“Get back in the box!” I gasped, recovering my balance. An old hiking staff lay near my hand, and I clutched it with both hands, hoping to ward off the strange man.
“I don't want to go back in the box.”
“Get back in the box! That's where you belong!”
“Says you. I think I like it out here. Who are you to order me around, anyway?”
“This is my room! This is my house! That's my box!”
“Then you get in the box. I'm going to get a soda.”
I pushed the stick in his face, and my eyes contorted with crazy, stupid rage. “You. The box. Now.” He looked down the end of the stick, unconcerned but visibly annoyed. “We don't have soda, anyway.”
“Now that's ridiculous.” He pushed the stick away with a wave of his hand. “It's a hundred degrees out here. You've got to have refreshments.” He started walking to the door.
“I don't like soda. It makes me gassy.”
He stopped walking. “You. You are ridiculous.”
It was then that I remembered myself. “Get back in the box!”
“Oh not this again.”
“I mean it!” I meant it. Sort of.
“Look, why do you even want me in the box?”
“You came out of the box. Now...I'm scared? Of you, out of the box. So get in the box!”
“Let me get this straight,” he said, as he sat down on the aforementioned box. “You open a box that has been sitting in your closet for, how many years now?”
“Three. Three years. Five. Eight?”
“You have no idea how long this box has been here.”
“I know it was after middle school.”
“Yes, and that was a very long time ago.”
“Ok, sure. Ten years, maybe.”
“Anyway, you opened a box, and it's been here for a decade. That's a very long time.”
“I suppose it is.”
“And when you opened it, a scary man came out.”
“Ummm...yes. Yes, that is basically, exactly what happened.”
“And God knows how long he's been in there, right?”
“I know! That's what makes it so scary!” I was having a little trouble staying focused.
The man sighed. “And now, you want that scary man to go back in the box, to sit in the closet for another indefinite period of time?”
“Probably watching you while you sleep...”
“Please, please tell me you haven't been watching me while I sleep.”
“Well I will now, if you make me go back in the box.”
I covered my eyes with my hands, in shame. “My God, you're an asshole.”
"You're the one without any soda for your guests."
"Just...just tell me, who or, what, the hell are you?" I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples vigorously, desperately trying to will the last ten years out of existence. It didn't work.
Gently, he picked up my fallen staff and leaned it against the wall. He sat down next to me on the bed, a look of deep compassion on his face. "Which?"
"Who, or what?"
"Well," he said, "what I have to tell you is going to sound very, very difficult to believe. Unless you do your best and keep an open mind, I'm afraid it would be a big waste of time."
"I'll see what I can do."
"You see," he began, "my name is very difficult to pronounce, so you can call me 'John.' I'd tell you my true name, but it would take you a while to say it right, and I'd rather not waste all of that time."
"For someone who's been sitting in a box for ten years," I interrupted, "you'd think wasting time wouldn't be such a big deal."
"Who said I wasn't busy? If you wouldn't interrupt, I'd get to that a lot faster!"
"Anyway," he continued, "it just so happens that I was very busy the entire time. Or, most of the time, anyway. You see, I belong to a race of people who live in boxes. We have a name, but it's not a very good name, so you might as well call us the Box People. Most people don't know very much about the Box People, because most people don't go looking in old boxes very much. Understand?"
"Very much," I answered, "as far as it goes."
"And it goes further than that. You see, from the first invention of boxes, my people have lived in them. We've lived our entire lives in boxes, moving from box to box as needs arose. We've raised our families, conducted our businesses, and sought out the mysteries of the universe, all from within the confines of boxes; thousands, millions of boxes, all over the world. Inside of each box there may be a whole community of Box People, or there may be none at all: more rarely, a box may be inhabited by a single Box Person. It is a lonely existence, but there are certain aspects of living in boxes that can only be appreciated in isolation."
"Living by yourself, in a box," I observed, emptily.
It occurred to me that continuing to react as emotionally as before would not do me any good. The situation was very weird, but it was real. At least, real enough that it had to be dealt with responsibly. So I decided to think it out. I sat for a minute, pondering his tale and pondering the most appropriate response to it. At length I turned to the man and said, "you're making that up. I can tell."
"Really. First of all, it's completely impossible. You don't address any of the inherent impossibilities in your story. It's like you expect me to suppose some magical element that makes it all possible, even though you never even bother to describe what that element is, and I can't even begin to imagine what it could be. I don't think anyone could. Or should, really. It's clearly just a ridiculous lie."
"And yet," he said, smugly, "I'm here, and you can't explain it to yourself."
"That's true. And I almost believed you for that reason. But since you told the whole story with that same smug, condescending tone you're using now, I've decided to go ahead and assume that you don't really mean to tell me who you are, and that you've just been messing with my head this whole time."
"Well, you can believe that if you want."
"Thank you. I will."
"In the meantime," he said, exactly as smugly as before, "I'm still a guest in your house. Maybe you should get me some soda?"
In one sublime, fluid motion, my palm met my face with a resigned slap. "Fine. Fine. Fuck it. I'll get you a soda. You just stay right here, don't go anywhere. I'll get you a soda."
I left my parents' house and drove to the nearest gas station. It was already evening time, and if I'd had my way I wouldn't have been going anywhere, but sometimes things happen that have to be dealt with immediately. Well, perhaps not immediately, but it's usually better if you do, because otherwise they sit around in your room, telling you lies and complaining about what you do and don't have for them to drink.
I walked into the Seven Eleven, half-ignoring the customary greeting from the kid behind the counter. Almost automatically, I I retrieved the requested beverages from the refrigerator in the back, and traversed the sticky floor back to the registers. It felt much more familiar than it had any reason to feel.
"A six pack of Pepsi?" asked the fuzzy young man behind the cash register.
"That's what I've got."
"Did you want anything else?"
"Well, what else would you recommend?"
"Ummmm..." he stalled, desperately searching for something to offer me.
"Actually, I'd really appreciate a suggestion. I'm probably not going to enjoy this Pepsi very much. Too gassy, you know?"
Visibly confused, he scratched his head, stuttering finally, "beef jerky?"
"Do you want some... beef jerky, I guess?"
"Huh. You know, I think I would like some beef jerky."
"Do you... still want the Pepsi?"
I sighed as I paid the cashier, and began counting the days until summer's end.
I ran into my mom as soon as I got home, though I tried not to make eye contact. It didn't matter: she simply had to know why I was cradling a sixpack of diet Pepsi on the way back to my bedroom. I couldn't blame her for being surprised.
"I don't know. I had a craving? A craving for Pepsi."
"Well, you usually don't crave things like that."
"Yeah, well, weird things happen sometimes."
"By the way," she added, "I put those things back in the box in your closet for you."
My heart stalled. I played it cool. "You did, huh?"
"Yes, I did. Did you want to take any of those things back home with you?"
"Umm... no. No, I definitely don't want anything in that box following me home."
She laughed, probably because it sounded funny. "OK. I'll keep holding onto it for you. Let me know if you change your mind."
Back in my room, I found no strange men lurking in the shadows; only a closed box, sitting in its familiar spot in the closet. None of its contents remained outside, least of all my strange visitor. As relieved as I was, I didn't see myself changing my mind any time soon.
"Asshole," I muttered, placing the box of warm Pepsi cans on the lid of the box, thereby fulfilling my promise to my unwanted house guest. I took one for myself, in a halfhearted and unnecessary display of hospitality. I drank it, and it was warm and gassy and terrible. I'm sure he would have enjoyed it.
I didn't know where John the Box Man had gone, or whether he was telling the truth about his life and adventures. I really couldn't be sure that he was even real, or just the product of a bored imagination. The only way to confirm his existence, opening the box, didn't seem like a very good idea. Now that he was gone, frankly, I found it surprisingly easy to just stop caring. I could go a very, very long time without opening that box again.
After about an hour or so of TV, I felt tired. More tired than usual, actually; I told myself I wasn't feeling well. People can hallucinate when they're under the weather, and I couldn't be happier than to know I'd been hallucinating. I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed, confident once again that I was truly alone.
And after about a minute, I thought better of it, and closed the closet door.