“Sandbox” is a beautifully observed and heartrending story that displays such attention to language, voice, and the transformative nature of witness and grief. It is at once meditative and urgent, and the ending is resonant and lingering and complex. There is a sense of unrelenting wonder amidst devastating details, and it is gorgeously crafted from beginning to end. — Guest Judge K-Ming Chang
This is what your brother tells you: Dig.
He is older by several years, so you listen. He has promised you there is treasure at the bottom. He’s seen it. Don’t waste your time on Tonka trucks or sandcastles, Charlie, just dig until you find it. That glittering gold chest, that pot of sweet sweet booty. We’re pirates today, my boy. Architects tomorrow. Maybe after that we’ll be kings. So long as you dig, dig, dig.
The sandbox is deep, not one of those ankle-high affairs. Your parents bought a house with a pool in the shape of a lima bean and were scared you or your brother might drown, so they filled it with sand. You don’t mind.
Sometimes you find things. A battalion of green army men; a sponge in the shape of a stegosaurus; three prize tokens from Nickel City; a rusty kettle. You suspect your brother buries these things while you’re not looking, but he swears he has nothing to do with it. Soon you are the only one digging, your brother watching from the deck while you swing the shovel. His arm hurts, he says. It always hurts. It hurts so bad that he has to go to the doctor, and then another one, and then another one. You had no idea there were so many.
When your brother gets bone cancer, your parents explain it like this: There’s too much of him. It doesn’t make sense. How can there ever be too much of your brother? If anything, there’s less of him. Less hair, less color, less arm (they cut it off). When the too-much spreads to his lungs, you think of it like this: He’s drowning in himself.
You keep digging. Your brother will not give up, your parents tell you, so neither will you. You think maybe the treasure isn’t treasure but clumps of wig to warm his head, a snorkel, an arm. You keep an eye for fingers poking from the sand, but no luck. You bring what you do find to the hospital. It’s mostly junk. A Delaware quarter; a chunk of smooth glass; a match with a lime-green tip. One day, though, you find something good: a daddy long-legs with nine legs. You trap it in a jar, and when you show it to your brother, you say, Look: too much. Together, you feed it flies. You do that for a while.
Colin Bonini is a writer from San Jose, California and holds an MFA in fiction from Arizona State University. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Under Review, Wig-Wag, The Adroit Journal, The Driftwood 2024 Anthology, and elsewhere. He is an alumni of the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, and his writing has been supported by the Craigardan Literary Arts Residency, Gonzaga University, and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, where he was named a 2023 Kathryn Blair Swarthout Fellow. He currently lives and teaches in Scottsdale, AZ.