(Wrote this months ago for a contest and never entered it. However, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out! I actually wrote a little about the process of writing this piece in this post. Enjoy!)
By the fifteenth month of the drought, the lake no longer held her secrets. The chest sat on the now-dry lakebed where it had settled all those years ago. As her father and brother struggled to open it, her hands grew clammy. She had no desire to reminisce about the man who had stolen her child.
* * *
She had been young when she had met him. Having friends in common warranted a meeting, and at first, she was alright. After a year, however, she wasn’t alright; she was nauseous and tired and sometimes manic and sometimes sad. When the little stick displayed a pink plus sign, she understood the nausea and the fatigue. It would take her three more years to understand the stretches of mania and sadness. As for him, well, she would never fully understand him.
Three years after giving birth, her doctor told her she was bipolar. She did not know then that her diagnosis could be a weapon.
On her daughter’s fourth birthday, he disappeared with the child. Suddenly, her life no longer had a purpose and her hands were full of papers, legal papers, that accused her of being an unfit parent. She wondered how she could be an unfit parent when she was the one who carried another being for nine months, when she was the one who pushed that being into the world for ten hours.
Her first day in court was nerve-wracking. She wanted to tell the judge everything she had done to love her daughter, but all he wanted to know was how she had not. She listened as her ex shared stories of times when she had “endangered” their child. It was so personal, so calculating and cruel. “I was young,” she wanted to say. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me.” But no one gave her the chance.
After her daughter’s father won custody, she moved back home. She still had some tokens from her time with him: a watch he gave her on their second anniversary; a t-shirt of his that she had liked to sleep in – tiny reminders of what her life had been and what it would never be again. She dumped those memories into a chest and threw it into the lake on the edge of her family’s property.
* * *
The chest is covered in horrible red-brown rust that reminds her of blood. In a way, it is a wound, and she knows that if the wound is opened, it might kill her. She has taken her meds regularly for only fourteen days. She does not feel she has control over her illness yet.
Her family is curious about the contents of the chest. She does not admit that she knows those insides, knows them better than she knows her own daughter. It has been five years and she has no idea what her child’s favorite color is or what she learns in school or how she styles her hair. The only thing she knows is that the chest is her Pandora’s box, filled with secret shames she cannot set free.
Six days after retrieving the chest, her brother manages to open it. Instead of releasing turmoil, it brings peace. She has a bonfire and the trinkets of her past turn to ashy ghosts. She calls her ex and asks to see her daughter. He does not say yes, but he does not say no. It is a start.