Nathaniel Perry groaned as The Beatles woke him up.
Paul McCartney pulled him from his sleep and sang about how he didn’t care too much for money. Reality rushed in as Nath’s eyes flicked and blinked open. How he wished he could be like Paul. Unfortunately, he lived in the real world. And in the real world, money made the Earth spin. He needed to eat food to stay alive. He needed to pay rent to keep a roof over his head. And if he wanted anything fun, he had to save up his precious few pennies and buy the damn thing.
But Nath did agree with McCartney one issue: money indeed could not buy love.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m up, I’m up,” he said to the empty house. Downstairs, a floorboard creaked, and something thudded — but he didn’t hear it. He rolled out of bed and winced as his sore hand slapped the alarm clock’s button. He’d somehow cut the palm open in his sleep a few nights back, although he had no idea how he’d managed it. Had he gotten up to make a midnight snack and sliced the skin instead of the bread? Nath clenched and unclenched his fist and scrutinised the wound — it had scabbed over.
Nath staggered to the bathroom and brushed his teeth. He ran his hands across the stubble of his cheeks and decided he could go one more day without a shave. His eyes stared out of his mirror twin’s face, dark bags beneath. God, how he hated Mondays. Was this it? Get up, go to work, come home too exhausted to do anything, remain too broke to get the things you wanted? Then, repeat until retirement — if he ever would be able to retire — and enjoy ten years of poor health before you died?
With a sigh, he uncapped his new aftershave. Nath had decided to downgrade his usual scent — it cost too much. He could no longer justify 100 for a bottle. It smelled great and made him feel good. It made him feel sexy. But why spend that much on aftershave when you could only afford rent? So no, he chose to get the cheap stuff that cost a fifth of the price. It reminded him of high school and the odour of the changing rooms. Artificial smells that masked body odour, uneven hormones, and teenage anxiety.
By the time he’d finished up in the bathroom, he didn’t have the chance to down a cup of coffee or grab a slice of toast. Instead, his cheap Casio watch — more affordable than replacing the old one’s battery — told him he had to run. If he missed his bus to the train station, he’d miss the train too. And then he’d end up late for work, again. The thought of his boss’s reaction churned his stomach with acid.
He threw on his off-the-rack suit and his day-old shirt, yellow around the armpits. Nath should have put on some laundry last night, but he didn’t have the energy. He’d come home from work and crashed straight away. The blazer hung around his shoulders — in a self-conscious fashion. The hole in the trousers’ crotch had grown, and the lint in the pockets had multiplied. His threadbare tie dangled, limp, from his neck — like a noose.
Nath pushed the thought aside and hurried to his front door. He snatched his keys from the bowl in the hallway, thought about a coat and umbrella, then decided he didn’t care. He glanced at his watch again and — oh damn. Late, late, late. He had to run to the bus stop, and he could already imagine how winded and sweaty and out of breath he’d be when he got on the 52A.
He got halfway out of the door and into the grey drizzle of the morning before he noticed it.
A package sat on his front step, the size of a shoebox — wrapped in paper. Red words screamed ‘NATHANIEL OPEN ME NOW BEFORE WORK’ in block capitals, all encircled in a heart. Three kisses, marked by crosses, dotted the line below the instructions.
Nathan frowned and looked around. He’d not ordered anything off Amazon in the past few weeks because he couldn’t afford to. Even though he so wanted a new games console. To be exact, the Sony PlayStation 5. Even though he hadn’t the funds and the stores didn’t have the stocks. He didn’t quite understand how there could be a shortage, but he knew it had something to do with scalpers. But even if there hadn’t been inventory issues, Nath couldn’t have afforded the damn thing anyway. Still, that didn’t stop him from refreshing the page in the anticipation that the sign would change. Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.
The grey street stretched off on either side. Litter vomited from the lips of bins, which their owners had pulled to the curbs. Grey faces stared out of grey cars as the rain continued to drizzle. At least they had vehicles. Wheels splashed through puddles of water, and windscreen wipers squeak-squeak-squeaked back and forth. Nobody seemed interested in Nath or his dull life.
Nath crouched down and inspected the parcel. A glance at his watch informed him that he’d already missed his bus. So, what the hell? He might as well figure out this mystery before the next one came in 20 minutes. He felt interested in the world for the first time since last Christmas.
He gave it a nudge with his foot, and something shifted inside. Could it be a bomb? A parcel bomb? He’d heard of such things before. A politician winked out of existence a few years back because an intern didn’t bother to check a letter’s origin. But, to that end, who on Earth would want to kill him? Nathaniel Perry had a pathetic life. He had neither friends nor enemies. He didn’t think he popped up on anyone’s radar at all — except for his mother’s.
No postage stamp clung to the corner, and no address marked the side. Whoever had sent this had delivered it by hand. Nath stared at the writing. ‘NATHANIEL OPEN ME NOW BEFORE WORK’. The mystery person had scrawled the words in something that crumbled — crayon? Nathaniel smeared the edge of the heart and rubbed his fingers together. He’d not had much experience with women, but he thought it might be something else.
He grimaced, grasped the parcel, and picked it up. Nath winced, ready for detonation. But it never came. The package had a decent weight. As if something valuable rolled around inside. A small part of his brain insisted that it must be a circular of some kind — some attempt at viral advertising. Buy our car insurance! Switch internet providers! The new sale on sofas! But his heart wanted to believe in wonders — anything to kill the monotony of the grind.
He thought, for one brief second, to check the time. “To hell with it,” he whispered to his hollow home. He always stayed an hour later than he had to anyway. So what if he dared to come in ten minutes behind schedule? Why did their time matter, but his didn’t? Nath kicked the door shut behind him and carried the box into his kitchen. He dropped his keys back into the bowl in the hallway with a clatter.
He set the parcel down on the kitchen counter and pulled a blunt knife from the block. Nathaniel paused for a heartbeat and asked himself if he would open this odd item from a stranger. He imagined what his mother would say if only she could see him now. What, you’re going to open that? There could be anything inside! It could contain anthrax!
The seconds tick-tick-ticked away.
Nath repeated this morning’s mantra. “To hell with it.”
He sliced open the Sellotape around the sides and pried up the cardboard edges. A beautiful aromatic scent wafted out. It reminded Nath of purple flowers and sensual smoke. A letter lay at the top, scrawled in the same hand as the instruction — but this time in red ink. He saw his name addressed at the top, but he wanted to see what the box contained first. He pulled the note out and felt styrofoam peanuts in the package. His heart thudded a staccato triplet. This gift could be something special, after all. He—
He’d been wrong.
Nath dropped the letter and recoiled, his face a rictus of disgust.
What his brain mistook for packing peanuts had been something else.
He gagged, his gorge high in his gullet.
Sheared locks of hair — used to pad the inside of the box.
Nathaniel looked around his kitchen, eyes wide. “What the—?” His heart, which had offered excited thumps earlier, now stampeded with panicked hooves. The silence of the house stretched away into infinity. His cheap Casio watch continued to count the seconds as they passed.
Beneath the mass of shaved fibres winked the corner of something white. It looked, to Nath, like the edge of one of those old Polaroid photos. He pulled a pained face and approached the box once more. Then, he reached for the object with his finger and thumb. A high-pitched whine emanated from his throat — a subconscious noise.
He darted in and out of the box quick as a flash, like a bird who pecks for seeds. He grabbed the photographs — plural — and yelled as he brushed the disembodied hairs. Then, with a nauseated yelp, he swept the strands stuck to his fingers onto the floor. In the back of his skull, alarm bells began to ring because he’d glimpsed the first of the photos.
Nath brought the pictures up to eye level in hands that trembled. The skin of his palms had grown wet with sweat, and his pulse boomed in his eardrums. In the background, the world seemed to spin and sway as if intoxicated. His stomach dropped through the tiles of the kitchen floor.
His first intuition had been correct — Polaroids. The date at the bottom of the first marked a day a few weeks back.
It showed him, Nathaniel Perry, asleep.
All the moisture evaporated from his mouth, and his chest seemed to seize up.
Whoever had taken the picture had done so from the foot of his bed.
He flicked through the pictures as the horror swelled like a blister inside his chest.
The following had him sat on the bus — taken from a few seats behind. The next photo revealed him in the supermarket, eyes locked with the camera. He didn’t even remember seeing someone, let alone someone taking pictures.
On and on and on and on. The timestamps inched closer and closer and closer to today.
He sat on his sofa, eyes on the T.V. — the photo angled from the doorway behind. He stood in the shower, soap in his eyes, the curtain pulled back. How had he not heard that?
How had they gotten in?
The final picture had today’s date.
It showed him unconscious in bed.
The red digits of the clock revealed the time to be 5:56 in the morning.
Only four minutes.
Four minutes before Paul woke him up with his—
Hadn’t his alarm ton always been that other Beatles hit, Good Morning Good Morning?
Yes. Yes, it had.
For the past few years, in fact.
Nath’s neck creaked like an old door, and his joints popped like firecrackers.
He looked up at the ceiling.
Someone had changed it.
But he lived alone.
As warnings flashed before his eyes — RED ALERT, RED ALERT — Nath stumbled over to the box and upended it. Clumps of hair rained across his kitchen, snowed down over the countertop and the floor.
Two heavy things clattered out.
The first had a familiar golden box. Nath flipped it over to reveal the logo of his favourite aftershave — the one he’d deemed too expensive to buy.
The other thing looked to be handmade — a bottle. It had red liquid and a handwritten label stuck to the side. Nath picked it up with numb fingers and read the note. ‘HIS & HERS’. His frown deepened. “Wha—?”
His gaze jerked down to his other hand — at the jagged cut across the palm.
Finally, he understood. “Oh god,” he dry-hurled and held the bottle at arm’s length. “Oh Jesus Christ.” Nath staggered to the sink and dropped the bottle in. It didn’t shatter, nor did the stopper come undone. Instead, the vial rolled down to the drain and lodged there, its insides black-red.
He turned, and the room swam around him. All his thoughts rushed through his brain and became lodged in the bottleneck of his mind. He couldn’t think — he couldn’t think. He surveyed the carnage — the pried open box, the hair, photos of him, the note.
Nath’s eyes swivelled back to the last.
He snatched it up.
Dear Nathaniel, my sweet,
How I’ve longed for you these past few months. How much I’ve craved your love! And how much I know you’ve craved mine. At last, I could hold back the dam of my feelings no longer, and I just HAD to ACT.
First of all, I took the liberty of quitting your job for you. I don’t think you’ll mind. I know you hated that job, and they NEVER appreciated you, did they? You were WASTED there, Nathaniel. Don’t worry about money, as long as you’re mine, you have not a care in the world!
Also, don’t worry about being BORED. With me around, you’ll NEVER be BORED again! Hehehe. I know your heart’s desires, Nathaniel. I’ve seen them. I’ve heard them. I’ve spoken with them. So, I’ve left a treasure hunt for you to find. I hope you have as much fun as I did planning! First clue: bored raw.
Once you’ve found it all, could you please do me one incy wincy favour? Just one teenie weenie thing? Go out into the street and DECLARE your LOVE for me.
As loud as you can go, my sweet. I want the angels in Heaven to hear! Don’t worry, I’ll hear you.
I will ALWAYS hear you.
Please don’t DISAPPOINT ME my sweet.
Hehehe, that made me sound CRAZY, didn’t it?
All my love,
P.S. Your other brand of aftershave smelled nicer, so I got you some more!
By the time he’d finished the letter, beads of sweat had dotted the page. Nath had a sneaking suspicion that she hadn’t used ink. She’d filled a glass vial of both of their blood, after all. Not such a massive leap when you’ve already gone so mad. You must learn to write with a pricked finger in CRAZY 101.
I’ve left a treasure hunt for you to find.
He solved it without much difficulty — wardrobe. It would be a lie to say he didn’t feel a rush of achievement at his detective work. Nath knew he should stop, call the police, get out of the house — get the hell out. But he wanted to know, needed to know. So, with feet made of lead, he trod his way back upstairs.
A large box sat on the top shelf wrapped in pink paper — I LOVE YOU!
How had she gotten in? How had she gotten this in, and what was it? When had she done it, and how had he not noticed? The questions flooded his inundated mind. But, in the end, he could only push them aside, unanswered.
He grunted and gasped and eased it down. Nath set it on the floor and scrunched two handfuls of the Valentine’s Day paper. What did it contain? A corpse? Part of a corpse? A torso? Someone he loved? An ex-girlfriend — there had only been two. Nath counted down from three and tore the paper away.
Nath did a double-take.
He blinked a few times, scrunched his eyes shut, reopened them.
A Sony PlayStation 5.
He frowned, looked around. No psychopath hid in the shadows. No female Norman Bates, axe in hand. Silence. Well, quiet except for the cheap tick of his Casio watch. Nath ripped open the box, and a rush of endorphins hit his brain as that new product smell tingled his nostrils. Sure enough, an honest to god PS5 came out, along with all the styrofoam guts and the super sleek controller.
Amongst the instructions manuals and sheets of paper, she’d tucked another note. It twirled like a snowflake and landed in Nath’s lap, with the black-red text he’d expected. A brides wedder. More challenging, but he still solved it quite fast — bedside drawer. Unbeknownst to Nath, his face sported the biggest grin he’d had in ten years.
The present contained an actual stack of all the games he’d wanted to play on the new console — ten of them. At 70 apiece, the games alone must have cost the mystery woman over half a grand. She might be crazier than a bag of cats, but she must also be rich.
The next clue took him to his bathroom cabinet, where he found a pink silicone case for the PS5’s controller. Aborn Chiba totem. But, of course, nobody knew that he loved pink — not his mother, not either of his ex-girlfriends. I know your heart’s desires, Nathaniel.
The final clue took him up into the dusty recesses of the attic above his bedroom. About embryoid evocator. Here, he found the most significant present — a 4K television. A small hole also looked down onto his bed. Had she lingered here, above him, as he dozed? The thought should have unnerved him, and it did to an extent.
DECLARE your LOVE for me.
Could he do that? Wasn’t this all insane?
Please don’t DISAPPOINT ME my sweet.
The PS5’s start-up tone sounded through the T.V.’s speakers as if on cue.