Caution: Free Samples - Bri Eberhart
The packages started arriving three months ago.
They were small at first. Harmless. Free samples in the mail that I always assumed were to lure people into buying more. Most of the time, I threw them away. Until the Johnson's next door went missing. That was weird. But then so did the Murphy's across the street. Weird became sinister. Something was amiss.
I tried to keep my worrisome thoughts at bay, instead, willing myself to believe that everyone must be moving out of town. Maybe for a reason no one has bothered to clue me into yet?
Little did I know then, it all came back to the samples.
Now, I know better.
Anthony comes bursting through the front door, out of breath, clutching a letter. "We need to leave, now."
I jerk my head up from the open laptop in front of me. I've been trying to locate why people are fleeing the town; it's becoming more of an obsession than anything else. Anthony has been on his own hunt, as well.
Leaning back in the kitchen chair, I give him a once-over. His tall, lanky body is tense, shoulders near his ears, eyes wide, as he lurks in the doorway. Gesturing with my hand, I urge him on. "Well, what is it? What'd you find?"
"Amelia. They know."
My mouth drops open a tad as the realization sinks in. "That's impossible." Standing up, I make my way over to him, snatching the letter from his hand.
"This was attached to the front door just now," he says as I skim the words plastered in giant red letters.
The residents of 143 Sycamore are hereby declared insubordinate and must prove within 24 hours that all samples provided to them have been administered properly. Any failure to do so will result in immediate disciplinary action.
My eyes flicker up to him pacing around the kitchen, running his hands through his hair.
"This is bad," he repeats on a loop.
Though my heart rages against my ribs, I try to appear calm for his sake. "It's fine. We'll figure it out."
"Figure what out?" he hisses. "They know we've been manipulating the system."
I turn away from him, unable to bear the fear gleaming in his eyes. "Just let me think a moment."
This is all my fault, and now our lives are in danger because of it. Anthony—poor trusting Anthony—believed me when I said I could protect him. We've been dating for two years now, and I urged him to move in with me when I started following what was happening to the community. One less house meant one less target for the samples to arrive at. We didn't register him at this address, so we received fewer trials than others.
But now our time has run up.
Working at the community center gave me access to everyone. Three months prior marked the start of the government surveillance. Suddenly everyone was receiving free gifts on their doorsteps. That's all I heard about day in and day out: hair products, cereal, diapers, even razors. There were so many products rolling in, the town buzzed with excitement rather than fear.
No one bothered to ask why or where they were coming from.
The novelty wore off pretty quickly, though, and people found excuses not to use the merchandise. If you didn't have a baby, why would you need a newborn diaper? This continued until notices were posted on overwhelmingly large billboards for such a small town. The legal jargon essentially boiled down to use it, or else. Soon after, there were warnings printed with store coupons, letters attached to paystubs. It was everywhere. There was no escaping it.
Most found it to be a scam—an annoying one at that—like the Johnson's and the Murphy's. But we have no idea what happened to them. Peeking through their windows shows that all of their belongings are still there, even the cars parked in the garage. But all of them are gone. Like they went to work one day and never bothered to come home. Was it intentional, or not?
I started keeping track of our daily visitors at the community center and noticed the number was shrinking weekly. Maybe this was all in my head, but something wasn't adding up.
What was so special about these goods anyway? Why must we use them? The fear of the unknown gave me pause, and I was less tempted than ever to try their new skin cream. What was in this shit?
And how the hell did they know if the products were used or not?
I banned Anthony from using any of them, and we developed a system on how to get rid of the stock but to stay under the radar. We bought stuffed animals to wear the diapers. We rubbed the lotion on fresh produce we'd leave outside to rot in the backyard. We washed Barbie's hair with new shampoo. The list goes on. It was desperate measures, and I'm fairly sure I might've gone insane, but it kept us healthy and kept them in the dark. Until now.
My stomach drops at the thought of them being onto us. Anthony is right. We have to leave.
"What samples do we have currently have left?" I ask.
He sprints to the back bedroom, rushing back with a small box. Thankfully we've kept up with them for the most part, so a lot isn't in there—some gauze, band-aids, tissues, and toothpaste.
"We'll have to use these, for real this time. And plan our escape for tonight." I nod, thoughts quickly forming, turning into a plan. "Hopefully, they aren't watching us," I add in.
Anthony lets out a huff as he brushes the curls back from his eyes. "Cut my hand."
"What?" I ask sharply.
"If you cut my hand, we can use most of these items. Use the tissues for the blood, add the band-aids and wrap with gauze. All that's left is the toothpaste."
His eyes meet mine, and I know he's right. It's the easiest plan, but the thought of hurting him forms a knot in my throat. "It's fine," he whispers, echoing my words from earlier. "Just cut my right hand; it's my nondominant one anyway."
"Can't I cut I don't know… your leg or something?"
"No. I don't want you anywhere near my leg with a blade." His lips quirk, and I'm shocked to find myself grinning back at him during such a terrible situation.
"I won't cut you too bad," I insist.
"Uh-huh, yeah, sure. Let's just get this over with."
I don't have anything sharper than a steak knife, my hands trembling as I douse the blade in rubbing alcohol. What if I cut too deep? What if he needs actual stitches? God, this is a terrible idea.
"Are you sure you don't want to cut yourself?" I ask, for the umpteenth time.
Sighing, Anthony holds out his hand, bracing himself against the kitchen counter. "Just get it over with."
Inhaling through my nose, I swipe lightly across his palm, hoping I sliced him just enough to warrant all the supplies but not enough to do lasting damage. Oddly, relief floods through me when I see blood rise to the surface. I grab the tissues to apply pressure.
"You all right?" I ask him as I tend to his wound.
"Mhm," he responds through clenched teeth. "Could've been worse."
After washing out his cut, applying the band-aids, and wrapping the gauze, he flexes his fingers, making sure the bleeding has stopped and that he has full range of movement.
All that's left is the toothpaste.
"Want me to do it?" he asks.
"No, it's fine. No need to make you suffer through this also. You've paid your dues." I smile at him, with no humor behind it.
Making my way to the bathroom, I unscrew the cap and turn on the faucet. Wetting my toothbrush first, I steel myself before I apply the mysterious paste to the bristles. Groaning, I gingerly bring it to my lips. Here goes nothing.
The thought of not knowing what the product contains makes my stomach roll the longer I brush. I picture tiny chemicals seeping into my gums, entering my bloodstream, and spreading throughout my body. I'm gagging by the time I finish brushing.
With mint still lingering in my nostrils, I rinse for the fourth time with mouthwash, but I still feel dirty. Like something is lurking, waiting behind, stuck to my tongue.
Step one, complete. We got rid of all the samples.
Step two, disappear.
Once the sun has finally set, we're ready to go. We've packed hardly anything, prepared to leave behind most of our lives. Is this how the other families felt? Did they willingly leave like us, or did they take them?
There's no real reason behind it, but we decide to wait until after midnight to make our escape. Darkness being our cover doesn't seem like enough. We want most of the neighbors to be asleep before we depart. Who knows what side they're on?
While we wait, we discuss where we're going to go. Out West is the only thing we seem to agree on. It'll be strange leaving New York, but we don't know how far this sample scheme has traveled. What if it's the entire coast? What if it's the whole country?
As we finalize the plan, a knock on the window startles us. We stare wide-eyed at each other, both unmoving. The curtains are closed, and neither of us are brave enough to check to see who it is.
A second knock comes. But it's more like a tapping. Maybe the wind has picked up, and a branch is being blown against the glass. My pulse races as I lean over, clutching the side of the curtain.
Anthony whispers behind me, "Amelia. Don't."
Peeking out the curtain, I gasp when a robot camera turns its red eye toward me. I fall backward, tripping over the stool, falling onto my back. Anthony lunges to grab me but doesn't get there in time. He scoops me up, pulling me onto my feet as I try to stutter out the words.
"They're here," I finally manage. "It's a camera. Or a robot. Or something? I don't know. It's mechanical and looked like an eye."
The tapping grows incessantly louder, moving to different windows. Anthony and I press our backs together as we circle in a strange dance, watching all areas of the living room.
The knocking stops. All is quiet. The only sound is our heavy breathing.
"The curtains aren't closed in the bedroom," Anthony whispers, fear dripping in his voice.
We break apart from each other at the same time. Anthony heading toward the garage with our bags as I race toward the bedroom.
The robot is floating in the window—tilting this way and that—as it sets its aim on me. I whip the curtain closed, but there's a spot still open, the fabric not long enough to reach the bottom windowsill.
The camera lowers to peer in, and I grab a pillow to block it. The wired device sprouts legs, turning itself into an automated spider, latching onto the glass. One tap, and the window splinters. A second tap, and it cracks. A third, and it's broken.
I abandon the pillow and barrel to the hallway, slamming the door behind me, trapping it into the bedroom. Sweat covers my body, adrenaline racing as I try to figure out what's next. Is there only one of them? Or are more coming?
Anthony appears at my side, mouthing, "It's time to go."
I nod, failing to get my bearings. If we can make it out of town, we'll be safe. We have to be.
My heart lurches when the stuffed animal wearing a diaper lying abandoned on the ground moves by itself.
"Anthony…" My voice shakes as I grab his uninjured hand. "The bear…"
He whips around, shoving me behind him. The animal is now fully standing, watching us, eyes red. It takes a step closer, and we're currently trapped between the two entities—a spider camera behind us and a stuffed animal in front.
"What's happening?" I whisper.
"I don't know, but it can't be good."
"What do we do?"
"Run past it?" He offers. "It's a child's toy. We can get past it. All our stuff is in the car. We just have to get to the garage."
My hands are glued around his waist, and I can't seem to make my legs move. I'm frozen in fear as I watch the bear take one step at a time toward us.
This can't be real. This isn't happening. I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming. I squeeze my eyes shut, forcing them back open with the scene unchanging.
"Amelia," Anthony's voice cracks. "We have to run. Now."
He tears away from me, hopping over the bear with no effort. Somewhere in the back of my head, I laugh about how absurd this all is. But right now, the humor is gone.
It's now my turn.
I back into the corner of the hallway, bending at the knees, ready to get a running start. Before I go though, the bear collapses back into a stuffed animal. Lifeless on the ground.
Slowly standing upright, trepidation consumes me.
What happened? Where did it go?
I inch my way closer to the bear, holding my breath. I stretch my leg out as far as I can, nudging it over and flipping it onto its back. Nothing. It's really just a stuffed animal again.
Spinning in circles, my eyes dart to anything inside the room that may come to life next, but nothing moves. The silence lingers until Anthony slams the trunk shut, it echoing throughout the house.
"Amelia, let's go!" he hollers.
Snapping out of my stupor, I sprint toward him. He's already revving the engine before I hop into the passenger seat. Fastening my seatbelt, I crane my neck, watching the door, making sure that nothing is following us.
The garage door lifts, the night so dark, stars aren't even shining.
"Go, go, go!" I yell. The robot had to have gone somewhere, and I'd like to be far away before the next inanimate object comes to life.
Please let this be a Beaufort problem, and not a country one, I plead to no one specific inside my head.
Anthony is quiet as he turns off our street and onto the main road leaving town. My vision blurs with tears as anxiety drains me. We're leaving home, with no goodbyes, to save ourselves. What do we do from here?
I reach my hand over to lightly grip his, cautious of the gauze still wrapped around his right hand.
"It'll be fine," I say, trying to convince him as much as myself. "It'll be fine."
We drive under a lone streetlight, illuminating the "Leaving Beaufort, New York" sign, and just barely in the side mirror, I spot my reflection with my eyes glowing red.
Bri Eberhart currently resides in Lockport, NY with her husband and two cats. She graduated from SUNY Empire State College with a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Studies and a concentration in Creative Writing and Literature. Her work has also appeared in the Scarlet Leaf Review and Openwork Mag.