“Well, what do you think?”
“You do like it, don’t you?”
“Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re pleased. You know, I was wondering about whether it was the right gift or not, and — you know — you can never tell!”
“Right…” As the word tumbled from my mouth, the box in my hands shuddered a bit. Not much, gosh no, but enough that I noticed it. And… was that a little squeak? I couldn’t be sure of that last one, because they kept talking.
“So, what do you say?” interjected one of the ones with wings. I got the distinct impression that it wanted to please the big one.
“What do you say?” it urged, nodding in an encouraging fashion.
“Um, thank you?” I responded, half-questioning.
Its immediate smile told me that I had given the right answer. And then the big one clapped its hands, making me jump. “Go ahead, try it on for size!” said the giver of the gift. I couldn’t quite make the face of that one out, due to the blinding light. Its voice was deep and booming, yet somehow comforting — in its own weird way.
“Right… right now?”
“No time like the present!” The cheer contained within that voice made my insides shrivel. It thought it had done well. It was happy. How could I shatter its illusion? How it didn’t know that I didn’t love the present was beyond me. Wasn’t that part of its schtick? I searched my mind, trying to remember the old mumblings. I for sure thought that it was capable of knowing, and yet…
“Okay,” I said, rather meekly. My voice sounded very small, and — even to my own ears — appeared to be coming from a long way away.
“Fantastic!” said the big one. There was the distinct sound of fingers clicking. “You can find a changing room behind you — we’ll give you some privacy! But be sure to come out and show us when you’re ready.” I could hear the smile on its face, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t quite make out its face. That damn blinding light.
I turned around, feet occasionally sinking into the fluffy floor. True enough, there was a changing room right there. Had it been there when I arrived? I had no idea, I couldn’t remember. And speaking of arrivals and faulty memories — how had I gotten here in the first place? And when? And why? I twisted my neck around to ask one of them — any of them — just what exactly was going on, but then I locked eyes with one of the winged fellows and thought better of it. Its smiling, expectant face told me that they were all excited and they were all waiting.
Feeling rather defeated, I sighed and trudged into the changing room, shutting the door behind me and sliding the lock across with a wooden clack! In spite of the door acting as a barrier between me and them, I still felt slightly exposed. Vulnerable. Naked. I know that sounds silly, because everyone says they’re quite nice, and yet I felt those things, nonetheless.
I looked at the box in my hands. Yep, there was definitely something in there. It rustled and yipped impatiently. Something alive. I knew what it was in the same way that I know what plankton is — I know it’s a thing, but I couldn’t tell you about its shape or form or draw it for the life of me. Nightmarish visions crept into my already fragile mind. “Oh, God…” I whispered, under my breath and then opened the damned thing.
I wasn’t prepared for the thing that leapt out as soon as I opened the box. It sprang from its prison right at me, squealing and jabbering. I caught the briefest of glimpses of it, just before it hit me in the face. Somehow, I don’t know how, it looked like a bloody scab, flurrying television static, a spider and an octopus all at the same time.
And then the world (if that’s the word I should be using) went dark as it struck me, knocking me off my feet. Fortunately, the floor was soft, and I suffered no injuries as I sank into the white fluff. I opened my mouth to scream as the squeaking, chattering thing on my face writhed and squirmed and struggled and thrashed.
The jabbering ball of mess forced its way into my mouth, causing my tongue and inner cheeks to feel fuzzy with tingling pins and needles. Before I could react, the little terror had disappeared down my throat. For one dizzying moment I thought that I wouldn’t be able to breathe, but the gulp of air that followed soon exposed the falseness of this notion.
I lay there on the cotton wool floor of the changing room that hadn’t been there when I arrived, experiencing the bugger making a home in the cavity of my chest. I could feel it, twisting and knotting and muttering away inside my chest, coiling and turning around incessantly. I remained there for perhaps thirty seconds or so, rubbing my torso as if needed to burp, feeling occasional twangs as the thing pushed up against my heart and lungs, causing the former to speed up and the latter to no longer function at full optimality.
I was startled by the sound of unhuman knuckles rapping against the changing room door. “Um, excuse me? Sir? Are you all right in there?”
I cleared my throat and suppressed the urge to vomit. “Yes. Quite all right. Coming out in a moment. Just two ticks.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll let the big guy know.”
I swallowed. Hard. Mostly to try and quell the buzzing in my upper body. Slowly, I began to force myself to sit upright (and marvelled at how soft the floor felt, beneath the palms of my hands). I could still feel it, chittering away beneath my ribcage, the bones of my body amplifying the vibrations. With a groan, I forced myself to my feet, staggering only slightly. I was mostly okay once I was upright, save for one nasty moment when a wave of acidity rose at the back of my throat.
I stood there, swaying for a second, feeling the weight of the world (I’m still unsure if that’s the right word) pressing in at me from all angles. My heart was thrumming inside my chest like a bird in a cage, fluttering and banging against the bars. My lungs were burning, and I couldn’t quite get enough air into them; I felt as if I’d just ran a marathon, even though I’d only righted myself after being tackled to the ground. I ran my fingers across my palms and wasn’t at all surprised to feel that they were slaked with sweat. I could feel the damp perspiration clinging to the back of my neck and moistening my shirt beneath my armpits. I felt simultaneously hot and cold — an awful combination of the two. I want to say that I had no idea what was happening to me, but that would be a lie.
I knew exactly what was happening.
With a click-clack, I undid the lock on the changing room door and pushed it open. I gave myself no time to prepare — either mentally or physically. Somehow, I knew that if I didn’t just do it and get it over and done with, I never would.
“Ah, there he is!” boomed the one who’d bestowed the box upon me. “We’d begun to wonder if you’d fallen asleep in there!”
I smiled meekly in response. “Nope,” I muttered. It was all I could think to say.
“So…?” asked the one whose face was obscured by light. “How does it feel?”
“Um…” I said, dragging out the syllable for as long as possible, not wanting it to end. As long as I was um-ing, I wasn’t telling it that I hated the gift. But, as with all good things, my um came to an end. “I feel… different, I guess,” I offered, lamely.
The big one clapped its hands again. “Different! Ha! Yes, that’s the truth, isn’t it?” It clapped its hands again. “Ha! Yes, yes… different! And I should know — I made it, after all, didn’t I?
“You made it?”
“Well, of course I did, or my name isn’t—”
“You made it to do the things it does?”
A slight pause. “Why would I make it not do the things it does?”
It continued. “I didn’t make it to do things it doesn’t, did I?”
I tilted my head to one side, in imitation of a puppy hearing a confusing noise. “I guess?” I ventured, unsure how to proceed.
“Ha! Only pulling your leg!” cried the giver of gifts. “Of course I made it do the things it does. If I hadn’t, then who would’ve? And if I hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t be giving it to you, would I?”
“I suppose not,” I mumbled.
One of the winged fellows started to say something. “Any…” it cleared its throat. “Mmh, any, um, side-effects?”
“Oh, you know, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, excessive sweating, irritability, inability to focus, an ever-present fear of the present moment and the manner in which future events will unfold…” It trailed off. “You know — that sort of thing,” it added half-heartedly, as a sort of afterthought.
“Oh, don’t be silly! I designed the gift in the manner that I designed it, and that’s that,” said the big one, clearly grinning from ear to ear in spite of its obscured facial features. “There’s no—” it raised its hands to do mock air quotations “—side-effects. All of the effects are entirely intended.”
“Yes, yes, of course, I’m sorry, it’s just that—”
The big one interrupted the smaller one again. “Now, now, I think we’ve taken up more than enough of this chap’s time, don’t you?”
“Yes, but before he goes I should check—”
“Excellent! Now, shall we stick our little present back in its box, so that you can take it home safely?” The smaller one with wings visibly deflated and took a step backwards with a huff.
I looked down at my torso. “I don’t know how to, I’m afraid. I think it’s inside my chest.”
“Here,” said the big one, taking a step closer. “Allow me.” Before I could stop it, it shoved its hand down my throat. Unlike the thing that looked like television static and a spider, the sensation was not unpleasant. It wasn’t pleasant, by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t traumatic and discomforting. A second later, it pulled the squirming, jabbering thing out of me, shoved it back in the box and slammed the lid shut. “I’d keep this closed until you get back down there,” it said with a smile. I couldn’t actually see the smile, but boy could I hear it. It then tried to pass the box back to me.
“I don’t—I mean, do I have to?”
I sensed the big one frown. “Have to?”
The smaller winged ones about me shuffled their feet (if that’s the right word for whatever they had at the end of their legs) uncomfortably. I had, evidently, made things awkward.
“You don’t like it?” it asked, sadly.
My chest began to feel tight, and I’m not ashamed to say I panicked. “No, I love it!” I all but shouted and gestured for it to give me the infernal gift. I didn’t want the thing inside the box, and I certainly didn’t want the thing inside the box inside me. But, perhaps more than all of those things combined, I didn’t want to upset this benevolent being. I didn’t want to make it sad. I didn’t — nay, couldn’t — tell it I didn’t like its gift. Even if it was a bloody terrible one.
“Grand!” it said, immediately perking up again. “I thought for a second there… Oh, no, never mind. Here,” it said, thrusting the container at me once more. Reluctantly, I took it. Almost immediately, the thing inside started squirming and fighting within its cubic prison. I think it could sense my proximity. The thought churned my stomach.
I smiled weakly. “Thank you. Very much!” I hoped my enthusiasm sounded more sincere than it felt. I wondered whether the big one could sense my falseness. If it did, it didn’t say so.
“You’re very welcome,” it said, warmly. “Now, I expect you’re itching to get back, aren’t you?”
“Well,” I said, weighing the box in my hands, “I guess.” I cleared my throat. “Although, I’m not entirely sure on how to do that. Sorry.” The tacked-on apology felt very clumsy as it tumbled out of my mouth.
“Not a problem,” said the big one, whose face I still couldn’t make out. I suppose I never would be able to make it out. I think that’s kind of the whole point, in a way. “Take the escalator,” it said, with a gesture of one of its massive hands.
I turned around and was only mildly shocked to discover that the changing room had been replaced with a descending escalator. The handrail was golden and shiny. “Oh, I didn’t see it there,” I said. The one who’d given me the present chuckled in response. “Well, in that case, I guess I better…” I nodded towards the exit. “Thanks for everything. It was a pleasure to meet all of you — really lovely.”
“You’re more than welcome. I look forward to seeing you soon — although, not too soon, of course!” At that, the big one bellowed a volley of gut-busting laughter. The smaller ones with wings offered some meek chuckles and chortles. I think they might have been pity laughs, but I couldn’t be sure.
On the surprisingly smooth journey back down from the clouds — towards my bed, I realised, as I could see my own sleeping form tucked under a rumpled duvet — I inspected the enclosure that housed the undesired gift. The little box had three words stamped on it. The last two were ‘FROM GOD’, with a little cross to mark a kiss beneath. It was sweet, really, when you thought about it. Well, if you thought about it but didn’t think about it too much, that was. The preceding word clearly described the contents of the box — the gift from the big guy upstairs:
20th March 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest