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The Box on the Shelf

By Luke Bateman

The winner of the ORB Short Fiction Prize, judged by Daisy Johnson.

'See that box on the shelf?’

‘The knackered old biscuit tin?’

‘Yeah. It’s got a gun in it.’

‘It’s never.’

‘It has.’

‘What’s a knackered old biscuit tin on that shelf got a gun in it for?’

‘It’s my pa’s.’

‘Thought your pa was dead?’

‘He is. How’d you think he did it?’

Truth is, I hadn’t really thought about it. I’d just kind of known. I’d known in it in the way the other parents fell into a hush when Billy was dropped off in the playground, and I’d known it in the way he didn’t every cry or scream, not even when we all went behind the allotment and held lit matches under our palms.

‘If he shot himself, how’d he get the gun in the box?’

‘My ma put it in there.’

‘Thought you said your ma didn’t want any-thing to do with your pa.’

‘Yeah, that’s true.’ Billy said, and he considered for a second. Then he said, ‘That’s why he shot himself, cause he was so upset. Then my ma found him and she felt sick so she put the gun in the box and the box on the shelf in the shed. Then she locked the shed, but I found the key.’

‘We found the key.’

‘It was my idea to look in the cupboard.’

I couldn’t argue with that. What I could argue, though, was, ‘If you’ve never been in here before, how comes you know what’s in that box?’

‘Cause I heard my ma mention it.’

‘Who to?’

‘The priest.’

‘The priest?’

‘The priest. He comes round, every other Saturday cause he’s too busy on a Sunday and she confesses, and sometimes I confess too.’

‘What do you confess?’

‘Anything. Sometimes I tell him I killed a man or that I stole a diamond.’

‘What does he say?’

‘He makes me confess to lying.’

‘Were you lying?’

‘What do you think?’

I didn’t say anything. In the musty gloom of the garden shed, when all I could see of Billy’s face was what the light easing between the warped wooden panels revealed, when all they revealed were those bewitching eyes, the type that stared down a teacher and never blinked first, in the musty gloom of the garden shed I wasn’t sure what I thought. Stealing a diamond didn’t seem like his style, but I was making no bets on killing a man.

‘You ain’t never told the priest about us stealing Mr Jensen’s lunch did you?’ I asked. ‘Nor about skiving and eating it at the back of the field?’

‘Nah, course not. No one knows about that. Only me and you, Tommy. Only me and you

know about anything like that. Like stealing the key and coming in here. Only me and you know that’. Outside the shed I could still hear Cooper counting. He’d got to one hundred by now, but he said he liked the challenge of us having longer to hide so was counting to five hundred.

‘Good,’ I said.

‘You wanna see it?’

‘See what?’

Billy looked at me like it was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘The gun.’

‘Er... do I?’

‘You’re not allowed to.’ He grinned. ‘It’s me pa’s gun, and he’s dead so now it’s mine.’

‘What about your ma?’

‘If she wanted it, she wouldn’t have put it in the box.’

‘Why we come in here if you ain’t gonna show me?’ I asked. Questioning him felt good. I felt a bit braver. ‘You’re just showing off, ain’t you? Then ain’t no gun in that box.’

‘You wanna bet?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, feeling cocky.

‘How much?’

I faltered. I didn’t have much money to bet with.

‘What about a fiver?’ He asked. ‘And if you can’t pay it straight away, I’ll be lenient and give you till end of the week.’

‘’Kay,’ I said, because I didn’t think he had the gun.

‘Close your eyes then.’


‘Close your eyes. I don’t want you seeing the combination for the padlock.’

‘There ain’t a padlock.’

‘Yeah there is, it’s on other side.’ He said. ‘You just can’t see it.’

‘If I can’t see it, why do I have to close my eyes?’

‘Cause I’ll have to get it down to open it.’

I nodded. That made sense. Slowly, tentatively, I closed my eyes. Without sight, the other senses of the shed became stronger. It stunk of spores and maggots that had been dead for so

long they’d become dirt. I could hear Billy crossing the floor, and I could hear the damp floor sponging beneath his feet. I heard the shelves creak under his weight, like the old shed was breathing in.


He’d got the old biscuit tin down then. It smelt metallic, like when you get into a fight and someone bursts your lip and your mouth fills hot and red. It made you want to spit, but then your spit would have just been soaked up into the soft, damp wood of the floor, and then into the ground beneath where there were probably all sorts of maggots and beetles and spiders cavorting.

‘I don’t think your eyes are shut.’ His voice was sudden and loud in my ear. I tried my best not to jump. I screwed my eyes harder shut instead.

‘I can’t see anything.’

‘Put on this rag. Blindfold, like.’

I went to ask what rag but I could smell it already. It stunk of oil.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Because I said so. That’s the only way I’m getting the gun out.’

I agreed because I knew I wasn’t really in any position not to. The rag was itchy, as if between the fibres of cloth there were iron filings and thorns. The smell seemed to grow stronger by the second like it was maturing and developing and finding new ways to nauseate.

‘Hurry up, Billy,’ I whispered. I could have added that I didn’t like being blindfolded, that I didn’t like being in the shed, that frankly I felt a little uncomfortable, but I didn’t. I didn’t say anything else.

I heard the creak of the biscuit tin lid. I heard the ting! of the metal as he moved something inside it. I heard his footsteps padding and then stop. I could hear him breathing in front of me.

‘It’s got a bullet in it,’ he whispered.

In the dark of the shed, those words were clashes of thunder. They were the cymbals in the school band. They were the shout of God that rocked the caverns deep beneath the earth.

‘I see it,’ he said. ‘In the revolving bit. Big, coppery bullet’.

‘You’re lying,’ I replied. My voice was as solid as the rotten floor beneath me.

‘Am not. There’s a bullet in this gun and the hammer’s back and I’m pointing it straight at you.’

I became aware of beads of sweat on my forehead. They dripped into the rag and when they

came out, they were sludgy and oily and tasted like engine metal as they fell onto my lips.

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘You want to take that risk?’

I didn’t, because the truth was that I did believe him. I believed him more than I believed in the prayers they made us say at the end of assembly. I could feel that hot, waiting barrel trained on me, like it was aimed right at the centre of my soul.

‘Billy?’ I whispered. ‘Will you let me see it? Can I take this rag off?’

No reply. My lone voice soaked into the damp wood.

‘Billy? Are you there?’

Nothing. Silence. I don’t know how long I was there in the dark. It might have been a thousand years. It might have been a minute. All I could hear was maggot wriggling and spider stalking. Eventually, I went to take off the rag when I heard a loud CLICK!

I threw myself to the floor and it received me with all the sponge of a fungus. I wasn’t dead, though. I wasn’t hit. None of my body had swollen up in pain, nor could I feel my lifeblood dripping away.

Then I heard Cooper say, ‘Tommy? You alright?’ I took off the rag and slung it as far from me as I possibly could. Cooper stood in the doorway of the shed, and I realised the click I’d heard had been the door latch as he’d come in.

‘Why were you blindfolded?’ He said. ‘You know just cause you can’t see me doesn’t mean I can’t see you?’

I looked around the shed. The biscuit tin lay on the floor at the bottom of the shelf. Billy was nowhere to be seen. ‘Coop, where’s Billy?’

‘I don’t know, do I? I haven’t found him yet,’ Cooper said. ‘Wanna help?’

‘Yeah’. I muttered. ‘Yeah, sure. Just... one second.’

I wandered over to the biscuit tin and, breathing in a deep breath, I opened it and looked inside. Then I closed it and I hurried out with Cooper to find Billy.

We never did find him. We searched all of his small garden and all of his small house, even the front room which stunk of the bike sheds at the high school. His ma was asleep on the couch in a cloud of smoke and she didn’t even wake up when we started to get worried about how well Billy had hidden. He was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, when Cooper’s ma came to pick us up, we told her we’d been searching for two hours and we hadn’t found him. Cooper’s ma went in to ask Billy’s ma a question, and then came out and told us to sit on the garden wall and not go anywhere. At first we were quite annoyed about that, but it gave us the ideal place to see when the police arrived.

Billy became famous after that. His face was on every lamppost in town, and I even heard his name on the news a few time, though my parents soon turned the channel over whenever the story came on. In the playground, the hushed gossip which had concerned Billy’s pa seemed to revolve around him. As we played Tig and Detectives and Knights, the conversation above our heads was fraught and concerned.

They never did find him. After a while, people stop putting new posters on the lampposts. It was just put down to one more upset kid running off. Some people in our class said that he was probably dead and I knew they got into trouble for that. I never said anything, because no one ever asked me. No one ever talked to me or Cooper about what had gone on that day. It was much more fun to speculate.

For my money, I reckon he’s still out there somewhere. I reckon there’s no chance he’s dead. He could protect himself from any trouble he got in because he had the gun, you see. Or at least that’s what I reckoned, because the biscuit tin on the shed floor that day, when I’d looked into it, had been empty.

Art by Isabella Lill


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