We always think we know who our friends are. Hell, I’d known my best friend Martin for the better part of two decades.
After what I saw today, I know that I had no clue who he really was and what he was capable of.
I started working at his company about a year ago.
Before that, I’d been working here and there as a freelancer, barely scraping by. As a university dropout, I didn’t have much of a choice.
I’d try anything in the hopes of making it big, but whatever I did, things never took off.
The day I turned thirty, I was still living in the same shitty one-room apartment, still eating ramen noodles for dinner five times a week. I knew I needed to reevaluate my life.
It was on a night out with Martin, after half a dozen beers, that I started to lament about my situation.
He listened, and once I was done, he offered me a job at his trading company. After his dad had retired, he’d taken over the family business and restructured it from scratch. He was starting to earn some real money, he said and could use a few helping hands. I agreed pretty much instantly.
To be honest, I never thought I’d end up selling cans of soup at a farmer’s market, even if it’s the fancy kind.
After I’d prove that I was handling the job well enough, Martin put me in charge of our logistics.
It’s not as fancy as it sounds. I pretty much take care of our small warehouse, the monthly trips to our suppliers, and handle the occasional delivery.
We had a few customers, Martin explained, who ordered our product in bulk. As a sign of our gratitude, we offered to deliver the product in person. Sometimes it meant a small detour after the market for the day had ended. At other times the customer would pick his order up at the market. It was all pretty standard, business as usual, you could say. I never thought anything about it.
That’s until today.
Martin had sent me a message, instructing me to take care of another delivery. The customer would pick it up in the late afternoon, around the time the market ended. Attached to the message was an image of one of our cardboard boxes, standing in the middle of the warehouse.
In the morning I put the cardboard box into the van and secured it between the parts of our market stand.
Today was a slow day. After an almost two hour drive to a small town in the middle of nowhere, I set up my market stand as usual. Apart from me and a handful of other traders, the market was completely deserted.
I wondered why Martin even sent me out here. There was no way we’d turn a profit. Hell, we already spent a small fortune on the gas driving here alone.
The hours passed painfully slow, but eventually, dusk arrived, and the market came to an end. I was about to pack up when an expensive station wagon came to a stop right behind the market stand.
A well-kept older man stepped outside. He had an aura of self-importance about himself, and his outfit probably cost way more than I earned in a month. He scanned the area for a moment before he hurried over.
As I watched him get closer, I could tell there was something off about him. His eyes were darting left and right, and with every step, he seemed to get more and more uneasy. It was a cold day, yet I saw breads of sweat glistering on his forehead.
“Hey there, can I help you?” I asked in the friendliest voice I could muster.
The man’s expression was one of disdain, and I knew he looked down on me.
“I’m here for the delivery,” he said condescendingly.
“Ah, the box! It’s in the back of the van. Quite the order you got there. Stocking up for the holidays?” I asked in a jolly manner.
He said nothing. Instead, his eyes continued to stare me down.
“Well, the box,” I continued in an awkward voice and led the man to the market van.
The moment I opened it up, and he saw the cardboard box, his expression changed. His eyes grew wide, and a hungry grin appeared on his face. I’ve never seen anyone react like that to a couple dozen cans of soup.
“Alright, let me just get this for you and,” I broke up.
One of the corners of the box had been damaged and torn open during transportation. I already saw that some of the packaging peanuts had spilled from the hole.
“Shit, I think the box was damaged during the trip here. Let me check real quick if everything’s-”
“That’s no problem,” the man said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sure everything’s alright.”
I felt awkward, squirming under the grip of his hand.
“Just carry it over to my car.”
He smiled at me, but there wasn’t the smallest hint of emotion in it. I nodded, freed myself from his hand, and dragged the box from the van.
The man went back to his car, opened the trunk, and waited for me to bring the box over. His face was angry, his expression urging me to get a move on.
And that’s precisely what I did. I wanted nothing more than to get this weird encounter over with. Then the box started to slip from my hands. I barely made it to his car before I lost my grip, and it toppled into the trunk. The already damaged side of the box tore open.
An audible gasp escaped from the man next to me.
“Oh god, shit, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to,” I started but broke up.
Instead of cans of soup, something else spilled from the box.
At first, I didn’t understand what I was staring at. Between a mass of packaging peanuts, I saw something white. It was a small hand that dangled from the box.
What the hell?
Before I could even say a word or ask what was going on, the guy quickly closed the trunk. I jerked at the sudden, loud noise.
For a moment, we both stared at each other in silence. Me, completely bewildered by what I’d just seen, him, angry beyond anything.
For a moment, I was afraid the guy would jump me, but instead, he pushed me aside. In one fluid motion, he was back in the driver’s seat of a car, and a moment later, he drove off. I was left there, staring after his car.
During the long trip back to our warehouse, I tried to convince myself that my eyes had played a trick on me. There was no way there’d been a human being in that box. It had been getting dark. The guy had been creepy as hell, so my mind must’ve conjured up the image. I even laughed out loud, to convince myself how ridiculous the idea was, but the laugh was hollow and fake.
The heater in the car was turned to the max, yet I felt cold, shivering in my seat.
The moment I reached the warehouse, Martin was already waiting for me.
I almost drove right past it, but his face was as jovial as usual.
“Hey man,” he greeted me. “I was just checking up on a few things, so I thought I’d help you unload everything. How was the market? Any good?”
“Meh, it was pretty shitty to be honest, no customers at all.”
“Well, can’t be helped. Did the guy pick up the delivery?”
“Yeah, everything went well,” I blurted out, almost a bit too fast.
A hint of suspicion showed on his face. It was gone in an instant.
As we unloaded the van, we talked and joked as usual, but the atmosphere was different.
Something unspoken hung heavy in the air. Every once in a while, Martin’s eyes lingered on me a bit too long.
Neither of us said a word about the packaging peanuts scattered in the back of the van.
Instead, we simply unloaded the parts of the market stand and put the unsold cans of soup back into the warehouse.
Once we were done, I gathered my things to get on my way to the nearby bus station.
“Hey man, why the rush? Let’s go for a drink!” Martin offered.
I was about to decline and get the hell out of there, but a small voice in my head told me that wouldn’t fly tonight.
“Sure, why not,” I answered in as calm a voice I could muster.
We drove to a nearby grocery store, got ourselves a beer each, and settled back in his car.
While I stared at the bottle in my hand, Martin took a long sip of his beer.
“Sorry, man,” he finally said.
“What do you,” I started, but when he looked at me, I knew instantly that this was about the box.
A deep sigh followed.
“You know, I haven’t been quite honest with you. Things haven’t been going all that well. It’s all about online stores nowadays. No one goes to the weekly markets anymore.”
“After taking over the company, I barely scraped by. With Maria and the kids at home, it wasn’t enough.”
Once more, I nodded, trying my hardest to keep my anxiety at bay.
“I couldn’t tell Maria how bad things were. We’d just bought the new house, and now I couldn’t even pay off the freaking mortgage. I was looking for some serious trouble. So I started to do some research, went to a few trade shows and talked to some of dad’s old contacts. Eventually, I stumbled upon a few, well, alternate products.”
“And you started selling those on the side, right?”
We both were quiet for a long while, drinking our beer in silence.
“Never imagined I’d be selling something like that. Freaking sex dolls.”
“Sex dolls?” I blurted out.
He stared at me for a moment before he started to explain. He’d gotten in contact with someone from Eastern Europe, Slovakia, to be precise. It was a company that specialized in anatomically correct sex dolls. They were perfect to the last detail. Smooth, soft skin, real hair, the whole deal.
“It’s disgusting how close they are to the real deal. But there are people out there looking for just that.”
I took another sip of my beer. “You’re telling me there was a sex doll inside that box? Isn’t it a bit too small for that?”
Martin’s face turned dark. “Well, they make them in all sizes, you know? There are some people out there who are willing to pay a bit extra for… that.”
I knew what he was implying.
Once more, I looked over at Martin. For so many years, I thought I knew him.
I imagined him going home to his wife, tugging his three kids into bed, and in that moment, I felt sick to my stomach.
“Well, I guess it’s time for me to-”
“Hey, sorry again. Shit, I should’ve told you about this whole damn thing right from the start. I know it’s sick, fuck, it’s disgusting, but we’ve all got bills to pay, you know?”
His eyes rested on me, and he was looking at me pleadingly. Yet, there was something darker, more twisted, in his eyes.
“Guess you’re right. Well, good night, I really got to make it to the bus. Got another half hour ahead of me before I’m home.”
As I exited the car and went on my way to the bus station, I could feel his eyes digging into the back of my head. I forced myself to walk away as normally and calmly as I could.
Once I was on the bus, I lost it. The anxiety came back in full force, and I had to clutch onto the seat in front of me to keep it at bay. I should’ve been calmed. Martin had explained the whole thing to me. Sure, it was fucked up. Hell, it was probably illegal, but he’s still my best friend.
There was one more thing, though, an image that came back to my mind again and again.
It’s what I saw just moments before that man had closed the back of the trunk.
I’d wanted to ask Martin about it, wanted to confront him, but I’d been too afraid to do it.
Why in the hell had the hand of that sex doll moved?