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.