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“‘Finally, if you were foolish enough to jump into a black hole, you would experience the exciting phenomenon called spaghettification. This is when your body gets stretched into a noodle by the extreme tidal forces as you approach the singularity, and you’re eventually torn apart atom by atom. Some would say that it’s the most noble way to go out. In the next chapter, we will calculate how long it will take for the black hole to dissipate after it absorbs your mass.’”

Nobody doubted Dr. Ken Tychonoff’s skill in the field of astrophysics, though many said he lacked one vital skill: keeping his audience in mind. From his seat behind the checkout counter, Austin scanned the class of kindergarteners. He was relieved to see no tears, and figured that they just didn’t understand him. 

Though, he thought, who would understand Cosmology, Tensors, and the Metrics of Spacetime? Certainly not Austin, nor the editors who rejected the book as “pseudoscientific nonsense with a foundation based in multitude of unproven conjectures.” It was most likely that only Dr. Tychonoff understood it, and that was only because he wrote it himself. Austin had heard a rumor once—when and from whom he heard it, he could not remember—that Dr. Tychonoff had to lurk amongst the conspiracy theorists and flat-Earthers to get it to a publisher. 

“That’s a good place to stop,” Dr. Tychonoff said while shutting the book with a commanding thwump. “Now, kids, if you believe in the conservation of information, you will be glad to know that you are not lost in the black hole, you just get spread out on its surface. Yes, spread out like a pancake. Well, more like a crêpe, very thin. Also, did you know that you can move through time freely in a black hole? Yes, it’s a strange phenomenon, indeed. You can move through time just like you would a room. The only problem is that you can’t move freely through space anymore, no. You just keep going and going until, boop! You’re torn apart. I think it was Schwarzschild who calculated-”

A loud crash drew everyone’s attention to the door. A middle-aged woman wearing a bus driver’s uniform with her hair in a loose ponytail staggered inside, knocking open sign down onto the floor. She coughed out a few good hacks as if she had just finished a cigarette, and the faint smell of tobacco Austin could smell as she walked past the counter confirmed that to be the case.

“Alright you little rascals, Debby’s gotta get you back to school before pickup and the taxpayers aren’t gonna be happy to hear I had the bus running for the last 15 minutes waiting for y’all. C’mon! Git! Let’s go!”

The children stood and filed themselves into a line. Debby counted each one as she walked down the line, confirming that the number of kids that left the school matched the number going back, but confirming nothing further. After this, they walked quietly out the door, save for the kid at the back who told Debby about the book Dr. Tychonoff read. 

“Y’all learned about spaghetti? They ain’t teaching you much nowadays, huh?”

Debby shut the door behind her, quietly this time. Austin helped Dr. Tychonoff get up from the short chair he sat in while reading the book.

“Thanks again for doing this, Ken. I think the kids really enjoyed it.”

“Ah, yes, indeed. It’s always a pleasure to teach the next generation of loyal followers.”

Austin chuckled.

“Ken, you have to stop calling your students that name.”

“I suppose you’re right, Austin. Or should I say, my most loyal follower?” Dr. Tychonoff smiled and stuck his tongue out. Austin never heard the story of how this came to be his way of letting someone know he was goofing around, but he understood the meaning nonetheless. “I shall see you Wednesday for our meeting, correct?”

“Yes, see you Wednesday.”

Austin waved to Dr. Tychonoff as he left, then plopped himself down in his usual spot. He rested his arms on the counter, and then his head on his arms.

“Who thought it would be a good idea to let Ken read that book?” Austin said while looking up at Chris, who sat down beside him.

“What? I thought you loved astrophysics, Mr. ‘I’m too busy to hang out with you because I’m studying,’” Chris teased. He lightly pinched Austin’s side and gently wiggled the soft bit of his belly between his fingers. Austin snickered and pushed him away.

“Stop! I told you that tickles!”

“Wait, what tickles? You mean this?” 

“Stop!” Austin said through his laughter, trying to keep his voice down. “I don’t want any more complaints from Margaret.”

“Oh please, Margaret only ‘reprimanded’ us to make that old man leave.”

“Fine. But still, don’t.”

“You didn’t answer my question, by the way,” Chris said. He got up from his seat and walked around the counter to face Austin directly.

“Maybe I didn’t quite hear it because someone wanted to tickle me.”

“I’m still not hearing an answer.”

“I mean, telling kids that they’re going to get absorbed by a black hole? Torn apart atom by atom? Turned into spaghetti? Doesn’t seem very age-appropriate?”

Chris shrugged. “I doubt they picked up on any of it. I bet they heard the word ‘spaghetti’ and thought about how they hate it when mom and dad make them put red sauce on it. And I don’t blame them, butter is good all by itself.”

“Still, it’s just not for everyone.”

“At least I know one person got something out of the book, you like astrophysics.”

Chris attempted to grab Austin’s side again, but the counter between them gave Austin the opening to get up and dodge. 

“Correction. I love astrophysics.”

“Right. You love astrophysics and nothing else. You’ve made that clear.”

Chris sighed and muttered something else that Austin couldn’t hear. Then he walked over to the front door and picked up the open sign, flipping it to closed as he put it back on the door.

“Anyway, it’s time to pack up. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow, Chris.”

***

Austin carefully swept the shards of glass into the dustpan, and Chris looked over the note taped onto the brick.

“Become one with the singularity. Spaghettification is our future. Listen to me,” Chris read aloud. “What in the world does that mean?”

“Probably just some nutcase, like usual,” Austin said while he dumped the last of the broken window into a doubled-up trash bag. “Remember when someone spray painted that weird symbol on the side of the middle school?”

“Oh yeah, what was it again? Like some crab or something?”

“That sounds right. I don’t understand how putting a brick through our window helps their cause, though.”

Like yesterday, the sound of a loud crash came from the front door, and Debby trudged inside. 

“Y’all got books on spaghetti?”

“Pardon?”

“Spaghetti. I want a book about spaghetti.”

“Er, yes, we do. Over in the cookbook section. It’s around the corner and on the far wall.”

Debby hastily shuffled her way around the corner, knocking over the cardboard display that had been set up for the local book drive. After about a minute, she called out to Austin.

“No, no, no! Ain’t none of these books is what I want!”

Austin walked around the corner to see a pile of books on the floor, most of which concerned Italian cuisine. He groaned internally, thinking about how long it would take to put everything back in the right order. But that was not the issue that concerned him at the moment.

 “Didn’t you say you wanted a book about spaghetti?” he asked. 

“Yeah! About our future! Spaghetti is our future!”

Chris perked up when he heard what she said, then walked over to her with the note in hand. “Wait, do you mean this?” he said while handing her the note. She looked it over for a moment before responding.

“Hmm. Well I ain’t got a clue what that first part means, but the second part’s what I’m talking about. I need a book about spaghetti.”

Austin shook his head in disbelief. “Hold on, you can’t possibly be talking about what happens when you fall into a black hole, can you?”

“I guess that’s what I am talking about. I think I remember one of those kids saying something about a black hole or something.”

Austin huffed, grabbed the note out of her hand, then crumpled it up and threw it on the floor.

“Look, all of that stuff is nonsense, okay? Those kids were just repeating what they heard from the scientist who came to read to them yesterday.”

“What? No. Not those kids. You think that school pays me enough just to drive for them? No, those kids only talked about regular spaghetti. I heard the spaghetti future stuff from some of the kids at the alternative school just outside of town.”

Austin stood in awe. Since he couldn’t regain his composure quickly enough, Chris spoke in his place.

“Do you know where they heard this stuff from?”

“Well I picked them up from the library there, too. I think someone was reading to them when I came in to get them.”

Austin jumped back into the conversation upon hearing this.

“Was he an old man? White hair? Looks kinda like Albert Einstein.”

“Einstein? Ain’t he that one scientist who has his tongue out in that one poster?”

“Um, yes, I suppose. He also, y’know, revolutionized modern physics.”

“Well I don’t know much about that physics nonsense. But yes, he looked like the tongue-guy.”

Austin buried his face in his hands and groaned. He walked back behind the counter, pulled out his laptop, and started typing. Debby looked toward Chris with her eyebrow raised, who looked back toward her with an equal expression of confusion.

“So I’m guessing you ain’t got no book on spaghetti?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Chris said. He looked back toward Austin, who was still typing.

“Well then, I best get on out of here. I think I need to pick up some kids from the zoo.”

Debby trudged her way back out the door, knocking down the open sign yet again on her way out.

 “You think?” Chris said to himself. He picked up the book drive display and joined Austin over at the counter, who was still typing.

“Hey, what happened over there? You left me to deal with her all by myself.”

“Something more important came up.”

“And what would that be?”

Austin turned his laptop toward Chris. On the screen was an email Austin had typed, addressed to Dr. Tychonoff.

“You’re dropping him as your advisor?” Chris asked. “But I thought you wanted to work with him ever since you entered the program?”

“I did. But this has gone too far. I mean, someone put a brick through our window because of what they heard from him. He needs to stop, and if he won’t, I’m not going to be a part of it.”

Chris fiddled at the button on the sleeve of his shirt.

“So, what are you going to love now?” he teased. “Wasn’t Ken the only one who did astrophysics in your program?”

Austin sighed and turned away from Chris.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get into nuclear physics. I’ve had some good conversations with the PI of the nuclear lab, maybe she’ll take me on as a mentee.”

“Do you want to hear a suggestion for something else you can love?”

“Not now, Chris. I gotta figure this out. Can you cover the rest of my shift? It’s only an hour before we close.”

Chris rolled his eyes and crossed his arms.

“Yeah, sure, whatever. See you tomorrow.”

“See you, Chris.”

Austin walked partially out the door, but leaned back in to ask Chris another question.

“Actually, Chris, can you cover me tomorrow, too? I think I’ll need the whole day to sort things out with my new advisor.”

“Fine.”

***

When the EMTs dragged the last body out of the rubble, Austin wretched. He never expected things to go this bad this quickly. Seeing Chris’s corpse being tossed onto the grass hurt him more than he thought it would.

“Who did this? When did this happen? What’s going on?”

“Look, kid, we got enough to deal with as it is,” the police chief said. He held a small notebook and a short pencil, and was writing down details about the scene. “Asking a million questions won’t make our jobs any easier. We’ve already had to arrest two dozen nutcases who were running around yelling about being turned into spaghetti. Turns out some cult or whatever has been working in secret. The feds are coming in to investigate, that’s how big a deal this is.”

“But, but, I think I have a lead. I mean, my advisor—well, he’s not my advisor anymore, but—he did this. Or at least, he had something to do with it. Look! Look at this!”

Austin pulled out his laptop and showed the police chief a digital copy of Cosmology, Tensors, and the Metrics of Spacetime, opened to the chapter about spaghettification. 

“Kid, I don’t have time to read about your science homework. Now just go home and try to forget this ever happened, okay?”

“What do you mean, forget? Look at the library! That bomb would’ve killed me if I hadn’t let Chris take my shift.”

The police chief put his notebook away and placed his hand on Austin’s shoulder.

“Listen, I know how hard it is to lose someone you love. But you have to be strong and move on. I mean, just last week I had to tell this poor old lady that her husband got arrested for swiping a bottle of shoe polish from the supermarket. It’s just life, and you have to-”

“Wait, what do you mean, lose someone I love?” Austin interrupted. 

“Oh, did you not write this? We found it in that kid’s pocket over there.”

The police chief pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Austin. 

“Become one with the singularity. Spaghettification is our future. Listen to me. -Chris” it read.

December 10, 2022 03:00

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1 comment

Benjamin Okojie
04:40 Dec 18, 2022

this was a fun read with a crazy twist and a good mystery ending, the dialogue toward the end seemed a little too plot-based, and less character based, apart from that it was really good.

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