The box rested in Emily’s hand. Mud speckled her arms and her face and snarled her hair. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes as she examined it, how intensely her gaze scoured the surface as though its contents could save her.
Porter leaned against a nearby tree – and this too I remember clearly – because his arms were crossed and his head was turned.
The box was a rectangular affair, as they often are. Back then, it looked blank. I know better now. It’s lid wouldn’t come off.
“It’s aliens,” she said.
“Aliens aren’t real,” Porter scoffed. He kicked at a stone, affecting an air of disinterest, a false confidence held only by pre-pubescent teens with far too much testosterone for their own good.
I didn’t believe in aliens, but I did believe in Emily. You couldn’t help but trust her; every word was electric with her own spellbinding confidence. It seemed impossible that Porter could ignore her.
“How will you open it?” I asked. Oh, how I captured the essence of the moment! So succinct was that sentence, so vital. Although I would not grasp the ramifications of my words until much too late.
Her scrawny limbs quivered with the effort of prying the lid off. Porter laughed and she glared at him. “Get me a hammer.”
“No, you won’t get that lid off.”
“Don’t want to.”
“Then get me a hammer.”
He pried himself off the tree. “I’m going home.”
“Adam, you get me a hammer.”
I jumped a little, surprised. “Okay.”
Emily’s mother stuck her head out the screen door that opened onto the back yard. “Emily! It’s time to take your medicine!”
The box disappeared into Emily’s house, where it ended up on a shelf in her basement and I soon forgot about it.
I think it was high school when I next saw the box. Maybe middle school? At least four years had passed in any case. We were in Emily’s basement, me and Porter and her. Porter had grown taller, he had to duck beneath the insulated pipes along the ceiling. He played tennis. He walked with long, deliberate strides.
Emily sat on his lap, and he on a tattered couch they found on the side of the road. Porter absentmindedly brushed the hospital band on her wrist. I sat on an armchair across from them. Her messy brown hair did a poor job disguising the red scar on the side of her neck. The stitches had only just come out last week. I must remember her eyes were the same, even though there were bags beneath them.
“Oh, look at this,” Emily said, springing out of Porter’s arms and swiping the box from where it rested on her workbench next to a large microscope and a smattering of screwdrivers and wrenches.
“You kept that?” Porter laughed. “It’s useless.”
“No, it’s not.” Her eyes burned. “I can’t even scratch it. Totally unbreakable. And it’s got these really small carvings all over it.”
Porter snatched the box from her hand and peered at it. “You’re mind must be going, Emily.”
And the room fell silent.
“Emily, I didn’t mean that,” Porter scrambled. For a moment, we all saw through his nonchalance to his terror, but he pulled the veil once more across his face.
I interrupted. “Have you tried laser-based spectroscopy? For the box?”
They looked at me. I hadn’t said a word for the last hour we had been together. Porter laughed at me, but Emily was just curious. “No, I haven’t. What is it?”
“Mr. Dimmock has a setup for it. I’ll show you how to use it, if you want.”
For the next year Emily was a regular fixture in the chemistry lab. Often I would just sit and watch her watch the box. She was never frustrated, even though she tried every tool in the lab without success. After that year, her hospital visits became so frequent that she didn’t have the time any more.
I graduated and left for tech school. Emily stayed. I lasted a week before I called.
“Adam?” she said.
I held the phone closer to my ear so I could hear every word, every catch in her voice, every lilting syllable. “Emily? How are you.”
“I’m good, how are you?” She laughed.
I wasn’t laughing. “I meant really.”
“So did I. How was the first week of college?”
“Good. Fine. I’m worried about you.”
We grew silent. I changed the subject. “Have you made any progress on the box?”
“I have, actually.” Even though we were 2,000 miles apart I could still see her eyes dance, a smile flicker across her face. “The designs are so intricate. I haven’t found a pattern yet, but I know I’m close. Porter thinks I’m crazy, the amount of time I spend on it.”
“Didn’t you hear? He’s staying back home.”
“I can’t believe he’s doing this all for me. He’s not even going to school. Got a job.”
“That’s really nice of him.”
“I spend the whole day looking at the box sometimes. It’s not even about the lid anymore, I don’t think. I run my hands across the designs and I feel like I’m getting there, like there’s a word on the tip of my tongue.”
We were silent. I had run out of things to say.
“Hey, Adam?” Emily asked.
“If I -”
“If I get too sick, I want you to have the box. I want you to figure out what’s inside of it for me.”
A month later I got a package in the mail. There was a note on the outside, her once steady handwriting now trembling. “Here’s to words on the tips of our tongues. Good luck Adam.”
I spent every waking hour with the box. Under a high powered microscope, I could see Emily was right about the designs. Swirling notches carved into the unbreakable material. I would lose myself in them as they fractured and spun, like the swirling of stars on a cloudless night. How could something so small be so seemingly endless? There was a pattern. Or almost, at least. The carvings were aimless yet organized, both particle and wave.
I worked ceaselessly on the box. Stopped going to class. Every day I felt like I got a little bit closer and closer and closer.
I got the news that Emily was dead seventeen minutes after I figured out how to open the box.
I called Porter.
He was crying when he answered the phone. “Fuck off.”
He hung up.
I called again. “Porter, I need to talk.”
“I figured out how to open the box.”
“Fuck the box,” Porter said. His voice was quiet, broken. “Fuck the box, fuck you, fuck her for giving you the box. I don’t want to hear another word about that stupid box.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m sorry,” Porter said after a while. “I’m… “ he sighed. “What’s in the box?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I haven’t looked.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me about Emily,” I said.
“What the fuck do you want to know? She’s fucking dead, Adam.”
Now I was crying. “Just tell me about her.”
“She was really pretty and had nice legs. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
We waited for a long while on the phone together. The static was comforting. It helped to know that we were both feeling the same thing.
Porter broke the silence. “I understand. About the box, I mean. It’s not dumb that you haven’t looked. In the last few months, before she died, we didn’t know. How long she had, I mean. We didn’t know which words would be her last. So we made everything count. And now, knowing how long she had just fucking sucks. It wasn’t very long at all. I want to go back to when we didn’t know. I miss her.”
He laughed a little. “She was really fucking pissed that she died before finding out what was inside that fucking box.”
Static again. I hung up.