Hell, Gift-Wrapped

by A.C. Monks

Her parents are Box People. She knows this and never denies it. It’s not the way they’re shaped, it’s just their ever-growing collection of cardboard and sturdy plastic—although her mum is a bit rotund and square-ish; the pregnancy weight never came off, she said. And her dad, if he was a box, would be the long, narrow kind that people tend to overfill. He’s a little bent out of shape, like most of the cubicle-confined, number-crunching coworkers of his she’s met. She’s twenty-six now and one of those coworkers happens to be twenty-eight and more attractive than her prom date had been. The first time she meets him—when he is declared the designated driver after “a few beers” turns into “a few too many”—he asks about the corner of their living room.

“It’s like the leaning tower of Pizza,” he mutters, laughing.

She corrects him. “It’s Piza.”

He answers, “Yeah, but I think I see a few pizza boxes crammed in there, too.”

She acts like she doesn’t want to smile. His name is Trevor, but his friends call him Vinny because his last name is Vincent. She calls him Trevor. Her name, she tells him, is Stephanie, but her friends call her Annie, because she doesn’t have a cool last name and there is already a Stephanie in her circle of friends. He calls her Annie. He’d had an Aunt Stephanie.

She tells him, “We moved a lot when I was growing up. Dad used to be military. I guess we stopped unpacking at some point.”

When her parents move again, Trevor is there to help. Her father is a little suspicious and her mother all but coos. He’s good at labeling things, which is the only job she gives him as she excavates her parents’ second Jenga-tower closet.

She drops a dress and it slinks into the back, where a quarter-inch of dust suddenly goes airborne. Lovely. She dives in. The dress is sprawled on top of a mountain of shoe boxes, like a toddler prince guilelessly testing his father’s throne. It throws a tantrum when she tries to remove it, latching its hanger into the edge of a cardboard lid. The shoe boxes go tumbling.

Hacking, she scrambles to collect wayward containers and vagrant footwear . . . until she finds one box that won’t budge. It’s bigger than your average shoe box. It’s also a sleek onyx color with crisp corners and has a faintly foreboding air that suggests Annie is about to find embarrassing pictures or items she didn’t want to imagine her parents having. And yet she has to know.

If it had hands, it would—well, first and foremost, she supposed it would be creepy as all get-out, but it would also reach for her, lock its fingers around her wrists, feel her pulse speeding under her skin, pull her, demand that she open it. When an inanimate object calls to you so strongly, you really have no choice but to do as it says. She braces herself and, using the barest amount of force, slips off the lid.

A bat flies out.

“Holy hell!” Trevor screeches, swatting at it with the label-maker. The creature circles around his head not once, not twice, but three times before zipping out the door; an action which would have had Annie convinced that bats had sadistic senses of humor had she not been so transfixed on the box it came from. “Holy hell,” Trevor says again, in the background, brushing down his wild tufts of hair.

Annie answers, “I think you might be on to something.”

When Trevor comes over to look inside the box, there is fire. An endless tunnel of fire. Reds and oranges frolic near the top while, down deeper, blues and whites scheme dastardly plans. Annie can almost hear them whisper. Not crackle, but whisper. A tiny flame leaps forth at them. It licks her skin like an overeager puppy, maybe a Pomeranian, and she yelps though it doesn’t burn. But to Trevor, the flame is a Rottweiler, and it clamps its jaws hard around his arm until he screams bloody murder. Annie tosses the lid back on the box and rushes him to the hospital. The doctor tells him it will scar.

The box goes missing soon after and her parents claim to not know what she is talking about. What box? Big, black, wide enough to fit a person through? Never seen it.

Two months later, Annie finds it mixed in with the Christmas decorations; she accidentally knocks off the cover while reaching for the garland. The flames still refuse to burn her. She reaches a whole arm inside. Warmth. That’s all. In a cracked mirror with a precious frame her mother can’t let go of, Annie catches a glimpse of a woman who is her, but taller and thinner and pretty enough to be on a magazine. She likes that woman. Whenever she visits the box, which is becoming more and more frequent, she feels that rush of I-could-take-over-the-world confidence.

A month passes and her doctor can’t explain why she’s grown another two inches at this age, or why she needs to eat constantly, or why she’s lost weight despite that all. Modeling agents and photographers and random men are starting to approach her out of the blue. At first, she blushes and ducks her head. She scurries away with bashful thank-you’s. It takes some warming-up to. By now, she knows to flash a radiant smile and lean back a little to exaggerate her bra size, while tilting her head so that her eyes will seem playfully coy. She practices it in the mirror. Her friends say she looks fabulous. Trevor’s the only one who notices that more than her physique has changed.

“You don’t laugh as much,” he says one day as they’re sharing a Saturday coffee. They haven’t done this in awhile. His gaze flickers between the milky swirls in his drink and the mascara around her eyes. He doesn’t stare at her the way the men two tables over do. Sometimes she wants him to. It’s like he’s looking straight past her tight dress and into her soul, and it’s starting to make her a little uncomfortable because the frown he’s wearing suggests he’s not happy with what he’s found: fool’s gold. “You used to laugh at all the stupid jokes I made.”

She tightens the grip on her cup. “Maybe you’re just not funny anymore.”

They leave it at that. Annie doesn’t see Trevor for the next year. This would have bothered her before, but she’s become a new woman, and this woman can have any guy she wants. Problem: she doesn’t care. None of them are good enough. They’re a series of Prince Charmings and James Deans gone flat. The illusions shatter alongside her tolerance. Usually with a single sentence. “She’s just a friend . . . who left her lingerie here” is her least favorite.

On a starless night, she puts one of them through the window. The cops come. She sweet-talks her way into getting the charges dropped, her voice now as silky and sultry as that “friend’s” lingerie. When the man asks for a second date, despite being wrapped in bandages, she thinks it should be funny. Trevor’s right, though. She doesn’t laugh anymore.

She returns home and curls up next to her Box of Fire. The Box is in her apartment now and it feels like a cozy furnace, its heat bleeding into her skin and soothing the tension from her muscles. Lazily, she reaches backwards to hold her hand over the playful embers. They nestle into her palm. We’re here for you, they seem to reassure her. We want to help you. And from deeper down, the blue and white flames whisper, All you have to do is tell us what you want.

The next night, Annie hits another bar. She’s wearing tight jeans and a low-cut shirt that all but guarantee a complimentary drink. Still, there’s a flitter of surprise when she scores three freebies. The last guy murmurs about how lonely she looks; she could use a pick-me-up. She has an idea that he’s searching for a pick-me-up of his own, but not the drown-your-sorrows kind. From then on, any alcohol she consumes comes out of her wallet, despite incoming offers. She is suddenly disgusted by how many men are trying to pay their way into her pants. Like she’s a filthy prostitute. Barely restraining herself from triple charges of assault, she stumbles out of the bar.

Under the grimy halo of the street lamp stands none other than Trevor Vincent, his hollowed features in stark shadows, less pretty than she first remembered him being. She has no idea how he’s found her. “Are you stalking me?” she asks with a scoff.

“Your dad asked me to pick you up,” he explains. His hands are raised in surrender. “You’re more than a little drunk, so let’s get you home. No problems, okay?”

She almost puts him through the window, too. The sight of the burn on his arm stops her. There’s a feeling in her throat like a pill that won’t go down. Guilt? Regret? They taste foreign and bitter. Her thoughts then turn to the Box of Fire tucked under her bed. That would make these feelings dissolve. If Trevor is willing to take her to it, there might not be a need to give him any of those “problems” he was so worried about. With an exaggerated slur, she agrees.

The car is heavy with uncomfortable quiet. Not one word has been said by the time neon lights turn to warm windows. She’s resting her head against the door, pretending to be asleep. The wheels roll over a bump and her head clonks against the glass. For some reason, she can’t help but suspect Trevor did that on purpose, although everything she knows about him tells her he wouldn’t.

“Sorry,” he says. “You okay?”


When they arrive at the door, he won’t leave. He insists on escorting her in. She lets him, if only because the world is starting to tip a little. Her key is fighting her as she tries to fit it in the lock. Scritch. Scratch. Click. She falls through the door and aims for the refrigerator. She’s starving. There’s a ham in there. She shoves half of it down her throat, desperate, and it’s still not enough. Her mouth is dry. A strong, unidentifiable craving poisons her tongue. She thinks of a warm, thick, sharp liquid. In a metal cup. Lined with salt. Her chest stings like heartburn. She struggles to sate it with more ham.

“Annie,” Trevor calls. His voice is far away. At first, she thinks it’s the alcohol creating the imaginary distance because Trevor is supposed to be on the other side of the counter. But he’s not. He’s in her bedroom. There is a second where she thinks he wants something from her—the same thing that all the guys buying her drinks at the bar wanted—until she realizes that there’s no lust. His foot kicks the Box under her bed. “You still have it.”

She stumbles over, halfway between rage and deadly calm. “You don’t sound surprised.”

“I figured,” he says, “with the way you’ve been acting. Come on, Annie, throw the damn thing into the dumpster, won’t you?”

The order doesn’t sit well in her stomach. It reminds her of that time when she was twelve and got food poisoning. Some bad fish. Her drunken brain provides an image of Trevor turning into a salmon. God, one of those free drinks might have had something extra in it, she thinks. Trevor continues to gaze at her expectantly. She sighs. “There’s just no reasoning with you, is there?”

He shakes his head. “Get rid of it.”

Well, screw that. Instead, she gets rid of him. A window shatters, neighbors in the apartments below her rush to the street, and an ambulance is called. That’s that. She strolls back into the kitchen to finish the other half of the ham. Then she settles down next to the Box of Fire. Its blaze warms her cold hands.

When the police arrive to question her, there is no one there. When the fire truck arrives, her place is smoke and cinder. When her parents arrive, it is with knowing faces. When Trevor arrives a year later, it’s in a wheelchair.

And when she returns, ten years later, she doesn’t look a day older and has the Box tucked carefully under one arm, while the other caresses a pregnant stomach.

She mutters to the box that they have something in common now: they are both carrying precious cargo. The red and orange and yellow flames have rejoiced. The blues and whites have asked her if she wants a boy or a girl. She doesn’t know, but when the ultrasound tells her the baby will be a boy, she realizes she is perfectly content with that. After standing at this street corner for half an hour, she decides to name him Vincent. Vinny for short.

That she can laugh at.

A.C. Monks has been writing novels and short stories avidly since fourteen. Her other work includes two flash-fiction pieces published in Festival Writer. Currently, she lives in southern New Hampshire and attends school near Boston, where she studies communication/film and creative writing. Her main, rather ambitious, goal is to publish one of her novels before she graduates college.