There were a lot of things that the Oliver family didn’t tell their neighbours about, and for good reason. Such as, the strange rectangular boxes that kept appearing all over their yard, from smashing the letter box to being tipped to one side against the door. Sometimes, the boxes performed the courtesy of appearing inside, much to Sam Oliver’s relief, but ever since he had moved his family in, the boxes had taken great delight in disrupting his façade of a normal life.
Staring down at the box lying innocently across a bed of flowers, Sam reached down to pick it up. He cursed as thorns stabbed his fingers. Peering closely at the squashed garden, he noticed that the daisies had somehow turned into vicious, thorny roses.
Sam stared. “And it’s not even Valentine’s Day.”
Tossing a contemptuous look off down the street, Sam curled one fist around a rose and jerked it loose. With his other hand, he scooped up the box and trailed green stains up the footpath and onto the porch. He’d just made it when Cady, his wife, appeared at the door, appraising his dishevelled appearance.
“I’m going to kill him,” Cady announced.
Sam tiredly dropped a kiss on her forehead and muttered, “Get in line. Sorry I didn’t make it home last night.”
Last night had been the result of another conspicuous box from Hell, and already Sam’s father-in-law had seen fit to dump another one of them. Cady pressed a hand to his arm, concerned. “Do you want me to take the vessel in?”
“Got Sock to do it…” Sam smothered a yawn. “The bank’s on the way to his place.”
One of the local banks was notorious for either rejecting loans outright, or putting so much on the shoulders of cash-strapped families that they folded into losing out on the homes entirely. It was much closer than the DMV, and while Sam hated the place, the lines were much shorter. It took Sam a few moments to recover his composure before slapping on a smile and limping inside to where his children were propped up on the kitchen bench, arguing over which television channel to put on while they munched through their toast.
“Thank God it’s the weekend,” Sam said with feeling.
He eyed the pot plant on the bench as it writhed momentarily, before sprouting a single rose from the top. Letting out a long sigh, he turned to Cady and held out his bloody hand. “After all the effort I go through…and one appears inside anyway.”
She silently pried the thorns from his flesh before dipping it into a vase, filling it with red tinted water. His son turned immediately, eyes alighting on the box. Sam shoved the box towards his son before burying himself into the refrigerator. Holding the orange juice cartoon in one hand, Sam stared down at it, and shook his head.
He turned back his head and swigged it freely, but cast a wary eye around the door to where his son was unclasping the box. Setting down the carton, Sam coughed. “Hey, Benjamin, remember not to touch what’s in there.”
“Yes, Dad,” came the long suffering whine.
Sam trudged over as the mist billowed out over his son’s fingers. Applying a warning look to Benjamin, he reached in and patted around inside. He frowned and peered over, at last finding the miniscule wooden lady beetle. “What in hell…”
“I know what it is!” Benjamin exclaimed. “They stick those on flowers sometimes.”
Smoothly, Sam scooped it up and affixed the sticky part of the lady beetle to the rose growing out of the pot plant. Four pairs of eyes watched for a while and, when nothing more happened, Cady returned to shovelling the bacon around in the fry pan, and their daughter Kat seized the opportunity to hit her preferred button the remote control.
Benjamin hovered his nose as close as possible to the vessel, and gave a great sniff. Sam shot him another warning glance before wrapping his fingers around the coffee that appeared before him. His son seemed to get the hint this time and settled on the stool next to him.
Sam spoke dryly, “Might be hard to move about on the roads today.”
“More burst water mains?” Cady asked lightly, but her eyes narrowed.
“Yeah, uh, you could say that.”
“How many more?”
Shifting under the grilling his wife was dishing out, Sam defended, “Hey, it was not my fault. And it’s not like it was that many anyway.”
“Did anyone see you?”
“Apart from CNN and Fox…” drawled Sam.
Kat managed to turn her eyes away from the television screen. “I told you that you should have sold the rights already.”
Cady frowned. “Sam, it’s one thing for you to laugh this off, but now our children…”
Her husband smiled impishly and scooted back his stool, taking two quick strides around to pull back the collar of Kat’s pyjamas and blew down her neck. His daughter yelped. Sam informed her gravely, “Not when your mother can hear you.”
“That goes for you too, dearest,” Cady threatened. “Or I’ll invite my father for Thanksgiving and sit him across from your brother.”
Sam’s cheeks faded of colour and he croaked, “You so wouldn’t.”
“I so would.”
“Alright, I get your point. Just don’t get mad when you see anything on the news about random water main explosions.”
“Why doesn’t grandad come for Thanksgiving?” Kat piped up again.
Her brother snorted. “Because he comes over on Halloween, stupid.”
“Don’t call your sister stupid,” Sam used his same grave tones, but meant it this time.
“Or you’ll what, Dad?”
Sam experimentally prodded the kitchen bench until thorns began to sprout along the top. Cady offered no protests, merely rolling her eyes and turning away. She hid her smile into the steam rising out of the sink as she filled it with hot water, hearing Sam tell their son sternly, “Or I’ll send you to your room and make it grow shut. I’d like to see you try getting out of that one.”
“What about school?” Benjamin asked craftily.
“School’s not til Monday right, kiddo?” Sam winced as soon as the words left his mouth.
Kiddo? KIDDO? Oh hell, what’s next, am I going to start answering only to “The Devil’s Son-in-Law”?
Unaware of this slip and the agony that it caused to whirl behind his father’s solemn expression, Benjamin caved and muttered his apologies. After this, the children chose not to titter with each other, agreeing upon good old Saturday morning cartoons, even though they’d both deny that it was their choice. Sam didn’t mind, he still watched the cartoons when he thought no one was watching.
“Want to come upstairs and help me make the bed?” Cady asked coyly.
Sam felt the tired itchiness drop from his eyes. He sat up straight, grinned and bolted up the stairs. This was their game. In a few more minutes, she’d make sure the kids were entirely occupied and then sneak away to rendezvous with him in the attic. Less dangerous that way. Sam tapped along the upstairs hallway, rubbing his fingers over the five o’clock shadow that he probably should have dealt with at some point the day before.
Deciding he was still too tired to shave, Sam scooted past the bathroom and threw open the door to the attic. He’d danced inside a few steps before he realised he was no longer in his house. Squinting through the gloom, he snapped, “No, this isn’t sick at all, taking the guy who married your daughter to a cemetery.”
“Haven’t had your coffee yet, Sammy?” enquired the Devil calmly.
Thinking of the half empty mug still sitting on the kitchen bench, Sam was swamped with the overwhelming desire to smack his own head open on of the nearest gravestone. Offering a yawn at first in response, he grated out, “Don’t you know a tired worker is an incompetent worker?”
“That I do know, but these kinds of things don’t wait around while you’re trying to get intimate.”
Sam wished his face wouldn’t burn up like that when the Devil made references to Cady. He grumbled, “Yeah, kind of a downer. We didn’t even get to around to biting the heads off the chickens.”
Alright, how what was worse – the wisecracks or the appreciative laughter? So do not want to be on that guy’s thought plane right now.
“You should have seen this place a few years ago,” the Devil continued conversationally, recovered from his laughter. “All neat and pretty. Lots of daisies and sunflowers.”
“And now no one tends the place, and all those roses grow everywhere,” Sam deduced dully.
“I think you see where this is going.”
“Gotta be something like a grave robber.”
The Devil confirmed, “The caretaker. Proof that you should never wear your finest gold to any cemetery. If you’re not already dead, that is.”
Shivering as the temperature dropped several degrees, Sam glanced across the darkened hill of stone and soil. He tried not to think about what was awaiting beneath his feet. He frowned. “Doesn’t sound that hard. So he’s taking out people who turn up here wearing jewellery?”
“It isn’t hard,” agreed the Devil. “But it’s not all for you.”
Sam felt like he’d been socked in the guts. He knew it. Ever since he’d found out about the missing page from his contract. That oh-so convenient page that went further to explain that every firstborn of the firstborn of the Oliver family was doomed to servitude. Couldn’t have that kind of longevity if you’d died before you could reproduce. Thanks, Dad, you’re one in a million…
He pointed out sullenly, “He’s only fifteen.”
“Relax, I’m not robbing the cradle a few years early,” the Devil assured wickedly. “But I’m sure you’d agree that it would be better for all involved if Benjamin got used to it before it was time.”
“What is that? Fatherly advice? Demonic threat? I never can tell with you.”
Howling wind was the only answer for him, as his father-in-law had disappeared. Hanging his head and delivering a solid kick to a gravestone, Sam let out a bitten off cry of frustration. And pain, because now his toes were aching.
“Ok, Sam, that wasn’t stupid at all,” he muttered to himself, then raised his voice. “A happy employee is a productive employee, dickwad!”
He blinked once and found himself back in the attic, with phantom laughter ringing in his ears. Sam blinked again, just to make sure, and sighed with relief. He chanted, “I really, really hate you. I really, really hate you.”
“That’s a little unromantic,” Cady’s voice drifted from behind the door.
“Tell me about it. I’m so totally out of the mood now.”
Guessing immediately what had transpired, Cady stepped into the darkened attic and lifted one eyebrow. “Completely.” She kissed him. “Totally.” Another kiss. “Out of the mood?”
“Well, uh, not exactly…”