“Yes,” said Jackie.
“No!” said Glynnis.
I opened the box. It creaked, and some dirt crumbled onto the table.
Glynnis gasped. “What is that? Oh, we shouldn’t have done this.”
Neatly placed inside, wrapped in watermarked silk fabric, was a gauzy dress, a simple ivory shift, the kind sold in tourist traps all over Mexico. Age had stiffened and yellowed the fabric, but it was cut simply, in a style that never seemed dated. A beautiful red patterned scarf was wrapped around the waist.
“There’s something else in there,” Jackie said, pointing to a small, flat box.
I was pretty sure it was a jewelry box. Opening that seemed more personal, but I did it anyway.
“Oh, those are so pretty,” Glynnis said.
I held the finely etched silver hoop earrings in my open palm. Though tarnished, they looked handmade by someone who’d lovingly crafted them.
While Glynnis found the courage to run her hand over our treasure, Jackie narrowed her eyes. “Where did you find this?”
“Sort of under the fence, on the line between my property and Mr. Eckhardt’s.”
“How long has he lived here?”
The question chilled me when I realized the implications. “Forever. Like, I think he’s been here since the houses were built.”
We stared at each other, wide-eyed.
“What if he’s a serial killer?” Glynnis said, terror clearly etched on her face. She snatched her hand back from the box and cradled it to her chest. “What if that’s a souvenir of his victim?”
“What if there are boxes buried all over the yard?” Jackie added, running with it.
I took a gulp of wine, and the alcohol loosened my imagination. I pictured dozens of metal boxes, buried under Mr. Eckhardt’s property, full of dresses and jewelry and the sad belongings of the women he’d strangled.
“What does the inside of his house look like?” Glynnis asked.
I took another sip of wine and said, “I’ve never been inside.”
An ominous pause. What if he had a skin suit in his living room, à la Silence of the Lambs?
Glynnis placed her hand protectively over the dress. “Should we call the cops?”
I thought of Officer Leprechaun laughing at me through his reddish whiskers. With a start, my common sense returned. If Mr. Eckhardt was a mad murderer, why hadn’t he done away with me and put my yoga pants and Pandora bracelet into a box and buried it? “Maybe it belongs to the woman who used to live here.”
“Who was she?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Jesse and I saw the house unoccupied, and I believe it was sold from an estate, but I don’t remember. I guess I could look at our original closing papers.”
Jesse had always been in charge of storing all the old file boxes, and I had no idea where to begin looking. Searching through all those memories seemed like opening a can of worms. I needed my worms for my garden. “But isn’t that information a matter of public record? I could look it up at the village hall.”
Jackie raised an eyebrow. She could tell I was practicing avoidance. Glynnis was too young and inexperienced. “I’ll go with you,” she said eagerly, forgetting for a moment that she’d concluded we had a serial killer right next door. “If you don’t mind me going.”
“I’d love to have you along. We’ll sneak out at lunch sometime this week.”
“Petra wouldn’t approve,” Jackie said, her words dripping with sarcasm.
“Oh, but I think she would. I’d be going for the brass ring and all that.”
“I hate the brass ring,” Glynnis said. “But I do like a good mystery.”
Later that night, I wiped the dirt from the box and carried it up to my bedroom. With the blinds firmly shut, I turned on the soft light next to my bed, took off everything but my underwear, and tried the dress on. It fit, but it probably would have fit someone twenty pounds heavier than me or twenty pounds lighter—it was one of those dresses. I tied the scarf around my waist to make it suit me, and then I walked up to the full-length mirror and held the earrings up to my ears. Who did they belong to, and why would someone bury something so pretty?
I could always ask Mr. Eckhardt, but then he’d probably call the police for real and have me arrested for trespassing.
They did, in all likelihood, belong to the woman who lived here before us. Who was she? Did she mean for someone, someday, to unearth her secrets?
Because I was sure the story attached to this box was juicy. Scandalous, even. The thought appealed to my imagination.
But as I was carefully refolding the dress, my Pandora bracelet caught on the hem and snapped one of the fine threads. Was it symbolic? Was I unleashing something I couldn’t contain?
Excerpt from Petra Polly: Chapter 5—Petra’s Rules for Creative Engagement, Part 2
Now that you’ve enriched your idea’s soul, you must cultivate it. Let it breathe. Socialize. Work its muscles. Turn its face to the sun. But be patient. Ideas are like houses—they need to settle, but then they need to expand and grow.
When your idea is at peace with itself, then its soul is ready for the next world. Will it go viral? Will it become part of our cultural lexicon? Your ownership of it will cease to matter. It will become known, and, in the process, so will you.
“This is such a stinking pile of horseshit,” Byron announced when he was certain Lukas was out of earshot.
We had decided the patch of land was simply too crowded on market day, and had given up and decided to walk around the stalls, hitting all the sample stations. We huddled around the cheese man, who was scooping burrata into small cups. Our group had been by twice already, and he kindly pretended not to notice. Lukas had drifted away from everyone almost as soon as we entered the market. I spotted him, of all places, at Mykia’s stall, sifting through a tub of zucchini. He’d pick up a vegetable, hold it up to the sun, and reject it, one after another. I hoped Mykia’s patience wasn’t being tested. The look on her face said that it was. Lukas said something to her, and Mykia bared her teeth in a smile that looked almost feral.
Byron continued to complain, and I knew what he was really doing, which was throwing all of his energy into whining. It was what we “creatives” did when we were stuck. And we were all stuck. Cranky, distracted, and impatient, the six of us had spent the morning bouncing around on our exercise balls like a bunch of toddlers, rudely bumping into each other, as if we could smash a good idea out of ourselves. We’d even settle for a halfway decent idea. Lukas knew what was going on and wisely left us alone. If he breathed down our necks at all, we’d all probably have simultaneous nervous breakdowns.
“This cheese is amazing,” Rhiannon announced, bending over to throw out the biodegradable sample cup. Once the bearded, suspendered cheese man got a good look at her cleavage, she slowly rolled up and winked at him.
“A vile display,” Byron seethed. “But . . .” Byron’s eyes glazed over, and he got the look, the one that said that an idea had finally burst into the right side of his brain. He grabbed Rhiannon’s hand. “Let’s go back to the office.”
“What?” She yanked her hand back. “Don’t touch me.”
“Sorry,” Byron said, sheepish for once. “But I’ve thought of something.”
Rhiannon’s whole demeanor changed. “You did?” With a final wink at the confused cheese man, she pushed Byron in the direction of Guh. “Run. Now. Get it down on paper.”