Postage Due, Pandora
Katie thought the box was a joke at first.
The note on the plain brown craft paper read, in Stephen’s carefully overwrought calligraphy, “Thinking of you.” It had been waiting on the “mail table” in her front hallway when she’d arrived home. Looking at the package, she felt a tiny shiver at the nape of her neck. Putting it down to the air conditioning, after the humidity outside, she picked up the box. The first thing she noticed was heavy it was, like it was full of rocks. She pulled her hair out of her eyes, before the card got wet and unreadable. The skies had opened up about two blocks from home, and she’d had to run to avoid the worst of the downpour.
The gift was typical of her cousin Stephen. Currently, he was travelling in
, looking into a new group that was mixing ancient sitar raga, modern hip hop, and nu metal. At nineteen, he was the youngest-ever scout for Broken Needle Records. They’d been inseparable through six years of middle and high-school and the distance had strained their bond, but had yet to break it. Before he left, though, Katie had given Stephen a hard time, accusing him of leaving his family and friends behind. She realized now that it had been a grossly unfair way to treat her closest companion, and worried about it constantly. The arrival of the package was a good sign, it had to be. India
The postmark on the wrapping indicated he’d sent this from Mumbai. Katie peeled off the wrap to find a powder blue box, with gilded yellow scrollwork and long fabric tassels at the corners. But powder blue? Katie smiled. In the last three years at high school together, Stephen had defined goth for her, and she had gladly followed his lead; dressing exclusively in black for the remainder of their high-school years, earning them both the title of “the Trauma Twins.” If Stephen was buying her something powder blue, then things had definitely begun to change.
She was starting up to her room when her mother called from the kitchen, shouted actually, to be heard over her “Crazy Eighties” CD, which she always put on when she was doing housework. “What was inside the package honey?” she asked.
“A wooden box Mom. From Stephen. I haven’t opened it yet, but it looks pretty funny.”
“Funny how?” There was a hint of ice in her tone. Donna liked Stephen, but had never really forgiven him for taking Katie to get her first tattoo when she was eighteen.
“Um, it just doesn’t look like Stephen’s taste, or mine, for that matter.”
“Can I see it?”
“Not right now Mom, ‘kay?” Katie tried hard not to lose patience. She didn’t really need to do the full-on rebellion thing with her Mom, but she’d ditched her cigarette about three blocks from home, and had been chewing on strong mint gum ever since. The last thing she wanted right now was face time with Mom. Smoking she wouldn’t understand. She called down the hall, “I want to check it out first.”
“Okay honey, dinner in thirty, kay?” Katie heard the sound of running water, and the catchy synth of And I Ran was turned up. She went upstairs before she had to listen to her mother singing along.
She was so focused on the package, she could hardly look away, and stumbled on the last step, sending the box flying out of her hand. A previously unnoticed card shook loose of the wrapping and landed nearby.
She picked up the card, which was the same powder blue shade as the box, and had red Sanskrit on the top line, with English underneath.
“There is nothing in the box.”
Underneath that, written quickly in Stephen’s handwriting, which seemed oddly rushed and shaky, “Yes there is.”
Intrigued, Katie picked up the box and the brown paper, went into her bedroom, and closed the door.
Sitting on the bed, Katie held the box in both hands, and began to examine it. The hasp was standard. She’d had a half dozen diaries and jewelry boxes growing up that operated the same way, with a tiny gold hook and eyelet.
She was about to unlock the lid when her eyes caught sight of the card again, with Stephen’s hastily scrawled message. Interesting that he’d been in such a rush to write this one, but then had taken care to sign the outside packaging with his usual careful calligraphy.
Katie shook the box. It seemed empty, just an ordinary jewelry box, probably with little compartments inside. She was lowering the box back to the bed, when she felt something inside rolling around. It hadn’t been there a second ago, or it most certainly would have made a clatter when she shook it. Still though, she tilted her wrist to the right, and the something inside shifted again.
Little hairs were standing up on the back of her arms now. Whatever was rolling around in there sounded alive. This was a ridiculous thought, she realized. It was probably a marble, or, maybe some little piece of ornamentation that she’d broken loose with her shaking, and would be kicking herself for ruining in a couple minutes’ time. Nonetheless, the thought wouldn’t go away.
Katie decided to set the box on her perfectly flat night table, and study it for a little while longer. She set her present down; its weight now seemed heavier than before, and warmer.
The sound came again. Rolling, rolling.
“This is stupid.” Katie said aloud, trying to establish some sense of reason. It was probably some gag thing that Stephen picked up, full of magnets or something. It was like the rattlesnake eggs that her dad brought home one time. You got all worked up, she thought, and when you opened it up it was just a rubber band and a clothespin.
Katie thumbed the latch, forcing herself to laugh at her jitters, then lifted the lid by one of its golden tassels.
Free from the box, a small white marble flung itself into the air and landed squarely on Katie’s lap. The split second before it spun around, she knew what it would be.
The eye looked at her, and she looked back. In its silver iris, Katie felt, rather than saw, intelligence, and anger. It’s not rattlesnake eggs, she thought.