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The sun lit up the surface of the water. Its light bouncing right into Paul’s retinas, causing his optic nerve to fire signals into his brain. In turn, those signals caused the muscles around his eyes to contract. The higher functions of his brain allowed him to recognize that the sunglasses on the dashboard would be handy right about then.
The end result of that chain reaction was the vibration of his vocal cords as the pattern matching units in his cortex broadcast a sentence that his language centers had constructed specially for an event like this.
“Harriet, can you hand me those sunglasses?”
Harriet flipped open the glove box.
“No, they’re on the dashboard. There.” He nodded toward the far passenger side of the dash.
Harriet handed them over. Paul uncrinkled his eyes as he slipped the glasses on. His optic nerve calmed down. His neocortex interpreted that as a feeling of relief.
Harriet asked, “How far are we from New Orleans?”
“Not too far, just an hour or so.”
“It’s getting dark.”
“Yeah, I’d have liked to have gotten in before sundown but that’s how it goes.”
Harriet nodded. That always bugged Paul. Nodding in response to something a driver says. It’s not like he can keep an eye on her to register the nod. He’s got to keep his eyes on the road, straight ahead. Paul harrumphed under his breath.
Harriet was kind enough to avoid the fight. “So how crazy was that science show last night?”
The tension in Paul’s chest let up as he sensed that the harrumph would be overlooked. “I love that stuff. It’s amazing how much we know about the universe.”
“Eh … How do you really know all of that stuff, though? I mean, that business about dark matter and a fifth spacial dimension?”
“Lots of dudes smarter than you and me have made intense models. I guess the math just points that way.”
“I don’t know. It sounds like hocus-pocus to me. Eleven dimensions curled up into subatomic particles? Infinite numbers of universes? Hell, even quantum theory seems weird too.”
“It is. That’s what they all say. Apparently, when they came up with the theory it was just too preposterous to be believed, but all of the tests verified their conclusions. The parable about Schrödinger’s cat is meant to demonstrate how insane the theory is, not to show that you could literally have a cat in a half-alive/half-dead superstate.”
Harriet sucked on her teeth and exhaled. “Still sounds like magic.” She drummed her fingers on the arm rest for a few seconds, then let go with it. “Y’know, science is just another religion.”
“Ugh. No. That’s totally not true.”
“How do you know? You’re just taking all these scientist’s words for it.”
“I know because my fucking mobile phone works. I know because this car ignites motherfucking gasoline inside a metal engine and uses the energy to turn the wheels of the car according to basic physical laws. I know because of the freakin’ Internet, Harriet.”
“Right. And you know exactly how your engine works? Or your phone? Ever crack open a phone? What do those chips do?”
“Um, those are processors. What are you trying to get at?”
“I’m saying that you have no idea what a processor does. There could be little spirits inside it that make it work.”
Paul opened his mouth in disbelief.
Harriet continued, “Bear with me. I’m saying that there’s no way for you personally to know that physics, for example, is not just a massively complex series of superstitious rules based on dubious numerology. Like Kabbalah and such.”
“Right. And where’s the CPU manufacturer that uses the Kabbalah to plan microchips?”
“Could be all of ‘em. You don’t know for sure, do you? Personally. You.”
Paul hated it when Harriet went on like this. She’d pick some basic piece of knowledge and then use bad logic to chase it to its most absurd conclusion. Spirits in microchips, indeed.
Just before Paul could begin a tirade about how the notion of spirits making microchips work was a completely ridiculous and unfalsifiable hypothesis, the engine made a horrible sound. It was like ball bearings being crunched into gears. Harsh, mechanical, and worst of all—whatever it was, it sounded irreversible. The car drifted forward on inertia. Paul steered it off the road, down a patch of dirt next to a bridge. They came to rest in a flat spot near the water.
“Shit, Harriet. I think you killed one of my engine elves.”
She didn’t bite. “I might have. Better check.”
“For a dead engine elf?”
“Well it couldn’t fucking help, could it, Harriet? I’m not going to pop the hood and find some mechanical dryad strangled in the fan belt.”
“Pop the hood.”
He did. Of course he was going to pop the hood. Not to look for elves. To look for some clue as to the mechanical malfunctioning of the engine.
They both leaned in under the hood. Paul was jiggling hoses and smelling around for some indication of the problem.
Harriet’s voice broke Paul’s concentration. “Got your problem right here.”
She leaned over and dug her hand underneath a tangle of wires. “Here.”
In her hand, Harriet held the limp body of a tiny man. Maybe six or seven inches tall, lithe with pointed ears. Its head was lolling to one side, like its neck had been snapped.
She said, “See? Looks like you did kill one of your engine elves.”
“Yeah, Mr. Science.”
“Well fuck. What do we do about it?”
“Jesus, have you read a book in your life? Or are you just one of those types that gets their education from television shows?”
Paul stuttered, but no coherent words escaped his mouth. Had he really been so ignorant? Science merchants with their narrative based on mathematics and formal logic systems, on so-called empirical evidence—had they been fudging the numbers all these years?
“Shit. I really don’t know.”
Harriet softened a bit, like maybe she could forgive his ignorance if he’d pull up his boots and get with the program. “Well, it’s a lucky thing that we’re in the swamp. Lots of little critters around. You’re going to have to get one so that we can sacrifice it.”
“Yeah, man. One life force for another. You science guys got the gist half right with thermodynamics but it’s way more nuanced than that. I don’t expect you to understand.” She looked around for a few minutes before picking up a stick, which she broke in half, leaving a sharp point. “Just go out there toward the water and see if you can spear something.”
Paul took the stick and hefted it. The night was closing in and he didn’t want to get stuck out here. There was no mistaking that the little elf that Harriet pulled out of the engine was real… . He wandered toward the water, trying to muster the will for murder. His entire world view taking a beating in the process.
A ripple in the water caught his eye and he moved toward it, slowly, like he imagined a hunter would. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the twilight and he saw the outline of something like a large fish in the water. He hoped that fish counted. Killing a mammal would be a whole different can of beans… . Paul took a lunge forward with the stick.
There was a splash. And a great gnashing of teeth. Paul felt his leg being crushed under sharp spikes. His bones broke as the vice grip twisted and he realized that he was being eaten by an alligator. The beginning of a scream escaped his mouth, but was quickly silenced by brackish water and the jaws moving up his body. Fear dulled his pain and panic led him to fill his lungs with water. Then the panic gave way to blackness.
Harriet stepped into the car and turned the key. The engine kicked over with a satisfying purr. She made it into New Orleans just after sunset.
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