When Joe had finally agreed to spend the first weeks of his retirement remodeling their house, he’d assumed that Molly meant redoing the kitchen, adding the island she’d always wanted, and increasing the cabinet space. He’d never expected that he’d be renting heavy equipment and hiring contractors to demolish the garage in order to expand it and add a second story with mother-in-law quarters.
He’d never expected that he’d be working with the guys he’d hired to haul away chunks of the cement that had formerly been the garage floor, or dig out a new basement.
He’d certainly never expected to find a small, sealed coffin under the layers of mud and sand and concrete.
A coffin that still held a body.
Actually, it reminded him of that fairy-tale his daughter had loved when she was younger. The one about the girl in the glass casket. The one who wakes up when the prince kisses her.
Except this coffin wasn’t made of glass. Instead, it was formed from lead and bronze, with a pair of diamond-shaped glass windows set into the top. And it was old. Decades at least. Maybe centuries.
Except this girl, the one inside the box, wasn’t an adolescent on the cusp of womanhood. Rather the pale face he saw centered in the top window, the one framed by jet-black curls adorned with a bit of lace, was cherub-cheeked and babyish, and he didn’t think she’d been a day over three when she died.
Funny, she didn’t look dead.
She looked for all the world as though she’d just been tucked in for an afternoon nap, the dark eyelashes of her closed eyes resting against the soft skin of those adorable cheeks. Those pinch-able cheeks.
“You have such fat, pink, cheeks, Gracie. I’m going to eat you up!” Joe bounced his five-year-old daughter on his knee, laughing with the child as she giggled. “I’m going to stuff an apple in your mouth, and roast you in the oven,” he teased.
Gracie howled with little-girl laughter, understanding that her father was only teasing, and demanding to know, “What else are you gonna do to me, Daddy?”
“I’m going to wrap you up so tight…” This was their bedtime routine. Molly was in charge of bath time and pajamas, but Joe handled Storytime and tucking in.
But Gracie wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was twenty, off studying at Tulane, with father-daughter bedtime stories far behind her.
Still, Joe thought, his own daughter had once looked just like this child when she was sleeping. Peaceful. Innocent. A little girl taking her afternoon nap.
Only the white rose clutched in her tiny fist told a different story. The white rose and the nameplate on the foot of the box. He reached out with a gloved hand to rub the grime away: Edith, it read. No last name.
He stared down at the girl under glass for a few more minutes, before he realized that the sun had gone down, and the men he’d found waiting outside Home Depot at six AM on Tuesday, the same men who had found their own ride out to his place for the two days since, had already jumped in their truck and gone home.
He really ought to call someone.
He really shouldn’t just leave her there, in the open. What if some kid wandered in? What would the neighbors think?
Joe left the place that used to be his garage, and went to grab a tarp from the back of his Jeep, noticing that Molly’s Prius wasn’t in the driveway. He wondered where she – oh, right – it was Thursday. She taught at the adult school on Thursdays. She’d left a lasagna out to defrost… he was supposed to start it in time for dinner. Funny how physical labor made you forget stuff like that.
He was about to swing the canvas cloth over the coffin when he caught sight of her face, found her fathomless black eyes staring at him from under the glass.
Wait a second. Hadn’t they been closed before?
Joe dropped the tarp over the casket and retreated from the remnants of his garage. The back of his neck had that cold, prickly feeling, and it was pretty dark out. Better to get inside, start dinner so it’d be ready when Molly got home, and figure out who you call to report a dead child in a coffin under your garage floor.
Was that something you dialed 9-1-1 for?
* * *
Friday morning rolled in with a violent rainstorm, which meant no work on the garage, but while Molly was upset about the delay, Joe was relieved. He hadn’t told her about the coffin. His wife was prone to having nightmares, and he didn’t want to be the cause of another sleepless night.
He’d waited until she left for work, and then he’d called the emergency line after all, because, really, who else would know what to do?
“Sir, this isn’t funny,” the operator informed him. “We have a major storm causing flooding at all the low-lying intersections, and can’t afford to waste time on pranksters.”
“I’m not a prankster,” Joe had insisted, and either she had sensed the anguish in his voice, or she had a friend she wished to twit, because she’d referred him to the county coroner instructing him to ‘ask for Charlie.’
It turned out that Charlie was actually Charlene, and she was also convinced it was some kind of a joke. Joe had gone out to the garage with his smartphone and snapped some pictures, texting them to the cell number she’d provided.
Two hours later, the coroner’s van arrived and a redheaded woman who appeared to be in her early fifties joined Joe in the torn-down garage, flanked by a ferret-faced man who said he was Jasper from the historical society, and a woman in a conservative skirt and veil, the contemporary habit of a nun, who said she was from the Sisters of Innocence and explained that her organization would handle the burial at no charge.
“Mr. Hunter,” the coroner greeted him. ” I’m Charlie. We spoke on the phone. I’m so sorry; this must have been quite upsetting for you.”
“It was definitely a surprise,” he replied, affably enough. “My wife doesn’t know.”
“I’m not surprised you found a coffin,” the historical society rep interrupted. “From the photos you sent, yours is about a hundred and fifty years old… this whole area was a cemetery then. The bodies were relocated around the turn of the century, though… ground’s too wet… coffins kept floating to the surface.”
Joe had no way to respond to that, so he ignored it, except to say, “It’s not mine.” And then, “It’s here… under the tarp.”
But Jasper continued. “She clearly came from a wealthy family. Lead. Bronze. Glass. This thing was built to last.”
Joe turned his back to Jasper.
Charlie did the honors, removing the drape, and the three adults all looked into the window at the still, small, form inside. Her eyes were closed again (or was it ‘still?’) Joe saw, but her mouth looked a little different – the lips seemed redder and plumper – or maybe he was just imagining things.
“Alright,” the coroner said. “Jasper, if you’ll give me a hand moving her, we’ll get going. I think Sister Celeste has some paperwork for you to do, sir.”
The nun had been murmuring a prayer over the casket, and she took a moment to gaze through the window before allowing Joe to direct her toward the house. “Such a beautiful child. So well preserved…”
“It’s because the coffin’s sealed” Jasper said. “No air, no deterioration.”
Joe decided he didn’t care much for Jasper.
* * *
Joe Hunter had never been a great cook, but he figured if he was going to tell his wife what had been removed from where the garage used to be, he’d better ply her with food and drink first. The morning’s rain had left a clear, crisp, night in its wake. Chilly, but not too cold for barbecue. He had a pitcher of margaritas mixed and the steaks ready to go on the grill as soon as Molly arrived home.
The cold pricklies came back at about the same time his phone rang. Charlie from the coroner’s office calling to tell him that something had happened.
“Happened?” Joe had no idea why she was calling him.
“When we got to the morgue… when we opened the casket… the child… she was gone.”
Joe had no idea what to say, but it didn’t matter, because Molly walked in just then, carrying a white rose and smiling like she had on their last anniversary when he’d given her that string of real pearls.
“Do I smell charcoal?” she asked, and lifted her face to his for a kiss.
“Yeah,” he said. “I thought… we won’t have many more nights warm enough.” He thumbed the phone to an inactive state and set it down on the counter, face down. “Margarita?”
They ate and laughed, and he finally told her about the coffin and showed her the pictures. “It almost looks like her eyes are open in this one,” Molly observed.
Joe agreed that it really did.
They went to bed early, but they didn’t go to sleep because Molly was reading a chapter of some novel on her Kindle and he was using his iPad to send an email to Gracie. “Come home for Thanksgiving break,” he requested. “Your mother and I both miss you.”
Around midnight, after Molly had turned off her light and rolled on her side to sleep, Joe got up to check the house. It was his ritual, one his father had performed long ago. Make sure all the doors are locked, prep the coffee-maker for the morning. Hit the bathroom one more time.
He was passing Gracie’s room on his way back to bed when he heard it. Soft, so soft it was quieter than a dream, a lick of childish laughter.
The kind of laughter a three-year-old might produce.
Notes: I’ve had the concept of “Under Glass” in my head for years. When I went looking for art to accompany this story, however, I stumbled upon a true story about a coffin that was found under the floor of a garage in San Francisco, in the Lone Mountain neighborhood. I know the area because I had classes in the Lone Mountain campus of University of San Francisco, once upon a time. Here’s the link to the actual story: Little Girl Found in Coffin