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©2018 Barren Magazine. An Alt.Lit Introspective.

Death of a Box


by R.E. Hengsterman

A determined fog on the windshield tested the Volvo’s defrost, and its lack of motivation, as did the rain on the wipers, and the hectic speed, which took much of what the four-cylinder engine had to offer.

I’d driven an hour, squinty-eyed, chin resting on the steering wheel, back hunched as I sorted objects in the dark.

My daughter, head quasi out the car window, tossed her mother’s name into the night as we doubled back on our route, turning onto a narrow tree-lined street a half-dozen blocks from the house. Out of nowhere, Laura Beth appeared, as if her tether to earth snapped, tossing her body into the road. The balding tires on the Volvo managed an impassive squeal. The seatbelts cinched, the car pitched forward, and a horrific scream echoed in the darkness.

***

“We’ve got to learn to trust her,” I said.

Our daughter sunk her teeth into her lower lip and rolled her eyes.

“But Mom,” she said.

“Don’t but me!” Laura Beth snapped.

I shot a glance and mouthed the word trust.

“You‘ve got to be kidding. You’re lecturing me on trust.”

Laura Beth circled the kitchen table, her bony fingers wrenching at the hem of her now-too-large sweater. Over our half-eaten dinner, her peripatetic hands advanced across her abdomen void of a uterus, up to the breast-high scar secreted beneath the cotton.

“Where were you two when I needed you most?”

It was cancer that carpet-bombed her body, but I was the one who napalmed her soul.

“You’re ridiculous,” I yelled. “This has nothing to do with me.”

Laura Beth sneered, bleaching the color from her lips.

“I’m sick of you two, and the way you mock death.”

For the last few months, every conversation dissolved into an argument over trust between husband and wife, and jealousy between mother and daughter.

“You have no idea,” she said.

An unrepairable rift existed in our family and Laura Beth loved her grudges; she tended to them as if they were her cherished pets.

“It’s our daughter,” I said. “She’s old enough to spend the night with her friends.”

Laura Beth threw her hands in the air, muttered the words dead cat, and charged out the front door.

“It’s my fault,” my daughter said. “She hates me.”

I should have corrected her, but I didn’t.

We waited at the kitchen table as Laura Beth circled the house with her hands snaking above her tousled blonde hair. We counted her revolutions. Today it was seven before she cut through a path in the hedges and vanished into the night. Depending on her state of mind, we’d find her exhausted on a curb sometime later, or she’d return in a fiery crash, grounded by a more significant force of nature.

After an hour, when she didn’t return, we jumped in the car and headed out.

***

Between thin sheets of rain and the lazy pool of light from the street lamp, the car idled. A broken headlight on the passenger’s side deflected into the growing pool of thick liquid on the asphalt. Laura Beth had vaulted onto the hood and splintered the passenger’s side of the windshield, before landing sprawled and sheepish on the ground.

Before I could undo my seatbelt, my daughter bolted from the car.

“Wait!” I screamed.

She zigzagged across the pavement and into a nearby field. Slipping on the mud, I fought to keep her outline visible. When I caught her, she was kneeling on the grass, half-lit from the lone headlight, embracing a small object. I inched closer, bent and fighting a cramp. In her trembling hands, she held a piece of roadside trash, a cardboard box. Sobbing, she worked to press the box back into shape, but the wet, bloated cardboard crumpled in her hands.

“I don’t know why I’m bothering.” She cried, kicking at the misshaped cardboard with her muddy Converse.

“It’s just a stupid box.”

***

In my daughter’s world, nothing died. When she was two, her reaction to dead things was so violent that I kept a drawer full of replacement critters. Our backyard was littered with tiny mounds of buried plastic, her surrogates for the dead.

When her mother dismembered the family cat, we crossed an irrevocable line. It was mid-winter, and Snowball had sought shelter in the warmth of the engine. The unfortunate placement of Snowball had me picking the bloody flesh from the radiator fan for an hour. It took me another three to coax my daughter from the closet.

Once she calmed enough to take a breath, I organized the proxy’s funeral with an old stuffed animal I had dragged through the dirt and sliced with scissors.

Fake Snowballs funeral was brief and familiar, and as with each dead thing, Laura Beth protested.

“This is unhealthy,” she said. “How will she ever cope with death? What happens if I die? Are you going to substitute a stuffed animal?”

“It’s just her way,” I said.

“It‘s no one’s way.” She said.

It was the cat that broke Laura Beth. After fake Snowball’s funeral, she stormed out of the house and recovered a hunk of torn flesh from the trash.

She called our daughter downstairs and grabbed her by the wrist. “See this!”

Laura Beth clutched the bloody tissue in her hand. “This is Snowball. Dead is dead!”

“I hate you,” my daughter said.

Nothing was the same after that.

***

We stared at the box as our clothing gained mass from pouring rain.

“It’s time.” She said.

Genuflecting in darkness, we dug through mud thick as peanut butter to make a small hole. My daughter tossed the box inside, and I replaced the earth.

“A moment of silence,” she said.

As we interlocked hands and dropped our heads, I cried.

It’s just a box she whispered and gave my hand a gentle squeeze.

Header photograph © Asher.

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