She reaches under her king size bed and lets her hand search for it. She doesn’t need a flashlight to locate her hidden treasure among the loads of rubbish under her bed.
Occasionally, her hands brush some junk away, like the cool metal of empty soda cans she finished some days back and promised herself she’d throw away, but didn’t; the soft fabric of the leg of a woolly sock she’ll go on a rampage in a week or two looking for to no avail; and some pieces of crumpled up paper containing failed writing attempts on an essay whose deadline was fast approaching.
She tries to make a mental note to clean up under her bed, but once her hands come in contact with it, all plans of organisation flee from her mind as the only thought occupying it is the precious content the dainty box in her hands hold.
Sitting down gently on her bed, box in her laps, she lets her fingers trace the patterns of the intricate designs on its yellow lid. After twenty seconds of running her hands over it, her fingers land on the whisker taped on the lid’s edge. Carefully removing the tape- which had lost its qualifying stickiness due its frequent removal and repasting- she lifts the whisker to her face, relishes its tickle under her nose, and lets her mind take a trip down memory lane seventeen years back.
Here, she is five years old, and bawling at the top of her lungs because her cat had run away. Her father comes inside her room, brown hair sticking out at odd ends, with a worn; tired look on his face. She couldn’t care any less that it was 1 am and she was probably disturbing the whole neighbourhood. Afterall, she was only five, and everything in life was all about her.
“What’s wrong, Pumpkin?” her father asks, wiping the tears from her brown face.
“Catnip’s gone!” she sniffles and buries her head in his chest, where safety lies. Daddy’s arms are always safe. “I don’t know why she left me alone.”
“Well, Carla, Catnip’s an adventurer, and she loves to explore the world. She’ll be back before you know it.” he says, running a hand through her frizzy curls. Carla, however, isn’t comforted.
“All I want is to explore the world with HER. I want Catnip!” she wails again, earning a huge sigh from her sleepy father.
“Okay. We’ll wait for her together.”
That’s how they sat together in her pink bedroom on her pink bed, staring outside her open; wooden-panelled window into the silent; starry night. Daughter in the arms of father, they wait with their hearts in their mouths until the Moon went to sleep in the West, and the Sun peeked out at them from the East. They’d been up for almost five hours before her father spoke up.
“Looks like Catnip’s not coming home today.” he says sullenly, which makes Carla cry again. “Pumpkin, don’t cry. Something probably delayed her.”
“What if she never comes back?”
“Well… then we’d have to keep her memory alive in us.” he says, moves to the window, and picks up a black whisker from the sill. Carla never noticed it was there, but then again, it wasn’t like she was looking.
Bringing out the yellow box from his room, which he used to package Catnip in after buying her for Carla’s fifth birthday, he places the whisker on the box’s lid, and with some tape, he sticks it.
“There! That way, you can always remember Catnip anytime you see her whisker.”
Carla sighs at the memory of her long lost cat she loved so much. Even now, she wishes she could’ve gone on adventures with her. She then delicately places the whisker on the box’s lid, carefully pastes the tape that had managed to keep the whisker intact for seventeen years, and opens up the box.
As always, the first item that catches her eye is the glint of light reflected from an object. She picks up the gold coin and twirls it in her hands, appreciating the feel of the cold; hard metal. As she does this, she unconsciously transports herself fifteen years back in time.
“It’s wobbling a lot more, now.” Carla says to her father through the mirror. She’s in her purple-and-white tiled bathroom, staring at her seven year old reflection, which is the female replica of her father. Because she’s too short to view below her forehead in the mirror above the ceramic sink, he’s carrying her so she can have a good look at herself.
In another seven years, her father will yearn for times like this when he could freely step into the bathroom with his daughter without her causing a ruckus, or could leave her with a mirror, knowing she wouldn’t spend half an hour inspecting the littlest details of her facial features.
“Let me see.” he offers. She turns to him and willingly opens her mouth wide for him to take a look, wobbling her baby tooth with her tongue. “Ah! If I’m correct, it looks like it’ll fall off today or tomorrow.”
“Will it hurt?” she asks, looks at her reflection, and wobbles her tooth again. Almost all her friends had lost a tooth or two, and she was elated she wasn’t going to be the last. Danielle’s hadn’t even started shaking.
“Nah, it wouldn’t hurt. All your teeth will just drop at once, and you’d have the mouth of an old lady.”
“Really?” she shrieks, aghast. She was eager for her tooth to fall, but she didn’t want to be toothless! She covers her mouth with her palm, as if doing that would prevent her teeth from falling.
“No. I was just kidding, Pumpkin.” her father laughs, which makes her chuckle. “But you shouldn’t be devastated with the idea of your teeth falling. It would mean more coins from the tooth fairy.”
“Melinda told me tooth fairies aren’t real because she didn’t get a gold coin when her tooth fell.” she says as her father puts her down on the ground.
“Well, that’s because she didn’t believe hard enough.” he replies casually, like that was the most obvious reason an imaginary creature wouldn’t drop a coin under a toddler’s pillow.
As predicted, Carla’s tooth fell that evening. With high hopes, she put it under her pink pillow, expectant of the gold coin the tooth fairy would graciously give her. As soon as the sun smiled upon her face, she woke up to look for the tooth fairy’s gift.
“I got a gold coin!” she yells, running to her father to show him her reward.
“I told you they’re real!” her father exclaims. “If I were you, I’d keep that coin somewhere safe, to always remind myself of the magic of tooth fairies.”
Giving him a gap-toothed grin, Carla runs off to put the gleaming; gold coin inside her yellow memory box. In three years’ time, she will find out it was her dad who put the coin under her pillow, and stop believing in tooth fairies.
Carla smiles as she recalls the last details of that day. Till now, she wonders how her dad was able to convince her into believing fairy tales. He was so good at crafting stories and making them sound realistic, that she easily fell for them. Now, she’s beyond that, but she misses those naïve times sorely.
She places the coin back in its corner, and picks up a blade of grass beside it. Lifting it to her nose and inhaling its earthy scent, she lets her thoughts wander back twelve years.
“Are you ready?” her father asks. Her skinny ten year old self is sitting awkwardly on a bicycle, fully clad with a helmet and arm and knee pads. She had just removed her training wheels and so desperately wanted to master this vehicle most preteens used to go to school.
“I’m ready.” she says. “Let go of me.” And her father releases her. As she had practiced, she put one pedal in front of the other until she was riding the bicycle alone. “Yeeaaah!!! Can you see me, dad? I’m doing it!”
“You’re moving too fast!” he screams back at her. “Slow down!”
What’s up with the tone of his voice? she thinks, and glances over her shoulder to look at him. To her surprise, he was hard on her heels, chasing after her. She only just heard him telling her to slow down again, before her bicycle collided with an object on the road, and sent her flying head-first unto the pavement of a neighbour’s lawn.
“Ow!” she cries, lifting her head to see what caused her downfall. After identifying it, she’s livid. “Who would leave their trashcan lying in the middle of the road????”
“I don’t know, Pumpkin- something must’ve toppled it. Is your head okay?”
She touches her head to see if there are any injuries and finds none. Thank goodness for helmets. “It’s good. Just a dull pain, that’s all.”
“Good.” her father says, and lets out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. After a while, he laughs.
“What?” Carla asks, feeling a little bit embarrassed. She didn’t find the situation comical.
“You should’ve seen the look on your face when you fell. I wish I could’ve taken a picture and kept it to remember this day.”
Carla is about to protest that it wasn’t funny, but once she imagines how she looked while falling, she’s in hysterics, too. After she and her father had laughed their hearts out, she plucked a blade of grass from the lawn where she fell, and kept it safely in her memory box.
Carla laughs again as the event played through her mind. That's her father- always turning every situation into a joke, not matter how bad it was.
Her hands automatically go to the next object within reach, which is a white seashell with beautiful; orange dots decorating it. She lifts it to her lips, lets the tip of her tongue touch it, and imagines she’s re-tasting the salt water of the beach, eight years back.
She’s fourteen, and at that age where girls and guys notice each other and get noticed. That day, in the middle of building a sandcastle with her father, she couldn’t keep her gaze off the cute; dark boy on a white stallion. He had another tawny mare beside him that people paid to get a ride on. At that moment, the mare was empty- this was the moment she'd been waiting for.
“Dad, can we ride that horse?” she asks, abruptly. Her father cocks his head slightly to get a view of what she’s referring to.
“The brown one?” she nods. “Okay. Let’s ask the fellow for a ride.”
They walk up to him, but she stands some distance away, trying not to gawk at the boy’s muscular frame; or his luscious; jet-black hair. She notices his brown eyes flicker to her, but she looks away and busies herself with a seashell on the ground. It wasn’t as fascinating as the others she collected- white, with some orange dots- but she picks it up, nonetheless, to add to her collection.
“It’s two dollars for a five-minute ride.” her father tells her after talking to the boy. “You and I can get on this one together.”
“Um… dad? Can I ride it alone?”
Her father looks dumbstruck, because he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Carla, however, could give anything to not be seen riding with him. To her, it made her look like a baby- which she wasn't anymore.
“But, Pumpkin…” he begins, and when she scowls at him, he corrects himself. “Carla, we always do everything together. Besides, you’ve never ridden a horse before.”
“I don’t care. Let me just do this thing alone for once. Please.” she doesn’t look him in the eye as she says this. In another timeline, she could’ve ridden with him. However, she didn’t want this gorgeous boy- or any other bystander- to think she wasn’t independent. Independence, afterall, was attractive.
“Okay.” her father says eventually. “I’ll wait for you by our sandcastle.”
She was glad he relented, because she had made up her mind not to ride at all if he insisted on tagging along. Still holding the seashell, she walks up to the boy with his horses, and her heart skips a beat when he looks at her. What was in this boy that made her reject her father’s company for him? And what was in the common seashell she held that made her put it inside her memory box? She didn’t know, and she never did, but she forever remembers that day as the first time she left daddy’s arms for another.
Carla sighs as she thinks of the boy, Mark, and drops the seashell back in the box. It wasn’t as special as the other ones she collected that day, just as Mark wasn’t as special as the other guys she eventually dated. However, there was something in him- and the seashell- that made her want to keep a memory of.
Sifting through the other items in her box, Carla reaches the bottom to bring out a dog-eared photo of her in a metallic gold dress, posing by a sidewalk. Like always, she lets herself go back to that day, four years ago.
Her dad knocks gently on her room door. The room is white now, because the sight of pink became sickening to her as she grew older. White and blank, like her mind that evening.
“Carla, are you okay? It’s almost time.”
Carla puts her pillow over her head and pulls the duvets closer to her. “I’m not going!” her muffled voice screams back.
A moment of silence. Then, the door opens. “Carla, you’ve been going on and on about how excited you are for prom. How can you say you’re not going now?”
Carla groans, then removes the pillow from her face. “I told you not to enter my room without permission.” she says hoarsely and puts the pillow over her face again.
However, her father had already seen the tear-streaked, bloodshot eyes of his eighteen year old daughter.
“Pumpkin, what’s wrong?” he asks, and sits down on her bed, which is cream now.
“I told you to stop calling me that.” she mumbles, but she adjusts herself to create room for him. “And nothing’s wrong. I just changed my mind about prom.”
“Oh, come on. How can you change your mind so easily? We’ve already bought the perfect dress, and found the perfect hairstyle, and got the perfect guy to go with you.” he replies, sarcastically.
“Well, that perfect guy just stuck me up! He said he’s going with that stupid Avery girl. And now, I’m dateless!” she screams at him. She didn’t mean for her tone to be sharp, but it came out that way, and she couldn’t care any less.
“Are you serious?” her father asks, probably too old to understand the emotional drama she was facing.
“Do I look like I’m joking?” And before she knows it, she’s crying. As he always did when she was young, her father brings her close to his chest, and she doesn’t complain about being in daddy’s arms once more, where safety lies. “I hate that stuck-up douchebag.”
“Me, too. I hope he chokes on his punch. Actually, I hope he gets punched on his perfect face.” he says gravely, but she knows he’s joking and smiles a little.
“Yeah. And I hope all his teeth fall off so he looks like an old lady.” she adds.
“A really ugly old lady.” he confirms, and they’re both laughing. “You know what? You don’t have to go for prom- I wasn't comfortable with you going, because you’d leave your old man alone in his home.”
“You’re not old.” she chuckles. “You’ve just lived a long life.”
“Whatever you say. Anyways, you don’t have to go for prom. I’ve been thinking of trying that new restaurant down the street. There’s a promo for their special dinner, and what other better time to try it out than now?”
“Well, it’s not like I have anything better to do other than sulking...” Carla says. “Let me get dressed.”
“Great! Now, I have a dinner date. I guess fate brought us together, M’lady.” her father laughs, and moves towards the door. “Oh, and Carla? Wear your prom dress tonight.”
That evening, daughter and father walked hand-in-hand to the restaurant, eating dinner and making jokes like they were the only ones in the world. If one didn’t know them, one would’ve thought they were a couple, rather than a father trying to cheer up his heartbroken eighteen year old daughter.
On their way home, he took a picture of her because, as he said, she looked stunning, and it was that perfect douchebag’s loss for missing out on her awesomeness. Carla then kept that photo safely in her box, to remember that day forever.
A tear rolls down Carla’s cheek as the feelings for her beloved father come back. She puts the photo back in its place and doesn’t go through any more items that contained memories of her father, who she missed dearly. Right now, she could give anything for him to come into her room, to hear him call her Pumpkin, and to be in his arms- daddy’s arms- where safety lies.
Carla gently closes the box and puts it under her still disorganised bed. When she misses him again, which wouldn't be until another five days, she will bring it out and go through other objects that reminded her of him. To some people, he’s dead, and remained that way for two years. But to Carla, he was alive- even more than alive. To her, he is safe and sound inside her memory box.