FICTION: The Box by Julia Lightbody

It’s Friday in October on Chicago’s Northwestern University campus and my prescription for Zoloft is empty. I popped the last pill twenty-four hours ago and feel the pins and needles pricking my tongue, like they do every time I forget to fill the prescription. Antidepressant withdrawal—another trip to Never-Neverland. But tonight is different from the other nights when I left Zoloft out of the mix. Tonight I’m prepared. I’ve packed Spring Steel’s finest pick set and a bottle of Xanax in my backpack so I can induce an escape that overpowers my morbid self-absorption. Tonight I will be free.

I navigate campus’s packed sidewalks, focusing on the ivy covered buildings that house bullshit and lies, telling myself that trekking to Professor Lawrence Day’s home is a bad idea. Fifty yards behind me there’s a library full of books that could quell the evening. But fucking Lawrence, my communications professor, and unchaining the secrets that he locks in his little metal box will distract me from the obsessive thoughts infecting my brain. Sex and drugs take my mind off almost anything, but even when I’m high on Klonopin, I think about what’s in the box. It’s gray, rectangular, and shoved into the corner of his wife’s closet, hiding under a pair of red pumps. Once, after sex, he found me toying with it and slapped me. The sting burrowed so deeply that I thought about not fucking him again, but then how would I be able to use vice as an escape? He apologized and begged for forgiveness, which I gave, even though his outburst triggered a curiosity that won’t end. And now the fascination with the box’s content consumes my every thought, pushing my feet farther down Campus Drive, closer to Sheridan Road, telling me that by the end of the evening I’ll understand why he hides it.

The sun sinks into Lake Michigan as I exit the bubble of academia and cross in the real world. Victorian houses, bigger than Lawrence’s ego, fill the historic North Shore neighborhood. A lake breeze kicks up and rustles through the leaves of century-old oaks lining the sidewalk and I catch a chill. Fall. Sweater weather. I should’ve worn one, but I’m donning the purple sweatshirt and black yoga pants that drive him mad, although I don’t know why. He says my blonde hair contrasts well against the sweatshirt, and the pants’ s Lycra clings to my ass in a way that’s arousing.

Freak.

Lawrence is sixtyish, balding, and lugging a pot belly that puts Buddha to shame, so he’s not hard to excite…and I have my suspicions that a wrinkly old nun, missing teeth, would arouse him.

Pushing the image of his naked body from my mind, I tear my eyes from the sidewalk and cut onto Lake Shore Boulevard. It’s a block from Evanston’s main drag, but miles from urban. Surveying the manicured lawns, I find his house ahead on the right, the two-story gray and white Victorian with wicker furniture sitting on the porch—not exactly somewhere I’d expect a kinky pill-popper to live. Lawrence likes to gulp Klonopin after light BDSM, says it calms his nerves, but I don’t understand why they’re frazzled. His sons are in medical school and his wife is the district’s alderman. Mayira’s priming herself for a mayoral bid that Northwestern’s political department predicts she’ll win. If she does she’d be the first female mayor in Chicago since Jayne Byrne, and to tell the truth, she’s got a good shot at it. Her nemesis, Republican Ronald F. Lord, has an image problem with women. He loves them a little too literally.

The withdrawal starts to rage and popping erupts in the arteries of my head. The first suicidal thoughts follow quickly. It’d be easy to step in front of a car, get it over with and kiss the world good-bye, but for some reason I keep venturing down the sidewalk. Maybe I really do want to understand why people love life, how they can enjoy it, and if I’ll ever be one of them…maybe not.

Before I realize how far I’ve walked, I’m standing on his porch where I drop my backpack to the welcome mat and pull my phone from my sweatshirt’s pouch.

“Keeping office hours today?” I ask.

“Samantha,” he says. “What a nice surprise. Why yes, I’m available for an after-hours appointment if you’re flush with pharmaceuticals.”

“You took all the Klonopin,” I say, ringing the bell. “We’re down to Xanax.”

An elegant chime dings and he disconnects. In a matter of seconds the pompous old windbag is standing before me, wearing wrinkled slacks and a brown tweed jacket, complete with tan elbow pads—a sure sign of psychosis.

“What a pleasant surprise,” he says, opening the door and motioning to the foyer.

I grab my pack and cross the threshold. The place looks like you’d imagine. Grandfather clock, oriental rugs, dark woodwork, a curving staircase. I eye the family photos of his sons and better half that lead up staircase. “Where’s the wife?”

“Mayira is attending a fundraiser at Art Institute. She won’t return until late.”

I climb the steps and feel the box’s magical presence seep into my bones. I’m closer to my answer now, and feel its radiating draw.

“She hung those,” Lawrence says, gesturing to photos of two blonde boys in football uniforms, “as a reminder of the best things to come out of this marriage.”

“Lovely.”

He laughs and follows me as the stairs behind me creek. I reach the top of the staircase and navigate the hall, pass the boys’ rooms, turn right. He enters the bedroom and leaves the door ajar.

“Samantha,” he says, removing his jacket and draping it over the bedpost, “our relationship has developed to the point that I feel comfortable telling you a disconcerting truth about my wife.”

“I don’t want to hear it.” I toss the pack to the floorboards and dig out the pill bottles. He unbuttons his Oxford and walks to the closet as I ogle the meds, greedy to consume the power that places me closer to release.

“I no longer love her,” he calls from his closet. “I’ve filed for divorce. But politicians and messy marriages don’t play well in the eyes of a fickle public, and I’m afraid that to save her career she won’t grant my wish.”

“Maybe your problems would clear up if you stopped fucking your students,” I say, yanking my sweatshirt over my head.

“Don’t do that,” he warns, moving close. He pulls it back down. “You undress when you are told.”

He returns to the closet and reemerges naked—ropes, blindfold, paddle in hand. The sickness inside me smiles, knowing that tonight it will be fed. “Take two now,” I say, unscrewing the lid. “They need a while to kick in.”

He tosses the toys to the bed. Lawrence extends his open hand and I shake a pair of four-milligram beauties into his palm. In thirty minutes, he’ll be out like a light and I’ll be picking the lock to the box, that little metal box that has all the answers to drive this obsession from my brain.

“Disrobe,” he commands.

I tug my sweatshirt over my head.

“As I was saying,” he continues, swatting the paddle against his palm, “sexual gratification with students who possess intellectual capabilities beyond advanced scopes seems to bring a delight that my wife is incapable of providing.”

Lawrence and his bullshit. So annoying.

I heave the sweatshirt to the floorboards and let my eyes follow the wood’s grain to her closet door.

Sensing my disinterest, he scowls. “Remove your pants.”

I do as I’m told and he babbles about how unfulfilling life becomes in old age, the general ‘poor-me’ dogshit that rich assholes spew. While he talks I stare at the closet’s folding left door, eager to discover the treasure beneath the red pumps. In my mind’s eye I see the lock-pick kit stashed in the backpack’s darkness. It’s silver, shiny, and ready to work.

He binds the rope around my wrists and directs me to position myself in the usual way. I walk to the opposite side of the bed and oblige, focusing on the door, remembering the lightness of the box in my fingers and the absence of sound when it moved. What’s in there? Documents? Photos? Something that’d grant me power over him or fill my pockets with money for meds? What’s so sacred that a man is willing to strike his student, lose his job, and endanger his wife’s career for it?

He stops jabbering and I don’t feel the first tap pat my backside. Or the second. Before the third, he bends over my body and brushes my hair from my ear.

“Mayira knows about you,” he whispers. “And those who came before.”

“And?”

He wraps the blindfold around my eyes and cinches it tight at the back of my head. “And my philandering displeases her, as does my student’s need to communicate my appetites to the media.”

I only care about the box. “I don’t feel that need.”

“I’m so glad.”

The next blow I feel.

Pain bites me, making the world go black and numbing my angst.

When the deed is done, he unties my wrists and lays by my side while trying to keep his eyelids open.

I rise from the bed, thighs stinging, and quietly dress. Electricity surges my veins when I see the closet door and sense gratification.

As I draw back the door, a hazy red mist seems to surround the pumps. They’re stashed in the corner behind loafers and sandals, waiting for me. I sink to my knees and pinch the hind quarters together, reposition them gently beside the loafers. Grasping both sides of the box, I remove it from the closet and tuck it beneath my arm. Carefully I rise and loop the pack’s carrying strap around my finger, tiptoe down the stairs.

The study adjacent to the den is quiet and dark. A single floor lamp lights the room. I rest the pack on the couch’s corner, sink onto the leather cushion, and position the box in my lap. My respirations slow. My senses quicken.

Without removing my eyes from the treasure, I reach into the backpack and extract the nylon, tri-fold kit. I place it alongside my thigh, tear the Velcro closures apart and remove the smallest pin. Easily it slips into the box’s lock which unfastens with a single twist.

For weeks I’ve waited for this moment, fantasized about its satisfaction, but once I open the treasure, the anticipation of release will die. Minus the right mix of meds, suicidal thoughts will return and a new obsession will spring into this one’s place. The thoughts will torture me. Should I open it?

Of course I should.

I slide the pick into its case and return the kit to the bag. The rush that courses my veins is more euphoric than drugs, more intense than sex, and perhaps better than sanity itself. I rest my fingers on the lid and exhale.

“You know what makes me happy?” a woman’s voice calls.

I tear my gaze from the prize to find Mayira leaning on the doorjamb, brushing nothing from the leg of her dark pant suit. Her wrinkled brow is heavy, her short hair is coarse and gray.

“The truth,” she says.

My heart stops.

She sashays to the couch, hovers over me. “But I doubt you’ll feel the same.”

She hooks my backpack’s carrying handle around her finger, lifts it from the cushion then glides through the doorway. “What’s inside that curious little box,” she calls as she disappears, “isn’t as important what happens after you’ve seen it.”

Steps on the staircase creek and I deposit the box onto the couch, then follow the sound.

Without a word I climb the stairs and enter the bedroom where Maiyra stands beside the bed, holding my backpack, watching Lawrence lay naked on the comforter, snoring.

She situates the pack on the bed, between the ropes and paddle, then rummages through it and extracts the pills. “Xanax,” she says, examining the label. “Are the Klonopin gone?”

I don’t know what to say. “Good guess.”

A wicked smile overtakes her lips. “In the old days he preferred speed or cocaine, but time changed the drugs, and Millennials prefer pharmaceuticals to street fare. Just as well. His heart couldn’t take the impurities.”

She drops the meds into the pack, moves uncomfortably close.

“The truth, my sad, little dear, is vicious and unpredictable…like tonight. Who knew I’d return for a flash drive and find my husband’s manic distraction snooping through my box?”

Her box? “I…I…”

“Did what you see shock you?”

“I didn’t see anything.”

She looks down her nose at me in the same way that a scolding mother looks at an errant child. “It shocked me.”

“I didn’t see—”

“As grotesque as it was, what you saw assures my victory. Lawrence knows what’s in the box. He put it there. Unfortunately the courts would find his…hobby…prison worthy.” She pauses. “Does knowing that satisfy you? Does it give you the happiness you’re searching for?”

Bile rises in my throat. My lips begin to tingle. I should’ve turned around and hoofed it to the library while I was still on campus, when there was still a chance. If I had, none of this would’ve happened. Why didn’t I just stick with a good book? “No.”

“Perhaps more truths will remedy that.”

She glides to the opposite side of the bed, lifts a pillow from the sheets. “My political vision backs funding for the arts, education, and research that promises to cure mental illness. Tonight you can choose to help people, Samantha. You can choose to help yourself.” She pauses. “How many milligrams did you give him?”

“Eight.” I whisper.

“That’ll do.”

She returns to his side, clutching the pillow in her hands as she looms.

I choke down the bile and clear my throat. “Don’t—”

“The pursuit of happiness,” she says, lowering the pillow and smothering his face, “carries a high price.”

My self-control evaporates. I snatch the paddle from the comforter and smack it into her ear. An unnatural crack shatters the silence before she hits the floor. Like a wounded animal, Mayira recoils into a ball.

I snatch the ropes from the bed.

After binding her wrists to her ankles, I watch as her eyelids flutter. She lays moaning at my feet, rolling her head from side to side. I shift my gaze from her body to his, trying to absorb the surreal image and that won’t silence the voice in my head. The box. The box. My mind’s eye sees it waiting for me in the study, quiet on the couch, begging to be opened.
Down the stairs I go, ignoring the creaks as they groan in protest of what I’m about to do. I scoop the prize from the sofa and load it into my backpack.

I quick-step down Lake Shore Boulevard as the straps tug on my shoulders, reminding me of the satisfaction that’s safe and warm inside my pack. I can hardly wait to open it. The library is closer than my apartment and doesn’t have roommates. The moment will be bliss.

I retreat from Sheridan Avenue back into the bubble, electrified to see light shining from the library’s windows.
When I throw open the heavy door I give the guard a smile, swipe my pass at the lobby’s security checkpoint, then push through the turn-sty. I hurry by rows of bookshelves and countless empty chairs, trying not to look conspicuous, willing myself not to run, but the task feels impossible. The weight from the box keeps tugging at the shoulder straps, their pressure teasing my obsession. The thoughts spin at a fevered pitch and I savor the sound of blood pounding in my ears. My feet move faster as I cut across the aisles and weave past the tables, bee lining to a forgotten nook the back. Open the box. Open the box.

Finally I reach my destination and tear the straps from my shoulders. Inhaling, I drop into the chair, disbelieving that the moment is here. It’s finally here. Every cell in my body is ready.

Caution guides my fingers as I rest the box on the table, the soft sound it makes when it contacts the wood resonates in my ears. My respirations slow. I wrap my fingers around the lock and remove it from the fastener, place my fingers on the lid.

Gently, I lift.

Glory.

Staring at me is a grainy color photo of the man who owns half of this city, the Republican mayoral candidate, and Maiyra’s nemesis, Ronald F. Lord. He stands at the edge of Lawrence’s bed, wooden paddle in hand, knees pressed into the calves of a slim Asian girl bent over the mattress. Her thighs are bound. Her face is bleeding. The rope around her neck is loose, but her eyes are rolled back in her head.

I take the picture from the box and scrutinize the image, realizing life has left her body. My stare passes over the cord and travels across the comforter, onto the tall bed post where a brown tweed jacket, complete with tan elbow pads, hangs.
He’s sicker than me.

Mayira was right…happiness carries a high price, but it’s one I’m willing to pay. Her mission to fund the humanities and education, champion research that eradicates mental illness, won’t be destroyed because her husband wants a divorce. He can’t have one. Her calling to serve the greater good must be answered. And I must help.

I have a purpose now, I have a mission. I realize my objective and return the photo to the box, then load it into my backpack. Outside the library, the night air is more crisp and the traffic sounds more sharp. As I step down Sheridan Avenue and cut onto Lake Shore, I sense the peaceful calm that penetrated my mind when I first held the box. The sensation is magic.

Lawrence’s front door is unlocked and I push it open, then climb the creaking stairs. I survey the pictures leading up the stairway that showcase two little boys growing into men. While I gaze at them I understand why people love life and want to enjoy it. Through their children, they have hope for renewal, which is a feeling that now grows inside me.

When I enter the bedroom Maiyra is still bound on the floor. She shouldn’t be…and the sight makes me nauseous. As I stride beside her and kneel, she widens her eyes. I remove the backpack, then rest it against the nightstand.

“Victory,” she whispers.

The word rings in my ears. I remove the box and rest it on the floorboards, listening to the syllables repeat in my head as I untwist the knots. She pushes herself from the floor and brushes off her pants.

“Victory,” I whisper. I move to the bed, consumed by the calming warmth that radiates from my brain, then lift the pillow from beside Lawrence’s shoulder. Peacefully he snores as I raise it over his head and smile.

#

Julia Lightbody is a high school Spanish teacher in rural Wisconsin where she mothers two rambunctious sons and drives fast her Shelby GT 500. She loves her black lab, Bucky, and traveling to Central and South America with her husband. She has written for Crimespree Magazine and Mystery Writers of America while continuing to pen twisted novels featuring even more twisted heroines. Friend or message her on Facebook at Julia Lightbody.

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