The parcel arrived with a thud at 11:02am, causing Helen to startle, knocking her tea and sending a few drops arcing onto her keyboard. She looked up just in time to see the Amazon van disappear through the hedges at the end of the path.
She sighed and dabbed the drops with her sleeves before going to retrieve the parcel. It was a big, rectangular box, not as heavy as she might have guessed from its size. Helen hadn’t ordered anything, but it was marked with Amazon Super-Prime labelling on top of the protective plastic wrap, so she knew it wasn’t a mistake. She bent over and grabbed the corners, shuffling the box side to side until it went over the threshold, and shoved it against the wall of the small entryway and up against the side table as far as it would go.
It still took up a lot of space, and Helen would have to turn sideways to get past it if she wanted to go outside. When Pete came home, he would probably slam the door into the box. But it was sturdy, and it wasn’t marked ‘perishable’, so Helen didn’t think she should open it yet.
Helen returned to her seat at the coffee table and picked up her laptop again, but she was finding it harder to concentrate on her work than before with the large box looming in the periphery of her vision.
In her experience, opening a Super-Prime parcel before she had a need for something could be more confusing than clarifying, so it was better to wait – but then again, usually they were just small, inconsequential things. A corkscrew before she knew that Pete would be bringing home a bottle of wine to celebrate their anniversary and discovered that their old one hadn’t survived the move. A new pair of running shoes right before Strava informed her that she’d run four hundred miles on her current pair.
There had never been a box this big.
Helen returned to her bookkeeping, occasionally looking out the window and watching her cat Fred lounging in the window box overlooking the front garden, flicking his tail and turning his face to get sunshine all over it. She did not look at the box.
At twelve-thirty, her colleague James rang on Zoom and asked for an update. She gave him one, distractedly.
“Why don’t you take a break for lunch?” James suggested. “It’s a lovely day – go for a walk.”
Helen agreed. On her way out, sidling past the parcel, she called out to Fred to let him back inside. She would only go to the shops on the high street and be back to eat in the garden, he could stay outside, but she preferred to know where he was. A soft tinkling sound announced his presence, and he stalked up to her slowly, glaring into her eyes, before turning and darting off around their side of the semi-detached house. Helen didn’t have time to entice him back inside, so she locked the door and set off down the path, turning right at the end towards the village.
“All right, Helen?” her neighbour Paul called out as she passed his house. He was out watering his rose bushes, wearing wellies and a hat.
“All right, yeah,” Helen replied, stopping outside his garden and smiling at him. “You?”
“Well, it’s the strangest thing,” Paul said, turning off the hose. “My granddaughter, Lucy – she signed me up for that new Amazon delivery service. And today I got a big box delivered, loads of new rose bushes inside, ready to plant. So I thought I’d better come check on my roses. But they’re all right, aren’t they. So I’m watering them, just in case. It’s just, you know what they say – Amazon can send you replacements for things before you need them, and that. I thought it must mean something had happened to my roses. But it hasn’t.”
Helen looked at the roses, and then at Paul. “Are you sure Lucy didn’t just send you some more roses?” she asked.
“Where would I put them?” Paul asked, shrugging.
“Maybe it’s a mistake,” Helen offered.
“Lucy said it doesn’t make mistakes,” Paul said. “The algorithm.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry,” Helen said, smiling as she turned to continue towards the shops. “Your roses look lovely.”
“Ta, dear,” said Paul, turning the hose back on.
Helen thought it was strange, but pre-emptive purchases couldn’t be right one hundred percent of the time. Though, they were right most of the time, which made it seem like they could predict the future, but they couldn’t. For one thing, she wasn’t at all certain how Amazon had known that she and Pete had lost the corkscrew they’d already had, but it was more likely that that wasn’t what had happened at all – most likely, they’d bought that one from Amazon and statistically they were right around the point that most people either lost or broke theirs. Maybe it was even designed to break after about two years.
Or, maybe, Amazon knew that she and Pete had just bought a house together in Cambridgeshire, because they’d changed their addresses and started buying things that new homeowners buy – like twine for the garden and tools for the house. Probably most people lose small things like corkscrews when they move, or don’t bother to bring rubbish old ones along.
More likely than not, Amazon Super-Prime had calculated that Paul loved roses and that he recently retired, but didn’t have enough data about him to know that he already had a rose garden planted by his late wife, which he’d always tended to, even when he was working.
Helen reached the village high street and found that there was a sign in the door of her favourite café. ‘SHUT DUE TO LOW SUPPLIES, APOLOGIES FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE’, it said.
“How could they be low on supplies when Amazon delivers four times a day?” Helen wondered aloud.
“They’ve been downgraded to Amazon Sub-Prime,” the gravelly voice of Tim, a member of Helen’s running club, declared from behind her. “They missed too many subscription payments, and now they have to wait one to three days for deliveries, that’s what I heard.”
“Oh, no,” Helen said. “What a shame.”
“Can’t compete like that,” Tim huffed. “Can’t see them opening again. Nobody likes to wait anymore.”
Across the road, the new Costa had a long queue spilling out the door, onto the pavement. “I don’t like Costa,” Helen said, considering, “but I did want a coffee.”
“Best make it yourself, love,” Tim said, nodding at the empty Co-op and stalking off with his hands in the pockets of his jumper.
On her walk home, Paul was still outside, considering his roses. He held his hat in his hand and crouched down, inspecting a bloom closely. He didn’t acknowledge Helen as she walked by with her bag for life in one hand and the other raised in greeting.
At home, Helen put the kettle on and set out her French press and the coffee she had bought before turning to look at the box in her hallway again. What was inside? The whistling of the kettle drew her attention back to her lunch preparations, and she brought her cheese sandwich, crisps, and coffee out to the garden and settled herself there with her mobile phone.
“Look what Amazon Super-Prime sent us!” read the caption of a photo posted by Sarah, Helen’s long-time friend, above a photo of her and her husband Liam holding up a little pink baby grow between them and beaming.
Helen sent Sarah a WhatsApp. “Congrats!” she said.
“Thanks!” Sarah replied.
Helen picked up her mobile and rang Sarah. “I can’t believe it!” she said. “When did you find out?”
“This morning, when the parcel arrived!” Sarah said. “I’m at the GP now, just waiting for my blood test.”
Helen paused. “You haven’t taken a test yet?”
“No, not yet – but I already know,” Sarah laughed.
“Well – congratulations again!” Helen said, bemused. “Shall we meet up next week? For a… juice?”
“That would be marvellous,” Sarah said. “I’ve got to go, the doctor’s back! See you later.”
“Bye, then,” Helen said.
She gathered the detritus of her lunch in her arms and deposited it on the kitchen counter before returning to her seat in the reception room, where she attempted to work. Shadows were beginning to cast themselves over the room when Helen looked up again at the windows, and she noticed that it wasn’t just getting late – it looked like storm clouds were gathering. A storm wasn’t forecast, not that this was too unusual for springtime.
She set down her laptop, stretched, and made her way past the box to open the front door and call Fred inside. The wind was picking up, and she couldn’t hear the bell of his collar, nor could she see his grey body winding its way through the shadows of the garden. She stepped further onto the path, and the wind slammed the door shut behind her. She would have to go inside soon. Where was Fred?
Helen slipped back inside and stubbed her toe on the box. Swearing quietly, she decided to heave it out of the hallway. She would open it – just to get it out of the way.
It was truly dark in the hallway now, almost no light coming through from the reception room, as the sky had darkened to black and she could hear heavy raindrops thrumming against the old windowpanes. Helen flicked on the light switch and picked up her keys from the side table to slice through the plastic and tape. There were layers to cut through, and a Styrofoam protective casing around whatever was inside the box. So environmentally unfriendly, she thought, as she tried to wrestle it upright and pull the pieces apart.
The top piece of Styrofoam casing released with a squeaking sound and revealed a wooden box. A small piece of glossy paper fluttered to the ground, and Helen turned the box over and removed the other piece of foam. Her heart stopped as she saw the glint of a brass name plate that said FRED with a paw print on either side. She dropped the wooden box back into the packaging and grabbed for the piece of paper.
It took her several attempts to grasp the paper and lift it to read, but when she did, she wished she hadn’t. ‘Farewell Pets Coffin MEDIUM WOOD FINISH WITH BRONZE PLATE – Personalised (Name, up to 10 letters: enter at checkout) Non-Refundable’ was written on the small piece.
Helen raced into the reception room, leaping over pieces of Styrofoam, and dialled Pete’s number as she made her way back to the front door. She called out for Fred again and again as she waited for Pete to answer his phone.
“Helen?” Pete said. “It’s quite loud, are you outside?”
“Pete! Come home, I need you to come home!”
“What’s wrong?” Pete asked.
“It’s Fred!” Helen sobbed.
“What’s happened?” Pete asked.
“Please, just come!” Helen cried. “Fred! Fred!” She shouted into the garden, but she could hardly hear herself above the sound of the storm. She was wet through now and couldn’t press any buttons on her phone.
Helen ran inside and made her way around the darkened house, calling for Fred and turning on lights as she went. Perhaps he was nearby, but hiding, because of the storm, she thought, heart racing as she stumbled over thresholds and flung herself to the floor to look under furniture. She couldn’t see him.
She ran back down the stairs and threw open the front door. Rain lashed her face as she searched for Fred, then suddenly – light came sweeping across the sodden garden, and for a moment, she saw a flash of him, but she was blinded.
Headlights – Pete pulling his car up the path. The tell-tale crunch of gravel. And then another, awful, sound. A yowling, screeching sound.
“Stop!” Helen shouted. She ran out towards the car, holding up her hands to tell Pete to stop and to block out the headlights. “Stop the car!”
Pete came tumbling out of the Peugeot, leaving the door open, the car beeping indignantly at him and windscreen wipers swiping madly back and forth in vain. “What’s wrong?” Pete shouted at Helen, but she was already falling to her knees in front of the car and screaming.
Fred was flattened beneath the little silver car, his little grey body mostly under the driver’s wheel.
“Oh, God,” Pete said, getting back in the car and reversing without shutting the door. The movement of the car made Fred’s body move, and Helen’s heart leapt, but he wasn’t alive. Pete shut off the engine and got out, tentatively approaching Helen, who was still kneeling over Fred’s body and chanting, “No, no, no.”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t see him,” Pete said. He reached down and pulled Helen to her feet, but Helen yanked out of his grasp and bent back over to remove Fred’s collar. She held it to her chest and sobbed while Pete gently guided her towards the door.
Inside, Pete stumbled over the Styrofoam packaging Helen had left strewn in the hallway. “What is this?” he asked, but Helen only cried harder and sank down against the wall.
Pete kicked aside the packaging and found the box. He looked at the brass name plate inscription and then at Helen. He didn’t say a word.
The next morning, the sky was blue and there was little sign of the foul weather that had struck the village the previous evening. Helen awoke in her bedroom to see that Pete had already got up and left her a cup of tea. It was still steaming. She picked it up and padded down the stairs carefully. The front door was open, and she could see a shovel leaning against the hedge.
Pete was standing beside it, leaning over and talking to Paul.
“Completely drowned,” Paul was telling Pete. “Some of the bushes washed away completely. It’s lucky I had some new roses all ready to plant.”
About The Author
Remy Maisel is a writer from New York currently living in London with her dog and her horse (he doesn’t live in the flat). Her debut novel, Grounds for Divorce, will be published in October 2021 by The Book Guild.
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