(First published in Crack the Spine: Issue 100)
She loved boxes, and incidentally, worked in a hat store, where everything went into beautiful boxes—the kind of boxes you saved for presents or trips. She must have had a dozen of these boxes in her long hall closet at home, some striped, some solid colors, all round, all with a sturdy handle on top. She used them for things that clearly needed boxing up. For instance, Carl, an ex-boyfriend, was in a box. Her middle school swim team was in another box. The trip to Argentina was in a box. The inbred kittens her mother handed to her in a sack and ordered her to drown in the creek were in a box, all five of them. And her step-father was in not one but three boxes, sealed with duct-tape, at the back of the closet under a stack of old lawn chairs and a croquet set and sacks of unfinished embroidery and the umbrella for the glass table out back.
They were all neatly labeled, these boxes. She didn’t want to accidentally peek in the wrong one. Everything needed to be kept in its place. And if she did lift a lid, she made sure to cram every detail back inside before it could settle on her shoulders and weigh her down.
She wondered if everyone had created such a storage system. She had the suspicion they hadn’t. Or couldn’t. As she went about her day, everyone looked so heavy, so tired, so superficially happy. As soon as they stopped consciously smiling, pain crept across their faces like a stain, just under the skin. But then again, they had to store things. Otherwise, how did they ever leave the house?
“Honey, what are all these empty boxes doing back here?” her husband asked her one summer. He was looking for the American flag they hung on the porch every Forth of July. “Can I get rid of them?”
Her heart sprang into her mouth. “No! I’m using those.” And for the first time she suspected she’d never be rid of the boxes. All along, she’d thought she was just storing things for a while. She’d get rid of them in time. She’d toss them in the garbage. Or leave them when they moved. But that wasn’t true at all.
She spent that Fourth of July in a kind of fog. She found the flag for John. She greeted her guests and ushered them to the backyard where John had the grill going. She filled champagne flutes with layers of red and blue jello, separated by a layer of whipped cream, and carried them out to the picnic table. When the neighbor kids started shooting off bottle rockets, she didn’t even flinch. She felt leaden. Waterlogged. She could feel the contents of the boxes encroaching. She excused herself.
In the basement, under the lurid light of a single bare bulb, she started a fire in the ancient claw-foot bathtub John had inherited from his grandparents. One by one, she burned the boxes, watched the cardboard twist and the bright colors darken, blacken. They burned quickly, as if they were empty.
Starting at the pile of ash, a searing panic overcame her. The contents hadn’t been destroyed, but merely transformed. The kittens, the girls on the swim team, Carl and her step father, they were all there in the bathtub, staring at her, confused, accusatory.
“Sweetheart?” John called from the top of the stairs.
She would never be rid of them.
“Is something burning? What’s that smell?”
No, she would never be rid of them.
John pounded down the stairs as she scooped the pile of ash into her two cupped hands.
“Jesus Christ, what’s going on?”
She swallowed and licked the last grey flakes from her palms. “Just tidying up.” She guarded her words, her arms and legs, worried that what she’d consumed would misbehave.
“In the middle of a party? You’ve been really distant today. Maybe we shouldn’t have people—”
She shushed him with a smoky kiss. “Distant? No, I’m right here. And light as a bird.”