The Boy in the Lunchbox

It’s past noon.

I’m picking up my boy at school and walking home with him. He’s looking down, and I, I’m looking at anything but him; I’m thinking about other things, important grown-up things, things that worry me.

_ Inner me: “Why are we both silent? I would be asking him about his day or making jokes…. He seems quite pensive for a 7-year-old , and I’m acting as if he wasn’t even there.”

There but a few people around, since we’re taking the shortcut. Between school and our home, you can take two routes: the long route using the main street -but this neighborhood is so neglected that there’s hardly a decent sidewalk, so you’re gambling your life there while walking on the side of the street-. The short route is a trail, all there is is stones, dirt, and dust; a few scattered houses belonging to some wealthy people, and then the trail leads to a stable. Turning left and going downhill, there’s the entrance to the community where we live, barely middle-class but at least it’s not exposed to the slums further south.

_ Inner me: “This is where I grew up, that’s the school I attended, but I’m not the boy. Hold on, am I? No, I’m the parent, I’m a grown man now.”

I see the entrance to the community from afar, we’re near. In front of us across the street, there’s a pulpería1 and I just recalled I need to grab some onions, potatoes, butter, peppers… I don’t love the idea, vegetables are never fresh in pulperías but taking the bus to the supermarket is out of the question.

I’m paying and counting change, so I guess that’s taken care of, I need to grab the boy and go home.

The boy! Where did he go!

I start calling his name out loud. I feel palpitations, I can’t believe this is happening. What if he was abducted, what if he’s being held in that stable, or in one of those big houses?

I’m about to return to the trail where he probably lagged behind, maybe he’s still there.

But then I see him approaching, scared and looking down as before, but quickening his pace.

I don’t feel relief, I feel anger and fear. I’ve told him before about the danger that’s out there! What if he wanders again? What if he hadn’t returned?

I make him sit down in a step, at the entrance of the pulpería, and I start rebuking him: “how could you do this to me, how could you be so irresponsible, it’s so easy that someone will harm you, never do this again, you had me so worried!…” Words are now just a burst of anxiety and compulsion, I can’t stop blaming him, reproving him. Then I notice I have been slapping his hands for a while now, as I rebuke him.

_ Inner me: “What is happening here? that makes no sense, this makes me feel sorry. The look on his face, it’s like he doesn’t even understand my speech at all, his face shows shame, and his eyes are absent as if he just wants all of this to end soon. But he stays quiet, so quiet… he’s clearly afraid. Afraid of me! No, I’m not this kind of parent, but also, this boy doesn’t look like my son at all.”

There are people inside the pulpería, watching the scene, a man with a thick mustache, worn-down pants stained with paint just as his shoes are, and a filthy, half-open striped shirt, won’t stop glancing at us, and he finally makes a move: – “You need to stop now, you’re being abusive”. His eyes are fixed on me, he’s serious about it. I rise and take a step forward toward the man: “No, I will show you what violence is unless you mind your own business!”.

I can’t believe these people, this is why kids nowadays are so spoiled and rebellious, they need parents who care, parents that protect them from harm and that requires to exercise some strength. I’ve got to go, I hate people prying into the way I run my family. No one could understand where I’m coming from, no one could ever appreciate my efforts, as it has always been.

I take the boy and carry him on my back, it’s going to be tiring, but a father has to make sacrifices, someday I hope he understands these sacrifices, these kids don’t know that you’re actually giving up all your dreams, your youth, just to raise them. And then, they’re like scorpions eating their mom once they’re strong enough, like ravens plucking out your eyes after you’ve fed them.

_Inner me: “My head feels like it’s underwater, whatever this is makes me sad, this… feels familiar. There’s pain and pressure in my head as if I’m breathing this thick, poisoned water”.

We finally make it home. It took forever, it was supposed to be just a 5-minute walk, but it felt like hours; probably because of the additional weight on my back today, on account of this child. And I’ve always suffered from my spine!

I find my wife, she’s doing chores as usual. I approach and greet her, she would barely notice me, she’s just too busy, getting things shiny. I start telling her about all the distress I’ve just been through, and about how that filthy worker at the pulpería was so insolent to me, so violent! I could tell he was an immigrant, probably living in the slums downhill. People need to know their place!

She’s not interested, and she’s not upset either, she’s just annoyed that I’m speaking to her. I can tell she despises me; why is she always like this? She’s so irresponsible! When will she take charge of the responsibilities of raising this kid? She would never understand me, she doesn’t want to listen, she’s just as ungrateful as the boy!

_Inner me: “No, no she’s not. She’s sweet and caring, she just doesn’t appreciate all the fucking drama…”

The boy… The boy! Where’s the boy? I don’t recall him greeting his mother, but I was carrying him on my back, so that no one would take him away from me, ever. I remember that.

Then I realize what happened a while back: somehow I was going to carry him on my back, but I actually stored him inside the backpack. And now that I think about it, he hasn’t made a sound for quite some time. Is he still inside?

A sudden, sharp blow to my gut: -“Did I…”?

I rush back to the living room, I see the backpack, and open it quickly: there are books and notebooks and even an umbrella, but not the boy. The boy’s not there!

But wait. There’s a lunchbox, yes his lunchbox, but it’s barely large enough to store some crackers, an apple, and a sandwich. How could he be inside the lunchbox?

I take the lunch box in my hands and remove the lid: the boy is lying down inside, his eyes closed, his expression like that of a little angel, oh my sweet little angel! Look at him asleep inside the lunchbox!

_Inner me: “That’s an impossibility, that’s just ridiculous, yet somehow the boy is indeed inside the lunchbox. But, hold on, oh no no no, that kid’s not breathing, take him out! He’s not breathing!”.

I take him in my arms, my angel, and I softly place him in the sofa. I shake him a little to wake him up. He’s not waking up.

It’s like when you trap mice or insects and put them in jars, and close the lid tight but make no holes in it. If you leave them long enough they asphyxiate.

Oh no, my wife is going to hate me even more now! What will she say? What do I tell the whole family?

I know, I will just leave him in the living room and go upstairs quietly, she will eventually find him, call an ambulance and they will all think he died in his sleep somehow, and I will be just a grieving father. Yes, that’s it and then people will be sympathetic toward me, no one will blame me, and why would they? Honestly, it’s not like I did anything wrong, I’ve always cared for this boy more than anyone! This was an accident, this all happened because of his disobedience.

_Inner me: “Seriously, is this what you’re thinking about right now, monster?”.

There’s sunlight coming through the window, and I smell coffee… Oh shit is it morning already? I feel worse than when I went to bed.

OK time to get in motion.

Downstairs, in the kitchen, my wife’s preparing some eggs.

_”Morning ‘cosita’2

_”Morning! Breakfast will be ready soon, so don’t even think about turning on that laptop, come sit down and chat with me.”

_”OK, fine, I will.”

My head is numb and I’m just staring at the table, I’m not a morning person at all.

_”Well, you’re not talkative as usual, had a rough night?”

Now that she brings up the subject, I’m sure I had some pretty disturbing dreams.

_”I think I did. Woke up feeling beat, and now that you mention it, I dreamed about something terrible. But not like horror movies, more like something sad and horrible from real life”.

She approaches with a black cup of joe and a plate with bread, sausages, and eggs, seems like my morning starts to improve exponentially, this looks so good!

_”Wanna talk about it?”

_”I would but I don’t remember much. But what’s really intriguing is that it’s all linked somehow to a sense of deep sadness, the same way I feel sometimes when the sun sets, remember I’ve told you about this before? Like having inhaled water. The other thing I remember is that it happened in my parents’ house, in the neighborhood where I grew up. Oh well! I’d rather just move on with the day, no use dwelling in the past, I’m going for that promotion!”

She just stares at me wearing a half smile, with a smooth blend of sincere sympathy and mild disappointment: she knows there are places I don’t like to visit, though she’d like me to.

_”OK fine, if you happen to remember more and want to talk later, I’ll be around. Oh, I almost forgot! Danielito was already inside the school bus and he came out running with this in his hand. He told me to give it to you. He’s into origami now, and this here is meant to be a brain. He says it’s because his mind and yours are so much alike! I can tell he’s proud of it”.

1Pulpería is Spanish for a small, grocery store in Central America.

2‘Cosita” is Spanish for a ‘small thing’, can be used as a sweet nickname.


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