There was no knock on the door, no ring of the bell, only a message popping up on his phone screen: your package has been delivered. He hadn´t ordered anything. And yet, as he opened the front door of his apartment out of pure caution there it was — a tall and lean cardboard box with that easily recognizable smile printed on its sides.
The corridor outside the apartment was quiet. There was no sound coming from the other sixteen units on his floor, and the automatic lights were only turned on from the elevator to the vicinity of his door, tracing the trajectory of the unknown delivery man. A reminder that the package hadn’t simply materialised on his doorstep — there was a human aspect to it, albeit invisible. The rest of the corridor was drowned in darkness. He looked back at the package. This side up and handle with care written all over it, like tattoos on the torso of a short, bulky, tanned, naked man. On a large white sticker, his name and address proved the delivery was not a mistake, that package was destined for his door, but there was no sender. If he hadn't ordered it, who had? There was no one who would care for him that much, no family, no friends, no loved ones.
He hugged it and noticed how heavy it was. Too heavy to lift, so pushing was the only way he could get it into the living room. He tore through the duct tape feeling a mixture of curiosity and fear, but was left perplexed when he confirmed, separating the pieces and looking through the instructions manual, that it was a bookshelf. He actually needed a new bookshelf. The old one was too damaged to be carried when he moved to this apartment, so his books had been piled in a corner, waiting for a moment like this. That is convenient, he thought. A strange convenience, since he never ordered it, but still a convenience.
Assembly and clean up took the rest of the afternoon and most of the night, and when it was done, it stood tall and marble white against one of the walls, with twelve long shelves separated in two rows, six on each side. It was immense, but he wasn't a man of many possessions, so it fit comfortably after it was pushed into place. What a beauty it was. He was tired, and in need of a shower, yes, but the shelves looked at him emptied, eager for the books they would hold, longing for them. Organizing his books was an easy task — there were not enough of them to fill the space available, so the center shelves were used for the hanging plants, and a couple of souvenirs from his trips to France, Brazil and Italy adorned the spaces where a line or small stack of books was unable to fill.
He took a step back and admired his work, gleeful as a child on his birthday. The fact that he hadn't ordered it was quickly dissolved and forgotten by the fact that he now had it, and it was now his: the bookshelf. He would have even taken a picture of it with his phone, had it not vibrated on his pocket at that very moment. He took it in his hands. There was a message on the screen: your package has been delivered. Was it a new message or the same from earlier? Before he could open it to see the hour it was delivered, a new message, identical to the other two, appeared on the screen: your package has been delivered. What was happening?
He went to the front door and peered through the peephole. The lights of the corridor outside were turned on. Somebody had been there not long ago. But, as he opened the door, no sign of life was to be seen, except for the automatic lights tracing the path from his door to the elevators, or vice-versa. On top of his welcome mat, the other sign of someone’s presence: two rectangular packages, loosely stacked on top of one another, much smaller than the previous one, but made of the same tanned cardboard, marked with the same recognizable smile printed on it, and a white sticker bearing his name and address. He took them in, and soon discovered they both contained books. Love In The Times Of Cholera, in the first. Fragments Of Horror, in the second. That made him extremely happy. Both were on his wishlist for years, but he never got around to order them, let alone read them. They were his, now. Yet none had been bought by him. Who, then, was the anonymous benefactor? And why was this person sending him gifts? For the time, he prefered to think about them as such, as he turned the first page of García Márquez’s love story, but were they, really, gifts?
The packages didn’t stop coming during the next days, always preceded by the messages on this phone: your package has been delivered; your package has been delivered; your package has been delivered. By the time he reached the door, at least two or three packages were stacked at his door, accompanied by the trail of lights from the elevators, and no delivery man — or any other person. Back inside the apartment, he opened them diligently, knowing that there would be books inside, but being surprised by the revelation that there were, indeed, books from his wishlist. And now he had them! Mostly fiction, a few autobiographical essays, and one or two graphic novels, but always books he wanted to read. Almost as a dream come true. For it to be a dream come true, though, he would have had to receive, along with the packages, the time to read all of them.
But they kept coming everyday, multiple times a day, with no clear pattern. It didn't matter if he still wanted them or not, the packages were always delivered. Once, while he was halfway through Death At Intervals, he tried waiting by the door for the delivery man, to see if he could ask him questions, to find out who was sending him the books, to have answers. He stood the whole day next to the door, looking alternately between the pages of the book and through the peephole into the darkness of the corridor, to no avail. No one came to his door, no one left the elevator, no one left their apartments. When he finally couldn't hold it in anymore and went to the bathroom, his phone chimed for the first time that day. Multiple messages in sequence: your package has been delivered; your package has been delivered; your package has been delivered. He had missed the delivery. When he opened the door, the pile of books that waited for him was roughly his size and fell inside the apartment.
By the end of the second month of uninterrupted deliveries, his wishlist had been covered from start to finish, yet the books kept coming. Some of them he had never even heard of, or maybe only heard the author’s name mentioned in a conversation, but all it took was a quick scan of the synopsis for it to strike his curiosity, everytime. Whoever kept sending them knew his taste in literature well enough to curate the deliveries. He didn’t fight it anymore. It was what it was, and there was nothing he could do about it but enjoy the books, read them, one after the other, trying to organize the new arrivals where he could, since the white bookshelf had long been overstuffed.
As for reading them, he did his best, however there wasn’t enough time to get through all of the books in his possession. By then he was alternating between Wyslawa Zsymborskas’s Complete Poems and Jorge Luis Borge’s Labyrinths, thinking what an intriguing read Mouthful Of Birds ought to be. Before he could get to it, though, he still had to go through so many others. There were always too many titles waiting in line, teasing him with their plotlines, taunting him with their characters, flaunting their themes before his eyes, asking — no, begging — to be read. The joy of opening a box was still there, everytime, from the moment his phone chimed to the moment he brought them inside, but he could feel it diminish as soon as he started reading the opening lines of one of the new books and realized how many he still had to go through first. Nevertheless, when his phone chimed once again, he couldn't help but go to the door and bring the new books inside.
Despite his increasingly frequent reading habit along the months marked by the daily arrival of the books, there were still a lot of them lying unread around the apartment, stacked in piles on the living room, next to the bookshelf, along the corridor, on the nightstand, standing promisingly as piles of multicoloured unused bricks waiting by an unfinished building site, giving his apartment a messy atmosphere, a characteristic smell of paper. There were so many books, in fact, that when he first noticed that a stack had reached the ceiling, there were already five other stacks the same height scattered across the apartment.
That puzzled him. When were they stacked? Had the deliveries and subsequent organizing become so mechanical, so void of joy, that he forgot about the other stacks? Impossible, he thought before diving back into his copy of The Castle, by Franz Kafka. There was no time to think about the stacks, he had to finish reading it. There were only eighty pages left, and The House of Spirits was impatient with the delay. His phone chimed six more times, but he ignored it. He had to finish it.
When he finally turned the last page, he went to put the book on top of the pile next to the sofa, but found that it, too, was already reaching the ceiling, forming a strange and uneven pillar in the middle of the living room, threatening to fall at any time. Impossible, he thought, as his phone chimed again: your package has been delivered, the screen read, and his mouth watered.
He tripped on unstacked books on his way to the door, wondering when — and why — they had been so absently placed. He was getting sloppy, unorganized, careless, that was clear, but how could he not when the packages kept coming, and coming, and coming, and he is always reading them, reading them, reading them? The time to think about that — or to think about anything else — would have to wait, for when he opened the door, he found the biggest delivery yet waiting for him. A wall of packages blocked his view of the corridor, of the lights, of the elevator. He didn't care, he had more books. New books. So many! So many!
He shouted and laughed and hugged his new boxes as he brought them inside one by one, drawing the attention of his neighbours, who, for the first time, saw the naked, pale and shrunk inhabitant of the weird apartment from where that strong smell of old paper and accumulated garbage emanated. They had thought about calling the police or the paramedics to investigate it, but were discouraged by the perception of more observant neighbours that the stacks of packages by the door vanished periodically. Most likely taken inside by an unseen existence. And now they could see who lived there, next to them, and gasped at his ghostly appearance. His skin was patchy and brittle, covered in runny pustules, and seemed stretched taut over his bones, as if there was no flesh between the two. His face was a white mass of wrinkles deep as cuts, red spots of a spreading mycosis, and immense purple bags under his sunken eyes. His smile — a wide and ghastly grin, lined with not enough teeth, — had an idiotic aspect to it as he hugged the boxes and laughed maniacally. They gasped at the terrible smell escaping from that opened door and covered their noses, unable to look away from that decaying corpse of a man. But he didn't see them. He was too happy with his books to see them.
Over a year has passed since that afternoon, and no one has seen him since. His presence has become a sort of urban legend along the floors of the building. Kids dare each other to go stand next to the parcels for as long as they can, or to knock on his door. Adults rush past his door as if by a cemetery, staring down to the floor, where no apparitions can lock eyes with them. It is not a pleasing sight. At some point, the packages started piling up at an alarming rate, never collected, and the delivery men had to find inventive ways to place the new packages without toppling the rest or invading the common area of the corridor, everytime. Many have tried knocking on the door, ringing the bell, but had no answer. The only things keeping his neighbours from breaking in are the absence of a strong smell of death and the noise, almost inaudible, of pages rustling periodically as if being turned or stepped on by something not completely human. You’d have to pay attention to hear it, yet some claim to hear it at night, when the whole building is silent. They say it keeps them up at night. A rustling that never stops.
Inside his apartment, the book spread like an infection, covering not only the walls, but the windows and the floor as well, filling entire rooms and blocking access to others. The smell of old paper has merged with the smell of his sickly body, of the substances he excretes, of the insects that have entered his deranged existence. It reeks, but he doesn't smell it. No, there is no time for that. He dwells among his library, trying to read through his books, unaffected by anything that happens outside. He does hear the knocks on his door, and the bell ringing, and the voices calling his name, but chooses to ignore them. His phone never chimed again. One day the battery died and he was never able to find it among the books. He liked the chime, but didn't care that he never heard it again. More time for reading. Despite not opening another package again, he has never known happiness so profound before, and perhaps since. Look at his smile, at the idiotic, mindless, unflinching smile carved on his face as he flips through the pages. He doesn't need anyone. He doesn't need anything. He has his books to keep him company now, and if or when he finally gets through them all, he knows there will be more waiting, just outside the front door. If he ever manages to find it again, that is.