The Box

A man faces a bizarre heatwave and a catatonic wife

The Box
Image licensed from Adobe Stock

This story was inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s short story, Entropy, only in the sense that I thought a mysterious series of same-degree days would be a neat fit in a climate change story. Once I decided to start writing it, the story wrote itself.

The last day, it was again 100 degrees; the rain hadn’t fallen for three years, and Jol’s madness had entered its seventh month — a catatonic stillness always dominating her space, usually the living room couch. If I switched off the theater-sized television, her expression rarely changed enough for me to know if she was watching. I routinely kept the TV lit up anyway because she had always loved binging on Netflix. Our DVD collection was the only bond left to that world.

I looked outside. I could see heat rising, as if God was lifting vapors from the finished framework of his final decision. Nothing moved. And there were no birds.

We noticed this lack of birds one day about eight months prior. I was scraping a limestone patch along the edge of the swimming pool as if I could repair it when I realized that the songbirds who once held regular summer afternoon debates had permanently adjourned. It would be more accurate to say that it was at that moment I realized I had not heard them for a while. Daily arguments held aloft in the trees by a few common choice words, each day a different canticle of opinion igniting the focus of controversy, had fallen silent. Eventually, I suspected a correlation between the disappearance of the birds and Jol’s madness.

The swimming pool’s emptiness had also entered its third year. My own madness led me to frequent cleaning and repair sprees on the derelict concrete of the empty pool or its limestone edging.

“Do you want some iced tea?” I asked her. Her hair was straight now, whereas it once had been a cascade of thick shoulder-length auburn waves. Today it fell into oily, thinning strands along the sides of a drawn, pale face that seemed like a fulfillment of some nightmarish fantasy. Her former reddish-brown hues were now absorbed into an insidious pallor.

I brought her some iced tea, and she took it, eagerly gulping it without a glance in my direction, her eyes locked by the haunting of our changed world.

I walked to the sliding door and looked outside, grieving the missing act of mowing a lawn. Beyond the pool stretched a brown bed of weeds and scrub that had once been the green pride of suburban excess and waste.

Nobody had measured the real cost of frequent watering, but then, nobody had measured the real cost of anything, until it was too late.

Subsequent panic and alarm had solved nothing. There wasn’t even a provision for the satisfaction over the fulfillment of scientific prophecy, or some would add, religious prophecy.

It was as if someone had turned on Earth’s oven and walked away. And so, almost at once, it seemed, and this was contrary to the scientific prophecies, our world was seared as if its outer layer had peeled away, like a full onion roasting on a wildly inflamed grill while an idiot cook obliviously stares at his phone.

I looked up to the innocent sky, the same deep blue that had given me comfort on past days, in past years, before all this, when I thought I heard a bang on the door. I ran to the front door and pressed my ear against its metal after checking a monitor fed by outside cameras. Nothing.

My imagination, the most active part of my crumbling mind, was the only alteration to routine. This, too, was becoming more tenuously held to reason or lucidity. Sleep at night was a disordered mix of agitation, panic, and a collection of dreamless, short spurts of slumber.

Every sound that wasn’t etched with familiarity was an excuse for my heart to race, for my feet to fly off the bed.

I’d often lay with my eyes wide open late at night into the early morning wondering what I was protecting. Maybe it wasn’t about protection so much as not wanting to be surprised by my death. If I was going to go, I wanted to be taken by the true source of our calamity instead of by some nameless roving marauder.

I also thought that Jol could experience through my vigils one final solace. Deep sleep seemed to be her last remaining connection to things we considered normal. She even often snored more happily when I leaped off the bed to peer at an imagined threat outside. Her snores, normally simple, deep rumblings, became celebratory, like applause, almost, whenever I would escape into investigation.

The door shuddered with another bang, then two more. I looked at the monitor and again saw nothing. I shrugged, scooped up my Glock from the dining room table, released its safety, and looked through the peephole at the disheveled face of Shire Singleton, a former neighbor I had not seen in two years.

His scraggly, dark brown shoulder-length hair sent thin greasy locks into his cheeks as he frantically looked around before knocking again. He was dressed in a dark t-shirt, swag from some old tech conference. The shirt’s shoulders were torn off to reveal scrawny, mottled arms decomposing with scabs. Shire was wearing a pair of dirty purple boxer shorts to complete his ensemble.

His legs were thin poles that appeared as if they were diseased white pine branches with knots where his knees should have been; dark, bruised, and reddened similes of their former selves. All his skin seemed leprous. He squeezed out, “Anton, let me in,” from a hoarse voice. “Please!”

I couldn’t shoot the guy. I had liked him too much as a neighbor. He had always made me laugh a lot, and he was smart.

He was very geographic and historical in many of his conversations. He would do things like somehow mix the relevance of Chinese trade talks with Gdansk dock workers, Lech Walesa, and shopping trips to Costco.

He had a talent for turning a short road trip to the northern suburbs into a brief history lesson of Germany’s autobahn system without boring me to tears. He could tell you where bolts of fabric stitching across your shirt were from, and gave skimpy concise lectures, unwelcome if from anyone else, on any number of obscure historical figures.

He had been a history professor at UC Davis at one time but struck it mildly rich by investing in his son, a brilliant software engineer at MIT who had created an online cloth diaper delivery service. His son had to be talked out of calling it PoopUber by a father who lacked technical savvy but had a keen sense of cultural awareness, yet whose own sense of humor probably cheered at such a possibility.

I opened the door and Shire, smelling a bit rancid, stumbled in. He slammed the door behind him and threw his back against it with his arms spread out. “Don’t go outside,” he spluttered wildly, but softly. His voice had always been high pitched, but now it was lower by an octave in its whispering desperation, his vocal cords just barely creating audible sound.

He seemed to be shivering, which was impossible in this heat. “There’s a pale horse outside, with a ghastly rider.”

An image of a pale horse and its rider
Image by Midjourney

“Settle down, it’s okay,” I said, urging him toward the dining room. He clearly needed some sustenance and probably had not eaten in so long that he was becoming hallucinatory. And water. He needed water. “Come in, sit, sit,” I urged. “Let me get you something to drink. And eat.” I didn’t have much to spare these days. The economy had collapsed months ago. Our pristine suburb was the Wild West; rogues and bandits had replaced the joggers and strolling mothers long ago.

I went into the kitchen and brought him some water from the dispenser that Jol had rigged up nearly two and a half years ago to filter our well water, which, if widely known, would have lured the barbarian hordes directly into our kitchen. Our house, though, looked like any other helpless suburban dependency beholden to municipal water supplies, so it was spared.

I asked Shire if he was hungry.

By now he was nervously sitting at the dining room table, glancing around like a bird. He nodded. I went into the kitchen and peeled open a can of Vienna franks and brought it to him. “Thank you,” he said, louder and in his more familiar, higher-pitched voice.

A can of beans and franks
Image by Mike Mozart; ; cropped by author

He ate them so fast that I barely noticed they were gone when he issued his next statement. “It was huge, Anton”

“What was huge?”

“The horse. And the man on the horse.”

I nodded at his imaginings.

“Flying — no, more like hovering, just past the clock.”He was referring to the enormous clock tower that the city had built a few years after Jol and I had purchased our home.

The clock tower was a rather grotesque sentinel of modern architecture that peered into our backyard between two newly planted crepe myrtle trees that I had hoped would eventually hide it, but couldn’t grow fast enough in this parched land, now that things had changed. This spring, one of them had become a skeleton with nothing but a few leaf buds. Its sister tree showed more promise, but its foliage, too, was spartan.

I walked to the sliding doors and looked outside. If a giant horse and horseman were hovering near the clock tower, I would surely see it, but all was quiet.

“It’s not there, is it?” he asked.

“You were just famished,” I said, hoping to appeal to his normally lucid and logical self.

“That I was. Am.”

“Not to come off like a jerk, but why are you here?” I sat down across from him. “We don’t get a lot of visitors these days, even marauders, and we haven’t seen you in over a year.”

“Janny died,”he blurted, as if not saying it in that instant would force him away from saying it at all.

“Dude man, I’m sorry, when?”

“Just now. She’s in the car.”

“You have a car?” The question really was, “with gas?” but I suspected he knew what I meant, especially since electric cars had fizzled out long before they had a chance to become ubiquitous, and so there was only one possible way to drive. And she’s in it?

He nodded again. “Two years.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, what?”

“We haven’t seen you in two years.”

“Been that long?”

He nodded again. “I didn’t know where to go. I mean, I know I can’t stay here — ha.” He swiveled his head and pointed it towards the front door, “and, I mean, Janny is outside, in the car and all.” He finally started squirting out some tears and said nothing for a half minute, rubbed his eyes, and looked at the dining room table and his empty can of franks. “I just thought I’m near Anton’s house, maybe he’ll have an idea. I mean, I don’t know what to do with her body,” he said after looking up at me.

As much as the idea brought a sense of faint disgust to me, I immediately said, “We need to bring her inside, at least for now.”

A volvo station wagon
Image by IFCAR, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; image manipulation by author

But when we went outside to his car, a thirty-year-old gray Volvo station wagon, she was gone. The car looked so old and quaint that I had expected a clear imprint on the passenger seat to be surrounded by dust.

Instead, when I looked in, I saw the kind of vehicle we used to see homeless people scurry into when they’d hurriedly throw belongings around the back while making a run from the police or whatever else they tended to avoid.

It was full of clothes haphazardly strewn about, a wide variety of used plastic and Styrofoam cups, plastic bags, a few duffel bags, and something that looked like an old television antenna. At that point, I stopped my brief examination and thrust my hands out to my sides as if saying to Shire, “What on earth?”

Was he hallucinating her the same way he was hallucinating the horseman? Had the poor guy driven to my house thinking his dead wife was in the passenger seat? Ghoulishly, I wondered if he sang to his apparition like he said he often sang to her on their road trips.

He stood speechless, then looked around. “Anton, I swear, she…”. He sat down on the grass by the curb of the street and bunched his knees against his chest and clasped his hands just below his zombified kneecaps.

“We were scavenging Costco. There’s still some stuff there somehow. The one off Milky Way Avenue. I know one of the gatekeepers there — he says, well, I wouldn’t own anything they’d want as the price for letting me in, but he let me in anyway.” He was looking at his knees as he talked. “I did him some favors some years back, helped his kid out with a problem.” He shrugged. “Anyway, we didn’t find much. An instant pot or whatever they’re called, so we grabbed that. Haven’t got a place to plug it in though.”

“You’re homeless.”

“Who isn’t these days?”He looked up at me. “Okay, well, I didn’t get ruthlessness in my DNA, so yeah, unlike you,I couldn’t hold on to my house.”Somehow, that didn’t feel like a dig.

There had been a brief period of months where the few of us left in our neighborhood had to fight to keep our homes.

Shire said, “We found a little bit of food is all besides that, canned stuff. That surprised me. So we get done and Janny sits in the car and just clutches her chest like this,” and he grasped his chest with both hands, “and died. And I mean, just died. No gasping, no wheezing, no suffering, I don’t think. Nothing. Just grabbed her chest, sort of, I dunno exactly, and then her head falls back, and her eyes roll back like this. So I came here. Only about 15 miles away.”

He stopped and lowered his head against his knees and didn’t say another word for a minute, and neither did I. “You know?” he finally continued, his eyes boring into some nearby brown, overgrown grass.

I sat down next to him, thinking about how lousy it must be to have to scavenge at Costco, and knowing that I was approaching that next episode in my own life.

“How do you do it?” Shire asked me after a couple of silent minutes. Shade from the houses nearby blocked the late afternoon sun, but I was perspiring anyway because the air was stifling. And it was 100 degrees outside. Like it had been every day and night for three years.

“Do what?”

“Maintain your composure. You almost act as if nothing has changed. Like you’re just taking a little time off work for a staycation or something.”

“Oh, that. Well, honestly, I just don’t care at all what happens anymore. We all got exactly what we deserved. Who am I to fight Mother Nature?”

“But you do fight it. Every day. Your whole life is now about that fight.”

I shook my head. “No. It’s about surviving in the world, however I have to.”

“Can I ask a dicey question?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“How many people have you killed while surviving in her world?”

“Seven,” I answered quickly. I remembered each one well. Every detail had engraved itself into my memory.

The first three were easy — marauders breaking into my house looking for anything of value. Common petty criminals who, in normal times, would have tried to maintain their meth habit with an easy garage burglary, slowly but surely became emboldened into forcible entries and other mayhem.

The fourth was not so easy; a teenager peering into the downstairs bedroom window in the thick of night. I shot him in the head and carried him into the street like the others, a marker to my home as if he’d get picked up by the municipal garbage collectors that had stopped service a few months before my first kill.

I thought it would make me feel good like the others did, but when I got back into the house I cried for hours, sometimes inconsolably, and threw a thousand-dollar Wedgwood vase through the sliding door window, creating an instant security risk, a reminder to me that emotion could be deadly, to leave it in the gun chamber where it belonged.

“Seven,” Shire repeated, as if confirming a score. “You know what? I always felt less than a man for most of my adult life. Know why?”

I shrugged.

“Never even got into a fight. Never even got bullied or beat up. Nothing like that. I’ve never even punched a man. Don’t know what it even feels like.”

“Have you wanted to?”

“Not really.”

“I dunno.” I looked at his anguished face, which was still wearing the grief of his sudden loss. “Maybe that made you more of a man than I could ever be.”

“Are you sorry for the seven?”

“Not really.” Another minute or two of silence elapsed on the quiet street. “Just the one.”


“Not really at all. Just did what I had to do. But that’s what I mean. You allowed yourself to live with less, and here we both sit, neither one of us much to look forward to. You didn’t notice Jol in the house, did you?”

His eyes widened, and he brushed back the back of his hand against his sniffling nose. “No. No, God, what happened?”

“She’s catatonic. She just sits there all day watching TV.”

“How long?”

“All day.”

“No, I mean, how long has this been so?”

I shrugged. “Not sure.” I knew, but I didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, I told him about the kid I shot and my ritual of leaving dead bodies in the street in front of my home.

“It’s quiet here,” said Shire after I finished, probably wondering who collected the corpses.

“There’s only a few of us left here, and we mostly leave each other alone. A motorcycle gang rode through raiding houses a few months ago, but didn’t try to get into any occupied houses. We get roving packs of dogs sometimes.”

Mean looking dog
Image licensed from Adobe stock

“How’d they know?”

“Who? What?”

“The motorcycle gang. How’d they know which houses to hit?”

“Man, I dunno. Good question. They just did. They were heavily armed. I pretty much thought it was lights out when they got here. But they weren’t killers.Just a bunch of dudes looking for food. Respectfully. It was, I dunno, kind of cool. How they sort of just left us alone, those who live here. At the time, I figured they knew they didn’t need to get violent to score some food, or they were just mellow or something.”

It dawned on me that we weren’t looking for Shire’s wife, who had just disappeared from his car. I had taken his lead, and when Shire had simply sat down, so had I.

“I think she’s gone,” he said, as if hearing my thoughts.

“I don’t understand.”

“Well. I don’t either.”

Everything was becoming so.A certain stain of apathetic resignation had slowly eaten away at humanity’s core, and it seemed that many of us were gathered in a cosmic waiting room.

There were no school dances to take your kids to, no soccer games, no school. No fishing or hunting or hiking trips, no vacations, no political rallies, no protests, no hobbies, no street fairs or art shows or Friday art gallery walks, no baseball or football games. No events. No staring at your phone. And so we sat there as if this latest event had not occurred at all.

“Want some iced tea?” I asked.

He nodded. He didn’t ask where I got the iced tea, or the ice, or can of franks, or where my electricity came from.

We went back into my house, walked past my catatonic wife, who may or may not have been watching “Ghostbusters,” female version. I was a step or two ahead of Shire, but I knew he didn’t look at her as we walked into the dining room, and he said nothing.

For a brief, eerie moment, I felt like he had seen this show before. I walked to the shelf holding the DVD collection and grabbed one and set it next to the DVD player to signify “coming next” to my quiet wife, flashing the case at her robotically, like I always did.

Then Shire and I sat at the dining room table and silently drank iced tea together.

“I got to know one of them a little bit,” I said. I took another sip and Shire said nothing. “He was about fifty. I guess a little older than me, for sure. He had a full white beard layered in waves like a magnificent full head of hair. And all his hair was white, too, white as snow. He’d pull up in his loud Harley every morning and try to Holy Roll me. I wasn’t buying any of it, but he was a good sport about it and I was a pretty good listener, I guess. He did this about, oh, about four days, I think.

“Then one day, he brought over a bunch of canned goods and some other food.” I pointed at the empty can of franks with a wave of my hand, and I laughed and smiled at the memory. “And he says, he says, and I mean this box he has, right? It’s not that big a box. About yay big,” and I showed the height with my hands, “and he says, ‘this will fix ya up for the year, brother. May Christ keep you.’ Then he sets it on the floor there at the front door and gives me a massive hug. When he lets go, the dude’s crying. Crying, tears just flowing out like a waterfall or somethin’, and he leaves.”

“Come here, check this out,” and I got up and led Shire to the kitchen pantry. I opened the door and pointed to a shelf. “So what I do is I take a few items out of the box down here and I put them here on the shelf and replace them from the box after I’ve gone through what’s on the shelf. Like I’m working at a grocery store facing shelves.”

Shire looked at me like I had offered forth an unanswerable riddle. “That was four months ago.” Shire’s look didn’t change much. “I’ve done it more than a dozen times. A lot more.” I reached down and opened a flap on the top of the box and pointed down. “Still full. Never gets empty.”

Shire glared at me. “And you could only spare a little tin of franks?”


“Five thousand loaves.”

I shook my head, not able to understand.

“From five.”

I still didn’t get it. “Twilight zone stuff, right? Hey, I gotta use the head. Be right back. Feel free to sit at the table or whatever. Take a load off.”

But when I returned from the bathroom, he was neither at the table nor in the kitchen. I looked around the house and the second bathroom. “Shire?” There was no response. I headed for the door, wondering if I had offended him somehow.

Not really caring, but instead led by curiosity, I went outside and looked for his car.Or, I thought, maybe he simply left, he not being in quite what I’d consider his happy space.But his car was still there, empty. “Weird,” I said to myself as I headed back to the gloom of my house.

I sat down at the dining room table and stared at Shire’s empty can of franks, wondering what he had meant by that comment. He had never been an ungrateful sort. But then the thought entered my head that I probably could have spared more than one small can of franks.

I wondered. Had I even noticed, before today, that the box my motorcycle friend gave me seemed to replenish itself? It seemed as if the surrealism that had become our days now seeped into every aspect of my life.

I stood up and walked to the sliding doors to look at the thermometer outside for the thousandth time this week. Exactly 100 degrees. It would be exactly 100 degrees tonight, too. The sky seemed considerably darker than it should for late afternoon, so dark that I wondered about a solar eclipse.

I considered my wife and how lonely I had become in her relentless silence, and wondered why I hadn’t welcomed my visitor more warmly; why in fact, my soul wanted nothing more than to push him out the door, rejecting him the same way a body rejects a much needed organ transplant under equally dire circumstances.

Not a small part of me wanted to confront her, confront it, shake her shoulders violently, and demand that she speak.

In the distance of the living room, when I heard the movie ending, I contemplated the possibility of destroying the TV. I even wondered, as I strolled into the living room, whether I would put the next movie into the DVD player for her or throw it like a Frisbee into her head.

But when I looked at the couch, she was gone. I looked at the space on the couch where she should have been. I reached down with my hand and touched the indentation where she had been sitting. It was still warm.

“Oh,” I said, and I turned off the TV.

And I so missed the birds outside, and their arguments in the afternoon sun.

Thanks for reading! This story also appears in the Short Story collection Quantum Blues and was recently released to The Kraken Lore on Medium. This version contains the latest edits.

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