The box was as plain as any. Brown, cardboard, about the size of a large suitcase. The strange thing about it was that it arrived unsolicited to apartment 31B. Emily hadn’t been expecting any packages –it was the middle of October, her birthday was in January, and she hadn’t ordered anything online.
Emily stuck her keys in the door. She shifted her groceries to one arm and reached for the box with the other. It lifted effortlessly, despite its size—light as a feather. She balanced it on her shoulder and popped the front door open with her hip.
She tossed the box on the floor. It fell gently, as if gliding. Emily marched on to the kitchen, and set her groceries on the counter. She reached into a drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors and walked back out into the living room.
Her living room was bare – a worn sofa, a television that sat on the floor, and the box. Emily placed the box on the sofa and inspected it. No shipping label. No markings, save the scrawling of a black marker – “EMILY” – on the bottom of the package.
She shook the box – silence.
She slid the scissors across the tape on the top. With both hands, she opened the flaps. She drew a breath, then peered inside.
She turned the box upside and shook it.
Nothing. Just the black word on the bottom of the box—
Emily scrolled through the contacts in her phone, clicked a name on the screen, and held the phone up to hear.
“Hello?” A groggy Southern accent answered.
“Hi, it’s Emily in 31B.”
“Oh, hi. Is your window stuck again?”
“No, no, everything’s fine. I was just wondering – did a package come for me today?”
The landlord sniffed. “No, I’ve been down here all day and there haven’t been any deliveries. Do you want me to check up at your room?”
“No, no, it isn’t that. It’s just I got a package delivered and it doesn’t have a label on it.”
“Oh, strange,” the landlord said. “Well, they would have had to ring me, the gate’s been locked since it’s a weekend. Maybe it’s from another resident? Listen, Emily, I have to—”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll ask around. Thanks, Tim, have a good—”
Emily knocked on the door of 31A. Muffled screams echoed from the room.
The door creaked open. A blonde boy with boxframed glasses peaked out from behind the doorframe. He locked eyes with Emily, and then smiled. “Hey, Miss Em!”
Emily smiled back. “Hey, Robbie. Is your mom home?”
“MOM!” The boy ran into his home.
The door opened wider, presenting an older woman with a crooked nose. With her eyes a little too wide, and her lips a little too curled, she smiled at Emily. “Hello. What can I do for you?”
Emily smiled back, just as forced. “Hi, I got a box with my name on it placed at my doorstep. I was seeing if you knew anything about it? Did you see anyone come by?”
The mother shook her head. “No, no. Have you tried asking the landlord?”
“Yeah, he said there weren’t any deliveries today, so I didn’t know if maybe you…”
The woman stood there, smiling.
“Right,” Emily said. “Well, thanks, I was just checking. Nice to see you, Miss Phillips.”
The woman’s smile dropped, and she slammed the door shut.
Emily rolled her eyes and walked back into her room.
She plopped down on the sofa, rubbing her eyes. She glanced at her phone – 8 pm. She had to be at work in three hours. She kicked her legs up on the sofa and turned on the TV. She scrolled through channels until her eyelids grew heavy.
Beep! Beep! Bzzzt! Emily’s phone rattled on the ground. She gasped and scooped it up off the floor. “Hello?” She said, trying to sound awake.
“Where are you? It’s 11:05 and we’re slammed.”
“Shit. I am so, so sorry! I am on my way! Ten minutes! I swear I didn’t—”
Emily flung herself off the sofa. She ran into her bedroom and scrambled through her closet. She tore off her jeans and top and threw on a black t-shirt and wrinkled khakis. She ran for the door. She grabbed the handle, and then paused. She patted her pockets.
Back in the bedroom, she tossed up piles of clothes. Three or four piles later, she unearthed her waist apron. She threaded it through her belt loops, cursing at herself. She started for the door again, before her eye caught on an object on her nightstand—the polished black grip of her pistol, tucked into a leather holster.
Night shift, better take it. Emily swept the gun off the counter and slipped it into her waistband.
She flew out the front door.
The box sat in the living room, unstirred.
Nights passed, and the box went unnoticed. During the hustle of the work week, Emily tucked it into a corner.
At daybreak, Emily stumbled into her front door, her limbs as heavy as weights. Her clothes reeked of sweat, booze, and cooking oil. She emptied her pockets onto the edge of the couch – a wad of cash, pens, balled up receipts, car keys, and her pistol. She threw herself down on the other edge, tucked her knees up to her chest, and slept.
A knock at the door—three hard pounds. Emily groaned and rolled off the couch. She rubbed her eyes, and then glanced through the peephole: Tim, her landlord, looked off to the side, scratching the back of his head.
Emily unlocked the deadbolt, and opened the door. “Hey, Tim.”
“Hey!” Tim was startled, as if he had forgotten that he had knocked on the door. “Emily! You forgot to drop off your rent.”
“Oh, right,” Emily said. “Sorry, I’ve been working a lot. I have the cash. Is that okay or do you want me to go get a money order?”
Tim chewed his tongue and looked around the room. “Huh? Yeah, cash is fine. I can write a receipt.”
Emily walked over to the edge of the couch and reached for the wad of cash. Her gun lay exposed on the cushion. She turned red, bent over, and tucked the gun into the front of her waistband, covering it with her shirt.
She sifted through twenties as she walked back toward the landlord. “Here, that should be it.” She handed him a pile of bills, shoving the few that were left back into her pocket.
“Hey,” Tim pointed to the back of the living room. “Can I check that window one more time? I’m not convinced that I set the pane right.”
“Yeah, sure,” Emily said.
The landlord walked straight to the window, ignoring the cash in Emily’s outstretched palm. Emily put it in her back pocket. She could feel her gun pressing against her stomach. She looked around the room.
Emily crept over to the corner of the room The landlord’s back was turned as he jiggled the window frame. She slid the pistol out of her waist band, bent her knees, and gently placed the gun in the box. She closed the flaps, and then joined Tim at the window.
“That pane is loose, I tell ya,” the landlord said.
“Honestly, I never open it anyway,” Emily said.
Tim scratched his head. “Well, alright. I’ll mess with it some other time.” He walked to the door. “Don’t work too hard, Emily!”
“Tim,” Emily said. She pulled out the stack of bills and waved it.
“Oh, right.” He placed the cash promptly in his pocket, without counting it. “Take care, Emily! Thanks for the rent!”
“You too, Tim.” Emily shook her head as she shut the door.
Sleep ruined, Emily tidied her apartment. After cleaning her room, she noticed her empty nightstand.
She walked back out into the living room, and to the box in the corner. She opened the flaps, and then reached inside.
“What?” She patted the bottom of the box. She picked it up, turned it over, and shook it.
She dropped the box and backed away, hands trembling.
She retreated the sofa, staring at the box in the corner as if it were a predator, afraid to take her eyes off of it.
Tim didn’t take the gun; she had seen him the whole time. No one else was in the apartment; she had tidied every corner. The gun was in the box; now, it was not.
Emily reached over to the edge of the couch and wrapped her hand around a balled-up receipt. She breathed in, drew her arm back, and tossed the ball at the corner of the room.
It hit the wall with a tick, before bouncing into the box.
Emily sprung to her feet and rushed forward. She leaned over the box.
The crumpled receipt rested at the bottom.
Emily pinched her forehead.
She reached down and closed the flaps of the box. She took two heavy breathes, and then ripped the flaps open.
Nothing – the box was empty.
Emily closed the flaps, and then sat on the floor. Knees tucked to her chest, she rocked back and forth, staring at the box until nightfall.
It became an addiction. Her trash, her junk mail, sometimes random objects gathered from the sidewalk – she piled it into the box. When it was filled, she’d pack it down, close the flaps, and then peel them back.
Empty, fresh, restored. It was cathartic, in a way, seeing all of life’s little odds and ends pile up, and then vanish.
One morning, after parking her car, she noticed a dead bird near the door to her building. Grey and mangled, its eyes hollowed out with ants.
Emily couldn’t control her fascination. She wrapped the carcass in her apron and carried it up the stairs, smirking. Her skin itched as the ants crawled from the feathers of the dead bird and crept over the hairs of her arm.
She swung her door open and rushed to the corner of the room. She kneeled next to the box, beaming. She lowered the apron inside, and placed it at the bottom. She brushed her arms of creeping insects, flaking them into the box – she scraped her wrists against the sides to catch every last one. She shut the flaps, and then opened them.
Emily giggled. She exhaled, her shoulders relaxed. She stood up and paced around her apartment, humming.
A thud. The wall shook. Emily scanned the room. Outside the window, a grey bird flapped its wings. It dove at the glass.
A thud, then a shatter. Emily shrieked.
The bird wailed and charged inside. Feet out, it plunged toward Emily. Emily backed away, swatting at the creature. It ducked and wove around each swing, squawking. It swooped at her knees. Emily screamed as it pecked her legs.
Her back hit the wall. The bird clawed and gouged her knees. She tried to kick it, but then tripped.
She knocked against the box, and flipped it over. She lay next to it, the box opened toward her.
The bird’s attack intensified – it screeched, and then swooped at Emily’s face. Emily covered her head with arms and screamed. She felt the sides of the box pressing into her back.
The door swung open. Emily, face covered, heard shouting and stomping. She trembled, panting into her forearms. There was no pecking, or clawing. The flapping, the squawking, was muffled.
Emily uncovered her face and sat up. Tim was in the center of the living room, on his knees, pinning down a black trash bag. The bag rustled and heaved.
Emily felt the edge of the box against her side. She shrieked, scrambled to her feet, and kicked the box upright.
Tim wrestled the bag. He swung his fist until the bag stopped heaving. As an extra measure, he stomped on it, his boot shaking the floor.
“Man, that thing sure did not like you.” Tim said, looking up.
Emily sobbed. Her khakis were shredded; blood trickled down her arms and face.
Tim cleared his throat. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The next day, Emily put the box in the closet of her bedroom. For the next month, it remained, and did not even cross Emily’s mind. Tim replaced the window and gave her a month of free rent.
“Hey,” a man grabbed Emily’s arm. “Are you sure you can drive?”
She yanked her elbow away. “I’m fine.”
“You took like four shots with those customers.”
“That was hours ago, it’s almost seven in the morning now. I’m going home, and going to sleep.”
“Drive safe, Emily. Please.”
She mocked him under her breath. She walked outside and across the parking lot to her car. She fumbled for her keys. They slipped from her fingers as she tried to unlock the door. With wobbling knees, she bent to pick them up.
The drive was only fifteen minutes, but Emily kept fighting the urge to close her eyes. A horn blared, and she jerked awake – a yellow school bus was reflected in her mirror. The light had turned green.
She drove forward, and then took a left onto her road. She saw her building and her parking spot. She felt her neck weaken, her head lower, and her eyes droop.
A thump rattled the hood of the car. Emily jerked awake, and slammed the brakes. She shifted the gear to park, flung off her seat belt, and threw open her door.
Streaks of red leaked across the grey concrete. A pale hand protruded from beneath her tire. “No, no…”
Emily rushed to the front of her car. She knelt, shuddering. Under the bumper was a boy, his blonde hair flecked red. His glasses lay in front of his face, crushed.
Emily screamed, but stopped herself. She bit her fist, and looked around. The streets were empty. She scanned the windows of the surrounding buildings – all closed.
She stared down at the body. She stopped shuddering; her hands steadied. She grabbed the boy by his shoulders and dragged him out from under the car. She grabbed the shattered glasses, shoved them into the boy’s pocket, and threw the body over her shoulder.
Emily ran up the stairs. She did not even glance at apartment 31A as she ran past its door and into her own home. She slammed the front door shut and carried the body to her bedroom.
She slid the closet door open. The box, sealed, rested in the corner. She opened it.
The boys’ body fit perfectly. She sealed the box. She breathed in, and reopened it.
Emily exhaled. She fell back to the floor, shuddering again. She covered her face and wept.
The sobs became chuckles. Emily sat back up, a wide smirk across her face. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of pens. She threw them in the box, and sealed it shut. Grinning, she opened it.
Nothing. Emily cackled.
A knock – a single bang shook her front door.
Emily crouched in the closet.
Another bang, then the cracking of wood—
It was not a knock.
The walls shook, the door splintered.
Heavy thuds paced toward the bedroom door. It burst open.
A tall figure, wearing a black mask, stood in the door frame, brandishing a polished black pistol.
Thump. The intruder took a step toward the closet.
Tears covered Emily’s cheek. She crept further into the corner of her closet.
The dark figure stopped at the closet door. He placed his feet together, and folded his hands behind his back. He stared through the shuttered door, his eyes glued to the back wall, his body stiff, as if waiting.
Emily crawled forward.
The intruder’s eyes moved, and met hers.
Emily froze, shivering. She crept back toward the corner.
The intruder’s eyes returned to the back wall.
Emily squirmed further into the corner, until her back touched the side of the box.
She whimpered, and wept. She placed her arms over the side of the box, and then lurched herself over. She tucked her knees to her chest, packing herself in tight. Shaking, she reached up, and shut the flaps over her.
The closet door slid open. The intruder marched to the box in the corner. He tore open the flaps.
He picked the box up and looked at its underside.
The intruder tucked his pistol into his waistband, and pulled a black marker from his pocket. He crossed through Emily’s name, and scrawled a message below it. He carried the package out of the bedroom, the living room, and out the front door.
The box sat at the doorstep of apartment 31B, sealed. No shipping label. No markings, save the scrawling of a black marker on its under side—
“RETURN TO SENDER.”
J.T. Sharp lives in Atlanta and is a manager for a global entertainment company. He spends his spare time writing sci-fi at Sporadicfiction.com.