Weird Fiction Monday: The Toybox

It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers!  As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.

This particular story was written in 2003.  I’ll say a little more about it at the end of the post.

The Toybox

When Jennifer saw the truck pull up outside the house, she was all smiles and excitement. Daddy was home! She left her room and rushed down the stairs as fast as she was allowed, chasing her cat Snickers before her.

“Mom! Mom! He’s here!” she called out. Mom was sitting at the kitchen counter, working on her house selling, and didn’t look up when Jennifer came in. Snickers fled out through his kitty door.

“It’s about time,” Mom said, shuffling some papers. “Why don’t you go out and greet him?”

Jennifer needed no further encouragement. But when she got outside, she could see that Daddy had brought two of his friends with him — and she knew what that meant.

“Hey, my little sprout,” Daddy said, holding his arms out.  Jennifer went to him, though her enthusiasm was dimmed. Daddy’s friends waited by the truck.

“Hi, Daddy.”

He held her out at arm’s length.

“Look at you — you’re sprouting more all the time. Pretty soon I’ll have to wear stilts to hug you.”

Jennifer giggled, in spite of her changing mood.

“Where’s your mother?” Daddy asked.

“Inside, working.”

Daddy swept his arm towards the door.  “Well, let’s go say hi to her.”

He took Jennifer’s hand and led her towards the house. Before getting there, he turned once to his friends waiting by the truck.

“I’ll be out in a couple of minutes,” he told them.

“No worries,” one of them said. He was holding a softball.

Daddy rapped on the screen door before going inside.

“Knock, knock,” he said. Mom’s voice answered from inside the house.

“Come on in, Mark,” she said. Daddy led Jennifer back inside by her hand, and together they went into the kitchen.

“Hi Andie,” Daddy greeted her. “Look, I hate to do this to you, but I can’t stay long today –”

“Why don’t you go get the pictures you’ve been drawing to show to your father?” Mom suddenly said to Jennifer. Jennifer looked at the two of them, looking at each other, and then she nodded and went out into the hallway.

She didn’t go all the way upstairs right away, though; she waited on the first flight, out of sight of the kitchen, and listened.

“Anyway,” Daddy was saying, “I really can’t stay today. The catcher caught the flu last night, and the guys really need me to fill in.”

“Jesus, Mark,” Mom said. “Can’t you spend one goddamned Sunday a month with your daughter?”

“But the guys,” Daddy protested.

“And don’t you think I need some time to myself, too?” Mom was saying, but Jennifer went to her room and didn’t listen any more.

She didn’t get her pictures, like her mom had suggested; she picked up one of her dolls, lay down on her bed, and fidgeted with the doll restlessly. A little later her bedroom door opened.

“Hey, kiddo kid,” Daddy said. Jennifer didn’t look at him, but he came over to the bed and scratched her head.

“I really can’t stay today, sprout; important stuff’s come up, and I need to go.”

“I know.”

“I brought you something, though; why don’t you come downstairs and I’ll show you.”

Jennifer allowed herself to be led back downstairs and outside. Daddy’s two friends were pulling a big, fat thing out of the back of his truck, swearing as they did so.

It was horrible.

“Jesus, Mark, what the hell is that?” Mom asked. She had come outside behind them.

“It’s a toybox,” Daddy answered.

It looked like a big frog made of wood. It was big and round and brown, with four little legs, and rough skin. It had two white little eyes that stuck out and looked like they were looking at you wherever you were.

“We were clearing out a house in the country,” Daddy said. “I guess the guy who lived there wasn’t particularly loved, because his family told us to keep whatever we wanted, and trash the rest. Lots of weird, old, exotic stuff, but not much of worth, except this. What do you think, sprout?”

Jennifer looked at it. She didn’t know what to say.

“Of course, I haven’t shown you the best part yet,” Daddy said. He lifted the top of the toybox, using the frog’s nose for a handle. Its mouth yawned wide, revealing the interior. It was filled with dolls.

Jennifer went over to it carefully, looked inside. It looked like there were millions of dolls inside, dressed up in every imaginable outfit. Jennifer couldn’t even see the bottom of the box. She picked up one of the dolls, a man dressed in a strange army uniform: it looked to be about the same size as her own toys.

“I figured this would give you something more to play with while I’m away,” Daddy said. “If your mother says it’s okay, I’ll have my guys put it up into your room.”

Mom sighed. “If she wants it, she can have it.”

“What do you say, kiddo kid?” Daddy asked, stooping down to her. “Do you like it?”

Jennifer looked at it, and back at Daddy. He smiled.

“It’s great,” she said, hugging him.

“Great,” he said. “Let’s move it on up, guys.”

They carried it backwards to the front door.  The tiny eyes seemed to be staring, unblinkingly, back at Jennifer.

***

They got it upstairs with the help of some more swearing. It had to be tilted sideways to get it through the doorways, because it was so fat. Mom followed behind them, her arms folded. She winced every time they bumped a wall or went through a door. Finally they got it into Jennifer’s room, maneuvered it around her bed, and into the corner by the window, the only place it would fit.

“Did you know there’s writing on the bottom of this thing?” one of Daddy’s friends said. He had been below it when they carried it up the stairs.

“Really? What’s it say?” Daddy asked him. He went over to where his friends were still standing by the toybox, and waved at them to lift it. They picked up one corner, and Daddy laid down and looked underneath.

“It’s hard to make out,” Daddy was saying. “I recognize the letters, but they don’t seem to spell anything. Tsaat… Tsatha… Tsathagoo…”

He rattled off a few more words, none of which Jennifer thought made sense.

“Don’t you have to be going, Mark?” Mom said; she sounded angry.

“Oh, yeah. Gotta go, sprout; you be good, and have fun with this.”

Daddy got up and he and his friends went to the door. He waved once to Jennifer and smiled at her before leaving. From her bedroom window, Jennifer watched him drive off, and then she went over to her bed, picked up some of her drawing materials, and sketched some pictures. Mom came back in later to call her for dinner.

“Not playing with your new dolls?” she asked. Jennifer shook her head.

“Not in the mood,” she answered.

“I’m sorry your dad couldn’t stay, honey. I forgot to tell you, though; he said he could look after you on Tuesday night when I have my meeting. That’s only two days from now. You two can cook out some hamburgers.”

“Did you make him?” Jennifer asked. Mom sighed.

“No, honey, I didn’t. Your father… your father is just easily distracted. He’s hard to keep in one place. That’s part of why we’re not together, anymore.”

Jennifer didn’t respond to that; she just ate. The next day would be a school day, so she had to go to bed early. She had trouble sleeping, though. She almost felt like crying, and though she didn’t, she felt like she could hear the faint sound of sobbing all around her, in her room.

***

School was okay, as always. Jennifer got involved with all her classwork and talking with her friends and by the time she got home she had forgotten all about the toybox so it made her jump when she entered her bedroom.

It was still where Daddy’s friends had put it. Of course it was; where else would it be? Jennifer went over to it, reached out cautiously, and touched it. Its skin was rough and cold. She put her hands on its nose, like her Daddy had done, and lifted its top.

There were so many dolls in it! Most were people, but there were animals, too. There was a dog, and a giraffe, and a tiger with big teeth, and an ostrich. Jennifer started taking the dolls out and laying them around her. There were all sorts of people, soldiers and farmers and business men, and a fat couple wearing silly Hawaiian shirts. There was a knight, a Chinaman, an American Indian, even a pirate. There was even a figure that looked like a caveman, but really crude, with lots of hair and rough features, not like Fred Flintstone at all.

The figures were bendable, but in a weird way, not like her other dolls. Jennifer couldn’t even see where the joints were.

Soon she had laid out figures all around her, nearly covering the floor. The toybox still looked full, though! She had hardly emptied it at all. Then Mom was calling her to dinner, so she hurriedly put all the dolls back inside. She shut the toybox, but didn’t like the way it looked at her, so she opened it up again and left it that way.

They were having lasagna for dinner. Jennifer didn’t like lasagna. Mom usually didn’t leave it in the microwave long enough, and there would be a cold spot right in the middle of it. Jennifer picked at the layers of pasta restlessly.

“So do you like the gift your father brought you?” Mom asked her. She was looking through one of the local papers.

“I guess so,” Jennifer answered, thinking about the frog’s little eyes, little legs, and too too big mouth. Mom looked at her.

“You know, if it makes you uncomfortable, we can move it to the basement.”

Did it make Mom nervous, too?

“I’m sure your father will understand,” Mom continued. “He’s got to learn that not everything he does is fine, anyway.”

“I like it,” Jennifer said hastily. “I think it’s neat.”

That wasn’t quite true, but Jennifer didn’t want to hear Mom talk about Daddy any more.

“Fine,” Mom said, and that was the last of the talking for that meal.

Jennifer went to bed at the usual time. Mom came to tuck her in, and brought Snickers to keep her company. Snickers didn’t like being carried about, but he put up with it, and he sat at the foot of Jennifer’s bed where Mom put him.

“Sleep well,” Mom said, turning off the light.

She did sleep well, for some time, at least. Late, late at night, she awoke to a sharp hiss.

“What is it, Snickers?” she whispered. Her room was dark — she had never been afraid of the dark, before — and she couldn’t see anything beyond that which was on her bed. Snickers was on all fours, looking at something in the blackness. Jennifer didn’t move; she felt frozen. Suddenly Snickers shot off the bed, running around it to the door, and at the same time, there sounded three heavy steps in the room. At the end of the third step came a weird, wet sound, and then the room was quiet again.

“Snickers?” Jennifer whispered. She lay quiet, sure she could hear the cat breathing. Snickers had never sounded so… so heavy before. Jennifer lay there for a long time, listening. Eventually she could hear no more, and later, surprisingly, she fell back asleep.

***

Snickers wasn’t there the next morning. After getting ready, Jennifer went all around the house looking for him, but couldn’t find him. Mom didn’t know where he was, either.

“He probably went outside last night to do some exploring,” she said. “Hurry up and get your things, or you’ll miss the bus.”

Jennifer ran back upstairs to grab her school bag. She found it by her desk, picked it up, and thought about bringing one of the weird dolls to school to show her friends. She turned to go to the toybox — and dropped her bag.

The toybox had moved. Where it had been in the corner before, it now squatted a little ways towards the window. Its tiny eyes shined in the morning light.

Jennifer, not looking away from the thing, picked up her bag and slowly backed out of her room. She quietly closed the door when she was out.

“Hurry up, Jennifer!” Mom called from downstairs. Jennifer went downstairs and to the kitchen, where Mom was already working on her house deals.

“Mom, I –” she began, but was cut off.

“Don’t forget that your father will be over tonight to look after you. I know you like his hamburgers but don’t fill up on too many of them.”

Jennifer didn’t think she would; she wasn’t very hungry now.

She went to school distracted, thinking about the toybox, and Snickers. Where was he? She didn’t know the answer to that, or to any of the questions the teacher asked her that day. By the time she headed home, she was tired and unhappy.

But Daddy was waiting for her when she arrived, which made her feel better. Mom had already left for her real estate meeting.

“Ready to cook out, sprout?” Daddy asked, and Jennifer was. He not only showed her how to light the fire, but he let her light the charcoal this time. She ate one whole burger, and took another one, though she couldn’t finish it. Daddy didn’t mind, though, and she was happy for that.

“I wish we could do this all the time,” Jennifer told him.

Daddy laughed. “I don’t think your mother would like to have me around that often. Besides,” he said, messing with her hair, “You’d get fat if you ate that many burgers.”

“Mom never cooks out like this any more,” Jennifer said.

“Your mother needs to learn to have a little more fun, I think. Come on, let’s put this cooking stuff away and watch some television.”

They took in the charcoal and the lighter fluid and the ketchup and mustard and all the other stuff. It was getting dark, anyway, and the mosquitoes were starting to come out. After the chore-type stuff was done, Jennifer and Daddy sat downstairs on the couch together and watched lots of shows. Jennifer enjoyed herself immensely, and it was a terrible shame when Daddy told her it was time for bed.

“Your mother would yell if I left you stay up later,” he said. With a sigh, Jennifer headed to her room.

She hadn’t been up there since that morning; the door was still closed. She had forgotten all about the toybox. She also hadn’t seen Snickers all day. Suddenly those hamburgers she had eaten were making her sick.

She reached out, opened the door a little bit, turned on the light. She could see the toybox near the corner, where it had been that morning. That was probably where it had been all along. Jennifer went inside, watching the thing constantly, and got her night clothes together.

Daddy came to tuck her in. He looked over at the toybox as he pushed her sheets in around her.

“That thing looks bigger every time I see it. Do you like it?”

Jennifer nodded. She wasn’t able to do anything else.

“Well, you have a good night, kiddo kid. Sleep well and think about all the dolls sitting in that frog waiting for you to play with them tomorrow.”

“Daddy,” Jennifer began.

“Yeah?”

Jennifer looked at him. He hadn’t been around to tuck her in for such a long time!

“Nothing,” she said. Daddy smiled and got up. He switched off the light, and the room was dark. When he shut the door, it was darker still. And the toybox was in the corner.

***

Jennifer had fallen asleep. She didn’t think she would at all, but at some point she had. The room was dark. Distantly, through the door, she could hear the television on downstairs. Daddy was no doubt watching some kind of sports program. And in the bedroom, with her, there was another sound.

Jennifer held her breath. Breathing continued, though, labored, heavy breathing that couldn’t just be the wind outside. Jennifer turned her eyes to the corner of the room. There wasn’t enough light to see anything there, and she didn’t want to, anyway.

A heavy thump came from somewhere nearby, shaking the floor. Jennifer pulled her covers up over her head, and slowly and breathlessly shifted away from the open edge of her bed, towards the wall. Could it see her? Maybe it could only hear things. Remembering Snickers, Jennifer kept her breathing as shallow as she could.

There was another thump, followed quickly by another. It was hopping, she realized, working those little legs. But where was it going? Two more thumps followed, and the breathing sounded louder and closer, and almost excited. It was near the bed.

Jennifer slowly slid her blanket off her face. It was right there, at the edge of the bed, facing her. Its little white eyes shined, even in the dark room, and its rough scaled body swelled and shrunk with each breath.

Jennifer screamed. At the sound, the frog thing burst into motion, hopping frantically, working its gargantuan mouth open and closed. Jennifer had a high bed, though, and with its little legs the thing couldn’t quite get up to her. She screamed and screamed and screamed, drawing as far back against the wall as she could.

The frog thing panted and hopped and thumped the floor. Other sounds joined it, as footsteps came swiftly up the stairs towards Jennifer’s room.

The door burst open, and the light switched on as Jennifer’s Daddy entered the room.

“What the hell–” he began, and then his eyes fell on the frog thing.

It heard him and, with surprising speed, turned and bounded towards him. Daddy stumbled back involuntarily against the wall, holding his arms out, and the thing opened its mouth wide and closed it upon his hands.

Glomp! Glomp! Glomp! was the sound the frog thing made as it swallowed. With each swallow, Daddy was pulled further into the maw of the thing, and it seemed to bloat larger with each bite. On the third working of the jaws, Daddy’s head was inside, and his screams became muffled. And the thing continued to swallow.

When Daddy’s feet were the only parts of him left sticking out of its mouth, Jennifer threw herself over the side of her bed with a cry and crawl-stumbled to the door. She ran down the hallway to the bathroom, certain the thing was following. She slammed the bathroom door behind her, and pushed herself into the corner, beside the trash can. There was no sound on the other side of the door. If it had followed her, it had stopped outside.

“Daddy,” Jennifer breathed. She knew there would be no more cookouts, no more television with him. She began to cry, unafraid of the noise she made doing it.

***

She had cried herself out in perhaps an hour. She would have waited in the bathroom forever, if she had to, but Mom would be coming home at some point, and she didn’t know about the frog thing.

The house outside of the bathroom door seemed quiet. Jennifer listened at the door for a long time before opening it, carefully. The hallway was empty.

Slowly, Jennifer left the bathroom and went down the hall towards her room. When she reached it, she cautiously peeked around the doorframe. Her bedroom light was on, and she could see her entire room. The frog thing was back in the corner, where it had first been placed, its little white eyes shining. Quietly, Jennifer reached out and pulled the door shut. Then she went downstairs to the kitchen.

She didn’t really use the phone that much, and had certainly never called the police, but she knew how to do so. She took it from its cradle and listened to the dial tone.

“Daddy,” she said again. No more television with him. No more cookouts. She hung up the phone. Then she went to the garage and found the matches and the lighter fluid.

No more gifts from Daddy.

She went back upstairs.

No more visits from Daddy.

She opened the door to her bedroom. It was still in the corner of the room.

No more ‘sprout’, and ‘kiddo kid’.

After watching it for some time, Jennifer stepped over to the thing. It wasn’t breathing. That’s how you knew when it wasn’t awake. She gently lifted the lid of the toybox, and searched the pile of toys with her eyes. She took one from the back of the pile, and closed the box again. Uncapping the tin of lighter fluid, she sprayed it over the surface of the frog. Then, sliding back away, she lit a match and tossed it onto the toybox.

Daddy had taught her how to start a good fire; the thing immediately burst into flames. The toybox screamed, a high pitch, uneven sound, and its eyes rolled back and forth. The burning had awakened it again.

Jennifer clutched the small object she had taken and crawled hastily backwards towards the door. The tiny pupils of the thing focused upon her through the fire, and it began to hop after her. Jennifer got through the door just before it reached her, and it slammed its too wide bulk against the door frame. Behind it, the window curtains had caught fire, and the carpeting was starting to smoulder.

Then Jennifer had gotten up and was running down the hall towards the stairs. Squealing and shuddering, the toybox managed to squeeze its burning body through the bedroom door, and it bounced after her.

Jennifer stumbled at the top of the stairs, but managed to keep her balance until she reached the middle landing. There, she fell against the wall, and turned to look up at the burning creature pursuing.

Its wooden body was now a ball of flame. It shuddered and heaved as it moved, bumping against the walls and the railing of the stairs, starting fires where it touched. For a moment, Jennifer was afraid it would leap right upon her from the top flight, but its little legs could not navigate the steep staircase, and it stumbled and rolled down towards her.

Jennifer rolled, too, down the remaining short flight of stairs, and fled towards the kitchen. Behind her, the frog thing, landing upside down, opened its wide mouth to right itself, and gave chase again.

Jennifer rushed through the kitchen, around the kitchen counter, with the thing close behind. There wasn’t enough time to unlock the back door to flee, so she stooped down and wiggled and pushed herself through the small cat door, and finally fell outside.

The toybox thing slammed into the door behind her, its squealing now sounding angry and desperate, its flames igniting the window curtains. The door shook, but held. Past it, Jennifer could hear the thing begin to thrash about blindly.

She ran around to the front of the house. Fire was now glowing in all the upstairs windows, and even at night the dark smoke billowing out was visible. Jennifer sat down in the front yard, watching the house, and began to cry again. She barely heard the car screech to a halt on the street behind her, or the concerned footsteps rushing towards her. Mom was home.

“Oh, that stupid, stupid, irresponsible bastard,” she said, grabbing Jennifer and holding her tight. “What the hell did he do? Where’s your father?”

Jennifer shook her head. She couldn’t speak right now.

“I’m so sorry I left you alone, honey, I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”

Jennifer nodded, and Mom hugged her again, tightly. The fire burned, and the wood in the house creaked and hissed, almost sounding like sighs of relief, or release. The thing was gone now, Jennifer was sure of it. It couldn’t hurt anyone any more.

As the sound of sirens began to fill the air, Jennifer looked down at the object she had taken from the toybox, unnoticed by her mother. At least he would always be with her. They could even watch television together.

As her mother hugged her, Jennifer hugged the doll of her father tightly to herself.

***************************

Yesterday on Google+, Morgaine LeFaye posed a question to the community: “What did you fear was going to get you at night as a child?” This question reminded me of this story, which is based on my own childhood nightmares.  I actually had a big green plastic frog toybox, whose mouth swiveled open to reveal the toys inside.  One night, I dreamed that the toybox had crept to the side of my bed and was breathing heavily; the next day, I asked my mom to move the box to the basement!

I do think that most good horror stories are about more than the monsters that they contain; hopefully this particular tale demonstrates that idea.

If the prose seems rather crude in this story, that’s intentional: since it is told from the perspective of a young girl, I wanted the writing to reflect the level of vocabulary that such a child might have.

One disclaimer: the story was written in 2003, and I have changed none of the names from that original writing.  Any relation to actual persons is a complete coincidence.

Planning to write some new stories to post over the next few weeks; stay tuned!

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2 Responses to Weird Fiction Monday: The Toybox

  1. Larry says:

    I enjoyed this story! It’s just the right length and has a satisfying ending. You did the little girl’s voice well.

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