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The Sandalwood Box

by Joe Casey


It's snowing, of course; thick, heavy flakes, hitting the window with soft, wet plops of sound. It's been snowing since noon; already, seven inches are on the ground with the promise of another five before the system moves east and on towards Michigan later in the evening. It's only five o'clock, and already it's dusk outside. The snow glows with that strange purplish phosphorescence of early winter evening.

He stares out the window in his darkened room, forehead pressed against the pane. His breath fogs the glass. He is supposed to be reading. Lord Jim lies face down on his bed. He likes the book well enough. He is supposed to have it read, along with two other books, by the time class starts back up in January. There's no chance, of course, that school will be canceled by the snowstorm; he's been out of school for over a week.

Tomorrow is the first day of winter, December twenty-first; tomorrow is also his birthday, the fifteenth.

He hates having a December birthday, and so close to Christmas. No lazy summer afternoon on the deck with cake and ice cream, no late spring with daffodil and crocus blooming ... not even a crisp fall afternoon with the trees ablaze in color.

None of that. December. Always cold, almost always locked in snow. Everyone bundled in sweaters in front of the fire. And the gifts ... are they birthday gifts? Early Christmas presents? Hard to tell, sometimes ... convenient for everyone, really, not to have to worry about it. A gift is a gift, after all.

Downstairs, the doorbell rings. Someone, incredibly, is out in this mess. He listens as his mother opens the door. A brief interaction ... he hears something about O'Hare, flights being canceled left and right. It's a man's voice, sounding a little tired, a little ragged.

Then, the door closes. Silence. He goes back to contemplating the snow and the glowing dusk.


His name floats up the stairwell. He turns.


He considers ignoring her, perhaps feigning sleep.

"Liam, open the door. There's a package down here for you!"

There, on the dining room table, is a cube, gaudy in its purple and orange shipping box. His mother stands beside it, frowning at Liam.

"What?" he asks.

"What did you order? You should have told me."

"Nothing." How would I even pay for it? he thinks. He walks over to the box and inspects the label on the top; it's a name he doesn't recognize, and a San Francisco mailing address. The only person he knows who lived in San Francisco was his Uncle Martin, his father's twin brother; Martin is gone, of course, so this cannot be a present from him, except from beyond the grave. He lifts the box; it's heavier than he would have expected, and as he moves it something rattles inside. He starts to carry it up to his room, but his mother stops him.

"Where are you going with that?"

"Up to my room."

"You don't want to open it here?" she asks. In his head, he translates. Please open this here so I can see what it is.

His mother hands him a pair of shears, and he goes at it, calmly and quietly disemboweling the box under her watchful gaze. Inside the box is ... another wrapped cube, and there is a letter on top of it. The envelope is a creamy white and looks expensive. His name is on the front, and on the back is the same strange address from the shipping invoice. He picks up the envelope and, with the shears, slits it down the side to extract the letter within. He scans the letter quickly and looks up at his mother.

"What's 'estate' mean?"

She waggles her fingers, inviting him to hand the letter to her, which he does.

"Oh," she says, after she's scanned the contents. "Looks like whatever this is belongs - well, belonged, I guess - to your Uncle Martin. It was part of his estate - that's, like, all his property and belongings - but there was some confusion and the lawyers didn't know what to do with it. Looks like it ends up with you."

"Oh." This cube, slightly smaller now that it's bereft of its outer enclosure, is neatly wrapped in coarse brown butcher paper and he wonders if his uncle had wrapped it himself. Liam wants, really, to take this upstairs to his room but knows that his mother will badger him until she discovers what it is, so he begins to pick delicately at the brown paper.

"Use the shears," his mother suggests.

"No. I don't want to scratch whatever's underneath." His fingers gain purchase on some corner of the wrapping and begin to tear it off. Shredded paper joins the remains of the shipping box. Presently he exposes a corner of the thing inside: a rich, reddish brown wood with an intricate network of brass wires running through it. There is a faint tang of something spicy and peppery … the wood itself? His mother joins him and soon they have the thing exposed entirely.

"My goodness," his mother murmurs. "Beautiful."

For once, he agrees with her. Sitting before them on the dining room table is a cube of wood and brass, about sixteen inches on each side. The wood is intricately burled and figured, and the brass weaves a delicate filigree of geometric shapes all around the box. On top of the box are four circles of what appear to be stones - white, yellow-gold, blue and green. However ...

"How do you open it?" Liam asks.

Together, he and his mother look all around the box, trying to discover a clasp or something that might indicate how to open it. There is nothing. They pry at each edge and can even see the faint horizontal line of a crack running around the box, although the hinges remain hidden.

"Maybe you should try to pry it open. I'll get a butter knife," suggests his mother.

"No. I don't want to scratch it."

"Well, how are you going to open it?"

"I don't know." He smiles at her. "Maybe it's a test."

"Is there anything inside it, even?"

Liam picks up the box - it's heavier than he would have expected - and gives it a tentative shake. He is rewarded with a faint rustling rattle. "Sounds like it."

"Maybe your Dad knows how to open it, if it came from his brother."

Liam moves the box onto the kitchen counter and clears away the packaging. He sets the table while his mother busies herself in the kitchen with the last preparations for supper. While he works, he steals glances at the box, as if he might discover some clue about it, but the box presents nothing to him. Even across the room he can smell the box's peculiar odor, foreign and exotic.

An hour later, his father bangs into the kitchen from the mud room, bringing with him a blast of the cold air from outside. He's already shed his winter coat and boots and walks barefoot over to Liam's mother to give her a kiss. "Sorry I'm late," he says.

"No problem. I figured you would be, with the storm."

"Thank God I don't have to go in until Monday."

From the living room, Liam watches as his father goes over to the bar and begins to fix his drink, a nightly ritual, vodka punctuated by ice and a little shot of tonic water from the small fridge under the bar.

"Hey, Dad."

"Hi, sport." His father rattles the crystal glass with its clear, oily liquid. "Care to join me?"

Liam laughs. From the kitchen he hears his mother.

"Michael ..."

"Kidding." He leans over to Liam and in a stage whisper, says "Maybe after supper ..."

"Michael ..."

His father turns to say something to his mother, but catches a glimpse of the box on the countertop. His eyes widen. "Where in hell did that come from?" he whispers.

Startled, Liam's mother makes a half-turn. "What ...?" Then she sees what he's looking at. "Oh. That showed up today. Do you recognize it?"

"Of course I do. It's Martin's."

"Well, was Martin's. It's Liam's, now, apparently." She hands him the letter. "Do you know how to open it?"

He's scanning the letter and doesn't hear her at first.

"Do you -" she starts to repeat. He looks up.

"I ... what? Uh, no. I'm sure Martin must have known, but he never told me."

He and his son pore over the box, but have no more luck than Liam and his mother had had earlier.

After dinner, Liam takes the box up to his room and some privacy, out from under the watchful gaze of his mother. The box seems to trouble her; it is a thing not known and Liam is old enough to know that mysteries like this often upset her, knows that she like things that are clear and understandable, open and accessible. He shakes the box again, feeling the rattle and shift of unseen things inside. He runs his fingers over the wire cloisons, over the smooth white shapes that his mother says are made of mother-of-pearl, over the four smooth circles. From his mother, again: these are opal, tiger's eye, lapis lazuli, malachite.

Still, though, the box's mysteries elude him and he sets the box on a corner of his desk.

Over his mother's objections, Liam attends his uncle's funeral with his father.

In the airplane, wheeling over the city while waiting to land, Liam looks down at the grid of streets etched over the hills, the bridges flung across the bays, the infinite plane of the sea to the west. He can sense his father's head next to him, peering out the tiny window, and remembers that this is where his father grew up.

"Do you miss it?" he asks. His father doesn't answer immediately.

Then, "I do. It was a great place to grow up."

A slight motion of the plane sends his father's cheek to graze Liam's own, the rough texture of his beard a surprise but also a strange pleasure, and Liam moves away slightly with a rush of blood to his face. A faint hint of his father's cologne drifts past his nose.

The memorial service is at Martin's place up in San Rafael. Liam remembers the place from when he was here last time; he and his father had come up from his grandparents' house in Palo Alto to spend the day with Martin and Douglas. Liam remembers it also as one of the best days of his life up to that point, content to let the two men take him and his father across the bridge and into the city. Liam supposes that it's all familiar to his father, but is happy to see him relax.

Liam is old enough to understand what Martin was, who Douglas was to Martin. He knows that a lot of people his age would be troubled (or pretend to be) at what the two men represent. He finds it exciting, somehow ... dangerous, perhaps, although here it seems to be just part of the background.

While his father and Douglas chat quietly, Liam looks around the apartment. Little has changed since he saw the place four years ago; he loves the large, airy rooms full of a motley collection of furniture and art and plants. It all seems ... comfortable, in a way that his own house back in Chicago is not. There is all formality and everything placed just so and rooms that he's not allowed into unless there's company.

Liam looks also at the assembled crowd. He likes that his uncle seemed popular, with a lot of friends. Many of the people are men. He can tell, somehow, that they are like Martin, like Douglas ... although, if pressed, he would find it impossible to explain exactly how he knows that. His father seems to know many of them, as well, seems comfortable to move among them.

At one point, his grandparents arrive and he goes over to greet them. They seem surprised to see him here; his grandfather in particular seems to be not so much grief-stricken as ... well, angry, somehow, or at least not happy to be here.

On his way to the kitchen for another soda, he overhears a whispered conversation between his father and his grandparents. They don't see him standing there.

" ... can't believe you brought him here!" That from his grandfather; even though they're whispering, Liam can hear the anger behind the statement. He knows, somehow, that the him is, well, him. He can see the quiet fury on his father's face as he bites back his first response.

"Martin was his uncle, Dad. Liam should be here."

"Where's Paula, then? Why isn't she here?"

"She couldn't get away from work. She sends her regards." But even Liam can tell that his father's argument is weak and recalls a similar conversation - another one he wasn't meant to overhear - when his father asked his mother to come with them and she had, tearfully, begged off. There was something strange about that conversation; she seemed upset not so much by Martin's passing but more by the events of some particular summer, long ago, when they were together in Berkeley, where they'd both gone to school.

His grandmother tries to be more placating. "I just don't think this is the right place for him, son. I don't think he understands what these people -"

"He understands perfectly well, Mom. He's not stupid. I've told him about Martin." Michael turns away, ready to break off from the conversation, and sees Liam seated in the chair. He gestures the boy over.

"I'm sorry. I just -" But his father smiles.

"It's fine, Liam. Look - Nana and Papa want to take you back down to their place. Do you want to go with them? It's okay if you do, son. But you can stay here if you want."

He looks at his father, then at his grandparents. They're all looking at him, expectantly. And somehow he knows, knows what he wants to do, knows what seems right.

"I'd rather stay, if that's okay." Relief washes over his father's face, disappointment over those of his grandparents. His grandfather takes his grandmother by her arm and they start towards the door.

"Well, we're done here, son. We're going home."

"Fine, Dad." His father's tone is clipped. "Glad you could make it."

"Will we see you back at the house, darling?" That from his grandmother, still trying to placate.

"Perhaps." No less terse.


Two months later, in the middle of February, Liam is at his computer, typing a paper for history. There's a rattle at the window; sleet, driven by the wind ... another storm in a winter that seems endless. He's up late, later than he should be, but the paper is due tomorrow.

He pauses to collect his thoughts, fingers hovering over the keyboard. He steals a glance at the box. It has sat there, unopened, for the past two months.

His father had made a wry comment, saying perhaps that it was Schrödinger's Cat lurking inside the box. He'd had to look that one up; the possibility intrigues him - whatever might or might not exist inside is, at least until he figures out how to open it, just a cloud of possibilities. He sincerely hopes that - should he ever figure out a way into this thing - he won't be greeted only by some moldering cat bones and the acid/almond tang of poison.

He gets up from the computer and takes the box off the corner of the desk, sits with it on the edge of his bed. He runs his fingers idly over the top of it, as he's done dozens of times before. He sighs, angry and frustrated, and jabs a finger impatiently down on the iridescent white spot of opal.

It gives slightly, springily, under his finger.

He tries the other three stones and they do the same. He starts tapping out patterns; nothing happens, and he realizes that he could be here until the end of time trying to figure it out. Then something occurs to him.

The stones are spaced too far apart for him to touch them all with the fingers of one hand. But - two?

He does it carefully, with the thumb and little finger of each hand poised lightly, awkwardly over the stones, and even with his largish hands its still a stretch to cover all four stones at once. He takes a deep breath - he's so close, he can feel it! - and on a silent count of three presses the stones down, all at the same time.

With a slight snick! of sound, the lid opens slightly, about a quarter of an inch.

As he opens the lid, the wood's spicy scent, strong and peppery, infuses the air. He notices, first, a letter with his name on it in handwritten calligraphy; this he sets aside.

No cat bones, here. Treasures.

A fountain pen, heavy, black lacquer with a chiseled gold nib - the same one used to address the envelope?

A pocket watch of heavy gold filigree; on the back in inscribed, in florid, old-fashioned script, To My Dearest E - from A.

A pair of glasses attached to a mother-of-pearl handle - something Liam would later learn was called a lorgnette.

Another watch, a wristwatch, stainless steel, heavy, with a many-dialed black face. Liam knows enough to sense that it might be valuable. He slips the watch over his thin wrist, enjoying the weight and feel of it.

A smallish, flat, silver case with a brilliant green metallic treatment on its surface; on the back is inscribed something that he cannot read. He pries open the case to find an old, yellowed paper card in it, marked Byron Coulson. He and this Byron Coulson share a last name and he wonders if they might be related.

Another flattish case, larger, of the same design; when Liam pries it open, he catches a faint scent of tobacco.

A ring set with a dark red stone - not a ruby (Liam knows enough to know that it is not) but attractive, and the metal of the ring looks like silver but isn't tarnished. He holds the ring up to see an inscription inside, but can't read it in the faint light.

Other, smaller items ... more jewelry like tie tacks and cuff links, more rings, some bracelets, a gold lighter, a Swiss Army knife, a magnifying glass Liam recalls from some old TV show, used by jewelers to inspect items close-up. Coins, some with unreadable script on them, others from countries he's certain do not exist any more. A military medal with brass stars and brightly colored silk ribbon.

The tray containing these things is shallow, filling only half the box's depth, and Liam notices small holes drilled on two sides of the tray. He sticks his fingers in these holes and gingerly lifts out the tray.

The bottom of the box is filled with photographs, dozens of them, spanning at least a century, perhaps longer.

He pulls out a good handful of these photographs, of men - singly or in pairs - and sorts them like a deck of cards. Men of all kinds, some bearded, some not, some dressed immaculately, some only in clothing one might wear around the house. Some of the photographs seem to have been taken in studios whose names are printed on the bottom of the card. Other photographs are candid snapshots of men laughing, or asleep, or by the sea, or standing in front of a car. There is something about the men that reminds Liam of the men he'd met at Martin's funeral, of Douglas, and of Martin himself.

In one photograph he notices what might be the same pocket watch he'd just unearthed and, indeed, on the back is a handwritten notation: Edgar, London, 1898.

Another photograph that looks like it might have been taken in the fifties shows a tall, handsome man with a wristwatch on his left wrist. It looks like the one Liam has on now.

All of the men are strangers to him. Except for those in one photograph, one of the last he uncovers.

It's a picture of three men, at a beach, taken relatively recently, shortly before he himself was born. On the back is a pencilled notation that confirms Liam's guess - at least, of two of the men. He sets this picture aside and carefully closes the lid of the box.

Something - a rush of wind against the window? - awakens him, some hours later. The clock at his bedside reads a little after four in the morning. He opens his eyes into a room suffused with a strange and luminous silver glow.

It must be the moon, he thinks, but he can't ever recall it shining so brightly into his room. Liam sits up in bed, staring around the room, which is silent save for the periodic rattle of the wind, and his own breathing. But then he hears it, some faint sustained chord of sound, low, almost not there, the sound of a radio tuned to a station live but not broadcasting, or the roar of the ocean distilled to a single, constant note, or the exhalation of hundreds of people, simultaneously, like a muted chant of song.

Liam glances over at the box, back at its station on the desk. Its lid is open. He stares steadily at the box, unsure. He would swear that he had closed the lid only a few hours ago.

He gets up and goes over to the window. Looking out, he can see, of course, the back yard with its virginal coat of new-fallen snow and ice. The moonlight glints off of it in a cascade of watery diamonds, reminding him of the opal.

But there is something else, as well. Some strange, curdling fog, moving through the trees and across part of the yard. He's never heard of fog during a storm like this and he watches, fascinated, as the fog's tendrils dance and weave, and the movement reminds him of the deliberate, purposeful movement of some sea creature. The fog loops around the base of the tree nearest to his window in a lazy helix, moving slowly upwards.

Towards his window. The chord of sound nagging his brain seems louder, now. He is certain, now, that he must be dreaming, the kind of dream where one knows that one is dreaming.

Then, to his left, there is a flicker of movement, an eye-blink, and Liam glances over to see a figure, crouched quietly on a branch, watching him. Liam actually shouts out loud, then claps a hand over his mouth.

The figure seems dressed all in a glittery white fabric that looks much like the fog and covers him - how does he know it's a him? - from head to foot. The figure's outlines are hazy and indistinct, save for the eyes, two hard, glittering points of light boring into Liam, unblinking.

Almost without realizing it, Liam's hand goes up to the window and starts working the lock. He lifts the window up and a shout of bitterly cold air fills the room. Liam can feel his skin goosebumping as he steps to one side of the opening. The figure is motionless except for the eyes, which follow Liam's every movement.

Then, the figure gathers itself - the slight movements remind Liam of a panther ready to spring - and leaps! into Liam's bedroom. Liam closes the window behind him.

The two figures circle each other warily; not as adversaries but as potential friends. Up close, the figure even more closely appears to be male - wide shoulders and slim hips, the faintest sketch of muscles visible under the skintight sheath that seems even more like skin than it had when the figure was outside. There is even a slight upswelling of flesh there, between the thin, muscular thighs. The boy - for the figure is shorter than Liam, more compact - extends a hand towards Liam, picks at his shirt, and Liam understands. He slips out of the t-shirt and briefs he usually wears to bed and stands there, naked and hugging himself against the chill.

The boy steps nearer and then the two embrace, limb paralleling limb; together they fall onto Liam's bed. Liam expects the figure to be ice cold but it - he - is warm and alive. The boy sprawls onto his back and spreads his legs wide, the invitation obvious. Liam settles himself on top of the boy and feels his legs wrap tightly around the small of Liam's back, locking Liam to him. Liam submits himself to this boy and to his own desires, stares down into the boy's not-face, into his eyes, which are the pale brownish-gray of wood smoke.

Then there is the pulsing shudder of release and Liam falls into a dreamless sleep.

He awakens into a grey morning and a slight disorientation. Pale light washes across the ceiling; downstairs, he can hear his mother in the kitchen and can smell coffee wafting up. Liam glances over to see his clothing there on the floor and, pulling up the blanket, can see that he is indeed naked under the sheets.

Last night comes back to him in a hazy kaleidoscope of images and sensations; he remembers only hints of standing at the window, watching the snow under the moonlight, the strange fog, the even stranger phantom, there on the branch and then in his room, in his arms, in his bed.

Liam gets out of bed and walks into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. His face and slender, muscular body greet him, but something has changed. He runs his hands over the contours of his body, across his chest dusted with freckles, down his flat belly, through the tangle of his sex, over his arms, down his bunched thighs and calves. Something, some new knowledge about himself, tickles his mind. He feels changed, and charged, now, with what his body can do and feel and experience.

He goes back into the bedroom and slips back into his clothes, then throws a robe on and some slippers and is about to go down to breakfast when he remembers the letter with his name on it. He slips it out from underneath his printer and holds it up to the light, then fumbles through his desk drawer for a pair of scissors.

Liam -

That you are reading this means, of course, that I am not here. This is the blessing and the curse of this damned and beautiful thing, this Pandora's box that has banged and bumped its way through our family for a long, long time.

By now you've gone through all of the objects, through all of the photographs and - yes - the two are related. You may even understand that by now, as well.

You've probably also had some interesting dreams!

I was older than you when this box found me, even older when I figured out how to open it and learned to accept the gift it contained. That I, and not your father, received this box is not a mistake.

This is your past and this is your future; this, above all, is what this box says to each man who owns it. Inherent also is this one clear fact: you are not alone. You are part of a fraternity of men like you, like me. We have all lived this life that stands before you and none of us would have traded it for any other.

Lastly, I can say: do not be afraid of this box and what it represents - but you strike me as a young man who is not much afraid of anything.

Deepest, deepest love -


He waits until after supper, when his mother is watching television and his father is alone in his study, working on tomorrow's lecture. He waits quietly by the half-opened door to the study until his father, with a slight start, notices him standing there. Michael eases back in his chair, exhausted.

"Hi, sport. What's up?"

Liam slips into the room. "I figured it out," he announces, quietly.

His father frowns. "You figured what -?" And he breaks off, realizing. "Really?"

Liam nods. "It came to me a few nights ago."

His father sits up, interested. "Care to show me?"


They go quietly upstairs to Liam's room, in tacit agreement not to bring Paula into this. Michael sits on the edge of the bed as Liam gets the box from the desk. Side by side, Michael watches as Liam splays his fingers over the quartet of stones and presses down, watches as the lid of the box clicks open.

His father barks out a surprised laugh. "It's that simple?"

Liam smiles at his father. "Yeah ... it only took me two months to figure it out."

They both chuckle, then Michael watches as Liam pulls out the various treasures from the box. Michael holds each one up to the light, inspecting it. While he's no expert in such matters, he guesses that the contents of the box might be worth thousands to a collector.

Liam watches his father as he inspects the various items. The gold lighter, in particular, seems to draw his father's attention the most. He flicks a thumb across one corner of it and - even after all these years - a thin blue flame darts up. He flicks the lighter back off and puts it back into the box.

"Do you know why they're in here?" he asks Liam.

"I think so," he replies. Michael watches him as he hooks his fingers into the holes on each side of the tray, lifting it out. He pulls out a small handful of the photographs. "I think they might have belonged to these people." He hands Michael the photographs.

Michael sifts silently through the images, turning them over to read the inscriptions on the back.

"What do the numbers mean?" he asks.

"Numbers? What? Show me."

And indeed, up in the upper right of each image's reverse face, there is a tiny number, nearly invisible. The photographs have evidently been catalogued by someone.

"I never noticed them before," Liam admits.

His father sifts through the photographs and unearths, from the bottom of the box, a folded square of stiff and yellowed paper, mottled with age. Delicately, he unfolds it and lays it flat upon the bed. Written - in dozens of different hands - is a numbered list cataloguing each item in the box and to whom it belonged. Sure enough, last on the list, in the same handwriting of the letter Martin had written him is this: Michel, gold Colibri lighter, 1996.

And then Michael understands, understands what the objects in the box are, what the photographs represent. He glances over at his son, who is shuffling some of the images. He wonders if his son understands; he wonders if he himself quite understands why Liam received this box as a gift, that it was Martin's before it was Liam's. He thinks of his dead twin, equal to him in nearly every respect save one.

Liam reaches over to his nightstand and pulls something out of the small drawer.

"There was this one, too," he says, handing over another photograph to his father.

As he takes in the image on the front, Michael's heart skips a beat. Of course Martin would have this, he thinks. He remembers the day as if it had just happened and not nearly twenty years ago. The three of them had spent the day up at Stinson Beach on a rare warm Marin day when it seemed like half the city was up there with them. The day had been magnificent, faultless, golden. Michael runs his finger lightly over the surface of the photograph and every detail rushes back.


He was not there, and then he was.

Drop a curdle of cream into a cup of coffee, watch the eddies and whorls perfuse it.

That was Michel.

No one could remember quite exactly how, or even when, he'd shown up in the midst of their group. He was just ... there, in the way that a group of nomads marching endlessly across the Middle Eastern desert might have suddenly conjured a saint into their midst, halo glowing gently against the shadowed dunes.

That saint, that prophet, might even have resembled Michel to some extent; he, an elegant bastardy of a Moroccan Jew and an imperious, regal woman from Addis Ababa, both living in exile in Paris. A mop of curly black hair over an energetic face, jade-bronze eyes set cave-deep and split by a proud beak of a nose, a generous mouth ... one imagines an Ezekiel lying supine on the ground as the heavens shout down to him.

Teacher? Student? Both? Neither? Some peripatetic autodidact (as Robert, ever the philologist, had named him, before he quit the group in a fit of pique) sent to delight and confuse?

From that generous mouth, the most amazing polyglot of English and French and Arabic and the flotsam and jetsam of other languages; when one would fail him, he would switch to another, unconsciously. The group, collectively in command of some of those tongues, struggled to keep up, to tease signal out of the noise.

"I don't like him," from Robert to Michael, right before he'd left.

"That much is obvious."

Robert makes a face. "He's dangerous."

Michael laughs. "He's harmless," said perhaps more to convince himself than Robert.

"Do you think so? Look at Barbara. She's ready to start a cult, with him as its leader."

Michael has sensed that as well, says nothing, thinking not of Barbara, but of his brother.

They'd laughed about it, having the same name filtered through two languages. Michael. Michel. One kind of twin.

The two of them, over coffee at some greasy spoon off University Avenue, Michael unsure how he's found himself alone with Michel:

"I never worry about which one I'm talking to," Michel says.

"Which one - oh, no. We've never done that."

"No. There would be no point, right?"

Michael smiles. "No. Martin is ... well, Martin."

Michel's gaze holds Michael's own. "And what is Michael?"

Michael laughs, embarrassed, unsure how to answer.

Finally back to the apartment, late, well after midnight. Another intervention between his parents, another skirmish in the long history of such things, starting when the boys were little. Martin refuses to go to these things, sees them for the fiction that they are. At times like these, Michael wishes he'd accepted the offer from Columbia.

Michael is tired and his eyes feel gritty with the fatigue. He simply wants to fall into bed and sleep through the day. He tries to be as quiet as possible in the apartment, not wanting to wake Martin, but as he steps into the kitchen for a glass of water, he sees a figure out on the balcony overlooking the quiet street below.

It's not Martin, it's Michel, and he's naked, smoking a cigarette. Michael watches him for a few seconds until Michel arcs the spent cigarette out into the cool night and turns to go back to bed. The two men look at each other, not speaking. Michael's gaze drops across Michel's spare dancer's frame and down to the shadowed intricacies of his manhood before flicking back up to Michel's face. One side of Michel's mouth turns up with a smirk of knowing concupiscence before he slips past Michael and back to Martin's bedroom. As he passes, Michael can smell the funk and musk of sex on him.

And the last memory, the one in the photograph, the most powerful.

The whole lot of them are up at Stinson under a glorious day, the ocean cold as always and only the most hardy among them actually dare to swim. Michel, of course, swims; as he comes up from the green-grey sea, water falls from him, sparkling and effervescent in the sunlight, and Michael thinks of the Baptist at work in the Jordan River.

The others have gone back into town to pick up supplies for an impromptu picnic, leaving Michael and Michel alone. Michael is sunning himself on an old Pendleton blanket. Michel pauses at an outdoor shower - nothing more than a galvanized pipe rising from a bed of concrete - to wash the sand and salt off of him. Michael watches him twist and turn under the spray, shaking his head, smiling.

Michel - ever the provocateur - is in a skimpy white swimsuit that glows against the buttery ochre of his skin. The material of the suit is so nearly translucent that Michael can clearly see the snake ' s head of Michel ' s cock pressing against the thin fabric. He remembers Robert ' s warning and thinks, now, that Robert got it exactly right. Michel is dangerous.

Michel walks over to join Michael on his blanket. Michael deliberately looks away while Michel settles himself. Michael is sitting with arms and legs akimbo; Michel stretches himself out on one side, facing Michael, propping his head up with one bent arm, the other resting on the blanket between them.

Michael finally looks over at Michel. "Did you have a good swim?"

Michel smiles. "Yes. You should have come in with me."

Michael shakes his head. "Too cold for me. Too rough."

Again, the crooked smile. "Yes. I imagine it is."

Michael falls silent. Things are still awkward between them, ever since that night when he had watched Michel on the balcony. He swallows against a sudden nervousness. "Everybody else went to get some food. I think we're -"


He turns. Michel is sitting up now, facing Michael, legs crossed. His face is calm, his eyes glinting. A stray breeze catches the curly-goat hair. Michael can feel the heat stored in Michel's dark skin radiating between them.

And then, a slight movement of Michel's head towards Michael's own, the merest feint. And Michael rears back, heart pounding and unsure.

"Michel, I'm not Mar-"

Michel is smiling, but the smirk is gone, replaced by something more genuine, at once sweet and sad. "I know." And his hand goes to the back of Michael's head and draws it gently towards his and Michael does not resist.

Michel's mouth is salty as it meets Michael's and their tongues slip past each other. Michael puts a hand high up on Michel's stringy, muscular thigh, feeling it flex and bend as they move together. Michel pulls away and, still clasping Michael's head, places his lips at Michael's ear, sighing a simple phrase into it.

"I am sorry." An apology, perhaps for that night and his rudeness, but an apology also for that which will not happen, for that choice made and not to be undone.

There is then the sound of voices nearing, boisterous, overloud, young ... the hunters back from their quest, bearing hot dogs and buns, chips and beer. Michel draws away from Michael and stands up. After a few seconds, Michael joins him.

Paula is there with her camera, thinks its clever to have him and Martin and Michel in a photograph, and so here they are, each bookending this saint, their prophet. Paula is unconcerned - unaware, Michael thinks - of what the three men represent to each other.

Martin, smiling and buoyant, obviously in love, stares at Michel, his right arm draped across Michel's broad, straight shoulders.

Michel confronts the camera, face full on, grinning broadly, an arm wrapped around each twin's waist.

Michael, at the point that the photo is taken, is distracted by something out of the frame, arms crossed, face cast away and downward, unsmiling.

He was there, and then he was not.

They still gather at lunch, picking idly at their food, hardly speaking. It's been a week since Michel went missing and no one has seen or heard anything from him since. They almost don't know what to say to each other; their conversation is desultory and stilted, now that they've lost the catalyst. Michael glances over at Martin and the twins stare at each other silently until Martin looks away.

"I thought he was the one. I thought he would stay." This from a disconsolate Martin, in the privacy of their apartment.

Then you were a fool, Michael thinks. I don ' t blame you, for I was a fool, too.

Later, Michael discovers a lighter, an elegant Colibri, that has fallen into the couch cushions. He flicks it, conjuring a spear of blue-gold flame in the gathering dusk. The lighter finds a resting place in a box that Martin keeps on his dresser.

"Dad?" Liam rests a hand on Michael's shoulder. "Dad."

Michael swims back upstream to the present. He pinches the bridge of his nose, then looks over at Liam, smiling. "I'm fine," he responds, to the unasked question.

Liam glances down at the photograph in Michael's hand. "Who was he? I know that's you, and that's Uncle Martin, but -"

Michael clears his throat and hands the photograph back to his son. "Just a friend. His name was Michel. He was a friend of Martin's."

In March, with the tattered remains of soot-grey snow here and there and the slightest promise of spring, Liam and his mother are driving home. At the house next to theirs, there's something different about the realtor's sign. Liam turns to his mother.

"What does 'under contract' mean?"

His mother, distracted by turning into their driveway and fumbling with the garage door opener, doesn't answer immediately.

"What does what mean?" she finally asks.

"On the sign next door. It says 'under contract'."

She cranes her head to look. "Oh. That means someone's finally bought it. Looks like we're going to have neighbors."

A month later, a phalanx of contractors descends upon the house. Trucks and vans of every size and description gather like ants around the bulk of the house and begin to effect a transformation that is almost miraculous to watch. The house seems to vomit out its former life as piles of old carpet and underlayment grow at the curb, joined by drywall and wood studs, appliances, lighting fixtures, abandoned furniture.

A house painting crew and a landscape crew both show up as the weather improves; rotted fascia board as well as much of the overgrowth from the back yard join the ever-growing mountain of debris out front. The surprise of a hot spring day coaxes both crews into shedding their work shirts. Liam watches their progress - sweaty and muscular and boisterous - from the privacy of his bedroom; the reason behind his sudden interest in the work is, as yet, inchoate.

One day a Mercedes pulls up to the house, a big, black sedan, sparkling, immaculate. From it step a husband and wife, well-dressed. The man is thin and tall, with glossy black hair swept back from his forehead. The woman is smaller, slightly overweight, no less-elegantly dressed. Their skin is dark, chestnut brown. From his position on the front porch - where he has been reading - Liam can hear clipped and strangely accented British English as they issue orders to the contractors.

Liam surprises his mother at the kitchen window, peering through the blinds at the Mercedes and its occupants. She pulls away from the window, frowning.

"Indians, maybe. Or Pakistani."

She doesn't sound happy.

A month after that, a moving van wedges itself in the driveway next door and disgorges its contents into the newly-renovated house, which gleams as if brand new. The black Mercedes is right behind it. Piece after piece of furniture is carried into the house under the watchful eye and sharp tongue of the Indian or Pakistani woman.

That night, at dinner, Liam's mother attempts to turn the day's events into table-side conversation, but Liam can see that his father - tired after his commute and with a vodka and tonic sweating with condensation at his elbow - wants no part of it. He stares at her silently until she understands that he's not going to be baited.

"Really, Paula," he says, his voice flat. "Would you rather have an abandoned house next to you? Don't worry so much."

After that, dinner is tense and very quiet.

With May, the yard starts beckoning. Liam waits until the scrim of yellow dandelions fades slowly away; then, on one warm Sunday - dressed in an old t-shirt, cut-offs and battered deck shoes - he pulls out the mower, checks the oil, fills the tank with gas, and starts in on the yard. Luckily, his father's somewhat lax views on yard care have taken precedence over his mother's desire for Disneyesque perfection and Liam is not required to bag the cuttings, so the yard - large as it is - doesn't take him all that long.

Halfway through cutting the back, he realizes that he's not alone. There's someone next door, tending to the pool with a long-handled net. The figure is short and slight, facing away from him, wearing a loose, gauzy kind of shirt. Thin, coltish brown legs can be seen below the hem of the shirt. Liam thinks it must be some daughter of the couple, wanting to lay out by the pool, told that she has to clean it first.

Then the figure turns, and Liam finds himself unable to do anything but stare.

It's not a girl, it's a boy, nearly naked, with only a handsbreadth of black fabric covering his midsection ... the smallest bathing suit Liam has ever seen on anyone not a girl.

The boy appears to be about Liam's age. He's slender; the lines of his muscles are like a sketch on the smooth umber of his skin. His hair is a glossy black cap on his narrow head. The boy works quietly, skimming the net across the placid surface of the water, flicking the wet, moldering leaves into the grass without looking up.

Liam feels some strange thing wash through him, as if he can't see enough, which makes no sense except that that's how it feels. His eyes take in every detail of the boy's body as he moves: the arms and legs whose thinness belies their strength, the workings of his chest and belly as he skims and flicks, skims and flicks. Liam's attention is drawn, too, to a compact mound of flesh there, and his face flushes hot as he begins to understand. Sunlight catches the top curve of that hillock as the boy moves; in profile it is revealed as a modest but not negligible swelling under the thin black fabric.

So caught is Liam in watching the boy that he forgets and loses his grip on the mower's handle, and it powers down to silence before he can think to grab it. At that, the boy does look up and Liam is, in an instant, found out, tried and released from his guilt. The boy holds Liam's helpless gaze in his for a few eternal seconds. He smiles, sets the net down on the concrete surrounding the pool, and steps over to the fence separating the two houses. Liam meets him there.

Up close, the boy is even more beautiful. There is something elegant, perhaps from the father, in his compact frame; nothing appears wasted, nothing appears superfluous or unnecessary. Liam can't imagine how he appears to this boy; face flushed and blotchy with sunburn or worse, sweat shining on his forehead, staining the t-shirt. His hands are grass-stained green and he refrains from drawing a hand through his hair to smooth it down.

Over the fence, the boy extends a hand. "I'm Arjun."

Liam wipes a hand on his shorts. "I'm Liam."

"Pleased to meet you, Liam. You live here?"

"I - yes, I do." He releases Arjun's hand, turns his palm up, with its smear of grime still obvious. "Sorry about the, uh ... well ..."

Arjun laughs. "It's okay. Mine aren't all that clean, either." He turns towards the pool, gesturing. "I have to muck it out before I can go swimming." He turns back to Liam. "How much longer will you be? Would you like to take a dip with me?"

And then Liam is laughing, laughing with utter delight. His mother would be surprised to hear such an unconsciously joyous laugh coming from her son, something he hasn't really done since he was a toddler.

Arjun frowns, confused, slightly hurt. "I'm sorry? Did I -"

Liam finds his voice. "No, no ... I'm sorry ... it's just … well, it's your voice."

And then Arjun is really hurt. "What is wrong with my voice?"

"It's ... nothing, it's just - it sounds like you're singing."

Arjun's gaze flickers up to the top of Liam's head. "Well, my voice is better than that ridiculously colored hair of yours! Is that even a real color?" And he turns to go.

Liam sobers. "No, wait. I'm sorry. It's - I like your voice. I really do … Arjun." The boy's name, in his mouth, tastes wonderful, like some foreign dish tried for the first time and found to be delightful.

Arjun stops and turns back to the fence. Frowning, he studies Liam for a bit, wondering if the boy is serious. Finally, he smiles. "Well ... I like your hair, too. It looks like copper wire. Shiny."

Liam looks down; encircling Arjun's thin neck is a skein of silver chain and hanging from it is a bird carved from pale green jade and Liam thinks of the treasures contained in the sandalwood box. And, looking back up at Arjun, he notices that the boy's eyes are large and a striking light grey-brown color.

Like wood smoke.

And now summer stretches before them, a feast of days that the boys devour like gluttons.

Arjun will go to Liam's school, but it turns out that he's actually older than Liam, sixteen and then some to Liam's newly-found fifteen.

"I'm sorry I'm so small," Arjun apologizes.

"It's okay," Liam answers, unsure why the boy felt he needed to mention it. "It's - well, it's okay. I like it." And Liam is unsure why he has said that, but it's true - he does like how he's a head taller and twenty pounds heavier than Arjun. He feels like a big brother, but there is something more than that to it, as well.

Neither boy can know that Arjun's mother gazes out at the two boys at play in the pool, her hand to her mouth, bemused, unsure why she finds their friendship so different. She thinks to speak to Arjun's father but is unsure how she might frame the discussion and her discomfort. Neither boy can know that Liam's mother does much the same, fingers splaying apart the blinds, her hawk-like gaze picking apart every nuance of speech and movement.


"This friend of yours," his mother ventures, one day. "Are we ever going to meet him?"

Liam looks up from the computer in the kitchen. "Well, sure, if you want. He can come to dinner."

"What are his parents like?"

Liam makes a face, thinking. "They're okay. Nice. Well, his dad's hardly ever home, but his mom's nice. He's got a sister. She's - well ..." Liam has hardly spoken to her. He shrugs.

Paula looks at her son as he turns back to the computer. Unconsciously, her hand goes up to her mouth as she thinks.

"You're joking." Michael turns to Paula when she makes her declaration, late at night as they're preparing for bed. They're alone; Liam has gone over to spend the night at Arjun's.

Paula sighs. "I don't know. Michael - I just don't trust him."

"You don't trust him? What the hell does that even mean?"

"He makes me feel ... well, I don't know. Uncomfortable."

Michael thinks that it might be best for Paula if she felt uncomfortable more often but he doesn't say it. Instead, "So. Just because you feel 'uncomfortable' you're going to tell our son he can't see the only friend he has."

"He has other friends. I'm sure. Don't be ridiculous."

"Really, Paula? Where are they? Have you ever met them? Does Liam ever go anywhere?"

"Michael, please. I'm just trying to do what's best."

"By telling our son he can't be friends with the neighbor kid? How is that what's best for Liam?" Michael realizes that his voice is getting louder and louder and he tries to bring it back down. "Why would you do that?"

"I told you - because I don't trust him."

Michael pauses. He doesn't really want to have this argument; he has to get up at five to start the long trek to the university. But he can't leave things the way they are now; he's afraid that Paula will do something in his absence.

"Have you seen any evidence that makes you not trust Arjun? He seems like a pretty nice kid to me."

"Well, no ... it's just a feeling I have. Michael, do you like this boy?"

Again, he pauses, thinking. "Yes, I guess I do. I like how happy Liam seems to be around him. Don't you think it's good to see him happy?"

"Too happy, if you ask me," Paula mutters.

Michael stares at Paula, unable to understand her argument in general and this aside in particular. "Too happy? What does that even mean?"

"They're awfully close, don't you think?"

Michael chuckles, trying to defuse Paula's argument. "They're teenage boys who haven't discovered girls yet. Of course they're close. I was the same way when I was his age. This will change. I promise."

"I don't know. They just - well, they do everything together. They're always over at his place, swimming. Liam's always staying overnight -"

"Didn't you stay over at your girlfriends' houses, when you were fifteen?"

"Well, yes, but - it's different with girls." Michael can tell that Paula wants to break off the argument, but he persists.

"How? How is it different?"

But Paula sighs and refuses to answer, hoping that he'll give up. He tries a different tack.

"Is it because he's Indian?" And it works; he's managed to provoke her, hoping to get the real truth out of her.

She looks at him, her jaw dropping, her eyes flaring wide. She composes herself enough to spit out "No! Of course not! What do you think I am?"

"I think you're being ridiculous, honestly." Again, he tries to tamp down his voice. "Honey, come on. Tell me what's wrong. Why don't you like Arjun?"

She's starting to cry; he watches as a small tear courses down one cheek. It's a tactic she's tried before, whenever they've argued in the past. He waits, arms crossed, silent.

She flicks the tear away with a finger. "Okay, fine. You asked. You haven't been there, you haven't seen them like I have." She draws in a deep breath, releases it. Michael ignores the not-too-subtle jab at his absence. "I think they're ..."


She shrugs and looks away from him. "Too friendly. I think they're ... well, you know ..." She arches her eyes in that way, purses her mouth in that way.

And, strangely, he does know. She doesn't have to say it. He realizes what he's been feeling ever since he watched Liam and Arjun this evening, at supper ... the shared looks, the silences that communicated more than words, the unconscious intimacy of touch. It's the same feeling he used to get that one summer, watching Martin and Michel. He looks at Paula, at this woman who has become almost a stranger to him, as she waits, daring him to deny her suspicion. And he can't. He stands up from the bed and begins undressing.

"I'm going to bed," he announces. "I'm tired. I don't want to fight anymore. I have to get up early."

He turns away from her but knows that she's watching him. He strips down to his t-shirt and boxers and wads his discarded clothing into a loose ball and tosses it into the laundry basket in the closet. Still not meeting her eyes, he slips into bed and turns out his light.

Minutes later he can hear her undressing, then the bed jostles as she eases down onto it and pulls the covers over her. The bedroom goes dark as she extinguishes her lamp.

In the dark, they lay side by side, each thinking, each quiet.

Liam likes Call of Duty well enough; Arjun seems addicted to it. They're up in Arjun's room, playing it. It's well past midnight, well past Liam's bedtime and, honestly, he's tired. He presses a button on his game console to pause the game. Arjun glances over.


"Nothing. I'm tired, I guess. It's late."

Arjun looks over at the clock on his nightstand. "Yes, I guess it is. Sorry."

Liam sets the console on the floor and begins to slide under the covers on Arjun's bed, but stops when he senses Arjun staring at him. "What?"

A strange look settles onto Arjun's face. "We should go do something."

Liam stifles a yawn. "Like what?"

"Let's go swimming."

Liam actually laughs out loud, so surprised is he. "Swimming? Are you kidding? It's the middle of the night!"


"So ... we don't want to wake anybody up, Arjun."

"We won't if we're quiet. Come on, Liam."

A swim actually does sound good to Liam; he feels gritty and sweaty from the heat of the summer day. "Okay, but I don't have -"

Arjun puts a finger to his lips, then rises up from the bed and goes over to the door to his bedroom. Liam follows him.

He tries again as they get to the stairs going down to the living room. "Arjun," he whispers. "We don't have -"

Arjun smiles and puts his finger to his lips again and Liam gives up.

Arjun pauses at the control panel for the security system and keys in a number; there's a small beep and a light on the panel goes from green to red. The boys tiptoe over to the french doors leading onto the patio and Arjun eases one of the leaves open.

The evening is still warm but a slight breeze brings a hint of freshness. Everything is quiet except for the rasp of insects and frogs, and the only light is from the full moon hanging overhead. The surface of the pool moves slightly with the wind and under the silver light of the moon the water looks like mercury.

As Arjun makes his way to the pool, he starts shedding his clothes. Liam knew this was coming, but now his heart is thumping in his chest. He's never done this. He walks along behind Arjun, picking up the cast-off clothes.

Arjun shucks off his socks, first. A few feet further on, he rucks his shirt over his head and tosses it behind him. Then, a quick fumbling at the zipper and snap of his shorts and they, too, fall to the ground. At the edge of the pool, Arjun stops and hooks his thumbs in his undershorts and pulls them down to his ankles, bending over in the process, the moonlight playing across his lithe body. Rising, Arjun kicks the briefs off and sits down at the edge of the pool, then eases himself quietly into the water, barely disturbing the smooth surface.

Then, with one powerful kick against the side of the pool, he launches himself to the center, leaving a silver wake behind him. As he slows, he turns to face Liam, still standing at the edge of the pool, still holding the bundle of Arjun's clothes.

Arjun stares at Liam across the expanse of water, then raises an arm, beckoning him. Come on!

Arjun clamps a hand over his nose and leans his head back in the water, comes back up with water streaming from him and his hair slicked back, an inky black cap glinting in the moonlight. Again the upraised arm beckons. Come on!

Liam looks back over to his house, silent and dark in the summer night. Carefully, he sets Arjun's clothing down on a chair near the pool. Arjun is calmly treading water, watching him. Liam's hand strays up to his shirt, fingering the top button; he calmly undoes it. The rest come more quickly and he wrestles himself out of the shirt. His nipples crinkle in the cool air. The shorts are next and there is a soft hiss of sound as they slide down to his ankles. Socks are easy - that's just feet.

And now, standing there only in his underwear, he looks at Arjun, who looks back at him solemnly. Arjun nods his head.

Liam nods his head in return, and the shorts join the rest. He lowers himself quietly into the water and mimics Arjun, kicking once against the wall and joining Arjun in the center of the pool. The slippery flow of water around his middle is strange and delightful; he can feel himself tightening down there and he wonders if Arjun has had the same reaction.

Under the moonlight sky the boys circle each other silently, planets locked in common orbit around an unseen center, until that specific gravity exerts its will and they draw silently together and Liam discovers that, indeed, the water has worked its magic there on Arjun, as well.

In the darkness, Michael is awake. He is sitting up in bed, next to Paula. The room is stuffy and warmer than he would like, but that is Paula's doing; she's always preferred warmer temperatures than he. But that is not the only reason he is awake. He glances over at the luminous face of the clock. It's nearly two. He kicks the covers back and rises from the bed. Paula shifts in her sleep, snoring softly.

Clad only in the boxers and t-shirt, Michael pads silently across the room, to the pair of French doors opening onto a loggia of sorts overlooking the back yard. It's at least ten degrees cooler out here, and Michael welcomes the coolness prickling his bare skin. The full moon casts the yard into a mysterious chiaroscuro, and the sounds of crickets and peepers give dimension to the darkness. To his right, a pin oak bulks up; he can reach out and touch the branches and the leathery leaves.

He looks up into the night sky. They are far enough outside of the city that a respectable sprinkling of stars can be seen, although to see the Milky Way he knows they'd have to go out further still, into the countryside. A tiny pinpoint of light moves silently through the stars ... some satellite, perhaps.

At this hour, the neighborhood is silent but for the muted rush of air conditioners struggling against another muggy Illinois evening and the breezy rush of air through the tree canopy. The strongest light is from the moon; there are other, fainter smears of light here and there - security lights at outside doors, night lights peeping out from hallway and bathroom windows.

There is, to his left, a faint movement from next door. In the moon-dappled light reflecting from the Kapoor's pool, he can pick out two figures, one pale, the other dark, dancing quietly towards and away from each other in the water. Liam is over there, Michael knows. Liam and Arjun.

He watches the two figures in the water that glistens like mercury, circling each other under the stars. Presently, the two boys make their way to a ladder and haul themselves out of the water. The light catches the liquid sluicing off the boys' bodies and Michael smiles: they are skinny-dipping. It occurs to Michael that he has not seen his son naked since he was a small child. The boys make their way silently back up the terrace and into the Kapoor's house.

He wishes Liam whatever happiness he may find with Arjun.

Back in the bedroom, Michael stands next to his bed, looking down at the sleeping form of his wife. Her head is facing the window, and the faint light from outside highlights her fine, patrician features. She has, for the past sixteen years, made as good a companion as Michael could hope for. He might have wished for someone not quite as forceful, someone more circumspect in speech and deed, but she has been a good counterpoint to his reserve and introspection.

She is strong; he knows that. Her time with Liam was difficult, requiring near-constant attention from a bevy of doctors, but she'd shouldered through it. After two further attempts ended in miscarriages, they'd finally given up.

He knows also that she wants the best for Liam; he senses, sometimes, that for her he is a project to be shepherded and guided, handled, to a goal worthy of her tutelage. He hopes that Liam understands her. He hopes that he loves her, perhaps in spite of herself.

She is smart - clever, perhaps, which is different. The depth of her knowledge takes him by surprise, at times, but at other times she seems little separated from the downstate farmers from whom she has come, a people intractable and intransigent, regimented by their tightly-gridded farms and towns.

In her sleep she moves, turning her head away from the light, and Michael steps away from her.

He makes his way to Liam's room as much by touch and memory as by the dim light reflected up from downstairs. He doesn't want to risk waking Paula. He shuts the door to Liam's room behind him before he turns on the reading lamp on Liam's nightstand. On the dresser is the box. Even in the dim light afforded by the lamp, the box's arabesques and marquetry are dazzling. He walks over to the box and lifts it, marveling again at its weight and mass, then carries it over to Liam's bed.

He studies the box for a little bit; he knows - perhaps as Liam now does - the box's import. It is no surprise that the box found its way into Martin's household instead of Michael's.

Michael's fingers play over the surface of the box, feeling the slightly raised pattern of the metal wires and the rougher texture of the wood inlay. He taps each of the four stone buttons on the lid lightly, almost daring the box to open and release its secrets. He closes his eyes and inhales the spicy wood smell.

A shock of wind rattles the windowpanes; Michael looks up. He thinks of Martin, of his life and his passing. He thinks of Liam and the life that he is only now embarking upon. Both of those lives controlled, he thinks, by this thing and what it contains: something more than the sum of its contents.

It means nothing, he thinks. This means nothing. I have already committed myself to someone.

Michael pulls open the drawer to Liam's nightstand; the photograph is still there and he takes it out. He holds the photograph up to the light. Martin, held captive by Michel's profile, a bright smile captured on the image. Michel, transcendent and beautiful and subversive, full of life, staring full face into the lens as if challenging the photographer. That other Michael, distracted by something or nothing out at sea, a hesitant cog in the vast and turning machinery of his life, cranking out choices to be made or not made.

He is crying quietly, now, in Liam's room ... fat tears of regret running down his face and falling onto the box. Martin now gone and where is Michel? Across the ocean, across the chaos of language and time. With some other, perhaps, or gone himself. He hates this, hates crying, feels embarrassed by it.

Michael thinks of Liam next door with Arjun, of entwined limbs asleep, lulled by the soft wind and each other's breathing.

The lie - that this means nothing - is still in his mind as he stretches out both hands upon the box's lid, upon the stones. Nothing, he thinks, as he presses down on the stones, all four at once.

The box opens with a click.

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