Excerpts for Strangelets
Palo Alto, California
Sophie Page felt herself getting closer. Every inhale drew farther apart from the previous until she could measure the gaps between them. She could almost picture the breaths strung like beads on a necklace, stretching far into the distance, growing more isolated from one another as they approached the horizon. Her heartbeat followed suit, its thump slowing until she felt only an occasional tap against her ribcage.
It was easier than she'd expected, letting go. Sophie was vaguely aware of her parents standing on either side of the hospital bed, gripping her hands tightly, as if they alone could tether her to the earth. Her younger sister, Nora, sobbed quietly at the foot of the bed. The whisper of sneakers on linoleum came and went as silent nurses flitted around like moths, doing their best to be unobtrusive.
They'd offered her a priest, but she'd turned them down. It seemed hypocritical when she hadn't been in a church in years. She'd allowed her parents to tuck Soup, the bedraggled stuffed cat she'd slept with as a child, in bed beside her. But they all knew that was more for their sake than hers. Sophie hadn't thought about Soup in years--at least, not until she'd been confined to a bed for what remained of her life.
Sophie drew a sudden, sharp breath. She hadn't known exactly what to expect. In the past few weeks, as her inevitable demise approached, she'd developed a voracious
appetite for stories of near-death experiences. Apparently people saw everything from angels to a bright light to nothingness. Some were exotic: a Lakota chief claimed that he rose above the clouds and saw a circular hoop surrounding the world, its edges vanishing into infinity. Others were more mundane, like the Calcutta man who found himself in a large government office, where a panel of faceless people berated him for showing up early, then sent him back into his body.
She figured she should have something to look forward to. Anything was preferable to her present: endless rounds of chemotherapy and countless awkward discussions in doctor's offices where various experts tried to explain why her lymphoma wasn't responding to treatment. A steady stream of hospital beds until she finally landed in this one, in the hospice. Would she see anything at all? The secrets of the universe revealed? Another strange bureaucracy? Or just a blinding flash, then nothing.
Whatever she'd expected, it hadn't been this.
Her parents stiffened, though she could still feel their grasp. Her sister had also frozen mid-sob, as if someone had snapped a photo. The walls suddenly seemed to bow out, expanding. Like the hospice room had suddenly come to life and sucked in a huge breath of air. And at the foot of her bed was . . . a circle. Technicolor? No. Not bright enough. Not light, exactly, but not dark, either. Sophie was transfixed by it. Every color imaginable, whirling in a dizzying gyre. It started as small as a pinhole, rapidly increasing in size until it was the size of a loaf of bread, then a car. Asit grew, it drew the contents of the room inexorably inward. Sophie wanted to call out to her family and ask if they were seeing it, too, and maybe knew what it was. But she was as immobilized as they were, heavy--and this was it, she realized. This was how she was going to die.
An overwhelming calm and peace descended on her. Sophie relaxed, letting her mind spin along with the gyre, touching lightly on memories. All felt rich and crucial somehow . . . The time she ran away from home after a silly fight and Mom found her hiding behind the local ice cream store . . . When Nora was first brought home from the hospital and Sophie couldn't believe this red-faced screaming tiny thing was her sister (Aren't babies supposed to be cute?) . . . Dad swinging her up on his shoulders, so she could reach the apples dangling just out of reach on the branches above. Funny: She hadn't had the heart to tell him that apple picking was boring.
Sophie didn't have any regrets, not really. It would have been nice to have lived longer: a real life, a full one. But she'd had plenty of time to come to terms with the fact that she'd never go to college. Never know what it felt like to fall in love. Never marry or have kids of her own to take apple picking or fight with and make up with. She was ready. The gyre reached the tip of her toes. A peculiar heat came off it, as if it were a living thing lapping at her heels. Sophie smiled one last time and closed her eyes, letting it take her.
Galway City, County Galway, Ireland
Declan Murphy tripped and nearly went flying. At the last moment he regained his footing and tore forward, feeling the hardness of pavement through his worn trainers.
He chanced a glance over his shoulder. The two arseholes were still after him. They looked winded--they were old, probably thirty--but seemed to be closing the gap. And they looked damned pissed to boot.
"Bloody hell," Declan muttered to himself. All this fuss over a box. He tucked it more securely under his arm and kept running.
He had no idea what was inside. Based on the doggedness of his shite pursuers, it was probably more valuable than he'd thought. As Declan rounded the corner, his mind
spun through possible escape routes. Usually, he'd have at least three mapped out in advance. But this had been a oneoff, a job taken on a lark from a random guy in a pub. Not the sort of thing he'd usually do. Problem was, he'd had in mind to buy something nice for Katie, her birthday coming up and all. And she'd made him swear that any gift he gave her was bought, not stolen. So when the stranger offered a hundred euros up front, another hundred on delivery, Declan agreed. After all, the man said he was only claiming what was rightfully his in the first place. And it was a house
job. Not a bank or a business. The study window was never locked--no one would even be home, he assured Declan.
In and out, easy, the bloke claimed. Quickest two hundred
quid he would ever make.
Except, of course, there had been someone. Two someones, in fact--they'd entered the room as he was slipping back out the window. By the time Declan reached the corner they were nearly on him, proving to be in surprisingly good running shape for a couple of middle-aged bastards. But now they were losing steam.
The house was located in Salthill, the nicer section of Galway--and an area Declan wasn't familiar with. He should have known, he chided himself. His mum always said not to trust lads from Salthill. So he shouldn't have been surprised when he darted right and hit an alleyway, rather than the water he was expecting. And the alley dead-ended in a solid brick wall. He'd made a right hames of it, sure enough. Either that or the fool in the pub had set him up.
Cursing, he doubled back, only to find the two arseholes blocking the entrance. Declan's eyes darted around, looking for a fire escape, a dumpster, anything. But he was surrounded on all three sides by solid walls, not so much as a bin lid at hand to toss at them.
His pulse quickened. They could have been best mates, the kind you find at a football match, short-cropped and leather-jacketed and red-faced with beer, shouting obscenities. But their faces were pale, and their eyes dark and sober. Still, Declan forced a cocky grin as they advanced. "Aye, you got me, then." He raised the box with both hands. "You're welcome to it."
Already got a hundred quid, after all, he told himself. More than enough to get Katie the necklace he'd had his eye on. A heart with a ruby set in the center, the color just a few shades brighter than her hair. Declan cursed himself. Really would have been so much easier just to lift it. She'd never have to know. Hardly any security to speak of at Hartmann's, at least nothing he couldn't get past.
With no response from the pair, he set the box down and backed away until he reached the rear brick wall. The larger one stooped to retrieve it. He was tall and not as flabby as Declan had initially thought, with black hair. The other bloke was blond, lean and compact like Declan. He stared at Declan, unblinking. Now that they were less than a meter away he saw that they weren't so old--late twenties, maybe, or early thirties.
They whispered to each other in hard, low voices. It was a different language; Russian, maybe? They had that Slavic look, as if no matter how much they ate they'd still be hungry.
Declan swallowed. "All good then, eh?" he managed.
The taller one handed the shorter one the box. He opened it without taking his eyes off Declan, checked inside, then nodded brusquely. He strode out of the alley without looking back.
The taller one watched him leave, then turned. Something in his eyes struck Declan to the core, a sort of tired resignation. With slow-motion horror, Declan watched the Russian reach under his T-shirt and pull a pistol from the waistband of his jeans. Declan raised both hands. "Hold up, mate," he said. "I mean to tell no one, if that's what you're worrying about . . ."
The Russian glanced back over his shoulder, clearly checking for witnesses.
Turning, he raised the gun to shoulder height. Time again seemed to slow. The killer's eyes transformed. They looked bored, sleepy. Somehow that made it even worse . . . like at the end of the day he'd barely remember this. Declan pictured him sitting down to supper, telling the wife, Aye, I went to the bank and the Tesco, got a pint . . . something else . . . oh, nearly forgot about shooting that sixteen-year-old lad in the head.
Declan felt his knees start to go, everything inside him rapidly turning to liquid. Katie's face flashed through his mind, her blue eyes sparkling, the light glinting off her
teeth as she laughed . . .
The gunman's tired eyes suddenly leapt awake like window shades snapping up. Wide open, they reflect a glistening light. He reared back and winced. The gun fired.
Declan ducked, terrified, hands instinctively protecting his head. Tiny shards of brick rained down on his skull and fingers from the wall behind.
A miss. Declan had a chance.
"Jay-sus, please," he pleaded frantically. "I swear on my mother's life . . ."
But the bloke didn't seem to have heard him. He was still backing away, his own hands raised. His face was now terrified and curiously illuminated.
Declan frowned. Crazy bastard was acting as if a monster had appeared. He swiveled around. Blinked. There was an enormous hole in the wall below where the bullet had struck: a swirling, glowing whirlpool. In a brick wall. Panic was suddenly replaced by something else . . . Wonderment? Relief? He was reminded of the time he took E with Katie at a dance party; the walls had shimmered then. But he was cold sober now, this had to be something else. It reminded him of those stories they told in church, of true miracles . . . Reverently, Declan reached toward the colors with both hands--
Something yanked hard from the other side, dragging him into the vortex.