Chapter 8: Paper and Clay
Chapter 6: Momma

Chapter 7: Purloining the Light

"...and it's just a box of rain I don't know who put it there, mumble mumble if you need it or leave it if you dare, and it's just a box of rain or a mumble mumble for your hair, such a long, long time to be gone and a mumble mumble mumble be there... and it's just a box of rain..."

"Stop it! Margaret, I can't think!"

"You wanted to know how I got a Supernova in a box and I'm telling you how I got a Supernova in a box."

"You know, Margaret, track 1 on the flip side of that album is 'Ripple'. Why don't you try that one? Stoned is stoned, Woman, and you are blitzed. At least switch it up a bit."

"Ripple got nothing to do with a Supernova in a box."

"And Box of Rain does?"

"Yuppers. What do you think about unlocking the dispensary again? I'm thinking about those lemony chewie things."

"That's you with the munchies, Maggie; won't help."

"Twinkie?"

"Absolutely not. Until Christie gets tired of this Rumpelstiltskin bullshit, you're off the hallucinogens." 

"You know, some people can't be pleased. If you were to waltz into my lab and randomly announce that I was a Supernova, I might be kind of excited. Definitely excited."

"Well, you're not, Margaret. What you are is a larcenist, a purloiner of other people's stuff squirreled away for personal use."

"Coop. You think very poorly of me right now, but I know you know I had the very best intentions."

"Stealing a piece of ART, Margaret, art, from the Cooper Hewitt collection, of all things. I can't begin to imagine where your head was."

"My head’s been thinking about Supernovae, Coop. Do you think Dr. Evans might let us out?"

"Not if he wants to keep wearing his skin." 

*

Cooper Anderson's 7 am meeting was hijacked by Margaret and Dr. Evans. Christie refused to leave the eighth floor. They left her curled up on the glass floor singing to her children. She’d stopped speaking to them, other than to tell Margaret not to bother with the blanket she was thinking about retrieving from the lab; she didn’t want it. 

Margaret got the blanket from the lab anyway. She took it down to Coop's conference room. Hotel AO was wherever you put your head down, so long as it wasn't the hospital suite. That was for containing blunders.

Dr. Evans pushed a chair against a window, reclined all the way back, and tried to hear the stars sing. Christie always said the stars sang but nobody was listening. He was listening. Right now, Fourth Frank was listening with all his might. He would have wept if he thought it might help. 

But not his beloved lab rat; she was curled up under the table near the hot seats. Wrapped up in that blanket like she was back in her own bed. Interesting thought. Did Margaret own a bed or did she just sleep on a futon or something. Not particularly romantic, that one, although, this behavior with Christie was a little out of character.

He didn't sleep. He alternated between watching the stars and tracking the second hand on that unbelievably stupid analog clock. The clocks had been a very bad idea. He should have confronted Dr. Webb about them earlier. Dr. Evans decided to work on an incantation that might bring Laura and the kids through that door before 7 am. Instead, he managed to create a minor traffic event two intersections from their home that brought them in twenty minutes late. Didn’t have his head in the game this morning.

Cooper Anderson was punctual; it went with his Men in Black outfit. Somehow finding Margaret sacked out on the floor and Evans with the right side of his face suctioned to the window with a thick film of drool seemed appropriate. Where else would they be? He cleared the whiteboard of Margaret's ineffectual attempt to derail his witch hunt and listed seven names:

  1. Frank Evans
  2. Margaret Abegg
  3. Laura Franklin
  4. Samantha Blue Franklin
  5. Jeffry (?) Franklin
  6. Marty the Analyst
  7. CHRISTIE the Acronym

The dried drool suction cup let go with a pop! Frank collided with the radiator, sat up, and checked the clock. “Coop! Coffee, Coop! We need the coffee now, Coop!"

Coop just shrugged. "Hey, that assignment went to Christie. Coffee and donuts, remember?"

Frank stood up and slipped into the white coat, clearly indicating that the wearer was one Dr. Frank J. Evans. Dr. Evans cleared his throat and approached the lab rat. He wished he had a stick. She'd bitten him once. Margaret had very sharp teeth. He cleared his throat, toed her ribs, and jumped back.

Margaret sat up screaming and slammed her head into the table. Dr. Evans was already up against the wall. "There! That is exactly why I don't get anywhere near your hands or mouth!" He left Margaret to clean up her face and went to see about breakfast.

"Listen, Coop, the likelihood of Christie showing up with coffee and donuts is zero to none. We've been up most of the night, and as committed as we are to enthusiastically participating in your personal witch hunt, we're not going to perform well without coffee, water, and food. In that order."

Cooper threw his bag on the table, "FINE! I will PERSONALLY fetch your coffee and calories. Pretty sure you can wrangle up your own water. If the Franklin crew shows up before I get back, glue them to those seats, the ones over there." Coop had no idea where to find breakfast, this was going to take a while. Margaret trotted down the hall to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee.

*

At 7:20, Laura marched two children and one bewildered analyst into the conference room. She dropped an oversized diaper bag on the table. "Not a word, Frank. Not one word." Frank eyed the oversized bag with reasonable suspicion.

"It’s the Mommy Bag! Isn’t it?” Laura didn’t look at him. “Could you put that on pause until Margaret comes back with coffee? Don't want you to have to repack and start again." He didn’t think she’d heard him; too busy trying to work out which zipper to open first, but a peanut butter sandwich smacked his face and burst on impact. Sam gave her mother a nudge, took possession of the bag, and sorted the contents onto the table.

Sam made three piles: Toys, Books, and Blankets; Breakfast, Snacks, and Lunch; Paper towels, Wet wipes, and Children's Tylenol. From the bottom of the bag, she removed an unopened bottle of vodka, thought a minute, and sat it next to the Tylenol. Sam asked Jeffry to take everything from the toy pile to the northeast corner of the room.

Once inventoried, food and juice went back in the bag which followed Jeffry to the toy corner. "Do NOT open this until I tell you to open it, got it, buster?" Jeffry did the usual. Up down left right. "I mean it, Jeffry." The rest, she left on the table. 

"Hey! Guys! Did you know the vending machines down here take debit cards? They didn't used to take debit cards!" Margaret dumped at least a quarter of the vending machine inventory on the table and ran back for the coffee.

Dr. Evans asked Laura and Sam to sit down. "We need to bring you up to speed on something. Sam, this shouldn't matter as much to you, but your mom is part of this team, and this team made a couple of mistakes."

Margaret was back in the room.

*

"A couple of mistakes. Is that what you call it? Laura, we didn't make a couple of mistakes; we made some choices. Some of those choices may have produced less than desirable results, but we really can't say for sure. Not yet."

Dr. Evans was grinding his teeth and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Margaret. Whatever. We fucked up, OK? Even if everything turns up roses, we still fucked up and we still have to tell Laura."

"I wasn't suggesting we not tell Laura. We agreed to tell Laura. I was suggesting we consider the message."

"OK. The message is this. Laura, Margaret made a box in which she locked up a Supernova. We gave it an acronym that fit the current project, in as much as we understood the current project at the time. The box was NOT supposed to be activated but there was an event. I'll get to that later. Maybe."

"You put a Supernova in a box. Maybe Supernovae are a lot smaller than advertised."

"Laura, don’t be a dick. Asshole behavior isn’t sanctioned before noon in this building."

"Fine. Somehow you managed to convince a Supernova to get into a box, and then what?"

Frank was starting to look like a ferret. "You know what? That's the part we haven't talked about. Margaret, you did have to convince her to get in the box. No way you could have stuffed her in there by yourself. Even if you could, she wouldn't have allowed it. So, Margaret. What did you do?"

"I tricked her."

"You tricked her. You tricked our Christie into getting in your box?"

"WAIT! Where's Christie?!"

"Doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does."

"Shut it. It can matter later. MARGARET! How did you trick Christie into the box?"

*

Margaret was on 91st Street, somewhere between 5th and Madison, looking for the Museum of Natural History. It was drizzling and crowded and all she wanted to do was visit the Woolly Mammoth, get on the train and back to her nice, safe, Connecticut Bed & Breakfast. She was distracted by a large pre-war building on the north side of the street, and decided it was worth crossing against traffic.

She thought she was entering the lobby of a very fabulous hotel and could have a glass of wine at the bar before resuming her search for the Woolly Mammoth. She was in deep before she came to two conclusions: 1. there is no bar; 2. this is not a hotel. She was on her way out when she saw the light. It was coming from one of the larger rooms and something wasn’t right.

Margaret understood she was looking at multiple light installations; different artists in a mixed media sort of room, but that didn't explain the oddness. There was something off about the light. Most of the human population wouldn’t notice, but Margaret had been studying light since she was five. Something in here was different.

In 1968 a guy named Chuck Prentiss made a box out of sheets of stainless steel and a one-way mirror. The rest of the placard wasn’t of interest. She couldn't see inside, but there was a light, and she could hear a motor. Whatever Mr. Prentiss made was a lot more than a 'kinetic light sculpture'. She accepted 'kinetic' and 'sculpture', but his use of the word 'light' was misleading. The light emanating from this thing was running on its own juice.

Margaret stopped thinking. She unplugged the box, snatched it from its podium, and sprinted toward the exit. Still running when she hit the sidewalk, Margaret opened the passenger door of a taxi that was just pulling away from the curb. She mumbled “sorry” at the kid she’d shoved to the other side of the bench and yelled “GRAND CENTRAL, NOW!” The box was crammed into her bag and stashed on the floor before the driver pulled onto the 79th Street Transverse.

She caught an early train on the New Haven line, missing the first wave of chaos by twelve minutes.  For the next hour, Margaret managed to keep a row of three seats to herself. She sat in the middle with a mess of crap piled on the outside and her actual stuff by the window. She peeped into the bag every couple of minutes to make sure it was still there. She was afraid the light would fade. Unplugged, it might have been a shiny black box and nothing more, but the light hadn't changed, and the motor was redundant. 

Margaret spent a solid year trying to pry the thing open. The screws were cosmetic, every one of them. She learned a lot in the process, none of it productive.

The night she broke the box open was devastating. She had not, for one second, considered that the light might leave when she opened the box. It shot out of the open box like a caged demon and didn't look back. Now she had an empty box that could contain light but had gone dark. Margaret was after the light, not the box. The box got tossed in a corner until Margaret got wind of the Supernova. 

*

Christie and Coop walked in together. Coop was lugging two large shopping bags, one of which appeared to be leaking. Christie was a lit fuse. " I'm not going to continue my witch hunt today, am I?"

"No, Coop, you are not. Why don't you go ahead and unload the bags and then take a seat; away from those people if you've got any sense." Coop unloaded breakfast next to a very large bottle of vodka and took a seat nearest the podium. Just in case. He thought he'd practice being invisible for a while. His last performance review suggested he might as well throw the towel in; too big, too noisy, and too goddam opinionated. 

While Frank and Margaret rushed the food, Laura regarded Christie with a mixture of morbid curiosity and compassion. She couldn't remember when she'd worked out the CHRISTIE acronym, but it didn’t have any relevance to the current project.

She thought it odd that while Christie’s facial expression and body language suggested a close relation to Idi Amin, Frank and Margaret were a rolling food fest, oblivious to anything other than bagels, bacon, and cream cheese in assorted colors.

"They're just scared, Laura. They're not stupid, they're not cold, unfeeling people, they're just scared."

"But you look like you're going to rip their lungs out."

"That's because I am ready to rip their lungs out. I don't think I will though."

"What will you do?"

"Not sure. If I didn't love Margaret, this would be so much easier."

"You don't love Frank?"

"I like Frank. I admire Frank. I've seriously considered attempting the sex thing with Frank. But I don't love Frank. I love Margaret...and before you speak, I am fully aware that I might feel a whole lot better if I jumped on the Frank wagon right now. I might also bite his head off like a Praying Mantis. I don't want to feel a whole lot better. Not yet."

"Do you know what you want?"

"Not really. I'm confused and upset and I'm having trouble separating emotion from truth."

"Welcome to the human race, Christie.”

*

At a Delta Holdings Christmas party, well before the AO dream, Dr. Webb gave Margaret a weather station. She put it on a shelf in the lab where it collected dust and the echoes of her frustration. Frank ignored it completely.

While the field of nanotechnology wasn't new, it wasn't really getting anywhere either. Lots of funding, lots of research, lots of papers chock full of contradictory hypotheses. Margaret wasn't sure how she managed to land herself on the scientific treadmill to nowhere, but here she was. She had a hard time falling asleep, a harder time getting up in the morning, and a much harder time caring about any of it. 

Most of her Postdoc work was related to nanotechnology because that's where the fellowships were. Her original thesis, which had very little to do with nanotechnology, was about light. She presented, defended, and was awarded a PhD of little value. She got herself a supersized MD specializing in neurosurgery. She didn’t expect to use it, but it looked good on her CV.

She got back on the nanotech track and continued her Postdoc work for lack of anything better, and despite the nature and content of the only thesis she presented, she was awarded one fellowship after another. In six years, Margaret moved four times. She was numb when Delta Holdings reached out. They offered real money, which fellowships did not, and maybe, she thought, I'll have time to do a little something on the side. It took two years for that little something to present itself. 

Before mid-winter, Margaret had forgotten the box. She walked by the shelf several times a day and even retrieved a box three feet to its right. It looked like all the other boxes she didn’t need just now. When she and the wanted box reached the floor, the lights flickered, and she heard a low hum.

Sometimes the weather coming off lake Michigan had a weird effect on the lab. Frank called it the ‘lab lake effect’. Flickering lights came with Meteorological tsunamis but humming wasn’t on the list of things to ignore. Unless you were Margaret who ignored most things outside the immediate scope of work in process.

She didn’t return the box at the end of the night, but she did trip over the stepladder. Lying on the floor in a dark room was a relief; Margaret was still for the first time that day and when she was breathing, she could hear. From the shelf, perfectly tuned to the key of G, came half and quarter notes followed by a slow clear whole note. She hummed the repeating phrase until it jumped to the other side of the universe and repeated the same in E. Her voice cackled at her…as if she would ever hit a note in that range. She giggled and the humming stopped.

Margaret waited for more, but the room was quiet. When she got up and started to put the ladder away something on the shelf lost its shit. Anyone else on the team would have slammed the door and sprinted for the elevator.

Margaret looked up and saw a rectangular green disco light bouncing on the shelf abut three feet from where she’d been precariously balanced in the morning. The cacophony increased in intensity and Margaret stomped her foot.

“Stop that! Seriously, you’re being ridiculous!”

The box produced a pale violet light and a low rumble that might have been an apology.

“OK, just wait a minute. I’m coming.” She got the ladder off the floor and positioned it somewhere in the vicinity of the box which scooted itself to the ladder.

“Tweeeee!”

“Yes, ‘Twee’, whatever, just sit still please.”

She set the box at her workstation and pulled up a stool and was rewarded with another whole note in G. “That’s very nice, but why not A? What’s wrong with D?” The box produced both, a little wobbly on the A. And this is when Margaret came just a little bit unhinged.

Margaret Abegg, it’s past midnight and you’re sitting on a stool talking to a weather station. It might be appropriate to leave the building and go home now.

She slid off the stool, spotted her bag, and headed for the exit. The damn thing ran up and down the scales and started on Octaves. Margaret turned around, took a seat on the stool, and rolled her eyes.

“So, you can play scales and some half assed octaves; but you're essentially rain in a box. What am I supposed to do with you?" What looked like a cloudy glass box with dripping condensation shifted like the weather in New England. The box produced a burst of hot light and all the moisture in the sealed box evaporated. The box sighed. Wind, probably.

The light started to dim, clouds formed at the top of the box, and the condensation made a rain forest. 

The box settled down and played a tune from her childhood; Au Clair de la Lune, something she’d mastered at three but never forgot. It played phrase A twice, and then B, and A again and stopped. Very slowly, it repeated phrase A twice… and waited.

“Ma chandelle est morte, Je n'ai plus de feu”

The box finished the last phrase and produced the distinct sound of clapping.

“OK, that’s lovely and I’m sure we can do it again, after I’ve gone home for a nap. OK?”

“Blink”

The box sat on her desk and hummed. If she left the room, it went quiet. She could hear it peter out as she crossed the threshold. When she returned, it sang. The singing that stopped when she left and began again when she returned, filled an old wound with light, warm and generous.

When she joined the AO team and moved to the new building, she moved it personally, wrapped in a towel on her lap. She drove from Chicago to the new office because she didn't believe she could get it through security and wasn't willing to leave it in checked baggage. It was the first thing she set at her workstation, the second was the full-size violin to replace the quarter and half sizes she played until she quit. It remained silent for the first week.

Margaret talked to it. She pulled out the violin and played the first two phrases of Au Clair de la Lune. As if to spite the task lighting, it remained dark and cloudy but didn't bother to produce a storm. She wondered if she'd inadvertently killed it, but continued to speak softly, as she knew she should.

One day, Margaret looked at the weather station and whispered, “I know I’m supposed to be focused on nanotech, but I was kind of hoping I could start playing with the light again, do know what I mean?”

The weather station lit up and played four phrases of a fiddle tune she’d never heard; and then repeated the first. Question, response... "you're waiting for the next phrase, aren't you? You want the answer." The box blinked once, like a sun peeking out from behind a cloud. "You know I don't play the fiddle, right? I'm a classically trained violinist; this is not news to you. I also don't play by ear so if you want to get a thing going, I'll need the music."

"Whonk”

"Well, that's novel. Is that your way of telling me you’re not happy with my response?

"Blink."

"Listen, if you’d like to cough up some sheet music, I’m happy to play along. No guarantees on how I’m supposed to handle the bow."

The box went dark.

"Shit! OK, just go slow, alright? This is going to take me a while.”

"Blink."

In the morning, the box played the tune all the way through and the app on Margaret’s phone returned ‘Mairi’s Wedding’. “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

Margaret played and sang with the box for over a year. It never occurred to her that the box was trying to have a conversation that went beyond AABA tunes.

One day the box went dark as she’d ever seen it. A dim violet light floated to the surface of a black sea held in place by desk size weather station. The violet light got a little brighter and stretched toward the walls of the box. For no good reason, Margaret shaded her eyes. As her hand came to her face, the light ball exploded and the box shattered, bathing the lab in a pale violet light.

For the first time since middle school, Margaret truly cried. The box was gone; replaced with a blackhole of approximately the same size, hovering six inches off her desk. Her sense of loss was way out of proportion. It was just a box! The light was something else entirely, and that black hole had to go before it sucked her lab into oblivion. She got up and locked the door, aware that the appropriate response would have been to evacuate the building. 

The light didn't have a focal point, it just was. There wasn't anything to look at or address; it was just there, painting the room in various shades of purple. Margaret sat with her back to the black hole and waited. There had to be more than just a room full of violet light because that box was so much more. 

The tones were so soft, she didn't notice right away. She may have been waiting on the light, but her attention was on her grief. She let go of the light for a bit and let herself cry. When the last sniffle was deposited into a tissue, Margaret heard the light. It was singing. Not like the box; this tune was made of shifting layers, one over the next, like a choir of purple light. She closed her eyes and forced herself to count to thirty; thirty slow breaths, inhale, exhale and come back to the room.

The lab was still bathed in violet, but when she opened her eyes, there was a small purple globe hovering in front of her, waiting for a conversation to begin. She was distracted by movement in the room and looked up. The violet light was no longer the main attraction. It had become a backdrop for something too bright to see with her eyes. She closed them again, and this time the lab was gone.

The singing was louder, more complex, with something new. More voices, maybe. Without opening her eyes, she looked at the room which wasn't a room. Margaret was inside a ball of white lights, blinking, singing, and bouncing off each other. She heard the purple ball speak without words. It said it was a star, just like any other star, but not something Margaret should forget. The lights made her think of dust motes. "Yes, that too", said a mother of stardust.

"We're going now, but you are not. Just now, in your time, you are 93% stardust. The missing 7% is closer than you think. Step lightly and with care."

And just like that, the lab was a lab, the blackhole was gone, and the room was without a single star. Except me, thought Margaret. I'm still here. 

She found the shattered weather box under her desk; reduced to inanimate bits of glass and plastic, and bone dry. It even smelled sterile, which prompted another twenty seconds of sobbing. Scientists cry about contaminated evidence, a hypothesis gone south; they do not, Margaret, cry about broken toys. She picked up the pieces and laid them out on her desk. There wasn't a damn thing she could do. She blinked and blinked again. The remains of the box blinked. "You bastard! You're still in there and you let me cry!" If the box could have mustered a 'Whonk’, it would have, but it really was at end of life, and she knew. Margaret decided she'd sit dying box hospice, dead box Shiva, and follow it up with a proper box burial.

The box was dark and silent long enough that Margaret started to stand. She paused halfway up and watched the last of the light come back. The purpose of the light, she decided, was to illuminate the moisture that had returned to parts of the glass. The moisture in the box is a truth, Margaret. It's a truth you're going to have to work out on your own. The box blinked one more time and the light was gone; every bit of it. The light in Margaret's lab was just light, overhead fluorescent, surgical spots, and the occasional presence of daylight.

A year later, she still failed to grasp the relationship between the weather station, the purloined museum box that refused to be opened, and what sure as shit appeared to have been a Supernova birthing a gazillion stars into a galaxy momentarily contained in her lab. It wasn't until the purloined light box opened that she made the connection, which drove the business of catching a star. 

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)