While Mr. Patella lectured, Jeremy’s right hand almost slipped through his desk. His fingers and palm were halfway through the chipped laminate surface before he noticed.
Cluster-flustered, Jeremy flung his hand upward and then had to deal with Mr. Patella staring at his raised arm, believing he had a question.
“Yes, Mr. Lott?”
Shaken, Jeremy tried to focus on what his physics teacher had been discussing just moments before. “Scale,” he ventured. “I’m still hung up on scale. You know, how yesterday you told us that there are no solid surfaces. That everything is permeable. That even right now neutrinos and other subatomic particles are passing right through the ceiling, walls, doors and even us.”
“Correct, but today we are dealing with vectors.”
“Yeah, but I’m having trouble getting past the concept that the space between objects at the galactic level is comparable to the distance between things at the atomic and subatomic level. It just doesn’t seem possible. What holds anything together? Why doesn’t my body just leak out all over the place? How can I even contain my thoughts?”
Mr. Patella replied patiently. “Quantum space is not a concept. It’s reality. We exist in a tangible world that in many senses is intangible, difficult to grasp, and often difficult to comprehend. That’s the marvel of physics. Our senses tell us one story and science opens the door to all other possibilities. I was just reading a fascinating article on Molecular Democracy…”
And Mr. Patella was off on a lengthy birdwalk for which Jeremy was grateful. He was having a terrible time holding himself together. The physical world around him had grown frightfully unstable, as if the molecular democracy Mr. Patella was rambling on about had voted overwhelmingly for anarchy.
Jeremy’s sinking feeling was all too real. He felt himself gradually slipping through the rigid plastic of his chair. When he put his hands on either side of the seat to brace and lift himself, his palms sifted into the plastic.
A prickly panic edging down his spine, he looked around to see if any of his classmates was watching what was happening to him. They were not. They were floating in their own daydreams. Jeremy pulled his hands free of the seat and placed his forearms carefully on the top of his desk and spread his palms wide. Maybe that increased surface area would provide the leverage to stop him sinking further. With a strange sense of pride, Jeremey thought how Mr. Patella would appreciate this line of reasoning to solve his strange problem.
Jeremy cautiously leaned onto his forearms and outspread palms. The desk felt firm. He bore down harder and pushed with his legs. He felt his butt and thighs begin to rise. He pushed harder, sure that this approach was sound. Pure physics. Equal and opposite reactions. It seemed to be working.
Until the seat of his pants sprung from the surface tension of the plastic seat. It was like a rubber band snapping and Jeremy jackknifed forward and through the front of his desk. He sliced through the composite surface as though it were an early morning mist.
Mr. Patella looked at Jeremy sprawled on the floor beneath his undisturbed desk and then looked calmly away as if to acknowledge that something like this would never happen in one of his classes. But when his gaze returned to Jeremy and the plain evidence before him, he frowned.
“What’s going on, Mr. Lott?”
Jeremy looked up helplessly.
“Are you hurt?” Mr. Patella strode closer.
It was a good question. “I don’t think so,” he said and tried to lift himself. The thinly carpeted floor held—for the moment—and he squirmed out from the legs of the desk and sat up.
“What happened?” Mr. Patella stood over him and Jeremy felt his weight and the weight of his surprised classmates on him.
He didn’t have to pretend to be dazed. “I fell. I was feeling funny. I think I might have fainted.”
That was plausible. Maybe it was true. He did feel light-headed. Maybe the last few minutes had simply been the result of a cloudy head. He knew he hadn’t slept well last night. Had even felt like he might be getting a cold. Scratchy throat. Full head. That was the way out of this. He was getting sick. Maybe the flu. That was a much more plausible explanation than the foundational laws of physics breaking down around him. Much simpler. Occam’s Razor and all that.
Sitting on the floor in front of his classmates in a moment of what should feel embarrassing, Jeremy felt a sense of pride that he had reasoned it out. Mr. Patella would be pleased at how he was using scientific methods to get to the heart of his unusual morning. Learning didn’t get more authentic than that.
“If you’re feeling faint, I’d like you to go to the nurse’s office.” Mr. Patella extended his hand. “Are you able to stand?”
Jeremy nodded and took Mr. Patella’s hand. His grip was firm and reassuring. Solid. No slippage. Jeremy rose with a smile. “Thanks,” he said.
Mr. Patella nodded. “Mr. Standish,” he commanded, “You go with Mr. Lott to the nurse’s office.”
Trenton Standish rose without a word and presented himself at Jeremy’s side. He was a big boy. Over six feet and a good two hundred pounds. He was a smartass, but not a bully. He played chess and shot up abandoned cars in the deep woods that bordered their small town. He and Jeremy had the casual acquaintance of almost eleven years of public schooling—not friendship, but deep familiarity.
Mr. Patella handed Jeremy’s backpack to Standish. “Watch him, carefully,” he told him and then turned to Jeremy. “Hope you feel better, Mr. Lott,” he said.
Standish waited until the door behind them closed and they’d taken a few steps down the vacant hallway. “What was that all about, Lott? You been huffing too much? Or taking your folks’ meds?”
Feeling that he’d dodged a bullet and was just dealing with a pedestrian flu bug rather than a complete breakdown in the properties of the physical world around him, Jeremy sparred, “More likely I passed out because you farted.”
Standish snorted and gave Jeremy a little push. A nothing shove. Crazily, the nothing shove flung Jeremy across the corridor, burying his head and torso through the door of a bright orange locker.
It took Jeremy a moment to orient himself. A thin outline of light permeated the edge of the locker door. He was lodged against someone’s math book and a ratty pair of tennis shoes. There was no doubt he was in somebody’s locker. There was no doubt this was just not a head cold or a case of the flu. That’s what Jeremy was thinking when Standish yanked at his waist and pulled him back into the hallway.
“Sonofabitch! Are you okay?” Standish asked, his eyes growing manga-sized. “What just happened? Half of you disappeared in that locker.”
“I’m losing it,” he said. “Nothing feels real anymore.”
Standish stared at him. “We gotta get to the nurse’s office.” He waved and started down the hall.
Jeremy followed, until he fell. Standish was ten hurried paces down the hall when he glanced back and saw Jeremy sunk up to his mid-thighs in the floor tiles. “Jeeeeesus, Lott!” He cried and rushed back stopping a couple feet away as if the space around Jeremy were quicksand. “Give me your hand.”
Jeremy reached out and Standish clamped his hand firmly. The touch was reassuring for Jeremy until his palm and fingers began to slide, slowly pulling through Standish’s sturdy clasp.
“Hold on. Don’t let go!” Standish shouted.
Jeremy considered the command. He was still filtering through the floor, his hips well below the scuffed tiles. They were on the second floor and he had a momentary smile at the thought of his feet dangling from the first-floor ceiling. He wiggled his feet, just in case someone below was there to watch his descent. He felt nothing. Am I a ghost? he thought. Did I get hit by a school bus this morning? Am I dead?
Standish was doing a jig around him, uncertain what to do. “Stay calm, Jeremy. I’m gonna get help. Stay cool.” Standish backed down the hall watching Jeremy sink further through the floor. When Jeremy’s head was the only part showing, Standish turned and ran.
Jeremy smiled and continued to seep through the floor. He never lost consciousness, if that’s what he could call it anymore. He felt composed, though not present. His mind had grown large, spread out. It was if he could move anywhere through anything. And that was what he did.
He did not end up on the first floor. He filled it. His being extended the length of the hallway. And then beyond. Jeremy was outside and inside, his galaxy of particles sifting through the vastness of quantum space. Where no man had gone before.
An hour later Standish was seated in the principal’s office. Mr. Patella had been called in. The school nurse sat biting her lip in the corner. The vice-principal was taking notes while the principal paced before Standish.
“Trenton, tell us again what happened to Jeremy,” he asked, his patience wearing thin.
For the third time, Standish told them. Everything.
When he finished, the four adults looked at Standish with the same disbelief. The principal stopped his pacing, his voice winding into third gear, “What’s the game here? Where is Jeremy Lott? Do you expect us to believe your crazy story? Are you that dense? Or do you think we’re that dense?”
Standish shook his head ‘no.’ He better than any living, breathing, dissembling human understood that.