“Grandpa, tell us the story!” Myles demanded.
“Yeah! The story!” Emma added.
Charlie Grafton sat with his grandkids in his empty second-storey bedroom. He eyed the younglings through thick glasses.
From the base of the ladder out in the hall Cheryl, said: “I told them about the story you used to tell me when I was a kid. I forget it now. Something about a man at the steel mill.”
“The man with the box!” Emma elaborated.
“Ah, that story,” he whispered to himself, “I forgot about that one.”
“Make it quick, Dad,” Cheryl said, now three rungs up the ladder.
“Where are you going?”
“The attic. You still have a few things up there. Remember, you have to be out of here by noon tomorrow.”
“Where am I going tomorrow?”
From the attic: “Your new home! With people your own age!”
Charlie suddenly remembered he was eighty-one and no longer able to live on his own.
“Yeah, I know that,” he said, saving face.
“The story, Grandpa?” Emma begged.
Charlie exhaled tiredly. His back ached, his vision was garbage, and his mind was drifting.
The kids settled into the couch.
“I used to live in Pittsburgh,” Charlie began. “This was long before your mother was born. Your grandmother and I had a bungalow in Homestead. Our neighbour was Steven Patterson. Everyone called him Stevie P. He and I worked as sewer inspectors—”
“What’s a sewer?” Emma asked.
Charlie sighed. “Where your crap goes when you flush.”
The kids snickered.
“Anyway, Stevie and I got a call one day from some big shot in New York looking to expand his mattress factory empire across state lines. The place was an abandoned steel mill down in Clairton. The idea was for us to inspect the underground infrastructure and see if they could re-use…”
The kids sported blank faces.
“We had to make sure the toilets could still flush.”
“We spent the morning on a job downtown then drove to Clairton in the afternoon. When we got there, the place was pretty much as we expected. Abandoned furnaces and ancient rolling mills lined the back walls; the beams were plagued with rust; weeds overtook the walls; water spilled from holes in the roof. It was in rough shape. A real shithole.”
Myles and Emma gasped.
Charlie sighed. “Don’t tell your mother I said that.”
The kids lifted their fingers to their mouths.
“To get to the basement we had to climb down a rickety ladder. It was pitch-black down there, but we had flashlights to help us out. We followed a narrow underground corridor with our heads crooked to one side to avoid scraping the brick ceiling. Stevie P. led the way. I trailed behind to make sure no rats crept up behind us.”
Emma’s face twisted with disgust.
“The corridor spilled into a larger room. It was cold and damp and smelled awfully musty. That’s where we saw him.”
“The man?” Myles asked wide-eyed.
Mouth gaping, Emma gripped her brother’s arm.
“He was in the corner, facing the wall. Like ours, his head was crooked to one side. He was wearing a beige suit. Stevie called out: ‘Hello!’ The man pivoted. Our lights shined against him, casting his shadow against the foundation wall. He held a cardboard box in his hands. He studied us for a moment, then started towards us. Not walking, but rather… shuffling. As he got closer, his face became clear.”
Myles: “What did he look like?”
“He was pale. Very pale. His eyes were sunken deep into his skull. Across his lip was a pencil-thin moustache. A set of jagged, smiling teeth glistened in the shine of our light. He slid across the floor, juggling the box in his lengthy arms. Century-old dust clouded his trail. He stopped within a foot of Stevie — the ball of their noses only inches apart.
“‘Listen, pal. We don’t—’ Stevie began.
“‘Under no circumstances,’ the man in the beige suit interrupted. His voice was raspy but playful, ‘do you open this box.’ He was smiling like a madman, drool dripping from the corner of his mouth and onto his suit. He set the box down at Stevie’s feet. I could see the vertebrae of his spine protrude under his suit like cockroaches. ‘Understand, boys?’ the man said comically. Well, Stevie had just about enough with this guy and was set on clocking him, but before he could, the man scurried between us, laughing crazedly as he slipped into the darkness.”
“What did Stevie do with the box?” Emma asked.
“What does everyone do when they’re told not to do something, sweetie?”
“They do it anyway,” Myles whispered.
“I told him to leave it alone, but ol’ Stevie P.’s curiosity was strong. He knelt down and peeled open the box’s flap. As it opened, a fiery glow pulsed. Then… POOF!”
The ceiling thumped. The kids yelped.
“As God is my witness, Stevie P. exploded into a cloud of gray dust, sprinkling down like fresh snow onto the floor.”
Emma whimpered. Myles wrapped his arm around her, “Don’t worry, it’s just a story.”
She looked to her Grandpa for reassurance. He gave it to her through a nod.
“Where’s the box now, Grandpa?” Myles asked.
Charlie cocked his head and thought. “Well, I can’t say I can remember—”
“Let’s go, kids!” Cheryl said in the doorway. “I’ll help Grandpa down. Myles, can you take that last box with you?”
Myles and his sister grunted as they walked out into the hall, unsatisfied with the ending of their story.
“Come on, Dad.”
As Charlie rose from his chair and looked out at his grandson handling the box in the hall, the fog in his mind cleared for just a moment. With trembling lips, he said, “Keep that one closed, boy.”
Myles looked back at him with curious eyes, and at the moment, Charlie Grafton wished he hadn’t said anything at all.
Originally from Ireland, Keev Kennedy has always had a passion for telling stories. As a child, tales of Irish folklore were passed around the dinner table and told by the fireplace. Today, he strives to pass along the talents he acquired from his storytelling family to provide readers with the same excitement and interest that he was lucky to have had growing up.