The Steel Box



Mark stopped the welding job for a moment to wipe sweat from his brow and glanced out of the garage to where his flatbed truck was parked. There was only one thing Mark loved more than his truck, and that was his twenty year old daughter, who was currently inside the house, studying for her college exams.

With his free hand he pulled the bottle of beer he was drinking closer and finished it, then looked at the empty bottle in disgust and grunted. He stood up, walked over to the fridge he kept in the garage and fetched another beer. After draining half of the beer in one go he returned to his welding work.

The steel box he was constructing was a work of art. The top part, the part that could open, had several compartments for tools and loose spares for his truck. He was going to weld the box onto his truck, so he would always have those little parts and tools that he might need on the road.

Mark flipped the welding helmet down and once again bent to his work. In the garage, blue light danced and played as he drew the welding rod along the edge where two sheets of metal connected, welding them together perfectly. He’d practiced for months before starting work on the box, because he wanted the box to be perfect.

Inside the house, the same house where his lovely daughter was studying for her exams, his bitch of a wife was probably lying in front of the television. He hated that. She could have done so much with her life, she could have been so much, but no. After she had given him the daughter he loved so much, she had become nothing but a slob who spent her life in front of the television. He had spent the last twenty years of his life bringing in the money, money which she just could not wait to get her hands on.

The flux curled off his welding job in a straight line, but even so Mark had to use the hammer to chip away more flux, but when he looked at the weld he was satisfied. It would last a lifetime, and it would be completely airtight and watertight. After brushing the weld clean he absentmindedly drank the rest of the beer, then stuck a new welding rod into the clamp and continued welding.

For twenty years, the complaining had never stopped. Every month-end was the same, there was never enough money. In her eyes all he ever did was drive his truck up and down the country, having a great time travelling, while she had to stay at home to look after their daughter.

Now though, the time his wife spent at home was going to come to an end. Even just thinking about it made Mark stop his work and fetch a fresh beer from the fridge. The steel box he was creating had two levels. In the top part he had made all the compartments for his tools, and the bottom part would hold the bed. It was a lovely bed, soft and covered with silk. After tonight, she would not be able to tell him that she did not want to join him on his rides, because she would have a bed to sleep in while they toured the country together.

Mark remembered the first few months of their marriage. It had been the most magical time of his life, when his young and beautiful wife Margery had travelled through the country with him. Everywhere he had gone, she had been in the truck with him, singing along with the radio and dreaming dreams of a long and happy life together. After a few months though, Margery had grown tired of life on the road. At first she had just stayed home for a few days at a time while he did the long haul to small towns. But the time she spent at home had quickly grown to weeks and then months, until she had stopped travelling with him altogether.

He shook his head. Thinking about those long-ago years was good, because it was what he yearned for, and it was what he was going to bring back with this box. But tonight he had a lot of work to do. The box was almost finished, but the real work would only start once the box was ready.

The beer was starting to have an effect on his craftsmanship, but tonight he needed the help of a few beers, to do what had to be done, to finish the job. He took another long pull from the bottle and touched the welding rod to his work again.

He’d chosen special thick steel plates to work with, because this box could never be allowed to come apart or to rust through. Margery was a complainer by nature, and he could imagine what she would say if the box he had made for her came apart at the seams.

Mark turned his thoughts from his wife to his daughter. Oh, the lovely Lisa. How it was that Lisa could still stay in the same house as her mother Mark could not understand, because it was obvious that Margery had grown to hate the daughter that Mark had grown to love. It was as if she simply hated the girl because it was another thing that her husband could feel bad about, another way in which she could annoy him.

Mark put down the clamp holding the welding rod and took off the welding mask, then finished the rest of the beer in the bottle. The job was almost done, the box was almost complete. He switched the welding machine off and walked over to the fridge to fetch another beer, but checked himself. He still had work to take care of, he could have a beer later. For now he turned around and walked out the garage and headed towards the house.

He’d been right, of course. He found Margery sprawled in front of the television, watching one of the long list of soap operas she lived for. He was fascinated by how she could so utterly and completely live her life through the fake people on the television. Sometimes he’d thought of telling her how she was wasting her own life, but knew it would just result in another huge argument which she would ultimately win by spending the night in the spare room and ignoring him until he was back in his truck and away on yet another trip.

He stopped in the lounge. With their daughter in the house, there was a truce between his wife and him. Both of them knew that Lisa was the only reason that their marriage was still intact. And both of them knew that as soon as Lisa was finished with her studies in twelve months’ time, their marriage would end. But Mark was determined to stop this from happening. He was going to make dead sure that Margery stayed with him.

‘Would you like a glass of wine?’ he asked.

‘Here’s my glass,’ answered Margery, holding out the glass she’d been drinking from, just as he had known she would. Not a please or thank you, just the lazy way she had of getting through life with the least amount of effort.

He took the glass from her without another word and walked to the kitchen where he switched on the kettle, knowing that his daughter would not refuse a cup of coffee. While he waited for the kettle to boil he filled his wife’s glass from the wine bottle that was standing on the table, noting that she’d already finished off most of the bottle. With a glance towards the kitchen door to make sure he was still alone he slipped the little bottle of sleeping pills out of his pocket and shook a few into his hand.

He’d been testing the pills on both his wife and his daughter for weeks now, checking to see how many of them he could add to their wine and coffee before they noticed something and complained that the drinks tasted strange. Lisa had been the easiest, he’d only ever wanted to give her a good night’s sleep while he did a bit of work. His wife needed a bit more, but tonight she’d been drinking, she would not know if anything was amiss.

He dropped three of the tablets into her wine, enough to put her to sleep for a good few hours, then swirled the wine around as the little blue tablets dissolved. When the wine was ready he put two of the tablets in his daughter’s coffee cup, feeling slightly guilty for doing so. But the pills would do no damage other than seeing that she got a good night’s sleep.

He took the glass of wine through to the lounge and handed it to Margery, who took it with only a grunt, as if she was doing him a favour and he should be grateful for it.

My pleasure, he thought as he returned to the kitchen where the water was just coming to the boil. He finished making his daughter’s coffee, then walked down the short passage to her room.

‘Lisa sweetheart,’ he said, knocking softly on her door. ‘Daddy made you a cup of coffee.’

‘Oh Daddy, thanks. I’m just finishing my studies, I could do with a cup. Are you still working?’ she asked, opening the door and taking the cup from him with a smile.

‘Yes honey, but only for a short while, then I’m going to have a bath.’

Mark fetched himself a beer from the kitchen fridge and headed out of the house, checking his wife’s wine glass as he passed her. At the rate she was drinking she might not even have needed the little pills tonight. But still, he had to take every precaution.

Back in the garage he opened the beer and sat drinking in silence. It would take only a few minutes for the pills to kick in, but he would give them lots of time, to make sure that nothing he did bothered them while they slept.

Some time later he saw the ghostly image of the television disappear from the lounge curtain and then the light was switched off. He drank the rest of his beer in silence as the night settled around him. In the garage the steel toolbox he’d made looked strangely surreal, out of place. He hoped he had remembered everything needed for the bed at the bottom of the steel box, but he’d gone over everything a dozen times. Margery had always liked a soft mattress, and a plump pillow. He’d chosen the sheets from the best he could find, because he had to get her the best of everything. From now on she would be accompanying him on all his journeys, and she would have to be comfortable in the bed he’d made for her.

He checked the beer he was drinking and sighed. Maybe he had overdone the Dutch courage thing a bit, but it was too late to stop now. He was way more drunk than he’d intended getting tonight, he could only hope that he would be able to finish the rest of the job with a steady hand. Around him the night grew cold, while outside in the yard his truck stood waiting. Tomorrow morning, when the sun was just making an appearance, he would be in the truck, him and Margery, and the rest of their lives would start. But there was still a lot of work to get done.

Working quietly, he slipped the chains from a pulley system through the handles of the box and pulled the box up with the pulley system, until the box was hanging in the air high above the bed.

When he was done Mark walked a little unsteadily out of the garage, switching off the light as he left. Now the whole house and the garage were dark, and in the moonless night he could barely see what he was doing. During the previous few weeks though, he’d practiced everything over and over until he knew exactly what needed to be done. Now he pulled the wheeled trolley from the side of the house. This was not the tool trolley that he used in the garage, but another one he’d built just for tonight. It was just a plain piece of planking with four wheels, designed to carry one rather heavy object.

With the trolley in tow he walked back to the house and heaved it through the back door. Then he stopped and listened, checking that the house was quiet. He left the trolley by the back door and walked to his daughter’s room, where he stood still for a while, listening for any sound, but the house was deadly quiet. He walked back and fetched the trolley, pulling it behind him to where his wife lay passed out on the couch in the pitch black darkness of the house. Here he had to move one of the other chairs out of the way to get the trolley in front of the couch where his wife lay sleeping the peaceful sleep of somebody who had had a few too many, with some added pills.

He’d lived in this house for many years, and even in the total darkness it didn’t take him long to pull her from the couch onto the trolley, but there was a heart stopping moment when she hit the wooden board with a loud bang. He stopped and waited to hear if Lisa would come out of her room to inspect what the noise was about, but the house kept its peace, the little pills he had put in her coffee was keeping Lisa asleep.

Still working in the pitch dark Mark moved the trolley out of the house and back to the garage. Now he did not dare to switch on a light for fear of being seen by one of his neighbours. He would have to do everything clothed in dark night until he had his wife in her new bed below his tool box. It was not as easy as he had imagined it would be, but also not as difficult as he had feared it might be. The bigger problem was that he was rather drunk, and he kept stumbling over things in the dark.

Once inside his garage he stopped the trolley next to the bed he had created for his wife, the lovely bed in which she was going to sleep while they travelled the country. He stood still and looked down at her for a while, but in the darkness he could not see her. Then he bent down and tipped the trolley over. His sleeping wife landed on the bed, and a soft sigh escaped her in her sleep, as if she was happy to be sleeping there at last.

Now came the difficult bit. Still working in the dark he slowly lowered the box, using the pulley system in reverse, over the bed. Now the bottom half of the box contained his wife. And now, with his wife safely out of sight, he could at last switch on the light. In the once again brightly lit garage Mark looked at his work, and smiled.

He switched on the welding machine, slotted another fresh welding rod into the clamp and slipped his hands into the gloves, then dropped the welding helmet over his head. With a grunt he bent down, and started the job of welding the bed into the lower part of the box. Everything fitted together neatly, all he had to do was weld, and try to forget what exactly it was he was doing. It was almost too easy, and the knowledge that he would never hear her demanding voice again made him hum a little tune as he worked.

He wondered if Lisa would miss her mother. She would probably be very worried, but when the police found no body it would become clear that Margery had left of her own free will, leaving Mark and Lisa to get along with each other while she made a new life for herself.

Mark was halfway through the welding job when he heard his wife wake up. He hadn’t really expected this to happen, but by now the box was welded tight, and the noises she made inside the box were minimal. He could just faintly hear her muffled voice as he kept on welding, and soon even that grew quiet as the air inside the box gave out. Of course the bedding inside would get a bit scorched from the welding, but she would have run out of air long before that could become a problem for her. In the night, still humming a tune and now wishing that he would sober up so that he could work more efficiently, Mark finished welding the bed into the bottom half of the steel box.

When he was done he inspected his work carefully, making sure there were no holes in his artwork, then he put down the tools and switched off the welding machine. Almost done, he told himself as he once again started hauling on the chains, lifting the now complete box into the air. This time he used a big trolley, one he had built especially just for this job. Even so, once the toolbox was on the trolley it was difficult going, but at last he managed to pull the trolley out into the yard and pushed it towards his truck.

There was only one way of getting the heavy box onto the flatbed truck, but the practice of the previous weeks quickly came to the fore, and within minutes the ratchet system had pulled the new toolbox into place. Mark checked its position carefully and fetched the welding machine from the garage. He was now working outside, but as long as he kept the noise down his neighbours would not complain. And even if they did come around, Margery was now safely sleeping in her bed, she would be no trouble tonight.

It took him only twenty minutes to weld the box onto the flatbed truck, and then the job was truly done.

Tomorrow morning, with the dawn of a bright new day, Margery and Mark would take on a bright new future, and a new life.

***

He’d slept later than he’d intended to, but he supposed it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the long road ahead, and a wonderful new life waiting. After a quick shower Mark stopped in the kitchen only long enough to make a cup of coffee for the road, then he headed out to his truck, whistling a happy tune as he swung himself up into the cab. Moments later the engine roared into life, and he punched the air. With a broad smile Mark took the truck onto the road and headed for the depot where he would pick up his first load of the week.

Behind him, on the flatbed, his new box was still mostly empty. Later, when he had more time, he would add some spares and some tools, but for now it held only his wife, sleeping serenely in her new bed. It was a great day. At last, after months of preparations, his wife was enjoying the open road with him once again.

Later in the morning, when the flatbed was loaded with crates and he was on the long road and well on his way to Phillips town, Mark pulled over at a truck rest stop. Normally he would drive for many hours before stopping, but now he wanted to spend a few minutes in the company of his wife. He pulled his sandwiches over and left the cabin, then climbed onto the flatbed and made himself comfortable on the steel box. He ate half of one sandwich before he spoke for the first time.

‘What a beautiful morning it is!’ he said with real enthusiasm in his voice.

The silence of the empty truck yard answered him, but that was what he liked best. Himself and his truck, and some good company. It had been too long a time riding alone, while his wife sat at home. Now they were together again, as it should have been all those years.

‘I’m really glad you are travelling with me again,’ he said, speaking to his sleeping wife. ‘It’s been far too long, you were growing old alone in that old house. It’s much better out here, out in the open, discovering new places.’

Another truck passed on the road outside the truck stop, roaring contentedly along the blacktop. The driver must have seen him sitting on his box, because he sounded the big truck’s horn in greeting. Mark lifted a hand and waved, but didn’t look at the truck.

‘See,’ he said. ‘The truckers are a friendly bunch. Don’t you remember how friendly they always were when we stopped at the roadside? We’re a family, us truckers, and you’re part of the family now, like you used to be.’

In the growing heat of the morning Mark finished eating his sandwiches, then stood up and patted the box.

‘Don’t you worry about a thing now, Margery. You’re safe in your bed, and nothing bad can happen to you now. I’m going to take you places, like I promised you when we first got married. I’m going to show you the whole country, and we’re going to have a wonderful time together.’

With this he jumped off the flatbed and climbed back into the cab. Minutes later he was back on the road, humming happily to himself as the wheels rolled him forward. He still had to finish the last part of the job, but he would just have to grit his teeth and get it over with. After that, life would be splendid.

It was after lunch when Mark pulled into a truck stop just outside Phillips town. He greeted the other truckers and ordered a hamburger from the counter, then sat and ate his food while the ceiling fan tried in vain to do something about the heat. When he’d finished eating he leaned back and pulled his phone from his pocket. First things first, he thought, and rang his wife’s number. He waited for the call to ring through to her voice mail, then left a message that she should please call him back.

He contemplated calling Lisa to wish her luck with the exams, but decided against it, she would probably call him when she’d finished writing to let him know how things had gone. Instead he left the restaurant and headed out on the road again, with Grassville ahead of him. He switched on the radio and sang along with a couple of his old favourite songs, while the miles rolled by.

He reached Grassville just as the sun was setting, by now the beer of the previous night was starting to take its toll on him. He drove into Macy’s truck stop where he always stayed over, then just sat in the cab for a while before calling his wife’s number. Once again he let it ring through to voicemail and left a message. She had never answered his calls anyway, and she had never, ever, returned any of his calls. But when the police checked the records, it would have to show that he had tried calling her.

After ringing off he called his daughter’s number, but her phone rang through to voice mail too. He left a message for her to call him, then killed the phone and looked at the screen for a while. Can’t be too careful, he decided, and called his neighbours number.

‘Hey Mark, what’s up?’ asked Jackson when he answered the phone.

‘Jackson, I can’t seem to reach my wife by phone. Won’t you just pop around to my place and make sure everything’s ok?’

‘Sure, no problem Mark. I’ll call you in a few minutes as soon as I’ve been over there,’ answered Jackson and rang off.

By the time Mark had ordered supper from Macy’s, Jackson was back on the phone.

‘Nobody home, Mark,’ he said.

‘Mmmm,’ answered Mark. ‘My daughter not there either?’

‘Doesn’t look like it. You want me to check on them when they arrive?’

‘No, don’t bother yourself Jackson. I’ve left messages for both of them, they’re sure to contact me. Thanks a lot man!’

‘No problem Mark, see you around.’

Mark wasn’t worried. Lisa had a hectic schedule at college, and she was probably staying in for the night, studying for tomorrow’s exams. He finished eating and then went out to his truck to check that everything was locked up for the night.

***

It was still early morning when he rolled out of the truck stop again, a solid breakfast inside him. He drove for two hours until he had reached the medium sized city of Border, knowing he could no longer put it off. After once again leaving a message on his wife’s phone he called the number of the local police station near his home.

It took him only a short while to explain to them that he had not been able to reach his wife and ask them to check up on her. When the operator had logged his call he left his truck and went to sit on the steel box again, this time with a flask of coffee to drink.

‘It’s going to be a bit hectic, the next few days, and I might have to leave you alone for a day or two, Margery. Don’t you worry though, you’ll be safe in your bed, nobody will bother you there.’

He spoke quietly this time, because there were a few other truckers around in the yard where he had chosen to stop. It had to be a safe place, because he would have to leave his truck there so that he could go home to assist the police in trying to find his wife.

It wasn’t long before his phone rang and the operator explained to him that they had gone to his house, but his wife had not been there. After speaking to her for a while Mark agreed to return home, just in case something bad had happened. In the meantime, the operator promised that she would check all the local hospitals in case Margery had landed herself up in one of them.

***

The yellow cab pulled up to the curb and Mark handed over a fistful of coins, opened the door and stepped out. He’d taken a plane home, leaving his truck with its new steel box miles away from the prying eyes of the police. There was already a police vehicle parked in front of his house, the officer idly waiting for him in the afternoon sunlight.

‘You Mister Mason?’ he asked when Mark walked up to him.

‘That’s right. Have you found my wife yet?’ he asked.

‘No sir. But I understand she hasn’t been missing for too long. Mind if I have a look around the property?’

‘Of course not,’ said Mark and beckoned the man to follow him. ‘It’s just not like her to disappear for any amount of time. She usually stays right in front of the television.’

After unlocking the house Mark went ahead, showing the officer around the rooms. Nothing looked out of order, and for the first time Mark wondered if he should have gotten rid of some of Margery’s clothes, so that it might look as if she’d left him.

They had just returned to the kitchen and Mark was offering the policeman a cup of coffee when a car pulled into the driveway. They listened as the door slammed shut, then waited for whoever it was to come around to the front door.

Moments later, Margery walked into the house. She looked at Mark and the police officer in surprise, but didn’t seem too worried about seeing them there.

‘What’s going on?’ she asked. ‘I thought you were on a trip to Broadwalk?’

Mark looked at his wife. Slowly, a deep pit was opening in his stomach. How in the name of hell could she be standing in the house? He had put her in her bed, and there was no way she could have gotten out of there. She was sleeping, sleeping on the back of his flatbed!

‘Is this your wife sir?’ he heard the policeman say.

‘Yes, it’s her,’ he answered, looking at Margery in shock. ‘Where have you been? I’ve been trying to call you for two days!’

He hoped the shock he felt was not being carried on his voice, because then the policeman was definitely going to suspect something was wrong.

‘I’ve been ill,’ said Margery. ‘That wine I drank the other night make me sick. I went to sleep in the spare bedroom to make sure you didn’t wake me when you came in from building whatever it was that you were building in the garage. I’ve just slept for almost two days!’

Mark thought furiously, trying to work out what the hell was going on. At a complete loss of what to say, he decided to stall for time until he could figure out why his wife was not in the box where he had put her.

‘Where is Lisa?’ he asked, hoping that the policeman would find the conversation boring and leave. Right now, he wanted the house empty, so that he could get to his garage and have a beer while he thought things over.

When Margery spoke it was with the scornful voice she usually used when having to talk about his beloved daughter.

‘I don’t know. The last I saw of her was before I went to sleep two nights ago, when the wine made me ill. She came in here and said she wanted to watch telly a bit.’ Margery jerked her thumb towards the couch on which she’d sat the night when she’d been drinking the wine.

‘She was sitting there, but fell asleep almost immediately, so I just turned the telly off and switched off the lights.’ Margery sniffed and tried to sound even more sarcastic than usual. ‘I don’t think she’s going to do too well at college if she sleeps in front of the telly instead of studying,’ she said, looking triumphant.

Mark looked at the couch, a depth of sickness opening up in his stomach.

‘Excuse me,’ was all he could say, and left the house, hurrying out to his garage. Ten minutes later the policeman left, deciding that he could see a domestic row coming on and that they could sort it out for themselves.

In the garage, Mark opened and started drinking his second beer.

***

It was an old man who climbed onto the flatbed truck. He’d stopped next to the road, far away from anything, far away from anybody. He needed time alone, time to say what needed to be said. He didn’t know what needed to be said, but he did know that he needed to say something, anything. Once he’d made himself comfortable on the steel box he opened the can of cola he had in his hand and drank deeply before looking down.

A tear rolled down his cheek.

‘Lisa, I’m so sorry. Daddy is so sorry that this happened.’

He wiped at the tear on his cheek, but more followed.

‘But at least now, my sweetheart, the two of us will always be together, and your company will be so much better than your mother’s.’

He sat for a long time before he patted the box on which he sat, then got up to get going again, taking his sleeping daughter on a long, long journey.

The End.