Martha wondered if she could sit on the cardboard box indefinitely.
Of course, that would be impossible. She was going to need to go to work, eventually. There was also half of a leftover turkey club sandwich in the refrigerator that was reaching its critical, “Eat or throw away” point. And it was a good sandwich.
But going to work (which she did not particularly care about), and eating the sandwich (which she did), were both predicated on her standing up. And once she did that, she was going to have to see what was under the box.
Martha assumed that by moving from Burlington to Chicago, she would no longer have to deal with the occasional woodland creature making its way into her domicile. She never begrudged their tenacious breaking-and-entering ways. Winters are rough. Food is scarce. It made perfect sense that a little furry something would take advantage of a giant cube filled with heat and snacks.
It made less sense that this was happening in an urban environment. In a third-story apartment, with a locked door and weather-sealed windows. There was no convenient entry point, as opposed to her little house in Vermont, which seemed to be designed by the same team that brought the world Swiss Cheese and Connect Four.
Still and all, she was an old hand at this sort of thing. The second she heard the familiar rustling and rooting of claws and paws, she rolled out of bed, grabbed the Amazon box she was using as a clothes hamper, dumped out her clothes, and snuck into the living room. She didn’t turn on the lights. It would have scared the beast into hiding. Years of practice had made her night vision pretty keen.
She stood there on her tiptoes, as the furry blur scampered about. She couldn’t quite make out what it was. A neighbor’s cat, maybe. A larger-than-ordinary rodent, mutated by years of eating that weird bright green relish on Chicago-style hot dogs. A raccoon that was trying to get to the suburbs, but gave its Uber driver the wrong address.
The whatsit paused for a second, between the television and the coffee table. With lightning speed, and a nimbleness belying her generally sedentary lifestyle, Martha vaulted over the table, and with one fluid movement, covered the fuzz-shape with the box, and sat upon it.
Were this Burlington, the next step would be pretty straightforward. She would call Laura, who could sleep through anything, and generally did. Laura would blearily stumble into the living room with a thin sheet of particle board that was supposed to be the back of a Target bookshelf. But nobody ever took the time to attach those, right? You put the bookshelf up against a wall, and hey presto, the wall is now the back of the bookshelf.
Martha and Laura both agreed on this. Near the end, it was probably one of the only things they agreed upon.
That, and the division of labor when vacating woodland creatures from their domicile was this: Martha did the trapping, and Laura would do the containing. Laura slid the thin sheet of particle board was slid under the cardboard box, Martha stood up, Laura flipped the box over, carried it out to the front door, and sent the tiny squatter on its way.
This was not Burlington, though, and there was no Laura asleep in the bedroom. And the thin piece of particle board was sitting by the trash cans outside.
So there Martha sat, wondering what her next move was exactly. She had her phone, but who would she call? The police? The fire department? The local news? She hadn’t made any friends of consequence in the six months since she’d moved. Sure, there were folks to go drinking with after work, people to invite over for award shows and campy Lifetime movies, but nobody who was worthy of a 2am “I’m sitting on an animal” text.
“Can we just talk this through?”
Martha sniffed the air for the scent of burnt toast. She smiled a wide smile three or four times in a row, and raised both of her arms over her head. She was not having a stroke. Whatever she had trapped had asked her a question.
“No, seriously, I’m claustrophobic, and I’m seconds away from a full-on meltdown. And if that happens, this cardboard is not ready for that jelly.”
A psychotic break? Is that what she was experiencing? Would she have the presence of mind to wonder if she was having a psychotic break if she was actually having a psychotic break? She wished she had paid attention in her psychology class freshman year, instead of daydreaming of her and her TA taking a gondola ride at The Venetian.
“HELLO, PLEASE LET ME OUT, I AM HYPERVENTILATING.”
The forcefulness of the thing’s tone made Martha involuntarily bolt upright. She backed away from the box, and switched on the light.
One tiny hand poked out from under the box. Then another. Slowly, the thing lifted up the box, and poked its nose out. The nose was not that of an animal, but almost like a cross between a human’s and a bird’s. It wriggled a few times, and decided that it liked what it smelled. The nose’s owner crawled out, and Martha got a good look at it. Or rather, him.
He stood about three feet tall, and looked as if a drunken reveler at a renfair was hit with a shrink-ray. What she assumed was fur was, in fact, an abundance of hair. Over his shoulder, he carried a half-full sack. He spoke in a high-pitched voice that was oddly pleasing to the ear, considering it sounded like a Smurf had inhaled a tank of helium.
In fact, everything about this little person was oddly pleasing, and certainly not threatening, which is why Martha wasn’t smashing him to bits with her framed Neko Case concert print. Also the frame was super expensive. Sure, she had used a Groupon, but still.
“Can I tell you, I’ve been doing this a very long time, and this has never happened.” He sighed, and looked around the apartment. “This is one for the books.”
Martha’s head was filled to capacity with questions, but the only one that made it to her mouth was one that her grandparents had imprinted on her to ask any new person she came across.
“Are you hungry?”
The two sat down at her breakfast nook, and each had a quarter of a turkey club sandwich. It was not nearly enough for Martha, but it was a feast for her guest.
“This is delicious," he sighed. "Is this from The Anthem?”
“Where is that, Wicker Park?”
“No, Chicago-Kent Spakateria. West Loop. By my work.”
“Gotcha. It’s good." He stared at it for a moment. "And it’s holding up its structural integrity, which is rare in a refrigerated sandwich.”
“I told them to toast the bread a little longer, and go light on the mayonnaise.”
“Oh, that’s smart.”They both chewed for a second.
“I’m the Valentine’s Day Hobgoblin,” he announced, apropos to nothing. He searched her face for recognition. “Not ringing any bells, huh?”
Martha suddenly felt guilty she hadn’t heard of him. She offered a wan smile and a semi-knowing nod, but he didn’t fall for it.
“Totally understandable. I don’t get the kind of PR Cupid gets. But then again, my job is a lot less glamorous.”
Martha wished she was just realizing today was Valentine’s Day. Truth be told, it was a holiday that she and Laura had little time for, too commercial, too heteronormative, too focused on the heart and not the brain. But it was an easier holiday to dismiss curled up on the couch with a loved one, binge-watching Revenge and eating venison chili.
“You’re thinking about her, aren’t you,” he asked. Before Martha could reply, he continued, “It’s my job to know these things. It’s my job, full stop, really.”
“And what exactly is your job?” She asked this, feeling for all the world like she was interviewing him for a local news human interest piece.
He took his last bite, pushed the plate away, and leaned back on the stack of “Cooks Illustrated” magazines she provided to make him table-height. He reached for his half-full sack, and dumped it out on the table. It had a couple of hair ties, a pair of socks, a copy of Deborah Garrison’s “A Working Girl Can’t Win,” a Kabbalah bracelet, and a key.
Martha stood up. “This is my stuff. You’re a thief! I can’t believe I gave you a quarter of my sandwich! THAT WAS A GOOD SANDWICH, AND I AM CALLING THE POLICE.”
“This isn’t your stuff, Martha. Your hair, which looks great by the way, is too short for hair ties. You’d never be caught dead in toe socks. Poetry reads like stereo instructions to you, you’re an atheist, and that is the key to a shed that’s 1500 miles due east.”
She sat back down. This was all Laura’s stuff. She didn’t even know she had it.
He took a deep breath. “For a very long time, now, we have been aware that today is kind of a bullshit holiday.” He didn’t clarify who “we” were, and for some reason, Martha imagined the “Super Best Friends” from South Park.
He continued, “It’s all well and good for Cupid to fly around and projectile people into blissful dumb love. And it’s dandy for people in blissful dumb love, or any kind of love, to eat candy, give each other sparkly things, or just sit on the couch, binge-watching Revenge, etcetera. But then there’s everyone else. Everyone else who doesn’t have somebody today. Everybody else who had somebody, but now doesn’t. For them, it is bullshit.”
“SUCH bullshit,” she agreed.
“That’s where I come in. I sneak into people’s houses while they SHOULD be sleeping, ahem, and, uh, permanently borrow signifiers of their former situations. So come morning, their day is, like, 4% less miserable. Even though they have to go through their day watching stupid people give each other stupid cards and flowers, they’re not going to come across that dumb fleece hat their ex wore while sorting the laundry. Or that cheap lump crystal they bought on a trip to Joshua Tree. Or...”
“...An ugly pair of toe socks and a piece of magic red yarn.”
“I have to tell you, that’s a lot of trouble on your part to make people’s days 4% less miserable.”
“Well, I only cover the Chicago metropolitan area. I suppose I should have said I’m AN Valentine’s Day Hobgoblin instead of THE, but...I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to sound important. And as to that second thing...You’d be shocked how much of a difference 4% makes to somebody who’s struggling to not just crawl back in bed.”
Martha thought back to a few months ago, when she called in sick because she realized Laura’s Demeter “Library” fragrance was in her medicine cabinet. A difference, indeed.
“But we have a problem, Martha. You’ve seen behind the curtain, so to speak. You know this is happening. If anything, you’re more aware than before that your new life is lightly sprinkled with your old one. And I don’t quite know how to fix that.”
Martha smiled, and walked into the bedroom. She took a pillowcase off of one of her pillows, and walked back into the kitchen.
For the next half-hour, Martha and the Hobgoblin scoured her apartment for anything and everything that belonged to, or reminded her of Laura. And even though she thought she did a very thorough job of weeding out stuff before she moved, soon both his sack and her pillowcase were bursting at the seams. Bursting with books, magazines, lip glosses, CDs, and that stupid Neko Case print that Martha demanded to keep because she bought the frame, goddamn it.
“This is an awful lot for you to carry,” she said, surveying the haul.
“It’s not a problem. I’m magic or whatever,” he replied. “I just have to blink at it and it goes to...Jesus, I don’t even know, I think it’s a Goodwill in Passaic. Is there anything you want to keep?”
She looked at the stuff, and her eye went to the issue of Cooks Illustrated with the-
“Texas Chili recipe,” he smiled. “A wise choice for a cold winter, and delicious even if you don’t have 20 pounds of deer meat in the freezer. Go ahead. Take it.”
She reached for it, and the second she grasped it, he, and the stuff, was gone.
She stood there and blinked for a few seconds. “I’m going to need a new pillowcase,” she thought to herself.
The next morning, she went to work, and survived her co-workers receiving flowers, passing out cards, wearing all black and silently daring others to ask them why, and everything else that comes along with Valentine’s Day. That night, she made a pot of chili, curled up on her couch, and watched Revenge.
Laura hated chili, and only ate it grudgingly when Martha’s grandparents gave them 20 pounds of deer from hunting season. Laura also hated Revenge, and complained bitterly as they watched episode after episode.
And after considering those two facts, Martha didn’t think about her again for the rest of the night.