Experiment #281

The Disappearance of Lilly Cole Part 2

Although the physics was rather complex, James enjoyed explaining time travel to his nine-year-old daughter. He always said it helped him think in new ways. Like most nine-year-olds Lilly hadn’t taken physics or calculus, or even algebra, but she had a sharp mind and followed along the best she could. She would ask questions and chime in to agree with her mother’s suggested tweaks to her father’s calculations. Lilly’s mother, Cassy, was a mathematician who left tenure to spend more time with Lilly. She’d stared down the face of family vs. career and made a different decision than her husband. For him, she knew, there wasn’t even a decision point. She still taught a class or two every semester, and juggled a few research projects, but spent the majority of her time with Lilly driving back and forth from ballet recitals and soccer practices to piano lessons and pizza dinners.

Lilly and James sometimes found formulas scribbled on the table in ketchup or drawn on a window with soap suds or in whatever medium lay nearest at hand, the numbers and functions and theorems tumbling out too fast for Cassy to grab a pen and paper. She’d often copy them down after the fact and publish them almost verbatim. Ketchup being the only condiment Lilly would eat for quite some time became a common medium.

Cassy always teased James that he couldn’t count past twenty without her. He’d fallen in love with her while she tutored him in advanced calculus in grad school. “By the end I wanted to estimate her curves,” he used to always say when Lilly asked to hear the story of how they met. Lilly always scrunched her nose and stuck out her tongue when James said it, but Cassy gave James a playful smile. Though they had fallen in love over derivatives and coefficients, it was ultimately a mutual friend (after whom Lilly was named) and the death of Cassy’s brother, Ronnie, that brought them together.

As James published papers, the pressures of seeking tenure and being the first to create stable time travel in a competitive, frontier field led to long nights in the lab and a near-constant conference circuit of presenting papers and trying to one up his grad school classmates and frenemies like Dr. Albert Fowler.

Their classmates called James and Fowler the Tachyon Twins, for their competing work on faster-than-light particles. Neither of them liked the term. But James even less. He considered himself in a different league entirely.

James had made great strides in the last few months, sending a lab rat back in time by an hour. The scientific community was not yet impressed with his documentation though. His results were contested and barred from several peer-reviewed journals. A rat with a unique identifier had exited the time machine before James had put it in, but several rats were found with that same “unique” identifier. James, ever the absent-minded professor, grumbled that they multiplied like rabbits. James’s grad students weren’t much help. They matched his strengths more than his weaknesses. In addition to the duplicates, rats would keel over or disappear. The scientific community was not enthused.

James swore he’d get them to see. He didn’t come home for three weeks. He called and gave updates on the latest version he’d been building. But the day he came home with a triumphant smile on his haggard, bearded face was the day he found a pile of his things packed and labeled on the living room floor. Cassy’s hand written note, stained with tears, had been dated a week prior.

He shuffled back to the lab and wrote a long letter, but couldn’t decide whether to send it. Later he went to a bar because that’s what people do. With the constitution of a nervous academic, he puked up most of what he drank before it could calm his nerves.

He went back to campus, waved at Elmer the building security guard, and stumbled into his lab. He turned on his time machine, punched in some time coordinates, and stepped inside.

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