55 Out of Focus

Monday after classes I went back to search the Physics building. With the meeting of the Strangers coming up, I was inspired. I wanted to come in with some evidence that everyone else had overlooked, somehow. Of course, what I found was pretty much more of the same – but now I had a name. Davis. I already knew that Morton Davis wasn’t my target, but I kept my eyes out for another one who might somehow have been overlooked. In particular, I was looking for signs of an erasure, for indications that there had been another Davis in the building, and that the evidence of his existence hadn’t been erased as completely as intended.

Well, I didn’t exactly find one, but I did find a Phillip Davidson. That seemed pretty close, and I wondered if people had misremembered his name. I didn’t see a lab specifically assigned to him, just an office.

I knocked at his door. I didn’t expect to recognize him, of course. I didn’t remember any professor at all when I went in for the time travel experiment. For that matter, I didn’t remember professors at most of the experiments I had signed up for; they seemed mostly to be student-run things. Still, if I could just learn what kind of research he was doing, I might be able to get some clues.

There had been no answer, so I knocked again. Again, there was no response, so I tried the door. It was locked. At this point, I did something that was probably not very smart. The upsides of finding out something about Professor Davidson seemed so strong, and my need was so great, that I decided to break in.

Now, I have no particular skill with locks, but I remembered somebody who did. He had lived down the hall from me Freshman year, and had shown off one day for a few of us, boasting that he could get into any dorm room he pleased. We made a bet that he couldn’t, and he took all of our money when he managed to unlock, not only all of our rooms, but two offices in the next building. The trick would be to persuade him to come to my aid.

He didn’t know Marsha, of course, and I was going to have to come up with a good story. I knew a price that any guy would have accepted, of course, but paying with my body was something I was not willing to do, not even for this, not when it was only for a slim chance.

Back at my dorm room, I looked him up in the student directory and called.

“Hello?” he answered, or somebody did. I wasn’t sure I recognized his voice.

“Is this Stan Warrik?”

“Yeah, do I know you?”

“No, you don’t. My name is Marsha Steen, and some friends tell me you’re pretty good with locks.”

He laughed. “’Pretty good’? I’m amazing. Your friends don’t know me very well, I’d say.”

“Well, I have a lock I need opened.”

“No problem,” he said confidently. “What did you do, lock a key in your trunk or something?”

“Um… actually, I sort of left something in my professor’s office and he’s gone for the day, and I really need it back tonight.”

I wanted for what seemed like forever before he replied. “A prof’’s office? That’s kind of difficult.”

“The locks are too hard for you?” I suggested.

“No,” he protested. “The locks are no problem. It’s the getting kicked out of school I’m not crazy about. You get caught breaking into a prof’s office, that could be kind of serious. Look, why don’t you call your prof? I’m sure the department has a key. All you have to do is get him to call the department office or the janitor and they’ll let you in.”

That was obviously not going to work, so I tried again. “You’re afraid, huh?”

“Um, yeah. I’m hoping for a career as a lawyer, helping keep people out of jail, not winding up in jail myself. Good bye, and don’t bother calling again.” And he hung up on me. Apparently, a girl’s ability to manipulate boys comes with practice, ‘cause I sure didn’t seem to have it.

Well, I could at least mention the name to the Strangers. Maybe they would have an idea.

I gave myself a severe talking-to before rehearsal. I was not going to fall short again. I was a professional, I told myself – and I was going to show it. I was acting better than I ever had, had a plum role and a great director, and there were no excuses. Even the anticipated meeting with the Strangers was not going to be a distraction this time, I told myself – I was going to be focused like a laser beam.

Alvin didn’t make it easy for me, although perhaps I shouldn’t blame him. When I got to rehearsal, he pulled me aside. “I just wanted to give you a heads up, Marsh. We have a visitor.” And he pointed to the seats on the stage left side of the room, where the girls were all crowded around a girl I didn’t know and fussing over something. “Sylvia played Mrs. Loman in Death of a Salesman, so she would expect you to know her. She graduated in January.”

Naturally, I had to go over to be polite and say hello, while noting curiously that all of the boys seemed to be on the other side of the room, laughing about something. When I reached the crowd, I saw the reason. The girls were taking turns holding a tiny baby and generally going crazy over it.

“Marsh!” said the girl who was obviously Sylvia. “Congratulations on Mollie! I hear you’re doing a great job with it!”

“Oh… thanks. Sylvia,” I stammered, staring at the baby.

She smiled. “This is Tyler. Did you want to hold him?” And she held him up to me.

It would have been rude to refuse, so I took him. It was… strange. I hadn’t held a baby since I was four or five, fussing over my new baby sister, and dealing with the conflicting feelings of pride at being a big brother and some resentment at no longer being an only child, as Chad still was. But the perspective of a five-year-old boy is a bit different from what I was feeling now.

The kid was cute. It was only with firm determination that I handed him back after the very briefest of squeezes. “He’s beautiful, Sylvia,” I told the obviously proud mother. “But I am really trying to stay focused for this rehearsal right now.”

She nodded and took him back, smiling. “I understand. I’m going to watch the rehearsal, so you can hold him after you’re done, OK?”

“Um… sure,” I managed, and then very firmly wrestled my attention away to focus on getting into character. Like a laser beam, I reminded myself. Like a laser beam.

The rehearsal itself went well. My energy was back, my lines were flowing more smoothly, and when I needed a line, I asked for it without dropping character and got right back into the scene. All in all, I felt pretty good about my performance.

Alvin’s notes were generally complimentary, for me at least, although he had some suggestions about timing in my argument with ‘Giles.’ And I kept my attention on him until he was done.

It was only afterwards that I went over to hold Tyler again, since Sylvia expected me to. And it was while I was holding him that Vicky arrived to walk me over to the meeting.

“Marsh?” she said, interrupting my conversation with the baby, “what are you doing?”

“Hmm?” I said, looking up in surprise, “Oh, did you want to hold him?”

“No, I just want to get to the meeting. We’re late, remember?”

“Oh, right! The meeting.” Out of politeness, I said good-bye to Tyler and handed him back to his mother. “Sylvia, it was great to see you again,” I told her. “And your son is adorable.”

“Nice seeing you again, too, Marsh. Take care.”

As Vicky and I left, I noticed that once again she had eschewed her usual jeans and shirt, this time for a skirt and a blouse that I would have found a lot more interesting a month ago.

“What was that all about?” she asked sharply.

“What do you mean? That was Sylvia; we did a show together last year. Or at least,” I corrected myself, “she and Marsha did. And I guess she must have gotten married right out of college.”

“I mean you, Marsh. You were cooing to that baby. You looked like you were really enjoying yourself. I’ve never seen you do anything like that before.”

“Well, that baby was cute, you have to admit.”

“Marsh, to a girl, most babies are cute. To guys our age? Not so much.”

“What… what are you talking about?”

“Marsh, all the boys were about as far away from that baby as it was possible to get. What were you doing?”

“I… “ I had no answer. I hadn’t been thinking, not really. I had just reacted.

“This body is getting to you, Marsh. You’re starting to act like a girl.”

“No!” I insisted, now very uncomfortable with my actions. “It was just… I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking. It just seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”

She sighed. “Just try to stay focused, OK, Marsh? We’ve got to get you out of that body. I just hope there’s a way.”

“I know, right? One of the Strangers had better have an answer.”

“Just don’t get your hopes up too high, OK?”

We were now within view of Christie Hall, where Ian and Luke lived. But to my surprise, Vicky turned in the opposite direction.

“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t the meeting at Ian and Luke’s place?”

“Oh – yes, it is, but it’s sort of a tradition for us to take some kind of a detour before going there. You know, to pretend that we’re trying to ‘lose anybody following us.’”

“You’re not saying that you actually think the administration is trying to find you?”

“No, pretty much only Ian and Luke take that seriously. The rest of us just do it as a group tradition. Seriously, if they wanted to find us, Prof. Davis probably already has all of our names, Marsh. If they could make him disappear, they could get his records, right?”

So I didn’t comment as we looped around the building next to Christie Hall and approached it from the back. At least we weren’t wading through a creek. We quickly reached the door and Vicky knocked: three times quickly, then a pause and another three, and then a pause and one more. At my questioning look, she nodded. Another “group tradition.”

The door opened a crack, and I heard Luke whisper, “Where you followed?” Once Vicky answered in the negative, he opened it all the way and greeted like old friends.

“Vicky! Haven’t seen you in a while! You look great!”

“Thank you,” she answered while I waited impatiently.

“And Marsha! Glad you found us again! Come in!”

He ushered us into the room, where about a dozen students seemed to be having some kind of a subdued party. Several were gathered around a Wii, taking turns with some game I didn’t recognize. A few more were playing a board game on the floor in one corner, and a boy and a girl were sitting together and talking earnestly on a couch in another corner.

“Oh, did we miss the meeting?” I asked, a bit disappointed.

Luke gave me an odd look, but Vicky quietly explained, while leading me toward the couple on the couch, “This is the meeting, Marsh.” Then she introduced us. “Dan and Allie, this is my friend Marsh. She’s one of us.”

The boy, Dan, stood and offered his hand. “Now that you know where we are, Marsh, be a stranger.”

I stared at him for a moment, even more confused, before realizing that he had actually said, “be a Stranger” and groaned in appreciation of the pun.

“We started out more formal,” Dan explained, “but over time most people gave up on the chance for finding anything about the experiment, and it turned into just a social gathering for people who all went through the same experience. There are only a few of us, like Allie and me, who are still trying to figure things out.”

“We think the professor in charge has to be studying either astrophysics or relativity or maybe chaos theory,” Allie said, as Vicky and I sat on the couch at Dan’s invitation. “My brother’s a physics major, and he says that he’s never heard of anybody trying to study time travel seriously, but that if anybody were, most of their research would probably be in one of those areas.”

“I don’t think I’d be able to tell what a physics prof was studying,” I admitted. I searched the physics building and did a web search, and that’s about it. I guess you guys have covered that ground already. Are there are any physics majors in the group?”

“No, most of the group haven’t even picked their majors, yet, Marsh, but I don’t remember anyone saying that they were interested in physics.”

“They haven’t picked their majors?” I echoed. “The group is mostly underclassmen?”

“It’s all underclassmen, Marsh,” Dan put in. “We don’t have a single junior or senior in the Strangers.”

“What?! That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s data, Marsh, so it has to make sense. We just aren’t certain what it means.” He ticked off the possibilities on his fingers. “It could be that no upperclassmen volunteered for the experiment, or that they were immune to its effects, or that they didn’t see the flyer organizing us, or they just didn’t want to join us.”

“Why would they be immune?” I asked. “And why would none of them see the flyer or want to join?”

“I have no idea. I’m just listing the possibilities. Right now, it seems most likely that none of them did the experiment, which might mean that something happened on campus two years ago that warned them away.”

“And they didn’t warn the rest of us?”

“I have no idea. I’m just telling you what I’ve figured out so far. Now, as to what happened to the experiment, we have a few possibilities.” And again, he used his fingers to count them down. “There might be a massive cover-up going on, or the experiment might have wiped itself out of existence, or we might all be deluded.”

“What was that last?”

“Again, I’m just being thorough. But what if we were all hypnotized into believing in different lives? What if we really are who we seem to be now?”

“But that’s–” I protested, but he cut me off.

“The guitarist we remember would be an artifact – something added to all of our memories to distinguish us from people who didn’t go through it, or on whom the experiment failed. It wouldn’t have been a physics experiment, of course; that would be another part of the invented past for us.”

“Do you seriously–?”

“… believe that?” he interrupted me again. “No. First of all, the data requirements would be enormous. For most of us, it would be just false memories of our appearances, but Vicky remembers actually dating the guitarist. She has memories that make no sense in this reality. Where did those come from? And Ben’s memories of playing basketball would have to have been invented, and his memories of playing the guitar would have to have been removed. Thing is, I have never heard of any form of hypnotism that can do all that.”

I exchanged glances with Vicky. My own experience was an even more extreme case, although he didn’t seem to need it.

“But if we rule that out,” he continued, “that leaves either a cover-up or a no-longer existing experiment. And we have no data to distinguish them. That’s why people here argue about it over and over.”

“OK,” I said, impressed by what I had just heard, “How do we use this information? How does this help us undo it and change back?”

He looked at me with impatience. “Change back? I think you’re missing the point, Marsh. There’s no reason to expect that we can.”


  1. scotts13 says:

    The sequence with Marsh and the baby is remarkably unsubtle compared with the rest of the writing; intentionally so? But the line “I only thought about the baby a couple of times,” if intended to be humorous, is more of a groaner. I’d suggest a small re-write, or at very least, kill that line. The Strangers meeting rolls along nicely, though.

  2. von says:

    1) Kill the line about the boys being on the other side
    2) Kill the conv with Vicki about the baby or, better, make it a positive conversation! If you need to bring it up later, bring it up with Chad three chapters from now.

    We are not as dumb as Marsh. We get it without all of those things, and they just drive it in and make it un-fun. Subtle. Think subtle.

    >>“Hmm?” I said, looking up in surprise? “Oh, did you want to hold him?”

    “No, I just want to get to the meeting. We’re late, remember?”

    Ooooh, can I? He’s really cute. How old is he? What is his name?

    Vicki is a girl!!!! Girl talk!! She comes across rude and masculine (or is that a tautology?)

    >>> “What?! That doesn’t make sense.”

    Marsh again being clueless. sigh.

    >>>Thing is, I have never heard of any form of hypnotism that can do all that.”

    Sigh. I have never heard of a form that doesn’t. But at least it is someone else being clueless. It’s like he’s hypnotized or something.

    And, besides which, he ignores the obvious technobabble of ‘not hypnotism per se, but a new hypnotic *machine*!! Not a time travel machine, but a machine that makes you think your past was different. The human brain is exceedingly powerful. It will invent the details, and fuzz over the lack of knowledge. It is what makes con men work.

    >> “How do we use this information? How does this help us undo it and change back?”

    He looked at me with impatience. “Change back? I think you’re missing the point, Marsh. There’s no reason to expect that we can.”

    Why the ‘impatience’. Pity, perhaps. What is ‘the point’? What are they working on then? laying guilt? A big lawsuit?

  3. scotts13 says:

    >> He looked at me with impatience. “Change back? I think you’re missing the point, Marsh. There’s >> no reason to expect that we can.”

    >> Why the ‘impatience’. Pity, perhaps. What is ‘the point’? What are they working on then? laying
    >> guilt? A big lawsuit?

    Indeed. Assuming (for the moment) the facts of the Change are as described, none of the Strangers, and particularly Marsh, should be expecting to be changed back, even with a gun to the researcher’s head and his apparatus warmed up and ready.

    Look how many changes are genetic – bust size, height, Vicky’s nose, Marsh’s gender. If these are changed through time travel, the manipulation presumably amounts to bumping the pool table. Very easy to make ANY change, virtually impossible to make a PARTICULAR change. Gender, for example. If I remember my high school biology correctly, this is a result of which sperm penetrates the egg cell wall first. It’s influenced by many things; one is the pH of the tissues. Marsh may be Marsha because her mother had an extra slice of tomato on her sandwich. How does one manipulate these things? It’s lost in the fog of Chaos.

    Presumably, the other Strangers have spent the necessary half-hour to work this out, as Marsh has not. The Strangers have devolved into a social club and mutual commiseration society – any “digging for clues” is simple intellectual curiosity.

    Now, that doesn’t exactly make for an interesting story; sort of like watching accident victims heal. So, facts are not what they seem. Is this now a detective story? If so, the “rules” for that genre say the facts necessary for the reader to solve the mystery on his own must be present, however obscure, in the body of the work. I must admit so far I haven’t a clue.

  4. von says:

    Good comment Scott. I like the tomato thing 🙂

  5. von says:

    There is one thing you are forgetting, Scott. There is a standard sci-fi rule that, by reversing the polarity of the temporal transformation device at the proper time, and accompanied by a helpful and selfless sidekick, one can undo *anything*!

    I would wonder Scott (feel free to reply privately if you wish) just what your detective mind is guessing currently about what actually happened. I have my guess, but I am keeping it off-site (sent PM to Russ, of course).

  6. von says:


    So I didn’t


  7. Russ says:

    Yes. What’s wrong with it? It is Marsh’s reaction to Vicky’s explanation.

  8. von says:

    Well, two things. First of all, he already commented on it.

    Second of all, the ‘so’ is a logical connector that doesn’t fit for me here. I would have thought something like, I thought the whole thing was silly, *but* I didn’t comment…


    It sounded like an odd tradition to me, but I didn’t comment…

    Starting a sentence with ‘so’ is iffy in the best of conditions, but here it doesn’t seem to work for me.

    I would have understood, if ‘so’ was to be used, something like ‘I thought it was silly, but it was their group not mine, *so* I didn’t comment….

    Quite frankly, I thought it was just a typo. Maybe it is a dialect difference. I just don’t use ‘so’ like that.

    I use ’so’ to start sentences if they are a question:
    “So, are you going to come over this afternoon.”
    or if they begin a phrase of number:
    “So many dogs are sick that…”

    But I don’t use it like you did here. Even if I understood the connection better, as in,

    “No, Vicki said, we can’t do that. We have to go in the side door!”

    So we went in the side door…

    I would understand that, but it would still *clang* in my ears as wrong.

  9. Russ says:

    Added something to the beginning.

Leave a Reply