The office was so hot that morning. Libby sat at her monitor gazing wistfully out of the window at the park over the road. Why did the management insist on having the damned central heating on so high? It wasn't a particularly nice day so it would be quiet and cool in the park at lunchtime. Maybe the odd jogger or old man walking his dog, but not much else in the way of humanity. It was her custom to take sandwiches and a bottle of diet coke to the park every lunchtime and on days when the weather refused to permit it, she would return from her lunch break out of sorts and feeling unrefreshed.
Her bench was empty. Sometimes she didn't mind if there was someone already there, she had met some really nice people on that wooden seat. Today though she was glad to have a little bit of peace and quiet. This was her favourite part of the day; she could just sit and watch the world go rushing past her. An hour of life speculating rather than life competing.
As she drew level with the bench and sat down she realised that it wasn't quite as empty as she at first thought. Somebody had left something. It was a parcel about a foot square wrapped in brown paper. Libby stood and looked all around her to see if she could see anybody leaving the park. It might belong to them and she could do her good deed for the day in returning it. Right over at the far side of the park a keeper tended the greens, the faint whirring of his motorised lawn mower soothed her like the loud ticking of a comforting clock. Other than the gardener she seemed to have the park, or as much as she could see of it, to herself.
She picked the parcel up and vague ruminatings of "What if it's a bomb?" passed through her mind. She almost laughed aloud at herself. The family always said that she was a cast in the dye drama queen. This was sleepy little Penton and bomb wielding terrorists didn't seem to frequent the park very often.
The brown paper parcel was labelled 'To the lady with the laughing eyes.' Libby went into instant Nancy Drew mode. "Hmm its obviously a gift to a lady from her admirer. Too big to be an engagement ring, unless he aimed to disguise the fact, and anyway the label would suggest that he doesn't know her very well. Or maybe that is his pet name for her. But then wouldn't it be labelled to my lady with the laughing eyes?" Libby was enjoying herself; she put the parcel down on the bench beside her and unwrapped her egg mayonnaise baguette. As she continued to ponder about the parcel, its contents and more importantly its owner, she munched contentedly. "Too big to be chocolates, unless he wanted her to be as big as the side of a house. And assuming she wasn't fond of cast iron panties then it was too heavy for lingerie. "I know," she thought, "I bet it's a beautiful hand crafted glass ornament, one of those with the crystals inserted into it somewhere. Hell, it must have been expensive to be that size, the prices for those start at a small house mortgage for just a tiny one." Totally convinced now of the contents of the brown paper package, Libby worried that she might have damaged the fine glassware in her examination of the parcel. "No it's alright, he's obviously a very meticulous man." The parcel was wrapped to perfection. All the corners and edges carefully tucked away and the paper smooth and creaseless. He would have taken equal care in packing it firmly so that no damage could befall it.
Her sandwich was almost finished by the time she came to the burning question that she had to work out an answer to. "So why did they leave without the present? Maybe she stood him up and he stalked off in disgust leaving the parcel for whoever was lucky enough to find it." This last idea held a note of hope in her mind's voice. "No." she had to grudgingly admit. "He wouldn't spend all that money just to walk away and leave it. Maybe they had a huge argument and she ran off in tears. He of course being the gallant gentleman that he is, went after her completely forgetting about the parcel. Hmm more likely than the last idea, but he would have returned for it as soon as she had handed him back his white handkerchief, now of course slightly the worse for wear and a bit snotty." No that didn't work either There was one other possibility that did make perfect sense
Libby felt slightly embarrassed even thinking this. It was absurd, she couldn't possibly be right. But it was the only explanation so it must be. She came to the same bench, in the same park, at the same time, every day that the weather would allow. What if she had a secret admirer? Daft as it sounds, that must be it. Someone had been watching her come to the park every day and had admired her from afar. Well maybe no that far if he could see her eyes. She didn't know about 'laughing' eyes but she had often been told in the past that she had attractive eyes. And once some jerk that fancied himself as the next poet laureate had told her that, she had eyes that would shame the depths of the deepest sea into drowning itself as a failure.
Now that she knew the parcel was meant for her, for she had talked herself quite firmly into the fact that it was, she was pink with excitement. She couldn't wait to open it. "But not here." She told herself she would just have to contain her impatience until she got home that evening.
The afternoon had been a nightmare. Twice she had been told off by her boss for day dreaming when the phone was ringing. The need to tell someone of her secret parcel had been almost unbearable. The need to tell Karen, her best mate, played on her mind all afternoon. And yet something held her back. Perhaps it was the fact that if she was wrong about the parcel then she would feel stupid and Kaz would never let her live it down that she had thought the gift was for her. Or maybe it was deeper than that. Where Libby was flighty and sometimes a bit airheaded, Karen was always down to earth and sensible. Libby knew that Kaz would not see this as something wonderful and romantic. At best she would see it as sleazy and sinister and at worst she would have Libby marched down to the police station to hand the parcel in before she could say, "Brown paper packages tied up with string." So Libby said nothing and somehow got through the afternoon shift without bursting from curiosity.
Once through the front door, Libby put the parcel down on the kitchen work-top. She had waited all day to open it and now that the moment had arrived she felt a little bit nervous, like a virgin bride at bedtime. She made a cup of coffee while the parcel seemed to scream at her "Open me, open me." This could be the defining moment of her future, she wanted it to be perfect. "To the lady with the laughing eyes." How romantic.
"Well this is it girl, you have forfeited the right to answer a question and its time to open the box." She took parcel and coffee through to the living room and made herself comfortable on the sofa. With the parcel on her knee and with slightly trembling hands she undid the packaging.
Inside was a red box. The type of gift box you buy from extortionately priced card shops. The box was bright metallic red with a glittery effect and made of sturdy cardboard with a fitted lid. The lid was firmly celllotaped to the box and on the top was a large lavender envelope that read, "Important please do not open the box until you have read the contents of this envelope."
Sweet words of love from her admirer perhaps. Libby tore the envelope open and took from inside it several sheets of matching paper. She unfolded them and began reading the small, neat handwriting.
My dear Lady.
I begin this missal with an apology. Whatever trouble or hardship you have in your life, believe me, it is nothing to what I am about to lay upon you. With the exception of one other thing, I am more sorry for this, than for anything I have ever done in my life to date. I give you my sincere apology from the bottom of my heart, but I need not ask you to understand my reasons because you will come to understand them for yourself only too soon.
I begin with a story of explanation; please good lady bear with me while I tell my tale, let not impatience overcome you. I give you a choice to walk away, but if you precede the writings then the choice will be taken from you and you will be the keeper against your choosing.
Centuries ago in ancient Egypt there was a queen that nobody acknowledges. Her rein was but a short one and her crimes against humanity so heinous that she was struck from the history books of the country. The government of the day decreed that her name and reputation die with her and that she would never be mentioned after her tomb was sealed forever.
Her political crimes are not relevant to me, nor indeed to you, what we are concerned with is the harm that she did her own daughter.
In Egypt the nation are blessed with slightly almond shaped eyes that are a rich dark brown and are accentuated by long black lashes. The evil queen had born to her a daughter with sapphire blue eyes. As the child grew instead of changing hue the child's eyes only intensified in brilliance. She developed a great and outstanding beauty. Her eyes became more piercingly blue by the year. Yet her looks were tempered with a kind spirit and gentle soul. Anyone who came into contact with the little princess was a slave to her bidding because of her beauty and kindness. The little one's mother, already embittered by a blackened heart, grew jealous of her little girl. She knew not how to love, but her ability for sending out waves of hatred was surpassed by none. Soon her hatred turned upon her only child.
It was in the little girl's eighth year when she was taken from her bed at night and dragged into the dessert. She was strapped between two sacrificial pillars and left to the mercy of the night. Her mother rode away from the child without a backward glance.
It was some weeks before Sapphire was found by a band of nomad gypsies. Her eyes were missing when they cut her down and the nomads assumed that they had been taken by dessert carrion. Indeed they had, but not of the kind they meant. Before she left her child to die the evil queen took her daughter's eyes from their sockets so that God would not gaze upon their beauty and save the child from death.
The queen kept the eyes, unable to part with them. It's said she was driven out of her mind because the eyes' focus followed her around the room. No matter where they were the pupils were directed on the evil queen's face. She tried to get rid of them of course. They were burned, taken to the sea and cast, weighted from a boat. She even tried smashing the ornate jar that housed the eyes. The vessel had taken on the strength of God and could not be smashed. No matter what the queen did to rid herself of her daughter's eyes, the following morning they would be back in position beside her. Looking, ever looking, never wavering in their accusing stare. The queen was driven mad.
After her death the jar was sealed in her gilded tomb with her. The next morning they appeared on the table beside her sister's bed. The queen's sister was not a bad person; she was innocent of any crimes against humanity, and of any crime against her niece. She had tried to make the queen see sense where the little girl was concerned and loved her as any aunt would, and yet still the child's curse passed to the queen's sister.
And so my dear it has passed indiscriminately from year to year, country to country, woman to woman.
For my own part I became the keeper of Sapphire's eyes some years ago. I was a taxi driver and the parcel was left on the back seat of my taxi. I made my choice, as you will make your choice. You see the curse is never forced upon you, Each and every one of us makes the choice to take on the responsibility.
So, my friend upon whom I have no axe to grind. I have reached the time when I can pass the eyes of Sapphire on to someone else. Because you have already taken the package and opened this far, you are the chosen. At this point you have two choices. You can package up the parcel and return it to the bench where you found it in which case any responsibility will be lifted from your shoulders or you can open the box to see if this is all some sick hoax. If you return the box unopened to the park then it will be returned to me, as it always has been when I have tried to rid myself of the burden. If you open the box know that from that moment on you will be the keeper for one generation. Twenty years is a long time to shoulder the responsibility my dear. Think hard before you go any further.
I am going to go now and hope that when I awake in the morning the Jar is not on its usual shelf in my bedroom. Before I do I feel I owe it to you to explain a little of what life will be like for you from this day forward.
You may think that you have other choices. But you do not. You came upon the parcel by chance. Every woman alive has laughing eyes sometimes. Every woman except the keeper. The eyes not only have an instinct for self-preservation they have their own warped little sense of humour. I could not advise that you go to the police with this, or even tell anyone about it. You will never be believed. Sapphire's spirit suffered along with her body as she hung between those pillars. Her sweet nature dried in the shimmering dessert heat and now the spirit that resides within the floating eyes bears no woman any mercy.
For instance, how do I know that it is a woman who found the parcel? If you had been a man, or a child, or had not been alone you would have failed to notice the box on the seat beside you. For it would not have been there. I have already explained that the jar can not be lost, damaged, or done-away with. If you show the jar to any other person all they will see is a jar filled with water. If you pass on the curse out of spite or hatred to someone who has wronged you, then the jar will be returned to you. The jar can be covered, I use a piece of heavy velvet, but it makes no difference because you know that the eyes are beside you always. That they are watching you always. That they are there always. Sometimes in the night, when all around you is quiet, you hear them. They move in the jar and as the fluid is displaced it splashes softly beside you. When you make love you feel them watching you, the mere scrap of material between you and them is of no consequence, you know that they see everything you do. You will never be alone again. Whichever room of whichever house you are in, they are there with you. Soon you become weary of looking in your bag and finding them there lurking at the bottom. You get sick of looking up from the bath and seeing them on the towel shelf. You become resigned to the fact that they are your nemesis. Eventually I built a small shelf in each room of my house. They know their place and seem happy to be there. You will find that they like to be involved in your life. They like being spoken to.
I have not yet dared write of the most horrible thing of all. Soon you will have no body in your life. Soon you will be alone. And then one day you wake-up and realise that they are probably the only friend you have. You form an attachment to them. They are your only companion. Parting with them will be hard. We have been together for so long now. But you see I realise that I am not getting any younger. If I am to have any life at all I must do this. Not wanting to part with them is the greatest horror of all.
I am weary now friend. I feel there is nothing more I can tell you. I have done as I felt duty bound to do and informed you of the choice you have to make. Go in peace with God my friend because soon even he will not be able to save you.
Not surprisingly the letter was unsigned.
Libby was trembling. My God there were some sick bastards about. She had heard about these chain letters that passed between gullible and foolish people. This was a new one on her though. The instigator had a vivid imagination, that's for sure. Well Libby wasn't about to fall for any of the Egyptian curse mumbo-jumbo. She had never heard of such rubbish. She was shaking from head to toe not through fear, but through anger. She was going to take this straight down to the police station. For a second or two she thought about opening the box first to see if there was a demand for money to rescue her from the curse of Sapphire's eyes or something similar, but decided that she may have already ruined vital evidence by opening the outer packaging. No, better to let the police deal with it. She was curious to see what the sick arseholes had put in the box, possibly some sheep's eyeballs or something equally disgusting. Well she wasn't about to be sucked in to their evil sickness.
She scooped up everything that came with the package and stuffed it into a carrier bag. Her temper had done little to subside by the time she faced a very young, bored looking police constable at the reception desk of the local police station.
Libby rambled for some minutes about eyes and jars and curses, and then triumphantly opened the carrier bag to produce the evidence to support her wild accusations of pyramid chain parcels and a gang of blackmailers who were preying on the innocent public and lone women in particular.
The carrier bag contained a box of breakfast cereal and two old newspapers. From the minute she had put the parcel in the carrier bag to the second she looked inside it at the police station the bag had never been off her arm. There had been no opportunity for anyone to tamper with the bag. Libby blustered and said that someone must have swapped bags on her. She was very lucky that the policeman didn't have her sectioned under the mental health act. All she received was a stern lecture about wasting police time. The condescending git suggested she go home and 'make it up' with her boyfriend. Libby left the station embarrassed and seething in equal proportions.
When she got home the brown paper was back on the sofa where it had been unwrapped earlier, but the box was sitting in the middle of the dining room table. Although the door had been securely locked and nobody could possibly have broken in during her absence, Libby was convinced that someone was playing a sick joke on her for financial gain. At least she assumed it was financially motivated.
By this time her temper had way surpassed a simmering seethe; it had left boiling point far behind. Libby was beyond care or reason. No-bastard-body was going to frighten or intimidate her in her own home.
"You think I'm scared huh?" she yelled aloud turning around to shout in a circle. "I'll show you how scared I am of your pathetic little hoax."
She picked up the pretty box and tore furiously into the cellotape holding it closed. A jar was firmly held in place with polystyrene and tissue paper. She reached in and removed the jar from its holdings.
And then as any laughter left her eyes forever, she screamed for a very long time.