It was a cool fall morning, before a cold winter, when I stood beside little Billy Wilson waiting for the bus at the stop at the corner of Fourth and Oak. A cold breeze scraped dried and curled leaves past us in the street as he looked up at me and said, “I have collapsed the Wiggs field into a non-excited state out in the Oort cloud. A sphere of non-mass is expanding from the original point source at the speed of light.”
Away down Fourth Street I see the cross-town bus, still two or three stops away from us. Billy clutched his lunchbox, decorated with a bright red and blue image of Spiderman battling a green-costumed Doc Ock, high above Manhattan.
“What does that mean, Billy” I tried to keep my voice calm. I dreaded that I already knew what he meant, in general if not specifics.
Billy shivered with the cold.
“The Wiggs field is what gives particles mass. It exists everywhere in an excited state, and particle interaction with that excitation is the origin of mass. Of course, any relaxation in the field will spread in an expanding sphere, like a collapsing parking garage, but in three dimensions, as I already mentioned. Inside the sphere, particles have no mass, and therefore gravity no longer exists; hence, relative to what we experience, non-existence.”
“Do you want a cookie, Billy?”
“Sure!” he said as he looked up at me, and turned to take with his left hand the two chocolate chip cookies I held out. “Did your mom bake these?”
“Uh huh. How long before this happens, Billy?”
“Just over three days. Thanks for the cookies, Allan. It will be over before you know it happened. We won’t feel a thing. Have a good day!” He stepped up onto the bus.
Billy lives on Elm Street, the fifth house down from Fourth, in the blue house on the North side, the one with no garage. He is nine years old and doesn’t have many friends. He likes chocolate ice cream but not vanilla, loves mashed potatoes but hates mac and cheese. His family has a pet cat but one night two weeks ago Mr. Spots didn’t come home. Billy hasn’t been the same since then.
I’m Allan. I’m fifteen. I don’t have a lot of friends, either, and I am not a genius like Billy. I am on the swim team. I live over on Fifth, in the middle of the block. My friend Dwayne and I like to hang out in the woods by the quarry. There is a girl in my English class, her name is Melissa, and she looks at me during class. Lately I find myself thinking about Melissa a lot.
That morning I couldn’t think about anything other than what Billy had said. My bus is usually ten minutes after his, but I walked instead down Fourth, past Elm, then Sycamore, and finally turned left down Birch. I was really scared. No more Melissa, no more ponytails. No more anything?
David is seven and he lives on Birch Street. He doesn’t go to school. He has a rare leukemia and he studies at home. He and Billy know each other, and are friendly, but they are not friends. And if Billy is a genius, David is a super-genius. So far David has been able to undo the worst things Billy has done, but Billy hasn’t done anything like this before.
I knock on the door. There is no answer. I knock again and force myself to wait; still no answer. I realize just how scared I am – on the verge of panic – when the door opens and David says, “Hi, Allan. Sorry it took me so long, I was pooping.”
It comes out in a rush. I never understand what Billy tells me. I never understand what David tells me. I tried to repeat the bus stop conversation. David mostly listens, but he asks questions, and when I see him start to nod his head I feel reassured for the first time.
“Muh,” he says. “Poor Billy. He hasn’t been the same since Mr. Spots ran away.”
“Mr. Spots ran away? I thought he just didn’t come back. He might have been catnapped.”
“He wasn’t catnapped. He was hit by a car on Tamarack Street. He lived for seven minutes and thirty-eight seconds after the impact. He was in a lot of pain before he died. The next day a city worker picked his body up; that’s why Billy didn’t find him when he went looking.”
“Can you fix this, David?”
David sighs. Billy is a heavy kid, chubby, but David is thin and small for his age. He doesn’t even look seven. He looks sick. And I am suddenly scared again. What happens if something happens to David? What if Billy does something that David can’t fix?
“Muh,” he says again.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes,” he says. “Muh.”
“Oh, sorry, MUH: mathematical universe hypothesis.” He must see blankness on my face because he continues, “One way of ‘understanding’ the universe is to think of it as a combination of particles – things, like a billiard ball – and fields, like the surface of a pool table. Usually a pool table is flat, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be slanted, or hilly…” He looks at me. “This isn’t helping, is it?”
“I’m sorry, David, but it isn’t.”
“Okay, try it this way: we are accustomed to seeing the world as experiences, the colors of things, the tastes of food, the sound of animals. But as we change the scale, larger or smaller, our cognitive assessment of the ‘composition’ of the universe changes with that scale. At extragalactic scales, it is void and galaxy. At galactic scales it is stars and nebulae and void. At a human scale it is things, bricks and animals and plants and people…do you see what I am getting at?”
“I think so…” not really sure if I did or not.
“None of these are ‘correct’ or incorrect’. The granularity and granules of the universe seem to be a function of the scale of inspection. At the atomic scale we have neutrons and protons and electrons. At a sub-atomic scale we have quarks and leptons. The Wiggs field that Billy was talking about exists on one such small scale. Each scale is a cave shadow of an aspect of the true reality, which is intrinsically mathematical.” He pauses. “The Pythagoreans were right.
“The Wiggs field is rough. It must be rough, it must be kept frothy and foamy, or the calm region will spread to the entire sea. That is what Billy has done. The sea is calming. Although I think he still has a cold and you misheard him. It’s actually called the Higgs field.”
“And this is bad?”
This sickly little boy looked up at me and made eye contact. He looked tired and unwell and his dark eyes were haunted in a way I cannot describe.
“It is the end of everything. But I should be able to prevent that. Come back tomorrow.”
The next day I went to school. I didn’t know what else to do. I tried to study but it didn’t work. In English, when Melissa looked at me I smiled and mouthed “Hello.” She smiled back and mouthed “Hello” back and we talked after class. After school we walked across the street to the sub shop. When we waited at the bus stop afterward she laughed and smiled. I felt good but I felt sick. I wanted to be happy and hopeful, but I had to see David before that could happen.
David led me to the dining room table. He had two placemats slightly overlapping each other, and knives and forks arranged in a strange pattern that didn’t seem real. There were some colored buttons, a potato peeler and at least two paperclips. It looked like some of the knives were glowing. Sometimes it seemed that the forks were bending. I felt queasy looking at it.
“I tried to access the underlying mathematical reality. I wasn’t able. I had to fix the shadows. I stopped the expansion but had to edit a piece of space-time. There is now literally nothing there.”
“But you fixed it?”
“Kind of. Sort of. There is now a sphere of nothingness out in the Oort cloud, about 3300 light minutes in diameter. It will not be long before scientists find it, and it will play hell with their theories.” David paused. “Billy didn’t intend this, but it could have ended very badly. I need your permission to change him a bit so this won’t happen again.”
“You’re a good person. I need you to agree that changing him is a good idea for everyone, including Billy.”
Of course it was. I nodded, David adjusted some cutlery, and all of the forks glowed. Some of them moved a bit, like globs of oil. It only lasted a few seconds, and for a moment, only a moment, I understood everything that had happened, what Billy had done, what David had done to fix it, and everything that we three had said. And that moment passed and I felt a tear in the corner of my eye at the sudden loss of knowledge, I blinked, and it was gone.
“Billy will be a great scientist, and accomplish amazing things. But he won’t again make a mistake like this. He may even one day be the smartest human to have lived so far.”
“What about you, David?”
“I don’t count. Oh, I see what you are thinking. No, I’m not going to die of leukemia. That will get better. I will have a bad turn around Christmas, but that will pass, and by the end of January I will be better – all better. But things don’t always work out like you think they will, Allan.”
Two days later at the bus stop Billy was really dejected.
“I don’t think Mr. Spots is going to come back. I think he’s gone.”
“I think he is, Billy.”
“But he isn’t gone, is he? That’s not what happened. He’s dead. He got hit by a car, or a dog got him, or something. Why did that happen, Allan? Why did that have to happen?”
“I don’t know, Billy, I don’t.”
“It’s not fair, it’s just not fair!”
I had never seen Billy cry before. I remembered when Suzy got old and we took her to the vet. She had trouble getting around but was still eager to get in the car. She liked going places. We didn’t get another pet. You can’t replace a friend. It isn’t fair.
“No, it isn’t, not fair at all.”
David did recover. He started growing a little bit and he wasn’t as thin. I didn’t see a lot of him after that, but he gained weight and he smiled more. I realized that a lot of his being quiet so much was because he was always tired. In late January he was able to start coming to school and he made friends quickly.
Melissa and I spend a lot of time together. I started to have trouble remembering some of this and I don’t want to forget anything. So I wrote it down. Even now it seems unreal. I think that David didn’t just change Billy. I think he changed me too. He helped Billy deal with the loss of his friend, Mr. Spots, and he has helped me…I am more confident, less anxious, and I am a kinder person than before. And whatever else David did is making me forget.
Early March was really warm. David and his mom were finally able to get outside and go places. I remember a few times they drove past me, David would always wave. Then his mom started waving, too. A few times they pulled over and gave me a ride home. I remember being glad when I saw how she smiled at him, how much she loved him.
One early evening in that warm March David and his mom drove downtown to the ice cream shop. They sat at the outside picnic tables in the warm evening and shared a banana split. David had signed up for soccer and was thinking of joining the choir. On the way home, a truck came through a stop sign and hit the passenger side of their car and David was killed.