Experiment #280

The Disappearance of Lilly Cole Part 1

Great hexagonal sections of Lilly’s wall faded out of existence. They went individually at first but lengthened and spiraled as section after section disappeared, revealing perfect blue skies, the green pastures of distant farms, and the long, twinkly sweep of the river off to the right.

Her furniture faded as well. First the top drawer of her dresser, followed by the footstool she stood on to reach the sink when she was little. Oblivion consumed each piece of her life. She pulled the covers up close to ward it off, but these too dissolved into nothing.

As her bed began to fade she jumped off of it, landing on one small piece of the floor that hovered in midair above the kitchen, where her mother made pancakes and whistled. As she stood up, trying to find her voice, to call to her mother, to tell someone what was happening to her, the section she stood on faded from beneath her feet, along with the rest of the world.

And then there was silence.

#

A few days before her disappearance, Lilly climbed into the passenger’s seat of her father’s station wagon. She’d been crying, but tried to hide it from her father, James, who looked over at her. His heart dropped into his shoes.

“How’s it going, Sweetie?”

“Fine.”

“Listen, sometimes two people just-”

“Fall out of love,” she said without looking at him. Without it being a question.

“No,” he said, pulling back as if to fend off a blow.

“That’s what you were going to say,” she said.

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m predictable. It was what I was going to say, but it was wrong. I fell in love with something… something other than your mother…”

His tachyon research had seemed so important, so revolutionary. But a dozen years of ‘I’ll be home late,’ and ‘I swear I’ll be there for your birthday this year’ and ‘I’m so close, just give me a few more months’ will wear on a person… On a marriage.

James continued to look at the stained seat between himself and his daughter. He gave a weak chuckle. “All these years spent perfecting time travel. Now all I want to do is go back and work on something else.” He turned his head and looked out the window. “I’m sorry, Lilly.”

She sat there, not knowing what to say. Finally, she said in a bad Groucho Marx voice, “What did the neutrino say to the police after the tachyon crashed into him?”

James smiled, and together they recited the punch-line: “Sir, I didn’t see the tachyon coming, just going… both ways.” James turned the ignition and drove her home.

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.

Experiment #282

The Disappearance of Lilly Cole Part 3

He dropped the bottle in his hand. It fell to the floor with a satisfying thunk. He rubbed his eyes and stared at his surroundings. The synchronizing wall clock he’d used for the last decade ticked away.

He looked at his watch—no difference. He pulled out his smartphone. Synchronized to the microsecond. Everything else looked the same too.

“Just one more thing you can’t make work,” James muttered to himself. “Time travel. What a stupid idea.”

With the sun rising, James stumbled over to the cot he kept in the lab, or rather to the place where the cot should have been. After a minute or two of searching for the cot he found it, mumbled a curse over his graduate students, laid down, and passed out.

#

James woke to the ringing of his phone.

“James, where are you?”

“Cassy?”

“Who else, ya goof? Get over here. Jimmy’s waiting.”

“You’re not errr… mad at me?”

“No, but I will be if you don’t get over here.”

James rubbed his face with his hand and felt a clean-shaven face, contributing to his confusion. “Wait, Jimmy?”

“Yeah, Jimmy.”

“Who?”

“Your son, Jimmy.”

James paused. His mind groped around, trying to grasp the situation.

“Your knocked-me-up-in-grad-school-pickles-and-ice-cream-cravings-at-four-am-forty-hours-of-back-labor-curly-haired-video-game-loving-just-entered-middle-school son Jimmy.”

“OK. Uhhh… I’ll be there soon-”

A stack of books crashed to the floor.

“Oh. Ummm… Put your hands in the air,” called a decidedly confident voice behind the spilled pile of books.

James looked from the books up into the shaking barbs of a Taser.

“Hands up, or I’ll-I’ll put one in your eye.”

“Elmer? What’s wrong?”

“How do you know my name, Weirdo?”

“We’ve seen each other every day for a decade. Plus,” James patted his own chest, “name tag.”

“I’ve never seen your low-down, criminal face in my life.”

James remembered the key card dangling from his lab coat pocket and held it up for inspection.

Elmer looked at it. “Carlos Montague? Adding fraud to breaking and entering?”

James looked at the badge. His face smiled at him, crudely pasted above Carlos’ name.

“Now you just reach for the ceiling tiles. Dr. Fowler’s on his way.”

“Fowler? He’s at Berkley.”

“Not for the last twelve years.”

“Wait, what’s today’s date?” James asked.

“August 9th.”

“What year?”

“2037.”

James hit the cot with his hand. “The same day.” He looked at the floor and mumbled to himself.

He looked up. His eyes darted from one side of the room to the other taking in the tachyon generators and measurement tools he recognized well, but also the inane motivational cat posters he’d sworn he’d burn on sight and the different configuration of the furniture.

Fowler poked his pointy face around the corner. “James?”

“You know this scuzz-bucket?” Elmer asked.

“We did graduate work together in Sarasota.” Fowler said. “He had a promising career in chronometric studies before he threw it away.” He smiled as he said the last part.

“Before I what?” James asked.

“Don’t tell me you don’t remember plagiarizing my paper,” Fowler said.

“Your paper?”

“Yes, my work on tachyonic antitelephone.”

“That was my break through paper.”

“You mean my break through paper. They published mine first.”

Something was wrong here, but James knew he’d never figure it out by talking to Fowler. “Ok, well, I’ll just be on my way now.”

“Hold on there. We have you trespassing on university property. Again. And I know for a fact that you don’t have a key card for this lab.” Fowler noticed the card dangling from James’s coat and bent to inspect it. He wrinkled his nose in a wry smile.

“I think Carlos will be offended you thought you could pass as him. He’s much handsomer than you,” Fowler said. “Elmer, call the civil authorities. James here still needs to be taught the price of failure.”

James pointed behind Fowler and shouted, “What the Neil deGrasse Tyson is that?”

Fowler smiled derisively. “You think we’re going to fall for that?”

James’s eyes shifted left and then right. He smacked the Taser out of Elmer’s hand and ran down the hall, grabbing a bookshelf and hurling it down behind him. He lost them, but got lost himself in the building he’d worked in for over a decade. Eventually he found his way outside and disappeared into the trees.

Experiment #283

The Disappearance of Lilly Cole Part 4

Two hours later James opened his old front door only to find a strange family sitting at the dinner table. The father stopped with his fork in midair. “Can I help you?” He asked in a tone suggesting he wouldn’t. James mumbled an apology and left. Three hours, two more wrong doors and a call to Information later he opened the door to find Cassy with her angry face on.

“What on Earth took you six hours to get here?”

“Time travel,” he said with a sad grin. It was an old joke between them.

“Inept time travel is more like it.”

“I’m sorry…I got lost.”

“For six hours? The worst part is Jimmy.”

James looked at her with an inquisitive stare.

“I had to cancel the trip,” said Cassy. “I couldn’t find you anywhere.”

“The trip?” James asked. His mouth had gone dry.

“Yes, the opera. You’ve been planning it for weeks.”

James raised his eyebrows. “I like opera?”

“No, but you like Jimmy. Or at least I thought you did, till you stood him up today.”

“I…”

“You’ve been out a lot lately. What’s going on with you?”

“I don’t know.”

A knock came at the door. Cassy breathed out her frustration and walked past James to the door.

“Ronnie?” she said as she opened it. “What are you doing here?”

Ronnie, her brother, stood dressed in his police uniform. His partner stood behind him.

“Ronnie?” James whispered.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Cass,” Ronnie said. “Is James here?”

She nodded and led them toward the living room.

“You all right, James? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Cassy said.

“Ronnie,” James whispered again. “But O-O-Occoquan Lake?”

“Occoquan?” Ronnie asked. “I haven’t been back there since you two started dating.”

“But you…” James stammered, “you were-”

A woman pushed past the officers and into the room.

“Henry?” She gasped. When she saw James, she ran to him and jumped into his arms. “Oh, Henry, I was so worried about you. You mustn’t disappear like that.”

She came out of the embrace and kissed him long and hard on the lips. Then she looked up at him and his expression. “Henry, what’s wrong?” she asked. She reached up and put her hands on his face. “You look so young…”

“Who is this?” Cassy asked, with a warning in her voice.

James took the woman’s hands from his face.

“I swear I don’t know,” he said, looking at Cassy. “I’ve never seen her before.”

Tears came into the woman’s eyes.

“Sorry,” James said reflexively.

“It’s okay, Henry. I know it’s the disease talking.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and turned with matriarchal grace to Cassy as she extended her hand. “I’m Ariadne Cole, but you can call me Aria.” She put her hand on James’s arm. “I’m his wife.”

Experiment #284

The Disappearance of Lilly Cole Part 5

Lilly hung in limbo. She was still herself, or seemed to be herself, but nothingness surrounded her, a darkness defined only by its depth, an emptiness defined only by its hollow ring. It was as if reality had turned its face away.

#

“I’m so sorry if he troubled you,” Aria said. “He looks young, but he’s over fifty now. The doctors diagnosed him with some new form of dementia last year. They’ve never seen anything like it. He disappeared on me last night, right out of our bed, and well…I’m just so glad you found him.”

Cassy turned to James. “What are you trying to pull? Is this a prank?”

“I play pranks?” James asked.

“Yeah. Unfunny ones,” Cassy said without smiling.

“Cassy, you have to believe me.” James cried. “I don’t know that woman.”

Aria took the locket from around her neck, opened it and showed it to Cassy. “We’ll be married thirteen years in October.”

Cassy took the locket and stared at James embracing a younger Aria on their wedding day. She looked up at James with the death-glare she normally reserved for the ground hogs in her garden. She shoved the locket into his face.

“When was this taken?” he asked excitedly, taking the locket.

“Our wedding day,” Aria said. His denial of her did not lessen her love.

“When?”

“Thirteen years ago,” she said, “in October.”

“A couple years off from the calibration, but…” He held the locket beside his face. “It’s me!” he said as if that explained it.

“Sir, I didn’t see the tachyon coming, just going… both ways,” James continued in a terrible comedian’s voice. “It worked!” He ran out of the house, past his wives and Ronnie, with a smile on his face.

#

Ronnie returned to the house a few hours later with a disheveled, handcuffed James in tow. His partner stayed in the squad car. He knew when to stay out of a domestic case.

“Cass, you’re gonna have to keep him here for at least a few days.”

James fiddled with the cuffs.

“What’d he do now, Ronnie?” Cassy asked.

“Caught this scum bag loitering around the university…again. Dr. Fowler feels sorry for him. Says he won’t press charges, as long as James stays away from the lab. Fowler’s got some ‘Nobel prize level’ experiments running and can’t have your joker husband messing with them.”

“Do you normally handcuff loiterers?” she asked.

“Only monsters who cheat on my sister.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, with gravity. “I’ve got a cell ready for this monster.”

“Mind if I rough him up a bit first? I think the jerk deserves it. Again.”

Cassy shook her head and stared daggers at James. “Sorry. He’s all mine.”

Ronnie smiled as he undid James’ cuffs. “You were always my favorite, Cass.”

“Don’t tell all your imaginary sisters that.”

“See ya.” He kicked James in the shin, hard enough to make James hop on the other foot. Then he left.

James stood before Cassy. Her anger had boiled off in the last few hours and now she simmered at that most dangerous temperature: hot enough to scald, not hot enough to bubble and boil.

“Well, you’ve had quite a day. Lies, betrayal, unfaithfulness, breaking and entering…and it’s not even nine o’clock yet. What other relationships do you want to destroy today?”

“Where’s Jimmy?” James asked tentatively.

“My mother’s. He didn’t need to see the nuclear explosion when his father got home.”

“Look, it’s not what you think.”

“Ok, Dr. Oppenheimer, how is it?”

James opened his mouth to reveal the truth, but he closed it again without speaking. Any time travel story he gave now would sound like a soap opera excuse for bad behavior.

“You got something to say?” she asked.

“I don’t…err… look, Cassy, I know you’re the one for me.”

“You tell Aria that too?”

“She’s… I… I don’t know her.”

“She’s got a locket and a handheld full of pictures that say otherwise.” She turned away for a moment as her emotions swelled. She turned back with tears in her eyes. “The one thing I don’t understand, James is why. You had her set up in Toledo. Then went to grad school and met me? Why, James? Why cheat on her? Why have a child with me? Why… I guess that’s what monsters do…”

“Cassy, no, no, no…” James said. He hugged her shaking body. He rubbed her back. “I don’t know what all happened, but I’ll get to the bottom of it. I will prove you’re the only one for me.”