Special Delivery

Emrys Donaldson

I signed up for as many monthly subscription boxes as my maxed-out credit cards would allow. There was always some surprise inside, something unexpected. I hoped that wanting to know might keep me here a little longer. Besides my dog Jenga, who I knew would manage fine without me, I drew a blank when I thought about reasons to stay alive.

Jenga went bananas when the delivery driver left the first package on my doorstep. He spun in circles and made Wookie noises, his nails tap-ta-rat-tap on the linoleum, his little husky-corgi body shedding hair with the motion, and for a moment I felt the lead weight on my chest lift.

Time seemed irrelevant. There was always the same yellow grass outside, the same red brick house further down the street with the huge rosemary bush. The sun boxed my head. Now and then the engine of a car rolled by, but the only people I saw were kids walking the dirt road, carrying backpacks.

When I opened the door to get the package, I noticed how stale the air in my house smelled. I carried my first installment of Box Box to my kitchen counter and slit the tape with a butcher knife. Inside sat two boxes, stacked on top of each other, which perfectly filled the space available in the shipping box. I put one aside, on the floor, and opened the other. Jenga sniffed the box on the floor and, experimentally, gnawed at the corner. He stared up at me, his light blue eyes sticking out at slightly different angles, orange-brown tear-stains running down the sides of his snout.

Inside the half-size box were two quarter-sized boxes. Again I set one aside and opened the other, continuing as they got smaller and smaller. The afternoon sun stretched across the floor until it reached the opposite wall. Jenga whined and pawed at the back door.

"In a minute," I told him. By now the discarded boxes formed a pile next to my feet. They got too small to open with my fingers, so I moved to tweezers and a magnifying glass. When I let Jenga out, he bobbed and weaved across the backyard through the long grass.

When I could no longer open the boxes with the equipment I had in the house, I buried my hands in the pile of miniature boxes. They pricked my skin like sand made of metal shavings. All corners. I wondered whether they really counted as boxes at this point, and whether the biggest, initial boxes counted as ravioli.

The last, mole-sized box I had been able to open sat on the counter, taunting me with the sealed freckle-sized boxes inside. In the videos I watched online, unboxing pros paid for access to nanoscale labs. I wondered if I should cancel my subscription for the next month, and then I realized it didn't matter. 

A few sleeps later, the Barking Box arrived. These days I slept outside of time, frequently on the floor or the couch because I failed to make it to bed, which was itself covered with dishes and old clothes. I wasn't sure what the Barking Box might contain. When I ordered it for Jenga, the graphic showed a plain cardboard box with lines coming out of it to indicate noise. I figured it would have toys and treats, maybe puzzles to occupy him.

There was a time when I left the house. Went to work at a screen-printing shop making t-shirts and posters, arrived early to therapy and my endocrinology checkups. Saw the sun. Took Jenga to daycare. Now, I hadn't left my house in awhile. Maybe weeks. I had groceries and dog food delivered. Jenga romped in the backyard and sometimes a silhouette passed through my house to clip the leash to his collar and take him outside. The sounds from the silhouette were muffled as though from someone trying to shout at me underwater. I rarely changed my clothes or showered, and sometimes I taped the blackout curtains to the edges of the windows and slept until Jenga woke me by pawing at my face.

At first it looked like there was nothing inside my first Barking Box except layers of bubble wrap, though when I reached my hand out and explored the inside, I felt something light and tensile. Shimmering bubbles floated out of the box and hovered in the air of the kitchen, each one rimmed in a different color—some were light purple, while others looked blue or green. Jenga leaped up on his stubby legs and bit one. When it popped, it released a series of high-pitched barks which sounded like a chihuahua being murdered. Jenga lay low to the floor and tilted his head quizzically. Something cracked at the corner of my mouth.

The barking bubbles moved around the house for a sleep or two, catching air currents from the HVAC, sinking with condensation vapor from the kettle. Jenga made it his mission to find and destroy them all. At random intervals I heard a variety of barks, and Jenga would bark back at the disembodied voices. After a bunch of sleeps, the rest of them came down all at once. When they burst, they made a jagged cacophony which reverberated into the silence. Afterward, I missed their iridescence. Jenga hunted around the house for any he'd missed. He scoped around corners, the curve of his hip visible behind a peeking eye. 

Sometimes I wasn't actually entirely sure whether meatspace existed anymore. It was me and my laptop and the router and Jenga. A heaviness weighed down my sternum, like an anvil or an anchor. It pressed down on me so much that it felt like a victory whenever I managed to make it to the couch and open my laptop, or when I remembered to drink water or eat something. Jenga reminded me of his needs, sitting by his bowls and whining or sitting by the door and whining. There was no one to remind me what mine should be, so I mostly forgot when and what to eat. The silhouette sometimes put food in front of me, and I tried to eat it, opening my mouth and chewing and swallowing, all of which I knew were steps for eating.

Silvery wrapping paper was visible beneath the translucent cover of the Gift Box, a box it was not possible to open. It was only to look at. The videos I watched showed people carefully dressed in designer loungewear, well-groomed and in houses that looked too clean to be real, oohing and aahing as they commented on the outside of the package. It was popular at holidays as a decorative item. I liked it. It was nice to think about the box that way—the box never intended to be opened, the box always retaining an air of mystery. Perfectly wrapped, corners tight, rather than the crumpled paper scattered on the floor. The only clean and perfect thing in my apartment. I'd been wearing the same pair of fleece pajama pants, red with a pattern of lambs, longer than I could remember.

Ants crawled out from the papery organic shape of Ant Box. The sealed box hummed and my heart beat faster as I opened it with my fingers, wondering whether all the ants might spill out at once, whether the queen would fly into the air and zoom around the apartment. Once out of the box, they roved the house annoying Jenga by eating his food from his bowl and crawling into his fur, so I ordered Exterminator Box, which had trial-size pet-safe poisons. Exterminator Box came with a checklist so the recipient could mark which poisons were most effective. They all seemed equally effective, because after a few sleeps I found no live ants, only dead ones in piles like poppyseeds.

When I clicked the black button to place the order for Death Box, I had autoplayed so many episodes of the same television show that the site asked me whether I was sure I wanted to keep watching. Jenga snoozed next to me, curled up on the floor. I told myself Jenga deserved better. That I was a burden on the silhouette. That the few people who still tried to contact me even after so long without a reply would be better off without the headache. I tried to pull myself together. Simultaneously I felt wide awake and completely exhausted, as though my limbs were weighted to the floor.

The Box promised lethality in thoughtful variety. Preppers had popular vlogs where they practiced their skills fighting whatever was inside. One POV video, the original deleted but copies permanently mirrored across hundreds of other video sites, showed a group of Minnesotan teens purchasing a Death Box with a parent's credit card and fake IDs, then staging a sleepover. They locked one of their number in a room alone with the open box as they recorded the girl's screams and their own hushed giggles. A venomous spider emerged from inside the box, carrying hundreds of eggs on her back. She spun a web from corner to corner. I felt for the spider, a ploy in a human drama, just trying to raise her babies in peace. I forgot what happened to the girl.

Death Box came on the heels of an unsuccessful subscription service from the same company, called Life Box, which sent the recipient something living every month. I had followed the controversy online. At first they stuck to the basics, like a sourdough starter and a gorgeous variegated mold, but after a few months they ran out of ideas, so they sent succulents, which sat desiccated and abandoned in piles behind the dumpsters of hip apartment complexes. When, eventually, they sent human zygotes in capsules with the instruction to "just add water," their stocks plummeted. They nearly went out of business before pivoting their business model and rebranding as the edgiest subscription service.

I missed the first delivery attempt of the Death Box, which I took as a sign. When it finally arrived, the cardboard exterior was patterned with the skull-and-crossbones symbol, which seemed a bit gauche to me. I was scared to sleep in the same room. Maybe I'll open it, one of these days, though its simple presence in the corner reassures me. It's a plan, if I need one. From time to time it wobbles.

Today I waited for the mail carrier at the mailbox by the side of the street. The road smelled wet, and humidity hung in the air. I was glad to be outside, and I resolved to take a shower and change my clothes. Jenga crouched on his haunches next to me, and he licked my face as I kissed his sweet fuzzy head. Maybe later we would go for a walk.