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The Mystery Box

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“Scrags, what’s in the box?”

Esther smothers the last of her cigarette into the crystalline ashtray on the windowsill, blowing smoke out the window. Scrags, tall and lanky as ever, has let himself into her apartment, again. She wonders why she ever gave him a key- he’s always popping by when she’s just trying to relax. Sometimes he brings home-cooked food, which is welcome, but today, he carries a humongous cardboard box with holes cut into the side.

Esther’s mind runs through the possibilities before she can restrain herself. Holes mean air flow, and air flow means oxygen being delivered to whatever is inside. It can’t be food in the box that Scrags is trying to cool down with fresh air- he’s carrying the box from the bottom, meaning his hands aren’t being burned. Actually, carrying the box like that suggests the contents are delicate. Some plants, maybe? No, no, then he wouldn’t have closed the box lid lest he crush the leaves. It must be an animal in there- a kitten? Scrags is too allergic to cats, so no, and with his trauma from Cluebert, he wouldn’t have gotten a puppy, either. No chirping likely rules out a budgie or other bird.

“It’s a-” starts Scrags.

“It’s a small animal,” interrupts Esther, getting up from her place by the window. “Probably not a rabbit given how light the box is in your arms. Unless you’ve started working out, but I doubt that.”

“Jeez, Esther, you’re cranky today,” laughs Scrags.

Esther frowns, running over what she just said. Oops. “Sorry, it’s the withdrawal.”

Scrags nods and places the box gently onto his friend’s coffee table. Esther approaches while Scrags doubles back to the front door to kick off his shoes. She catches a whiff of some kind of wood coming from the box- it’s aspen. So, it’s not a hermit crab, reptile, or amphibian, it’s something that can live on wood bedding. She leans forward and tilts an ear to the cardboard box and hears skittering- listening carefully allows her to deduce that there is more than one of the animals in the box. Something with particular social requirements, then.

“Have you figured it out, yet?” asks Scrags as he returns. He wears a lopsided grin, seeing his much shorter friend use all of her senses to try and solve the mystery of what’s in the box. Scrags peels off his coat and hangs it on the back of a chair.

“Oh!” says Esther, suddenly. She straightens her back and points to the jacket. “There’s a small amount of fur on the shoulders- coarse, and white, and covers a large enough area that I’m sure the animals are larger than a mouse but smaller than a guinea pig.”

Scrags laughs, and Esther finishes: “You got me... rats?”

“I did!” exclaims the man. He gestures to the box “Two of them- open her up.”

So Esther does, with a little bit of child-like glee, and she is greeted with two sets of eyes peering back at her. One of the rats is white with bright red eyes, and the other is black, speckled with white, and has blue eyes.

“Two females. They look young. And there’s no fecal matter in here, Scrags, so you must have just bought this whole cage set-up.”

“Yeah. The pet store down the street from FBI headquarters is closing, and when I popped in after work today, I couldn’t leave without grabbing these two. Look at them!” coos Scrags. “And it didn’t break the bank, either.”

Esther crouches to get eye-level with the rats. They’re curious, and move about the cage to get a better look at their surroundings. “So, you... bought these two... to give to me?”

“I-” coughs Scrags. Esther looks up at him, one eyebrow quirked. “Um. Yeah. I hope that’s okay. I thought- I thought you might like company after your break-up.”

The bespectacled woman sucks in a breath, but her mind plows ahead and plays the whole break-up sequence from last week: her girlfriend of six months got approved for a scholarship overseas, and didn’t want to do a long distance relationship. It was messy, and emotional, and Esther was feeling the fallout, whereas her now-ex-girlfriend was already in Europe.

“Scrags-” begins Esther, firmly.

“Listen, Ez, I won’t force you to adopt them. I can take them home. But- I just- I don’t want you to be alone. I don’t want you to start using, again. Okay?” explains Scrags. He reaches a hand out to rest on her shoulder.

Esther’s heart aches in her chest. Her breathing has picked up, and she removes her glasses to swipe away the tears that sprang forward. Esther is the smart one, the logical one, but Scrags is the empathetic one- the emotionally perceptive one. It’s true that she’s been struggling with her addictions since the break-up. She can figure out the mystery of a closed box in mere minutes, but he can read a person’s feelings like a book.

Esther is so happy to have her childhood best friend back.

“Yeah, I guess I can be a rat mom,” sighs Esther.

Scrags whoops a bit too loudly, and both rats stop and look at him, alert and wide-eyed. This brings the two Solve-it-Squad members to giggles, and Esther feels a little bit lighter.

“Now all that’s left is to name them,” says Scrags, squeezing her shoulder. “But let’s have lunch first. Hey, did I tell you I mastered the Sandwich Shuffle again?”