’s all you can do?” It yawned. He dropped it back in the box.

In short order he pulled out, played with, and tired of: a paddleball, a yo-yo, a snow-globe, and a wailing infant, whose senses of sight and hearing he removed at a whim just before he dropped the screaming thing back in the box.

Then he pulled out the same matronly woman from before. She’d been weeping since her last emergence, and she spent the next few minutes on her hands and knees, regressed to some first language the boy failed to recognize. The funny talk amused him at first, and gave him reason to leave her be, but it then began to pall, as it had nothing to do with him and failed to surprise him after the initial novelty of the unfamiliar combination of consonants and vowels.

He made the foreign tongue go away in mid-sentence—prompting a sudden shriek of loss from the figure prostrated on the ground—and waited for her to work up enough nerve to look at him again.

He repeated his past demand. “Tell me how much you love me.”

“What?”

He sighed. “I really don’t like that word. From now on, I’m going to take it away from people before I ask them any questions. There. It’s gone. Try to say it now.”

She choked on empty breath.

“Now tell me how much you love me.”

She cringed for a moment, but then something very interesting—something the boy had not seen before—happened to her face. It sloughed off all the fear and all the hopelessness and all her concern over what the boy was going to do to her, and replaced it with something built of iron. She used the back of her hand to brush the tears from eyes that had banished fear by recognizing that she had nothing left to lose, and said, “No.”

“You have to. Look around you. There’s pretty much nothing, anywhere, not as far as the eyes can see. You could walk away if you wanted to but you’d find nothing out there, and I could bring you back any time I wanted. There’s just the two of us. Tell me how much you love me.”

“Nothing could love you.”

He shook his head. “I’m a boy. I’m a boy who lived in a four-bedroom house in a nice neighborhood with lawns and trees. I was loved then, I think, even if my Mom and Dad weren’t very good at it. I need somebody to love me. Tell me how much you love me.”

The woman spat on the ground. “No.”

“You don’t have to mean it. You just have to say it like you mean it. You have to say it in as many ways as you can think of saying it, and not stop until I tell you to stop.”

“No. You’re an evil little shit.”

The boy tilted his head, and chewed on this at length, like it was a flavor he didn’t recognize. “But this is the part that doesn’t make sense to me. How come you’re the one who gets to say what’s good and what’s evil? I’m the one who took you out of the box and I’m the one who can put you back. I’m in charge. I’m the only one who matters. I should be the one who gets to decide.”

“Go to hell.”

He said, “There is no such place. I haven’t built it yet.”

The woman was about to curse him again, this time with words so passionate and so blistering that they might have given even the boy pause. They fled when he removed her ability to speak, leaving her before him, a silent figure whose loathing of everything he stood for continuing to rage behind eyes that conceded her abject helplessness but refused to surrender to it.

There was no doubt in the boy’s mind that had he permitted her to place her hands around his throat, she would have continued to force strength into her fingers long hours after all life had left him. It was a beautiful hatred, the kind that was only possible when its owner had been robbed of everything else. In a way, it was downright glorious and the boy spent long minutes admiring it, the way he would have regarded a jewel that sparkled from every facet.

“I have an angel of death,” he said, at long last. “I could bring him over here and make him beat you until you agreed to say you loved me. But that wouldn’t be you, loving me. That would just be you not wanting to be beaten. You could say you loved me forever and I’d still see that look in your eyes. That wouldn’t be satisfying at all.

“But I get to decide what’s good and what’s evil, now. So I’ll just say that from now on, it’s good to love me and evil to feel any other way. If you don’t tell me how much you love me until I get tired of hearing it, you’ll be a bad person who deserves to have bad things happen to you. Whenever you stop, you’ll be more ashamed of yourself than you’ve ever been and you won’t want to live with yourself. The only way to feel better, for even a little while, will be to go back to telling me you love me. As long as you do that, you can stay. But if you have any bad thoughts, you go back in the box. I think that’s fair, and since I decide what’s right here from now on, it is fair. I don’t ever want you to think, even for a moment, that I’ve been less than generous. Okay?”

The woman’s eyes went glazed, tears of pure joy forming at the corners. “Yes.”

“You can start now.”

And of course, as instructed, she began to tell him how much she loved him. She dwelled on her love for him. She exulted in it, and labored at it, rattling off metaphors of astonishing poetic beauty that didn’t even begin to capture the infinite depths of her adoration for him, the perfect kind boy who deserved all her love because he had in his uncanny generosity given her the commandment to love. She grew so fervent that before long her praise blossomed into song.

He listened, found satisfaction in it for a little while, and then frowned as he realized that it was still not even close to enough.

It was the worst of all sins in his own personal universe, in that it was boring.

Of course, she was only one woman. He supposed that he could take other people from the box if he wanted to; lining them up in rows, if he had to; forming armies of them, if he needed to; directing their praises until they all spoke in a unified voice millions or billions strong, shaking the empty ground with the force of their single-minded adoration. He could have them cry out for him, at a volume that could shake loose the very sky. But what kind of being would even want such a thing, forever? What kind of creature could not only demand that, but take pleasure in the same hollow compliments sung in the same voices, for as long as it took time itself to grow cold?

His own vision blurred, as he realized that he was not now personally capable of being such a thing. He could not be such a thing without first jettisoning every part of himself that knew the love to be both forced and false. He supposed he could easily put those things away in the box . . . but what was the point then? He’d be as empty, then, as she was.

So instead he opened the box and stepped in, descending only knee-deep before he became aware that the woman had stopped in mid-sentence, her adoring eyes registering only that he was engaged in some fresh activity, and waiting to discern what it was so she could proceed with telling him how deeply she approved.

He couldn’t pretend he cared enough to restore everything he’d taken from her, or to bring her down into the darkness with him. Instead, he said, “You might as well go back to what you’re doing and assume I can still hear you.”

She beamed with fresh ecstasy and returned to declaring her love.

He descended the rest of the way into the box, pausing just before he vanished completely, to bring the box itself into the box with him. It contracted to a point and then disappeared, all access to it eliminated.

This, of course, did not stop the singing.

© 2013 by Adam-Troy Castro.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The final installment in the series, Gustav Gloom And The Castle of Fear, came out in 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest projects are a mainstream thriller currently making the publishing rounds, and an audio collection he expects to announce early in 2019. He lives in Florida.