The school had a story about a gift.
It was a square box, bigger than a candy box, wrapped in old brown paper—very old, greasy from thousands of fingers over the years. Two pink chrysthanthemums had once upon a time been pinned to the top, but long ago they had withered to the color of dried blood.
Every year, on Valentine’s Day, the gift would appear in a different student’s locker. Supposedly, at least. That’s how the story went.
And then that student had a choice.
He or she could leave the gift untouched and, at the end of the day, close the locker, spin the lock, and go home. In that case, the next day, the gift would be gone.
Or he or she could open the gift.
And in that case, the student would never be seen again.
Supposedly. That was the story about the gift. Some people said the whole thing was just a ghost story or something. Some people said it was a prank the older kids kept alive, or even one of the assistant principals? Everyone had a theory.
But supposedly, every year, some kid did actually get the gift. Every year, some kid would swear he’d found the gift in the locker under his sweatshirt—or some girl would say it was right on top of her biology book. And sometimes they’d even have friends back them up.
“But I didn’t open it,” they’d always say. “I mean it’s just a story, but why take a chance.”
Supposedly, the last time someone opened the gift was back in the 80s. One guy said his mother was actually at the school then, and knew the kid who supposedly opened it. And the kid really did disappear that Valentine’s Day, and was never heard from again, according to this guy, according to this mother.
Which is a lot of accordings.
Annie thought the story was probably bogus. It seemed like the kind of bogus thing they told the younger students to keep them in line, so they could laugh at you later.
One thing about Annie: she was as easy to scare as anyone, but she was a lot harder to intimidate.
And so on Valentine’s Day, when she opened her locker and saw a square box in a plain brown wrapper, with dead flowers pinned on top, at first she froze.
Then, inside the freeze, she started thinking.
Not that she really thought she’d disappear, or whatever. But on the other hand, what could be inside this box that would be nice? Whoever was playing this dumb joke wasn’t going to fill the box with iPhones or scarves or Playstation gift cards or anything a person would actually want. Best case, something would come sproinging out at her, if she opened it. Or it would be someone’s long decayed ham-sandwich, moldy and turning to soup—ugh, her stomach turned just thinking about it.
Annie started to close the locker, but a beefy hand held it open. She turned around.
“You got the gift,” Tim Bettner said. His mouth was slightly open. “Oh my god. Oh my god, you got it.”
Tim Bettner played on the football team, because he was huge, not because he was athletic. He was kind of a jerk and used to bully Annie in grade school. She lifted her chin.
“Did you put this in my locker?”
“Oh my god, you got the gift,” he said again. He wasn’t exactly the smartest person in class, either. His wet upper lip curled in an unpleasant smile. “You’re scared to open it.”
“No—“ Annie began.
“You’re so scared. Scared like a girl,” said Tim. He raised his voice. “She’s scared!” he called. The few remaining students in the hall glanced at them.
“I’m late to class,” said Annie.
“Late to scaredy-cat class?” asked Tim. His idea of a hilarious burn.
“Back off,” said Annie. She slammed her locker shut and walked away.
“Are ya gonna open it?” Tim called after her.
“I haven’t decided,” she said.
She strode down the hall toward math class, picking up speed to beat the bell. Just as she reached the door, she heard a voice, half-whisper, half-croon, from the far end of the hall, near her locker.
“Aannnniiieee,” called the voice, soft as a lullabye. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Her skin crawled. She shook it off. Tim, that stupid jerk.
Halfway through math, finishing up a pop quiz she hadn’t studied for, Annie had forgotten about the gift. She had just, with some reluctance, left the quiz on the teacher’s desk when she heard a voice outside the classroom door.
“Aannnniiieee,” said the voice, low and sing-song. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Annie felt her hands go cold and her lips go dry. She looked at the class, then the teacher, but they all had their heads buried in their work, except for two girls whispering near the back of the room. Annie walked over to them.
“Did you hear that?” she asked.
“Uh?” said the short one.
Sitting at her desk, waiting for her heart to calm, Annie thought to herself: I’ll show him, I’ll show him, He can’t scare me.
She stormed through volleyball, getting a shout of approval from the surprised coach. She steamed through American history. She had the last lunch period, and was always starved by the time it came around, but this day she stood in the cafeteria doorway, scanning the room for Tim.
The voice, the sweet, cajoling voice again, and now it was coming from behind her.
“I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Jaw set, Annie turned on her heel and walked back down the hall to her locker.
Five minutes later, Annie’s best friend Makayla, headed for lunch herself, saw Annie, facing her locker, working at something in her hands. “What’s up?” she asked. “Sit by me at lunch, I have GOT to tell you about—“
“Give me a second,” said Annie. “I’ve gotta do this so I can shove it in Tim Bettner’s stupid FACE.”
“Oh my god that’s what I was going to tell you!” said Makayla. “Tim Bettner’s not even here, he got sent home during first period science, he cracked his head on the corner of a cabinet, oh my god the blood, and he was crying like a—“
Annie’s busy, furious fingers were tearing at the package. “Wait a minute, what?” She turned back to Makayla. “But if Tim’s not here, then who—“ her fingers stopped.
But her fingers stopped too late. The box was open.
Later, over and over, to all the questions from laughing, shivering friends, then annoyed teachers, then anxious principal, then frantic parents, then police—all Makayla could say was that when Annie turned around, she had a box in her hands. Yes, she was sure it was a box, a box covered in torn brown paper, and yes it was open.
And then she was gone.
Yes, she knew what that box supposedly meant. No, she wasn’t playing games. Yes, she would like a kleenex. Okay, she’d start again.
Annie found herself in a vast, dim, empty place. It was cold. Across from her sat a small, pasty creature with tiny red eyes and a black hole for a mouth. The creature might once have been human.
“Who are you?” said Annie softly.
“I am the gift,” said the creature. His voice was like the creaking of a gate in the distance. Now his hole-mouth twisted into a terrifying parody of a sweet, relieved smile. “I was the gift,” he corrected himself. “But now you are.” His expression twisted into something like sadness. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m more sorry than I can say,”
“Why are you sorry?” asked Annie. “Am I dead?”
“Oh no, oh my gosh no, that would be so much better,” said the small, pale thing. “You’re the gift. You have one chance a year. One chance to make someone else the gift. Supposedly,” he said. “I mean that’s what I heard.”
Annie looked at him in disbelief. “Are you —you’re the last kid who opened the gift?”
The thing nodded.
“But you don’t look like . . . and anyway how could you . . “ Her lip curled up in disgust.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” the creature said in his flat, tiny voice. “You’re thinking, How cruel, how could you be so cruel, to make someone else live this horrible fate.” He creaked in a broken-bird way that might have been a laugh. “That’s what I thought, too. You’ll see. You’ll see. Anyway,” he added. “You’ll have a long, long time to think about it. After what happened to you, it will be many, many years before anyone is brave enough, or forgetful enough, to open the package again. Thank you for being so brave.”
“But wait, though—“ Annie began.
A few drops of brownish fluid leaked from the creature’s tiny red eyes. “Goodbye,” he said, and crumbled into dust.
Annie sits alone in the vast darkness.
“I am the gift,” she practices saying. “I have a present for you.”
She practices making it sound nice.
She would have a long, long time to practice.