Each bookshelf held exactly three novels, three nonfiction books and thirty-three magazines–in that order. The books were ordered from thickest to thinnest, as were the magazines. On top of the bookcases stood a feather duster, a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a dustpan.
A fruit basket sat on the table in the exact center of the room. Three apples were aligned due east; three oranges pointed south. Whenever one rolled out of position, the owner of the room would scramble to push it back in place. Around the bowl were thirty chess pawns, each spaced twenty-two degrees apart from the bowl. He had measured the dimensions with a compass
There was not a drop of water, a speck of rug fluff, a stray candy wrapper to be found. The floor tiles were polished with antiseptic once a week. The man screened the shelves daily for dust and other impurities. And he made sure to shower three times a day, lest any germ or virus find its way into his body.
He stood with his knees and hands on the floor. There was a pesky stain on one of the tiles, one which defied his efforts to remove it. He resolved to soak the thing in isopropyl alcohol and rub it off with a sponge. A few more hours sitting there, and it could have given him the flu. Or AIDS, even.
He whipped his head to the rear of the room. One of the books—”Advanced Organization Strategies”—had slipped out of place. He pounced up from the floor, rushed over to the bookcase and slid it back in line.
With his heart pounding, the man opened up his cell phone and called his mother.
He sighed with his relief upon hearing her voice.
“You’re alive. Okay–I just worried that I might have caused your death. The book again. No, I really was endangering you. Bye.”
He put down the receiver and shook his head. How could he be so careless, especially with his mother’s life on the line?
The man walked back over to the fruit bowl. A piece of hair (ridden with germs, he imagined) lay on the table. He picked it up with a pair of tweezers and dropped it in a waste bin.
He considered himself a bit on the cautious side–and for good reason. After all, any piece of dirt, hair or food could have AIDS plastered all over it. That was why he kept a pair of gloves around; they came in handy for opening doors and turning on the sink.
What he really feared, though, was poor organization. Whenever something was out of place, he had visions too awful to explain: his mother drowning, his aunt dying in a car accident, his sister burning to death. The pictures had begun after his father’s funeral.
He concluded that his lack of organization was endangering his family, something that he could not allow. And so the man ordered as his intuition led him. As long as something was paired in threes, it could not harm his loved ones. And if food was aligned with a compass rose, no tragedy would befall his family.
He took a feather duster and cleaned off the bookcases. No chance for the flu virus to reach him.
The books began to vibrate.
He looked in shock as a pair of cleaning manuals fell to the ground. As he bent down to pick them up, a dustpan fell on top of him, pouring dust and grime onto his shoulders.
The rattling only continued. The fruit bowl clattered to the edge of the table, then spilled its oranges and apples onto the tile with no regard for the compass rose. Another dustbin fell right where he had been sitting. A violent shake threw the thirty-three magazines to the ground.
The man put his hands over his head and screamed. So much disorder! So much contamination! He made a mad rush for the faucet, but tripped over the fruit bowl and fell flat on his stomach. The precisely aligned novels toppled onto the floor.
The rumbling and shaking came to a close, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.
He lay on the ground as a turbulent stream of thoughts rushed through his head. Surely there was an infectious disease in that dust and dirt! Surely his family was dead, now that the apples and the oranges and the books and the magazine were out of position—why, they were probably strangled, drowned, stabbed this minute!
The anxiety had turned into torture. He saw visions of his mom bleeding from the heart. He saw his future self in a hospital bed as doctors explained that he would die within hours. The viruses were already leaking into his head—and his family? He was afraid to call.
Twenty minutes passed. Shouts and sirens sounded from outside.
But something strange happened to the anxiety. It began to leak out of him, pool into the room and drain out through the heating vents. The thoughts of contamination proved less and less potent. After half an hour, he was not even fazed by the images of his sister’s death. His mind appeared to grow tired of them.
In time, the man stood up. He looked around the room at the magazines scattered on the floor; the oranges on either side of the room; the chess pawns captured by gravity. There was no urge to organize; no urge to cleanse. He had no idea where it went.
He smiled, broke out into laughter and kicked an orange at the wall, where it burst and leaked juice onto the sanitized floor. He ripped one of the thirty-three magazines in half and threw it at the floor. The fear was gone! And in its place rose a sense of freedom that had evaded him ever since his father died.
The man pulled out his cell phone, dialed a number and pressed the thing to his ear.
“Mom? It’s Evan. Yes—I think I’m okay. I think I’m finally okay.”