Little Boxes by Meredith Bastien
He told me his family raised him to believe in the magical powers of gemstones. Maybe that explains it all.
Sam was always more interesting than me, that’s for sure. He dropped out of college and delivered mail for a while. On his first day here, he said how much he liked working indoors for once. In one of the drawers in his desk, he had a box of rubies, sapphires, and topaz. He said they gave him emotional strength.
“I don’t want to hear anything you have to say,” I said on his last day.
“Is any of this new to you? Are any of these feelings new? Have you done all this before? Is this special for you?” he asked in the dark on my bed. Sam was the fucking worst because everything was new to him. His skin looked like it had never been bruised before—like his job was to bathe in milk.
“I mean…I’ve had sex before,” I said.
I could have said something really mean, but instead I just pretended to fall asleep. He hated working here, so he’s quitting to backpack through Europe. He didn’t like cubicles; only dead people should live in boxes, he’d say.
In high school, I was voted Most Likely to Become President, but instead I’m in a cubicle, where I stare at a computer screen and avoid the Manic Pixie Dream Boy I work next to. I was the fucking head cheerleader with a 3.7 GPA and a good scholarship. But, somehow, I’m here.
“Can’t you just be nice to me today?” Sam asked, cornering me in the copy room.
Conversations like this are probably the reason my mother was on some substance or another for the majority of her life. She used to walk me to school with a beer in one hand and me in the other. She didn’t fight when Dad finally got custody. Maybe she wanted a better life for me but didn’t know where to start.
“You’re still here?” I said to Sam, with the cruelness of my seventeen-year-old self.
He looked hurt, as only young, entitled men can. I don’t think I meant anything to him; I hope I didn’t, at least. However, I did feel pretty confident I could say anything I wanted, and he wouldn’t file a complaint to HR. His face was attractive in a boring way, and he wrinkled it up like he was going to say something important.
“Were you ever going to tell me that your mother died?”
I hadn’t told anyone at work.
“Your father accidentally called the wrong extension and just started talking,” Sam told me. “That was a while ago, and you never said anything.”
“If she can die anyway she wants to, then I can deal with her death anyway I want to,” I said. It was uncomfortable being this emotional in the copy room, where everything comes out the same.
“You never really cared about me, did you?”
I rolled my eyes. He was such a baby.
In high school, I heard this story about a dying bird flying into a classroom at some school that I didn’t go to. The bird flew in splashing drops of blood around the room and came to land on this one kid’s desk. The kid took the bird in his hands, and all of the kids in the class surrounded him and watched the bird slowly stop breathing. He got up and walked out of the classroom with the bird, and everyone else followed. The high school was right next to a highway, and the kid threw the bird into traffic while everyone watched.
I thought I knew who the kid was. I called him in the public privacy of my own cubicle.
Peter, the kid now an adult, remembered my name. He told me he was working as a freelance sci-fi writer. I told him I worked at a bank. He told me he was engaged.
As teenagers, we were in a church group together. One Wednesday, he came in late, but just in time for him to tell the group his highs and lows for the week. My high was that I did well on some paper and my low was that cheerleading practice was rough, or something. He said his high was that his English teacher played a movie in class, and his low was that his mom died. We all gasped, got really quiet, and then spent the rest of the night praying for him. That’s why I didn’t tell anyone at work.
“What was it like when your mom died?” I asked him on the phone.
“My world ended,” he said.
“Were you sad?”
“My whole world ended.”
I told him that my mother choked on her own vomit while on some medley of illegal substances three weeks ago. He got quiet.
“I remember seeing your mom at church on Christmas Eve.”
I remember Peter was an awkward fat kid who told us his mom died of brain cancer while wearing a shirt that said, “The only thing I smoke is the competition.”
“Do you remember the story about the bird that flew into a classroom of some high school and then died in some kid’s hands? And then the kid, like, walked out of the school and threw the bird into cars on the freeway with everyone watching?”
He didn’t say anything.
“That’s kinda how I feel,” I said and hung up the phone.
Sam must have heard from his neighboring cubical and rolled his chair over to mine. “You’re not supposed to make personal calls during work hours,” he said.
“Sit on a knife,” I said.
I didn’t talk to Sam for the rest of the day, but I ate three cupcakes at his going away party, which took up thirty minutes of paid work time.
The rain that night was the worst part. My broken umbrella made me look like a fool to the homeless guy in front of my apartment building. He always heckled me as I walked by.
“Hey, why don’t you get yourself a new umbrella, lady—”
I cut him off.
“Just let me live and let me die!” I screamed. “Live” and “die” echoed against the buildings on the block.
Ten minutes later, nine floors up, I found that Sam had left some sapphires in my coat pocket. One time—in bed, in the dark—he told me that sapphires released darkness and cleared unwanted thoughts. I threw them out the window, into the traffic below.