by Finn Decker
The new refrigerator was nice enough: stainless steel, with a bottom freezer, a crisper, and dispensers for filtered water and for ice. It complimented the stainless steel stove that the previous owners had put in before filing for divorce and leaving the kitchen to the next owner to complete. The box the fridge had come in was unremarkable. Despite the box's ordinary appearance, people had started to emerge from within it. After a few people had appeared, Charlie asked himself, what if I'd broken down the box right away, cut it up with my Exacto knife and put the pieces out with the recycling? What would have happened to all these people?
The people themselves didn't seem to know. They arrived in the kitchen without speaking, not even talking among themselves in some careening language, as one might expect, but instead appearing mute, almost newborn, but fully clothed, eating with silverware when offered.
Charlie's wife, Jill, accused him. “Did you know something?” she said. “Did they tell you something about this box at the store?”
“What could they have told me?” he said. “That people would come out of the box? How can this be my fault?”
And fault seemed strange to place, in Charlie's mind, because he liked the people. He felt obliged to convince Jill that he was trying to solve the problem, but it didn't feel like a problem.
“I can't just destroy the box,” he said. “Who knows where they're coming from? Who knows if they're running from something?”
“You worry about everyone else but me, but us.”
“You're not worried about these people?”
“Sure I am, in that distant way that you worry about thousands of people being killed in Africa or Iraq or some place. ‘Gee, that's sad, I wish there was something I could do, but let's just decide where to go for dinner tonight.' You, you take it on as a personal burden, as if you can do something about it.”
“Honey, they're in my house, how can I not do something about it?”
“Our house. When did it become ‘my' house?”
Probably since the last ultrasound, he thought to himself, probably since she took away what little control he had of their pregnancy. For five months he had helped her maintain a specific diet: folic acid supplements, prenatal vitamins, and anything else he had been able to research to ensure a healthy baby would come out at the end. And there they were, being told by the Ob-Gyn that the ultrasound had revealed a marker, it could mean a number of things, it could be Down Syndrome, it could be Cystic Fibrosis, it could be nothing, but we'd have to go forward with an amniocentesis to be sure.
“When can we get that scheduled?” Charlie said. “Can we get in today?”
“No,” Jill said.
“What do you mean?” Charlie said.
“Just that. No. No amnio. I don't want one.”
This was the first resistance she'd shown to any of Charlie's plans for the pregnancy. The doctor left them alone to talk. “Why wouldn't we have one done? Don't you want to know if there's something wrong?”
“There's nothing wrong,” Jill said.
“We can't know that without doing the test.”
“I don't care, I don't want to know, and I don't think there's anything wrong.”
“You don't think? Don't you want to know?”
“What's the difference if we know? What are we going to do about it?”
“Well, we'd have options,” Charlie said.
“Options? Options? Did you see that ultrasound? That's a little person in there, that's my child, and there are no options. I am having this child, Down Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, I don't care, I'm having this child, and if I'm having this child—“
“—if I'm having this child, then there's no reason to have an amnio, to risk the amnio causing some problem—“
“The chance of that is minimal.”
“Minimal shminimal. No amnio.”
At home that night they didn't talk to each other. Charlie watched Jill walk slowly around the house with her arms crossed and hanging low, protecting her belly, as if he might try to take a sewing needle and a turkey baster and do his own amniocentesis. He might, damn it, he just might.
In the morning, Charlie said, “Honey, it's such a risk, we don't know what to expect. We don't know what we're getting into.”
“We know exactly what we're getting into,” Jill said. “Don't even talk to me about this again.”
Charlie could feel the distance growing between them, her new loyalty to this child quickly replacing any loyalty she might have felt toward him. As this distance grew, Charlie involved himself more and more with the house itself, painting the baby's bedroom yellow and laying down a soft rug with a yellow border that surrounded a blue sky, a blue bird and a pink bird carrying away children's dresses and shirts on a clothesline. He decided to get around to finishing the kitchen. He had a friend over to help him pull the old fridge out and then put in the new one, cutting a door in the box to slide the fridge out. Charlie hooked up the water line to the filter, restocked the new fridge, and left the box in the corner of the kitchen, forgetting until late at night when he came down for a glass of water to put it out on the curb with the old fridge.
I'll put it out in the morning, it's too late, he thought, then noticed the front flap of the box moving, there in the dark, moving in the shadows cast through the kitchen window by the streetlight. Charlie looked around: is there a window open? Is there a breeze?
He put his glass down, moved to the box to pull open the flap, and saw standing inside, hunched over to fit, a man with a shaved head, shivering. The man's eyes were wide and the black dots in his pupils shrunk when the light from the kitchen hit them. Charlie froze, and the man stepped out of the box, straightened his back, and tried to smile. He said nothing, and Charlie guessed that they wouldn't understand each other if they tried to talk. In the strange silence. the man approached the new refrigerator, opened its door, and removed a small yogurt. Charlie reached for a drawer and from it offered the man a spoon.
“You need to open it,” Charlie said when the man stood looking at him with the yogurt in one hand and the spoon in the other. Charlie reached for the yogurt and the man handed it to him. Charlie peeled off the foil top and handed the small plastic jar back to him. The man smiled and began to eat.
“What are you doing down there?” Jill called down to Charlie.
Charlie left the man with his yogurt and walked slowly to the stairs, calling up in a soft voice, “I think you need to come down here.”
Jill shrieked when she saw the man leaning against the counter. “What is he doing here?” she yelled. “Who is this? Who's in our house at this time of night? Don't you know I'm pregnant?”
“Enough, enough,” Charlie said. “Just listen for a minute, it's OK.”
“What do you mean it's OK? How can it be OK? Who is this person?”
“He came from the box.”
She stopped screaming, looked from Charlie to the man and back to Charlie. “What are you talking about he came from the box? What do you mean?”
“The box. The refrigerator box. He was inside it.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” she asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Just what I said. I was standing here drinking a glass of water and I saw the flap on that box moving, and when I pulled it open, he was inside there, hunched over.”
The man had remained silent throughout their exchange; having finished his yogurt he stood there with the empty pot in his hand. Charlie took it from him gently and put it in the trash.
“What is he doing here?” Jill said.
“I don't know. He hasn't spoken.”
“Of course, of course he hasn't spoken. What are you trying to pull on me? Where did he really come from? Are you having an affair with this guy? Are you gay? Have you been gay all these years? This is a hell of a way to cover it up, a man from a box, sure, I'll bet there are hundreds more where he came from.”
“I don't think so. He came from the box, and I didn't see anyone else in there. There's not really room.”
“You son of a bitch, this is about the amnio, isn't it?” Jill said. “I won't have an amnio, so you go and have a gay affair.”
“That would hardly be a logical response.”
“About as logical as a man coming from a box. C'mon, let's have a look, let's open it up and see who else you've been fucking, who else you're hiding in there.”
“Really, there's no one else—“
Before Charlie could finish, he and Jill both saw emerging from the box a woman, about the man's age, and she smiled as she straightened herself up. The man reached his hand out for her and she took it, then she kissed him on the lips. The man pointed to the refrigerator and looked at Charlie.
“Of course,” Charlie said, and removed a yogurt for the woman. “See,” Charlie said to his wife. “Not gay.”
Jill turned the box around and tilted it off the ground to look beneath it.
“Honey,” Charlie said. “I think it just is what it is.”
“A box full of people is what it is? I think they're a figment of your imagination.”
“How can they be a figment of my imagination if you can see them too?”
“I don't know,” she said. “But if anyone could pull that off it would be you.”
The man peeled the top off of the yogurt and handed it to the woman, smiling as he did, and she smiled at him in appreciation. He bowed his head slightly, never hiding his teeth.
Charlie watched these two people interact, then looked at his wife as she watched as well; she never smiled, nor did she reflect any of the warmth that Charlie felt coming from the two strangers.
“Who are they?” she said.
“I don't know. Honestly, they just came out of the box. You watched her come out with me.”
“I can't believe you. You have to be tricking me. Why are you doing this to me?”
“I'm not doing anything to you. I can't explain this.”
“Then call the police. Let's call the police.”
“What are they going to do about it? Do you really want to call the police and tell them two strangers just walked out of a refrigerator box?”
“Maybe they won't explain it, but at least they'll take them away, get them out of my kitchen.”
“If you tell them these people came out of that box, I think the police will take you away, not them.”
Jill paused, then said, “You're right, aren't you?”
“I think so.”
“Then what are we supposed to do?” Jill said.
“I think we should probably try to talk to them.”
The two strangers had not moved, except for the woman's slow movement of the spoon from the cup to her mouth and back. Both of their faces were set in steady, natural grins, and the woman smiled broadly when she finished the yogurt and handed the empty container back to Charlie, tipping her head toward him.
“Tell them to go home,” Jill said.
“That's no way to start a relationship, is it?”
“This is not a relationship.”
“If they were stray dogs you wouldn't just kick them out,” Charlie said.
“But they're not stray dogs, they're stray people. I'd kick out stray people.”
“Just relax. Let me try to communicate with them.” Charlie turned to the two, pointed to himself, and said, “Charlie. My name is Charlie.” He pointed to his wife and said, “Jill. That's Jill.” He looked around, then pointed to the box. “Box,” he said, before holding up the empty plastic cup and saying, “Yogurt” and rubbing his stomach with his other hand.
The man continued to smile and moved his hand in a circle in front of his stomach; the woman followed, the two together circumscribing their stomachs.
“I think we're getting somewhere,” Charlie said.
“Where?” Jill said. “They're just mimicking you. Do something else and see if they do it.”
“Like — I don't know, like this.” Jill put her thumbs in her ears and wiggled her fingers. The two strangers watched her for a moment before they, too, raised their hands to their ears and made their fingers dance.
“See?” Jill said.
“Don't do that,” Charlie said. “Don't make them look like fools.”
“They look like fools? You're worried about them looking like fools? I'm standing in my kitchen making stupid faces at two people who don't exist, who came out of a refrigerator box that you should have put out on the curb hours ago. Who looks like a fool?”
“Jill, control yourself.”
“I will not control myself. You will explain this right now, explain who these people are, or put them back into that box and make them disappear.” The two strangers' eyes followed Jill's finger to the box .
“They're not going back in there,” Charlie said. “And we're not calling the police. They're staying right here until we figure this out. We have to figure out some way to communicate.”
“They are not staying here with my child inside me. They're not—“
“They are. You can barricade yourself in the bedroom if you want, if you're worried.”
“Then we're destroying—“
“And we're not destroying the box. It stays until we know that no one else is coming.”
“You're out of your mind, Charlie. None of this can be happening.”
“Then you're out of your mind, too, because these two people are still standing here.”
“Right,” Jill said. “Waiting for us to make more faces for them to mimic, to make up our own sign language that means nothing, to—“
“Enough, Jill. Enough. I've had enough of—“ and Jill slapped him, before Charlie could finish, Jill slapped him hard. Charlie raised his hand to his cheek as Jill's fell from it, and he turned to the strangers, holding his own cheek, and anticipating that the woman would follow Jill's example and slap the man.
The man approached Charlie and gently moved Charlie's hand from his cheek. The man placed his hand in place of Charlie's, and continued to smile.
“Great,” Jill said. “I'm the bad one, I'm the bitch, it's all my—” and stopped when the woman approached her and took her still outstretched hand, turned it so that Jill's palm faced upward, and placed her own hand on top of it.
“You can sleep upstairs,” Charlie said to Jill as he removed the man's hand from his cheek. “I'll stay down here with them.”
Charlie slept as best he could on the couch in the living room. He tried to convince the strangers to sleep in the living room as well, gently guiding them and pointing to the couches, but they only smiled and returned to the kitchen, where the last he saw they were sitting on the floor beside the box.
The next morning, they reconvened in the kitchen. Jill entered the kitchen with her hands resting on her belly, and Charlie watched her hands as she poured a cup of the coffee he had already made.
“Today of all days,” Jill said, “I need my cup. The doctor said the occasional cup wouldn't hurt.”
“Did they sleep?” she asked. “No, wait, let me ask first, do they exist?”
“Yes, they exist,” Charlie said. “And, by the way—” A slender woman entered the kitchen and bowed slightly to Jill before sitting on the floor beside the first woman. The first woman was rounder, with a few streaks of grey running through her otherwise black hair, but their faces were otherwise similar, and both had eyes like thick coffee.
“I showed them where the toilet was,” Charlie said. “They seemed to know how to use it already.”
Jill took a deep breath. “When did the new one come?”
“This morning, just a little while ago. The other two seemed relieved to see her. I think they're sisters, but she could be her daughter, I guess.”
“OK, listen. Let's sort this out. They still haven't said anything?”
“Do you recognize their clothes? Do they look ethnic or something?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do they look like they're from a particular country?” They each wore shawls of a single color, the man's a light blue, the women's an earthen red.
“Not to me, nothing I recognize, anyway,” Charlie said. “You?”
“No. I wouldn't have asked.”
“I only have one idea, honestly,” Jill said.
“Yes. Get in the box.”
“Excuse me?” Charlie put his coffee down, looked at the box.
“Get in the box. See if you go somewhere.”
“What if I do and I can't come back?”
“If these three could figure it out, I would hope that you could, too.”
“It's not the worst idea I've ever heard,” Charlie said. “I don't have any others.”
Charlie looked at the three strangers sitting on the floor. They looked up at him, and for a moment he believed that they knew what he was about to do, believed he saw worry pass over their faces, but otherwise they didn't react. He approached Jill, put both of his hands on her belly and felt its firmness, felt the cocoon it had become. He leaned to kiss Jill and she turned her head so that he placed a small kiss on her cheek. “I'll be right back,” he said.
He stepped to the box and pulled back the flap. Crouching slightly, he looked in and saw only cardboard. He stepped in with only his toe; he looked down at it and realized that he was still wearing slippers, and sweatpants and a t-shirt, and that wherever he might end up, he would arrive in his pajamas. He stepped in with the other foot and let the flap fall back loosely toward him.
Realizing that he had closed his eyes as he'd stepped in, expecting a flash, a bright light, something spectacular, he opened them to see where he was and saw the cardboard of the box. He turned and pushed the flap and saw the three strangers on the floor of his kitchen, and his wife leaning against the counter, calmly drinking her one cup of coffee. Were they there but not there, visible but worlds away? Had he disappeared from their view even as he could see them? Where was he?
“Shit,” Jill said, setting her mug down as she did. “You're still here.”
Charlie pushed the flap further so he could look her in the eye. “Should I wait a while? See what happens?”
“Don't bother,” she said. “It's just a box. I mean, it's just a fucking refrigerator box. These people shouldn't even be here.”
She said nothing else but soon left the house. Charlie didn't try to stop her but followed her as far as the front porch and watched her pull away in their car. The three strangers didn't leave the kitchen, and when he returned, Charlie found them still sitting on the floor near the box, watching it, smiling.
Charlie busied himself around the house for the morning, putting together the crib in the baby's room for an hour, working outside to regrade the dirt against the house's foundation, refilling the backyard birdfeeder that attracted sparrows and finches, mostly, sometimes cardinals. He returned to the kitchen between each task, but nothing had changed, no one else had arrived.
He went back outside with a beer and sat on the porch and his cell phone rang in his pocket.
“I'm at my sister's,” Jill said. “And I haven't been able to tell her anything. I want to tell her, but I don't know how to say it, how to describe it. I'm just here drinking lemonade and pretending that the world is normal.”
“Come home, then.”
“I have to give you something to think about first. Then I'll come home.”
“I'm offering you a deal. Get rid of the box, and I'll get the amniocentesis.”
“Jill, this has nothing to do with the amnio. I don't know why you're even—“
“That's what I'm offering, Charlie. I'll be home later.”
Nothing made sense, the strangers in the kitchen, the box, Jill's attitude toward the baby. He had always wanted to protect his child from the madness of the world, create a citadel in this house, a house with solid brick walls, conditioned air, secure gas lines and safely wired electricity, but all along, it now seemed, madness had been growing inside the house like mold hidden in the attic, crawling down the walls.
Jill didn't come home until much later, after dark, and after Charlie had fallen asleep on the floor of the baby's room, curled up on the thick rug. Two beer bottles lay on their sides beside him, foam spilling out from one to form a tiny cloud in the rug's blue sky.
Charlie awoke the next morning and went first into their bedroom, but Jill wasn't there. He walked downstairs and found her on the couch, facing the front window, looking out onto the street. He breathed deeply and said, “I've thought about what you said, about getting the amnio if I get rid of the box. And I've decided, I'll let the amnio go. This box is something miraculous, and I think your pregnancy is too. And I want to keep the box even if I don't understand it — maybe because I don't understand it — so let's have this pregnancy without understanding it, too.”
Jill said nothing, continuing to look out the window.
“Did you hear me?” he said.
“Yes, I did,” Jill said. “The deal's off.”
“What are you talking about?”
She nodded her head toward the window. He looked out and saw a pile of cardboard on the curb, the refrigerator box, he knew immediately it was the refrigerator box, cut into pieces.
“What have you done?” he said as he rushed to the window. “Where have they gone?” Charlie looked back at Jill, who sat calmly on the couch with a tiny baby on her lap; it had a full head of matted hair and was wrapped in a multicolored blanket that Charlie had never seen before.
“What happened? What's going on?”
Jill smiled. “This little one was here this morning, in the box. Those people ignored it, and it stopped crying when I picked it up.”
“Where are they now?”
“They're gone. They went back.”
“What did you do? What did you do to them?”
Jill stroked the baby's hair. “I didn't do anything. I picked up the baby and held it, and those three smiled, and I think maybe they bowed, and they got back in the box and disappeared.”
“How? How did it work for them if it didn't work for me?”
“I don't know. It just did. There are things we can't know, Charlie. Most things.”
“And the box? Why did you destroy the box?”
“Why not? It's just a refrigerator box. And the new fridge works just fine. It's not like we're taking it back.”
“It's not about the fridge, it's about—”
“It's over, Charlie. This baby is ours. It's over.”
“What about our baby, the one you're carrying?”
She reached for Charlie, and he stepped forward and gave her his hand. She shifted the baby on her lap to the side and placed Charlie's hand on her belly. It had shrunk considerably from the day before, and had softened. Charlie understood immediately that Jill was no longer carrying a baby.
“Where did it go? What the fuck? What happened?”
“I don't know,” Jill said. “I don't understand it. Nothing bad happened. I didn't bleed or anything, didn't get sick. I just felt a little sad last night, that's all. And then this baby was here, and we've been up together all morning, and I realized that I felt lighter, I mean, truly lighter and, well, all I know is that this baby is ours.”
“It's not, though, it came from the box, it came from somewhere else, it's probably that woman's, the younger one.”
“Charlie. Look at me. This baby is ours.”
Charlie removed his hand from Jill's stomach, touched the child's hair, patches of new skin showing through the thin strands. Improbable as it was — no, impossible — he saw a hint of Jill in the baby's face. “Is it a boy or a girl?” Charlie asked. “Is it healthy?”
“It doesn't matter,” Jill said. “It's ours.”
All rights reserved.
Amnio is about the different ways two people whose interests are supposed to be aligned can react to the same momentous event.