Authors: Brian Kirk
Alex didn't think that he would ever sleep again. There was no way to quiet his mind. It was a maelstrom of raging thoughts, questions and suppositions, all encased in an endless loop of circular logic. It would be like trying to take a quick catnap during the running of the bulls.
Meanwhile, the man in the bunk above him appeared to have no trouble sleeping. He hadn't shifted positions once since Alex arrived. Hadn't even woken up during his assault.
Probably happens all the time,
Alex thought and shivered. He may have to follow the officer's advice and learn how to fight.
Fighting was something he had zero experience in. Jerry had always been there to shield him from bullies and violent altercations. And Alex had kept Jerry fairly busy.
For such an intelligent child, Alex had lacked common sense and possessed little social grace. He never stopped to think that his technical way of speaking or wry sarcasm could possibly be misinterpreted as arrogant by other people. In his mind, their aggressive behavior was always motivated by misguided jealousies over his superior intellect. He never considered the fact that the fault lay with him and his inability to relate to others or find common ground. He was constantly acting condescending, but he considered that attitude to be an expression of wit, not a display of superiority.
The first time Jerry had ever taken Alex to a high school keg party was also the first time Alex had ever gotten drunk.
It was in an abandoned cul-de-sac surrounded by woods. He stood sheepishly off to the side at first, swilling cheap light beer from a clear-plastic cup, while watching the older students interact. As the alcohol started to take effect, his perception of the scene started to shift. He began to view the revelers as a macrocosm of the quantum worldâa field of subatomic particles displaying their cosmic design.
There were clusters of peopleâwhom he now saw as electronsâorbiting around a binding forceâa nucleus. There were rogue molecules darting from place to place but never attaching themselves to any single orbit, much like free radicals. And he imagined that if this scene were to be viewed from a great enough distance, it would look very much like our own microbiology seen through a microscope. Which made him contemplate the nature of our biological makeup, and whether or not the world is simply an expression of the micro-universe on ever-expanding scales.
This was, to his inebriated mind, quite a brilliant idea. One that he felt should be shared with others immediately. In a witty, comedic way, of course.
He stumbled from his place perched against a pine tree, feeling an elated sense of giddy weightlessness, like every molecule in his body was reverberating in alignment with his recent revelation. As though the whole universe were awakening to the simplicity of its constructionâthat all forms of matter were nothing more than expressions of the same quantum activity in varying scales.
Alex smiled, but it wasn't so much a smile as an energy wave activated by a thought. On his pale, pubescent face, sprouting the first black strands of facial hair, the unfamiliar smile bore all the sincerity of a catfish being held up by fishing pliers.
He walked up to a small group of people and said in a loud, brazen voice, “Hiya, Atom! I'm Alex, nice to meet you,” then started laughingâsnorting, reallyâuncontrollably. He dropped his plastic cup, splashing beer on a sophomore girl's bare feet. Her name was Betsy, and she was being hit on by a junior jock named Dan.
Dan stood with his chest puffed out, arms cocked by his sides like some gunslinger preparing to draw. “Who the fuck's Adam?” he said.
Alex, still giggling, straightened and swayed. “We are,” he said. “We're all atoms, can't you see?” Spittle sprayed from his laughter and struck Dan in the face.
“You little shit!” Dan said, wiping his face as he stalked forward. He placed both hands on Alex's chest and pushed.
Alex flew from his feet and somersaulted backwards when he hit the ground. For a moment he sat there, stunned. Then someone walked over from another group, to catch the action, and Alex pointed and began laughing again. “See. Oh my God! The atom loses an electron and gains a proton. It's true! You're an atom!”
“Who the fuck is Adam?” said the guy who just walked over.
Alex stood up and returned to the group. He studied the girl, Betsy, and then looked back at Dan. “So I guess you're the negative electron,” he said to Betsy, forming a circle with his forefinger and thumb. He turned to Dan, his lips squirming in an attempt to quell his smile. “And you're the positive electron,” he said, sticking out the forefinger on his other hand. His smile broke wide and he began to snicker as he thrust the finger through the whole in a pantomime of fornication.
Even though he had just been pushed, Alex did not worry about whether or not he was provoking further violence. He assumed that once everyone figured out the joke, and the amazing insight that it related, they would soon be celebrating his comedic genius and brilliant mind. In his alcohol-fueled fantasy he was moments away from becoming king of the party.
Jerry arrived just as Dan cocked his arm to throw a punch. Jerry caught it from behind and curled his other arm around Dan's neck, squeezing so fast Dan never had a chance to take a breath. He eased his grip just before Dan blacked out, and spoke calmly into his ear, “That's my little brother. Leave him alone.”
Dan turned, his hands balled into tight fists, but stopped when he saw who was behind him. Jerry stood there, smiling, knowing that the confrontation was over. Dan's face was still mottled red from the rush of blood to his brain and grew darker from embarrassment. He muttered a quick apology as he grabbed Betsy and escorted her away. Betsy gave a lingering look over her shoulder at Jerry, smiling with her eyes as she left. To this day, Alex had never received a look like that from a woman. Not even his wife.
Alex didn't realize how close he had come to getting pummeled. He was too busy considering the quantum equivalent of the altercation that had just occurred. He was still waiting for someone to pick up on his clever reference and applaud.
Jerry walked over, shaking his head. “Hey, bro. Making a few friends?”
Alex burped. The beer was beginning to make him feel sick. “I thinkâ¦” he said, stifling another belch.
I think we are all one large network of atoms operating on a macro scale
is what he wanted to say, but his gorge rose again. “I thinkâ¦” His cheeks puffed out and he turned pale.
“I think you need to walk this way, little buddy, before you blow chunks on my shoes.” Jerry led Alex a few feet into the woods and held him upright as he spewed stale beer. He clapped Alex on the back when he was finished. “Happens to the best of us,” he said, smiling.
Alex leaned against a tree, steadying himself, and returned the smile. “Tasted just as bad coming up,” he said.
Jerry laughed. “Fucking A it does. Want another?”
Alex surveyed the foamy pool of puke and then scanned the hordes of people partying.
The molecules' ecstatic dance.
“Hell yeah,” he said as he assumed an unsteady march towards the keg.
“That's my bro.” Jerry walked proudly behind him, his protector from the world.
Snippets of memory chased shoddy theories in Alex's tumultuous mindânone of them bringing him any closer towards understanding where he was or how he had gotten here.
Could I really have suffered some sort of amnesia?
That didn't make much sense. He couldn't imagine what would have brought it on so suddenly. Plus the situation just seemed tooâ¦unreal. Staged, somehow. It had all the qualities of a dream, with the sensory characteristics of reality.
Maybe my bunkmate can shed a little light on the situation.
Alex swung out from the bottom bunk. The dull ache in his head was beginning to lessen, but his face felt like it had taken on ten pounds of bloody tissue. He pressed gingerly against his cheek. It was tight and swollen, visible now in the bottom quarter of his eye.
I must make for a welcoming sight,
The sleeping cellmate was completely covered under a white, threadbare sheet. The overhead light revealed the shadowed outline of his body, like a larva in a cocoon.
Or a corpse under a coroner's blanket.
He hasn't moved.
Alex stood in the center of the cell, looking for some little movementâthe rise and fall of his chestâsome infinitesimal sign of life. There was nothing. The bunk may as well have been occupied by a mannequin.
Maybe it was.
Nothing much would have surprised him at this point.
Alex began to make some noise. He scuffed the floor with his feet, tapping it with the soles of his shoes, kicking it with his toes. He cleared his throat several times and coughed with such force it hurt his face.
Still nothing. Not the slightest shift.
Shit, maybe he
He stepped forward, walking quietly now. Not wanting to wake the man up. The cell was preternaturally quiet, the dull hum from the dim bulb became a roar of electricity.
He took another step. He was almost within arm's reach, his head level with the inch-thin strip of foam serving as the mattress for the top bunk. The man was lying on his side, facing the wall. Alex stopped and held his breath. He cocked his head and listened. All he could hear was the buzzing of the light bulb above.
He shuffled closer, sliding his feet, which made a soft, gritty sound, like sandpaper on smooth wood. He was within arm's reach now. He could reach out and pull the sheet away if he wanted to, like some rank magician revealing the bunny beneath.
That'd be a fine way to get your ass kicked,
But, then again, I do need to brush up on my fighting.
He may have smiled if his face weren't so sore.
He cleared his throat again, quieter this time. He was now right beside the bunk. Then he said, “Hey.” It was just above a whisper, so low he barely heard it himself. Quickly, without thinking, he reached out and poked the bedframe, rocking the bed against the wall, and said it louder this time, “Hey.”
The man moved with the motion of the bed, but stopped swaying as soon as it settled down. The sheet remained in place, covering the man from head to toe like a shroud. And that's what it felt like now. A burial shroud.
Alex began backing away slowly. The human-shaped lump on the bunk remained still. They had allowed a man to die in here. He was almost sure of it. What did that mean for him?
He bumped into the steel bars, a crossbar jabbing into his lower back.
What's one more bruise?
Now that he suspected the man to be dead or, at best, badly hurt, Alex was reluctant to turn away. He wasn't yet sure how the rules worked in this unfamiliar world, but he didn't trust them. He felt like the moment he turned his back, he would hear the bedframe creak and the sound of bloodless feet hitting the floor.
He looked sidelong out the cell door, out into the hallway. It was dark, quiet. He couldn't see beyond the sickly yellow circle of light cast by the bulb overhead. He couldn't even make out the opposite wall.
He turned his head for a better look, but was still unable to see beyond the round perimeter of light. The silence was absolute. Its completeness was impossible. The hallway should have been filled with the racket of other prisoners and the activity of guards. Yet, nothing.
Alex called out, “Hey! I need to talk to somebody!”
The words evaporated into the air. They didn't even echo.
“Hey!” he tried again, the word swallowed by silence. He cringed when he heard the panic creeping into his voice, “I think this guy's hurt in here! I think he might be dead! Someone needs to come look!” No matter how loud he tried to yell, his voice produced the same muted sound, like shouting into a pillow, the words consumed by the dark as soon as they escaped his mouth.
It was like being in a vacuum. He felt like he was in a bubble of existence, like the world ended at the edge of the feeble light. Like he had been placed in a solitary cell in some isolated pocket of the universe. Locked up for eternity with a dead man. The punishment did not fit the crime.
“Help!” he screamed with every ounce of effort his battered body could manage. The only lasting effect was a dull ringing in his ears. Hot tears sprang to his eyes from both frustration and pain. He fought them back. It was the first fight that he won.
“Okay,” he accidentally said out loud. “What does it matter,” he continued. “It's not like anyone can hear me.”
He took a deep breath and stepped forward, his focus so devoted to the shape on the bed it was like tunnel vision.
Alex had little experience dealing with cadavers, if that's what this was. His medical training dealt mostly with the mind. But he had been around more trauma than most ER doctors. He figured he could handle a corpse.
As he approached the bunk, the only thing leading Alex to believe the man was still alive was the lack of smell. While the cell was far from minty fresh, it was not tinged with the cloying stench of decomposition. In addition, the body still held a natural form. It did not appear stiffened with rigor mortis.
Alex rocked the bunk again, causing the body to sway. It soon settled back in place without further movement. “Okay, okay, okay,” he said, exhaling. Steeling himself, he reached out his hand and grabbed the manâhe assumedâby his arm.
It was neither warm nor cold. Rather, it was room temperature, the muscles hardened, but not rigid with rigor mortis. He rocked the body back and forth. It moved without resistance. Then he pulled the body towards him and it landed on its back. The sheet slipped down to reveal a crown of cropped, brown hair.
He looked back over his shoulder, into the black abyss outside his cellblock door. The overhead light sounded like the idle electricity of an executioner's chair, waiting for the condemned to sit down.