With one last heave I pulled the box out from under the mountain of stuff currently inhabiting my closet. It came out with enough force to send me tumbling backwards, the contents of the box spilling themselves across my bedroom floor. As I lay flat on my back, I silently cursed my rotten luck. Great. Now I'd have to clean it all up in addition to the mess in the closet.
I sat carefully back up, careful not to disturb the chaos around me too much, and began sorting through the bunch of old papers that had wound up on my stomach. As I shuffled them into a haphazard stack, I realized that they were my old English worksheets from high school. Looking around, I saw overstuffed folders and notebooks that were barely being held together by their spirals, spanning from freshman to senior year. Huh. I must have put them all in the same box and forgotten about them. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I put the papers on the floor next to me and began to stand up. However, when I put my foot down for more traction, rather than hitting the floor, it landed on something small and rectangular, and back down I went.
I lay on the floor, dazed, for what must have been several minutes before I ventured to sit back up. When I did, I reached down to see what it was that I had slipped on. It was a book. An old book with dog-eared pages that were just beginning to yellow. I turned it over carefully to read the title. Four Great Playsby Henrik Ibsen. The name seemed familiar, but I had apparently blocked the memory of it out, as I had no clear recollection of ever reading this. Curious, I opened the book to a random page and read the title at the top. An Enemy of the People.
Oh! I remember this! We had to read this for our summer assignment sophomore year. I never did like it very much. At the time I read it, I had thought the townspeople were just stupid for believing the main character's brother. In fact, I had thought the whole thing was pretty stupid (though in retrospect it might have just been me that was stupid). No wonder I didn't remember it before. Selective memory is a powerful thing.
I ran my finger down the page as I read a few lines. No matter how much I had disliked the story, having the book in my hand did remind me of that summer I had to read it. It was a very good summer.
Apropos of nothing, the windows began to rattle violently in their frames. I looked up out of instinct, possibly to see if the rattling was caused by a sudden storm or some sort of outside disturbance. As I did so, I suddenly became aware of something wet coating my fingers. I looked back down and raised my hand up. The book came with it. A string of beige colored goo was clinging to my hand and seemed to be coming from the book itself. The words on the page were blurry and appeared to be melting. My eyes went wide in shock.
"What," I managed to get out before everything went dark.
When I came to I was not lying on my bedroom floor. Rather, the surface beneath me was cold and seemed to be made out of some sort of stone. I blinked a few times and, once my eyes cleared, I was able to see the ceiling of the place I was in. It was high up and the rafters were exposed, indicating that this was not someone's house I was in. Or a hospital. That would have been okay, too. Then I remembered what had happened just before everything had gone black.
I shot up from the floor for the third time in a very short timeframe. As I looked around I noticed that something was very wrong. Namely, that I was lying on the floor about five feet away from an old fashioned manual printing press. That kind of freaked me out. Okay. Analyze the situation. There has to be a logical explanation to this. Have I been kidnapped? No, not that. Okay, windows, goo, printing press. Windows, goo, printing press. There's got to be some connection. Some… connection…oh! I get it, I'm dreaming!
Feeling proud of myself for figuring it out, I looked around the room again with a sense of calm. My location wasn't nearly so weird when it was factored in that I was, in fact, dreaming. I stood back up, not carefully this time as I was dreaming and it didn't matter if I hurt myself, and wandered over to the printing press, which stood in the middle of the room. There was a stack of papers that appeared to be freshly printed sitting on the tray. I picked one up and began scanning the page.
As I read, my eyes grew wider in shock. If I were to believe what my eyes were seeing (or rather, what my brain was telling me my eyes were seeing), then these were copies of Peter Stockmann's official statement discrediting his brother's claims. Ugh. Peter had been my least favorite character in the play, I remembered. Maybe…Well, it's a dream, isn't it? So if I decide to mess around a bit, then… I can, I guess. Besides, I really hated Peter Stockmann.
I grabbed the stack of papers in my arms and searched for a way to get rid of them. It didn't take me long to find what I was looking for. A metal stove sat in the corner of the workroom, and old fashioned one with a hatch to put in more fuel and a pipe leading up through the roof. How convenient. I looked briefly over my shoulder to see if anyone else was around before making my way over. Wasting no time, I opened the stove's front grille and threw the first of the papers inside. As I watched them burn, I felt a bit of vindictive pleasure course through my body. It felt nice to get back at someone I disliked immensely, even if that person was actually just a character in a play and all this was only happening in my dreams.
After I had put the last of the papers into the stove, I sat back on my heels to admire my work. Once the flames had died down to nothing, I stood back up to go find something else to do, but as I did, I noticed something strange. On the workroom walls, there were various pieces of paper, posters or whatever, pinned up. Before, I hadn't bothered to read them, as I had had better things to do. Now, however, I couldn't read them. As in I physically could not read the words on the papers. As in the words were melting off and dripping to the floor forming small puddles of beige goo.
Well that's just lovely.
I braced myself for the blackout, but it never came. Instead, after a moment, everything went back to the way it had been before. I shrugged it off. It was a dream. No one knows how these things work. When I turned to leave, however, I was confronted with a… something. It was there, but at the same time it wasn't. It had an indistinct shape but at the same time I got the impression that it was humanoid. All in all, it looked kind of like a smudge of color in the air.
"Um. Hi?" I said cautiously. The something said nothing for a moment.
"All actions have consequences, yours very much so," It said. I was taken aback for a moment. I hadn't really expected the something to actually speak, but when it did I'd have expected some deep, mysterious voice. It just sounded normal. Other than the fact that I couldn't guess for the life of me whether the voice was male or female. Honestly, that was more normal than anything at that moment.
"Okay… um, I hope you don't mind me asking, but who, exactly, are you?" I asked. It was an honest question that I figured I had a right to know the answer to. It was my dream, after all.
"You must fix the damage you have caused," It responded in lieu of an answer.
"Do you get your kicks being all vague and mysterious, or something?" I questioned. The something seemed to sigh, if that was even possible.
"I am the Spectre, and I am the protector of the multiverse. By burning those papers in this universe, you have set off a chain of events that will destroy the rest of them," Finally, some answers.
"So, what, you're the Ghost of English Classes Past?" You have to admit, that was kind of amusing. Or maybe I just had a concussion. At that point, they were both valid possibilities. In which case, I'd have to wake up soon and get myself to a hospital.
"If it comforts you to think that way, then yes," It said with what sounded like an air of resignation.
"Okay, so, how exactly did I break the universe?"
"Events can have unforeseen effects on random future events. It's called the butterfly effect, you should look it up. In your case, it's not a linear timeline but rather a string of dimensions that's being affected. By burning those papers, you have changed the ending to what the people of your universe think is a work of fiction, but is in actuality the story of an alternate reality bleeding through the cracks. This has started a domino chain of events that will destroy several universes unless the situation is rectified. And of course, the person who fixes them has to be you," It told me.
"What? Okay, one, I didn't get any of that-"
"In the words of your people, ya dun' goofed," It said with what I supposed was its equivalent of a straight face.
"And two, why do I have to be the one to fix it? I don't even know where to start," I finished.
"Well you were the one who stepped on the butterfly. And you'll figure something out. You have five hours before everything collapses," It said. And then it was gone. Like, not even a boom or a flash or anything. It was there and then it was gone. Just like that. The only other difference was that now there was a light weight on my wrist that hadn't been there before. I looked down to see the weirdest watch I had ever seen resting on my wrist. Instead of a display showing the time, there was a countdown that was at just under the five hour mark. Underneath that was a small round button with one word written on it.
I figured there was no reason why I shouldn't push it, so I did.
I was no longer stand in the empty workroom. Instead, I was in someone's home, surrounded by people dressed in Victorian clothing. They milled about, laughing, talking, some dancing. I had no idea where I was, or what I was supposed to do there. Panicking, I looked down at the watch. There was a new display, just above the countdown, that said A Doll's House. Oh. So this thing tells me where I am, too. Convenient. I looked around the room again, this time searching for a specific person. There! A young woman, talking and laughing with a tall man. That must be Nora and her husband. Just to be sure, I nudged a woman standing next to me to get her attention.
"That Mr. Helmer is a handsome man," I said, pointing to the man next to Nora. The elderly woman looked a bit taken aback.
"Mister- Oh no, that's not Torvald Helmer. You must be new to this town, yes? I remember when my husband and I first came here. No, it's not an easy thing, being in a new place with people you've never met. That, my dear, is Mister Krogstad. He's a friend of the Helmers, you see," she told me.
But that was impossible. Helmer and Krogstad weren't supposed to like each other.
"But didn't Helmer fire him?" I asked myself. Apparently the old woman heard, because she once again looked taken aback.
"Oh heavens no! Where ever did you hear that?" she asked.
"Perhaps it was someone else…" I said.
"Yes, it must have been. Yes, those two are good friends," she said half to herself as she moved away from me.
So that was what was wrong here. From what I remember, Krogstad's anger over being fired was what began the entire thing. But if that was the detail that was changed, then I had to assume that Nora had borrowed money from Krogstad without telling her husband. So the foundation was still in place. I could still fix it. But still… looking at Nora, laughing and dancing and safe in the knowledge that her secrets were safe, I didn't know if I could bring myself to shatter that happiness. And yet, I was supposed to put things back the way they were supposed to be. My task wasn't to ensure happiness or security, but to make things right. At the end of the play, Nora is supposed to leave to find her own way in the world, not stay here, in her happy little dollhouse. That is the end that is reached. It is the most important moment in the entire story. I can't let it not happen. She seemed happy, but I thought to how the play ends, I figured that rocking the boat is worth taking on a little water.
Quickly reaching a decision, I made my way to leave the party. On my way out I ducked into what appeared to be an office. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and scribbled down a note to Torvald Helmer. In it, I told him everything. I folded the paper up and wrote Torvald's name on the outside. Immediately after doing that I left the apartment and went downstairs, where somehow I knew the Helmers lived. I slid the note under the door. Without hanging around to see the fruits of my labors, I pressed the button that would take me to the next place.
I was standing behind a door, this much I knew. The cold stone wall was pressed up against my back in a very uncomfortable way. Beyond the slab of wood, I could hear voices engaged in a hushed conversation.
"Ismene-" the first voice began. The name sounded familiar but I couldn't quite place it. I tried to bring my wrist up to see what the watch had to say, but the door restricted my movements.
"No, Antigone, we cannot defy Creon's will," Ismene said. That's it! Antigone. I'd always liked Antigone. She had spunk. I could admire that. I waited for Antigone's rebuttal of Ismene's attempts at persuasion. Instead, I heard a resigned sigh.
"You are right, of course. Creon would have no choice but to kill us," came the soft, unassuming voice. At that moment, I was so very confused. Antigone was supposed to be headstrong and stubborn! Not some meek little mouse that won't do what is right because she fears the consequences for herself! My confusion melted away when I realized that this must be what I needed to fix. But how do I go about it? Talk Antigone out of whatever stupor she had fallen into? Bury the body myself and frame her, and hope that that would bring out her courageous side? Somehow convince Ismene to tell Antigone that she should bury the body after all? I could see no clear path, no easy way to do this.
While I was having my little freak out over what to do, the two sisters had left the room. The door swung closed on its own, and in front of me stood the Spectre.
"What are you doing here?" I asked it. It sighed in response.
"I'm here because you failed," it said.
"What? How did I fail? I know I fixed Nora's world, so don't tell me I didn't, and I've barely been here five minutes," I asked a bit hysterically.
"I programmed the watch specifically so it would bring you to right before the moment that was the best opportunity to fix the situation, so this would take the least amount of time possible. One moment, and you just missed it," if I didn't know better, I would have thought it sounded disappointed.
"Well why didn't you just tell me that in the first place?" I asked it.
"I had hoped it wouldn't be necessary, and that you would be smart enough to take the first opportunity presented to you,"
"So… what now? Does reality collapse in on itself?" I asked.
"Not exactly, no," it responded.
"I can fix this universe myself, but it will be very difficult now that the moment has passed. I'm willing to cut you a deal. I'll clean up your mess if, and only if, it doesn't happen again," it said.
"I don't think I can promise that," I responded.
"Well I'd recommend accepting the offer, it's the best one you're going to get."
"Fine. But like I said, I can't promise I won't mess up again," I said. I recognized that it had a point. If the situation here in Antigone's world was really as far gone as the Spectre said it was, then I was going to need all the help I could get.
"Good," it said, and the scene faded out. Not the same I-was-there-but-suddenly-wow-I'm-here-how-did-that-happen sort of fading out that had occurred when I used the watch. Instead, it was as if the colors of the room itself started melting and running into each other until the entire scene was no more than a multicolored blur, before the colors reformed themselves into a completely new setting.
When the scene solidified I was standing on the balcony of what looked like an old fashioned southern mansion. I was facing away from the inside, but once again I could hear voices coming from the room, though there were more of them this time. I turned around as quietly as I could and peeked in the window. I got a pleasant surprise, because this time there was no doubt as to where I was; no need to check the watch. Everyone looked exactly as they did in the movie version, which I guess is convenient. I guess it's also convenient that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of my favorite movies, however much I didn't like the play.
I had dropped in in the middle of an argument, one that I recognized immediately. The tension was obviously mounting, when Brick began to say something that I knew was a major event in the play. Except… this part was only supposed to be Brick and Big Daddy. Instead, for some reason, the rest of the family is in there too.
Brick began to speak, but before he could get the words out, Maggie was at his side, shushing him. Big Daddy seemed to be angered by this aborted sentence.
"What were you about to say, boy?" he demanded. The tension in the room raised a notch.
"Brick wasn't gonna say anything," Maggie answered for him. "Right, Brick?"
"Yeah. Wasn't gonna say anything," Brick agreed after a moment, sounding tired. At that moment I knew what needed to be fixed. This was the moment when Brick was supposed to reveal to Big Daddy that he was actually dying. Instead, the entire family was in there, rather than just the two of them, meaning that they could prevent Brick from letting it slip, like what had just happened. For a moment I debated whether or not I should fix it, but quickly decided that I would.
Well, there was only one way I could see that would achieve that in the least amount of time possible.
I moved away from the window before bursting through the balcony door.
"What Brick meant to say is that you're dying," I said loudly and without preamble. That garnered the expected reaction of shocked silence.
"And who are you?" someone asked me.
"I'm, uh, I'm," I searched my brain for an excuse that sounded believable. "I'm the kids' nanny. That's what I am."
Luckily for me, Mae and Gooper hadn't recovered enough from their shock to discredit my claims right away, which gave me, I estimated, at least thirty more seconds.
"What are you talking about?" Big Daddy demanded.
"I'm sorry for being so rude, sir, but earlier today I heard them discussing it and I thought you deserve to know that you're dying," I explained quickly, not pausing for breath or thought. "And now if you'll excuse me, I have things I need to do."
I swept back out of the room before any of them could form and articulate response. There. It's a bit crude, and maybe it would have been better if Big Daddy had been told by one of the family, but it got the job done. Once I was out of sight of the room where they were still standing frozen in shock I pressed the button on the watch and the hot summer night blacked out around me.
This time, I was in a large room in some ornate stone building. The architecture looked distinctly like ancient Roman, so I pretty much figured out where I was just from that, even before I looked at my watch. It seemed these universes all followed a pattern. That is, they were all plays we had read in English class my sophomore year. And in the exact same order, too. What a strange coincidence. Anyway, when I looked at the watch, it only confirmed what I already knew. Julius Caesar.
I was suddenly aware of people talking in hushed tones, and looked up to see a group of Roman men standing around some feet from me. Based on precedent, I figured I knew who they were.
"Brutus, I will agree to all of your suggestions except for the final one," and that just proved it.
"Why not, Cassius?" my guess was that I was listening to the conspirators, but which part of their conversation?
"Killing Antony is a… necessary precaution. He may be but a limb of Caesar, but in matters such as these it is best to cut off all limbs, lest they grow bodies of their own," Cassius said.
"Perhaps you are right," Brutus sounded thoughtful. The men finished their conversation soon after and dispersed. I made to follow Brutus, but my own thought stopped me in my tracks. I was supposed to fix the timeline, yes, but this time more than just someone's happiness is at stake. I know how Shakespeare's tragedies end. The main character hits rock bottom and everybody dies. If I don't go after Brutus now, maybe some of that bloodshed can be prevented. On the other hand, if I don't the whole of reality might collapse in on itself.
As soon as I have that thought my mind is made up. I go running after Brutus, with the intent to convince him not to kill Marc Antony, and in effect ruin his own life.
"Brutus!" I shout as I come up behind him. He turns around, looking startled. "I, um, I…"
But the words won't come, no matter how hard I try to force them. Before I can gather my wits together, Cassius has come up behind me.
"And why, pray tell, are you roaming the streets so late at night?" he asks me, and I panic, having not yet recovered from my run.
"I'm, I'm, um," I stutter, looking around wildly before I spot what my brain interprets as a good excuse. "I'm a statue inspector! Yes, yes, a statue inspector, that is what I am. Yes. That is a very nice statue, marble. Yes."
The two of them stare at me oddly for a moment before deciding that one harmless wackadoo wandering the streets of Rome really wasn't their problem, turned around, and kept walking.
I breathed a sigh before cringing. I had no doubt that what had just passed was the "right moment" or whatever the Spectre had called it, and I had missed it, and now I was going to be in hot water with it.
True to my predictions, the Spectre appeared only moments later. It looked at…or rather, faced in my general direction with an air of disappointment.
"I see you've failed again," it said.
"I'm really sorry, I really am. Please, it won't happen again, just… help me?" I asked it.
"Fine," it said. This threw me for a loop because I honestly did not expect it to actually agree.
"What? Why?" I asked
"Because I like you. You have spunk," the genderless voice seemed to be infused with some humor. Before I could formulate a response the world started melting again.
When it solidified I found myself standing on a walkway on an inner wall of what appeared to be a medieval castle. I looked at my watch. Macbeth. Great. Just great. Of all the plays we read that year this one had to be my least favorite. Luckily, somewhere deep in my gut, I got the feeling that I was nearing the end. Maybe this would be the last one and then that Spectre would let me wake up or go home or whatever. Not that this wasn't an exciting dream but I was kinda tired of the "gotta save the multiverse" thing. I looked at the timer on the watch. One hour left. I should be able to get this done by then.
I looked up to see that, several yards from where I was standing, a man who could only be Macbeth was talking to himself quietly. From a few minutes of listening I garnered that her was making what my English teacher had always called the "Floating Dagger" soliloquy. Which meant that he hadn't killed Duncan yet. Which meant that my job probably had something to do with that. Fantastic.
There was a commotion down in the courtyard. Both Macbeth and I looked to see what it was at the same time. Down on the ground, a man was walking and had apparently kicked something over accidentally. I had no idea who it was.
"Ah, Banquo, my trusted friend and confidante," Macbeth said to himself. Well that explained who the mystery visitor was. "Perhaps… perhaps it would benefit me to confide in you these darkest of thoughts. You have been my voice of reason when my imaginings get the best of me…"
Macbeth seemed to make up his mind and began descending the steps to the courtyard. I saw that this was the moment I needed. If things were to go as they should, Macbeth couldn't talk to Banquo at that time. Banquo would surely try to talk him out of killing Duncan. I quickly climbed down to the yard below, landing in a passageway that led in the opposite direction Macbeth was coming from. Thinking on my feet, I pulled down a stack of crates near me, making sure to make the most amount of noise possible. Once I was sure Banquo was following me, I ran down the passageway and out of sight.
This impromptu game of hide-and-seek continued for about ten minutes before Banquo finally caught up to me. I was just thanking my lucky stars that I hadn't managed to wake up the entire castle. He had me backed up against the wall of one of the walkways.
"Who are you?" he asked me.
"I'm, um, uhh…" I looked around for an excuse for the second time that night, but this time, instead of finding a statue, I found Macbeth coming up the nearest staircase. "Oh, whatever, I have no time for this."
And with that, I gave Banquo a firm push that sent him tumbling off the walkway. He fell about ten feet before landing in a large pile of hay, the hay being the reason I led him this far instead of letting him corner me further down the walkway, What? You didn't think I'd push him to his death, did you? I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a killer. Although… by distracting Banquo, I had, in essence, condemned him to death. That's not the sort of thing a person wants on their conscience, but I didn't have time to contemplate this before the scene started shifting and melting. This time, however, the world stayed in its surrealist painting form instead of reforming into another setting. In front of me was the Spectre.
"So, you managed not to ruin everything," the Spectre said.
"Yeah, I guess. Although…" I trailed off.
"What? Having a moral crisis? If I were you, I'd just remind myself that it's all happening inside your head," I got the feeling it was winking at me, though how that'd be possible I have no clue.
"Yeah, I guess," I said, smiling slightly.
"So did you learn anything?" it asked.
"Learned anything? I thought this was about me fixing what I had broken, not some teachable moment," I said.
"Well, yes, but I find that sometimes unfortunate coincidences can also be opportunities for growth," it responded.
"When you put it that way… yeah, I guess I did learn something. I remember being in school, and when we were reading these stories my teacher would always ask us questions about what it means to be human, to be a person. At the time, the only thought I put into it was: What answer does she want to hear? But now, I think I'm starting to see what she was trying to show us."
"And what is that?"
"That what it means to be human, that concept of humanity, is not one single idea but rather a collection of them. It's not just our good parts, our virtues and our loyalties and our love, but also our bad parts, our flaws and our mistakes and our lies. They all come together to create the human being. Nora and Big Daddy's family wouldn't be the same if it weren't for the lies they tell on order to protect. Antigone wouldn't be Antigone if she didn't stand up for what she believes in no matter what the cost. Brutus and Macbeth are who they are because of their flaws and their mistakes. And maybe the end result of these things isn't the nice, happy ending we all want, but they make it more real, make them more real, than any happily ever after ever could."
"Then it sounds like you've learned a lot," the Spectre said.
"I suppose I did. But…" I said, yawning a bit. "I'd like to go home now, if that's okay."
"Yes, I'll let you wake up. You've earned it."
Before I could ask it to clarify that statement, the scene blacked out, and in that instant I woke up, gasping, on the floor of my bedroom, with one thought in my head.
Whatever you do, do not step on the butterfly.