For a nothing, Charlie Brown, you’re really something--Lucy van Pelt, just before he stabbed her
A Box Full of Nothing
by Arthur Sanchez ©2007
Brian sat dejectedly in his lawn chair as a single persistent housefly buzzed around his head. By anyone's standards it would be a perfect afternoon; the sun was shining, big puffy clouds were floating across the sky, birds were singing in the maple tree behind the house. But for Brian, who sat nursing the early stages of what would surely become a nasty sunburn, it was his own personal version of Hell. Brian was running a yard sale.
It wasn't that he'd never run a yard sale before. In fact, he'd run several for his parents after they'd decided to retire down to Florida. It wasn't just that he truly hated yard sales - which he did. (You would too if some woman insisted on spending twenty minutes haggling with you over a twenty-five cent ashtray.) No, it was that he was running a yard sale for his Uncle Max - a man he'd barely known and who had never seemed much inclined to get to know him. Not that there was much of a chance of that happening now. Uncle Max had the misfortune of dying and having had that misfortune decided to share it by naming Brian his sole heir and beneficiary. Which meant Brian was responsible for all his stuff.
Uncle Max wasn't a bad man. On the contrary, he always remembered to send Christmas presents and birthday cards (albeit they sometimes arrived a month late). It's just that Uncle Max had been a scientist (a theoretical physicist, whatever that was) and had lived for his research. For that he'd sacrificed everything - including family. Brian figured that's what hurt the most - being less important than a bunch of theories.
So there he sat -- hot, tired, and about ready to call it a day. He'd done the honorable thing. Now it was time to bring it to a close. If it weren't for one middle-aged woman who, despite having spent the last two hours building up a small cache of treasures, was still rummaging through the boxes; he would have.
It was just as Brian looked over to check the woman's progress that the conservatively dressed, modest-looking lady turned her head to glance at him. Brian nodded politely. She nodded back. Then, as if sensing that she'd overstayed her welcome the woman snatched up a wooden box she'd just pulled from the discard pile and began to pack her treasures in it - though there probably wasn't enough to require a box. Brian closed his eyes and groaned. Ah geez, he thought, not another one.
One of the things Brian had learned from this yard sale is that people are essentially crazy. He discovered that it's not enough that the items are being offered at a fraction of their original cost. It's not enough that he was practically giving the stuff away. No, some people want a bargain so bad that they'll do almost anything for it - including cheat and steal.
Brian watched as the lady began walking primly across the yard towards him in a tailored gray suit and reasonable shoes. She was probably a banker or a lawyer in the world beyond his uncle's picket fence. But put up a yard sale sign and suddenly she's Ma Barker about to go on a major crime spree. Unfortunately for her Brian had seen this con at least three times before.
The pros will hit a yard sale late in the day, when the owner is burnt out and the really valuable stuff has been left behind by those too cheap to pay the price. They'll stroll along, pick up an empty box, stuff some choice pieces of jewelry in the bottom, then fill it up with old dish towels, lace doilies, and broken toys, before asking for a price on the whole box. The homeowner, distracted, tired, and grateful to be rid of the stuff doesn't even bother looking past the first layer and names a price for the towels - never realizing that grandma's silver teaspoons are also going along for the ride.
The woman, who did seem a little nervous, smiled at Brian as she stepped up to his folding table and placed the box down. She then reached into her purse and produced a wallet. And right on cue, like an actress doing her lines, asked: "How much for the box?"
Brian gave her a tight smile as he rose to his feet. "Well, I don't know," he said, "let's just check what you've got." He saw her stiffen as he pulled the box towards him. Yup, it was the box scam all right.
Yanking off the stained dishtowels Brian stuck his hand straight into the pile and began pulling things out. He wasn't about to get taken. Not when he'd worked this hard. "Right," he said as began to lay things out, "a couple of ashtrays, five textbooks on . . . Physics and Thermo-Dynamic Principles," he looked at the woman, " a little light reading?" She giggled politely at his joke. "Two pipes, an open bag of pipe tobacco, a box of three-penny nails, and . . ." Brian hefted a misshapen cobalt-blue pottery bowl up into the sunlight. "A really ugly ceramic bowl."
The woman, who up to now had been standing there placidly, reached out quickly for the bowl and took it from him. "Please," she said, "be careful. That was Max's one and only attempt at artistic expression."
Brian's eyes narrowed. "Max? You knew my uncle?"
The woman, who was cradling the bowl, looked startled. She hadn't intended to reveal that fact. "Ah, yes, we ah . . . we were colleagues. We worked together at the university."
For a brief moment Brian saw something in her eyes that said she and his uncle shared more than a mutual interest in physics. So Uncle Max did have a life beyond his lab. To Brian's surprise, that revelation made him feel a little better. Uncle Max might not have been much for family but at least he'd found someone to share his obsession with science. And that meant that someone had gotten to know him.
Brian felt ashamed of his suspicious thoughts and pushed the box to one side. He was about to tell the woman she could have it all for free when something caught his attention. The box, though empty, felt heavy. Brian glanced at the box. It was wooden, sturdy, built well but not that well. He tipped the box on one side and glanced inside it again. It was still empty. Yet, for it's size, it was heavier than it should be. "Hold on. What's going on here?"
The woman glanced at Brian and then at the box. "I'm sorry. I don't know what you mean." But she wasn't a very good liar. He could see in her expression that she was hiding something.
Brian reached into the box and felt around. Still nothing. But then he realized that the inside was shallower than the outside. A false bottom? All of Brian's good feelings disappeared. This woman might have known his uncle but she was still trying to pull a fast one. He began tapping on the bottom of the box.
"Please don't do that," the woman said.
Brian glared at her. "Why not? Afraid of what I might find?"
To his surprise she nodded her head and answered very softly: "Yes." That caused Brian to pause. The yard sale pros never admit to knowing that there is anything else in the box. Was this her first time?
"Look," she said, staring at him earnestly. She had large green eyes. He hadn't noticed that before. "I'll give you a hundred bucks for the box. That's more than fair, isn't it?" She opened her wallet and began counting out twenty's on the table. "Just, just don't bang it around."
That really confused Brian. Half the stuff in the yard wasn't worth a hundred bucks. Why then was the box worth so much? Did his uncle hide some priceless relic in here? Were there notes on a secret invention? Or perhaps, he thought sadly, had his uncle had an adulterous affair and hidden his love letters to another man's wife in this box. Brian looked at the woman. Was she that other man's wife?
Brian shook his head. That was ridiculous. In the span of twenty seconds he'd gone from believing his uncle had found love to believing that his uncle had found forbidden love. No, there was a more practical reason for this woman's unease. "I'm sorry," he told her, "but I think I should I find out what you're hiding." He reached for a screwdriver that was lying on the table and jammed it into the bottom of the box.
"NO!" The woman screamed as if he'd plunged the screwdriver not into the aged wood but into her chest. She reached frantically for the box. Brian held it away from her as he wedged the screwdriver between two slats and pulled. There was a satisfying cracking as the wood snapped. "No, you mustn't," she continued, grabbing a hold of the box. "Your uncle warned against --" But Brian wasn't listening. The slat popped up and he broke the piece off with his bare hand. Staring down into the dark gap he'd created he saw nothing. It was empty.
The woman, who was also staring down into the box released the lip and backed up a step. "See," she said, "nothing. Just empty space." A light breeze picked up and the collar of her white blouse began to flutter. "There's your money," she said, pointing at the small stack of bills on the table. "I'll just take my things." She held out a hand for the box.
"Yeah," Brian said doubtfully, "I guess." Not quite willing to give up Brian hefted the box over his head and peered into the hole again. It was completely dark and, except for a few dust particles that were beginning to swirl around it, completely empty. He put the box down on the table. He could have sworn he was being scammed. He jammed his hand into the hole and felt around.
"Please," the woman urged, "don't do --"
"Look, lady," Brian began, feeling rather irritated, "I'm just making sure--"
Something grabbed Brian's hand. It wasn't a physical something. It was more like a force. Like placing your hand over the mouth of a vacuum cleaner. He could feel his hand being sucked down into the hole. "What the --"
The woman reacted instantly. She grabbed a hold of the box and pulled. Brian's hand partially emerged from the opening but not before the suction increased tenfold. Suddenly, he felt like he was being pulled off his feet. Air began to swirl past his hand with a hissing sound.
"Your uncle warned of this," she cried. "Pull your hand out before it's too late!"
Brian didn't need to be told twice. Holding the box out in front of him he waited till she got a grip on it then pulled as hard as he could. They must have looked like they were engaged in some bizarre tug of war over an old fruit crate. But it was to no avail. It felt like he had wedged his hand into a pipe. Pain shot up his wrist as the opposing forces stretched the tendons in his hand.
"Hurry," the woman said as she let go of the box. Brian nearly fell over as the box dropped like a rock and bent him over double. The woman grabbed him around the waist from behind. "If you brace it with your foot and we pull together we might overcome the suction." Brian did as he was told. Placing his right foot on the lip of the box he leaned back while pushing off on it. This time his hand did slowly begin to emerge. It was barely perceptible at first but varying degrees they were able to wrestle it free so that it eventually popped out like a cork. They fell back as air suddenly began to swirl past him and into the box. Debris and papers were swept up and sucked into the center of an invisible vortex.
"This isn't possible!" Brian shouted over the storm. "It's just an empty box!"
The woman wasn't listening. Snatching up one of the heavy tomes on physics that Brian had put aside, she jammed it into the box flat side down in order to cover the hole. Remarkably, the dusty old book acted like a patch on a balloon and the air stopped moving. As quickly as it had begun the freakish storm ended.
Brian stared at the now disheveled woman. Her suit and hair were mussed up. Her glasses were askew but there was relief written all over her face. "What was that?" Brian demanded.
The woman, who was now kneeling next to the box, brushed a stray lock of hair from her face and rose slowly to her feet. "That," she said with impressive dignity, "was nothing."
Brian shook his head. "Don't tell me that was nothing. That was something."
"No," she corrected him as she gathered up her belongings, "that was nothing." She then took a slow deep breath as she tried to compose herself. "That," she said with a shrug, "was literally the absence of . . . anything. It was, for the lack of a better description, complete and utter nothingness."
Brian tried to wrap his mind around what she just said. He vaguely remembered some of the topics his uncle had loved to discuss. "You mean it was some sort of Black Hole or Gravity Well?"
The woman gave him the same sort of smile she might give a first year grad student. "Black Holes and Gravity Wells aren't nothing. On the contrary, because of their gravitational pull they are usually full of elements that couldn't escape them." Brian stared at her as if she were speaking a foreign language. "Look, you probably didn't know this but your uncle was a brilliant man. He spent his career searching for the physical equivalent of the number zero - a natural state in which nothing exists. When he found it, he realized he'd made an enormous mistake. Nature abhors a vacuum. Empty a space, any space, and nature will insist on filling it. And," the woman said with a chuckle, "nature won't be too particular about what she uses. It was your uncle's greatest discovery -- and his greatest regret. All those years spent on . . ." she smiled at the irony of her own words, "nothing. It was too dangerous to reveal and impossible to destroy. So your uncle placed his discovery in a box, a small wooden box without openings or gaps, and he left it there. He just forgot to tell me which one it was and it took me all afternoon to find it."
Brian stared at the box in her hands. It looked like any you'd find at the local hardware store. "Th-That's not possible."
The woman smiled again. "Of course it is. Everyone has a box full of nothing. Your uncle just had more of it than most." Then she cocked her head to one side as if the absurdity of it all no longer mattered to her. "So what do you say? A hundred bucks for an empty box -- sounds like a bargain to me."
Brian nodded his head without even thinking it. He didn't want it. Best let a scientist deal with it. "Agreed." Then, realizing how much of an ass he'd been towards her he added: "I'll, I'll even throw in some old textbooks. Not much of a read but I understand they're great for plugging up holes." He gave her a shy smile so as to let her know he was making a joke. This time the woman let out a genuine laugh as she turned to gather up her things and though she hadn't said it, Brian had the distinct impression that she'd just saved his life. "And this," Brian said as his brain began to function again, "is from me -- a gift." He picked up the ugly bowl that had been his uncle's one attempt at art and handed it to her. "I think," he said softly, "that Uncle Max would have liked you to have it."
The woman's eyes misted over as she accepted the pottery and gingerly laid it inside the box. She lingered for a moment over its polished surface before quickly grabbing the other things she'd selected and adding it to the pile. "Helen," she said as she draped a dishtowel over the top.
"My name," she explained. "I never gave it to you. It's Helen."
Brian gave her a nod. "Nice to meet you. My name is Brian." They stood in an awkward silence: family and friend of the deceased meeting for the first time. Where did one begin? Then a thought occurred to him. "Excuse me, Helen, but . . . but would you like to come into the house and have a cup of coffee? I didn't really know my Uncle that well. I was wondering if you could tell me about him."
Helen's face brightened. It was as if he'd answered a secret desire of hers. "Yes, I would like that, I'd like that very much." To Brian's amazement he discovered that he would too.
Brian looked around. Despite the fact that the world had nearly ended the only evidence of their little adventure was the fact that his yard sale sign was now hanging from one corner. Brain tore off the sign and threw it down on the grass. "Glad that's over," he said with enthusiasm. He flexed his hand. The feeling was beginning to come back into his fingers.
"I know what you mean," Helen said. "I try to avoid these things myself. The time, the bother, and some of the people you get!" She rolled her eyes dramatically.
"Tell me about it," Brian said as he carefully picked up the box and carried it in for her. "I had one lady tell me my prices were too high. Can you believe that? Fifty cents is too much for a wool overcoat." And together, with a box full of nothing between them, they went inside to remember a man Brian was just coming to know.
x x x
Yes, yes, I know. I violated my own rule by publishing two stories by the same writer in the same year. But Alex’s tales are so outstanding that I wanted anotherealm to have the honor of posting them—before he took them someplace else. Your comments, please, on this one. -GM
Love or hate this story? To talk about it on our BBS click here.