There it was…in old man Adams’ trash. He died just the day before. Didn’t know he had family. But someone had been cleaning his house. In the light of day, the little shack was innocuous enough, and I didn’t mind standing in the alley perusing the trash.
Not so at night. The ancient incandescent street lamps didn’t quite reach his shack; from across the road, the stygian darkness a farmer’s field enveloped the old house until light from the moon exposed the peeling boards. When that nighttime exhilaration of youth took us to this imaginary land on moonless nights, thoughts of the harmless old man rose up like dragons in the blackness beneath the cottonwood trees that morphed into giants’ legs. There, we fought demons and, when someone yelled in the darkness that IT! was coming, we ran for home like hell itself chased us.
In the daytime, the front shutter that hung loose by one hook, the half-rotted porch planks, and the peeling paint were just signs of Adams’ age and, perhaps, his different priorities. Windsor was a well-kept community with German roots. In the early 50’s, they say ladies in babushkas actually swept the dirt streets. I don’t think the old man ever cleaned his home. On the way to school, I walked right by his lot, though I seldom saw him. And, when I did, he never made eye contact, like he didn’t even know I was there. Once, a long time ago, he sat on his porch in the sun (never saw a light on in the shack) fiddling with some shiny little metallic-looking box…a cube about six inches on a side. I couldn’t see it clearly. But his attention to it was obvious. “Hey!” I called. “Mr. Adams.”
He never looked up…just mumbled something and continued tinkering with his toy. A squirrel chattered from a branch above him. Murmuring something heavenward, he clutched the cube gently in both his hands and disappeared into that dusk of loneliness behind his creaking door.
Old man Adams…a dragon at night…a pitiful recluse in the day…and none of us really knew who he was. He died; and, if it hadn’t been for that weird little box of his, he would have slipped out of my life and memory like night giving way to day…just one uneventful happening.
I was late for school, but that metal cube held my eyes. The sun reflected from the surface almost as if it were made of mirrors. It lay on top of a box of rags, old books, and papers…the kind of stuff I’d seen in the town dump. I don’t remember walking to the trash heap… like when the TV is on and I just find myself sitting in front of it. Don’t know how I got there. I’m just there.
I picked it up…old man Adam’s cube…smooth as glass. It slipped from between my hands. No, more like greased glass; my fingers didn’t feel friction when I rubbed its faces. Not as heavy as it appeared; less than a pound. I cradled it gently in both my hands, turning it from side to side. A fine slit ran the length of one face parallel to the edge. I turned the cube. Two shallow indentations, about the size of thumb prints, blemished the otherwise perfect surface. Other than the slit and the indentations, the cube was spotless. I pulled and twisted but it wouldn’t open. Turning back to the slit, I held it up to my eye. Nothing was visible.
Setting it carefully in my knapsack, I turned back to the trash pile. Pushing aside a dusty old rag, a picture flipped up. Didn’t have the thick, crisp texture of a normal photograph. Lighter than copier paper. Inkjet produced? I rubbed the image; I don’t think so. And then it struck me. This was a photo of a bleak desert scene on the shore of some sea with dark heavy waves. Not lively waves like water, more like heavy oil. And the sky had a yellowish tint. Never saw anything like that before. A younger version of old man Adams sat on a rock perusing the cold, heavy, black sea. I shoved it into my knapsack along with a fist full of other pictures.
“Hey!” yelled Russ. He and Linda waved from the corner. “What’re you doing? You’re going to be late for school.”
Shouldering the knapsack, I caught up with them. “Just looking at his trash.”
“Tch…tch…tch!” Linda shook her head. “Dumpster diving!”
Russ laughed. “What could you possibly find interesting in his garbage?”
I wasn’t sure myself and just shrugged. “Let’s get to school.”
“If you found some old relic, you better let me see it!” History fascinated Linda. I just wished she showed as much interest in me. Everyone knew she had a crush on some other lucky guy. Still, we were neighbors. I got so see her most every day. And, at nights, all the kids in the neighborhood played games outside…that’s when we went to the shack. Probably still would. The fact that the old man died just made the nights even scarier. Games with Linda were fun. Lying on the grass next to her as we hid from Russ or some other friend, I imagined all kinds of things.
“You’ll be the first to see it,” I said.
After school, I ran home and hurried upstairs to my room. Pulling out the school books and setting them aside, I dumped the treasures from the alley onto the covers.
Rap…rap…rap! Groaning, I took two steps at a time down to the back door.
“Hey…Can I borrow your laptop? My little sis is using ours for Minecraft, and I need to research my Lincoln report.”
“Sure. I won’t need it till later. Come on in.” Unplugging the cable I wrapped it with the computer and stuffed it in the carrying bag. “What’s your report going to be?”
“I’m going to put together a pictorial history of Lincoln during the Civil War.”
She always came up with interesting ideas.
“Want to come over and help Google pictures?” she added as an afterthought.
Tempting… “Nah! Got stuff to work on myself.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You’re actually doing your homework early?”
I shrugged and looked down.
“You aren’t wasting time on that stuff from old man Adams now, are you?”
My face grew a little warmer.
“Well, like I said, if anything interesting shows up, you better let me know. Thanks for the computer. I’ll return it after supper.”
The door shut and I went back to MY homework.
If I believed the pictures, the old recluse on the corner had traveled all over the world. One photo had him soaking his legs in some small stream in a deep, dark jungle. In another one, a younger version of Adams knelt behind a bush watching a herd of elephants. Somewhere, the old man stood in snow on top of a mountain high above all the ranges in the background. But some pictures made no sense at all…obviously Photoshopped…the one from on top of the trash, another under the rings of Saturn. Another was a night scene with the sky lit up with more stars than ever shone overhead in Windsor…and brighter. In the end, two stacks of pictures sat next to the cube…some possible, some not. I wished old man Adams was still alive.
The sun peaked out from behind a cloud, and the cube cast reflections as if calling for my attention. Picking it up, I turned it over and over, rubbing it like Aladdin and his lamp. But no genie appeared. Didn’t really expect one. Linda did a report once on stories about genies, analyzing why the tales attracted the attention of readers. My hands crossed the indentations and I absently pressed my thumbs into them. Linda…she could do a report on me anytime. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if just the two of us were alone at night in the bushes under the trees in old man Adams’ yard. I had found a little natural den there from which the stars clearly shone above. The little lair was my favorite hiding place…daytime or night. I pictured Linda with me…just the two of us…she would snuggle up…I’d look to her…she to me…we’d close our eyes just as our lips touched…
ZAP! Whoa! That was weird! Linda and I kissed! I’d daydreamed about her before. But this seemed so real. Smiling, I leaned back on my bed. Would kissing Linda really be like this?
I sat up. The cube slid out of my hands onto the bed. Shaking off the fantasy, I saw it…the new picture…me with Linda…kissing…in the den. Don’t know how long I stared at it. Sure looked real. But it wasn’t. So where did it come from. The photo fit nicely into the slit.
Grabbing the cube, I pressed my thumbs into the indentations and pictured myself downstairs at my kitchen table with a coke can…. Nothing! I thought a little harder, imagining the taste. Yeah! I love coke. One of the basic food groups.
ZAP! Out came a picture of me at the table holding a coke can.
Dude! That was awesome. Something a little harder. Someplace I hadn’t been. Lincoln…do something with Lincoln. I didn’t remember any historical pictures of him, but I knew kind of what they would look like. Lincoln…standing…beard…top hat…stern…grass…war…an officer. I focused on the thought.
ZAP! Out came a picture. Lincoln standing with two men, one a soldier, in front of a tent. Me? I sat on the ground next to some grunt beside the tent. The grass was long; a scent of canvas filled the air. I remembered the meeting like I was there. But that’s all it was, an instantaneous memory. Don’t recall words or history before or after. I was just there for that instant.
If this cube threw out pictures of me doing anything… Where did it come from? I rubbed it. No wonder old man Adams held it so gently. But how did it work? How could it produce a picture of any place without actually being there? Well, these were places I had been or could imagine. So somehow the cube read my thoughts. Now that was not possible. But it did explain the pictures. The image of Adams under the rings of Saturn lay on top of the pile. He hadn’t been there. But our Cassini probe sent back pictures of the rings. That’s how it knew the image.
Amazing cube! Picking up the salvaged photos, I leafed through them stopping at the one with Adams sitting on the edge of the dark sea. I turned it over. Two words were scribbled on the back: Titan 1984. Yep. Astronomy magazine showed pictures of Saturn’s moon. Yellow sky…check. Methane seas…check. Bleak landscape…check. But 1984? The Huygens probe didn’t send pictures of Titan until 2005. So, the cube isn’t limited to just what I’ve seen. Dude! How could I even imagine someplace I hadn’t been? Then, again, that means the possibilities are infinite. Anywhere in the universe?! Infinity…here in this little cube? Nah! Not logical. These images weren’t Photoshopped, but the idea gave me a logical explanation. In my computer class I played with Photoshop and knew that any 5 inch by 7 inch picture can be represented accurately in high definition, in millions of colors, by using 16,000,000 bytes. Those same bytes could be used to represent a picture of anything. Essentially, they had an infinite capacity in a finite space. So, the fact that this little cube printed any photo was not nearly as incredible as that it could read thoughts and produce images that no one knew, or could accurately imagine.
“Dinner!” Mom’s voice brought me back to the present. I must have been absorbed in this for more than an hour.
Mom served us stew with cornbread. “How was school?” she asked.
“Learn anything new?” asked Dad.
“Nah.” I sipped a drink from my can of coke.
“Don’t slurp!” said Dad.
“Got much homework?” asked Mom.
“Nope.” The stew was great. Always is.
“Do anything interesting today?” asked Dad.
I thought about that for a bit. What should I say? “Nah.”
“Just as talkative as usual,” he said to Mom.
“Well, my day was eventful.” She and Dad talked about their stuff and I ate.
I finished my coke.
“Want to get that?” said Mom looking at me.
“Hey…Here’s your laptop.”
“Thanks. Finish the report?”
“Just got the pictures. I’ll put them together and write the text tomorrow. You finish your homework?”
“Well, if you can, we’re all going down to old man Adams tonight. Don’t know if it’ll be the same now. May play some hide and seek.”
I hadn’t checked all the trash. If anything was left, I wanted to look through it more closely. “Sure! When?”
“We’ll stop by about 7:30. Should be dark.”
She walked down the sidewalk and glanced back with a smile. I waved. She gave a quick nod and trotted home.
“Going gaming?” asked Mom.
As I walked back to my room, Dad said, “Rather have him playing with friends outside than watching TV.”
“…or playing computer games,” added Mom.
The trash was gone so what I salvaged needed to suffice. I would rather be home looking at all of it, not here. The sun was gone and the moon wouldn’t be up for hours. Stars speckled the sky, so real darkness was kept at bay. Maybe this wouldn’t take too long.
The games were fun and I laughed along with the others. It’s just that my mind kept going back to the cube. A soft breeze picked up, rustling the corn stalks and carrying a wispy cloud overhead. Ahhh, this would be good. Kneeling outside my secret little den, I picked up a small sized rock and heaved it onto the shack’s roof. With scrapes and thumps, it rolled off. Corn stalks in the field whispered in the wind, and I gave a short whine. Linda’s little sister screamed and ran down the alley. That started all the younger ones running in panic. The older kids, reveling in the terrors of the night, growled and yelped after the young ones, chasing them. Now I could go home. We’d do games another night.
“I thought that was you.” Linda smiled and sat down beside me. “Why’d you get the little ones all riled up like that?”
“You saw them run,” I laughed. “…Why’d you stay?”
“Well, except for your rock and the screaming kids, this is a pretty nice night.” She looked up at the stars just being uncovered by the cloud.
She snuggled close under my arm.
In the grayness of the den, dark eyes turned up. They closed; mine closed; and we kissed. I gasped. I’d done this before, EXACTLY as I remembered it. I liked it.
“What’s wrong?” asked Linda.
“Wrong?...Uh, nothing.” I hugged her a little tighter and we kissed again.
Yeah. I could get used to this.
“But why’d you stay here with me,” I said softly.
“Don’t know. Kind of always wanted to kiss you I guess.”
She kissed me again.
“Well, you know what’s weird is that I imagined it this afternoon.”
“Well, I told you I did too.”
“No. I thought it…exactly like this. You…me...”
“Well, if we’re going to kiss it takes both of us.”
“…You and me, here, at night, with the stars and the cloud overhead.”
We kissed again.
“You don’t think your imagining it made this happen do you?” she laughed. “Like I said, I’ve thought about it for a while now.”
“Let’s go. I want to show you something.”
“Oh, let’s stay a while longer. No one will be looking for us here.” Linda took my hand.
Oh…yeah! But I wanted her to see the picture. “No. Come on!” I tugged on her arm and pulled her up. “This is important.”
“More important than us?” she said. “I mean, how long have we been just friends? I kind of like where this is going.”
“Me too. That’s why I want to show you something.”
“OK.” She sighed.
Linda stared at the picture. “Wow!”
“And it came from this little cube, you say?”
I nodded. “Go ahead. Try it.”
Linda held the cube, turning it, rubbing it, thinking. Setting it back on the covers, she said, “I don’t think I want to.”
“Don’t you believe me?”
“I don’t know what to believe. But it just doesn’t seem right to me. I think you ought to check it out a bit before you make any more pictures. You know, maybe take it to the University…or just tell your parents.”
I shook my head; that little treasure was mine now. I would share it, but this was too cool to give away to someone else.
“Want to go out for a coke after school tomorrow?” she asked.
“That would be great!”
She leaned over and we kissed again. Oh…yeah!
I walked into Loodles coffee shop. Linda was at a table for two in the corner.
“Over here!” She waved her arms excitedly
I didn’t even have time to get a coke. But that was OK. I wanted to get back to the cube anyway…after some time with Linda.
“Look!” She pushed a picture across the small table.
It was an image of Abraham Lincoln with, according to her notes, General McClernand.
“Look!... By the tent!”
And just like the one at home, there I was. “Did you get this from my house?”
“No!” She leaned across the table in all seriousness. “It came off my Google search!” She paused, looking around the room. “At first I thought it could be anyone. But I even brought out my magnifying glass. It’s you!”
“Please,” she said. “Give that thing to someone who can determine what it is. It can’t be safe.”
I stared at the picture.
“Look. You’re playing with history. Even if only for an instant. What if you went to Hiroshima when the bomb dropped? Would you survive?”
I didn’t want a coke. “Let me think about it. You’ve got a point.” I stood.
“Good,” said Linda. In front of all the customers, she gave me a kiss.
Holding the cube in my lap, I considered what Linda said. I liked my new relationship with her. And what she said was true…I didn’t really know what was happening. But, the new memories…WOW! I mean, I saw Lincoln. I saw the kiss. A stack of new images on the bed beside me were visible evidence of where I had been without leaving my room. This feeling of euphoria enveloped me. This was good. Linda just didn’t understand. But, she would.
My phone rang…Linda.
“Hey. Have you thought about what I said?” she asked.
“Yeah. You might be right.”
“Good. Can you come over and help me…uh, with my homework?” The way she said the last phrase, I knew it wasn’t school work she was referring to.
Oh…yeah! …But the cube. I had wanted to experience the old west tonight. Use the cube just one more time. Writing about it for my report would be fun. But Linda…that would be better. I could do both. “How about I come over later?”
“Are you playing with that cube thing!”
She said that as if accusing me of something. That wasn’t fair.
“Come over now…or not at all,” she said.
“OK,” I answered and hung up the phone.
I knew I shouldn’t; I didn’t really want to; but I picked up the cube, placed my thumbs in the indentations, and thought about the Little Big Horn.
Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]