by Patrick Whittaker
On the morning of April 30th, Mr. Dwight T. Cooper of 19 Acacia Avenue unexpectedly received a large package. Why he signed for it without asking what it was or where it had come from is anyone’s guess. The most likely reason is that he had just gotten out of bed and wasn’t thinking straight.
The package was taller than Mr. Cooper and as wide as it was tall. Clearly it wasn’t going to fit through the front door, so he asked the deliverymen to put it in the garage. They both refused on the grounds that once a consignment had been signed for it was no longer their responsibility. Rather than demean himself by resorting to pleas and threats, Mr. Cooper offered them a bribe, which was accepted with ill grace.
It took two minutes, a lot of grunting and a stream of obscenities for the men to manhandle the box into the garage. As they drove off in their van, they left Mr. Cooper with the words ‘capitalist exploiter of the masses’ ringing in his ears.
Mr. Cooper did not take umbrage. Being manager of the local supermarket, he felt there might be some truth in the charge.
Dressed in slippers, blue pyjamas and a dressing gown that had found its way into his suitcase during a stay at the Manchester Hilton, Mr. Cooper stared in bemusement at the package. There was nothing written on it other than the words ‘FLAT PACK. HANDLE WITH CARE.’
At length, he opened the envelope the deliverymen had given him. Inside were three instruction sheets. One was in Japanese. The second was in German. Discarding these, he scanned the third, which was written in something vaguely resembling English.
To give a flavour of what Mr. Cooper was up against, here’s the fourth paragraph in full: The person of the place develops “A” on the smooth surface to prevent gratuitous vibration (you can use the box to which it has visited). Whole woman the union agrees on the glue as shown in fig. 2. The lowering shifts “D” in the position, flattening how in fig. 2A/2B with the openings which are in the structure of the person afterwards. Stick the union rabbit like in fig. 3A. Agree on the union and on the group of the side.
Mr. Cooper opened the box. Inside was a mish-mash of plywood panels, aluminium whatnots, screws, nuts, bolts, plastic thingamajigs, copper washers, electronic gizmos, some silvery gewgaws that had accidentally fallen in during packing and an alum key.
Despite not having ordered the package, despite not knowing what the end-result would be, despite not having the foggiest idea what he was doing, Mr. Cooper set about assembling the parts. He figured that by skipping breakfast he could have the job done within an hour, which would allow time for a quick shower before dashing off to work.
It took him nearly an hour and a half to get all the items out of the box and sorted into neat piles. Another half hour and he’d connected his first gizmo to a thingamajig using one of the gewgaws that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. By now he was sweating and slightly manic.
The next twenty minutes were spent reading and re-reading the instructions. They no more made sense the tenth time he read them than they did the first. So, being a pragmatic man, he set them aside and let himself be guided by intuition.
Looking over the hundreds of parts sitting on the garage floor, he spotted an aluminium whatnot that looked like it might be important. When he managed to find a washer that slipped nicely over one of its three protrusions, he gave a cry of triumph. Now he was getting somewhere!
Ten minutes later, he was still working out what to do with the whatnot. He had a sneaking suspicion that he had either used the wrong washer or should have attached the whatnot to a gizmo before using the washer or else not have used the whatnot and tried using the gizmo instead.
It was then that his wife entered to ask why he wasn’t at work. For reasons of taste and decency, Mr. Cooper’s reply will not be printed here. Suffice to say that Mrs. Cooper immediately packed a suitcase and fled to her mother’s.
Hours slipped by. A was attached to B and then detached again. C was screwed to D and then unscrewed. A was slotted into D only to immediately drop out. And on and on.
Hours became days. The flat pack stayed flat. Mr. Cooper became unhinged. He didn’t eat. He neglected his personal hygiene and grew oblivious to the flies that swarmed around his head. He talked to himself.
On the third day, weak with hunger and in dire need of sleep, he began to hallucinate. And an angel spake unto him, saying: ‘Verily shalt thou stick the union rabbit like unto fig. 3A. And then shalt thou take thy alum key and smite thy gewgaws.’
Mr. Cooper. made a suggestion to the angel that the angel did not take kindly to, and the angel disappeared.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Cooper achieved a Zen-like state of transcendence bordering upon insanity. He realised that where he had been going wrong was in trying to understand the instructions according to the dictates of Aristotelian logic. Once he let go of the notion that X always equals X and B inevitably follows A, the instruction sheet suddenly made sense.
Mr. Cooper heard the sound of one hand clapping.
In that moment of enlightenment, the sun was setting on the fourth day of his labours. As it rose again, Mr. Cooper gave the last twist to the last screw on the last thingamajig and his work was done.
Feeling like he’d taken on the whole world and won, he stepped back to admire his handiwork and beheld –
‘A box!’ The screwdriver slipped from Mr. Cooper’s hand. ‘You’ve got be kidding me.’
His marriage was in ruins. He looked like a tramp and smelt like a wrestler’s armpit. He had probably lost his job. And for what?
A cube of plywood panels held together with cross-headed screws and covered in gewgaws, whatnots and thingamajigs. It was impractical as a piece of furniture and so hideous his wife would never allow it in the house—assuming she ever returned from her mother’s. The lack of a door meant it couldn’t even be used for storage.
Of course, the silvery gewgaws that shouldn’t have been in the package had left Mr. Cooper with no chance of assembling the flat pack correctly, but he wasn’t to know that. Nor was he to know that he had connected the gizmos in parallel rather than in series. They were now generating a field of energy—unknown to modern science—that caused a warp in a localised area of the space-time continuum.
Mr. Cooper had in effect created a machine capable of transporting a man anywhere in space and beyond. But as far as he was concerned, it was a useless pile of junk.
With a cry of rage, he grabbed the alum key and threw it at the box.
The key passed through the plywood and disappeared.
Mr. Cooper’s anger evaporated. Perhaps there was more to the box than met the eye? Curious and a little apprehensive, he approached it with one hand held before him like a child pondering the mysteries of fire.
One of his slippers came loose. He tripped and fell forward.
The box sucked him in. The gizmos transported him through hyperspace to the 5th dimension where the Dukes of Hell awaited with a thousand ingenious torments. He will remain there in exquisite agony till the end of time.
People, remember Mr. Cooper. Especially before you answer a morning doorbell.
Patrick Whittaker won the prestigious 2009 British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition with ‘Dead Astronauts,’ a tale of odd goings-on in suburbia. His screenplay Brian and Agnes: Killing for Jesus is currently in pre-production.