A Naive Purchase
by Jack Bragen
Everyone was getting them. I had just bought mine, and it rested on my dining-room table. I sat and stared at it, hesitating to turn it on.
My wife was back from the grocery store, and she caught me gaping at it. “Has it already turned you into a zombie?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t tried it yet.” My hands were sweating.
“Isn’t that contraption going to scramble your mind?” Myrna asked.
I folded my arms and leaned back. “It couldn’t be regulated by the FDA, because it doesn’t involve any drugs,” I said. “But they couldn’t sell them unless they were safe.”
“Famous last words.” Myrna put down the bag of groceries she had just bought and stepped closer. “Turn it on, already. Let’s see what it does.”
The power switch looked like a heavy toggle switch from the primitive electronics of fifty years previous. I had a chill in my spine of foreboding. I shrugged it off. After all, millions of people had bought these things. They had to be okay.
“Oh, very nice. I can feel it,” said Myrna.
I looked at the box. There was no content coming from it, it made no sound, and it had no display screen or even a power light. Yet, immediately, I felt as though I was in some distant land, perhaps a knight in shining armor defending a princess. Or maybe I was James Bond on skis fleeing evil espionage agents. Or, maybe I was the fabled Gilligan, just getting off of the defunct SS Minnow and realizing that the members of the ship were alive but stranded on an island in the Pacific.
My consciousness was enraptured, enveloped in vivid fantasy, and was incredibly distracted. I was barely conscious that, physically, I was staring at an entertainment unit, that I was sitting in a dining-room chair in my house on Robinson Street, that my name was Bret Wilson, and that I was a junior executive at a real estate company.
Extreme thirst, the need to urinate, and a dry mouth finally brought me partway back.
With effort, I fought off the urge to ignore my body, and I shut off the switch. I stood from the chair with difficulty and walked on stiff legs to the bathroom. When I was done, I glanced at the nearby dining-room window, and then looked again. It was dark outside. I looked at the wall clock and it had somehow become ten at night. Five hours had gone by.
I looked at Myrna, who still stood in the same place as before. I said, “Aren’t your legs tired?”
She looked as if she was snapping out of a daze. She went and sat on the sofa, took off her shoes and began to rub her feet. “What happened?” Myrna got up hastily and went into the downstairs bathroom. After a few minutes, she came back out, looked at her timepiece, pointed at the entertainment box, and said, “That thing’s got to go.”
But I wanted more.
I was shaky from not having eaten for several hours, but I was about to turn the black box back on and get entertained some more.
“Oh no, you don’t,” declared Myrna. “That thing’s going to kill you. I mean it. You had better not turn it back on.”
Myrna quickly walked up to the box, located the battery compartment, and removed the battery. Then she thought about it, and she took the box to the kitchen, where she put it under the faucet and ran water into the innards by route of the open battery compartment.
“That’s five hundred and ninety dollars,” I whined. “It wasn’t doing us any harm.” I paused and realized I felt disoriented, and with good reason. “Do I work tomorrow?”
“You don’t remember?” she looked at me. “Do you need a hint? Today is Saturday. At least, I think it is.” She looked at her timepiece again. “Good, we haven’t lost a day.”
I went to get another drink of water, and I realized the black box was dangerous. But I still wanted to use it, and that frightened me. I changed into my robe and wondered whether I should try coffee or vodka to try to get back to a normal frame of mind. Finally, I opted for both and got sick to my stomach.
By Sunday I had forgotten about the whole thing, and my agenda was mowing the lawn, getting the laundry done, and getting the car gassed up. I was surprised when, on Sunday night, there was no email from my supervisor. He would normally fill me in on some details for Monday morning.
Monday, on my way to work, I realized there was almost no traffic. I wondered if it was a holiday, or if there was some sort of national disaster. I got to the office, and I seemed to be the only one there other than my supervisor, whom I spotted through the glass of his office.
And then, I realized that my supervisor, with glazed eyes, was entranced by a black box he apparently had brought with him. Then I spotted a second black box in his assistant’s office, and I realized that the assistant, a man in his early twenties, was slumped over his desk, apparently unconscious.
I couldn’t rescue either of them because it would expose me to the emanations of the black boxes. Instead I opted to call for an ambulance. However, upon dialing, I got a recorded message that said the wait time would be at least three hours. The recording suggested people should look up first aid on the internet, and try to solve the crises themselves.
There I was at my work venue, my supervisor and his aid were defunct, and no one else was around. I thought about it, and decided there was nothing I could do to resolve that. I hoped that things would right themselves and that, in the future, I would not lose my job due to members of the firm becoming defunct.
I got in my car and spotted another co-worker in the parking lot, in her vehicle, with the motor running, and she stared at her black box, oblivious to everything else. My gut tightened. I turned on my car’s motor and pulled out onto the street. On the freeway, traffic was absent. However, I passed a number of cars pulled over to the shoulder. No damage from a fender bender was apparent, and people in their vehicles were staring at black boxes.
I got home, assuming that Myrna had gone to work. However, to my surprise, she was at home. A new black box was present, and Myrna was in a soft chair that she had moved to within three feet of the dining-room table. She stared blankly, euphorically at the box, and was oblivious to my presence.
I thought about it and realized that if I got too close to the box in an attempt to shut it off, its emanations would be too much of a temptation, and I would be doomed. I stepped into the hallway that adjoined the garage and I located the breaker box. I flipped the main switch, and then I cursed. It wasn’t a plug-in item; it used batteries. I turned the power back on. Then I spotted a fire extinguisher on the wall. I grabbed it and went quickly back to the dining room.
I got to within ten feet of the abominable thing, I pulled the pin out of the fire extinguisher, and I realized my brain was picking up a signal from the box. With all of my will, I fought it off and I hosed down the black box with fire extinguisher foam. I still felt the signal, and I mostly wanted to give in. But I forced myself to spray the thing some more. I emptied the cylinder, and I realized the box had finally shut down.
A little bit of fire retardant had gotten onto the sleeve of Myrna’s coat, and she was oblivious to it.
In a fit of rage, I slammed down the empty fire extinguisher cylinder, destroying the black box and splitting the wood of the dining-room table.
I had a mess on my hands.
I looked at Myrna, who was dazedly returning to consciousness.
“Myrna, are you okay? Talk to me.”
“What happened?” She rubbed her eyes, blinked, and looked at me.
“No more black boxes,” I said.
“Got it,” replied Myrna.
I destroyed another black box I found in Myrna’s hiding place, a spot in the cabinet behind a glass jar of dry pinto beans. Then, I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.
I knocked on the door of my next door neighbor. I heard no response. I peered through their front window, and I spotted a man and a woman, unconscious and possibly deceased, near their black box. Enough information.
I went back home and realized that Myrna was eating lunch. Thank God. I thought of turning on the television for some news, but I realized it would shatter what little bit of denial I still hung onto that enabled me to function.
I made some coffee, and I had a thought that sitting at a black box might be enjoyable. Maybe just once, just for a few minutes. What harm could it do?
Copyright © 2016 by Jack Bragen