I love the smell most of all, but second to it is the satisfying hot press into the wax, my initial “R” in an Old English script.
It is how I know what’s mine. Because often there are questions. My shoebox disappears. I find it under the stairs with a single shell missing. I uncover it on the couch with the label torn. The seal helps.
She comes in smelling of smoke and bitterness, the mothball mildew of her coat as she heaps it onto the couch. My box was in the laundry basket this morning. She touches the top of my head and rubs her hands for warmth. He’s in Alaska, fishing.
She assembles dinner from frozen packages, cut vegetables and chewy hunks of meat. The rice is still a little hard. We stare across the table at each other, strangers. She asks me about school. I don’t ask her questions. This leaves the room full of silence and air. She smiles, a thin unkind smile. I watch a pea roll away from the rice.
At night, I lie awake and wait. A shaft of light sweeps across the wall as she slips in. I listen for the rustle of her hands. She opens something, a click, and then she finds my box. I can hear her breath shift, grow rapid. She leaves, the silhouette of them both in the doorway before it clicks shut.
The next morning, the seal is pried off. A postcard from Ketchikan is missing, dad’s one postcard. My sea glass is still there, my birthday card from my last birthday with my mother. A nest from the tree in our old yard. A stick dad carved into a snake.
I press the seal into the wax, my big, ornate R. I make another. A ring of them around the top, sealing my shoebox closed. I write on the top “Rachel’s box DO NOT TOUCH” and tuck it behind the books on the living room shelf.
She is half-watching from the kitchen, pretending to get ready for work. She puts her lipstick on in the reflection of the toaster, a flash of scarlet. Her fingers fluff her wild red hair, shocks of deep blue polish. The bus honks for me.
I come home, and she isn’t here. She’s rarely home before four. I look behind the books and find only dust. I look in her accustomed places—under her bed; the shelf in her closet; behind the pots in the kitchen.
I find it on the back step. The door locks behind me. I sit on the back step, my shoebox in my lap. The postcard is back, the sea glass is missing. I gathered it on a brisk whitecap Sunday with sand blowing into our sandwiches. My dad sat on a driftwood log, carving. She stood over him, a shadow, before she lived here, before mom went away, before the days shortened to rain and dad went out to fish.
I sit on the back steps, locked out. I put the box on my lap and pull my jacket around it to keep it dry. I fall asleep in the soft, misty rain. I don’t dream.