by Cleveland W. Gibson
Something small, yet dark and sinister lurked in the space of the box.
I saw the long hairs, like that of the black widow. Bad Luck and the wooden box too far away prevented me seeing it clearly. Intrigued I stared, then harder still until my eyes watered. A mouth. Oh God. A mouth. The lid always closed when I oh, so nearly saw...
The man carried the box every day. The lid showed off symbols painted in bright red brush strokes. If only I knew what they represented. ‘If only’ covered many unanswered questions.
He grabbed attention right from the start. His mysterious look made him unique against the London Underground crowd of commuters. Or could it be the white silk mask he wore over his face?
I watched him each morning from the opposite platform yet he never made eye contact. Like a ritual he pressed the catch and the box lid flew open. I watched. My eyes stayed fixed on the dark space, my forehead a mass of creases and beads of sweat trickled down my face. I guess my soul perceived what mine eyes couldn’t, the latent horror within the box.
Jezhou, my wife listened to me. I mentioned the symbols. She sensed already something wrong from my sudden waking —up a few times during the night. To me these weren’t nightmares. Each time I disturbed her she sighed; muttered in Chinese. Kismet is one thing; here I faced my Waterloo.
Then one day the white mask slipped off his face. I saw.
* * *
“Strange do, on the Underground this morning, Jezhou. That man...” I said.
Her dark almond shaped eyes opened wide. Then wider still as her slanted eyebrows rose higher. Her beauty and her bulging stomach didn’t stop her from being very touchy. She tossed her long black hair showing her exasperation. I remembered the last time when she’d been pregnant. But this time she prayed for a “Dragon and Phoenix” event, Chinese style. Twins but a boy and a girl. Her passion for this remained intense. Slowly her hand rested gently on my arm as she leaned forward to look at me closely. I loved her inky-pool eyes.
“Hell, Robert Alan Fletcher. With millions in London somebody is bound to look like you. As a computer wizard you ought to know the odds.”
Her abrupt response surprised me. Without answering I went and watched Lisa, our nine-year-old, play Mozart on her piano. Her love of music kept her smiling. And could she play.
The next day I wore my special Yvette St Lauren green suit with shirt and tie to match. I went to work.
Yes. He faced me on the other train, dressed like me. When I scrutinised his face I saw my own. I shuddered. A coincidence? But what connected us, and then what about the box, with its dark contents?
Today happened to be the fifth but what if I saw him up to and on the thirteenth? I was always superstitious when thirteen got involved.
Jezhou surveyed my clean-shaven face at breakfast and kissed me. She too came with hang-ups from her rich and cultural past. When her favourite uncle died she prayed to his spirit to make the “Dragon and Phoenix “event a reality. We both wanted twins; for Jezhou it consumed her waking hours.
“No beard? I don’t mind: it makes you look younger. But are you going to work like that?”
“Sure. I’ve got a game of squash first thing so I’ve already changed to save time.”
I nearly died when I saw him on the other train. His blue and white shell suit grabbed my attention with its legend ‘DRAGON AND PHOENIX.’
* * *
I saw the man and worried. Our doctor suggested more leisure time with family and friends. I took his advice.
On the thirteenth I wore a special Spelter college tie from my university days. I splashed on the Eau Sauvage, fixed a red flower in my buttonhole and went downstairs.
I kept my mind clear, as keen as an assassin’s blade. But nothing could shift this doomsday feeling in the bottom of my stomach.
Then my train arrived late. Another problem, another battlefield, I guessed. I shuffled my feet. Then thirty seconds later. Him. He stood box in his hand. I watched. He lifted the lid. He paused. I gasped. Sweat glistened on my face and hands. I saw my mummified head.
My self-control snapped . Immediately I raced up the stairs to board his train. But he was gone. Gone. The box he carried lay on the newspaper on his train seat. I noted the ripped front page.
I pressed the catch to open the box. The lid flew up. Empty. Nothing there except the dark interior.
What I found devastated me. How I wished Jezhou could advise me. With twins on the way she was the most sensible person I knew. I needed her help with the Chinese characters on the box. Though I studied it hard for clues nothing told me where the head had gone.
The train started with me on board and in the wrong direction. Moments later I saw the man on my train in my seat.
I shuddered. We made eye contact. His face glowed and his smile charmed me. I noticed how my breathing returned to normal. He waved: I waved. I applauded. It was sheer upmanship. Then the train started to disappear into the tunnel as something white unfolded around his shoulders.
I expected something to happen next. It did. I heard the explosion echo through the tunnel. My train stopped as women screamed, men lit matches and the emergency services moved into action. In the darkness workmen went along the track trying to calm people. Eventually I returned to the station; those on the other train were not so lucky.
My eyes raked the waiting crowd. I picked out Jezhou and Lisa. They cried; looked devastated.
“Oh Dad! Oh Dad! I love you!... We thought... they said... no survivors.”
I nodded without saying a word and hugged them for many minutes before I led the way towards the exit.
“Robert, you were lucky not being on your usual train,” Jezhou said, her voice husky with emotion. She gripped my hand, her long fingernails digging into me. She followed me into the fresh air.
Lisa and Jezhou clung to me. People looked at our tear-streaked faces and let us pass. I kept thinking my family would soon be five and I’d see the dragon and phoenix event.
I gave money to a tramp. He gave me a strange look. I could afford the #10; I was alive after all. I said a quiet prayer of thanks to God.
“I know,” I said, in answer to Jezhou’s question. “Something made me change trains. Don’t ask. I felt like somebody looked after me.” Then I told her about the box but not about the head. I thought it too surreal.
Jezhou took the box from me and looked at it very carefully. Her eyes misted over and I heard a sob. I asked her gently why she was distressed. She ran her long red fingernails over the Chinese letters and lingered over the tiny roses on the box.
“It reminds me of my dead Uncle. He treasured a special box like this. He also wanted to see my twins,’ she said. ”But he died too soon.” Her hand went to her large stomach and she rubbed the skin quite tenderly. I watched her whisper a prayer to our twins.
Later back at home I enjoyed a cup of coffee. It was still the thirteenth but I was alive.
I remembered the box and decided to look at it more closely. I pressed the catch and the lid flew open. I saw the head, so dark so close up. I gasped. Instinctively I drew back in fright. My legs seemed as heavy as lead and beads of sweat ran down my face. The eyes glinted through tiny slits and the once tightly closed mouth opened. Then the lips moved slowly.
I watched in horror as the tongue stuck out to lick brittle lips. This moving tongue started to push out a piece of rolled up newspaper. It fluttered to the floor. I scooped it up and laid it on the kitchen table.
On the torn front page I saw the picture of myself holding Jezhou and Lisa.
“Guardian Angel Saved Robert,” said the bold headlines. Maybe that was it. My God.
I gasped at the surreal story carried in the newspaper. The date betrayed everything, as I knew it hadn’t rolled off tomorrow’s printing presses.
“Jezhou,” I shouted.
But by the time she returned the head was gone.
Copyright © 2005 by Cleveland W. Gibson