The Memory Project
by Carey Torgesen
My mother once told me memories were like a string of pearls. Beautiful and strong. But if you look closely, you see the ridges, the imperfections, the truth behind the beauty. It seems both wonderful and sad that each pearl’s very life was dependent on one single speck of sand. And it's this unique beginning, part fate and part circumstance that creates each pearl's own story. “A story within a story” she called it.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of that today. At least, not at first. I was just exploring. I needed to get out of my mother’s hair as she was flitting about from here to there trying to get the food ready for the party. My sister, Sam, was turning sixteen. Which, if I didn’t know any better, must have been some holiday for the way everyone was acting.
So no one noticed when I snuck out the back door, canvas slip-ons in hand, not even looking behind me as the screen door slammed upon the door frame. It was hot. Hot as hell. And I wanted to take Jesse, my best friend, over to the lake on the Duvall property. With a tote slung over my shoulder, I dropped my shoes, slipped them over my feet, and made my way down the trail that led to his house.
Sweat dripped from my forehead. Putting my hand in my jean shorts pocket, I dug around for a small rubber band, looped it around my hair twice and wiped my brow with my arm. It was always a relief when I could keep my thick mane off of my neck and shoulders. Even though the south was known for its humidity, I would never get used to it. Being from upstate New York, it seemed you couldn’t really ever take the Yankee out of the girl. Even though I’d lived in Louisiana more than half my fifteen years, I continued to think of myself as a “northern belle”. Was that even a thing?
The grass swooshed past my bare legs as I took the path off the trail and darted through the thick trees and brush, the shortcut to Jesse’s place. A light breeze blew and for just a few seconds, I took in a breath and sighed with relief. I had only been out of the house for five minutes and already my skin grew sticky from the heat.
I slapped at my arm, swatting the slight tickle I felt.
Through the small clearing of trees, I saw the familiar yellow house belonging to Jesse Peterson's family. When I had moved here, my step-mother had quickly befriended Lily Peterson, the local head of the Daughters of the Revolution chapter here in Oak Grove. In a matter of months, they became inseparable, which is how I ended up being best friends with Jesse. Only one year older than me, Jesse and I had been forced together in endless games of badminton and poker games for coupons. These ladies were weird. But then, I kind of enjoyed listening to the town gossip and kicking Jesse under the table whenever they belted out one of those high pitch laughs that sounded like a horse’s whinny. So, I guess by association, I was weird too. I didn’t mind.
With a skip and a jump, I hopped from the first step to the top of the wrap-around porch and knocked on the screen door.
Lily, beautiful as always, came down the hall and smiled. As she walked toward the screen to unlock it, she called up to Jesse. “Natalie’s here!” Her soft red curls, held to the side by a ribbon, were something I always envied.
Some people wanted to be blond; I always wanted to be a ginger. Anything but the dull brown I inherited from my father’s side of the family. She opened the door, the hinges creaking as she did so, and I made my way into the small living room. The electric fans whirred above and I stood right smack in the middle of the room, closing my eyes and looking up so I could feel the cool manufactured wind against my damp skin.
Without opening my eyes, I knew Jesse was on his way down. The thump of his heavy trudging echoed through the house as he came down the stairs. He wasn't the stealthiest of people. But how could I expect a sixteen year old boy to be stealthy? Especially one who made football his life’s goal.
“Nat! What’s up? I was just about to get something to eat. Want somethin’?” He flipped his long bangs out of his eyes and headed down the hall, stopped, turned and looked back at me, jerking his chin toward the kitchen. “Whatcha waitin’ for?”
I followed him down the hall, my shoes making the occasional squeak against the hardwood floor. The darkness of the hall soon gave way to the bright light of the kitchen. A light breeze flowed inside, ruffling the curtains. I scooted the small, wooden chair from the table, plunked myself down, and turned to watch Jesse as he attempted to make the world’s biggest cold cut sandwich of all time.
“Jesse! You really think you’re gonna be able to get that whole thing in your mouth?”
At the very same moment I finished the question, Jesse was stuffing his mouth with the sandwich, his cheeks bulging from the sheer volume of food. I rolled my eyes and shook my head.
A bit of bread flew out of his mouth as Jesse smiled and sputtered something incomprehensible. I narrowed my eyes and cocked my head to the side. “What?”
He swallowed audibly, and smirked. “I said, that’s what he said.” He chuckled and winked.
I blushed. “Jeez, Jess, you’re somethin’ else.”
He propped himself against the counter, picked up the sandwich again, and before taking another hulking bite, said, “That’s also what she said.”
I rolled my eyes and stifled another laugh. Jesse could always put a smile on my face. Even when we’d first met, he had a southern charm that all girls, myself included, found irresistible. I bounced my heel up and down and tapped my fingers on the table while I watched Jesse down an actual submarine-sized sandwich in a matter of minutes.
“You in a hurry, small stack?”
I fanned myself with one of the nearby napkins. “Nah, I’m just waiting for you to be done so you can go with me to the lake. You in?” I knew Jesse was in. He was always in for swimming. Any chance he could take to see a girl in a swimsuit was one he’d gladly agree to. And since that was where most of the kids hung out in the afternoons, odds were pretty great that his wishes would be fulfilled.
Jesse grabbed the half gallon of milk and chugged. A small dribble rolled down his chin into his shirt. When the container was empty, he slammed it down on the counter triumphantly, looked at me, his lips curling in a smirk, and belched. “Let me get changed.”
“Good Lord you’ll make some girl proud,” I said.
Walking through the tall grass as Jesse wielded a branch as a machete, we talked about our plans for next year. Jesse wanted to try to get into a college on a football scholarship, and me, I would be content with an academic grade point average that would allow me to get into a top university. Preferably NYU. Their arts program was incredible.
The heat of the summer stuck to our skin and there was no cover to shield us. The wind, what minor amount there had been, died down leaving only the movement of the grass as we waded through it to stir the air around us. Jesse peeled off his shirt, his chest and back slick with sweat. I found myself scanning him, covering every inch of his bare chest with my eyes. He was the perfect color of tan in the summer. Copper and bronze, probably due to the drop of Cherokee blood in him. I'd always known Jesse was attractive, but it was only in the last year or so I really noticed the small things that drew me to him. The dimple in his cheek, his chiseled cheekbones, the breadth of his shoulders, these are things I'd overlooked before. But I noticed them now. And although I enjoyed looking, it also weirded me out just a bit how at a moment’s notice I could go from smelling his nasty burps and being disgusted, to wanting nothing more than to kiss his amazingly full lips.
“Are you checking me out?” Jesse’s voice tore me from my daydream.
“What?” My nose wrinkled. “No. Jeez, Jess. Aren’t we a little full of ourselves?” I leaned down, pretending something was in my shoe. I took it off, shook it out, and hoped that when I stood back up, the heat from my cheeks would have dissipated.
“I’ll race you.” Jesse took off without a beat.
I was not planning on running, but the competitor in me couldn’t help but take up the challenge. He may have been older and more athletic, but I was faster. And he knew it, which was why he had given himself the unfair head start. Even so, I still made it to the dock first. I threw my tank into the bushes, kicked my shoes off, and plunged into the water.
About thirty seconds later, as I was swimming, I heard the splash of Jesse’s cannonball behind me. He surfaced in front of me, and playfully pushed me down by my shoulders. I popped back to the surface and splashed him in the face. This was pretty much our ritual.
The water was divine and it took off the edge from the unbearable heat. For the first time in what seemed like ages, we had been the only two in the water. Then again, my mom was planning the birthday party and next to a southern cotillion, my mom’s parties were pretty much the event of the season. Most likely anyone who was anyone was getting ready to wine and dine on finger sandwiches and vegetable slices wrapped in cured deli meats.
After the swim, Jesse and I lay under the shade of a magnolia at the water’s edge, waiting for the noon heat to die down. After about an hour, we were ready to make the trek back home. By now the party should be in full swing and my mom would be irate if I didn’t at least show my face for an hour or two. Like the good friend he was, Jesse placated my whiny pleas and decided he would do me a favor and attend with me. I was sure he just wanted to be there to hang out with all my sister's friends. Although they were hoity-toity and a little too stuck on themselves for my taste, they were beautiful and I could understand what Jesse saw in them.
On the way back, Jesse tugged at my arm, and headed left toward the tree line and the old McAllister place.
“Why are you taking us back this way?” I asked.
“Have you ever heard the stories?” Jesse stopped and turned around, waiting for me.
“Yeah, about the old farmhouse at the end of the road?”
“Sure I have.” We’d all heard the stories. They came to be known as our small town’s urban legends. Unexplained flashes throughout the night. Loud noises like electrical fences making contact with an unfortunate creature. Screams. “Everyone’s heard them but no one actually believes them. What are you getting at?”
Jesse moved in close to me, the heat from his body penetrating the space between us. He moved his hand toward my hair, catching a wayward strand between his fingers and delicately placing it behind my ear. My muscles tensed. I swallowed hard. I could barely breathe with him in such close proximity. His face moved next to my ear and he whispered, “What I’m getting at is I think we should check it out. Haven’t you wondered what was in there?”
I took a step back. Our eyes locked. I pulled my bottom lip in between my teeth and looked at the ground. Anything to break this hold he had on me. I still wasn’t entirely sure what his motives were, although it seemed like I could make a pretty good guess. But this was Jesse. My best friend.
The moment of quiet must have been all he needed because his hand clasped mine. He pulled me next to him. We walked hand in hand towards the old farmhouse.
It was strange. I'd been all around the unoccupied area between the neighborhood houses and never once had I stepped foot past the long row of Crape Myrtle trees. They lined the property like soldiers protecting a castle. As we came closer and closer to the house, Jesse’s hold on me became tighter and more protective. About one hundred yards away, I stopped, causing our hands to break from one another.
“Jesse,” I hesitated. “I’m not sure I want to do this. This place is…creepy.”
“It’s just an old house.”
I glanced up at the facade of the home. It was an old estate house. The kind that would've been called Tara or Willows or something. The white paint had cracked and peeled revealing rotted wood beneath. The windows were cloudy with cobwebs and dust settled around the angles where the joints of the wood met. The house may have been grand in its prime, but now took on the appearance of something out of a horror movie. The dozen stairs leading up to the porch looked as if they'd crumble to pieces if we even thought about climbing them.
“I have a bad feeling about this.” I wrapped my arms around my body.
“Okay, Han. Duly noted. Now let’s go.” He held out his hand again.
“Han Solo? Star Wars?”
I stared at him blankly.
“Never mind, let’s go.”
With Jesse’s hand in mine, we made our way up the stairs to the porch. The wood creaked and groaned under our weight, an occasional pop emitting from under our feet. I let go of Jesse’s hand at the top. Already half inside, he seemed adamant about going in. Me? I wanted to try and take a peek first, to get my bearings, and to see what was going to attack me before I actually surrendered myself to a heinous death.
With the bottom of my tank, I swiped a small circle on the dirty windows, brushing any leftover layers with my hand. Blocking the glare of the light with my hand above my head, I squinted, attempting to see what was inside. From what I could tell, it was barren. Whoever lived here before had cleared out pretty much everything inside. Well, at least that’s somewhat normal.
Knowing the place hadn’t been suddenly abandoned, but that someone planned and moved out, made the place much less horrifying. Straightening up and smoothing my shirt down, I strode in after Jesse, standing next to him as we stopped in the empty foyer.
A long winding staircase, complete with both full and broken wooden spindles led upstairs to a hallway and what else, we couldn’t see. To the left, there was a small room, blocked partially by one side of the oak French door that was closed. I could make out some empty bookcases.
I pointed. “Must be the den.”
Jesse nodded. “Wanna go up?”
“Got it. Not ready yet. I’m gonna check out the rooms in the back.” Jesse trudged to the right.
“How about not ready ever?” I called out to him. I looked toward the ceiling; dark molding lined the place where the wall and the ceiling met. I followed the molding all around the space and looked at the wall nearest the staircase just in time to see a spider the size of a small child scurry across to a crack at the base of the stairs. The hairs on the back of my neck were seriously thinking about yanking themselves out of my skin by the root and running their way out of this place. They had the right idea. “What the hell am I doing in here? He’s cute, but not that cute,” I mumbled to myself.
“Nat! Come on in here. You gotta see this!” Jesse called out from the other side of the house. I rolled my eyes and made my way to where he was. The hall, narrow and dark, creeped me out and I had to stop and peer inside every room to try and find him. As I opened doors, I looked in, seeing nothing but dust, cobwebs, and an occasional scrap of trash left behind.
“Where are you?” After looking in three different rooms, I started to worry that either this was some sort of trick an ax-murderer was playing, luring me to my death, or Jesse was trying to scare the crap out of me. Both scenarios seemed entirely plausible.
As I got to the last door on the left, I pushed in, once again hearing the creaking. I looked around, the ruddy brown of the walls were warmed by the slanted shape of light filtered in through the one large window. Walking toward the window, I looked through the filth-coated glass to orient myself with where I was relative to the outside. I spotted the long dirt road that at one time must have been a driveway, now a bit hidden by the wiry weeds and grasses that grew in patches here and there. Off in the distance was the tree line and a little further the small grove of oaks that Jesse and I had ventured through. And just beyond that—
A pair of hands grabbed my shoulders hard and squeezed. Pain jolted through me. My heart skipped and my blood ran cold. I knew that voice. I knew that touch. But a part of me still wasn’t sure what I would see once I opened my eyes.
Sure enough, when I looked at the face in front of me, it was Jesse, cackling like a dying rooster. His face was red from laughter.
With all the might I could muster, I hauled off and punched him on his shoulder, but it only seemed to make his laughter fiercer.
“What was that for?” He barely made out the words between guffaws.
“Being an asshole.” I narrowed my eyes, and stifled a small grin.
With a mischievous smile, he grabbed my waist with one arm and pulled me close, while his other hand tipped my head so our lips could meet. His lips, soft against mine, made my heart race. He kissed me gently at first, one soft touch after another. Then both of us grew eager. His tongue slipped inside my mouth and we kissed, lips moving in time with one another, the warmth of his breath washing over me. As he pressed his chest closer to mine, his heartbeat echoed with my own. The taste of salt lingered as his lips slipped from my mouth to my neck to my mouth again. He pulled away and his eyes pierced mine.
“I guess I should have called you an asshole sooner. Seemed to be the magic word.” I smirked, blood rushing to my cheeks. I couldn’t help it. The moment was so intense; I had to break it with something.
Jesse ran his hand softly through my hair and tapped my nose. “I've wanted to do that for a long time. Know what?”
“What?” I answered.
“It was as good as I imagined it. Better.” He smiled and held me in his arms. Suddenly the warmth didn't seem all that bad. Even though the temperature was sweltering, his body heat comforted me as if he was shielding me from a cold winter’s night.
I wrapped my arm around his neck, pulling him toward me as I reached up on my toes and kissed him again. This time softly, my lips relaxed on his, sucking gently on his lower lip. His lips curled and I pulled away. Unable to look him in the eye afterward, I bashfully looked down.
I caught a glint of something on the floor. Or more correctly, underneath the floor. The wooden boards that made up the flooring were the same everywhere, except the very spot we were standing on. The wood here looked lighter than everywhere else. There was about a half an inch gap between the boards and there was something shiny under it. I stepped back, pushing Jesse back to take in the whole space, with my eyes not leaving the spot.
I pointed. “Do you see that?”
Jesse looked down. “The floor? Yeah, someone did an awful job replacing the wood. So?”
“No. Under it. Do you see that…thing?” I knelt down, my knees popping a bit. Jesse bent down, one knee on the floor.
“Yeah. What is that?” He tried wedging his finger under the wood to pry it loose, but the width of the gap wasn’t wide enough to get under it. It wiggled when just a little pressure was applied. Jesse stood up. "Get back." In one swift motion, Jesse slammed his heel into one side of the plank, forcing the other side up. He grabbed the board and yanked, tossing it behind him.
I peered through the now vacant space where the board was and clearly saw an old suitcase, nestled down in the crevice underneath the floor. I really wasn’t too keen on putting my hand down in the dark. I glanced up and flashed Jesse my best “pretty please” smile and hoped like hell he’d get the message.
“What? You think I want spiders crawling up my arm? No thanks, sweet cheeks. This one's all yours.”
“But you’re a guy. A football burly man. Nothing's supposed to scare you.”
“I didn’t say I was scared of spiders. Doesn’t mean I want one taking up residence on my person.”
I narrowed my eyes and pouted.
“Fine. Move.” Jesse huddled down on the floor, putting his hand through the shallow hole to grab the suitcase. With a few tugs, it was out and sitting right next to us.
The brown leather was cracked and worn, with two black leather buckles that once held it together but now existed only as remnants. The metal latch, bronze covered with black grime, must have been what I’d seen through the crack, which was amazing because now that is was out of the dark and into actual filtered light, it hardly shone at all. The pungent odor, moist earth and mold, permeated the air.
“There it is. Now what?” Jesse asked.
“We open it.”
“How do we do that, Obi Wan? You got a key in those jean shorts of yours you ain’t tellin’ me about?”
I rolled my eyes. “No. I’m hoping…” I tried flipping the latch and it didn’t budge. “Damn.”
“Did you really think it was gonna be that easy? Like we find some thousand year old suitcase under some creaky old house and it was just gonna open?”
“You’ve been watching too many old X-Files episodes.” He pushed off the floor and onto his feet. "Let’s get outta here. I’m sure the party's going on as we speak. We better go or we’ll hear about it for the next month.”
Jesse was right. Who cared what was in an old suitcase anyway? If it had been buried, it was probably with good reason. What could it contain if it was left behind? But still…I glanced at it again, willing it to open. I tried the latch one more time for good measure. Nothing.
I sat back on my knees, and then sighed. “You’re right, Jess. Let's go.” I stood up and Jesse held out his hand again. He smiled. This time, it wasn’t as a friend or because he was being protective. This time, it was because it's what couples did, held hands. And it was weird that we'd gone into this house as friends and we were leaving as…well…what? I wasn’t sure. But something different. He pulled me close, and whispered in my ear, “Maybe we can get some alone time after the party.” His lips brushed against my neck, his breath hot on my skin. My nerves tingled and my stomach fluttered.
I shot a look at Jesse. I froze.
“Did you hear that?”
“Never have I wanted to say 'no' more in my life.”
We both looked at the suitcase. We took a few steps in its direction. We sat there, watching it as if we half-expected something to jump out of it. I knelt down beside it. I examined the latch. Everything in me wanted to scream or vomit or run like hell. But instead, I fingered the latch, trying to understand how it just “popped” open.
“It’s like…” I shook my head. What I was about to say was ridiculous and I couldn’t believe I was saying it. “It’s like it wanted us to open it.”
“That’s crazy. It’s a suitcase. It’s not alive. It can’t want anything.” Jesse stood behind me, placing his hand on my shoulder.
“I know how it sounds.” I glanced up, my eyes wide.
Hands shaking, I opened the lid of the suitcase, unsure of what I might find. Peering in, I sighed with relief at the contents: a scrapbook, a teddy bear, some old worn combat boots, and a ring.
My shoulders relaxed and I chuckled. “I started thinking some pretty weird things just now. I’m so glad it's just normal stuff.” But even as I said the words, my gut was telling me that nothing about this suitcase or its contents were normal.
Jesse sat down next to me, crossing his legs like a second grader at circle time. “So, let’s see what we’ve got here.”
We pulled out the scrapbook, as large as a world atlas, and cracked it open, the smell of old paper and something…electric emanated from the pages. Nothing seemed at all strange about the pictures. Until we looked more closely.
We studied each picture, page after page, and noticed that they seemed to be “off”. Normally photo albums were thematic in some way. They were about one family or one year or one time in a person’s life. These followed no pattern at all. They had different people, different places, and as odd as it was, seemingly different times. And even crazier…some even looked like different worlds. But that was…impossible.
As we neared the last page, a meticulously folded paper, yellowed with time, fell into my lap. I opened it up and read the words out loud.
“To whomever holds this,
I hope you are well. If you are reading this letter, it means you have uncovered the suitcase. It and the contents within are extremely special. Let it be known that you did not find this suitcase, it found you. It led you to this point and it trusts you completely. It is now your responsibility to keep the suitcase and its contents out of the hands of the people who are looking to destroy it. It needs to be kept in a safe and remote location. When I am able, I will come find you and take my suitcase back. But I can’t until it is safe to do so. Until then, please know that you are charged with a big undertaking and you will be rewarded. For now, this is all you need to know.
Jesse’s eyes met mine. Then he let out a belly laugh that could have shaken the walls. “Are you kidding me? You think this is real?” He held his side. “Oooh, this is a mysterious suitcase, keep it safe or they'll find you, muwahahaha,” he said in a sarcastically low voice.
“Whatever. You’re such an ass.”
“If you’re trying to get me to kiss you again, all ya gotta do is ask.” He winked.
I shoved my elbow into his ribs and looked back down at the scrapbook, flipping the pages back to the beginning. I wondered what memories each photograph held.