Short Story: “The Black Box” [horror]
When the man in the black jacket knocked, Jack and Cynthia Richardson were sitting at the kitchen table, looking over a stack of unpaid bills and discouraging bank statements.
“Can I help you?” Cynthia asked when she opened the front door. “We don’t want to buy anything.”
“I am not selling anything, Mrs. Richardson. In fact, I have something I’d like to offer you,” said the man in the black jacket.
“Who is it, Cyn?” Jack said from the kitchen.
The man in the black jacket asked if he could come in and Cynthia said he could, despite feeling that she knew better than to do so.
She lead him into the kitchen and with a wave of her arm offered him a seat at the table opposite Jack, clearing away the stacks of papers and receipts. Jack stood.
“Honey? I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but my wife and I are busy at the moment. Cynthia, who is this?”
“He says he has something for us.”
Cynthia sat and motioned for Jack to do the same with an abrupt tilt of her head.
“I apologize for arriving unannounced. I won’t take up much of your time. As Mrs. Richardson said, I have something for you both.”
“Do we know you?” Jack asked.
“No. You don’t know me. But that’s unimportant. What’s important is what I’m bringing you,” said the man in the black jacket, producing from under the table a sleek, nondescript black box. A red button was positioned on top.
“What the hell?”
“We said we weren’t interested in buying anything,” said Cynthia.
“And I said I wasn’t trying to sell you anything. What I bring you costs no money, though I hesitate to tell you that it’s free.”
“I think you’d better take your shitty box and go,” Jack said, half standing with his palms flat on the table.
“Not before I explain what it is, Mr. Richardson. You see, this is no mere shitty box. This box possesses certain properties. To wit, if either you or your wife were to press this red button you would be granted one wish of your choice. Anything at all. Money, power, eternal life. Anything at all.”
For some reason, Jack and Cynthia believed him.
“What’s the catch?” Cynthia asked.
“The catch, Mrs. Richardson, is that every time you press this button, every time your wish is granted, somewhere on earth a life will be extinguished. The cost, Mrs. Richardson, is the life of an innocent.”
For a moment the room was silent.
“Will they die because of the box?” Cynthia asked.
“Excuse me?” said the man in the black jacket.
“I mean, innocent people die all the time. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, correct?”
“I suppose,” said the man in the black jacket. “But what does that have to do with…”
“And roughly, what, 275,000 deaths every day world wide? That’s a fairly conservative estimate, I think. That means about three people die every second of every single day.”
“You’ve lost me,” said the man in the black jacket.
“And I’d continue to venture, and this is more speculative I admit,” continued Cynthia, “that the majority of those dead are more innocent than not. I mean, a good number of people on death row are innocent for Pete’s sake, so imagine all the people doomed to die of old age, or disease, or famine, or wars they didn’t start.”
“Yes, but the box,” said the man in the black jacket, gesturing at the box.
“I’m getting to the box, sir. Now, you say that this box grants wishes? I believe you. It looks like that kind of box. You also say that every time the box grants a wish an innocent person dies. But you could just as easily say that every time I flush the toilet an innocent person dies. It’s just as likely to be true.”
“This box is not a toilet, Mrs. Richardson,” emphasized the man in the black jacket. “This box is…”
Jack cut him off. “I think what my wife is getting at sir, is that correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation. Can you prove that this box actually causes innocent people to die? Or are you just attributing unrelated deaths to the box?”
“This is absurd!” cried the man in the black jacket, standing suddenly.
“No more absurd than a magical wish-granting box,” said Jack.
“Right? I mean come on, man.” Cynthia added.
“I believe I’ll take the box elsewhere,” said the man in the black jacket. He picked up the black box and began walking to the front door. Neither Jack nor Cynthia followed him.
“Bring it over to the Mathesons down the street,” called Jack, “they’re a couple of fucking idiots.”
The front door slammed without the man in the black jacket saying another word.
“What a dipshit,” Cynthia said.
Jack opened his mouth to agree, but before he could they heard the toilet flush.
By Peter Cunningham, with apologies and respect to Richard Matheson and Richard Kelly