I felt hot and sticky and unsure of just where I was, but it was the darkness that worried me the most. I don’t sleep in dark rooms. It’s not a fear of the dark, at least it’s not just a fear of the dark. I can’t navigate in the dark, you see. I’m always bumping into things, stubbing my toe on some piece of random furniture.
And I’m never sure that I’m alone.
It’s not normally an issue. I don’t need a night light or anything. With the light from the digital clock, the standby light on the television, the glow from the power strip, and from the DVD player, there’s enough ambient light that I can see what I need to see. But there were none of those things.
The bed felt comfortable and familiar. The pillows felt like mine, and so did the blanket. Perhaps there had been a power outage. I fumbled around the headboard (also familiar), feeling for my cell phone. I could use the light from that to get my bearings. But I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t where I always left it, in the little inset shelf on the left side of the bed. Why wasn’t it there?
I sat up, carefully, letting my legs drop from the left side of the bed. I always sleep on the left side. I live alone now, it’s been five years since my wife left, but I still sleep on my side of the bed, just the same. I tried spreading out once, not long after her departure, but I couldn’t get comfortable that way. So I sleep on the left, and it was on the left side that my feet dropped to the floor, which felt colder than usual.
It was November, so it was cold outside. Not wintery yet, but cold enough that the heat had been kicking on. Perhaps the power was out. There was no sound of rain, but maybe the storm had passed. I hadn’t been woken by thunder though, and that usually shocks me awake.
I stood, feeling around carefully until I found my way to the wall where I knew the light switch was located. I flipped it and the room was flooded in sudden light so bright I had to shield my eyes for a moment. As my eyes became accustomed to the luminescence, I looked around. Each of my electronic items were still there, but none of them were lit up, I walked over to the television and pushed the power button.
I looked behind the TV and followed the cord back to the power strip. Still plugged in, but the strip wasn’t lit up. I followed that cord back to the wall and found it was also still plugged in, just as it should have been. Perhaps a fuse had blown. Were the lights on a different fuse from the wall outlets?
I walked out of my bedroom and down the hall, flipping on light switches as I went. They all seemed to work perfectly. It was my intention to walk past my kitchen and take the stairs down to the basement to check the fuse box, but something in my peripheral vision caught my eye and I stopped cold. I looked past the kitchen into the dining room. There, sitting in the center of the table, was an unexpected black box.
I felt a sudden dread come over me, but I couldn’t understand why. It would be logical, upon finding something heretofore unknown in one’s home, to think that an intruder might be present, but that wasn’t what I feared. In fact, it never even entered my mind. It was the box itself that inspired the dread and why would a box do that?
I walked closer to it, exercising great caution, and taking care not to touch the offending object. It wasn’t overly large, maybe a foot on each side. There appeared to be no seams or openings and it wasn’t made of cardboard. It had a sheen like plastic, but I wasn’t willing to touch it to be sure. I tried to think of what it could be, but only two things came to my mind when I thought of mysterious black boxes, the flight recorder in a plane and the strange obelisk at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both options felt ludicrous and uncomfortable to me.
I backed away from the table and went back to my bedroom, in search of my cell phone. I found it on the headboard, right where it should be. I wondered why I couldn’t find it earlier, but pushed the thought from my mind and pushed the button that was supposed to bring my phone to life. Nothing happened. The screen remained black.
Still in my pajamas, I hurried through the house and out the front door into a bright new day. The sun was blazing in the sky, not a cloud in sight, and that didn’t make any sense. It was still dark just a few minutes ago, or I would have been able to see just fine in my bedroom. How could so much time have passed? How long had I stood there, staring at that mysterious box?
I knew I needed help and if my phone wouldn’t work, I would go to a neighbor’s house and ask to use theirs. I didn’t really know any of my neighbors, even though I had lived in the same house for over a decade now, surely one would be kind enough to let me use their phone in an emergency?
If I could explain myself. Perhaps they wouldn’t understand. Would an unexpected box constitute an emergency to them? I was trying to work out how I would explain the problem as I crossed the street in front of my house, when I glanced down at the cell phone in my hand and saw light. It was on.
I looked at the screen. Everything appeared normal. I had three bars. As I stood looking at the screen, I suddenly felt cold and wet. I was standing in a puddle in the center of the road. It wasn’t a busy road and I probably could have stood there a while longer without encountering any traffic, but it felt wiser to return to the curb.
I turned and stepped back the way I had come. Just before I reached the edge of the road, the phone went out. I turned again and crossed back over the road. By the time I reached that curb, my phone was back on.
“Proximity,” I muttered. “If I’m close enough to the box, the phone doesn’t work.”
I brought up my contacts, and clicked on Cindy’s name. Cindy was clever, she’d know what to do. She answered on the third ring. “Peter? Are you okay? Where are you?” I worked with Cindy, at the township offices, and I was never late and almost never absent, except for a couple of days around the time of my divorce. Her alarm told me that I should have been at work by now, but with the strangeness of the morning it hadn’t occurred to me.
“My alarm clock isn’t working,” I said.
“I’ve tried calling you four times, it kept going straight to voicemail.”
“Neither is my phone. At least it wasn’t working in the house.”
“What?” Cindy sounded confused. “Are you okay? Are you coming in?”
“Can you come round to my house, Cindy? I think I need some help.”
“There’s a box on my kitchen table.”
“What kind of box?”
“A black one.”
The tone of my voice must have unsettled her because there was a moment’s silence and then Cindy said that she’d be right over. I watched the screen as I walked back to my house. It went dark as I stepped out of the road, but I kept watching it all the way back inside. As I expected, it stayed dark. I pushed a few buttons, but nothing happened.
I walked into my living room and dropped it onto the coffee table. Or rather, where the coffee table should have been. I watched as the phone fell to the carpeted floor, and looked at the coffee table, which was now about two feet to the left of where it had been. For some reason, that struck me as funny, but my laugh came out sounding hollow and fake. I sat on the couch and waited for Cindy to arrive.
While I waited, I looked around the room and made a mental list of the various discrepancies between what the room was like when I went to bed last night and what it was like now. Some of them, like the coffee table, were minor and easy to explain. Others seemed impossible.
There was a knock on the front door and I knew it was Cindy. It was far too early for it to be her, she would have to have found someone to cover the phones, made it to the garage and retrieved her car, and driven all the way across town, which is normally a forty minute commute, all in the space of what could only have been ten minutes since I had spoken with her.
None of that mattered though. When I opened that door I knew exactly what I’d see. Short and curly black hair and John Lennon glasses atop a force of nature. She was only a little younger than my thirty-nine years, but in appearance the gap was much wider. She looked barely out of college and full of life and love and energy. I could feel her through the door, ready to bounce in and save the day, and I felt relieved because I knew I’d see Cindy on the other side of that door when I opened it.
And I did.
“What on earth is going on, Peter?” She burst into the house like a Tasmanian devil. “Hamilton is pissed. All the paperwork for the Brunswick Development is due tomorrow and you’re not even in the office. I had to work through my lunch break trying to get caught up, and then I leave early to come check on you. We may have to go in at like five in the morning tomorrow if we’re going to get it done in time for the planning meeting. Why are you still in your pajamas?”
“I just got up.”
“At four in the afternoon?”
“I don’t think so.”
She stared at me for a minute, then looked around the room. “Strange, I thought you had a really high ceiling here, like ten feet or something.”
“What, you remodeled to make the place smaller? Who does that?”
I took her hand and pulled her down the hall, like a child wanting to show his mommy something. When we got to the doorway to the dining room I pointed and her eyes went to the black box. She shivered, like a chill had overcome her, and pulled back a little.
“It’s disgusting,” she whispered. “Obscene.”
I felt strangely relieved. Someone else could not only see the box, but they could perceive that it wasn’t just an ordinary box. It was something else, something disturbing.
“Where did it come from?” Cindy asked.
“I don’t know.”
She pulled her phone from her purse and brought it up like she was going to snap a picture of it, but the screen stayed dark. “My phone’s dead. But I just charged it in the car, on the way here.”
“Electronics don’t seem to work near the box. I had to step out into the road before I could call you.”
Cindy stepped into the dining room, edging step by step, ever closer to the box. She reached out to it, but instead of touching it directly, she tapped it with the edge of her phone. Sparks flew and she yelped as the phone burst into flames. She dropped it to the floor and we both stood and watched it burn. The case twisted and melted until it looked like it was in great pain, then the fire burnt itself out.
“That was not what I expected,” Cindy said.
“That was a six hundred dollar phone.”
“Right. So, it doesn’t like electronics. But the lights still work. So electricity isn’t the problem. Circuit boards or microchips, maybe? Something like that?”
I thought about it. “The power strip in my bedroom stopped working. I don’t think that has any circuit boards in it.”
“Maybe it needs the light because it’s so dark.”
We stood there in silence for a while, watching the box as if it were some kind of dangerous animal. There was a complicated series of deductions in my head but I couldn’t figure out how to explain them. I couldn’t even trace them all myself. Frustrated, I just blurted it out.
“I think it’s eating my house.”
Cindy glared at me. “What?”
“It may be eating time, too,” I said.
“Why do you have to do that? As if that box isn’t weird enough, you have to say something like that.”
I pulled her back into the living room. “I didn’t remodel anything, Cindy. The ceilings are lower than they were yesterday. And the room is smaller. It’s all going away.”
“That’s impossible, Pete. Reality doesn’t work like that.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know, my phone is a pile of molten goo!”
“Take a guess.”
“About dinner time.”
“Right, let’s take a look.” I pulled open the front door and we both looked outside. It was black as midnight.
Cindy looked at me like I was trying to trick her. “That’s not possible,” she said.
“Tell that to the box.”
We closed the door and went back to the dining room. The box was still sitting there, silent and ominous. Flat black and featureless on all sides and yet I still had the impression that it was smiling at me.
Cindy started pacing back and forth, taking care to stay away from the box. I tried to ask her what she was thinking but she just held up a hand and ignored me. I watched, wondering how much time was ticking by. The rate could have been consistent, but I didn’t think so. I suspect that it was speeding up all the time.
The dining room felt noticeably smaller now. I wondered what would happen when the room got too small for the table. In my mind I pictured the table starting to get crushed by the walls. That made me think of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars and in spite of everything that made me laugh.
Cindy stopped in her tracks and looked at me. I thought she was going to chide me for finding humor in the situation, but she just shook her head and said, “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“It feels like it’s all going to end here.”
“All of what?” she asked.
“All of everything. Like this is the end of the world.”
She looked back at the box. “It’s like a black hole.”
It was my turn to look shocked. “Black holes are in space.”
“Yeah, but I’ve read about them. At least theory. They swallow up everything, whole planets, whole systems. And they say that time is distorted around them. That’s what’s happening here, right? It’s eating the house and it’s distorting time.”
“I guess. But how does a black hole end up in a box?”
“Maybe the more important question is how the box ends up in your house.”
“What do you mean?’
“Why you, Pete? What is it about you that would bring something like that here?” She gestured at the box and her voice became more animated. “If a black hole found its way into a box like that, that’s one thing, and that’s weird enough. But then it appears out of nowhere in the center of your dining room table. Is it just happenstance, or is there something about here, or about you, that would draw it here?”
I thought about it, but I couldn’t think of anything special, either about my home or about me. “I’m just a normal man living in a normal house.”
“Are you, Pete?” She reached out and took my hand and held it in hers.
Her grip was warm and soft and I felt myself flush. I coughed nervously and she smiled at me. I had never really thought about it, but this was the first time since my divorce that I could remember consciously touching another human being. Was that possible? Could I have gone for years without any real contact with anyone? It seemed impossible.
But not as impossible as a black hole in my dining room.
“I’ve known you for years, Pete,” she continued. “I’d say we were friends, but I don’t think that’s really true. Friends do things together, they have fun. When was the last time you had fun, Pete? When was the last time you enjoyed something, anything?”
“I don’t remember,” I whispered.
“You’re kind of like a black hole yourself, Pete. It’s like all joy disappears inside you and nothing is left but drudgery and routine. Perhaps it’s drawn to you because of that.”
“Oh c’mon!” I protested. “It’s not like I’m the only unhappy person in the world. Do you have any idea how many people are on anti-depressants. If unhappiness is all it took there’d be a black hole box every half mile across the country.”
Cindy opened her mouth to reply but before she could there was a tremendous crashing noise from the living room. She dropped my hand and we both rushed to see what had happened. The crashing sound had been a large book case that had been partially crushed as the ceiling had gotten lower still. That was only one of the changes, though, and perhaps the least alarming of them.
The dimensions of the room had gotten noticeably smaller, not just in height but in width and depth. Oddly, some things seemed to have reduced in size along with the room, while others had not. The bookcase had still been its former height when the ceiling had crushed and toppled it, and the sofa appeared to be unchanged, while the coffee table was now smaller. The TV remained unchanged, but its stand had shrunk, making the TV appear much larger than it had been.
The windows had reduced in size along with the room, but the front door had not. It was crunched and partially folded and looked unlikely to ever open again. I walked to the window and looked out at my neighborhood. The sun was coming up now, but otherwise things looked pretty much the same.
“Maybe it’s just the house,” Cindy said. She was standing next to me at the window now, although I hadn’t noticed her approach.
I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so. I think the house is acting as a kind of seal, like a zip lock bag or something. But as soon as the house goes, it’ll start pulling in everything out there.”
“You don’t think we can run from it?”
“I think if we open a window to get out, we’ll break the seal and speed up the process.”
“Do you want the world to end?”
“No, of course not.”
“Are you sure?”
I thought about it. “I guess I have found myself wishing that it was all over and done with. Life, I mean. Not in a suicidal way, I don’t want to die, it’s just that I don’t really want to keep doing this, you know. It all seems so pointless.”
Cindy took my hand again. “I think the box is you, Pete.”
“I think it’s a manifestation of you and how you feel about life, without any of the complications. You’re trying to turn everything off.”
“I don’t understand.”
She pulled me over to the couch and we sat down. She kept hold of my hand. It felt nice, the first thing that had felt nice in a long time.
“How do you feel about me, Pete? Do you wish that I’d just turn off and go away?”
“No!” It came out louder and more forceful than I had intended. Apparently it was something that I felt strongly about.
She smiled. “That’s nice to hear. I think you’re sweet, Peter. And you’re kind of cute, too. One day, if the world survives, maybe we can explore that a little, although Hamilton might have a fit about it. But I don’t think we can use that to bring you back, that’s an awful lot of weight to put on a relationship.”
“Bring me back?”
“To life. I think that’s what this is really all about, Peter. I think that box is black and dead because that’s what you’re like inside now. I think you’ve let all the joy in you shrivel up and fade away and now you’re letting the same thing happen to reality.”
“How do we fix that?”
“I have an idea, but first we need to get outside. Hang on.” She dashed into the kitchen and a moment later she was back with two glasses. “Window,” she said.
I tried pulling the living room window open, but the frame had bent and it wouldn’t budge. Cindy gestured for me to hurry up, so I grabbed an end table and pitched it through the glass. We knocked as many of the remaining shards loose as we could and then we carefully climbed out into the afternoon sun.
Cindy dashed for her car and I watched her rummage through her trunk and I felt something stir within me. It wasn’t sexual, not then, but maybe it was affection. I hadn’t felt anything but despair in so long that I had a hard time identifying it, but whatever it was, it felt good.
She came back to me with a bottle of wine, a corkscrew, and a giant box of cookies. “Supplies,” she said, and grinned. “For my big night in. Netflix and chill all by myself, that was the plan. This is better, I think.”
We sat in the grass on my front lawn and we drank and we ate and we enjoyed the sunny day. We talked about silly things and her laugh was both delightful and infectious. I knew this wasn’t everything, that it might not last, and that the rest of the world was still waiting out there, ready to pounce. But as Cindy told me then, you take your joy where you can find it. On that fine sunny afternoon, a bottle of pinot grigio, a box of chocolate chip cookies, and Cindy’s hand in mine was enough to save the world.