‘The Man That Never Smiles’ – By: James Hatton
Title Submitted By: Joe Kenner
Alan wasn’t always unhappy, but he couldn’t quite remember a time in which there was enough positivity in his life to actually make his cheeks turn up. Not to say he ever really considered this, because he wasn’t the type to question his station in the world. He lived his life, and that was the life he had. In the morning he would wake up and pour himself a cup of coffee that had been set by the timer to be piping hot and ready the moment he got out of bed. Work would be a standard affair of sitting at his desk and pushing out file after file of adjusted balances for his various clients. Sometimes in the middle there would be a conversation about a television show that he would nod at as the other folks in the nearby cubicles jovially discussed whatever sport or entertainment show happened to catch their fancy the night before.
Every night at 5:30pm he would clock out and head on home, sometimes stopping by for a magazine to glance through, but for the most part the news just saddened him and the high world of fashion, sex, and fame just left him feeling morose to his core. He was surely no catch for any of the sexy ladies that graced the men’s magazines and he had a dozen of the same similarly tailored suits, so why would he need to admire other people’s clothes? It all just seemed such a waste.
Upon arriving home, Alan would feed his fish, thaw some manner of ovenmade food, and finish out his day plotting out troop movements with the play-by-mail penpal he’d had since he was twelve. They had never met, and even as computers and email had grown to be the way people connected and spoke, he and Ahjit never sent anything more than notepad paper filled with various grid positions.
This was Alan and this was Alan’s life.
If you asked him if he was happy, he would assure you that life wasn’t there for his happiness, but he wrung as much contentment out of it that he could bear. The few people that had ever bothered to ask him a question like that walked away not knowing if he was being so dryly sarcastic as to be brilliantly funny or if they had just met the most flatlined personality they might ever encounter. Alan, in turn, would pay them no mind and usually would forget the conversation a few moments later, dismissing the person as just another disturbance to his routine.
Alan sat over a grid, pondering Ahjit’s last move. When he was a teenager, he had a fairly large grid map he kept on his desk to figure out precisely what was going on the situation of battle, but he had given up on that long ago. By now he could look at the letters and numbers and figure out what was going on. He had read somewhere that a true chess master could play a game without ever moving a piece, and he felt this was probably as close as he would ever get to that level of accomplishment at anything. He could tell simply from the numbers that there was a group of twenty men moving from the west to flank his position, and was certain that Ahjit had forgotten that these men had a lookout amongst them. If they were placed in battle against each other, Alan’s team would surely prevail.
The knock on his door startled him so severely that he broke the tip of his pencil against the paper.
When he peered through the peep hole of the door he saw that nobody was there, but opening the door revealed a package in plain brown paper. It was addressed to him with no returning address, and no sign of where it had come from. Alan hadn’t ordered anything from a catalog in years, finding it too impersonal, and he didn’t own a computer as they he dealt with them for eight and a half hours a day. He stared at it in the doorway of his apartment long enough for it to seem odd. Then, as if restarted by a key, he turned and walked into his one room apartment and placed it on the kitchen table, barren of anything but a notebook and a broken tipped pencil.
He stared at it.
It confused him to the point of almost fear. The fear confused him as well. This box was so ultimately foreign to his day in and day out activities that its presence in his home felt wrong. It was out of place and incorrect. He was tempted to write ‘RETURN TO SENDER’ on it and leave it in front of his door for the postman to find the next day.
‘Stop it Alan.’ he whispered aloud, and for a brief moment he recognized it was the first thing he had said that day. That week? That month?
He recognized the only real way of getting this little speedbump out of the way was to open it and handle it as quickly as possible. He moved to the kitchen and retrieved a pair of scissors and as the metal touched the flat brown butcher’s paper he felt a nausea begin burning in his stomach. At the sound of the metal blades pressing against each other with the first slice of paper being set free he let out a wincing gasping noise that sounded like he had been hit in the chest.
There was a cold sweat on his forehead and his nose had all of a sudden filled with the kind of congestion he only expected during the change into Spring, given his slight allergy to pollen. He snorted through and the want to take the box and hurl it into the garbage grew stronger. All of it was so foreign to him. These feelings. This confusion and nausea. All because of a box? A non-descript box?
The scissors clamped down again, the paper fluttered to one side revealing a sealed cardboard box, and Alan cried out like it was his arm that was being cut. He pressed a hand to his stomach just to check that there wasn’t blood. His breathing had sped up and his eyes had closed to half moons as a splash of a tear hit the paper and immediately darkened its color.
One more cut. Another gasp. Another lurch of his stomach. This one was too much though, and he ran into the bathroom to vomit up the Stoffer’s macaroni and cheese he had eaten for dinner. As he sat over the toilet, his face lingering just a few inches away from his partially digested food, a bubble of snot growing from his nose, he started to believe that the box wasn’t there. His disbelief and need for things to just be normal started to build around him like a wall. He needed to step back into his dining room and see that the table was barren except for Ahjit’s flanking troops.
He stood and wiped his nose and eyes, now puffy with the tears that come with an upheaving stomach. He swallowed hard once and stepped back into the dining room.
The box was there, half out of its wrapper. A closed corrugated box, taped down the center pristinely, wrapped precisely in simple brown paper.
Alan nearly passed out from the sight of it.
He stepped to it and slid out the box, and the white noise of paper on cardboard echoed in his head with such volume that he actually whispered for it to ‘shhhh’ in case the neighbors might call the police for a noise disturbance. His hands were wet and trembling as the paper collapsed without the weight of the box within to hold it up. That single gesture was almost enough to make him run back into the bathroom as he saw this structure of pulped wood bob downward. The shell of the package falling apart.
Alan realized all he had to do was slice open the tape that held the top flaps of the box together, and the mystery would be over. He would open the box. It would be empty. He would be free of its madness and able to throw it away and ignore it. It would be gone.
As he picked up the scissors he recognized just how cold and slippery the were from the sweat on his palms. He knew somewhere in him there was a feeling that he should just turn the scissors back a bit and push them into his gut. If he was to die right here and now, this would all be over. The fear and nausea would cease. This damnable box wouldn’t be mocking him from within his own home. There would be order again. Perfect order.
The tape split quickly and the flaps opened a bit of their own volition, no longer being bound together. Alan’s heart was visible as it thrummed against his chest.
The flaps opened. A white paper bulging at the center as if something lay beneath it.
Alan’s head shook violently, as if he was responding to some question that wasn’t asked. ‘No.. no no no no no..’ he tried to command his hands and body from continuing with this one act play against his brain’s direction. He wanted to stop this and every ounce of his being was begging for him to not look at the paper or the small flash drive that lay beneath it.
He yelled out to nobody, ‘HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT?’
He ripped the page up and just as some internal dialogue had informed him, there lay the perfect square of a USB key.
RIP THE PAPER.
‘I.. can’t…’ he cried, and these tears were the first thing he remembered feeling in so long. An overwhelming sadness as the paper fell to the ground and he took out the small black drive. He snotted and wept without ending, his fingers digging into the side of his neck, looking for something that he hadn’t recognized was there.
A port. A place for the drive. ‘Whhyyyy?’ Part of his mind knew so much more than he did, and he had no cognition of the reasons behind it.
He felt the coldness of the key as it clicked into the meat just below his shoulder. He passed out.
South Lexington Department of Corrections
Dear Alan Thomas,
We are happy to inform you that your incarceration time has reached its end. We are certain that your initial discomfort at the appearance of this letter will slowly wane once you’ve re-activated your Self-Containted Personality Matrix ™.
The first few days will feel awkward and uncomfortable due to your extended Internal Self-Accepted Imprisonment ™. We have representatives an counselors available for on phone sessions at any time you feel there might be a problem with the unlocking process.
We would like to remind you that your term of [bold]FIFTEEN YEARS[un-bold] was completed in full and you are now a free man in society to do as you please. Further infractions of the law can and will lead to further Self-Accepted Imprisonment ™.
NAME: ALAN THOMAS
SENTENCE: 15 YEARS SELF-ACCEPTED IMPRISONMENT – TIME SERVED
CRIME: MURDER, 2ND DEGREE
Welcome back to the world,
Warden & VP of Technologies
South Lexington Department of Corrections
Self-Accepted Imprisonment Dept.