“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?”-
Autumn showed up early, and so did the bills. Taking those and some home furnishing coupons in his free hand, and a sip from the coffee mug in his occupied one, John shivered and went back upstairs.
Calling in sick was a good idea, and so was setting the bills aside to thumb through the junk mail, which was doing its best to seduce him with promises of little to no interest. Ironic, he thought. He was about to pour another cup of his favorite blend when he spotted something: the corner of a small, unremarkable envelope, trapped under a pile of loud colors and cellophane. He brushed aside the other mail clamoring for his attention and picked it up. On the outside of the envelope was written:
DO NOT OPEN
John seemed to be stuck to the armchair. His breathing was shallow and nearly still.
His eyes moved to the envelope. Something compelled him to slip it into his jeans pocket.
Knock, knock, knock.
“John, are you there?” a female voice came from the other side.
He exhaled slowly. What was wrong with him? Did he think his boss had somehow found out he was healthy as a horse and simply hated his job? His better judgment spoke up: Get yourself together, man.
“Yeah,” he fiddled his hair around in his hands, “Sorry, coming.”
He opened the door.
It was Sarah, his neighbor from across the hall. Dressed for work, she would have been crisp and intimidating any other morning. But now, clutching her coffee tumbler, she looked unsettled, smaller somehow.
“Morning,” she tried to shine up her tone, “May I come in?”
“Of course,” he said.
Sarah stepped in and closed the door, locking it behind her.
John looked at her a moment; it was something about her eyes. They looked frightened. He decided to ignore that in favor of courtesy, offering her more coffee.
“No, thanks, I’m good, still have some left,” she smiled nervously, sitting down on the couch.
John returned to the armchair across from her. He felt a pang of shame for the condition of his coffee table and fumbled around, shifting his stack of magazines and mail to another corner.
“Sorry,” he looked to the floor, “It’s awful.”
She smiled, “It’s cool, mine’s no better.”
He made a sound of polite concession, which was followed by the obligatory awkward silence.
“Listen,” she said, “I know we don’t really talk, but for some reason, I felt like I had to tell you about this”.
Reaching into her back pocket, Sarah hesitated a moment and placed what was in her hand on the table in front of her. A small envelope, identical to the one in John’s own pocket: plain other than a single inscription. It was written by the same hand as the words on his envelope, but Sarah’s message was different. It only said this:
“Oh God!” she gasped
He started, “What is it?”
Sarah said slowly, as if each syllable was afraid to come out, “When I put it in my pocket to show you, it said ‘Do Not Open’,” the color had drained away from her cheeks, “I swear,” her voice trailed off, and John noticed she was trembling.
John’s eyes widened and he could feel sweat pricking his brow. Not possible.
Saying nothing, he slowly pulled out his own envelope and placed it next to hers. Keeping it underneath his hand, John kept his eyes closed a moment and inhaled deeply, lifting his fingers from the top of the envelope as if they were now filled with lead. Sarah clasped her hand over her mouth. Everything inside him, even the flow of his blood, seemed to stop,
“Mine changed, too,” were the only words he could seem to get out. The words ‘Do Not’ had vanished completely, and only ‘Open’ remained.
The silence seemed to last forever. Outside the wind jarred the trees, and they cast their leaves to the ground in heaps. The sky darkened and thunder rumbled low and deep in the distance. A storm was coming.
Sun seeped in through the window; the only window. It was many feet above her, and she strained her neck, trying to discern a cloud, trying to read the weather by the solitary beam of light. Taking a sharpened, white rock, she made a hash mark on the brown stone wall. By now she had lost count; it was pure habit. Like everything else in her life for as long as she can remember, her system of timekeeping was consistent, predictable to an unforgiving degree; each repeated motion absolutely hollow, and marked by a longing that was so similar to hunger she could not often discern the difference. It didn’t matter anyway: she ate when it was she was told to eat. She was hungry when she was told to be hungry. She was happy when it was ordered of her.
She heard the huge latch being lifted. That was her cue. She put on the cloak, pulling the hood over her head. The door was swung open and a guard entered. He approached her, but her eyes remained averted as she extended her hands. The guard clasped the irons around her wrists. She then stood and parted her feet, in order that he may add a matching pair to her ankles before turning to lead her out into the hall.
The floor was cold on her bare feet, even though they were calloused and numb. She sighed, exhaling with care. If her sigh was too deep, the guards would often strike her, cursing her for her contempt and ingratitude. She followed the guard, who remained a few paces in front of her. She was repulsed by her own smell and did not wonder why others kept their distance.
She had learned to keep her eyes to the floor unless addressed or otherwise given permission. She was forced to ignore the faint cries of agony and despair coming from the other cells, lest she be labeled a conspirator. She had not ever actually seen the face of another prisoner. Those in charge were very careful to keep them all separate. Human contact was a luxury to which they were not privy.
They had reached the stairwell. Although it didn’t seem possible that they could get further away from the light of day, they descended. The stairs were steep and formed into a spiral; torches mounted on the wall their only light. They were reaching the bottom and her eyes moved to one of the flickering flames. In that moment, it seemed she could hear someone calling her by a name she could not discern or remember; she had not been called by a name for a long time. She could see herself around a table, eating and drinking, a blaze crackling in the fireplace; no one’s plate or goblet was ever empty. In that moment she closed her eyes. And her foot slipped.
She yelped, not knowing how far she would fall, she braced herself as best she could. But she felt no pain. Instead she felt arms around her. She opened her eyes to the guard, who had whipped around and caught her to keep her from smacking her face on the cold, jagged stairs. Her eyes widened.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Yes, “ she answered, her voice was shaky and afraid.
They were right at the bottom. She had stumbled on the last step. The guard looked at her, her hood was down and her fiery red hair was wild and disheveled. Her eyes were blue and frightened. They were only comfortable when focused on the sea of stones beneath her feet.
The guard cleared his throat. Stepping back in front of her, he opened the only door in that room. They entered into a much larger room: it was square and dank; the smell of blood mingled with the stench left by countless unwashed prisoners. The guard took his place in the corner, watching with feigned disinterest.
“Do you renounce your crimes?” a male voice, devoid of emotion, addressed her.
“I do not,” she answered, her voice calm.
“Very well,” came the voice.
With one fell swoop, she was knocked to the ground. Whether or not she cried out, she did not know. But she felt the familiar sting and burn of torn skin, and the warmth of blood rising from inside of her as it dripped on the floor. The guard remained silent.
The figure who had been speaking to her stepped from the shadows. Although he was considerably older than the prisoner, his exact age was indeterminable. He had black hair, flecked with grey. His eyes were green and empty. He drew from his side a leather whip and lashed her with all his might five times across the back. Blood began to pool. Though the pain was indescribable, she did her best to let her tears fall in silence.
The man with the whip spat on her. He handed the whip, still warm from his own grasp, to the guard, who he had motioned to join him behind the prisoner.
“Give her ten more, then take her back,” he said.
The guard flicked his gaze down as a gesture of understanding. The man with the green eyes left the room and let the door slam shut. The guard listened for the sound of his footsteps to fade, but there were no footsteps. The guard knew the man with the green eyes was waiting outside to make sure he carried out the order before he left them completely alone.
He drew the whip. She drew her breath in and held it tight, preparing for the searing pain of the next blow. She cried out when she heard the whip crack, but felt nothing. He had missed. Not daring to look up, she remained on her knees, her face downcast. He would not make the same mistake again. She heard him rear back. The whip cracked again, but she felt nothing. Impossible. As the footsteps of the man with the green eyes trailed off, the guard missed his mark 8 more times.
He came around to the other side of her. He knelt down. She winced under the touch of his hands as they helped bring her to her feet. She was covered in blood, it mingled with her tears on her battered face. She tried to stand, but the weight of the irons was too much after the beating. She fainted, but for the second time that day, her fall was broken.
She woke in her cell, without her irons; next to her was a plate of fresh fruit and a cup of cold, clean water.