Category B: Highly Commended (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Viola Halmai
The sound of my footsteps echoes off the dark alley walls although I try my best to conceal it. My breath turns into white fog as I exhale, the crisp January air biting at my face. I quickly make my way down, avoiding the glow of streetlights where possible. Moving stealthily in the late night hours, I am like a shadow, gone before you notice it coming.
I turn a corner and creep through a darkened street with shops running along it. There is a colossal museum farther down, smooth white columns lining the front. As I get closer, I see that one of the windows is slightly ajar. Careful not to make much noise, I climb through it, slipping cautiously behind the glass. Even in the twilight the area looks breathtaking; paintings of girls in gowns, old objects, ceiling paintings, stone carving displayed behind glass. I put my hand out and brush my fingers gently along the wall. The rocky surface feels rough and cool against my skin. The whole building has an ancient feel to it. It feels as thought it is hundreds of years old. As I enter the next room, traces of a time long ago greet me. Rock paintings, engravings, fossilised fish neatly arranged behind thick glass, remains of tools used by the first humans lye in display cases in the middle.
I walk up the marble staircase to the next floor, finding displays and photographs from decades ago, the possessions of our ancestors locked away in cases, their lives documented and kept safe here. I look around, taking in the beauty of it all when my eyes land on a small metal box with a tiny keyhole, sitting elegantly inside a case on a red velvet cushion. My feet carry me towards it, something about the box intrigues me, pulling me closer. I glance at the few lines of information beside it; I can make out a few words in the dark, ancient and danger, family, and secret. I freeze, read it again. Our family has kept a secret. ‘It was passed down from generation to generation, kept hidden for centuries until it was stolen from your great-great grandmother,’ father would say. The box sits so innocently in its case, yet looks like it could hold anything.
Without thinking twice, I pull my jacket sleeve over my fist, smashing the glass. The sudden impact throws me backwards and I stumble before regaining my balance. Broken fragments of glass fly everywhere and I cover my face with an arm for protection while reaching for the box with the other hand. A siren starts screaming somewhere in the building, I make a run for the nearest window and force it open. I slide outside and grip tightly onto the window frame, pocket the box and climb down the outside of the museum carefully but swiftly. I jump onto the ground once I’m lower down. Sprinting down the street, I don’t care how much sound I make anymore. I feel the little box in my pocket as I run. And I keep going without looking back, even though I can hear commotion behind me, the high-pitched wail of a police siren grows more and more distant with every building I pass as I weave through the streets and alleys.
The box smacks against my leg, suddenly I remember. An image of a symbol, two letters inside a broken circle. Stories told about a stolen secret beside a fireplace. I cannot recall its meaning or what my father said about the secret that evening.
I slip into an abandoned alleyway, dive quickly behind a pile of garbage bags. Crouching down low, I pull the object out and look at it more closely.
The full moon above provides just enough light to see. An engraving decorates the lid and I run my fingers along the two letters and the circle around it, pausing where the circle is broken. I gasp. PR. The story about her stolen possession. They’re initials, I realise. This box, with the symbol on it, was stolen years ago. From Prudence Rodds. My great-great grandmother.
I slowly turn the little object over in my hands. I’m surprised to find words carved into the bottom. ‘Do not open. Contains dark, dangerous things.’
The sound of sirens interrupts my thoughts, getting louder by the minute. They’re getting closer. I turn the little box over again and take out a rusty hairpin. My mother’s. For a moment I just sit there, pin in one hand, box in the other, pondering whether or not I should open it. Curiosity overcomes me and I start picking at the tiny lock. It clicks open. My mind is buzzing with excitement. I slowly lift the lid of the box.