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The Tattered Fabric of the Universe

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When the bad days begin to outnumber the good, as Topher retreats from the tech, his office, the cramped reminder of their pathetically inadequate good intentions they now know as the world, she takes measures. In those early days she oversees his progress (his deterioration) but stays well away from him—and he's isolated himself so completely it's easy not to think of it as avoidance. She doesn't want to risk agitating him further, doesn't want to be the misstep that kicks loose the pebble and precedes the landslide. If she's honest with herself (and life, such as it is, gets so dull she's taken to stripping away her illusions simply to see how much she can endure), she doesn't want the confirmation that they're staggering under the same burden.

“He needs new clothes,” Dr. Saunders tells her one day, after the usual recitation of grim medical fact and a delicate hesitation. It takes her aback—the normalcy of the request, the realization that it had escaped her consideration—and something stops her from saying, 'He's about the same size as Oscar, isn't he?' and leaving it at that. Instead she nods and promises to take care of it.

Entering Topher's quarters, long since abandoned, she slips into the particular eerie stillness that's now the norm and to which she hopes she'll never become accustomed. The room smells of dust, though the only specks to be seen are those drifting through the candle's glow. It's messy as a child's room, not that she expected otherwise. The bed, folded in on itself and locked into place, has been pushed against the wall, but his pillow lies stranded on the floor. She stoops to pick it up. Clothes dangle from the ceiling as if parts of a mobile; a toaster tangled in its own cord sits disused in the corner. A shirt brushes against her cheek like a cobweb. She indulges in a memory of him as he was: infuriating, half the time, all his movements nervous, the air around him practically vibrating with intelligence. It's a ludicrous task, her attempting to determine which hideous pattern will most appeal to him, the genius whose intellect has crumbled under the weight of his responsibility. Or perhaps the absurdity lies in her belief that it will make a difference, that something so mundane could matter to any of them anymore.

In the end she navigates by touch, draping the trousers that are worn at the knees, the shirts that feel uncommonly soft, onto the bed. It's not a practical decision—they won't last long, but these were the ones he liked most. Once she's made her selections, she'll fold them in the light of her flickering candle and take them to him.

His fingers, they're like his thoughts, they get away from him. They splay, scattering over smooth stone, and tense on either side of the calvarium. He listens to his laugh go off like a string of firecrackers. Phrenology. One time he saw a nineteenth-century skull with regions mapped onto it in blobs and curves and wedges. Half an hour later in a hall, squeezing between the people, dodging their plodding conversation, he suddenly knew why he couldn't scoff: because it was Thror's Map and The Westlands. Even these people, in their total scientific ignorance, managed to see the mind for what it was: a fantastic realm.

(Somewhere in his brain, a voice, a chorus belting out the obvious: I have a big stone head in my lap. I am holding a big stone head.

These—the givens—are things he shouldn't have to waste his attention on. But too often now he loses track, forgets the room he's sitting in or the gravitational constant.)

His fingers swirl shapes and it goes back to being laughable. Primitive. Like believing the kid with the coolest lunchbox always had the best lunch. An ache, a strange arrhythmic pulse of pain, builds in his leg. It doesn't hurt at first—it's just interesting, and he surveys his pain like an unfamiliar landscape. Then all at once he can't wait to let it go, unloading the head from his lap with a shove. It makes an impressively loud noise, wobbles before settling on the floor.

He wiggles his toes.

The saddest part about lunch when he was a kid—the saddest part besides the cafeteria ladies' refusal to admit that what they called gravy was really snot from a mud monster—was all the stuff you didn't know wouldn't last. He still feels a pang of loss trying to remember the last drop of delicious sugar water he squeezed from a Squeezit. The last time he bit down on the plastic top that looked just a little like an alien spaceship because it always held a bead of juice. Most days he doesn't miss Squeezits—what he misses is having a chance to part with them. The last time that you do anything is kind of important.

“Topher.” Her voice is weirdly gentle. He's torn between thinking it's nice, the only sound that doesn't make him clamp his hands over his ears, and wanting to tell her it's a tragic misuse of her accent.

He looks up, losing another staring contest with the statue. “Hey.” He recognizes urgency in DeWitt's crisp steps, falters trying to find a way to match it. Watching him all the while, she touches—he fights a sympathetic wince—two of his books, nudging them over so she has space to sit. “Is it time?” he asks, and she shakes her head.

She says something too soft for him to catch and rests her hand on his shoulder. A feeling rises in him like a bubble, the impatience that accompanies a thought so brilliant you have to speak or risk losing that moment of illumination. Topher swabs his face with a handful of shirt and reaches to take her hand and lift it, place it on top of his head. “Pretend you feel something,” he says. “Shut your eyes if you have to.” She moves her hand through his hair.