Nelly Reifler

"What's in the box?" Mother asked. She was standing by the closet door. She held the door open with her hip. I looked down at her brown shoes with their spongy soles. I had not heard her come up the carpeted stairs. I had been caught. "It's her, isn't it," Mother said, "it's Sugar." She poked at the box with her foot. It was in the closet, on the bottom shelf, next to a pile of folded sweaters.

"She'll wake up," I whispered. Actually, she was already awake. I looked at my own feet, dangling under where I sat on my bed. I looked at the shiny black Mary Janes and white cuffed socks against the pale pink chenille of the bed spread. My shoes had hard soles, heels with taps on them. I could not come and go silently.

"Stay right there," said Mother. She backed out of the room, keeping her eyes on me. She yelled down to Daddy, "Frederick, we need you up here."

I knew what would happen next. I dropped off the bed and dashed for the closet. Sugar's box! —I picked it up and hugged it. She was starting to move in the box. She had been asleep for days, and time had passed quietly in the house. Now I could feel her stretching her limbs, could feel her nails scratching against the cardboard as she stretched. There was also the low noise of bristly fur brushing against itself. I could feel where her head pressed against the end of the box, and I heard the exhalation of a Sugar yawn. I felt my heart beat against my chest. I didn't want them to take her away again.

Mother reappeared in the room. "I told you not to move," she said. I pressed my face against the side of the box. I backed into the closet. I felt Sugar's alertness inside the box. She was not moving much, but she was listening. I sat down in the corner, between the hems of my winter coat and my long dress. The closet smelled like camphor and cedar. Daddy appeared behind Mother at the closet door. Inside the closet, it was very dark, and the rest of the room was filled with white sunlight: Daddy and Mother were just silhouettes.

Daddy leaned towards the closet. "How's my girl," he said, "my pumpkin? Kitten? Sweet Pea?" I said nothing. "How's my angel? My valentine?"

I whispered, "Fine." Sugar shifted inside the box.

"Why don't you just come out like a good girl and give Daddy the box," he said. Sugar shifted again.

"She's not going to do it, Frederick," said Mother. "You know how it is."

Sugar knocked against the inside of the box with her head. I squeezed the box tight. A tiny fist punched the wall of the box.

Sugar was fine in my closet.

Every day, I woke up with Mother's eyes on me. She had my school clothes waiting for me. I had seven dresses, one for each day of the week. Plus my long party dress, for the one day each year that Mother and Daddy called my birthday. On this day, they told me I was a year older, and I blew out candles on a cake. The number of candles was always different. One year there might be thirteen candles, and the next, there would be seven.

After I dressed and ate my toast each morning, I would cross the culde-sac to go to school. I always turned my head and stared down the long road, a perfectly straight ribbon of pavement with no other houses on it. A deep forest was on the other side of this road, next to the schoolhouse. Something about the density of the trees, whose roots pressed against the low stone wall, always made me linger before Daddy or Mother tugged at my hand and pulled me into the schoolhouse.

Daddy would complain about the expense of educating me, but they agreed it was important to have me properly schooled. Three walls of the schoolhouse were lined with book shelves, divided into different subjects: Math, Science, Vocabulary, Penmanship. On the back wall there was a blackboard. Every day, detailed instructions were left for me in perfect script letters in white chalk on this board. They told which books to take from the shelves, which chapters to read, which words to study. Daddy and Mother would take turns checking in to make sure I was doing the lessons.

Sometimes the vocabulary or math books hinted at something. Words that I could not reconcile stayed with me: post office, bus, puppy, roller-skate, freight train, teacher. I would consider these words and daydream, staring at the dust between the threads of a binding, or looking out the window at the forest behind the school house. But my work was checked each night, after supper. I could not drift off very long.

While they discussed my notes downstairs, I would go and visit with Sugar in the closet, waking her by whispering her name until she came to silent attention in her box. We would stay like this for three quarters of an hour, listening to each other's wakefulness and breath.

They had taken her away once, but she came back. In the short time since she had returned, she awakened easily, was noisier and stronger. Daddy and Mother would enter and leave the room silently, inspecting and observing. But now, whenever they approached me, she woke up and listened. Whenever they spoke to me in a certain way, I could feel her moving in the box, alert.

I was not supposed to have her in the first place. She came late at night after a strange evening at the house. It was after dinner, and Daddy and Mother had been checking my notes. I sat at my desk, looking out the window at the endless lawn behind the house. It was an expanse of even green, nothing to see besides grass, no buildings or trees in the distance. I heard voices rise downstairs. Mother and Daddy were arguing. I had never heard them argue. I crept out of my room and stood silently on the landing, and for once, they couldn't hear me over their own noise. They were standing at the dining table. At first, I could only see Mother, but then Daddy's hand appeared and grabbed her wrist. I ran downstairs and into the dining room. I took my mother's other wrist and pulled, trying to get her away from him. She laughed an unfamiliar laugh, and shook herself free of Daddy easily. She turned towards me without really looking at me. Then she picked me up and carried me upstairs. It was impossible to move in her arms. She took me to my desk, put me down in the chair forcefully, squeezed my fingers around a pencil, and left the room.

I sat there. My heart was pounding. I made a tight fist around the pencil, then let go. The pencil dropped, and I watched the blood rush back into my palm.

Later that night, as I lay in bed, thoughts entered my head like transmitted radio signals. I tried not to listen to them, but there they were, speaking, whispering: You are you, you are you, not them, but you. There is more, there is more, there is more than this. You are you, you are you....

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of scratching. I had forgotten what happened earlier and the thoughts that had repeated in my head. I opened my eyes and saw the bluish, moonlit box on my window sill. The sound was coming from inside it.

Now Daddy stepped from behind Mother and put his head into the closet. "It's time, Pumpkin," he said. He chucked me under the chin; Sugar banged with a fist inside the box. Daddy tried to chuckle. He slowly reached over to ruffle my hair—then—Bang. Bang. Bang. He jumped back from the closet, and stood behind Mother.

"Listen," Mother said, "Isn't it easier to hand the box over than to have it taken away?" Sugar paused, listening. I shook my head and clutched the box. "We don't want to have to do this," said Mother.

Daddy said, "Let's just wait for her to go to sleep again."

"No, Frederick, she's expecting us now. She'll never move from that closet."

They both backed to the corner of the room. They whispered to each other, all the while keeping their eyes on me. Sugar was scraping her nails against the cardboard. Slow, sharpening sounds. I pressed my lips against the bulge in the cardboard where her head was, and its roundness made me feel safe. Mother and Daddy approached the closet again. Their steps were measured. Sugar's scratching paused. We waited. Mother lunged for my arms, and Daddy reached for the box, his cuffs rolled down to protect his hands—Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Sugar punched and kicked. Daddy dropped the box back into my lap. The punching and kicking got faster. Mother let go of me and tried to pick up the box herself, but it was vibrating too much in her arms. She dropped the box. They moved away from the closet once more and returned to the doorway. Sugar's banging slowed and stopped. We listened to silence.

Mother's voice was different when she spoke again. Low. Soft. Eventoned. "You're going to do a relaxation exercise," she said to me. Sugar and I listened. We had never heard Mother's voice like this before. "I want you to close your eyes," she said, "and imagine you're somewhere very safe."

I tried not to close my eyes, but I found I could not keep them open.

"Imagine you're somewhere very safe," she said again. I imagined I was inside my closet, holding Sugar's box. I imagined she was inside the box, awake but silent, protecting me. "Now," Mother said, "imagine you're in this safe place, and your limbs are getting very heavy. Say to yourself, 'I am going to relax my toes. My toes are relaxing. My toes are relaxed.'"

I imagined myself standing up and walking past Mother and Daddy, who were frozen like statues, not dead, but still.

"I'm going to relax my knees. My knees are relaxing. My knees are relaxed."

I imagined myself walking down the stairs, barefoot, making no noise. I imagined myself going to the front door. It was unlocked, and I opened it easily. I stood at the door for a moment, then I stepped onto the lawn. The grass was soft under the soles of my feet.

I'm going to relax my hips. My hips are relaxing. My hips are relaxed. I imagined that I walked across the lawn and got to the edge of the paved road, where I looked down at a gutter clogged with leaves. Then I walked across the cul-de-sac. The rough pavement was hot from the sun.

I am going to relax my shoulders. My shoulders are relaxing. My shoulders are relaxed. The door to the schoolhouse was open, but I walked around the building to the forest.

I am going to relax my neck. My neck is relaxing. My neck is relaxed. There was a low stone wall at the edge of the forest. I stepped up onto it, still carrying Sugar's box. Cool air came from the trees, and there was a damp, growing mushroom smell. The other side of the stone wall dropped further, so I had to climb down backwards. Then I turned and walked into the forest. The ground was covered with pine needles. There was a slope to the forest floor, and as I descended, the cul-de-sac disappeared behind me. Soon I found myself next to a brook. I sat on a rock and watched the streaming water split smoothly around twigs and stones. I thought, 'This would be a good place to let Sugar go,' and I took her box over to a safe circle of reeds growing near the water. I set the box down and walked away from it along the bank. All along the water, red flowers grew and clustered, four or five long stems together, with a spike of color on the end of each stem. The flowers were closed, petals pressing against each other like pods.

I'm going to relax my hands. My hands are relaxing. My hands are relaxed. I vaguely felt a tugging, heard familiar voices gurgling under the water. "I've got it," one of them said. Another said, "Well take it away. And dig a deep enough hole this time."

I considered the flowers, and a word came to me. Snapdragon. Snapdragons. I had seen a picture of them once in a book at school. I bent down and touched a pod of petals. It was firm on the outside, and the petals were closed tight. I squeezed it between two fingers. It snapped open and showed a tender red center. I put a finger in the flower. It was soft now, slightly downy.

I was alone. It was all right. Sugar would come back to me. If she didn't, I would go and find her.