The Beauty in Vulnerability by Steve Goodlad

The school hallway outside the library was gradually getting quieter allowing Norman to think without distraction. He was discussing his latest theories with Marvin, his conscience voice trying to reach a conclusion before Grandad arrived to take him home.

“So, if the sets can’t contain X because then X doesn’t satisfy the predicate defining it, where did I go wrong?” Asked Marvin.

“I think the mistake was to define the sets as a predicate before you even defined the proposition. Those reasoning skills will not get us through the pilot training.”

As the school became quiet, Norman could enjoy his solitude with his own mind but he forgot sometimes that they could communicate by thinking rather than speaking aloud.

“Look out,” said Marvin. “Someone’s here. I think she heard you talking.”

“Hello.” Said the girl looking directly at Norman who initially forgot not to make eye contact and then turned back to the book he’d been previously studying.

The girl looked around to see who the strange looking boy might have been talking to. He seemed to be ignoring her. There was no-one else in the library.

“Hello” she tried again. “Have you seen a laptop? I left it in here at break. I hope it hasn’t been stolen.”

Norman didn’t look up from his book. “Over by the filing cabinet.”

“What a relief.” She spoke. It’s not mine and he’s been giving me the third-degree about it since.”

“Third-degree?” Asked Marvin. “Is that like a burn or something?”

“No idea.” Norman forgot to speak in thought.

“I’m sorry?” asked the girl again, looking around to see who Norman might have been speaking to.

“Does he hurt you?”

“What? No.” The girl looked more curious than insulted. “I’ve seen you around the school occasionally. You get…. special support or something. What’s your name?”

“She’s got blue eyes and freckles. She looks kind. I think you should talk to her.” Marvin was the braver of the two but it was Norman that had to front these encounters and carry the embarrassment when it all went wrong.

“Norman”. He was still looking at the unread pages of his book, but occasionally flicking a look towards the girl to check out Marvin’s observations. “I like your eyes.” He added.

“Thanks “said the girl. “I’m Susan, what are you reading?”

“This one is my subscription magazine from the British Space Programme. And the book is my A ‘level calculus.”

“A ‘level? But you’re only fourteen?”

“Fifteen actually.” I want to go to University in Leicester and then get on the British Space Programme. I want to move to Shetland and work for SaxaVord Spaceport.”

“You’re losing her.” Warned Marvin. Susan was staring at him trying to work out the incongruity of a boy said to have special needs speaking like a science boffin from the television.

“My Grandad thinks that someone with autism won’t get to be an astronaut which is what I want to do….”

“She’s stopped listening.” Repeated Marvin

“Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet.” Norman forgot once more to speak in thought.

Susan stepped back a little, having initially been approaching the table with the stealth afforded to a negotiator trying to prevent a person atop a high building from jumping. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you angry.”

“I’m not angry. I just get carried away sometimes. My Grandad says I will be carried away if I keep getting mad. I’m not sure what he means though. He says people poke fun and laugh at me.”

“I wouldn’t poke fun and I think it's awful that people do.” Susan had stepped nearer his desk again and was contemplating sitting in the chair beside him.

“Would you mind if I sat and talked for a few minutes?”

“I’d like that.” Norman only felt that he ‘d like things when he actually did.

“Do you have any friends in this school?”

“You shouldn’t have let her stay. What were you thinking?”

“Your idea.” Norman suddenly looked up, alarmed in case he’d said something else out loud to Marvin. Susan didn’t seem cross, so maybe he hadn’t. “Sometimes I think of my books as friends.”

“Look, quarks are strange little particles with funny names.” Marvin was trying to draw Norman back from the brink. No friends, that was the rule, it was for the best.

“Up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom.” Marvin had his attention once more, except Norman was speaking aloud again.

“What, wait. I know this.” Susan recognised what he was talking about. “Quarks. The different types of quarks. We did a bit of that in physics and I was so interested I did a bit of my own research.”

“I read about it too. Look, I have a book I read when I was seven and a half.” Norman was rummaging now in his satchel. “It was my first physics book. Would you like to borrow it?”

“She doesn’t want it.” Marvin was losing the battle.

“Thank You. I’m reading Stephen Hawking at the moment. I bet you know all about him?”

“Aaand welcome aboard ladies and gentlemen, let's refocus now on the matter in hand which is how to dock with the space station and launch another Earth Observation Satellite.”

Norman ignored Marvin which was a first. He’d never met anyone else who had read Stephen Hawking. Not in this school anyway. “I like Stephen Hawking too. ‘When I read about Schrodinger’s cat I reached for my pistol’.”

The quote was lost on Susan.

Norman explained that it was a joke, but that he didn’t understand jokes, but he knew about the cat so he liked to repeat the joke.

“Where the cat is alive and dead at the same time.”

Marvin was fuming. How dare this outsider rain on his parade, whatever that meant.

“It’s a mind game designed to criticise the strangeness of superposition, or the combination of all the possible positions of a subatomic particle.”

“Whoa, slow down,” exclaimed Susan. “You’re so literal about everything.”

“I can’t help it.” He explained

“I know, you’re really smart, but you’re difficult to follow sometimes.

“But I’m not going anywhere.”

Susan smiled at that. At her mistake and his response.

“What?” he asked

“Nothing. Look, I like talking to you. You know a lot of stuff. I know a bit. I have a telescope and I look at the stars. But I wouldn’t tell anyone else here, they’d think that weird.”

“I built my own telescope. I use it on clear moonless nights depending on what event I am seeking.”

“I find space quite beautiful, don’t you?”

“I’ve just finished splitting the double quasar in Ursa Major and recently I’ve been locating stars within one hundred light years of Earth, breaking down their light emissions into the visible spectrum and finding what wavelengths are missing which allows me to determine each star’s thermal postmark and atmospheric composition.”

“You’re so scientific about everything. Don’t you just look up and wonder? Admire the beauty of it all?”

The sentence confused Norman. Marvin was taking a break. All Norman could hear was faint chanting. It was like doing a spacewalk without being tethered to the mothership. It was strangely liberating and horrifying at the same time.

Susan explained that she tended to seek out the constellations and draw them.

Norman was on a roll and said that in his latest project he sought out gamma ray activity in search of supernova’s. He thought they may answer questions such as if gravity had a repellent component or if the inflation hypothesis was correct. “There’s so much I want to understand, but I’m limited and it’s frustrating that I may never find out.”

Susan asked him what he thought she did when she felt the same about her own limitations not just in what she knew, but life in general.

He didn’t know. But he realised he couldn’t wait to find out. Marvin had strangely switched off and Norman's whole attention was now on Susan. He had never looked at another person so intently.

“I just try to stop thinking, just let it wash over me. The way it looks out there. The razor-sharp blackness punctured by little pricks of light made of every colour imaginable. The shapes you see in nebula’s are so alien but at the same time so…..”

“Intuitive?” he asked.

“Exactly. You see Norman, you see the beauty too.” Unfortunately, Susan’s tactile tendencies got the better of her and she reached out and hugged him.

“Whoa! What’s going on? I leave you for one minute.” Marvin was back in his head. “No touching!”

Susan sprang back from him like an electric shock as Norman sprang to his feet. “What did I do?”

Norman was looking around for somewhere to run. She was in the way of the door.

“Leave him alone.” Susan turned to see an older man looking cross at her.

“You kids have nothing better to do than poke fun at him?”

“Come on Norman.” Said his Grandad. “Let’s go.”

Selected: 24th Short Story
Published in Issue #30

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