The Impossible Shape of the Fragile Mind
Theo chewed thoughtfully, contemplating whether or not to spit out the poorly heated lasagna when he heard the drone whizz by. Odd. He wasn't expecting a package today. He'd already received his meals for the week, and he had no need to order anything, his home perfectly stocked with every want and need to last a lifetime. The perks of over-thinking.
That, and buying in bulk.
Spitting the lukewarm lump of half-chewed pasta back onto the microwavable carton, Theo tossed the pitiful meal in the trash and headed for the door. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand then punched in the four digit code in the keypad. The familiar shunk of the lock disengaging sounded within the wall, then Theo slid it open. Above him, the delivery drone zipped off into the monochromatic sky, having dropped its parcel off on his sealed doorstep through the clear, plexiglass delivery hatch above. The only way in or out, not that Theo planned on leaving.
Theo watched it go, then noticed the peculiar box it delivered. He paused, confused further by the ugly, beaten-up cardboard package squatting on his porch. Nothing like the usual pristine, white boxes he received normally. In fact, Theo couldn't recall the last time he'd even seen cardboard. No one used it anymore.
Maybe because there aren't any trees, he thought solemnly, casting his gaze to the sterilized landscape stretching beyond his doorstep. Nothing but white, gray, and black for miles; a half-finished sketch.
Kneeling down, Theo tilted the box slightly on one side, then the other, inspecting its dirty sides thoroughly. The box had no label, no name or address, not a single marking to indicate the normal who's and where's you'd expect to find. Nothing but the orangish-brown that looked so out of place on his clean, white doorstep.
Theo wrinkled his nose at the smell of wet cardboard and, seeing no other option, picked up the box and went back inside. He set it down on the kitchen counter, then rummaged through his drawers for a box cutter before a thought gave him pause. If no one used cardboard anymore, why was an unmarked box delivered on his doorstep. And for that matter, what type of person would send an unmarked box in this day and age? Someone who couldn't use or didn't trust the usual postal routing, which thoroughly inspected and vetted every package going in and out. That, then, begged an altogether different question: what was in the box that the sender wouldn't want prying eyes to see?
Theo stared at the enigma on his counter, his hand still hovering inside the drawer. Anxiety battled his sense of morbid curiosity as his mind raced over the millions of possibilities hiding behind the water-stained cardboard. A bomb? Severed body parts? His grandmother's old photo album? He tried to swallow past the dryness in his throat and found he couldn't. Goosebumps prickled across his arms and neck as he continued studying the box, the all-too-real sensation of it staring back at him stoking his paranoia.
You're being ridiculous, he thought, shaking his head and closing the drawer. Theo turned his back on the box and walked into his living room to add some distance. With a groan, he plopped down on the couch and avoided looking towards the kitchen. It's just a box.
But as Theo focused instead on the black void of his television screen, he could feel the box's presence almost tangibly, like a shadow looming in the periphery, growing ominously, and filling the room with a smothering dread that refused to be ignored. The ugly cardboard didn't belong in the clinical setting of his small home, feeling almost profane as it disrupted the calming monochromacy. No matter where he turned, Theo could feel the box's wrongness, reminded constantly of its presence by the dank musk permeating from every square inch of it.
Anxiously running one hand over his hair, Theo groaned, then rubbed it back down over his face and slapped his palms on his thighs. "Nope," he said aloud. "I'm not going to do it. Forget it, Theo. This is insane."
The box again silently screamed for his attention, drawing his gaze back to the sinister brown squatting on the clean, white surface of the counter. Theo heaved a sigh, then rose from the couch and plucked his phone from the charger, dialing the memorized number without delay.
"Theo!" his mother's voice sang through the receiver after the second ring, warm and comforting as always. "It's been so long. How are you, baby boy?"
"I'm thirty-five, Mom," he whined, scratching his beardless-chin self-consciously.
"And? You'll always be my baby, Theo. Can't change facts, hun."
"Yeah, okay, fine," he relented, gaze flicking back warily to the box. "But anyways, did you...did you send a box, by chance?"
"Yeah, a box. Like an old one? I got this strange package today- this weird cardboard box. No label, no name, nothing. Did you send it?"
Seconds ticked by with no response, though Theo could hear his mother breathing on the other line. Brow furrowed, he checked to make sure the call was still connected, then stared back at the box looming in the kitchen.
"Sorry," she laughed nervously. "Oh my, I must've lost my mind for a second there. What did you ask, baby?"
"The box, mom. Did you send it?"
"Oh. No, hun, I didn't send anything. But maybe leave it be, Theo. I wouldn't open some strange package. Lord knows what's hiding inside."
Theo scrubbed a hand over his mouth and chin, then sighed. "Yeah, I guess. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm intrigued. Maybe we're both just being paranoid, you think?"
His mother's forced laugh echoed through the receiver again. "Oh, I doubt that, hun. Didn't I raise you smarter than that? Would you go taking candy from some stranger in a white van just 'cause he offered it to you? If it feels off, it is. Just stuff it in the trash and be done with it."
Theo paused, gaze still locked dubiously on the mysterious box. He glanced back at the phone, then sighed and shook his head. "Ok, thanks, Mom."
His mother paused, her breath strained and her voice shaky when she finally spoke. "Please don't open the box, Theo."
"Ok. Love you. Bye."
Theo ended the call before his mother could reply, then slowly set the phone back down on the charger. He leaned back against the wall and let his head thump against the cool drywall. His stare remained glued to the box, sucked in by the abysmal plainness, the seemingly ordinary, yet so out of place.
Don't open the box, Theo.
His mother's warning repeated again and again, but what troubled him more was the way she said it. The heavy pause, the tremble in her voice, almost as though she was...
No, that couldn't be it. Why? What reason did she have to act so weird about some old box? Unless she knew what was inside...
Theo shook his head and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Nope. Now you're really being paranoid. You've been stuck on your own for way too long."
His gaze flicked towards the door, the keypad's pale light shining dimly on the white walls around him. Strange how he'd never really noticed just how much white surrounded him. The walls, the ceiling, the floors. Even the furniture. Everything across his home from the front door to the bedroom clung religiously to that monochromatic scheme. Clinical. Sterilized. Clean.
Except that was broken now, wasn't it? Ruined by the dirty, orangish-brown intruder plunked down suspiciously on his doorstep.
"Just do what she said," he told himself. "Throw the damn thing in the trash and be done with it."
But he didn't move, glued to the wall while the box stared back at him. Seconds passed, his attention consumed by it until he blinked, rubbed his eyes, and snatched up the phone. Scrolling through his contacts, he stopped at "R," then clicked the name he sought and dialed.
"Rob, hey! It's Theo."
"Teddy boy! Man, I haven't talked to you in ages, brother! What's happening?"
Theo shook his head and rubbed his chin, noticing a slight ache that hadn't been there before. "Nothing. Nothing. Well, actually, I got a question. You still do the news thing, right?"
Rob chuckled. "You mean am I still an investigative journalist? Yeah, Teddy. Till the day I die, man."
Theo nodded and turned his back on the box. "Great. Listen. You heard any news about strange...boxes just showing up on people's door steps? I got this weird cardboard box delivered today by drone, but I don't think..."
"Cardboard?" Rob interrupted. "That's weird."
"Yeah, I know," Theo continued, lowering his voice. "But listen, something feels...off about it. I don't know why. Maybe I'm just crazy. God, I don't even remember why we're all in quarantine like this, it's been so long. Maybe I'm going stir crazy. I don't know, that's not the point. What I mean is..."
"Teddy, you're rambling man." Rob sighed into the receiver. "Listen buddy, just throw the damn thing away. Sounds like it's causing way more stress than it's worth."
Theo paused. He looked at the phone, then back at the box. "Why...why do you say that?"
Rob laughed, though his amusement sounded strained. "Dude, you're calling me about a cardboard box, that's why. Just don't open it and throw it away."
"Theo, don't open it. Simple as that. Now I gotta go. Work stuff. Take care, man."
Theo stared at his phone, dumbfounded. One weird call he could rationally justify, but two? And the same warning laced with a tinge of fear.
Don't open the box.
Fine. Then he'd at least get some answers about who could have sent it. Grumbling to himself, he looked up the number for the postal service, then dialed.
Theo closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath.
He drummed his fingers against his thigh, his foot twitching restlessly.
His heart jumped as the robotic voice politely shouted on the other line. "I'm sorry, your call cannot be connected at this time. Please hang up and try again later."
Groaning, Theo hung up and dialed again, cursing at the phone when the message repeated. Irritated, he slammed the phone back down on the charger and stormed into the kitchen. Theo snatched up the box and shook it hard, straining to hear whatever lurked inside.
He examined the sides again, checked for holes in the cardboard, and found nothing. Annoyed, yet intrigued, Theo set it down again and returned to his phone. Pulling it off the charger, he sank down onto his couch and began searching for anything about strange packages. The moment he typed the words into the search bar, the screen froze; the little, white circle spinning and spinning in and endless cycle of buffering until, exasperated, Theo tossed the phone on the coffee table and slapped his palms over his eyes.
Shaded in darkness, he could feel his heart rate pick up speed, his rational senses losing the battle to his anxiety, his nerves frayed. Sliding his hands over to his temples, he swept his gaze around the room, the bright white surrounding him suddenly losing its calming effect. Nothing but white. No pictures, no artwork, nothing adorning the walls or shelves that gave any sense of personality, of style, of family and friends. When did his home, his life for that matter, become so... antiseptic?
As Theo sank deeper into the couch cushions, the sensation of everything unravelling suddenly grew more perceptible. He leaned his head over the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling, lost in a sudden sense of ennui as he began questioning everything his life had come to. Stuck in his own little box in his own little world, separated just like the rest of humanity from those around him, detached. Theo couldn't recall the last time he'd actually seen another human being in person. But why? He had no recollection of a resurging pandemic, no news headlines warning of global catastrophe; nothing to explain his current state of consensual confinement.
Don't open the box, Theo.
Once more, he felt the box's hidden eyes on him, calling him, tantalizing in its mystery. Too many things didn't make sense anymore, too many things suddenly soured all because of some strange box dumped on his quarantined porch, leaving only one logical step.
Theo leapt to his feet and bounded into the kitchen. Snatching the box cutter from the drawer as he passed, he sliced through the tape and yanked open the flaps, exposing the mystifying interior within.
For a long moment, Theo stood staring down at the inside of the box, his breathing ragged as he tried to wrap his head around what his eyes saw. The box was empty save for the small window-like screen encompassing the bottom. Through that, was a hospital room. Theo peered down at the scene below as though sitting on the ceiling just above the bed. Clinical, white-just like his home- with monitors beeping furiously; doctors and nurses adorned in blue scrubs rushed in and out of the room, while one man tried desperately to resuscitate the prone figure lying in the bed.
Confused, Theo spun the box upside down and stared at the blank, cardboard bottom. He tapped it, felt the solidity of it beneath his fingertip, then flipped it back over and continued watching the scene play out.
"We're losing him!" one of the nurses warned, the whine of the heart-rate monitor screeching flatly over the patient's lack of a pulse.
"Come on, Theo! Don't give up on me now!" the doctor hovering over the bed urged through clenched teeth, his fists pumping furiously on the patient's chest.
Theo's own pulse screeched to a halt, hearing his name echo from below. Unwillingly, he finally allowed his gaze to settle on the man lying in the bed and swallowed hard. Beneath the mask of swollen welts and bloody cuts, he saw himself, dying beneath him like some cosmic tragedy acted out before his own eyes.
"No, no, no, no, no! Fuck no!" Theo dropped the box back onto the counter, clapping a hand over his mouth, and stumbled back a step. He could hear the furious cry of the heart-rate monitor squealing amidst the rush of bodies working to save the fragile life that quickly slipped away.
And like the retreating tide harkening the storm, Theo felt the world yanked out from under him. Memory surged forward, a tidal wave slamming over his brain, and drowned him beneath the waters of harsh reality. He remembered the moments just before the crash. The flood of light blinding him as the truck plowed into his Civic head on. The screech of tires. The sickening crunch of metal and bone. The sting of glass slicing through his face, his hands. The smell of blood mingling with gasoline. Mind-flaying agony that quickly dissolved into numbness.
Because he was dying. Right there in that hospital bed, his body was failing while his consciousness was secreted away in some last-ditch effort to numb the pain. He'd created an entire world as a means of escape, a routine, hell, even a dead-end job where he worked from home, and populated it with ghosts.
Theo remembered now, the painful memories sweeping over him like the breaking of undulating waves. His mom was dead, gone six years now after succumbing to the cancer she'd fought off for so long. He could still remember the way her hospice room smelled, the failed attempt to mask the stink of death beneath a wash of bleach and lavender air fresheners.
Rob, too, was dead for over a year now, caught in the crossfires of a scoop gone wrong. He hadn't expected his anonymous source to pull a gun on him, much less fire it point blank at his chest. A journalist till the day he died, as promised.
Don't open the box, Theo.
Because reality will come crashing back in.
Theo wrapped his arms over his head and stared at the box, sucking in air like a gasping fish out of water. He wheezed, the closeness of reality squeezing, compressing down as the room suddenly started fading. White gave way to gray, to black, then to nothingness until all that remained in the void was him and the box.
Panicked, Theo snatched it back up and desperately gazed down inside, watching the hospital staff's mad rush suddenly begin to slow. The doctor ceased his compressions and wiped his forearm across his sweaty forehead, his gloved hands slathered in blood, Theo's blood. The doctor stood still like that for a moment, regaining his composure beneath the shade of his arm. He sucked in a heavy breath beneath his paper mask, a familiar pain seeping through the cracks in his professional mask, then exhaled and yanked the gloves off.
"Call it," he said soberly.
"Time of death, 10:22pm."
And as the doctors retreated, Theo watched the window inside the box, too, begin to fade. His vision grew darker as the void pressed in, sweeping him up in an endless, numbing embrace. Terror and sorrow clutched at his throat until even that feeling began to evaporate, shrinking away with the box as it dissolved in his hands. Despite the clinging darkness that enveloped him, Theo squeezed his eyes shut against the numbing void and wrapped his arms around his chest, sobbing softly into the silence that enshrouded him.
I'm not ready...
About the Creator
Wrangler of chaos. Creator of more. Writing whatever my heart desires, from fantasy to poetry and more!
Very good 😌
WOW! This is terrific!
This had me absolutely captivated, what a wonderfully written terrifying story!! 👏🏻