by Jens Alfke ⟿ January 12, 2002

Eli finally entered the Fulfillment Center at dusk, through the wide metal doors opening into the chilly space within. He had been waiting in line since dawn, shuffling slowly back and forth through the cracked remnants of the old parking lot under the eyes of the security guards. The Center was an old, damaged warehouse – this had been an industrial area before the war – and was lit within by banks of fluorescent tubes suspended from the high ceiling.

Once inside he waited briefly before stepping up to one of the many card tables set up in a line near the door. A tired looking young man checked his ID card, walked back to one of the many large crates filling the space, rummaged about inside, and returned with a small cardboard box.

“You’ll have to sign for it,” the young man said mechanically, sliding a clipboard across the table. Eli did so, using the ballpoint pen chained to it, and picked up the box as he slid the clipboard back across the desk.

“It’s smaller than I thought, somehow.”

“That’s the standard size. They only put in as much stuff as will fit in there.” The young man blew his nose with a dirty rag and turned to the next person in line.

Eli took the box with him as he followed the other people out a side door into the arc-lit twilight. The moment felt strangely anticlimactic. He decided he might as well examine the contents of the box right away, so he carefully eased his complaining joints into an uncomfortable squat on the edge of the curb, and with his thumbnail slit the paper tape that held the box shut. It opened easily.

The items within were concealed by a square of soft blue cloth, which had clearly been cut from something larger with scissors. He took it out and the tactile sensation told him immediately what it was – a piece of his blanket from his early childhood. Cheap polyester, fuzzy and slightly rough where the fabric had pilled. One edge of the scrap had a satin border that had rubbed away at the corners where he rubbed it for comfort and pleasure as he fell asleep at night. In the dark bedroom he had noticed for the first time how vision became grainy and lost color as the light faded. He lay wondering why this happened, staring at the last of the light fading from the edges of the curtained window, and his mother entered with Pipsy, his mouse beanie, who had been forgotten in the living room at bedtime. His mother kissed him as she tucked Pipsy beneath the blue blanket. His mother loved him.

Removing the blanket square revealed a clutter of small items beneath it. He took out a black pebble, oddly shiny, with straight line scratches across it. It reminded him of a morning, walking to the drugstore with his best friend Eric, when a step forward kicked forth a blur that lay on the sidewalk spinning and shining for what seemed like forever. Still holding the pebble, he took out a cheap metal ring with bits of turquoise glued to it. A plane ticket from Denver to Buenos Aires. A tiny bottle of Lauren perfume. A brass door key with the letter “M” scratched onto it.

There was a woman sitting near him on the curb, old like himself. Her box was also open, and she was hold- ing a battered analog watch, without a strap, cupped in one palm. Tears dripped onto its glass face, but she looked happy.

More objects: A photograph of a rose torn from a magazine. A three-inch CD with a spiky geometric design for a label. An irregular clay ball with a happy face painted on it in a childish scrawl. A blue LED. A shoulder patch torn from a uniform. The cover of a paperback novel, folded in half. A rifle shell. A dried, pressed flower.

He saw a pair of boots standing a few feet in front of him and looked up just as the world flashed white. A small motor whirred. His vision cleared and he saw a young woman in a uniform holding a square of paper out to him. Her other hand held a camera. He took the photograph; in it, his thin face looked wondering, happy, holding his box on his lap and treasures in his hands. “It was a good life,” he said to the woman, looking up. She nodded. He carefully put the items back in the box, covering them with the blanket scrap, then lay the photograph on top. It fit exactly. As she reached down to help him stand up, he saw the long gray rifle slung loosely across her back.