Chapter 1

 

Danny lay awake on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, feeling the heat of the sun soak through the window and bake his room.  Dressed in yesterday’s clothes, he was still, silent, in thought—or perhaps not.  He may have considered it thought at times, but it felt more like browning out to the world around him.  For however long the trance may last, he’d escape the reality rolling on around him.

The apartment was just as quiet, just as motionless.  No one but Danny had really set foot in the place for a few months now.  No one, let alone friends, not for quite some time.  This was just where he slept, and thought, and zoned out for most of each day since dropping out of Cornell.  Detached from the world around him, he waded through his thoughts, trying to make sense of what he had done—and what had brought him here.

The cell phone on the desk across the room chimed, announcing a text message.  Danny snapped out of his hypnotic rest, rolled out of bed, and made his way to the phone.  He opened the text and to his irritation found something all too familiar: a line of twelve numbers in no particular order.  Examining the message, having no context or explanation for it, he only saw a scrambled line from an incomplete phone number of only a few digits.

With a sigh, running his fingers through his overgrown hair, he left the newly arrived text, wondering what he was going to do about the mess.  Thus far irritation was the only problem, but he also wondered if he might be in any sort of danger.  Maybe this was the sick joke of a stalker, or even a hacker.  He felt embarrassed, wondering if he was overreacting.  Though it was definitely strange, was a text from a random number every few days really cause for alarm?

Stroking the screen, he perused the numerous texts he’d already received from this number—almost a dozen or so.  He had realized about a week ago that the numbers in each text were always the same, just in a different order each time they were sent.  But beyond that, they didn’t seem to have any sort of pattern or meaning.  He’d read some urban myths on the internet about shutting down people’s cell phones with a secret “code” or something—but why would someone choose to screw with him of all people?  It wasn’t like he had tried to upset anyone, and he hadn’t exactly interacted with a lot of people recently.

“Hell,” he muttered to his phone and whoever was harassing him, “get a life already.”

Then another text arrived—this time from someone he knew:

Are you still coming?

A panic seized Danny as he checked the time on his phone—he was already late.  Way late.  With a sigh, he tapped out a reply, an apology and an assurance that he’d be there soon.  He didn’t get many chances to really leave his apartment, not anymore; he wasn’t going to miss this one.

He looked over the texts from his supposed stalker one more time, set his phone back down, and grabbed a haphazard change of clothes from his closet.  Dressed again, he started a reckless drive to his appointment.

About that time, Eli was glancing down at his phone for the fifth time.  Sitting cross-legged outside the coffee shop at one of the outdoor tables near the street, he sighed, adjusted his glasses, and looked off down the sidewalk, grateful for his coat and drink as the wind picked up.  A few more minutes passed before he considered giving Danny a call; only then did he see his friend sprinting down the sidewalk toward him.

“You are very late,” Eli stated, though he was pretty used to Danny’s frequent tardiness at this point.

“Sorry,” Danny panted, taking a seat across the small circular table.  “I totally lost track of time.”

Eli shook his head, smirking a bit.  “Don’t worry about it.”

They immediately shifted into the usual small talk, catching up a bit, though it hadn’t been too long since they last saw each other.  The coffee shop had become their meeting place for the past couple months, and while their conversations may have seemed dry at first, these were the only concrete moments they could connect lately.

“So,” Danny said, “how does it feel to be a ‘master of quantum physics’?”

Though he tried not to let it show, Eli couldn’t help but feel a little surprised that Danny would bring that up so casually.

“It’s nice to be done with school for now, especially the thesis,” Eli said, trying to choose his words wisely.  “Actually, the lab I did my research with offered me a position.”

Danny smiled, and said, “So, save up some more money and then it’s off to get that doctorate?”

“Pretty much,” Eli said with a faint smile of his own, taking a deep sip of his coffee.  He stared down at the paper cup.  Since Danny had jumped in headfirst like this, he felt like he might as well go ahead and ask.

“How are you doing, Danny?”

Danny seemed to be expecting the question to come eventually; he looked like it didn’t catch him off guard, at least.

“Nothing to report, really,” Danny said, as if the conversation hadn’t taken a turn.  “Just the same old story.”

“Have you—”  Eli hesitated, then finally worked up some more courage.  “Have you thought about what you’re going to do now?”

“Little bit,” Danny said, starting to sound more serious.  “Mom’s still saying she wants me to move back to Fayette.  She thinks some time at home might help me figure things out.”

“Have you given that any thought?” Eli asked.  “It’d certainly be easier on you if you didn’t have to worry about rent.  You might even be able to find some work out there—for the time being, at least.  I mean, even with the scholarships, you still have some loans to pay off, right?”

Danny nodded along.  “Yeah, it’d definitely help.”  He paused, staring down at the table for a moment.  “It’s kind of hard to believe it’s already been two months, though.  I’ll bet you had an interesting time when the professors started asking where I was.”

“Well,” Eli said, “you did just sort of drop off the radar.”

The next question to pop in Eli’s head made him hesitate even more, but he didn’t think it would rattle Danny too badly.  He wanted to be sensitive to what might be going on in his friend’s life, but, at the same time, he felt that Danny needed to be more realistic about the situation.  And if he was willing to discuss it now, Eli would get in what he could.

“Are you considering picking up your master’s again?”

Danny looked off into the distance, listening and thinking.

“I mean,” Eli went on, “you’re almost finished with the program too, and there’s no denying you’d make a great physicist.  Amateurs don’t get as many grants as you have.”

“I guess so,” Danny muttered.

Another quiet pause followed before Eli pushed a little further.

“Did you tell your mom about why you—?”

“No,” Danny responded, looking back at Eli.  “She’s been asking, but… no, I haven’t told her.”  He leaned his head back and groaned, watching the clouds.  “I just don’t want her to feel guilty or anything, you know?  I don’t know how she’d take it.”

“It does sound complicated,” Eli admitted.  “But are you sure this is your only option?  I mean, I’m sure it’s difficult, and probably a bit strange, but do you really think it means you have to drop your master’s altogether?”

Danny didn’t respond; he kept his eyes on the sky.  Eli thought he could see sadness in his face, and maybe almost a sense of awe; he couldn’t decide if Danny seemed more like someone paralyzed with fear before something much greater than himself, or if he looked as if he had everything in his control.

“Sorry,” Eli said, folding his arms over the table and gazing back down the sidewalk Danny had come up.

“It’s fine,” Danny finally said, bringing his eyes back from the clouds to his friend across the table.  “There’s no denying it; I know this is serious.  But, Eli, I’ve felt this way for a long time now.  It feels like…”  He trailed off, turning his head to survey each person walking past them, each car coasting by, every sign of life.  “Honestly, I feel…  I feel like I’m completely unplugged from the world right now.  As if nothing really fits me.  Nothing feels like it’s meant for me, you know?”

“So you feel like a stranger in a strange land, then?”

Smirking at his own melodrama, Danny nodded.  “Pretty much.”

Relieved to see him still smiling, Eli thought he might be all right adding one last thing.

“It makes sense, your reasons for dropping out,” Eli mused.  “Maybe you feel lost because you just shed so much of your identity.  I mean, you and I have been planning our entire lives around this for years now—pursuing physics, I mean.  But now…”

Before Danny could respond, his phone chimed in—another text.  Eli could see his look change.

“Still getting those texts?”

“Yeah,” Danny sighed, pulling his phone from his pocket.  “Whoever it is, they’re pretty persistent.”

Sure enough, he was right: another list of twelve numbers.  Yet something was different this time.

“Did you talk to my grandpa yet?” Eli asked.  “He might know something you could do to stop those texts, or at least figure out who’s sending them.”

Danny hummed absentmindedly.  “Yeah, I talked to him.  Not for nothing, but they didn’t know what to do about it since it’s not a full phone number.  Huh, that’s new.”

“What’s new?”

He showed Eli the phone.  “Every time I’ve gotten a text from this guy, it’s been the same numbers, but they’re always in a different order.”

Eli compared the numbers in the new text to those in the last.  “They’re in the same order.”

Before Danny could respond, his phone chimed again.  Eli handed the phone back to Danny, showing him the latest text: twelve numbers, once again, still in the same order as the previous two texts.  Then another chime, another text—the same numbers, the same order.  Another chime, and another, and another, and on and on.

Danny looked to Eli, not sure what to make of his sputtering cell phone.  The few people around them started to stare as the phone continued its rapid ringing, one text after another filling his inbox, first from the same phone number, then from others.  All the same message.  Not sure what else to do, Danny tried to shut his phone off.  Before he could, however, the texts immediately stopped.

Without a word, and with Eli watching over his shoulder, he opened the most recent list of messages.  Several dozen times over the same list of twelve numbers repeated itself, until eventually they began to arrive in a new format, broken into two numbers each.  Then an N and a W began to float around the texts after that, the N finally settling at the middle of the pairs of numbers and the W at the end.  By that point the phone recognized the arrangement.

Danny thumbed the now highlighted mix of numbers and letters.  In response, the phone opened its GPS: directions from their location to a patch of green just southwest of Lodi and north of the Finger Lakes National Forest.  Instantly knocking them out of the map, one last text arrived:

She needs your help.

Neither of them spoke; neither was really certain of what they could even say.  A breeze pushed past them, rushing through the open street, calling Danny and Eli from their stupor.  They both looked up at each other, then back down at the phone.

The phone suddenly started to ring, shocking them both back to life as a call came through.  They both sighed deeply when they saw MOM on the screen.  Eli slumped back down into his chair as Danny continued to stare at his phone, turning off the ringer.

“Aren’t you going to answer it?”

Danny thought it over, but finally shook his head and pocketed the phone.

The day went on fairly normally from there; Eli went back to the university, and Danny went back to his apartment.

That night, he lay on his bed once again, still dressed, this time truly lost in thought.  His mind raced from the texts, to his mother, to the time he had spent at Cornell with Eli, all the way back to his apartment.  Turning over, he looked around his dark room, listening to cars outside drive by.

Feeling restless, he got out of bed and walked around his small apartment, running his fingers across the walls and counters, picking up an item here and there only to put it back where it was.  The whole place seemed different from that morning; nothing in the apartment had changed, though.  It was something in him.  The apartment felt like the world around him.

Danny felt as if he were floating away from this little place on the outskirts of Ithaca, still immersed in a steady stream of thought.  His mother, Eli, his professors—he could hear them all, every one of them asking the same questions again and again.  They were questions that only he could answer, and yet he wasn’t sure he even wanted to answer them.  Some answers were his alone, yet the questions continued to press down upon him as they had for weeks now.

Looking at his phone again, he reviewed his texts.  The screen erupted light into the room around him, illuminating his otherwise dark surroundings.  He stared at the final message for some time, feeling a mix of anxiety and anticipation as he read the words that were left at the end of all the coordinates:

She needs your help.  That was all.

“Some stalker,” he muttered, weighing the phone in his hand.

Looking out the window across the room, he thought of a thousand explanations for the texts, adding them to the hundreds of others he had come up with in the weeks before, imagining something—someone—waiting just beyond the window.  Waiting for him.  Just outside.  It was the strangest thought, the oddest sensation, mostly because it didn’t feel like it even belonged to him.  As if it had been given, not conjured.

Putting the phone to sleep, he returned to the dark room, his thoughts slowing, approaching their inevitable destination.  The ride was coming to an end, and he knew it.  His life in Ithaca was over and gone, and he needed to accept that.  And so he came to his conclusion.

Feeling guilty for screening her call earlier, seeing she had left him a voicemail he still hadn’t listened to, he decided to fill his mother in on the situation.  Reaching her voicemail box instead, he left her a message of his own.

Not long after that he found himself hammering on Eli’s door.

“Danny, what’s up?” Eli said, looking as if he were just about to head to bed.  “It’s pretty late.”

“Eli,” Danny said, a wild grin cracking across his face, “I made a decision.”

“Okay,” Eli said, an uncomfortable laugh escaping him.  “What’s going on?”

“I’ve decided to move back home,” Danny went on.  “But before that, there’s one last thing I want to do.”

Eli tried to ask what that might be, but before he could get the words out he was already looking at the screen of Danny’s phone—directions from his apartment to a destination in the middle of nowhere.

“One last hurrah, Eli—you in?”