Updated: Apr 10
During my first few weeks of college, my dormitory had a raffle to win 13 gallons of popcorn from a nearby gas station. I was amused to discover that the "gallon" is a common unit of measurement for popcorn, and so was therefore impressed by how much I was already learning at college.
Much to my surprise, I won the raffle. I asked a new friend from my Monday morning class if she'd like to walk down to the store to share a pint or two of popcorn after the lecture. When we arrived and presented my winning ticket to the young man behind the counter, I thought I'd be given a punch card in exchange. How clever would it be to have a card with 13 kernels in two straight lines across it, which would be punched by a popped-kernel-shaped punch every time I visited? Maybe my goal should be to bring a new friend from class for each punch as a way to both increase my friendship circle, and to spend down what felt like an obscene amount of popcorn.
But instead of being handed a popcorny, friendship-building punch card, the manager took my winning ticket, read it, sighed heavily, grabbed a metal scoop, and disappeared into the back of the store. A few minutes later he emerged with a large, clear, plastic bag--the size of a husky nine-year-old--filled to the brim with 13 gallons of plain white popcorn.
He heaved it onto the counter and smiled.
"I thought I'd be able to come and get just a little at a time," I said, my eyes wide on the bag.
"Well," he shrugged, "the ticket said 13 gallons of popcorn, and that's what she is," he said, slapping the bag hard like he was thanking a horse after a good ride.
"You don't have, like, a punch-card system?" I asked, wondering how the hell I was going to haul this four-foot-tall, three-foot-wide bag the six blocks back to campus.
"Look around you," he said with a smile. "Do we look like a punch-card type of place?"
And as I looked around the convenience store, I noticed for the first time that there were bars on the window, a staticky TV displaying a black-and-white feed of the cameras angled at the front door, and dead flies on the floor near the cash register. When my eyes met my new friend's for the first time, I saw that she was laughing so hard tears were streaming down her face.
So off we went, my new friend beside me, still unable to talk through all the tears, and me, with a 13 gallon bag of popcorn slung over my shoulder like Santa Claus. As we shuffled back to campus--her laughter and my grunting slowly subsiding--we discussed our options. Should we take it to the Student Union and just leave it near the vending machine? Should we put it in my car and take it to the movie theatre and see if they will buy it from us? Should we go back to the convenience store and simply return it? How was I feeling so burdened today by something I didn't even have--or even knew existed--yesterday?
By the time we got back to the dorms, my new friend and I finally had a plan. We would hold a party for the entire dormitory and have everyone bring whatever they had in their rooms, and that would be the easiest way to rid ourselves of this damn popcorn while also giving us a chance to meet everyone. And so that's what we did. We spent the afternoon knocking on every door to show the curious strangers inside the monstrous bag as if it were a prize-winning bass we had caught.
That night the party went wonderfully. At one point I looked across the room to see the child-sized popcorn sitting in the middle of a circle of girls happily chatting and chomping away. Had my new friend and I found a way to quickly get rid of 13 gallons of popcorn, and a way to bond hundreds of new friends? Perhaps we had.
Perhaps we had.
As the party died down I glanced at the bag of popcorn. It was slumped over by the stairs, but dammit, it looked the same size. Hours and hours and dozens of hands had reached in there. I saw solo cups of popcorn being passed around. At one point, some girls were even filling up Ziplock bags to take back to their rooms for later. And yet, we had barely made a dent--not more than a few quarts were gone. I sighed--happy about the party; frustrated by the corn--and continued to help others clean up. Finally, having said goodbye to everyone, I turned toward the stairs to grab my bag of popcorn, which I was now worried would still be with me at graduation in four years.
Only it wasn't there.
My eyes darted around the room. It's hard to miss a bag this size of any kind, especially one filled with popcorn. Where the hell was it? I ran up the stairs and down the hall. It wasn't on the second floor. Or the third. Or the fourth. I knocked on endless doors and asked with increasing panic, "Have you seen my bag of popcorn?!?" I went down to the basement. I looked in the storage closet. I checked the laundry room. I asked the RA to open the mail room for me.
Feeling so sad to have misplaced a bag I had spent all day trying to rid myself of, I went back to my own room. I sat on my bed and chewed my nails, thinking. Then I slid down to the floor to look under my bed. But in the dorm there wasn't space under the bed, only a row of small drawers that could each barely fit a bag of microwaved popcorn, and yet--and yet--I opened each of them and peered inside. Then without the slightest hint of irony, I checked the microwave-bag-sized drawers under my roommate's bed.
Then a new question hit me: Where had my new friend gone? She was with me all day. She had helped me lug the popcorn. She had helped me invite everyone to the party. But then she had vanished. At what point did she leave the party? Oh my god, I thought to myself, she hates me. She wasn't my friend at all. She was just humoring me and my stupid bag of popcorn and my popcorn party and I'm such an idiot to believe I had made a new friend--that I had made lots of new friends---
My insecure and unrelenting inner monologue was interrupted by the phone ringing.
"Hello?" I answered
"Check your email," said a voice that had been manipulated like in a horror film.
"What?" I said. "Who is this?!"
"You heard me," the dark, graveled voice responded. "Check your email...or else."
And the phone clicked off.
What the hell is going on? I thought as my shaky hands turned toward my laptop, opening it and nervously pounding in the wrong password over and over. Finally, my email opened and there sat a message from an address I didn't recognize. In the email was an embedded video. I looked around my empty room, as if I knew that what I was about to do was both wrong and dangerous. I sucked in a big gulp of air and hit play.
Two people appeared on the screen wearing black ski masks over their faces. I could see only their eyes, which were narrowed and angry. In the same manipulated voice I heard on the phone, one said, "We have something of yours that is very valuable and you are going to pay big if you ever want it back." My hand clasped immediately to my neck to check that the locket my parents gave me was still attached. It was. I opened the drawer of my desk to see my journal sitting there. My brow furrowed in confusion.
But then, the two masked faces backed away from the camera and separated, and between them, I saw it.
Tied to a chair with duct tape, wearing both a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap, was my 13 (well, now 12) gallon bag of popcorn.
The masked faces disappeared and the camera zoomed in on the bag, to show it now had a magic marker face; its mouth was contorted in a big, dark, open scream. The bag began to shake and a high-pitched yelp was let out. "Meg!!" the voice trembled, "Help me! Help me! Just open your door and help me!"
My heart was pounding. Was I going to scream or laugh? Why was I scared? It felt silly to be scared, but who were the masked figures in the video? How did they set up a fake email account so quickly? Where did they get a video camera (this was the early 2000s)? As I walked to my door and grabbed for the knob I had so many questions--most of which were about how technologically advanced the people at this college appeared to be. I couldn't even keep my Tamagotchi alive.
I swung open my door and there, on the floor in front of my room, was my bag of popcorn, the bright eyes from the video now marked with an "X." I studied it for a minute, oddly afraid to touch it, when all of a sudden the two masked faces jumped in front of me and yelled, "BOO!" I screamed the scream of Ophelia. The sound of doors opening filled the hall as the girls came cautiously out of their rooms, one even carrying a baseball bat.
They all huddled around to see my new friend from Monday class strip off her mask and throw back her head in laughter. Her accomplice, later revealed to be her roommate, pulled off her mask, too. Suddenly the entire floor was filled with laughter, and the party started up all over again, lasting well into the morning.
The next week, before our Monday morning class, my friend came by to help me haul down the remaining 11 gallons of popcorn and heave it into the dumpsters behind the dormitory.
"Why didn't I just do that in the first place?" I asked with a laugh, thinking of all that had happened with this damn bag of popcorn.
"That's not the question you should ask," my friend said, smiling at me.
"Oh?" I said, curious. "What's a better question?"
"Why did you enter a raffle for 13 gallons of popcorn in the first place?"
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