Later that night I lay on my bed, alone, and studied the key. I had a pretty good idea what it was for. The return address on the envelope was the giveaway. I didn’t make the connection at first but later while Margaret and I ate dinner, the pieces fell into place and now I knew. PO Box 529, my birth date, wasn’t a coincidence it was a message. The key in my hand was to that box.
Someone out there knew a lot about me.
I closed my eyes and, though I didn’t want to, pictured the words on the paper.
Are you the Secret Thief?
Shredded or not, they would stay a clear image for me for a long time and I lay there in silent rage hating each word.
I’ve never felt such loathing for a sentence before. I am not a thief. Maybe it was true that no one had ever freely handed me their secret, not even Marco, but so what? I didn’t ask for this. I wasn’t a thief.
I pushed the thought out of my head. It was the person behind the letter that I needed to worry about. What did they know? The note said ’are you?’. Were they unsure of what I could do? What made them suspicious of me? Who were they? Someone I knew?
And what was in that PO Box?
There was only one way to find out.
There are three locations in our small town a person could rent a P.O. box, the main office on 1st avenue, the secondary office on Pine and the office in the mall. Guess where the box I wanted was?
The mall was crowded and as usual I was the only person bothered by it. Probably it was always like that. I wouldn’t know. Until recently I found malls about as alluring as a root canal. It was strange being there, now that I had a better handle on what I could do. I discovered that people tend to be preoccupied with their own group and their own business, not me and mine. Maneuvering between them really wasn’t such a big deal.
Anyway, the Post Office was in an unpopular part of the mall. I could have walked there naked and no one would have bothered me.
Box 529 was two rows from the counter facing the back, tucked in where no one could easily watch me. I could take as much time as I needed, which was good because my trembling fingers were having a hard time matching the key to the lock opening.
“Calm down Vi.” I said aloud. “Whatever is in there can’t possibly be the end of the world.”
It sounded good but the knot in my stomach made it clear I wasn’t buying it. I took a deep breath and tried again.
“Whatever is there, is there whether you look or not.” I told myself. “You want to go on wondering who to trust or you want to get on with life?”
I shook myself out, took a step forward and inserted the key. Inside the small box was an envelope, nothing else. This one was larger than the one sent to my house but across the front, typed just like before, was a familiar greeting.
Are you the Secret Thief?
I tore it open. Inside were two more envelopes and a note.
Lock the box then mail key.
I looked at the envelopes. One was blank. The other was stamped and addressed to go right back to box 529. I stuffed the blank envelope in my jacket pocket. Then I shut the tiny door, locked it and dropped the key in envelope number two and, on my way out, tossed it into the mail box by the door.
A few minutes later, in my car in quiet solitude and with the door unnecessarily locked (probably) I ripped a thin edge off the envelope and opened it up.
It was a stack of photos. I held the stack in my hands and passed the picture from front to back. The first few were of a building I didn’t recognize. It was open and empty, like a warehouse and it looked like the shots were taken from a camera far away as it zoomed in.
The next picture was inside the warehouse. Three figures stood facing each other. Two of them I knew.
My heart beat harder. Seeing the two of them together in this strange environment wounded me. I swallowed to stop the tears that were pressing on the corners of my eyes from flowing. At least now one of my questions was answered. I didn’t know how or for how long but Marco and Margaret did know each other.
I looked away from my mother and boyfriend and stared at the third party in their group. He was a man in a suit. Maybe he looked a little familiar but nothing about him stood out. He was about Marco’s height but older. He had dark hair and a hateful look aimed at my boyfriend which kind of made me happy. Marco looked like he was getting his ass chewed. Good. He deserved it. The liar.
I shook my head, wiping Marco, my Marco, from my brain. If I thought about him I might sink and I couldn’t afford to. Not now.
I flipped through the photos. What were they supposed to tell me? What was going on? Why did Margaret make a big deal about getting to know Marco when clearly she already did? Why didn’t Marco mention it? Who was the man in the suit? I rubbed my eyes then stared out the window to think.
Business at the mall was picking up. There was a steady stream of shoppers in and out now. I watched cars loop around, searching for a parking spot, with painful progress as pedestrians crossed without thought in front of them. A delivery van backing up nearly hit a woman loaded down with baggage. The van’s backup beeper went off but she walked blindly behind it anyway. Another pedestrian yelled out and the van driver slammed on the breaks just in time. He jumped out. The poor guy, dressed in brown from head to toe, looked terrified.
Brown. The driver wore brown.
It hit me fast, a realization so certain I jumped. I found the photo I wanted and suddenly felt like someone had kicked me in the gut.
Package guy. The man in the suit was the package guy I had watched flee our house so many weeks before. My mother and my boyfriend were at some weird meeting with the skittish package guy who carried a gun? Then a second realization reached me. I had seen this man in another setting, the motel. He was the figure I watched walk away that first night.
What the hell was going on?