If you've read many of these blogs, you'll know that I have a fascination with physics, especially as it pertains to Einstein's theories and quantum mechanics. As a result of that fascination, I sat down a few years ago and wrote this short story, which was subsequently published in The Banyan Review. It's a bit longer than most of my postings. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.Shortly before his eleventh birthday, Mitch learned that his parents didn’t love each other anymore. Sixteen months later he was living in a tiny apartment, the only good change in his life a beagle puppy given to him as compensation for all the upheaval. Then on a rare evening when his mother and stepfather were both at home, he was on the kitchen linoleum playing tug-of-war with the dog. Suddenly Dill released the dishrag stretched taut between them and fell to her side.
“Get up, little girl,” Mitch said.
He stroked the puppy’s muzzle and looked at his mother. Candace was still dressed in one of the tight skirts and revealing blouses she wore selling mutual funds to old geezers. She set out plates and cartons of Chinese food, letting the dishes clatter as they hit the table.
“Stop playing with that dog and come eat,” she said.
“But Mom, look.”
Her gaze fell upon the trembling puppy and she whispered, “Oh, my.”
Mitch saw the alarm in his mother’s face and sprinted across the kitchen. He grabbed his stepfather’s shoulder and turned him from the pile of medical journals that seemed always to reside on their dinner table. In view of Dill’s torment, Mitch would do anything to help her, even speak to the new man in his mom’s life.
“You got to do something,” he said.
Frank didn’t rise or even push himself away from the table. He rubbed his overworked eyes and said, “She’s having a seizure.”
“What should we do?”
The man yawned. “She hasn’t eaten anything unusual, has she?”
“No, I make sure of that.”
“Has she been off her food?”
“She eats everything I set out.”
Frank dismissed the problem with a shrug. “As seizures go, it’s not a bad one. Let her ride it out. We’ll take her back to the breeder next chance we get.”
“Take her back?”
Mitch felt dizzy with the prospect of losing Dill. He adored everything about the dog, from her floppy ears to her happy feet. Now that they’d moved to Oregon, she was his constant and only companion.
“I think what Frank means,” his mother said, “is we might exchange her for another puppy—one that’s healthy. Isn’t that right?”
Frank raised his shoulders again.
“No,” Mitch said, wondering if his mom was voicing the adult solution to all problems. “We’re not trading her in. That’s what you do to an old truck—not to things you love.”
During the silence that followed, the puppy rolled to her chest and her eyes gained awareness. Mitch gathered Dill into his arms, saying she was fine—that maybe she’d only been joking—but his stepfather countered with cold logic and medical talk. A seizure, Frank told him, might be caused by a dozen different ailments, including liver disease and meningitis, brain tumors and encephalitis.
“The treatment will cost money and you have to ask yourself if the dog is worth it.”
Mitch clenched his fists. “I’ll call my dad, then,” he said. “He’ll pay for a doctor—a good one, too.”
“There’s no need for that.” Candace turned to Frank and her voice quieted. “We just dragged Mitch from the only home he’s ever known. Don’t make him give up the dog, too.”
Several days and another seizure later, Mitch and his mother visited an animal clinic where a lady veterinarian examined the dog. She said Dill’s spells were likely caused by epilepsy, then she drew blood to rule out other illnesses. While the doctor poked and prodded, looking for an enlarged liver or other symptom of disease, she told Mitch he could help the dog.
“Does she need one of my kidneys?” he asked.
The woman laughed. “Nothing that dramatic. Just keep track of her episodes and write down what you see.”
“Like how much she shakes—that kind of stuff?”
“Exactly. Include the time each spell occurs and any special circumstances. That’ll help me decide what medicine to give her.”
“Medicine? You can make her better?”
“I’ll have to check today’s test results, but there’s a good chance you two can be friends for a long time to come.”
Candace agreed to return early the following month and Mitch left the clinic as if on wings. He wanted to soar home and tell Frank about the visit, in part to say, “I told you so,” but also to hear the man’s reply. His stepfather was, after all, an intern at a Portland hospital and his opinion meant something.
But Frank offered no medical advice or support of the vet’s diagnosis. All he said was: “I don’t understand why you’d want a sick dog.”
There was no point in replying. For all his stepfather’s intelligence, the man didn’t see what it meant to be a boy—that once in a while you loved something weak, something that really needed your help.
Mitch felt a kinship to the weak things of the world, which explained his fondness for the comic book Quantum Master. The evening after his visit to the veterinarian’s office he retired to bed early, his nose in the newest issue. Before his gaze fell upon the final scene he was yearning to discuss the story’s hidden message and to speculate about its connection to the larger world, but that seemed impossible. All his buddies were back in Arizona.
He turned to Dill, who was lying beside him, and let her sniff the pages. “See this?” he asked, pointing to a drawing of Tommy Trifle, the comic’s young hero.
Mitch summarized the story’s genesis: Tommy Trifle, a research assistant at a secret NASA laboratory, was peering through a telescope one day, when he received a blast of radiation from a dwarf star. As a result he began to shrink, even as the star collapsed. After a few days no one could see him anymore. A week later even the lab equipment couldn’t detect his presence.
Mitch pointed to another Quantum Master panel that was full of strange objects floating in a dark void. “And just like that,” he said, “Tommy was in a world with extra dimensions—a world where time flowed back and forth. It was a strange place and a dangerous one, too.”
Dill sneezed, causing her whole body to shudder. She looked at Mitch and put a paw on his arm as if to ask for clarification.
“It was dangerous for a reason,” he said, and pointing to a caption, he read: “If chaos went by another name, it would be Dr. Discord.”
The doctor, Mitch explained, was once the world’s foremost particle physicist, but disillusioned with the military’s use of his work, he tried to end his life through exposure to the same cosmic radiation that had miniaturized Tommy Trifle. Failing in the attempt—but now small enough to influence the world on a subatomic level—Dr. Discord sought to end all existence.
Mitch closed the comic book and patted Dill on the head. “Do you see what’s going on?” he asked. “These two guys are battling it out and the world’s survival is at stake. Tommy’s doing his best to keep us safe, but no one even notices. He’s a hero, but his greatest wish is just to get back home.”
Frank was working a double shift at the hospital and Candace was entertaining a new client, when Dill had another spell. Mitch held the dog and sat on the living room couch. He buried his nose in her fur and took her scent into his lungs.
“You’re okay, little girl,” he said.
Suddenly the inexplicable happened. Mitch wasn’t in the room anymore, but in a strange world, like out of a Quantum Master comic. It was a dark place without distance in any direction. He couldn’t see, much less use, his arms or legs. In fact he didn’t seem to have a body at all. Frightened, he willed himself to move, but only managed to spin.
Mitch picked up speed trying to escape the blackness and lack of dimension, when he heard Dill bark. He couldn’t see her but knew she was with him, maybe even a part of him. Her presence gave him confidence and he sought new angles of rotation, looking for a passageway out of the world. Together they did summersaults and Dill howled as if chasing a squirrel.
Suddenly the dog barked a warning and Mitch sensed the presence of others. He stopped spinning and felt a new sensation, like hot breath on his skin. Though he still couldn’t hear or see, Mitch perceived the intruders’ thoughts.
“What are you doing here?” they asked.
Mitch didn’t have lips to speak, but he concentrated on the words: I don’t know.
“There is no redemption here,” they said, as if in reply.
In the next moment the world grew brilliant with orange light and Mitch woke with a chorus of voices still echoing among his thoughts. Dill licked his face and, as sensibility returned to him, he considered the last curious words he’d heard: “Behold, the worlds meet.”
A week later there was a knock at the door and Mitch’s father stood in the open courtyard. Randall was tall and tanned, all smiling eyes and swagger. He wore khaki pants and a button-down shirt that looked neatly pressed despite his long flight from Phoenix.
“I thought it would be pouring rain here,” he said.
Mitch wrapped his arms around his dad and said, “It usually is. But not now.”
Randall pointed to a cherry-red convertible parked in the street and suggested they take a ride. Mitch didn’t need a second invitation. He leaped into the rented Mustang and lifted Dill into his lap. They left with the top down and the dog raised her nose to the passing draft.
An hour later they were heading south along the coast, when a stretch of seashore beckoned to them. Randall pulled into a rest stop and grabbed a football out of the back seat. From the parking lot they walked down a steep trail to where curtains of sand raced and whirled at the foot of the bluff. Only a few people were on the beach and Mitch rejoiced at having his dad all to himself.
Randall kicked off his loafers and slapped the football twice. “Go long, Champ,” he said.
Mitch ran toward the water with Dill following. Where the sand grew damp and packed, he curled back and said, “Throw it, Dad.”
Randall waved him on. “Keep going.”
The boy turned again and Dill barked and nipped at his heels, her floppy ears trailing. Mitch was still running at an easy lope, when he looked over his shoulder and saw his father reach back and throw. The football came in a perfect spiral with hardly an arc in its path. Mitch accelerated forward, but the ball landed a dozen feet beyond him. It bounced several times before coming to rest and Dill leaped ahead to paw at it.
“I told you to go long,” Randall said, laughing.
The football was too big for Mitch to palm. He wrestled it away from Dill and tried to throw it back to his father, but it wobbled like an injured bird and landed less than half the distance between them. His dad laughed again and Mitch tried to smile. He retrieved the ball and ran it back, wondering if he would ever be as tall or strong as the man who’d given him life.
“This time run a post pattern,” Randall said.
Mitch nodded and ran all-out. Every wish of his life seemed small beside his desire to catch the ball. He counted ten steps forward, faked right and veered left. The ball was already in the air when he first glanced over his shoulder. He pleaded silently: Don’t let me drop it. Let me dance with my arms in the air and celebrate with my dad. But the ball came too fast. It stung his outstretched hands and careened away.
Mitch ran the ball back a second time and said he wasn’t feeling well. They found a place to sit and rested their backs against a driftwood log. Near the water a pair of gulls landed and Dill growled at them.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Randall said. “It’s good news.”
The words felt as warm as a favorite blanket and Mitch wondered if he would be going back to Arizona. Sometimes he dreamed of a perfect world, one with both parents under his roof, but if that wasn’t possible, he would choose to live in his hometown, not sharing an apartment with a stepfather.
“What news?” he asked.
“Do you remember Patti Ann from church? Well, we’re thinking about tying the knot—even talking about going to Vegas in a couple of weeks to seal the deal. I would take you, too, but you wouldn’t be much fun on the honeymoon.” Randall elbowed his son playfully.
“Patti Ann? Isn’t she the one with the boy?”
“That’s right. Landon plays shortstop on his little league team. He’s quite a fielder. Anyway, I thought you ought to know. You’re okay with that, right Champ?”
Mitch swallowed away a lump in his throat. “I guess.”
“Good.” He patted his boy on the leg and pointed to the parking lot. “I’m going to visit that restroom up there. We can play catch again when I get back.”
Mitch watched his father disappear up the slope and Dill began to shake in a way that was familiar to him now. He gathered the dog into his lap and kissed her head. In that instant he was in another world, one that was tunnel-like, but without height or width. Except for a dim glow at one end of the passageway, darkness surrounded him.
This time he wasn’t frightened. He quickly located Dill, who resembled a tiny spark of light. Together they advanced through the tunnel, gaining speed and rotation as they moved. He was like Tommy Trifle, ready to combat the forces of chaos. Mitch laughed from the thrill of it, until he sensed the presence of others and heard his dog growl.
“Why are you here?” said a chorus of beings. “There’s no redemption in this place.”
I don’t understand, Mitch thought. Suddenly he felt himself being whisked out of the world, but before he awoke, orange light filled one end of the tunnel and he heard the phrase: “Behold, the worlds meet.”
The morning his father was getting remarried, Mitch and his mother returned to the animal clinic with a record of Dill’s seizures. In a side room that smelled of cat fur and disinfectant, the veterinarian studied the handwritten notes and counted aloud the number of episodes that had occurred since their last visit.
“They seem to come every three or four days,” she said, looking at Mitch.
“And they usually happen when you two are alone.”
Candace put a hand on her boy’s shoulder. “Mitch is home by himself a lot. But he takes good care of the dog. There’s no doubt about that.”
“Oh, I know. I can tell from his notes. But look at this. Here’s a strange entry—and there’s another one just like it.”
The boy knew without looking what the doctor was talking about. He’d kept two of the entries sketchy, doubting anyone would believe his recollection of events: Me and Dill was just sitting there and it happened. It didn’t hurt us though.
“What did you mean by that?” the doctor asked.
“I don’t remember. Is that a problem?”
“No, we’ve got enough information here.” She jotted down a few notes on a clipboard and added, “I’m going to dispense phenobarbitone. It might make Dill sleepy, but I’ve had good success with it in cases like this.”
Mitch winced at the mention of side effects. “Does she really need it?”
“I think it’s best. You don’t want her to get sick again, do you?”
“But the spells don’t hurt her.”
“We don’t know that for sure. Besides, she has a bigger problem than discomfort or pain. Dill loses control when her episodes occur and that makes her vulnerable. Do you understand that?”
Mitch nodded, but his mind was far away. He was remembering the strange places he’d visited while Dill was having her seizures. Hadn’t they enjoyed their travels? Hadn’t they kept each other safe?
The phenobarbitone did make Dill sleepy and it saddened Mitch to see her listless. So after four days of counting pills, wrapping them in scraps of lunch meat and slipping them to his dog, he began to flush each morning’s dose of medicine down the toilet. He felt bad about the deception, but excited for reasons still unfolding in his head. Mitch wasn’t sure what he looked forward to more: Dill’s return to activity, or the seizures that would likely occur again.
Two spells came in as many days. The first took Mitch to a world with length and width, one he likened to the space between tightly rolled sheets of plastic wrap. Dill was there, too, looking like a glowing piece of thread. Together they traveled a zigzag course, spinning and shouting as they went. Prior to regaining consciousness, Mitch noticed sparks of orange light in the distance. The light spread across the horizon and a host of beings spoke the same words he’d heard before.
The next episode took them to a world similar to Mitch’s own. He saw Dill as she was, a small beagle pup. They came across a flowered meadow and ran through it, leaping and twirling. From the summit of a small hill Mitch cuddled his dog and rolled down the slope. Dill licked his face, then she looked up and barked. An orange sphere rose from a distant place. It was surrounded by glowing angels, who lifted their voices, saying, “There is no redemption here,” and, “Behold, the worlds meet.”
While Mitch read from the newest Quantum Master comic, he wondered if it would be the last issue he would ever share with Dill. Dr. Discord, according to the story, was seeding the world with tiny black holes that threatened to collapse the entire universe. The idea made Mitch shiver and he snuggled further into his bed. Surely, nothing could prevent disaster.
But Tommy Trifle didn’t accept defeat so lightly. He was like the little Dutch boy working frantically to plug a leaky dike. No sooner did he repair one corner of spacetime, when another black hole threatened to swallow everything in its reach. He was on the verge of losing hope, when he discovered a reservoir of anti-gravitons and unleashed them to neutralize gravity’s imbalance. Once more the world was safe, but Tommy felt no desire to celebrate. He’d only won another battle in what promised to be a long war.
Mitch put the comic book away and sighed, believing he knew how his hero longed for home.
“Dill,” he said. “If Tommy could return to normal size, do you think he would?”
The dog yawned in a way that ended with a soft whine.
“I think you’re right. He’s stuck, isn’t he? Tommy has to stay in the quantum world to uphold the laws of physics. If you think about it, he’s a hero and a prisoner at the same time.”
Dill wagged her tail and it beat a steady rhythm on the bed.
The phone rang late one evening, just as Mitch finished his homework and stood to get ready for bed. Candace picked up the receiver, saying it was probably Frank calling, but the chill in her voice suggested otherwise.
“Oh, hi,” she said.
Mitch could tell she wasn’t talking to Frank, or a client either. He guessed it was his father on the line and he hung around to listen.
“Business?” his mother said. “What business? Here in Portland?”
Mitch tugged on her sleeve. “Is it Dad?”
She nodded and put a finger to her lips. “No, I guess dinner would be okay, but what do you mean by everybody?”
There was so much Mitch wanted to tell his father. School had started a week ago and he still hadn’t made any friends. He would sit alone during lunch, wishing he was home with Dill or in Arizona with his buddies. Mitch had never felt so lonely. He needed to hear his father say that the world was good and events would work out for the best.
“Can I talk to him?” he asked.
Candace frowned and shook her head. “I don’t know, Randall. I’ll have to check with Frank, first.”
She hung up the phone and Mitch pouted. “Why didn’t you let me talk to him?”
“Your father had to go. Anyway, he’ll be in town on business and wants to meet us for dinner Friday.” She smiled and added, “He’s bringing his new bride—like any of us need that.”
“Patti Ann’s coming?”
Mitch wished he could spend the time alone with his dad. With the others tagging along, the conversation would turn to grownup topics and he knew what that meant. They would smile through clenched teeth and talk about the weather, but their real feelings wouldn’t emerge until later.
When did your mom start wearing that? Why can’t your dad just grow up?
On Friday the same thoughts were taking a lap in his head as Mitch opened the restaurant’s double doors. He spotted his father sitting at a table near the bar and yelled, “Dad!” but three pairs of eyes turned to him in reply. Not only was Patti Ann there, but Landon was, too. They were sipping drinks and swapping stories like characters in a Brady Bunch rerun. Mitch looked away and hoped his legs wouldn’t collapse.
His father came to him with open arms and Mitch allowed himself to be hugged. He stared at his new stepbrother and whispered, “You brought him?”
“Didn’t your mom tell you? I’m trying to mix business with a little pleasure here. You understand, right?”
Mitch didn’t have time to answer. Patti Ann was leaning toward him, planting a moist kiss on his forehead. Her eyes were the color of smoke and her breasts were pushed up to expose the deep hollow in between. “You’ve become a handsome young man,” she said. “How are you getting along here in Portland?”
Like a load of crap, he wanted to say. I’m hundreds of miles from home. My parents are divorced. I don’t have any friends. And you’ve taken my dad from me. But Mitch had been taught better than that. He wouldn’t raise his voice, or speak of the ugly feelings in his chest. Look at the bright side, he told himself. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
“I’ve got a dog named Dill,” he said. “She’s my best friend.”
Mitch might have cried then, but for the distracting events that followed. He tried to make sense of them, but each scene progressed to the next, like a cartoon played at high speed. Randall waved to the maitre d’, who ushered them to a window-side table overlooking the ocean. Waves pounded the rocks on shore. The sun bled into the sky. Mitch looked outside and thought: Behold, the worlds meet.
“I’m glad you could make it,” Randall said.
Candace waited as Frank drew a chair for her. “Wouldn’t have missed it,” she said.
No sooner had everyone been seated, when the waiter appeared with menus. Mitch asked for ginger ale and Landon grinned, saying he would prefer scotch on the rocks. Randall reached around his new wife and tousled the boy’s hair.
“Little chance of that, Champ,” he said.
Patti Ann giggled and turned to her son. “Behave yourself. Be more like Mitch over there.”
Everyone laughed—everyone except Mitch. He was too busy thinking: I’m Champ. That’s what my dad calls me.
“Well,” Patti Ann said. “Isn’t this nice?”
“Uh huh.” Frank studied the menu as if it were a body prepared for surgery. “They’ve got quite a wine list here.”
“That’s not what I meant, Silly. I was talking about us. Look at how we’re all getting along. Aren’t we just one big happy family?”
That night Mitch was lying in bed, trying to forget dinner, when he felt Dill shaking near his feet. He pulled her to his chin, and waited for the seizure to take them away. A moment later he was on the bank of a sparkling river, Dill by his side. The world was like his own, but it had a depth he couldn’t explain. His surroundings seemed to shimmer like the reflection on a lake.
They found shade under a cottonwood tree and Mitch lay back to be dazzled by its branches. The shimmering increased, until the whole tree seemed to flap like a tarp in the wind. Mitch wanted to see what was behind it and suddenly the surface peeled away as if it were an onion’s skin.
The tree continued to stand over him, but it had changed somehow. He willed more layers to be stripped away and realized that he was looking—no, traveling—into the past. The further he went, the smaller the tree became. It was a sapling, then a seedling, a fluffy seed, then it was nothing at all. He reversed the process and saw the tree’s future. It grew in size, until a great wind toppled it.
Mitch leaped up, eager to explore further. With Dill bounding ahead, he ran along the river, up hills, and across valleys. Everywhere they went the view twitched and shimmied and welcomed them into both past and future. After a while they came upon a large field, where winged angels hovered in the air.
“What are you doing here?” the beings asked.
“Please,” Mitch said. “Don’t send us home. We want to stay.”
The angels gestured toward the sky. “Behold, the worlds meet.”
A variety of orange objects descended. There were long strands of light and figures like out of a geometry book. As the objects touched down, people emerged. “There is redemption here,” the angels said.
The world had become a giant mural, and the visitors were peeling back its surface to step into the past. Where a man had once walked out of a bar and stumbled into his van, he remained sober and relived the scene. From there a chain of events glowed as if on fire and was suddenly transformed. A traffic accident was avoided. Lives were saved. Before long the world was throbbing with strings of light, adjustments to the tangled web of time.
Mitch was beginning to wonder if he could change his own past, when the living room of his boyhood home appeared. It was night and his parents were talking softly. Their voices seemed sad and empty.
“So, is this it?” his father asked. “Is being a wife so awful that you’ll give up on our dreams?”
Candace sighed. “They were your dreams, not mine. And no, being a wife wasn’t awful. It just never was enough.”
Mitch shut out their voices and thought of ways to end their talk of divorce. That’s when an idea occurred to him. He would walk into the past, pretending to be sick and in terrible pain. A week of that, he concluded, and his parents would forget their other problems. If that didn’t work, some other trick would. Here, it seemed, he had all the time in the world to put things right.
“I need to go with them, Dill,” he said. “You stay here, okay? Dill?”
Mitch turned and saw that his dog was a new-born puppy again, wet and blind, small enough to fit in his palm. He picked her up, knowing she was delicate and that he might injure her without proper care. The power to alter Dill’s future, he saw, was in his hands. Time moved forward and he watched her grow. She was wrestling with her littermates one second and playing tug-of-war with Mitch the next. They romped on the beach with Randall, and visited the animal clinic with Candace.
The next scene was unfamiliar to him. Morning had come and he let Dill outside. She bounded into the parking lot, sniffing oil spots and car tires in search of a place to relieve herself. Two boys stood at the open door with Mitch. They were sleepy eyed as if they’d spent the night there. A truck pulled into the parking lot, but Mitch wasn’t alarmed. Dill always came when called. “Come back, little girl,” he said.
But she didn’t hear. The dog had fallen to her side, quivering, and the boys’ screams came too late.
Sunlight trickled through Mitch’s window and he woke with Dill in his arms. He pulled the dog to him and said, “Are you okay?”
She stretched and yawned, before wriggling out of his grip and springing out of the room. Mitch wrapped himself in a bathrobe and followed. At the mouth of the hallway he saw Dill sitting in front of the door, wagging her tail as he drew near. He stopped and recalled the words he’d heard earlier: There is redemption here.
“No, Dill, not without me,” he said.
In the coat closet he found a leash and clipped it to Dill’s collar. They stepped outside and the dog tugged against the restraint. Mitch led her across the courtyard, thinking of the bad turns in his life, when he remembered Dill’s most recent seizure. It suggested he would make new friends and raised the possibility of mending his broken family, but what of its startling end? Was there a way to avoid that? He let various plans form in his head, but each scenario led him to an unsettling conclusion. After several minutes of reflection he thought: I would give up almost anything to have my family back, but not that.
Mitch cleaned up after his dog and led her back inside. He went to the kitchen, got the container of phenobarbitone and extracted two pills. From the refrigerator he found an old slice of bologna and wrapped it around the medicine. He called Dill to him and she came. The house was quiet. No one else was up.
“You got to eat this,” Mitch said, holding out the meat.
She sniffed it and sat. Her eyes were full of questions.
“Listen,” Mitch said. “Even if we could go back and put things right, you need to keep in mind what we saw—especially the last part. We don’t know when that’ll happen, do we?”
“And if I lost you, how would I ever get to where we were last night? How would I ever bring you back? That’s why you got to take the medicine. You got to.”
He offered the pills again and Dill wagged her tail. As she took the medicine, these words sounded in Mitch’s head once more: Behold, the worlds meet.