Charles sighed in resignation as he stared down at his plate. He had not taken more than a bite of his eggs, but could not stomach to eat anymore. It was not that they did not taste any good, for he was an exceptional cook. He simply could not bear to concern himself with such a trivial task as eating when so much was wrong.
Two days prior, Charles had buried his wife. She had died young, of an absurdly inane cause; she had tripped over her own feet and hit her head. It was cruel, Charles thought, that such a stupid thing as tripping in one's own house could end a life.
He stood, picking up his plate and bringing it to the sink. He disposed of his uneaten food, then left his dirty dish unsoaked in the sink. He was about to head upstairs and just go back to bed instead of facing the day when there was a light knock at the door. Grumbling about visitors so early in the morn, Charles hobbled up to the front door and opened it.
There was nobody outside. Charles stuck his head out the door, glancing left and right. There was no one even on the block. He was almost convinced it was kids playing ding dong ditch and hiding around the corner of his house when he noticed that, on the step, was a small package. With some small amount of struggle, the old man bent downwards and fetched it. It was plain, wrapped in brown paper and strung with brown lace. Beneath the lace was a white, untarnished card.
Charles stepped into the house and closed the door with his foot, simultaneously opening the card with his hand.
The note read as follows:
"My dearest Charles,
I have searched more than forty years for something that would properly express my love to you, and I finally did. I just hope that this gift brings you a fraction of the joy you've given me. Happy anniversary sweetie.
Charles trembled a bit. He read the note over again. It was her handwriting, he knew that script anywhere. He concluded after a minute's thought that she must have ordered the gift delivered the day of their anniversary. Charles wandered into the living room with the box, placing it on an end table and looking across the room at his calendar. It was still a day before their anniversary, but the post being early or late was not unexpected.
Charles put the note to his lips a moment, debating whether or not to open the package. It wouldn't do any harm, he reasoned. Marie will understand....would understand. He shook his head, chastising himself slightly for the slip up he had not even spoken. He went to fetch a knife and returned, first slicing open the lacing. once that was removed, he slipped the knife into the box, slid it along the edge, and tugged it open. Only, it did not open.
Charles blinked in confusion, seeing that the lacing and box were not cut, as perfectly intact as when he had put the box down. Flustered at his own obvious mistake, Charles again cut the lace, cut open the brown wrapping to reveal the brown box beneath, and cut open the box.
Again, the box was intact as if uncut when he tugged it open. Frustrated, Charles tried again and again, until thrice more he had cut open the package in its entirety only to find it still whole.
Charles picked it up, irritated, and inspected it. It had to be a trick, there was no way he had imagined cutting the damn thing open. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary. He tossed it back onto the table.
He left it there, and proceeded with his earlier plan to go back to bed.
In his dreams, Charles saw his wife again. Marie spoke to him, whispering in his ear that she had to tell him something important. She spoke not in words, but in hushed tones that were more akin to discordant musical notes. Each syllable strummed his being like a cord, standing his hairs on end and making his heart race. "I have something for you. Find it. Find me." She whispered in her unnatural tones. Charles was unsure how he understood the strange noise, and did not care. He was simply glad to understand something from his wife.
He fell suddenly, into his bed. Marie lay beside him, hand on his chest, cooing him to listen. Her hand was as cold as ice, and his stomach churned, but he ignored it. "Wake up." commanded the discordant tone.
Suddenly, Charles woke. He steadied his breathing, and once it was under control, looked at the alarm clock. He was shocked to see that he had slept nearly twenty four hours. He looked back over to his left, and suddenly felt very bothered. Marie's pillow was sunken as if her head had just been laying there.
He brushed it off, knowing he must simply have been laying his hand there.
He haphazardly dressed himself and went downstairs. At the foot of the stairs, he stopped. Halfway across the room from him, the box was right where he had left it.
Approaching again and picking up the knife he had left next to it, he attempted to open it again. A couple attempts later, Charles became so infuriated that he threw the package in the trash.
Grumbling, he fetched his keys and went out for a drive. He needed to clear his head and figure out what his wife had been trying to tell him. She had asked him to find her, and there was only one thing he could think of that meaning. He drove nearly half an hour to the cemetery, where he left the car running and walked the short distance over to Marie's grave. He stood there, hugging himself in a weak attempt to ward off the cold. He should have brought a jacket out with him this late in the autumn, but it had not occurred to him.
He kneeled, staring at the tombstone with his love's name carved into it, as if waiting to hear something. His hand stretched down, stroking the grass that was already starting to sprout above her, but would soon wither away with winter's bite. More than he looked or felt though, he listened. He strained to hear it, any hint of the discordant notes she had spoken to him with in his dreams. When no sound was forthcoming besides the noise of traffic just outside the cemetery, Charles grimaced at his own foolishness and stood.
He walked back to his car and began to drive home. During the drive, he bitterly reflected on how idiotic he was being, thinking that his wife could speak to him from beyond the grave. It was just grief, and he had bought into his own vain hopes as surely as a child might.
By the time he arrived back at home, Charles was thoroughly mad at himself. So mad that he did not even notice the package at his door until he tripped over it walking inside.
Cursing, he picked it up, and saw that it was the same accursed box he had thrown out earlier. Regaining his feet, Charles threw the box in fury. It landed with a resounding thud, and from within came a sound that made his heart skip a beat. A singular, discordant tone, so unlike anything he had heard in the waking world, came from the package.
Without thought, Charles ran to the box and picked it up, gently, and carried it back inside. Closing the door behind him, Charles inspected the box again. It was exactly as it had been each of the other times he had seen it. Confused, he turned it about in his hands, then rattled it. Then he smacked it lightly, and heard the tone again. This time it was a warmer sound though, and all the more unnerving for it. Charles almost dropped the package, then cautiously tapped the package again. Again, it resonated with quiet discordant notes.
Charles brought it closer to his ear, then tapped again. "Charles."
This time, he did drop the package. His fright overwhelmed him and he took a step back. He did not know how he had heard his name, but he was absolutely certain that the box had spoken it without the use of words. His hand covered his mouth as a single tear dripped from his eye, horrified by the implication.
He snatched the box back up, whispering his own apologies to it for dropping it. Certain his wife spoke through it, he tapped it again, listening ever so carefully to the tones it whispered. "Charles, it is okay." It cooed in noises that made his stomach churn. "I am here now though Charles. I will never leave you."
Charles felt tears streaming down his face, and for a moment could not think what to say. He had wanted to say so much to her since her death. It had not been a long time, but every moment since had been consumed with his desire to hold her again, to talk to her. Before he could decide on what to say, he felt the box thrum. He tapped it again, eager to hear what Marie had to say. "Still your thoughts Charles." It said. "You need not concern yourself with what has happened. I am here now. I am your desire. All you need say is what you want to happen now."
Charles did not hesitate to answer. "I need this to be real. I need you to be real. Please be Marie, please."
This time, the box did not need him to tap it to respond. The tones came again, of their own accord. They were stronger this time, and filled him more thoroughly. He felt certain it was because Marie was closer now, nearly returned to him. "Nothing is free Charles. If I am to be real, and hold you in the flesh, you must make a trade. Make a trade for me, and free me from this prison."
"Oh. Of course, of course Marie, anything, just tell me how!" Charles responded. The box intoned loudly, eager to release her. "You must open the box with a blade covered in your blood. Not much, just a bit. Life must be given for life Charles."
Charles ran to the kitchen to fetch a knife. He did not stop to think, he did not question the box. It was far too urgent he save his love before it was too late.
He grabbed the knife from its drawer and drew the blade across his hand, coating it in blood. He winced but otherwise ignored the throb of pain. Turning the blade around, he cut at the plain brown lacing of the package, and then the brown paper surrounding the box. The box warbled its tones in triumph and anticipation. Cutting open the box itself, Charles pried it open, and for once it actually came apart.
Confused, Charles stared into the empty packaging. He did not understand how it could be empty. Panicking, he flipped it around and then threw it, angry at whatever trick was being played on his mind.
He stopped as he heard cracking behind him. He turned to see Marie, who was rising from a kneeling position. Her every joint cracked, as if she had been balled up for ages. Her hair took a moment to fall into place, and her green eyes slowly changed to their normal blue.
Then she stood there, quietly smiling at him and making no effort to cover her nude form, despite how shy she usually was with her body. "Marie?" Charles asked. "You asked for Marie, did you not?" She asked, the tones escaping her mouth out of sync with the movement of her mouth. These tones were similar to those he had heard before, but they were more raw, and made Charles want to flee.
He did not though, he couldn't. He was too uncertain of what stood before him. She looked him over in a manner he was completely unfamiliar with, as if eyeing food. "You are not Marie." he said, his voice trembling. "Am I not?" she asked, a crooked smile playing out over half of her face, while the other side remained austere. "I said I am what you desire, and you desired me to be Marie, to be real. Here I am." She raised her arms in a gesture of benevolence. "But you are not her." Charles said. "You are something else, masquerading as her. I know her better than this."
The creature before him laughed, harsh tones that made Charles nearly vomit. "People are their experiences, Charles. I am Marie. I have her memories, her body, everything. I know her far better than you did." It paused. "She was far more pleased with me fulfilling her desires than you seem to be."
Charles shook his head. "I know my wife, and you-" he began, before it cut him off. "You know nothing." it spat, Marie's face contorting in a look of hatred Charles was pained to see. "Her greatest desire when she met me was to leave her life. I obliged, though not in the manner she intended." She stepped forward, and placed an ice cold finger to Charles's chest. "It was to be rid of you."
He could not believe it. Charles sunk to his knees, filled with despair. Marie sank to her knees, too, cupping his face in her icy hands. "I am what you ask for. I cannot be blamed if you regret your own desires." Marie said. She then reached down and took the knife from his hand. "What you desired was Marie, and for me to be real. I am both, I am the real Marie." She cooed, her tones ungentle but the words sweet. She kissed him gently, then whispered in the most hushed, discordant note yet. "And the real Marie hates you."
Charles gasped, the air driven out of him as the knife plunged into his back. Marie tore it out, then plunged it in again, twice more, each stab driving the wind from him anew. He fell back, and as he lay on the ground, feeling his own warm blood pump out of his body and pool beneath him, he looked Marie in her eyes. "and the real Marie...she hates her own life." Marie said, plunging the knife into her own heart. With great effort, she drew it back out from between her own ribs, leaking blood that was unnaturally black and stank of sulfur. She collapsed into his arms, breathing her last moments later.
Charles did not have much time left. His limbs were cold and would not move, and his vision was blurring. He wanted so desperately to just ask one question before it was too late, even if he would never hear an answer. "Why?" he tried to ask Marie, but the words never came.
Charles died, alone and confused, not comprehending any of what had led to his death, and completely unaware that Marie had disappeared.
Moments later on another doorstep, somewhere where nobody had ever met Charles or Marie, a woman named Emily, who was celebrating her birthday alone, found a small, plain package wrapped in brown paper and laced with brown string on her doorstep. On it was a note, addressed "Happy Birthday Emily."