The Box arrives on his fiftieth birthday.
It is sitting on the desk in his office, wrapped in shiny black paper, adorned with a scarlet bow. It is square, the kind of box that might contain a paperweight, or a large book, or a box of chocolates.
Really, it could be anything.
The box has no card. No one knows where it came from. A practical joke, perhaps? The nod to his age, the black paper, the blood red bow, centered on top.
The box fills him with dread.
It is a heavy sensation, the dread.
The women in his office want him to open it, but he shakes his head. He doesn’t want to open the box. Not yet. Not in front of anyone.
It’s Scarlett, who’s made him this way. Crazy Scarlett, the threat of her always hanging over his head. She’s certifiable. He didn’t know, of course, that she was crazy, or he would have run for the hills. The last time he saw her, she had sliced her arm open, three times. Once for each time they’d been together. “See what you did?” she said, eyes shining with hate.
“You need help, Scarlett,” he’d said.
“Yeah?” she said and laughed. Her laugh used to flood him with warmth, from his toes, into his groin, spreading into his chest, flushing his face. He had even thought once he might be in love with her. Not now. Now, her laugh makes the hair on his body spring up, shivering and marching across flesh.
It would be Scarlett, who would send a box like this.
The last thing she said- You remind me of my father.
After that, things went rotten.
What’s in the box?
Scarlett was a virus. She infected. She spread. Like poison.
His cell phone rings, startles him.
“Happy Birthday, Paul,” his ex-wife says.
“Hey, Shelly,” he says. He isn’t surprised. He and his second wife have never really been able to separate completely. They were wound up together. “Did you leave me something here?”
“No,” she says. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing, never mind.”
“No, what do you mean?”
“Someone left a box for me, here,” he says. “Wrapped in black paper.”
She laughs, thinks it’s funny. He doesn’t remind her she’s hitting the big 5-0 next year. Shelly has a quick temper. Then her laughter halts, and she says, “you sound rattled.”
Rattled? Was that the word for it? He wasn’t RATTLED. He just knew Scarlett.
“You think it’s from her,” she says.
“No,” he said.
“Paul, she wasn’t a witch.” He hears her annoyance, feels it grate his exposed nerves.
Scarlett said she was a witch. Well, she didn’t say that, really. She said her ancestors were witches. She said they could do things and she stared over the table at him and sipped blood red wine that clung to her mouth, stained her lips. Smiled coldly.
“I know that.”
He had split with Scarlett, because even though she was young and funny and wickedly smart, she was insane. Shelly had a mean temper? Well, Scarlett had her beat hands down. She got angry from the tips of her black hair all the way down, eyes spitting sparks and throwing things, screaming.
Of course, he didn’t see that side of her until they broke up. What made him leave was the manic periods, where she never slept, and she never ate and she moved at the speed of light. She bounced around and talked with her hands flying wildly. She didn’t brush her hair, and she didn’t go to work, and she went nuclear when he told her he was too old and tired for her, that she needed someone with more to give. It was fun, kiddo, but it’s over.
“Open it,” Shelly says. “There’s no card or anything?”
“No,” he says.
Scarlett, drunk, blood red mouth, her sharp canines biting into her lower lip, dragging that knife across her arm. Look what you made me do, Paul.
Scarlett, backing him up against the wall. Putting that bloody arm across his neck. Could he have pushed her away? Probably, but he thought that would just escalate the situation. Exactly what he told Shelly later, best to let her run out of steam. He wouldn’t have told Shelly, but Scarlett had confronted her, screaming at her in the parking lot of Walgreens, that she was turning him against her.
She’s mad, Shelly said to him. I mean, Paul, you should have seen her. Hair like a rat’s nest, wearing some goddamn black wrinkled dress, it was so windy, it blew that dress and her hair around like something from a movie. You’ve fatal attractioned yourself.
“Oh, for god sake, Paul, just open it,” Shelly says.
He can hear his pulse in his ears, the steady rushing of blood. Does the box pulse with his own heartbeat? He could swear it was expanding, contracting, just slightly, just enough to catch his eye, but had he just stared too long?
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
Scarlett went away. She didn’t call. She didn’t write. She did leave a bloody hand towel on his porch, probably from the arm. It was pinned to the wooden planks with a knife. There was a piece of paper, too, imprinted with her bright red lips. No words. She didn’t have to say anything.
The box isn’t pulsing. That’s ridiculous. He’s driving himself crazy.
“I will,” he says, and he wants off the phone, desperate to avoid Shelly bullying him into opening the box. “I gotta go, Shelly, ok?”
“Open the box, Paul,” she says, “get it over with.”
But he’s hanging up.
A year is an awful long time to hold a grudge.
He looks for Scarlett online, but there’s nothing. Not even social media. She went by strange names, anyway, on the sites. Scarlett had disappeared as rapidly as she had appeared, just popped up next to him at Coffee Cups, lost wallet, turning her purse upside down, shaking out change.
He bought her coffee of course, she’s gorgeous, and had that free spirit thing going for her-messy hair in a bun, hippie skirt, thin tanned arms revealed by a tank top.
One month, five dates, three sexual encounters. How can that drive a person to this?
Don’t date girls with daddy issues, his buddy told him when he divorced. Fucking nightmares, all of them. But you didn’t ask the hot girl at the coffee shop if she had daddy issues, did you?
The morning after the bloody towel, he bit into a perfectly good peach and it burst into his mouth, rotten juices gagging him. He lost his keys. Forgot an important meeting. Water pipes burst. Blew a head gasket, out of nowhere. Forgot to pay his car insurance, it lapsed, he wrecked it, broke his arm and leg. He had a permanent limp. He’d hit his head against the windshield, starred the glass. He remembers hearing Scarlett’s laugh as he drifted into unconsciousness. She did it.
The deer on the hood, its glassy dead eyes staring into his. Another warning.
The afternoon is a wash. He can’t stop thinking about the box, and he finally gives up, sits down at this desk. The paper is sealed with wax. His heart rate increases. He feels cold as ice. It’s from her.
He separates the edges from each other, unwraps the box. He sets the bow down, folds the paper into its own neat square. The box is plain brown cardboard.
The moment before he opens the box, he can feel it pulse under his hands. He goes through with it anyway. Inside the box, is a large mouthed mason jar. In the jar is something maroon, oddly shaped.
He pulls it out, a plain clear jar, with a gold lid.
Inside the jar, a four-chambered heart. He remembers it from when he used to hunt deer with his father. It’s smaller than a deer heart.
Is it a pig heart, maybe? Is it sheep, or lamb, something you can get a butcher shop?
The shriveled heart sits on his desk.
He has to talk to Scarlett. This is insane. Before he can talk himself out of it, he has dialed her number, deleted from his phone, seared into his memory.
“Took you long enough,” Scarlett says, and he can hear she’s smiling.
His heart seizes in his chest. “What the hell is this?” he finally gets out.
“What ever do you mean?” Scarlett says, and she is laughing at him, she’s fucking with him, she’s undoing him.
“There is a heart in a jar on my desk,” he hisses. “I know you did it.”
She is silent.
“Scarlett, you have to get over this,” he says. “I didn’t do anything wrong to you.”
“Oh, that’s funny,” she said, and now she does laugh. It comes across his phone like bugs crawling into his ear. “That’s rich.”
“It didn’t work out, is all, Scarlett. I didn’t mistreat you, did I?”
“You left me. Abandoned me,” she says, plaintive.
“That’s how relationships end,” he says.
“Scarlett, you sliced your arm open and threatened me!”
“Don’t you want to know where the heart came from?” Scarlett asks.
“No,” he says.
“It’s human,” she tells him.
His breath seems caught in his chest, unable to be expelled. For a long moment, he draws no air in or out. Then he says, “you’re lying. Where in the hell would you even get a human heart?”
“You shouldn’t mess with what you don’t understand,” she says.
There is a click, and the connection ends.
He can hear her laughing.
In the jar, the heart begins to beat.
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