It gots eyes.
The small box had air holes in it, and something inside had just blinked. Sitting in a dark closet, three-year-old Hanni shouldn't have been able to see that, or anything else other than the horizontal strip of light along the bottom edge of the door. But the two orbs that had appeared, disappeared, then appeared again—blinked—were bright, glowing red.
An adult would probably have been creeped out, stunned, frightened. Red eyes tend to depict evil creatures in movies, and what other images might pop into one's head when confronted with glowing eyeballs staring from inside a box?
But Hanni's first thought was, Christmas! You gots Christmas eyes. Red as Santa's hat. Red as Rudolph's nose.
Brushing aside bangs the color of hazelnuts, she grasped the box in both hands and gave it a little shake. Inside there was a soft sound, like something cottony brushing against cardboard.
"You're mine," she whispered. "I saw you fall outta da mailman's bag, but dat's okay 'cause my name was right on da box. And da number fingy of my house. And pretty, pretty Christmas stamps. You came right from Santa, didn't you?"
Like most three-year-olds, she was very skilled at convincing herself that wrong was right, when it suited her needs. The fallen box did not have her name on it. It had a very long name that looked to her like merely a jumble of letters. The address had the correct street, Maplewood, but was off by several numbers. Most importantly, though, there were big red letters (her favorite color, after all ) across the front of the box, which she decided said, "Merry Christmas to my favorite little girl, love Santa." Its actual message? RETURN TO SENDER.
Had she really believed the box—the gift—was meant for her, she wouldn't have been hiding inside the hall closet, below winter coats and beside snow boots. She could hear her older sister calling for her, but Jessie always searched upstairs first, whenever Hanni played hide and seek without informing her of it, so she knew she had time to enjoy her surprise-in-a-box.
It was alive, she knew that. It wasn't a puppy, though she had begged her mom and dad for one, with no luck, and then made the most official of requests by sending Santa a crayon-scribbled letter, with help from Jessie. But this box wasn't big enough for a puppy. Or a kitten. One of her brother Ethan's baseballs might fit in it. Might not.
"Oh m'gosh, oh m'gosh!" she whispered, delighted. "You're sniffling." Her grin was ear-to-ear. Only cute, cuddly things sniffled so adorably.
Light blinded her as the door was flung open.
"Will you STOP disappearing on me?!" Her big sister was standing in the doorway, hands on hips, towering over her. Jessie was only fourteen, but she was the tallest girl in her class, and worried that it might be God's way of nudging her toward a basketball scholarship. She despised basketball, even though she seemed to have a gift for three-pointers. She also despised being stuck babysitting her little sister just because their mom was busy Christmas shopping. She had a long list of things she despised, in fact. All of which could easily be erased if, on Christmas morning under the tree covered with Hallmark ornaments, there was an envelope with her name on it, stuffed full of gift cards from her favorite stores. Oh yes, that would be perfect. And as that thought softened her mood, she asked her sister, "What's in the box?"
"I didn't say it wasn't yours, I just asked what's in it."
"It's a secret."
"Everything's a secret with you. Hey, there are air holes in it. There's something alive in there!" Jessie was both fascinated and worried. There was snow on the ground outside. Had someone put a tiny pet in a box and mailed it, and the mail carrier left it out on the freezing porch? "Let me see if it's ok."
Hanni considered her options, then decided. "I wanna cookie."
"You always want a cookie."
Jessie sighed. Rarely did a day go by without such negotiations. "I have..." She reached down into her sweater pocket. "...a fun-size caramel choco-bar."
"You gots Oreos in your bedroom."
"Stay out of my bedroom, you little gremlin."
Hanni hugged the box protectively.
"Okay, okay. Two Oreos."
Her little sister held up three fingers.
"THREE Oreos, then. God, you're annoying. Hand over the box."
Hanni reached out her hand with the tiny container, then pulled it back again and reconsidered. But she knew her big sister loved cute little creatures, and had plenty of her own secrets from their parents. There was room for one more.
Jessie knelt at the door of the closet and accepted the box from her sister, then held it up to her ear and heard...something. A small, soft sound. She smiled and checked out the exterior.
"This belongs to someone, you know. But, I guess they didn't want it. Or they don't live at that address anymore." When they want to, fourteen-year-olds can lie to themselves nearly as effectively as three-year-olds.
She scrunched up her face, which meant a decision was coming.
"I should open it and makes sure this...baby whatsis..can breathe, right?" Jessie smiled as the tiny red eye blinked.
Hanni's smug look said it all: It was a shared secret now.
Jessie touched one of the holes with her fingertip and said, "Hey, little cutie, I'm going to let you ou—"
A shocked but delighted expression flashed on her face.
"Oh my gosh, it licked my finger! Soooo cute! So—"
Her expression turned to uncertainty.
"I feel...funny. I feel..." The box dropped to the floor of the closet, landing softly.
Hanni stared, transfixed by the peculiar tone in her sister's voice.
Jessie began to tremble, then shake, unable to form words. The only sound was a whistling from deep down in her lungs.
Lime-green light shot out of one of the tiny holes in the box, reaching out to Jessie and enveloping her, shaped much like a thought balloon in a comic strip.
Instead of being terrified, as she stared toward the hole and somehow into it from several feet away, a warm smile formed on her lips and she murmured, "Awwwww."
There was a louder sound now, a whoosh!, and instantly she, and the green glow surrounding her, shrank down, smaller and smaller, and were pulled into the hole as if inhaled.
She was gone.
Simultaneously, an identical green light shot out of a hole on the opposite side of the box, and grew to more than a foot in height. It was occupied, as Hanni somehow knew it would be.
The green light blinked out. On the floor before Hanni was a creature that instantly owned her heart. It was not the baseball-or-smaller size she'd expected. It was at least ten inches tall. Its red eyes stared up at her with the expression of a loving puppy, its bright blue fur was thick and curled up at the ends, and it had no arms or legs. If it traveled, it did so by rolling.
"Yerp." It obviously had vocal chords.
"Whassat? Is dat your name? Are you a boy or a girl? Are you hungry? Do you have teef? Can I hold you?" A tumble of questions was typical for Hanni, whenever she met anyone new. She reached out a hand and ran it over that blue fur. It was like silk. "Oooh," she said with a smile.
In the back of her mind, she knew there was a voice—sounding tiny, far off—vying for her attention. Multiple voices, in fact. But at this moment, nothing mattered to her more than this adorable new friend.
She petted the blue creature again. And again.
"Hanniiiiiiiii..." The small but familiar voice caught her attention, finally.
She looked around, then at the box. And remembered that her sister wasn't here with her, her sister was...
"Jessie, come back," she whispered, then shouted, "Come back!"
It wasn't her sister who responded, but others. "Help!" "Pleeeeease!" "Mama? Mama?"
Hanni's breathing quickened. She chewed on her lower lip, trying not to cry. Who belonged to these tiny, high-pitched voices? She didn't recognize them. They sounded so scared. So desperate. She didn't know that word, yet she felt it in their voices.
Fear shot through her heart. Something was wrong. So wrong.
"Mommy, come home," she whispered.
Hanni looked into the strange creature's red eyes, and saw not the calm she'd seen at first, but intensity.
She thought to herself, Go back inna box. Please go back inna box.
Seconds went by in silence.
Hanni stared at the box and muttered, "Bwing Jessie back, bwing Jessie back," as she would have back when she was still in diapers, then regressed even further by sticking her thumb in her mouth.
A chorus of panicky voices called out at once, and another green beam of light emerged and enveloped the creature. It flickered for a few seconds, then shot across the short distance to Hanni, covering her.
Tears flowed now, but the scream inside of her escaped as a mere kitten-like mew.
A sharp tug pulled her forward, then another, and another. As she moved closer and closer to the box, it seemed to become bigger. Then she realized, no, the box wasn't growing bigger.
She was becoming smaller.
"Oh cwap," she muttered.
And then she was gone.
Past the living room, in the entryway, the mail slot in the front door jangled a bit as the cover vibrated, then lifted upward on its own. Chilled air entered through the opening. So did a lime-green beam of light the thickness of a three-year-old's little finger. It flowed down the door almost like a liquid, then across the floor, out into the living room, bending left, then right, to go around the coffee table, then straight toward the hall and to the open closet door. Had Hanni seen it, she'd have thought the room looked like a colorful Etch-a-Sketch.
The beam shot forward, covering the box that sat there beside boots and sneakers. The small brown package, now looking more olive-colored, shrank further and further until it, too, was pinky finger-width, and was absorbed by the beam.
That beam flashed even brighter, then withdrew from the room, from the hall, around the furniture, back into the entryway, and in mere seconds, slipped back out through the mail slot.
The green light was gone.
The box was gone.
The house was silent.
A few blocks east of this house on Maplewood Street, two mid-teens boys in open plaid flannel shirts with matching metalhead t-shirts beneath them, zoomed along the street on hoverboards.
Above them, the turbulent, black clouds that had been in the area all day long swirled and broke apart a bit, revealing a Mountain Dew-green glow behind them that caught the taller boy's attention. The boy (known as Thug, because his real name, Percy, was embarrassingly lame) held his hand above his eyebrows like a visor, and saw...thought he saw...
A dull metallic...something. For a second. Maybe.
He looked down at the asphalt, then up at the sky again. Nothing but dark clouds now.
His friend looked at him with an odd expression, his hands held up in a "What???" gesture.
"Weird shit," Thug said, simply, and shrugged.
They moved on, heading for the local comic book store, where weirdness was truly appreciated.
The impressive storm-like clouds blew on, then halted over West Eden Road, almost as if someone up in the heavens had slammed on the brakes. The air grew frigid.
Inside a lovely two-story, pitched roof home with angel figurines in the windows and a Christmas wreath on the front door, seven-year-old Hector saw a green flash outside the window. Curious, he went to the door and put his hand on the knob, but stopped to look toward the kitchen. He could hear soft humming and the sound of his abuela's favorite wooden spoon stirring something in a glass bowl. The aroma wafting his way made him smile.
She was too busy to notice him sneak out, he was sure.
Once out on the wooden porch, he didn't even notice the chilled air, though he'd forgotten his jacket. He was gazing at the small object sitting on the orange plastic blade of the snow shovel his big brother Miguel had tossed there.
It was a box.
Hector squatted down beside it.
"Return to Sender," he read aloud. "But I'm not Sender." He tilted his head. "Am I?"
Copyright ©2020 Nik Barnabee