My Writing Portfolio

You are reading reading through my collection of short stories and poetry. No portions of this content may be used or published elsewhere, in print or digitally, without without my express permission.

© I. A. Phillips


It was easiest starting in the attic. My grandparents left everything to me, so it was my responsibility to sort through their bitter-sweet possessions. It hurt walking through the house, seeing the familiar furniture and polished antiques in their rightful spots. Everywhere I looked were memories, reminders that this was their house, their lives. It was hard not to cry just walking through the doorway. But this house and these things were mine now, and I had to choose what would stay. This was the first time I had gone into the attic, so it was easiest tolerating being there. The other rooms were a future problem.

The attic was primarily filled with my grandparent’s forgotten junk: 70s holiday lawn ornaments, tacky decorations, forgotten clothes, and dead electronics. But a few of my aunt’s rotting dolls and dad’s ditched textbooks were mixed in. I felt relieved; everything was effectively abandoned. It would be easy to throw these things out.

Using the overhead bulb and a flashlight, I managed to find and sort most of the attic before seeing a metallic glimmer sunken into the exposed pink fiberglass. I re-found my grandma’s reach grabber and tried to fish the glimmer’s source out. It had sunken at an awkward angle and was stuck deeper than any of the other fallen junk. I had to gradually nudge what became a large cube backwards before I could pull it out. Five of the hand-length sides of the metal cube had layers of moving gears jutting off the cube’s base. Most were different sizes and spun at different speeds. Strangely, few were interconnected, most twirling on their own. There was a sense of peace holding the cube. I briefly forgot where I was as I followed the small rotations. A remanent of life in the empty house. It was a minor miracle that the batteries still worked, but watching the cube lifted a bit of weight off my shoulders. I felt like a curious kid again.

All but the bottom side of the cube was covered in gears. Grabbing it with the grabber didn’t seem to have hurt anything. In fact, the gears would be pushed down and stop at the slightest touch, restarting afterwards. Meaning whatever gears I held stopped moving until I let go, allowing me to delicately brush off the remaining fiberglass with my gloves.

I had a rough idea about most things I found in the attic from TV and movies, but the closer I looked at the cube, the less I realized I understood. Firstly, it was surprisingly lightweight for something metal, probably brass or bronze judging from the color. But this much metal weighing the same as a rotting doll felt wrong and fed my curiosity. Looking closely beneath the brass gears, the surface was elegantly smooth. The occasional intricate engraving was etched on each side, but they were thin enough not to disrupt the surface smoothness. This was easiest to test on the bottom side of the cube, the only side without gears. Unlike the sparsely decorated other sides, the entire bottom was masterfully engraved. Nearly every centimeter was detailed with a symmetric design. It was beautiful and mysterious, distinct from the normal flourishes on picture frames or music boxes. Some lines crossed the face while others split apart and curled at random into complex wispy patterns. The design looked too unorthodox and purposeful to be purely decorative, but I couldn’t figure out what they were meant for. The gears still stopped as I changed my grip around the cube, looking at each design, whatever motor was inside remained silent as if unaffected by my interruptions. The only sound from the box was the faint clicking of gears.

The bronze cube was interesting and didn’t fit with the tacky humor aesthetic my grandparents loved or trash my family left. Looking through the internet for more information wasn’t as helpful as I hoped. Whatever search terms I came up with: “steampunk,” “clockwork,” “bronze cube,” all led to art and articles about fantasy settings, puzzle boxes, and TV shows. None of them looked like mine. The artists left footnotes explaining certain features and design choices that my cube ignored. Their sides were roughened instead of smoothed for structural integrity, they had reinforcements along the edges for increased durability, and their gears were protected inside the cube to prevent damage. I was getting frustrated seeing how needlessly fragile my bronze cube was. It was impressive that it survived long enough to be buried in fiberglass.

Still not knowing what the cube was for or when it was made, I decided to take it to an antique shop the next day with the rest of the sell-pile. Realizing its brittleness, I carefully went to place it down before the cube started to click and rattle after being sat upright. Suddenly gears started speeding up, slowing down, and stopping at random. I thought the cube might start to smoke before it, just as suddenly, went back to normal rotations the clicking and rattling otherwise continuing. The previously comforting cold metallic touch of the cube sent shivers down my spine. Trying to place the cube down again restarted the wild overdrive. Frantically turning the cube around in my hands, I tried to figure out what was happening. The cube stopped and started without reason, the same clicking and rattling consistently in the background. Minutes of trying to see what was wrong, of trying to touch none of the gears, of trying to touch all the gears, ended when I turned the cube upside down and re-examined the bottom. A small bronze rectangle was engraved in the middle. It had not been there before. Checking to see if the insides were overheating, I ran my hand across the side, testing for hot spots. The weight of my passing hand pressed down on the rectangle, silencing the noise. A few quiet moments passed before a single click was heard and one of the engravings unlatched like a set of double doors.

The cube stayed in its normal state, the background rattling gone. I could feel the cube watching me as I placed it down, bottom side up. The two doors were easily pulled open. Inside the cube was a large hollow space, the hard metal walls carpeted in black cloth instead of wires or axels. There wasn’t any motor, or any presence of machinery, or any explanation of what was causing the noise or powering the still moving gears. Dragging my hands across the insides didn’t reveal any more hidden buttons. Tired and angry, I was ready to slam the doors and forget about the cube for the rest of the day. Possibly sensing me about to quit, the cube’s top, the part on the floor, rotated with the cloth inside, shifting the cube as it moved. Glancing down inside I saw the still moving layers of gears, with a new digital red clock on the top left, in place of one of the engravings. No gears blocked my view of the modern digital clock, roughly the size and length of my pinkie. It was pushed past the smooth outside by a centimeter and segmented into seven separate double digits, the rightmost one counting down. Somehow, I knew the cube was pleased when I leaned in closer to read the clock. In bright red numbers it read, “00-00-00-01-02-36-48."

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