The Boy in the Box – Part IV

[Linda continues her early morning meetings with Billy, the boy in the box.]

One Friday, after a couple more weeks of my secret rendezvous with Billy’s box, during which time I thought I noticed his voice getting weaker and his cough increasing in frequency and intensity, Mrs. Quigley announced that we were starting a new reading workbook. She handed them out to the class for us to review over the weekend. (Obviously, she was a cockeyed optimist.) Then she asked for volunteers to bring a copy to Billy’s home. No third-grader with any sense of self-preservation would volunteer for anything Mrs. Quigley asked us to do. But I did want to do this. Knowing there would be plenty of time to respond as the other students cowered and averted their eyes to avoid being called on, I slowly raised my hand to half-staff as if I were doing it against my will. No one needed to know how anxious I was to volunteer.

I was dying to see him in person. The thumbnail size picture from the class photo was the only image I had of him, although it took up a disproportionate amount of space in my mind and heart by that time. After class, Mrs. Quigley gave me Billy’s address and the workbook. She thanked me sincerely.

“Aw, it’s no big deal. It’s on my way home anyway.” In fact, it was quite a ways off my usual route home. It didn’t matter to me. I would have gone anywhere to do this errand. That was before reality—reality of my cowardice, that is—hit.

The closer I got to the address Mrs. Quigley had written on the yellow three-by-five index card, the slower my steps became. Doubts were unexpectedly dogging my steps. What was I thinking? What if Billy was dying? Or deformed? Would I have to face him and make small talk about class or the news? (I didn’t know anything about the news except that there were a lot of riots with colored people. My father blamed it all on “that Papist” Kennedy. I didn’t know what to think. I’d never met a Negro but his opinion sounded wrong to me.)

As soon as the house came into view, I froze. Without realizing it, I was crushing the workbook in my tightened fist. The decision to be made was whether it was more embarrassing to deliver the book or to go back to Wiggly Quigley and admit I chickened out. I could lie and tell her there was a dog at the house that was barking and scaring me or I lost the address or something. Unfortunately, I’d been lying to her too often lately. Last time I did, her smirk told me she was catching on. I had to go through with it.

The cramped ranch house was the smallest on the street. It was also in the worst shape, badly in need of a paint job and a good lawn-mowing. Seeing a mailbox hanging beside the door, an idea slithered into my thoughts. The workbook would fit into the box and I could disappear without being seen. I was ashamed of myself for even thinking of it but it was a solution—perhaps the only solution—to my dilemma.

Whether it was nerves or guilt, I’ll never know, but my hand trembled as I slowly and as quietly as possible lifted the flap covering the mailbox. It slipped from my fingers and fell with a resounding clang against the box. I might as well have screamed at the top of my lungs. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs.

The inner door opened and I saw a woman through the dirty screen. She opened the screen door and leaned out. She wore a pretty, though soiled dress. She looked as if she’d spent a lot of time with rollers in her hair and putting on makeup. Still, her eyes were red and her smile was forced. Even at the tender age of 8, I could recognize it. The morning after a big fight, my parents always wore that same expression.

“Hi,” she said. “You must be Linda. I’m Billy’s Mom.” How does she know who I am?

“Yeah, um,” I stared at my feet and held out the book. “This is for Billy.”

“That is so sweet of you, Linda. Would you like to come in and give it to him yourself? He hasn’t had many visitors.”

Her voice quivered on her last statement, but I was unmoved. Even as my feet had resisted approaching the house, now they felt as if they might run away on their own. I was already moving away as I uttered, “I can’t. I gotta go. My mother is probably worried about me already.”

My mother wouldn’t have worried about me unless I was two days late. Even then…

It took a good twenty seconds after I left until I heard the screen door close at the house. Billy’s Mom must have watched me for a long time, wondering what kind of child would refuse to visit a sick friend. I wondered the same. But I wasn’t Billy’s friend. He was a stranger before he disappeared and he was nothing but a speaker in a box to me now. That’s what I told myself anyway.

At home, I went directly to my room and cried. No one was around so there was no danger of exposing my emotions to my parents, who would have simply shaken their heads in disgust. I sobbed for the better part of an hour without knowing—or without admitting to myself—why. At last I fell asleep with tears in my eyes.

I dreamed my bed was surrounded by speakers like the one Billy’s voice came through in class. From each came a different voice, some at normal volume but many in shrill cries. Nothing I heard was intelligible but still they cut me like knives. I covered my ears with my hands, but the voices only grew louder. I awoke in a sweat. I was surprised to see there were no speakers because the voices still rang in my ears.

The weekend dragged by. I wasn’t sure how I would face Monday. Instead of thinking about it, I settled into my early morning routine, going to Mrs. Quigley’s classroom before anyone else. From the doorway, I thought I heard soft sounds coming through the intercom, like a whimpering child. As I approached it, there was a click and no more sounds. I leaned over the speaker and whispered, “Billy? Are you there?” There was no answer. From the switch position, I could see that the classroom speaker was on. But there was no indication at all that the microphone was on at his house. I would have heard background noise or even a little static.

People were milling around outside the door. I had to return to my seat in the corner. When the teacher squeezed her wiggly bottom into her chair, she spoke to us. “Good morning, class.”

We all replied with our rote response, “Good morning, Mrs. Quigley.” I’m sure I heard a few “wiggly”s in there but she didn’t catch on.

With a maternal smile on her face, she spoke into the box on Billy’s desk. “Are you there, Billy?”

There was a click and Billy answered in a tone that could only be described as subdued. “Yes, Ma’am.” Usually, Mrs. Quigley hated it when people called her Ma’am. I heard her tell another teacher it was because it made her sound old (she was old) or like the owner of a house of ill repute, whatever that was. I figured she let Billy get away with it. I figured she let him get away with a lot of stuff.

For about three seconds, I envied him.

In the final two weeks of the school year, Billy and I didn’t communicate at all. I came in early every day, but he was never on the intercom. He must have found out I’d come by but didn’t want to see him. It wasn’t fair. I did want to see him… but I couldn’t. If he felt bad about it, I felt worse.

For about three seconds, I felt sorry for myself.

[←Part III can be found here.][Part V can be found here. →]

[← To go to the beginning of the story, click here.]

The Boy in the Box – Part III

[As the last installment ended, Linda spoke just two words into the box: “Hi, Billy.” Much to her surprise, a voice from the box replied, “Linda?”]

A shock raced through my body. I couldn’t speak. Nothing was happening according to my plan. I became aware of my body shaking. Feeling like a total doofus, I decided to wing it and see what happened.

“Yes. How did you know who it was?”

His reply came with no hesitation. “I’d know your voice anywhere. Even through this crummy speaker.”

Stunned. There’s no other word for it. How did he recognize my voice, a voice rarely raised in the classroom setting, when I didn’t even know who he was? Big thoughts burned in my immature mind.

“Oh.” Yup, I was a doofus all right. Now Billy knew it, too.

“You’ve been listening at the speaker a lot, haven’t you?”

“No. Well, I have a bit, but. No. Maybe some.” The plan was completely unraveled by that point, as was I. “How did you know?”

“I could just tell.” Some static followed his statement. I wasn’t sure if it came from the box or my brain.

“So how you doin’?” Now I was getting personal. Or as personal as I got.

“OK. I guess. How’s school for you?”

“Fine. I guess.”

“Kinda weird having that speaker in there, huh?”

“Yeah. Kinda weird.” My conversation skills were no more advanced than my spelling.

“What does it look like?”


“The speaker.”

It never occurred to me that he had no idea how we were listening to him. “It’s gray. It’s metal. Has a knob on it. Not too big. Looks a lot like one of those speakers you hang in the window at the drive-in.”

“That’s sorta what mine looks like, too.”

“How does it work?”

“I dunno. Like a telephone, I guess.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Noises outside the door caught me by surprise. “I gotta go,” I told him and scurried to my desk in the back of the room.


Mrs. Quigley waddled in and the box went silent. “Someone’s here early. Are you looking for some extra help?”

“I was…” I can’t believe I almost told her I’d been talking to Billy. “No, Mrs. Quigley.”

“Because if you need help with your spelling words, I can go over them with you. Your last test showed room for improvement.”

“I know, Mrs. Quigley. I’ve been working on them.” Lying to Mrs. Quigley had become a reflex to me over the course of the school year.

The rest of the day dragged. I was so bored, I actually found myself reviewing those spelling words. Unless I absolutely had to look elsewhere, my eyes were riveted to the gray box.

I repeated Monday’s actions the next day. But this time the box was already on as I walked in. I knew it because I hadn’t even reached the speaker when Billy said, “Hi, Linda.”

“Are you one of those mind readers?”

A little laugh, distorted through the cheap speaker. “No, I just know your footsteps. Are you wearing the white shoes?” I was. “You always wear the white shoes on Tuesdays.”

“Do you know this much about everyone in our class?”

“No.” He took a long pause. “But I know that ratfink Karen picks her nose.”

I laughed so loud, I was afraid the janitor would come in to see if I was all right. (He was in the hall spreading that sawdust stuff over a place where someone had puked. He was busy that spring. A stomach flu had ravaged the whole school.) Soon, Billy was laughing along with me. Eventually his laughter became a hoarse cough. Before I knew it, the sound of his mother’s voice came through and our conversation was over.

For the rest of the week, we stuck to the same pattern. Sometimes the speaker was already on and other days I had to turn it on. Either way Billy was always there and ready to talk. He knew more about me than I knew about anyone. That made me want to find out about him.

We talked about our favorite movies. We both loved “In Search of Castaways”. I thought the boy who played John was a dream and I wondered if Billy had a crush on Hayley Mills. It seemed like every boy did. We watched some of the same shows, too: “The Flintstones” and “Jetsons”, of course, a new show, “The Beverly Hillbillies” (we sang the theme song for it until he ran out of breath and I started laughing) and “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color”. That’s when Billy told me the color world might be wonderful, but he couldn’t see it. He only had a black and white TV.

Billy and I agreed the new singing group, The Beatles, were weird. It was their fault I’d failed my last spelling test. The word “beetle” was on it and I spelled it the way the group did. I’d never forgive them.

The rhinoceros was his favorite animal. He said that, even though it was really kind of ugly, it did whatever it wanted to because it was strong and unafraid, two traits he felt he lacked.

My favorite was the dolphin… or porpoise. I didn’t know what the difference was. Billy seemed to be more interested in dolphins than I was. He asked me question after question, most of which I had no answer for. All I knew was I thought dolphins were happy because they were always smiling, at least it seemed that way to me. They acted so smart and could do cool tricks. It even seemed as if they could talk with that chattering sound they made. I told Billy I wanted to become a marine biologist so I could learn about dolphins but my grades were lousy, so it wouldn’t happen. Billy said he thought I could and should do it if I really wanted to.

All our conversations ended at the first sound of anyone approaching the room, whether student or teacher. One time I was still sitting at the desk when ratfink Karen came in. She was so stuck up she didn’t say anything, just made a face. I wanted to tell her to go pick her nose but Billy might have heard and started laughing until he coughed again.

Friday I convinced Mrs. Quigley that I had a bellyache and had to stay in for recess. Everyone else was playing kickball and I didn’t want to puke all over the place. The janitor might run out of sawdust. She wanted to send me to the nurse but I talked her out of it. Instead I stayed inside and talked to Billy for a whole half hour. The time went by so fast, I didn’t even notice when Mrs. Quigley walked in and saw me sitting in front of the box. I quickly tried to cover up.

“How does this thing work, Mrs. Quigley?” I said as I rapped my fingers on the top of the steel case.

“Be careful with that speaker, Linda. It’s a very delicate electronic device. It costs a fortune. If you break it, you’ll have to buy a new one. I don’t think you could afford it unless you have money in the bank. Do you have money in the bank, Miss Zengilowski?”

The woman was obsessed with my financial state. But no, I had no money so I shook my head and retreated to my seat at the back of the room.

“You seem to be feeling better, young lady.”

“Yes, Wi… Mrs. Quigley.” That was close. The last kid who accidentally called her “Wiggly” was sent home for two days. That kid didn’t get a speaker.

I’ll never forget the day I had to go back into the room to get my sweater soon after recess started. Two boys, Freddie and his creepy friend Dale, were huddled around the speaker. Before they noticed I was there, I heard Freddie teasing Billy. “Is it hot in there, Billy-in-the-box? When are you going to pop out and scare everyone?”

Egged on by Freddie, Dale continued. “Poor little Billy! Must be hard being so small. At least you’re the teacher’s pet.”

Freddie jumped on that one. “Yeah, this pet has his own box to live in.” They both thought that was a riot and laughed directly into the speaker. Billy said nothing. When the two boys saw me standing there, Freddie said, “What are you looking at? Why don’t you go to the back row and count your cooties.” More childish laughter from the two.

I gave them my best retort, “I’m like a mirror, you’re like glue. It bounces off me and sticks to you.” They were unimpressed and left the room. After I got my sweater, I spoke into the speaker. “Billy?”

There was a pause. Billy’s voice cracked as he said, “Hi, Linda.”

“Sorry about those two drips. They’re mental.”

“I’m used to it.”

I was so ticked off, I turned red. “What?!?”

“Yeah, someone’s always making little jokes in the speaker. I used to turn it off on my end, but now I just let them have their fun. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“It does to me. I’m gonna tell on them,” I proclaimed in my most indignant voice. Did I ever do anything about it? Nope. Even after the time someone stuck a pair of Groucho “nose glasses” on the speaker, I did nothing. Mrs. Quigley did, though. Without calling attention to their presence, she yanked them off. In an unusual display of hot anger, she crushed them in her hand and tossed them in the trash. My respect for her grew a lot after that.

[←Part II can be found here.][Part IV can be found here. →]

[← To go to the beginning of the story, click here.]