DO NOT TOUCH,
the sign read.
“Are you serious?” the four-star Colonel asked. “Tell me you didn’t just waste a million of Uncle Sam’s dollars to copy and paste the same warning they throw on lawnmower blades.”
My fees were hardly that extravagant but I learned early on in my career not to argue with the man or woman signing my pay-check until they were done ranting. “It is just a suggestion, Sir. My final revision is still subject to your approval.”
The Colonel was a stone pillar of a man. Short, squat and solid enough that there was no doubt in my mind he would win in the confrontation should I decide to swing a baseball bat against his face with all my strength. He gave me a practiced sneer and leaned over the solid brass conference table so he could look me in the eye. “Then stop wasting my time and get back to work, you hack! I give you a chance to make your mark on history! I give you a reason to justify your sorry existence out of art-school, and the best you can tell my troops and the American Public is not to poke your fingers at it? You make me sick, sir!”
Perhaps the “Keep It Simple, Stupid” approach backfired this time but I still felt the sting of pride forcing me to argue.
“With all due respect, Sir,” I growled back at him, “what is wrong with this warning? Your scientists still haven’t classified it. Am I to place a sign that says Dry-Clean-Only next to it?”
The jab felt good but his glare steeled and intensified into a beam of searing white heat. The ten other army officials around the table all took turns to clear their throats uncomfortably in the silence that followed.
“I’m just saying,” I continued, raising my hands in an offering of surrender, “that simple is best in this case. Everyone can understand a poison symbol. Radioactivity and biohazard signage is so common most children understand they should avoid whatever is attached to them.” The symbol of a hand, reaching for a black orb, surrounded by a red ‘X’ still dominated the PowerPoint slide being projected in front of the room. “I think it works well.”
“How much are we paying him?” the colonel growled, turning to his assistant. “I want you to convert it to pounds of flesh so I know how much to rip out of his body.”
The meeting wasn’t nearly as successful as I had hoped.
I’m a technical writer… an artist! I create the signs and symbols people for the next three centuries will see around dangerous or forbidden things. My work, while it may not receive any awards, still is read by a billion pairs of eyes as they glance over the WHMIS descriptions of terrible chemicals and substances hiding in their so-called organic and biodegradable cleaning products. You may think my job is redundant but I invite any one of you to attempt to express into words the federal government’s desire not to be sued when you chug half a bottle of nail-polish and try to burn it out of your throat with a Zippo. I am the master of stating the obvious and it pays my bills fairly well.
Army jobs are the best. Last year they brought me in to design a label to attach to a surface-to-air missile that informed the operator that the weapon was for external use only. You may laugh but all it takes is one lawsuit for them to realize they could have paid me a fraction of it and avoided one completely.
This time is a little different, though. I had to get secret clearance even before they told me what it was I would be writing about. It turns out that during a bit of a freak accident down in New Mexico the army created a substance that nobody could figure out. Anything that touched it simply stopped being there. Was it sucked into another dimension? Destroyed? Turned invisible? Nobody really knew, so they suspended it between two magnets so it could never touch the ground. Problem solved. Nobody in their right mind, not even the magnet electricians and maintenance crews, would go out of their way to poke at this mysterious cosmic anomaly hidden safely away in the bowels of the earth in a nuclear-proof bunker.
Or so they thought…
Until the laboratory cleaning lady, a kind old woman from Arizona named Phyllis, tried to clean the black orb of void with a feather duster. Her family was awarded seventy million dollars in a hush-hush lawsuit.
So here I sit, staring at the penny-sized pinprick of nothingness hovering in mid-air deep underground. I’m trying to figure out what combination of words could prevent the most curious soul in the world from just reaching out and touching it. Do Not Touch. But why not? Will it hurt? Is it sharp? Cold? Hot? Will it give you cancer? Gas? Will you have nightmares about whatever universe is beyond this tiny speck? Will it be soft? Smooth? Warm and inviting? Or bone-jarring? Will it remind you of a hug or a punch to the face?
I sigh, putting down my pad and paper. You simply cannot post a sign that warns:
DO NOT TOUCH: SOMETHING MIGHT HAPPEN!
The little black pinprick of nothing hovers in front of me and broadcasts ridiculous, surreal temptation. It is soundless and smells faintly of ozone. It is an affront to my senses, but simultaneously… intriguing. As I finally notice my arm reaching out to it, driven by curiosity, I am struck by inspiration and pause just long enough to record my last thoughts via a hurried scribble on my paper pad.
WARNING: DANGER OF RECTAL BLEEDING.
Anyone still wanting to risk the unknown deserves to find out what will happen.
I sigh, take one last breath, and close my hand over the object.
It feels like —
Husband, father, and slave to the ideas that rampage around in his head, Christopher Brummet is looking to uncage some of those beasts and let them roam free in the Savannah of published works. Comments & critiques are always welcome, and help litter-train his stories to one day be ferocious man-eaters.