When I grew up, all I knew about my birth family came to me in the form of a small box.
I had been put up for adoption, with the constraint that the box must remain with me at all times. It was a heavy wooden chest, about the size of my head. Heavy iron held it together with a thick padlock holding watch on the front. It was surprisingly light even with the iron, and as a child I was always fascinated with it. The only key to my true identity. Ironically enough, all that was missing was the key.
“Mommy, why can’t I open the box?” I used to ask my adoptive mother. Due to the nature of the box, I had to grow up knowing I was adopted. It never really mattered to me, though, because my parents loved me very much. They were my true parents – my other “parents” were only so in blood. They didn’t mean much to me.
But the box… now, that was intriguing.
My mother would shrug and say, “Your parents didn’t say. They only said that one day you would be able to open the box.” She’d see my disappointment, lean down, and give me a secret smile. “What do YOU think is inside?” she’d whisper.
I’d screw up my face for a moment, thinking hard. Then, with a shout, I’d exclaim, “A treasure map! A treasure map from Blackbeard!” Or, maybe I’d say, “A magic potion that will make me immortal!” Sometimes, it was, “A list of the techniques I need to be a super secret ninja!” And mom would always go along with my little fantasies. I can’t remember how often we would go chasing after my dreams together. More often than not, dad would come home from work to find us giggling and running around the house. That always put a smile on my face.
But these were the first lies that I told. I didn’t really want anything like that to be in the box. What I really hoped would be inside was the secret to my identity, the secret of the family I didn’t know. I never realized that that, too, contained an adventure… albeit not the one I was hoping for.
I thought perhaps I’d get the key to the box when I turned 18. It’s what I was hoping for, after all.
My 18th year was full of happiness. My parents sent me off to college, although they did visit me all the time. I got my first girlfriend and my first car. I gradually settled into a life of change, a period where I felt I was growing up fast.
But no key.
I was disappointed, but it soon began to fade from my hopes. By the day of my 19th birthday, I no longer thought about the box as anything but a distant fairytale that I no longer needed to believe in.
I turned 25 last month. It’s the first birthday that I spent without seeing my parents – now that I’ve moved a few states away, I don’t get to see them as much. They promised to come a few weeks from now to visit, but, suddenly, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.
My birthday came on a Wednesday, so I was waiting for the weekend to celebrate. I had a date with my cute coworker, a girl named Angela with this beautiful wavy blonde hair. Consequently, my Tuesday night was spent drinking a few beers and heading to bed early.
The knock on my door came at midnight.
I was startled out of my sleep, with bleary eyes and a head hazy from drinking. My head cleared quickly, however, because it wasn’t just a few knocks: they were slow yet never-ending thumps against the heavy wood, demanding an answer.
I stumbled to my feet and out my bedroom, heading for the front door. Internally, I was cursing, wondering who the hell could possibly be bothering me at this hour, and why. As I shuffled across the carpet, the knocks seemed to become softer. Cautiously, I approached the door. The knocking stopped altogether. And then, after a moment of silence, came the scratching.
Skritch skritch skritch skritch
What the hell? I thought.
I took a deep breath and yanked open the door, still too disoriented to even think about getting a weapon or calling the police. At the time, I was relieved that I hadn’t.
Standing in front of me was a girl who couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. She had perfectly straight black hair that stretched down to the middle of her back. She was pale, as though her skin had never tasted sunlight, but her eyes were fringed in coal black lashes. She wore a simple black cardigan and black skirt. Black seemed to be her whole color scheme, and I couldn’t help but think of Wednesday Addams as I looked at her solemn eyes. Her hands were clasped behind her and from her neck dangled a single, silver key.
“Happy birthday, big brother.”
She had settled herself on my couch by the time I had collected my wits. Brother? Did she say BROTHER? I shook my head as I told her to make herself comfortable. For lack of a better option, I slunk behind the kitchen island to make a pot of tea – I remembered my mother fixing tea for any visitor to the house, even the annoying Jehovah’s witnesses – as an excuse to give myself some time to think.
Meanwhile, the girl sat stiffly on the couch, unmoving. Her face was ice cold and expressionless, her lips slightly parted and her huge eyes staring into nothingness. Everything about her seemed…mechanical. Strangely enough, she didn’t do anything until she’d been told. She hadn’t bothered to enter my apartment until I numbly invited her inside. She had simply stood in the middle of the room like a statue until I bade her sit down. It was beyond strange. Then again, so was this whole situation.
I poured the cups of tea and brought them over to the sofa. I sat down next to her and began to talk.
“So…could you explain what’s going on?”
Her mouth opened as though I had said the magic words. Her voice was soft and delicate, somehow incongruous with the stone carving of her features. “Mother and father sent me to you. I am your younger sister. My name is Cassandra.” Her mouth shut again and she looked at me expectantly.
I racked my brain for more questions. “Uh… why are you here now? Why is this the first time I’m meeting you?”
“Mother and father have their reasons.”
She stared some more. Apparently that wasn’t the right question. “Okay… so… what exactly am I supposed to do with you?”
“I’m to stay with you for one month. At the end of the month, you may have the key.” My eyes drifted down to the silver key around her neck. It seemed to be shining at me through the dim living room.
“What does it open?”
“Do you still have the box?” she asked. My heart seemed to stop as my eyes shot towards my bedroom. I could see it clear in my mind’s eye… I had set it on the top shelf of my closet, an ancient artifact of a childhood dream.
“Yes,” I answered, breathless.
“Once the month is up, you will open the box. Then our sister will be allowed to join us.”
My head was swimming. I wished I hadn’t had anything to drink earlier that evening. “Wait, I have ANOTHER sister?”
“Of course.” She seemed unfazed by my bewilderment.
“I… I don’t understand.” This was it. I was out of questions. I had stored them up for so long that they had rotted in my brain, and now, at the crucial moment, I had forgotten them.
“It’s okay. You’re not meant to,” she answered.
This was how Cassandra came into my home.
I had tried to reassure myself that this was just another new adventure, but it felt more like a horror movie to me. Or perhaps an urban legend – a strange girl shows up at a guy’s door, what happens next? My mind went down spooky lanes full of hitchhiking ghosts and I decided it was better not to think about. Okay, so she was a little weird. Who cares? In the end, if my biological family was too much to handle, no one ever said I HAD to see them, right?
But Cassandra – or someone – had a few surprises in store for me.
I noticed the change in my apartment first. With Cassandra around, everything seemed…gloomy. Dark. Soon, I realized that it really was darker – the light bulbs were getting dimmer. No matter how many times I replaced them, they’d fade away like dying embers. The only things that shone through the darkness were Cassandra’s eyes and that key.
My initial impression of Cassandra was correct, by the way: she never did anything without being told, and even when she did, it was like interacting with a robot. I had to tell her to eat, to go shower, to go to bed. Furthermore, she’d only come to me with the clothes on her back. I had bought her a few toiletries and some more black shirts, but that was it. I tried buying her something slightly more colorful – a gray hoodie to sleep in – but she had cast it into the corner of the room and wouldn’t so much as look at it.
“Why don’t you wear anything other than black?” I asked.
“Mother and father don’t like it,” she answered.
Soon enough, I became curious enough about her behavior to ask, “Why do you act like…” my words caught in my throat as a thousand words pounded through my head, none of them quite right. Finally, the perfect word appeared on my tongue, “…like a doll?”
“Mother and father trained me to do so.”
I’ll never forget the way she said that word. “Trained.” She betrayed no emotion as it passed her lips. She never betrayed any emotion. I shuddered. “Why? Why would they do that?”
“Mother and father have their reasons.”
Things only got worse after that.
People started to avoid me. Of course, I’d had to cancel my date with Angela – what was I supposed to tell her? That my long-lost sister had suddenly arrived at my door and started wreaking havoc on my life? But even without my excuses, she began staying away from me. My coworkers asked questions at first. “Are you okay, Michael?” they asked. “You seem… a little sick. Gloomy. Is something wrong?” I tried to assure them I was okay. I was baffled…sure, my life was in a bit of a disarray, but I wasn’t depressed or anything. But the more I tried to convince them, the more they avoided me. Soon, I wasn’t interacting personally with anyone anymore.
Finally, I began having these strange dreams.
I suppose I should call them nightmares, because that’s what they felt like, but there was really nothing so scary about them. In fact, there was barely anything to them. I was surrounded by the darkness of my bedroom. I could hear Cassandra’s soft voice coming in from far away. She was singing something like a lullaby, with a few too many minor notes. I wanted to hear the words, but she was just soft enough that they were lost in the hush of her voice. I would try to stand up, to go to her, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t wake myself up, either. Sleep paralysis, they call it. It began happening every night.
I passed an entire month like this. By the time the last day came to a close, I was a complete wreck.
Midnight struck and Cassandra came to me, like she had a month prior. I was sitting on the couch, waiting. I had a feeling. I knew it was tonight. A month on the dot.
She sat next to me and held out the key. I took it. This was the first time in a month that she had moved without being commanded. No, that wasn’t right: this time, the command simply wasn’t coming from me.
“Do you have the box?”
Numbly, I went into my bedroom and fetched the little wooden chest. My heart was beating wildly, but it was more from fear than anticipation. None of this felt right. And yet I couldn’t resist.
I returned to the living room and sat down on the sofa, the box in my left hand and the key in my right. I looked at Cassandra and she nodded at me.
I slid the key into the lock and prayed to something. Anything. As the padlock grated and the key shuddered in my hand with the slight turn, I felt a shiver run through my heart. There was ice in my body and it was stabbing me. I was sweating.
The box opened. I peered inside.
All I could tell at first was that it was brown. A brown lump that looked as though it was covered in parchment. A parcel? No, that wasn’t right, that wasn’t it at all. I lifted it from the box and was surprised at how coarse the outside was. It had a strange weight to it, and something instinctive in me began to raise an alarm.
I held it up to the light for a few seconds before flinging it onto the ground with a scream.
I think, at one point, it was almost a baby. It was simply too small to have ever been born, yet it was intact. It had been… removed. And, upon removal, it had been mummified.
I practically vaulted over the couch, high shrieking noises still emanating from my throat. Cassandra gathered up the fetus and gave me a disapproving glance, the first emotion I’d seen on her face.
“Don’t do that to our sister,” she said.
“That fucking thing is our sister? Seriously, what the fuck?!” I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t breathe, oh, God, I couldn’t breathe.
“She’s not a thing.” Cassandra’s eyes drifted to the ceiling. I noticed the lights flickering. A low whisper scratched at the back of my ears and I went dead silent.
“What the fuck was that?” I asked after a moment.
“I told you, once you open the box, our sister can join us.”
It’s been exactly one day since I opened my own personal hell. Everything has crumbled in my life. I don’t know what to do.
I tried calling my parents, but they didn’t answer. Cassandra told me not to be surprised. “You won’t be seeing them again,” she said. It wasn’t an order, it was a fact. I should have screamed, called the police, gone after them… but my heart felt drained. Everything about me felt dead.
I sat silently for a few hours. Cassandra sat with me, those doll eyes staring at me, not seeing me, not seeing anything. God, what IS she? Do I want to know?
Finally, I managed to open my mouth again. “So, what happens now?”
“Mother and father will be here for us shortly.”
Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any better, if you can believe it. I sat there, my hands shaking. They haven’t stopped, even now as I type this. Because I can’t forget the last thing she said. I can’t forget, no matter how hard I try.
Because I asked her, “why is this happening to me?”
And because she answered, “Mother and father have their reasons.”