Greg Knight was very angry. It was Valentine’s Day. He hated Valentine’s Day. He hated this day the way certain people hate spiders or the IRS.
A deep knotted loathing passed through his 70-year-old body like electricity.
“Damn this day to hell,” he mumbled to himself while shaving. “Dumb holiday invented only to sell chocolates and roses.”
Every morning, at five o’clock exactly, he rose like Lazarus to shower, shave, and dress in his very best clothes. All with a stunning and breathless punctuality — so that he could sit on his porch all day.
And there he was, like doomed clockwork, sipping black coffee and reading a week old newspaper. Stopping, every two paragraphs or so, to scan the desert valley in which his hilltop house was firmly planted. A neon pink sun was rising over New Mexican mountains. It was still cold but he knew it would morph into one of those unusually warm February days.
He, Gregory Rupert Knight, was once a very busy man — the foreman of an illustrious construction company — but retirement had left him with a certain amount of emptiness to say the least. His aching knees and battered back thanked him for the new sedentary lifestyle, but his mind, his mind refused to sit still. It raced into the past with the legs of a twenty-year-old. Digging up memories he wished to repress and deny. A cerebral marathon of guilt and anxiety. And all because of this stupid day!
In between the obituaries he paused to look out. Not a single cloud in that bright blue void. But, there was something in the sky. At first he thought it was a bird but its motion was unnatural. Then he recognized it. One of those tech toys. A drone. And it was coming straight at him — carrying something.
He picked up a nearby rock and stood to meet the approaching menace. If windmills could be mistaken for giants than surely such a device could pass for a winged beast. A metallic gray harpy with four small helicopter blades — rotating his way to add yet another name to that obituary page.
Greg pitched the rock into the air, but no dice.
The drone swooped down with an eagle’s velocity and released the package from its diabolical claws. Quickly shooting back up and retreating the way it came.
What in the devil’s name did it drop off, he pondered. Maybe it's a bomb. Maybe the drone was sent by terrorists. He saw a story on the evening news about just such a scenario, or, was that a movie he had watched? Well, same difference these days. He scratched his thin gray hair and stood on the balls of his feet. Trying to get a better glimpse of this sinister delivery. Heart pounding like a drum.
It was far worse than he suspected — the package was rose red and heart-shaped! It wasn’t long to add two and one together; today was Valentine’s day after all.
He grabbed a fresh rock and cautiously approached the heart-shaped monstrosity. Definitely the work of a sick individual. He traded the rock for a stick and found himself stuck in a contemplative quagmire: Should I call the police? Do I open it? Do I burn it? Damn.
With a few more head shakes of careful self-deliberation he decided to unravel its mystery. He poked the box with the stick like one might poke a dead animal. He took a deep breath and flipped it on its side. No explosion. He then gave it a light kick. Still nothing. He reached down and picked it up, rattling it, searching for an address or company name. It was blank. Just an oddly shaped box wrapped with pink ribbon.
With this ominous offering in hand he returned to the porch.
It was now on his lap and every two minutes he would look left to right and then put an ear to its cardboard exterior. With another gulp of air, he started to unwrap it.
Within the box were several bizarre and random objects; a painted seashell, a silver necklace with a dangling key, a glimmering shard of some kind of pot or vase, and a dogeared copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“What the hell,” he whispered.
The whacko who sent this must’ve got the wrong address. That was the only rational explanation.
He palmed the box’s bottom, careful not to touch any of its contents, and felt a card. A tiny white sheet that read: To Greg, From All The Lost Loves.
“What. The. Hell,” he repeated.
This was some kind of prank, but who, who sent this? He had no more family. He had no children. He didn’t know anybody, well not anymore.
A nasty joke, and he didn’t like it. Not one bit.
He took out his brick of a cellphone, ready to call the police, but that’s when something stranger than the package occurred — a voice, a woman’s voice — told him to touch the painted seashell.
He jerked up, throwing down the box. Its contents lay strewn over the ground. He looked at them.
I can't just leave this mess in front of my porch.
He kneeled down, as if in prayer, and that is when his fingers brushed against the seashell.
He found himself on the beach — it was late afternoon — and a young woman with red hair was sitting right beside him! He wanted to get up and run. Then, a flood of long dormant memories erupted in his mind: I know this place. I’ve been here before. I know… knew her.
The girl next to him was named Cindy.
They were both nineteen.
She was the first great love of his life.
She had a dusting of freckles on her cheeks and a pair of gap teeth that animated her face every time she smiled.
Such beautiful imperfections.
Greg wanted to ask her so many things. So many things. But, he couldn’t. He could only sit beside her. Watching the sun sink into the ocean.
Cindy was painting a seashell with her blue nail polish, humming Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.
“This is for you baby,” she whispered, handing the oracular shell to Greg. “Don’t lose it, cause I want you to remember this day forever. I love you so much, you know that? We’ll always be together. I know we will. I have a strong feeling.”
“I’ll never leave you,” he responded. “Never.”
Suddenly, like a camera going out of focus, this phantom world was fading fast. The sun was all but set. A magnificent fiery afterglow danced above the ocean.
Cindy grabbed his hand, tightly, so tightly, and as he reached out to kiss her his body snapped away.
She was disappearing.
Don’t. Don’t leave me!
Once again, he found himself kneeling beside the heart-shaped box with the seashell in hand. He gently placed it in the box. However, there were three more items left on the ground.
Things he did not want to touch. Things that would no doubt mirror the bizarre backward trajectory of the shell. Time-machines bound in the flimsiest of objects.
He decided to use a stick to put the necklace back in the box. Surely, he’d be safe as long as he didn’t actually touch it, yet, as soon as the stick touched its metallic links he was gone.
He was now in a hospital room. Soft winter light filtered through a tall window.
When he saw her, he thought his heart might stop.
She was hooked up to a patient monitor and different IVs and looked like a sad yet beautiful ghost. He had forgotten about her. Suppressed as best he could any trace of this tragic woman.
“Rebecca?” he whispered.
She did not wake. She was frozen in a deep slumber. Near the end. Around her neck the silver chain glistened.
It was a gift. I gave her that.
Rebecca was his best friend. The one person he always spoke to when things became too difficult in his trivial twenty-five-year-old life. She was always there for him, always... until she wasn’t.
He had loved her like nobody else — even wanted to marry her and have kids — but he couldn't tell her that. He didn't want to ruin their friendship.
She was born with a congenital heart defect and by the time he discovered it was fatal it was already too late.
He would never admit how he felt.
Greg grasped her cold soft hand and began to cry.
“I loved — I love you. I should've told you. I should've told you. I was scared. So very scared. I thought I'd lose my best friend. I lost you, I lost you regardless.”
Rebecca moved her head. She gave the faintest of smiles.
Back in front of his porch, Greg spent hours deciding on what to do with the two remaining items. He couldn’t just pick them up or he’d be ejected into the past.
He cursed at the drone, at god, at life. At nobody but himself.
Why am I being punished like this!
What did I do to deserve this?
He decided to bury both the shard and the book. Without touching them, he would make two mounds above each. Then he would toss the heart-shaped box into the river.
He threw a shovelful onto the shard and as the first grains of dirt landed on its polished surface he was launched into the past.
He was in the middle of a human storm. Fighting with a tall thick woman with jet-black hair. She hurled curses at him as if they were daggers.
“You’re a worthless excuse for a human being and you’re gonna die alone one day!”
“SCREW YOU HELEN,” he found himself shouting against his will.
“You’re nothing. Nothing. Just a sad, pathetic little man,” she retorted.
Greg’s mouth became a deep scowl. “Oh yeah, your father died and your mother hates you, and, and, I never wanted to marry you. So where does that leave you in this equation?”
The woman spat on his face. “You bastard.”
Greg tried to cling to the last drops of restraint left in his soul but still found himself pushing her.
She crashed against a wooden bookshelf, and there, an antique vase, perched on one of its higher shelves, came down with her.
Its rustic beauty shattered into a hundred little pieces. Broken like their marriage. Broken like her heart. And none of these wrecks would be restored.
He gasped. He tried to help her up. She cursed even more. Arms and hands flailing in the air. Spasmodic insults echoing all around him.
He ran out. It was all he could do. And as the door slammed shut in back of him so too did some secret door to his heart.
He did not bury the shard.
With shaking hands, he placed it back in the box.
He now had only one more item to add — the book.
He knew what he had to do.
Just one more thing and this will be over. Then he would dump this cursed package somewhere far from his house. A hole. A river. Anywhere except here.
Sweat started to bead his wrinkled forehead.
He reached out and touched the book's cover.
He was in a warm living room, illuminated by a fireplace and a blinking Christmas tree, and sitting on a plush sofa.
A soft musical voice called out to him: “We can open one present each, but I wanna save the rest for tomorrow, kay?”
The owner of this voice returned with two steaming mugs in each hand. She was lovely. Dark olive skin and eyes greener than the tree. Middle aged yet blessed with a teenager’s energy.
He vaguely recalled where he was. This was twenty years ago. I think.
“Sweetie, are you okay? You look terrified,” she said.
“I’m, I’m good,” he mumbled.
She set the mugs on the coffee table in front of him and walked over to the Christmas tree. Returning with a beautifully wrapped gift.
“I hope you like it. He’s my favorite.”
Greg reached out for the book, of course it was the book, and read the white sticker on its wrapping paper: To My Greatest Love, From Danielle.
He cried like he never cried before.
Maybe, maybe if I don’t open it, I can live in this moment forever?
“Sweetie, what’s wrong? Don’t cry. Open it and then you can cry,” she said with a half smile. “I love you so much. Don't be sad.”
He didn’t want to open it. But, just like before, he wasn't in control here. A mysterious force, bound to this moment in time, gripped him.
He tried to fight it but an incredible urge siezed his mind: this is the final item. Open it. Just open it.
No surprise. It was One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“It’s about time, and fate, and love… and magic,” she whispered into his ear. Kissing him on his wet left cheek.
He looked into her luminous eyes. “Do you believe in magic?” he said.
“Of course I do… I have you.”
He could feel the future’s pull. An entire cosmos, spacetime itself, built from all these beautiful fragile moments. Moments that were once real then became unreal. Moments that become memories.
“Perhaps love and magic are the same thing,” he whispered.
He reached out and kissed her.
One final act of love that resonated like ocean tides, like life and death, like violent eruptions, like midnight snow falling on some long forgotten window on Christmas Eve.
Greg found himself on his hands and knees in front of the box.
He placed the book inside it.
The sun was setting.
He took the box into his house and placed each and every item upon his bookshelf. No longer would such things remain hidden.
Call it god. Call it the universe. Call it anything you like. But that great mystery, that secret magic of the cosmos, sent this package to remind Greg that nothing is more powerful than love, and even if you give up on it, it will never give up on you.
Love made this all possible.
He smiled a bittersweet smile.
He took out the tiny white sheet that came with the box and noticed something written on the back of it. A crabbed penmanship he could barely decipher — a number.
He grabbed his brick of a cellphone and dialed it.
It was ringing.
Ringing for an entire lifetime it seemed.
A soft musical voice answered: “Hello?”