Not a Touch

I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling. “This is Block Island. On Block Island live a total of one thousand, three hundred and seventy–two people. We are safe here, but there is another island where we wouldn’t be. A larger island called a continent where more people live in a country called the United North American Alliance. It’s over five hundred thousand times as big as our island and located twenty–one kilometers to the north and twenty–three kilometers to the west. A rowboat is concealed on the southern half of our island in Split Rock Cove behind a boulder marked with red. If anyone ever comes and says they’re from the continent, they should be brought to you or Uncle John immediately. If I ever notice anything coming toward the island, I should tell you or Uncle John immediately. If I ever want to go to the continent, I’m to come and talk to you first and not do anything rash.”

“And?”

“And…and…” My head shook to recall what I had missed. “Oh! And never tell Lina.”

“Good,” he said. “Good.” But he didn’t stir.

After a few moments I rose to leave and he turned to me, jolted back to reality as if he’d forgotten I was there. “No.” His voice was suddenly sad. “I have more.”

He stood, dug around underneath his bed, and pulled out a wooden box a few centimeters square. It was locked. He fumbled in his pocket for a key and clicked it in place. It groaned with disuse as it slid open. Inside was a sheet of black glass. He held it in front of himself for me to see.

“Son, this is a computer. You’re almost fifteen. Old enough for this. I need you to promise me four things.” He set it gingerly on the bed. He grabbed the two chairs from the window and dragged them next to the bed, facing it, then sat down in one. He scooted it as far back from the computer as he could as if afraid it might catch on fire, then he tapped the chair next to himself where he wanted me to sit. It was hard to pry my eyes from the shiny pane lying on his bed, and he came to me, grabbed my chin, pulled my gaze to his.

“Four things. Promise me. Right now.”

“Okay, okay.” The intensity in his tone made me nervous, and I took a step backward. He dropped his hands. Wrinkles I’d never noticed seemed to sink into his forehead.

“Son, I need you to understand that these aren’t normal promises, okay? These aren’t try–your–best–and–hope–it–works–out promises. These are if–you–don’t–keep–them–we–could–all–die promises. It’s not a joke or a game. I just need you to understand how serious this is, and I need to know you’re paying attention.”

“Yeah, dad, okay.” He sat back down and once again tapped the chair next to him. I sat, both of us now staring at the thin glass monster on his bed. “I promise.”

He turned and put his hand on my shoulder. “First. don’t tell your sister. She’s too young.”

That same promise, like a mantra, five minutes a week, for a year. “Yeah, sure, of course. I won’t tell Lina.”

“Second. don’t ever turn that on.”

He glanced at the computer that lay, innocuous, in front of us, and shuddered, an involuntary movement that rattled his teeth.

“Okay.”

“No.” He turned back to me. I’d never seen him so severely earnest. “Not just okay, son. That thing could destroy us. One touch, one button, and death. do you understand? don’t ever let any amount of natural curiosity make you forget that. I’m not holding out on some secret fun. It’s not magical or interesting. It’s just death.”

“Dad, I promise. I won’t ever touch it. Why are you even showing it to me?”

“So you can keep promises three and four.”