by Eric J. Krause
Ralph kicked at loose stones as he walked to his apartment complex's mailboxes. Why did already crappy workdays have to end on such downer notes? After getting yelled at all day by customers and management alike, the last email before quitting time warned of upcoming layoffs. Great. He hated this job, but it paid the bills better than anything else he could get in this economy.
He opened his tiny mailbox and found a key for the large parcel box. What? He hadn't ordered anything. He popped that box open and found a package from his younger brother, Shane. Strange. He hadn't heard from Shane in well over a year, since their final falling out. They'd never really gotten along, even as kids, but the blow-up last year had been bigger than anything before. He wasn't ready to forgive and forget, and he couldn't imagine Shane was either. But now a package?
Ralph resisted temptation and waited until he got in his apartment before ripping open the package. His mouth dropped open. An eReader. He'd told his mom he wanted one, and she hinted he might get one next week for his birthday. But how had Shane found out? And why would he have spent so much after wanting nothing to do with him for so long?
There was a note underneath the eReader. "Happy early birthday, bro. Hope this makes up for me missing last year. I opened it to both make sure it worked and to load some books I thought you'd like. See you soon. Shane."
Ralph picked up the eReader and found it had a full charge. This was a peace offering, and Ralph would have to give his little brother a call. Maybe this proved Shane was becoming an actual adult, and they could get together and have a good time like many grown-up brothers did.
As he scrolled through the titles, he fully expected to find gay erotica and chick-lit books. The eReader was the gift, the books were the jokes. But no. A few of the latest bestselling thrillers were on there, as well as a dozen or so old pulp science fiction novels that Ralph loved so much. Shane--old sadistic, never met a joke he didn't like, no matter how sick and twisted it was Shane--had come through big time.
Ralph picked up the phone, but remembered he'd purged his brother's number from speed dial and deleted the info out of the address book. No biggie. After dinner he'd call Mom and get Shane's digits. First, though, he'd pick which book he wanted to start with.
As he scrolled through the titles, each looked spectacular. He could choose one at random and be thrilled with the choice. He'd expected something like this from Mom, who knew him better than anyone, but not his baby brother. Maybe he had called Mom for gift tips. Yeah, that made sense, even if it was way out of character. Maybe Shane really had grown up.
At the end of the list, Ralph found the only title he didn't recognize, "The Bomb." Shane had done such a great job with the other books that this one must be good, too. Maybe he'd try it out first.
As he pushed the button to begin reading, the eReader grew noticeably hot to the touch. Did it always do that on start up, or was this one defective? He'd have to look online. He turned the page from the title screen--"The Bomb" in bold print and nothing else--and found the story started. A quiet ticking emanated from the device.
"Hey, bro. Welcome to my first ever book. It's not very long, but I think you'll find the plot . . . explosive."
Ralph almost ran to the window and hurled the eReader out into the back alley. The Shane he remembered was certainly one who would send a sabotaged gift. But no, this was just one of his sick but harmless jokes. (It wouldn't be too long before Ralph realized how good first instincts usually were.)
"I visited Mom last week and found this eReader destined to be your birthday gift. Do you know what she gave me for my birthday? A pack of tube socks and a $20 gift card to a ratty department store. Yeah, that's fair. But I fixed it. I'm guessing you haven't heard from her in a few days. Don't worry. She'll be with her favorite son again real soon."
Ralph pushed the button to turn the page. The ticking grew louder, the casing hotter. This time he obeyed his instinct and hurled the eReader across the room. It exploded as it hit the wall, and white-hot pain shredded his lower body. He yelled out and dropped to the ground, taking stock of his injuries. It hurt, and he'd need to get to the hospital soon, but he'd live. He pulled out his cell phone and found it undamaged. As he dialed 9-1-1, the only thing running through his pain-hazed mind was, "Revenge is a bitch, bro."