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art by Shothot Designs

Outside the Box

Brian Winfrey has written everything from ad copy to magazine articles to fortune cookie messages, but this is his first short story. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, her cats, their dog, and far, far too many books.

I work for God, but the cheap bastard won't even spring for a subway pass.
You're right--I should have just dodged the fare. Unlike everything else in Los Angeles, the subway still operates on the honor system. I could have breezed down to the platform and been on my way, no problem.
But I decided I could do without the bad karma, and, anyway, my mind was still on the screaming match I'd just had with Shannon. So I lingered behind some tourists from Eau Claire who couldn't master the ticket vending machines, and I missed the first train.
The next was late, of course, which ate up my cushion. I spent the twenty-minute ride south fidgeting and pacing, and that made my fellow passengers nervous.
Well, that and the box. The box always makes people nervous.
A sputtering escalator finally coughed me up on the Walk of Fame.
High overhead, thick smog commingled with harsh California sunlight, staining the horizon the dull brown of a broken heart. In the hundred-degree heat, sightseers abandoned their searches for the pink terrazzo stars of cinema giants like Lassie and Erik Estrada and fled gasping into the climate-controlled comfort of the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex.
I checked my watch. Less than a minute to spare.
The blonde in the crème pantsuit was nearly to the curb before I caught up to her. I reached into the box and offered what I found there.
"Take this," I said. With no time to size her up, I opted for earnest, but non-threatening. It didn't help I had to shout to make myself heard over traffic. "It'll change your life!"
She sniffed at me. In fairness, her reluctance to accept the battered pedometer was understandable. The small gadget was cracked and scratched and scarred. Whatever logo it had once borne had long since rubbed away, the battery cover was missing, and the "mode" button appeared permanently stuck. All in all, not one of the finer things I'd ever drawn from the box.
She tried to sidestep me, but when you've done this a while, you develop a feel for that kind of thing. I put myself right in her path, slowing us both down and costing her the crosswalk light.
"You bastard," she said in a voice as crisp as her suit. She had more to say--mostly about my dubious ancestry (fair enough) and my wholly inadequate anatomy (strictly her opinion). I let her get it out of her system. It was a long light, after all.
When she paused for breath, I was ready with the closer. "Lady, if you just take this damn thing, you'll never see me again."
Sold. She swept the pedometer from my hand as the light changed. I could tell she was thinking about ditching it in the trashcan across the street. She wouldn't, though. They never do.
"My work here is done," I announced to no one in particular. A busker dressed as Batman applauded.
I took a bow and went home.
When I got there, I discovered Shannon had moved out.
You're probably wondering about the box.
That way lies madness.
Here there be dragons.
Danger, danger, Will Robinson.
Fine, don't say I didn't warn you.
At first glance, you might think it fell off the back of a UPS truck. Its fiberboard skin is the color of dead leaves, and it does have a barcode (though it won't register on any scanner). It's a bit bulky, but doesn't weigh very much.
There's no lid to open. When you want something from inside, you work your hand gently down between the top flaps (and pray).
You can't x-ray it. It rattles when it shouldn't. On a good day, it smells like fresh asphalt. On a bad day, it just smells like ass.
Like everything in life, the box comes with rules.
First Rule: Never look inside the box.
Second Rule: Never put anything into the box other than your hand (and even that's risky sometimes).
Third Rule: Never take out more than one object at a time.
Fourth Rule: Always take out the first item--and only the first item--you lay your hand on.
Fifth Rule: Never let the box out of your sight. Seriously. It gets cranky.
You're probably wondering about me.
That's safe enough.
My name's Charlie Zimmerman. I'm 23 years old, an Aquarius, originally from Portland (the one in Maine). I'm tall and thin and usually in need of a haircut. My favorite movie is Casablanca.
In fact, once upon a time, I wanted to make movies--I was four credit hours shy of a degree in film when this all started. I don't think much about that anymore. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." John Lennon said that. Smart guy.
I've had the box for a little over a year. It's cost me my cat, my career, and my girlfriend.
Sometimes I think the jury's still out on my soul.
Some things I've pulled from the box: tweezers, a rose, thread, matches, duct tape, a bottle of aspirin, assorted keys, paperclips, foreign coins, batteries, and a flyswatter.
"You don't choose the box. The box chooses your sorry ass. And then, mon frere, you are well and truly fucked."
Words of wisdom courtesy of Lester Maddox, the guy who had the box before me. I'm pretty sure he was stoned when he said that. Lester was stoned a lot; he said it helped.
I'm coming around to his way of thinking.
Anyway, here's how it works:
The box is yours. No one else can use it. No one else should even try.
Every morning at a quarter past eleven, someone will step on a certain spot at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. You're there waiting and watching for this. You step up to these people, reach into the box, give 'em whatever you find. Simple as that.
Except, of course, when it's not.
See, there are rules for this, too. They have to freely accept what you're offering. You can't lie about the object or why you're giving it to them. You can't sneak it into their pockets or their bags when they're not looking. You can't threaten to beat the crap out of them if they won't take it.
Now, people always need the things you offer them, even though they don't know it. I told the blonde that taking the broken pedometer would change her life, and I meant that. It's that way for everybody. I'm talking marriages mended, true loves united, terrible fates avoided--all that and more.
So that's the job. Pull something out of the box, give it to someone who needs it. Rinse and repeat. If you're lucky, someday someone will cross that street corner, you'll reach into the box, and it will be empty. Then it's time to pass it on.
At least that's what Lester told me, and I live in hope.
That whole God thing? I'm just guessing about that.
Lester had no idea where the box came from. Neither did the guy who gave it to him (and, for various reasons, that's as far back as we could track it).
In the past, I've considered aliens, time travelers and the Illuminati as possible explanations, but for right now I'm coming down in favor of the Almighty.
If nothing else, "I work for God" gets people's attention.
Plus, it always made Shannon laugh.
You're probably wondering about Shannon.
Well, no, in fairness, you're probably not. I've only mentioned her briefly to this point, so why should you care, really? But I feel like talking about her.
Shannon's actually her middle name. It took ages before she was ready to entrust me with the dark secret of her first name--Melinda. Oh, she loathes Melinda (and holds Mel, Lynn, and Linda in equal disdain).
So, to anyone but the IRS, the DMV or her family, she's Shannon.
She's two years older and three inches shorter than me. When she grows up, she always says, she wants to be a kid. She tolerates Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, loves Mexican food, and hates saying goodbye. She has eyes the color of the ocean and hair the shade of sunshine, and she'd laugh to hear them described that way.
She used to laugh a lot.
When we first met.
Before the box.
In fact, the nicest thing she ever said to me was, "I wish I could've met you sooner."
I could go on forever listing random details about Shannon, and it still wouldn't give you a clue about her, would it? You can't see the way she holds her head when she's interested in what you have to say. You can't hear her laugh. You can't feel the touch of her fingers as they trail through your hair.
That's okay. I can't, either. Not anymore.
The box has no rules concerning people. As long as they don't interfere with the work, you can handle them however you like.
So I told Shannon the truth. That was bad.
What was worse was that she believed me.
In the end, she didn't leave because she thought I was crazy. She left because she realized she came second to the box.
That's enough about Shannon for now.
I missed my mother's funeral because of the box.
See, it's like this: Every morning at a quarter past eleven, someone will step on that spot at the corner of Hollywood and Highland and need something. Every morning. Seven days a week, without fail, guaranteed. With the box, you don't get vacation or sick days, and there's no time off for good behavior.
At first, you try to fight this, juggle new responsibilities with old ones, make it all fit. In short, you work like hell to hang on to your life.
Good luck with that.
Welcome to your new obsession.
Plot, plan, anticipate. Check your watch a lot. Learn the corner and the surrounding area. Map routes you might need. Polish your spiel. Whatever you do, get the objects to the people who need them. Focus on that and at least you'll have done one thing right.
But nothing you do will change what else is coming.
Before the box, you had a life, complete with family, friends and/or coworkers. They won't all be blind, stupid or terminally self-absorbed. Which is unfortunate for you, since you now have a permanent appointment at a quarter past eleven. One that will get in the way of, well, everything.
Take it from me--people will notice, people will talk, people will grow wary. Frankly, they'll think you're going quietly nuts.
You'll run out of excuses. They'll stop giving you chances. Game over.
Sorry, mom. I sent flowers. If it's any consolation, Jane and dad still hate me.
So you're asking: Who the hell would be stupid enough to give your life over to a box?
Well, you would--or the box wouldn't have chosen you.
Hey, as far as I know, there's no divine retribution for not being on that corner every morning. God won't phone up sounding like Morgan Freeman to chastise you. Your identity won't vanish in a digital puff of ones and zeroes, your cable service will continue to deliver five hundred channels you never watch.
Go for it, if you want. Blow off the box.
All you have to do is live with it afterwards.
True confession time. Early on, I deliberately missed two "appointments." Just stepped back and let them go on their way. What can I say? I was young, I was stupid, I was unconvinced. Blah, blah, blah.
Of the two people I could've helped, I've got no idea what happened to the first. But the second made the news; trust me, you've heard about it. Public outrage, marches, demonstrations. A huge memorial service for the victims.
I never missed another drop-off.
You're probably wondering about the cat.
Fifth Rule: Never let the box out of your sight. Seriously. It gets cranky.
Second Rule: Never put anything into the box other than your hand (and even that's risky on occasion).
So, yeah, curiosity did, in fact, kill the cat.
Weeks after she left, the apartment still smelled like Shannon.
I didn't try to change that; in fact, I wallowed in it.
I spent afternoons shuffling from the small bedroom to the cramped living room and back again, just sitting in different spots, trying to picture things as they'd been. Remembering her. When I wanted to punish myself, I read the words she'd left behind:
I can't do this anymore. I'm sorry. Goodbye.
Sounds like a suicide note, doesn't it? Maybe it was, in a way. The relationship had been poisoning itself for a while, I guess.
You can make a lot out of eight words if you really put your mind to it--take them at face value, probe them for deeper meanings, theorize about what's left unsaid. I did all that. I tried to imagine Shannon reading the note aloud. What tone would she use? Would there be tears? A tremor in her voice? Or would a sense of relief shine through?
That's likely all crap, of course, but it passes the day.
I had plenty of time for that kind of analysis, too. My latest job, more retail hell, had ended abruptly when I'd refused to take on some morning shifts. I managed to make my appointments with the box, but accomplished little else. Not good. Shannon had made most of the money in the relationship. There'd be hell (read: rent) to pay soon, and I had no idea how I was going to handle that.
I didn't much care, either.
Ironic, really, since Lester had been living in a pile of cardboard behind the Ripley's museum on Hollywood Boulevard when I'd first met him. Later on, he'd told me that the guy who'd passed the box to him had been homeless, too.
I still remember rattling off a bunch of reasons why that wouldn't ever happen to me.
Lester had listened politely and then said, "Uh-huh. That's pretty much what I told my guy, too."
Not long ago, I gave some guy a gun from the box.
I knew something was different the moment I reached in. It was like someone had shoved a chunk of ice between my fingers. I'd never touched a gun before, but I realized what it was the instant my hand brushed the barrel. Well, no way was I gonna pull the damn thing out right there on Hollywood Boulevard--I kept my hand jammed inside the flaps.
The guy it was meant for looked ordinary enough--sunglasses, decent haircut, casual clothes. Of course, doesn't that describe pretty much every serial killer you've ever heard of? So I wrestled with what to do as I trailed him down Highland. He finally slipped into a parking lot behind some strip mall.
When I rounded the corner, he was waiting for me.
He took off the sunglasses and studied me with moderate interest for a moment. His eyes were pale green, and I swear there was no life in them. Then his gaze fell on the box and stayed there.
He knew what it was.
He held out his hand, and I offered him the gun, all my moral qualms instantly forgotten because I had no doubt he would take it if he had to. He accepted the weapon without a word, and I ran. Flight or fight at its finest.
When I told Lester about it, he just nodded.
"Hell, maybe he works for God, too."
I kept an eye on the television and the papers for the next few days, but there was no shooting spree, no carnage on the evening news. I tried to tell myself everything had worked out fine, just like it was supposed to.
I had trouble believing that.
The only good thing about pulling out the gun was that my story moved Lester to tell me about the oddest experience he'd ever had with the box.
"Never found a gun in there," he said. "Never had nobody waiting on me, neither."
He took a drag from the joint he held. Like I said, Lester was a firm believer in self-medication as a means of dealing with the box. "But one day I do my thing--make the drop-off just like normal--and I'm headed home--"
"To the Ripley museum?"
"No, asshole." He paused to flip me off. "This was back when I started. Back when I was all respectable." Having finished his own beer, he helped himself to mine. "I had a place down in Santa Monica right near the pier. Great view. Man, the girls you saw down there--" He shook his head. "Anyway, I'm walking along the pier, and I see this chick, right?"
He went on to describe the girl in detail. I tuned out halfway through, but got the gist. A redhead, freckles and all. Petite and attractive--on Lester's scale, "highly doable."
"Is this going somewhere?" I finally asked.
"Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Now lemme tell you what she was wearing..."
I shook my head, which earned me a sour look.
"Okay, fine, then lemme tell you what she was carrying."
That got my attention.
"She had a box." He raised the hand that held the smoldering roach. "Hand to God, she had one just like mine. Yours." He pointed to the box, which sat at the end of the couch. "Same color, same barcode, same everything."
I shrugged. "Coincidence."
Lester snorted. "You weren't there. I saw the thing. And I knew, man. I fucking knew."
"So what'd you do?"
"Oh, I just let her walk away." He rolled his eyes. "What do you think I did, bitch? I went tearin' off after her!"
I nodded, seeing where this was going. "But you lost her."
"It was Santa Monica on a Saturday. Fuckin' tourists everywhere." He glared at me. "I'd like to have seen your sorry ass do any better."
"Okay, say you're right--what does it mean?"
"Between your guy and my girl, I'd say it's obvious." He killed the rest of my beer. "We are not alone."
He nodded gravely, belched, and passed out.
I eased the roach from his fingers, stubbed it out, and left him there on the couch. Then I crawled into a bed where the sheets still held faint traces of Shannon's scent and thought about how wrong he was.
Here's a crazy idea.
Everything that's pulled from the box has been lost or discarded.
I'd ducked into the Virgin Megastore on Hollywood to escape the heat when that notion occurred to me. The two teenagers behind the register were arguing the ethics of pilfering the lost-and-found carton, and it clicked. I don't have any proof, of course, but try it on for size. The stuff has to come from somewhere, after all. (Well, I guess it really doesn't, since we're talking about magic of sorts, but I prefer to believe it does.)
Call it karmic recycling. Maybe people get credit to their souls for making donations.
You're probably wondering about Lester.
He's dead now.
I should've seen it coming.
I've told you about the lows the box brings with it. But there are highs, too, and in some ways, they're even more dangerous. Each time you reach into it, you change somebody forever. You spend your days saving lives and mending souls. Pretty heady stuff, right?
Sometimes that thrill is all that keeps you going. You find yourself needing a fix, so maybe you follow someone you've met and see how things play out for them. You stand in the shadows, you watch their joys and see their triumphs, and you think: I made that happen.
Trust me, that's one feeling you never get used to. You never get enough of it, either.
Now put yourself in Lester's shoes. All that was over for him--he'd been touched by fire, had given up everything for it, and had then found himself unable to hang on for the ride.
What came next... well, there were signs. There always are.
For one thing, he'd stopped visiting as often, and I had no idea where he was living. When Shannon moved out, I'd floated the notion of him sharing the apartment, but he'd waved the offer away.
He didn't talk about his plans anymore, either. At first, he'd seen the passing of the box as a weight off his shoulders, and he'd had a million ways he wanted to spend his newfound freedom. He never did any of those things, though. He just hung around me, offering pointers and pep talks. Teaching me how to handle the box.
After he was gone, I realized what I'd taken as generosity had been something else--hunger.
The need for a fix.
"Give it back to me."
That had been Lester's plea the night he died.
He'd stood in the middle of the street, his clothes dripping wet. It had been after midnight, and he'd looked like he'd just climbed from a swimming pool after the sort of pratfall you'd see in some low-grade comedy. But the sharp tang of gasoline had said the punchline that was coming would be a sick one. He'd held the lighter like it was a knife.
I'd been half-wasted from another night mourning Shannon when I'd first heard him ranting outside the building. I'd sobered, though, when I saw his eyes--they'd been wide and glassy, and they never left the box.
People had raised windows and peered at us from half-open doors. Someone had shouted, "Light it up, motherfucker!" But Lester's focus hadn't been on the gathering crowd.
"Give it back to me, Charlie."
"I can't," I'd told him. "You know that."
All I'd been able to think of was Tom, the guy who'd passed Lester the box nearly half a decade ago. I'd wanted to meet him when I'd first gotten started, but Lester had only shaken his head. Later--much later--I'd been able to pry a two-word explanation out of him. Snuffed himself, Lester had shrugged.
He'd stifled a whimper that night. "Please--please, just try, Charlie. Please. I need it. I need it, man."
After a moment's hesitation, I'd held out the box, and he'd extended tentative hands to embrace it. But as his fingers made contact with its surface, they'd simply slid away. He hadn't been able to keep his hold on it. He'd tried a second time, and the result had been the same. And a third.
The box, it seemed, had made its choice.
Lester had sunk to his knees. His eyes had finally drifted from the box and met mine.
"It sings," he'd said. "Did you know that?"
I'd extended a hand, silently asking him to give me the lighter. He'd shaken his head.
"It does. You can hear it sometimes, when you're not quite awake, but not really asleep, either." A bleak smile had curled his lips. "It's pretty damn beautiful."
That smile had remained in place as he'd touched the lighter to his chest. In the movies, when people do something like that, they always have time to run around screaming. But Lester had only a moment for a sigh, a hiss like a balloon deflating.
There had been someone screaming afterwards, though--me. It took the EMTs a long time to calm me down. I don't remember much of it.
The police questioned me. Fortunately, nobody else had been able to agree on exactly what happened, so they pretty much had to accept my version. I told them Lester had been a homeless guy I'd seen regularly. I'd given him money on occasion, and we'd spoken a few times. All true, as far as it went. Set-up for the lie: Why, no, officer, I have no idea what he might have wanted from me.
The detectives had nodded and told me that was pretty much what they'd figured. Bums, y'know. They're all crazy. What're you gonna do?
That night, after it was over, I sat in the waning darkness and listened.
I've listened every night since.
But I've heard no songs from the box.
I tried to talk to Shannon, but that went as well as you'd expect. She made a few sympathetic noises through the door of her new place and then asked me to leave. I did. I think she had someone with her.
Lester had no family, and I couldn't pay for a funeral. Even if I'd had the money, it probably would have raised too many questions. So, like most indigents, he was cremated. He probably would have found that hilarious. He was big on irony.
I kept the apartment for a bit by selling pretty much everything I owned, but I couldn't make the rent forever. Let me tell you, the gypsy lifestyle sounds a hell of a lot more romantic than it actually is.
Want to hear something funny? I was in a shelter a while back, and somebody actually tried to swipe the box. I surprised myself by fighting like hell for it.
Bums, y'know. We're all crazy. What are you gonna do?
I haven't told you exactly where the magic happens, have I? That's because I'm afraid you'll laugh.
See, the special spot happens to be the last star on the corner of Hollywood and Highland. Know whose that is? Monty Hall of Let's Make a Deal fame. The guy who was always tempting people with stuff hidden behind doors... and in boxes. I shit you not.
Who says God has no sense of humor?
I started arriving at my spot early, because I had no other place to be and nothing else to do.
One day, I found the boulevard closed off. Trucks and trailers lined the curb. Occupational hazard in Hollywood--sometimes the bastards actually want to make their movies here.
I stayed behind the sawhorses so I wouldn't draw attention. With so few pedestrians around, keeping an eye on the corner from a distance was no trouble.
I ended up with a lot of time to kill. I considered wandering down the street--Grauman's Chinese was starting a weekend-long classic film festival, and that sort of thing had been my passion in school. Now, though, the thought of old movies--movies in general, really--left me cold.
So I focused on business.
The clock ticked down, but nobody went near the star. I finally got edgy and slipped past the barricade. None of the crew noticed; they had their own schedules to keep.
It had to be one of them, I decided. I inched closer to the production to get an idea about who might be coming my way. Someone had to be, after all. That was the deal.
"Can you step back, please?" A production assistant--one who looked about twelve--had spotted me.
I smiled and nodded and retreated a few steps. Maybe it's her, I thought. But, no, she just nodded and turned back to her work.
I checked my watch. It was time.
But there was nobody around.
My confusion grew into irritation, and from there, it was a short step to rage. There had to be somebody! There was always somebody. Always. That was the deal, the bargain. That was why I'd given up my whole goddamn life.
But there was no one.
Not a soul on the sidewalk.
Well, except for--
I glanced down.
And realized I was the one standing on the star.
On some level, I sensed there was a choice to be made, maybe the first bit of freedom I'd had in a very long time. For one wild moment, I contemplated just dropping the box and running like hell.
What stopped me was the same thing that always had--if I abandoned the box, someone else would have to pick it up. I knew that; don't ask how, but I did. Someone else would end up going through all the same crap. Someone who wasn't ready or maybe was never even meant to be part of it.
I couldn't let that happen--so I fell back on what I knew.
I reached into the box, my fingers dipping into cool darkness. There was something there, as always. This time, it was small and narrow and flat. Crisp, too.
I drew it out. The production assistant had started to nag me again. But I didn't pay her any attention as I stared at the movie ticket I'd found.
It was for the film festival at Grauman's.
I changed my mind about whether or not to go half a dozen times before I gave in. I wasn't afraid, exactly. More like dubious. Things from the box alter lives in big ways. But if you're the one holding it, how can anything ever change for you?
In the end, I decided not to overthink things. Like the lady said, que sera sera.
As usual with anything but drop-offs, I was late. The lights had gone down by the time I slipped into the theater, the box in tow, just like always. The place was packed. I ended up excusing myself a dozen times as I sought out the few remaining seats. All of them seemed to be saved.
I was about to give up when I spotted one toward the very front. As I got closer, though, I realized the woman sitting next to it had stowed her shopping in the seat.
I sighed, thought about just leaving, finally decided to make a fuss for once. The screen went dark between previews as I reached her.
"Excuse me," I whispered. "Is that one saved?"
She shook her head, picked up her package, and rested it in her lap. I squeezed past and settled into the seat. I glanced her way, couldn't really make anything out in the gloom. But she must have felt my eyes on her, because she looked over at me.
A new preview came up, and the theater lightened a bit. We were still looking at each other.
She had red hair and freckles.
And a box just like mine.
I smiled. So did she.
And, suddenly, all I could think about were new beginnings and beautiful friendships.
That's my story, as much of it as you need to hear. You've been a good listener, and I want to thank you for that courtesy.
So I've got something for you.
I promise, it'll change your life....
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 12th, 2010

Author Comments

A Note from the Dept. of Synchronicity: When I began this story, I took the opportunity to visit the intersection of Hollywood and Highland, where much of it is set. I don't get down there very often, and this seemed like a great opportunity to slack off and justify it as research. I spent twenty minutes or so wandering the general area before it occurred to me that it might be interesting to know whose Walk of Fame star was there on the corner. (Yes, I know; my instincts are sharp like that.) After discovering it belonged to Monty Hall, I knew "the box" was meant to be.

- Brian Winfrey
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