The Anything Box

Zenna Henderson

Part 18

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"I don't like to play this game," wailed Blond. "I think it stinks!"

"Who's playing!" Red's face crumpled. "O Loving Father, who's playing?"

Brown and Blond put their arms around him and helped him, his face movingblindly, towards the school building.

I looked down at the mess I had made. The last car was poised precariouslyon the rim of the ruin. All the rest around the s.p.a.cecraft looked like littlechicks gathering around a mother hen for warmth and shelter against the night.I snorted at the conceit, and flicking the dust off my shoe with a tissue,went into school.

That was Friday. Sat.u.r.day a wave of uneasiness swept across the Base. Therewere restless knots of people gathered in the PX and the Commissary and theClub, chattering the same chatter as usual but with absent, worried looks.Sunday it was evident that many of the key personnel were not around. They haddispersed without a farewell. At two o'clock Monday morning, I found myselfgroping awake to the alert signal. This time was different. It felt different.It sounded different. I staggered out of bed, groping blindly for my clothes.I struggled with wrong-side-out hooks for interminable minutes before I awokeenough to turn the light on. I scrambled into my raineralls (our evac uniform)and went to the closet for my evac bag which, in the face of ridicule, I hadpacked when I first arrived-as we were supposed to do. By the time fists werehammering on our doors and loud feet were shaking our corridor and loud voicescrying, "This is it! Out! Out! All Civvies out!" I was dressed and ready.

We were two days from Base before I caught on. I hadn't even beenclued-except in a vague deja vu way -by the shivering wait in the weird pre-dawn darkness as we were a.s.signed to our cars.

"That's everyone except the teachers."

"There's only a small car left." Mrs. Lewis face leaned, pale and anxiousout of the window. "It'll be crowded. Maybe we could make room for one."

"No," the lieutenant in charge of us said decisively. "You'll need thatroom, especially if the baby decides to come."

Tears came to Mrs. Lewis' eyes. 'Thanks,' she said. "Has there been anynews?"

"Only that the first skirmish is over. Ninety per cent casualties."

"O Loving Father!" Mrs. Lewis whispered to her cupped hands. "All thestrong young men."

We were pointed down a road and told to "git," our only tie with themilitary the reluctant young lieutenant "Not on this knollful road!" I heardMiss Leaven wail. Then she laughed. Her laughter tightened into a sob.

Reluctantly that first day, I shared what few eatables I had in my evackit. We had no lunch stop scheduled. None of the others had a complete kit asthey should have had. They would have had their own food if they had compliedwith the regulations.

Early morning of the second day, we were startled out of our weary stuporby a sudden grinding crash and an abrupt b.u.mper-to-b.u.mper stop. We all got outof the cars and walked stiffly forward along the column. I took one look atthe car lying crushed under the huge boulder that had fallen from the wall ofthe ravine, leaned heavily against the slope of the hill and hid my eyes. Irocked myself achingly in a sudden flood of apprehension. My whole beingrebelled against the situation. It was impossible. There could be nothing butwildest coincidence to tie this event to three boys hunched in a corner of aplayground. It was all my sick imagination that started to draw parallels.Imagination! That curse!

But we didn't make The Knoll that night. Darkness shut down unexpectedlyearly after we had edged around the boulder and it left us to creep slowly inthe darkness across the splintery obsidian plain, never quite sure we werestill on the fragmentary road.

Next morning the orangy rain began jabbing spitefully down and we foundourselves stopped by a vivid torrent that had cut the road in two. By now Iwas numb and trying to make myself more so. I couldn't watch the building ofthe makeshift ferry. I couldn't watch the crossings. I covered my ears so Icouldn't hear the cries when the two cars were swept away. I blindly thrust myextra sweater out to wrap the limp, dripping Butch in before he was pushedinto Scott's car. I didn't tense and gasp as we were ferried across. I knew-Iknew-There was light long enough to get our-the last-car across and then thealmost tangible darkness again.

Later when we stopped to rest, worn out by inching through hub-deep mud, Iwalked forward around the turn and saw the road stretching smoothly-almostpaved-looking-away into the darkness. I waited quietly, until, with a lowrumble and a moist sucking splat, mud slid from the hill above and bogged theroad completely.

I went back to our car and stood stupidly near it, too disoriented even tosit down. I believe it was Miss Robbin who led me to the door and helped mein. Her face was puffed and splotchy. I remember watching with a detached sortof wonder as a tear slid down her cheek. I wondered dully how it would feel tohave a small wet face pushed tight against your throat, and a tousled blondhead hugged tight in your arms as a child cried for his mother. No one everwept in my arms. I have never cried comforted, either. Blond had cried twicefor his tragedy, but he had had something he thought worth the tears.

This is noon of the fifth day. We are eating our lunch now. By two o'clockthey will have finished the rickety bridge that has been devised to get usacross the last ravine. The dull gleam of the s.p.a.cecraft is ahead of us.Voices around me are quick with relief and hope. Mrs. Lewis is rea.s.suring MissLeaven again that the pains will hold off until they can get across. The trek is over. We have rendezvoused. This is the last step. Step?

It's all I can do to keep from looking constantly up at the sky, wincing.If I could break through this stiff pattern of mine, I would urge them tostart now! Don't waste any time! Finish the bridge! Start now so there'll betime! Let us go first instead of last! Watch out! Watch out! The foot willcome plunging down out of the empty sky- Instead, I sit and stare into my cooling coffee, almost too weary to liftmy pencil again.But how was I to know? A person is what he is. He acts as he acts becausehe acts that way. Isn't it so? Isn't it so?O Loving Father- Don't open THE ANYTHING BOX.

unless you're prepared for the unexpected: THE GRUNDER,.

a thing of horror which, if defeated, restores love...

THE NOISE-EATER,.

created by a child out of his fevered imagination, gobbles up anything-or anyone- that makes a sound...

THE COVETI,.

residents of an alien world poisoned by the intrusion of the stranger from Earth...

THE BEAST HILL,.

an ordinary mound of earth, except that its gra.s.s resembles fur, and- doesn't it move?

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