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Collection II
Volume III, Unit 4
by Caitlin Scholl

The Package

The Package (Volume III. Unit 4)
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The Package

It was a brisk late-December morning in downtown Manhattan. Robert hurried along, his head down, preoccupied. He adroitly"Robert hurried along, his head down, preoccupied. He adroitly navigated the pre-holiday quagmire of pedestrians milling around Union Square." navigated the pre-holiday quagmire of pedestrians milling around Union Square. Then, a street vendor suddenly grabbed the tail of his jacket with a decisive yank.

As he did so, a package fell from underneath Robert’s coat and quickly disappeared in a dark kaleidoscope of pant legs and coat hems scissoring through his view of the sidewalk. Robert’s eyes popped as he feverishly scanned the ground, too worried to upbraid"... a package fell from underneath Robert's coat and quickly disappeared.... Robert's eyes popped as he feverishly scanned the ground, too worried to upbraid the vendor for grabbing him so violently..." the vendor for grabbing him so violently, but before he could get on his hands and knees, the vendor’s face appeared in front of his and barked something into Robert’s ear.

Buysomethingfaryarwife!” Robert could have sworn he heard, but wasn’t sure. He couldn’t be distracted: he needed to find that package, and quickly.

“No,” he replied brusquely"He couldn't be distracted: he needed to find that package, and quickly. 'No,' he replied brusquely, having no time to peruse the vendor's paltry selection of wares.", having no time to peruse the vendor’s paltry" 'No,' he replied brusquely, having no time to peruse the vendor's paltry selection of wares. Indeed, pickings were slim on the man's small cart—just a few gaudy nylon hats and some earrings..." selection of wares. Indeed, pickings were slim on the man’s small cart—just a few gaudy nylon hats and some earrings made out of florescent-colored feathers. Annoyed by his seeming failure to make a sale, the vendor shifted his weight heavily from foot to foot. His eyes squinted, the edges of his mouth upturning ever-so-slightly.

“Got a nettle" 'Got a nettle in your foot?' he asked Robert... 'What?'... 'A thorn in your side?' the vendor added. 'A prickle on your neck?' " in your foot?” he asked Robert, who had finally made it onto his hands and knees, and was throwing out a litany of “I’m sorrys” and “pardon mes” to the crowd swirling about.

“What?” Robert asked, still on the ground, his eyes scanning the flurried asphalt for the package.

“A thorn in your side?” the vendor added. “A prickle on your neck?”


A package fell from underneath Robert’s coat and disappeared
in a dark kaleidoscope of pant legs and coat hems.

Illustration by Rosa Lykiardopoulos

“What the hell are you talking about?” Robert yelled, rising, a sense of panic shooting through his body. He didn’t have time for idle or inane discourse with this voluble" 'Got a nettle in your foot?' he asked Robert.... 'A thorn in your side?'.... 'A prickle on your neck?'.... 'What the hell are you talking about?' Robert yelled, rising, a sense of panic shooting through his body. He didn't have time for idle or inane discourse with this voluble salesman." salesman.

“Oh, you know what I mean, mister crazy man,” the vendor replied menacingly, his voice a raspy baritone.

“No; no, I don’t,” Robert stammered. He sweated at the neck and armpits. A prickle in his neck indeed. It was 28 degrees outside. “You’re not speaking coherently" 'You're not speaking coherently,' he continued. 'That means I—don't—understand—you.' He spoke slowly, emphatically, realizing that the man must be crazy, or foreign, or both.",” he continued. “That means I—don’t—understand—you.” He spoke slowly, emphatically, realizing that the man must be crazy, or foreign, or both. He couldn’t quite place the accent. But one thing was for sure—the man looked the worse for wear.

The vendor’s mouth curled even more, and then fell off at one side as if he had had a stroke. He then moved very deliberately, placing his fingers around his mouth and pulling the flesh back towards his ears. The effect was rather frightening: the skin became taut over the vendor’s cheekbones, intimating the face of an emaciated"The vendor's mouth curled even more, and then fell off at one side as if he had had a stroke.... The effect was rather frightening: the skin became taut over the vendor's cheekbones, intimating the face of an emaciated man, or even someone who had already starved, who was dead." man, or even someone who had already starved, who was dead. A skeleton, even. Robert shuddered, wondering how his day could have gone so terribly wrong. They shouldn’t have given him the package; he was just a neophyte"They shouldn't have given him the package; he was just a neophyte, he didn't have the experience for this kind of thing.", he didn’t have the experience for this kind of thing.

Even worse was the thought of what might happen to him if he didn’t recover that package. He would not simply be reproved"He would not simply be reproved by his superiors. No. Robert wasn't that obtuse; he knew what happened when things didn't go right.... When someone messed up, they simply... disappeared." by his superiors. No. Robert wasn’t that obtuse"He would not simply be reproved by his superiors. No. Robert wasn't that obtuse; he knew what happened when things didn't go right.... When someone messed up, they simply... disappeared."; he knew what happened when things didn’t go right. There were no disputes"There were no disputes in his line of work, no back-and-forths about whether a mistake was or wasn't someone's fault.... When someone messed up, they simply... disappeared." in his line of work, no back-and-forths about whether a mistake was or wasn’t someone’s fault. The result was quick and definitive, and always the same, though he had never witnessed it himself, being so new to the whole thing. But he had heard the stories. Boy had he heard them. When someone messed up, they simply… disappeared.

“What are you doing to your face?” Robert stammered again, thinking of his own possibly impending death. His mind raced… He could leave the country. He could go into the witness protection program. Wait. No. That wouldn’t work; they would find him anyway. They always do.

“I makey face like your picture show me,” the vendor came back in a sing-song voice.

What?!” Robert shot back, suddenly alert. A picture? Couldn’t be. This guy had to be a crackpot. He was obviously crazy. Robert suddenly wondered if the people around them had noticed how insane the vendor was, but everyone seemed oblivious to this strange exchange they were having, swirling about in their own happy holiday bubbles. Smiling families passed by left and right, their arms loaded with shopping bags.

“I think you know what I mean,” the vendor shot back. Just then, Robert noticed him nudge something a little further onto a shelf on the back of his cart, something brown. The package?

“How’d you get that? Did you open it? Where’d you … How’d you? …” Robert hissed, then suddenly stopped. There could be someone following him. He was the new guy after all, and this was his first drop-off. Oh, how stupid he was. He shifted his weight nervously.

The vendor sardonically"The vendor sardonically chattered his teeth in Robert's direction and wrung his hands, making fun of Robert's obvious panic." chattered his teeth in Robert’s direction and wrung his hands, making fun of Robert’s obvious panic.

“You tell me what this is, and you buy present for wife, and I give back,” the vendor said matter-of-factly. Robert sneered at the idea of this provincial" '... you buy present for wife, and I give back,' the vendor said matter-of-factly. Robert sneered at the idea of this provincial trade, this village barter. A more sophisticated man might have asked for a huge sum of money..." trade, this village barter. A more sophisticated man might have asked for a huge sum of money in return for the package, had he looked inside—which Robert was sure he had. But perhaps the vendor’s insinuation that he had seen its contents was a mere fallacy"But perhaps the vendor's insinuation that he had seen its contents were a mere fallacy, maybe he had been misleading Robert all along.", maybe he had been misleading Robert all along. Perhaps the man was spouting crazy-talk, and Robert was just paranoid. And how could he have opened it when Robert was right there the whole time? Wouldn’t he have noticed? But Robert couldn’t even say that there were pictures inside because he had no idea what was in there, except that it was “very sensitive information.”

Robert vacillated turbulently"Robert vacillated turbulently from one assumption to the next. It was like a game of cat-and-mouse in his brain, with him chasing his own answer—one that was constantly changing form, each time just barely out of reach." from one assumption to the next. It was like a game of cat-and-mouse in his brain, with him chasing his own answer—one that was constantly changing form, each time just barely out of reach. Think, think, think

Meanwhile, another vendor with a larger cart, about ten yards away, looked down at a tiny screen, a small headphone nestled into his ear. “Yes, Robert, tell us what’s in the package…” he whispered into a microscopic microphone pinned to an expensive silk scarf.

“Umm, alright I’ll tell you,” Robert replied to the vendor, who was now absentmindedly sorting through his wares and already calling to other passersby. Bodies continued to whizz by the two men, and Robert became more insistent: “Listen man, I’ll tell you, I said I’ll TELL you. Listen to me…”

“Tell me what? Who are you?” the vendor yelled in his face. “Buysomethingfaryarwife!

“I don’t HAVE A WIFE!” Robert yelled back. A couple paused and stared at him briefly, the vendor smiling sweetly behind Robert.

The man in the larger vending cart whispered vehemently into his microphone: “Make something happen, NOW. Force him to make a move!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m trying!” the vendor next to Robert suddenly yelled in the air, seemingly to no one. Robert sneered in disgust at his strange penitent" 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'm trying!' the vendor next to Robert suddenly yelled in the air, seemingly to no one. Robert sneered in disgust at his strange penitent declarations..." declarations, and watched the vendor doggedly"... [Robert] watched the vendor doggedly solicit more customers from the shape-shifting, indifferent crowd: 'You want nice earring? You like pretty hat? You like warm hat? Buysomethingfaryarwife! It is holiday!' " solicit more customers from the shape-shifting, indifferent crowd:

“You want nice earring? You like pretty hat? You like warm hat? Buysomethingfaryarwife! It is holiday!”

“Listen, mister,” Robert interrupted, his heart racing. He was at the end of his rope. He needed that package, no more fooling around. “Give me my package now, or else I’ll call the police. I see an officer right over there. Or I’m just gonna dial 911 right now.” Robert knew, this move would prove equally deadly—or stupid—but he figured he might as well scare the vendor into giving up the package.

In reply, the vendor nudged the package deeper into the back of his cart, and obdurately"[Robert] needed that package, no more fooling around. 'Give me that package now, or else I'll call the police.' ... In reply, the vendor nudged the package deeper into the back of his cart, and obdurately stuck out his tongue..." stuck out his tongue as he took to rearranging the gaudy earrings on display. He plucked one pair off the rack and held it up, his eyebrows raised.

“Fine, fine, I’ll buy them,” Robert sighed. The vendor’s will finally won out, had debilitated" 'Fine, fine, I'll buy them,' Robert sighed. The vendor's will finally won out, had debilitated whatever resolve Robert had left, and Robert saw no choice but to give in." whatever resolve Robert had left, and Robert saw no choice but to give in. “I don’t even have a wife.” Not that I’ll ever get the chance to have one now, he thought quickly, and pressed a five-dollar bill into the vendor’s palm. “Now hand it over.”

“Not till you tell Timmy what package for!” the vendor hissed back, handing the earrings to Robert in a small paper bag.

“Timmy? Who the hell is Timmy? You? Listen, I don’t have time for this petty" 'Timmy? Who the hell is Timmy? You? Listen, I don't have time for this petty back-and forth! I bought your damn earrings, now HAND OVER THE PACKAGE!!!' " back-and-forth! I bought your damn earrings, now HAND OVER THE PACKAGE!!!” Robert’s face had reddened to an unnatural hue, and more passersby glanced in his direction and then quickly hurried away, suddenly frightened by the strange and probably crazy man yelling at the sweet, smiling man selling bright-colored earrings.

“Alright, alright, call it quits,” the vendor with the headset whispered into his scarf, then started whistling a slow, sad tune as he stared into the busy square.

The first vendor reached down, smiled sweetly, and handed Robert the package.

As Robert moved across the large pedestrian square on 14th Street in downtown Manhattan, he felt suddenly dissociated from his own body. It was as if he was floating, a mere snowflake amidst all the others moving around him; bodies, their smiling faces, their holiday agendas. He gasped for air. He tried to hear the click-clack of his shoes on the cement, and couldn’t. He looked to the sky. It was indeed snowing.

The vendor disappeared behind him within the eddy of the crowd, and Robert floated onward, walking fast, though it seemed to take him ages to reach the other edge of the square. The colors around him appeared more saturated"The colors around him appeared more saturated, more vivid than ever, and he wondered again if he was already dead.", more vivid than ever, and he wondered again if he was already dead. No. He felt for the package, and there it was, between his jacket and overcoat, over the breast pocket. His mind wandered away again. An older woman brushed past him, her face aglow as she held the hand of a small child in a small cloud of vapor, blowing into his hot chocolate.

Who would shoulder the onerous"Who would shoulder the onerous task of telling Robert's mother that her own son had 'disappeared'? That she'd never get to walk with her grandchildren through Union Square during a winter snowstorm?" task of telling Robert’s mother that her own son had “disappeared”? That she’d never get to walk with her grandchildren through Union Square during a winter snowstorm? That her son was just a dead end on a bloody chain of hapless victims leading all the way back to antiquity"... her son was just a dead end on a bloody chain of hapless victims leading all the way back to antiquity.". How could he be so stupid, getting involved with these people? How could he have done this? He didn’t need that kind of family. He didn’t even know what was in the damn package!

Robert looked down at his hands. Without gloves, his fingers were going numb, like the rest of his body. On the small finger of his right hand was a ring, handed down through generations of his family. A relic"On the small finger of his right hand was a ring, handed down through generations of his family. A relic from their past. He had always known that he would give it to his son someday..." from their past. He had always known that he would give it to his son someday, if he had one. Instead, it might be chopped off, along with a finger or two, at any moment. Today? he wondered sullenly, time seeming more real again. Will it happen today? Will it happen in a year? Suddenly it seemed inevitable that, at some point, the game would be up. There was no protection, no malpractice insurance, no exit strategy in this line of work. He botched a job; and it didn’t really matter that it was his very first. It would also be his last.

But I didn’t, Robert reminded himself, patting the package once again. His mind quieted. He exhaled. No worries. I’ll make it. I’ll figure out a way to make it through today, and get out of this crazy business. I’ll get a wife, I’ll have some kids, I’ll live a long life. He smiled, a wave of relief surging through him. He had the package. Things were going to be okay.

“Alright, you know what to do. The drop-off happens now,” the whistling vendor on the other side of the square whispered into his microphone, just as Robert reached 17th Street on the other side of Union Square.

A man grabbed his arm. Robert was shaken from his dream-like state. He jumped. The vendor!

“It was a gag. A test. Now shut your mouth and come with me,” he rasped.

A constellation of soft snowflakes blotted out the air as Robert and the man continued down the sidewalk, eventually disappearing in the shape-shifting, indifferent crowd.