The smell of old cardboard was overwhelming as Brenda walked into the old warehouse. It was nice and cool, compared to the hot blazing sun of that August afternoon. It was so cool there was a damp chill to the air that seemed to hang on the scent of cardboard that held the contents of other people's histories.
You Brenda?" a stoutly built man in his fifties wearing tired overalls and a faded shirt with sweat stains under his arms said as he marched with fevered purpose over to Brenda, mopping his brow with a handkerchief. With the other hand he stuck out a weathered, thick paw for her to shake, "Name's Don. Barb said you'd be here at one, and it's one, so it's nice to see you're prompt," he motioned to a corner near the back door, "Just had a truck drop off some of these boxes, you can start with those."
After releasing her hand from his after a firm handshake, Brenda walked behind Don as he trudged across the warehouse to the back door. There sat a pile of boxes with what appeared to be some books, old clothes, and random belongings of someone ready to part with that time in their lives. That's what always fascinated Brenda when it came to the thrift shop...so much life and so many stories in one small place.
Her story wasn't in any of these boxes, but the fact she was standing in a damp, cool warehouse in the middle of a hot August day was probably a story in itself. One bad decision and four vodka sodas resulted in 200 hours of community service that had to be completed over the course of the next year. She figured working at the thrift shop would at least be an interesting way to spend her court mandated time rather than picking up trash on the side of the road, or scrubbing graffiti off playground equipment. At least she didn't have to wear an orange safety vest with the initials "DOC" emblazoned on the back of it, nor did she have to deal with anyone other than Don, who seemed like a decent enough guy. As long as he signed her card when she was done, all Brenda cared about was getting this incident firmly in her past as soon as possible.
Don explained the process of sorting through donations. This thrift store was a business owned by the local homeless shelter where proceeds from the sale of the items people no longer wanted would benefit those in need. It was totally run on volunteer labor. Or court ordered. Same difference. Don explained that he had retired as a Sheriff's deputy a couple of years ago, and was bored at home driving his wife nuts all day, so he took over the day to day operations of the warehouse part of the shop.
The sorting process would be easy enough, Brenda thought, and after looking at her watch, was surprised to see that almost an entire hour had flown by already. If the rest of the 199 she had left were this easy, then she was even more grateful for her lenient sentence from the judge.
She cleared through the first box, mostly older clothes from what appeared to be a woman about her age, and went on to what looked to be a box of books. Old novels of the classics like Black Beauty, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, a smattering of Harlequin paperbacks that looked well thumbed, and then a leather bound book with a blank cover. Brenda opened the book, and on the inside cover she read the name...
Brenda raised her eyebrows when she read the name. Irene McInerny? From Wescott High? She remembered a girl by that name from years back in High School and wondered if this were the same Irene. She wasn't friends with Irene, and probably wouldn't recognize her on the street, but she did remember the face from the past. Irene was pretty, popular and nice, but she and Brenda never had their paths cross much. Brenda was usually cutting class anyway to go get high with Deanna Morris and her older boyfriend.
She thumbed through the pages, mostly blank, save for the occasional doodle or list, and a folded piece of notebook paper jumped out of the pages and fluttered onto the floor. Setting the book down on the box, Brenda picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it to reveal a page-long letter written by Irene.
Expecting it to be a love letter, or a teenage girl's attempt at poetry, Brenda was shocked by what the letter said. It was very clear that this was neither a love letter, or a bad poem.
It was a suicide note written in the loopy handwriting of a teenage girl.
Dated the 30th of May in 1994, Irene would write a final goodbye to her friends and family, along with an apology that the weight of the world had just been too much for her to bear any longer. She wanted to die. Brenda's hands became damp with sweat as she read the final sentences of the note.
Irene McInerny. The girl that seemed so happy and what people thought was a great life, was ready to end it all. But for whatever reason, she changed her mind, because Brenda remembers her speech she gave to the graduating class just six days later when she was named Salutatorian of their senior class.
She folded the note back up and tucked it into the back pocket of her jeans. She wondered what to do with the letter next. Should she just throw it away? Should she find Irene and see if she wanted it back? Brenda shook her head at the idea. "Why would anyone want that reminder back?" she thought to herself. Obviously Irene had already forgotten about it because it was stowed in a book that probably hadn't been touched in twenty years, and there was always the possibility that this was an entirely different Irene McInerny anyway. Maybe this was all just a coincidence.
Brenda finished her sorting for the day, Don signed her card for her community service hours, and she went on her way back into the hot August sun. As she drove home, Brenda thought a lot about the letter in her back pocket. She was probably the only other person on this earth that knew on May 30, 1994, Irene McInerny wanted to kill herself. This wasn't just some anonymous thing she uncovered. This had a name, and a face to it that Brenda knew. There was an indescribable intimacy there that they now shared and Irene didn't even know it. It was such a strange feeling to have.
When she got home, Brenda went straight to her computer and searched for Irene online. The first result was an obituary notice from about six months ago.
Irene McInerny Patterson, age 40, had died peacefully in her sleep surrounded by her family after a long illness. The funeral and internment were private. So there had been love and happiness in Irene's life after all, albeit brief. Brenda was pretty sure Irene knew that she knew what dark place she had been in all those years ago, even if it was now from the great beyond.
The letter changed Brenda, though. All those boxes, all of those lives, all of that history. Often left behind for others to discover, uncover, and allow to live on. Someone would buy that old leather journal and perhaps write the beginnings of a best selling book, or a woman would buy that cashmere cardigan to wear on her first date with her future husband. So many endings lead the way for so many beginnings. Here Brenda thought her life had ended with one bad decision, and in reality it had put her in that place to unpack Irene's belongings. There are no accidents.
Brenda stood up from her desk, and took the note out of her pocket to read it again. It was sad to see such despair in a young person, but something caused Irene to not follow through with her plan and stash the note in a place she would eventually forget.
"Thank you, Irene," she said as she walked to the kitchen, turned on the pilot to the stove, and caught the corner of the aged paper on fire. The end of Irene's chapter, was the beginning of Brenda's.