I found the box on the day Richie Norton saved my life. I was just about lost to it; that sense of serenity that comes when you’re drowning, despite your body thrashing as it struggles against the end. I was ready to let it all slip away, to fade into silence when Richie dragged me up from the muck and grime of the water and pulled me away to the embankment. I’ve never forgiven him.
We both lay panting and exhausted on the damp grass. Cold shivers ran through us despite the heat of the afternoon sun. Brackish water stung my throat and my lungs burned as they clutched for air.
Richie’s yellow Spiderman t-shirt clung so tight I could see the rack of his ribs. The shirt was covered with algae and there was a ragged tear where it must have snagged on something in the water. He peeled it away from his chest and stuck his finger through the hole.
‘You ruined my best shirt,’ he said, scrabbling to his knees. He spat on the ground and ran a hand across his mouth, long fingers pulling at something on his tongue that wouldn’t quite come away. He spat again.
‘The hell you think you were doing?’ There was a venom in his voice that was rare to hear from Richie. His eyes narrowed and he shook his head. ‘Hope it was worth it.’ He nodded at the box that I still held in one hand.
To this day, I don’t know why I’d reached out for the box as it bobbed on the surface of the water, or how I’d managed to stumble in after it, or why I’d held it so firmly and wouldn’t let go even as the life began to seep away from me.
I looked down and saw my knuckles were white, pale as the cataracts that clouded Grandma’s vision.
The box wasn’t much to look at; about the size of a hip flask from an old film noir, dented and battered all over, rusted clasps at the sides and a scuffed lock at the front.
‘At least take a look inside, since you almost killed the two of us,’ Richie said.
I flicked at the clasps, each in turn, and found they wouldn’t budge. It felt light; I shook it and nothing seemed to move inside.
Richie snatched it away from me and dug his penknife out of his jeans pocket. It was the same knife his brother had used to carve three dots into his hand the year before. He’d promised he’d ink Richie with a crazy life tattoo just like it when he was older. Richie couldn’t wait.
He prised the clasps apart with the blade and quickly moved on to the lock. It seemed the knife would give before the lock did. I could see the strain on his face, the tension in his muscles.
‘That’s not meant to be opened, no way,’ he said and tossed the box back to me. ‘You should be dead, man, you should be gone. Your eyes were rolled way up.’ He mimicked the look and I shuddered as I saw the whites of his eyes.
He pointed at the box with his knife. ‘You look after that, keep it safe; your soul’s in there. Vida loca, my friend.’
Richie Norton was my best friend. Richie Norton saved my life. I never saw him again.
At school the next day Mrs Walker told us about the accident. Richie slipped in the bathroom and fell back into the tub unconscious. He drowned as the bathwater leaked away.
Crazy fucking life.
I’m cold all the time now; it’s as if the water saturated my bones. My palms and the tips of my fingers are still pale and wrinkled and there’s a sour, stagnant taste in my mouth. Some days my lips are blue as the veins on the back of my hand.
There are times I’m sure Richie was just the first; the first of many. That everyone I’ve ever lost is because of that damn box, because I didn’t die that day, because Richie was right.
Wait long enough though and answers always come. I found a key today, deep down in the mud by the embankment. It’s small and the colour of dried blood and it’s a perfect fit.
All I have to do is find the courage to turn it.
L.R. Bonehill never meant to hurt anyone all those years ago; he just wanted to play, that’s all. Forgive him online at http://bonehillsboneyard.blogspot.com/