by David Stevens
Hypothesis #1 (impermissible thoughts), plus recollections of honeymoon sex
When his legs weakened again without warning, Professor G’s mind turned to his latest hypothesis. Quick: what had he been thinking about?
He thought he might topple. Should he look the part and start to wave his hands in the air? Not that thought-reading observers would rely upon technology as crude as cameras. Or do they infer the contents of his thoughts from micro-behaviours he was not aware he exhibited?
Was it to trap him here? Sitting on the toilet that morning, he flipped through a pile of Qantas pamphlets: Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong. Surely he received some sort of retirement pension that could pay for a trip? He would ask Barbara, she took care of those things. “I’d love to go”, he thought, but it was more like reading it out loud in his head. No reaction – not a twinge, not a swoon. Still, he had not said it out loud, so surely it was still a thought. Perhaps he should classify various forms of internal neural expression. Not really his field, but he would put some thought into it. HA!
He stumbled down the hallway, ignoring the framed photographs of prodigies. A triple rainbow; a (dead) two headed baby pigeon in a windblown nest; and normally his favourite, a profile in grease of Colonel Sanders … on a Red Rooster box! He dragged his rebellious legs to his workshop. What might distract him?
Though not even the decay of sub atomic particles is random, he could discern no reason that he grabbed a box from the third cupboard. Still upright, Professor G sorted the contents at his bench. On top, his plans for a one-piece water purifier: add pond water, piss and typhoid in the morning, bake in the tropical sun all day, and there was enough clean drinking water for one third world family by evening.
Below that, he uncovered a fancy chocolate box. Off with the beribboned lid. Photographs he had developed himself in a pre-digital age. Honeymoon snaps he daren’t trust to the print shop.
Well lit, good use of light and shade, he thought, tracing the black and white image of his wife’s leg up to her bikini bottom. He tingled inside, but there were no warning signs. He remained upright, dizziness abated.
Conclusion: there was no danger in yearning for the past, in longing for the unattainable.
He had locked then chained the door, and after that stuffed a draft stopper against the crack of light at its base. Taped down the curtains, telling himself it was about the lighting. Against the distraction of his arousal, he had concentrated on the composition, thinking of angles and exposures, trying to create a memory for the unimaginably distant future when youth was extinguished. And now here he was.
Then, the last shot taken, he fell on her, arms outspread like a consuming bat, and Barbara could not stop laughing, even as he pressed his mouth over hers, peals of delighted tinkling echoing into his lungs.
The amazement he often returned to during their long marriage: that he could be wanted in return. Did she take love for granted? There would always have been someone for her. He, however … .
Tossing the prints onto the bench, a blazing horizon caught his eye, the sun a remnant blob melting into a golden sea. Tropical sunsets, snapped before dinner. Peering through his glasses, he saw slight bands set across the photographs, thin ribbons illuminated by the setting sun. A quick rub with his frayed cuff showed the lines weren’t dust or accretion. He shrugged.
Sea breeze had displaced the tropical humidity of the day, and brine and ozone filled his lungs. No twilight, just the dramatic supernova sunset and then the bowl of sky filled with stars, his eyes taking in far off specks as fine as dust. The buzz of night markets, al fresco dining on sea food caught that day, a glass of Tiger draught. The urgency of young love making. He reached back at an ache, and felt the knobs of his spine.
It wouldn’t be the same (certainly not the sex), but he could breathe that air again and see another sunset. Why not? There was a hollow of excitement in his chest at the thought. His spirits lifted at the prospect, just start out and not stop, be on our way...
Then he collapsed.
Hypothesis #2 (proximity to a star), plus despair at inevitable decrepitude
Professor G lay in his bed. All his bright ideas, and still the seas rose, plagues spread, species disappeared and temperatures climbed. He had never been anywhere nor done anything, and he never would. The blind flicked against the window sill, his despair rewarded with a cooling breeze.
He would remain in this suburb, watching his neighbours instead of exotic tribes, collecting useless data on neighbourhood pigeons instead of tree kangaroos and birds of paradise. The only jungle would remain the firetrap across the street, the scrappy regrowth of bush running down to stinking mangroves.
Angry, he scratched too hard at an itch, and his skin broke beneath the worn cotton of his singlet. Now it will become infected. Barbara will have to apply topical ointment. Another job for her. He was all that she had, and he pitied her this poverty.
He batted his hands harder and harder against his useless legs. He was nobody. He was at best a bit player with a couple of walk on scenes. Lying here with his stupid thoughts, imagining that mysterious forces kept him from leaving home. He was embarrassed by his adventures in paranoia.
But: would it go some way to making his life worthwhile if he was at least on the same stage as the star? He began to formulate a second hypothesis.
Setting up the experiment; Professor G worries about his assistant
Barbara would do anything for him. From his chair at the back door, he watched her torch dart about as she clamped the camera to the fence. Her only condition had been that it wait until after dark, so the neighbours would not see.
Brian’s lumpy old dog had alerted him to the rats using the wooden fence tops as a highway, bellowing out like a thirty a day smoker as it thumped along the property line after them. He’d had Barbara climb up and balance a trap baited with the end of a sausage. (Peanut butter was better, but they had none handy, it clung to his dentures.) Right on 3am there was a crisp snap, but when Barbara checked, there was nothing there. Perhaps a currawong had beaten her to it, snaring unexpected booty.
Barbara rested halfway to the fence. Professor G wondered if she did not want people to see her reduced by age. Perhaps it was modesty though, for she flashed a bit of thigh from under her house dress as she leaned over. He recalled the old photographs. Resolute, he forced his eyes open as far as he could. If he collapsed now, what would happen to her? Barbara turned and waved once she returned to solid ground. If she slipped and broke a hip, he would not forgive himself. The worry he had once saved up for car trips on rainy nights now extended to a walk across the yard.
John, a regular visitor, reckoned the rats came from Mrs Boyd’s garage. “Out west, when there’s a rodent plague, there’s a matching explosion of predators. Snakes. Owls,” he went on at a million miles an hour. “Imagine that George. Owls swooping down all over the place, every time we went outside at night, snatching up rats and possums. How cool would that be?” The professor watched as the action played out in John’s mind, signalled in the shrugs and darts of his shoulders, by the flickering of his tongue marking out the trails of birds in the air. “We’ve taken the major players out of the food chain, they need to be replaced. Komodo dragons to stand in for the mega-goannas. Eat up the feral cats and foxes while they’re at it.” John stared through the wall, picturing massive reptiles striding down the street, cleaning up the garbage.
“Or Mrs Boyd could put down some poison?”
John was shocked. “And kill the owls?”
The next morning, Professor G checked the camera’s work. The laptop was set up on a breakfast tray. Barbara had tucked a little vase beside it, with a scarlet frangipani flower. Incense burned, covering up the smells of medicine and farts.
He was puzzled. In the background, their backdoor looked like it was open in one shot. There was a smudge, a shadow at the door jamb.
Rats. Better in the backyard than in the ceiling, he had thought when woken by the trap’s snap. But they are in the ceiling, and beneath the floorboards. They are everywhere, drawing blood between the rafters, nesting behind plasterboard. All the gaps and crevices we’ve created with our hands and minds, they seek out and occupy. The tunnels into the sky we have built for them, a universe with a geometry perfect for their frames and habits. All the unseen spaces filled with a constant flowing mass of rats.
The room darkened and a wave of lassitude passed over him. He was glad of it, that he would not be left alone with such thoughts. Professor G nestled back into the pillow and the room and the problem went away.
Professor G interrogates the data
“I don’t dream.”
“You don’t sleep?”
“I sleep all the time. Not all the time. Like, I’m awake now. I nap. Like when the kids are quiet watching TV. Ever since Alun … I can’t bear the idea of sleeping in a long block. Like being dead.”
“Is that when you stopped dreaming?”
The man sipped from a can of Coke, looking down at the floor. He actually squirmed in his seat. “George, I’ve never dreamed. Not like on TV.”
“No one dreams like TV.”
“Well, not the way people talk about it. I lie down. It goes black. Then I’m awake again.”
“We forget the details.”
“There are no details. It’s just on and off.”
“You feel tired and you lie down?”
The head shake was emphatic. “There’s nothing to do say for half an hour. I close my eyes and wake up half an hour later. If I have nothing to do, I don’t want to be thinking.”
“And you do this through the day?” Brian responded with a nod.
“I have a proposition for you.” Brian looked concerned, as though an old man in his sickbed was in fact propositioning him. Despite his lack of a poker-face, the professor wondered if Brian would still win at cards, the universe stacked in his favour.
“I’ve been studying a phenomenon.” What a wanker, he thought of himself. “Could you go to sleep at an exact time tomorrow?”
“When would suit?”
“I dunno. Depends on the kids. Or if there is something happening.”
“Can you put on a movie for the children at midday? Give them their lunch in front of the telly?”
The big head swung again, like a cow. “Janice doesn’t like them eating in front of the TV.”
“Please. It’s important.”
“OK then.” So agreeable. So unlike Janice.
“Do you need any help? The doctors load me up with heaps of stuff. What’s this one?” Professor G reached down the side of his bed and pulled out an orange pill bottle, shaking it like a castanet.
“Nah, I’m right.”
Hypothesis #3 (unwelcome, though mundane), plus a dream interlude
Barbara had checked the cameras, and now sat in an arm chair despite wanting to start on lunch. Anything to please me, he thought. Especially after the doctor had visited this morning, with his unsolicited opinion and vampiric behaviour.
The clock showed 12.05, and nothing had happened. The time was correct, the professor had checked it against the international time signal at 15 megahertz. Oh well…
Light was sucked from the room. An eclipse had commenced. Storm clouds gathered. Tired…
Perhaps Brian did not check his clocks so precisely …
George did not suffer from Brian’s malady of dreamlessness. His sleep was not mere darkness.
He was in the workshop again, the photographs spread over the bench. He did not wonder that his wife, who for decades had been content to turn her head and stare from behind a bare back, now decided to face him. “George,” she said, black and white, somehow beckoning though her arms remained down by her side, hands pressed on the mattress. So young.
“Barb,” he whispered, tears at the edge of his eyes, an impossible erection stirring at the shadows of her, the shapes and places revealed as she emerged from a pool of grey.
Pick a card, any card … The sunset, glorious. The thin bands, that’s what he wanted to see. Slithers of ice, cold blue. They are not aberrations. Just like his wife, they are the subject of their photograph. And like his wife, they too began to move.
The bands are scythes, ferocious and relentless, orbiting high up where the stars cease to twinkle.
He sees clearly now. Dots in the sky are tethered to the earth. The scimitar sweeps. It will not be resisted. It slices some umbilical cords, those of the barely connected, and the world moves on without them. Those that defy its cut cannot challenge the mass of the blade. It drags them through its orbit, further and further, stretching their tether until they are caught by gravity and thrown low into a foreign land, far from home. Either way, they are lost.
The machine carries on, the noise heard in basements and through pillows at 2am. The blades spin forever. He hears it now, the pulse in his ears. No one escapes.
He awoke right on 12 .35. Brian’s internal clock might be off, but it did not run fast or slow.
Hypothesis #4 (The shell theory of the body), plus bad news is confirmed
We take up more space than the volume of our bodies, he thought, shivering, not looking outside. His windows were closed now, curtains taped down, so there was no chance of an ill-intentioned eye glimpsing him.
Our bodies are like electrons, he theorised, distracting himself from the void. They are capable of occupying any space on their shell. Our potentiality is our space, with different likelihoods attached to our various possible movements.
We shall go. I will book my tickets online. A taxi is coming to take us to the airport right now. We shan’t pack, we will buy toothbrushes and underwear at the terminal. In less than 24 hours my shell will stretch out to the other side of the world. And we won’t stop at that …
Nothing. I’m not joking. No reaction. I’m going. We both are. I really mean it. No dizziness. Professor G willed his toes to wriggle, but they ignored him. He went to call Barbara, but the signal stopped before his tongue.
He was not going anywhere. His shell reached about as far as the tumbler of water on his bedside table. There was too much space in the room unfilled by him. And nature abhors a vacuum.
Unwelcome visitors. The least of them the doctor, who had returned to justify his suspicions round their kitchen table. A suburban GP reading from a report prepared by someone else, the news no surprise. Sat down with them, took his time, and gave small smiles to Barbara, but nothing inappropriate, no levity that might lead to a misunderstanding, nothing that might give a hope that he would have to dash later.
“Any questions?” the doctor had asked.
What could he ask? “Is it usual to faint several times a day?” Then there would be a lovely conversation about morphine, and Barbara – loving, caring Barbara who wanted only the best for him – would follow the doctor’s new orders and begin to reduce his dosage. That would not be a good idea, no no no.
Perhaps open with a conversational gambit like: “I think that our neighbour has an unusual superpower”. Then the doctor could wittily reply, “So, there are usual superpowers?” They could all have a little chuckle, and then he could expand. “It’s not one I recall from my comic book days.”
Instead: “Any travel plans, doctor? A trip to get away from this heat?”
They sat in the awkwardness, George content to know that it would be written off as Kübler Ross stage one denial once the doctor thought about it.
His world was shrinking fast. Soon his shell would be tight about his skin, and follow him down into the dark as his body deflated. The grim rictus of snarling teeth as his lips shrink, forced back by the weight of could-have-beens and if-onlys.
They sit in front of the television. Barb has drifted off, her glass emptied. He watches a documentary, where the inhabitants lock themselves in the houses of a medieval village in the Himalayas each night, as panthers and bears patrol their narrow streets. He would like his wife to wheel him out the front, so he can catch the evening breeze from the gully across the road, bearing up its load of methane from the rotting vegetation in the valley. He would breathe deep of its mud, and try not to anticipate the future. Down there, a ribbon of swamp persists, stubborn mangroves trailing down to the brackish riverside. Wallabies hop up from there occasionally, to eat the few spring flowers in his garden, a blessing on the nights he had seen the humped shadows of them in the driveway. He saw the tail of a black snake once, disappearing into a crack in the rocks.
He wonders now at the other things that wander in.
12.40. Barbara had woken with a start, surprised she had nodded off. Smoothed his covers, gone off to make lunch. He checked the equipment. The cameras caught the moment darkness came. Unlike Brian and George and Barbara, the cameras and the computer had not slept. Or if they had, they had been imprinted with information by the same trickster god who laid down ancient fossils in a newly created world.
The images were crisp, despite the longer exposure to catch any ambient light.
And he had it! The shape grew closer and there it was, in the next photograph: Mr Rat.
Detumescence was instant. You don’t want a rat in your kitchen, but they’re not monsters. The hint of them is worse. The cameras can come down tomorrow, he had thought. What had been the point?
No surprise. Whatever affected him had no effect on the rats. It fell dark, they came out. They are opportunists, eating when they can, rather than marvelling at time out of joint. Rats don’t faint in their worksheds, surrounded by honeymoon snaps. They get on with the job.
He clicked the mouse again, jumped in the bed. Heat leached from him.
A girl stared into the camera. She was eight, maybe ten. Her face was grime-streaked, hair lank in the monochrome. He could feel the grease through the screen.
Who was she? Something else from Mrs Boyd’s garage?
Insouciant. Features so clear in that non-light, as though she was designed for it. Professor G raised his hand to his heart, as though her gaze was a spear through his chest. Eventually, he clicked the mouse again.
She had stepped back, still staring into the camera. Muck covered her, as though she had tunnelled a long way to get here. It took a moment to see what was in her hand.
John was right. Where there are rats, there are all the things that feed on rats.
Clicked again. An edge of her, as she walked around the range of that camera, heading towards his house.
He could see now that there were shadows and smudges all over the back yard. The things that emerge when Brian sleeps.
Professor G’s forced retirement
It would not be long now. He was prepared. He kept his letters up to date each day. One began:
I think it would be better for you and everyone if you just slept in one long go at night, with no naps during the day…
It was so close the gravediggers with their little grader should commence excavating. They would think they were digging up clumps of clay. In his head though, he saw the digger hacking at brittle blue plastic, cracking shards of it away, piling it up at the side to be covered with a tarp. Churning up a blizzard of ones and zeroes, making a mess as they moved the information around.
Professor G had worked it out. The smudge at the open back door a glimpse of a filthy little body, the rest of it already inside his house.
There is loud sobbing nearby. John is having a bad night. Tucked away in the shadows of a balcony, another neighbour, less gracious, stares down at George, thinking himself unseen. The professor knows them all, has studied and measured them all.
In his wheel-chair he stares up at the expanse of sky, a universe the shape of the eye ball holes in his skull. He could not stop the slow movement of the stars across the sky. He did not have that sort of access. He suspected Brian did.
Things beneath the earth were chewing doggedly at his tether. They have been gnawing since his start, with their teeth that never stop growing. The time for experiments was over. He would never have more than the evidence at hand. Soon he would be up there with the scythes bearing down upon him. He would be granted a freedom he did not seek. They wanted the space of him.
That hungry, hungry face from outside. Forgotten sub-routines and abandoned programs. Our bodies mere place holders for the things that fill the vacuum when we depart.
He would face that terrible engine. He would not shirk. He was …
He was nothing. A burst of data, a buzz of Morse code, lost in an electrical storm.