Third Prize 2019 – Trapped in a Box by Jessica Fabrizius


Trapped in a Box

It must have been so hot in that green box— Lord knows it was hot in the truck. We sat four across, our thighs touching despite our combined efforts to shrink in on ourselves. The air conditioner in the old Chevy pickup was unreliable, and Dad didn’t want to overheat the engine, so it stayed on low, just enough to circulate the stagnant summer heat. I held the box up in front of the vent as best I could and hoped it would be enough. I asked to roll down the window. The answer was no.

“But-”

“No.”

Three kittens, too young to be away from their mother, slept fitfully in the green, off-brand Lego box I had repurposed to carry them on the long journey home. It was only a two-and-a-half-hour drive, but this part always dragged. Our meeting point between Riverton and Casper was not halfway, although that’s how Mom always put it: “We’ll meet halfway”.

The driving arrangement struck me as unfair, mostly because it was stacked in Dad’s favor; it took only forty-five minutes to get to the rest stop from Casper, barely enough time to steel myself for the exchange. About ten minutes out, there was a small building and a big sign: Hell’s Half Acre. Once, it had been a proper stopping point with a restaurant and a lookout over the strange rock formations, but it shut down and was left to rot. Paint peeled from every surface, the gravel of the turnoff became overgrown. It was my final warning, the point where I had to stop crying or else Dad would see my puffy eyes and red lips and know that I hated going with him. Usually, I just ended up crying harder.

Accepted state-wide as the blandest drive in all of Wyoming, my brothers and I traveled this route every other weekend, numb to the vast nothingness between Casper and Riverton. Dad’s trailer house was next to my grandpa’s house, on the ranch homesteaded by my great-grandfather. The land had been whittled away, piece by piece as Riverton grew and Grandpa got older. A half a dozen acres of land remained to graze the cows on. A sign hung by the cattle gate proclaimed our legacy: Fabrizius Herefords. Upon arrival, we peeled our legs off the burlap seats, took a deep breath, and trudged into the trailer house. After a while, we got used to the smell.

◊◊◊

At some point, a feral cat found a chink in the boards that insulated the bottom of the trailer. And then another, and another. Kittens began gallivanting in the tall grass around the hole in the boards, but they were quick on the draw and always made it back to the hole before we could catch them. Sometimes the Momma Cat wouldn’t be afraid of humans, and her kittens could be caught. They were lucky Grandpa didn’t try catching them. I’d heard stories about how when the resident dog or cat had a litter that wasn’t wanted, the babies would get tossed in a sack and taken to the creek. Little claws scratching, muffled whining, a plop as they are submerged. How long does it take to drown?

“They would have died sooner or later. Starved, run over, killed by a coyote- would have happened eventually. At least this way they didn’t suffer.”

“How do you know?”

To them, it wasn’t cruel; it was a matter-of-fact. A cheap alternative to spaying and neutering. Once, Mom gave Dad money to have a couple of the cats fixed. He took the money and spent it on groceries. He laughed when confronted about it, as if she were the fool for believing he would spend money on cats.

One thing we learned not to do on Grandpa’s ranch was form an attachment. Death inevitably followed. Pets were a luxury no one really believed in having. Darwinism reigned. Dad decided at some point not to tell me when something had died. I would ask if it had been given a funeral. I believed all things deserved a funeral— some kind of acknowledgement of life lost.

“Animals don’t need funerals.”

“But how will they get to Heaven?”

“Animals don’t go to Heaven.”

“Why not?”

“Animals don’t have souls.”

◊◊◊

One summer we entered the trailer and three kittens were waiting. They waddled and bumped into the sides of the cardboard box nest we constructed for them. Dad said their Momma Cat died. We named them, one for each of us: Marshmallow, Tiger, and Cowboy. They cried, and their long, fever-pitched mewing begged for things I couldn’t provide. They needed milk, not Meow-Mix. I became ferocious. I demanded to take them to the vet.

“I don’t have the money for it.”

“Then take me to Walmart.”

“No.”

“If you don’t, I’ll ask Grandpa.”

“God doesn’t want us going to Walmart.”

“The kittens will die. Is that what God wants?”

Swift trailer trucks in the parking lot were a sign that God didn’t want us going to Walmart. A strange formation of clouds told Dad that Grandpa was plotting something devious. We weren’t allowed to go outside unless he prayed on it. Once, I found a letter, written as a prayer. He prayed for protection from his father, from his brothers and their families, from his ex-wife, and from me. I starred at the squat cursive letters. I was sure I was supposed to be mad, but it wasn’t a revelation so much as a confirmation. I quietly folded up the paper, and put it back in the medicine cabinet. My aunt later told me it was probably because I had Colic when I was a baby. She said she found him one afternoon, sitting on the steps, the closed door muffling my wailing. He wouldn’t go inside. When she asked him why, he told her a demon had possessed my body, and I wanted to hurt him.

The demon never left. Dad eyed me side-long, muttered under his breath, read and re-read passages from the Bible: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you”. I knew he was sick. No one would say it, but we knew. We weren’t supposed to talk about it, whatever it was, but I also couldn’t let his paranoia reign. I made him take me to Walmart that night. I bought three little droppers and some milk. My brothers and I each took a kitten and slowly dripped warm milk onto their tongues. They clamped down on the plastic teats- finally, something to fill their hollow tummies- and fell asleep.

They should have died. I didn’t know what I was doing. But maybe they had just passed the point of total dependence on their Momma Cat. When placed in a litter box, instinct took over. They could choke down a little cat food if we got it soggy first, and they rolled and tumbled with each other. I woke up early and stayed up late to make sure they were fed and warm, to supervise their wanderings and make sure my brothers played nice with them.

I formed an attachment.

◊◊◊

I used to have to sit on my hands while Mom stood over me, a tube of opaque gunk positioned over my eyes.

“If you don’t stop crying, the ointment won’t go in your eyes and we’ll have to do it again.”

I lived in fear of pink eye: the constant sensation of something being in my eye, the trailing floaters of thick yellow mucus that clogged up my eyelids and glued them shut as I slept. One morning we woke up to find Cowboy, the biggest kitten, had this same yellow gunk coming out of his left eye, fastening it shut. I showed this to Dad, tried to persuade him that the kitten needed to go to the vet, but he was resolute.

Sympathy pushed past my fear of contamination. I placed a warm, wet towel over Cowboy’s eye to loosen the muck, then gently pulled the mats of yellow mucus from his soft baby fur. He struggled at first, same as me sitting on my hands at the edge of the waterbed. I checked him constantly for a buildup of goo, dabbing with a Q-tip at even the slightest sign of discharge and fueled by the horror of him losing an eye, or the infection killing him outright. I couldn’t bear their suffering and I made it my own.

◊◊◊

When our week with Dad was over, we didn’t want to leave the kittens. Maybe he’d been counting on it. I searched for a way to bring them with us, and Dad said nothing when I dumped the chunky build-a-blocks out of the green box, lined it with a towel, and filled it to the brim with kittens. Maybe he knew their chances of survival were dismal in the trailer house; maybe he wanted them to live.

I knew Mom wasn’t going to be happy when she saw them. I considered hiding them, but they’d make a noise, and then it would back to the trailer house. They depended on me and on my ability to persuade her. I searched for the words, concocted an argument, and balanced the box, heavy with kittens, on my palms in front of the vent.

But my best arguments weren’t enough. We stood in the parking lot of the rest stop. I let her peer in the box, told her how Dad wouldn’t let us take them to the vet, how their Momma Cat was dead, how I’d worked all week to keep them alive. Her face turned into a hard set of lines that spelled “NO”. She wouldn’t pick them up, she wouldn’t listen to my pleas. She pointed them back to the truck- back to their doom. My brothers cried as I trudged back to the truck. The kittens meowed and scratched the inside of the green box.

“She said no.”

“Why?”

“We already have cats, and she doesn’t want any more.”

He rolled his eyes better than any rebellious teenager.

“You have to take care of them…”

His response was a grunt, and I carefully placed them on the floor, where it might be coolest. They were going back to the ranch- I knew their fate; I had the answer. I breathed heavy as we pulled away, my stomach knotting over what I had done and how I had failed them. We three, spaced out in the luxury of an air conditioned car, spilt silent tears over the three kittens who didn’t escape.

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014