He couldn’t remember how long it sat on the shelf. It was a long time, anyhow. Gathered dust. Was dusted. And gathered dust again. It was up there with the knick-knacks and the military plaques. The kinds of things you feel obligated to keep, but don’t have much use for. Damn thing must’ve been on the shelf more than seventy years. He had it since he was a curious boy.
The old man found the jar against the curb—downtown. He picked it up and stared at it. Held it to the sun and shook it. The directions on the top convinced him to keep it closed. The boy figured he wouldn’t get a second chance. The old man was nine when he found the jar.
The jar was nothing special on the outside. An old jelly jar with a tight-fitting lid. Like someone rinsed it after using the jelly for sandwiches. Vacuum-seal and a worn paper label on the top. Best way to describe the current contents—cloudy. Like a gray gas. Probably what it would look like if you went to London, stood at the top of Big Ben, and scooped a serving of fog.
The boy knew he wasn’t ready. The label told him so. On the shelf it went. First, behind the model airplanes and the fragile toys. Mom and Dad wouldn’t look there. In high school he was tempted. But kept it shut. The boy knew he wasn’t ready.
There were many days the boy wanted to share the jar. Friends. Girlfriends. Even his parents. But he didn’t. The boy kept the damn thing a secret until he was ready. Something about the label and gray gas that scared the hell out of him—tempted him simultaneously. He took the jar off the shelf. Held it in his hand and studied it. Once his curiosity was satisfied he returned the jar to the shelf. The process repeated over his lifetime.
Once, he dropped the jar—getting ready for college. Slipped from his hand as he reached for the box. Most of his room went into boxes. His parents mentioned they always wanted a studio. Something about his room being the perfect place. He argued. Said it wasn’t fair. That he wouldn’t have a place to come home to. His father said he could do whatever he wanted once the boy had a house of his own. The jar survived the drop, but the boy felt lost.
The boy got a job. Went to war. Came back and returned to the job for forty years. He forgot about the jar most of those years. Once every ten he’d see it up there. On the shelf. He remembered the label, and forget about it another ten.
Life. Work. Dating. Marriage. Family. Grand kids. The man moved eight times since he found the jar. Traveled. Laughed. Loved. And lost. The jar was his only constant. After the sickness. After the empty side of the bed. After eighty-four Christmases, Thanksgivings, and New Years—the jar remained on the shelf.
The move to the assisted living home was the hardest. The old man felt like a boy again. He got a new room, but the new room was sterile. Smelled of bleach and baked-in, green bean casserole from the cafeteria down the hall. They weren’t smells that brought good memories. But it was a place to make new ones. The old man did his best to settle-in.
His kids helped him move. They rallied around the place and made him feel it was the right decision. It wasn’t home, but the old man was happy. His grandson brought the last box from the car. A box the old man packed. The old man resisted the questions. He bribed the boy with ice cream so the old man could open the box in private.
Dinner was perfect—small kitchen and a small eating area. They crammed-in and made-do. Cozy. Full of laughs and stories. That one time with the flat tire. Oh, and that time Aunt Edna tore her dress on the escalator. And the day with the bird in the kitchen and Mom caught it with a towel. Even the kids got involved. Tossed their parents under the bus and swapped juicy tales with Grandpa.
Then they left.
The old man was alone.
He took his knife from his pocket and cut the tape. There were layers of paper and bubble wrap. Some awards and certificates from his days in the Army—straight to the trash. The treasure was at the bottom. The old man lifted it and held it to the light. Same cloudy contents since he was a boy. Same worn label. Damn thing was stuck on so well, it would never come off.
Something compelled him to go for a walk. He wasn’t a spontaneous man, but today was different. He grabbed his old backpack from the closet, wrapped the jar with a towel, and stuffed the treasure inside. The old man walked to the park. The park was close. There weren’t a lot of places he could travel on his own, but the park was one of them. If he wanted to go further, he’d need the bus.
The old man was ready.
He found the perfect bench. In front of the pond. It was a Tuesday morning, so the man was alone. Slight bite to the air. He pulled the jar from the backpack. Held it up to the light as he did thousands of times since he was a boy.
He put the jar in his lap and turned the lid.
The old man decided it best to open the jar quick. He didn’t know if he should pick slow or quick, so he chose quick. The old man figured he was slow thus far. His fingers protested. A lifetime on a shelf was enough to seal any jar. The old man worked it for fifteen minutes as the jar fought him all the way.
So much for quick.
And then it gave.
The lid moved and the old man unscrewed it with purpose. He never felt so ready as this moment. There were a handful of times in the past, but now he was sure. The old man spun to the end of the threads. There was a sucking sound as the pressure released. The lid fell to the ground with a hollow, tin thunk.
Then it happened.
The old man had a sensation of calm. The sun was in the sky, but the brightness tripled. As if a giant lamp was switched-on. White. Perfect light. He didn’t squint his eyes. The old man knew the bench was under him, but he couldn’t feel it. He knew the pond was in front of him, but couldn’t see it. The old man felt good. Perfect. Everything was perfect. There was no sound. There were no additional instructions. There were no voices. Just light, calm, and silence.
And then he was gone.
Not a trace of him left in the park.
The light returned to normal levels. The birds chirped and the small pond lapped the shore.
There was a young boy nearby. He was a curious boy. The boy chased a squirrel with a stick until the squirrel ran. The boy had bread in his backpack. His grandmother stuck it in there so he could feed the ducks.
The boy climbed on the bench and tossed bread until his little arm grew sore. The ducks made quite the crowd around the bench—until the bread ran out. Just like people. The boy dropped his backpack and sat on the bench to watch the pond. He loved being outside.
The boy watched the sun peak the sky and begin its slow descent. He checked his Batman watch. Ten minutes until he had to be back at Grandma’s. The boy reached under the bench to grab his things. His hand touched something smooth. He dipped his head to investigate and found an old jelly jar with the lid screwed tight. Gray and cloudy inside. With a worn label on the top. The label looked like it would never come off.
The boy straightened and sat the jar between his legs.
It was time to leave, but his new treasure froze him to the bench. The jar was interesting. The jar was his. The boy looked over both shoulders. There was no one close. He held the jar to the light. Sniffed it. Smelled old. The boy figured it was probably what it would look like if you went to London, stood at the top of Big Ben, and scooped a serving of fog.
He used his elbow, the last clean part of his play shirt, to wipe the dust from the paper label. The message was simple and the boy obeyed.
DO NOT OPEN THIS JAR UNTIL YOU ARE READY. YOU WILL KNOW WHEN THE DAY COMES
The boy stuffed the jar in his backpack and ran as fast as his boy-legs would drive him. His feet touched the porch the moment his grandmother stepped out to make sure he was OK. They exchanged hugs and hellos.
The boy ran to his room. Told his grandmother he had to wash his hands before dinner. And maybe change his shirt. She looked at him as if he told her he just performed brain surgery with a pocketknife. This was the same boy who ate a hot dog after dipping his hands in mud puddles to catch frogs.
His grandmother shrugged.
The boy ran to his room.
He stood on his wooden stool. Strained to his tip-toes and put the jar on his shelf. Behind the model airplanes and the fragile toys. Grandma wouldn’t find it there.
-Written by August Birch