BY KATHRYN E. McGEE
In the news feed, scrolling. Push the screen down. Watch it slide. Pictures slip away. Familiar faces. People I know. Have known. Slide. Press the heart. Like the post.
Slide. Repeat. Slide. Repeat.
A vase I looked at online the other day. The blue one. A purple one I hadn’t considered, not until now. Both are reasonable prices. Squares in the corner. More to see. Slide to the left. To the right. A lamp. A small bookcase. A spatula. A set of measuring cups.
Stuff I need.
“Read this one, Mommy, please.” Cindy, seven years old, appears next to me.
My eyes break from the phone, move to her, to her big smile, to the book she holds. Something flashes on the screen, though.
“Mom!” she protests, crawling onto the sofa, sitting next to me, the book in her hands. I can’t say no. Not to that face.
My screen flashes brighter.
“Just a second.” I look away. A video in my feed plays. A woman with long, blonde hair gently curled, full makeup, false eyelashes, injected lips, acrylic nails.
Everything about her: perfect.
She holds a pale pink box. About twice the size of a pair of shoes. The words Best Self Box are printed on top; purple and green floral designs curl around the sides.
She lifts the box so we can see. The lid is sealed. A gold sticker. Edging her long nail under, she peels it back.
“Read the book!” Cindy says.
“Of course.” I pause the video. What was I thinking? Why does this matter? But even when I put down my phone, take the book in my hands, I see that long fingernail, under the seal, teasing….
What’s inside the box?
I’m doing the right thing. Reading to my child. What’s more important than that?
I should avoid watching unboxing videos in front of Cindy, anyway, just in case. A small percentage of unboxings are Red. I can’t imagine the Red ones would be so easily clickable; but, even so: chances I don’t want to take.
Cindy shouldn’t see that.
I scoop her into my lap, open the first page. A story about a young girl who goes for a night ride on a flying pony named Veronica. One we’ve read a million times. When we get to the end, pony wings falling gently closed around the pink-haired body, shedding glitter into a field of roses, Cindy reads the final lines with me.
“Until next time, when together we fly, fly, fly!"
I close the book.
“Read it again!” she says.
I read it again.
“We fly, fly, fly!”
“Read it again!”
“We’ll read it again tomorrow, honey. Time for bed.”
Aiden emerges from his study, takes Cindy’s hand, walks her upstairs to help brush her teeth and start the bath water.
“I’ll be right up!” I call after them, and stay with my phone on the sofa, where the video of the unboxing is on the screen, waiting.
I press play.
The blond woman smiles at me.
“I’m so excited to share this month’s Best Self Box with you all today.” She lifts the lid, teasingly slow. The underside is printed with dark pink script that reads, Treat yourself… to your very best life! Inside the box, the contents are wrapped in pale green tissue, small packages sealed with gold stickers.
“Now, I’m sure you are all going to be blown away by this month’s selections. That’s what I’ve been told. A little bit of this, a little bit of that—everything you didn’t know you needed to make your month of May extra, extra special with a selection of indispensable things.” She smiles wide into the camera, lips stretching; not a single line forms around her mouth. Opening the tissue, she pulls out the first item from the box. “Oh, my goodness!” She reveals a water bottle. Aluminum. Slender. With a green silicone sleeve. “Can you believe this?” She turns the bottle around and upside down, running manicured nails over its surface, unscrewing the lid, screwing it back on. “An incredible bottle to stow your liquids for the gym, around town. Hey, why not the beach? Can’t you just imagine yourself there?” She stares at the bottle, transfixed. Then she pulls out the next item. From the tissue emerges a tube of scented hand cream. “Isn’t this luxurious?” She pops the lid, applies some product to her fingertips, rubs it into her hands. “It’s just… amazing. It’s just perfect for moisturizing on the go and has this gorgeous floral scent. And I know you can’t smell it where you’re sitting—of course you can’t—but the scent is just…let me tell you it is everything.”
Watching her graceful hands hold the tube, I can’t help but remember a similar product I used to buy. Pink packaging. When I was younger and first married to Aiden, before we had Cindy. How I splurged on the tube, took it home, rubbed the lotion into my neck and breasts before bedtime. Aiden turned to me under the sheets, pulling me into him. You just smell so, so good.
The next item rises from the box. She peels back the tissue to uncover a mercury glass candleholder, gold with touches of purple. She lets out a gasp.
“Would you look at the craftsmanship. Absolutely stunning.”
I can’t help but agree—it’s a lovely color.
She brings the candle to her nose, inhales deeply.
I think of the bedroom I share with Aiden, lights turned off, a couple of candles like this one, flickering. The scent of that lotion on my breasts when he comes to me, heaving.
The next item: a set of leather coasters.
Picture the elegance of your next cocktail party!
Next: a tube of blue mascara.
Imagine your lashes bigger and better than they have ever been.
A beach blanket.
Large enough for you and your lover.
A gold necklace with a cactus-shaped pendant.
Playful and stylish.
A pair of tortoise shell sunglasses.
You’ll be so elegant in these gorgeous sunnies.
And the final item. This one she lifts slowly. It’s wrapped in pale purple tissue, distinct from the other packaging.
I wait, bated breath.
The tissue slips away, revealing silvery fabric. A slight blue sheen. The movement of the fabric like ocean waves, like moonlight whispering.
“I’m speechless. Isn’t this just incredible.” She stands, shaking out the garment, giving us a full view. She slips the silver caftan around her body, arms sliding into wide sleeves. The material hangs to mid-calf length. When she spins, flecks of glitter catch the light, the outline of her figure peeking through the translucent fabric.
I imagine the delicate garment cascading over my own skin. Imagine my blue eyelashes batting. A champagne glass on the leather coaster nearby, waiting in the flickering candlelight.
“Can you believe it?” she says. “This will be my most versatile item of the spring and will certainly take me well into summer. The possibilities for a piece like this—they’re endless, ladies. Wear it to the beach over a swimsuit, wear it over a black cocktail dress out to dinner, wear it alone around the house when you want to look extra special in the evenings.” She winks at the camera as if to say, I know you’ll wear this for your man, you naughty lady, you.
She sits down and sorts through the items, displaying each one in front of her. A pile of treasures organized in a neat little row.
“And that’s it for the May edition of the Best Self Box. I’m sure you’re as blown away as I am with this amazing curated collection of springtime goodies. You can get all this now at just thirty-nine dollars. Ladies, this is over three hundred dollars’ worth of wonderful, high-quality merchandise. You didn’t even know you needed it all until today. Use the special offer code MYBESTMAY for ten percent off. That’s right. Ten percent off thirty-nine dollars. And a five-percent reduced likelihood of receiving a Red Box. You can’t turn this amazing deal down! Use the link in the comments below to make your purchase.”
My fingertip hovers over the link. The possibility of a Red Box is disturbing, but I don’t know anyone close to me who’s ever had that sort of problem. It’s so incredibly unlikely to get a Red Box. Every once in a while, there’s a mention of them in the news feed. Unboxing videos gone wrong. Warnings about unboxings. That sort of thing. But those videos seem to be taken down so, so quickly.
Treat yourself to your best you.
The words flash on the screen. Dazzling silver letters.
Aiden’s cousin’s wedding is coming up in Hawaii, isn’t it? How perfect would the caftan and sunglasses be for that? Even the blue mascara would add a lot. That pop of color would send the message that I’m still fun and with it. I’m still completely capable of having a good time at the beach. I don’t take life too seriously. And then there’s the water bottle and the beach blanket. Both utilitarian items. How could I not need those?
The sound of Cindy splashing in the bathtub.
I imagine myself wearing the caftan, walking on the beach. A sophisticated, modern version of something a mermaid might wear when she grows human legs and walks alongside the ocean. The beauty of her emerging, shimmering in the moonlight, ready to meet her prince. I think of how Aiden would look at me—sparkling, fresh, new—how he might take me in his arms and….
“You coming up?” he calls from upstairs. “Cindy’s missing you at bath time!”
“I’ll be right there!”
I click “Add to Cart,” check a few boxes, acknowledge a few disclaimers. Then the option for a one-time purchase or a monthly subscription pops up. If you get the monthly subscription now and commit for a period of six months, you get an additional ten percent off each box. I pause. That’s a really good deal on top of the offer code I’ve already entered. The cost is now so low, a subscription wouldn’t be much of a commitment at all.
Why not? I can always cancel later.
I click “Purchase.”
Then I put my phone in my pocket, head up the stairs.
“Now, what did I miss?”
The next day, drizzling rain. I park the car outside Cindy’s school, wait to pick her up. About five minutes until the kids are supposed to come out the front doors. Time enough to check my feeds, get caught up.
A new email.
Subject line: Congratulations on being your best self!
Message: We here at the Best Self Box family want to thank you for your recent subscription. Your first box will arrive shortly. We hope you’ll join our family of online unboxers by live streaming your own unboxing experience and telling the world what you think about each item. Every unboxing video with over 3,000 viewers earns a free Best Self Box for Kids delivered the very next day!
A knock on the car window.
I look up. Cindy stands outside.
“Let me in, it’s raining!”
“Oh, sorry! I didn’t see you.” I unlock the door and she jumps in, shivering.
“Here, let me get the heater on. How was your day?”
“I got to draw Veronica!” she says.
“Who?” The name Veronica conjures images of the cartoon character—long, dark hair, shapely hips. I imagine a womanly silhouette beneath the silver caftan, parading across a tropical beach. Then it hits me. “Oh, the flying pony. The one from your book.”
“Fly, fly, fly!” she says.
“That’s right. So, you had art time today?”
“Yeah, Mrs. Yancy was out sick, and our substitute teacher said we could have the whole day free to do what we wanted. I colored for a bit, but then played on the computer, mostly.” Cindy pulls a drawing out of her backpack, holds up a crayon picture of a pony with wings.
“It’s beautiful, so much detail,” I say. “You’re really very talented.”
Cindy smiles proudly.
“You want to read the book again tonight?” I say.
She nods. “Or maybe you could let me just play games on your phone.”
“Maybe I will, honey. Maybe.”
We pull into the driveway just in time to see a drone depositing a package outside the front door, placing it under the overhang where it’s protected from the drizzle. The drone flies away, nearly silent. Cindy and I rush out of the car, moving quickly to escape the rain, which has started pelting down faster, harder.
Perched on the mat by the door, the simple brown box waits.
Return address: Best Self Boxes.
My heart races.
“Can you grab that, honey?” I fuss with the keys.
“What’s in it?”
“Just some clothes and stuff for the house. Some stuff Mommy needed.”
Once we’re inside and Cindy is settled in front of the TV with a snack, I take the box upstairs. Should I really consider live streaming my unboxing? I blush at the thought. I’ve never been comfortable with that sort of thing, but the free box for Cindy would be really nice to have. She’d be so excited. I can see her now, holding it in her small hands, asking, Mom, what’s inside?
“Mommy!” she yells from downstairs, like something’s wrong.
I shove the box into the closet. As much as I’d like to open it now, I want to have time alone to really enjoy the process. I’ll do it tomorrow, when she’s at school. When no one is home. I pocket my phone and rush down the stairs, find Cindy sitting on the floor next to the coffee table, gripping her head.
“I fell.” She sobs, finally moves her hands from her face as if to reveal a red bump rising, but there’s nothing.
“Oh, I’m sorry, honey. How did that happen?”
“I saw the drone out the window, watching me. I got scared and when I tried to move, I fell.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” I say, “Come here. Let me get some ice.”
I cradle her in my arms on the sofa, an ice pack pressed gently to her forehead.
She continues to whimper softly, holding the ice, eyes glazed while she watches cartoons.
I pull out my phone and scroll through my feeds. A few pictures of friends. A few event invitations. Some seem vaguely interesting. Then the blonde woman again, another unboxing. This time she’s opening a Best Self Box for Kids.
Cindy sits up, removes the ice pack.
“Don’t you still need that?” I say.
She shakes her head, leans against me and watches the screen on my phone, stares at the blonde woman opening a remarkable number of colorful things.
“Best Self Box for Kids!” she says. “My friend Holly just got one of those.”
“Did she like it?”
“Well, maybe we can get you one some time.”
“When? When can we get it?”
“I might be able to get you one for free.”
“When will you know?”
“Tomorrow, I think.” I’ll just have to wait and see if I can get enough views on my live feed. What did the email say, that I need three-thousand? That sounds like a lot, but you never know. Might be worth a try.
The next morning, when Aiden is at work and Cindy is at school, I head upstairs to a bright, sunny area of our bedroom where we have a small table and chairs near the window. I’ve taken extra care with my hair and makeup today. Gotten the lighting just right. Now I set my phone up on the table, screen facing me. I enter the appropriate hashtags to attract attention. Press record.
Then I wait for the first viewer to join. Someone does.
“Hi, everyone. I don’t normally do this sort of thing but thought it would be fun to film an unboxing video for this month’s Best Self Box. I’ll show you all the goodies inside. Hold each item up and you can see what you think. So here it goes.” I feel awkward talking to the camera, but a few more people join my live feed, which is encouraging. A couple of friends. People I know. Two or three. Then five. Six. People I don’t know. Maybe they’re just curious about the contents.
I hold up the brown shipping box.
“This is what I received yesterday on my front porch. The shipping was timely. By drone. Arrived less than twenty-four hours after ordering.” I open the cardboard flaps and reach beneath a layer of Styrofoam peanuts, pull out a pale pink box. “And here’s the actual box. Looks lovely.” I turn the lid to face the camera, so everyone can see the Best Self Box inscription.
Ten people watching now. Twelve. Fifteen.
“I’ll just carefully peel back this gold seal and… here we go.” I slowly open the lid and stare down at the wrapped parcel sitting on top before addressing the camera again. “How beautifully it’s all packaged. Now, the tissue wrapping the first item is a deep, dark purple, different from the tissue shown in the unboxing video I previously watched. And I have to say, I like that there is variety. You know what you’re getting, but not exactly. There are still some surprises. I’m going to open the first item now.” I lift the parcel, hold it up so it’s visible to the camera. Peeling back the gold seal, I see shiny material peeking through and let out a gasp.
“It’s the silver caftan!” I pull this month’s star item out first, thrilled to watch the gossamer fabric unfurl. “The material is even more beautiful than I expected! I couldn’t really see the detail of the subtle moon pattern online, but it’s absolutely stunning in person. The same as what’s advertised, but also different and better somehow. I can’t wait to wear this! I’ve already been imagining myself wearing it on the beach with my wonderful husband.” I stand up, put the caftan on over my clothes, spin around and around in front of the camera, feeling the swish of the gauzy material wrapping me. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Three hundred people watching.
With the caftan still on, I sit back down and remove the next layer of tissue paper.
The tissue is red. A deep, saturated hue.
“Would you look at that….” My voice trails off.
It’s not red tissue, it’s white tissue that is stained red.
“Crimson,” I whisper.
Not neatly wrapped like the first package, but wadded and wet, covered with a viscous layer of ooze.
“What is going on here?”
I glance up at the camera.
“I’m not sure what….”
The tissue moves.
But that’s not possible. I’ve just jostled the table, caused the movement. I must just be seeing the tall, slender form of the aluminum water bottle, the one with the silicone sheath, moving about in the box, turning on its end.
I look to the camera.
Nine hundred viewers.
I might get to three thousand, get that free box for Cindy. I’ve got to keep going.
Movement again. Rustling noises. I look down. The tissue undulates. Changes shape. A ghost under a sheet rising up.
Tissue falls away.
Then a tubular, intestinal arm emerges from the box, waving side to side like a feeler absorbing the scent of the room. I stare at it a moment, trying to interpret what I’m seeing. The appendage is long, slim, and pink, similar to the body of an earthworm, but much, much thicker. The texture of its skin appears wet and sticky. It keeps waving, side to side, before it points at me. The member snakes toward my body, making a horrible wet slithering noise, extending several feet from the box. The arm reaching. Fast-moving. Coming. No time to move away. The slick feel of it on my skin, my clavicle, coiling around my neck. It wraps me tightly, squeezing.
The arm tightens.
More rustling sounds, coming from the box.
Three, four, five more twisting, tubular arms wriggle loose from the tissue, moving octopus-like toward me. The awful, oozing feel of them noodling around my wrists, ankles, chest, shackling me to the chair.
All of this in a matter of seconds.
I try to scream.
Can’t make a sound.
The arm squeezes tighter about my neck.
The contents of the box continue to move. At the center of it all, the head of the creature rises. Belching sickly hollow groans, it shakes loose the rest of the tissue and sends leather coasters, a mercury glass candle holder, a tube of mascara, a water bottle, a beach blanket, a cactus pendant all falling to the floor, crashing, clattering, scattering. My phone topples and falls as well, landing somewhere down there.
No more viewers.
The red face. Larger than mine. Skin painted crimson. Slick and dripping, its secretion splatters the inside of the box. It stares at me with bulbous, bloodshot eyes, opens its mouth wide. Big buck teeth, long and pointed at the tips, rush toward my face.
I try to move away, but its tubular arms hold me in place.
It sinks its teeth deep in to my right cheek, joining us together. Then ripping us apart, breaking loose a big chunk of flesh. Its arm around my neck relaxes slightly. Finding breath in my lungs, I scream. The loudest, most horrible sound I’ve ever made. The struggle knocks the chair out from under me.
Now I’m on my back, caftan spread around me like silver wings. Warm tubular arms wrestle me against the chair, against the floor. Hovering over me, the face chews my cheek-flesh, swallows, belches loudly, blowing rotted breath at me. It dives back in for another bite, ripping away more, this time from the side of my neck, where my skin breaks so easily.
Blood. Flowing. Fast. Warm. Wet. Leaking out around me. And the pain. The eruption of it coursing through me, pulsing, stabbing, repeating.
Scream again, I tell myself. Scream.
I can’t make a sound. The attempt leaves me wheezing, choking on blood. More of it leaking. I attempt to move my limbs. Twitch. Writhe.
So, so much pain.
The thing stays at the open wound on my neck where it suckles and drinks.
I turn my head away.
My eyes rest on my phone, fallen to the ground, propped at an angle, still recording. I’m oriented toward it now.
Two thousand viewers watching my torn-apart face. My own reflection: demented, bloodied. No. Please, no. Red pouring out of me and onto the caftan, spilling across silver, soiling the pattern of moons.
The creature’s face digs into my torso next, working quickly to open me up, using its snapping jaw to sort through my insides, pull out organs, coils of intestines, chunks of meat, one at a time, displaying each part next to me, lining them up like items on a bathroom counter. Adjusting them as if they were small shampoo bottles, positioned in a row. I can see its progress on the screen, though my vision is fading.
Over three thousand viewers now tuned into the live feed.
A banner across the video, a message to me: Congratulations! You’ve earned enough points for a free Best Self Box for Kids! It will be shipped to your house shortly.
The pain is everything and everywhere. Black spots. Darkness edging my vision.
One of my arms comes loose from the bindings. With all the energy I have left, I reach toward the phone. Shaky fingers. I’ve got to call someone, anyone. Someone has to help me.
I slide my finger across the screen.
Slide. Repeat. Slide. Repeat.
Cindy’s voice, somewhere far off, tells me to fly, fly, fly away. And my hand falls still. My eyes close. The weight of the creature leaves.
Kathryn E. McGee’s horror stories have appeared in Gamut Magazine and anthologies including Dead Bait 4, Horror Library Vol. 6, Winter Horror Days, and Cemetery Riots. She has an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert and is a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her monthly horror book club, The Thing in the Labyrinth, meets late at night at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. She is also co-author of DTLA37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories, a non-fiction coffee table book about Downtown L.A. For more information, please visit www.kathrynemcgee.com.
Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash
Published June 13th, 2019