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Thread: Don't Open the Box

  1. #1
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    Dec 2014
    Indianapolis IN

    Unhappy Don't Open the Box

    Thank you for taking the time to read, this is my first post.

    This is ridiculous, Noah thought to himself. Sitting on a park bench and waiting for a stranger was not how he was planning on spending one of his only free days. Best-case scenario I'll walk out of here gaining nothing but junk. Junk would be a perfect homage to his father, and would be a fitting last gift.

    When death occurs in a family, there are things that get lost in common thought. They are drowned in the shock and the grief of the moment. For the deceased who live alone, there is now an empty apartment full of items devoid of purpose. It acts as a shrine to a life that no longer exists. In the case of Noah’s father, the only thing to find would be the babbling notebook of a lunatic, filled with drawings of playing cards and other such useless rummage.

    Noah thought it strange that he is twenty-five years old and has never had to grieve over a loved one before now. Maybe ‘grieve’ isn't the right word. ‘Deal with it’ would be a better way to phrase it. Noah had never been close with his father. He wasn't even sure if he loved him or not. He never truly loved anyone in his whole life except maybe his mother, with whom he barely spoke. Almost all of his relationships were masked with forced smiles and interest. He never liked being around other people. All his life, all they had done was dilute the word ‘love’ so much that he no longer had a personal definition for it.

    Noah's father, Julian Michael Henson, wasn't enough of a father to even be called one. Julian had been more of an uncle than anything. It wouldn't be fair to say that he had never been around because he had been, it was just at random times in Noah's life. Julian had shown up not to check up on Noah but to have a place to sleep while in town for a jazz show or to meet up with his old ‘war buddies’ as he called them. This would be less strange if Julian had been in a war, which he hadn't.

    Julian had a long family history of mental illness. Which is a less than lovely thing for Noah to look forward to. Julian had been a charming man. Unlike Noah, he loved being around anyone who would listen to or humor him. At a first glance it would have been hard to believe Julian was mentally ill. Noah inherited his dark hair and his gentle features and was told every now and then that he looked young for his age.

    About nine years ago Julian stopped visiting. Noah was relieved not to see him return. He had gotten pretty good at not thinking about Julian until a week ago, when he learned that his father had been shot in the chest. It had happened during a poker game in an abandoned building in some small town in Indiana. Noah didn’t like to think about Julian’s life, the weird decisions he made, or his death. It wasn’t that it was painful, it’s just seemed useless to him. Julian’s death is what brought Noah to that park bench.

    A couple of days ago Noah was contacted by someone named Nickel. Noah's first thought was that Nickel was a stupid name for a human being to be called but after he explained that he was ‘a friend of Julian's' it made more sense. Julian's war buddies were all just about as coo coo’ as he was. I don’t understand where he found these people. Noah thought to himself. Nickel explained to Noah that he has something for him, something that Julian had left in his possession and was to be given to Noah when the time is right. Nickel always referenced Noah’s father as ‘Julian’ and never mentioned the actual words ‘your father’. Noah wandered if Nickel was even aware that he was Julian's son.

    So here sat Noah, in a park where they had agreed to meet. It was a bit chili that day and Noah was beginning to seriously regret showing up at all. The Chicago wind never ceased to bother him, even though he’d lived there all his life. He put a cigarette in his mouth then realized he didn't have a lighter. He starred out in to the park, keeping a look out for a man that would look like he might possess the identity of Nickel. Noah listened to the somewhat distant rumble of the city that was around him. He sat there for a good twenty minutes until a man approached him. The man was wearing a long black jacket and a black baseball cap. He had random patches of scruff on his face and didn’t seem to care much about making a presentable appearance. He noticed that the man was carrying a cardboard box with him. Noah realized he had seen the man before. He was a war buddy of Julian's and would be at the house on occasion. He always wore that same outfit. Noah quickly wondered if this guy had ever showered in his life. Nickel came up and sat right beside Noah. He was silent for a good thirty seconds then said, "you do realize it's not summer."

    Noah looked at him for a few seconds. What a strange thing to say. It was late November and Noah had four layers of clothes on.
    "Of course I realize it isn't summer." he said, feeling very annoyed. He was not in the mood to mess with the crazy talk. "Did that belong to my father?" he asked, pointing at the box. Nickel stared at him and started to frown. Noah could tell that he was confused by the question, and then realized his mistake. "Julian. Did that box belong to Julian Michael?" He wondered how crazy this friend of his father’s was and if he was worth dealing with just to get an artifact that was most likely completely worthless.

    Nickel said nothing, handed Noah the box and then walked away. He muttered something to himself but Noah couldn't make it out. Just more nonsense he thought to himself.

    Here he was with his father’s last gift to him. Noah wondered if he should leave it on the bench and abandon it, just in spite, although he didn’t want this strange trip to the park to be completely in vain. It was a perfect cube and was sealed up. Noah was about to open it when a memory had just come to him. He almost cursed out loud for thinking of it. He couldn't believe that he didn't remember this until this very moment.

    Earlier this month, a few days before his father’s death, Noah received a letter. He has never had an abundance of friends and hardly ever received any mail. He was confused by the letter's arrival. What’s more, the letter didn't have a return address. Noah carefully opened it and pulled out its contents. There was a large blue sheet of paper folded up. Noah unfolded the paper and inside of it was another folded piece of paper, but this one was much smaller and red. It looked as though someone had folded it carefully. It seemed to be origami but it didn’t form the shape of anything. Noah played with the red piece of paper and unfurled some of the corners. It became a tiny boat. Noah was very intrigued. As he was admiring the strange gift his roommate, Henry, walked in.

    "What is that?" he asked.

    "It's a boat." Noah said. "My father sent it to me."

    "How do you know he sent it?" Henry wondered as he looked at the torn open envelope and noticed it had no return sender.

    "Because he use to make me origami all the time" he said silently. As if a flood wall was torn down Noah started remembering all the times Julian had made an origami artifact to cheer up Noah when he was young. It must have been when he still had some of his marbles, Noah thought to himself, because he remembers the look on Julian's face and how he truly enjoyed cheering up the boy. There was something genuine in that Julian, something he never saw from the older Julian and thought he might never see again.

    "Does she have a name?" Henry joked, "Every ship needs a name"

    Noah looked on the side to see if Julian had christened the paper ship. That's when he saw it. Not a name, but a short sentence was written on the side of it. The words were written in black paint and were very sloppy and tiny, but Noah was just able to make it out. Henry came around and put his head right by Noah's to see what he was looking at. While squinting his eyes he asked "what does it say?"

    Noah answered in a confused voice "It says: 'don’t open the box.'"


    Noah allowed himself a big sigh. He had put the boat in the back of his mind for a while. Still alone on the park bench he sat there and wondered what the hell kind of game his father was playing. Leave it to Julian to do something so nonsensical, he thought to himself. Send me a letter saying not to open a box, that I don’t even have yet, then instruct Nickel to give it to me upon his death.

    “Screw it" he said to himself out loud. He put his hand on the tape but then stopped. He just could not bring himself to do it. All he wanted was to be done with the death of his father. Be done with the sympathetic looks and the newfound closeness his mother now wanted to share with him. He wanted to be done with any thoughts he had about his father's descent in to madness and his lack of interest in being part of their family. All of it started with seeing what was in the box and most likely tossing it out, whatever it was. Despite all of this he still for some reason could not bring himself to opening it.

    Noah felt like he needed to get out of the park so he grabbed the box and started walking towards the library, where Henry worked. Noah was not able to pay attention to anyone or anything around him. The only thoughts that he had were about what was in the box and why his father sent him the boat. He was so puzzled by it that he didn’t even realize at first that there were a lot of people staring at him. He thought to himself that it couldn’t be that strange for someone to be carrying a box around. People carry stuff with them all the time. Almost every single person on the way there seemed to be sneaking glances toward him. He decided he would just ignore it.

    When Noah got to the library he decided not to seek out Henry right away. He wanted to be alone for a short while. He found a large windowsill in between two bookshelves and sat down, pondering what he should do with the box. Noah thought about how he would explain this to Henry and wondered if he would remember the origami boat. While he was thinking, an elderly woman approached the shelves and stood right next to him. She seemed homeless. Her presence made Noah very uncomfortable. He did not like for his personal space to be violated. Instinctively, not actually knowing why, Noah grabbed the box and moved it to the other side of him, as if to protect it from the woman. He got a good look at her. She had to have seen better days. She looked like she hadn't slept in a week and was coughing every few seconds. This alarmed Noah, he did not want to get sick so he decided it was time to go in and see Henry. Just as he stood up the woman said "please."

    Noah looked at her in confusion

    "Just let me see what's inside."

    Noah was very taken aback by this. This woman was obviously crazy. He wasn't going to open the box at the park for himself and he certainly wasn't going to for this crazy old woman.

    "I'm sorry" he said "but I can't."

    The lady looked very much disheartened by the news. "I need room to breath,” she said in a raised voice, “I need to get out!"

    Noah started to back away. The woman was starting to scare him. "I really am sorry" Noah said, starting to feel foolish for sticking up for something so silly. "If it were any other box..." he felt even more foolish for saying that. The woman must be thinking that he was as crazy as he thought she was. She walked away and Noah noticed Henry leaning on the bookshelf looking at the scene.

    "That's a sexy box you've got there." he joked. Henry had a habit of grinning.

    "It was my fathers" Noah said. That knocked the grin right off his face. Here come the sympathetic looks again. “For Christ’s sake” he said. “Look at me like a human being, not a wounded animal.” Noah felt a little guilty for getting frustrated over something so minimal. He knew Henry was only being a friend.

    He wasn't sure how he was going to explain to Henry what had just happened. He wasn't even sure what happened himself.

    "How long have you been standing there?" Noah asked.

    "Too long" said Henry and he gestured toward the exit. Noah got up from the windowsill. He and Henry started walking toward the front doors.

    "Let's go home, drink bourbon, and throw on some Gillespie." Henry said.

    "I hate jazz." Anything that reminded Noah of his father he wanted nothing to do with. He saw the irony in thinking this while carrying around this box. He suddenly wanted to get rid of it.

    "Yea, but you love bourbon, so let's go." he said as he put a cigarette in his mouth. Noah set the box on the steps, then started walking to the doors and caught up with Henry. "You have a light?" Henry asked. As Noah searched his pockets once again for a lighter Henry asked "wait, where's the box?"

    Noah pointed back at the steps.

    "You don't want it?"

    "I don’t want it" Noah muttered to himself while looking back at the box

    "What was in it?"

    Noah looked at his friend for a moment. "Do you remember the boat?"

    Henry thought for a moment "So there's more origami in there?"

    "No, that's not what I meant. I mean I'm not going to open it."

    "Good thinking, it's probably a bomb" he said with a grin. "In which case you shouldn't leave it on the steps of the library, as much as I would love to have a few days off work."

    "I don’t want it" Noah repeated.

    "Look Noah,” Henry had a serious look on his face. “Your father wasn't the brightest of men."

    Noah looked up, shocked and pleased at the candor. For once words were spoken about Julian that were not just a watered down version of what he had truly been. Just because he was gone didn’t mean he should be treated like he had been a better man. Even after his death he found a way to be an absolute lunatic and annoy Noah one more time with this stupid box.

    Henry continued "But he somehow managed to organize it so that this box got to you and was put in your hands, I think that's worth something.”

    Noah looked back at the box and contemplated picking it up again.

    “Plus, I'm dying to know what's inside." Henry went back and grabbed it. "I don't know why, but i expected it to be heavy" he said.

    They headed toward the nearest bus stop. Noah did some thinking. What did he have to gain from keeping the box and not opening it? What's the use of keeping the strange wishes of a dead man, especially one he didn’t respect.

    "When we get home, we open it" Noah said.


    Noah looked around the bus. It seemed like there was a lot of people staring at him again. There were two men sitting a couple of rows ahead of them that were wearing long jackets just like the one Nickel had on. He didn't find that very unusual considering it was a cold time of the year. What made Noah uneasy is that he could of sworn they whispered the word box to each other. Noah looked out the window for the rest of the trip, not wanting to think about it. He just wanted to be home and be done with this day. This has been one of the strangest ones of his life.

    They entered their apartment and in seconds brought out a stool, put it in the center of the room, and set the box on top. Henry grabbed the red boat, which was on a bookshelf and observed it.

    "I don't even see how you can read that." he said.

    "My father would always write like that, my mother showed me letters he used to write her."

    "Well, are we going to sit here and play with ourselves or open this thing up?"

    This was it, the moment to finally see what was inside. Be done with the box and done with Julian and all of his craziness for good. Before they started Noah put a cigarette in his mouth. Henry followed suit and did the same. Noah suddenly remembered that none of them had a had a lighter.

    Henry fumbled through his pockets. When he looked back up he noticed that Noah was smirking. "What?" he asked. "You look like me when I have a pretty bad idea"

    Noah had a realization that he wanted to do things on his own terms. He didn't want to play Julian's games. Without saying a word Noah grabbed a cloth from their kitchen. He turned on the gas stove and dangled the cloth over it, waiting for it to catch fire.

    "Noah, what the hell are you doing?!" Henry asked in alarm.

    "Do you have the tune summertime?" he asked calmly.

    "I thought you hated jazz."

    "It was my dad's favorite" Noah could tell that Henry was reluctant to leave him alone in the kitchen with a towel dangling over an open flame. "Please " Noah said.

    Henry went and grabbed an old album by Louis Armstrong. He began Summertime. Noah hummed the tune to himself as it played. He knew every lyric, and was familiar with every beat. He had no idea he even knew the tune so well. The rag was catching a good flame now. Henry stood against the wall watching him, still with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Noah walked back into the center of the room, carrying the rag with tongs. Henry finally understood what was happening. Before he was able to get out the whole sentence "Do we even have a fire extingui-" Noah dropped the rag onto the box. It settled there for a while but eventually the box caught fire. Noah leaned in and lit his cigarette.

    "I hope you were wrong" he said to Henry

    "About what?" he asked as he lit his own.

    "About there being a bomb in there.” Henry grinned at the comment.

    Noah found that there was a great peace in watching the box burn. As if it were a part of his father’s life that he was finally able to control. He refused to play Julian’s weird games with boats and war buddies and boxes. He felt truly released from the box and, in a way, from his father, finally. The two sat and watched the fire for a long time. Summertime was still playing and Noah couldn’t help but sing the lyrics to himself.

    *Well your daddies rich*

    A memory came to Noah of when he had actually spent time alone with Julian. Before his mother stopped allowing it. He was so small back then.

    *And your ma is good lookin’*

    Julian hated it when Noah would cry.

    *So hush little baby.*

    Noah stared in to the flames and felt as if he had seen the box before

    *Don’t you cry*

    It's as if it was all happening again. Noah was crying in Julian's arms. Julian has a meltdown, puts a cardboard box over baby Noah. With some heavy books and a vinyl player on top of it.

    *Hush little baby*

    He can't see or hear baby Noah. He can’t see or hear him now. Everything is fine.

    *Don't you cry*

    He would leave Noah in there for hours. Noah felt as if the room was too small, a lot smaller than it was before. He ran out of the room and fumbled down the stairs. He had to get outside. He had to get some air. As he reached outside, he bent down and stared at the ground breathing heavily. When he leaned back up, much to his surprise, his mother had just parked in front of their building and was standing by her car.


    "He thinks I look like Julian." It was the only thing Noah was able to utter. He now realized what it was that Nickel had muttered to himself as he walked away from the bench.

    Surprised by the strange greeting, his mother responded, "Whoever you mean, he’s not wrong. You're more like your father than you think”

    For some reason Noah could still hear the music

    *There’s a’nothin’ can harm you*

    "Why are you here?"

    "You called me Noah. You were rambling on about how Henry was trying to steal your box and you needed help."

    "What the hell are you talking about? I haven't used my phone all day." Noah said aggressively. He started to search his pockets but they were empty. At this point Henry came outside to inquire why Noah had freaked out.

    "I think that old lady at the library pick pocketed me!" he said to Henry.

    *With daddy and mammy standin’ by*

    "What old lady?" Henry asked.

    How could Henry not know who I am talking about? Noah thought, then he remembered, it felt like a quick flash. He was sitting on the windowsill at the library with the phone in his hand talking to his mother. He must have left it there.

    *Summertime, and the livin’ is easy*

    He felt a painful tug at his heart as he thought about his mothers words ‘you're more like your father than you think.'

    "Henry," Noah asked "You are sure there wasn't an old woman when you first saw me at the library?"

    *Well you spread your wings*

    Henry says "It was just you, muttering something about summer to yourself."

    Noah remembers singing to himself on the bench when he met Nickel. Nickel asked him about the song he had been singing.

    *And you'll take the sky*

    Noah's mother approached him and wrapped him in a tight hug.

    This couldn't be happening...

    “Do you remember when your father went through fits of hallucination, and paranoia?” she asked him quietly, still holding him.

    I am a sane human being……..

    *One of these mornings*

    The word paranoia stuck with Noah for a moment

    *You’re going to rise up singing*

    "Were there people staring at us on the bus Henry?"

    Henry shook his head. Noah was hoping it was all just one of his stupid jokes. That he would put another grin on his face.

    *Summertime and the livin’ is easy.*

    “Why is the music so loud?!” Noah screamed. The same tune was repeating again and again. Henry and Noah's mother looked at each other with deep concern. Noah looked in his hand and realized he was holding the red boat. He didn’t realize that he was holding it. He didn't even remember picking it up. He looked at the small black words once more. To his shock they did not say anything about a box.

    “This is a different boat.” Noah turned toward Henry. “Where is the other boat?!”

    “Noah...” Henry said, “That’s the same boat you received in the mail.”

    Noah couldn’t believe everything he was hearing. “That day I got it” he asked, holding up the boat. “And you asked me what it said, did I mention anything about a box?”

    Henry looked at him for a moment, his face as straight as could be. "That’s not what you told me it said."

    Had Noah completely fabricated a memory. It said to not open the box, I’m sure of it…

    Noah had no idea what to think at this point. Could he even trust his own mind?

    *So hush little baby*

    He looked at his mother. Noah hated how she was looking at him. As if he was infected with something “Is this how dad acted when he started…” there were almost tears in his eyes as he struggled for the right words, he continued quietly. “loosing it?”

    "Your father was paranoid about a lot of things.” She said with a sigh. “He thought the banks were putting diseases on all of their money. He never put a cent in one. Which is a shame, he had saved up thousands of dollars playing poker."

    *well your daddies rich*

    "He hated banks so much he usually kept all his winnings in a cardboard box"

    *summertime and the livin is easy*

    Noah’s hand was shaking at this point. He handed his mother the boat. “What does it say?” he asked her.

    She looked at the boat for a short moment. “It says: ‘through all my faults, I love you, always, my only son.’”
    Last edited by josephthad; 12-07-2014 at 12:45 AM.

  2. #2
    Registered User DATo's Avatar
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    Mar 2014
    A well-written story! I like the way you put the reader in Noah's shoes - both reader and Noah unaware of the reason behind the mysterious behavior of those around him until later in the story. I was reminded a bit of Dostoyevksy's Crime and Punishment and the slow descent into madness of his main character as I was reading this. I also like the way the lyrics of the song play into the story ... "you do realize it's not summer." .... *Summertime, and the livi'n is easy.*

    The final line of the story suggests that Noah DID know what was written on the boat originally but his mind refused to accept it. The box is a metaphor for his father's love which Noah rejects so he convinces himself not to open the box (not to accept his father's love).

    I still haven't made the connection with the old woman in the library and her comments though. Could you shed some light on that one for me?

    Well done!

  3. #3
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    Dec 2014
    Indianapolis IN
    I appreciate the kind words.

    the old woman was suppose to represent the young Noah. When he was trapped in the box, it would be his whole world, and his young mind would believe he could be trapped there his whole life. The old woman HAD been trapped her whole life, only in an inverse scenario. As if the whole world was a box she was trapped in and what was in the box would be
    an escape (note the inverse between young boy and old woman.)
    Since refusing to open the box means refusing to accept his father's love, he did not want to show her what was inside because young Noah was often in doubt that his father ever loved him. He believed he deserved to be in the box when he was crying, as a young mind might think, and that he didn't deserve to see the world, aka, the woman did not deserve to see what was inside the box.

    I hope that clears things up, thanks again.
    Last edited by josephthad; 12-04-2014 at 11:01 AM.

  4. #4
    Registered User 108 fountains's Avatar
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    Apr 2013
    Falls Church, Virginia
    I also thought this was very well done. The beginning of the story was a little slow, but the background was necessary, after all. The storyline picked up after Noah received the box from Nickel in the park, and then it really held my interest. I like DATo's interpretation of "the box [as] a metaphor for his father's love which Noah rejects so he convinces himself not to open the box (not to accept his father's love)." And I suspect he is correct in that analysis. And like DATo, I appreciated the references to jazz and to the lyrics of "Summertime." This might be your first post, but it certainly is not your first piece of writing. A lot of imagination and thought went into this, and it shows.

    Just three small pieces of constructive criticism:
    1) You need to be careful with tenses. THe story is set in the past tense, but you break into the present tense on a few occasions. On each of those occasions, I can see that it might feel right to go into the present, but in fact you should have stayed in the past tense.
    2) I didn't understand at all why Henry described the box as "sexy." If there is a reason for that, you might want to be more explicit. If not, I'd suggest not using "sexy" to describe it as the word has all sorts of connotations that I don't think you mean to apply. (Also, other than saying it was cardboard and cube-shaped, you really didn't describe the box - we don't know the size or the color, for example. I like the fact that you omitted any further description - it gives the box an air of mysteriousness and makes the reader wonder even more why other people around appear to take notice of it.)
    3) You should go back once more to check for typos, spelling and grammatical errors and to be sure your pronouns are clear in who they are referring to (For example, paragraph 4 has the word "he" a couple of times when it's not clear if the "he" refers to Noah or Julian. Paragraph 3 has the phrase, "...with which he barely spoke" when it should be "with whom he barely spoke." And in para 5, you have "...if Julian were in a war..." when it should be "...if Julian had been in a war..." -- but these are all minor. The main thing is that the story itself was interesting to read.
    A just conception of life is too large a thing to grasp during the short interval of passing through it.
    Thomas Hardy

  5. #5
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    Indianapolis IN

    Thank you very much for your critiques.

    This is actually my first short story. I am not much of a writer, I compose music. From the story one might guess that I am a big fan of jazz but I actually draw more inspiration from Classical and Romantic era music. This story was inspired by a piece I have written for solo piano. I enjoyed writing and want to keep the exercise going. I plan on writing my next piece on the interesting nature of inspiration.

    Here are some things that I will work on in my next edit:

    I agree that the beginning is a bit slow, I was trying to steer away from telling the same hackneyed story that we've all heard where a son feels his father was never there for him. I was also, however, as you mentioned, trying to show the reader all of the background information. I will definitely go over it again and see if there is a better way to start the story. I might even take out the description of the last time Noah saw Julian as it is not completely necessary.

    I found it challenging to find a good balance between over using names and making things clear. I will go over it to make sure things make sense.

    I will definitely check the grammar and the tenses of the words once more. grammar has always been an achilles heel of mine and I hope to improve.

    I wanted to portray Henry as a jester. He was there to lighten the mood of a story that seemed too serious to me to feel real. I based Henry off of the humoristic side of some people I know. This is why he was referring to the box as "sexy." To put a silly joke on the serious focal point of the story. I realize that he may have said it too many times and I even considered it might be a bad idea when writing. I will consider it again when looking it over.

    thank you for noticing the simple description of the box, that was something I had intended for the same reasons you mentioned. A box is such a simple object, and word. It was fun to create a story around it. The analysis about the box from DATo is indeed correct.
    Last edited by josephthad; 12-04-2014 at 03:06 PM.

  6. #6
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    Aug 2014
    Good story! I liked it a lot, it kept my interest and I found myself really wanting to know what was going on. Good job.

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