Several months before her death, Ralph Norton told his wife he had been seeing angels. He trod around the subject as if with bare feet on broken glass. Annie didn't take superstitions lightly. As a scientist she was extreme in her belief that all things could eventually be broken down into atoms and understood in terms of mathematical equations. Old wives' tales and organized religions were identically evil to her. So Ralph told her he thought he was seeing ghosts instead of angels assuming she would ascribe some validity to the field of parapsychology. Annie laughed at him, embraced him, called him her little “Buddinski,” and nibbled his ear. From that point forward Ralph never again mentioned the subject to his beloved.
Then Annie died. Her death was as sudden as her rejection of its inevitability. The lump she felt had always been there. The cloud on the mammogram was caused by errant x-ray scatter. When the physicians told her the cancer was systemic, she demanded to see the laboratory data. And when she realized her undergraduate biology wouldn't help her decode the information, she demanded to be taught what she needed to know to understand her condition in formulae she could write.
Ralph didn't need to see the numbers. His wife was dying and a hole had opened in his chest like the breach in the side of the Hindenburg. He felt himself burning from the inside out, his skeleton crumbling to carbonized wreckage as Annie's enthusiasm faded. He asked her not to die and she told him she wouldn't. Only months before he had been ill. Annie had asked him to become well. He had. Couldn’t she do the same?
There seemed to be so many things that needed to be said. Had he told her he loved her enough? Did she know he was afraid to face the world without her, but that he would be as brave as he could? He wanted to tell her more about the angels but he knew what she'd say. There were hundreds of malfunctioning men roaming the medians of the nation's highways talking to spirits. They'd be scooped up by the police, sent to institutions, fed drugs and set right, only to be released to fall into the world of spirits again. Ralph wasn't insane. He felt fine. It wasn't his fault the angels kept coming.
And then there was nothing left that could be said. Sitting at the side of her hospital bed he felt her hand go limp in his as the last spark of Annie Norton-Zingale extinguished leaving her body blank, eyes opened, mouth in mid-motion forming a sentence he thought he understood but would never hear.
Beside his wife's body he felt the floor dissolve from under him as he dropped endlessly, never to touch bottom. Why hadn't he told her more? She was everything to him and he'd said nothing.
“I love you,” he said, and dropped his head onto the institutional sheets covering her lap, feeling pain percolate though his body and into his consciousness. Grief couldn't remove it. Tears were futile signs of weakness.
The angels came once more on the night they buried Annie. The anguish was too strong to allow an analysis of the situation. With the spirits came an anger he couldn't fight. He had no time for their senseless babble. He didn't care to hear about the flying worms, freedom, and forgiveness.
“Get the hell out of here. Leave me alone!” he screamed at them. He pulled the cushions off the sofa and threw them at the two dim clouds of white light that materialized in his living room. There was no effect.
“Give me my Annie back. I want my wife back.”
Ralph stood shaking. He waved his arms though the light.
“Make the worms fly, Ralph,” said the voice he'd gotten used to.
“I want my Annie,” he said, sinking to his knees. “Please bring my Annie back.”
“The tests are negative, Ralph. Forgive her. Be free.”
He fell face down on the floor and allowed himself to cry into the carpet. He promised himself it would be the only time.
After a while he woke not remembering having fallen asleep. The sun streamed through the window and heated the back of his head to an uncomfortable temperature. He sat up and rubbed the back of his neck. For an instant he thought to wake Annie--she'd be late for her morning class.
Then he remembered she was gone. The fire started. The Hindenburg crashed inside him. The falling feeling returned.
He wanted to be dead too.
* * *
“Buddy, you can't go on like this,” said Terrence.
Ralph stared into the red and white checkered table cloth and lost himself in the pattern.
“Come on, Bud. Listen to me. Are you listening to me? You've got to get on with your life. You can't grieve forever. Buddy. Am I talking to myself, here?”
“I hear you,” said Ralph. The sounds of Italian restaurant activity faded in as if a tape suddenly switched on. He saw his reflection in the empty plate before him: his short black hair, slightly receding hairline, dark eyes beneath bushy eyebrows, square chin. He looked much older than he felt he was.
“Getting back to work will help you get back to normal,” said Terrence. “Are you still having those medical problems? I thought everything cleared up.”
“Yeah. Everything cleared up a while ago.”
"Are you sure you're okay? What was it you had?”
“They never found out. I lost some weight, some hair. They tested for all kinds of stuff. They couldn't say if it would come back. Annie was so worried it was cancer... Then we found out about her. What luck,” said Ralph.
He twirled the pasta onto his fork and ate. He felt stronger.
“How old are you?” Terrence asked.
“Thirty-six. What's that got to do with anything?” Ralph said. He took a sip of his wine and dabbed the corners of his mouth with the cloth napkin from his lap.
“That explains everything.”
“Everything,” said Terrence. “In the Vietnamese culture we believe things run in cycles of twelve years. For instance, this is the year of the rooster.”
“I don't know. I’ll ask my mother about it. But that’s the way it is. There's rat, rooster, bull, dragon, chicken, twelve of them. I never remember them all. Anyway, this is the year of the rooster and as you were born in the year of the rooster, you'll have some kind of very bad luck every time the year of the rooster comes back.”
“You're kidding,” said Ralph. “You mean, every twelve years I'm going to have another year like this one?”
Terrence nodded. “Well, bad--but maybe not always this bad.”
“Whose bad luck was it anyway? Annie died. I'm the one whose still alive. She was thirty-eight. This wasn't her year for bad luck.”
“That's not the way I'd look at it. She's gone to the next plane of existence. You're the one left here with all the grief."
Ralph put his fork down. His hunger faded. He balled his napkin and put it on the table beside his plate. Then he stared into the table cloth.
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you,” Terrence said.
“No. You didn't upset me. I was just thinking...when does the good luck come? What year can I expect to have lots of great luck?”
Terrence put down his fork and took a long draught of wine. Then he coughed and said, “I still can't get used to the way these Italians cook noodles. I adore Italian food but they make the noodles too short and they leave them raw. Asians invented noodles, you know.”
“The good luck. When does it come?”
Terrence rubbed his eyes. “It doesn't. They don't have a good luck year. I guess that's what life is all about--getting through the bad luck times--trying to attract the good luck to you. It's a fight. Besides, it’s practically impossible to change the luck you already have. You have to change the past to modify the future.”
“That's great,” Ralph said. “You get guaranteed bad luck every twelve years and no good luck. Forget it. That's not for me. I'll take a different religion, thank you.”
“It's not a religion.”
“I don't care what it is. You know what Annie would say about it, don't you?”
Terrence smiled. “Of course. She'd say it was all bullshit. But remember when I was twenty-four? Year of the boar is mine. Two years from now, in fact. In the last year of the boar my parents came to stay with Trina and me at the apartment. I was sleeping on the floor and the baby was on the couch. Remember? She rolled off the couch and her knee hit my head. It was a freak accident. Of all things we were both sleeping. The impact detached my retina and I had to have surgery. Her little knee didn’t even touch my eye--I'm just so nearsighted they say I'm prone to retina detachments. I still have ten percent vision loss in this eye. You can believe what you want, Ralph. You can even try to stay in bed to avoid it. When it's your time for bad luck, it's going to come to you. It's better to be prepared than to have it take you by surprise.”
“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do then?”
Terrence put his elbows on the table and leaned toward Ralph.
He said, “Be strong, Buddy. Be like Annie was. Don't take it laying down. If you’re sure the past is solid, stand up to the uncertainty of the future. Never give up the fight. Not even in death. Especially not death.”
* * *
Ralph knocked on the opened office door with his free hand. In the other he held a cardboard moving box. He cleared his throat. The woman at one of the two desks in the room put down her pencil and looked up.
“I'm Ralph. . .” He cleared his throat again. “I've come for Annie's things.”
The woman stood and smiled. “You're Buddy. Come in. My God, Annie talked about you so much I feel I know you. I'm Lisa Farrell. I'm--I mean, I was Annie's grad student for the summer. My condolences. She was a seriously marvelous woman.” Lisa extended her hand and stepped toward Ralph. He moved the box to his left hand and shook her hand with his right.
“Thank you,” he said. “I'd just like to get her things.”
“Sure,” Lisa said. “Come on in.”
Ralph walked past her to the desk by the window at the rear of the office. Its surface was covered with a confusing miasma of papers and books. Ralph began organizing the paper into piles.
“I'm not going to be able to get everything into this one box,” he said as he piled the books into a stack.
“I'll give you a hand,” said Lisa.
She removed the books from a metal shelf beside the desk while Ralph opened the desk drawers and begin reverently putting the contents into his box as if each item contained a small bit of Annie's soul. There were pens and pencils embossed with the insignias of small hotels they had visited on the west coast. He found a picture she had taken of him during their honeymoon buried beneath a notebook filled with symbols and equations he couldn't understand. There were pamphlets describing the agendas to technical conferences Annie had visited over the years. He was about to pack a small greeting card when something fell out of it. Reaching down he saw a rose petal--still supple.
Ralph opened the card and read the words written in a script he couldn't recognize.
“To my only love, may you find the past that suits you. Jason.” There was a small picture of a heart drawn beside the name.
Ralph squinted at the card. It seemed alien, dangerous, like bait cast to unknowing prey by something pernicious lurking just beyond view. His hands began to shake as he sat staring at the card.
“Oh shit,” said Lisa. He heard her stop moving.
“You knew about that, didn’t you?” she said.
Ralph turned his head as the shaking traveled like a drug through his system from his hands to his chest, up his neck, and to his eyes where it emerged as salty wetness.
He managed to squeeze out the word, “No,” before his throat clogged and he had to cough to clear it. He steadied himself and swallowed.
“What...do you know?"
“Jesus, I thought you guys were okay about this stuff. Annie always said you two were soul mates--that nothing could separate you, even a little sex on the side. You mean she never told you about it?”
Ralph shook his head.
“Well, don't worry, it wasn't much of anything. It happened about five months ago. Right before she found out about. . .well. . .there was this grad student that had a horrible crush on her. She kept saying how she had to turn this kid down but didn't have the heart to do it. They met a few times after hours to work on some research and one thing led to another and, well, you know.”
“No,” said Ralph. “I don't know.” He tore the card in two, then four, then folded it and tore it again and again until there was nothing left of it large enough to grip. Then he flung the remains toward a trash can in the corner. The clump of torn paper dissolved to flakes in mid air and settled to the ground like snow. Lisa flinched at the violence of his movement.
Ralph pressed his fingers to his eyes and opened his mouth. He took a breath to calm himself.
Lisa said, “I'm really sorry.”
“No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't drag you into this. Now she's gone and there's nothing I can do about it.”
“It really wasn't anything,” Lisa said. “She wasn’t in love with the guy. It just happened and they broke it off as friends. She kept saying how much she loved you and that she was sure you'd understand. It was always, 'Buddy this,' and, 'Buddy that,' with her. I thought you were cool about it.”
Ralph pursed his lips. He took a deep breath and took control again.
“Two or three months at most,” said Lisa.
“Two or three months,” said Ralph. “I feel like such an idiot.” He sat in Annie’s desk chair.
“Well you shouldn't,” Lisa said.
Ralph swivelled in Annie's chair and looked over her desk out the window. The office overlooked the university's quad, a square of well-manicured lawn between the tall stone buildings. On that day students sat under trees reading, talking in groups, tossing plastic Frisbees to each other under the harsh sunshine. He wished he'd gotten more involved with Annie's work. Maybe that could have prevented her infidelity. He should have taken more interest in her research, the stuffy, “mandatory” faculty dinners he avoided like trips to the dentist. She must have needed him to be interested in her and he was never there.
Ralph said without turning toward Lisa. “This Jason guy. Is he still around?”
“I guess,” Lisa answered. “You're not thinking of finding him, are you?”
Ralph answered the rhetorical question.
“I'm not going to hurt him or anything. What were they working on when IT happened?”
“His dissertation, I guess. I'm not sure what it was. I'm a theorist. Jason is a computer scientist. Annie was probably helping him with some experiment. I couldn't really say. Mr. Norton, it's probably not such a good idea to go over and see him just now.”
“Why not? Why can't I meet the guy who was fucking my wife a few weeks ago? We've got something in common and I want to meet him. I want to know what he did for her that I couldn't do. I want to find out what they were working on. I want to find out what else I don't know about my wife.”
He burst to his feet with a violence that surprised him.
“It's very important to me. Where can I find this guy?”
Lisa motioned out the window. “She used to meet him in the student center. Either there or down in the double-e building.”
“Electrical engineering. The double-es work with the experimental physicists to design the equipment they need to run their physics. Mr. Norton, maybe you should wait a few weeks before you do this. It's so soon after...”
Ralph put out his hand and smiled. “It's okay. Thanks for your help. I'll be back for her stuff later.”
He shook Lisa’s hand, trying to be gentle and reassuring.
* * *
As Ralph passed the unused pool tables in the student recreation center he picked up a cue and hefted it, holding the thin end toward the ground. He slapped the thick handle into his palm. Turning, he smiled and moved toward the student another had identified as Jason Pressman, the grad student in experimental physics who worked for Professor Norton-Zingale.
Pressman was sitting alone in a booth sucking a soft drink through a straw. A magazine lay on the table before him. Jason turned the pages idly and didn't react until Ralph's shadow fell on him. He looked up through a pair of thick wire rimmed glasses, his mouth opened slightly as if he couldn't think of what to say.
“Are you Jason Pressman?” Ralph asked.
“Uh huh,” the student answered.
Ralph slid into the booth seat opposite Pressman and slammed the pool cue onto the table. The young man jumped at the sound. Pressman was thin, myopic, and prematurely bald. But he looked to Ralph as if he could run a good race. Ralph had twenty pounds on the student. Unlike other men who carried extra weight on their bellies, Ralph’s was evenly distributed over his body. If he wore the right clothes, he looked more muscular than overweight. He hoped the illusion was working. He perched on the edge of the booth seat as if readying to sink his teeth into the student's neck.
“We've never met. I'm Ralph Norton.”
“So?” the young man said, matter-of-factly. He swung a leg out from under the table.
“I'm Annie's husband. Annie Norton. We have something in common, I think.”
“Oh shit,” the young man said. Ralph fingered the pool cue.
“She's dead, you know,” Ralph said.
“Yeah, so what?” said Pressman. “You gonna beat my brains out?”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Ralph replied. He gripped the cue, then let it drop.
Pressman pulled his leg under the table and sat facing Ralph. He looked Ralph in the eye for a moment, then turned away. A tear dribbled onto his cheek and he swiped at it.
“What the hell do you know about anything?” said Pressman. “You don't know what happened.”
Ralph sighed and leaned back in the seat, still squeezing the cue.
“You're right about that. Seems everybody knows what's going on except me. Good old stupid Ralph--.”
“Well, it wasn't like that,” said Pressman. He took his glasses off and wiped his eyes with a dirty napkin that had been laying on the table. Then he put his glasses back on. “I loved her. I really did. She was... she was like a gift.”
The words poured into Ralph and filled him with a sharpness he knew he could only release by movement or emotion. The actions would be the same. He felt his face grow warm. He coughed. He clenched the pool cue knuckle-white.
“But she loved you,” Pressman said, blurting the words. “I wasn't anything to her. Just a, just a... Jesus I never thought I'd ever hear myself say this---just a one night stand.”
Ralph smacked the cue on the table. Then, with the back of his hand he swiped and propelled the cue, Jason's drink, and the magazine out into the aisle next to them. Several people turned to see what had happened. Ralph put his hands down, and leaned onto the table bringing himself nose-to-nose with the younger man.
“Three months was a one night stand to you? Not my wife,” he said, hissing. “This is my wife you’re talking about, punk.”
“What do you know?”
“I knew my wife, asshole. I lived with her. I slept with her. When she died, I grieved for her. I still hurt for her. Don't you tell me my wife picked up strangers. I know what she was like and she didn't associate with juvenile shit like you. It was you who seduced her. You thought you could take her from me, didn't you?”
He grabbed Jason's T-shirt collar and tried to pull the younger man toward him. Jason resisted. He smacked at Ralph's arms and came free of Ralph's grasp.
“You don't know shit, mister--Buddy." He spit when he said Ralph's nickname. “You don't know the first thing about her.”
Ralph lifted his hand in a fist and held it behind his head. He imagined the fist crashing into Jason's face, knocking his glasses to the ground, leaving him disoriented and bleeding.
Jason shouted, “Go ahead, big man. Hit me. A lot of good it will do you. She's dead, asshole. It's over for both of us.”
A vision of Annie filled Ralph’s mind. He thought of her sitting on the edge of the bed in a room they had rented at a small inn on a rocky California beach. Sound of the surf flowed through an open window behind her. Ralph was coming out of the shower, his hair wet, toothbrush wedged between his cheek and molars, a towel draped around his waist. He stopped brushing when she looked at him. That smile. A smile beneath her blue eyes that could bring life to a halt.
The ambient noise in the center dropped as all conversation stopped. The silence filled Ralph's ears like cotton. The Annie in his memory looked at the towel around his waist and giggled.
The muscles in his neck relaxed and he noticed the heat radiating from his head. His arm dropped to his side as he leaned back into the seat. With his elbows on the table, he buried his face in his hands.
“Oh God,” he said. There was a rustling he expected was Pressman leaving. But when he put down his hands, Jason was still sitting across the table watching.
“Mr. Norton, it wasn't what you think. Anyway, what does it matter now?”
Jason shook but remained seated opposite Ralph.
“So, go ahead. Beat me up,” he said.
Ralph shook his head. “I'm sorry.” He lifted his hand and let it drop aimlessly into his lap. “When I think of her I remember an angel, a goddess, all the worth there ever was to me was with her. I can't bear to imagine she was unfaithful to me.”
“Well, she was faithful to you,” said Jason.
“You mean you didn't sleep together?” Ralph brightened.
“No, that's not what I meant. You're not in any condition to deal with the situation, so let's get it over with.”
Ralph looked at the kid. “What do you feel?”
Jason sat quietly as if calculating his response. “I feel terrible. I feel like I want to quit all this and take off somewhere. I promised her I'd stay away. I couldn't go to visit her in the hospital because you were there all the time and I knew she'd kill me if you saw me. I couldn't even go to the funeral. I never got the chance to say goodbye.”
He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes again. Then he put them back on and looked at Ralph, defiant.
Ralph said, “There's a piece of me that wants to tear you limb from limb. Another part sees her when I look at you. Does that sound strange?”
“Very,” said Jason.
“Is there a place around here we can get a beer?”
Jason nodded. “Not on campus, but Sebastian's is right across the street.”
Ralph got out of the booth and took a few steps. When he noticed Jason wasn't following he stopped and turned.
Pressman sighed and shrugged.
“Never liked beer,” said Jason in the bar when Ralph raised an eye to his order.
Ralph wasn't in the mood to hear the kid argue. He ordered him one anyway. That kid was going to listen no matter what.
Ralph said, “I met her when I was in grad school. I was finishing my master's in finance and she had just successfully defended her dissertation. We met in a pub like this one. There was absolutely nothing in common between the two of us--we didn't know the same people, she knew nothing about economics and physics was Greek to me. Maybe that's what attracted us. I don't know. I was in the bar with some friends when of a sudden there was this beautiful brunette staring at me from another table. I went over and said, “Heya baby,” something goofy like that and she cracked up--laughed so much she spit an ice cube into one of her friend's lap. Man, how she would laugh.”
Ralph took another sip of his beer and let his gaze dissolve in the golden reflection of a light in the brass bar rail next to him.
“And that was it. The chemistry was right. We were both on a high. Graduation was close. We had our whole lives ahead of us. She hated the name Ralph so she invented a name for me--started calling me Buddy and it stuck. We started dating regularly. Realized we couldn't live without each other and got married a year later. She got a job at this school teaching, doing a little post-doc work. I couldn't find anything for a long time. Finally got taken on as a contractor for an insurance company writing spreadsheet software for PCs.
“Never had any kids. Wanted to--we both wanted to. Never seemed to be the right time. Before we knew it, twelve years goes by and bang, like a gun.” Ralph fashioned a gun with his fingers and shot an imaginary bullet through his temple.
He said, “Cancer. Like a murderer coming into our own home. It was that fast. Anyway, before I get so drunk I forget--what happened between you two? I think I can take it calmly.”
Jason downed the last drops of amber liquid, his face drawn tight with anxiety.
“There's not much to it, really. She was my advisor. I was...um...attracted...to her. Her dissertation work is considered pretty seminal by some in the field. I don't know if you know that.”
Ralph nodded, silently. Of course he knew it. He was proud of his wife. The attention Annie got kept her spirits up the entire time they had been married.
“I was proud she picked me to work with her,” said Jason. “Anyway, things were pretty normal. I knew she was married, but I sort of felt safe with her. She'd just ignore me. Then something happened. I don't know how to explain it. She started working on some weird project--some kind of software simulation. She didn't know any linear programming so I started helping her implement some of the equations she needed to get onto the machine. We kept working late--me helping her with the programming, her helping me with my dissertation work--and...um."
Ralph realized he was staring, getting angry. He turned and looked at the bar.
“She started getting sad. I thought she was having problems with her...her marriage but she'd never talk about it Christ, every time she mentioned you, you'd think she was married to the perfect man. But something happened. She stopped talking about you. Once I found her in front of the machine, crying. I tried to find out what was wrong and she just turned around and kissed me. Before I knew it...oh shit don't make me say this.”
Ralph cleared his throat and said, “You just go on.”
Jason signaled the bartender for a bourbon and continued. “We went back to my place that night. She left before morning. She was so, I don't know how to say this to you.”
“Say whatever you want, just be sure you want to say it before you do,” said Ralph.
Ralph nodded and emptied his beer. He put a finger up for another.
Jason continued, “She made me feel so good, so happy. I knew I was in love. The next day she wouldn't talk to me and I couldn't find her. It went on for a week. Like she was avoiding me or something, I don't know. Finally, I tracked her down at one of her classes and she agreed to meet me that night. Whatever it was, was still wrong. I could tell she wasn't herself. We worked on her program for about six hours. I almost gave up on her but she finally agreed to come back to my place.
“The next time I saw her was two weeks later. She'd been avoiding me the whole time. She wouldn't talk to me when I went to her classes. She was never in her office and disappeared on the weekends. I sent her flowers. She ignored everything. We met a few times after that, usually about every two weeks. But all we'd do is work on her program until she was ready to drop and go back to my place. Finally, the program was finished. She met me and told me she couldn't see me again and that I should go find a new advisor. That was it. She just dropped me like that."
Ralph finished his second beer and ordered another. He needed to sedate himself to keep from killing the kid. He patted Jason on the back.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Now you know I was just some incidental lay you're feeling better,” Jason said.
Ralph shrugged. “Maybe. I'm still hurt she did. Can't believe I'm not strangling you right now...”
“What was it that was making her so unhappy?” Jason asked. “It’s like--she got happier when she got sick. I don’t get it.”
“That, I don't know,” Ralph said. “I was sick for a while. She must have been worried about it. She never let on to me she thought it was serious. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention to her but she never seemed upset about anything until the cancer.”
“There's only one thing she ever said about it. Once when we were in bed... Oh shit..”
Ralph glared, calculating how to get the last piece of data from the kid before tearing out his beating heart.
Jason spoke quickly, “She said something about bad luck. About it being a really bad year. That some horrible things were going to happen to somebody."
“What did she say?” Ralph said. He turned on his bar stool and faced Jason. “You are way past the point where I burn your body and flush the ashes down a public toilet. I know the way she was when we made love. What did she say?”
“She said it was the year of the rooster. That's it. She had to do something because it was the Chinese year of the rooster. There was something about using a variant of Bell's inequality to change luck through modification of past probabilities. Bell's Inequality. That's it. It took her about two seconds to say and she never mentioned it again.”
“Does that mean anything to you?”
“I never gave it much thought,” Jason said, he fiddled with his glass. "I'd better get out of here."
"No, you'll leave when I tell you," Ralph said. He clamped a paw on the kid's shoulder and squeezed until Jason gasped. "What about Bell's inequality?"
"She would go off on tangents and lose me after thirty seconds. I'd just let her talk. She liked to talk to work out problems. Every now and then she’d need someone to sit and listen. That was me. I'd listen to her, not understanding a word. I remember her saying Bell's inequality is something that breaks physics--that's the way she used to say it--it broke physics. If it's right, Einstein is wrong, or something like that. Jeeze, I gotta go."
Ralph got off his stool and threw twenty dollars onto the bar.
Ralph said, “I'm going through the stuff in her office. I need to clean it out so they can make room for somebody else. There's some of your stuff up there. Half the time I don't know what I'm looking at--what with all those notebooks filled with mathematical garbage. You may want to get your shit before I chuck it.”
“I will,” said Jason, tentatively.
"Make sure you're not there when I am. I won't be able to stop myself from burning you alive when I'm sober."
* * *
In Ralph's kitchen Terrence sautéed the breaded veal in olive oil, the scent of which reminded Ralph of an Italian restaurant Annie loved.
“Don't you know how to cook Vietnamese?” Ralph called from his living room. He changed the channel on the television. When the Sunday night football game popped into view he raised the volume and went to join Terrence in the kitchen.
“Sure I do,” said Terrence. “But I like Italian much better. The Italians taught the rest of Europe how to cook, you know.” A puff of smoke issued from the skillet as Terrence took the pan from the heat and scooped the cutlets into a glass tray coated in thick tomato sauce.
“I learned how to cook veal parmigiana from a very famous chef, Vito Della Donna from La Dolce Vita down on first. You know it?”
“Sure,” said Ralph.
When the food was done they put it on plates and walked into the living room to watch the game.
Terrance said, “Man, I know it's going to be hard, but I'm going to teach you to be a single guy again--even if it's going to be temporary. The injured reserve...”
There was an unnatural pause in his speech. At first, Ralph thought Terrence was watching an interesting play in the game.
“Does being single mean I have to watch football? I never really liked the game,” Ralph said.
“...Buddy...” Terrence’s voice was thin, strained, tentative. Ralph looked up to see his Vietnamese friend surrounded by two luminous clouds.
“What the hell are these things? They’re talking,” Terrence said.
“Shit,” said Ralph.
“Buddy, come on. Stop fooling with my mind. What are these things?”
“You can see them?”
Terrence turned quickly. His eyes were wide. Lines of red capillaries streaked the whites. “Of course I can fucking see them. What are they? Ghosts?”
A chill ran down Ralph's spine.
“You can see them. All this time I thought I was the only one.”
“Fly, Ralph,” said the angel's voice. “Negative results are yours. The tests are no longer valid. Make the worms fly. Be free.”
The glass fell from Terrence's hand. The wine splattered onto the carpet.
“I'll get a paper towel,” Ralph said.
“Buddy. What are they saying?”
“You can hear them too?” Ralph said, returning with several paper towels balled in his hand. He dabbed at the wet spot on the carpet.
“Have a seat, Terry. They won't hurt you. They're angels.”
“Uh huh. They've been coming around for months. They show up and say stupid things. I thought I was the only one who saw them. Annie and I would sit here and... My God.”
Terrence gasped and swallowed. “This is something... This is something important. You can’t sit on this. We've got to tell somebody about it. We've got to get the newspapers involved. Parapsychologists. A witch doctor. Do you know what this means? It’s because of your year, my friend. This has to do with your luck. We need to get this place exorcized right away. This is bad magic.”
“She knew,” said Ralph. “All the time I was seeing these things, she knew they were here and she denied it.”
“Buddy, are you listening to me?” said Terrence. “My mother knows some spiritualists. Granted, they're Vietnamese and these may not be Vietnamese ghosts we're dealing with, but we may be able to do something about it if we act quickly.”
The smoke alarm in the kitchen went off with a shrill beep. They'd forgotten to turn the oven off and something was burning. The football game continued to play. The two images remained suspended in the living room before a shaking Terrence. Neither of them moved.
“She pretended she didn't see them,” he said, shaking his head. “Terrence--did you ever mention the year of the rooster to Annie?”
“Buddy--pal, old friend. We have some supernatural entities at work here. Don't you think we should move on this?”
The angel's voice invaded the living room merging with the football game commentator and this squeal of the smoke alarm.
“Be free, Ralph.”
Ralph shouted to be heard. “Terrence--I said did you ever mention the year of the rooster to Annie?”
Terrence stuttered. “No. Er. Yes. Maybe. What does that have to do with anything? Lots of people know about it. Look, Ralph...”
“Are you sure?”
“My God, Ralph. You've got evil spirits in your living room. This is not time to play games. Yes, I'm sure I mentioned it to her one time maybe.”
Ralph leaned backward and stared at the ceiling.
He said to no one, “She must have been seeing them, but she pretended she didn't. Why would she do that?”
“Make the worms fly, Ralph,” the angel said.
* * *
This time he brought a lot of boxes.
Ralph stood next to the desk in Annie's office and took her books and papers off the shelves. Stooping, he packed them into the cardboard boxes taking very little time to see what the materials were. He didn't care. For now the task was to clear the university's facilities so someone else could use them. Princeton reused Einstein’s office--he could hope for no more reverence for Annie.
To Ralph's dismay, the kid had chosen the same time to go through the remains of Annie's projects. Pressman sat at a table beside the desk typing commands into Annie's computer, scanning the years of data she had accumulated on a variety of projects. An open notebook was on his lap. Every now and then he'd look at the notebook, scratch his head, and go back to watching the monitor. And then he stopped, one finger on a line of math in the notebook, another on the screen in front of him.
Ralph didn't feel like going home, and Pressman ignored him when Ralph started noisily moving stuff around.
Pressman said, "Holy shit."
Ralph ignored him. A card had fallen from between the pages of a book he was packing. He picked it up and realized it wasn't one he had given her. He didn't bother opening it. Regarding it as if was nuclear waste he tossed it toward Jason. “Here, this is yours.”
The younger man ignored it.
“Did she ever tell you what she was doing? Did she tell you what project she was working on when she died?” Pressman said.
Ralph shook his head. “We didn't talk about work very much.”
“Look at this, will you?” Jason said. Ralph bent over Jason's shoulder. The computer screen was filled with an array of characters Ralph couldn't make sense of. The notebook held no more intelligence for him.
“What the hell am I looking at?” Ralph said.
“I can't believe it,” Jason said. He stood abruptly, almost knocking Ralph off his feet. Then he started pulling the books Ralph had packed from the boxes.
“You're going to put those back yourself,” Ralph said.
“Did you look at these? Look at this stuff,” Jason said. “The Bible, three different versions. The teachings of the Buddha. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Egyptian Book of the Dead. You said Annie wasn't religious. Where do you think these came from? Did she read them at home?”
Ralph shrugged, “No. I never saw her read anything like this.” He picked up a copy of the King James Bible and scanned the pages. There was a bookmark in place. Exodus 37. A description of the ark of the covenant.
“You see what she was reading?” Jason said. He pulled the book from Ralph's hands and read, “‘Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long. . . ‘ It's a description of how to build the ark of the covenant--the device they used to carry the tablets God gave to Moses.”
“She was building an altar?” Ralph said.
“Didn't you see 'Raiders of the Lost Ark?' The ark of the covenant was some kind of electronic device. Some said it was a transceiver to talk to God.”
A shiver ran down Ralph's spine and for a moment he forgot how much he hated Pressman. He swallowed. “She was building a radio to talk to God?”
“Not exactly,” said Jason. He walked toward the computer. “She was building a computer model of it. Now it makes sense. Now I know why she wanted me to help her build those software equation solvers. See, she didn't know linear programming but she knew experimental physics. She found all the references she could on means the ancients used to talk to god, to meditate, to connect to the universe. Using the descriptions she made mathematical models of how each piece would work--the models are just math equations. Then she converted the equations to computer programs. You can run the equations on a program to see how something would work without actually having to build it. Engineers do it all the time. They make mathematical models of automobiles, aircraft, electrical devices, weather, all that stuff. Then they run the programs and see how the thing would work without having to actually have it in front of them. She built a computer simulation of the ark of the covenant.”
Ralph fell backward into Annie's desk chair. He shook his head slightly trying to seat the information firmly in his brain.
“Wait. Let me see if I understand this. She invents some math equations that describe how pieces of something--the transmitter to God--works. She gets all this information from the Bible...”
“And all these other books,” Jason cut in.
“And so then she runs this program and what does she get?”
Jason shrugged his shoulders. “Well, you have to tell the program what kind of input it's getting. I mean, basically, you have to reproduce the situation at the time, give it some kind of input like lighting, or a million believers chanting or something, those have to be modeled mathematically too. Then you run the program and see what comes out. The computer acts like the thing you’ve built. You don’t actually need the thing to make what it does happen.”
“Then does God talk to you?” Ralph asked.
Jason sat in the chair in front of the computer. He faced Ralph.
“No, God doesn't talk to you--at least, I doubt it. You just get to see what it would be like if God were on the other side and wanted to talk to you. That is, unless God can somehow talk into computers. See, there's no way for this thing to actually receive anything. There’s no way for the signals to get inside here, and no way for any to get out.”
“But you aren't sure,” said Ralph.
“I'm as sure as I am of anything. That leaves a small possibility for the unknown. Let's face it, there's a piece of every physicist that makes him wonder what drives this whole thing. What made the big bang? What is matter? What is a vacuum? I admit some part of me wants to believe in the possibility of supernatural agencies.” He turned and typed a few commands.
Jason said, “I think I found the program. This equation definitely maps to this code here. But most of it is encrypted. Do you know the password? Any ideas what she would pick?”
Ralph had no idea. Jason pecked at the computer and Ralph went back to his clean up.
“Look at this,” Ralph said to himself. “She had a whole other life. Her physics work, this religion, some bullshit kid student, all of this. I wasn't a part of any of it. Can you imagine knowing somebody for so long, being so close, then finding you don't know them at all? This stuff belongs to an Annie Norton I didn't know.”
The memory hit him like a bullet between the eyes. The image, though clearly his own, seemed to have been injected into his mind from somewhere else.
In the memory Ralph tells his wife one of his innermost secrets. It betrays his fear of insanity, the fear of things unknown, his need for respect of his wife, his own self doubt.
In his memory Ralph tells Annie he's been seeing ghosts. He's afraid of what she'll say. Annie says...
“I know the password,” Ralph blurted. He stood straight as if a steel rod had materialized in his spine. Shivers ran from the base of his head to the small of his back.
“What?” said Jason, straightening in his seat.
“Buddinski. Two ’d’s.”
Jason typed. Ralph moved slowly behind Jason, staring over his shoulder at the screen. The words materialized slowly as if Annie was typing them for the first time.
My Dearest Buddy,
I struggled with how to say this. I thought I would leave a letter under your pillow before we leave for the hospital the last time, but it seemed too cruel. So many times when we were on our evening walk around our neighborhood I felt like blurting it out. It seemed blasphemous to disturb the comfort we both had in each other's silent presence. Perhaps you're not meant to know the truth of what happened unless you seek the answer. So, I'll leave it here where fate can find it with you.
My love, when I learned your days were few I became angry in a way I've never felt before. Our future had been snatched away like feathers in the wind. As a scientist I’ve learned to accept the world of absolutes, but I never faced losing you. It wasn’t something I was well prepared to accept. It challenged my beliefs. Most of all, it challenged me to action.
Buddy, you know I never learned how to pray. I could never be that little girl kneeling in the front pew with a rosary clasped between contrite hands. But I tried to pray. I tried to find a way to communicate with the infinite the way that made sense. Yes, I did create what you’re looking for. Yes, I used it to make my request for exemption from the statistical requirements of our human lives. I received my answer.
Things changed, my dear husband. Your reading this assures that between this writing and your time circumstance itself was modified. Time and action changed course as if we had been born different people. I know this because I will it to be so. You will have never been in jeopardy. It will always have been me. So I must write to you of a new future, having lived a new past.
I will find out my life is short, and I will have decided to try something I could finish with the time I had left. I had to work with Jason, and I know how much this will hurt you. I beg you, don't think ill of me.
Jason will be part of my gift to you. I can trust no one else to interpret what has happened. He helped me try to find my own God as a physicist. You must tell him I achieved what I sought. Bell's inequality leads to a kink in the fabric of our space and time a clever person can slip through. The nature of the kink leads me to know a higher order of existence. Perhaps there is one who created us and put it there so we could find our origins. If so, you can be sure I'm searching at this moment. You're at my side as I do, though I know that's hard for you to understand.
Buddy, I asked the forces of probability to let the tribulation pass. I did it thus: Bell's inequality points out a condition where faster-than-light communication can occur. This means a direct link to the past or future is probable. This link is achieved through another dimension which bypasses our time and space through something called a "wormhole." I didn’t understand enough of the physics in the time I had to create the wormhole myself. I do know the ancients did it. Moses's ark achieves that purpose. I created the ark in math, I simulated it on a machine, I told the machine what I wanted to say in terms of mathematical probabilities.
I asked for more time, dear love. I asked the forces that drive the universe to allow us a brighter future on our earth. We have our answer. Yes, I saw the apparitions too, and I heard what they said to you. I know who they are. Soon you will find their words born inside yourself.
Death is neither hateful nor kind, but a transformation from one form of life to another. Imagine the butterfly trying to explain the feel of an April breeze on his wings to the worm who will one day join her in the freedom of the air.
Please take care of Jason. I can trust no other with his well being.
Live well, my love. This will be our year, mine to fly, yours to rise to new heights of understanding. Forgive me my death. Forgive me for leaving riddles each of us must solve himself. Great challenges and joys await both of us.
Eternally your loving wife,
Her name appeared then evaporated. Ralph watched the words silently, feeling the pain of her death bring the water to his eyes again. Would that feeling of loss never end?
“Do you know what this means?” Jason said. “If she's right this is the biggest achievement Bohr's model of the atom. Since... Holy shit!”
“It erased itself. I think it erased the whole disk. Shit.”
The PC hummed. The hard drive clattered. The machine froze.
“Do you know what we had here? Christ. We have the answer, the key to control, maybe the true understanding to the purpose of life on earth.”
Ralph looked at him. His mind was blank.
“Why would she do that?” Jason said. “Why wouldn't she leave it for us?”
“You have the notebooks," Ralph said, absentmindedly. "You could reproduce it from her notes.”
“There's stuff missing. There were things that weren't written down, probably on purpose. They were only on this disk or in her head. Unless--did you find any floppies while you were looking around?”
Ralph shook his head. “Just books, papers.”
“She must have kept a backup somewhere. Home. At your house. Does she have anything at home?”
Ralph shrugged. “She used to carry a laptop computer but it belonged to the university. She gave it back. There may be something in the home office. We don't have a computer. If she didn't want us to have the program she wouldn't have left a copy. She was smarter than that.”
Jason stood and turned to leave. “We're going to your place. I'll bring my computer.”
Ralph watched, not knowing what to do.
“Listen to me. Annie did something incredible. Do you realize it? She said she finished her work--her work led to altering probabilities--changing fate itself. That's what she said. Didn't you read it? The simulation, that's how she made it work. That must be how she implemented her ideas--she wouldn't have wasted her time otherwise. She talked to something with that program. She said apparitions came to you. They’re the answer to her prayer. Have you seen something?"
“Yes,” said Ralph.
“We have to find out what those things are. This is earth shattering. We've got to find backups. She must have left a clue. We have to notify the scientific community. This is something that belongs to the world. We've got to get this published. Let's go.”
“Jason, nothing happened,” Ralph said. The energy drained from him. He didn't want to do anything. “She died. The angels haven't done anything.”
“Are you blind? Didn't you read what she said? She took the bullet for you, pal. You were the one who was supposed to die. Wake up, man. She freaking stopped your death and went in your place by applying something she learned from Bell's inequality. Come on! We're outta here, man.”
Ralph shook his head. “That's not what I saw. That's not what she said.”
“Damned if it isn't. It was your bad luck year, not hers. The fact you're here blabbering to me and she's six feet under is all the proof I need.”
Ralph followed Jason out of the building. He got his car and waited while Jason went to his apartment and retrieved his personal laptop computer.
“This machine may not be powerful enough to run some of Annie's equations. That's okay. We can hook up to the university machine--the defense department supercomputer if necessary. We'll get this thing running.”
Ralph drove silently. He thought of his wife's reaction when he told her he had been seeing the angels--her smile, the nibble on his ear.
“My little Buddinski,” she said.
“If what you're saying is true, she had no right to do it. She had no right to change things,” Ralph said.
“Nobody is going to believe us,” Jason said. “Nobody will believe we can control the outcome of random chance so we're going to have to prove it. Cloud chambers. Wait, no, we'll alter an experiment at Fermilab. No, wait. Better yet. Horse Races. We'll make a few million bucks gambling at Vegas. Then we'll spring it on them. They'll listen to money. We’ll become the luckiest men in the world. We'll use all the proceeds to advance science, of course.”
Ralph steered onto the freeway and accelerated.
“She had no right, Jason. She had no right to leave me alone like this. Goddamn it, I'm the one who's left alone. It's not right.”
“Get a grip, Ralph. You were married to one of the greatest scientific minds of the century. You'll be on television talk shows from now till eternity. Radio interviews. Speaking engagements. Of course, they'll want to buy the rights to your story. They'll make movies about it. Christ, they'll have to posthumously award her the Nobel prize.”
Ralph drove down the street to the house and pulled into the driveway. The pain of Annie’s death returned to him in full strength. He thought he had gotten over worst of it. Now, he worried he’d spend the rest of his life in mourning.
They went inside and Ralph motioned toward the study.
“I know where it is,” Jason said. Then he paused. “You're going to have to learn to let the past go.” Jason went to the study. Ralph sank into the couch and listened to the student moving books, opening desk drawers, slamming closet doors.
He sat forward as the two familiar white clouds appeared in front of him. One split off, moving past him into the study. Jason’s gasp filled the house.
“You okay?” Ralph called. “They won’t hurt you, I don’t think.”
Jason walked in holding a manila envelope and stopped dead beside the sofa.
“These are the things?” he asked, hesitantly. He shook visibly. The cloud came out of the study and stopped in front of the men.
“They talk too,” Ralph said. Then, “Why don't you two say something for my friend here. Why don’t you tell him how screwed up he is?”
The clouds were silent.
“What do they want?” Jason said.
“Hell if I know.”
The angel voice came and filled the room with a resonance that seemed to vibrate the core of Ralph's body.
“It has been negative,” said the voice.
Jason squinted and looked at the envelope in his hand.
“That thing put a spotlight on this envelope. It was sitting on top of Annie's desk,” he said, turning the envelope toward Ralph. The words “Norton-1993” were emblazoned in red on the front.
“Those are some of Annie's test results,” Ralph said. “I got her medical records because we were going to get a second--well more like a fifth opinion on her condition. I thought I chucked them a long time ago when we knew there was no hope.”
“That’s not what this says.” Jason pulled some documents from the envelope. He looked from Ralph to the clouds in front of him. “That's not what's in here.” His hands shook and sheets of paper and x-ray film slipped to the floor.
Ralph instinctively reached for the falling reports. A form dropped onto his opened palm. There were names typed on the form he didn't recognize.
“What is this?” he said. He looked back and forth between the medical reports and the clouds of light in front of him.
“The tests were negative. You’re free,” came the voice. Jason sat on the sofa next to Ralph, staring straight ahead.
Ralph steadied himself and looked at the paperwork again. The name of his doctor was typed across the top of the form. His name was in the slot designated “patient.”
“I know the tests are negative,” he said to the cloud, finally understanding what one of their utterances meant. “I'm well. I've known it for a while.”
He scanned the form. The words “malignant melanoma” poured into him from the page like a viscous acid.
“The tests were negative, Ralph. Forgive her.”
He grabbed the paperwork that hit the ground. There were reports on negative results of chemotherapy, irreparable damage done to internal organs, invasion of the lymphatic system, a prognosis of less than one month to live.
“Am I going to die?” he asked. He looked at the date on the form--almost a year prior.
“The tests were negative. Forgive. Be free.”
Jason held a piece of paper toward Ralph with a shaking hand. “This...”
Ralph took the certificate bearing his name. Tears rose to his eyes.
“Oh my God,” he said. Links fell into place in his mind like pieces of a puzzle whose pieces had been strewn all about the universe. He could feel Annie around him, her breath on his neck, the sound of her moving in her night clothes, the smell of the soap on her after a shower.
“Oh Annie, what did you do?”
Jason said, “I don't know how much longer I can stand this.”
“What did she do, Jason? I don't understand her science. Please, tell me.”
Jason breathed hard. Ralph knew the younger man would go through calculations in his mind. He would play games of logic, forward and backward, trying to make sense of what Annie had said. His face brightened and he pointed.
“I think that's Annie,” he said. He moved until he was inches from one of the clouds. "Are you Annie?"
"That's impossible," Ralph said. "They were here when she was here. It can't be her."
Jason turned suddenly. "No. It can be. I know what she did. She didn't change the outcome of your tests. In this form, she changed the past. She made it so you were never sick--she was. Somehow she traveled through the wormhole she created with the simulation and exchanged the mathematical probability of your death with hers. It was your bad luck year. She took it for you. That's why she ignored you when you told her you were seeing the ghosts. That was her answer. She was seeing herself. She knew she had succeeded."
Ralph stood, his chin quivering. “That's Annie?” he said. His voice broke.
Jason nodded as the images faded.
"This is what she's become. She exploited the hole Bell opened in physics to be between two places in time at once. In human form, she was here. In that form, she was some other place, some other time. And now she's taken the means of travel with her."
"Why?" Ralph asked. “Why wouldn’t she leave it for us?”
Jason said, "Our world is based on the probabilities, not certainties. One person can weight probability in a certain direction once without disturbing the system. Annie was able to do it because she's the only one with the key. Too many of us trying to change things regularly simply makes the system look like the original undisturbed system. All the effects cancel. She saved us the trouble. The mechanism would have simply stopped working after a few people tried it. If other people got involved, she'd never have been able to save you."
Ralph scratched his head. The mixture of emotions within him built a pressure he tried to release in a laugh that emerged as a gasp.
Jason continued, “Of course, those medical documents are the only proof. That is, if the doctors can remember something that never happened. What an elegant solution to the problem. There simply never was a problem.”
“There’s a little problem,” said Ralph. “If that one was Annie, who's the other one?”
Jason turned and plopped down onto the couch. He put his hands behind his head, took a deep breath and sighed staring at the air above him.
"That should be obvious to you of all people. Any person, or worm as you've been calling them, can change the future. It takes a butterfly to change the past."