Ruben pulled the cardboard box out of his dresser, employing the same care that he’d used when holding his infant nephew for the first time. Since then, Ruben’s nephew had grown up some. The infant had turned into a kid, and it was only right for roughhousing to follow. Ruben could swing his nephew around by the arms until both of them tumbled to the ground laughing; his stomach turned at the idea of being so careless with the box.
He walked across his room, from the dresser to the work desk, holding the box with both hands. He watched his feet on every step, mindful of any clutter that could make him lose his balance. Even his breath was monitored—just why was beyond Ruben, but still, it only felt appropriate.
He reached the desk, and—not too rough—set the box down on the scratched wooden surface. Ruben released his breath as he sat down.
Finally, Ruben unfolded the top.
The first photograph he pulled out was one of his home in Wisconsin. As he stared into the house nestled among the woods, Ruben put himself where he had been when the picture was taken.
Where he had been was with his sister. Neither of them were any older than 12. They were standing behind their mother as she took the “before” photo.
Whoever painted this house puke-green was an imbecile, his mother had said. He’d giggled at it then. He giggled at it again as he held the photograph. And he smiled thinking about how if he ever showed her the photo in his hands, she would say the exact same thing again.
Next was the after photo. There, forest-green. Good choice kids. It looks much better now.
Ruben put the two photographs back into their place at the front. The order mattered. Memories were unreliable, and that was okay—Ruben had his cardboard box. He pulled out a photo at random, careful to hold its place in the box with his free hand.
Peg, he thought, smiling at his twin sister. They weren’t identical for clear enough reasons, but their features were uncannily similar; even their mother had mistaken them for one another, albeit in her periphery. Same lips. Same chin. Same shorter-than-average height, same arrogant posture; same eyes that always looked just a little bit defensive, even when they weren’t. Ruben looked at the photo of Peg holding her newborn son, and he still saw himself in her. The good stuff and the bad, no doubt—Peg was an artist once too. But as she smiled with baby Patrick in her arms, Ruben mostly saw her good side. He wanted to smooth down her short, black, curly hair, and tell her that everything for her and Patrick would work out just fine. In his head, he made plans to visit. Plans that he intended to keep regardless of whether or not he really moved to France over Katie.
Over Katie, he thought to himself. He laughed out loud, as though there were anybody else in the room who he had to lie to. Now that’s a good one.
He put Peg and Patrick back into their spot and took out another picture. An earlier picture. One farther away from…
The next photograph was brighter, much brighter than any of the others. The lens flair alone threatened to consume the picture, and the rays of sunlight scattering off the snowy landscape weren’t helping. Even the subject was mostly white: a billboard.
My first work of art, Ruben thought. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, his first work of art. There were several photographs in the cardboard box alone which could prove that Ruben and Peg had both been artists ever since they could hold a marker. In truth, Ruben’s first work of art had been the blue lines he drew all across his sister’s giggling face when they were each a year old. The vandalized billboard was just Ruben’s first work of art that mattered.
Ruben put the picture back, and then he folded the cardboard top back onto his cardboard box. He stood up, took the box in both hands, and walked it back to his dresser. When he returned to his chair, he spun it to his other desk: his business desk. His desk that wasn’t scratched and stained and free. He booted up his computer—a computer which was old enough for booting up to be a process rather than an instant—and as he waited for the screen to come to life, he pondered the question.
How long do ants live?
His answer remained the same: Days. It has to be days. In a just and righteous universe, an ant shouldn’t have to live for any longer.
When the computer was ready, Ruben went straight for the browser icon that was closest to his mouse. He typed Rice’s question, one key at a time.
And he was blown away:
Ruben ran a hand against his face, and through his short, black, curly hair.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015