John awoke on the thin, hazy line between hungover and still drunk, tangled in a throw blanket and the clothing he’d managed to half remove before passing out on his couch. His head felt two sizes too small for his brain, his tongue three sizes too big for his parched mouth, and he couldn’t tell if it was the room or his vision that was swimming in and out of focus.
It was another vodka and four Aspirin morning. A fair trade-off for the night he’d had with the pretty brunette with emerald eyes, he supposed.
He reached blindly for his phone, certain he’d set it down on the coffee table, and knocked over a row of empties before mistakenly hitting the power button on the TV remote. It came alive with glaring light, the furious sound of theme music, and a booming voice like that of a God bellowing from the heavens.
“In today’s top story, police agencies across the country are investigating a string of seemingly related disappearances,” the news anchor said. “Though authorities say there’s nothing to connect the nearly two dozen victims who have vanished without a trace, reports from anonymous sources suggest each of them disappeared after receiving a mysterious package.”
“Weird,” John said, puzzled by the haunting familiarity of the story. It seemed important, like something he was meant to remember. Whatever it was, it remained beyond his mind's reach.
Casting his throw blanket aside and adjusting his disheveled clothing, John eased himself to a seated position, and inadvertently flung his phone halfway across the living room. It landed, screen up, on a plush, grey area rug, and began vibrating.
John’s still half-asleep brain needed a long moment to register the buzzing sound, and his body needed even longer to pull on his glasses and rise unsteadily from the couch to retrieve the device. It had stopped vibrating by the time he crouched to scoop it up. When he flicked the screen on, he was greeted by a motion alert for the front door. He pawed ineptly at the on-screen notification, tapping it five times before it opened the app and took him to the camera feed. The video loaded in just in time for him to see what looked like a drone disappearing out of the corner of the frame.
“Anyone who receives an unexpected package by drone is urged to contact their local police department,” the newscast droned on. “And under no circumstances should you open a package if you receive one.”
This gave John pause. Drones delivering mystery packages. People randomly disappearing. In his current state, it seemed like something out of a dystopian, cyber punk nightmare, and he couldn’t think of any other reason why a drone would have come to his front door. At the same time, he also couldn’t fathom why anyone other than his ex-wife would want to make him disappear (and honestly, he couldn’t blame her).
Maybe it's just a coincidence, he tried to convince himself.
Plucking up his courage, he lumbered to the front door with his phone in hand, the number for the local police station already punched in. He grabbed an umbrella from a hook by the door in case he needed to defend himself, then fumbled with the lock and deadbolt and, finally, opened the door. On the porch outside, a small, matte black box wrapped in shiny red ribbon awaited him.
“You don’t look so scary,” he said, even as his pulse quickened and a nervous lump formed in the pit of his stomach. Curious, he poked the box with the tip of his umbrella, breathing a sigh of relief when it toppled over. Just as he was beginning to feel silly for being afraid of a little box, a loud clatter from inside the house shattered his newfound bravery.
As far as he could recall, he’d come home alone.
“Who’s there?” he called out.
Whipping around, his umbrella leveled like a fencing foil, he found himself face to face with the woman from last night.
She awoke with the taste of cheap liquor in her mouth, groaning at the insistent beeping of her smartwatch alarm. Silencing it, she slouched down in the driver’s seat of her stolen car and kept her head lowered to avoid the prying eyes of any nosy neighbors. She hadn’t intended to drink at all. Alcohol clouded judgment, and she couldn’t afford to be anything other than perfectly on her game for this assignment. This time, the drinks had been a calculated risk to get close to her target. Already, she was regretting her choice.
If there was a God — and the jury was still out as far as she was concerned — Lyra was convinced He hated her. How else could her horrible luck be explained?
While the rest of her team had received targets with “unique” names only a celebrity could have thought up, she’d drawn the file for John Smith and been given little else to go on. She’d tried to take it as a compliment, telling herself it was a sign the TPA bigwigs had confidence in her tracking skills. But somewhere, someone was having a good laugh at her expense.
There were ten John Smiths in the city she’d been assigned to. Of those, five had been bachelors, and three of them lived on their own like the John Smith in her file. It had taken her weeks to narrow her list down to two — one, a mild-mannered and dreadfully boring accountant, the other, a sometimes-charming functional alcoholic who daylighted as a clock repairman. She was reasonably certain she was after the second one.
Under normal circumstances, reasonably certain wouldn't be good enough for her liking. But she was out of time, so she had to trust her gut.
Today was the day.
If she was wrong, the world was going to end.
Almost on cue, she felt it. A cold, tingling buzz, like getting a filling at the dentist. A timegate was opening nearby.
I chose right, Lyra thought.
Any relief she might have felt was overshadowed by the gravity of her situation, as a drone carrying a small, black box burst from a bank of clouds, deposited its package on the porch of the red brick house, then disappeared back into the clouds.
Time was of the essence now. She had to get to the box before John Smith had a chance to open it and unleash its contents upon humanity, then escape with both him and the box before the culty fucks of the OoTR could track her location. With how much John had drunk last night, it wouldn’t be too h—
A shadow of movement behind the living room curtain of John’s house caught Lyra’s eye. But John was supposed to be alone, and with how much he'd had to drink, there was no way he should be awake, much less moving around.
“Shit!” she hissed, hopping out of the car and dashing up the driveway to try to beat John to the package. He wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, so she was sure she could convince him she’d tracked him down to continue last night's party. He’d probably even be flattered.
She was still too far from the porch when the front door opened and John emerged, wielding his cell phone in one hand and an umbrella in the other, and looking absolutely ridiculous. Lyra’s training to not be detected took over. She crouched behind the hedges lining the driveway and made her way to the house's side door. Finding it unlocked, she let herself in and crept through the kitchen, her new plan to sedate John, snatch the box, and disappear through her own timegate.
She reached into her jacket pocket, withdrew a syringe, and popped off the cap, so focused on watching John give the box an experimental poke that she didn’t see the uneven floor tile directly in her path. She caught the tile with her foot and crashed against the kitchen counter, knocking over a stack of empty beer cans like it was a carnival game.
Having heard the commotion, John squeaked out a "Who's there?" and turned around with his silly umbrella pointed at her. He stared at her so intently Lyra could feel the gears turning in his head, trying to place her.
“Emerald eyes?” he asked, having clearly forgotten the fake name she’d given him. Now, she really regretted letting him kiss her — even if it had given her a thrill she hadn't felt in ten years.
“It’s Jane, handsome,” she lied, forcing a sweet smile.
“What are you do—” His question died on his lips, as she rushed toward him like a flash and injected the contents of her syringe straight into his jugular.
“I’m sorry, John,” she said, leaving him to slump to the ground while she retrieved the package from the porch. Her targets in hand, she used her smartwatch to open her timegate and vanished into a halo of pure white light.
The square room was sterile. All white, smooth, and plastic-looking like the interior of a spaceship. Though his head still felt all stuffed with cotton balls from whatever emerald eyes — or Jane, rather — had drugged him with, John was pretty sure he wasn’t on a spaceship. His little box seemed more like a sci-fi prison cell, containing only the bed he was lying on, a fold-down table, and a futuristic-looking toilet he was afraid to use. What troubled him most, however, was that the room had no windows or door. No way in, and no way out. His drinking had gotten him in trouble before, but never this much trouble.
“Hello!?” he yelled out, though his five previous attempts had yielded no answer, swinging his legs to sit on the edge of the bed. “Is anyone out there? I think there’s been some mistake.”
Nothing. Then, as he was about to lay back down, Jane’s voice answered over an invisible intercom. “Hello, John. I know you’re confused. But this is for your own protection,” she said flatly. “If you promise to remain calm, I’ll explain everything.”
“Do I have a choice?” John asked.
After a brief silence, a door-shaped section in the far wall of his room vanished. Jane stood in the opening, dressed all in black like a ninja or a spy, her flowing brown hair neatly tied up. “I suppose not. Still, it will be easier if you don’t fight this. The world as you know it is at stake.”
John stood up and crossed the room to the door. Thinking he could just walk out, he was surprised when he crashed face first into an unseen barrier in the doorway.
“A necessary precaution,” Jane said too late. “To keep you from the box the OoTR sent to you.”
“OoTR? What’s that? And who are you?” John asked, noticing the holstered weapon on her right hip.
Jane inhaled deeply, her hands anxiously fidgeting. Even now, something in John wanted to reach out to her and calm her nerves.
“The Order of Timeline Revisionists is a deranged cult that believes mankind’s existence has become a cosmic error,” she said eventually. “To correct the mistake, they want to reset the universe to before the Big Bang. How they got their hands on something with the power to unmake the universe is anyone's guess. And we still don't understand why they're going about their mission by sending the boxes to people like...”
“People like me, who would be dumb enough to open them and do their dirty work for them,” John deduced. “So, you’re what… some kind of Timecop?”
She smiled sympathetically, and for the first time he recognized the woman he’d met the night before. “Agent Lyra Hawking of the Timeline Preservation Agency. We’re like Black-ops, only blacker. We operate extratemporally to keep the natural timeline intact.”
John knew he should find all of this — and her — insane. But somehow, he believed every word, and the thought of it overwhelmed him. As much as he liked her, he just wanted to return to where (and when) he belonged. “What happens now? I mean, you stopped the bad guys, right?”
“As we speak, other agents are working to protect other box recipients and apprehend any fugitive OoTR members. Once they’re done, we’ll wipe your memory and take you home,” Lyra replied. “In the meantime, are you hungry?”
He hadn’t thought about food. At the mention of it, his stomach let out a long, thunderous growl. “A little unconventional for a second date. Then again, I didn’t think I’d be so lucky,” he joked.
Lyra just laughed and walked away.
Lyra was halfway back from the kitchen with a tray of food when she felt the timegate open. Consulting her smartwatch only left her confused. There’d been no communications from her team members, meaning no one should be inbound.
“Chronos, run a location scan on the unauthorized timegate that just opened,” she told her smartwatch.
“Scan complete,” the device announced a moment later. “Timegate pinpointed to Asset Detention Unit B-407.”
Lyra froze and dropped her food tray to the floor, dread taking root in her gut. It had been in John’s cell. Had she been followed? No. She couldn’t have been. She’d been so quick, so careful. And yet, there was no other explanation. Unless…
“Chronos, is B-407 still occupied?” she asked.
“Negative, Agent Hawking. At present, I’m not picking up the asset’s biosignature anywhere in the facility.”
Lyra winced as the sensation of another timegate opening pulsed through her body, confirming her deepest fears. Where most assets usually cried or fought in vain to escape, John had remained calm and accepted everything she’d told him. He’d been far too agreeable about the situation, and she’d missed the red flags.
Worse than being followed, she’d been played like a fiddle.
Who the hell are you, John Smith? she thought bitterly, sprinting for the evidence room where the boxes were being stored for careful inspection.
One after another, the station’s automatic doors opened the way for her with pneumatic hisses, until she reached the security bulkhead for the evidence room. She impatiently passed through the bulkhead’s biometric scanners and shoved her way inside, where not-John-Smith was waiting for her, a little black box already in hand. He smiled and removed his glasses, which had been modified to transfigure his whole face, becoming a handsome, if somewhat gaunt, man in his forties with tousled black hair and warm brown eyes.
“Cade,” she said, staring in disbelief at the man she’d always love.
“Hello, darling. It’s good to see you again,” he replied. "It wasn't easy to get you deployed for my case, but I'm so glad you're here. I want us to do this together."
Lyra laughed, incredulous, as the pieces clicked into place. “I should have figured it out sooner. Though, hiding out as a clock repairman seems a little on the nose, even for you.”
“What can I say? Time was the only thing I could never fix.”
“And you think whatever’s in that box will fix it for you?” Lyra asked. “Come on Cade, you’re too smart to fall for the Order’s bullshit.”
“Funny, isn’t it, how such a small thing can hold so much power,” he said, admiring the box. “But then, we’d know better than most, wouldn’t we? How long have we been holding on to her for?”
“You’ve been holding on. I’ve been…”
“Running,” Cade interjected. “Away from the ghost of our daughter, then from me. You became a ghost. You disappeared into every case you could, leaving me alone with nothing but time.”
He wasn’t wrong. She’d abandoned him after Sara’s death — blamed him for her cancer because there’d been no one else around. It still stung to hear him say the words, to face the pain she’d caused him. She’d never been one to excuse the actions of others, but if she’d been braver and stronger, perhaps he wouldn’t have sought out the Order.
Both their lives had ended with Sara's. He just wanted a second chance. And she did, too, if she was honest. Not like this, though. Not at this price.
She unholstered her sidearm and pointed its muzzle at his chest. “Say you open the box. What then? The universe starts over and by some divine miracle we find each other and live happily ever after with Sara?”
“Even if the odds are a quintillion to one, I’ll always find you, darling,” he replied, smiling as he unfastened the shiny red ribbon.
Lyra didn’t realize she’d pulled the trigger until Cade stumbled and caught himself on the nearest evidence table, a scarlet dot blossoming below his right shoulder. His lips and teeth blood-speckled, he was still smiling while his fingers worked absently to unbind the flaps of the little box.
“Cade!” she cried out, letting her sidearm fall from her trembling hands. A decade of grief, guilt, and anger drove her to him, sapping her will to fight.
Maybe God will be kinder in the next universe, she thought, finally understanding how he hadn't been able to envision a universe without their daughter. She crashed against him and wrapped him in her fiercest embrace. She knew it was unfair and selfish, but hadn’t they earned their second chance at happiness? Hadn't Sara?
His strength waning, Cade set the box down on the table so he could hold her while he opened it, and she let him. And for a fleeting moment, every tiny, broken piece of her was as close to mended as it had been in ten years.
"Together?" he asked?
"Together," she said.
Unable to resist, she peeked as Cade opened the box.
Inside of it, there was nothing.
Then, in a heartbeat, there was nothing outside of it either.
Thank you for reading my entry in The Mystery Box Challenge.
About the Creator
Jordan began writing at an early age and has been creating worlds, characters, and stories ever since, culminating with his debut epic fantasy novel, WHEN THE LAST LIGHT FAILS, and its recently completed sequel, WHEN THE DARKNESS BECKONS.
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