Thou Shalt Not: A Short Story by James R. Coggins

The words troubled him. John read them over again. They seemed so archaic. So judgmental. So negative. So out of keeping with the rest of the book. He read them again: “Thou shalt not.”

The next day, he returned to them again. Every time he read them, he felt the same things. Dirty. Sad. Confused.

So, he returned to them the day after that. The words continued to trouble him.

For a while, he tried to ignore them, pretend they weren’t there. He didn’t read them again for several days. But they remained there in the back of his mind, niggling away at his peace.

And so it went for a long time. For weeks. Months. Years.

In the back of his mind, an idea began to form, like a hidden callous gradually formed by the constant niggling. He wasn’t even aware of it at first. After a while, when he first became aware of it, he dismissed it outright. Then, in time, he paused a few seconds before dismissing it. After even more time, he began to entertain it for a bit. Question it. Examine it. Think about it. Ponder it. Finally, he put it into words.

What if he removed those words from the book? It was unthinkable. But then he began to think it. It would still be a good book. A well-loved book. Perhaps even a better book.

This went on for a long time. And then, almost without thinking, he did it. In a sudden surge of emotion, when his mind was distracted and thinking about something else, on a day when the sun was shining, the flowers were blooming, and the birds were singing, he opened the book, tore out the page, and dropped it into the recycling bin.

Nothing happened. The sun went on shining. The flowers went on blooming. The birds went on singing. And he loved the book more than ever. It was his joy, his inspiration. It was even better without those offending words.

And then one day, while reading his beloved book, he came across some other words that troubled him. He had not noticed them before. But they troubled him just as the other words had.

The process went more quickly and was easier this time. It required less thinking. Less pondering. Less soul searching. There were fewer doubts.

In only a few weeks, he reached a decision. He opened the book and tore out that page too. The book was even better now, he reflected. More inspirational. More comforting. Less troubling. The sun went on shining. The flowers went on blooming. The birds went on singing. And he was happy. Content.

One day, another thought struck him. Maybe he should examine the book closely and see if there were any other troubling words. And so he read it through, carefully. At first, he marked any troubling words he found. Later, he went back and examined them again. He thought about them deeply. Some he decided could be kept. They were not all that troubling. But some just didn’t seem to fit into his beloved book. They didn’t belong. And so he removed them, methodically and thoughtfully. He cut them out carefully, leaving no ragged edges to show where they had been removed.

There were only a few pages that he had removed. The book was now perfect, seamless. He loved it even more. He read it over and over again. And the more he read, the more he was convinced that he had been right to remove the troubling words, the bothersome pages.

His life went on as it had before. The sun went on shining. The flowers went on blooming. The birds went on singing. And he was happy. Content.

But no life is without its ups and downs. One day, John woke up feeling sad. He wasn’t sure why. The feeling persisted. He looked at the shining sun, the blooming flowers, and the flitting and soaring birds, but they brought no solace on this day.

He turned to his book, his beloved book. There were words there that always brought him comfort and joy, one set of words in particular. He flipped through the book to where he thought the words should be, but they weren’t there. He skimmed all the pages in that section of the book, but the comforting words weren’t there. He read through that whole section of the book carefully, word for word, but he couldn’t find the comfort he sought.

That night, he sat down and began reading the book from the beginning. The entirety of his beloved book. It took several evenings of careful study. On the last evening, he closed the book. He was puzzled. Confused. Unhappy. What had happened to his beloved book? Where were the words that had comforted and inspired him, that had always brought him such joy?

Very slowly, the truth came to him. Perhaps those comforting words had been on the back side of one of those pages he had removed, on the back side of one of those pages with the troubling words. With a sigh, he put the book down. The book, his beloved book, no longer brought him joy and comfort. He looked up to face a bleaker future.  The sun, hidden by a cloud, was no longer shining. The flowers had withered and died. The birds had ceased their singing.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is www.coggins.ca
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