From Matt about writing The Sandbox: I hated sandboxes when I was a kid. Then one day I decided, it’s time to face the hate. It’s time to step into the sandbox. And voilà.
Written by Matt Duggan
I am sitting at my desk with my pen hovering above this opened notebook. “Time is such a thief,” I think to myself as I look at the pages full of my history. And then I glance up, look out the window onto the long grassy slope of the back property, and there I see the young boy. He has made his way through the column of thick pine trees and he has climbed up onto the one well-worn branch that provides the only unobstructed view of my home and its hidden surroundings. He has fixed his stare on the centerpiece of my wide, well-groomed landscape: the sandbox.
I set down my pen and take a deep, lamenting breath. Here is the little boy. It starts all over again. But, for the purposes of this story, I must start from the beginning.
And the beginning concerns another little boy named Gregory Baiston, who lived a quiet life with his mother and father. All were happy, and more importantly, all were healthy.
Gregory was eleven years of age. He was reclusive by choice and by necessity. He enjoyed his own company and he was mercilessly bullied at school. Gregory was also compulsively curious, like most other little boys.
What most roused Gregory’s curiosity was the mansion at the end of his street, which nobody knew anything about because it was hidden behind an imposing curtain of tall, old pine trees that ringed the entire property. The thick rigid trees shot sky high and lined up shoulder-to-shoulder like a security force.
Gregory passed one particular section of the pines each day on his way home from school. The sidewalk abruptly ended as the road veered left. The sidewalk became a dirt path, went on for about twenty yards, then met with the road and turned to concrete sidewalk again. No cars passed along this stretch. It only led to a cul-de-sac, where Gregory’s home was. This was his own little adventure trail.
At first Gregory only slowed his pace as he neared this spot of pines. He would glance into the crowded darkness and see whatever information he could: How far in did the pines go? Was there a fence somewhere back there? What if he just stepped into the first couple of trees?
That last thought piqued his curiosity and it soon turned into a self-dare.
Gregory went from light to shadow immediately. The trees creaked as a cold wind rustled through their high branches. He was only a few feet from the path. What if he took two more steps into the pines? There was no danger; he could always run right back out.
Two steps led to two steps, which led to two more steps.
Soon the young boy was squeezing between trunks, his skin rubbing against the bark. Not only were the trees so closely bunched, but their branches all stuck out like bayonets. Several times a branch jabbed Gregory in the ribs as he pushed himself past another tree trunk.
Just when his fears began to triumph over his curiosity, at the moment when Gregory knew he’d gone too far, he caught sight of the pale blue sky peeking out from behind the trees up ahead.
There was one particular tree branch. It wasn’t gnarled and pointy like the others. This branch was smooth and worn down as if it had been treated with oil. Its end was dulled. It was just high enough for Gregory to climb onto. So he did.
When he stood on this first branch, he saw a second branch, just slightly higher and just as inviting.
Gregory followed a succession of branches until suddenly he stood on one last branch, thicker and flatter than the others. Gregory hugged the cold trunk of the tree and looked onto a beautiful mansion atop a vast lush carpet of grass. The house had enough rooms to sleep the entire town.
More beautiful than the mansion was the property on which it sat: the grass was greener than a crayon, without one dead blade. There were several bubbling fountains on the edges; brick walls lined the perimeter; an array of flowers and flowering trees were dotted throughout.
In the center of the great lawn was a black-marbled sandbox. It was the most curious and inviting thing Gregory had ever seen.
“Hey! Get down from there right now!”
Gregory nearly fell from the branch. He froze; his heart pounding like a fist punching through his chest.
“Please. I didn’t mean to startle you. But you must come down. It’s dangerous; you might fall.” Gregory turned his eyes downward and stole a look: At the foot of the tree stood a man who looked about the same age as Gregory’s father. He smiled up, like a school teacher encouraging a child back to the classroom after recess.
“You are quite an explorer to navigate through those old trees,” the man said as he took Gregory’s hand and helped him down from the last branch. “What’s your name?”
There was a trust and kindness in the man’s hand.
“Would you like to take a closer look?” He asked.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to…I wasn’t snooping.” Gregory stammered, still nervous at being caught.
“It’s quite alright,” the man replied. “I once did exactly the same thing as you.”
The man knelt down on one knee and looked Gregory in the eyes.
”My name is Robert, and it is a great pleasure to meet you. You are an impressive young man. You found the one branch that offers a view onto our private sanctuary. You are brave and curious.”
Robert gave his guest a tour of the property: they walked through the Japanese garden, climbed along several of the old moss-covered brick walls and watched the frogs floating in the small lily-covered pools of the water fountains. They passed a clay tennis court on the side of the mansion where a vigorous and youthful couple was in the middle of a heated match. They briefly stopped and enthusiastically waved up to Robert and Gregory. Robert smiled and told him that they were his parents. It was odd, because they looked to be Robert’s age. But Gregory didn’t think much more of it; he wanted to continue with the tour.
Robert intentionally avoided the sandbox, which only further piqued Gregory’s curiosity. At each stop along the way, his attention turned to the sandbox. Its black marble siding glistened like an eye; the sand looked like a virgin beach waiting for its first footprints.
“Would you like to see it?” Robert looked down at Gregory, who was staring at the sandbox. Gregory nodded his head “yes” with delight.
The black marble edging was cool and smooth to the touch. “I could invent so many fun games here”, Gregory thought. “How fun, and no other boys around to bother me, or bully me.” He kneeled down for a closer look as he gazed at the sand. He stretched out his hand to touch it.
Robert seized Gregory’s hand and stopped him. “No! Not yet.” Gregory looked up at Robert, frightened. Startled tears formed in the corners of his eyes. Robert kneeled down next to the boy as he tightened his grip. “Listen to me, and listen well. Your life and your parents’ lives depend on it. Do you hear me?”
Gregory’s wrist felt as if it was breaking. He couldn’t breathe; he was drowning under water. He choked for breaths.
“This sandbox is alive. Each grain is a tormented soul who needs to feed on life to ease its torment. Your curiosity brought you to the sandbox. You are to be their new guardian.”
Gregory had closed his eyes but he could hear Robert’s deep, ferocious breaths that sounded like a firestorm in his ears.
“Look at me,” Robert said in a grave voice. Once, when Gregory was five years old, he had fallen off the jungle gym and he had landed on his head. For an instant, he thought he’d broken his neck. There was an all-consuming fear that electrified his body and mind. He felt that fear all over again as he looked into Robert’s narrowed eyes.
“You’re too young to understand, so you will experience what I’m telling you.” And as quick as lightning, Robert thrust Gregory’s hand into the sand.
Immediately Gregory felt a thousand needled teeth biting into the very fingerprint folds of each finger. Razors were peeling back each layer of skin with excruciating care. Gregory screamed with such force that he thought his eyes were going to burst. Blood began to run down his nose.
Robert patted Gregory’s forehead with a handkerchief as Gregory lay flat on the grass, his sightless eyes staring up at splotches of gray clouds skulking past. He had passed out.
“You are now in charge of the sandbox. You are responsible. You must feed it. Human flesh. Young flesh. Boys and girls.”
Robert folded the handkerchief, put it back in his pocket, then hoisted Gregory to his feet.
“Time moves quickly, you must not hesitate. This is your responsibility. You must feed them. Once a month.”
Gregory ran home in a panic. He stopped two times along the way and vomited. His knees felt as though they would crumble beneath him at any moment.
He burst through the front door and zoomed past his mother who quipped, “Not even a hello?” Gregory ran upstairs and dived beneath his bed covers. He curled up in a ball and cried as he wished he’d never set foot into those pine trees.
The scared boy feigned illness for two weeks. He wouldn’t get out of bed. He thought that if he stayed there, maybe everything that had occurred would turn out to be make-believe.
Soon the days and hours melted into each other, and Gregory began to have mild hallucinations. He confused real events with imaginary ones. “Did the doctor visit and take my temperature?” he asked himself. “Did mom make me chicken soup this morning?” He convinced himself that perhaps it was a terrible nightmare. Perhaps the sandbox was nothing.
But then his father fell ill. It happened quickly, and it was severe. At first, Gregory’s father had become sick at work. He came home early one day with a harsh cough that he described as a painful dry scratching, as if his throat were lined with sandpaper. Soon after that, he was coughing up black clots of blood, and he had trouble breathing. He was taken to the emergency room and for two days tests were administered. Then sections of his forearms began to dry up and flake, like animal skin curing in the sun. Soon all his skin was flaking and peeling off.
Gregory’s father was dying, and the doctors couldn’t diagnose the cause. He was brought home. Twenty-four hour nursing care was provided for him.
Gregory hid beneath the covers in his bed and listened to the hushed whispers of the nurses consulting with his mother in the hallway. He listened to the whirs and beeps of the medical machines keeping his dad alive in his parents’ bedroom.
One afternoon, while the nurses were downstairs, Gregory slipped out of bed. He was curious to see what his father looked like.
Gregory thought a vacuum had sucked out all of his father’s blood; his skin stretched thinly across his face. Mr. Baiston’s arms, legs and torso were all bandaged, but blood seeped through the dressings. There was a blue trashbag full of blood-soaked linens near the bed. And as Gregory stood there, quivering as he stared at his father, he heard faint moans. With each struggling breath, Gregory’s father whispered. The son leaned close and placed his ear near his father’s mouth. With each breath came a pleading cry for help.
It was too much; the frightened child quietly back-stepped away. He needed to get back to his own bed so that he could return to an imaginary world where these horrors didn’t exist.
And then Gregory stopped with a wince. He thought he’d stepped on glass as he lifted up his bare foot.
Beneath it was a small pile of sand.
The next day Gregory’s mother was rushed to the hospital. She quickly fell into the same grave condition as his father.
A feral cat used to live in the basement of Gregory’s home. She used to curl up on her little bed and let him stroke the fur behind her ears. He had named her Tabitha. She loved to prowl up to the broken dirt-covered basement window, slink between the shards of glass, then jump onto the washing machine inside. Then she leapt onto the basement floor and walked over to her bed of discarded blankets. She would arch her back, then settle in and gaze up at Gregory as if saying: I’m ready for a petting now.
As Gregory hustled through the pine trees his stomach hurt and ached as if his sorrows were trying to claw their way out.
He dragged the heavy laundry bag behind him. It bounced and jolted every step of the way. A terrified hissing and whining came out with each step that Gregory took. It made him angry because he was so helpless; he knocked the laundry bag against the hard tree trunks. He wished that it would be quiet. He wished that he’d never given it a name.
As time passed, much was explained to Gregory. He slowly settled into his new reality and his new life. He accepted his fate. He had no choice. Robert was patient with him. “Animals do not do the trick,” he told the young guardian. “In fact, they are an offense.”
Gregory was standing at the edge of the sandbox, the empty laundry bag in his hand.
“Human flesh. Young flesh. That is what they require.”
Robert let Gregory cry until he was too tired to resist anymore. The emotional exhaustion was needed for Gregory to let go, to listen, and more importantly, to act. Time was invaluable and Gregory was behind schedule.
The lush landscape was turning brown. The flowers stopped blooming. The water fountains were dry.
“The sandbox is just the door. Beneath the ground, the Tormented are everywhere. When they are not satisfied, everything is affected.”
As Gregory listened, he felt eyes staring through him. He quickly turned and looked up at the Victorian home. On the third floor, peering out from behind a thick gold and red curtain, was a gaunt, frail woman. She bared her teeth as she pointed a crooked finger at Gregory, then she whipped the curtain shut.
When Gregory dumped the cat into the sandbox, he froze at the events that unfolded next. It was as if two worlds simultaneously appeared before him. One world was the ordinary world. And that was the world of a cat landing on sand. Gregory thought that this must be what the naked eye of a stranger would see. But then there was the second world, the world that Gregory was privy to. Gregory could see each individual tormented soul. A mother can see things in her child that no other person would ever perceive. It’s an extra-sensory perception. This was the only analogy that Gregory could draw for seeing the unseen. Terrible twisted faces with thin razor teeth, gnashing and angry. There were legions of these monstrous devils. As the cat was pulled into the depths of the sand, it was skinned alive. Its body turned inside out. Sand forced itself out of the cat’s eye sockets, out of its ears. A bloody animal skeleton disappeared beneath the sand. But this did not suffice, at all.
The first boy was not as difficult for Gregory as Tabitha was. His name was Billy. He was two years older than Gregory and he was a bully. Every morning before the school bell rang he circled around Gregory and pegged him with a tennis ball. “Bean ball.” Gregory would come home covered in welts but he never told his parents. He was deeply embarrassed and he didn’t want to upset them.
One day Gregory told Billy that he knew where there was a buried treasure and that he would show him after school if Billy could keep it a secret. As proof, Gregory opened his hand and showed the bully two pearl earrings and a diamond necklace. “There is a whole chest full of this,” Gregory whispered. “I need someone to help me dig it up. I can’t do it alone.”
Billy teetered on the black marble of the sandbox and was practically hyperventilating with excitement. Firstly, he was proud of himself for getting through the forest of pines, arguably his greatest fear. Secondly, he was now staring at a mound of sand that contained a treasure chest somewhere inside. He pushed Gregory down onto the grass and warned, “I’ll deal with you later.” Then he picked up the shovel and leapt into the sandbox.
The screams were were deafening. And the whole process went slowly. Tabitha was pulled under quickly compared to Billy. It was painfully slow. Excruciatingly slow. Billy cried. He outstretched his hand and begged to be saved. Gregory reached his hand forward and snatched his mother’s two pearl earrings and diamond necklace from Billy’s hand.
After another several minutes, Gregory picked up the shovel and whacked Billy over the head. He was still sticking out of the sand from the chest up, and his pitiful cries were distressing. The shovel crushed against his head, stunning him into silence. His eyes glazed over with terror. He looked at Gregory even more desperately, then he doubled his cries for help.
Gregory wound up the shovel for a second strike but Robert grabbed the wood handle.
“He must be alive.” He took the shovel from Gregory and set it aside.
Robert was happy. He tussled Gregory’s hair and invited him inside for cake. But Gregory was so nervous about the screaming. It echoed everywhere and it was really loud. Robert took his hand and explained that the pines soak up the screams. “That’s their job.”
“Come, let’s have some cake and ice cream. I’d like to introduce you to my parents. They are excited to meet you.”
They walked up the stone walkway toward the big Victorian house. “One day this will all be yours.”
I look around the library now, at the shelves full of notebooks. I glance out the window again. The boy is still there, transfixed. Just as I was that first day.
I sign my name at the bottom of the last page of my notebook, “Gregory Baiston.” I close the cover and slide it onto the bookshelf right next to Robert’s notebook. I must go outside now. I will walk out the side door off the pantry and I will sneak up behind the boy to make sure that he doesn’t run away before I’m able to touch his hand.
I pause for one last moment before I leave. “Time,” I think to myself, “the thief.” I take one second to consider it all. From the dining room at the other end of the house I hear the faint sound of waltz music. My parents are dancing. They dance every day.
It is time now to help that little boy down from the branch.
Matt Duggan is an award-winning writer and film director. His first feature film Inverse, which he wrote and directed, has won numerous awards including, “Best Sci-Fi Narrative Feature Film” at the 2015 Philip K. Dick Film Festival; “Best Sci-Fi Feature Film” at the 2014 Cinevision Film Festival; and “Best Sci-Fi Feature Film” at the 2014 Eugene International Film Festival.
Matt is also the creator of two award-winning web series: Man Vs. and Not Suitable For Work. He’s also had several of his short stories appear in publications including The Menacing Hedge, The Literary Hatchet, as well as October Ghosts.
An early career highlight for Matt was being invited to participate in Marlon Brando’s documentary on acting entitled Lying For a Living. Spending two weeks with Marlon Brando and company that included Robin Williams, Michael Jackson, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Philippe Petit was an honor and a career highlight.
Currently Matt is working on his first novel, Ostraca. It’s a wild heart-sung adventure about a young man’s wrestling match with meaning and existence.