“The Box” by John M. Carlson

Carl discovered the secret compartment in the back of Grandmother’s closet. It only held a small metal box, but Carl had a feeling he’d found what he and Marc, his brother, had been looking for.

He turned to Marc, who was digging through Grandmother’s underwear drawer. Carl was reminded of when Marc was a teenager. Back then, he often went digging through their mother’s dresser hoping to find a few dollars to steal.

“Marc? I think I found it!”

“Good.” Marc slammed the drawer shut. A sliver of underwear stuck out of the top of the drawer. He came over to Carl. “Yep. It sure looks like the box that bitch had.”

“Shouldn’t talk about Grandmother like that.”

Marc snorted. “How many times have you—”

“You are forgetting. She’s in that nursing home—”

“Where she’ll die any minute.”

“She might. She might also live long enough to make your life miserable. If she heard that you called her a bitch—”

“It’s your word against mine.”

“It is. And I won’t tell her. Our agreement stands. But…you have a way of talking without thinking which has gotten worse the last few days. I worry about that. I worry that you might say something when you shouldn’t. You might destroy both of us.”

“OK. OK. I get the point. But you’d better cut the lecture and check this.”

“Yes.” Carl reached into the compartment. He pulled the box out, and set it down on the dresser. Carl pushed the latch, and lifted the lid. It held a small pile of envelopes. Each envelope was labeled in Grandmother’s neat, old-school cursive.

Carl could imagine her sitting at her little desk under the window. Studying some new find that would give her power over someone she knew. She’d smile. Then, she’d pull out a new envelope, pick up the fountain pen that had been her father’s, and neatly label the envelope. A few minutes later, the envelope would be in the metal box. Ready in case she ever needed it to “persuade” someone to do her bidding.

“It’s not as much as I’d have guessed she’d have,” Marc said.

“You’re right. It doesn’t seem like much. Is this all?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’d better finish searching the room in any case.”

“You want to start that? I can go through the box.”

“I don’t think so,” Marc said. “I want to watch you go through the box. At least until anything about me is removed. If you are in a hurry, I can go through the box, and you can search the room.”

“I don’t think so,” Carl said.

“I didn’t think you’d like the idea. We have plenty of time. Grandmother won’t be coming back. And Brian will probably spend all his time visiting her. It’s sickening. He acts like she’s a real grandmother.”

“At least it gets him out of our hair.”

“True. Well, we’d better start going through these envelopes. We’d better go through every envelope.”

“It looks like she had everything neatly labeled—”

“Even the best secretary sometimes slips a paper in the wrong file. I have been waiting fifteen years to get out of this trap. I don’t want to take chances.”

“We could just destroy everything—”

“I want to see exactly what she had on me. Plus I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea keeping the rest. You never know. It might be handy.”

They slowly began sifting through the box.

#

That night was a nice night for a fire in the living room fireplace. There was a damp Tacoma winter chill in the air. Plus the fireplace was a handy way to burn up the envelopes from the box that were marked with their names.

“That is that,” Marc said, as the last envelope started burning. “Her hold on us is over.”

The front door opened, and Brian, their younger brother, came in.

“What a nice night for a fire!” Brian said. His voice, as always, was bright and cheerful. The world could be ending, Carl had often thought, and Brian would still bubble with cheer.

“We thought so,” Carl said.

“Obviously. Since you lit it.” Brian came and sat down. “It’s such a cold night out there. At least they are doing a good job of keeping Grandmother warm. They have a nice little lounge with a fake electric fireplace. She was feeling well enough to go and sit in there tonight.”

“And how is she feeling?”

“About the same, I guess.”

Well, she won’t feel so bad when she’s dead, Carl thought. I know I’ll feel better.

#

“It is nice sitting by a fire again.” Grandmother sat down in her living room. “I really missed this when I was in the nursing home.”

“How true. But they did do an amazing job of helping you recover!” Carl said. Indeed, amazing didn’t even begin sum the situation up. She was at death’s door only a day or so before. Now she seemed to be as good as ever.

“Not as amazing as it might seem,” Grandmother said. “Since you and Marc are both here, we might as well talk about this. I did need to go to the hospital, but things were not as quite as bad as they seemed. It was just a routine thing, with some recovery time at the nursing home. But it was…useful. Because it gave me a chance to learn a few things. For example, I learned that Marc thinks I am a bitch.”

Marc turned and glared at Carl.

“I said nothing!” Carl glared back.

“He didn’t,” Grandmother said. “You probably don’t know this, but my bedroom is wired for sound. Complete with a voice activated tape recorder. That room was what Grandfather used as a study, once, and it was quite convenient to record certain conversations. I thought it might be handy to have the tape recorder running when I was away. I must say I’m glad I did. I found that listening to the tape was quite…enlightening. Although nothing I heard was news.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Marc said. “Do you really think you can treat us like you do, and have us love you like a grandmother on a 1950s sitcom?”

“Of course not. Brian is the only grandson who acts like one—”

“He’s an idiot. Or he’s trying to butter you up.”

“Perhaps. But that hardly matters. What matters is this: I want you to know that I know what you think. And I also want you to know that things will go on as they always have. Remember, I have certain information about both of you that you don’t want made public.”

“If you actually listened to that tape, you’d know that we found that certain information. It went up in smoke in that fireplace that you like so much a week ago.”

“I know you found the compartment in the closet. But that was not the only place I hid papers. In fact, I’ve got a much better place. Which includes some hard evidence that would really prove quite problematic for both of you. If that evidence got out, you’d lose that money you two depend on from your great uncle’s trust fund. But that evidence will stay hidden if you continue to do what I order you to do. So the best thing for all of us is for things to get back to normal.”

The living room was quiet except for the fire crackling away.

Now I know how a man feels when he escapes from prison, only to be caught again, Carl thought.

John M. Carlson is a writer living in the Gig Harbor, WA area. His blog is at writerjmc.blogspot.com