Darryl handed Patricia a rectangularish box wrapped in the reddest foil that she had ever seen. “Go ahead and open it. This one’s from me.” He was practically vibrating from excitement.
This was the first Christmas they had been together, so the idea of going to his parent’s house for the holiday seemed a bit much. She preferred to keep things at arm’s length for longer, sort of to feel things out before getting too attached. Still, he seemed so sweet on the idea that she decided to give in.
Patricia took the offering and tried to muster up a smile. This container hurt her engineering soul. She had gone to college for years studying the best way to package products. She had won numerous awards for her ability to design the stuff that everything is put into. She made it to be not only functional, but beautiful. It was something she took immense pride in.
And yet the gift her boyfriend had given her was in a sorry state. The top and one of the sides were bulging, ruining the angular pleasing aesthetic most boxes had. He had undersized the box by at least two, two and a half centimeters on the long side. Not only that, but she could feel that the cardboard selected was too thin for the amount of weight the poor reinforced paper had been asked to hold. It practically buckled as she placed it on her lap.
Yeah, this wasn’t going well. He probably had gone overboard, picking out something expensive to impress her. People put too much emphasis on what was inside the box. She knew what mattered was the thought that went into the product as a whole. That’s why packaging was her passion.
Well, there was only one way to get this over with.
Patricia deftly pealed back the cellophane tape. She folded it upon itself and placed it on the side table next to her. She could tell that Darryl wanted her to hurry up, but she wanted to honor the materials others carelessly discarded. That is why she preferred to use bags to hold gifts. They had a life, post present, with the probability of many regiftings in their future.
If they had a future together she would have to train him better.
She unfolded the wrapping paper cocoon and laid it on top of the tape. There was crafting supplies in its future if she could pawn it off on Darryl’s niece as long as Darryl’s sister didn’t notice till that crew was in the car on the ride home. She would think of a way to entice the ten-year-old that origami roses were just a few folds away.
She contemplated the box. Yes, that poor box was at death’s door. There would be no upcycling this, at least without major reconstructive surgery. Alas, you couldn’t save them all.
She looked into Darryl’s eager eyes as she opened the box. He nodded, almost exploding with emotion. She looked at what had been entombed just moments ago. Inside there was a vast swath of Kelly green. He at least had picked her favorite color. She lifted the object out and shook loose sleaves. She stared at a sweater unlike anything she had seen before. There were occasional oblong holes, a few loops of yarn that didn’t attach to anything, and the left sleave was about a half inch longer than the right. It was not what she had been expecting for sure.
She looked back at Darryl.
“I knitted it myself. You said you always were getting cold at the apartment. I thought it might be cool if I designed a package for you.” He put air quotes around the word package. “I love listening to you talk about that stuff, so you inspired me to do this. You should have seen the three previous attempts.”
She took a closer look at the sweater and noticed how the stiches did get better the farther along they went. He was really starting to get the hang of it by the end. How much time did he put into this? How many nights had he worked on this while they were on the phone? He had sounded slightly distracted, but she put it up to him being annoyingly male. Now she thought she knew why. She stared at what was inside the package with a new appreciation for what was inside.
“Look, I know it’s not that good, but I ran out of time and…”
She collapsed the sweater to her chest as she interrupted him. “It’s perfect.” And in that moment, she knew he was a keeper.
He looked at the clutter around him. Neglected, half-finished dreams littered the desk, table, and sections of the floor. At one point each project had held so much life and promise, but now they were on life support, or worse yet zombified corpses. He wondered what was the best approach going forward. Maybe he should just put everything away and pull out pieces when he was ready to resurrect them, but that would mean confronting his failures, and he wasn’t emotionally prepared to do that just yet. Besides, he had a brand new idea, and he knew it would work.
She very carefully cleansed her face with exfoliator. She took her time since her face was still tender from yesterday. She then opened her moisturizer. The smell of tropical fruits perfumed the air and helped put her in a more relaxed mood. The moisturizer was almost cool to the touch. She enjoyed the way it kept her skin hydrated and smooth. The added SPF to protect didn’t hurt either.
Gently, she layered on foundation, evening out her complexion. She looked at her reflection. She was not happy with what she saw. That woman would just not do. She reached for her almost empty concealer and shook her head. How could she have forgotten that yesterday? That meant another trip to the mall. He wasn’t going to be happy about that, but he did want her to look pretty for him, so maybe he wouldn’t be that angry about it.
With practiced grace she applied a dab under each of her eyes, then on various other spots on face. She took out her makeup brush and blotted it into the foundation. Magically the dark spots softened and blended mostly into the background. She put another round of the concealer over those remaining spots that had proved resistant. This time the blotting finished its magic. She let a small smile escape. Now that was the woman he loved to have.
“Hey, Stella. Get in here!”
Startled, she jumped and lost her grip on her brush. She watched it tumble and fall to the floor. She turned her head to the other room.
“Coming,” she called out.
He didn’t reply. She took that as permission to finish her task. But first she groped for her brush. It took a few times before she managed to retrieve it and put it away. Damn shaking hands. That definitely would not do. She calmed herself by completing the ritual with a quick pat of powder to protect her hard work.
She looked at the mirror one more time. Yeah, she did good. He should be happy with her. Just one more bit of concealer was needed. She slapped on her happy face and poof; she was perfect for him.
The glow from the watch faded from its active state to standby making the room get awfully dark. The fact that the watch never reactivated said a lot about its wearer. Justice tried to find some sort of guilt or remorse, but the anger that was fueled by his powers kept all of that at bay.
“Now do you see?” he asked.
“I see a little boy who got mad that his favorite toy is broken.” The new voice came from a patch of darkness that was somehow darker. “So he decided to have a temper tantrum.”
“Tread careful old man,” Justice said.
“Or what?” the shadow said. Justice felt his head explode in pain as something large, hard, and moving faster than it should smashed into his left ear. The transfer of momentum carried him off his feet, tossing the body that was attached to that head into the chair and onto the floor. “Remember I made you, boy.”
Justice shook his head and immediately regretted the decision. Still he managed to push himself to a sitting position. “You made me? I’m here because you screwed around once too many times and got lucky. It doesn’t matter now. I’m better than you. The amount of Juice I can take would kill you.”
The shadow got darker, but this time Justice was waiting for it. He lit himself up with a kick from his reserves burning through a lot of the Juice he had remaining. The light chased away all the shadows revealing a hunched over bald man leaning on his four-footed cane. The old man flinched away from that light and fell backward hard. Justice maintained the light but focused it more on the shriveled-up figure in front of him leaving the rest of the room in shadow except for the weak light from the watch behind him.
Justice slowly stood, never shifting his eyes or that spotlight. “See, your little boy is now the man.” He launched a kick into the man’s midsection. The crack of bone snapping could be heard. The old man howled and tried to curl himself up in a ball.
“Any last words before I end our relationship?”
Justice felt his back explode in pain. Soon his front joined in the chorus as he slammed face first into the far wall. The room plunged into darkness except for the watch’s bright glow highlighting the old man in odd relief.
“I’ll take him,” the owner of the watch said. “Puck ass kids like him deserve to have his timeclock punched.” The watch face flared green, engulfing the old man, and slowly the wrinkles melted and the no longer old man stretched, seemingly popping his broken ribs back in place in the process. “That’s your payment. Now get out of my sight before I decide your time is up as well.”
“I feel amazing,” the formerly old man said.
“Don’t get too used to it. Time waits for no one, well except for me.” The watch faded back to standby.
“Time runs out for everybody,” the old man said.
“What did you say?”
Before the formerly old man could respond, Justice lit up brighter than the noon day sun. He sent a piercing beam of light into the body attached to the watch. The watch flared to life, but its light was soon overwhelmed. The watch once again faded to standby as the body attached to it sunk to their knees.
The formerly old man reached a hand out and engulfed the watch in darkness. “Time’s up, Buttercup.”
The owner of the watch screamed as the watch and the body attached to it faded into nothingness.
“Time’s up, Buttercup?” Justice said before he sagged to one knee. He pulled out a small can, opened it, and poured the contents down his throat. He crushed the can and flicked it onto the floor.
The formerly old man stared at the can. “What?” Justice asked. Nothing broke the silence until Justice sighed and picked it up, placing it in the trash.
The formerly old man smiled. “I thought it was appropriate.”
“Appropriate? You are one corny old bastard.”
“Who are you calling old?” The formerly old man stood up straight, and now he towered over Justice.
Justice didn’t rise to the bait. “So you happy how it turned out?”
The formerly old man ran his hands through his thick red curly hair. The smile on his face said it all. “Yeah, but that whole kicking in my lungs could have been avoided.”
“You said make it convincing.”
“You still broke my ribcage. In multiple spots. I was spitting up blood.”
Justice laughed. “You said he would turn back your clock. That was the deal for you delivering me, so I figured that also meant any damage I did to you would be rolled back as well.”
The formerly old man crossed his arms in front of him. “You went off script.”
Justice waived that comment off. “Besides, I had to have a reason to keep up my sheath to help mitigate some of that last attack. Damn that thing could hit.”
“That’s what you get when you can manipulate time. Slow things down, reverse them, “
Justice finished it for him. “Or speed them up. Damn physics. I hate momentum!”
The formerly old man patted Justice on the back. “You’re learning. There is hope for you yet, but for now let’s go home.”
“Sounds good. What’s for dinner?”
“Your mom is making fried chicken.”
“She is going to freak out when she sees you,” Justice said.
“I know. You might want to go out for a while after dinner. I’ve got some things I need to do that I haven’t been able to for a looooooong time.”
I remember the child sitting on my lap. “What would it take for you to do this one thing for me?” he had asked. They warn you about this when you join the corps, but it still amazes you when you hear it.
That’s why I stopped in my tracks and thought hard once I was in the man’s bedroom. What the kid was asking me to do came naturally. Still, I hated the son of a bitch for what he had done to the boy, so I wanted to gift the man something more. All it would take is a slight twitch and justice would be served. I had killed many a person, young and old, male and female, but never while they slept, not in cold blood. That was not who I was, at least not now.
I sheathed my blade and left his son’s note. I thought about leaving a bit of coal behind to emphasize that I saw his naughty ass and if I had wanted he would have been mine, but I am a man of the red cloth. “What would it take? I may only play a saint, but a devil I am not.”
“You must be daft! This is the girl who threw away your baseball card collection.”
“Yeah, she did do that.”
“And she was the one who made you get rid of your dog because she didn’t want the fur on her white carpet.”
“True. She did do that.”
“She had to buy her Corvette which is why you that P.O.S. out in the parking lot.”
“Ah, got it. Yeah. She does love that car.”
“And she stabbed you in the back by sleeping with your boss. How can she be the girl of your dreams?”
“Oh, I meant nightmares.”
“Now that I can understand. So tell me, why are you still with her?”
“I may have found the worst possible relationship, but that makes everything else seem so much better. I can look at dropping out of college, working this crappy job, and realizing I’m not going to accomplish any of my childhood dreams and feel some sort of contentment. It’s like I’m telling karma to go fuck off because I got this, so just hold my beer.”
“So let me see if I understand. The sex is that good?”
Darryl couldn’t believe this was happening. Not now. Not during final exams. He pleaded with Wendy. “I could spend my time doing anything, but instead I’ve spent it with you. Don’t you understand?”
Wendy burst into tears again. Darryl had no answer. Why was this girl doing this to him? Didn’t he just tell her how important she was? Yet here she was, cradling herself like he had punched her in the gut.
“Look, I…” He just couldn’t find the words to say, and he was sure anything he tried to say right now wouldn’t be the right ones. He tried to touch her shoulder, but she pulled away. “I need to study.” He turned and left the room. He couldn’t decide if he was storming out or fleeing, but either way, he had to go.
Wendy felt more than saw Darryl leave. Her tears continued to escape, but she was holding the rest of the heartache in. If she squeezed herself hard enough she might be able to hold it together till she got back to her dorm room. She waited long enough that hopefully he was gone before she scrambled to exit. That’s when she ran full force into Judy.
“What the hell happened to you?” Judy asked.
“Darryl said he wasted his time being with me. He told me he could have been doing anything else, but instead he had spent it with me.” That was it. The hurt gushed out all over the place, and no amount of squeezing was going to get it back under control. She ran for her room, hoping she wouldn’t run into anyone else.
Judy watched Wendy go, wondering why Darryl could say such a thing. She decided to give that boy a piece of her mind. It took her a bit, but she found in him the basement quiet area studying physics. The putz looked like all he cared about were those damn equations. She walked up to him from slightly behind. He had his hand on the left-hand side of the book, using his finger to hold his place. Judy grabbed the other side and slammed it shut on the stupid kid’s hand.
“Ow! What the hell!” screamed Darryl. “Bitch!”
Judy leaned in close. She wanted to get in this asshole’s face. “How dare you say Wendy’s not important.”
Darryl flew out of his chair wagging his hand. “What the? I didn’t say that!”
“What the hell do you know?”
A voice from outside the room filled the small basement space. “Keep your voices down!”
“Sorry, Henry,” Darryl said. In a much softer voice he continued, “Like I said, how the hell do you know?”
Judy took her voice down a couple of notches as well. “She told me.”
“She, but, I, I didn’t say that. I told her I thought she was important enough to spend all my time with.”
Now it was Judy’s turn to be caught off guard. “What?”
“I told her she was so important to me that I spent all my time with her. I could have done all these other things, but I just wanted to spend time with her.”
“Did you say it exactly that way?” Judy started to have a queasy feeling in her stomach.
“Well, not exactly,” Darryl said. Then a horrified look came over his face. “Fuck!” He ran out of the room.
“I said keep it quiet in there!” A mountain of a man waddled into the room. “What is wrong with you people? This is a quiet zone!”
Judy shrugged. “I guess it was just a whole bunch of miscommunication.”
“Me yelling wasn’t enough communication?”
“You’re the only one making with the loud right now,” Judy said. She sat down and cracked the physics book. Henry must have gotten the hint since he left. There could be worse things than what she was reading, but then she thought of the mess that had just occurred. She then looked back at the page of equations she had flipped to. “Okay, maybe not.”
Judy closed the book and left the whole mess behind.