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It was just a stupid wooden box.
But it was also a mystery.
It wasn’t just that Albert didn’t know where it came from or how it found its way into his locked car. It wasn’t just the cryptic markings etched into its sides. It wasn’t even that he still didn’t know what was inside. It was the sum of all of these things. It was the fact that nothing about the box was obvious. It was an enigma literally locked up within itself…and that was irresistibly fascinating.
He’d been studying it all afternoon. He’d already missed lunch and if he didn’t watch the time he’d be eating dinner from a vending machine. He’d thought of little else since returning from his eleven o’clock class, and he didn’t even know if there was anything to be learned from it. Yet each time he walked away, he soon found himself back at his desk, staring at it, obsessing over it.
It was a ten-inch cube with no apparent seam to indicate a lid and no visible hinges. He’d turned it over and over in his hands and couldn’t determine how it was supposed to open. Yet there was something inside. Things rattled when he shook it. Also, on one side there was a lock, which indicated that the box did indeed open, but the revolving brass plate made a mystery of which end belonged up. The keyhole was about the size of a nickel, with a narrow slit suggesting that the key was very simple, perhaps just a narrow piece of flat metal, but he was unable to pick the lock with a pocketknife.
With the exception of a few small scars on the surface, there were no distinguishing marks on the keyhole side of the box. On each of the other five sides, however, someone had used a sharp object to carve into the wood. On three of these sides were written strange cryptic messages while the last two displayed something that appeared to be a sort of map.
He leaned back in his chair and tried to focus. He never before thought of inanimate objects as having personality, but this box did. He felt almost that it enjoyed being mysterious, that it mocked his ignorance. It was like a deeply intriguing character in a really good mystery novel. But in a mystery novel, the secrets were always eventually revealed. Whatever secrets this box held might never be relinquished, might not even exist, as far as he knew. And that made the mystery all the more exquisite.
Derek, Albert’s roommate, entered the room and dropped his keys onto his desk. “You still staring at that thing?”
Albert glanced at the clock. It was already almost five. “Yep.”
“I think you’re making way too much out of this. Somebody probably got the wrong car or something.”
Albert didn’t respond. It was a possibility he’d more than considered. After all, it was only early September, just a couple short weeks into his first semester here at Briar Hills University. Having come from as far north as St. Louis, he knew no one and hadn’t made more than a handful of acquaintances, none of whom knew him well enough to distinguish his car from all the others that occupied the parking lot the previous evening. Whoever left the box could very well have meant to leave it in someone else’s car.
“I wouldn’t stress about it.”
He didn’t turn around. He could hear the familiar tones as Derek checked his cell phone for voicemail. He’d only been living with Derek Clarnet for three and a half weeks, but he already knew his every routine by heart. Every time he returned from class he would walk straight to his desk and drop his keys and wallet. Then he would always reach for his cell phone and check his voicemail. He never took it with him to class for some reason. If there were any messages that required a response, he would do so. And he would always play Solitaire while he talked on the phone. Every time, as soon as he was finished dialing, he would sit down at his computer and load the game. He hadn’t even realized that people still played that game. It wasn’t on his own laptop. Then, the moment Derek hung up, he would turn the game off. It didn’t matter whether he was losing or winning. Once he was done with that he would pocket the phone and leave through the bathroom to visit with Scott and David, their suitemates in the next room. He would return after a while for his keys and wallet and then disappear until later that evening, anywhere between eight and eleven, depending on how much homework awaited him. He would then sit at his desk and work until exactly midnight, when he would go straight to bed. He rose every morning at a quarter to seven and showered and shaved. He left for his first class right at seven thirty. He always ate lunch at eleven. He always ate dinner at half past four. He was, without a doubt, the most boring human being Albert had ever met in his life, and he was actually surprised at how annoying that was.
“‘See Carrie,’” Derek read aloud.
Albert realized that he was reading the Post-It he’d left on his keyboard and sat up. “Oh yeah. Carrie from across the hall. She was looking for you while you were at dinner.”
“Did she say what she wanted?”
He shook his head. “Nope.” And I didn’t care to ask, he thought. He’d recognized the girl as one of the four who lived in the suite across the hall, but he didn’t know her name until she asked him if he would tell Derek that “Carrie was looking for him.” She was a very pretty brunette, petite, with shy mannerisms and a freckled face.
Derek said nothing more. He returned the phone to his desk and then stepped into the bathroom and locked the door. At six-foot-three, he appeared awkward at first sight. He was scrawny, almost geeky, but with his neat hair and piercing brown eyes, he was still fairly handsome. He was also very charming when he wanted to be. Albert had been sharing this room with him for only a short time, but it was already perfectly clear how they were going to get along. The two of them could coexist peacefully enough; their different interests made this room one of the only places on campus where they were ever likely to cross paths. Albert was a computer science major. Derek was a business major. Albert liked to read; Derek liked to go out. They would never be friends. In fact, Albert could hardly stand the guy. Besides his maddeningly boring routines, he was arrogant, self-centered, stubborn, closed-minded, cold-natured and lacked any real sense of humor. Yet he was manipulative. He could suddenly become the most lovable human being alive when he wanted something, a tactic that Albert found dazzlingly obnoxious.
He'd already noticed the time Derek was spending across the hall, trying his best to turn on the charm for Carrie and her suitemates. The names on their doors were Carrie, Danielle, Gail and Tanya. He was pretty sure that Gail was the heavyset blonde and now he knew which one was Carrie, but he still didn’t know which of the remaining two was Danielle and which was Tanya. He’d never really talked to any of them. He was the kind of person who tended to keep to himself.
Derek returned from the bathroom, snatched his keys off the desk and left the room without speaking a word. A moment later his voice drifted back from across the hall.
Albert spent no time wondering about Derek or Carrie. He turned his attention back to the box and immersed himself again in its curious secrets.
He’d questioned everyone he knew about the box. He even called his parents and sister to see if they knew anything about it, half expecting it to be some sort of bizarre, belated birthday present, but no one knew anything about it. Everyone seemed to have the same opinion: that someone left it there by mistake.
He supposed he could just break the box open. He could smash it or saw through it. It was only wood. But he didn’t want to damage it until he’d had a chance to find the sender. After all, it might be important to somebody. Besides, he didn’t want to destroy any of the markings before he could decipher them.
Each of the box’s three messages was written using only straight lines carved into the wood. This left some characters frustratingly ambiguous. On one side, for example, there were ten characters arranged in three rows. To him, they appeared to read, “I Z,” “V I I” and “I O O S T,” but it was difficult to be certain. It was impossible to tell whether some of these characters represented numbers or letters. The straight vertical lines could have been the number one or the letter I, for example. Or even a lower-case L. The S could have been a five. The two Os in the bottom line were drawn as squares, and could have been zeros instead, or for all he knew they could actually have been intended as squares. There was simply no way to know for sure, which made the clue that much more puzzling.
He’d pondered over these three lines for hours now, trying to decipher them. The middle line could have been the Roman numeral seven, but with nothing else to go on, and no idea how to decipher the other two, he had no way of knowing for certain. It could be a V and an eleven. For that matter, the lines comprising the V were slightly crossed at the bottom. It could even have been a sloppy X.
Frustrated, he turned the box around.
Perhaps the most haunting of the messages was written on the side opposite the keyhole. Here, there were five lines. The first four were complete words. From top to bottom they read HELP, COME, TOGETHER and YESTERDAY. The fifth line wasn’t a word, but just three letters: G, N and J.
These lines were much easier to read than the previous three, even with their straight-line lettering, but with the legibility came a haunting feeling. Help. Come. It was as though someone were calling out to him for something. But what could yesterday mean? Was it literal? If so, he’d received the box the previous evening, so yesterday would have been two days ago. Or did it mean the past in general? “Help come together yesterday.” It made no sense. And how did the last line fit in? Perhaps it was someone’s or something’s initials.
The final side of the box was carved with only seven letters, scrawled across the surface diagonally from corner to corner, in larger letters than the other messages.
B R A N D Y R
He thought that he recognized these letters. It looked like a name. Brandy R. He knew a Brandy R. Or at least he’d met a Brandy R. Brandy Rudman was his lab partner in Chemistry. She was a sophomore, one year ahead of him and likewise a year older, nearly twenty, while he was barely nineteen, yet she could have passed as a sixteen-year-old high school student, small and girlish with a soft face and small, modest figure. She was very pretty. He hadn’t expected to find a lab partner so quickly, but she was sitting in front of him on that first day and when the instructor told them to pair off she turned around, scanning the other students in the class until her pretty eyes fell on him. “You mind?” she asked simply, to which he replied a startled, “Sure.”
It was just dumb luck for him. He’d been attending classes for not yet a day and a half at a school where he recognized no one and instead of being the last lonely student standing around looking for a pair that would allow him to join, as he’d expected to be, he found himself paired off almost at once and with a very pretty young woman. And by even greater luck, she had so far turned out to be a very lovely person to know as well, friendly, kind, outgoing and fun.
His Chemistry lab was scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays at ten o’clock in the morning. Today was Thursday. That morning he stuffed the box inside his backpack and took it with him to class, intending to see if she knew anything about it, but she was as ignorant of its origins as everyone else he’d spoken with, his last chance at an answer severed at its root.
“Must be another Brandy R.,” she’d concluded, peering down into his backpack at the strange, wooden box. “I’ve never seen it before. It was in your car?”
“Yeah. All the doors were still locked. Nothing broken.”
Weird was right. It was also disappointing. A part of him had hoped for an excuse to get to know Brandy a little better.
Albert turned and looked at the clock again. It was after five now. He needed to go eat dinner. He usually tried to go before Derek returned. The less time he spent with him the better.
He stood up and stretched. Some time away from the box would do him good. He was becoming frustrated with it again. Perhaps everyone was right, perhaps the box was never meant for him and he’d never understand where it came from or what it meant. But that thought became like a looming darkness. He didn’t want to be left ignorant. He wanted to know about this box. He wanted to understand it. He didn’t like to leave mysteries unsolved. It simply wasn’t his nature.
He was reaching for his shoes when the phone rang. It would probably be somebody looking for Derek. Somebody was always looking for Derek. It was funny how Albert was always looking to avoid him.
He sat down on the bed and answered the phone.
“Is Albert there?”
It was a woman’s voice, feminine, petite, pretty. “Speaking,” he replied.
“Hi. This is Brandy. From Chem.”
Albert stood up again, surprised. They exchanged numbers the first day of class in case either of them missed and needed notes, but he never expected her to use it. “Hi.”
“Hey, did you find anything out about that box?”
“No. Not a thing.” His heart sped up a notch when she told him who she was. Now it jumped again, shifting from second to third.
Brandy was quiet for so long that he began to think the line was disconnected, but before he could ask if she was still there she said, “There was something in my car when I left class today.”
Fourth gear. He started walking across the room, pacing as he sometimes did when he was on the phone. “What did you get?”
Instead of answering, she said, “You’re in Lumey, right?”
“That’s right.” Lumey Hall was the most expensive dormitory on campus. He’d spent the extra money for the semi-private bathroom and coed environment. From his first tour of the Hill he didn’t like the prison-like feel of the community halls elsewhere on campus, so he forked over nearly twice what other freshmen were paying in the Cube, where better than half of all the resident students lived. Over here, two rooms made up a suite and a bathroom connected the two, so only four people shared facilities, instead of an entire floor. Also, unlike any other building, Lumey was entirely coed, hence the fact that there were girls living right across the hall from him. And since Lumey was usually reserved for students with a junior standing or higher, he was very fortunate to obtain his room. It turned out that the freshmen dormitories were overcrowded. In the next few years they would probably have to build a new one.
“Second floor. Room two-fourteen.”
“Meet me in the second-floor lounge. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”
She hung up without saying goodbye and he stood staring at the dead phone, his mind a cyclone of thoughts. He was about to get information about the box. Maybe together they would figure out what it was and who gave it to him.