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The Startbox

by Crystal Koo

[Art by Kevin Lapeña]

THE LAUS CLOSED DOWN their electronics shop and moved out of Nicanor Street one summer. Everyone was surprised. The shop had been doing so well there didn’t seem to be any reason to throw it all away. This was what everyone was thinking at the closing-down sale but no one asked the Laus. The family had hired people to look after the shop and never made much of an appearance, unlike all the other proprietors that ran the shops that lined Nicanor Street. When the Laus left, the speculation became rampant. A family emergency. They didn’t like the neighborhood. The balding man who owned the photocopying place on the next block said he had heard rumors that they were immigrating to Hong Kong, but he couldn’t be sure. With the Handover so close, it didn’t seem right. Why not, my father interrupted. There’d be business with the Chinese mainlanders, lots of them. No need to swim over the Shenzhen River now to start a new life.

No one could confirm or deny any of these. I was twelve years old at the time, only a boy that my father thought could still be distracted by the jingle of an ice cream cart. I didn’t have the courage to tell him what I knew about Ricky Lau.

The Laus had lived across from us, in an apartment above their electronics shop. A disused air shaft, where kids dropped candy wrappers between the grates, was all that separated them from my father’s turpentine-odored hardware store below our own apartment. Lau Electronics drew the younger crowd with the cellular phones and CD players they sold. We had mostly older men dropping by the hardware store, drinking tea and playing mahjong with my father while my mother bustled in and out with a kettle. During summers, when I had to look after the store with my father, I would watch the teenagers going into the Laus’ air-conditioned shop and I’d try to make out the objects inside the pink plastic bags they carried when they returned to the street. Then my father would rap me on the knuckles for not paying attention to the pliers I was supposed to be counting and tell me to turn the fan a level lower to save electricity.

Ricky Lau and I went to the same class in school. He had a slightly oily face and a messy patch of hair, a reedy-looking kid who always disappeared quickly into his building after classes. Everyday, when I played with the neighborhood kids, I could see his face between the blinds of the window of his room on the second floor. The general consensus among us children was that Ricky Lau felt he was too good for us. Further conversation regarding Ricky Lau was usually cut short at that point by the beginning of our regular water-gun game.

We didn’t have much to do with Ricky in school either. He got good grades seemingly without effort and his self-sufficiency simply smacked of snobbery as far as we were concerned. While everyone else stalled as long as possible when the teachers, before giving out our exam papers, ordered us to lay our notebooks on the floor, all he did was click his pen again and again, which made everyone even more nervous.
The teachers started off liking him because he scored very well, but Ricky never raised his hand when the teachers asked questions, although we were sure he knew what the answer was. In our more ungenerous moments, we played dumb with the teacher just to see if Ricky would rise to the occasion for us, but he never took the bait.

So when Ms. Rafael paired me with Ricky for the science project, I had very mixed feelings. Ricky was a charmed creature when it came to schoolwork and I planned to let him do nearly all of it by himself. On the other hand, I knew I was going to get flak for being stuck with him, a ritual which began immediately after science class when Ricky came to my desk just as I was about to head to the cafeteria with my friends. Alvin and Carl muttered something about waiting for me outside and left, slapping each other’s shoulders in exaggeratedly-restrained laughter on their way to the door.

Hi Jameson, Ricky said, looking at me straight in the eye. I have an idea for the project.

I answered, Yeah, OK, what is it? Through the jalousies, Alvin was making circles with his hands and putting them around his eyes, the traditional sign made to symbolize a nerd, except Ricky didn’t wear glasses.

Ricky said it was too complicated to explain without the thing itself. I asked what the “thing” was and Ricky timidly said that the project was already done so I didn’t have to worry about it because it was going to knock the socks off Ms. Rafael anyway. This irritated me, more so because Alvin and Carl had gotten tired of waiting and had left without me, and I asked him when I could see it.

Ricky gave me a beatific smile. You can take a look at it at my place after dinner, he said.

I found Alvin and Carl afterward lounging by the water fountain, sharing a pack of french fries. They nudged me and asked how it had gone. I told them that Ricky and I were making a mouse maze.

That night, my father drew the aluminum roll-up gate halfway down to let some of the night air in, then he sat on a small stool, printing figures on a ledger and eating from the plate of steaming pork-and-chives dumplings my mother had set on the table. The night was warm. My father had both electric fans at their highest speeds but from my position near the tool racks I could still see the sheen of sweat on his caterpillar moustache.

My father was an aggressive salesman who got his customers to laugh and drink tea before eventually buying a bucket of paint that he’d recommended without much talk about the paint itself. There was only: Your family was from Guangdong too? That calls for a special price then! We could have been living in neighboring villages! If the customer was Filipino, my father would bring out his makeshift Tagalog to rattle off comradely complaints about gas prices. All that exuberance would disappear when he started doing his numbers in the evening, only returning the next day when his first customer walked in.

My mother was watching a Taiwanese soap opera that evening, the TV producing screams and bombastic musical cues every ten minutes. When I finished locking the glass rack holding the screwdrivers and was about to sit down next to my father, he tapped the little teacup next to the dumplings with the end of his chopsticks and asked for more soy sauce. After I went to the kitchen and returned with a full teacup, I told my father I was going to Ricky Lau’s house after dinner.

He frowned. What for? What about your homework?

I told him it was for homework. I was about to explain how Ms. Rafael had paired Ricky and me together but my father stood up and went to the altarpieces nailed to the wall. He lit the candles before the statuettes of red-faced Guan-yu with his sword and helmet and the curly-haired Santo Niño. Don’t break anything while you’re there, he said. I don’t want to have to pay for something that we would never buy anyway.

I nodded but he didn’t see me, so I started on the dumplings alone. My father was muttering prayers to the altarpieces and as always I could never tell his prayers apart. They made up a wall of droning little noises, repetitive like Ricky’s pen-clicking, and I always felt awkward whenever he started. I was never sure if it was supposed to be a private moment between him and his gods, or some kind of business routine that I would one day have to mimic. I had learned to drown it out, and that night I listened to someone nearby practicing The Entertainer on the piano, the melody surfacing in between the sputters and whines of the pedicabs.

Ricky himself, dressed in pajamas, opened the door for me, saying he had seen me cross over from his window.

The Laus’s living room was filled with huge, packaging boxes exploding with bubblewrap, although I could see a few faux-leather sofas and chairs peeking behind them. Ricky told me that his parents liked collecting strange electronics from all over the world. They bought the occasional antique too, but it seemed like electronic golems and chakras could be worth more in the long run because they were harder to find. I didn’t know what Ricky was talking about so I assumed he was making them up.

Ricky went to the refrigerator for a carton of orange juice and asked if I wanted to play video games on his PlayStation. His father was busy in his workshop building a home-made PC and his mother was out for dinner, so Ricky said we could play as long as we wanted.

The strangeness of everything surrounding Ricky, his family, and even his house had begun to make me feel out of place, so I said no, thanks. He shrugged and drank from the carton and led me to his room. On our way there, I looked out the window from which I had so often seen Ricky watching us, and saw that my father had already locked down the roll-up gate.

I remember going into Ricky’s room and paying more attention to the fact that the air-conditioning had been left running with no one around rather than to the startbox on his desk. The box didn’t look like it was capable of much. It was half the size of a regular shoebox, made of dark, olive-green turtleshell, and I thought it was the sort of lacquered thing that girls used to put their little trinkets in.

Then Ricky opened the lid.

Inside was an exact miniature replica of Ricky’s room – the wardrobe, the bed, the desk, his swivel chair, the shelves, all in position. But what sent a frisson up and down my spine were the people in it. Frozen in the box was me, sitting on the bed, and Ricky standing next me with a small box in his hands. I looked closer at the figurines, stunned. My head was a little too big and the colors were somewhat faded, but it had a look of wariness on its face that mirrored my own, and Ricky’s figure had that same expression of excitement, as if about to divulge a secret. Ricky—the real one—still had that expression when he covered the box again with the lid.

I suddenly had an image of Ricky spending the afternoons after school watching us from the window and making little miniature houses and people to play with afterward.

That’s not a science project, I said, the fear making my throat dry.

He laughed. Wait, you haven’t seen the whole thing yet. My parents bought this from Hong Kong. Watch this.

He took the lid off again and moved the miniature swivel chair to the door. When he returned the lid, the chair behind us began rolling across the floor towards the door on its tiny plastic wheels.

I looked at Ricky, my skin covered with goose bumps, and he grinned at me, enjoying my incomprehension. It works wherever you are, he said. You just need four AA batteries and it lasts longer than a Game Boy. It’s all wireless too.

Then he fished out a piece of paper that looked like a one-page manual on how to operate a cheap clock, one side in English and the other in Chinese. Ricky started reading it aloud in very ungrammatical English, informing me about the butterfly effect and chaos theory.

I interrupted him. You can move stuff around with it?

He didn’t look very pleased with the crudeness of my remark. It’s a startbox, he said. Like if you change the things around you, you can make a new starting point in your life. The carton said something like that. I bet they don’t sell this anywhere in the Philippines, so we can just memorize all the science stuff about butterflies and tornadoes and Ms. Rafael won’t know.

He put the startbox away after that, in a drawer under his desk, and started talking about the PlayStation games he had. We ended up playing a fighting game with bobbing, trash-talking 3D characters, until I realized that it was nearly ten and had to dash out and bang on our roll-up until a neighbor started yelling at me to shut up.

After that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the startbox. I knew if my friends got their hands on it they’d want to pry off the head of a figurine or something equally random just to see what would happen, but that wasn’t what fascinated me; it was how everything in the startbox was built for the purpose of deliberate control. I wanted to see more of that, but Ricky seemed more concerned with trying to hang out with me than doing anything related to the “project.” Whenever Ms. Rafael would remind the class about our projects, Ricky would pull out the startbox’s one-page manual from his breast pocket and wave it from across the room with a meaningful grin. He had given me a photocopy the day after he had shown me the startbox. It was as if the startbox was his attempt to show that Ricky Lau too had the guts to fudge schoolwork, and waving the manual was his way of reminding me about this.

One day after classes, I told Ricky that it would be easier for me to memorize the manual if I could see the startbox again. And to ensure that his quota of fun with me would be filled, I asked him if he would like to join me and my friends that afternoon for water-gun wars. Ricky’s face lit up brilliantly.

Ricky owned a water blaster with a large reservoir and air pressure chambers, and when he brought it out I felt more than a few glares sent in my direction. That afternoon’s game, however, became a firm lesson in how fantastic weaponry could backfire. It was bad enough that Ricky could never get a clean shot, that it took him too long to refuel his huge reservoir and to pump enough air to be compressed, but Ricky was also unaware that showing off an almighty piece of hardware like that to machismo-saddled, twelve-year-old boys was simply daring them to prove that they would not be cowed. By the time the sun had set and everyone was leaning in exhaustion against the cars parked along the street, there wasn’t a dry patch on Ricky’s school uniform. One of his ears was red from a direct hit, his shoes squelched as he walked, and his neck itched from the torn bits of leaves that Carl had added to his gun to turn the water itchy.

For a moment I regretted bringing Ricky, who had started to look like a drowned chick. But he beamed at me and half-raised his unwieldy water blaster, as if he had forgotten that our team had lost abysmally because of him, and my regret left quickly.

He was too tired to do anything else after we had changed into fresh sets of clothes and gone into his room. He lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling, while I put the startbox on his desk and opened the lid with my sweaty hands.

As I stared into the box, I began to realize how beautiful the miniatures were. Everything was replicated to the smallest detail, from the continents and the oceans on the map of the world on Ricky’s wall to the little spikes that formed on my hair when it was damp. Looking at the miniatures filled me with a childishly happy emotion. The startbox was a thing primed for action, like a freshly-refueled water-pistol, and as I felt the heaviness of the box against my palm, I longed to see what other miniatures the startbox could create outside Ricky’s room.

Can I play with you guys again tomorrow? Ricky asked.

I didn’t answer him. Using my little finger, I edged the miniature bed against the wall of the box, making the tiny varnished headboard shudder. When I returned the lid, Ricky’s bed mimicked the movement with a loud groan, bumping against the wall hard enough that Ricky fell off from the impact.

I laughed. It was only when Ricky picked himself up that he began to laugh along with me. He sat on the corner of the bed, one hand clutching the edge in case I did something with the bed again, and with the other hand he rubbed his nose. So can I? he asked again, smiling feebly.

I wanted to tell him that if I hadn’t talked to the boys before the game, they would have ripped both his ears off. Instead I opened the box again and gazed at the calming beauty of the miniatures. How long have you had this? I asked.

About a month. My parents found it in a small, crowded building where people sold pirated CDs and computer stuff really cheap. My dad said if they couldn’t find a fake there, it didn’t exist. Cool, right?

I thought it was a coolness that was wasted on someone like Ricky in the same way that the startbox was horribly underused in his care. All he seemed to want to do with it was play house.

I have an idea, I said. Let’s bring this to my place.

Okay, he answered uncertainly. What’s wrong with here?

Nothing. I just want to see what it looks like in a different place.

When we arrived at the hardware store, my father looked at the clock and then at me and Ricky, asking, What about your homework?

I waved the startbox at him. Then I went to the corner of the shop and plunked it on the table, while Ricky followed, looking at the screwdrivers.

It’s really warm here, he said.

I told him to sit down. I opened the lid, and sure enough, there was the hardware store, from the cabinets where the ledgers were kept down to my father’s caterpillar moustache. The roof shingles my father had on display made the replica even more intricate and my fingers tingled. Really nice, I said. The folds of Guan-yu’s tunic looked like melting trails of multicolored ice cream and the lips of the Santo Niño were delicately turned up in emphasized blessedness.
I slipped my hand into the box, and with my fingernail I tipped Guan-yu from the altar, followed by his Christian counterpart.

Ricky was about to say something as I returned the lid, but he was interrupted by the crash of the statuettes. My father jumped up in alarm and gave a yelp when he saw what had made the noise. Guan-yu and the Santo Niño were on our green linoleum floor.

As my father rushed over to them, Ricky looked at me, wide-eyed, whatever it was he was going to say forgotten. I felt a sharp sensation in the bottom of my stomach, as if someone had curled a fist in it, before I realized that I was trembling a little. The sound of the crash had been louder than I had thought.

The Santo Niño was made of plastic so it was only a bit scuffed, but Guan-yu was porcelain and his face was smashed. My father swore, setting the Santo Niño aside face down on a glass rack while looking for a box to put Guan-yu’s body in. He barely glanced at us.

I waited for my heart to slow down as Ricky gazed mutely at me like a stray dog caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. My father was grumbling about buying new statuettes. When my mother came out, apron around her waist, asking what the noise was about, my father waved Guan-yu at her. She gasped and asked how it had happened. My father shrugged irritably. The wind. Rats. Or maybe ghosts.

Don’t say ghosts in this house! she said. How can you be so careless?

I didn’t knock them over!

My father’s voice was raised, poised for defense. Aware of Ricky, my mother stared helplessly at the pieces of Guan-yu’s face on the floor as my father bent to pick them up. The fist in my stomach began to relax and I watched my parents and the statuettes, chess pieces that had been moved around with one flick of a finger. There would be no prayers that night. I imagined the places I could bring the startbox to. The kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms. I turned to Ricky, who was squeezing himself further and further into the corner of the shop, and asked, What do you think would happen if we brought this to school?

Ricky’s forehead instantly wrinkled. What was that for? he asked nervously, his eyes darting between my parents and me.

I shrugged. Just a test. You said the startbox could change stuff. Start all over or something, right? I want to see how much. I don’t know what all that stuff about the butterflies is about anyway. This is a kind of experiment.

Did it work?

I shrugged again, concealing my triumph, and said, Maybe.

My mother had returned to the kitchen and my father was pulling the roll-up gate down. Guan-yu was safe in an old hammer carton case. Do you want to stay for dinner? my father asked Ricky flatly.

Ricky looked at me and I gave him a blank stare. I think I should leave now, he said. He was about to reach for the startbox when I took it away and told him I’d walk him home.

Outside, we could hear the amateur pianist still practicing the last part of The Entertainer, hitting the wrong keys, and stopping every three seconds to change them. The sound of the keys made me think of a person going down a hill sitting down, his legs trying to slow his descent and making clods of soil tumble and fall, and I realized I wanted to push that person off the hill. There was a pause when the song finally ended, then the piano started from the beginning again. The humidity of the night crept into my lungs, damp and oppressive.

Did you ever use this? I asked Ricky, extending my arm and hitting him with the startbox.

Ricky looked like he didn’t know if he should take the startbox or not. Of course, he answered, his eyes flicking around my face. I showed you how.
You mean roll the chair around, clean your room with it? Fun stuff like that?

He didn’t answer but his eyes crinkled the way a baby’s eyes would when it’s about to get upset.

You said it’s supposed to give you a new starting point, I told him. Supposed to change things. If you’d done it, you wouldn’t keep watching us from up in your room. You’re not following instructions.

I drew the startbox back to me and rested it against my stomach. Though the cotton fabric of my Power Rangers T-shirt, I could feel the smooth coldness of the turtleshell. The sensation was like relief, like an ice cream on a hot summer night.

I’m going to do more experiments with it, I announced.

Ricky was hugging himself, twisting his waist, and biting his lower lip. I thought he looked like he needed to go to the bathroom. What are you gonna do? he mumbled, as if his mouth was full of peanut butter. You shouldn’t break your parents’ stuff.

Experiments, I repeated a little loudly. I don’t want to memorize a bunch of stuff on a piece of paper. I want to understand how to make it work the way it’s supposed to because you don’t. You have to break stuff sometimes.

Ricky pursed his lips and shifted his weight from one foot to another. I’ll let you take it home if we can play water-guns again tomorrow.

I let my fingers glide over the gleaming olive-green turtleshell, feeling the startbox nestle in my palm like a living thing, and I knew that I needed it far more than Ricky ever would.

I’m going to take this and I’ll give it back to you soon, okay?

It was the quickest I had ever seen him move. When he dove at me, I nearly lost my balance. Ricky’s one hand was on the soft part between my chin and my throat, the other hand reaching for the startbox. But I beat his arms away and yanked myself out of his reach, shoving him with my entire weight. Ricky tottered a few steps before he fell.

In the air around us, the Entertainer stumbled desperately towards the end with bleeding feet. Standing above the air shaft, I grabbed the lid off the startbox to see our part of Nicanor Street mirrored within it – my father’s store, the electronics shop, the streetlights, the sidewalk where Ricky had fallen.

Wheezing loudly, Ricky got back to his feet.

I picked his miniature up from the box. When I held it above my head, Ricky lunged at me.

I suppose I can just tell you that it was all his fault, that he knocked it out of my hand; it’s the only way I can save myself in this story. The truth is I’ve never been sure. At that point, with the startbox in my hand, I could have done anything. I could have been thinking of threatening him. I could have been thinking of dropping it.

I could have done anything.

That’s why I never told anyone how the miniature fell into the air shaft and disappeared into the gloom of candy wrappers and lost coins and keys and was it triumph or horror or a little bit of both that made me grasp the box so tightly I could have snapped it into pieces? I can never remember clearly, except that the fist in my stomach had returned and I was shaking because the lid gripped under my armpit was too close to the rim of the box I held.

It was Ricky who had to take them away from me with his clammy palms. He did it silently, without looking at me, sliding the startbox out of my arms with the ease of a surgeon who knew exactly what to do with a tumor. Somewhere in an apartment near us, the piano player had stopped. Then Ricky held out his hand to me for the lid.

DAYS LATER, WHEN WE DECIDED to do a mouse maze instead, I worked up enough courage to ask Ricky what he had done with the startbox but he pretended not to hear me. That was our last conversation and it didn’t last for more than five minutes. He said he would build the maze himself and I could bring the mice and the pellets on the day the project itself was due. I couldn’t have said no even if I had wanted to.

Ms. Rafael gave us a ninety-two for the project. The maze was a rickety affair made of cardboard and felt paper held together with hot melt glue, and the mice climbed over the walls a few times but Ricky made a brilliant report on the things he said we had done together: how we built the maze, how we ran experiments to gauge the time it would take for a mouse to escape the maze without bait, how we arrived at the conclusion that any organism would respond better to a task if there was an incentive. There was only a smattering of applause–most of it had gone over everyone’s heads–but it was the most self-assured I had ever seen Ricky in front of a crowd.

School ended soon afterward, and Alvin and Carl were too excited about moving on to high school the next year to remember that I had ever been paired with Ricky. When summer came, the Laus moved out.

I still live in Nicanor Street. I have a degree in business from the local university and I’m partners with my father in the hardware store. Carl, who’s in a programming firm, drops by once in a while for coffee; Alvin has left to find work and girls in Singapore. Another family has taken over the Laus’ apartment and the electronics shop is now a fastfood restaurant.

Sometimes, when my father begins his prayers, I step out and look for Ricky through the second floor window of the apartment across the way. I imagine how, on that last day, he would have carefully bubblewrapped his PlayStation before placing it in the packing box. I imagine how he would have taken the startbox from his drawer, its batteries pulled out, its turtleshell lid long thrown into his wastebasket and buried in the landfills. Inside the box would have been Nicanor Street, frozen in the sleepiness of dusk, with me standing over the air shaft, my face painted livid, and Ricky nowhere to be found.

About the Author

Crystal Gail Shangkuan Koo was born and bred in the Philippines, where she studied for a BA in English Literature. After spending a year in Beijing studying Mandarin, she went to Sydney for a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. In 2007, she won a Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature for her short story “Benito Salazar’s Last Creation.” Currently an English lecturer at the College of International Education of Hong Kong Baptist University, she has been published online and in print in various international venues. Her play, “The Foundling”, was performed in Hong Kong by Burnt Mango Theatre Productions in 2009. She will have a short story in the anthology “The Dragon and the Stars” coming out in 2010 from DAW books. You can find more information about Crystal at her author’s biography here

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Guan Yu (simplified Chinese: 关羽; traditional Chinese: 關羽; pinyin: Guān Yǔ) was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the Kingdom of Shu, of which Liu Bei was the first emperor. After his death, he was worshipped as a God of War and as a protector of Buhddist temples. In Hong Kong, a shrine for Guan Yu is located in each police station. Though by no means mandatory, most Chinese policemen worship and pay respect to him. Although Seemingly ironic, members of the Triad gangs and the Hung clan worship Guan Yu as well. his exemplifies the Chinese belief that a code of honor, epitomized by Guan Yu, exists even in the underworld. (Sources: Wikipedia and Godchecker)

Santo Niño : The Santo Niño is a representation of the Child Jesus, a popular subject of devotion amongst Catholics in the Philippines. Little statuettes of the Santo Niño can be found in many homes, business establishments, and vehicles (particularly in public transportation such as taxis, jeepneys or buses). This devotion originates from Cebu, In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan  persuaded Rajah Humabon and his wife Hara Amihan, to pledge their allegiance with Spain. They were later baptized into the Catholic faith, and  Magellan gave the Santo Niño as a symbol of the alliance. When the Spaniards returned and found the Santo Niño unscathed in the wreckage of a burnt-out hut, it was deemed to be a miraculous event. Today, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño is a historical and religious landmark in Cebu. (Source: Wikipedia)

2 Responses to “The Startbox”

  1. Wow. That story just blew the socks off my feet.

  2. Great Work! The story relates very well to us Chinese-Filipinos. I hope Crystal Koo writes more stories of this genre. :) )

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