The box seemed heavier and larger than it had when she'd put it in the attic all those years ago. She'd had to shift things around in her trunk to fit it in, and she thought to herself that it really was time to take in the various donations of books and clothes that she'd been toting around in the weeks since she'd left Alan. That relationship had ended in typical Sydney fashion. After three years together, Sydney decided it was time for her to move on when she had that first moment of feeling settled. That moment was quickly followed by doubt and fears that the relationship was stale. The doubts were followed by a somewhat minor indiscretion with someone at a bar she stopped at after work. Alan had not taken the break up well; he revealed the engagement ring as she was cleaning out the dresser and sorting their clothes out, packing hers and shifting his around in the drawers. She'd simply shaken her head at him when he asked her. When he asked her why she wouldn't marry him, she'd simply said, "Because it's as good as it will ever be and that's not good enough."
As Sydney shut the trunk and slid back behind the wheel, she caught a glimpse of herself in the rear view mirror and thought to herself that at least she didn't follow her mother's example. Her life had been a series of acts carefully chosen to avoid becoming Janice. No husband, no children. No bullet to the brain. Of course, at 32, she was still a good five years younger than her mother had been when she killed herself. Five more years to resist the pull. She'd always acknowledged to herself that somehow if she could make it past 37, she'd no longer be haunted by her mother, no longer be haunted with the question why.
And now she had the box.
Even though she'd been happy to flee Baton Rouge to head to college at 17, she'd wound up finding her way back here. The town was large enough that she could lose herself it in, yet small enough to have some college town charm to it. She'd first followed her college boyfriend back here after graduation. By the time she hit her limit with him and left him, she'd landed a job at the university working in admissions, and she had a routine. She moved into the first apartment of her own and avoided her father and the house her mother died in. She'd always managed to keep to the other side of town, and now that she'd split from Alan, she'd found a small rental house near the university. The landlord was more than happy to rent to someone who wasn't a student, and she felt like a house was a sign of progress, even if she was just renting.
She pulled up and parked in her driveway a good twenty minutes after leaving her parents' house. The realtor had been surprised that she was eager to sell so soon after her father's death. The second wife had moved on from the marriage years ago, which was not surprising to anyone, given that affairs rarely turn into solid marriages. Marvin had given up on marriage after that one, and Sydney was the only child. That the house would go to her was logical, but she'd never quite prepared herself for it.
She wrestled the box out of her trunk and made her way up the walk to her door. As she made her way inside, Barley, the cat who was her longest stable relationship, wound his way around her feet, threatening to trip her. “Bar! Stop that!” She made it to the couch and set the box there before heading back to the car to get the gun, which she’d stashed in the glove box. It was in a padded zippered bag. She wondered if Marvin had bagged it that way; the last time she’d seen it or even really thought of it was the day she’d found it between his mattress and box springs. She wondered how long it had stayed there and if he’d kept it loaded. She went back inside and sat the bag on top of the coffee table before pouring herself a double of bourbon and sitting in her favorite chair, across from the sofa and the box. She felt it’s presence there as Barley rubbed his face against one of the corners.
The gun bag was what she opened first. The revolver was unloaded, but it appeared that her father kept it clean. She marveled at the weight of it. She set it on the table, but then decided she didn’t want to see it anymore, so she slid it back in the bag, zipping it shut. When that wasn’t enough, she took it back to the car, sliding it back in the glove box. She saw the pack of cigarettes there and she broke her own rule and took the box in the house. She’d started sneaking cigarettes on the long drives she took with herself before she left Alan. That was part of her standard break up routine; first came the long drives after work, the sneaking of cigarettes, then the indiscretion or two, then the leaving.
Sitting on the sofa next to the box, she lit a cigarette. An empty soda can she hadn’t bothered to pitch in the recycle bin the night before served as her ashtray. Barley had finished investigating the box, and he had replaced her in her favorite chair. He watched her and let out a little squeak at her. He hated it when she smoked in the house. She felt guilty about it, but not guilty enough to not do it. She finished the cigarette and decided it was time to finally look in the box. Enough stalling.
The box had been taped shut those many years ago when she’d taken it to the attic, and it appeared that no one had opened the box since. She went to the kitchen and grabbed a paring knife, using it to slice through the tape. As the box opened, she caught just a whiff of her mother’s perfume, as if the box exhaled a tiny gasp. She inhaled deeply, trying to catch the scent, and slid her hands beneath the cardboard flaps, opening the box fully. On top, there were papers, Janice’s neat handwriting alive on the page. Janice had been a frustrated writer; Sydney remembered how her father had teased Janice about her little hobby and how angry her mother would get, but as a kid, she’d never really paid attention to her mother enough to know what she was writing about or if she ever actually wrote anything. The papers seemed to be bits and pieces of story ideas, and she set them aside, planning to read them later. Beneath what seemed like a ream of paper was a trio of what had once been blank books but now that were now filled.
Beneath the papers and journals were two small photo albums; one contained pictures of Sydney from birth until the week before her mother died. She recognized the photograph at the end as one that had been taken of the two of them at Janice’s favorite restaurant. Janice had written the date on the back, but Sydney remembered that dinner. It was the last time she’d heard her mother laugh. The other album was full of photos of people she didn't know; she set it aside and returned to the box.
Digging further, she found a cigar box with Janice’s favorite jewelry in it. Sydney smiled and remembered how her mother used to let her play dress up with the contents of the cigar box. There were items here that she didn’t remember, though, including some rings that she assumed were her father’s. She’d never seen him wear jewelry, but she noticed a man’s wedding band and a matching set that she’d seen her mother wear. Sydney assumed Janice had been buried with them and was surprised to realize that she’d packed them away with care before taking her own life. At the bottom of the box, she found the envelope.
Janice loved to send thank you cards to people, and as Sydney picked up the envelope she remembered how Janice always kept blank note cards and envelopes in her desk. The single envelope in the bottom of the box was addressed with Sydney’s name only, and she was afraid to open it. She drained the bit of bourbon from her glass and used the paring knife to slit the envelope open. Inside, the card simply read:
I’m afraid things have gotten as good as they can get, and that’s not good enough.
The house was quiet when Sydney got home from school; this wasn’t really unusual, but there seemed to be a greater quietness. Almost a profound silence. Her mother’s car was in the drive, and as Sydney walked past it she could see the keys in the ignition. Her mother was constantly forgetting to take the keys in the house and lock the car. Sydney grabbed the keys, and went into the house.
At 17, Sydney had already lost patience with her mother, Janice. In her daughter’s perspective, Janice was an unmotivated and more shallow than normal suburban housewife. Their interactions in the last couple of years had devolved into fake displays of affection and conversations that contained no real content.
That didn’t make their last meeting any less shocking for Sydney.
As she walked down the hall toward her room, she noticed that the door to her parents’ bedroom was open. Janice always closed it, as she hated making the bed and hated people seeing that she hadn’t made it even more. As Sydney passed, she noticed the bed was unmade, alright, but that was not all. Her mother’s legs dangled over the side and Sydney could see she was naked. She walked further into the room, and realized that her mother’s nakedness was not the most shocking thing—her mother was dead. Sydney’s father’s 38 was near Janice’s right hand, and the covers blossomed under her head in a scarlet, almost black, stain. Sydney stood frozen for what seemed like hours. Then, she heard a strange, animal sound that she realized was her own screaming as she ran from the room to call 911.
Mark, Janice’s husband and Sydney’s father, was rather disaffected by the whole thing. His marriage to Janice had been one of habit, really. He did rush home when the neighbor, Sandy, had called him at work as she cradled Sydney, rocking her back and forth, as the police and coroner came in to deal with the scene. Sydney could hear him talking in low tones to a detective who was asking where he had been in the afternoon and whether he knew of any reason why Mrs. James would want to do this to herself. Janice left no note other than a message on the refrigerator with instructions for how to reheat the dinner she had left for them. At the end of the note, she’d simply written, “I’m sorry.” Without the corpse in the bedroom, anyone would have thought she was a housewife apologizing for not being home for dinner and nothing more.
What Sydney never understood was why they gave her family the gun. Apparently, weapons used in suicides are not the same as those used in murders. During the first year after her mother died, Sydney would lie awake in her room pondering the gun. She didn’t wonder so much why her mother committed suicide as much as she wondered why her father had not gotten rid of the thing. She assumed he still had it somewhere in the room where she had died. He had gotten rid of everything else—the bed, the furniture, the carpet—but he had kept the gun.
She had rescued some things from her mother’s closet before Mark hired someone to come in and box up her clothes and personal effects and take them to the donation drop. A shirt her mother had not fit into in years, a few pieces of jewelry, her watch. There was a box of papers that she found in the back of the closet, hidden. She had moved that to her own closet. She was too afraid to look at them, afraid of finding an answer to the question she wasn’t ready to ask yet. On nights when she tired of wondering why her father had kept the gun, she lay in the dark, staring toward her own closet doors, dreading the box as if it were the boogeyman or the ghost of her mother.
Within months of her mother’s suicide, she was packing her own things, getting ready to move to campus. Her father, on the other hand, was readying to move his “new” girlfriend into the house. Syd wasn’t stupid; she could tell this was no new romance. She also surmised that in some ways her own father had pulled the trigger that day. She moved her things to the attic, including the unread papers. She was alone in the house on the afternoon before she was to drive the several hours to Layfayette to attend school; the broom she was using swung back and forth, signing to her: the gun, the gun, the gun.
She went to the front door first—making sure it was locked and that the chain was on. She checked the back door, too. Just in case he should come home or someone should stop by, she didn’t want to be found in his room.
As she walked down the hall toward the bedroom, she could feel her heart pounding and she realized she was holding her breath. For a split instant, she saw the gory scene from before when she walked into the room, and she closed her eyes. Opening them, she saw only the renovated bedroom. She crossed the room and went to the closet first. She hadn’t found it there before, but guessed he might have stored it there after the clearing out. Once she didn’t find it there, she searched the nightstands, and even in the drawers in his bathroom. Out of desperation, she looked under the mattress—there it was. He had slipped it between the mattress and box springs on his side of the bed.
She slid it out, expecting it to be cold for some reason. It was hefty, and she popped out the cylinder, finding no bullets. At least that’s something. He may be messed up, but at least it’s not loaded. She slid the gun back in place and walked out of the room. It was comfort enough to know where it was. She suspected he would keep it there, feeling some kind of odd kinship with the gun lying under him each night. She wondered if he thought of it the way she thought of her ghost-box of papers.
Fifteen years later, her father died. Compared to Janice’s death, Marvin’s had been more of the boring and expected kind. He was never one to take care of himself, and his string of girlfriends who loved to spend his money had certainly made sure his glass stayed full of bourbon and that his plate was always filled with the down home foods he loved. In the years after Janice died, he had become slightly cirrhotic, very overweight. He died of a rather large coronary at the age of 68, leaving what little he had left to Sydney. In the end, the gun and the ghost box were all she really wanted, and she left the keys with the local realtor and drove away, telling them to get whatever they could out of the house.
This may be a dismal failure, but I figured it's worth a try. When I was looking for some files on my external drive recently I found some electronic scraps of paper where I started a storyline and then got distracted, most likely by work or life, and stopped working on them. I thought it might be interesting to share them and see what direction readers want me to go in. So, here's what I propose: