Monday, April 26, 2021


(This article was originally published in Antipodean Sci Fi Issue 270 in March 2021.  You can read a digital version of the original story here at the Antipodean Sci Fi Archives here:

Grade six summer camp was always the same. Rustic cabins set in a rural or semi-rural landscape. To a gaggle of angsty pre-teen city kids forcibly separated from our Playstations — it was a fresh kind of hell. Daily activities like bush walking and horse riding existed solely to be endured rather than enjoyed.

James Patrik The Box

The ordeal of this enforced excursion was softened somewhat by the presence of most of my buddies from school. Nicholas Dobson (whose father was having an affair), Michael Cacciatore (whose parents were in the middle of an awful divorce) and Ross Coleman (whose mother took lithium to stabilise her mood).

The first night unfolded mostly without incident. We all ate dinner in a communal mess hall, almost fifty kids all told, boys and girls alike. Unsurprisingly, the food was less than stellar. We often imagined it was surplus from an insane asylum or a nearby men’s prison. Afterwards, there was a giant campfire that made my clothes smell like smoke. I roasted a marshmallow on a stick, not fully comprehending the appeal of the charred, sugary snack served atop a twig.

Lights out was at 10 pm. We slept on ramshackle bunkbeds with mattresses covered in vinyl thick enough to withstand even the most voluminous quantities of urine. The girls and boys were housed in separate cabins and I was lucky enough to be with my friends. Ignoring our curfew, most of us would stay up late into the night, illuminated by flashlight, talking about the kinds of things that could only seem important before puberty.

It was here that our conversation inevitably wound its way towards ghost stories and other tales of the macabre. Our camp in particular was the alleged setting for a particularly bizarre tale in which a camp counsellor had “gone wrong”. Using a cardboard box to conceal his face, he roamed the grounds at night, viciously assaulting campers.

Following a shaving cream attack on the second night by Domenic Bordignon and his goons, my cabin mates and I decided it was high time for some hijinks of our own. On the third night, after lights out, our preparations began in earnest. Clad in our pyjamas and sleepwear, we would burst into the girl’s cabin, brandishing our flashlights, intending to terrify and startle them in any way possible.

Always resourceful, Alex Vasquez (whose mother had committed suicide) had swiped a nondescript cardboard box from the kitchen after dinner. Using a thick black marker, he quickly drew a simple smiley face — two eyes and a mouth — and placed it atop Nick’s head.

Sat on a chair, Nick abruptly froze — his shoulders suddenly going limp. Michael saw the tiny performance unfold and let out an involuntary chortle which soon faded, giving way to stunned silence. Emerging from the bathroom, Ross re-entered the room confused by the surreal scene taking place. Nick Dobson with a box atop his head, now sat seemingly unresponsive while Michael, Alex and I looked on bemused. 

Now inverted atop his head, the smiley face Alex had crudely drawn formed a sickly frown that seemed to stare at us, mockingly. Resembling a puppet with its strings cut, we all wondered if this performance was part of Nick’s sick sense of humour. Was he messing with us?


Michael was the first to call out to him, his prepubescent voice quavering with growing concern. Nick sat there, motionless, frowny box atop his head for what seemed like minutes before someone (I don’t remember who) uttered the obligatory “this isn’t funny anymore”. The universal catchcry of the frightened when a joke has overstepped its bounds.

Weary of this grim jest, Ross crouched before Nick’s chair, locking eyes with his cardboard avatar. In one swift movement Nick suddenly extended one arm, then another, wrapping his hands around Ross’s throat. Startled, the rest of us failed to react out of pure shock, but quickly piled upon Ross, attempting to break Nick’s vice like grip upon his trachea. 

No luck. Nick’s powerful hold was immovable — even the three of us combined couldn’t pry his hands away from Ross whose face was now rapidly turning red. Nick stood up, his movements robotic and his grip unyielding, as Ross’s feet collapsed beneath him. The frowning face of the cardboard box seemed to leer at him, challenging him to fight back as he gasped for air, his cries for help nothing more than the muffled sounds of strangulation.

It was Alex who finally came to his senses, letting go of Nick’s hands and quickly tearing the cardboard box from his head. As he did so, Nick collapsed into a heap, as Ross, red faced and teary eyed, heaved and thrashed on the floor as he finally inhaled his life saving breath.

Too scared to call for the camp counsellors, we carried Nick to the nearest bed where he slept for many hours. When he awoke, he didn’t remember any of what had happened, least of all trying to throttle one of his friends.

Even as young men, we had been well programmed to follow the dictates of rigid male stoicism. Accordingly, we never spoke much about that night in the months and years that followed. Though he forgave him completely, Ross certainly always looked at Nick askance. Privately, I suppose we all suspected that we’d been party to some kind of paranormal incident, that the box itself had imparted some manner of demonic permission, that Nick had been possessed, infected or unduly influenced. We wanted to believe that the entire occurrence was the purview of some dark agent from beyond the veil, something or someone outside of human influence.

The truth was something far more sinister. A frightening childhood lesson on the power of masks, whether literal or figurative. You see, when we examined the box, it was simply that — pieces of folded cardboard with an inverted smiley face drawn upon it.

It was just a box, nothing more.


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