They went to see the man who collected boxes.
There were two of them, Nathan and Roger, and they went in the afternoon after lunch and armed with flashlights and code kits. They carried Boy Scout Handbooks in their ski coat pockets, and candy bars and a railroad flare which Roger had stolen from his father's workbench. Nathan had a whistle ring and two sticks of gum which he h.o.a.rded to himself.
They went in October, when the sun was orange-red and large as a hanging jack-o'-lantern, and they went in the afternoon when the leaves danced circles at their feet in the curt wind and when the chill of winter death was beginning to settle in on porches and doorsteps. They went with caps on their heads, and the energetic joy of the young bloomed in their cheeks and in their bright angel eyes.
Sidewalks disappeared under their running feet. Nathan leaped at the near-nude branch of a tree, missing it with an ooof. Roger leaped behind him and touched it.
The wind whistled the dark day's passing.
The man who collected boxes lived at the far end of the farthest block. His house-lonely, square, and brooding-suddenly reared up before them, and they skidded to a halt.
Roger looked at Nathan.
This was the dividing line, the place where innocent adventure stopped and the breaking of rules began. Bicycles were not even allowed to be ridden to this spot. Cats shied away. The lawn around the house of the man who collected boxes was immaculately trimmed, green even in this late time of the year. No dog did his business here.
No tree grew here.
Nathan and Roger shied away from this perfect, straight front walk, crept instead across the forbidden lawn. Breathing lightly, they drew up to the side of the house. Gingerbread brown it was, and seemed still wet to the touch, it looked so freshly painted. So fresh that Roger found himself reaching to touch it. Nathan slapped at his hand and motioned for him to be quiet. Roger smiled.
Around to the back they crept, stopping underneath the one window. shivers went through them both.
They raised their heads.
Inside, dimly lit, were the colors of Christmas morning. Red and green, gold and bronze, silver, blue.
There they were. Stacked one upon the other, b.u.t.ted up against walls, on tables and chairs, filling almost every inch of s.p.a.ce. Boxes. Enameled and lacquered, painted in watercolor, pastel, and crayon, of wood, of cardboard, of tin and beaten brass, round, square, oval, triangle, large, little, tiny, nested, oblong, flat, high, decorated with stencils or drawings, some plain, some elaborately carved, lidded, unlidded, hinged, fitted, some with brass pulls, some with brass handles, some with moldings of party colors, others green felt-lined, red felt-fined, violet felt-lined, black felt-lined, flat-topped and dome-topped, pyramid-topped, untopped, some with secret compartments, keys, spring locks, one with a tiny steel padlock, with stained-glass insets, clear-glass insets, round peek holes, false tops, one with stubby teak legs, one with the face of a monkey tattooed to its front, one with the head of a camel carved from its lid-pull, one with trick eyes set into its side that seemed to follow you back and forth, one with a knife spring-jacked into its bottom, ready to fly up on opening, one with tactile poison along its ridged lip, one with the face of a happy clown on its cover that changed to a frown when you turned it upside down. A bright pink one with peeling paint. A chocolate-colored one with a crack in one corner. One that had never been opened-and never could be. One that had never been closed. One encrusted with precious gems: rubies, a topaz, sapphires, a thumb-sized diamond, eight-sided.
Nathan and Roger stared, fascinated, into the room and their eyes made a glue bond with these boxes. This was part of the dream of their plan. To see these boxes. To peer into this forbidden window and witness the treasures of the man who collected boxes.
To be among them.
There was no communication between Nathan and Roger. Their souls were united and separate in this decision. They had come to observe and now they must touch. Boy Scout Handbooks were fumbled out of slick ski parka pockets and paged through. How to open a closed window? As expected, there was nothing on how to open a closed window, especially one that did not belong to the scout doing the opening. Handbooks went back into pockets, and Roger, in a sudden and triumphant flash of thought, produced a small scout knife, attached to his keychain. It pulled open into a one-inch blade. Nathan was doubtful, but Roger overrode his doubt with enthusiasm.
Eyes peered over the window ledge again.
With care and the special skill of an amateur, Roger slipped the knife blade under the rubber seal of the outside window and tried to pry it out. Nathan suddenly grabbed his arm, stopping him. He pointed. There was a catch on the horizontal window, and it was in the open position.
Roger pocketed his tiny knife and pulled the window to the side. It opened with a smooth hiss.
Nathan and Roger exchanged glances.
Behind them, the wind whipped up. An early moon had risen, and shone a pale crescent at their backs. The red sun was sinking. The sky had deepened a notch on the blue color scale, toward eventual black. The air bit cold.
Nathan looked at Roger and thought suddenly of home. Of Dad at six o'clock, coming home with a quart of milk, of the paperboy, of television, of the warm couch and the sharp smell of supper and Mom moving about in the next room. Of sister upstairs, playing her records too loud. Of an apple or late-peach pie, cooling by the kitchen window; the window open a crack to cool the pie but keep the chill out. Of his schoolbooks waiting in his room, neatly stacked; the neon lamp waiting to be buzzed on. Dad reading his paper and the smell of coffee. A warm bed with a crazyquilt coverlet Mom made last winter. The ticking sound of heat coming up in the baseboard. Thoughts of Halloween coming and Thanksgiving coming and Christmas coming. Kickball at recess tomorrow. Late-peach pie and cold milk.
Nathan turned to go and Roger took his arm. A look of reproach crossed his face. Somewhere at the other end of the block a dog barked once, twice. Roger held on to Nathan's arm, pulled his gaze back to the window.
To the boxes inside.
The dog barked again but Nathan did not hear it. Roger looked at him and smiled. Nathan made a step with his hands, locking them together and cradling Roger's foot, hoisting him up and over the ledge. There was momentary silence, and then Roger's face appeared on the other side. He was still smiling. He reached down for Nathan, who now locked his hands in Roger's hands and pulled himself up, over, and in.
Nathan righted himself and heard Roger sliding the window shut behind them.
There was almost nowhere to turn or step. There were boxes to the ceiling. Nathan tried to move deeper into the room and nearly knocked over a large box with carved pull k.n.o.bs and black polka dots painted on its yellow surface. It tilted and began to fall toward a pile of black lacquer boxes which were stacked upon a cardboard storage box with rope handles. Nathan grabbed at it with both hands, noting its smooth and dustless finish, and righted it.
Roger, meanwhile, had found a pathway of sorts through the boxes and was disappearing behind a bronze-cornered trunk. Nathan hurried to catch up to him.
They both found themselves in a hurricane eye in the center of the room, a tiny cleared out spot walled in on all sides by boxes. It was very dim here, since the fading outside light was cut off by a row of bloodred cubes of diminishing size, starting at the bottom at about three feet square and finishing at the top with a pyramid topper of a tiny box a half inch on a side. There was enough light to see, though, and Roger cut off Nathan's attempt to snap on his flashlight, indicating that it would ruin the effect by having their own light infringe on this treasure room.
Nathan demurred, then agreed.
They sat, Indian style, in their spot and reveled in the boxes. Roger leaned over to his right, plucking at an oval tin circled with painted swans. He opened it, gazed into its bright reflective insides, and closed it again. Nathan stared up at the skyline of boxes around them, and thought how wonderful a dream this would make. There were more colors and pleasing shapes here than anywhere on earth-there must be-and he could think of no place that was more dreamlike. Roger brushed his fingers over the mottled surface of an ebony s...o...b..x-sized box and sighed.
Light became a little dimmer.
There was a sound, and Nathan and Roger were startled. They had forgotten that they had broken into the house of the man who collected boxes; they had forgotten altogether that there was a man connected with these boxes. That had been part of the original adventure-to see the boxes, but above all to see the man who collected them. This they would be able to tell their friends-that they had not only seen the boxes but, most of all, that they had seen the man in the perfect house who kept them.
The sound came again.
It was almost a scrabbling sound-like tiny fiddler crabs loose in a wooden boat and ticking all over its inside surface. An ancient and wheezing sound-old age with claws, moving with slow careful grace and constant, inevitable movement toward its destination.
Nathan and Roger were trapped.
The sound was all around them-slow, inexorable-and, though they were on their feet and fingering their Scout Handbooks, there was nowhere to turn. Nathan could not locate the pathway back to the window; indeed, that pathway had seemed to disappear and even the line of blood red pyramid boxes no longer stood in quite the same line. The tin box Roger had handled was nowhere to be seen.
There was the sound of a box opening.
Somewhere behind them, or in front of them, or to their left or right, a large box with a large and ponderous lid was being opened. There was a heavy, wheezy breathing. A rattling, dry cough. Another wheezing breath, and then a whispered grunt and the closing of the box lid.
A shuffling sound, the d.i.c.k of a light switch, a shuffling sound once more. The room was suffused with a dull amber glow, like that in a dusty antique shop. The colors of the boxes deepened and softened. A dry cough and the shuffling continued.
Abruptly, from behind a box with the gray-painted form of an elephant on it, the man who collected boxes appeared.
Nathan and Roger drew back.
The man who collected boxes shuffled toward them and lifted his heavy head. There were wrinkles there, so many that his eyes were almost lost to view behind them. His hair was the color of white dandelion and looked as though it would, like dandelion, fly away if breathed upon. His hands were veined and trembling, his bones gaunt.
He lifted his head, slowly, and looked out at them through the black shadows of his eyes.
He tried to speak.
He lifted his hand, painfully, and opened his mouth, but only a rasp emerged, dry as yellowed newspaper.
His hand lowered itself to his side.
Nathan looked at Roger.
At that moment, the dog at the end of the block barked again, and Nathan heard it, m.u.f.fled as it was. He looked at Roger. It was six o'clock. Late-peach pie would be cooling.
Nathan felt Roger's hand on his arm, but he pulled away. In the pale yellow light he found the slight opening between a dull blue nest of boxes and a charcoal-colored case; he slipped sideways between them and made his way through the maze of boxes to the window, sliding it open. It showed a dark rectangle of the outside world.
He climbed quickly out, hesitating on the ledge.
The dog barked once more, sharply.
He jumped down onto perfect grass.
Behind him as he ran, he heard the shuffle of shoes, and then the clean sound of one lid closing, and then another.
"Up now with you, "the Toyman said He lifted her gently; like a plucked flower, and placed her into the toybox. She looked up, and the world above her, the shimmer-glass house, receded to a dark rectangle. Around her shelf was a warm dusty glow, and she saw now that the toyshop was as wide to either side, with row after receding row of aisles, as it was long. And on each shelf in each aisle there were toys, of every kind imaginable.
"Not... boring "a corner of Selene's mind thought, and then she heard from somewhere in the distance the voice of the Toyman says "Come, we have other stops to make."
Then, suddenly like the wink of a blackbird's eye, darkness fell. And from far, far away came the sound of the lid- Closing.
Selene closed the cover of the little silver box.
The shimmer glass house had turned into a shimmer glass palace, with a million shining star chandelier overhead Selene yawned; feeling an out rough tactility to her hands as she rubbed her eyes.
She yawned again.
The Toyman gathered all the toys into his great hard white bands and put them carefully into the toybox. Then he called to Selene to come look. Down in the toybox, in the toyshop that was there, all the toys had resumed their places on the shelves. It was night in the toybox, and the amber glow had deepened to Halloween orange.
Do you see, "the Toyman said, "way down, that little shelf?"He pointed to an empty s.p.a.ce under a pale rose skylight, a s.p.a.ce where the rest of the orange glow was softer, more opaque.
Selene nodded sleepily.
"That's yours," the Toyman said :NO!" Selene shouted, looking down now at her body her black-yarn hair, her cloth skin, her black buckle shoes that hurt the eyes, they shone so bright.
"You knew all along didn't you?" the Toyman continued. "A Toyman brings toys, but he must also get them from somewhere. "His voice softened "It won't be so bad. No more boredom...."
Selene was silent, staring up at him with her b.u.t.ter-brown eyes.