by Philip Roberts
By sundown the temperature had dropped to just below thirty. By midnight, Bill figured it to be near zero. His work kept him warm normally, but the warmth of work could only combat so much of the cold before the cold won out. With four hours left in his shift, Bill paused to stare at that long, endless trailer, lit by a floodlight near the front that blinded him every time he turned around to grab another box.
Boxes rolled slowly along the rollers, or they were supposed to, that is, had the rollers not been in such shitty condition. Behind him he heard a box hit the floor of the trailer, followed by a two or three more.
He was halfway done with the trailer when he picked up a small box, no more than ten by ten inches, if that, and saw there wasn't an address label.
The lack of label wasn't what made him stand there for nearly a minute, the backed up boxes ignored, and study the small package. The thing felt warm. Not hot, but definitely warm.
"Now what could you be?" he asked it while enjoying the warmth on his fingers. Whatever the box was, he couldn't stand around with his thumb up his ass for much longer before Reynolds came by.
He walked to the end of the trailer and hopped down into the warehouse. Above his head a yellow light flashed so everyone would know he wasn't taking care of his load fast enough. He was about to set the box down when he thought he heard something, ever so softly, almost like a voice, coming from out of the box.
Machinery hissed in his ear, boxes banged to a halt right next to him, and that damn horn was blowing in sync with the yellow light just to make damn sure everyone knew he wasn't keeping up.
Reynolds stared at him from the other side of the conveyer running down the middle of the warehouse. He brought up his hands in a what-the-hell kind of gesture that Reynolds had perfected over enough years of working in a warehouse where you couldn't hear jack shit over all the noise.
Yeah, yeah, Bill motioned back, and set the box on the floor. In that place he had trouble hearing a guy even if he was yelling, so what were the odds he'd be able to hear anything coming from the box? The answer was that nothing had come from the box.
The sun was peeking over the horizon when he slid his car up to his trailer across icy roads. The salt trucks were out already, not that they ever came to his end of the city. That ice would be there until Mother Nature decided to take it away.
His answering machine blinked at him from the other side of the living room.
A beep greeted him followed by an electronic voice telling him he had one message, and then Carla was crying into the phone, her words nearly lost to the sobs, but Bill got enough of it.
His daughter was dead.
Sleep stopped him from seeing Carla that day, or the body of poor Elizabeth.
"Where have you been?" Carla nearly screamed at him when he called her.
"I'm working the overnight shift to get the extra dollar an hour, and you know that. I was sleeping."
"Elizabeth is dead, Bill. God, I've been going out of my mind all day and you've just been sleeping."
"You know as well as I do I need to keep the cash flow coming. How much did that last bill run you?"
"I know, Bill, I know you need to keep working. It's just, can't you come up here, call out for the night? Haven't you been there long enough to earn that much?"
"Sure they'd let me off, but every penny counts. I'm barely scraping by on my bills these days, and I didn't think you were doing much better. We have a funeral to consider. Just more debt on top of a solid pile already."
"Of Lord, the funeral, I haven't even thought about that yet."
"Look, including tonight I've got three more nights before I've got a break, and then I'll drive up and we'll start getting all this taken care of and putting our daughter to rest."
He surprised himself on the drive to work, forced to pull to the shoulder when the tears overtook him so fast and violently he couldn't do anything for nearly five minutes but sit there and let it pour out.
The package from the night before was still sitting on the floor outside his trailer.
When he was sure no one was watching he pulled the box closer to his ear. The machinery was just getting warmed up, only the conveyer going full swing, and in the quiet, or as close to quiet as the warehouse ever got, Bill could swear he heard something coming from that box, soft, but unmistakable.
He abruptly pulled the box away from him when Reynolds walked up, and instead shoved the package in the man's face. "What the hell is this thing doing back over here?" he asked.
"I don't even know what that is. What is it?"
"A package from my trailer I found the other day without a label. I handed this thing personally to the processing guys this morning and now it's back here."
"Look, I've got a lot of shit to take care of that the day guys didn't bother with, and I don't know anything about the package. They must've looked up the info on it and found it goes in your trailer. I don't know."
"There's no label on it. What did they look up, and even if that were the case why wouldn't they just put it down the conveyer like everything else? I've never known them to hand this shit back in person."
"I don't know, Bill. Go bitch at them. I'm busy."
He let Reynolds go without further complaint. Still, the explanation hadn't made much sense to him. If only the thing wasn't as warm as before, he thought, and tucked it under his arm with a frown. The question was whether or not he should drop the box back over at processing, maybe ask them why they felt the need to hand it back to him, and that was exactly what he was going to do when the voice spoke up, louder than ever before, and for the first time he realized where he had heard it.
A single word came through clearly mixed among a long string of others too faint. Daddy, the word had been, in the voice of his daughter.
He pulled the box out from under his arm, held it far from him as if it could hurt him.
It hadn't been Elizabeth's voice -- a foolish thing to think, foolish, painful, and trouble. He loved her, always would love her, but Elizabeth was dead and gone.
He set the box down, not by his trailer but the conveyer. Someone else would pick it up, put it where it needed to go.
He could hear the clatter of packages rolling down the line. He didn't have time to waste on this, he thought while putting down the package.
When Reynolds came by again Bill volunteered to work dock seventeen along with his normal sixteen. "You sure about that?" Reynolds asked. "I mean, it'll help us a lot, won't deny that, but come on, you're already working the heaviest box load with sixteen alone. Think you can keep up with that?"
"I'll keep up," Bill said.
And he did for the first few hours. He worked his ass off until his muscles were sore and his mind was so fuzzy he barely even saw those zip codes he was marking off.
He was too busy, too tired, too spent to bother thinking about some label-less box and his daughter's voice that hadn't really been there.
He might've been able to let the whole thing slip away from him completely had the box not shown back up outside his trailer. He was hopping out, practically running over to seventeen to make a dent in the boxes already building up, when he almost cracked open his skull dodging that box. Even then he would've just ignored the thing had a label not been put on it.
About damn time, he thought to himself, and picked up the thing to finally get it on a truck driving far away from him. Problem was, the box was addressed to him. He might've still thrown it on the ground in disgust, too busy to bother with it, except for what had been written in the left hand corner of the box like a return address, only he saw just one word.
The lights for both trailers were flashing on him, the horns screaming in his ear to get his ass in gear, but all Bill could do was stare at Elizabeth's name, feel the comforting warmth, and listen to what he had trouble denying was his daughter's voice floating up to him.
"What the hell are you doing?" Reynolds yelled to him, hopping up in one of the trailers to help Bill catch up, but Bill didn't move, didn't look up, until Reynolds grabbed his arm with enough force to make him look up.
The man wasn't mad, at least not more than his every day harried kind of mad anyone who worked with the man long enough got used to.
The anger came then. Bill shoved the box into Reynolds hands, pointed at the label because he didn't feel like yelling over all the noise.
"This is the box processing sent back to you, isn't it?" Reynolds said. "It's to you?"
"Look at the return address," Bill yelled at him.
"Elizabeth. That's your daughter's name, right? Wait, shit, didn't she..." he began, but the words didn't come. He returned Bill's stare, a hard, understanding look.
"This had better not be someone's idea of a joke," Bill said to him, and Reynolds nodded.
"I'll look into this. Believe that, I'll look into it. Get caught up on sixteen, I'll shut down the chutes for seventeen and help you knock out whatever boxes are there, and if someone here did this shit, I'll have their ass gone before the sun's up."
He handed the box back to Bill, maybe on purpose, maybe without thought, Bill wasn't sure, and Reynolds was walking away before Bill could say anything.
It began as scarlet fever nearly six months before the divorce finalized.
If they'd had the money to get Elizabeth properly treated, the circulatory problems could've been avoided. How were they to know how bad things could get? Bill hadn't even known what scarlet fever was.
Bill thought about all of that while lying in bed. The soft February sunlight drifted through his window, which normally didn't bother him much, but that day he couldn't get to sleep. He kept thinking about Elizabeth and that smile of hers, about Carla sobbing to him on the phone, and about a damn package.
He got up and put in a call to Carla.
"Bill? I thought you'd be sleeping."
"Should be, but lately I've been having some trouble. Look, I've got kind of a strange question for you, but I'd really like to know the answer if you know it."
"What's on your mind?"
"Do you know what time Elizabeth died?"
A pause at first, and Bill could see in his mind that surprised look on her face followed by the scrunched up, curious stare of hers. "What's this about?"
"I'm not sure, Carla, believe me on that, but I'd really like to know. Do you know it?"
"Just before three in the morning. I was sitting by her bed, Bill; I was sitting there lost in my thoughts when she slipped away."
"Don't think about it. I'm sorry for making you think about that. I was just...just curious, I guess, and I'd better try to get some sleep, so I'll let you go."
She tried to protest, but Bill said his goodbyes and hung up before she could go much further. He sat in what passed for a living room, the temperature probably just above sixty the heating was so bad, and stared out his frosted window.
What time had he picked up the box? Not long after he got back from his lunch break, which would've been smack dab in the middle of his shift. Around three o'clock, he thought.
"So what the hell does that mean?" he said aloud. "Just what the hell does it mean that the box showed up then?" That it's warm, his mind offered, that you hear her voice coming out of it, that the address was to you from her?
"It means you're crazy from loss and you're seeing things."
But Reynolds had seen the address. "Did he feel the warmth? Hell no, and I bet if I asked if they heard a little girl's voice they'd look at me like I was crazy."
Maybe they would, but did it matter?
He got to work early, feeling like a walking corpse. No way he could make it through the shift if that had been his intention.
Evening shift hadn't cleared away yet when he walked into the warehouse. They were hauling ass to get the last packages loaded, most guys hopping from trailer to trailer while the section managers checked off the full loads for transport.
The package was still there, of course, not that any part of Bill had honestly been afraid it would be gone.
Everyone was too busy to notice Bill pick up the box and carrying it off with him. Something in him felt at peace, he realized, just holding it close to him, hearing the whisper of Elizabeth's voice. The question was how would he get it out? Even if the label hadn't been smeared into nothing, having a box with your name on it wasn't enough to let a man just walk away with it.
Dock four stood wide open. Someone had only just come around and pulled the trailer, and no one bothered to close the door before the next trailer was brought up.
The idea didn't sound too appealing to him, but Bill honestly didn't know what else he could do, and so when he was sure no one was watching him he leaned his head out the open dock into the cold, black night, and gently lowered the box to the ground out of harm's way.
Reynolds didn't bother him any when he told him he was taking off. Bill's eyes were probably enough to rouse sympathy from the man.
He shivered against the cold as he walked out into the night, moving around the side of the building rather than towards the guard shack to check out.
As soon as he had the package in hand he made a beeline for the fence along the edge of the complex. Headlights rounded the corner of the building before he was halfway there. That would be the guards, he thought. Sure enough those lights focused in on him hurrying up to the fence. He could hear the engine pick up, the shouts getting closer, and then the rattling fence drowned out everything else.
Thing wasn't too tall, but then, two days of insomnia had robbed him of most his strength coupled with the cold turning his muscles to ice. None of that took into consideration the barbed wire strung around the top of the fence. There wasn't much, but there was enough. He had never put much thought to the security around the place before, not like he did when that wire was digging into his hand and his legs were slipping out from under him.
The package nearly dropped from his fingers, and was that Elizabeth crying, he heard, crying his name?
He didn't so much climb over the fence but fall to the other side. Even with how iced over it was, the ground was still grass on the other side, not cement, and that was probably the only reason he was able to walk away from it.
"Go back around," he heard a man shouting behind him. Someone jumped down from the fence. The engine revved back to life, screeched away, and Bill was on his feet running as best as his legs would allow with a crying package under his arm.
Lord, please don't let them know it was me, he kept thinking to himself as he ran away from the warehouse and towards a crop of houses.
The box's warmth got him through it. He held onto that above all else during his walk around the block and back up the main road. Pressed against his body, his arms wrapped around it, if he closed his eyes he really could feel Elizabeth's little form snuggled close, her voice soft and reassuring even though he couldn't understand the words she said. But every so often he heard her say daddy, and that was all he needed, that word alone enough to keep him going until he pulled out of the parking lot and drove away.
He sat down on his couch with the box in front of him, his pocketknife in hand, paralyzed. Did the desire to hold onto his sanity stay his hand, he kept asking himself, or a desire to see something, anything, inside the box?
"Well, if you're crazy, there isn't much you can do about it, but if Elizabeth is trapped in there, what kind of a man would you be for letting her remain like that because you were afraid?"
Holding the box so close to him, he almost felt Elizabeth curled up on his lap like she had done so many times before, her arms wrapped around his neck, Carla on the couch next to him while they watched a movie.
This fear he felt had nothing to do with his sanity. All he had to do was look around at his bleak, hollow home. Where were those happy times now? Holding the box made him happier than he had been since he and Carla first went their separate ways. Delusion or not, the idea of Elizabeth being so close to him made him happy, and to lose that, to let it go felt more painful than the thought of her dying had ever been.
Carla wasn't coming back to him. Elizabeth was dead and gone. He had only the box on his lap and the sounds it offered him, the happiness it gave him, but none of that was worth any harm it might be causing his child.
He closed his eyes and ran the tip of the blade gently through the tape. It felt as if the box got warmer, that soft, whispery voice swelling, until he pulled the flap back and felt arms wrapping around his neck. Whether real or not, the dark living room slipped away from him until he once again sat on a sofa with Elizabeth asleep on his lap and Carla snuggling in close to him. Not a big moment, he thought, just a simple, every day kind of one, but still it felt like one of the happiest moments of his life.
© 2010 Philip Roberts
Bio: Stories by Philip Roberts have appeared in many places, including Midnight in Hell (December 2009), The Nautilus Engine (November 2009), Horror Bound (November 2009), (the list goes on...), and the anthology Beneath the Surface (Shroud Publishing, 2008). Mr. Roberts's story On The 6th appeared in the December 2009 Aphelion.
For a complete listing of Mr. Roberts's published works, visit Philip M. Roberts.
E-mail: Philip Roberts
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