Jack sat on the cold floor, in the middle of the empty room in his basement. The bare light bulb overhead cast no shadows. The malformed anthropomorphic face formed by the large dials and handle on the safe in front of him stared blankly back at him, defiantly mocking his desire to open it. He cracked his knuckles and began with 0-0-0-0-0-0. The plan was to try every one of the one million possible combinations in order, systematically. If he spent 30 minutes on it every day, he figured, he should be able to crack the combination within a year or so.
Ever since Jack had first toured the house, the safe had captivated his imagination. The old woman who had lived there before had long forgotten the combination, and, more intriguingly, the contents. His wife June had long suspected this fascination was the real reason Jack had insisted on buying this house, rather than that other, more reasonably priced one that was closer to work.
“Jack!” his wife called from upstairs. “It’s time to go! Let’s not be late.”
The five of them arrived at the birthday party just in time to see the cake come out. Jack’s little camera flashed cheerfully as the swarm of toddlers devoured the pair of dinosaurs that had been skillfully depicted on the surface of the cake. Little Joey was in three-year-old heaven, lost in senseless laughter and merriment among his friends. June held their son Billy in her arms as the boys’ older sister Rachel hugged them both tightly. Jack was filled with peace as he beheld the scene, and, for that moment, the thought of what lay inside his mysterious box was nowhere in his mind.
Life was good, far better than he could ever deserve, Jack thought to himself. This thought occurred to him often, and each time he was troubled by the mystery of why his life had worked out so well. He knew people who had not been so fortunate, and he never knew who to thank for being himself instead of somebody else.
“Daddy? Can I have a quarter, pleeeeease?” begged Rachel. She had found the machines at the back of the play area, which were stuffed with plastic balls of nonsense.
“Sure honey, here you are.” Jack handed her a coin and watched as the five-year-old bounced gleefully over to the machine labeled “Mystery Surprise”. She plopped the coin in and struggled for a moment against the dial to make the magic happen. To Jack’s horror, Rachel began to cry. Jack moved quickly through the throng to see what was the problem.
“It took my money!” sobbed Rachel. Jack turned the dial harder, but to no avail. No mystery surprise was forthcoming.
“I’m sorry, sweetie… I think it might be broken,” Jack offered, in tender consolation. “Let’s have some gum instead.” Jack put a quarter into the gum machine, which cooperated more willingly, and Rachel was appeased.
That night, after a bedtime story, Rachel asked her father a question that had been troubling her young mind.
“Daddy… what would you and Mommy have called me if I had been a boy?”
“I don’t know,” answered Jack honestly. “Maybe Rick or Rodney? But then you wouldn’t be you.”
Rachel was puzzled by this explanation, but her father kissed her goodnight, and she was soon dreaming of what strange wonders she might have found in the mystery surprise ball that was not to be.
Every night after dinner, Jack would disappear for a half hour or so into the basement. June indulged her husband’s pastime because she knew this odd ritual made him happy, and trying to stop it would be pointless anyway. Rachel went down with him once, but it was very boring, and she soon decided to put her time to better use.
A year went by. The children grew and changed, while their parents remained mostly the same. Jack’s continued search for the correct combination had become the steady constant in his frenetic life. Whatever the trials of the day and the disconcerting uncertainties of the future, one thing was always certain: one day, the safe door would open.
One night after dinner, it happened. The door simply opened, unceremoniously. There it sat, looking defeated, cracked open, just barely ajar, revealing only a glimpse of the bottomless blackness inside. Jack’s hands trembled as he held the handle and pulled the door wide to reveal the mystery. In an instant, Jack went from wild anticipation to sinking despair as he beheld the contents: another safe, permanently welded to the floor. This small box had a combination of ten digits, which would take far longer than the rest of Jack’s life to crack.
“Honey! Come look!” called Jack to his wife. There was no answer.
Jack went upstairs to fetch his family. The house was quiet. They must have gone out for a walk or something, thought Jack. He went back down to contemplate his new problem, but an hour later, he was still alone in the house. Now worried, he went outside to look for them.
Jack came home and started combing the house from top to bottom, thinking they must be playing some kind of prank on him. But the rooms were all empty. The rooms were devoid not only of his family, but of all their belongings. Had they been robbed? Kidnapped?
Now starting to panic, he phoned the police. A squad car came promptly, but on hearing his story, the officers exchanged a strange look.
“Well? What are you going to do?” insisted Jack.
“Sir… we have no record of any of the people you are describing living at this address. Do you have any pictures of them?”
“Um… of course I do. Let me just…” but Jack was at a loss for words. “No, it seems they took our photo albums, too.”
The officers looked a bit uncomfortable with the situation. “We’ll have a look around, just in case. But with no records or even a family photo, it’s gonna be hard for us to file a report.”
After the police left, Jack tried calling his parents.
“Hello?” answered his mother.
“Hi… Mom? It’s me.”
“Oh, hi dear. Hang on, let me get your father on the phone,” she said. Jack dropped the phone on the floor when he heard his mother call out, “Honey! It’s Sam on the phone.”
Jack spent the next hours pacing frantically around the house, trying desperately to recover some shred of the life he thought was his. He found himself back in the basement, sitting before the safe.
Not knowing what else to do, he began trying combinations. Hours went by, perhaps days. Time lost all meaning. Maybe he would get lucky, he thought. There must be a way to find the answer, if he persisted long enough. As he continued to seek the solution, he thought about what might be inside the box. A treasure? Nothing at all? Or yet another box.