Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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Jewellery Box

by Samantha Brooke




No-one in our family ever talked about how Granny had died. I was only seven when it happened, so I never really thought much about the whys and wherefores. You don't when you're that age, do you? As I grew older, I occasionally wondered. My own mother would often talk about Granny - her mum - and tell me stories and anecdotes about her.

 'I wish she could have lived to see you grow up,' Mum would often say to me. 'The two of you would have had so much in common.'

 And from what I could remember of Granny, that was true. She had been artistic - the walls of her house adorned with pretty watercolour scenes that she had painted herself, and with the many photographs that she had taken. Not just the usual family portraits of her husband, children and grandchildren, either. I remembered seeing pictures of towering trees, set against a stormy sky. A river gushing along, the waters high after a heavy rainfall. An old house that stood, lonely and long-abandoned, amid an overgrown tangle of weeds that was the garden. These photographs had made an impression on me - and once, I asked Mum about what had happened to all of them.

 A shadow had flitted across her face - and when she spoke, it was in that high, constrained voice which I recognised as the one she always used whenever she was trying not to cry.

 'Your grandfather got rid of them all,' she replied. 'Destroyed them.'

 I stared at her, aghast. 'But... why? Why on earth would he do a thing like that?' I had never been close with my grandfather. Shortly after Granny's death, Mum and Dad had moved away to a different area and so we were too far from him to make regular visits. Therefore, I had never really got to know him well, never known what kind of a person he was. Still, the thought of him destroying someone's work like that, after their death...

 It sent a chill of disgust through me.

 'He said that it was too painful for him to have to look at them all the time,' Mum had continued, eventually.

 'But there was no need to destroy them! Surely he could have just - '

 'I know!' Mum had snapped then. She must have seen the surprise which I felt flickering over my face, because her own expression softened again instantly. 'I'm sorry, sweetheart,' she said. 'It's just that it's such a difficult thing for me to talk about. Maybe you'll understand one day. After I'm gone.'

 'Don't say things like that.' I had replied shortly - not wanting to even contemplate such an occurrence. And that had brought about an end to that particular conversation.

 As it turned out, I had been forced to face the reality of Mum's death a lot sooner than I ever expected to. It was not long after my seventeenth birthday when she fell ill. We had no idea what was wrong with her at first - and she refused to go to the doctor, saying that she was just a bit tired and under the weather and that she would no doubt feel better soon. But she did not get better. She only got worse and worse - and after Dad and I nagged her for weeks, she finally gave in and went to get checked out.

 The doctors sent her for test after test. And when the results came back, I hadn't dissolved into tears, or ranted angrily about the unfairness of it all. Instead, a numbing sense of shock had enveloped me. For the ensuing months, I had walked around like a zombie - only able to watch, helpless, as Mum's health continued to fail. She grew paler, more fragile. In the end, she was so weak that was not even able to sit up in bed by herself.

 I was the only one with her when she died. Dad had finally gone home to take a shower and grab a couple of hours of sleep, while I sat beside her bed in the hospice and held her hand. I could feel the bones standing out sharply beneath her skin, which was horribly thin and transparent. And the sound of her breaths - harsh and gasping, rattling in her chest - is a sound that still haunts me to this day.

 Her eyes had fluttered open at one point and found my own. I had tried to smile - the muscles in my face feeling tight and uncomfortable, as though they had long forgotten how to be in that position.

 'Hey, Mum... ' I had said. Her own smile in return was full of loving fondness. My grip on her hand tightened, just a little. It was as though I could already sense that she was getting ready to slip away from us.

 'I want you to have the jewellery box,' she had whispered.

 'What?'

 'The jewellery box. Granny's jewellery box. It's the only thing I have left of my mother's. And it's yours now.' Her eyes had slipped closed again. 'Someday, you can give it to your own daughter. And be sure to tell her all about me.'

 Hot tears had begun to spill from my eyes then, gushing down my cold cheeks and dripping onto the bedcovers. Mum had not noticed. She never opened her eyes again.

 I forgot all about the jewellery box until a while after her funeral, when Dad and I finally plucked up the courage to begin sorting through her things. The box was tucked away on a shelf at the back of her wardrobe. It seemed rather larger than an ordinary jewellery box, and was obviously extremely old. Its dark, walnut surface felt cold and smooth beneath my fingers as I reached for it and picked it up.

 I moved away from the wardrobe - away from the wafts of her favourite floral perfume which still emanated from Mum's dresses - and carried the box over to the bed in the centre of the room, which my parents had once shared. I sat down. Placing the box down next to me, I prised open the metal catch and opened it up. The lid fell back with a slight creak of its hinges, and I peered inside. The lower inner portion of the box was lined with faded apple-green silk, while the inside of the lid as mirrored. The glass of the mirror was spotted with age, and had a spider-web crack in the top left corner. The box was quite empty - devoid of any bracelets, necklaces or rings. I wasn't really surprised. Mum had never been much of a one for wearing jewellery - and the few bits and pieces that she had owned were always stashed in the top drawer of her dressing table.

 'Wow. A real family heirloom,' I muttered aloud as I snapped the lid closed. And at the moment, a mournful-sounding wail had drifted across the room. My head snapped up in an instant. The bedroom window was slightly open, so I concluded that the sound must be coming from outside somewhere. Come to think of it, there was rather a chill seeping through the room also, I realised. So I got to my feet, crossed to the window and closed it firmly.

******

From that day forward, the jewellery box lived on my bedside table. It stood in pride of place between my battered old alarm clock that I'd had since I was ten years old, and the lava lamp that I loved so much despite its undeniable tackiness. Like my mother, I also wasn't much of a jewellery wearer, and so I decided to use the box to store old family photographs of us all in happier times. It was nice to be able to reach into the box every evening before bed, and see my mother's face beaming up at me - her image forever preserved as she had been then, happy and healthy, full of life and laughter. And then, when the pain of missing her grew too much, I would proceed to flip through the rest of the photographs.

 There were pictures of Grandad - he had not attended Mum's funeral as he was now too sick to be able to leave the care home that he resided in - and Granny. In all of the photographs, Granny seemed to look sombre and sad. Her eyes were wide and plaintive - almost pleading, somehow. This was not the way Mum had always described her, nor how I myself recalled her from when I was a young girl. And it was the strangest thing, but I was sure that she had always been smiling in these photographs whenever I had looked at them before. In the end, I decided that the grief must be affecting me - and that I would put the photographs away and leave them for a while, until my mind was no longer trying to play tricks on me.

 That was when the dreams started. Well - always the same dream, really. In it, I would be laying in bed, in the darkness and the mournful wailing that I had heard on the day I'd found the jewellery box would suddenly fill the air. It would grow louder and louder, until it was almost deafening. Alarmed, I'd scramble up out of bed and reach to switch on the lava lamp. Its green glow cast an eerie light across the bedroom as I stared around anxiously, trying to work out where the sound was coming from. It never occurred to me to shout for my dad, or to go into his room to wake him. In fact, I don't think her was even there in the house with me, not in the dream.

 Then, slowly, the wailing would fade away - but I knew that I was not alone. There was somebody else with me, right there in my bedroom. Another presence -

 A stifled gasp would escape my lips as the lid of the jewellery box was flung open, apparently of its own accord. I would glance back towards it - expecting to see only my own scared reflection in the mirror, a pale face and wide blue eyes. But that was not what I saw...

 Instead, there was another scene entirely that was visible there, as though the glass surface itself was not actually a mirror but a television screen. And so I watched - fascinated and yet terrified - as the scene began to unfold. I was unable to tear my eyes away, even if I had attempted to. 

 The scene was somewhat blurred and out of focus - but I was able to make out a woman who appeared to be cowering against a wall, her chest heaving with sobs. Her breaths were loud - rapid and panicky. Then there came a hammering sound - as of someone banging upon a door, followed almost at once by a sharp splintering sound as the door was broken open. The woman cowered back even further against the wall, a muffled shriek escaping her lips. Pure terror emanated from her, and an answering terror rose up within me as I watched.

 No!' The woman cried out, as heavy footsteps approached. Her voice sounded shockingly familiar to my ears. 'No - leave me alone! Leave me alone!' She gave an ear-splitting scream as a man came into sight, lunging towards her.

 'You drunken whore.' His voice was a low, harsh growl. 'You think I haven't seen you, flirting with every man that you meet? What to you take me for?!'

 'I - '

 'You think I'm going to put up with you any longer, hm? DO YOU?!' His screams suddenly died away, his voice dropping to a whisper that was somehow even more chilling. 'Because I'm not.'

 In an instant, he had flung a length of rope around the woman's neck and was pulling it roughly, tighter and tighter as she struggled.

 'No!' This time, it was me who screamed out. I got to my feet, picking up the jewellery box and shaking it - as though this would help somehow. The choking, gurgling sound that was coming from the woman then was truly terrible. The man just squeezed the rope even tighter. She fought him as best she could - clawing and scratching at his hands, his face. But he was twice her size, simply too strong for her.

 Finally, with a last grunt of effort on the man's part, the woman fell limp and silent. She slumped down onto the floor as he released her, the body landing with a dull thud at his feet. Some of the blurriness cleared then - and I found myself staring straight into the blank, dead eyes of my grandmother...

******

It was only after I'd had this disturbingly vivid dream several times that I finally decided to broach the subject with my dad. It was during breakfast one morning that I plucked up the courage to do it. 

 'Dad - ' I began, looking at him across the table as I picked at the slice of rather overdone toast that was on my plate. 'I've been wanting to ask you about something.'

 'Of course,' he replied. He took a glug of coffee from his mug, the smell of it wafting over to me so that I wrinkled my nose in distaste. 'What is it?' 

 I hesitated for a moment, noticing how very tired he looked and how much he appeared to have aged in the weeks since Mum had left us. There were dark purple circles beneath his eyes, like bruises. And the lines that were on his forehead and around his mouth were becoming ever more deeply etched. The very last thing that I wanted to do was give him anything more to trouble him. But I had to know. I just had to -

 'How did Granny die, exactly?' 

 He looked startled by the question, as I had fully expected. The subject had never been raised before - and so for him, at least, it must have seemed as though it had come completely out of the blue. 

 He cleared his throat and shuffled in his seat, looking uncomfortable.

 'Granny?' he said, his eyes shifting so that they avoided mine. 'That's all a very long time ago now. What's brought all this up?'

 'I... just want to know, that's all.'

 'Is this about your mum? Look, I know that it can take time to - '

'It's not,' I interrupted him firmly. More toast crumbs crumbled from my fingers and onto the plate. My fingertips were growing slick with the remnants of melted butter. 'It's not about Mum. It's about Granny. I need to know how she died.' 

 He stared at me in silence for a long, long moment before finally heaving a great sigh. He looked wearier than ever. 

 'Your mother didn't want to tell you,' he said eventually. 'Not at the time. You were so young, and she thought that it would be too distressing for you.'

 'Go on,' I said. My heart was beating fast in my chest.

 'She... She killed herself.'

 'What?' I was stunned. The half-mutilated slice of toast slipped from my fingers and landed with a slight clatter back on the plate. 'Suicide? But, no...' 

 He nodded slowly. 'Your grandfather found her when he arrived home one afternoon. She'd hung herself. It was tragic. Really tragic. And your mother blamed herself for a long time, thinking that she have done more, spotted the signs that there was something terribly amiss.'

 'I - ' I was speechless for a while, not able to think of anything to say. 'What about Grandad?'

 'What about him?' Dad's frown deepened, his confusion apparent. 

 'He said that he wasn't there when it happened?'

 'Of course he wasn't there.' He was looking at me strangely then, his brow furrowed. 'Why would you say that?'

 'No reason,' I replied hurriedly. Nevertheless, I could feel the expression on my face betraying me. Dad continued to frown. 'I'd better go and take a shower.' I got to my feet - picking up my plate and tossing the remainder of the toast into the pedal bin before stacking it neatly inside the dishwasher.

 'Are you sure that everything's okay with you?' Dad pressed, still eyeing me suspiciously over the rim of his coffee mug.

 'Yep. Of course.'

 I had hurried out of the kitchen and up the stairs before he had a chance to ask any further questions. But my heart was pounding and my mind raced. I went straight into my bedroom and closed the door behind me. My gaze flew to the jewellery box - still sitting upon my bedside table, the very picture of innocence. Yet now, there was something distinctly unsettling about it...

 The dreams continued, night after night. They grew more vivid, too, showing me that horrible event - the brutal murder of my grandmother at the hands of her husband - in ever more grisly detail.

 Perhaps if it had just been the dreams alone, then I would have been able to successfully convince myself that what I was seeing was simply a figment of my own subconscious imagination - and not something that had really happened, years earlier. The thing is, more recently, I have also been seeing and hearing things whilst I've been awake, too...

 It started out with just those sorrowful cries and moans drifting through the air - the same as I had heard on the day that I had first found the jewellery box in Mum's wardrobe. I would hear the sounds at random times - like when I was sitting watching TV in the living room, or standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth. Occasionally, I can even hear them when I'm outside of the house. It happened once when I was standing in a supermarket checkout line with Dad - and again when I was taking a stroll through the park with a friend. Dad never seems to be able to hear the sounds, and nor does anybody else who happens to be in the vicinity. But to me, they're as clear as day. I know that I'm not imagining them.

 It has occurred to me to wonder whether Mum ever had the same kinds of experiences with the jewellery box, and whether that was the reason why she had shut the box away in the back of her wardrobe and never used it. But I have come to the conclusion that is not, in fact, the case. For one thing - if Mum had suffered some disturbing experiences with the box, like I myself have, then there's absolutely no way that she would have been so eager to pass it down to me after her death. And not only that, but I know for a fact that she would not have been able to keep quiet about it had even the slightest suspicion been raised in her mind that the death of her beloved mother might have been at the hand of another person. Even if that person had been her own father. Mum would have done whatever it took to get to the truth.

 So, no - I don't believe that Mum ever suspected anything. But she had always said that I was 'special'. Just like Granny herself. And it's only recently that I have begun to get an inkling about what that means...

 After the conversation with my dad, I was convinced that all of these events are indeed Granny's attempts at revealing the truth about what happened to her all those years ago - and perhaps to get the justice that she has so long been denied. But what exactly was it that she wanted me to do? I asked myself that over and over. After all, it wasn't like I could just call up the police and tell them that I'd had a dream about a crime taking place more than a decade earlier. They would have laughed me out of the place. But nor could I simply forget about what I had seen, about what I now knew. It haunted me day and night. Quite literally.

 For weeks, I was barely sleeping or eating - utterly tormented by the situation. The sounds that I was hearing soon progressed to me actually seeing her. The first time, she drifted through the wall of my room when I was sitting up in bed late one night - reading a book by the dim lamplight. I was instantly frozen, my fingers clenched tightly, digging into the cover of the paperback that I held.

 'G - Granny...' My voice trembled as I whispered to her. My eyes were fixed upon hers, I could not tear them away. She just stood before me, utterly silent - and I flinched as I saw the swollen neck, with livid purple bruises upon it from where the rope had cut into her skin. In my head, the scene that I had scene so often by then flashed into play. I saw Grandad choking the life out of her, and her panic-stricken attempts to fight back before her body had finally slipped to the floor. I hadn't seen the next part, but I saw it now - as though Granny herself was transmitting the image into my head. After delivering his brutal attack, he had then proceeded to string her up from the ceiling. A strategic chair was placed beneath her swinging feet, carefully overturned so that it looked like she had purposefully kicked it away. I felt sick to my very core. And I could feel her absolute hatred for him emanating through the room, my flesh crawling as the air turned icy. Then, the lid of the jewellery box flung itself open - just like in the dream - and a gasp escaped my lips, my gaze automatically jumping towards the bedside table. The book slipped from my fingers and landed upon the covers. When I looked up again, she had vanished.

 That was not the only time that she appeared to me. Far from it. In fact, as time has worn on, she seems to be getting stronger - her presence becoming more frequent, more powerful. Not long after the late night incident, I spotted her standing in my bedroom window, gazing down at me sombrely as I walked up the path to return home. And then, early one dark winter morning, I was standing in the bathroom - still halfway asleep as I sluggishly brushed my teeth. I happened to glance up - and she was standing right behind me. Her reflection was a little hazy in the reflection from the mirror, but she was quite clearly there. I wheeled around to face her, my toothbrush falling into the sink with a clatter and splattering toothpaste messily around, but she was already gone.

 I've seen her several more times since then. Mostly just glances here and there. But I know now that even when I can't see her, she's still here. Still waiting. And I've decided that I can't put off doing something about it any longer. This needs to be dealt with - and soon.


 Which is why I'm going to tell my dad later on today - I'm going to tell him that I've decided to go and visit my grandfather. No doubt Granny will be coming along with me...

THE END


2023 Samantha Brooke

Bio: Samantha Brooke in her own words; "I've been writing horror fiction for several years now, ever since completing a writing course in 2012. Since that time, I've completed three novels, the most recent of which is currently being looked at by agents. I also regularly write short stories and poetry for magazines, and have had work published in both England and America - most recently in Schlock Magazine, Black Petals, Tigershark Publishing, and CommuterLit. Thank you for your time."

E-mail: Samantha Brooke

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