PLEASE NOTE: This story is for ADULTS – it features mild adult topics and some swearing. I am mainly a children’s author, but this piece is an exception. Please know that when reading it. Thank you!
Rose had visited more countries than I had pairs of shoes. And, while not a shoe whore, I was a man with a lot of footwear.
Her job was mostly responsible for her many travels. A buyer for a chain of metaphysical stores, she was responsible for acquiring stuff– incense, small statues, jewelry, books, tapestries, everything – from anywhere and everywhere. Her vast experience, along with a long and trusting relationship with her employer, allowed her to choose where she travelled, so long as she came back with stuff the store could unload.
My life as a teacher, far more stationary than Rose’s, kept me – happily– in one place. My city, though not what I would consider cosmopolitan (or even urban) offered enough diversity of culture and its trappings to keep me in one spot. Rose’s tales of travel also fed my complacency – living vicariously without the hassle of, well, moving all the time. I desired her company whenever she returned to town – a little taste of the ‘big doings’ elsewhere I didn’t actually care to be a part of, but enjoyed knowing about.
It was early May when we had planned to reconnect over Saturday afternoon beers at a favorite dive. The unseasonable heat of April had dribbled into an entirely grey May, and I needed more than an afternoon buzz to cheer my mood. So, when Rose entered the bar, brushing the wet off her LuLu Lemon jacket, I brightened inwardly. Sandy, shoulder length hair fell out of her hood as she pushed it back. Average in height, her slim body had not changed since college when we first had met. Hers was a quiet beauty – nothing that hit you over the head, but a cuteness that worked on you as you talked about trivial things. She and I had gotten together only twice – once as an awkward experiment, and another a few years back in our late twenties, drunkenly needing to satisfy otherwise unsatisfieddesires in a safe fashion. Our friendship was such that any residual awkwardness was quickly laughed off, dulled by jibing each other mildly, firmly re-rooting our nonromantic connection.
Rose had a perpetual touch of health. Her body, her laugh, her movements radiated an air of moderate, wise living and calm vitality. Something so opposite from my go for broke approach to life (including, yes, my penchant for shoes). Her cheeks appeared sun touched even when she had been mostly indoors for weeks. Her hair was shiny and soft in a way that was ultimately feminine. Despite her mild-mannered looks, it was this aura of clean living that ultimately attracted, I suppose. Nonetheless, as I said before, our relationship was firmly in the friend zone, willingly so, and perhaps it was this objectivity that allowed me to see her in a new light upon entering.
Her clothes were conservative but hip, an air of mountain-readiness mixed with street flair. But her hair seemed a tad rusted, duller than I had ever recalled seeing it before. When she turned full front to me with what was a tinge of a tired smile, I saw for the first time ever bags under her usually brighter eyes. Her cheeks were pale, perhaps even touching sallow, the customary redness gone.
Nothing, however, had changed her buoyant spirits. Despite small fracture lines at its corners, her mouth opened in a beautifully toothy smile, easy as always. This is what reached out and connected with me as she made her way directly and quietly to my perch at the small, bar height table.
I stood for our usual warm hug, but instead was greeted with a large box, thrust into my already open arms. So abruptly was it given that I would have dropped the sizeable package had I not reacted as I did and stopped it from dropping to the questionably clean floor. Its weight caught me off guard. Certainly heavy for its size, something seemed to roll slowly within the parcel, so that if I had let it tilt too far forward, it would have kept going. Aside from its strange center of gravity, it was surprising such a package would come from type A Rose, considering its sorry state.
It was wrapped in dull, worn paper that would have been generic for any cheap corner store the world over. Candy cane red and white stripes mismatched at the seams, and many of the edges had worn patches revealing the pale box beneath. A limp, unimpressive strand of sad, piss-yellow ribbon topped off the unimpressive presentation.
“What’s this?” I asked as I took in the oddly disjointed gift. “I didn’t know we were doing presents.”
“We’re not.” As Rose dropped onto the stool opposite me, she signaled the barkeep for one of what I was having (a local IPA that was the only tap beer on offer). “Consider it a…I don’t know…a thank you.”
“A thank you?” I said after taking a small sip to ease the sudden dryness in my mouth. “For what?”
“Friendship?” As the beer was set in front of her she quickly took a solid gulp, nodding slightly to the hipster barkeep as he walked away. “I don’t know. Can’t I give you a gift? Without it being, I don’t know, a deal? Oh, dear. Sorry.” She quickly stood and came to me with arms open for the belated hug. As I navigated setting the package on the small table, careful to keep its peculiar weight pushed well into the center, I awkwardly turned and caught her attack. No polite formality, she gripped me with force, holding tight. It reminded me, guiltily so, of our drunken sexual encounter a few years back, and for a moment I forgot her surprising and out of place appearance. Instead, I gripped my old friend back, genuinely glad to be rid of what I realized was a slight dread caused by her entrance. The embrace held for nearly half a minute before she jolted as though shocked, pulled away, and quickly returned to her beer. After a moment, I settled down to mine.
“Hi, by the way.” She saluted me with her beer, finished it, and signaled the bar for another, all in one swift action. “You look well.” Though said with affection, this didn’t mean much, as it was her opening phrase with me as far back as I could remember. Often times it held more sarcasm than others, but today it was said with genuine care. Her eyes lingered on mine for a moment, hand on her fresh beer which had appeared unnoticed, and I looked back. Holding her gaze, I saw more there than exhaustion. I stared. “What?” She wiped at her nose, looking at her hand for evidence of offense. I shook my head.
“Nothing. You…nothing. You just look…tired. It seems…unlike you.” Whatever it was, this seemed to fluster her. She averted her eyes and took another swig – a true swig – of beer. “Where haveyou been? I thought you were white wine all day all the way. Or did they run out in…”
“Nowhere. I was nowhere worth mentioning, for once.” She sat in her chair slightly slumped, her eyes now wandering everywhere but mine. “How about you? How’ve you been? The kids behaving?”
“They’re good. Ready to be done. So am I. You know – It’s always this way this time of year for teachers.” Mounting dryness again caused me to take a long pull off my beer. “So, seriously. This is kinda crazy.” I gestured to the giant gift, attempting to frame it with my hands. “What’s the occasion? This looks as well travelled as you, no offense. How long have you been toting this around?” I asked with a halfhearted laugh. It passed without registering on her face.
“Oh, it’s just…” Her words drifted away. I raised my eyes to hers. She was staring at the package. Lost in some thought, wariness was there. She looked at the battered gift as though it could, at any time, reach across the table and snatch her. I noticed, over the long moments she stared lost to the world around her, that she was ever so slightly retreating in her seat – imperceptibly moving away. I thought of reaching across to caress her hand, to connect with the Rose I had expected. But, her mood suddenly shifting again, she jolted back to life, greeting me with a cheerful, once again toothy smile. “It’s just a present. I travel everywhere all the time, and I don’t think I’ve ever brought you back a single memento…” She paused to finish off her second beer. “Consider this making up for all the back gifts I’ve never given you.” She finished with another toothy grin that, I noticed, didn’t touch her eyes. Finally, I nodded.
“Well, thank you. I appreciate it.” I reached to pull loose the thin bow when her hand gripped mine in a pinch I wouldn’t have thought possible from her small, manicured fingers. “Owww!” I screeched only half smiling.
“Not now!” Her words came out as a quiet growl, the smile replaced by a grimace, forehead contorting into a canvas of angry wrinkles. Her breathing was ragged, escaping her lips in puffs that blew out her cheeks.
And again, just as suddenly, her manner changed.
She released my hand and smiled, greeting my gaze with empty eyes. “Not now. Not here…you’ll know when. It’s…customary…with such a gift…to wait…wait until you know it’s right.”
I attempted to break what was now a thoroughly weird situation with a wry grin, leaning in, mock intrigue dripping from my voice. “How will I know when it’s right?”
“Oh…you’ll know.” She paused again, and again shifted her tone. “You’ll know, goof ball! Use the force! Ug. Sorry.” She paused, taking a measured breath before continuing. “I know I’m being weird. I, like, totally got heavy into serious drugs up north.” Even for the brief moment she let the joke hang in the air, I took it at face value. Suddenly, Old Rose reemerged, dissolving into a gut laugh as she studied my concerned and confused face. A third beer was placed before her without me having seen when it was ordered, and she downed nearly half of it. My surprise must have read on my face because, as she chugged, her laugh continued. “In all seriousness, though, I did get a taste for the local beers. And, I have dinner with new clients tonight, shit, and I can’t be bothered. Taking the edge off. There’s only so many faux marble mini-Buddhas one can discuss over sushi.” She expertly polished off the last of her beer, and rose as she spoke. “I’m around for almost a week, so let’s get together in a few days when I can sit and see your face.”
She rose, zipping the jacket she had never taken off, and came to give me another, briefer hug. She turned to leave, but stopped a moment, her back to me. Then, almost warily, she turned, her eyes going to the present on the table. “Remember, take your…time. You’ll know when.” And the mood broke as she pecked me on the cheek. “Love you.”
That was the last I saw of Rose.
Gingerly holding the cumbersome present to my chest, I tucked my head against the rain. Well into late afternoon, the city was all the darker due to the persistent and heavy clouds. I walked briskly, navigating irritable pedestrians forced on the wet sidewalks. Misjudging the pace of an oncoming teenager nodding along to her ear buds, my left foot slid off the curb, jarring my spine as the leg went out from under me. I stepped down onto the street with a short but shocking thud. Recovering quickly enough, the odd physics surrounding the package threw my balance, and the box almost went flying. I jerked it back into my side, using more effort than needed. This pushed my center of gravity suddenly back, resulting in the curb swiftly meeting my ass. Rather than bother themselves to lend a hand, pedestrians simply shifted their course around me with a practiced ease.
Soggy and a bit pissed, I simply sat on the edge of the wet sidewalk, present in lap, taking a moment to recover.
Suddenly, the box lifted off my lap, and slapped back down, as though it had been lifted a few inches and then dropped. My hands, which had been holding it, shot out to my sides in reflexive alarm. A foot caught my lower back.
“Oops! Sorry, man! But can’t just sit on yer ass on the sidewalk. Dur.” A guy in his twenties wearing a sweatshirt under a sleeveless jean jacket called over his shoulder as he passed.
I only pondered the box in my lap.
I had almost ditched the box right there on the curb. If it wasn’t for its…I hesitate to say intrigue, but its singular strangeness, as well as being Rose’s token of friendship, I might well have. But, next thing I knew, I had navigated the four blocks home, and sat wetly on my couch, pondering the somehow dry present, now sitting on my raw-metal coffee table.
Had it seriously jumped in my lap? How could it have jumped in my lap? Packages…things…inanimate things…don’t jump by themselves. I suddenly sat up. Perhaps it wasn’t inanimate. Would Rose seriously have given me a pet? Some exotic animal she thought might keep an unattached man in his early thirties company? I gingerly hefted the package back onto my lap, this new line of thought dissolving any hesitance I had of touching it.
Running my fingers over the rough and smooth of the surface, I traced it’s wrapping, feeling for air holes or any sign of life within. Finding nothing, I lifted it – with decent effort for the fit guy I was – and looked for punctures or holes underneath and on the sides. My examination revealed nothing. Then, I simply held it for a moment. Waiting. Waiting for movement. Or a sign…a sign that the box was not as it appeared.
My eyes narrowed as I waited, tension pooling at my temples, the precursor to a headache. I’m not sure how much time passed. Not much. But what did pass was weighted, heavy. But was it the box causing the tension or was it my imagination? There was no doubt the box was odd. It was a strange present, indeed, that held weight the way this one did. But not…wrong…notimpossible. Just…strange. Had the box reallyjumped in my lap? I had hit the curb after teetering, and then was barreled into by a good-sized guy. Had the events run together, and what seemedso strange was actually my imagination, my suspicion giving rise to paranoia for what was, in fact, simply the result of a fall?
I studied the wrapping paper, the bow, the overall weathered and tired appearance of the gift. I couldn’t believe this was something associated with Rose, whose tidiness and fastidiousness of living went hand in hand with her moderation and health. The frayed edges of the paper, the bow that seemed more knotted than tied, the red and white stripes faded intermittently from wear; perhaps she meant it as a joke to be revealed only when I opened it. But, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to open the box.
Day light had gone, and the lamp light began to play over the package. At a distance, under the dim light of the few lamps tucked away in corners of the room, the wrapping paper appeared almost dimpled, like goosebumps. I touched it; it still felt as it had before. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes, ridding myself of an unease taking root. I was being silly. Tired, not buzzed enough, and silly.
I carefully placed the package back on the coffee table and went to the fridge.
Sipping beers, watching it from where I leaned on my kitchen counter, the box didn’t move the entire night.
Days passed without my touching the box. Some without me even thinking about it, except when seeing it upon the low table. Other days, however, the box sat in my mind. I found myself thinking about it at work during my planning periods. As I ran in the wet park, it filled my thoughts. I pondered its wrapping, I pondered my fall and it seeming to jump where I sat, and most of all I pondered Rose’s extremely bizarre, if not downright nut ballz, behavior. After sitting with it all in my mind for a few more days, I gave Rose a ring to see if she still was acting as fucked up as she had, or if Old Rose was back. I thought if I could speak with her it would somehow lift my dread surrounding the box. She never answered or returned the call, and so was, I supposed, again off and away in some distant, unavailable country. I heard her words repeatedly, though; You’ll know when, give it some time. I couldn’t bring myself to even think of opening it. But, out of respect for my friend, I also couldn’t imagine ditching it, either.
The next two weeks passed this way, with me either completely forgetting about the strange gift, or it entirely dominating my mind.
Then the dreams began.
At first, I was certain the voices were in my townhouse. They mostly came at night (occasionally in the early morning) and seemed to be in the kitchen. The voices sounded like children – tiny voices filled with whispers – but then, from what I could strain to hear, they also held a bass, gruff tone…like a bull sneezing in the sun, or an old man quietly clearing his throat. When I would first notice them, they always seemed to be rushed, low and intently discussing something I couldn’t quite make out, something pressing and important. But – always – as I listened, they became hushed, cautious, listening as much as talking. It was then, inevitably, that I would start up in bed, jerking awake only to realize I was dreaming when I had so certainly been awake…listening to voices in my kitchen.
There were never any images in those dreams. Only me listening, lying in my bed as my eyes strained against the dark.
One morning, staring into my bathroom mirror, seeing the mounting bags under my eyes, again foggy after repetitive, exhausting dreams, facing yet another day of children while feeling like I had gone on the bender of a lifetime the night before, I decide it was time.
I don’t know if I had been waiting for a religious moment of revelation to tell me it was time to open the box. Or if I had expected an international call from Rose stating, yes, you may now open the box. My compounding delirium seemed to have put me in a state wholly unfit to judge exactly what I had expected. And that is why, I decided at last, that it was time to Open. The. Box.
It was a Tuesday, and felt like a Friday. I decided I would call in sick. I was going to open the present, find out that what had been causing my irrational paranoia was, in fact, something mundane like Peruvian sand or a beaded Spanish throw rug, go to sleep for a few weeks, and then wake to discover myself, again, the guy I was pretty sure I had been before the bar, Rose, the beers and…the damn, fucking box.
Though it was nearly seven, street noises already filled the now sunny spring morning. I opened the bathroom window, the sounds and the cool breeze easing my lethargy a bit, and even slightly brightening my spirits, perhaps due to my resolve to finally open the box. A bus passed, a couple of kids laughed, teasing each other as they walked to before school or wherever they were headed. I could even hear the dull thrum of a morning talk show audience drifting in from my neighbor’s house across the small patch of yard separating us. I rubbed the grey patches under my eyes, which sadly and expectedly remained, and headed into the living room. I passed the coffee table and went straight to the front door, unlocking and cracking it a bit to the breeze. Taking a few deep breaths, I grabbed my phone from the small entry table, swiped it and texted the school’s admin assistant. I then turned to the kitchen, went right to the fridge, cracked a beer (what the fuck, right, it was a sick day), chugged it despite the burn in my throat, resolutely slammed the bottle on the counter, and then placed myself on the couch, directly across from the box.
I’m sure, absolutely sureit was my panicky, sleep deprived mind that made the box seem to scoot half an inch to the left. It had to be. I didn’t think about it.
Stretching out my fingers rather like a concert pianist, smiling to myself at the indulgence of it, I then gave them a few solid shakes, and placed my hands upon the top of the wrapped box.
It seemed like it stopped vibrating right as I did so. It seemedit, but I was almost sure it hadn’t.
Despite holding its shape perfectly for weeks, the bow easily gave way with a small pull, cascading down onto the table at the box’s sides. I took a deep breath as I readied to go at the shoddy paper. I let it fall as I did the bow, leaving the box surrounded by tatters.
The box itself was unimpressive. Perhaps a thick cardboard or…plaster(?), it was the color of curdled cream and had only what I can describe as small veins running along its surface. Not living, pulsing veins, but a texture mimicking that of veins, or fine twine woven into the making of it. These raised nearly imperceptivity off the surface of the box, giving it an organic look, as though they were tiny roots that had grown the cube right out of the ground. A lid capped the box, about two inches wide, sitting easily on the top. After a final study of the mostly unremarkable thing, I placed a hand on either side of the lid and lifted it off.
I immediately knew I had made a serious, serious mistake.
I don’t know how I knew. What emanated from the box wasn’t right. And though I had never encountered anything like it before, I just knew it was…wrong. Very, very wrong. I knew it in the change in the air, I knew it from the change of the light, from how sound became muffled, and further away, and how my stomach turned. I knew that the box hadmoved on its own, that the nighttime voices had notbeen a dream, and that, perhaps, Rose was no longer my friend.
Hands, two pairs of tiny, wrinkled and very strong hands, reached up from the impossible emptiness of the box. Not small like a child’s, but small in an unnatural, fully matured way. Wrappings like sleeves, some kind of gauze or, perhaps, ancient muslin stopped just below the two sets of hands which emerged, gripping either side of the opening of the box, their fierce, gnarled knuckles whitening. And they pulled. And with the effort, out of the box crawled two small men. Silently and yet with a struggle of years being sluffed off, the hard, rough, muscular figures of the men struggled up and then over the side of the box, dropping heavily down onto the table – much too heavily for their size. Both were draped in the same off-cream colored muslin, with it wrapping unendingly about their spindly, small arms, torsos, twirling down around their legs, and also up their necks and over every part of their bodies except their hard, lean, naked faces.
Faces blank of expression, and with hard, tiny, beady eyes that were as black as the night of any country, with no eyebrows to frame them.
Frozen, sitting on the now wet couch, I watched the two, tiny men straighten themselves where they stood. They turned to face me, faces remaining blank as a starless sky, and then jumped off the table to walk to the open front door. As they neared it, their bodies seemed almost to transmute, blur and move as something that is nearly too fast to see, and then they were at the door, and then they were gone.
And the city’s engines, voices, the singing of birds soon stopped. Terribly, horribly quickly.