He’d never been a particularly brave individual; his ragged breath reflected fear more than it did physical fatigue. He’d been running from something, he knew, but he couldn’t quite remember what. That sound, the cracking of a world, still echoed through his mind like the ghost of a scream, but he could no longer recall why it had frightened him so much. Something still felt wrong, though, some idea stirring at the edge of his mind. He tried to capture it, but he gave up almost immediately. If it were that important, he’d figure it out later.
He shivered, dragged back to the present by the wind across his neck and the pain in his side as he leaned against the wall. The brick felt rough, gritty against his palm, and he forced himself to stand up straight and take a step away from the wall. The church climbed out of sight into the settling fog above him, a reassuring presence. Canton Methodist Church, he thought. His parents had always made him go there when he was a boy, thousands of years ago…twenty years ago, he meant, of course. He turned away; it was long past time to return to his apartment, to his goldfish and his books.
The fog stirred, twisting the light of streetlamps into unpleasant shapes. He began to jog, tightening his grip on the bag in his right hand. What was in that bag? He glanced down. Groceries, of course; he’d walked to the store for a few TV dinners. He knew that. He could feel them banging against his leg, still frozen solid. The pain in his leg began to grow, so he shifted the bag to his left hand and held it further from his body, wishing he’d just driven. So what if it was only eight blocks? He should have driven…but the pain in his leg faded quickly enough. The pain in his head returned, though, twisting his neck muscles and tensing his shoulders.
He stopped. The pain felt so…familiar? Of course; that non-Euclidean geometry course from his last semester, with that right-handed desk. No one ever had the right number of left-handed desks, so he’d spent every class sitting at an odd angle, trying to take notes on the most incredible nonsense he’d ever heard. All the twisting of planes and the obfuscation of what had once been perfectly clear, all in that droning, lifeless voice. He’d gotten a B- in the class and met his core requirement. Then he’d moved on with his life. He hadn’t thought about that course for years, actually. Tonight was the first time since he’d left college. Why?
The thought flicked through his mind again as the pain tightened. Something to do with scissors, maybe? And paper? The fog continued to twist, descending and sealing off the world more than ten steps away. Leaves scraped the ground, skittering like spiders around his boots. Their chattering bit into his ears, rising, fingernails on a chalkboard, but no…it wasn’t the leaves at all, was it?
The creaking, tearing sound rose in volume, and he dropped his knees, trying to put his hands over his ears. The fog swirled inward, something stirring outside it. He didn’t understand why he was so afraid, but he knew his fear was justified. He remembered just enough, perhaps. Leaves ran in the half-light of the streetlamps, darting in and out of sight, laughing at him. Laughing. It was laughing at him, he knew, still laughing, but it would stop laughing when it was bored, but he would never stop being laughed at, and that was the difference, wasn’t it?
Thought struggled upstream against the panic spreading through his mind. The laughing, was he hearing the laughing or the tearing or both? Pain seared with a new intensity and he realized that it didn’t matter, not at all. He could remember.
Dr. Wayne cut a strip of paper from the sheet. “This is a parlor trick, but it illustrates my point. Given the presence of an additional dimension, unusual operations are easy and, from our point of view, entertaining to perform. This piece of paper is, for our purposes, a two-dimensional object. Rotate part of it through the third dimension…” He twisted one end half a turn and matched it to its counterpart. “…and you create a Möbius strip, a two dimensional universe with one boundary.” He taped the ends together and dropped the shape onto his desk. “Yes, Halsey?”
“So, what happens when you try to find one of the ends?”
“Halsey, that’s why you have a C average. Stop thinking about the ends and start thinking about the surface.”
He staggered to his feet, clenching his right fist around the handle of his grocery bag, his only remaining anchor to reality. He began to run. Had it twisted it yet? Did “yet” even mean anything anymore? Leaves swirled around his feet. Something else. Think about something else. His family. He had one, didn’t he? He tried to remember the walk from the store, but the leaves wouldn’t stop laughing. He had a goldfish; he knew he had a goldfish, always swimming around its bowl, but that wasn’t cruel, was it? Goldfish only have three-second memories, right?
Laughing. Now he felt himself laughing, though he couldn’t understand why. His muscles burned and his breath poured down his throat in rough gasps, scouring his lungs. It was so funny, and not funny at all. He thought of his goldfish, and felt nothing but revulsion and fear.
He had to get out.
He ran harder. The leaves and fog spun around him in impossible arcs, or maybe he spun in place. He took a few steps blindly, then realized that the fog was lifting. His vision cleared just enough to see a chance of refuge. He threw out his hand and leaned against the brick wall of Canton Methodist Church, gasping.