The Death of Love Project
by Julie Day
Until today, I never gave dark matter much thought. I’ve been focused on only two things: keeping my children close and finishing what my wife, Kirsten, termed the Death of Love Project.
As an entomologist I was always the suspect parent. “Biology is for fuzzy thinkers,” I once heard Kirsten tell the kids. I pretended not to notice when Thelma and Little Jack nodded their heads in agreement. I pretended not to notice a lot of things, like the lack of toys in the backyard and the lack of friends as well. Instead, the playroom contained a whiteboard with formulas and diagrams sketched in blue and the words “What’s Important” hand-lettered by Kirsten along the top.
Before she left, the kids spent long hours with Kirsten, discussing mathematics and physics and the nature of the universe. Kirsten needed to share her thoughts with someone. Home-schooled, our children were her natural subjects.
“What’s important?” I protested the first time I noticed those words. “Come on, Kirsten. They need to play. Have a little fun.”
“They are having fun. Can’t you see how happy they look?”
I glanced over at the kids in the far corner of the playroom. It was filled with equipment from Kirsten’s lab days. “But—” I watched as the kids pried the back off of a spectrophotometer, getting ready, it seemed, to adjust the calibration. This wasn’t exactly what I meant. “But,” I tried again, “they need to be with other children. They need to spend less time with us.”
“With me, you mean?”
At just that moment, Thelma and Little Jack both looked up and smiled. Little Jack even waved. There was no denying it. The kids were happy, far happier than me. Did I really have better answers?
“I don’t want our babies getting trapped in a world full of mediocrity,” Kirsten pressed. “It’s going to be hard. They need to be prepared for what’s to come.”
What’s going to be so hard? That’s what I should have asked, but I didn’t say anything. Never mind observing the reality of Schrödinger’s cat—sometimes uncertainty is easier to bear.
Whatever else was between us, it was Kirsten who devoted almost every waking hour to those kids. Still, I was the parent who stayed, not Kirsten. God, elemental particles, never-ending love, even dark matter itself. It all requires faith. Somehow, Kirsten could never see that.
First thing this morning, Thelma and Little Jack accompanied me to my office. The same basic routine we’ve followed every weekend since Kirsten left.
The office is a small ten-by-ten room on the third floor of the Quentin Science Center. It has the usual institutional-green floor tiles and cement-gray walls. Not that any of that really stands out. The book shelves are everywhere and the floor is covered by all the detritus you’d expect from a man with five years of tenure and two years of off-specialty research.
Tenure means intellectual freedom. It’s not a license to become a crank. That’s what Kirsten used to tell me. But, as the University of Wisconsin declared to the world over a century ago, and as I quoted with painful regularity, “In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.” In my case the search for academic truth led me out of entomology and into a maze of astrophysics and climatology, or, as Kirsten re-christened it, the Death of Love Project. No matter what she called it, all my attention was focused on that single over-arching problem: how to end global warming.
Why did Kirsten, brilliant Kirsten, let herself get distracted by my ideas? In the end, of course, she didn’t. She left.
And the kids and I soldiered on. It was the kids, not Kirsten, who accompanied me to the lab on weekends. The kids who followed me up the stairs to my third floor office.
This Sunday, when I unlocked the office door, Thelma and Little Jack clambered into their usual spot underneath my desk. The desk, an oversized metal contraption custom ordered by Kirsten, was meant for two. It was pressed against the room’s lone window. From their hidey-hole in the giant footwell, one of the kids grabbed the dangling cord and pulled the office’s metal blinds shut. And for a handful of hours, I read and typed beneath the light of my desk lamp while Thelma and Little Jack worked on their own project. Of course, they kept the CD player on repeat the entire time, just that one damn track. Kirsten may have left, but her voice had been keeping us company on each step of this new journey.
Parental guilt can drive you to just about anything. Listening to Kirsten’s voice seemed the least I could do. After all, they’d ended up with the booby-prize of parenthood. They’d ended up with me.
It was just another Sunday in the office. And then the lights went out.
For a moment, as my eyes adjusted, the entire room disappeared.
“Thelma? Little Jack? You okay?” I called down to the space beneath my desk.
“Yes,” they both chorused. I felt one of them shift against my left leg.
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. When I opened them the room seemed filled with gray specters and the shadowy exoskeletons of oversized insects. Of course, I knew better. It was Sunday. We were sitting inside the Quentin Science Center, part of the University of Indiana’s Bloomington campus. We were home.
The darkness didn’t seem to bother the kids.
“It’s warm in here, Daddy. I can feel it,” Thelma crowed as though announcing the successful conclusion of a difficult experiment.
“Yeah, Dad,” Little Jack reiterated. “Warm. Just like Mommy said.”
“Why shouldn’t it be warm?” I replied more sharply than I’d intended. “After all, it is spring.” What did Kirsten have to do with the temperature? was the question I wasn’t willing to ask. Didn’t matter anyway. It wasn’t like she was anywhere nearby.
The dark might not bother Thelma and Little Jack, but it made me nervous. Besides the scuffling of the kids underneath my desk, I couldn’t hear another human sound. The steady drone of the ventilation system had died off with the lights. For all I knew, we were the only people still in the building.
The University of Indiana didn’t hire me to save the earth. They hired me to research the elimination of gypsy moth infestations. Still, over the last few years, I’d steadily accumulated all the necessary materials for my own work. My office shelves overflowed with titles such as The Feynman Lectures on Physics and Earth on Fire. The only personal effects were an “I heart science” coffee mug and a single picture of Thelma and Little Jack taken sometime last summer.
With the lights out, I couldn’t see any of it. I reached over and felt for the stack of journals resting on my desk: Nature, Science, Astronomy and Astrophysics, American Naturalist, the raw materials I used to refine my plan.
“Exploding planets? Destroying Venus?” Kirsten asked when I first explained my concept. “Fire and brimstone across the entire solar system? That’s not a plan, Jack. It’s chaos.”
“The earth is already in crash-and-burn mode,” I’d replied. “We’re like cockroaches, spreading across everything, scrambling toward our own destruction.”
“World-annihilating cockroaches? Really, Jack? I thought you liked bugs….”
“Kirsten,” I paused. I wanted her to understand. “If we can just move the earth back a few light-minutes, we can cool things enough to fix it. Adjust the tidal forces generated by Venus at the right moment and it all changes. Forget upper-atmosphere solar shades. Forget lunar orbital adjustments. I’ve finally figured out the right answer.”
“Listen to yourself, Jack. Light-minutes. Tidal forces. You’re an entomologist, not Super Physics Man. Do you even understand what you’re saying?”
“Kirsten, people aren’t going to change—”
“I know that,” she replied. “I really do.” Her face looked pale beneath the scattering of freckles. There was a sharp line running up between her eyebrows. I’d never seen her so tired. “Christ, Jack. Do you even care what I think?”
“Kirsten. This whole project—it’s about saving all of us.”
“Enough, okay? It’s enough.”
Later that night Kirsten took her car keys and not much else and drove away.
Even without Kirsten, the project didn’t stop and neither did the kids’ work. Thelma and Little Jack spent their weekends in my office devising their own experiments. “Accelerating electrons,” they told me. “Axion creation,” they tried again. “Trust us,” they finally said when I tried and failed to hide my confused expression. “We’re trying to help, Dad.”
As long as they seemed content, Thelma and Jack could play scientist all they wanted. Meanwhile, my time was taken up by my newly rechristened Salvation Project. I, not Kirsten, would be the one to name this crusade.
There were so many details. How to co-opt security networks? How to actually launch the missiles into space? And then there were the calculations themselves. What area of Venus’s surface should I aim for? What point in the planet’s orbit was best? Once I determined the ideal orbital position, we might have to wait almost a year for both planets to align correctly.
Before the electricity went out, this morning felt like any other. I continued with my calculations while, in the background, that CD played over and over again.
“I am going. I am going. I am going,” Kirsten’s voice kept repeating.
With the power off, at least Kirsten had shut up.
My chair creaked as I leaned forward toward the closed window shades. Never mind the kids’ complaints about the sunshine. We needed a little light.
“Don’t open the blinds, Daddy,” Thelma said from somewhere beneath my desk. “How many times do we have to tell you? The construct doesn’t work if you open the blinds.”
“Daddy,” Little Jack called up. “We’re not ready yet. We need to make sure we’ve arrived at the right location.”
“Okay.” I found myself agreeing just like I had every other time. Sunlight was such an easy sacrifice to make. I may have lost a wife, but Thelma and Jack had lost their mother.
Despite the dark, I could feel the kids’ excitement.
“See, Jack, Mommy was right,” Thelma said.
“The dark matter will keep us warm?” Jack responded.
“Thelma, I still don’t understand. Plants need—”
“Shhh, it’ll be okay.”
Sweat was beading under my arms. The room was getting hot. I kicked off my shoes, trying to cool down my sweltering feet.
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” Thelma said. “I don’t think it’ll get too much warmer. Technically, we’ve got it covered. Jack and I have been working on the heat generation aspect for weeks now.”
“Heat generation?” What was my older child talking about? Heat was the enemy. I spent almost every waking hour trying to find the right solution to what seemed like an insurmountable problem: how to cool things down. I’m an entomologist. I ought to be happy the insects will have their moment on this earth once we’re all gone. Somehow, I’m not.
The university’s back-up generators still hadn’t kicked in. I tried to remember the way out of the maze of corridors. It all felt like a confused muddle. If I grabbed the kids from their hidey-hole and just left, it would be hard to find our way in the dark. Meanwhile, Thelma was busy trying to explain something to me. It was as though my mind had been shut down along with the electricity. I just couldn’t understand what she was saying.
“You see, Daddy, we really don’t need the sun after all. That’s what Mommy was trying to tell us.”
“Right,” Little Jack confirmed. “Mommy’s message.”
“Her message was in between the words,” Thelma clarified. “That’s why it took me and Jack so long to translate everything. And then, of course, we had to build the construct. Mommy had an awful lot to say about the dark.”
“What?!” I didn’t want to talk about Kirsten. Not now, not in the middle of a blackout.
Besides the CD player, I had no idea what else the kids had scavenged from Kirsten’s old boxes and the various rooms of my lab. I thought they’d left the chemical bottles in the vent hoods alone. I’d told them to anyway.
Thelma was still talking. She was saying something about the moon, telling me she wasn’t sure if the moon was gone or if it was just on the other side of the earth.
“We didn’t know if we could transport it as well,” Jack chimed in. “Concentrating enough dark matter to manage the move was tricky.” He was silent for a moment. “A planet is a really big thing.”
“I bet we did it,” Thelma said, trying to sound encouraging. She never liked it when Jack was sad. “If there’s no sun, the moon won’t show up even if it’s in the sky. No reflected light. Right, Daddy?”
I stared down at my nonexistent hands. I could feel them resting in my lap. My sock-clad feet were still propped on a pulled-out desk drawer.
“I’m not sure, honey,” I replied. I’m an entomologist, not God. I’d spent years thinking about gypsy moths and caterpillars, infestations and reproductive cycles. I was a whiz at extracting virus phage from caterpillars, trying to find new ways to destroy the moths that kill so many trees. The gypsy moths have nothing on mankind. We are the world champion of tree killers. Really—what did I know about the universe?
“Dad, did you know we live in a desert? Not just us but the entire earth,” Little Jack said. He sounded impressed with his own knowledge, amazed at how much of the world he understood. “We used to, anyway.”
“Until five minutes ago,” Thelma chimed in, unable to stop herself from interjecting.
“Really?” I asked. I wished I’d paid more attention to astronomy. All this time I’d been busy saving the earth and I’d never made it past a few facts concerning Venus.
“Yeah,” Little Jack continued, clearly relishing his moment. “All the dark matter,” he pronounced the phrase carefully, “all the dark matter,” he repeated, “and all the stars are…” He paused, searching for the next word, before Thelma stepped into the breach.
“Concentrated in the middle of the Milky Way. That’s the name of our galaxy, you know.”
“Barren,” Thelma stated. “Our world is barren. Was barren. All the dark matter just passed straight through us. It wasn’t concentrated enough to provide any warmth.”
“Before we fixed everything,” Jack said. “Now we don’t even need the sun.”
What about the trees? I wanted to say. And the crickets? What about the ladybugs and the sunflowers? You love those, don’t you? “But,” I said instead, “it’s not so bad here, is it?”
“Right, that used to be true,” Thelma said. “And now that we’ve moved the earth closer to the center of the galaxy, it’ll be perfect. You’re not getting it, Dad.”
“Daddy,” Jack said. “You don’t have to worry. Mommy says lots of other planets here in the center are heated by dark matter. They have no sun at all.”
“This way we’ll be able to control the heat. Just like you always wanted,” Thelma concluded. “Open the blinds, Daddy.”
“But I never wanted the sun to disappear,” I muttered. I reached over my desk and felt along the front of the metal blinds with my right hand. Dust collected on my fingertips. The thin metal blinds rattled against each other as I searched. And then I found it—the cord. I wrapped my fingers around the string and pulled. I could feel the weight of all that metal as the blinds shuddered to the top.
“Ta-da,” Jack said.
It was dark outside even though it was only early afternoon. Still, there was enough light to see the shape of my desk and the looming bookshelves. The starlight seemed too bright. More than that, the stars didn’t look right. I couldn’t find the Big Dipper; and Venus, the morning star, was missing from her quadrant of the sky.
“We did that, Daddy,” Jack said. “With Mommy’s help.” He and Thelma had finally emerged from underneath the desk. I glanced over at the Jack-and-Thelma-sized shapes to my right, and then looked through the window and back toward the sky. Stars were everywhere, cold little pinpricks that pressed in from all sides. It’s like the three of us were living inside a Christmas tree, a Christmas tree somehow kept warm despite the missing sun.
“That, Daddy, is the Milky Way,” Thelma added, waving her arm toward all those tiny shards of light.
“I am going” was all Kirsten had said when she left five months ago. “I am going.” The kids had spent the last five months trying to decipher the message hidden in those three words. Eight letters of the alphabet, that’s all she had left behind. Or did Thelma and Little Jack get it right? Had Kirsten left instructions to her own Salvation Project somewhere in that short stretch of sound?
“The moon might still be out there,” Thelma murmured. I felt her shoulder pressing against my right arm. “Dad, did you know,” Thelma said, “the universe is more than eighty-three percent dark matter?”
“Thelma…” I started and then stopped. I had no idea what to say next.
“It was getting too hot, that’s what you kept saying,” Thelma said. She sounded irritated. I wasn’t responding with the enthusiasm she’d expected. “The earth was getting too hot. The sun wasn’t helping us.”
Something touched my leg. I jumped, and almost stumbled back, but whatever it was clung to my calf.
“Daddy, take it,” Jack said. He must have crawled back under the desk while Thelma and I were talking.
Suddenly, I recognized fingers—Jack’s fingers—around my leg.
“Here, Daddy.” Jack pressed something into my hands. It was squishy and smooth. I felt a long length of hard plastic near the top. It was a juice pouch. “Drink something. You’ll feel better.” He patted my leg. “Mommy will be here soon.”
That’s when I heard it: that noise coming from the hallway. Not footsteps. Heavier. It sounded like blocks of wood striking the floor. Blocks too heavy to lift for any length of time. Thud. Drag. Thud. Drag. The noise was getting closer.
“It’s her,” Thelma said.
Despite the darkness, I turned to face the doorway.
“Mommy!” Jack called out. One of his hands squeezed mine, perhaps in excitement.
There was no reply.
“Mommy, we followed your signal.” Jack said. His voice trembled a little, less certain.
To me, this silent creature in the hallway didn’t seem anything like Kirsten. Angry Kirsten or Happy Kirsten, she was the one who always took them for Chinese food. Kirsten, I believed, had loved these kids. Right now, though, wonton soup and bowls of steamed dumplings at Mr. Chee’s felt very far away, as did handwritten calculations in our bright yellow playroom.
“I’m here,” a woman’s voice said from somewhere just beyond the office door. It sounded exactly like that three-word recording of Kirsten’s. It even had the same crackling undertone, an artifact of the low-quality mike. “I’m here,” the woman said again.
Jack started forward. Jack who loved the feel of his mother’s arms, who buried his head in her neck as she kissed him goodnight. He was moving slowly, though. I could see the outline of his body in the alien starlight as he paused in front of me.
Thud went the shape on the other side of the door. The space in front of the entryway had darkened from night-sky to coal-mine black. It radiated bitter cold. Fear. I could feel it. The sweat running down my back and along my neck came from fear.
“Thelma, Jack, where are we?” I said, staring at the doorway.
A shape, perhaps human, perhaps the size of Kirsten, stepped forward from the door. Somehow, the darkness entering the room seemed textured. Different. Even in this shadowed space, I could tell it was entirely unlike the darkness of closed eyelids or even a clouded night sky. The shape was bad enough, but it had a scent as well. My lips wrinkled involuntarily. I could feel it on my tongue, a lingering hint of…something. The taste perfectly matched the quality of absence in the creature’s shape.
I wanted nothing more than to turn and run. But there was nowhere to go. We were trapped inside my office with only one way out.
“Mommy?” Jack said. I could see the outline of his body in front of me. He looked so small. Hope made him brave.
“I’m here,” the shape said again. The voice crackled on the word “here.”
Jack’s outline took another step forward.
Despite the darkness and the scent and the icy-cold air, I lunged forward. My left hand found the back of Jack’s head with its shaggy mop of hair. Then I was reaching with both hands, grabbing Jack’s shirt collar and his right shoulder. I tugged Jack backward toward the desk and the window and the CD player.
“I don’t —” Thelma started to say.
“I’m here,” the shape said, cutting across Thelma’s words. This time the crackling seemed even more pronounced.
Then even the dim light of the Milky Way disappeared. Thelma or Jack had closed the blinds. The sky and all those strange stars were hidden behind the metal slats. I heard the sound of cloth on cloth from somewhere behind me and the scuffing of retreating feet. Thelma and Jack had scrambled back beneath my desk.
“It’ll all be okay,” I said, more for something to say than any sense of confidence. A father should reassure his children. The scent seemed even closer than before.
“Daddy? We’ll try to go back. All right, Daddy?” Jack said. His voice sounded so small.
“It’ll be okay, Jack-Jack” Thelma replied, echoing my own words. “We just need to reverse the beam.”
The shape was right in front of me. I could feel the absence of heat. Gooseflesh rose along my neck. With the blinds closed, I couldn’t see it anymore. I felt something against my arm, perhaps a hand, perhaps fingers and skin and nails. It was hard to tell with all the darkness.
“Concentrate,” I heard Thelma say.
“Concentrate,” Little Jack repeated.
I hoped Thelma was holding his hand.
“Everything—” I began to say.
“Everything,” the crackling voice cut in.
Her hands burned against my skin as the signals for hot and cold misfired inside my body.
The blinds are closed, I reminded myself. Thelma and Jack can build their construct if the blinds are closed. They can guide us back.
“Everything,” the voice crackled, “will be all right.”
“It will be all right,” Thelma whispered from underneath my desk.
“Yes…” Little Jack said. The word sounded almost like a question.
“I think you can open the blinds now, Daddy,” Thelma cried out. “Open the blinds, Daddy.”
I wanted to do as she asked, but I could still feel the coldness pressing against me. I just need to have faith, I told myself. The Big Dipper and the moon, the sun and all those over-heating plants. They’re all waiting for us on the other side of my office window.
About the Author
Julie Day recently graduated from the Stonecoast M.F.A. program. During the day she writes IT documents as well as documents of the more fictional variety. Julie is the host of Small Beer Press’s occasional podcasting series. Some of her favorite things include gummy candies, loose teas and standing desks. You can find Julie online at http://www.stillwingingit.com.
“The Death of Love Project” © 2013 Julie Day