What’s in the Box? Free Fiction for Fyretober October 19, 2023
Paula was distracted throughout her entire delivery route the next day. She missed five turns, putting her behind schedule from the first hour, and getting worse throughout the day. They were small things, but she was better than that, damn it! And these incidents would give Ben Schaefer an excuse to write her up for poor performance.
But part of her didn’t give a damn about Schaefer and his write ups. There was something weird, something impossible happening in the world, and she was somehow in the middle of it. She wished she could tell somebody about it, but she didn’t know how. If she took it to Evan…
She sighed. Evan will be supportive, but he won’t believe. He’ll think there’s something wrong with me, not the world.
Like hell he’ll be supportive, she answered herself. When has he ever been supportive?
All the time! He’s been there through all the struggles with Schaefer. Before that, he was there when I changed jobs Big Company to Meyerink, and that was traumatic. I’d been in that same job since high school. I didn’t know if I could ever make it anywhere else. But he supported me.
She set a package down on the porch in front of a big blue house, right across the street from a recent house fire. That house looked awful! She wondered how the owners were doing.
But she wasn’t done debating with herself. Her argumentative nature said, He didn’t support the job change, he pushed you into it. He thought you should earn more money!
And he was right. I’m getting better hours, better pay, and better performance bonuses… She looked at the clock on her phone. Except today…
Yes, but it wasn’t your job satisfaction he was worried about. He just wanted more money to blow on NASCAR races.
That’s unfair! He brings home money, too.
But never as much as you. You’re the breadwinner.
Paula got back into the van, put it in gear, and continued down the road past the burned-out hulk. That had to be a total loss. She felt sorry for the occupants, but she also filed away the imagery in her head: This is what a totaled house looks like after a fire. Maybe it wasn’t totaled, but that’s the way she would tell it when she found the right story for the image.
Look, her argumentative self said, yes he works hard, but with no ambition. No direction. You’ve changed jobs and gotten promotions and earn bonuses, while he stays in the same rut: Hauling lumber, NASCAR, and video games. He doesn’t do anything with his life. He just bumps along.
He supports me in my writing! He reads my stories, gives me feedback. He goes to all the conventions with me.
He doesn’t support your writing! He’s humoring you. He just wants to get you in a good mood so he can get in your pants.
You take that back! He has never said a discouraging word about my writing.
Have you listened to him? No, he doesn’t disparage your writing, but he belittles it. What did he say when you sold your last story?
She swallowed hard. ‘Well, your hobby paid off. It’s buying us pizza.’
It buys a hell of a lot more than that, and you know it. Maybe it’s not paying the mortgage, but it’s helping.
I know that.
Then why can’t he acknowledge that? If he’s that stuck on stupid, what will he say if you tell him you’re seeing invisible men?
Not invisible. Unnoticed.
Yeah, like he’ll understand that distinction. If you tell him about this weird shit, he’ll either mock you or tell you you’re crazy. Or both.
Before Paula could answer, she got to her last stop of the day. She pulled out a big green box, scanned the barcode, and verified she was in the right place. She trotted up the walk to a freshly painted cream colored clapboard house surrounded by an honest-to-goodness low hedge maze! It gave her a laugh, and it lightened her mood. She was no longer arguing with herself when she got back to the van and climbed in. She turned back to confirm that the van was empty. She didn’t want to give Schaefer another reason to complain.
It wasn’t empty. There was one large, plain brown box tucked into the bottom shelf. There was no return address, but she recognized the delivery address of the old Victorian.
Paula stormed out of the house, slamming the door and ignoring Evan’s shouted plea: “Paula, come back!”
“Too late,” she muttered under her breath as she opened the passenger door of the Chevy and dumped the package inside. “Too fucking late.” In a louder voice, she said, “I told myself that this was stupid, but did I listen? No! I was so sure you would support me, no matter what.”
“I can’t support crazy!”
“It’s not crazy, Evan. The box is right here!”
As she walked around the car and opened the driver’s door, Evan at last came out the front door, tugging on a sweatshirt against the October chill. “Paula, you need help!”
“Yeah, well I ain’t gonna get it from you!” She sat down in the Chevy, slammed the door, and turned over the key. Evan was still hobbling down the front steps, barefooted among the leaves and twigs of fall. He shouted something more, but Paula didn’t hear it. She was already in gear, driving away.
She made it less than a block before her cell phone rang in its caddy. The screen said it was a call from Evan Winn. Paula stabbed the Ignore button, then stabbed it again moments later when another call came through.
Next the phone said that there was a text message from Evan. He wasn’t going to stop, but she wasn’t going to let his persistence upset her so much that she got in an accident. Screw that!
She glanced at the plain brown package in her passenger seat. Damn you… The package didn’t respond, but she wouldn’t have been surprised if it had. Life had gotten that strange.
Then she shook her head. Damn me…
You didn’t have to show it to Evan, Paula.
She answered herself, I had to show it to somebody. Just to make sure I wasn’t imagining. One more mysterious package appears out of nowhere in my truck, with no record in the system. I needed somebody to reassure me that it was real.
No, you could have just ignored it. Thrown it away.
I couldn’t… What if somebody…
You and your damn sense of responsibility! No, you couldn’t have thrown it away. And you couldn’t put it into lost packages, that would’ve been too simple.
It wasn’t lost. It wasn’t anything anywhere.
Paula side. So you showed it to Evan so he could confirm it was real. But did you have to explain it to him?
He asked! He asked where it came from and whether it was against the law for me to bring a package from work home with me.
It’s not, you know. It’s illegal for an ordinary package! But you know this isn’t ordinary. You could’ve made up a story. Or just left it as an unexplained package and you wanted his advice. You didn’t have to tell him about the house. Or the visitor. Or Kevin’s odd behavior, or the people at the Galaxy. You could have just left it all alone and asked about the package.
I know, I know… Now… It was foolish. Once I got started, I just couldn’t stop. All the weird shit came tumbling out. And he… couldn’t handle it.
I told you before: Evan’s like that.
He’s a good man!
But the wrong man for you. He’s so mundane. He doesn’t get writing and all the weirdness that comes with it, not really. He might go to a science-fiction movie with you, and but he’s not science-fiction. He’s NASCAR and video games and too many beers on a Saturday night.
He’s also kind and funny!
I didn’t say he was a bad man, just maybe not the right man for you. If your idea filter is broken, his is in overdrive. You should have known how he would react to nonsense.
But I had to talk to somebody! All this weird shit been driving me nuts.
Paula nodded. If you have to talk to somebody, it should be somebody who knows weird shit…
The last deadbolt unlatched, and Kevin opened the door and stuck his head out. “Paula! You’re early.” Paula nodded, but with a concerned look in her eyes. Kevin looked worse than yesterday, more haggard, as if he hadn’t slept. Maybe he’d been up fighting the slush all night. Paula had heard the horrors of the slush pile, but she’d never experienced them for herself. Editors spoke of all-nighters spent winnowing wheat from chaff, finding damn little wheat. More than one editor had joked: “This is why I drink.”
“I finished my deliveries early,” Paula answered, “so I decided to head straight here.” That was a little white lie, but she wasn’t in the mood to discuss her marriage with Kevin. He struck her as kindly, but she didn’t know him that well yet.
But then the weight of the package in her arms reminded her that she was about to tell this man, practically a stranger, things that even her own husband refused to hear.
As if reading her mind, Kevin looked down at the box. “What have we here? A package for me?”
“It’s a long story…”
Once again they sat in the armchairs by the fireplace. October was getting cold outside, so today the fire was lit.
And today, Kevin sat in the farthest chair from the strange origami cage. Paula hadn’t counted, but it looked like there were a lot fewer paper packets in the cage today. Kevin had kept glancing over at them, as if watching a dangerous dog who might turn rabid at any moment.
Then he turned back to Paula. “That’s quite a story!” He looked down at the box on the table. “And the prop… Well, I have to tell you, in my whole career I’ve never seen a prop actually sell a submission. I wouldn’t bother with them in the future. Just give me the words.” Then he shook his head. “Not me, remember. You can’t sell here while you work here. But this sounds like something Sheila would like. Have you written it already, or is it all in your head?”
Paula shook her head, drew in a deep breath, and said, “I haven’t been clear, Kevin. I know this is going to sound impossible, but I really need you to believe me. This isn’t a story. It happened.”
Kevin looked over at the cage, and there followed a long pause. Paula was afraid what was coming next, so she gave a forced laugh. “October fool!” When Kevin turned back to her, she added, “Well, it’s hardly April, is it? It’s a joke!”
Kevin shook his head. “Your mouth says joke, but your eyes are terrified. This all really happened to you, didn’t it?”
Paula’s jaw dropped. “You… You believe me?” Then she added, “No, you believe that I believe. But you don’t believe this weird shit. Nobody could believe something this insane.”
Paula didn’t expect what happened next: Kevin laughed. “Paula…” He laughed some more, rising from the chair and heading toward the desk. “Paula, lately I have truly come to believe in weird shit, as you call it. I’ve had no choice.”
“What do you mean?” Paula rose and joined him at the desk. Kevin smiled and said, “Remember the old writing maxim: Show, don’t tell.” He opened his laptop.”
Immediately a cacophony of voices came from the machine, shouting praises and complaints and even a few obscenities. Bubbles appeared in the screen, one after another or sometimes simultaneously, each with a person shouting out their concerns about Trans Lunar Injection.
“I don’t understand,” Paula said. “Is this an online promotional video for the magazine?”
“No,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the speakers. “But I’ll have to consider that. We haven’t tried video ads yet. But these are just the letters the letter column.”
Paula tried to make sense of that. “I’ve never heard of a video letter column. I suppose it could work.”
But Kevin wasn’t done with the weirdness. He stepped around and pointed at the cage. “And these little monsters are the slush pile.”
Paula didn’t understand what Kevin meant… until she looked down at the cage. The little origami packets were dancing around, jumping up and down, and waving little arms for attention. Some were climbing the screen.
With a grim look, Kevin said, “Welcome to my nightmare.”
Paula and Kevin moved to the wicker chairs on the front porch. They sat were neither one of them had to look toward the house behind them, where his weirdness and her weirdness awaited. Neither wanted to look at that at those.
Kevin kept scanning the street and the sky for… Paula wasn’t sure for what, but she got it. She couldn’t help looking around herself. Either they were both crazy (or possibly Paula was crazy, and Kevin was a figment of her imagination) or the old adage was true: The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
She looked at Kevin. “So that’s what’s bothering you? Forgive me, but you look like a wreck. Like you haven’t been sleeping.”
“I haven’t been, much. When I sleep… More slush comes in. Paul wasn’t kidding. The slush never sleeps.”
“So you’ve been mostly hiding in your house just to can keep up with it?”
Kevin shook his head. “It’s not just that. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep. I have been eating well, too much freeze-dried food. I have to confess I’m a lousy cook. But I just had this feeling like something was out there, something watching me. Waiting for me to do something. Even with the little slush monsters and in the screaming letters in the house, it’s safer for me in there than…” He looked around. “…out there. In there, at least I know what I’m fighting.” He scowled. “Sort of.”
“But you came out with me to the Donut Galaxy yesterday.”
“I did! And thank you. I haven’t been to Myra’s in too long. I used to be a regular, back when S’FRoG was still active. But it was more than just a familiar setting. Somehow… Somehow from the time you came to my door until the time you left, the feeling of being watched… faded. I was able to relax.” Kevin chuckled. “I almost asked you to watch my house so I could take a nap.”
“I will, if you need me to.”
“I may take you up on that, Assistant Editor. I could use the rest. I haven’t been getting more than an hour or two of sleep per night since the slush monsters appeared.” He sighed. “Then yesterday’s trip to the Galaxy was even better. When I followed you out of the house to your car, I felt practically invisible. Unseen. Whatever had been watching me simply wasn’t there.”
Paula looked up and down the street. “If – Assuming what I experienced really happened, I have some ability to see through these… these visitors’ cloaks. I think that maybe that disturbs them? Maybe they like to operate in secret, and they go into hiding when I’m around.”
“Then stick around! Do you need a place to stay?”
“No, I –” Then Paula wondered at her answer. Did she need a place to say? How big was her blowup with Evan?
Big, and long overdue, her argumentative voice answered.
But Paula ignored it. “I have a house. And a husband,” she added. “So thank you for the offer, but I’m good.” Then she looked into his face. “But I’ll watch over you if you need a nap.”
“We’ll see. And thank you. For the peace you’ve already brought me, and for trusting me with…” He waved his hand in the direction of the door. “…with all of this. That can’t have been easy.”
“No, but it was easier than… than with other people. Weird is our business.” She stared at the door. “But what do we do now?”
“I would think the answer would be obvious.”
Paula blinked. “I must’ve missed the obvious. I’m good at that. What is it?”
Kevin ticked off on his fingers. “One. You’ve had no luck going back to that house. You can give it another try, but there’s no reason to suspect that you’ll be any more successful than last time.”
“But I must try,” Paul answered. “I’ve got a responsibility to deliver that package to the addressee.”
Kevin ticked the next finger. “Two, you have no responsibility to deliver that package. You said yourself it’s not in the system. There’s no proof anywhere that this box was sent, or that it was put on your truck, or that you failed to deliver it. Or succeeded, eventually. Except between you and me, this package does not exist.”
“But we did see it.”
Another finger. “Three, someone is up to something. Something bigger than both of us, drawing us both in. Drawing who knows who else in as well. That woman and her husband, and the other woman, you think they’re tied up in this.”
“I didn’t say –”
“You wouldn’t have brought them up if you didn’t think that. You felt something outside that door, something that had a strong interest in one or more of that trio.”
“I did.” Then she paused. “No, that was later. Now I’m getting confused. That was quite a while after they had left. After I read Varden’s story.” She paused, frowning. “Or was it? There was a sensation earlier…” She smacked yourself in the head. “I don’t know!”
Kevin ticked off his last finger. “And that’s the most important thing: we don’t know. Without more facts, we’re just guessing. And how do we get more facts?” Kevin gave a big, toothy grin, as if having a plan had energized him. “We find out what’s in the box.”
Paula objected, and objected again, and objected a third time. Every time, Kevin came back to the fundamentals: the box didn’t officially exist, the recipient didn’t officially exist, the officially address didn’t exist. The two of them had as much right to the contents of that box as anybody did. And they weren’t planning to take it, just learn what was in there.
Finally Paula shrugged. Schaefer could hardly fire her for opening a box that wasn’t in the system. As far as he or anyone else could prove, this box was meant for her. And Schaefer didn’t even know about it.
So finally they went back inside. Kevin closed the laptop, putting the letters and the new batch of slush icons to sleep, and he handed Paula a sheathed knife. When she pulled it out, she whistled. “That’s a nice knife.”
Kevin nodded. “One of Bjorn Bladeworks’ best. I don’t settle for anything less when it comes to a knife.”
“I’ll have to look for these,” Paula said. It was longer than her usual hidden knife, but she could use this for other purposes. You never knew when you needed to cut somebody.
She sat down in the arm chair by the fire, lifted the package into her lap, and slid the knife through the tape. It sliced so smoothly, she could barely tell there had been tape at all. Then she respectfully sheathed the blade, set it down on the coffee table, and opened the brown cardboard flaps.
Inside the heavy cardboard box was a layer of four fat red leather pouches. Below that layer was a second, and a third. The top of each pouch was folded over neatly, and each was wrapped lengthwise and around the middle with strong twine.
Paula picked up a pouch. It was heavy, and almost solid, but it squished when she squeezed. It felt like a very full beanbag. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” Kevin said. He picked up a pouch, unsheathed the knife, sliced the twine, and opened the top. He poured something into his hand, and he held out kernels to Paula.
“Seeds?” she said.
He shook his head. “Wheat.” He opened a pouch from the second row. “Oats.” With the third, he said, “Barley.”
“Somebody’s shipping grain?” Paula asked.
“Wait,” Kevin said. “Look at the bottom, under the pouches.”
Paula looked, and she found a large parchment envelope with paper inside. She opened it up, and she found a page with a message written in a scrawling hand. She read aloud:
To the merciful Pookas,
Herein may you find the Pooka’s Share of our harvest this year. Please forgive me if this finds you late. Me Da fell sickly, and could not work the fields. I hied home from the shipyards to help him out, as I’m sure you’d agree a good son should. I’d worked the fields more than half me years, so I knew what I was doing.
But one thing I neglected: me Da had always set aside the Pooka’s Share for ye, but I had always thought that a load of rubbish. I cannot excuse it. I was young, and a fool.
Now I beg your forgiveness, and I send ye twice share the dad me Da said I should. I hope in this way to appeal to your sense of mercy that you might take pity on the son who was only trying to do right by his Da in time of need. Please, I beg ye, take away the snakes so we may finish the harvest. In all of Ireland, ours is the only farm infested with the vipers. I know now that me Da speaks true, and you must have your share.
Paula looked up at Kevin, who was frowning. “A pooka? What, the white rabbit in Harvey?”
Kevin shook his head. “The play only showed the polite, humorous side of the legend. Irish folklore’s not my specialty, but I’ve heard a little bit. Pookas can be tricksters. And if thwarted… Pookas can be deadly.”
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: Disguised spellbook,
Prompts? What prompts? We don’ need no steenkin’ prompts!