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  • Daniel DeRock

The Star Box



By: Daniel DeRock




It was almost time to leave the Exposition of Novelties when we chanced upon the boy with the star box. I soaked it all in: the organ jaunt of the calliope, the salt of grilled shark, and always the surveillance of the soldiers.

Raindrops smacked the tents and stung my face. Low clouds made the grey dusk darker. We slipped easily through the crowds, small as we were, and emerged at the edge of the festival grounds. A tent there, apart from the others. Yes, this one, we agreed.

A soldier spoke in that strange language. The soldier’s translator mimicked her sharp austerity and said, “You may look at the boy, but you may not look inside the box. When the boy looks into the box, you may not – you may not – look into his eyes. Is it understood?”

We all nodded, the other children and I, expect for Tanya, who (she later admitted) was so scared she peed through her tights. I placed my hand on Tanya’s shoulder

and began moving toward the entrance. The soldier then pressed what I believed was a bayonet tip (other survivors later insisted it was a syringe) into my forehead. She said something frantic and quiet. The translator whispered, “The exhibition costs three tickets, so present your tickets now. Is it understood?” “Yes,” I said, and the threat was released. Small hearts thumping all around.

My meager wad of blue tickets was crumpled. I felt cold sweat pool at my temples as I counted out the tickets, only to have the whole wad snatched by a bigger soldier obscured in shadow. When I motioned as though to protest, the first soldier shook her head. I acknowledged the warning plea in her deep-set eyes. The pungent scent of anxiety, from everyone. And the dizzying gravity of something beyond the entrance.

A lightbulb illuminated the tent. There was little noise. Some cautious shuffling on hard dirt, the crinkle of blinking eyes. The world outside the tent was forgotten, I think, by all.

At the center of this universe was the box. The boy sat in a chair behind a square table set back several meters from the entrance. No movement from the boy, but resolve (or perhaps resignation) on his face.

The light, when it burst from the box, was devastating. Everyone cried, I am sure, except for the boy, who stared, transfixed, into the box. The light did not spill or dissipate. It conformed to borders and edges, white angles extending outward and encasing the boy.

I wished for Tanya to take my hand. I reached for hers, but Tanya was not beside me. I then saw Tanya pushing toward the box. A panicked soldier rushed in with a metal pole, at the end of which was affixed a dripping syringe with a glinting needle. Please, Tanya, I thought, and when she retreated the soldier lowered the threat. Thumping, thumping, thumping little hearts.

And then, at once, every person began to talk. The questions burned so luminous in our throats. Is the box a gateway and in which direction? Do its makers peer through or does the boy peer through to another place. Can the light touch us, will it change us. Have we been changed already? How have my tear ducts still water in them, what terror lurks in our joy, what is the boy? Somebody, somebody, somebody hold my hand.

I felt Tanya’s hand press into mine and I said, “Thank you, thank you Tanya.” But then, “Tanya, you are breaking my hand bones.” And Tanya said, “Oh, but the light!”

I turned to the boy and, defying the warning, looked into his eyes. The boy jolted his head and returned my gaze. I then doubled over, felt my lungs catch, stumbled and could not scream. The light broke from its form and engulfed us. White, gold, magnificent.


One night, many years later, I called Tanya and asked, “Will you marry me.”

“Stop that,” she said.

“Tanya. Why not.”

“What for,” said Tanya, “when we’re stuck in the…”

“Tanya.”

“When we are stuck in the star box.”


The very same night, Tanya knocked on the door of my house. “Okay,” she said. “We’ll be married.” She held a bag that clanked with bottles of dark liquor.

“Tonight,” I asked.

“Tonight.”

We drank the dark liquor, let it warm our capillaries. On a bench overlooking the deep cinnabar mines, I said, “Tanya,” and she looked away, anticipating. “Tanya, I don’t think we’re inside…”

“Please don’t,” she said. I followed her gaze to the constellations and saw with alarm two satellites on course to collide.

“Tanya, you must know we’ve gone through the…”

“Please,” she said and placed a hand on my cheek. “Husband. You’re shaking.”


Many more years later, when we were old, shooting stars came down like glowing hailstones and torched the eucalyptus trees. We swung on our porch swing, sipping silver liquor in the starfire gleam. I might have fallen asleep. When I woke, the whole land was ablaze in white-gold flames. Tanya was slumped in my arms.

“Oh Tanya, my love.” I supported my wife’s small weight, took her head in one hand, pulled the hair from her face with the other. The boy with the star box looked back at me, screaming, screaming.


Again I awoke, now in the tent. All around on the dirt floor: bodies, many breathing. Tanya was not beside me.

I blinked away the memories of decades, swallowed them, pulled myself to my knees. The lightbulb flickered. There was Tanya, inching her way toward the star box.

“Tanya, no.”

Tanya looked back, said nothing, and dragged herself up to the table. I dared a glance: the boy was not there. Tanya heaved herself into the chair. Softer now, the light from the box, playful even. “It is so beautiful,” was the last thing she said.

I clung to her legs and looked into her eyes: on her pupils – the reflection – what she saw inside.



 

Daniel is originally from the Midwest of the USA and lives in The Netherlands, where he is a researcher and lecturer of international relations. You can often find him in the woods with his two dogs. His fiction has appeared in Gone Lawn and in many desktop folders. He is on Twitter @DerockDaniel

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