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Pill Box






Elle Hawken



© 2015 Elle Hawken

All rights reserved


I huddled in the shelter of Pont Neuf, skulking like Ponceau’s rabid dog. I lingered there in the dirt, rubbing numb hands and feet and listening to the rhythmic jingle of carriage bells above. Smells of urine and old tobacco reminded me I hadn’t fared well last night. Or the night before.

Or for many weeks and years before that.

I hefted my body like a sack of dry bones and hobbled out from the murk beneath the bridge. The stair to the road rose shallow and steep. My knees creaked at every step. It didn’t smell much better up here. But maybe that’s because I was most of the problem. Gaslights still burned in the gray city morning. Leaning on the railing and looking down at the Seine brought me a moment’s peace. The river stretched out before me as colorless as the sky and seemed to welcome me the way others seldom had. I will die here. Here, with the river. One day I will accept its kind invitation. But not yet, not today. I was hungry.

Always hungry. The badge of abandonment.

The City of Light was waking. Distant sounds slipped under the quiet and echoed across the water. The shops weren’t open yet, but the bakers were already hard at work. My stomach rumbled.

Perhaps Ponceau would spare a crumb for an old bag.

The Île de la Cité was a quiet place. The parks were clean and the gendarmes polite enough to allow an antique a bit of peace. It reminded me of the decorum I had known in my youth, and that was probably why I came here so much. And the flowers. Even when it snowed there were flowers.

As I passed into the shadow of Notre Dame, I heard jingling behind me. I shuffled to the side of the narrow lane to let the carriage pass. Light from the bakery spilled into the street just ahead. Smells of warm pastry piqued the bitter pain in my stomach. Be good to me today, Ponceau.

The carriage never passed and I realized there was no sound of horses, no ring of shoes on the cobbles. The jingling mixed with a man’s footsteps, hurried steps. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a smart figure in a morning coat close behind me. I stopped to let the gentleman pass.

As he approached, I noticed the hand hanging from his coat sleeve was much too long. There didn’t seem to be any fingers. I felt him look at me and my heart gave a sickening flutter as my eyes trekked upward to meet his. I saw it too late to dodge.

A hard blow knocked me off balance. Pain flared at my temple.

I stumbled and fell into the street, scraping my knotted hands and knees. I shrank from him as he bent over me but his spindly hands snared my sweater. The stranger forced himself on top of me. His face pushed against mine, cold, hard, and slick. Startled, I quit struggling and looked at him.

There were no eyes, only glimmering silver and light where there should have been flesh.

A hole appeared in the middle of his head and dilated like the iris of a bellows camera. The air pulsed and my stomach churned. Gaslights trembled and the street groaned beneath me. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse pulse pulse . . . .


The stranger’s head swiveled toward the intrusion and he pushed off of me. The air mercifully stilled. I scrambled to my feet. A giant mutt barreled down the street toward us, Ponceau close behind. The dog leaped into the air and soared toward my attacker’s throat. The stranger whispered. A quiet, shuddering explosion caught the dog in midair and consumed it in a wave of violet light. Its collar fell and skittered across the street.

Ponceau leveled his pistol. The stranger closed the distance between them. Ponceau paled and hesitated as he took in the creature’s appearance. The unnatural face dilated. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse pulse pulse pulse . . .

The street, and the air, even my bones shuddered in rhythm.

A soft haze of light escaped from Ponceau and swirled into a sphere. It became smaller and smaller. Brighter.

Reaching into his coat, the stranger produced a tiny red case. He plucked the bit of light out of the air with his long, strange hand and shut it inside. I had been wrong about the lack of fingers, there were hundreds of them. Ponceau collapsed. The stranger tucked the case into his pocket.

He turned toward me and his steps quickened. I should have jumped into the river. It should have been today. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse pulse –

A shot rang out, breaking the stillness and the rhythm.

The stranger stumbled forward, landing on his knees. A mercurial flow spilled down the front of his shirt. He whispered again. A deafening throb wracked the air like a cannon fired in an enclosed space. Cathedral windows shattered. Gaslights blew. A rain of colored glass bit into my skin. A shuddering wave of violet engulfed the stranger, and then all that was left of him were his clothes.

I ran to Ponceau, glass crunching underfoot. I called to him and shook him but he made no response. His quick, shallow breaths slowed and sputtered. There was nothing I could do for him. Unless . . . I hobbled over and snatched up the stranger’s coat. It was ridiculously heavy and jingled as I wrapped it around my shoulders. Fumbling in the pockets, I found the red enamel case. My arthritic fingers grabbled back and forth over the tiny latch, but eventually it yielded to my efforts. Returning to Ponceau, I knelt and brushed away the stained glass from his face. Then I hesitated. How does one return this sort of thing to its rightful place? I thought perhaps to place the tiny sphere upon his forehead, but if it rolled off I was sure to lose it in the debris scattered around us.

Alarms sounded from the depths of the city. I looked up. Several faces peered from nooks and doorways, too curious to remain as hidden as common sense demanded. I took in the broken windows of Notre Dame, and Ponceau all but dead in the street. The gun smoked in his hand. Trouble was coming, and the thought of being at the mercy of the police terrified me. Opening his mouth, I tipped the case and heard the ball slide out and down into darkness. Someone shouted at me from the door of Ponceau’s bakery.

I fled.

As fast as old bones would allow, I ran back the way I had come, across the river, back to the barren shelter of Pont Neuf.

There in the dank shadows I cringed, my heart driving a wild staccato beneath my papery skin. A siren wailed overhead. Footsteps and horses clattered over the bridge. Shouts and tense conversations surged toward the damaged cathedral. The shame of leaving Ponceau crept up on me and settled like dead weight across my shoulders. After his years of kindness, how had I repaid him in the end? I clutched the pilfered coat to my bones. It was the first time I’d been warm in months. I sank to the ground, heedless of the filth.

The coat was lumpy.

My heart rose into my throat. I shrugged out of the welcome warmth and inched into the weak glow of the gaslight above. Then I spread the coat open on the ground in front of me. In the half light I noticed more than a hundred patch pockets sewn into the silk lining. My heart stammered and skipped as I slipped my fingers into one tiny pocket and pulled out a sterling pill box. My hands trembled.

I opened it.

A shimmering gob of hardened light lit up the gloom.

I snapped the pill box shut and set it aside. One by one I went through the pockets, unveiling tiny treasures. Pill boxes and snuff boxes of all sorts filled the lining of the garment, some sharing pockets, others not, and each one unique – silver, gold, brass, cloisonné, figural, painted, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, jeweled, enameled – a seemingly endless variety. Few were empty, and with each box I opened and each graceful light that warmed my face, I became more and more certain the stranger would return to reclaim what he had abandoned.

Eager for the warmth of the coat, I pulled it around me once more, thinking I had returned each box to its pocket. But I had neglected to put away the first pill box I had opened, and I carelessly stepped on it, breaking the latch. To my dismay the tiny ball of light rolled out of its silver cage and made good speed over the cobbles toward the river.

I scrambled to get ahead of it, but I was slow and clumsy, my old joints groaning as I clambered down onto my hands and knees. By some miracle, the ball did not drop into the water. Instead it came to rest of its own accord. That gave me pause, as the stone it sat upon was slanted.

Then the light rolled toward me.

Jerking back with a cry of surprise, I tumbled backward and landed hard. It rolled faster. I bit back a scream and turned away, hiding my face in my hands.

Fire ignited at the base of my skull. Shadows fled and the world flared bright as desert noon. I convulsed. There was no end to the sharp brightness and pain and I could not take a breath. A white tunnel expanded in my vision so that every detail of every stone and every ripple across the water stood out in my stark awareness. I sensed the undulating patterns in the lay of the stones, so like the shifting undulations of the river. Voices from the bridge above swirled and wavered in the air all around me. The patterns mixed and scraped against each other, changing each other and making new light. My empty stomach clenched. It seemed to go on for hours, and just when I thought I couldn’t stop my bile from rising, the world returned to its former state and achieved remarkable solidity.

There was a man standing over me. At the sight of his brass head and glass eyes, and the silver disc of his mouth, the terror I had been quashing was immediately released and I screamed.

He laughed.

Another, normal-looking, man appeared beside him and smiled down at me.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

The beast next to him said, “You must have fainted from fright.”

That’s when I realized the disc on the beast’s mouth said PARIS, and he was not the monster at all but a firefighter, a regular man complete with the correct number of fingers and a face made of flesh and blood hidden behind that mask. There was a lot going on above me on the bridge, and I saw the gaslight up there had exploded. I would have bet the last crumb in the city I had been the cause of that.

“Can I send for your father?” the man without the mask inquired.

Sure, I thought. If you can get a message to the bottom of the Channel. Sitting up, I saw my shoes were gone and I was covered in ash. My feet were different. Knots and gnarls had disappeared. I wiggled my toes to make sure they were mine. I hadn’t seen feet like that at the end of my legs in fifty years or more.

“Have you seen an old vagrant? Took your shoes, perhaps?”

“I – I didn’t see what happened,” I stammered as I realized the tangle of hair over my eyes was as blonde as it had been the day I was born. A wave of excitement flooded me, followed immediately by certain dread that the stranger would be back. A wealth of uncanny origin was secreted in this coat, as well as riches of a less startling variety. I stood up, helped by the men who had been kind enough to show concern for my well-being. Searching the receding shadows, I found what I was looking for, the silver glint of a pill box. Even in its broken state it was worth more money than I had seen in a decade.

I stared at it, turning it over in my hands.

It was food. Warmth. Right there in my grasp. I closed my hands tight around the empty box, reveling in the freedom it would bring, then I tucked it away in its proper pocket. When the markets opened, I would be the first in line. Today, for the first time in too many long years, I would have a real breakfast. Coffee. Bacon. Tartine. And I would take the longest bubble bath in the history of mankind. With real sprigs of lavender and perhaps even some of that green soap from Marseille.

Then I would find some means of protecting myself. I’d never shot a pistol. I wondered if there might be some other means of keeping safe.

The men were giving me curious looks and I was afraid they had seen the rags underneath the stranger’s rich garment, so I pulled it closed. Buttoning the morning coat was more difficult than it should have been. I slipped out of the bridge’s gloom to get a better look at what I was doing, surprised that my clumsiness had worsened even though my youth had been restored. What I saw stopped me cold.

My fingers had lengthened.

Pill Box

In this super-short tale of gaslight Paris, a homeless vagabond learns the ultimate lesson in stranger danger.

  • Author: Elle Hawken
  • Published: 2015-11-06 21:20:06
  • Words: 2298
Pill Box Pill Box