Seahorses and Other Gifts

~ Tristan Morris

A gift.

Or, a gift is what it was called, anyway. Surely it had many characteristics of a kindness. It was grown out of love, carved with delicate care, animated not by casual thought, but by a great deal of the giver’s money, time and blood. Much was sacrificed to bring it into being, without any intention that it should benefit the maker. It came in wrapping paper, with a little bow on top. The paper had seahorses on it.

And yet, Sarah hated seahorses. So many of the things she received had seahorses on them—objects soon assimilated into her monument, her shrine to that which was unwanted but could not be thrown away. The closet she dreaded to open but would never empty. The closet that did not contain anything she would consider a gift.

She tore the wrapping paper. Within it was a small wooden box; hardwood, square, brass hinges. A seahorse was carved onto the lid. It very much resembled a ring box, but when she opened it, there was nothing inside, not even the felt coverings within which a ring might potentially be placed.

Momentarily confused, she shut it again, wondering if perhaps something was supposed to be within and the container had been packed incorrectly. But before she could examine it any further, the box spoke.

“This evening, your space heater sets your bedsheets on fire, and you burn to death.”

The box spoke many times as the days passed. It was, to Sarah, an embarrassment, a shame, something to be hidden out of politeness, like breaking wind or her remarkably nasal laugh. Whenever she felt the box tremble, felt its lid twitch, she would rise and excuse herself from the room, feigning some biological urge or claiming her phone was ringing. Then, when she was hidden in the bathroom or an empty section of hallway, she would let it speak.

“Today’s the day your boss finally fires you.”

“The janitor is planning to steal your purse out of your desk drawer when you’re at lunch.”

“That sniffle this morning was pneumonia.”

Of course, her deception could only last so long. She was sitting at her desk when the truth came out, discussing the results of her employer’s diversity program with the HR manager from up the hall. He had asked her for some numbers, and she had clicked through her laptop until she found them. “Overall it’s good news,” she was saying, “but employee confidence is still low, even when—”

“This afternoon, he tells the entire HR team you’re a bitch,” her box said.

She’d left it on her desk. They both turned the source of the noise, to the little wooden box with the seahorse on the cover. His expression was quizzical, hers stricken, but fate did her a small kindness, and he spoke first.

“Oh, that’s one of those, uh . . .” He waved generally in its direction. “Evil box things. Right?”

“It’s a Safety Box,” Sarah said. “It predicts bad things that might happen to you today. Literally today. Warns you of anything that might happen before midnight.”

“Well, it’s not very accurate.” He flashed her a smile. “You’re good at your job. And pleasant, if that matters. Sorry, I know expecting women to always be pleasant is sexist in-and-of itself, but, you are.”

“No. I know. It’s actually quite inaccurate,” she said. “It makes exactly one-hundred predictions a day, but only one of them is correct.”

“You’re going to die in a plane crash,” the box said.

“See?” she continued, gesturing at it. “I’m not getting on a plane today. So unless a plane falls out of the sky and lands on the office, I’m pretty sure that one isn’t true.”

The man from HR frowned. “If it makes a hundred predictions a day, and only one of them is correct, then . . .” He made a vague gesture in the air. “Sorry, I just don’t see why you’d buy this? I know they’ve been in the news a lot recently, and are like, trendy or whatever, but it doesn’t seem that useful.”

“It was a gift. From my parents.”

“Oh,” said the man from HR. A long pause hung in the air, perhaps as he wondered why she did not simply throw it away. But if such thoughts were on his mind, he did not voice them. “That must be frustrating.”

“It’s fine,” Sarah waved him off. “Like I said, not going to die in a plane crash today. It’s embarrassing and annoying but that’s about it. All I need to do is ignore whatever it says.”

“Sure,” he said. “Anyway, you were saying about employee confidence?”

After he left, the box said, “Your analysis was wrong, and he’ll realize it this afternoon.”

As she packed up her things at the end of the day, the box said, “You’ve forgotten something important, and it will be gone when you get back tomorrow.”

As she waved goodbye to the security guard at the front desk, and walked out into the parking lot, the box said, “You’re going to be hit by a car.”

She ignored it, of course.

She was not three steps out of the building when Steve from Accounting ran her down with his Toyota. He’d been texting while driving.

When Sarah regained consciousness, she was in a hospital, her limbs in casts, her head in a brace. The sheets were stained with blood; her blood. The little box sat beside her bed, and it said: “Your injuries are fatal. You will die today.”

With a raspy voice, she asked the doctors how long she had, but they told her she would pull through. Then the box said, “The hospital bill will be enormous. You’ll be in debt for the rest of your life.”

But she spoke with the nurses, and they informed her her insurance covered everything. Then the box said, “Your parents are going to visit, and they’ll spend an hour talking about how much you loved seahorses when you were twelve.”

It said a few other things, but Sarah was scarcely listening. She already knew which prediction was coming true.

When she got out of the hospital, Sarah’s coworkers threw her a party. They told her how glad they were that she was well, and offered her gifts and gentle hugs. She felt liked, and appreciated, and the company cut her a sizable check in return for her agreement not to sue. Then, her boss suggested they all go out to lunch. It was a pretty good welcome.

While her entire team tried to crowd in around one table at the restaurant, the box shook in Sarah’s pocket. When she withdrew it, and held it up to her ear, it whispered so quietly that nobody else could hear: “You’re going to get food poisoning from the burgers.”

From her purse, she withdrew a tiny spiral-bound notebook and pencil. The front page of the notebook had three columns drawn in it, each labeled in her tiny, immaculate handwriting: Absurd, Plausible, Likely.

Absurd already had two entries from that morning: that she was going to be abducted by aliens, and that she was going to be murdered by communists. Likely had only one entry, that her welcome-back party was going to suck. So, she crossed out “Welcome Back Party Sucks,” as it was evidently not true, and underneath Plausible filled in, “Food poisoning from burgers.”

Then, she updated the tally at the bottom of the page. 4/100 so far that day.

“Actually,” she said, as she put the notebook away. “I know this place has great burgers, but could I get the salad instead? I’m feeling like something light.”

None of her coworkers got sick, so that one was evidently incorrect as well, but the salad was good and so the effort had cost her little. Over the course of the day, she continued to update her little notebook, both the entries and the tally.

The tally was key. The tally told her the collective probability that the true event of the day was already written in her notebook. At one hundred predictions for the day, she could be certain that one of the fears on her list was valid. By extension, at one hundred predictions, it was possible to be safe. The lower the count, the lower her certainty.

For example, prediction forty-seven for the day was, “Your cast is going to slip on the bathroom tisle, and you’ll hit your head on the sink and die.” Such a danger was easily negated—she used the porta-potty at the construction site across the street and then washed her hands in the employee kitchen—but she couldn’t even claim 50/50 odds that that warning was the right one.

By contrast, as she was packing up for the day, prediction eighty-nine was, “Traffic on the drive home will be horrible.” Such a prediction not only merited an entry in the Likely column, but as a late-day Likely, had more than a 50% chance of being true. More than a 50% chance that a little traffic would be the worst thing to happen to her that day.

It was a comforting thought. So comforting that when traffic did indeed turn out to be horrible, Sarah found a great smile playing across her face. She made it home alive, and cheerfully ignored predictions ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two, ninety-three, ninety-four, ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, and ninety-nine.

As she turned off her apartment lights to go to sleep, the thought occurred to her that she had only ninety-nine tallies in her little notebook. But, she imagined that she must have forgotten to record an entry, and thought nothing of it.

At 11:59 PM exactly, the box woke her.

“Today,” it said, “two predictions come true.”

But did they? Is “Two predictions come true” itself a prediction? And if so, is it true? Or, is “two predictions come true” false, because only one predicted event actually happened? It was a logic puzzle, of the sort Sarah hated in school.

Except in school, the penalty for getting the answer wrong wasn’t potentially death.

At midnight, she got out of bed and spent an hour googling the problem on her laptop. When that failed to produce a definitive answer, she ordered textbooks off the internet, guides to logic and math, PDFs for instant delivery. She had detested such books when she was a student and certainly didn’t want to read them as a free adult, but the alternative was too dangerous. All night she read them, and when she wasn’t able to finish her reading by the time she had to leave for work, she called in sick, claiming her leg needed to be looked at.

Her box spoke twelve times over the course of the morning. In her notebook, she made eight entries in the Absurd column (mostly relating to dying in spectacular ways), three entries in the Plausible column (mostly relating to her friends secretly hating her), and one entry in the Likely column.

“Your research is wrong; you have no idea what you’re doing.”

But she’d expected that, and after an entire night and morning reading An Introduction to Logic Puzzles and The Basics of Set Theory, she was fairly certain she knew the answer, that “two predictions come true,” was not a valid prediction and was therefore false. The box was only messing with her.

Probably.

“If you don’t get something done today,” the box said, “your coworkers will think you’re lazy.” That was prediction thirteen for the day, Plausible. But when she pulled out her laptop, it said, “If you get too much done today, they’ll know you faked calling in sick.” Prediction fourteen, also Plausible.

It took her nearly an hour to decide how to avoid both dangers: she would get exactly two-and-a-half hours of work done, and send several emails apologizing for being behind due to her injury. That way, people would see her working and know she was industrious, but nobody would question that she didn’t put in a full day. She was quite proud of that plan.

Plus, it gave her plenty of time to deal with other dangers, like prediction twenty-nine, “The food truck up the street has contaminated meat,” and prediction forty-four, “You’re going to be mugged on the way to the grocery store.” She paid extra to have groceries delivered, and spent all afternoon cooking for herself.

Later, prediction thirty-seven came true: “You will feel a brief but intense sadness regarding Mr. Scruffles.”

Mr. Scruffles, her cat, had died when she was fourteen. So it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to her in a day.

“Your productivity will suffer due to stress,” her box predicted. But that one wasn’t true. Quite the opposite.

Every warning that her coworkers doubted her competence made her double and triple-check her work. Every prediction that her skills were beginning to atrophy drove her to study in her spare time. Every tally in a notebook that foretold of a coworker who secretly despised her heralded the birth of a new friendship. She went so out of her way to be nice to the people who might otherwise plot against her.

People joked that the crash must have knocked the fluff out of her head. She was always so prepared, so focused, so there in the moment, with a clarity that only adrenaline could provide.

And her newfound focus was not restricted to the office. The box with the seahorse on the top helped her in all sorts of ways. She was eating healthier, being aware of the sheer number of takeout places with tainted food or staff that wanted her dead. She was exercising more, given the number of acquaintances who could potentially whisper that she was fat and lazy. And she almost never got sick, due to a three part plan of scrupulously avoiding all germs, being up to date on all her inoculations, and turning up at her doctor’s office roughly once every-other week.

Felix even asked her out. Felix, the cute guy from IT. He was tall, handsome, charming, well-educated, and from what everyone said, crushing on her.

“He roofies your drink,” her box said, prediction ninety-seven for the day.

Ninety-seven was too high. Much too high. No other predictions had come true yet that day. Possibly because she avoided them, but possibly because Felix was a rapist, and she could hardly take that chance. So she canceled their date, and didn’t return his calls after that. It was safer that way.

But, she was still happy he asked her out. Cute guys didn’t usually give her the time of day. Maybe, she thought, all the exercise was working for her. It was good.

“Do you like the Safety Box?” her parents asked, calling her a week after her cast finally came off.

“It’s great,” she said, “I love it. Really helped me get my life in order.”

Then her hand started to shake, and she didn’t know why, a tremble that started in her fingertips and worked its way up to her wrist, her arm. Like she was shivering.

“I’m so glad,” her father said. “I carved the top myself. You loved seahorses so much when you were little.”

“That shaking is the onset of a seizure,” the box said. “You’re having a stroke.”

“I gotta go,” Sarah said, hanging up the phone. She immediately called 911, and had an ambulance sent to her house. As she waited for them to arrive, she pulled out her notebook, and added the prediction to her log.

It went under Plausible. People in their twenties rarely had seizures, but it could happen.

Her insurance had very little sympathy for her calling an ambulance because she had a shiver. They declined to pay for any of it, and the hospital was cruel. Including her CAT scan for possible stroke, the bill came to over $25,000.

But she had the money the company had given her from the car crash. So it was fine. She didn’t panic, or scream, or rant. She paid the bill, and then looked for an insurance plan that would cover her in every eventuality.

Such a plan was, of course, much more expensive than her current one, but that was fine; she didn’t need to eat out or go to the movies or fritter away her money on other things. Frugality was key. And, she needed to be closer to the hospital in case something happened, and in a low-crime area, and somewhere she could add extra locks to her doors in case of home invasion.

So she left her comfortable three-bedroom in the downtown, and moved to a studio apartment near the hospital. It was much cheaper. The difference paid for extra insurance, extra security, extra peace of mind, and when the box whispered, “This place is full of lead-based paint.” She took the time to test every wall herself.

The test for lead came back negative. She repainted the walls anyway.

Her shivering got worse, and a dozen trips to the hospital in a dozen days did not reveal the cause. She shook when nobody was around, and when others were around, she locked her eyes on them like a frightened animal. She tried meditation, medication, mindfulness, until she was reminded that meditation was bullshit, medication could poison her, and she was already pretty damn mindful.

She was more mindful than most, she thought. She saw to every detail of her life.

Of course, driving to work presented its own problems: carjackers, mass shootings, muggings, car accidents, natural disasters. Her company’s office was quite old. What if it wasn’t up to code, and there was an earthquake? It could collapse and kill her. She looked up the office with the County Registrar, and all its inspections did appear up to date, but those forms were so easy to fake.

“Today you will be exposed to asbestos due to your employer faking a safety inspection of the office.” Prediction eighty-seven, Likely.

She didn’t blunder into her boss’s office, shouting that she had to work from home or she’d die. “Your coworkers will become convinced you’ve gone crazy,” was prediction twelve that day, and a prediction several days before that. No; she planned, she prepared. She invented a story about caring for an elderly relative, with tragic implications and reasonable supporting evidence. She assembled an unimpeachable case that working from home would improve both her life and her job performance.

“Well,” her boss said, “normally I’d say no, but you are one of our best employees. So as long as your productivity doesn’t drop, I suppose it’s okay.”

Months of hard work paid off in that moment. She said her goodbyes, left the office for the last time, and returned to her apartment. Her apartment in one of the safest buildings in the city, where all possible toxic chemicals had been identified and removed, where there were a dozen locks on the door. Two months worth of food was in storage in case of natural disaster, along with several safety kits. She had her work laptop for talking with her coworkers, and for talking with everyone else, a burner phone and a high-security machine, devices that ensured no criminal on the internet could identify her real location or steal her banking information.

The day she came home, her box said, “You’re going to be hit by a car,” and with a smile, she wrote it under Absurd.

She slept soundly that night, for the first time in so long.

The next morning, her box said, “Today, the world comes to an end.” She started a new page in her notebook, added her three columns, and under Absurd wrote “Apocalypse.” Then she made a tally at the bottom, 1/100, and got up to start the day. She had to check for spiders, check for mold, check for spoiled food, eat a perfectly balanced breakfast, and start work an hour early before anyone could think ill of her for working from home.

She was examining her bananas when the box said, “Today, the world comes to an end.”

It was the first time she had ever heard the box make the same prediction twice. Hesitantly, she made another tally in her notebook, but overall thought it a good thing. “Right,” she said aloud, “but only one prediction comes true. So if you predict the same thing twice, that prediction must be wrong.”

In reply, the box made its third prediction for the day. “Today, the world comes to an end.”

Sarah’s shaking returned. She sat at her table, fingers trembling, and waited for the box to tell her she was having a seizure, or had diabetes, or needed to rush to the hospital.

“Today, the world comes to an end.”

She hyperventilated, clutching her face, breathing in her hands, whispering profanities to herself over and over. Opening all the locks on her door revealed the building hallway, and she threw a wad of cash halfway through the open doorframe, so it would be visible to anyone passing by. Money, a nice apartment, an unlocked door. She waited for the box to tell her she was going to be robbed.

“Today, the world comes to an end.”

She did not go to work. She did not exercise or cook or do any of the other things she meant to do. She spent the whole day researching ways the world could potentially come to an end before midnight that night. Predictions the box made were not predestined. Perhaps she could avert what was to come.

Her conclusions did not inspire her: asteroid impact, nuclear war, a black hole passing through the solar system, supervolcano eruption. None of the ways the world might abruptly end seemed within her power to change.

But didn’t she have to try?

She called NASA, and when their general helpline blew her off, she put her considerable research skills to use finding the personal cellphone number of a mid-level director. He picked up his phone, and she argued and screamed and ranted about imminent danger from the stars. But he called her crazy, and hung up.

Two more NASA staff blocked her calls, and by mid-afternoon, she couldn’t find any more numbers. That left two possibilities she could theoretically do something about: nuclear war, and a supervolcano.

She couldn’t find any numbers for anyone at the DoD—not surprising, really—but a nuclear war wouldn’t be instant death for everyone on the planet. Remote areas would survive. Likewise, a supervolcano would not be instantly fatal for the entire population, and she might ride it out if she was lucky and had enough food.

“Today, the world comes to an end.”

By four o’clock, it was up to prediction fifty-two, all of them the same. Her car tore out of the parking lot for her apartment, headed first to the bank, then to the nearest shopping center. The car she filled with food, clean water, iodine tablets, filter masks, bullets, a gun, and everything else she thought she might need to survive the apocalypse. Stuffed into the glove compartment was a printout from her research.

Likely targets of nuclear strikes, supervolcanos in the western hemisphere, safest places to ride out the above. She’d found a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, that was somehow listed on AirBnB.

“Today, the world comes to an end.”

She drove all night across the country, watching the clock tick by, the box with the seahorse on the top resting on her dashboard.

“Today, the world comes to an end.”

When she found the farmhouse, navigating by GPS, she drove through the picket fence that surrounded it. Perhaps because it was hard to see, or perhaps because she simply didn’t see it. Either way, she didn’t care. It was too close to midnight.

“Today, the world comes to an end.”

She threw all her supplies into the basement, and took shelter under the strongest part of the structure.

“Today, the world comes to an end.”

Her hands shook uncontrollably, and it was only with considerable effort that she took out her notebook and little pencil, and made another entry on the tally. When she finally came to rest in the farmhouse, she was up to ninety-one.

With the notebook to her right, the light of her cellphone to her left, she watched both the tally and the time advance. To her, the room felt as a furnace, and she broke out in a hot sweat. Drops ran down her face and fell from her nose, staining the paper.

Prediction ninety-two came at 11:12 PM. Still the same. Ninety-three came at 11:22, and so forth. Ninety-nine came at 11:59 PM.  “Today, the world comes to an end.”

One prediction left. One which had to come true.

Her phone didn’t display seconds, so she counted them down aloud: sixty, fifty-nine, fifty-eight, and so forth. Tears ran down her face, and her vision blurred as she began to sob. The trembling in her hands was so violent that she clawed at her own flesh, digging long and bloody scratches down her arms.

Then the last prediction came, at the very stroke of midnight.

“Today’s the day you finally snap.”

 

Tristan Morris has authored or co-authored four books, but “Seahorses and Other Gifts” is his first publication in Underland Arcana. He organizes the Quills and Sofas writing society, a creative writing association based in the San Francisco Bay area, where he lives with his wife.

 [ issue 1 : winter 2021 ]