A novella in four courses
There’s something in the box. Something alive.
I hear it scrabbling around in there, testing itself against the material that contains it. A sound like overgrown fingernails scraping against wood. It sounds frantic. Desperate to escape.
The box itself is small, and sits comfortably in the palm of my hand. I angle it away from me and feel its contents shift inside. A hinged lid along the top of the box is mercifully shut. I don’t want to see whatever is inside. I offer the box back to the man who gave it to me, but he makes no move to take it.
“I don’t understand. What’s inside?” I ask.
The stranger smiles back. “The future,” he replies. “Waiting to be born.” He speaks with an accent. Foreign. American.
I’m not entirely sure why I stopped in the first place. I’m supposed to be on my way to work. I had been walking along Exhibition Road towards the museum when I met – who was this again?
I consider the man standing before me. He is short, no more than five foot tall, and dressed in the suit, tie and bowler hat of an old-fashioned city banker. His sunglasses rather clash with the look, but I suppose it is a bright day. He stands behind a small collapsible wooden table, which comes up to his waist. Upon the table rests a variation of one of the oldest cons in history: the shell game. You know the one – three wooden cups, a dried pea beneath one of them. The conman moves the cups around the table. Fast, but not faster than the eye can see. So you always think you can spot the right cup, the one that contains the pea. Until, of course, you point to it, then the conman turns the cup over, reveals nothing, and pockets your money.
Only this conman doesn’t have cups, he has three small wooden boxes. They look disturbingly like miniature coffins.
“Look,” I bluster. “I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind. I really don’t have time for this. I’m going to be late.”
The man seems surprised. “Really? Why? What time is it?”
I check my watch. It is ten minutes to nine. At least I think it is. Because I notice that the second hand isn’t moving anymore. And there’s something else. It’s too quiet. I look up in alarm. The traffic all along Exhibition Road has come to a standstill. Fumes hang suspended from car exhaust pipes like frozen dirty clouds, but the engines themselves are utterly silent. Not idling: dead. The pedestrians on the pavement alongside are frozen in mid-step. I look up, and see a pigeon hanging motionless thirty feet above me, its wings outstretched to catch a non-existent breeze. The world has seemingly ground to a halt. Only myself and the confidence trickster remain untouched.
“What the hell?” I say.
Powers. This guy has powers.
The conman has still made no move to take the box, so I place it on the wooden table before him. Next to the other two.
“Choose,” the man says. He is still smiling, but now there is an edge to his voice. An underlying threat.
“Listen,” I say, trying to inject a note of authority into my voice. “I don’t know what’s going on, but leave me out of it, will you? I’m not interested.”
“Oh, but you should be interested,” the American replies. “Everyone should take an interest in the future. Especially their own.”
The man begins to slide the three boxes across the surface of the table. Slowly. Hypnotically.
“All you’ve got to do is pick one,” he says. “Find your future. Make it real.”
I feel cold. I don’t want to be here anymore.
“Humour me,” he says.
Anger stabs through me. Anger at the conman and my own inability to take control of the situation. “Very well.” I grab one of the boxes at random and pull it towards me. “Will this satisfy you? What do I win anyway?”
I open the box and look inside.
I’ve always been interested in dead things. When I was at school all my friends were interested in the latest fashions, the latest gadgets. But for me, the older the thing was, the better. So getting a job at The Natural History Museum was a dream come true.
My average day might not seem all that exciting to other people. A lot of my time is spent going through the old stock, most of which isn’t on display to the general public, making sure everything is correctly catalogued and kept as well preserved as it possibly can be. But we still get new arrivals. New finds. Like today, for instance.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Thanks to my encounter with the strange man outside I am late, and the room is already filled with senior colleagues. The focus of their attention is resting on a large table on the far side of the room. I can scarcely believe what I am seeing. Professor Peterson is hunched over what appears to be an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, pressing a stethoscope to its side. What’s he trying to do, take its pulse?
Petra intercepts me before I can get closer. “Hello, Matthews.” I try not to feel upset at how Peterson’s glamorous young assistant refers to me by my surname. It’s still early days. I like Petra a lot. She’ll become more familiar with me eventually, I’m sure. We still have plenty of time before us.
Despite what the strange man outside had said.
Darkness surrounds me. I hang suspended in blackness. There is no sense of motion, no sense of falling, but neither can I feel the floor beneath my feet. I have no frame of reference. Everything is gone. I open my mouth to scream, but no sound emerges. Everything is void.
Then I hear the sound of a wooden lid slamming shut, and I am back outside The Natural History Museum, warm sunlight on my face. Birds circle the sky. Traffic roars along Exhibition Road. The world is in motion once more.
The confident trickster reaches out his hand, and I return the box. “Well,” he says. “What did you find in that one? What did you see?”
My mouth is dry. I feel ill. “Nothing,” I reply. “I saw absolutely nothing in the box. Nothing at all.”
“Oh. That’s a shame.” The man doesn’t seem sad. In fact he’s smiling. “Well, I guess there’s no future for you, then.”
He casually drops the wooden box into a carpet bag by his feet. Two boxes remain on the table top. I can still hear that tapping sound, coming from one of them. The man sees me looking. “Want to try again?”
This man has powers of some kind. He’s some kind of super freak. He must be. But I don’t recognise him from any of the TV shows. Maybe he’s new.
“Look, what is all this?” I ask. “Who are you, and what do you want with me?”
“Me?” he laughs. “I’m no one! No one special, anyway. But are you special? That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Special? In what way?”
He chuckles. “A story is about to begin. But who are the heroes? Who are the movers and shakers, and who are the little people? The collateral damage. The people who die in the first chapter? Are you a player? Or just a sacrificial pawn? Want to find out?”
His hands are moving. Round and round the two boxes go.
“If I pick the right one, will you let me go?” I ask.
I reach out my hand.
There’s something in the box. Something alive.
I take the stethoscope from my ears, and look across to Professor Peterson. “Did you hear that? Professor?”
The old man seems distracted. He runs a hand over his bald head, tapping at the pale skin with his fingers, as though conversing in Morse code with the grey matter beneath. “Calm yourself, young Matthews,” he said at last. “It’s probably just the weight of the body, shifting within. This fellow has been on a very long journey, after all.”
Two-thousand years and as many thousand miles, if the initial reports were correct. Ancient history, uprooted from the Egyptian sands. But why bring it here? Why bring it to The Natural History Museum?
“Maybe an animal got inside,” offers Petra. “Something may have eaten its way through the outer shell. Some kind of insect perhaps. Maybe even a rat.”
Professor Peterson sighs. “Well, anything’s possible, I suppose. If there is something alive in there we need to get it out before it does any more damage. Matthews, give us a hand, will you?”
The lights go out, and the screaming starts.
Something is in the room with us. It’s moving in the darkness. It’s not in the box anymore. No longer trapped.
I think about Professor Peterson. My career in the museum, stillborn.
I think about Petra, and the future we will never have together.
And I think about the confidence trickster outside. I remember the sudden descent into darkness when I opened the first box, but what happened the second time? Am I actually in the bowels of The Natural History Museum, or am I really standing in bright sunlight on Exhibition Road? Am I still playing the game? Is any of this real?
I back away, until the wall behind me stops my flight. It feels real. Too real.
In the darkness, I see a light. A cerulean glow.
Death walks towards me. It walks like a man, limned in blue fire.
I open my mouth to scream.
FEEDING AMBITION: A NOVELLA IN FOUR COURSES