Jane’s mind was fuzzy. Her eyes opened, but the colors and lines wouldn’t coalesce. She wasn’t even sure if she was awake or dreaming. Somewhere in the distance were vaguely familiar voices, but something about the tone was … disconcerting. She tried to focus.
“Mom? Dad?” Her mouth was dry.
The voices stopped and a long silence followed.
“I’m sorry, but you’ve left us no choice, Janey,” her father said.
“What?” Jane tried to rub her eyes, but something around her wrists kept her arms above her head. “What the—?” She yanked against the bindings.
Panic made her vision narrow, but finally everything came into focus. She was in her room, lying on her bed with her wrists and ankles tied to the frame. Her parents stood over her with grim expressions. Her mother’s eyes were red and puffy, as though she’d been crying.
“What are you doing?” Jane resumed her struggle, but her wrists were already raw.
Her mother winced. “Please stop, honey. Don’t make it worse.” She reached out, but Jane’s father caught her hand and whispered something. Neither of them would meet Jane’s eyes.
Her father lifted a hand. “Don’t.” He sighed and shook his head. “What happened to our little girl?” When he finally looked at her, his blue eyes were hard and cold. “You were such a sweet child.”
Jane swallowed. “Nothing. Nothing happened to me. I’m still me—”
“Don’t speak to me! I won’t hear your lies, Satan!” her father screamed.
Jane flinched, a fresh wave of bone-numbing fear rushing through her.
Her father took a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he opened them, his voice was calm and soft. “We only asked you to abandon the lies of men and science.” His eyes were wet. “Janey, we begged you to return to God and the path of righteousness.”
“But, I did—”
“Lies!” he roared.
The room fell into a frightened silence. But it almost sounded like someone was chuckling.
“I told you, Mary,” her father said, “it’s up to us. We must remain strong. Our child needs our strength and our faith. We must bring her, willing or otherwise, back to the light of God. Only he can cast away the evil that has tainted her. Only he can save her soul now.”
“Daddy, please,” was all Jane could choke out. She shook her head, tears running down her cheeks. This had to be a dream. Any minute she’d wake up.
Her father stared at her, his blue eyes as cold as a winter sky. “Lord, hear us as we pray for this wayward child.”
“Why are you doing this? I didn’t do anything!” Jane screamed.
“Then explain these.” Her father held up a battered composition book.
Sobbing now racked Jane’s body so hard she couldn’t speak. She just kept shaking her head. It’s not supposed to be like this, it’s wrong. Everything around her was wrong, somehow.
Her father opened one of the books and showed her the scribbled calculations, the obscenely complex equations and formulas. “You lied to us. You lied again, and again.”
“I told you,” Jane said between sobs. “It’s just math!”
He held up the book. “No. These are lies created by Satan, meant to turn us away from God and his truth. They lead us astray! It is a sin to presume to understand the mind of God! Seek not the answers in science. Seek it in the Word of the Lord.” His voice was calm now, flat and devoid of any emotion. “This is not just math.” His face twisted. “It’s witchcraft.”
“Richard, it’s time to begin.” A remarkably unremarkable man in his late forties stepped forward, a small leather-bound book held tightly to his black shirt. The white of his Roman collar was stained and yellowed.
Jane blinked at the priest. “Father Williams?”
“Peace, child. Fear not, we will drive the devil and his darkness from you,” he said. His voice had as much emotion as most people would use to recite a grocery list.
“Drive out …” Jane’s whisper died and her heart fell through the floor. She struggled anew at her bindings. “No! No way! I don’t need an exorcism! Are you insane?”
Father Williams opened the book. The hand holding it was wrapped in a chain from which a small crucifix dangled. His other hand drew a clear glass vial emblazoned with a gold cross from his pocket.
Jane turned to her mother, mouthing silently, “Mommy?”
Her mother clenched her jaw tight as tears spilled down her cheeks. It looked as though she was about to speak when her father wrapped his arm around her. She turned from Jane and buried her face in his shoulder.
It was then that Jane noticed him.
A tall, thin man stood in the corner. Drenched in heavy shadow, he defied the bright lighting of the room, His black suit and tie were rumpled, and he wore a flat wide-brimmed hat. The only contrast was white—the cuffs of his shirt, the accents of his two-toned wingtip shoes, and the lenses of his round, curiously opaque spectacles. He looked like something out of a comic book.
He chuckled. The sound was like the mix of a diesel engine, a cat’s purr, and a psychotic version of the Cookie Monster.
Pain tore through Jane’s head.
“That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger,” Nightstick said. His gravelly voice was almost singsong. “Usually.”
Jane knew that was the shadow man’s name, but couldn’t explain how any more than she could say why no one else noticed him.
“Hear me, Satan,” Father Williams said.
Jane looked at Nightstick.
He laughed. “Sorry, kid. Afraid he’s talking to you.”
“Leave this child,” Father Williams continued. “Remove your black stain from her soul! The power of Christ compels you!”
“But I’m not possessed!” Jane screamed. Then the absurdity of it all crashed down on her, and she began laughing uncontrollably.
“See how she mocks our lord!” Father Williams cried.
For a moment, Jane could’ve sworn the priest was actually smiling, which only made her laugh harder.
He slapped her face, hard.
The sharp sting of pain and the coppery taste of blood brought the laughter to a stop. Jane glared at the priest and a rush of anger replaced fear as she jerked at her bonds. She imagined herself in a movie, and this was the part where she’d give some bad one-liner, her theme music would start, and then she’d break free and kill this bastard.
“Go to hell, you son of a—”
Numbers and symbols swam through the air, nearly translucent, and though Jane hadn’t noticed them before, she knew they’d always been there. Like a swarm of insects, they converged upon the stereo sitting on her desk.
Loud, thumping techno music filled the room, and a synthesized voice spoke between the heavy beats. “The transfiguration process has begun.”
The room jolted.
Everyone, including Jane, froze and stared with wide eyes at the stereo.
“This is murder,” the digitized voice said.
Father Williams crossed himself.
“Well now, this is really getting entertaining,” Nightstick said.
“It wasn’t me!” Jane yelled.
“Actually, it was, my dear,” Nightstick said and chuckled.
Numbers and symbols continued to dance in the air. Those closest to the stereo joined the others, forming long and intricate calculations.
The volume increased.
“By the power of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave this child!” Father Williams bellowed, though his voice lacked conviction. “The power of Christ compels you!” Using the vial, he cast a watery cross over Jane.
There was a visceral sense of relief in finding that the water didn’t burn. She really wasn’t possessed. However, there was a growing pressure in the spot between her eyes.
The numbers and symbols grew more frenetic in their movements.
Amid the minutia of seemingly endless equations, everything froze as she had a realization. Even her heart seemed to hold still in reverence to the magnitude of her moment of clarity. It was the missing piece of a grand unifying theory, something no one else had been able to see, ever.
“Will,” Jane whispered. “The will of a sentient consciousness.”
Time resumed, and Jane sighed at the rush of adrenaline that poured through her.
Her father was jabbing at buttons, trying to turn off the stereo. In response to each attempt, the floating equations moved into a different sequence, allowing the flow of electrons to bypass his latest effort. His face red, he finally tore the plug from the wall and tossed the stereo across her room, music still blasting.
Just before the stereo hit the wall, the numbers and symbols leapt to the small TV on her chest of drawers. It turned on to show an actor portraying Jesus stepping between an angry mob and a young girl, hands raised. “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Her mother crossed herself and took a step back, whispering something under her breath.
“Oh, nicely done,” Nightstick said. “Very dramatic touch.”
The pressure in Jane’s head turned to white-hot pain and a tingling began to spread over her body.
“Shut up!” she screamed.
Father Williams’s words were incoherent to her now. In fact, the whole scene was slowly drowning in a sea of pain and confusion, the numbers and symbols becoming almost luminescent.
“No!” she screamed through clenched teeth and pulled at the ropes. “God, please help me!”
She screamed again as what felt like a superheated ice pick was driven into her skull. Every muscle in her body tightened at once. A torrent of wind shattered the windows, all of them, and swept through the room, hurling broken glass and debris everywhere.
“Sorry,” Nightstick said. “God’s away on business.”
Jane’s eyes snapped open and she sat up with a gasp. She put her hands to her throbbing head and took slow, deep breaths as the pain subsided. Her stomach was doing backflips.
Slowly, hesitantly, she blinked and looked at her hands. The ropes were still around her wrists, the fibers stained with blood, but the ends dangled down near her forearms, cut clean through and singed.
It took several minutes of staring at her shaking hands to get them to stop enough to untie the bindings from her wrists. She winced as the strands caught and pulled her raw flesh. She tossed the ropes away and went to work on the ones around her ankles.
She was sitting on her bedspread. It was mostly intact, embroidered angels and all. Beneath it, however, she found the sheets and just the top inch of the mattress. Like the ropes, the cut was perfectly straight and bore the faintest trace of scorching at the edges.
Her messenger bag lay at the foot of the decapitated bed. She grabbed the bag, got to her feet, slung it over her shoulder, and finally noticed her surroundings.
Trees, everywhere she looked were trees, and not the kind that grew outside her bedroom window, or anywhere else in Kansas. These were massive, the color of red clay, and stretched in every direction for as far as she could see. Her eyes moved from one to another to another until the haze in the distance swallowed them. A soft breeze blew over her, and she could hear birdsong from all around.
The canopy was hundreds of feet above her. Through the reaching branches, she could see bright blue sky and puffy white clouds. Her mind spun, trying to understand what had happened and how. “This so isn’t happening. It’s a really messed-up dream, and I just need to wake up—” She blinked.
Her heart thudded in her ears, and she felt cold. She shook her head and noticed the debris from her room cast about in the ferns. There were old food wrappers, empty pop cans, stray papers, window-glass shards, and even the notebook her father had used as evidence against her.
A numb feeling came over her as she lifted a corner of the cover to find it was actually half a notebook. Beneath it, she saw three fingers of a human hand neatly severed in the same manner as everything else.
She dropped the book and leapt back.
The longer she looked at the book, the more unreal the fingers beneath became. Her eyes shifted to her bag. She lifted the flap the same way someone would open a booby-trapped box. Then she opened the secret pocket and removed two other battered composition books. After a slight hesitation, she flipped through one, scanning the physics formulae, quantum theory, and various calculations. She’d jokingly thought of these books as her grimoire, and not just because of the power that the formulations in them held.
Her eyes drifted from a particular theorem to the detritus that had once been in her room and back. The equation almost seemed to move, as if trying to lift from the page. As she was remembering the equations that had floated in her room, she could just make out in her peripheral vision the same kinds of symbols and numbers joining together into equations, then disbanding and joining other symbols to make new calculations.
Again, she started laughing. This was either a vindication of her theories or the result of a complete mental breakdown. She’d snapped and was lying in a hospital bed somewhere, drooling while her family argued with the doctors over brain activity. She pondered the ludicrousness of the situation and laughed harder. If this was a delusion, where was Johnny Depp?
After several moments, she thought of Nightstick and her manic laughter subsided.
He stood twenty feet away, obscured by shadows in blatant disregard to the daylight that shone on everything around him.
“I’m really sorry to disappoint you,” he said. “About not being Mr. Depp, I mean.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Well, that’s quite a question, isn’t it?” Nightstick scratched at his cheek and looked around for a long moment. “I suppose the simple answer is that I’m a hallucination.”
“So, I’m crazy?” It was actually a bit of a relief. Talk about mixed emotions.
“I’m not really an expert,” he said. “But no, not in the way you’re hoping, I’m afraid.” He chuckled, and it sent a shiver down Jane’s back. “Though I suppose my very existence speaks to some sort of mental disrepair.”
“So this is real?”
Nightstick considered the question for a long moment. “For the sake of brevity, yes.”
“What’s that mean?”
“As far as you’re concerned, yes, you did make the stereo play, even when it wasn’t plugged in. And you did make the TV turn on to show Jesus—which was truly inspired, by the way. You did all that, in a matter of speaking.” He looked around. “But, this is really and truly a redwood forest in Northern California—”
“You just qualified almost everything you said,” Jane said.
Nightstick shrugged. “If you really want to have an in-depth discussion on the nature of reality with yourself …”
Jane looked down at the composition books and her hands started to shake, so she put the books away and clenched her hands into fists. When she looked up, Nightstick was staring at her.
“If you’re not going help, get lost,” she said.
It was as if he were never there.
She looked around. Crazy or not, she was alone with no idea how she’d traveled several thousand miles or how she was going to get home. A twitch of her hands brought a stab of pain from her bloodied wrists. Did she even want to go home?
The abrupt emptiness and fear caught her off guard. She’d thought about running away plenty, more so as her parents went further off the deep end of their Bibles. The bag on her shoulder had a few other hidden pouches containing cash, a couple boxes of matches, a St. Christopher medallion, a multi-tool, an eagle feather, and a few other assorted items, just in case. However, as the minutes ticked by, it was becoming quite clear that thinking about running away was very different from actually doing it. She looked down at her Chuck Taylor sneakers and was grateful she’d fallen asleep fully clothed last night.
She ran her hands through her tangled brown hair and let out a breath.
“So, what now?” she asked.
As if in answer, her stomach lurched and she fell to her knees. Symbols, numbers, and calculations began spinning overhead, forming then disjoining, over and over. The pressure was so intense, she thought her skull might explode. She focused her gaze and concentrated on one formulation, then another. As she did, they became more opaque and less frantic in their movements. They combined into the quantum wormhole theory—the joining of two points in space—and it made sense. It was so simple. Dimensional space was an illusion, a construct, and it could be circumvented. She’d done it with the power of her mind. How else could she have gotten here?
Incoherent whispers filled the air, bringing Jane’s attention back to the here and now. She focused, but couldn’t make out the words. It sounded like children.
“Hello?” she shouted. “Who’s there? Nightstick?”
Like a whisper, the shadow man appeared in front of her. “That’s not me,” he said. “And I’d love to help, but it’s sort of beyond my design specs.”
More whispers. They grew steadily louder, more insistent, but there were too many to make out anything. It felt like a thousand voices pulling on her sleeve, desperate to get her attention.
“Stop, please,” she said.
The whispers just grew louder, more garbled as still more voices joined the cacophony.
“Shut up!” Jane closed her eyes and covered her ears with shaking hands. “Get out of my head!”
Everything was silent.
After several minutes, she dropped her hands. Slowly, the vacuum of sound began to fill; wind, birds, and insects. Beyond that, she could just make out the sound of running water and she realized she was incredibly thirsty.
Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. The floating symbols and numbers were gone, as was Nightstick.
She stood and followed the sound, soon arriving at a clear and swift little stream. She dropped her bag, knelt down, and plunged her head into the water.
This wasn’t a delusion or a dream, and she knew it. She took several swallows of the cool water and considered keeping her head there. After a while, the cold water made her ears ache.
She sat up, sucked in a deep breath of air, pushed her wet hair back, and stared at her reflection. Her eyes were red and puffy, but the irises were as soft in color and vibrant in tone as ever. She’d always liked the color; it reminded her of melted chocolate. She was taller than most of the boys in school, even the seniors; she was brushing six feet when last she checked, but was also skinny. Her build was more fitting to a boy about to start puberty, not a girl nearing the end of it. Her hair was a brown, slightly shaggy pixie cut.
She slung her bag over her shoulder, walked to a large rock, and sat down.
Would she ever see Michael and Josie again? The thought of her little brother and sister stuck with her parents, especially now that they’d completely lost their freaking minds, broke her heart. She drew her knees to her chest and began to cry. Even as she wept, her mind tried to return to the calculations. It was a subtle nagging at first, but slowly built in insistence. She fought it back, trying to cling to the image of her siblings.
The formulations won their fight, bursting into life around her.
The pain returned, searing and all-consuming, right between her eyes. She tried to scream, but her breath caught in her chest. The symbols whirled around her, little more than a blur. Soon the world spun with them, and once again everything went black.
Jane woke with her teeth chattering. She was shivering so violently that her muscles ached. With effort, she climbed out of a massive snowdrift. She hugged herself tight, wishing she was wearing more than hand-me-down jeans and a dingy brown jacket that was a couple sizes too big.
This new place was as barren and desolate as the forest had been verdant and lush. Nothing but snow and ice stretched for miles in every direction. At least the whiteout hid the persistent equations from view. Cold wind whipped at her face and froze tears to her burning cheeks. Her hands and feet were already numb, and the lack of sensation was spreading. Her body was racked by shivers so hard they were more like seizures.
The formulae surged momentarily.
She started walking but didn’t make it far before her muscles gave out and she collapsed. The only thing she could do was lie there, shivering and waiting for the end to come.
“Giving up?” Nightstick asked. “That’s so very disappointing.”
“Piss off,” she said. Or rather, she tried to. It came out sounding more like Porky Pig’s stutter.
She ignored him and tried to bring it all to an end through sheer force of will. Hadn’t she read something about hypothermia? That it made you fall asleep? Maybe that would mean there wouldn’t be any—
When the pain returned, the heat of it was almost a welcome contrast to the bitter cold. She found herself welcoming the approaching blackness. Maybe this time it would be over. Maybe this time the darkness would last forever.
In fact, the darkness didn’t come at all. Her body felt like it was stretching and compressing a hundred times a second. The equations came into focus, swirling around her in an inescapable tornado. She studied them, but soon found her focus was needed to avoid motion sickness.
Then she saw it. They were infinite probability determinations—a mathematical formula to derive a specific outcome from the infinite possibilities that reality offered. It took focus, more than she’d ever had to summon in her life, but she didn’t vomit and was able to see pieces that should go together. As she noticed them, the parts merged into longer and more complicated equations.
She didn’t know how, but she knew she was causing it.
After what was probably just seconds, but felt like years, the formulation reached a zero sum and the whirling stopped.
She smacked face-first into a brick wall at about warp seventy and bounced off, landing flat on her back. She didn’t move. There was a ringing in her ears and her left shoulder screamed in protest. Something warm and wet ran down her face, and when she touched her cheek, her fingers came away sticky with blood.
“Damn it,” she screamed through gritted teeth.
She rolled over, wiping more blood from her face. At least it was warmer here. She was surrounded by skyscrapers, and the lights from bright and colorful neon signs stabbed at her vision. The smell of cooked food came to her, but she didn’t recognize the dishes. She noticed then that all the words on the signs were in Japanese or Chinese, or some kind of characters that she didn’t recognize. She started crying again and slid down the wall until she was sitting in the alleyway, burying her face in her arms.
Why was this happening to her? Despite what her parents might think, she did believe in God. But she couldn’t imagine any God would be interested enough in the petty details of her life to punish her like this. And what other explanation was there?
She looked up at the cloudy sky, illuminated by light pollution and blurred by her tears. “I give up, all right? Whatever I did, I’m sorry!”
Eventually the headache returned, and everything repeated: the dancing numbers and symbols, the stomach-churning whirlwind, and then—she found herself in another new location.
The scenes shifted from mountains to desert to rocky coast to sandy beaches and barren flats. Mixed in were cities ranging from metropolis-like behemoths of glass and stone to modest little towns, and she even landed once in a dark and twisted forest, like something out of a child’s nightmare.
Occasionally Nightstick would appear, offering snide commentary and absolutely no help. All the same, he was her only company. She didn’t dare try to find help. Without any control, she didn’t want to risk anyone else losing fingers, or worse. The amount of time that had passed between each shift in her location varied from a few minutes to several hours, though beyond that, time had no meaning to her.