The Death Box
The box sat on the fifth shelf, on top of a backgammon board and a fat binder of abandoned drawings, nestled between a bronze statue of Diana, the Roman Goddess, and a thick paperback of poems by Pablo Neruda. If one wasn’t looking, one wouldn’t notice it.
Its clasp was a crescent fang, silver and rusted. Its body rough mahogany, weathered and stripped of shine. It was small, 5 x 7, and thin, as though to hold a string of pearls. It had no engravings or markings of any kind. But it was powerful. Trevor knew this. He knew this because every night, at midnight, his aunt would leave her bedroom, dressed in her best, careful to close her door with softness. She would descend the staircase, and like a long, silent shadow, move and enter her study. She would take the box from its place, tuck it like a babe into the nook of her thin, ebony arm, and she would leave the house. The front door would click tenderly behind her, and Trevor would not see her again until early morning, when she would return, quiet as a ghost, the box still tucked and held closely to her ribs.
The box only left the shelf at night. It only traveled and was touched by the hand of his aunt. He questioned his uncle about it. His uncle merely replied, “It is your Aunt Shanice’s business. Now, eat your breakfast.” He asked his cousins about it. They merely eyed him, and stated, “Don’t ask. And don’t say nothin’ else about it.” The box was unbeknownst to other relatives. A figment of his young, and perhaps troubled imagination. He thought of asking his aunt, for none would know better than she, but in attempt to approach her on the subject, he could not. She was tall, imposing. An aura exuded from her, like a mist. Her forehead was high. Her voice, thick and deep. She had the bearing of a pine, tall and revered by all seasons, unfazed by hot or cold, wind or stillness. In simplicity, he admired her, and in such admiration to question her upon anything made his chest constrict, his heart, pound. Would she be offended? Would she scoff? Trevor felt unimportant before her; a bird circling a mountain. So the box remained a mystery. A bit of romantic fascination and fear. What was his aunt doing so late in the night? Was she doing something wrong? He pondered and brooded.
You see, young individuals are full of strong desires, and curiosity is perhaps one of the stronger among them. And in certain individuals it is all consuming; a flame eating the wick of a candle, unable to be blown out, burning and burning on and on until it is forced to die. Trevor couldn’t stop thinking about it. He would stay up late into the night, tossing and turning in his bed, wondering. He documented. He observed. He spied. Out his window he would look and never see his aunt catch a cab. Get in her car. Meet or speak with anyone. Silent, her heels clicking, she would simply walk down their front walk, turn onto the sidewalk, and at the corner, Trevor would lose sight of her as she passed behind the oak tree. And then, she never appeared again. Vanishing until early morn, and like a trick, she would reappear, her heels clicking, her stride still gallant, long and sweeping. It was almost a strange kind of magic; haunting and unreal. He had examined that oak tree. He had walked that sidewalk. He had tried in vain to unravel the mystery. But, there was still one thing he hadn’t done, hadn’t tried. He made a plan.
Skipping school, he hurried home, his backpack bobbing, his heart thundering. He moved through neighbors’ lawns and backyards, hiding behind bushes, ducking behind cars and sheds. He was desperate not to be seen. This was the day he would know, know something that had been scratching at his insides like a mad cat. He would check the garage, to make extra sure his uncle and aunt were both gone at their separate work. He would enter through the backdoor quietly, to be cautious. He would go to his aunt’s study, something he had never done, for he had never been allowed to do it unless accompanied by his aunt or uncle. And he would take the box from its resting place. He would kneel and set it down upon the Barcelona rug that covered the majority of the room, and he would open it. Gaze into its bowels and maybe, just maybe, understand the nebulousness.
After checking the garage, by the time he opened the backdoor, his skin was pelleted in sweat. No one was home, yet still, he feared of being caught. So Trevor tip-toed, rather like a burglar (his imagination brimming), to the study door. Breath catching in his throat, he clasped the handle, and turned it. It was silent, and smoothly, silently, the door opened. He entered, feeling a thrill, and closed the door behind him. To the bookcase where the box sat he went. His eyes tilted up towards the shelf, and reaching, as though he were about to place his hands upon an ancient, holy object, he lifted the box down from its perch. His breathing intensifying, his chest feeling as though it might burst from the swelling of eagerness and wonder and slight terror, he licked his lips and knelt, setting the box down upon the rug. He gazed upon it, the clasp innocent and undaunting. The box simple and plain. But the hairs on his neck stood up. The quiet of the room unnerved him, and he was as sensitive as a deer to all around him. He put his fingers around the box’s corners, ran his fingers along its sides, and then, swiftly and suddenly, he opened it.
Voices, dozens and hundreds and perhaps thousands of voices, filled the room. It was a cacophony, loud and roaring. Voices crying. Voices praying. Voices laughing. Voices soft. Voices yelling. He fell backward, covering his ears to stop the noise to no avail, heart pulsating and going wild as he looked about. The room was empty. The voices bellowed, overlapping each other and overwhelming. The box sat empty and motionless upon the floor. He was flooded with confusion and horror. A thin, long hand reached down, picked up the box, and looking up he saw his aunt standing next to him. Gently, she shut the lid, and the voices, stopped.
Mortified and frozen, Trevor watched her wordlessly walk to her desk, and gawked as she placed the box upon it. As she turned back to him he scrambled to his feet. So startled and afraid he was, he noticeably shook. What had happened? Was he in trouble? Had she heard the voices? He quivered, his words and explanations and questions caught inside him. His stomach twisting like a wet rag being wrung.
His aunt, smiled at him, and he felt his breath begin to return. She ran her hand over the lid of the box, and sighed.
“I knew,” she said, her rich voice a purr, like a lioness in human form, or a wolf, “I knew that you would crack. Your uncle, now he thought time and opposition would wane you. But I knew. I knew you could not be sated. Not until you had a peek.”
“I’m so sorry Aunt Shanice.” Trevor breathed, “I didn’t mean – I mean, I didn’t want -”
His aunt raised her hand, halting his bumbling. “Oh, you are but a child, Trevor. A child of my sister, no less. Your curiosity is understandable. Your ambition, and disregard for rules and warnings, expected. In fact, I think I should have been disappointed if you hadn’t tried, for an individual with no interest in secrets is hardly an individual at all. The drive to see, to touch, smell, hold, examine; it is the drive to know. To acquire knowledge. To understand. This is good. In need of guidance, yes, and self-regulation, but overall good. I am not angry with you. You can stop looking so scared.”
Trevor at last broke into a smile, a huge gasp entering him as he sighed, and walked over to his aunt, who put her arm around him. She patted his shoulder, and Trevor’s gaze turned to the box.
“You want to know what’s in it. What it is.”
“I heard voices. Really loud voices.” Trevor said, head still reeling.
“Yes.” His aunt confirmed. “Many, many voices. The voices of the dead. Their last words that they instilled to me in their final moments, before parting from the world.”
Trevor’s brows pinched. His thoughts were jumbled up with emotion. Unsure, he looked into the eyes of his aunt, the wisest woman he had ever met. At his expression, she laughed.
“I do not believe I have ever seen such a look on your face.” she said, “Skeptical, are we?”
“A little.” he said.
“A lot.” she corrected, to which he conceded. “Here,” she said tenderly, and handed him the box, “You open this now. You open it and see.”
Trepid, Trevor gripped the box. An anxiety filled him again. The voices of the dead? He looked again to his aunt, who gave him a reassuring nod. And carefully, slowly, he opened it.
A voice, that of a man’s, filled the room. But it wasn’t the room, not really. It was more like it filled his head, like it was resonating from somewhere inside him. It came muddied at first, as though acquiring a signal, and then, he could hear. He listened.
“That day, was the greatest day of my life. But I didn’t know it at the time. I thought that was it. That’s the end. I couldn’t imagine me loving anyone else but her. Couldn’t imagine a life without her. I was young, of course, but that didn’t mean nothing to me at the time. We broke up and, God’s truth, I thought about killing myself. Cried in my bed at night for days. Never told my friends that. Didn’t want them to think I was, well, you know. I was a boy and all. Full of big feelings and foolish ideas.’
“But it was the greatest day of my life, because it made the day I met Anne the magic that it was. I feel other men, who are smitten with their wives, would say that the day they met their wife was the best day of their lives. But not me. Nope. Because, I realized, chances are, I might have met Anne anyway, but, if Mary and me hadn’t of broken up, my first meeting with Anne would have been nothing compared to what it was. What I’m trying to say is that, that the bad times are good. Because they make the good times better. Because they wisen you up. You have to first feel small to feel how big and amazing the world is, and how big and amazing the people in it are. Anne was the most amazing person I ever met. The most amazing person I have ever had the privilege of knowing. And I love her. I love her with all my heart. And it breaks my heart knowing that I’m going first. That I’m leaving, because, any heaven without Anne ain’t a heaven at all. So, what I’m saying is, what I’m suddenly just now thinking, realizing is… Maybe this is a good thing. Because, when she finally kicks the bucket, which, I can’t imagine anything conquering that woman, not even time but, when she finally kicks it, well, heaven is gonna get a whole like brighter. It takes a shadow to see the glory of the sun, ya know? Does, does that make sense?”
Trevor shut the box, his eyes wide. He stood, leaning against the desk, stunned. Noticing his aunt smiling warmly at him, he hastily grunted, composing himself. He took several deep breaths, searching for words, things to ask. But, none came. His aunt, lovingly, ran her fingers through his thick, curly black hair.
“Sometimes people want to impart some wisdom before they go. Sometimes, they can find no words, and simply cry. Some are full of gratitude. Some are lonely. But, they all have something to say. Not all of them do, mind you, but most. Some give words of warning, others, words of encouragement. Some complain, and some wax on and on until they’re cut short. Those ones require multiple visits, and though they mean well, it’s usually just ego.” his aunt smirked, and the corner of Trevor’s lip curled into a smile. “But, many just want to give a little bit of something true. Like etching their name on a tree or rock. To show that they were here. That they had lived. Not all of them feel they did well. Some feel they did too well, and regret not having treasured the small of life. All deserve to have a say; a say in what it was like, what it was like to be alive. And that’s what I do. I listen. I see. I obtain knowledge. I’ve always been curious about people, and, when I say people, I of course mean an accumulation of persons, which is all ‘people’ is. We often forget that. Like the ocean we see ourselves as a mass unit, yet, that is hardly the case. A person’s last words, that is something special. Because it is the end. All has happened. A big, wide nothing awaits before you. We can’t really prepare for where we are going, but one tries. And that’s what last words are. The final attempt. All has led up to that moment, before the plunge, and last words are the breath we take before we are submerged into the dark. I think they are important. I think they are meaningful. So I collect them. That is where I go in the night. That is what this box is. An archive. Wisdom. So I keep it secret, and safe. For as long as I can. But, nothing is absolute. Someday, it will get out there. And when it does, I want it to be so full, that maybe, just maybe, we may nestle ourselves under the wing of Truth. And understand. And know.”
Trevor gazed, listened, enraptured, so full of awe and emotion. His aunt was high, like a pyre, a spire that rose above him, great and powerful and brilliant. With her buzzed hair and large, hoop earrings, she looked like a goddess from a forgotten time. He had a thought, that he wanted to be her someday. Wanted to be like her, that is. Full of purpose. Things he could be proud of. How did one become like that? He thought about life, and how much he still had ahead of him. What was possible? What wasn’t? What mattered? What didn’t? His brain turned over and over again, as though he was kneading dough. He suddenly wanted to make something of himself. Not just acquire things, like video games or a car or a place to call his own, but he wanted to be someone. To represent something. But what? His mind suddenly swerved towards something else, and his chest, filled with a flutter. A wondering.
“Yes, what is it?” she responded kindly.
“In your box,” he began, timid, “It’s full of people’s last words.”
“Yes.” she said.
“So, are my mom and dad’s in there?”
His aunt, for the first time in his memory, looked unsure. She hesitated, distress of a kind lightly tinted in her dark, oval eyes. Tenderly, she took the box from him, looking down upon its cover. She ran her fingers, delicately over the lid, clearly thinking of many things, though Trevor was unsure of what. And then she turned to him. She placed her hand upon his shoulder, and knelt before him, holding the box. They looked into each other’s eyes. Trevor wanted to know.
His aunt, smiled, in her graceful way.
“I said you were a child earlier, and you are, in ways. But you are also getting older. In two years or so you’ll be in high school. You are growing up. Part of growing up, is surrendering to inalienable truths.” she paused, “But, it is also the best time to understand. I do have your mother’s last words, in a way. The way that they died, well, it made it difficult to speak. Yet, sometimes, a person can still give. Your mother, she could only think of one thing before she died. That thought, is in this box.” Shanice took a breath, as though not sure she was making the right decision. “You must decide, if you want to see it or not. I can’t make such a decision for you. Do you understand?”
Again, fear. Trevor thought of everything. Everything he could. All he had to draw on. His fear was overwhelming. The last time he saw his mother, they had had a fight. He had done the wrong things and she had said the wrong things and they left each other angry, never to see one another again. He regretted that day so much it hurt. He thought about all that his aunt had said about last words. All the good and the bad. He feared the bad, so much.
But then the voice of the dying man entered his mind. That the bad was a necessary part of the good. He thought of his aunt, and how she said a person seeks, has a desire to see, and that is how one comes to understand. He thought of every brave thing he ever did, and how before he did those things, he was filled with fear. Sometimes, they weren’t worth it. Sometimes they were. Like today. Today was worth it. Today had, quite possibly, been the best day of his life.
“I want to see it.” Trevor said. “I don’t know if it’s the right choice. But, I want to see it.”
Wordlessly, his aunt, lifted the box.
“When I open it, gaze into the opening. And you will see your mother’s last words.”
The world narrowed in this moment, tunnel vision; all Trevor could see was the box. His heart pounded. Afraid, but hopeful, eager to see.
He licked his lips, and the box, opened. There was green. Trees. A little boy, ran through the park, leaping and bounding. He was happy. He ran to the swing-set, clutched the chain in his hand. He leapt into the seat, his legs quickly pumping back and forth, the boy ascending higher and higher into the air. He let out a shrill laugh, just like Trevor’s, and the voice of his mother cried with joy, “Look at you go! My beautiful brave boy!”
And Trevor knew joy. True joy, for the first time in his life. He was sure of it. Tears, flew freely from his eyes. The son jumped off the swing, and son and mother embraced.
“I love you, Trevor.”
“I love you, Mommy.”
I love you.