Prose: “The Box Left Behind” By Reema Saleh

Indent Evening light ripped pink through the sky as Aisha ran up the hill with paint-splotched high tops that didn’t change from season to season. She made her way up the hill to the house overlooking the lake, half-expecting the blue tones of the house to fade, half-expecting the hill to be empty, like the old house withered away with each breeze until it collapsed to dust. The thought of it made her blink violently, and when she accidentally dug her foot into a notch in the dirt, instead of catching herself, she hurtled straight to the ground.

Indent Splayed out in the dirt, Aisha’s mouth fell open. They hadn’t painted it. She’d nurse her scratched up knees sometime later, but for now, nothing else mattered. The lawn was newly mowed, there were two cars she didn’t recognize cluttering up the driveway, but whoever moved in last had the good sense to keep the house the same color. The blue paint still washed her old home, soaking into the stucco and chipped window frames. Her chest seized up, and she was drowning in blue again. She swabbed the dirt from her eye, spat phlegm into the grassy reeds, and started running again up the winding road.

Indent At the house, Aisha clambered up the porch steps one-by-one and sat amongst the wet drops collecting on the swing. As the sun melted into the horizon, she drew pictures in the dust collecting on the house wall until she heard the distant clang of plates and silverware from inside. She glanced at the huge bay window latched to the side and jumped over the porch railing to look through it but found a cardboard box blocking her view. She twisted herself around it hoping to watch the family come together and eat. They came together to the kitchen table in waves – the mother moving dishes from the counter to the table, the father reading his newspaper and not doing much of anything, and then a little boy who sprinted downstairs after two sharp screams up the stairs. When they settled in their chairs, Aisha pressed her face up to the glass. They didn’t dig in immediately, but they sat silent, their heads bowed for a minute until they squeezed hands and opened their eyes. Her cheeks grew cold watching them pass bowls of mashed potatoes and green beans to each other.

Indent Aisha was normally much more careful when she broke into other people’s houses. She had rules about this, she liked to remind herself, as she squatted in the wet mulch and peered through the window – a new addition she already disapproved of. She never just waltzed in. First, she had to watch the family and wait for them to head on to bed. This was her nightly ritual. In the four weeks since she’d started, it had become as natural as tying her hair back at night or brushing her teeth before she slept. She had to watch them first before she could raid their pantry. There was a sweet spot, a window of time she was aiming for when everyone in the house had to be within her sights. It was the fastest way to learn their patterns and know where they’d be during the night. In her less-informed days, she’d burst into a new house with no reconnaissance work whatsoever, but there were downsides to rushing in unprepared. An open screen door would seem like a golden opportunity to an amateur. But without knowing how the family acted, it’d always end with something gone horribly wrong. She’d break in past midnight to find a family of night owls clustered at the dinner table, staring wide-eyed at the snacks she’d run away with. Or she’d find a family dog snapping at her ankles, even when the rest of the family hadn’t seen her. Families were unpredictable, so it was best to be prepared – by watching them when their guards were the lowest.

Indent She squinted at them through the glass again. With the sun lowering from the sky, it was getting harder for her to see. The blond-haired little brat tried to grab for bread rolls, and his father placed two on his plate. The mother emerged past the door frame with a tub of ice cream. There was something uncanny about their smiles, something unnatural about the way they stretched across their faces. They didn’t belong in this house.

Indent “Hurry up already,” she hissed. She looked at her wristwatch and spat in the dew-soaked grass. They weren’t wrapping up anytime soon. The sky turned deep purple to black, and she stood there in the damp cold, watching the lily-white moths ram themselves into the window for the dim light inside. She loved stalking her way into new families and their squabbles. She couldn’t bring herself to go to a house more than once because she loved collecting new ones in her mind.

Indent Breaking in, stealing snacks, and couch-surfing. It became her daily routine about a month ago. She remembered waking up in a wet patch near the local church in May with mud caked in her hair and with not much else. When she found her way up the hill, the house was completely empty. The furniture was gone, and her family was nowhere in sight. She scoured the hallways and rooms, but nothing was left behind, and no one she bumped into on the way to her neighbor’s house or the school would listen to her. Spring bled into summer without an answer.

Indent Now, this house had a new family. In those early days, she kept a threadbare blanket and curled up in the abandoned rooms waiting for someone to come home. Something hadn’t quite felt right about sleeping in a house with no people, so she left it behind too. But last week while wandering around the town, she saw moving vans head up the hill for her old home. Aisha glanced back at the window. The mother was cleaning up, the other two had already left the kitchen. She knew they weren’t hers from the get-go, but she’d still resent them like they were the ones that whisked hers away in the first place.

Indent Aisha counted down from three. After a few seconds passed, she took a deep breath and sank her finger into the doorbell. She winced as the bells clung together, the high clear sound ringing past the door. She hung by the doorframe, praying it would swing open. This didn’t work every time as she’d learned over the past weeks. Some houses – the people that were more used to the door-to-door salesmen and sorry-eyed political canvassers – wouldn’t open the door at all. She learned the hard way, from standing outside apartment complexes in the city center and ringing each unit only to be left out in the cold. Nowadays, she targeted gated neighborhoods, residential areas where adults were gullible enough to keep getting the door. She never repeated houses, except for this house, which she kept coming back to. In the minutes that passed, she pressed her ear to the door. A voice called out, buried by the striped wood.

Indent “I’ve got it, honey!” A shuffle of footsteps came towards the door. Aisha backed away from the handle. Two locks flipped sideways, and the door swept outwards.

Indent “Hello? Is someone there?” A head burst out, the mom’s. A nightcap wrapped her head, and the tired way her shoulders drooped made Aisha feel a tinge of regret. If Aisha hadn’t disliked her so much, she might have felt sorry for the poor woman. The woman held the door at an angle just large enough to shimmy in. If Aisha was careful, she wouldn’t feel her brush by at all. She looked the lady straight in the eye and got a warm, green stare of confusion. Aisha stood as still as possible. The lady looked from side to side, and Aisha breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn’t see her, even if the sun was high and light filtered in behind her.

Indent “Hello?” went the lady again, a little louder this time. A hard edge snuck into her voice. When Aisha ducked under her arm and inside the dry entryway, she almost felt embarrassed. Maybe she should have checked for another way, but it had gotten too dark for her to fumble with the windows. Besides, she wanted to see her – the person who felt like she could steal her home. She glanced behind her at the mother, who tied the night-cap on her head a little tighter.

Indent “Crazy kids,” the lady muttered, slamming the door. Aisha took off her shoes and placed them gingerly on the doormat after the lady turned towards the staircase. There was another set of rules she always tried to follow. Leave the place how you found it. Follow the rules of whoever lives there. Don’t leave a trace of being there. She had to remind herself that this wasn’t her house anymore. Tiptoeing her way through the living room, she looked around.

Indent “What on earth did they do to this place,” she whispered. Thick yellow wallpaper coated the walls, washing in the room like a bad cold. Yellow on the inside against the couch, the television, the coffee table. Blue shingles on the outside sealed the house from the wet grass and hanging branches.

Indent Blue and yellow? Aisha shook her head. Blue and yellow? For goodness sake, she wondered. How could they have gotten it so wrong? She made her way to the familiar kitchen cabinets and balanced on her toes trying to sweep the top shelf of snacks towards her. The high cabinets were where all parents kept the good stuff. A box of cookies, some bagged chips, and her favorite brand of frosted pretzels fell to the floor, and she grabbed the pretzels and burst the bag open.

Indent She wasn’t sure why only targeted homes. Food, she needed, but why she needed to spy through family kitchens, she couldn’t quite justify to herself. She loved resting her head on the counter of the bakery half-a-mile from here and letting the smells drift in before she stuffed her bag full of fresh bread. Sometimes she snagged packaged food off the aisles and nobody would notice. Full and healthy meals were out of the question – after all, nobody had taught her how to cook and she didn’t have her own kitchen to do the cooking. She couldn’t tell why, but she always came back to houses, picking off house after house in the neighborhood. She got sick of the same chips and junk food she was eating everywhere else and wanted whatever those families were eating. The routine became something to pass the time. But this house was special, even though she hadn’t been inside it in almost a month, because she knew it had been once hers.

Indent “Who are you?” Aisha dropped the pretzel bag to the floor. The brat was back again. He couldn’t have been more than five or six, dragging a fuzzy blanket across the wooden floor. Aisha blinked rapidly. He couldn’t see her, could he?

Indent “What are you doing here?” he yelped.

Indent She waved at him, hoping he’d quiet down. “Don’t worry about it,” she whispered.

Indent He started yelling. “You don’t belong here!”

Indent Aisha winced. It was an unhealed cut kept on stretching. She used to belong here, she wanted to yell at him. He was the one that didn’t! She could shake his shoulders until he admitted it. Instead, she crouched on the floor to look him in the eye.

Indent “Don’t freak out!” she whispered. “I’m just…your imaginary friend!” Did little kids still have those, she wondered. She couldn’t remember.

Indent The boy stopped screaming. His brow smoothed out. “Oh, okay!”

Indent Aisha nodded furiously, the panic easing out of her. “That’s right! I came to bring you snacks.” She patted his shoulder with her free hand. “But it’s a secret, so don’t tell your mom.”

Indent He smiled. “Got it!” He dragged her by the arm towards the sofa, her spilling some of the snacks balanced in her left. The boy sat cross-legged on the leather cushions staring at her, who nibbled another frosted pretzel and glanced between the door and his stretched smile.

Indent “My name’s Daniel! My mom calls me Danny though.”

Indent Aisha giggled. What was the harm in staying? He was the only person who could see her, as far she knew. “My name is Aisha.”

Indent He held out five fingers. “I’m this many!”

Indent Aisha paused. She was twelve, at least she was when she used to live in this house. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since then.

Indent “Where did you come from? We just moved here, you know?”

Indent Aisha remembered growing up in this house, jumping up and down on the bed like she was trying to leave craters in the bedroom floor. She remembered her brother Kiran yelling at her to shut up from the wall over, and then her mother coming in threatening to slap them both if they didn’t lower their volume. She smiled again at Danny. Was that where he slept now, she wondered, ruffling his hair to distract him from the silence. She was out of practice at conversations, but this was a good start.

Indent “Danny? Danny! What are you still doing up?” His mother’s voice echoed down the hall. “I tucked you in an hour ago. What’s the matter with you?”

Indent Aisha dropped the last of the snacks from her right hand. She watched Danny look at his mother, then at the snacks scattered on the floor. “Sorry, Mom.”

Indent His mother shook her head. “And look at this mess!”

Indent Aisha looked away, embarrassed. She shouldn’t have been this sloppy, even if she was invisible.

Indent From across the room, the house phone rang. Danny’s mother nestled it between her ear and shoulder as she picked the bags strewn across the room. When Danny opened his mouth, Aisha held her finger to her mouth and signaled to keep quiet.

Indent Next to him, Danny’s mother cheerily spoke into the phone. “Hello, Mrs. Niazi! How are you?”

Indent Aisha perked up at that name. The lady’s frame danced around the room, and when she tried to block her path, she just moved the other way without resistance. Was it them? Aisha shook her head, it had to be.

Indent “Oh, yes, the box? I just found it wrapped up in the attic. It’s downstairs now. Of course, your son can pick it up in the morning. No, it’s no trouble at all.”

Indent Aisha gnawed at her lip. Tomorrow morning? “Please tell me where they are!” she yelled up at her. Danny’s mother didn’t respond and hung the phone on the dock.

Indent Aisha looked at Danny desperately, bending down and holding his hands to get his attention. “Please ask her where they are.”

Indent Danny blinked twice and looked up at his mother. “Where are they?” he babbled.

Indent His mother smiled sadly at him. “Do you remember the Niazi family? Those nice folks, they used to live here before us. Poor family, I can’t imagine going through what they have.”

Indent Aisha waved at Danny again.

Indent “What did they want?” he asked.

Indent “They left a box here when they moved out last year. I found it when I was cleaning the attic.”

Indent Aisha watched his mother gesture at the box blocking the window. “Ask her again,” she hissed at Danny.

Indent He nodded and tried again. “Where are they?” he asked.

Indent “Oh, I don’t know. They didn’t say. They’re sending their son to pick it up tomorrow morning though. Maybe you’ll see him then.”

Indent With the room clean, Danny’s mother looked down at him with less anger. “Now mister, it’s time for you to go to bed.” She hoisted him up and walked them both upstairs. Danny’s chubby little hands waved goodbye from the air. With the room empty once again, Aisha dashed to the phone receiver, almost knocking it from the dock. 415-890-1931. What area code was this, she wondered. It wasn’t anywhere near here. At the counter, she found a pen and paper, trying to write down the number before she forgot. Each time, she dragged the pen across the page, the ink dried away a few seconds afterward. Frustrated, she tossed it crumpled on the ground. 415-890-1931, she repeated. 415-890-1931. She scrawled the number on her arm, tensing up her underarm to let the ballpoint slide across. Wandering to the window, she came to the box and ripped the tape off. The box didn’t have much in it. She pieced through a framed photo of the Niazi family, two stuffed animals from either her room or Kiran’s, and a thumb-worn copy of children’s books. Then she pulled out a thick fluffy blanket, with blue and white wool tracing through it. She ran her fingers on it and smiled, tying the blanket across her neck as she used to as a kid, like a cape billowing around her as she leaped down the stairs four steps at a time. She walked back from the garage to the living room, leaning against the window and waiting for the sun to rise again. Even if she couldn’t talk with them, she’d finally see Kiran again.