The Girl in the Box
Imogene's face was crudely painted on a cardboard box that covered her entire head. It had been there all of her life, all 28 years of her existence, for as long as she could remember. This box was never removed except for the occasional times when she had to wash her head, when the oily roots of her hair would itch and itch and become unbearable, and that was when she'd remove it, but it would only be for a few minutes.
Imogene's lips were drawn on with marker. Red, plump and fake. Her eye lashes were painted on coal black, lined as a fragile batch of frozen curves hovering over unblinking, frozen green eyes that mimicked superficial dimensions. Her real eyes could barely see through these tiny holes inside her drawn eyes, and through these punctured tunnels, her real pupils underneath barely made out a dismembered reality, consisting of fleeting shapes cast off from the dark and light forms that crudely painted her world.
Imogene lived in a house deep underground after a strange, radiation apocalypse in 2014 that forced all surviving people into the soil. Her family wasn't her real family. They found her as a baby, abandoned in their tunnel, left by the disfigured nomad gypsies from the surface of the dead earth. The family decided to rescue her because they needed extra help around the house. They placed the cardboard box over her head to block the past from ever intruding on their safe, underground world, a safe house that they built years before the end of all things.
Her family comprised three unusually large human beings:
Each member was over six-feet tall, exerting overly plump dimensions, overspilling lumps of fat like biological terrain that dropped ridges and drooped joints. If you were still enough, Imogene discovered, you could smell each flap of their skin, and if you were observant enough, you could notice each flap on each of their galactic bodies contained a different smell. Each armpit smelled like a different type of acidic chemical. Each foot crease smelled of a wet sock that had been dampened in varied amounts of time. Every pore smelled like a different wound, carved by its own history, consisting of biological sorcery that would behave differently depending on the tiny particle elements lodged inside the inflated skin.
The only characteristics telling each family member apart was the color and style of their hair. Father had balding, black hair. Mother had chin-length blonde hair. Brother had long, brown hair, stringy and dry, never combed. Imogene had hidden hair under her box. She never knew the color of it, the way she never knew what her real face looked like.
You don't need to know what your real face looks like.
That was what she was told.
The house survived thousands of feet underground, somewhere where North America used to be, back in the days before the apocalypse. The house was heavy and wet, slowly decaying, always smelled of mold. The rooms were illuminated by crooked, long candles placed in dirty mason jars in forgotten corners. Mirrors were outlawed in the house. The only furniture the family had were soggy, wooden chairs and tables. The only decorations were books—books of all shapes, colors and sizes, but that no one could touch, or read.
Books were only to be used for decoration, that was the rule.
Among the chairs, tables and books lingered fish guts. That's all Imogene and the family ever ate. Morning, lunch and night, it was fish guts.
Imogene and the family were eating fish at a slouching dinner table obscured by darkness, potential unformed questions and mental fog. Two candles burned brilliantly in the center of the table, held up by silver candle holders that reverberated a high-pitched ringing noise every time one of the family members coughed their wet, throaty coughs. Everyone coughed in this house, including Imogene, because of the mold that grew everywhere.
Two fishes were laid out in a plate in front of each person, except for Imogene. Only one fish was sprawled in front of her, because she was smaller than the others, and could never finish the entire fish anyway. Imogene always left the eyes and the brains on the plate too, which made Father and Mother so angry. They'd get so angry, that they would scream at her until late, ferocious hours of the night, their screams always driving her back to her bedroom.
Imogene, pass the salt, Father grumbled. He coughed a wet, deep cough as she acquiesced, passing it silently across the table to him. He didn't thank her.
Delicately, she kept eating her fish.
Nibbling through the skin to the guts, careful not to swallow the little bone shavings. Her hand pulled apart its slimy meat. Her index finger and thumb held a piece firmly, because if she didn't grasp the contents firmly enough, it would slip from her grasp and land on the table, and once any food landed on the table, it was as good as poisoned. She dove her hand that grasped the meat into her box, from the opening at the bottom of it, and gracefully, she inserted the meat into her real lips. When her fingers brushed against her lips though, she'd feel fearful, but irrationally fearful, because her lips felt soft and moist on her fingertips.
Her lips were not dangerous, but she jerked her fingers away in terror and disgust anyway.
A book is missing from the chair in the living room, Mother roared defiantly, do you have it Imogene? It is a prized decoration here and not meant for you to take.
Imogene finished her mouthful of fish parts and instantly felt bad. Feeling bad was a well-used emotional route engraved in her brain, a feeling that was as tangible as the shallow breath that would come from her alien mouth. Guilt and shame were two lonesome pathways that branched out from that main feeling bad emotion, all emotions she couldn't grasp.
Yes, I have it Mother, I was just looking at it.
She couldn't say the word, "reading," because that was against the rules and she was sure she'd be punished for the rest of her life if she told them the truth. So she used the word "looking," because that's what people are meant to do with decorations in a house.
There was a silence after she responded.
And for these few seconds, the darkness felt odd around her.
And for once in her life in these few silent seconds, the tiny holes in her fake eyes were not big enough to free the perception silently growing within her.
You need to put that back. It's not yours. It's for the house.
Mother coughed a wet, deep cough and kept munching on the fish sloppily. Even though Mother was obviously irritated by the discovery of the missing book, Imogene also knew that Mother was pleased to hear that she was looking at the book decoration, for she could sense a slight elation in the air, as plain as the way gravity can affect the atmosphere.
A sense of relief seized Imogene after the silence.
Imogene noticed a big smirk radiating from Brother's monstrous face. He didn't need to say anything. The expression was louder than anything he'd ever have to say.
Did the messenger come today? Imogene asked her overly large family. She spoke quietly but her voice sounded as if she were screaming. Brother scoffed.
He always comes in the morning Imogene, why do you keep asking? Father asked in the darkness. The boy is hideous. He is from the surface! Festering in radiation.
His voice shook the table and made the candles ring.
Father's right, Mother added bitterly. We've hired him because he gives us everything we need: fish and books to survive the rest of our years underground. He takes the tunnel for a reason. He is filthy, Imogene. He is insane! He is not your friend.
The voice resonating from Mother's bulging body crawled into Imogene like living worms. She felt an immortal chill reverberating from the source of that voice.
Imogene suddenly felt repulsed by the fish.
She also began to feel the weight of the box over her head.
I'm done eating. I'm going to my room now. Thank you for dinner.
Brother snarled, scoffed, then coughed. The three of them kept chomping on their food, not responding. They often didn't respond to her when Imogene spoke.
Imogene retired into her bedroom which contained one naked mattress and one broken stool in the corner.
On the stool was one weary, crooked candle.
And, the stolen book.
Imogene sighed and changed into a white, silk nightgown that was her only nightgown. Tired, she laid in her bed, staring through the holes in her box, observing a familiar dark and gruesome ceiling above her. The box smelled like fish and ugly breath from lips that she feared— more than her family's anger, more than anything she could ever imagine.
She moved to light the candle, its wick almost expired.
The flame illuminated the stolen book, and in these excruciatingly lonely moments, the stolen book glowed as if it were a quiet, nonjudgmental friend.
The book was called The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. The writing reminded Imogene of the poetic life of thoughts themselves, for words, she believed, were able to characterize core emotions of the self using the tools of metaphors, symbology and narrative. Words were like interpreted streams of energy refracted, cast off from pure, whole light. Words created a life in empty space. And to Imogene, the words from this book captured a tangible world she could hold in her hands. It fostered an alternate reality in which she could grasp.
Still, Imogene didn't feel like reading the book tonight.
Tonight, Imogene needed to perceive her own thoughts. She needed to grasp her thoughts the way she grasped the words in the book.
Imogene's thoughts spoke in riddles.
She closed her eyes to listen to her life's unknowns rattle insistently in her mind.
It was morning when Imogene opened her real eyes. It always took a moment for her pupils to adjust through the tiny holes of her cardboard box. She could tell by the coolness of her bedroom, and the smell of it, that it was indeed morning.
Imogene leaped up. She ran through her hallway and to the front door of the house. Her hands clasped a bronze door handle. She flung the door open.
There was a cool shock of wind coming from the gigantic tunnel before her. The opening of the tunnel was as large as the door, and then minimized as it traveled onwards for miles, and then upwards, which she knew, went all the way to the surface of the earth.
Imogene stood at the opening and stepped a foot outside, where it was mostly engulfed in darkness. It was an outside area where the candlelight from inside couldn't reach, since the flames couldn't withstand the breeze from the tunnel.
Her bare feet felt cold on the dirt.
She waited in her nightgown.
Then, there was a rummaging sound.
And then she felt him.
Hey there, came a friendly voice from the tunnel. I've been thinking about you. How've you been Imogene? The presence was so warm, and so kind, but inevitably, it brought about fear, the same fear she felt about her lips. I see you're still wearing the box.
It's my face John, Imogene said, defensively, and then she felt her emotions rise the way smoke rises, for she enjoyed his presence so much. Even if she couldn't see all of John, he smelled sweet, and he sounded "sweet," whatever sweet was. And maybe if beauty were tangible, it would feel like him. Imogene continued: Anyway, I'm good, I'm starting to read The Thirteenth Tale and the writing really reminds me of my own thoughts. But I have to put the book back today. Did you know, it's my birthday today, did you remember?
Imogene was always startled to hear herself talk so much to John, the Messenger, the one who would bring the books and the fish.
I did remember its your birthday! Look, I brought you flowers.
Imogene couldn't see all of the flowers, but she could smell the flowers, and the perfume of those flowers smelled of desires come true.
Take off your box for a second and smell, John said carefully.
I shouldn't, Imogene said, but already, she longed to remove the cardboard box from her head for longer than a few seconds. It was her birthday and John was there to look after her. It thrilled her to consider having her face exposed to someone else too.
Would her face fall off if was left out for too long? She wondered.
Would her face blow away?
Would her face look like a monster's face?
Imogene, there's nothing to lose. It'll only be for a second, John said. John was about a foot taller than Imogene as he stood in front of her. Without hesitation, he carefully placed the box in his hands and started sliding it off. It was surprisingly easy.
Imogene didn't stop him.
And in seconds, there was openness.
What do I look like? Imogene asked excitedly.
John's voice trembled. He responded fast, as if he was trying to squeeze in ever detail in this fragile, perfect moment that could crash at the touch of a feather.
I can barely see you but the candlelight from your house is lighting you up just enough, John said. Your face is petite. Your lips are pale, but plump. Heart-shaped. Your nose is small as a button. Your eyes, they're large. I can't see the color of it, but I imagine they're a midnight blue. His hand gently began to roam her cheek, nuzzling her chin. Imogene, you're beautiful, if only you could see how beautiful you are.
Imogene felt the air and John's smooth skin on her real face. She pressed her hand against his as he touched her face. She felt his hands, which were coarse but safe.
Now, smell the flowers, John told her and the flowers were suddenly touching her nose. They smelled of a lightness to life that she couldn't hold either, and unknowingly, the world inside her began to wiggle out of the box she always knew. Beyond that box was sweetness, and perfume, and touch, and the gold radiating from John's presence, and air that wasn't heavy.
Father and Mother saw what they were doing from inside the house, since the front doorway had been accidentally left wide open.
Imogene! Father yelled out from the house. Mother was screaming as both ran out into the front of the tunnel, like violent tornados with talons.
The box that John held in his hands was snatched from his fingers and thrown back over Imogene's head.
Life went dark again.
The smell of fish descended and anchored her reality once again.
Imogene could hear the sounds of a struggle. John was yelling. Hands pushed and pulled her away, until there was a loud sound of a door slamming shut and being locked. The winds stopped. The yelling stopped. Her body fell backwards. Time slowed. Since the box wasn't properly situated on her head, Imogene couldn't see anything as she soared in mid-air, into the nothingness and emptiness that filled a lonely world.
As she soared backwards, she felt the image of the conceptual heart in her chest being eviscerated, in every second of this downward fall, with every critical angle of collapse and violent descent, and if each particle of her heart was a metaphor of hope, her hope was being eaten alive by a sea of darkness that she simply couldn't poetically escape from.
Imogene landed on the dirt floor. Hard. Her slim back slammed roughly onto the ground. She felt a slicing pain shoot up her spine, but that pain was only a sliver of the agony that was filling inside her.
John! She yelled out loud. But no one was there.
She was alone.
Imogene fixed the box over her head and saw the familiar candle light from her bedroom.
The book was gone from her stool.
It was Imogene's 29th birthday. She spent the rest of the day locked in her bedroom. Hours passed. Days passed. She pooped and peed in the corner of her room, in a little area where she'd dug a little hole in the past, since she'd been locked in her room like this before.
She longed for John, but this aching was never filled. It only burned. And as the days passed, her burning began to pour into more—wobbling into a paralyzing love, slinking into a weakening love, then later, skyrocketing into a powerful, unveiling love.
At night, she dreamed of flowers.
Flowers of all forms, from tiny buds to jungle-sized petals.
In the mornings, when the soil smelled crisp and she knew John had visited, she would touch the wall. Her thoughts would form like dewdrops, containing and overspilling into more metaphors that might begin to reveal an end to another beginning. The night descended into a grim lagoon of timelessness. Time was torture. And in this torture, she breathed, and this struggle, she dreamed, and in this impossible isolation, Imogene began to feel something more, amidst a character break down, as time began to eat the last of her past existence.
Imogene's dreams began to make sense. Like her lips, like John's skin, like her favorite book. In the darkness that permeated every molecule of her being, she laid on her mattress in her night gown and finally, her unknowns began to waver into questions.
What did it mean to be alive? What did it mean to exist, and what for, if no one could see her, and she couldn't see herself, but she could still be aware of herself? What were her thoughts if they couldn't free her but paint other realities in her mind?
If she was conscious in both dreams and waking life, what did that mean?
And, if all her existence was composed of thoughts that created realities in her mind, building symbols of meaning inside of her and outside of her, then what did the cardboard box around her head mean, and what was the point of wearing it?
Imogene's dreams began to recall a brightness from a flame she couldn't fathom the source of, but it was there. She couldn't discern if it was spiritual or physical, imagined or intrinsic to the fibers of her very consciousness. As her dreams wore on, it felt like at times this flame warmed her from the inside, and from a place beyond the box she'd always known.
Other times, like when she was awake and staring at the ceiling, the flame would consume her waking senses. Touching this flame would be unbearable, more unbearable than that itching on her head, the stench of the fish inside the cardboard box, or that sinister hunger that inflicted her stomach everyday.
And on and on life went on like this.
Until one day, the door to her bedroom unlatched.
Imogene went back to eat with the family.
They didn't say a word.
Just munched on fish and coughed.
Imogene was hungry.
Too hungry to say anything as she ate. Lathered in fear that if she said anything, her fish would be taken from her plate and her hunger would be unleashed again.
This time she ate the brains and the eyes.
She could tell by Mother's mood that she was happy by this.
Imogene retired to her bedroom and had a dream about the tunnel.
Fish guts danced in the tunnel. Fish eyes that never blinked twirled in front of her. They were living eyes. Living but frozen, like the eyes drawn on her face. She swung at the fish parts, in fear and anger, barely able to see the parts through the holes of her box.
In her dream, the box over her head was torn off. And then she could smell the flowers that she smelled on the morning of her 29th birthday.
John was a shadow in Imogene's dream.
She called for him but he disappeared at the end of the tunnel, a place she'd never dared to voyage in waking life. But in her dream, she started walking through it. Further than she'd ever imagined she could go.
Deeper into a dark hole that paradoxically lead to the sun.
John! She yelled.
The wind picked up and howled. The flowers flew from her fingers, sucked into the dark black hole of a mystical tunnel that waited for her to believe in it.
Imogene awoke from her dream.
She stepped out of her bedroom with her white nightgown on.
She passed a damp table where The Thirteenth Tale was kept. She picked the book up with her piano fingers. She walked towards the front door. She opened the front door carefully, bracing herself as a whoosh of wind burst from the tunnel.
Imogene stood at the doorway, letting the wind blow over her body, until she felt cold. Indecision crept into her internal wounds, but was instantly blanketed by that burning force from her dreams that might be the accumulation of both love and fear.
She put her hands on each side of the cardboard box that had been placed on her head ever since she could remember.
Without a sound, she removed the box from her own head, and dropped it onto the ground. Air flew around her face, as if it were dancing. The air touched her frail skin, embracing it. Then, she smiled, a smile no one could see but she could feel, and it was nice, because she was no longer afraid of the things she couldn't see. Fear was just a metaphor.
Imogene walked into the tunnel for miles, a tunnel which curved upwards, until she was climbing her way up, up towards the surface of the earth.
Rocks, dirt and grass first passed under her bare feet.
For hours, Imogene walked blindly, as it was too dark to see, but she knew how to traverse the darkness. When the tunnel curved upwards, she climbed. She felt the stones, and trusted that the stones would hold her weight. On and on, she climbed, trusting that there was an opening, because John came and went from this tunnel—there had to be a way.
She trusted that there was life beyond.
She trusted that her dreams meant more than the reality underground.
So, Imogene kept climbing until there were spokes of tiny lanterns of light. Until those little spokes of light flickered and flashed like hot, living tentacles that grew to become cosmic sized. Until the incredible light solidified into a world of wholeness, and then this light filled the entire space which was the universe, filling the ether around her.
Imogene crawled out of the tunnel and emerged onto the surface of the earth. She stood there, in awe as the breeze outside danced through her hair and nightgown.
Her green eyes adjusted after a few minutes.
The light above and around her burned if she looked hard at it for too long, but it was so gentle, as she began to walk onwards.
Imogene walked into the fullness of this new light.
This light twinkled in her eyes as she emerged into a world of color. Her heart beat courageously as she saw this world above, knowing, she deserved it.
Imogene walked into this warm sunrise, carrying a book that was now hers. She breathed in the ancient trees, high mountains and boundless creatures shining around her.
And, she became whole in a brighter world that existed this whole time, that waited for her emergence, living right above that darker place underground.
There is nothing to be afraid of, Imogene thought, amazed at life's beauty. The end of the world was a lie. The box was a lie. The darkness is only part of the story.
And in the world's light, Imogene walked on.
Never to live in the dark ever again.
is a Filipino-American adoptee writer living in Arizona, hailing with a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Bachelor's in Journalism from Northern Arizona University. She has published journalism features in The Flagstaff Live, The Daily Sun
, and The Noise
, with offbeat travel essays in The Journey Magazine
and The Hole in the Donut
travel blog. She has also been published in small journals like The Story Shack
and The Writing Disorder
, with multimedia video and essays featured in The Write Place at the Write Time
. Stephanie is currently working on fantasy fiction and self-published chapbooks.