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Submission for The Mystery Box competition

By Daniel BradburyPublished 2 years ago 12 min read
Runner-Up in The Mystery Box Challenge
How much would you give to get what you want?

Have you ever looked at the liner notes on a CD? Maybe you were on a road trip, bored of watching endless stretches of farmland roll by your window and you needed something to distract you. Maybe you're one of those rare people who gets curious about who and what goes into making a record and you decided to find out. If either of those apply to you, there's a chance you might have seen my name. You wouldn't remember it, of course. Just a handful of tiny black letters populating one of those overcrowded blocks of text, tucked away in the liner notes of an album. "Blake Mickens: bass guitar on tracks 2, 7, and 12." "Martin Aubuchon: drums and percussion on tracks 3 and 11." "Special thanks to Chloe Hall, Calvin Hawkins, Jorge Dominguez and Sylvia Adzoh." If you pick up the right record, I'm somewhere in there.

My story is pretty typical for people like me. I got my bachelor's in composition from a tidy little music school on the east coast. I never knew an administration could derive so much pride from producing a handful of unimportant film composers. One of them did a jingle for a pretty major grocery store chain. He was their favorite.

I made my way through undergrad mostly without incident. I did write a string quartet for an old girlfriend once that got some attention from the university greybeards. She didn't like it very much though. Once I got out, I hopped from job to job. I was doing anything that would keep the lights on while I chased my dreams of being in the "Next Great American Indie Band". Greatness never seemed to be in the cards but a few of them were pretty good. I was in that band Horse Funeral for two of their records: their best ones, in my opinion. I was always a better lyricist than Salvatore, but you'd never get him to say that. I played bass and keys in M.O.U.T.H for three years. That band really could have gone somewhere if I hadn't slept with the drummer's sister. Still kicking myself for that one.

I toured my way into debt. I wrote, consumed, and studied music like it was the only thing keeping me alive. (Sometimes it was). I made records I was proud of, and some I wasn't so proud of. I made my way through band after band, project after project. I must have said "this time has to be the one" more times than any reasonable person would, and then all of a sudden there I was: staring down the barrel of my thirties without a single goddamn thing to show for it. That's the reality of being a musician. Some people make it, most people don't.

I know it might not sound like it but I'm not bitter, really. Being a good musician doesn't mean you'll be a rockstar any more than being good at math means you'll be a calculator. It just wasn't meant to be. I didn't come out of it at a total loss though. All that time I spent touring, especially with Horse Funeral (thanks, guys), got me a veritable phonebook of connections in the music industry. It's how I came to be doing my job. I'm a songwriter.

You see, record labels need people like me. A lot of those pop stars, you know, the really big ones? The ones whose faces get used to sell sodas and cell phones? Most of them have never written one note of original music in their lives, and that's where I come in. Once you understand the rules that pop follows it becomes a math problem. Sixty percent chorus, thirty percent verse, ten percent intro. If I really had my way, it would be five percent intro five percent bridge. But bridges, much like frosted tips, went extinct at the turn of the century: my first and final real gripe about the state of the music industry.

I'd get an email about somebody needing a love song to flesh out a record, I'd spend a few hours scribbling some "ooh, baby" bullshit and money would show up in my bank account. I wasn't rich, but I was comfortable. I had some guitars and synths that I never would have been able to afford when I was still touring. I had a house near a little cafe in a quiet neighborhood in a quiet city. It even had a two-car garage. I was finally on some medication that worked, most of the time at least. I was seeing a therapist I liked. Age had been hard on my features, but if I got lonely I could still turn on the charm and find some company for the night. My life was safe. It was predictable. It was boring. I think it was the boredom that got to me.

I still remember the night it all started. It’s funny how some memories are like watercolors and others are like photographs. I only remember snatches of high school. Even people I was close to at the time are just ghosts, just vague pictures of themselves. Maybe it's all the abuse my grey cells suffered in my late teens, maybe it had something to do with what my therapist had me dosed up on, I'm not sure. But that night, it's like it's carved into my brain.

I felt restless, anxious and angry. The kind of malaise had settled on me that only really shows up once your twenties are in the rear-view. My joints hurt. My back hurt. I went to the bathroom to get some aspirin and before I had turned the lights on, I managed to scare myself when I caught my reflection in the mirror. I didn't recognize him. Who was that old man, with the lines on his face, the rosacea, the grey hairs in his beard? Wasn't he supposed to be somebody? Wasn't he supposed to matter? I gave everything I had to my music and what had it given back but an empty house in a boring, nothing town.

It was time to get hammered.

I went out and got a bottle of my favorite bourbon. I put on my sweatpants, sat on my couch and put Elliot Smith on the turntable. (What a cliché, I know.) I was staring into the middle distance, taking pulls from the bottle because fuck a glass it was my house, I'm an adult and I can do whatever I want. It was shaping up to be a quiet Friday night, maybe with a couple of regrettable online purchases, but about a third of the way into the bottle I had an idea. I'm still not sure where it came from: I was never a spiritual person, agnostic if I had to put a label on it. I think it started off as a joke. Some combination of the liquor and my own black mood twisting my sense of humor.

Wouldn’t it be a hoot, wouldn’t it be a riot if I sold my soul?

Look at me, playing at being Robert Johnson. I pulled the rug in my living room to the side and grabbed a can of black paint from my garage. Look at me, standing at the crossroads, isn’t that a laugh? I was too drunk to look for a brush, so I finger painted the world’s messiest idea of a magic circle on my living room floor. It stopped being a joke around then.

I don’t remember when it happened, but somehow I got my hands on a kitchen knife. Suddenly there was a cut on my right palm. Somehow, I was flinging my own blood onto the ground around me, like it was the most natural thing in the world. I don’t think I prayed to anything, nothing as articulate as that. I just howled. A lifetime of disappointment coming out in a bunch of wordless screams. I don’t remember going to bed.

I woke with the worst hangover I’d had in years. My skull felt like it was going to break apart from the inside, like some kind of morbid egg. The way my heart was beating would have made most jackhammers reconsider their career, and I wouldn't have wished the way my stomach felt on my worst enemy. I groaned, trying to push myself upright with my right hand. That was a mistake. It seemed like left hand was the move. The events of the previous night trickled back into focus: draining into my psyche with a slow, viscous movement like cold honey. I groaned, this time from emotional pain. I didn't even want to think about how much money it was going to take to get my living room floor back to its original state. For now, though, that didn't matter. I needed coffee, and something involving hashbrowns, eggs and chili way more desperately than I needed presentable flooring. I threw on an old tee shirt, choosing to leave my sweatpants as a part of my outfit (probably wouldn't be changing out of those today) and slid into a pair of flip flops. I couldn't have given an exact date for the next time I'd touch alcohol, but I knew it wouldn't be for a long while.

I was about halfway to my car when I heard it: a kind of low, droning buzz. It almost didn't register at first. I chalked it up to the revving of some new electric car. It was only when I felt the wind pick up behind me that I decided to turn around. Some kind of drone, a model I wasn't familiar with, was lowering a package on to my front porch. A lot about this was odd. Number one, I keep pretty thorough records of my online purchases. Nothing was supposed to arrive that day. Number two, the drone was huge. Not quite the size that would normally be doling out truth, justice, and the American way to unarmed Iraqi tribespeople, but bigger than any commercially available drone I had ever seen. Number three, even from halfway down my driveway I could read something off of the package it was carrying. It was my first name, in thick, bright red letters.

After gingerly depositing the package on my front porch, the drone turned one hundred and eighty degrees and rocketed back into the sky with a speed that didn't seem possible for a craft that size. I decided to check on the package.

As I got closer to the porch I could see it was a record. It was in the same flat, square cardboard packaging that they all come in when you order them online. There was no address, no sticker or stamp to indicate where the hell it had come from, just my name in some kind of thick red marker. I was a little freaked out, but more than that I was curious. I brought it inside, coffee could wait. Carefully, I peeled off the packaging. Maybe it was a gift from one of the artists I'd written for? Some kind of advance copy of one of their new albums?

It was a plain matte black sleeve, no markings. No title, no artist, no record label, nothing. To say I was curious would be like calling a tornado an air current. Slowly, almost reverently, I pulled the record out of the sleeve and looked at it for the first time. At first, nothing stood out. It was black vinyl with a white paper center, the spitting image of a thousand other test pressings I had held before. But when I looked closer, I felt a cold sweat break out on my back. Scrawled across the paper in bold, black letters was a single sentence.


I don't know how long I sat on my couch and stared at it. It couldn't have been more than thirty minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. There was just no way. What power could a borderline-blackout magic circle have possibly contained? I decided to put it on. Surely, that would chase away any superstitious notions about where it had come from. There had to be another explanation. I would give anything to have been right about that.

There was a rasp as the needle found purchase on the black vinyl disk. A moment of silence, and what I heard next shocked me to my core. My own voice. Singing words I didn't write. I could barely move. Slowly, my fear gave way to amazement. To call the music that was crawling out of my modest little speakers "good" wouldn't be doing it justice. It made Dylan, Buckley, Nirvana and Radiohead all look like the runners up in a middle school talent show. It was incredible, and somehow it was me.

That day was a blur. I ripped the record onto my PC and sent it to every industry contact I had. This was huge. This was incredible. I was going to be a star. Finally, I would have what I had always wanted. That night I was almost too excited to sleep. Almost. The power of the hangover I had is not to be undersold.

That night I had an incredibly vivid dream.

I was standing at my bedroom window, looking into the woods behind my backyard. Somehow, I knew that something in the woods was looking back at me. Something sinister. Something hungry. There was nothing I wanted more than to be spared from having to see whatever it was that was out there, but as hard as I tried to look away from the window, I just couldn't. At last, I saw it. It was a pale thing. Its limbs were impossibly, unnaturally long. Just beyond the tree line. It was walking towards my house. Oh god, it was walking towards my house.

The next morning, my inbox was flooded with messages. Three of the record labels I had sent the album to wanted to talk. Another one was offering to sign me outright with a bonus that almost made my head spin. I was able to forget the dream. To brush it off as the product of liquor and anxiety.

But that night I had the dream again. This time, as I looked out the window the creature was already at my back fence. It was hard to tell, but its face looked human. I knew with a certainty I couldn't explain that when it reached my house, I was as good as dead.

The next day I had back-to-back meetings with some of the biggest record labels in the world. I tried as hard as I could to feel excited.

As I watched the creature in my dreams creep closer to my house every night, every day I watched the record gain more and more momentum. Two of the labels were in a bidding war over it. Over "my" work. I wanted to be happy, but every time I closed my eyes all I could see was that thing slinking towards me. All I could feel was the cold certainty that my death was just outside my back door. On the third night, things came to a head.

The scene was exactly the same as it had been. I was in my room, standing at the window that looks into my backyard. I couldn't remember how I got there. The moon was high overhead, casting everything in a weird, yellow light. I couldn't move my body, but my eyes were desperately scanning the backyard. I was praying to anyone that would listen that somehow it wouldn't be there. Somehow this had all just been an incredibly bizarre recurring dream and it was time to wake up. I thought it might have worked until I looked down.

It was standing directly below my window. Looking up at me. And for a horrible moment, I met its eyes. There. Pale, warped, rotting and distended, was my own face. It was me. I wanted to scream, but I couldn't. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn't obey. All that I could do was to stare up at the moon and try to pretend that I hadn't seen what was below my window. Try to ignore the sound of its fist knocking on my back door like a dimed-out metronome.

I sat up in bed gasping for air. I felt like the luckiest man alive as the sun hit my face. It was just a dream. I was alive. I was okay. I would be okay. Maybe all of this would be worth it. All of the struggle, all of the heartache and disappointment, all of whatever the fuck I had just been through in the past couple of days. It would all be okay.

All of those feelings disappeared when I realized the knocking hadn't stopped.


About the Creator

Daniel Bradbury

Big fan of long walks in the woods, rye Manhattans, Spanish literature, jazz, and vinyl records.

Lover of all things creepy and crawly.

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  • Daniel Bradbury (Author)2 years ago


Daniel BradburyWritten by Daniel Bradbury

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