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The Button

by Steve Gerben

 

Out of a dwindling population of forty-eight, a total of twelve people from the rural southern town saw the spaceship that day. All twelve provided identical eye-witness accounts of how it arrived, slicing down through the sky and seeming to pick up speed before stopping abruptly some fifteen feet above the ground. A small door had opened in the bottom of the spaceship and a box about the size of an ATM machine was placed delicately on the ground. The spaceship disappeared as fast as it had come, leaving eye-witnesses like Sheriff Boone in stunned incredulity.

Within minutes, Boone was up on the roof of the police station staring at the box through a pair of binoculars.

His deputy fidgeted nervously beside him. “What is it? What do you see?”

“It’s a solid black box,” Boone said. “And right there in the center of it is a big red button.”

“A red what now?”

“A red button. And over that red button is written DO NOT PUSH.”

“Do not push? Written over a button?”

“Do not push,” Boone echoed. “written over a button – as clear as the English language permits.”

Boone handed over the binoculars to his deputy and that’s exactly what his deputy saw.

***

The governor wished she didn’t even have to take Boone’s call in the first place. His county had been an embarrassment to the state after the crop-circle fiasco, and she wasn’t about to waste anymore state resources on whatever this button thing was. On the phone, Boone stressed that he had seen the spaceship this time. The governor told him she couldn’t just take his word that he had seen some phenomena. Boone pleaded that many people had seen the same phenomena, which made it more of a scientific observation than one man’s recollection. But it was hopeless and Boone knew it. The governor said she’d look into it, but had in fact stopped listening after Boone said spaceship.

***

“Well I’d like to push the button!” a man shouted.

The turnout to the townhall meeting was absolute; all forty-eight residents were in attendance. About half seemed in favor of pushing the button.

Behind his podium, Sheriff Boone tried to empathize, “We all wanna push the button. There’s no question about it, we all wanna push it. But considering the consequ--”

“So then let’s push the dang thing!” a man yelled, and some people starting cheering.

“Well now hold on, folks, just hold on,” Boone said holding his palms up at the audience. “I’m sayin’ we can’t just go pushin’ DO NOT PUSH buttons all willy-nilly. Much less ones from space.”

“Kick it then!” someone shouted.

As Boone was about to explain how kicking is really just pushing with a different appendage, the town’s physician rose from his chair and everyone quieted down.

“In medical school,” the physician began, “we learned about this experiment whereby a child’s ability at self-control was tested through the use of a marshmella’. The child was given a marshmella’ and the experimenter would say, ‘Alright I’m gonna leave this room for five minutes… If you haven’t eaten that marshmella’ when I get back, well then I’ll give ya five marshmellas.’ As you can imagine, the children with no self-control ate that marshmella’ right away.” The physician paused for dramatic effect. “So what I’m askin’ is, what if this is our cosmic marshmella’? A test by some other world to see if we’re capable of—“

A man in the audience said, “We could push the button with a really long pole. That way if it explodes or somethin’ no one gets hurt.”

A few people agreed. The physician sat down.

“Here’s my concern,” a woman opined. “Let’s say we don’t push the button and the next generation don’t neither. How long can we expect that to continue? At some point in the future someone is gonna end up pushin’ that thing, at which point we’ll all be dead so we won’t get to see what happens!”

The thought of anyone but themselves experiencing the excitement of pushing the button sent a fervor through the crowd.

“This is fuckin’ America!” a man yelled. “You don’t tell us what buttons we can or cain’t push! I’ll push the fuckin’ shit out of it. I don’t care.”

Boone tried to steady the crowd. “This is America, you’re quite right about that. And bein’ so, I think we should put it to a vote.” 

The people began shouting out their votes, so Boone once again raised his hands and waited for them to quiet down. “I’m gonna ask you to sleep on it,” he said. “We just might hold the fate of the entire world in this town. And I think a burden of that magnitude deserves to be turned over a few times in the privacy of our own homes.”

***

Boone finished marking off a twenty-five-foot perimeter around the DO NOT PUSH button with his DO NOT CROSS police tape. He eased himself into the lawn chair he had brought to stand guard through the night and stared at the button. Even if it ended up doing nothing when they pushed it, he reasoned, it would still do something. Anything bad that happened to people -- if their crops didn’t grow or if their aunt got diabetes, it’d all be that button’s fault. Of course, if good things happened people would probably start praying to it. But both those options were still the best-case scenario considering that the most plausible outcome was a bunch of pissed off goddamn aliens showing up.

***

Before the sun had a chance to rise, the townspeople were out by the button watching Boone tally the votes. All said and done it was PUSH – 25;  DO NOT PUSH - 23. The pushes had it.

Boone gave the results a long hard stare. He smacked the ballot cards in his hand a few times and let out a deep sigh. “I still cain’t let you push that button,” he said.

“The hell you cain’t!” a man yelled. “This is a democracy for Christ’s sake!”

“Well what’ll you have me do?” Boone fired back. “Just cause a majority wants to do it don’t mean it’s a good thing. What if come election time everyone in the country wanted to vote away democracy? In principal they could do it, couldn’t they? Vote in some dictator. What’d you do then?”

The physician was about to explain how he had once read about this ‘paradox of democracy’, but thought better of it.

Boone continued, “Votin’ away a democracy is an error you cain’t correct. Same applies to pushin’ this button – anything bad that happens might be irreversible.” He looked down at the ballot cards a final time and said, “So you can take that majority vote and shove it.”

The people exchanged looks, trying to feel out what the others might do. A few men shuffled in their stance. Boone put his hand on his weapon.

From somewhere in the middle of the crowd, a woman began to sob. “Why would someone give us a button, and then tell us we cain’t push it?” she pleaded.  

The tension broke immediately. There was something about the desperation and defeat in her voice that was a catharsis for the people. It made it okay to give into the helplessness of the situation – to let go of the desire to control something they didn’t understand.

“Cause they’re fuckin’ aliens,” Boone answered, taking his hand off his weapon. “They probably do a ton of weird shit.”

Boone looked over at his deputy and nodded. His deputy nodded back with pride.

The End