Various Constants


On one windy November afternoon Alex Wingate leaped from the playground’s leftmost swing and sailed clear over Sandtown School No.2. It was incredible, really. He was nine years old.


These were the facts of his case. He had landed on Mrs. Sunberry’s lawn, almost three miles across town. Sheriff Manson had found him petting Mrs. Sunberry’s dog, a Doberman named Farmer. He said he struck him a happy child.


Alex’s teachers and mother, too, described him as happy. Simple. Easily satisfied. For dinner for his birthday he would request a peanut butter sandwich and ketchup-flavored potato chips. When, on the day of his intake, I asked him his interests, he said his favorite thing in the world was to squish silverfish bugs between his fingers.


This was what made his case so astounding. To defy this universe’s physical laws was one thing. To do so as one so singularly ordinary was quite another. If one such as he bore such potential—just imagine. And so on. I felt in making such statements we were missing something likely important.


We did not harness him in any way, but we did suction a net of neurological sensors to his skull and the base of his neck. The playground was mostly real. The sky was a computer-generated crash-screen blue. Soon-to-be slack-jawed simulations of his classmates were already swinging at his side. Were he to jump, I told his mother, he would be caught by a mesh of highly intelligent rope.


He began to pump his legs. His mother stood at my side behind the one-way glass, watching. She said, “He’s going to ask to go home. I’m so sorry.” I wanted to tell her not to apologize, but we had already paid her quite a sum. A small black mic latched benignly below one of her son’s dimples. Alex said, “I feel like a lunch lady. That job would probably be okay. Do you know how much lunch ladies make?”


“Let go whenever you feel comfortable,” I said. Alex nodded and pumped with increased vigor. At my side, his mother frowned. “He isn’t going to let go. He isn’t that sort of kid. He’s very cautious. When I got the call that day I could hardly believe what I was hearing.” I nodded noncommittally. On a screen to our right, Alex’s brainwaves spiked and dipped. “Oh!” his mother said, even though the variation meant nothing. (Variations often mean nothing. It’s the unexpected variations that warrant investigation.)


Alex said, “I didn't even want to be outside that day. I don’t enjoy the outdoors. Most days during recess I hide in the Gametime Closet and see what I can find. Did I tell you about my favorite bug?” He was approaching the height at which he had originally let go, and I neglected to respond. Any meaning to be gained had already been compromised by statistical noise. “Silverfish,” his mother said, quietly. “Those brown, hairy guys,” Alex said, loudly. “The Closet is full of them and Legos and shriveled carrots. But they’re the only ones that are hard to catch.”


This time when he released the chains he traveled approximately five horizontal feet and fell to his knees. The mulch was of finely shredded tire and shifted like quicksand around his shoes. “What I like about them is how gross the other kids think they are,” he said, scrutinizing the ground. “But to me they’re like Pokémon. They’re like fossils brought back to life. They shouldn’t be real.” When he was back in the observation room his mother hugged him. “So you kill them,” I said, flatly, but Alex didn’t reply.


In the atrium the boy stood bundled in an argyle parka and overlarge gloves, the fingertips of which hollowly sagged. “They make a crunchy sound like cereal when you smash them. All their little hairs do this sort of dance. But my teacher, Mr. Kidd, he says making them do that is cruel, which is why sometimes he makes me go outside.” His mother smiled softly. A cream-colored purse clung tightly to her hip. “I wish we could have been of more help,” she said.


After they left I left a lengthy, eminently cogent message on Alex’s mother’s answering machine. Again I explained the different laws her son’s flight had broken, the various constants he had rendered unfixed. “Gravity is a number. It is set, see. But your son would seem to disagree.” Already our technicians were dismantling the simulation, stripping the mesh, reprogramming the walls. Watching them, I felt a familiar sort of lack.


Our next subject was not scheduled for another nine days. I felt obliged to make a final pitch. “With your help we could solve the energy crisis. We could, in time, reach other galaxies in a matter of instants.” After hanging up, I leaned my head against the glass, appreciating the icy pressure. The room smelled of microwaved shrimp vindaloo. On the other side of the glass, the sky crackled and turned green.


I went and opened the door and walked across our recreated playground and sat on the swing. In the video Alex’s hair had seized in his wake, twitched and shuddered like a silverfish only just deprived of life. Up he rose and out of frame, an actor borne aloft by stagecraft, suspended by disbelief. Nobody screamed. At the end of the video came the peal of a bell, and then everyone went inside.


When I’d become as I then was I did not know. All I knew was that I was that man, and that I wished desperately for some external stimulus to induce in me a change. But I feared the moment, if extant, had already passed me by. This world—this universe—was a stable, unsubtle thing, I thought, and I desired otherwise.


For the ventilation above me, say, to be permeable. To be able to pierce both the metaphorical and tangible roofs over our apparent axioms.


Around me my colleagues recoded the net, made low-pitched, fatalistic jokes. I was doing a strange thing, I thought, but their not noticing was stranger. I tightened my grip.


Higher, and I was—no, not yet, no.


But I let go still.  

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