Two weeks into my junior year at Princeton, and my new roommate’s side of the room looked like an emo outlet store after a terrorist attack. I took it as a weird form of respect that the devastation lay strictly on her half, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. You could eat off my side of the floor. You couldn’t even see hers.
Her name was Dakota Lewis, and judging by her text books, I guessed she was a physics major. I wasn’t sure. On our first day, I introduced myself, and told her I was majoring in political science. You could almost see a tiny rain cloud form over her head.
She sniffed and said, “What would possess anyone to classify politics as a science?” and walked out of the room. In the fourteen days since, I’d gotten a total of maybe a dozen mumbled sentences out of her.
I could see right away she was going to be one of those difficult personality types. So be it. Mentally, I rolled up my sleeves and did that spit-in-the-hands thing baseball players do when they step up to the plate. I resolved to figure her out, if for no other reason than to get experience. After all, if politics were to be my future, it’s not like there would be a shortage of obnoxious people to deal with.
Dakota was the INTP personality type, according to what my psych professor had told us; smart, creative, colors outside the lines, doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of them. I recalled him once telling us “have patience with them. They’re the type that tells a joke, and the only ones to laugh are other INTPs. Everyone else thinks they’re an asshole.”
They’re not really all that bad, though. Albert Einstein was one. So was Thomas Jefferson. Then again, so was Dr. Frankenstein. That’s the disturbing image that concerned me as I watched her from the corner of my eye one evening.
Hunched over an aluminum work bench in the corner of our room, she was surrounded by an acrid smelling cloud of blue-gray smoke, soldering a wire into the guts of a plastic box. She wore nothing but a black sports bra – each breast dotted with tiny silver spikes – and a matching thong with a pink skull embroidered on the front. Who wears that to lounge around working on a science project at midnight? Actually, who wears that ever?
It probably had something to do with the fact she hadn’t gotten around to doing any laundry yet. Yeah, let’s go with that.
The way she left her clothes lying wherever she stepped out of them didn’t leave a whole lot of doubt about where laundry landed on her list of priorities. Somewhere between cleaning the port-o-potties at a monster truck rally and watching a CSPAN marathon.
I tugged a pair of her skinny jeans out from under an old pizza box and held them at arm’s length. A rusty brown stain covered one knee. I hoped to God it was tomato sauce.
“Soo… you want me to do a load of laundry for you, Dakota?”
She didn’t even look up. “Sure, Marci. Whatever.”
A snippy comeback would have been ideal just then, but I didn’t get the chance. The plastic box hummed to life, under-lighting her face with a fuchsia glow like a villain from some cheesy horror movie.
The effect creeped me out, and I almost said so as she snapped the cover onto the box. That’s when I saw the sticker on the side. One of those yellow and black circular symbols with the words ‘Danger: Radioactive’ under it.
“Oh please tell me that’s not what I think it is,” I blurted out. “The last thing I need is a roommate who’s building some kind of bomb.”
That netted me one of those eye-rolling, what-an-idiot looks. “It’s Potassium 40,” she said, speaking slowly and over-enunciating, “not plutonium. And besides, the alpha emitter is magnetically confined.”
Like that should mean something to me.
“Well is that a radiation warning sticker, or isn’t it?” I planted clenched fists on my hips and tried to look intimidating, hoping to mask the fact I was on the verge of wetting myself.
“Yeah.” She fiddled with some buttons on the box. “It’s radioactive. But barely enough to penetrate the skin. The warning sticker is mostly there to keep guys from holding it on their lap. They tend to do that with anything that’s warm and vibrates.”
Hardly reassuring. “So you swear it’s safe?”
She looked up long enough to nod in the direction of a pile of garbage next to her trash can. “The mold and bacteria in that box of Chinese takeout from last week is probably a lot more dangerous.”
It’s funny how a stray comment like that can transform your world. Until that moment, I’d always associated dirty clothes and garbage with mildly distasteful, general sloppiness. But that was before mold and bacteria entered the conversation. And radiation. Filth had suddenly mutated into dangerous new, flesh eating lifeforms.
I marched to my closet and retrieved a laundry basket, a bucket, some rubber gloves, a cleaning rag, and my emergency bottle of disinfectant. Screw the water. I poured the whole bottle into the bucket and went to work.
Dakota stopped fiddling with the thingamabob and propped her feet up on the work bench to watch me. She produced a fifth of Shipwreck Rum and some Diet Coke, and poured herself a drink. She was all black lipstick, black fingernails, black hair (well, okay, with a lavender streak which was oddly adorable), just staring at me with this little smile sketched across her face.
God, she’d somehow become even creepier.
I didn’t want to think about that or the mutant bacteria, so I started babbling. Anything to distract myself. I asked about the thingamabob.
“’Thingamabob’? Cute.” An eyebrow arched. The smile became a smirk. “It’s an environmental distortion machine.”
“What’s it do?”
“It lets me see ghosts.”
The cleaning rag made a little splash in the bucket and I had to snap my mouth shut before I got a mouthful of disinfectant. I just stared. She stared right back and smirked some more.
“Yes.” She sipped her rum and Coke.
“Yes, what?” I stammered.
“Yes, I believe in ghosts.” She licked her lips and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Probably not the way you think, though.”
I didn’t have a response to that. Clearly, she was getting a kick out of my inability to form a coherent thought.
With another sip, she settled back in her chair. It was one of those bizarre moments that will stay burned in my brain forever. Me, on my knees in toxic waste, while a Goth physics genius in bondage underwear sat bathed in ghoulish pink light, drinking rum and explaining the nature of ghosts to me.
Ok, it sounds a little melodramatic when you lay it out like that, but it’s not exactly your everyday college memory.
She took a deep breath. “I won’t bore you with the convoluted train of logic that led me to where I am today. Let’s just sum it up by saying I’ve decided that while I don’t believe in ghosts as ‘spirits’ per se, I do believe people who see them are seeing something. They’re not hysterical, or drunk, or crazy. They’re just interpreting what they see incorrectly. Try not to get lost in the explanation here. I’ll keep it simple.
“Time is a continuum. Every moment in time exists simultaneously. In a weird sort of way, there isn’t really a past or present or future. It’s all mashed together. We just perceive it to be running in a particular rate and direction. But perception is different from reality. Think of it this way: while people can only hear sounds at frequencies of up to twenty kilohertz, a bat can hear things at a hundred kilohertz, or maybe even two hundred. The bat science dudes aren’t totally sure. The point is, just because we can’t hear sounds pitched up that high, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. “
There was a faraway look in her eyes, almost reverence. It was as if this whole thing was something more like a religion than science. How long had she been obsessing about it anyway?
“Anyway, that got me thinking. What if time is the same way? What if we see our current position in time just because we’re built to see it that way? Maybe if we were built differently, or the environment was, we’d perceive time moving at a different rate or a different direction. Maybe we’d be able to see different points in time. And that’s what I think people are seeing when they see a ghost. It’s not a spirit. It’s someone from the past. Somehow, something in the environment lets them see a different point on the continuum.”
Oh, ok. Completely logical. Just a little rip in the space time continuum.
“So, I’ve spent the last three years building a machine which can artificially create that environmental change.” She tapped the pink, glowing box.
Oh marvelous. So it wasn’t bad enough that she thought the fabric of space was occasionally torn by accident. No, she had to go building a machine to tear open some extra holes on purpose. I didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, it was better than being ignored for the last two weeks. On the other, I was pretty sure she was bat-shit crazy.
“Umm… ok, then.”
I racked my brain trying to dredge up my sophomore psych class. Was it clozapine they gave to the total whack-jobs? I couldn’t recall, but it didn’t matter. I had no idea where I could lay my hands on some.
Of course, I couldn’t exactly say that to her. So instead, like an idiot, I said “I’ve got some Midol in my desk if you need any.”
She looked at me as if I was nuts. How’s that for irony?
Still, my skepticism must have shown through. She bounced up and dragged the chair from my desk over to the workbench, flashed me a smile, and patted the chair. I looked at her, then the glowing box, then back again.
“You know you want to find out,” she said with a wink.
And I guess I did.
Still, I slid the chair an extra couple of feet away from the machine before sitting down, just in case. It squatted there in the middle of the workbench, looking almost sullen. Just like Dakota.
I might have mistaken the thing for my younger brother’s videogame console if not for the fact it was glowing pink. Well, that and the black and yellow radiation sticker.
It was a foot tall and a foot deep, but only four inches wide, and had a lens-like thingie facing the center of the room. The top was dotted with a dozen black plastic buttons, a black plastic knob, and a digital screen.
While I was gawking, Dakota flipped open her laptop and fired up a video capture program. She adjusted the web cam so it faced the center of the room, pointed in the same general direction as the lens from the machine.
“Posterity,” she mumbled.
She didn’t lack confidence, that’s for sure.
Turning the black knob on the machine to one, she glanced at the laptop screen for a moment before redirecting her stare towards the center of the room. I don’t know what she expected to see, but to me it looked pretty much like a dark room with a pile of dirty clothes on the floor.
“I designed it to sort of bend space-time in a very small radius. About twenty feet,” she explained. “Let’s try ramping it up a notch at a time.”
She kept watching the middle of the room while I stared at the video feed on the laptop screen. Aside from a greasy fingerprint, it showed nothing. The fingerprint tempted me to fetch my bottle of Windex, but with an effort, I stayed put. I’d get it later.
Dakota reached over to bump the knob up to two and I think my heart stopped at the same time as the fingerprint smudge moved. It moved?
I wiped at it with the heel of my hand, but the smudge was tenacious.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed Dakota, head tilted, squinting at the center of the room where the laptop’s camera pointed. I turned that way, and there it was. The same greasy smudge hovering six feet off the floor. I swallowed hard. This was no fingerprint.
A strange sensation came over me. It was like looking at the room through a fisheye lens, all bulged out in the center and blurry around the edges. The effect made me feel a little sick, like I couldn’t keep my balance. After a few seconds, I just couldn’t stare at it any longer. I forced myself to watch the video feed on the laptop where the effect was less pronounced.
Dakota nudged it to three. The machine made a crackling noise, but it didn’t catch her attention.
The smudge seemed a little clearer. Sort of. You know how people are always seeing the face of Jesus in corn flakes and clouds and whatnot? I was having trouble deciding if this was something like that. The little blob of light kind of oozed back and forth, but it only vaguely looked like a face. Still, it was something.
My nose was still inches from the screen as she clicked it up another notch. This time, a distinct bubbling hiss came from inside the box, followed a couple of seconds later by a burning plastic stench. Still oblivious, Dakota clicked again. By the time it got to five, the blob had become clear. It was a face. Not just a face, but an entire body!
The hair on the back of my arms stood up, and I could have sworn I smelled… my grandfather’s cologne? One of those old fashioned, overpowering scents, it even held the burning plastic at bay. It emanated from the ghostly figure who stood before us.
He looked to be about my age, with a 1950’s buzz cut, thick horn-rim glasses, a white button down shirt, and a hideous argyle sweater vest. For some reason, the name Biff popped into my head. He looked like a Biff to me. Big, dumb, and just standing there slack jawed, staring off into space. You know. He was a guy.
I was so fascinated, it took a couple of minutes to realize he wasn’t quite staring ‘into space.’ He was actually staring slightly off center to my left, which is to say, he was staring at Dakota.
He could see us!
A cloud of smoke wafted upwards across my field of vision, dragging my eyes down to its source; a hole had melted through the radiation sticker. I froze. Some part of my brain screamed at me to douse the machine with Dakota’s rum and Coke. Another part worried about the mess it would make.
Dakota had risen to her feet beside me, studying Biff intently. She hadn’t been watching the little mechanical drama unfolding on the workbench.
“This is totally epic,” she muttered. “It’s big. Maybe Nobel Prize big.”
Her breathing was rapid and wheezy. Either she was hyperventilating or having an orgasm. The look in her eyes, dilated pupils, sort of half-closed eyelids, made me doubt she was hyperventilating.
Jesus, every time I thought she had the weird-o-meter pegged, I turned out to be wrong.
Suddenly Biff got a huge grin on his face. He opened his mouth, and I held my breath.
“Cripes! Did Jimmy send me a strip-o-gram for my birthday?”
Dakota looked confused for a beat. Then her eyes dropped to her own chest, to the bra and thong, and a lot of skin.
Although I’d have sworn it wasn’t possible, she turned a bright shade of red. In the time it took me to blink, she flipped a switch on the machine and the pink glow faded. Biff faded with it.
“Posterity is going to have to wait for you to do my laundry,” she grinned.
Pride oozed out of her. Chin tilted up, eyes sparkling the way my mom’s cat does when it drops a dead chipmunk in the middle of the kitchen floor.
I really hated to be a buzzkill.
“Dakota? Your machine’s on fire.”