by Chris Yodice
The girls always thought that there was a head in the box, but they couldn’t imagine whose.
They remembered their father making “arrangements” for a great-uncle who had died, but that was less than a year ago, and the box was older than that. Besides, those arrangements, they had been told upon inquiry, were for the whole body.
Family photo albums were strewn with the faces of men and women they had met once or twice and had never seen again. And there were some they had never met at all. Though their parents consistently described these people as old friends, or even family, when questioned on their current whereabouts, they were often vague.
“I’m not sure,” their father would say with a slight shake of his head.
“Oh,” their mother would say, “They’re around.” Sometimes she would laugh.
These responses only emphasized the unaccounted-for status of any number of heads from their parents’ past.
The box sat on the top shelf in their parents’ closet, out of reach of the girls’ little fingers, even if they were to pile their mother’s paisley storage boxes one on top of the other and climb up. Which they had tried twice.
So they contented themselves, when their parents were otherwise occupied, with opening the door to the small walk-in closet and stepping inside. They would stare up, their necks bent as far back as they would go. The box itself was silver and based on its sharp reflection of the closet’s single light bulb, was likely metal. It had well-defined edges and a discrete top that fit snugly on the base. It was probably twelve inches square. Sara, the older girl, had learned about the volume of cubes in school the year before.
The box looked somewhat out of place among the more common and pleasant objects in their parent’s closet. To its right was a see-through plastic storage container with several drawers in which their mother kept gift-wrap items – folds of paper, assorted cards, and brightly colored ribbons. One of the sections contained craft accessories. To its left was a pile of sweaters and sweatshirts, fluffy and familiar, favorites of their parents when the air turned crisp.
It would have sat there essentially unnoticed, that silver box, were it not for the peculiar comment that Samantha, the younger girl, claimed to have overheard the only time that she saw it off the shelf. She had walked by their parents’ bedroom and, standing in the hallway, had seen their mother and father sitting on the bed with the box between them. The top was removed and lay on the white and lavender flowered comforter. Peering inside, their father wore an expression of wrinkled disagreement while their mother looked quite pleased.
“We should wrap it better,” their father had said. “Or else the nose will fall off.”
This, at least, is what Samantha reported to her sister. Sara initially disagreed.
“I was right behind you, Squish-Face,” she had informed her sister in a superior tone, proud of the term of endearment she recently coined. “He didn’t say ‘nose.’” But her certainty wilted when she found herself unable to state with real confidence what the word had actually been. “Rose?” she suggested. “Bows?”
As the days passed and Samantha kept on, tenacious in her six-year-old’s insistence that she knew exactly what she had heard, Sara eventually became convinced that what was in the box was indeed a head.
The girls did not mention the comment to their parents and certainly never asked about the box directly. But they often talked among themselves.
One mid-spring evening, when the daylight lasted until just after dinner, they stood outside their parents’ bedroom door looking in. They spoke in whispers as the long shadows of the backyard trees reached across the room toward where they were standing.
“Why are they keeping a head in the box?” Samantha asked.
“Where else would they keep it?” Sara said. She considered her answer logical. Had she been familiar with the word, Samantha might have called it sarcastic.
“Do other people keep heads in boxes?”
Sara did not know the answer. As she decided whether or not to admit this and found herself leaning toward an authoritative maybe, she was startled by a voice from behind them.
“What’s going on here?” their mother asked. She was rubbing her hands together and Sara smelled the vanilla lotion that they kept by the kitchen sink. She liked that smell.
The girls were silent. Sara looked at Samantha, saw her mouth open, and watched her tongue slip over her bottom teeth and behind her lip; it flared at the sides. She was about to talk, Sara realized.
“That’s okay,” their mother said first. She smiled and stilled her hands. “Sisters can have their secrets.”
“We can?” Samantha asked.
“Sure,” their mother said. “In fact, everyone has secrets.”
“Really?” Samantha asked. “Everyone?”
“Your friends, my friends. Even your father and I.” She winked. “It’s perfectly normal.”
Samantha considered this for a moment. She stole a quick glance toward the closet door and her tongue flashed.
“Are we normal?” she asked. “Our family?”
Her mother laughed, bent over, and kissed the top of the younger girl’s head.
“Normal depends on how you look at things, sweetheart,” she said. “But we’re as normal as anyone else, I can tell you that.”
She bent again and kissed Sara. She took both girls by the hand and led them into the kitchen. Their father was stepping away from the dish rack, setting a towel down on the stove handle. He looked outside.
“It seems to be just warm enough for ice cream,” he said. “Anyone interested?”
Samantha responded immediately, jumping up and down. Sara was more subtle. But, yes, she was interested. She considered the conversations of the last few minutes. Ice cream on a spring night was normal. A head in a box in the bedroom? She wasn’t sure. What she knew was that she loved her family; Samantha did too. And they were happy. For the moment they put aside all of their questions and enjoyed the evening.
But they were still curious.
The day that the girls finally reached the top shelf was bright and warm. By mid-afternoon, their parents were entertaining friends in the backyard. Sara and Samantha were in the kitchen hovering around the cheese that had been left when the grown-ups took their wine glasses out to the patio. “Let’s take advantage of the day,” their mother had suggested.
Sara watched them through the glass door, wondering if they all really did have secrets, when she noticed a stepstool resting against the wall. She had seen her mother use it last night, re-hanging her newly laundered valances above the kitchen windows. It seemed the day would offer an opportunity for them all.
The two girls pulled the stepstool as quietly as they could down the hall and into their parents’ bedroom closet. Sara opened it, climbed to the top, and picked up the box. It was heavy and cool. Samantha stood a step below her, one hand grasping the bottom of her sister’s yellow sundress. She let go quickly upon seeing Sara turn, swinging the box toward her. Unprepared for the weight, the younger girl almost dropped it with a huff.
Placing the box on their parent’s bed, the two girls stared at it for a moment. They had never seen it this close. There was no lock and the top looked as if it would come off easily enough. Sara wondered aloud if they would recognize the head. Samantha, looking much like her father, wrinkled her nose. The sound of the adults laughing came in through the back window.
“Ready?” Sara asked.
Samantha nodded. She looked very serious. The girls each placed their hands on opposite sides of the top of the box and counted to three, the younger’s count coming half a beat behind the older’s. As suspected, the top came right off.
They both laughed when they looked inside, relieved not to find a face, familiar or otherwise, looking up at them. Their parents may have secrets, but, here, the question of normalcy was finally settled. It was not a head in the box after all.
The activity in the backyard lulled. It picked up again soon enough but the momentary stillness startled Sara. The inner calm that came with her sated curiosity would be quickly dispelled if she and her sister were caught. Their mother may allow secrets, but she was not fond of snooping.
“Okay,” she said to Samantha, “let’s put it back.”
They slipped the cover into place and Sara hurried back up the stepstool. Her footing secure, she reached forward and returned the box to its shelf. After a quick peek through the bedroom window confirmed that the adults were wholly occupied with their own activities in the light of the open yard, the girls replaced the stepstool where they had found it. A gentle breeze rippled the curtain at its side.
Samantha was ready to walk outside, her mouth filled with cheese, when Sara thought back to what could have made them think there was a head in the box to begin with. Her sister. Her sister and her sister’s imagination.
Sara stepped into the bright sunshine beaming through the backdoor screen and caught Samantha by the shoulder.
“I told you Daddy didn’t say ‘nose,’” she said. She never should have doubted herself; she wouldn’t next time.
Samantha turned, her face blank. Then her features opened wide with realization, the connection made between the cryptic comment and what they had actually found in the box, which was as far from a head as could be. She giggled, the sprightly sound blending with the laughter from outside.
“Ohh,” she said, drawing out the word with knowing satisfaction. “He said ‘toes.’”
CHRIS YODICE lives and writes in New York. His stories can be found online at MicroHorror, Bewildering Stories, and Toasted Cheese, as well as in print in Rosebud Magazine and (shortly) Conceit Magazine. Chris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.