The first time I see her, it’s on the subway and her hair is some ridiculous shade of pink. She is huddled in a coat, a size too big and too flimsy for late November. On her knees sits a hefty square box, a chest of some sorts. The thing is massive and awkward to hold. It is impossible to place ones hands around it comfortably – an odd angle or a sharp rib is always in the way. Sniffling and brushing the muddled pink strands of hair off her forehead, she is consumed by the silent struggle. The box is unrelenting.
When she leaves the train three stops later, hauling the box along, arms straining against its angular bulk, I am right behind her. From four steps below on the escalator, I can see her thin ankles, a bit of skin showing, protruding like pale bell tongues from a pair of shapeless colorless boots.
Two days later, I spot her again from across the street. She is still lugging that box along, clutching it to her thin frame as if it holds all of her most dear possessions. I jump into the midday traffic weaving my way towards her. In vain. By the time I cross the street she has ducked into a narrow alley and is gone. Standing on a busy street corner, I shake like a hound that has lost scent of the game. What if I never see her again?
It is three weeks before I catch sight of her, three weeks filled with anxiety and dreary longing. Then one day, as I walk down the street, I turn my head and there she is, sitting on a low windowsill of a crowded coffeehouse. Her face looks drawn and she still seems to have that cold, may be, even running a fever. Her nose all but pressed to the windowpane, she is staring at the falling snow.
The fear of losing her makes me bold – I squeeze the door handle and walk into the noise and clutter of the coffeehouse. The box is sitting next to her, timber so dark it looks black, faded patterns of gold barely discernible on the lid. Stepping up to her, I say:
“I’ve seen you around before. Do you mind if I buy you a cup of coffee?”
She looks up. No answer is forthcoming for a long time. Her heart-shaped face is whiter than the snow outside, dark lashes casting shadows on porcelain flesh. Finally, she gives me a faint smile and says:
She is my little lamb, sweet and innocent. Her hands are hugging the cup I brought as if it is the only source of warmth in this cold-cold world. She sighs and I ask:
“What are you thinking of?”
“I am thinking about one stupid little girl. Divine gifts were cast upon her and the only thing she had to do in return was to keep the darned casket safe and never open it, but, of course, she did. Out of sheer stupid, childish curiosity. And all that the box held escaped into the world: the vilest of plagues, violence, all sorts of hate…”
“Yeah, that’s Ancient Greek mythology for you, the story of Pandora. Aren’t you too old to cry over fairy tales?”
I wink playfully, but she is still pensive, cradling the cup, holding it tightly to her chest:
“Can you imagine having to chase these monsters for all eternity? The cursed things have multiplied and proliferated, you know, and now come in all shapes and sizes, hiding even in human skin. They are a multitude and she cannot go home until she finds each and every one of them.”
She looks tired, sharing her weird reveries with me, and the snow keeps falling, fluttering slowly to the black pavement. There are many kids like her in this city, drifting like marooned boats, no strings attached and no lifeline to hold on.
“You are not from around here, are you?”
She shakes her head and gets up to leave. When she is at the door, I call after her:
“Hey, you never told me your name.”
“It’s Dora”, she says and stumbles out into the snow. I can see her small shape fading into the darkness beyond the street lamp, trying to keep her balance on the slippery pavement with that ugly box of hers. This time I am not anxious – I know that we will meet again.
She is right outside my door the next evening – sitting in the bus stop booth, the box her constant companion. She looks distraught and her fingers fidget across the cracks in the blackened lid. I smile and walk over:
“You look upset”
“I’ve lost something.”
“I can help you find it.”
Her eyes open wide. She looks excited, hopeful.
“Would you, really?”
I stretch out my hand:
“Why don’t you come with me?”
She gets up and walks beside me, the ridiculous box riding her left hip. We pass three blocks, take a turn to the right, duck through a gloomy underpass, loop around an abandoned church, and emerge close to the docks. She never asks where it is that we are going. We leave the streets behind, climbing through a tear in the wire fence behind the old armory – there are abandoned hangars here, warehouses of a ship trade long gone.
“Let me show you something”.
I push open the back door of an abandoned building near the pier and she follows me in, no hint of worry in her eyes. The building is empty. Pillars supporting its slated roof reach up from the clutter of junk on the floor to the cobwebs in the shadows above. She wanders among the abandoned machinery and empty crates, looking around in awe, as if the columns of an ancient cathedral stand around her.
I turn away and look out into the window over the waters of the frozen gulf, the tight knot of anxiety, brought by these past weeks, relaxing in my stomach. My fingers slide into the coat’s pocket and find the knife. It has served me well on a number of occasions and will do its job now. I slide it out of my pocket. The blade, cruel and sharp, ejects with a loud click. My mouth waters in expectation and turning around I say:
“This is not what you were hoping to find, is it?”
The blade is firm in my hand and I expect to see the sticky fear creep into her eyes, but her voice is bright and cheerful:
“Oh, don’t worry; this is exactly what I was looking for. I think you belong in my box.”
I swing around to face her. The box is in her hands and the lid is now open. The damned thing, I swear, looks bigger on the inside. Its swirling opening vortex grabs at something deep within me and pulls forward with a sickening lurch. Then there is darkness.
[Laila Amado is a migrating scientist and college professor, currently on her way from upstate New York to southern Europe. Her stories previously appeared in 121 Words, 101 Fiction, 365 Tomorrows, and Enchanted Conversation Magazine. She can be found on Twitter @onbonbon7.]