"Uhm...and I'm getting a little off-track here. Matter, energy, motion, force, these are the building blocks of your existence, of all existence itself. Your study here in my hall is of THE science. Physics is our capstone achievement and yet the bedrock of our understanding of reality. You may be thinking now, 'why not chemistry?' Or, perhaps, you're thinking that you should have taken that chemistry course, instead. Chemistry involves itself with the properties and resulting interactions of molecules, but physics alone dictate those interactions. MATTER is held together by nuclear and electromagnetic FORCES, necessitating changes in ENERGY, putting particles into MOTION. These are the domain of physics. This is why you are here. You seek the wonders of the universe.
"But 'knowledge' does not equate to truth. Knowledge is fleeting. Everyone but Copernicus 'knew' better. Still, the truth of revolution begins with him. Newton described the Law of Universal Attraction during the Age of Enlightenment, one-hundred, fifty years later. His incredible insights were accurate enough to send a man to the moon, powerful enough that it has become one of the few 'laws' of physics, but he could not explain the 'why'. Why is there gravity? It reminds me of an old comedy routine, 'Why is there air?' Anyways…Einstein finds the why in his Theory of General Relativity almost a century ago. Finally, gravity has an origin story.
"And so there it stood tall, humanity's understanding of gravity on those sets of mighty shoulders, yet even Einstein said, 'Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.' So, perhaps Einstein knew that even gravity was assailable, and developments after his death would suggest that this universal pillar is on shifting sands. Our 'knowledge' yet again may be completely upturned in our diggings for truth. Now think about that for a moment. During at least a portion of this course I am going to lie to you and claim IT IS SCIENCE."
His oratory was adept, but his was not a deep, classic voice that reverberated confidence. It seemed out of cadence and a bit melodic, rising and falling in direct proportion to his earnesty. By this point in his lecture, everyone had adjusted to their seat at least, not so much the abrupt change in lifestyle that introduced this next stage of their life. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork in all its forms, books, syllabuses, releases, in binders quickly filling, everything pilled four high they drug with them until their minds were made up as to what they really wanted. In five months, some would have just a binder and a pencil, or just a phone in the recesses of their thighs, as if he would not notice. What was new to them was old hat to him, or maybe he just was.
It was another class introduction, which rolled on much like the others. Here was an ordinary enough professor, taller than average, or perhaps a little thinner, maybe both. A shaggy head of dirty blonde hair did much to hide his greying temples. So did sideburns trained back over the wide proportions of his ears, a trick learned in youth. However, in doing such, he could not hide the beginnings of a widow's peak, or the sharp contours of his rectangular face, which sloped at the last into a pointed chin. His few, yet deep wrinkles tugged thinning skin taunt over low cheekbones, lending a perpetually irritated look to his vivid green eyes, worse than the reality of the moment. Only his nose had kept the fleshiness of his childhood.
He paced and shuffled as he strayed from his notes, only returning to the lab bench in awkward silent moments to advance the visuals to his words. The entire building had been renovated a decade or so ago to install the latest appearance amenities, and to strip it of any real character. A wide, rectangular room, now in beige, five raised rows of tables and chairs bolted down in an arc in front of him. Behind him the whiteboards stood blank, except for his title: Professor Reuel. Now caught up, he had set off once more, then suddenly stopped mid-stride and stood silently. One by one, his piercing bright green eyes watched each student in turn, testing them. Just one answered, a bright-faced woman in the second row tentatively raised her hand.
"Miss…this isn't elementary school."
"Professor, so what you are saying is that Newton and Einstein were wrong?"
"It's not me; it is the physics community and their last crusade...the theory of everything. Quantum mechanics cannot be reconciled with general relativity, for many reasons, in part because gravity is by many magnitudes a weaker force. It might seem impressive if you say…jump off of this building, but gravity will not make nearly the impact that the other forces will when you land. My point is…science, as it pushes forward, should also look back and see if it is still on the right path, and that the path is solid. Integrity….integrity… Searching for the Holy Grail is all fine and good, but leaps of faith can lead to bad impressions. Egos and preconceptions should have no business in science."
"You say that like physics…what…has a problem?" Her voice echoed softly despite itself. At least there was one in this half-empty hall of Colorado's second string students, these boys and girls of the great undeclared that had somehow been funneled into his Descriptive Physics class, which asked the why. Ones like these were just passing through life, unaware and uncaring, between the moments in which they could escape life completely. They were here because they were supposed to be, and why not? They had all the time in the world. However, there was still this one.
"Science is the methodology of problems. Miss, have you ever seen an atom?" he grinned. Her round, unblemished face had not yet learned to hide discomfort.
"No, of course not, who has?"
"Exactly my point! Our understanding is all based on empirical data, lots of data at least. It is a model. It's our best guess, and what do you call something you cannot prove, but which you accept anyways? Someday, if humanity manages to find its Pym Particles and shrink itself down to see an atom, it will exist like nothing in our collective imagination. We know that electrons do not follow these pretty little orbits like those in our textbooks, but that is what we believe because it is easy to imagine. Most simply accept it and move onto the next page. It is their worldview without question, just because somebody told them so. Everyone does it. Preconceptions are shortcuts used in everything, in science, in art, in entertainment. We could never function, if we, as the bumper sticker platitude states, 'question everything'.
"You make physics seem like a huge waste of time."
"No, no…well, that's not my point. Humanity has been asking these questions for…since…who really knows when, but the sun was carrying on before anyone noticed it, hanging out, just fusing hydrogen atoms together. The earth and moon were in their motions long before someone decided what orbited what. Science came later, and if anything is philosophy in another form. You ask a question, gather evidence, find an answer, test it, and see if you are correct. If not, you try again. This worked for fine for hundreds of years, but I would contend that the process has broken down as the questions have become more esoteric.
"The Scientific Method works just fine, but scientists are people in all their needy and fallible glory. They have papers they want published, and dream about those book deals and hosting spots on PBS. They also have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay, or just simply want to be part of something bigger than them, so they go where the money is. It cost nine billion dollars to construct the Large Hadron Collider, and a billion more a year to run it. Now, that is walking around money. In physics, the money is in string theory...which actually is an excellent framing for both of my points.
"Asking the big question...being willing to think different. Somebody asked that question, 'What if we finally find the fundamental particles, and they are more than just a point in space? What do they look like? What if they have dimensionality?' " A side door of the hall opened and closed softly without the professor's notice. He was too busy tumbling down a tangent.
"This is all fine enough, and those acolytes of string theory toiled in obscurity for many years and made advances. Eventually, it caught on and everyone just latched onto it and created a mathematical leviathan. Everyone sees evidence of it; nobody can tell you what exactly the damn thing is. No...that's not right…In the sense, it's not even that strong. It has been an immense mathematical exercise that fits reality only by mathematical happenstance. After all these decades, none of it can be proven or disproven. All of that research, all their time and efforts, none of them dare endanger their funding by asking if they are still on the right path."
"You don't believe in any of it?"
"What I believe is that we need something like a scientific anti-trust concept. That is to say…no idea should have a chokehold to the point where any incompatible notion is tossed stillborn into the landfill of history. Say…if Tesla's magnifying transmitter would have been developed, if it could have, instead of Edison's telephone…the history changing potential that would have had…" Professor Reuel tugged at an ear as he took a lap around the lab bench, glancing at his laptop, and then boosted himself to sit on top of the bench, his legs swinging freely.
"So, physics has all these questions. What is dark matter? What is dark energy? Does it really exist? Where is it? The Big Bang should have produced just as much anti-matter as matter, so how did everything not annihilate itself to begin with? Wait…OK...let me go sideways for a second. What if space-time is not continuous? What if you can be here, or there, but not in-between…now or then, but not then…you see something like this in the orbitals of an atom, the electrons are in one orbital or another, always, never some arbitrary level, and why not? Atoms are almost entirely empty space, ninety-nine point nine, and add a dozen or so nines after that, percent empty space. So space-time is sandy…so many plank-lengths or plank-times or whatever as a minimum. Grainy like the second-hand laptop that some of you are playing minesweeper with instead of paying attention. Let that sink in for a moment. Time ticks like an old clock, or space on a grid.
"So, we have that. One of the peculiar postulates of string theory is that it requires eleven or more spatial dimensions to function. So, where are they? It is assumed that they are curled up so tiny that we can find no evidence of their existence, like a Kardashian brain, and that only three spatial dimensions unfolded themselves when our universe coughed its first. And here we are…can you believe it…humans yet again on their special pedestal. How many times does Copernicus have to slap us down before we learn our place?"
"That's the guy that said we came from apes."
"He just talked about Copernicus. He said the earth was not the center of the universe even though the Pope said so." A few more stated paying more attention. Another was very interested, long past her years as a student. She somehow still had been missed, and preferred this, standing away on the side.
"This is nuts."
"Is it, though? Why are we special?" The Professor retorted coolly. He was smiling again.
"I've read somewhere that people also tend to look for answers where there are none. That a lot of things have to be the way they are or nobody would be here to notice."
"Miss, what is your name?"
"That's fine, Miss Perez…in fact, The Anthropic Principle relates to this, as well. Suppose that the three spatial dimensions we live in are not special, that everyone one of them are all curled up, or unfolded…whatever it may be…but the important thing is that they all function the same and are no different than the ones we have come to understand as length, width, and height. Now here is something new…and we return to the other point…what if our particles are held to a grid, not necessarily exclusively 'our' grid, by the vibrational frequency or amplitude of the strings of string theory, or rather by tangling with dimensions according to the Calabi–Yau manifold's that 'resonate' them? The other dimensions could literally be right next to ours, on their own grid between ours or even sharing some points and not others…creations of higher or lower dimensionality sharing our width, having its own height and breath, and something the like. Eleven dimensions to play in could create millions of possibilities.
"Now this world...this is a reality with answers. Now, coming full circle, another string theory feature is that the closed loops of gravity are the only force not bound to its own native dimensions. Now, dark matter, no one can find it, why? It is supposed to exist in abundance, five times more than our own, boring, matter. Dark matter is in those other dimensional combinations and only its leaking gravity is felt, keeping the universe at that critical point where there is something to look up to into the sky, and ask 'why'? Matter…or anti-matter is out there, forming worlds and suns just like ours, and their gravity leaks into our own, or ours into those, bleeding into the weakest force. These would necessitate the black holes we find in our universe. What about dark energy? Where did all the anti-matter go from the formation of the universe? Is it too hard to comprehend? Do you get it?"
"I'm a media major..."
"It's not rocket science, it is a concept that a child could grasp, but adults are stuck in their preconceptions. It's all on another grid, perhaps literally creating anti-worlds…anti-you…and me, or likely something entirely new. It could be an endless power source right next to us. It can be…"
It was not even rude, or loud. It was at just the right moment between words in an otherwise quiet room, and carefully gauged to set heads turning. A matronly woman, although more the grandmother you would want to run the cookie company than the composite image on the packaging, dressed in a flax colored pants suit. She wore her hair in a bun, but died rusty red instead of a wise grey, her eyes behind thick glass showed authority over concern. The life went out of Professor Reuel even before he made a furtive glance her way, and he slid listlessly off of the lab bench.
"...And all of this is probably a little too advanced for a non-technical physics course. Let's finish the syllabus before we meet again on Thursday to officially start the semester."
A coil of rigid steel contracts, transforming potential energy into kinetic energy, the conversion rate moderated by the sheer stresses of a viscous fluid sealed inside a cylinder. Protruding from the cylinder is a grooved piston, which a gear rotates, attached to a steel rod with a pivot point, a second rod both riveted to this and anchored to the door frame, which collapses towards the first.
As a teen, Nicolas had decided on physics because he wanted to explore the secrets of the universe, and when he had finally took his place among the truly learned, he was caught up in a physics world full of optimism. It was the time of the Second Superstring Revolution. The unification of all forces was in sight, and he was ready to make his mark, no, lead the revolution.
So here he was, fifteen years later, watching this mechanical device provide the necessary force to close the door to his office. The elegance of classical mechanics, this was satisfying. It was all around him, like the box hung on his door which had lost its magic. He could calculate the acceleration, the velocities, stresses, and could modify its mathematical underpinning to optimize its performance to whatever he desired, but if it broke down, he would not know what to call this box on his door in his E-mail to maintenance. Perhaps it was his way of separating himself from the machine all around him.
Nicolas's office chair wheezed a little sigh as he managed something of a controlled crash into its soft leathery embrace. In this quiet moment, he meditated on the black digital clock mounted in the wall of his office, watching the red colon flash for a full minute, counting the seconds, on, off, on, off. Silently, it signaled the passage of time, but that was what a clock was supposed to do. It knew its purpose. Hung on his wall at home was an old-fashioned mechanical clock that did it right. It was as Spiegel, an antique from the 80's, a school house wall clock with a simple look of wood and brass. Nicolas's father had unloaded it onto him before his retirement to a small condo in Florida. Time, you see, should be heard creeping up behind you, so it never catches up.
A little plastic grocery bag stood center on his desk, inside a peanut butter and jelly on some multigrain stuff that was supposed to be good for you, and a bit of leftover fruit salad that he, depressingly, knew was. His kids were too old for the PB&J thing anymore, but somebody had to finish that jar of jam in the back of the refrigerator. He opened the sack and stared at its contents. They were still the same. Something was missing. From the bottom drawer of his desk he dug out a snack bag of Doritos left over from his last trip to the deli.
He ate slowly and mused, trying to recall a time when he had felt young enough for a PB&J. Year after year, the bright young faces in his class looked the same; only his was changing. The greying temples he could live with, but the wild ear and eyebrow hair that had migrated from his forehead was just too much. He had bought scissors recently to mow them down with, one of those special pairs with the curved blades after his daughter yelled at him for using some random pair from around the house. Evidently it was 'gross'. The fact that the only thing he had to look forward to was his ears projecting even farther, or the fur patches on his back were only growing, well, he tried not to think of such things. Suffice to say, it was a long time passed since he had been mistaken as one of his students.
This was his little office on the second floor, located at the end of one of the wings of the 'U' shaped physics building. The name plate on his door had not been changed in twelve years, a much slower pace than the offices on this wing typically saw, as other associate professors moved up, and the graduate students moved on. When these had gotten a little personal space, on generally anyone in any profession, they mark it as their own with knick-knacks, memories of loved ones, or maybe postcards from places they will never go. Nicolas never had.
His office was not so much Spartan as impersonal, a heavy oak desk, dark stained and beat up, was the small rooms dominate feature. It had been crafted to take a beating, as was the fashion of its time, and had traveled through many buildings and even more owners over its long tenure. Originally, he had kept it against the wall next to the open window, so he could listen to the students as they walked by. About the sixth year he drug it to the center of the room to oppose the door on the presumption that he would need more space for a bookcase. Eventually, he did. The high-backed, dark leather chair behind it he had treated himself with after several months of getting nowhere with requisitions. Some of the bookcases, the squat ones made of sheet metal, were his as well, filled and stacked atop with obscure physics papers, a few books, and term papers, a few authored by his own students. It was the final resting place of anything audacious or absurd relating to physics that he had managed to find out about, and he their caretaker, perfectly laid out in rows of his own fashion. As he ate, he pulled a thin report out truly at random, and perused it for some unused bit to connect to his schemata, and waited for what he knew must come, not déjà vu, but close.
It was the inevitable force clashing against object. When the slow, firm rap on metal came, Nicolas closed the report gently, laying it on and squaring it to the desk with a finger drawn down its spine. He had already witnessed her letting herself in many times, and how this conversation would start, much as had so many others.
"Professor Reuel," she spoke with a voice that projected authority, always pleasant, tinged with the rasp that accompanies age.
"Dean Williams…" Two freaking words and he was brushing Dorito crumbs off his desk and wishing he had dressed better than a blue, plaid flannel shirt with jeans and loafers. "That was quite a lecture this morning."
"I'm glad you liked it."
She overlooked his bit of petulance, taking a few steps deeper into his domain. She lingered next to a short stack of new semester notices on the desk, group vacation packages, and other pedestrian matters that kicked off the new school year, and on top of it all rested an odd little silver shell. Not a conch or anything you would get from the sea or anything you would even want to fashion silver into, just the simplest of shells. "Nicolas...I've always wondered where you got this paperweight. I've never seen anything like it." She was handling the shell before he realized it, so small in her hand she could palm it without suspicion, tracing a finger across its fine ridges, which caused it to rotate slightly in the palm of her hand "It's so delicate. The craftsmanship is exquisite."
"I've had it since I was a child. To be honest, I don't remember how I came across it." His was an affected calm.
"Something like this? You must be joking."
"I wish I was...I don't suppose how I could have forgotten." His eyes had never left the shell. Anxiety shivered over his skin. It was the apprehension of being followed, the realization that he was about to be mugged, or a memory of the same. The Dean returned the shell to its place on top of a three day family package for Disneyland. It was right there.
"Nicolas, I don't want to have this conversation again."
"It's my responsibility to."
"And what should I be doing with these kids? What should everyone involved with their education be doing? Teaching them how to think!" Nicolas emphasized his point by hammering his desk. He was not going to sit through another one of these, and so he did not. He paced his side of the room. The Dean stood with arms crossed, unmoved on hers.
"Yes, I agree. But is that what you're doing? No, you are undermining your very reason for being here."
"And why not?!"
"Because, this is not a philosophy course and you are no Aristotle. You work in the physics department, and we have a job to do. How many times have we done this?"
"We're all offshoots of the same trunk."
"And, to use your analogy, you want to pull us all out by the roots, for what…attention? I think I remember someone talking about too much ego in science."
"There is more than enough deadwood to prune off beforehand."
"Funny, there are a few people around here that would agree..."
"And that's a good thing!"
"…that there is some dead wood around here that needs removed."
"Then get rid of them!" Both palms hit the desktop, and he leaned over against it as if he were attempting push the desk out the door, and her with it.
"Look, Nicolas you need do what we all do, conduct research, write papers, convince people of the validity of your theories and then you can tell your class about it."
"I did, for years! Thousands of hours, nights without sleep, I manipulated equations that haven't even been equated yet, and all that time I pushed papers to try to get someone, anyone to lend me a fresh set of eyes. It was rejected out of hand. Brian Greene himself said that I missed my true calling as a pulp sci-fi writer, or a cult leader. There is no experimental data that says it has to be this way, except it makes sense. Unless Cthulhu pops out of a portal and announces his run for the presidency, no one will believe me."
"And do you want to know why?" Her words flew in short bursts. "It was pseudo-science at best. It was all those flashy things that people dream about. It was everything you railed against an hour ago. You manipulated physics on some personal crusade that no one understands, without establishing your name on anything else, and you were turned into a pariah. This isn't MIT, or Stanford. This is a state school. You are here to teach, and God forbid, perhaps even contribute some research. Got it?"
"Arrugh…This is HORSE S..."
"There are no illusions going into this field. It's a lot of hard work with odd hours and no gratitude among a lot of dull, unimaginative people. It is all about numbers, and you aren't pulling yours."
"There has to be more…" He turned away, and for lack of something better, watched a student walking the side path under his window.
"You have to go with the numbers, and so do I. String theory is where the grants are, and we do what we can for science here. Get on board. You have a brilliant mind, stop fighting the current."
"I have to prove something…" he muttered.
"You have something to prove? It's a little late in your career for that."
"No, I have to prove something…that I'm not crazy…something."
"Look Nicolas, I like you. I consider you a friend. I know the last few years have been rough with the divorce and raising your kids alone. I've cut you a lot of slack. It is time to get back in the program, or move on."
"I know I'm right."
"You're not the first scientist to get lost chasing fantasy. Don't waste the rest of your career on this. Even Einstein spent the final decades of his life going nowhere." Her voice had softened. Still, there was finality between the words and the tone. "Look, I'll see you tomorrow."
Nicolas watched in absence as his door closed itself with a soft finality. No, there was no déjà vu to this at all. He spun his chair to face the window and sat, taking small bites as he could. After lunch was another class, where some odd dozen more minds would be sent down the line for him to weld together.
This was not the Ivy-league campus Nicolas had imagined himself walking through twenty years ago. Maybe it was too cold for ivy here, or it just was a little too dry, not that the lack of ivy had anything to do with it. He would call this a concrete-league school, an assessment of both its appearance and practicality. Outside of the original buildings surrounding 'The Oval', these made of mortar and brick or stone with Spanish tile roofing, concrete was the building material of choice. Concrete molded into buildings, with brick or stone veneer accents for bonus points. Each was an example of the concept of style as it was built, jointly representing the past fifty years of architecture, and all them with tinges of brick red, because that was the color of education. Concrete covered every path, some preformed into red pavestone, between here and there to convey the students along and keep the gardeners happy. It was on one of these paths he trudged and avoided the line of faces that never changed. Few anyway would recognize him in this first week of school, except for a few of his grad students. Right now he was fine with that.
So, this was Colorado State University. Hardly a glowing review, but Nicolas was hardly in a glowing mood. The school had grown in conjunction with Fort Collins, and in much the same way, haphazardly as these things do, over the many hands that had handled it down through the decades. So thoroughly intertwined were city and school that there was no Main Street, it was College Avenue. Style however, never stands still, and neither does technology. Over the years, as both expanded, the methodology was to make the new look like the old, and occasionally the old was renovated to look new with fancy curves and expanding windows.
The faces of the students may never change, but their 'style' never stood still, either. If there was an inverse correlation between the amount of clothing worn and global warming, the world was indeed doomed. It did not even get that hot in Colorado. A little smirk flirted with Nicolas's lip as he cut through an ally between two buildings. Was he turning into one of those people? He had probably always been that way.
As Nicolas reached the parking lot, he noticed some little girl just into her teens, probably a younger sibling of one of his students. Here was the style of the day. Even in this heat, she wore a too-large black hoodie that fell near to her knees, partially unzipped to show off some ratty retro 'Guns and Roses' t-shirt, and equally oversized olive drab cargo pants. She slouched a bit as she walked, with hands tucked into her sides, clearly uncomfortable with attention, trying to cut herself from the world by appearance, yet in the same form inadvertently begging to be noticed, her hair choppy and short, dyed a deep lavender. It probably did not help her self-esteem to be into puberty and still be, what, four-foot, eight he guessed, and eighty pounds soaking wet. Probably, the only clothes that fit her featured 'One Direction' or whatever the tween fad was now. He would rebel from that, too. They just about crossed paths, and she glanced at him with eyes overfilled with sadness and longing, right before dodging between rows of cars. Whatever her story was, Nicolas wished her to find what she was looking for as he slid into his own dinged-up, grey Honda Accord. It was time to go home.
His drive today took him down Main Street, USA. Walt Disney himself took inspiration from downtown Fort Collins, using images of the city to fashion his own in Anaheim. Of course this was many years ago, but Downtown Fort Collins had retained that same timeless look and personality. Here were the small businesses with the funny names and the people that loved them, shaded by plenty of mature Hackberry and Honeylocust trees which grew by the sidewalks and even in the raised landscaping of the median. The mall and all sizes of shopping centers had been held well to the south, the big box stores to the south-east. The town industry was kept to the north-east along the rail road line of the Union Pacific. The subdivisions owned the east and west, with all the lazy curving streets, trees and grass you would want on your 5th of an acre. He eventually swung a right on a seam between those pretty subdivisions and drove on. All in all, it was one of those towns big enough to hide in, and small enough to run into a friend at the grocers.
Usually, Nicolas avoided downtown, as it was slightly out of the way, but today he was looking for a little cheering up. On better days he would take solace that even though his career never went anywhere, at least he had managed to end up in a pretty good place to raise his kids. They were just three residents in a town of roughly one-hundred fifty thousand, something twice that number if you include the surrounding towns and farmland. There was much clucking and many a puffed chest in town when Fort Collins was voted the 'Best Place to Live' by a prominent magazine a few years back, not to mention all the other 'lesser' accolades the city had been lavished with the past decade.
Except for his own education at Cal. Tech and a few years after, Colorado had been Nicolas's home for his entire life. His state might be synonymous with the Rocky Mountains, but its cities lie in the eastern third of the state, an area that has much more in common with the farmland of Kansas and Nebraska than the rugged mountain imagery exploited in commercials. It is in this eastern third, in the warmer southern half, the barley to run its famous breweries grows, and hops, wherever they could fit them in. Up on the northern half where Fort Collins lie, wheat, corn, beans, and sugar beets are the largest crops, and the feed for the cattle, pigs, and sheep raised here. It was a strange dichotomy that a few tech companies had chosen to relocate to Fort Collins of late, or perhaps it was just a good balance.
"Honey, I'm home!" Nicolas called to the silence as he stepped onto the floor. A bit of humor for the melancholy, this had never even been their home. "Maybe I should buy a yappy little Chihuahua and name it Honey. I bet the kids would LoooVee that."
In his entryway, he stood to make his most difficult decision of the day. To the left were the stairs up to his bed and the bliss of a moment of forget. Instead, he turned right. Ice cracked, then hit a soft plastic tumbler, followed by the pour of ice tea and more cracking as thermal energy attempted to equalize. Shoes shuffled past the linoleum entry way and down the carpet to the far side of the living room where a little fireplace sat diagonal in the corner. The sliding glass door to the backyard was opened so that a cool breeze could flow from off the western mountains close by and into the living room. Nicolas lingered, and felt peace on his skin. Behind glass was a green yard just long enough to throw a ball in, if only either kid wanted to do that kind of thing anymore. Children needed clocks too, so parents knew just how much time they had left until their offspring wanted nothing to do with them. The grass really needed a good mowing, and litter had gathered from the last raccoon raid up against the wooden privacy fence. He would get to it this weekend, he promised himself. A dog would keep the raccoons away…
So he was in the clear to sink into his recliner, drink sloshing but managing to stay contained. This, this stupid tan fabric thing was 'his', everything else had been 'theirs'. 'Theirs' had been a big beautiful place had been across town on the golf course. Now he lived in Westgate, on the western edge of town, at one end of a chain of two-story townhomes linked home by home, garage by garage. Constructed in the seventies when the city was a third its current size, the homes had a bit of an old-west, ranch house look, slate grey with tall, narrow windows and a genuine brick base, the wide overhang over the porch supported by pitchfork posts. The public land of the reservoir to the west, above town, and the CSU football stadium to the south had kept the developers away, so it was nice and quiet, except for the half-dozen or so games with tail-gater's throwing balls into his back yard. It was not much, it was what he could afford, and it was enough. It was his; this was theirs.
She had been an accountant, he would assume still is, and had helped him financially through his post-graduate years. Somewhere along the way, they had fallen in love. Both were good with numbers, hers were just more practical than his. Accountants keep track of gains and loss and try to come out ahead. Physicists obsess over the ethereal. The economy went south, then the marriage, or perhaps the other way around. One day she was gone, and he was left to carry on with the kids as he could. With the divorce rate as it is, it should have been anticipated. Perhaps that is why he found it so funny.
Nicolas's chair had been hidden in the shadowy corner of the den at 'their' home, where tile, glass and stainless steel gleaned the attentions of her clients and coworkers. Here it sat center along the back wall of the living room. It angled slightly toward the now silent television on top an open, laminated black stand. The chair marked the unofficial separation of the room between the dining area and the rest. On his left, a tall, rectangle table made from dark stained oak sat in the corner next along the wall separating the compact kitchen and the living room. The table was something he bought after the divorce, the old being way too large for their new accommodations. Opposite him, next to the television was an X-backed bookshelf that matched the TV stand, in his home stuffed with literature. On his right sat a stout evergreen sofa with oversized cushions. These had looked a lot better across town with earth tone tile, metal and glass, rather than worn grey carpet and chipped brick. Little of the furniture had followed the kids and him, only what would fit, the rest was sold to pay first, last, and the deposit; modern, post-modern, transitional or whatever they were, they had never held his interest, anyways. He should have kept pushing that furniture past the lawn and into the street six years ago, scandalize those neighbors and make new hazards for the golfers, but money was money. It was always about money, and time. What was not sole or trashed lie under layers of dust in boxes, stacked thickly in their little garage, hidden in the darkness, and never forgotten.
When you are young, you trade time for money. When you are old, it is money for time. What happens when you are middle-aged and face the possibility of running out of both? Time broken into segments by births and firsts and moments of clarity, movement, goals and side tracks along the way, for better or worse, midnight feedings, sharing knowledge, sharing love, and blessed chaos, and now nothing but the sound of the wind off of the western foothills. It was so quiet now…
…It was a beautiful late-summer day. Nicolas had tried fishing with John, his first time, as well. The results were not disappointing, even though nothing was caught. Nicolas thought he heard the forest singing. His son agreed. Tessa did not like fish so much, not to eat, and preferred to skip stones across the river while her mother sunbathed. The snow had yet to melt off of the naked mountaintops, the marmots and mule deer feasted on the long grass. That night they would play miniature golf and have a nice dinner at a local tavern. In a couple of weeks, school would begin again. In a couple of months, a wave of defaults would hit, throwing every business whose business was money into a panic. It was the last time Nicolas could remember everyone being truly happy…
"Dad, you home already? Dad? The car's out front and…there you are." A strong, clean voice called out. A young woman's face sporting a dirty-blonde ponytail poked its way around the corner into the living room.
"…Huh? Oh, Tessa, you're home early."
"No, it's almost four."
Nicolas sat up, confused as to who had reclined his chair. He sipped at his tea to find that the ice had melted away. "I guess I was tired."
"Rough day at work?" his Daughter yelled from the kitchen between the thuds of a cabinet doors and rumble of a drawer.
"You could say that…"
"You didn't get fired, did you?"
"No…they can't fire me. Well…they could. The Dean just stopped by today…no big deal." He kicked his heels at the leg rest in an attempt to squirm himself and the chair upright, redoubling his effort after not connecting the first time.
"What was that? I missed it." Tessa was back, but occupied with spreading mustard on a slice of whole grain bread. He clothes, which were always function over form, were a baggy blue blouse with sleeves rolled back and white jean shorts that made him cringe at their lack of length, and that they were actually a compromise.
"It's nothing I can't handle, you up to something tonight?"
"Volleyball practice, I can take the car so you don't have to worry about it…" Tessa took a second, longer look at her father, and saw something. Her voice carried that concern. "Rachel's mom works at Agilent. You could get a job there."
"Why not? They pay good."
"Well, they pay well."
"Whatever…" She responded with a melodramatic shrug, the left him behind.
"Because…then I would have to do the work they want. And besides, I think that they are looking for chemists, or maybe biologists, not me. They don't let physicists roam away from the academy, it's too dangerous."
"Her mom's divorced too…"
Nicolas loved her for caring. That was her nature, to be expressive, bold, determined, and occasionally blunt, and it carried through in every word she spoke. Nicolas never figured out where she had gotten the talent, certainly not him. She was the athlete of the family. Her attitude had made her a success in whatever sport she wanted, and that success fed the attitude. Academically, she did alright, but not outstanding. She was at her best with the things that you could see, touch, and manipulate, like her mother. Every time he had tried to coax her into a wider world, she just rolled her eyes and pretended not to listen, but she heard it. He would win the long game.
"How was school, anyways?" Nicolas called from the chair.
"Mike Petcher was being a pig to Suzie again. I was right there, even. He just laughed when I went after him, and walked away like it was nothing. I literally died right there."
"Oh, really? Were his friends around?"
"He's just doing his alpha male thing. He's probably got a thing for you."
"WHAT? No way! NO, DAD! No." The butter knife was thrown/dropped/slipped from her hand and rattled around the sink basin with such a clatter Nicolas could not help but chuckle. The other side of her he loved so much was how comfortable, and a little oblivious, she was about herself. She had grown tall, and when finished would probably only be a thumb or two shorter than himself at six feet. Where he had been scrawny teen, she was wiry, and could tie into a softball like nobody's business. It did not take a genius, or a physicist, to figure out how intimidating she could be, and now at sixteen her body was beginning to fill in, as it did with every girl sooner or later. The boys had been buddies, or teammates. Slowly, over the years, they were becoming something more.
To those boys, though, she was a common topic. Her straight blonde hair would fall a few inches past the shoulders if it was ever down, but it was usually pulled back or in some contraption to keep it out of the way, and with mild cheeks and her father's pointed chin, it gave her face a heart-shaped look and caused her ears to stand out a bit, the family curse that had been passed down through the generations. Her nose was her mother's, fleshy with wide nostrils. She hated her hazel eyes, preferring that they pick one color or another, but was thankful that at least they gave her better than 20/20 vision. Her light tan carried over from the summer, more or less a farmer's tan.
"So, I'm supposed to like him 'cause he acts like a gorilla?" Tessa reappeared, all together bewildered as to his sincerity.
"Something like that. It's all some instinctive remnant from the Neanderthals."
"Why is it always the jerks..."
"Probably because that's where you think you're supposed to look," Nicolas groaned as he pulled himself up, and tumbler in hand, strolled around into the kitchen.
"Daaaad, reeaally? What is that supposed to mean?!"
Tessa leaned up against the counter in an attempt to be a nuisance in some passive way until she got an answer, but her father just worked around her for his refill. He was in no hurry, and she was in no mood to figure him out. "Oh, I guess that high school is just a phase and not the endpoint. You shouldn't be so worried about the opinion of people who in a few years will have all moved on."
"Fine, if you don't want a 'gorilla', introduce yourself to the rest of the jungle."
"Uhhhmm, no thanks. Have you seen my school? So, you should have seen this freak today, right…" Nicolas got comfortable leaning on the countertop as Tessa got into her story. "He was, like, this little gangster or something, sneaking around, you just knew he was trouble. It was so hot today. He kept wandering in and out of the buildings and around the quad like he was trying to find someone, maybe his dealer. It was kinda like that."
"Maybe he was just new."
"I don't think so, because the Vice-Principal stopped him. He just freaked out and tried to run. But the principal grabbed his arm and he screamed. Oh my god, then the trash exploded out of one off the cans near them. It was crazy."
"Was everyone alright?"
"Mister Schmidt had a busted thing of ketchup in his hair that made it look really bad. Everybody had already pretty much cleared out; you just stay away from Schmidt. So yeah, it could have been a lot worse. Everything in the garbage was a fireball, paper floating in the sky on fire, burning milk cartons, everyone freaking out. Of course, he got away after." Tessa became more and more animated with her hands, even bouncing a bit for the explosion.
"Maybe it was some kind of prank, somebody with leftover fireworks?"
"Yeah. He was probably some freshman from Fossil Ridge on a dare. The dick ruined our day. We had to clear out all of the classrooms while the cops brought the bomb squad and the dogs, but we didn't have to go back to class, which was cool."
"Strange, although, I guess if you're going to see someone like that, it would be at a school…Wait, when did this happen? And when were you going to tell me about this?"
"I'm telling you right now."
"Your school was about blown up, and no one called me?! Why didn't you call me?" He grabbed her by the shoulder, roughly, after she tried to turn away, holding her back. She stared at his hand, so did he. Both fell silent.
"I, ah, saw him too…earlier, but it was a girl…"a soft voice stated from the hall.
"John, what…Saw who? A girl? When did you get here?" John had taken a seat on the third step of the stairs, across from the kitchen. Both father and daughter finally noticed him there, and forgot their argument at least for the moment even as their bodies remained fixed.
"I saw her by the reservoir this morning."
"And it was a girl? Why would you think it was the same person? There are thousands of people in town who it could be." Nicolas's hand was drug by gravity down off of Tessa's shoulder.
"I don't know, she was walking out of the field by the reservoir towards town, and she had a hoodie on, but the hood was down, that's why I noticed her. Why would anyone be out there?"
"It wasn't a girl. I'm not claiming her." Tessa has taken a step or two towards him, and now was shooing him off.
"You two don't even know if it was the same person…"
"It was a girl. I know that. It had girl parts."
"Say it, BOOBS!" she taunted back.
"Why do you always have to put yourself into my business, John?!"
"It was a girl, OK! I could just tell. She looked my age, or maybe a little older. Maybe she's from Denver, and ran away. Maybe her parents divorced, and she killed her drunk mother with a crowbar, and is on the run."
"Now I really think that is a bit much," Nicolas admonished his son this time, who had scrambled to his feet as his mind carried him over the possibilities. Nicolas had inched bit by bit into the hall, and stood between the two siblings."
"She's a terrorist, and why were you out there? You cut school, again?"
"Shut-up!" John's face was reddening with his outburst. With a nod in triumph, Tessa returned to the kitchen to finish her preparations.
"John, what were you doing out there? I really don't need another call from your school along with everything else. "
"I've been riding my bike to school."
"But that takes longer."
"And you're on the main road with all the traffic."
"It's just easier than the bus. Would you just listen to me? I saw this girl. She was coming towards the house, in that field with the deep grass past the dam. Then, she saw me ride by and looking at her, and she turned around just for a second. I slowed down, and she vanished."
"What do you mean? She must have ducked down into the grass."
"No, Dad, she vanished, like magic. The grass didn't move like something was crawling around. She vaporized. All I could see were those wavy lines like off of the hot summer pavement."
"She must have ducked into the grass. It's the only logical explanation."
"Or, he's lying," Tessa shouted from the kitchen. "Or, maybe it's a ghost, whhhOOOOooo!"
John could not respond. He expressed himself in the way he could as he grabbed his backpack, oh so slowly, and retreated upstairs. His father did not follow.
"Just let him go, Dad."
"Finish your snack, and get some water. I'll take you to volleyball myself."
Nicolas sat, slouched really, and if he was being honest with himself was simply hiding, his seat tilted way back to where he could just peak out the passenger window of his old swayback steed. One leg dangled out of his window. Above him he held a pad of paper, his problems labeled one through nine. He was working his way through a Sudoku puzzle. In a way, it reminded him of quantum realm itself. From the chaos of probability came order with logic and patience, like a waveform collapsing to a point under observation. He stalled for a moment, glancing at the shadows which grew in the western mountains. If only the future could be as discernable as the equations that operated autonomously around it. That was his life's work.
'Did you expect instant celebrity?'
The question rattled around in his brain, clearing paths as it passed, scrambling everything in its wake. As a child, he had imagined himself to be the great space captain. Exploring, saving, discovering, then, boom, physics, his kid-self had been cut off at the knees. He had become a quantum accountant. This goes here, and so many of them there. Quantum uncertainty was a poor substitute for mystery. And then again, it was his damn imagination which got him into trouble.
Perhaps Tessa was right and it was time to move on. The university rules stated that they should have tenured or removed him years ago. Maybe they were finally getting back around to it, or maybe they never had intended to. It was that kid-him again making waves, the one that pestered him that there was something else just at his fingertips, and that it must be found. His peers combed the sunny beach for that pretty shell while he was lost in the forest. At least he had grown up there.
Tessa understood him. Not really, but she accepted him. To her the trees were trees and rocks were rocks and nothing much mattered but today. And John, he had his own thing going on that his father understood even less. The numbers one through nine, Nicolas put it away for now. Time was almost up. He had better go catch up before it was too late.
As far as the high school went, well, it was a school. Sometime in the nineties they had renovated it to keep up with the town, adding an expansion with an inviting glass entrance, and slipping in some curves, livening up the landscaping and generally added even more pueblo red everywhere. The expansion consisted of rockwall cinderblock, high ceilings and offices with plenty of glass to view the student body through. Still, its guts were still those of the 1960's,long, straight, blue striped, white painted cinderblock halls and rooms, blue recessed lockers, and acoustic tile hanging from the roof, which all schools from the time seemed to be cursed with. To the south and west of the halls were the separate fields for a half-dozen sports the students played.
A few dozen cars were scattered in the parking lot, which was centered on school grounds, mainly clustered between the gym at the southern tip of the school, and the football field beyond where the players ran through their paces. Of course, He had parked nowhere near them, which should have been enough of a signal to most that he preferred to be left alone. He walked and listened as he made his way to the gym. A whistle signaled action, the young men complied with orders and reacted without thought, just sound and fury. It was probably why his sports were limited to the television and recliner.
"Hello…is that you?!" Nicolas knew that piercing voice from somewhere. "Mister Reuel, I need to speak to you." Something from deep in his brain told him not to acknowledge her calls. He tried a furtive glance to understand why, and failed at both, only succeeding at a fair impersonation of a turtle tucking its head into its shell.
"Yes?" he asked, mid-stride.
"You are Tessa's Father, right?"
"Yes, what is it?" He had run into her before, at school functions and here and there, and knew her from common knowledge as 'The Terror of the PTA'. She had the inside track on him, and was angling hard to cut him off from the gym. It was rather a site, as she had hooked one of the football players by the shoulder pad and was dragging him along at an impressive rate. He managed a meek resistance, until she shot him another look, which seemed to mean 'stay', and so he did. The only thing he dared to do was stare at the helmet dangling on his hip, his fingers stuck in the facemask. Nicolas actually felt a little sympathy for the kid.
"Hello, I'm Margret. I work at the book store downtown, 'La Grenouille de Danse'. Well, actually, I own it, Margret Petcher." She held her hand out. It was left hanging.
"Sorry, I don't get around to reading much. I do, actually, but mostly just work papers, technical stuff. I get anything else online." That was easy enough. Nicolas tried to take a big step to circumvent her, but she was with him step-for -step.
"That's a shame, you know."
She took a moment to adjust her round, red rimmed glasses as she spoke again, "There are a lot of businesses that rely on local commerce."
"Sorry, I can't afford to give myself a pay reduction," Nicolas muttered as he looked for another way around, regretting he had said it, wanting her to hearing it. Maybe on another day he would have been more accommodating. It's just that today his troubles had come in threes.
"People make a community what it is. You are a part of this town, too." Margret was one of those expressive 'hand talkers'. Every phrase came with a gesture, or really every gesture came with sounds to elaborate on them. She must have been a half dozen years younger than him, or at least she gave that impression, with an average height for a woman, certainly not that much taller, but packed full of a pugnacious energy that made whatever age gap seem cavernous. She wore a light, mid-sleeved, blue sweater and khaki slacks, which motherhood filled out, but not unflatteringly. Her hair was a strawberry blonde and permed, but if fit the soft features of her oval face, and certainly her personality, better than anything God might have given her.
"Excuse me. I need to go…"
"This is my son," Margret interrupted as she threw her thumb at him, to which Nicolas thought he heard a whimper. "He has been making an ass of himself around your daughter." He was a big one, and Nicolas was a little proud in Tessa for sticking up to this brute. If he was too small for serious college ball, he easily was big enough for high school.
"She told me about it…John or Bill or…"
"…Michael. His father died when he was young." She broke off the conversation as the past caught up to the moment. "Anyways, I made a better mother than a father to him. He has something he needs to say to you." Michael took a step forward, then hesitated and glanced at his mother before slack lips practiced the words. Nicolas had seen enough.
"I am really not the one he needs to talk to. This is between him and my daughter and I really don't believe this is the way to handle a child." Great, now his arms were going along with hers.
"Your wife dumped your kids on you and left, right?"
"That really isn't any of your business… and how do you know?"
"It's a small town, that and our kids. Being a single parent is not so much different than having a dog; you end up muddling around in the backyard a lot hoping not to step in it." A smirk slipped across her lips as she shifted her weight on one leg.
"Right…is there a point?"
"Is this bothering you?"
"Today really wasn't the best day for a confrontation."
"So, Tessa already talked to you?"
"No…well, yes, but that's not it."
"Why does it have to be work?"
"You're a parent. It's either one or the other. Work is definitely the easier of the two, even running a business. Everyone has to make it so complex. Just give people what they want."
"That's it, huh? Maybe if profit is your motive…"
"That's right." If she had next said that had the keys to the seven heavens and the nine hells, he scarcely could have managed a more incredulous look. "You know what the best part of owning a book store? I get to know a lot of stories, and I just love a smart mystery. Come on, Junior. You're not done yet." Margret pointed her son in the direction of the gym, and marched him off. There went a woman you either loved or hated. Nicolas was not sure which way he fell, but he knew he was done taking blame for the night. He turned right back around, sat on the trunk of his car, and waited for the inevitable.
A Cheshire moon hung in his window. Its silver glow reflected on bands of clouds like stretched tufts of cotton candy, and ringed the blades of grass with halos in an otherwise dark backyard. Nicolas tried to get busy, but it hung there serenading him, the music of nature an accompanying choir, teasing him of another fantastic world. The day was done, the children fed and at rest. It was his time. Even fatigued as he was, he needed to use it to best effect.
"What a day…chaos and intrigue, Autumn would have loved it. When was the last time I talked to her? Easter? She was always so fearless. Mom and Dad, all they did was encourage it, then where were they when someone needed to watch her… I'll call in a couple of days."
As he sat there and lingered in the past, he began to understand how much of his parenting style had formed out of his own youth. Children should be a process and not a goal. He had taken care of his kids, and actually cared for them, guided them, without smothering them in his personality. They would have the things he had wanted. Generations swing like a pendulum.
'Every good scientist is half B. F. Skinner and half P. T. Barnum.'
When he heard this as a teen, he had only understood half of it. Later, he came to loath the idea behind the statement. Now, for his children, he would bow at the altar. If the Dean wanted a pound of his flesh, if she was taking him to the board, he needed to give them something else instead. He did not have to make them say 'yes', just not 'no', or vice-versa, or whatever. The moon laughed at his folly. He tuned it out, and bounced between reports and spreadsheets, most of them unpublished, searching. If there was no red meat to dazzle them with, perhaps there was at least some good baloney in here.
The cursor blinked, on, off, on, off, to a 4/4 rhythm. Words in Nicolas's mind seemed monopolar and all negative, and cat videos were a click away. Instead, he forced himself to imagine, scratching out a doodle that sideways looked reminiscent of Stonehenge as imagined by Salvador Dali in Kindergarten. He sighed as he slowly wadded the paper into a tight ball, and tried his skill with the basket, and failed yet again. He was defiantly not the athlete of the family, or the artist. His skill set seemed tooled for failure.
'You're not the first scientist to get lost chasing fantasy. Don't waste the rest of your career on this.'
This was not helping. Nothing was helping. Nicolas stood and stretched a little, trying to get the weight off of his tailbone. A queen-sized bed, which he still slept on his side of, a nightstand, a wood table desk for his laptop with a forest green porcelain desk lamp and an office chair with a broken piston, this was his room, the master bedroom upstairs. He needed nothing else, at least nothing that he was willing to spend the effort on buying. His room was not large, nothing in this duplex home was. The kid's two rooms up top were even smaller, positively miniscule, and he got to hear all about it each time something checked into one of their rooms, and never checked out.
"Maybe I should look at the latest CERN data. Maybe there is something there to suggest another closed loop string not locked into our dimension." Nicolas opened his window to let the cool night breeze circulate around his body before sliding back into his seat. That little bit of a breeze leaking in swept out a long hot summer day.
'Did you expect instant celebrity?'
Why could he not let it go? He remembered one of those crazy things his aunt Rita used to say, 'There are many things like the breeze. You can't see it come or go, but you know when it is here.' He knew it was the truth, just as certain that he knew he was right, but not why. Maybe instead, his gut feeling was a piece of spite from a vengeful inner child that was given no Santa Claus. Maybe his 'inner child' was just an imaginary friend to hide all his faults by. He had been a fool and the Dean right. 'The Twilight Zone' did not bring in the grant money, which was what this was really all about. The old bat would know. She was old enough to have seen the show during its original run. Twenty years later, and now he figured it out. He should have studied biochemistry instead.
The racket of a thunk-thong of hard plastic against the bare earth, its now open mouth resonating the dissonance, punctuated by a two-liter bottle spinning across concrete, ruined an already sour mood. "Damn Raccoons," Nicolas muttered. They loved coming down off of the grassy hills to feed, particularly the night before trash pick-up. He had better get down there before he had to spend the next half-hour picking up a backyard worth of soggy coffee grounds and rotted banana peels. Nicolas lumbered downstairs and out the back door, dragging a broom and dustpan from the closet underneath the stairs behind him. You never hear how viciously aggressive they really are. Marvel had the little monsters pegged.
Nicolas would be armed this time, the broom his sword and dustpan his buckler. His home might as well be a roadside eatery the way raccoons used the neighborhood fence-top like a highway. The silver glow of the moon refused to mix with golds of the porch light, instead the colors opposed each other as a point/counterpoint all across the yard. Somewhere, a couple houses down he guessed, he could hear the sounds of pop music, merriment, and the tapping of a ping pong ball, another one of the 'benefits' of living in a college town. His large blue garbage can was tipped over on its wheels, but its thinly wrapped delights had somehow been left unmolested. As far as he could see, which was far enough, he was alone.
"Weird, they had more than enough time to tear into something." Nicolas drug the trash can back upright with both hands, then flipped the lid back over into place. He would fix them. He took a moment to locate a rather large river stone, grabbing it to anchor the top of the can. "Try it now…" Hands on his hips, he challenged his foes with a flippant nod. Satisfied, he started to turn back, and was caught in the gaze of the moon. The moon in its rhythm around the earth, and the earth around the sun, and our little sun on its own path in the galaxy, wheels around and around, in frequencies, amplitudes, harmonies, a universal symphony ignored…making sound that still goes unheard.
"I need…my needs…"
In his near forty years of living, he had not freaked-out like this since that winter night in the 80's, where he had snuck downstairs to watch the Jeff Goldblum remake of 'The Fly' on HBO. He jumped, twisted and could not stick the landing, stumbling around and twisting his ankle on a root before slamming his shoulder into the fence to come crashing down on one knee, yelping in pain. Throughout the whole display the broom had spun up over his head like a helicopter blade, and finally down, adding to both injury and insult.
"You…I need. You need I." A small, hesitant voice breathed like the wind, yet still melodic. It was even closer, too close. It passed out of the shadow of the fence, a young girl he guessed from her size and voice. She must have slipped in over the fence, and a slip of a thing she was, her face hidden deep inside the hood of her jacket, but a knot of lavender hair gave her away.
"I know you…"
"YES!" Her voiced jumped, "my fac'har…"
"I saw you earlier at the college in the parking lot. How the heck did you get in my yard? The gate's locked." Nicolas scrambled to his feet awkwardly, favoring his good ankle, and never taking his eyes off of the girl. "Wait…were you harassing my…"
"You kids these days. The party's over there, and shouldn't you have at least waited until you got there before getting wasted, or better yet, until you're actually in college?"
"No…you list'en." Nicolas had lots more scolding to do, but when she rolled the hoodie down with one hand, he fell into silence at what stared back at him, twin forest emerald orbs beaming emotion and intelligence. Her eyes were incredibly large, set wide, setting off a face made to accommodate them, with a sharp jawline sloping gradually to an understated chin, finishing off her baby face. Despite this, Nicolas got the impression from her demeanor that she was not a child at all, but a maturing young woman. Her nose was thin and upturned. Her pointed ears poked through thick, messy tangles of lavender hair cut short along her neck, with long bangs falling over her bold cheeks; the locks of which lit up in the night, much like the spring petals of the flower that shared its color. Her lips were thin, and her mouth had something of an overbite, more like her entire jaw protruded slightly, like a muzzle. It all fit together into a unique package which reminded him of some anime character. She slouched badly, even looking up at him as he towered high over her. This was no child. Even under the baggy clothes, emo, urban, scene, or whatever look she was going for, the telltale signs were there if you paid attention. Her whole body shook, and Nicolas noticed that underneath her pant cuffs bare toes peaked out. Her hands returned to her pockets. She was clearly agitated at him, or herself.
"What is your name?" Nicolas blurted out.
"Name?" The little girl stepped back and tripped her heal on the edge of the patio, then muttered something ugly that he could not understand.
"What was that? Maybe you should forget about the party. You need coffee, instead."
"Whatever, look, this is not your boyfriends place, and I have nothing worth stealing. The wife made sure of that, years ago. So, you need to move along." He tugged at the collar of his t-shirt to fan some air over his chest. "Is it really that hot out here?"
"You…you list'en…now!" A firework popped in the sky over the neighbor's yard. Not a lot of noise, more of a whoosh than a bang, more the flash of fire than the sparkle of gunpowder. Both looked at the skyward explosion, her with fear, him with curiosity.
"That was weird. Neighbors had a few left over from the 4th, I guess." Nicolas pulled out his wallet from his back pocket and fished out a few bills. "Look, here's ten bucks, go get yourself a nice dinner, drink lots of water, and get a coffee, you look like you need one." He tried to hand the cash to her, only to have the bills swatted away.
"No, no, no, NO! You…you…Yoouuu! You know mom! I need you…you fak'char." Every syllable of her words she spoke distinctly, and carried a rhythm.
"Your mom? He heard something in her voice that he couldn't describe, a chord that called to him from another time. He went pale. "No, I'm sorry, you must be mistaken. You need to go now."
"Leave!" He pointed towards the fence. "You found your way over, you can do it again. Now go!" He left her there, alone. The porch light flickered out, leaving the little girl to the darkness.
"You will list'en."