The rain isn’t heavy, but it showers down on the hillside with a loud pitter-patter on everything it touches.
Pitter-patter on the long blades of grass and thick bushes.
Pitter-patter on the dark raincoats of the three figures lying motionless.
Pitter-patter on the three metal boxes that lay in front of the figures. Each metal box no bigger than a cell phone.
It’s dark. Soft light from the moon above, shimmering through droplets of rain, reflecting off the boxes. Tints of green dance in the light from two of the boxes. The third box, the box farthest right, tints of red.
The figure behind the red box, Marcus, turns to the other two. Slight movements with his index and middle finger. Binoculars to their faces. In their peripheral vision they simultaneously catch Marcus’s fingers moving and turn.
“Status?” Marcus whispers.
“Prisoners still in the back room.” The figure in the middle, Rob states. “No movement for 10 minutes.”
The figure to the left, Dom, speaks. “He’s four bites away from finishing his sandwich.”
“Then he’ll be leaving momentarily. Get ready now.” Marcus reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a small remote control and a small ring box.
Rob and Dom reach into their coat pockets. They each pull out a remote control of their own. Rob retrieves a small box and checks the contents. A single key. He closes it. Dom retrieves his box. It’s larger. He opens it, sees the teddy bear inside, closes it up. Dom peeks through his binoculars again.
Down at the bottom of the hill, the building they’ve been watching. Guards outside, armed with semi-automatic weapons. Men inside, guns hanging from shoulders. Multiple doors leading to multiple closed-off rooms. Dom fixates on the room in the back left corner. He peers through a window and finds a table. On top, a plate with one bite of a sandwich. A hand picks it up, brings the bite of sandwich to a mouth, devouring it. Dom watches the mouth. Chew, chew, chew. Swallow. The man promptly stands up.
“He’s up!” Dom alerts them.
“Ready yourselves.” Marcus pulls a semi-automatic gun from under his body and aims down at the building. Rob and Dom do the same. “Dom, once he exits the room, you two lay cover fire.”
Dom holds the binoculars with one hand, watching the door to the back room. His other hand gripping the barrel of his gun. Drops of liquid roll down his forehead. Is it rain? Sweat? The cool rain chills his body but he’s uncomfortably warm from the neck up. Liquid in his eyes, affecting his vision.
Dom removes the binoculars and wipes the liquid from his eyes with his wrist. He returns the binoculars to his eyes, trying to find his point of focus again.
He scans the building in a panic. Outside guards. Men inside talking. Laughing. Have to find the room again. And then… there it is… the door to the back room… opening. The man has already exited!
“He’s out!” Dom alerts.
“Cover fire now.” Marcus commands.
Dom and Rob fire their guns at the building. Shooting out lights, shattering windows, spraying up walls. Panic sets in, people take cover and ready their weapons. Guards outside shout out commands, aim their guns high at the hillside, squinting through the dark and the rain. Marcus masterfully scans the inside of the building. As people run around frantically… bingo! Several barrels in the back, unprotected. Marcus sprays several rounds at the barrels. Gasoline leaks out onto the floor.
Dom and Rob lay sporadic cover fire. Marcus lifts a separate barrel out from a collapsible section of his gun, positions it on top of the main barrel, and locks it into place. He pulls a separate trigger out from another collapsible section and locks that into place. His gun, now with two separate barrels and two separate triggers. He hugs the second trigger with his finger and fixates on the gasoline leak. Liquid flowing on the floor. He squeezes that second trigger. Thunk! A single projectile fires from the gun, flies into the building, crashes onto the floor right onto the gasoline puddle and explodes with fire. Fire ignites and spreads quickly.
“A-Boxes!” Marcus shouts. He moves his finger to the original trigger on his gun and lays cover fire sporadically. Guards continue to whip their guns around, eyes darting back and forth in confusion and panic.
Dom grabs his metal box and positions it a few feet in front of him. He pulls himself onto his knees and clicks a button on the remote control. The lid to the box flips open. Sparks fly out, followed by a painful moan as an apparition stretches out of the box and pulls herself up onto the hillside. She scowls at Dom with lifeless eyes, her figure shimmering in the moonlight. Dom can see every detail of her body, he can see the poor stitching on her clothes, the scars on her arms, yet he can see right through her.
“What have you done with him?!” She screams icily. Dom is instantly coated in goosebumps head to toe.
Dom opens the box, revealing the teddy bear. The apparition stares at the teddy bear and life creeps into her eyes.
“My baby’s teddy!” She screeches, sending Dom’s skin crawling.
“Those men down there hurt your boy!” Dom shouts in as confident a voice he can muster. “Those men in the fire! Go kill them and you can have the teddy.”
Dom closes the box. He swallows hard. He’s left in the awful silence. He’s left with the apparition’s eyes staring holes right through him. Her eyes fill with darkness again. The awful eyes. Liquid trickling down Dom’s forehead. It’s sweat this time.
The apparition screeches a horrible, soul-shaking sound and then FLIES towards the building. The guards detect the movement and begin firing randomly but the apparition disappears in darkness. Shouts of confusion continue.
Marcus continues to lay cover fire. “Rob, go!”
Rob places his metal box in front of him. He pushes the button on the remote control. The lid flips open and an ANGRY apparition RIPS from his prison. He bellows a deep and haunting sound.
“Why are you in my house?!” The apparition bellows.
Rob opens the box, revealing the key. “Those men down there, in the fire, they took your house from you! Kill them and you can have your key back!”
The apparition moves towards Rob and he closes the box.
“I’ve been looking for that key! You stole it!!” He shouts.
“No!” Rob is terrified. “Those men did!”
The apparition swipes at Rob, knocking him backwards. The apparition flies down the hill towards the building. The guards’ shouts of confusion have now turned into shrieks of terror. Semi-transparent bodies fly throughout the building. Sending guards soaring in the air, falling, crashing. The two apparitions terrorize and destroy the place.
Marcus positions his box. The red tints catch Dom’s eye. Marcus opens the box with his remote control and a smoky yet transparent figure billows out and towers over Marcus. Human-looking for the most part, but sharpened teeth, a nose like a snout, and slimy skin. The apparition floats calmly, staring at Marcus.
“I have something of yours.” Marcus opens the ring box, revealing an engagement ring.
The apparition reaches for it. Marcus shuts the ring box.
“First you go down and kill those men. Those men in the fire. Then you can have it back.” He says confidently.
Marcus puts on a display of confidence. Still silence. Then…
“Who took my ring?” The apparition asks, its voice unearthly, deep undertones echoing and intertwining with a second voice.
“Those men took it.” Marcus replies. “You’ll get it back once you kill them.”
The apparition doesn’t hesitate and flies off towards the building. Carnage ensues. Guards continue to get tossed around in the building. Screams and shrieks of terror echo over and over. Occasional gunfire sounds off, pathetic in its attempt. Screams now filled with pain, agony. The three on the hillside see limbs being torn from bodies and tossed aside. Blood stains the windows and walls.
And soon… silence.
The apparition from Dom’s box glides up the hill. She stops directly in front of Dom. Dom’s shaky hands are hardly able to grasp the box and open it once more. He holds it as steady as he can, allowing moonlight to wash over the teddy bear.
“His teddy.” She weeps. She reaches out and grasps the teddy bear. A warm, yellow light radiates along her fingertips, through her hands, up her arms and washes across her whole body. Calmness. She begins to float away and then silently and peacefully vanishes.
The apparition from Rob’s box returns in a fury. Rob wastes no time, opens the box with the key and presents it to the apparition. The apparition snatches the box, plucks the key from it, and peacefully vanishes himself, a soft moan echoing through the air.
The third apparition rolls up the hill towards Marcus and his open metal box. Marcus takes a deep breath, waiting until the apparition is a few feet in front of him. He presents the ring box with one hand. In his other hand, the remote control. As the apparition reaches for the ring box, Marcus presses a button on the remote control. Electricity crackles from the box and reaches out, grasping the apparition like octopus tentacles. The apparition struggles but is restrained by the electric tentacles.
“Noo!!” The deep voice echoes from the apparition’s mouth, still intertwined with another voice.
The electric tentacles yank the apparition back into the depths of the box and the lid slams shut.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Rob bursts.
Marcus grabs the box and the rest of his belongings.
“Let’s go get those prisoners.” Marcus says, not about to acknowledge Rob’s outrage.
“Marcus.” Dom is concerned. “I thought these apparitions were always supposed to be one-time use.”
“Are you questioning me?” Marcus tucks the ring box back into his pocket.
“You’re just keeping his token?” Rob points to the ring box.
“Look, you two haven’t been doing this as long as me.” Marcus responds. “There are some caveats to the process that you just don’t know.”
“But all apparitions are one-time use–” Dom is still trying to argue. Marcus cuts him off by slamming the butt of his gun down. It slaps into the wet Earth.
“We’re going to get these prisoners right now! On your feet!”
Dom and Rob promptly get up, collect their belongings and follow Marcus down the hill.
Cartwright Industries headquarters is bustling. Employees and agents busy with work, conversations pinging off every wall. Marcus marches with a purpose, Dom and Rob follow closely, listening intently.
“It’s all about the synthetic apparition program.” Marcus explains. He pats the metal box in his arm. “This particular apparition, we’ve already been using for testing. We just recently were able to extract molecules that are going to help us in creating synthetic apparitions to use. If I let him go now, we’d have to start all over.”
“Then, why did you take that one?” Dom asks.
“This one was the best option for our mission.” Marcus continues to explain. “Also died in a fire like the other two. We need apparitions with similar experiences when we’re out in the field. Cartwright told me I needed to bring him back for more testing. Just a couple more sessions with this guy and we’ll extract everything we need in order to create synthetic apparitions.”
“And is that something we need so badly?” Rob asks. Marcus stops in his tracks and spins around. Dom and Rob almost walk right into him.
“Of course.” Marcus responds sternly. “Here we are, working with apparitions, all one-time use. We’re constantly out in the field, searching haunted homes, capturing these damn things just so we can use them once, release them, and then go looking for more. With synthetic apparitions, they won’t need to be released. They’re ours to use repeatedly. And they’ll be a hell of a lot easier to control.”
Just then, two more agents approach the three of them. Karina and Becca, each holding an A-Box of their own. Both metal boxes have tints of green like the ones Dom and Rob clutch in their hands.
“Marcus.” Becca interjects, presenting her A-Box. “Just got one. Drowned in the bathtub a decade ago. Been haunting this poor family for years.”
“Perfect.” Marcus responds. “We only have a few water-related deaths. We can definitely use that. Got a token?”
“Yeah.” Becca pulls a baby blanket from inside her coat. “Her kid’s blanket. Searches for it every night.”
Marcus nods with approval. He looks to Karina.
“This guy was haunting the old cemetery on Turkey Hill.” Karina explains. “Buried alive.”
“Interesting.” Marcus examines the box. “Buried alive. Dirt. Earth. We can find a way to use him. Token?”
“No.” Karina responds reluctantly. “He’s always searching for his favorite book. Went to the house. It was demolished with all his belongings. Any books he had were destroyed.”
“Then he’s of no use to us.” Marcus scolds. “Toss him in the incinerator.”
“What?!” Karina is shocked.
“You don’t have a token, Karina!” Marcus’s voice raises in volume and authority. “And you have no chance of ever obtaining one. The apparition is useless. There’s no chance for him to get the one thing that he wants. So, we can’t get him to do anything for us. Toss him in the incinerator.”
“But this is the soul of a living thing. Shouldn’t we–”
“That’s the soul of a DEAD thing!” Marcus cuts her off, done with her nonsense. “Incinerator! I’m not saying it again!”
Marcus stomps off. Agents have stopped in their tracks, stopped in their conversations, and they just watch on. Karina looks down at the floor. Becca puts her hand on Karina’s shoulder and consoles her. Rob looks at all the agents watching.
“You guys don’t have work to do?!” Rob screams.
Everyone quickly gets back to feigning interest in things other than the loud scolding that just took place.
“It’s alright, Karina.” Dom assures her. “All the details and caveats of this job are so confusing, anyway.”
Karina nods while the four of them walk to a nearby counter, several agents working behind it. Each one of the four sets their A-Box on the counter and waits for an agent.
“Like the one-time use thing.” Dom continues. “We thought that applied to all apparitions.”
“It does.” Becca is confused.
“Not what Marcus explained to us.” Rob points Marcus out across the room, talking to an agent. The red tints of his A-Box in his hand gleaming in the artificial light. “He’s reusing his. Using it for that synthetic apparition program.”
“Did you guys notice how his box looks different?” Karina examines the red of Marcus’s A-Box. “Tungsten.”
“What’s the difference?” Dom asks.
“Ours are rhenium.” Karina responds. “Used for regular apparitions. Notice the green coloring. The red ones, tungsten. Used to hold a Zholsan. I’m surprised he trapped it again. Those boxes are unreliable outside of ten feet from the apparition. Especially when you talk about a powerful one like that.”
An agent approaches and looks at the four A-Boxes. Becca runs down the line, explaining each case. “One filled, with a token. One filled, without a token. Two used, needing clean-up.”
The agent nods, grabs the A-Boxes and takes them away. The four watch Marcus march away.
“What is a Zholsan?” Dom asks.
“An apparition is just someone who passed away.” Karina explains. “A Zholsan is someone once possessed by a demon… and since passed away. Highly unstable.”
Marcus sits opposite a large examination table. His red A-Box sits atop it. On the opposite side, Cartwright, impeccably dressed, older, strong eyes. Cartwright strokes the A-Box.
“Second round of testing was successful.” Cartwright speaks in a low rumble. “The team expects just two more sessions should do the trick.”
“Fantastic.” Marcus grins. “And what did you need me for?”
“How were the two on the mission the other day?” Cartwright asks as he hands Marcus his phone. “Dom and Rob, was it?”
“They were great.” Marcus looks over Cartwright’s phone. “Perfect execution. Why?”
“Good.” Cartwright folds his arms and does a single head nod in the direction of his phone. “That’s your next mission. Take the two of them. And take your ol’ buddy here.”
“Um…” Marcus and Cartwright both look to the A-Box sitting on the table, eerily still. “You sure it’s good to keep taking him out in the field? Shouldn’t we leave him for testing?”
“Mission requires fire.” Cartwright takes his phone back. “You need a fire guy. And we have limited resources in that area.”
Marcus is dumbfounded.
“Information has been sent to you. You leave tomorrow.” Cartwright turns and leaves the room. Leaving Marcus alone with the red A-Box.
Dom, Rob and Marcus hide behind stacks of boxes inside a massive facility. In the large and open room, next to them, a giant, square hole in the floor. Eight feet down, a large mechanical door is closed. A few guards march by surveilling, in blue jumpsuits. Dom, Rob and Marcus don the same outfits. Dom types away on a tablet while Rob watches nervously. Marcus strokes his red tinted A-Box.
A large mechanical sound emanates from the giant, square hole. The mechanical door slowly opens, revealing a seemingly endless pit.
“I don’t like how close we are.” Rob says nervously.
“We have to be in the facility if I’m going to hack the sprinklers,” Dom explains.
“And the giant door to the endless hole is opening again. Don’t like that either.” Rob wipes sweat from his brow.
“Shut up.” Marcus doesn’t even look up. “You’re going to get us all killed.”
A chirp from the tablet. Dom looks up. “They’re down.”
Marcus scans the giant, empty room. Not a guard in sight.
“Now.” He commands.
All at once, Dom, Rob and Marcus rip the boxes open, removing explosives and tossing them across the room. They whip their guns out and lay fire into them until explosions burst and fire ignites and tears through the room. Sirens sound. No sprinklers.
One at a time, Dom opens his A-Box. Presents an apparition with his token and then commands him to attack the bad men in the fire. And the apparition screams off, lusting for blood. Rob does the same. Another apparition unleashed. Marcus opens his red A-Box. He commands the apparition as confidently as before and presents the ring just the same. And the apparition silently leaves.
Terrified screams echo throughout the facility. Crashing. Smashing. Absolute destruction. The three cautiously move into the middle of the room.
Several guards run into the room terrified. They spot Dom, Rob and Marcus and instantly realize they don’t belong. And they attack.
One charges Rob and Rob quickly tosses him into the endless pit, screaming all the way down. Dom grapples with another guard, struggling, and eventually slams him to the floor, knocking him out cold. Marcus draws a knife hidden in his jacket and carves up several guards, from lips to shins.
Rob doesn’t see one guard dart at him until it’s too late. The guard tackles him to the floor, just in front of the hole. The mechanical door cranks and whirs and begins slowly shutting as Rob teeters on the edge. Dom rushes over, yanks the guard off of Rob and pushes him over into the hole. All the guards are taken care of now. Rob lays on the floor for a moment.
Someone else comes flying into the room suddenly. Marcus reacts, drawing a gun. Dom sees it is just a frail woman, head wrapped in a hijab, a prisoner fleeing. Dom grabs Marcus’s hands and forces his gun up, rounds popping into the air as the woman escapes.
“What are you doing?!” He screams.
“Marcus!” Dom shouts. “She’s a prisoner! She’s why we’re here!”
Marcus shoves Dom, sending him crashing to the floor.
Rob gets up and his A-Box falls out of his jacket, bounces off the floor and plummets down the hole.
“You idiot!” Marcus explodes, approaching Rob.
“It’s just an A-Box. I don’t even need it, what’s the big deal?”
Marcus seizes Rob by the shoulders. They grapple, Marcus forcing Rob closer to the hole. Rob grasps at Marcus’s jacket, fighting for his life. Marcus swiftly swings his body out of his jacket and shoves Rob, sending him hurtling into the hole. Dom watches in horror as he listens to the sound of the doors continually whirring and then slamming shut. Marcus spins to face Dom.
“Here’s what you’re going to tell Cartwright if you don’t want to end up like him–”
Marcus’s apparition swiftly returns, a trail of haze behind it. It stops inches from Marcus’s face. Marcus is panicked. Dom is frozen in fear. Marcus reaches for his jacket and then realizes it’s gone.
“The token.” He says pathetically. “I don’t have it.”
Marcus glances at the A-Box on the floor. He speedily grabs his remote control but the apparition slices at his arm, smacking it out of his fingertips and sending it skidding across the floor. The remote control slides into Dom. Marcus watches it helplessly, then turns back to the lifeless eyes peering into his soul.
The apparition’s two massive hands, gnarled fingernails and all, land on Marcus’s head with force, press into his skull, and rip his body into two pieces.
He falls to the ground. Plop. Plop.
The apparition glides to Dom, stopping at his feet. It gazes at the remote control, now in the palm of Dom’s hand. Dom’s thumb grazes the button. The button that will send this apparition back into the A-Box. The A-Box positioned ten feet behind the apparition.
Dom contemplates his choices. He could press the button. And perhaps the apparition is trapped back into the A-Box. Dom is safe, but at what cost? At the cost of another life. And perhaps the A-Box doesn’t work. The distance between apparition and A-Box might be too far. And if he presses the button and it fails, he may as well point a gun at someone and pull the trigger only to find out that he’s out of bullets.
Dom pushes the remote control across the floor. He and the apparition watch it slide several feet away, far from Dom’s reach.
“Fool.” The apparition growls, an angry voice tangled with sorrowful voice.
Dom made his choice. He could’ve tried to save his own life. But it would have meant enslaving another life. Why should his life be valued more? It’s alright. Dom is ready for this. Maybe he deserves this… doing this job.
The apparition hovers over Dom. Teeth revealed, gnarled and clawed fingers flexing. Dom winces.
“Your ring!” A voice echoes confidently.
The apparition swings its head around. Pulling himself up from the hole, is Rob, holding Marcus’s jacket in one hand and the ring box, cracked open, in his other hand. The apparition glides towards Rob. Rob holds the ring box steady, engagement ring gleaming under the fluorescent lights.
“Take your ring. Be free.” Rob states plainly.
The apparition smoothly reaches for the ring box and simply plucks it from Rob’s fingertips. Rob holds still. Dom holds his breath. The apparition removes the ring from the box. A tranquil wail emanates from its mouth, followed by an unearthly moan, two distinct voices. And then… like a puff of smoke… in seconds… the violent figure before them both is now gone.
Rob helps Dom to his feet. They each take a box from their jackets, open them and set them on the floor. They leave the facility together. Leaving behind two boxes. Each with a memento… a precious souvenir… an heirloom… a reason for living, for someone.