[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.