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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Henry Darton

Henry Darton soldered on the last capacitor, inserted the battery, and closed the cover. It looked a lot like a key fob for a car, but it was so much more. Henry had been working out the details for nearly three years, filling notebooks with equations, and then covering his walls with them, and for a short time writing them on himself until he realized that even foregoing showers wouldn't keep his skin from eventually sloughing off and turning his hard work to chaotic dust. His neighbors thought he might be a little bit nutty. And maybe he was.

On one side of the device was a small display, just big enough to print a short series of numbers. On the other side were two buttons. The left button sported a delicately rendered question mark which Henry had painted with the tip of a whiteout brush. The right one had an exclamation point, whose cruder rendering betrayed the impatience wrought by the taunting question mark.

Henry had named the device the Quantum Something. He had spent a few minutes trying to think of a proper name, but decided that time was better spent on his equations, and so the Something it was and ever remained.

Not one for ceremony, he pushed the question mark. The red glow of the digits on the back illuminated his hand and he eagerly flipped it to see his prize.

8 17 95 1 13 98

He scribbled them on the palm of his hand before the display went black again.

Random numbers is all they were. But these were not generated by an algorithm, nor pulled from thermal noise. These were spun from the roulette wheel of the universe itself. Every possible sequence of numbers considered simultaneously, the ones that displayed were only those that would result in the exclamation button being pressed within the next hour. In other branches of the quantum universe, other Henrys may have had other numbers scrawled on their palms, but Henry only cared about his. As a first test, he had resolved to only press the button if he won the lottery, and so, according to his calculations, these should be the winning numbers.

Henry walked calmly out of his humble home and down the street to the corner store two blocks away, arriving just minutes before the lottery numbers would be read. Having trouble now repressing a grin, he read the numbers off his hand and bought his ticket. The store clerk punched up his ticket and handed it back, brushing Henry's hand with a wink and a smile as he did so, perhaps misled by Henry's beaming. The television in the corner of the store was already set to watch the lottery play out, so Henry was unaware of the clerk's advances. He was also unaware of the scruffy fellow with the twitchy scowl, staring into the back of his head.

The first lottery number was... twelve. This caught Henry off guard. Had he made a mistake in one of his equations? He pulled up his sleeve to check the most important one, forgetting it had long turned to smudge. He retreated into his head and blindly ambulated out of the store, missing the clerk's wave goodbye and barely noticing the hand on his arm steering him quickly into the alley beside the store.

This wasn't the way home. Who's this man? The thoughts barely reached the surface before the fist reached his face. Henry had never been in a fight before, and still hadn't, since lying on the ground wondering why the clouds were turning pink didn't count as fighting.

"Who the fuck are you?" the man yelled, and started rifling through Henry's pockets. "Did Kanton send you? You delivering some sort of message?" He picked up the lottery ticket lying next to Henry's open hand and pocketed it. "So he knows my kids' birthdays! So fuckin' what! He comes anywhere near my kids, I'm gonna..." the man seemed to have second thoughts. Henry turned his head on the pavement and looked at his other hand, which clutched the Quantum Something tightly. A boot slammed down in his view--and on his arm--popping open his hand and jettisoning the Quantum Something like a Heimlich-maneuvered pez dispenser. The scruffy man deftly snatched it out of the air and examined it. "I'm takin' your ride," he said, and firmly thumbed the exclamation point. Nothing happened, unless you count Henry's sigh and rolled eyes. Henry curled in defense as the man threw it at his face, and then waited for the kick he knew was coming, and for the man to get bored and walk away, and for the mumbling stream of threats and swearing to fade behind the sounds of passing traffic. Then he got up, brushed himself off, touched his face and examined the blood that came back on his fingers, and walked the two blocks home.

He might have to rethink this.

Henry sat for a good many hours contemplating. Three years he'd worked on the equations, on the theory, but this was a problem of application. Not his usual domain. And anyway, he hadn't really expected it to work, not really. But then he didn't expect the sun to rise each morning either, as he found it infinitely better to be pleasantly surprised each day than to risk the disappointment of expecting the sun to rise and having it not. Correspondingly, he still had his doubts about the Quantum Something. An odd coincidence for sure, to have scrawled down the birth dates of the children of the one man who would be in ear shot when he ordered the ticket, of a character to beat him up and take his Quantum Something, and stupid enough to press it for the bip bip sound when there wasn't a parked car within a block. But then coincidences happen all the time, especially with birthdays, and stupidity is ubiquitous, so really he hadn't proven anything one way or another, other than that he had a new problem he hadn't considered before.

He sat and contemplated some more, but didn't seem to be getting any further than where he'd gotten in the first thirty seconds, which perhaps wasn't such a bad place. It seemed an awfully simple solution, but those were often the best, and so he resolved to try again but this time simply leave the Quantum Something at home.

And so he patiently waited for a month until finally the next proper lottery day came. Again with no fanfare he pressed the button, wrote down the numbers, and this time locked the Quantum Something securely in a box, which he slid under his bed before strolling down the street to the same corner store. He found himself atypically distracted when he reached the door, perhaps a little Pavlovian conditioning, and gave a quick look around for any scruffy characters that might steal his key and run back to his house and press the button. Nobody there but the same store clerk, who seemed for some reason slightly annoyed.

Henry bought his ticket, and stood awkwardly off to the side to watch the lottery roll. The door buzzer buzzed and Henry jumped a bit, but it was just Sally from three doors down come for her Funyuns.

The flickering blue box read off the first number: nineteen. Henry looked down at his hand where he scrawled the numbers, then at the ticket in the other hand with the same numbers again. But this was only a gesture to himself, because he knew perfectly well the first number was twenty three, not nineteen.

He chucked the ticket in the trash and wandered out and down the street, not toward home but the other way. He couldn't go home for another half hour, couldn't risk pushing the button. The only way he would know for sure it didn't work was to make sure the button didn't get pressed before the hour was up.

As he wandered past the shops, he noted that not a one of them carried anything he would ever buy, or really anything he could ever imagine anyone buying. Perhaps they were just fronts--perhaps that ceramic poodle was stuffed with cocaine. Or maybe they were just faux businesses for the purpose of money laundering, a dozen ghosts milling about the store at any given moment, a small line at the cash register, where ghostly dollar bills would reinhabit their corporeal skins exhumed from burlap sacks or handcuffed briefcases or the sphincter of a ceramic poodle or wherever it was that dirty money came from. He moved along.

Twenty three. He looked at that number painted on the pillar next to the door of the Parched Poodle Pub. Henry had never been in a pub before, and he could bare no more feckless window shopping, so in he went and plopped himself down on a seat at the bar.

The bartender eyed him keenly and after a pause said "she's waiting for you" with a nod to the back corner booth.

Henry glanced over and back and with a cock of the head said "I think you've got me confused with someone else, I..."

"No, no," she said, "I'm pretty sure about this," and gave a starkly flat stare except for one slightly raised brow that somehow made Henry self conscious that he may have sprouted antenna unawares.

Henry retreated from the bar and shuffled toward the back, finally landing in an awkward perch against the divider between the two booths--so as only to half intrude on her space.

"Hi," he said, "the bartender insists you are waiting for me, but I told her she had me confused with someone else."

"Am I?" the woman said. "She told me I would like this drink, and she was right, so maybe she's right about this too."

She seemed a little unsure. Of everything. Henry's tension melted a bit to sympathy and he scooted into the seat across from her, but made sure to leave half of one butt cheek hanging over the edge so as to be clear he was just to stay a moment.

"Oh, I'm Marie by the way." She put out her hand. "You'll have to excuse me, I don't usually drink. Or, ever, actually. So forgive me if I say anything stupid."

Henry reached across and took her hand, but wasn't entirely sure what do with it. It was soft, and warm, and he could feel each of her fingers laying crosswise along his. Suddenly he panicked as he realized he was gently counting along her fingers by pressing slightly harder with each of his in succession to make a wave of pressure, while staring at her hand to boot. His eyes darted to hers, and found just a gentle smile, and he realized hardly an instant of time had passed so perhaps it all went unnoticed. He smiled back with just a hint of terror.

"I'm Henry," he said. "Nice to meet you."

Before he could panic again, now at the impending silence, the bartender arrived at the table with Henry's drink.

"But I didn't..." he started.

"Shirley Temple for her, Roy Rogers for you," she said, smiled, and walked away before Henry could say any more.

"See!" Marie said smugly.

Henry sipped his drink. She was right--it was pretty good. He smiled. And then he saw the silence coming.

"You remind me of my mysterious Uncle H," Marie saved.

"What's the H stand for?" he asked.

"No idea. I told you, he's mysterious."

Henry sipped his drink, and he wondered if he was feeling tipsy yet.

"Or, I guess he's my uncle in-law, or would that be step-uncle? Or uncle once removed? I can never remember." She sipped her drink in reply.

Henry tried not to show his disappointment. "He's your husband's uncle?"

Marie let out a ticklish giggle. "Oh gosh no! I mean he's my aunt's husband. My normal aunt. Well, no, she's anything but normal--she's mysterious too--but I mean my real aunt, my mother's sister. The one she never knew she had."

"Does sound mysterious." Sip. "How do you know she's your real aunt if your mother never knew her?"

"Oh, we knew her--for a week anyway. When I was a little girl. We just didn't know of her before that. Half sister, I guess." Sip. "She just showed up one day and says 'Hi, I'm your sister.' And she was, you could tell. Similar look and mannerisms. She looks even more like me than my mom--I mean, now that I'm about the age she was then."

Henry sipped a little louder, hoping to fill in the gap while he searched for a meaningful reply.

But Marie continued, "She's the reason I'm here today! She taught me the poodle song!" She sat up straighter and sang, not too loudly, "Parched Poodle Parched Poodle, blah blah blah Parched Poodle... on your twenty fourth birthday... Parched Poodle Pub!"

The bartender, who had been wiping down the counter half way across the room, paused mid wipe as if time had frozen. Marie noticed this, chagrined, and returned to her smaller posture. Whatever had to process in the bartender's head completed, and with a blink and a subtle sigh, she resumed wiping as if nothing had happened.

"You can't remember the words in the middle?" Henry asked.

"Oh, no--that's exactly how she taught it to me. We sang it every day the whole week she was there. Here," she said as she unthreaded the locket from between her breasts. Henry looked at the wall behind her.

"This is Uncle H. and Aunt Mmmm," she continued as she handed the opened locket across the table.

"Auntie Em?" Henry asked incredulously.

"No, Aunt Mmmmmm," she said with a sly smile. "Ok, I think it really is M., but it sure sounded like Mmmmmm the first time she said it and it just stuck."

Henry examined the photo. Auntie Mmmm really did look just like Marie. He wondered for a moment if her mothers had been switched at birth, but then realized that was rather unlikely.

Uncle H. was sporting a huge mustache, which Henry thought gave him a certain sinister mystique. The mysterious Uncle H. and Aunt Mmmm. Marie reached out to take the locket back, and Henry was distracted by the remnants of numbers revealed by her receding sleeve. Or were those equations...

"What's that--if you don't mind my asking..." he hoped she didn't mind.

"Oh, it's nothing. A little theory I'm working on. It's... you wouldn't believe me."

Henry gave her an encouraging look.

"...a theory of time travel?" she said sheepishly and braced for his reaction.

Henry's mind didn't make it past "theory of time" before he realized in a panic that he absolutely must no matter what get back home and push that button before the hour was up. Marie was not the lottery he had hoped to win, but infinitely better. The Quantum Something worked, or at least it did if he pushes the button in time. If he doesn't, then it means it didn't work, which means it won't work again, so he better push the button. Anyway, it was all very confusing, but he didn't have time to think about it.

"I have to go home!" he said as he abruptly stood.

Marie looked crestfallen.

"No, no.." Henry wanted to explain... "It's... complicated. I have this... Oh, gosh."

"I understand," Marie said. "It's ok." She smiled a sad, reassuring smile.

"No, no.." Henry tried again, "Come with me!" He was out of time to be shy.

Marie cocked her head.

"Oh, gosh," Henry looked at his watch, "I'll explain on the way. Do you trust me?"

Marie considered for a moment. "Yeah, I'm a pretty good judge of character. I think if you raped me it would only be by accident!"

Henry looked concerned.

Marie looked concerned. "That didn't come out right."

"Never mind," Henry said, "We have to go. Now." And he put out his hand and took hers and they shuffled quickly out the door, forgetting to pay.

The bartender watched them go, and made no move to stop them.

The pair squinted in the sunlight, looked at each other, and smiled. Marie scrutinized his face for a moment, then held up her finger under his nose as the wheels turned in her head. Henry savored her intelligent eyes, then snapped to, and down the street they ran.

And so began the many adventures of Henry and Marie Darton.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com