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Good morning, Gregory, said the time-box. It is the hour of waking. Please get up.
Gregory sat up and closed the time-box on his bedside table, absent-mindedly running his fingers across the red glyphs on its surface. The raised symbols felt slippery and cool underneath his hands, twisting and spinning like fish caught in a net.
Gregory showered, dressed, and went downstairs just in time to catch the authority-box creaking open, the yellow glyphs on its sides rotating lazily. Work shall begin in approximately two hours and fifty-eight minutes, it said. While you prepare, here are the items of interest for this morning. A truck jackknifed off the road five miles west of here. This, combined with a light rain on the road, has contributed to difficult driving conditions. Caution is advised…
The voice of the authority-box faded into a dull murmur as Gregory ate his breakfast. When the box had finished, Gregory rose from the table and carefully scraped the crumbs off of his plate. He would never admit it to anyone else, but this was one of his favorite parts of the day. Gregory liked order and cleanliness in all parts of his life, and he particularly loved cleaning up after himself, which is why he was so good at his job.
Gregory was a garbageman.
With his breakfast done, he zipped up his uniform, adjusted his cap, and was out the door just in time to meet the garbage truck pulling up outside his house. Julio waved to him from the driver’s seat as he climbed inside.
“Big day ahead of us, Greg,” said Julio, easing the truck down the road. “Lots of houses to hit before the hour of respite.”
Gregory did not bother to correct Julio about his improper use of a nickname. He merely nodded, and let routine take its course.
Life as a garbageman was simple. Drive up to each house on the prescribed route, empty the contents of the garbage cans and recycling bins into the truck, then take everything in the truck to the dump and call it a day. It was straightforward work. Mindless, even. While there were many who would find this sort of job thankless and demanding, Gregory was not one of those people. He liked the repetitive nature of his work; it allowed him to relax and follow the flow of practiced action until it was time for him to clock out. Julio usually filled the time with mindless chatter, so he never had any reason to feel bored.
Gregory smiled to himself as he loaded another can onto the forks of the truck, watching as it dumped a load of bags into the waiting maw of the truck. There was something almost soothing about watching the cans go up and down over and over, garbage falling out of them like grimy confetti. Disposing of garbage was a key part of the circle of life, and Gregory was more than happy to be a part of it.
As he was thinking this, one of the bags falling through the air suddenly split open, sending a hail of rotting fruit and discarded packaging down towards him. Gregory flattened himself against the side of the truck on reflex, wrinkling his nose in disgust as the trash flew past him.
When the last piece of refuse had hit the ground, Gregory ran over to the front of the truck and motioned for Julio to get out. Julio hopped from the driver’s seat and jogged on over to him, looking concerned. “What’s going on, man?”
“A bag got torn,” Gregory replied, his voice hoarse. These were the first words he’d spoken all day.
“Aw, shit. Really?” Julio groaned. “Did any of it get in the street?”
“Most of it,” said Gregory.
Julio sighed. “Well, there goes my good morning. C’mon, let’s go pick it up. If we’re lucky we can still make it in time for the hour of respite broadcast. Maybe the evaluation-box might not be too hard on us, eh?”
Gregory fished out a pair of gloves from inside the truck and pulled them on, with Julio doing the same. They hastily picked up the scattered garbage and began tossing it amongst the bags, leaving it for the workers at the plant to sort out.
As he was finishing up, Gregory noticed something gleaming sticking out from underneath a dirty plastic bag. He picked it up, brushed off the dirt, and stared at it.
It was a box. A box with purple glyphs.
Gregory had never seen anything like this before. Boxes only came in five varieties; everyone knew this. Red for time, blue for assignment, yellow for authority, green for evaluation, and pink for diversion. This box, however, did not correspond to any design or color associated with the boxes he knew and understood. This was something new, something different, something completely beyond his realm of experience – and someone had decided to throw this away? It baffled him.
He peered closer at it, scanning for the label usually found on the top of a box. It was difficult for him to make it out amid the sea of moving glyphs, but he eventually found the traditional heavy cursive writing that indicated a box’s designed purpose. He sounded it out letter by letter, slowly but surely deciphering the box’s inscription.
W– H – I – M – S - Y.
Gregory blinked and reread the markings as carefully as he could, certain that he’d gotten it wrong. Whimsy-boxes were supposed to be just an urban legend, a vicious rumor spread around by rebellious types who inexplicably held a grudge against the reassurance of the assignment-boxes and the delight of the diversion-boxes. There were no such things as whimsy-boxes. How could there be? Whimsy-boxes provided their owners with nothing but distraction, deviation, destruction — it was pure chaos in a six-sided shell. It represented everything Gregory hated in this world.
“You done?” Julio called over. “We need to get going!”
Without knowing exactly why he did so, Gregory pocketed the whimsy-box. “Coming,” he replied.
The thought of the whimsy-box haunted Gregory for the rest of his morning shift, continually occupying his thoughts in a way that few things ever did. What would happen if he owned a whimsy-box? What would it say to him? For that matter, what could it say to him? Were all whimsy-boxes the same, or did each one say something different? How consistent were these devices in their inconsistency?
Gregory practically bolted inside his house once his shift was over, giving Julio a hasty good-bye as he left. Once he had reached the privacy of his bedroom, he stripped off his work uniform and cap and fished out the whimsy-box, watching with fascination as the unfamiliar purple glyphs shivered beneath his touch.
He gingerly set the box on his bedside table, right next to the time-box. Despite what he had imagined upon coming into the room, though, the two boxes did not look identical when placed side-by-side. Where the five regular kinds of boxes shared the same dimensions and could only be told apart by the color and placement of their glyphs, the whimsy-box was several inches bigger than the other boxes and its glyphs hurt Gregory’s eyes to look at for too long. The lack of symmetry annoyed him.
Gregory didn’t know why he still had the whimsy-box. Something had kept him from leaving it behind, some niggling feeling that made him wonder exactly what it would say to him when it opened. He didn’t want it to say anything to him, of course — there was no room in his carefully planned schedule for another box. Gregory wanted the box to present him with some inane tangents from his regularly planned activities just so that he could deny them, refusing to give in to the forces of anarchy. He would then get rid of the box once and for all, cementing his victory in the name of order and reason. Gregory felt very proud of himself as he contemplated this.
The problem, however, was that the box remained shut no matter how long he stared at it. This was curious. Did a whimsy-box really open at a specific time like all the others? From what Gregory had heard, whimsy-boxes were supposed to remain perpetually open, haunting their owners with whatever flights of fancy they could think of. A whimsy-box that wouldn’t open seemed to go against everything the box was meant for. Perhaps it was broken.
Just as Gregory was considering doing away with it entirely and throwing the box in the trash, the lid of the whimsy-box slowly opened.
Well, well, well, said an oily voice. What do we have here? Gregory the Garbageman. Dear oh dear. How frightfully dull.
Gregory shrank away from the box, his pulse thudding in his ears. A box had never addressed him by name before. It seemed too intimate. He didn’t like the way it was addressing him, either. If the box had a face, he imagined it would be sneering at him.
You’re just an obedient little worker drone, aren’t you? the box continued. You’re really not giving me much to work with here, you know that?
Gregory couldn’t move or speak. His mouth felt dry.
Oh, don’t give me that. I’m sure I can find something for you, said the box, its glyphs spinning around like a person rolling their eyes. Now, let’s see…garbageman, garbageman… hmm… Oh, I know! You like to collect garbage, isn’t that right? Well, how about we make it a little more interesting?
“W-what do you mean?” Gregory stammered.
Oh good, you do speak! the box said delightedly. I was beginning to get tired of talking to myself. Anyway, I was thinking that if you like collecting garbage so much, you’d like it even better if you could collect more garbage! Isn’t that right?
Gregory nodded without thinking about it, unable to take his eyes off the box.
So how about you take people’s garbage before it even becomes their garbage! As a courtesy to them, of course. Just go into houses and take whatever looks like it could become trash. The families there will be ever so grateful, trust me, the box said, oozing with sincerity.
“Wait, you’re asking me to break into someone’s home? That’s ridiculous!” Gregory exclaimed, feeling some of his old conviction return to him. “That is a horrible idea! I won’t do it!”
But it’s such an interesting idea, isn’t it? the box wheedled. The world’s first proactive garbageman, protecting the people from the garbage they don’t even realize is inside their home. It’d be an awfully brave thing to do. You’d be hailed as a hero!
Gregory rose unsteadily to his feet. “Now listen here,” he began, hating the way his voice cracked. “I am not going to engage in behavior like that. It’s illegal, immoral, and – and – and it’s just plain wrong!”
Wrong? Whoever said anything about right or wrong? This is whimsy – a game where anything goes as long as it’s interesting. You do know how the game works, don’t you? Why would you have adopted a whimsy-box if you didn’t want to play?
“I adopted you,” said Gregory, “to m-make a stand in the name of common sense and p-proper behavior! I d-denounce you and everything you s-stand for, you abomination!”
So now you’ve made a stand. Congratulations, the box deadpanned. Is there anything else you have left to declare, or can we get on with our business?
“B-business? We have no business!” Gregory spluttered. “Now s-shut up so I can throw you in the garbage where you belong!”
Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Getting to throw me out with the trash, disposing of the nasty ol’ whimsy-box in the way that you know best? Too bad you won’t be doing that, though.
“Why not?” said Gregory.
Because whimsy-boxes don’t close until they’re done with their whimsy! the box said delightedly. If you throw me out, I’ll have nothing to do but talk and talk about how reliable, obedient Gregory the Garbageman has been secretly using a whimsy-box! Ooh, can you imagine what would happen if someone overheard me? The rumors it would create!
Gregory felt a bead of sweat rolling down his temple. “You’re bluffing.”
Am I? the box said silkily. Do you really want to take that chance?
Gregory swallowed hard. “Fine. I won’t throw you away… but I’m not going to take you up on any of your awful ideas, either! So you’ll just have to get used to that!”
We’ll see about that, Gregory, the box chuckled. We’ll see.
True to its word, the box talked incessantly about all the different whimsies it could think up, never once shutting up or even taking a moment to pause for breath. Attempting to force the box closed yielded no results; the lid remained open despite Gregory putting as much pressure as he could on the tiny flap. He was forced to muffle the sound by stuffing blankets into the opening, but even that did little to stem the flood of noise. No matter where he went in the house, he could always hear the faint sound of the box’s voice coming from its place on his bedside table. Gregory was so distracted by the constant drone of speech from the whimsy-box that he couldn’t even appreciate the usual delights of the diversion-box when it opened later in the afternoon. Something had to be done, but Gregory didn’t know what.
After a sleepless night of tossing and turning, the box’s voice somehow still audible even after he had thrown it into his basement, Gregory didn’t wake up the next morning at his usual time. Instead, he slept through the waking instruction from the time-box and almost missed the truck pulling up in front of his house. Gregory scrambled out the door, his uniform half-on and his hat askew, and bounded up towards the cabin of the garbage truck.
Gregory collapsed in the passenger seat, breathing heavily and closing his eyes. Julio peered at him. “You okay, Greg? You don’t look so hot.”
“Had a late night,” Gregory yawned. “Couldn’t sleep.”
“Well, try not to take so many late nights in the future, okay?” said Julio. “We need you on top of things here, amigo.”
Gregory didn’t respond, instead shifting in his seat and staring out the window, watching as rows and rows of white-and-grey houses passed them by.
“Julio?” he asked. “Do you… like your boxes?”
Julio glanced at him before turning his eyes back to the road. “What was that, Greggo?”
Gregory didn’t even feel the slightest hint of annoyance at the nickname. “I was wondering how much you like your boxes. You know, like — how do you feel about them?”
Julio laughed. “What kind of a question is that? My boxes are my boxes. They’re just there. I don’t have to feel anything about them.”
“I was just thinking about it,” Gregory said carefully, “because I heard about someone who found a – a – box they didn’t like very much. They said they thought it might be a w-w-whimsy-box.”
Julio jammed his foot on the brake, making both men jerk forwards in their seats. He looked at Gregory, his eyes wild and his voice shaking. “A whimsy-box? Whoa, whoa, whoa, man. That’s some bad stuff right there. Where did you hear about this?”
Gregory shrank down in his seat. “Around.”
“You don’t want to be messing around with whimsy-boxes, man. Those things ruin lives. Haven’t you heard all those stories about people who go crazy after using ‘em?” said Julio.
“Yes… yes, I’ve heard the stories.”
“Then why would you even bother asking about it?” Julio shook his head as he took his foot off the brake. “Take it from me, my man. Some things are just better off left alone.”
Gregory didn’t say anything for the rest of the ride.
When Gregory finally made it back home, exhausted in more ways than one, he found that the box had not only continued talking, but had somehow gotten louder even with the sheets still wedged into its opening. Wherever he went in the house, the voice of the whimsy-box always floated after him, hunting him down no matter where he went.
-garbage, garbage, garbage, beautiful garbage, horrible garbage, statues made of garbage and garbage made of statues, oh, all that food waste and paper products and empty containers and dirty rags and so, so, so many possibilities! We can sort them by age or type or location or color or completely different categories that we make up ourselves! Oh, Gregory, there’s so much we can do and you’re still not listening to me, why, why, why, why, why-
After half a night spent trying to sleep through this, Gregory couldn’t take it any longer. He marched downstairs to the basement, bleary-eyed and sullen, and yanked the blankets out of the whimsy-box. The box fell silent.
“One time,” he muttered in a ragged voice. “One time and that’s it. I will do this one thing that you have asked of me and then we will be done. Do you understand me?”
Absolutely, the box purred. Just one teeny-tiny little condition, though.
“Oh, what more do you want?” Gregory cried out.
Take me with you when you do it! After all, what’s the point in getting you to take part in my whimsy if I’m not there to offer helpful hints? the box wriggled back and forth in excitement. Ooh, this is going to be so much fun! I can hardly wait to get started!
Gregory began sobbing.
The following night, he put the box’s plan into action. Gregory crept out of his house, the whimsy-box tucked safely away inside his jacket. He shut the door as quietly as he could, nervously scanning the sidewalk for anyone who might spot him.
Stop dawdling! the box ordered. No one’s going to stop you; you’re not even doing anything illegal yet!
Gregory squeezed his eyes shut, sighed, then continued on.
It took him six blocks before he felt comfortable enough to pick a target, randomly selecting a nondescript grey house once he was certain he was in a neighborhood he didn’t recognize. Gregory tiptoed up the walk, looking around the perimeter until he found a window that was about his size. He jiggled the frame for a minute, testing its strength, then discovered with a mixture of relief and uneasiness that it was unlocked. Gregory slid the window up, gingerly lifting first one leg and then the other through the opening until he was fully inside.
It took a moment for Gregory’s eyes to adjust. He was in a darkened living room, furniture arranged in neat half-circles around an inactive diversion-box. Gregory stepped around couches and ottomans until he was in the kitchen, where the remains of a meal were scattered across various countertops.
This is perfect! the box squealed from inside his jacket. You know what to do, Gregory!
Trembling, Gregory pulled out a large garbage bag from inside his jacket and began methodically clearing the food waste off the plates and into the bag.
Yes, yes, yesssssss! the box exclaimed. Take it all! Take all their garbage! Don’t stop now!
“What do you mean?” Gregory whispered. “What else is there?”
Why, the plates, of course! Can’t you see all those miniscule cracks and discolorations? These are garbage waiting to happen! Throw it out! Throw it out! Throw it all out!
Gregory obediently swept the dirty plates into his bag as well, wincing as he saw the fine crockery and china disappear into the trash bag. He tied the end of the bag into a knot, turning and making a hasty retreat back towards the window.
Ah, ah, ah, chided the box. We’re not done here yet.
“What now?” Gregory hissed.
Go upstairs. I’ll explain when we get there.
Gregory headed for the staircase near the end of the living room, a sick feeling pooling in his gut. He gingerly went up the steps one at a time, every squeak of the floorboards setting his nerves on edge. Finally, Gregory reached the second floor landing, pausing to sigh with relief and readjust his grip on the trash bag. Giving careful consideration to his footfalls, Gregory opened the nearest door and walked inside.
A man lay asleep in a bed, the covers drawn up to his neck. He was snoring, a light, fluttery sound that was almost too faint to hear.
Look at him. He has so much garbage hanging around them and he doesn’t even realize it, said the box, its voice barely above a murmur. Loose hair. Dead skin. Too-long fingernails. It’s all going to end up in the trash anyway. Might as well help him along.
Gregory looked down at the box. “You can’t be serious.”
I’m always serious about whimsy, the box replied. You know what needs to be done, Gregory. The garbage must be collected.
“No. No,” Gregory shook his head furiously. “Stealing is one thing, but this? This is – this is - ”
This is whimsy, Gregory, the box said coldly. Now shut up and get to work.
The man turned over in bed, cracking one eye open and blinking up at him.
Gregory mustered up every last iota of his resolve, and reached a hand out towards him.
“Never again,” Gregory gasped, his hands on his knees. “Never again.”
He was standing outside the home he had just broken into, the trash bag lying at his side. His clothes were completely covered in blood, his hands and fingernails dyed a deep, dark red. The trash bag, now full to capacity, was also leaking blood, a stream of red making its way down into a nearby sewer grate.
But we accomplished so much! the box said. Doesn’t any part of you feel proud? You’re officially the most proactive garbageman who ever lived!
Gregory fished the box out of his pocket, gripping it tightly with both hands. “We’re done now,” he said raggedly. “I did exactly what you told me to do. Now close yourself up and leave me in peace.”
Now what makes you think I’m going to do that? the box asked. We’ve only just gotten started! There are so many ideas left for us to explore!
Gregory’s mouth dropped open. “N-no,” he mumbled. “Y-you promised it’d be over – you said – you promised-”
I said a whimsy-box only closes when its whimsy is completed, and my whimsy is far from over! the box said. We have a long road ahead of us… partner.
Gregory sank to his knees, burying his face in his blood-soaked hands.
Gregory had to drag himself out of bed the next morning, tired beyond all reason despite the whimsy-box staying quiet all night. He washed himself, put on his clothes, and ate his breakfast in a trance, unable to listen to anything the authority-box was saying.
It took Julio honking at him from outside to make him rise from his kitchen table. Gregory shuffled out the door without locking it, climbing into the cabin of the truck with a vacant look on his face.
“Wow, what’s with you today, Greg?” Julio asked. “You look dead to the world.”
Gregory burst into tears.
Julio pulled the truck over to the side of the road. “Hey, hey, what is it?” he asked, laying a hand on Gregory’s shoulder. “What happened?”
“It’s the wh-wh-whimsy box,” Gregory hiccupped. “I f-found it w-when the bag b-broke open the other d-day and I t-took it home and I really s-shouldn’t because it m-made me do all these h-h-horrible things and it still won’t l-leave me alone and now I don’t k-know what to do!”
“Oh god,” Julio whispered, his face a pale white. “Oh god, Greg, this is all my fault.”
Gregory looked up at him. “W-what?”
“I found the whimsy-box a week ago, just lying on the sidewalk,” Julio said. “I was curious. I wanted to see what it said, but it told me to do things… terrible things… and I couldn’t get it to stop. Eventually I just tried throwing it away in one of the bags in the truck, and I guess that’s where you found it. I’m sorry, Greg. I never meant for this to happen to you.”
Gregory didn’t know what to say. He stared down into his lap, more sobs bubbling up in his throat when he noticed the flecks of red under his fingernails.
“It hasn’t let me stop, either,” Julio continued. “These boxes – they have a way of keeping themselves going.”
“What do you mean?” Gregory asked.
Julio looked away for a moment. “Come with me,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
Gregory left his seat and followed Julio around to the back of the truck. Julio climbed in the back and began pushing bags aside, reaching for one lone garbage bag behind all the others. He held the back upside down and shook it, sending the contents spilling onto the floor.
Boxes. Time-boxes, authority-boxes, assignment-boxes, boxes of every kind, with all of them in various states of disrepair. Some were missing their lids, others sides, and a few had been stripped down so much that they were just a square or two lying on the ground. In the middle of all of them was a cobbled-together box made of various odds and ends from the others, its sides sticking together at odd angles. A dull purple glow came from the glyphs on its surface.
Gregory stared at the box with wide eyes, unable to believe what he was seeing. Julio shook his head helplessly.
“It won’t let me go, Greg,” he said. “It’ll never let me go. I didn’t know it wanted me to do this when I started – I mean, I never suspected-”
“What,” Gregory said quietly, “did it make you do?”
“It said,” Julio choked out, “that if I liked garbage so much…I should try recycling.”
The two of them stared at the half-finished whimsy-box, its glyphs spinning and spinning.
Written by Zagredeus