Hope Chest
by Paperclippe (1/26/08)

I have opened Pandora's box.

I don't mean this figuratively.

It was about a month ago. I remember. The day was kind of cold, but for December, it wasn't too bad. The air felt nice, almost a sugary-sort-of-sweet that reminded you fall hadn't been such a long time ago. It was the rain that made it dark, and a parade of black umbrellas seemed to line either side of the street, beneath which business men and women scurried back to work from their lunch breaks, students fled from shop to shop, trying not to get to wet, and mothers and their children waited for the bus, leaning up against walls with heads bowed. I had no umbrella, no. I flicked my hair out of my coat and walked with my face to the sky, as much as I could possibly have it so and not fall off the sidewalk or bump into an umbrella. I let the rain kiss me.

It wasn't Christmas yet, I remember that, too. It didn't even feel like Christmastime that day, though; it seemed like someone had put all the Christmas muzak that store owners cherish and store patrons hate on pause, or mute, or had taken all their CDs and XM Satellite Christmas radios out back and burn them. It was almost quiet, but for the sound of traffic and the falling rain.

I was pointless, wandering about aimlessly, just trying to find something to do in this city without spending too much money or going to far from home.

That was how I found the shop. Rick had always warned me about some of the shader occult shops I was drawn to, not because he believed in any of my hocus pocus, I think, but because he was wary of their owners, what selling chicken bones and checking accounts and cocaine on the side. I was wary of them too, sometimes, but that didn't mean I was going to avoid countless hours of staring at boxes and boxes of Tarot cards or flicking through endless books on subject matters I couldn't even pronounce, let alone titles.

The shop was called, simply enough, "Mystical." Not exactly clever, but I guess it made it's point. I walked into the shop and shook myself off at the door, tiny crystals of rain making a less than welcome puddle on the door mat – that was what the owner's gaze told me. She was tall, with greying hair that hung down her back, but she didn't seem old. She bent over the counter and looked me up and down once, and stood. "Welcome," she said, "Looking for anything?"

"Just killing time," I admitted.

"You best be careful with that," she said, "time has a vengeance." And she smiled. "Look around."

I nodded, and let myself farther into the store. I took stock of all that was around me – at first sight, the store seemed innocent, what with herbal teas and bath salts and incense, and even a few less than threatening wands on a small display. I bent over these, examining them closely. Some of them were made of dark, almost black wood. They had tiny, fine engravings in them, and were tipped with pretty crystals – aquamarine, peridot, pyrite. I picked one up, gave it a small flick, and put it back down. Next to the wands were books, which I walked passed, letting my fingers touch the spine of each book, but I didn't take any of them from the shelf. I turned.

That was when I saw a little room, set off of the rest of the store. It wasn't curtained or roped off or anything, and I proceeded toward it with an intense amount of curiosity.

"Wait -" said the shop woman.

"I can't go back there? It doesn't say -"

"No... It's just that most people have enough sense to not go back there."

"I have a good deal of sense, I think, and a better deal of nonsense."

She didn't smile that time, but gave me a look of severe interest. I kept walking.

The room was tiny and stuffy; I could see the dust particles in the air, as thick as the rain had been outside. The walls were lined with books and manuscripts, from when I couldn't guess. There was a table in the middle, and on it sat more wands, but these ones looked used, beat. There was a deck of Tarot cards missing it's box, a worn purple scarf, and a chest. It was small, made of a pinkish wood, and was completely square. It had a lock, shaped like a heart, and on top sat a key. I reached out to touch it.

"You like this?" the shop keeper was behind me.

I didn't jump, or even answer. I dusted off the side of the chest. The wood was smooth and polished beneath, almost like glass. I picked up the key off of the top and brought it toward the lock.

"Don't."

I turned around.

"Don't open that thing in here." Her face was stern. She now looked old, her shoulders a bit hunched.

"How much?" I asked, clutching the key.

She seemed to think for a moment. She then reached out, and took my right hand in hers. For a second, she looked at it, and then looked in my eyes.

"Take it."

"What?"

"You can have it. It belongs to you." She went back to the counter and got a bag for me – not a plastic shopping bag, but an actual bag, with a drawstring top, made of dark red satin. She returned to the room and slipped the box inside, held it for a moment, and then handed it to me. She said again, "It belongs to you."

I blinked. "Th...thank you..."

She ushered me to the door without another word and then closed it behind me, shutting me out of the store.

I rode the bus home that evening, clutching the bag to my chest. I still had the key in my hand. I didn't look in the bag, or take out the box. Just held it to myself. It almost seemed warm.

When I got home I set the bag down on the coffee table and just stared at it, rolling the key over and over again in my palm.

Rick sat next to me. "What's in the bag?"

"A box."

"...What's in the box?"

"No idea."

Silence.

"Whatcha got there?"

"A key."

"For the box?"

"Yep."

Again, there was a silence.

"Well, can I see it?"

I stopped and thought about it, then reached into the bag, and pulled out the chest, setting it down on the coffee table, dusting it off with the bag.

"It sure is pretty," Rick said. He put his hand in my lap. "Where did you get it?"

"Some little store on Richmond, downtown."

He nodded. "Looks expensive," he said, touching the smooth wood.

"Not really," I said. I held up the key. "Should we open it?"

"Yeah, why not. It's probably empty."

"You really think so?" I wasn't so sure, but he shrugged. I brought the key to the lock. It slipped in, like an old friend finding the arms of another. Or like a sword, through something soft and warm. I turned the key, and the top seemed to pop up, but it remained shut. I reached forward and pushed open the lid, holding my breath.

Nothing happened. I pulled the box closer, and looked inside.

Even under the light, it's innards were pitch black, as though the box absorbed all the light from the room. I gave it a little shake, and something rustled inside it. Rick bent over and looked in as well.

"I can't see anything; what do you think it is?"

"No idea..." Slowly, cautiously, I reached my hand inside it. Whatever it was was smooth, soft, warm. I could just barely close my fingers around it. I pulled it out, and opened my hands.

At first, I had to hold back a scream. It looked like a human heart, at first glance, and I almost dropped it, but after the initial shock, I could see it was nothing so gory, but was simply a fruit.

Rick narrowed his eyes.

"I think it's a pomegranate," I said, but it was misshapen slightly. I held it up to the light. It looked fresh, possibly even edible, but I wasn't going to take my chances. I brought it closer to my face, and that was when I smelled it. The most luscious, sweet, delicious scent I had ever smelled seemed to emanate from the fruit. Rick smelled it, too.

"Ooh," he said. "Should we eat it?"

"Nah, I don't think so... Who knows how long that thing's been in there?"

"Well, it's not rotten at all," he said.

"Yeah..." I did have to agree. "But it could be poisoned. Or it could not be a pomegranate at all, what the hell do I know about exotic fruit," I commented.

"Yeah, that's a good point."

We decided to put the fruit back in the box, but to leave the box open, so that the smell could permeate the entire house. If the thing started to rot, we would throw it out.

That night, I didn't sleep well. I kept tossing and turning, and would wake in the middle of horrible dreams. Around three in the morning, I realized Rick wasn't there beside me anymore. I got up and searched for him. He was on the couch, staring at the box.

"I don't like it, Penny. I don't like that thing."

In the morning, I decided I was going to take the chest back to the story, creepy pomegranate and all. I asked Rick about his comment before he left for work.

"What are you talking about?" he said to me. "I slept like the dead, all night."

About noon, I entered Mystical, satin bag in hand. There was the woman at the counter.

"I don't... I don't want this anymore," I said quietly.

She shook her head. "It's yours now."

"What...is that thing in the box."

"A Heart. A Pandora's Heart."

"I'm sorry?"

"You know the story of Pandora's Box, I assume?" she asked. I nodded. "And do you also know the story of the tree which grew golden apples? Guarded by the hundred-headed dragon?" Again, I nodded. "What many people do not realize, is that these are the same myth."

I shook my head, not understanding.

"Long ago," she began, "There was the woman Pandora. She was fair, and wise, but also childish, and curious. The gods loved her, and gave her many things. One of the things they gave her was a box, filled with all the evils of the world, but also, all of the good. The only thing in that box, in reality, were two of the golden apples from the tree in the garden of the Hesperides. But that tree never grew apples at all. What it grew was fruit, yes, but fruit like that which you found in the box. They are called, properly, Pandora Hearts, because of their appearance, and because when Pandora opened her gift, her box, she so loved the smell of them that she named them for herself. She took one of them from the box, and said, 'Here shall I keep all the evils of the world, so that they may never harm man kind again.' But Pandora was foolish, and was admiring her fruit one day, and dropped it. The fruit smashed, and all of the evil she had kept in the fruit was unleashed upon the world, all the stronger for the fruit's strange property."

"Which is?"

"That whosoever eats the fruit shall have either their strongest virtue or vice brought forth, and they shall become a god."

"But what about the other Heart?"

"Ah, that was where Pandora stored all her dreams and wishes. All of her hope. And she never took that fruit from her box again, so that she couldn't destroy it like she had the other."

"Isn't that a good thing? I mean, wouldn't she want to get what she wished for?"

"What did she wish for, though?" asked the woman, with a smile.

All that night, I thought about it. What had Pandora wished for? I recounted all the tales I knew of her. She was supposedly deceitful – she could have wished for more evil things. But if she had tried to rid the world of evil, then wouldn't she wish for good?

I didn't know. I wanted to know, but I wasn't brave enough to find out. I took the box out of the bag and put it back on the coffee table, and this time I kept it locked. But curiosity ate away at me still.

Rick slept well that night, and so did I, and we both have every night since. He says he can't smell the fruit anymore, and neither do I. Things seem to have returned to normal.

But what Rick doesn't know is that box has been empty for a month.

I don't think it was a pomegranate.