The fifth time Alejandro checked outside for his dinner order, he found something most unexpected on the doorstep.
“Babe?” he called over his shoulder. “How exactly how much Thai rice did you order?”
Eme arrived at his side, drying a glass with an over-wet towel. She immediately joined him in frowning at the large cardboard box just outside their door. It was big enough to hold a microwave, or a very fat TV. The box itself was banged up around the corners, and appeared to be taped and re-taped a few times, and had a folded card perched on its top.
Alejandro plucked up the card, gave it a once-over, and handed it to Eme.
There was no name on it, no address and no origin to explain where the thing had come from. The only thing written on the card—in very neat handwriting, in blood red ink—was:
“Hmm, that’s weird,” said Eme, re-reading the message a second and third time. “What do you think it means?”
“I dunno,” said Alejandro, reaching into the open box. “What’d it say?”
Eme smacked him across the back of the head. “It said not to open it!”
“What? Why not?”
“I don’t know! It said not to open it until 11:59 on December 31st—”
“11:59 AM or PM?” asked Alejandro, hands still in the box.
“I don’t think it matters anymore, does it?”
Alejandro slumped and let out a long, morose sigh, simulating regret to the barest extent possible. Then, after a respectful pause, he said: “So can I take it out now?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Yes, but I’m an idiot with a...” he pulled his hands from the box, holding a... “Hot pink fire extinguisher!”
Eme leaned over his shoulder, frowning. “Is that it? Nothing else?”
“Nope!” said Alejandro, studying his new toy from all angles, like it held some sneaky secrets only he could discover. “What do you think happens at midnight on December 31st that requires Barbie Dream House fire control?”
Eme stared out into the deserted nighttime streets, and wondered that exact thing, too.
Three weeks later, the lights went out just as their dinner was halfway done. Rain pounded the windows like the bad side of a hurricane, and the patch of loose siding above the garage rattled like mad in the wind, but what worried Eme most of all had nothing to do with the weather.
“Switch off the breaker,” she said to Alejandro, as he peered into the darkened oven with a sad emoji look on his face.
“Hmm?” he asked, poking the casserole to see if it was edible yet.
“The breaker box in the basement,” she said. “Switch it off. Turn it off. Disable it.”
“Why? It’s just a blackout. It’ll be fixed soon.”
“I know,” said Eme. “That’s exactly the problem! What if, when the power comes back on, it causes a short, and something sparks and starts a fire, and the fire spreads and—”
“This is because of the fire extinguisher, isn’t it?”
“Of course it’s because of the fire extinguisher!” she shouted. “How can anything not be about the fire extinguisher?”
“I think you’re overreacting, babe. The note said we’d need it on New Year’s Eve, not May 26th.”
Eme pointed a furious finger at the card, stuck to the front of the fridge with a magnet. “‘Or in case of a true emergency’,” she said. “A true emergency.”
“A blackout’s not really a—”
“It’s not, until it is!” she snapped. “And do you really want me to be screaming ‘I TOLD YOU SO’ as our house burns to the ground?”
Alejandro considered this a moment, and then went to switch off the breaker box.
August was oppressive. Not just oppressive...agonizing. The windows in their house weren’t very big, and didn’t open very far, because the builders had assumed any sane person would rely on the air conditioner for circulation. Sadly, sanity was in short supply in the lead-up to December 31.
“I think we should go shopping,” Alejandro said, sprawled out on the tile floor in his underwear, trying to stay cool. “I think we need to go shopping.”
“We went yesterday,” said Eme, lying next to him, equally melty. “We got everything. Why—”
“Cold air,” he whined. “I need cold air. I want to eat ice cream, and yoghurt, and microwave pizza, and—”
“We can’t,” she said, grabbing hold of his slick and sweaty arm, though he wasn’t in danger of moving any time soon. “Not yet. It’s not safe yet.”
“How about we just turn the power back on until there’s another storm, and then turn it off again. That should be OK, right? Nobody’s gonna—”
“No,” said Eme, dragging herself over to him so he could see how serious she was. “No, it’s too risky. No electricity, no candles, no barbeque...we have to stay the course.”
“But isn’t the whole point of having a fire extinguisher that we can save ourselves if something goes wrong? The note said ‘in case of a true emergency’, not ‘avoid everything forever’.”
“Not forever. Just another four and a half months.”
“That’s kinda forever.”
“Listen,” she said, rolling onto her side so she could see him more easily. And/or dribble sweat at a new angle. “I know this is hard. It’s hard for me, too. But whoever left that thing on our doorstep knew something about the future. About what would go wrong for us—”
“Exactly, so let’s trust that they knew what they—”
“But that’s just it! They didn’t know! Think of it: if you knew I was going to step on a nail and fall down the stairs and break my neck and up on a ventilator, what would you do?”
Alejandro thought long and hard before Eme cut him off:
“Would you put pillows at the bottom of the stairs?” she asked. “Or would you fix the nail that made me fall in the first place?”
“Could I do both?” he asked.
“But why? Why put pillows at the bottom of the stairs if you know the nail is fixed? Unless you’re not sure where the nail is, so you can’t fix it, so the pillows are still just as necessary.” She pointed at the hot pink fire extinguisher on the counter—their most prized possession by far. “Something terrible is going to happen to us, sometime between now and the start of 2021,” she said. “And the only thing keeping us from breaking our necks and ending up on a ventilator is that thing. And until I know why, I’m going to flatten every nail I see, no matter how silly it may be.”
Alejandro sighed, nodded solemnly. “I suppose,” he said. “I just really hope this disaster is worth it.”
“Me too,” she said, patting his arm. “Me too.”
Just then, loud banging erupted at their front door and Dennis, their surly neighbour, shouted at the top of his lungs: “You’ve gotta stop watering your lawn! It’s like a lake out here!”
Eme sighed, looked away. “It’s OK. He’ll thank us later.”
There were no decorations hung. No roast in the oven, no beer or wine or champagne in their room-temperature refrigerator. Their only countdown clock was the old wind-up watch Alejandro had found in a consignment shop, and paid far too much money for. They sat together, huddled beneath a pile of heavy blankets, watching the last minutes of 2020 tick away.
“What’re you going to do?” he asked, after another long stretch of awkward silence. “When it’s over, what are you going to do?”
“Take a bath,” she said, watching her breath swirl around in the frigid, furnace-less house. “A warm bath, with lavender and candles and—”
“I’m going to cook a steak,” he said. “You want a steak?”
“I want everything,” she said. “I’ve been making a list—”
“Wait, how? I thought you said pencils were too flinty!”
“In my head,” she said, tapping her temple with a frozen finger. “It’s how I keep from going insane. I think of all the things I’m going to do, all the foods I’m going to eat, all the places I’m going to go. I have enough plans to fill an entire decade. I want to make crème brûlée. I want to visit Tikal in the summer and explore every angle of it. I want to watch a movie, curled up on the couch with you, and fall asleep in your arms.”
He smiled, said: “I want to set off fireworks in the backyard.”
She glared at him. “Stupid’s still stupid, Alejandro.”
“Sorry,” he muttered, then noticed the watch had stopped ticking again. He snatched it off the coffee table and gave it a shake. “I really hate this thing.”
He started winding it, while Eme stared through the window at the snowy landscape outside. The neighbours’ Christmas lights were still on, projecting a kind of quaint cheer she hoped she’d be able to enjoy, too, soon.
“OK,” said Alejandro, checking the time again. “Probably a few minutes off, but close enough. The second this is done, I’m gonna—” An idea rolled into his head, and he slumped. “I forgot. We got rid of all our batteries. Stupid combustible batteries...”
“I can’t pick up more on my way into work on—”
“Wait, into where? Work?” he asked, sitting up. “I thought we weren’t working until—”
“No, no I know we agreed to—”
“You specifically told me I couldn't go into the office anymore!” he said, getting more and more frantic. “You said it wasn’t safe! I might get hit by a burning car, or my cubicle might catch on fire, or—”
“I know, I know!” she said, trying to find the right words, and coming up empty. “But you don’t understand, Alejandro. Being here, being so helpless all this time...I just needed a way out. I needed to do something where I wasn’t worrying about fire and death and extinguishers...”
“So you just lived a double life? All those times you took six-hour naps, you were—”
“Sneaking out to work,” she nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry. I really am. But of the two of us, it made the most sense for me to be the one to go out and—”
“Oh really?” he laughed. “How do you figure that? You think you’re just less likely to catch on fire?”
She stared at him.
He slumped. “Yeah, OK.”
She put a hand on his arm, squeezed gently. “But the good news is, because we basically eat nothing and go nowhere, and use no electricity at all, the money I earned will pay for all the dreams we had while we were locked up in here. Anything you want, we can do it. Easily.”
“Fireworks in the—”
“Don’t ruin it.”
“Don’t ruin it?” he yelled, throwing off the covers and jumping to his feet. “Don’t ruin it? I’ve just spent the better part of a year living the most miserable existence in the history of the world, while my wife has been running around like a busy little hypocrite, and you’re telling me not to ruin it? It was ruined! It is ruined! And you know what?”
He grabbed a candle off the mantle and slammed it down on the coffee table, then rummaged around in his pocket until— “Aha!” He came out with a lighter.
“Where did you get that?” Eme gasped.
“You’re not the only one with secrets,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming about taking up smoking.”
“But your asthma—”
“Not important!” he shouted, and flick-flick-flicked the lighter on.
Eme’s eyes went wide. “Alejandro, don’t you dare...”
He bent down and held the flame to the wick, and then waited, and waited, and waited some more until finally the light flickered, and the candle was lit. He threw the lighter across the room in victory, raising his hands above his head and shouting: “To hell with the consequences! I broke the curse!”
Outside, faintly, they heard bells ringing, and people cheering “Happy New Year!”
Alejandro’s arms lowered meekly. “I still think I broke the curse.”
Eme got up and hugged him. Nice and firm, nice and long. “You did,” she whispered. “You did great.”
He hugged her back and took a long, happy breath of—
“Smoke,” he said, and turned around to see their thick warm blankets had fallen onto the candle, and were now on fire. “Fire! Fire!”
Eme moved fast, like she’d spent far too long imagining some version of this moment. She snatched up the fire extinguisher, aimed it straight at the fire, and pulled the trigger and—
Cheese sprayed onto the flames.
“Cheese?” said Alejandro, frowning at the display. “Is that like spray cheese?”
The fire was out, regardless, so Eme leaned in and gave the substance a taste. “Yeah, that’s weird, isn’t it?” She looked at the canister. “Why would we need a fire extinguisher filled with cheese?”
Alejandro’s face dropped. “Maybe we had the wrong kind of emergency,” he said. “Maybe this wasn’t about saving our lives, but saving our marriage.”
“Our marriage wasn’t—”
“Maybe the whole point of the note, of the last few months, wasn’t about the nail at the top of the stairs, or the pillows at the bottom. Maybe the point was caring enough to do either. Or both.”
“Taking care of each other.”
“Surviving adversity,” he nodded.
She hugged him, resting her head on his chest. “I’m sorry I put you through all that,” she said.
“I’m glad you did,” he said, and kissed her head. “But now that it’s over, and since we have no other food in the house, you know what I propose?” He took the fire extinguisher from her hand and gave her a mischievous kiss. “New Year’s festivities.”
They were up all night, laughing and playing all around their gradually-warming house, emptying the spray cheese into each other’s mouths, and onto the walls, the ceilings, and every last surface of the place, until they collapsed in each other’s arms and fell asleep, the canister drained of every last ounce of fun.
Which was really a shame when, at a little past noon, they desperately needed a distraction to escape the mutant rat uprising.
Written for Luis, whose topic was: a package arrives at the door - the card on top reads "only open at exactly 11:59 December 31st 2020 or in case of a true emergency open immediately”