Mary kept a box inside herself in which she kept all her unwanted memories.
It started when she was nine, on Christmas day. After running into the lounge room to see what presents Santa had brought her, she had slipped and hit her head, and so her parents had rushed her to the hospital. They’d spent the whole of Christmas day in the waiting room only to be told she didn’t have a concussion or need stitches; just a Band-Aid and some pain killers. It had been the worst day of her short life, all brought upon by her overexcited running and falling. She’d made the decision that she didn’t want to remember it ever again.
She’d been in her bedroom at the time looking at the small wooden box where she kept all her stickers. The box had a small lock attached and so could be opened only by her, which meant the stickers only came out of the box when she chose. Why couldn’t she do that with her memories? she’d wondered. Create a space inside her mind for just that purpose? And so, the memory box had been created.
At first, she had pictured it as the sticker box exactly, but over time it had changed and grown, and, now at twenty-nine, Mary envisioned her memory box as being made of walnut, gilded with gold and silver filigree that wrapped itself around the box’s exterior.
The locking mechanisms had been upgraded as well. To ensure no memory slipped out, or in, by accident, Mary had added layers of puzzles to the box that she had to navigate to allow herself to open and close it. She had to first mentally move the filigree in a specific order, which caused a small section of wood at the front of the box to slide away, revealing a twenty-five-digit combination lock. Once the code was correctly set, the lid would open revealing a second lid, engraved with an intricate jungle scene. Several buttons were hidden in the scene which she would then have to press in a specific order. To finish, she would whisper a secret sentence to herself. Only then would the box open, and only for the length of time it took for her to stuff her unwanted memories inside.
The box worked perfectly. Ever since that day of its creation all those Christmases ago, Mary hadn’t been able to recall her trip to the hospital. All she had in her head was a blank space and the knowledge that she’d hidden a memory away. Her parents had assumed she must have hit her head harder than they’d realized; but Mary knew the real reason was her memory box.
In the years that followed, more and more memories had been added to the box. From the time in high school when she’d gossiped about her best friend Genevieve to the popular kids, sharing all her secrets, to the time she’d gotten so drunk at a party in her third year of university that she’d not only vomited a black-orange mix of Sambuca and Cheetos all over her soon to be ex-boyfriend while trying to kiss him, but had also broken the homeowners’ dishwasher when she’d used it to wash her vomit-covered dress, she had finished the night by crying and screaming at her friends until she’d passed out.
It wasn’t only youthful indiscretions she used the box for though; adulthood brought with it a score of memories that Mary too decided needed to be cut out and locked away. The job interview she’d started crying at; the shame she’d felt when her ex, Alex, caught her cheating; the day she’d shown up to work buzzed, leading to her being fired, and another night of drinking, breaking things, and saying words that hurt the people who loved her most. Every one of these memories made it into the box, and once the lid was closed, Mary couldn’t remember them anymore.
Other people still remembered them, of course, but with the forced forgetting those people seemed callous and moody to the now unaware Mary, and inevitably, with her thinking them undeservingly rude and them thinking her unremorseful for her actions, the relationships ended.
The box, to her mind, worked perfectly.
Except now she was having a problem. The box wouldn’t close.
She sat, tearful and hurt in the small bathroom, her swollen eyes shut as she tried to force the lid of her imaginary box down. It refused. She had gone through the regular unlocking sequence without a problem. Had mentally sawed away the unwanted memory and placed it in the box without issue. Yet, when she tried to close it, the lid became jammed.
She furrowed her brow and tried again, imagining an invisible force pushing down on the lid. It refused to budge. Something was blocking it. Which was ridiculous. The box couldn’t overfill. It was, in theory, infinite.
A pounding came from the other side of the bathroom door.
“Mary,” her dad cried. “Honey, let me in.”
She ignored him, leaning forward over her knees to stick her fingers in her ears and concentrate on closing the memory box.
The problem was that with the lid open one of her past, forgotten, memories might slip out; and Mary couldn’t allow that. She needed this box closed, and she needed it closed now.
“Mary,” her father yelled again. “You’re not doing that thing again are you? That repression thing? Please, open the door. At least talk to me.”
Mary gritted her teeth, making them feel like they might shatter, and pushed even harder on the lid of the box. It moved a fraction of a fraction downwards. She gathered her resolve and pushed again.
A memory slipped out.
She was eleven. She’d been angry at her mum for refusing to buy the toy she wanted and so had instead secreted the toy into the pocket of her mother’s coat without her noticing. The plan had been to retrieve it once they were home, but as soon as her mother had stepped through the store’s sensors, lights had flashed and alarms had rung. A security guard had approached her mother with all the zeal of a want-to-be-cop who had finally found themselves a criminal and swept them both away into a tiny room in the interior of the shopping centre. The man had been aggressive and suspicious of her mother, even though it was obvious who the real thief was and had kept them there for over an hour before finally letting them off with a warning and a demand that they pay for the toy. Her mother hadn’t said a word to Mary on the drive home, simply giving her a look of such disapproval and disappointment that a sick feeling had grown in her belly. When they’d gotten home, all her mother had done was give her the toy and say, “Here, you wanted this so bad you might as well keep it.” Mary spent that evening in her room trying and failing to ignore the toy. Every time she looked at it, the sick feeling in her belly grew. She’d put the memory in her box. After that she’d played with the toy without a worry.
Now the memory swept out and escaped into the ether of her mind, re-affixing itself to where she had cut it from all those years ago. The action weakened her, made it harder to focus on closing the box. Two decades’ worth of regret swept back in an instant.
“C’mon, you’re twenty-nine, now. You can’t keep doing this,” her father said from the other side of the door. Mary kept pushing and felt the box close a little bit more.
A second memory escaped.
Mary, at sixteen, in full flight of a hormone and alcohol-fuelled rampage, yelled and screamed at her parents while mascara tinged tears dribbled down her cheeks. They had caught her sneaking back into the house after spending the night with two of her friends and a boy three years older. The boy, Alessandro, had supplied the three girls with as much spirits as they could handle, and maybe a little bit more. The night had become one of binge drinking and eventually fighting, when it was revealed that Alessandro had been hooking up with all of them. She’d come home angry and confused, and when her parents had apprehended her, she’d exploded in a rage she didn’t know she’d possessed. Hurting them in ways only children can.
The memory shot away to return to its rightful place, but Mary kept pushing.
“Say something to me,” her father continued. “Don’t push me away. Don’t push this away.”
Mary screamed internally, forcing her well of mental strength to dig deeper. Her face grew red, her neck muscles tensed, threatening to strain, and she thought she might vomit up everything inside of her.
With a click, the latch caught.
She felt immediately lighter, her tears slowing as she allowed the emptiness to fill her.
“Please, love,” her father said. “I’m in pain too.” And the box exploded.
Memories burst out like confetti from a cannon. They whipped around her mind, a tornado of pain and regret and sorrow. Her head shot back, eyes wide, as she re-lived all the moments she had forced away for so long. Every mistake she’d made, every act of stupidity, and cruelty, and selfishness, found their way back to the appropriate dendrite, the cells flashing with renewed connection as Mary became whole.
One memory, the latest, the one the box had been so resistant to close over, played inside her mind.
She’d been drunk again, passed out at a bus stop in the middle of the city when two police had found her. They’d found her phone and called her Mum to collect her. Her mother had given her the usual spiel from the driver’s seat, asking Mary why she could never learn from her mistakes, why she always pretended everything was okay, why she never talked to them about her issues. Mary had lashed out, swearing and screaming, demanding her mum pull the car over and let her out. When she’d threatened to take the wheel herself, her mother had capitulated, stopping not far from Mary’s apartment, and Mary had managed to stumble the rest of the way home.
Her mother hadn’t been so lucky. A sleep deprived truck driver had hit her as she entered the highway, and she was gone before the ambulance had even arrived.
The next day Mary had slept through her father’s many phone calls. She’d awoken in the afternoon to read the messages and rush to the hospital. After finding out the tragic news, she’d locked herself in the bathroom and opened her memory box.
Mary’s pain-filled wails caused her father to panic. It took him four tries before his shoulder burst through the bathroom door. Mary fell into his arms, as a stream of apologies fell from her lips.
Six months later and the box was still gone.
On the advice of her therapist, Mary had made a list. A physical one this time. She wrote down every one of the memories that had been locked away. All the parts of herself that she had cut off and hidden.
It was helping. She was healing.
She’d stayed with her father ever since the accident, back in her childhood bedroom. After some hunting, she’d managed to find the old sticker box buried in the base of the wardrobe, hidden behind bags of clothes. She cut up the new list into little strips of memories and placed them all in the box. It would take time, but she planned to make amends for every one of them.
She snapped the little lock off the sticker box and in thick black marker wrote:
MARY’S MEMORY BOX
(never to be locked again)