The Boy in the Box – Part V

[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.

[←Part IV can be found here.]

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

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.

For your edification, click this sentence to read an article that describes one contemporary approach to the boy in the box.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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 II

Mrs. Quigley waddled in just as the school bell rang. My teeth hurt. I don’t know if it was the bell or the waddle. But something was different that morning. Looking around the room, something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t identify it. Then Mrs. Quigley explained.

“Children, Billy Almquist will be absent from school for a while. He will be keeping up with his schoolwork from home and attending class through this special electronic intercom system.” She pointed to a gray box about the size of a toaster, sitting on a desk in the front row. She paused while the rest of us tried to figure out what she was talking about. “Say good morning to the class, Billy.”

A tiny, tinny voice sounded through the little box. “Good morning.”

Wiggly Quigley then turned to us and said, “Say good morning to Billy, class.” We all dutifully but tentatively chanted good morning to the invisible boy.

As I sat there that morning, I felt terrible because I couldn’t remember what Billy Almquist looked like. Based on my last name, I sat in the last row on the far left side of the room. Billy’s desk and the speaker that stood in for him were in the front row on the far right. It’s strange that you can look at a group of objects for a long time and think you know them all. Then one of those objects—in this case a boy—disappears and it’s as if it never existed. That’s how it was with Billy. It almost didn’t matter that he’d been replaced by a box. I remembered he was small and quiet, but for the life of me, I couldn’t picture his face.

I felt wicked bad.

For the rest of the day, I stared at that box trying to conjure up an image of Billy, but it wouldn’t come to me. He was just a box now, not a boy. My inattention in class wasn’t unusual. Mrs. Quigley never called on me because I never knew the answers. It’s to her credit, I suppose, that she had it in her power to embarrass me at will and she never did. My failures were known only to her, me, and (once a term) my parents.

That night I rummaged through my keepsake box. It was a shoebox from a pair of Oxfords my father bought for his “good shoes”. He wore them only to weddings and funerals, in place of the penny loafers he usually wore. None of the boxes my shoes came in had nearly enough room for my many childhood mementos. This in spite of my relatively short time to collect them. (A few years later, as those souvenirs multiplied, I would upgrade to a box that had held reams of mimeograph paper.)

In that box I found our class photo taken earlier in the year. Fortunately the pictures, all smaller than postage stamps, were laid out in the same order as the desks in our room. My eyes scanned up and down the rows of uncomfortable looking kids. Decked out in clothing and expressions we would never wear in class, we all looked as unnatural as aliens.

At the back of the class was Freddie Bruce. Two first names but the heartthrob of third grade. I’d had a crush on him as long as I could remember. I imagined him singing along with Jan and Dean, “Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Linda” and thinking of me. To my dismay, he was usually thinking of ratfink Karen. At least I assume he was because he was always staring at her. Even in the class picture, it looked as if his eyes strayed slightly in her direction.

But I was looking for Billy. In the top right space where the now empty desk sat, there he was: Billy Almquist. Of course! Short blond hair with a cowlick that shot up like a sheet of water hitting a seawall. A bow tie that was too small for his neck and teeth that were too big for his mouth. His smile was too wide to be genuine. (The school photographer that year was a stitch and he got all us kids to make goofy smiles such as we’d never worn before nor would again.)

The guilt of not remembering Billy’s face was lost in the guilt I felt at not figuring out he was missing from class in the first place. I wondered—I still do wonder—if I would leave such a faint impression if I were to disappear one day.

For the rest of that week, in the moments before class began, I sat alone with Billy in the room, strangely self-conscious. I’d occasionally hear noise, even voices, coming through the speaker. One voice sounded like it must have been his mother. Her voice sounded hoarse and hesitant. I couldn’t make out anything she said, though. By Friday, I was curious enough to sit near the box and listen more closely. I’d always scoot back to my seat if I ever heard anyone coming.

All that weekend, I could think about nothing but Billy Almquist. What was he like? What sickness did he have that would keep him out of school so long he needed to be present as a speaker and microphone? How long would he be out? Perhaps he’d miss the rest of the year; there was only a little more than a month left. The idea of Billy so consumed me that when the ice cream truck or “the whip” ride stopped in my neighborhood, I didn’t even leave the house. My mother started to think maybe I was sick. Would she consider getting a speaker at school for me?

Was my fascination with Billy motivated by pity or compassion? I didn’t even know the difference between the two back then. I’m still not entirely sure of it. Maybe it was simple curiosity. Whatever it was, I was anxious for Monday to arrive. It was the first time that had ever happened. And it would never happen again throughout my shaky scholastic career.

I made a complete and detailed plan to get to class extra early and make contact with Billy through the speaker. I ached to get to know him.

Monday’s dawn found me up and dressed in my best but still scruffy jumper, as if I were going to meet Freddie Bruce at the ice cream stand rather than to face another week at school. To my mother, this was further evidence that I was indeed ill. She went so far as to try to take my temperature. Before she had a chance to slip that glass tube in my mouth—I had a deadly fear I’d bite down on it, cutting my mouth up with the shards of glass, mercury dripping from my chin like some monster from “The Outer Limits”—I shot out the screen door so fast, I never heard it slam behind me.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how far I walked to school. I would never let my child walk alone for the half mile I traveled every day. But on that day, I was in such a hurry I skipped most of the way. Why? Was I developing a crush on a box?

I got to the school before most of the staff. If they’d seen me, they might have questioned my presence at such an early hour. The few that were there were preoccupied with preparations for the day and paid me no mind.

Settling in at the desk where the speaker sat, I heard nothing. Pressing my ear against it, there was still no sound. Was Billy OK? A brief inspection of the box revealed the problem. The sound was off. That wasn’t part of my plan. My hand shook as I reached out to turn the knob to the on position. The loud click it made startled me, but not nearly as much as did the voice that came from the box.

“Is someone there?”

It was Billy’s voice. Although I’d planned to try to speak to him that morning, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I wanted to initiate contact. My mouth hung open as I stared at the steel box.

Some rustling. Then his voice, “Has class started early?”

I couldn’t wait. “Hi, Billy.”


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