The Box

11 Sep

By Kinri Watson
8th Grade

One: Renee.

Just a small-town girl.

I’m not entirely sure how long I’ve been here. Or how I got here. Perhaps there were officers who stole me away from wherever I came from. Houses or streets buzzing with a Crayola box-set of colors, or schools stained with the sepia that underlies any kind of rigor. Sometimes I am angry that I have lost such color, only to have it replaced with these faint shades of blue and green.

I don’t know if this is real or not. This room is papered in maps. If you can call it a room. It feels like a cardboard box. I have not moved from where I woke up. My fingers trace the lines of unlabeled continents. It looks like there are four other people in here, but even if this box is real, why would they be? It plays Don’t Stop Believin’ every other minute. So far I count forty-seven plays. Why would it be below the people who built this thing to give me something to make me imagine others? They never talk. And anyway, it’d be stupid to talk to imaginary people, right?

Two: Renee.

Livin’ in a lonely world.

It feels like sitting in a cardboard box. If this was real, I would be cramped by now. Right? If this was real I would’ve had to pee by now, or even wanted to move, but I’m still here, cross-legged and stony. In a circle with four imaginary people. We all have the same black t-shirt and sweats on, with one of those big red-and-white name-tags on the shirts.

The imaginary girl to my right’s shirt reads “Anise,” and then the next girl’s says “Cass,” then “Flip,” and “Drew.” Why my captors would give my hallucinations names is beyond me.

I had attached their names to their faces after the thirteenth replay. If they were real, who would they be?

Three: Renee.

Took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.

I’ve read the phrase “deafening silence” before. I always thought it meant “the absence of sound.” Now I’m pretty sure it means minuscule sound. Because the silence that fills the box isn’t silence. Or at least, true silence. That doesn’t exist. This silence is filled with little breaths, the rustle of clothes when fingers play with them. But there are no voices except for that of Steve Perry. And I think it’s driving me crazy. My memories are fading, and I don’t know my name instinctively anymore. A few minutes ago I had to look at my name-tag because I couldn’t remember. But it’s Renee. My name is Renee. Renee…

“Yeah, we get it, your name’s Renee.”

My head jerks up, and one of the other girls meets my eyes. Had she read my mind? Stupid. She’s in my mind. Her shirt reads “Anise.” Her voice sounds like it echoes in her chest before it slips through her lips. Her mouth holds the beginnings of a pout. Was it she who spoke? Am I starting to hear things? My hope sizzles in the air. Maybe I didn’t imagine it. Maybe she actually talked to me. Maybe I’m not imagining her. I hold her gaze for a few moments, long enough for her to drop her head and look away. I drop my head, too. Of course not. Why would they put another real person in here if they wanted to make me crazy? Still. It’s not like ignoring her would make me any less so. So I open my mouth, and maybe words fall out. No. I shut my mouth. She’s not real.

Four: Anise

Just a city boy.

This kid isn’t for real, is she? No person her age should know the lyrics to that, that infernal song. Then again, it’s been played so many times, ugh, who knows how many times, you’d have to be deaf to not know them by now. She’s ignoring me. Which is good. That way I don’t have to talk to her.

Just like I don’t have to talk to the boy who hasn’t opened his eyes this whole time, or the girl who has been relentlessly tapping along to that song. But holy smokes, it gets really annoying when she’s just mumbling her name over and over.

So I try to talk to someone for the first time since I was six. And she looks at me. That other girl looks at me too. Not real. It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to talk.

And yet, I get a response.

She shakes her head.

Six: Drew

Born and raised in South Detroit.

From what I can tell, I’m sitting on the Caspian Sea, and to my left is a blown-up Honolulu. Under my right index finger is a pale swatch of the Atlantic. I stare at the Himalayas in front of me. I study the maps this room is papered with, and I try to ignore the hushed words from my right. But it’s the only noise worth concentrating on, since Don’t Stop Believin’ is now on a constant loop. So I listen in. The girl across from me, I think her name is Anise, is talking to the girl next to me. Renee. Anise’s voice is drawn taut across the space between the two of them, and I pretend to stare at a map on the far wall, if only to have something to distract me from the way my chest is tightening around my stomach. She’s a little scary.

Seven: Renee

Took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.

I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to pretend that her voice doesn’t raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Listen, you can’t just ignore me! What kind of response is shaking your head, anyway?”

She’s not real. I’m imagining her, surely. I’m alone, I have been for days. There’s no one here.

“What is your problem? Did no one ever teach you that you speak when spoken to?”

Please, please don’t, I think. My fists clench, and I can feel my fingernails cutting into the crease of my palm. It hurts, but it’s real. At least that’s one thing I can count on. Tears seep out of the corners of my eyes, running along the creases in my face formed by my tightly furrowed brow. I bow my head. This is the highest of cruelties. To know I am alone, and to have these false people dangled in front of me.

“Hey, are you okay?” Her voice has softened. I curl myself tighter inward.

 Her hand is warm on my shoulder. I jump and stretch out, looking at her, eyes wide in my tearstained face. My heart is a stone suspended by my shock. She’s real. I put my shaking hand to the floor and feel the paper drag along my fingertips. It’s real.

Maybe my eyes are imploring. Maybe they are clouded with tears. Regardless, the girl’s face softens. “Hi,” she says. “I’m Anise.”

I manage a diluted smile. “Yes.”

Eight: Anise.

A singer in a smoky room.

Under the din of that awful song, I breathe a sigh. Okay. So this kid is looking at me like I’m impossible, so what? She’ll be fine, I’m pretty sure she’s just frazzled. So I keep my hand on her shoulder.

The boy with his eyes closed is most definitely awake. I can see it in the straight line of his shoulders. He’s paying attention.

“Hey, why don’t you open your eyes? We’ve been in here long enough, we should start getting to know each other,” I say.

He blinks. “I’m Flip.”

“Okay.” I stand up, and Renee stands with me. Then the other girl, Cass, then Flip. Drew, the last one, is clambering to his feet when the music shuts off with a click, cutting off Steve Perry’s unattractive crooning mid-word. We stand in silence, none of us hearing the light hiss that permeates the suddenly empty air.

Nine: Renee

The smell of wine and cheap perfume.

Only when the air around my ankles begins to shimmer do I notice that there is gas being pumped into the room. I wipe what’s left of my face hurriedly and grab Anise and Cass’ hands. “We need to go!” I say, unused to the sound of my normal voice. I tug them towards a wall, and the two boys follow.

“How’re we gonna get out of here?” Flip says, looking to me.

Cass immediately begins knocking on the wall, saying, “You’ll hear it when we find an entrance. There has to be one.”

Everyone else follows suit, knocking up and down on the wall. It doesn’t take long to realize the purpose of the gas it to make the air more dense. It behaves like water, making it harder to move. I don’t have time to wonder if it can really be qualified as a gas.

“We’re not gonna stick around to see if we can drown in this stuff, guys!” Anise says.

I hear a hollow sound beneath my knuckles, and it sounds kinda like glass to my vaguely ringing ears. Without thinking, I turn towards the group and lift my arm. I smash my elbow into the glass, tearing the paper on the wall. Shards fly and I duck my head, elbow still raised. There are a few cuts, but I’m fine. Everyone is looking at me in surprise, until Anise snaps into action.

Water-gas spills through the remaining shards, and she gingerly steps over them in her socked feet, barking out an almost cheerful, “C’mon, y’all, we don’t have all day!” as she surveys the small room we are in, empty, carpeted, and then pushes open the door.

We hurry down a doorless corridor, then up some stairs, and turns, and then more steps. I lose track, keeping my eyes trained on the backs of Cass’ feet, following her following Flip following Anise. 

I fall quickly into a hurried rhythm, so when Cass comes to a complete stop, I pitch over, and Flip has to grab my wrist so I don’t fall. Drew stares at the closed door in front of us. There’s no knob, just buttons by the frame. Drew mutters to himself about codes for a while. Then I hear the stomps of combat boots on tile, and I whip around.

Anise doesn’t bother. “Flip, quick! Push the red button!”

Flip is already moving forward. “Which one?”

“The red one!”

Flip turns to her. “Anise, I’m colorblind!”

“Ugh, the top one, then!”

Flip pushes the button, and we are out onto the pristine lawn, and running. Running and running until we reach a street, and then along it until the ends.

I stumble a few yards before the road ends in front of a small wooden fence. My friends turn when I fall. I distantly register the scrape of the rough asphalt on my knees. I don’t feel the light sting through my sweatpants, too busy wrapping my arms around my torso. I know it won’t help, to hunch over myself, I know it only tightens the lungs, and yet I bend over anyway. I lose moments in the haze of my heartbeat pounding in my ears to my internal mantra of can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe.

A set of hands grasps my shoulders, and my weight pitches backward. My chest is still as my wrists are placed above my head. This is good, I think groggily. Lungs expand when the body expands. It’s safer during an asthma attack.

If anyone speaks, it is lost to the sound of my heart as my vision closes in on me.

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