CREDIT: TIM PALEN/LIONSGATE
All the world was blue.
Through his outstretched fingers, it was those shaded lights that wrapped in lines and came up Billy’s palms, coloring him, spreading like veins of quicksilver shine; and they colored the trees overhead, and they fell in and out of his focus when he looked back and forth between “his” blue and the holes in the sky.
“His” sky. Two modes of proof for this line of thinking: the first (the lesser), transitive property of equality. If sky = blue, and if Billy = blue, then, in theory, sky = Billy. By this proof, he determined, he was also equal to the ocean, and to a can of Pepsi, and to his dad’s favorite Angel Grove Tigers baseball cap – the one so light from wash and wear, it almost looked cut from denim blue jeans; the one that his mother still kept propped atop the bedpost over his side (because that is always where Dad would leave it, despite her protests, upon return from one of their outdoor expeditions), and the one that Billy would sometimes sneak out of that room and wear when she told him to mow the yard on weekends in the hot, heavy summer. He liked that thought. It felt right, and that made things easier – comfort made things easier.
The second (and more reliable) proof came by way of nuclear physics – his stardust. A scientific explanation. More up his alley.
See, under the force of gravity, hydrogen atoms in space are bound to clump together until their nuclei begin to fuse. The positively-charged nuclei naturally repel each other; but under high temperatures and pressures, they are moving fast enough to smash into each other and become one.
When two proton nuclei of hydrogen atoms fuse, they then form a single nucleus consisting of two protons. That’s called helium. It’s a new element.
This fusion process releases a lot of energy – some of the hydrogen mass converting to light energy. It’s the simple explanation of a star. The process continues sporadically up and around the periodic table – nuclei fusing with other nuclei – as the star ages, until we reach element number 26: iron. Fusion for the higher elements requires more energy than the star’s gravitational pull can provide at this point, and the core begins to cool, then collapses and explodes.
The remains of this explosion are called “stardust,” and they float off into space and come together with other stardust to form new stars, which birth, and live, and die again – traveling and flashing and falling over and over, bits along the way inadvertently fostering life in the universe.
In fact, scientists have determined that these debris elements make up approximately 93 percent of the standard human body (more or less depending upon how much your hair falls out [like Dad’s had], or if you itch yourself a lot). But that’s all of us. Ninety-three percent of Billy, from the sky – of the sky. Billy’s blue, blue sky.
Another flash of light before him snapped Billy back to the present. The sky went away. Everything closed in, and he was trapped. He was jammed, and his hand was in front of his face, but not because he wanted it to be – his forehead was mashed to his cuticles, so he was forced to look at his fingers, and he looked past his fingers to a pair of misaligned retinas bearing upon him through the horizontal slats – those holes past the blue, which was a dark blue, now, and a black and that light, and he felt something pried into his neck and a twist in his back and his opposite shoulder.
“What did you say, Cram-ston?” asked the eyes.
“My sky,” Billy said. He repeated: “My sky. There are two proofs for why it is my sky. The first (and lesser)—…”
The world vibrated – metal, a clang – and he lost his balance as the brilliant quicksilver enveloped him, and he was flying into his sky, until he was falling – until he hit the ground. Tiles. Grey and white, interspersed –clickclickclickclick – back-to-back-to-back, in a lack of any discernable pattern down the hallway, meshing to the foot of bright blue lockers, then pulling around the corner, and keeping up that unpattern pattern, spreading like an octopus, winding out from the central hub of the school.
“What do you keep going on about?”
Billy sat up, rubbing his wrist, which had caught his head before it hit the ground. Over him was his own open locker door, but that couldn’t be the same voice. Over him was also a rather rotund classmate in his leather vest. Behind him was a skinnier copy, with sleeves, and sporting an obnoxious red beret. The former wore a black bandana over long, greasy hair.
“Bulk and Skull!” Billy said. “Thank you for letting me out, Bulk and Skull. I know you put me in, but you also let me out.” He reached up his hand to shake. “So, no hard feeli—…”
“You wouldn’t shut up,” Bulk said.
“Yeah!” said Skull. “You wouldn’t!”
Bulk turned to face his associate.
“I’ve. Got. This,” he muttered, through gritted teeth.
“You most definitely do,” said Billy. He stood up, his hand still outstretched. “You’re doing terrific.”
“Shut UP, Cramston!” Bulk swatted down Billy’s hand. “Jesus, it’s not even fun to make fun of—…”
In that moment, Ms. Appleby had rounded the corner from her room in the Angel Grove High science wing. She was a woman of authoritative build and great intellect, towering over the group as a carved Athenian statue…only moving. In a motion near-on not-undetectable to the naked eye, Bulk snaked his swatting hand in the same downward strike up and through Billy’s armpit, then gripped it over his shoulder, clamping down hard as a vice, so Billy was unable to move. Skull, ever-practiced, came forward, tripping on his own feet, to the other side. He was yanked in midair back up by Bulk’s free fist. The two wore their most painted smiles. Billy attempted to mimic. It came out as somewhat of a cringe.
“—youuuuuuuuu are looking ravishing today, Ms. Appleby!”
“Can it, Mr. Bulkmeier,” she said. “Didn’t you hear the bell?”
But they had not. Bulk and Skull looked to one another. Billy looked to his left. There was no one there. When he looked back, three pairs of eyes were trained on him.
“Must have missed it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Thank you for the reminder. I’ll just be on my way.”
“All three of you,” said Ms. Appleby She was somehow able to latch onto their collective collars in unison. “Cafeteria duty!” Whirling them around, she marched them toward the mouth of the octopus.
“Great job, dickbread,” Bulk muttered. Skull apologized. Bulk told him he was talking to Billy.
* * *
Lunch duty wasn’t so bad, Billy thought. You get to wash dishes with a cool shower hose, and then you wipe down tables. He enjoyed making uniform lines in the residual waters with the dish towel across the table. It reminded him of mowing the lawn in Dad’s ballcap. The cooks (and his compatriots) kept badgering him to go faster; but he vowed to do a neat job. A clean job. That’s how he had been taught. Uniformity. Comfort. Soon, the lunchroom staff found him to be rather charming and helpful. They cut him some slack.
For a mind like Billy’s, lunch duty was also the perfect time to throw life into cruise control, and to compute just the right amount of explosives he would need for the quarry later today, as well as the blast radius to avoid injury, and what types of protective clothing he would need to wear. The only thing he struggled with was how he was to get to the site; but that was a variable for another day’s work.
Much better use of his time than English class, he thought. He had even volunteered the three of them to unload the freight order, to avoid P.E. The cooks were getting older, and they would still get exercise by helping them. It seemed only logical.
Bulk and Skull thanked him by volunteering his abilities to stack the 50 fresh cans of tomato paste and green beans, each the size of a human head, while they tag-teamed the lesser haul of five frozen food boxes, en route to the school’s brand new freezer (where the Friday ice cream cups – the ones with the wooden spoons already included on top – were also stored).
As he reached the midpoint of his perfect stack, the cooks bid Billy “goodbye,” and they asked him to turn down the lights and to lock up when he was through, which he gladly said that he would do, of course. One in particular – Dolores, with the hair white as sidewalk chalk – asked him what he was doing later that night, making conversation. When he said, “just staying at home, experimenting,” she giggled, and winked at him before making her way out the back door, mentioning something about “men who use their hands”.
Billy furrowed his brow, then smiled.
“Okay, but I didn’t even tell you my hypothesis,” he said, to the can in front of him. He continued to stack them, then adjust each until they were perfect, the labels aligned just where the last word in the ingredient listing cut off. Now, he was humming the refrain to “She Blinded Me With Science” – especially the line about “failing biology” – all irony lost on him entirely. The song became entrancing – all-encompassing – and before he knew it, it the bass pumping beneath the lyrics audibly shook the world. The thumpthumpthump took control, and he lined up the final green bean can, thumpthumpthump; and he folded all the boxes, thumpthumpthump; and he took them to the dumpster, thumpthumpthump. All the while, he nodded to this beat, which grew louder and softer, then louder again when he opened back the kitchen door. A living beat.
Billy turned off his mind and listened.
Thumpthumpthump. From the far end of the kitchen.
It wasn’t his mind.
Billy realized that he hadn’t seen Bulk or Skull in quite some time, so he was all alone here. He called out to them in the half-lit kitchen, though, just to make sure. He called out that he had seen that one episode of Goosebumps with the killer sponge beneath the sink, and he also called out that this situation didn’t make his fear of sponges any less prevalent. He then shouted the word “spoilers” to them, just in case they hadn’t seen that particular episode. It was the fourteenth in the first season of the show. Very possible to get lost in the shuffle.
There was no reply, save for that thumpthumpthump-ing, again, and then another thumpthumpthump. Without that, he was all alone in this big kitchen, and suddenly, Billy really wished he was back inside his cramped locker. It was too open here. There were too many places to hide, or to be hidden from. Tables and counters and cupboards and rugs. He looked to each of them, and then back to the door, where he could just walk out and pretend that noises (and sponges) didn’t exist in this world; but he had promised to take care of this kitchen. He had promised Dolores. Billy had promised.
And he didn’t break promises.
“Well, okay,” he said, feebly trailing off. “I’m just going to save the day then, I guess.”
Met again by silence, he hesitated, then did a somersault from the dining area, into the heart of the kitchen, crashing into a table piled high with drying dishes and utensils that rained down on his stomach on and head. This only caused the thumpthumpthump-ing to rage and pound even harder across the way. The first thing his fingers came to for protection was a handle. The handle to a ladle. It was an old ladle. He gripped it with both hands, until his knuckles seemed ready to burst through the skin.
He started out crawling, but slowly made it to his feet, approaching the far end of the kitchen, where the noise continued to be, though it lowered in volume with each step he took, as though it were pacing back and forth, watching him, breathing in through its mouth and nose simultaneously, to avoid detection while still on the spy.
Billy’s chest heaved in completely the opposite way, his breathing coming in slight wails, like a siren turned down to just above a mute. He wiped his sweaty brow with the back of both clenching ladle hands. He was wet, all through, and his vision caved to the genesis of that beat.
It echoed his careful footsteps, he realized. Or maybe that was his heart, which was pumping blood so fast throughout the entirety of his circulator system, bracing him for a most immediate response. At this point, adrenaline must already be blazing in him – that heat – and that made Billy feel a bit better, because he had seen YouTube videos of moms lifting cars off of people when they had succumbed to adrenal overtake. The thought also made him loosen the grip on Dolores’ ladle a bit. It really was a pretty priceless relic.
The last beat was the loudest yet – so loud that, after jumping back, Billy could pinpoint it exactly, now. It was the metallic panel of wall that the cooks had warned was the doorway to the new freezer (so he was not allowed to go near it). He started to turn around, but his curiosity was too great; or, perhaps, his bravery, too far to be wasted.
It was only coming in singular bursts, now, the thumping, from inside the freezer. Billy remembered the sponge beneath the sink, and he shivered, hunkering down beneath the view of the box porthole until he was six feet from the door.
Then three feet.
He reached out.
Billy pulled back his hand. He reached out again, and when he touched the freezer door, it wasn’t the way it moved with each beat that bothered him. He pressed his face to it – his ear.
The door wasn’t cold at all.
He had expected the door to be cold – conduction bleeding the temperature out from the freezing environment into the warmth. He quickly calculated the enthalpy for several varying models of standard walk-in freezer, and the amount of energy needed to displace the warmth of the door in a specific timeframe.
His numbers did not compute. Billy re-ran the calculation. Same answers, and he knew he would come up with the same again if he tried. Something was disrupting the temperature change – absorbing all of that energy.
Something big. So, at least he knew he was dealing with something big, now. He looked down at his ladle.
Slowly, so very slowly, Billy took a step back from the door, remaining cognizant of his line of sight beneath the glass window carved out of the metal panel.
Surprise would be his ally.
On the count of three…surprise.
He mouthed, “One…”
And, “…two and a half…”
The beat also went, thumpthumpthum. Billy raised the ladle above his head.
“THREE!” With great agility, he popped up into the line of sight, leaping for the door.
He yelled, “Soup’s on, muthaf—!”
But he stopped short. Looking back at him through the glass were a pair of hollow eyes. They were drooping beneath the cover of an obnoxious red beret.
Billy carefully threw Dolores’ ladle across the kitchen and put his own eyes to the window, his whole body pressed to the door. The thumping continued. It was coming from Skull, who lifted his lips to the window. His blue lips. He was mouthing something. Billy looked past him for a moment, and noticed a pair of rotund, booted ankles splayed out on the floor amongst several empty cartons of Friday ice cream. He followed them up the thighs, to a bundle of intertwined blue snakes. No, blue fingers. Bulk’s fingers were blue. They weren’t moving. He wasn’t moving.
Billy looked back to Skull, who was pleading with him through failing exhaustion, mouthing shakily, slower and slower, “D—d—…duhr. D—dare. D—…DOOR.”
Billy grabbed for the handle with both hands. It came, but the door remained in place. His eyes widened. He looked back to Skull, who looked down at the handle, and up back to Billy. Billy pulled again. He pulled again.
They were stuck. They had been for some time. He looked up at the freezer’s external thermometer. It read 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia set in when the body’s internal temperature sets below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If their extremities were already turning blue, the chance of frostbite was exponentially increasing, as the blood-flow and oxygen available to their tissues further ceased.
They needed out. They needed out now.
“Um…hold on!” Billy said. Skull shook his head, beating on the door for him to stay. “HOLD—!” Billy signed for him to “hold on.” Skull looked confused. Billy sprinted from the kitchen into the arm of hallway that led him up to his locker. Class was still in session, but he blocked those side distractions, calculating exactly what he would need, and exactly how much of it. His sneakers lost traction, and he slid around a corner, bouncing off the wall. When he reached his locker door, it was still partially open. He threw it the rest of the way, and it crashed in steel screams down the line.
Billy grabbed his backpack and took flight again, nearly running over Ms. Appleby in the process.
“Sorry, ma’am!” he shouted behind him. “Gotta save the day!”
She yelled back at him to “stop this instant,” but Billy was already too far back into the belly of the beast at that point to hear, much less stop. His focus would not have allowed him, anyway. As he ran, numbers bounced from one equation to the next in a perfect gymnastic routine, choreographed, hitting their mark and spinning across the tablet of his mind before sticking in the hole where once, there was nothing. It was like staring at the base of one grand pyramid, so many pieces holding up the top, and methodically, then, carrying your eyes up, dwindling down those figures until they fell away, and the sloped sides became more and more empty – until there was just one sole piece of information left at the top.
He threw open the kitchen door, and was already elbow deep in the backpack slung over his shoulder, extending strands of wire by the yard, and wrapping them around, once, twice, three times.
Concentrating the blast would require an enclosed space, which would assure the latch was damaged, but that Bulk and Skull were not. Billy slid to his knees the final few feet, up to the freezer door, and removed the explosive components by the bundle, from a zip-top bag in the front pouch of his pack. Without even thinking, his fingers twirled about, twisting the fuse into place.
“Bulk and Skuuuuull!” he said, pounding on the door. “Hey, Bulk and Skull!” There was a very faint knock back in response. Billy stood up and knocked on the glass as hard and fast as he could. He heard footsteps raining down the hallway outside the kitchen.
Skull’s face came up to the porthole. Billy waved for him to move back. When Skull had done so, Billy motioned for him to move further. Skull nodded in sleepy understanding, pushing Bulk’s still-unmoving frame toward the shimmering back wall of the freezer. He then lay in front of his unconscious friend, between him and the door.
Back to his knees, Billy pulled a tin Angel Grove Tigers lunchbox out from the bottom of his bag, and dumped the thermos of white chicken chili from its innards. He strapped the quarry explosives to the lid’s undercarriage, straightening out the fuse, and clamped down the clip that held the lid shut. So many steps, but he was precise; so quick.
He was perfect.
He was comfortable.
Billy wedged the lunchbox between the handle and the door, and he unwound the fuse behind him until he was as far back as his estimate had said he needed to be.
“Soup’s on, mother—!” he said, stopping just as Ms. Appleby and a cohort of teachers descended into the dining area. He swung the door shut between he and they, and then struck the diode to a double-A battery.
The signal took less than a second to reach. The world was enveloped in the spreading veins of a quicksilver shine. Billy collided against the closed door in the immediate blastwave.
In the ensuing chaos, Billy’s eyes trained on the cloud of smoke, and evaporating frost, and airborne shrapnel. Trained, for he dared not move. Trained for any hint of movement. Trained for a flash of life. A thump. He wasn’t sure he could even hear a thump. His eardrums may have ruptured in the blast. His calculations had been off by a couple of inches.
Just a couple of inches, he hoped.
No. He knew. His eyes, betrayed, now, flashing stars, never left that spot.
Skull’s face, sooty and blue, fell out of the maelstrom, coughing and strained. He was pulling on the back of Bulk’s leather coat, and on the hefty, frozen being inside of it, and Billy made to stand and come help him, but someone pushed on the door at his back, knocking him over again. Ms. Appleby rushed the scene with little regard for the turmoil, and she put her arms under Skull, and helped to drag Bulk out of the sudden cold blast of the freezer. Billy shivered. Skull fell down beside him, wrapping his arms over his neck, and gripping his shirt. Billy just remembered him gripping his shirt.
“You…g-g-got us,” he said. “You g-got us ah-out.”
“Well,” Billy said, smiling, “you let me out, Bulk and Skull.” He coughed, and Skull smiled back, and wiped a thin layer of dust from Billy’s sweat-slick forehead. Billy picked up Dolores’ ladle.
All in one piece.
He could see stars. They fell in and out of focus when he looked back and forth between them and the holes in the sky. The sky. “His” sky.
Billy’s blue, blue sky.
C.D. DyVanc currently lives in the Midwestern United States. He is an award-winning journalist, and, in his free time, enjoys jumping out of airplanes, reading comic books, and being the epitome of the living dad joke with his wife and stepson. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Rue Scribe, Dream Pop Press, and Five:2:One’s #thesideshow. His chapbook, rhi(n.)oceros, won the 2017 Midwest Chapbook Contest, and is currently available through Greentower Press. You can find his horrible use of GIFs on Twitter (@CDDyVanc), if you’d like.