Tomas peered down at the box on his porch, and the box stared back.
He leaned against his door, still clutching its knob in his right hand. His shoulder and head hugged around it the way one might do on a winter's night, wanting to look out, but afraid of being cold.
Except, it wasn't winter, and it wasn't night. A cloudless sky let the sun's rays splash against his porch, and Tomas had no trouble seeing what rested on it. The box.
It was a plain thing. Brown, folded cardboard, with a strip of tape across the top keeping it closed. There were no markings for fragile or hazardous materials inside stamped on it. No mailing or return address. No barcodes that begged only to be scanned, so they might do their jobs.
It was . . . just a box.
"Sara?" Tomas called over his shoulder. He'd passed her in the kitchen on the way to the door. There had been two swift knocks upon the oak, rap rap, but the knocker was not there when Tomas opened, and his skin crawled at the sight of the unadorned box left behind. This had to be some prank of Sara's.
That beautiful, annoying woman. If she wasn't splashing him with cold water while he showered, she was hiding his shoes or laying traps to scare him. This had to be the latter. A clown on a spring was ready to jump out at him, should he open the box.
No answer. Where had she gone off to?
The box pulled Tomas's attention back. Its sight seemed to set a weight on his chest. He breathed a laugh, and it sounded unnatural. "Odd," he murmured. There was nothing so special about it as to make him uneasy. Did his gut know something he didn't?
Tomas broke the grip that held him and swung the door wide. A summer wind filled his face, telling him there was nothing to fear. It was just a box.
He stepped out onto his porch, the boards yellow pine. Railing ran from the house to his left and right, meeting with concrete steps down to the sidewalk. Empty cars filled the roadside, and a stoic row of houses stood across the street. Their windows felt like eyes to Tomas. Lifeless beasts, staring at everything and nothing. No one walked the sidewalks in front or moved behind the windows in those houses. Aside from the wind, the world was dead.
What is wrong with me? Tomas shook off his nerves and crouched. He held the box in both hands at opposing corners and looked it over. A sudden, strange hope washed over him. The box was just face down, it had to be. The addresses and stamps would be there, pressed against the porch. His heart sunk when he leaned the box forward and saw that the underside was barren.
"Damn it all," Tomas said to himself. Anger surged in him. He stood and pulled the box up. It was light, so light. There was no movement within, either. Was it . . .
Tomas gave a relieved chuckle as he shook the box. It was empty. What had he been afraid of, anyway? It was just a box.
He set it down and broke the tape with a fingernail. The rest split at his insistence, and the box folded open at the edges. Tomas flinched back, suddenly sure the clown was about to spring out. Nothing did. He peeked over the flaps. Just as he predicted.
Tomas thought he'd spoke the word, but that voice wasn't his, and it hadn't come from his mouth. He looked up, and his heart took a leap.
A girl stood on the sidewalk, just in front of his house. She wore a dress and white sneakers. Her right hand gripped a string, held taught by a black balloon trying to flee into the sky. It floated just above her curly blonde hair.
Tomas glanced down at the box, then back up. He coughed a laugh. "You startled me. Did you leave this here?"
"Empty," she said again. Her voice had cheer in it, but there was no smile on her face. Her eyes remained fixed on the box.
"Yes," Tomas said, "empty. Empt—" The word stuck in his throat as he looked back into the box. "No . . ." A single piece of white paper rested at the bottom of it.
There's no way, he thought. That couldn't have been there before. It wasn't. But now . . . Tomas lowered a hand into the box, slow, as if he were trying to catch a cricket before it could bound away.
The paper didn't try to move. Tomas picked it up gingerly. The shadows of black letters marked the other side. He knew the word before he could flip the paper to read it. "Empty."
Tomas looked back up to the girl.
What! He jumped and backed away. The sidewalk was empty. His back hit the door of his house. He turned to find it closed. "Sara?" He rapped the door twice. Rap. Rap. "Sara, open the door!"
"Empty," a girlish voice said behind him.
Tomas spun. The girl was back. The same girl, dressed the same, except . . . her balloon. Her balloon was pink. Wasn't it black before? "Empty," she said.
"What game is this, kid?" Tomas stomped to the top of the steps on his porch, but didn't take them down. He crumpled the paper in a fist and shook it at her. "Who put you up to this? Was it Mikel, that rat?"
She shook her head. Her grip loosened on the string, and the balloon made quick its escape. Tomas watched it float away into the sky. He looked back d— "OH!"
Tomas stumbled backwards. The girl stood on his porch steps, staring at him with glazed eyes. Her lips curved in a crooked smile.
A pine board caught his foot, and Tomas fell. He crawled backwards on his hands. "What. Is. This," he said through gasping breaths. His back hit the box, but the box didn't give way to him. It was weighed down by something, and that something shifted around inside.
Tomas turned around, and his heart started hammering. A head was in the box. His head, and it was rotting.
"Empty," a voice tittered.
A scream erupted from Tomas's throat, and his world started to spin. He turned back, and the girl was standing over him, grinning down with black, crooked teeth.
"NO!" Tomas sat up fast, breathing hard. The world went quiet around him. Where— He was no longer on his porch, but abed. His bed. Upstairs in his house. His chest rose and fell like waves in a storm. Sweat drenched his clothes.
"A dream." Tomas wiped his brow with a back hand and sighed. "Of course, just a dream." He sat there until his nerves calmed, just breathing. A calm settled on him, like the bedsheets over his legs.
So strange. A box with my head in it. Empty. That girl. It would creep Sara out, for sure. He got out of bed and dressed.
Tomas found her downstairs in the kitchen. She leaned on the counter, breathing in steam from a cup of coffee while her eyes scanned the day's newspaper. It was late morning, judging from the amount of sun coming through the windows. A great day for a jog in the park.
He kissed her cheek as he passed and made for the sink, filling a glass with cold water. "You wouldn't believe the dream I just had," he said and chuckled. "So . . . surreal."
"You bet. It—"
Rap. Rap. Rap.
Tomas gulped a mouthful of water, his eyes widening. He looked through the kitchen entranceway and the living room. The front door to the porch was closed, but it had just spoken. Hadn't it? "Sara, did you hear that?"
"Huh, strange," Sara said, absent.
Tomas turned to her. "What?" Her eyes were fixed on the newspaper.
"That spooky lab ten miles up Sterling Road." She turned the paper to him, and her finger tapped the headline.
"Lab Leak," he read aloud, his stomach rising into his chest, "Special Observations Chamber Found—" Rap. Rap. Rap. Tomas glanced back at the door. His mouth went dry.
Sara said nothing. She pointed to the last word, her eyes never leaving it. Tomas looked back, swallowed, and uttered it, straining to keep the fear out of his voice.