She only knew the box was hers to keep. “What's in your stupid old box, anyway?” She wouldn't answer; she didn't know; it was locked, it came that way. She wasn't even sure who gave it to her: maybe one of the dead aunts and uncles they still talked about as if she should remember them. Uncle Bill Who had a Way with The Ladies, or Aunt Sarah Who was not Always Wise. She liked the sound of Aunt Sarah.
When her grandpa offered to prise the box open, she reacted with a violence that surprised even him, though she was given to violence, and he of all people should have known why. He let it be: for a miracle, he let it be.
It made a faint jingly rattle when you shook it. Jewelry? Money? No one knew. It was small, smaller than a brick, and she had a dozen hiding places for it. Hide it in the same place over and over, and people would guess the place by watching her go to it. Someone would find the box and try to open it. She knew enough of the world to know that. And either way they would ruin it. Either the contents would be something they really thought valuable and they'd take it away, or they would put names on it that would steal its potency. “Just trinkets,” someone would say, or “Irish pennies and not even old.” No. She wasn't going to risk that.
She grew up awkward, too tall, inclined to be plump, and dangerous, with a cold eye and a hair-trigger temper. “Sullen,” they called her. She carried a purse unfashionably big, so she could stow the box in the bottom of it. People thought she was trying to look feminine and failing. She didn't much care what people thought.
In dreams she went away to the state college, where they read poems that didn't rhyme and had penises in them. They would sit in big classrooms and talk about the poems as if the penises weren't there. She wasn't sure she wanted to go to college, but she knew she wanted to get out. And there was a slender young East Indian man, a man Grandpa would have called a nigger, in her dreams. He stood sideways to her, respectful and silent, and one day she gave him her box to hold while she got her things together. All in the dream, of course. He handed it back with the bare shadow of a smile, nothing pushy or loud, and said, “we know about boxes in India.”
Sometimes he was in the bathroom with her, which never seemed wrong, in the dreams, but which made her blush when she woke. He said the same thing there. He held the box and when he handed it back he said, “we know about boxes in India.”
In one dream she tried to explain that she was not violent because she had red hair, she had red hair because she was violent, and he said no, she had red hair because of the box, because of what was in the box. This made her cross, because how did he know? And he said, “Listen, this is important.” He put something in her hands and folded them over it. His skin was dry and supple like a snake's. And then he vanished, moving gently sideways till he wasn't there anymore.
She woke with her hands folded together, and when she opened them, there was a silver key.
Now: when you open a real box with a dream key, is what you find real or dream? The problem seemed like one of arithmetic principles. Are dreams associative or commutative? Or was it like negative and positive numbers, a dream times a real always made a dream? Or maybe it was the other way around. Did you learn things like that in college? She doubted it. But now she had two things to hide, the box and the key.