It's interesting starting a story at a seemingly random thought, and following it down a rabbit hole as it slowly dawns on you what you're writing about. This is a story about uncertainty.
Back and Forth, Over and Over
At the back of a dusty old shop, Annabelle sits every evening and counts boxes. Small tins and wooden chests and neatly folded shapes of old card. It gets cold as the sun goes down, and she brings in an old gas heater and sits close by, fire warming her bones as she neatly orders pile after pile of beautiful boxes.
She never opens them. That is strictly forbidden. The gentle old man who runs the shop reminds her, every day, not to open the boxes. Just to count them and to sort them and get them ready to be sold. Every few days, the man comes out the back to where Annabelle sits, and brings more boxes, takes a few of her neat piles. He checks, line by line, the intricately sketched records she makes in soft lead pencil in a large, leather bound ledger. He always smiles, nods, and tells her not to open any of the boxes.
Annabelle arrives at the store every day at about four thirty in the afternoon, just before business hours end and it is closed to the public, to prepare for her counting. She hardly ever sees customers, and she’s never seen anyone buy any of the boxes. The shop is so cluttered with all manner of antique knick-knacks and cracked old pieces of furniture that it’s hard to tell – but Annabelle isn’t sure that any of the boxes are even out there for sale. For all she knows, the man just takes the boxes home, and brings them back in a few weeks later, rotating through his own treasured box collection and paying her thirteen dollars an hour to constantly collate them.
She doesn’t complain. She is thankful for the money, and the quiet solitude that most jobs cannot afford. She enjoys the sound of the gas heater, comforting in its inefficient whirr.
If it were up to her, Annabelle would never leave.
One afternoon, Annabelle walks to work, and feels different. There is a light rain, and the bits of her auburn hair that poke out from underneath her soft hat get gradually damp on the commute. She can feel the tips of her fringe licking down her forehead, curling around her brow.
She thinks of things brushing her skin, and can’t place the memory.
At the store, she hurries out the back, past the nice old man who smiles pleasantly. She heads straight for her thinly carpeted, dim room, lined with haphazard piles of boxes, and fires up the gas heater. Tries to warm her chilled hands, but grimaces as the aging device sputters desperately in vain.
The old man comes in to see her before he leaves for the night, and she hasn’t even started the count. He isn’t angry – he just smiles and mentions the rain and leaves her an umbrella, for which Annabelle is grateful.
She thinks hard about umbrellas, and wonders what they’re for.
As the night wears on and the wind picks up outside, Annabelle can’t count.
She tries hard to keep focused, but finds herself continually going back and forth, over and over the same piles, trying to keep the numbers in her head long enough to make their way to the brittle paper of the ledger. She gets up, tries walking around in circles, fiercely rubbing her hands together, trying to pull herself into one, solid shape.
It’s too tough, and instead she watches the window as the world darkens, and the raindrops flicker through the growing yellow glow of a streetlight.
And then, she turns to the boxes, and decides to open one.
What can it hurt? They are light, they don’t rattle. They’re empty, she’s sure of it. She’ll open one, and then she’ll be able to count again.
No, no, she won’t. She won’t open one. That’s the only rule that she’s been given, and she mustn’t break it.
But she will break it. She knows this, long before she does the deed.
She picks a box at random. She thinks it’s at random, but she can’t be sure whether she’s seen the small wooden chest before. She might have longed after it for days, somewhere in the back of the pile; might have counted it before, over and over, constantly tracking it through page after page of the old box bible as the man rotated his stock.
She cannot remember, but it seems as good a box as any. Polished black, about the size of her hand, with green-tinged brass for hinges.
She can feel her fingers bristle as she pulls open the lid.
The box is plain and empty. Deep and dark. Annabelle breathes relief, and feels her mind coming back to her. It’s an instant settling, a skull unwound. Feeling returns to her digits.
She’ll close the box, and get back to counting.
But before she shuts the lid, Annabelle presses her fingers inside, just to make sure there’s nothing in there. Just to be absolutely, completely sure.
As she does, she feels her nails stick to the wood, and begin to sink.
Sink in to space.
Annabelle gasps, slightly, and wishes she’d never opened the box.
Her hair is dry, now.
Her hand pulls down, deep down into the box, stretching away from her. It’s a violent pull, a rushing of air through her ears, as some strange gravity drags her down, so fast she feels whiplash shoot through her neck. Annabelle feels her arm twist and slide into the tiny cube, and watches from afar as her whole self is dragged inside a box the size of her palm, sucked in like a vacuum cleaner.
Her vision goes dark, and then spikes with vivid colour.
She disappears into the box, and emerges somewhere else.
Just as quickly as Annabelle was pulled into the tiny black box, she is spat out of another box into another world.
She catches her breath. Feels the box in her hand. Feels herself outside of it.
This world looks very familiar to the last. The carpet is the same, the piles of boxes are the same. It’s still raining outside.
Annabelle checks herself over, and seems to be the same. Her hair is still dry. Or was it wet before? She can’t quite recall.
Everything appears to be okay. For all she can make out, she’s back in the back of the shop, just as she was before she had opened the box. She is rattled though, shaky on her feet. So, she puts the box down, and grabs her jacket, and ignores the ledger and gas heater and hurries out into the night to go home.
Home is the same too. Same floor and walls and pieces of furniture and clothes left out and dishes that need doing. Same quiet air and same still, soundless light.
Annabelle goes to sleep, and tries to forget the feeling of spiralling into nowhere.
The night is calm and welcoming.
The next day, Annabelle gets up, and goes about her day. Settles into her routine, and tries desperately not to interrupt it with thoughts of boxes.
But she starts to notice tiny differences. Small discrepancies in her world. There aren’t as many threads frayed on her jacket. The colour of her eyes seems slightly brighter. The noise her front door makes when it opens sounds different.
Did she return to her own world when she slid through the box, or did she emerge somewhere new, familiar but all the same alien? She searches, searches desperately through the house, checking everything against her memory, and always coming up slightly short.
She hurries back to work, earlier than usual, noticing tiny changes in the street and the people and the buildings as she speeds along. If there are tiny changes such as all of these, what else could be different? If she’s not in her world anymore, how can she trust anything?
She arrives to work so very early but forces herself to wait, wait for the nice old man to leave the shop. She smiles politely to him and leaves the gas heater off, and searches back through the boxes, finds her teleporting box, grips it to her chest, breathes deep, feels it rest solidly on her sinking breast.
Annabelle thinks carefully about her day, about all of the differences that she has noticed.
And admits to herself that maybe she might have made them all up inside of her head, underneath a mess of damp hair.
Maybe all of the imperfections are just self-imposed constructions.
Maybe nothing is different.
But how can she be sure?
So she opens the box, and spirals down into it, and pops out inside another identically different universe.
The feeling is equally as vertigo inducing as before. Darkness and vivid colour.
But the spinning slows as she arrives on the other side of the whirlpool, and Annabelle breathes relief as she is flooded with the familiar. Allows herself to rest for a moment. She has been teleported again, and this time it will all be okay.
She is back home. She must be, now.
Everything in its right place.
Annabelle looks down at the box as she closes it, and places it back amongst the endless pile of boxes.
Wonders, in the back of her mind, whether it’s actually the same box as the one she opened the night before.
Goes home, and counts the threads in her jacket. Listens to the swinging of doors as she tries to sleep in her cold, empty home.
And cannot quite be sure of anything.
Not sure of anything, except the fact that she’ll make it all better tomorrow.
Annabelle always lived a quiet life, full of pleasant solitude. Alone and at peace.
And now, Annabelle spends every evening opening boxes – box after box, flipping back and forth, over and over.
She goes to work, every day, and the kind old man smiles at her, peaceful and trusting.
“Remember. Don’t open any of the boxes.”
Annabelle smiles, and watches him go, and turns to the piles of boxes in solemn, panicked regret, and prepares to try to find her way back home.
A home stuck in a dusty shop, laden with choice. A home teetering on an endless stack of waiting worlds, calling quietly to Annabelle as she keeps on counting.
If it were up to her, she would never leave.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image public domain: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Archibald_Knox04.jpg