I check one last time to make sure Mom is still working on supper downstairs before closing the door to my bedroom and crouching next to the cardboard box in the middle of the floor. The thing looks completely at odds with the super clean white carpet, light pink walls, and matching white dresser, bed and night stand. Other than a couple of paintings, the dance trophies displayed around the room, and the few Taekwondo medals Iâ€™ve managed to put up without Mom noticing, every other object is tucked neatly away in dark pink containers, making the cardboard seem much grimier and much more interesting than it might otherwise.
|The Man in the Box (The Box book 1) By Christina G. Gaudet|
I stare at the folded flaps covering the top for a long time without doing anything.
I should put it back and leave it alone. Itâ€™s what Mom would prefer. When she set the box in my closet a week ago, she made a point of telling me she wanted to be the one to go through the contents, but she needed time. I doubt it will stay in my room much longer. As upset as Mom is about Granâ€™s death, sheâ€™s already starting to come to terms with it, which means the box of stuff Gran had at the hospital will be organized and most likely tossed out soon.
Although I know from the weight of the thing there isnâ€™t much inside, I canâ€™t help being curious about what Gran chose to keep with her up until the end.
I pull the flaps apart and peer within. The space is almost entirely empty except for a few folded articles of clothing. Set carefully on top is Granâ€™s watch and a small wooden box Iâ€™d never seen before. Just to make sure thereâ€™s nothing else, I take everything out and carefully spread it over the floor. A pair of cotton pants, two blouses, underwear, a comb, and then the watch and the box.
As I put everything away exactly as Iâ€™d found it, I canâ€™t help feeling disappointed, though Iâ€™m not sure why. What did I expect? Her collection of toenails? And if she kept it with her, would I want to find it?
I smile and shake my head. I should be relieved thereâ€™s nothing else in here. Iâ€™m sure her house is going to have enough odd objects to sort through to make up for the lack here.
Iâ€™m about to set the box back on top of the clothes when I stop. Why a box? At the size of my fist it canâ€™t hold too much. Maybe some jewelry, but that doesnâ€™t seem likely since this is Gran weâ€™re talking about.
After glancing back at the door and considering my options, I make a decision. Instead of putting the wooden box away with the other items, I set it on my bed and then return the rest to the back of my closet. After quickly examining everything to make sure the room looked exactly the same as before, I flop down on my bed and reach for the box.
I twist it around in my hand, lifting it above me as I lie back on my pile of pillows. Itâ€™s actually kind of pretty. How have I never seen it before? I visited Gran every weekend with Mom after she got sick. My sister Cindy, on the other hand, went once and then refused to go back. She said it made her uncomfortable or something equally selfish.
My hand tightens in anger at the memory and my thumb jerks across the front of the box. Seriously, who does Cindy think she is? Couldnâ€™t she take one day out of her busy schedule of getting drunk and making out with boys to visit our dying grandmother?
And in the end, Gran still decided it would be a great idea to give her car to Cindy. She doesnâ€™t know anything about responsibility, and completely ignored Gran and yet sheâ€™s the one who gets rewarded.
Without meaning to, I flick the latch and the lid flies open. I scramble to keep it from dropping out of my hands. Something about the size of my thumb falls out onto my stomach and gets lost in the folds of my salmon-colored top.
Damn it. What would Gran leave in there that would be so small? It wasnâ€™t shiny like a ring. In fact, it kind of looked like a...
Movement. I saw movement. Donâ€™t tell me a spider was living in that bloody box. I hate spiders. Especially the kind that climb into your ear and lay eggs on your brain. Iâ€™ve heard stories.
Every muscle in my body is tense and ready to spring, but I hold myself in place. No need to freak out. Itâ€™s only a spider, after all. More afraid of you and all that. And if I start flopping around like an idiot, it might get mad and bite.
Slowly, I reach down to the hem of my shirt. Even more slowly, so as not to frighten the thing into doing something rash like bite me or run for the excellent hiding spot of my ear, I pull the material down, flattening out the folds.
My heart flutters as I finally catch sight of the thing. Iâ€™m about to flick it off me and throw myself in the opposite direction when I notice the bug is staring straight at me with a look more horrified than my own. Not only that, it seems to have only two legs and two arms, not the eight Iâ€™ve been expecting.
When my ears start to ring I realize Iâ€™ve been staring at the thing on my stomach for a very long time without breathing. I gasp and it takes in a similar breath.
A human. An impossibly tiny human crouches on my stomach.
No, it must be some sort of figurine. It was a trick of the light, my imagination that made it move. Itâ€™s well made, very lifelike, but itâ€™s just a figurine.
It straightens a little and runs a shaky hand through its shaggy blond hair. It scans the room, taking in as much detail as it can before quickly returning its attention back to me.
Finally it speaks, and despite the fact its voice is a little shaky with nerves, I can tell the thing is male. Heâ€™s much louder and has a deeper tone than I would have thought possible from something so small. Though, to be fair, Iâ€™d never imagined something as tiny as him being able to speak in the first place. Even so, he sounds like a full-sized man.
â€œHello.â€ He bows his head a little, his eyes never leaving mine.
This cannot be happening. He did not just bow at me and say â€˜helloâ€™ as though landing on a giant personâ€™s shirt is an everyday occurrence for him. I want to say something else to let him know that none of this is right, but I canâ€™t squeeze any more words from my tightened throat.
â€œMight I say, right away, before thereâ€™s any confusion, Iâ€™m sorry.â€ This time his bow is deeper, and his eyes break from mine as though he realizes itâ€™s rude for him to stare. â€œVery sorry. Words donâ€™t express how sorry I am.â€
His longer speech reveals an accent. Itâ€™s not strong, but his punctuation is crisp.
â€œOkay,â€ I squeak. â€œWhy are you sorry?â€
â€œFor anything. Everything. Whatever I did to annoy you.â€
â€œOkay,â€ I repeat.
It would help if I could breathe properly, maybe then I could form full sentences, but thereâ€™s no way Iâ€™ll be able to with him on my stomach.
Out of the corner of my eye, on my bedside table, I see my clipboard where I keep all of my notes for dance. Itâ€™s the same pink as my walls, the cover decorated with a pair of ballet slippers. Much like the rest of the room, Mom chose it. Without twitching my stomach muscles, I reach over, grab the clipboard, and place it a few inches away from him.
He gives it a nervous look, but makes no move to get on.
I want to say, â€œPlease step onto the board so I can safely set you on the nightstand beside my bed before I flip out for a couple of minutes,â€ but only a strangled choking sound comes out. He must understand, though, because he quickly makes his way onto the board, and I gently set it and him onto the table. The second I let go, I fling myself off the bed, body shaking in violent shudders. My hand repeatedly brushes off the area of my shirt where heâ€™d been standing as if thereâ€™s something sticky on the fabric.
No matter how much I tremble or wipe, I canâ€™t get the uneasy feeling to go away. After I donâ€™t know how long, I find myself on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees.
He watches the whole outburst with wide eyes. When Iâ€™ve calmed down enough to stop shaking, he speaks again.
â€œBetter?â€ he asks.
He smiles for half a second, catches himself, and forces his face back into a concerned frown.
So thereâ€™s a tiny person on my nightstand, and heâ€™s laughing at me. Great. Iâ€™m completely insane. I had no idea it could happen so fast. I thought insanity happened over time. I mean, I know Iâ€™ve been under a lot of stress lately, what with rehearsals and practices and school and Mom and Cindy, but I didnâ€™t realize I was so close to cracking.
Really never saw that coming.
â€œHave I told you Iâ€™m sorry yet?â€ he asks.
â€œYeah. Um, why are you sorry again?â€ He opens his mouth to answer, but I interrupt. â€œI know, for anything and everything. But what exactly did you do?â€
â€œI...uh.â€ He swallows and stares at me. â€œIâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™m not sure what I did. But it must have been something bad for you to put this spell on me.â€
â€œMe? I did this?â€ I let out a nervous laugh. â€œNo. Wrong. You did this. I opened the box and you...â€ My eyes flick to the box lying half open on my bed. â€œThe box!â€
In one fluid motion, Iâ€™m off the floor and on my stomach on the bed. My hand wraps around the box and I lift it up in triumph and smile like a maniac at the miniature guy. Heâ€™s not as happy. In fact he looks more terrified than before. His hand reaches for something on his thick leather belt while he positions himself into what I know well to be a fighterâ€™s stanceâ€”legs spread apart with his balance distributed evenly between them, his weight is on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction.
Without thinking, my muscles respond and Iâ€™m up, ready for the attack. Great, now Iâ€™m preparing to fight someone I could squish with one finger. Things canâ€™t get any weirder.
â€œThe box,â€ I say again. â€œYou came out of it, right? You can go back in and everything can go back to normal.â€
I flash him another wild-looking smile and then rest the box next to the clipboard so he can climb inside.
His stance relaxes a little when he realizes I donâ€™t plan to attack, but otherwise, he doesnâ€™t move.
â€œLetâ€™s go.â€ I resist the urge to shove him forward, but only barely. â€œIâ€™m so over this mental breakdown.â€
â€œThe thing isâ€”â€œ
â€œThereâ€™s a thing? Why does there have to be a thing? Why canâ€™t you go into the box and Iâ€™ll go back to my life. Why canâ€™t we do that?â€
He holds himself away from the box, almost as though heâ€™s more afraid of it than of me.
â€œItâ€™s not that I donâ€™t trust you.â€
His hesitation is slowing everything down. Why wonâ€™t he get inside so this moment of insanity can end?
â€œThen what? Why wonâ€™t you get in?â€
He examines me for a moment as though deciding how truthful to be.
â€œI donâ€™t trust you.â€
I open my mouth, but he stops me from arguing by adding, â€œIâ€™m sorry. I really am. I simply donâ€™t want to die of starvation while locked in a box.â€
Starvation? Can hallucinations become malnourished? Possible or not, my conscience wonâ€™t let me take the risk.
â€Fine. Get in and Iâ€™ll leave it shut for ten seconds before opening it back up. Like resetting a computer. Everything will go back to normal.â€
â€œRewhating a what?â€
â€œYou know. A computer. One of those big boxes with the internet and...you have no idea what Iâ€™m talking about.â€
Sigh. Youâ€™d think my imagination could have created someone with a bit more knowledge of the world. Though, I have to give myself points for creativity. Plus, heâ€™s adorable.
No. Wrong. I need to get rid of the guy, not admire him.
â€œGet in the box.â€
â€œHonestly, I think Iâ€™d rather be squished. Less drawn-out death.â€
I feel a little sorry for him. It canâ€™t be easy being so tiny. Still, Iâ€™m definitely at an advantage for size and I need him to do what I say. Now.
â€œThat can be arranged,â€ I say.
I raise my thumb menacingly, or thatâ€™s what I am going for at least.
â€œIn the box?â€ Heâ€™s already moved to itâ€™s side.
He rubs his face while eyeing the thing with apprehension. His expression is pleading when he returns his gaze my way. In an instant, the emotion is gone and his face reveals nothing of what heâ€™s thinking. Still, the one moment of vulnerability makes it impossible for me to continue threatening him.
He looks puzzled, as though he wants to say something, but changes his mind at the last moment. After another bow, he climbs in and I close the lid as soon as Iâ€™m sure his tiny hands wonâ€™t get caught. What I should have done is set it aside and never thought about it again. Instead, I count to ten, slower than Iâ€™ve ever counted to ten before and open the lid.
The miniature guy stares up at me.
â€œHeâ€™s not real. Heâ€™s not real. Heâ€™s not real.â€
I glance back over at the table where the tiny man paces back and forth, his eyes always on me. No matter how I say it, I canâ€™t make the words true.
I canâ€™t stay here. Not with my adrenalin racing through me, telling me to move.
â€œIâ€™ve got to go,â€ I say.
His eyes widen in alarm and he stops in his tracks.
â€œGo? Go where? Why do you have to go?â€
â€œIâ€™ll be back,â€ I promise. â€œIâ€™m going to get Mom. Sheâ€™ll figure this out.â€
â€œGreat,â€ I hear him grumble as I leave the room. â€œShe needs her motherâ€™s help.â€
I run down the stairs with no thought in my head other than the need to get away from my bedroom. Reality hits me when I get to the main floor and Iâ€™m forced to stop. What am I going to say? How can I possibly explain this to Mom without sounding crazy? Maybe I want to tell her and have her say Iâ€™m insane. Then this will all be over. It might take some therapy, but I can live with that.
I jump and spin in the same motion, my arms automatically moving up to block an incoming punch. My eyes focus on a tall slim man who would almost be attractive if it werenâ€™t for the dead look in his eyes and a more cruel than pleasant smile. I play off my crazy reaction to his greeting by moving my hands up and through my long black hair. He makes no sign of noticing my strange behavior.
â€œHow are you doing? Still breaking hearts?â€
The anxiety I thought would disappear once I found someone to help only increases as he stares. I have to force my hand to stop shaking. For whatever reason, I feel like I canâ€™t let him see how worked up I am.
â€œIâ€™m fine,â€ I say.
Mr. Anderson, or Stewart as he prefers to be called, is Momâ€™s â€˜special friend.â€™ Heâ€™s been coming over a lot lately, ever since Mom and I had a talk where I cheerfully told her I was fine with the whole thing. Never mind what I actually wanted to tell her was, â€œHeâ€™s creepy and we should move so he canâ€™t find us.â€ But he makes Mom happy, which is what matters. Itâ€™s weird though, Mom never mentioned he was coming tonight. Usually she gives me a bit of warning.
â€œAh, Lou, there you are.â€
I donâ€™t jump when Mom comes up behind me, but Iâ€™m only barely able to stop myself. She puts a hand on my shoulder which feels cool through my shirt.
She must notice the difference in temperature too because she asks, â€œAre you well? Youâ€™re not getting sick are you?â€
â€œWhat? No. I was doing some stretches. Just worked up a bit of a sweat I guess. Hey, is supper done? Iâ€™m starving.â€
â€œSupper is almost done, yes. Would you mind helping me?â€
The expression she makes as we walk back to the kitchen tells me sheâ€™s as surprised as I am to find him here. Though, her reaction to his visit is much happier than mine. She keeps fluffing her short, curly hair and adjusting the wide belt around her small waist in nervous excitement.
I set the â€œgoodâ€ dishes Mom hands me, and take my seat. My foot taps nervously on the dark tile floor until the others finally come in. Stewart sits down in his spot at the round table while Mom hurries to serve the food.
â€œWhereâ€™s Cindy today?â€ Stewart asks in a tone I can only assume he believes is friendly. â€œOff on some wild escapade, I suppose.â€
I ignore the crawling feeling running down my spine while he talks and force a smile of my own.
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
I never know unless sheâ€™s home, then the shouting between her and Mom is a pretty good indication sheâ€™s here.
Mom sites and gestures for us to start. Part of me wants to be excited about the honey glazed chicken on my plate since itâ€™s my favorite, but all I can think about is the guy on the nightstand upstairs. I need to ask Mom about it. She has to know how to fix this.
â€œMom.â€ I interrupt the conversation sheâ€™s having with Stewart. They both turn and look at me expectantly. â€œAbout the box of Granâ€™s stuff...â€
No. I canâ€™t do it. I canâ€™t reveal how crazy I am, not in front of her boyfriend. I look first at Mom whoâ€™s startled by the subject and then at Stewart who stares at me in undisguised interest. Why is he looking at me like that? I thought there was something off about him before, but this is unnerving.
â€œIâ€™m going to move it to the other side of the closet so I have some room for my costume when I get it at rehearsal tomorrow.â€
Her expression relaxes as she says, â€œOf course, sweetie. Whatever you need.â€
My forced smile drops the moment I hear a noise upstairs. At first I think Iâ€™m imagining things until Mom grits her teeth and glances up at the ceiling.
â€œCindy must be sneaking in,â€ Mom says. â€œThat girl has never figured out how to use the front door.â€
I leap to my feet and rush back up the stairs.
Cindy sneaking into the house isnâ€™t anything new. Usually I donâ€™t care, even though itâ€™s my window she crawls in through. Thereâ€™s no simple way up into her room and thereâ€™s a huge tree next to mine, so I can understand why she does it. And itâ€™s easier to ignore her than fight every time, especially since she would never stop.
This timeâ€™s different. What will she do if she sees the mini man? Worse, what if she doesnâ€™t see him and throws her purse onto the table, squishing him instantly? I have to move faster.
My eyes are instantly drawn to my sisterâ€™s short, bright red, spiky hair as I burst through the door. Last time I saw her, it was green, so Iâ€™m thrown for a couple of seconds. Then I realize her tongue is down some guyâ€™s throat while his hands are all over her.
I should have known. Cindy would never make so much noise sneaking in on her own.
Cindyâ€™s guy breaks away from her mouth and gives me an accusing stare. â€œYa mind?â€
What does she see in him? Itâ€™s not like heâ€™s hot, especially not with the tattoos covering his arms and the big wonking bar through his nose. Mom would hate him instantly, of course. Was there any other type of guy Cindy would bring home?
â€œMy little sister, Lou,â€ Cindy says. â€œDonâ€™t worry about her, she likes to watch.â€
My face goes bright red. Iâ€™m only a year younger, and I do not like to watch. I have no interest in watching. In fact, if they werenâ€™t in my room where Iâ€™m hiding a miniature man...
Table. Miniature man. Without thinking, I throw myself forward, placing myself between the couple and the table. The move brings me uncomfortably close to them.
â€œI think she wants to do more than watch,â€ tattoo guy says. He looks me over from head to toe with an appraising smirk. â€œIâ€™m game if you are, Sin. Iâ€™ve never done a cheerleader type before.â€
Usually Cindy would react with some rude joke and lead the guy off to her own room, but she doesnâ€™t say a word. She stares at me while reading my face, which I keep down.
â€œHey, Jazz,â€ she says after a minute. â€œIâ€™m going to have to cut tonight short.â€
She pats his chest more like sheâ€™s shoving him back toward the window than being affectionate.
He laughs. â€œCome on Sin, Iâ€™ve heard youâ€™re many things, but never a tease.â€
She doesnâ€™t seem bothered by what heâ€™s insinuating, even though she probably should be. I know I would.
â€œIâ€™ve got to deal with family stuff. Sorry, man. Next time, all right?â€ Not waiting until he leaves, she turns back to me and glares. â€œWhat are you hiding?â€
I glance over at Jazz who stares at Cindy for a minute while he tries to work out what happened. For a second Iâ€™m sure heâ€™s going to be pissed enough to refuse to leave, but finally he snorts, calls her a few names and climbs out the window.
â€œSeriously, Lou. What the hell is wrong with you? You look like your headâ€™s about to explode.â€
â€œItâ€™s nothing. Just go.â€
I grab her shoulder and start to guide her toward the door, but she knocks my hand away.
â€œScrew that. What are you hiding? Did you steal something from me? Is that what this is about?â€
She tries to peek around my left side, but the second I lean with her to keep myself in front of the table she dodges to my right and tries to push past me. I manage to stop her from getting by, but I canâ€™t stop her seeing. Since I donâ€™t keep anything on the table the guy can hide behind, thereâ€™s no way she doesnâ€™t spot him.
â€œHoly hell,â€ she whispers in awe as her thickly lined eyes widen to almost perfect circles. â€œItâ€™s a miniature person.â€
I try to shove her towards the door, but she doesnâ€™t budge. If I push hard enough, I can probably move her, but Iâ€™m afraid of hurting her. I donâ€™t think sheâ€™s ever been to a gym, so I have no doubt I can out muscle her if I tried.
â€œItâ€™s not what it looks like. Heâ€™s a figurine I found. Itâ€™s plastic or something.â€
â€œYouâ€™re a real, miniature person,â€ she says while completely ignoring me. â€œHow are you here?â€ Before he has a chance to say anything, she turns on me and jabs a finger into my shoulder. â€œWhat did you do?â€
â€œI didnâ€™t do anything. Why does everyone keep blaming me?â€
Iâ€™m not used to people assuming Iâ€™m the one at fault. Cindy gets in trouble, not me. She has no right to be accusing me of anything.
Cindy pushes past when I stop fighting her. Thereâ€™s no point anymore. Besides, she doesnâ€™t seem to be taking it at all like I expected. She seems completely calm, almost excited. Itâ€™s as though she anticipated something like this would happen.
She leans down so her face is even with the table and looks closely at the guy. He follows her every move with one hand resting cautiously on what I now realize is a sword strapped to his hip.
â€œThis is so crazy. Youâ€™re a real live person?â€
â€œUsually,â€ he replies much to her delight.
I havenâ€™t seen her so excited about anything since she got the car.
â€œYou can talk? So awesome. Where did you come from? Whatâ€™s your name? How did you get here? Are you always this small? Seriously, Lou, how did you do this? Iâ€™ve never seen anything like this. Gran showed me some cool tricks, but never magic. Not like this.â€
It takes me a few seconds to realize that the person who sounds like theyâ€™re hyperventilating is actually me. I force myself to take a couple of even breaths before attempting to speak.
Too much. Way too much to handle. I donâ€™t know if my legs give out or if I make a move to sit down. Either way, without any conscious thought, Iâ€™m suddenly on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees. Again.
â€œPathetic,â€ Cindy says with a roll of her eyes. She kneels back down next to the table and leaves me to my frantic rocking. â€œDo you have a name, or should we give you one?â€
I look up in time to see him turn away from me. A name. Why didnâ€™t I think of asking that? Oh wait, because I want him gone, not to become best friends with him.
â€œAldric,â€ he says.
â€œRiiight,â€ she laughs. â€œWeâ€™re going to call you Al, kay?â€ She winks and makes a gun with her fingers.
â€œWhatever you prefer.â€
â€œAhh.â€ Cindy groans and falls back dramatically. â€œBest three words out of a manâ€™s mouth. And with the accent, itâ€™s extra hot. Tell me Al, what brings you here?â€
â€œI honestly donâ€™t know.â€ He hurries to add, â€œBut Iâ€™m sure it was my fault. And Iâ€™m sorry.â€
â€œSorry?â€ Cindy scoffs. â€œFor what?â€
â€œAnything and everything,â€ I answer for him. â€œYeah, itâ€™s all he says to me too.â€
â€œExplain exactly what happened.â€ Cindy moves to sit on my bed so she can see both of us without having to twist.
â€œIt was the box.â€ I point at it on my bed. â€œI accidently opened it and he fell out.â€
She reaches over and grabs the hunk of wood, twisting it around in her hands until itâ€™s upside down. â€œGran gave you this? When?â€
â€œShe didnâ€™t. It was with her stuff.â€
â€œYou have some of her things? Why didnâ€™t anyone tell me? I should have been the one to find this.â€
I canâ€™t believe what Iâ€™m hearing. She has the nerve to think she has any right to Granâ€™s possessions after the way she acted? Besides which, why would anyone want something like this to happen to them? Even Cindy canâ€™t be so crazy.
â€œThe box is magic,â€ she says. â€œYou see the writing on the bottom? Thatâ€™s a spell engraved into the wood. I canâ€™t read what it says, but Gran showed me something similar before. She wanted me to be prepared. Just in case, you know.â€
â€œJust in case of what?â€ I ask.
Cindy groans at my idiocy and pointedly looks at Al.
â€œAll right, letâ€™s say I accept Gran told you about this stuff. So explain. How does it work? How is he here? Does every box have magic and this one happened to do something while I was watching? Should I be worried about an army of mini-men running around on my night stand?â€
I stop rhyming off every question in my head when I notice Cindyâ€™s expression has changed to a familiar look of boredom. I bet sheâ€™s not even listening anymore.
I decide to keep it simple. â€œHow does magic exist? Magic isnâ€™t real.â€
â€œNo, of course not.â€ She gestures toward the mini-man and shakes her head at me. â€œThereâ€™s no magic here. You really are slow arenâ€™t you? And you donâ€™t have to worry about how it works. Accept it does and let me deal with the rest.â€
â€œFine,â€ I say while waving my hand in a â€˜go aheadâ€™ motion. â€œFix it, if you know so much.â€
â€œCanâ€™t or wonâ€™t?â€
â€œBoth. Seriously, Lou. Why are you freaking out so much? You canâ€™t tell me this isnâ€™t the most interesting thing to ever happen in your entire life. Look at how cute he is. With his little leather tunic and knee high boots like they wear in pirate movies.â€
â€œIâ€™m flattered, really,â€ he says. â€œAnd I donâ€™t mean to offend you, but as fun as this is, I would like to go home.â€
â€œSee,â€ I say while I point at him. â€œHe wants to go home. You should give him what he wants.â€ She doesnâ€™t say anything. â€œCindy, please. I need things to be normal again.â€
She jumps to her feet and takes several steps away from me before spinning around and throwing her arms up in defeat. â€œAnd whatâ€™s so great about normal, huh?â€
Normal is good. Normal is what everyone strives for. Everyone but Cindy of course. Normal means not sticking out in a crowd for being weird or having a bad reputation or having acted in some stupid way. And most of all, normal means no strange men falling into my lap out of a box.
I must look pretty desperate, because for the first time in my life, Cindy actually takes pity on me.
â€œFine. Have you tried putting him back in the box?â€
â€œOf course.â€ I rub my hands against my head as I pace around the room. If all she can suggest is the obvious, then Iâ€™m going to be stuck with this guy forever.
â€œYes! No need to try again. No need to shove me in a box.â€ Al watches us with a hand permanently attached to his sword. He shifts his weight back and forth between legs while keeping his stance loose and ready to fight.
The moment he notices Iâ€™m watching, he stops and grows rigid. I canâ€™t help but stare back, and as I do, I notice his stance shift until he no longer looks terrified, but curious instead. Heâ€™s so tiny, and though I hate to admit Cindy could ever be right, he really is cute.
â€œDid you keep him in for long enough?â€
His attention falls from me and he begins his nervous shifting again. His anxiety reminds me of my own and I canâ€™t help feeling frustrated at how useless Cindyâ€™s being.
â€œCome on, Cindy. You said Gran...â€ it feels too weird saying the words, especially when a huge part of me doesnâ€™t believe what Iâ€™m saying. â€œ...taught you magic. Do whatever only you can apparently do and fix this.â€
â€œNo, I said she prepared me for stuff like this. She couldnâ€™t teach me magic, because I donâ€™t have magic to use.â€
Something about her casual attitude makes me even more anxious. How can she be so calm at a time like this?
â€œLogically,â€ I say, though her words are anything but. â€œThere has to be something you can do.â€
She seems to ignore me while continuing to study the mini man. Iâ€™m about to say more when she steps back.
â€œFine. But youâ€™re going to have to do everything I say, no matter what Mom would think.â€ Cindy pokes me hard in the shoulder to make her point.
I swallow, forcing a lump down my throat and look over at the table. The mini man, Al, glances up at me with a pleading look in his tiny eyes. I swallow again and nod to Cindy.
Cindyâ€™s grin makes me instantly regret my decision as she says, â€œGreat,â€ she says. â€œLetâ€™s go to Granâ€™s house.â€
â€œWhat?â€ My brain is moving too slowly, especially for Cindy whoâ€™s already hurrying around the room grabbing stuff, examining it, and tossing it onto the bed. â€œWhat? No! Cindy, Granâ€™s house? Are you serious? Itâ€™s a six-hour drive. Six hours. I thought you could fix this. Why do we need to go to Granâ€™s?â€
â€œYou agreed. Do as I say or else youâ€™re stuck with Al forever.â€
My mouth hangs open as I watch her dig through each of my drawers only to slam them shut and move on to the next. If sheâ€™s trying to pack my stuff for the trip, sheâ€™s doing a terrible job. Not like it matters because Iâ€™m not going. Thereâ€™s no way.
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