When he met Agent Farnsworth, Walter promised himself he wouldn’t become attached to her. Men in his profession had a bad habit of mixing work with their personal lives and he’d been no exception. Not that he was interested in fornicating with the girl (though she was very lovely. There was a girl in ‘65 named Vera with cinnamon colored skin he used to cover with Skittles. The dyes made slippery rainbows from her sweat) but things could get murky when friendships were formed. It’s difficult to be objective when you care about the opinion of the person standing next to you.
That’s why he had a hard time remembering her name. Walter focused his attention so narrowly on his work that it took a minute or two for him to realize she was speaking at times. And she’d get upset about it, that much he could tell, though it truly was an honest mistake. But he figured that in the end it wouldn’t matter. She’d probably grow weary of him soon anyway. Walter couldn’t imagine a young girl like her (she had the most curious habit of eating a pudding-pop from the bottom up. He’d never met anyone so fastidious about their food. Well not since William, but that was only because he was such a cheap bastard. Not one new coffee maker in twenty-some odd years of their work. Not one.) would be content to spend her days hidden away inside the dreary light of his lab. She probably had girlfriends and vacation plans; maybe cable television. Walter imagined she had a family that was tired of calling an empty house.
Eventually he stopped imagining and asked her about her life. She answered most of his questions (except the one about her first sexual experience. She suggested he find another way to measure female pubescent development, which he did of course, but her answer would have been much faster) and asked him some too. His stories were a bit scattered and mainly ended in jail time or hangovers, but she didn’t seem to mind.
Now she’s indispensible. Astrid sees things that he’s reluctant to admit he’s missed and looks at the world in a way he hasn’t in a very long time. The sound of her voice is steadying, calming. He lost her once and was sure his heart stopped beating.
He thinks about that first day, how he was struck by the color of her skin. He thinks about how she eats a pudding pop each time Peter brings them home from the supermarket. And he wants her to respect him; much like a father wants his daughter to model each man she meets in his image. But he doesn’t think about that promise. Walter can’t imagine her leaving to work with someone else. There’s no way he could replace her if she did.
There were moments during his marriage to Elizabeth when he didn’t love her. It’s the sort of thing that’s so violently selfish and petulant that you pretend it didn’t happen a moment later, even though it did. Walter’s fortunate that the numbing mix of his psychosis and years of recreational drug use have helped this process along. His mind only remembers all the ways he loved her. His guilt is the only nagging thing that knows he’s a liar. But its voice is muffled, hidden behind a lifetime of apathetic cruelty and mistakes.
There was his first rejection letter from a small publishing company he couldn’t name now if he tried. Elizabeth tried to comfort him, but it was clumsy, filled with clichéd ego stroking that patronized him, his work, and the gravity of their situation. If she didn’t understand his humiliation, then maybe she never knew him at all. He’d left her there, sputtering his name in indignant bursts. Four hours later, he’d returned contrite, clutching wilted flowers, his own pathetic clichéd attempt to earn forgiveness he didn’t deserve.
There was her mother’s funeral, one of the few times he’d followed her home. She changed around her family, became this soft voiced English rose he didn’t recognize. And when someone asked about him and his work, she waved the question away as though it wasn’t important. He started to feel like she was embarrassed by him, that here, surrounded by lawyers, secretaries, restaurant owners and day traders he was an overgrown boy still fiddling with a chemistry set. He snapped at her on the drive home. They didn’t speak until the plane was halfway across the Atlantic.
There was the day she said she couldn’t forgive him. That he should stop waiting because she probably never would.
His mother used to sing to his father. There was an organ in their living room, an old scarred thing they took from the church after it was replaced. His father didn’t care for music, but always stopped to listen when his mother sang. He would look at her in a way that made them both seem younger, more fragile somehow. Like they knew this wasn’t forever but couldn’t figure out how to make it last.
Walter has woken with the lyrics on his lips but has never been able to catch them before they fade. But he sings with her in his dreams. Those are the nights he sleeps the soundest.
When your hair has turned to silver,
I will love you just the same;
I will only call you sweetheart,
That will always be your name . . .
Ella’s story isn’t the first one that Walter’s told. He realizes this about halfway through, but assumes he’d done the same for Peter when he was a boy. His son had a wonderful imagination. Elizabeth used to put his drawings on the refrigerator, crayon colored panels of elaborate fables he’d spun in his head. After he was gone, Walter would look at them for hours, discovering things he didn’t notice before and wonder how they could have escaped him.
But there was another little girl he’d tell stories to, someone he only remembers in pieces, mainly through the woman she’s become. He called her Goldilocks in jest, but she didn’t like it. Walter asked if she was familiar with the story. She said no which took him by surprise. He wasn’t one for fairy tales but there are just some things that should be mandated for every childhood. Bears in houses and nosey little girls bred humility, manners, and respect for another’s privacy. Bad wolves kept women from sleeping with pedophiles, or at least put them on alert that sort of thing.
And so he told her the story. Not word for word, since he honestly hadn’t heard it in years, and with added embellishments based on his research during a zoology assistantship at Harvard. She sought him out after that, asked for him by name whenever she was frightened. To calm her down, convince her it was okay to continue, he’d promised another story. This one was about a frightened little girl who battled a very mean and very cunning wolf. That was the one she enjoyed the most.
When Walter comes to the end of Ella’s story he can tell she’s disappointed. It never occurs to him to add a happy ending. It feels too much like a lie and he doesn’t do that anymore.
On April 17, 1978, Walter watched his son playing with a set of building blocks. Peter had lost one behind the couch and Walter retrieved it, placed it in the pile with the others. His son stared at the now three block set with wide eyes, distrusting the sudden multiplication. Peter scattered the blocks on the floor and Walter thought, if I hadn’t put it back you never would have missed it.
Peter began to slide his block in a wide, arcing semi-circle, swirling it close to the others, inches away but never touching. Apparently they’d scattered in a pattern that satisfied him, and though he enjoyed the constant threat of chaos, Peter wasn’t interested in scattering them any further. Walter thought he could go on like this forever, and he thought, but really, how would we ever know?
Two weeks later he combined string theory with Peter’s building blocks, and an asymptotic curve that came close, but never touched the line in front of it.
This is how Walter created his window.
The soul is heavy. It is weight. It pinned his son to this earth like an anchor. And when it slipped away Peter went limp, his small fingers slacking, then releasing. His face, buried against Walter’s chest, lolled to one side as he exhaled a final shuddering breath. And he was so still. Walter was sure nothing on this earth has ever been that still, and that nothing ever would be again.
Peter was lighter; wan skin stretched over an empty shell. Gone.
“It’s okay. I’m not scared.”