Alvin Stone—genius. Equations, they cower before him. Proofs worship him, implore him, beg him for a glance. One look—solved.
Alvin lifted the paper. Greek symbols dotted the white landscape, aligned like trained soldiers. Integrals, matrices, vectors, dot products, limits, and sums.
No theorem could resist. Before thirteen, he’d rediscovered a non-Euclidean geometry and invented calculus. (Apparently he wasn’t the first—stupid Newton).
All he needed was another question.
Bookshelves covered the walls in his room—sorted by height, color, subject, and author’s last name. Perfect symmetry, gentle on the eye, except for the focal book.
Death by Gravity: Advanced Theories of Black Holes by Harold Miller. Orange spine. Bold letters. Squiggly font.
The tome of all tomes. He stood to retrieve it while glancing at the clock—July 11th, 2108, 8:52pm.
Beyond his bedroom, the front door creaked. Alvin’s pulse rocketed. Like Pavlov’s dog, the sound induced a physiological reaction. He knew what to expect.
Father was home.
Alvin grabbed a baseball bat.
The emotional defenses activated. Calculate. Remove meaning. Withdraw, withdraw, withdraw.
If we assume that X is a proportional constant with the characteristic of…
Muffled voices. Sound waves traveled through the air, 767 miles per hour. Just sounds—pressure waves colliding with oxygen molecules. Mere vibrations. Just minor events in a cosmic universe.
But he and to protect himself, right?
He placed his ear on the door. A voice spoke from the hallway.
Alvin’s breath caught. He knew that voice.
It couldn’t be.
Liam had died four years ago. Asthma. Liam was a distance runner. A chest like a bellows. Yet the asthma, it squeezed his lungs. His face turned blue.
Then white—a corpse.
Two point seven tons of dirt buried him. Alvin saw it, watched it, heard it.
It was the day two lives had ended. His own, and Liam’s—the man who protected him from Father.
If life ended when Liam died, did it begin anew when he returned to life?
The voice was Liam’s.
No. It couldn’t be. He should stay in his room, try to find a way out of his barred windows. He should keep to himself.
But his stupid curiosity wouldn’t allow it. He opened his bedroom door and saw him.
Alvin shook his head. No. No, no, no, no, no. It wasn’t Liam. But it was. But it couldn’t be.
No, no, no, no.
The man stood in the doorway, with shoulders that scarcely fit within the door’s frame. He wore a blue uniform with yellow trim and reflective shoes. He stood erect with his hands behind his back, like a…soldier?
But it couldn’t be him. Yet he approached.
Before he could notice, and without practicing the words in a whisper, the man’s name escaped Alvin’s lips—“Liam.”
No, he didn’t have to practice the words this time. He’d practiced them every nightmare, every dream where Liam had reappeared, every night as he escaped to his room.
The man who looked like Liam glanced at Alvin with a curt nod. The look stung—stabbing his chest.
Only a passing glance. It made sense. It wasn’t Liam. Why would a stranger spare anything more? It’s okay. Just light bouncing off objects, entering the cornea.
Liam was dead.
But those eyes—they were different. Liam’s were wide, as if they could not grow large enough to take in all the world around him—as if everything surprised him, always. But this man’s eyes were hard—like Father’s.
Yes, Liam was dead.
“…but so soon?” Mother asked. She wiped tears with her forearms.
Wait a minute. Something about this was wrong. But what?
“Their initial estimates were off.” Fake Liam looked at Alvin, bending just the corners of his lips into a…smile? Alvin cocked his head and Liam returned his gaze to Mother.
“The black hole–it’s much closer than we thought,” said the man.
Something was very wrong here—the way mother spoke to this man. Something very wrong.
Mother and the man both regarded Alvin. Who is that, Mother? he mouthed. He only had to practice once. “Who is that, Mother?”
Her forehead rumpled like blankets on an unmade bed. She cleared her throat. “Honey…It’s Liam.”
Alvin’s eyes shifted from Mother to Liam, Mother to Liam, Mother to Liam.
No, he whispered, practicing. “No.”
He rejected the hope and the fear. Controlled, mechanical, uncaring. Just like the gears of a clock or the laws of the universe—Alvin could be a machine.
He fixed his expression—void of emotion, placid, uncaring. The day before, he’d finally stood up to father, decked him in the nose and kicked his testicles. Alvin had locked himself in his room and hadn’t left.
He was a man now. He could handle an impostor.
“Alvin, it’s me,” Fake Liam said.
“It’s a dream. Maybe a nightmare, but it’s a dream.”
“Look at me, Vin,” Liam crouched . His voice was gentle, like it had always been. The voice was right, even if the eyes were wrong. But were they?
Alvin lifted his head. The eyes. “The eyes.” Alvin smiled. “Liam’s eyes. Liam…”
“It’s me, Vin.” He smiled, just like he used to.
“I didn’t die, Vin.”
I saw you, he mouthed. “I saw—”
“I know. You thought you saw me die,” said Liam.
Alvin tried to suppress the hope, tried to quell the joy. Liam—alive? It had been the wish of every dream. Yet he was here—alive.
But if he was alive…
Alvin scowled. He licked the salty wound of his busted lip. “You abandoned me.”
Liam’s smile faded. He glared behind Alvin, at Father. “He still hits you.”
It wasn’t a question. Would Liam expect otherwise?
But Mother…Alvin’s jaw tightened. She expected Liam’s return.
They knew. All along, they knew he was alive. And yet they let Alvin suffer.
Lies, lies, lies. Mother’s grief—a lie. Father’s cries—faked.
Unfair, unfair, unfair.
And Liam? He was the only one who loved Alvin, or was that a lie too?
Alvin continued to glower. He knew the answer. You abandoned me.
“I’m sorry, Vin.” Liam combed his fingers through his hair. “I had no choice. They took me.”
Alvin blinked. They, he mouthed. “They?”
Liam smiled. “Come, and I’ll show you.”
Alvin shook his head. He fought the hope, the fear, the anger, the betrayal.
But his stupid curiosity won.
They. Who are they and why did they fake Liam’s death?