“Out of the Box” – a short story

I apologize in advance for those who have read this on my Facebook page. This story kept coming to mind, which meant it wanted to be told again, to a bigger audience. Here’s a short story I wrote a few years back.


My parents moved us around a lot when I was younger, so I don’t necessarily connect with a house or a certain town so much as moments in time. One specific time that comes to mind is December the year I was fourteen. We had recently moved from southern to northern California, into a small mountain community to help my uncle run his newly purchased restaurant. On weekends, I was the premier milkshake maker and dishwasher extraordinaire. Which is one of the reasons I can’t stand the smell of bleach today.

This specific December was boring and exciting at the same time. Exciting because I got to hike in the mountains behind the house, I got to build snowmen, and I got to work at the restaurant and earn money. It was also boring having to work at the restaurant. It was boring because my parents were helping my uncle run the restaurant. I was home alone, a lot.

I remember telling my parents I would decorate the house and the tree for Christmas. Of course they let me because they worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day. That year we actually had a real tree. I pulled boxes of decorations from the storage shed below the bedrooms. It was a workout. Our rent house was on a hill so the boxes in the garage were easily accessible by walking down two concrete steps from the living room. To reach the storage shed, – where the Christmas decorations were – meant navigating approximately twenty icy wooden steps from the sliding glass door in the kitchen to the ground below.

I sat for an hour or so making red and green felt bows to set on the branches. I straightened hooks so the ornaments would hang just right and vacuumed up small pieces of tinsel from the carpet. It was one of the best decoration jobs I’d done on a tree.

If I remember right, I called the restaurant and asked mom if she and dad could come home and look at the tree. I must have sounded excited because they came home not long after we hung up. The tree was the first thing anyone saw walking in the front door. I had stood outside the front door on the porch to make sure the impact was just right when the door was opened.

That tree definitely made an impact. Both of my parents stopped dead inside the door frame. My mother’s eyes welled up and I thought my father was going to walk back out the door. Oh, they weren’t overwhelmed by my decorating job. It was pretty, but not that pretty.

What elicited that reaction was the clothes pin reindeer with a green scarf and a missing googly eye hanging on the front. It was the large construction paper reindeer with the crooked antlers sticking out from the side of the tree. It was the red paper angel with gold glitter wings and pipe cleaner body hanging near the top of the tree.

My mother did cry and as my dad stepped closer; I really thought he was going to whip me. Those three ornaments hadn’t seen the light of day in seven years. My brother had made them in kindergarten two weeks before he drowned. I had asked before if we could put those ornaments out, but they had always told me no. That year I decided to do it no matter what the consequences.

Since his death, talk of my brother was not allowed. I was kept in the dark about what happened those first five years of his life. As an adult, I realize it must have been the most difficult thing for my parents to deal with – the loss of a child. But the child left behind wanted to remember. I wanted to remember. It hurt less to remember than thinking of him as stuck in that box.

After the initial shock wore off, I saw a weight lift off of their hearts. Not all of it, but enough to talk about my brother openly for the first time in seven years. Every Christmas since then, the twinkly lights of the Christmas tree have illuminated those ornaments. The second googly eye is gone, the antlers a little more twisted and the glitter has lost its luster. But they are in the dark no more.

In memory of Jeffrey Robert Ficenc

Sept. 5, 1979 – Jan. 3, 1980


Kindergarten – Sept. 1979

I vividly remember writing songs about him after he passed away. They never made it on paper; I wrote them as I went, singing them or playing them on my recorder – the only instrument I owned at the time. I guess I have both my brother and my mother to thank for my passion for writing. They both had a hand in it.


P.S. A coworker said Jeff and I have the same dimples. While I can see a little of our mom there, I think he favors our dad. 🙂



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