Authors: Julie Drew
“Yeah,” she said, still unsure whether she should trust him not to make fun of her. “I think Einstein based some of his work on Planck.”
The conversation seemed to have died a natural death, but it didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable to Tesla, which surprised her.
She didn’t really sit still much, even conversationally—she was restless by nature and preferred to keep moving.
The occasional pedestrian, alone or in a small group, strolled
by or cut across the park. They added a soft murmur of footsteps and muted voices to the evening, which had cooled considerably. Tesla shivered in her sapphire blue tank top as a breeze played gently with the ends of her hair, making them dance around her shoulders. She wrapped her arms around herself and hugged her elbows in tight.
“Cold?” Finn asked.
He moved his hand from the back of the bench to her shoulder. The skin of his fingertips felt hot against the edge of her collarbone.
“No, I’m good.”
Tesla dropped her hands into her lap and leaned back until his hand fell away.
“So what was it like when you first found out about the arrhythmia—in October, you said?”
“Why do you want to hear about this?” She asked, relieved to feel suspicious again. She felt better when she was at odds with him. “You were a total jerk when I met you, you know. You snarled at me to get lost, told me not to come back, and then
misunderstood me tonight so you could make me feel like an ass.”
“Okay, I deserve that, I guess,” he conceded.
He rubbed his hand over the stubble on his chin. “It’s possible I wasn’t at my most charming when we met the other night—usually, everyone loves me immediately.” He paused, just long enough for her to snort in derision. He smiled and continued. “I had a lot on my mind, and I took it out on you guys. But I am interested. In your story,” he added quickly. “I’m a journalism major.”
“What, you’re writing a term paper on the lives of teenaged girls?” she asked.
Finn threw his head back and laughed with genuine spontaneity. His smile flashed in the dusk, and Tesla realized that until this moment she had not seem him relaxed or lighthearted. Despite his composure, his cool-guy smoothness, he carried a tension in his body, a mental or psychological seriousness of some kind that was as pitiable as it was intriguing.
“No,” he said, still chuckling. “I just meant I like true stories. I like to know what makes people tick, why they do what they do.
If you understand people’s motives and histories, there’s very little you can’t figure out.”
“Well there’s nothing to figure out here.”
She hoped he would grow bored and change the subject. “I passed out while I was playing basketball after school—not what you want to do in a gym full of people, most of them athletes, when you just play a little for fun. I’m not even on the team. It was totally humiliating, and I wound up in the hospital for a week.”
How long were you unconscious?” Finn asked.
“Well, actually, I just felt dizzy in the gym.
I fainted in the principal’s office, not on the court. I had to go to the hospital, and they kept me overnight, at first just for concussion. I got stitches, see?” She moved her hair and turned her face just slightly into the faint light behind Finn so he could see the fine white line that ran into the dark, silky auburn of her eyebrow.
“Yeah, I see,” he said softly.
He moved his hand slowly toward her face, then ran his thumb along her brow, over the scar, the tips of his fingers just touching the side of her face for the briefest of moments.
“Then they detected the heart problem,” she rushed on, “kept me longer for tests, discovered the arrhythmia, blah blah blah.
Turns out my dad knew about it, but I guess the pediatrician when I was a baby said it was no big deal. End of story.”
“Huh,” Finn said, apparently deep in thought.
“I told you it wasn’t much of a story,” she said quickly, confused by his nearness, the ease with which he touched her, the intense response she felt when he did.
“No, actually it is,” he assured her.
“But I suspect there’s more. What was it like in the hospital? I’ve never had reason to go.” He knocked on the wooden seat of the bench for good measure.
“I was bored, mostly. I watched
reruns and slept a lot. My head hurt. The concussion made me…I don’t know,” she said, hesitant. “It was just weird.”
“How do you mean?” Finn leaned in toward her.
“At some point in the middle of the night after I was admitted, I did something really stupid.”
“I doubt that—you seem like a reasonably intelligent person.”
“Gee, thanks,” she said. “I guess it wasn’t my fault—I did have a concussion—but it makes me feel stupid now. Or maybe I was a little bit crazy that night. The world seemed…I don’t know. Different.”
In fact, Tesla had awoken around three o’clock in the morning, when the whole world is asleep and it feels daring just to be awake.
No longer disoriented, she felt strong, clear-headed, even.
“The doctors had at that point found some problem with the electrical activity in my heart,” Tesla continued.
“They said I’d have to stay for a few days while they ran more tests and figured out what it all meant. They told me to rest, to let them get to the bottom of it.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Finn encouraged.
“Yeah, well. I’m not always good at following directions,” Tesla admitted. She missed the smile that pulled one side of Finn’s mouth up for just a moment.
“So what was the stupid thing you did?” he asked.
Tesla not only didn’t like to talk about it, she didn’t like to think about it—but did, far too often. The puzzle of it all nagged at her, hung around at the edges of her consciousness. That night in the hospital she had felt that her perceptions were sharper, more accurate. She sensed, rather than heard, the few people who padded along on rubber-soled shoes as they carried out their silent, night-shift duties. She felt the weight of the entire building around her, the floors above, and below. The mechanics of it all thrummed along, the ductwork and the ventilation, the generators and the electricity that powered the lights and machines, while the sensors hooked up to all the sick people monitored their vital signs, the beep and hum and whir of them like so many sleeping children.
“You have to understand, my head wasn’t right,” she said quickly.
“I was hooked up to this machine, a heart monitor, and the wires seemed like tentacles attached at my neck, my chest, my temple, my thigh. It was alive and we were, you know, plugged in to each other.
. The monitor was small and portable, the size of one of those old clock radios, and bolted to a wheeled pole like the ones they hang I.V. bags on. It was powered by an ion battery so I could get up and move around. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt great. I had this sudden urge to get out of my room, to find the heart of the giant, pulsing hospital, and my monitor was on wheels, so why not, I thought?”
Finn was silent, and Tesla tried to explain what even she found inexplicable.
“It all seemed so perfectly natural, like that’s what I was
to do. I felt this energy in and around me from everywhere at once. I can’t explain it.”
she thought, though she would never say it out loud.
That energy—it called to me. I had to answer
Tesla paused, distracted when Finn waved a hand to shoo a mosquito that buzzed around his ear.
It was so dark now that his face was in shadow, though the lamplight from behind him had turned his wild hair into a shimmering halo around the edges. She wondered if this story made her seem even younger or sillier than he already thought her.
“I know this is crazy,” she said.
“It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“Actually, it sounds like an incredible experience,” Finn said.
“No, it sounds crazy,” she corrected him. “I’ve only told Keisha what happened that night, and never all of it, even to her. I mean, how could I know perfectly well that I had a concussion—which definitely messes with your head—and simultaneously believe that what I thought and felt were real?”
“Not everything can be neatly explained,” Finn said.
He reached up and absently caught one long tendril of her hair that had been caught by the breeze and blown toward him. He held onto it, tethered her to him.
, Tesla reminded herself. She wondered why he had such an effect on her, and then Finn released her hair, their connection broken.
“What happened then?” he asked.
Tesla closed her eyes. Remembered. She had peeled back her covers and sat up, slowly, looked toward the half-closed door of her hospital room where the bright light of the hallway sliced into the darkness. The light had looked strange, diffused. “I put on my favorite robe—”
“I thought you came in an ambulance
straight from school. You had your favorite robe?” Finn asked, and Tesla saw that he was, indeed, a journalist.
Unexpectedly, she grinned.
“Keisha brought it to me from my house the second she got out of school. She said some perv designed hospital gowns so that sick and doped-up people, who maybe wouldn’t notice, would have horrifying wardrobe malfunctions all over the hospital for the amusement of the interns.”
“That’s Keisha, alright,” Finn said, his affection for his cousin apparent in his voice.
“Anyway, I wanted to get out of that room, but I didn’t want to get caught. I was supposed to stay in bed.” When Tesla’s feet had touched the icy, polished floor that night, the cool, solid texture against the soles of her bare feet braced her. It had felt marvelous just to be upright again. She took hold of the pole with the heart monitor and made her way to the door.
“I peered around the doorjamb and saw that the nurses’ station was pretty far down the hall to the right,” she said, “but just a few feet from my room on the other side was the elevator and, across from that, the door to the stairwell.
I didn’t see a soul, except for the bent head of someone who sat at the nurse’s station.” Tesla felt again the excitement of that moment, the thrill of escape. The beep of her heart monitor had been so soft she had felt certain no one would hear it.
“I made my way toward the elevator, but just before I pressed the Down button I realized that when the elevator arrived it would
, and the nurse at the station would probably look up. So I decided to take the stairs.”
“Pretty impressive presence of mind with a concussion,” Finn commented.
“I know, right?” said Tesla, clearly proud of her Jason Bourne moment, despite the fact that she had already characterized the escapade as stupid.
“I got the door open and closed again behind me,” she continued.
“Then it was just me and my machine in the stairwell. That soft beep echoed around in the narrow space, and down I went. I was a little confused by how much of the building seemed to be underground. I mean, there are usually only one or two basement levels, right? But I walked down two hundred and eighty steps with my monitor before I started messing up the count. And by then my feet were really cold and I had to hold onto the railing. I was tired. I lost track of time, which is unusual for me.” Unaware that her voice had changed tone, that she sounded anxious, even afraid, Tesla didn’t notice Finn’s intense look, she just stared at her hands in her lap.
“What happened?” he asked.
Tesla shrugged. “And then I was just at the bottom. There was a heavy, windowless metal door, wide open like I was supposed to go in, one of those key pad security system panels on the wall right next to it, and no one in sight.”
They both heard the breathlessness in her voice, and Finn waited, expectantly.
“I paused for a sec, and then I walked right through the door.”
“Nice,” he said, approval and admiration clear in his voice.
“What was on the other side of the door?”
“That’s when it all gets a little fuzzy.
I stood for a minute and looked back up the stairs, confused. I couldn’t really remember why I had come down there. I was just inside the open door and at the beginning of a hallway that couldn’t have been there, because my hospital room was the last one on my floor in the corner of the building, and the stairwell was right next to my room.”
“How could you be sure?
Remember, you had a concussion,” Finn pressed her for details, pushed her to remember, to think it through.
But I’ve been over it and over it, and concussion or not, I know where I was. I have a, um, highly developed sense of direction and spatial relationships,” she added self-consciously.
“Spatial relationships?” he repeated, amused by her again.
“Who says that? I’m not even sure I know what it means.”
“You do, too,” she said impatiently.
“And it’s not that hard to figure out if you don’t.”
“Explain it to me, this gift of yours,” he said.
“I never said it was a gift,” she said quickly.
Give me an example.”
“Well, like with basketball,” she said reluctantly, thankful that the gloom concealed her.
“I’m no athlete—not like Keisha—but I—”
“But you what?” he encouraged when she hesitated.
“I just seem to know, instinctively I guess, where I am in relation to whatever is around me.”
, she thought.
I said it
“How do you mean?” he asked.
“I never miss a shot,” she said softly.
“Ever.” She looked at her hands in her lap. She downplayed this stuff with Keisha and Max, scoffed and denied when they couldn’t help but comment on what they saw her do, consistently, over time. She was
a freak. And she had never—not even once—tried to tell anyone about this stuff. She had refused to try out for the team, despite Keisha’s harangues their freshman year. She wasn’t sure why she had decided to spill it to Finn, whom she didn’t even know, but somehow it had just become part of the story that she was, for good or ill, telling him now.
“I can miss, of course,” she said quickly.
“But not if I really try. And I don’t mean easy stuff—I’m talking hard shots. Impossible angles. Of course, if I’m too far away, if I don’t have the upper body strength to actually get the ball to the hoop, I can’t do it. Like I said, I’m not really an athlete. But my aim—my perspective and my depth perception and my calculations of distance, speed, arc—well, they’re good, and they’re sort of, um, instantaneous. I don’t have to think about it, I just
Finn sat back and considered her for a moment.
“Well, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “We’ll have to play sometime.”
Tesla smiled, a bit tentatively, but it was clear that she appreciated that he hadn’t made a big deal out of it.
“So where was I?”
“I think you were under the hospital.
The corridor continued on even though you knew you were at the end of the building.”
So after twenty feet or so the hallway should have ended and turned 90 degrees, because it had hit the exterior wall—you know, the end of the hospital building itself—just like every other floor on the South side.” She paused and frowned. “So, clearly my story has no credibility, because it’s impossible that that hallway continued.”
“How do you know?” Finn asked.
“Because right next to the hospital is a huge green space, the university’s quad, which is empty. There are no structures there. And then, across the quad, a good two hundred yards away, is the physics building—I’ve been there a thousand times. My dad’s classroom lab is there, his office, too, and I could navigate it, the hospital, the library, and student union with my eyes closed. I grew up here,” she answered with absolute certainty.
“You’re the one who said it couldn’t have happened, not me,” Finn pointed out.
Tesla cocked her head slightly to the side, considering this, and then nodded. “My concussion must have been worse than the doctors let on. It’s the only explanation.”
The darkness hid Finn’s face from her, but she sensed his excitement, the breath he kept in check.
She viewed her story as similar to the stories of dreams you have that, while perhaps exciting for you because you experienced it, not so much for the listener, who knows from the start that it was all a figment of your imagination. She was surprised that Finn was so caught up in it.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I looked at that long, empty hallway that could not possibly be there,” Tesla continued. “I knew I should go back to my room. I didn’t know where I was. My head hurt. I was clearly in some kind of restricted area.”
“So you went back to your room?”
“No. I began to walk down the hall.”
“I see what you mean about not following directions,’” Finn said dryly.
Tesla ignored him. “It was a while before I realized that the sounds of the hospital were gone; there were no vibrations, no sense at all of the pervasive energy field I’d imagined myself a part of. There was only the sound of my heartbeat from the monitor, which glided along silently on the concrete floor. I passed no doors, no signage of any kind. The gash in my forehead throbbed, and then I came to the end of the hallway. On my left was a single, unmarked door with a simple lever-handle. I pushed it down, the door clicked, and swung inward without a sound. I walked through, wheeled my machine with me, and the door closed behind us.”
“And?” Finn encouraged when she paused.
“And I stood there, shocked. I was in a huge, airplane-hanger size room, with scaffolding and lights above that were mostly off. Just like the hospital it seemed to be shut down for the night, though there was a small glow that came from the far right corner of the enormous space.”
Tesla stopped then, unsure how to continue with the story, or even if she should. She remembered how she had walked toward the light and realized only when she was very close that it came from another structure within the massive cave, a low ceilinged room within the larger, cavernous space.
The light came from a doorway, and she hadn’t hesitated at all, but had walked right through it. Her way had been blocked by a huge piece of glass, semi-transparent, and turned at an angle. She walked around it, and when she did she saw herself reflected in the weak, see-through mirror. She stood for a moment and looked at that girl. Her face was alarmingly pale where it wasn’t bruised and swollen, and there was a huge bandage on her forehead. Her hair was a tangled mass of flame that curled and moved around her head and shoulders with a life of its own. She lifted her hand automatically to smooth it down, but when she saw how badly that girl’s hand shook she snatched it back.
She had turned away from herself and looked at the empty room, a square space about the size of her bedroom at home, but with huge, reflective mirrors angled toward the center at each corner.
She walked into the middle, slowly turned around and took in the bare, smooth walls, the low ceiling, the inexplicable, but somehow purposeful mirrors while her heart beeped quietly by her side.
And then, from nowhere and everywhere she had heard the amplified sound of her father’s voice as it echoed in the strange chamber.
“In five. Four. Three. Two. One.”
The light of a thousand, thousand suns hit her face and blazed through her head and she was blinded in a pure white nova, the monitor’s dutiful amplification of her accelerating heartbeat the only sense of her physical self that remained to her, until the pain in her chest hit her like a truck and she fell, once again, into darkness.
“So, what was in the smaller room?” Finn asked, and Tesla was pulled back into the present.
“Nothing, really,” she said quickly, suddenly wary. She dreamed of that night sometimes, and always woke in a clammy sweat. Whatever had happened—or whatever she imagined had happened—continued to make her afraid, all these months later.
“You can’t just stop there, Tesla,” he said casually, but his voice was too intense, he was too interested in what was supposedly a chance conversation and she knew he had manipulated her into telling her story,
story, though for what purpose she could not imagine.