An air horn sounds from cage side. The fighter feels his opponent roll off of him and stand. He can feel the boom in the canvas from his opponent's footsteps. The fighter rolls onto his hands and knees and stands, too, slowly, swaying slightly once he is upright. His hands shoot out to counter balance a backward fall and he feels the cage. He grabs it and begins to pull himself along. He knows if he follows the cage, he will eventually end up back at his corner.
His feet waver like they aren't his own, sliding along the canvas in stilted arcs. The last elbow he took to the forehead filled his eyes with white and his ears with a high, steady scream. As he reaches out for the next handful of rubber-coated chain link fencing, a hand grabs his hand out of the air. He can feel the callouses on the thickly muscled fingers. It is his coach's hand, and coach pulls him a few more feet before guiding him down onto his stool.
The fighter can feel cool hands on his face. He can feel the ice bag sliding back and forth across his neck, the moisture mixing with his own sweat and running in long, tickling streams down his spine and into the seam of his fight trunks.
“Water,” he says. He thinks he says it, with the ringing in his ears he can't be sure. He opens his mouth to reinforce the point. “Water.”
The rounded plastic rim of a water bottle touches his lips, and he takes two hard pulls in between wheezing gasps for air.
The fighter knows his coach is kneeling. He knows the hands on his face are his coach's hands, knows his coach must be wiping the blood from a battered face. Most of the fluid dripping down his face and neck, and even down on his chest, is sweat, he knows that. Blood feels different. Blood has a weight to it, a pace to it, something just a little bit different from sweat. The fighter reaches up instinctively to wipe the warmer running liquid from his forehead and brow, but coach smacks his hand away.
He remembers the first time he felt blood pouring from his forehead. He'd reached up to see what was running down his face then, too, even though he knew. He didn't know how or why he knew it was blood, he just knew.
Third grade wrestling tryouts can be tough.
He can feel his coach's breath on his face. Coach is most likely yelling directives about sprawling harder on the opponent's double leg attempts. He'd always been a sucker for the double leg. Water splashes on his face and flows down over the top of his head. Another wipe from a towel and then the cotton swabs hit. One is jammed into his left eyebrow. It's a deep cut, he can feel it. It's been pouring blood down the side of his face since early round three. Must have been a good shot that opened him up because he can't remember what did it.
Sound, a voice. It's in the distance, a voice shouted from a pool deck down into the water. Into the deep end.
A hand slaps the fighter's face.
The fighter nods. The ringing is fading. There are other sounds now: a low rumble; rasping, frantic breaths; another voice.
“...doctor in here... yes, the doc!”
It's the referee, Alex Sandoval. The fighter knows his deep, throaty voice. He's heard it yelling out commands for almost ten years now. Sandoval has been the fighter's referee at least a dozen times, and this isn't the first time the fighter has heard the question:
“You okay, champ?”
The fighter nods, working hard to force his breaths deeper into his lungs. He pulls the air in with a hiss and holds it in for a three count. Another long pull, and another. His rib cage isn't expanding normally. After taking heavy body shots, he is usually able to take four hard and deep breaths and reset any tightness in his ribs and diaphragm. Something is off. He can feel it now, a heat and a tension spreading out across the right side of his abdomen, curling around to his back.
“Doc is comin' in.” Coach's voice is lower now, quieter, but closer. The fighter feels their heads touch. “Look at me, champ, you still in this? Can you hear me? They are going to stop this fight if you don't snap to. You want this?”
The fighter nods.
“Devon! If you want this you better wake up, you hear me? Wake up!”
Devon, that's right.
The white out is fading. As the ringing in his ears begins to give way to the pulsing noise of the stadium, dark shapes emerge in the bright, shining blindness. Inch by inch, a dark round mass pixelates, distorted by spiraling rings of light from the overhead lights and from the cage-side cameras. The dark round shape is suddenly clear enough to be familiar. Devon knows his coach's head.
But coach is moving aside for another dark figure. It must be the doctor.
The rings of light are suddenly swallowed by a single burning brightness. Devon winces into the burning sun, then it disappears, then it returns.
Then everything is dark again.
“Follow my finger.”
The doctor's hand is over Devon's right eye. He realizes the doctor wants him to prove he can see out of his left eye. Devon can feel the doctor's hand pressing into the slightly swollen right side of his face. He can feel the pressure, feel his own pulse. He can't feel anything on the left side. If he can't find a way to convince the doctor that he can see well enough out of his left eye to continue, he knows the doctor will stop the fight.
“He's fine,” coach says. “He's fine, doc, let us work on him.”
The light returns, burning hot and absolute.
“I'm fine, I'm fine,” Devon says.
The test is coming. He will need to show he can still see out of his left eye. He can't, it's swollen nearly shut and is full of blood.
“I need to get in here,” coach says. He has a cotton swab soaked in adrenaline chloride. He jams it into the cut on Devon's forehead. Devon jerks his head briefly away from the pain. He is awake now.
“How many fingers do I have up?” the doctor asks.
With his right eye still covered, Devon has no idea. But this isn't the first time he's lied in the cage.
“Three,” Devon says. He is correct, three fingers, and having answered audibly and correctly, the doctor nods to the referee. The fight can continue.
When the doctor asked how many fingers he was holding up, Devon felt coach's hand on his thigh. The first time they ever pulled this trick, the doctor had been holding up two fingers. Two taps were easy to feel and remember. But tonight, with three fingers, by the third tap on his thigh, Devon had forgotten if there had already been two taps or three. Then he thought, Well maybe it was only one tap. Maybe the first contact I felt was coach simply putting his hand on my leg. Should I count that as a tap? The buzzing room and the blinding switch from dark to light to dark to burning bright light twisted Devon's sense of time and touch. But his first instinct was three, so he went with three.
“Good work, champ,” coach says, pressing another cotton swab into the gash over Devon's left eye. Twenty-five seconds, breathe deep for me.”
The swabs help slow the bleeding. Three globs of Vaseline go from the coach's thumb to the cuts – over the left eye, on the forehead, and across the bridge of Devon's nose.
“How's the vision?” coach asks.
“I'm fine,” Devon says.
“Don't tell me you're fine, can you see?”
Devon's right eye is recovering but he still can't make out details. He can see the outline of coach's head, the top ridge of the cage, lights, and a mass of shapes shifting and morphing in his opponent's corner.
“How does he look?”
“He's tired. I think he punched himself out at the end of that round.”
Punched himself out? I think you mean he punched me out.
“Are you listening to me?”
Devon wasn't listening to him. It is getting harder to distinguish the sounds he is hearing.
Another slap hits his face.
“Stop playing around. Can you fight?”
Devon nods slightly.
“Can you fight? Tell me yes or you're done. Tell me you're ready or you're done.”
Coach said that before, in one of the Devon's first amateur fights. He said it earlier, too, during Devon's high school wrestling career. He'd never taken coach up on the offer. He'd never quit. Not since third grade.
Third grade wrestling camps can be tough.
Especially when the coach is your father.
In the fifth match of that day in third grade, Devon drew the best wrestler on the team, Gavin Haynes. Haynes was the son of an Olympic alternate. He was bigger, stronger, and simply a better wrestler in every way. The fatigue and emotions of a tough day of training camp and the accumulated pain and fear of four tough matches pushed Devon to a breaking point. Knowing he was bruised and tired and would have to face the best wrestler on the team made him want to quit.
“You ready?” his father asked. “Championship match. You fought your way here and now it's time to see what you're really made of.”
Devon didn't want to wrestle. But he found it impossible to say that with his father's hand on his shoulder. Every time he opened his mouth to begin, “I don't want to wrestle anymore,” he could feel the finger tips digging in deeper. At the moment he felt he might have finally worked up enough courage to say something, it was too late, and his dad was smacking him on the back as the referee called him out to center mat.
Devon knew he wasn't going to win the match. He had decided he wasn't going to win, convinced himself that he didn't want to win, that he just wanted to be done so he could go home. He knew Gavin Haynes liked to drop on a single leg and run the pipe. In the transition from standing to the ground, he liked to bind his opponent's legs in his own, crawl up the back, and then secure a deep half nelson before rolling his opponents onto their backs for the pin. He'd used this technique in three out of his four matches that day.
As he faced off with Haynes, he saw the intention for the single leg. He knew he couldn't make it look too easy. His father's wrath would be greater if he obviously quit. So when the referee blew the whistle and Haynes changed levels and shot, Devon sprawled and worked for an under hook. He wasn't sprawling hard, and he wasn't cranking on the under hook, but someone watching from the outside might have believed he was truly trying to defend the leg attack.
His father didn't.
“No, no, you get that under hook! Sprawl and hook! Sprawl and hook!”
Devon dug the under hook a little deeper and flexed. He knew he needed to look like he was struggling against a bigger, stronger opponent. He needed to show how much better Haynes was.
But Haynes wasn't stronger. In his previous match, while shooting in for a single leg, he'd over-extended his right arm and injured his shoulder. Then when he tried to trap Devon's leg against his own chest, Devon felt the weakness of Haynes' grip. He wasn't the same wrestler who had been running through guys all day. By the time he realized the weakness, he'd already made the choice to let Haynes take him down.
Two points for the take down. Devon knew he'd need to resist the half nelson a little and then it would be over. But the shoulder weakness was even more pronounced on the ground. Haynes didn't have the strength to drive his arm up under Devon's armpit and around the back of his neck. Devon knew he could resist it if he wanted to. At first, he didn't want to, he just wanted the match to be over. He just wanted to go home.
But then he reconsidered. If Haynes' arm was that weak, could Devon reverse the position? He wondered if he would be able to get the upper hand. He considered the possibility of lasting through the entire match, of losing on points or maybe... the thought flitted in quickly...
Maybe he could win.
But he didn't win. He caught his father's eyes and read the insanity, the need his father had for him to win. In that look he felt all the work he'd done in the gym and at practices, all of the techniques he'd drilled and refined, were for someone else. His father wanted to win. His father needed the win, for himself.
When Haynes slid his hand under Devon's armpit, Devon didn't resist. When Haynes gripped the back of Devon's neck and started applying pressure, he barely fought it. The turn came, and Devon watched the referee lie down for a better view of his shoulder blades and the mat they were about to touch, and he didn't resist. His father watched him go limp. His father watched him drop the fake tension in his muscles and exhale. Devon closed his eyes as his shoulders touched the mat. He wanted to be done.
The referee slapped the mat and blew his whistle, pin. Haynes leaped to his feet and raised his good arm into the air in triumph. The crowd cheered. They cheered the cheers of a crowd in awe of a dominant competitor. Not the insane, passionate cries of a crowd witnessing an incredible performance, or an amazing comeback, just a simple, polite acknowledgment of the tournament winner.
Once Devon gave in and closed his eyes, the tears appeared. The roar from the crowd made the tears worse. In the moment between quiet relief from pain and competition and the realization that he'd quit against a wrestler he could've beaten, he felt peace. He felt peace for about one second. Giving up in front of this crowd, in front of his team, and in front of his father, turned any sense of relief and peace into shameful regret. There was no reason to give up in the match, even if he'd been outclassed. He realized no one cared if he lost, not if he showed the will to win. But he'd quit because of the burning eyes of the man staring back at him from the side of the mat.
He'd quit because he thought he needed to quit. He'd thought the control over the decision would feel good, thought it would feel better than following one more of his father's screamed orders. But it didn't. Quitting made him feel weak. It made him furious that his father was right, that only cowards quit. He felt like a coward.
He chose to never feel that way again.
“Hey, do you know where you are right now?”
His father's voice, back in the cage.
“What round is it, Devon?” he yells.
A five floats by. It is the clearest thing Devon has seen in the minute between rounds. Red number five on a white background, floating along the edge of the cage. The number is floating over a brownish orange blob. The curves slide into focus.
“Okay, that's it. I'm calling it.”
It's Brooke, one of the ring girls. She is stepping down the stairs from the elevated cage to return to her seat. The round is about to start.
“Round five,” Devon says, taking one final gulp from the water bottle.
His father reaches for one of the white towels in his supply bucket.
“No. You're done,” he says. As he lifts the towel and goes to stand, Devon grabs his wrist. He pulls his father close.
“Championship round,” he says, ripping the towel from his father's grasp. “It's time to go get that belt.”
“Oh, so now you're listening? Now you can hear me? Okay, what are you going to do when he shoots?”
His father's lips tighten. He turns to look across the cage. Devon's opponent is taking deep breaths. His head is hanging over his knees. He looks almost as bad as Devon.
“Uppercut, that's right, sprawl and uppercut, sprawl and uppercut. You wobbled him in the third with that, now I need you to finish him with it. This is the last round, champ. This is it. Show me somethin.”
Show me somethin.
The fight teams make their way out of the cage. Sandoval takes the center to announce that they are entering the fifth and final round. He points to Devon:
“Are you ready?”
Devon nods once, long and slow.
“Are you ready?”
The opponent take a final deep breath and nods, too.
“Let's do it!”
Devon knows the strategy. He knows what all of the coaches and analysts in the room are thinking: Devon will land the significant blows that lead to his victory, or his opponent will secure a take down and use punches and elbows to earn a ref's stoppage or find a submission. The same people think Devon is the weaker fighter, that it is much more likely for the opponent to force his will on Devon. When the opponent drops for the shot, Devon loads up his right hand and looks to sprawl. This is what the opponent wanted, and his fake wrestling shot turns into a huge over hand right to Devon's face. It connects to the left eyebrow and immediately opens the cut and increases the swelling around Devon's eye. The pain tears through his body and he stumbles, dropping to one knee. The opponent throws a follow up right hand, then a left hook. The punches graze Devon's forehead, accentuating his backward stumbling, until his back finds the cage. He knows he should circle off to his right, away from the cage and away from his opponent's power hand. It's what the analysts would say he should do. It's what his dad is screaming at him to do.
It isn't what he does.
Devon uses the force from backing into the cage to rebound and move forward a few steps. His opponent is on his way in, so Devon loads up his right hand for what looks to be a wild swinging right hook. The opponent sees the wind up and drops for a shot, the normal reaction to a desperate haymaker. It is what any good wrestler would do, try to duck under the punch to secure the take down.
Devon does not throw the hook. His wild wind up made his punch look like it would be a hook, but as he drops his elbow, the opponent can see the mistake. He closes his eyes just before Devon dips his hip and drills a perfect uppercut into the opponent's jaw.
The blow doesn't stop the opponent's forward momentum. His head twists violently to the side but his arms reach out and slam against Devon's thighs. Devon pushes his dazed opponent down and slips out of the clumsy grasp. He puts his left hand on the opponent's head and begins cracking him in the side of the head with right hooks. His ribs are screaming now. They are definitely broken. But it doesn't matter. His hand is hot and each punch sends electricity down his forearm all the way up to the shoulder. The hand is most likely broken. But it doesn't matter. He kneels down and changes to elbow strikes. This hurts a little less. But it doesn't matter.
Sandoval lifts him up and off of his unconscious opponent. The crowd is cheering, chanting his name. But it doesn't matter. He is the new light heavyweight MMA champion of the world. Soon, the announcer will call his name, heralding him as the new champion of the world, and he will feel the belt around his waist. But it doesn't matter.
He could've stopped. He could've told the truth and let the doctor stop the fight. He could've let his father pick up that towel and throw it into the center of the cage. He could've waved the fight off, himself, and simply walked out of the cage. He could've quit before the fight, claimed an injury or illness. He could've stop fighting months ago, years ago, and become a PE teacher and wrestling coach.
Like his father.
Like everyone expected of him.
But it doesn't matter. He didn't. He didn't quit. He didn't take the easy way out. Not since that day in third grade. Not since then and never again. As the belt goes around his waist, Sandoval takes Devon's wrist. He goes to raise his arm, proclaiming the new champion. Devon pulls his hand free and raises both arms up over his head. He roars. He balls up his fists and flexes every muscle he can still feel. He lets the pain build up and surge through his hands and arms, through his legs, and feels it claw at his ribs. The ringing in his ears grows under the pressure of his screaming. He still can't see out of his left eye, and his right eye is fading. He stands, the champion, with no one holding up his arms, no one hoisting him on their shoulders. He stands free, dismissive of the pain, until he falls to his knees. When people try to help him back to his feet he waves them off, pushing at their hands. He kneels and the sound in his head grows and his vision goes and the part of him that rose up to carry him through the final round goes quiet. When he collapses onto his back, they call the doctor into the cage. When they bring a stretcher in and carry him out, his mumbles to himself.
“It doesn't matter now.”
As they run him to the waiting ambulance and the EMTs help slide him in, he mumbles to himself.
“It doesn't even matter.”
On the trip to the hospital, before they have to charge the paddles to try and restart his heart, they hear him mumbling.
“Matter... matter. It doesn't matter.”
Before the last lights in his eye go out, and before the ringing slips into the echoless depths of his ears, he smiles at the knowledge that whatever happens next, it doesn't matter. He won.
The audience rose, pulled to their feet by a quick swirl of light and a short pulse of crackling, like pebbles dropping into a fish tank. The man they had been listening to disappeared in the sparkling twister and left behind him an empty stage and the sudden inhale of a thousand gasps. The gasps were followed by silence. The great hall rang with the silence, its rows of the world's flags swaying gently from whatever force pulled the speaker from his position at center stage. The silence was replaced by troubled murmuring. What he had proposed was so outlandish in scope and so far beyond the capabilities of any scientists on Earth that the audience had assembled with the logical conclusion that to see him succeed would be inspiring, without holding any real hope for his success. When the first declarations of his plan worked, the collective, as prepared as they thought they were, were simply not ready to process the feat.
The speaker proposed a breakthrough in the production and stabilization of a worm hole. He beamed while asserting that it had been two-hundred years to the month since Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen hypothesized about bridges, what the speaker, with arms raised high and wide, called Einstein-Rosen Bridges. He gestured wildly while laying the historical grounding and presenting what would be needed, physically and technologically, for such a bridge. After going through his list of needs and detailing the arduous work that he and all of his scientist brothers and sisters had undertaken, he had stopped. No more gesturing. He'd stood, motionless, holding the attention of the now silent arena. Then he answered the question swirling through all of their minds.
“We did it. We did it six months ago.”
His words were at first met by confused whispers. Such a bold claim would need to be proven, but with his presentation's passion and his confidence in his findings, the skepticism in the crowd slowly morphed into polite applause.
“You don't seem convinced,” he said, “nor should you be. Words, words, words, but what of the works? Well, our portal is called the EinRos-1, and five months and twenty-nine days ago, at the joint Siberian Chino-Russian research station, we ran our first successful test. We tested the passage of magnetic waves across five-hundred meters. Then spectral rays. Then our most exciting success: the transportation of matter across space-time. I should have facilitated a contest for who could guess the first matter transported across space-time by humans. I'll give you five seconds to think of your own guess. Personally, I wanted to use M&Ms.”
The speaker looked at his watch while the laughter rose and died down. He could see he didn't have much time.
“Have your guesses ready? Diamonds. Yes, a girl's best friend, we sent fourteen two karat diamonds into the wormhole, much to the dismay of our funding team. But to their great relief, fourteen diamonds arrived safely on the other side, five-hundred meters away. Did it have to be diamonds? No, I suppose not. But some things require a little bit of style. And a melting point over 3500 degrees Celsius doesn't hurt, either.”
More laughter, and another chance to check his watch.
Less than two minutes.
“The team was stunned by the success. We were told again and again what we were proposing couldn't be done, not on the scale we envisioned. I was not stunned. In fact, I'd planned on the successful test, and had already sent a similarly constructed gateway, the EinRos-3, with the Mars-bound supply ship, Artax. I briefed a member on the ship, who will remain anonymous until an appropriate time, on the installation and calibration of EinRos-3. Three earth days after the Artax's arrival, Earth successfully transported three items to Mars: Kevlar exo suit gloves, a box of chocolate bars, and this.”
The speaker raised his hand and each audience member received a short video recording in their Elo-Rift headset: a small kitten, pouncing toward the playful hands of the Artax flight team on Mars.
Now the humming of whispered excitement and the murmuring of disbelief and concern sent the room churning. The speaker checked his watch again.
Less than a minute.
“Let them murmur,” he'd whispered to himself.
“And so I stand before you today to let you know we have succeed in what could be the greatest scientific achievement in human history. I don't mean the creation of a space-time bridge. This, in and of itself, is interesting, but the true glory lies in how we use this new power. Before our first success, I worked in secret to devise an experiment worthy of such a breakthrough. Sending diamonds around the world is great and all, but I looked deeper. Actually, I looked outward, into that thick black night and all of her bright and shining stars. I looked out at the places in the grand cosmos the EinRos-1 could take us. I wanted to give the experiment adequate time to work, if it were to work, so just under six months ago I sent a message into the far corners of our own galaxy and, hopefully, many other galaxies beyond. I sent out a request, certain Earth coordinates, and a specific day and time.”
The speaker looked at his watch again. He click the lock on the strap and took it off, looking at its face one last time before placing it on the floor in front of him.
“We've opened a portal through space and time. And now, if my communications and my calculations are correct, you will bear witness to the first successful transport of a human being across space and time.”
The audience paused, the silence of a thousand people trying to process something that had never been said and never been heard. The speaker had always been viewed as a genius, but a fractured, manic, and perhaps troubled genius. Many in attendance wanted to believe him. Many wanted to see his genius finally reveal its full and true self, for the betterment of all the people of the world. Most cringed at his declarations, seeing them as the frantic cries of genius turned to madness.
“In ten seconds, we will know the truth,” he said.
The count began in the minds of everyone in the audience. Some, in their effort to keep from counting too quickly, counted too slowly. Others were so bewildered by the claims the speaker made they could barely count at all. Some stayed true to every second, and on count down of three... two... one... the crackling swirl of twisting light ripped the speaker from their view and left them in stunned silence.
The surge was pushing and pulling him at the same time. He could not find bearings, could not tell up or down or any space or sense of balance. He could not remember what happened once it happened, and could not look forward to what might happen next. The speaker was tumbling, reaching with hands that weren't there, flailing feet and legs from a different version of himself, and finding nothing to set as real. Without a sense of touch, he looked to other senses.
The visions he saw he would've considered new to his eyes, though he knew he wasn't seeing through his eyes. There was no looking around here, no blinking, no closing his eyes from this place. He saw it all, an eternal field of ever-changing color and light. He wasn't seeing forward in one direction. He was seeing everything, all the time, from everywhere. Big and small and far and close, the colors and textures all flooded over and around him, through him, like he was in the rushing river of all things ever seen.
The sound was similar. He was hearing sounds but not through ears. He knew that. The sound was in him. The rush of wind and the the swishing and pulsing sound of water and fire and high shrieking screeches peeling around him like the sound of destruction. Or the sound of creation. He couldn't tell. A low buzz and a high hum and a twittering and dancing of songs and voices and harmony and melody and clanging chaos and hollow echo played in a way that made him feel like it was his end and his beginning.
The beginning of all sound and the end of all sound.
Where he remembered having arms and hands and fingers, sizzling trails of electric red tentacles spread out into the rushing color and noise. As he remembered the feeling of moving his fingers under warm bath water, long red bolts spread out, their tendrils branching into the never-ending space above and below him. The colors shifted to blue, then green. As he remembered spilling boiling water across the backs of his hands, the bolts leaped and thrashed, bleeding oranges and yellows up around him, through him. He swung what he remembered being his legs out into the colorful expanse and kicked up plumes of maroon and midnight blue and deep purple. These darker colors finally gave him a sense of stability, of up and down and finding his place. The wash of colors eased. The river slowed to a calm trickle. This place, this experience, if it were the rushing river it seemed to be, had reached the wide point of a deep and calm pool.
The sounds dipped to a low hum. The colors stabilized into a swirl he could see more clearly. He could see the individual stripes now. He could see the details and watch each rounded swell merge with the next, and watch red and blue become purple, watch blue and yellow turn effortlessly to green. Each merging seemed to make the colors brighter than before.
The shapes mixed and remixed, turning over and over in long rolling spirals. What seemed a chaotic mess of eternal kaleidoscopic recycling slowly gave way to clearer forms. The speaker felt pressure again, first at where his face might be, then down his spine, tingling out and down to his fingers and toes. The colors in the distance were becoming something he could almost see from a memory, while his own body was returning to him. Together, outward and inward, an easier and more reliable reality emerged.
From the churning mixture of light and color and sound, figures. His memory took him first to angels, great beings of light and power and wisdom. In thought, witnessing an angel might be something anyone would want to do given the opportunity. The speaker felt a sense of hope and awe, before facing the emergence of actual beings powerful enough to plot a course through this alien world and find him. He could feel their gravity, feel them pulling him in, or drawing themselves to him, or maybe both, he couldn't be sure. But as they drew closer and he started to feel them alerting him of their presence, the current of color boiled into crashing waves and tumbling rapids again. The tendrils from his finger tips hardened into black spikes and bled their blackness into the surrounding reds and blues and yellows. The torrent temporarily blurred the figures as they approached and the speaker felt their pull release.
For a moment.
Then, amid the bubbling torrent and frothing waves of panic and fear, a streak of blue appeared from out of the chaos like a hand, reaching out to take hold of the speaker. To help him or hurt him, he didn't know, and the crackle and rush of noise rose to a sharp, shrill peak under the force of the speaker's scream.
Before the audience could convene and decide what to do, the crackling sound returned, and the great hall was once again filled with a bright light. But this time, the light was accompanied by a loud, deep moan, like the bellow of a bear deep in a cave. The very building seemed to shake under the noise, and the rumble and groan was enough to swallow the sounds of a thousand terrified screams.
Then all was quiet.
The audience rose from the places they'd dived in terror. They expected to see destruction, or some terrifying beast from another dimension. Anything in their imaginations tied to that sound had to be a destructive, world-ending nightmare. But their wild eyes met no such creature. As they righted themselves and looked to the center of the great hall's stage, a familiar figure stood where he'd stood only seconds before, his head slumped forward as if he were sleeping while standing up.
The speaker, not more than fifteen seconds from his departure, had returned.
The cries and gasps from the audience stopped. Those seated in the circle of thrones closest to the speaker all rose from their seats, unaware of what to do. This man, this wild, insane genius had disappeared and reappeared from nowhere.
One member of the front row stepped forward. The speaker's head rose and he opened his eyes.
“Yes,” he whispered. He collapsed to the floor.
Three of those in the front row rushed to him. He'd fallen on his back and was staring up, seemingly at something very far away.
The first to reach him checked his headset for vital readings. The headset was dead. A medical drone appeared only seconds later, hovering over the speaker while running preliminary scans. It gave its diagnosis audibly:
“Heart rate, fifty-nine beats per minute. Blood pressure, one-fifteen over seventy. Respiration, normal.”
All signs read normal. The speaker was pulled up to a sitting position and his eyes returned to the great hall.
“We need to take him in for more thorough medical testing.”
“Wait a moment, let him breathe.”
“We need to check him for... I don't know, radiation?”
“What is going on? What just happened?”
The speaker raised his hand, waving it and shaking his head.
“I'm... okay. I'm fine,” he said quietly.
“Dr. Bastian, are you alright?”
The speaker smiled.
“Dr. Bastian... that's right,” he said, smiling wider. It seemed like a name he'd been called in his childhood, a name he'd long forgotten.
“Your headset is down, Dr. Bastian. We'll need to outfit you...”
With another one?
The woman stopped. She'd heard the doctor's voice but she'd been staring right at him and didn't see his mouth move. The voice sounded like it was her own thoughts, like it was inside her head.
Dr. Bastian pushed the helping hands away and slowly rose to his feet. He staggered and swayed, briefly seeming like he would fall again, but he righted himself. The others held out their hands to help and implored him to sit back down. He waved them off.
“Please, go back to your seats,” he whispered. They stood their ground, ready to rush in and catch him and escort him to the medical terminal in the next room.
Please, return to your seats.
Another voice in the woman's head. But as she looked around she could tell she wasn't the only one hearing it. The group looked at each other, then back to Dr. Bastian, in time for him to add:
They backed slowly away. He smiled, wanted them to feel like everything was okay.
Sending them telepathic messages didn't help reassure them that everything was going to be okay. It terrified them. But they did as he asked and returned to their seats while he reclaimed his position in the center of the great hall's stage.
Dr. Bastian picked his watch up from the floor and looked at its face. He smiled again and sighed. He sent a sort of testing message out, mentally, to the audience as a whole.
We don't even care whether or not we care.
The gasps and uproar in the audience let him know he'd succeeded. He then placed the watch in his pocket and began:
I can try to tell you the story of our first contact with intelligent life from another planet. I can try to use words to describe how they look, how they communicate, how they think and feel and live, but you must know, from the storyteller's mouth, that I will fail. I will fail because I saw nothing, I felt nothing. I was given knowledge. Knowledge sounds so stupid when describing what they gave me. If I were to show you, in a single instant, the completeness of the human race, of every species on earth, of the earth's life itself, of the life of our galaxy, of the solar system, of the universe, of time and space and the very nature of existence, would you consider this knowledge?
Would you point me toward the ocean and say, “Water,” and be content that you filled me with knowledge? No, we are beyond infants in this game, so let me simply tell you that we are far more and far less than we thought we were, that we are meaningless in this machinery and also its very heart. Even for me, having met them, having felt them, having been filled with the essence of what it means to be, I still know nothing and feel inadequate to relay to you even a fraction of my nothing.
If you are content with this reality, I will proceed.
The first thing you must understand is that there are many dimensions, just as there are “many” grains of sand in our deserts and in our seas. We see, hear, feel, taste, and touch. But we don't sense everything, we have known this for thousands of years. Atoms, electrons, quarks, neutrinos, dark matter, even our discoveries of these things, of radio waves and radiation and ultraviolet light, are simple specks of dust blown by the wind of the Sahara that is the universe. Time, space, matter, these are just the beginning.
I stood right here what you perceived to be mere seconds ago, right? I stood here, at the Sanctum's center, and vanished in a burst of light and sound. Now, being here again, they gave me back the memory of your faces, of your clothing, your seating positions, and even your names. You have no doubt remembered my name in the few seconds you've missed me, but please know that I have been away from this place for more lifetimes than are people in this room. There is no reason for me to have kept any memory of you, of this place, or of earth itself. I was taken to the edges of creation, to the burgeoning ripple of the expanse of the universe's energy outward in every direction. I was taken deep into the center, into the core of existence, to the starting place, or as close as they could bring me.
No one goes to the very core.
From this point on marble floors in this great hall they answered my call. When the blast of light and ripple of sound took me up, I flashed through every physical experience I'd ever had on Earth. I will share this with you, later, if you wish.
Then, after flying and falling and living every moment and dying completely, I was instantly in their midst. I saw and felt nothing but the glow and shine of warm light. It was like being in a pool full of people, where every movement created a current felt by everyone else. I couldn't move without feeling the reactionary movements of the others, and when I began to shake with fear and when my thoughts shouted their doubts, the energy began to cool and the color shifted from orange to red, then deeper red, like maroon. But they weren't colors, not like we see colors. It felt maroon. It felt darker and slower, heavier. Sadder.
The feeling spread out to the others. I could feel their colors change, affected by mine, and we all shifted for a moment. Then the energy came back, like an echo returning to the one who screamed. The echo returned warm again, warmer than before, and washed over me, and around me, and through me. Another echo, and another, each warmer and brighter than the last, until no fear could stay. In that moment, even if I'd wanted to fear, I wouldn't have been able. The warmth of their energy washed through me, through us, and there was peace again.
Something asked who I was. They didn't ask with a voice, it was as if I was asking myself. Then I answered and we all heard and knew who I was instantly and totally. At that point I tried to look. I tried to see, the way we see things here, tried to look down at my own hands and feet. When I looked down there were no hands or feet. There was no body at all, and instead, my vision swept over this room, and my family and friends, and through houses of people I didn't know and then back to the past lives of those people, through their families, father and mother to son and daughter over and over until it suddenly stopped. A ripple spread out in the light and the echo came back with a correction. I was not to be sent spiraling through time, not without guidance. The group agreed. I agreed about myself and about them agreeing about myself.
Sorry, I told you it would be hard to explain.
When we came back together and steadied again, a new ripple spread out from somewhere unseen, a question. The question was about the group, someone in the group, someone in the light besides me. The echo came back in agreement, yes, yes tell us, let us all you know. For a moment I wondered what we were trying to know and then I was filled with it. I did know it, all of it, every question and every highway and side street and tunnel of answer.
How did I come to be here?
The longer I stayed in the light the more I felt completely a part of it, but I also felt the different entities emerging. We were the same power, all living in the same light and life and knowledge, and yet there were voices and I could feel that there were beings in front of me and behind me and above and below me, though those terms are inadequate. There were others, like me, a new part of a pulsing whole, and one of the entities emerged at the urging of the others. The presence felt mobile, like it was young and strong and, I don't know... bubbly? Some of the echoes felt older, deeper. This voice was light and fast and excited.
Another ripple, the bubbly one.
This new entity emerged and the group warmed around me. I knew I would be taken away again. The group deemed it necessary and useful this time, and my eyes were opened again so that I could see the bubbly one's hands in creation.
He was there below me, in the midst of others like him. They each hummed in the warm glow of a swirling mass of changing colors. Some dark, some light, some bright, some dull. I am sorry for being unable to describe the colors, but we don't have classifications to describe the billowing, twisting shapes and hues and tones I saw.
As there are “many” dimensions, there are “many” colors.
The various swirls seemed slightly different but largely similar. You might compare them to the swirling of a galaxy, or the eruption of a super nova. But most were not overwhelming. Much of what I had already seen and felt was overwhelming, but the large expanse of churning masses seemed reasonable.
Until I saw his. My heart, if I still had a heart as such at that time, was drawn to it. Its presence called to me, warmed me, and pulled me in like the open arms of a loved one. I knew this energy. Even here, separated from body and merged with the spirits of beings from another world, the spirals of light and dark and sound and swirling beauty felt familiar.
He sensed my feelings. He was there with me, looking down on what he had done at some other point, and he felt my reaction. He let it run through him and he sent it back to me, charged with the knowledge of what it was I was feeling and why I was feeling it.
The beings were creating. They were making universes, stirring the elements of existence. Some stirred clouds of light and fire, elements we would be familiar with here. Others were using forces I have no way of describing to you and that we have no way to measure or understand. As I felt the different worlds being made, their creators could sense my questions and they sent back their knowledge. Some of the knowledge sank into me and glowed evenly in the stability one gets from knowing. Some came back and shook me, splitting my light into spectral effusions in every direction. If you could imagine your thoughts under high stress and severe confusion, and assign that state of mind a series of colors and shapes, that is what I saw. That is what I felt. But inevitably, my fractal spasms would settle, being calmed by returning waves of understanding from the group, and in some cases, a calmness in the knowledge that I would never understand what they were showing me. Always, in every case, back to a safe stasis.
Once I was pulled into each world and given the sense of purpose for each, they gave me their reasons. It was a sort of science fair. It was a sort of contest, though I never felt a competitiveness about it. Each entity was working separately and together. Each entity was working for the creation of universes where certain things might happen. Some were formed for the production of heat and light, and were tinkered with for maximum effect. They were experimenting. With this realization, they fed me the sense that their world, outside of time and space, was fed in some way by the forces they were creating. Whatever dimensional plane we were in at that time, they gave me the feeling it was being fueled by the products of the created worlds.
One system seemed to be creating heat and light. Another ripple made me know that sound was another source of energy for them. Certain beings were creating dimensional planes specifically designed to produce sound. Explosions, implosions, eruptions, molecules and atoms of densities and masses piqued for maximum sound production. It was like a stadium was being built for the grandest sound and light shows any universe had ever seen.
I could feel a consistency with many of the dimensions. The beings made them feel tried and true, like they'd been created before and would be created again because they were simple and trustworthy sources of energy.
Another ripple to connect their higher knowledge with my limited knowledge:
They were farming.
They were growing worlds that would produce. They were setting up a garden, with sound over here and light over there and radiation and magnetism and dark matter and billions of other things that, no matter how many times they washed their echoes over me, I could not understand.
But his world was different. The bubbly one was not following a tried a true gardening method. The group let me know that, initially, they did not think his world would produce anything useful. He'd been established as, if this helps you understand, eccentric. We were all separate and all the same and yet in the middle of the general hum of wisdom, this young bubbly being was being allowed to take chances and try new things. The energy that went out to him was both excited and worried. The others were proud of his bravery and also not expecting success. He took their ripples and echoes and sent them back, along with a unique ripple. Independence.
He was creating a world where strict rules and old reliable methods would be ignored. He was creating a universe with governing laws that had the possibility to allow for more than one outcome. Using time, space, matter and dark matter, but with – again, words are weak here – controlled chaos? Unnatural naturalness? Electrons in superposition, particles that can seem to blink in and out of existence instantaneously, the elements of what we've started to understand as quantum mechanics and chaos theory. The matter he used was different than the others, his sense of gravitational attraction, electromagnetism, polarity, and nuclear forces allowed for, at the same time, sudden expansion of all energy in our universe, as well as attraction necessary to create bonds between subatomic particles, atomic particles, elements...
Earth. He'd created Earth.
Well, more specifically and accurately, he'd created our universe, and what we call the Milky Way galaxy. I sent him this information, that we named our solar system and our galaxy and all of our known planets. The echo that came back to me felt like warm pride, and attention. It felt something like love. He loved that we named the elements our cosmos.
At first, he watched our universe expand and develop with a lot of hope and very little action. Our universe did produce light, but nothing in comparison to the universes created solely for that purpose. Our universe created sound, but again, only a fraction of the sound of others. These beings, outside of our reference for time, watched our universe, our galaxy, and our solar system unfurl in moments. The other beings, seeing that this more randomized, chance-driven universe created any energy at all, shared in the bubbly one's excitement. There was very little interest at first, then a shared sense of curiosity and wonder, and as the readings of power, of heat and light and sound continued to grow, more echoes reached bubbly and offered encouragement. He returned to them something new, something they hadn't really expressed before.
Hope. He gave them a wishful hope that this new kind of universe might offer a new kind of power.
Hope is what brought me to them. Our universe would go on to compete with others on the levels of sound and light and heat and mass. It didn't produce the way those others produced, but it did well across many fields. But the beings discovered something as Earth formed and humans appeared. Life is a fragile thing, very unruly and hard to predict and manage. Most beings avoided creating a lot of life in their universes for this reason. There are too many variables, and in the processing of the life force that keeps the worlds together, certain things hinder power. One of those things is suffering.
Early life on Earth had suffering. From the beginning, creatures suffered the pain of starvation, disease, the elements, and attack from other creatures. But most of the organisms on Earth tend to utilize the energy of other organisms without creating a lot of suffering. When bacteria attacks a cell, death is relatively quick and painless. When an animal attacks and kills another animal, it is often with little to no pain. The closing off or severing of a major artery, the snapping of the neck or skull, the sudden bite of a shark or the poison of a snake, all tend to limit the suffering of the victim.
But there are a few animals who revel in the torment and suffering of other animals. The main animal among them, the only animal to cause wide-spread suffering to members of many different animal groups at the same time, is sitting here in this great hall.
As humans reached a point of superior technological advancement, the level of suffering we created started to offset the amount of useful energy our universe was creating. Our universe was vast enough that the change was small, but the disturbance was so isolated and so sharp that it drew the attention of some of the older beings. It eventually drew the attention of the eldest. Ripples and echoes of communication ran back and forth furiously. Many called for the universe containing Earth to be collapsed in favor of a more stable one. Others saw the numbers as acceptable, especially for a universe so vast and unique, in favor of the potential benefits of new knowledge it might bring. A sort of argument raged, but as the levels of suffering increased, something else was increasing. It was a new source of power, similar in feel to the hope that the bubbly one had created. It was something the entities shared that they had not been able to reproduce in any substantial form outside of themselves.
Most things created served a programming, something established by the creator to govern the actions of the being. This programming tended to be very specific to the goal of power production, and left little to no choice of actions to the being. But in our universe, given enough processes over to a combination of elemental consistency and conversely to selective chaos, the beings witnessed what they'd hoped for... randomness and what could be viewed, in certain higher beings, as choice. In the humans especially, the numbers were very exciting. The humans, in their own little ways, almost with the imprint of their creator on their very essence, were creating sound, and light, and heat. Their production of these things barely registered in measurements, especially at first, but they were novel. We, the human race, were acting like smaller versions of our creator.
With our adaptation to our surroundings, we also developed other, less appealing habits. As time moved forward and our numbers increased, we began to see ourselves as less of a whole and more as individuals. With this development, the darker sides of our nature appeared. Out of a growing sense of our own self-importance, we began to show more signs of greed and violent self-preservation. We began to steal on a more regular basis. We fought and conquered and enslaved each other. We set up systems of law that propped up the most greedy and the most lustful and prideful and we tipped our scales of power production.
Most cycles, due to the beings' sense of time and space, only last for what we would view as a few minutes and the results are recorded for playback. But our universe's cycle was purposefully slowed. Not only were the beings interested in the unique style and kind of power production, but they also became interested in the human story. They witnessed the rise and fall of our greatest nations. They watched in horror as we warred with each other and with ourselves, but another force was beginning to appear. This new human trait was a more potent source of power than the chaos of heat and light and sound. Humans were displaying selflessness and sacrifice. We displayed foresight, and the ability to learn from past mistakes. We displayed an ability to improve, and to manipulate our surroundings for our collective benefit. The beings saw this as another reflection of themselves. The power they gained here, in the way we parroted their ways of operating, offered substantially more power than raw sound and heat and light. This new discovery, of the nearly infinite power of the goodness of humanity, changed everything. Each being weighed in on the possibilities. They began creating other means of encouraging this behavior on Earth, of seeking to promote the best qualities while eliminating the worst qualities. Many beings thought it should be done manually, against human will, for it was too great a resource opportunity to leave to chance.
Bubbly disagreed. His response danced through their world, setting off sparkling echoes from everyone he reached. He made it felt and known that the reason the human world was so powerful was because of the hands off approach he'd taken in its creation. The reason the selflessness and kindness some humans showed, even to their own detriment, was so powerful was because there was the option to not share and not be kind. Bubbly felt we were powerful and good because we had the power and the choice to not be good. He felt that was the only reason for our incredible power.
As civilization expanded and cities became countries and countries became superpowers, the consensus among the beings shifted. We'd taken too easily to war and unnecessary suffering and death. We'd committed too aggressively to selfish things. When we did find a new way of doing things, or making things, or looking at the world and ourselves, someone would step in to use the new discoveries to serve their own purposes. This was usually done to the detriment of many others, and usually done by the leaders in power. Again, many beings saw the potential for large-scale suffering and death and the weakening effect that might have on their world. They urged the abandonment of Earth and the establishment of a new world in its place. Bubbly urged them to wait and see. He felt a potential in us. He felt a potential that could affect, in a positive way, all of creation.
He wanted us to showcase our heroism and our willingness to sacrifice for others. He wanted us to continue to grow in compassion and ethical strength. With each human invention, we tilted back and forth between angel and devil. We used guns to protect ourselves from predators and to provide easier access to food. We also used guns to kill each other, to war on a massive scale. We created means of travel on land and sea and in the air. Travel allowed us to connect more widely and more quickly, to provide for each other, and to explore our world. Travel also allowed us to drive troops into battle against other troops, to fly bomber jets over cities and take hundreds of thousands of lives in minutes. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we managed to swing back and forth between angel and devil, between lowest evil and highest good, at more and more extreme levels. But slowly, into the 21st and 22nd centuries, a shift began. Technological advances were no longer instantly used to find a better way to kill someone else. A new vice, a better vice, took violence's place: greed. Humans realized that killing people only eliminated potential customers. The tools of nationalism, of religious fanaticism, of fear-based violence, slowly gave way to the desire for profit. When information became a more valuable commodity than ammunition, the violent death numbers around the world shifted. Invading a country by military force gave way to industrial force. Clothes, comfort, and entertainment took the place of bullets and bombs. Countries realized that corporations would have an easier time affecting a country's willingness to trade than army generals. Though greed is not a valiant moral attribute, in their world, this adjustment made a huge difference.
Here, caught in this new stream of behavior, humanity thrived. Creativity was more profitable than brutality, and so we did one of the things we do best: we created. The beings watched us fumble our way through steam powered and combustion engines, through supersonic planes, through nuclear power and space travel, to Ion engines and speeds over half of the speed of light. They watched us improve our interpersonal communications and our management of our baser behavioral psychology.
And then, about six months ago they're reminding me now, something happened that they never expected. They'd never even hoped for it, not until they watched me conceive of it. Six months ago, I decided to send, through our new worm hole, a message out to anyone and everyone who might hear it. I sent a message out, knowing it might not reach any being that could understand it, and knowing that there might not be any beings out there to receive it. They saw the machine we created. They saw my message. They saw my invitation to make contact, and they answered.
In the end, they knew there would be risk in connecting to the consciousness of humanity. They realized this and they reacted anyway. With us, there is the potential to harness nearly infinite hope, love, and creativity, but these traits are coupled closely with our selfish hunger for power. The beings are interested in this struggle, and how we, as a species, managed to overcome it. They're interested in the use of questions of best and worst versus right and wrong. They are still communicating with each other to figure out the clear path to what we would call justice. They gave me the feeling that it is like a new discovery for them, the first new thing in a long time. They have been inspired by our own ability to change. They have been inspired by our own desire to be better than we were.
To help us continue our journey, and to help us continue to provide them with knowledge and power, they showed me things and infused in me knowledge about the world and the universe that might help us all better follow the path of discovery we are on. They taught me how to communicate with you this way. I will try to teach you, too. They made me feel, made me instantly know and understand, the history of our world and our people. They poured into me the history of my life and every life in this room and on the Earth and that ever was. I told you I would share this with you, if you'd like. I think this knowledge will fall on your mind and heart the way it fell on mine. I think it will terrify you. But in that terror, I think it will inspire you to learn from our past and understand our present and continue creating and hoping into the future.
With that, Dr. Bastian raised his arms and closed his eyes and his sight returned to the rushing swirl of the kaleidoscopic river of sensory completeness into which the beings welcomed him. He could feel the push and pull of the others in the great hall. He could feel their questions, see their colors swirling and shifting, some trying to hide and others eager to connect. He felt them all and sent out calls to them all. He welcomed them, called out for them to come forward and answer, to not be afraid.
Their echoes returned, some right away in bright and shining radiance, others in calmer, cooler color bursts, until in the end everyone felt the knowledge of humanity, of the Earth, of our universe, and of time itself. Their echoes reverberated, bright and loud, surging into and broadening Dr. Bastian's mighty river, and their minds and hearts and feelings and thoughts flowed and rolled powerfully together, cascading eagerly forward into whatever lay ahead.
A man and his passenger squint into the insistent golden burn of the setting Los Angeles sun. The passenger has been filling the truck's cabin with smoke from a cigarette, insisting every thirty seconds that the driver take a drag. He blows a sharp trail of smoke across the steering wheel. He puffs three smoke rings and they expand and contort, bouncing off of the driver's ear and fading into the rest of the smokey haze.
“Just one drag, man. You think you're going to get cancer from one drag?”
The driver ignores him. The low light of sunset is making it difficult to judge the distances of the cars in front of him. He considers the limited visibility. He knows if a car were to suddenly slow down, or if someone were to walk out into the street, there is no way he could stop in time. He thinks about the poor person unlucky enough to step in his path. He isn't sure he would be able to even slow down before the impact. Between thinking about slamming on his brakes and swerving, and considering the potential damage and destruction that would be caused by side-swiping the mini van to his right or the small sedan to his left, he considers the brief thought of not slowing down at all. This is a highway, anyone who walks onto a busy highway at sunset knows what will happen. They deserve what happens. The last thought, before he catches the spiral of negativity and redirects it, is that anyone who steps in front of him will have killed themselves. It would be out of his hands.
“At least open the window,” he says, rolling down his own window a little more. The noise of the open window isn't as bad as the oppressive smoke and heat inside the air-conditioning-free truck cabin. Now, with the window nearly all the way down, wind-driven resonance thumps through the cabin. The smoke is clearing out, but the thumping and pressure pull and squeeze and pull and squeeze the driver's head.
“You're letting out all the carcinogenic clouds, the air of the gods!”
The driver decides to endure the noise and wind in order to clear out the smoke and let in some of that cool late afternoon air. He waves at the smoke in front of his face, ushering as much of it out into the glowing dusk as he can.
“I don't think the air of the gods is brown and gray and packed with toxic chemicals.”
“That's where you're wrong. This stuff will make you immortal.”
“The smell in the upholstery will be immortal.”
“It's almost done, see?” The passenger flicks a touch of ash from the cigarette onto the driver's pants. A sliver of white remains at the end of the filter. “One more good pull left on this bad boy, you sure you don't want it?”
The driver slaps his thigh, swatting frantically from knee to hip crease.
“Jesus, just roll the window down.”
The minivan to the right is beginning to pull ahead. There is a baby in a middle car seat and a boy, under five years old, sitting in the other middle seat. The boy is looking at the truck as it passes.
The passenger rolls down the window. He was told to roll down the window and he does. He wasn't given any other instructions. The driver is usually so good about spelling out exactly what he wants. The slight vagueness offers an opening, a chance for improvisation. The passenger takes advantage.
Just before the boy in the mini van is going to look back to the five-by-eight-inch movie screen on the back of his mother's seat, a low thump and a flash of light bring his eyes, wide with surprise, back to the window. Something hit the window. Something sparked and puffed when it hit the window, and it left behind a small gray smear. The boy's eyes pass through the smear and focus on the truck beyond it. A man is staring at him from the truck. The man is not making a nice face, and before the boy can look away, two ribbons of smoke slither from the man's nostrils and billow up above his chest before being pulled out the window by the rushing air.
The boy's cries fills his mini van and the mother jumps at the sudden scream. She looks into the rear view mirror and asks him what is wrong. By the time she is understanding what he is saying, the scary man and the ugly truck are four car lengths ahead and accelerating.
“See,” the passenger says, holding his hands up and smiling, “all gone.”
“What is wrong with you?” the driver asks.
“Just havin' a little fun.”
“Well you might want to consider growing up at some point. Just a little.”
The passenger snorts. He rolls up the window, leaving two inches at the end. He snorts again, then chuckles. The chuckle gets caught in his throat, and he wheezes and gasps and coughs more laughter out. The more he coughs, the harder he laughs.
“Okay, easy now,” the driver says. The passenger laughs harder at this, slapping his thigh with one hand while pounding on his chest with the other. The driver's fingers slide over the steering wheel to ten and two. The tendons in the back of his hands appear. His knuckles bulge and go white at the rims. Several of his knuckles crack. He relaxes his forehead and lets his eyelids return to a more neutral expanse. The sunlight is still bright. The direct light shines on his reddening face, and the glints and glares from the truck's hood, from the glass, from nearby cars and poles and signs and buildings isn't enough to make him squint. He wants his eyes open. He welcomes the brightness, the burn.
Is that all you've got?
The laughter subsides and the passenger wipes the tears from his eyes. A few final chuckles escape as he runs his large hands down from his hairline to the tip of his chin.
“Growing up?” he laughs one final time. “Is that why your life is so great, because you're such a grown-up?”
The grip on the steering wheel tightens. The leather wheel cover squeaks and pops. The driver shuts his lips, smashes them together, and his cheeks swell and bulge around grinding teeth.
“That's probably why she left you, right, because you're such a grown-up?”
The driver opens his mouth to talk but doesn't. He shuts it again, harder.
“Oh sorry, did I say something too grown up?”
The truck swerves hard to the left. The driver didn't notice the break lights of the truck in front of him. The driver of the sedan next to him saw it and slowed down. If he hadn't, the truck would've slammed the sedan into the median.
“Whoa, easy there, tiger,” the passenger says, reaching below his seat. When he sits up again, he has a six pack of beer.
“Don't,” the driver says. “Just... don't.”
“What, don't crack open a cold one? On a warm, sunny evening like this, what could be better than breaking out a few beers? When those sweet suds hit your lips and that warm rush tunnels its way into your fingers and toes, you'll thank me.”
“I'm driving. Cops tend to frown on open cans of beer inside a moving vehicle. Put them away.” The passenger cracks the top on the first beer.
“Aahhhhh, that's good. That's the stuff right there. Anyone who has a problem with alcohol has a problem with me.”
“Just... just keep it low, you moron, and go easy.”
The passenger takes another long pull.
“Oh good lord you have to have one. Icy cold bubbling refreshment. I feel better already. Here...” he offers a beer, “just a few quick sips, you'll thank me.”
The driver swerves again, back into the center lane, now in front of the truck he almost rear-ended. The truck is honking as he speeds away.
“Honk back at him.”
“I'm not honking back at him.”
“Come on, it's the way cars talk. His car asked you a question, it would be rude not to answer.”
“I think they've said enough to each other.”
“Want me to do it?”
“You feel bad, I see. I'll do it.”
The passenger reaches for the horn. The driver raises his arm to block, then swats the hand away.
“No! Don't touch the horn. Don't touch anything!”
“Okay, honey bunches, okay. Jeez.”
“Just sit there.”
He switches lanes again.
“You know, watching you drive, I think you need this beer. You need to relax, man. Relax.”
“I am relaxed. I just...”
“It's a good thing to hate, I guess.” The passenger finishes the beer and cracks open the second. “Traffic is all about being where everyone else is, you know, going where everyone else is going. It's not a good thing, to do what the masses do.”
“Hey, if a mass of people are doing it, it can't be that bad, right?”
“No. No, you are wrong about that. It is bad. It is bad for you. It's not bad for everyone. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who need to follow the leader and move with the flock. There are a lot of sheep out there, but you... you are no sheep. At least, you weren't always a sheep. Are you a sheep? Did that woman and that job turn my wild man into a frail, obedient little sheep?”
The passenger punctuates the sentence with a wet belch.
“You think doing anything that other people do makes you a sheep?”
“Anything that a thousand people are doing, yes.”
“Well, being a sheep has made me a living, bought me a house, bought this truck, bought those beers. Being a sheep worked out all right.”
“You sound like a slave complimenting his master.”
“Good golly, Mr. master, these chains sure do feel mighty fine!”
“A slave. You sound like a happy slave when you talk like that. You sound like someone too weak to make their own path. Are you too scared to do your own thing, to do something a little bit risky?”
“I like what I do.”
“You like driving soda around the county?”
“Yes. It's a good job, a necessary job. It's a service.”
“And what a noble serviceman you are.” The passenger raises the beer before sucking three long gulps. “You're really adding value to your fellow human beings. You're the Gandhi of soft drink drivers.” Another beer down, the passenger reaches for the third.
“You really should slow down.”
“You really should learn to live.”
With that, the passenger crushes one of the empty beer cans into his forehead. The driver jumps at the sudden crackle, then screams as the passenger tosses the crumpled can out the slightly open window. He hears the hollow tinny sound of the can hitting the asphalt, then immediately hears the metal on metal sound of the can bouncing off of one of the neighboring cars before the rush of the highway drowns out the rest of the can's clanking highway pilgrimage.
“What are you doing?”
“What the hell is wrong with you? Are you trying to get me pulled over, trying to get me arrested? The can hit another car, did you hear it? I heard it, and I'm sure the driver of that car heard it. He is probably getting our license plate number and calling us in right now.”
Beer number three cracks open. This one foams and spills onto the seats, shaken from all of the commotion.
“No, not another one, stop!”
“What, stop what? I don't even know what you're talking about.”
The driver reaches for the beer.
“Give it to me. You're done, that's it. You're done. Give me the beer.”
“Nah, you can't have it.”
“Give it to me, now. I'm done playing around with you.”
“I love it when you get mad and bossy.”
“Give it to me!”
“Here, you take the beer and I'll take the wheel. I'll drive, you drink.”
The driver grabs the beer can and pulls. Foaming beer splashes everywhere, soaking quickly into the seats, into his pants, his shirt, across the steering wheel and dash board. He finally wrestles the now mostly empty and dented can away and holds it, in his left hand, away from the passenger.
“So what, are you just going to hold it?”
“Yeah, I'm going to hold it.”
“Do you think that the cop behind us will mind?”
The driver looks in the rear view mirror. He has a flash of hope that the passenger is playing around again, trying to scare him, but the telltale grill and the low profile light panel on top confirm the declaration.
A police officer is directly behind him.
“Of course there is. Of course there is!”
“We can outrun him.”
“Shut up, shut your mouth!”
“Want me to throw the rest of the beer out the window?”
The driver can see the officer's face in the rear view. He can't be sure but it looks like the officer is staring back at him. He imagines the on-board computer lighting up with the license plate of the truck, with his ID, his traffic violations, his complete criminal history. He imagines the call going into dispatch, and the return call from dispatch causing him to unbuckle the strap on his sidearm holster and hit the lights and siren.
“Hey, stay cool, it's just a stupid cop driving back to the station. He's not here for you, he's just driving behind you.”
“Please shut up.”
“You want me to take him out?”
The sentence is funny until he sees the gun.
“Jesus! Put that away, what the hell are you doing?”
“Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
“Put it away. Beer, guns, do you want me to go back to prison?”
“I'm just saying that, if necessary, I'll smoke that fool.”
“Smoke that fool? Oh my God you just lost your speaking privileges.”
The road is opening up in front of them. Two exits have thinned out the highway traffic, and the left lane is open for at least a quarter of a mile. The police officer turns on his left blinker and slowly changes lanes. The sudden flashing light nearly kills the driver.
“Oh God, I thought he was turning on his flashers. He's just changing lanes to pass.”
“Should I show him the gun, show him we're not scared?”
“Don't even joke about that, put it down.”
“I could show him the beer cans.”
“You could do nothing for the next thirty seconds.”
The officer accelerates. The nose of the cruiser is even with the truck's back tires.
“We should race.”
“I don't think he wants us to race with him.”
“How do you know? He's probably had a very boring shift. He could probably use a little adventure. I know you could.”
The cruiser edges even to the driver's door.
“Should you nudge him? I think you should nudge him, just a little. A gentle, playful nudge. It will make his night.”
The passenger lays his hand suddenly over the driver's hand. He pushes, turning the wheel slightly left before the driver can correct.
“Whoa, watch out now!”
“You crazy bastard, stop!”
“Nudge nudge nudge.”
“Forget prison, you're going to get us killed!”
“He's getting away, we have to act! Faster!”
The passenger scoots over to within leg reach of the pedals. He slides his hips forward and stretches out his left leg, laying his foot over the driver's foot, and presses down.
He doesn't stop. He presses harder, and the driver tries to lift his foot from the gas pedal but it won't move. The engine cries out under the new demand and jerks forward, keeping the truck even with the cruiser. The driver looks over at the officer. The officer is looking back at him now.
“See,” the passenger says, “he sees what's up. Look at him, he's down to party. He's down to race.”
The cruiser's lights go up, sudden spirals of blue and red bouncing across the truck's cabin and over her hood. The officer motions for the driver to pull over. He mouths, “Pull over, now,” before speaking into his mic. He is calling in the incident.
“He's calling it in, you idiot! He's calling it in!”
“You can't let him call it in, you know that. You know what happens if he pulls you over.”
The driver grips the steering wheel harder, like he is pulling at the bars to his cell. He is wrenching his hands as if he will break the wheel.
“You can't go back there, you said that yourself. You can never go back.”
The cruiser has an intercom system.
“Pull over. Pull your vehicle over to the left!”
“You can't go back there...”
I can't go back there.
“You said it yourself...”
I'll never go back.
“What are you going to do?”
The driver's grip loosens slightly before pulling the wheel hard left. The truck dips and slams its front fender and headlight into the nose of the police cruiser. The impact sends glass and plastic crackling to the asphalt. The force is focused into the front right tire and axle of the cruiser, and the axle immediately breaks, locking up both front tires. The sudden change in torque and the truck's weight and velocity send the cruiser almost directly into the cement median. The truck stays with the cruiser, pressing it into the median, grinding it against the oscillating scrape and thump of the cement blocks and their seams. Sparks flash from the cruiser's side like a fiery rain, and the passenger turns the wheel harder to the left and presses down into the gas pedal even harder.
The noise carnage swallows up the screams of the driver and the officer.
One seam in the median is jutting out two inches farther than the others. When the cruiser's front left end catches it, the impact tears the entire left side of the squad car off and sets off the cruiser's airbag. The car and truck blast back out onto the highway, the truck veering right while the cruiser slides out while turning to the left. The truck hits another sedan, a small four-door with two occupants. This clash sends the sedan into the far right lane where it crashes into a small pick up truck full of masonry blocks.
The four cars spin and skid, spilling fluids and glass and plastic onto the roadway below. The cruiser spins and slams, rear end first, back into the median. The sedan and masonry truck slide to a stop, having hit nothing else.
The truck croaks and moans to a stop in the middle of the highway. One of the collisions caused enough damage to the engine for it to choke and peter out. The driver grabs the wheel again. The impact shook him in the cabin, slamming his head into the window beside him and into the steering wheel itself. Warm fluid is running down the left side of his face. His hand goes to it instinctively, and when he pulls it back to see what is wet all over his fingers, it is covered in blood.
“Let me see your hands!”
There is a flashing, a rhythmic pattern of red and blue all around him. As the ringing in his head clears, he hears the siren.
“Get your hands where I can see them!”
The driver's head sags. His head is reeling from the impact, like it suddenly weighs hundreds of pounds. As it droops forward, he sees the floor of the truck. It is salted with sparkling glass, and shining among the pebbles is the pistol. Wooden grip, cold gray cylinder. The grip asks to be held. The cylinder wants to spin. The driver's seat belt is jammed and his first and second try to reach the pistol fail.
“Driver, show me your hands or I will fire!”
He finds the button on his seat belt. It takes a second and third push but the button finally releases. He pitches forward and rams his chest and chin into the steering wheel. His hand fumbles below for the pistol. He feels the wooden grip. It fits so well into his hand. It always has. It fit perfectly when he shot that convenience store owner. It fit perfectly when he shot those two homeless men behind Best Buy. Without thinking as he picks it up, he cocks the hammer back.
I'm not going back.
Before he looks out his window toward the officer, he looks to the passenger seat. It is empty. The window isn't broken and the door is still closed.
He knows where. As the officer approaches he is talking to dispatch, “White late-eighties Chevy pick-up, single occupant...” He doesn't have to listen to the rest. He knows what happened. He has done this before. He realizes what he has done as he licks blood from his lips. He can taste his blood and something else.
Beer. Miller, his beer since he was nine getting drunk in the woods behind his old house. Millers whenever he was hiding from daddy's red-eyed gaze, his wavering voice and his wrath. Millers to calm the nerves, and Millers to numb the beatings.
“Police, get your hands up!”
His beer cans are all over the cab. His forehead is hot from the wreck but he can feel the ring where he crushed the can. He thought the can felt stronger than he remembered them being. He could tell there would be a bruise. He wondered if he'd gotten softer in prison, or if Miller had, for some reason, started reinforcing their cans.
But the passenger? He had been here, hadn't he?
He'd always been here. Since those days in the woods, climbing trees and hiding in stumps, he'd been there. Whenever things spun sideways, he'd been there. Sometimes he'd been there to help. Sometimes not to help.
Sometimes, to initiate. To instigate.
To take control.
Daddy hadn't liked the passenger very much. The beatings got worse, at first. But then they stopped altogether. Daddy, passed out in his lazy-boy, the top of his bald head shining in the lamp light, went to sleep for the last time. After pistol-whipping the boy, he'd kept the pistol in his hand when he sat down, and it was still there, stuck to his thick fingers, when he fell asleep. It didn't take much for the boy, and the passenger, to slide the gun from daddy's grasp. When the boy needed someone there to take charge, to challenge the authority in place, the passenger was there. When the boy needed a way for the beatings to stop, the passenger was there. When the shot rang out that night and daddy slumped into his lazy-boy never to get up again, the passenger was there.
“You're always there for me,” the driver says, staring into the empty seat beside him. “You're always there.”
The driver holds the pistol up to his chest to look at it. It is fully loaded, hammer cocked, ready to work for him, again. He looks out his window. The officer is poised to fire.
“It feels good,” the driver says, squeezing the wooden handle.
“It always has.”
Before the pistol's first shot can ring out, the officer's hands jolt against five fiery pops. The first shot strikes the driver in the neck. The second goes high, into the passenger side ceiling. The third strikes the driver in the chest. The fourth goes through the door and into the driver's stomach. The fifth tings into the far door. The explosions flash orange in the officer's eyes. Each blast illuminates more grief and regret. Each trigger pull lights up a more contrition, and the fifth shot shows his eyes pleading for the shooting to stop. His eyes plead for the shooting to have never happened.
The driver sighs and slumps back in his seat. The pistol stays in his hand as it drops into his lap. He takes in a breath that he never seems to let out. He takes another, and another, like he is storing a few mouthfuls of air for eternity. He looks at the officer and tries to smile. “It's not your fault,” he tries to say. The words don't appear and he hopes the officer can see the message in his eyes.
The voice is from behind him. As the driver turns his head, the passenger is back. The passenger shrugs his shoulders. His palms go up. An apologetic smirk says, “I tried, man. I messed up but I tried.”
“It's okay,” the driver says.
The officer is calling in the shooting, calling for an ambulance.
“They're going to remember you, now. You know that, right?”
The driver closes his eyes and nods.
“They're going to remember me now.”
“I am sorry. You believe me, right, that I'm sorry?”
“I believe you.”
“I am sorry.”
“I'm sorry, too.”
Eighty-eight steps. It was eighty-eight steps, total. Thirty-nine steps from the playground to Mrs. Amy Peppers' classroom. Forty-eight steps from Mrs. Amy Peppers' classroom to Principal Sheila Anderson's office. Mrs. Amy Peppers is asking me to sit down on the big brown chair. I don't want to sit down on the big brown chair. I took forty-eight steps. I don't like forty-eight steps. I will take an extra step before I sit in the big brown chair. Forty-nine steps.
Forty-nine is better.
I smell butter. Mom puts butter on my pancakes.
Principal Sheila Anderson's office smells like butter sometimes.
I like forty-nine steps. Forty-nine is seven times seven.
Seven sevens. Seven sevens makes me smile.
I like sevens. Mrs. Amy Peppers said seven words to me:
“We will wait here for Principal Anderson.”
Then she said seven more words:
“And your mom will be here soon.”
Now she is sitting down. I'm happy about the sevens but I don't think Mrs. Amy Peppers knows about them. I will tap my fingers seven times on my leg so she knows. I will tap seven times on my right leg and then seven times on my left leg and then seven times on my right leg and then seven times on my left leg and then seven times on my right leg and...
“Hi, I'm so sorry, I got here as soon as I could.”
Mom is here. Mom surprises me and now I can't remember if I was on my left leg or my right leg or which sevens I was on. I have to start over. But wait. Oh no, seven is odd so the taps will not be equal. The taps have to be equal, the taps can't be uneven. Should I start on my right leg and finish on my right leg?
No, it's uneven. It can't be uneven.
I'm crying. I want it to be even. Mom touches my head but I don't want her to touch my head. I don't want her to touch anything, I want to touch seven times seven. Seven times seven.
I scream at mom so she will stop touching me. At first she touches me even more. I hate when I scream and she touches me more. She is talking to me, too. Don't ask me questions and touch me too much, mom!
She touched me three times on my right shoulder so I have to touch my left shoulder three times. You can't leave it uneven, mom! I'm trying not to scream but she knows it has to be even. She knows it has to be even.
She sits down to talk to Mrs. Amy Peppers. She isn't talking to me so I can go back to my seven taps. I know what I will do. Luckily I am good at numbers. Luckily, I know how to figure things out.
Seven taps on the left, seven taps on the right, seven taps on the left, seven taps on the right.
Seven taps on the left.
Seven taps on the right.
Seven taps on both legs at the same time. The same exact time. Exact.
I am feeling happy.
I like seven. Seven days of the week. Seven Harry Potter books by author Joanne Kathleen Rowling. Rowling has seven letters in it. Seven Galleons to Mr. Ollivander for Harry Potter to buy his wand in Diagon Alley. Seven players on a Quidditch team and Harry Potter wore number seven on his Quidditch jersey. Seven levels at Hogwarts. Seven Weasley children and Ginny Weasley is the seventh. Seven Harry Potters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
I want to think of more but Principal Sheila Anderson has walked in. She distracts me, and when I try to think of more sevens she distracts me again. She is talking to me.
“It's good to see you, Thomas. Are you alright?”
Seven Lord Voldemort Horcruxes to destroy! Of course!
“I heard about your little scare today.”
Seven, seven, seven...
“You're not hurt, are you?”
I just remembered another seven, a new seven that I never remembered before! I can't believe I didn't remember it ever in my life. I have to tap all of my fingers seven times for the seven names so I can remember forever.
Professor Quirinus Quirrell, Hogwart's professor of the dark arts in Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, if you're reading the British version, was the first dark arts professor of the series. He was the first of seven!
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
Then there was Gilderoy Lockhart.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
“Thomas? Thomas, can you answer Principal Anderson?”
Bartemius “Barty” Crouch Jr. impersonating Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
And Amycus Carrow.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
Seven different professors throughout the series. That deserves seven more taps. Hurry, quickly!I'm so excited to have discovered this. It is a very important discovery. I want to laugh out loud. I don't think I am supposed to laugh out loud in Principal Sheila Anderson's office when mom and Principal Sheila Anderson and Mrs. Amy Peppers are talking in serious voice with serious face. Mom is saying fewer words per minute than usual. At home, mom usually says between fifty and seventy words per minute, an average of one word per second. It is not an exact number. It is an average. Sometimes mom is not talking. Sometimes she is cooking. Sometimes she is reading. Sometimes she is on the couch resting her eyes, or thinking. So sometimes she says zero words per minute.
It is an average.
On Saturday, January 22nd, mom used 12,720 words. That is how many I counted when I was awake. I think she is awake before I wake up and awake after I go to bed so she probably said a lot more words. I counted 12,720 words and I was awake for fourteen hours and eight minutes. That is 14.1333 hours. That is exactly 15 words per minute.
But she didn't say 15 words every minute.
It is an average.
I was awake from 6:00am to 8:08pm. Or at least sometime around 8:08pm. Sometimes I lay in bed and see the numbers from the day. Sometimes I sort through them and decide which ones to keep and which ones to put away. I don't look at the clock before I fall asleep so I don't know the exact time. But 8:08pm is a good time. My dad said 8:08 spells bob. He said grandpa Robert Clark was also named Bob Clark. And also just Bob. He said when it was 8:08, people would say, “It's Bob o'clock.” I don't think numbers can be letters. I only think numbers can spell other numbers or themselves. Not bobs. I laughed when dad said Bob o'clock. Mom and dad both like when I laugh, so sometimes I laugh even if I don't want to laugh. I laughed at Bob o'clock, but inside my head I was nervous. Numbers can't be letters.
I am having nervous feelings. I want to stop thinking about letter numbers.
I will tap seven times for the seven dark arts professors again.
Principal Sheila Anderson is still talking.
Oh! I will tap how many letters the professors of the dark arts have in their names!
Mom is laughing. She is covering her mouth because I think she knows you aren't supposed to laugh in Principal Sheila Anderson's office.
Sixteen taps for Professor Quirinus Quirrell.
Eight letters in each name.
Now Principal Sheila Anderson is laughing, too. I have never heard Principal Sheila Anderson laugh. I thought Principals were supposed to be serious because of their serious job. It is weird that Principal Sheila Anderson is laughing, and mom is laughing, and now Mrs. Amy Peppers is laughing, too.
I am having nervous feelings.
Sixteen taps for Professor Gilderoy Lockhart.
Eight letters in each name.
Oh no! Did I discover another secret? Two in one day?
Principal Sheila Anderson said my name. She is telling me she is proud of me. Her first sentence has twelve words.
“Thomas, that was a very brave and kind thing you did, today.”
Ten taps for Professor Remus Lupin. Only ten, not sixteen. Not eight and eight, just five and five, which together equals ten. Only ten.
I didn't find another secret.
Principal Sheila Anderson's second sentence has seven words.
“But we really shouldn't hit other people.”
How many taps for Bartemius “Barty” Crouch Jr. impersonating Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody? Should I tap the letters in Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody's name, or Bartemius “Barty” Crouch Jr's name? Or should I tap them both together? I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I don't like not knowing.
I am having nervous feelings.
Twenty-two taps for Bartemius “Barty” Crouch Jr. That is who was in the class, even if he was only pretending to be Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody.
After twenty-two taps I feel better.
Principal Sheila Anderson is still talking to me. It is hard to listen to her words and count her words and count the letters in the names of the seven Hogwarts professors.
Nineteen words in her next sentence. Seventy-two letters.
“Do you think next time you see that someone needs help you could get a teacher to help you?”
Fifteen taps for Professor Dolores Umbridge.
I don't like tapping for professor Dolores Umbridge. She was mean. When mom was reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, she whispered a mean word with four letters and a bad word with five letters about professor Dolores Umbridge.
I move on quickly to twelve taps for professor Severus Snape.
I tap twelve more times for professor Severus Snape. The first taps were for scary professor Severus Snape. The second taps were for good professor Severus Snape.
Mom says a sentence.
7 words. 36 letters.
“Thomas, did you hear Principal Anderson's question?”
Twelve taps for professor Amycus Carrow.
I nod for Principal Sheila Anderson, and for mom. I will try to find someone to help next time. I looked for someone to help this time. There wasn't a teacher where Jack Stuttle was being mean to Alison Blair. I looked around for a teacher and there were zero teachers. Four kids playing wall ball, twenty-seven kids on the soccer field, six kids on the basketball court, three basketballs, five red rubber dodge balls on the ground, four kids on the jungle gym.
Zero teachers. Zero big kids to help, too.
“There were zero teachers to help,” I say.
I counted. I was there and I counted because I always count. Principal Sheila Anderson looks at mom and then looks at me and says a long sentence, twenty-two words:
“Well, I'm sure there was at least one teacher near where you were on the playground, Thomas. Maybe you didn't see them?”
“I counted. There were four kids playing wall ball, twenty-seven kids playing on the soccer field, six kids on the basketball court, three basketballs, five red rubber dodge balls on the ground, four kids on the jungle gym, and zero teachers.”
I am having nervous feelings. I'm not supposed to tell adults they are wrong. Mom said that is arguing. I'm not supposed to argue, but I think I'm arguing with Principal Sheila Anderson right now. Mom smiles. Maybe this isn't arguing. Maybe this is something kind of like arguing, but different.
Principal Sheila Anderson talks again, sixteen words:
“Okay, Thomas, I believe you. You are a very good counter so you are probably right.”
Mrs. Amy Peppers asks a weird question:
“Thomas, do you remember what Jack was saying, or doing, that made you... upset?”
I am having nervous feelings.
“Jack Stuttle wasn't letting Alison Blair go to her friends. Jack Stuttle was standing in Alison Blair's way. Alison Blair said 'stop it' 8 times, with a serious voice and serious face. Alison Blair was crying and then Jack Stuttle pushed her and she fell down and then she was crying more.”
I don't want to talk about this. I want to count the holes in Principal Sheila Anderson's computer. Dad said computer holes are vents for air to flow to keep the computer cool. Computers get very hot and then they break so you have to keep them cool. Principal Sheila Anderson's computer has eight holes by twelve holes. That means there are ninety-six holes for air to help keep the computer cold. But multiplying is too easy, so I will count each one.
“Thomas, what happened after Jack pushed Alison on the ground?”
Ten words. Luckily ten is easy to count and it doesn't mess up my computer hole count, which is at forty-one. I will finish counting this row and be at forty-eight. That is a good place to stop because it is half way.
When I tell Principal Sheila Anderson and Mrs. Amy Peppers and mom what I did when Jack Stuttle pushed Alison Blair to the ground, they laugh. They cover their mouths but they still laugh. I was feeling very nervous when I did it so I don't know why they are laughing. I am having nervous feelings now, too.
It helps to keep counting the computer holes.
Mom says she is surprised. She says she has never seen me be aggressive or violent toward anyone before. That is true, I had never punched anyone in the face before today. But in the book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Draco Malfoy was being mean to Rubeus Hagrid, Hermione Granger slapped him in the face. In the movie, Hermione punched him in the face.
That gave me happy feelings.
When Jack Stuttle pushed Alison Blair, I thought it would be good to punch him in the face.
It hurt my hand to punch him in the face. It still hurts my hand now.
Ninety-six. I will count them again and tap my fingers on my legs for each count. I will tap them evenly, at the same time. The exact same time.
Mom and Principal Sheila Anderson and Mrs. Amy Peppers are talking a lot. After I count ninety-six holes with ninety-six taps, they have said one hundred and twenty-eight words. In sixty-four seconds, mom said forty-one words, Mrs. Amy Peppers said fifty-six words, and Principal Sheila Anderson said thirty-one words. The ceiling has big square tiles that are all the same size. The room is a rectangle and there are twelve squares side to side. I want to count how many squares long the room is but people are being very loud outside the door behind me. People are yelling. It gives me nervous feelings and it is harder to count when I am having nervous feelings.
Principal Sheila Anderson and Mrs. Amy Peppers and mom get up from their chairs. They are looking at the door. I count ten squares long before the voice outside says six words:
“Sir, you can't go in there!”
When the door opens, a man comes into the room. I thought it might be dad coming in to talk but it isn't dad. I don't want to look at him because I know he is making scary face. When he talks, he uses scary voice:
“You better be writing up an expulsion, Sheila!”
Eight words, seven words that I know and one word I don't know. Expulsion. Nine letters I don't remember hearing together. It sounds like Expecto Patronum. That is good, Harry Potter says “Expecto Patronum” to fend off Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
But expulsion also sounds like expelled. Hermione Granger said, in Harry potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, “I'm going to bed, before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed, or worse... expelled.” If getting expelled is worse than getting killed, I don't want to get expelled.
Principal Sheila Anderson is telling the man to leave. She says what he is doing is extremely inappropriate. He says what is inappropriate is his son's broken nose, that his son was attacked by an out of control student. I think he is talking about me, but I am not an out of control student.
“Mr. Stuttle, Jack's nose isn't broken.”
“Oh is that right? Did you assess his nose yourself, doctor?”
“No, but our board-certified registered nurse did, and she decided, after consulting her six years of advanced education and her seven years of experience that his nose is fine.”
Seven years of experience. There are sevens everywhere.
“Well, it is still bleeding pretty good in there right now. Broken or not, my son was assaulted and I'm going to press charges.”
Mom and Mrs. Amy Peppers start to say something at the same time but Principal Sheila Anderson holds her hand up to stop them. I just realized there are seven chairs in Principal Sheila Anderson's office.
She looks at me.
“You're well within your rights to try and press charges against this ten-year-old boy, Mr. Stuttle. I'm sure you'll make a very strong case. I think you should know that if you decide to do that, we will be pressing charges, as well. If it's assault you want to talk about, consider what happened in the exchange. Your son was mocking, teasing, and verbally bullying a nine-year-old girl, who he then knocked to the ground. When Thomas saw that your son was physically attacking – let me say this part again – a nine-year-old girl, he stepped in to help. His attack on your son was a single punch to the nose in defense of a little girl. How do you think that meeting is going to go for your son?”
Mr. Stuttle is doing scary face and breathing too loud. But he isn't talking anymore. Only Principal Sheila Anderson is talking.
“Now, if you'd like to talk about the incident with me in a mature and productive way, you may schedule an appointment to do so. For now, I'm going to ask you to leave my office, get your son from the nurse's station, and go home for the day.”
Everyone is quiet now. Mom has a hand on my shoulder and she is squeezing really hard. She isn't looking at me and I don't think she knows how hard she is squeezing. I can feel all five fingers on her hand. I can feel five fingernails.
Mr. Stuttle looks at us. He points at mom with one finger.
“This isn't over,” he says with a quiet angry voice and loud angry face.
“Yes it is,” says Principal Sheila Anderson, “and if you say another word I will call the police and have you charged with assault.”
Seventeen tiles. That's how long Principal Sheila Anderson's office is. Seventeen tiles long. Twelve squares wide. That is two hundred and four tiles altogether. If I tap my legs with all five fingers on both of my hands twenty times, that will be two hundred. I will blink my eyes four times at the end to make two hundred and four. That is a good plan. After twenty finger taps, Mr. Stuttle slams the office door. I can hear him yelling outside and another door slams far away. When I get to sixty taps, mom is hugging Principal Sheila Anderson, and then she hugs Mrs. Amy Peppers. She is crying. She is crying but not doing sad face. She is crying and laughing and saying thank you, which is too many feelings. It gives me nervous feelings when she laughs and cries at the same time. They talk for a little while, twenty-five seconds, I think, and I am at one hundred and seventy five taps when Principal Sheila Anderson puts her hand on my head.
“We're all very proud of you, Thomas. Don't worry, we're not going to expel you. We'd like to see more people be brave like you.”
Two hundred taps. I blink my eyes four times. Two hundred taps and four eye blinks and Principal Sheila Anderson says I am brave.
I am still having some nervous feelings.
But also happy ones.