The Little Velvet Box
“Tonight’s the night, Mama, I just know it,” Traci Kimball gushed excitedly.
Her mother reached across the worn old kitchen table and squeezed
her daughter’s hand. “Oh, I hope so,
Traci,” she said. “You and Alex are so
perfect for each other – you always have been - and more than anything, I want
to see my baby girl walk down that aisle.”
She smiled, but it was a bittersweet smile.
Traci blinked and shook her head. “Mama, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” she said, her voice strained.
Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few months earlier. Chemotherapy had taken its toll, leaving her sick, bald, and frail. Although the family tried to stay hopeful, the doctor had said the cancer was in an advanced stage, and he was not sure the chemo would work. But it was Marion Kimball’s only hope – the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes, and surgery was not an option.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Marion replied softly. “Don’t let me depress you. You should be happy. It’s your third-year anniversary with Alex, and I’m sure tonight’s the night he’s going to propose.”
“He better, or there’ll be hell to pay,” Traci kidded. “I’ve waited three years for this; I’m not going to wait any longer.”
It was true. For three years, Traci had been dating AJ (or Alex, as her mother still called him) McLean, and for just about as long, she had known that he was the man she was going to marry. She loved him like she had loved no one else. He was her best friend, her lover, and soon, she hoped, he would be her husband.
Marion smiled again, and this time, it was brighter. “Impatient as always, aren’t you? You’ll never change.” She laughed. “There’s been so many changes… but some things always stay the same. Just look at that old swing out there.” She glanced over Traci’s shoulder. Turning around in her chair, Traci followed her gaze out the kitchen window and into the backyard, where an old and dying tree stood. A rope hung from one of its gnarled branches, weighed down by just a piece of board. A lump of nostalgia rose in Traci’s throat as she watched the rope swing sway gently in the breeze. As children, she and AJ had spent hours out there in the backyard, climbing that tree, swinging on that swing. She had had no idea back then that she would end up AJ’s girlfriend, let alone his fiancée. He was just her best friend back then. Now he was her best friend, and so much more.
“I hope you don’t still let the neighbor kids play on that swing,” Traci said, turning back to face her mother. “That tree looks ready to fall down; it’s dangerous. You need to have someone tear it down.”
“I know,” Marion sighed. “That poor tree has been dying for years. Why, it’s had that hole in it for as long as we’ve lived here.”
Traci grinned. “AJ and I used to hide stuff in there,” she said, glancing back at the tree. It was hard to tell now with the weeds growing around it, but for as long as Traci could remember, there had been a hollow at the base of the tree trunk. As children, she and AJ had hidden her mother’s old jewelry in it as their pirate treasure, and it had made a wonderful cave for Traci’s Barbies to explore.
Marion returned her smile. Then, glancing at the clock on the microwave, she said, “Well, speaking of Alex, you don’t want to keep him waiting, do you? You’d better head home and start getting ready. This could be a night you remember for the rest of your life.”
Traci bit her lip in excitement and jumped up from the table. She gave her mother a hug and a kiss on the cheek, squealed, “I’ll call you later!” and darted out the back door. She went out through the garage to her car parked in the driveway and got in, ready to head home to her apartment and get dressed for her date with AJ that night.
“You look absolutely beautiful, baby,” AJ said, surveying Traci from the doorway of her apartment. “Happy anniversary.”
“Thank you,” Traci said with a grin. “That’s three years we’ve been together. Can you believe it?”
“The best three years of my life,” AJ replied, taking her hand and kissing it gently.
“My, what a gentleman. But where’s my flowers?” Traci asked in mock offense.
“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get your flowers,” AJ said with a wink. “But first, how about some dinner?”
“You got it, Aje,” Traci replied, taking his hand and letting him lead her out to his car.
They enjoyed an exquisite dinner in West Palm Beach’s finest restaurant, bathed in candlelight and serenaded by violinists. Traci enjoyed it, but she was looking forward to the moment when AJ was going to pull out that little velvet box more than anything. They hadn’t talked about it, but somehow, she knew that tonight was the night. By the time I go to sleep tonight, Tracy thought, smiling affectionately across the table at AJ, we’ll be engaged.
They finished dinner and got back into AJ’s car. As they drove home, Traci looked out the window, wondering how it was going to happen. Would AJ pull off to some secret, romantic place to propose? Or would he take her back to his house and propose there? Would he go down on one knee? What would he say?
“You’re awfully quiet tonight,” AJ commented, glancing at Traci
from the driver’s side. “Something
“Oh no, not at all,” Traci replied. “I’m just thinking.”
Traci smiled sweetly at him. “About how much I love you.”
AJ took one hand off the steering wheel and rested it on hers. “I love you too,” he replied.
They did not stop along the way, nor did they go to AJ’s house. Instead, AJ just took Traci back to her apartment.
This is kind of unromantic, Traci thought, slightly disappointed, as she and AJ took the flight of stairs up to her small apartment. The place was a mess; she remembered she had left her makeup strewn all over the bathroom counter, and her bedroom floor was littered with rejected articles of clothing.
Traci fished her key out of her purse and unlocked the door, leading AJ into the apartment. She turned on the lights, hoping to see some romantic surprise AJ had paid one of his friends to set up. But the apartment looked just as she had left it. There were no candles lit, and the coffee table was piled with old magazines, not champagne glasses.
But when she turned back to look at AJ, Traci saw that he had indeed conjured up a surprise for her – a single long-stemmed red rose from inside his jacket. It was wrapped in green cellophane and had a generic little square card attached to it. It looked like he had just bought from the local grocery store on his way to pick her up that night.
”I love you, Trace,” AJ said, holding out the rose. “Happy anniversary.”
Traci took the rose and smiled expectantly, waiting for something else. Where was that little velvet box? But AJ was looking at her just as expectantly, waiting for her to say something.
Traci looked down at the rose in her hand. The cellophane looked crumpled, the petals slightly wilted. The tiny white card was even bent at one corner. He had put no thought into this at all. Where was the romantic guy she had dated for three years? Where was the ring?
Traci glanced back up at AJ, who was still looking eagerly at her, waiting for her to do something. She looked back at the battered rose again. And then she burst into tears.
”Traci,” AJ said in bewilderment. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?!” Traci cried. “AJ, how could you? Three years! We’ve been dating for three years! I thought by now you would have…” She dissolved into tears and did not finish her sentence.
“Go away, I don’t want to talk to you,” Traci sobbed. “I can’t believe you!”
“What? Traci, wait, just-“
“I’ve been waiting long enough! I can’t take this anymore! Just get out, go away!” And she pushed him, right out the open door of her apartment. “And you can take your damn rose with you!” She hurled the rose out after him, striking him right in the face with it. Then she slammed the door hard, ignoring his pleas. He banged on the door, but she screamed, “Get lost!” and ran into her bedroom, throwing the door closed behind her. She slumped down on her bed and sobbed, unable to believe what had happened. How could he have done this to her? A rose? One single rose? For their third anniversary, the night she had been so sure he was going to give her an engagement ring?
Shows how much he cares, she thought bitterly. He’s not ready to settle down yet. After three years, he’s still not ready. Will he ever be? She knew AJ was not good with commitment; he had never been in all the years she had known him. He was impulsive and fickle; he got himself into things quickly and out again just as fast. He rarely stuck with anything for a long time. Three years was probably the longest amount of time he had ever stayed tied to one girl.
But then again, maybe Traci wasn’t the only woman in his life. Maybe he had found someone else and had been trying to make her mad on purpose, to get her to break up with him and leave him free to date another woman.
“He told me he loved me,” Traci sobbed aloud. “If he loved me so much, he’d ask me to marry him! But he’s never going to, is he? I’m just wasting my time.”
Unfortunately, Traci could be just as impulsive as AJ. She reached over to the phone sitting on her bedside table. But she did not call her mother as she had promised. There was no good news to tell after all. Instead, she punched in the number to AJ’s cell phone. He answered right away.
“Traci! Trace, is that you?” he cried urgently.
“It’s over, AJ,” Traci said bitterly. “I’m not waiting around for you anymore. There are better things I could be doing. I need to move on with my life and find a guy who’s ready to settle down, not some party animal celebrity. This is the end. Don’t call me.”
And she slammed down the phone and slammed AJ out of her life forever.
Many years later, on a cool, dreary, rainy day, Traci stood in a West Palm Beach cemetery, gazing upon the flower-covered casket that contained her long-ago best friend and love, AJ McLean. She had heard the news of his passing on the television days earlier and had made the decision to come home for his funeral, to pay her respects to his mother.
Denise McLean was old and feeble now, close to death herself, and it pained Traci to see her crying at her son’s gravesite. When she was a child, Denise had been like a second mother to Traci. She, like Traci’s own mother, had been thrilled to see Traci and AJ together as adults. Traci had not spoken to her since she broke up with AJ. She had not spoken to him either. Like she had requested, he had not called her. He had not tried to contact her at all.
Months after that night, Traci had met another man. They had dated for over a year, married, and moved away from West Palm Beach. Their marriage had ended in divorce years later. Now Traci was a single woman in her fifties, getting ready to retire and travel the country on her own. When she thought of AJ and what had happened, she was bitter, but not spiteful. She didn’t hate AJ for what he had done, but she had not quite forgiven him either. That didn’t matter anymore though. AJ was dead; that part of her life was gone forever.
Traci turned around at the soft voice behind her. Standing behind her was none other than Denise McLean.
“Denise,” Traci whispered. “I… I’m so sorry for your loss.” The sentence felt so robotic, so emotionless, but what else could she say? She had not been in contact with AJ or his mother in thirty years.
“Alex… left something for me to give you if I ever saw you again. I had hoped you would come back so I could fulfill his wish,” Denise said. Her tone was not exactly warm, and she did not ask how Traci was doing or what she had been up to. All she did was hand Traci something small and white, turn, and walk away.
“Den-“ Traci started to say, then stopped and watched as Denise hobbled away, half stooped over. She frowned and tried hard to ignore her hurt feelings. Curious, she looked down at the object Denise had given her. It was a tiny card, a square white card, like the kind that came attached to bouquets. The edges were crumpled, and the small flower design on the front was faded.
What is this? she wondered, opening the tiny card. Inside was a short sentence, written in very faded ink. Squinting, Traci tried to make it out.
Look in our tree.
Traci cocked her head for a moment, staring at the card, at that short, hand-written message. And then, she recognized the writing. With a start, she realized what she was holding. It was the card from that single red rose AJ had given her the night of their three year anniversary.
She read it again: Look in our tree.
Their tree. The tree in the backyard of Traci’s childhood home. The tree with the old rope swing, the tree with the hole in the bottom where they had kept pirate treasure. Mystified, Traci got in her car and drove away, not to the hotel where she was staying for the weekend, but her parents’ old home.
Her parents did not live there anymore. After her mother’s death, just over a year after her breakup with AJ, her father had moved away, unable to remain in a house that contained so many memories of his wife. Traci was not sure what had happened to the house after that. She had moved away as well and had not been back to see it since. Now that she thought about it, she doubted that old tree was still standing. But she had to check; she had to find out.
Traci pulled into the driveway of the old house and gasped in dismay when she got a good look at it. It was in a state of disarray. It was clear that no one lived there, and no one had cared for it in years. The lawn was filled with overgrown weeds. One shutter was hanging from its hinges, and several windows were cracked or broken in. Shingles were missing from the roof.
Slowly, Traci climbed out of her car. She did not attempt to go in the house, but instead went around back, to where the tree had once stood. And to her utter surprise, it stood there still. It was barren and leafless, obviously dead. The rope swing was no longer there, nor was the branch that had once supported it. But a good portion of the tree still was.
Traci glanced again at the card. Look in our tree. Her heart pounding, she made her way through the weed-invaded yard and knelt down next to the base of the tree. Pulling away weeds, she saw that the hollow was still there. Gingerly, she reached her hand in and felt around. She felt mostly damp weeds, rotting wood, and dirt. But in the very back of the hollow, the dark crevice that Barbie could never fit into, she felt something else. Something with a texture unlike anything else in the hollow. She reached further and put her hand around it. The object was small and square-ish and fit perfectly in the palm of her hand. Her heart beating even faster now, she pulled it out and held it up.
It was hard at first to tell what it was, for it was encrusted with dirt. But, brushing the dirt off it as best she could, she soon realized what it was, and she dropped it in shock. Tears rising in her eyes, she bent down and retrieved it from the overgrown grass at her feet. It was a little velvet box.
Her vision blurring with tears, her hands shaking, she opened the little box. And inside, preserved for thirty years, was a ring. A beautiful diamond on a solid gold band. It was the engagement ring she had been expecting that night. He had planned on proposing to her after all. And she had pushed him away.
Traci slowly plucked the ring from its box and slid it onto her finger, where the wedding band from her previous marriage had once been worn. It was a perfect fit.
Looking down at the beautiful ring on her wrinkled hand, she shook her head in disbelief. And then Traci Kimball began to cry again, sobbing over the love she had lost and the little velvet box she had found.
AN: This story was inspired by a short story in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul called “The Bible”.
The Little Velvet Box Ó 2002 by Julie