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Justin Stanchfield is a writer from Wise River, Montana. His fiction has been published in Boys' Life, Cricket, and the The Outer Rim. He also writes a monthly column for The Outer Rim.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1999 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Memory Box

by Justin Stanchfield

 

     Light spilled through uncounted nail holes, tracing paths across the dirty attic floor like tiny spotlights. Dust ascended, drifting willy-nilly, fanned by every footfall. The smell was of crumbling paper, curled and yellowed, brown water spots perfectly matching the moth-chewed rug covering the plank flooring like a shawl draped across parchment-skinned shoulders.
     "Hey, 'Nita? Want to give me a hand over here?"
     "Yeah, yeah. I'm coming." Anita McElvie laid the crumbling cardboard box she was carrying on the floor, wiping back a strand of auburn hair. She joined her brother near the attic's single, fly-choked window. "What'd you find, Rog?"
     "You want any of this stuff?" He opened the domed lid of a tall steamer trunk, the once black leather peeling and chewed, a feast for rodents. Inside, folded neatly, lovingly even, lay more clothing, sweaters and dresses, creases fresh as the forgotten day they were laid inside. "I thought you might want some of these for the theater."
     "Yeah, I suppose." She lifted the hem of an ivory white skirt, the smell of mothballs clinging like invisible wings. Beneath the fabric lay a flat, rectangular box, darkly wooded and richly bound with bronze clasps, its lid marred by scratchings from a pen-knife. "What's this thing?"
     Roger McElvie hefted the heavy box, turning it over in his broad palms. He shrugged. "Must be a cigar box. You know, a humidor." He set the box aside. "You want the clothes, or not?"
     "Yeah, sure." Anita picked up the cigar box, carefully opening the stiff latch. The lid swung open easily, as if it had been waiting all these years for her touch alone.
     New smells touched her. Autumn crisp leaves, cool morning, not a hint of wind to sully the wispy blue sky. Antique cars sputtered down a dirt lane, model T's and A's, parents shooing unwilling toward toward the red brick building dominating the gravel court. She groped desperately for the strong hand she had never been without, her mother's sure grip leading her resolutely towards the school-house door.
     "Now, now," the gentle voice chided. "Everyone is a little frightened their first day..."
     "'Nita?" Roger pried the box from her grasp, closing the lid. "Are you all right?"
     She smiled, startled back to musty reality. "I'm fine. Why?"
     "You kind of spaced out on me."
     "Sorry."
     "Do you want the clothes in here or not? I've got to get this attic cleared out by noon."
     "I want 'em, okay." She helped him close the trunk, but not before quietly placing the cigar box inside.

 

     "Ah, more booty!"
     "Very funny." Anita dragged the heavy steamer trunk across the cement floor of the theater warehouse, dodging the hangered archives of old clothes and costumes, wading through the over stuffed forest of props. "Come on, Alex. I could use some help."
     "Looks like you're doing fine all by yourself."
     "Alex, come on!"
     Alex Tierney did, at last, lend a skinny arm, taking the trunk's far handle, blazing a path through the labyrinth. A single lightbulb dangled from the rafters, throwing stark shadows in and out of the racks of costumes. "What have you got in there?"
     "Old clothes, mostly. My brother found them in an attic he was cleaning for an estate sale." Anita hovered in the background as Alex rummaged through the musty treasures, lank hair flopped rakishly like an underfed sheepdog. "Anything you can use?"
     "No doubt. These are great." He lifted a long, lavender gown, examining it closely. Something clattered as he pulled the dress out. He pulled out the humidor. "What's this thing?"
     Anita tried to take the box from his questing hands. "It's mine."
     Alex held tight, lifting it out of her reach, examining it in detail. "I'll be damned. This thing is old. Probably be worth something if it wasn't for the writing scratched on top."
     "What does that say, anyhow?" Her fingers traced the elaborate, if amateurish, words stenciled into the rich grained lid.
     He shrugged. "It's bad Latin. Ex memoris antiquis." He frowned. "Old memories, I think. I've got a prof who could probably tell you more, if you wanted." He gave the box back. "What are you going to do with it?"
     "Don't know. I'll find something." Anita shifted foot to foot. The cascade of dust from the attic had given her a headache, and the cloying stink of perfumed soap the props had been laundered in was only making it worse. "Alex, take a sniff inside it, would you? Tell me if you notice anything?"
     The thin man raised an eyebrow, half smile creasing his cynical face. "What should I expect? Something illegal? Something naughty?"
     "Just open the box."
     He raised the lid, letting the aroma pour through his nostrils. He breathed deeply, sighing with pleasure. His smile widened. "I see what you mean."
     She took the box into her hands, carefully closing it. "Then you felt it?"
     "Sure, I did." He cocked his head. "Those must have been some expensive cigars. Wish I had a few hundred like 'em. I didn't know you smoked stogies?"
     "I don't." she said, annoyed. "Can I have my box back, please?".

 

     The apartment was a cluttered, crowded half-way house between college life and the real world. Anita showered, the hot spray driving the aches from her shoulders, cleansing the patina of dust she had gathered helping her brother. She dried, pulled on her most comfortable sweats, and, coffee cup in hand, slumped to her couch. The radio played in the background, classic rock squandered on an uncaring generation, white noise to stave off the day.
     The cigar box sat on the end table.
     She lifted it, caressing its smoothness. The ancient box felt heavy, substantial, cool to the touch. Absently, she opened the lid, the hinges drawing upwards with a sigh.
     A Christmas flooded over her, washing the paint of now from the richer pallette of then. She was small again, no more than nine or ten, her dress stiff, prickly with lace, the same lush shade of yellow as the doll cradled in her arms. The air was warm with wood smoke, and cigars, and the wonderful enchantment of roasting turkey. Conversation hummed, shifting in and out of the evergreen bows, lost on the excited mind of the happy child she had become ....
     Anita slammed shut the lid, chopping the memories in two. Her hand shook, her vision slowly clearing. Still shaking, she dropped the humidor, the box thudding into the cheap beige carpet. She stumbled to the tiny kitchen, fishing out the bottle of bourbon kept on hand for the infrequent guest, pouring two fingers in her coffee. It calmed her. She shut off the stereo, substituting the FM for the livelier television, the humidor kept resolutely closed beside the ratty couch.
     Time slipped by, evening into night. Temptation wormed through her mind, a siren's whisper. She opened the box, inhaling gently. Dappled sunlight spread across her back. She was four years old, straddling the back of a shaggy brown pony, her mind alive with joy.

 

     Guilty pleasures coursed through her mind, borrowed events drawing her deeper down the long, shadowed paths, every free moment lost in captured recollections, every drudge filled work day an eternity, counting minutes until she returned to her apartment and the memory box.
     The phone rang.
     "'Nita? You finally home?"
     She lifted the receiver, cutting off the answering machine in mid-message. "Yeah, Roger. I'm here."
     "How've you been? I haven't heard from you in weeks."
     "I'm all right. Just busy," she lied. Her left hand absently stroked the box sitting on her lap, fingering the latch.
     "Are you busy Saturday night?" The voice on the phone sounded anxious, far younger than her brother's twenty-two years. "I was wondering if you'd like to go out for dinner." A long pause. "There's someone I'd like you to meet."
     Surprise crowded thoughts of the box away. "Roger, is this serious? Are you getting married?"
     "Maybe." She could imagine his big, homely grin as the words tumbled over the phone lines. "I'd sure like you to meet her."
     "What's her name?"
     "Cassy." Another pause. "You will come, won't you?"
     "I'll be there." Anita laid the box on the floor. "I promise."

 

     Anita wandered through the restaurant, squinting to locate her brother's table. He waved to her from across the room. She waved back, stepping through the noisy weekend crowd.
     "Anita!" Roger stood, pulling out a chair for his sister. "This is Cassy Secomb. Cassy, this is..."
     "I know. This is your sister Anita." Cassy stood, extending a hand across the table. An infectious smile lent fire to her short, coppery hair, a counter point to the dimples in her plump cheeks. "I've heard an awful lot about you."
     Anita smiled. "Don't you dare believe all of it."
     Roger starred at his sister. Always thin, Anita's features now seemed drawn, gaunt, haunted shadows lurking beneath her mascara. His smile drooped into a frown. "Have you been sick? You look like hell."
     "Fine, thanks, and how are you, baby brother?"
     "Sorry." Roger relaxed. "I just haven't heard from you in a while. Nobody has."
     Anita smiled, true warmth rising at last to the surface. "Like I said, I've been busy. Now, what's this news you wanted to tell me?"

 

     Days passed, time crossing back and forth, blurring the fine lines. Anita wavered half way between nowhere and nowhen, lost in the addictive call of the box. Each opening, each long awaited sniff brought another flood of memories, filtered through the soft light of recollection.
     The first day of summer, cool grass beneath her feet. The giddy flush of friendship. The long dreamt taste of first love, the tingling, electric, heart racing flavor of his lips on hers. Desperate meetings outside of town, innocense on the bartering block. Her senses filled with each kiss, every hurried caress a godsend. Night after night she reveled in the textures, her own memories paler by comparison.
     Dawn's hungry light gnawed at the horizon, dousing street lamps, announcing its arrival with barking dogs and delivery trucks. Anita closed the box, hands trembling, chest on fire from the unceasing beat of her heart. Her head was dull, an aching weight filled with cobwebs, a lifeless void desperate for another dram of the too-sweet liqueur. Her hands shook so violently she could barely hold the phone to dial.
     "Roger?" Her voice was a rasp.
     A sleepy hello, half grunted. In the background, the light sounds of a woman snoring. "Anita? S'that you?"
     "Roger," she repeated. "Could you come over? I think I'm in trouble."
     An hours wait. Long hour, battling the urge. Temptation rose, stronger than the need to eat or feel or love. Her hand reached for the latch.
     A knock came at the door.
     "Jesus, "Nita!" Roger stared at the wraith opening the door in front of him. Thin, skin drawn tight over dry bones. Her hair was uncombed, overdue for a cut, the once glowing strands flat as matted, dried moss. "What's wrong."
     "I'm sick, Roger." She hesitated. "No. That's not right. I've got a sickness."
     The tall man shook his head, flipping on the lights. The apartment was dirty, dishes stacked in the sink, brown plants withering in their pots. "When did you eat last?"
     She frowned. "I dunno. Last night, maybe. Roger? I need help. I need you to get rid of something for me."
     "God damn, Anita! Does Mom know you're using drugs?"
     "Not drugs. Promise. Not drugs." She shuffled like an invalid to the couch, groping blind for the cigar box. She placed it tenderly in her brothers hands, as if it were a newborn. "Get this away from me. Please."
     Roger McElvie opened the box, looked inside, found nothing but the lingering scent of cedar and old tobacco. "What do you want me to do with it?"
     Her eyes pleaded what her words could not. "I don't care. Burn it. Throw it away. Just get rid of it."
     He helped her to bed, soothing words masking his fear. Anita had always been the stronger of the two. She had been his pillar. It hurt to watch her crumbling. Daylight burned outside the apartment. Roger closed the drapes, scared for the world slipping past him. He tucked the wooden box under his arm, started towards the door.
     "Roger?"
     He paused.
     "Don't throw it away. Just keep it away from me for a while. Okay?"
     He bit his lip. "All right, 'Nita. I'll hang on to it for you."

 

     The hospital staff was polite. Distant, aloof, professional to the core. Roger hated it. Cassy met him at the door, plate glass whooshing aside. She took his hands, fell into his arms, as if her small body could hold back the grief he felt.
     "I'm so sorry, Roger."
     He nodded, the first wave of tears threatening to erupt. He let himself be guided towards the door, towards the winter burdened parking lot, the asphalt oblivious to his pain. Outside, the sad, silent man paused. "I've got to pick up her belongings. The nurse said they were at the desk."
     "I'll get them." Cassy led him through the rows of parked cars and pick-ups, saw him seated in her rust streaked Nissan, then went back inside. Her thin-soled shoes clicked on the frigid sidewalk, feet chilled to the bone. The attendant was helpful, thoughtful, kind in a stranger's way. Cassy took the heavy cardboard box, pausing briefly to peer inside. A robe, a set of old sweats, some toiletries and magazines. And the box. The same, scuffed cigar box Anita had begged Roger to find last month, pleading until he relented.
     She moved back outside, cleansed by the icy air. Snowy whiteness masked the dirt and grime of the city, covering the ugliness like harlot's rouge. She swung into the drivers seat, squeezing Roger's limp hand. He smiled, weak but alive, taking the bulky cardboard from her. She started the engine.
     Without purpose, Roger McElvie dug through his perished sister's effects, fingering them absently. The humidor lifted so easily from the box, sat so gently on his lap. Silently they drove across the tired world of snow and street, the driveway to their rented mobile home more welcome than springtime.
     "Come on, Roger." Cassy took the box from him, leaving Anita's other belongings in her car. "Let's go inside."
     "All right."
     She waited as he fished for his keys, fingers numb as his broken soul. The door popped open, off-centered on cheap hinges. He stepped inside, sagging against the vinyl padded kitchen counter, grateful for something left solid in his life. He turned to Cassy. Her face was hidden by the upraised lid of the flat wooden box. A strange, faraway look played through her green eyes.
     Slowly, distantly, like the first flakes of snow on a winter's eve, she came back to the present.
     "It's funny," she said, sighing. "I hardly knew your sister, but all of a sudden, I feel like she's been part of my life forever."

 

THE END