Far away from the black hole a particle can move in any direction. It is restricted only by the speed of light.
On Monday Alice woke an hour before her alarm. She did not get up, but lay in the darkness, looking up at the ceiling. The dream she had woken from was still vivid in her memory: it was a recurring dream, one she had been having on and off for months now. In it, she was alone in the back of a car in an empty underground car park, waiting for someone to come and get her. She waited, and waited, and waited, and slowly the waiting became agony as the dream stretched out for hours on end, but no-one ever came. It was a dream she particularly hated — horrific in that grey, mundane way that only dreams could be, and she always woke in a cold sweat with her heart racing.
She was clammy now, but she waited for the hammering of her heart to slow before she got up gingerly and shuffled to the bathroom. She turned the shower up as hot as she could bear it, and stood for long minutes under the punishing stream until the bathroom filled with grey clouds of steam that rolled and boiled, and parted before her as she stepped out and wrapped herself in a towel.
She returned to the bedroom feeling marginally more alive, and sat in front of her dressing-table mirror to comb out her hair, teasing the tangled curls into some semblance of order. The activity was soothing — there was nothing to think about, only the slow, satisfying process of bringing order to chaos — and as she combed the cobwebs of the dream slowly fell away.
When she had finished she glanced down at the thick textbook lying on the corner of the table. She had not looked at it last night — she had found herself exhausted after her day at the Shannen School — but now she reached out and pulled it towards her. It looked just like any science textbook, albeit one that might have been published before she was born. The dented, slightly ragged cover was illustrated with a faded photograph of a galaxy, above which the title was printed in stark white lettering: ‘Principles of Astrophysics’. Beneath the title, in much smaller letters, was the author’s name: Dr Valeris Petrenko.
Alice ran her fingers over the cover, and as she did so she felt her chest tighten, and a peculiar cramping deep in her stomach. It took her a minute to understand what was happening, but then she realised what the sensation was.
She was excited.
The day passed in the usual haze of faces and voices. Alice drifted through the morning’s lessons with only half her mind on what was around her; the other half was looking back to yesterday, running through everything that had happened at the Shannen School. The textbook was a weight in the bottom of her bag, a constant reminder of Professor Knight, Olivia, Ellie, Chris, impossible questions and black holes. They seemed somehow more real than the world of school, with its drab, mundane same-ness.
Impatiently she sat through four hours of what the school liked to call teaching. At lunchtime she made straight for the library, where she found a table in the farthest corner possible, pulled out the book, and started to read.
The book was written more like a political manifesto than a textbook. Dr Petrenko used language that was harsh, direct, and fiercely critical of any viewpoint other than his own. He began the book with an introduction that laid out, in what Alice was to find were typically blunt terms, his philosophy of scientific study:
In science, as in life, there are known and unknown quantities. Whereas in life the unknown can comfortably remain unknown, with little or no effect on the observer, in science this is impossible; the very nature of scientific enquiry demands that over time the incidence of unknown quantities approaches zero. A scientist is a person who is never at rest — he or she must be always searching, always questioning, never satisfied with a given answer until it has been proven beyond all doubt to be true or otherwise. In this respect a scientist can be said to be a binary being — one concerned only with what is true and what is not, and nothing else in-between.
As the lunch hour ticked by Alice quickly lost herself in the pages, her eyes devouring the text. Sometimes the paragraphs were dense with unfamiliar words and phrases; sometimes sentences ran on for half a page, and she had to go back and read them twice to begin to make any sense of them; but none of these things deterred her. She read, ignoring everything else around her, and as she read the cramping in her stomach and the tightening in her chest spread through her whole body. When the librarian finally came to usher her out she looked up in surprise, wondering where the hour had gone.
The rest of the afternoon passed in another grey haze. All Alice could think about was the book lying nestled in her bag. She had only just begun the first chapter, but even those pages had opened up vistas she would not have imagined before: things infinitely large and infinitely small, stars and galaxies, protons and quarks, the building blocks of all life and existence. Her mind spun with the scale and scope of it all.
The final lesson of the day was RE, but Alice paid no attention to the dilemma of free will versus predestination. Instead she looked around the chaotic classroom, at the boys who shoved and fought each other with half an eye on the girls, and the girls who giggled and flirted and preened themselves for the boys, and poor Mr Rahman who struggled to keep order in the middle of it all, and the thought dawned on her that maybe, just maybe, in the Shannen School she had finally found somewhere she could belong.
At ten past three she spilled with the rest of the crowd out of the block and across the paved concourse, her only thought to get home and read. As she walked up the path towards the school gate, however, she slowed and stopped, and her soaring heart plummeted.
Keyana and the rest of the girls were standing around the gate, laughing and talking, and immediately Alice know they were waiting for her. Of course they were — why else would they be there?
She stood still while the rest of the school flowed around her, knocking and barging her carelessly. She ignored them, and tried to think of another way out of the school. There was a smaller gate at the other end of the grounds, but it had been locked for security reasons since the beginning of term. She could wait in school, and leave later — but sometimes the girls hung around at the local shops, and the only thing worse than running into Keyana now would be running into her when there was no-one else around.
Alice took a deep breath. There was no other way. Better to just walk past and hope they didn’t notice her. She would keep her head down, and keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing bad could happen.
She merged with the crowd, staring down at the floor, hunching her shoulders as she passed the gang. But when she was almost through the gate a foot darted out, and she caught it with her shoe and went sprawling on the cold pavement as laughs rose all around her. She sat up, nursing grazed palms, and found herself surrounded.
“You all right?” Keyana sneered, looking down at her from the circle of bodies. “You need to watch where you’re going, you know. Could get hurt.”
Alice dropped her eyes and pushed herself to her feet. Her hands stung, but she would not let it show. That was what they wanted. She would never give them what she wanted.
She turned to leave, gritting her teeth against the pain, but on the first step another foot hooked around hers and she tumbled to the floor again. This time the laughs rose into shrieks of hilarity, and the girls fell about slapping each other on the arms.
Keyana was the only one not laughing. She stood and watched as Alice struggled to stand up, her face set as Alice blinked back hot tears — and when Alice was finally on her feet again, her tights torn at the knee, her hands now a mess of blood and dirt, her hair hanging down on one side of her face, Keyana stepped forward until they were face to face and lowered her voice so that only Alice could hear.
“Shame there isn’t anyone here to help you out,” she said quietly, then turned and walked away, leaving Alice feeling like she had been punched in the face instead of tripped.
Mum was cooking again when Alice arrived home. Alice avoided her and went straight upstairs to the bathroom, where she ran her hands under cold water and bit her lip. While the water ran she glanced up at her face in the mirror. Two lines zigzagged from her eyes down her cheeks; she reached up and brushed them away angrily. There was no time for tears. Keyana would have liked to see them, but she would never give her the pleasure. Never.
The water ran grimy pink for a minute, then cleared. Alice checked her hands. They were badly grazed, and they stung. As she watched fresh blood welled up from the wounds. Her tights had laddered as well, all the way up her thigh. She took them off and screwed them into a ball in the bin, then stood staring at the bin for a long time.
Four days, she told herself. Just four more days.
The hot glow of excitement had faded inside her, and in its place was something colder and harder: a tight knuckle of need. Last Saturday was the first time in over a year she had been in a place she felt she could belong, a place where she did not have to watch her step constantly, or hide herself away from rows and fights. She knew now that needed to go back there; she needed to feel that belonging again. There was no choice in her mind.
When she was sure her hands were clean, and the blood had mostly stopped welling up from the grazes, she dried them carefully on toilet paper and flushed the red-dabbed evidence away. She splashed cold water on her face to rinse away the tears, then stared hard at her reflection in the mirror.
Four more days.
She took a deep breath, and went downstairs to see mum.
By the time six o’clock came around dad had still not come home. Alice and mum ate dinner by themselves, in silence. Mum kept checking her phone, and she did not notice the marks on Alice’s palms. Alice kept her hands to herself as much as possible, and did not bring up what had happened.
After dinner Alice went up to her room and sat on her bed with the book for an hour. She finished the first chapter (‘First Principles’) and started on the second (‘A Question of Matter’), losing herself in the ebb and flow of the words. There was something soothing, almost poetic, about them, these mysterious and almost mythical terms: ‘quantum’, ‘elementary’, ‘photon’, and ‘red-shift’. It was like reading a song where she did not know all of the words, but the rhythm was comforting regardless.
When the front door finally opened it was followed almost immediately by the sound of mum’s voice, furious, shouting about something to do with money, and when dad answered he was just as angry. The argument went on for longer than usual, and it only ended when the front door slammed. Alice leant over and looked out of the window. It was mum who had left this time, marching up the road like one of those power-walkers from the park. She had left without taking her coat, clutching her thin cardigan tightly around her.
Alice watched until she disappeared around the corner, and wondered if they would ever get through another week without an argument.