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by Barbara Diggs

A strange squalling sound arose from the box.

The boys glanced at each other and crept closer to it, pine needles crunching under their sneakers. It was a hot summer’s day, but the forest canopy protected them from the worst of the heat. The woods were theirs this vacation; it was the one place they could escape to without parental interference, the one thing that made the absence of a seaside bearable.

The sound continued in fits and starts. The older boy paused by the thick pine tree they often used as home base and stepped onto a knot of surface roots, hoping extra inches would give him a better view of the box without getting too close. The other boy hung back, eyes wide, arms wrapped around his torso.

“What is it, Reggie?” he whispered. Three years younger, he often deferred to his brother’s judgment.

“Can’t tell.” Reggie placed a hand on the tree trunk and rose on tiptoe, craning his neck. It seemed to be an ordinary cardboard box, sitting under a tree like a Christmas gift. He sensed a fluttering movement inside. “Probably some animal.”

“In a box?”

“Well, I guess. Sorta sounds like an animal.” Reggie jumped from the roots and began scanning the ground for a rock. He could easily hit the box from this distance — see what leaps out.

“Maybe it’s a robot,” said the younger boy. “The box is about the size of the one mine came in. Kinda sounds like him too when his batteries are low.”

Reggie shot his brother a scornful look before leaning over to pick up a large rock.

“Who would dump a robot in the middle of the woods, stupid? And that doesn’t sound like no robot. That sounds more like a …”

He hesitated, frowning at the rock in his hand.

“A kitten?” the younger boy said hopefully. “Maybe Daddy would let us keep it. Mama says she doesn’t want any pets. Says we wouldn’t take care of it.”

“I dunno, Max …”

Reggie inched closer to the box, clutching the rock. The noise continued. It was a feeble sound, vaguely familiar.

“I’m gonna throw this rock at the box,” said Reggie. “Scare it away. So don’t you be scared when something jumps out.”

“Don’t Reg! What if it gets mad? What if it chases us?”

Reggie didn’t respond. Keeping his eyes trained on the box, he drew his arm back and hurled the rock. The stone went high, smacked against the tree trunk, and plummeted into the box. The noise stopped abruptly, just as Reggie, stumbling backward, his heart seizing, understood what he’d heard.

Decades later, decades after Reggie grabbed Max’s hand and raced out of the woods, decades after they told their parents, and the police came, and the baby was saved, and the local paper hailed them as heroes, Reggie still felt nauseous every time he remembered the few seconds between when the baby stopped crying and when it started again. He hated being reminded of how we are all teetering on the brink of an alternate existence, waiting with bated breath to know which reality will become ours.

Barbara Diggs is a writer in Paris, France. She’s currently at work on her third history book for middle-schoolers, but keeps getting distracted by the pull of fiction. You can follow her on Twitter @bdiggswrites.