The birthday Box
A made-up story.
On the morning of his 60th birthday, Anvil Atkinson found beneath the newspaper on the doorstep a plain box with his name on it in the ancient language of calligraphy. He picked it up along with the newspaper, glancing at the headline, Eastern Seaboard Evacuation Continues. And then the subhead, Sea Level Rise not Caused by Human Activity, Would have Happened Anyway.
The coffee had finished brewing and he poured his first cup, set the box and newspaper on the kitchen counter, and pulled up a stool. He unfolded the paper and opened it, laying it out so pages two and three were open. In a minute, a toasted bagel would announce itself as ready with a ding from the toaster oven, and he’d put the plate on top of the newspaper. The bagel had already been pre-buttered before toasting, and he’d apply a layer of cream cheese atop that. The newspaper will catch crumbs and absorb the rings from the coffee cup, as well as provide tidbits of news from across the land.
He reached into a bathrobe pocket, removed his carving knife, opened it, and slit the tape running down the middle of the box, then cutting the bit that extended over the sides. He opened it.
“Oooh, a package,” Meryl Atkinson cooed. “Who’s it from?”
“I didn’t hear you come in, Mer,” he said. “You didn’t send it?”
“Nope, not from me,” she said. “Happy birthday,” and she kissed him on the forehead. “Well, open it. I can’t take the suspense.”
The toaster oven, as expected, announced the readiness of the bagel. “I’ll get that for you,” Meryl said.
Anvil pulled aside the tissue paper, revealing an eight inch square envelope with his name on it, again in calligraphy. He examined it and decided it was machine printed and not handwritten. The card inside read in large block type, So you’ve made it to 60. Congratulations. Then in smaller print, it said, Please enjoy these complimentary gifts, courtesy of your government.
He pulled out the first item, a black leather fanny pack. “That’s real leather,” Meryl said, sniffing the material. “Can I borrow it some time?”
“Not ’til you’re sixty,” Anvil said.
Next, he pulled out a pair of red sweatpants. He stood and held them up to his body. They were at least one size too big. “Perfect,” he said, smiling.
“Very nice,” Meryl agreed. “You’ll be very comfortable in them…but, why red? You never wear red.”
“Oh, I’m sure they have their reasons,” Anvil said. “They always do.”
Meryl handed him the plate with the now cream-cheesed bagel and rubbed his back. Something on page three of the newspaper caught her attention. It was one of those fun lifestyle articles and she read the headline out loud, Ten Ways to Make Money Under Authoritarian Rule.
“Sounds interesting,” Anvil said, biting into the bagel. “Delicious. Thanks Mer.”
There were a few more odds and ends in the box: A visor. A pair of compression socks. Tongue depressors. Finally, the one thing he was most looking forward to, the watch.
He held it in his hand staring at it. It was blank. He felt the three tiny metal nubs on the back of the device, the part that would touch him. They were smooth and cold. He hesitated a moment. “Mer, which hand should I put it on?”
This was an important decision as, once on, the watch was never coming off. It would bond with you. The prongs served two purposes. First, they formed a data connection with the wearer, and second, the wearer’s electrical impulses powered the unit, a kind of bio-mechanical symbiosis.
“Just put it on your left wrist. If you wear it on the right, it will feel weird.”
Anvil removed the Hamilton watch he’d worn every day for nearly forty years, except when swimming or while in the boxing ring. He put the new watch on and felt a faint static electric zap when he did. Where the prongs touched him, his wrist tingled. A plain white light blinked slowly on the face, then sped up. He knew from what his older friends told him that the watch was calibrating, setting itself, syncing with his vital functions and data, and most importantly, to the communication center in his brain. This way, if he wanted the time, he would merely think time and glance at the watch. Same thing for weather, messages, quarantines, curfews and other civil safety alerts. A world of information.
In just a few seconds, the watch had completed calibrating, and he thought, time. The current time displayed.
Meryl said, “it looks good on you.”
“Not bad,” he said. And again he hesitated because the one thing he wanted to see was his number, the watch’s greatest feature. It calculated the number based on the wearer’s current health, activity level, DNA, family history, environmental conditions, and so on, and displayed the number in years, months, and days.
He thought it and it displayed 23:9:7. Twenty three years, nine months, and seven days. That was how long the watch calculated Anvil Atkinson had left to live. Not bad. Not a huge number, but not bad. He took another bite from the bagel and it dropped to 23:6:4. A gulp of coffee, and it rose to 23:7:18.
The device had an official name, but everyone called it “The Deathwatch.”
Over the next few days, Anvil thought constantly about the number, watching it rise and fall depending on what he was doing. Slight increases to the number were caused by exercise, sleep, and working in the garden. Decreases: driving a car, eating meat, watching the news.
As the months progressed, the headlines continued to worsen and his number dropped beneath twenty years. Anvil wondered if this was because of the state of the world, or if it was because of his reaction to those conditions.
The Twenty-Years War had started to spread and one day there was a biological incident far away, but still on native soil, dropping his number to 15:3:11. Food shortages had begun and he and Meryl were thankful for the vegetable garden. However, though the plants grew lush and green, they stopped bearing fruit. The number dropped to 7:6:5. Meryl contracted a strange fungal disease causing her skin to bruise and bones to snap. She died, and his number dropped to 3:6:2.
After the funeral, Anvil and a few friends sat in his back yard in their visors and red sweatpants, talking as the sun went down through the murk. Anvil brought out his last bottle of whiskey and poured drinks. Each had a Deathwatch, and they compared their numbers. They talking about how bad things were, how the authorities had really screwed things up, how maybe those in charge didn’t know what they were doing, and how maybe folks had misplaced their trust. How maybe someone should do something.
As they spoke, the numbers on their watches raced backwards until each one flashed zeros. They each felt a tingle where the prongs of their watches met their skin, and then their watches, all at the same time, unlatched themselves and dropped to the ground. A vehicle pulled up and men wearing that ubiquitous armband of the state carrying scatter-guns poured out, trampling the vegetable garden as they approached the group. “On my signal,” the one in charge said.