While I’m dealing with real life–and trying to get some work done–here’s a free story. I wrote this a long time ago, probably 10 years or more. It’s not related to anything else I’ve done but it was fun to write. Well, I’ll be honest. It also let me vent a little about the government trying to tell us what is good for us to eat and what isn’t.
Now for the legal stuff. This is my work. It can’t be reproduced or shared without my permission. Copyright is mine. You know the drill. Oh, and there will probably be some spelling and grammar errors. I didn’t take time to go back and re-edit it because I didn’t want to fall into the story and lose a day or more fixing it or–worse–expanding it.
Free Surprise in Every Box
Let me start by making one thing perfectly clear. I hate mornings. It doesn’t matter if it’s a beautiful Spring morning with fresh dew on the lawn and flowers in bloom or a crisp Winter morn after a fresh snowfall. It just doesn’t matter. Mornings should be outlawed. While we’re at it, the weekend should be as long, or longer, than the workweek. Surely that’s not too much to ask for.
Which is why, as I reached for the new box of Choco Crispy Crunchies from the cabinet, my first thought was, Coffee. Must have coffee. My second was to wonder what the free surprise inside the cereal box would be this time.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a junkie. A junkie who has to have her regular fix of those overly sweet, totally non-nutritious children’s cereals advertised during Saturday morning cartoons. Let me tell you, as such a junkie, it’s getting harder and harder to find something to fill the bill. The food police and the politically correct crowd have not only ruined Saturday morning cartoons — everything has to be “educational” now — but they are doing away with most of the really good cereals – and anything else that isn’t deemed “good for you”. Which is why, when I saw the box of Choco Crispy Crunchies on the store shelf the other day, I couldn’t help myself. I had to buy it, and damn the consequences.
I even dug through all the other cereal boxes on the shelf to make sure I wasn’t overlooking any other boxes of that most wonderful of sugar fixes. And, if there had been others, I’d have bought them too.
So, bleary eyed and not quite awake, I plopped the box down on the counter next to my cereal bowl and staggered the three steps across the kitchen to the refrigerator. Milk, the only nutritious portion of my breakfast. Whole milk, too. None of that skim milk or two percent crap. Real, whole milk with all the fats and good stuff included. It cost a small fortune and I had to sign a stack of releases promising not to sue the store for any medical conditions that might arise from drinking the milk. Then I had to swear not to avail myself of the benefits of our universal healthcare system because I’d been foolish enough to drink whole milk against governmental advice. But what could I do? You have to have real milk with sugary cereal or it just isn’t worth it.
My hand froze halfway to the milk, and I cocked my head to one side, listening. The cool air escaping from the fridge chilled my bare feet, but I ignored it as my ears strained to locate the source of the sound. Nothing. It must have been my imagination. That’s all. I was alone in the apartment. I didn’t own any animals and the place was rodent and insect free. That had been a huge selling point for me when I first leased this place. There aren’t many things I’m scared of, but show me a roach or let a mouse — or worse, a rat — run across my path and I instantly transform into a screaming, helpless fool looking for the nearest chair or table to climb up on.
The coffee maker burbled from the counter behind me and I chuckled softly, relieved. There was my answer. The rattle hadn’t been a rattle after all. It had been the coffee maker and my sleep-fogged brain hadn’t realized it. That simply meant I’d better have a mug of that wonderful brew—another vice and something else the government has tried to take away from because caffeine is bad for us—before trying to do anything else that morning, including fixing breakfast.
I turned, milk carton in hand, and shoved the refrigerator door shut with my hip. Coffee first. Then sugar high. The perfect way to start the morning.
“What the –”
The milk carton slipped from my fingers and my eyes felt as if they might pop out of my head with a boing just as they did in those old Saturday cartoons. I ignored the milk as it splashed all over me, the floor and everything within a five-foot radius — basically, all over the kitchen. Instead, my attention was riveted on the cereal box where it sat on the counter, rocking to and fro. From inside came a scrabbling noise, like someone reaching deep down into the box to find the free surprise. I swallowed hard and took a step back, slipping on the forgotten milk. My arms flailed as I fought for balance. But I barely noticed. The only thing that mattered just then was the box, that bright red and yellow box of Choco Crispy Crunchies doing a dance of possession on my countertop.
Okay, I can handle this.
Sure I could. That’s why my heart pounded fit to beat the band and I’d suddenly forgotten the simple mechanics of breathing.
Get hold of yourself.
I licked my lips and took a cautious step forward. As if sensing my approach, the box was suddenly still, the scrabbling from inside stopped. The only sounds in the kitchen were the coffee maker giving one last gurgle as it finished brewing and my heart beating loudly enough to be heard next door.
I breathed deeply once, twice, telling myself there was nothing unusual about a cereal box coming to life on my kitchen counter. There had to be a perfectly logical explanation. Somewhere along the line between the factory and the store, something had managed to get inside. A bunch of bugs, maybe even a mouse. I shuddered at the thought and took a step toward the door before I stopped myself.
Maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe the food police had put something in there to scare folks like me out of eating a cereal that was so unhealthy. After all, they’ve done everything else to “convince” us to eat so-called healthy foods, the sort of thing I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding if at all possible. The very fact that something called “tofurkey” exists proves there is true evil in the world.
That’s it. This was some sort of bad practical joke designed to break sugar junkies of all ages of their habit. Well, it was going to take more than that to keep me from my Choco Crispy Crunchies.
Feeling a bit more courageous, I took a step toward the counter. Only to come to an immediate halt as the box once more began rocking back and forth, that scrabbling sound seeming even more insistent. Damn, but they were good. Had they put in some sort of motion detector? But that didn’t make sense. If they had, why hadn’t the box twitched and made noise in the grocery store whenever someone came near? Or in the car? Or even when I brought the groceries in and put them up?
Considering all that can be done with computers and such, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to think that someone out there had been able to come up with some sort of gadget that could detect when the box had been brought home and stored. Simple really, when you think about it.
Still, it could be a mouse or bugs—or something even worse. But what’s worse than that? The landlord would never give me back my deposit if he had to come fumigate the place.
I blew out a breath and looked around for something, I’m not sure what. I felt foolish thinking I might need a weapon to subdue my morning sugar fix. Still, I didn’t want to let anything loose in my apartment either. I shivered as, unbidden, the image of my home being overrun by mice and roaches flashed in my mind.
Nope. That wasn’t going to happen. As much as I hated it, I’d have to do without my Choco Crispy Crunchies this morning. I wasn’t about to run the risk of opening the box and having who knew what escape.
So, first things first. I needed a bag or, better yet, a box—an extraordinarily strong box—to toss the Choco Crispy Crunchies into. Then I’d seal it up as tightly as possible before taking it outside to the dumpster. And not the dumpster closest to my apartment. Oh no. I’d take it to the one at the opposite end of the complex. Hell, I might even take it to one on the other side of town. As far as I was concerned, the further away it, and its mysterious contents, were from my place, the better.
That’s why, less than two minutes later, I stood with garbage bag in hand, trying to figure out how to get the box inside the bag without touching it. At least the box had quieted down again. Taking advantage of the momentary lull in the action, I slowly, carefully tiptoed closer. Holding my breath and praying the beating of my heart didn’t give me away, I carefully examined the box.
It was an ordinary box. Its bright, almost garish red and yellow coloring was exactly as it should have been. The top flaps appeared tightly sealed. I couldn’t see any damage to the front, back or sides that might explain how something could have gotten inside. Still, I wasn’t about to touch the box and turn it upside down to check the bottom. Not if by doing so I might give whatever was inside the chance to escape and set up home in my apartment.
Quit being foolish and just do it.
I reached out and grabbed an oven mitt from the holder next to the stove and slid my right hand inside. Of course, after I used it to protect me from the box, it would go into the trash bag as well. Pity. I happened to really like that particular mitt, but I wasn’t going to be picky. No, I wanted that box out of my apartment now.
I drew a deep breath, got the sack ready, reached out —
And leapt back with a curse as the box suddenly jumped — I swear it jumped at least three inches off the counter — and fell on its side.
“What the hell!”
I plastered myself against the refrigerator, wishing I could become one with the appliance. My heart pounded and my eyes refused to look anywhere but at the box that now seemed to be trying to right itself. Memory of a commercial had the tag line, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” echoed in my head. Laughter, more than slightly hysterical, bubbled up inside me. Okay, maybe I’d gone so long without a sugar fix that I was now going through a really bad withdrawal. Maybe this was why the food police kept telling us to eat fiber and bran.
Whatever it was, I wanted it over.
Once more I screwed up my courage. Whatever was in that box, I wanted it out of my home. Unfortunately, because I lived alone, it also meant I had to take care of it myself. And that wouldn’t happen if I just stood there, cowering against the refrigerator.
“You can do this,” I said softly, wishing I really believed it.
Once more I took one step and then another toward the counter and the violently rocking box. I halfway expected it, at any moment, to sprout arms and legs and jump up, screaming at me for not helping it. Well, it was one thing to help a person, or even an animal needing help. But I draw the line at cereal boxes, especially before I’ve had my morning coffee.
Fighting the urge to turn and run, I reached once more for the box. Holding my breath, the garbage sack strategically positioned at the edge of the counter, my oven mitt-covered hand moved ever closer to the box. Its violent rocking slowed, calmed until it barely quivered on the counter. Maybe it was as scared of me as I was of it, or maybe it hoped I’d go away if it was very still. I didn’t care which. As long as it was quiet, I could grab it, shove it in the bag and get it the hell out of my apartment.
If it had been possible to jump inside the refrigerator without opening the door, I would have. Instead, I once more pressed against it, my head whipping right and then left as I searched frantically for the speaker. This was getting too bizarre. First my cereal box seemed to have a life of its own and now, out of nowhere, there comes a voice. Of course, logic — if such a thing could be applied to this situation — said the voice came from the box. But that couldn’t be right. Could it?
“P-p-please. D-don’t hurt me.”
Okay, that did it. I was spooked but, more than that, I was getting mad. This had to be someone’s idea of a joke and it wasn’t funny. It wouldn’t be funny even if I’d had a cup of coffee — or a pot of coffee. But without even that much to help me face the morning, it was not in the least bit amusing.
And it was time whoever was behind this realized it.
“I’m sure you think this is all very funny, but it’s not,” I said as I stepped forward. My mitted hand closed over the box and lifted it, giving it a shake.
The soft plea did seem to come from the box. I lifted it, carefully turning it so I could see all four sides as well as the bottom. Everything looked perfectly normal. So, whatever had been put inside it, whatever sort of transmitter or thingamajig, had been done at the factory. Fine. It could go back to the factory, or the dump, I really didn’t care which.
I bent to retrieve the trash bag from where I’d dropped it. “Stop it!” I snapped when the box began to vibrate in my hand.
Oh great. Now I was talking to a box. A box that moved. And talked. And this was most definitely NOT fun.
It was time to think rationally and not just react. But what was rational about this situation?
That’s easy. First things first. Make sure that whatever is in the box — if there really is anything in it — can’t get out. And a plastic garbage bag wouldn’t be much of a barrier if it managed to tear through cardboard. Panic flared as the box once more vibrated in my hand and, without thinking, I tossed it onto the table. A quick look around and my eyes fastened on the heavy glass cake plate and dome my mother had given me as a Christmas gift several years ago. I grabbed the dome and slammed it over the box. It was a tight fit but fit it did. Now, if whatever was in the box got out, it would be trapped.
Blowing out a breath, I stripped off the oven mitt and leaned against the counter, never taking my eyes from the box. For a few moments, it didn’t move and, fortunately, no little voice came from it. Then it began moving again, the front of the box rippling as if something was trying to force its way out. I swallowed hard as the way the box expanded and then contracted reminded me of John Hurt’s character in Alien just before his chest exploded and the monster emerged.
I was being foolish. This wasn’t some monster movie, and nothing was about to erupt from the box of Choco Crispy Crunchies, ready to eat me or turn me into a human incubator for its young. This was nothing more than someone’s warped sense of humor at work. In fact, I bet I knew who it was. I could see him sitting somewhere close, laughing his ass off at my reaction. This was exactly the sort of thing my little brother and his stupid fraternity brothers would think of.
Well, two can play that game. But first, I needed to get ready to turn the joke back on them. So, I’d get dressed, have some coffee, and by then I should be awake enough to figure out exactly how to pay those fools back for trying to scare me to death.
“L-let me out!” that same voice cried, muffled somewhat by the cake dome.
“I’ll give it to you, Grant. You guys had me going there for a minute.” I reached for a mug and finally poured my first cup of coffee. “But the fun’s over. You have exactly ten minutes to come clean and reclaim your little toy, or it’s going to the dump. Your time starts now.”
And so does yours, I told myself as I gave the box under the cake dome one last wary glance before hurrying out of the kitchen.
Not that I was running away. Nope. Not at all. I was simply making a well-planned retreat to get dressed. After all, Grant and his frat boy friends would be there soon. They’d probably even have a laugh at my expense, but that was all right. I’d have the last laugh. One day, when they least expected it, I’d get my revenge for this little prank of theirs. What could be better?
Since I figured Grant couldn’t be that far away, not and use whatever remote control he’d been using, I quickly pulled on a black tank and a pair of loose, black cotton pants. Not only were they the first things I grabbed from the closet, but they were also my workout clothes and, once I’d dealt with my baby brother and his friends, I’d be more than ready for a workout. After sliding my feet into a pair of running shoes, I spent a few minutes settling my nerves and practicing the knowing and not so amused expression I planned to greet my baby brother with. The last thing I wanted was for him to realize just how badly I’d been spooked by this little joke of his. If he knew, I’d never hear the end of it.
The sudden sound of glass shattering filled the apartment. Fear raced through me and I felt, for one moment, as though my heart had quit beating and my lungs no longer worked. Then, as I drew in a long, shuddering breath, I turned and raced out of the bedroom. As I ran down the hall in the direction of the kitchen, one part of my mind — probably the only sane part of it, but we won’t go into that right now — told me this was the absolutely wrong way to go. I should be running for the door, or at least for a telephone to dial 911. So what the hell was I doing running in the direction of the sound?
I slid to a halt just inside the kitchen, my right hand reaching out and grabbing the doorframe for balance. My eyes instantly flew to the empty spot on the table where the box had lain, covered by the cake dome, only to find it — empty.
Now I really wanted to run for the door. Somehow, that box had pushed itself and the cake dome off the counter. That shouldn’t have happened. No way. Nothing Grant and his buddies could have done would account for that. Shit, shit, and shit.
But, instead of doing the smart thing (obviously, when it comes to self-preservation, I’m not the brightest of folks), I quickly looked around the small kitchen. Glass from the dome covered the tile floor, some large pieces but all too many that were no larger than slivers. But where was the box?
Dear God, where was the box?
Slowly, carefully, I stepped further into the kitchen, my eyes sweeping back and forth as I tried to locate the box. This was stupid. I’d already decided that this whole thing was nothing more than a practical joke thought up by my brother. Obviously, I hadn’t pushed the box and cake dome far enough from the edge of the counter. That was it. A jet had flown over, or a neighbor had slammed a door, or there’d been a minor earthquake, something, that had simply let the box and dome shift enough to fall from the countertop.
Then where the hell was the box?
Relief washed through me when I finally spotted it leaning against the cabinet under the sink. Whatever was going on, it hadn’t sprouted legs and wandered off. Not that I’d expected it to. Not really. At least I don’t think I did.
But, looking at the box, watching the front of it heaving like it was struggling for breath, maybe I should have expected it to do just that.
What the hell?
Cursing my brother, his friends, the cereal manufacturer and even my own need for a sugar fix—not to mention the government for making it so hard to find good cereal anymore — I knew I had to do something. But what? What’s the standard response to standing amid a bunch of broken glass, watching the red and yellow box of Choco Crispy Crunchies struggling to breathe? Assuming that’s what it was trying to do and an alien cereal morsel wasn’t about to erupt from the box to make me its breakfast.
“Get a grip.”
First things first. Clear the glass so I could get to the box without any problem. No use in getting the slivers stuck in the soles of my running shoes. Clean up the milk at the same time. The last thing I wanted was to fall as I was trying to deal with the box and have to lay there with it near me or, worse, on me.
Carefully, oh so carefully, I moved through the glass and spilt milk to the minuscule pantry at the far end of the kitchen. I grabbed the broom and dustbin from inside. Glass and milk were swept into the dustbin and then dumped into the trash. Paper towels would follow when I mopped up the last of the milk.
As the garbage pail lid dropped back into place, I suddenly knew what I had to do. That was it! Bundle up the bag of trash currently inside the trash pail and put in a new plastic bag. Then I’d grab the box, drop it into the can, shut the lid and duct tape the whole thing closed. No way it could get out of the stainless-steel trashcan.
Once the garbage can and its contents were out of the apartment, I could forget about it — until time to pay my brother back.
But what if Grant had nothing to do with this? that nagging little voice in the back of my head asked. What if there really is something inside the box?
And what if pigs can fly?
Even though I knew that could never happen, I found myself staring out the window over the kitchen sink just to make sure there were no pink porkers flying past.
Finally, knowing I couldn’t just stand there, waiting for the box to simply jump into the trash on its own, I once more donned the over mitt, and its mate, and stepped forward. If my life had a soundtrack, at that moment the theme from High Noon would be playing. Instead, only the muffled sounds of my neighbors and life beyond the apartment reached my ears.
Well, that and something that sounded suspiciously like muffled sobs coming from inside the box.
Damn it, I will not feel guilty or sorry. I won’t. What do I have to feel guilty about? Nothing. Nothing at all. There’s nothing in the box except some really great tasting, totally unhealthy cereal and some kind of transmitter. That’s all.
“Okay, enough is enough. Time for this charade to end.”
Carefully, I picked up the box, bracing myself for —something. But, much to my surprise, nothing happened. Maybe the fall from the counter had damaged the transmitter. If that was the case, how could I explain the way the box had moved or the sobs I’d heard coming from it?
You’ve got to stop this. You’re freaking yourself out.
Holding the box between my fingers — which is much more difficult than it sounds when those fingers are encased in an oven mitt — I moved very slowly toward the trash can. Why I hadn’t thought to bring it closer before picking up the box, I don’t know and now I paid for that lack of foresight. Each step was carefully considered to avoid any unnecessary movement because I knew if I wasn’t careful the box would once more come to life and that I most definitely didn’t want to happen. Whatever was inside the box could stay “asleep” as far as I was concerned.
Even as the thought formed, my eyes fell on the front of the box and my heart stopped. There, just under the bright red “S” of Choco Crispy Crunchies was a cut. A cut that hadn’t been there before the box had somehow found its way down to the floor. A cut that could, unless I moved very quickly, let whatever was inside out.
Shit, shit, shit
That’s all it took. As if my noticing of the cut was the impetus, the box began to vibrate in my hands. That eerie scrabbling from inside seemed louder, more urgent than before. With it came the sounds of heavy breathing, of strain. The edges of the cut began to pull apart, separating, revealing the edges of the inner lining that also seemed to be pulling apart.
Fear overtook reason and I dropped the box. Swallowing hard, I stepped back, one step, two until I’d gone as far as I could. If I’d thought about it, I’d have crawled into the stove at my back, closing the door behind me and making like the kids in Hansel and Gretel. I didn’t care if I was baked into gingerbread at this point. Instead, I sank to the floor, pulled my knees up and wrapped my arms around my legs. Maybe if I was very, very still, the box, or whatever was inside it, would forget I was there and leave me alone.
Only when my chest began hurting and my vision blurred did I realize I wasn’t breathing. I’m not sure my heart was still beating. And I didn’t really care. My whole world had narrowed down to the box. It shook and pulsated, and I knew at any moment something would erupt from inside. Still I sat there, too scared, too shocked and, to be honest, too curious to see what happened next.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity but couldn’t have been, the cut widened enough to see inside. Despite myself, I leaned forward, once more holding my breath, straining to see beyond the inner lining.
I threw myself back, smacking my head on the oven door and seeing stars, as a tiny little hand reached through the narrow opening. It was no bigger than the nail on my little finger, so fragile I knew it would shatter if I breathed on it. A second hand followed it, gripping one edge of the opening and pulling. I swallowed hard, too intrigued to move. The little hands gripped and pushed, tearing the box even more. As it did, a skinny little arm pushed through, followed by a grunt of effort as a shoulder appeared.
I swallowed hard, not knowing what else to do. At any moment, that shoulder would lead to a neck and that neck to a head. I wasn’t ready for that. Nope. Not at all. Arms and legs and head and things aren’t supposed to be in my cereal box. Certainly not if they’re living. And most certainly not when they are this small and, well, alive.
The bare shoulder, its brown skin so thin I could see the tiny bones of shoulder and scapula, pushed through, followed instantly by dark, lanky hair. I shook my head in denial and closed my eyes, counted to ten. When I opened them, all this would be gone. I’d wake in my bed. All of this was a dream, that’s all.
“There. Finally,” a shrill little voice said, and my eyes popped open.
Sitting on the edge of the box, running its small hands through its hair was, well, the embodiment of the mascot for Choco Crispy Crunchies. Before I could say anything, not that I knew what to say, it gave a high-pitched laugh and launched into the air. That laughter continued as it flitted around my kitchen like a drunken hummingbird, going this way then that, often coming so close to a cabinet or wall that I knew I’d soon be cleaning up its—his? — remains.
“You’ve got no idea how long I’ve waited for someone to finally buy this box and let me out.”
It landed on my knee, its head cocked to one side as it studied me. Then it cackled again and—believe me, I’m not making this up—stuck its tongue out at me before once more taking off. It made another mad circuit of my kitchen before returning to do a dance of some sort on the cereal box, carefully avoiding the hole it had made in its bid for freedom.
“W-what.” My voice broke, and I cleared my throat before trying again. “What are you?”
“What am I?” it repeated, looking at me with those chocolate brown eyes as if I’d lost my mind. “Why, I’m your special surprise inside!” With that, it launched into the air, tiny little wings whirring with the effort of propelling it in my direction. My eyes crossed as I tried to focus on the little demon as it hovered at the end of my nose. “Don’t you like me?” it asked as it deftly avoided my hand as I swatted at it. “They made me just for you. Well, not you specifically, but people like you.”
“Made you?” My head hurt from trying to keep up with its manic flight around the small kitchen. It never stopped for more than a second or two, and I felt as if I’d just been thrust into a vortex from which I’d never escape. “What do you mean they made you?”
“You really are dense, aren’t you?” It fitted to the counter and, before I could react, shoved my coffee mug off, laughing hysterically as it shattered against the tile floor before once more taking flight.
“Stop it, stop it, stop it,” the sing-song voice mocked. “Of course they made me for people like you. Don’t you like me?”
“No, I don’t.” My voice hissed between clinched teeth.
“Too bad. You’ve got me. The government told you cereals like this were bad for you. But did you listen? Noooooooo.” It buzzed around the room, knocking everything it could to the floor. “So they had the nice scientists make me, so many of me, to convince fools like you that they really do know best.
“Now feed me! Feed me lots and lots of sugar. I like sugar. It makes me so energized. I want more, more, MORE.”
I knew in that moment that this really was all a plot by the food police and the government, egged on by the PC crowd. They’d ruined my Saturday morning cartoons and, believe you me, they’d finally found a way to turn me away from sugary kids’ cereals.
What the hell was I supposed to do with the free surprise? My eyes fell on the heavy phonebook on the end of the counter and a plan formed. As a kid, I’d always taken apart the free surprises to see how they worked. Maybe I ought to do that now. Surely, I wouldn’t be breaking any laws by turning my own “free surprise” into something resembling a mutant pancake.
And maybe I ought to stick with pancakes for breakfast from now on.