Jarring, Scarring, and Cold
May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
A series of unfortunate career moves have landed me a saddening position as a warehouse employee for some large unnamed corporation. My Ph.D. in astrophysics and years of research are moot accomplishments as I spend my nights moving unmarked cardboard boxes from one green shelf to the next. My small frame and feeble stature characterize my incompetence at completing even the least arduous of physical tasks. Like a scarlet letter declaring my weakness for living. For life itself.
I am unaware of the full nature of my employment much beyond the moving of boxes. It certainly does not help that every box is unmarked. Or that I only work nights, alone. Yet even the name of my overseer often escapes me in passing conversations with friends and strangers alike. Smithson Holdings? Or is it Holden and Smith? I can never truly recall and instead I make up scenarios, describing my establishment as the worlds leading producer of fuzzy lined toilet seats or the personal wigmaker to Donald Trump.
Despite this disinterest in my current existence, the scientist within me insists on accounting for every box I move. Or maybe it’s just the OCD. Regardless, I am up to box number 667,701 after 34 years of groping cardboard in the darkness.
Yes, that is correct.
I am hoping to reach the million mark within my lifetime. For no other reason then to have at least one selfless achievement on my record in the off-chance I should ever ascend to heaven.
It is a dark weekday evening when I arrive to work. I am alone and moving unmarked cardboard boxes to and fro, as is the norm. Shortly into my shift and with no warning I feel a sudden and intrepid chill wash over the back of my neck. The sensation is freezing. What Imagine dry ice sticking to skin must feel like. Jarring, scarring, and cold. But just as quickly as it comes, it subsides. The staggering silence and humid stink of the building slowly return to their positions, as is the norm. I am alone but shrug the feeling off as a passing breeze in the cavernous warehouse. A breath of fresh air, perhaps.
My back is turned towards the darkness as I lift unmarked cardboard box number 667,719 onto the metal shelf. Again, I feel the same chill just as before. Like the freezing exhale of something that has never known the warmth of the sun. It is so cold that it burns and stings and makes me question whether my blood is seeping through my skin. Before I can even begin to react to this short-lived sensation, I feel it again.
An icy breath seeping into my spine. Each one burning worse than the previous. Slithering along the same patch of aching skin. Over. And over.
I secure number 667,719 before turning around. My eyes widen as I fall back against the green metal shelf and the unmarked cardboard box with which I struggled. My hands grasping for something sturdy in the darkness.
Standing before me is what I could only surmise to be the devil. Not a devil, mind you. And certainly not of the variety that usually comes to mind. This, I determined in my infinite Ph.D. wisdom, was the devil himself.
He was shorter than I had expected. That is not to say that I was expecting him, nor that it technically is a him, but rather that in everything I had ever learned about the devil, I had never come across an incarnation of him towering at a reasonable 5 feet, 3 inches tall.
He, or it, looked very much like a man. A rich and traveled Eastern European man who could earn more money in a day than I could moving a billion unmarked cardboard boxes. He wore what I can only assume is the most expensive suit in the world. It was black with a pin-striped crimson tie. The jacket had a classic English look. Soft and round over the shoulder. Full in the chest and a bit shorter than expected. Incisions beneath the lapels. Pure silk accents. The trousers were run a bit long, though, without much of a break over the shoes. I would imagine it’s difficult to tailor the greatest suit in the world for the devil. But that is neither here nor there.
His face was oddly inviting, a sort of charming quirkiness that you could not help but envy behind closed doors. It was visually aged, pock-marked and succumbing to gravity, but the palatable confidence he exuded more than compensated for any blemishes across his skin. He was staring at me, smiling. His eyes seemingly normal save for the notable lack of any vessels around the iris. He did not blink, though. He did not ever blink.
After a few moments that felt like decades he spoke to me. He spoke without speaking. Without opening his mouth and without making any noise. But I could hear every word he said. I could hear it in a thousand languages I didn’t even know. His voices rang like church bells that played solely in my head. Tarnished and rusty. Moldy. Cracked. They had been there my entire existence but had not been rung in a thousand lifetimes. Ancient genealogical relics built by my ancestors to ring in the presence of evil. To warn themselves. To someday warn me as well.
Their ringing could not drown out his voices, though. Not a single one.
His request was simple enough. It was almost comical, really. Almost. Had I heard someone else telling this story I would have been laughing at all the wrong moments. But humor is easily abandoned when the topic is yourself. I won’t bore you with all the details, but suffice to say that I was offered a deal.
Not a deal. No. That’s poor wording.
An opportunity. A chance. A challenge.
Yes. It was a challenge.
The devil, in his infinite wisdom, had decided that this weak-learned-brown-box-counting mortal was the most suitable candidate for some inexorable confrontation regarding the fate of the world. In his many voices he explained that we would play a game. A game to decide the future of humanity. Like some rehashed old plot line revisited in too many movies or short stories.
Should I win said game, the devil would abandon this realm leaving no evils behind. Mankind would know a thousand years of utopian bliss. People would not die. Would not suffer. Would not know pain. A thousand generations of peace on earth. Perfection incarnate. Heaven.
His voices trailed off into the silence within my head. My eyes growing placid as my mind attempted to comprehend such an existence. A perfect world. A peaceful world. A world with no crime. No sin. Perhaps no boxes either.
But before I could complete this mental picture he startled me back to reality. His many utterances quickly shifting back to pain inducing hexes. To languages never known by man. His words dripping with hate and lust and gluttony and envy and greed and sloth and pride. My body ached as he explained the second set of rules for our game. My muscles spasmed, as if trying to rip through my skin. As if each fiber was running in a different direction. Scattering like roaches under the motivation of a 60 watt bulb. If I truly did have a soul, it was slowly dying as he spoke.
Should I lose said game, he explained, then the world would know no good. No light would shine upon it. No stars would break the night. A thousand years of blackness would consume mankind. A thousand years of sin. A thousand different hells for each person a thousand times over. A thousand unmovable boxes for myself.
The darkness suddenly became darker. The blackest spots of the warehouse growing like infections that feed off light. The entire building is aphotic. It is suffocating and it is dying around me, save for a single spotlight illuminating a small table and chairs. A haven in the darkness upon which rests a mahogany chess board, its pieces already setup for an innocent game of wits. Pawns and queens staring each other down across the checkered battle field. They don’t seem too bothered by the current state of things. I’d often postulated that mahogany was the most selfish of trees. But that conjecture is for another time.
I glance back at the charming European man who burns my soul and he subtly motions me towards the table. Bravely, I decline his offer. Throwing my hands out in front of me and shaking my head back and forth, I advise him that I will not play such a game. No way. No how.
His broken gaze fixes upon me but I am no fool, I tell him. I have seen various manifestations of this exact scenario and they do not pan out for people in my position. I shake my finger disparagingly at the devil and remind him that he his both a liar and a cheat. And that any game played on his whim and his terms must be a trick.
His many voices do not speak but I begin to feel the darkness tightening around me. I shake it off and insist we choose a different method for deciding the rapture. I explain that chess is an old and dated diversion. No one plays chess anymore. I also remind him that my higher-than-average IQ will only prove too difficult to defeat in such a game.
Again, his voices do not respond and his eyes do not blink but I begin to feel the darkness pulling away. Using colorful hand motions, I suggest that instead of chess we play something much more fair and appropriate. Something a bit more modern. Perhaps rock-paper-scissors. Or an essay contest. We could simply draw straws. Or maybe play scrabble. Or we could rely on yahtzee to decide the cataclysm of life itself.
He is not pleased with my suggestions and before I can finish the sentence leaving my lips he responds with the fiery howl of his thousand angry voices. Screaming in silent unison they melt my skin and shatter my molecules. They are sticks and stones and words wielded with deadly precision.
I quickly regain some failing degree of composure and somehow mange to shout another suggestion into the darkness. Through pain and agony I scream the word ‘golf’ in a singular non-threatening voice. I don’t fully understand where it came from. Perhaps the pain affected by judgement. Or maybe it was another genealogical relic. But for whatever reason, I challenged the devil to a game on the back nine in order to determine the next thousand years of human existence.
Knowing full and well the nauseating sense of boredom that golf stories will induce, I shall spare you the details. But needless to say I beat the devil -6 to -3 without a handicap. He was very displeased with the turn of events, his response suggesting that this is not the norm. Then again I don’t recall suffering a thousand years of darkness anytime recently.
He did manage let out a thousand and one screams when he lost. I am assuming the existence of the extra one. Mostly because his mouth did in fact move this time around. But that is nothing more than idle speculation.
After writhing in pain across the rough for several minutes, I was greeted with silence. The devil stared at me. His suit disheveled and his old world charm faded. In a single voice he affirmed that I did in fact win fair and square. And that he and all of his evils would be leaving the world ‘soonish.’ I’m not exactly sure what amount of time that equates to. I assume he needed to get his affairs in order before retiring for one thousand years. But, again, that’s more idle speculation on my part.
With a flash and a bang I find myself standing in the warehouse once more. Its dark and humid disposition eagerly awaiting my return. I confidently strut through the darkness, stopping in front of a stack of unmarked cardboard boxes which need to be appropriately placed before the end of my shift. Of course, the idea of just running home to await the glory that would be engulfing the world ‘soonish’ certainly did cross my mind. However, seeing as I have some time to kill before the second coming, a couple more boxes in the face of 669,402 would not hurt.
No. That’s not right.
No. No. No.
I stare blankly at the stack of boxes.
663,402.. 662.. 6.. 6…
My breathing grows deep and my vision begins to blur around the peripherals. My hand lazily reaches out for the comfort of the green metal shelf but I only feel the darkness. It is empty and uninviting. It is stinging like dry ice. Jarring, scarring, and cold.
The faintest hint of a tear squeezes out from between my eyelids. It dangles upon the tip of my lash for a fleeting second before it falls to the cardboard box at my feet. This box was not there before. This box is new. It is clean and pretty and precious. I stare at it through the darkness. My eyes fixated on its surface. This box is marked.
I pick it up from the dusty warehouse floor, cradling it in my hands like a newborn child. It is unspeakably heavy and I struggle just bringing it up to my chest. It feels as though it contains the weight of the world a thousand times over. My eyes scan the surface that is facing me. My hands feeling along the surfaces that do not. This is a marked cardboard box. It is painted and penned and printed and it repeats the same mocking joke over and over on all of its faces. I glance up and see the faint and pointed shapes of cardboard boxes stacked throughout the warehouse. Each one is of the exact shape and dimensions as the box I grapple with now. Each one seemingly telling its own unique six-sided punchline.
The room is silent aside from the subtlest sounds of laughter coming from the marked cardboard boxes. The sound is vague and distant and ostensible but it is there. It is there just as I am. Just as the box is. Just as its six-sided epigram reads..