He surveyed his audience for disbelief and glazed eyes.
.“Don't worry,” Celestina told him, “after what we've seen this past week, we're still with you."
Even Barty seemed to be attentive, but Angel happily applied crayons to a coloring book and hummed softly to herself.
Tom believed that the girl had an intuitive understanding of the true complexity of the world, but she was only three, after all, and neither ready nor able to absorb the scientific theory that supported her intuition.
“All right. Well ... Jesuits are encouraged to pursue education in any subject that interests them, not theology alone. I was deeply interested in physics."
“Because of a certain awareness you've had since childhood,” Celestina said, recalling what he'd told her in San Francisco.
“Yes. More about that later, just let me make it clear that an interest in physics doesn't make me a physicist. Even if I were, I couldn't explain quantum mechanics in an hour or a year. Some say quantum theory is so weird that no one can fully understand all its implications. Some things proven in quantum experiments seem to defy common sense, and I'll lay out a few for you, just to give you the flavor. First, on the subatomic level, effect sometimes comes before cause. In other words, an event can happen before the reason for it ever occurs. Equally odd ... in an experiment with a human observer, subatomic particles behave differently from the way they behave when the experiment is unobserved while in progress and the results are examined only after the fact-which might suggest that human will, even subconsciously expressed, shapes reality."
He was simplifying and combining concepts, but he knew no other way to quickly give them a feel for the wonder, the enigma, the sheer spookiness of the world revealed by quantum mechanics.
“And how about this,” he continued. “Every point in the universe is directly connected to every other point, regardless of distance, so any point on Mars is, in some mysterious way, as close to me as is any of you. Which means it's possible for information-and objects, even people-to move instantly between here and London without wires or microwave transmission. In fact, between here and a distant star, instantly. We just haven't figured out how to make it happen. Indeed, on a deep structural level, every point in the universe is the same point. This interconnectedness is so complete that a great flock of birds taking flight in Tokyo, disturbing the air with their wings, contributes to weather changes in Chicago."
Angel looked up from her coloring book. “What about pigs?"
“What about them?” Tom asked.
“Can you throw a pig where you made the quarter go?"
“I'll get to that,” he promised.
“Wow!” she said.
“He doesn't mean he'll throw a pig,” Barty told her.
“He will, I bet,” said Angel, returning to her crayons.
“One of the fundamental things suggested by quantum mechanics,"
Tom proceeded, “is that an infinite number of realities exist, other worlds parallel to ours, which we can't see. For example ... worlds in which, because of the specific decisions and actions of certain people on both sides, Germany won the last great war. And other worlds in which the Union lost the Civil War. And worlds in which a nuclear war has already been fought between the U.S. and Soviets."
“Worlds,” ventured Jacob, “in which that oil-tank truck never stopped on the railroad tracks in Bakersfield, back in '60. So the train never crashed into it and those seventeen people never died."
This comment left Tom nonplussed. He could only imagine that Jacob had known someone who died in that crash-yet the twin's tone of voice and his expression seemed to suggest that a world without the Bakersfield train wreck would be a less convivial place than one that included it.
Without commenting, Tom continued: “And worlds just like ours-except that my parents never met, and I was never born. Worlds in which Wally was never shot because he was too unsure of himself or just too stupid to take Celestina to dinner that night or to ask her to marry him."
By now, all here assembled knew Celestina well enough that Tom's final example raised an affectionate laugh from the group.
“Even in an infinite number of worlds,” Wally objected, “there's no place I was that stupid."
Tom said, “Now I'm going to add a human touch and a spiritual spin to all this. When each of us comes to a point where he has to make a significant moral decision affecting the development of his character and the lives of others, and each time he makes the less wise choice, that's where I myself believe a new world splits off. When I make an immoral or just a foolish choice, another world is created in which I did the right thing, and in that world, I am redeemed for a while, given a chance to become a better version of the Tom Vanadium who lives on in the other world of the wrong choice. There are so many worlds with imperfect Tom Vanadiums, but always someplace ... someplace I'm moving steadily toward a state of grace."
“Each life,” Barty Lampion said, “is like our oak tree in the backyard but lots bigger. One trunk to start with, and then all the branches, millions of branches, and every branch is the same life going in a new direction."
Surprised, Tom leaned in his chair to look more directly at the blind boy. On the telephone, Celestina had mentioned only that Barty was a prodigy, which didn't quite explain the aptness of the oak-tree metaphor.
“And maybe,” said Agnes, caught up in the speculation, “when your life comes to an end in all those many branches, what you're finally judged on is the shape and the beauty of the tree."
“Making too many wrong choices,” Grace White said, “produces too many branches-a gnarled, twisted, ugly growth."
“Too few,” said Maria, “might mean you made an admirably small number of moral mistakes but also that you failed to take reasonable risks and didn't make full use of the gift of life."
“Ouch,” said Edom, and this earned him loving smiles from Maria, Agnes, and Barty.
Tom didn't understand Edom's comment or the smiles that it drew, but otherwise, he was impressed by the ease with which these people absorbed what he had said and by the imagination with which they began to expand upon his speculation. It was almost as though they had long known the shape of what he'd told them and that he was only filling in a few confirming details.
“Tom, a couple minutes ago,” Agnes said, “Celestina mentioned your. . . 'certain awareness.' Which is what exactly?"
“From childhood, I've had this ... awareness, this perception of an infinitely more complex reality than what my five basic senses reveal. A psychic claims to predict the future. I'm not a psychic. Whatever I am ... I'm able to feel a lot of the other possibilities inherent in any situation, to know they exist simultaneously with my reality, side by side, each world as real as mine. In my bones, in my blood-"
“You feel all the ways things are,” said Barty.
Tom looked at Celestina. “Prodigy, huh?"
Smiling, she said, “Gonna be especially momentous, this day."
“Yes, Barty,” Tom said. “I feel a depth to life, layers beyond layers. Sometimes it's ... scary. Mostly it inspires me. I can't see these other worlds, can't move between them. But with this quarter, I can prove that what I feel isn't my imagination.” He extracted a quarter from a jacket pocket, holding it between thumb and forefinger for all but Barty to see. “Angel?"
The girl looked up from her coloring book.
Tom said, “Do you like cheese?"
“Fish is brain food, but cheese tastes better."
“Have you ever eaten Swiss cheese?"
“Velveeta's best. “
“What's the first thing comes to your mind when you think of Swiss cheese?"
“Barty,” Tom said, “help me here."
“Holes,” Barty said.
“Oh, yeah, holes,” Angel agreed.
“Forget Barty's tree for a second and imagine that all these many worlds are like stacked slices of Swiss cheese. Through some holes, you can see only the next slice. Through others, you see through two or three or five slices before holes stop overlapping. There are little holes between stacked worlds, too, but they're constantly shifting, changing, second by second. And I can't see them, really, but I have an uncanny feel for them. Watch closely."
This time he didn't flip the quarter straight into the air. He tipped his hand, and with his thumb, he shot the coin toward Agnes.
At the midpoint of the table, directly under the chandelier, the flashing silvery disc turned through the air, turned, turned, turned out of this world into another.
A few gasps and exclamations. A sweet giggle and applause from Angel. The reactions were surprisingly mild.
“Usually, I throw out a bunch of hocus-pocus, flourishes and patter, to distract people, so they don't even realize that what they've seen was real. They think the midair disappearance is just a trick."
Everyone regarded him expectantly, as if there would be more magic, as if flipping a coin into another reality was something you saw every week or two on the Ed Sullivan Show, between the acrobats and the jugglers who could balance ten spinning plates on ten tall sticks simultaneously.
“Well,” Tom said, “those people who think it's just a trick generally react bigger than you folks, and you know it's real."
“What else can you do?” Maria asked, further astonishing him.
Abruptly, without a cannonade of thunder, without artillery strikes of lightning, the storm broke. As loud as marching armies, rain tramped across the roof.
As one, those around the table raised their eyes to the ceiling and smiled at the sound of the downpour. Barty, with patches over his empty sockets, also looked up with a smile.
Perplexed by their peculiar behavior, even slightly unnerved, Tom answered Maria's question. “I'm afraid there's nothing else I can do, nothing more of a fantastic nature."
“You did just fine, Tom, just fine,” Agnes said in a consoling tone that she might have used with a boy whose performance, at a piano recital, had been earnest but undistinguished. “We were all quite impressed."
She pushed her chair back from the table and got to her feet, and everyone followed her example.
Rising, Celestina said to Tom, “Last Tuesday night, we had to switch on the lawn sprinklers. This will be much better."
Looking toward the nearest window, where the wet night kissed the glass, he said, “Lawn sprinklers?"
The expectation with which Tom had been greeted on his arrival was as thin as the air at Himalayan heights compared to the rich stew of anticipation now aboil.
Holding hands, Barty and Angel led the adults into the kitchen, to the back door. This procession had a ceremonial quality that intrigued Tom, and by the time they stepped onto the porch, he was impatient to know why everyone-except he and Wally-was emotionally airborne, one degree of altitude below euphoria.
When all were gathered on the porch, lined up across the head of the steps and along the railing, in chill damp air that smelled faintly of ozone and less faintly of jasmine, Barty said, “Mr. Vanadium, your quarter trick is really cool. But here's something out of Heinlein."
Sliding one hand lightly along the railing, the boy quickly descended the short flight of steps and walked onto the soggy lawn, into the rain.
His mother, gently pushing Tom to the prime view point at the head of the stairs, seemed unconcerned about her child's venture into the storm.
Impressed by the sureness and swiftness with which the blind boy negotiated the steps and set off across the lawn, Tom didn't initially notice anything unusual about his stroll through the deluge.
The porch light wasn't on. No landscape lighting brightened the backyard. Barty was a gray shadow moving through darkness and through the darkling drizzle.
Beside Tom, Edom said, “Hard rain."
“August, 1931. Along the Huang He River in China. Three million seven hundred thousand people died in a great flood,” Edom said.
Tom didn't know what to make of this bit of information, so he said, “That's a lot."
Barty walked in a ruler-straight line from the porch toward the great oak.
“September 13, 1928. Lake Okeechobee, Florida. Two thousand people died in a flood."
“Not so bad, two thousand,” Tom heard himself say idiotically. “I mean, compared to nearly four million."
About ten feet from the trunk of the oak, Barty departed his straight route and began to circle the tree.
After just twenty-one days, the boy's adaptation to blindness was amazing but clearly the gathered audience stood in anticipation of something more remarkable than his unhalting progress and unerring sense of direction.
“September 27, 1962. Barcelona, Spain. A flood killed four hundred forty-five people."
Tom would have edged to his right, away from Edom, if Jacob hadn't flanked him. He remembered the odd comment that the more dour of the twins had made about the Bakersfield train wreck.
The enormous canopy of the oak didn't shelter the lawn beneath it. The leaves spooned the rain from the air, measuring it by the ounce, releasing it in thick drizzles instead of drop by drop.
Barty rounded the tree and returned to the porch. He climbed the steps and stood before Tom.
In spite of the gloom, the boy's miraculous accomplishment was evident: his clothes and hair were dry as though he'd worn a coat and hood.
Awed, dropping to one knee before Barty, Tom fingered the sleeve of the boy's shirt.
“I walked where the rain wasn't,” Barty said.
In fifty years, until Angel, Tom had found no other like himself and now a second in little more than a week. “I can't do what you did."
“I can't do the quarter,” Barty said. “Maybe we can teach each other."
“Maybe.” In truth, Tom didn't believe that any of this could be learned even by one adept taking instruction from another adept. They were born with the same special perception, but with different and strictly limited abilities to interact with the multiplicity of worlds that they could detect. He wasn't able to explain even to himself how he could send a coin or other small object Elsewhere; it was something he just felt, and each time that the coin vanished, the authenticity of the feeling was proved. He suspected that when Barty walked where the rain wasn't, the boy employed no conscious techniques; he simply decided to walk in a dry world while otherwise remaining in this wet one-and then he did. Woefully incomplete wizards, sorcerers with just a trick or two each, they had no secret tome of enchantments and spells to teach to an apprentice.
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