Palo Alto Weekly 27th Annual Short Story
Third Place Teen
The Vanishing Box
by Caroline Bailey
It's raining as Felicia Owens pulls me through the streets of San Francisco. The flashing headlights of cars are the only things penetrating the foggy mist, their bright shadows illuminating the raindrops in their path. Together, we cross Valencia Street and run fifty meters down a narrow alleyway, stopping at the back entrance of the Marsh Theater.
"Are you sure we're allowed to be here?" I ask as we enter. The theater is dark and silent — Felicia's uncle's magic show isn't until much later tonight. We're standing backstage, and everything around us is covered in chipped black paint. My eyes dart around the cramped space, searching the dark nooks and crannies for who knows what. I hate not knowing what might be hidden there.
"The place is empty, Ben," Felicia says. I blush, wondering if my fear is really that obvious. "Who will know? Stop being such a worry-wart and hurry up. I have to show you something." She drops her coat on the floor by the doorway, then disappears into the wings. I follow suit, breathing a sigh of relief. She thinks I'm scared of being caught, which is a lot better than her knowing about my fear of the dark.
Felicia charges to the center of the stage, where a wooden cabinet with one large door sits. Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I join her.
The cabinet is half my height and close to my width. The entire box, including the hinges, round handle, and square feet, is constructed of a light colored wood that's been sanded down to smoothness. The craftsman who made it was clearly skilled, because no signs of nails or screws are visible.
"It's a Vanishing Box," Felicia says, looking at it with something close to reverence. "My uncle bought it for his show. He won't tell me or Aunt Tia where he got it."
"What does it do?"
"Watch," she says. With a flourish, she pulls an unsharpened, No. 2 pencil out of her pocket and opens the cabinet. It's as plain inside as out. Felicia places the pencil on the cabinet's floor and withdraws her hand quickly, as if the box is made of live coals. Then she smiles and beckons me to sit in front of her, next to the box's door.
"Sit here," she instructs, "and look at the pencil for as long as you can."
I obey, and Felicia kneels directly behind me. She reaches around me and slowly pulls the cabinet door shut. I can feel her quick, excited breaths on the back of my neck. Her blonde hair falls in a curtain around my face, tickling the tops of my ears. She smells like vanilla and cinnamon. With no small amount of effort, I drag my attention away from her and focus on the Vanishing Box. The gap between the door and the side of the box gets smaller and smaller until only a sliver of pencil is visible.
With a thump, the door closes. The pencil disappears from view. Instantly, Felicia flings the door wide open again, but the pencil's gone. Felicia smiles in satisfaction.
"Where'd it go?" I ask. I run my hand over the spot where the pencil once was and then gently pat the back of the cabinet, feeling for trapdoors. Then I climb inside and crane my neck to look up at the cabinet's roof.
"What are you doing?" she hisses. "Get out of there, Ben!"
I frown. "Why?"
"I don't know. It could be dangerous." She wiggles her eyebrows as she says that, evidently pleased by my curiosity.
I don't understand how it could be dangerous, because the door is wide open, and the pencil only disappeared when the door was shut. But I get out anyway. "Where'd the pencil go?" I repeat.
Felicia shrugs. "Nobody knows how Vanishing Boxes work. Not even Uncle, though he's been trying to get his hands on one for years." Her voice lowers as she says the next bit. "It's one of the world's greatest mysteries."
I don't reply. No box, no matter how strange, no matter how powerful, could be more mysterious and alluring than the girl standing in front of me.
Even so, hours after I had left the Marsh Theater I still couldn't get the Vanishing Box out of my head. Where did it come from? How did it work? Surely someone must know. And why had Felicia showed it to me, of all people? True, I had liked her since sixth grade, but she had never showed signs of reciprocating my feelings.
I daydreamed about the Vanishing Box the next day at school, too. My mind would zone out and I'd wander around aimlessly. And that was precisely what I was doing when I received a sharp shove in the back from one Ronald Durchmire.
"Hey, guys, it's Ben the Pin!" he exclaims loudly to his two cronies, Arnold Grilin and Henry Cash.
"Nice to see you too, Ronald," I mumble, looking around. They've cornered me good—the hallway we're in is empty and goes on for another twenty meters, too far to run without Ronald catching up to me. I'm trapped. My palms start sweating, and I wipe them hastily on my pants.
"Get the pun? 'Cause you're, like, a pinhead," Ronald says. Arnold and Henry laugh.
"Very funny, Ronald," I say.
"So whatcha dreamin' about, pinhead?" Ronald asks. "Your girlfriend?"
"Ben forgot he has a girlfriend," Henry says. "Tsk-tsk. She's not going to be happy."
"Wow, Henry," I say. "You talk? I thought your mommy gave up trying."
I've pushed the right buttons. Henry looks like he wants to slug me. Feeling slightly more confident, I turn towards Ronald. "What girlfriend?"
"Felicia Owens, pinhead." He leans against the wall, the definition of cool, Henry's anger disturbing him less than a hunk of dead meat disturbs a butcher.
"She's not my girlfriend, Ronald," I say.
"Nah, but you sure want her to be, don't ya," he says. "I saw you staring at her in English."
I try not to wince. I'm always catching myself staring at Felicia at the most random times. It's like my eyes are magnetized, drawing them to her whenever I'm not consciously looking away.
"Dream on, Ben the Pin," Ronald says, laughing.
I glare at him. "It's not impossible, you know."
"Oh yeah, she took you to see that Disappearing Box yesterday, didn't she?" Ronald says. "She showed me that a week ago. Freaky, right?" Ronald's voice trails away. I think I see him shiver, but it must've been a trick of the light. Ronald isn't scared of anything. "She's been working her way through the whole class, taking kids up to that theater and showing off that stupid box. Girl's obsessed with that thing. And I gotta say, it's a pretty creepy obsession for a broad like that."
I feel my heart sink. So it hadn't been just me. "I wasn't talking about the box thing," I lie feebly.
Ronald sees through me like I'm polished glass. He shakes his head. "Move on, Ben the Pin," he says. "That girl will break your heart into tiny pieces."
He's looking at me with something like pity. It's far worse than the stupid grin he normally slaps on his freckled face.
"I gotta go, Ronald," I say. I start to walk out of the corridor, and Ronald doesn't follow me.
I keep walking until I'm off school campus, then break into a run. I have no sense of direction; my steps take me on a blind path through the streets. Then I catch sight of Felicia, walking with Katie Harlem, and realize I was retracing the route to the Heartland Theater.
Katie Harlem's a good seven inches shorter than Felicia, with long brown hair that hangs down to her waist. The two girls are talking and laughing, their arms swinging lazily at their sides. In Felicia's back pocket is an unsharpened, No. 2 pencil.
I follow them all the way to the Marsh Theater, wait for a minute after they go in, and then enter myself. I sink into the darkness of the wings and watch them. On a normal day, I wouldn't have been able to stay in the dark for more than a minute before running out the theater door in fright. Now the darkness doesn't bother me. Perhaps I have discovered that the unknown isn't so bad after all. A lot of the time, it's better to not know.
Felicia goes through the whole show again, exactly the same as she did yesterday. With a quick closing of the door, the pencil disappears. Unlike me, Katie stays as far away from the Vanishing Box as possible. She jumps back when she sees the pencil's gone, and from that point onward she refuses to go within a ten foot radius of the box. She's clearly terrified of the thing. Maybe that's why Felicia brings us all here—to see our reactions, just for entertainment. I don't think that's it, though. Doesn't seem quite like Felicia.
I've spent my whole junior high existence pondering the enigma that is Felicia Owens. I was both in love with and scared of her. It occurs to me now that maybe I wasn't the only one. I wonder how hard she works to maintain that image.
The girls walk out of the theater, and the door shuts with a clang behind them. I'm left alone with the Vanishing Box and my thoughts. Carefully, I come out of my hiding place and walk over to the box. It stares innocently back at me, as though unaware of its formidable task.
I open the door easily, observing the box's smooth interior. Maybe it's not formidable at all. Maybe it just...takes you away. To someplace better.
I could fit inside, without too much trouble. The thought comes to me, unbidden as the wind. I do so, and although I have to bend my knees and tilt my head, I'm relatively comfortable. I look back out at the door.
What would happen if I closed it? Would I vanish, too? Just one more object, disappearing at Felicia's whim.
How hard could vanishing be, really? To just be gone? To disappear? Not hard at all.
The only way to conquer the unknown is to dive right into it.
My hand shakes as I grab the door. What am I doing? Some rational part of my brain cries out for help. But there's no going back now. Taking a deep breath, I pull it shut.