Escaping Pandora

This is my story for NYC Midnight’s short story competition, round 1. To those of you who helped me make it better, thanks!! 🙂

The assignment was to write a short story (2,500 words or less) in the mystery genre, including a soldier, and involving a prediction. The image is from Pixabay!

castle-4486017_1280

Escaping Pandora

© MK 2021

“So, how’ve you been?” Nora, my therapist, folds her leg underneath herself as she sits in her chair.

“Same old, same old.” I lower my gaze to my fat stomach and obese thighs. Nora won’t be fooled by my attempt at levity. I can’t even fool myself at this point.

“You’re still having the dream?” she asks.

I nod.

“Is anything different about it?” She peers at me with concern.

I nod again. “He’s not just a guard. He’s a soldier.”

“At the castle?”

“Yeah.”

“Is there a difference?” she asks.

“I’m not sure. But he told me he’s a soldier.” I shrug.

“Okay. Did he say anything else?”

“Yeah.” My thoughts drift back to the dream.

“I cannot let you in. As a soldier, it’s my sworn duty to guard the castle from intruders.” He stepped in front of the double doors, blocking my path, threatening to unsheathe his sword.

“Hayley?” Nora’s voice interrupts my reverie. “Let’s brainstorm. You said he’s a soldier, and not just a guard. Right?”

I nod.

“Okay. What do soldiers represent to you?”

I think for a minute. “Um, they’re very precise in their movements. Um, very disciplined. I guess that’s the word.”

“Good, good.”

“And they defend people and keep us safe,” I add.

“Aha!” Nora’s face lights up. “You’ve got this part of yourself—the soldier—who wants to protect you from the truth. As a guard, he’s protecting the castle. As a soldier, he’s protecting you.”

I don’t reply. Instead, I visualize the rest of the dream.

“I’m not an intruder,” I said.

“Then who are you?” the soldier asked.

“I’m the queen of this castle.” That was a lie. I’d never been inside the castle, so I couldn’t be its queen.

“If you enter here, you’ll never leave,” he said fiercely. His eyes turned jet black, and he didn’t move an inch. “It’s Pandora’s prediction.”

“Hayley?” Nora speaks with soft fragility, not wishing to interrupt my thoughts. This is our third session together. I’ve had multiple therapists over the years.

I take a deep breath. “It’s like, if I find out who killed my sister, I can never unknow.”

Nora nods. “How would that feel?”

My gaze skitters around. “Well, the soldier predicted that if I entered the castle, I’d never leave. He mentioned Pandora. Like, the box?”

“Right, from mythology!” She makes some elaborate hand gestures. “I’m hearing that you’re afraid that… if you find out who killed your sister, you’ll never be able to process it and move on, as if you’ve opened a Pandora’s box that can’t be closed. Does that sound accurate?”

“Yes, exactly. The soldier was convinced of it.”

“But would you be happy, never knowing?”

“No, but…”

“But what?”

“What if I could open the Pandora’s box and then close it? Is that possible?”

Nora grimaces. I don’t think she likes the question.

*****

I feed my cat, McKitty, and settle down for several hours of television viewing. I live alone in a rental unit in the basement of a house. I have my own entrance, and the landlords don’t mind McKitty.

Whenever I’m not doing data entry, I’m here watching TV. This is my life. I guess it was destined to be this way when I was seven years old and Daphne died. My family fell apart. These days, I rarely interact with anyone but my therapist and my mom, who thinks that at twenty-seven, I should be married with kids.

Why doesn’t my mom understand? I’m never having kids. They might die.

A graphic crime show starts, so I switch the channel to HGTV. House-hunting programs are a safe bet.

My phone rings. It’s my mom. Ugh.

“Hello?” I put the TV on mute.

“Hayley? It’s Mother. How are you doing, dear? How are you holding up?”

“Um, I’m fine. How’re you?”

“It’s been twenty years to the day.” Her voice is stretched thin with pathos and despair.

“I know, Mom.” I wouldn’t have answered the phone otherwise.

“I just thought that after twenty years, we’d know more about what happened. I thought some of your memory would come back. Are you still seeing your latest therapist?”

I sigh. “Yes.”

“And… nothing?”

“Um, Mom, just to remind you, I wasn’t with Daphne when she died.” My voice takes on a hard edge. Mom’s always trying to normalize Daphne’s murder by discussing it casually, which stresses me out.

“No, I know, but I just thought… I just hoped… I’m sorry, dear. So, have you heard from your father? I mean, how’s life?”

“It’s great,” I grumble. “I’ve got to go. I brought some work home, and—”

“Oh, no, I understand. I just wanted to check in. I’ll talk to you later, sweetie.”

*****

I was seven to Daphne’s fourteen, and I was an obnoxious brat the day she died. I’d been anxious all week because my favorite teacher, Miss Tilly, suffered a stillbirth. When our guidance counselor told us, I cried.

“Get out,” Daphne snapped. She was seated at her vanity, wielding a curling iron while pressing a finger to her looped brown hair. “You’ll make me burn my fingers.”

“When will you do mine?” I whined. “I want curly hair, too!”

“You’re too young. Scram.”

“You’re just mad ‘cause I’m prettier than you.” I stuck my tongue out.

Her face contorted with anger. “Get out!”

I’ve got some memory glitches. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but then I was in the living room, standing over her dead body, screaming. Blood was everywhere. The front door was wide open, so the neighbors heard me.

Our parents were out to dinner, and Daphne was in charge.

But why was she curling her hair?

I’m not sure. My mom scoffed at the possibility that Daphne would leave me home alone. Daphne was a responsible babysitter, after all. My mom believed that Daphne was going out later.

My parents were supposed to be home by seven o’clock, and Daphne’s boyfriend, Chad, lived up the street. She could’ve planned to swing on the front porch with him, which they did together often. They’d swing, they’d talk, and our parents could keep an eye on them from the house.

I’ve never asked Chad if he planned to see Daphne that night. According to my mom, his liver’s about to give out. He can’t quit drinking at all. I don’t want to dredge it up.

Is Chad grief-stricken like I am? Or…

They interviewed him, but he was just the neighborhood kid whom she liked to swing on the porch with. Her murder was so gruesome that they never thought a scrawny fourteen-year-old could’ve done it.

The evidence points toward a man who left behind semen. Chad was ruled out, even though his dad refused to let him give DNA.

I swallow a sleeping pill and get comfortable on the sofa, TV still on. I never use my bed. Beds are associated with turning over thoughts from the day, something I’ll only do on my own terms.

I don’t need sleeping pills to fall asleep, but I like them. They take me places. I was more peaceful before I started taking sleeping pills, but peace is overrated.

*****

I see a castle across the way, gorgeous and intricate and beautiful. I approach, but the soldier blocks my entrance. “I cannot let you in,” he says. “As a soldier, it’s my sworn duty to guard the castle from intruders.”

“I’m not an intruder,” I state.

“Then who are you?”

“I’m the sister of the murder victim.”

He steps away from the door. “Please, enter with my blessing. But know this: you will never leave, not if Pandora has her way.”

I pull open a tall door and step inside, but I’m not in a castle. I’m trapped on the second floor of my childhood home. Oh my gosh. I didn’t mean it. I don’t want to be here. I’ve got to wake up! Wake up, Hayley, wake up!

“Where is she? Where’s your little sister?”

I know that voice! Oh, God.

“You can’t have her!” Daphne’s belligerent and angry. “She’s not home. I’m here alone, and I’m all you’re getting. You gotta problem with that?”

I manage to run and hide in the hamper. The sounds I hear are horrific. It never ends. It never ends. I can’t breathe in here. I can’t move. I’m going to die.

It was Mr. Bruce, my substitute teacher. He creeped me out.

*****

I hold perfectly still when I awake and stare at the ceiling. What did I dream? Oh my gosh! I remembered! Holy shit, Daphne died protecting me.

No. That never happened. Daphne died tragically, yes, but I had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. What have I done? I need to unlearn it. Oh God, it was my fault.

No. If Miss Tilly’s baby hadn’t been stillborn, she wouldn’t have missed school all week.

McKitty meows. I ignore him. On shaky legs, I stand and approach my laptop to google Bruce Klimsky, my substitute teacher. Have I always known his last name?

Mugshots. Criminal record. Registered sex offender. He’s doing hard time, locked up for at least fifteen more years.

Numb, I return to my sofa. Hours pass. If I watch TV long enough, I’ll forget her screams, and I’ll forget that she died for me. And then the dream will come again, and I’ll push past my own resistance to discover the truth, and I’ll block it out of my memory, again and again.

I recall the soldier’s words. If you enter here, you’ll never leave. It’s Pandora’s prediction.

He’s wrong about that. I’ve been uncovering the truth and then reburying it for ages.

*****

“You’re a very pretty little girl,” Mr. Bruce said. “Can you thank me for the compliment?”

“Thank you.” But his gaze creeped me out, and I was compelled to memorize his full name: Bruce Klimsky.

*****

I shove the discomfiting memory into no-man’s land. Not important, no. I had nothing to do with Daphne’s death.

Sometimes, watching TV gets old. I wander into the bathroom and gaze at my reflection. I’m seventy-five pounds overweight and look like death. I could be attractive, but I’m not. It doesn’t feel safe, and it feels wrong for vague reasons. Like, if I hadn’t been an adorable little girl, it never would’ve happened. I need to rectify that by being ugly now.

Hours pass. I can’t outrun it. I never should’ve googled Bruce Klimsky. That was my big mistake. Despite the television, I can still hear her screams. Why’d I think I could keep shutting the Pandora’s box? Besides, every time I close it, I just want to reopen it. There’s no solution. I down the whole bottle of sleeping pills.

Should I call for help?

*****

I see a castle across the way, gorgeous and intricate and beautiful. I approach, but the soldier blocks my entrance. “I cannot let you in,” he says. “As a soldier, it’s my sworn duty to guard the castle from intruders.”

“I’m not an intruder,” I state.

“Then who are you?”

“I’m the sister of the queen of this castle.”

He steps away from the door. “Please, enter with my blessing.”

“Thank you.” I enter the castle. Its foyer is magnificent.

“Hayley, is that you?” It’s Daphne. She rushes up to me and gives me a hug.

“Daphne! I’m so glad to see you.” My words get muffled by her curly hair as we cling to each other.

“Where have you been?” she asks.

“I was hiding from the bad guys when you left,” I explain. “Thanks for protecting me.”

“You’re welcome! I’m so glad to see you again.”

We sob.

*****

Time doesn’t exist here. I’m having breakfast with Daphne in the spacious kitchen when the soldier appears. “You have a visitor, madam. Her name is Nora.”

Daphne shoots me an inquisitive look.

“What does she want?” I ask.

“She wishes to know why you left her world.”

I turn to Daphne. “What should I tell her?”

“Not to blame herself,” she urges. Her watery eyes are filled with pain, and her prized curls seem lackluster.

But I can’t. I’m too ashamed to face Nora.

The soldier nods knowingly. “I’ll turn her away,” he says.

“Thanks.” I sigh and face Daphne. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done it.”

“There’s no judgment here, but…” her voice trails off.

“What?”

“You can go back. You aren’t dead, just unconscious. Hayley, our family needs you, especially Dad. Go on. Go back.” She hides her face behind her hands.

We’ve discussed everything, including how Dad’s ghosted me over the years. Daphne claims he’s tormented and that he misses me deeply.

“But how do I live with this? I got you killed.” Tears fall down my face, huge waterdrops of aqua blue, fat and dreamlike in my strange unconscious world.

“Remember my courage? You can show that same bravery now. I’ll do everything I can to help. I’m always with you.”

We stand and embrace.

“And Hayley, I’m going to make sure that you never come back here until it’s time,” she whispers. “Do you trust me?” She places her hands on my head, oh so gently. “Let my love close the Pandora’s box you’ve opened.” All I see is white. Wholesomeness saturates my being like a cleansing, sparkly rain.

*****

Tubes. I must be in the hospital. A uniformed man is sitting nearby. He shifts in his seat. I cringe. Am I being guarded or protected?

A shadow darkens my hospital door. “Mom?” I whisper.

“Hayley! Oh, thank God. Oh, my daughter. Nurse!”

It takes a while for things to settle down. The uniformed man tells Mom he’ll be out in the hall.

We’re alone at long last. “Mom, I have something to tell you. I know who killed Daphne.”

She sits and takes my extended hand. “Who?”

How strange. My mind is blank. “I’m sorry. I thought I knew. I’ve… let you down.”

“Honey, it’s okay.” She shakes her head. “Just worry about yourself.”

“Where did you come from?” I glance around, confused.  

“I’ve been here for days. Oh! I called your dad—he might come. Look, I know life hasn’t been easy. It’s why I pay for your therapy.” Tears stream down her face.

“No. Therapy’s wrong.” Somehow, I know it’s true. “It… makes everything worse.”

She wipes her nose. “Don’t you want to get better?”

“Yeah, but therapy isn’t the answer.” I groan. “What happened? I can’t remember.” The perpetual blankness in my mind feels bigger now, broader, like a clean slate that I can tolerate without wanting to chew at its corners. It’s a good feeling. For once, I feel safe. Protected, even. Purified.

She frowns. “You overdosed.”

I flinch. I must’ve gone someplace dark to have done that.

“And you’re not getting any more sleeping pills anytime soon,” she adds.

Deep breath. Somehow, on some level of all-knowing, I suspect that this might be for the best.

THE END. 

Writing it was a blast, and there were so many people who gave me suggestions for making it better. (Shout out!) I think it’s a solid entry, and it has to be in the top five out of twenty-eight stories in my group. Historically, I always make it to the next round and then crash and burn. But here’s hoping!

Please feel free to share any thoughts! I can’t get feedback on the forum, because the forumites are scary. (Once a year or so, they start trashing each other and ganging up on each other. It’s horrifying.)

6 thoughts on “Escaping Pandora

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