[As a result of her unwillingness to face Billy, the boy in the box, he seems to have stopped communicating with her. ]
In the last days of the school year, nothing important ever happens. Kids are all mentally absent, thinking about summer and the beach, little league and vacations. That year, the only school work left to be done was the annual end-of-year science fair. I always did the same project: a model solar system with papier-mâché planets painted vaguely like the real things. I wasn’t particular about the likenesses. Defying astronomical norms, the planets were often egg shaped. One year, Jupiter’s big red spot was more of a purple. I got a “B”. I think the judges were color blind.
The day of the fair, as I lugged my unnatural solar system into the cafetorium (a word the school made up as a label for the space that served as both cafeteria and auditorium) I thought I saw Billy’s Mom leaving the room. I dropped my project on a table and went to look for her but she was gone, if she’d been there at all. I searched the area for any sign of her. What I found was a sign, all right.
A huge, silent crowd of admiring students and teachers surrounded one table. Curious, I elbowed my way through the group until I reached the display that had attracted them.
What I saw was like nothing I’d ever seen in a school science fair. It was a sculpture of a dolphin that looked perfect to my 3rd grade eyes. The subtle shades of white and gray paint that colored it made it look alive, as did the perfect arch of its body captured in the middle of a leap from the surf. I half expected it to continue its path back into the waves, making a perfect entrance into the water with barely a splash. Its mouth wore the mischievous smile that so captured my imagination.
Behind the sculpture was a sheet of poster board on which was clearly handwritten and illustrated all the known scientific facts about the animal’s diet, habitat, intelligence, evolution, and behavior. It even outlined a naive attempt to analyze its language.
The whole display looked as if a college professor had created it with the assistance of a professional artist. I didn’t have to ask who had created it or why.
There was no visible seam in the piece, so I was surprised when a teacher removed one side of the sculpture to reveal an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of the dolphin’s internal organs. Something about seeing that beautiful work of art opened, gutted like a fish, made me scream out loud, “No! Put it back together! Put it back!!” The people who encircled the project probably thought I was insane, which I probably was.
I couldn’t look at the mutilated animal. I shoved my way out through the crowd and stopped at the table where I’d put my solar system. My pathetic project made me sick. It reminded me of my failure. Of all my failures. I smashed it to pieces. Collecting the fragments, I carried them to a nearby trash can and dumped it all in. My oblong Venus fell from my hands and wobbled along the floor. I chased it and kicked it across the cafetorium before running home in tears.
It was Friday and I was beginning to hate the weekends. All I thought about was Billy Almquist. All I felt was guilt. I might have been his only friend, the only person outside his house who cared about him. (But did I really care at all?) It made me wonder whether those thoughts would ruin my whole summer.
Because we’d had so many snow days that year—there were also a couple of “cold days” when the school’s old furnace froze up and school had to be canceled—the last day of school was the following Monday. And it was a half day. What are the odds a classroom full of eight-year-olds in a stuffy classroom, freshly returned from the weekend on a warm, sunny day would be able to concentrate on anything except what was going on outside the windows? I was concentrating on something else: Billy’s desk. Billy’s empty desk.
The box was gone. No speaker. No Billy.
Maybe he skipped out on what was sure to be a meaningless day. It wasn’t likely. He was the most diligent student in the class and the school was going to announce the winners of the science fair that day. Billy would almost certainly take first prize. He should have been listening in.
Maybe something was wrong. Sitting in that room, there was no way of knowing. Was it my imagination or had his voice grown weaker and his class participation less frequent with each passing day after I’d dropped off the workbook? I vowed to stop at his house on the way home from school. I wouldn’t chicken out this time. I needed to know what had happened.
* * *
The “For Sale” sign in front of the house told half the story. At the door, I knocked, rang, banged, peeked, pushed, rattled. The house was completely empty with no indication of what had happened to Billy or his mother. When I realized that I didn’t know if there were any other family members, my failure was complete.
In my mind, years passed as I stood on the sidewalk in front of that house. It was crumbling before my very eyes. Over time it would become the neighborhood eyesore, a childhood terror. The place where a little boy… Where something happened to a little boy. Stories of unnatural events would spread through the town, striking fear into the hearts of children. As long as it stood there, younger children would cross the street to avoid coming too close. It would be a test of bravery for older kids who dared each other to run up to it and knock or push the long-broken doorbell. Rocks rained down on the structure until the day a developer razed it and built a cookie-cutter split-entry house in its place.
We all grew up, mostly leaving behind any thoughts of third grade. Freddie married ratfink Karen. Turned out they were a pretty good couple. It was a shame when Freddie was among the last Marines lost in Vietnam, presumed dead. Karen’s formerly perfect posture declined badly after that. Dale tried college but dropped out. A year later he was found alone in a closet with a needle in his arm. Wiggly Quigley, quite possibly the only person in the whole school who truly cared about Billy, retired after she taught our class. She’d aged beyond the norm during that school year. God only knows what happened to her after that.
As for me, after high school I bounced around the country for a few years, finally landing in a distant city, as far as I could get from my parents and my past. My former dream of becoming a marine biologist was long forgotten. I came close, I guess. I work in a PetSmart, hawking fish flakes, bird cages, and cat toys to annoying customers. No spelling skills needed there.
I never found out what happened to Billy; I never even tried. He would, in fact, haunt my memory for the rest of my life. When I was younger, I promised myself I’d name my first child Billy. Instead, I called him Michael. It was the most popular name at the time and sounded nothing like Billy. I needed no further reminders of the boy in the box, the first love of my life.
The idea for this story came from my own admittedly hazy memory of grade school. We had boys and girls in boxes. It might never have been written, however, had I not met Mark Sullivan. He was a boy in the box for a while in his youth because of a chronic illness. I talked to him to get some of the specifics to lend more credibility to my tale.
When Mark’s illness claimed his life a year and a half ago, the story gained considerably more gravity. He was my age. Linda’s pain has become mine. This story is dedicated to Mark Sullivan.
* * *
As I write these words, a pandemic has driven home the need to support distance learning at the K-12 level for both individuals and large numbers. The technology already exists, but needs to be improved. As I’m fond of telling friends, if this country diverted the funds from a single aircraft carrier or even a single high-tech bomber, both of which are totally obsolete in this information-driven world, we’d be able to solve this and a lot of other of this nation’s problems.
Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.