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BP Gregory
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Lunchbox

Ideas that start out small don’t always stay that way.

Copyright 2015 by BP Gregory. All Rights Reserved.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This story may not be reproduced or transmitted in part or in its entirety in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the author, except where permitted by law. This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Reading Note from the Author

    As it appears here at 2,261 words Lunchbox was initially a short piece. Instead of doing what it was told and staying small, it preyed on the mind even after its exorcism onto paper.  That made it one of the stories that eventually put down roots and grew to become part of the forthcoming novel Something for Everything.

Lunchbox

    We ended up going to a place I knew. John wasn't sure if the bars he used to lurk about were still cool, or even open.
    The cold air shocked him back to his senses, some. As we stumbled through a back street labyrinth you could see suspicion prodding with queries he ought to have blurted long before setting foot outside his front door. Just how well do you know your old buddy Charlie these days?
    But the rose stained lure of good times? You can't beat that.
    We swung off into somebody's yard. Somebody who'd once had kids but maybe not now, maybe not for a long time. Either way the parents hadn't had the heart to get rid of their things, and in the dark John grunted and tripped on toys scattered across the concrete square.
    Reaching the miniature swing set I swung back and forth, grinning up at tonight's partner in crime. 'It's been too long.' The entire structure creaked and groaned alarmingly.
    'We'll need the Jaws of Life to prise your arse outta that seat,' John observed unkindly. 'Ages four to twelve it says on the side. What are we doing here, Charles?'
    Giggling a little I struggled up but the seat came with me, chains rattling. 'Oh crap, I am stuck!' A moment of panic before good old John managed to prise the four-to-twelve plastic off my adult hams.
    'Sh!' He cased the house nervously, though all windows remained dark. 'You'll wake the family!'
    'Not bloody likely.' I wrestled with one of those rocking horseys that lurch back and forth on springs. The jolly beastie inviting some kid to leap into its saddle sported a stubby horn jutting from its face. It had once been uncomfortably long and wicked before a wiser soul had sawn the plastic down. 'Help me with this.'
    John loaned twiglet arms to the effort. 'Why are we stealing this?' he hiss-whispered wetly in my ear, the way tipsy folk think they're being quiet. 'It's hardly gonna match your sofa.'
    'Not stealing,' I grunted. 'Push to the left.' Which ought to have done naught, the springs deep seated in concrete, but which nonetheless yielded a deep mechanical click. The entire slab we were standing on grated off to one side.
    John leaped away with a thin girlish shriek he tried instantly to cover by coughing.
    I bowed, gesturing him down the revealed staircase. 'Aaand welcome.'
    'What the hell, Charles!'
    'Hey, we're celebrating. What with my being suddenly un-married and all, and you offering to share your spooky secret I'm of a mind to dip my lip in something special.'
    The pinkly lit space we dropped down into could loosely be described as a bunker, although the remnants of wall brackets attested it'd been machinery that cowered down here, not people. Now it was crowded with any old arcana that someone had thought looked posh.
    'Chaar-leei!' the bartender hollered, a stringy fellow with less gristle than John and not even so tall. Welcoming us he could scarce peep over his own bar.
    'Sanjay!' I boomed back, shoving my way to a stool with John along for the ride. 'Break out the fancy pants, I'm treating my friend tonight. We're off to see a ghost!'
    'Ghosts, now.' Sanjay rolled expressive eyes, dark as poured obsidian. 'What excuse will you drag in next? Armageddon?' The obligatory pretty young things pulling pints to either side, a lad and a lass, smiled weakly.
    Flashing pretty was a cheap stunt to get sad bastards queuing on a mission to drink their egos up, but if you drool more fool you. It was the same worn out dog of a trick everyone used.
    At least Uncle Sanjay ensured these kids buckled down; they could run their own establishment someday, books to stock. And he kept them more virtuous than his own blood.
    'Bric 'n Brac,' he introduced with a flip of long fingers. Sanjay wasn't handing the leggy adolescents' true names out to anyone, even regulars. 'When you want the rarest drop in the city, here is where you come.'
    Bric and Brac smirked, right on cue.
    Bending to a spigot Sanjay filled two glass thimbles. 'Some say a sip brings immortality. You'll witness the end of days, hey? I've even had punters stagger back in here to swear it gives sleep without dreams, a far more precious commodity.' He hoisted one to let tangerine light spark through. 'I call it Tears of Fools.'
    Bitter, the nose insisted. I accepted mine eagerly.
    John merely stared at his, set down on the bar in front of him, cloudy with fingerprints. I nudged him a little, annoyed. 'You've never tasted anything like this, mate. It ain't cheap.'
    Sanjay squinted through the labial light. 'Your friend is nervous of the yellow death. He's a good lad to take care of his liver. You should treat it like your old mother.'
    'I do!' I protested merrily. 'A sherry tipple every night and shandies on Thursdays.'
    'Bric, why don't you set the nice man's fears to rest?'
    The improbably comely lad, unless they handed them out at kindergarten, had to be skirting the responsible service minimum. He drew a dribble from the tap onto a spoon. Pinching a tealight off the bar he deftly lit it with the tiniest woomph, delicate flamelets curling across the surface.
    After a moment held up for inspection Bric flicked the spoon into the sink with a curse, shaking scorched fingers.
    'Run it under the cold tap,' Sanjay instructed absently. 'You see, friend? Red spells dead, just like my ex-wife's glare, but this burns blue as my girlfriend's beautiful eyes. What better drop to toast the paranormal, hey?'
    'Total furphy, guys,' Brac asserted from her side, flaunting that rare ability to work and chat. 'The city'd be wall to wall ghosts if they were real.'
    'And how would you tell?' I wiggled my fingers at her, booga-booga style and she wrinkled her nose. Ah, the old charm. 'We could be neck deep in ghosts right now.'
    'Oh, you'd know.' Bric threw his two cents in. He figured himself all recovered by now, but Sanjay thrust his hand back under the running tap.
    'You know the rules, lad. Ten minutes minimum for a burn, even a bee's dick of one. And don't let me catch you sticking ice on it this time, either. Just damages the cells more.'
    Brac's sweetly shaped jaw was on the floor. 'You believe in ghosts? Seriously?' Just went to show you could work with someone ever so long and still have a thing to learn.
    'Used to live next to one. Ages back.'
    'I call bullflop!'
    'No, really. And you don't need to see any ghost to know it's there. It makes everything all … horrible. My family went weird. I was off school for weeks, just hiding in my room and it was like they hardly noticed.'
    Sanjay looked unimpressed but Brac's peepers were big and round. The expression took her right back to nights of never checking beneath the bed, or in the closet. It was better not to know.
    Personally I was delighted, really jonesing on the bump in the night shtick. 'Come on, then. Don't spare us the oocy-juicy!'
    'Dunno about juicy,' Bric muttered, finally winning free of the tyranny of the sink. The spoon was now cool enough to pop in the dishwasher, giving him time to rake over memories. 'It was my Mum who first acted off.
    'I read up, and apparently if you've had a loss a ghost seems to get at you more. Mum's brother, my uncle passed away that year. I know she'd been thinking on him a lot, going through photos and such. Said it made her realise how important family was. Well, her behaviour didn't back that up, that was for sure.
    'I was just a kid, mind. And one day the meat in my lunch sandwich was raw. Just … raw and cold, slapped between two slices of unbuttered bread. I bit into it before I realised – slimy, ugh! I considered eating the bread, nothing more miserable than going hungry. But soggy pink had seeped all through it.
    'When I took it home to show her she laughed in this vague, distant way and said, “What a silly Mummy.” No shit, I opened my lunchbox the next day and she'd put a rock in it. A rock! And she'd buttered it! Maybe 'cause I'd pointed out the bread thing along with the raw friggin' meat, I don't know.'
    Brac stifled a laugh behind her hands. Those eyes said clearly that she knew it wasn't funny.
    Bric nodded. 'Sounds silly now, but I cried so hard. All those other kids eating lunches from parents who loved them, and there was me with my buttery rock.'
    Now I snorted too, but I hoped my face was full of sympathy.
    Sanjay clapped Bric on the shoulder. 'Lad, anytime you're peckish on my watch just say the word. Nobody does good work on an achy belly.'
    'Much less a kid. I certainly wasn't getting much out of classes. Stopped even looking in my lunchbox. Safer to just hold it open over a bin and turn my face away from the things that came thumping out. Whatever I heard, I couldn't look.
    'It got worse when Dad started acting up, too. Might be brushing his teeth or something, and suddenly he'd start trying to do it backwards. Had his lips sealed over the drain trying to suck back the foam. He froze there and goggled at me until I finished walking by, like I was the one freaking him out.
    'Started watching me at night, too. I'd wake up and he'd be just standing there in my bedroom. In the dark. Watching me. His eyes were wet and I could find the gleam if I looked hard enough, from the little light that crept under the door. Staring. On those nights I don't think he ever blinked.
    'And I always blinked. And then he'd be standing somewhere different in the room. No sound. I'd have to find those wet gleams all over again.
    'That's when I started staying home. Slept during the day so I could keep up at night, keep Dad out. I couldn't stand him staring at me any longer.
    'And that's when I felt it. The cold. A big blast of ice coming through my bedroom wall from next door, like they had the mother of all air conditioners pointed right at me. But you could only feel it here, you know?' He put a hand over his heart. 'I was so relieved when I realised. It meant my parents did love me after all. It was the ghost doing all this to them.'
    He paused, looking down, until waiting became unbearable.
    'And ..?' I urged.
    'That morning, come sunu
p I marched straight to Dad and told him we had to move. That there was a ghost next door, and it was messing everything up.     'Dad nodded in this slow underwater way. Deep down he must've known something was skewiff. He was just waiting to be told which way to jump.
    'Before the day was out my family was piled in the car with everything we owned, heading off down the street.
    'Looking about, it was suddenly obvious to see all the neighbours had gone. We were the last to leave. Being a dumb kid, I took a glance out the back, one final look at home.
    'I swear, the ghost house's window had handprints on it like somebody was watching me back. The rest of the pane all dark and burned looking, and two tiny handprints outlined in frost.'
    Sanjay gave a low whistle, shaking himself to work the jeebies loose. 'Well I don't know about you lot, but that's the most disquieting shit I ever heard.'
    'Cover your ears, then,' Bric continued miserably, all of it tumbling out like poison. 'The worst came when we made it to our new house.
    'Mum and Dad were already warming back to normal. Dad got started on a special dinner right away, to make up for all those missed lunches. Mum, well, for days I couldn't open my mouth without her trying to cram food in.
    'I ought to have been happy.
    'But there in my new room, when I went to unpack my toys they came out of the box with long rusty nails driven into their faces. Each and every one. Every toy I loved.
    'I did that. I did it. And to this day I've no memory of doing it, or where I even got the nails. None at all.'
    Whoa.
    I'd have kept that last to myself.
    For a while Bric's swimming eyes looked set to bestow the ultimate in tender sympathy, but now … now she looked sick. We all did, and couldn't settle on where to look. Certainly not at Bric, sickest of us all, who must've spilled more than he meant to.
    It took a stern sense of reality to return to the hazy friendliness of the bar. Or irreverence.
    Raising his glass, John toasted whey-faced Bric. 'To ghosts, hey?'
    The others scowled but I hoisted my own drink enthusiastically. 'Neck deep in 'em!'
    Going down, the tears of fools scalded like fire.