It was a night spawned of banshees. Heavy sheets of rain poured onto the tiny town of Paris Crossing. Roofs leaked, eaves overflowed, and downspouts gushed rivers onto cobbled pavement.
Any sane person would have sought shelter, preferably warmed by a roaring fire behind locked window and door; any sane person would have listened to the "old brain" that remembered how scary things could hide in dark corners; any sane person would have opted for a rain-check.
But Professor Fillmore Gottlieb was rarely described as sane. What he was known as by the town's people of Paris Crossing and the students at Brandywine University where he taught physics was "mad as a hatter". And that was when he was sober. When Professor Gottlieb went on a "bender" which had happened more and more frequently of late, insanity had been observed washing its hands and muttering about defamation suits.
The professor pulled a shabby raincoat around his thin
body and removed a twisted paper bag from an inside pocket. He took a
bottle from the bag, downed a couple of swigs and surveyed his surroundings-the
alleyway of the Painted Lady-and his condition-wet, bordering sopping.
"Here, kitty, kitty". He tried to form his large teeth into
a friendly smile. Animals liked that.
A cat huddled under the shelter of a garbage can lid and refused to acknowledge the professor's gambit. Even a cat knew a sneer when he saw it. The cat edged further under the lid.
"I have a nice kitty treat." The professor staggered closer to the cat. "You like liver, don't you?" Professor Gottlieb pulled something raw and bloody from his pocket and waved it toward the garbage lid.
The cat hadn't eaten a decent meal for a week. Hunger nagged at him. "Come on, take the bloody liver. It's all fine for you to be picky about character and smells and auras, but we've got a mutiny down here. If we don't eat something soon we're going to going to do something really, really bad." The cat stretched his neck and sniffed.
"Got you!" The professor grabbed the cat by the ruff of its neck and sneered-smiled.
The cat found himself awakening from a deep sleep. Around him was only darkness and quiet. At least he was out of the rain, he conceded; but his paw felt funny, like it was being jabbed by a needle, which it was.
The cat did the only thing he knew how to do; he tried to run away.
"It's no use." A voice said from the darkness.
"Who are you?" The cat said with surprise, mostly because for some reason, he was suddenly able to talk.
"The Grim Reaper." The voice replied. "You can call me Death."
"How about I call you later?" The cat tried some cat humor on Death, but the cat wasn't very good at it and even in the darkness he could tell that Death wasn't impressed.
"Was that a joke?" Death said in the monotone that is the full range of Death's ability to express emotion.
"Sorry. Don't hold it against me, but I hadn't expected to see you, well-not that I can see you-so soon.
"Nobody ever does." Death patted the cat on the head.
"So, how soon do we leave? Or do I get to pull the "nine-lives" trump card?"
"It's not my decision." Death yawned.
"Who decides then?" The cat asked.
"That." Death pointed in the darkness, but of course the cat didn't see a thing.
"What?" The cat felt around inside the box.
"It's a radioactive particle." Death explained.
"I don't get it." The cat, who hadn't studied physics and had never heard of Schrödinger's cat, was mystified.
"If the particle decays, you die." Death said. "But there's a catch."
"Fish, I hope." The cat tried some more cat humor.
"I got that." Death tried to chuckle; but of course, it came out monotone. "The particle can't decay and you can't die unless someone observes it." Death continued. "It's a "reality collapsing of the universe thing" invented by "You Know Who".
The professor adjusted an IV bag with a long tube that disappeared inside a hole drilled into the side of a wooden box. The box was on a long metal table resting on a chipped linoleum floor that spanned a cave-like room, which was, of course, the mad professor's lab. And in keeping with the madness theme, Professor Gottlieb had furnished the room with boiling beakers, whizzing gizmos, formaldehyde containers of body parts, chains and pulleys with platforms that rose to the ceiling, spidery cobwebs, scurrying rats, and a sidekick named Ego.
"I don't get it." Ego, permanently hunched into a position of subservience, limped to the table and looked up at Professor Gottlieb with his one good eye.
"Of course, you don't, Ego, you poor wretched creature." The professor's eyes glowed as steel in a blast furnace. "I, Professor Fillmore Gottlieb, will prove once and for all that quantum theorists are as crazy as-as crazy as-"
"You are?" Ego folded his hands and smiled up at the master.
"That's what they all say, isn't it? That I'm crazy. Well, you won't hear me spouting nonsense about multiple universes dancing on the head of a pin. You won't hear me ranting about reality bending and collapsing only when it is looked at.
"Well, I see what you mean." Ego chased a bug and stuck it in his mouth. "But, I mean, isn't that sort of like the tree falling in the forest thing?"
"Of course not, totally different." Professor Gottlieb poured a drink from a whiskey decanter. The liquid sloshed in his shaking hands.
"Pardon me for speaking, master." Ego grabbed another bug. "But isn't the universe by its very nature observer-dependent? Sort of an "I exist, therefore I am" conundrum, as it were. How can we know we exist if nobody confirms it?"
"Must you keep mouthing that gibberish?" Professor Gottlieb took a drink from the glass. "Poor Ego, how can I explain the workings of the universe to your poor, simple and childish mind?"
"I spoke out of turn; forgive me, master." Ego limped over to a corner and sat down to eat his bowl of gruel. The bugs had given him an appetite.
"Observe and learn, Ego." Professor Gottlieb pointed at the box. "Inside are a cat and a radioactive particle. There is a fifty-fifty probability that the particle will decay and if the particle decays, the cat will die-correct?"
"Not according to quantum physics," Ego said dripping gruel from his mouth, "the cat can't die, the particle can't collapse, unless someone observes it. The cat is half-dead and half-alive until you open the box."
"Idiot!" Professor Gottlieb threw the glass at Ego. "The cat will die and the particle will decay or not decay whether I open the box or not. The cat is either alive or dead." The professor poured another drink.
"Is that true?" The cat, who had heard all, asked death.
"All true, I'm afraid." Death tapped a shoe. "Meanwhile, my appointments are backing up in a most untidy fashion. You wouldn't believe the schedule I have to keep. I'm already four thousand, three hundred and eighty five souls behind. And "You Know Who" is a stickler about overtime. Hate's it."
"Which part?" The cat, who could only hold onto a single thought at a time, continued, "that I'm half-dead or half-alive or a falling tree won't make a sound unless somebody's there?"
"All of it." Death tapped his shoe some more. "I really hate being kept waiting."
"But how will you know if you're right or wrong?" Ego limped over and rubbed the master's sleeve.
"That is my genius, Ego, my man." Professor Gottlieb rubbed his hands together and laughed a diabolical laugh. "I don't plan to open the box for years."
"But the cat will starve to death." Ego eyed the box.
"Wrong, again, Ego." Professor Gottlieb fondled a bag attached to the tube. "The cat will be fed by this tube until he either dies by the particle or from natural causes. When I open the box, I expect to find nothing but bones, therefore proving that the cat has died and the particle has collapsed, observed or not."
Professor Gottlieb leaned against his cane and adjusted his false teeth so that the clicking sound wasn't so loud. "Confound it, Ego! Where did you disappear to?"
"Sorry, Master, but my lumbago is at it again, and my rheumatism is acting up today." Ego, even more limping and hunched than before, looked up at the Professor through glass-bottle thick lenses that covered his one good eye.
"Today's the day, Ego." The professor ran a hand through his thin white hair capturing several loose tufts.
"Is it Wednesday again, Master?" Ego looked confused. "Seems like only yesterday it was Wednesday."
"It was Wednesday yesterday, you idiot." Professor Gottlieb walked over to the box. "No, Ego, today is the day I go down in history. Today, we open the box."
"What box?" Ego scratched his head.
"The cat box, you moron." Professor Gottlieb puffed out his chest. There was the sound of chalk as a rib cracked.
"Do we have a cat?" Ego looked around; but with eyesight failing, he could see nothing beyond his own grubby hands.
"Tah Dum!" Professor Gottlieb opened the box.
Now, here is the way things happened. The world proceeded to spin as a vortex inside a kaleidoscope might be inclined to do. It morphed and formed a spiral whirling into the fathomless blackness of space. If Death had owned a surfboard at that moment, it would have been declared a Kahuna as it rode the waves of probabilities that collapsed along the great highway of the universe. Finally, reality settled like a pinball at the bottom of a spiral.
And death-what happened after all the waiting, foot tapping, and sighing? Death got exactly what it had come for. Professor Fillmore Gottlieb.
The cat observed and ran away.