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The Puzzle Box
"I'm gonna get you two!"
The two boys ran from the sound of that frightening voice. Even with their muscles aching and lungs burning, they couldn't afford to stop. Even together, they couldn't hope to confront the monster that chased them.
The monster wasn't something out of a horror movie, he was a fifteen year old teenager with more muscles than brains. Lawrence "Larry" Eugene was notorious as a bully around the small North Florida neighborhood. He'd been caught red handed more than once terrorizing the children of the neighborhood. His parents didn't seem to care themselves. They seemed to be of the opinion that it was good natured, childhood fun, and that all the other parents were just overreacting.
His targets today were old hands at his torment. Both thirteen and small for their age, Ty and Mica were friends since Ty moved into the neighborhood three years ago. The only advantage the pair had was that they were faster than the larger bully, and sometimes with the help of fear were able to outrun him.
"Ty! Up this way!" yelled Mica as he turned off the small side street they were running down onto a small private road. It was thickly overgrown and seemed poorly maintained. It seemed as though the swamp was going to reclaim this tiny piece of land for all of the other parts that it had lost to development.
Ty followed his friend, with the bully still hot on their heels. That is, until they heard a loud crash and a resounding "Ow!" They paused long enough to see that Larry had solidly whapped his head on a low tree branch and fallen backward. He was sitting on the worn dirt road, rubbing his head. He looked up and saw the two boys looking at him, "You stupid brats! I'm gonna kill you!"
That was all the warning they needed. The took off deeper down the road, trying to put as much distance between themselves and Larry as they could. A few minutes later, Mica stopped abruptly, with Ty running into him. "Hey! What gives?"
Mica pointed. "Look at that."
Ty walked up next to him, "What?"
Mica walked a little off the trail into the bushes. Now that Ty could see where his friend was going, he could see the tiny glint from the thick underbrush. "It's just a piece of glass of something. Let's get out of here!"
Mica shook his head as he crawled under the bush. "It's not glass, I think it's wood."
There was a pounding down the trail, and the pair realized that Larry was back on his feet. Without hesitation, Mica and Ty both dove into the bushes and crouched low. Larry was so blinded by rage that he passed them completely unnoticed.
Almost the moment that he passed, Mica went back to digging out the box. It was clear now that was what it was. He pulled it out of the muck with a giant sucking sound. Oddly, the box seemed almost clean and new.
Mica examined it. It was intricately carved and made of the darkest wood. The finish was so smooth that it felt like it was slightly oily in his fingers, even though his fingers didn't seem slicked at all. The designs on the box were hard to make out, but they seemed vaguely animal like or at least organic. He tried tugging at what looked like the top, but it refused to open. When he looked more carefully, he realized that the box didn't have an apparent seam or lock.
Ty smiled and took the box from him. "I've seen these before. It's a puzzle box! You have to move the carvings in a certain way in order to open it." He tried to move a few but nothing seemed to budge.
"Wow, cool! I wonder if it still works?" Mica took the box back and felt around the box a little. Something seemed to move ever so slightly under his finger at one point, so he pushed a little harder. The tiny animal figure moved a tiny bit with a satisfying click. He smiled, "I'll have this open in no time."
Ty checked his watch. "Well, you'd better do it at home, because we were both supposed to be home half an hour ago. I think now is a good time to slip out of here."
Later that night, Mica was still fooling with the box. It was slow going, but he seemed to be making progress. He wasn't sure how, but he seemed to have a knack for finding the next latch, the next movement. He had a feeling that the box would give up it's secrets in no time.
Ty had been allowed to spend the night at his friends house, despite being so late coming home. Just explaining the chase by Larry Eugene was enough to forestall any punishment. He looked up from the computer game that he was playing. "Are you still fooling with that? You're never going to open it. It's probably stuck from being I the swamp."
As if on cue, there was a loud thump, and the top of the box popped open. Mica grinned at his friend like a madman. "Never is a long time." He swung open the lid and looked inside.
Through all this, Mica had been having visions of something extremely valuable in the box. After all, why would you hid something in a box so intricate if it wasn't valuable. He'd though of money or gold, but not exactly what he saw. He reached into the velvet lined container and pulled out the ring with a little disappointment. "Hardly seems worth it." he sighed.
Ty took the ring and looked at it himself. It was dull silver, really pewter. It bore no stone, nor did it apparently ever. It was carved in a similar fashion as the box, but the animal on the side of the ring was a little more identifiable. It looked a little like an alligator or crocodile. "Hmm, no inscription. It's kinda neat, though. You're the only one with one, I'd guess." he added with a grin.
Mica took it back and examined it a little more. He couldn't shake the feeling that the thing seemed slightly warm in his hands. "I guess I can at least try it on. Though it looks too big for me." He slipped it onto his figure and held it up in surprise.
It was a perfect fit.
"That's impossible." breathed Ty, "That thing was big enough to go around your thumb!"
Now that it was on, Mica couldn't think of why he didn't like the way it looked before. It wasn't pretty in the way that a gold ring was, but it had it's own charm and elegance. It was really a beauty. "I like it. I think I'll leave it on."
Ty shook his head, "Mica, something is really strange about that thing. Take it off."
Mica laughed, "Oh, come on. It's just a stupid ring." He closed the box top back down and placed it on his shelf. As he did, his head felt light. He felt a slight chill run through his body.
Ty started to say something when Mica's mother poked her head into the room, "Okay, boys, lights out."
The two reluctantly agreed. Ty wanted to talk about the ring some more, but Mica was asleep almost the moment that his head hit the pillow.
The sun here was warm.
His eyes closed, his back slightly arched, he let the warm rays of the sun fill his blood and keep him awake. He didn't feel the need to be active, the meal he'd eaten recently was still slowly making it's way through him. His eyes nearly closed, he paid only enough attention to know if his domain was invaded.
He watched the water for ripples.
He watched the shore for shadows.
He watched the sky for intruders.
The sun here was very warm.
Ty woke slowly the next morning, but felt suddenly very awake once he saw Mica. He was sitting on the edge of his bed in the middle of a shaft of sunlight fingering the ring. Ty watched his friend like that for a couple of minutes before he finally said, "Good Morning."
Mica seemed startled out of his revere, and turned quickly to face his friend. If Ty didn't know Mica better, he would've sworn that he'd seen anger in those eyes, if only for a moment. Mica winced, and his expression softened instantly, "Oh, good morning. Want to go down to the swamp this morning?"
Ty blinked, "Right now? I just woke up. Can I at least get dressed first?"
"Oh, sure." Mica said with a smile. "I'll meet you downstairs in a few minutes." Without another word, his friend stood up and left the room. A moment later, his footsteps could be heard on the stairs.
Ty stared at the door for a long time, trying to figure out what had just happened. Apparently, he'd agreed to go down to the swamp. With a sigh, he rolled off the cot and slipped into his clothes.
An hour later, Mica was sitting on a large boulder on the shore of a small pond looking at his friend. Something was odd about him, but he couldn't exactly put his finger on what. The only obvious difference was that he was intent on that stupid ring. He kept rubbing it, like it was a sudden security blanket. One or twice, he'd made as if to take it off, but at the last moment he refrained. It was really beginning to bother Ty. He wanted him to take it off. "Mica, can I see that ring?"
Mica stopped rubbing the ring for a second, and seemed to clench his fist a little tighter at the suggestion. "I... I can't do that, Mica. It's a part of me." he said cryptically.
Ty frowned, getting a little more worried. "What do you mean that it's a part of you?"
Mica grinned a wide, toothy grin. "I think I know what the secret of the ring is. It's been talking to me all night and all morning. Watch." Mice held up the hand with the ring on it.
At first, Ty didn't know what he was supposed to be looking for. Then, the hand seemed to change. It turned more claw-like, and then green and scaly. The scales shot up his arm, altering it's shape as it reached his shoulder. As it reached his chest, his bulk seemed to expand dramatically. He burst out of his clothes as his face pushed out. His toothy grin became even more pronounced as it seemed to take on a decidedly sinister appearance. Top heavy now, he fell forward onto his belly with a thud, even as a massive reptilian tail sprouted from this spine.
Ty stared opened mouthed and in complete shock. Where a moment before his friend had been there was now the largest crocodile that he had ever seen. Easily twenty five feet long from nose to tail, and all of it seemed to be muscle. Ty didn't know a lot about these reptiles, but he knew that these things were fast and mean. Despite the fact that he knew that it was his friend in that body, he still crab walked to the highest part of the boulder. "Mica!" he finally managed to shout when he rediscovered his voice.
The crocodile looked at him with an indecipherable expression, but made no move toward him. After a few moment, the form started to shrink again, gradually being replaced by the now nude form of his friend. Mica was grinning from ear to ear. "That was great!"
Ty felt his mouth move, but knew that no words were coming out. His skin felt cold and clammy and his heart was beating so fast that it felt like it was going to burst through his chest. After a time, he managed to croak out, "What happened? How'd you do that?"
Mica shrugged, still grinning like a madman. "I'm not sure. Ever since I put the ring on, I think I've know how to do it. It's easy. I just think about it and it happens." His expression darkened ever so slightly, "It's a little scary, too."
Ty moved a little more down the boulder. He'd gone rapidly from filled with terror to filled with curiosity. "Did it... did it hurt?"
His young friend just smiled and sat down on the soft earth. "It felt great! I mean... it's like being pure muscle."
Ty was feeling braver and braver. His friend, for all his moodiness and odd behavior earlier that morning, seemed back to his normal self. He slid off the rock and slowly approached, even managing a weak smile. "Can I try it?" he said impulsively, regretting it the moment the words left his mouth.
Mica seemed to consider a moment, and then his expression seemed to darken again. "Sorry, no. I can't let you. It only wants me. It won't come of my finger anyway." He demonstrated by trying to pull off the ring and failing.
That made Ty nervous again. "I think that we should tell someone."
Mica now suddenly seemed angry. "No!" his expression softened a little, "I don't want to tell anyone about this. Not until I know where this is going."
Ty frowned, "What you mean 'where this is going'?"
He never got a chance to answer. From up the trail they heard the rustle of leaves. Someone was coming. Ty slipped forward a little and looked, his blood running cold again. It was Larry Eugene, now sporting a huge black and blue mark on his forehead from the impact with the branch the day before.
Ty stepped back to Mica, who hadn't moved from the beam of sun he was sitting in. "It's Larry, we gotta get out of here."
Mica just got an odd look across his face. "No we don't."
Ty, whom was bunched up to run, looked at his friend in shock. "Mica, he's got it in for us!" he hissed. "He's got a huge bruise on his forehead from yesterday! We gotta go!"
Mica grinned heavily, and his hand started to change again. "Trust me. He won't bother us again."
Ty smiled a little, not as nervous now as he was before. It was funny to think that he was more scared of the very human bully coming down the path than his friend's newfound ability to become a fully grown crocodile. "You're going to scare him? Cool. Want me to lead him over here?"
Mica simply nodded slightly as his head extended out. Moments later, the transformation was complete.
Ty jogged through the bushed as the edge of the trail and was spotted immediately by Larry. "Hey, jerk, how's the headache?"
The reaction was swift and instant. Larry broke into a flat run, "You little shit! I'm gonna kill you! Get back here!"
Ty didn't comply with the shouted demand. Instead, he ran back though the bushes for the shore of the marshy pond. The crocodile his friends had become was blended in well with the leaves and dirt. Even knowing his friend was there, he couldn't see his massive form clearly. He jogged past and took cover behind the boulder just as Larry barreled through the bushes.
Ty could barely believe what he saw next. Mica growled loudly just as Larry came into site. In surprise, the bully stumbled and fell to the ground, rolling right in front of the huge beast. He started to scramble to his feet, but he never had the chance.
Mica was on him in an instant. The massive jaws opened and closed around his midsection in a flash. Ty could hear the snapping of ribs as Mica's powerful jaws crushed the older boys rib cage. There was a single grunt of pain and surprise as Larry seemed to realize that his life was about the end, and then silence.
The massive crocodile tossed it's head a few time, maneuvering the large mass in it's jaws, and started letting it slid slowly down it's gullet. It took only a few minutes for the crocodile to finish it's meal.
Ty, still sitting on the other side of the boulder, was busy throwing his up. When he'd emptied his stomach of everything in it, he started going into dry heaves until thick, yellow bile started to drip down his chin. His eyes were red and wet and he felt himself get soggy from the cold sweat all over his body. He didn't expect this to happen, and as much as he hated Larry, he didn't want to see him dead. Not like that. Ty eventually stopped heaving and simply leaned against the boulder and shuddered a while. His friend had just killed a man. Just eaten a man.
Ty jumped violently at the voice. Stumbling away from it. It was Mica, looking very much human and very much undisturbed. "What do you mean what's wrong?!" he shouted. "You just ate Larry! You ate him!"
Mica looked perplexed. "So? I said that I'd have him off our backs, and he is."
"I thought that you were going to scare him!"
Mica burped slightly, "Sorry, I guess I got a little carried away. But I was hungry. That crocodile hasn't been fed in a long time."
"What do you mean that crocodile??" he shrieked. "You're that crocodile!"
Mica shook his head. "Naw, that thing isn't me, it's something else. It's part of the ring. I guess we overlap a bit, but the croc is the croc and I'm me." He shrugged a little, "The croc is getting stronger, but I think I like it."
"My God! This is all perfectly normal to you! This all seems perfectly fine! You just killed and ate someone and you're acting like you broke a window!" Ty leapt to his feet and rushed his friend. "Give me that damn ring! It's taking you over!"
Ty realized that he had made a mistake the moment that his hand came in contact with the ring. He felt a jolt of power through him that numbed his arm, and Mica suddenly grabbed him around the shoulder and threw him to the ground, changing as he fell. "That wasn't smart, Ty." He said in a voice that sounded far different from his friends'.
Mica fell on top of him, his tremendous weight pinning his friend to the ground. Ty struggled in vain to stand up, but it was to no use. He felt the massive jaws close around his waist with a searing pain. He wanted to scream, but couldn't as he heard bones snap in his spine and legs. He soon passed out from the pain.
The crocodile, sensing the last of the resistance over, maneuvered the carcass into its mouth, and felt it slide down. It noted absently that the heart was still beating, but soon felt it stop.
The crocodile felt the screams of the young boy it had taken somewhere in it's head, but ignored them. It's stomach was full, and the sun was warm. It was time to relax.
The Puzzle Box copyright 1997 by Brian Eirik Coe.
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