The Package by Jeremy DeVito

 

    As I turn the corner onto King Street the wind shifts as though it's determined to slap my face regardless of my direction. I curse under my breath but resist the temptation to turn my back. I’ve become bitter as the cold. I walk straight and tall, inviting the frigid air to do its worst. It seeps down my collar, through the holes in my gloves, up my sleeves, into my lungs, like water striving to sink a ship. My fellow sidewalk travellers shiver past, heads pulled down into their coats like immense, erect, arctic turtles. 

     Many are carrying packages. I look down with a slight sense of wonder to see that I'm carrying one of my own. But I’ve no idea what's in it; I don’t even know the occasion. I look around for a hint, but no Christmas lights. My confusion grows. The package contents aren’t the biggest mystery here. The true mystery is why I don’t know what’s in the package. It’s my package. I should know what’s in it. But I don't. I don’t even know where I’m going. Yet I walk on as though I’ve got some sort of purpose, some destination. I turned onto King for a reason; I just don’t know what that reason is.

     It could be amnesia. But I don’t feel like someone who's forgotten something. I feel more like I’ve just now come to be. Except I didn’t just fall from the sky, homeless and naked. I’m holding a package; I’m taking it somewhere. What’s more, I feel like if I hadn’t paused for analysis, I’d already be there.

      My thoughts are interrupted by a small, red faced, man appearing suddenly in my path. I slip on the ice and, in keeping my balance, drop the package. 

     “Hey! Gabe, right? Sorry ‘bout that; didn’t mean ta spook ya.”

     “S’okay.”

     “Not breakable I hope?” Retrieving the package and handing it over.

     “Dunno.” He’s too busy deciding what to say next to notice the oddness of my answer.

     “Been forever since I saw ya.”

     “Tell me about it.” (Hoping he will).

     “Still workin’ at the meat factory?”

     “Yep.”

     He falls silent; not much of a conversationalist. But then I haven’t said anything profound either.

     Finally, “Well, I better get goin’. Pretty nipply out.” (He smiles at what he believes to be a pun).

     “Guess so.” (Smiling at his smiling).

     I watch him cross the street before moving along. Okay, let’s get this straight. Name’s Gabe; work at a meat factory. I know these as facts, but not because the little guy told me. He just asked. I confirmed his suppositions, and when I did it’s as though they became true in that instant, as though all of my reality comes into being as it’s articulated, and anything remaining unsaid remains non-existent.

     A lady passes by walking her dog. Simple enough right? But what kind of dog is it? What’s the lady wearing? Is she old or young? Tall or short? The truth is, she’s none of these. She’s just a lady, any lady, walking a dog, any dog. Oh, you could imagine what she looks like, but that doesn’t make it true. Or I could tell you she's wearing a red hat, and she would be. In fact, she is. See?

     If you haven’t figured out what’s going on, I think I have. I’m a fictional character. Like in a book or a short story. Metafiction, even, a la John Barth, et cetera. Proof? For starters I can remember my very first thoughts. They were only a few short moments ago. Remember? I was thinking about the cold wind and how it was trying to “slap me in the face” and invade my clothing “like water trying to sink a ship”. Who thinks like that? Characters in stories, that’s who (more specifically, characters in bad stories). And what about now? Who am I thinking this too, if not a reader? Hey… I don’t have to convince you, do I? You’ve known all along. 

     Now I’m just irritated. I'm here, uncomfortable, confused, cold, and you just keep reading like my suffering has some sort of entertainment value. And the package. It could be a pipe bomb for all you know. My very life might be in danger, if that's the sort of story I'm in. Do you care? No. You just keep reading, like the only thing that will satisfy you is to learn what happens to me. Stopping now could save my life. Even if I'm holding atime bomb in my hands you could put this story away and nothing would happen. If you’d stopped earlier my face wouldn’t be numb. I’m hurting here. Do me a solid and find another story. How hard is that?

     Still here? Fine. Keep reading. See if I care. I’m not about to do anything exciting. I’m just going to stop and stand right here on the sidewalk until you get bored. 

     Another lady passes by walking her dog. 

     Another lady passes by walking her dog. 

     Another lady passes by walking her dog.

     Another lady passes by...Wait. What am I thinking? I’m not just a character in a story. This baby’s written in the first person! What I say goes. Why am I standing here in the cold? I should be living the good life.

     The wind shifts again. It’s at my back now, and it’s getting warmer. I hold my package tenderly, so as not to damage the precious contents. It's getting much warmer now. The snow's starting to melt at an amazing rate.

     A tall, young lady (early twenties) walks by, tugging gently on the leash of a pit-bull. She’s wearing heels and a red dress with a matching hat. I stop to give the pooch a chin scratch.

     “Hey fella.” I turn my eyes to his angelic mistress. “Beautiful dog.”

     “Most people are intimidated by Butch.” 

     “Oh, he seems lovable enough.” 

     “He is.” She lowers her sunglasses and gives a wink. 

     I turn attention back to the dog as she searches her purse. Butch, getting impatient, starts to leave, hauling my hopes and dreams along with him. She reaches back and slips a small piece of paper into my hand. 

     “Call me.” 

     She turns and walks off. Once she's out of sight I look down at the phone number.

Things are looking up. And it’s still getting warmer. 

         I’m passing Jack’s Newsstand when I remember it’s Sunday and I haven’t checked my lotto ticket yet. Last night's jackpot was twelve million.

         “Hey, Jack. How’s biz?”

         “Gabe, buddy! Not bad ‘tall. What ken I do ya fer?”

         “Today's paper and a printout of last night’s winners.”

         “You got ‘er buddy. Heard that the winnin’ ticket was sold in town, didja?”

         “Was it really?”

         “Yep. Sorry ta say it wasn’t yer numbers, though. You have a 26 in there, right? For the girlfriend's birthday? Oh well, maybe next time.” He hands me my paper and my printout.

     “Maybe so.” 

     I flip him a dollar and decide not to tell him I was rushing around so much yesterday getting my gift together I just grabbed a quick pick instead of taking the time to fill out my regular numbers. 

     As I'm about to check my ticket a slovenly fellow approaches, white stuffing bleeding from the seams of what may once have been a warm winter coat. He thrusts his hand at me, palm skyward.

     “Spare some change?”

     “I’ve got a better idea. Here.”

     I put down my paper and my package, and remove my coat. It’s getting too warm for it anyway. 

     “Thanks guy!” 

     I nod, and bend to gather my things. Then I remember.

     “Hey! Forgot something in the pocket.”

     He hands back the coat and I retrieve my ticket before returning it. He walks off and at the first trashcan he passes he dumps the old coat. But he keeps the new one tucked under his arm. It really is turning out to be a bright, sunshiny day.

     I've pushed my luck long enough. Best check my ticket now, while I have the chance. I unfold the printout and begin to compare it with my ticket... 6...6, 17...17, 19...19. My palms begin to sweat. Three more numbers.... 31...31,

 

              *              *              *

 

     (That’s about enough of that. No more first person narrative for this guy. Give some characters an inch, they take a mile. I’m retaking control before this story gets out of hand. Lady in a red dress? Please. Now he wants to win the lottery? What kind of a story is that? Time for good old third person omniscient to come in and save the day. What to do, what to do? First things first, I suppose.)

     Gabe was shaking. Two more numbers and good-bye factory floor. He looked at the printout. The fifth number was a 41. He looked at his ticket...40. 

     “Impossible,” he thought, “41...41.”

     But, to Gabe’s dismay, the fifth number on the ticket remained a 40. Not knowing what else to do, he checked the sixth number on the printout… 45. Then on his ticket… 42.

     He looked up in disbelief. “Aargh!”

     Gabe had won over a hundred dollars. He was furious. “I’m not telling the story anymore,” he thought. “Hateful author must have switched to third person omniscient on me. Well listen here, oh great one; I know you know what I’m thinking. That’s the point of omniscience, right? I’m not playing your games anymore. I want you to…” 

     Outwardly, Gabe looked calm (and since his inner thoughts are ruining my story, I’ve decided they're not important). The sun was setting. It was getting late and if Gabe didn’t get moving he was going to be late seeing his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. He knew, he must have known, that this would upset her. Yet... he... just... stood... there ... (Aargh!) 

     (Either Gabe swiftens up and gets this story rolling again or he’ll have to kiss free will good-bye. I much prefer to put my characters in a situation and let the story develop from there, but this guy's making things tough. If I can’t persuade him to perform some sort of action, the story is finished. One more idea, then it’s mind control.)

     The wind shifted again and it began to get cold. Gabe shivered, his teeth chattered, and (finally) he began to move. Slowly he picked up his package and (re)read the card attached: ‘Jessica - Happy Valentine’s Day - Love Gabe XOXO.’ For a brief moment a smile crossed Gabe’s face. (Idiot’s probably just happy he's not carrying explosives.) Then the scowl returned.

     “Okay, if you won't pay attention to my thoughts, I’ll say it aloud.” Gabe was yelling at the top of his lungs like a madman.

     The people around him stared. Children pointed and laughed. Seniors called him names. A dog barked in the distance. 

     “Think I care?” He sneered. “They’re fictional, too. Why should I care what they think? I’ve a proposal for you. You can run the show on one condition: Don’t screw with my head. You want to tell a cute little story about a fella and his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, I’m your man. But if things get ugly, or the wrong kind of ironic even, like this gift turns out to be a set of combs and she just had all her hair cut off to buy me a watch, I sit down and don’t move. I don’t care how cold it gets. END OF STORY. Understood?” 

     He paused, the people around him had stopped staring and pointing. The temperature increased ever so slightly (it is February after all). 

     “That’s more like it. And before I forget, I keep the hundred dollars, too.”

     Gabe walked two more blocks before coming to building number 244. He climbed stairs to apartment 304 and raised his fist to knock. 

     He hesitated. “We’ve got a deal right.”

     (How to communicate with this buffoon?) 

     Through the window at the end of the hall, Gabe could see the electronic billboard on for the neighbouring sports. The words followed one another in a chain of bright red lights: “We’ve Got Classic Fights All Week! Featuring: Evander, ‘The Real Deal’... 'Deal'... 'Deal'... 'Deal'...” For some reason (and I've no inclination to provide one, so feel free to make up your own) the lights had stopped flowing and the word “Deal” began to flash over and over on the sign (yes, I know; I don’t care). Gabe smiled, snickered even, and knocked.

     The initial answer came in the form of bark from what sounded like a very large dog. The door opened a moment later, and there stood Jessica in a new red dress and matching hat. 

     “Happy Valentine’s, baby.”

     Gabe stood motionless. Eventually he opened his mouth... as if to say something.......... but Gabe was speechless (it's hard to find good help these days). Butch jumped up and licked Gabe’s face, snapping him from his trance.

     “You look... amazing.” He fended off the giant dog absently with his parcel.

     “Is that for me?”

     “Huh...? Oh... yeah... here.” Handing over the precious gift.

     “Well, come in and close the door.”

     Gabe did as told.

     Jessica gave him her patented wink. “Wish you’d told me you were walking. I’d have stayed in—didn’t want you to see me until now. I bought the dress just for today...  know you like red.”

     “Love red.”

     “I wasn’t even planning to going, but it got so warm. Wasn’t that unreal?”

     “Yeah...unreal.”

     “Where’s your coat? You had it on earlier.”

     “Gave it to a tramp. Not sure what I was thinking.”

     “Not of yourself. That’s why I love you.” She placed the package down and hugged him.

     “It all evens out I guess; won a hundred dollars on last night’s lottery.” Gabe held out his ticket.

     “Wow! That's something.”

     “It is. Hate to admit it but my first reaction was to be disappointed I didn’t win the whole thing. Jack said someone in town won, and got my holes up. A hundred free dollars isn't too shabby.” (About time he shows a little enthusiasm).

     Their easy small talk continued for a few minutes until Jessica declared dinner was served. Usually Gabe cooked (I’ll make a likeable character out of this guy yet) but, since Valentine’s Day was on a Sunday this year, and Gabe worked on Sundays. So Jessica had determined a home cooked meal would be a much-appreciated gift. The couple was saving for marriage, and had agreed not to overspend.

      The meal was warm and satisfying. Gabe started out with the appearance of refinery but, in the end couldn’t help wolfing down heaping forks full of pink salmon, sweet potatoes, potato scallop, Caesar salad, baby carrots, corn niblets, green beans, cheddar cheese blocks and, finally, heart shaped chocolate cake. Feeling contented, he pushed away from the table.

     “Couldn’t eat another bite.”

     “Good. I thought you’d never stop. Time for my gift, now.” Her eyes brightened as she took his hand and led him into the den, where the mysterious package sat on the floor.

     “If you don’t like it, I can always get you something else. I do have a little extra cash as of today.” Gabe glanced at the package suspiciously. He'd been feeling more and more attached with Jessica and was worried he'd disappoint her. “We’ve got a deal,” he mouthed silently as she bent over to gather up the gift (guy has zero confidence in me).

     “I’ll love it. You give the best gifts.” She moved the parcel to the middle of the room, plunked down on the carpet, legs crossed, and began tearing at the paper. (Now I’m getting nervous; this thing's been built up far too much; almost anything would be a letdown.) Jessica hesitated. (I need a minute here.) She found the card, read it, stood up, dimmed the lights, and gave Gabe another hug. The couple sat on the floor and, again, Jessica began to rip at the paper. Once she’d stripped the box, she began to remove the lid. Gabe looked on; curiosity growing in his eyes. 

     (Before we go on, I'd like to establish a few things. It’s fair to say the illusion of reality has been long lost. It’s clear this is a story and any attempt at mimeses has already been abandoned by author, narrator, protagonist, and reader alike—yes you’re to blame too; you are still here, after all. What I’m saying is I’ve determined to push the limits a bit. For a while there I was considering the time bomb idea. Gabe was getting to me. But I’ve had a change of heart. I created the guy; least I can do is to make him happy. Trouble being, I can’t think of a realistic ending that’s both happy and wicked awesome—a realistic wicked awesome tragic ending? That I could do. I don’t think I’m the only writer with this problem. That’s why the most realistic stories always have the most miserable characters. So I guess I’m just trying to warn you that from here on out realism isn’t a major concern of mine. My priority is to make Gabe happy and then forget this whole story ever happened—which, of course, it didn’t.)

     Jessica removed the lid with one final tug. The room flooded with a magnificent dark brightness. Icy blues, fiery reds, and brilliant white rebounded off the walls, furniture, the couple’s eyes, and out the windows. Butch ran to the bedroom and hid his head beneath the bed. Gabe was awestruck. Jessica laughed triumphantly.

     “Starlight! A whole box of starlight! Where did you get a whole box of starlight!?! No! Don’t tell me! It’ll ruin the magic. I love you.”

     “Mmmmm; love you too,” sighed Gabe dreamily, relieved he wouldn’t be made to explain.

     Jessica rose to her feet and began to dance in rhythm with the musical rays of light. She removed her clothing to feel the cool warm incandescence bouncing off her skin. The light made love to her as her radiant body ebbed and flowed. Jessica was immersed, saturated in the beams. They cascaded off her like a million tiny, jubilant waterfalls. Gabe joined her and they danced, shimmered, sparkled, and shone until the starlight surrendered to the dawn's rays. 

     Exhaustion and exultant, they fell into each other’s arms and watched until the last glistening, twinkling beam had skipped out the window into the sky. There the two slept peacefully, without so much as a twitch, through that day and through the following night, until a new dawn warmed their faces. 

     Work had waited and demanded no explanation. Starlight, by its nature, is generous. The whole town had bathed in the glow coming from Jessica’s window that night, and has glowed ever since. Many said the starlight was gone, but a few insisted it remained present if you knew where to look. It took up residence in the eyes of the Gabe and Jessica and refused to move, no matter how cold it got. END OF STORY.