The stuffed manila envelope sits inconspicuously between the potted plant and the wall. I almost didn’t see it, but I dropped my apartment keys before I unlock my door. When I bent down, I saw the package.
Something is off about the package, and I’m hesitant to touch it. I gently nudge it out from behind the dying plant with my knuckles.
No address, no return address, no name, no postage, nothing, there is no writing on the envelope.
Alarm bells of all sorts sound in my head.
Could it be a bomb?
Was this package meant for me?
Who had sent it? Why? Was it safe to open?
I pick it up with my thumb and index finger, touching as little of the package as I can.
The package is cold to touch, very cold, which is odd because it’s a hot August in Texas.
I should take this straight to the dumpster! Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Much like the doomed cat (either Schrödinger’s indeterminate pet or the merely curious feline), I cannot help myself.
The package is an enigma, a mystery. I’ve been bored lately, and I had zero plans for the evening. I pick it up properly, letting it rest on my open palm. It is still cool, but it’s warming quickly, as if it had just arrived from someplace far away, someplace quite cold. But I saw no one on the steps to my apartment when I got home. I bend down, pick up my keys, and let myself into my studio.
I lay the package on my kitchen counter, pour myself a glass of wine, and take a hot shower. My boredom shapes this unexpected package into a project of sorts, a puzzle whose solution I don’t want to unravel too quickly. I need a hobby. I step from the shower and dry myself.
What is in the envelope? It’s a mystery.
I have weak eyes. I am both nearsighted and had a lifelong case of astigmatism. Upon waking, my eyes will sometimes land upon some object of mine. Without the aid of my eyeglasses, I don’t recognize the blurry but familiar object. I could easily collapse the mystery by putting on my glasses or picking up the item, but I find I enjoy resting in the ‘not knowing’ state. My brain tries to add a convenient label to whatever the thing is. There are evolutionary reasons for this behavior, of course. One must always remain alert to one’s surroundings. Otherwise, you didn’t get to create offspring and ensure one’s survival through reproducing.
That is how I’m feeling about the thick manilla envelope with the brass clasp holding it shut. Once I undo the brass fastener, the mystery will collapse, and I will fall again into boredom. Once I tip the envelope and dump its contents on my counter, out will pour some mundane thing, and all questions and interest will evaporate immediately. It will be a stack of recipes or coupons or some equally common thing.
For now, I like not knowing. I quickly skim through my mantra of questions about the unexpected package’s origin and contents.
The biggest one: ‘Is it safe?’
As a long-term sufferer from depression and a fifty-nine-year-old man, I am slowly coming around to the idea that safety is vastly overrated. It shuts too many doors, leaves too much life unlived. I decide I don’t care if it’s safe.
I know I will open the envelope soon. I am no longer afraid of what might be inside. I sip my wine, relishing in the glorious tension of unresolved mystery.
Oh well, nothing lasts forever. I set my glass on the counter, pick up the envelope. It’s time to see if the cat is dead or alive. I unfasten the brass clasp, open the flap, and dump the contents onto my kitchen table.
It’s a tied stack of newspaper clippings, flyers, papers, notes. It is not recipes or coupons, nor is it anything mundane. I untie the loose bundle and read. Slowly my understanding of reality grows pliable and fluid as everything I once thought to be true unravels.
Every clipping and paper in the bundle is a missing person flyer. Each one contains the name, date of birth, and a photo of the missing individual. Every single one of them is for the same person, but from different points in their life. Some from when they were five, several from their teenage years. The weirdest part? They are all of me; it is my name and birthdate that appear on each. It is my face I see in the photos. According to this stack of papers, I’ve been a missing person thirty-seven times in my life.
I guess I was wrong. Opening the envelope didn’t collapse the mystery into some mundane resolution; it threw me into the biggest riddle of my life. My skin tingles with the loveliness of the puzzle before me.
Looking at the clock, I see a long night ahead of me. I dump my wine in the sink and put on a pot of coffee. I’ve got to figure this out before I even think about crawling into bed.
I have filled 12 pages from my yellow legal pad. Notes extracted from the flyers. Dates of when I went missing. Comparing the list of dates against my not overly reliable memory, I realize one key to this mystery. Each date of my having gone missing, corresponding to either an accident or a time of turmoil in my life. Being struck by a car at seven years old was the earliest. A broken engagement while living in Germany was also in there. Each time something befell me physically or emotionally, I went missing afterward.
I wonder how deep down this rabbit hole I’m willing to go.
I pour the last bit of coffee into my sturdy mug and return to the paper trail investigation strewn across my table.
I pick up the last flyer. My heart skips a beat.
From the parking lot, I hear a car stop; the ignition turned off.
The date from the last flyer, the date I go missing, is today!
I hear someone making their way up the stairs to my home, moving quietly as if they don’t want to be heard.
Every hair on the back of my neck raises.
Maybe they’re visiting my neighbor.
The clock tells me it’s 4:13 AM; hardly prime time for visitors here at Collin Creek.
Separate timelines! The puzzle solution lunges off the yellow sheets and lands fully formed in my brain. I died during each event alluded to in these documents. But I didn’t die! I showed up missing in that reality, and my universe split apart each time into a separate branch.
Am I immortal?
Am I a god?
The person climbing the stairs reaches the landing outside my front door.
I’m up and out of my chair before the first knocks have finished.
I walk to the door, unafraid, ready for my next chapter to begin.