by Kathleen Killian Fernandez
It’s harder than it sounds, trying to set the table at home for a dinner you’re having with an ex-girlfriend; everything you try to do in order to have the place look nice can be seen as an attempt to get her back into you romantically—beautiful place settings, expensive food, candles, music choice. It was only fifteen minutes before Melora was going to arrive, and I’d changed the playlist on my phone seven times.
She knocked at the door just as I finished tucking the box under the table, and I ran to answer it. Melora stood there, dressed casually but looking stunning. Her black hair was a little bit longer, pulled back into a ponytail instead of loose and curly. Her dark eyes reflected every light that hit them, blinding me, just like they always had.
“Hi,” she said timidly, waving and holding out a bottle of wine with the same hand. I took the bottle, and we struggled through and awkward embrace, the kind of sideways hug you give to acquaintances when they’re moving away or to your overzealous relative at a wedding.
“Please, come in,” I said, acknowledging the inside of my apartment with a flourish and immediately feeling dumb for the gesture. She stepped past me, pulling her purse strap from her shoulder but gripping it in her hands. “You can set that on the couch,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. She looked around the room, nodding. “This is a nice place.”
“It’s not really, but thank you. Can I get you something to drink? Water, juice, some of this fancy wine you brought?” I hurried to the refrigerator to slide the wine in on the top shelf next to packs of Capri Sun.
“Just water, thanks,” she said.
“Have a seat,” I said, fishing out a cold bottle of Voss water. I poured it into two stem glasses, then brought them and the not-quite-empty Voss bottle to the table. I set one water in front of her, then sat down across from her. She smiled as she took a sip.
“Thanks for accepting my invitation. Thank you for coming and letting me cook for you,” I said, sipping my water. “The osso bucco needs to braise for about three hours, then we can eat.” She smiled, remembering the reference to an episode of The Office from many years earlier. Clearly, she hadn’t forgotten everything we did together. “Honestly though, I’m just waiting on the garlic bread, it’ll just be a minute.”
“Okay,” Melora said. She looked around the room for a moment again, and her eyes stopped on the watercolor by the entrance to the kitchen. She pointed at it. “That’s you, right?” I laughed. “I can tell ― you do that curve thing with your brush when you draw flowers.”
“Yeah, that’s me. I just hang up the stuff I can’t sell.” I paused, trying to casually ask her how her life was now, without me, but before I could figure out what the hell that sentence would even contain, she took another sip of water and inhaled deeply.
“I’m sorry, Cassie,” Melora sighed. “I don’t want to be rude.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Ask whatever you like.”
“Why am I here?” she said. Damn, she got right down to it; no polite questions about careers or new (in)significant others. I’ll follow her lead and lay my cards out.
“I have something here I want to show you,” I said, reaching under the table and pulling out the box. As I set it on the table, I could see the concern in her eyes.
“Oh, no, Cassie, you didn’t get me something, did you?” Her eyebrows were pressed together, a “W” of pitiful politeness. She thought it was a present to win her back. I’m glad I’d forgotten to turn on that playlist.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” I said, looking down at the box, constructed of cherry wood and stained to a beautiful dark perfection. Of course she confused it for a gift; it looked like a humidor or something. “No, I’m not being a weirdo, I’m not trying to win you back or anything (I was). This isn’t a gift. Well, it is, kind of, but not really at all like a traditional gift. Here, let me show you.”
I reached down to the ornate metallic clasp on the side, flipping it sideways, I raised the lid of the box open. Inside, under a transparent glass dome, sat the small, blue button. I looked at Melora’s face, waiting for any sign of recognition.
She quickly sucked in a breath, and sat up, pointing at the box. “Holy crap, that’s a Button in the Box!” I nodded. She shook her head in disbelief. “How did you get one?! There’s only, like, three in the world at any moment. Or, at least that’s what the email said.”
I junked that email the morning I received it. The one that just showed up in everyone’s inbox one day: “Fwd:Fwd:Fwd:Fwd: Magical Box.” It didn’t matter though, by the time I discovered the box for myself, I knew everything about it. I was sick of hearing about the thing, honestly. It’s been the main topic of most conversations and television programs for weeks. But 99 percent of what anyone had to say was conjecture and guess work. Not many people have actually had a run in with one of the boxes.
I shrugged. “I don’t know why or how it ended up here,” I said, pointing to the couch. “Apparently, when you get one, you have no memory of it arriving. It was just here a couple days ago.”
“What does yours do? It’s sorcery or something crazy, right?” Melora said. “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you mind telling me?”
“I don’t mind talking about it,” I said, tapping on the glass dome. “That’s why I asked you over here. Apparently, the function of the box changes every time a new person receives it, and the only way you know what it does is from the note that accompanies the box.” I slid my hand down alongside the dome, to the crease between the felt-covered base and the cherry wood of the box, and I pulled out the note. I held it out to her. “Go ahead, read it.”
She took the card, unfolded it, looked at the print. “Upon the pressing of this button, everyone in the presser’s life who has irreparable disagreements with the presser will vanish from existence and no one except the presser will remember they existed,” she said, then went silent in contemplation.
“I know,” I said. “This one is crazier than that guy who got an entire day to ask anyone he met for whatever they had and they were required to give it to him.”
“Is this why you had―? Cassie, I can’t help you make this decision.”
What did she mean by that? “No, that’s not what this is about,” I said, scooting back from my seat and moving closer to her. I leaned against the table, a foot away from her. “There aren’t many people I would like to have disappear from the planet, but the few who do make that list, well, listen, I want to do this, trust me.”
“Then what is it?” she said. “Why am I here?”
“Because I’m…” How was I supposed to say it? “The way it ended between us. When I think about you now, I still have a lot of feelings. But I know it didn’t end square. I guess I’m just scared, that’s all.”
“Scared of what, Cassie?” she asked, but she wasn’t really asking. I knew that tone, I remembered it. This was her way of getting me to say it, even though she already understood. It wasn’t punishment, exactly, just her way of making me own up to something in words.
“I’m afraid that if I push this button, you’re going to disappear with all the other people I actually want to go away,” I said, shaking my head. I turned and walked back. “I don’t want that, darlin’.”
“Don’t call me that right now.” She breathed hard. “I haven’t seen you or heard from you in three years, and the first time I do, it’s to tell me you’re not sure if you’re going to erase me from existence or not,” Melora said, sitting back in her chair and looking up to the ceiling. The room was uncomfortably quiet for a moment. “Do you remember the last time we talked?”
“It was at graduation, yeah?”
“Kind of,” she said. “That was the last time you talked to me. But I tried to talk to you many times after that. I left you messages. I sent you texts. You remember that, don’t you?”
“I remember I missed a few of your calls, but that was—”
“You didn’t miss the calls, Cass,” she said, tilting her head. She bit her lip in between sentences. “You could have called me back, if they were missed. You could have texted me back. You didn’t do any of that.”
“So you’re still upset with me, then,” I said, nodding. “I’m glad I had you over. I think we can settle this, yeah? Then you don’t have to be upset with me anymore, and I can still use the Button in the Box.”
“I think you’re missing my point,” she said. “I didn’t end the relationship, you did. But you didn’t remember it that way. What if you’re doing that with someone else, someone you don’t remember falling out with? What happens to them?”
It was beginning to sound like a classic Melora lecture. And dead honest, I kind of liked it. “I get it, okay?” I said, rubbing my forehead. “If this is your way of telling me you think it was my fault, I get it. Message delivered.”
“I’m not mad at you, Cassie,” she said. “I don’t think we have an irreparable disagreement.”
“Really?” I said, shifting in my chair. “You’re talking to me as if you’re mad. It is like you will just always hold everything I did wrong against me. It always seemed like that. Are you upset I didn’t call back because you wanted—” Thick lines of smoke sunk in from the kitchen. “Damn it! The garlic bread.”
I pulled the bread out of the oven and threw it in the trash. I thought about what I could say to get past it all. Maybe we could talk about the weekend we went to Red Rocks; she loved that story.
I walked back out into the dining room smiling. “Do you remember the time we hiked from Vegas Valley up to—” I glanced towards her chair, she wasn’t in it. She was standing next to the box, the glass dome opened, staring down at the button. “What are you doing?” I asked.
She pushed the button.
“No!” I yelled, reaching for the box. But in the seconds it took me to get there, the box whirred slightly, then vanished from the table. Just like everyone said it did; as soon as the function was used, the box vanished, then, probably appeared somewhere else for someone else to use for some new, strange purpose. “Why the hell did you do that? That wasn’t yours to push!”
She pointed at me. “You’re still here, so I’m right.”
“The card.” She pointed at the empty spot on the table where the Button in the Box was. “It said the person who presses the button! I was the one who pressed the button. Anyone who had irreparable disagreements with that person would vanish. But you’re still here. Which means I didn’t have any irreparable disagreements with you.”
“Fine,” I said, slumping down into my chair. “You win the argument yet again. And you stole my prize from me.”
“Cassie, I don’t know if you realize this, but I did that so you wouldn’t,” she said, reaching down to touch my hand. “If you weren’t remembering our relationship right, then who knows what might happen? Who else might you lose, might everyone lose apparently, without you realizing it, until it’s too late?”
I looked down at her hand as it hovered near mine still. She opened and closed her fingers, then laid her open palm on the table to lean. I looked up at her, watched her look back and forth at each of my eyes just like she used to when we got in a fight. It was her way of anticipating what was coming. It used to make me mad.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I reached out and gently squeezed her hand for just a moment. “You’re right. Thank you.” She smiled down at me, and I remembered everything that happened between us and forgot it at the same time. “Maybe we could try again,” I said.
She smiled, turning to grab her purse off the couch. “Cassie,” she said sweetly, shaking her head. “I… just start by answering your phone.”
“You’re leaving?” I said. She nodded.
“It’s been an eventful night,” she said, putting her purse strap over her shoulder. She reached for the doorknob. “Let’s do this again sometime, in a restaurant, without the pall of me disappearing forever hanging over our heads.” She opened the door.
“Okay,” I said. “And if I called you later tonight? Would you answer?”
“I have always answered my phone when you call, Cassie,” she said, stepping into the hall. “I always will. But make it tomorrow, okay? I’m going to stop by my mom’s house tonight.”
“Who?” I said, but the door was already closed.
Kathleen Killian Fernandez has been published in McSweeney’s, Curbside Splendor, and Cypress Dome. She is the author of several non-fiction books. Kathleen writes almost exclusively about Las Vegas and/or alien abductions.
Featured image: CC0 Creative Commons by David Bartus via Pexels