QUANTUM SHORTS 2013: FIRST PRIZE, SINGAPORE YOUTH CATEGORY
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
“Of course it does.”
“What about a noise?”
“I don’t see how that’s a different question.”
Places started to look the same after a while, and he had never been able to easily tell people apart anyway. All he needed was the text on roadside signs and shopfronts.
Korean was pleasantly modular, Greek was familiar – though out of context of course– and English was like home. Each flashed before him and away again in a matter of milliseconds, mute bursts from a faulty projector onto a translucent screen, a Cartesian theatre drawing input from senses not his own.
It was worse that the sound system operated just fine, the incongruous noise of everyday life continuing about him assaulting the battered remnants of his concentration in surround sound. He’d be sweeping between X and Y, sometimes across the very globe, and he’d hear a gaggle of girls tittering on about nothing. Between A and B, and a group of boys laughing about some banal television show.
Sight and sound were defunct – he couldn’t extract any signal from all that noise – and he couldn’t be eating every moment of the day, so taste and smell were useless as well. Touch, though – touch would have helped.
Only, it scared him, because it was unknown.
“Hey. You’re Linden, right?”
Out of the chaos, suddenly: a presence behind him. Then a gentle hand on his shoulder, and he saw her face as if he had eyes on the back of his head. He shut his eyes and shied away.
“Don’t do that.”
The hand withdrew, startled. “Right. Sorry. Is it okay if I give you advance warning, then?”
“No. Yes. Maybe.”
“I just wanted to say hi. My name’s Hazel.”
Her features were mathematically proportionate and she was the societal mean of a nice girl – kind and pretty, her actions generic and expected. Except that she’d spoken to him.
But he liked her precisely because she was an outlier.
As it turned out, the world liked her, too.
The reporters called her a rising star, the reviewers called her talented, the critics called her sincere. And after they graduated, he receded back into the darkness of non-existence as she shot to fame, and posters, photographs, and newspaper clippings slowly took over his walls.
“Hey, Linden. What’s up?”
“I thought it would be appropriate to congratulate you. About the movie.”
“Thank you!” The pleasure was evident in her voice, even though he couldn’t see her just at that exact moment. “Knew you’d be watching.”
Although he hadn’t been watching, not deliberately. It was just random chance that he’d seen her getting signed. That was how it worked – random places, random people, little quantum tunnels lining up every so often for him to look through, giving him a glimpse of the not-here and, sometimes, not-now.
He had never bothered, before. Suddenly, though, her joy was not as distant a concept as it had been, and it felt right to try. And he found that once he began, he could influence how the tunnels aligned.
“You can control it, now?”
“A little, yes. Yes.”
“So you could see me, intentionally? At any time?” She looked vaguely horrified.
“Yes. Is that bad?”
It certainly seemed so. He tilted his head, knowing she couldn’t see him the same way he could see her, wondering how it was her face suddenly carried meaning, how it was he could read it now.
Most recently, in his search for her through the microscopic infinity of the tunnels, he saw a hospital.
It was blurry, so it was hard to tell, but it was also white. All white. No sun, no sky – just white. Therefore, it was a hospital.
He strained to see better, and saw her, as well. She had not changed; her original features could still be deduced from the ravages of sickness. Other blurs surrounded her, bustling back and forth, and he focused so much on the scene he could almost hear them as they did so.
“Linden, is that you? Please let that be you.”
“Why? It’s just a natural process.”
“I know, Linden, I know. It’s just…”
“Or you could adopt a religion. Apparently that helps.”
“I thought you said religion is just more interference? More noise?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I was wrong, after all.”
He heard her laugh, and he saw her smile, in a passing cloud of minimalistic apartment and streaked mascara. It was strange to him that she would do that, when she was so clearly scared.
“Will I see you again?”
He wanted to be accurate, so he pulled the tunnels into alignment to see:
Machines wailing, her flatlined heart, blurred figures surrounding her with their heads bent and shoulders shaking. This was not now, because they were still speaking, and he saw another her, clutching her phone in one hand, her other hand tight against the sterile sheets of her ward.
“Soon,” he said, knowing he meant “No.”
It has been years since he last allowed the visions to crowd him in their randomness, but he lets them in now, to drown out the newscast and knowledge of her end. A hundred different romances, tragedies, fights and families, which, while still mute, without sound, suddenly seem to him... familiar.
I guess they are different, those questions. Interesting.
“Well, this is it. I might never see you again. But, you’ll see me, right? Sometimes?”
“If I look hard enough.”
“You will look hard enough?”
“I’m going to hug you now. Is that okay?”