Deathlight

I first saw the light when I was 6, when we were gathered around my 98-year-old grandmother’s bed in the nursing home, surrounded by stale air and signs of old age. It appeared above her head and danced ever so slightly back and forth, like a tiny firefly.

“Do you see that?” I asked my kid brother, Jamie. Mother was holding Grandma’s hand. Dad was crying.

“See what?” Jamie said. Then Grandma let out one final sound and left us forever.

That was when I first knew I was special.

I’ve seen the light many times over my life since then, always appearing just before. I saw a dot of illumination right above Tommy Conway in 8th Grade, right before he got hit by a speeding car as we walked home from school. I shouted but I was too late. My parents said it was a miracle I survived.

I saw the light over and over in Afghanistan; above a new kid’s head right before he took a bullet from a sniper, hovering over Lt. Austin’s helmet while he tried to defuse an IED – my right ear still rings with tinnitus from time to time, above countless men on the other side before I watched them shot dead or blown into millions of pieces.

I’ve retired now, after all that happened, gone back into civilian work but a line no less dangerous. Some of it’s easy and safe, and some of it isn’t, but either way it’s never simple.

Brink and I are standing next to my car in an empty parking lot, the meeting point. One lonely streetlight far away casts the only brightness in a sea of black. He’s a little shaky – the men we’re to meet were said to have Cartel ties.

A Hummer pulls into the lot from the other end, loud rap music blaring out of open windows.

“You ready?” I say.

“Yeah,” says Brink.

I look down at my hands, and see they are shaking too – and faintly illuminated in the darkness with a dancing light from above.

In the Saloon

The neon lights inside the saloon were bright and glaring. The marshal’s eyes stung from their harshness as he made his way down the diamond plate stairs leading toward the bar. Creatures of all shapes, sizes and colours sat and stood around it: a group of purple lizardmen from Solaris 7, soldiers, flicking out their long pink tongues as they spoken their hissed language amongst themselves; a hairy beast, a smuggler from the jungles of the Outer Rim, drinking beer from a large stein; tentacled beings with squishy orbs set on the end of long thin eyestalks; humans; silarians; drust; and, of course, city guards, always watching, black machine pistols hanging conspicuously in holsters at their sides.

The Marshal approached the bar and its tender, a burly green thing with six eyes set in a fleshy blob of a face, barked at him: “Whaddya want?”

“I’m looking,” said the other calmly, eyes turned down, “for an Arduinian.”

“Ya what?” The saloon owner grunted roughly. Patrons sitting close by turned to look. A bot squawked.

“I’m looking,” The Marshal said again, his voice growing cold and steely. “for an Arduinian. Has one come through here?”

He felt the focus of the place turn to him, felt the eyes – so many eyes of every different possible shape and description – stare in his direction. The Arduinian had been through here. Oh yes, it had. And within the alien cornucopia of bar patrons those who knew it weren’t happy about him walking in and asking questions.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” The bartender grunted and spat. “Arduinians are forbidden in this system, everyone knows that. Now I suggest you either keep your questions to yourself” – he furrowed his six brows – “or come back out the way ya came.” The disgusting creature bobbed its head back toward the door from where The Marshal had entered.

“I’m looking for an Arduinian,” The Marshal said, raising his voice. “And I’m not going to leave I until I get some answers.” The saloon was quiet now. Everyone in the place quietly watching the confrontation between the owner and this strange lawman who had wandered in, waiting for its resolution.

One of the drust sitting at the bar stood. The guards next to him turned and watched.

“I don’t think you heard the man,” it said. “We don’t like humans like you coming ’round here and asking questions. Best be on your way, fleshbag.” The drust grinned an evil grin full of giant sharp teeth. Its segmented eyes glinted in the light. The lawman saw it hover its smooth gray hand above the gun at its side.

The Marshal looked up. “I’m not looking for no trouble,” he said. He touched his hat with his hand. “Just some answers. But I tell you if you draw on me I’ll put you down faster than what’s what.” The marshal’s voice was cool and low. “And that’s a promise.”

“Get out, human!” The drust said. “Get out now!”

“I’m looking…”

The drust reached for the gun at his side but was too slow. The Marshal’s brass revolver was out, the barrel blazing, hammer slamming rapidly against the spinning chambers as its owner fanned six bullets into the gray thing standing opposite him.

The bar erupted into pandemonium. Someone screamed. Glasses shattered. Feet rushed for the stairwell and exits.

The Marshal holstered his weapon and looked down at the smoking bloody chest cavity of the dead drust. He closed his eyes and shook his head. He looked up and addressed the terrified bartender.

“Where’s the Arduinian?”

The Shower Scene

One time when I was younger my mother told me something that really stuck with me. She told me that when she was a teenager she saw the movie ‘Psycho’ even though her parents had expressly forbidden her to, and after she watched that movie she couldn’t shower for a month, she was so scared of the infamous ‘shower scene’.

Imagine that. Watching a movie with a scene about something as commonplace and everyday as taking a shower and having that make it absolutely terrifying. And, as many people have pointed out, compared to modern films, the shower scene doesn’t actually show all that much of anything – it’s all in what is suggested, which is the brilliance of Hitchcock at work.

I’d never seen the shower scene, in fact, only heard it talked about by others and seen bits and pieces of it when it was referenced in documentaries and TV specials about Hitchcock or the history of film. But still my mother’s story about it terrifying her that much changed the way I thought about showering. It made me realize how strange an act it actually was and how frightening it could really be.

I mean, it’s kind of strange when you really think about it, the fact that each and every day we step into this tiny little chamber, no more than a few feet by the length of the average human body, and then completely close ourselves in. With a curtain. Or maybe a sliding glass door. Frosted usually, so if someone else happens to be using the bathroom they can’t see your naked ass and naughty bits, but perhaps more importantly, it means that you can’t see what’s going on outside. What’s on the other side of the curtain? You have no way to know except to hold it back a little and peek out from behind it.

I guess it was about two years ago. These past two years my morning routine is a lot different now than all the years before, but we’ll get to that in a bit, hold on there. Even then, even before it happened, I guess I never really liked showering that much, after what my mother had told me. I found myself sometimes worrying if I’d forgotten to lock the front door or left a window open, or the back door maybe, with only the old storm door that didn’t shut completely on its own, and maybe someone could break in and rob the house while I bathed myself, or, worse, barge into the bathroom and attack me where I was behind the curtain blissfully unaware.

So, I’ll admit it. Sometimes those types of thoughts got the better of me. Sometimes, I peeked, just to make myself feel better. To reassure myself that I was just being silly. Irrational.

That time I really wish I hadn’t.

Have you ever had the feeling that someone is watching you? Ever just been sitting somewhere, minding your own business, reading a magazine or playing with your phone or watching pigeons flutter away against the backdrop of a blue sky and you know – you just know – that someone is watching you? I remember one of my psychology professors in university liked to say that there’s nothing more powerful than the gaze of a human eye. If we see other people staring at something we can’t help but follow to see where they’re looking. It’s in our nature. Evolutionary. But I think he meant more than that, I knew he did. There’s something about another presence, about something observing you, that you can just feel.

The steam of the shower was hot and the water was too, and just as I was finishing rinsing the last of the shampoo out of my hair, I felt it. A presence. Something watching me. Something there in the bathroom with me. It sounds crazy, I know. I knew I was just being ridiculous but I couldn’t help it, just like my irrational fear that someone would barge into the house while I was defenseless beneath the hot water, I knew this was irrational too. Ridiculous.

But I still had to look. To prove to myself that it was. That the presence I felt was only my imagination, only my mind playing tricks on me.

Ever so slowly, I stepped over toward the far side of the tub, the one away from the falling water of the showerhead, and slowly pulled back the curtain to look.

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. Thank God nothing did. Who knows what would have happened had I made a sound? Terror, sheer, raw, utter terror overtook every part of me in that moment. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream but knew I could not. I wanted nothing more than to flee from that tiny space beneath the falling water and dive into the safety of my warm bed and hide beneath the covers until it went away and I could stop shaking and convince myself that what I saw was not, could not, be real.

In the bathroom, not two feet away, towering over me, was a creature.

I don’t expect you to believe me. Why should I? It’s impossible. But it happened. I know it did. How do you describe to someone something that is beyond belief? The paranormal? The fantastical? The beyond real? I’m doing my best. All I know is that that thing I saw in the bathroom was as real as you and me. And it’s no exaggeration to say at that moment I was more terrified than I’d ever been in my entire life.

The thing was tall, too tall, tall and white, and had smooth, smooth skin. It was facing away from me, so all I saw in that furtive horrified glance I took was its giant back arching toward the ceiling and the rounded whiteness of its skull.

The terror I felt. What did it want? How had it gotten in? And what horrible would the face of this horrible thing look like when it turned to face me? Full of long pointed teeth covered in the blood of children it had devoured. Of previous victims caught unaware in the shower, dozing on the couch, sleeping in their beds. Two sunken black pits for eyes that burned with the red fires of hell.

The water poured down and the steam rose and the seconds passed and the thing, the terrible thing, just sat there and my fear, my complete and utter horror and dread of this thing, was absolutely palpable. I put my hand over my mouth and tried not to make a sound. Not to breathe.

The creature was not two feet away from me. It needed only to reach out the tiniest bit with one of its long spindly arms to touch me, and then what would it do? Impale me on its long bony fingers that I’d seen hanging down to the tile of the floor. Spear me on its claws, slash and tear me until I bled to death and my blood mixed with the water going down the drain, just like that in the shower scene.

Have you ever had to do something you know you must but every part of you screams not to? Have you ever been so terrified that every part of you, every tiny fiber of your being screams for you to turn and run, but you know you can’t, that you mustn’t, that you’ve got to face your fear head-on if you want to survive?

I have.

Ever part of me wanted nothing more than to scream and run from the warm wet safety of my tiny universe, to tear out of the bathroom and run screaming out of the house, down the street, naked and dripping wet, just to escape the horror of that thing that stood waiting for me. But I knew I had to look again. I knew I had to hold back the curtain and look again just to convince myself that it was real.

Holding back my fear, quivering and shaking, every part of me wanting to scream, wanting to run, I slowly pulled back the curtain just a little to reveal nothing.

There was nothing there. I was alone. The water kept falling and beating its rhythm against the bottom of the tub. I had imagined it.

I finally watched the shower scene. And I know now why it must have been so terrifying for my mother at the time. It’s true, it doesn’t show that much, but that’s is precisely what makes it so brilliant, as I said before, and so many others have said before me. It’s not about what you do see, but what you don’t see. Terror is not about what is shown, but what isn’t. The greatest horrors are those that are left to our imagination. The white creature that visited me will always fill my nightmares, but only because of what I did not see – it never faces me, never acknowledges me, but still I know that it is watching. The most frightening thing is that if the very presence of this thing filled me with such dread I cannot begin to comprehend its true nature – what staring into the face of such a thing would have done to me.

I don’t take showers any more. Two years it’s been since then. Two years that I’ve only taken baths, and then only with the door open. I try to tell myself that what I saw wasn’t real. Couldn’t have been real. But when I stepped out of the shower that day, still very much shaken from what I’d seen, on the tile of the floor next to the bathmat were two giant wet footprints.

It’s still out there, watching me.

The Lost Ring

Where could it be? Where could it be? Oh no, oh no, oh no, how could I have been so foolish? Beatrice Benedict was in a panic. It has to be here somewhere. It has to be here somewhere. Oh my God, my God, I’ve got to find it or Ralph is going to kill me!

She’d turned the whole house upside-down already in a panic. At first she’d not even noticed her ring was missing. It hadn’t been until she’d finished cleaning everything.

Beatrice Benedict trembled at the thought of her stocky husband bursting in through the door, coated in grease from head to toe, then turning bright red in anger when he discovered she’d lost it, the one true symbol of their beautiful union, and then the sound of his thick leather belt flying through the air and the thwack thwack thwack as the blows rained down upon her. God help them, she knew Little Johnnie could hear it, even from upstairs in his tiny bedroom beneath the comfort of his little rocket ship bedspread.

Oh God, oh God, I’ve got to find it! Beatrice overturned all the couch cushions she’d vacuumed only an hour ago and turned over only 10 minutes before once again. She shook them out above the ugly brown striped pattern of the sofa, hoping, just hoping, that her repeating the same process and expecting a different result wasn’t insanity. That her precious missing wedding ring would fall out onto the floor, and then she could breathe a sigh of relief and all would be well again. But it wasn’t there.

Beatrice collapsed to her knees on the carpet, buried her face into her hands, and sobbed. She cried and cried and cried, the sound seeping out into the surrounding beige walls of the simple bungalow she and Ralph called home, and the walls watched silently, shaking their heads in disapproval.

Oh Bertie, Bertie, Bertie, the one wall, the one behind the China Cabinet, cooed out to her. It seemed older and wiser than the others. She felt that maybe it was their mother. Could walls have mothers?

You’ve gone and made a real mess of things, haven’t you? the wall continued. Ralph was right all this time. You really are worthless. How could you lose the ring like that? Don’t you care about Ralph? Don’t you care about your marriage? About Little Johnnie? What’s wrong with you Bertie?

Well, I’m not surprised. We walls all saw it coming. We see everything. And we’ll see it all when Ralph gets home soon and lays into you with his belt again. Just like he has so many times before.

Beatrice stopped crying and sat up. She’d already turned the living room over a dozen times. Then she thought maybe it’d fallen from her finger and gotten sucked up by the vacuum. She’d emptied the bag out and pawed all through the dirt with her bare hands. She’d gone through all of the bedrooms, tearing apart all the sheets and comforters on both her and Ralph’s and Little Johnnie’s bed, but there was not sign of her missing ring.

What was she going to do?

Wait, the bathroom sink? Or the drain in the tub? No, she’d put on her stretchy long yellow latex gloves as soon as she’d started on the bathroom, just like she always did, because she so hated cleaning the bathroom. She knew that the chemicals for getting rid of the kind of filth in there – stray pubic hairs and evil bacteria and mold caked into the grout and festering disease and rot and microbial death – were harsher than anything else she’d use to clean anywhere else in the house, harsher than anything she’d use in the kitchen.

Of course. The sink. She’d taken her ring off and set it on the counter next to the faucet, hadn’t she? Terribly absent-minded of her. But had she put it back on? And that clattering in sink had been that fork the fell from the drying rack, she’d seen it. But if she’d accidentally hit her ring with her elbow at the same time the fork had fallen then…

The garbage disposal. She had to look.

Dark and foreboding, the circular maw of the metal beast gaped at her, taunting her. I’ve got your ring, Bertie, now what are you going to do? You should have listened to the walls! The metal monster laughed maniacally at her.

Beatrice peered down into the depths of the hole, but could see nothing. She glanced from all angles but all was black; there was not so much as a gleam of light reflecting off the blades at the bottom.

She ran to the hall closet and bent down to the bottom shelf, rifling amongst the ratty old comforters and a big box of ancient used batteries. She found it, the big yellow plastic flashlight, the one her and Ralph had always taken camping with them each summer those first few years after they were newlyweds. Beatrice Benedict pushed the big black circular button with her thumb and it made a satisfying click-click. The beam from the light was still strong and lit the rusty brass hinges of the closet door next to her.

I don’t see it. I don’t see it. Beatrice squinted. She tilted her head every which way, this way and that way and a hundred other ways, but it was just so damn hard to see anything down that little hole, even with the light of the flashlight. Please God, please. Let my ring be in there. Beatrice tilted her head again and squinted into the depths of metal tunnel leading into the belly of the garbage disposal.

And then she saw it. Thank you God! A glimmer of light reflecting off her wedding ring.

Beatrice took a deep breath. She knew there was nothing in the kitchen, no implement, no wooden spoon or whisk or spatula or pair of tongs or scissors that would reach the bottom of the disposal. She’d have to reach down there with her arm and nimble white fingers and pluck the ring from those hungry metallic depths herself. It was the only way.

Think. Think about Ralph. Think about your ring. What that ring means.

She rolled up her sleeve and then stopped, recalling horrible stories she’d heard about household appliances turning on by themselves. About young boys reaching for things in the bottom of blenders and having their fingers turned into strawberry milkshakes with crunchy pieces of bone. About housewives falling headfirst into clothes dryers and being tumbled-dried to death, roasted alive all alone in empty basements while their cries for help went unheard, echoing in the scalding air of the hungry metal drums.

No, Beatrice Benedict thought. I have to. For Ralph. For Little Johnnie.

Beatrice took another deep breath and stuck her arm down the black hole, down into the hungry maw of the garbage disposal, and felt around with her nimble white fingers for her precious wedding ring. Her hand pawed and slipped against the wet steel, and she swore she could smell something foul rising up from the throat of the beast, up into the sink basin and assaulting her nostrils. Her digits danced a clumsy dance in the darkness. It was there. It was in there. I saw it! Just a little deeper. Just a little deeper. Before Ralph gets home.

There was a loud bang as the front door swung on its hinges and slammed shut. Beatrice looked up from the sink with a start.

“Bertie!” her husband called out. “I’m home!”

Oh God, it was Ralph! He’s home early! Beatrice thought. I can’t let him find me like this! And the ring! Oh God, the ring!

And then Beatrice realized her arm was stuck. And then she began to panic. She pulled and pulled and pulled but her arm was jammed in the hole of the drain at the elbow – she was like a minnow that had swum into a steel trap and but couldn’t squeeze its way back out.

She pulled and pulled but the circle of the drain was a snake coiled around her arm. She heard Ralph’s footsteps coming toward the kitchen. “Bertie? You there?” She was panicking now. She yanked and and twisted, and then her elbow turned the screw in the sink assembly and the metal monster roared to life.

Beatrice Benedict screamed as the garbage disposal ate her arm.


“She’s heavily sedated,” the doctor in the white coat said. “But she’s conscious. You can speak to her now.”

“Thank you,” Ralph Benedict said heavily. His wife lay docile beneath the hospital green of the bedsheets, an IV snaking down to her left wrist and surrounded by beeping machines keeping vigil.

“Ralph?” she said weakly. Her eyes fluttered. “Are you there?”

Her right arm was hidden within the cast. Ralph knew it was a courtesy. A sham to hide an ugly truth. He knew beneath that plaster his wife’s arm was all ground up to hell, a potpourri of flesh and skin and bone. The doctors did what they could, but had already told him she’d never regain use of her arm, let alone her hand, for as long as she lived.

A tear welled in the corner of the burly man’s eye, and slowly wandered down the side of his face. He hadn’t cried since his father’s funeral when he was 11.

“Ralphie,” Beatrice said weakly. “I’m sorry…”

“I’m sorry too,” Ralph said, reaching into his pocket for something. He set it down on the tray above the bed.

“It was in the car,” he said. “Found it beneath the passenger seat on the way home. It must’ve fallen from your finger the other day. You’re just so careless, Bertie, just so damn careless…”

Ralph Benedict’s wife cried.

“I’m sorry, Ralphie!” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry! I just didn’t want you to be mad! I’m so sorry for everything….”

“I know,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands. “I know. So am I.”

He took off his ring and set it down next to the other one the tray over the bed, and it rolled in place in a circle, rattling against the cheap plastic. The monitors behind Beatrice kept their steady pace, but nothing would ever undo what had been done.

Ralph Benedict stood and left. A doctor passed by the open door to the room, and the halls of the hospital continued to smell of antiseptic.

zoopzorp

When I was a kid I had a toy robot, zoopzorp was his name. Of course, I didn’t know that until later, at first I just called him Robot. His name is zoopzorp, all lower case. He hates having it capitalized, and if anyone says it that way he makes me eat dead rats.

I found zoopzorp at a garage sale my family visited one hot August afternoon. My Dad loved taking our family to garage sales on the weekend and that particularly muggy one was no exception. zoopzorp had sat in a pile of other old toys, beat up and still a little dusty, atop the checkered tablecloth laid over a folding table. He immediately caught my eye because he was bright red, and had a little plastic toy gun. I just had to have him.

“Look Mom! A toy robot! Can I have it? Please?!” I said. My mom tried to dissuade me, but she wasn’t very good at being persuasive.

“Oh Michael, he’s all beat up. Wouldn’t you rather have this little fire engine?” she said.

“No, mommy, I want the robot! I want the robot!”

She rolled her eyes and I snapped up the robot and we went over to the old couple who were holding the garage sale to pay.

“Whatcha got there, son?” My Dad caught us on the way over.

“Look Dad! I’m getting this shiny red robot! We’re going to have space battles!”

“Doesn’t look so shiny to me.” My Father was looking at some old records with Sandy, our golden retriever. “But if you say so son, you go ahead with your mother. I bet it’s worth a fortune.” He winked at me.

Mom rolled her eyes at him and he smiled back. I remember thinking that the old couple seemed a bit odd when we went to pay for the robot. They got all quiet when my Mom tried to talk to them, and said that they hadn’t meant to put the robot out. I thought maybe it had belonged to one of their children when they were younger. I felt sad when I began to think I wouldn’t get my shiny red robot after all.

“But I can see you really do want it,” the old man had said. “So you know what son, you can have him. For a boy like you, it’s free. You just have to promise to take good care of him.”

And then he’d tousled my hair. My Mom tried to get them to take at least some money, five dollars even, but they’d wouldn’t hear of it.

We drove back to the house in the station wagon, my father and mother bickering over the amount of stupid crap my Dad had bought (“really Mark, we don’t even own a record player…”) and I sat in the backseat with Sandy, overjoyed with the thought of the exciting space battles that Robot and I were going to have.


I played with zoopzorp all Sunday, until finally, despite my complaints to stay up later, my mother made me wash up and get ready for bed.

“It’s a school night,” she said.

I wanted to sleep with zoopzorp but she wouldn’t allow it – I think at the time she was already worrying I was becoming a bit obsessed with the robot – and so she put my red plastic companion down on the floor in the in corner, and assured me that he’d be there all night with me while I slept.

She flicked on the nightlight, kissed me on the forehead, and switched off the lights.

“Good night son,” she said, a backlit silhouette standing in the darkness of the doorway. “I love you.”

“I love you too Mummy,” I said, and she closed the door.

I started to get sleepy, but then just as I started to drop off I heard a voice coming out of the dimness:

“Michael…. Michael….”

“Hello?” I said. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me Michael, your robot.” The voice did not sound like my childhood self thought a robot voice should sound at all. It was deep and smooth and sounded like the voice of a man wearing a tuxedo.

“Robot?” I said, sitting up under the covers. “You can talk?”

“Why yes, Michael, of course I can.”

“But you didn’t talk when we found you at the garage sale. And we had space battles all day and you didn’t say anything.”

“I can’t talk around them, Michael,” zoopzorp said. “Only around you. Because you’re special, Michael. I don’t want them to know.”

“You mean my parents?”

“Yes Michael. So me talking to you will be our little secret, okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Good boy, Michael.” I felt funny of all of a sudden. “Now I want to ask you a question. Are you scared of the dark, Michael?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “Being afraid of the dark is for sissies. And I’m not a sissy. I’m brave.”

“I know you are! You’re so brave, Michael.” zoopzorp’s voice glided smoothly through the darkness like a black serpent. “Then I want you to sit and listen because I’m going to tell you a story about the darkness and the things that live in it. Turn off the nightlight, Michael.”

I unplugged the light from the wall next to my bed and leaned forward with my knees pulled up against my body and my arms wrapped around them, and zoopzorp told me stories about the dark and the horrible creatures that lived in it: wild beasts and evil men and dark demons and psycho killers and The Devil himself. But I wasn’t scared because I was brave, and I loved zoopzorp and his little plastic gun.

That was to be the first night of many. The weeks went by and day after day I rushed home from school on the weekdays to play with zoopzorp for as long as I could. I spent all the Saturdays of Indian summer conquering planets and exploring the far reaches of space in the soft green grass of the yard, just me, zoopzorp and Sandy. I’d play the whole day until dinner, and for hours after that until at night when my parents were finally gone and zoopzorp would tell me scary stories about the darkness and all the things that lived in it and what they’d done, and then right before I fell asleep he’d always tell me he loved me and that I was a good boy.

As the nights went by though, zoopzorp’s stories started to get scarier and scarier. He went from telling me about the things that lived in the dark to about how a man who’d lived in the house before my family had chopped up his wife and the postman, and buried them in the basement; how years ago all the teachers in the high school drew a big circle of lamb’s blood on the gym floor and then killed one of the students with a knife and ate her; and how there was demon that had possessed the mind of old Mrs. Benson and made her crazy, and that’s why she’d shot her son who took care of her in the face with a pistol, and they’d locked her up in the asylum.

“Robot, your stories are becoming too scary,” I finally said one night at the end of September. “I’m real brave but even these stories are starting to scare me.”

“No, Michael, you’re not scared are you?” zoopzorp crooned. “I’m telling you about reality, Michael. I’m telling you what the grown-ups never will. Because I know you’re big and brave, and don’t have to be treated like a little child . You don’t want me to treat you like a little child like the grown-ups do, do you, Michael?”

“No,” I said, feeling kind of funny again.

“Good,” said zoopzorp. “And don’t you think your friends at school should be treated that way either, do you?”

“No!” I said. “I hate having to go to school and learn about multiplication, and how all the teachers just treat us like we’re stupid little kids.”

“Of course you do,” zoopzorp reassured me from his corner in the dark. “So I want you to do this for me, Michael. I want you to write down the stories I tell you, and share them with all your friends at school so they can be grown-ups too.”

“What?” I said. “No, I can’t do that. I’ll get in trouble. The stories are too scary.”

“No, no, no, Michael.” I felt zoopzorp’s words washing over me like the waves of the ocean. “They need to know. You need to help them become brave like you. Will you do that for me?”

“No, I can’t! I’m sorry! I love you Robot but I don’t want to get in trouble. I think I should just go to sleep.”

“MICHAEL,” said zoopzorp, very slowly. “You must write down my stories and share them with everyone else. Do you remember the story I told you about little Annie and how her face got sliced up and burned off by her Daddy? Or about the Mommy who reached down the garbage disposal for her ring and had her arm all ground up? Or about that boy that the man chained up in his basement forever? “I love you too Michael, but if you don’t do this for me these things will start to happen to you too, and then I’ll have to vaporize you with my ray gun and find someone else to share my stories with the world.”

“Now you’re just being silly,” I said. “I’m a kid but I know they’re are just stories. And it’s just a little plastic gun. I know it’s just pretend. You can’t vaporize anyone. And you’re being mean to me, Robot, so I’m not sure I like you anymore. Good night.”

I went to sleep but I could feel zoopzorp fuming in the corner. My Mom wondered why I stopped playing with him for the next few days, and I told her I just didn’t feel like it, right up until I came home from school and Sandy was missing, and there was a big burn mark in a ring on the floor where her doggie bed used to be. Mom and Dad told me that Sandy ran away with another dog and got married to her, but later I heard them talking with the man they hired to clean up the burn.

“Spontaneous combustion,” I heard him say from around the corner. “It’s the damnedest thing, I’ve seen it before. Happens to people you know, so why shouldn’t it happen to dogs too, I reckon?”

I knew what really happened. I started playing with zoopzorp again after that, and he started talking to me again at night, only now it wasn’t fun, I was afraid; not of the stories but of zoopzorp himself, and that he might vaporize me like he did Sandy.

“Share my stories, Michael,” he said, but his voice was different now, meaner. “Spread the gospel of zoopzorp.”

“What’s ZoopZorp?”

“zoopzorp,” he said. “I am zoopzorp. Spread my gospel. Share my stories with the others.”

“I will,” I said, crying. “I will.”


It was only a matter of time before word got back to my parents. I heard them talking in the kitchen, right after my mother had hung up the phone. I didn’t know it was a call from the school at the time, but I could tell from their hushed tones they were talking about me and it wasn’t good.

I was in my room playing with zoopzorp. We were fighting a space battle against the evil aliens from Ulaan Khuree. My mother stood in the doorway and looked down at me.

“Michael honey,” she said softly. “Could you come in to the living room? Your father and I want to talk to you.”

Shit. Now I knew was in trouble.

The principal had called my parents and recommended I be suspended for a month and see a psychologist. He’d heard all the stories going around the school, the ones I’d told the other students, the ones zoopzorp had made me write down and tell – the gospel of zoopzorp. I was just spreading his gospel like he’d told me to, hoping that’d keep him loving me and stop him from vaporizing me like he did Sandy.

“Son, is there something you want to tell us?” my father said, lines of worry wrinkling his face. I remember thinking he looked old then. I’d never seen him look that old. He reminded me of Grandpa, or the old man at the garage sale we’d gone to so many weeks ago.

I could never properly explain. And I could never betray zoopzorp. I promised that it would be our little secret and our little secret alone.

“Son, why are you telling the other students at school these terrible things? Where did you hear them?”

I had to lie. I had to say something. I told Mom and Dad the stories just came to me. That I’d been plagued with nightmares ever since Sandy disappeared and I just had to tell the other kids because they bothered me so much. I broke down and cried and cried and promised I’d never do it again. The whole time all I could think about was zoopzorp and his little plastic ray gun. I knew he was watching. I knew he was listening from my room. And it scared me.

But as it turned out I didn’t need to spread the gospel of zoopzorp anymore. Because soon the gospel of zoopzorp started coming true.

Anne Driscoll ended up being the little girl that had her face sliced up and burned with a clothes iron by her Daddy. Everybody tried to act like everyone didn’t know, and all the teachers tried to calm us down by talking about it without really talking about it, but we all knew. We all knew. Timmy Fisk said her Dad was going to go upstate and get the chair because of horrible it all was.

Little Stevie’s Mom was the one who reached down the garbage disposal. She was in the hospital for weeks after that, her arm a pile of diced flesh and bone potpurri inside a cast, and Little Stevie had to go stay with his Grandma, who he told us smelled like moth balls.

And there was more. Genevieve Fletcher tripped on the sidewalk and got run over by a garbage truck. Tommy Gray speared his eyeballs on a white picket fence when he was trying to catch a softball in Pickens Park. Mr. Zigley the science teacher committed suicide. All the teachers wouldn’t talk about that either, but Arnie Schultz heard it from his uncle, that Zig blew his brains out in a motel with a shot from a shiny revolver, following shot after shot of whiskey he’d taken before it.

I never did hear who was the boy that got locked up in the basement like in the story zoopzorp told me… but maybe that was the most frightening part of about all the things that were happening. I tried to sleep at night but the thought of that poor boy, and everyone who’d died, their bodies dead and spread, like unfolded paper dolls, kept me awake at night.

It was a couple nights after I hear about Mr. Zigley and I could hear my parents arguing in the kitchen they were yelling so loud. I had already brushed my teeth and gone to bed. The lights were off and it was dark in my room. I knew zoopzorp was watching from the corner. I could feel him.

“zoopzorp?” I said.

“Yes, Michael?” zoopzorp’s voice wasn’t mean anymore, ever since I told him I’d spread his gospel. It was fluid and smooth again, like the fabric of Mommy’s black scarf she only wore when her and Dad went to The Opera.

“I did what you told me, zoopzorp. I told your stories to all the other boys and girls.”

“I know Michael,” he said. “That’s good. Good.”

“zoopzorp?”

“Yes?”

“Are you making all the terrible things happen to the other boys and girls and the grown-ups? Are they happening somehow because I told them those stories? Are the stories coming true?”

“No Michael,” zoopzorp’s voice circled in the darkness. “They’re just stories.”

“Okay,” I said. But I didn’t believe him. And somehow, I knew he knew I didn’t.

“zoopzorp?”

“Yes?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Michael. Good night.”

My eyelids suddenly got heavy and the last thing I thought about before they closed was the boy from the story, chained up in that man’s basement and crying for help, and that no one would ever hear him.


I was worried something terrible would happen, that zoopzorp’s grip on me would only tighten more and more over time. That’d he make me tell more terrible stories until they all came true, until everyone at school was dead, my family too, and maybe even everyone in town.

But that never happened. As the days went by, zoopzorp spoke less and less to me at night. He used to tell me three or four stories a night sometimes, when I first got him, but soon he only told me one or two, or would just tell me that he loved me, and then sit in the dark silently.

Finally one night in October I called out for him in the darkness but there was no answer. I played with zoopzorp the next day but it was less fun. And when I set him in the corner in my room that night I couldn’t feel him anymore. He was gone. He was just a plastic robot now. When she saw I’d stopped playing with him Mom threw zoopzorp into a box of old things in the crawlspace and over time I forgot all about him.

The years went by everyone grew to forget that terrible time that befell our town, and I even began to forget about zoopzorp. But I always knew I had to keep my word about him, nonetheless.

Yesterday was my 19th birthday, and I came back home to visit my parents, and to go out with some friends in town.

“Mom? Dad?” I said, coming in to the house. “I’m home!”

I felt a chill like a black snack writhe its way up my spine when I heard the voice that responded:

“Hello Michael. Bet you didn’t think you’d see me again.”

It was him. On the kitchen floor were two large rings – burn marks, just like the one that’d been in the place of Sandy’s doggie bed so many years ago – filled with black ashes, and in them rolled zoopzorp, his beaten-up little red plastic form lolling to and fro and scattering the particles everywhere.

“You thought you could just shut me out of your life, Michael? After all that I did that for you? After all that we went through together? You stopped believing in me.” His voice wasn’t smooth like it used to be. It was high and fast and wild and crazy. He stood and pointed his little plastic ray gun at me.

“It’s not over Michael! It’ll never be over! I’m real, and you must do my bidding. You must spread the gospel of zoopzorp! Spread the gospel of zoopzorp!”

He chained me to my laptop and made me write this story, the first story in the new gospel of zoopzorp. The first but definitely not the last. Oh God, please help me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’ve dragged you in to this. I just want to stop… I just want it all to stop… please help me…

He told me to spread the gospel of zoopzorp, and I will.

I must.

That Evening in the Restaurant

“It really does have atmosphere,” Cynthia Cruthers said, sipping her wine. “I can see what all the fuss is about.”

“Yes, I’m glad we finally got a chance to make it here,” Reginald, her husband of twenty years, replied. “It really is delectable. All the reviews I’ve read of the place just simply haven’t done it justice.”

“Yes, yes,” Francis said. Francis was a movie critic, and had joined the Cruthers only because they were the only way he’d ever get to eat at Le Chez des Desiree, given how new and trendy a restaurant it was.

Suddenly the garçon appeared, coming over while Reginald was in mid-sip of his chardonnay. He brought the tray, with one crisp white envelope upon it, sitting quite unnaturally in the center of the brown circular piece of plastic.

“Madames et Monsieurs,” he said, in an affected French accent. “This came for you.”

“Pardon mois?” Reginald replied, in an equally appalling fake French accent. “Mail? In a restaurant? How deliciously absurd! How could this be for us? Surely no one knows we are here?”

“Mais non, Monsieur,” said the garçon, continuing in the absurdity, “it is addressed to you and your wife. See,” he said, holding the envelope up to face them. “Le party Cruthers. C’est tu.”

“C’est vrai,” Mr. Cruthers replied, sighing.

“Knock it off, Reggie,” Mrs. Cruthers replied harshly. “Let’s see what’s in that envelope already. And garçon, bring me more of this pigswill you call wine.”

The garçon fumed and flushed a shade of bright red. “Right away, Madame,” he said, and turned, the coattails of his white tuxedo fluttering behind him. As he entered the kitchen he uttered a string of profanities reserved for Mrs. Cruthers and Mrs. Cruthers alone, mostly starting with the letter ‘c’.

“Open it, already, Reginald!” Francis said, lighting his pipe. “Whatever could it be? How unconventional, receiving mail in a restaurant while dining out, well I never!” He puffed and puffed.

Reginald Cruthers tore open the package as his fellow diners sat around him with expectation. Finally, the last bits of white envelope and came off to reveal…. a phone. A flat, candybar cell phone, the old kind that no one carried anymore these days and no one had for many years.

“How odd,” Reginald’s wife said. “Reggie, what is this? What does it mean?”

Suddenly, the phone rang loudly, its digital ringtone both oppressive and antiquated. Other patrons in the restaurant stared. A woman dropped her spoon back into her pea soup.

Reginald answered. “Hello?” he said, not knowing quite what to expect.

The voice on the other end of the line was cold and lifeless, and the words chilled Cruthers to the bone when he heard them.

“Reginald Cruthers,” the voice said, “in three days, you will die.”

Then there was the only the sound of the phone being hung up on the other end of the receiver, and the cold, heartless drone of its dial tone.

Marooned

John was the first to go. We were in the interior, exploring, collecting wood for the fire, and trying to find something, anything, we could eat, when it happened.

One little misstep and he was enveloped by a grey cloud. He screamed and he screamed and he thrashed and thrashed but there was nothing we could do to help him. Soon he lay dead on the dirt of the jungle floor, covered in thousands of tiny welts. Killer bees, just another thing to watch out for on this god-forsaken little island.

After he died we heard strange sounds coming from the jungle. Moaning, and sorrowful howling, like that of a lonesome wolf.

The next day the blond woman – Jenn – tripped and a machete came flying end-over-end out of the trees and caught her dead center in the forehead. At least she didn’t suffer. But when we looked down and saw the tripwire she’d sprung lying limply across the path our collective horror only grew.

There was something else out there besides us. Other intelligent life. And it wanted us dead.

We were demoralized, in shock, but we had to keep surviving. Two days with only the little water salvaged from the boat and already some of us were weakening. We headed further into the interior and the bodies mounted.

Armand fell through what looked to be a pile of palm leaves on the ground, into a pit of sharpened bamboo spikes. I’ll never forget the horrible twisted look on his bloody face staring up into the jungle canopy, his one eye pierced through from behind with one of those wretched spikes.

Alastair stepped into a snare and was yanked into coils of rusted barbed wire hidden in the underbrush. We found the sapling with the other end of the rope attached afterward, sprung by what foul mechanism we could not ascertain.

There’s just three of us left now. As we sit around the fire in the darkness of the beach, tired, hungry, thirsty, demoralized, I hear the howling, the inhuman cries coming from the all around us.

I look into the jungle and see them coming out – the skin on John’s face is porous like a wasp’s nest made of dried mud, thousands of the tiny creatures crawling on him and buzzing all around. The machete still juts from Jenn’s forehead as she lumbers toward us. Armand is already rotting away, the bamboo stakes still protruding from his torso and through his pierced eye. Alistair is falling apart, his entrails spilling out of him as he slowly shuffles forward. And there are others, others I don’t recognize: a man with a caved-in head, a woman with a giant jagged scar all down her body, children missing their arms.

I knew there was something else out there. I don’t know what kind of island this is we’ve run aground on. But now I know that even the dead get lonely.

Dispatched

Back in my home country, I could have been a doctor. I came to America to pursue a better way of life, a dream. But I discovered that there are lots of other people in America trying to be doctors too, and my degree from back home wasn’t worth so much compared to theirs.

So now I drive a taxi, like so many other immigrants. I don’t resent it even, I’ve been doing it for almost 5 years now. It’s not so bad, really. If I’d come over here with a family to feed I’m sure it would be a struggle, but it’s just me. I don’t have the nicest apartment, but it’s much better than any place I’d ever have back home, and at least I don’t have to worry about being awoken by the terrifying sound of jets screaming overhead, or bombs being dropped on me.

I’ve found that when you’re a cabbie for a while you start to get the same sorts of questions over and over again from customers – well, the sober ones anyway. Busy night? How long have you been driving a cab for? What’s the largest fare you’ve ever had? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen?

I get that last one a lot. As a taxi driver you get to see a cross-section of life afforded to few others in this world. You see it all, unfiltered, unedited, unflinching; life, with all its dark corners, and all the sordid vignettes that play out so many thousand times a night unnoticed. I’ve witnessed so many cross-sections of humanity and most of the time they act like I’m not even there.

But the craziest thing I’ve ever seen? The worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my line of work? Well, when the customers ask me about that, I always lie. I always tell them the story about that group of drunk college kids I made the mistake of picking up on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012. They’d stolen a keg from the bar and one of them, a frat boy type, was naked, and threw in up in the backseat.

Why would I lie? Because in order to be a good driver you have to make the customer feel at home. You have to have a good relationship with them, no matter how short their ride is, make them feel comfortable and safe. And if I told any of my customers the real story about the strangest thing I ever witnessed, they wouldn’t feel that way, because it terrified me more than anything else I’ve ever experienced in my life.

I’ve never told anyone else before, so you’ll be the only one. But first I need to tell you about dispatch, and a little bit about what it’s like to be a cabbie – because the strangest thing that I ever experienced as a driver wasn’t something I saw in my cab, but something I heard over the radio.

Dispatch calls out the names and addresses what gets called in, and we on the radio, if we don’t have a fare, answer back to accept, depending on who’s nearby. Of course, sometimes you have a fare picked up off the street, so the car accepting what’s called out by dispatch isn’t necessarily the closest one. And some of the other cabbies were lazy, and would lie about having fares, or say they weren’t nearby when really they were. Some of those assholes would even call out the wrong car number or steal other guys fares, knowing they’d never get caught.

You see, it’s a strange thing to work with people you never actually meet face to face. I mean sure, I come in to work every day and pick up my car, and make sure it’s clean and in good order before I head out, so I’ve met some of the other drivers. Tommy from Nigeria. Hank, the retired guy that used to own the pub down the street. But the majority of the other voices I hear on the radio are nameless, anonymous, coming out of the silence with only a number to identify them.

I’ve never met the dispatchers either, but I’ve gotten to recognize them by the sound of their voices and the way they operate. Michael has a low voice, gravelly and rough, so the other drivers are always asking him to repeat himself. He talks more than he should, too, and jokes around a lot.

I like Navid better. He’s got some kind of accent, I’m not sure what exactly, but his voice is higher and melodious, and he’s all business. When Navid is on dispatch, the company is a well-oiled machine, churning through fares like one of those money-counting machines the tellers use at the bank.

When Navid was on dispatch, the sound coming out over the radio was a mesmerizing symphony: him succinctly calling out the fares, the other drivers taking them, and the chirping and warbling of the radio in between as dispatch and drivers squeezed and released the buttons on their handsets.

“Jennifer, 11 37th Street outside The Green Orb Room.”

“Yup. Car 3134.”

“Thank you. Mrs. Hutchinson on 324 Sycamore. She’ll need help her with her wheelchair.”

“Got it. 1554.”

“Thank you. Avinder at 1919 Wallace Drive.”

“Copy. 5821.”

“Thank you. Mr. & Mrs. Brindley outside the Metropolitan Opera House…”

And on and on it went. It made me happy, and was so much better than working with the other dispatchers, some of who would get caught up in mindless chatter, or even argue with the bad drivers. That always bothered me.

The terrifying thing I ever experienced happened that one night in 2013, the last night Navid ever worked. I was on the late shift, 6-6, and it was probably around 3 AM. I was coming back from a fare I’d taken out to the airport, so I had the long drive on the highway all the way back to downtown, with nothing but the warbling of the radio and Navid conducting the Symphony of the Dispatcher keeping me company. But the melodious tones of Navid’s cheery voice and the chirps and squawks of the radio quickly turned into a dark drama, one that I knew to be real.

“Two cars to Key Lofts at 517 Albion for Melvin and his friends.”

“3814. On my way.”

“Thank you. Someone else?”

“5 minutes, this is 4582.”

“Thank you.”

And then another voice came over the radio, one I’d heard about ten minutes ago, accepting a fare on the outside of town.

“Hello dispatch, this is 4317. I’m out at this house in the Gables, but it doesn’t look like there’s anyone here.”

“4317, please try the number. Dr. Johnson at 451 Oak Street to the airport.”

“OK. 2323.”

“Thank you.”

“Dispatch, I’ve tried the number no one’s answering. Think I’ve got the wrong one, could you say again?”

Navid said the number. “Michelle at 837 University.”

“Got it. 4518.”

“Thank you. Mr. Brindley at…”

“Hello dispatch, I’ve tried the number, there’s still no one there. Could…”

“Cut the chatter please, 4317. Mr. Brindley at 13 Northampton Crescent.”

“Car 1325. Yup.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m going to leave, dispatch there’s nobody here. I think they flagged one.”

“Negative, 4317. Please check the door. Arnold at 9987 15th Street at the Velvet Palace.”

“Copy. This is 3624.”

“Thank you.”

“Dispatch, the front door’s open, something doesn’t seem quite right here. Should we call the police?”

“Negative, 4317, cut the chatter and check the door, I have other cabs to dispatch. Tehmina at Eastsider’s Pub at 582 Monarch Road.”

“1147. Got it.”

“Thank you. David at…”

“Dispatch, there’s something behind the door. It’s too dark inside, I can’t see but…”

“Cut the chatter, 4317!” Navid was getting annoyed, I’d never heard him raise his voice before. “David at 935 Slater.”

“1321. Got it.”

“Oh my god, it’s a man, he’s covered in… no it’s huge… it’s…”

“4317, hello?”

“Holy shit, it’s coming! Oh my god, no! Please! I…”

“4317?”

“…”

“4317? Hello, do you copy?”

“………”

“Hello, 4317? Do you copy….?”

Unmarked Postage

If only I’d been more careful, this never would have happened. If only I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t be in this situation; here, now, in the hospital, typing this out while sitting in this hospital bed, hoping that if the thing that got to me isn’t just about me, if there’s others out there it’s also happening to, that they can learn from my mistake. I just hope it’s not already too late. I just hope there’s still something that can be done in time. I just hope my warning doesn’t go unheard. Don’t be stupid and end up like me.

I found a box on my porch last week, a giant nondescript cube of cardboard sitting right outside my front door. I probably should have realized something was up right off the bat; I wasn’t expecting a delivery.

Stranger still, the box was completely devoid of anything to identify its origin, destination or purpose: there was no shipping label, no plastic pouch with an invoice, no “this side up” arrow, no nothing. It was a completely anonymous cardboard box. But clearly it was intended for me – it was placed directly on my porch, directly outside my door.

I’ll admit there was a moment of doubt in my mind. What if some psycho had put this there? What if there were hacked up human body parts inside, their blood soon to leach through the bottom in ugly spreading crimson stains, like devastating black death escaping the shattered carapace of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico? What if it was full of burned DVDs of child pornography, scraped from the deepest darkest corners of internet, a box of incriminating evidence placed directly into my hands just before a SWAT team coincidentally showed up at my door?

You’re being ridiculous, I thought. This is either a package meant for you, or some stupid prank. Just open the damn thing.

I wish I never did.

I’ll bring the box inside and open it. Settle this and stop being so irrational. I bent down to lift the package, and expecting it to be heavy, nearly threw it through the roof of the veranda when I lifted it. It was light. Very light. Whatever was in it weighed almost nothing – the majority of that emptiness inside was probably filled with those styrofoam packing peanuts.

I brought the box into the kitchen and grabbed a small paring knife from the drawer. I bent down on one knee to slice the clear packing tape that sealed the top flaps shut and a strange unwanted thought entered my mind: I was a butcher, ready to slice open the carcass of a pig. A hunter about to field dress a murdered deer. A surgeon ready to slice open the chest of an unwilling patient, and steal their heart for a black market transplant.

The blade split the tape cleanly, perfectly in half, almost surgically, just like my last strange mental image. When I ran it over the center where there was a gap between the flaps, there was a small sound as air escaped – the last exhale of the unwilling patient. Whoever had packed this thing had done so that it was damn near hermetically sealed.

I cut the remaining parts of the tape sealing the box flaps to the sides, and I’ll admit that as I did excitement rose in my chest, in anticipation of finally discovering the mysterious package’s contents. I lifted the flaps and opened the top of the box to reveal that it contained…. nothing.

There was nothing in it. The box was empty. The box was empty. There was nothing in it. What? This doesn’t make any sense. This doesn’t make any sense. This is fucking surreal. There has to be something. Something.

In disbelief I ran my hands all through the inside, touching all of it, pressing my palms against the smooth cardboard, then hitting it, grabbing it, punching it. No, there was nothing. It was empty. Empty. Empty inside. Unreal. Fucking unreal. Surreal.

A strange smell, a chemical, antiseptic smell mixed with something metallic was in the box, and now the air around me. I brought my hand to face and could smell it on it too, from where I’d touched the cardboard. The box was empty now, but there had been something in it once. Something which left behind this strange smell that now filled my kitchen and coated my hands. Eau de Union Carbide – the latest fragrance from Paris – the smell of sterile green hospital corridors filled with patients dragging IVs hanging from little metal trees, the smell of a surgeon’s instruments laid out in their roll ready to make the incision, the smell of sitting behind the curtain in a hospital gown and waiting for death. The smell of humans being treated like pieces of meat.

I sat on the floor in disbelief. It just didn’t make any sense. Where the hell had this come from? Why would someone drop an empty box on my porch, very clearly personally delivered by hand, to me, with nothing inside? It defied all logical explanation. What was this? What was this? I kicked the box aside in disgust. Fuck this.

I made dinner. I watched Netflix. I went to bed and dreamt of evil surgeons with giant grins of pointed teeth stabbing me with oversized hypodermic syringes. When I woke up in the morning the box was still waiting for me there on the tile of the kitchen floor, a big crease marring the side where I’d kicked it.

I got ready for work. I sneezed in the shower and the water running down me turned pink. Great, another morning nosebleed. Guess I needed to finally get that humidifier like I’d been meaning to.

My co-worker didn’t think it was so strange when I mentioned it to him the next day.

“Naw man, that kinda thing happens all the time,” he said, sipping his coffee and hovering over my cube.

“What the hell are you talking about? Psychos hand-deliver empty packages to strangers all the time? Because if they do, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Nah, it’s a mix-up man.” He sipped his coffee again, from one of the old mugs from the kitchen, the one from the local radio contest where they’d spelled the station name wrong.

“I betcha that for like 95% of its life that package wasn’t even handled by human hands, man. You know what kinda age we’re livin’ in now? We’re living in the goddamn future, bro. Amazon’s got freakin’ unmanned forklifts buzzing around their warehouses, picking your shit offa shelf and loading into a truck for delivery and there aren’t even people involved. There doesn’t have to be, man – all that shit’s numbered and computer-coded and in the system.

“Didn’t you read that article about that woman in Tucson? Same thing happened to her as what happened to you. She ordered a freakin’ Magic Bullet from Amazon and instead of getting her fancy blender in the mail, a week later she gets this big-ass box with a huge piece of conveyor belt machinery from the warehouse in it. Bug in the system, dude. Literally no humans involved from end-to-end, and the goddamn robots don’t know whether they’re packing up a mix-o-matic for some old lady or a freakin’ nuclear bomb.

“It’s automation, dude, it’s the future. No system is perfect and you just happened to be a bug in the system. Some other guy is on the phone right now, bitchin’ out Amazon’s customer service reps ’cause he never got his package, and you’ve got an empty box, and some other fucker’s got a pile of throw pillows in the mail instead of his box set of Deep Space Nine.”

“I guess so,” I said. “I mean, it makes sense. But it still doesn’t explain how the package got on my porch if there was no shipping label.”

“Whatever man,” he said, and made to leave. “Not worth losing any sleep over if you ask me.”

As he turned to leave, a pain gripped my chest and I bent over in my chair. I hacked and coughed, over and over again. Oh god, it hurt. It was like there was something stuck in my lungs. I could feel my coworker hovering over me, uncertain of what to do as I kept coughing. I could hear my hacking noises going out over the floor above everyone else’s cubes.

Finally, whatever demon was squeezing my chest released me and I righted myself. The exertion and pain going left me light-headed and dizzy; I leaned back in the chair, red-faced and teary-eyed, a self-conscious smile on my face. My co-worker was staring.

“Bro, you alright? Thought I was gonna have to give you the freakin’ Heimlich.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, and coughed again, quieter and under control this time. I cleared my throat and smiled again sheepishly. “Just had a weird something, you know? Down the wrong pipe.”
“Sure,” he said, still staring. He looked like he didn’t believe me. He took one last sip of his coffee and turned to leave. “Later man.”

Days passed, but that cough didn’t go away. I figured I was coming down with something. Great, burning more of my sick days when I should be saving them to play golf in the summer. Whatever, chicken soup and bad TV and this will be over soon.

Yesterday was when I knew. Yesterday when I woke up and a nosebleed would have been positively welcome. I awoke to a horrible searing pain burning my insides. Razorblades were slicing my viscera into a stacks of thinly-cut deli meat. Swarms of snakes covered in barbed wire were writhing in my guts and biting out chunks of my soft red flesh.

I ran to the bathroom and threw the lid of the toilet up. I fell to my knees and could feel the writhing snakes were making their escape, up through my stomach and esophagus. I vomited, retch after retch of disgusting reeking ejecta, fountains and fountains of my blood falling into the ruddying water waiting in the bowl. The pain was like nothing I’d ever felt.

Finally it subsided and weakly I brought myself to my knees. I ran the tap. Cold, cold, cold water poured out noisily. I put my hands under it, grateful for a pain somewhere else, a welcome numbing distraction from the ordeal I’d just experienced. I splashed my face with the frigid water and stared at my weary eyes in the mirror. My weary eyes stared back. I drank the cold from the tap to rid my mouth of the taste of old pennies. I stared at my half-naked self in the mirror.

The image came back to me, the grinning devil-surgeons and their comically oversized syringes: we’re coming for your kidneys. You won’t need them when you’re dead. Be there soon.

I opened the mirror, took a handful of painkillers and closed it again. Something was horribly wrong. I had to go to the hospital. This was more than a cold. This was more than me failing to control the humidity level of my place during the winter.

I called the hospital and explained what happened. I was too weak to drive, I said. Afraid of what might happen if I did. Fine, they’d send an ambulance. Be patient. I hung up the phone and went to walk out to the front porch, out to the veranda, where I’d found that stupid fucking empty box. That stupid empty lump of cardboard.

When I reached the door was when I put it all together, when all the pieces fell into place: the box, the airtight seal, the smell, my coughing, and the final piece, the final nail in my coffin, hand-delivered just as the box had been.

It was a plain white piece of paper slid through the crack underneath the front door, an ocean of white save for two tiny lines of text set dead center in the middle of the page. They were the naked, anonymous metal letters banged to the page from an old typewriter. Staring back at me – foreign, alien, uncaring – their meaning slowly seeped into my addled brain and pushed aside my confusion into a rising horror of realization:

JUST BECAUSE A BOX IS EMPTY
DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S NOTHING IN IT