Thinking Inside the Box

by James Rickett

So this is what it’s like.

An endless void surrounded her. No sensations. The brief window of time she called her life had drawn shut. Once it closed completely, there would be nothing else. Trapped in one fleeting moment of eternity with no way out.

No, that’s not it. I’m still thinking. That means I still exist. How could I experience anything when there’s no me left to experience it?

Panic flooded through her and her eyes snapped open. She was looking through the passenger side window. Blue sky and rolling green hills passed by. Cool air blew on her face from the car A/C vents, and an old Eagles hit played softly on the radio.

“Kimber, are you okay?” Mom asked.

Kimber breathed heavily. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She was usually able to push these feelings away, but Grandma’s passing had forced them into her brain with increasing regularity.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really.” Kimber pulled out her phone to distract herself, but her apps were taking too long to load.

“Oh look, here we are,” Mom said.

She slowed down and made a right turn at a novelty turkey-shaped mailbox. Gravel crunched under the tires as she drove up the bumpy driveway to Grandma’s house. An assortment of kitschy garden gnomes decorated the front yard. Kimber could almost pretend her grandparents were still alive and arriving for a July the Fourth get-together.

Mom’s phone chimed. She picked it up and looked at it.

“Mom, you shouldn’t text and drive,” Kimber said.

“We’re just in a driveway,” Mom said. “Anyway, that was from Marisa. She wants to discuss supper plans.”

“Oh great,” Kimber said. “Is Claire going to be with them?”

“I’m sure she’ll be in town for the funeral. Her college isn’t that far away.”

Kimber let out a groan.

“She used to be your favorite cousin.” Mom stopped the car in front of the house.

“Yeah, when we were like five.”

“Well, people change. I’m sure you’ll be able to tolerate her for a day. And you have other cousins to talk to.”

“If any of them still want to talk to me,” Kimber muttered.

“Here’s the keys to the house.” Mom handed Kimber a ring of keys. “I’ll be back in an hour or so, if my meeting with the lawyer doesn’t take too long. You might want to hurry up and look for that cash Mother kept at the house before Ray and Marisa get their hands on it. I’m hoping they don’t know about it. Why Mother didn’t put the money in savings or at least put it in her will, I have no idea. Anyway, look for an old cigar box.”

“We’re not going to keep it to ourselves, are we?” Kimber asked.

“Of course not,” Mom said. “I’m just afraid somebody else might.”

“And you trust me not to?” Kimber asked.

“Of course, I do, you’re my daughter.”

Kimber smiled at Mom, then opened the door and stepped out of the car. She brushed her long black hair out of her face. The humid summer air enveloped her as she walked up to the front porch. Cactuses and succulents in rectangular metal cookie tins decorated the porch. A slight breeze made numerous hanging windchimes tinkle. She stood on the slightly tattered doormat with a Bible verse on it, unlocked the door and let herself in.

The house was dark, dusty, and very quiet. It was also very stuffy; the A/C didn’t seem to be running. The smell of stale air and old furniture filled her with a vague longing.

Kimber wandered into the kitchen. The refrigerator was covered with artwork from her younger cousins. Clean dishes sat in a drying rack by the sink. More cactuses of various shapes sat on the windowsill. The kitchen felt empty without the smells of coffee brewing and chocolate chip cookies baking or the sounds of lively conversations and fussing children.

She walked into the living room and remembered when she ran through the halls with her cousins, watched cartoons on the floor and ate Pop-Tarts, and went outside to pick blueberries with Grandpa. Grandma had a huge collection of board games, and the grandchildren had spent many hours entertained by them. At least, until Kimber and Claire had gotten in an argument during a game of Monopoly and had never played it together again.

Kimber wandered into the hallway and studied the photos of all the family members on the walls, interspersed with framed Bible verses. There was a picture of all the grandchildren; she and Claire stood together with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They were about eight or nine years old. One of the framed verses caught her attention, perhaps because it seemed so oddly non-inspirational. It read, I believe / Help my unbelief.

“Grandma, are you really gone forever?” she whispered. “What’s it like to not exist anymore? How would you know, anyway? There wouldn’t be any more you.”

She walked down the hallway. Maybe I need to stop being so morbid. I’m too young to be thinking about death all the time. I guess I need to start looking for that stupid money.

The front door opened and closed. “Hello?” a female voice called out. “Anyone here?”

Kimber walked to the front of the house, slightly annoyed. Claire stood in the front hall, looking around. Her blonde curly hair was cut short, and she wore shorts and a maroon t-shirt that advertised whatever exclusive Christian university she was attending.

“Oh, it’s you,” Kimber said.

“Well, nice to see you, too,” Claire said.

She looked Kimber up and down, no doubt disapproving of her too-short shorts and t-shirt with a logo of The Damned Things on the front. The shirt’s cigarette-smoking zombie graphic probably didn’t help, either.

“So what are you doing here?” Kimber asked. She wondered if Aunt Marisa and Uncle Ray had found out about the money stash and had sent Claire to look for it, just as she was doing. Not that they needed any more money.

“I’m here for the funeral, obviously,” Claire said.

“The funeral’s not going to be at the house.”

“Duh. Maybe I just wanted to see the house. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“Sure, I guess.” Kimber glanced through the front window and saw a shiny blue Honda parked in front of the house. Of course, Claire had a nice car to drive. Kimber had to admit it would be very tempting to keep all the money.

Kimber wandered around, careful to avoid Claire but also trying to keep an eye on her. A few minutes later, she glanced down the hall and saw Claire carefully opening a closet door. Cursing silently for not having checked the closet already, Kimber quietly approached and stood behind Claire, who was bent over and looking through the contents of a shelf.

“What are you looking at?” Kimber asked, trying to sound casual.

Claire gasped and turned around. “You startled me.” She held an old cigar box.

Was it Grandma’s cash savings? Kimber pushed the halfway-open closet door out of her way and stepped inside. “What is that? Are you snooping around in Grandma’s stuff?”

“It’s none of your business,” Claire snapped.

The door rebounded off the wall, creaking, and swung shut. The closet was plunged into darkness. Kimber grabbed the handle and tried to turn it.

“It’s locked!” she said.

“Locked?” Claire squeaked. “What did you do?”

Kimber jiggled the handle and shook the door. It didn’t budge.

“How could it be locked from the inside?” Kimber asked. “That doesn’t make any sense. This is bullsh-” She knew Claire didn’t like to hear swearing.

Claire was taking quick breaths and moaning softly.

“Are you okay?” Kimber asked.

“I’m claustrophobic,” Claire said in a small voice. “This is all your fault.”

“I’m sorry,” Kimber said. “I’ll call my mom and she’ll be back here in a few minutes.”

She pulled her phone from her pocket. The screen lit up the dark closet. Zero bars.

“Shit.” So much for not swearing.

“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.

“I can’t get a signal out here in the boondocks,” Kimber said. “And there’s no WiFi, either. I thought Grandma had WiFi.”

“My dad had it shut off yesterday to save money.”

“That’s real convenient.” Kimber jammed the phone into her back pocket.

“Wait, I just remembered,” Claire said. “I can get a signal on my phone here.” She reached into her pocket. “Oh no, I left my phone in the kitchen.”

“That’s just great. It’s really freaking hot in here. I wish I’d turned up the A/C.”

“I think my parents came by yesterday and turned up the thermostat,” Claire said.

“Figures,” Kimber scoffed. “Your dad’s mother-in-law dies, and the first thing he thinks about is how much extra money he can inherit by shutting off all the utilities.”

“Well, at least he’s responsible about money, unlike some people,” Claire said.

“Well, at least my dad never cheated on my mom, unlike some people!” Kimber said.

“Don’t be so judgmental!” Claire shouted. “They’ve been to counseling, and my dad feels terrible about it.”

“Oh, so now I’m the judgmental one! I know how you all talk about me behind my back!”

“Maybe you’re right, but you know what I think?” Claire was right in Kimber’s face. “I think you like the attention! You enjoy being a rebel!”

“Better than being a goody two-shoes!” Kimber said.

Claire pounded on the door, then grabbed the doorknob and shook it violently. “Help!”

“Ow, that was right in my ear,” Kimber said. “Nobody’s going to hear anyway.”

Claire leaned against the door and whined softly.

“We could break the door down,” Kimber said. “I bet I could do it if I had room to kick hard enough. Move out of the way.”

“No, wait,” Claire said. “We shouldn’t damage the house, and you might hurt yourself trying.”

“Okay, you’re probably right, but if we can’t get out of here in a couple of hours, I’m going to try it.”

Kimber pulled out her phone, turned on the flashlight and shone it around. The closet was about five feet wide and four feet deep. There was a rack of brightly colored coats on one side and a set of built-in shelves on the other. One shelf was crammed full of beaten-up board games nobody had played in years. There was a small trapdoor in the ceiling.

“Here, hold this and shine it at the ceiling.” Kimber handed her phone to Claire.

Kimber put her foot on the lowest shelf and grabbed the shelf in front of her. She noticed the cigar box sitting on the floor, but there were more important things to worry about now. The light from her flashlight shook in Claire’s hands, making the shadows on the walls jitter.

“Could you hold that still?” Kimber asked. “I’m about to go into seizures.”

Kimber climbed high enough so she could reach the trapdoor. She pushed up on it, but it wouldn’t budge.

“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.

“It won’t open.” Kimber pounded the trapdoor with her fist. “It must be blocked.”

She climbed down, sweating profusely. Claire was now shining the phone at the shelf and rummaging through its contents with her free hand.

“Maybe there’s something we can use to pick the lock,” Claire said.

Kimber took her phone from Claire and held it up. Claire opened a shoebox filled with envelopes and sheets of paper. She glanced back at Kimber nervously.

“What were you looking for in here, anyway?” Kimber asked.

“Nothing, just mementos and stuff,” Claire said.

“You were looking for Grandma’s cash savings, weren’t you?” Kimber asked.

“How did you know about that? Anyway, what if someone else finds it and decides to keep it for themselves?”

“Funny; I was thinking the same thing.”

“You think I’d just take it for myself if I found it first?” Claire asked.

“Would you?” Kimber asked.

Claire ignored the question and pulled out a paperclip. “Maybe this will work.”

She bent it into a straight shape, turned around and poked it into the doorknob lock.

“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” Kimber asked. “How do you know how to pick a lock, anyway?”

Claire didn’t answer, but after a minute of messing around with the lock, she threw the paperclip down and sighed.

“What do we do?” Claire asked.

“We wait for my mom to come back.” Kimber turned off her phone flashlight, then leaned against the wall and slid down until she was sitting on the floor. In the darkness she heard Claire sit down against the opposite wall and sniff a few times. Nobody spoke for several minutes.

“I can’t stand this,” Claire said. “I have a condition.”

“Yeah, don’t we all,” Kimber said.

“How can you be so calm?”

“Maybe it’s because I’m used to feeling trapped all the time,” Kimber muttered.

“What do you mean?” Claire asked.

“It’s nothing.”

“No, I want to know. Please tell me.”

Kimber sighed. “You know how you’re claustrophobic about space? Well, I’m claustrophobic about time.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, we only have this tiny sliver of time when we get to exist. Maybe seventy or eighty years out of the billions of years the universe has existed, if we’re lucky. I didn’t exist before then, and I won’t exist after it. And every time I think about it, I go into a panic. I just can’t deal with the idea of not existing outside this little box of time.”

“That’s depressing,” Claire said. “I thought you goth types were fascinated with death.”

“It’s not exactly death I’m afraid of, it’s nonexistence. If I knew I was going somewhere, anywhere, after I died I could deal with that.”

“If you could just believe, and accept Jesus as your savior…”

Kimber rolled her eyes, knowing Claire couldn’t see it. “Oh, don’t start with that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’ve already tried,” Kimber said. “Remember when Grandma and Grandpa used to take me to church when we lived closer?”

“Why did you stop?”

“Because none of it made any sense. All those wealthy people at church, talking about how we were supposed to take care of the poor, and then they hardly did anything. And they were always going on about how all the heathens were roasting in hell, and they didn’t even try to save them, and they also didn’t care that their god would be willing to torture people like that, just for being born in the wrong time and place. And you got so self-righteous. Always looking down on me because of the way I dressed and the kind of music I listened to.”

“Maybe I was just afraid you were going to hell.” Claire’s voice cracked a little.

“You had a funny way of showing it,” Kimber said. “And I did try praying to God. I pleaded with him, begged him to give me some little scrap of evidence that he was out there, and gave a rat’s ass about me. And you know what I got? Total silence.”

Kimber wanted to go on, but her throat was tight and she was afraid she might start crying. They were both quiet for a minute. Kimber wiped sweat off her face with her t-shirt.

“All this time, I thought you were just being rebellious and stupid,” Claire said. “I thought you were too grown-up to believe anymore, and without God, you thought you could do whatever you wanted. I thought you were too afraid of God being real.”

“No, it’s really the opposite,” Kimber said. “I’m afraid God isn’t real. I know it’s selfish, but if he’s real, then there’s at least a chance I won’t be gone forever.”

“I’m sorry if I did anything to push you away from God,” Claire said. “I may not know the answers, but if you ever want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”

“Maybe I pushed myself away,” Kimber said. “And I’m sorry, too. It never occurred to me that you were just worried about me. I was too worried about myself, I guess.”

“It’s kind of funny,” Claire said. “You thought I was looking down on you all this time, and maybe I was, but I was also envious of you. You’re kind of the black sheep of the family, going to parties and drinking and…other stuff, even if I know it’s wrong. I sometimes feel like I’m trapped in a box too, even if it’s not as scary as yours.”

“Actually, I haven’t been to that many parties,” Kimber said, “and drinking isn’t as much fun as the commercials make it look. And if the other stuff is what I’m thinking, I haven’t done that yet.”

“It sounds like we’ve both misjudged each other,” Claire said.

“Yeah, I guess we have,” Kimber said. “And since it’s confession time, I admit I’ve been envious of you too, or at least of the money and advantage your family has. It was so much easier when we were kids and just played together and didn’t care about that stuff.”

“I know what you mean,” Claire said. “Being at this house feels so nostalgic. It hurts that it’ll never be that way again.”

“That’s exactly how I feel,” Kimber said. “Maybe if there’s a heaven, it will be kind of like that.”

“No, it’ll be much better,” Claire said.

“That would be nice,” Kimber said.

They were silent for a few minutes, then Claire spoke. “Do you remember that time we broke Grandma’s lamp and hid in this very same closet because we were afraid of getting spanked?”

“Yeah,” Kimber said. “We were afraid of completely different things back then.”

“What happened?” Claire asked. “We used to be such good friends.”

“We still could be,” Kimber said.

“Yeah,” Claire said. “So, should we find out if anything interesting is in that box?”

“Sure.” Kimber had almost forgotten about it. She pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight.

Claire picked up the cigar box and opened it up. It contained a sheet of paper and a pile of small dollar-bill shaped sheets in various pastel colors.

Kimber picked one up and held it to her phone. “It’s Monopoly money.”

“What the—” Claire said. She picked up several more bills and stared at them. “Is this some kind of joke?”

Kimber shone her phone on the sheet. “Look, I think Grandma wrote this.” They leaned in and read it together.

To my dear family:

Here is my cash savings everyone has probably been combing the house for. I hope nobody has been fighting over it or thinking about keeping it all to themselves. Remember, there’s more to life than what’s in this box. Now why don’t you all use it to play a nice board game together?

Love, Mom / Grandma

“Well, Grandma always did have a weird sense of humor,” Claire said.

“It’s like she knew we were going to fight over her stuff,” Kimber said. “We need to make sure our parents don’t do that.”

“I agree,” Claire said.

“Look, there’s more in the box.” Kimber pulled out a wad of play money, revealing a stack of envelopes underneath.

Claire pulled out the envelopes and shuffled through them quickly. “Look, there’s one for each of the grandchildren. Here’s yours.” She handed Kimber a small white envelope with her name on the front.

Kimber propped her phone against the shelf and carefully opened the envelope. She took out a sheet of paper and read it.

Dear Kimberlyn,

You’re a fun, beautiful and unique person and I hope you stay that way. It’s okay to not conform; Jesus loves us all as we are. Live your life so that you’re a blessing to others, and don’t be afraid of what comes next. Just have faith that there’s something much better in store for you.

Love, Grandma

Kimber looked up and brushed a tear from her cheek. Claire was reading her own letter and sniffling. Kimber wondered what was in Claire’s letter, but that was between Claire and Grandma.

Maybe there’s still hope, after all.

The front door slammed.

“Hello?” a voice called out. “Is anyone home?”

“We’re trapped in here!” Kimber and Claire yelled together, standing up.

“Where?”

“In the closet!”

The sound of footsteps came closer. The doorknob rattled, then the door opened and Kimber’s mom stood in the doorway. “How in the world did you two get stuck in there?”

“It’s a long story,” Kimber said.

Kimber and Claire exchanged glances and laughed.


James Rickett lives in Texarkana, Texas with his wife Catherine and their three children. He works as a software developer to pay the bills. In his spare time, he enjoys writing fantasy and sci-fi stories. His stories have been published in the anthologies From the Deep by Fiction-Atlas Press and Mythical Girls by Celtic Frog Publications. He is a Christian, and his other hobbies include playing the piano, digital art, cooking, occasional stage acting, contemplating theological and existential issues, and video games. His favorite writers are C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton.

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