The Box

(A quick piece of flash fiction)

Ed Jenkins raised his head when the door opened. He was the proprietor of the Russell General Store and Post Office and, as such, immediately recognized the young man in the doorway, but not the strange parcel he carried. “Hey Tom,” he called, “Whatcha got there!”

Tom’s replied as sarcastically as possible, “You old fool. What’s it look like?”

“Well – it looks like a box.”

“Ain’t that amazing! That’s what I thought too.”

The parcel in question was indeed a battered box wrapped in plain brown paper torn in enough places that the brown cardboard showed through. On the front were a large number of stamps, hastily applied, for the postage. Tom continued, “I reckoned that, since it had postage and all, I should bring it here first.”

Ed looked closer at the box and saw the name of the addressee. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! Why didn’t you tell me it was for ol’ Mrs. Pritchard?” He looked over his shoulder at the boys playing checkers at the back table. “Boys, I need you to go fetch Mrs. Pritchard on Maple Street. You know who I mean?”

The boys nodded their agreement. Everyone in town knew the old woman who lived at the end of Maple. Off they ran to get her.

Ed and Tom turned their attention back to the box. Tom was first to speak. “What do you think’s in it?”

“Danged if I know. Been a long time since anyone sent a package here.”  Ed’s reply carried both a sense of shock and wonder to it. He continued, “Can’t remember the last time we received something like this.” He and Tom stood in silence gazing at the package for a few minutes when Ed added, “What’s taking those boys so long? Maple is just one street over.”

Just then, Mrs. Smith entered the shop. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the box. “Where in the world did THAT come from?” she exclaimed.

Ed matter-of-factly said, “Part of the return address was torn off, but looks like a Kansas City zip code.”

Mrs. Smith exhaled in wonder. “Kansas City!” Just then, the door burst open, followed by the two boys at full gallop. Some distance behind them tottered old Molly Pritchard muttering something under her breath. One could feel the excitement rise to a fever pitch as the four people in the room impatiently waited on her to enter.

“Well, Ed, what’s the big rush here,” she said.

Ed tried to appear calm, “You got a package, Molly – all the way from Kansas City.”

Her hands trembled as she approached the box and began fumbling with the tape that held it together. “Don’t recall ever knowing anybody in Kansas City.”

More people had entered the store. The boys had spread the news around a bit while going about their errand. It now appeared that the entire town was on the way to the store. Everyone’s head turned every which way to get a better view of the box and hopefully see what was about to be found inside. Excited voices whispered back and forth about what it could contain. The unveiling had turned into quite an event.

At last, Mrs. Pritchard removed the last of the wrapping paper, and because her mother had brought her up right, she carefully folded it for further examination later.

An exasperated voice called from the back, “Come on! Get on with it!”

Her response was equally curt, “My box. My time. Just shut up!”

At long last, the box revealed its contents. There, sitting in the box, was a beautifully embroidered nightdress that someone had wrapped around a bottle of perfume – presumably to keep it from breaking. At the bottom of the box was an envelope. On the front was the single word, Molly.

By now, her hands were shaking so severely that Ed asked if he could help her open the letter. She nodded her approval. He deftly used an old opener in his drawer and deftly removed the contents of the envelope. He carefully handed it back to her.

The room was hushed as she read the message quietly to herself.  When she had finished, tears running down her wrinkled face, she fainted.

Fortunately, the crowd had been pressed close enough to her that they cushioned her fall. Quickly, they laid her on the floor and tried to revive her while someone went to fetch a doctor. Mrs. Smith had been standing next to her and had picked up the letter as it fell from Molly’s fingers. Curious as to what would have caused the older woman to react that way, she read it and gasped at the significance of the contents.

Her voice quivered as she addressed the rest of the assemblage. “The letter – the package is from her husband.” The crowd became still, so quiet that it was like they weren’t even there. “He says. ‘I made a quick trip to KC to make some deliveries and found these in one of the shops you like. With any luck, they’ll get to you by Christmas. I will be finished with business by the end of the year and will make my way back to you. Love, Henry.’ The letter is dated December 20, 2025.” Mrs. Smith was sobbing as she put the note on the counter. “All this time, she’s prayed that he was still alive somewhere, surviving in one of the smaller towns.”

Tom’s voice rose out of the group. “I found the package in an old postal truck that had rolled off the highway up by Salina. Looters had pretty well trashed the inside, but this one was small enough that it slid under the driver’s seat in the crash. Recognized Mrs. Pritchard’s name right off and brought it here to Russell for her.”

The doctor had long since arrived and was attending to Molly. After a bit, saddened, the doctor got up. The people watched expectantly and sighed in unison when she silently shook her head back and forth. Molly was gone.

“Christmas? Christmas of 2025?” one of the men asked, suddenly remembering the day’s significance. “Wasn’t that the day the bombs went off?” Not many were alive who remembered that day, and those who rarely talked about it.

Ed nodded in agreement. He remembered it like it was yesterday. Silence welcomed him as he spoke. “The country had been at war with itself for years. Didn’t appear there was anything ‘united’ about the United States anymore. The Ruskies and the Chinese took advantage of our civil problems, snuck some nukes in through the borders, and took out our major cities in one blow. KC was one of them. Millions of people died in only a few seconds. Millions more from the radiation that followed. Golly, that must have been thirty years ago now. We counter-attacked, of course, but after our missiles flew, it got real quiet around here. Best we could tell, everyone lost – we knew that we had. There were a lot of bad times between then and now. We were spared the worst because the north wind blew the fallout mostly to the south.”

He looked out over the hushed crowd. There was no way to explain how bad it had been. He knew that they couldn’t possibly understand. Hell, over half of them hadn’t been born yet. He silently went back behind the counter as the crowd began to disperse.

The next day, they buried Molly Pritchard. The entire town had assembled to honor her.  They put her in the pretty nightdress her husband had sent and sprinkled the perfume on her grave. Clutched in her hands was a note – his note. There wasn’t a lot of wailing and crying. The people of Russell were good folks, people of faith. They knew in their hearts that when she left this world, her husband was waiting there with an outstretched hand.

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