User:Fomalhaut/The Law of Large Numbers/
|This story is a work in progress.|
|Constructive criticism and in-depth critiques are welcome|
|Paradise story universe|
|Works by Fomalhaut on Shifti|
The Law of Large Numbers
September 7th, 2004
"According to the Law of Large Numbers, particularly that of Borel, given some event that we'll refer to as 'A', and a particular number of trials that we'll call 'N', as 'N' gets very large, the ratio of trials exhibiting probable event 'A' to the total number of events converges to the probability of the event happening at all."
Levi groaned in his seat in the back of the lecture hall. Boredom had kicked his right foot into a restless shaking against the empty desk in front of him. He couldn't say he wasn't enjoying Dr. Keller's statistics class this semester. In fact, it wasn't even required in his major coursework anymore. He was just hoping they wouldn't be spending so much time on this trivial theorem stuff. What Dr. Keller was getting at was a roundabout way of talking about probability in some broad sense. They had to separate the chance of an event happening from the idea that it did or didn't occur.
"Probability is mathematics at its core. Intuition only gets in the way," statistics researchers seemed to say. No wonder they were a lonely bunch.
"Let's talk about a hypothetical event," Dr. Keller was saying. "If some disease begins in the Chicago area- we'll say Patient Zero is a Bulls fan- and you live just outside the city, you're obviously more likely to contract the disease from someone you meet than someone who lives here in Atlanta. Given that we have some probability fall-off from the initial carrier, say by the distance squared, then the Atlanta citizens aren't immediately in danger of catching this disease."
He stopped for a moment, gazing solemnly at the crowd, words settling with some climatic quasi-finality. "But the odds of you contracting this disease are not in fact zero, as you all know. It is asymptotic in nature, so while the value is very small, and for large distances, we can consider it zero chance, you can still contract this disease. The transmission methods might be more devious than your models predicted. The individuals carrying the disease might be world travelers stopping off at Hartsfield-Jackson. You yourself could be the second Patient Zero of some remarkable second outbreak. Mind you, the odds of spontaneously acquiring the same disease as another human being is small, but it is NOT impossible. This is because the Law of Large Numbers gives the ratio of occurrences to total trials to be equal to the probability if and only if we have conducted the trial an infinite number of times."
The sudden bell ringing cut him off before he could start another sentence, and as students began to file out of the lecture hall, he shouted, "Don't forget to read the sections in the book on conditional probability for next lecture!"
In the hallway of the physics building, Levi navigated the maze of bustling students between him and the door. The physics building had two large lecture halls and two slightly smaller ones, the smallest of which still held over 150 students. This made it a popular location for freshman level classes, but the hallways between the lecture halls were absolutely not made for this many pedestrians. Levi had to carefully avoid a large group of Korean students talking excitedly in their native tongue directly outside the doors to the lecture hall, weaving past them with a heavy backpack over his shoulder.
Watching them, however, caused him to run into a girl just past them. He felt a tickle on his nose and reflexively sneezed. The girl in front of him visibly stiffened at the sneeze.
"Are you alright?" he asked, putting a hand out on her shoulder. Maybe she was startled by his loud sneeze, but she seemed tense, fearful. He could feel her wince under his touch. "I didn't mean to scare you."
She turned around and stared at him for a minute. She was a pretty girl with long, dark lashes and a small, upturned nose, and a face that gave away her Latina heritage. "Y-yeah..." she replied nervously. Her eyes, dark brown irises framed by those big eyelashes, flicked around, taking in every sight that she could. "I'm okay... Really."
"Oh, alright," Levi answered. He rubbed his hand against his pant leg. The momentary brush against her shoulder had been weird. It felt like putting his hand on fabric or maybe a thick plush carpet. Or hell, even some felt stuffed animal. "I really hate dealing with these Georgia allergies. Here..." He reached around her and began carefully moving people a bit to make some room so they could get out of the crowd still clogging up the hallway to the door.
Once they were outside, he said, "I'm Levi. What's your name?"
"Sylvia." She seemed a little calmer now.
"That's a nice name. Sorry about that before. You must not like crowds much, huh?"
Sylvia furrowed her brow and said, "Oh, uh... I mean, they're okay. I'm just kind of stressed out, you know?"
"Oh, man. It's only the third week of classes. Don't tell me you're taking like 18 hours or something, are you?" Levi swapped his heavy backpack over to his other shoulder, letting the circulation flow back into his right hand. The tingling must have been what he felt.
"Well, no," she answered. "15 hours. There's just been some other stuff..."
Levi grinned. "No worries. I won't pry. But hey, Sylvia, you're in Dr. Keller's class, right? There's going to be that test in a week or two, and I don't know anyone in that class. Do you want to meet up before it and study a little bit?" The truth was that he did know another person in the class but Bernard never went to class. Early mornings were for sleeping, he said.
She shrank back from him instinctively. Levi wouldn't have noticed normally, but she suddenly seemed to figuratively half in size before his eyes. "Well... I uh..." Her eyes looked at some piece of asphalt behind him for a moment as she thought about something. "Yeah, okay. I don't really know anyone in that class either..."
"Well, cool! Let me like... give you my number or you can give me yours, and we'll meet up a few days before and look over things, alright?" She seemed to be warming up again now that she had agreed.
They exchanged phone numbers then, but Levi couldn't help noticing that Sylvia had to enter his in three times before she finally got the number right, and then she fumbled his name too, blaming her clumsy genetics for it, but Levi had watched her type, and it didn't seem like she had missed any of the touch screen buttons. Maybe her phone was a little mis-calibrated, he suggested. She didn't really seem to be comforted by that either.
"Well, it was nice meeting you, Sylvia. I've got to get back to my dorm across campus, so I'll see you around, okay?" Levi said, and then they parted ways there, heading off in opposite directions. Levi glanced over his shoulder at the girl as she hurried down the sidewalk. She was quite the looker. He decided he had better not tell Bernard that he had met this girl. Bernie had a habit of trying to play big brother as far as romantic pursuits went, even though his own endeavors rarely landed him a date. He blamed the Tech girls. He always said looks and vindictiveness came hand in hand. A pretty girl was probably a bitch. A nice girl was probably dumpy. There were no exceptions at Tech, he said.
Statistics was Levi's last class of the day, and by the time he walked the short mile across campus to his dorm, the sun was already setting over the Atlanta skyline. At the door, Levi stopped and sighed, leaning heavily against the concrete wall. The school had infrared card scanners to get into secured buildings like dorms. Physical keys could get lost and fall into someone else's hands, but the school couldn't deny them access without re-coring the locks and replacing everyone's keys at once. The cards could be deactivated if they went missing. It was a marked improvement to switch over to the cards.
But Levi's wasn't working.
"Ugh..." Levi groaned, leaning heavily against the locked door. His card must have gotten close to a magnetic field somewhere. Maybe it was in the physics building. The labs there were all high intensity optics or electromagnetics or something. Well, there wasn't anything he could do about it now. He let the concrete wall scrape against his back as he slid down to the ground, waiting patiently for some other resident to unlock the door and let him in.
There were always room advisors on duty in case of emergencies, and generally, they were willing to let you in if you locked yourself out, but there were only so many times a year you could get in through the good graces of the RAs, and Levi's card never seemed to work. He couldn't get away with calling the RA on duty right now. They'd just laugh at him.
Cars drove by slowly down the street as he watched and waited. Passersby occasionally glanced down at him, but most of them knew what was going on. They had probably been in his situation themselves at some point, Levi figured. One individual, though, passed him, and Levi felt the inexplicable urge to sneeze violently. He felt the pain from his sudden muscle spasm in his ribs as a loud "ACHOO" burst forth. The guy who had just walked past him stopped and tensed up for a moment.
"Damn Georgia pollen, eh?" Levi said. The guy started walking again, hurriedly rushing down the sidewalk. There was something about the way he walked, Levi saw, a strange swing in his gait, and a smell like rotten eggs was starting to sink over the area. His nose wrinkled in disgust, and he got up quickly. "Man, I don't know what the hell he was carrying in that backpack, but why'd he have to stop and let me smell it... Eugh..."
It was another half an hour before Bernard finally came home to Levi sitting outside the dorm entrance, nose buried in a book he was reading. "Card not working again?" Bernard asked.
"I swear I have no idea how this keeps happening!" Levi quailed, closing the book with a ribbon to mark his place.
"Catch-22, again?" the heavyset man replied, accent showing through on the book title. His Eastern European heritage was clear on his face and very slightly in his voice. He had a hard time with hard 't' sounds in English, and sometimes when he was talking quickly, a 'vowel' became a 'wowel'. Levi liked the slight foreign tinge to Bernie's voice, even though his friend was actually from Kansas.
Levi stood up. "It gets better every time I read it!" he answered cheerfully as he followed his friend into the dorm.
"I bet that Heller guy would have something to say about your cards getting messed up so much. He'd probably say they were magnetizing them on purpose!" Bernard's laugh was short and clipped, like the bark of a dog.
"He's not a conspiracist, Bernie," Levi replied defensively. "But maybe they are... It always seems to happen only when I'm getting back from Howey. I really think I must keep getting defective cards, and their electromagnets are screwing them up." They turned right down the long hallway, passing mostly closed doors. Today, only the Avery twins' door was open. They were inside frantically mashing buttons on a couple of controllers.
"That's bullshit!" one of them yelled. Levi thought that was Miles, but he couldn't tell the difference between Miles and Phillip. They were both proud redheaded Irishmen by ancestry, even though they'd never even been to Ireland. It was a common case at Tech. There was a large minority of foreigners attending the university, but demographically, they tended to be from some far Eastern Asian country or India. European international students were surprisingly sparse. Of course, in state students held the largest majority of the student body.
"Shut up. It's just- Oh, hey, guys!" the other said, waving at Levi and Bernie as they passed. "You want in for a round? Miles is getting tired of kissing my ass here." His brother gave him an indignant stare.
"That doesn't even make sense, Phil," he said.
Levi considered it a small personal victory that he had gotten Miles's name right. "Sorry, man. I'll pass today. I've got to read this bit for probstat by Thursday." Besides, the twins' room smelled like wet dog. Even though people had told them time and time again, they replied that they didn't even notice.
Bernie shrugged and added, "Yeah, I'll pass too. Have fun, guys." The twins grinned back, and Miles unpaused their match while his brother was looking away.
"You shithead!" Phillip shouted as Levi and Bernie walked down to their room. Even well down the hall and behind closed doors, the two brothers' voices could be heard clearly. "And I died too. Fuck you, man."
With the door closed behind them, Levi snorted. "Man, they're going to make the whole hallway smell like their rank room at this rate." He wrinkled his nose. "I like you, buddy, but maybe I should find another floor to live on," he added, sitting at his computer. The heavy backpack landed on the floor with a thump. The room was small, but they had managed to get just enough space for Levi's gaming rig and this ridiculous setup Bernard had constructed to hang a hammock by the window. It meant that they had to duck and weave to get through the room, and the hammock had to come down whenever the RA came by, but they called it cozy and liked it that way.
Besides, it wasn't like either of them was bringing home girls regularly. If Bernie found interest in someone, he generally just didn't come home that night. Levi liked getting the room to himself. It made the room actually feel like its proper size.
This evening, Bernie didn't hang the hammock, so he got a nice, clear view out the window at the semi-busy street beyond. A few cars passed by, but except for the occasional group walking by from frat row, the only sound were the crickets outside. Levi sat down at his computer, staring outside the window blankly. He couldn't get his mind off of Sylvia. She was very pretty, but that really hadn't been what got his attention. It was the nervousness. She seemed far more than just bothered by the crowds. Levi wasn't too skilled with women, but even he could see that she had something else going on. It wasn't appropriate to pry, but still he wondered.
"You okay, dude?" Bernie said from his bed. He was sitting up in it with a stack of playing cards in his hands, practicing sleight of hand tricks again.
"Yeah," Levi answered. He decided it was better not to tell Bernie about Sylvia. "I'm just thinking about when I should study for that test we have in probstat."
Bernie snorted. "You're worried about that? It's like two weeks away, and it's just basic probability. Shit, we're not even doing any real calculus in that class yet." He grinned, dark eyes wrinkling at the edges. Bernie somehow got away with studying last minute. Levi hated that.
"Well, you may be good at this stuff, but I'm going to have to study hard if I want to do well. I'm going to lose my scholarship if I don't get good grades this semester." Levi turned and pressed the power button on his computer. The screen switched on, and the bios post screen stared back at him. It was only there for a moment, though, before he loaded into the unassuming linux login screen.
"I'm sure you'll do great. You always worry too much, Levi," Bernie said. Levi grunted as his fingers flicked across the keyboard. Bernie shrugged and kept playing with the cards on his bed.
Levi's email held mostly regular junk, mail from the school and offers about his scholarships, but tonight, he also had two more emails. One, he saw, was from Sylvia Najera. So she was Latina. He left that for opening last. The other email that stood out was from some email he didn't recognize. "James Moriarty, huh?" Levi mumbled, clicking the email. It read:
- "Levi Feldt,
- I am writing to you because you expressed interest in attending the Stone Mountain hike conducted by the Atlanta Ecological and Zoological Society. We are currently planning the trip in the coming weeks, but we wanted to keep in touch with those who had already expressed interest in going. If you are still interested, please respond with contact information besides an email such as a phone number.
- As I'm sure you're aware, the AEZS has always stood as a beacon of environmental leadership in the Atlanta area as well as in Georgia at large. We have recently had a large influx of members expressing further interest in the zoological aspects, and currently, we are hard at work updating our planned outings around this new majority. We really would like to hear from you more in the coming weeks about the sort of events you would like to attend. Certainly after the coming hike up Stone Mountain, you should let us know what you think. Speaking to the other AEZS members on the trip will give us a better understanding of how to conduct proceedings from there!
- I saw that you're attending college at Georgia Tech. Good luck with the fall semester. It's far from easy!
- James Moriarty
- Senior Zoological Advisor
- Events Coordinator
- Atlanta Ecological and Zoological Society"
Levi's hands quickly flicked out a reply. He was excited for the hike, and the new focus on animals really didn't bother him too much. Hopefully they'd have some scientific information to offer him about animal biology or locomotion rather than just warnings about ecological consequences of human growth. He wanted to learn, not to be lectured. The email reply he sent them said more or less that he wanted to go on the hike and that at this point, the direction the society took in their events and meetings really didn't matter too much to him so long as it maintained an air of academia. Satisfied with that answer, he hit send and opened the other email from Sylvia.
It was terse to say the least, and it read like she wasn't used to writing emails but had recently been doing so a lot. It was overly formal, and the language was awkward. Nobody would ever talk like that in common conversation.
- "Dear Levi,
- Thank you for offering your help with our Probability and Statistics class. I looked up your email on the Georgia Tech mailing list after you gave me your name for my cell phone. This must seem strange after just meeting today, but I was wondering if you would be free to meet up to talk about the class material later this week. If this is something that you would find acceptable, please tell me what time you would like to meet, and we can arrange to meet in the library.
- Sylvia Najera"
Levi chuckled as he wrote her back. He had time on Thursday after class. Normally he went to get coffee, but he could use that time to help a girl with some math, sure. Bernie would give him hell if he skipped out on a girl to do literally anything in the world.
Levi didn't see Sylvia in class on Thursday. Dr. Keller's lecture droned on, and he barely listened. It was only when he noticed that the professor was talking again about his epidemic scenarios that he paid any remote bit of attention.
"Let's consider our scenario from last lecture," the doctor was saying. His portly frame seemed to dance around the room as usual. It was a strange sight, seeing this squat balding man moving with the grace of a ballerina. "We established some kind of proximity trend in our epidemic. If you live within 100 miles of the Chicago area, then you are more likely to contract a disease spread by airborne pathogens than someone who lives far from Chicago, but let's consider for a moment a person living in the Atlanta area, particularly somewhere near the airport or MARTA stations. People fly in from other places, right? They could be carriers. So, now let's presume the Bulls- Our patient was a Bulls fan if you recall- have a game here in Atlanta. Are you now more likely to contract this disease? Well, maybe the fans came with the team. We don't know for certain, but it's a probable assumption."
With a sudden tack of chalk on the board, he finished scrawling a conditional probability formula. "This is the foundation of conditional probability. If you have some idea that refines your dataset, you can adjust the probabilities within this new set of bounds. The Center of Disease Control here in Atlanta has people determining delivery vectors for these diseases. Conditional probability like this is a fundamental part of their job. Given that the Bulls have a game here in Atlanta and that the disease has seen numerous cases in Chicago, they may advise citizens of the area to be cautious on MARTA or around the airport. They might warn hotel staff to be more attentive than usual for signs of illness when they clean. These are important things to remember..."
And as Dr. Keller trailed off into the actual mathematics of conditional probability, Levi found himself once more disinterested. It was still content he recalled from previous classes. He looked around the room for Sylvia again, but he didn't see her. She hadn't said to call off their little study session, so he presumed she must have suddenly gotten sick. After all, she hadn't looked too well on Tuesday.
After class, he stuffed his notebook, which barely had any writing in it so far, into his backpack and hefted it over his shoulder. Patiently, he waited for other students to shuffle past him until he could worm his way into the orderly line to the doors. As he ascended the stairs, a hand clapped down on his shoulder.
"Levi!" Bernie said.
"What are you doing here?" Levi responded. "You never show up for class."
"What? I can't attend class like a responsible adult?" Bernie did his best to look hurt, but the grin on his face betrayed him. "Where are you running off to, then?"
"Coffee. I get it after class every time."
"Oh, good. Mind if I come along?"
Levi did his best not to grimace. A small part of him hoped Sylvia would actually be over in the student center even though she wasn't in class, and he didn't really want Bernie with him when he went over to talk to her. "Well, I mean, I don't mind that, but I've got some stuff to do in a little bit, so I'm just going to get my coffee and then leave."
"Levi the Super Student," Bernie mocked. "Got a hot date, then?" He only meant it as a joke, but Levi felt the sting a little more strongly than was probably intended. He just shrugged and headed out the door.
"Hey, hey," Bernie said as they trekked down by the Electrical Engineering building. Even though it was beginning to get a little chilly for September, a group of students were out on the lawn playing with a frisbee. Most of them had on hoodies and long pants, but two were in shorts and tank tops despite the chill. "I didn't mean it like that. If you've got something to do, do it, man. Don't let me get you sour about whatever you're doing."
Levi sighed. "Yeah, sorry. I've just got someone I'm going to meet up with. Let's get some coffee real quick, and I'll see you later. We can watch that movie you keep bugging me about."
Bernie grinned. "Cool."
The coffee warmed Levi's chest where a biting chill was settling in. It had burned his tongue a little, and that stung, but it was good to feel the hot liquid running through him. He felt a little more civil than earlier. Bernard had gone home already, and Levi was looking around the student center for Sylvia. On a first pass, he didn't see her, so he stopped by the post office to check his mail. The little mail slot held nothing of interest. It was just a few junk offers from companies wanting to "boost his resume" or something. He decided to make a second pass.
He had walked all the way over to the other side of the student center, just by the stairs leading to the radio station, when his phone began to buzz in his pocket. He fished it out, and there was a text on it. "Sorry I was late. I am sitting beside the coffee shop." it said, complete with punctuation but still a little overly formal. Levi replied that he was on his way and stuffed the phone back into his pocket.
She wore unflattering clothes. Levi tried to remember if that had been the case on Tuesday, but he wasn't sure. The turtleneck looked like it could have been bought second-hand, and she looked like she hadn't been sleeping much. Levi sat down at the table, mostly finished coffee in front of him. Her eyes kept flicking between his hands and his face. It could have been his coffee.
"You want something to drink?" he offered. She furrowed her brow and looked like she was thinking hard about the prospect. "I get coffee here a lot. It'll make you feel better," Levi added quickly. He got up without waiting for a reply, and her face turned upwards from the cup in front of him to his face. She looked at him long and hard for a moment. Levi froze, unsure if she was just too shy to say anything or if she was sizing him up.
"Yes," she said simply. Levi smiled and got in line.
She sniffed at the coffee first. "It's probably hot," Levi offered, but she had already taken a sip of it and made a face of revulsion.
"Oh, sorry! This place doesn't make it as sweet as someplace like Starbucks," he said. "I can get you some sugar if you want..."
She shook her head. "I like it. I just... didn't expect it to be so bitter." She took another sip, and despite a shudder that shook her olive features, she smiled. Levi felt something in his chest flutter. It was a wistful smile she had on. It stretched the tiredness under her eyes, but Levi noticed how her cheekbones grew pointed and her lips were thin and pale.
"So you uh... wanted help with stat? I didn't see you in class today," Levi said.
"Oh..." She fidgeted with her coffee cup. "I..." Suddenly, coffee streamed out of the cup and all over the table. She yelped in pain as the hot liquid poured onto her fingers and dropped the cup. Levi stood up quickly, both to get napkins from a nearby dispenser as well as to avoid getting the coffee in his own lap. When he came back with the napkins, he noticed she was crying.
"Hey, hey," he said. "It's just coffee. No sense crying over spilled uh... coffee, right?" He did his best to put some napkins to soak up the spill, but he wasn't sure whether to just give her the remaining napkins to wipe her hand off herself or to try and help. The crying didn't help. What would Bernie have suggested and what was the opposite of that?
"Look, uh... Sylvia," he said, settling on giving her the napkins to clean off her hands. "Is there something wrong? You can talk to me about it, if you want."
She sniffed, tears still rolling down her cheeks unabated, and took one of the napkins in her hand. Dabbing at her hands, she grimaced. "That's going to be hell to get out..." She didn't seem like she had gotten any on her clothes exactly, but maybe she was picky about keeping her clothes clean. Maybe she was just clumsy and wore frumpy looking clothes on purpose.
"I mean, the sugar will make your hands sticky," Levi replied. "But I can get you some water if that'll help. It just got on your hand, right? Nothing burned?"
She stared at him again. Her gaze was unnerving. Levi would have called it "predatory", even. "You'd think I'm crazy," she said finally.
"Why?" he replied quickly.
"Because I am crazy," she said, eyes still locked on his face. Her brows were low and tense above her eyes. The tired look on her face seemed to give way to determination, and it was intimidating to say the least. How the hell did you respond to that?
"You mean like... doctor's note crazy? I don't care if you see stuff or whatever..." Levi was more than a little weirded out, but she seemed genuine, and she wouldn't have asked to talk to him so soon if she wasn't serious.
"No, well, I mean, yes..." she said. "I do see things, but it's not like that. It's totally real. All of it. You don't see it, but..." She trailed off when she saw his face. "Nevermind." She stood up quickly, scrubbing hard at her hands with the napkins. "Leave me alone. I'll just figure out the statistics on my own."
"Hey, wait a damn minute!" Levi said, putting his hand on her shoulder. She turned and hissed at him. She actually hissed at him. Levi couldn't believe it. It sounded just like a real cat too. She pulled away from him and stormed towards the door, still holding her hand to her chest and very clearly crying.
Levi stood there, stunned. He glanced down and saw the cup she had left there on the table. It had a huge hole in it, like she had stabbed it with a knife, but he watched her. She was just holding it in her hand. What the hell was going on?
A week passed, and Levi didn't seen Sylvia again. Though he was frustrated, he tried to go on as usual. She was just this one girl he had met, after all. Her problems certainly didn't concern him, but as he sat at his desk, looking over his notes yet again, he couldn't shake her from his thoughts. Swearing, he smacked a hand down on his notebook. He had given her his phone number, but she never gave him hers, and so except for that email address he had no way to get in touch with her.
Bernie wasn't home that night, and so the dorm room was eerily quiet. Outside, Levi heard the whir of car engines and conversations muted by the Georgia humidity. He sighed and tried to study again.
Conditioning a random event on some prior knowledge could be described, his notes read, by only initially concerning oneself with the probability space given by the conditioning event, B. Given knowledge of whether B has occurred or not, the subspace where A has also occurred gives a ratio. This ratio of A and B occurring to B occurring regardless of A completely describes the conditional probability that A occurs given B.
It seemed obvious. Given that he had met this girl walking out of his class, he had initially assumed that she was in his class, and that had been correct. Given that she was in his class, it was likely that she would return to class, and given that they had a test coming up soon, it would be highly unlikely that she would miss that test. In order to make an informed decision on a topic, man instinctively narrowed down the probabilities by considering only cases that stemmed from prior events. Someone taking a class probably wanted to pass or even get a good grade, so they would have to show up to a test worth a large percentage of their grade.
She had said that she was struggling with the material, as well...
Levi shook that thought from his mind. Frustrated, he rose from his chair and slipped out into the dorm hallway. "I need a break anyway..." he muttered to himself. Justification. That's what it was.
The hallway stank characteristically of wet dog. The twins' door was still open, even well into the early morning hours. He could hear them arguing, not too loudly since other people on the hall were sleeping, but loud enough that Levi heard some of their conversation.
"I'm not hungry," one of them said. Miles, maybe. Their voices were even harder to tell apart than their faces.
"Well, I don't want to go by myself. Come on! You don't even have to buy anything, Phil. It's not like you were doing anything important anyway!" Damn. Levi'd gotten it wrong this time.
"I'm trying to talk to Laura, man," Phillip said, and as Levi approached their door, he heard sounds of chairs scraping over tile floors.
"You're too wrapped up in her! What about Friday? You're gonna flake on Friday night gaming again?"
"I didn't say that. Hey! Give me back my phone, Miles!"
Levi knocked softly on the wooden door. "Guys, it's almost 2 AM. People have class in the morning."
Miles grinned at him. "Sleep's overrated anyway. Hey, Levi, want to go to the gas station with me? Phil's too chicken to go out this late! Chicken! Chicken!" Miles started to bob around the room, making clucking noises at his brother, who swiped at his head but caught only air. Both twins were lean and agile, lacking somewhat in the brawn department, but damn if they didn't like to rile up anyone they could and weasel out of their reach. More often than not, the person being harassed was one of them.
"I'm not chicken, Miles," Phillip said defensively. He sat his phone on the desk beside him and crossed his arms over his chest. "If you want to go out and get mugged at 2 AM off-campus, be my guest, but I'm not fucking going."
"Look, Miles, I'll go," Levi said, happy just to get the brothers to stop shouting down the hallway and waking everyone up on a Sunday night. Miles might have gone alone, and it was far more dangerous for someone to be out on the Atlanta streets by themselves than at least with someone else.
"Cool! Thanks, Levi!" Miles said, bounding to his feet. The chair he sat in rocked precariously behind him, ready to tip over at any moment. The boy might as well have been wagging a tail. They were going on a walk, after all. Any dog would get excited, Levi mused.
Outside, the air was warm for a September night. Atlanta was a muggy place. It stayed humid during the summer all the way to the end of August, and the wet air didn't really disappear just because the trees decided to start shedding.
"I bet you didn't even want anything, Levi," Miles quipped as they rounded the corner onto North Avenue.
Levi shrugged. Miles was mostly right. "Guess I'll get something to drink," he answered.
"Well, I wouldn't have blamed you if you didn't want to go. Phil's been real antsy ever since that string of Cleary Acts we got. He thinks we're going to get jumped anytime we step outside!"
"It's possible," Levi replied honestly. "I mean, Atlanta's not the safest place. What makes you feel so safe walking up to the gas station this late?"
Miles grinned. "I've got ways of protecting myself." A knowing smile graced his face. Levi wondered if he was carrying a gun or something. No, a gun would have been obviously visible when they were back inside, and he hadn't had time to grab anything before they'd left. Maybe a taser?
Grinning at his friend, Levi said, "Come on, Miles. You been hiding a blackbelt in kung fu or something? You look like you could slip through the grates over the sewers if you stepped wrong!" The red-head gave him a playful scowl, furrowed brows over an eager glint of white teeth.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he said.
"I'm not Phil!"
"Phil's my brother, man. If your own brother doesn't believe you, why should anyone else?"
Levi had never heard Miles so sincere. It was written all over his face, a kind of insecurity that never seemed to trouble either of the Avery twins. They were always cheerful, even when things were hard. That a rift had formed between the two confused Levi.
Miles glanced at the ground. "Can you keep a secret, Levi?" he said. "I swear I'm not crazy."
Levi stopped dead in his tracks.
"Levi?" Miles said, turning to face him. The moonlight dimly lit the places on the sidewalk where the streetlights couldn't cast their revealing glow, and so Miles was barely visible in the shadows, but Levi thought for a moment he saw something strange, an animal where Miles had been, some long-snouted animal standing on two legs. He shook his head and looked again, but it was gone. He wasn't even sure what he had seen. It felt like he was going absolutely insane.
"Oh... uh... yeah," Levi said finally. "What's the secret?"
Miles leaned in comically, hand over his mouth as he whispered. "I have psychic powers..."
And then the red-haired boy burst out laughing. Levi wanted to punch him right then.
"Aw man, you should have seen your face! You looked like I was going to blow your mind for a moment. I couldn't resist!" Caught in the throes of his giggling fit, he doubled over. Despite the dim glow of the moonlight, his face was still easily as red as his mess of hair. "I thought about a bunch of different things too... Maybe like... tell you I had ghost powers."
"Yeah, yeah, you're the keymaster," Levi said, frowning at how gullible he had been. "Let's get some chips and get back to the dorm before I jump you in a dark alley, myself."
They walked relatively quietly down the street to the Shell station. The whole way, Miles kept talking at full tilt about how he had gotten Levi good and how Phil had missed such a great joke! Levi merely shook his head and let the boy talk. It was worth indulging his friend if it meant keeping themselves in high spirits. It was these late night trips, after all, that made living worthwhile, Miles said. Most students would be at home, safe in their rooms and bored out of their tiny minds, but if you were bold and maybe a little bit hungry, there was merriment to be made!
Levi just wanted to punch him. They had been lucky not to encounter anyone on their trip up North Avenue. Even The Varsity was closed this late, and now was about the time that a lot of the crime they heard about near campus happened, but the streets were clear except for a couple of vagrants sleeping on the sidewalk, but Miles and Levi passed by them quietly, letting them sleep.
When they finally got back to their dorms, Levi said good night to Miles, who grinned and went to his room, no doubt to tell his brother about the hilarious prank he had pulled. Sighing, Levi returned to his room, where he found Bernie asleep in his hammock strung up near the window. It was too late to get any more work done, so Levi put his unopened soda in the little mini-fridge they shared and went to turn off his computer. The dull glow of his screen was almost blinding, but just before he went to shut it down, he noticed an email had appeared in his inbox.
The sender was Sylvia Najera.
Levi woke early the next morning when the sun was just peeking over the Atlanta skyline. A dense fog covered the city, turned a glimmering copper by the sun's rays. Bernie was still snoring in his hammock, one arm dangling from the side and a line of drool down his cheek. It was still well before anyone's alarm would go off. Levi glanced at the clock on his nightstand. 5:34. Eugh. Nevertheless, he was wide awake. It seemed that his body had no intentions of letting him sleep anymore even after his late night escapade with Miles to the Shell station.
After all, he had something to do this morning.
Bursting with unbridled energy, Levi took the opportunity to go for a quick jog down to the college of computing building and back. When he returned, the sun had risen well into the sky and washed away most of the early morning fog. A few of the brothers down on frat row were also out jogging, but Levi didn't know any of them personally, and he preferred to jog alone anyway.
Bernie was still fast asleep when Levi opened the door to their room. He looked again at the email on his computer monitor. It read...
- Dear Levi,
- I am sorry for not having contacted you before. It has been tough deciding if I should contact you or not, but I have reached a decision and would like to know if you are available tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM. I would like to meet with you at the coffee shop where we met before. With the statistics test coming up, you would be a great help to make sure I do well, and I have something I need to show you.
- I need you to come.
- Sylvia Najera
So of course he had to go. It would have been stupid to do anything else. After all, what would Bernie have said?
Levi turned off his computer and packed his backpack for classes that day. Mondays only had Chemistry, but that wasn't until the afternoon. Normally, Levi liked to spend his Monday mornings after his job watching old movies, coffee in hand, but he made an exception to his normal routine. Extenuating circumstances, after all.
Forty or so pages of Catch-22 kept his mind alert until it was time to go. Levi closed the book quietly and slung his backpack over his shoulder, taking care not to make too much noise as he left the dorm room. Out in the hallway, every door was closed, the occupants of the building either sleeping or at class. Even the twins' door was shut, though as Levi strained to listen for a moment, the sounds of some video game or another said at least one was awake. The other probably wasn't far behind.
Campus in the fall was pretty, or so Levi's mom said. Levi was content with the colored leaves and the greyish skyline, but he longed for warmer months. Even the sight of other students walking around in sweatshirts and coats sent a chill through his skin. When he went out for his jog, it had been a bitter chill then too, but running warmed him up, and after a few moments, he had barely noticed. Now, though, the walk up Freshman Hill made him long for a thicker coat than his own hooded sweatshirt. He made a mental note to ask his mom to get him something warmer for Christmas.
When he crested the hill, the library loomed over him to the right. Its red brick walls merged with the dull brown and red of the leaves on the trees, as did most buildings on campus. It gave the campus a rusty tinge, charming by its own right. The only notable exception was Skiles, built by some idiot architect who had visited other campuses and thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a building with a quad? It could be made out of concrete instead of red brick like every other building on campus and look like a high school from the '80s." Hell, it was probably built in the 80s.
Levi scowled at the eyesore of a building as he descended the stairs on the other side of the hill. The school kept Skiles likely because it was functional at the very least. It held a surprising amount of classrooms and offices, mostly for liberal arts and mathematics professors and graduate students. Efficiency over design seemed to be the case with Skiles. Levi would have to come back to the building for his Chemistry recitation later, but for now, he walked briskly towards the student center to keep the chill off his back.
Sylvia was sitting quietly by the window of the coffee shop on the second floor of the building when Levi arrived. He was surprised to see that she wasn't wearing a jacket like anyone sane on campus. She wore only a lavender polo shirt and a long grey skirt, which was at least a little nicer than what she had been wearing when Levi last talked to her. She still looked like she hadn't slept in days, though, a strained exhaustion almost coating her face.
Levi grinned and slid his backpack off his shoulder to the floor as he sat in the seat across from her. "What's up?" he said, trying to be amicable. He really hoped things wouldn't go as they had before.
"Oh, Levi!" she said, surprise on her tongue. "I... umm... I wanted to apologize for how things went before. I-"
"No, no!" Levi replied quickly, waving his hands in a dismissive gesture. "If you've got stuff stressing you out, I totally understand. People get overwhelmed sometimes, you know?"
She was quiet for a moment. "...Yes. That's... what I wanted to talk to you about, actually. I... Well, I..." She stumbled over her words, eyes flicking to the right and left as if the walls of the room were shrinking around her.
"Hey, look," Levi said. He smiled and threw his hands out to show openness. "W-we may not really know each other that well, but like... if you need to get something off your chest, you can tell me. I won't think you're crazy. I promise."
She stared at him with that same predatory gaze again. It was like being caught under a magnifying glass, inspected and dissected. Finally, she sighed and visibly relaxed. "I haven't really talked to anyone about it..." she said. "Even my roommate... or my mother... I don't know why I would be comfortable talking about it to a near stranger."
"Well, I mean, I'm an objective third party, right? I don't have any established beliefs about you other than you seem pretty freaked out about whatever this thing is."
In the back of his mind, Levi wondered what the hell he was thinking. This girl had to be absolutely nuts. Tech goggles, Bernie would have said. They made a guy do strange things for girls.
Sylvia didn't answer for a moment. She stared at him again, obviously considering his logic. "Maybe that's it. But... Levi, you can't tell anyone else. Okay?"
He grinned. "Who would I tell?"
"You know! Anyone!" she answered irritably. Levi's eyes widened.
"Shit, sorry. I was joking. I'm not going to tell anyone. Add that to my promise, okay? Just... look, if you've got something you need to say, spit it out. You can trust me."
She took a deep breath. The exhaustion had disappeared when she got agitated, but now it seemed to be back in full force. She leaned in close, glancing left and right, and then she whispered, "I'm a cat."
Levi stared back at her for a moment. The words took a moment to register. What was she talking about? A million different explanations ran through his mind. Maybe she was one of those weird "spirit animal" people who "felt connected" with some animal or another. Maybe she was admitting to being a furry or something. Hell, he knew a few fursuiters. They could be an odd bunch, but it was never something they were afraid to tell people, he thought. Maybe... maybe she was actually delusional that she was a cat, he wondered. "Uhh..." he said, trying to process what she had meant.
"You... you don't believe me," she said firmly as she leaned back in her seat. Levi realized he had suddenly made a blunder. She was trusting him to understand.
"No, no! I get it. You're a cat. So? Plenty of people are cats and dogs and whatever else they want to be, right?"
"Don't make fun of me!" she replied angrily, and there was that hiss again, just beneath her voice. He had definitely heard it. He glanced down at the table where her hands were firmly gripping the surface. There were scratches on the plastic. That scared him. The girl probably kept her nails sharp to seem like a cat's.
"I-I'm not!" he said defensively. "I'm trying to understand what you mean!"
"I mean I'm actually a cat!"
By this point, people were beginning to look at the two of them. The volume had quickly escalated from whispering to shouting. Levi looked around nervously and said, "Listen, let's uh... let's take this outside, okay? I believe you. I do, but... you're going to have to explain what you mean a little better, okay?"
She looked frustrated, but she sighed and picked up her own backpack. They left the student center and walked away from anyone on the sidewalk. The leaves crunched beneath their feet loudly as they made their way into the middle of the greenspace near the student center. Levi turned to look at the girl, who was staring at her feet with a confused expression on her face.
"So uh... you're a cat. I get that, but what does that mean?" he said. The words kept appearing in his mind only to be written off.
"I mean..." she said slowly. "I am a cat. Meow. Like with whiskers and claws and everything. Only, I'm still kind of like a person. I walk on two legs and can talk normally- Well, except for the hiss... Sorry about that."
Levi tried his hardest not to laugh. Somehow, he managed to keep his expression stoic. "Y-yeah. I uh... I know some people like that. One guy's a fox. Actually, more than a few are..."
"What? You know more people like this? I'm not crazy?" she said excitedly.
"Well, uh... yeah," Levi replied. "I know some guys. They talk to me about it sometimes. I don't know much about it, myself, but I'm told feeling like you do is pretty normal."
"It is? This sort of thing can't happen to people that often, can it?"
Levi laughed. "Probably more than you'd think. Listen, you're discovering something new about yourself, right? Like waking up and seeing someone else in the mirror. It happens."
The excitement drained from her face as if you had pulled the plug in a bathtub. "That... Seeing yourself differently isn't what I'm talking about." She walked towards him, getting right in his face. "Touch my tail," she said, deadly serious.
And then she put... something... in his hand. Levi blinked confusedly. He looked down at his hand, which made his head hurt. It was like he was just closing his fingers around nothing, but that didn't seem right. He felt the sensation of fur, like an actual cat's, but he saw his hand close into a fist, and his headache got worse. "What the hell...?" he muttered, letting go suddenly. Wide-eyed, he stared at Sylvia. "What the hell did you just do?"
"I told you. That was my tail," she replied firmly, though from his expression growing more and more wild, it was obvious that she was starting to regret her decision.
"Y-your tail...?" Levi muttered, shaking his hand. This wasn't the first time. Back in the hallway in Howey, he had felt the same fur on her shoulder. He could feel it, but when he looked, he saw nothing. Worse, when he had felt what she said was her tail, it hurt to look. There was a conflict of sense. His brain told him there should be nothing there, and so of course, the visual system presumed his hand would form a fist, but it hadn't, or his sensation of touch said it hadn't. "That's... what the hell?"
"I knew I shouldn't have told you," Sylvia said. The fear in her voice was apparent. "I knew it. It was always going to end up like this..."
Levi shook his head to clear the confusion. Think logically, he told himself. Think scientifically. "No, no, Sylvia. It's okay. It's fine. Let me just... I'm just confused it all. Hang on."
He carefully reached out again, hand trembling as he tried to put it on her shoulder. He felt the sensation of... of fur moving beneath the shirt. It was exactly like he was a child and had draped his blanket over the family dog. Of course, looking where his hand was hurt his head again. His hand was on her shoulder, but his arm felt like it was lower than that. "What... what am I touching right now?" he asked.
"My shoulder," she said. "But... I think you think I'm taller than I am. When this happened... I got shorter. Like... six inches shorter."
That was it. He could feel the height difference between what his hand touched and what his eyes saw. It very well could have been six inches. He shut his eyes tight and thought to risk a question. "Can I... uh... move my hand?"
Then she laughed, a genuine, amused, happy laugh. "You believe me?"
"I mean... I'm just... How are you doing this?" he asked.
"I'm not doing anything. That's just it. Go ahead. Touch my head." She was excited. No one could see it but her, but they could feel it. She had proof.
His hand slowly moved from her shoulder to her neck. Levi froze when the sensation suddenly shifted from cotton over some kind of fur to the actual feeling of fur in his fingers. He kept moving his hand upwards, eyes still closed, and he could feel the curve of her jaw, fur thicker as he reached her cheek. Then there was this strange feeling of wiry, thicker hair on his arm. "Whiskers, huh?" he said. In his hand, the fur was soft and matted.
"Whoa, there, Levi," Sylvia chided. "Don't get too friendly. I don't know you that well, after all."
He opened his eyes widely, face going beet-red. Of course, the sight of his hand not where he thought it was supposed to be, touching- and rubbing- a cheek that wasn't where he thought it was instantly brought on a pounding headache again. He pulled his arm away and stared at her. "So... y-you weren't kidding. You really are..."
"A cat. I told you, didn't I? I was so scared you weren't going to believe me. I thought you'd just think I was insane." Excited and eager, she grabbed him by the hand, which was yet another strange and confusion sensation. He felt the fur as before, but there were these soft, thick pads there as well.
"Ow!" he yelped, reflexively pulling away.
"Oh! Sorry! Claws," she said, smiling. It was a welcome relief from the look that had been on her face before. She was happy and excited. The exhaustion seemed forever ago suddenly.
"You have claws?"
"They're retractable. I just... forgot. Look, can we go get some food? I'm starving."
"Uh..." Levi stammered out a response. What would Bernie tell him to do? "Y-yeah. We can walk over to the WaHo off campus."
She was already practically dragging him in that direction. "Do you really know more people like me?" she asked.
"Well... not exactly," Levi said.