For most people the day after Christmas is when they wrap presents for those less fortunate. On the front of each present might be their surname, perhaps a cheery wish scrawled underneath. There’s never a return mailing address. Because it’s always easier to do one deed and believe it is done.
My family wasn’t any different. We weren’t rich by any means, but on most Christmas, we would get more than we needed, and my mom would box a few of them up in the cardboard strewn on the floor.
My dad said this was a great thing for us to do, so my siblings and I always tried to remember not to crumple the boxes or rip them up, even if we did throw them around a bit.
That’s what Boxing Day is for most families.
That’s what it was for me too, until December 26th, 2001.
It began when my older brother didn’t come home after curfew. This was before cellphones were common so my parents stayed up past midnight, and I lay awake in my bed as I watched my sister sleep peacefully. Then at 2:43 in the morning, a knock came from the front door that sank my throat into my stomach.
I’ll never forget the sound my mom made when she heard the news.
My brother was involved in an accident, drinking was involved, everyone in his vehicle and 2 others were killed. He was the one that had been drinking. He was the one that had been driving when his car struck another and then careened into the dry fields of wheat. The flames roared for hours before anyone drove down that same patch of road, and by the time the fire department came, it was too late. None of the bodies could be recovered.
We buried his coffin in the local cemetery.
For months I was angry at him. I was angry at him for drinking. I was angry at him for dying. I was angry at him for killing all those people.
We live in a small town and word spread quickly. I became the drunk killer’s brother. The name stuck too because my dad was never the same after that night. All the vibrant charisma that I had associated with him, was gone. It was as if he had nothing left in him. He had once been an active member of the community, but one by one folk started shunning him. It got so bad that even friends he knew for years wouldn’t answer the door when he rang. So in his desolation. He turned to the bottle. And became the town drunk. Which made everything worse.
Like father like son.
At times I would come home and see my dad staring at me through the rose-tinted bottom of Jack, and he looked as if he wanted to say something, but he never did.
My brother’s actions would follow me out of junior high, and into high school. I never got invited to any parties or had a date. Never went to a school dance. So during those many lonely nights, I decided that when I turned 18, I would get the hell out of here. I’d go where no one knew me. Get a fresh start. Head toward a big city on the coast and disappear into the crowd. I’d attend a junior college and hope to transfer into a four-year state school.
I had a lot of dreams that I dreamt during those lonely years, but when the time finally came. I couldn’t do it. Not when my parents needed me. Not after my little sister had been kidnapped the February before I graduated.
She had been walking home from school, like any other day, when she was abducted. The sheriff had tried to keep everything hushed up. Because the detectives working on the case didn’t want to chase off whoever it was that had done it.
The police would eventually trace all their leads into a warehouse. There they would find my sister’s shoes, socks, dress, underwear, and bag. All neatly folded and put to the side. Along with the belongings of 9 other children.
“Where’s her coat,” I remember my mom crying at the station. “She’s going to be cold without it.”
Inside the warehouse were several large steel vats. The place had once been a cannery. The vats were used to cook and boil meat until it fell off the bones and the collagen collected was used as a natural preservative. A specific roller inside the steel cooker would scoop the bones from inside and drop them down a chute to be collected by workers.
When one of the officers opened a vat, he threw up inside. Many argued that this caused contamination of the overall evidence, but after several forensic tests, it was concluded that the contents were human remains. It was hard for anyone to think that the perfectly flat opaque paste at the bottom were the victims. But when they had finally emptied it, there was no longer any doubt, because at the bottom of the vat were hundreds of tiny teeth.
There was a state-wide search after that. The cops were no longer worried about putting this criminal into hiding. They were determined to flush them out by force. Even reporters from other countries would come to our town. But after a few months, the commotion died down because no one else was kidnapped and no other clue surfaced. Once in a while, I’ll still see or hear someone pick at the story but in the end, none of the other children were ever recovered. Not even their bones.
I believe the aggression that the detectives originally feared, made the killer go into hiding. Probably forever. To this day, this still remains the largest unsolved case in my county.
We buried my sister on a Wednesday.
Three years after my brother, another empty box.
I tried staying on for months afterwards. But between the shouting and the silence, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was even harder on my mom because a few days before I was going to pack up and leave without saying a word. She took her car, an umbrella, and the family dog to the beach. She walked towards the water as the sun was setting, witnesses say she never came out. By the time they got down to the water, she was gone.
The funeral director offered to cover all of our expenses. Said it was a great tragedy. I couldn’t help but think that they were being so nice because we were their best customers. And that there were still two of us left.
Another empty box.
After a year of cleaning up after my dad, pulling him out of alleys, behind garbage bins in piles of his own vomit. I had enough. I got up and left. He watched me as I took my stuff out the door. I made extra trips to my car, to give him a chance to say something. He never did. The only thing that came between us was the creaking of the door as it opened and closed. A part of me wished he said something, a part of me wished he said anything, even if it was bad. Because at least then we could get in a fight and I wouldn’t feel so much like a piece of shit for leaving. Maybe if we had fought…I wouldn’t have left him all alone.
A year later I was living alone and coming home from school when I see a box near my front door. I suspected it to be a package I had ordered online. I had purchased one of those cheesy signs that I loved from Etsy. It read something like, “Home is where you are.” Somehow it resonated with me so much that I had to have it. I didn’t get a chance to open it because I was late for work, so I stashed it in a corner before leaving.
When I finally got back to my apartment, it was nearly midnight. I was coming through the front door and pulling off my shoes when I nearly tripped over the box. I was tired and had completely forgotten about it, but as this was the first piece of decorum I could afford – I was eager to put it up. I twirled the box around and read my name on the box. It was the first time a package had come here with my name and address on it. It sort of felt official. So I wanted to see it. Except when I looked all over, I couldn’t find an address. Even more weird was that I couldn’t find a return address. There was nothing else there. Only my name. Curious, I used my key to split the tape in half.
I reach into the peanut packaging and felt something long and hard in my hand. This didn’t feel like a wooden sign. It felt like a dildo. Immediately I think it was a prank from a classmate. We had recently been joking about what was stuck up the professor’s ass after a mouthy lecture. So I pull it out, expecting to get a laugh.
What I find in my hand is a glass tube filled to the brim with liquid, swimming inside was a human finger.
I fell on my ass and nearly dropped it. I had seen fingers all my life. I had 10 of them myself. But this was an actual limb in the palm of my hand. I was holding a piece of someone else. And it wasn’t even attached to them. A piece that had gone missing. Forcibly by the looks of it. The jagged edges weren’t neat. In fact, it looked as if it were beaten by a blunt object until it fell loose. The idea of how painful it must have been made me shiver, and somehow made it more grotesque as the thoughts swirled in my mind. That the severing wasn’t an accident. It was intentional.
Who would do such a thing? Who would then deliver it?
The finger was small and delicate. I was too afraid to move from my spot so I swirled the tube to get a better view, I hear a ring at the bottom. I unfurl my hand and see a small golden hoop with a dot-sized aquamarine on it. I remember this ring, my sister had begged my dad to buy it for her birthday. And she wore it every single day. Changing it between her fingers as she grew up. First, it was on her thumb, then her middle finger, ring, and pinky.
I immediately got into my car and drove back to my old house. I opened the front door and it was empty. For a second it felt strange standing there in the kitchen, but I hadn’t driven 3 and a half hours to look at the furniture.
I went into my sister’s room. Nothing had changed. Not a book or sheet had been moved. Everything was exactly how she had left it the morning before she disappeared. I walked over to the shelf and pull out an old scrapbook.
I flipped through the pages until I found it. It was a hand print painting that she did in class. It was old and dried. I remember it because she showed it to me after school. Saying that this would be a good way to remember her.
At the time I just thought it was a stupid water painting that the teacher’s made the kids do when they couldn’t think of anything else. Now I know better. Kids don’t usually have official fingerprint records, not until they’re older. What happens if they go missing? Someone ingeniously found a way to skirt all the red tape, by making it into an activity. Finger painting, turkey hands, butterflies.
I pulled out the paper and found an ink pad for her plastic stamps. I took the finger out of the tube and rolled it on my dry shirt. And made an imprint next to her handprint.
It was a perfect match.
I drove back to the city and by morning I had convinced myself to take it to the station. I was sitting at the precinct with the box in my lap when I remembered that the cops had already blown it. They forced the criminal into hiding. Who knows how long before he emerges again when they fuck it up. They were never going to find this murderer. And my sister was long dead. If I reported it now, they would stop sending me the pieces.
More than anything, I wanted justice. But if I couldn’t have that, then at least I wanted my sister back. What was left of her. Just so I had something to bury. Even if it were selfish, I was tired of empty fucking boxes.
I left the police station that day and went home. The coming weeks I waited for another box. The need to bury something became increasingly familiar. I found myself digging holes for my garbage at the edge of an empty lot. Just to know what it was like. When the next package came, I couldn’t be happier. It was almost like waiting for Christmas. I didn’t know what I was going to get. Soon I started looking forward to it. Because each one meant that I was closer to putting her back together.
I had emptied out a closet and bought a 5 tiered shelf. Inside I would place her part, approximately where it belonged.
The boxes came at random. I’d go weeks without seeing one. Months even. But never a year. Then suddenly I’d get 2 or 3 packages back to back. They’d be piled at my front door. I first started to notice that the boxes would follow me no matter where I went when I was on a trip and came back to my Airbnb and found a jar wrapped in butcher paper on the nightstand. When I unwrapped it, I found her tongue. It was cute and pink. “I’ll never get this past airport security,” I remembered thinking. So I canceled my flight and rented a car, driving the 580 something miles back home.
I didn’t mind them following me. Commended it even. This person was so dedicated to returning her. I was very thankful.
That was until I found myself working for a packaging company. And I was attending the 3-day company outing at a ski resort, hoping to get a leg up with my boss. We were some 30 miles into the mountains, sitting around the fire after a cold day when my Supervisor comes to the lobby with a box in his hands. He said it was in front of my hotel room. I could already tell by the familiar wrapping, the paper that was used, even the color of the tape, that this was one of her boxes.
I tried playing it off when the others teased me, asking if it were from a secret admirer. I told them that it was from a client. “Oh, Mr. Bigshot huh? Working hard even out of the office.” I was hoping they couldn’t tell the bullets raining down my back as I sat there with them, the box a few feet from my feet, their every hand twitch making me scream as I hoped no one would try and open it. I didn’t last 10 minutes before I faked a yawn and told them that I was going to call it an early night and headed up the elevator.
When my floor finally came, I ran toward my hotel room. I slid in my keycard and slammed the door behind me. My hands were fumbling as they ripped the box to pieces. Inside I find another glass tube, it’s just another finger. But then I noticed something impossible. I put it up to the light and looked again.
What the fuck have I been doing!
I didn’t even pack my bags, the only thing I took was the vial. I got into my car and drove through the night. The roads were windy and the ground slippery, several times I thought I wouldn’t make a corner but somehow I managed my way down the mountain. Then I drove along the 50 until I reach my old house. I can hear my dad drunkenly mumbling as I fling open the door. I take the steps up the stairs two at a time. I turn on the lights and start pulling the books from the shelves until I find her scrapbook again. I take an imprint of the new finger.
I fall on my ass as I stare at the two prints side by side. They were exactly the same. The only difference was that the new fingerprint was larger. I didn’t even need to compare it to the fingers back home. I could tell that it was at least a quarter-inch longer than the others. She was still growing. She must be still alive!
For the next few days, I lived with great hope, talking loudly in my apartment, not worrying who could hear. Thinking of ways to find her. To save her. Thankful that I was given a chance to do it.
My hopes were dashed when I came home one day and found another box. Inside was a glass case, the kind fancy cupcakes are placed in. And in that case, was her ear, it rested on top of a flat marble pedestal. The veins in her ear ran along until they attached to the spine on the back of a sleeping white mouse. I watched as the blood flowed from one to the other. Watched as the mouse’s little chest expanded in its sleep and pushed blood into the ear.
Now I couldn’t be sure if she were alive or dead.
And that was when I finally realized, that this was beyond me.
By morning I had convinced myself to turn over everything I have to the authorities. I’m arrested for withholding evidence in a criminal case, but I don’t care, not if this helps them find my sister. I go to the county for a few months. But a judge takes pity on me, after looking over my history. He lets me off on house arrest, and I check in with my PO once a week. Along with some mandatory therapy.
“My brother was taken, when I was about 9 years old. That would have made him 2 or 3 when it happened. It’s so weird that I can’t remember. Tell you guys the truth…I can’t actually remember what he looked like, save for the small pictures around my mom’s house. She keeps them on her shelves and tables ‘ in his memory, but it feels more like tombstones if it makes any sense.”
She looked like a quiet girl. Her eyes wouldn’t greet others often, her hair was short and straight, and she never wore any makeup to the meetings. “I remember walking the aisles for a few seconds, and I could hear the worry start to grow in my mom’s voice. I could feel it in her breathing as panic began to set in. The sounds of the cartwheels rolling in my head as the rows flashed by us, each one empty of my brother. The supervisor came over to help us, and workers walked the store, the loudspeakers overhead called his name over and over again, and eventually, the police arrived. We went home empty-handed that day, to an empty apartment, and empty cupboards. I waited in the living room, the light from our old television set washing over me as my mom sat at the kitchen table with the corded phone.”
“My mom still does that,” someone else said. “I go over sometimes and I find her standing near the kitchen where the old phone used to be, and I can just tell she’s been standing there for hours, just staring at that empty space.”
I sat in silence as a man shared, “My dad used to commute from Missouri to Chicago because Mom wouldn’t sell the old house after we had lost my sister, ‘How will she know which house is hers if we aren’t here?’ And so we kept the lawn the same, my dad drove the same car for over 30 years, and when it was needed – we painted the house and its trims all the same colors. It’s as if nothing has changed and we were all waiting for her to come back so that time could move forward again.”
And it went like this for a while. I would go and listen but I never shared. Except with my therapist during one on ones, “I was right you know? Reporting it to the police scared the sender off. The boxes stopped coming.”
“That’s normal,” she clicks her pen. “Those kind of people are often scared themselves. They’re spooked easily. All they want is the thrill of being exposed, they don’t actually want to be caught.”
And I believed her.
It made the days go by easier, and when all was said and done. I emerged as a new person. Soon after, I was free again. With my sentence completed, I was able to wander where I wanted and go when I pleased.
The second week of my newfound freedom, I reserved a cabin with the state park, and I found myself packing up my hatchback and driving off into the woods. I had been there for about two days when I hear a knock at the door. I open it but no one is there, no one except for a box on the floor. It had been 4 years since I had seen one. But I knew it for what it was the moment I saw it. I quickly looked around but no one was there. I should have called the cops but instead, I grabbed the box and hurriedly dragged it inside.
When I opened it up, there was brown packing paper on top. I tore away at it until I found the curled leg underneath, the foot bent at an odd angle to fit inside. I didn’t need to be told, who the leg belonged to because I recognized the birthmark on the thigh immediately. How could I not? I had seen it every year since we were kids, swimming at the watering hole.
I noticed that the leg was longer than I remembered. So I stood it upright next to my side, and figured she would be about 5’3 or 5’4 now. I wonder if they had been feeding her. If they were treating her any better. I wondered how long it would be until all of her would-be joining me.