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art by Melissa Mead

Memory Boxes

Pam Wallace lives in California with her husband of 30 years. She has two grown sons and two grandsons. When she's not baby-sitting or writing, she enjoys working in her garden. Her short stories have appeared in several print and online venues, including Shock Totem and Every Day Fiction.

Sara sat on the floor, surrounded by boxes of shiny-grained wood, one ear attuned, as always, to Darrell's breathing, holding her own breath each time his stuttered--waiting, waiting for his next breath so she, too could breathe again. He lay on the bed, curled into a near-fetal position.
All that was left of the man she'd married all those years ago was an empty husk, his essence lost in the plaques and tangles miring his brain. He'd been her backbone and her cheerleader; given her strength and inspiration. Now she had one last gift for him. She tucked a strand of gray hair behind her ear and straightened her posture.
It was time to let him go. She did him no favors by clinging. He'd made her promise to remember their joy and not dwell on the sorrow. They'd made more than enough memories to last her until they were together again.
The wood had been culled from their small home orchard, cut into planks that were hand-planed by Darrell. Together, they'd lovingly crafted each box, the joints meticulously dovetailed. The smallest was barely as big as her thumb; the largest an eight-inch cube.
The box of apple wood was first, the odor of the wood sweet but tart. A smile was carved into the lid. She cradled the box against her chest. Finally, with a sigh, she opened it, freeing the memory they'd so tenderly placed within. A ball of sparkling motes floated from the box to circle her head, and the memory burst into a vision. Teens at summer camp, they'd giggled as they ran down the dusty path to the lake and splashed into the clear chill water. It was a comfortable day that only turned awkward when he moved to kiss her, neither one knowing quite what to do and bumping noses in the process.
The memory left her and floated over to Darrell, where it settled on his chest. His breath stuttered, then he inhaled a deep, clear breath.
The next box was the largest. Fashioned of black walnut, the grainy wood was sanded to a smooth satin finish. Sara held it close to her heart, breathing in the musty fragrance. Walnut, for passion.
She opened the heart-carved lid and the memory soared free, filling her vision with the day they'd met again after years apart. A perfect spring day, filled with promise. She'd entered the coffee shop feeling rushed and harried and bumped into someone's back. She'd already begun her apology when Darrell turned around. The words died into meaningless blather as they recognized in each other their youthful summer romance. His eyes had sparked with golden glints of passion. They'd never been apart since.
It was a precious memory, one Sara did not want to let go, but Darrell's frail figure, so changed from the robust man she'd shared her life with, was all the impetus she needed. She gathered the memory in her hands, where it glittered like rays of sunlight. She blew it to Darrell, where it settled upon his brow. The lines of pain etched there eased, loosened from their stranglehold.
And so it went, the boxes lovingly held, their smooth sides rubbed and kissed. The lids opened while the redolent woods released their memories. The pine brought a peaceful glow to Darrell's face, the oak a touch of color to his wan complexion. The olive reminded her of his wisdom in choosing what to keep and what to throw away.
The clock struck midnight as she opened the last box. Around her on the floor were the empty boxes, their lids scattered haphazardly. She'd saved this box, the tiniest, for last. Cherry wood, full of sweetness and light. Darrell had sanded this one with special care, rubbing at a tiny nub that most would not have noticed.
Sara held the box for the longest time before sliding the lid off.
The memory burst forth with a smell of cherry blossoms, the same that had littered the ground on the night they'd returned home from the hospital empty-handed. "Don't worry," he'd whispered. "We'll be fine without children. As long as I have you, all's right with life."
The memory cloud lingered over her head. It was very hard to let go, but the memory was not hers alone to hold. With his diagnosis, she and Darrell had sorted through memories, picked the most special and consigned them to the boxes. His plan was for Sara to have the memories after he was gone, but even then she'd known she'd use them to ease his passing.
Sara released the memory from the cherry box. It flickered and spun across the room, then drifted down as a twinkling waterfall upon Darrell's shoulders. His face relaxed, calmed, strengthened. And so did the burden upon her.
Sara stepped through the scatter of empty boxes to her beloved's side. She held his hand and smoothed his brow. She whispered in his ear words meant for him alone.
He opened his eyes, and her husband looked out at her one last time. His smile was glorious and tender and all the memory she would ever need.
She placed a last kiss upon his lips as the light faded from his eyes. And with the kiss, the memories flowed back to her, gentle and sweet, with a promise she would never be alone.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Author Comments

One of the many things I love about speculative fiction is that anything is possible. I wanted to write a story where memories had a physical manifestation and were used in a comforting and positive way. Even though this story is about loss, for me, the story isn't a sad one, but a last act of love and compassion. "Memory Boxes" evolved from a flash challenge at the Liberty Hall forums, in which participants have 90 minutes to write a flash story. I combined the trigger of "twinkling stars" with an idea generated from a magazine article, and a type of horoscope that assigned personality traits to different types of trees.

- Pam L. Wallace
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