The mystery of the box that came back

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I got a care package of healthy snacks from my best friend a few weeks ago. I’m not accustomed to receiving dietary recommendations by post, and he’s not in the practice of sending them. But I never turn my nose up at free food, especially the guilt-free variety. Besides, he still owes me money—which is why I had no qualms about attacking his gift like an upright, two-legged swine.

I tore hangrily into the enormous cardboard box, poured its contents onto my kitchen counter, cast the box into the hallway by the front door, and proceeded to stuff my gullet sick—but I wasn’t greedy. Between savage mouthfuls, I managed to find it in my heart to share some of the edible wealth with my wife.

Two days later, there came a knock upon the front door. It was the mailman. He was holding a box that looked like the identical twin of the one I’d received, but the expression on his face told me I wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

“Hey,” he said, “you got a package, but there’s a problem with it. It’s empty.”

As if to demonstrate his veracity, he hoisted the box effortlessly with one hand and gave it a shake. Its insides resounded hollowly.

“No shit?” I said.

(I work for myself, and I work from home, and my work companions are my two boxer dogs, who aren’t fabulous conversationalists. As a result, it sometimes takes me a bit of effort to regain my powers of adult communication. It’s an occupational hazard of the self-employed dog owner.)

I took the box and turned it over in my hands. It was empty, alright. There was an unsightly gash on the side that looked like it was made by a raccoon on a search-and-consume mission. The hole had been pressed back into place, and the box had been resealed with priority shipping tape and reinforced with plastic strapping bands.

“The only thing I can figure happened,” the mailman said, “was that the box broke open in our delivery center, and whatever was in there fell out. They probably found the box like that and sealed it up again.”

It was probably one of the most unlikely scenarios anyone could have dreamed up, but I gave him a pass. I looked at the sender’s name and address and recognized my best friend’s inimitable chicken scratch.

Another care package? I thought. He must really be trying to butter me up for something. If it’s another loan, he can forget about it.

“If you know what was in it,” the mailman continued, “there’s a slim chance we might be able to track it down. Did you order something?”

“I think it was more food,” I said and launched into a description of my previous delivery, the contents of which now coursed through my guts on their way to eventual evacuation.

In response, the mailman hung the only silver lining over a day now colored by the knowledge I wouldn’t be gorging on another box o’ goodies: The package was insured for $50. All I had to do was contact the sender and have them call their post office. I didn’t see how that would help me in my newfound predicament, but I decided it wasn’t his fault. I nodded and smiled and told him it was no big deal.

When the mailman was gone, I pulled out my cell phone and sent a text: Dude, did you send me another package??

No, came the reply. I only sent you the one. Don’t be a greedy pig.

Fair dinkum, I might have said, but as much as I wish I was, I’m not Australian. So instead, I replied, Seriously. I just got an empty package from you.

My mind spun like a pinwheel as I waited for his reply. Was this a bad practical joke? Would my best friend have actually paid money to send me an empty box? Would anyone even consider that remotely funny? And if he didn’t send it, who did?

My cell phone chirped. Nope. Just the one box. You’re lucky I sent you anything.

One ungrateful bastard to another.

At this point, my focus shifted from the grievous injury laid upon me by a full-fledged USPS miscarriage to the prospect that I was witness to an unfolding mystery, and I did what every living person who ever weaned their creative brain on the likes of Rod Serling and Richard Matheson has done at least once in their lives: I checked my reality. Had I sidestepped into an alternate universe where the package never got to me in one piece?

I was so briefly convinced of this that I considered texting my wife to ask her if we really did receive a package in the mail, then thought better of it. Because in real life, things like this don’t happen. In real life, there are rational explanations for everything. And in real life, husbands who ask such questions are immediately peppered with inquiries as to how much they’ve had to drink and if they left enough in the bottle to share.

I scrolled back a few days through my texts—past infantile proclamations, banal movie quotes, and stupid “your mom” jokes—to the message from my friend that read: Sent you a package just now! Tell me when it arrives.

I checked the timestamp of the text message. Then I checked the postmark on the package. They matched. This was the same box.

Only two possibilities existed. Both were as ludicrous as they were terrifying, yet what other explanation could there be? Someone had entered my house, stolen the empty box, and dropped it off at the post office, where it was likely tossed back into the queue for delivery. Or the damn thing had gotten there on its own.

I cannot say with any certainty how long I stood there, staring at that cheerless cardboard carcass, head spinning in delirious contemplation of a mystery beyond mystery, hearing the dissonant electric guitar strains of The Twilight Zone theme. But I can say that when the front door swung open and my wife walked through, I nearly had a coronary.

When she finally stopped laughing—and after I had reasonably recovered, and the threat of my imminent death had receded—my wife aimed a finger at the box on the floor. “What’s that doing here?”

“You see it too?” I spat, and the look that crossed her face resembled that of a bride on the altar wondering if the man she was about to hitch herself to for better or for worse was, in fact, worse.

“No, of course you see it,” I stammered in feeble attempt at recovery, “yeah, I know that. But … this box!” I thrust my arms downward, palms up, all incoherent gesticulation. “This is the box I got the other day. And the mailman just delivered it again! Empty! Am I losing my mind? This is the same box, isn’t it?”

Her eyes grew slowly wide and her eyebrows arched, fixing me with a stare befitting a raving looney.

“Yes, it is,” she said, enunciating each syllable deliberately, as if trying to impart a simplistic concept upon a troglodyte on the lowest possible evolutionary rung. “I used it to take a bunch of small packages to the post office. I left it at the counter. Someone probably thought it was a delivery and processed it by mistake.” Then she laughed. “How funny!”

I can’t say my heart sank. As much as I want to believe in the possibility that the world we occupy isn’t all just colliding physical matter existing for the flash of an instant amid constant chaos, a small part of me was relieved I hadn’t come unstuck from reality, and that I’d still be able to watch the Friday night fights in my underwear on the couch under a lapful of dogs.

In that moment, the weight of the rational world came crashing all around me like a cartoon orchestral exclamation. Here there be no tygers of imagination’s invention. Here there be only reason, and a good old-fashioned faceful of chagrin.

“Oh, okay,” I said and shrugged. “That makes sense.”

Logic: 1. Supernatural: 0.

 

 

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