XXI - Discovery
“The act or an instance of gaining site or knowledge of something previously
unseen or unknown.”
Date: Friday, January 13, 1989
Location: South Carroll High School, Winfield, Maryland
Choir class at the end of the school day was typically one of my favorite classes. Today was one of those unusual instances in which it was not. Our vocal teacher, Karl Kingsley, remained absent a second day for personal reasons. He and his father - both accomplished barbershop performers - were in Orlando, Florida for a barbershop technique conference. Such absences for Mr. Kingsley were rare, but on those occasions, his class under the guidance of a substitute teacher usually meant a free period to catch up on homework, or goof off. Most of us did the latter, even though the substitute teacher, Mrs. Gartner, insisted we watch the movie, Amadeus, again. Over the last four years, Mr. Kingsley instructed substitute teachers to show Amadeus in his absence. Freshly ditto machine copied papers that reeked of ditto lactone were neatly stacked on the table in front of the TV. The assignment included watching the movie and answering the questions about the movie posed on those papers. I supposed Mr. Kingsley assumed that if we correctly answered the questions about the film, it might suggest we actually watched the movie, versus goofing off.
Mrs. Gartner was an insufferable bitch. She had a well-earned reputation of being a major pain in the ass. She was not at all pleasant and scowled most of the time. Most of the class would end up not only ignoring Gartner, but blowing off the movie as well, in lieu of goofing off.
I discovered early in the morning Gartner would be cursing our choir class with her cantankerous ways. I was the unfortunate soul who delivered the TV and VCR to Kingsley’s classroom as part of my morning AV Club responsibilities. When I made the delivery of the carted TV, I discovered our much beloved substitute teacher passed out next to the coat closet. I ran down the hall to the conveniently located nurse’s station to advise the school nurse of Gartner’s status. There, my involvement in the matter ended when the nurse went to investigate.
The ‘Amadeus’ question and answer sheets consisted of two papers. I picked up three sets of the assignment, one for me, one for Chris Manyette, and one for Andy Myer; all fellow members of the Card Player’s Circle. Myer and I were devoted members of the choir club. Manyette was there for the required credit in the arts.
To be honest, I lost track of exactly how many times I’d seen Amadeus since my freshman year in high school, in addition to the times I rented it for myself outside of school. To say I knew the movie inside and out would be an understatement. I filled out both pages of the questionnaire within the first five minutes of class. I also allowed Manyette and Myer to copy my answers.
I turned my assignment into Mr. Kingsley’s inbox, which he kept on the top of the grand piano’s lid and returned to my seat. Gartner sat behind the piano, still nursing the knot on her head from the fall she took earlier that morning. The story she gave us at the beginning of class amounted to her slipping and falling on spilt coffee, knocking her head into the coat cabinet. Snickers from the class bounced across the room in response. She scowled at the class, looking across the room with her beady little eye. She knew she was not a well-liked substitute, and probably didn’t care.
Upon delivery of the Amadeus assignment, Gartner stopped whatever it was she was doing and looked up. She didn’t appear eager to let me off the hook so easily for finishing the class assignment so quickly. I took my seat next to Manyette, knowing she was looking at me. “How can you possibly be finished already?” She asked, heavy on the attitude.
I made myself comfortable in the steel folding chair that comprised seats in stadium style classroom. “I’ve seen the movie a dozen times. I already know the answers. So I filled them out and turned them in.”
“You won’t have a problem if I check your work right now, would you?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “No, not at all. Knock yourself out.”
Andy Myer, sitting two seats over on Manyette’s right scoffed under his breath at my borderline insubordination. He was not her fan either.
Manyette watched the unfolding event cautiously. With his trademark goofy grin, he leaned over and whispered, “Careful, Gartner’s in a pissy mood today.”
“When isn’t she?” I asked softly in retort, so the woman skimming over my answers would not hear.
Gartner checked off each question, finally looking up in my direction, clearly vexed. “Very good, Mr. Garrison. Please find something quiet to do for the next hour.”
“Well, that certainly wouldn’t be your daughter,” I whispered. Myer threw his head back in laughter. Manyette’s silly grin widened to cartoon character proportions. Gartner’s daughter, Janice, also attended South Carroll in my graduating class of 1989. She wasn’t very attractive and certainly wasn’t someone I would actually want to sleep with. The point of my insult concerning Janice had more to do with her ‘goth girl’ persona, her outspoken crusades against drugs, violence to animals, or whatever new age project got caught up in her fishnet panties. In short, she was a loudmouth and had a rep for it, hence the slam.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Myer?” Gartner asked. She stood up to demonstrate her phony authority. Myer regained his composure and shook his head in silence, eyes to the floor. Gartner returned to her seat, continuing to fumble with her paperwork.
Manyette leaned forward while Myer and I closed in so we could speak quietly to one another. “What are we going to do for the next hour?” He asked. Myer shrugged his shoulders.
“No clue,” I said, with a sigh. “I guess I could do some more writing.”
“Writing? What writing?” Manyette asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Short stories, sci-fi type stuff.”
Manyette looked over. “You mean like, with aliens?”
“Well, sort of.”
Manyette scoffed. “Aliens don't exist, dude. And even if they did we would never hear from them.” His suddenly harsh tone surprised me. I glanced at Myer to gauge his reaction. His face said, ‘what the fuck was that?’ I looked back at Manyette to determine if his brash words matched the look on his face. He did appear perturbed. The unexpected change in his manner made no sense. Usually, Manyette was carefree and laidback as they came, plus he always – since the day I met him – had a goofy and clumsy way about him. He often reminded me of Jim Carrey, the guy who played the alien ‘Wiploc’ from that silly movie ‘Earth Girls Are Easy’. That easygoing guy was no longer sitting next to me; I didn’t know who he was. I could only hope he was messing with me.
“Oh-kay,” I said drawing out the word, demonstrating my confusion in his change of attitude. “How’d you figure? We just had this debate in Astrology club last week, and as usual, you weren’t there. Seriously, I think you sign up for every club the school has just so you can skip class on yearbook picture day and have your picture in the yearbook fifty billion times.”
“I had JROTC that day,” Manyette said, letting go of his previous posture. “I found out if I stay in the program until I graduate, I can go into the Navy at a higher rank.”
“Awesome,” I said.
“But it’s a massive commitment. I think they expect me to do it.” Manyette looked away, not appearing enthusiastic at what sounded like a great opportunity.
I looked at him, confused. “I thought you and Wald both wanted to go into the Navy since you were kids, and cause your dad was in the military.”
“There are other things I think about doing. The whole commitment thing made it, I don’t know…real.”
I nodded, as did Myer, who said, “That’s a good idea man, think everything through. Don’t make a choice until you have too.”
Myer was right. Like me, he was already a senior and had no clue about what he wanted to do with his life. Manyette and Wald on the other hand were sophomores with two more years of servitude to South Carroll High before they could begin the rest of their lives.
“Besides,” I said. “You’re just a sophomore. The military can’t make you sign your papers until after you graduate. So you have at least two more years.” Manyette shrugged his shoulders. His conflict was physically evident. “Since you brought it up, what else are you considering besides the Navy?”
“Automotive electronics,” he said. Seemed like an odd choice to me. How many kids say to their mom or dad, ‘when I grow up, I wanna be an automotive electrician?’
To each their own, I guess.
“Why couldn’t you do both?” Myer asked. “Doesn’t the military have courses in electronics?”
Manyette nodded. “Yeah, but it’s my dad who is pressuring me into the military. I could ask for electronics or automotive electronics, but it doesn’t mean I’ll get it. Having all the JROCT classes helps a lot though. A higher rank would give me job preference.”
“Well, let me ask you this,” I said. “What’s available in Mt. Airy or Westminster for that kind of work?”
Manyette shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I should look into it.”
“My point is this, if there are not a lot of openings around here, there’s bound to be tons of openings in the military. Plus, you get out of Carroll County, which I know all of us want to do.”
Manyette and Myer nodded in agreement.
“I’ve got some thinking to do, I guess,” Manyette said, looking at the floor, dragging his foot. I couldn’t not help but notice his thoughts were manifesting themselves physically.
“You know I love your dad like the father I don’t have, but as far as he goes, this is your life. You only get one. Live it for you, even if it means not doing what Rich wants. He’ll still love you and support you.” I paused, knowing I would never have a father who would do that for me; love me, and support me no matter what I did. According to him, it really doesn’t matter what I do, it will always be wrong and I will never amount to anything, because I am worthless. I’d better get used to it.
Manyette looked up, genuinely smiling. “You’re right. Thanks, man.”
“Anytime,” I said with a slight nod.
With that crisis settled, I reached under my chair to retrieve the notebook I used specifically for Astrology club. Over the last six months, I acquired a goodly amount of useless information, mostly statistics about our universe. I wasn’t interested in actual astrology per se, rather my curiosity lied in the data, and the facts as scientists knew them.
Manyette looked over. “What’s that?”
“I’m looking for my notes on the odds of extra-terrestrial life, what you missed last week,” I said, throwing him a smirk. Manyette’s normally light blue eyes shifted somehow, almost to a darker shade of blue. The variance caused me to blink in surprise.
“Isn't it supposed to be some infinitesimal number?”
Infinitesimal? I thought. I couldn’t remember Manyette ever using such a word. His vocabulary happened to be notoriously limited.
“Uh, yeah,” I agreed, cautiously. “It’s in those odds I think the possibility of other life in the universe exists.” I flipped a few pages, locating the information from last week’s meeting, information I wanted to share with Manyette. “Here we go. With the best telescopes we have, scientists estimate there are at least 50 billion visible galaxies. Okay? So, taking into account the ones we can’t see, double that number to a hundred billion. The average number of stars per galaxy is literally in the hundred of billions, so we’ll guess low and say a hundred billion stars per galaxy. Even with that lower estimate, I can still prove my point. This would give us well over ten sextillion stars in the universe.”
Myer leaned over, having overheard my rambling. “A what-tillion? Sextillion? Is that even a number? For real?”
“Actually, it is,” I said, looking at Myer while pointing to the number in my notebook. Manyette’s gaze shifted from me to over my shoulder and back to me, several times. He was clearly attempting to pay attention to something else to my left while appearing interested in what I was saying. I looked back down to the crudely written mathematics in my notebook to expand upon my answer for Myer. “If I did my math right, sextillion is a one with twenty-two zeros after it.”
Myer appeared dumbfounded. “That’s a lot of zeros.”
A small chuckle escaped me, sounding like ‘heh’. “Yeah, and we lowballed that calculation. It’s probably a whole hell of a lot more. Dude, can you imagine how many more galaxies we’ll know about when NASA launches the Hubble telescope next year?”
Myer shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, I have no idea, dude, his motions said.
Manyette now seemed focused on my argument, so I continued, “So now we have a guesstimate about how many stars are out there in the universe. From there, we need to imagine the number of stars that have planetary systems.” Myer and Manyette stared back, minus commentary. I sighed, referring to my notes, since there was no way I could parrot these statistics from memory. “Okay, the original extra-solar system planet hunting technology says a star needed to be close to us to detect a planet, usually by something called the star’s ‘wobble’.” I flipped through my notebook for the wobble theory. I began to read verbatim. “Eventually better technology came along allowing us to measure the dimming of stars’ brightness when a planet crosses its disk. This is what revolutionized planet hunting and how new planets are discovered. Most cosmologists believe planetary formation around a star is commonplace.” I stopped reading from the notebook, looked back up, and continued on my own. “So, for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume this is not the case and say only one star in a million has planets, and only one planet since I’m still using conservative estimates and not exaggerating, okay?” Myer nodded. Manyette simply stared at me, expressionless. I flipped back to the page in my notebook dealing with statistics. “With those low estimates, we would have some ten quintillion planets in the universe.” I looked up to Myer, who appeared primed to ask about the number of zeros involved. “A one with sixteen zeros.”
“Got it,” Myer said, nodding his head. “Please Professor Sagan, continue.”
I scratched the side of my face with my middle finger in response, and continued my theory, “Finally, let’s agree it’s very rare for planets to have the ability to support life, like Earth, and put that number at a million. Now we have ten billion possible planets in our universe capable of producing and supporting life.”
Manyette was nodding, still glancing over my shoulder. “I see your point.”
“Not impressed, huh?” I said, looking over my shoulder. I hoped to catch a glimpse at whatever kept stealing Manyette’s attention. A group of three girls sat in a group, gossiping in whispers, ignoring the required curriculum of the viewing Amadeus, and answering the accompanying worksheets. For those three ladies, goofing off was nothing new. I could only surmise Shelley Quidort subjugated Manyette’s attention, as she was the only attractive one of the three. The other two were big girls and not very pretty. I sighed despairingly at the sight of them.
The three represented a disorder I’ve come to call the ‘Ugly Friend(s) Syndrome’. The Pretty Girl of the group is never available to Suitor Boy, even if she has no boyfriend. Her plan involves diverting attention meant for her to her less than attractive friend(s), the Ugly Friend. Pretty Girl hopes her good looks might convince any given Suitor Boy to pity date one of the Ugly Friends, a good deed that might win favor with Pretty Girl in the future. Not only will that favor never come, but also it’s Pretty Girl’s hope Suitor Boy will end up liking one of the Ugly Friends for whom they are, fall in love and give the Ugly Friend something to do on the weekend besides call Pretty Girl and cry herself to sleep over never getting a guy. Alternatively, if Suitor Boy shows disinterest in the Ugly Friend, Pretty Girl will dismiss Suitor Boy as a shallow bastard, conveniently having an excuse for rejecting him outright. Those relationships represent an odd kind of symbiont circle I don’t understand, much less want any of.
Shelley Quidort is the standard Pretty Girl, while her friends Nicole and Shannon are definitely the Ugly Friends.
I looked back at Manyette. “Who are you looking at?”
“Shelley,” he replied. “I’d take her for a nasty fuck and roll.”
“A fuck and what?”
“Never mind. I’d do her, okay? Understand now?” His crass tone was perplexing and unnecessary, at best. I’d never heard of a ‘fuck and roll’ before, so what was I supposed to do? Not ask what it meant?
I looked back at Shelley. “But you can’t stand her. Why the sudden shift in taste?”
“It’s a hate crush.”
I glanced back at Manyette with uncertainty. “What’s a hate crush?”
Manyette squeezed his eyes shut, combating the urge to say something else out of character. It dawned on me with the effect of a mountain crashing down; Manyette was trying desperately to act normal and not doing a very good job of it.
I looked back at Shelley. She was insanely beautiful, although her personality didn’t match, not even close. One might view her as snobby, but in my humble opinion, that wouldn’t begin to cover her shallow puddle personality. The more intelligent guys, like me and my closer friends for example, recognized her inability to see past her nose. Every so often, we would go out of our way to knock her down a peg or two, letting her know not everyone alive wanted to kowtow to her. Watching Manyette covet her made no sense. He acted as if he’d never seen her before and was crushing on her, while attempting to show otherwise.
Manyette shook his head in frustration, refusing to answer my ‘hate crush’ question. It seemed best to let it go and change the subject. “Okay dude, never mind then,” I said with a sigh. “Back to the ‘other life in the universe theory’, if you’re still interested. Manyette shrugged his shoulders, lazily returning his careless glance to me. “Another approach might involve the Drake Equation.”
“The Drake, what?” Myer asked. I loved the guy like a brother, but sometimes his lack of book smarts made it difficult to have a conversation with him.
I referred to my notebook and read aloud, verbatim, “The Drake Equation – authored by Frank Drake - states the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy – not the universe, but our galaxy alone – depends on a number of factors which must combine to yield a habitable planet where life has a chance to develop to a certain level of technological know-how. These factors would include rate of formation of stars like our Sun, the fraction of those with planets, the faction of Earth-like planets, the fraction of such planets where life develops, the fraction of those where life becomes intelligent, the fraction of intelligent species who can communicate in a way we could detect and the lifetime of the communicating civilizations.” I looked up. “There is some debate about what ‘reasonable values’ are, obviously. Drake puts his own estimate of the number of communicating civilizations in just our galaxy alone at ten thousand.”
Manyette nodding, sitting there as if I was telling him information he already knew, glancing at Shelley. “And these figures are accurate?”
I paused, realizing Manyette was not talking like himself again. “No,” I said, ignoring his shitty attitude, flipping the page in my notebook to review my notes. “Remember that figure of 10 sextillion stars in the universe I talked about earlier? That’s an underestimate. The number of life supporting planets that might be orbiting those stars is anyone’s guess, but any reasonable guesstimate would run into the millions, if not billions, don’t you think?”
Myer appeared confused, shaking his head as if to clear out the cobwebs. Manyette on the other hand was smirking. “What evidence suggests this?”
I blinked at his hostility. “After the Big Bang, the most abundant material in the universe was hydrogen and helium, right? As the most simple of atoms, all this material would form the bulk of the raw ingredients for star formation.”
“Wait,” Myer said. “In English, please.”
I sighed. “Okay, all stars begin life the same way, the gravitational drawing together of those basic elements of hydrogen and helium. They then gravitationally collapse to form a star. Understand?” Myer nodded. “Okay, so apart from size, all stars begin pretty much the same. Remains of the hydrogen and helium clouds that are not absorbed into the star, forms an orbiting disc that eventually goes on to form protoplanets.”
“Are those like, real planets?” Myer asked.
I shook my head, referring to my notes once more. “No, it’s an eddy in which whirling gas will become a planet by condensation.” I flipped the page. “It’s believed as the new star heats up and contracts, the increasing pressure of its radiation drives off the thinner material of the protoplanet, and a real planet is born.”
Myer shrugged. “Fair enough, I guess.”
“With that same process repeated billions and billions of times over, it’s statistically reasonable to think some of those planets would have similar characteristics of Earth, capable of supporting life in one form or another.” I turned to Manyette. “To answer the question of whether or not extraterrestrial life exists, it need exist on only one other planet. One, dude. Given the odds, how can extra terrestrial life not exist?”
Manyette held his hand up. “Wait, let’s say for the moment I agree with you and there is at least one planet out there home to intelligent life, or maybe more intelligent than us. Do you know how far away that would be?”
“Quite a bit, I imagine.”
“Radio signals would seem to be the best way to send messages over long distances, agreed?”
Manyette nodded. “But an alien society with a hundred year difference in technology might be using something completely different. Or how about a thousand year difference? They could have technology unlike anything we’ve ever imagined. Or maybe their radio signals - if they use radio - were transmitted briefly and reached us years before we had radio receivers.”
I raised my eyebrow in suspicion. “Okay, go on.”
“Maybe that other intelligent life you think is out there started using radio more or less the same time we did, so if they are thousands of light years away, we won’t receive their signal for thousands of years after. Hell, we might not even be using or monitoring standard radio signals by then. The odds of two distant civilizations having compatible communication systems are zero to none. Now think about the length of time it would take for a signal to reach us. Do you really have any idea how big our galaxy is?”
“Actually, I do,” I said, flipping through several pages of notes. “The Milky Way galaxy is roughly one hundred thousand light years across.”
“That’s my point. It would take a signal from the opposite side of our galaxy a hundred thousand years to reach us. Do you know where the next nearest galaxy is?”
“The Andromeda Spiral galaxy,” I said referring to the same page of data. “It’s estimated to be two million light years away.”
Manyette rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Okay, for a signal to reach Earth today from that distance would have to have been transmitted towards the end of the Pliocene age, when Homo Erectus first appeared.”
Myer shook his head in confusion. “Homo what?”
“Erectus,” I said, not breaking Manyette’s towering stare. The words coming out of his mouth were not those of a fifteen-year-old boy, and certainly not those of his own. He had to be parroting out someone else’s research. I glanced casually back at Myer. “As in you’re an erect homo for not joining Astrology and knowing this shit.”
“Ha!” Myer said with a snort. “Whatever, bitch.” I grinned, ear to ear.
Manyette continued to sit casually, unaffected by the previous banter, his bluer than normal eyes laughing at me in contempt. I shifted in my metal folding chair, uncomfortable. I attempted to fill in the blanks for Myer, ignoring the huge red flag over Manyette’s behavior. “The Pliocene age was somewhere between two and five million years ago. Humans were nothing more than cavemen who had just learned to walk on two feet, also known as Homo Erectus.”
I looked at Manyette, “But we haven’t covered that in Astrology yet, and the only reason I know it is because I spent the last three nights at the Eldersburg library looking it up.” I moved in close to Manyette so I could lower my voice, out of Myer’s earshot. “How you know it, is a good question. Is there something wrong with you bud? You’re acting…I dunno, weird.”
Manyette leaned in closer to me, his now crystal blue eyes raging with condescension. “And you are a meddling pain in the ass!”
“What?” I said in a yelp. I could feel my eyes bugging out of their sockets in astonishment at Manyette’s declaration. “Chris, why would you say something like that?”
Unbeknownst to me, Gartner stood up at my outburst. “Is there a problem gentlemen?”
I looked over my shoulder, also noting half the class looking in our direction. Embarrassment set in, along with the red in my face. “No, I’m sorry. We were having a debate and I got upset. It won’t happen again.”
Gartner stood, hands on her wide hips. “Please see that it doesn’t.” She sat back down behind the baby grand piano, focusing her attention on something else.
I looked at Manyette, one click away from embarrassed to pissed. He must have seen it in my face. His eyes went light blue again. “Just kiddin’ dude!” He said, laughing at himself. I laughed with him. A phony, uncomfortable laugh as I found myself not understanding Manyette’s personality shifts. Something was wrong with him. “So where was I?”
“You were talking about radio signals sent while we were cavemen,” Myer said.
“Oh, yes,” Manyette said, eyes shifting color again. “I’ll put it another way, an alien race transmitting a signal would be two million years more advanced then us, and we can only imagine how primitive we would appear to them. If we did receive a message from the Andromeda galaxy, by the time we got it that race may have long died off.”
I nodded. “I see what you’re saying, but that’s a one-race scenario. Even in conservative terms, we are dealing with at least ten billion possible planets with life.”
Manyette opened his mouth to speak. Myer beat him to the punch, “You two are missing the bigger picture here. God created man in his own image. Life was created exclusively for this planet, by God.”
Manyette ignored Myer, looking away from him, towards Shelley. I groaned on the inside, tossing him a doubtful glance. “Don't start in on the whole religion thing. No great unseen being created the whole universe, specifically the Earth in seven days.”
Myer seemed bothered by this. “You don't believe in God?”
“No, not really. There isn't enough information either way. But if you're forcing me to give you an answer one way or the other, then no, I don't.” Myer appeared genuinely troubled. “What?”
“You haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?”
“You and my mom need to go bowling some night,” I said, sighing with the obligatory eye roll. “Maybe the two of you can think up a way to save my eternal soul from damnation and hell and all that.”
“It's not a laughing matter,” Myer said holding up one authoritative finger, minus the usual jovial humor.
“Do I judge you for your beliefs?” I asked. He didn’t reply. “No, I don't. So don't judge me because I don't believe the same things you do. We're all different like that.”
“Fair enough,” Myer said in acknowledgment.
“So Kevin, let me ask you something,” Manyette said. “If you don't believe in God, do you believe in heaven or hell?”
Manyette calling me by my first name completely threw me. We usually referred to each other by our surnames. “Based on current information, I do not,” I replied, looking at him with concern.
Manyette followed up. “Then what happens after we die?”
“You mean instead of heaven or hell? Nothing. Once we're dead, we're dead. That's it, lights out. You won't even know it happened.”
“I disagree,” Myer said. “If you ask God to forgive you of your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you go to heaven.”
“And then what?” I asked, turning to face him. “Spend eternity running around with a halo and angels wings among the clouds? Hang out with everyone I ever knew who actually made it to heaven? That doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, brother. I would get bored pretty quickly.”
Myer was shaking his head. “No, no, that's not how it works. You become part of a greater plane of existence. It's something so wonderful that we can’t even comprehend it.”
Manyette nodded at Myer. “He’s more right than you are Kev, but not by much.”
I ignored Manyette’s cryptic statement, raising my eyebrows in doubt towards Myer. “I wish it were all that simple and easy, dude.”
“It is,” Myer said. “You just need to have faith.”
“Way easier said than done,” I said. “It has to make sense to me, in that I need to see it to believe it. Just because a bunch of people who believe the writings of an old book whose origins have not been proven doesn't necessarily make what’s written gospel. Let me put it into perspective for you. Let’s say we have a nuclear war in a few years and society all but goes extinct. Let’s say a thousand years after that, somehow, society rebuilds itself with no intelligence about how life was on Earth before we nearly killed ourselves, okay?” Myer nodded. “So one day some guy find a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. Seuss becomes a prophet, Sam becomes God and green eggs and ham becomes the holy grail.” Myer bust out laughing at my supposition.
“I happen to agree with Kevin on that one,” Manyette said.
That’s three. What the fuck?
The few times our group used first names were in serious situations, or in cut down battles. Never casually. Manyette’s bizarre behavior seemed to be getting worse.
“Let's go back to the thing with the aliens,” Manyette said, changing the subject. “You really think there’s other life in the universe, based on everything you’ve just said?”
“Yes,” I said cautiously, waiting for another outrageous claim. “It doesn't mean its life as we know it. It could be as miniscule as a virus or as complex as living robots, or maybe it's something we haven't even thought of yet. I think it’s egotistical of us as a race to say it’s just us out here and we're the best there is. There is always something better.”
Myer was listening intently. “I guess that makes some sense. Maybe God created other planets with other life that follow His same teachings?”
I considered Myer’s question. “If you buy into religion and it’s entire premise then yes, maybe so. But you’d think it would be documented in the Bible, right?”
“I don’t know,” Myer said. “I’m sure He has His reasons. Maybe He doesn’t want us knowing about His other work.”
“My beliefs aside,” I said. “That’s pretty weak. Genesis described the creation of everything, right? So if other life in the universe was part of that plan, you’d think it would have been mentioned.”
Myer threw up his hands. “I don’t know man. I don’t question God.”
“Maybe you should,” I said, immediately wishing I had not.
Myer was visibly annoyed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
I sighed. Debates about religion – especially when I’m involved – always seem to bring out the worst. Myer has been one of my best friends since middle school. Pissing him off over my near atheist views isn’t something I wanted to do.
“Okay,” I said. “You believe that life was created specifically on this planet, for this planet, by God. This raises a number of problems. One is the story of how God created human life as recorded in Genesis, by forming Adam from the 'dust of the ground'. That doesn’t accord with the findings of anthropologists. That is something that we can see and touch. It’s real. I also need to point out the Bible was written in the style of the people almost two thousand years ago, and maybe shouldn’t be taken too literally in today’s day and age. We live in an era where man has sent probes to all the planets in the solar system, and has even sent probes to investigate comets and asteroids. With the knowledge we’ve gathered about other worlds and distant galaxies, many no longer believe our planet could’ve been made in six days. If you believe in the literal truth of the bible, then you have your own reasons for doing so, but I don’t believe a God created life on Earth. Maybe a God did create the universe which resulted in life on Earth, but that’s not the same thing.”
Myer said nothing. Maybe he did not want to argue with me, or maybe like most religious folks, he did not like having holes poked in his beliefs.
“Interesting theories you have Kev,” Manyette said.
“Here’s another one,” I said, ignoring the nagging feeling that something was more than amiss. “One reason aliens have not made contact with us here on Earth is because the Earth is the ghetto of our galaxy.”
This caught Myer’s attention. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, think about it. If you were part of another society searching for other life in the universe, happened upon Earth, studied our behavior, and observed what we do to ourselves as a whole, wouldn’t you come to the same conclusion? Earth is a violent place. We wage wars with each other and kill each other over stupid things, like religion. We are all strangers and have no real desire to get to know each other on a more enlightened basis. So if aliens were truly watching us, and our television and news programs, they would have to know if they made themselves known, they would in all likelihood be kidnapped by our government and experimented on, dead or alive.” I paused to contemplate what I had just said. “Yeah, if I were an alien race watching Earth, I’d steer clear of it too.”
Manyette’s cold blue stare continued to mock me. “Interesting,” was all he said. His face and those laughing eyes said different; that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You’ve got it all wrong. “Let me ask you about something else. Do you believe time travel is possible?”
The shift in topic surprised me. Based on Manyette’s current attitude, I thought I was in for an earful about why my extra terrestrial theories were bunk. Now we were onto a new topic, one I had never given much thought. “Well, let’s just say if such a thing ever becomes possible, I’ll jump ahead a few hundred years to see if we’ve ever made first contact.”
Manyette appeared baffled. “That doesn’t answer my question. I asked if you believed it was possible.”
“What’s with you today?” I asked, slightly annoyed with his cryptic demeanor.
“Nothing, just curious.”
Then show up to Astrology club once in a while, ya fuck.
“I don’t know. There are too many complications to make it realistic,” I said. Attempting to defend the complexities and impossibilities of time travel would be a losing proposition. “Maybe in other dimensions, but not this one.”
Manyette nodded. His faced seem to relax, resuming its goofy demeanor. His condescending stance was gone.
For a brief moment, I felt agitated. It quickly disappeared. A haze seemed to fall over my brain, for lack of a better description, like something forced itself into the back of my head.
See? Chris is acting normally. No need to worry, I thought. A thought that seemed forced, but accepted as fact. The concept of time travel and Manyette’s interest in it became appealing and warranted further discussion. I found myself contemplating scenarios I had not previously considered. I also did not find it odd my thoughts originated without my control. Otherwise, I might need to consider I was not in control of my conscious self. No, that would be silly. It would also be impossible.
Memories of participating in this classroom over the last few years seemed to flip by in my head, as if someone were scanning my memories, as one would flip through a photo album. I envisioned the cluster of badly turned electric pianos at the back of the room.
No, too bulky.
Mr. King’s desk.
No, too many questions.
The bulletin corkboard.
That’s for Chris.
Atop the rear window ledge.
No, too high.
The sheet music filing cabinet.
No, too much traffic.
Under the heat radiator.
Maybe, if it’s not obvious.
The loose tile next to it.
“Okay Chris,” I said. I felt myself speaking the words, willingly, like any other day. The source of them however, did not come from me. When I question this abnormality in my thinking, the worry simply disappears and everything is back to normal. “Let’s say at a later date if time travel is possible, I’ll come back here before class starts and leave myself a message under the loose tile next to the heating unit in the back of the room. Since I will do it, and already done it, my message should be under that tile.”
Manyette smiled. “I’ll play along. Let’s go see whatever you planted up there before class started.”
“Planted?” I asked, standing up. “How was I supposed to know this conversation would come up?”
Manyette ignored my alibi. He stood up. Myer followed suit. “C’mon, seriously, I want to go see if anything is up there,” Manyette said. “If time travel isn’t possible in this dimension, there should be nothing up there.”
I did say that, didn’t I? Why did I change my mind so quickly?
You didn’t. You’d just forgotten you once had a passion for the subject.
Yes, you did.
I recalled wanting to write short stories about time travel some years back, but never got around to doing it. I suppose that maybe I did forget. I accepted all this as my remembering a long forgotten desire.
Then it was over. In an instant I felt wide-awake, without the brain fog surrounding my consciousness.
I looked over at Gartner. She was engrossed in a book. The three of us quietly made our way to the back of the classroom.
Manyette spoke up. “What did you put under that tile, Kev? A message foretelling the end of the world?”
“Why do you keep calling me Kev?”
“Because it’s your name.”
“Since I’ve known you, you’ve always called me by my last name.” I looked at Myer. “We all do that, right?” He nodded. “What changed Manyette? Do you have a split personality?” I said that last part in jest, but if he were to say ‘yes’, I would not have been surprised.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about dude, we’re just chillaxing here, right?”
Chillaxing? What the fuck does that mean?
I did not bother to ask about it this time. Now I knew something was amiss with Manyette. He didn’t see his inconsistency of addressing me by my first name. I glanced at Myer. He shook his head, indicating he was clueless for an explanation, but acknowledged Manyette’s odd behavior.
I stepped up to the loose tile next to the antiquated heat radiator and picked it up. I expected nothing, thus giving Manyette the satisfaction of being right.
Turns out, he was wrong.
Lying underneath the tile was a quarter. In pleasant surprise, I picked it up. Since our discussion of physics and metaphysics had been unplanned, there was no opportunity for Myer or Manyette to plant a quarter there. It was after all, just a quarter. The building was over twenty years old. Anyone could have misplaced a coin back here over that time.
Manyette nodded in approval. Myer on the other hand stared at the quarter in disbelief. “Neat trick,” Myer said. “How did you do that?”
“It’s just a quarter,” Manyette said. “For all we know it’s been under there for years.”
I scoffed, looking at the mint date to see how old the quarter was. “I’ll bet it’s not even below eighty-eight.”
The date I read was impossible.
Myer leaned over for a closer look. “What does it say?”
“Um…it’s not even a real quarter,” I said. “It’s got a future date on it.”
Manyette literally jerked in place. His pale blue eyes blazed bright blue now. “What did you say?” He whispered.
I held up the coin, showing it to Manyette. “It’s got a future date on it,” I said, repeating myself. “2025.”
Manyette licked his lips, as a starving dog might do at a slab of meat. His physical cues let me know he wanted the coin in the worst way. He reached for it, but I pulled it away. “Bullshit,” he spat. “Let me see that.”
Christopher Manyette, almost six inches taller than I, towered over me. Combined with his mysterious and shitty attitude this past hour, he left me feeling a tad vulnerable. If he really wanted something from me, in all likelihood, he could take it. I tossed him the coin, which he examined closely. “It has to be a fake.”
It wasn’t a fake, he knew it wasn’t a fake either, so why the lie? “It doesn’t look fake to me,” I said.
Myer took the coin from Manyette without asking, visibly displeasing him. He examined the coin, actually taking the time to bite into it. “Looks real to me too.”
“And tastes?” I added.
Myer scoffed, scratching his forehead with his middle finger.
I snatched the quarter from Myer, feeling an instinctive need to protect it. I was Frodo and this quarter was my One Ring.
Manyette broke the silence. “Since I think you set this whole thing up, Kevin, I want to pick the next location where we’ll hide something after you build your time machine. Because once you do, I want to be in on it.”
“Please, Christopher,” I said, annunciating his first name, since he insisted on using mine. “I didn’t set this up, buy please, by all means, go for it.” He didn’t flinch. Everyone he knew called him Manyette. He should have reacted badly at the usage of his first name. Nothing, not even an annoyed glance.
I watched Manyette contemplate his next move carefully. He looked around the room, stopping to observe the announcement corkboard, filled with random pieces of paper advertising various school events and homeroom notices. “Okay, this is what I’ll do. I’m going to leave myself a note explaining how what’s happening here is possible.”
The three of us intensely watched the corkboard expecting some note to appear out of thin air.
Of course, nothing changed.
Manyette stared harder at the corkboard. “There is an envelope up there with my name on it.”
“No there isn’t,” Myer insisted. “I think you two are putting me on.”
Manyette walked over to the corkboard, yanked the envelope down, and opened it, revealing a letter. After he read it, he tossed me a doubtful glance and walked back to where we were standing.
“Well?” I asked.
“I think it’s you two who are putting me on,” Manyette said, his voice seemingly lighter. He was once again the Chris Manyette I knew, not the ‘possessed’ version. “This is impossible.”
Myer leaned over to see the contents of the note. “It’s certainly in your cat scratch handwriting.”
Manyette, ignoring Myer’s verbal stab held the paper up and read it aloud. “It says, ‘The whole automotive electronics thing doesn’t really pan out for you. Your destiny lies with the United States Navy. You have very important work to do there. I cannot go into details, but if you look out the window behind you, you might see something spectacular. Enjoy, C. Manyette.’”
As if on cue, the three of us turned around to look out the series of windows that lined the top of the classroom. Off in the distance, a large, single cumulus cloud sitting lower than it should be, hovered there in the sky. The cloud quickly became dark, static lightning illuminating it from within. After a few seconds, the cloud returned to white. It then quickly dissipated and was gone.
I was beyond words. Manyette broke the silence in whisper. “What the hell was that?
“Something spectacular,” I whispered back, quoting the letter in Manyette’s hand. I looked at the quarter in mine. “I think something much bigger than any of us can imagine just happened here, gentlemen.”
The three of us stared at the quarter lying in my palm.