King of Marbury
Marbury is another world, a dark world that best friends Jack Whitmore and Conner Kirk have fallen into before. A stranger had given Jack a pair of glasses – it’s through the lenses that the boys get to Marbury. Told through Conner’s point of view, “King of Marbury” asks whether Marbury is only in Jack and Conner’s minds, or if it might actually be real. You decide.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Feiwel & Friends editor Elizabeth Szabla.
How does the passenger come to arrive at his point of embarkation?
I found Marbury, Jack.
The real Marbury, and I had my feet planted right here in California when it happened.
And guess what? The real Marbury isn’t that place we know.
The real Marbury was a person.
Jack and I might not ever come back.
After all, we learned we could never be certain back was actually back anyway. But all the things I ever did were aimed at trying to keep Jack with me, while Jack was mostly concerned about getting away from himself.
It started happening at the beginning of summer, after a creep named Freddie Horvath kidnapped my best friend, Jack Whitmore. There was an accident. The creep died. He deserved it. How could anyone ever feel sorry for a guy who does shit like that to a kid?
But Jack felt so guilty he couldn’t think straight. And then he started popping in and out of this place he called Marbury. I thought Jack was losing it. Going nuts. And then I started popping in and out of that shithole, too.
After a while things started changing. Little things got erased from our real world, and other things began appearing out of nowhere, everywhere, anywhere. Like the small fish-shaped scar, down below my belly.
Pretty soon I wasn’t Conner anymore. I didn’t know who or what I was in Marbury. Jack and I couldn’t stop ourselves from going there.
I guess we must have been drawn to it, the edge. It was like surfing a monster break in shark-infested water – once you pull it off, you want to prove to yourself you aren’t scared to do it again. And suddenly you don’t want to go near anything that isn’t monster-sized and teeming with sharks. So Jack lied to me about things, and I lied to Jack. And then we dragged these two brothers – Ben and Griffin – back and forth along for the ride, too.
Fun times in fucking Marbury.
We all got so out of control.
I’d been scared before – on the night we beat the shit out of Freddie for fucking with Jack, and plenty of times in Marbury – but I never felt so nervous and uncertain as I did the day I lied to Stella, his grandmother, about Jack stranding himself at the mall by losing his truck key, and how he called me to swing by their home in Glenbrook so I could pick up his spare.
Stella believed me, even if it felt like my tongue had swollen to the size of a grapefruit when I laid the story on her.
Jack was always losing things.
Stella knew we were good kids. Just normal, all-American boys, Jack and me.
But when I went upstairs and snuck inside my best friend’s bedroom, it wasn’t to look for the extra key to Jack’s truck. I went there to steal one of the Marbury lenses.
Jack didn’t think Ben, Griffin, and I knew about the other lenses.
It wasn’t the lens. Jack never let the Marbury lens get away from his control. He carried it always, and nobody could get near it without Jack’s okay. But after I’d heard the story about this English physicist who disappeared before World War I – a guy named Creighton Marbury – and how he’d discovered what he called Marbury’s Lens drifting around the solar system in 1910, the same year Halley’s Comet passed through, I knew I had to get one of those lenses away from Jack and try to see if I could make it all stop once and for all.
And I knew what Jack would say to me if I ever told him I wanted to make it all stop, because I knew everything about Jack Whitmore, inside and out.
He would tell me this: Fuck you, Conner Kirk.
But I found Marbury, Jack.
And I need to fix you.
My brother Ryan had been home from Berkeley on and off over the summer. All the stuff from his dorm room was stored in boxes in the bedroom next to mine. The week I lied my way into Jack’s house, Ryan was in Mexico with two buddies, supposed to go back to Cal at the end of August. That would be just about the same time Jack and I were supposed to leave for school in England, which was kind of making us – Ben and Griffin, too – sick with worry over what we could do about the Marbury lens.
We all needed it. The lens changed every decision we ever made.
I got into Ryan’s things. He wouldn’t care. He kept cool shit on his iPad, and lots of porn. Ryan had a thing for porn. And he never minded showing it to his little brother.
But when I looked through the collection of videos on Ryan’s iPad, I came across this:
Lecture — Dr. Q. Edward Cahill: Marbury’s Lens: The Double Slit Paradox and Quantum Reality
I couldn’t get over it. I stared and stared at those two words for five minutes at least.
Ryan’s video caught about twenty minutes of Dr. Q. Edward Cahill’s lecture. Dr. Cahill spoke in a crowded hall at Berkeley. He paced across a stage while massive screens behind him displayed diagrams and old photographs of Creighton Marbury’s “Lens” – an anomalous distortion, he called it, a bend in space – recorded in 1910 through Marbury’s telescopes. Marbury’s Lens made objects in space materialize simultaneously in two completely different locations.
Cahill lectured as though he were engaged in an argument with himself, like he wasn’t even aware of all the students and faculty who’d come to hear his talk. His skin was white as vanilla frosting and he had wild orange hair and a scraggly beard. As he spoke, all in this slick Southern gentleman’s soothing twang, he waved his arms and pointed at the images projected behind him in such a way you had to be convinced the guy was either totally crazy or absolutely right.
I recall a tremendous impulse in my youth to be the first person to find out where this will all end, troubled, as I was, by the essential question which asks: How does the passenger come to arrive at his point of embarkation in the first place?
In physics, we scientists have simultaneously been devoted observers as well as destroyers. In 1910, Creighton Marbury wrote: “If I could only shatter reality into its component pieces, then I would be able to examine the very materials through which reality comes together.”
Marbury’s Lens, his essential theory, does not seek to explain everything. Instead, Marbury addresses the formidable powers of nothingness and its endless capacity to produce “anything” and then cast it outward, rippling through space, coming into and going out of existence in unimaginably short fragments of time.
So he told about Creighton Marbury and his telescopes, and how Marbury had eventually gone nuts and had made eyeglasses – he called them “spectacles” – out of the lenses from his observatory. Then Marbury, who was an outcast from the scientific community, simply vanished.
At the time, most people believed Creighton Marbury committed suicide, or possibly ended up an anonymous inmate in some asylum.
Cahill had been researching Marbury and his Lens for decades. Just before the video stopped, Cahill explained his theory on the question of Marbury’s observations, his disappearance, and how these events coincided with the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910. Cahill also said that it was not a coincidence that the next time the comet returned, an orbiting satellite telescope simply vanished, and a NASA space shuttle, along with its entire crew, disintegrated while descending from orbit.
Cahill was convinced the satellite and the shuttle had both passed through Marbury’s Lens. He believed Creighton Marbury had passed through it, as well.
Dr. Q. Edward Cahill claimed he could prove the existence of Marbury’s Lens – and how each individual particle that makes up everything we know to be real has the ability to exist in two, or even two thousand, places, all in the same exact moment.
Cahill said he could prove that reality only becomes real when we can see it.
I watched the lecture again and again that day. I knew I had to find Cahill and tell him what happened to me and Jack in Marbury.
Then I decided to steal one of Jack’s lenses and take the three hour drive north to Berkeley so I could show Cahill what he’d been hunting for all this time.
It was a big mistake.
“Got it, Stella.” I patted the right pocket of my shorts as I came downstairs from Jack’s bedroom.
Stella Whitmore shook her head. “What am I going to do with that boy?”
“No worries,” I said, “I’ll always be around to save him.”
“You’re so sweet. Thank you, Conner,” she said.
“Stella,” I lied, “don’t give Jack a hard time about losing his key. You know how he’s been lately. He’s just nervous about leaving home. We both are. I’ll look after him. I promise.”
I winked at her.
Stella touched my shoulder and smiled.
As I left their house, I felt the tickle of sweat dripping from my armpits and down the ridges of my spine. I didn’t enjoy lying to Stella, or to Jack for that matter. Sometimes it just had to be done.
Jack Whitmore was so predictable. He’d hidden both of those blue lenses wadded up inside some old boxers at the bottom of his underwear drawer.
It was all I could do to not glance into the lens I stole. The moment I unfolded Jack’s boxers, the smoky blue light from Marbury fogged upward into the bedroom, quivering with shapes and movement, whispering to me, luring me across the line and into some other place.
Who could possibly know where I’d end up?
I shut my eyes and jammed the thing down into my pocket.
I wanted to tell Jack the truth. I wanted to ask him to come up to Berkeley with me the next morning to look for Dr. Cahill.
But when you start moving that shit around just a little bit, Marbury has a way of leaking inside your plans and fucking over reality.
At least, that’s what I supposed happened when I transferred Ryan’s video clip on to my phone. While I worked on it that afternoon, I kept feeling the weight of the stolen lens in my pocket as it pressed against my thigh. It felt heavy and hot, and I felt guilty about what I’d done to Jack, like I was cheating on him or something. But it needed to be done.
Then I took off my shirt and pulled down the waist of my shorts – a habit of mine – —so I could trace my finger around the lopsided curve of the scar I’d brought back from the time I turned into a monster in Marbury.
Some things just wouldn’t ever go away.
Jack and I went for a run the next morning.
I had already packed a bag of clothes and stuff I might need if I didn’t make it back home from Berkeley and my hunt for Dr. Q. Edward Cahill by nighttime. I left my things and the lens I’d stolen from Jack inside the cab of my truck.
There was a loop we’d take outside Glenbrook that began on narrow hiking trails through the Leona Arroyo and then climbed five inclines to the summit of Harris Hill, where two brass-topped concrete knobs stamped in 1933 by the US Geologic Survey marked the elevation at 3,325 feet.
It was a ten mile run.
We finished in an hour. The whole time we pushed each other.
It was obvious Jack was edgy and pissed off about what we should do with the Marbury lens – the lens – when we left for school in a few weeks. Like I said, I knew everything about Jack, and I could tell by how he carried himself and by the tension in his shoulders when we ran that morning that Jack was preoccupied with only one thing.
And I kept trying to find some way of asking him to come with me up to Berkeley that day, so we could see a guy about once and for all closing the fucking doorway between this world and the world we kept falling into.
Oh, and by the way, Jack, I also got into your personal shit and stole one of the lenses yesterday.
It wasn’t going to happen.
I didn’t ever want to fight with Jack again.
So neither one of us said more than a dozen words for the entire run.
At the bottom of the final hill, I said, “I want to show you something.”
I had left the keys to my truck resting on the rear tire, where I always hid them when we ran. Jack drank from a plastic gallon jug of water he’d put in the truck’s bed. It was just past eight in the morning, and already about one hundred degrees. We were both slick with sweat. Jack bent forward and poured some water over the back of his neck, then handed the jug to me.
After drinking, I put the water down on the floor in front of the driver’s seat and grabbed my phone.
“Look.” I held the phone inside the cab, so the screen was shaded from the sun.
Jack coughed and spit a big wad of runner muck on the dirt between us. He combed his wet hair back with both hands.
“What, Con?” he said.
I hit play.
And as soon as I touched the screen, the entire front panel of my phone shattered.
So maybe it was a coincidence, right? I think Jack and I had pretty much ruled out coincidences whenever anything happened between our here and Marbury.
Jack thought it was funny, my shattered phone.
He joked, asking if I had been planning on showing him one of Ryan’s porn videos with it, and I told him yes, of course I was.
You know me, Jack.
But as soon as I got home, filthy and sweating from our workout, I went straight upstairs for Ryan’s iPad. The thing had been wiped clean. No Dr. Q. Edward Cahill, no Marbury’s Lens, no porn, no nothing.
Another coincidence, right?
Dr. Q. Edward Cahill kept an office in the guesthouse of a towering old home in Claremont Hills, an area on the southeast fringe of Berkeley.
On the drive up, I had practiced saying what I needed to tell him. I was nervous, so I sounded like an idiot.
Hello, Dr. Cahill, my name is Conner Kirk. My brother, Ryan Kirk, is a student of yours, and . . .
Um . . . I have been through the Marbury lens, Dr. Cahill.
Uh . . . I have something in my pocket you might want to see.
Shit. That sounds totally fucking perverted.
So I turned on the radio and tried not to think about Cahill, or Jack, or the Marbury lens.
I got a parking ticket near the university as I attempted to track down Dr. Cahill. The ticket ended up in a sidewalk trash can outside an Indian restaurant.
It was early afternoon when I finally found the house off Tunnel Road. The place looked creepier than shit, too. The street was quiet and dark, and shaded by massive trees that kept the ground damp and moss stained. The air smelled like licorice from wild anise growing up through cracks in the crumbling sidewalks.
To get to Cahill’s office, I had to climb a narrow path of red brick stairs that rose up unevenly through the jungle of the main home’s side yard. Curled against the edge of the guesthouse, a bloated dead rat the size of a roasted chicken lay on its side. It had been poisoned. I saw a few scattered kernels of turquoise-blue dried corn on the lower steps. The rat looked like it had actually sweat itself to death, and the fur around its snout was clotted with blood.
The doorbell outside Dr. Cahill’s office gave off a sizzling buzz, like something was deep frying inside the mechanism. I decided not to touch it.
To be honest, the buzz reminded me of how the bugs in Marbury sounded when they ate corpses. Another fucking Marbury coincidence.
I stood there for a minute. I considered chickening out, just turning around and going back home to Glenbrook, forgetting about everything that was no longer there, erased from my brother’s iPad and my shattered phone.
It would have been the smart thing to do.
I thought about it, but I’m not like that, Jack. You know how I am when I make up my mind to do something. Even if the plan I’ve come up with is really stupid.
So I knocked.
As creepy as the outside of the place was, things got even weirder inside the professor’s office.
Cahill smoked constantly. As soon as he’d finish one cigarette, he’d snap down on his soft pack of Marlboros and light up another. The place stunk, and the ceiling showed galactic nebulas of sticky brown swirls above the desk chair where the guy obviously spent the majority of his time.
And Jack, I stumbled through my idiotic explanation of why I’d come to see Dr. Cahill. I was so nervous I hardly remembered what I needed to tell him, but the guy stared at me with crazy eyes through all the smoke, and I could see he was interested, and listening, too.
But how do you begin a story like ours, anyway?
“I came to talk to you about Marbury, and his lens, and how me and some of my friends have been going through it . . .”
I know you’re going to think I’m insane – that’s what it does to us, right? – but every so often as I was talking, I’d glance around the room at the clutter and all the framed images on messy shelves or hanging from the walls, and I saw things.
I saw something from Marbury.
I almost choked when I noticed an old sepia-stained photograph hanging on the wall beside a door at the back of Cahill’s office. It was the image of a broken-down pier – posts and crooked chunks of surface tarmac jutting up above choppy dark waters.
And it was exactly the same pier as the one we rode past – Ben, Griffin, Jack, and me – in that other world of Marbury, the day we made it to the safety of the walled city called Grove. But I thought, well, it couldn’t be – right?
You see one destroyed pier, you’ve seen ’em all.
Just another fucking coincidence.
But it was exact.
It was a snapshot from Marbury.
I didn’t even want to look at the faces in the ancient portrait photographs in the office. I was too scared I’d see people I’d remember from Marbury.
I was almost nervous enough to piss myself.
“Are you going to show me the piece of lens you’ve brought, then?” Cahill said.
I cleared my throat. “It’s not a piece. It’s the whole thing.”
Cahill lit another cigarette. He reached across the top of his desk and picked up a small box about the size of one you’d put a ring in.
I felt myself being drawn into the photograph of the pier. It was nuts. I must have been going crazy, but I swear I could smell the salt of that lukewarm black seawater, and I could almost hear the little yapping dog that used to follow Griffin everywhere.
Cahill glanced over his shoulder toward the wall.
“What is it?” he asked.
I nodded my chin at the picture. “I’ve seen that place before.”
“What? In the photograph?”
“I found that in Creighton Marbury’s archives,” Cahill said. “He took the photograph in 1908. It’s a pier that burned down near Blackpool, England. I’m quite certain the place no longer looks like the picture.”
“I’m telling you I’ve seen it. We’ve been there,” I said. I felt in my pocket, had my fingers curled around the lens. “Do you have any more of Marbury’s things?”
I shook my head, kind of the way you would if you weren’t completely awake and needed to snap out of a daze or something.
“I can’t look at the lens,” I said. “It will . . . you know . . . It will make me go out.”
“Out? Out where?”
I shrugged. “Poof. Who knows? I was hoping you’d be able to show me how to stop doing it.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
And I thought, Are you out of your fucking mind?
I told myself to just get the hell out of there, but I was stuck, feet firmly planted on the creaking planks of some rat-infested house on this crooked old road, while I stared and stared, and could feel the humid chemical mists from the choppy sea that wore away at the foundations of a collapsing pier.
I pulled my hand up and held my clenched fist in front of Dr. Q. Edward Cahill’s chest. He took a drag from his cigarette.
The ocean rippled.
“Let me see it.”
I opened my hand.
I looked away, Jack. As soon as I moved my fingers, Dr. Cahill’s room lit up with shadows and shapes that seemed to project three-dimensional images into the smoke that hung everywhere.
“What’s it supposed to be?” Dr. Cahill said.
I turned my eyes down and stared at my feet. It felt like I was balancing on a surfboard.
A shark-infested monster break, Jack.
“I don’t know. One of the lenses. Like I said, it’s not the lens that got us there, but I can’t look at it. I don’t know what it is. You’re supposed to know, aren’t you?”
He said, “I don’t see anything in it at all, boy.”
I didn’t understand it. Cahill grabbed the lens out of my hand. As he moved it across the small space between us, everything seemed to twist and smear in the room. I got so dizzy I had to sit down—right on the floor in front of Cahill’s feet.
He ignored me. I heard the chink of the lens as he placed it down on his desktop. I felt sick.
Then Cahill opened the box he’d grabbed. It contained another lens—a dark green one that was much smaller in diameter than the one I’d brought.
He looked down at me as he stood. “Are you all right?”
My ears roared with the terrible howling of a hurricane, the clicking of millions of bugs.
I shook my head. “Just dizzy.”
Cahill turned his attention back to the lenses.
“This was one of Marbury’s eyepieces,” he said, and raised the small emerald-colored disc. “I haven’t been able to determine what it’s supposed to do.”
I couldn’t say whether the lens Cahill was holding had any connection to Marbury. All I knew was that I saw nothing in it. Apparently, Cahill couldn’t see anything in either one of the lenses.
At least, he didn’t see things until he put them together.
From where I sat on the floor, I was unsure what Cahill did with the smaller lens. It sounded as though he placed it down on top of the blue one I’d stolen from Jack’s room.
Then he leaned over his desk.
Dr. Q. Edward Cahill stared down into the lens and vaporized.
It was just like that. No noise, no struggle. He turned pale, and a few seconds later I realized I could see through him.
I could say he burned up – became smoke – but that wasn’t exactly the way it happened. It was as if every atom in his body, his clothing, even the cigarette he held between his lips, everything, simply decided to float away. And it wasn’t smoke, but I could smell him. I breathed in tiny fragments of what had once been Dr. Cahill’s body, and I knew it.
Nothing smells like that, breathing in what used to be some other person.
I threw up in Cahill’s trash can.
I must have sat there on the floor with my face down in that garbage for ten minutes.
Everything stunk like puke and cigarettes.
I needed to get out of there, but I was scared I couldn’t make myself stand up. So I shut my eyes and waited.
That was a mistake, too.
Things started happening somewhere behind the door at the back of Cahill’s office.
You know how sick we get sometimes, Jack, when we pop in and out of Marbury? How it’s a different kind of sick, sharper, stinging, sweating like you’re going to die. And then the shakes hit.
You know that.
That’s how it felt when I was down on the floor in Dr. Cahill’s office.
I heard the waves lapping at the posts of the pier.
I didn’t raise my head, but I noticed the light as it changed inside the room, flooding outward from the spot where Creighton Marbury’s lenses lay on Dr. Cahill’s desk. And things began moving around me – shadows.
A television came on in the back room. It must have been a television. Jack, you remember, don’t you? I swear to God it was playing one of those Home Shopping Channel programs.
They were selling amethyst jewelry.
The Amethyst Hour.
The same thing that was on the television the night Freddie Horvath kidnapped Jack Whitmore.
Then I heard voices coming from the room, arguing, angry. And there were footsteps and the sound of the door opening.
And I heard this: the same twanging, velvet lilt of Dr. Cahill, only it was a boy’s voice, and he said, “I’ll put your head on a fucking hook, Jack Whitmore. I am King of Marbury.”
I looked up.
You know the light, the bland, boiled-pork color of everything in Marbury. It was Marbury inside that room, Jack, and it went on forever, horizonless and gray.
The Double -Slit Paradox – you can be in two places at once.
He’d explained it like that: You can be and not be, and nothing at all exists until you observe it.
Through that back doorway, I was looking out at the street in front of Cahill’s guesthouse, like it was a mirror’s reflection of the same redbrick staircase I’d climbed moments earlier when I arrived. It was the same, but it was Marbury.
How does the passenger come to arrive at his point of embarkation?
I spun around to be sure I was still inside Dr. Cahill’s office. The front door – the door I’d come through – it was still there. Waves lapped at the broken old support posts of the pier. I heard it. Creighton Marbury’s photograph had become a window, blasting directly through the wall of the office, looking out on a landscape Jack and I had ridden through in some other time.
It was all real.
I had to get to those lenses, to wrap them up the way Jack always did. But I felt myself slipping, being pulled into Marbury – or wherever the next place was – just like Cahill had been.
And I needed to stop Marbury from spilling out of those lenses, Jack.
Dropping in on a big wave.
I pushed myself to my feet and blindly pawed for the professor’s desk. My fingers swept across its surface.
Framed through the open back doorway, a small boy – maybe ten years old – sat on the brick steps beside the house – this house – with his bony, bare knees tucked up in front of his chin. The kid looked starved, a living skeleton who wore nothing but a filthy rag for shorts.
He sat there pulling apart the dead rat I’d seen earlier.
The boy was eating it.
Just as my fingertip brushed across the two lenses on the desktop, I saw my best friend, Jack Whitmore, looking up at me from the bottom of the stairway.
He was dressed in soldier’s clothing, and he carried a small rifle – just as he’d looked all those other times in Marbury.
He turned and ran away, disappearing in the haze fogging the street.
I wanted to go after him so bad. I can’t exactly say why I didn’t follow Jack.
The little kid sat there, chewing. His teeth and lips smacked wetly into the meat of the dead thing he held in his hands.
I said, “Dumb fucking kid.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, and knocked the lenses down from the desk and onto the floor.
I can say that it stopped, but it didn’t, Jack. Not really.
Dr. Cahill and I let Marbury out.
The waves in the photograph stilled.
I went back down to my knees and felt around the floor for the lenses, but I could only find the larger one – the one I’d stolen from Jack. As soon as I jammed it down inside my pocket, the stale Marbury light faded inside the office and I found myself able to breathe again.
It was the door at the rear of the office, though, that still remained open. And on the other side of the doorway, the boy on the stairsteps gnawed at his meal under the steaming gray sky of the place I knew as Marbury.
He glanced back at me, his face smeared with goo. The kid could have been Cahill in reverse – redheaded, pale as cottage cheese.
He spit something small and dark and said, “Tell your friend to keep out. I’m king here.”
Then he turned back to his meal.
I could take a step inside, right?
Just a quick look around, you know, to see the sights.
But I didn’t do it, Jack. I knew I would never come back if I did that.
So I waited for a moment at the front door, trying to work up the nerve to leave. I couldn’t stand the smell of the place – vomit and cigarette smoke. And every time I’d glance at the doorway to the back room, it was still the same. It wouldn’t go away.
I felt like a little kid hiding my face under a pillow at night because the dark shadows inside my room all turned to monsters until the light of dawn made them vanish. But whenever I’d look, the show hadn’t ended; Marbury was there beyond the threshold of that back door.
But I thought, what if there’s something even worse outside the front – the way I’d come in? There never were any sure bets after Jack and I started popping back and forth.
I wanted to go home, though, to be home.
I opened the door and left Dr. Cahill’s office.
I flipped the blue lens around in my sweating fingers as I walked down the uneven brick staircase. The rat was gone. No little kid. And there was a parking ticket tucked beneath the windshield wiper on my truck.
I couldn’t tell Jack what I’d done.
On the drive back to Glenbrook, I’d nearly convinced myself that none of it happened anyway.
When I got home the first thing I did was hide the lens I’d stolen from Jack in a place where he’d be able to find it if he ever needed to look. And before going to bed, I called my friend.
“Hey Jack, what do you think about going out to Cayucos tomorrow to catch some waves?”
“Sounds good. I can be over at, like, seven.”
“There’s supposed to be a monster swell coming in.”
“Maybe a few hungry sharks, too.”
Jack laughed. “You’re insane, Con.”
“Dude. I know.”
“See you in the morning.”
“King of Marbury” copyright © 2012 by Andrew Smith
Art copyright © 2012 by Scott M. Fischer