Issue 3

Metronome

by Stephen Parrish

 

When my older brother Samuel began rocking in his sleep, the family took little notice, except to accustom itself to the rhythmic protest of his bedsprings, a sound that traveled through the walls of the house and reached our ears as a stoic sigh. Samuel didn’t rock from side to side, rather forward and backward in a sitting position, as though repeatedly stretching to touch his toes. It wasn’t long before I was unable to sleep until the rocking began, until I’d heard the moan of bedsprings from his room next door.

In the beginning, Samuel rocked for several minutes before settling back on his pillow and kicking his blanket to the floor. Soon it went on for hours. Finally it lasted all night. The kinetic energy nudged the bed a few inches away from the wall. Each morning my father pushed it back again.

Samuel was a precocious runt, a single-digit savant. Once he built a rocket by filling a plastic bottle with vinegar and baking soda. It exploded in the kitchen, spraying the cabinets with a fine balsamic mist. Our parents subsequently bought him a chemistry set. “At least it comes with instructions,” my father said. Eventually the basement became littered with corrosive powders, beakers filled with inextricable gunk, and test tubes frothing over with the dreams of an adolescent alchemist.

By the time Samuel entered junior high school, he’d decided to become a physicist; we happened to be riding our bikes one afternoon when he stopped to share the epiphany. He had my mother’s red hair and freckles, whereas I took after my father’s side. The contrast magnified his nerdy qualities and contributed to a mentor-student relationship between us.

I asked him what a physicist was. He said someone who studied atoms and things. I didn’t know what an atom was, so he explained that as well: if you ride your bike on the street you can avoid children, squirrels, etc., but atoms are so small and numerous that your bicycle tire will always hit them no matter how hard you try to miss them.

He said, “Go ahead, roll your tire forward a little.” I did. “You,” he observed solemnly, “just ran over an atom.”

His rocking became more energetic. The sound of his panting synchronized with the groan of bedsprings until I imagined the springs gasping in relief as they recoiled to their full length after each forward thrust of Samuel’s torso. The bed migrated farther from the wall; my father exasperatedly pushed it back. Every night we listened in wary fascination as the noises from Samuel’s bedroom migrated through the house—as though the house itself were invigorated by his metronomic rhythm, the bricks, boards, and shingles winding into a coil, amassing potential energy.

He built a radio, a laser pistol, a spaceship. None of them worked. Or at least to us they didn’t: he spent hours listening to the silent radio, a shoebox filled with discarded electrical parts. He fired the laser pistol at trees and inspected them afterward, running his fingers over what appeared to be healthy bark. He sat inside the painted cardboard spaceship with his head turned to a circular cutout, his mouth gaping in awe, as though viewing alien worlds through a portal.

He peppered his science teacher with questions: “If arbitrary points in Euclidean n-space return from their coordinates at t-one to their coordinates at t-zero, thus recreating the original conditions, can we not say the system traveled back in time?”

The teacher became frustrated with his inability to answer the questions: “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

“Does the model hold only for infinitesimal geometric points? Or can we stretch them to the Planck length? Why do temporal variables only increase in a positive direction?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.”

One morning we woke to find Samuel’s bed outside his room, askew in the hallway. He was still sleeping in it, fitfully, oblivious to the family surrounding him in their pajamas. Our father measured the doorframe and confirmed the bed had to have been tipped sideways to get through.

“I’m afraid,” I told Samuel later, as we walked together to school. His answer did nothing to console me: “Every moment in time occurs simultaneously,” he said. “Everything that has ever happened, or ever will happen, is happening right now.”

Our mother threw a blanket on the floor of Samuel’s room, intending to spend the night there and observe. But Samuel rocked for just a few minutes, she reported, then flopped back on his pillow and turned to stone. Nevertheless she stayed two more nights. The first he rocked even less, the second not at all. She returned to her own bed, hopeful the episode was over.

For a month, it was.

Then the bedsprings spoke again, their former sighs now a collective wail, the walls of the house serving as a conduit, a sequence of mutually orthogonal relay stations designed to convey the message.

In the morning, Samuel’s bed was even farther away; it had not only left his bedroom, it had traveled to the end of the hall.

“This must stop,” our father said. But he chose, like my mother and I, to remain in his bed at night, secure beneath his thin blanket, trying to ignore the sound of bricks and rafters moaning like a cavernous beast in pain.

During one otherwise silent dinner, Samuel delivered a rare homily. “It’s the energy of the oscillations,” he said. He looked from face to face around the table, seeking evidence of comprehension. “Energy warps time and space.” Still no reaction. “Whenever you stare straight out into the night sky, you’re looking at the back of your own head.”

His bed began appearing in different rooms on the floor. Then on different floors of the house. On the lawn. The opposite side of the river. A town three miles away. Police bulletins went out each morning before breakfast. To the question where might he be, my father could only stammer, “I don’t even know when.”

News reporters camped out in the yard. One showed us a clipping from sixty years past: the story of the man who built the house, an eccentric scientist who’d been fired from his university teaching position for making “hyperbolic declarations.” One day he disappeared. No notice. No fanfare. No trace. A year later, the yard overgrown with pigweed and clover, his daughter sold the house.

“The mechanism needs energy,” Samuel lectured us at dinner. Again he was met with silent stares. “Like the spinning wheel in a gyroscope,” he clarified. “The wheel must be made to spin.” He glanced around in frustration. “It must be wound.”

My father installed bars on Samuel’s bedroom door. Samuel could fit through, but his bed couldn’t. It didn’t make any difference.

“He always comes home safe,” my mother insisted when talking to neighbors. Even at my young age I could recognize the panic in her voice, the desperate grappling with responsibility. “There’s no need to panic,” she said. “He eats dinner with us every evening.”

She and my father stood outside Samuel’s room one night, peering through the grille. They wanted to see what happened when he departed. But amid the tumultuous din a blinding light appeared above Samuel’s bed. I could see the glow from my bedroom next door; it flooded the hallway, enshrouding my parents. I watched as they shimmered and cringed, a pair of penitents shielding their eyes.

“Where was he today?” the neighbors asked.

“He’s safe,” my mother answered. “He’s home.” And then, sensing their disapproval, “We can’t tie him up and lock him in a box!”

My father called the state university and described the recent events to a physics professor. As he was relating the gyroscope analogy he stopped abruptly and said, “Hello? Hello?” Then he hung up and stared long at the floor.

He made an appointment with a child psychologist, who consented to a house call. “Your boy has a vivid imagination,” the psychologist concluded. “You don’t understand,” my father said. “Everything he told you is true.” “Ah. Now we know where the imagination comes from.”

He consulted the church pastor who told us, “We don’t do exorcisms anymore. You’ve been watching too many movies.”

Curiosity finally got the best of my fears. I squeezed through the bars and crept into Samuel’s room one night just after his light went out, then sat on the floor to watch.

His arms rested idly in his lap. His eyes were closed. Without opening them he turned to me and said, “Climb in.”

We rocked side by side. I kept pace with him at first, but soon discovered I didn’t have to make the effort; the coil had only one winding speed. So I closed my eyes too. I felt his shoulder rub mine; occasionally our knees bumped, but otherwise I lost all sensation, experiencing weightlessness accompanied by deep muscular relaxation. The bedsprings screeched and whined, and a low rumble rose from the floor and walls. I sensed movement, but no acceleration, no inertia.

“Keep your eyes closed,” he said.

“I’m scared.”

“Don’t be.”

The bedsprings protested more loudly, the house groaned—not in pain, rather in heroic effort, a weight lifter striving for his personal best. A mother giving birth. Atlas raising the planet above his shoulders. Gradually the myriad sounds blended into a static roar. And then . . . silence.

“You can open your eyes now.”

We were standing at the bank of the creek where we played together—or had played together, before Samuel outgrew the need for play. He waded into the swirling, refractive water. Beneath the surface a school of minnows floated, swimming just hard enough against the current to maintain their place in the stream. Samuel lowered his hand slowly, until it barely touched the vitreous boundary between air and water. Then he plunged it in. When he pulled it back out and opened his fist, it was empty.

“Always turns out that way.” He laughed. “I’ve never been able to catch one.”

He seemed different: gone was the automaton other boys ridiculed and teachers suspected of having Asperger’s. Gone was the haughtiness, the incredulous response to ignorance and incompetence. Here was the young boy. Playing in a creek.

“You try,” Samuel said.

I had no better luck. But I enjoyed the sensation of crystal water brushing against my legs, gently insisting I accompany it downstream. The creek smelled organic, fishy, a combination of everything that had ever nourished it. Cattails colonized the far bank, where a soft meander dampened the current. Dragonflies hovered over the cattail flower heads. From a stone’s throw away, I heard a rattlesnake warning potential trespassers.

We waded upstream, then stopped to rest on a boulder. Samuel wanted to tell me something.

“Remember when we were skipping rocks on this bank, and you told me you wished you could travel in time?”

“Yes,” I said. “And you looked at me funny.”

“Remember again.”

I remembered again. “You didn’t look at me funny. You acted normal.”

“Remember again.”

“You weren’t even there . . . I was talking to myself.” I glanced over and found him staring straight into my eyes. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“What indeed. There are two advantages to wandering around in the past. First, you’re able to predict every bad thing that’s going to happen and avoid it. Remember when I got spanked for the bottle rocket?”

“Yes.”

“Remember again.”

“You didn’t get spanked . . .”

“Every ambiguous memory anyone’s ever had has been rendered so by one traveler or another.”

“What’s the second advantage?”

He stood up and continued wading upstream. “You live forever.”

The next morning our mother, father, and a police officer were standing over Samuel’s bed when he and I awoke in it, lying side by side. “Exactly where they’re supposed to be,” my father said. “Thank God.”

The summer days drifted by. Samuel’s journeys took him farther and farther away. Often it was already past bedtime when they brought him home and sent him to bed again.

He crept into my room one night to tell me he was making his final journey, one from which he wouldn’t return. He’d come to say goodbye.

I cried. “You won’t even visit?”

“I won’t be able to. This journey’s different from the others.”

“Where are you going?”

He shrugged. “It’s hard to explain. Just think of it as the past. A past from which you can’t return. I’ll be safe. The problem with the future is, you don’t know how much of it you’ve survived.”

“Stay here with me. Stay in the present.”

“No, a traveler travels. But don’t worry. No two spiritual entities that have ever come together will ever, thereafter, be apart.”

“It’ll feel like we’re apart.”

“Just think of the times we spent together. I’ll be there with you. I’ll be adding more memories.”

“I want you here with me now.”

“Remember when I said all points in time are identical? Turns out, all points in space are, too.”

He returned to his room. I wiped my eyes and listened for the telltale sounds: springs recoiling their energy, bedposts scuffing across the floor.

A gale rose. The house tremored. The walls ached and groaned until I feared they would collapse like teetering stacks of toy blocks. A storm was churning outside my window. I looked out and saw no stars, only the thick choking night, a sentient blackness descending. The storm swelled to a tempest. I heard my mother shouting from downstairs, and my father shouting back.

Raging gusts buffeted the house. I cried out, “Samuel! Samuel!” The house shuddered furiously as hoarse winds roared in my ears. A dense white light streamed from Samuel’s room. I dashed into the hallway but was too late: the light was already subsiding. The bed and the boy were gone.

The next morning my father went through the normal procedures: he called the police, posted the “Missing Child” notices on telephone poles, glanced frequently and irritably at his watch.

A year passed. Samuel was never found. He never came home.

Nevertheless I knew he was still in my life, because I got back everything he’d borrowed and failed to return. He left the marbles in a small dish on my desk, where I was sure to find them. The Swiss army knife showed up in a coat pocket. And the wood burning kit, which he’d used—and ruined—as a soldering iron, appeared new in its original box at the bottom of my closet.

One morning I awoke to a small stack of rocks in the middle of the floor. They were flat and roughly circular, and I recognized them as ones we’d skipped from the bank of the creek.

I won every argument, too, all the way back to when we fought over boundaries in the bathtub. First I remembered losing the arguments. Then I remembered again and won them. The closeness that I’d always felt was missing from my relationship with Samuel became an integral part of my memory of him. The brother I’d always wanted, I now had.

One night I began rocking in my bed, the same way Samuel used to. My father’s expression hardened: “If that’s a joke, it isn’t funny.”

It wasn’t a joke. I tried to comfort my parents, who camped out for hours at a time at the dining room table, their eyes moist and bloodshot, suffering under the misconception they’d lost a son. I continued to rock, because I missed Samuel. I missed the sound and light that had emanated from his room, the sensation of a house coming to life, the vortex that forever binds every two spiritual entities that have ever come together.

I missed the way he touched me on the shoulder when explaining something. The way he finally made eye contact at the end and saw me for the first time.

Now I saw him too.

As I rocked, my bed inched away from the wall. In the morning my father came upstairs and pushed it back again.


About the Author

Stephen Parrish is the author of The Tavernier Stones, The Feasts of Lesser Men, and Anatomy of a Spy. In 2011 he was awarded an Independent Publisher (IPPY) gold medal. His short work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, The Good Men Project, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and elsewhere and has been read in public by Liars’ League, Lit Crawl, and other venues. He presently serves as editor of The Lascaux Review.