Brad receives a strange birthday present.
The gift turned up on Brad’s doorstep the day before his birthday. It was beautifully wrapped in metallic effect paper and tied with an ostentatious bow. A large tag announced that it was indeed intended for Brad but there was nothing to indicate who had sent it. If it was sent. The lack of an address seemed to indicate that it had been delivered rather than mailed.
It was something of an enigma, therefore. About the size of a two-slot toaster and a perfect cube in shape, nobody admitted to ownership of it and no amount of shaking and turning revealed even a hint of its content. We all looked forward to the next day when Brad would open the the present and solve its unanswered questions.
Or so we hoped. In the event, the mystery only deepened when Brad removed the wrapping paper to reveal a miniature, barred box rather like a model of the cage used to transport a travelling show’s wild animal. Inside it a strange creature sat and stared back at us. It was grey in colour, no more than eight inches tall, and disturbingly human in form. Hairless, apart from a few long strands that sprouted from the top of its head, it was unappealing to look at, rather like those hairless cats one sees pictures of in books. It had the same wrinkled skin, at least.
“What the hell is that?” Uncle Vernon’s voice broke the silence with the question that occupied each one of us.
Brad shrugged, almost unseating the ugly, little creature with the movement. “Search me,” he said. There was a chorus of agreement from the onlookers. Then Harry Baldwin piped up. “You sure there wasn’t a card or something? Maybe in the wrapping somewhere?”
Brad grabbed the crumpled paper and searched through its folds, eventually coming up with a small white card. It was more like a business card than anything from Hallmark and it was printed with the words, Imperator Monegansis - common name Imp.
“It’s an imp,” announced Brad unnecessarily. We bent forward to scrutinise the creature again, now that it had a name. It wasn’t exactly what we had imagined an imp to look like, although I doubt any of us had a clear idea previous to this one’s arrival.
Carol voiced an opinion that was to prove the real sticking point in the whole thing. “A puppy is for life, not for Christmas.” We all looked at each other as the impact of her words was felt. It was true; someone had presented Brad with a responsibility that he had not asked for. We started to blurt out the questions that now occurred as we realised the implications.
“How long does an imp live?”
“What does it eat?”
“Surely it’s not going to be cooped up in that little cage for its entire life?”
“Shouldn’t you get it some water?”
This was not helping Brad at all. He sat, disconsolately staring at his new acquisition as we piled up difficulties for him in tending to an imp. Our chatter died down as we realised the effect we were having on Brad. Everyone gazed at the captive creature and it, in turn, stared back at us.
“I will just have to send it back,” said Brad. That brought another chorus of there being no announcement of a sender, no address, no hint of the unknown donor’s connection to Brad and why he should have presented Brad with such a weird gift.
“Stop saying the obvious,” shouted Brad. “I suppose I’m stuck with it until we can find out who sent it.”
Cindy Hanford had a good idea then. “Maybe it can talk,” she suggested. “Try asking it where it came from.”
Brad scorned the possibility, but was persuaded eventually to lean over and speak quietly to the imp. It sat stoically, staring back but saying nothing.
People were losing interest in the creature now and were drifting off to enjoy other aspects of the party. When Brad did not join in but continued to gaze at the cage and its occupant, they began to leave entirely, shouting their good wishes and goodbyes as they went. Brad was left alone with his unwanted pet.
I went to see Brad a couple of days later, more out of curiosity about how he was dealing with the imp than any concern for him. He was a friend of a friend and we’d never been particularly close.
When I got there, I found him still staring at the tiny shrivelled little monkey in its cage. “Any ideas?” I asked. “Found out what it eats?”
Brad shook its head. “Nope. But I’ve been thinking and there may be a way to deal with the problem.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Well, it seems to me that this thing has come from the wild. I’ve done some research and it seems that Imperators are only found in Norway. If they’re found at all, that is. They’re pretty rare and only three have ever been caught and studied. No one’s ever found out what they eat.
“Anyway, I figure, if this imp was caught in the wild, the best thing to do would be to release it back into an unpopulated area. I can’t afford to take it back to Norway but, if I let it go in the forest near here, it should be able to look after itself, shouldn’t it? Our winters aren’t as bad as Norway’s at least.”
I had to agree. “Sounds to me like the best idea anyone has had so far,” I said. “So when are you going to do this?”
“That’s the thing,” answered Brad. “I haven’t any transport so I was hoping you could take me and the imp to the forest.”
Naturally, I agreed. I couldn’t leave Brad to sit there and watch the creature starve to death after all. We grabbed the cage and loaded it into the back seat and set off for the forest. It was a good hour’s journey but I didn’t mind. I had the day off and plenty of gas in the tank.
We stopped in a spot deep among the trees where the road began to descend from track to pathway. “This’ll do, I reckon,’ announced Brad as he opened the door to get out. “About as much like Norway as we’re likely to get.”
The imp seemed unimpressed with its new surroundings but we took it to a place where the pines seemed particularly dense and laid the cage on the ground. Brad knelt down and opened the cage door.
He stepped back to allow the thing space to emerge. For a long time it didn’t but then, like a flash from a gun, it shot out and began to dash all over the place. Brad laughed at its antics. “Will you look at that,” he cried, “he’s as happy as a sandboy!”
I doubt now that Brad was right in his estimation. Even as the last word died on his lips, the imp leapt at his neck and started biting while scrabbling with his claws, tearing the collar of his shirt into ribbons. Brad screamed and fell backwards, tripped by a branch hidden under the pine needles. The imp continued to slash at him, taking no notice of my attempts to stop it and Brad soon ceased to struggle. The ground was red with his blood and the frenzied creature still hacked away at his body.
Realising that there was no way I was fast enough to catch the imp, let alone control it, I ran for the car. I drove the several miles to the nearest village and contacted the police, going with them to the scene of Brad’s disaster.
There was nothing left of him, beyond a few blood-soaked rags that had once been his clothing. Of the imp there was no sign and I could see that the police were looking sideways at me as though they thought I was mad. It didn’t worry me as I knew the others at the party would vouch for the reality of Brad’s strange pet.
As I drove home in the evening, I reflected on the one good thing in the whole story. At least now I know what imps eat.
Word Count: 1,382
For SCREAMS!!! January 25 2021
Prompt: A gift from a secret admirer.