The Pop-Tart Proof
By C. E. Steel
“Yes! Pop-Tarts! It was the Pop-Tarts!”
I look at Sarah over my mug of coffee. “Sarah,” I say. “That’s ridiculous.”
It is a rainy Thursday in Manchester. Tomorrow it will be a rainy Friday in Manchester.
“No,” she says, “It’s improbable.” Her eyebrows do a little dance as she stares me down, as if trying to transmit her belief telekinetically. I sip my coffee and pretend it’s something stronger.
Sarah is an old friend from school, and I’ve known her for most of my life. It’s easier with older friends: less to hide. Or, harder to hide. Either way, Sarah can’t talk fast enough; her foot taps a triplet jazz rhythm down and up and down. She has not touched her oat milk pumpkin spice latte. I down the dregs of my coffee and start on hers.
“It was the same pattern,” Sarah is saying. “The exact same pattern. Exactly like it was on my seventeenth birthday—down to the last sprinkle!” She grabs her phone from the table and starts tapping at the screen. “See?” I see a tiny picture of a strawberry pink Pop-Tart with rainbow sprinkles. “OK, and—“ she flips to another photo, and holds her phone out again, “—see? Hold on, just—“ Sarah does something with her fingers, and flips the phone around one more time.
I look at the two identical Pop-Tarts side by side. The photos are different: one duller, softer, paler. But, they’re the same. Down to the last sprinkle.
“OK,” I give her, “For some reason you had Pop-Tarts instead of birthday cake. Like you said, improbable. So what.”
“It was my first—after the gluten allergy—anyways!”
Sarah breathes in. She slows down. “OK Jamie, think of it this way. When was the first microprocessor invented?”
I had known her long enough not to be surprised by the non-sequitur. It was what made her an excellent professor. “I bet you’re about to tell me.”
Sarah smiles. “1958. Jack Kilby. It was called an ‘integrated circuit’. She actually pulls out a pen and starts to draw on a napkin. “It had five transistors.” She draws two axes on the napkin and a dot at the bottom corner. “Eight years later, this guy Gordon E. More, theorizes that every two years, the number of transistors in a microchip will double.” Her pen sketches out an exponential curve. “It was actually based on economics, but as technology progressed, his prediction held true.” Sarah turns the napkin around so it faces me. “This was called ‘the most important graph in human history.’
I take another sip of her latte.
“Of course, we’re already seeing the curve flatten out.” She tears the napkin apart and starts to pick idly at the pieces. “But think about it on a different scale: think about how far humanity has come in the past century, compared with the last millennium. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, nuclear fission. Think about what we could do in a hundred years, in a thousand. We’ll be able to grow a human brain from scratch. We’ll be able to create fictitious worlds with 0s and 1s—and don't get me started on quantum computing.”
“I love you like a sister, Sarah, but my lunch break was done fifteen minutes ago. Give me the skinny here.”
Sarah nods, stacking her hands on top of each other on the plastic table. “OK Jamie, here it is: Prove to me that we are not living in a simulation.”
The day after my father dies, I fly back to Boston. Somewhere south of Greenland, 4 whisky sodas deep, my mind wanders back to The Pop-Tart. In the free-form whirl of bourbon haze, I remember the Jesus Toast phenomenon a few years back, when some guy had seen the son of God on a piece of toast, and I think: maybe it’s like that. Maybe Sarah just needs a little bit of meaning in her life, a little magic in her toast. Something to hang onto. Maybe we all do.
I put on The Matrix Resurrections and close my eyes.
Even if we are living in a simulation, my dad is still dead.
One year after Sarah’s impromptu visit, six months after the funeral, I’m at the grocery store staring at boxes of pasta. My phone rings with a WhatsApp call. I put the receiver to my ear. Sarah says, “It happened again.”
Nothing changes for a while. I run a marathon and put a 26.2 sticker on my little Ford C-Max, which is great. When I cross the finish line, I promise to never do it again.
The next week, I sign up for another race.
Sarah moves back to Boston to teach cosmology to undergrads. Occasionally she posts Instagram photos of far-flung research stations near the equator. I lean into the comfortable rhythm of life in Manchester, winter grays and summer greens. I feel like I can breathe. The napkin is decomposing somewhere in Longley Lane Household Waste & Recycling, and if you think that name’s made up, think again.
Unless, of course. Well.
When I get back from my Sunday morning run one day in July, Andrew (that’s my husband now) is unloading groceries. He’s trying to balance four bags and open the front door at the same time, so I open the door for him and muck in with the rest.
When we’re done, I grab a glass of water and collapse into a wooden chair. Andrew is unpacking the groceries. I see a blue box disappear into a cupboard.
That’s when it all starts to unravel.
That Tuesday I call in sick from work. I sit in the same rigid wooden chair and stare at the blue Pop-Tart box in front of me and wonder how it had all gotten so out of hand.
Somewhere in my inbox is an email from Sarah with The Math. The probability of those exact sprinkles in that exact configuration. I’m no mathematician, but I can read. There are a lot of zeros.
The email comes with a brief explanation of the mathematical proof, which is good because the actual math is literal Greek. In layman's terms, Sarah writes, and I'm paraphrasing here: the probability of such a pattern occurring in the known universe by random accident or by intentional sabotage (AKA, a dude messing with us) is so close to zero that it might as well be.
If the medium is the message, then the Pop-Tart is the perfect medium. So innocuous. So silly. Pop-Tarts are not mysterious objects: they are Known. They are a breakfast food.
A missed line of code, somewhere high above, simple as. That is something I can believe in: the power of stupid mistakes.
Until I look inside the box, both realities can exist. We are, and are not, blips of data in a simulation. Until I open the box, I can go on pretending like it all means something. Afterwards, I will have to lie: I will have to pretend that there is liberty in the nothingness.
Everything starts to feel very far away. I start to act like Christian Bale in American Psycho. I cut my finger with the vegetable knife and I stare at the blood for 30 seconds, just, I guess, to see what happens. What happens is, it stains the cutting board.
I start doing what people might call “weird stuff”. One week, I dress in all red, every day, down to my socks. Then I start speaking in total gibberish to strangers at random, like to the barista at a coffee shop where I will never be welcome again.
“Ma’am,” says overworked the barrista, and takes a breath. Then she lets it out, shakes her head, and turns to the next customer. I let myself out.
One morning I wake up, walk outside to get the newspaper, and read the words,
“Open the Box,”
written in cartoon clouds in the sky. At least our Matrix overlords have a sense of humor.
This is how it goes: I pull apart the blue box. I rip into the silver packaging.
Am I boring you? I feel like you’ve heard this one.
In the end, I decide not to go mad, but it’s a close thing. Like staring into an infinity mirror on an elevator going down, and realizing you forgot where you parked your car.
A lot of philosophy is about suicide, did you know that? About whether or not it matters if you kill yourself. Whether not you might as well.
One philosopher, a famous one, the guy who wrote “I think, therefore I am,” also asked whether or not it was possible that an evil demon could be deceiving us into perceiving a false reality. But luckily for us, according to him, that couldn’t happen: because God would not let it. Jesus Toast to the rescue again!
Andrew and I break up, and I cry a lot.
He moves out and I take a week off from work to work on my impression of a cliché ex-fiancé. It must get pretty bad, because Sarah flies over and shows up on my front stoop with a case of beer and patience I did not know that girl had. When she leaves, I’m no longer in active self-destruct mode. I get my shit together, but I don’t leave the house much.
I eat the last of my leftover casserole from a well-meaning acquaintance on a Wednesday.
That means that on Thursday, I have three food items left in the house: milk, coffee, and foil-wrapped tears in the fabric of our synthetic reality.
They taste like strawberries.