It had been three years since Lisa last opened the box. A sudden move to Boston had kept her from packing it.
But now that she was back home, she took the time to look again at the memories.
Fingering the corners of the box and stroking its cover, Lisa pictured in her mind what was inside.
There was a photo of the family trip to the Grand Canyon, a note from her friend telling her that Nick Bicotti liked her, and the Indian arrowhead she had found while on her senior class trip.
One by one, she remembered the items in the box, lingering over the sweetest, until she came to the last and only painful memory.
She knew what it looked like - a single sheet of paper upon which lines had been drawn to form boxes, 490 of them to be exact.
And each box contained a check mark, one for each time.
"How many times must I forgive my brother?" the disciple Peter had asked Jesus. "Seven times?"
Lisa’s Sunday school teacher had read Jesus’ surprise answer to the class. "Seventy times seven."
Lisa had leaned over to her brother Brent as the teacher continued reading. "How many times is that?" she whispered.
Brent, though two years younger, was smarter than she was. "Four hundred and ninety," Brent wrote on the corner of his Sunday school paper.
Lisa saw the message, nodded, and sat back in her chair. She watched her brother as the lesson continued.
He was small for his age, with narrow shoulders and short arms. His glasses were too large for his face, and his hair always matted in swirls.
He bordered on being a nerd, but his incredible skills at everything, especially music, made him popular with his classmates.
Brent had learned to play the piano at age four, the clarinet at age seven, and had just begun to play oboe.
His music teachers said he'd be a famous musician someday.
There was only one thing at which Lisa was better than Brent; basketball. They played it almost every afternoon after school.
Brent could have refused to play, but he knew that it was Lisa's only joy in the midst of her struggles to get Cs and Ds at school.
Lisa's attention came back to her Sunday school teacher as the woman finished the lesson and closed with prayer.
That same Sunday afternoon found brother and sister playing basketball in the driveway. It was then that the counting had begun.
Brent was guarding Lisa as she dribbled toward the basket. He had tried to bat the ball away, got his face near her elbow, and took a shot on the chin.
"Ow!", he cried out and turned away.
Lisa saw her opening and drove to the basket, making an easy lay-up. She gloated over her success but stopped when she saw Brent.
"You okay?", she asked. Brent shrugged his shoulders.
"Sorry," Lisa said. "Really. It was a cheap shot."
"It’s all right. I forgive you," he said. A thin smile then formed on his face. "Just 489 more times though."
"What do you mean?" Lisa asked.
"You know...what we learned in Sunday school today. You’re supposed to forgive someone 490 times. I just forgave you, so now you have 489 left," he kidded.
The two of them laughed at the thought of keeping track of every time Lisa had done something to Brent. They were sure she had gone past 490 long ago.
The rain interrupted their game, and the two moved indoors.
"Wanna play Battleship?" Lisa asked. Brent agreed, and they were soon on the floor of the living room with their game boards in front of them.
Each took turns calling out a letter and number combination, hoping to hit each other’s ships.
Lisa knew she was in trouble as the game went on. Brent had only lost one ship out of five. Lisa had lost three.
Desperate to win, she found herself leaning over the edge of Brent’s barrier ever so slightly.
She was thus able to see where Brent had placed two of his ships, and quickly evened the score.
Pleased, Lisa searched once more for the location of the last two ships. She peered over the barrier again, but this time Brent caught her in the act.
"Hey, you’re cheating!" He stared at her in disbelief.
Lisa’s face turned red. Her lips quivered. "I’m sorry," she said, staring at the carpet.
There was not much Brent could say. He knew Lisa sometimes did things like this.
He felt sorry that Lisa found so few things she could do well. It was wrong for her to cheat, but he knew the temptation was hard for her.
"Okay, I forgive you," Brent said. Then he added with a small laugh, "I guess it’s down to 488 now, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so." She returned his kindness with a weak smile and added, "Thanks for being my brother, Brent."
Brent’s forgiving spirit gripped Lisa, and she wanted him to know how sorry she was.
It was that evening that she had made the chart with the 490 boxes. She showed it to him before he went to bed.
"We can keep track of every time I mess up and you forgive me," she said.
"See, I’ll put a check in each box—like this." She placed two marks in the upper left-hand boxes.
"These are for today." Brent raised his hands to protest. "You don’t need to keep—"
"Yes I do!" Lisa interrupted. "You’re always forgiving me, and I want to keep track. Just let me do this!"
She went back to her room and tacked the chart to her bulletin board.
There were many opportunities to fill in the chart in the years that followed.
She once told the kids at school that Brent talked in his sleep and called out Rhonda Hill’s name, even though it wasn’t true. The teasing caused Brent days and days of misery.
When she realised how cruel she had been, Lisa apologised sincerely. That night she marked box number 96.
Forgiveness number 211 came in the tenth grade when Lisa failed to bring home his English book.
Brent had stayed home sick that day and had asked her to bring it so he could study for a quiz. She forgot and he got a C.
Number 393 was for lost keys...418 for the extra bleach she put in the washer, which ruined his favourite polo shirt...449, the dent she had put in his car when she had borrowed it.
There was a small ceremony when Lisa checked number 490.
She used a gold pen for the check mark, had Brent sign the chart, and then placed it in her memory box.
"I guess that’s the end," Lisa said. "No more screw-ups from me anymore!"
Brent just laughed. "Yeah, right."
Number 491 was just another one of Lisa’s careless mistakes, but its hurt lasted a lifetime.
Brent had become all that his music teachers said he would. Few could play the oboe better than he.
In his fourth year at the best music school in the United States, he received the opportunity of a lifetime—a chance to try out for New York City’s great orchestra.
The tryout would be held sometime during the following two weeks. It would be the fulfilment of his young dreams.
But he never got the chance.
Brent had been out when the call about the tryout came to the house. Lisa was the only one home and on her way out the door, eager to get to work on time.
"Two-thirty on the tenth," the secretary said on the phone. Lisa did not have a pen, but she told herself that she could remember it.
"Got it. Thanks." I can remember that, she thought. But she did not. It was a week later around the dinner table that Lisa realised her mistake.
"So, Brent," his mom asked him, "When do you try out?"
"Don’t know yet. They’re supposed to call." Lisa froze in her seat. "Oh, no!" she blurted out loud. "What’s today’s date? Quick!"
"It’s the twelfth," her dad answered. "Why?"
A terrible pain ripped through Lisa’s heart. She buried her face in her hands, crying.
"Lisa, what’s the matter?" her mother asked.
Through sobs Lisa explained what had happened. "It was two days ago...the tryout...two-thirty...the call came...last week."
Brent sat back in his chair, not believing Lisa.
"Is this one of your jokes, sis?" he asked, though he could tell her misery was real. She shook her head, still unable to look at him.
"Then I really missed it?"
Brent ran out of the kitchen without a word. He did not come out of his room the rest of the evening.
Lisa tried once to knock on the door, but she could not face him. She went to her room where she cried bitterly.
Suddenly she knew that she had to do.
She had ruined Brent’s life. He could never forgive her for that. She had failed her family, and there was nothing to do but to leave home.
Lisa packed her pickup truck in the middle of the night and left a note behind, telling her folks she’d be all right.
She began writing a note to Brent, but her words sounded empty to her. Nothing I say could make a difference anyway, she thought.
Two days later she got a job as a waitress in Boston. She found an apartment not too far from the restaurant.
Her parents tried many times to reach her, but Lisa ignored their letters.
"It’s too late," she wrote to them once. "I’ve ruined Brent’s life, and I’m not coming back."
Lisa did not think she would ever see home again. But one day in the restaurant where she worked she saw a face she knew.
"Lisa!" said Mrs Nelson, looking up from her plate. "What a surprise!" The woman was a friend of Lisa’s family from back home.
"I was so sorry to hear about your brother," Mrs Nelson said softly. "Such a terrible accident. But we can be thankful that he died quickly. He didn’t suffer."
Lisa stared at the woman in shock.
"Wh-hat," she finally stammered. It couldn’t be! Her brother? Dead?
The woman quickly saw that Lisa did not know about the accident. She told the girl the sad story of the speeding car, the rush to the hospital, the doctors working over Brent.
But all they could do was not enough to save him.
Lisa returned home that afternoon.
Now she found herself in her room thinking about her brother as she held the small box that held some of her memories of him.
Sadly, she opened the box and peered inside. It was as she remembered, except for one item—Brent’s chart.
It was not there. In its place, at the bottom of the box, was an envelope. Her hands shook as she tore it open and removed a letter.
The first page read:
It was you who kept count, not me. But if you’re stubborn enough to keep count, use the new chart I’ve made for you.
Lisa turned to the second page where she found a chart just like the one she had made as a child, but on this one the lines were drawn in perfect precision.
And unlike the chart she had kept, there was but one check mark in the upper left- hand corner.
Written in red felt tip pen over the entire page were the words:
"Number 491. Forgiven, forever."