On the Doorstep: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 5, 2023
On the Doorstep
Paula Winn settled back in the uncomfortable vinyl seat of the delivery van, and she let out along sigh. She looked at her dispatching app on her phone. It told her she had a whole thirty-seven seconds to catch her breath before she had to leave for the next stop. Paula was just tired enough and just jaded enough that thirty-seven seconds sounded like practically a freaking vacation.
And she was going to take every second of it. Even a tiny break from the stress of delivering package after package to door after door was a blessed relief. She had to work to pay the bills, but sometimes she wondered if a nervous breakdown would be less work.
Her last job had been less stressful, working for a smarter organization who planned their deliveries better, with more margin for error. But that had been seasonal work, and Big Company hadn’t hired her on at the end. Maybe this Christmas… In the meantime, she made good money working for Meyerink. And at least all the driving gave her plenty of time for dictation.
Out of the corner of her eye, Paula glimpsed movement through the windshield. Reflexively she turned toward it, but she saw nothing but the big, dark oak door of the old house she had just delivered six crates to.
Nothing but the door. No crates.
Paula shook her head. Somebody must’ve stepped out and carried in the crates. But how had they done so so fast? She hadn’t been staring, hadn’t really even been focused, but she’d been looking forward toward the door.
Not your problem, Paula, she thought. The boxes were on the porch, your job is done. She checked the dispatch app. And you’ve only got eighteen more seconds here. Don’t think about the last load, think about the next.
But curiosity still nagged at her. The house was old, well-maintained, but stuck out oddly in the neighborhood. It was the oldest house, a tall, dark, three-story Victorian, with wood siding. The porch and the gables all had tall peaks, and the house was full of windows, like someone wanted to see the neighborhood in all directions. Yet every single one of them was curtained.
The house was one of Paula’s most frequent delivery stops, and it was always big boxes. Two or three times a week she delivered big brown boxes in various sizes, not a one with a return address. Paula was no snoop, but it was her job to scan the labels. She might not notice details here and there, but she couldn’t help noticing the pattern: large boxes with only a recipient address and no names. The boxes told nothing about who lived in the house.
The dispatch screen chimed, and Paula cursed. There was no time to think about who lived in the house. She had to get to her next stop.
Seven hours later – and nearly four hours dictated – Paula was finally done. Oh, she still had to drive back to the dispatch center and close out her paperwork for the day, but her truck was gloriously empty. She was finally free of the dispatch clock on her phone. She had time to stop at Marge’s along the way and grab a doughnut and a coffee. She didn’t need either one, but life was more than needs. She punched Marge’s Doughnut Den into the GPS, and she started on her way.
That last stop had been far out in the boonies, at an old farm in the woods. The dispatch system did that to her a lot. She couldn’t see why every day had to end at the farthest point from the dispatch center. She would’ve chosen a big loop, so that every mile she traveled was a productive mile. Mr. Meyerink was so big on efficiency, after all. This seemed like a giant hole in their system.
Oh, well, not my job. Meyerink Expediting didn’t pay her to think, they paid her drive.
If only it were that easy to turn off her brain. But who wanted a delivery driver who was disengaged from the world around her, unaware of cars veering into her lane… deer dashing across the road… Deer, kids, joggers with heart attacks… Even as she dictated, Paula was hyperaware of the world as she drove. It was her nature. She thought it made her a better employee, even though her manager Ben Schaefer had actually argued with her about stopping and giving CPR to the jogger. Paula had almost quit over that until old man Meyerink came out of the office and told everybody to leave her alone. He gave her a brass plaque for community service, and that finally it shut up Ben.
Before Paula had started work as a courier, she had enjoyed driving around, discovering new places and new things to see as she told her stories. Now the dispatch clock sucked most of the joy out of driving; but sometimes she still curious about things like…
Damn! There it was. Without her noticing it, the GPS had routed her right through the neighborhood where the old Victorian towered over everything. Paula got a small shiver, like someone was watching her.
It was dusk. Most of the houses in the neighborhood had lights in the windows, some on porches. But not the Victorian. No matter when she had delivered there, at the stroke of noon or into the dark, Paula had never seen a living soul there. Not that she had much time to stop and talk to customers along the way, outside the minimum necessary for the work. Sign here, please, ma’am. Where would you like me to set this? Here’s the URL for customer service. And of course, always: Have a nice day! Paula refused to let the job drive that little bit of humanity out of her.
Still, she saw fifteen or twenty people every busy day. Sometimes she had to deliver inside an apartment complex, and she passed people. Sometimes she caught people out walking their dogs – mangy mutts – or gardening. Sometimes she just saw them through open screen doors. It was normal to see people, even if she didn’t talk to them.
But not at the Victorian. As many times as she had delivered there, Paula had never once seen a sign of life. She dropped off the boxes, and she left. The house felt even emptier in the twilight.
The, as Paul approached the house, a hint of movement caught her eye. This time there was an actual shape, a figure climbing the porch steps to stand before the door. Paula couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. The figure was tall, dressed in black pants and a ligh blue shirt, but hard to make out. She couldn’t see the face. Even the hair was indistinct, a light blob in the fading light.
And then it was gone, as if a light had simply been turned off.
What the hell? Paula briefly touched the brakes before common sense took over, and she hit the gas again. It’s not my problem. There isn’t a problem at all! Just drive, Paula.
Paula drove, but she couldn’t shake the image from her mind. One moment the shirt was there, caught in a bit of light from the yard next door. The next moment, it was not. There’d been no light from inside the house, no sign that the door had opened and closed at all. The shirt was just there, then gone.
Paula got a chill, and even Marge’s hot coffee did nothing to shake it.
There were no more deliveries to the Victorian that week, which was fine with Paula. She knew she was being a freaking ass, but she couldn’t help trying to make sense of the two events. Maybe Goldfinger thought that the third time was enemy action, but Paula thought two times was enough to raise suspicions. She didn’t like letting her imagination run away with her; but trying to dismiss the events only fixed them more firmly in her brain. She knew your mind can play tricks on you, but she believed that she’d seen what she’d seen.
It was just shy of a week before the next delivery to the Victorian. This time was an extra-large load, nine boxes. As usual, they were heavy and solid, carefully packed. Not heavy enough for books, but enough to give Paula a work out. That was one good part about the job: With all the walking and lifting and carrying, Paula could afford to indulge in donuts if she felt like it. She burned thousands of extra calories every day.
When Paula had previewed her route that the morning, she had seen the address for the old house, and she jiggered the route a bit. The dispatch algorithm didn’t have a lot of flexibility, but it had some. Drivers were required to take mandatory breaks, that was in the union contract; and drivers were allowed to bump those forward and back in the schedule a bit to accommodate personal business. Paula had moved her break to just after the delivery to the Victorian.
So once Paula had delivered the boxes and returned to the van, she backed it out onto the street – it was obviously against policy to take your break on customer property – and parked it. She pushed the Break button on the dispatch screen, and Paula was officially off duty for fifteen minutes. She pulled out a banana and a can of Diet Mountain Dew, but she never once took her eyes off that door.
Paula was still peeling the banana when it happened. This time there could be no doubt. She’d been staring at the door and the pile of boxes; and then without the slightest sign of movement or anyone around, the boxes were gone.
Paula still had eleven minutes on her break, but she didn’t care. She cranked over the engine on the delivery van, stomping the gas and stalling it out. She took a breath, tried to gather her calm, and turned over the engine again. This time it caught, she jammed the transmission into drive, and she pulled into the street with tires squealing.
She didn’t slow down until she hit a stoplight three miles away. Then she pulled over to the side of the road, put the van in park, and started to sob. Not from sadness, just from sheer adrenaline release. She spent the remaining minutes of her break parked on the shoulder, thinking and shaking, but getting nowhere. She was overwhelmed.
When the break clock chimed, Paula put the back van back in gear and continued on her route. Having instructions and a purpose helped her to calm down. Whatever else was going on, she had eighty more packages to deliver.
As usual, having something to occupy her eyes and hands bizarrely freed Paula up to think. She could follow GPS instructions, make turns, and drop off packages all while the front of her brain pondered weighty questions… like where the hell had those packages gone, and how?
As Paula was walking the sidewalk from her fifth delivery after the Victorian, she started to argue with herself in her usual Gollum-Smeagol fashion. Why is this your concern, Paula? Just do your job.
But this is huge. Important. Somebody needs to know about this! This is…
This is what? Aliens? Time travelers? A government conspiracy? Fairies? An eldritch horror like something out of Lovecraft? Of all these possibilities, which of them are you equipped to deal with?
None of them, but –
But nothing! You know those people in the horror movies who insist on investigating the strange goings-on? What happens to them?
They get killed.
And they deserve it! If this is that important, inform the authorities! Find someone in charge, and let them deal with it.
But who’s in charge? Who are the authorities on eldritch horrors or time travelers or aliens?
Well, not me! I would start with the police.
And what do I tell them? What crime are they supposed to investigate?
Ummm… Package theft?
Paula actually laughed at herself. Nice try, but where’s my evidence? I don’t even know if the packages were stolen. I delivered them, and something took them away. I didn’t see any thieves. It might as well of been the proper recipients.
All right, then, Mulder and Scully. Tell them you have an X file.
Not as funny. I need something better than a fictional answer. And I need someone who would believe me. Who wouldn’t think I’m crazy.
Am I? Do you have anything you could take to anyone – the police, the FBI, Evan – anyone to make them believe anything happened?
Paula shook her head. I should’ve taken pictures. No, a video! Then I could show it Evan. He would believe that, believe me, and we could decide together where to go with it.
It’s a little late to think of that now.
It’s a little late for this package…
It was nearly four days before the next delivery to the Victorian. Paula had almost hoped that there wouldn’t be another, that the deliveries had just stopped. Either because someone had noticed her watching and would change their plans, or…
She had to admit that now, in the clear light of an October day, crazy looked like a pretty plausible theory. What she had seen could be a very detailed delusion. She couldn’t rule that out. That was another reason she had her phone out as she parked on the side of the road and recorded the packages through her camera. Even if she saw something in the video, Evan would be the judge. She wouldn’t tell her husband what to look for, she would just show it to him and wait for his reaction. If he saw nothing unusual… Paula would have to check the company health plan for mental health options
“I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you, Mrs. Winn.” Paula shrieked, almost dropping her phone, and turned toward the voice coming from the jump seat in the rear cabin. The man was sitting there: the tall man in the black pants and light blue shirt. “How did you get in here?” She looked at the doors. They were all still locked. That was company policy to protect the cargo.
The man shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand if I told you.”
“I – You – Get out!”
“Not yet, Mrs. Winn. Not until we have a talk.”
“We have nothing to talk about!” Paula reached for the emergency call button on her phone.
But her phone screen was blank. Not black, not white, not even gray. Just blank. When she looked at it, it was like nothing was there at all, like her eyes just slid over the space where a phone ought to be.
Paula reached for her door latch; but it was locked. It should open as soon as she lifted, locked or not, but the latch didn’t move. It was frozen.
Paula look back at the man. His face… His face was like the phone. She couldn’t look at it, only past it. “Who are you?”
The man sighed. “If I gave you a name, would it mean anything to you? Would you even believe it? Should you? I could make up any lie I wanted, and there’d be no way for you to tell.”
Paula scowled. “I like to know who’s kidnapping me.”
The man laughed, but it was a strange, halting chuckle, as if it didn’t come naturally to him. “You’re not being kidnapped.” As Paula’s eyes grew wide, he added, “Nor killed, nor assaulted in any way. Believe me, we don’t need that kind of attention.”
“What do you mean? And who is ‘we’?”
The man leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his face less than twelve inches from Paula’s. “Look at me, Mrs. Winn. “Really look.”
Paula shook her head. “I can’t!”
“Are you sure? I think you can. Look really closely. What color are my eyes?”
Paula still couldn’t seem to see his face, but somehow she knew the answer. “Green. With little flecks of gold, but mostly green.”
“Uh-huh. And my hair?”
His hair had seemed almost as light is his shirt the other night, but now Paula was sure. “Blonde. Almost platinum.”
He nodded. “Now look at me again. Can you see my face?”
This time when he asked, Paula nodded. “Yes! You… You turned off whatever you’re doing.”
The man leaned back in his chair. “No, I didn’t change the field at all. But you… You’re one of that rare few who apparently can see through it. A little.”
“See through what?”
“A… A psycho-optical effect that makes humans in the area unaware of objects and events within the field.”
Paula’s jaw dropped. Then she said, remembering her Douglas Adams reading, “A Somebody Else’s Problem field.”
Again the man gave the weird, stuttering laugh. “Somebody else’s problem! What a clever way to put it.” Before Paula could answer that it wasn’t her phrase, he continued, “Yes, ordinary people just don’t notice. It’s none of their concern. Some few might glimpse a strange movement or a house they’ve never noticed before. That happened with the neighbors several times before I found the proper settings for the field. But it’s just a momentary sensation for them, and then they go on about their day.
“But you, you noticed, and you thought about it. And forgive me for having to interrupt your day, but I need to understand why, what we’ve done wrong, so we don’t do it again in our next location.”
“Your next location?”
“Yes, I’m afraid you have utterly spoiled this one for us.”
“I didn’t mean to! I won’t tell anyone. I’ll – I’ll forget all about it!”
“No, you won’t. Once you notice the unusual, humans don’t let go. Not those with strong curiosity, which you obviously have.”
“So you’re going to… relocate because of me?”
“Because of you, and because of your phone and your GPS and your employer’s location tracker. You stopped enough times and spent enough time here that good data mining might reveal that you are up to something… illicit here. And then your employer will send investigators to find out what, in case you’re doing something criminal involving the packages you’re charged with delivering. Of course, they won’t have any idea why you stopped here –”
“We have a record of every package delivery,” Paula objected.
Now that Paula could see the man’s face, she could see him smile. “Not ours. We were able to tapped into the order system. We can erase all of our shipment records. But your travel is recorded in another system, one we don’t have access to. So there’s a chance that even with all your best intentions, someone will find us here. Sadly, despite all that we’ve invested in this location, we shall have to find another, in a city far from your inquisitive mind.
“And we have to figure out why you noticed us when others didn’t.” He paused. “I have to say that some of us are less concerned with your health than I am, though fortunately I get the final say for now. Some of us… Well, they wouldn’t simply eliminate you, because that wouldn’t answer our questions. But abducting for long sessions of psychological and hypnotic probing? Mind scans and even wires in your brain? Some of them would do that.” He frowned. “And if I can’t find my answers…” At the look on her face, his eyes grew wide with concern. “No, I’m not trying to frighten you, nor to threaten, I’m just explaining that my hands could be tied. If we can’t explain what’s different about your perceptions that lets you see us, that made you so dogged in learning more…”
Suddenly Paula saw it, and she laughed. “I’m a writer.”
“I’m a writer. Four published, professional paying science-fiction short stories, and more on submission. That’s your explanation. It’s a disease! You have to watch out for writers!”
“I don’t understand.”
“Writers are weird. We have… I call it a broken Idea Filter. Your Somebody Else’s Problem field… I’ll bet that whether you know it or not, it relies on normal people’s Idea Filters.”
“What’s an Idea Filter?”
“It’s… Let’s say you’re driving down the road, paying attention to traffic and where you have to go, maybe listening to music or something like that. If you’re me, you might be dictating a story. Out of the corner of your eye you see a sign that says ‘Best Ares’.”
“Best Ares? What does that mean?
“Nothing! It’s nonsense. Another glance tells you that it says ‘Rest Area’, and you simply didn’t notice because you weren’t paying full attention. And if you’re a normal person, you immediately say, ‘Oh! That was nonsense.’ Your Idea Filter filters it out, and you go on about your day. Two minutes later, it’s forgotten.”
“And if you’re not a normal person? If you’re a writer?”
“The purpose of the normal person’s Idea Filter is to filter out nonsense. The writer brain tries to make sense out of the nonsense. What is Best Ares? Well, Ares is another name for Mars. So if this is the best Mars, ‘best’ implies that there’s more than one Mars. How many Marses are there? Why are there multiple Marses? Best also implies that somehow you can choose your Mars, or maybe stumble upon it. How are you traveling from one Mars to another? Who is doing the traveling? When you start answering these questions, a story starts to form in your head in order to make sense of this idea.”
“So this random mistake, this misperception, you focus on it and you turn it into a story to make sense of it?”
Paula nodded, and she grinned with pride. “Check out Trans Lunar Injection Magazine issue #53. ‘Best Ares’ by Paula Winn. The cover story! I’m not just saying I can do it, I have done it.”
“Interesting…” The man pressed his fingertips together and lowered his chin to them. “So we just have to adjust our field when there are writers around?”
“Why can’t you just turn it up all the time?”
The man shook his head. “It involves considerable power usage, well beyond my budget. I do have one, you know. I can’t explain, but turning it up to maximum will do us no good. No, I really need a way to identify writers.”
It was Paula’s turn to shake her head. “You can’t, not without talking to us. We come in all shapes, sizes, shades, genders… Writing is an equal opportunity disease, and you really can’t be sure who has it. Even knowing who’s published doesn’t help. There are plenty of aspiring writers whose Idea Filters are good and broken, but they still haven’t found the right market for the right story.” Her voice lowered. “And there are some who don’t know they have the disease, but they’ll find out. And some who… They have it, but they’ve been hurt by too many rejections. Or by the scorn of their family and friends. Or just their own timidity. They want to write, but something has made them afraid to try. That was me for a lot of years.” Paula took a breath. “So you really can’t tell who’s a writer until you see them writing.”
The man stared into Paula’s eyes. Then he turned away. “I think it’s true. This is a dilemma.”
“You’re thinking of it all wrong,” Paula said. “You made a mistake. You let me see the man behind the curtain too many times. That couldn’t help but pique my curiosity, so I had to know more.”
“Well… It wasn’t exactly a mistake. We wanted to learn what you would do. Once we realize that you could notice us, we wanted to learn what you would do. We’ve never done that before.”
“Well, then,” Paula said, “I think I have your answer. It’s simple: When you are noticed, lay low. The other part of the writing disease is we have far more ideas than we can ever possibly write. If an idea just sits there for a while without us doing anything with it, another idea is sure to follow along and take its place not very long after. If you give a writer a chance to ignore one nonsense idea, they’ll get another one.”
Paula paused in thought. “Probably not, you’ve completely blown past my Idea Filter now. I promise I won’t try to follow you wherever you go, but I won’t be able to forget this.”
The man smiled. “I’ll take your suggestion under advisement. I’ll bring it up to… Well, us, let’s just leave it at that. We’ll move on, you’ll move on, and we’ll try not to disturb your life any further.”
“But wait!” Paula said. “I have so many questions! Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here? What’s in the packages? How come you can break into the ordering computer but not into the tracking system? How does this Somebody Else’s Problem field work? WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST OPEN THE DOOR?”
The man held up his hand, palm out, and Paula found that it was suddenly transparent: a little bit at first, but growing more so. Just as the man faded away as he said, “You’re the writer, Paula. Write your own answers.”
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: A door in the wall.