Quantum Sock Conundrum

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"Don't forget the laundry, dear," Jessica said.

Jim turned to look at her from his seat at the kitchen table where he was bobbing baby Amy on his knee while wielding a spoonful of oatmeal, poised and ready to strike in a fencing duel with their two-year-old, Jacob. Jim put on an exaggerated frown.

"When you say 'don't forget it,' you mean as in 'don't forget that it's down there, in the basement, waiting for you?' Am I right?"

"You know what I mean. See you tonight. And please don't make lasagna. You know I hate it. Kisses!" She waved to the kids one final time and was on her way out.

"Saying isn't doing," Jim called after her, particularly pleased that he had managed to turn her favourite reprimand against her. Jessica came  back and gave him a quick kiss on the forehead, then picked up a napkin and wiped some oatmeal from her lips.

He pouted. "That was just one kiss. You used the plural."

"Don't push your luck," she said and headed for the door. "Love you."

"I am finally understanding why," Jim said.

Jessica was out the door with a chuckle. Jim turned his attention back to Amy and Jacob. "There she goes, kids, off with an evil cackle as she leaves her poor husband in charge of the two changelings. And what mischief do we have planned for today?"

"Ev-uhl!" Jacob said with enthusiasm.

"See, now we're getting somewhere with this talking thing." Jim put the spoon down and laid his hand on the boy's shoulder." My dear boy. You cannot fathom how proud I am right now." The magic moment was slightly spoiled when Amy threw up on Jim's knee, but he was not discouraged.

"Good girl! Set the bar low early in the day to ensure no one has high expectations. A chip off the old block."


After some more fencing and a whole lot of cleaning up, breakfast was successfully off the to-do list. Amy fell to her morning nap without trouble which may have been due to her staying awake most of the night impressing her parents with an ad libre cover of grind metal band Deathswallow's hit single Brainbox. At least that was Jim's interpretation of the situation, an opinion which Jessica had not completely aligned herself with.


It was laundry time. To get him to brave the cellar, Jim put Jacob's favourite toys in the laundry basket along with the dirties: a Hello Kitty pencil sharpener and one of Jim's old He-Man action figures. But when they finally ascended into the den of evil, Jacob played in a pile of dirty laundry instead. Jim emptied a fresh load of dirties on the floor so that he could unload the fresh laundry in the machine into the basket, taking a mental note when and why each item had gone in. Tuesday, raspberry jam. Wednesday, steeped in mud. Tuesday, also the jam incident. Ah, vintage; Monday, broccoli purée, Amy's favourite. Strange kid.

"And my wife says I never remember anything," Jim said to Jacob, who was focused on attempting to escape from a polo shirt which he had inadvertently turned into a straight-jacket for himself. Jim shook his head. "Life is a struggle, son."

Jim decided to sort the dirties out later. "C'mon son. Let's go hang some laundry. If we hurry, maybe there's time for some cartoons before Hurricane Amy awakens from her regenerative torpor."

Jim peeled Jacob out of his polo prison then picked up the laundry basket and headed towards the stairs. Jacob quickly took the lead when he realised it was time to leave the basement, home of monsters.


Jim had fastened several clotheslines in the garden between the tall wooden fence and the apple tree. He called it his laundry web. Jessica had tried to get him to take it down, but Jacob enjoyed pretending it was inhabited by a friendly spider, and Jim had put his foot down. Well, he had neglected to take the lines down and pretended it was raining whenever Jessica mentioned it, which was about as confrontational as he was willing to get with his wife.


A wail broke through the stillness of the morning. “And that's our signal to drop everything and go on the ever-challenging mission to keep Hurricane Amy in check.” Jim picked up Jacob and hurried inside.


Down in the basement, inside the laundry machine, there was a wet sock stuck to the top of the tumbler. Jim would always forget to check for strays. It was brown with red stripes; one half of a particularly ghastly pair given to Jim by Jessica as part of a silly Christmas tradition. The sock held on, but there was no resisting the insidious combination of evaporation and gravity. Inevitably, it fell and hit the bottom of the tumbler. It lay there for exactly two-thirds of a second.


Then it disappeared.


***


It was Bree's first day on her new job, and she was already dangerously close to falling asleep. In front of her were rows of monitors. Each displayed a feed from cameras evidently placed in people's homes. The images were low resolution and greyscale, and every few seconds they would switch to a new view. Bree found it utterly hypnotic.


She had been shown into the room less than an hour ago by a man in a lab coat who looked like he slept about twice a year. He had handed her a clipboard without saying a word, and when she had asked when her break was he replied with a shrug and shuffled out the door. She had expected something a little less underwhelming after the rigorous and secretive recruitment process. She had been transported blindfolded to some kind of secret base where she would have to spend three weeks at the time. Before that, there had been all kinds of consent forms and non-disclosure agreements to sign. She had flipped through them absent-mindedly.  After spotting 'under penalty of death', she had decided the job must pay well and signed them all. There had been no other requirements.


Now she sat on a creaky office chair in what appeared to be the secret lair of some voyeuristic supervillain. She wondered what she had gotten herself into, this time. On the desk in front of her was a massive control panel with hundreds of dials and buttons. She had received exactly zero instruction on how to use it. All she had was the clipboard which held a single sheet of paper. It was a printed list with corrections scribbled in ink. Judging by the quality of the writing, the notes had been added by someone who had died from a caffeine overdose shortly afterwards. Bree read through the strange list for the forty-ninth time, mostly in a vain attempt to stay awake.


Be alert for mentions of items inexplicably disappearing OR CHANGING LOCATIONS


Items to take note of include: BUT NOT LIMITED TO


Socks

Pencils AND ERASERS

Wallets

Keys

Remote controls

Earrings

Gym membership cards

Reading glasses


How she was supposed to notice small items disappearing by staring at grainy surveillance feeds without sound had not been made clear to her. Oh, well. It wouldn't be the weirdest job she had lost. She drifted asleep.


When the klaxon started screaming, Bree was certain of two things: She was going to be fired, and she was going to need a change of underwear. Good thing she knew from experience it was wise to bring a fresh pair to a new job. Don't ask.


It took only a few seconds for the room to fill up with labcoats; men and women who all appeared to share an unbridled attraction to obnoxious sirens as well as an inability to brush their hair. Maybe it was a hairdresser they thought they had hired? Bree had worked as one, albeit briefly. Apparently, mixing up the orders was not quite as forgivable a mistake as when waiting tables. Mrs Worthington had not at all been pleased with her crew cut.


The klaxon ceased its angry howling and the noise was replaced by a generic murmur of excitement. All around Bree, the labcoats were making a fuss.

“Go back two steps on twelve-nineteen,” someone said, and Bree found it best to nod in agreement.

“Go back two steps on twelve-nineteen!” It took Bree a few more moments to realise one of the labcoats was speaking with her.

“Uh.” Bree looked at the controls in front of her and decided to stroke her chin thoughtfully to appear as if she knew exactly what to do and was merely waiting for the right moment.

“Here, move out of the way,” the annoyed labcoat said and elbowed her way past Bree. It was a middle-aged woman with somewhat less dishevelled hair than the local average. The woman turned dials and pushed buttons with furious speed, and the screens all switched to the same feed in unison: an empty laundry room in what appeared to be a basement. Bree could not imagine something less exciting, but all the labcoats stared at the screen as if it was a big sports event and some jock was about to do something important with a ball or a bat or suchlike.


A moment later there was a collective intake of breath. Bree had no idea why. Clearly, something vital about the intricacies of unpopulated laundry rooms had gone over her head. The woman at the controls pressed another few buttons, and the screens all zoomed in on the washing machine. A repeat-symbol appeared in the corners of the screens and a short segment started looping. And there it was. Bree watched as a sock dropped from the roof of the tumbler. And then, it disappeared. Bree was taken back, but recovered quickly and leaned in to study the loop up close. Yep. One moment there, the next: poof.


The slightly-less-dishevelled-hair-labcoat-woman turned around to face the gaggle of other labcoats. She was clearly struggling to contain her excitement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, nodding resolutely. “It's a sock.”


The room broke into an inexplicable celebratory chaos. People laughed, cheered, and danced. There were hugs and back slaps and congratulations all around. Someone even patted Bree's shoulder affectionately as if she'd had something to do with whatever just happened. She smiled for the sake of fitting in while carefully reconsidering her previous opinion; this might be the weirdest job she'd had, after all.


***


Jessica turned her car onto Grove Drive. Her day in court had been terrible; the Pembroke case just kept getting uglier. The man was a villain, and now another witness had backed out at the last moment. But the view in front of her quickly put thoughts of work out of her mind. There were police cars, military jeeps, and strange vans parked along the side of the road, and people in uniforms were milling about like someone had poked their anthill. She wondered if Mr Crimshaw two houses down had finally been discovered to be a drug-dealing crime lord. It wouldn't surprise her.


But she soon realised that all the attention was focused on her own house. The road was blocked and she got out of the car, pushing her way past all manner of authoritative people too busy to challenge her presence. Jessica spotted Jim standing in the middle of the chaos. He was holding one of their children in each arm, where they had snuggled up into his armpits. She barged her way through to him.

"Dear lord, what's going on?" she asked as she relieved Jim of a crying Amy. She comforted  Amy by bouncing her up and down and stroking her hair. Jim looked dejected and about to break into pieces.

"I have no idea, dear. They've been here all day, and no one has told me anything." He hesitated, then went on. "Just a few minutes ago, a man and a woman in lab coats went into the house talking about a sock."


***


About half an hour after the incident, Bree was walking through one of the disturbingly clean, identical corridors in the building she had no clue where it was. At her side was slightly-less-dishevelled-hair-labcoat-woman, or Amanda, as she had introduced herself.

“Quite the first day you've had!” Amanda said.

“Uh. I fell asleep on the job and then a sock disappeared.” Bree stopped. “Wait. Was that my fault?”

“What?”

“The sock disappearing. Did I screw up or something?”

Amanda smiled. “No, no. You have no idea how lucky you are. We can spend months without a confirmed event. Not much to do on this damn base while you wait, either.”

Bree couldn't help but scratch her head. She knew she must look parodic, but it seemed appropriate. “So... you study disappearing socks here?”

“Well, my department does. But yes, that's the short of it.” Amanda was about to say something else but interrupted herself when a man stepped out in front of them and cleared his throat. It was the tired man who had given Bree the grossly unsatisfactory first-day-orientation.

“Oh hey, Steve. Something wrong?” Amanda said.

“I hear rumours about certain people sleeping on the job,” Steve said and made a point of staring at Bree.

Amanda scoffed. “Let's not throw stones, today of all days, Steve," she said. "Besides, I'm sure your department will have a breakthrough soon, as well."

Steve's eyes narrowed and he mumbled something about coffee and headed down the corridor. Amanda waited until he had gone around a corner. 

"Don't mind him; he's from Keys. They're grouchy because they only get to dabble in quantum displacement."

"Huh?"

"The Department of Keys," Amanda said.

Bree did her best to look clueless until Amanda kept talking. It didn't take long; Bree had practised that particular skill extensively.

"You know how when you lose your keys, you always find them again, just not in the place you thought you left them?"

"Yeh. Happens all the time," said Bree.

"It's not always forgetfulness. They keys actually move, sometimes. The Department of Keys studies the phenomenon. Just like we study socks. But, you see, socks are different. They disappear. That's a whole other league of quantum physics. Trust me, you do not want to get me started on that."

Bree was pretty sure she already had.

"We barely know what's going on ourselves. We suspect it has something to do with quantum entanglement. If a sock gets entangled with its corresponding item in a parallel dimension, perhaps it can –”

“Uh-huh. Yup. I think you have it, right there,” Bree said and nodded fiercely.

Amanda laughed. “I'm sorry, I get carried away. I only ever talk to other scientists out here. But it is very exciting.”

"How come?”

"Well, simply put, because we still have no idea where the hell they go."


***


Jessica turned her car onto Grove Drive. Her day in court had been terrible; the Pembroke case just kept getting uglier. The man was a villain, and now another witness had backed out at the last moment. Ahead of her, the street looked as quiet and idyllic as always. She loved coming back to the house after being in court all day. She felt blessed that Jim had been so supportive of her when she had told him she wanted to accept the offer to become District Attorney. As she drove up to the house she spotted her husband and the kids out in the garden. Jim was trying to hang laundry on his ridiculous laundry web while simultaneously distracting Amy with a rattle and kicking a beach ball back and forth with Jacob. Jessica turned her car onto the driveway and parked. When she got out of the car, Jacob came running.

“Mommy!” Jacob shouted and threw himself at her. She couldn't help but hug him, even though he had grass and dirt all over him and she was still in her work clothes.

“That's enough, dear, let mommy change first,” she said and unclung herself with some reluctance. She walked over to Jim and kissed him. Amy giggled and laughed when she saw her mother.

“Eventful day?”Jessica asked Jim and kissed Amy's head.

“Oh, you know, the usual. Hurricane Amy. Dirty clothes. Another skirmish in the spoon wars,” Jim put on a serious expression. “I'm not sure if I'm winning or if that's just what they want me to believe.” 

"All right, dear. Did anything else happen?”

“You know what? A sock appeared in the washing machine. Brown and red stripes. Never seen it before in my life,” Jim said and returned to hanging laundry.

Jessica shrugged. “It's nothing to worry about. It's one of those things, you know."

“Yeh, I know. It just bugs me, that's all. I mean, where do you think they come from?" He appeared to be struck by insight and stopped hanging laundry. "Hey. Do you suppose that out there somewhere are alternate versions of us who are missing a sock?”

“Don't be absurd, dear. Are you so bored with the life of a homemaker already that you have to start looking for mystery in everyday events?”

Jim laughed. “I suppose you're right. Who am I to challenge the laws of nature? The sun rises, the earth is round, and sometimes socks appear for no reason!" He put down the empty laundry basket and threw his arms into the air in surrender. "Anyway, come inside! I've made lasagna."

"Oh, you're such a sweetheart. My favourite!"


Created: Jul 26, 2016

Tags: wwc, conundrum chronicles

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