A Story in Four Parts with Last Line


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Rayna sat in front of the mirror removing her makeup and wondered who she would discover underneath. It was always the most exciting part of her day, if she was being honest with herself. She rarely deigned to be honest with herself or others, and frankly found the whole concept a bit outré. Outré was Rayna’s girlfriend’s mother’s word of the week.

Some days — after using cold cream to remove the multiple layers of contouring and concealer — she would find a young maid, skin as smooth as silk, a flush high on her cheeks. Other days there would be an old crone staring back from her vanity mirror, eyes framed by wrinkles Rayna hoped came from smiling or long walks in the sun. A small mole on her nose was suspiciously shaped, a spider crawling its cancerous way across her face.

She often wondered if the face she unearthed at the end of the day could be predicted by, or correlated with, anything particular. She kept meticulous notes on her diet, her activities, the status of her menstruation. For almost a year, she was convinced that eating more rutabaga in a given week had led to a long bout of freckles with a little button of a nose. But the next time she roasted the roots, freshly pulled from their garden patch, she found cold, gray skin sloughing off her cheekbones and hadn’t touched the tubers since.

As a young girl, Rayna had loved watching her mother sit at her vanity in the evening, the transformation that happened from the carefully sculpted woman the world saw to the changing face under it all. She always found it difficult to look at her mother’s face when it was made up, deft shadows and highlights creating a mask of pigment that was unchanging. You could identify her when she was walking down the street by the coral lipstick alone. But underneath … that’s where her real mother was.

Even when she started to get sick, Rayna’s mother still got up each morning and applied her war paint, insisting that looking good led to feeling good. She must have been on to something because each night she wiped away the powders and creams, her face was younger and younger until all of a sudden it wasn’t.

The coolness of the cream on her face kept the heat from her rising temper in check as Rayna was reminded of the argument with her father and sister over the funeral. They’d insisted the mortician apply her makeup, just like her mother had always done it, and Rayna had wanted to lay her to rest with her real face. Her naked face. The one that was by turns surprising, and comforting, and terrifying. She had been overruled, and the whole service felt like a farce. Just an act for the stranger in the coffin.

As Rayna wiped the cold cream from her face this evening, with the washcloth dipped in the steaming water in the sink, her face came away entirely with the blush and eyeshadow and lipstick. Rayna regarded the blank oval in the mirror in front of her, turning this way and that, running one hand down the smooth, featureless plane. This might be her favorite face of all. Simple. Windowless.

“Good night, Rayna,” her father called from the hallway, his steps shuffling past the door. Even when she was younger, her father had never picked up his feet, her childhood memories full of the tingling shock accompanying his finger tapping her nose.

Rayna would have answered sleep tight had the day left her any mouth at all.

Thomas, Extant

Thomas hadn’t expected to be alive when the town’s time capsule was opened. After all, it was supposed to be opened after 200 years. Now here they were, cracking the seal at barely 37 years. He remembered when he had placed the metal box within the fresh-poured concrete of the statue pedestal, his nose twitching and tickling with the construction dust, the damp earthen scent of the concrete tasting like clay on his tongue.

His classmates had such high hopes when they filled the oversized box, every high school senior contributing an item — approved by the principal, of course. Students deliberated for weeks before deciding on which treasure they wanted to sacrifice to future anthropologists. Surely those lauded scientists would want to experience our music (cassettes become unplayable after 30 years), read the poetry the Honors English class wrote (they thought their teacher didn’t catch all the drug references), or learn to play the game that filled their lunch hours with little discs of cardboard (for some reason named after POG juice).

The day they had closed the time capsule, his then-girlfriend, now late wife, had posed, smiling, for the yearbook camera with the open box. The photographer took forever setting the lighting up just right to catch the contents and her face, made up just so, and shining bright enough to throw off the white balance of the shot. Even then, her coral lipstick drew your eye to her mouth. The perfectly contoured planes of her face trapping your attention as she slipped the envelope into the box while closing the lid and holding it for me as I sealed it with wax. It took three of us football players to carry the heavy cask out to the half-built statue pedestal and drop it into the ground.

The “Indian” statue raised over their time capsule was an unfortunate choice, selected by the board of white men who ran the school district before young adult books taught kids to question authority and rebel when they didn’t like the answers. All Thomas knew was that he was grateful that his construction company had been selected to remove the offensive, poorly sculpted figure, dissolving in the acid rains. Grateful that the school had decided to move the time capsule from its corroding container into something more archival safe.

Grateful that his late wife’s contribution had been slipped into the crate at the last minute, just before the lid was secured and sealed with wax.

With a glance and a nod for his two daughters standing at the front of the ten-person crowd, Thomas levered his crowbar around the seam, sending cracklings of wax scattering across the tulips. The lid slipped from Thomas’s fingers, raising a dust cloud that caused coughing fits as his hand slipped into the box, then into his pocket. A slip of an envelope, filled with words, words his wife had begged him to get rid of. Thomas had promised to bring them back to her before … before.

He’d never asked what was in the envelope she’d put into the time capsule. It didn’t seem important at the end, her life slipping away faster and faster. She made him promise not to read it. Not to tell their daughters. To destroy it. So when their girls told him he should pass the removal job to someone else, that it was too soon, that no one expected him to be able to work right now, he just shook his head and claimed he wanted to be doing something, anything, else.

He had his suspicions, of course. His wife had a singular talent for reading people, for looking at the way they stood, the way they dressed, the way they didn’t speak, and knowing things about them they didn’t know about themselves. More than once, she’d gotten herself into trouble commenting on broken marriages, dead pets, and lost dreams. Out of trouble, too, by comforting people about losses they hadn’t even recognized yet. If he’d learned anything in being with her for nearly forty years, the envelope was full of delightfully accurate yet harsh predictions about people still alive in this town. A parlor trick for the future.

Under the cover of clumsiness, he took back her words one more time.

When the dust cleared, he apologized for his stiff fingers, before stepping aside so that the white men who now sat on the board of the school district could step forward to have their photo taken with the rainbow of plastic toys, mildewing paper, and dissolving acetate, jumbled together in the rusting vault.


Lily unlocked the back door of the thrift store using a key that didn’t belong to her. Her mother had hated when Lily called it the thrift store. Consignment shop, she would correct, all while pretending to push a pair of glasses up her nose. Always “consignment shop,” because if you use fancier words, you can charge more.

Her mother’s keyring was heavy with keys from long-forgotten doors and keychains from vacations so old the enamel was entirely worn away. Lily’s father used to joke that if his wife ever needed to defend herself, the keyring doubled as a deadly weapon and to be careful not to catch a felony charge.

They hadn’t helped defend her mother in the end, but holding the jangling pile of metal and guessing at what the blank silver charms used to say still made Lily smile, which was as close to laughing as she got these days.

Rayna had suggested, and their father had agreed, that it was time to close up the shop. They didn’t have the intention or attention to deal with the lingering orders and consignments and books, and they sure didn’t trust Little Lily to handle things all by herself. Even though she’d worked in the store with her mother for the last decade, had been in charge of the appraisals for the last three years, and had been the sole employee for the last …

Their mother hadn’t been able to work much before the end.

Lily tossed the keys on the counter, half expecting the crashing weight to break the glass top, flinching on instinct, but she didn’t hear them land. She redirected her steps to the till, scouring the ground for the guinea-pig-sized ball of shiny. It hadn’t fallen short, nor had it overshot its destination. She retraced her steps and mimed throwing at first, trying to figure out where it must have landed, and when that failed, started pulling objects off the shelves of about the right weight and size to re-create her toss.

It was like watching someone vandalize the store, but very precisely, and in slow motion. Deliberate aim, toss, investigate.

Aim, toss, investigate.

Aim, toss …

The chunky, gaudy, and hideously expensive statement necklace landed on the thick ergonomic standing pad, slid under the edge of the counter, and vanished. Crawling forward, Lily reached her hand under the counter, into a shadow that she would have sworn was the base of the cabinet a moment ago. Her hand traveled farther in than she had expected.

If only she had replaced the batteries in the emergency flashlight like her mother had asked her to, months ago, this might be a little bit easier. Instead, she reached in again, refusing to think about the images of spiders and rats and snakes her brain helpfully offered to her. She didn’t have to reach far before her hand met an accordion folder. And another.

And another.

The mound of folders in front of her grew steadily until she was sure the dark space could not hold anything more, but reached back in one last time, just to be sure.

Out came the keys.

The fact that this violated the last in, first out principle of physics didn’t bother Lily so much as the sheer mass of paper which should not have been able to fit under the counter in the first place. Picking up one of the folders, she saw it had the name of the mayor’s wife on the label. Inside was a spreadsheet of all the clothing the woman had brought in over the years, which by itself wouldn’t be terribly unusual, but what was it doing handwritten here instead of in the tidy digital database Lily had maintained for her mother? After each entry was a list of receipts, gum wrappers, candies, lozenges, whatever must have been in the pockets of the clothes. The same detritus that was sliding back and forth over the bottom of the accordion folder now.

As the list continued, Lily found more observations from her mother beyond the physical: Madame First Lady came in right before closing, avoiding being seen. Madame First Lady right after Christmas selling off never-worn designers. Madame First Lady comes back with heavy makeup and sunglasses to retrieve a purse she couldn’t bear to part with after all, she claimed.

There were folders for everyone who sold clothes and accessories to them. The pastor, the pastor’s wife, school teachers, and lawyers, and housewives, and police officers.

A folder for Rayna: empty blush compacts and broken mirror shards.

For Thomas: sawdust and calluses.

And Lily: a single key on a blank keychain.

Lily stared at the key, running her fingers over the blank metal tag hanging next to it, trying to decipher the remains of some enamel or engraving, but came up with nothing. She gathered up the folders and rearranged them neatly in the space beneath the register. Alphabetical so she knew exactly which one she’d be pulling out when she reached into the dark. Then she spent a few minutes tidying up the stock she had tossed around the store, and finally went to unlock the front door to open for customers.

Hesitating at the doors, Lily balanced her mother’s mass of keys in one hand and the single blank key in her other. The only thing in the folder labeled with her name. Slowly, she reached out the new key, slipping it into the lock.

She left it there for a moment, the solo key with the bright tag swinging and glinting. Then, taking a deep breath, Lily unlocked the store with her key.

Thomas, Departed

When he died, their father had two requests.

Well, actually, he had a whole will, leaving controlling interest in his construction company split between Rayna and Lily, though he expected they’d probably sell it to his business partner. He left the house to Rayna, who hoped her boyfriend would propose soon so they could start a family. The consignment shop to Lily, though she really should close it and find something constructive to do with her life.

And a letter wrapped around a sealed green envelope. The ink sweeping across the green paper had faded to a rusty brown, but was unmistakably their mother’s handwriting: Open after 100 years!

Curious, the women leaned over the white paper covered in their father’s spiky handwriting to read together. He wrote that he loved them both very much. That their mother, while she lay dying, had begged him to retrieve this envelope from the aborted time capsule at the school, which he was being hired to remove. That he had insisted on taking down the statue at the school not because he was stubborn in avoiding his grief, but because he was following her last wishes. Now, given that they were reading this, he had died unexpectedly before he could bring himself to destroy this last piece of his wife.

He’d never opened the envelope. Never read the words she’d written down, sitting on the stage in the cafeteria, partially obscured by the dusty, nonfunctioning stage curtains. Their father knew just what sort of trouble his wife couldn’t help but cause with just a few words, and this envelope contained a multitude, judging by its thickness.

Once, in their sophomore biology class, she had stopped by their teacher’s desk on the way out the door to comment: “I am glad you didn’t change your perfume; rosewater works so well on you. I thought you had, since your husband dropped off his cleaning at my parents’ shop yesterday and they just reeked of Chanel No. 5.” They never saw Mrs. Peterson again, and rumor had it she killed her husband that night. Really, she’d left him and moved out of town, but teenagers will talk.

It wasn’t that their mother meant to cause trouble; the words just wouldn’t stay down when she noticed something. She’d tried, holding in those burbling phonemes, keeping her lips pressed tight until they slipped out at inopportune moments, during an address to the student body, or at a work meeting. It was always better if she found a private moment to deliver them, to reduce the catastrophic effects to just the immediate parties.

Right after their parent’s wedding, they met another couple at their honeymoon beach resort. They were young, loved sharing their toast in the morning (she ate crusts, he ate soggy centers), and came from a town not too far from their own. On the last day, their father’s new wife (his wife! How exciting that was to say) approached the other bride. “I’m terribly sorry about your husband’s diagnosis, I’m in awe of how brave you are, marrying him anyway.”

The other woman clutched at their mother’s arm as they walked away, asking what diagnosis, what was she talking about? But their parents had a plane to catch, so they grabbed their luggage and left. Their father had seen the aftermath of her casual truths too often to want to try explaining. Less than a year later his obituary was in the paper.

This was why their father had resisted reading the letter rescued from the failed time capsule. He had kept it in the pocket of his jacket for the last year, its nearness a salve for the open wounds he carried on his heart. He hid from the predictions his wife had made; he didn’t want to know how many of them had come to pass. Whether they had so few arguments because she saw them coming and already knew how to resolve them. Whether she knew they’d lose one child before they were born, and another to illness as an infant. Whether she knew she would die slowly and painfully from the very beginning. That she would leave him long before he was ready.

Nor could he cast those words into the void, unread, unremembered.

So he had two requests: read the letter, and then destroy it.

Rayna put down their father’s letter, and the two of them stared at the green envelope, with its faded admonition to open in another 62 years. She pushed it over to Lily. “You open it.”

Lily fingered the key to the consignment shop in her pocket, the key her mother had gifted her. Her mother’s shop was hers now, free and clear. No matter what her sister wanted, that store would stay open for as long as Lily drew breath.

“I think you should open it.” Lily pushed the envelope back to Rayna.

Even though she’d been crying earlier that morning, Rayna’s makeup was impeccable, as always. Her mother had taught her all the tricks for hardening the paint on her face to the point that a little water did no harm. How to blot her eyes so as not to leave streaks of mascara. How to apply foundation with just a hint of glitter so that perspiration only amplified your glow.

The two sisters sat there, debating with themselves and occasionally each other over whether it was their right, their obligation, to open the envelope. Their father had obviously wished to have their mother’s words known, but at the same time their mother had wanted them to fade into obscurity. Neither parent had bothered to ask what their girls thought about the whole situation.

Rayna fingered the flap, the glue failing, leaving it haphazardly sealed. “Imagine what sort of predictions she might have. There might even be something to help.”

“Help us how? What use is knowing who is leaving who? Who is sleeping with who? Who is going to break confidence with who? It never turned out well when folk knew, did it?” Lily retrieved the letter from her sister and set it back on the desk, tucked into the blanket of their father’s last letter.

It had gotten dark in the room without the sisters realizing it, and Rayna leaned over to turn on a lamp. “There’s no reason to decide now, is there?”

Lily agreed, and they settled on having a light dinner, scavenged from the acres of food people had been delivering all day, before making their way to an early bed. The house settled into its night rhythms. The gentle hum of the refrigerator. The warm wind whistling through the air vents. A silence where there was once a harumph and clearing of a throat, filled now with the soft step of a foot on the stairwell.

She crept down the stairs, skipping the second to last, which would let out an audible creak, deafening in the middle of the night. After a lifetime of avoiding the furniture, it was second nature, and she slipped carefully through the dark until she reached her father’s office and picked up the green envelope from the desk where they had left it.

For the briefest of moments she considered ripping it open, but instead went to the corner and slipped the envelope whole into the waiting slot, the switch already set to automatic. The shredder roared to life, grinding the letter into tiny pieces of confetti.

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