Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Grandfather Quartet – Part I: Special Relativity –

This week's post is by one of Nash's good English major friends, Robert. Hopefully we will get to read more of his stuff. And now, a little time traveling:

The Grandfather Quartet
– Part I: Special Relativity –

Margaret noticed that the sunrise that morning had been particularly beautiful as she watched it come up alongside the halcyon Arizona highway from the bus that she had been riding since early the previous afternoon. Though the night had been sleepless, Margaret wasn’t tired. She was prepared for her cross-country journey. She took the bus because, unlike the rest of the world, she wasn’t in a hurry – at least, not any more. She now planned to enjoy her old age and watching the forests and mountains of Appalachia, the flat plains of the Midwest, and the hideous beauty of the craggy mountains and deserts fly by as she rode home was the best way, according to her, to return to her humble Flagstaff home.

The bus, which was empty save her and the driver, came to a pit stop about an hour outside of Flagstaff and picked up a few passengers. She never noticed the other passengers; the way she had been taught it was rude to stare, so she didn’t bother to look at all. She was perfectly content with her own well being. Margaret, though now withering with old age, had at one time been a pretty girl: tall and thin like a beanstalk with wispy blonde hair that was so light it shimmered like the sun and, as her mother liked to say, was going to blind some lucky man someday. Of course, she looked different now. She was still tall and thin although old age had weighed down upon her posture and her hair was no longer a beautiful blonde, but a rainbow of grays that seemed to match her chilly demeanor. A lifetime devoted to the search of one missing person had had an effect on her perspective on life.

Theodore Hudson, a physics lab assistant who obtained his graduate degree from John Hopkins University in Washington DC and who worked in a West Virginia lab after World War II had disappeared shortly after the start of the Cold War, if in fact you could say that such a thing had a definite start. Margaret was only eight years old when Theodore disappeared and though there were almost no tinges of sadness concerning her father’s fate, it never seemed quite right. When Margaret made the decision to discover what had happened to him, only that discovery would stop her. Dissuasion was not a distinct possibility.

Though she made it a habit to ignore other passengers on the bus when possible, it became very difficult to show such indifference to the man who had sat right next to her. Of all the empty seats on the bus, his decision to take the one right next to her was just inconsiderate. After all, people need to preserve their personal space when possible.

Even worse, the man was drawing attention to himself by scoffing and gasping loudly at what he had read in the newspaper. Margaret kept up with the news and was not aware of anything particularly unusual that was happening. As such, she saw this man as quite a curiosity. The bus started moving again, having refueled, and the bus driver announced over the loudspeaker that they would be arriving in Flagstaff in just over an hour.

“Do you know what the date is?” asked the man incredulously in as faint southern drawl. “Do you know what year it is?” He wasn’t asking as if he didn’t know. His tone was matter-of-fact and exclamatory as if he had just made a great discovery that he felt necessary to confirm before announcing gleefully to the rest of the world.

“Well, I would say that it is indeed February 5th and the year is 2010,” said Margaret coldly. She just wanted to be left to her own business.

“Twenty-ten,” echoed the man. He turned his head back toward her, and opened his mouth as if he were about to speak. He hesitated momentarily, and then proclaimed “I bet that I can guess your name!” Margaret looked at the man skeptically. Of all the people to sit next to her on the bus, he was an eccentric, and a talkative one.

“I'll bet your name is...” he paused and began to stroke his chin. His lips pursed and his eyes became slits momentarily. His eyes opened up and his left pointer finger shot up into the air as he said “I'll bet your name is Mary Margaret Hudson!” He was spot on.

Margaret took a slow breath to keep from revealing the utter shock that stemmed from the feat performed by this random passenger. What are the odds that this random man can guess my name. In theory Margaret was a realist. Her father had always said “In a universe of infinite size, everything that could possibly occur must eventually.” In practice she was having trouble maintaining her realist philosophy. She doubted it was a guess: somehow this man knew her name. It was all too random to be otherwise.

“Well, that’s a very good trick,” said Margaret, “but I don’t imagine that I could get so lucky and guess your name. Why don’t you just share it with me? I do assume you have one.”

“Of course I do!,” said the eccentric, “my name is Theodore Hudson!”

Margaret had failed to shield from common view the gasp that symbolized the severe stupor that came with the utterance of that name. Though the man was clearly quite a bit younger than her, and by extension her father (if he still existed at all) she couldn't help but migrate to the idea that she was sitting next to the man that she had so willingly devoted her life to finding.

“Is everything okay?” asked Theodore concernedly, “you look like you just swallowed a bug.” She did not deny it. She was feeling quite light headed, and the bus rocked with an unnatural sway that she hoped was not due to the bus driver's technique but to her own dizziness at this man's presence next to her.

“I'm quite fine.” she said, sitting up, crossing her arms against her chest, and taking a deep breath. “I just haven't heard that name in quite a long time.”

“Is it important?” he glanced at her knowingly as he asked. Of course the name was important, and somehow this man knew it.

“Well more or less.” she paused and considered that this man could be false, out to play a trick upon her or take advantage of her. Though his face seemed innocent enough, his eyes were all too intent upon her: as if she were not actually a stranger. She decided that she would share no more. “It really isn't anyone else's business though.” The man nodded and ceased to push the question, immediately returning to his paper to act in childlike wonder at everything he read therein.

Margaret tried to return to her normal state of bus travel attentiveness, but found difficulty in this objective. Her attention was no longer focused outside the windows, but on the man in the seat next to her. The man sitting next to her having a quiet conversation with his newspaper. The eccentric. The talkative eccentric.

Despite this annoying eccentricity, the fact that he had chosen the seat next to her unnecessarily, and his odd reaction to the words contained in his ordinary newspaper, she looked at him and asked, “So, what do you do?”

“What do I do?” replied Theodore quizzically, clearly not understanding the question.

“As in...” she hesitated, attempting to overcome her discomfort with initiating conversation with a complete stranger, “As in, what is your career?”

Theodore's face lit up. “Ah, of course! My career! Well, I am a scientist.”

“Oh lovely!” Margaret nearly flinched at that word, lovely, and questioned how she had let herself say something so amicable as that. It went directly against her goal of maintaining her requisite personal space. “What are you working on?”

“Theoretical physics. I don't mean to sound pompous or anything, but I am specializing in applications of time dilation according to Einstein's special relativity and a possible way to reverse it allowing for two way travel!” As he described it, his face lit up with that excitement that only a love of one's labor can provide.

“Oh dear,” sighed Margaret. His presence here was beginning to become something of a coincidence and Margaret hated coincidences.

“In short, I'm working on...” Theodore paused and cast his eyes down to his shoes. His face lost that glamor that the love of his scientific pursuit had bestowed upon him. “Well, I'm working on time travel.” Time travel was not a foreign concept to her. She hardly had to act shocked. Perhaps Theodore misunderstood the reasons for her surprise.

Theodore, seeing Margaret's reaction, quickly returned to that boyish glee which the subject of time travel had cast over him. “You are the first person in a long time who hasn't laughed when I told them, in all seriousness, that I am researching time travel!”

“Where does one study time travel? That doesn't seem like a burgeoning field.”

“Washington DC. John Hopkins to be exact.” He hesitated, “Well, maybe not quite exact. I work in a lab owned by John Hopkins.” He hesitated again, retaining some words at the last second, only to release them after an extra second's consideration. “You know, I am here to visit family. I didn't come here alone.”

“I should surely hope not.” she said, masking her utter disbelief at the number of conveniences present here in the eccentric.

“I don't mean to be too forward or strange, but I think you should come and meet all of us. The people I came here with, that is. I think that they would all truly like to meet you. We're fine and entertaining people! And smart too!”

“Meet me?” Margaret placed her open palm against her chest as one does upon receiving great flattery. “Isn't that a bit sudden?”

“Absolutely. How does tomorrow night sound?” Theodore pulled a pen and a small sheet of paper from his coat. He was surprisingly charming for someone so young. “Here is the address, why don't you drop by around eight o'clock tomorrow evening?” he asked scribbling on the paper, “Don't think of it as a date. It's not! You just seem interested in time travel, and I'm interested in time travel. So are my coworkers. Come on, it'll be a blast! A blast for the ages, if you'll forgive me the pun.”

Margaret stopped to ponder this for a moment. I suppose I could just drop by. If it looks bad then I'll move along and pretend I never met this Theodore fellow. thought Margaret. “Alright then, I suppose I might stop in.” she said with her uncertainty on full display. There are just too many coincidences for this to be an accident, thought Margaret.


The next day, Margaret awoke in her own home after days of traveling and wondered if the whole incident had been a hallucination stemming from lack of sleep. The paper! If there is a paper, then I really met Theodore Hudson on the bus. A quick search of her coat pocket presented her with all of the evidence she needed: a slip of paper with an address scrawled in neatly formed letters across its face. Perhaps this is my father's handwriting. She thought to herself chuckling.

Moments later, this silly thought had stopped her in her tracks. The man on the bus, like her father upon his disappearance, was a scientist and worked in a lab in West Virginia. Could that man, that Theodore, be her father? And if so, how did he find her here?

She placed her hand on the pendant hanging from her neck. It had been a birthday gift from her father just before he disappeared.

She took two slices of bread from the cupboard and jammed them into the toaster. What was, she wondered, Theodore's reason for being here? He said he was visiting family, thought Margaret, but he didn't come here alone. And he didn't say that he was staying with family... She stopped cold in her tracks again, and thought, this time aloud, “Am I the family he came to visit?” Her thoughts were interrupted by the smell of burning toast.

“Oh fie... now the house is going to reek of burnt bread all day.” She let go of the pendant, and tended to the unfortunate toast.

Margaret shook her head, and silently convinced herself that this whole thing was ridiculous and this Theodore Hudson was just a nice man on the bus who shared her fathers name, profession, and place of education.

At peace with the events of the day before, she continued to make herself breakfast and live out the rest of her day as any retired woman might. She read the newspaper, cooked herself meals, called her sister on the telephone, and as the hour approached half past seven, she left her apartment and walked boldly into the cold snowy evening toward an apartment that contained a man who claimed he was a physicist named Theodore Hudson who studied the theoretical physics behind time travel in the same lab where her another man name Theodore Hudson, Margaret's father, had disappeared without a trace decades ago.

As Margaret walked into the bright moonlit evening, clean as a canvas and covered with snow, she found herself hoping that her father had found her on a bus outside of Flagstaff, for which she soon cursed herself.

“Silly old fool!” she stammered aloud. “Hoping for some scientific fairy tale to come along and disturb your life will never get you anywhere. Father is probably dead; likely killed by some secret disastrous experiment. If he had helped to invent time travel, then we would see travelers from all through history.” She did not notice the strange looks cast upon her as she walked down the street talking to no one apparent besides herself, for she had wandered off into her own thoughts and memories.


Margaret had been able to walk right into the old offices and laboratories without so much as a question. The receptionist was absent, though this was not always the case. Today, she would not have to sneak into the seemingly empty facility. It seemed empty, rather than abandoned, because the only thing missing was the staff. Computers were still running processes, unidentifiably complex contraptions flinging lighting from place to place were still active, and papers were scattered about the laboratories of the facility as if they expected the missing scientists to return and finish their work. It was almost as if they had put everything on hold and left the West Virginia lab.

Margaret had been here many times before, as had her father. Unfortunately, the two had never crossed paths. In all likelihood, it had been years since Theodore had last set foot in his laboratory.

Despite her ever obvious signs of old age and the passage of time in the world around her, there were no signs of change or decay in the facility. The laboratory was just as pristine and untouched by time as it had been twenty years ago. She had stumbled on this facility almost accidentally while searching through the last remaining trinkets left behind by her father: his watch, a couple of now-faded and incomprehensible pictures, a neck tie, and three letters from his former place of employment. It had occurred to her that she had never searched for the laboratory.

It must have been a very secret place, as all of her initial searches proved fruitless, but she would not be deterred. She stumbled across the address in a few of her old things crammed in a closet after her mother's death. It was printed on an envelope containing the details of one of her father's old paychecks. Since then, she had made dozens of trips cross-country to search the labs for clues concerning her father's mysterious disappearance.

It was in this lab where she found the final clue to her father's inexplicable lack of existence. After hours of rifling through reams of papers she happened upon a roster for a “Project Aperture.” Beside her father's name read the role title “Time traveler's envoy.”

She gasped at the weight of the discovery; her father was not necessarily dead or missing forever, just in the current time. Her vision became grainy and her head lightweight as she processed the discovery of her father's fate: the fulfillment that came at the realization of a lifetime of searching.

In her blissful daze, she began to notice the clacking of high heels against hard stone floors. Someone was clearly in the hallway, and, from the sound of it, coming toward her. Stepping out into the hallway, she found herself facing the receptionist who was now very armed with a handgun and very aware of Margaret's presence.

“You know, I shouldn't let you leave alive after what you just saw.” rang the receptionists hollow voice through the stone floored hallway. “But I'm going to give you a chance. Never come back here again. I know what you read. It's too bad nobody will believe you when you tell them. Welcome to obscurity!” Margaret stared blankly. She had not expected to be assaulted at gunpoint. “Go on! Get out of this facility!”

Margaret would not lose her life here in this lab as her husband Louis had years ago. His suspicions bettered him and when he came to the lab with Margaret, his clunky frame got the pair caught trying to sneak into the lab. The alarm sounded, the police arrived, and Louis was shot on sight. They hadn't seen Margaret.

Margaret left as fast as her withered old frame would carry her. She fled back to her sister's house and went straight to bed. The next morning, she informed her sister of her decision to skip her flight and return home a day early.

“Besides.” said Margaret, “I can take the bus. I haven't taken the bus in a while. I'm really looking quite forward to it.”

Margaret's sister had not ever asked where Louis had gone.


Margaret had stopped searching for her father two days ago on the absurd discovery that he was an aspiring time traveler. The pages of documents on “Project Aperture” seemed to prove its plausibility. From what she could remember, and what she could still understand of advanced mathematics and theoretical physics, all that was required for travel was a change in velocity relative to c, the speed of light. The issue was not moving forward, as the greater the velocity the slower the passage of time, but moving backward, which required the traveler to approach “-c”, the negative of the speed of light.

“Hey there, Marge. Is it okay if I call you that? I can call you by your full name if you'd like.” said Theodore. His voice pulled Margaret out of her flashback and back into the real world. She could not believe that she had lost herself in thought for the entire walk across town. Margaret found herself standing at the door of an apartment that was unfamiliar to her despite her overall familiarity with Flagstaff.

“So long as it is clear that I am who you are addressing, you may address me as you wish.” said Margaret. “I only stopped by momentarily to meet your family.”

“Oh, they ain't my family Marge, they're my coworkers. Come on in! Let me get you something to drink!” replied Theodore, closing the door behind Margaret reinstating that shield against the frigid weather. “This here is Mason Alexander, he's my coworker. Grad student. Almost as bright as me!” Mason, in response to Theodore's jests, reared his head back and laughed.

“Almost as great as the great Theo eh? Y'know, maybe one day I can aspire to achieve such great things as you, yeah?” roared Mason with a piercing New England accent. Laughing, Theodore turned to an older man, not much older, perhaps, than Margaret.

“And this here, this is the big boss. This is Frederick Wittsenberg.”

“VICHT-SEN-BEARG” announced Frederick. “You never can pronounce my name. How do you say it...”

“Say what boss?”

“The old dog cannot learn new tricks?”

“I'm not entirely sure that that is what you mean to say Mr. Frederick.” laughed Margaret.

At this, Frederick directly addressed her. “So you are the infamous Margaret. I have heard much of you, but you are, say, older than I would suspect you to be, no?” Confused, Margaret turned to Theodore for clarification.

“Oh now, don't listen to the boss. Sometimes, I'm not sure he knows what the hell he's sayin'.”

She was, in turn, introduced to everyone in the room this way, save one tall gaunt deathly-looking man in the corner. “That guy's named is Richard,” whispered Theodore, “he's not the most social of us. He's an...” Theodore paused, stroked his chin, and took a deep breath. “He's a bit shy.” By the time that Margaret turned to acknowledge him, Richard has already disappeared.

Theodore raised his glass. “Now that everyone's here, I've got a toast to make.” He cleared his throat. “We are all finally united at last!” The celebration had begun, for what exactly was not perfectly clear to Margaret.

The night was filled with much conversation. Drinks were passed around, stories were told, and for the first time in years, Margaret spent the evening in the company of entertaining individuals. She returned home late that night and fell promptly to sleep, pleased that her father was potentially such a charismatic man and that his coworkers were as interesting as they were brilliant.


Margaret awoke the next morning in good spirits but unable to find the necklace that her father had given her before he disappeared. As she made herself an omelet for breakfast and placed some beef in a marinade, with which she would surprise Theodore and his companions that evening, she retraced her steps the previous day. The only places she had been were her house, and Theodore's apartment.

What felt like a handful of hours of fruitless searching, combing through every nook and cranny for any place that the necklace could have used as a hiding spot, was enough to convince her that she had left it at Theodore's.

So she put on her coat, and braved the early afternoon February chill to walk to Theodore's apartment.


The building looked quite different in the day time. There was a plethora of small details that she didn't remember from the night before, though she had had a few drinks and it was entirely possible that she just did not notice them originally. They were, after all, just quibbles. The windows did not seem boarded up last night, and she did not remember the sign on the door declaring the building condemned. After all, she had spent most of the night inside the building. She really would have noticed if the building were so disagreeable.

Perhaps it is a ruse to deter intruders who would encroach upon the businesses of the illustrious time travelers thought Margaret, deciding to give the door a try anyway.

What was on the other side of that door was not was had been there the night before. The corners were consumed with cobwebs, and layers of dust, undisturbed for years, coated the floor. She crept in slowly and silently as if she were afraid of disturbing the dead. This place is most disagreeable. Hopefully Theo's apartment is cleaner than the entrance hall.

As she approached the door, the smell of stagnant water and rotting wood assaulted her senses. I didn't smell that at all last night!

She entered Theodore's apartment and, to her surprise, found that there were large holes in the floor, the wallpaper was crinkled and wilting as it separated from the walls, and the lighting that had been hanging from the roof last night had fallen to the ground. She could hear rats squeaking and crawling through empty spaces in the walls, possibly planning to expel this human invader. The apartment smelled of rot and urine and decay. But most concerning was its overall emptiness. It was, outside of occasional footsteps in the dust covered floor, undisturbed.

She looked down at her feet, and found that her necklace had fallen into a thin crack in the floor. Working it free from the grasp of the rotting wood planks, she thought So I was here last night. What is going on?

“What are you doing here?!” boomed a high pitched and slightly unsettling voice behind her.

“Where is everyone? What happ– “ the man to whom she spoke was oddly familiar and had a distinct resemblance with the mysterious man whom she had neglected to meet the night before.

“I heard reports that someone had entered this building. You do know it's condemned right?”

“Sir, this building can't be condemned! I was here last night! I was here with my father and his co-workers. You were there I think! I saw you there! You were standing in the corner just over there!” she pointed at where she thought he had been standing during the party.

The man seemed puzzled by this explanation. He was dressed in a shirt and pants and an orange hard-hat. His name tag identified him as the Arizona building commissioner who was named Richard Bartlett.

“I'm sorry ma'am. You must have the wrong building. No one has lived here in four years outside of the occasional homeless. It's going to be torn down in a matter of hours now.” Margaret, realizing this man's authority, looked down at the necklace, looked up at the man, and said “You must be right. My apologies.”


Back at home, Margaret decided that she needed to call her sister for advice and someone to talk to. The world seemed to be a much more confusing place since Theodore's re-disappearance just an hour ago.

“Hello? Is Lucy Hembourg there?”

The voice on the other line was unfamiliar to Margaret. “I'm sorry, who?”

“Lucy Hembourg. Could you tell her that her sister is calling?”

“I'm sorry, you must have the wrong number.” said the voice on the other line. Margaret tried again, this time sure to dial the number correctly, but that strange voice was the only person that Margaret was able to reach. Pulling out her contacts book she could not find the number for a Lucy Hembourg. It was as if she had never existed.

“I just don't know what to believe anymore.” sighed a tear-stricken Margaret.

Margaret looked around her apartment, seeing things that she had never seen before, while searching for other things that had disappeared. She sat down, confused and full of despair, and began to cry out for her disillusionment with this new world.

“What's the matter Marge?” came from behind her a familiar voice.

“Louis?!” cried Margaret spinning around in her chair. Sure enough, Louis was there with his arms outspread to accept and hold his distressed wife.

“Louis!” exclaimed Margaret before pushing away from his warm embrace. “You can't be real!” she said touching his face.

“What are you talking about? What's the matter?” asked Louis.

Margaret set aside her apprehension and confusion and broke down crying. “I can't find Lucy's number in my contacts book.”

Louis sat down at the table, opened the book, and found the number. “See? No worries love.” he said, pointing to the number in the book. She stared at the book's contents. Lucy's number was there.

“Louis, you're dead.”

Louis took a step back from the table, feigning fear of his wife’s words. “What did I do?”

“No Louis, I mean... you died. I saw them kill you.” Margaret stood.

“Who killed me?”

“Those policemen! Those government guys! You died in West Virginia!” Margaret balled her fists up as she shouted.

“Marge... love... we've never been to West Virginia,” replied Louis.

“Lucy lives in West Virginia. Where does Lucy live if not in West Virginia?”

“Lucy lives down the street! Marge, what has gotten into you?” He peered up at her, his eyes now as thin as paper. “And where did that necklace come from?”

“I...” Margaret, regaining her stiff outward countenance, decided that she would just have to accept that her stories seemed insane to the rest of the world.

“I found it. In a box of old things. What's today?” Perhaps I time traveled she thought.

“Tuesday,” both Louis and Margaret were eerily calm, breathless after their first fight in years.

“No. The number date,” said Margaret.

“Oh, February 7th.”


“Yeah. Same year it's been, well, all year! What's gotten into you?” Louis laughed.

Margaret would never, for fear of appearing insane and irrational, share her experiences. Whether she had fallen victim to a vivid hallucinatory picture show or been temporarily met by her father, swallowed by the time-traveling tides of Einstein's dreams, was never made clear to her. Nevertheless, she kept an ear out for her father while examining, but never truly living in, the altered life before her. When her time came to pass, she was thankful for Louis' presence regardless of whether he was really there, or merely an image.

Margaret never found her father.

by S. Robert Belk

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