"Can you fix it?" Vicki asked me as she thrust something wrapped in a dirty, ragged pillowcase into my hands. It was heavy for its size. I hadn't seen her in months. She looked bad, like she'd gotten into junk
. Her eyes were bloodshot and wild with heavy dark circles beneath them. Her skin was blotchy and gray. There were scratches all over her hands and forearms in various states of healing. Greenish pus
oozed nastily from a jagged red gash on her left hand. Her breath as awful; it smelled like she'd been eating something that died
and had been left out in the sun for a few days. And she was so thin. Her clavicles jutted through the thin cotton of her t-shirt. I could see her skull beneath her skin. Six months ago, she was a total knockout.
"Can you fix it?" she asked again, more insistantly. I put the thing on my kitchen table and unwrapped it. It was a box, about the size of three thick paperback novels stacked on top of each other. It was made out of a dark wood, darker in spots where the box had been touched over the years. The top of the box was enamelled and had a painting of man and a woman in brightly colored clothes dancing together. The lid was hinged on one side. I opened it. There was a dull screech. A metallic cylinder gleamed dully. A wind-up key rested on top of it. It was a music box.
"Can you fix it?" she asked for the third time, there was a shrill, desperate edge to her voice. I used to fix watches, and I'd made a few repairs to music boxes over the years, but never one this old. I didn't know if I could fix it, I didn't know what was wrong with it. But I felt some pity for Vicki and saw how she trembled. She was almost in a state of panic.
"Sure," I said, "I can fix it. Might take a few days."
She grabbed my hand in both of hers. She squeezed tightly. Her touch was cold. I wanted to snatch my hand back. She smiled at me. Her teeth were yellow and jagged where some of them had been broken. I tried not to recoil at her breath, "Thank you."
She walked out of my apartment after that. She said, "I'll call you soon."
I never saw her again.
The box sat on my table for about a week before I got around to fiddling with it. It was a busy week; there was a bad storm and some of the streets were flooded. The wind knocked trees over onto roads, powerlines and houses. After a hard day of hauling away branches and sawing up dead trees, I was too tired to bother with fixing gadgets. But I kept thinking about the box. I'd been working outside with the hot sun beating down on me and my mind would wander back to Vicki, all pale and childlike and the way she had cradled it to her narrow chest. And I'd thinking of the enamel painting, the couple in bright colors who were dancing but only just barely touching. When I got home, my eyes would automatically travel towards my kitchen table, where the box was waiting.
Finally, I got tired of thinking about the box and decided to try and fix it. I unscrewed the bedplate from the bottom of the box and took out its workings. Carefully and methodically I took it apart, piece by piece. I cleaned the comb, oiled and reassembled the two spring motors and inspected the cylinder. I put it back together and inserted the wind-up key and turned. Nothing. All the pieces seemed to be in good order. As I started to unscrew the bedplate again to re-examine the parts of music box, I jabbed my finger on one of the pins of the cylinder, which was surprisingly sharp. I cried out, "Fuck."
A drop of blood fell onto the cylinder. I reached for a rag to wipe it clean when the music box began to play. The song was clear and in tune. The tone reminded me of little bells. I'd never heard the song before. It reminded me of some old movie where elegant people were dancing at some ball at a palace. It reminded me of fairy tales. If nostalgia had a sound, it would be like the box's music. I stood up and leaned over the box to watch the cylinder turn. I was fascinated that such sounds could come out of that thing.
There was a soft sound of crying. At first it was hard to hear over the music, but it grew louder as the song played on. A shadow fell over me. I looked up from the box. There was blond girl standing in my kitchen, sobbing into a lace handkerchief. She was young, probably no more than nineteen, and if her face hadn't been all red and blotchy from crying, she probably would have been really beautiful. She was wearing a dress like a costume from a Merchant-Ivory film. I kept my tone mild, "Hey, how did you get in here? I thought I locked the door."
"You can see me?"
"Of course I can see you, you're standing in my kitchen," I looked for something I could use as a weapon. the girl might have been a beauty, but she was turning out to be a nutbag.
"We don't have very much time. Only while the box plays music. Please, you must help me," she said. Her eyes were large and innocuous like a Disney character's eyes. I looked at her dress again and felt my stomach turn over. It was the same dress the enamel painting girl wore on the music box's lid. I sat down. The girl said, "Please, you must help me. It's been so long."
She moved closer to me. I could smell her. She smelled like vanilla and oranges. My mouth watered. Her hands fluttered as she moved closer. I imagined that I could hear the beat of her heart playing in time to the music. She had stopped crying. She was beautiful. My head filled with cliches; hair like gold, alabaster skin, forget-me-not blue eyes, tiny teeth like pearls. The room felt warmer. I said, "I don't understand, how can I help you."
"Please," she said. This time it sounded like an invitation, "Please, we can only talk while the music plays. Only you can help me escape. Only you can help me get out."
She leaned towards me. Her lips puckered. The vanilla and oranges scent grew stronger. I felt dizzy. She was so close that I could feel her body heat on her skin. I leaned in for the kiss and our lips almost met when the music stopped. She vanished.
I looked down at the music box. The little drop of blood had dried and darkened to maroon. I knew what the box needed to play. I knew what it would cost me to see her again.
It's been six weeks since then. There are scratches all over my hands. There are gashes up and down my forearms. I haven't been eating well and I avoid mirrors. I don't answer the phone. I don't answer the door when people knock. They'd ask too many questions. They wouldn't understand the things I do for love. I know I look like shit, but she doesn't care. Her kisses are so sweet. My skin tingles everyplace she's touched me. I want to tattoo the shape of her lips all over my body. And everytime we meet, we get a little bit closer to freeing her. We're almost there, I can feel it. But each time, it costs a little more. In the beginning, all it took was a few drops. Now the cylinder won't turn without enough blood to paint it red. And the music doesn't play for as long anymore. I am so tired. But I am getting closer, I know it.
I don't want her to cry anymore. There's a knife on the kitchen table. It's shiny and it's sharp. I hope it's sharp enough that when I slice into my wrist, the pain will be brief. I hope that this time, it will be enough. I feel the weight of the knife in my hand, and suck in my breath. I steel myself against the pain that will come. I must be quick and decisive.
She is waiting for me.